Thursday, March 18, 2004

Still waiting for hypertext

It is amazing how quickly a month can go by! I have been busy in pretty much every regard, which is great but also tiresome. I have been doing a fair amount of reading and have good variety of concepts to comment on. I will do my best to get through as many as possible, but may have to break it up a bit or come back to things for greater detail in another post.

To start with there is the interesting work of Ted Nelson, the first theorist to define the terms hypertext and hypermedia. Ted Nelson (this is a different bio page) has made several efforts to influence how we access the mass information available today with marginal success. There is project Xanadu, originally founded in 1960 to bring the concept of true hypertext to reality.

I say true concept because hypertext as we know it today in regards to the Internet and HTML, is very much a misrepresentation of the idea. Remarkable as it is in its own right, today’s hypertext is really just the most simple and feasible means for bringing the Internet to life. Yet, after 40 years of advances in computing capabilities, the level it is at today means that a true hypertext source is easily within reach.

The demand for hypertext sources is also greater than ever. As information continues to grow in volume and complexity, the challenge of organizing it into useful forms will also grow. By transitioning to hypertext and hypermedia, we will be able to build a continually self organizing body of information that is completely interlinked. In whatever form the Global Mind comes about, I believe that the engine behind it will most definitely be based on a new generation of hypertext concepts.

The most remarkable part of looking at Ted Nelson’s ideas is that they stand in complete contrast to almost every recent technological development I have written about in this Blog. The Semantic Web, XML, and RSS are, in his terms, only further distortions of the hypertext concept. What is his assertion? Well you may want to read for yourself, but I believe my interpretation is reasonably accurate (at least in the abstract sense).

The problem with electronic media as we know it today is that it is simply a recreation of the material world within computers. Information is stored and accessed in a manner like file cabinets and bookshelves. We open “pages” that are all addressed and linked to a root hierarchy like those bound in a book. What is such an awful waste of the power of the computational world is the fact that the linking is one way. While a root structure is necessary in the real world, it is relatively meaningless to the virtual world.

For example, in the real world you can’t have a library that is simply stacks and stacks of paper with no particular order or location. You have to put the information in order on pages, in books, on shelves, in sections, etc. Yet in the virtual world, this boundary can be relaxed if you make the linking both ways. What does that mean? Well the way I see it is that with everything linked both ways you essentially have a network of continually growing loops. If everything is connected to everything through these loops, you can now pick up any page and then move to any other page in the source. No address needed!

This is definitely a difficult concept to visualize in terms of media, but think now of people instead. Most of us are familiar with the concept of 7 degrees of separation, but for those of you that aren’t it basically means that any two individuals in a connected society can be linked together through 7 or less people. An example might be me and Bill Clinton: I have a friend, whose uncle, whose neighbor, whose daughter’s college friend knows Bill Clinton. Yet if we looked at the hierarchy of our families we would not likely be connected till ancient times if at all.

Societies have two way links. We not only know our families (source) we also meet and form connections to other sources. While this abstract concept may now be more clear to me (and hopefully you), I still don’t quite see how it translates into the current world of computers. I will continue to read and maybe track down a working prototype of the concept. Something such as Ted Nelson’s ZigZag might be just that. It is hard to find anything that is definitely up to date. While he may be brilliant, he certainly seems disorganized!

If you come across any dead links, search for them on the Wayback Machine on the Internet Archive site. Another interesting project out there!

While this post is quickly growing out of control, I do want to post on something else so that everyone knows I haven’t gone off the deep end on the concepts proposed by Ted Nelson. I am a very cautious man. I enjoy the insights of a wide variety of views and models of the world we live in, but I have yet to be convinced that there will ever be a complete single basis.

Anyways, the site of interest is the Vivisimo Clustering Engine. It is basically an automated method for organizing search results with the intention of making the search more effective. For example I could search for my 1991 Honda Accord and be given the choice to look at results that are in the category of Parts, Sales, Reviews, etc. While the concept is not completely novel, the automation of it is more unique and interesting. The Yahoo Directory was probably the original example of Internet search categorization. While I don’t know how automated the process was for them, I do believe it required a fair amount of human involvement, i.e. site owners registering with it in the proper categories.

Alright, this post has grown monstrous and my mind is quickly fading. Things are finally starting to fall in place in my life so hopefully I will be able to get back to being more diligent and brief with my posts!

Thursday, February 19, 2004

A language more complicated than words

Ok, so this Blog is growing cobwebs. I do have a lot to show for it at least. I’m about to finish up my second week at my new job at Aptima, Inc. I landed a position in the modeling and simulation group and get to actually use my major to do work. Imagine that!

I’m staying with friends for now, which is ok, but I miss my wife. Hopefully we’ll be able to be all moved up here by the beginning of March. It is odd how slow life can be sometimes and then just take off.

Anyway, I haven’t had much time to think about my project. In some respects just learning more in my profession is a good start, but at the same time I don’t want to let things fall off. Life will not likely slow down that much even after I’ve settled into my job and we have a new place to live.

Not having much time to think about the project also means that I haven’t had much time to do any reading. I’m afraid this post will be pretty bland, but I couldn’t see putting it off any longer.

One thing that has really struck me since I started this job is that there is certainly no shortage of approaches to complexity. Yet this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Diversity is good, yet it can also dilute the world of knowledge. In the academic world I primarily see diversity as promoting innovation and the desire to expand our knowledge of the universe and ourselves. Yet, in the personal world, sometimes our own desire for self importance gets in the way.

I write the following as general observation of a specific group of academic and professional researchers. I am by no means writing about any specific individual. With that said, a feeling that is becoming common to me when I meet someone who is obviously brilliant is that they feel the need to somehow prove it to me. Isn’t it ironic that you could be incredibly intelligent and yet not know that trying to prove it to others is a futile task? People will think what they want regardless of how unique your ideas are. In fact, sometime the more you try to point out your own individuality and creativity, the more people dismiss you.

Sometimes it is even worse. In a sad attempt to promote our own self images we go and further dilute the world of knowledge by taking something that is really not that unique and putting on a fancy new layer. We’ll add some layer that may look cool but really adds nothing to the concept. Being aware of this tendency I am terrified of falling into the same trap. In fact, what sincerely most interests me about the idea of a Global Mind is the potential for removing all the fancy shrouds we have built around knowledge.

When I look at all the dogma and countless professional jargons isolating completely related concepts it makes me a bit uncomfortable. Will our desire to feel important continue to fraction the world of knowledge, or will we someday come full circle and tear it all down to form a common base of understanding?

Some of my job is involved with the military, which brings a whole new meaning to the definition of jargon. I have come across 800 page documents with a 20 page appendix just to define the acronyms! Come on! Do you really save that much time by shortening three and four words to their first letters? Some sentences in the reports are completely nonsensical having more acronyms than real words! Of course it is completely logical when you look at the objective of such work. The goal of a military like ours is to ascertain, command, and control outcomes through the use of force and power. The control of power implies that energy be concentrated and placed into the hands of a few. Therefore one of the reasons new names and acronyms are coined is to help keep power within the ranks of military control.

Okay, this has turned into a bit of an obnoxious rant, but I believe that it often helps to just let it out to get over particularly long lasting frustration. I sometimes feel like it is all some twisted power trip that mankind has cursed itself with to make knowledge more difficult and distant from one another. I know as I work on this project it will be like battling the tide to try and return knowledge to its most elemental form.

Of course we will still need jargon to expand upon the complexity of our understanding, but it does not have to be based entirely upon it! Somewhere in even the most complex of problems there is a simple foundation for understanding. I just hope that somehow I can help us return to it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

The roots of a global mind?

Well I have been slacking a little lately as far as the Blog is concerned, but I have been quite busy otherwise. The GRE is behind me now and while it would have been more ideal to do better on the verbal, I’m quite satisfied with my analytical. I also expect my essays (once they are graded) to be satisfactory for a science oriented education. Especially when you consider that I only had three solid days to study!

I also had an interview that I’m quite excited about, which means I may have found a way to make a living till I start a graduate program. I’ve felt good about an interview before, however, so I will continue to search for other jobs.

I met with professors again to talk about graduate possibilities. One had good news as far as funding potential, but another believed that he was not the best individual to assist with my program. I appreciated the honesty, as I truly do not want someone to simply sign off on the work I end up doing. I’d much rather have someone that is keenly interested in what I’m doing and who is willing to put some personal stake in the outcome of my project. Not all was lost either since he made some suggestions of others who might be better suited to advise me.

The next task nearing deadline is my application to the graduate program. I intend to have it ready to submit by this coming Thursday, which should not be difficult since it is nearly complete. Yet, I’m not very satisfied with my program description. While I expect the most important thing is to have the interest of faculty, I still feel that my application should be solid enough to be accepted on its own merits.

The main problem is that I’m being fairly general. I give an example for what I could do, but do not want to commit to it. The example is basically an extension of my Major Qualifying Project on terrorism, which is certainly a very pressing topic, but I find myself somewhat reluctant. I’m not sure if it’s that I don’t want to ride on the coattails of my previous work, or if there is just something else more pressing that I want to work on. There is certainly a great deal of funding out there for work on terrorism, but I also know that there are plenty of other potential sources.

To get more specific I will likely have to begin formally working out some concepts. If not on this website, then at least on my own. Those that wish to help me in working through some of the details certainly know how to reach me.

Well enough boring blather, what else have I been reading about? Since learning about the philosophy of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin the term he coined, noosphere, has turned up some additional interesting information. One that provides an unique collection of links and background is The Integration Website, which wishes to co-develop the noosphere. It is a site that presents a predominately spiritual, artistic, and psychological thread to exploring the potential of a Global Mind. Created by Kris Roose The Integration Website provides yet another affirmation of the thoughts and feelings leading me on this project.

What is most interesting to me about all these searches are the variety of contexts turned up by using different keywords to search for a single concept. Of course when you look at the history of each keyword it is really quite logical where the differences come from. At the same time, I have yet to find a site that actively attempts to dissolve these differences. For example if you search for Metaweb and then for Noosphere the sites that turn up are, for the most part, remarkably different in the content they deliver.

What is more is that I’m only scratching the surface! Artificial Intelligence (AI) is yet another parallel to this thread. While it is perhaps a close relative to Cybernetics there are plenty of people out there that advocate AI as the ideal name for the trend towards emulating human intelligence in a machine. So who will win? Perhaps we all will, but I can’t help but think that there would be a great benefit to providing a more universal perspective to this task.

Diversity is certainly a clear force behind such innovation, yet collaboration is perhaps the most fundamental to making innovation widespread and practical. Nova Spivack may also be experiencing this frustration in his posting Every Revolution Needs a Name: The Metaweb, yet he is still only advocating for a name to a specific step in the process. I have settled on the Global Mind not because of any inherent ownership value, but rather because to me it says in plain English, what we are all working towards.

The mind contains all of our concepts of both spirituality and logicality. A Global Mind would then be an ultimate example of our consistent attempt to extend ourselves beyond the individual. We give lectures, write books, and post web logs, if we are not trying to create a Global Mind, then what is it that we are really trying to do with all this information?

This post has turned into somewhat of a rant, I apologize. So what am I going to do different in my project to make my point? That is perhaps the real question I will have to answer. It won’t necessarily matter what topic I end up choosing for my project. Instead it will likely be the process in which I present it that will make it my very own unique contribution.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

Progress

After a little checking and $110 later I am now registered to take the GRE on Wednesday the 21st. While it would certainly be more ideal to have additional time to study, I have little choice in order to meet the deadline of my applications. My getting into a graduate program is not necessarily contingent on me having GRE scores, yet a number of fellowships will be. I’m not certain if my scores will be good enough, and there is little I can do in this time-frame to change them, but I figured that a paid education was worth taking the chance. My applications are nearly complete and are simply waiting for my last essay. I need a description of my program goals.

At this point it is obvious to me, and I’m sure becoming so for you readers as well, that my area of interest is far too large to pack into a graduate program. Even a Ph.D. program, though I do know of one individual that took over a decade to complete his! I don’t think my wife would be able to go along with that ;-).

So what in the world does System Dynamics have to do with a Global Mind? I’ve been asking myself this question incessantly, and while the specifics have been a little fuzzy I am starting see the connection. I’m afraid that I can’t talk about these details on a public Blog just yet, but once my ideas are part of a program, I’m sure it will be safer to publish.

Yet to aid in my own process, and to give those of you that are actually somewhat interested in some ammunition for providing me feedback, I will talk more about existing parallels. Principia Cybernetica Web is a rather unique project that started in 1989 that looks to help develop the very theory and philosophy behind a semantic network and other cybernetic technologies. I first came across this site as the result of a posting on the System Dynamics list serve that responded to a query about peoples’ favorite books and papers on system science. One of the individuals included a number of references to cybernetics, which was something that I had previously assumed was simply a popular science fiction term and not a real discipline. After a quick search, it became clear that Principia Cybernetica was indeed an interesting resource of a truly academic nature.

It’s not just about cybernetics though, and actually has a refreshing description of System Science. What is more, is how the site is organized and maintained. Some of it is very much like a Blog with user feedback enabled. Yet it also includes a unique user interface, and is designed to adapt itself in response to how it is accessed. Of course while Blogs are just now becoming popular, this was all started back in 1993 when the project was first implemented on the web!

There is also a fair amount of philosophy laid out, which is again interesting and stimulating, but begins to lead off-topic for my project. Like in my previous post, such information is useful, however, I don’t intend to answer any age old questions like “why are we here?” in my study.

As I've accessed these sites and read about useful technologies, I've started to recognize a patterned and systemic problem to each. It is with this issue that I hope my experience in System Dynamics will be of value. I would be glad to talk more about this in person with anyone who simply can’t wait, ha, ha. Until my idea is somewhat protected, the rest of you will just have to be happy with reading about whatever it is I’m working on!

Thursday, January 15, 2004

An idea older than expected

I have begun to take care of some of the formal work for applying to a graduate program and fellowships. I have contacted a number of people about letters of recommendation and have started filling out all the forms. I took a practice GRE and will take another at the beginning of next week, after studying more.

Since I would not be starting till the Fall, I am still left with the dilemma of making a living in the short term. I am hopeful that a internship will come through to provide some good experience before my return to academia, but nothing is certain at this point.

I have started to receive more feedback about the Global Mind concepts from people that I’m sharing this site with. I was sent an article written by Jennifer Cobb Kreisberg of the Institute for Global Communications about the philosophy of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, an obscure Jesuit priest, who described A Globe, Clothing Itself with a Brain. What is so fascinating to me about this article is that Teilhard arrived at a very similar concept through such completely different life experiences and before such technology seemed even reasonable. His writings span from the 1920s to the 1950s and were largely rejected at the time!

Instead of through a purely scientific process, Teilhard examines the spiritual compliment of what is certainly a large and revolutionary idea. I am certain that there are many people that are uncomfortable with the idea of a Global Mind wielding a powerful amount of knowledge over the web. While a primarily rational person may not understand this fear or discomfort, I think this is a very natural response for those in between logical and mythical perceptions of the world.

To regain the spiritual component of science Kreisberg described Teilhard’s theory of radial and tangential energy. In this theory, radial energy is all that which is discernable in the physical world. In other words, everything that we see, measure, and create models of understanding for. From nuclear and chemical reactions, to cosmic and spatial theories, the world of radial energy can be logically interpreted and described.

In contrast, Teilhard’s tangential energy may be described as a “spiritual force” that does not exist in any physically measurable way, but rather it is phenomenon manifested through the actions of living organisms. Put another way, tangential energy represents the tendency of living organisms to behave in a manner that is inconsistent with physical rules. The most advanced form of tangential energy was therefore consciousness.

He was describing what he believed was the divine spark, a term often defined as the remnant of the light of God in the religious world. Furthermore Teilhard used the idea of increases in tangential energy to link consciousness to complexity to form “the law of complexity consciousness.” This law claimed that increases in consciousness were related to increases in the complexity of tangential energy.

Wow, what a different perspective. So what does any of this have to do with a Global Mind or the technologies related to it? Nothing practical, but it certainly is the beginnings of a potentially self-fulfilling prophesy! Whether people believe in it or not, trends in information sharing seem to lead to an entity that is similar to Teilhard’s “thinking layer” of the biosphere. What I am calling the Global Mind, some might call the Semantic Web or Metaweb, Teilhard called the noosphere. Noo, being the Greek word for mind.

Some groups like Princeton’s Global Consciousness Project are even trying to measure this force leading towards a global conscious. While I am primarily interested in seeing the practical and deliberate development of a Global Mind, a significant part of me is drawn towards the spiritual implications as well.

To link back to what I started with, I believe that a large number of people will be uncomfortable with the concept of a Global Mind for reasons beyond the logistics of such a large project. In these instances I want to be ready to answer some of the more personally spiritual questions in addition to the academic ones posed. Such an intersection seems quite inevitable to me.

Monday, January 12, 2004

The evolving web

Last Thursday I met with several friends to talk about this project and the graduate research potential. It was a good exercise in several respects. I had the chance to further describe the concepts using different approaches. And it also led me to define more specific projects for starting points.

Overall I think my ideas were well received. All agreed that it was certainly broad and promising to be complicated, yet I don’t believe anyone doubted that a related project could be done. There are a number of different options for me to make a living, and I will most likely have to approach them all before securing income.

I do have some immediate tasks that need to be done. Several fellowship applications need to be in by February, which means I will need to take the Graduate Record Exam in the next week or so. Fortunately, computer versions are the norm and they can be taken year round.

I’ve continued my searches for related organizations and technology and discovering that my visualization of Global Mind concepts is more common than expected. While I have arrived at the idea through my own education and experiences, others have envisioned similar potentials as far back as 1945. Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” envisioned a human aid that would put a wealth of useful and easily accessible information at our fingertips.

Similarly, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web and founder of the World Wide Web Consortium is promoting changes to create a Semantic Web. The Semantic Web is yet another term described as a web comprised of machine understandable data. In other words, in a Semantic Web, data and the applications for accessing it are designed to work together to provide higher quality information.

For example when you do a search on Google for “Bruce Skarin”, you might find some information about me. Yet, even though my name is quite unique, you are also bound to find information about different Bruce Skarins in the world. Myself knowing what information is correct can, filter out all the others so that only my info remains (like this), yet I cannot guarantee that it will always work and may be eliminating relevant data. In a Semantic Web, I will be able to provide you with a search function that finds every bit of information about me, exclusively, for an indefinite amount of time.

There is of course more to the Semantic Web, and more to what it would provide, but I am just learning myself. Mostly, I am again pleasantly surprised to learn that I live in a time where the technology for a Global Mind is really starting to take shape.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Specializing in nothing particular

There are additional sites and concepts that support the structure I see behind a Global Mind. First there is, ironically enough, The Global Mind Project. The site seems to have been a venture in 1997 that was perhaps ahead of its time. I will be inquiring into the status of the project as my own begins to take shape.

The work of my new favorite programming author, Bruce Eckle is also a unique example of collaborative knowledge creation. His reasons for putting his books up on the web reflect an intriguing view of how to teach a concept. Instead of relying only on the opinions of a select few regarding the clarity of a concept, Bruce Eckle receives feedback from a growing number of participants. This powerful feedback process will not only improve the quality of the instruction, but also the diversity. Not everyone understands a concept through identical logics.

A good example is the differences between some of my friends. Two of my friends in particular are incredible visualists. They can see an assembly in their minds from a pile of parts that I struggle to understand as a finished assembly. Another friend has a way with words so that nearly everything he says sounds as if it came straight out of a book. And other friends can visualize problems in numbers or programming code that I would need to sit down and work out.

We all have our strengths in learning and surprisingly, most problems can be examined in more than one medium. For a beginning however, the medium should be simple and in plain language. Too often we each get lost in our own professional terminology and dogma. Even the concept of a Global Mind has its own share of new terms. Like Metaweb, RSS, RDF, and Microcontent and Macrocontent.

I’m not saying that there is no need for new terminology creation. In fact it is this very process that helps professionals in the field to distinguish new and different concepts from similar existing ones. Yet for crossover from different fields to exist there must be a simplified explanation.

I am coming to realize that I’m not really a specialist in any particular field, but rather marginally talented in many. As a result, I am hoping that it will be possible for me to become proficient in many areas and fluent in none, without being completely useless to the practical world. My usefulness might then be as a mediator between different professions, linking ideas and technology that can lead to the Global Mind. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Representing knowledge in its many forms

To start with I need to clarify for myself and for anyone else interested what both the broad goal and the specific starting goal are. It will be key for me to find my own unique way to do very deliberate work towards developing the concept.

I say very deliberate, because in many respects the project is already under way. The advances in information storing, sorting, and relaying over the Internet have already spawned several generations of "intelligence". In fact Weblogs (Blog for short) like this one capitalize on many of the new technologies developed to make information more dynamic and useful.

Nova Spivack's Blog has been fairly stimulating to me, but may not appeal to everyone interested in what I want start with. I hope to draw upon my System Dynamics experience, which I majored in at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

The broad goal is to use System Dynamics and other concepts and technologies for managing complexity to create the initial access layers of a system that is capable of presenting the growing collective knowledge in the world in a manner that is consistent and understandable to anyone.

What will make this system so unique is that it will learn to teach each individual accessing it in the manner that is best for them. What I think is one of the key failures in todays information exchanges is that there is very limited access between different professions, generations, and cultures.

For example, a child has a general idea about math that can at least provide a basis for understanding increases or decreases in the world around them. Yet if he were presented with a calculus equation or even description of one, he would be utterly lost. In fact, many adults would still be utterly lost, but this does not mean that they are incapable of understanding the function. Rather, if the function were expressed differently, say in the form of a chart, graph, or animation, they could understand at least the concept it is representing.

I believe that System Dynamics can help in this respect by aiding in the development of both a model structure for organizing the information as well as a model that adapts itself to individual learning styles. Some adaptive learning work is also already being done. Most recently I came across Ms. Lindquist, an online tutoring system that adapts to individual progress, providing feedback that is more than just the solution to the problem.

The more I search, the more I find. It seems to me that the required technology is already well under way. I just have to find a place where I fit in.

Monday, January 05, 2004

In the beginning...

The description says it all right now. I have no idea what direction this will be going. I'm looking at graduate projects, existing organizations, and independent consulting. Links to what the global mind might be or already is will be posted.