Sunday, November 26, 2006

Converting materials

Although you would not know it from the last few entries, the subject of this blog is not "things I do to avoid doing the writing I need to do." I have actually spent a fair amount of time writing in the past few days. However, I have spent a lot more time on a flood of email, Compendium work, web publishing, and general messing around on computers. I don't get to do this very often, usually only on vacations (the last time, really, was last Xmas break), and almost all of it was stuff I was happy to get done (long-term residents on my to-do list), though many hours were spent in things like searching through old XML files and .sql backups on 3 computers to find Compendium stuff I'd done a few years back (I did find most, but not all, of what I was looking for).

One of the things I got done was finding and rehabbing some of the fictional stories I'd done in Compendium in 2003, putting them up on the web, and creating some materials to surround them. The result is here.

It all does go together, though. The writing I'm doing -- going back through my notes on Dewey, Schön, Wright/McCarthy, and others and trying to write something coherent that relates the ideas to where I'm going with my PhD work -- is making me think hard about what I am really seeing and saying there. One problem I always have in doing such work is that nearly every line by the original authors seems so insightful and compelling (and so beyond what I could come up with) that I want to quote them all, and then my writing becomes just stringing together of what others have said. As Dewey puts it:
"The abiding struggle of art is thus to convert materials that are stammering or dumb in ordinary experience into eloquent media."
(Art as Experience)
In my case it's my own thoughts and ability to bring coherence that are stammering and dumb, but in the working over of all the stuff, the struggle to get it to make sense and mean something, they do, usually or at least often, get somewhere. And all this messing around in html, xml, Compendium, etc. that I've done over the last few days, will hopefully be at least a step on the path to making something eloquent. Not just, or only, procrastination.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Granular reuse

One of the core aspects of Compendium for me has always been the concept of granular reuse of knowledge elements, even back in QuestMap days. This means that you can make use of the same elements (nodes and links) in multiple contexts, even in completely different projects or databases. The work you did to create the elements in the first place can be leveraged many times for different purposes. It can happen on many different levels -- for example, just the text, or the way you have constructed a whole node with its images, tags, etc., or sets of nodes and links and maps together. I wrote about it in this 1998 paper.

Granular reuse is one of the things that makes Compendium different from other approaches, like concept mapping, because the work you do in one context can be so easily and multiply reused in another. The more familiar and fluid you are with the different techniques and concepts, the more you can make use of your knowledge elements over and over, getting new and different value each time.

I spent so much time over the last few days constructing my first portfolio map -- a View by Time. It wasn't the linking and arranging of the map itself, but rather the construction of the individual nodes -- finding good URLs of the items (in some cases they'd moved or dropped off the web at some point); getting the bibliographic info for the publication; messing around with the text; doing repeated copying of the HTML files to the KMi server, seeing something that needed fixing, changing it in Compendium and re-generating the exports, re-copying the files, etc. Last night, when dropping off after the usual Thanksgiving glut, I had the thought that although I liked how the View by Time had come out, I also wanted to see the portfolio in different ways, like grouped thematically. So this morning I sat down to construct that view (and yes also to continue procrastinating on the writing I need to do).

This time it was way quicker to create even though the view itself was kind of involved, because all I had to do was transclude the nodes from the View by Time into the new View by Type map. Most of the other work was done for me (by me) already, this was just making a new arrangement of the elements. What makes it 'granular reuse' is that, as with all transclusions, if I make changes to any of the individual nodes they will be made in both views (a kind of magic that I am always amazed by). And the some of the ancillary stuff I'd done in the first view, like the "Related Links" navigation (some which point to web pages and some which are views in the same Compendium project), were immediately reusable although I modified them for the new view. I also realized that the titling and background, which I had done for the first view in by laboriously arranging the titles and category headings in Powerpoint, saving them as a JPG then using that as my map background, could more easily be done with icon-less Compendium nodes and Scribble-layer drawings. So now both views are 100% Compendium constructions, and in the same database so I could easily make new views with some or all of the same elements.

When I was making the second view, it became a lot more apparent to me how I should be tagging the nodes. I used the categories that I'd shown as Questions in the View by Time (e.g. "co-authored papers", "Compendium experiments", etc.) as the seeds for the tags. As I started to tag the nodes I realized that I could do it better by having attributes separated out into different tags. For example, at first I had one tag for "co-authored papers" and another for "papers" (meaning I'd written those alone); I realized it would be better to have a tag for "co-authored" that could be applied to anything that I'd done with others, such as papers, book chapters, workshops, and so on. A more elegant structure, but more to the point of this post, it will allow me to do other reuse activities later, such as constructing a view that shows things I've worked on with other people. All I'll have to do is search for anything with "co-authored" as a tag, insert it into a new map, and go. Using the new Tags interface was a joy (thanks Simon and Michelle!).

I don't feel that I am getting across what I'd like to here, the power and fluidity of Compendium's granular reuse mechanisms, so I will probably have to revise this at some point when I'm better inspired. Now this is the last thing on my list of must-procrastinate-because-this-is-also-worth-doing items for today; heading to the writing table (arghh! just spent another 15 minutes cleaning up the Home Window of my Compendium PhD database, which was also on my list).

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Lost in tweakland

I spent far too much time yesterday and this morning on a self-assigned task to create a 'portfolio' map that links to various publications, maps, etc., kind of like my own mini-portal. Using Compendium for this was pretty satisfying. I did it in a portion of my phd database, so all the materials I put together in there can be reused in other contexts in that database.

Like a lot of people, I can get lost in tweak-land, whiling away hours making little fixes and improvements to something like that. It feels like I am doing something at least sort of useful, making the thing better, more communicative, more informative, more links, better icons, headings, and so forth. And, I was able to test out more of the Compendium 1.5.1 Mac beta, finding a bunch of little quirks and bugs, so I'm being useful there too (I still feel quite guilty that neither I nor anyone else did much testing for v 1.5, which now has almost 4000 downloads and has some problems, though also a ton of good functionality). And, as almost always when I spend a lot of time in Compendium really working on something, I came up with a bunch of new ideas for features that would help in creating artifacts like the portfolio map and its web exports. But -- what I SHOULD be doing is not any of those things. In my discretionary time I should be a) writing up my Dewey, Schon, Wright/McCarthy etc. notes, which I have worked on some this week, or more urgently b) writing the chapter for Ale's book. I have some more days off this week and weekend so I will -- I hope -- I trust -- work on both (a) and (b).

Amazingly there were some comments, from someone I don't know personally, on one of the previous posts. Nice to know someone out there has read some of this. One of the comments (from someone I do know personally) kind of questioned why someone would have a blog like this. I don't want to get into a self-reflexive debate (writing blogs on why to write blogs), but I guess it's a reasonable question. The main thing for me is to try to write about knowledge art in an everyday way, not only in an academic or theoretical way (as much as I am also doing that). I don't spend enough time doing this (or, as noted above, many of the other things I should be doing) to get as far with it as I'd like, but each little piece does help me be "real" about some aspect of what knowledge art means to me, and how the idea plays into some piece of my day-to-day life. I will spend some more tweak-time over the next couple of days writing a more clear entry on the phenomenon I was trying to get at in that post, about different kinds of knowledge and effectiveness at work.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Fixing the blog

Comments now work in this blog. I don't think they were working before. I also fixed the "bloghome" links that appear on each page so they actually go to the main page instead of nowhere, got the Title to appear on each page, "claimed" the blog on Technorati so that it might appear in search results, and fixed the "archive" link also (thanks to Marc Eisenstadt for his valuable suggestions). Probably I did not do some of this correctly, but (although it is mighty tempting as a procrastination technique) I don't really want to spend hours and days figuring out the intricacies of Blogger template construction. If someone would like to volunteer to tell me how to do it right, I'd be most receptive.

Lightweight PIM approaches

I looked at the Gyronix website this morning. It is an add-on tool to MindManager that is a lightweight, quick way of "queuing up" stuff that can be easily added to MM later, without dealing with the overhead of moving around in the MM maps and software itself.

I sort of use Word and (increasingly) Gmail for this myself w/r/t Compendium -- I can capture ideas quickly and with no overhead, put them somewhere easily retrievable, even (with Gmail especially) add metadata like tags etc., and then later, at some point, add them to a Compendium database (if/when I get around to it).

I am actually finding myself using Gmail as my de facto day-to-day PIM these days, more and more. I ask myself why? Some reasons are
  • it's always there, doesn't require starting some other software; low/nonexistent cognitive or operational overhead
  • tremendous ease of searching, retrieval, etc.
  • doesn't rule out anything else (like later incorporation into Compendium, documents, blogs (as I am in fact doing right at this moment), etc.)
  • ease of metadata (tagging, 'starring', saving as 'draft', etc.)
  • ease of incorporation with the most frequently used collaboration software of all (for me) -- email
  • I can just throw stuff in without worrying about how to shape it, fit it in to what is already there, but I know I can get at it very quickly, pick things up where I left off --i.e. it is lightweight

I don't say the above because I am advocating for using Gmail in this way, rather I am just wondering why it is that I am doing that more and more. For me personally, Compendium is becoming more an authoring tool I use to craft particular kinds of representations, interventions, and/or repositories (maybe it was always that for me); something about it doesn't quite work (for me) as a day-to-day PIM.

Against 'human-centered design'

Don Norman wrote a piece arguing against many user-centered design approaches, or at least how they are thought of/about. I just wrote five pages in my notebook prompted by this, on the somewhat related theme of how what I seem to be pretty good at -- seeing and coming up with ways to help people deal with 'breaches in the canonicity of life' (Bruner) -- seems often to be hardly of much value in the world I mostly work in, where knowledge of and a feel for how things actually work (the engineering and operations aspects) is the main value. In other words, living within the canonicity and knowing how it works -- neither of which I'm much or uniquely good at -- is needed and valued.

How is this related to Norman's piece? Well, to me it says that having a feel for what will work (as Jobs clearly does at Apple) is much more important and valuable than following principled approaches that are meant to discover or critique what's wrong or missing from the dominant worldview, such as 'human-centered design'. There is a debate about this that I've been following in the interaction design world (this thread from the IxDA list is an example, where many are railing against the academic/research preference for 'user-centered design' as an approach, saying that intelligent/creative designers following their own instincts for what will work is actually more effective than all the techniques that have been developed for 'understanding users', regardless of how much more enlightened the latter is supposed to be).

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Back to Ann Arbor

These maps are not in anywhere near their final form and only have a little of the planned content in place, but thought I'd post a link to them anyway. They take advantage of some of the new Compendium 1.5 features, and are kind of a prototype for something I'm thinking about in the training/workshop area. I think there is tremendous potential for Compendium as a documentary/autobiographical tool and this is a first groping example.

  • I took the photos after visiting Lisa and Aron in Ann Arbor in August. It was the first time I'd been back since their wedding in 1989. My main intent was to use the photos in just such a Compendium form, to capture and hopefully evoke the feelings (nostalgia? it was more than that) I had in seeing those places that I inhabited so intensely 24-28 years ago
  • there are three kinds of maps -- 'maps' (showing approximate locations in Ann Arbor), 'stories' (template-driven explorations of the meanings of particular places), and catalogs.
  • the photo collage on the home page was generated from Picasa. What a cool tool.

This morning sat down to work on Phd stuff, and some ideas started percolating, but more was kind of overwhelmed by all the threads that are worth picking up on, that are all worth doing, but that all will take a lot of work and time. Such as:
  • finishing up the Maarten analysis and doing the Nick analysis
  • copying all my Wright/Mccarthy, Dewey, and Schon notes into my Compendium phd database and doing a careful job of annotating and tagging them (also to test out more 1.5.1 features, especially the new Tags interface)
  • writing up the central themes from my readings of the above over the past 5 months: aspects of experience, approaches to the Phd practical work I next need to do, the nature of artistry/aesthetics, the centrality of the medium used, the nature of experential learning, the connection between an artistic effort and its context, and the interweaving of practice/service and art
  • writing the chapter for Ale/Simon's book
  • spending more time on stuff like the Back to Ann Arbor maps (simultaneously pulled to spend all my time with them, tweaking bits of it endlessly, but also staying away from what should be the real work of it -- populating it with stories and memories, expanding the content -- why don't I do that?
  • doing the readings and exercises in the OU Doing Postgraduate Research book
  • noodling around with email and web browsing (i.e. wasting time)
  • reading more papers/articles/books
  • putting together my talk and materials for Mark's class on Tuesday (which are mostly together, I just need to revisit and make sure everything, all the images, etc., are there on my laptop)
As frequently in my life, I'm excited and interested in all the above, but their very multiplicity keeps me from getting started on almost any of them (so the wasting time one usually wins). Procrastination, my lifelong nemesis. I have mostly kept it at bay for the past 30 years or so, at least compared to its usual vanquishing of me as a child/adolescent, but it still keeps me from doing all I could do.

When Simon was here a couple of weekends ago, and we were talking about some of my new ideas for where to go with the practical work, and he said I did need to connect it clearly and directly with the observational stuff I did in the first year. It occurred to me this morning that a main point of connection I could draw, which is also a tighter focus for even the observational work, is to look at the setback moments -- where the practitioner is faced with some sort of dilemma or obstacle and has to quickly make sense, improvise, and act out of the linear progression they were on up to that moment, but keeping the coherence, purpose, and service intact -- how to pull together, act, and recover. That is common to almost any episode of practice. It's the aesthetics and ethics of the actions at those moment -- what form does the work take, and how does it relate to the purpose and participants -- that can be a central focus.