Tag Archives: democratization

Homebrewing Knowledge-Base from HBD Archives?

Uh-oh!

Started thinking again. This time about a way to repurpose messages on the HomeBrew Digest into a kind of database of brewing knowledge. I can just see it. It’d be ah-some!

Anybody knows how to transform email messages from well-structured digests into database entries? Seems to me that it should be a trivial task, especially for someone well-versed in Perl and/or PHP. But what do I know?
That venerable HBD mailing-list contains a wealth of information about pretty much every single dimension of beer homebrewing. For a large number of reasons, content from the HBD.org site turns up quite often in Web searches for brewing terms.

One issue with the HBD, though, is that it’s a bit hard to search. There used to be a custom-built search feature on the site but we now need to rely on Google and AltaVista. This wouldn’t be too much of an issue if not for the fact that those engines search complete digests instead of individual messages. So the co-occurrence of two terms in the same digest can be due to two messages on completely different subjects.

Another issue with the HBD (as with many other mailing-lists) is the relatively high redundancy in message content. Some topics came cyclically on the mailing-list and though some kind souls were gracious enough to respond to the same queries over and over again, the mailing-list often looks like an outlet for FAQs. Among HBD “perennials” (or cyclical topics) are discussions of the effects of HSA (hot-side aeration), decoction mashing, and batch sparging, to name but a few technical issues.

Unfortunately, it looks like the HBD might need to be retired at some point in the not-so-distant future, at least for lack of sponsorship. Also, Pat Babcock, the digest’s “janitor,” recently asked for mirror space and announced the retrieval of some of the older digests (from the late 1980s).

Of course, there are lots of other brewing resources out there. So many, in fact, that it can be overwhelming to the newbie brewer. One impact of having so much information so easily available about homebrewing (and commercial brewing, for that matter) is a “democratization of beer knowledge.” Contrary to brewing guilds of medieval times, brew groups are open and free. Yet a side-effect of this is that there isn’t a centralized authority to prevent disinformation. Also, because the accumulated knowledge is difficult to peruse, people tend to “reinvent the wheel.”

In Internet terms, the HBD is the closest equivalent to a historical source. Few other mailing-lists have been running continuously since 1986.

Luckily, all the digests since October 1988 are available as HTML files. And the digest format has remained almost unchanged since that time.
All of the content is in plain ASCII. Messages never exceed a certain
length. IIRC, line length is also controlled. And HTML was officially
not admitted. Apparently, some messages did contain a bit of HTML
code
, but that shouldn’t be an issue.

Here’s what I imagine could be done:

  1. “Burst” out digests into individual messages (with each message containing digest information)
  2. Put all the individual messages (350MB worth) into a Content Management System
  3. Host the archived messages in the form of a knowledge-base
  4. Process those entries for things like absolute links and line breaks
  5. Collect messages in threads
  6. Add relevant del.icio.us-like tags and slashdot- or digg-like ratings
  7. Use this knowledge-base for wiki-like collaborative editing
  8. Assess some key issues to be taken up by brewing communities
  9. Add to the brewing knowledge-base
  10. Build profiles for major contributors and major groups

Because I couldn’t help it, I started writing down some potential tags I might use to label messages on the HBD. It could be part “folksonomy,” part taxonomy. For one thing, it’d be useful to distinguish messages based on “type” (general queries about a brewing technique vs. recipe posted after a competition) since many of the same terms and tags would be found in radically different messages.

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Higher Education in a New Era

Thanks to a comment by Jay, a series of edifying articles in Washington Monthly about the current state of U.S. higher education, appearing in the September 2006 issue of that magazine.

I do tend to disagree with several dimensions of the approach taken by Washington Monthly, including the apparent enthusiasm for the “client-based approach to higher education” favoured by several institutions and bemoaned by its main actors. But I do appreciate the fact that such a conversation finally takes place. The blog post which prompted Jay’s comment was about Canadian universities but “don’t get me started” about the state of higher education in the United States.

According to its mission statement, Washington Monthly seeks to provide insight on politics and government in (the United States of) America. As such, it focuses on the potential ramifications of higher education for governmental (mostly U.S. federal) politics. Doing so, it seems to obey at least some of the Berlin Principles on Ranking of Higher Education Institutions, especially with regards to section A on Purposes and Goals of Rankings. (PDF version of principles.)

One thing that these articles avoids is blaming students for most of the problems. In my experience, today’s higher education students usually display impressive potential but are often inadequately prepared for college and university life. The fault might be put on “The System,” the parents, the diverse schools, or the governments. It’s quite unlikely that today’s students are inherently flawed as compared to previous generations and I’m frequently impressed by students of any age, social background, or local origin.

An article from the January/February 2002 issue of Washington Monthly also provides some insight in the financial dimension of higher education in the United States. The situation might have changed in the last four years, though it sounds somewhat unlikely that it may have greatly improved.

This coverage might be too journalistic and U.S.-specific but these are, IMHO, important pieces of the full puzzle of higher education in an interconnected world. These articles should contribute to a larger conversation on education. That conversation may also involve issues discussed in Daniel Golden’s Price of Admission book (as explained on the Colbert Report). Radio Open Source has also been broadcasting (and podcasting) shows on university leadership, academia, and education requirements, among several relevant topics.

It would be important to connect these issues with the broader scene of higher education around the world. Even in the cosmopolitan world of academia, not enough people get the benefit of experiencing more than a single educational system and a very small proportion of people gets to experience more than two. It is common for anthropologists to talk about “taking a step back” and “looking at the forest for the trees.” Higher education is no place for mental near-sightedness.

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