||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
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.
|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.
|The Tao of Modularity. Chapter
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
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.
© Copyright 2006 Nicholas Gall.