Posts Tagged ‘Technology’
Did you know your tax dollars will soon be hard at work mining massive amounts of text?
It seems that Uncle Sam’s spy researchers are building “software sieves” that will be able to parse automatically what English, Farsi, Russian and Spanish speakers say and write, and pluck out the metaphors lurking in their streams of words.
The Intelligence Advanced Projects Research Activity (IARPA) wants to analyze and evaluate how people use metaphors, and then map that usage to their worldview, beliefs and mindset.
IARPA describes the Metaphor Program this way in a synopsis on its website:
“The Metaphor Program will exploit the fact that metaphors are pervasive in everyday talk and reveal the underlying beliefs and worldviews of members of a culture … performers will develop automated tools and techniques for recognizing, defining and categorizing linguistic metaphors associated with target concepts and found in large amounts of native-language text … the program will characterize differing cultural perspectives associated with case studies of the types of interest to the Intelligence Community.”
One fascinating aspect of the project is that IARPA sees metaphors as representing a general cultural mindset or worldview, rather than merely an individual’s expression of personal beliefs or attitudes.
This is interesting, because although it might be true that metaphors can influence your beliefs or how you perceive other people, events and issues, it is no doubt equally true that the arrows of influence can fly in the opposite direction. Maybe, just maybe, you can change your culture, even if only a little, by how you use language. Creativity and originality, anyone?
At any given moment, does your use of metaphors represent you, the individual, engaged in expressing your own ideas, which might run counter to those dominant in your culture or group? Or you, the “member of a culture” who merely echoes the received thematic mindset and attitudes associated with your kind?
And how could an outsider, a third-party someone (or software application) truly make that distinction with any accuracy?
As Alexis Madrigal points out in his superb article in The Atlantic: “[T]his project wants to parse, say, all the pages in Farsi on the Internet looking for hidden levers into the consciousness of a people … The assumption is that common turns of phrase, dissected and reassembled through cognitive linguistics, could say something about the views of those citizens that they might not be able to say themselves. The language of a culture as reflected in a bunch of text on the Internet might hide secrets about the way people think.”
Alright, then. What do the following metaphors say about Americans – not you as “an American,” mind you, but “Americans”? Because one implication (or perhaps, better: assumption) of the project appears to be that we are each more or less cultural cogs than we are individuals and, therefore, our use of metaphors shows “the consciousness of a people,” which tidily presumes we all agree on what a given metaphor means and only apply it to agreed-upon contexts and situations. Some American metaphors for your consideration:
That’s as American as motherhood and apple pie.
It’s not over ‘til the fat lady sings.
The best defense is a good offense.
He’s wearing cement booties and sleeping with the fishes.
A stitch in time saves nine.
He made it by the skin of his teeth.
May the force be with you.
Beam me up, Scotty.
Sow the seeds of progress.
They’re in default mode.
And those examples represent just “we the people” inventing and using common, every-day metaphors. What of those created by great writers, poets, scientists and thinkers?
Read any of Shakespeare’s works, say, or Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. What do the metaphors in those works say about their authors and their respective cultures?
For example, should the meaning(s) of Neruda’s metaphors be understood as saying something about the consciousness of the culture to which he belongs? And what, exactly, would that be? Do Neruda’s readers interpret his metaphors in the same way he does? If they repeat one of his metaphors, do they merely pass along the original (Neruda’s) meaning, or modify it, re-shape it, alter it and re-cast it to fit their own thinking, experiences and intent?
Let me tangentially note that many writers and editors (and readers, too) would call cultural metaphors, such as the examples in the list above, boring and unimaginative platitudes, or tired figures of speech, or hackneyed phrases, and frown on using them. Cultural metaphors are not, by definition, very original.
But do they capture the consciousness of an entire people? The truth of an entire culture?
Do they show how we understand ourselves, each other, and the world?
I think even attempting to build such a cultural-linguistic knowledge database that possesses the slimmest margin of accuracy will prove to be an extraordinarily challenging, complex, very long-term undertaking. The research will have to focus, in part, on word relationships, frames, logics, structures, processing rules, cognitive linguistics, syntactics, pragmatics, semantics, morphologies of various sorts, linguistic biases, permutations and combinations, probabilities, literal versus figurative speech, and … on and on it goes.
Language is a living substance. It is one of the outward expressions of the functioning brain. In essence, this project seeks to build a sort of linguistic Fast Fourier Transform to ingest the metaphorical statements of hundreds of millions of functioning brains and convert them into patterns that show the worldview, the consciousness, and the beliefs of their respective cultures.
What are the odds of such a project producing anything coherent, much less generating accurate, usable, actionable intelligence or insight?
If you view metaphors as cultural memes, you would do well to remember that a culture is a living organism, a society of minds in which ideas and thoughts constantly arise, emerge, evolve, transform, grow, replicate, mutate, decline, and die. Although the metaphors of any given time might mirror something about an individual as well as societal life, and vice versa, what is it?
The Metaphor Program promises to be great fun. This is one of the yummiest projects I’ve heard of in a long time.
What do you think of it? Do you feel like circling the wagons and hunkering down, or are you raring to saddle up and head out to join the effort and offer your metaphors to your country?
To help you decide, you might find it useful to read: What Do Metaphors Say?
Now it’s your turn: What do you think about the government poking around in your metaphors? Do you think such a project can capture the ceaseless realtime exchange of information between individuals and their culture, decode the meanings encrypted in metaphors, and interpret them in accurate and useful ways? Do you even like metaphors? Do you use them? Elizabeth Lexleigh LexPower The Write Ideas
Who says a PDF has to be just an e-version of the static printed page? Now you can offer your readers a rich, multimedia experience by including video in your PDF documents. Although many documents could be made more useful and engaging by adding short video segments, customers and users may find such a feature especially helpful in reference guides, how-to tutorials, and training procedures.
Many writers create documents using content-authoring software like Adobe FrameMaker, Microsoft Word, MadCap Flare, or the OpenOffice word processor. As far as I know, all of these companies have a document-to-PDF guide on their website. If you are working with FrameMaker, for example, you’ll find the conversion guide under Resources.
Are you among those who already use video-capture software to create video segments? Then no doubt you are probably familiar with names like SMRecorder, HyperCam, Camtasia Studio, Adobe Captivate, and CamStudio, among others. If you’re new to these (and similar) packages and want to get a feel for what they can offer, take a look at CNET Download.com for reviews of Camtasia Studio as well as links to reviews of the others.
Once you’ve got your document and video files ready to roll, how to munch and crunch everything into one fabulous PDF?
Use Adobe Acrobat 9 Pro (and Extended Pro) or Acrobat X to embed video directly in the PDFs you create. (By the way, if you have ever wondered about embedding a flash file (*.flv or *.swf format) in a PDF, yes, your users will need a flash player to view the file. Fortunately, about 99 percent of internet users already have flash player installed.)
When you create a PDF, Acrobat will allow you to embed the video directly in the PDF file, or embed a link to a remotely hosted video.
Here is an Acrobat X Pro step-by-step guide to inserting rich media into PDF documents.
And here are some links to video tutorials that show the embedding process:
These resources can help you easily learn how to embed videos in PDF files.
At long last, you can turn those ho-hum, static PDFs into media-rich productions that will boost your users up the learning curve.
Now it’s your turn: If you embed videos in PDF files, which packages do you prefer, and why? Have you discovered any pitfalls to avoid? Can you recommend any helpful tips and tricks? Please leave comments to share your thoughts – thanks! Elizabeth Lexleigh LexPower The Write Ideas
Around 1980, some companies and organizations, notably the aerospace industry and the branches of the U.S. military, began to re-think how they presented technical information. Their products were complex, and their maintenance, troubleshooting and product-support requirements were stringent and time-consuming.
They knew they needed to improve performance, reduce errors, and shorten learning timelines. But how?
As it happened, they looked at emerging computer technologies and wondered if moving from paper to an electronic format would improve results. Among their questions:
- Would users find it easier to learn and use the material?
- Would they reduce errors and improve performance?
- Could they integrate documentation with other systems?
- Could they save money?
Tests with interactive electronic formats showed positive results and so, encouraged, the companies and the military forged ahead into the world of Interactive Electronic Technical Manuals (IETM).
Since that time, we have seen IETM systems develop a variety of features, with most using one or more of the following:
Linear Structure. This sort of electronic document is based on the structure and layout of a printed book and uses navigational aids, such as a table of contents and a list of figures, that hyperlink into the content. A PDF file is a good example.
Nonlinear Structure. These online documents are organized around the logic of the product or task, for example, instead of following a linear book-type structure. However, the concept of a static page remains. As you would expect, there are lots of hyperlinks and other navigational aids. This type of document is often authored in a markup language.
Dynamic Data. These online documents are very nonlinear in structure. Content and pages are dynamic, drawing much of their data from relational databases and data dictionaries. Background programming automatically updates the dynamic data when the databases and dictionaries are updated. Hyperlinking in these documents is typically very complex and is, therefore, usually handled by programming. Content may also be context-specific and user-specific.
Integrated with Expert Systems. As companies build databases of heuristics and expert feedback, these can be integrated with the IETM system to improve the user experience and results. This information can be dynamically mapped into documents in all sorts of ways. For example, feedback by expert troubleshooters about errors and how to resolve them is sought after by companies across the product and process spectrum.
New Frontier—Multiple Devices. Many companies are now changing the way they and their customers think about IETM. From design concept to reality, they are experimenting with unleashing product support through all sorts of channels, for example: Mobile devices such as tablets and phones, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, websites, CDs, PDF, print, wikis, and blogs.
The new frontier of IETM seems to call for a “basket” of delivery platforms, each carefully selected for a certain type of content.
And no matter the platform, content rules. As ever.
Content must be organized in a way that suits the product, the audience, and its intended use. Content must be consistent across multiple platforms, well structured, properly modularized, cross-referenced and completely accessible by a full range of search and navigational features.
IETMs and their spin-offs present design, writing and production challenges, but produce a better user experience and greater performance improvements over stand-alone paper documents.
For more on creating an interactive user experience, see my recent post Let Your Customers Tweet in Your Documents.
Now it’s your turn: Does your company use IETMs? On which delivery platforms? How would you describe your experience implementing IETMs? Do you think the results are worth it? Please share your thoughts and questions about IETMs in comments. Elizabeth Lexleigh LexPower The Write Ideas
Could 3-D laser scanners become the next breakthrough tool in business and technical communication?
According to Wikipedia, a 3-D laser scanner is a “device that analyzes a real-world object or environment to collect data on its shape” as well as its surface textures and colors. This produces a high-definition map, a sort of “point cloud” of collected data, which can “then be used to construct digital, three dimensional models useful for a wide variety of applications.”
One such application currently underway is to “back up history,” a process by which preservationists use portable 3-D laser scanners to make digital records of at-risk landmarks around the world. The non-profit group CyArk calls these high-resolution scans “reality capture.”
The U.S. National Center for Preservation Technology and Training also intends to launch projects in the preservation field in order to “use the 3-D images to show changes in the structure and color” of objects.
And Popsci reports on “the coolest backpack ever: a wearable collection of cameras and lasers that maps the interiors of buildings as it goes, instantly generating photo-real 3-D maps of structures.”
In addition to documenting cultural artifacts and building interiors, such scanners can be used in industrial design, prosthetics design, prototyping, engineering and quality control, among many other potential applications.
Does your company use 3-D laser scanners to document products? Do you think this technology is feasible and realistic for most companies?
Would you, as a business or technical communicator, like to use this technology in your work?
Please leave comments to share your ideas on using 3-D laser scanning as part of product and process documentation. Elizabeth Lexleigh LexPower The Write Ideas
How often do we need teaching and training materials of some type?
I’m sure you’ll recognize these common formats, which can be presented in a variety of media: teaching aids, guides, manuals, tutorials, procedures, documentation, directions, textbooks, applied exercises, and workbooks.
If you are a business writer or a technical writer, then you already know that writing training materials is one of the most frequent projects in the workplace. You also know that this type of writing has lasting consequences for your audience and affects your company’s success in the marketplace. How best to meet the needs of your audience? Which techniques really work to help achieve your company’s training objectives?
If you are a teacher or a trainer, whether in a school or a corporate classroom, you’re aware of the constant need to find innovative, effective methods of teaching your subject. It’s a never-ending hunt for new ideas and approaches, isn’t it?
If you are a lifelong learner, you know the impact that really good teaching materials can have on how well you learn, and whether you can apply your new knowledge. But it’s easy to forget the details as the years wear on, and maybe there are some aspects of a subject you just never really got around to learning, but would like to. Wouldn’t it be great to have another resource that supplied that information for you whenever you wanted it?
As Fortune Would Have It, Here Is Something You May Find Worthwhile
Khan, who created the 1,600-plus titles in the video library, states on the site that his library has become the “most-used educational video resource as measured by YouTube video views per day and unique users per month.” In addition to creating more videos, he is also busy enhancing his ever-growing library with user-paced exercises.
Oh, and did I mention that it’s all free? The goal of “the Khan Academy [is] to become the free classroom for the World.”
The website offers short videos (about 15 minutes each), which provide mini-lectures about a slew of subjects, ranging from mathematics to the sciences to history to finance/banking to current economics, and more.
The tutorials are conversational and low-key. Viewers see an electronic blackboard on which Kahn doodles and diagrams and draws as he speaks, communicating his concepts in a way that is easy to understand. The short segments convey the substance of each topic in a memorable way.
Learning Is Fundamental to Our Success
Writer, trainer or learner, we can all agree that teaching and learning are fundamental to our success as individuals, as companies and as a country.
And we can all benefit from exploring different ways of teaching and learning. No one has cornered the market on methodology, and new technologies can expand our horizons. We should be open to new possibilities and curious about discovering fresh ways of communicating ideas and knowledge.
Khan’s playlist of tutorials now gets an average of 70,000 hits a day, according to the Fortune article. Clearly, he’s offering something that many people the world over find very useful. What about you?
What do you think of Khan’s teaching library? If you are a writer, does it give you any new ideas to apply in creating training materials? If you are a teacher or trainer, do you find his approach usable in your own work?
Please leave comments to share your thoughts and insights with the rest of us. Elizabeth Lexleigh LexPower The Write Ideas
While business writing and technical writing can be used to accomplish many goals, one of their most important purposes is to generate knowledge value.
Writing that offers knowledge value has one or more of the following attributes:
Offers New Value. This is writing that transmits new information: perhaps a new discovery, or a better process for getting a job done, or new scientific knowledge, for example. One of its key characteristics is that it makes us aware of meaningful pattern(s) in sets of data.
Offers Enhanced Value. This writing creates something new by juxtaposing older information in ways that provide new understanding or insight. In mashing up already known content, facts and information, it synthesizes knowledge in an innovative way and provides a fresh perspective.
Solves a Problem. When writing solves a problem, it helps someone to get a job done. Here, I think of the term “job” in a fluid sort of way: task, activity, mission, purpose, venture, goal, interest, endeavor, undertaking. If your readers can use what you write to accomplish something they need or want to do, then what you have written solves a problem for them.
Is Perceived As Useful. If your readers find that your writing offers value and solves problems, they will judge it to be useful to them. A useful piece of writing is a knowledge asset. It has worth and significance beyond the immediate benefit to the reader it helps.
Business, science and technology depend on writing that can generate knowledge value in order to grow and flourish. Workers in these fields know that creating meaning from a constant overflow of information is paramount to success. Meaning is their story; story is the nut of it.
Could we go so far as to say: “Tell a good story and they will come to you”?
As writers, how can we help manage and direct the deluge of data and information to create knowledge value and, thus, meaning? It seems to me that this is one of our key responsibilities – do you agree or not? Elizabeth Lexleigh LexPower The Write Ideas