Do things go wrong, or is it just me?

Consistency seems to be an universal requirement for any account of reality we accept to consider as true. This requirement seems to build slowly in childhood with the acquisition and consolidation of language, along with notions of true and false, and the underlying law of excluded middle, a basis for all rational and scientific accounts of the world. Formal logic and mathematics underlie the growing computational power of our machines, and we also try to make consistent the laws and rules governing our daily life. But whatever the level of formality at which they are used, consistency and truth belong to the realm of discourse. Holding that a discourse is (in)consistent and statements are true or false in the framework of this discourse makes sense and in many cases can be precisely defined and proven by logic. Considering that a statement is true because it seems consistent with reality or at least the state of affairs at hand is more hazardous, but is still useful and is actually the basis for most of our daily decisions. 

But what is more arguable is to consider consistency as a characteristic of the reality itself, independently of any discourse we can have on it. What could that mean? Reality simply is what it is whether we think or speak about it or not, and there is no point in asking if reality is true or false, consistent or inconsistent, all qualifiers which should apply only to statements and discourse. Reality is the state of affairs, the mountain as we experience it, it is not a discourse, even if our discourse is part of it. What can be said true, false, consistent or inconsistent, is that one asserts about this experience. But somehow the experience has those permanent patterns which comfort us in believing that indeed reality is internally consistent and our language can build accounts of it we proudly call facts. Our faith in the internal logic and consistency of reality beyond any account of it has gone as far as considering reality as the embodiment of the discourse of some perfect logos. This metaphysical stance pervades implicitly or explicitly all the occidental thought from Greek philosophy through various avatars of monotheism. We can still track it in modern science, with the quest of the Theory of Everything, which in the mind of some would be a consistent account of no more no less than the thought of God. Of course such a theory should be globally logically consistent, since the creator could not be inconsistent without failing to perfection.

Our philosophy should be more humble. Logic should stay where it came from and belongs, inside language. And when the reality suddenly behave in an unexpected way, inconsistent with those accounts we so far considered as true, instead of thinking first that things have gone wrong, let us admit that it is our account of things which was proven wrong. Things never go wrong, but we often do.


The moving shores of things

I would like to dedicate this post to the victims of last week's attacks in Paris, who were blindly sentenced to death without notice because they were guilty of joie de vivre, or maybe simply of humanity. I started writing those lines before the attacks, and they could seem at first sight to have nothing to do with Daesh madness. But if you are patient enough to read down to the end, I hope you will find relevant food for thought in the context of those events.

Whether things are ontological primitive or abstracted from the states of affairs, as suggested in our previous post, to deny them any kind of existence would fly in the face of common sense and experience. Mountaineers know that there are mountains, rocks and streams, sailors know that there are seas, waves and storms. But ask them what mountain or sea is, and you're likely to get all but a definition. They will certainly tell you awesome stories of climbing and sailing, maybe show you images, and the most sensible of them will just propose to go with them for climbing or sailing to figure by yourself, experiment the thing, be part of it. 
Why is it so? Because being is not being neatly defined. Our logicians and ontologists would like to make us believe that the world can be split neatly between this and that, day and night, land and sea, human and non-human etc, categories which could be logically defined. There are many reasons why they are wrong, the most often quoted being the arbitrary choice of such limits, since the world can be split into things in many ways. A good introduction to the current discussion on this viewpoint called relativism can be found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
But relativism is not the best and primary stance I would choose to argue why trying to give a logical definition of mountain or sea or whatever else is bound to fail forever. The main point is that such things, as well as most things you can think of, have fringes, shores, edges, interfaces ... (the name depending on the kind of things you consider) through which they are less separated from than intertwined with each other. If you look at a shore from far enough, it can look like a neat line. But if you look closely, while walking on a beach or at the edge of a forest, you will discover a very complex world which belongs to neither or both worlds that meet here. On the shore, the sea enters the land and the land feeds the sea in the perpetual circulation of waves and tides. The shore is where land and sea communicate and exchange. At the forest edge, animals perpetually come in and out of the trees' shelter to feed in the grass and fields. And what is the forest itself, if not a shore between earth and sky, with thousands of trees as so many links and knots between the depth of ground and the air. Great examples of such intertwining interfaces are mangroves, known to be extraordinary rich ecosystems.

Mangrove at Cayo Levisa, Cuba.
Source Wikimedia Commons

The concepts we abstract from the world and toss to each other's face in our endless arguments and wars are of the same nature. Between life and death, human and non-human, the limits should look indeed like the above, moving and intertwined. And thinking otherwise that those moving shores are or should be reduced to neat lines is the first step towards totalitarism, exclusion, and death. 

The words and acts of Daesh have gone of course very far down such an alley, but to fight them back we should be careful not to use similar simplistic rhetoric, ignoring the complexity of fringes and shores, replacing them with edges as straight and cutting as their knife's blade. One of those, the most simplistic one still unfortunately thought aloud by too many people, leads to broadly confuse Daesh with Islam, when 99.9% of Muslims condemn the terrorism, and more than 80% of Daesh victims are Muslims. But the defensive stance of many moderate Muslims claiming outloud that Daesh is not Islam, and his members are not the Muslims they claim to be, is equally simplistic and counterproductive. Daesh is indeed a shore of Islam, although a very remote and dangerous one, and moderate Muslims would certainly benefit to acknowledge outloud that such a shore exists, where Islam meets and intertwine with intolerance, obscurantism, organized criminality, thirst for glory and power, or sheer madness. As any shore, you can get there from both sides. From inside Islam through fundamentalism, and from outside through social exclusion and criminality. 
Beyond or inside Islam, we see many people saying or writing that Daesh killers have put themselves by their words and acts deliberately beyond humanity, and therefore could and should be simply shot down as dangerous furious animals. Calling them "monsters" or "barbarians", whatever fits for saying "they are not like us and must be eliminated" is as simplistic and counterproductive as the above claim "they are not Muslims". Daesh killers certainly dwell on some strange and frightening fringe of humanity, so far off that they are even able to shake the notions we have of what makes humanity. But whether humans or barely so, barbarians, monsters, or simply mad criminals, in any case they have come to this deadly shores from inside humanity, and we need to understand how they got there to prevent more young people to follow the same paths.


Mountains as states of affairs

Trying to make sense of the deep work of Jan Christoph Westerhoff about ontological categories, reality and everything, along with a slow but steady learning of Chinese language and ancient philosophy, leads you to consider as ontological primitive the states of affairs, instead of good old semantic web things and properties, the latter being derived artefacts of the former, not the other way round. Let's try to illustrate this as simply as possible.
Consider a mountain. On the semantic web you represent a mountain as an instance of owl:Thing or one of its specific subclasses such as schema:Mountain. You claim to have defined a non-ambiguous individual identified by a URI and described by an open set of property-value pairs, such as http://dbpedia.org/resource/Mount_Everest.

But in the view of the world proposed by both Westerhoff philosophy and the Chinese language (insofar as I understand them properly), the above are just abstractions derived from some state of affairs. The chinese 山(shān) we translate in English as mountain(s) is a sign associated with certain aspects of things, or states of the world. We have to be very cautious on terms here, and not take for granted that existence of "things" and "the world" are preconditions to the states of affairs we associate with the sign 山. In ancient Chinese culture where this sign first emerged about three thousands years ago, the world is not divided into things before we name them. Certain states of affairs, patterns we recognize again and again, lead us to associate a sign to them. 山 is just an abstract visual representation of those states of affairs presenting peaks rising upward, a main central one and another one of each side, slightly asymmetrical. A mountain is indeed generally mountains, bearing in mind "three" has to be understood as a shortcut for "many".

The difference between considering there are such things in the world as individual mountains and we just give them individual names and put them in a category, and considering mountains as states of affairs we associate using a common sign or name, might appear subtle or moot. But it is indeed a fundamental shift of our view of the world. States of affairs are not neat individuals defined by properties, they are not separated from each other, they have neither precise limits in space and time, nor definite components and properties. Of course we can try to agree and generally agree to disagree upon such limits and components, and argue forever on what is or is not a mountain in general or this mountain in particular. And we actually argue upon what is a human being, or a book, or a Web resource, or democracy ... This kind of argument is interestingly called in Chinese 是非 (shì fēi), literally meaning "being - not being", hence "right - wrong" and in common language dispute, argument. There is much food for thought in this word. Dispute arises when the language gets out of its original role of simply putting signs on state of affairs, going down to argue on what there is and is not behind signs, in other words, when the language mingles into ontology and meaning instead of sticking to what it's really made for - poetry.

I wish you to stay away from dispute, walk up and listen to the mountain songs.


It is so because it is so

I've been through a few mountain paths and Chinese ancient texts this summer, both demanding fitness and attention of body and mind, and quite interesting to put together. 


The above image I captured yesterday, the caption is extracted from one of the most challenging pages of Zhuangzi, quite close in spirit to another taoist piece we've been through in a previous post. We have here also a symmetrical sentence conveying the idea of a parallel ontogenesis for paths and things. The following is my synthesis of various translations.

Walk the path and it is completed
Name the thing and it is like this

The second part is indeed close to Laozi (having a name is the mother of all things). The implicit assumption, in a taoist context, is that there are adequate ways for both walking and naming. Even if, like in the above image, the path is barely visible and seems to vanish at some point. Such unsteady tracks quickly disappear if not regularly trodden, but they are not as contingent as they could seem. Even without any visible track, any (good) walker would make its way through the scree towards the background pass following a more or less similar path. From a taoist viewpoint, the (good) walker's path would fit the lines of the landscape, his path in harmony with the general way of things, both being called 道 (tao). The (wise) man will do the same in naming things, following the natural lines of his current cultural landscape. Bearing in mind that this landscape is bound to change, hence neither path or thing have any absolute and definitive existence.
And Zhuangzi in the following sentence pounds the point that there is no need for further explanation or dispute about it, through the insisting use of the word , meaning here "so" or "like this". The (adequate) path is so because it is so, the (adequate) thing is so because it is so. 

The translation at Chinese Text Project is adding an extra layer of interpretation.

A path is formed by (constant) treading on the ground. 
A thing is called by its name through the (constant) application of the name to it. 

This "constant" is not explicit in the original text, but it makes sense in the cultural context of Zhuangzi writing. For the track to become a path, it has to be trodden again an again by many people, and the name gets its meaning by usage. Paths and things are polished cultural artefacts. 


Weaving beyond the Web

More on this story of names (including URIs) and text (including the Web), as promised to all those who have provided a much appreciated feedback to the previous post. I'm still a bit amazed by the feedback coming from the SEO community, because I really did not have SEO in mind. But I must admit I'm totally naive in this domain, and tend to stick to principles such as do what you have to do, say what you have to say, make it clear and explicit, and let search engines do their job, quality content will float towards the top. And explicit semantic markup is certainly part of the content quality. Very well ... but that was not my point at all. That said, any text is likely to be read and interpreted many ways, and there is often more in it than its author was aware of. And actually, this is akin to what I am about today, the meaning of a text beyond its original context of production.

Language is an efficient and resilient distributed memory, where names and statements can live as long as they are used. And even if not used any more, they can nevertheless live forever if part of some story we keep telling, reading, commenting and translating, some text we are still able to decipher. We still use or at least are able to make sense of texts forged by ancient languages thousands of years ago, even if the things they used to name and speak about do not exist any more. Dead people, buildings and cities returned to ground centuries ago, obsolete tools and ways of life, forgotten deities, concepts of which usage has faded away, the names of all those we nevertheless keep in the memory of languages - the texts. Some of us still read and make sense of ancient Greek and Latin, or even ancient Egypt hieroglyphs. The physical support of this memory has changed over time, from oral transmission to bamboo, clay tablets, papyrus, manuscripts and printed books, analogic and numeric supports of all kinds, today the cloud and what else tomorrow. Insofar as such migrations were possible at all, we trust the resilience of our language.

How do URIs fit in this story? URIs are a very recent kind of names, and RDF triples a new and peculiar form of weaving sentences. People who forged the first of them are still around, and they have been developed for a very specific technical context, which is the current architecture of the Web. Will they survive and mean something centuries from now? Do and will the billions of triples-statements-sentences we have written since the turn of the century make sense beyond the current context of the Web? Like Euclid's Elements, are they likely to live forever in long meaning?

Let's make a thought experiment to figure it. We are in 2115, the current Web architecture has been overriden since 2070 by some new technological infrastructure we can barely figure out in 2015, no more no less than our grandmothers in 1915 could figure the current Web architecture. HTTP is obsolete, data is exchanged through whatever new protocol. Good old HTTP URIs don't dereference to anything anymore since half a century. Do they still name something? Do the triples still make sense? Imagine you have saved all or part of the 2015 RDF content, and you have still software able to read it - just a text reader will do. Can you still make sense of it? Certainly, if you have a significant corpus. If you have the full download of 2015 DBpedia or WorldCat, most of its content should be understandable if the natural language has not changed too much. Hopefully this should be the case. We read without problem in 2015 the texts written by 1915. And if you have saved a triple store infrastructure and software, you might still be able to query those data in SPARQL by 2115. Triples are triples, either on the Web or outside it.

What lesson do we bring home from this travel to the future? Like any text, URIs and triples can survive and be meaningful well beyond the current Web infrastructure, they belong to the unfolding history of language and text. Of course today the Web infrastructure allows easy navigation, query and building services on top of them. But when forging URIs and weaving triples, consider that beyond the current Web what you write can live forever if it's worth it. Your text is likely to be translated into formats, languages and read through supports and infrastructures you just can't imagine today. Worth thinking about it before publishing. Text never dies.


From names to sentences, the Web language story.

Conversation about text and names and how they are interwoven within the Web architexture is going on here and there. The more it goes, the more I feel we need more non technical narratives and metaphors to have people get what the (Semantic) Web is all about. We have drowned them under technical talks and schemas of layers of architecture and protocols and data structures and ontologies and applications ... and the neat result is that too many of them, and smart people, think only experts, engineers and geeks can grok it. So let me try one of such - hopefully simple - narratives. 

The story of the Web is just the story of language, continued by other means. Forging names to call things, and weaving those names in sentences and texts. On the Web, things have those weird names called URIs, but names all the same. As we have seen in a previous post, a name is to begin with a way to shout and identify people and things in the night. On the Web to call a thing by its URI-name you will use some interface, a browser, a service, an application, and at this call something will come through the interface. Well, the thing you have called does not actually come itself to you through the network, but you get something which is hopefully a good enough representation of the thing. The deep ontological question of the relationship between the name and what is named has been discussed for ages and will continue forever. The Web does not change that issue, does not solve it, just provides new use cases and occasions to wonder about it. But this is not my point today.

On the first ages of the Web, calling things was all you could do with those URI-names. You had the language ability of a two years old kid. You could say "orange" or "milk" when you were thirsty, and "dog" and "cat" and "car" and "sea" and "plane" when you saw or wanted one, and cry for everything else you could not express or the dumb Web would not understand. With no more sophisticated language constructs, you could nevertheless discover the wealth of the Web, through iterative serendipitous calls. Because courtesy of the Web is such that when you call for a thing the answer comes often back with a bunch of other names you can further call (an hyperlink just does that, enabling you to call another name just by a click). You would bring back home things you had not the faintest idea of the very existence a minute before. Remember this jubilation, the magic of your first Web navigation, twenty years ago? Like a kid laughing aloud when discovering the tremendous power of names to call things.
Today in many (most) of our interactions with the Web we are no more aware of using names. We make actions with our fingertips, barely guessing that under the hood, this is transformed in a client calling a server or something on this server by some name, and many calls are made on the network to bring back what your fingers asked. Only geeks and engineers know that. The youngest generations who have not known the first ages of the Web, and interact only through such interfaces, are plainly ignoring all that names affair. Did you say URL Dad? What's that? It sounds so 90's ...

Now when you grow older than two, you go beyond using names just for shouting them in the face of the world, you begin to understand and build yourself sentences. That's a complete new experience, a new dimension of language unfolding. You link names together, you discover the texture, the power to understand and invent stories and to ask and answer questions. You still use the same names, you are still interested in oranges, cats, dogs and cars, and all the thousands of things which are the children of naming. But you are now able to weave them together using verbs (predicates), qualifiers and quantifiers and logical coordination. You have become a language weaver.

And that's exactly and simply what the Semantic Web is about, and how it extends the previous Web. Just growing and learning to weave sentences, telling stories, asking questions. But using the same URI-names as before. Any URI-name of the good old Web can become a part of the Semantic Web. Just write a sentence, publish a triple using it as subject or object, and here you are. 


Text = Data + Style

We used to consider the Web as an hypertext, a smart and wonderful extension of the writing space. It is now rather viewed and used as a huge connected and distributed data base. Search engines tend to become smart query interfaces for direct question-answering, rather than guides to the Web landscape. Writing-reading-browsing the hypertext, which was the main activity on the first Web, is more and more replaced by quick questions asking for quick answers in the form of data, if possible fitting the screen size of a mobile interface, and better encapsulated in applications. Is this the slow death of the Web of Text, killed by the Web of Data?
For a data miner, text is just a sort of primitive and cumbersome way to wrap data, from which the precious content has to be painfully extracted, like a gem from a dumb bedrock. But if you are a writer, you might consider the other way round that data is just what you are left with when you have stripped the text of its rhythm, flavor, eagerness from the writer to get in touch with the reader, in one word, style. Why would one bother about style? +Theodora Karamanlis puts it nicely in her blog Scripta Manum under the title "Writing: Where and How to begin".
You want readers to be able to differentiate you from amongst a group of other writers simply by looking at your  style: the “this-is-me-and-this-is-what-I-think” medium of writing. 
Writing on the Web is weaving, as we have seen in the previous post, and your style in this space is the specific texture you give to it locally, in both modern graphical sense and old meaning of way of weaving. The Web is indeed a unified (hyper)text space where anything can be weaved to anything else, but this is achieved through many local different styles or textures. It would be a pity to see this diversity and wealth drowned in the flood of data.
We've learnt those days that Google is working on a new kind of ranking, based on the quality of data (facts, statements, claims) contained in pages. But do or will search engines include style in their ranking algorithms? Can they measure it, and take it into account in search results and personal recommandations, based on your style or the styles you seem to like? Some algorithms are able to identify writing styles the same way other ones identify people and cats in images, or music performers. If I believe I Write Like I just tried on some posts of this blog, I'm supposed to write like I. Asimov or H.P. Lovecraft. Not sure how I should take that. But such technologies applied to compare blogs' styles could yield interesting results and maybe create new links that would not be discovered otherwise.
The bottom line of our data fanatics here could be that after all, style is just another data layer. I'm not ready yet to buy that. I prefer the metaphor of style as a texture. Data is so boring.