Category Archives: Words and language

Interactive Mapping – too cool a tool?

Some years ago, my friend Justin showed me a copy of Visual Thesaurus. I squealed with delight, which is always embarrassing at work. Click on the image below to see why.  (All the images in this post link to the examples, by the way).

Visual Thesaurus

Visual Thesaurus

Recently I came across an open source version of the technology underlying Visual Thesaurus at spicynodes.org.

What am I talking about?  Well, this is a way to present information so that people can explore it in a naturalistic way by clicking from concept to concept in an interactive ‘map’.  But seductive though it is, it’s  not always the best way to present information.

The Good

This approach is helpful when you want to hide the options you reject.  This can be with a rich and complex subject (the Visual Thesaurus) or a simple tree structure, as with the catalogue below.   It may not be the best choice for a catalogue but in this case I think it works.

A good example of the tool, used as a catalogue

This catalogue works well

It helps if the subject matter is well understood: this example covers the solar system and seems to have been abandoned, which is a shame.  If you click Sun > Mars > Phobos you realise what a neat explanation of the solar system this could be.

Solar System

Providing information on a familiar subject

The technology also lends itself to certain forms of artistic endeavour, I like this one in particular:

Poetry Site

A poetic journey

It’s also been used with reasonable success to  deliver Haiku

I think the technology lends itself to this sort of artistically guided happenstance, and I can certainly imagine an artistic installation along these lines.

The Bad

I looked at well over a hundred of these maps, and those the best. The worst are dreadful.

Do not use this technique if your users are likely to want to step backwards and forwards through the navigation.  This is how people navigate when they want to be sure they”ve not missed anything.  SpicyNodes own home page shows how exasperating this approach can be.

Spicy Nodes Home Page

Spicy Nodes own home page

Don’t use it when a simpler tool would do.  Whoever created the example below was on top of their data, but their information would be much better presented in the form of bulleted slides. Using the interactive map just makes it unnecessarily fussy:

Migrating Sales Online

A bulleted list would be better

Here we see how important it is to get the hierarchical structure right. The map below is an A-Z of the world’s nations. But wouldn’t it have been more interesting to have them organised by geographical region? If you want an A-Z list, then I think a simple A-Z list would be better and would take up less space.

A-Z of Nations

A-Z But is this the best use of the space?

And this is the worst scenario of all: a navigation tool for a web-site.  It actually subtracts value, because it takes up the whole page and makes it hard to view the content of the site in a logical sequence. It’s a relief to know the organisation concerned has a traditional side and top navigation structure.

Site Navigation

Site Navigation - high on gimmick and short on benefit

Finally, I wasn’t sure how to categorise this map (which I found fascinating, by the way).  It would make a good teaching aid but it’s not particularly good for conveying information.

Study Notes

Teaching Aid

So where does that leave us?

Firstly it’s clever but not necessarily helpful. In fact mapping something this way is only useful when people know what they want to find out and want to ignore everything else: if they need an even view of the whole subject matter then this is not the tool to use.

Secondly it’s good for a certain type of artistic expression; it wouldn’t surprise me to see something like this in a gallery.

And finally, creating this sort of map is time-consuming and you really have to understand your data well, and so do your users.

I struggled to think of a situation where this would be the best tool for presenting data so I decided to go the artistic route, and see if it added anything to the experience of the sort of poem with repeated lines.

Vilanelle - Dylan Thomas' Do not go gentle into that good night

Dylan Thomas's Villanelle - Do not go gentle into that good night

I have to conclude that it doesn’t, but it was fun trying.


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Separated by a common language

We are used to language and geography indicating cultural differences, and it’s easy to forget that cultural differences exist just fine even when linguistic and geographical boundaries are removed.  There’s a shock of surprise when people whose entirely understandable words are only a click away turn out to have different assumptions, different beliefs, different attitudes and different cultural references.

One of the things that’s still cool about the web is that it gives us un-mediated access to other people.  Quite literally so.  It lets us find other people’s words without filtering them through TV or Film or News or any other medium.  Simply clicking around WordPress here gives me access to all sorts of people with all sorts of attitudes and all sorts of beliefs. But because they write in English, it’s all to easy for me to assume that we have far more in common than in fact we do.  It’s only when I read what they have say that I realise that one of us is barking. The apparent transparency of the internet shows us just how culturally fractured the English-speaking world actually is, but we have to be paying attention to notice it.

The Son of Roj Blake commented on how easy it is for cultural references to just whizz past in his remarks about the opening credits of The Watchmen:

how many 18 year olds (or anyone, for that matter) would recognise or be able to explain the significance of (in order):
– the Enola Gay at 0:51
– the subversion of an iconic photo from Times Square at 1:11 (in our universe, that nurse was kissed by a sailor, and the photo made the cover of Time magazine. You can see the sailor in the background…)
– would they know who the guy shaking Dr. Manhattan’s hand at 2:28 is? Would they recognise his wife on the left?…

He’s right: those references are accessible and inaccessible at the same time. They are accessible because it is a globally released English-language film and they are inaccessible because they are culturally specific to one nation and one generation. I finally understand the point that George Bernard Shaw was making when he said: ‘England and America are two nations separated by a common language’.

This separation is invidious because we don’t expect it.  We try harder when there are linguistic barriers because we actively expect differences in attitudes and beliefs and cultural references and we cut some slack accordingly or make an effort to bridge the gap.  As Obelix says so often in the Asterix books:

These Germans / British / Spanish / Romans are crazy…

Take those linguistic barriers away and all sorts of odd things happen.  We can miss cultural references without even knowing we are missing them as SoRB observed with the Watchmen trailer. But we assume a greater similarity than there is, which is one of the reasons that Sarah Palin seemed unreal to Britons, like some kind of bizzare caricature.  She was almost impossible for us to understand: we had no concrete cultural references for her. If her foreignness had been signalled by a foreign language we might have recognised the cultural differences for what they were.  We would have realised that she was real and not some engineered cross between Barbie and Lara Croft.

As with so many things, Douglas Adams put his finger deftly on it when he described that instantaneous and universal translator the Babel fish:

Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.
The Hitch Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams.

I’m still thinking this whole thing through, but the long and the short of it is that the world is a whole lot more multi-faceted and culturally fractured than we think.  The internet appears to break down barriers and boundaries, but in fact as any comments thread on YouTube shows us those barriers and boundaries are alive and well.


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How to improve your writing – 2

This the second of my occasional posts on writing simply and clearly, and here we consider how to tidy up a piece of text once you’ve got something written down. Examples are drawn from How to improve your writing 1 – the first part of this two-parter.

Work out what your verbal tics are, and edit your text to remove them

Make this a habit.   Here are some examples:

  1. Remove all adverbs and adjectives and see what is left
  2. Adverbs and adjectives are words that describe or qualify other words (the red balloon burst loudly). The following text won a Golden Bull in 2008 from the Plain English campaign:

    ‘Our goal at Balfour Beatty is to deliver consistent, long-term growth to our shareholders ... By becoming the partner of choice tosophisticated owners in our chosen disciplines and geographies, we believe we will achieve secure, industry best margins in ourcontracting activities and substantial, sustainable equity returns from our long-term investment portfolio.’

    As you can see, this isn’t much better but it has helped us work out if the text contained anything of substance and how to re-organise it.

    Our goal is to deliver long term growth to our shareholders, and we believe we’ll achieve this by becoming the partner of owners in our disciplines and geographies.

    Sometimes, when you do this you’ll discover that what you’ve written goes round in circles.  If it does, cut it out.

  3. Turn the passive voice into the active voice.
  4. Making up an example was quicker than finding one.  The passive voice is considered to be particularly bad in process documentation because it is easy to forget about an actor who is never mentioned.

    This becomes:

    I found it quicker to make up an example than find one.  I particularly dislike it when a writer or analyst uses the passive voice in process documentation (the mat is sat upon) because I have no idea who is doing the sitting (the cat, presumably).

  5. Look out for and eliminate any personal tics you may have.
  6. I have a fondness for -ing verbs.  Here are some that I’ve cut out from an earlier version of this post:

    This is about getting across information or ideas  …  anything which is just expanding or supporting the main points … the most important point you are making …  preparing our audience with subsidiary points and building up to a conclusion …

    You have already seen how I got rid of those.

Don’t worry that you’ll  squeeze all the character out of your writing because you won’t: it is more important to be clear than quirky and you can be quirky and clear at the same time.

Have fun.


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How to improve your writing – 1

How do you improve your writing skills?  I was asked this recently, and here are Ben’s Top Tips.  It does depend on what sort of thing you are writing of course, but if you want to communicate clearly and quickly there are some definite dos and don’ts.  First, let me recommend you do a warm-up.

Practice writing summaries

The more often you practice sorting the wheat from the chaff and discarding the chaff, the more you will  improve how well you write.  At the same time, you’ll learn to pick out the key points in what you read more quickly, and your critical thinking skills will improve.  It’s  a triple whammy, which  is why I have put it at the top of the list.

Writing a précis or summary is simple but that doesn’t mean it is easy: take almost any piece of text, estimate the number of words in it (count the number of words in the first ten lines, divide by 10 and multiply by the number of lines), and re-write it at one third of its original length.  Or a fifth. Or a tenth. This forces you to work out what it actually says (not always easy) and to get rid of supporting points and padding.  It gets easier with practice and there is no substitute.  I really cannot recommend this enough.

The Pyramid Principle

This is Barbara Minto’s not mine – so read the details in her book.  This isn’t an exercise: this is how you write clear and simple prose.

Put your most important point first and then expand on it in an orderly way. We find it hard to write like this because talking works best the other way round: we soften up our audience with minor points and deliver a knock-out conclusion. It is easy to hold someone’s attention when you are talking to them, but  a reader’s attention will wander off if they don’t know why they are reading something. Your writing is not a joke: it doesn’t require a set-up and a punch-line.

To test if you’ve got this right, read the first line of each paragraph and skip the rest.  If a reader can do this and get all your key points then you’ve followed the pyramid principle. Think of this as turning bullet points into prose if you must.

This discipline improves your thinking skills: you have to know what your key points are to make each one the first sentence of a new paragraph, and it soon becomes painfully obvious when your thoughts are muddled or vapid.

This is time consuming but rewarding.  It is time consuming because it forces you to review the text several times and to move ideas up and down the page like pieces in a puzzle.  But it is rewarding because you cut out duplication and your final text is easy to read and understand.

This was originally the first part of a longer post, but I’ve decided to split it in two.  These are the most important points anyway, and I didn’t want to confuse you.

No-one gets it right the first time, so the final tip is: revise, revise, revise.


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Shock news: Post-modernist says something interesting

George Orwell's 1984If communication is the key to knowledge work, then why do people communicate like this:

We present immaterial labour 2.0 as an ambivalent modality of both biopower and biopolitical production, and as an exemplar of the paradigm shift underway in our interface with popular culture, media, and information and communication technology.

I had to stop and translate it word for word. Let’s assume that ‘immaterial labour 2.0’ means something: let’s call it ‘working with web 2.0 tools’. Ok, I’ve translated jargon into other jargon, but I do at least understand the second lot. So:

We present working with web 2.0 tools as an ambivalent modality of both biopower and biopolitical production … etc

I’m going to assume that ‘ambivalent modality’ means ‘a form that’s hard to pin down’. It may not, but let’s go with that for now:

We present working with web 2.0 tools as a form of both biopower and biopolitical production that is hard to pin down… etc

But what is ‘biopower’? Or ‘biopolitical production’?  It’s no surprise that a quick google uncovers Foucault. Wikipedia, bless it, says this:

Biopower was a term originally coined by French philosopher Michel Foucault to refer to the practice of modern states and their regulation of their subjects through “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations.”

Ok… leaving aside that it’s defined as the increase in techniques and not the techniques themselves, we now have:

We present working with web 2.0 tools as a form of both the explosion of techniques for controlling people and biopolitical production that is hard to pin down, and … etc

The first and simplest definition of ‘biopolitical’ in Wikipedia is ‘the style of government that regulates populations through biopower (the application and impact of political power on all aspects of human life)’.

So this gives us:

We present working with web 2.0 tools as a form of control and subjugation of people by governments and other bodies that is hard to pin down, and as an exemplar of the paradigm shift underway in our interface with popular culture, media, and information and communication technology.

Actually that’s interesting!. Web 2.0 tools aren’t nice and friendly; they are the very stuff of Orwellian supervision? Mmmm.  Much the conclusion of Wiki vs Word (my previous post): the main differences is the audit trail which is the very stuff of accountability.  But why use the word ‘exemplar’ when you could say ‘example’?

We present working with web 2.0 tools as a form of control that is hard to pin down, and as an example of the sea change in how we use popular culture, media, and information and communication technology and how they affect us.

In other words: Big Brother is LinkedIn

No kidding. This is moderately interesting, expecially in the context of the work-place.  It has also taken me 45  minutes to translate a single paragraph and, of course, other meanings can be constructed.

Am I going to read the whole thing? Maybe I will, now I know what it’s about. But why write like that? It’s off-putting and it hides stuff which, on this occasion at any rate, is really interesting.

Anyway, here it is, for what it’s worth:

Learning to Immaterial Labour 2.0: MySpace and Social Networks
Mark Coté and Jennifer Pybus

Learning to Immaterial Labour 2.0:
MySpace and Social Networks
Mark Coté and Jennifer Pybus

PS – I still have no idea what the verb ‘to immaterial’ means.


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A whole new place for an apostrophe

Sorry about this.  I promise I will only ever post the really odd ones.  I’ve never before seen an apostrophe here.  It’s when it should be its, yeah.  And the other way round.  But not its’. I’m impressed.

Apostrophe madness at Kew

Apostrophe madness at Kew

This is from one of the gift shops in Kew Gardens or Kew Gardens’ as we should presumably write it.

Simple vows for singletons

Today I found out something interesting about individuality, which seems a useful thing to explore a couple of weeks before I marry.
My fiance and I spent this morning sitting outside a cafe working out what wedding vows we want to use. We are having a humanist ceremony and are enjoyong the freedom that gives us. However, many of the people who suggest vows and readings for weddings combine a tin ear for language and a sweetly romantic view of love, producing the verbal equivalent of a Thomas Kinkaid painting. (Look for the positive in each other? For sure, but not in those terms). We’ve had to trim and shape much of what we found.
It’s a truism that the newer the word, the more weasily it will be. Shakespeare and Chaucer could handle the big stuff like love and life and death and taxes so we were pruning out jargon, psychobabble and bullcrap.
However, we struggled with one idea.  We respect each others’ individuality and are pretty good at not projecting our own nuroses on to each other and we do at least know we shouldn’t burden each other with expectations. But could we find simple language for it?  Could we ever.
In the end we realised that it’s because the idea of the individual, in particular the rights of the individual, comes from the Reformation and the Enlightenment.  It’s not an idea that is easy to express in simple non-latinate English.
Interesting, huh?

Today I confirmed something about individuality, which is that it hasn’t been around that long.  An interesting thing to remind myself of less than three weeks before I marry.

My fiancé and I sat outside a cafe this morning working out what wedding vows we want. (It will be a humanist ceremony and we are enjoying the freedom it gives us). However, many of the suggested vows and readings were written by people who combine a tin ear for language and a sweetly romantic view of love, producing the verbal equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting. (Look for the positive in each other? For sure, but not in those terms). We had to trim and shape much of what we found.

It’s a truism that the newer the word, the more weasily it is. Shakespeare and Chaucer handled the big stuff like love and life and death and taxes just fine, so words that were good enough for them were good enough for us.  We happily pruned away the jargon, psychobabble and bullcrap, drank tea and coffee and watched the world go by.

However, we struggled with one idea.  We value each others’ individuality and are pretty good at not projecting our own neuroses on to each other, and we do at least know we shouldn’t lay expectations on each other. But could we find simple language for it?  Could we ever.

In the end we realised that it’s because the idea of the individual, in particular respecting the rights of the individual, comes from the Reformation and the Enlightenment.  Chaucer and Shakespeare lived in a world where people were subjects not citizens, where god was in his heaven and every now and again divinely appointed a king.  So respecting the individual is not an idea that is easy to express in simple non-latinate English.  Before Luther, no-one needed or used the words.

Interesting, huh?