19 March 2010

Newbie tips for Topic Maps bliss

Well, hi there, pilgrim! So, you've noticed this fandangled thing called "Topic Maps", and you heard it was an interesting, smart or new way of solving hard problems of some sort? Well, you've come to the right place. Let me, as an elder of the movement, give you a few hints and tips of how to go about this complex notion ;

1. Don't do it

Yeah, I won't lie to you; unless you know more than a smidgen about information science and / or knowledge management, and especially unless you know quite a bit about data models and how to interact with them in complex computer systems, I'd urge you to stay right clear of it. Topic Maps is full of complex models, silly jargon, weird people and technical API's. Nothing in the normal world is easy, and the Topic Maps world only makes it harder. Topic Maps won't solve your problem, unless you already know how to solve it, at which point find some other technology that people actually know, ok? What's the point of building the best system out there with amazing technology that no one knows how to use, extend, appreciate or even keep a straight face while talking about it.

Also, at what technical level do you think you need it? If the answer is, not very technical at all, why care about the underlying technology? An Excel spreadsheet might fix your problem much better. Use that. Unless you know that multi-dimensional graph-based technology will save you, look another way. If you don't know this stuff it will lure you in with magical wistful promises of a better tomorrow that will never see the time of day.

2. Make someone else do it if you must

Ok, so this one isn't all that different from the first tip, but since Topic Maps indeed can solve hard problems in brilliant ways, there are people out there who could use it and help you solve them. The truth is that people who are steeped in this stuff, who knows it inside out, indeed can solve pretty much any complex issue you might have with it, and even help you become smarter in doing it, even teach you how it all works. And there's other benefits to letting them do it for you; you don't have to become one of them in the process.

The truth is that Topic Maps really is cool and brilliant and all that, but it is ridiculously hard to grasp and even harder to master, and it will change you into a weirdo in the process. Have you really got the time,  resources and personality traits it takes to get into this stuff? Really?

3. Topic Maps people are few and rare, and, uh, strange

I kid you not; these guys are not your average cup of tea, so tread gently, and expect to be surprised in some way or another. Expect them to say things that makes no sense whatsoever, they have their own language littered with technical jargon even technologists wouldn't understand. I don't think they get out much, at least not outside their own field, so you need to replace your own terminology for theirs if they are to made sense of, as they themselves rarely compromise and adapt to how the rest of the world see things.

Also, expect some slight geeky behavior like mistaking things like pages, tags, websites, business objectives, servers, networks, computers and pasta for topics, topics, topics, topics, topics, topics and topics, in that order. It's quite similar to that of Asberger's syndrome, but if you know how, you can use it to your advantage, but caution and patience must be urged, and just like with the real thing unfortunately there is no cure, only workarounds.

4. Patience is not a virtue, but stubbornness might be

Look, the mystical world of Topic Maps is full of concepts you never dreamed existed, things that makes you ask fundamental questions about identity philosophy, what is knowledge, and paradigms of models and technological culture. Patience is not enough to grasp this stuff, you need sheer stubbornness and bloodymindedness to get anywhere, and - dare I say it? - perhaps some weird personally trait. Maybe a limp or a monocle. Not only do you have to understand the technicality of the stuff, but also the weirdness of the culture itself and - perhaps even more important - the personal implications this knowledge might have upon your own thought processes. You may end up getting a cape.

Once you tread down the path of Topic Maps and actually get anywhere (and that in itself is a hallmark of your stubbornness), your brain will change, you will see things differently. I'm not going to say that that is a good thing, but it can be, especially if you like uprooting your preconceived notions and planting new ones. The world is built on foundations which are far removed from the Topic Maps world, but once you grasp this other world it is hard not to see your old world in a new light, and this can be challenging. You might even start to sound like one of these blubbering idiots yourself, saying topics, topics, topics, topics, topics when you used to speak a coherent language people around you actually understood. There's great danger in getting an epiphany or two.

5. If you like your job, stay clear

Hmm, I see a pattern in my tips, but the thing is that once you have converted your old job might look boring and infantile by comparison. You might get (morally repulsive) urges to work on Topic Maps, but your organisation probably won't understand what the hell you're on about (remember, the whole painful stubborn process you went through has to happen to each and every person in your whole organisation!), and you might be looking around for another job where the Topic Maps goodness is practiced. Don't be fooled!

These jobs don't really exist. No one thinks Topic Maps on your CV is a good thing, because they, too, haven't done that stupid painful stubborn path to enlightenment either, and you'll come across as a bit of a show-off with nothing to show for it. (The exception to this tip is if you live in Norway. If you want to know why, the answer is that, again, the Topic Maps culture is repellingly weird) No one who does real business gives a rats ass about Topic Maps, and no one who does real business in the future will either. Even people who does weird but similar things who also have modest success (like people doing Semantic Web / RDF work) shun Topic Mappers. For your own job security, stay clear.

6. However ...

However, if you are weird, not scared by overly complex or outlandish technologies, if you think that strange new cultures only makes you stronger (and you've got a strong immune system to boot), if you think job security is only the stuff of boring people, and, indeed, if you have a monocle, cape and a glass eye, perhaps this might be the place for you after all.

And if so, contact me; I get off on this stuff. Otherwise, you have been warned.



At Friday, March 19, 2010 8:22:00 PM, Blogger rho said...

Hehehe, *I* should have written that. :-)

In earlier books you would read "Dragons ahead!". Here you would probably warn "Drrhogans ahead!".

O tempora, o mora.


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