Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dependencies, dependencies...

Follow-up to the previous post...

People always have been creating works inspried by another works. After all, the books, papers and blogs are just the other modes of communication, and in the everyday communication we do react at something the others say.

Before internet era, though, things were different in the sense of how references have been maintained. If you have been writing a book, you would quote your sources. They were, in principle, localizable. Everything that has been printed has a number of attributes with which it can be more or less unambigously identified: the title, year of being printed, the name of the printing house; later, the ISBN number which is not the ideal solution, but it's fair enough solution to live with.

Therefore, if you read the book and the author is quoting his and her sources, it was always theoretically possible to locate the sources and to find out what the work has been based upon. It was not always easy (suppose the quoted source existed in one exemplar, or was not quoted directly, etc), but it was doable.

Now, we have Internet, and everything is supposed to be stored there forever.

As I write it, Internet is full of derivative work.

Most of the articles have links to the other articles, which in their turn have links to yet another articles, and so on. It's world wide web, so it's normal.

And these links are in fact as firm as the gossamer threads. May be gossamer threads are even better. Ever seen not working links? (I bet any article which exists in the web for more than one a couple of years probably has them, either directly or indirectly).

I can't stop wondering what will become of all this in several dozen years or so. Will there be a big pile of everything, to which every article that has been around long enough would be assumed to go? If somebody in 20 years would want to trace how ideas were spreading via internet, will it be possible to do? Will these sites still exist, will they still be pointing at each other? How to understand what somebody is writing about if his or her references are gone? Unless there would be a searching engine which would have a knowledge about the evolution of internet - may be it will be one more use case for Google or for some other company - temporal data mining :)

A pessimistic scenario is that, notwithstanding Internet, blogging et cetera, everything below a certain level of importance will have the same chance of getting completely into oblivion as the derivative work of earlier generations - or even a bigger one. The letter which the 8-year-old Babylonian boy would scrabble on the calfskin existed as an object, and would continue existing until purposefully destroyed or until the skin crumbles (which would take many years). The blogs which are hosted on a certain site are obliterated completely if the site closes down and nobody takes care of the content. (Theoretically, information still can exist hidden in the hard drives, but how quickly will the old hard drives be disposed of?)

I hope we will dedicate enough work in the near future to prevent the web from losing its structure with time. Keeping the dependencies will be quite difficult part of it... I am very curious how this problem will be solved. If it will be solved.

Blogs quoting blogs quotinig blogs... Once again, what about copyright?..

As I see it now, it seems that quite some part of blogs around us is nothing else than a collection of links to some other blogs plus, optionally, some comments of the blog author and / or related blurb of the blog followers (which is actually the very essence of the existence of the said blog).

This is, per se, a great approach, although some can say, people are plagiarizing. (Well, some of them just do.) Nevertheless, all these links and images are in fact forming that very context which we are so often missing when talking to the other people. Now, the problem is solved: just look into his or her blog (if he or she took care to put one together) and we can, at the very least, figure out some more interesting conversation topics than weather or politics.

(In fact, a blog post without a link looks like a dead end, or like a book without pictures or dialogues... and I realize, I don't have any one in my mind right now... I guess I'm doomed!).

Two questions, regarding illustrations and dialogs:

1. Who owns the copyright for the pictures people quote?
2. Who owns the copyright for the dialogs (blog followers discussion)?

Both can be an issue.

First, the pictures.

Suppose I want to be a good one and post into my blog an image as a link to an original image which I liked (for example, the one from this page - at the time when my blog is written, this should link to a page with the largest treehouse existing now, I like those). I could have copied the image into my own place, of course, but this would be the copyright breach, so I don't.

Suppose NN years pass and my blog is still alive, but the blog to which I linked to is removed or restructured. Therefore, my link will no longer work, and the image will no longer be available. In the context I was trying to recreate there will be a hole... and as a matter of fact, this can happen any time - even at this very moment - only with different probability.

Moreover, may be the owner of that page has been forced to remove it because he or she could no longer afford the hosting and he or she in fact would not mind at all that people are still keeping the slices from the site? How could this be formalized easily? (It can but right now we don't have these mechanisms in place).

Now, the dialogs.

This is even more vague story.

First, in most blogs any reaction can be deleted by the owner (or edited beyond recognition). What will this make to the fabric of the dialog?

Some blog portals get around this by restricting the rights of the owners (not allowing them to change their replics at all, or allowing this only for a short time, or allowing deleting but not editing, et cetera...) No formalism here either. No guarantee that a sensible talk will not deteriorate with time into a set of chaotic remarks (it does not happen very often now, but there are all technical possibilities to make it possible...)

Am I again way too paranoiac? Well, would be glad if so!

...but I really, really would not want that in a couple of years, it would not be possible to understand what were the people writing about. Granted, Internet is supposed to be a living matter, like a living organism, some structures arise, the others die out... but isn't Internet also supposed to be a place to keep our memories and feelings (and the blogs are very good representation of them!)

Right now, all information appears to be around forever; but the truth is, it isn't. There is so much dependency everywhere.

There is the web archive, of course - but it doesn't keep the blogs as they were, only a couple of snapshots at most, and doesn't preserve the deep structure (like in forums)...

So the question still remains.

Monday, October 26, 2009

For all eternity...

Eternity, that old Egyptian cat,
Is coiling in the corner for the moment,
Serene and calm, apparently off guard.

But in a whim, all might forever change,
A magic lamp of Chinese porcelain
Gets broken and the little spot of light
Is yielded to the memory, until
It also fades and darkness fills its place.
A swarm of dreams, a meshwork of suggestions
Is suddenly eternally promoted
To wishful thinking. Wait... what is "eternal"?
A handful dozen years, and then one day
They'll find your breathless - shall we call it "body"?.. -
Whatever you have left as parting gift
For others, who, with grief or with relief,
Will take the care of putting it away,
For all eternity.

And what of you?
What of that point, from which you could behold
The skies, and plants, and planets, and the people?..
The orphan web of messages in words
And dreams, reflecting light which is no more,
Is no good answer. Where could have you gone?
Eternally unknown. As they say,
When Universe gets tired of work and play,
We'll see each other at the other side
Of starry sky.

It's not to verify
For all eternity.

But hope remains.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

There was once a person utterly devoted to God. It so happened that he was present at a ship which started sinking. Nevertheless, the person didn't panic, for he was confident that his Lord will see to his safety.
So here he was, in a cold water, when a boat passed by with some lucky survivors. "Hey, jump in!"- shouted to him the people there. - "No, thank you, my brothers!"- responded the person. - "God will not leave me alone!"
After a little while, a raft was getting closer, with more people who managed to escape the wretched ship."Hey, get up here, bro!"- called they cheerfully. -"No, thanks!"- was the response. - "My Lord will save me when needed!"
After some more time, a log was floating past our hero, who already started to feel cold and weakened, but still was firm in his faith. -"Get hold, quickly!"- moaned the wretched man who was also struggling against the water. -" With some luck, we'll keep up until they find us!" - But he, too, had to go further alone.
Soon enough, the person we talk about lost his last strenghts and drowned...
...and there he was, in the Paradise, among the angels playing celestial instruments and a cheerful crowd made entirely of those who went to church every Sunday.
Lo and behold, the Lord Himself was there, smiling in the way to get a thousand of Giocondas envious.
"Why didn't you help me down in the sea?"- was the first question uttered by the newcomer.
The Lord sighed.
"My dear son, I haven't anticipated that you are... how to put it... a little bit more slow-minded than I hoped for. For I have sent you help three times, and three times you have rejected it!.."

And now, the story.

It all started with the question, why is there an image - no, a meme - of "evil genius" which is so persistent in many human myths? And why, at the same time, his counterpart - a good hero - can have many great qualities, but quick or strong wits are not necessarily among them?

Speaking about the evil geniuses, Cain (the inventor or agriculture and the founder of the first city, also the ancestor of those who invented music - i.e. arts - and blacksmithery - i.e. technology) - is the first one on record in the Bible.

In the European (both East- and West-European) fairy tales, there is often an image of evil wizard who possesses great power and chooses to use it against humankind. Mind you, if there happen to be other wizards who are not that evil, the bad guy will undoubtedly be the smartest and most skilful of them. (Think about the Middle-Earth epic for the most generic examples - all wrong doers there, Morgoth, Sauron and Saruman - were always the best in their class).

And if the genius does not happen to be evil, he is often portrayed as the one who doesn't have all his nuts in one box. A weird scientist who can figure out how to build a time machine, but will be utterly helpless outside of his comfy technological lair. As if from the three - being fit, being smart and being good - you are only allowed to pick two!

Well, what happens when the good heroes do need some wisdom to get by? They all tend to get it by some miraculous chance - be it by finding for themselves a wise fiancée or by coming across some wizard-in-disguise to whom they do a favor (strong guys are often so naive that they don't mind helping the others without expecting anything in return ;)) et cetera. I can't remember many tales which would start with the story of some diligent master who acquired a great skill in something and never was tempted by the dark side of the power. (The quickest example springing to the mind - Star Wars, a modern epic which might be related to some older myths- the always-good Obi-Wan is excelling at swordplay, whereas a villain-in-the-making Anakin has started as technology prodigy...)

It seems to be reiterated so many times in so many forms: people, don't tinker with technology, it might bring you into trouble before anything else happens and it is not even needed for your well-being!

One other Biblical story comes to my mind: this of Mariah and Martha, when Martha is busy doing the cooking and cleaning the house and the only thing Mariah does is sitting near Jesus Christ and watching him lovingly. Martha feels like she's left alone to struggle, she starts to scorn her sister and gets mildly rebuked by Jesus, who tells that her sister has chosen "the better part".

Isn't Martha here an embodiment of our technological, scientific and other activities? Then the Bible says very clearly: people, that's not what you need.

Isn't it a bit puzzlying?

Why create a world with a set of complicated rules just to say that those who chose to explore these rules are not doing the better part? Are all these rules just a disguise, and the real rules being hidden? (Bible appears to hint that the real rule is to love God - and therefore his creations, people among them - and nothing else than that).

Is God a being who has problems with self-respect? That could be a good pretext for the creation of the sophisticated world with the only purpose: to find out how many persons will discard all pleasures of that world and go searching for its Creator, full of love and devotion. (Make sure the pleasures won't last long, otherwise what if nobody would?)

I am not an atheist, by the way, but I can't explain this luddism, this mistrust in science and technology lurking behind so many theories. (Ancient Greeks were free from it, by the way - Hefaestus was a good inventor and Prometeus was a suffering hero who wanted the mankind to get better).

May be this resistance is supposed to be the force opposing the progress to keep the humanity from rushing along too fast? This can make sense...

Nevertheless, I wish there will be more space for the Greek way of thinking, especially now, in the XXI century. If we are drowning, we are allowed to use whatever comes at hand, why not? And if we aren't, then what was the whole point of these things coming by in the first place?

Thursday, October 15, 2009


All that recent turmoil around the "headscarves and handshakes" reminds me about the joke where a drunkard late in the night tries to find his keys under a street lamp. Not because this was where he dropped them, but because this is the only illuminated spot.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I feel in the mood for somewhat darken forecasting today. Let's see if there is enough gunpowder left to make it happen...

Do you remember a SF movie (for teenagers, of course - who else is more eager to buy every little hint that the world can be different than their parents so dully insist?) called War Games? In this movie, a socially inept, but cute-looking little prodigy accidentally (with the help of second-hand modem and duct-tape coding efforts) gets connected to Pentagon super computer, has no simple idea what he is getting into and doesn't care (being a teenager's mother I totally believe that bit!) and starts a game which appears to be a nuclear war scenario run for real (this bit is the greatest assumption in the movie, but we'll come back to that). He is going chased down with half of the US armed forces, but miraculously escapes them, somehow tracks down the way to solve the problem and saves the world in the latest moment. Happy end, and the young nerd-in-making even managed to get himself a cute girlfriend as a bonus.

30 years later, Gary McKinnon, another no-longer-kid (still looking rather cute, by the way) tries to research whether US armed forces are holding back some information about alien visits to Earth (I think there was a SF movie with a similar plot!), breaks into Pentagon computer system (not as far as the kid from that earlier movie though) and, cutting long story short, now he is facinig extradition to US and spending rest of his life behind the bars. No cute girlfriend here, only a desperate mother going all possible routes to save her poor prodigy from all that. Very sad story with a very uncertain outcome.

To me, this sounds like an explicitly clear message from the governments involved: listen, cute and smart guys and girls, Internet is no longer your playground and computing machines are no longer your toys. We use them for real; don't mess with us, or else.

It is not the first time. Remember the story of Kevin Mitnik? He got away relatively easy, in comparison to Gary, but the message was essentially the same.

My bet is, this message is going to be reiterated again and again. But that is not all.

How about blogs and all information we put into them? Right now, it is very unregulated.

  • Everybody can blog under any persona, imagined or real, without legal problems;
  • A blog provider can shut down the service, is not obliged to ensure that the created content does not get lost and can even claim their rights over the content we create;
  • There a grey area whether the information found in blogs can be used as a legal evidence.
Legal people being the first ones concerned to keep their jobs intact, I expect this might change,, sooner or later, possibly along the following routes:
  • There can be introduced a licence for being a "information pool provider" (or call it as you like) for those who run a service allowing the public to create and upload their own content;
  • The registered providers will have to comply with the law which will, sooner or later, come into being. Among the requirements there can be:
  • Preserving the content and going through legal motions before shutting the service down to decide what's going to happen of it;
  • Providing the official structures any data access they require in a number of situations (no doubt they will be scrupulously described);
  • Providing the means to verify the identity of those who create the content.
It's the identification bit I am mostly interested about. What will it become when it settles? Will there be some smartcard like the banks use? Wireless implants? A universal ID bound to social security number?

Of course, there will always be unverified blogs but they can also be demoted in the public opinion into the area where good people don't go... every city has those, we are passing through them briefly or for fun but no person in his or her safe mind would choose to live there, right?

Am I paranoiac in thinking about all that?..

Monday, October 12, 2009

Abstraction versus Reality...

The need for abstraction comes from a simple fact that no single human mind can hold the whole endlessly complex picture of anything. Therefore, at some level we all have to cut off.

Whatever is hidden below, will be all thrown together and represented as a set of simple interfaces at that lowest possible level which we still can access (colored dots, lines and planes, mnemonic set of rules, or whatever else you prefer). How these interfaces are really implemented, and what lurks deep within, we often have no idea, and in most cases, don’t even want to know for fear of losing the “whole picture”.

As a consequence, because our internal representation still remains incomplete, we will sooner or later tamper with those unseen dark whirls, folds and clouds too much. Then they raise above our cut-off level and bring the unpredictable chaos along.

And this will be the system talking to us.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

If our understanding is organized in layers, then:

- whenever there are too many layers for us to build, the presented concept would appear too cumbersome;

- if there is nothing new to add to our internal webwork or ideas, we label the text as boring and/or trivial;

- “nice reading” is when we can use whatever is at our disposal to get the meaning and to add one or two new festoons to our own mind’s garments without much effort;

- and “fascinating” or “encouraging” is when the concepts presented, even if we can’t get them immediately, lure us into building yet another layer of meanings for ourselves, just in order to be able to finally decrypt the message which those strangely beautiful reverberances of somebody else’s mind seem to be holding within.