Embracing the Tiger

When both Ming and Jon Udell point to the same blog on the same day, ya gotta pay attention. Actually, they both point to Leslie Michael Orchard’s riff on Charles Miller’s complaint that he’s as tired as George Carlin, having to catalogue all his “stuff” on his computer:

“I no longer want to know where my files are stored. I no longer care. I have hordes of directories on my various computers called stuff, downloads and documents, and the effort that it would take to organise them into a proper hierarchy is just not worth it. The hierarchical filesystem is a really wonderful thing for programmers and websites, but it just doesn’t cut it for personal use. I no longer care where my files are stored.”

Adding to the outcry, my friend Tom Raddemann pointed out today, “With GigaHertz CPU’s, I almost hear the processor laughing at me as I struggle to do what it can do better.”

Who could argue with that? It’s crazy to need to drill down into an arbitrary structure, either to save it originally or to find it later. Charles wants his OS to save files by asking for a simple string to remember it by, for example, “Foocom project plan”. But I’m sure that the tiny hint we’re willing to provide at the Save moment is not what we really want.

Ming says,

I think that’s what I want too (he’s thought about this before). The thing is that the world we live in is no longer hierarchical. Any piece of information fits into a bunch of different structures in different ways, depending on what I’m trying to do. If I go and drop the item in a file in a folder in a filing cabinet, in the place that seems logical at the time, chances are I won’t find it next time I’m looking for it. So, yes, maybe there is no good way of easily storing it multi-dimensionally. Maybe the best is to store some concise information about the information (which is called metadata), such as date, person, relations to projects, interests, etc. and then leave it up to an efficient search engine to find things by those keys later on.

So there’s an argument to be made for structure. Of course, as we start to add a little structure, being human, we quickly make it hierarchical and start down that slippery slope of hierarchical data totalitarianism we all resent so much. (Shouldn’t we have people who take care of these things for us?) Where’s the intersection of good sense, ease of use and a satisfying way to really be on top of our stuff. I suggest those are not exclusive. Jon thinks it needs to be in the operating system:

Adding more Ptolemaic circles like that won’t really help. Leslie’s right: helper apps aren’t the answer. The OS needs to be deeply aware of various namespaces — the Mac’s systemwide Address Book is a great step in that direction — and then surface them into a common completion UI.

Maybe the answer is to assign the tags when you’re working with the content, not in that moment when you know you don’t want to lose whatever you’re working on.

Several years ago, I developed a system called MindShare to handle this problem for workgroups and their stuff. The challenge then and now is to have a bulletproof way to describe whatever might need to be found later. At that time, we didn’t have the benefit of XML, which is about to become the storage system for all our stuff.

Steal This Idea

But we did find a bulletproof topology for assigning metadata to business content strings. MindShare was based on the idea that, if something is worth keeping at all, it should be available fortuitously when we’re looking for things like it but may not even remember this item specifically. The universal topology for everything we need to keep track of is the IPIA coordinate system. IPIA says that the meaningful text strings in any file, correspondence, meeting, call, etc. can be classified unequivocally as an Issue, Promise, Idea or Appointment. You’ll never mistake an issue string from a promise received string.

And obviously our world is defined by promises payable and promises receivable. Making them explicit is a Good Thing.

Example You get an email or open a web page or write a letter. A series of widgets surround the message:

Who…Alan AldaBill BaileyCab CallowayDoris DayEphraim Englebartnamespace… Text Media Object Model
  Hi Britt,

Would it be possible to use MindShare to organize my train collection? I need to be sure my Diesels don’t get mixed up with my steamers.

I’ll call you tomorrow at 1pm to discuss. Why shouldn’t we use the same categories on line and in our train display?

I’m having trouble working with Igor – something about Frank’s stein.

We can also discuss it at lunch at noon Friday at the Greenery.

Promise Made
Promise Rec’vd

date… 1/21/03 1/22/03 1/23/03 1/24/03 1/25/03 time… 9:00 10:00 11:00 12:00 1:00 2:00 3:00 4:00 5:00

Project … Trains Online Store Mentoring  

Naturally, the system knows who the email is from, when it arrived, etc. and, as Charles suggests, provides those metadata tags as it can. Since the system already knows all your contacts and appointments, new ones can be added by clicking, typing or dragging them.

If something worth noticing is mentioned, it is always an Issue, Idea, a Promise Made, a Promise Received or an appointment, a special kind of mutual promise. Just highlight the text string and click the options. If your file or content doesn’t deserve all this scrutiny, then don’t do it. But, whatever you highlight, drag, click or, maybe, type, you can be sure your Model 2004 4GH XML-o-matic CPU will not require you to know where the hell your stuff is.

Marc Canter has been urging us to embrace MOM—a Media Object Model, that might look like this:

Who…Alan AldaBill BaileyCab CallowayDoris DayEphraim Englebartnamespace… Text Media Object Model
  When Sunny Gets Blue.mp3

other 1
other 2

date… 1/21/03 1/22/03 1/23/03 1/24/03 1/25/03 time… 9:00 10:00 11:00 12:00 1:00 2:00 3:00 4:00 5:00

Project … Trains Online Store Mentoring  

Someone, probably us, will add the text namespace options to Xpertweb transaction forms. But we’ll never do it at the system level. Since the IPIA namespace is as old as the Agora. I hope someone applies it.

11:48:11 PM    

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