Thursday, September 30, 2004

Fixing US Foreign Policy

Well, the first presidential debate of 2004 is over and I think Kerry beat Bush. Still, neither candidate adequately identified what I beleive is the key issue of this race: How US foreign policy should be fixed. Kerry expects you to read his plan online, so you can read mine, too.

My opinion is that "America the Meme" is the US's largest export. It is not McDonald's or the Mouse but the very idea of checks and balances, individual choice and the belief that anyone can grow up to be president. Thomas Jefferson pusued the ideas and ideals of Locke, Bacon and Newton and turned them into a system of governance that many yet aspire to. It is these ideas, not the Mouse and the Big Mac, that make America great and an envy of the world.

Thus, America the Meme is the issue worth defending, growing and nuturing in US foriegn policy. The current administration involved the US in the first unilateral war of aggression since the Spanish-American War of 1898 (in which the US wanted Cuba and was instead saddled with governing the Philippines for nearly 50 years). Wars of aggression are a trait of empires, not of free countries wishing peace and prosperity for all. We must be careful not to sully America the Meme with images of empire building.

My prescription is simple, if a tiny bit radical: America needs to lead morally before (and while) it leads militarily and economically. That may be accomplished by signing and actively pushing an international ban on landmines which kill more children than soldiers; by unilaterally reducing nuclear arms arsenals instead of pursuing new research into nuclear "bunker busters"; by leading the international community on the reduction of pollution (inclusive of signing and ratifying the Kyoto Protocols); by signing and ratifying participation in the International Criminal Court; by treating war as a last resort and by active and consistent engagement of rogue states on issues of peace. In short, we must do the right thing according to our own beliefs in order to morally lead the world back from the fear and partisonship caused by reactionist protectionism.

We are only just learning to what extent the US literally scared the USSR into the Cold War by use of the atomic bombs, constant bomber and surveillance overflights, and arms buildups on its borders. Similarly, Robert McNamara has only recently told us how badly Vietnam was managed, thinking it was about communist expansion - at the same time Vietnamese leaders have told us they initially wanted US support for their revolution from China and France. US foriegn policy, in an effort to protect US interests, has caused fear and uncertainty in friends, adversaries and non-aligned countries alike. We have caused our own worst problems and the fog of war has done the rest.

Moral leadership would seem to be the only answer other than the sort of constant low-intensity warfare which characterized the Roman, Ottoman and British empires. It won't happen that way, under an administration lead by either candidate, but how much better the world would be if the United States of America would lead the world from the moral high ground instead of a bunker of our own design.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

The Good Old US of A

I have lived in the US (this time) for about two years. I can hardly believe it has been that long. So, I have started to reflect on the way of life here.

Every item of food here seems to come with sugar. Why is that? Why should bread have sugar? I opened a can of baked beans yesterday, only to discover that the can contained beans and brown sugar. In beans? It is really hard to find food that does not have sugar added. Orange juice, licorice, even hot dogs. At least there is a good use for the verbose labelling laws here. I can now spend an extra half hour per shopping run trying to find just food.

Toys used to be special, something to look forward to. They are now cheap, ubiquitous and made in China. Toys are disposable. That just can't be good for anyone. Except maybe the Chinese. For now.

I live in a nice neighborhood in a relatively distant suberb of Washington, DC. There is no public transportation here. No buses. I have waited hours for a taxi, only to finally give up. For the first time in ten years, we are a two-car family.

The people in my neighborhood come from all over the world. That is cool. People tend to tolerate cultural differences here in a way that much of the world could benefit from.

We tend to almost fill one trash bin per week. Our neighbors generally double that. We recycle here, as do about a quarter of our block. The recycling blows into the lake and it seems to be noboby's job to pick it up. We do it sometimes and a couple of others have started to do the same. There are few trees, because they all got mowed down when the houses were built. It will be a few years before they go back. Things grow slowly when they have to hibernate for half the year.

It seems like the economy is dominated by a few very large corporations. News broadcasting certainly is. There seem to be two book stores chains in any given area. Three supermarkets (the two old ones and a new one trying hard to kill the one not keeping up with the times). Some things you just can't buy unless you go to Wal-Mart, like kids sleds. Toys "R" Us told me that I had to go to a specially party store (or Wal-Mart) to buy certain items for my daughter's birthday party. The big companies have become bigger and they seem to be divding the market. Considering the source of innovation (small companies) and the historic drivers for the economy (small companies), this seems like a bad thing. I can't say that I am in any way better off by living in a society dominiated by large companies. How much farther will it go? My guess is that America's time in the economic sun is about over.

Overall, I like living here even though this has been quite a rant. I do wish that American society wasn't so wasteful and blind to the future.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Master Li and Number 10 Ox

I have been ill this weekend and have therefore been reading lighter
material than normal. I took the opportunity to re-read Barry
Hughart's excellent books Bridge of Birds and Eight Skilled Gentlemen. They are truly wonderful books and I am sorry that he does not plan to write more. He gave an interview where he blames his publishers for failing
to sell many copies, in spite of having won the World Fantasy Award.

He wrote another book in this series called The Story of the Stone, but
it is no longer being published. In spite of having read only a
handful of fantasy novels (these and some of Terry Pratchett's
Discworld series) I just ordered it from Amazon.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Prototypo and TBL

Prototypo and TBL
Prototypo and TBL,
originally uploaded by prototypo.
Sir Tim and prototypo at WWW 2004 (NYC).

Making Links

I would be horribly remiss if I didn't link to Paul Gearon's Working Notes about everybody's favorite RDF database, Kowari and Andrew Newman's More News, which I have relied upon for years.

Making the Semantic Web Viral

The Semantic Web has not undergone the explosion of users that caused the early World Wide Web to be successful. Why? The answer appears to be that individual Web authors do not have simple tools for the creation of semantic linkages between existing content. The barrier to entry is currently substantially higher than it was in the early Web.

These tools cannot yet be built because two preconditions do not yet exist; a means to link Web resources while retaining meaning about the intended relationships between resources and a means of navigating (via URL) between all types of Semantic Web resources, both concrete (Web) and abstract (RDF).

I think there are ways to solve both problems with existing technology. Part of the answer, though, lies in the standardization process.

The way I see it, Web links with semantics need an attribute on a hyperlink that defines the relationship between the resources. The XHTML 2.0 Working Draft adds a 'rel' attribute to links to accomplish this. Thanks to Mark Birbeck for proposing this very necessary extension. The draft is in Last Call, so anyone who wants to comment should get on it.

Short of waiting for XHTML 2.0 browser support, one could always fake the intended behavior with Javascript and a little imagination. Pick up the 'rel' attribute contents and pass them along to a server that knows what to do about it. I hope to have some time to try this so I can flesh out a paper for WWW 2005. It would be cool to go to Japan, since I haven't been there in many moons.

Once you have links with semantics, you need to provide a means of navigating from the existing Web to the more abstract space of RDF and back again. You can already link a Web page to another Web page, but what do you do when you want to link to a person? Representing people as email addresses or even FOAF files is weak, silly and just plain insufficient. People exist only in Meat Space and so have to be represented in Semantic Web Space by some non-trivial means. RDF & OWL already provide a great answer for this: A person object can exist that link to email addresses, FOAF and all the rest. Now we only need a way to navigate it via the Web.

There is more than one way to do that. First, one could point to a node in an RDF datastore by URI and a transformation (e.g. an RDF query, some XSLT and a stylesheet) could present a view of RDF Space as a Web resource (an XHTML page, for example, but this could take many forms). The same technique (minus the RDF database) could be used if the RDF is serialized in an RDF/XML document or is extractable from a document (e.g. via GRDDL.

It would also be cool to return RDF information into a Web page without generating a new page, such as a layer box that lists several pieces of information about a link. Back to Javascrip to go get the data from RDF Space and present it. This would provide multiple destinations for a given link! I think that is pretty cool.