Updated: 9/21/2006; 6:15:42 AM.
Nick Gall's Weblog
[NOTE: I have moved. My new blog is ironick.typepad.com.]

Friday, November 12, 2004

A good memory is like a good notation.
While surfing the Getty Research Institute's Metadate resources (which is a great resource for information standards), I ran across this quote from Vannevar Bush's profoundly influential article "As We May Think" (which influenced Ted Nelson's Xanadu, which influenced Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web):

Presumably man's spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his record more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursion may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting manifold things he does not need to have immediately to hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important. Vannevar Bush, "As We May Think", The Atlantic Monthly, July 1945. [emphasis added]

I love this quote because it reminds me of my favorite quote about the importance of good notation:

By relieving the brain of all unnecessary work, a good notation sets it free to concentrate on more advanced problems, and, in effect, increases the mental power of the race. Before the introduction of the Arabic notation, multiplication was difficult, and the division even of integers called into play the highest mathematical faculties. Probably nothing in the modern world would have more astonished a Greek mathematician than to learn that ... a large proportion of the population of Western Europe could perform the operation of division for the largest numbers. This fact would have seemed to him a sheer impossibility ... Our modern power of easy reckoning with decimal fractions is the almost miraculous result of the gradual discovery of a perfect notation. [...] By the aid of symbolism, we can make transitions in reasoning almost mechanically, by the eye, which otherwise would call into play the higher faculties of the brain. [...] It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilisation advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle -- they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments. [emphasis added]
-- Alfred North Whitehead, An Introduction to Mathematics, 1911

So Vannevar its talking about enabling humanity to simplify thought by minimizing what must be remembered, and Whitehead is talking about simplifying thought by minimizing the operations we can do without conscious thought. Both desires presages the computer's ability to augment human thought by carrying out mental operations, including memory, for us.

7:26:41 AM      

Some say, WS-* is too complex; I say, Compared to what?
While the controversy over WS-Complexity (which seems to have been catalyzed by Tim Bray's Loyal WS-Opposition post; see these references to Tim's post; see also my collection of WS-Complexity references) seems to be dying down, I did want to add my two cents to the debate.

In all the blog postings I've seen on the subject, not one has compared the current WS-* processes for developing, debating, and adopting Web Services and their output to the IETF standards processes and their output.

Clearly, in terms of number of pages, the IETF specs far outweigh WS-* specs, yet few would argue that the IETF process of "rough consensus and working code" is a failure. Nobody complains that anyone can submit an RFC draft at the drop of a hat. How is that different from MSFT, IBM, et al announcing a proposed WS-* spec every week?

I believe that the "federated" standards processes emerging around WS-* is a worthy successor to the IETF approach. I characterize it as "federated" because WS-* related standards are designed in different standards bodies and WS-I is emerging as the "meta-standards body" that integrates and interop-certifies the standards coming out of the other standards bodies.

I characterize the WS-* federated standards processes as a "worthy successor" to the IETF, because the traditional approach to standards is a dead as the dodo. Ever since the US federal legislation enabling industry consortia in the 1990s, they have become the standards center of gravity, for better or worse. Standards setting bodies and their interactions has become the central domain of the emerging economic model of co-opetition. It just so happens that the Web and WS-* are the first major Guinea pigs of this new paradigm.

The point I'm trying to make is to suggest that the current WS-* proliferation of WS-* specs is a sign of a vibrant, decentralized innovative community. The same is true of the proliferation of XML vocabularies across the board. This is a sign that this stuff is easy to design with. Let's declare victory and move on. The wheat will be separated from the chaff when such specs are put to use in the marketplace.

7:02:43 AM      

The Tao of Modularity.
Chapter 11

Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

I read the Tao Te Ching many times as a philosophy major at Yale and for years after, but I haven't read it the last ten years. I guess I'd better read it again. "Usefulness [comes from] what is not there" beautifully states the value of modular extensibility. What is intriguing is the distinction between profit and usefulness.

At first pass it seems obvious that the maker of a modular object, like a clay vessel is paid for (on thereby makes a profit from) "what is there". On second pass, it strikes me that the user of the vessel makes a profit from "what is not there", either by adding it on, or by using the space to some purpose, say transporting liquid in the vessel. So the last two lines could be recast:

Therefore profit to the maker comes from what is there;
Profit to the user from what is not there.

Finally, the more I think about it, the more I believe that the profit to the maker really comes from what is not there. A potter buys a block of clay at a certain cost. Her "value add" is the vessel shape she forms the clay into. Someone pays her more money for the clay in the shape of a vessel than in the shape of the raw block of clay because the buyer values the shape--what is not there. Assuming she uses the entire clay block to make the vessel, her profit is the price of the vessel minus the price of the clay block. Now suppose she could get the same price for a vessel made from only half the block of clay. She has doubled her profit by halving "what is there." So the last two lines would be more clear if they were recast as:

Therefore profit is limited by what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

Which is another way of saying "Less is [worth] more." Which is why intangible artifacts (aka intellectual property) are the most profitable. There is no there there.

6:06:09 AM      

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