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Hacking Text

Mark Bernstein provides a short, illuminating little account of why symbolic-analytic work relies heavily on (a) knowing your work environment, (b) being able to hack together tools on the fly, and (c) situating both of those into a broader rhetorical purpose. Here's one part, while he's trying to set up a method for assigning reviewers to proposals for WikiSym 2008:

OK. I could scrap the screen, parse it in ruby, dump the result to xml, and get the xml into Tinderbox. But that's a bother.

Instead, I copied the text from Safari to BBEdit, quickly turned it into a tab-delimited file, and pasted it into Numbers. In Numbers, I rearranged the columns so the first column was the title of the paper. Then, I copied the table from Numbers and pasted in Tinderbox, Voila!

  • I get a note for each paper
  • The note title is the paper title
  • I also get new user attributes, already populated, that tell me
    • the paper's identification number
    • its author's name
    • its length in pages

So far, so good! I made new new prototype Paper, and assigned all the papers to use this prototype.

Next, I wanted to distinguish short papers. I added a rule to the prototype:

Rule: if($pages<6){BorderColor=white;} else {BorderColor=black}

Now, short papers have white borders.

The promise of computers was always that they made things easy. And they do, but not always the way a banner ad or 30-second commercial might suggest. Would it be easier to have simply done this work in Excel (or Numbers)? Only if you defined "easier" so that it reduced the problem space to the point that it left out important variables. So in cases like this (as with much symbolic-analytic work), programs like Tinderbox (and the slew of other programs present in Bernstein's workspace) make things "easier" by making them possible at all. So on one hand, doing the things that Bernstein is doing here look amazingly complex to someone without Bernstein's particular set of expertises. But gaining those types of expertise is absolutely crucial for someone who works with data in complex rhetorical contexts. It's not that what Bernstein describes is easy—it's just easier than the other available options for the same problem space.

[via Mark Bernstein]