Thursday, September 29, 2005

The hundred dollar laptop is out.

In a sense it's a shame you can't buy one. I understand they need to be sold in bulk, but if they were made available to the public (ie. hackers) for, say, 200 dollars, surely this would cover the cost, and stimulate software development for it.
Danny Ayers thinks people have problems with the SemWeb because it violates their expectations.

My guess is that expectations are relative to the problems we want to solve. Particularly, we have an intuition about the order of magnitude of the complexity of our problem and the likely complexity of the solution.

Could it be that what's uncomfortable about the SemWeb is that it's essentially trying to push you to solve a bigger problem than the one you might be thinking about. Ie. not just "make data from my program available for whoever wants it", but "produce a definitive data-model of this kind of information"?

This would be the biggest challenge to expectations, that it redefines the scope of the problem.
The blogosphere's talking about Web 2.0. I wrote a response in John Robb's comments to the question : "what are the three big themes of web 2.0?".

My take is that it's basically BangTheRocksTogether (which is about finer-grained addressing and the more numerous recombinations allowed) plus TheFlowInternet (automation of flow).

It all depends on open, remixable data, of course. And interestingly, there's no ThoughtStorms page devoted to that. The fish never sees the water ;-)
BBC NEWS | Americas | Vote gives Brazil head good news

Hilan is furious about this. This means there'll be no call to impeach Lula and suggests the top of the PT (worker's party) has managed to put a barrier between itself and the corruption scandal.

Remember, the main accusation is that it paid members of other parties to support it in parliament. The PT's "Mandelson" has resigned, but other senior members of the government are denying all knowledge. And this support they're receiving in parliament seems to indicate that other parties are willing to work with them.

Of course, there are plenty of small parties which are, as Hilan puts it, "for rent". They back whoever is in power in return for more positions in government for their members. Which is the kind of horse-trading you can expect with a large number of parties in a proportional representation system. But, some of these parties seem to exist mainly as vehicles for their leaders to cash-in by accepting kickbacks from wannabe contractors. (That's you, Roberto Jefferson!)

So, the result of a weakened government trying to shore up support is going to be more corruption.

Hmmm. Maybe someone could simulate this. A multi-agent system which simulates a number of parties. Parties get posts if they support the government, some party members are corrupt (randomly). However, corruption reflects badly on the party (not sure if this is true). Do more parties, make corruption more common?

Also interesting. The Tehran Times seems to have better, more detailed, analysis than the BBC.

More from Reuters too.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Huh? You can now be sent to prison for showing someone a video they might be shocked by?

BBC NEWS | Scotland | Beheading video man sent to jail

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A lot of what I post on ThoughtStorms these days is just the same zeitgeist links that are popping up everywhere in the blogosphere.

So, why would you care about me posting them if everyone else has 'em too? Because it's not what I post that matters, it's where I post ;-)

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Dave Winer : IF bloggers don't ask the question -- who will?
ThoughtStorms, as you might have noticed, is locked.

I hate doing this. It's just that wiki-spam was getting me down. And I don't know what to do about it. WikiMinion cleans it nicely, but what's really pushed me over the line is RSS.

Anyone subscribing to a syndication feed based on RecentChanges is going to see nothing but spams and rollbacks. And probably will unsubscribe pretty quickly.

Of course, wiki isn't a blog. And recent-changes shouldn't be treated as an RSS feed of new stories. And yet, it sort of is.

I don't want people giving up on following TS because of the spam.

Obviously, what I really need is some kind of wiki where spam and rollbacks don't make it to the RSS feed. Maybe I'll look into that, though I have so many other projects on the go at the moment. Had a good weekend working on SystemSketch.

The Oil Drum is discussing global warming and hurricane strength
Juan Cole is following the great British jail-break in Basra.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Danny Ayers on the state of RDF and Web2.0 and SPARQL etc.

Mind you, compare Danny :

It’s of secondary importance whether the future of the Web looks like the kind of thing TimBL had in mind way back, or whether it is based around 100GB of Microsoft Office applications at every node, or the Google Singularity (beta) or whether it’ll be something where everything is bits on the wire (with no endpoints), or maybe everyone will connect through a DRM-powered iAnalProbe, or a wild heterogenous mix of these. The implementation details, even at a high level, aren’t so important. The proposition suggests there will be something, and the trend so far has been towards net improvement. It’s been a rare old mix of small increments, steps backwards, refactoring, tech resurrection, evolution and intelligent design, and not least paradigm shifting.

with Clay

Much of the proposed value of the Semantic Web is coming, but it is not coming because of the Semantic Web. The amount of meta-data we generate is increasing dramatically, and it is being exposed for consumption by machines as well as, or instead of, people. But it is being designed a bit at a time, out of self-interest and without regard for global ontology. It is also being adopted piecemeal, and it will bring with it with all the incompatibilities and complexities that implies. There are significant disadvantages to this process relative to the shining vision of the Semantic Web, but the big advantage of this bottom-up design and adoption is that it is actually working now.

How much difference is there between these two? What is Danny commited to that Clay isn't?

Saturday, September 17, 2005

The summarizes a report on Latin American infrastructure.

What doesn't seem to be raised in comparing Latin America with Asia is that the population density of Asian and Latin American countries is very different. Compare China, Korea, Japan with Brazil, Argentina and Chile.

It's harder to build infrastructure when you have to add long roads that are not regularly connecting lots of people. Railways in Brazil would be helpful.

Thursday, September 15, 2005


The new Firefox is out with built in SVG and Canvas tag.
Since when does "not statistically significant" equal false?

Most scientific papers are probably wrong
Pollution backlash in China
The BBC has a fun "game" where you can choose your dream-team to run the world. They provide an interesting, but obviously limited, selection of people in four categories of "leader", "thinker", "economist" (which includes prominent businessmen (note, no women)) and "other" (including some ludicrus slebs).

You have to choose at least one leader, thinker and economist, but apart from that the choice is yours. Here's my fantasy government. As you can imagine, it tends to be loaded with economists of left-liberal persuasion and women activists.

Mikhail Gorbachev

You have to choose one leader, and for me it was basically a toss-up between Gorbachev, Mandela and Clinton. Mandela is probably the best of the lot, but felt kind of a cliche. Clinton is a great politician, but I didn't want things dominated by the US or by its spin culture. Gorbachev seems to have the right mix of experience, respect and ability to be a fairly passive chairman. I also think that he was more personally commited to the end of the cold-war and nuclear disarmament than some give him credit for.

Shirin Ebadi

Iranian women's rights activist. Don't know about her, but pushes the right buttons.

Wangari Maathai

The first african woman to receive the nobel peace prize, she's an ecological activist from Kenya who's been involved with planting trees to prevent soil erosion.

Anna Politkovskaya

Russian journalist and human rights activist.

George Soros

I've always had a lot of respect for Soros and his attempt to promote Popperian ideals.

Mohammad Yunus

The guy who invented Grameen and micro-credit.

Steven D. Levitt

He's trendy at the moment. But more importantly, he's a contrarian and experimentalist. I'm hoping he'll be the person in the team demanding to see the evidence, if not designing experiments to test it.

Joseph E. Stiglitz

Knows what's wrong with the international financial institutions. And may be able to fix them.

Amartya Sen

Sen's economic focus is the growth of freedoms, both positive and negative.

Hernando de Soto

Coming from a bit further to the right. De Soto is a strong advocate of private property and it's role in economic development.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Another women's rights activist.

OK, that's the team. Some of them maybe wrong. I may have too many economists, though I think smart economists ought to be able to understand the complexity of running the world. What you'd expect from this team is a lot of development projects around the world, mainly based on encouraging small-scale enterprises, and possibly penalizing big finance. That's probably what I'm looking for.

But let's just look at the huge glaring omission.

There are no scientists, inventors, geeks or hackers of any kind.

Why? Because none were available.

The BBC offers novelists, architects, clothes designers, the guy who invented the IKEA flat-pack, models, actors, Brad Pitt and Jenifer Lopez and some Bollywood equivalent.

But not a single scientist. Levitt is the only person with any reputation for empirical research.

We don't have Richard Stallman, the obvious geek who has had the most dramatic impact in recent times. Nor a stand-in like Linus Torvalds or Eric Raymond (though I'm not sure I'd be able to stomach the latter in my world government, even if he'd accept.) Nor a Dave Winer or Clay Shirky or Manuel Castells or other thinker about internet culture.

We do, I suppose, get Bill Gates, Sergey Brin and Steve Jobs, confusingly in the economics section, and while Bill is a bona-fide geek, and Sergey too, they're there because of their business success. Actually, I'm wishing I'd added Brin to the mix. But reading his write up, you can understand why I didn't figure him in this role. He's credited with creating Google which is now worth X amount of billions, and despite being a billionaire lives a modest life-style.

No pop-science writers like Richard Dawkins, Paul Davies, or my current favourite. No wonder Oli is dispairing at the state of popular awareness of science. Bad BBC!
This guy is an odious, vindictive, psychopath.

It's a shame he was right. Nevertheless, the parliament is right to expel him, even if their motives are mixed.

Unfortunately he'll be a hero to many. And worse, he'll probably have a happy career getting (even) rich(er), and politically powerful in other spheres.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

I always figured that at least RDF was pretty sorted when it came to handling well understood data like who wrote what book. This always seemed to me to be the ur-application for which the SemWeb was created (and the shape into which everything else has to be squashed.)

According to
Ian Davis's crisis of faith even that gets complex pretty quickly.

Danny Ayers is on the defence case.

This reminds me that I've been thinking about the SemWeb again.

My current project is something I'm calling "SystemSketch" - which is a tool for easy authoring of stories about systems ie. a sequence of interactions between various players in some kind of system diagram.

As a data-structure it essentially boils down to a graph of nodes and relations between them, plus a timeline which is a list of events that occur between the different nodes.

This data sounds so like the kind of triple-graph which is the core of RDF that I felt obliged to go and see whether I shouldn't be using it in some way.

And, once again, I come away confused and frustrated. Not with the basic concepts of RDF, but with how I can engage with this thing to solve my problem.

I have many requirements that the SemWeb seems to be promising. I want graph-shaped data. An open data file format which can be read and interpreted by different SystemSketch players, or even other co-operating programs who only want to query one aspect of my data.

And yet, there's a great mismatch between what they offer and what I want.

When I start drafting my XML file format, I have nodes in the graph, and I have events. And, of course, the events refer to the nodes. In my program internally I've toyed with treating these as object references or some kind of Id. And I can easily make a UID that's internal to my data-file.

But this isn't SemWeb. What I should do is try to make these IDs meaningful outside my program.

But here I hit the obvious problem. That I don't know what these nodes represent. I have several applications in mind : I want to try to describe the current political scandal in the Brazilian parliament - a tortuous story of representatives being paid bribes to vote with the government, alleged meetings, guaranteed loans and suitcases full of money -; I want to be able to describe some of the interactions in the atmosphere that cause global warming; I want to be able to describe some of the dynamics of the fractional reserve banking system.

And, of course, I want users to be able to describe any system they want.

Within my program I can't see how there's much scope for any semantics.

What I am imagining is a family of applications who's commonality is syntactic. They all involve a graph, and a timeline of events. But beyond this, there's little semantic commitment I want to make.

There is some. For example, the events in the timeline all have a start and finish time, which is presumed to be a time in every case. But one application may want a date, while another might be working in nano-seconds, so it's hard to see what interesting semantic constraints one would really like to add there. There's not a lot of value to be added by trying to tie the "time" attribute of the events into any widely recognised ontology.

And this has led me to the bigger insight. Computers are symbol processing machines. All the hits of computing. All the mega-applications. All the applications that have actually made a difference in the world. They are all examples of this same principle : identify an interesting syntactic commonality and create a tool to support working with it. Without worrying what the data means.

Word processors? Sure, they just push characters around. But they don't care if you're writing love-letters or the communist manifesto. Spread-sheets? Excel doesn't know if it's a wedding list or book-keeping for a small business. Relational databases? The web? Blogging tools? PhotoShop? Java?

All of them are widely adopted, generic solutions, because they make interesting syntactic generalizations but are semantically uncommited.

Now, like the example of the time attribute I gave above, it's not that there's no semantics in these applications. Spreadsheets and RDBMSs and Java recognise the difference between words and numbers, newer word-processors will correct your grammar and spelling.

But in all these cases, the semantic support is either at a very generic level (data-types), or secondary to the core functionality. Often added as macros and plugins.

There is software which contains more semantic commitment. Software to help do tax-returns is probably the most widely known. But this is an exception. Most of the software written that's full of semantic commitments has the following properties : it's bespoke, very expensive, and very boring. We're talking in-house infrastructure for giant corporations, who's business-practices are hard-wired into their internal applications.

And even here, there's a move to pull the semantics out into generic business rule databases.

Maybe a better way to see it is that every piece of software has a mixture of syntactic and semantic constraints. And it aims to capture a sweet-spot : sufficient generality to be useful in various situations to various users, with sufficient constraint to reduce the complexity of the user's task.

And this leads us to question what the SemWeb is.

The SemWeb community are happily coming up with a set of super-generic languages. As representation schemes they fulfil the generality requirement. And, slowly, some super-general software is appearing like SPARQL, to do certain kinds of processing of the query.

But at this level of generality, they don't offer me any advantage over the tools I already have to build data-structures. Standard XML or RDBM interface tools.

As a programmer, I am searching for new useful balances between generality and constraint. And, my strategy is to search for syntactic commonalities, while leaving the semantics uncommited. This is the strategy that gave us the word-processor and spreadsheet and web.

What the SemWeb seems to be, is an offer of an alternative approach. "Hey! Instead of searching for syntactic commonalities and constraints, let's start by searching for semantic ones. You can stick to using our very generic tools but the value you add will be the extra semantic constraints you overlay"

The problem is, I don't know how to do this. And I don't think the SemWeb people have a very good idea of how to explain it. I suspect the current software development profession doesn't know how to find valuable general-application / automation sweet-spots based on semantic constraints. And so we don't know how to use the semantic web to build interesting software.

I guess the skills needed are pretty analagous to declarative / constraint based programming, which has always been hard to understand or teach. It pictures a world where the block-buster application isn't a spread-sheet (in virtue of capturing the common task of wanting to add up columns of numbers) but some sort of Prolog rule-base (in virtue of everyone using the same rules.)

The alternative thought is that the SemWeb doesn't have a place in it's ecosystem for developers. That users are ultimately expected to do their own programming once the SemWeb general tools become accessible enough.
Jon Udell meets Bill Gates at PDC 2005 and interviews him (available as podcast). Plus some comments on what's allegedly coming in the Windows world.

Monday, September 12, 2005

David Gibbons on Why eBay bought Skype
John Robb's Weblog: Pre-emptive Nuclear Strikes?
Oh, and re: the Skype / PayPal deal (previous story) I wonder how much it would cost eBay to snap-up Project Aardvark?
BBC NEWS | Technology | Portal bid drives eBay Skype deal

I think the secret of the eBay / Skype deal is actually PayPal - as in rolling PayPal payments into Skype calls.

Imagine being able to bung anyone a tenner over a phone-call as easily as you could in the pub. A whole new world of ecommerce is made possible.

I ring up my mate and he asks if he can borrow 50 quid. If I have it, I say, sure and IM it to him. I can buy live services over the phone : legal or medical advice at 50p a minute, from anywhere in the world, offered by anybody : no infrastructure, or call-centre technology etc. You can haggle with eBay vendors.

It even opens up a kind of micro-payment for small content, with the twist of the return of the live shop-keeper. How do I make my content downloadable? Easy, I don't. I keep it on my desktop, and if anyone wants it, they skype me, chat for a minute or two, decide it's what they want, bung me 20 quid, and I pass the file to them.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Juan Cole : I don't personally believe there is any question whatsoever that 7/7 was an al-Qaeda operation of the old sort, with Zawahiri actually involved in comand-and-control

Informed Comment
The Oil Drum has a good summary of the importance of "depletion rate" after the oil peak.

The Oil Drum | 4%, 11%, Who the Hell Cares?
Contrast the previous story with this :

John Robb's Weblog: The Resilient Enterprise
But pause a minute and ponder this line and you realize that the administration's difficulty 'getting truth' here is simply a case of chickens coming home to roost.

Scott Rosenberg's Links & Comment:
BBC NEWS | Americas | Brazil 'laundering' ex-mayor held

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The target, Nadim's cousin, Mahdi - a Christian - was accused of having a relationship with a Muslim woman from Deir Jarir, which his family denies.

But the woman, Hayem Ejerj, was not around to give her version. She was buried more than a week ago.

Many here suspect this may have been an honour killing - that Hayem was murdered by her family to wipe out the perceived shame of her behaviour.

BBC NEWS | Programmes | From Our Own Correspondent | A frightening family feud
Just a quick datapoint on the level of division in US society :

TalkBack: Hahah Just like a Demorat

Friday, September 09, 2005

I can't believe people are dissing the Google logo

Is the Google backlash in such force that *any* anti-google propaganda is possible?

(Just to note, the day the Google "amateurish" logo goes, so does my brand-loyalty)
Anil Dash: Web Development Trends for 2006
He also condemned an attempt by congress to remove the president's immunity from prosecution to face charges over alleged misuse of electoral funds.

BBC NEWS | Americas | US warns Nicaraguans against coup

Monday, September 05, 2005

Doc Searles has the perfect meme :

War on Error
Well. In theory, a free society (free market, freed speech, free press) is a learning organization.

Is the US finally learning?

BBC NEWS | Americas | Viewpoint: Has Katrina saved US media?
Although it's fun watching US government incompetence, let's not get too cocky.

The group had called the British embassy in Washington from a mobile phone, Mr Trout added.

But embassy staff had told them to contact the British consulate in New Orleans

When they had pointed out it was "15ft under water", the embassy staff had simply repeated they should contact the consulate, Mr Trout told BBC News.

BBC NEWS | UK | Britons describe Superdome horror

Saturday, September 03, 2005

When President Bush told 'Good Morning America' on Thursday morning that nobody could have 'anticipated' the breach of the New Orleans levees, it pointed to not only a remote leader in denial, but a whole political class.

The uneasy paradox which so many live with in this country - of being first-and-foremost rugged individuals, out to plunder what they can and paying as little tax as they can get away with, while at the same time believing that America is a robust, model society - has reached a crisis point this week.

BBC NEWS | Americas | New Orleans crisis shames Americans
Mr Snow and his government colleagues in Washington are pleased that the International Energy Agency has agreed to release 60 million barrels of emergency oil and petroleum reserves.

Half of that will be provided by the US itself but European countries will help by shipping refined products which could start arriving here in about 10 days' time.

BBC NEWS | Business | US economy 'safe' from hurricane

Let me get this straight. Europe is bailing out the US economy by providing it with refined oil from our strategic reserves? Presumably the US is going to pay for this oil? I mean we aren't going to just give it to them gratis. But how will the price be set? By the market? And if so, why wouldn't the market be able to get oil to the US anyway?

Am I being naive here? Either the market has barrels of oil for sale and they cost X, in which case the US just needs to buy them. Or it doesn't, in which case, the US can't buy them. When Europe releases those barrels, shouldn't they go onto the market, which can then price them correctly?

Maybe, with the extra demand from the US, the price has just gone up further.

I suppose it's in our interest not to let the US economy go down the tubes? Has anyone sat down and done the calculations about that? Who made the decision?

Looks like more details available here

BBC NEWS | Americas | Rare drop in gun deaths in Brazil

Friday, September 02, 2005

Chavez is on a roll.

Wow! This is gonna piss a lot of people off. And inspire others. Right now, Chavez is the only world leader who seems willing to take on capital and fight it on it's own ground.

Remains to be seen how well it turns out. But it's an interesting experiment for somebody to do.
2004 article on the state of FEMA : Disaster in the making
18 members of parliament to be expelled.

BBC NEWS | Americas | Brazil MPs face corruption claims

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Dave Winer asks a great question about the knock on effects of Katrina.

Update : some comments are good. But if this is any reflection of the current state of the US, it's amazing how quickly the question is taking on a racial dimension. The New Orleanians are poor, black and by implication are being labeled feckless and undeserving who don't help themselves but expect the rest of the US to bail them out.

America is so losing on the moral level. The society is coming apart.

People are angry they aren't receiving help. Now they're fighting for the little aid available. The rescue services are afraid to go in and help!

People should actually be more angry that in the days leading up to the hurricane, the whole system : ie. the media, rescue services etc. weren't pro-actively focused on warning them about what might happen, and advising how to prepare themselves to leave.
Ouch! Today I realized I hadn't blogrolled Rup3rt. (Actually, I'd updated my GutterClique file, just hadn't actually ftped it up. :-( )

Here's his site. (Unlike me, he's blogging in Portuguese as well as English which kind of puts me to shame.)

I stayed with Rup3rt and his family in Sao Paulo when I got back to Brazil a couple of weeks ago. This first time I've hung out with someone I only knew via the internet (and a couple of phone calls) - although we were (virtually) introduced by someone else I'd met IRL. Anyway, it was a great experience thanks to him.

It's good to know there's another British geek ex-pat, trying to make it in Brazil. :-)
This isn't good news

I'm not known for being an animal lover or animal rights supporter. But I make an exception for Great Apes. These guys really are 99% human. They talk, use language creatively and can imagine and describe hypothetical events.

Personally, I think they have rights pretty close to human ones. They're also the best bet for real non-human intelligence we're likely to meet. It will be a tragedy if they're allowed to go extinct.