furia furialog · The War Against Silence · Aedliga (songs) · photography · code · other things     ↑vF
21 February 2011 to 12 May 2010
It is late February, 2011, and my daughter Lyra is not yet 4. She has been an actual person for a very long time, of course, but I would like to state, for the record, that I feel like some sort of threshold was crossed this evening while she and I were playing The Light Asservancy Game, and she is now not only an actual person, but an actual person I do not expect to ever again claim to entirely understand.  

The Light Asservancy Game is called that because that's what Lyra said it is called, although having done so she now denies that this is its name, and insists instead that it has some other name which she has never mentioned because she has forgotten it. What word she meant "Asservancy" to be, if indeed she meant something else, I have not the slightest idea.  

The Light Asservancy Game is a kind of nihilist parody of a Socratic dialogue, played by two people taking two nominally oppositional roles known as "The One Who Says the Lights Are On" and "The Other One". A round is traditionally begun by The One Who Says the Lights Are On, usually by saying "The lights are on!" There are no specific requirements after this point, but it is the general task of The Other One to methodically, impluasibly and with self-certainty of ever-increasing scope, deny the existence of commonplace ideas and elements of reality. E.g.: "The lights are not on." "Yes they are!" "No, and what's more, there are no such thing as lights." "Yes there are, there're some right there!" "No, there is no such thing as light. There is only eternal, all-encompassing darkness." "But there are flashlights!" "No, there are only flashdarks, and all they do is add even more darkness to the total completeness darkness that already fills every inch of the universe." "There's not darkness in every inch!" "Yes, and silence. Pitch-black silence that swallows every possible word or thought." "That's not right!" "It is. And there's no use trying to argue, because there are no words, and no language, and thus you can't possibly say anything." "Yes I can!" "No. And even if you could, there's nobody to hear it, because there are no people." Etc., etc.  

There is a soothing rhythm to this, as long as repeated insistence on the immance of the yawning void counts as "soothing" to you. We have played this game for rather extended periods, with a three-year-old's giddy enthusiasm for escalating repetition, long enough a couple times for me to get a little worried that I might be really upsetting her with the extremes of abnegation, but each time I have tried to stop, she has instantly switched out of character and indignantly demanded that I go back to playing the game correctly.  

The fact that she enjoys this game, in the first place, is inexplicable and wonderful, but the thing that completely dumbfounded me, as we were playing just now while getting ready for bed, was that in a lull she suddenly insisted on switching roles, and for the first time she played The Other One. "The lights are on", I said. "There's no such thing as lights!" "What? What are you talking about? There are two lights right there in your bedroom, and two more in the bathroom." "No there aren't! There are no such thing as rooms!" And off we plunged, into abysses entirely of her devising.  

Maybe it's just a word game, and maybe she doesn't genuinely, deeply, understand the philosophical ramifications of asserted non-existence. But maybe that's true of me, as well. I can't always explain what I mean by the things I believe I believe or disbelieve, myself. But I wake up, every morning, excited to find out what either -- any -- of us have adopted or abandoned anew.  

[4/10 Postscript: We've continued playing this game, and I always enjoy it, but it reached a new level this afternoon when, in the middle of a random bus ride, Lyra turned to me with a half-hysterical smile and said "Daddy! There's no such thing as the Light Asservancy Game!" I'm not at all sure what I have left to teach her.]
I wrote some stuff about the music I liked best last year. It took a while, and then when I got done I realized it was almost completely incomprehensible. So I started over and wrote something that actually made sense, only when I got done with that I realized that it was easy to understand and expressed basically nothing I really cared about. Apparently I am experiencing some ambivalence about what it means (or accomplishes) to write about music.  

So I went back to the inscrutable true version, and instead of making it more scrutable, just tried to make it as true as possible. This is, in fact, kind of what my year in music was like, itself.  

Anyway: A Motive to Our Sadness (TWAS 512: Best of 2010)  

Accompanying playlists are here. Although how I think you're going to use 6.4 hours of music to "accompany" about 2 minutes of puzzled reading, I'm not really sure.
The Village Voice Pazz & Jop Music Critics Poll for 2010, tabulated in Needle by me, is now up here, with a small lake of stuff from the stats fountain here.  

The stuff I voted for didn't win, but I did vote for Agalloch, who are #1 in this list, at least.  

[Later: The Voice is also now running a blog post by me about Pazz & Jop analytics.]  

[Still later: Part two.]
Metal (ZIP download, 300MB)  

1. HIM: "In Venere Veritas" (3:35)
2. HIM: "Katherine Wheel" (3:26)
3. HIM: "The Foreboding Sense of Impending Happiness (Acoustic)" (2:10)
4. Solefald: "Norrøn Livskunst" (5:53)
5. Solefald: "Tittentattenteksti" (4:14)
6. Agrypnie: "Der Tote Trakt" (6:54)
7. Agrypnie: "Kadavergehorsam" (9:22)
8. Kvelertak: "Ulvetid" (3:29)
9. Enslaved: "Ethica Odini" (7:59)
10. Triosphere: "Human Condition" (4:35)
11. Kamelot: "The Great Pandemonium" (4:22)
12. Agalloch: "The Watcher's Monolith" (11:46)
13. Ludicra: "Stagnant Pond" (7:20)
14. Celestiial: "Offering in Cedar Smoke" (16:43)
15. Ea: "Taela Mu" (10:00)
16. Sister Sin: "Sound of the Underground" (3:33)
17. Mandrake: "Save Us From Ourselves" (5:11)
18. Nevermore: "Emptiness Unobstructed" (4:37)
19. Triptykon: "The Prolonging" (19:22)
20. BXI: "We Are Witches" (4:13)
21. Kathaarsys: "Paralise, Fases Esquizoides, Locura Psicotropica Autoinducida" (4:57)
22. Alcest: "Percées de Lumière" (6:38)
23. Murmuüre: "Amethyst" (4:56)
24. Rotting Christ: "Demonon Vrosis" (4:56)
25. Immolation: "Majesty and Decay" (4:29)
26. Deathspell Omega: "Apokatastasis Pantôn" (4:03)
27. Negura Bunget: "Bruiestru" (9:45)
28. Iron Maiden: "Isle of Avalon" (9:06)
29. Sahg: "Mortify" (4:02)
30. Dark Tranquillity: "The Fatalist" (4:32)
31. Eluveitie: "Lugdunon" (4:01)
32. In This Moment: "A Star-Crossed Wasteland" (4:31)
33. UnSun: "I Ceased" (4:36)
34. The Howling Wind: "Will Is the Only Fire Under an Avalanche" (6:55)
35. Imperium Dekadenz: "Ocean, Mountains Mirror" (7:06)
36. Tarja: "Falling Awake" (5:16)
37. Mortemia: "The New Desire" (3:50)
38. Poisonblack: "My World" (3:57)
39. Cradle of Filth: "Beast of Extermination" (5:32)
40. Xasthur: "Obeyers of Their Own Deaths" (2:31)  

Non-Metal (ZIP download, 200MB)  

1. BUMP OF CHICKEN: "R.I.P." (5:32)
2. BUMP OF CHICKEN: "Weather Report" (4:03)
3. Dobson, Fefe: "Stuttering" (3:09)
4. Dobson, Fefe: "I Made Out With Your Boyfriend" (3:06)
5. Manic Street Preachers: "(It's Not War) Just the End of Love" (3:28)
6. Manic Street Preachers: "All We Make Is Entertainment" (4:15)
7. Hatfield, Juliana: "Let's Go Home" (3:47)
8. Jewel: "One True Thing" (4:09)
9. Jimmy Eat World: "Heart Is Hard to Find" (3:18)
10. Jimmy Eat World: "Coffee and Cigarettes" (3:46)
11. Frightened Rabbit: "The Loneliness and the Scream" (4:09)
12. Frightened Rabbit: "Nothing Like You" (3:04)
13. Shakira: "Devoción" (3:30)
14. Shakira: "Waka Waka (Esto Es Africa) [K-Mix]" (3:04)
15. Shearwater: "Black Eyes" (3:40)
16. Shearwater: "Castaways" (3:16)
17. Jónsi: "Boy Lilikoi" (4:29)
18. School of Seven Bells: "Heart Is Strange" (5:01)
19. Goldfrapp: "Head First" (4:30)
20. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: "New Babies; New Toys" (3:51)
21. Killing Joke: "Honour the Fire" (5:50)
22. Editors: "Bricks and Mortar" (6:19)
23. Delays: "The Lost Estate" (4:05)
24. Belle & Sebastian: "Suicide Girl" (2:37)
25. Manic Street Preachers: "Distractions" (3:56)
26. Sick of Sarah: "Kick Back" (4:15)
27. Kim Yeo Hee: "My Music" (3:11)
28. Belinda: "Dopamina" (3:15)
29. Marina & the Diamonds: "Shampain" (3:11)
30. HIM: "Love, the Hardest Way (Tiësto Remix)" (8:38)
31. BT: "Always" (6:12)
32. Ferry, Bryan: "Song to the Siren" (5:56)
33. FAKE?: "Rotate" (5:36)
34. abingdon boys school: "Siren" (4:45)
35. Meat Loaf: "California Isn't Big Enough (Hey There Girl)" (4:43)  

At one point during Semantic Web Summit East, yesterday, Lee Feigenbaum summarized the advantage of new Semantic Web tech over old database tech as, compactly, "DB owned by IT, ontologies by domain experts, who can quickly affect the changes they need". This theme reverberated through about half of the two-day conference**. Only the Semantic Web can deliver the agility demanded by modern enterprises! The whole event was, essentially, a pep rally for this conviction. I was there myself, more or less, to cheer along.  

And after two days of that, I don't think I feel like cheering any more.  

Lee's summary gets at exactly the source of the problem, I think. The supposed inflexibility of old database tech isn't due to technical issues. Adding tables to a relational database is easy. Changing tables and migrating data is easy enough. Database people have been doing this for decades. IT departments aren't change-averse as a matter of arbitrary mean-spiritedness. Enterprise database ecosystems become intransigent not because the technology is clunky (although it is), but because in a real enterprise data environment, the dependencies compound. And thus the domain experts are left "affecting" change instead of effecting it.  

But "ontologies" don't change this. A relational database schema is an "ontology", too. You make decisions about how your data is structured, and then you build your world around that. And if you change your mind about your underlying worldview, you'll have to remodel and rebuild. You can improve your ability to adapt by trying to anticipate this possibility from the beginning, but you could do that with old tech, too. Sometimes it works. But it's hard, and the more eventualities you have to try to design for, the longer it takes.  

So here, I think, are the three real truths underlying this non-truth.  

First, the new tech is undeniably, however superficially, new. Sometimes newness is an excuse in itself. If you get to rebuild an existing data flow from scratch, you can probably do a better job of it, no matter what tools you use.  

Second, the new tech believes in its newness. If you get to rebuild an existing data flow from scratch, and you come armed with a belief that things can be better this time, they probably will be. I walk differently in my new shoes, too.  

Third, the new tech is fabulously, pitifully, critically immature. "How do I get started?", somebody asked the conference's closing panel. "If you want to write, take out a pen", one of them said. But in the Semantic Web world, you don't get a pen, you get a spec for kits for pens. There is no MyRDF like there's a MySQL, and even more glaringly, there is nothing for linked data like there is Excel for columns of numbers.  

Until we understand these things, "summit" is the wrong word for where we're standing.  

But even more than that, sitting in this conference for two days I've been edging towards the conclusion that the foundation of the new pile of standards and tools isn't even meaningfully new. RDF isn't a new alternative to the relational model, it's just another way of writing it down. Where the classical way is to make tables and fill them with rows, RDF takes the rows out of the tables and lists them individually. There is no significant increase or decrease in overall expressive power, and you still have to have a model in order to do anything useful with the data. If anything, RDF makes the modeling problem slightly harder in practical terms, because in a mostly-relational database with denormalized rows the denormalization keeps the data from collapsing in certain ways. In RDF you actually have to get it right.  

What RDF gains, in the course of taking rows out of tables, is a mechanism for using URLs as row IDs. But this isn't a consequence of changing the serialization, it's just a thing in itself. If you want to use URLs as row IDs in a relational database, there's nothing stopping you. If you want to serve up database rows in response to URL requests, there's nothing stopping you. If you want to use URLs as column names, there's nothing stopping you. If you want to expose an SQL endpoint so people can try their own queries on your data, you can. It's a pretty good idea.  

What RDF incurs, in the course of asserting this URL point as dogma, is an astonishing syntactic bloat and an expansive mania for precision with no intrinsic connection to accuracy. Yes, now everything has URLs. Everything. Sometimes that helps us, but mostly it means we give up the powerful imprecision of words. Before, we might have wondered whether two fields with the same name were really the same. Give them URLs and we'll think we know. But we're no more likely to be right.  

And, in fact, RDF doesn't even deliver what it claims. Not everything gets URLs. The obtuse distinction between "nodes" and "values", which was arguably the only thing that needed to be hammered out of the explication of the relational model, persists. So sometimes the thing we want will have a URL, and sometimes it won't, depending on decisions somebody else made without our needs necessarily in mind.  

Of course, I already wasn't using RDF anyway. I say "we" out of some residual conviction that these sigils, "Semantic Web" and "Linked Data" and whatever, identify a society of the dissatisfied, and that our dissatisfaction lies with the level of abstraction at which humans are required to interact with data. I never cared about the serialization, I cared that I shouldn't have to care about it. For decades computer people have officiously taken data apart for the convenience of computers. I believe we want to use computers to put it extravagantly back together again for the benefit of humans.  

And I want that to be a we. It's a big task. I want company. I'm sure I'm not the only person who believes this, and I know I'm not the only one trying to make it happen. I want this to be my community. But I also know that it takes more to join my cause than a flag of affect, flown from a sunken hill on the way to somewhere we've already been.  

** The other half or so of the conference was devoted to the problem of having machines read human text. This is an interesting but essentially unrelated pursuit that happens to share the word "semantic", and combining the two makes barely more sense than holding a Things Having Risen convocation of second-coming evangelists and sourdough bakers.

This Newsweek best-country infowidget is plainly cool. Run your mouse down the list of countries, top to bottom, and watch the waves ebb leftwards. Run it along any of the lines and see the spiky flow whip along the others. Pick subsets along the top and see dots light up across the lines. This is data sorcery, turning mute masses of numbers into effortless insight. Insight? Sight, anyway.  

As a designer of generalized data-analysis tools, though, I'm almost invariably frustrated by these things. They look like magic, and I have lots of places where I want things to look like magic. But to look like magic, reliably, they actually have to work like machines. I want to be able to pour other data into this structure. I admire the heroism that went into solving this one specific information-display problem, but I don't want every new data-analysis task to always require new heroism. If you have to keep doing it over and over again, it's not heroic any more.  

But when I start taking these things apart, so that I can figure out how to put them back together with other data inside, I discover altogether too much convenient "magic" where I need simple reliable gears and levers. Like:  

- What happens if the lines in the middle aren't as flat as these, or there are more than five of them, or there are more than 100 data points, or the measurements aren't as correlated?  

- In fact, there are more than 100 data points here, or at least there should be. If I were Burkina Faso, dangling at the end of those Education and Quality of Life lines, I'd be pretty angry. There are almost 100 more countries not shown here, all of which are by definition below them in overall score. There's a big difference between 100th out of 100 and 100th out of 200.  

- Why can't I do other "regions", and why can't I filter combinations of region/income/population? And why do the filters go region/income/population, but the stats on the right go region/population/income? And what if I had 9 sets of categories instead of 3? And shouldn't there be maps somewhere?  

- What if the measurements aren't all numbers (or aren't all single numbers)?  

- And as cool as the waves and spikes look, are they actually the most informative information-design choice? They emphasize shapes, but since the five metrics are independent, these shapes are not actually meaningful per se.  

- The wide aspect-ratio of the lines makes rank dramatically visible on the horizontal axis, but absolute value hard to visually assess on the vertical axis. The waves reinforce this further, especially if you select two countries to compare them. But isn't absolute value far more significant than rank on all of these measures?  

- And what if I need to compare 3 things, instead of just 2? Or 9? Or 15?  

- What if I want a different weighting of components in my overall score? What if I want a different weighting of subcomponents in my subscores? What if I want a different number of subscores, or different groupings? What if I want to add or remove measurements? How do I check if a dot is right? How do I examine what it means?  

- What about latitude and longitude, or year of independence, or soccer rank, or internet usage, or libraries per capita, or coffee quality?  

- Why did they reinvent the scroll bar? Never reinvent the scroll bar.  

- Really. Never reinvent the scroll bar.  

- If you're going to use color to show low/middle/high and small/medium/large, why bucket them? Why not show a continuum? Why not show sliders for filtering at arbitrary points?  

- Not that sliders don't have their own UI issues, as they encourage visual outlier-clipping, which is rarely a statistically straightforward thing to do to data.  

- Why does nothing here show any indication of precision or error, and what would happen to the display if it did?  

- How would you use this if you were blind? Why doesn't it scale with the browser window?  

- And how, even if we could answer all those questions, do you get any other set of data into this? How do you manage the data behind this? Where is "behind this"?  

So yes, this is cool. I'm glad it exists. But I can't help feeling like this is not really the way we win the war against ignorance. We can't afford to solve every problem with this much specificity. And even this, I suspect, is a symptom: we get solutions with such specificity because there is such a poverty of solutions with generality. When there's no easy way, all the hard ways start sounding about the same.  

And thus my own far less glamorous life with data: lists, tables, numbers, the occasional stripe of color. It won't let you makes waves and spikes out of your data, but then, neither will this. This thing won't let you do anything with your data. Something should.
I left Lotus before the IBM acquisition, but my next employer, Ziff-Davis Interactive, was bought by AT&T (#1) and then resold to Nets, Inc. (#2) during my time there. After I resigned from Nets (delivering my resignation letter to, weirdly, the same CEO from whom I resigned at Lotus) I joined a startup called Instinctive Technology, which was subsequently renamed to eRoom Technology and later acquired by Documentum (#3), which was then itself acquired by EMC (#4). So every company for whom I've worked has been acquired during or shortly after my time there.  

The pattern continues, according to today's announcement that my current employer, ITA Software, will be acquired by Google.  


#1-4 were all good for me, personally, but bad for my projects. Hoping this one is half different...  

[16 July addendum: my optimism got a huge boost today from the news that Metaweb is now part of Google, too!]
If you could have any living singer's voice, whose would it be?  

I need a new answer now.
The World Cup has a long, storied history. 708 matches across 18 tournaments, involving 80ish different countries, more than 5000 players, and more than 2000 goals. That's a lot of soccer.  

It's not really that much data, though. Soccer isn't a sport for actuaries. My AAC file for Shakira's 2010 World Cup theme song is approximately three times the size of my data file containing more or less all salient info about the entire match-history of the Cup finals. When people talk about Big Data, this is not what they mean. This is Small Data.  

Even Small Data can be hard to get right, though. Who scored the second Cuban goal in their 3-3 draw with Romania on 5 June 1938? I'm betting you don't quite remember the guy's name, either.  

FIFA's official stats page for this match claims that the second Cuban goal was scored by Jose Magrina in the 69th minute. The listed Cuban lineup, however, includes no such player among either the starters or the substitutes.  

Planet World Cup's version has the middle Cuban goal scored by "Maquina", who the FIFA lineup doesn't list either, and PWC doesn't have a lineup to reference. They also have the second Romanian goal coming after the second Cuban goal, not before.  

Scoreshelf has a page for Carlos Maquina Oliveira, which matches FIFA's listing of Carlos Oliveira, so that's something. But Scoreshelf credits him with the second and third Cuban goals, and their match page has fairly different timings for all six goals, and credits the first Romanian goal to a different player.  

InfoFootballOnline's 1938 stats page claims Maquina had 2 goals for Cuba, but it also claims Héctor Socorro had 3, including 2 of the 3 in the 3-3 draw, contradicting other sites' credit of one of the Cuban goals to Tomas Fernández.  

The Wikipedia page for 1938 has yet another set of timings, and expresses its own creativity by giving the third Cuban goal to Juan Tuñas.  

So I can say, with pretty good confidence, that I don't know who scored these goals, nor when they occurred. If you know of an explicably authoritative source for the goal credits for Cuba's 1938 World Cup games, send me the reference. But of all the versions, FIFA's official one is clearly and ironically the least sensible, as it involves a player that none of these sources, including FIFA themselves, list as having been in the game. Machines can't tell us how we're wrong, but they ought to be able to easily tell us when we're not making any sense.  

So for my version of World Cup History in Needle, I've made my own decisions, too, but I can at least say, with computationally verified certainty, that they're internally consistent. Across this whole small sprawling history, there are no goals or cards attributed to unknown players, the itemized goal totals (including own-goals) match the official final scores, the computed champions match the record books. I've fixed dozens of games where FIFA's stats list starters being replaced by ghosts, or 12th players joining the fray. I found the two cases where players were carded while they weren't even in the game, and looked them up to make sure that's what actually happened. I've checked that there are no goals credited during overtime of games that didn't have any, I fixed the game that was listed as happening in February, and I fixed the extra errors my own non-soccer-specific software introduced (did you know that "NGA", the country-code for Nigeria, is also the Vietnamese word for Russia?).  

It shouldn't have come to this. I'm an art major working for a company that makes airline software. Between FIFA and a dozen sports and news companies, somebody who lives by this data ought to have fixed it all years ago. The worst thing is, I suspect they've been trying. And yet, every source I checked had problems I could tell they couldn't find. When all data had to do was look right in the galley proofs, it was a publishing problem. But bringing publishing tools to data problems is like bringing a Strunk & White to a math fight.

Percentage of baby names that were used for both sexes.
Site contents published by glenn mcdonald under a Creative Commons BY/NC/ND License except where otherwise noted.