Re: Research database?
From: ken (
Date: Thu, 31 Aug 2006 09:31:48 -0700 (PDT)
Tree Bressen wrote:
> Hi Anthea,
>> We have been doing a lot of research on cohousing communities, organic 
>> gardening, permaculture, hybrid housing, etc., towards developing one or 
>> more coho communities. Has anyone got a simple solution for organizing 
>> that kind of research on computer? Ideally, we need to be able to pull 
>> together scattered references to a variety of topics we've got notes on. 
>> Any suggestions would be much appreciated!
>>   Anthea
> You could try asking the folks at the nonprofit Grass Commons 
> (email 
> <mailto:info [at]>info [at]  It's the 
> kind of 
> thing that the software they are developing might be either suitable for or 
> that they would know who does have software for the kind of application you 
> are describing.  It sounds like you need something based on tagging, but 
> i'm not tech savvy enough to know the specifics.
> (And no offense to Ken, but Wikipedia is not the right host for what you 
> are doing.  Wikipedia is an encyclopedia.  The articles are appropriately 
> focused on that usage, which requires them to be short, thoughtful, and 
> comprehensive.  If everyone used Wikipedia to store their personal 
> database, the resource would quickly become nearly useless.)
> Cheers,
> --Tree


No offense taken.  I've been working in information systems, designing
and implementing them, since before PCs, for more than three decades.
I've designed and implemented systems for Fortune 100 and 500 companies,
large to medium-sized nonprofits, small businesses, many political
campaigns (including some names you would recognize), small groups and
also some for individuals.  My studies in grad school were in
contemporary European philosophy, so I understand something about the
character and structure of knowledge itself.  I'm not a celebrity or
world scholar or the world's foremost authority on the subject, but it's
happened frequently enough that people who at first didn't take my
advice in the design of their information systems, but then later, after
spending a lot of time and money, came back to what I told them at the
outset, that I'm quite accustomed to people not taking my advice and
don't feel particularly offended by it.

It's true that Wikipedia may not be the ideal medium for Anthea's
research, but not for the reasons you cited.  E.g., in what sense is the
research "personal"?  Won't it be in some way shared?  And doesn't all
knowledge ultimately originate from the experience of a single
individual?  Or should we believe that knowledge springs into the
culture fully formed?  Aren't the epistemological origins of
information-- far from being "useless"-- rather both critical and
significant to its credibility...?  and so then too to its usefulness?

On what basis should it be mandated that Wikipedia articles be "short,
thoughtful, and comprehensive"?  First of all, define "short".  Is it a
limitation to some number of words?  If so, how many?  If not, then how
is "short" determined?  And how do we reconcile the conflict between
"short" and "comprehensive" without falling into meaningless and
egoistic relativism?

Perhaps instead of "short, thoughtful, and comprehensive", we should
seek after articles which are meaningful.  This applies to research and
data and information as well.  These don't even have to be definitive or
conclusive, just simply meaningful.  The skillful use of taxonomies can
render the comforting appearance of traditional journalism, if that is
what's desired.

Wikipedia, however, is not traditional journalism and the expectations
we'd have for a traditional "dead tree" encyclopedia do not apply.  To
assert otherwise is to speak from "inside the box."  A little vision
into cyberspace would go a long way here, but I'm not here to sing the
praises of cybermedia.  Better we should return to the topic at hand.

As admitted above, Wikipedia may not be the ideal medium for Anthea's
research.  But given the small bit of information about the research and
its intended use, there's really no way of knowing what would be the
optimal format for its systemization.  I can't know.  No one can know.
It's like asking, "What weighs 150 gt?" and specifying that there's only
one correct answer.  Generally, before any system is designed there is
up to eighty hours of detailed discussions on the type and size of the
data in question, amendments, accessibility, and other issues too
numerous to go into here.  The average person is averse to all this and
ends up having a nephew put everything into an Access database, in my
opinion, a major mistake.  But it's one that a lot of people like to
make.  And perhaps it's a good first attempt because after experiencing
firsthand its limitations, they'll know better the second time they
select or design their system.  And the third time they'll know a little
better.  And the fourth or fifth time they'll pretty much have something
workable.  In fact, I would suggest this process if all I was concerned
about was people following my suggestions.  :)

Not knowing enough about the research to be organized, I can still
recommend that you select (1) software which is open source and (2)
software which adheres to open standards, i.e., which follows at least a
draft level RFC.  All technical terms not understood here can be googled.

Finally, Tree, Wikipedia uses PHP, a tagged language and wrapper for
HTML, another tagged language.  So your recommending "something based on
tagging" actually included Wikipedia.  So we were both talking in the
same forest.

Cheerios and oatmeal,

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