Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Other Narratives

I've just spent 20 minutes reading this article, an interview of journalist Mark Danner by blogger Tom Englehardt, which was reprinted in Salon. It reaffirms that everything these days is exactly as terrible as you think it is. The quote from Danner that's getting me to blog about the article, though, is this:
When I look at the pieces on the inside pages of the papers about the stealing of funds in Iraq by American officials, when I realize that no one is likely to be punished for this, I think of the novels of [Milan] Kundera, of his vivid descriptions of what it was like to live in Eastern Europe in the 1950s and '60s -- in the Soviet system where everyone realized the corruption, the abuse of power, the mediocrity of the government, the yawning gap between what was said and what was really going on, but no one could do anything about it.
If we have a refrain these days it's that there is, quite literally, a new administration scandal every week; then there's no investigation and no one is held accountable. No one seems to care, there's no backlash, and nothing changes. It's not quite true--a lot of people care. But caring, along with writing about it, holding strategy meetings in your living room, standing in the streets protesting, and/or giving money to the opposition party doesn't seem to have much effect.

My own thought on the subject, which I've mentioned before in this and different contexts is this: this is the way They get you (where "get you" = "get into power and stay there"). They get you because when It actually happens to You, It's Different. Presented with the statement, "the US today is like Kundera's Czech Republic under Communist Rule in the '50s," You (the titular 'You' for whom 'It' is 'Different') are going to dismiss the statement out of hand. That was a different time and a different circumstance. They were under the thumb of Totalitarians. We live in a democracy (which we don't, we live in a republic, which is an interesting distinction both technically and linguistically these days, but whatever). "Sure," 'You' will think, "we've got a few problems, but we are safe from the kind of blatant looting, lies, and naked power grabs that afflict Them. God help 'em, though, I'm glad I'm not their shoes."

Psychology is often described as the practice of trying to get someone to actually take the advice that any sane person would give them after five minutes of listening to that person's story. When it's put like that, it sure sounds easy. Yet there seem to be plenty of Psychologists working these days.

Next: The political is personal!
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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Unexpected Turn Towards The Post-Modern

Canonical List of Bands of Which I Have Been a Member*

  • Death Spleen (1990-1991)

  • The Egomaniacs (1991)

  • Nothing Obscene (1991)

  • Me, Him, and The Other Guy (1992)

  • Common Men (1993)

  • Juliet's Ankle (1994-1996)

  • ...a barren wasteland featuring several abortive attempts to go solo...

  • The Apostles of Pleasure (2002-2003)

  • Bedevere (2003)

  • ...barren wasteland redux...

  • The Unbeable Bareness of Lightning (name subject to change) (2005-present)

*Does not include collegiate a capella groups. To be considered an actual band, the band must have either made a recording or performed live in front of an audience. All bands eventually destroyed themselves due to clash of egos, arrogance, infighting, and/or disagreements about creative direction just as they were on the verge of their big break (except for Death Spleen, which disbanded after the lead singer tried to eat a microphone during a recording session).

Next: Not this!
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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

XML, Future Wave of the Future

It is my goal here at OaO to write about math/science/engineering in a way that is neither math-y, nor science-y, nor engineering-y. It is a task that I constantly keep in mind whilst writing. It is, concurrently, a task at which I am consistently failing. This, apparently, is because I never explain the (supposedly) non-technical narrative model I'm using to talk about things. I am bad writer. But is okay. I fix problem. I start with XML.

You can look up the wikipedia entry for XML as well as I can, so I won't repeat anything definitional; that definition also lacks any of the nuances I was trying to invoke in my last entry anyway. In the comments, Sam has asked the existential question, "So is XML like a grammar or something?" Yes, it is, sort of. But it's more of a language for making languages. It's a language about language. A meta-language if you will. Mmm...meta.

Here are some key points of the nuts and bolts: xml is made up of tags which form a tree of information about something. Here's a sample one:

<person type="freak of nature">
How you can't really get down
to work until your second one.
<coauthor ref="person" name="Rebecca"/>

This tells you there's a class of things called "people." One of the members of that set is a "person," which apparently come in different types, like "freak of nature." Then a person has a bunch of attributes, like his name and his job, and whether he owns an iPod. Then in this model a person has a sub-attribute called "blog" which tells you information about his blog. Note that the blog co-author has the refence type "person"--this gives us a clue that somewhere else in this document, there might be a "person" named "Rebecca" defined. Note also that this tag doesn't have a close tag the way the others do--if we define all of the tag's attributes within the tag, we can just end it by putting a "/" before the closing ">".

The real key here, though, is what this document doesn't say. It doesn't say anything about what you should do with this information. It doesn't say how you should read it, or display it, or feed it into some sort of computer program. The point of XML is that other than tags and attributes (which are themselves pretty flexible), the people who pass these documents around decide what they mean. You could, for instance, write a little plug-in for your browser that read this document and produced an image of a person. The image could have a name tag that read "Sam," it could put him in his graduate robes since he's a professor, and he could be carrying a little iPod icon. Next to him could be an image of a computer that would navigate to his blog when you clicked on it. So an XML document can be extremely meaningful, or totally meaningless. It's just like HTML--HTML is meaningful to a web browser and meaningless some simple text-editing program. The Browser gets it and displays things in fonts and nicely formatted with colors and images and such. A text editor opens it up and doesn't know any of the rules that go with HTML, so lacking anything better to do, just shows you the text.

This is what a newsreader does with an RSS feed. An RSS feed is a simple XML document that you get via a web service call, and contains the bare minimum of data about the news:

Cheney Shoots Bush in Hunting "Accident"
Vice President Dick Cheney "accidentally" "shot"
President George Bush today whilst the two were
in the oval office. A spokesman said they were
"hunting" at the time.
Neoconservatives: Ethics Are Post-Hoc
Rationalizations To Justify What People Were
Already Going To Do Anyway
The Project For The New American Century today
released a report revealing that the entire
foundation of Ethics is built upon a facade people
use to justify what they were already going to do
anyway. It is expected that this revelation will
have no effect on anything whatsoever.

A newsreader or browser can take this and pretty much do whatever it wants with it, since nobody has really developed a standard for what RSS feeds should "look like." And, frankly, there's no real need to--the idea behind RSS feeds is that they're supposed to be simple, and that any style and formatting will be left up to the displayer. This is in marked contrast to HTML, where the formatting and styles are rigidly defined.

Calvino: I get it! HTML is a form of XML, except that HTML came first.

The Stoat: Yes. Ish. Technically, they are both offshoots of SGML, and HTML in its original form doesn't quite work as XML, but the W3 Consortium is working on a new standard for HTML called XHTML to fix that.

Calvino: Isn't "consortium" a great word?

The Stoat: It is.

Maybe you are, at this point, seeing the abstract beauty of XML and its derivations that exists outside of its rather abstract and technical nature. Or maybe not. Whatever. The examples I have given above are simple XML documents. You could also, as in HTML, rigidly define how those documents should be "understood." But it's a much more interesting metaphor if people just ignore the definitions, or if you just don't publish any. An XML document can have multiple translations, and all of them are meaningful, and they can all still be "true" translations of the original material. What I was trying to point out yesterday is that XML is all about Reader Response. You read the XML. You divine your own meaning. You build models and tools out of that meaning. You publish. The world is made new again. Repeat ad infinitum.

Next: Language doesn't work that way!
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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Maybe Ours is The Language of The Future

When I explain to people what a web service is and does I try and explain it as the difference between what a human can do with the internet and what a computer program can do with the internet. It goes like this: if you're a human, and you want information about a book, you go to Amazon.com and search for the title or the author in the little search bar at the top, and it leads you to the page with the book on it. You do this because Amazon is a great bibliographic reference, by virtue of the fact that they sell just about every book that exists. If, on the other hand, you're a computer program, and are trying to assemble a library database for somebody, you're a little hamstrung. Even with an internet connection, you don't know how to use a web browser, and programming you to understand how to use the search bar and enter search terms and then read the page that came up--things that come (relatively) naturally to a human being--would take forever. Enter the web service: it provides you with an interface across the internet to, e.g., all of the book information at Amazon, in a way that a computer program can easily access and translate.

Web services, as you might expect, had to come up with a common language that everybody spoke (they also should have come up with a common protocol, like http, but in fact there are at least four that I know of, a few essentially open-source ones, and SOAP, which was developed by...wait for it...Microsoft). What they (where "they" = "The W3 Consortium") came up with is the WSDL. A WSDL (we pronounce that 'WIZ-dul' because that's just how high is our level of dork) is an XML document, because XML is apparently the wave of the future. The WSDL for the web service I described above is here.
Here's a little chunk of it:

<xs:element name="Items">
<xs:element ref="tns:Request" minOccurs="0"/>
<xs:element ref="tns:CorrectedQuery" minOccurs="0"/>
<xs:element name="TotalResults" type="xs:nonNegativeInteger"
<xs:element name="TotalPages" type="xs:nonNegativeInteger"
<xs:element ref="tns:SearchResultsMap" minOccurs="0"/>
<xs:element ref="tns:Item" minOccurs="0" maxOccurs="unbounded"/>
<xs:element ref="tns:SearchBinSets" minOccurs="0"/>

This is the data type of some information that would come back from a search request. You, as a human being, probably look at this and think a) it looks like HTML code (or XML code, if you're riding the wave of the future), and b) it's pretty much gibberish. Which is ironic, because a WSDL is primarily language for humans.

It's language for computers, too, obviously--there are parsers in most programming languages that can read in a WSDL document and produce code libraries to use so that you can call the web service. But that hasn't turned out to be the primary function of the WSDL; the primary function of the WSDL is for me, the human writing the computer program that uses the web service, to understand what the web service does and how it does it. If you speak Wiz-dul, you can look at tags and symbols in this document and understand amidst the gibberish that if you send a request to the webservice and name it, "ItemSearch," and include with it labeled information about the author, artist, composer, or conductor of the item you're searching for (e.g. "Artist='U2'" or "Author='Italo Calvino'") that the service on the other side will understand you and respond in kind with a labelled list of albums or books. You don't need any other documentation than that one page of nicely indented tags.

I'm sure it wasn't the original intent of the WSDL to enable computer programmers to talk to each other about the services they offer; it's become an accidental solution to the nearly intractable problem of creating understandable technical documents about computer code. You've probably never had to read a document from a technical writer that uses English to try and describe what computer code does. You have lived a happier life never having had to do this. You have lived a much, much happier life never having had to write such a document. I don't know if this is a sign of things to come, but XML might turn out to be a model that solves this problem of language quite nicely.

Next: Somewhat more frequent posts!
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Thursday, February 16, 2006

OaO: Now 47% Cooler

We've had a makeover. I decided it was time. After all, I've been blogging with the same old template for what, like six months? That's like two decades in internet time.

That's all. As you were.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Song Narratives

On my walk to work yesterday, a particular song by Dada--See I'm tryin' to start this rock band, and my drummer really needed a kit. He's really into Bonham and Ozzy, you know he really likes to hit--came up in the shuffle. This song tells a little story about some guys meeting the titular Bob The Drummer after reading a classified ad about a set of drums he's selling. In the course of the song they discover that Bob is basically who they will become in 20 years, and at the end Bob decides he's not quite ready to sell his drums--You never know when there might be a gig.

This song is just, you know, cool in that way that songs are cool sometimes. I've heard this song on the order of magnitude of 100 times, and yesterday I made a new narrative out of the song that hadn't ever occurred to me before--Bob knew when he placed the drum ad that he wasn't selling the drums, he was just looking for the company. Moreover, I narratively surmised, maybe the whole thing was a ruse on Bob's part, knowing that since he's offerring a set of drums for an unusually low low price, he's going to draw folks who are on the path in life that he is, and that he's decided to serve as a subtle warning: you'll end up playing weddings and bar mitzvahs for half scale, staring into oblivion, and saying "Oh, how time flies."

Calvino: Is this the lamest post that has ever been composed on this blog?

The Stoat: Possibly. I have it on good authority that the author has an exam coming up this weekend and so hasn't had much time to post the last week and a half or so, and was feeling he needed some new content.

Calvino: Hmm...

L. and I are on a long quest for narrative in song. One of our favorite road trip activities is to put on Sting's The Soul Cages and discuss reader response to the unfolding story of a shipyard worker's son that happens in it. It's like talking about tv shows (which we, of course, also do all the time) except it's music, and it's much harder to find. Off the top of my head, I can only name...well, off the top of my head, Dark Side of the Moon is the only other album that comes to mind that's an extended narrative in LP form. I welcome your other submissions to this search, though. Must...have...more...narrative....

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Who Are You?

It's a slow news day, so it's time to blog about one of the interesting (for some extremely abstract definition of the word "interesting") problems we're trying to solve here at work: identity. How does anybody know that you are who you say you are (where, for the purposes of the preceding sentence, the words "how", "anybody", "you", "are" and "know" have some level of arbitrary abstractness not yet defined by anyone)? If sheer opacity of language hasn't already convinced you that this is a problem people are struggling to solve, consider your Amazon.com account. It contains a bunch of information that Amazon knows about you that nobody else should have access to (and, in fact, you might argue that you don't want information such as what books you've bought, what music you like, or generally how best to market new products to you, known by Amazon either. Sadly, the time to register your complaints about the information age with The Powers That Be has come and gone. While you can still opt out at any time, you will literally have to go live in a cave in order to do so. Yes, I work here and I'm scared too. Have a nice day).

One of the upshots of the rather invisible Web 2.0 revolution is that your Amazon identity is no longer just a set of information about you, but rather a set of privileges--things like the ability to charge items to your credit card, or the ability to ship things second-day air for free because you're a member of Amazon Prime. The world coming soon to a theater near you that involves you buying virtual things has got the folks who care about things like intellectual property rights freaked right the hell out. You can buy perfect digital copies of books, songs, movies, or episodes of television shows and own them, carry them around, and, for all the copyright holders know, actually give them to your friends without paying for them again. So the enormous corporations that hold these copyrights are all in a tizzy, because their position as distributor middle-men is threatened. Or was it that the integrity of the original artist's work is threatened if the enormous multi-national doesn't control the distribution and release of that artist's ouevre? Well, in any case, some entity that controls an enormous amount of wealth is feeling threatened. I'm sure it's probably the artists of the world (don't mess with the Artist's Union, dude, they will fuck you up). So here's the problem--the powers that be want to figure out a way to sell these things to you without you actually owning them, such as having the movies, songs, books, or tv shows on a server, and giving you access to that server at any moment, such that you can stream the song or movie whenever you want. Here enters the third party: you buy an eBook from Amazon. Bob Livestockowski of Bob Livestockowski's Software Development Concern© writes a software program that will sync any eBooks you own to your PDA so that you can take them with you and read them wherever you go. But Bob Livestockowski isn't affiliated with Amazon.com, and so doesn't know which books you have "bought," nor does he have your Amazon account information, nor do you particularly want to give it to him, because Bob is kind of a shady character, what with his previous business forays into writing illicit spyware and Albanian Yak smuggling. Still, you want the program that syncs your PDA with your Amazon eBook stream, and you want to give Bob the ability to get it for you without giving him your Amazon user name and password outright. And there you are: a little problem for the Web, Version 2.0.

Possibly I became a little sardonic in that last paragraph whilst describing what we hip techno-folks call the "problem space" of 21st Century User Authentication. I do apologize for that. This morning, five of us uber-hip wonks were sitting in an office mulling over one of our latest proposals for solving this problem, and I noted to myself, "Hmm...here I am on the cutting edge of some obscure outpost of technology. How very...something." This evening I'm sitting here writing about it and I can't think of anything better to say about it.

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