Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Cloister and The Fence Jumper

Bob Sutor asks an interesting question about social networks becoming the banks of our personal information. Haren asks if open standards for exchanging social network information will improve that market.

Would that it were that easy, Haren. Let me compare this to the current faux standards initiatives in virtual worlds. The question is

1. The import/export of object serializations still needs a common object model if the behavior of the system is important. One can import/export geometry assets fairly well minus the color pallette (notoriously variant). After that, scripts are the challenge. VRML is the most ubiquitous import/export format for web use with Collada coming up fast. X3D has a better model but isn't as widely deployed.

2. The next issue is the runtime. These formats are usually not reversible, or what we once called 'lobster traps'. The lobster goes forward but can't come back without shedding a limb, sometimes called 'lossy'. XML doesn't protect a data asset from this. Being without semantics, it can't. The XMLers have long claimed XML is a good runtime format, but most of us are document wonks, not real-time 3D systems designers. Given the size of files required to create a seamlessly navigable virtual planet, verbosity matters. A lot. Animators won’t accept slower frame rates to enable open human-readable formats these days. The pioneering days of VRML gave way to the Second Life city-states where ‘stickyness’ is the analog to the Hotel California: check in but never leave.

In other words, highly competitive markets “forge, f**K, hide and deal” to obtain locks on their customers. The Haight experience repeats endlessly in the Valley: it starts off starry-eyed but pretty soon everyone is focused on the bottom line.

So there are two problems: having a common model to share that is operationally compatible, and the will to share.

Social networks have a slightly more dismal story I'm told. Not much attention has been paid here for the same reason the virtual world owners aren't raging for common interchange. Being entertainment venues or light social interaction venues, the idea is to keep eyeballs from wandering, so like a possessive mistress, they tend to guard the secrets of their attractions.

That might be seen as an indicator of the immaturity of the market. Small firms acting small. As larger companies become involved, they tend toward the common data models because they are more interested in increasing the size of the market itself. Note for example Google created KML for its 3D assets and it was implemented in the X3D/VRML editors such as Media Machines Flux. That is a win for the authors because they can move assets independently among the vendor worlds. This would be the result for the social networks; the users can move information assets. The problem is finding some net advantage for the network owners.

A change might be if more of these were P2P and the local machine could be used to protect the privacy where necessary. People would have to be responsible for it and some would rather pay someone else to do that. That was what I was saying in the first post. If a person could provide all of that information to one trusted/paid-to-be-litigable source, then the ability of that source to protect and manage the private information would be their selling point. Think of it as the Swiss Bank model for personal information. That vendor could provide a card or other means which a user then gives to say their doctor or other transaction partner rather than having each partner own a copy of the personal information. That was the problem of the SSN: it gets too widely distributed-by-value rather than reference; so its security is minimized yet it unlocks an incredible amount of personal information.

It is an interesting conundrum: a system designed to distribute (the web) results in the concentration of stored information to offset the dangers of the very characteristic it was designed to enhance.

Then there is the danger of sharing. It isn’t simply a matter of enabling it. If that were so, adultery would be a very well supported human behavior instead of one that while ubiquitous, is generally punishable sometimes by law but most often by social ruin. Just because something is popular to do doesn’t mean it is safe to do, yet Silly Valley investors and developers act as if every thing they sell has a social imperative.

"The web is going to be a much more immersive, a much more multi-dimensional environment," said John Doerr, one of the founding board members at Google and a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which invests heavily in the tech sector.

Mr Doerr's presentation touched on a range of areas that would be affected by the web, in particular green technologies and the energy sector, as well as disease therapy, and he gave stark warning to any firm that was not willing to embrace emerging trends. "In any real revolution there are winners and losers. The internet wasn't some kind of 'kum ba ya' thing," he said.

Doerr is funny if not ironic. His statement comes down to "Buy from us or perish." Actually, the web was a kumbaya thing. When the scout master began to molest the scouts, things changed.

Revolutionary changes don't often come from where the mass is looking. The status quo resists change and nature conspires against intelligence. Revolutionary comes from where few are looking and that few are struggling for their lives in some cause shared quietly if reluctantly by many. That is why it is called ‘revolutionary’.

The first revolution of the Internet is sharing yet sharing has created many problems with identity theft and other social illnesses. The rise of a ‘smarter’ web may be the creation of a cleverer burglar. The problem is protection, not sharing.

The next web is not an open web, but a cloistered one of many walled gardens where the contract is not how widely shared information is, but how safe and protected it is. The rise of the city-state was the rise of a gated community in the beginning. When what goes on inside the gates has enough value, the walls get higher and the guards become more professional.

In a world of competitive dog shows, breeders don't tolerate fence jumpers kindly.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Rock A Bye Baby

Force vs culture: force loses. It is a rock fighting water. The rock loses every time over time but it takes time. Even with a large rock, enough small streams crossing will erode it to dust.

We seem to be approaching such a time in the evolution of the global Internet and a more massive shakeup in the power structures of our companies and governments. Where companies and individuals talked open standards and open systems, we seem to be witnessing attempts to close it on several fronts particularly given the opportunity to use the emerging markets for virtual worlds to gain keiretsu locks on the technologies. A considerable numbers of streams seem to be crossing.

Single Language Unification

There is an emerging effort on the surface from several domains to propagate the idea of single language unification. After all, that is what HTML is, right?

This is the wrong approach for many reasons. It creates an unhealthy ecosystem. Even where there is one language for a period of time, requirements for it diverge sufficiently to cause either so many variants that they may as well have separate titles or to eliminate areas of application that look similar on the surface but are quite different in the domain in which they operate (eg, design time vs runtime datasets). Generic markup succeeded precisely because it is the antithesis of the single language ecosystem. Think of DNA and you see how the engines of living systems actually work in cooperation or competition with the host environments.

The single language approach has a very long and public history of failures. One only has to look. XML succeeds precisely by NOT being a single language approach. SGML stalled because of having too many variations in the approach to a syntax unified system. HTML bifurcates because of too many necessary variations in the object frameworks that support it and the plethora of scripting languages that animate it.

This single language meme is stacking up to be one of the Big Idea discussions in the next year given the numbers of ostensibly separated emergence points I am seeing across various blogs and forums. Taken to extremes, it is a very bad idea. Not considered in terms of the technical reasons it is advanced, it is a dangerous idea to ignore. Not understanding that some of the motivations at some of the emergence points are not technical in nature makes it insidious.

Standards Or Not

While the discussions of social networking make for a fascinating coffee table book collection of musings, the elephant in the room is standards for interop.

1. Platform unification: pick a winner among the various competing gardeners. That's a non-starter for obvious reasons.

2. Keiretsu unification: a consortium of non-standard technologies are pulled together to create a network of interlocked walled gardens. Christian Renaud might want to use a different analogy than speciation. Look at the emergence of cities and city states. This one succeeds for some time but it is the Roman Empire approach to civilization. It has the advantages of money AS a force for integration but it creates a short lifecycle for the content. 3D content minus RADs is very expensive. Caveat emptor.

3. The Language IS the Platform. This approach has historically produced the healthiest ecosystem of standards. Languages are much more like living entities in their development cycles if you want to use speciation metaphors. The lifecycle advantages for the authors and owners of content are far greater as they force system vendors to compete for talent by offering better rendering and other services. The service bundle becomes the product for host vendors. In the X3D/VRML history, multiple vendors vied and died. Had it not been for the language basis, the content would have died with them. That is the ultimate outcome of building walled gardens in the desert. Archaeologists are the inheritors.

On the other hand, The Single Language Theory postulates that multiple languages create fractures with the most popular meme being the Tower of Babel myth interpreted as "God's vengeance on audacity". The counter interpretation is that it was God punishing one King who wished to become the single intercessor and that multiple languages enabled all to pray with their own expression.

The second analogy more nearly fits the situation we encounter with 3D standards. The problem is as Watte points out at Forterra, performance. This is the place to start thinking about 3D interoperability: runtime languages with high performance versus design time languages (eg, X3D, Collada) with desirable lifecycle characteristics.

That is the convergence we have to solve. The rest is marketing politics.

Games In the Workplace

This is a profoundly BAD idea. Many years ago the founder of Fairchild tried posting salaries as an exercise in motivating employees. It was the same reasoning: transparency leads to better performance. According to the stories, it almost destroyed the corporation as the inside games quickly became more important than external business. I’ve seen similar problems with so-called peer reviewing systems that then submit names to a committee to pick the so-called ‘high pot’ performers. Who ever dreamed that one up was certainly high on something. The key clique insiders began to game the system immediately. The results were very predictable.

This is folly because it assumes people are rational and given good information will act to improve the situation for themselves and others. The AI guys know the fallacy of rationality is bogus. The humans will take many kinds of acts given such rating systems but most of them are destructive. There are reasons for privacy laws and for restricting the flow of certain kinds of information. Transparency in proximity means closing the door to the bedroom first.

China and The Rest of the World

With cheap labor and dirty manufacturing coupled to the infinite desire of the West for More Stuff, the Chinese have amassed a substantial cash advantage. It is a bit like Google or Microsoft in the software market. Keep a lock on a market long enough and eventually you hold all the cash and most of the high cards in the deck. So goes the pace of globalization. IBM surrendered to China and other companies are kowtowing as fast as they can send salesman.

This is normal and predictable. The US dollar is in the toilet for awhile, the Chinese are holding the notes, and just as we had to do in the late 70s and 80s to dig our way out of the oil debt and the falling dollar post-Viet Nam, we have to do some major kowtowing to rebuild from our latest misadventures. Again, this is predictable as sunrise.

Markets seek levels like water seeks low ground or metal anneals when heated. The problem of annealing processes is sub-optimum minima that have to be socked really hard to restart the flow. One wonders where the thump will come from but those poisoning events will rattle something. What is truly entertaining is how strange the bedfellows become and how former bad guys turn out to be the good guys at the denouement.

It isn’t that the mammals aren’t rational. It is the shocks it takes to get them to use it. They claim the Chinese curse is ‘may you live in interesting times’. I think the right word for what is happening is ‘insidious’ because it is otherwise, deadly boring. What was that old quote about “lulling them to sleep”?

Rock a bye baby, indeed.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Why William Gibson Hates Futurists

Gibson says he doesn't like futurists. He goes on to talk about Osama and Alabama. It makes for the kind of reading that other self-absorbed and pathologically cynical writers enjoy: an affirmation of the emptiness of their work.

As one might suspect, Gibson knows as much about Alabama as he knows about virtual reality: technically nothing.

A vivid imagination is only one part of predicting the future. The other part is the chops to make a prediction come true. The rest is timing. Gibson writes pulp science fantasy. Jules Verne dreamed of rockets to the moon, but he fired them out of cannons, something even the scientists of his day knew was bad engineering.

So here I am back in the office a half mile from an engine laying on its side that once took man to the moon and five miles from the test stands where it was first fired.

I just came from the services of the man who's invention was the coating of the heat shields that saved the life of every American crew returning from space until the space shuttle flew. I sang and then watched his daughter, a prima ballerina now retired and teaching in New York dance for her mother and father's friends, a woman who would bring people such as Dave Brubeck to his home. This I watched in the rebuilt ruin of a tavern on a mountain not half a mile from where Alan Ginburg taught me the blues forty miles from where W.C. Handy, the father of the blues was born, and not much further, where Helen Keller first saw the world through the water falling on her hands.

As I looked through the rain cloud that settled around the park, I realized I am glad for the ignorance of William Gibson and those like him who know so little about my home but wish to use it as their frame for ignorant thought. It is thoughts like theirs that keep a tidy mist around my home keeping others like them from coming here as if it were Brigadoon bewitched. I wish them well and that life and liberty will keep them far from here where giants lived, where the thunder of their engines shook my house and broke my Mother's picture frames.

I live in a place both quiet and beautiful and filled with the gentle men and women who looked at the stars and in them drew a line straight to future while the William Gibson's of their day did not believe and could not go. Please stay in Vancouver, Bill. It is the right place for you. I will stay in Alabama. It is the right place for me.

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