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Who am I?

You can look at my home page for more information, but the short answer is that I'm a dilettante who likes thinking about a variety of subjects. I like to think of myself as a systems-level thinker, more concerned with the big picture than with the details. Current interests include politics, community formation, and social interface design. Plus books, of course.

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Sat, 06 Dec 2003

The Semantic Web
The Semantic Web was recently brought to my attention after reading an article by Clay Shirky, previously mentioned in this blog. As usual, I agree with much of what Shirky has to say. But apparently, he ignited quite a discussion, including this rebuttal and the further discussion here.

In the terms that Shirky originally states, I have to agree with him. It does sound like proponents of the Semantic Web are vastly oversimplifying the problem. Even after reading the further discussion, I'm not sure such proponents disagree with Shirky. They provide as counterexamples very simple use cases, such as indexing books, where the information structure is already well-defined. If that's all they mean by the Semantic Web, then sure, that makes sense. But Shirky makes a good point that extending such a concept to more complicated scenarios is going to be an extremely difficult problem, where the Semantic Web folks are trying to gloss over the complexity by concentrating on the parts they already know how to do.

It sounds a lot like the debates on artificial intelligence to me. The AI researchers make grand statements about the future of AI. Critics say it's going to be a lot harder than that. The researchers show how they can do all these cool things in environments of limited scope (like chess-playing), without realizing that such demonstrations imply absolutely nothing about their ability to handle the general case. For the Semantic Web to be nifty cool, it'll have to be able to handle general implications on its own. And that will be tricky. In the meantime, the only metadata that is generated will be that which somebody has figured out a use for. The Semantic Web tools may make it slightly easier to deal with that metadata, but it won't be able to extend it by creating its own metadata, for instance.

I don't know. I thought I had something interesting to say about this topic, but maybe not. I'll still post this, because I think the links and discussions posted above are interesting, but I'm not going to spend any more time on extending out this post.

posted at: 16:05 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Language in Thought and Action, by S.I. Hayakawa.
(originally posted on 8/17/03, link fixed on 11/17/03) I found this book in a roundabout way. In Conscientious Objections, Neal Postman reviewed the book Science and Sanity, by Alfred Korzybski, calling it one of the most important books of the last century. Korzybski developed the field of general semantics, a system of thinking about language and thought. I was going to get it, but was a bit intimidated by the reviews at Amazon, many of which recommended Hayakawa's book as an easier to read introduction to the field. So I got this book instead.

It's amazing. It codifies a lot of my personal philosophy and attitudes in a more coherent manner. In particular, it focuses on several cognitive mistakes that drive me crazy, including the confusion of the map with the territory (or the generalization with the specific, or the word with the object), the perils of the two-valued orientation (which dominates news and other venues because of the ratings appeal of arguments - see Breaking the News, by James Fallows for a more thorough investigation), and the inability of some people to move up and down the abstraction ladder.

There were so many great ideas in this book that I wish everybody would read and live by the precepts in this book. I'm definitely interested in reading more on the subject of general semantics, and one of these days I may get around to tackling Science and Sanity. We'll see.

Specific things that I took note of in the book include:

posted at: 15:34 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

LookinGlass Architecture and Design
My friend, Emil Mertzel, and his business partner Nick were recently published in a Taiwanese design journal. The article is available from their website, at this link (down at the moment that I am posting, but I'm sure it will be back up eventually).

I sent Emil the following e-mail after reading the article:

So, basically, you're describing the process by which we put ourselves into The Matrix without the need for robots to stuff us in there :)

I think you make some interesting points about the role of architects in a world where physical space is starting to be de-emphasized. Your example of the call centers in India where the workers practice their Midwestern accent and make up suburban lives was excellent. Do architects move to constructing the mental spaces that people begin to occupy? I mean, there's already a whole field of information architecture, which is all about constructing mental structures of information that are compatible with how people think, in analogy to constructing physical structures that are compatible with how people live.

There's also a lot of work to be done in developing the tools to let people construct their own virtual worlds. I've been fascinated by such possibilities since I was introduced to MUDs (multi-user domains) in high school. Making the tools easy enough to use such that everybody can construct the virtual structures that they envision is a daunting task. Or maybe that level doesn't need to be reached; after all, we don't expect people to design and build their buildings in real life.

Definitely some interesting stuff there. I'll be thinking about it.

posted at: 15:32 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /links | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal