27 March 2007

The Acceptance of Oracles

In a previous post I said no one truly knows anything. Of course, we must use reasonable knowledge. The knowledge we act on is always imperfect, it's important to recognize that, since many people go about their lives believing they are acting on evidence. I doubt anyone really makes their daily decisions on evidence.

There is always a smarty pants who says that saying "nothing is truly knowable,"is just a high toned stance of philosophers and not really anything people in the real world should go by. The problem I have with such statements is that there exist people in our world, called rationalists, who pretend to act only on evidence in their decisions and lives. They act as if everything is knowable and that everything they know comes from evidence. They are frequently vocal advocates of science and reason as the only legitimate truth. That may be, but since we know reason is subject to fallacy, and that reason is a product of the human mind, it lacks the power to discern truth. Reason is a tool to be used to extend scientific knowledge, but it requires experiment, observation and prediction to verify that flights of reason are representative of reality. Even then, this mechanism may fail since we may lack complete observations, miss the one exception that proves the rule or disproves it. We may look at the data we have and say, continents never drift, then look again at later data as see that nevertheless the move. Science isn't truth. It's a successive approximation to the truth. It may be reasonable to trust science more than what someone says to you on the street, or what the good book tells you about the creation, but that does not mean either of those sources are wrong. In fact, if the lesson the Getty museum learned over the purchase of the Greek statute (Gladwell, Blink!), which science "verified" and an expert determined was a fake from a single glance lasting a few milliseconds, has anything to say about truth, is that sometimes individuals without any evidence are more accurate than scientists with rooms full of instruments and the wrong assumptions. It may just be, we have to recognize that there are times we must depend on oracles.

Some day, we may be required to accept the pronouncements of software intelligence, without any evidence at all, maybe not even evidence we could comprehend, with our limited mental capacity.

Citizendium: Multiple Truths Welcome?

I've been reading the Citizendium's approach to governing what goes into their content. This new attempt at a wiki encyclopedia favors an approach with less rules, greater oversight and tries to accommodate a multiplicity of views on truth.

http://en.citizendium.org/wiki/CZ:Neutrality_Policy

I wish they would not call it a neutrality policy. I strongly dislike the oxymoronic "neutral point of view."

I don't know how far the Citizendium will go, but I do believe multiple truths should be represented transparently. There is no reason not to accommodate multiple truths and no reason not to build information systems capable of accommodating multiple truths.

Contrary to popular belief, there does exist more than more than one truth. In genealogy, for example, the idea of multiple truths is necessary, since the same individual is frequently claimed by more than one family. Information about the past is sketchy and subject to interpretation. When the first online genealogies were being discussed on the GenWeb mailing list, it was ultimately concluded that there should not be a single unified global genealogy, since the "facts" could never be reconciled perfectly. There would by necessity be a need for representing multiple truths, based upon facts weighted by how much confidence we have in the sources (familiar to anyone who sources their genealogy).

Moreover, the truths we hold in our minds are imperfect, and emerge from our folk knowledge, through narrative and are based upon assumptions, which generally are made not on evidence (and probably can never be made upon anything else), but on the folk knowledge we absorb from our surroundings.

An absolute truth may exist and be determined by the physical universe, but there are many questions that arise about the human mind, society and the constructions of the human mind, which society is an example, which have no physical existence at all and it may never be able to determine what is true. There is also the nature of our knowledge existing only as sense perceptions, which makes science a kind of honorable delusion, as accurate as we can determine to agree on shared descriptions of phenomena. We have a reasonable idea of what we know is true or not through careful scientific inquiry, assisted by not guaranteed by reason, but in the end the only thing we know is: No one truly knows anything.

Simple Software: Is it viable?

I love the idea simple software. Of software without cruft and bloat. When I create an application I want to make it simple, but that is not the way of the world. Most applications end up being complex. I have not entirely given up on the idea of fighting creeping featurism, featuritis and bloat, but it occurred to me that it may be a losing battle, after switching from SimplePHPBlog to Wordpress (not for this site) and Blogger. It seems that most projects to create plain vanilla or simple versions of software with a reduced feature set nearly always fail to gain popularity. If you look at Windows, it's sold on features, when you look at products in the store, they are sold on features. When you think of the natural world, it seems true that:

All significantly interesting things will necessarily become complex and paradoxical given enough time.

21 March 2007

The Swicki: Collaborative Search

I've long thought that the fatal flaw of what library science calls "finding aids" is that they only organize information according to how it relates to other information. What I've always wanted is a search that relates information to what I care about, to my interests, to me. I've thought about "personalized searches" but the trouble with this approach is that it is time consuming to express to a computer exactly what it is you want. You must set up some kind of criteria and the the search returns results for you based upon it, such as the simple eBay search notification. If lots of people are going to use this with the efficiency they now get from Google, something else is needed. We don't have expert systems and artificial intelligence yet, so what is a possible solution?

Some are experimenting with attention. By tracking what you look at online, a profile of your interests can be built, which can then drive a personal search engine. People are really bad at expressing what they really want (as product developers and marketers have discovered) so the non-intrusive method of observing behavior may just work.

Another experiment takes a different approach. Why not let other people help refine your search? That is what the people behind Swicki seem to have done. If you could gather like minded individuals into one location where they could influence the accuracy of the search, the "search in a can" model could be improved. It goes farther than that. By becoming an aggregator of search results the system can ride on top of the web and use it as a database in a way similar to Yahoo Pipes. The most revolutionary aspect of Swicki is user created search engines. Instead of needing millions of dollars and massive servers, Swicki piggy backs on existing search results to enable anyone to create a web search engine. This kind of democratizing is a defining quality of web two point oh applications.

I see how the canned search model can be turned inside out, by allowing a group of users to collaboratively refine the canned search to improve it. Instead of empowering the computer to be smarter, it empowers people to create a smarter resource. It definitely becomes a kind of search-wiki. It competes in some ways with the idea of folksonomy. We have now user created taxonomies and now user created searches. What I like about both developments is how it democratizes the organization and finding of information. The folksonomy enables people to create their own vocabularies, perhaps multiple vocabularies for the same subject area. The wiki search enables people to create alternative search results for the same subject. My background is in a subject where unresolvable disagreement is commonplace. It's called genealogy, where there are no facts, only interpretations and sometimes two families claim the same individual. This is not something for concern in genealogy and I like the way more than one truth can exist within the same framework, it's much better than declaring one view right and all others wrong and working hard to keep your opponent's views out of view. Despite what some may claim, there can be more than one version of the truth. Let an idea gain mindshare on its own merits.

I've thought before about a search engine where you could search the web by creating predefined searches, but never thought of letting everyone edit your predefined searches, that is novel, just as with social bookmarking

You can see the Swicki I created in a few minutes in the sidebar of this site (as long as it's there).

A Good Introduction to Yahoo Pipes

A good introduction to what Yahoo Pipes are and the possibilities they offer posted to Read/WriteWeb. Also, a simple, clear, concise explanation of emergence:

It is this automagical process through which elements of a system give rise to a higher order system. Emergence is how physics becomes chemistry and chemistry becomes biology.

Racing Games Encourage Risky Driving?

By now, many have heard about a study making claims that exposure to "driving games" encourage risky behavior on the road. I can see where the effect may be real, just as the effect of violence in video games may be real, but most of these studies forget that violence itself is neutral, it is the purpose and context for violence that may be troubling. They also never seem to separate games from simulation.

As others have pointed out, there is a vast difference between a simulation and a game. I fly flight simulators (Microsoft Flight Sim, Flight Gear and X-Plane) and have done so for about ten years. You can learn a lot about flight procedures, navigation and many other elements of flight, which are modeled to a good degree of realism. You obviously can't feel the effects of turbulence. You are not likely to feel your stomach in your throat from clear air turbulence. You are not likely to feel disorientation. But the rest you can learn a lot from. I'm fairly new to racing games or simulators, but the same rule applies to racing "games" that take a simulation approach.

The object of racing is to win. You win by following The Line, or ideal course through the given track that optimizes the efficiency of running the track in order to reduce the total lap time to a minimum. To follow the line, you do not just go as fast as possible through corners, but take advantage of physics. You actually run a faster time by going slower. I've always read that in racing books, but now I know it is real. My first runs through the game/simulator were slower than than my later runs when I calmed down, tried to follow the line, braked into corners, tried to hit the apex of the curve and position myself for as early an acceleration out of the corner at the highest exit speed possible. I'm still not very good at it, but my lap times dropped considerably the better I drove.

I believe racing or driving simulators teach people how to drive well and avoid taking risks, so let's not conflate simulation and racing. You ought to get real world pilot license credit for simulation practice and I've read many reports of pilots being more quick to learn at pilot school because of their simulation experience. Real sports car enthusiasts who run the Neurburing in Germany recommend taking a few laps in the PS2 game Gran Turismo before coming to the real track. The model is pretty faithful and at least you can memorize the names, directions and characteristics of the turns. Memorizing the course is essential to racing.

The bottom line is that racing simulations require you to follow the line to achieve anything. If they model damage, they punish bad driving severely. If they model tire wear and other mechanical elements the punish hard driving.

It reminds me of A-10 Tank Killer, a game I played many years ago on the PC. While not a flight simulator, the game offered realistic military scenarios, frequently without any good solution and failure to carry out the mission or causing friendly fire (and in some occasions there was no choice) resulted in being chewed out by the commander. The game offered dilemmas such as choosing to fly to rescue a downed pilot or take out the target or both. Hard decisions have to be made in war and this game taught those lessons very well. I would _want_ my children (if I had any) to play this game. They might learn something about life. That the enemy can come out of nowhere to rip your wings off in a second from a hidden truck mounted anti-aircraft gun; that war is chaotic, that it is difficult to tell who is friend and foe, that you must make life and death decisions and no matter what you decide you may be wrong. We need more "games" like that, we need young people to play them. One rarely hears in the media how science has found evidence that games can help, such as showing that surgeons who play video games show improved dexterity. Or that medical simulation helps surgeons to practice without endangering patients. I believe from personal experience that first person shooter games can improve soldiers performance on the battlefield, that people who have never been exposed to warfare can probably pick up a lot about tactics and warfare from playing them, perhaps too much, but that is something for society to worry about, the game is not the problem. They are not "murder simulators" by any means...they may mean raw recruits who have played them come with a few qualities helpful to the soldier, such as the understanding that in warfare one must move forward into the face of fire, use cover, organize into fireteams, etc. Games are a powerful way human beings can learn, give us new ways to play, relieve stress, compete, keep our minds sharp and simulators are their older, wiser brothers who can help us to learn to avoid mistakes by allowing us to fail at tasks that are deadly when mistakes are made.

Driving games like Burnout, I tend to take a different view of, they are intended to be absurd fun, like many good games, they allow you to do crazy-fun things that are enjoyable, such as the wild drives in Halo's Warthog I've done or blowing yourself into the sky on a pile of grenades. Does that make me want to drive off a cliff or sit on a pile of grenades in real life? No, I can't believe any sensible person would take such games any differently. I think if people can keep perspective, we also need games like these to maintain a sense of the absurd and to do those things we know we'd never do in real life. One would have to be malicious or delusional to take these activities into real life.

19 March 2007

John W. Backus, 82, Fortran Developer, Dies

The New York Times obituary section notes the death of John Backus, who led the team to develop the FORTRAN. I suspect the members of the priesthood, coding in machine code, were the ones saying it was an impossible task. It is difficult to see how something so seemingly obvious could be such a struggle to achieve, but that is the way with hindsight. It is difficult and daunting to face into the wind. It takes courage and persistence. Words to live by:

“You need the willingness to fail all the time,” he said. “You have to generate many ideas and then you have to work very hard only to discover that they don’t work. And you keep doing that over and over until you find one that does work.” -- John W. Backus

(http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/19/obituaries/20cnd-backus.html 19 Mar 2007)

17 March 2007

Quick-slow: A way to give meaning to media?

I develop the platform for the folkstreams.net website, which is a non-profit archive for rare folklore documentary films. We transfer the films to video and then stream them to the web so they are not lost, molding in some archive never to be seen. Many of our films have not been seen for twenty years or more, one was rescued from a barn. As such, we are strong advocates of open access to archives (and I am happy to learn many other institutions in the folklore world also understand how important access is to a sustainable archive and are using the web in wonderful ways).

To the point. It has always been important for our films to be presented in context. I have always believed that media without context is meaningless, whether that is a family photograph or a documentary film. A photographic image is merely an interesting composition without the information necessary to understand it, to interpret it. All images must be read...oddly enough, since they are the seeming opposite of text, which everyone acknowledges must be read. We teach literacy, but we don't teach the equivalent for images. (What would that be imagacy, photoacy, videocy? That last one sounds too much like idiocy to be comfortable.). A photographic image may affect us as a work of art, or it may present an attractive composition, but beyond that it requires context. The same is true for moving pictures. This is why each film on our website is nestled in a set of contextual materials. I sometimes doubt that many people read them, or read the transcript, but they are there to give meaning to the films, to place them in context so that people may better understand the subjects and ideas presented in the film.

I've wanted for some to build a small content management system where

* Media is on an equal footing with text, but also where media is the centerpiece.
* Media is as easy to work with and place in context as working with text in a wiki.

There is a form, a mashup you might call it, between a Blog and a Wiki, called a Bliki. I had not paid too much attention to this development until I read on one of the advocate's websites that the idea of a Bliki involved a "quick-slow" process. The blog enables a user to quickly write a blog entry, something quick, potentially ephemeral and tied to time; At that moment or any time later, the user may also create a wiki page connected to the blog entry, for slower moving, more thoughtful and persistent content.

I think this would apply perfectly to such a media application, which would be useful in personal publishing and could help small archives (local history and genealogy societies, libraries and archives) manage and create access to their image collections. As volunteers scan images, they could upload them with descriptions as blog entries, then they or others could provide context through wiki pages associated with the image meta data in the blog entries. It would be upload, give a title and description, later come back, drop a wikiname in the description and then create a page. It could encourage local people to contribute memories to photographs, for example.

Today, I actually came across the first example in the wild of someone doing this, someone using the Bliki "quick-slow" philosophy to give meaning to images. "I added Wikipedia links to my Flickr photos..." (http://instones.org/archives/61 2007) This is exactly the kind of behavior I would like a web application to enable and encourage, which would facilitate quick image upload and meta data, but would also enable and encourage placing media in context, as well as supporting tagging for folksonomy. It's more a philosophy than a technology.

Yahoo Pipes

I made my first pipe today at Yahoo Pipes, which takes our Folkstreams recently additions feed and finds Flickr images that correspond to the folkloric subject categories associated with each entry, rolls them into the feed. I'm not sure if I constructed it properly of if it's useful, but it works, the Flickr images do show up in an element of the RSS item for each film.

It's a fascinating concept, although a feed mashup is not a new concept, Pipes is very broad, powerful and slick. It borrows from several novel websites, shades of Ning where users build technology using Lego-brick-like software components. Of course, it's like Unix, a set of simple tools with standard input and output that can be endlessly combined into new, useful tools. It also draws upon open source software development, since others can see how you constructed a pipe, copy it and make it their own to study or build their own tools on.

Pipes is a social network version of a RSS feed mashup service. The idea of mashing up RSS feeds to create a new feed, combined from other filtered feeds is nothing new. But sharing the feeds and the construction of feeds with other users in a social network environment like social bookmarking, etc. is novel. You can do the normal social networking things, aggregate most popular pipes. Any kind of content item can be social networked and then the aggregates derived from that usage data.

It definitely has shades of open source since you can see how any pipe is made; shades of wiki in that you anyone can study, edit and build the application from within the application through a language. It is similar to emacs or even Blender (which exposes its interface and engine to Python, so new interface elements and functionality can be added by users). Users becoming software builders is a growing phenomena, just as wiki showed readers could become authors, all part of a general trend toward what is called professional-amateurism.

13 March 2007

When They Severed Earth From Sky

I also read When They Severed Earth From Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth, Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul T. Barber last summer. This is another book in the gathering storm against rational purism. It also suggests an intriguing possibility, that when a society becomes literate that it loses certain capacities for understanding intuitive knowledge of the kind carried in myth.

The authors propose that myths function like delivery systems for messages, with an interesting story acting as an envelope for the myth, keeping ordinary people interested enough to pass the myth down generations, the useful information contained within the envelope. When at some future time, trouble erupts (literally, such as a volcano), the payload is delivered and people can be warned about a future event or danger. What literate people seem to unlearn when they make the transition from a pre-literate culture, is that the myth has a payload. They concentrate on the story, gods and their daughters fighting, etc. and miss the message encoded in the myth. The story is merely a "soap opera" designed to ensure the story with its payload intact is delivered down the halls of time, ready to deploy when the right circumstances arise.

This book relates directly to another book with similar themes: The First Fossil Hunters by Adrienne Mayor, which discusses the resistance by ancient natural philosophers to include the fossilized remains of ancient creatures in their Linnean systems for categorizing biology. Yet, the myth makers and the followers of phenomenology interpreted these remains more accurately than nineteenth century science. This says much about creativity and science, about as Huxley once said, that that science advances by the investigation of anomalies, or in Mayor's terms, an interest in phenomenology, a curiosity about the strange and paradoxical, which science could well do with a dose of today. The intuitive and phenomenological may be vital to creativity in science and mathematics, if one looks honestly at the history of those fields.

If science had known about emergence then, how different the Greek philosophers systems for classifying creatures might have been. The possible bird like origin of the dinosaurs might have been recognize two thousand years ago.

Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America

Last year I read Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, David Hackett Fischer for the first time, after seeing him on CSPAN BookTV several times and hearing a lot about the book. I was a rewarding experience and opened my eyes to many things and answered many questions. I can't say more right now, but this is an important book, perhaps one of the most important books you will ever read. It can change you mind about a lot of things.

He will open your eyes to the folk culture that informs our supposedly rational opinions and decisions, which amounts to a kind of folk knowledge that everyone absorbs by osmosis from their parents, neighbors, community and surrounding culture growing up. What is very striking, and counter intuitive for many rationalists, is how the behavior of people is shown to be determined more by a persistence of culture than by a framework of social or ideological forces acting on them in their own time. Or at least the culture frames the debates and decisions they make, the sides they take in culture wars. A good example is the consistent adherence to royalist sentiments in the ancient kingdom of Mercia to the later periods of conflict over hundreds of years. The social and political divides in England remained in place for hundreds of years.

Another example is how similar cultures in colonial America mirrored those in locations where migrations occurred. It seems obvious and simple that people would bring their culture with them, but historians have frequently overlooked the obvious and instead invented theories explaining American cultures as being the result of forces unique to the American experience, when they simply originated in the cultures where people migrated from.

Much of Albion is concerned with the persistence of culture.

What is Brandymore Castle?

What is Brandymore Castle?

Brandymore Castle (also spelled Brandimore) is a limestone outcrop in Arlington, Virginia rising above the flood plain of Four Mile Run. In the eighteenth century, it was used by surveyors as a visual reference, although today the castle is worn down by time and vandalism, hidden in a small forest behind some homes. It once stood proudly and was probably the highest point on the surrounding flood plain of Four Mile Run when the forest had been cleared and farms filled the area. Today, the trees have grown back as farming ceased in Arlington beginning in the Great Depression and continuing as the suburbs grew and agriculture became the business of large corporate farms. When Interstate 66 was came through Arlington, a sound dampening wall was placed very near to the landmark, which now hems it in further. Brandymore Castle now sits crumbling and hidden, buried in a forest, surrounded by homes, wedged between the route 66 noise barrier and a basketball court with nothing more than a historic marker. The stream bed of Four Mile Run still flows by at the foot of the castle, as if the "moat" of the surveyor's imagination is still protecting the site.

What attracts me to Brandymore is the imagination of the eighteenth century surveyors, who imagined a castle out of a pile of limestone. It must have looked very much like a castle, since limestone was used (or imitated) historically as the outer coat of castle (and other buildings in the ancient world) walls. Limestone can be impressively brilliant. I am attracted to the imaginary quality of the castle, emphasized by the juxtaposition of a concrete (not cement, but the solid reality of) form with the product of the imagination. It captures the essential quality of imagination, or what the dictionary defines as "the power of the mind to form images, especially of what is not present to the senses." In a sense, if you go looking for Brandymore Castle, you will never find it, for the castle only exists in the imagination.

This is the view from Brandymore Castle.