Archive for March, 2005

The Well at 20: A virtual community all grown up

Thursday, March 31st, 2005

The WELL, one of the oldest virtual communities, turns 20 today.

Online games run amok

Thursday, March 31st, 2005

A Guardian newspaper article that speaks to the sheer magnitude of the online gaming community in China and the degree to which it’s gotten out of control:

A spate of suicides, deaths by exhaustion and legal disputes about virtual possessions have been blamed on internet role-play games, which are estimated to have more than 40 million players in China.

The article highlights the story of one individual who’s facing the death penalty for killing a (real) person for stealing his (virtual) weapon.

Interoperability in sharing species data

Thursday, March 31st, 2005

The class is currently reading “The Green Internet”, a chapter in Conservation in the Internet Age, edited by James N. Levitt (2002, Island Press). It discusses the problem posed by the plethora of biodiversity data collected by museums and others that remains isolated in separate institutions:

After 300 years of species inventory, the biodiversity science community lacked the means–an information architecture and a set of common practices–for the discovery, retrieval, and integration of data. From one collection to the next–often within the same institution–underlying specimen data are heterogeneous and incompatible. The data are recorded and stored in thousands of idiosyncratic, independently developed information systems and are dispersed worldwide across academia, government agencies, conservation organizations, research institutions, and private museums (p. 146).

The solution is an architecture called Species Analyst that creates a standard for storing and sharing information, as well as an interface and tools for analyzing data. Species Analyst was developed by a consortium of biodiversity researchers and computer scientists at the University of Kansas’s Biodiversity Research Center and the Natural History Museum.

A report from the Cover Pages covers some of the technical details:

The Species Analyst relies heavily upon the fusion of the ANSI/NISO Z39.50 standard for information retrieval (ISO 23950) and XML. Z39.50 provides an excellent framework for distributed query and retrieval of information both within and across information domains. However, its use is restrictive because of the somewhat obscure nature of its implementation. All of the tools used by the Species Analyst transform Z39.50 result sets into an XML format that is convenient to process further, either for viewing or data extraction. This fusion of Z39.50 and XML brings standards based information retrieval to the desktop by extending the capabilities of existing tools that users are familiar with such as Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Excel and ESRI’s ArcView.

The Inter-American Biodiversity Information Network (IABIN) has a slide show that demonstrates the structure and features of Species Analyst.

What’s interesting about the chapter is not its report on the technical challenges of broad system diffusion, which are considerable, but its discussion of the social barriers to interoperability. First, the article points out that “too many museums have not grasped the first principle of the information age–namely, that access to their authoritative biotic information for knowledge creation and decision making is as valuable as the information itself” (p. 155). What the authors do not acknowledge is that transforming data into a format compatible with the information age (e.g., using the Darwin code standards) takes a lot of time and resources. Who in academia and elsewhere has the time to adapt their datasets to a particular standard and what’s in it for them? This is not a cynical review of university practices but a pragmatic reflection on the paradigm in which academics operate. The focus is on doing what’s necessary to get published and therefore advance in one’s career. Fail to complywith the paradigm and you get fired/aren’t promoted. This paradigm fails to recognize the prosaic needs of academia to broadly diffuse its source data after the articles are published. Not recognizing the prosaic needs means not giving out grants to do it or acknowledging the effort when promotion time comes around.

Second, the authors indicate that many institutions have policies that discourage and even prohibit sharing of biodiversity data. The authors don’t mention that many of these policies protect the intellectual property of the individuals as well as the intellectual capital of the institutions. Institutions may be governed by liability concerns over potential misuse of the data or copyright laws over which they have no control. For example, Canada operates under Crown Copyright Law (e.g., all the benefits of government activity must financially benefit the Queen), which renders nearly impossible sharing of spatial data by government agencies.

Third, the authors report that the successful integration and publication of all of the species collections will convince decision makers in institutions and government that sufficient amounts of data already have been collected to analyze biodiversity. Therefore, no further funds are necessary. This is, of course, the irony of developing a system such as Species Analyst, which has as its raison d’etre the idea that if only we could integrate all the species information out there, we could conduct phenomenal analyses of the world’s biodiversity. Why collect any more data or why not wait until the analyses are done before we collect more data? Promoting the system for broad diffusion inevitably undercut the need for further basic data collection. This speaks to the low regard in which basic research is held, on both the left (“Who needs basic research on an insignificant species such as snail darters when there’s so much poverty in the world?”) and the right (“Basic research on an insignificant species such as snail darters impeded economic development, which is more important to the well-being of individuals”). It also speaks to the myth of technology that it can automatically create knowledge out of data.

Last, the authors mention that lots of data is still not associated with technology nor with geography. For example, what do you do about the legions of archival data that exists in museums? Who’s paid to adapt collections data that can stretch back to the 1800’s? Also, most data doesn’t have locational data (location is a prime method used to integrate data in Species Analyst) or has vague spatial data (e.g., a species may be found along a river reach instead of at a specific point). I’ve discovered instances in which the geographic data collected by biologists is irrelevant to their studies. The lat/long point at which data is collected really represents an entire region (even though the actual point has been GPSd) or represents an ideal landscape in which species are modeled. Datasets which contain abundant temporal and species diversity may be represented by one data point.

I don’t want to detract from the research achievement of Species Analyst. Many people propose architectures to increase interoperability for biodiversity data but few engage in the technical difficulties of actual implementation. Still, interoperability can be limited more by social hurdles than by technical obstacles.

UN Conference on Climate Change

Wednesday, March 30th, 2005

Canada will host the first meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol in Montreal in conjunction with the eleventh session of the Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention. The Conference will take place from November 28 to December 9 at the Palais des Congrès in Montréal.

For those of you who are in Montreal, this will be a chance to be close to policy making in action.

For more information, see the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

Computer Reuse and Recycling in Montreal

Monday, March 28th, 2005

The people at No Computer Should Go To Waste are offering a city-wide (Montreal, QC, that is) disposal of computers. It’s on Saturday, April 16. Check the site for location, although I believe it’s the recycling station at Jarry.

Good news. First, the event organizers promise that computers will not be disposed of in landfills. Nor will they be sent to China or Mexico. Second, your computer could be reused as well if it meets the following conditions:

– If your computer is less than 5 years old and in working order

– The System must have Hard Drive, Monitor, Keyboard, & Mouse [but they’ll also take laptops].

– The Software License Agreements should be taped to the CPU box for installed software.

– YOU are responsible for removal of all personal information in the hard drive.

– Hardware needing repair is considered on a case-by-case basis.

You have to register your computer on the site to be eligible for the reuse.

If you run a nonprofit in the Montreal area, you could also get one of these computers free.

On April 16, as an added bonus, the people who are organizing the recycling event are promising music , entertainment , take-away green goodies and valuable awards for volunteers at the event.

acronym database

Monday, March 28th, 2005

Here’s another item that relates to how knowledge and information are defined in the digital age. The Acronym Finder is a database of more than 400,000 acronyms and their definitions. I would guess well over 2/3 of these acronyms are technology-related and most are probably Internet-related. What has our discourse come to when we require 400,000 acronyms to describe what we’re saying? I think I might have to join the AAAA. Maybe this blog needs an ACO. How many AFN do you think there are? Here’s one for the AHOF: TLA.


Monday, March 28th, 2005

From the Guardian newspaper:

More than 1,000 tonnes of contaminated household refuse disguised as waste paper on its way to be recycled in China is to be sent back to Britain after being intercepted in the Netherlands.

Dutch environment ministry officials believe that British refuse is being systematically dumped in poor countries via the port of Rotterdam, the largest container port in Europe. In one of the biggest international scams uncovered in years, they say waste companies across Europe are colluding to avoid paying escalating landfill and recycling charges.

What next? Garbage stuffed into computer monitors sent to be recycled?

Thanks to Louis-Philip for catching this.

google bombing

Sunday, March 27th, 2005

Go to Google and type miserable failure and then hit the I Feel Lucky button.

By now, you may have already heard of this practice of “google bombing.” The results of a google search relate not only to the content of pages but also to how often and in what ways pages are linked to. Basically people can manipulate Google’s search results faily easily by adding pages to the web that link to other pages using certain words. Here is one article and another one about this — incidentally these articles come up in the search for “miserable failure.”

Not only is this an interesting thing to know about but it also raises questions about the usefulness and reliability of search tools on the Internet. Google has been heralded by some as the be-all and end-all of search engines and it does do a pretty good job but in reality it’s a popularity contest. The Internet has fundamentally changed how we think about and organize knowledge – but has it been for the better? What about an authoritative, content-based cataloguing system for the net as opposed to all these popularity contests?

God and the Chip

Sunday, March 27th, 2005

This short phrase from a NYTimes magazine article on The Soul of the Exurb demonstrates the integration of computers and religion.

Rick Warren, the leader of one of the largest churches in the US and the writer of the book that outsold the bible (”The Purpose-Driven Life”)… “describes his purpose-driven formula as an Intel chip that can be inserted into the metaphorical motherboard of any church.”

How much have computers pervaded our lives that they can even be used to describe one of the strongest phenomena in North America, the rise of the megachurch (attendees>2,000)? It also explains the “plug and play” nature of our lives, something the article captures beautifully, that ideologies can be effortlessly inserted into or removed from religion. You don’t like the guilt trip? Enter the feel-good arena. Feel alienated by a numbing suburb in which you cannot and do not wish to put down roots? Try the megachurch with its relatively secular community services. It takes all the work out of greater spiritual understanding and out of community–that is the physical community–building.

Read the whole article. In addition to a description of our lives, it’s a great sociological study, particularly the emergence of the church as the public sphere (minus the dissent, of course).

Lazy Day

Friday, March 25th, 2005

A respite from a stressful week.

Open Source Climate Change

Thursday, March 24th, 2005

There was a post in slashdot a few days ago, about some of the politics and debates that get started by the competing models for how climate is changing. The post, implies one group of researchers is criticizing another, for not publishing the source code they’re using for their model, but only the general algorithms.

The source code is the plain text which can be turned into a computer program you can run, the algorithm, simplistically would be the idea of what the source code implements. The critics in this case seem to be alluding to the idea that it’s difficult or impossible to replicate and thus verify the results of the simulation if one cannot reproduce the software used to generate the results. It’s an interesting discussion, should researchers be forced to publish the source code when presenting data? Many of the concepts ‘science’ is based on, rely on being able to independently reproduce results, which may be nearly impossible if one has to recode the algorithm, as for any somewhat complicated algorithm, there are likely to be many subtly different ways to implement it.

Websites into Space

Thursday, March 24th, 2005

And this isn’t just because Craig’s a friend; it’s just too weird.

From CNN

On March 11, a company called Deep Space Communications Network beamed the first commercial transmission of a Web site into space.

The message? Over one hundred thousand separate postings from, the popular community Web site that includes classified listings for jobs, housing and other goods. The transmission included a date and time stamp, as well as an audio track identifying the message as originating from Earth.

In case an alien needs an apartment or used washing machine, it’s all set.

Climate Change arguments from the Left

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2005

Do some leftist social science critiques so damage the planet that we shouldn’t engage in them?

Here is an example from the 2001 issue of The Annals for the Association of American Geographers in which David Demeritt argues that we should fully explore the social construction of climate change models. Social constructionists argue that politics, culture, and power influence the building and application of such things as Global Circulation Models (GCMs). Power can derive from politicians eager to exploit uncertainty over science as a cover to advance corporate agendas or from academics eager to promote their discipline as the sole source of prediction on climate.

The author does provide mea culpas on the use of leftist critiques by the right as a way to undercut the entire climate change project. However, I think that he vastly understates the ammunition that his own efforts lend to opponents of climate change.

GM and Globalisation

Monday, March 21st, 2005

There has been concern to monitor GM foods, and research has been conducted, but it is our curiousity that keeps people from disregarding the bans. We saw what happend to Dolly, the cloned sheep, with premature ageing. Now cloned human embryos can also go through that process. In the UK there is a briefing from genewatch that highlights new GM plants and crops worldwide. GM foods are widely adopted in North America, but for the rest of the world, there is continued controversy over using them. In Hawaii, there has been a GM papaya resistant to viral disease grown extensively since 1998. Thailand is now trying hard to remove their GM papaya and there are no longer exports to Europe for fear of spreading contamination. China is considering to grow GM rice. Rice takes up one quarter of the agricultural land, so if any disaster were to happen, it would be on a large scale. There is a lot of concern, that with the rise of globalisation, there will be more disruption of native, natural ecosystems, as new plants are introduced. GM foods can provide protection from insects and disease, they can offer longer shelf life (apparently pringles and kraftdinner are GM, as well as a whole list of others). But they can also create problems for the environment, as the ecosystem is displaced, and the GM crop may take over a native species which may eventually become extinct. If there is going to be GM of plants and crops, I think it should be done indoors, in greenhouses, with tightly secured walls, so that we don’t disrupt the natural landscapes. We only have one world…

Xbox 2 will be Microtransaction enabled

Monday, March 21st, 2005

We discussed in class how some people were ready to pay real money to buy virtual goods in online games.
Well it’s seems like microsoft and games publisher won’t miss out on this opportunity to cash in more money.
The Xbox 2, to be realeased sometime next year, will enable “real money” microtransactions (a few cents to a few dollars) to buy virtual goods from virtual stores that will enhance the gamer experience. Microsoft expect an additional $5 million per game in revenue from this service.

Now that money seems to be breaking the barrier between the real and the virtual world, I think it’s worth wondering about a few questions:

Will I be able to get insurance for my virtual space ship. I mean if I spend hundreds of hardly earned real dollars in a real job to buy the best weapons and shield for my virtual space ship I might want to insure it in case my enemy destroy it. I might also want to get life insurance for my Sims character.

Furthermore if somebody vandalize my ship, can I take legal actions against him for vandalizing my property? Is the virtual ship actually my property?

Are virtual goods taxable?

Do I have to declare the online gaming points that I earned in my income tax report?

How much a dollar is worth in virtual gaming points, is there some kind of floating currency exchange rate?

Can I get a loan from my bank to buy this super new reactor for my virtual ship? Will they consider my virtual ship as a good enough guarantee for the loan?

In brief there is a lot of funny questions like this that seems to arise, some might be ridiculous, some might already have answers, but my point is that by introducing real money in virtual gaming world, it seems to me like it’s going to make it even harder for some people to draw a line between the virtual and the real.

Organize your brain just as easily as you organize your computer

Monday, March 21st, 2005

This NYTimes article describes software that will help us organize our thoughts and ideas. After all, are not our brains no more than a set of file folders or a road map? (I wish it was but then I’m reminded of the state of my office and my inability to read maps.)

The article also explains the origin of this collection of software:

Both programs grew from the “Mind Mapping” movement, which is more famous in Britain and other parts of Europe than in North America, and whose origins are usually attributed to Tony Buzan. Beginning in Britain in the 1960’s, Mr. Buzan popularized the idea that to learn new topics, organize thoughts and become creative, people should draw “mind maps” on big sheets of paper, ideally with crayons or pens of many different colors. Mr. Buzan’s theories, including his 10 strict “laws” for drawing such maps, are available in his many books and seminars and at his Web site.

Who would have thought that crayons would improve university lectures? 😉

IMAXs and evolution

Monday, March 21st, 2005

Without comment from our neighbours to the south.

From the Guardian, Creationists take their fight to the really big screen

They are the epitome of safe family entertainment, renowned for lavish animations, exquisitely filmed scenes of natural grandeur and utterly tame scripts. But IMAX films have suddenly found themselves catapulted into controversy, thanks to their occasional use of the dreaded E-word: evolution. In several states, IMAX cinemas — including some at science museums — are refusing to show movies that mention the subject or suggest that the Earth’s origins do not conform with biblical descriptions.

Reading the NYTimes article on the same issue, it becomes clear that decisions by American IMAX theatres have impacts here as well.

The number of theaters rejecting such films is small, people in the industry say – perhaps a dozen or fewer, most in the South. But because only a few dozen Imax theaters routinely show science documentaries, the decisions of a few can have a big impact on a film’s bottom line – or a producer’s decision to make a documentary in the first place.

Evolution not Revolution

Monday, March 21st, 2005

Just some thoughts I’ve had since our class on thursday. It seems like at first glance, a lot of these things that are taking place on the internet and otherwise are huge leaps from what happened before. But I feel like on closer inspection, many things which at first seem to be wildly different, are just familiar things projected into a very slightly different domain. It reminds me of the nature of ‘discovery’, often what are touted as new discoveries are just incremental improvements.

It may seem weird to us right now that people are purchasing virtual land for real dollars, but it must have seemed equally weird when people started buying futures on the stock market, liability insurance against things which will never happen. However those things are natural outgrowths of speculative stock trading, and fixed liability situations.

It’s also important to remember that just because something is touted as the way of the future, does not mean everything changes overnight. The new and old often co-exist for long periods of time, and who is to say which will win out in the end (whoops if you bought a laserdisc!).

I was reminded of this while I was reading this Reporter (I know… I know…) article which I happened to be reading in the back row of my class.

In reference to installing wireless access points in classrooms:

Masi said that some professors have requested wireless access be not available in classrooms, for fear that it would lead to a modern equivalent of students reading a newspaper in the back row.

When will it Stop?

Sunday, March 20th, 2005

Although there are various indicators of global warming, when will it be enough to say we’ve got to stop our current inappropriate actions? If we decide to designate an area as a wildlife refuge, we should maintain our word. I wouldn’t trust any government that goes against its word, unless it’s to help its citizens over the long term. This is unfortunately not the case. In a BBC News Article Senators voted 51-49 to allow oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildife Refuge. If he thinks this is going to help the country, he’s crazy. What’s ironic is that the problem is cyclic. If he uses the money to fund technology, for instance, like GIS, he’ll be using GIS to find out why the country is doing so poorly.

Reading Novels on your Mobile

Saturday, March 19th, 2005

The new addition to the paperless society, you can now read novels on your cellphone in Japan, (soon coming to north america). It seems to be picking up in Japan, in the article they even say that a lot of people are reading novels on their mobile at home????????? I don’t know if it is easier to read Japanese characters in a small screen than it is to read english or french, but I could hardly imagine myself reading a whole novel on my cellphone where not even a whole sentence fit on the screen.