Semantic, a big big love

August 24, 2007

As digital environments grow in sophistication and scope I sense a complementary resurgence of interest in our natural environments as well. Yet ironically features of rampant biodiversity that once survived in tandem with humanity now survive largely in spite of it; many such systems are joining an ever-longer queue to stand in topographic isolation, victims of profligate waste, consumerism or cultivated mono-agricultures. As one example: “The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 6,000 varieties of apple trees have been lost since 1900.” To that end, I feel as though any time we can better understand even a fraction of a natural holistic system then we are closer to holding such losses at bay.

There is an unspoken positive side to over-saturation with media, a learning curve that accompanies the environment of selectivity afforded to all of us through technology. For me it comes down several key concepts: organized selectivity, interoperability, a simple design/interface, and ideally uses open-source coding/is free for users to alter. It can be as simple as the Site Search feature that Gigablast offers through its web search interface, where anyone can create a web search box for a blog or site that limits itself to a select pool of (up to) 200 web pages or files, potentially offering greater depth and authority to a guided web search. Or it can be as complex as Google Earth, where a free download allows anyone to view satellite images of any location worldwide

Organization continues to be difficult to achieve, and the reasons for this are stupefying in their complexity. Perhaps the simplest expression of these problems is the lack of a standard for archival and descriptive metadata. And that doesn’t even cover the problems associated with search terms themselves, where a search for buddha can summon results which encompass religion, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, Osamu Tezuka, films such as Little Buddha, Buddha, or The Light of Asia, Herman Hesse, marijuana, Buddha Bar, meditation, Buddha-Heads, amulets, university and college curricula, etc etc etc.

Many of you probably already know I am referring in part to what Tim Berners-Lee called the Semantic Web. Numerous start-ups and seasoned web veterans are fast at work on developing protocols for just such a machine readable global database. In fact, this year there already are or will be several beta versions from hopeful Semantic Web wranglers; Radar Networks, TextDigger, Theseus in Germany and many many others. W3C has a dedicated Semantic Web Activity News blog that is worth subscribing to just for its window into the official side of things, with technical specs, links to rules for interoperability and notes on large-scale projects.

There is an article in the August 2007 issue of MIT’s Technology Review that inspired these thoughts, seemingly written for a budding librarian obsessed with modern systems of digital and material archiving. Second Earth by Wade Roush is essentially a current assessment of the ways in which we are realizing the Metaverse described in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, or rather the Mirror Worlds hypothesized by David Gerlenter in his eponymous book of 1991. He traces the development of both Linden Lab’s Second Life as well as the wildly popular application Google Earth, and imagines the impact of viable synthesis of the two digital exo-systems.

Imagining an environment that truly simulates the Earth is far easier than realizing it. The estimated computational load alone would necessitate the dedication of, say, the surface of the moon to such a project. As Roush notes, “At one region [65,536-square-meter chunk of topographic architecture] per server, simulating just the 29.2 percent of the planet’s surface that’s dry land would require 2.5 billion servers and 150 dedicated nuclear power plants to keep them running. It’s the kind of system that doesn’t ‘scale well’.”

Regional weather tracking is one enticing reality, as is‘s 3-D flight tracking digital transparency for use with Google Earth. Cyber-tourism is also an intriguing possibility, helping to reduce environmental damage to fragile or endangered locations much in the way that digitization of medieval manuscripts has already done. Some cities are realizing this and Amsterdam for one has provided architectural specifications to Second Life to make visitor’s trips more realistic; Germany supplied plans and images for Berlin’s Reichstag building which now can be visited in exceptional detail by Second Lifers.

“It’s the wiring of the entire world, without the wires: tiny radio-connected sensor chips are being attached to everything worth monitoring, including bridges, ventilation systems, light fixtures, mousetraps, shipping pallets, battlefield equipment, even the human body” Even knee surgery is being improved by such sensors; three micro-sensors are inserted about the knee and GPS triangulation helps the surgeon to avoid unnecessary incisions and invasive exploration, reducing both the number of surgeries (which can be many for a knee) and an outpatient’s convalescence.

When I can ignore my skepticism and paranoia I am enchanted by the possibilities, and a small measure of my hope for humanity is restored.  As I said, I have faith in the Big Picture, and the more respect for co-dependent systems we have the closer we come to achieving a sound balance. A friend recently alerted me to Worldmapper, and their beautiful cartographic treasures seem aligned with the emerging Mirror World and with improved Semantic Web capabilities.

Through 366 world maps you are given an idiot’s guide to various global statistics, just by varying the size of geographical regions to reflect raw numbers. For example:

Want to see where people watch the most films?


How about what regions import the most fish and fish products?


Or how about regions with the most forest depletion?


It’s unbelievable, the hypnotic range of cartograms you can find on this site, each with a detailed explanation, citations and even downloadable .pdfs for you to print out and use in any way you wish. Maps about cocoa, disease, disasters, housing, trade, food, health services, literacy, labor, maternity, migrants, sanitation…

It just blows me away each day what one can find on the web, offered free and clear to the known universe.


Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

July 21, 2007

One cannot use spies without sagacity and knowledge,
one cannot use spies without humanity and justice

–Sun Tzu

who is watching you?

Polvo gallery will be hosting an art show in Chicago, from August 3rd to September 1st 2007, called echelon: who is watching you? I suppose we earn the honor of hosting this little historical survey of US surveillance since “Chicagoans may soon be the most watched urbanites in the world.” PoliceOne has an online copy of a 2004 AP article Chicago Moving to ‘Smart’ Surveillance Cameras that is worth a look, in case this is news to you.

But we are the second city after all, and NYC will soon be enjoying a “London-style surveillance veil,” a phrase that’ll send me to the bar for some scotch any day of the week. This package includes Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) technology which, since at least 2004, has been helping London tighten the weave of its dragnet & capture a carnival of suspects more effectively. (Check out the excellent Spy Blog from the UK which is Watching Them Watching Us; there are numerous discussions of ANPR to be found)

I definitely hope to attend opening night of the echelon show, in part to see try and understand what this surveillance means to me as a relatively new Chicagoan. I have been known to peek in on official industry presentations about these kinds of technologies; likewise the echelon show will be a great way to take a read of current discussion in Chicago about escalating digital data-capture technology. Of course the Bush administration is more than happy to support pervasive ground-level invasions of personal citizens’ privacy while drawing lead blinds on its own activities. So far the courts have kept some of these inclinations in check (TOO SLOWLY, in case they’re listening in) but it’s only gotten worse since the Geneva convention-denying Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez was confirmed with a notable lack of enthusiasm.

On July 6th 2007, and from an unexpected corner, San Francisco’s Ninth Court of Appeals ruled in US vs Forrester that “Feds can read e-mail, IP addresses without warrant[s].” The crux of their argument is that monitoring email addresses and IP addresses constitutes no greater invasion than that of identifying the information on the outside of a sealed letter, or recording a roll of phone numbers, which are both protected levels of surveillance. Numerous commentators feel that the volume of information available to an agency looking through an electronic list of email chains as well as the volume of information to be gleaned from web sites is far greater than can be traditionally gathered, and constitutes something worthy of 4th amendment protections.

The Volokh Conspiracy in particular has a substantial comment roll about both sides of the issue; JohnMc brings summarizes an interesting point for consideration in our current Web2.0 environment:

Orin, I am going to side with TechieLaw not on the legal merits but the technical issues. The crux of my argument is that as a general basis, with internet your private data is hosted off your premieres. From a business perspective, were the general public not to be afforded the same 4th amendment protections as in their residence then you might as well forget about Web 2.0 and close Sun Corp. down (“The network IS the computer”).

The visionaries see a not too distant future where you keep your data on a contracted provider who has the resources to guarantee always available access and multiple redundant backup. Think Google. However If the only way I can keep my papers private is to keep them on my own server in my own home then that is what will happen. At that point we are back to a technical future equivalent to 1960. It just all runs faster.

The 4th needs to be amended to expand ‘reasonable searches and seizures’ to your papers regardless of location or format.

Couple this with the FBI’s use of exigent letters to illegally convince telephone companies to immediately surrender documents on their existing clients, usually by claiming that appropriate necessary documents were filed, and suddenly the reality seems explosive. With such a large number of free data hosting sites (i.e. ewedrive, JustUpIt, etc.) which will maintain uploaded data for you in a personal account, as well as traditional paid hosting services, the problems seem endless.

Until clear and non-politicized language is developed, within an internationally accepted framework, to erect legally defendable digital borders for private citizenry there will be no lasting security. Lamenting concessions made by the big players can seem academic, especially when we undeniably enjoy so many other freedoms protections in the US, but my feeling is that until a service such as Yahoo can be held accountable, then we are all as vulnerable as Shi Tao.

Als sie mich holten, gab es keinen mehr, der protestieren konnte
–Pastor Martin Niemöller

(Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak up for me.)


Just minutes after launching this post, which I finished a draft of yesterday afternoon, I came across this apropos ruling in today’s NYT article Court Tells U.S. to Reveal Data on Detainees at Guantánamo by William Glaberson:


A federal appeals court ordered the government yesterday to turn over virtually all its information on Guantánamo detainees who are challenging their detention, rejecting an effort by the Justice Department to limit disclosures and setting the stage for new legal battles over the government’s reasons for holding the men indefinitely.

The ruling, which came in one of the main court cases dealing with the fate of the detainees, effectively set the ground rules for scores of cases by detainees challenging the actions of Pentagon tribunals that decide whether terror suspects should be held as enemy combatants.

It was the latest of a series of stinging legal challenges to the administration’s detention policies that have amplified pressure on the Bush administration to find some alternative to Guantánamo, where about 360 men are now being held.

A three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Washington unanimously rejected a government effort to limit the information it must turn over to the court and lawyers for the detainees.


It didn’t end there, though:

The ruling also included significant victories for the government, including a decision allowing the Pentagon to limit the subjects that the lawyers can discuss with detainees and authorizing special Pentagon teams to read the lawyers’ mail and remove unauthorized comments.

Why are these rulings often such mixed blessings? This is how New York Lawyer Wells Dixon, from the Center for Constitutional Rights, sums up the essential stalemate at the close of the article:

“Once again,” Mr. Dixon said, “we are left to rely on the government to produce all of the information that it says exists.”

I am an old anarchist

July 6, 2007

“You see, I am an old anarchist — you have to destroy the power, not take the power. I think we are opening all the boundaries, and that with this tool, this media [cinéma vérité], people without writing can transmit their fantasies to some other people and to share that with them. And it was maybe the aim of the first anthropologists. But, unfortunately, they wanted to be scientists and to push their own explanation on the others systems. We are just making archives of that without explanation. The explanation will come later on. I think that’s wonderful because it will change the face of the world.”

Jean Rouch, 1978

A Videotaped Conversation with Jean Rouch, Ricky Leacock and friends, Summer Institute on Media Arts at Tufts University, July 13 1978

uploaded by guano to flickr on march 13 2007 (creative commons)

“Well, I think the most important thing in the world of today is to have friends, and to do something with friends. If you are doing something with people that you don’t respect, it’s a bore. And unfortunately, the majority of people of the world today are making a world that they hate…I think we have this old myth still living behind us. I think this myth was there this morning, just somewhere in our brain, coming from an ancient age, which is a relation with nature and things that we have lost. And it is still there, even if there’s just small sparkling things.”

Hats off to Tipper, the PMRC & the MPAA, NISM?

July 4, 2007

I thought I would preempt the inevitable backlash against Robotic Librarian by denying my critics the satisfaction.

What's My Blog Rated?

So far the only naughtiness to appear in my blog is the word “cocaine” and that isn’t even part of a post, just a link in my blogroll. (OK, well, now it is) I thought drug references automatically score at least a PG-13, but I guess I can’t always believe what I read. Plus after the controversy over The Higher Power of Lucky I wouldn’t think I’d be given a free pass. They must be using the 1968 era rules, by which Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 was granted the golden G. I don’t know about you, but 2001 is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen…by the time HAL starts singing for Dave I start to feel like I’m in the Black Lodge. Standards certainly have changed in my day.

The Voyeur in the Mirror

June 18, 2007

photo of stencil in Amsterdam, taken & edited by me

I stepped out this morning, as I often do, to get some espresso. Helps me focus, and I have a final paper to work on today. With a little forethought, and a little persistence, you could’ve come with me.

As I got myself ready to go outside, you could’ve trained the eye of Google Earth on my apartment. Once I started on my way to the bank, you could’ve joined me with Google Street View. Once at the ATM, you have your choice of either capturing the surveillance feed from their external security cameras, or you could ask the bank for the footage from the ATM itself.


As I walked back to the nearest bus stop, maybe you could find me in the background of a traffic camera ticketing photo; sorry, I’m slightly blurry since I haven’t had my espresso yet. Once on the bus, I may or may not be under surveillance, as the warning so coyly suggests. That’s ok, since once I get off the bus you can find me with Google Street View again, or with one of our native Chicago surveillance cameras. Visuals are overrated anyway, so if you’re really enterprising you can find me by tracing my cell phone GPS identification. And any number of private corporations will happily supply you with my personal history if you’ve got cash money. If all else fails, tomorrow I’ll be driving; there’s that little mapping system in my car, and savvy hackers can help you pinpoint that.

As you may have heard, Time magazine said that you were the person of the year last year. Little old you. Really,though, you have a lot more influence than you think, and not necessarily in the way you want. It goes beyond levels of surveillance that are normally discussed or commonly acknowledged. This blog is watching you, actually, and I get statistics on my readers second by second. If I sign up for Google Analytics or a similar service I could get more detailed data, with practical business applications. (A recently ended program called Spyjax used to collect data on people’s browsing histories while showing them how it was being done, in order to heighten Internet user’s awareness of spyware and the like. Unfortunately he’s closed shop to save bandwidth, so no widget for me.)

Chicago contracts with many different security providers, it’s true, though we are not quite as widely watched as in London, where there’s approximately one camera per fourteen people. But then, maybe we are…

Personal data is, after all, the new black.

There was a movement after the Second World War to require the use of national identification numbers, and the government lost the fight to the will of the people. Big business was behind the push, and considering what happened in the years that followed, the people lost the fight anyway. But the truth is, we are the ones who willingly gave up the ghost.

Business began to require us to submit to them our social security numbers if we wanted to do business, which, unless we willingly provided it to them, they had no right to have access to. But we did, with little resistance. And our government was happy, because they got what they wanted through capitalism, not legislation, and in the sixties restrictions on the sale or distribution of our SS numbers, or, let’s be honest with ourselves, our national identification number, were loosened. For example, in 1961, the IRS was permitted to use the social security number for identification, one of the major stumbling blocks in initial movements toward a national ID.

I would bet you that not only your credit card company and bank have this number, but your super market, your doctor, your insurance companies, your power supply providers, your home rental agency, your car rental agency, and maybe even your Internet provider. When colleges began using using SS numbers for student identification purposes there was a large outcry, but due to the high circulation rate of students, lasting legislation or regulation is still problematic, with an estimated use today on campuses of about 50%. My undergraduate school used SS ID numbers, so it would be printed on anything mailed, presented to, or just related to me during my time there. Hardly a defense of my privacy or security.

What’s interesting to me is that when SS numbers are used so overtly in college documents there is a passionate outcry. Yet when it is a supposedly “private” transaction such as a sale of goods or services, we do not hold to the same standard of personal security. This national temperament is so obvious, if you are looking for it.

Just look at this website portal which links to reality television shows. For every show that encourages us to observe one another in an ostensibly responsible way, such as America’s Most Wanted, there are at least ten whose motives are a little more suspect (Cops, Fear Factor, Maury Pauvich, The White Rapper Show, Elimidate, I Want a Famous Face, Real World, Combat Missions, Extreme Makeover, and House Arrest. See how easy that was?) In a way it’s fun to see ourselves reflected, even if in an unflattering way, through major media outlets. The undercurrent of a modern carny sideshow is unavoidable, and perhaps even ridicule of the poor and disenfranchised. I’ve honestly never sat through a whole episode of Rikki Lake or Jerry Springer because, halfway through, I would always imagine friends of mine who are homeless, or myself (not long enough ago) when I couldn’t afford ramen, or heat for my apartment. What would I be willing to do, if it comes down to it? Honestly, though, reality TV betrays middle class values for the most part. So is it that we want to be celebrities so much that we desire to be under a similar type of scrutiny so as to feel similarly valued?

Ever heard of Za Gaman, or other Japanese game shows?

Or how about Remote Lounge in NYC. If you’ve never been there, I highly recommend it. I’m serious. It is exhilarating, adrenaline-inducing and wildly creepy. The whole bar is wired, and the idea is that if you see someone you want to meet or hook up with, just talk to them over your own little personal camera station. As though Londoners were flirting with one another using their CCTV. Here’s a bit of their take on it: “Rather than focus on the “Big Brother” association with the surveillance technology that has been co-opted and adapted to use in the lounge, CEV founders point out that their version of telepresence is used to very different ends then traditional surveillance implementations. First of all, access to the system is mutual, bilateral and consensual – nobody gets to violate anyone else’s privacy in a manner that they would not be subject to themselves. Secondly, the environment is designed to encourage exploration, experimentation and human interaction rather than to control or protect people or property.”

And it’s emblematic of where our heads are at today. The other night I trawled through some Flickr showcases, and searched for people who I haven’t spoken to for years. I didn’t find many of them, but did find about four; there they are for me to quietly watch, a voyeur of their lives today. I went to Youtube, and even found snippets of video from a 1990 talent show at my high school, a talent show I was in! (Sadly the bit with me in a plastic pink skirt playing bongos and singing with my friends about Queen Liliuokalani wasn’t on there.) Pixelated ghosts beckon and beguile me through the ether like my own personalized Videodrome.

The thing is, however disturbing some of this is to me, I am equally awestruck, and humbled by the direction we have taken. There are extremely positive aspects to it, largely in the realm of accountability. Joe Biden, Michael Richards, Don Imus and the like had better be careful. If only we can keep reporters from being embedded with the military and get back to honest reporting… But then, with blogs such as Baghdad Burning, A Star from Mosul, and other amazing front-line blogging of so many people telling real stories and looking for loved ones, maybe we can move away from sponsored reporting. As with many double edged swords, the process can be one of promise and opportunity, so long as we do not abdicate responsibility, and quietly give up the ghost.

Dziga Vertov, from The Man with the Movie Camera

“It called forth nearly all the constituent powers of the century. It revealed the century as it liked to relax when wearing none of its masks.”

Ok, Giedion is talking about patent furniture, but it sounds like the Internet to me. I won’t give up on it for anything, though, and I will fight like Voltaire for it to remain unfiltered. The possibilities are just too great, and if we let it get delimited by force or by censure, only the military and outlaws will be able to take advantage of it.

Ocean munitions dumping

June 13, 2007

I know this isn’t quite library related, (maybe government docs?) but I feel the need to pass it on.  I’m catching up on feeds and whatnot this evening, and I came across this alarming admission by the US Army:

“The Army now admits that it secretly dumped 64 million pounds of nerve and mustard agents into the sea, along with 400,000 chemical-filled bombs, land mines and rockets and more than 500 tons of radioactive waste – either tossed overboard or packed into the holds of scuttled vessels.”

This is from a Deep Sea News blog from two days ago, apparently citing an article from something called the Daily Press.  (The Deep Sea blog has a gruesome photo of a dolphin, just so you know, before you click to it)  I haven’t checked the Daily Press out yet as it requires a (free) sign in, but there are .pdfs of disposal sites and such on the site.

Supposedly the Army’s dumping was revealed in November of 2005 , but this is the first I’ve read about it.  Someone named Herbert Levinson posted, in a comment on the Deep Sea News article, “I am 72 years old and these revelations are not new. All kinds of stuff was dumped there and everyone knew it. The place was called the acid waters 65 miles off Long Island’s coast.  People just didn’t know what to do with these materials. Nuclear waste was very dangerous. The Newspapers even had pictures dumping the stuff.”

Yet another reason to reallocate tax dollars to libraries.