The Semantic Advantage

September 16, 2009

Using circles and arrows

Many “semantic” practices and applications — including “brainstorming” and construction of computer ontologies — involve the use of (a) circles or other symbols (“nodes”) to represent concepts or ideas and (b) arrows (connecting arcs or “edges”) to represent the relationships among the concepts or ideas.

(Tim Berners-Lee uses the phrase “circles and arrows” in at least one of his papers: “The Semantic Web starts as a simple circles-and-arrows diagram relating things, which slowly expands and coalesces to become global and vast.” in “The Semantic Web lifts off” by Tim Berners-Lee and Eric Miller. ERCIM News, No. 51, October 2002. His original vision is for metadata for documents.)

The graphic representation is not the tool itself in some cases, but a method of helping users visualize and/or manipulate complex, abstract data that is difficult for the average human to understand quickly — for example, RDF expressed in XML.

Mapping arguments on a whiteboard in support of decision making is a common practice in many meetings. (But integrating those representations into subsequent discussions is almost always a challenge.)

We need a much better and more widely usable set of tools for such purposes, but just applying current, limited tools is useful in its own right. One thing you definitely begin to understand as you try to deconstruct your arguments into meaning — especially when using graphical tools for that purpose — is that the process itself is useful in getting to meaning.

The process is useful in exposing what is tangential, peripheral or simply irrelevant. You tend to create and refine elemental, focussed, unambiguous assertions that can be verified as true or debunked.

You certainly expose conditions and constraints that apply to those assertions. Sweeping generalizations quickly become far less general … but often more useful. And you find that most of what you have written is not part of the core meaning that you want to represent and transfer.

That process, however, is still not easy. And you need to have a set of guidelines to keep yourself on track.

I will explore some of the tools and issues in this area in future posts.


August 10, 2009

The problem of situating ideas

Filed under: semantic technology,visualization of semantic information — Phil Murray @ 9:06 pm

I have papers scattered across my office. Some are printed documents filled with marginalia. Some started blank and are now filled with isolated observations. Some of those observations are in the form of sentences written in small blocks at different angles on the page or enclosed in circles or rectangles linked to to other blocks by curved and straight lines. Some are post-it notes inserted into books I’m reading.

I have a stack of spiral-bound notebooks I use for taking notes at meetings. My notes and comments are liberally interspersed among those notes. Some pages are filled with notes and comments by themselves.

My computer files contain notes in at least 10 different formats (right now — a system for building help files, five (maybe six) different PIMs, outlines made with TreePad, files in Open Office Writer, HTML files created with Sea Monkey, emails and HTML files exported from email, and text files created in Notepad++). Some of the products I’m reviewing contain notes and ideas locked in those particular tools.

Other ideas are scattered across the Web in wikis, blogs, and several web sites.

Let’s face it. I have a problem. Those ideas are not “situated.” They have little or no context. I don’t know — or at least I cannot demonstrate — how they are connected and where they overlap or duplicate each other. And that’s a problem, because I certainly don’t remember most of them.

I have no way around one of the roadblocks to improving this situation: Sometimes I can’t easily record those ideas on a computer. It’s just inconvenient.

At other times, using the computer just seems inappropriate. (Yesterday, I wrote six pages of notes on paper about using Ron C. de Weijze’s Personal Memory Manager (PMM) — a tool for capturing and integrating ideas on your computer! –while sitting at my computer … with PMM open.)

I do go back periodically and try to capture some of the stuff on paper, putting large X’s through notes that I have transcribed. That helps a bit, but it doesn’t connect them. It does little to make their meaning explicit or trace their impact on other ideas. It does nothing to aid in finding the other contexts in which this idea may have occurred.

I have long railed against trapping ideas in formats that makes them effectively not re-usable. That’s a problem with most concept-mapping tools and PIMs — even those that support export to Web formats. I really thought I could solve my problem with David Karger’s Haystack or the NEPOMUK semantic desktop, now being commercialized by (or as) Gnowsis, but I found them clumsy, incomplete, or lacking support.

But the problem of situating those ideas has become so great — and the value of connecting and superimposing stucture on those ideas has become so obvious — that I am giving up (for at least a while) my insistence on making everything (including relationships) convertible to RDF and XHTML. Or DITA.

So I’m going to try to live in the proprietary world of Personal Memory Manager for a while. “Try” is the operative word. And I will do so within a set of constraints, including continuing to create content in HTML — XHTML as much as possible — and referencing those files in PMM, rather than embedding them solely in PMM.

UPDATE: KMWorld [finally] published my article, “Putting meaning to work.” See

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