Classification, MongoDB Operators, and Kitchen Chairs

ROCM: Representation, Organisation, Classification, and Meaning-Making was a required class when I did my Master of Information. At the time, I complained incessently about how useless it was, how I was never going to use any of it in real life… Well, I was wrong.

A cat laying upon a Roomba

Despite being sat upon in the kitchen, this is probably not a kitchen chair. Credit: barbostick

Yesterday morning, I spent about four hours thinking about ROCM as I reorganized MongoDB’s operators page. One of our professors had a tendency to ask “What makes a kitchen chair a kitchen chair? Is any chair in a kitchen a kitchen chair? Is anything you sit on? If you sat on your dog while he’s in the kitchen, is he a kitchen chair? If you carry a chair that’s usually in your kitchen into the living room, is it still a ‘kitchen chair’?”, etc. The “kitchen chair” metaphor became something of a meme among my cohort, one which inevitably gets brought up whenever we’re together.  The crux of the kitchen chair debate is the question of what makes stuff fit into the categories it fits into. This is really the issue that anyone involved in classification or organization has to grapple with, hopefully with the knowledge that no solution is perfect, but some are better than others.

This week, the question was “What makes these MongoDB operators fit together?”. Some groupings were obvious: the ‘Logical’ operators (‘or’, ‘and’, ‘not’, and ‘nor’) go together nicely. Same with the operators related to geospatial queries, and those specific to arrays. My problem was what’s left: the operators we’ve now classified as ‘Comparison’, ‘Element’, or ‘Evaluation’.  In a sense, the ‘Element’ category is ridiculous: by their nature, queries involve elements… for that matter, all queries involve comparison so the ‘Comparison’ category is a bit fraught as well. But what’s an IA-minded technical writer to do? Either give up and put them all in one long, awful list (which is unideal), or categorize as best you can, knowing that it won’t be perfect (also unideal). Clearly, I went with the latter.

I think the categories we settled on will be meaningful for our readers, while also being factually accurate, which is really the goal. The fact that there’s some weirdness is unfortunate, but sadly unavoidable.

The inevitable failure of classification systems is a central theme of Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star’s Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Bowker and Star’s examples really highlight the power of classification: they discuss tuberculosis patients, and the ways that wishy washy diagnoses ruined peoples lives; talk about the incredibly inconsistent and damaging categorization of people under Apartheid in South Africa, and discuss nursing interventions classification and its impact on both nurses’ and patients’ lives. Sorting Things Out is one of those texts that I cited in (nearly) every paper I wrote during my MI, because it always applied. At its core, the book is about highlighting the ways that classification is – or becomes – invisible, and how people grow to accept categories as natural.  As people who care about the ways that we structure information, recognizing the theory behind classification and its implications can make us better at determining an ideal structure for our use case, and at recognizing the ways that it might fail.

Sorting Things Out is on sale at Amazon right now, for under $20. I paid about $50 when I bought my copy, so now’s a good time to bone up. It’s a great read that has instilled in me the need to regard existing classification systems with a critical eye rather than accepting them at face value, and to be far more thoughtful when creating my own.

Back to School

We’ve been back at school for a week, and what a week it’s been! In a two year Master’s program, people pass through pretty quickly, so we who were the wide-eyed confused First Years of 2011-2012 are now the wizened (and somewhat cynical) Second Years of 2012-2013. A year is not a long time, but over the past twelve months we’ve developed a new shared vocabulary, been sensitized to issues that we probably hadn’t thought about in much detail prior to coming into the program, and forged new friendships.

The biggest difference that has struck me, though, is the critical streak that I find in myself which previously hadn’t been there. While I wouldn’t say that I’d been lazy or naïve in my thoughts about the internets or privacy or whatever prior to coming to the iSchool, I think that I chose to gloss over the downsides in order to focus on the positives: Google returns results based on your past browsing / search history — past Allison thought this seemed great, because the results that turned up were generally exactly what she was looking for and wanted to see; present Allison recognizes (and is mildly concerned) that there is a positive feedback mechanism at work here, which means that I’ll probably not see much that challenges me, disagrees with me or surprises me. Being exposed to new ideas is (almost) always a good thing, and when one gets the majority of one’s information from Google, there are limited opportunities to be challenged.

My program is a professional program: the majority of us are obtaining our Master of Information degrees in order to go out and work as librarians, archivists, systems designers, knowledge managers, information architects, projects managers, etc. A lot of us — myself included — wish that there was more practical instruction, that we learned more of the stuff we’ll need to use in our future workplaces, and less of the theory behind that stuff. I’ve been a fairly vocal proponent for including more of the practical skills that employers want, and I stand by that position. That said, I’m increasingly recognizant of the value of the theory components, and that learning to think critically about information issues is essential for all of us, as future information professionals/academics, and more generally as citizens of the ‘Information Age.’ I believe that training us to think can — and needs to — go hand-in-hand with training us to do.

I’m really pleased with my stream — as a systems design student, we develop more practical skills through our coursework than students in some of the other streams do. I complained a lot about the classes that were required when I began the program, the ‘Intro to …” classes, which are no longer required. I know I wouldn’t have taken some of them if they hadn’t been required, but as a wizened Second Year who is making connections between readings and concepts easily and with familiarity with the pertinent material, I’m glad I had to take them. I doubt I’d be as wizened without them.

I’m hopeful that next year’s First Years will find themselves in a program with an optimal balance of foundational and domain-specific knowledge, of practical instruction and theoretical, and that they get as much out of the program as I have thus far. I also hope that eight months from now future Allison will be writing about the awesome job I landed with my combination of practical and theoretical skills.

Wishbone, Carmen Sandiego, and why I know things

Last summer, my manfriend and I challenged each other to read the BBC’s Top 100 books list, The Big Read. The list is from 2003, but we’d seen the meme that was all over Facebook and decided to see who could get to one hundred first. I think we’re currently tied, but I’m reading Little Women in the hopes of sneakily overtaking him this summer. What I noticed looking over the list, though, was how many of the books I ‘knew’ – books whose plot lines and characters I could describe with reasonable precision and could speak about intelligently in conversation, despite never having read them.

To my embarrassment, it wasn’t the bunch of English Lit classes during my undergrad, general mad knowledges, or familial propensity to pick up random facts that could be of use should one find oneself playing Trivial Pursuit that resulted in my comfort with the material, but the fact that I watched Wishbone as a young person. I’ve since realized that PBS cleaned a lot of the stories up for a young audience – Sherlock isn’t a drug addict in the Wishbone version, for instance, but the general gist of the storyline has remained deeply embedded in my psyche years later.

In a similar vein, despite having spent a semester as a History and Geography major, and holding a B.Sc. that was roughly 25% Geography cases, most of my geographic and historical fun facts come from Where in the World and Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego. My familiarity with Yuri Gagarin is owed 100% to it being the last level of the Where in Time game I played – the only PC game I ever finished, I think… Any American History related to the Civil War? Wishbone. Marco Polo and the Silk Road? Carmen. Don’t even get me started on Miss Frizzle and the Magic School bus!

As tools for teaching – and for disseminating both information and knowledge, these TV shows and video games were extremely effective. Recently, my friend Justin directed me to the games that the Wellcome Collection has put out to accompany their exhibits. My European History prof alluded to the Opium Wars, but as a tool for teaching a lesser-known historical event, High Tea is both fun, informative, and compelling. As a tool for teaching history, commerce, economics, and forecasting, it is excellent, and could be a great departure point for interesting conversations for groups of all ages.

I think there’s something to be learned here: topics become more accessible when they are stimulating and interactive. Lots of cool people are studying gamification as ways to make people more environmentally friendly… or to make dull repetitive jobs less dull, but maybe there are other features we can take away to enhance communication at all levels, be it a boring government website, or a dynamic presentation in a classroom.

The difference between wanting an education, and wanting a degree

Students seem to fall into two categories: people who want the letters after their name, and people who want to learn. That might seem like an unfair distinction, and everything I’ve been learning this year has cheap mlb jerseys with stressed that categorizing anything into two distinct groups is wrought of peril, but it seems to remain an applicable (if not necessarily accurate) differentiation, and one cheap nfl jerseys that I’d like to drill into a bit.

When I was doing my B.Sc., wholesale nba jerseys I spent a miserable year in a major that did Microsoft not suit me in the least. I knew that it wasn’t the path for me from the third week, but I was committed, and my university would not allow me to change majors until the first year was over. Trying to excel at something you don’t care about is hard, and my grade in Ordinary Differential Equations clearly showed that. I was aiming for the bare minimum: to pass, preferably with cheap jerseys a Scanning C, rather than the pity-pass D. cheap nfl jerseys I missed the pity-pass, and I still have no idea what an ODE is, let alone how to deal with them. Moving into a program I cared about changed things: I put more signe time and energy into my studies, did Wood my readings, and went to see my professors when I had questions. I failed another class (one I cared very much about), through poor cheap jerseys planning rather than neglect, and rest assured, when I took it again, my study skills had improved, and my colour-coding obsessiveness had reached new heights. More importantly, rather than simply trying to learn the material, I tried cheap jerseys to understand it, and to this day it’s the class I remember most clearly and can discuss most enthusiastically. Rather than trying to pass, I tried watch to learn, and it was incredibly fulfilling.

I am currently working with a partner on a major assignment designing a database as well as a web interface to interact with it. We’ve improved our Python programming skills (mine, at the very least, have improved dramatically; I suspect she started off with some more skillz), become reasonably adept at Sliders writing reasonably complex MySQL queries, and challenged ourselves to do more than the assignment called for. We were expected to deal with sessions: we chose to do so with cookies, rather than the suggested ‘send a random number as the token on each page’; we were expected to provide a way to log in (based on existing data in the DB): we chose to allow users to both sign up and then log in. Doing extra probably won’t affect our grade (though I am hopeful it might raise us from an A to A+) but it has been incredibly instructive.

If we hadn’t decided to do Titel a bit ‘more’ than necessary, I’d still have no ideas how Cookies work, and I probably wouldn’t have learned as wholesale nfl jerseys much about HTML and CSS as I did. If I didn’t do (most of) my readings, I’d have a much smaller repertoire to draw on. If I wasn’t transit trying to get as much out of this program as I can, I’d feel like I’m wasting my time and my money. If I hadn’t failed Animal Diversity during my Undergrad, I wouldn’t have obsessively studied the evolutionary development of Animalia, and wouldn’t be able to draw a (roughly accurate) molecular phylogeny from memory. I’d have wasting the opportunity to really learn.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit excited that I’ll get to call myself a ‘Master of Information’ around this time next year. I would be lying if I said there was no part of me that likes the thought of having a bunch of letters after my name (or a ‘Dr’ in front of it) simply for the sake of having them (a larger part of me tends to say, “PhDs take ages, Allison… You do not do a cheap nba jerseys PhD for the Drhood”). It would, however, be horribly inaccurate to say that I’m currently spending two years of my life reading and writing and spending thousands of dollars and having no social life simply to be able to call myself Allison Moore, M.I.. At the end of the day, having the degree is not nearly as ???? useful as having the education, and I’m glad I’ve learned that.