IN MY LAST BLOG ENTRY I described being at the BarCamp5 Spillover event held at the BCS London meeting rooms. On 9th October it will be my turn (with colleagues) to run an event in the same location: the MetaKnowledge Mash-up 2.0 gathering [But see NOTE below], organised by KIDMM and ISKO-UK and with the focus Making and Organising Knowledge in Communities.

(A word of explanation: KIDMM is a discussion community around issues of Knowledge, Information, Data and Metadata Management — its roots are in the British Computer Society — and ISKO-UK is the UK chapter of the International Society for Knowledge Organization. I co-ordinate the activities of KIDMM on a voluntary basis.)

Plastic poker chips being used to ‘rate’ the importance of topics generated on cards by group members, in a discussion about computers and climate change.

Plastic poker chips being used to ‘rate’ the importance of topics generated on cards by group members, in a discussion about computers and climate change.

The instructions for BarCamp said ‘Come with something you want to talk about,’ and I brought along with me a concern about the best way to conduct small group exercises on the afternoon of the 9th. People there will be seated in groups of up to eight around tables, an arrangement which affords a surface for a card-sorting exercise.

In the BarCamp discussion which I led, I explained how cardsorting works and how it can be used to understand how people group ‘things’, be they ideas, features of a product, whatever. In information architecture and product design enterprises, letting a representative group of users sort cards can help clarify what people expect of or hope from a product or service. There’s a variant called ‘divide the dollar’ which I read about through Uzanto’s Mindcanvas site, which offers these ‘Game-like Elicitation Methods’ (GEMs) on-line. In this, each participant is given a number of coins or chips and asked to distribute them across a set of topic cards to indicate in quite a subtle way the degree of value attached by that person to each.

What has this to do with a KIDMM/ISKO conference? Well, in considering ‘making and organising knowledge in communities’ we will be hearing case-studies from a number of organisations who are using electronic tools to enable long-term and long-distance discussion and collaboration within their communities, with the aim of accumulating and organising knowledge. Tools like email lists, bulletin boards, blogs, wikis, social networking sites, and online media repositories for documents, audio files or video — in addition of course to face to face gatherings and designed-for-print publications. Which of these approaches seem to hold out most advantages, and how might they be combined? The workshop session is when we can deliberate on this, and a cardsort is my proposed mechanism for this.

Hopefully, all participants will appreciate the opportunity this exercise will afford to sift through the approaches we’ve heard of through the day, and brainstorm a few more. And for the KIDMM community, this foray into ‘requirements elicitation’ has another benefit — with the assistance of a final-year software engineering student, Susan Payne of De Montfort University, we are embarking on our own venture into online community. In the next eight months, Susan will be writing a custom web application based on a CMS (content management system), designed to match the needs of knowledge communities such as KIDMM.

If you’re interested in learning more about cardsorting and other user requirement elicitation strategies, I have written up a five-page account of my BarCamp5 session — how I presented the topic and how people responded to it — which is available for download as a PDF file. [But see NOTE below]

Also available for download is my preconference paper: a literature and concept review on knowledge management, communities of practice and approaches to the evaluation of online community toolkits. [But see NOTE below]

NOTE: The domain has been kidnapped! Following KIDMM-hosted links will currently take to a Web site about baby clothes and things. Apologies while this gets sorted out. It is partly due to the incompetence of my ISP, Adept (should be Inept?) Hosting, who are also currently ignoring calls for support. [11 Oct 2008]

I’M NEW TO BARCAMPS, and my first one was yesterday — in fact, a spillover from the main London BarCamp event, which was booked solid. (Or was it, I wonder? This spillover event organised at the BCS London meeting rooms allegedly had over fifty people coming, but half were no-shows, and it was two hours before enough people assembled to actually do anything…)

For an explanation of what a BarCamp is supposed to be, try this Wikipedia page. BarCamping shares some roots with Open Space methodology: there is no agenda in advance. Everyone attending is encouraged to make a presentation or run a workshop, with spaces and timeslots allocated dynamically.

Does it work? My verdict on that was also ‘open’. There were three sessions which I got something out of (not including my own). The first one was convened by my friend and KIDMM-colleague, Cher Devey. She asked, ‘How do we explain to people the products that we [i.e. developers] create?’ Four sub-topics emerged: Training in IT applications; Documentation of them; Interface design; and (slightly deviating from the question, but relevant without a doubt), whether the application was actually designed to meet users’ needs and expectations.

Technology journalist Arjun Jassal described an Indian government project to put an Internet kiosk in every village. This is not meeting its goals, said Arjun, because these big unfamiliar machines which whirr and blink are intimidating, and villagers have mostly never used a keyboard before. In contrast, some non-government initiatives using mobile phones have taken off in rural India. As the expression has it, ‘What has that to do with the price of fish?’ Well, in Kerala fishermen who have landed a good catch phone in to several ports to see where they can get the best price for their catch (see here).

Arjun's Hindi-enabled phone (left), and Isriya's Thai-enabled one.

Arjun's Hindi-enabled phone (left), and Isriya's Thai-enabled one. Click to enlarge.

This raised the question of which languages are used for Asian SMS and how the keypad relates to that. Yes, said Arjun, of course people write SMS in their own local language, and that language is on the keypad. At which, he pulled his Hindi-enabled mobile from his pocket, and Isriya Paireepairit brought forth his Thai-enabled one. I took a photo of the phones side by side.

Both these languages have more letterforms than English, so while every English letter is listed, the Hindi and Thai keypad annotations take the form X-Z instead: a range. Since I’m more familiar with Thai, I can explain that the No. 2 key is used for five consonants from kaw to ngaw, the No 3 key for six consonants from jaw to yaw and so on. The star key evidently accesses the inline vowels, the zero key gives the superscript and subscript vowels, and the hash key gives the most common tone markers mai ek and mai to.

I find it interesting that this imposes a further requirement on the user: to know the order of their particular alphabet. Thus maw, raw and law are all accessed by multiple presses of key 7, but none of them are marked on the keytop.

MAKING AND ORGANISING KNOWLEDGE IN COMMUNITIES is the title of the conference which will be held in London on 9th October 2008; a joint endeavour of KIDMM (Knowledge, Information, Data and Metadata Management) and ISKO-UK (the UK chapter of the International Society for Knowledge Organization). The conference Web site is here.

KIDMM is a project with which I am very closely associated. It is probably best described as a ‘discussion community’, which primarily manifests as an email discussion list hosted on the JISCmail UK academic system, and this currently has 76 members. KIDMM arose initially from the recognition of a group of people, all active in different Specialist Groups of the British Computer Society, that knowledge, data and information — a whole lot of stuff which masses of computing power are now devoted to creating, storing and serving up access to — together formed a topic of interest across our Specialist Group boundaries. The organisation of KIDMM has remained informal, and membership of the community has now extended outside the BCS. The way things have evolved, there’s also a significant overlap of membership with ISKO-UK.

KIDMM ran a conference last year, the ‘MetaKnowledge Mash-up’, which was a great success. This year’s conference is in the same mould, but as the title suggests, has a focus on how knowledge can be elicited from members of a community of practice or community of interest, gatherd, organised, and turned into something useful. This is a hot topic in knowledge management, in industry and the public sector, and for professional and learned societies like the BCS.

The K word is a tricky one. As John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid remarked in their book The Social Life of Information,

We consider knowledge and learning… with some trepidation. On the one hand, epistemology, the theory of knowledge, has formed the centerpiece of heavyweight philosophical arguments for millenia. On the other, knowledge management has many aspects of another lightweight fad. That enemy of lightweights, The Economist, has pronounced it no more than a buzzword. We may, then, be trying to lift a gun too heavy to handle to aim at a target too insubstantial to matter.

This is an issue that I’ve spent quite some time thinking and reading about over the summer, since the decision to go ahead with this conference topic. So, one of my two substantive contributions to the event has been to write a literature and concept review which I hope will deploy some of the concepts we can usefully use in our discussions on the day. You are most welcome to download it (PDF).

As for my other contribution, that trial still stands before me. It’s relatively easy to organise a conference as an array of speakers (and I mean no disrespect to our speakers, we have a good line-up!) But we are keen to spend at least an hour in a set of parallel round-table discussion workshops, sharing ideas about how to maximise participation and knowledge sharing, using the new techniques that the Internet affords in addition to traditional tools such as meetings and publications. With less than two weeks to go, I must now turn my mind to how best to organise that session!

AS COMPUTER CHIPS get more compact and run faster, they also run hotter. Attaching radiator fins to their surface and blowing air over them are the usual solutions. But what happens when chips are stacked on top of each other to improve the flow of data between them in parallel processing? The heat-producing volume increases, while the heat-shedding surface gains very little.

The Economist Technology Quarterly, bound into the September 6th edition of the magazine, reports on IBM’s experiments in water-cooling such stacks of chips. Thomas Brunschwiler of IBM’s Zurich laboratory points out that processors stacked in this way generate heat at about two kilowatts per cubic centimetre, a greater density than in a nuclear reactor. Therefore the IBM team has developed a stacked processor through which water is pumped in channels, as thin as a human hair, etched in the process of silicon-chip fabrication. Nor need this heat be wasted: in compact multiple installations such as data centres, the heat can be exploited to warm community housing or other buildings.

Water cooling can also be applied to silicon-based solar cells. Another IBM researcher, Supratik Guha, has increased the efficiency of solar power by using mirrors to concentrate 2,300 times the normal intensity of sunlight onto a solar cell. Without water-cooling, the cell could reach 1,500 degrees Celcius and melt. The cooling system means that the cell is maintained at a safe temperature of 85 degrees C, and generates a record output of 70 watts per square centimetre: a very promising technology for economical electricity generation even in high-latitude countries.

Rashmi Sinha

Rashmi Sinha

SINCE I READ an interview with Rashmi Sinha in the Information Design Journal, I’ve followed her enterprises with great interest. Most recently she’s been involved with setting up and running, a place where you can upload your presentation slides — be they PowerPoint, OpenOffice or PDF — and share them either privately with an invited group or with the world.

Now, ordinarily that facility wouldn’t appeal to me. You see, when I prepare slides to accompany a talk, I don’t put much text on them. I believe that we’ve only got one language-processing centre in our brain and it has to cope with making sense of words whether they come in through the eye or the ear. So, making people read and listen to you at the same time is not a smart thing to do. A lot of the time, my slides just have pictures on them.

But I did get interested when I heard about ‘slidecasting’. That’s SlideShare’s term for linking an audio file to your slides and synchronising the turning of the slides to specific points in the audio file. It’s hardly a new idea, in fact it is reminiscent of the old slide-tape shows, but it could be an excellent way to ‘broadcast’ ideas over the Internet, and I thought I should give it a go.

The opportunity arose. On 17th September I am due to speak at an event on climate change organised by the British Computer Society’s Sussex Branch. I have to fit into a tight time-slot and though I usually speak from a handful of notes, this time I thought I should script my talk and time it. So here I had the perfect test case for slidecasting!

I don’t do PowerPoint, so I made my slides in Adobe InDesign CS3 by creating a document the pages of which measure 1024 points wide and 768 points high. Images were prepared in Illustrator and Photoshop. Finally, I exported the 42 pages as a PDF file, and this is what I uploaded to my SlideShare account.

HHB MiniDisc recorder with Røde studio mic in foreground and Sennheiser shotgun mic below.

HHB MiniDisc recorder with Røde studio mic in foreground and Sennheiser shotgun mic below.

Recording the audio

Audio is more of a challenge, but I quite frequently record conferences for the BCS and other organisations, and I also record voiceover narrative for video productions. My preferred kit for this purpose is an HHB professional MiniDisc recorder and a Røde condenser studio microphone. However, at the moment the HHB is sick, so that was out of the question.

Olympus DS50 audio recorder

Olympus DS50 audio recorder

My back-up recorder is very small indeed. It’s an Olympus DS-50. It has three sensitivity settings marked Dict, Conf and Lecture. The stereo microphone that plugs into it is actually quite good quality, considering. The audio is saved into the solid-state memory as Windows Media Audio (WMA) files, and there are five compressions one can choose from, and I always go for the most gentle.

So I took my script and chose the bedroom as the quieter place to record: it doesn’t face onto the river with all its traffic. I set the Olympus on Dictation-mode sensitivity to suppress as much background noise as possible and arranged a place for it quite close to my mouth, and made my recording. The thing to do is, if you fluff your lines or a magpie decides to add an accompaniment, you just repeat that paragraph and deal with it in the editing.

The Olympus attaches to the Macintosh as if it were an external USB drive and you copy the recording file across. Macs don’t much like WMA files but I’d bought Patrice Bensoussan’s EasyWMA audio converter plug-in for QuickTime ($10) and converted the file to AIFF for editing. I use Apple’s Soundtrack Pro for editing, chopping out the out-takes and suppressing intakes of breath. I thought the output from the Olympus sounded a bit ‘tinny’; the solution was to use the ‘Fat EQ’ filter to boost the lower frequencies until it sounded like me again.

I saved the result as mono AIFF and then took it into iTunes to convert it to MP3. My standard podcast settings use a data rate maximum of 56 kbps, 16 bits of precision, Variable Bit Rate and best quality conversion. The 23 minutes of speech came out slightly less than 10 MB.

Uploading and synchronising are quite generous in the size of presentations you can upload – up to 100 MB — but for now at least they won’t host your audio. You have to find somewhere from which audio will stream, and they recommend placing it on The Internet Archive, which is what I did (I already had an account there — it’s free to use, as is SlideShare.) Once you have copied the URL where your sound file sits, you paste that into a field on SlideShare, and the slides and audio are connected.

click image to enlarge!

SlideShare’s synchronisation tool: click image to enlarge!

I had feared that the synchronising of the slide-turns to the appropriate places in the talk would be tricky, and it was the most difficult part, but I soon got the hang of it. Considering that you are working with files on two different servers on the other side of the world, it’s quite amazing that it works at all! If you click on the thumbnail image of the screen shot, you’ll see my edit in progress. The slides ‘slide’ along in the upper channel, and the synchronisation workspace shows the waveform of the audio, which is something I feel very comfortable working with. The Audio Selector at the bottom wasn’t immediately intuitive to me; you slide it along to reveal another bit of the audio further on.

The red line in the Workspace is the ‘playhead’ and you play and pause the audio to find the sync points. I kept trying to stop and start the audio by hitting the space-bar because that’s what you do in iTunes, QuickTime and Soundtrack Pro, but not here! The process is a bit clumsy, and due to the latency across the Internet it’s a bit unresponsive at times. As you move the ‘slide x end’ line to where you want it, the next slide asks you to ‘Select this slide to synchronise’ and when you click on it, it dumps a new blue line close to the previous one. They you play along until you find the next sync spot, drag the rightmost blue line to that spot, and repeat.

It’s good. It works. It’s quite impressive. It’s all done with Flash technology. And it’s here (my first slidecast, I mean). It works full screen too, so you can really see detail if you want. My main gripe is that as my slidecast makes progress, the slides arrive later and later after the points that I had designated for synchronisation. I hypothesise that this may be because my slides have a great deal of graphic content?

IN TERRY PRATCHETT’S Discworld fantasy novels, the Unseen University at Ankh Morpork is home to the Hex computer [Wikipedia entry]. It’s ‘circuits’ are glass tubes through which millions of ants constantly run, hence the sticker on Hex that reads ‘Anthill Inside’ — an obvious pun on the ‘Intel Inside’ slogan. You can buy an ‘Anthill Inside’ sticker for your own computer too, as well as mouse-mats and other merchandise, from Paul Kidby.

Strangely, another connection between ants and computing has come to my attention. The connection is formic acid — the simplest carboxylic acid, with chemical formula HCOOH. The Southern Wood Ant, Formica rufa, which is Britain’s largest ant, is able to squirt this insecticidal acid several feet from an acidopore on its abdomen, and uses it as a weapon in the savage battles that often take place in the Spring between neighbouring colonies. The English naturalist John Ray, a Fellow of the Royal Society, first isolated formic acid in 1671 by crushing up ants and distilling them, and the name of the acid comes from the Latin word for ant.

Formic acid is now manufactured chemically and has a number of industrial uses: for example, I have watched Malaysian rubber-tappers add formic acid to organic latex to cause it to congeal into raw rubber.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a research group has devised a simple and safe proton-exchange fuel cell powered by formic acid. The cell converts oxygen and formic acid into carbon dioxide and water through a reaction that takes place on a palladium catalyst. The cells are said to be more efficient than direct-methanol fuel cells, and formic acid is also a safer fuel in case of leakage, as methanol is poisonous and can cause blindness.

Wood Ant, <i>Formica rufa</i>

Wood Ant, Formica rufa

The university has assigned an exclusive licence to manufacture formic acid fuel cells to Tekion, who are developing hybrid Formira™ power modules containing a lithium-ion rechargeable battery and a direct formic acid fuel cell, for use in laptops and mobile telephones. Which is why we can imagine running a laptop on ant juice.

WITH HYPERINFLATION IN ZIMBABWE currently running at over eleven million percent, the presses at the state-owned Fidelity Printers are finding it hard to keep up with demand. Within weeks of a new banknote denomination being created — for example, the Z$100 billion note released on 21st July and worth about 7 pence — it has almost entirely lost its value. Yet the presses are crucial in maintaining Mugabe in power: just imagine what would happen if the soldiers could no longer be paid.

On 24th July, The Guardian reported an unexpected threat to the Mugabe régime: the German company Giesecke & Devrient, which supplies the watermarked banknote paper on which the Zimbabwean currency is printed, cut off supplies under pressure from the German government. Harare has anxiously been trying to find an alternative supply, reportedly from Malaysia.

Intriguingly, the newspaper also reported that Fidelity were in a panic about the European software that they use to create the new banknote designs:

A source inside Fidelity Printers said the software issue had created an air of panic. “It’s a major problem. They are very concerned that the licence will be withdrawn or not renewed. They are trying to find ways around it, looking at the software, but it’s very technical. They are in a panic because without the software they can’t print anything,” he said.

The software in question is supplied by an Austro-Hungarian company, Jura JSP GmbH. Their ’GS’ high-security pre-press software suite is essentially a layout tool for banknotes and securities that also generates all the complex anti-forgery features needed.

However, also on 24th July, and obviously in response to the press speculation, the Jura Group put out a press release that was strangely self-contradictory. It included these statements:

The software delivered in 2001 in accordance with the contract allows only for the graphic design of banknotes, and serves in particular for applying forgeryproof security features on banknotes. It is stressed here that the production of banknotes using the software of JURA JSP can be ruled out for technical reasons. Therefore, the Mugabe regime can produce banknotes anytime without the software by JURA JSP – by loosing [sic]the high security features.

It is de facto impossible to prevent Fidelity Printers and Refiners (PVT) Ltd. from using the software, since the software was installed locally and cannot be removed by JURA JSP.

Mind you, it is odd to think of there being such panic about installing sophisticated security features on billion-dollar banknotes that can hardly buy a biscuit, and will be worthless in weeks. What forger would waste their time copying that?

It is equally odd to think that the ability of a goverment to pay its troops may rest in the hands of a few graphic designers and press operators.