Support South Africa’s appeal against OOXML!

The South African national standards body, SABS, has appealed against the result of the OOXML DIS 29500 ballot in ISO. In a letter sent to the General Secretary of the IEC (co-sponsor with ISO of JTC1), the SABS expresses its “deep concern over the increasing tendency of international organizations to use the JTC 1 process to circumvent the consensus-building process that is the cornerstone to the success and international acceptance of ISO and IEC standards.”

Having resigned as Chairman of the Norwegian committee responsible for considering OOXML for exactly this reason, I congratulate South Africa on its willingness to stand up for the principles on which standardization work should be based.

I would also like to take this opportunity to urge other national body members of JTC1 to declare their support for this appeal. Let’s make it impossible for ISO and IEC to simply wave it aside.

One issue that does concern me is whether we can expect fair consideration of the appeal on the part of ISO Technical Management Board (TMB): One of its members is the very same Norwegian bureaucrat (the “Little One“) who arrogantly ignored the opinion of the overwhelming majority of Norwegian technical experts and changed Norway’s vote from No to Yes. This person is clearly not impartial and should not be allowed to participate in the TMB’s discussion of the appeal.

South Africa’s action confirms that the battle is not yet lost. Here in Norway we are working hard to get the Norwegian vote changed back to No and we think we might succeed. If we do, only two more votes will have to be changed in order for the final outcome to be a rejection of OOXML. I urge those of you in countries that voted Yes or Abstain to investigate any irregularities and try to get the vote changed. Of course, we have no guarantee that JTC1 will accept revised votes. Such a thing has never happened before (to my knowledge), but then there are many things in this process that have happened for the first time – not least the passage of a 6,000 page document through the Fast-Track process.

But even if JTC1 cannot be forced to accept revised votes, we can achieve a moral victory that will make it easier for those trying to resist having OOXML thrust upon them as a standard for national e-Government.

Once again, my thanks and congratulations to South Africa… Amandla!

Update: Yoon Kit has provided a transcription of the text of the letter. Thanks, YK!

Topic Maps and the Semantic Web

People are continually asking me to summarize the relationship between Topic Maps and the Semantic Web, and since there is nothing really succinct to point to, I thought I would write up some of my thoughts here. Don’t expect an exhaustive or scientific account; this is just my view from 30,000 feet, but some people may find it interesting. I plan to follow up later with more details and further observations.

The relationship between TM and RDF (the core Semantic Web technology) has interested me for several years. I was instrumental in getting Topic Maps approved as an ISO standard back in 1999, the same year the RDF specification became a W3C recommendation. I published my first thoughts on the relationship between the two in June 2000 (Topic Maps and RDF: A first cut) and I have contributed to the debate off and on since then.

My first cut was refined two years later as Ten Theses on Topic Maps and RDF, a piece that was partly informed by the work of Lars Marius Garshol in his ground-breaking paper Topic Maps, RDF, DAML, OIL – A comparison. Later I chaired the W3C RDF/Topic Maps Interoperability Task Force (RDFTM), which was charged with “providing guidelines for users who want to combine usage of the W3C’s RDF/OWL family of specifications and the ISO’s family of Topic Maps standards.” That committee produced two useful publications – a Survey of RDF/Topic Maps Interoperability Proposals and draft Guidelines for RDF/Topic Maps Interoperability – before being disbanded in late 2006 due to a reorganization of the W3C Working Group to which it belonged.

My take has always been that despite superficial similarities, RDF/OWL and Topic Maps are optimized for radically different purposes; they complement each other and we need both. Our efforts should focus on identifying synergies and enabling interoperability; and, to the extent that we discuss which of them is “best,” the discussion should be framed in terms of suitability for some (particular) purpose.


First, some background. RDF and Topic Maps evolved in parallel during the 1990s within two communities that were scarcely aware of each other’s existence:

RDF (Resource Description Framework)

Evolved out of MCF and PICS with input from the Dublin Core community. Became a W3C recommendation in 1999. Its original purpose (as the name implies) was for assigning descriptive metadata to web pages and web sites (“resources”). Over time the concept of “resource” was generalized to mean “anything with identity” and RDF became a model for making assertions about arbitrary subjects.

Topic Maps

Originated as an application of HyTime for representing back-of-book indexes for the purpose of merging and other forms of processing. Evolved into a general, subject-centric model for capturing the “aboutness” of information resources in the form of networks of interconnected “topics,” “associations” and “occurrences”. Approved as an ISO standard in 1999.

The two specifications hit the streets within a few weeks of each other and quickly became hot topics within the XML community. At Extreme Markup 2000 in Montréal there was an entertaining free for all in which Eric Miller (representing RDF) and Eric Freese (representing Topic Maps) appeared on the podium dressed as boxers to slug it out on behalf of their respective specs. (In fact, they pretty much agreed on everything, and produced a useful initial list of correspondences between Topic Maps and RDF.)

In his closing keynote, Michael Sperberg-McQueen wondered if we really needed both RDF and Topic Maps and playfully suggested that representatives of the two communities be locked in a room and not let out until they had agreed on a single specification. (It’s a good job no-one took him seriously, or we would probably still be there!)


So what are the similarities? I won’t go into detail, just list them as I did in a lightning talk at the W3C Technical Plenary in 2005:

  • Both “extend” XML into the realm of semantics

  • Both allow assertions to be made about subjects in the outside world

  • Both are very concerned with identity

  • Both define abstract, associative (graph-based) models

  • Both have XML-based interchange syntaxes (and simpler, text-based syntaxes)

  • Both allow some measure of inferencing or reasoning

  • Both have constraint languages and query languages

A lot more could be said on all of this, but right now I’m more interested in bringing out the differences.


In the lightning talk I confined myself to four fairly general areas in which I think RDF and Topic Maps are differ significantly:

  • They have different roots (TM in traditional finding aids, such as indexes, thesauri and the like; RDF in document metadata and predicate logic).

  • They have different levels of semantics (RDF is more low level; TM has higher level semantics built directly into the model).

  • When you dig into the details you discover significantly different models (viz., identity, scope, association roles, non-binary relationships, variant names, etc.).

  • Perhaps most importantly, they have significantly different goals (RDF and OWL are positioned as enablers for large-scale data integration and/or an “artificially intelligent” web for software agents; Topic Maps is all about findability and knowledge federation for humans).

I admit that these characterizations are somewhat nebulous, but that doesn’t mean they are not real: it’s just hard to pinpoint the exact nature of the differences. Since the lightning talk I’ve tried using metaphor and aphorisms to convey a feel for the differences, as in:

  • RDF/OWL is for machines; Topic Maps is for humans.

  • RDF/OWL is optimized for inferencing; Topic Maps is optimized for findability.

  • The great strength of RDF/OWL is that it is based on formal logic; the great strength of Topic Maps is that it is not based on formal logic.

  • RDF/OWL is to mathematics as Topic Maps is to natural language.

  • RDF/OWL is to Aristotle as Topic Maps is to Wittgenstein.

(That last one is for the philosophically inclined; I’ll come back to it later.)

These statements are not meant to be taken literally, but my experience is that they can be helpful. If you want a more detailed or scientific account of the differences – in particular, the differences between the two models and how to map between them – I recommend starting with the RDFTM documents mentioned above. These also contain substantial bibliographies.

When to use what?

Some folks are not particularly concerned with the differences; they just want to know when to use what. Here’s my take – once again, rather high level, but hopefully still useful – based on the following general premisses:

  1. RDF is more low-level; oriented towards machines

  2. Topic Maps is more high-level; oriented towards humans

  3. OWL is oriented towards artificial intelligence

On this basis I offer the following rules of thumb (my 2 cents, as they say; feel free to differ):

  • Do you only want to encode document metadata?

    — RDF is ideal and you won’t need OWL.

  • Do you want to achieve subject-based classification of content?

    — Topic Maps provides the better combination of flexibility and human-friendliness.

  • Do you want to combine metadata and subject-based classification?

    — Go straight for Topic Maps, because it also supports metadata.

  • Do you want to encode knowledge for humans to use?

    — Topic Maps is the better solution for handling context and “fuzziness”.

  • Do you want to develop agent-based applications?

    — You are probably better served by RDF (with OWL), but if you already have Topic Maps, you’re half way there.

Whatever you choose, you can sleep soundly in the knowledge that data can be moved from RDF to Topic Maps (and vice versa), thanks to the RDFTM interoperability work.

Notes on the Norway vote

My exposé of what really happened when Norway’s OOXML vote changed from No to Yes stirred up a lot of interest. I promised I’d get back with more background information. Here it is, hyperlinked into the appropriate parts of the original post.

“There would not be any voting”

Some people were surprised to learn that consensus is Standard Norway’s normal method of arriving at decisions. Actually, this is a general principle in JTC1, as clause 1.2 of the directives states:

These Directives are inspired by the principle that the objective in the development of International Standards should be the achievement of consensus between those concerned rather than a decision based on counting votes.

I don’t have a problem with this as a general principle. In fact, I rather like it: standards development should be a collaborative process with the goal of unifying the interests of all concerned. That’s why I was happy to go along with the general idea, especially given JTC1’s proviso that “consensus need not imply unanimity.”

The problem was that the Little One’s notion of “consensus” was different. For him, there had to be total unanimity, otherwise there was no consensus. This was reflected in the discussion of the Norwegian comments back in August 2007, when Microsoft was effectively allowed to veto any comments it disagreed with – and in his conclusion at the March meeting that an 80% majority did not constitute a consensus. Given that there was never the slightest hope of the Yes and No sides reaching full agreement, his interpretation effectively meant that the committee would not have the final word.

It turns out that there used to exist a formal procedure for resolving such an impasse. Until the reorganization of Standard Norway a few years back there were rules stating that, in the event of an inability to achieve consensus, the final decision rested with the Chairman. These rules were scrapped during the reorganization and have never been replaced. I never had occasion to know about them in the past, and the Little One was clearly not interested in informing the committee about any kind of established practice that might take control out of his hands. This is one of the issues we will be following up in our appeal against the Norwegian vote.

“My tally of the final result”

Since there was no voting – and so far no minutes either – this tally is somewhat subjective. However, I doubt that anyone (even those who wanted to vote Yes) would deny that the great majority were dissatisfied with Ecma’s resolution of the Norwegian comments.

One indication of the size of this majority is that 21 members of the committee signed an open letter to Standard Norway the day before the meeting. The letter (in Norwegian) lists four main reasons why Standard Norway should reject OOXML, as follows:

  1. There is no need for OOXML as an ISO standard (since it has already been published by Ecma).

  2. Approving OOXML as an ISO standard would be counter to the interests of users (since there already exists an ISO standard that covers the same ground).

  3. An approval of OOXML will damage ISO’s credibility (because of the wide perception of unfair play and abuse of the fast-track process).

  4. OOXML is substandard from a technical point of view.

These were by no means our only arguments against OOXML, but they were the ones we particularly wanted to bring to the attention of the bureaucracy in Standard Norway. The letter concluded as follows:

Each of these arguments provides grounds enough to reject OOXML. There is no consensus in the committee for changing Norway’s vote, and we therefore ask Standard Norway to uphold Norway’s No to OOXML.

The letter was signed by the following members of SN/K185: Steve Pepper, Erlend Øverby, Lars Marius Garshol, Thomas Flemming, Keld Jørn Simonsen, Martin Bekkelund, Knut Olav Bøhmer, Arne S Nielsen, Petter Reinholdtsen, Per Inge Østmoen, Thomas Gramstad, Knut Yrvin, Per-Arne Aas, Henning Kulander, Geir Isene, Trond Heier, Bjørn Venn, Anthony Lærdahl, Tom Wahlgren, Thomas Malt, Håkon Wium Lie.

Two members expressed their complete agreement with the letter but were prevented from signing it because of their employers’ general policy regarding this form of public debate; another two, who we weren’t able to get hold of before publishing the letter, have subsequently added their names to the list, making a total of 25 in all.

Most of the signatories were present at the meeting and many of them took part in the debate. Of the roughly 30 experts present, there were really only three who spoke in favour of approving OOXML: Microsoft Norway’s chief lobbyist (who spoke a lot), Microsoft Norway’s VP of Communications, and a representative of StatoilHydro, the national oil company. Two others (one from Microsoft, the other from the lobbyist’s own company) sat nodding in assent.

So the 80% figure is pretty accurate, plus/minus a couple of points.

Another interesting indicator of the strength of opinion against OOXML in Norway is the fact that every single long-time member of the Norwegian committee (i.e. those who have contributed their expertise over many years and didn’t join just because of OOXML) signed the open letter and were opposed to the approval of OOXML. So if you don’t trust the 80% figure, go with 100% of the old-timers…

“To ensure that OOXML came under ISO’s control”

The argument introduced by the Little One at the end of the meeting (but without allowing any discussion) was that we should now think “tactically”. OOXML is here to stay, he said, so from a tactical point of view we should look for the best way to ensure that it continued to be improved. We have a choice between rejecting it (and thus leaving it in Ecma), or approving it (and bringing it under ISO’s control).

You can see the logic of this argument from the point of view of a standards bureaucrat: the prestige of an organization like ISO is directly proportional to the importance of the standards it controls. Rejecting OOXML would mean leaving it in the hands of Ecma, a rival organization, and that could not be countenanced. I suspect that this is what ultimately motivated the Little One and his counterparts in many other national standards organizations – especially those, like him, who have close ties with the central JTC1 bureaucracy itself. (The Little One is apparently a member of ISO’s Technical Management Board, ironically the body that will review any appeal against the OOXML process.)

So was the Norway vote the result of corruption, as some people have suggested? That depends on what you mean by corruption, but I have no reason to claim that it was. Overt corruption is very rare inside Norway, but there is a kind of old boy network (known as “gutteklubben grei”) that works very nicely according to the principle of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”

It will be interesting to see where the Little One ends up once we’ve removed him from his present position; I may yet have cause to modify my analysis, but as things stand my conclusion is this: what we have witnessed is an unholy alliance based on a coincidence of material interests between a large multinational corporation and a standards bureaucracy eager to maintain its own prestige. And because of that I truly fear for the future of ISO.

“StatoilHydro (national oil company; big MS Office user)”

While we’re on the subject of corruption, a couple of words about Microsoft’s principal supporter in Norway, StatoilHydro (which has actually been accused of tolerating corruption in some of its dealings abroad). They are a big MS Office user, they participated in TC45 (the Ecma committee responsible for OOXML) and they clearly feel that OOXML is important to them.

I can understand why. An enormous amount of their intellectual capital is tied up in proprietary formats – in particular Excel – that have been owned and controlled by a vendor for the last 20 or so years. StatoilHydro has literally had no way of getting at its own information, short of paying license fees to Microsoft. Recently the company has started to realize the enormity of the mistake it has made in not treating its information with the care and respect it deserves. I would go as far as to accuse them of criminal negligence, especially as a state-owned corporation, were it not for that fact that pretty much every large organization has behaved in the same irresponsible way until recently.

So now StatoilHydro suddenly wakes up to the fact that their intellectual capital is being held hostage and starts to put pressure on the vendor. The vendor reacts by migrating to XML and publishing their specifications – a praiseworthy move in and of itself. Now the customer is assured that its information can be stored in a format that will be accessible using a wide range of tools, and that should have been the end of the story. Instead the vendor decides it needs the ISO stamp of approval in order to maintain market share, discovers an easily tamed organization that has a back-door into ISO, and manages to convince StatoilHydro that publication of OOXML as a Microsoft specification is not enough. Ownership of the specification needs to be transferred to a “neutral” body. StatoilHydro agrees to act as a fig leaf in this process by joining Ecma.

They then allow themselves to be convinced that having OOXML approved as an ISO standard is even more in their interests. Quite why they think this is beyond me. I have had several conversations with the StatoilHydro representative and it seems to me that what lies at the bottom is an attempt to find a short-term solution that will help them cover their backsides in terms of the above-mentioned criminal negligence: after all, no-one is going to be fired for maintaining the company’s intellectual assets in an ISO-approved format. The long-term problem – that the balkanization of office document standards is going to promote further vendor lock-in – is not something they seem unduly worried about. That will be someone else’s problem ten years down the line.

A Tale of Two Jennies

I first met Jenny a couple of weeks ago at two in the morning. I had been working on my closing keynote for Topic Maps 2008 and needed fresh air and an early breakfast, so I tiptoed out of the hotel room, walked to the all-night deli a couple of blocks away and bought myself some sushi. Outside on the street, chopsticks in hand, I was approached by a nice-looking African girl who asked if I would like to go back to her place for a cup of coffee. I declined politely, pointing out that I had to get back to my presentation and, besides, I had a lovely wife sleeping soundly not 200 metres away. She asked if I would buy her a coffee and I said, “Sure.” I got her some cake as well and told her to keep the change.

She told me her name was Jenny and she came from Ghana. I told her mine was Shito (“pepper” in the Ga language) but she didn’t seem to understand. I asked her what “pepper” was in her mother tongue and showed her my business card so she would know why I was asking. I think she said, “ekhien,” though I can’t be sure.

This is not JennyAnyway, we talked some more. I was curious and I guess she was still hoping for some business.

She had been in Oslo a couple of months, having come from Italy where she’d lived for 8 years. I wondered how old she was and she told me her date of birth – March 18 1980 – which was weird because that’s my birthday too. (Birthday, not birth date!)

That created a kind of bond and so we talked some more. (I was still curious and I guess she was still hoping for some business.)

I asked why she had come to Oslo and she told me that she had lost her job in Italy when the factory she worked in closed down. She was the oldest child in a large family (7 children), her father was a taxi driver but he didn’t have a car. She was working to support the family and pay for her brother’s and sisters’ education. She wasn’t able to get another job, and a friend told her it was possible to make good money quickly in Oslo. It was her only option, so she came.

She was philosophical about her new job. She disliked it and felt shameful, but it was only for a short while, until she had enough money to set her family up. I asked how much she earned and she said it varied. “Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes not. I know one girl who met a Norwegian man. He gave her 80,000 kroner so she could quit and go back to Africa. She was really lucky. Maybe one day I’ll be lucky too. God willing.”

I was still curious and I guess she hadn’t given up hope, so we talked some more, about where she lived, the services she offered, the prices she charged. I won’t go into the details.

At length we parted, after I’d found an ATM and given her the equivalent of a night’s work so that she could go home and sleep – and my cell number.

We’ve met again since that and I’ve learned more about her. I’m convinced that most of her story is true, although she has later admitted that she modified parts of it. “All the girls do. You want to be someone else when you’re out on the street.” Her real birth date is not March 18 (although that’s what her passport says) and she’s from Nigeria, not Ghana (which explains why she didn’t understand shito). I’m pretty sure the rest is true, and I’ve spoken briefly with one of her sisters on the phone from Nigeria.

The funny thing is, another Jenny turned up a few days later. The Go Open Conference in Oslo had a special price for tickets to The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil and I went along for the first act. The last scene took place in a brothel where a character called (yes, you guessed) Jenny sang the song Mack the Knife (Die Moritat von Mackie Messer), which goes in part like this:

Jenny Towler ward gefunden
Mit ’nem Messer in der Brust
Und am Kai geht Mackie Messer
Dem man allem nichts gewuβt.

Denn die einen sind im Dunkeln
Und die andern sind im Licht
Und man siehet die im Lichte
Die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht.

Jenny Towler was found
with a knife in her chest.
And Mack the Knife is walking on the quay,
but he knows nothing at all.

For some are in darkness
and some are in light.
You can see the ones in the light,
those in the dark cannot be seen.

There has been a big debate in Norway over the last few years about the increase in prostitution, and radical feminists have been agitating to make the purchase of sexual services illegal in Norway (and for Norwegians abroad). People who have worked closely with prostitutes for many years, like Liv Jessen of the Norwegian Pro Sentret, say this is not the way to go. It will only increase the risks for those – like Jenny – who are already most vulnerable, because it will force prostitution underground, increasing the risk of violence and the girls’ dependence on pimps and “madams”.

Unfortunately those who haven’t worked closely with prostitutes and think they know better are in a majority, and on Friday the Norwegian Government announced the introduction of draft legislation that makes the purchase of sexual services a crime punishable by fines, or by up to six months imprisonment.

I’m sorry, Jenny, but your job is about to get a lot more risky.

The Norway Vote – What really happened

The process which led to Norway’s Yes vote on OOXML was so surrealistic that it deserves to be recorded for posterity. Here’s my version of the story.

It is not impartial. I was the Chairman of the Norwegian mirror committee for SC34 (K185) for 13 years until resigning a couple of weeks ago in protest against Standard Norway’s decision to vote Yes. On the other hand, I was present throughout the whole process and have more first-hand knowledge of what went on than anyone (excepting two employees of Standard Norway). Here I describe the fateful meeting on Friday March 28. More background will follow.

The meeting started at 10 and we spent an hour on other business before proceeding to the main agenda item: reviewing Ecma’s responses to the comments that accompanied our No vote in the August DIS ballot. I led the first part of the meeting and then handed over to the VP of Standard Norway for the last part, as I had done on previous occasions when OOXML was under discussion.

K185 meeting, Friday March 28 2008There were nearly 30 people present: three employees of Standard Norway (the VP, the committee secretary, and the JTC1 representative); the rest were technical experts. The VP opened by declaring that our only purpose was to discuss the comment responses and decide whether they had been addressed to our satisfaction. If so, Norway’s vote would change from No to Yes. I suggested that we should also take account of changes made at the BRM and base our decision on a total assessment. The VP did not disagree, but insisted that the discussion should focus on the comments. He also made it clear that the goal was to achieve consensus and that there would not be any voting.

The next four hours were spent going through the 12 comments submitted by Norway. My tally of the final result was as follows:

Consensus that the comment had been satisfactorily resolved: 2 comments.
Consensus that the comment had not been satisfactorily resolved: 2 comments.
No consensus that the comment had been satisfactorily resolved: 8 comments.

Regarding those last 8 comments, there was a roughly 80/20 split between those who were dissatisfied and those who were satisfied. (Since there was no voting, this is just an estimate, but it’s pretty accurate.) There was not even a shadow of consensus that the comments as a whole had been satisfactorily addressed and I naturally assumed the No vote would stand.

But lo… at this point, the “rules” were changed. The VP asserted that “Ecma has clearly made steps in the right direction.” The most important thing now was to ensure that OOXML came under ISO’s control so that it could be “further improved”. However, the committee was not allowed to discuss this.

The VP thereupon declared that there was no consensus, so the decision would be taken by Standard Norway.

Halfway through the proceedings, a committee member had asked for (and received) assurance that the Chairman would take part in the final decision, as he had for the DIS vote back in August. It now transpired that the BRM participants had also been invited to stay behind. 23 people were therefore dismissed and we were down to seven. In addition to Standard Norway’s three, there were four “experts”: Microsoft Norway’s chief lobbyist, a guy from StatoilHydro (national oil company; big MS Office user), a K185 old-timer, and me. In one fell swoop the balance of forces had changed from 80/20 to 50/50 and the remaining experts discussed back and forth for 20 minutes or so without reaching any agreement.

The VP thereupon declared that there was still no consensus, so the decision would be taken by Standard Norway.

The experts were dismissed and the VP asked the opinion of the Secretary (who said “Yes”) and the JTC1 rep (who said “No”).

The VP thereupon declared that there was still no consensus, so the decision would be taken by him.

And his decision was to vote Yes.

So this one bureaucrat, a man who by his own admission had no understanding of the technical issues, had chosen to ignore the advice of his Chairman, of 80% of his technical experts, and of 100% of the K185 old-timers. For the Chairman, only one course of action was possible.

That’s the story. Here’s the management summary, based on the song we used to sing as kids when going on long trips in the car:

There were 30 in the bed and the little one said, “Roll over, roll over.”
So they all rolled over and 23 fell out.

There were 7 in the bed and the little one said, “Roll over, roll over.”
So they all rolled over and 4 fell out.

There were 3 in the bed and the little one said, “Roll over, roll over.”
So they all rolled over and 2 fell out…

There was 1 in the bed and the little one said, “Norway votes Yes!”

The meeting was a farce and the result was a scandal. But it’s not over yet, and one thing is clear: the “little one” is unfit to represent the interests of Norwegian users. It’s time he was told, “Roll over, roll over…”

I Write What I Like

I have been sleeping in class, I admit it.

I was attracted by the idea of blogging from the start, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized its true revolutionary potential. It is now clear to me that blogging (like Topic Maps and subject-centric computing) is going to change the world, and I want to be part of it.

What convinced me was (1) meeting David Weinberger at the Topic Maps conference in Oslo a couple of weeks ago, and then (2) experiencing first-hand the power of blogging to spread news of theprotest about the Norwegian vote and the demo against OOXML on the streets of Oslo.

I see now that blogging is part of the struggle to reclaim the right to freedom of expression, a right that the monopolization of the media over the last few decades has all but destroyed. It’s about ordinary people making their voices heard and starting to take control of their own lives; it is an act of self-emancipation.

Steve BikoWhat I like about blogging is its democratic nature, the way it allows us to bypass those who think they are in charge and think they have the right to decide what gets published. But we shouldn’t forget that most of the world’s population as yet is unable to blog. Either they don’t have access to the internet, cannot read and write, or, more likely, have to spend all day simply trying to survive. That’s one of the things we have to change.

We also should not forget that writing on its own will never change anything. The only thing philosophers get, as Tony Cliff used to say, is piles! If we really want to change the world, we have to get up off our backsides and join battle. David Weinberger was quoted recently in a Norwegian newspaper as saying that the Internet will make Obama president. I hope he is right. But if it does, there will come a time when bloggers and others will have to take to the streets in order to show the full extent of their support.

I shall be using this blog to talk about the things that matter to me, the things I believe in, and to criticize the things I think need criticizing. I’d like to thank Are Gulbrandsen for unwittingly giving me the push to get started, and also for stealing the title of my presentation at Topic Maps 2008 for his own blog. (If he hadn’t done so, I wouldn’t have had to think of a better one!)

My choice of title, Topic Maps And All That, is of course a tip of the hat to the Sellar and Yeatman book 1006 And All That. The subtitle is more than a tip of the hat to Steve Biko.

Topic Maps (ISO 13250) is the standard around which my life has revolved for the last 10 years. Getting its name into the blog title is (yet another) way of promoting it, but the real significance is deeper. Topic Maps is fundamentally about how each and every one of us – as individuals, groups or organizations – can gain control of our own knowledge and harness it to achieve our goals (whatever they may be).

From this perspective, everything has to do with Topic Maps, and Topic Maps has to do with everything – hence the “all that” of the title. I do not intend to write only about Topic Maps. On the contrary, of the 24 or so potential blog topics that I “brainstormed” on the flight to Frankfurt yesterday, only 5 or 6 have anything to do with Topic Maps. Some of the others are OOXML, subject-centric computing, Chomsky, tinnitus, Jenny Tauber (and her Nigerian namesake), the semantics of Bantu noun classes and Janáček.

In short, Topic Maps – and all that – and more besides.