Saturday, April 23, 2005

I've looked at clouds from both sides now

Last week was hard (see previous two posts) and this week was very busy, but I thought it was time to climb back on the saddle and send another blog entry.

Tag clouds: I think I knew what they were before I knew what they were called. I read a couple of blogs about this recently and it started me thinking.

The first time I became consciously aware of the term tag cloud was in Jeffrey Zeldman’s post Tag clouds are the new mullets. He linked to a few others, but I knew I’d already seen it on and Flickr. I also went back to David Warlick's blog entry More Right than Wrong. In it, he describes how impressed he was with the idea that he wrote his own program to produce them for the blog software he maintains.

{Just to note in the passing, that's why I'll never be an international educational speaker. I see tag clouds and think, "Interesting". David Warlick sees them and thinks, "I could do that!" I am interested in how children learn to program (in general, the answer is, "badly"!) but Seymour Papert thought, "I know, I'll write the Logo programming language."}

Tag clouds are eye-catching and only vaguely useful and yet there is something strangely interesting about them. The main thing that captured my attention about tags though was John talking about a flat hierarchy. It sounds like an oxymoron (like military intelligence) but it chimed with other stuff I'd been wanting to blog about. I've wanted to talk about desktop search utilities for a while, but John's blog on flat hierarchies pushed me into actually doing this blog entry instead.

John notes that although storing information in nested folders is the way we've always done it in computing, it has many drawbacks. The main difficulty can be illustrated by the commonest of problems faced by novice users: the "I saved my work, but now it's gone" syndrome. Almost always it is not that it's gone, usually it's just that the user doesn't know where it is. Saving things in the "correct" folder takes discipline. Even if you are well organised, which I'm not, what do you do with items that fit into more than one category? For example, if I create a Powerpoint presentation that I use with both the BEd students and the PGDE students, where do I store it so that I know I'll be able to find it next year? With the BEd stuff? With the PGDE stuff? In a presentations folder? All of the above? ...

Tags and flat hierarchies cut through this by allowing you to use as many tags as you wish and then use a search tool to let you find what you need. Brilliant! You do the hard work of creating the stuff in the first place and let the computer do the grunt work of storing it and helping you find it later. A very sensible division of labour in my opinion!

There is a problem though. Windoze's search utility is slow beyond belief, pretty dim, and it is slow. (Did I mention how slow it is?) Mac users are probably feeling a bit smug at the moment as OS X has three search options and all of them are better than Windoze search (in my humble opinion). However, desktop search utilities exist for Windoze and they allow you to stop worrying about structuring folders, and sorting stuff into the right place, and concentrate on getting and using your stuff instead. I use Copernic because I got it on a CD ROM from the front of a PC magazine, but Google Desktop Search looks like it does the same sort of thing (I suspect there are others – does anybody out there have a favourite?). They search not just for the names of documents, but are smart enough to look inside most common file formats and search the text within documents too. Most importantly they are fast!

This has to be the future of storing information on computers. I would be more than happy to use a system that doesn't ask me stupid questions about where I want to store stuff, but just saves it and then brings it back to me whenever I want to find it again.

I wonder when (or if) I'll ever get an operating system that takes care of the filing so that I can get on with the creating?

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Alicia said...

I noticed you mentioned I am a Masters of Library Science student and future teacher, doing my final project for my MLS degree on for Teachers. I am collecting information on teachers currently using Why they are using it, how they are using it, what benefits they get from That sort of thing. If you have anything to share about your experience, please comment here or email me! Thanks!

David said...

Hello Alicia

Thanks for your comment. I've visited your blog and I'll try to get around to writing something there soon. I might even have a go at a full blog article here at edcompblog... but don't hold your breath - I've never been very good at making regular posts.