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April 29th, 2008

Zeldman on the Vanishing Personal Site

There’s a thoughtful post by Jeffrey Zeldman (along with many equally thoughtful comments) about how the growth of social networking sites like del.icio.us, flickr, and twitter have led to an identity crisis of sorts for the traditional personal home page.

I have similar feelings. As more and more of my digital snail trail winds up “out there”, it’s less clear what should live on my own home page, and also less clear that others will want to visit it, given how much else is now “out there”. I started a personal web site seanboisen.com, because i got tired of having bits of personal identity scattered around. I wanted to have one place that i controlled where i could link to my own information (without getting trapped inside one of the many walled gardens like LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.). But it takes work (so it’s not complete), and i’m not completely happy with the result (but haven’t found the time to make it better). And despite my own semantic neatnik tendencies to ensure everything has a proper URI for reference, if you want to know something about me, you’re just as likely to use some variant of googling my name, and just as likely to find what you want that way.

My blog is where i share more transient thoughts: but, as noted in several comments to Zeldman’s post, blog fatigue sets in after a while, and it’s hard to keep up the pace. I still occasionally post things to SemanticBible that i hope will have lasting value, though these days that’s mostly slides from presentations. I haven’t gotten into Twitter (though Patrick keeps encouraging me) because i’m not sure i’m ready for that velocity or volume of activity. If anything, i’d like to turn down the volume and slow down the pace, not jack it up. As the Preacher said

the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing. (Eccl 1:8, ESV)

Every new involvement with a social networking site raises these issues again: where does my digital identity live? (the latest for me is Twine: i have some beta invitations, email me if you want one)

April 28th, 2008

LinuxFest Northwest Recap

LinuxFest Northwest 2008 Poster

I had a great time presenting at LinuxFest Northwest 2008 this past weekend. I arrived a bit early at my designated room, to find the previous presenter sitting at a table with a laptop and an audience of two huddled around: that didn’t fill me with confidence!

But as the appointed time arrived, people streamed in, and i wound up with an enthusiastic sitting-room-only audience of about 30 people (after all the chairs were filled, a few latecomers sat on the floor). Since these were mostly programmers and i only had an hour, we didn’t go too deep into Natural Language Processing. But judging from the questions and comments afterwards, i believe i attained my main goal of introducing people to the Natural Language Processing Toolkit (NLTK) (see these previous posts) and encouraging them to try it out for themselves.
The presentation slides are up on SemanticBible so you can take a look: they should be largely self-explanatory (though of course lacking the witty side-comments and my winning smile).

That was all the time i had for the first day of the conference, but i went back for more on Sunday. Attendance was quite a bit lighter, but i had a chance to talk with some others folks about the XO laptop (other previous posts). I finally got mine a couple of weeks ago, and it’s really an amazing machine. Since it’s an open platform, i’m actively considering what it might take to develop a simple Bible reader application for it.

I also picked up a couple of the latest Linux distributions, and now have Ubuntu 8.04 (“Hardy Heron“: why do they use these goofy names!) installed and running happily on an older Pentium 4 with 512Mb RAM that i recently scored. It’s really amazing how much functionality the open source community provides (though i have to repeat a snarky comment from one of my colleagues this morning: “The only sense in which Linux is free is if your time is worth nothing”). That said, it didn’t take much time at all to get things running, though of course it’s always the maintenance tail that bites you, no matter who provides your OS.

April 25th, 2008

Unbundling Biblical Studies

A recent series on the Britannica Blog is discussing Newspapers and Net, starting with an excerpt from Nicholas Carr’s book “The Big Switch” called “The Great Unbundling”, and then followed by Clay Shirkey’s response. Here’s my brief recap (though both posts are worth reading in their entirety):

  • The Web has drastically changed the economics of newspaper publication, as more and more services become available for free (Carr)
  • Unbundling is a given: what parts of the newspaper industry are worth saving? (Shirkey)
  • Investigative journalism is the part that the Free Internet Economy can’t necessarily replace (Shirkey)

Newspapers aside, much of this discussion is also relevant to Biblical studies, particularly the academic market for seminary-level textbooks. Like the traditional newspaper, academic publication currently bundles together a variety of services:

  • Overview and orientation to a subject, which requires enough breadth and experience in the field to know which parts to select
  • Selection, synthesis, and summary of existing research, which takes a broad range of previously published information and extracts the most relevant parts for students. This also involves filtering out information that’s out-of-date or biased (or perhaps contrary to the author’s tastes)
  • Original research by a textbook author that can’t be found elsewhere, as well as their own opinions and perspectives
  • Instructional design: the best textbooks organize their material in a way to make it easier to learn, using educational best-practices like defined learning objectives and advanced organizers

Traditional textbooks aren’t likely to go away any time soon (though the market has experienced many of the same economic pressures as the newspaper industry). Some of the services described above are moving to the web and becoming free goods: for example, Wikipedia now provides overview services for a wide variety of subjects, despite intense discouragement from much of the teaching profession.

At the same time, the distance education field has long stressed that specialization of roles provides many of the same benefits for the educational industry as for manufacturing and other activities. In particular, the scholar who is expert in a field and producing original research may not be the best choice for instructional design.

If you take as a given that academic publishing must change to meet the new realities of the Internet economy (i do), which parts will become essentially free goods, and which parts will continue to require a high level of professional competence. Even more importantly, assuming some of these services can’t be easily replaced, what are the new economic models that will provide the required compensation for them?

April 24th, 2008

The Semantic Web as Data + Intelligence

Talking with Talis is rapidly becoming my favorite podcast source: Paul Miller has a lot of really interesting guests addressing topics at the intersection of libraries and the Semantic Web.

Today i listened to an interview with Dr. Jim Hendler, now at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, but previously at University of Maryland and a key figure in the establishment of OWL during his tenure at DARPA. My comments here are really just a rehash of some things he said much better, and with much more authority (given his history in the field) — but blame me, not him, for what i say below.

The concept of the Semantic Web brings together two different communities , along with their respective priorities and technologies. Many of the disagreements within what looks like a single community are just two sets of people talking about different things (but using similar terminology). The “semantic” part is mostly represented by the Artificial Intelligence community, with interests in careful ontology development, deep reasoning, theoretical correctness, and academic activities. The “web” community has been out there for more than a decade, building the World Wide Web with HTML and lots and lots of data, and is now looking for ways to make it more useful, connected, and extensible.

You can represent these two concerns as two axes on a graph, and many different endeavors tend strongly toward one side or the other, depending on whether they emphasize the “intelligence” dimension, or the “data” dimension. Just a few examples on the data side (that could be multiplied many times over):

  • Yahoo plans to start indexing RDFa content (i discussed this a bit in my post about Bibleref and RDFa). As one of the major web players, this adds just a little more intelligence to a lot of data (potentially: users still have to create RDFa markup)
  • Freebase is harvesting data from Wikipedia and other sources, and then adding a modest amount of structured relations.
  • Talis has their own set of data from a long history of library applications.

On the “intelligence” side would be big ontology development efforts, and academics working on reasoning: Hendler also called out pharmaceutical companies as tending toward this dimension. Hendler’s own bet is that progress is more likely to come from data-side approaches than the hard-core intelligence side (and i think he’s right). He sees the combination of SPARQL and persistent identifiers as two recent developments that are likely to move the field ahead: these are things i’m looking at closely as well in Bible Knowledgebase development (more on the second one to come soon).

April 22nd, 2008

Reading: Wikinomics

I didn’t get all the way through Wikinomics before i had to return it to the library, but i plan to go back for the second half. So i don’t have it in front of me, and therefore can’t quite do it justice in a review. But it’s an important book that addresses several topics around how cultures of openness and collaboration are changing the nature of business and technology.

Some of the main points discussed include:

  • How advances in technology have brought production within the reach of a much larger group of people than ever before
  • “Ideagoras”, about corporate outsourcing of R&D to bring a much larger pool of ideas to bear on challenging problems
  • “Prosumers”: how customers want to hack, not just passively consume, products
  • How sharing scientific knowledge accelerates progress
  • Open, participative platforms that enable those outside an enterprise to build on its products
  • Wikis in the workplace

While the success of applications like Wikipedia may prove hard to reproduce, it’s clear that they represent some fundamental changes to how knowledge is developed and shared.

April 21st, 2008

Church Architecture as User Interface

Since joining Logos, my business card says “Information Architect”, which means i’m supposed to be thinking about the structure of information, as well as what we used to call the user interface (the preferred term among practitioners these days is “user experience”). In a nutshell, the user interface (UI) is the practical means by which people access and interact with your system. The term applies to many kinds of systems and devices beyond computers: you can think of that handle on your refrigerator as part of its UI.

Do churches have a user interface? Well, not exactly, but a recent survey conducted by Lifeway Research found that unchurched people preferred church buildings that resemble a medieval cathedral over more contemporary styles, by a ratio of 2-to-1. The study was sponsored by a group of firms that develop church facilities, and found the preference was especially strong among those ages 25-34.

Here’s one conjecture about their finding: systems and devices that have familiar features also tend to be more usable. There are lots of ways you might imagine to control the direction or transmission of a car: but most people have learned to use steering wheels and console-based shifters, and consequently you can get into most any car with no confusion about how to operate it. (in UI design, these features are called affordances) I suspect many people prefer Gothic-style buildings, not because they work better, but simply because they present a more familiar user interface that matches their expectations of how the outside of a church “works”. Lifeway’s Ed Stetzer points out in the article that, just because unchurched people say they prefer a particular architectural style, that doesn’t mean they’re any more likely to actually attend such a church.

(Hat tip: DJ Chuang at Leadership Network)

April 21st, 2008

LinuxFest Northwest — Next Weekend

If you’re anywhere near Fourth Corner next weekend (that’s Bellingham/Whatcom County in Washington State, for you outlanders), you may want to consider attending Linuxfest Northwest (LFNW), a 2-day showcase of open source and Linux technology at Bellingham Technical College.

Yours truly will be presenting Saturday from 11-12:30 in Haskell 204 on Natural Language Processing in Python using NLTK. Basically, i’ll be explaining and showing how some really great (and sophisticated) tools for processing language that used to be the exclusive province of PhDs in Computational Linguistics are now within reach of ordinary mortals (as long as those mortals know some Python: otherwise you’ll mostly be hearing about why you should learn Python!). I’m hoping it will also be a good introduction to what natural language processing is all about, and why programmers might care.

If NLP isn’t your thing, don’t tell me and burst my bubble, but there are still dozens of other really interesting sounding talks (including a couple in my timeslot that i’d go to if i were otherwise occupied!). I’m really looking forward to the weekend: come find me if you’re there! Al Castle also has a LFNW post on his blog (with a bit more background).

(i expect to post slides from my talk on the web afterwards, so even if you can’t come you can get some of the information.)

April 17th, 2008

Email and the Web for Seniors

I recently had the experience of setting my dad up with a new computer (Happy Birthday Dad!), and it gave me a fresh appreciation of just how many challenging cognitive and motor skills are required for achieving the simplest goals in a computer environment (not to mention the whole conceptual framework).

Just a few of the factors that make this so hard:

  • Computers and the web have become sales channels.
    • I bought a relatively inexpensive HP from Circuit City, a fine machine for his requirements. But it comes loaded with startup links that attempt to sell you more software.
    • He uses Yahoo Mail to read email through a browser: but the browser window is cluttered with branding and advertisements that make it challenging to visually parse the page and differentiate his content from what they’re trying to sell him.
  • Constant change. The browser came preloaded with the Yahoo Toolbar, and almost as soon as he started using it, they wanted to push an update to him. This generates more dialog boxes he’s never seen before, more questions he doesn’t know the answer to (and doesn’t even care about), all for some feature he’s never even used! I uninstalled the toolbar right away.
  • Layer upon layer of complexity and foreign concepts: the desktop and folder metaphor, overlapping windows, menus, toolbars, system trays, special function keys, the list goes on and on.
  • Overcrowding: the economics of the mainstream computer market favors more, newer features. That means cramming more keys on the keyboard (with smaller labels that are hard for seniors to read), more icons on the desktop so functionality is “at your fingertips” (whether you need it or not), and cluttered interfaces.

Certainly those of us with professions in IT, or even doing office work, need newer technology that’s extensible. But there’s an enormous number of folks who really just need simple access to the web and email, without all the complexities of managing their technology refresh, and that’s about it. These aren’t the people that computer or software makers target (they’re not good candidates for upgrade sales, for one thing), but there’s a real opportunity there.