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The BabelFish Blog
A blog to help elucidate the link between these various interest of mine: computing, philosophy and the web.
On the web nobody knows you are a fish

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moved blog
moved blog moved blog July 9, 2008 10:34 AM

As you may have noticed, I have not been keeping this blog up to date for a while. I am now blogging on blogs.sun.com/bblfish. You will find my latest thoughts there.

I have not been working much on BlogEd for the last few years either, as I have had to concentrate my energies on what I think is the most likely to be of bigest impact. There are a lot of blog editors out there, so making a big impact there is very difficult. Instead I have been focusing on the Semantic Address Book as a demonstration of the linked data can solve some core problems in the social networking space.

GapMinder.org
GapMinder.org GapMinder.org May 19, 2006 7:58 PM

John Gage finished this years' Java One conference by pointing everyone to Gapminder.org, a site put together by a Swedish professor to illustrate clearly some important worlds poverty trends. This will be of interest to absolutely everyone.
The information presented in a series of very clearly designed flash animations, that teaches one more than years of looking at CNN ever could.

Google Video: Invading North Korea
Google Video: Invading North Korea Google Video: Invading North Korea March 14, 2006 4:34 PM
Google Video looks like a really useful service. You can learn for example how to invade North Korea, represented on the picture with little "2" flag. Wikipedia seems to call North Korea by a different name, but what the heck :-)

Hey, I think I am going to try uploading some videos too.

Newsnight: The Cartoon Row
Newsnight: The Cartoon Row Newsnight: The Cartoon Row February 19, 2006 2:48 PM
The United Kingdom is blessed with some excellent news programs. One of these is Newsnight, a show that airs late in the evening and lasts over three quarters of an hour. It usually picks 3 topics, covering each subject with a very well researched film presenting the background of the problem, and usually follows this with a well organised debate in which the best speakers for each side of the argument get a good chance at defending their point of view in a civilised way.

The Cartoon Row which has been making the headlines recently in Europe and around large parts of the muslim world is an excellent example of the show at work. Newsnight does not archive all their shows sadly, but it has kept this one around for a while on their debates page. I am not sure how much longer it will be available there. [1] On this topic the debate is very much worth looking at, as it gives an intelligent female voice to the under represented muslim/arab liberal position, which we very much need to hear more from, and which the extreemes are doing their best to drown out in their strident appeals to violence.

In a globalised world of information, censorship is impossible [2]. It is clear that in a lawful society every group needs to be treated equally. Since requiring respect of every group's prejudices and taboos cannot be done, especially since some of these are antithetical, where there is inequality in treatment, we clearly will need to relax censorship in favor of more openess and freedom of expression. I myself prefer a society with a lively debate and laughter than one silenced by censorship and respect codified by law.

[1] They seem to have problems with their video streams recently. If you just get a short clip with no sound, then retry later.
[2] Well, its not going to stop people trying. China is devoting massive resources to censorship, building a huge firewall to 'protect' its population from unwanted information. So I suppose one has to ask, what is the cost of censorship? Remember that the more one tries to suppress something the more this tends to increase its value. US newspapers may be refusing to publish any of the Danish cartoons, but this has not stopped a huge number of new ones being drawn and published on the internet, witness cagle.com.

Good Night, and Good Luck.
Good Night, and Good Luck. Good Night, and Good Luck. July 9, 2008 11:15 AM
Yesterday I saw Good Night, and Good Luck. a film in a documentary mode covering the McCarthy witch hunt era in the united states. It is shot in black and white, with beautiful jazz music, and is very factual. No romance. No violence.

The film brings us back to a black and white world where the news presenter would elegantly hold up a cigarette on prime time television, and the news be followed by tobacco advertising. Putting sponsorships at risks was a major constraint on the freedom of speech. It takes us back to a period where being suspected of having something to do with communism was enough to be condemned. Insinuations backed up by state secret documents no one could see, were enough to ruin someone's career.

Luckily there is now a huge diversity of channels people can access their news through. But one should never let one's guard down. Paranoia and secrecy, is what those that rule such a world live off. Openess and transparency is the best defense.

Lord of War
Lord of War Lord of War January 11, 2006 8:50 PM
Last week I saw Lord of War in Paris. This is another amazing film that has come out recently. By describing the life of underground arms dealer Yuri (played by Nicholas Cage) it gives a whole geopolitical analysis of the world from the 1980ies to the present. But this is not a tedious school lesson; it will keep you riveted to your seat.

Just like The Constant Gardner this film explors in depth the most important issues of our time, Africa. It is eye opening. Not to want to know, to want to look at the world through rose colored spectacles, is a road that in the end is not that different from the road taken by Yuri's drug addicted brother. Drugs are emotional halucinogenics for a society that does not want to see what is occuring around it. This film will certainly help open our eyes. It does not offer any solution, let alone simple ones: but perhaps just by making us aware of the world we live in, it has contributed more than anything else.
The Constant Gardener
The Constant Gardener The Constant Gardener January 1, 2006 2:22 PM
I saw The Constant Gardner in Paris a couple of days ago, and was very impressed. The poster would not usually attract my attention, as it seems to emphasize the romance and action movie part of the film above all else, but one should not be mislead by that. The film is based on a recent novel by John le Carré who is widely known for his complex cold war spy novels, and in our family for having tought my father french in school a long time ago. In this novel/film John le Carré opens up our eyes to the devastating situation in Africa, through a complex industrial, political espionage story. The political vacuum in most of Africa that still persiststs and may have worsened over the last century, has always led pirates and men of no scruple to abuse the situation. This film describes a modern day variant of the interests that move these men.

To get another glimpse of the scale of the problem in Africa, I recommend We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, a book I read 7 years ago, and that shows very clearly how this problem is probably not one that can be solved by non military means alone - way over a half million lives in this case. Another way to look at the situation is to understand that an American or European cow gets more subsidies that an average african earns in a year (if I remember correctly an article from courrier International: L'Africain moins bien loti qu'une vache européenne. (When are newspapers going to allow micropayment access to their site!?)).

It is really nice to see a film that tackles the real and perhaps greatest problem in the world today in a subtle and engaging way.

Emotions and Values
Emotions and Values Emotions and Values December 28, 2005 6:10 PM
Over the last five years I have been reading a lot - on and off - about psychology from Existentialist to Jungian to cognitive psychologoy all the way to the philosophy of emotions.

The last few days I have been reading Emotions et Valeurs by Christine Tappolet, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Montréal. This is a very carefully argued book that covers a lot of the work on the philosophy of emotions that has come out in the last 30 years (I know because I recognised many of the references) and beyond, covering in detail the work of the analytical tradition of philosophy and inspiring itself from work (I don't know much of) by Meinong and Husserl. The book is very much in the tradition of formal analytic tradition, with a lot of careful logical analysis, and so is not something that I can recommend to the casual reader. The main thesis is that our knowledge of values is dependent on our emotions, emotions being perceptions of values.

It is very difficult to correctly summarise the work. I'll try here. Christine Tappolet wants to lay the groundwork for an objective understanding of values by following the intiution behind the Tarskian definition of Truth: "P" is True if and only if P. The correctness condition of factual statements is given by the facts one may say, whereas the correctness conditions of value judgements is given justified or correct emotional appraisal of a situation. So as it is right to believe that "the car is in the garage" if it really is in the garage, so it is correct to be afraid of what is dangerous, or to like what is good. But whereas it is usually quite easy for an empiricist to understand how we come to verify statements of facts (by using our five senses) it is a lot less clear how we can come to verify statements about value. Christine T. looks at arguments for coherentist analyses of values and finds them wanting for lack of an ability to ground the chain of justification in something final, or for turning values into something too subjective. Foundationalist theories of values fail either because the choice of foundations seem to be arbitrary, or because they have to invent out of nothing a new faculty, unknown to science, for perceiving values. But the foundationalist theories may not have been completely wrong argues Christine. Just as sight gives us direct and justified access to the color of objects, so emotions give us a direct grip on values. This is not to say that they are fail safe. Just as we can make mistaken color judgements so we can have incorrect emotional reactions to some things. But the point is rather that emotions is what brings us in contact with the world of values in the way sight brings us in contact with the world of shapes and colors.

From reading Christine it is quite clear that it is now well established in analytical philosophy that there is a very close relation between emotions and values (Aristotle would have agreed). Her originality lies in fleshing out a perceptual theory of emotions. Of course such a theory, just like the Tarskian theory can seem a little light, but if it captures the concept correctly then that can be a good thing.

To flesh things out a little, and in order to help me test my agreement with her, I would like to describe a thought that occurred to me when reading a quote from Montaigne that she uses:

Qu'on loge un philosophe dans une cage de menus filets de fer clersemez, qui soit suspendue en haut des tours de nostre Dame de Paris, il verra par raison evidente qu'il est impossible qu'il en tombe, et si, ne se sçauroit garder (s'il n'a accoustumé le mestrier de recouvreurs) que la veuë de cette hauteur extreme ne l'espouvante et ne le transisse.
My english translation would go something like
Place a philosopher on a light metallic cage suspended at the top of Notre Dame in Paris. He will know that there is no possibility that he can fall, and yet would (unless he also be a roof layer) on the sight of such a height, not fail to be horrified and struken with fear.
The point of this quote is of course to show that emotions have a certain independence of the rational side of man, and so can hardly be reduced down to belief desire psychology. (Though that people can find it difficult to change their beliefs in face of evidence should indicate that perhaps the rational side of man is not quite as flexible as one may have supposed.) So the emotion of fear according to Christine is the perception of the dangerous. But the dangerous is not a value. It is the thing the dangerous threatens that should be of value and why the dangerous is frightening. So in the case of the philosopher sitting on the wire grid in the example above, or for people who may have visited the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco and wondered on the top passerel made of thin metallic grid of a bridge and through which one can see all the way below, what is frightnening is the closely perceived possibility of falling, and what is of value in this case, is one's life or at least one's well being.

I think therefore that at the very least it would be fruitful to analyse carefully what precisely the relation is between emotions and the values they reveal, beyond the simple case of being amused by the funny.

Martha Nussbaum, who has written extensively on emotions ("Emotions as Judgements of Value", 1994) puts forward a good psychological explanation that gives a central position for our role as agents and actors in the theory.
This is how I summarise Martha Nussbaum's psychological insight, from what I can remember from having read her a few years ago. Things that have emotions are things that act in the world. Things that need to protect themselves and their identity against the agressions of the external world, things that need to change the world in order to live in it. Things that behave in this way will have to value some things above others. Themselves first and foremost, if they are to be able to survive at all. These things have capacities to change the world. They can influence its present and so change its future. They have self determined modal properties, also known as abilities. At every moment in time they will need to act. And this will require choosing among different paths open to them, choose which of the things around them is the most valuable, which path will help bring them closer to what they value. The things the agent values are in some sense therefore part of the sphere of being of the agent that values them. Their state will define its actions. A mother's love of her child is a value that determines her relation to her child, her environment and her life. If the child is in danger, the mother will feel fear, or rather fear for her child. Fear being a very specific state of alertness. One where all attention is directed towards the danger to the thing valued, where one's abilities to come to the help of the valued thing seem somewhat inadequate or stretched. In any case the mother will do her best to be alert to a way help the child she fears for. Since the danger the valued thing is in, is very much dependent on the abilities of the agent, the abilities of the agent will of course affect the strength of the fear. If the philosopher knew how to fly, then we would find a lot more philosophers sitting on the roof of Notre Dame. Of course it is also the emotion of fear that reveals to us that our philosopher is not a perfect nihilist; he still values his life. And so emotions do reveal value. Emotions, Value, Abilities and Action are all closely linked.

The philosopher in his cage feels fear. But notice that Montaigne makes sure to exclude that he be a roof coverer, who presumably would be used to heights. What is the difference between those two men? My guess is that it is in part a question of trust. The roof coverer has learnt to trust the ropes that hold him, his skills, and the people he works for. The philosopher may on the other hand be quite rightfully a little anxious about his colleagues. Does he really trust them to correctly tie the knot and to have bought the right thickness of rope? Does he trust himself to have thought of all the things that should be tested for before entering the cage? Does he trust the theories of Newton enough in real life? Any little doubt on the answer to those questions will change the beautiful birds eye view he sees from his cage into the close possibility of a horrible fall, and the inevitably very strong desire to get onto solid, trusted land. If we add to this the thought that the creak just heard may for the philosopher just be the first sign of weakness of a worn rope possibly about to break if any movement is made, then the philosopher may well end up petrified: all concentrated on the slightest little noise, each noise increasing the danger and making the decision of moving all the more difficult. For a man with good experience of alpinism the same sound may just be the heart warming vibrations of good quality material.

The relation between oneself and what is valued - the concentration required, the readiness to act or not that the situation call for - which consitutes the emotion, all of this should also explain why it feels a certain way to be in that state. In a dangerous situation the heart beats faster in order to prepare for action. In a non threatening situation the agent can relax, rest and contemplate more distant goods.

So how is it with other emotions: Anger, disdain, joy, sadness, love, ...? Perhaps I'll get the time to write my thoughts down on those in future entries here.

Notes

NerdTV: Dave Winer
NerdTV: Dave Winer NerdTV: Dave Winer December 22, 2005 1:36 PM

Still suffering from jet lag from my trip to california, my sleeping patterns are a little screwed up. So I got up early today, but feeling very tired, I realised that I would not be too productive so I listened to interview #6 of Dave Winer on Nerd TV. This is the first time I hear Dave speak for himself, even though I have been working in his shadow it seems for such a long time. He is a lot more of a "mensch" as he says, than I would have guessed from the reactions people have to him on the net. And he has a few very interesting things to say.

Dave Winer is of course most famous recently for his work on RSS which is what is behind the whole blogging explosion of the last few years. He clearly has his finger on the pulse of things changing on the web. He seems to have a knack for looking in the right direction but missing something important at the same time.
RSS had a tortuous history partly it seems because of him. When RSS1.0 came out, a pretty good compromise betweed RDFers and RSS he went off to create RSS2.0, which has to be a step back. At the same time this finally led to Atom which is a big step forward in clarity and design, being crafted to work with the basic web architecture framework as laid out by Roy Fielding in his thesis on REST. This may yet lead to something really big, if the Atom-OWL project comes to fruition.
He was also behind XML-RPC which is a very simple way to do remote method invocation over HTTP, whilst at the same time being fatally flawed. The fact that it led to SOAP is one of the things that puts a big question mark in my mind on that enterprise, backed as it is by Microsoft and IBM. Way too complicated is what many people are saying about it. And I think Dave Winer points to the problem when he mentions the state of the software industry in the early 90ies

And, at the same time, the software industry, the Microsofts and the Borlands and Apples and IBMs and, you know, the open doc consortium was kind of like the epitome of - that was that generation running out of gas, basically. They were building specs that filled bookshelves worth of - they explained to me that open doc was basically what they did was every company had a bookshelf worth of documentation for their formats and protocols.
A few years later, after the web explosion, he remembers telling Adam Bosworth from Microsoft, who was asking him to do some work on xml
And I said, "Well, you know, this is gar- I'm not gonna do this." I told him it's like this is the province of big companies, and you guys are gonna screw it up, and I told him all the stories I told you about bookshelf-size specs, and how that you guys are just gonna completely mess this thing up.
Sounds very much like this is what Microsoft did with the web services stack.

On the topic of the future, towards the end of the interview he says:

That's our challenge. Can we get it so that the - our information resources can answer all reasonable questions? We're nowhere near that. I mean get - take - let's say you were driving to Los Angeles tomorrow, and you wanted to know which route has the most Starbucks on it. A perfectly practical question, because you wanna get on the Internet as many places as you want. You might wanna pick up a cup of coffee along the way. There's no way to ask that question. But yet you know that there will be a way to ask that question.
And Dave Winder is right. We know that this is the future. But clearly this is not going to solved by OPML, which is what he has been working on for the last five years. No it is allready here, and it is called SPARQL and the future web is the Semantic Web.

Dave Winer has a knack of seeing the general direction things are going in. But I would trust Tim Berners Lee a lot more for getting us there with a beautiful, workeable, scaleable and simple solution. Come to think about it: in his whole conversation Dave Winer mentions Microsoft and Bill Gates a lot, but not once the founder of the web itself.