16.384 thinking with the technologies

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Fri Dec 13 2002 - 03:16:59 EST

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 384.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                         Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

       [1] From: Norman Hinton <hinton@springnet1.com> (16)
             Subject: Re: 16.380 thinking with the technologies

       [2] From: "C. M. Sperberg-McQueen" <cmsmcq@acm.org> (96)
             Subject: Re: 16.380 thinking with the technologies

       [3] From: Leo Robert Klein <leo@leoklein.com> (14)
             Subject: Re: 16.380 thinking with the technologies

             Date: Fri, 13 Dec 2002 07:54:53 +0000
             From: Norman Hinton <hinton@springnet1.com>
             Subject: Re: 16.380 thinking with the technologies

    Willard, this is the best possible way of looking at the problem: it's
    what I would expect from you, and if things work that way, it's

    Over the past 30+ years, though, l I've seen, over and over again,
    people doing types of investigations because the technology leant itself
    to the particular kind of approach -- apparently without any attempt to
    make the technology work for them instead of the other way around. A
    good example is the proliferation of KWIK concordances, whether we need
    the or not. I truly prefer deciding what I want to do and then forcing
    the technology to do it, or failing that, gong ahead and doing it
    without the technology,even though that may slow my work down by factors
    of ten and prevent me from getting the job done for a year or so. (Or in
    one case, for a decade.) I guess it's what Humpty Dumpty said -- "the
    question is who's to be master, that's all."

    And of course it's also fun to learn the technology well enough to see
    ways to make it do things it isn't 'supposed' to do.

             Date: Fri, 13 Dec 2002 07:53:36 +0000
             From: "C. M. Sperberg-McQueen" <cmsmcq@acm.org>
             Subject: Re: 16.380 thinking with the technologies

    At 2002-12-12 00:27, in 16.380, Willard McCarty wrote:

          So how do we not get trapped within the scope defined by any
          particular tool? I think this must be *very* difficult. A kind of
          controlled two-(or more-)mindedness, a detached engagement, seems
          the only answer.

    It's good to hear you mention two-mindedness; I had been tempted to
    reply to your earlier query (in Humanist 16.372):

          A technical question: what might be reliable criteria for
          determining when a given research problem involving textual data
          is approached with relational database technology, when with text
          encoding? A related non-technical question: how does one cultivate
          the ability to keep such questions always in mind? As has been
          said, we tend to view each thing as something to be hammered with
          the hammer in hand.

    by observing that the solution is to cultivate a knowledge of a larger
    toolkit, in order to have something more than a hammer ready to hand
    when work needs doing. Concretely, that means one cultivates the
    ability to keep such questions always in mind by doing enough work
    both with encoded texts and with relational or post-relational
    database management systems to be comfortable with either tool.

    The technical indicia I use are fairly simple though
    non-deterministic: think about it each way and do it the way that
    seems likely to be simpler. If the data fit naturally into relational
    form, use SQL. If reducing the data to third normal form, on the
    other hand, produces more than ten or twenty tables with real data,
    and another ten or twenty which serve solely to identify many-to-many
    links among other tables, and there is a reasonably simple textual
    form for the data, then using XML is almost surely the way to go. If
    the kinds of summary reports at which dbms excel are important and
    numerous, a dbms is probably preferable to XML (although if there are
    only a small number of reports, hard-coding them in XSLT may be
    preferable; I do my time-logs in XML + XSLT, because at the time it
    was more convenient to do it that way).

    In the future, as others have pointed out, the availability of XQuery
    implementations from various sources, including (I expect) most
    vendors of commercial SQL systems, will make XML more usable for data
    manipulation which now seems most easily handled with SQL.

    That said, the problem does not seem to me "*very* difficult". For
    any given (finite, delimited) set of tools / ways of thinking, one can
    avoid unsuitable bias by working enough with each of them to become
    comfortable using it -- the reason our tools risk biasing us is,
    surely, that using other tools would be uncomfortable. And for an
    undefined and undelimited set of tools, the problem is not soluble.
    Nothing we can do can prevent us by being surprised by something we
    did not know.

    Let me put that again in different words: if you are worried about
    succumbing to an inappropriate and unconscious bias toward either XML
    or SQL, you can avoid it by acquiring facility in each. This won't
    always protect you from bias, but it will help make it conscious and
    help reduce the chance that it's inappropriate.

    If on the other hand you are worried about an inappropriate and
    unconscious bias toward XML or SQL, and against something you do not
    know about and cannot identify or characterize, then I don't think
    there is any way to guarantee that what you worry about will not come
    true. And the only way to try to keep from it is, as Patrick Durusau
    suggests, to listen carefully to your data:

          At least in the early stages, I think projects should be
          formulated without regard to available technology (either locally
          or read about) so that researchers can state fully what they would
          like to do, without regard to whether that is actually possible
          with current technology. A very precise formulation of the
          research problem and goals of the project would provide a basis
          for evaluating available technologies for the one that most
          closely meets the needs of the project.

    There is, of course, no guarantee that the goals thus formulated are
    achievable: you may discover that your goals include fully automated
    translation from one natural language to another, or the solution of
    the traveling salesman problem in time linear to the number of cities

    You (Willard) respond to Patrick by saying

          I think, however, that the problem we face is much harder than
          that would suggest. Are not these technologies (text-encoding,
          relational database &al.) imaginative forms that give you a way of
          thinking not available otherwise? Do they not tend to lead the
          mind in directions it would not otherwise go? How, in fact, can
          one formulate a research problem completely independently of the

    By formulating the research problem in terms of the entities in the
    research domain, and without reference to the entities of the tool
    domain. (I grow confused: what is the mystery here?)

    I think you are confusing the formulation of the research problem with
    the formulation of a plan of attack, or of a solution to the problem.
    The bias introduced by tools is, at least in part, the bias of
    thinking about problems which that tool will help us solve and not
    about other problems. One corrective is to know about more than one
    tool -- that helps ensure we are not unduly biased toward a single
    tool. This is the answer to your original question about encoded texts
    and dbms.

    Another is to cultivate the ability to ignore, in formulating
    the problem you really want to solve, anything you know about how it
    might be solved; this would help ensure that we are not unduly biased
    toward the soluble. The fact that technologies give us ways of
    thinking which otherwise would not be available seems to suggest that
    our tendency to focus on the soluble is not a function of our tools
    but is somewhat more deeply rooted.


             Date: Fri, 13 Dec 2002 07:54:06 +0000
             From: Leo Robert Klein <leo@leoklein.com>
             Subject: Re: 16.380 thinking with the technologies

    At 07:27 AM 12/12/2002 +0000, you wrote:
    >So how do we not get trapped within the scope defined by any particular
    >tool? I think this must be *very* difficult. A kind of controlled two-(or
    >more-)mindedness, a detached engagement, seems the only answer.

    Willard, like anything, the best option would be expertise at both ends of
    the question -- both theoretical/visionary and technical. There are not
    many individuals like that but where they exist (and a few exist here for
    example), you can see the quality of their work.


    Leo Robert Klein Library Web Coordinator
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