Archive for May 2005


Concept Maps: Training Children to Build Ontologies?

May 31st, 2005 — 11:51am

Con­cept maps popped onto the radar last week when an arti­cle in Wired high­lighted a con­cept map­ping tool called Cmap. Cmap is one of a vari­ety of con­cept map­ping tools that’s in use in schools and other edu­ca­tional set­tings to teach chil­dren to model the struc­ture and rela­tion­ships con­nect­ing — well — con­cepts.
The root idea of using con­cept map­ping in edu­ca­tional set­tings is to move away from sta­tic mod­els of knowl­edge, and toward dynamic mod­els of rela­tion­ships between con­cepts that allow new kinds of rea­son­ing, under­stand­ing, and knowl­edge. That sounds a lot like the pur­pose of OWL.
It might be a stretch to say that by advo­cat­ing con­cept maps, schools are in fact train­ing kids to cre­ate ontolo­gies as a basic learn­ing and teach­ing method, and a vehi­cle for com­mu­ni­cat­ing com­plex ideas — but it’s a very inter­est­ing stretch all the same. As Infor­ma­tion Archi­tects, we’re famil­iar with the ways that struc­tured visu­al­iza­tions of inter­con­nected things — pages, top­ics, func­tions, etc. — com­mu­ni­cate com­plex notions quickly and more effec­tively than words. But most of the rest of the world doesn’t think and com­mu­ni­cate this way — or at least isn’t con­sciously aware that it does.
It seems rea­son­able that kids who learn to think in terms of con­cept maps from an early age might start using them to directly com­mu­ni­cate their under­stand­ings of all kinds of things through­out life. It might be a great way to com­mu­ni­cate the com­plex thoughts and ideas at play when answer­ing a sim­ple ques­tion like “What do you think about the war in Iraq?“
Author Nancy Kress explores this excact idea in the sci­ence fic­tion novel ‘Beg­gars In Spain’, call­ing the con­struc­tions “thought strings”. In Kress’ book, thought strings are the pre­ferred method of com­munca­tion for extremely intel­li­gent genet­i­cally engi­neered chil­dren, who have in effect moved to realms of cog­ni­tive com­plex­ity that exceed the struc­tural capac­ity of ordi­nary lan­guages. As Kress describes them, the den­sity and mul­ti­di­men­sional nature of thought strings makes it much eas­ier to share nuanced under­stand­ings of extremely com­plex domains, ideas, and sit­u­a­tions in a com­pact way.
I’ve only read the first novel in the tril­ogy, so I can’t speak to how Kress devel­ops the idea of thought strings, but there’s a clear con­nec­tion between the con­struct she defines and the con­cept map as laid out by Novak, who says, “it is best to con­struct con­cept maps with ref­er­ence to some par­tic­u­lar ques­tion we seek to answer or some sit­u­a­tion or event that we are try­ing to under­stand”.
Excerpts from the Wired arti­cle:
“Con­cept maps can be used to assess stu­dent knowl­edge, encour­age think­ing and prob­lem solv­ing instead of rote learn­ing, orga­nize infor­ma­tion for writ­ing projects and help teach­ers write new cur­ric­ula. “
“We need to move edu­ca­tion from a mem­o­riz­ing sys­tem and repet­i­tive sys­tem to a dynamic sys­tem,” said Gas­par Tarte, who is spear­head­ing edu­ca­tion reform in Panama as the country’s sec­re­tary of gov­ern­men­tal inno­va­tion.“
“We would like to use tools and a method­ol­ogy that helps chil­dren con­struct knowl­edge,” Tarte said. “Con­cept maps was the best tool that we found.”

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Don't Cross the Streams! The Terrible User Experience of Enterprise Software

May 20th, 2005 — 9:49am

Below is an excerpt from an email sent to all employ­ees — a ‘global broad­cast’, very Max Head­room… — of a larger com­pany (name removed), in response to repeated plees to improve the night­mar­ish user expe­ri­ence of the time and expense sys­tem that all employ­ees must use.
<begin trans­mis­sion>
There have been a few issues with the sub­mit­ting and/or pro­cess­ing of Expense Reports result­ing from indi­vid­u­als using data fields which have no value to [com­pany], but may have pro­cess­ing impacts within the sys­tem. At this time, there is no way to remove or ‘grey-out’ these unused fields. If you have not been trained on the use of a field and/or do not know what the field may/may not do, don’t enter any data within that field — ask your branch admin or con­tact the help desk.
</end trans­mis­sion>
What a fan­tas­tic exam­ple of a user expe­ri­ence directly impact­ing busi­ness: use­less but open entry fields = garbage data = inac­cu­rate finan­cials!
Let’s peak into the inner cham­bers, to see how this might play out:
CEO> “How are we doing this week for rev­enue?“
CFO> “No idea. I don’t have any num­bers to work with.“
CEO> “Why not? That’s ten weeks in a row!“
COO> “Another finan­cials sys­tem crash.“
CTO> “Some junior tech in nowheresville acci­den­tally hit the drop select of death again, and now we can’t get reports done for that half of the coun­try.“
CEO> “The ana­lysts and the board are going to kill me — some­one take care of this right now.“
COO> “Fix it, or get rid of it!“
CTO> “We can’t fix it — we didn’t buy the con­fig­u­ra­tion mod­ule. And we cut the deploy­ment ser­vices con­tract from 24 weeks to 6 weeks, so there was no time to fig­ure out which fields we needed from the generic installation…”

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Semantic Ambiguity Strikes Your Local Pub

May 16th, 2005 — 4:31pm

Thurs­day night I was at Casablanca in Har­vard Square for an infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture meet and greet after Lou’s Enter­prise IA sem­i­nar. I ordered a Wolver’s. It was dim and noisy, so after shout­ing three times and point­ing, I ended up with a Wolaver’s
Not a sur­prise, right? My first thought was “What’s in my glass?” My sec­ond thought — I was sur­rounded by infor­ma­tion archi­tects — was about the seman­tic angle on the sit­u­a­tion. It seems like a fair mis­take to make in a loud and crowded bar. But as some­one who works there, he should know the envi­ron­men­tal con­text, the ways it affects fun­da­men­tal tasks like talk­ing and answer­ing ques­tions, and about any alter­na­tives to what he thought I said that are close enough to be eas­ily mis­taken. Before I get too far, I’ll point out that I liked the mis­take enough to order another.
Set­ting aside for a moment the notion of a seman­ti­cally adept agent sys­tem that mon­i­tors inter­ac­tions between bar­tenders and patrons to pre­vent mis­takes like this, let’s look at some­thing more likely, such as how does Google fair with this sit­u­a­tion? Some post-socialization research shows that as far as Google is con­cerned, all roads do in fact lead to Wolaver’s. Even when Google’s results list begins with a link to a page on Wolver’s Ale from the orig­i­nat­ing brew­ery, it still sug­gests that you might want ‘wolaver’s ale’. Maybe this explains the bartender’s mis­take.
Here’s the break­down: Google US sug­gests “wolaver’s ale” when you search for “wolvers ale” and “wolver’s ale”, but not the other way around. When you search for “Wolavers”, Google sug­gests the cor­rectly punc­tu­ated “Wolaver’s”. You can get to the Amer­i­can ale, but not the British.
More sur­pris­ing, it’s the same from Google UK, when search­ing only British pages. (Some­one tell me how pages become part of the UK? Maybe when they’re sent off to full-time board­ing school?)
Google’s insis­tence on tak­ing me from wher­ever I start to “Wolaver’s Ale” comes from more than sim­ple Amer­i­can brew chau­vanism. This is what hap­pens when the wrong fac­tors drive deci­sions about the mean­ings of things; it’s these basic deci­sions about seman­tics that deter­mine whether or not a thing cor­rectly meet the needs of the peo­ple look­ing for answers to a ques­tion.
You might say seman­tic mis­align­ment (or what­ever we choose to call this con­di­tion) is fine, since Google’s busi­ness is aimed at doing some­thing else, but I can’t imag­ine that busi­ness leaderhsip and staff at Wolver’s would be too happy to see Google direct­ing traf­fic away from them by sug­gest­ing that peo­ple didn’t want to find them in the first place. Nei­ther Wolver’s nor Wolavers seems to have Google ads run­ning for their names, but what if they did? By now we’re all fami­lar with the fact that googling ‘mis­er­able fail­ure’ returns a link to the White House web site. This reflects a pop­u­larly defined asso­ci­a­tion rich in cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance, but that isn’t going to sat­isfy a pay­ing cus­tomer who is los­ing busi­ness because a seman­ti­cally unaware sys­tem works against them.
This a good exam­ple of a sit­u­a­tion in which intel­li­gent dis­am­bigua­tion based on rela­tion­ships and infer­enc­ing within a defined con­text has direct busi­ness ram­i­fi­ca­tions.
Here’s a pre­view of the full size table that shows the results of check­ing some vari­ants of wolvers / wolavers:

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The User Experience of Interactive Art: Boston CyberArts Festival 2005

May 3rd, 2005 — 9:24pm

Prompted by curi­ousity, and a desire to see if inter­ac­tive art really is irri­tat­ing, I took in sev­eral exhibits for the 2005 Boston Cyber­Arts Fes­ti­val, at the Decor­dova Museum this week­end.
Sarah Boxer’s review of Trains — a land­scape made of tiny model rail­road build­ings and fig­ures, adorned with movie images from famous movie scenes, and pop­u­lated by pas­sen­gers that appear only on the video screen of a Game­boy — offers sev­eral stel­lar insights about the emo­tion­ally unhealthy states of mind brought on by attempt­ing to inter­act with com­put­er­ized inter­faces. Boxer says:

Alas, some cyber­works com­bine all the annoy­ances of inter­ac­tive art (pruri­ence, rit­ual, ungra­cious­ness and moral supe­ri­or­ity) to pro­duce a mega-annoyance: total frus­tra­tion. Case in point: John Klima’s “Trains,” at the DeCor­dova Museum School Gallery, in the Boston sub­urb Lin­coln, which is a model train set guided by cellphone.

It’s clear from this that the emo­tional or other con­tent of the art instal­la­tion itself was obscured by the user expe­ri­ence Boxer had to nego­ti­ate in order to engage with the piece. Boxer’s expec­ta­tions for user expe­ri­ence qual­ity might have been lower if she were try­ing out a new spread­sheet, or Lotus Notes, but that’s just an exam­ple of how the soft­ware indus­try has trained cus­tomers to expect abu­sively bad expe­ri­ences. See pho­tos of Trains here.
One of the more usable — if that judge­ment applies — is Nam June Paik’sRequiem for the 20th Cen­tury”. Requiem — photo here — accord­ing to Boxer is less annoy­ing “…a relief to just stand there and watch the apoc­a­lyp­tic mon­tage! No inter­ac­tion. No instruc­tion. No insults.“
Once past the inter­face, I found Requiem ele­giac as expected, but unsat­is­fy­ing for two rea­sons: first by virtue of con­cern­ing mostly Paik’s work in video art, and sec­ond by being strangely empty at heart (or was that the point?). The svelte phys­i­cal­ity of the Chrysler Airstream art-deco auto­mo­bile con­trasted sharply with the ephemeral nature of the video images show­ing on it’s win­dows, in a clear exam­ple of con­cepts that were well-thought-through, but in the end, this is another exam­ple of art (post mod­ern and/or oth­er­wise) that is clever, yet inca­pable of engag­ing and estab­lish­ing emo­tional res­o­nance. “Requiem” is not even effec­tively psy­cho­log­i­cal, which would broaden it’s poten­tial modes of address. To ame­lio­rate this weak­ness, I rec­om­mend obtain­ing the audio­book ver­sion of J.G. Ballard’s “Crash”, and lis­ten­ing to it’s auto-erotic on head­phones while tak­ing in the sil­vered spec­ta­cle.
From the descrip­tion: “Requiem sums up the twen­ti­eth cen­tury as a period of trans­for­ma­tive socio-cultural change from an indus­trial based soci­ety to an elec­tronic infor­ma­tion based soci­ety. The auto­mo­bile and the tele­vi­sion fig­ure as both the most sig­nif­i­cant inven­tions of the cen­tury as well as the most promi­nent sig­ni­fiers of West­ern consumerism.”

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