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following Jesus, the Word made flesh
September 27th, 2007

Tag Clouds for Visualization

Tim comments over at the LibraryThing blog about click-based tag clouds, like this one from the State of Delaware website.

Click-based Tag Cloud

I’m not so sure why this seems surprising or innovative. Tim rightly notes that tag clouds are more commonly used to represent tagged items. But fundamentally, a tag cloud is just a kind of textual histogram, where

  • rather than a horizontal axis, the axis is wrapped across multiple lines (like text), making it more compact
  • rather than a bar whose height indicates magnitude, the font size (typically scaled) shows magnitude

So you can use a tag cloud for any kind of frequency distribution whose labels are textual. For example:

  • word counts from a document (i used to have Hyper-concordance views like this, though they’ve gone missing in action)
  • article titles for a blog, where the magnitude might be # of page views, # of citations by Google/del.icio.us/Connotea/you name it, # of sentences
  • wiki pages by # of outbound or inbound links
  • content and prosody measures for a text (see this old Blogos post)

I’m not surprised people like them: they can be a very effective visualization tool. But i am surprised people are surprised by the fact that they’re being used in more than just one way.

September 26th, 2007

Tiddlywikis and Bible Information

Every since i first discovered Tiddlywiki, i’ve been a huge fan of this tool that is easy to use for authoring and linking shorter pieces of text (microcontent). I use various Tiddlywikis all the time for managing tasks, project planning and tracking, brainstorming, etc. (we just passed its third anniversary).
I’m still intrigued by the possibilities of alternative presentations of Biblical content using the nonlinear, hyperlinked approach of a Tiddlywiki. Everything from brief definitions to background information to related content can fit into this framework, and the dynamic nature frankly makes them fun.

So i was glad that Dave Gifford forwarded a pointer to some Tiddlywiki-based resources he’s been building. In addition to some good tutorials, his commentary on Philemon is a nice example of how this might work. For example, the tiddler on Literary Features links to a description of a chiasm in Philemon, which in turn embeds a link to a description of what a chiasm is. You could go even further with this: for example, every reference to Onesimus or Onesiphorus could link to an overview description of these individuals. The most interesting feature to me is the way the Tiddlywiki enables reading content in the order that makes sense to the reader, rather than the traditional start-at-the-beginning-and-read-to-the-end approach. This is often the way we think and the way our interest works: why not read this way too?
Additional pointer: i’m also intrigued by Tweebox, which seems to be a tiddlywiki-derived tool for presenting narratives. This is just the sort of thing that might make for a very engaging presentation of the Composite Gospel.

Update (9/27): you get an even better feel for the potential from the Biblioteca Bíblica Giffmex, a Tiddlywiki-based collection of notes on the New Testament. It’s in Spanish, so English readers won’t get all the details, but you can see the top-level organization pretty well if you have any familiarity with Spanish.

September 26th, 2007

Organizing Bible Place Names

(Post 3 in a continuing series on building the Bible Knowledgebase: this category, which has an RSS feed here, will track future posts on this subject.)

If you think about the world of the Bible, and limit the discussion to concrete entities in the physical world (not because theology isn’t important, but because it’s much harder to nail down), there’s no question that people are the most important category of things that are discussed therein. The entire history of salvation is defined in terms of God’s interaction with people, from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses, continuing on through David up to Jesus and his early followers. Logos Bible Software already ships with a great deal of semantically-organized information about individuals in its Biblical People feature (Tools > Bible Data > Biblical People). Biblical People lets you visualize the family relationships for every named person in the Bible, as well as organizing references to them, and providing other attributes like their roles or occupations. Since joining Logos, i’ve been integrating the previous work i’d done on named individuals in the New Testament to enlarge this knowledgebase with a richer set of interpersonal relationships, and there are still many more relationships we can add.

But now that we’ve got a great start on people, the next big category in organizing semantic information is clearly places. Some of the challenges here are like those for people: for example, multiple places can share the same name (for example, there are two distinct places called Bethany in the New Testament), and multiple names can be used to refer to the same place.

Places have different attributes than people, of course, primary of which is a physical location, represented by latitude and longitude. There are some unique challenges as well:

  • Because places last longer than people do, they’re more prone to changing names.
  • The nature (more formally, the semantic type) of a place can also change over time: villages grow into towns which grow into cities and become capitals.
  • Places can be either supernaturally located (obviously these don’t have latitude and longitude), or metaphorical. Zion is a well-known instance of the latter: sometimes it refers to a physical location, but in other cases it designates a spiritual place (“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem …”, Heb 12:2). It may also signify the role of Jerusalem as the religious capital of Israel.

“Jabneel” is a random example from the book of Joshua that shows how complex this process can be. First, name ambiguity: there are two different places that go by this name, one in Josh 15:11, and a different one from Josh 19:33. The Anchor Bible Dictionary states (without further explanation) that the first one is “probably the same Philistine town (Heb yabnÄ“h) conquered by Uzziah, king of Judah”, which is called Jabneh in 2 Chr 26:6. So there is name variation as well as ambiguity. (as often happens with this kind of task, Anchor puts most of its content in the sub-entry under Jabneel, while other resources have “See Jabneh” and put their content there).

Though a few of the key places in the Bible either aren’t named or aren’t locatable (like the Garden of Eden in Gen.2.8), there’s still lots of useful information that’s been around a long time, but never organized into a machine-readable form. As with people, access to rich details about the places of the Bible is an important background resource for readers.

I’ve posted previously about the list of place names produced by OpenBible.info, which is the most comprehensive one that i know of that’s freely available. Starting from this list, as well as some other internally developed resources, we’re in the process of creating a master database of Biblical places that will include

  • Mappings between names and (physical) places (using an interesting representation that i’ll discuss in a future post)
  • A complete set of Biblical references
  • Types (cities, mountains, rivers, etc.)
  • Latitude and longitude data, so any place can be mapped and distances between places can be computed
  • Categorization of place names into different historical periods
  • Part-whole relationships: for example, the fact that Jerusalem is a part of Judea (in technical parlance, a kind of meronymy)

Each physical places will have a unique identifier (akin to a URI), and once the data is complete we’ll turn it into RDF and incorporate it into the emerging semantic database we call the Bible Knowledgebase. We don’t have a timeline yet for when this data will get turned into a feature and included in the Logos product: that will take some time, and will likely unfold incrementally. But i’m excited about starting this next major step in the Bible Knowledgebase. An extra added bonus is that my wife Donna is working on the data with me!

September 26th, 2007

Vacation in Sarajevo and Croatia

Things have been quiet on the blog of late: we had a fabulous vacation last week, first on the amazing Dalmatian coast of Croatia, and then in Sarajevo, visiting our friends J&E (names obscured because they were such wonderful hosts, if you knew how to reach them, they’d be overwhelmed with requests).

Some travel notes and pictures will get posted when i get a chance, but we’re back now (alas), and back to work.

September 7th, 2007

A Small Company is like a Bed and Breakfast

… according to this interesting ACM interview with software guru Joel Spolsky. Spolsky’s blog Joel on Software is a must-read for software developers and entrepreneurs: this interview is a nice introduction, with reflections on hiring (look for “smart people who get things done”), quality of life for developers, software estimation, and other topics.

September 5th, 2007

Jim Hendler on Reinventing Academic Publishing

Jim Hendler, who has a long pedigree of Semantic Web activities, has posted a draft of an upcoming editorial piece about the future of academic publishing. Some of the interesting points:

  • Comparing the success of sites like Wikipedia, Flickr, YouTube, etc., against many similar endeavors with the same technology but nothing like the same success, shows that building community is a key component of sharing knowledge (which, ultimately, is what the academic process is supposed to accomplish).
  • Despite many younger academics wanting the pursue a more “open” model of scholarship (and being familiar with the tools), the incentives are still strongly tilted toward traditional publication methods
  • Change will likely come from more established researchers (whose careers are presumably less fragile) working to create innovation

Scientific innovation has substantially outpaced traditional academic publishing approaches for some time now (long before blogs and wikis made the tension even more obvious), and (like other kinds of publication) seems long overdue for some changes.

September 5th, 2007

Exposing Microformat Content with Operator

If you don’t quite get what microformats are or why anybody would care, here’s a quick way to get to “Aha!”:

You’ll see icons for addresses, contacts, and events, each with a pull-down menu offering appropriate operations. For example, you can map an address, add a contact to your contact list, bookmark an event or save it in your calendar, etc. Even if i don’t necessarily want to add Tantek to my Outlook contacts, this clearly shows how easy these kinds of operations could be. Many web pages are full of little nuggets of useful information, nearly all of which currently require cut-and-paste to some other page to re-use them. Operator gives you a seriously cool look at what the web could do for us beyond just displaying prose and pictures.

I’d love to see somebody who knows how to program Firefox add-ons extend Operator to do the same thing for bibleref markup (along the same lines as Chris Roberts’ WordPress plug-in or the Holy Scripturizer plug-in). This would make it easy to provide a menu of options like looking up the passage at the ESV site, BibleGateway, your favorite Scripture site, or inside Logos Bible Software, for all the embedded Bible references on any web page.

September 3rd, 2007

Bibleref, Discoverability, and Adoption

There’s a nice post at OpenBible.info about how the bibleref proposal lines up with microformat principles and the inversion of conventional approaches to problem-solving (and since it’s so complimentary, of course i’m in agreement!). Alas, it also highlights a chicken-and-egg problem i’m already painfully aware of: there isn’t (yet) a way to actually search for bibleref markup. While i hope people will be motivated to use bibleref to help others find Biblical citations, the counter-argument (which i hope no Blogos readers accept!) might be, why should i invest the (hopefully small) effort in adopting it now when there isn’t yet any payoff?

So, co-conspirators, here’s the secret plan for world domination: it’s simple, though not guaranteed to succeed.

  1. Get a core group of early adopters to start using bibleref (i intend to start by button-holing the Amazon Unspun list of top Biblical Studies blogs soon)
  2. Lobby Technorati to include it in their known microformats search. Since Technorati’s Tantek Çelik is behind the whole microformats push, i’m hoping the benefits will be obvious. But it may take some work to convince them that Bible references are at least as important as XOXO, xFolk, and other currently searchable microformats. I also hope that existing usage (see #1) will help make the argument.
  3. Hopefully then chickens will start making eggs, and eggs will start hatching into chickens, and the flock will start growing.

I don’t have any answers about how to make microformats discoverable: probably that’s asking for too much. Ultimately, getting authors to adopt them isn’t different in nature than, say, getting them to use CSS formatting rather than lots of embedded local style attributes. If there’s an understandable benefit, that benefit (and some time for it to catch on) should help motivate the (minor) additional effort required.