God’s Word | our words
meaning, communication, & technology
following Jesus, the Word made flesh
February 27th, 2010

Bob’s Talk at TOC

I blogged a funny story last week about Logos CEO Bob Pritchett’s attendance at the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing (TOC) conference. But here’s a serious comment from Mark Coker of the Huffington Post that warrants quoting (italics are mine):

The Best Presentation at TOC

My favorite presentation of the conference was from Bob Pritchett of Logos Bible Software, in a session titled, Network Effects Support Premium Pricing. I remember attending his presentation four years ago at the first TOC in San Jose, so I knew I didn’t want to miss his presentation this time. They’re doing amazing stuff at Logos. They face an interesting challenge, one that every author and publisher faces: How do you compete against free? In their case, they sell about 10,000 bible study ebooks. How much has the bible changed over the last two hundred years? Not much. But what Logos excels at is making this information more accessible than ever before. They take a database-centric view of their vast and ever-growing library of content.

When you purchase a book from them, you’re not just getting a static ebook, you’re buying into a dynamic, integrated online application environment that becomes richer with each new publication, and with each new member to their community. Even if Bible study isn’t your thing, check them out for future-of-publishing inspiration. I can’t do them justice here.

High praise indeed from somebody who isn’t necessarily into Bible study, but recognizes that what Logos is doing is really quite unique in the entire publishing industry. Our “database-centric views” are only getting stronger, so you can expect to hear more about this in the months to come.

February 26th, 2010

LCV Talk at Semantic Technology Conference

I’ll be giving a talk at the Semantic Technology Conference, June 23 from 7:30AM8:20am (ouch!), in San Francisco, CA. The talk title is “Using a Controlled Vocabulary for Managing a Digital Library Platform“: no talk page yet, but the abstract follows. If you’re there, come by and say hello!

(Astute readers will note some similarities between this and my upcoming BibleTech talk. But the audiences are quite different, so the content will be too. This talk will provide “a practical case study on semantically organizing reference material to support search and navigation, using a controlled vocabulary.”)


Encyclopedias and other subject-oriented reference books frequently present the same content using different names: and users often look for this information using other names altogether.

The Logos Controlled Vocabulary (LCV) organizes parallel but distinct content in the domain of Biblical studies to integrate reference information and support search, discovery, and knowledge management. The LCV captures

  • preferred and alternate terminology
  • inter-term relationships
  • term hierarchy
  • linkage to other semantic information

The initial version of the LCV (now shipping in the Logos digital library platform) comprises some 11,000 terms, and continues to grow as more reference works are added. It also provides the backbone of http://topics.logos.com, a website for user contributions to terminology and content.

This talk will describe the building of the LCV, how we’re using it now, and how we plan to use and extend it in the future.

Keywords: , , , ,

February 26th, 2010

Building Data Applications – One Piece at a Time

My colleague Steve Runge (Logos bio, blog) made a new connection for me today, between the kind of data work we do at Logos and an old Johnny Cash song. I won’t spoil the surprise if you haven’t heard the song (and we don’t do it by stealing!), but there’s a commonality to the methodology: fact by fact, relation by relation, that’s the way to build a database. And with enough time and perseverance, when you’re done you too can say “… ’cause I have the only one there is around.”

Johnny Cash – One Piece At a Time – on YouTube.

February 26th, 2010

Dynamic Textbooks

New York Times article: “Macmillan … is introducing software called DynamicBooks, which will allow college instructors to edit digital editions of textbooks and customize them for their individual classes.” That includes rewriting and deleting individual paragraphs.The effort is hosted at DynamicBooks.

This is yet another step in what Nicholas Carr has called “the Great Unbundling“, freeing the smaller bits of content embedded in print objects like newspapers and books to live their own independent digital lives.

It raises all kinds of interesting questions, some of which are addressed in the NYT article:

  • who controls the changes? (in Macmillan’s case, they claim to not control it, but also that they will “rely on students, parents and other instructors to help monitor changes” and remove inappropriate changes. And how do they decide exactly who qualifies as an instructor?)
  • how does this affect style? (from the article: “there’s a flow to books, and there’s voice to them”)
  • what about divergent points of view? (from the article: “if an instructor decided to rewrite paragraphs about the origins of the universe from a religious rather than an evolutionary perspective, <an astronomy author> said, “I would absolutely, positively be livid.””)

Macmillan’s choice to really put this out in the open is bold: i’m not sure i’d go that far. But i have no doubt that blurring the line of who owns the content is the direction of the future.

February 24th, 2010

Out-of-place Serendipity

This is a true story.

It’s been quiet for a week or so … Bob, my boss is out of town, i don’t know where … i’m doing a lot of strategic planning, blue sky thinking, exploring new ideas. Yesterday, a colleague sends me a link about a talk on eBooks (i troll through a lot of information in a typical week), The future of digital textbooks. It’s interesting, though brief and sketchy in the way conference talk reports often are … online books lower the price point, student choice isn’t always aligned with faculty choice, students “want learning that’s more efficient, more portable and more affordable”, yada yada yada.

I put it aside, get on with my work, and finally come back to it later in the day, actually read it, and recognize it’s a talk from the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing (TOC) conference. Oh yeah, that’s going on right now in New York! And last week i had planned to look at last year’s talks and (big surprise) got distracted and forgot.

So i look up the TOC website, intending to follow up on the old talks, which indeed confirms that the conference is going on now, and it has an intriguing link: Watch Keynotes Live Online. Hmm, that’s almost like being there! In fact, i had thought about asking Bob if i could go, but decided it was a little too far afield for me to justify the expense and travel time.

So i click on the link, do the brief registration thing, and sure enough, i’m watching and listening to the conference live, in real-time, as it’s happening. How cool! It really is like being there (except you can’t ask questions). We’re in the part of the program for “Ignite talks”, a rapid pace sequence of 5 minute talks with no more than 20 slides that switch automatically after 15 seconds. Some guy’s giving a talk, i forget who because i’m also reading email and distracted with some other stuff, but it’s vaguely interesting.

His five minutes are up, he walks off the stage, i’m only half-paying attention, and then … Bob walks on the stage, as in, Bob, my boss. He’s at this conference (i guess that’s one reason he’s been gone all week), all the way on the other side of the country, giving one of these Ignite talks, and through this chain of chance digital connections, somehow i managed to tune in 10 minutes before his talk. He gives a great brief overview of Logos 4 from a publishing angle, highlights a few points i hadn’t thought about before (“Logos is like a Bible study answer machine”, and “data sets are like glue”). The physical space between us is collapsed, we’re meeting by the accident of being interested in the same things … all serendipity.

Talk about your Digital Age “Wow” experiences.

February 22nd, 2010

Building an Architecture of Participation in Bible Study

The Cornucopia of the Commons

Some time back, Tim O’Reilly (The Architecture of Participation) echoed and applied some observations from Dan Bricklin (the Cornucopia of the Commons) about the architecture of Napster and  other significant web-based systems. The individual details are well worth reading, but here’s the summary form. There are several common models for how to build large datasets that are valuable to people:

  1. Pay people to build it (Bricklin calls this “Organized Manual”). Examples include the original Yahoo! directory of the web, and the Encyclopedia Britannica. There’s an variant that represents smart algorithms rather than just human effort (Bricklin: “Organized Mechanical”): this is how Google has built its indexes. But it still represents a significant monetary investment by somebody who probably expects something in return.
  2. Get volunteers (Bricklin’s “Volunteer Manual”): Wikipedia is the preeminent example here, along with Linux, the Open Directory Project, and a great many open source projects. People do this work because they value the end result, and the project coordinates and magnifies those efforts.
  3. Architect in such a way that individual self-interest creates collective value.

Napster (the original peer-to-peer version) was proposed by Bricklin as a prime example of the third model: simply by listening to your music (within the Napster ecosystem), the default settings meant you were also sharing that music with everybody else. Quoting Bricklin:

What we see here is that increasing the value of the database by adding more information is a natural by-product of using the tool for your own benefit. No altruistic sharing motives need be present, especially since sharing is the default.

This is Bricklin’s Cornucopia of the Commons (an allusion to Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons): a system designed in such a way that use brings overflowing abundance.

(You might think blogging and twittering are like this, but they’re not. Nobody tweets because it has direct, inherent value to them: instead, it’s an outgrowth of a narcissistic, self-centered open, generous belief that what i say might have value to others. Few of us would do it if nobody else was listening. )

Models for Data Creation In Biblical Studies

All that (and Napster!) is now history, and i don’t want to get distracted by the peer-to-peer model that made Napster so powerful (Bricklin argues that’s not the reason it succeeded), or the legal issues that led to its demise. Instead, i want to reflect here on how these principles apply to Biblical studies and software.

With Logos 4, we’ve launched a major expansion of our Biblical Knowledge, by expanding Biblical People, adding Places and Things, and building around the large set of concepts we call the Logos Controlled Vocabulary. This was accomplished through the Organized Manual method: we paid a bunch of people (me included) to architect and populate this data, in a major development effort that stretched over several years. You could view the vast network of links that make Logos more than just a collection of texts as an extension of the same principle (through the resulting software program doesn’t look so much like a database). It represents literally hundreds of thousands of hours of effort in book markup and design, along with lots of “Organized Mechanical” algorithmic work.

There are also lots of examples of Volunteer Manual projects related to the Bible. The Sword Project is like Linux for Bible software. e-Sword has a smaller group of developers, but the same framework of a volunteer effort which is given away. Open Scriptures is building a platform and API for others to use in building Bible-based applications. Web 2.0 efforts like YouVersion let people tie their reflections directly to the Biblical text, and numerous projects have sprung from the Wikipedia mold like Theopedia. My own SemanticBible projects are much more limited, but in a similar spirit.

Logos has been active with the Volunteer Manual approach as well. The Logos Topics website combines our Organized Manual data and architecture of topics with user-contributed extensions of additional terminology, links within Logos, and even links to other websites. This lets us do some neat things like extending the desktop application content through user contributions on the web. Like Wikipedia, these are altruistic contributions from people who want to share their knowledge with others.

Sermons.logos.com works in a similar fashion: if you’re a pastor who writes down your sermon, and you’re willing to upload and share it, lots of others (both on the web and in Logos software) can benefit from what you’ve created. This is closer to the Cornucopia of the Commons model, but it’s still a voluntary and indirect process: my sermon doesn’t get shared as a natural by-product of my preparation activity.

The Cornucopia and Bible Study

The interesting question to me is how to achieve the third model, where my own use of a tool provides a direct benefit to others through a network, not because i’m behaving altruistically but simply because the system is architected to work that way. This is closely related to the whole Web2.0 meme (can it really have been five years already?!?) of “software that gets better the more it gets used.”

One thought: lots of web sites use RefTagger to provide a nice pop-up of Bible text for their readers, a benefit that enriches the experience of visitors to their site. Twitter users can similarly use ref.ly to shorten Bible references, which, like RefTagger links,  in turn resolve to references on Bible.Logos.com.   Could those links be converted into data indicating, for example, the relative popularity of different verses, and then displayed back to users?

Aggregating users’ operation of Logos software (in a suitably anonymized fashion, of course) could also provide data on the most popular resources, searches, and topics, which could then be turned around into recommendations (“Looking for a Bible dictionary article on ‘marriage’? Here are the ones our users have found most useful ….”).

But none of these seem to me to accomplish the full promise of the Cornucopia of the Commons. There has to be more here than simply harnessing popularity (though sites like Digg and del.icio.us have shown how useful that can be). I’m still trying to imagine what data sets could be created by people who are already committed to Bible study, as a normal outgrowth of what they do anyway. Any thoughts? Please share a comment.

February 21st, 2010

LinuxFest Registration is Open

Im going to Linxufest Northwest 2010 April 24-25th If you’re in the Bellingham area, Linuxfest is coming up, and registration is now open. This is a great opportunity to learn more about Linux, Open Source, and a variety of other technical subjects — and it’s free!

Yours truly is hoping to give a talk on using the Django web-application framework for rapid web site development: “From 0 to Website in 60 minutes – with Django“. Please sign up and attend!

February 11th, 2010

Bookmarklets Redux

Time spent on the web can be oh-so tedious if you’re constantly cutting things from one page and pasting them elsewhere just to get to another, related page. Someday Linked Data may make this all better, but until then, we all get by with helpful tricks.

Bookmarklets are one essential weapon in the arsenal of the web-info-warrior. Usually they’re little JavaScript programs stored as a bookmark in Firefox, providing one-click access to some simple functionality like looking things up elsewhere, resizing your window, etc. I’ve blogged previously about bookmarklets to find local library sources for a book on an Amazon page (or PaperBackSwap).

I dusted off my bookmarklet skills this past week and came up with some nifty tools that i wanted to share.

First off, imagine you’re looking at a website with Bible references whose benighted author somehow failed to include RefTagger. So rather than a nice pop-up with the text of the reference, or even a helpful link to that text on some Bible site, you’re just looking at a inanimate, unlinked string: boo. The Bible Reference Bookmarklet to the rescue! Simply select the text of the reference, click the bookmarklet, and you’ll be whisked off to that reference at Bible.Logos.com. If you haven’t selected any text first, you get a dialogue box asking for it.

To get this goodie in Firefox, first make sure the Bookmarks Toolbar is showing (View > Toolsbars > Bookmarks Toolbar must be checked). I’d love to give you a link to just drag onto the toolbar, but i don’t seem to be able to get the code past WordPress. So go to Bookmarks > Organize Bookmarks, and select Organize > New Bookmark. Give it a useful name like “Bible Reference Lookup”, and paste the code below in Location field.


After you’ve clicked ok, you should see it on your toolbar.

You can do similar tricks for a wide variety of strings that you just want to look up elsewhere (i discovered one here while writing this post that lets you look up articles on Wikipedia). This isn’t fundamentally different from copying the string into a search box: but sometimes it’s more convenient.

Descending into more esoteric purposes (to give you ideas for your own bookmarklets): as part of an earlier post on Tools for Personal Knowledge Management, i mentioned my use of TiddlyWiki for quick organization of hyperlinked notes. Like other wiki software, TiddlyWiki has its own link syntax, that looks like

[[Link text | URL]]

When linking to lots of other web pages, i was getting tired of copying the URL, pasting that in, then typing the square brackets, link text, vertical bar, and more square brackets, all in the right format. Wouldn’t it be more convenient to just construct this expression from the title of the page and its URL, rather than having to type it myself? YES! and the TiddlyWiki Page Link bookmarklet does just that, putting the result in a little pop-up window where a triple-click selects the whole thing, ready to copy and paste into your tiddlywiki (and tailor as desired: the title isn’t always what you want, but it’s often easier to edit and throw things out rather than type afresh). This one you can just drag to your bookmarks toolbar and use right away.

TiddlyWiki Page Link

Also, i’ve switched to a much better library lookup bookmarklet (and a service to help you create one for your local library) from WorldCat. Among other things, it generates the list of all the different ISBNs that might exist for a title (which can be very long indeed), and when there are many, it provides links for alternate searches in case the first group comes up empty handed.

Some other cool bookmarklets in my collection include:

  • CiteULike Popup Post and kin to make it easy to add (certain kinds of) articles to your reading list management. Adds more value for sources whose structure it understands.
  • Show del.icio.us citations of the current URL (you can find it there)
  • Resize your browser window to 1024 x 768 (if you want to see how a page will look on a smaller monitor or projector): the bookmarklet follows, just drag to your toolbar. 1024 x 768
  • A CSS validator for the current page: see Pete Freitag’s page.

Hat tips: