19 December 2006

What friggin' IT people shortage?!

Hot in the news today is how Canberra are looking for outside help in getting skilled workers to the city:
The ACT Government has begun linking Canberra employers with job seekers in the United Kingdom and Ireland to ease the city's skills shortage. The move is part of the Live in Canberra campaign.
What friggin' skills shortage? I've been urgently looking for a job for over a month, and I've got absolutely nothing in this city so far. Zilch. Nada. And no, it's not that I haven't got skills (in fact, I've got two job offers from overseas [one of them finalised; we're currently working out figures to see if we can afford it], and a couple of prospects in Sydney), it's that I'm not one of those who's sold their soul to J2EE, best-practices, and PRINCE2 which plague the government sector, nor am I an Australian citizen which seems to be a prequisite there, although I'm pressed to understand how workers imported from UK and Ireland would go better in that regard.

Notice that this is part of the "Live in Canberra" campaign which I'm pretty sure doesn't include information about them closing 39 schools this and next year, so if you've got kids, living in Canberra is a bit of a challenge these days, to put it mildly. The ACT local government is really poorly run, nobody here likes them. heck, people are even looking to liberal government, because, if Labour can only measure things in dollars and cents, we might as well go with those who's got a good track record in that departement to do it. (In the past, Labour actually had values, but Jon Stanhopeless' government is prioritizing a 8 million dollar dragway and a 6 million dollar arboretum in a friggin' drought area over keeping local schools and communities. Go figure.)

Can you tell I'm upset?

11 December 2006

When small and neat becomes big and rough

I use the excelent Bloglines.com web-based news aggregator, and recently I noticed a note of help on their frontpage, however you could only help if you lived in San-Franscisco (I assume for usability testing) and if you accepted money for your time, so that ruled me out on a large scale, but because I've been using it for such a long time, love it and can't live without it and because I have many really good ideas (unbashfully, of course :) on how to turn it (with simple means) into the most awsome KM tool, I wrote them an email anyways asking them how I could help otherwise ;
I'm not living in the Bay Area (or the US, for that matter), nor am I after your money :), but I'd love to be part of the process of making Bloglines better, so if there is a way, please let me know. I'm sure you've already got on your todo list things like tagging, content evaluation and textual marking, but I'd like to explore Bloglines as a serious knowledge tool with annotations, text analysis brokerage and various exports.

I just got their reply, which is such a spot-on example of what happens when you go from small and responsive to large and missing the point completely ;
Thank you for your interest in testing new Bloglines ideas. We have received a huge amount of interest and if you could provide the following information, we will be able to better schedule out our sessions. [...] 5) which of the following times will you be available to be in the San Francisco SOMA neighborhood for 1 hour for $75 on Tuesday, December 19th? [...]

Here's to hoping that part of their usability testing includes their own reading capabilities and / or systems. :) Customer love is hard to come by, and silly mistakes is often enough to make people look in some other direction to cover their needs. I'm not that easily turned off, though, but it sure is one for the records.

1 December 2006

Confluence User-Interface

Some time ago I got a mail from someone asking what I meant when I wrote "The out-of-the-box interface sucks big time" (see section on Confluence). I wrote back a long mail, but there was no follow-up reply, and because I've got several mail from people who also struggles with that very default interface, I have decided to post that mail here so that a) the information isn't lost, and b) you now know what I think about the Confluence default interface (at least before version 2.3). Also, we may package up our enhanced interface as an open-source thingy so that others can use it, but I'll have to sort some stuff out first. Here we go ;

> Could you elaborate some more on exactly what
> sucks about Confluence's UI so much to you?

Not so much to me, because I'm a geek, and with a bit of clicking and a bit of huffing I learn the paradigm of the interface and start using it. My users, on the other hand, hated it. Every test we did left them confused and uncertain about where to click next. My users are not geeks, nor incredibly computer litterate. And I'm an usability guy. Sparks surely would fly.

Maybe a few specifics are in order. I'll talk about some of the biggies ;

Where am I? If we are true to the Wiki form, every page is a page, but in Confluence this is not so; there are pages, label-pages, news, configuration, reports, and so forth. How does the interface reflect where you are and state you're in? The breadcrumb is really the only way that this is reflected, apart from the content (or sometimes hints within it) itself. but the difference between the content parts are cognitive hard to tell apart; the information shape is too similar across them all, and so we become relient on analysis of content instead of cognitive recognition. (basically the tabs aren't clear enough, nor consitently "content" based as sometimes you use them for functionality, and the same real-estate and concept is swapped depending on what you do and wherer you are)

Further on to this is the confusion people have when they're on a page and they can't edit it. (Difference between a page and a news item, or even a list of labels when things get a bit unclear) using tabs as functionality is also confusing here. A bigger problem occurs after some use of the system; why does a page have four function based tabs when "pages" is one of many content tabs? Where did my page go? Aren't pages part of the space? What is the difference between a page and a news item? And I could go on and on about using titles of pages as persistant links and the tree-structure imposed. :)

Why can't I label stuff as "fish fingers, bollocks" as with Flickr? Why can't we do controlled vocabularies? (This stuff isn't that hard to do; we've hacked Confluence to support it!) How can we do facetted navigation which better suits complex Wikis? Why aren't there better ways of dealing with lots of spaces? Why is added metadata to a page so hard (and with macros, so ugly)? (In fact, why aren't there a really neat user interface to attach metadata to pages, like properties, using bandana? Macro properties only works with extreme geeks, not human beings!) I can go on and on, and I'm pretty sure that there's *good* answers for why things are the way they are, and I certainly understand that a lot of these things are hard to change as they become legacy. In fact, I suspect most of the default user interface is built up over time and no-one dares to change it because it is very complex and rigid. (For example, why are there no Velocity templates for dealing with labels? I suspect a rushed job?)

Having said that, though, Confluence is fantastically flexible, and can do pretty much everything we want it to do, but at some point we need to add users to it, and that's when things start to break down a bit. We can't embed metadata in content, as normal people would balk at the macro scripts!

As a technologist I understand every decision that has been made, why things work the way they work, and I can figure out how to do pretty much anything I like; I grasp the paradigms and I can get around the interface to make it do what I do. I understand that conceptually a page belongs under the "pages" tab, but the interface doesn't reflect this and adds confusion. I understand how I can use the system to create hidden pages to do special stuff, and then include that content into a column of special info, and so forth. I can figure out what files involve the labels (and just that they're called labels instead of tagging makes things further tricky; another word to learn that means the same as something else) and implement a scheme of local and global controlled vocabulary. I can figure out how to have access control outside the realms of user administration, or to do news aggregation across spaces and repurpose these in external applications, and more. But I'm telling you, it hasn't been an easy ride! :)

I brought Confluence and JIRA into this organistation, and we use them both, even in synch, and technically it fits us like a glove (although with a few added features it would make a better kill, of course), but the user interface failed again and again. People will not battle with a user-interface; they'd rather forget about the tool alltogether. In our scenario, these are normal plain people trying to do very plain stuff. They're not geeks. Even the very concept of a Wiki is scary to them, and as such the interface must be as gentle as possible.


Anyways, I could ramble on about the user interface, the cognitive challenges it imposes, the confusing paradigms, Confluence as part of a greater set of "web 2.0" tools (sorry for using that expression), information architecture in a Wiki world, persistant identification (and how Confluence fails especially through repurposing of content), facetted navigation, content semantics and news aggregation (which is a neat business model in itself!) and so forth. I don't mean to give the Confluence guys pepper (hmm, a Norwegian expression, I fear), but I've spent over a year in the complex belly of the beast in trying to make the interface reasonably user friendly for our very boring normal users. So, um, forgive me. :)

I am a rock

I am a rock. Gravity holds me down, and all I can do is observe. I watch things go on around me, things that over time polishes my rough surface smooth. I see things change, and I accept change as a natural state. I am too slow to object.

I once wanted to become a tiny sand grain, dropping in between other rocks, pushed along by water wherever it went, take me on adventures, and show me the way. But I realised - sometimes I think a bit too late - that after being a grain, that after the next step, there was nothing. A rock has no light youth, only a slow decaying distance between being something important and being nothing.

I am happy to be a rock. Everything changes, yet everything stays the same. Drip drip will turn me to a pebble. Time to move on.

28 November 2006


I've just spent four days in Melbourne with Julie to celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary. The kids were dropped at friends and relatives (their godparents for two days, then their granddad for the other two), the dog taken care of, the garden watered, and the car stored away. We bought flight tickets online (which turned out to be a mistake) and booked and paid our hotel online as well (which turned out to be a smart thing to do).

We arrived at Melbourne Airport on friday morning, taking the SkyBus which dropped us to Spencer Street Station, and we walked to our hotel on Dudley Street. The hotel had a good reception area but really bad rooms and was located quite a big walk away from pretty much anything (and both of these things are not good factors when you're pregnant, so, yes, Julie is pregnant again), so we cancelled the next two nights, went to an internet cafe and booked ourselves into the Crossley Hotel on Little Bourke. Many thanks to the fantastic WotIf.com.au service for online hotel bookings, and the fantasticly friendly staff at our first hotel (which I won't mention by name).

I'm not going to go through all the little things we did and saw throughout the city, but I'll try to summarise it as best I can; we loved it! Melbourne is a beautiful city with a European feel to it, lovely people, not too busy (as Sydney, for example) and fantastic architecture and art everywhere you turned. I was quite taken with it.

One of the highlights for me was visiting the State Library of Voctoria, a fantastic building situated centrally and close to the university. What a feel and ambience! I spoke to some nice reference librarian about various bits and pieces, even talked about E-Resources and new search engines / interfaces, so if the library needs an manager / techie / EL1-2, I'm right there. :)

We ate and we ate and had coffees and drinks everywhere, too many to mention. the food was great everywhere, but the coffee highlight was indeed Pellegrino's (corner of Little Bourke and Crossley) who knew exactly how to make a mocha right! Thanks.

The Melbourne Natural Museum was also great. So was the art centre, although we missed most of the Australian Art that's somewhere else. I loved going on the trams, as Oslo (my hometown) also is a tram-town. I loved the arcades and the alleyways. We ate in one of them with live jazz music one night. Fantastic!

We went to Bennets Lane Jazz Club to see and hear Elena Stone Band which we knew nothing about. It turned out to be freakin' fantastic! Elena was a fantastic performer, singer and composer, and we enjoyed the concert so much. I noticed that the drummer was not only damn good and played smack on to my liking, but also a leftie, which of course made me warm and fuzzy inside, as I'm a leftie percussionist myself. (Wish I could remember his name, though)

The only negative thing on the whole trip was that we misinterpreted the flight details, and missed our flight. Because these tickets were bought online (but not cheap!) there was nothing they could help us with, and we had to buy new tickets; 600$ later, and the vanishing of our christmas budget. So the take here is that Qantas sucks, and don't buy your tickets online.

Thanks, Melbourne, for a fantastic four nights. It certainly gave us a craving for more. See you in a little while.

22 November 2006

Need unique talent?

There's a distinct chance that in about two months I'll be out of a job. I've worked for the National Library of Australia for three years now, and after such a time on a contract the job needs to be made permanent. But because I'm not an Australian citizenship they can't employ me permanently due to Australian law (which requires citizenship for permanent jobs). And I can't take out dual citizenship because Norway doesn't support it, nor do I think I'm willing to screw up my identity and future planning based on a quick and possibly stupid decision. So.

So, if you're looking for unique talent, this may be the perfect time to talk to me. I'm not so much your standard programmer as I'm a problem-solver, project manager and the sort of person that aren't afraid of huge problems and unknown territories. In fact, I think I thrive on the really big stuff. I've been in the IT industry for almost 20 years, doing all sorts of stuff, but have a knack for practical knowledge management, team development work and product design. And good ideas.

I have a CV you can peek at. It's reasonably up to date, although I'm working on it. I've also got a LinkedIn profile page you can view. You could read this blog, too, to get an idea of what I could be useful for.

I'm not stuck in Canberra even though right now that's the easiest option (as we have a house here, and somewhat of a network of family and friends). For the right job I'll move around, even back to Norway. We do have a plan of moving down the coast to the Wollongong / South Coast area (more family down there) from which I can commute to Sydney, and if we can make a deal where I work some hours on the train and some hours in Sydney, I'm your man.

Start-ups and consultancies is fine by me; I've been doing that in the past for many years. No more public service, though, and no huge companies unless in brings some serious challenges with it. I'm into everything from information architecture and usability to semantic data modelling and Topic Maps to knowledge management and project management. Feel free to ask. I'm easy to get along with.

Feel free to point people to this blog post, and post any good pointers if you find them. But no general job databases; I hate those, and that's not where the interesting jobs are found. Wish me luck. Cheers.

Update: my email is alexander dotty johannesen at gmail dotty com, where 'dotty' is a dot. Just thought I'd add that.

15 November 2006

Sniggleboffs and crimblecakemix

Ouch! I'm rather busy these days, with too many projects and too little time in which to do them. Even on the homefront there are lots and large changes going on, some secret, some not so secret. Each and one of these happenings and projects deserve their own blog post, and now that some of them are nearing completion, I might get time to knock out some proper information on them. What follows are just a few highlights ;

IT Architecture Project is a project that summarises all the best thinking in a library technology kind of way, from future business models to service oriented architectures to federated searches to innovative thinking in the interface domains. Wow, there is just so much good stuff going on. Watch this space for a better explanation of what it is and how it will turn heads both internally and externally.

Atlassian's Confluence Wiki is used at work as an enterprise knowledge sharing space / wiki playground. The out-of-the-box interface sucks big time and isn't anywhere near what you could give to normal people out there. So I've spent a very long time creating a totally new interface that both looks good, extends the functionality and ease of use, and makes more sense of the Confluence Wiki world. I'll be presenting our "Wiki as a intranet sharing tool" as a use-case at a conference in Kuala Lumpur early next year. Again, watch this space.

Meta-rain is a project that I created to try and make a prototype that cheaply and effectivly uses natural vaporization to turn sea-water into fresh-water. Grant applications aside, this is a really interesting project I wish i could spend more time on. Watch this space.

SLRXTM : I'm using the Topic Maps Reference Model to create a rather complex model for library business processing and modelling, coupled with a clever schema-design that swallows MARC, MODS, XOBIS and others with ease, creating a singular model. Watch this space.

27 October 2006

Sexier, smarter, faster IA with Topic Maps slides and podcast is up

My presentation from the OZ-IA conference last month are up as a podcast (all of the great presentations are here), and I've embedded my presentation slides below with SlideShare.net so you can try to browse along. There are 133 slides, but a lot of them really are bits of the same slide, and I go through them fast. Enjoy; it was a lot of fun. And excuse my ... er, "um"s.

18 October 2006

Homosexuality in the animal kingdom

This won't make too much sense to most non-norwegians, but a very good old friend of mine Petter Bøckman (biologist and live roleplayer extraordinaire) and some other guy have made what they reckon is the worlds first exhibition about homosexuality in the animal kingdom. it is far more common than what people think. I used to live with Petter, and the stories he would tell about midget chimpanzees!

Congratulations, and I hope we'll see similar initiatives throughout the world.

9 October 2006

Event : talk : Angela Beesley ; Wikipedia, wikis and the future of free content

Angela Beesley is coming to the National Library of Australia to hold a talk here about "Wikipedia, wikis and the future of free content" which should be interesting to most people. Here's the blurb ;
Topic: Wikipedia, wikis and the future of free content
Speaker: Angela Beesley

Angela Beesley has been involved with Wikipedia since early 2003. She is also the co-founder and Vice President of Wikia, a wiki hosting service which extends the model of Wikipedia into non-encyclopedic content areas.

Until recently, Angela Beesley served as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit organisation which runs Wikipedia and a number of other open content wikis.

Prior to her involvement with Wikipedia, Angela was a researcher and test developer for the National Foundation for Educational Research in England and Wales. She has been in Melbourne for almost a year.

20 September 2006

OZ-IA 2006 program is up!

I know I've been a bit silent these last couple of weeks, and it's the usual story of working too hard on too many things. There is some exciting news coming up in the not-too-distant future, like another conference talk in Malaysia amongst other things, but right now I just wanted to share with you something else which is pressing;

The OZ-IA 2006 Summit program is up. I know, I know, I've mentioned OZ-IA 2006 before, but the closer we get to it, the more excited I am about it. And you'll notice that my presentation is the last one on the saturday (which is a single-track session as opposed to the ones running on sunday which are two-tracked, meaning everybody is there to pick your presentation apart...), a prime position to say something stupid and become the topic for the cocktail session afterwards. I'm working on various stupid things to say as we speak.

Anyways, when my next two conferences are over and my real-life work is slowing down a bit, I'll pick up on my previous hints of semantic data modelling and its relation to human cognition, social workings and general ontology work. I've had some inspiration come my way lately, so watch this space. Until next time, I hope to see you in Sydney (both for the Web Directions 2006 and OZ-IA 2006 retreat) in a weeks time! (As usual, look for the guy in stripey arms...)

31 August 2006

An expat interview

A little while back I got an email from the lovely Lizza asking me if I wanted to let them interview me for their expatinterviews.com site, which is all about people who live in a country foreign to them. I am myself a Norwegian trapped in Australia, so of course I couldn't refuse to, er, whinge.

30 August 2006

Bach - Matthaeus Passion - 27-28

I dare you to watch till the end ; this is the amalmagation of styles, singing and music that I just love so much. Ton Koopman is a fantastic bach interpreter, and damn do i want this DVD!

25 August 2006

IA Cocktail Hour in Canberra, 7 September 2006

I've already mentioned that I'm doing "Sexier, smarter and faster IA through Topic Maps" at the IA Retreat 2006 in Sydney at the end of September. I've been asked to entertain (read: present something) at the next Canberra cocktail hour, and I'll do a different version of the one I intend for the IA Retreat. So, they won't be the same, only similar. Heh, I even use the same sales pitch for both of them ;
Topic Maps - part tool, part state of mind; it could simply change the way you work with information architecture. This session will be both highly philosophical and down-right practical at the same time; how to grab our ideas and put them down in a practical format we can use and reuse, both as a mental exercise and as a technical delivery.

Topic Maps offer a framework (it is an ISO standard for data modelling and has an XML-based exchange format to boot) in which we can express ideas, concepts, structures, items and navigation; we'll find data and metadata in a sexy symbiosis to present and reuse our ideas smarter through all stages of development, adapt to complex changes faster, and making the whole process a lot more enjoyable. It is especially well suited to highly complex challenges where your domain can't all fit in your head and your Excel spreadsheets are having trouble keeping up. Don't deliver an assortment of documents and graphs ready to be mislead, misunderstood or misrepresented; give them a topic map they can pop right into their solution.

Time/date: 17:00-18:30, Thursday 07 September

Venue: The Boardroom, SMS Management and Technology, Ground Floor, 8 Brindabella Circuit, Canberra Airport

Parking: Please be aware that there is free parking available for the first hour only at the front of 8 Brindabella Circuit. After that (until well after we are finished) you must pay for parking in one of the nearby lots or risk a ticket.

Hope to see you there.

21 August 2006

Schedule and happenings

Lots of stuff going on lately, but two more official and important things right now is ;

For a while I've been part of a mailing-list called PM clinic which is a great gathering of a lot of smart people who are all passionate about project management, big and small. So, I was especially happy to hear that Scott Berkun, the guy that runs PM Clinic and who's an alround great guy, is giving master-classes in Australia this spring. To quote ;
Why do so many design intensive projects go so wrong? This one day masterclass presented by Scott Berkun will teach you the best practices and leadership tactics for starting, managing and shipping web and software projects that rely on design skills.

Take note of the following dates ; Sydney: 1 September 2006, Canberra: 6 September 2006 and Melbourne: 8 September 2006 I'm already signed up for the Canberra session, so I just might see you there. (Look for the guy with stripey arms...)

IA Retreat 2006

The Information Architecture Retreat 2006 happens in Sydney on the 30th and 31st of September. I'll be presenting "Sexier, smarter and faster IA through Topic Maps" in which I take my two favourite things and make them one! Quite a number of people have already signed up for this one, so I'm quite excited about it; it's going to be a blast. There's tons of other great stuff too which I'm seriously looking forward to. See you there. (P.S. I'm going to be at Web Directions 2006 as well which is a web design conference in Sydney that runs four days in front of the IA retreat. Coincidence? I think not.)

4 August 2006

Scott Berkun is coming to town ,,,

Canberra is about to get an American celebrity visiting. No, not pop music, not politics, not sports, but something far more important ; project management. And Scott Berkun is one of the top dogs of project management, with a book under his belt and several years at Microsoft. What will you get?

"Tons of interactive learning, fun exercises, comical war stories, answers to your toughest questions (including post-class e-mails), the meaning of life, two kitchen sinks, plus a copy of the bestselling artofpm book (Which I’ll sign, spill beer on, or do other activities of your choice with) with every registration."

He'll be in Canberra on the 6th of September. (He's also doing Sydney and Melbourne) To get a spot I think you need to hurry; this is one of those "hotcakes" things. Everybody will want to be there, so if you've ever dealt with or will deal with design intensive project management, this one is not to be missed. See you there.

14 July 2006

Accountability, intelligence and moral obligation in design processes

[A rable on Big and Small Design and ethics]

Whenever we design something we work against a number of constraints, such as esthetics, functionality, market, usability, innovation and so forth; we try our hardest to make the best whatchamacallit within those constraints.

Often, though, some of these constraints goes against our more human notions, such as the designers accountability linked with her intelligence, and her moral obligations towards herself, humankind and the universe at large. Basically, I'm addressing the designer's - the individual human that does design - responsibilities both through the design process and for the end result.

Have you ever designed something good, only to be told that you had to design it slightly worse for some reason or another? What do you do? Does it matter? Are you asked to make something pretty only to be told that it must be blue on green in slightly off-putting gradient? A lot of people would say that they're paid by X to design Y, so what's the big deal? The big deal is that you're human. And even worse, you're a human individual.

As human individuals we have our own individual version of morals and ethics that guides us in our everyday life, and we're all fine with this, and quite often embraced and hailed as the very thing which makes us, well, human. On the other hand people are expected to do what they're paid to do.


Accountability, intelligence and moral obligation in design processes

There's the consultants notion of "paid to do" which given them the oppertunity to say no to that money and no to do that job. It's still hard to say no in this business-driven world, but at least they can.

Then there's the employed persons notion of "paid to do" which is somewhat tricker; does the person have enough disapproval for a job to actually oppose doing it? What happens when she doesn't do it? Will her job be in danger?

Businesses have very few ethical guidelines that takes the individual into consideration.

Just do it, and get on with it

It seems to "get over it" or "get over yourself" and "just do it and forget about it" are some popular ways to "solve" this issue. I personally detest these; why does someones values have to be comprimised due to a system that holds no ethical values? I think it's a fair question; why are we building systems in which people live that undermine the very thing that makes us "people"?

Are we trying to take the clinical road of natural rule? Or the opressive dictator path of cold business? Or are we willingly undermining human qualities whenever money is on the line? A lot of systems are fed through greed, be it in power, money or other commodities, through promotion, gifts, saleries, bonuses, positions and so on, all in the name of making more profits.

Most people go along with these systems because we're ultimatly greedy beings ourselves, and because profits lead to progress. Right? We're getting paid, what's the problem? The paycheck is ultimately all that matters! Screw the world; I want to get paid!

There's good and bad design

There's good and bad design, even in the way you design a business, corporation, departement, branch, country or world. Any bad business is designed that way. Any bad country is designed that way. Any bad person is, when it comes down to it, designed that way. It may be design by commitee or design by firm or design by fiery young angry men or design by the individual himself. But never think that these things just happen due to some crazy natural laws or human notions or magic or pixie dust or God or whatever; these things are designed through human interactions.

We can only blame ourselves. Enron was designed to be bad. The designers probably didn't try to design it so that it would blow up and take so much with it, but that's probably because - surprise! - the designers were bad.

A manager of a branch can design the interaction between the people to a large degree. Just like we design products, we can design attitudes, environments, platforms, spaces, interactions, workflows ... endless streams of design.

A lot of us call themselves designers by trade, be it graphical design, interaction design, visual, product or information design, but the truth is that we're all designers, and surely need to treat our various jobs as we approach design in general;

Whenever we design something we work against a number of constraints, such as esthetics, functionality, market, usability, innovation and so forth; we try our hardest to make the best whatchamacallit within those constraints. We need to make intelligent descisions about our designs, fold moral and ethics into it, make them usable and innovative. We need to design life better.

What is better design?

Better design is when you design something, the positives for all (and remember; we're talking about a model of design in which ethics and morals are an important factor) far outweigh the negatives for a few.

If we're to design a new combustion engine the ethical constraints should also include things such as pollution and its effects, availability of the fuel and the effects of creating this fuel. In fact, the ethical model here extends quite a number of steps away from the capitalistic model which cares about profit now instead of ethical profit over time.

I personally have respect for every living thing as part of my ethical model, and that includes those living things that supercede me as well. The future is full of living things that I shall never meet, but I do recognise that they have the right to be born into a world where I haven't soiled their drinking-water. In fact, I value their right to untaintedness more than I value any short-term profits.

If we keep on designing stuff based on short-term profits, where will we end up? This is a principle that works within any design concept, from making a paperclip to shaping the world we live in; short-term design won't last bar few exceptions. So when our design is supposed to be short-term, how can we expect anything else? If we specifically design a bad interface to our OPAC, then that's what we're stuck with. If our road-system was short-term designed, then we must face the problem of that in the long run.

None of this is new

None of this is new. I've said nothing here that people can't nod to and recognise. So why bother?

I'm worried. In the next 30 years a number of things will have changed dramatically ; no or little oil, with amazing prices for anything based on that, from plastics to petrol. Less vegetation ; a warmer world, less uptake of carbon-dioxide, meaning poorer air quality, more health issues. Less diversity ; plants and animals everywhere are in decline (either in quantity or quality), from fish and whale down to trees and food. More humans ; more demand on our resources, more socially unsound interactions, more war, more famine, more stubborn humans who design for the short-term.

I'm worried about the lack of design processes when we are designing our lives. We've established they are a crucial part of business and organisations, but somehow not life? It seems we prioritise short-term profits over life. It sounds crazy, but I've stopped and looked around lately; where do I see evidence of a better designed life?

I must have take a wrong turn somewhere; I must have come to a different world than I thought ; This is not the one I wanted to live in.

3 July 2006

OzIA 2006 : the coolest little IA gathering

I've been quite busy lately with all sorts of different things, but of all the different busy stuff I've been doing the thing I'm most excited about is the OzIA 2006 Retreat, a small conference on information architecture, held in Sydney (Australia) at the end of September.

I did the design and templates, while Eric handled coordination, content and nitpicking. I'm actually really pleased with the whiteboard look; it is exactly how most IA's I know work and how it usually looks. :)

I may hold a presentation there too about Topic Maps, data modelling and implications of information design, which links into things like category- and field theory, cognition and natural philosophy of complex systems. I'll let you know, but I'm definitly going to be there, so all I can say is, see you there!

28 June 2006

Full of anger and disapointment

The ACT government is closing my childrens primary school - Cook Primary School - amongst 38 others on terribly dodgy terms. I've started "Backwards 2020", a blog about the "Forwards 2020" proposal by the ACT government, a disaster not only for our local school but for government education in our state. Please spread the word.

I'm too angry to write well about this now, but you know, we came to Canberra and specifically moved to Cook based on the reputation of the education at this school. The proposals are not about quality of education, but about knee-jerk reactions to political budgets. What a way to ruin what so many has worked hard to achieve. More later.

21 June 2006

Hey, that's me!

Donna has written a post on what people should expect when working with her, and let me tell you right now that that is exactly what you should expect working with me, too. I wish I had written that piece first though; now I just feel like a "me, too", but no wonder I struggle in public service, eh? :)

20 June 2006

Library stew : Have you checked your library values lately?

Why are librarians and their supporters (and I count myself as one of those) closing their eyes to the impending doom which is the shift in our modern cultures from physical to virtual knowledge?

Well, I don't know about you, but here's my story. First of all, I was attracted to the library as a moth to light a few years ago due to the vast amount of metadata and hidden knowledge within. My big passion back then was Topic Maps which is a standard for better navigation through vast amounts of metadata. A few of my personal interests also drove that metadata passion, like my obsession with Claudio Monteverdi; I wanted to create a portal for all things Monteverdi, his life, contemporaries and otherwise.

So what does a moth like me think about that shining light that draws me? You would think that by watching my fellow moths flying about that I would get the hint, but I'm not smart enough to admit that the light can be rather deadly; I'd rather just go there, never to distract my furious flapping of wings with silly things like contemplation.


A lot of talk has gone down on the recently created Next Generation Catalogs for Libraries mailing-list, most of it deals with how we should deal with the OPAC issues such as what it should do, how it should do it, who's it for, how do we promote it, et cetera. A lot of the discussion has revolved around "here's what others are doing, we should do it too!" Which is wrong.

I keep pestering people about this stuff, but please at least consider what I'm proposing; test your users! I know this may sound a bit stupid, but how can you be so sure that the systems we give to our users are the systems they want? Have you tested to make sure that what others are doing is what our users want us to be? I know it says in various mission statements what we and our patrons are all about, but I fear that they have not been updated for a while, resting in isolation on some very old and conservative ground rules for what a library is all about. Usually they look a bit like this ;

The library actively supports learning, creative and intellectual endeavour and the dissemination of knowledge, ideas and information.

This is a fantastic statement which you can fill to the brim with all sorts of activities, systems, culture, people and organisations. it is one of those statements which makes me proud to be working for a library! Seriously!

But let's get to the meat of the matter, and look at a typical set of library mission statements (picked at random from around the world [kinda] and anonymized [certainly]) ;

  1. We are to ensure that a significant record of our country and our countrymen is collected and safeguarded

  2. We shall meet the needs of our users for rapid and easy access to our collections and other resources

  3. We shall demonstrate our prominence in our nation's cultural, intellectual and social life and to foster an understanding and enjoyment of the library and its collections

  4. We are to ensure that our nation's people have access to vibrant and relevant information services

  5. We are to ensure our relevance in a rapidly changing world, participate in new online communities and enhance our visibility

By the numbers

1. is fine and dandy; it is an important part of the library's undertaking to preserve stuff, a lot of it probably useless to 80% of the people, but that's not the point here. Far too often though, the library is given tasks of archiving the type of stuff that nobody else cares about, which in fact goes against the common notion that libraries should provide access to stuff of popularity; how can we when we're to spend 80% of our time dealing with obscurities? Anyways, point 1 is fine.

2. Did you notice the words "needs" in there? It did not say "functionality", "what we think they want" or even "library values." Think about it for two seconds, and then tell me wheter you've tested your users needs lately. Oh, and this one also mentions "rapid" and "easy access", two things library systems has along track-record in not doing.

3. This is the one I call the "snob directive", and I shan't dive too much into it, but it does promote the idea that we're to "foster an understanding" of what the library is all about to all of society. But do we truly know that ourselves?

4. is really just an IT version of point 4, and probably where libraries currently are the most stuck; we offer them bucketloads of crappy information services, and I'm suspecting that this is because it's too hard to do point 2 properly. In reality, why are these two even separate? They are essentially the same thing! The only reason they probably are separated is because 20 years ago IT and real-life merged pretty poorly; it's time to perhaps update and remove this point alltogether.

5. is a bit of rehashing what the other directives have said with an ephasis on "online" and "new" and "up to date" and that sort of thing. The keyowrd here is "relevance" though, and let's think about it for a second; how are we to be relevant to people? Doesn't that somewhat imply we - golly gosh! - test our users needs?

Too much

There's too much second-guessing our patrons needs, too much focus on "library values" (which usually means a good session of commitee charades!), and way, way, way too little testing to see if our assumptions are right, our foundation is solid and that we truly are relevant to our users. Why is that?

Are we too afraid the answer might be something that alters the purpose of the library? Is that what it all amounts to? Because, frankly, I'm getting to a point where "library values" are nothing more than conservatism for the sake of being conservative thrown around by librarians who can't seem to deal with huge change. We claim to be into blogging, wiki's and all that fadangled new whizmo-zing-tech stuff that goes on these days, and, you know, as far as I can tell we're into a lot of that and not into perhaps, you know, what we should be into? Have you tested to see if our users wants us to blog? Have you tested to see if they want a wiki? Have you tested to see if they want us to be Google? Have you tested a user lately?

Just a thought. Now go and test, and let us know what you came up with. I'm dying to know.

17 June 2006

Me, a librarian?

Hi, my name is Alex, and I'm a sort-of librarian-ish kinda person, grounded on the fact that I work for a library. I won't actually say I'm a librarian (nor should I, given my lack of librarian education), because people would get all sorts of wrong ideas about me (well, more wrong ideas about me), but there's all sorts of fun stereotypical traits curled up in the librarian notion, so why not poke a stick in it to see if it rustles?

A librarian is someone who has great knowledge about books, wears glasses, is probably an older lady, and classifies their breakfast by the Dewey Decimal System. Oh, and she reads a lot! So, in the spirit on self-inflicted pain and memes, here's my "Me, a librarian?" meme, where I explain how I'm not a librarian at all ;


  • Have glasses? Yes, but they are too cool to be regarded as 'librarians' glasses. They're also broken, and I wear padding and / or bits of tape on my nose so I won't get headaches. Yes, I should get them fixed.

  • Gray hair? A couple here and there, but not as worrisome as the beginning lack of hair.

  • Old? Ouch! Probably not?

  • A lady? Only when provoked.

Right, so I don't look much like one. let's move on to the next stereotype.


  • The last book I read : Mastering SQL, 4th edition

  • No, I mean like real litterature : Terry Pratchet's "Lords and Ladies"

  • Oh c'mon, like real serious litterature : Monteverdi : biography

  • Ok nerd, that was just a bit too serious. How about a good novel? Nothing comes to mind.

Uh, ok, so I read stuff that's mostly uninteresting to the general public. Surely there must be some librarian stereotype I can squeeze into?


  • Lift books around? No, but I occasional lift a laptop with eBooks on it.

  • Answer questions about information? Not in the "Hi, how can I help you?" way. I'm more in the "Over there's the reference desk" category.

  • Can think of nothing better than throwing Dewey Decimals into normal social conversations : I couldn't tell you a Dewey code to save myself.

  • Knows the MARC field number for subtitle : Hmm, possibly 245 subfield b?

I don't do much typical librarians work either, it seems. What about philosophy, then? Eh? Eh?


  • Know what 'epistemology' is? Yes, and I do throw that word into normal social conversation as often as I can.

  • Does the library contain books? Only as items part of collections, but there is all sorts of objects in our collections.

  • The library is all about lending books to people? Hell no; it's all about preserving and giving access to culture.

  • The future of the library is? Worrisome; there's so much the libraries do that nobody else cares about, stuff where there is no commercial nor general interest. We do things because we understand the cultural knowledge that comes through preservations of all sorts of things, not just books. We also recognise that the market-driven capitalist governments would pull the plug on our funding if they knew we existed.

Saved by the last section, I reckon.

So, how much of a librarian are you?

11 June 2006

Designed by stupidity, built by ignorance, approved by incompetence

Note: I wrote this piece back in 2006, and just scrubbed it up. Enjoy.

from Wordnet
- a poor ability to understand or to profit from experience
- a stupid mistake
Design is the process of taking a set of constraints, and make something out of it. These constraints can be a number of things, from trivial wishes to strict rules. Sometimes it's about a color, other times about functionality, and then again about its basic concept, maybe a marketing angle or perhaps changing some stuck process. It could be anything.

However, a lot of the time you're left with that compelling feeling of "Qua?" while reading through your constraints; he wants me to do what!? They think we should put in that!? She likes what color!? marketing wants to sell this to whom!?

One definition of something stupid is when you can't see what is obvious to others. Sometimes this can have as much to do with your definition of a problem as a personal viewpoint, but quite often this "stupidity" certainly points to things we overlook or just plainly can't see but what we certainly should address.

Good design is about seeing things from as many angles as possible, and find the best possible compromise between them.

"Ignorance" from Wikipedia:
Ignorance is a lack of knowledge, or a willful lack of desire to improve the efficiency, merit, effectiveness or usefulness of one's actions. Ignorance is also a "state of being ignorant" or unaware (not knowing).
Building systems (applications, processes, buildings, societies, anything) is a complicated thing, relying as much on the goodness of the designers as the intelligence and skill of the builders.

Some people willfully ignore things. Maybe they feel they know enough, or maybe there are fears involved. Whatever the case, you see it all the time; people walking on a red light, smoking where not allowed, slightly speeding while driving, daydreaming while in meetings, outsourcing for the sake of instant capital gains, eating unhealthy food, not practicing what you preach, ignoring global warming signs, keep investing in oil consumerates, draw red buttons for safe functionality, never test your assertions and so on. The list is endless. People ignore things because of the normally low frequencies of events.

When builders ignore the time effects on setting concrete and make a too thin layer for your foundation, a layer without skeleton, and a few years down the track the building may simply collapse. If you don't fully understand the difference between alcohol and methanol it just might be the difference between life and death. If you ignore warning signs, whole cities might be flooded, or buildings blown up, or kids will use guns on other kids.

Good design is to preempt what warning signals has taught us.

"Incompetence" from Wikipedia:
Incompetence is the condition of a person who is unable to properly perform his assigned duty. Incompetence is the essential ingredient of the Peter Principle, which states that in a hierarchical organization, every employee tends to evolve through promotions towards a position in which he is incompetent.
Approving systems tends to happen after it has been built as opposed to something that happens in parallel. That being a flawed strategy from the beginning I guess is hard to overlook, but let's focus more on the common way we approve the systems we design and build.

First, approval is mostly a binary thing, no matter how much history teaches us otherwise. If it still is running and does what it says on the tin, that's considered a success, even if you don't fully understand why it was written on the tin, nor what the tin was supposed to contain or should contain.

Then there's approving things because your job is to approve things instead of guiding things or cancelling crap things. If you and your team spent months on a project you're not going to be self-reflective enough to call yourself out in public.

Good design is to allow for failure.

To shift things around

In order for us to shift things around when they are going pear-shaped (hang on, what's wrong with pear-shaped? I love pears, and I love pear-shaped women, what gives?) we must focus a bit harder on design from the middle principle. I'm a bit tired of both top-down (we know upfront all there is to know) and bottom-up (we know only know so little) approaches. Could we please start somewhere in the middle, and work ourselves out from there? Thanks.

9 June 2006

What is a library project success?

The hot library topic of the week have been the creation of the NGC4Lib -- Next Generation Catalogs for Libraries mailing-list. It's already had a flurry of emails, almost all of the really good. But.

Before we go out and define what such future systems should do and be like, we need to give careful consideration to how these systems are measured in terms of success and failure. Make no mistake about it; we're in the library world now, and there are no normal rules here like "project success is determined by resources and time spent creating it, budget for maintainence, and return on investment." Currently libraries fake these factors more than anything; if something isn't delivered on time, no one gets fired. If a project doesn't satisfies a given set of requirements, no one gets shafted. If a project is functional but completely useless, no one gets kicked up the backside. That's just the way of the library world, mostly funded through academic and / or goverment channels. And of course, there is no return on investment, as it is measured in patron-positivism, a magical force that comes and goes with the feelings of the librarians that run the project.

Now, I'm not writing this to give librarians the blame for anything here; it is of course hard to claim return on investment when the return is measured in something as flakey as "patron feelings." It's just not doable. In fact it is symptomatic for rules and measures brought upon the library world by government systems that has no clue to what it is that we're really doing; it is terribly frustrating! And it's an important point in so much that even when we would love to do X, we can only do Y, because Y fits the balanced scorecard and X doesn't. Needless to say, I don't like Balanced Scorecard, not because that system can't help when implemented right, but because it is hard to implement right (which is why there's bucketloads of friendly consultancy companies that specialises in helping organisations out with it all; if it's a consultancy business, it's the wrong model to use in my eyes ... and I used to be a consultant, I should know!). Other libraries have other measurement and management systems in place, and I don't think they're all that different.

It comes back to government funding models; "we give you X if you can prove yourself in Y and Z, with a return of G, a deficit of H and turn-over of J." The trouble is of course that libraries are not easy to classify; we land in the shady areas of most government models, as we're collectors, preservists, archivists, public access granter, lender, national institution with constitutional tasks (collecting, archiving for example), academia, special interest research, broad interest supplier, service provider, intellectual property aggregator, funds granter, practicioners of copyright and rights, educationalists, conference and concert and presentation organisers and holders, and even more stuff! We do so many things that we're stuck in a political minefield!

So how can we measure the success of the OPAC, for example, not to us internally (where success is measured by librarians, and success is rewarded by being given more projects. Hmm.), but to the outside world? How can we create systems that gives us success in raising awareness of the need of libraries? That's my important question of the week.

8 June 2006

Some confusion : lack of blogging? No!

Hi all; it seems that I've screwed up (by not knowing all the nooks and corners of Blogger.com), so I suspect a lot of you have subscribed to my feed looking like this ;


And the reason there's been so quiet from me is that I've been rambling off at ;


The auto-detect links were screwy, but the link above should always redirect you to the right place. I'm hosting my blog on my own site but using blogger.com as a manager, so the shelterit.blogspot.com address was only there from when I was setting the system up. Sorry for all this, guys.

4 June 2006

Musical journeys : Lamento delle Allesandrino

I've been thinking about my journey through music a lot lately. It was probably sparked on friday at my birthday lunch at work where someone started talking about music, a subject I don't go into too often. Let me explain why I don't too often talk about what I would love to talk the most about.

I love baroque music. No, I don't just love it; I adore it! Live it! bath in it! If you don't know what that means straight off the top, then you're part of my reasons for not talking much about it; it's one of those things that not a lot of folks really know much about. "Classical music, right?" Um, no. Not at all. Not by a long shot.

Some times I review the odd baroque concert or rare CD I've come across. I don't write about these things because I think my readers care, but because I'm passionately in love with it. In fact, I''m pretty sure that most of my readers can't tell a Ninfa from a Ninja on a good day, nor give me recomendations to the best recording of any of Galuppi's motets, Bencini's vespers (Did he compose in Roman, Venetian, French or Austrian style? Answers after the break) or Monteverdi's secular works. (And if you could, I'd love to hear from you!) And what do you know of Cavalli, and what was the Monteverdian influences on him and Heinrich Schütz? I'm not telling you this to insult nor show off my elitism. In fact, I hate snobs, especially within "classical" music. Which is why I don't often talk about my love of this music, because the danger of sounding like one is huge!

There are four sure ways to hold a conversation in a social setting; the weather, TV, sports, and music. I love the weather on a scientific level (how it works, for example) but hate that idle chit-chat that means absolutely nothing to most non-farmers of the world. TV? That thing in the living room that a lot of people waste their time on? No thanks, don't watch it. Sports? Umm. No. No way; hate the thing. (Well, I love a fun game of soccer down at work every wednesday, but as soon as there is money involved the fun goes out) That leaves music, which isn't pop, rock, blues, jazz, acid, techno, classical, dance, metal, folk or any other musical style known to most people. (You can tell I'm fun at parties, right? In fact I've developed special skills in faking social settings, but that's another post some other time)

So how did I come to this point? Well, I have known to have listened to David Bowie (Let's dance album) and Thompson Twins (most albums) in those early teen years before I developed a brain. But then I started to get a grip on a few items that stuck. And here's some highlights of my musical journey ;

Through my father and also my best friend I bumped into Al Jarreau who took me to soul and jazz, and a lot of my jazz roots I found through this, such as Yellowjackets, Miles Davies, Weather Report and Chet Baker. I also found some Quincy Jones, Brothers Johnson and Rufus with or without Chaka Kahn. Oh, and Stevie Wonder, of course, from his 'Hotter than July' days and earlier. That was all great soulful, funky, jazzy stuff.

At the end of high-school I worked with Bernard Jones, a professor of metaphysics at Leiden University at the time and a great inspiration to me, who introduced me to Eric Satie who became probably one of the most important influences in my life (and Satie is quite non-mainstream, even within classical terms). (He was also the one who got me hooked on Frank Herbert!, but that's a different litterary journey) I remember walking into the classical section of a music shop downtown Oslo asking for Satie compilations, saying it was my first step into classical music, in which the guy behind the counter was truly baffled; wouldn't I like some music a bit easier on the ear, and not so crazy/abstract/quirky? At roughly the same time a really good friend of mine took me to see my first operas (Janacek's "Janufa" amongst other Verdi stuff) which certainly sparked an interest which is still burning today.

Another very important musical path was my introduction to Jan Garbarek by a collegue of my mum. It was an amazing revelation to me; The Legend of the Seven Dreams blasted my world, and I still play it a couple of times a week! The opening track became my life's theme music. Just before I left for Australia I saw Garbarek at the park and wanted to say thanks, but didn't strengthen up to it. I should perhaps mention Bendik Hofseth in the same breath (norwegian saxophonist and composer), although he came into my life a little later. (In fact, Bendik I met and even played with on a number of occasions)

After long time filled with mostly jazz, norwegian folk music and contemporary music, I slowly drifted towards music not so endrenched in noises and more towards tonality and minimalism (again, thanks to Bendik Hofseth and Garbarek here on the jazz side of things). But I also stumbled upon 'Book of Days' by Meredith Monk. I didn't see the ECM connection (same record label as Garbarek) until much later, but I was truly mesmarized at the link between the contemporary and the truly basic / classical. It opened my eyes to more vocal music when the voice does more than just project lyrical song.

A few years went by, and I moved in with my best friend Magnus, who's a complete JS Bach nutter! If it wasn't Bach, it wasn't worth his time of day. I didn't mind Bach, but hadn't really gone seriously down the "classical" path at this stage. And then one day ... everything changed!

In our sparse living room we had a sparse shelf with a sparse set of CD's. (My CD collection at this stage were tucked away in storage elsewhere) It was all Bach, except for one. And this one, this little exception to the Bach fanaticism was Monteverdi. Magnus is a damn smart boy, and we often ended up in talking about music. We obviously came from two different angles, and as friends do we decided to meet half-way. I took some of his Bach CD's and the Monteverdi one, and he listened to some of my more rare contemporary stuff (plus the Meredith Monk one, I think). Yeah, sure, Bach was good, technically it was brilliant, no complaints. But then.

Monteverdi. Remember my epiphany with Garbarek? Sometimes you hit upon music that was written for your heart, music that talks your language and explains everything that you've ever pondered. It felt like here was a composer who knew of my coming 300 years away, and planned for me to hear it; the longing tones, the underlying dissatisfaction with humanity, harmonics that shook my spine ... everything just clicked.

This was about 7 years ago now, and it set me off on a totally new and different path than before. I've discarded most of my old CD collection (apart from a few select favourites) and started a new one. In Monteverdi I found the baroque era of music and many incredible people within. I'm not sure why basso continuo excites me so, or why the trio sonata makes my spine tingle, nor do I understand why some Vesper music give me all the religion I'd ever need or why monodic styles are so great. There are so much about this music I don't understand, and perhaps that's part of the answer; I can never ever hope to grasp the technical nor emotional scope of the era, and as such as an everlasting source of emotion and sorrow and tranquility and beauty.

I'm not a musical snob. I'm in love. And I'm sorry if I bore people with this topic. And yes, you guessed right; Bencini was a composer of the Roman style.

2 June 2006

The SOA quickstep ; the dance explained

Here's the skinny on the many sessions I've held about SOA lately.

When I started working for the library about 2 1/2 years ago, I started as a senior Java developer, and whinged about the infrastructure and development methodologies before I quickly jumped to another branch that does more "web things", meaning XML, XSLT, PHP, HTML, JavaScript, Apache stuff and a whole slew of other technologies, but more importantly, I got to do more design work and project management. And more importantly, we did things here more in isolation from the normal grind of applications. Which is good. Truly.

A very recent project threw me back into my old world, and I got a taste of battling with the infrastructure and development methodologies once again, and I got a bit ... hmmm, frustrated? Since then (this was about 6 months ago) I've been making secret plans with a couple of collegues to fix a lot of our development problems. In an environment such as ours we can't let slow processes, mammoth specs, silo mentality and molasses project management kill off any chance to innovate and be creative. But the more I found out, the more stuff I felt I needed to fix.

Back when I was working for Bekk Consulting (the most amazing bunch of smart people I've ever had the pleasure of working with in my life; I grew from baby to man in my three years there) we were slowly bringing in web services and those things that has slowly evolved into what we today roughly know as SOA (Service Oriented Architecture). I felt an urge to bring this to the library.

I reckon that the more you work with enterprise architecture, the more SOA makes sense. After you've had a few stabs at single-sign-on (with session and user management thrown in), distributed and load-balanced databases, serious MVC application development, code reuse (which normally means library development [JAR/WAR, DLL's, etc] with lots of copy and paste thrown in) ... after a while you start to think that the overhead you pay for things being converted down to XML (either RESTfully or through SOAP and the WS-* stack, over HTTP or otherwise) and back again is really worth it. Here's what SOA means to me ;

  1. Thinner applications: you don't need to include lots of libraries and wrappers to add functionality, which means that as the application gets deployed the memory isn't taken up by repeated code, but by actual data. You can spawn as many application deployment environments as you need, and proxy all web services into a funnel. Also, since each service is more focused you don't get a lot of overhead in the application that deals with pesky things not in the best interest of that service; they can be trimmed down to do exactly what it says on the tin, and won't suffer to featuritis.

  2. Sharing with partners: This enables us to create external services for anyone who wants to play with our data, such as our NBD/OPAC/cataloge data, our various smaller semantically modelled sites, our thesaurii and plethora of news and event items ... and blogging. Did I mention that we're trying to get folks here to blog? (See our implementation of Confluence further down; every person in the library will have a blog, and aggregation channels will be opened to the public as well)

  3. Technology agnosism: All applications and services can be written in whatever technology you prefer, be it Perl, Java, SQL/PL, PHP, XSLT, Ruby, C/C++, LISP, FORTRAN ... the only requirement is that the technology can throw XML over (in our case) HTTP. We can tailor the task to the best tool instead of forcing one hammer onto nails, screws and nuts. You don't need to think of specific technologies as strategic direction. You don't have to invest in more Java developers just for the sake of the infrastructure; you can pick developers with more diverse skills, and hire in short-term developers to convert legacy parts into replacable parts.

  4. Performance using tried channels: XML over HTTP means you can create and divert services through means of proxies, routers and other channels used for normal web traffic, use HTTP loggers and traffic analysis tools, do security easily over HTTPS and testing a service can be easily debugged through any browser. Our organisation has a lot more expertise in HTTP than in most other protocols, and finding people with such skills is also a lot simpler. Any developer today knows XML and HTTP, and any technology knows it too (well, I'd be hard-pressed to find some technologies that don't).

  5. Better business: Thinking about services more than simply functions (remember; SOA is not RPC [Remote Procedural Call] even if you do that too!) can lead to better support of the business areas and help them develop their business. Functional requirements will be based on use-cases more than application structure. Ontology sessions on a high level to spark understanding of the services, and it will be easier to get the overal picture and better understanding of what we can do, where we should travel, and what to kill off. (It's easier to handle all of this on a decoupled level than if we're dealing with mammoth applications!)

  6. Innovation: Once you've stopped thinking that application design is an excercise of constraints you'll start seeing how these different services can be joint together to form new services and applications. It's not because this wasn't possible in the past that makes this now viable; it's because you can prototype your idea in a matter of a day or so instead of a month or so. Some developer may have developed a Java application that does something interesting, but when asked to make it an abstract class we can reuse as a JAR file (meaning also documentation, testing, packaging, etc) the cost to do this usually stops it in its tracks right there. If his original application was exposed through a web service then we could prototype up that idea quicker than the developer could estimate the original project! We need to focus on all those things we don't have to do if we are to look to innovation.

I guess that last point was a bit longer than the others, but that is perhaps because that is where I see the biggest benefit, and is in the area that I enjoy the most. But of course, before we can feast on the flexibility a SOA gives us, we need to start building it.

Our first* step is Single-sign-on; a service for authentication, and a service for profile and session handling. We will start using the OSUser module from OpenSymphony (yes, we know it's a stale project and that AtlassianUser is the next generation, but it isn't available yet. We need to get started, and it does work well for what it is supposed to do) for user management and authentication, and have a database for profiles and sessions (basically, a session follows an authenticated users profile, meaning we can also share session info and profile info across services and applications). This means we're creating a ticket-based system for user, the same as for JIRA and Confluence from Atlassian, and integrating ourselves against these systems have worked really well.

* It's not really our first step; we've done several other services in our lab that will be more official as we go along; the APAIS thesaurus, a Lucene-based version of our OPAC (with tagging, comments, clustering and more!), a resource sharing database, the before-mentioned E-Resources application, and an upcoming harvester as well.

Watch this space; I'll try to blog what we find through this process, and write about gotchas and successes, especially as they relate to libraries.

Updates and downdates in busy rural Canberra

Boy, I've been so busy lately, which is why it's been a bit quiet here lately. Even my stream of emails have stopped, so if you're expecting something, it still may be on the way. Sorry all.

First, work is a lot of work. I'm doing bucketloads of Wiki and SOA / web services related work that hopefully will help out our infrastructure to the point where we can start talking about innovation again. Watch this space for lots of thinking, writing and swearing about these topics.

Secondly, as some might know, my wife is a three-years trained primary school teacher from New South Wales, but Canberra - bless its specialness! - requires teachers to be four-years trained, even when they already been a teacher for 7 years! So she's back in University, and this term there was a multimedia package that needed to be created as one of the tasks, so I've been helping out with this one ...

... plus all my other extra work stuff; one for the university of Australia, one for a conference in Norway on Patents and Software, the OZCHI conference website, a possible IA retreat in Sydney later this year, and a few other smaller bits and pieces.

Which means my days are; get up, get us all ready (me, wife, kids, dog) and out the door to our respective places (Alex [35 tomorrow] in the library, Julie [32] at the university, Grace [6] to the school, Lilje [3] into daycare, and Oscar the Cocker Spaniel [3 human years; 21 dog years; 45 pigeon years] to the backyard), work all day, come home, get dinner ready (Julie is mostly taking part of that these days; I only do the occasional one, lik eon mondays and the weekends) and eat it, get kids in the bath, clean up the house, kids in bed, dog dinner ...

... and then sit down again at the computer, working on all the other stuff until terribly late, crawl into bed ... rinse, repeat ... Were there any good movies on TV the last four weeks? Who knows?

Anyways, we're seeing the end of this madness, starting this weekend (which also is my birthday, so I guess that makes sense), so life will hopefully slowly return to normal. You'll be hearing from me.

PS. I had a birthday lunch at work today, and it was great; Even Paul and Rachel popped in for some laksa. Thanks to all for a good lunch! It was really appreciated.

26 May 2006

The epistemological implications of Topic Maps for librarians

Topic Maps in the library world

Quite often I'm asked about the link between libraries and Topic Maps, given that the latter is something that I've tried to specialise in. For example, I was recently invited to join a panel at LITA's Nashville conference 2006 as a Topic Maps "expert" (meaning; someone who knows a little more than the rest). Sadly I couldn't attend, which is a shame as I had an exciting Topic Maps paper accepted, although since it touches on the topic of this post you'll get some gist of it from here.

I wrote an introductory article about Topic Maps some time ago, and quite a number of librarians (or in the business of librarians) have since asked numerous questions about it, how well it fits into the library world, and isn't it fun doing all that Topic Maps work?

Lots of people in the library world have got the "metadata map" part of it somewhat right, but few seem to understand what Topic Maps really is all about. Yes, it's mostly about metadata, but no, it doesn't support a single metadata standard as such; it's a general data model in which you can fit whatever metadata you wish. Some folks gets confused at the "map" part of Topic Maps, and understandably so; "map" gives us certain association with something visual, however that is quite misleading; the "map" refers to modelling.

First of all, "data modelling" is most often hijacked by relational database folks as a term to explain how they design their databases, document it, do their normalisation and optimisation of the model, and so forth. The reason I stuck "epistemological" in the title of this post is to separate myself a bit from the RDBMS (Relational DataBase Management System) guys for a minute, and talk about philosophy ;


There are a number of epistemological (and notice that Wikipedia URL; 'Justified_true_belief'!) things that apply to data modelling, such as "What is a piece of knowledge?", "What is information?" and "What is representation?" These are good questions; How can we think we do knowledge management if we don't know what it is? How can we create information systems without know what information is? How can we represent our knowledge and information if we don't know what that representation mean?

I'll let you know that I'm in the representationalism camp in these regards; anything outside the workings of my own mind is observed by proxy, even other people's knowledge. I need to find ways to fold new perceptions into my own knowledge to gain new knowledge. My tea in front of me is represented by the visual cup, the smell of aroma, and the taste of tea, bit of sugar, pinch of milk; observations that make up a context.

This context can be represented by "something", and this is in all simplicity all that we information folks do; we try to come up with models that best represent the information for us and for the computer, for reuse, for knowledge creation, and for archiving.

In a Topic Map, this context is conceptualised through a Topic, contextualized through Associations, and turned into information through Occurrences, but there are hundres of other ways to do it, in relational databases, in XML, in binary formats, with paper and pen, with facial expressions, through music and dance and art and ...


It's all about expressions of something. With computer systems we have a tendency to think in very technological ways about these things, but as any long-time database modeller knows; there are people who are good at normalising, and people who suck at it! My theory here is that the people who are good at normalising understand epistemology (knowingly or not). The same with people who are good at creating XML schemas, or good at design, good with visual design, good at writing, good at presenting. In fact, I'd stress that epistemology understanding is crucial to any form of quality representation of an expression.

Let's take a step sideways into ontologies for a second; ontology asks "What actually exists?" and goes on to define a model in which we can represent that which we think actually exists.

In modern information sciences, ontology work is what we refer to when we try to explain "things" through a more formal network of definition, so that "X is a Y of type Z" and "X is the opposite of D" and "D is a class of U"; given enough such statements, computers (or humans if you're patient) can infer "knowledge" (basically; hidden or not explicitly stated information). Of course, you need to have a lot of these statements, and they must all be true, and probably authoritative, which for many is the very reason they don't believe in the Semantic Web (of which I'm such a sceptic myself).

In a closed system though, I have much belief in ontological models and information systems, and libraries have a lot of closed systems in which openness to the hidden information could provide some seriously good applications for it. For example, a lot of what librarians care about are in collections of sort, and a collection and the metadata about it can well be mined for some rich information not explicitly stated.

Collections in a Topic Map

I've done a few experiments with collections in Topic Maps with some pretty good results. For example, there's the "Fish Trout, you're out" childrens folklore in our oral history project; I got all the MARC records that belongs to the collection, converted it to a Topic Map, and lots of interesting things happened; I learned more about the collection, knew more about what type of information was within it, I could browse through it through various facets, I could ask the Topic Map for items that had complex relationships ... basically, I could do a bucketload of things that no OPAC could ever dream of being able to do, yet we both had the same basic MARC records to work with.

The recent National Treasures exhibition was designed with my XPF framework, an XSLT-based wrapper and query language for Topic Maps, so all the data items in that collection sits in A topic Map; every picture, every comment, every text, every page, every theme and every note. Yet, the actual site looks pretty much like most other sites out there, so where's the juice? Well, internally we've created a couple of alternative interfaces to the Topic Map with dramatic different results, and although they are not public (and probably never will be, although we thought about creating an interface for kids!) they showed us again what rich hidden information we could get out of data we already had. And that's an important key to why Topic Maps are so important!

Another collection I've plodded with in a Topic Map is the Mauritius Collection, over 2000 items with a great variety of semantics and types. One of the problems with a lot of these collections is maintaining them, and getting an overview of the collection is often quite difficult; people spend years trying to get the full picture, especially if the collection is somewhat fluid (items coming and going from it). The Mauritius Collection is hard to get an overview of, yet in a Topic Map - a model which is designed from the ground up to handle complex relationships - it seemed almost too simple to browse around the collection, looking for things or simply exploring stuff that's there and learning stuff in the process.

And I've yet to talk about books in this context, but most other people are fixated on books and cover them quite well. To me, life and everything I do isn't based on books, but all of the collection wonderment mentioned for items can equally be applied to books. Personally, if I was given the oppertunity, I'd give our maps collection a go next!

Epistemological implications of Topic Maps for librarians

So what are these implications? Well, there's a few paradigms that differ from the normal set of information technology set of RDBMS, databases, OPAC, fielded search and NBD (National Bibliographic Database; another library term for a large database).

First of all, librarians know about thesaurus and taxonomy work. In the former there are notions such as "broader term", "narrower term", "related term", "use instead", and so forth; these all makes up the ontology of the thesaurus; they explain what things might be, and in a thesaurus, in a very loose and general way (mostly). In a taxonomy, most of the relationships between items (and hence the ontology) is explained through the structure itself; this item is above this one, meaning "X is a Y" or, in more complex taxonomies, "X is an instance of class Y which is super-class of Z".

Topic Maps takes this a few steps further; in the same Topic Map, you can have a thesaurus, a taxonomy, a facetted classification system, LCSH (Library of Congress Subject Headings), MARC records and an ontology, all working in unison. This has some implications to how we can use the information in single applications, but also on what synergetic implications as well - in revealing hidden information that's not explicitly stated.

Secondly, Topic Maps is based around the notion of atomic nodes on which you hang various information, such as metadata and relationships, and this is quite unlike a record in a database, of which MARC is a good example. But what's important to understand is that we're not talking about taking the data out of MARC or converting MARC to MODS to XOBIS to Dublin Core to whatever; no, MARC stays as MARC, but Topic Maps lays a layer of "semantics" (we can stretch or implode the meaning of "semantics" here, I think; it all depends on what you want to do, how much energy you're prepared to waste and resources you've got allocated) on top. This is why it's a Map; a map to guide you through your information soup.

And thirdly, soup with added Topic Maps makes a dang fine stew. I love stew.

We knew that

A lot of librarians (and others who might read this) already knew all this; why am I telling you this, then?

Because in order to truly understand Topic Maps and why I'm so keen on them, is to understand how Topic Maps and its data model is closer to human cognition and epistemological ideals than what we're currently immensed in, such as the relational database, the notion of a "record", the notion of collections that don't overlap (Hah! I dare you to show me one!), the ideas of a book being atomic (the guys who's into FRBR knows all about this one), the idea of marshalled viewpoints of information (guides vs. the reference librarian), taxomatic classification schemes (this one is heavily disputed, but in the classical form it certainly causes problems, although it might be more the human problem than a technological one; for example, can we mix and match LCSH, tagsonomies and thesaurii? You can in a Topic Map with relative ease.) and so forth.

In the end, how do we know that what we're doing aids our goals? Is our technology working for us, alongside us, behind us, against us? The goal must be to preserve and encourage knowledge, right? For libraries this is of course on the borderline between the collection mentality and the education mentality; some librarians have only one of these, some both (and a few rare exceptions neither!) and then various mixes of the two. In my view, there is no two; they are the same thing.

How do we know that we're delivering systems that's supposed to help them in whatever quest they have? Right now I feel we're second-guessing on every level on that question; we design systems with a specific set of features in the hopes that we help at least a given percentage of users. I'd stress that we really need to work it the other way around, as usability has shown us time and time again that guessing what the user wants will always fail; we need completely open systems where the user narrows the features until the goal is reached! This is what we humans are about, isn't it? First we read the table of contents or the index (both from which you gain a sense of overview), then jump to the right chapter for the details, and from there make descissions on where to go next.

Let's not design more applications; let's design systems.

23 May 2006

It depends

All afternoon I've written in bits and chunks on this post; I've had a number of enquires and meetings of late where after I've said my piece was asked more detailed questions. All of my answers started with "well, it depends on ..." so after a few too many of these answers I told myself not to say those dreaded words anymore as it somewhat leads to vagueness. I wanted to write down a few thoughts on why I should stop saying it, but I soon realised that the right answer was to explain why "it depends" itself is the right answer.

It's was therefore smack-down timely that superstar Donna Maurer - who's busy presenting over at our New Zealand buddies at Webstock - wrote a quite similar piece called Black, white or grey ;

But the more projects I do, the more I realise neat black & white answers don't fit any sort of real world, which means I end up talking more about the context, and feeling like I'm disappointing people and being vague. Oh well, at least I try to explain what 'it depends' on, or what the implications are for different contexts.

What surprises me is that people quite often want a black or white answer, and given the audience I'm referring to here (me; collegues and other IT professionals, and Donna; I assume were presenting to IT professionals as well) it's a bit shocking that they would even think the answer is in binary format.

How come? Is our processes in which we do our work so streamlined that there is no room for variables and fuzzy answers? Is our communication these days so pop-cultured that sentences longer than a given size isn't registering? Is our brain so filled up with other stuff that whenever we try to jam more info in there, we prefer it to be black and white because we think it takes up less space? Are we afraid our brains will explode if we pop one more nugget in there?

I remember back when I wanted to know more about human categorisation, in which I jumped on 3 books (at the time that made sense to read; can't remember how I came to those, though) and read them cover to cover before continuing; Bertrand Russel's "The Problems of Philosophy" (I knew from past rememberance the epistomological implications Bertrand has on categorisations, beside I had long wanted to read the book, not for it being the latest thinking but because it's a standard work; I never preempt optimisations ... :) ), Lakoff's "Women, fire and dangerous things", and Tom Stafford's "Mind hacks". Lakoff was the one that I found the most interesting in terms of categorisations, and from there I at least had a spring-board for further research. The point of this little sidestory is that I simply know there are no easy answers; I need a lot more context to understand the answer, I need to read more and understand more around my problem in order to understand it.

Another example is what is used by everybody, it seems, to say that something is logical or just makes sense, in a mathematical sense; 2 + 2 = 4. We use this in a way to say "look, this is 2+2=4, ok? It's so simple!" The thing is that it ain't so simple. My best friend Magnus, a mathematical genious, one day while it was raining and we were taking shelter under a kiosk-roof that was closed for the season, he explained to me the basics of axioms; basic rules from which all mathematic is derived. He explained for example that there are two major axiomatic systems that is used by us normal folks and mathematicians as well; the pythegorian system (which we all should know from primary and secondary school mathematics; ah, those pesky PI's!) in which two parallell lines can never touch, and the one (don't know its name) that was somewhat adapted after it was established that the universe was concavely shaped and always expanding where two parallell lines at some point must meet because of the shape of the universe. (This is more complex than this common-folksie summary, of course, but you get the idea) In other words, I had an epiphany and asked if one could define a set of axioms in which 2 + 2 = 5. The answer is yes, you can do that. All logic, all mathematics, every concept, every observation, every thought, every darn little frigging thing we think we know, has context ... context so huge and chopped into so many little bits that it's mind-boggling trying to visualise it! Our brains are so frigging amazingly clever!

Our brain is an incredible tool, and if you think for a minute that a tool such as this, a tool designed for making some kind of sense out of the masses amount of context - specialised for context sorting! - require a black and white answer to fit things in, you're doing yourself a disfavour; you're dumbing down, not smartening up. (This contextual inputting is why, for example, most of the time experience [you're in the context] teach you better than a text-book [explaining some context])

So, the next time you ask someone a question and the person answer with a "it depends" and go off on a tangent referring constantly to a bucketload of books, thoughts and ideas of others, you just might be getting the right answer.