Apr 27, 2010

The stuff in the web is not information - it is data

Thousands of blogs copy snippets from different sources, sometimes enrich them with comment (more often they don't), repost, redistribute, recycle. Twitter plugs up the net with autistic-looking short-messages and a seeming gazillion applications allow users to automatically cross-contaminate social networks with annoying status-messages. It is natural that many are  looking for ways to survive the 'information-tsunami' of the ever-growing web.
While filtering for keyphrases is the usual way out, David Gelernter sees hope in exchanging the axis along which the web-babble should be ordered: let's use the time axis (see "Time to start taking the internet seriously" on edge.org). Reminiscent of twitters lifestreams, information would visually flow from future over present to past letting the reader focus on everything in the timewindow she chooses. Aside from the big questionmark (why would such a reshuffling make lifestreams easier to bear?) there is a major misperception underlying all this visionary shabang: the stuff in the web is not information - it is data.

Apr 12, 2010


Some so-called 'internet-prophets' bemoan the increasing volume of web-babble, the deluge of chatter, the hollowness of the information-tsunami. Big words of cultural pessimism that are gratefully picked up by the media.
Those web-critics have a serious problem: they try to *read* all that.
Would they go into a library and start reading the very first book on the shelf? I hope not. When they open Encyclopedia Britannica (yes there are some printed versions around) do they start reading on page 1? Some try to survive in the web by suggesting a new order of information - an ordering according to the date of appearance - the life-streams (see David Gelernter on Edge.org) . This would be an order in time instead of 'space' (where data are conventionally mapped out in different 'locations' on your screen or hard-drive).This approach to clean the data-mess is reminiscent of the cleansing of Augias' stables by diverting the River Alpheus. It's an honorable and classic approach - but does it solve the problem?
Let's look at Twitter. The deafening babble of tweets is already organized in life-streams. Read them live and you will drown.
The solution - besides filtering (friends, topics, lists, labels...) - can not lie in organizing the individual byte-series along one or the other axis (time, space, size, language...), the solution will rather be a mining of the meta-information. If a twitterer posts the unavoidable 'I am off to the loo, be back in a minute', this might only interest the one waiting for a response. If she posts that 20 times a day, we get some additional information: there might be the indication of a physiological problem.
Some meta-mining of tweets is approaching commercial relevance as reported by Jessica Guynn and John Horn in the LA times of April 2, 2010. Computer models based on Twitter chatter, they write, are stunningly accurate in predicting the box-office success of Hollywood movies.
If in the web to be the noise of individual utterances will be systematically analyzed for overlying macro-structures and for phase-transitions from the purely random to the organized, there will be more information gained than individually and knowingly put in. The sheer boundless chatter of Twitter and alike corresponds to the cells, the web is the organism.
If we continue looking at the lion through a microscope, we might get a pretty good understanding of his cells and the breathtaking number of them - but we might miss that we are just about to get eaten.

Apr 8, 2010

You don't want an i-Pad? You are getting old!

The old tecchies recite their mantra of 'if you can't open it, you don't own it'. They lament that the i-Pad has no keyboard, no CD-drive, no printer connection - they miss the bundle of wires that make a computer a computer. "The original Apple ][+ came with schematics for the circuit boards, and birthed a generation of hardware and software hackers who upended the world for the better", writes Cory Doctorow on boingboing.net "Why I won't buy an iPad (and think you shouldn't, either)".
Well, sure. We are getting old and we say what we hated to hear our parents say when they got old: "those were the good old days".
You remember when you were able to repair your car by yourself - everything? When your telephone went silent - with a bit confidence and a drop of oil you could get it ring again. And the radio, yep, a flip against the coil, a resolute puff over the tunable capacitor, some dust-clouds - done!
Todays devices are different without being bad or evil.
The access moved to a meta-level. Go look at the way you do programming. In the (good, of course!) old days we hacked assembler-code, then moved to C (and still did some assembler-tweak), then C++. We started using Meta-languages like Delphi, created code by drag and drop, embedded libraries of code we did not even look at. We don't code the graphics-interface of our software anymore.
This transcending to the meta-level is happening everywhere. And it is good.
The i-Pad is a Meta-type of an access-device. The i-Pad is no computer and the i-Pad is no phone.

Apr 7, 2010

One Culture

The distinction between ‚two cultures' is artificial and deleterious, as is argued in ‚Wissenschaft ist keine Kunst' („Science is not Art") by Rapoport and Hucho .
Clearly, Humanities are concerned with understanding while the Sciences look for explanations – but the different focus can neither be reason nor excuse for a separation in disjunct categories of culture.
The real difference obviously is the different public appeal, the difference in popularity. While humanities can be chatted about even without deep understanding – just as a piece of music can be enjoyed without any understanding of an underlying theory – this is impossible with science. There can be Pop-music, pop-Humanities but no Pop-Science.

Apr 6, 2010

The Third Culture

named after a book by John Brockman, The Third Culture (also known as The Reality Club) publishes transcending thoughts on issues of both cultures on www.edge.org.
From their self-concept:
"The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are."
"The third culture" tries to bridge the gap between humanities and science.

The Two Cultures

Charles Percy Snow's 1959 work The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, described the conflict between the cultures of the humanities and science.
50 years on - where are we?
As a reminder, some quotes of C.P.Snow