Friday, July 29, 2005

A War With Denmark

So Canada and Denmark are having a dispute over an island in the Arctic.

To be specific, this one.


Here's what I wrote to a blogger from Denmark:

Hiya from Canada...

I think we should fight over the island.

No, no, wait, hear me out...

The ownership is officially undecided (and has been since 1973) and it's almost exactly half way between Greenland and Canada (a little closer to our side, but we'll ignore that).

Both Denmark and Canada have put people (and flags, and all that) on the island to establish a claim. You say canada occupies Denmark, and when you did it our papers said Denmark invaded Canada.

Let's give the warmongers in our respective media their war...

Here's the plan:

We put a big plastic ball in the middle of the island.

Then we each take six or so of our best troops and have them wear those sumo wrestling suits. Picture here.





Then, each side tries to push the ball off the island - Canada will push east, and Denmark will push west.

Whoever pushes the ball into the ocean on the other side wins the island.

We'll cover the war with full media - the advertising revenue will pay for the costs of flying a crew up there.

How does that sound to you in Denmark?

Update: Um... I had to send another comment...

Oh, d'uh, I suppose I should have looked at your blog more closely - I now realize that you're from Norway...

I suppose if I'm going to declare war, I should really address it to the right country...

Heh. Sorry about that.

I still think it's a good idea, though...

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Monday, July 25, 2005

The Best Days of Hockey

Sheesh, why don't they just convert hockey into basketball and be done with it. Scording goals isn't supposed to be easy, it's supposed to be hard. And you don't make the game more exciting by adding goals, you simply decrease the significance of goals and turn the game into a dreadful back and forth monotony of goal scoring - just like basketball.

* No more ties - shootouts!

Ick. If you can't decide the game using the rules that define the game, then settle for a tie.

Oh, you don't like ties? Well, the whole point of sports is that you don't always get what you want.

The greatest hockey game ever played ended as a 3-3 tie between the Soviet Red Army and the Montreal Canadians on New Year's Eve 1975. Don't tell me there's something wrong with ties.

* Two-line passes - should keep things faster going from defense to offense

They give lazy forwards who won't backcheck a break and they eliminate the sustained pressure one team can exert in the other team's end.

Breakaways are exciting. Breakaways that happen every two minutes are boring.

* Restrictions on goalies - bigger five-hole, less out-of-net play

Why not just put up a sheet of plywood like when we were kids? Being a goalie isn't just about stopping the puck - a good goalie is (or was) a third defenseman, playing the puck, setting up breaks, etc.

Sure, if the goalie wanders out of his crease, he is going to get nailed. Welcome to hockey.

Or, I guess, hockey as it used to be.

Soon enough I guess we'll have a 'no goaltending' rule. Just like in basketball.

* Bigger offensive zone - biggest change here is shrinking the neutral zone, and moving the nets closer to the boards to reduce camping

The greatest player in the world, Wayne Gretzky, showed us what can be done from behind the net. He reminded us that hockey isn't simply a one-dimensional game where you skate at goalies and take slapshots a la The Mighty Ducks.

The point here is that this change reduced the complexity of the gamed, eliminates the nuance that an offensive strategy can 9and should have). What we'll see is the defense taking shots from the point, the forwards trying for rebounds.

Oh yeah. Just like basketball. Ex*yawn*citing.

* Changes to icing - preventing dumping

They should have adopted the no-touch rule, to same players from injuries. Instead they created the no-change rule, keeping exhausted players on the ice.

Dumb.

* Instigator rule - bigger penalty for being an ass at the end of a game. good move

The only thing that keeps people in the building near the end of a 5-1 game is the hope that the teams will settle some scores and try to make a statement for next time.

Now, at the end of a 10-2 game, there will be nothing but a boring 5 minutes of meaningless play. *yawn*

* Officiating - zero tolerance, and stuff to keep play moving fast

'Zero tolerance' has killed more games than it has saved. Good referees know when to put away the whistle. Set a tone early and make your calls consistently.

* Unsportsmanlike conduct - the Anti-Bertuzzi clause

Sure.

* Competition committee - good to see Iggie and Shanahan representing the players

They should put Don Cherry on the committee.

I hate his politics, but when he starts talking hockey he and I are in the same camp.

Hockey isn't a game of shooting and scoring. People who represent it that way misunderstand the game.

Hockey is a tough, gritty sport where physical presence is as important as skill. It should be hard to play, hard to score, and to win you pay a price.

Grit and emotion are as important as speed and skill.

People are trying to sanitize hockey, to turn it into some sort of Disney-esque basketball version of itself. But hockey didn't need sanitizing.

Because scoring is sometimes difficult in hockey - because, for example, teams can play the trap and stymie even skilled teams - it requires a more sensitive eye for detail. Good defense matters as much as good offense. You don't have the instant gratification of goals to know how your team's playing.

With the high-scoring all-shoot all-the-time version of hockey, this element is lost. Shoot and score. Shoot and score. *yawn* It needs to be HARD to score, hard to get into position for a shot, hard to break the trap.

I guess the best days of hockey are behind us.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Principles for Evaluating Websites

How do you know whether something you read on the web is true? You can’t know, at least, not for sure. This makes it important to read carefully and to evaluate what you read. This guide will tell you how.

1. There Are No Authorities

Authorities used to be people you could trust. When you read it in the newspaper, for example, it was probably true. When a scientist reported a finding, you could count on it. But today, you can’t trust the authorities.

Why not? There are many reasons, but here are some of the major ones:

  • Authorities lie. Not all authorities, and not all the time, but frequently enough to mean you can’t simply trust them.

  • People impersonate authorities. A site may look like a newspaper or a government publication, but it might not be.

  • Authorities are sometimes fooled. They may rely on bad data. They may be reporting something they heard.

Even if you trust the authority you are reading, you need to evaluate what they say for themselves. People don’t always mean to mislead you, but they do.

This is the most important principle of reading on the internet. You must determine for yourself whether or not something is true.

2. What You Know Matters

If you saw the local grocery this morning, and then someone told you it burned down last night, you would know they were wrong because of what you saw. And you would probably say so.

You can depend on your own knowledge. And you should use this knowledge when you read websites.

That doesn’t mean that you cannot be wrong. But most people don’t give themselves enough credit. They are too quick to assume that they must have been wrong.

Your own experiences matter. If someone says some software is easy to install, and you found that it wasn’t that easy to install at all, don’t simply assume that you can’t install software. If it wasn’t easy for you to install, it wasn’t easy, and someone who says it is easy is wrong.

3. Keep Count

You can’t check everything for yourself. Eventually, you will have to depend on what other people say. You can’t simply assume that what they say is true.

The key here is trust. You need to learn who to trust.

The way you learn to trust someone is through repeated contact. They not only say things you know are true, they don’t say things you know are not true. You need to keep track of this for yourself.

When a website says something, you need to ask yourself, have they misled me before? Websites usually follow a pattern; sites that are trustworthy generally stay trustworthy, while sites that mislead you once will likely mislead you again.

That doesn’t mean you never question what they say. Always check what they say against your own experience. But if you don’t know, depend on the sites you already trust rather than the ones you don’t.

4. Facts and Appearances

Many people are very careful appearances. Governments and businesses especially take great care to manage their image. Individual people, too, try to cast themselves in the best light possible.

They do this because people trust people who look good. Politicians always take care to dress nicely. Con artists are often dressed in suits. Businesses spend a lot of money to make their buildings and their websites look nice.

People create appearances in words as well. For example, they often use adjectives and adverbs to suggest how you should feel about something. They also use loaded terms to suggest that something is good or bad. Compare the following:

  • “This respected software reliably saves your data in the most efficient format.”

  • “This suspicious software misleadingly saves your data in a common format.”

The first software sounds a lot better than the second software. But in fact, they do exactly the same thing!

In your mind, remove the adjectives and adverbs from any sentence you read. Convert any loaded terms to neutral terms (for example, convert a sentence like “He claimed…” to “He said…”).

In other words, practice distinguishing the facts in a sentence from how they appear.

You may be tempted to distrust things that use a lot of adjectives, adverbs and loaded terms. And certainly you should be suspicious. But sometimes people just write that way; it doesn’t mean they’re lying. And sometimes people try to fool you by writing in plain and straightforward language.

The main thing is, find the facts. You can check facts. And just ignore the appearances.

5. Generalizations Are Often Untrustworthy

When you look at facts, you will see that there are two types: specifics and generalizations.

  • A specific is a statement about one thing, one person or one event. “John went to the store yesterday” is a specific.

  • A generalization talks about a group of things, many people, or a number of events. “John always goes to the store.”

People use generalizations because generalizations help them predict the future. If you know that John always goes to the store, then you can predict that he will go to the store tomorrow. Generalizations also often explain why something happens. John knows the shopkeeper because he always goes to the store.

There are two types of generalizations:

  • A universal generalization talks about everything. When someone says “All dogs are animals”, for example, they are talking about every single dog.

  • A statistical generalization talks about a number of things, but not all of them. When someone says “Most dogs are brown,” they are talking about a large number of dogs, but not all of them.

It is important to keep in mind that most universal generalizations are false. Not always – after all, it is true that all dogs are animals.

But people often make universal generalizations that are false. And in fact, when you read universal generalizations on a website, you should be very skeptical.

Watch for the following words: all, none, only, never, always, completely. And words that mean the same sort of thing. These indicate a universal generalization. When people use them, ask yourself, is this true? Are there no exceptions? And if you know that there are exceptions, then the source is less trustworthy.

6. Absolutes Are Hidden Generalizations

People often make generalizations without realizing that they are doing it. And they might fool you into thinking that something is a fact, when it is actually a questionable generalization.

“The Chinese cannot be trusted.” This looks like a statement of fact, doesn’t it? But ask yourself, how many Chinese people is this person talking about? All of them? Most of them? There are a billion Chinese – how could this person possibly know that they cannot be trusted?

And of course, they can’t. You have no reason to trust such a statement. And a person who makes such a statement is less trustworthy.

7. Statistics Are Often Misleading

As the truism says, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” People are often skeptical of statistics, and for good reason. There are many ways statistics can be used to mislead.

Statistics must be based on data. For example, for somebody to say that “most dogs are brown” they would have had to go out and actually count some dogs to see how many of them are brown. Statistics that are not supported with data should not be trusted at all.

Even if there is data, statistics can still mislead. There are two major ways statistics can mislead:

  • The sample size is too small. If you know five Americans, and four of them are crooks, is that sufficient to conclude that most Americans are crooks? Of course not. There are 330 million Americans; you need to meet more than five before you can start making generalizations.

  • The sample is unrepresentative. If you wanted to know about Americans, and took your sample from a prison population, would you get a good result? Of course not – most Americans are not in prison, and are very different from prisoners.

Remember at the beginning of this article where I said that there are no authorities? When you look at the statistics produced by authorities, many of them break one of these two rules. What would you say about a scientist who surveyed 21 graduate studies and drew a conclusion about all people? Not much – but many papers that do exactly this are published.

Statistics are often misleading in ordinary writing as well. Often, they are disguised: a person might use words like ‘most’, ‘often’, ‘many’ or ‘usually’. And their data will be suspect. A person might say, for example, “Most people are generous.” How does he know? Because most of the people he knows are generous. But that’s not good data at all!

Think about the generalizations you believe. Are they based on good data? What is the data? I said above that you should trust yourself – but you should always review your own beliefs, to make yourself more trustworthy.

8. Go to the Source

People say things about other things and other people. That’s no surprise; you can’t talk about yourself all the time. For example, a person might report about what someone else said, or about what some data shows.

They may not mean to mislead you, though sometimes they do:

· They might have misread or misunderstood the original document. Heck, I do that myself.

· They may have quoted something out of context. For example, I may have written, “If people vote the wrong way then we’ll have private health care” and be quoted as saying “We’ll have private health care.”

· They may be misrepresenting the original. People sometimes pretend that someone said something that they didn’t, so they can make the other person look bad (that’s called a straw man).

When you read something you always need to ask, are they talking about something else and especially what somebody else said or reported. If so, go to the source to find out for yourself what the other person really said.

If there’s no link or reference to the source, don’t believe it. And even more importantly, websites that don’t offer links or references are less trustworthy.

If you can’t find the original source, try searching for the same information. Other people may have seen the same source and reported on it themselves. They may have described it differently. You may never know exactly what was said, but if people on different sides of the same issue agree on what was said, then it’s more likely to be true.

9. Motives and Frames Matter

Most content on the web is trying to convince you that something is true. That’s why it’s on the web in the first place.

Usually, what they want you to believe isn’t just some isolated fact or data, but rather a whole collection of facts and data. They want you to see the world in a certain way. In philosophy, this is sometimes called a ‘world view’ while in linguistics this is called a ‘frame’.

Here are some examples of frames:

  • It’s a dangerous world and we have a lot to fear

  • Microsoft products cannot be trusted

  • Our country is the best (most free, most democratic, most advanced, etc.)

Think about all the sorts of things that could lead you to believe any of these three statements. Think about other sorts of things that might also be frames. Think about the way you look at the world – you probably view it from a certain frame, whether or not you recognize it.

That’s not bad in itself – we all have to have a way of looking at the world. But we need to choose this way of looking at the world for ourselves. That’s why we need to understand what frames other people believe, so we know when we are being persuaded to look at the world one way or another.

That’s why motives matter. A person’s motive is the frame or worldview he or she wants you to accept. You need to know why somebody is telling you something as well as what they are telling you.

Websites that hide their motives are untrustworthy. They are trying to convince you of something, but they are trying to do it in a sneaky way, so that you can’t make your decision for yourself. They think that if you just hear something over and over, and it all points to a certain way of looking at the world, that you will start seeing the world that way too.

If a website is sponsored by the government, but they hide this sponsorship, then they are hiding their motives. If a study is financed by a software company, but this financing is not revealed, then they are hiding their motives. If a news site is secretly sponsored by a religious organization, then the news site is untrustworthy. If an activist group is funded by the industry they are trying to change, then this group is untrustworthy.

They are not untrustworthy because what they are saying is false. They are untrustworthy because they are not being honest about why they are saying what they are saying.

10. Beware Misdirection

Have you even seen a political ad for one candidate that talks about the other candidate? Have you ever seen an advertisement about one product that only talks about another product?

These are cases of misdirection – they are trying to get you believe one thing by talking about another thing.

Misdirection is very common on the web. Sometimes it consists of misrepresenting the source, as discussed above. Very often, though, it consists of merely attacking the source.

You see this not only on discussion lists (where it is very common) but also on personal websites, corporate websites, political websites and even academic websites.

If a website is trying to convince you to believe one thing but actually talks about another thing, then the website is not trustworthy.

Summary

As I said in the second point, determining what to believe – or to not believe – is a matter of trust. You need to determine for yourself who to trust about what.

This is something you have to determine for yourself. Each time you look at a website, think of yourself as keeping score. When a website does something untrustworthy, take some trust away. When a website does something well, add some trust.

And it’s something very personal. The better you get to know a website, the more easily you can determine whether or not to trust it. The website gradually acquires a track record with you. Just like a friend or an associate.

And finally, this is something that works best if you use diverse sources. Try to read points of view from different frames – after all, every frame has an element of truth to it. Don’t just go with the flow, be ready to challenge and question everything – even yourself.

Examples

40 Things That Only Happen In Movies -- http://www.nostalgiacentral.com/features/20moviethings.htm

Should you trust this site? The title should let you know that this is intended as humour. But if not, you should be alerted by the universals in this title. They are probably exaggerating to make a point.

Look at some of the assertions. “(In movies) any lock can be picked with a credit card or paperclip in seconds.” Well you know that this isn’t true. People don’t always pick locks in movies. Sometimes they can’t even break the door down.

This site is funny. But you shouldn’t trust it to tell you true things about the world.

Top Chinese general warns US over attack -- http://news.ft.com/cms/s/28cfe55a-f4a7-11d9-9dd1-00000e2511c8.htm l

This news article is offered by the Financial Times, a British news source with strong links to the British and American financial communities. The story reports that a Chinese general said that China would use nuclear arms if attacked.

Did the general say this? Probably. The general is named - Zhu Chenghu – and the place where he made the remark is also named - a function for foreign journalists (it would be better if they actually named the function and told us who else, in addition to the Chinese government, sponsored it). And a one-minute search in Google for ‘Zhu Chenghu’ links to other reports – from the BBC and the Times of India, for example – with the same information.

Is what the general said true? We have no way of knowing. Even the Financial Times article notes that Zhu is not a high-ranking official and that “Gen Zhu probably did not represent the mainstream People's Liberation Army view.” Coverage elsewhere, for example in the BBC, reports that the Chinese government is ‘downplaying” the remark.

So now the key question is, why did the Financial Times run the article? The article is intended to shape our views even if we cannot know whether what was said was true. Does it make us fear China more? Do the British and American financial communities stand to gain if readers fear China or become more concerned about nuclear war? Does this article fit a pattern in Financial Times coverage of China?

In my opinion, this article, although an accurate report, makes the Financial Times a bit less trustworthy.

Iraqis March Against Terror -- http://www.blackfive.net/main/2005/07/iraqis_march_ag.html

This article is found in a blog titled BlackFive. It tells us that about 1000 Iraquis in the city Qayarrah, Iraq, marched against terror, and that “you probably haven't heard about it from Peter Jennings or Dan Rather.” The post includes a number of photographs of the demonstration taken by “Army Specialist David Nunn.”

As one person commented, “Rather retired early in the year and Jennings has been off battling lung cancer for months.” However, a search in Google shows that the protest was not covered by any major news outlet.

That a protest did happen seems evident from the pictures. Examination of the pictures, however, shows the banners to read “The juboor's tribe and its allies ask the coalition forces to release the highly-ranked officer Farhan Muthallak who was imprisoned by the coalition forces” in both English and Arabic.

A Google search for “Army Specialist David Nunn” reveals no citations not associated with this particular story.

This story is very untrustworthy. It reports a protest for one thing as a protest for something else. The source of the photographs cannot be verified. It attempts, further, to discredit the news media, thus engaging in misdirection. The site (and other sites, for many sites ran this item) is much less trustworthy as a result of running this item.

It is worth noting – as demonstrated in the trackbacks – that this story has been widely circulated. This is common, even for untrustworthy stories. That is why it is important to read, not only numerous source, but also diverse sources. And to check the data for yourself.

Again, one should ask why such a blatantly misleading story achieved such wide circulation.

Secure RSS Syndication -- http://www.xml.com/pub/a/2005/07/13/secure-rss.html

This site suggests that there is a need for encrypted RSS feeds and demonstrates how it is done. The need expressed is the author’s own, and two potential solutions are considered and rejected. The code used to generate the encryption is provided, along with samples of the encrypted data.

This article is very trustworthy. Very specific information is given, and in a form (via computer code) that can be directly verified by the reader. It should be noted that one argument (“Atom isn’t finished”) will cease to be true at a future point; if you were reading this article after Atom is finished you would want to check to see whether it satisfies the need as well.

This article is supportive of the idea that encrypted content syndication is a good idea. This suggests that the author may have an interest in promoting commercial applications of content syndication. But such a conclusion should not be drawn without looking at a large number of other items written by the same author.

Bastille Day – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bastille_Day

This is a Wikipedia article about Bastille Day. Readers should note that Wikipedia articles frequently change. This article was current at 11:40 a.m. EDT, July 16, 2005.

The article begins, “Bastille Day is the French national holiday, celebrated on 14 July each year” and provides some background. This information can be verified from numerous sources using a quick Google search on ‘Bastille Day’. Much of the background and information is substantiated by other sources.

The article next contains the comment, “Margaret Thatcher once said of the French "who can trust a people who celebrate, as their national event, a jailbreak". This statement does not tell us about Bastille Day. It is derogatory to the French. The source of the quotation is not given. This statement may be disregarded as vandalism. (It is worth noting that as of 11:47 a.m. the statement had been removed.)

This article, with the exception of the one item noted, is trustworthy.

The Price is Right pricing games -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Price_is_Right_pricing_games

This is a Wikipedia article about The Price is Right. Readers should note that Wikipedia articles frequently change. This article was current at 11:51 a.m. EDT, July 16, 2005.

The article lists a number of ‘minigames’ played on The Price is Right. Each game is described, with in formation about when it was played, how frequently it was played, and records, if applicable. Three external sources, including one from CBS, the producer of The Price Is Right, and one with screen shots of the games, are provided.

Readers who have seen The Price is Right can verify the game descriptions for themselves from their own experience. From my perspective (having seen many of the games) this article is very trustworthy.

The Flight of the Bumblebee - http://www.tomslusher.com/TheFlightoftheBumblebee.wmv

This is a video of a person playing Flight of the Bumblebee solo on guitar. The video is sufficiently detailed to show the fingering. The sound is a guitar sound. The tune is recognizable as Flight of the Bumblebee (people who have not heard this piece of music before should consult alternative sources to verify the title).

This video is trustworthy.

Do You Have Examples To Share? Send them to me ( stephen@downes.ca and if they are appropriate I will post them.)

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Ruled by larvae...

... would be a great name for a blog. From the always funny (and often insightful) Rick Mercer.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Slowdown of Activity in Australia

I guess this email is being circulated about in Australia so I may as well post it here so people know the source of my comment that e-learning seems to be slowing down there. Links have been embedded where in the original email they were spelled out.

Slow down of activity in Australia

It's important to note that my newsletter is the produict of just one person and is therefore often subject to reporting personal impressions and feelings. This is one such case. Readers (I hope) know this, and subject what is written to appropriate scrutiny.

That said - it *does* feel to me that Australia has almost vanished from the e-elarning landscape.

- Education Queensland's Learning Place newlsetter has vanished, the articles were taken down, and all you get now are seminar adevrtisements, awards and similar such stuff -

- The Flexible Learning Leaders seem to be gone - they were a constant source of information, since they all created blogs or some such thing and kept me informed. I know the program has been discontinued. But even this year's seem unusually silent.

- The FLN RSS feeds went dark - I have now, thanks to your other note, found them again - I had looked on the page but didn't see the text (there should be one of those orange XML buttons people cue on)

- West One appears to operate mostly in the dark - no newsletter or RSS - and anyway, it seems you have to pay for everfything

- The Net*Working 2004 conference adopted a blended learning approach, which from my perspective was a disaster - I guess, what, 4,00 or 5,000 people were signed up, yet participation in the seminars was only a few hundred, for a very limited time, and online activity was sparse. Moreover, there was no improvement in the conferencing software over Net*Working 2002.

- The Australian blogging community has been relatively quiet - some have been fired or close to fired for talking about open source.

- Blogtalk Downunder was well received internationally but didn't get a lot of local participation and almost no institutional endirsement -

- Haven't heard anything from Albert Ip recently - he is starting a commercial publication

- LAMS released last November - but the major uptake and support seems to be from Britain

- The latest news out of ANTA is that it is being abolished.

- News from DEST is miminal and mostly just surveys and statistics - of note this year is only the Endeavour program - "bringing together under the one umbrella all of the Department of Education, Science and Training’s (DEST) international scholarships"

- Though I keep up with NVCER every issue, they havn't published anything related to e-learning or flexible learning for ages

- The AVETRA newsletter is not available online. Only two AVETRA conference papers in 2004 dealt with online learning, and this year, only one.

There's more, but this is what I came up with on the spur of the moment. From my perspective, it is almost as through the Australian e-learning sector has vanished. There's nothing left but DEST and EdNA.

And this is what prompts my remarks about centralization. For online learning, outside of EdNA, what is there? It *feels* as though everything is being brought in close, consolidated, centralized. Perhaps there's a whole host of grassroots initiatives out there - but I'm not seeing them, I'm not hearing about them. What I'm seeing is mostly commercial content, federated networks, WebCT -- centralization.

Again - this is just my perspective. But is the perspective of someone with a deep interest in and affection for Australia. And it is the latter that prompted my comment.

Note

That's the end of the email. Since then, I received feedback from the Australian Flexible Learning Framework that their RSS feeds have moved to here and email from someone else noting that their community has been dismantled.

Also worth adding is an observation about how long it has been since many of the Australian logs listed on this chart have been updated.

Nobody really disputed my observation, and some esxpressed concern that what I said could be accurate. Of course, there is a lot of activity in Australia, but it seems that the government's emphasis is shifting, and it's this that I note.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Metadata

Why does metadata frustrate me?

I've looked at dozens of metadata formats over time, most associated with online learning. And in the field of online learning, at least, the metadata developed simply does not address the needs of a data environment.

Let me explain what I mean. In database management there is a concept known as normalization. Expressed most simply, the idea is that in a fully normalized database, no piece if information is ever stored in more than one location.

In database design, there are degrees of normalization. The reason for this is that normalization of a database involves a trade-off with speed and clarity. For example, in a fully normalized database, the string 'Alberta' would only be stored once, and all instances of 'Alberta' in an address would be a pointer to this string in the 'provinces' table. But this makes data harder to understand, and involves an extra lookup each time an address is displayed.

Still. Some degree of normalization is to be desired. For example, the entry '11829-118 Street, Edmonton, Alberta T3C 2P4' should never be entered in a database more than once. This is a highly specific entry, and one that is (typically) liable to change or to be mistyped or whatever. When something like this is enetered more than once, the reliability of the dabase information decreases dramatically.

To turn now to metadata, normalization (in my view) amounts to this (Stephen's first rule of metadata): metadata for a given entity should never be stored in more than one place.

If we have, for example, metadata about a given person (say, me), then it should be stored in one and only one location. (That does not mean that it cannot be aggregated or mirrored, but it does mean that there is one and only one location that would constitute the source of information about this person, and that aggregators and mirrors would update on a regular basis from this source.

The reason for this should be clear. With each additional location for original metadata about a person, the probability of error in that metadata increases dramatically. If the metadata changes (say, the person moves, or changes email address) then each instance of original metadata means an additional instance of data that must be updated.

Following from this first principle is a natural second principle: metadata for a given entity should not contain metadata for a second entity. The reason for this is that, with few exceptions, entities do not exist in a 1:1 relationship with each other. For example, an author writes many papers. A paper may have many authors.

If you accept these two principles, and if you want to show a relationship between entities (say, author of a paper) then you are commited to a mechanism whereby the metadata for one entity needs to be able to refer to the metadata for another entity. There are mechanisms for this, for example, the rdf:resource element.

But they are almost never used. Indeed, in learning metadata, there is generally no means of referring to one entity from within the metadata of another entity.

What do they do instead?

Some of the time, they include other metadata in the resource metadata. For example, learning object metadata, instead of pointing to contributor metadata, uses instead vcard information embedded within the metadata. In all such instances, the learning object metadata should be pointing to person or organizational metadata.

Much of the time, they use bare strings (aka Language Strings) to store metadata. In some cases this is appropriate. The description of a resource within the resource matadata, for example. But to do as RSS and Dublin Core do, to actually use a string to designate the 'creator' of a reasource, is to embed external metadata into the current metadata.

The problem with this - and the reason why normalization is so important in database management - is that such metadata constitutes an ambiguous reference. It's not simply that it may falsely describe the properties of the external entity, it's that it may fail to uniquely determine the external entity at all. When the 'Creator' of an object is 'Stephen Downes', do we mean the researcher in Moncton, the restaurant critic in Melbourne or the professor in Utah?

In some cases, such as some more recently proposed metadata, a half-step is taken through the use of an identifier. For example, the creator of a post in a discussion may be identified not only by 'name' but also by 'identifier', where the 'identifier' is "an unambiguous reference to the message Creator within the environment." Better, but by no means perfect.

If the context of application is within a specific environment, then XML is not necessary at all. Put all the data into the environment database, at which point the identifier becomes the the primary key in the appropriate database. All identifiers are known to be unique within the database, and hence uniqueness of reference and (by additional lookups) metadata about the identified entity can be obtained.

But what happens when we start thinking about exchanging data between environments. The identifier is at this point no unique reference at all, unless the different databases have some sort of common system of identification. Moreover, merely having the identifier for an entity in an external database offer no additional information about that entity.

In practice, of course, when we use the designation 'identifier' we probably mean something like 'handle' or 'purl' or some two part reference, the first part a reference to the external database in question, and the second to a unique entity within that database (the second part may additionally resolve to a table:key pair, depending on the database).

But in practice, what we want to happen is for this identifier, when dereferenced, to yield metadata about the entity in question. For after all, an identifier is no use if it is not also a pointer of some sort, and in particular, a pointer to information about the entity it identifies. If it doesn't do that, it may as well be a string literal (and would be about as useful).

Now at this juncture, you can either (a) go through a web services search to find out the location and API for the external database in question, or (b) treat the identifier as a url and access the remote information directly. In my world, what we do is the latter - because it's simple, direct, and intuitive. For after all, if the metadata for each entity has a unique location, then identity and location resolve into the same entity.

So we come back to: the external entity is named with an identifier, which is the location of the metadata for the external entity. Which means that (in a core implementation), no additional metadata about the external entity needs to be stored in the metadata of the current entity.

What this does, in practice is make metadata dead simple.

Take, for example, a discussion post. The metadata describing this post can be reduced to some simple RSS-like metadata, with some simple references to external entities.

A discussion post is, after all, in nature not distinct from a web post. Hence we use:
  • title - name of the post
  • link - location of the post text or file
  • description - summary of the post
Optionally, we also use some Dublin Core RSS extensions:
  • dc:date - date the post was created
  • dc: keywords - keywords
To identify the creator, we refer to the creator's metadata description
  • dc:creator rdf:resource=http://creator.com/my.foaf
And finally, some discussion-specific metadata:
  • disc:replyto rdf:resource=http://some.board.com/previous_post.htm
  • disc:forum rdf:resource=http://some.forum.com/thread
(Strictly speaking, this second element is optional, as the first post in a thread would be a 'replyto' the thread itself, which in turn would be a 'replyto' the forum itself, which would be a root element.)

And after that, anything else is optional. For example, some sites may want a 'role' element for some of these creators or posts. That's fine, but that would be a locally defined implementation, and not something that characterizes discussions in general.

In other words, every entity in a discussion forum would look like this:

<item>
<title>My first Post</title>
<description>This is my first post</description>
<link>http://myforum.com/posts/123.htm
<dc:creator resource="http://www.downes.ca/my.foaf" />
<dc:date>11 Jun 2005 11;15 ADT</dc:date>
<disc:replyto resource="http://myforum.com/posts/111.xml" />
</item>

Anything over and above this basic forumation is not only needless complexity, it is in addition redundant and hence increases the possibility of error. Moreover, such additional information is likely to be domain-specific and hence would restrict the application of such metadata to a single element.

This, sadly, is not the model undertaken in learning metadata, and why - no matter what standards are actually approved - it's all going to have to be redone in a few years when something like distributed metadata finally becomes a reality. Not long from now.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Kisangani

I am watching Live 8 as I write this, rebroadcast on a Sunday morning on AOL, thankful to be able to witness this moment, and alternating between rage and hope.

"Africa has been the most exploited continent in the history of the world.... I am going to rise up and break the backbone of your power... if you rise up, know that you do not rise up alone.."

Get up, stand up, stand up for your right
Get up, stand up, don't give up the fight - Bob Marley

Yesterday's National Post ran a banner headline, "The Failure of Altruism", to lead an article which is not available online. The Post is very concerned about the Live 8 concerts and the Walk for Africa protests, concerned that it will detract from the G8's real agenda.

So it must minimize the impact of these movemements, try to show that the approach they recommend has been tried, and has failed. To show that people do not really believe in Geldof's and Bono's cause, and that even if they did, it's misdirected and pointless.

Like this, from another article in the Post:
Marty Gradwell from Whitby, Ont., said he came to the Canadian gig "to rock out and enjoy the start of a warm summer." Asked what prompted the worldwide music extravaganza, he could only venture a guess. "For AIDS in Afghanistan, is it?"
Now let me ask you, of the tens of thousands of people in the audience, how many of them do you suppose were not aware of the point of the concert? A hundred? A dozen? One?

"We do dot accept that a child dies every 30 seconds... we are not satisfied that the place of your birth determines the outcome of your life... let us be outraged..."

The Post coverage is not only misleading, it is mean-spirited, destructive, wrong.

There is ignorance, but it is not about the problem. We know what the problem is. Thousands of children will die in Africa as I write this column. Millions more are undernourished, uneducated, homeless, jobless... desperate. That is the problem.

"The issues can no longer be ignored... this is a just and righteous cause..." - Annie Lennox

Take a moment and look at Africa. This is a city, Kisangani to be precise, a city of 500,000 people, the size of Mississagua. Where are the highways? Why is the airfield a single strip of dirt? Where are the public buildings, the schools, the universities? Where is the power plant? Where is the argriculture, the industry?

Kisangani was once called Stanleyville, named for Henry Morton Stanley, an American explorer famous for his search for David Livingstone. That, really, says everything we need to know.
Kisangani's history, however, is a recurring tragedy played by different actors. It has gone from Afro-Arab slaving center to Belgian colonial ivory outpost to independence killing ground. In 1965 rebels clad in monkey skins hacked and speared people to death here, and then ate them. It is the site of novelist Joseph Conrad's "Inner Station" - the outpost in deepest Africa where Kurtz, the protagonist of "Heart of Darkness," lost his sanity and his soul.

Today, cut off from the central government - marooned, in fact, from the 21st Century - Kisangani has seen at least four major battles in the last two years, all of them turf wars between the occupying armies of Uganda and Rwanda.

It is a weird, post-holocaust metropolis. Four hundred thousand people mill in streets that are virtually empty of motorized traffic. There are no working phones, water or steady power. In one building, men in snappy business suits sit in a second floor office that looks like performance art; the office walls are blown out. Hot winds carry off their paperwork. Though it is Congo's third-largest city, Kisangani runs on barter. In the market, vendors use the city archives to wrap peanuts.
This is today's Africa, a legacy of conquest, slave trades, colonial exploitation, cold-war dictators, and today, civil war and disease. And history continues to play out in Africa today much as it has over the last 200 years.
Downtown, however, flashes of fresh paint stand out: new diamond bourses with names like "American Ninja," "Mr. Cash" and "Christ Is Rich." The gems, sifted by hand from thousands of gravelly creeks that spill into the Congo River...

Only two Congolese commodities buck the trend. Diamond output has climbed from 14 million carats to 20 million. And beer: 1.7 million cases to 4.3 million. "These are the only two industries still functioning in town," says Ekopi Kane Mokeni, a half-Lebanese merchant whose fleet of 12 trucks has been stolen by rebel soldiers. "Diamonds and beer offer escape."
Diamonds. In the Sudan, oil. In other parts of Africa, copper and gold. The patern is familiar, and has repeated itself from generation to generation.
Diamonds have been at the centre of West Africa's nightmare for more than a decade. They helped to pay for former President Charles Taylor's 14-year rampage in Liberia and for his military adventures in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire. They were the engine of the Revolutionary United Front's horrific decade-long war in Sierra Leone. In the 1950s, Liberia became a major conduit for illicit diamonds from almost everywhere in Africa, and by the mid 1990s it had become the country of provenance for billions - not millions - of dollars worth of stolen gems.
Where there are resources to be exploited and sent to the west, there is civil conflict.
There [is a] remarkable similarity between the map of Africa's civil wars and the map of its precious resources: the Democratic Republic of the Congo (gold and diamonds), Angola (diamonds and oil), Sudan (oil), Sierra Leone (diamonds) and Liberia (diamond trafficking and timber) are the most obvious examples. External agents, attracted by the subterranean riches, intervene in all these conflicts, as diamond traffickers or oil companies, directly and indirectly feeding the conflict and poverty.
Even today, we leave them little hope of escape. Take the case of Djibouti, in east Africa. The Americans, in only the latest in a series of western interventions, have taken an interest in the country, most recently useful as a staging area for its operations in the Middle East. The U.S. troops arrived with millions in aid, support for the incumbant government, which welcomed them with open arms, and everything necessary to build an airbase.

For all that, it hasn't helped the country a bit.
Ninety-nine of every 1,000 Djiboutians die at birth and the maternal death rate is triple that of Rwanda - the result of bad diet, widespread maternal anemia and rampant female genital excision. About 60 per cent of Djiboutians are unemployed. Female rural illiteracy tops 85 per cent. And the average Djiboutian lives just 51 years...

So far, though, U.S. aid for Djibouti appears to be targeting America's most basic needs... The Agency for International Development (AID) offered just $4 million (all figures U.S.) in development aid for this nation of 600,000 people. Three-fourths of it was earmarked for upgrading security at Djibouti's international airport.
To make matters worse, U.S. aid has entrenched the position of Djibouti's president, Ismail Omar Guelleh. He won 100 percent of the vote in recent elections, a fraudulent vote boycotted by the opposition. "Guelleh's Union for Presidential Majority party won all 65 parliamentary seats in 2003's legislative election, amid opposition accusations of widespread rigging."

The president, meanwhile, has taken the opportunity to crack down on opposition forces, attacking press freedoms, forcibly expelling immigrants, abusing human rights, and in general pushing this country deeper into the quagmire of poverty, repression and brutality.

The National Post, meanwhile, as I mentioned, is stridently afraid that the Live 8 concerts and the Walk for Africa are detracting from the G8's more serious business. It quotes Aurel Braun, a University of Toronto political science professor who is a specialist in Russian and East European studies:
"This very great focus on this issue, as if there were no other issues, could only be justified if there was a truly viable plan, a kind of Africa Marshall plan. But there isn't one.... I think it is negligent not to address a variety of other issues such as high oil prices and a variety of trade disputes," Mr. Braun said.

"Therefore what I have concluded is the agenda of the G8 has been hijacked by the politically fashionable to the detriment of the politically realistic."

He said Bono and Bob Geldof, who are promoting Saturday's Live 8 concerts, should be pushing for democratic reform across the continent, and an end to corrupt dictatorships such as that of Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

"Why are they not holding concerts for the people who are being butchered in Darfur and those who are suffering under Mr. Mugabe, and those who are being killed in Nigeria, and the three million who have died as a result of corrupt warlordism in the Congo? And why are they not demanding first of all clean governments, responsible governments, freedom of the press?" Mr. Braun said.

"But that would be just too difficult," he said. "It's much easier to hold these concerts, to make world leaders feel guilty, make them look bad ... and I think that ultimately these people are well-meaning individuals who are causing a lot of harm to everyone because what they are refusing to do is to address the real problems."
Perhaps Braun has recently become an expert in African affairs. But perhaps he is just being used as a compliant mouthpiece for a policy steeped in denial, misappropriation of blame, perpetuation of stereotypes, and vindictiveness.

It is also out-and-out fabrication. Even a superficial look at people like Bono and Geldof shows that , after decades of wrestling with the issues, they have come to have an appreciation for what are, in fact, the real problems. Bono, for example, argues on Oprah Winfrey:
Africa spends $40 million each day repaying old debts to rich countries. This massive debt prohibits African nations from developing the infrastructure and trade agreements they need to thrive.
  • Africa spends four times as much on debt repayment as it spends on health care.
  • For every one dollar sent to the poorest countries in aid, $1.30 is sent back to the leaders as debt repayment.
  • Africa spends over $14.5 billion dollars yearly repaying debts. It receives only $12.7 billion in aid.
If there is a criticism to be made, it is that Bono is too soft on those in power, too willing to overlook their role not just in the debt crisis but in the circumstances that led to the crisis.

What circumstances? Well, this, for example:
Yesterday, Day I, the odd couple visited ACS-BPS, a US computer company which now employs 800 people in Accra to process healthcare bills for millions of Americans. Ghana is the new India for the IT world - the workforce is paid piece rates and can earn up to $15 a week. This is about a fiftieth of what they could earn in the US, but twice the average in Accra and everyone there said they were happy.

They sat in stony silence behind their terminals, under a poster of five young, white go-getters mouthing: "Our favourite phrase is 'Can Do'!"

The irony that millions of Ghanaians lack access to the most basic health clinics, and that the company pays no taxes to their government, was lost on Mr O'Neill who saw only "beautifully dressed" people.

Bono tried to be polite. "I know there's discussion about corporate exploitation of low foreign wages, but as long as the government exploits the corporation, too, then I think it's OK."
It's not OK. And there is a danger that the problems will actually increase:
And the cynics like me on the sidelines will be saying it was just a huge PR exercise…a massive "spin offensive" spearheaded by rock stars ... to mask the real intentions… The new scramble for Africa’s resources… Everyone knows that Africa is rich in resources, and has always been…for minerals, wildlife, tourism and of course people (the brain drain, remember that…with the worlds resources being rapidly drained elsewhere, that’s why the G8 is turning again to Africa...
And it leads to sentiments like this, ammunition for the National Post:

Ian Vasquez, director of the Project on Global Economic Liberty, at the Cato Institute, a Washington think-tank, agreed the focus on debt relief is misguided.
"When you talk about debt relief, what you're really talking about is the failure of past foreign aid because the majority of the debt of heavily indebted countries is due to official loans from the World Bank, the IMF and other places," Mr. Vasquez said. "These agencies have lent hundreds of billions of dollars to Africa and they got debt rather than development. That to me is a damning indictment of foreign aid and I don't see how you get to more aid and more debt relief as a solution."
And it has led even to some bitter denunciations of Live 8 and similar efforts on the part of Africans themselves:
Meaningless concerts and laughable commissions are not going to fight any poverty. Even dubiously benevolent concessions like debt cancellation are meaningless in themselves. It is utterly meaningless to cancel my debt if you do not allow me to earn money. Let us both compete fairly on the International market.

No, I am not holding my breath. The solution will not come from Live Aid or from G8. It will come from Africans who will finally refuse to accept the nonsense they are subjected to by their asinine leadership and throw the lot of the useless cretins out.

It will come from Africans who will put their skills and abilities to use for their countries.

It will come from Africans who will refuse to acknowledge the empty gestures from Europe and America, whose only concern is how best to plunder the continent of its resources and people without ruffling too many feathers and upsetting too many of their taxpayers.
I think this is right, and I think it is right in just the way that Vasquez is wrong.

Let us not think for a moment that the billions of dollars in loans and other forms of 'assistance' from the IMF, World Bank and other groups, including the G8, constitute 'aid' in any way.

Let's begin with the IMF. This international lending organization has contributed billions of dollars in loans to African nations, but these loans - usually used to pay off interest on previous loans - come with strings attached.
The Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility (ESAF) is the IMF's concessional lending facility for the least developed countries... As a condition of receiving these loans, countries must agree to adopt IMF structural adjustment programs. Structural adjustment programs generally require countries to adopt policies such as:
  • Reductions in government spending;
  • Monetary tightening (high interest rates and/or reduced access to credit);
  • Elimination of government subsidies for food and other items of popular consumption;
  • Privatization of enterprises previously owned or operated by the government; and
  • Reductions in barriers to trade, as well as to foreign investment and ownership.
Critics have long argued against these conditions. They prevent countries from doing things like restrict imports in order to protect domestic economies from the dumping of goods from developed nations. They prevent these governments from enforcing taxes on corporations and tariffs on undervalued cash crops destined for the export market. It prevents the institution of measures designed tgo improve African economies, while all the while turning a blind eye while the western nations, with their freedom from IMF regulations, engage in just the sort of program denied to the Africans.
Even dubiously benevolent concessions like debt cancellation are meaningless in themselves. It is utterly meaningless to cancel my debt if you do not allow me to earn money. Let us both compete fairly on the International market. Your farmers are already enjoying considerable technological advantages -- they do not need subsidies. Don't wax lyrical about debt relief if without avenues for me earning my own money I shall promptly be in debt again.
And there is mounting evidence that such programs hinder, and do not help, the recipient nations.
  • Developing countries worldwide implementing ESAF programs have experienced lower economic growth than those who have been outside of these programs.
  • While African countries urgently need to increase spending on health care, education, and sanitation, IMF structural adjustment programs have forced these countries to reduce such spending.
  • Neither IMF-mandated macroeconomic policies nor debt relief under the IMF-sponsored HIPC Initiative have sufficiently reduced these countries' debt burdens. Poor countries continue to divert resources from expenditures on health care and education in order to service external debt.
Foreign aid has typically been subject to similar strings, again often to the detriment of African nations.
A considerable amount of foreign aid is tied aid. Here the grants or concessionary loans have conditions laid down by the donor country about how the money should be used. Tied aid by source means that the recipient country receiving the aid must spend it on the exports of the donor country. Tied aid by project means that the donor country requires the recipient country to spend it on a specific project such a road or a dam. Often this might be to the commercial or economic benefit of the firms in the donor country.
Sending money to an impoverished on condition that it purchase goods from a wealthy country, often on projects that benefit the wealthy country, does not in any sense constitute aid. It is a business proposition, pure and simple, and one in which one party is in no position to refuse, and in which the other party gains economically. It pushes the poorer country further down, and secures the advantage the wealthy country already enjoys.

For newspapers like the National Post to call this 'altruism' and for commentators like Ian Vasquez to suggest that " the main problem for Africa is the lack of economic freedom" is outrageous. To suggest that the problems of Africa have more to do with Africans' incompetence, and less to do with the western world's predation, is to grossly mis-state the problem.

For, in short, we are the problem.

I agree with the numerous African commentators who say that "Africa's problems will be solved by Africans." Our efforts, collectively, to 'fix' things have resulted in more and more poverty and chaos. Our responsibilities, as citizens of the wealthier western nations, lie elsewhere.

They lie - as Bono and Geldof have correctly surmised - in focusing our attentions on our own leaders and our own practices.

First things first, as the protesters at the G8 conference are arguing, the sham we call 'foreign debt' must be eliminated. Not eliminated so that it will suddenly start raining dollars on African nations. But eliminated so that these nations are at the same time liberated from punitive, unfair and regressive conditions attached to these loans. And eliminated in such a way as to allow Africans to create their own economic policies, without the intereference economists' dogma, without, for example, adding conditions that stipulate that expenditures on health and education be reduced.

We need also to call attention to the practises of our governments and industries in regions like Africa. Companies that act as Talisman did in Sudan or Shell did in Nigeria ought to face the most severe of criminal sanctions. Action must be taken against companies that pay no taxes, abuse employees and force them to work in substandard conditions. Companies cannot be allowed to simply walk away from environmental disasters and blight the way Union Carbide did.

World trade cannot be structured simply in a way that favours developed nations and industries. There must be recognition not only that developing countries need and have a right to protect themselves, but also that there must be some flexibility on things like patents, copyrights and other measures that enforce the existing ownership of, well, everything, by western nations. If world trade is to be restructured, let it be done in such a way that favours less developed nations rather than punishing them.

And we, the nations of the west, should begin repaying our debt to Africa now. This is not aid or assistance or support; it is a fair and honest payment for the wealth and resources we have extracted over the years. The call for 0.7 percent of GDP in foreign aid - a target our leaders are not willing to promise in their own political lifetime - is but a token payment.

Our governments, collectively, must stop propping up dictators and desports and other tyrants. It is easy to sit here and solemnly declare that African nations must develop into democracies. But we need to recognize the role that we have played in putting them there and that we are playing even at this moment in keeping them there. And it is a bit much for us to say to African nations that they must develop democracies when our current practices act against that ambition and when, through our own actions, the necessities of democratic governance - health, education, food, housing - have been denied to generation after generation.

This is us, the people of the west, speaking to our leaders. It must be done. What we have done and continue to to do to kill 30,000 people, 50,000 people, each and every day in Africa, must stop. We need to put our house in order. And when we do that, maybe - finally - Africa can begin to heal.