Identification as an experimental protocol

Answering to Jack about the two forms of identity (absolute and in context), my thesis here will be that there is neither any absolute identity of things, nor even maybe anything to identify, but only identification process, upon which both humans and systems have to agree. So, instead of wondering about the nature of identity, maybe we should try and follow an approach similar to the one Quantum Mechanics have introduced in Physics, focus on identification as an experimental protocol, and forget about the "Uncertain Reality" of the subject [1].
The GAIA exemple posted last week, shows what an identification process looks like in astronomy.

  • Collect data following a well-defined protocol.
  • Define which configuration of data defines a "punctual light source", otherwise said an object potentially identifiable as a star.
  • Define which sets of data (characterized by their types and value distribution) have characteristics conformant to a model of star emission (which is very tricky, since those characteristics vary in a very wide spectrum).
  • Compare those data together (each potential star will be observed many times during the mission).
  • If possible, compare the mission data to previous data and catalogs to match known objects with the ones defined by the mission (taking into account that a star is a living object, of which characteristics are a priori variable, even on small time scales).

The complexity of such a task, that should yield about one billion objects in the sky, is indeed quite similar to identification of the billions of resources on the Web which can be identified as representing a "punctual subject". Thinking that any subject could be represented simply by a single URI is as naive as thinking that any other star in the galaxy have a simple, single, straightforward and stable "observational signature".

[1] "Une Incertaine Réalité" is the original title of a book by Bernard d'Espagnat about the status of reality in Modern Physics. 
Gauthiers-Villars, 1985. ISBN: 2040164049. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/420187422
Not sure it's been translated in English, but other of his books have been, e.g :
"Veiled Reality: An Analysis of Present-Day Quantum Mechanical Concepts"
Publisher: Perseus Books - ISBN: 081334087X. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/30110071


Seeing As...

I just googled "seeing as" and got 405,000 hits. Now, there's a physterity if there ever was one. Some of those posts are really like "seeing as to how..." so they're off topic, sortof, but many of the others are close to the notions of subject identity that I'd like to toss out here. Specifically, I'd like to start the discussion around the notion that subject identity has two (maybe more!) senses, one of which is some absolute identity, and the other of which is context sensitive.

Absolute identity, itself, is a tricky thing. If you start with my name, Jack Park, and google that, you will get some good hits (moi!), and some not-so-good hits, like someone with my name authored a book on sporting events. So, names alone, won't cut it.

in context identity, now that's a whole 'nother bag-o-worms, with an entailment mesh as wide as the universe. So, I'm going to go out on a limb (copyright-wise) and type into here some of the the words of Gian-Carlo Rota [1] who was describing the words of Stanislaw Ulam, under the banner "In Memoriam of Stan Ulam: The Barrier of Meaning". I do so, to start a discussion about that marvelous mantra of working biologists: Context is everything, which comes from the amazing ability of a pluripotent stem cell to morph into just about any of the zillions of kinds of cells in an organism according to the local context, as defined by the hormonal bath surrounding it. This relates directly, I think, to part of the thinking behind the latest topic maps Reference Model in which identity, or the composition of identity in a topic is more robust than naming or published subject indicators. The quote:

"Now look at that man passing by in a car. How do you tell that it is not just a man you are seeing, but a passenger?
When you write down precise definitions for these words, you discover that what you are describing is not an object, but a function, a role that is inextricably tied to some context. Take away the context, and the meaning also disappears.
[skipped text]
Do you then propose that we give up mathematical logic? said I, in fake amazement.
Quite the opposite. Logic formalizes only very few of the processes by which we actually think. The time has come to enrich formal logic by adding to it some other fundamental [n]otions. What is it that you see when you see? You see an object as a key, you see a man in a car as a passenger, you see some sheets of paper as a book. It is the word "as" that must be mathematically formalized, on a par with the connectives "and," "or," "implies," and "not" that have already been accepted into a formal logic."

[1] in Physica 22D (1986) 1-3, North-holland, Amsterdam, and found in Doyne Farmer, Alan Lapedes, Norman Packard, Burton Wendrof, editors, Evolution, Games, and Learning: Models for Adaptation in Machines and Nature, North-Holland.



Toronto, Canada - August 24, 2004 - In a style more reminiscent of cave paintings or the scratchings of ancient Egyptians, scientists at the Blueprint Initiative (Blueprint) research program, led by Dr. Christopher Hogue at Mount Sinai Hospital's Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute, have created a new visual language called OntoGlyphs to help scientists quickly identify the biological attributes of molecules in general and particularly the ones found in the Biomolecular Interaction Network Database (BIND).

"One of the biggest challenges that researchers face is trying to identify the individual molecular needles in the myriad haystacks of biological data. That's why we focused on developing a visual, 'glyphic' language, one that would allow researchers to identify patterns or connections at a glance."


Representation or Reification ?

Interesting debate among Topic Maps gurus (S.Newcomb, L.M. Garshol, M. Altheim ... )

[2015-02-13] Unfortunately those archives are now off-line at the above URI, but available at the Internet Archive.


Identification + Classification = GAIA

With no surprise, the first Google hit for 'Identification + Classification' is about Astronomy. http://www.mpia-hd.mpg.de/GAIA/
The GAIA project is aiming at identifying and classifying over 10^9 light sources, sorting them in stars, solar system objects, galaxies, quasars and the like. Astronomers have always led the way in classification and inventories. This is the next step ...


Reference by Description

Quite close to the previous post :

"How we refer to something is very important in exchanging information about that thing. If the two parties cannot agree on how to refer to a thing, they cannot exchange information about it."


[2015-02-09] Yet another dead link ...

Subject Identity

How things (abstract concepts or real-world stuff) are identified on the Web is a critical issue. I've posted some ideas about it in various places. See e.g.

A recent post by Stella Dextre Clarke in the SWAD Forum shows the complexity of the issue in the framework of Thesaurus management.

[Note 2013-02-05] : Amazed to find out that my Extreme Markup 2001 paper not only is still online on the OASIS archives of the Published Subjects Technical Committee, but shows in the first page of results in a Google search on "subject identity". 


SKOS is an open collaboration developing specifications and standards to support the use of knowledge organisation systems (KOS) on the semantic web. One of the most interesting on-going projects in this area.

[Update 2013-02-05] SKOS has become one of the core vocabularies used in the linked data ecosystem.