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[Friday, May 30, 2003]


Further questions to your answers

After the last post, it occurred to me that it's all about ontologies, and this is not a widely-used word outside certain circles. I tried to figure out how to reply to the question "What's an ontology?" - perhaps asked by my brother, who for me incarnates the Wily Attorney that Steven Weinberg imagined as the ideal audience for The First Three Minutes: not a domain expert but a good thinker, and widely-read. Weinberg imagined a Wily Old Attorney, but my brother has many years to go yet before that. To add to the challenge, he has a degree in philosophy and knows the standard meaning of 'ontology', which is a field of study and cannot be pluralized.

In brief: an ontology is a thing that helps you ask questions. There are ontologies that we all have: such as for people. Recall the last time you met somebody new, and how the questions went. How old are you? Where are you from? Do you have any brothers or sisters? And so on. Having an ontology for people makes a lot of initial interaction straightforward. Contrast this with situations where you don't have an ontology. I had this experience recently, when I phoned my fair city's Parks and Recreation department to inquire about permits for using a park. I did this with no ontology for permits: of what kind they can be, what privileges they grant and deny, what different states they can be in, and so on and so forth. Now, the person on the other end of the line was naturally in possession of this ontology, and as such was impatient with my attempts to figure out what question to ask. I've encountered this impatience before, and haven't yet thought of a good way to rebuke it: "Look, I don't have your ontology" won't fly. More than once, I've had roughly the following interaction:

Me: "Excuse me, I was wondering if you can do task x for me."
Service-type person: (with mild sarcasm) "I'll need your name first."
But then I'm an introvert, and it bothers me more to blithely fire off my request and get "No, sorry, I don't do that, you need Bill down at Counter Q" - because that means I got it wrong. So I ask first. I want the ontology first. Either approach is fine for human-to-human interaction, but for programs to programs, getting the ontology first is the only way to go.

It's probably a sign of the computer-geek in me that I prefer a list of available services. A long-held fantasy of mine is redesigning the Restaurant System. Restaurants are half-way there: they have a menu, and you pick what you want rather than entering into negotiations with the server or chef (modulo substitutions and order of arrival of appetizers and such things). I'd also like it better if more service options were foregrounded: that, say, you could say to the server "We need to leave by such-and-such a time, please adjust timing of food and the bill accordingly, and warn us if we try to order something time-consuming" or "You may notice I'm alone, which means that I won't be having any after-dinner conversation, so bringing my bill as soon as I say I'm not having coffee or dessert really ought to be a painfully obvious thing to do; also, please seat me somewhere quiet if humanly possible." Okay, yes, if you say these things to a server you will most likely get what you want, but I can't escape the feeling it's an imposition which interferes with the smooth operation of their system, and I think they should simply be part of the system: like in those rare but wonderful places which automatically split up bills per person in large groups, a sensible thing in this age when those of us not having expense accounts go Dutch as a rule. The Restaurant System embodies an outdated set of assumptions, being much harder to change than any individual.

From all this you may draw the unflattering conclusion that I prefer the service people I interact with to behave like automata, which is not at all the case. First of all, I am an old-school leftie of the William Morris variety, and think that in a better society we would all take the odd turn slinging food, cashing cheques, and so forth. Even if just the academy were arranged this way, I would be much more content. Second, I don't wish to lose my consciousness that while an automaton may be asked to do anything at all, a human has dignity and may not be. For instance, most restaurants allow you to add a tip if you pay by credit card, but some screw the server over by making them pay a processing fee. This, I refuse to view as Not My Problem, even though it takes places inside the black box of the Restaurant System. I have to ask, and leave a coin tip (if possible) if the management is an ass.

And formalization is a very double-edged sword, of course, and a rigorous definition of a server's job may well reduce it to something completely automatable: conveying menu choices to the kitchen, conveying food to tables, routing complaints to the appropriate authority. Again, as an introvert, I like the thought of such a restaurant -- pick menu option, have it whooshed to table, no energy-sucking interaction with a person. The consequences as a whole, though, may not be great. For one, a whole class of low-level jobs goes away, and such things have a purpose - not least of which is providing employment for artists and researchers in unlucrative fields which may be stressful, but at least starts and ends at a set time and leaves no problems to be taken home. We technologists fondly like to think that automating away something tedious frees people up to do something more interesting and worthy of humans, but late capitalism doesn't work like that. For another, some Third-Place-like social function served by restaurants, that is probably completely incomprehensible to an obsessive-compulsive and impatient get-in-eat-food-get-out diner like me but is nonetheless important to the ongoing working of civil society, might well be irreparably compromised.

Well, and so. The tradeoff between structure and flexibility never seems to have an equilibrium point: not in biology, not in any individual's mind, not in any civilization. Even in the design of a simple artifact it seems almost overwhelming.

"I am a commuting diagram."
-Daniel Jackson

posted 5:15 PM |

Google is ruined, and I ruined it

Glancing at my logs, I find somebody arrived here via the query string "matrix fanfic trinity". And following the link, I discover that, doubtless for one brief shining moment, I am the very first entry for that query.

If I were a better blogger, I'd have kept the link to the person who pointed out, of late, that blog hits are clogging up Google results because people are actually using hypertext as it was originally proposed: like a memex. However, the mis-hits to my page, I find, come largely because search strings span multiple entries. I ramble a lot and make a lot of allusions, but even at that it's mostly the spanning which is the culprit, as with matrix trinity fanfic: fanfic came from the entry about the Digby Mary Magdalene play. In short: multiple documents, one page; each entry really needs to be considered by Google as a document by itself.

Interestingly, if this hypothesis of mine is true, it inverts a minor annoyance which was more common in the early days of HTML: hierarchical structure gone wild!. That is, a structured document that has a separate page for each subsubsubsection, making it a pain to navigate and a chore to print - a perverse thing to do for, say, the manual for a piece of software, which it often was, but still. Use of latex2html was a common accessory in this crime.

It's possible, of course, to stick to a one entry per page template, a la Diaryland, but that makes me crazy to read. After being set back for years by David Siegel and company, the Web is finally catching on to the separation of structure from presentation; now it needs to be able to expose the structure to search engines, and such beasts, so they can be a little cleverer about indexing. I'm not sure whether this is one of the things Tim Berners-Lee means the Semantic Web to be for, but I'm hoping so. Bring on the ontologies!

posted 2:46 PM |

[Wednesday, May 28, 2003]


Quizzes Considered Harmful

Out of idleness, interest, and the desire not to let too much time stretch between updates, I have twice posted the results of quizzes, and twice the results of questionnaire memes in this space. Thus, there is a degree of hypocrisy to this mini-rant, which I will now artfully defuse by acknowledging up front so that it seems, you know, like even more testimony to my strength of character rather than underlining that I'm capable of being both inconsistent and unreasonably judgmental.

Actually, it's not so bad as all that. I am not here to diss quiz-taking, which seems just fine. No, it's the quiz design manifested on popular sites like Quizilla that bothers me. Yeah, I realize it's just for fun, but to me all the fun is leached away by the fact that almost every question makes it painfully obvious which answer contributes to which outcome. How snoozetacular. The proximate cause of this rant was the "Which Canadian Province Are You? quiz, an especially egregious example where the order of the answers to each question followed the provinces in order of traversal from east to west, and pandered largely to popular prejudices about them, where such exist. Non-Canadians will lack this information, but at the prospect of some netizen in Florida, Denmark or Oman spending even 5 minutes to find out which province of Confederation their personality most closely approximates, my mind not only boggled, but froze and needed to be rebooted. Anyway, to me this obviousness completely invalidates the results and removes the fun; ideally, you should get a series of seemingly irrelevant questions, and then get told that you are Manitoba (or whatever) and why.

I'm convinced that the Dante's Inferno test became so popular because the results were surprising; you didn't get asked a list of question with nine answers, each corresponding to a circle of Hell. And, of course, I realize that rather than just kvetching I should actually come up with my own damn quizzes if I don't like the ones out there, but, well, it's not my trade to make tables.

While I'm in this ranting frame of mind, there's been another question on my mind for close to twenty years now: why do the English call the common schoolyard game of tag "tig"? "Tag" makes perfect sense: you know, because when you're It you have to, well, tag someone to pass the Itness on to them, like some kind of masochistic token-ring network. But "tig"? This description uses it, appallingly, as a verb, with the simple past formation "tug". This site also features the charming games "Crown Jewels":

"You can use anything for jewels, a few balls..."
"Octopus", which falls into the general "Red Rover" category:
When the octopus shouts "octopus!", the other players must try to swim (run!) [Ed. Note: important explanation. Actual swimming would be impossible on dry land, not a growth experience for the kids] across the sea to the other beach. The octopus is allowed to move freely and tag as many players as they can.
Once tagged, they must stand frozen on the spot where they were tagged. They then become part of the octopus team, and can tag the other players running to the beaches...but unlike the main octopus, they are not allowed to run around, they must remain frozen to the spot, using only their arms to tag.
Hm, okay, that actually sounds reasonably fun; I remember being a not-very-fast kid, and getting to be on the Octopus Team (maybe as a sea-anemone) has to be better than just flopping on the grass in ignominy until the next damn game.

On the other hand, the same site also offers the unbelievable "Bean Game":

Run around the area making shapes of different beans. A caller gives instructions which the group must follow:
Green Bean: group must run.
String Bean: group stand tall.
Baked Bean: group crouch down. [Ed. Note: insert fart joke here.]
Broad Bean: group stretch as wide as they can.
Jumping Bean: group jump on the spot.
which to me sounds more like a Nitzer Ebb song than anything else, and not a lot of fun. There's also "Chicken Pie", but enough is enough already. Octopus!

posted 1:36 PM |

To no one's surprise..

.. I score "35.10848% - Major Geek" on the Geek Test. (Disappointingly, the next rank up is not Colonel Geek but Super Geek.)

posted 11:09 AM |

[Tuesday, May 27, 2003]


Harrowing the house of the dead

A trawl through the new releases at the nearby library produced two interesting-looking books from small Canadian presses. Now, ordinarily, I find the idea of independently-published Canadian books more appealing than the reality; but these are non-fiction, so they avoid the grim-slice-of-life quality of most fiction, and the "rivulet of uninspired verbiage meandering down a page" terror of modern Canadian poetry. And not only are they non-fiction, but they deal with things of interest to me, so I was won over easily.

The first: Agora Borealis: Engaging in Sustainable Architecture, by Vivian Manasc and Cheryl Mahaffy, published by Partners in Design, Edmonton, AB. (Note to PiD: please, find a more Google-friendly name; there are at least two dozen "Partners in Design" who come up first.) Since this is a book on design, I'm going to dwell a bit on the book as an object, and not just on the text. As befits the imprint - devoted to books on sustainable and green architecture and design - this is a handsome book; its unusual proportions, thicker than usual paper and floppy orange-and-khaki cover with interesting type all scream "I am a book on design!", and I'm a sucker for that, since I like to think that with more visual intuition I too could be a designer (of things other than software, at any rate). Since I borrowed it and didn't buy it, I didn't care about possible shelving issues, but they doubtless exist. The book shows evidence of constraints: the About the Authors is photocopied and glued into the back, and most of the pictures are black and white. Also, and I realize this is a small quibble, CO2 was printed without the subscript, and that looks bad and uninformed. Most serious complaint: that Wired-esque thing that layout people really out to have outgrown by now, of interleaving two chunks of text in different fonts and colours. Ooh, I hate that. I know it's supposed to produce some kind of contrapuntal impression, and in principle that's a great idea, but unless most readers have much more parallel minds than I do, the end result is just reading one, then the other, and it takes much more time than if they were just set in columns alongside one another. There's also the more standard magazine convention of quotations in larger type interleaved with paragraphs, and I am none too keen on that either.

Anyway, on to the text. Obligatory disclaimer: the keen student of this weblog will probably already have guessed that I am not an architect, but I shall reassert that right now just to clear the ground. There are four case studies: all in northern Alberta. The architects responsible apparently also did a building in Whitehorse, which looks very cool but is unfortunately not described. The northernness is significant: the tradeoff between climate-control, energy efficiency, and natural light and air is a theme throughout. It's a commonplace that Canada is a nation built by technology - primarily communications and transportation - but if we are to have any real life in the North, not the toe-hold currently held, technologies for building like the ones in this book are vital. Not just to eke out an existence there, but to live large (though treading lightly). And if we can't live like humans even in the less hospitable regions of our own planet, how can we think about other ones? That's a general hope, not an especially patriotic one; though it wouldn't disappoint me to see, before I die, "From Canada By Space" written on some other world.

When I read about architecture, I'm always, with part of my mind, wondering what architects have to teach about making software. I was pleased to find that software is central to the projects described in this book: specifically, cheap energy modelling of buildings. It's that software - and, of course, the mathematical models behind it, which needed to be tuned and correlated with empirical observations, a story not told here - which, according to the authors, turned green building from trial-and-error craft that didn't necessarily repay the time and effort invested into an engineering discipline. There is something, too, about doing climate-control with minimal resources which is elegant as a clever algorithm is elegant: resources might be cheap enough that brute force works fine, but somehow a programmer has a responsibility to the discipline, if not to an employer, to use the elegant solution.

Turning to the other direction of learning, the other thing that most interested me was the architects' process of doing workshops with all the stakeholders - by which they mean not only the eventual users of the building, but also the subcontractors. Not only did they have initial consultations, but they kept asking clarifying questions: keeping the stakeholders as a primary source, rather than putting their requirements into a big document that drifts further and further from reality as design decisions which feed back into the requirements get made. It looked like they solicited input for as many of those decisions as they could. One project - turning a disused airport terminal into a high school - made it impossible to consult with many staff or students, who didn't really exist yet, and they confessed this lack caused problems later, though I would have welcomed concrete examples.

My main quibble came not with the process, but with the product. Sure, there was plenty of natural light and air - something lacking, I might add, in my current recently-built building, not that I recall an architect ever asking me how I felt about an office with low-hanging fluorescent lights and no windows - and that rules, but everything had that "Modern Building" look that I don't have the vocabulary to actually describe: very spare, clean lines, very abstracted. I accept that this is a style, and there's even some argument to be made that it fits with the starker Northern landscape. On the other hand: I like ornamentation. Going back to my building: it's nice enough, though could do better in the light/air departments, but I still look at the Gothic Revival college across the street and sigh wistfully, wishing we could evict its current inhabitants and take possesion of its stone staircases, quaint library, cloisters, and chapel. To expand this argument to be more about just "Me, me, me", our current civilization didn't spring from nothing at all, and I think that it's meet and right for buildings to reflect that; to show where they came from, not just where they are - to bear the traces of Greece and Rome, of the Middle Ages, of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment. (Note: I don't apply this argument to the First Nations high school, since they would probably like their own vernacular architecture to be the dominant influence; although, of course, that was a conversion rather than a new building, so scope for such things was limited in any case). Besides, it has often been claimed that the pillars and arches of the Gothic cathedral were echoes of the forests of northern Europe; why not look to the forests of northern Turtle Island for similar inspiration?

From another quarter entirely, though, comes this proof that the spirit of Gothic is not dead in building. The cultural cauldron to the South is worth watching, too: ex America semper aliquid nova.

posted 5:40 PM |

[Monday, May 26, 2003]


Hell is full of mice

Preliminary biographical note: My Betrothed had a concert at Marcon in Columbus, OH, this weekend past, playing her fiddle. I am enormously proud of her and happy for her. I wish I could have been there, but I was bouncing up and down here all the same; she astonished and delighted all and sundry, as I was sure she would.

I myself, as happens all too frequently, consumed more than I produced this past weekend. On Friday, I took in half of a medieval play about the life of St. Mary Magdalene. Well.. sort of; it had elements that, literally, were not exactly canon: to start with, Mary begins by inheriting a castle from her father, Lord Magdalene. I'm picturing the same sort of dialogue about that that fanfic writers go through:

"No, wait. She didn't have a castle in the Gospels."
"It doesn't say she didn't have one."
"But it doesn't make sense! Why would she become a prostitute if she had a castle? Did they even have castles in Roman-occupied Judaea? I can't see the Romans putting up with Jews having their own castles in that situation."
"Well, in my version she has a castle."
Okay, fine. So Mary inherits the castle, and her brother Lazarus (I won't even go into the conflation of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Mary-and-Martha here) doesn't seem to be peeved at all; I'm fuzzy, again, on first-century Jewish (or indeed, medieval English) law in this area, but I have a sense that normally he would have stood to inherit. But maybe he doesn't want the responsibility of owning a damn castle, which probably involves a lot of paperwork and kissing Roman ass anyway, and probably at this point he was already struggling with the big C or tuberculosis or giardia or whatever eventually knocked him over and was just as happy to avoid the extra tsuris.

The production was outside, and people sat in the middle of a park, with the sets arranged all around them on carts; action moved from cart to cart. We flashed, at this point, about 75 degrees northward to Hell, where a very butch and bullwhip-cracking Satan plots to bring about Mary's downfall. Why this is so important to him is explained, but I didn't quite track it: some sort of treading-on-the-serpent's-head business about Mary being able to depopulate Hell if she isn't stopped. Satan zips around, a dog-headed Wrath and snake-headed Envy in tow, to the cart of The World, who delivers a great though totally non-action-advancing little speech about the seven planets and the metals they are associated with. Anyway, Satan and The World send a messenger (strangely, the same messenger we earlier saw carrying letters between the Emperor Tiberius, Herod, and Pilate; I don't know if this is in the text, or just scrimping on cast-members) to the King of Flesh, an effete wuss lounging in a flowery bower with Lady Lechery, Gluttony, and Sloth. Having assembled all seven deadly sins and a couple of random devils - who are apparently necessary because the deadly sins are not exactly goal-oriented and have a tendency to indulge in their namesakes rather than get about the arduous business of tempting mortals - our villains shoo them off to Mary's pad to bring about her downfall. Which they do: this downfall is symbolized by Mary dancing a branle with all of them, to the strains of a woefully-out-of-tune hurdy-gurdy.

At this point, enter Jesus. There's probably no harder role in the world than Jesus, so I tend to give kudos for any performance which does not induce actual cringing, but this was a decent enough stab as they go. A little reserved, but the text seems to be like that; he doesn't cry at Lazarus' death, which I think is sort of important, but, okay. What expression of sorrow there is manifests through Simon Peter laying a comforting arm over Jesus' shoulders, and that was a good touch. Anyway, Mary washes Jesus' feet, and he forgives her and drives out the seven deadly sins and assorted devils: by a happy coincidence, this also managed to shoo away a helicopter which had hovered nearby for about ten minutes, and came at exactly 6PM, so there were bells ringing. Nice timing. I don't know what was with the helicopter; perhaps medieval mystery plays are now considered a subversive activity. So, anyway, all of the sins and devils are driven out of Mary. Satan is some pissed, yo, and the action stops for some completely gratuitious kink as the deadly sins all have to take their turns getting whipped by the two devil heavies while Satan froths and cracks his bullwhip in the air. They all bitch and moan, except for Lechery who is actually kind of into it, which figures. Seriously, all this hot devil-on-allegorical-personification leather action consumes about 5 minutes, which provides added evidence that my ancestors could be mighty kinky; although the game of hot cockles, an utterly transparent excuse for people to spank each other, was probably enough testimony in itself.

So, back to Judaea, where Lazarus is now on the verge of popping his clogs. Jesus is too busy to show up, and Lazarus buys the farm. A procession of mourners in black hoods and chant-singing angels carries him to the tomb. Mary and Martha bawl Jesus out for not showing up, and, despite a gentle reminder that Lazarus is enjoying perpetual bliss compared to which playing second-fiddle to his Hell-depopulating sister (not to mention that Martha probably pushes him around like nobody's business) in a sandy, discontented Roman province governed by Pontius Pilate - who, far from being the slightly wimpy philosopher of the Gospels, was actually a crucifixion-happy psychopath - probably fails to thrill, Jesus has them roll aside the stone and calls out the mostly-naked Lazarus.

At this point there was an intermission, and it started to rain. Heavily. And so I missed the second half of the play, in which Mary goes to Marseilles to convert the pagan King and Queen to Christianity, in more not-exactly-canon action. At least Marseilles actually existed then. All in all, though, even truncated it was tremendous fun.

Hell is dark, Hell is deep
Hell is full of mice
-"Dives and Lazarus", English traditional, collected by Vaughan Williams
And so is my apartment, alas. Well, hardly full, but I'm a light sleeper and even the odd skitter wakes me up. Perhaps I should get an oatmeal-chest for them to bob about.

posted 1:15 PM |