Friday, August 30, 2002

I can't help linking to Paul Ford's stuff at FTrain some more. He has a bit of dialog in a musing which illustrates how I perceive The Semantic Web:
PEF: "I don't understand how all this XML/XHTML/XLink/XPointer/XPath/XSL/SVG/FO stuff is going to work together, what the goals are, where the vision is. I mean, it's all great, don't get me wrong. I use it to build"

W3C: "Just look at the standard and all will be manifest."

PEF: "But it's 9000 pages, and is filled with Backus-Naur grammar statements. I'm a human, not a computer! What are you guys really trying to do? What vision are you trying to promote?"

W3C: "We're trying to build <bigbrightlights>The Semantic Web </bigbrightlights>"

PEF: "But what is it? Can be part of <bigbrightlights>The Semantic Web </bigbrightlights>?"

W3C: "Whether you wish to or not, all must belong to <bigbrightlights>The Semantic Web </bigbrightlights>."

PEF: "You're transforming into a giant terrifying aluminum robot!"

W3C: "<loud>Must...<louder> have... <loudest>corporate...<loudest-yet> funding... </loudest-yet> </loudest> </louder> </loud>"
Just drink the koolaid, children.

Thursday, August 29, 2002

Den Beste gets mad at cultural relativists who constantly criticize US today (link via ekr). There's a lot of detail of practices in Mid-eastern or African cultures that should by all rights have horrified Western feminists and all opponents of capital punishment. I was already thinking along the same lines, so what interested me most was the thoughts about why these people are so horrified by the US:
  • It's the drunk looking for his keys under the streetlight. It's only when it comes to a country like the US that these people have a chance of getting heard; it's not because US is the best place to make improvements.
  • If they believe that all cultures are equal, then they must beat down American culture because it is so infective. The belief that all cultures are equal is so primary to them that facts must get reinterpreted to fit with this belief. Thus, the American culture is infective but low, unsophisticated, cheap, materialistic; therefore not in fact better in any way!

Coincidentally, this evening I also ran across a speech by Larry Wall, writer of the Perl programming language, in which he says that cultural relativism is ... the notion that everything is as good as everything else, because goodness is only a matter of opinion. It's like claiming that the only thing you can know absolutely is that you can't know anything absolutely. I think this is really just another form of Modernism, a kind of existentialism really, though unfortunately it's come to be associated with postmodernism. But I think it sucks.
If you saw my link to FTrain below, and didn't explore, you should; it's got some gems. Some of my favourites:
An article in TechCentralStation by James S. Shikwati, Director of the Inter Region Economic Network, IREN Kenya, has this para (Link found through Instapundit):

A delegate from Sweden pointed out that "the poor should not be allowed to make the same mistakes the developed made leading to pollution, the poor should leap-frog in order to attain sustainable development." But what gives the developed nations the right to make choices for the poor?


Some light humour today. Sanrio is a riot already, and FTrain satirizes their character descriptions in Engrish.

Wednesday, August 28, 2002

I can't believe the guy quoted in this article (link via Instapundit). Gar Smith bemoans electricity. He thinks that a peasant's life is better when they are sewing their own clothes via pedal-powered machine (probably manufactured using electricity)

Although Gar is proud that friends commute via bicycle or mass transit (Gar doesn't say if he does), Gar doesn't seem to realize that public transport (and bicycle manufacture) depends highly on electricity and other modern inventions. And his friends would not be able to live in large cities and commute to their jobs if it weren't for the highly electricity-based economy that keeps water clean and running, removes sewage, runs grocery stores, and otherwise allows so many people to live in such close proximity.

Even the founder of Greenpeace thinks this guy is a nut.

I had never realized that the copyright laws easily risk making Web caches, including the one on your hard drive, illegal. A CNET article points this out in an interview with a Verizon vice president. (I got this link this morning through ditherati email. Ditherati liked the VP's quote: "It's been an interesting time to be on the same side as groups like Public Knowledge and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.")

Monday, August 26, 2002

Just noticed that the French phrase for "sustainable development" (chosen by the Johannesberg conference) is "Développement Durable". Translated back it would be more like "long-lasting development". That's a subtle difference from "sustainable" because it seems to imply that it's the length of duration of the development improvement that is important, not that there are two different kinds of development, sustainable and unsustainable. In German it's "Nachhaltige Entwicklung", or "lasting development" (literally, next-halting development, or development that doesn't end until a later date.)

I do sometimes wonder how much differences between speakers of different language depend on the way they phrase things. But I don't think that accounts for the American vs. Euro differences at Johannesberg this week!

"The United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development is being called a last chance for the international community to set a reasonable course on environmental protection, or face the possible collapse of the planet's ecosystems." (from Radio Free Europe). Although the article is vague, it seems to attribute this "last chance" language to Nitin Desai. When the "last chancers" are proven wrong again and again (things get worse, things get better), doesn't this rhetoric start to seem ridiculous?
A number of recent articles criticize the catchphrase "sustainable development" (1, 2, 3 and 4 from Bjorn Lomborg) and the proponents of sustainable development (notably at Johannesburg) who oppose economic growth in at least some forms. James Glassman puts it well, if idealistically: "the word "sustainable" bothers me. While imprecise, it carries connotations of constraint, of limits to growth. The best way to improve the well-being of the people of the world and to improve the environment of the world is to eliminate constraints - especially on the human achievement and imagination. A goal of sustainable development sells the world short. We can do much better."

On the other "side", Nitin Desai, the Secretary General of the Johannesburg summit, defines sustainable development in this interview. Part of his answer: "What does it mean to talk about sustainable energy? It means that you are not going to approach this simply from the perspective of pure environmental management, nor or we going to approach this simply from the perspective of: here is the demand for growth, how are we going to meet it? We need something which seeks to combine the two!" South African president Thabo Mbeki, who spoke at the summit, says "A global human society based on poverty for many and prosperity for a few, characterized by islands of wealth, surrounded by a sea of poverty, is unsustainable." However that seems to be an incompatible (or irrelevant) definition next to Desai's.

According to this article, the phrase was invented in 1987 in the Brundtland report. 'Sustainable development seeks to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future,' said the report. 'Far from requiring the cessation of economic growth (the notion of sustainability) recognizes that the problem of poverty and underdevelopment cannot be solved unless we have a new era of growth in which developing countries play a large role and reap large benefits.'

I found this article on American foreign aid and private charitable aid very cheering. Carol Adelman points out that American governmental foreign aid is only a fraction of private aid, not even counting direct remittances from immigrants living in US to their families back home. I prefer to be able to choose how and where to give my charitable dollar, so I approve of this state of things.

Although the article states that "our government gave more foreign aid, in absolute terms, than any other country in 2001, topping second-ranked Japan" (in absolute terms means counting private charitable donations as well as government foreign aid), I wish the article had done a better job of including numbers from outside US. E.g if Japan is second-ranked, I'd like to know how much of its foreign aid is private and how much is public.

The personal remittances part is really interesting. A government report says that "Remittances increased from $8.4 billion in 1990 to $11.8 billion in 1995. More than 60 percent of remittances went to the countries of Central America, the Caribbean, and South America". More probably goes through uncounted, brought directly across the Rio Grande inside peoples' wallets. Remittances are finally being seen as a development tool. "In 2000, over $20 billion was sent overseas from immigrants in the US in 80 million separate transactions... the remittances sent to Haiti, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Jamaica account for 10 percent of the GDPs of each of those countries." Holy cow.

Many governments (Kenya, Cuba) restrict personal remittances from residents (Cuba limits to $300 per quarter). Other countries tax remittances (Brazil) even though they may already have taxed the money once as income. The US remittance limit seems to be $10,000 without requiring any paperwork, and more if you do the paperwork to prove you're not laundering money. I do not know if there's an absolute limit.

Thursday, August 22, 2002

People seem shocked that the government would consider making what up to 1/5 of Americans do illegal (that is, to share copyrighted files peer-to-peer). That hasn't stopped the US government before. Prohibition, for example. Oh wait, that wasn't such a good idea either. Maybe we'll see "share-easy" cafes in obscure corners, where laptops are whisked out of sight at the approach of law enforcement?
I find it hard to complain about more wireless access, but it's hard to see how Starbucks will make money with it. Or do business-people really have meetings in Starbucks, for which they're willing to pay at least $3 for the right to (wirelessly) hook in?

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

In more recent articles, Steve Gillmor interviews Raikes and Mangione on further Microsoft .NET strategies. The Raikes article is boring but he does say "Office 11 not only has the same level of XML support that we had in Excel and Access but also a more advanced form of XML support that we have for all of those products in Office 11, which is the ability to support arbitrary schemas."

I was really tickled by Mangione's statement that "We may not be there today but the reality is, the way you're going to interoperate, the way you're going to bring it together is all going to be over standard protocols. I think the biggest thing in the 10 years I've been at Microsoft is to finally realize that protocols really do matter." That wasn't really true two years ago, judging by the effect my standards work had on my career there, but it may be true now.

Also in the Mangione article, Gillmor asks "Things like SIP [Session Initiation Protocol], for example. There's no XML in SIP, right?" Umm. That's a really, really stupid question with no relevance to the discussion before or after. It's a stupid question because SIP is a standard protocol whether or not it contains XML. XML is just a way to format data; SIP chose another format. Did Gillmor leave the question in just to make fun of Mangione's repetitive response? Or is that a glitch?

Finally, Mangione repeats the new keyword "federated" that Bill used in his .NET speech. No doubt they've been hearing loud and clear from customers that it's not OK for Microsoft to run centralized services for businesses. Like AOL IM, for example!

On Aug. 3 I translated "BillSpeak" from a recent .NET strategy speech. Steve Gillmor does the same (two days later, go blogs!) in an InfoWorld article. Steve makes some inferences I hadn't made, but I think he's not wrong. On the other hand, he ignores many implications too. For example, he completely ignores the emphasis Bill put on notifications, reducing it to a product availability hint.
I like this article on health advice, although I don't think it's all helpful. At least the recommendation to take both the new findings and the conventional wisdom with a grain of salt is good advice. What it really communicates to me though is just how complicated it is to attempt to live healthily, unless of course we ignore all conventional wisdom and new findings!
I don't know about suing the US Government, but this article on obesity and the official food guide pyramid is pretty damning. I know I can't eat 6-11 servings of grains, cereals, rice and pasta per day without gaining serious weight. Two servings a day is probably the max for me! On the other hand, I can eat more than 2-3 recommended servings/day from the meat, beans, eggs and nuts category, and easily more than 3-5 servings of vegetables.

Friday, August 09, 2002

New country-by-country economic freedom ratings show Hong Kong still at the top, and the US third (and Canada ninth). These ratings now include 37 new variables. One of those is per-capita income, which seems to confuse things- if the ratings institutes want to use these numbers to prove that economic freedom is correlated prosperity, this really confuses the issue. Maybe nobody will notice?

I also noted that protection of intellectual property is one of the new variables, but the news article doesn't say whether protecting intellectual property increases a country's rating or decreases it. I'd guess the former, although I'm seeing more and more libertarians argue that protecting intellectual property decreases economic freedoms.

Saturday, August 03, 2002

Great post by Dan Simon on what it costs to subsidize Amtrak, and how that subsidy largely benefits the well-to-do. Another example of social programs that help those who don't need it.

Last week Bill and Steve gave an interesting Microsoft strategy presentation at Redmond. I haven't worked there in years, and my focus may be myopic, but here's some thoughts.

"There were some competitors who dismissed this approach, the centricity of XML, the importance of Web services"I still don't get the importance of Web services. Or rather, I understand that but I don't understand the value-add of UDDI and WSDL.
"this is a software problem, one of the toughest software problems ever tackled, easily greater than tough engineering problems like getting to the moon or designing the 747"In some ways, I agree with this. If they're smart, however, the problem will be broken up into many smaller problems, which can be far more independent of each other than could be possible in a space mission or airplane. Software is very complex, but it can be extremely modular. Hey, XML can help with that!
"today think of your address book information that's in your buddy list, it's on different machines, it doesn't get up to date, somebody can change something, it doesn't automatically get to you, so the information management is not people centric, and .NET My Services, the direction there is to solve that"It's definitely not clear from this who "owns" your buddy list. That's the problem with making something centrally available. On the other hand, we've gotten over that anxiety with email - many people use hotmail for email without worrying about Microsoft owning their emails.
"It's important to think of the breakthroughs that were required once we got that connectivity really in two parts. One is how you represent the information and the other is how do you exchange that information. The first is about information formats and schemas and the second is about a rich set of protocols."Yes! It's not enough just to have the Internet, we have to define how data is represented, exchanged and used. There's much confusion on that score. Today somebody posted a proposal for a RPC protocol to the general IETF list, as if it were the protocol to end all protocols. Well, we can have layers and layers and layers of protocols, but there still needs to be an understanding about how the information is formatted and what it means to the sending and receiving computers.
"In a sense you could say it's the Holy Grail that computing has talked about for a long time, having applications written by people who don't have to meet each other, because the number of connections are too great for that, they don't have to trust each other, their system can run even if the other guy's system is unreliable or even if it's malicious you can make sure that the wrong things don't happen to that application."OK, this is totally bogus. .NET is not the holy grail of computing. It won't give computers the intelligence to talk to each other! Duh.
"Jet Blue is an example of a competitor in the airline industry who's decided they're going to keep their IT costs below 2 percent and that's against a fairly typical industry average there of about 5 percent."Wow. That's exciting! IT costs are too high. Cutting IT costs like that, if it's generally applicable, would rock for the world economy. Not that I believe the cost reduction is all Microsoft's doing, however.
Portals are mentioned, in the sense that a government (or I assume a company) can standardize on a portal and then plug all sorts of value services into it without planning a single architecture for all the services.That wish will not come true for 5-10 years. Since I've had recent experience working with and comparing portals, I can attest that they are so different there's a significant learning curve and even some architectural differences required to plug into them. Some portal products (Sybase's) are all about architecture, and locking a bunch of valuable services into one architecture.
"Federation, the idea that all these different systems can be connected together without their being any unique root, that is if two companies want to trust each other they can just federate."This is a cool thing, but not that new. We federate email, why not instant messaging? Competition amonst IM services has stifled federation in that area. I won't be surprised if IM stays in its isolated islands, or if more services are islands.
Sharing authentication information"What we announced recently is what we call "TrustBridge," where you can take that internal Active Directory and say OK, if I want to share these identities outside the company, how can I use this WS security protocol to, say, take the Intel Active Directory implementation and the Microsoft one and exchange that information? That's the corporate-to-corporate case..."OK, but does every TrustBridge require individual attention? It won't do me much good most of the time, because the IT departments of companies employing my collaborators couldn't be bothered setting up a TrustBridge with my employer.
"Notification is the idea that instead of going and finding information there are certain things you care enough about that you want to be notified."I've discussed this technology recently on this blog. It sure sounds from the way Steve talks about notification that they want to centralize it. E.g. rather than getting new-email notifications via IMAP, and appointment-reminder notifications via CAP, and document-unlocked events via WebDAV, they want to use one protocol to transport all these notifications, and one notification server to collect them for the user. That's not the way the standards are going, so MS is either going to drag the standards in that direction or be non-standard. Probably both to a large extent.
To remove barriers in communication media, to improve user centricity: "A big part of this we believe is bringing the voice world and the screen world together and you're seeing this in a number of real time things."I believe in this big time, but again, it's very hard. How does your IM client know what your email contact book is? These are so separate today, separate servers and protocols and clients, that it will be hard to unify.
"Outlook will evolve from being an e-mail client to being far more than an e-mail client."Yeah, you can see that happening -- its had calendaring and contacts and journal and tasks for years, recently a little buddy list functionality, next I imagine it will integrate NetMeeting
"SharePoint, you're going to see, is really a key part of Office."Ouch. SharePoint is really not standards based. In fact, open standards are really not a focus of this strategy. I guess this is the "extend" phase of "embrace and extend" the Internet. I hope the damage from MS not following open standards in key components won't be too great, but I'm pessimistic.
To break down barriers between islands of information on your own computer, e.g. so you can search across your files and email with one search command, they plan to unify storage of this information.This shouldn't be too hard, since modern file systems are half-way there, having dual streams so that the file contents can be stored with arbitrary amounts of metadata. But I'm not intimately familiar with the problems here.
"So you're going to see with the PC a lot more changes in these next three or four years than in the last three or four."That's really unlikely. Systems get larger and more unwieldy as time passes. Unless they've spent the last three years simplifying PCs rather than adding features (which they have not), the next three years are more likely to involve smaller and smaller incremental changes in PCs. Unless they're talking hardware form factors rather than software GUI, in which case a breakthrough may radically change things.

Summary: It's all about putting the data in XML to exchange via Web services (SOAP); that's .NET. SOAP is now built into Windows XP. Increased privacy, but at the same time increased authorization information exchange. Increased federation, but also increased centralization. "So there's a lot of direction here." No kidding!

Friday, August 02, 2002

OK, one more blog today about libertarians. A neat article about libertarian ideology and health starts by defending busybodies. It argues that public health experts exhorting people not to smoke, to have a healthy diet, etc. can be consistently libertarian as long as they do not advocate regulations impinging the individual's right to engage in unhealthy activities that do not hurt others. One point I disagree on is the mandatory health warnings on cigarette packages -- the authors of the article find that restricts freedom too much, and I do not.

The article goes on to discuss the medicalization of unhealthy behaviors, the increasing tendency to see addicts as helpless, either sick or insane people. It's a little overly wordy but otherwise interesting.

Here's an example of a report that recommends what I consider to be libertarian and economics based principles (market principles), without entirely forgetting social compassion. The report (note that it's funded by the Reason Public Policy Institute, and it's not a scientific study) shows that when you charge people according to how much garbage they throw out they throw out up to 17% less garbage (the rate can be lower depending on the pricing scheme) and recycle more. One important consideration is whether variable pricing, which is more complicated, costs more than it saves. However the report addresses this too, citing a benefit/cost ratio of 7.6 in a year alone!

The report discusses subsidizing low-income customers. This recommendation makes much more sense to me than subsidizing everybody, or subsidizing those who waste more as the more common flat price scheme does. (OTOH, I also find it wasteful for every social program that exists to have a separate way to subsidize low-income customers. Wouldn't it be more efficient to centralize that too? )

BTW, only 20% of the US population gets charged according to how much garbage they produce (at the time of the original SERA study).

Jeremy Lott says libertarians are more fun, which I agree with. I have a few reasons to add. First, they don't tell me what to do. Second, they think things like alcohol, drugs and sex can be fun (not to mention potluck picnics). Third, they at least pay lip service to using science, including economics, and tools like analysis and reason to overcome bias and wishful thinking, so they tend to be a little lest frustrating to argue with.

The main thing I'd like to see changed in libertarians is more compassion. The pro-personal-independence stance of many libertarians seems to encourage them to overlook suffering. I guess that reveals my preferences to be as much socialist (that is, I support taxes & many social programs) as libertarian (I support individual liberties).

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