Just Shelley

How we deal with death is a reflection of how we view life

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Slashdot has a story about a car accident involving a small group of people driving to Paris from the SANE 2004 conference. Richard Stallman, the leading open source advocate had been in the car but had been dropped off earlier. Unfortunately, a young man, Hans Bakker was killed, and the other two in the car seriously injured.

Much of the Slashdot thread is condolences to the family, but there is the usual Slashdot irreverence to events, the dark humor, and to anything that the readers consider ‘phony’. There is something merciless about being anonymous, but oddly, there’s something honest, too. Overall the thread touches, greatly, on how we respond to the deaths of others, especially those people who we don’t know, directly.

Dave Rogers had written a comment in one of my posts in response to another person who brought up the 3000 killed on 9/11 that I think fits this event in a way (I hope, Dave, you don’t mind the association) and is worth bringing to the front page. Excerpted from the entire comment is the following:

Everybody dies. I just read an article on CNN about flu vaccinations coming out next month for the upcoming flu season. The article mentions that about 36,000 Americans will die this year, as they do pretty much every year, from the flu. Where’s the multi-billion dollar effort in public health improvements to mitigate the loss of life from the flu? “Ah,” you say, “You poor deluded fool, those are natural deaths. Nothing we can do abut that. Regrettable and all that, but it’s not the same thing as terrorism!”

I grow tired of mentioning that about 45 thousand Americans will die in automobile accidents this year. About 16 thousand Americans will be murdered by other Americans this year. And about that same number of Americans will kill themselves. Somehow that all just seems to be part of the cost of doing business to everyone except the people who loved them.

Everybody gets to die. Not everybody gets to choose how or when, except perhaps for those poor, desperate 16 thousand that take their own lives, but everybody gets to die. Not everybody gets to live. Not when they choose to live their lives in fear.

But when 3 thousand Americans are killed in a terrorist act, which might otherwise be termed 21st century barbarian street theater, well, then we have to go and do something!

There’s no overstating the horror of 9/11. But there is the possibility, which has long since become the reality, of turning it into a fetish, an obsession, and an excuse.

Dying is easy. Living is hard. Everybody gets to die. Not everybody gets to live. There’s a danger in paying so much attention to the deaths of a relative few, however horrifying, that we lose sight of what it means to live. There’s more to life than the fear of death. There’s more to living than trying to protect yourself by killing others; or endorsing and supporting the killing of others. Living in fear makes people do terrible things, and no one is immune to that – not “them,” not “us.” But living is hard. Living life in faith is harder still.

Dying is easy. Living is hard. Everybody gets to die. Not everybody gets to live.

I’ve been trying to write a post on how not choosing to die is not the same as choosing to live. It reflects much of what’s been going on in my life, and the lives of my family; it also touches on two young men, webloggers, who when faced with life and death, chose death. But I haven’t been able to finish the writing because I’m still waiting on the denouement.

Until then, ponder Dave’s very compelling words, and read the comments at Slashdot. If the discussion there has ‘degenerated’ into the usual quarrel as it always does with this site, there is still much food for thought.


Submission dues (or is that dux or ducks?)

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

I threw caution to the wind and submitted my carefully crafted session proposal to O’Reilly for ETech. I thought about posting it here, but is that bad luck, or poor taste?

Regardless, I will tease you and tell you that is is very complementary to what Sir Tim really wants but doesn’t know it yet. He looks for a revolution and Great Things and a crescendo of meaning; the rest of us just want to find things.

Silly things.


What is he talking about?

I’m not stupid and I know all the technologies and people referenced, but I read this recent article by Steve Gillmor and I haven’t the foggiest what he’s trying to communicate.

He begins about the recent fooflah with Robert Scoble and the attack of the 50 foot syndication feed, using this to launch a tirade against timed updates of syndication feeds. From there, though, he travels many odd and strangely branded paths, flowing eerily from Firefox terrorizing Office, to aggregators all timed to check for updates at the same time bringing down the internet, and finally to Adam Curry’s golden-locked croon through an iPod.

Throughout his article what Gillmor seems to be doing is trying to establish an argument that syndication feeds based on RSS need to be realtime. If this is so, then what is the relationship of the following to this premise, other than a gratuitous swipe at Microsoft for Scoble daring to be critical of RSS?

The rewards for adopting the RSS model are greater for those who lag in the current online economy. By contrast, Microsoft has little apparent incentive to destabilize Office by extending the free browser to support not just content aggregation but creation. Yet that is exactly what the competition is moving toward: an RSS console that automates the capture, consumption, and routing of strategic information.

Rather than the polling of the pull model of syndication feeds, Gillmor pushes for P2P feeds based on the BitTorrent model of using networked peers to handle the loads. In this model you ‘earn’ download time by donating an equivalent upload time. In other words, you get a stream of data equivalent to donated bandwidth. Well, cool. Of course, this only requires that everyone who subscribes to a syndicated feed now agree to be a part of a P2P network. And understands what that means. And that this works within the current weblog publishing model, where over half of webloggers don’t publish to their own servers, any may not even use their own computers to access feeds through Bloglines. And may be accessing these feeds from their phones. And…

Strategic considerations aside, Gillmore trips onto the iPod platform as an example of on-demand stream I assume, and from there segues into a confusing mish-mash of names and applications that have little relation to each other–other than they’re going to replace TV and Radio and a bunch of middle aged guys with too much money and way too much ego can finally have their own shows in both mediums.

Or as Snappy the Clam states:

See how many gladhanding, namedropping shoutouts you can find in this latest conflict-ridden (now with no disclosure!) advertorial puffball from RSS cheerleader and “tech journalist” Steve Gillmor.

Exploring new ways of delivering feeds is a good thing and should be applauded, but not at the expense of losing one’s independence from the blackhole that the RSS 2.0 community seems to be at times. Most importantly, regardless of the mechanisms involved syndication technology needs to be accessible by those who don’t live and breath RSS.

(And did I happen to mention that RSS is first and foremost just a specification for a syndication feed? Not a cure for the common cold? And that it won’t solve world hunger?)


Browser Dux or Deus or Duck?

In comments Dylan writes about having a visual RDF browser, …it would seem that a RDF Browser would be useful in traversing different distributed data as you follow connections and learn new information.. Danny Ayers also responded with:

If I have your Poet Vocabulary plugin for my browser, whenever I encounter material containing appropriate terms from that vocab those parts of the screen will go sepia-tinted and slightly out of focus.

I rather like that myself. Except not out of focus, let’s have the words pulse, as if they’re the beat of a heart of a new born bird. Or some such thing.

Sigh. How semantical.

They both do have a good point if you consider the visual tools that have been available for relational data models for years. I can’t remember the first tool I used, but the modeling technique was known as IDEF0, following an Air Force requirement.

In this technique, independent data objects were square cornered, but dependent objects were curved. Arrows were drawn to represent the relationships between the objects, and the key columns were highlighted above a solid line within the boxes. Categories had a circle above a couple of bars.

Models allowed us to look at the data and its relationships with each other, and helped us identify dependencies, as well as missing data. Typically, we would define the model to a particular normalized form, and then denormalize it for performance. In both cases, we’d create data models so that we could show a mapping for this conversion.

A key difference, though, between RDF and relational data, is that the meta-data to drive a data model is included with the data itself, so a model could actually be automatically generated from the same database that contained the data. RDF, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily provide the meta information included within the same source as the data. The RDF namespace should have a defined schema, and this schema should provide this meta information – but there’s no guarantee this is accessible.

Still, as BrownSauce demonstrates, much about the model can be defined from what can be found, and if there’s enough to display nicely as HTML, there’s no reason that we can’t draw a bubble. Or a box, if we’re so inclined. But then that gets us back to my original question: would we want to?

One of the keys to understanding the RDF data is to have good text definitions to go with the objects so that we know what the data is all about. Unlike with our IDEF0 efforts, when we had a fairly good idea of the business context, an RDF/XML file (or other format if you’re a picky purist) is out there on the web, just hanging around and if you don’t know the context (i.e. “This is my FOAF file”), you need good definitions associated with the objects. A visual model won’t help with this, thought BrownSauce, with its text extrapolation is very helpful.

But there are those times when we start looking at merging data from the same or even dissimilar schemas, where a visualization could be a handy bugger. But it’s also much tricker than IDEF0. You see, a IDEF0 model has a basic functionality and purpose and the relationships between objects are very well known. The same can’t be said about any relationships between data discovered out on the web.

It’s not that the visualization can’t be done, but when it is done, it may not add value or useful information. Somewhat like a FOAF file for a person who claims five hundred people as close, personal friends – visualizing this, even to one or two levels will be impossible, and meaningless.

Probably about as meaningless as a friendship with someone who can claim 500 friends…and counting.

However, it could be a fun project, with interesting results. I’m always up for new toys. So who’s going to do it?

outdoors People Photography Places

Fighting Failure

All indications say that the fall colors this year will be muted compared to last year. I can see this already when I go out for a walk — too many leaves just dying without that final burst of color, falling to the ground as damp, dark shapeless lumps. But it’s still a bit early in the season for Missouri, so I have hopes.

I thought the monarch butterflies might be out and visited Shaw today to get butterfly pictures, but most of the flowers had already started to fade and the butterflies mostly gone. However, I was exceptionally lucky to have spotted some of the brilliantly colored prairie gentian. Or at least, I think it’s the prairie gentian. Whatever it is, it’s a lovely, delicate, beautifully colored flower–a rara avis in the plant world.

Though I could find no butterflies, there were caterpillars out and about, and I had to keep a sharp eye out when driving to not run over any. When I was walking around the lake, I saw one fine, fat fellow walking down the exact center of the road — not from side to side, like others I’d seen; right down the middle, as if he hadn’t a care in the world.

He was crawling fast, too, and I had a hard time getting his photo without too much motion blur in the background. But then, motion blur with a caterpillar works, don’t you think? Like a cosmic giggle.

I left my fair butterfly-to-be and tried the prairie near the visitor center in hopes of spotting one monarch, but the most I saw were bees, more bees, and some other odds and ends of flowers on their last legs. I was extremely pleased to see that I’ve lost most of my phobia of bees and can now walk among them without fear; a few years back, I’d have run screaming from the area. But I’ve been bitten by so many things this year, a bee sting would have all the familiarity of an old friend who says painful things for your own good.

(For instance, this last week I received two identical bites, one on my upper back, right in the middle; the other under my bra on my right side. Not ticks, because the little bite marks are too big. Who knows what got me this time, it’s becoming a running joke in my home, “Eh, I’m off to feed the critters, again.” My roommate estimates that I’ve become an important part of the Missouri ecosystem. It’s reassuring to know that, no matter what else, one is always good enough for the bugs.)

When faced with the nothingness of the butterfly garden filled with bees, I was reminded of my enthusiasm with existentialism lately and my wonderful new discovery that Jean-Paul Sartre wanted to write a cookbook. Yes, indeed, he was the ultimate foodie, I kid you not. Following is an entry in his diary, which provides a recipe for tuna casserole ala void:

October 10

I find myself trying ever more radical interpretations of traditional dishes, in an effort to somehow express the void I feel so acutely. Today I tried this recipe:

Tuna Casserole

Ingredients: 1 large casserole dish

Place the casserole dish in a cold oven. Place a chair facing the oven and sit in it forever. Think about how hungry you are. When night falls, do not turn on the light.

While a void is expressed in this recipe, I am struck by its inapplicability to the bourgeois lifestyle. How can the eater recognize that the food denied him is a tuna casserole and not some other dish? I am becoming more and more frustrated.

When you are an artist, how frustrating, indeed, to deal with those who lack the discernment to see that the emptiness that surrounds them is a tuna casserole; they persist in smelling goulash.

Back from the bees to the road again and my friend, the caterpillar, and it’s onward march down the exact center of the road. Moved by what, I don’t know–probably visions of tuna casserole–I put my foot in front the caterpillar, curious as to what it would do when faced with an obstacle.

It stopped dead and touched my shoe carefully, as if trying to figure out what it was. It started to crawl to the right, stopped, then crawled a little to the left. Finally, it climbed onto my shoe.

It climbed a little way forward and encountered the ridge where my sole meets the upper, and stopped again. Eventually, it followed the ridge around the shoe to the other side, but rather than get off, it just kept following the ridge, round and round my shoe. If I had not grown tired and sad for the little bug, it would probably still be circling my shoe now, on my foot under the table as I type these words.

Instead, I walked to the side of the road and among the the tall grasses, stamped on the ground with my shoe, gently, until the caterpillar fell off into the plants. It happily went on its way, I imagine to find the prairie gentian to eat.

One final entry from the Sartre cookbook:

October 25

I have been forced to abandon the project of producing an entire cookbook. Rather, I now seek a single recipe which will, by itself, embody the plight of man in a world ruled by an unfeeling God, as well as providing the eater with at least one ingredient from each of the four basic food groups. To this end, I purchased six hundred pounds of foodstuffs from the corner grocery and locked myself in the kitchen, refusing to admit anyone. After several weeks of work, I produced a recipe calling for two eggs, half a cup of flour, four tons of beef, and a leek. While this is a start, I am afraid I still have much work ahead.