Sep 12, 2006

Cultural Connectivity - Matapihi turns two

Ever considered the amount of travelling you would have to do if you wanted to research a particular subject, let's say 'the global cross-cultural effect of the British Empire'. The records and artefacts which may contribute invaluably to your research are housed on dusty shelves distributed all over the world (and they are not found on, or made available to, Yahoo/Google). The only way to access them is to visit all these places and spend time browsing the artefacts and book pages one by one to get what you need.

Perhaps that was an ambitiously large subject. We can probably find other research topics covering a smaller area, but no matter what - you will probably have to travel. So you may ask, "Why don't all these people just get together and create one website and show everything in a searchable format there?"

New Zealand had that opportunity. It is a much more compact nation, with a lot more scope of intra-cooperation. The organisation of a National Digital Forum, allowed an opportunity for the various institutions to communicate their common set of concerns. One of the outcomes had been a requirement to create the kind of website I mentioned previously.

Thus came the idea of Matapihi, a very interesting website produced as a result of collaboration among several knowledge institutions. It is hosted by the National Library of New Zealand, and contains contributions from many partners. It was launched on 8th September 2004 with five contributors presenting their collections on this site - Alexander Turnbull Library, Auckland Art Gallery, Auckland City Libraries, Christchurch City Libraries, and Otago Museum.

Recently, the popularity of the site has attracted more contributors such as New Zealand Electronic Text Centre, Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, and The New Zealand Film Archive.

The result has been to provide one central location that 'Opens the window' to the amazing collections of New Zealand information. This has empowered all the partners who have become part of it, rather than taking interest away from their own websites.

We need more knowledge institutions throughout the world to come together and provide convergence points that allow deep exploration of their collections. After all, we would like to save our travel money for sight-seeing rather than distant shelf-browsing.

Sep 7, 2006

My PC is 25 years old

It was born on 12 August 1981, or at least the concept behind it. The Personal Computer - a machine that can be placed on the top your desk.

Though the core technology has changed - from the 8088 Intel Chip made of 29,000 transistors, at 3.0 micron1 density performing at 5.0 MHz2 using 8/16-bit3 computing to the currently available Intel Core duo made up to nearly 300 million transistors, at 0.065 micron (or 65 nanometres) density performing at 3,000 MHz and above, using 64-bit computing - the abstraction still remains the same. Nano-technology has already arrived, and is sitting on your desktop.

I still remember how I came across my first computer. It wasn't an IBM PC, it was the Apple II.

Apple II computer

It was around 1983, I was almost a teen and one of the lucky lads. I was studying in an American school in a communist country. The American teachers missed everything from back home. So much that they decided to ship everything to the small school in Romania. There was American candy, hot chocolate while playing in the winter snow, American movies and TV shows, shiny stickers on papers achieving good grades. It was paradise! But most of all, my fingers touched a computer keyboard.

Several Apple II computers had been imported and some of the teachers were having a wonderful time fiddling around with them. Particularly the computer teacher seemed obsessed. Whenever walked by him in the central library area, where these machines were set up, and he was always there, staring intently at the tiny lights on the screen. After he had learned enough, he introduced us to his hobby.

But what did we do first? We played games. This time it was the Atari. We were each given a turn on the joystick playing PacMan, Frogger and others I can't remember. I was so mesmerised by the sound and vision that I couldn't play the game properly.

Atari Console

Then during the year, each month a different class was given a turn to write the school paper. Here finally we used the Apple computers. We used a Print program to draw up the layout of the page, and add graphics and various fonts. Here I learned, for the first time, the ability to exercise control of technology, and I just loooved the feel of all those buttons on the keyboard. We also learned to write simple programs in BASIC language. It was too late, I was bitten. Computer fever had me.

After our newspaper turn was over, we never touched those computers again, and I would walk pass the computer section always looking longingly at the machines.

Last chance I had was when I joined the chess club. Though there were enough members to play against each other, the teachers also set up 'Battle Chess' game on the computers. Just in case we got bored playing each other.

Battle Chess Main Screen Battle Chess Game Screen

Then there was the school book fair where I picked up my first programming book on BASIC. Then I flipped through the pages and found out all different things I could have done on the computer. AAArrrggghhh! If only I had a computer now.

I would pester my poor Mum and Dad for the next 5 years. "Mama - Papa, I want computer!" I was too spoilt to realise that the cost of these wonder machines was beyond any reasonable working man's means. Years later, the prices became lower, more people starting buying these and my parents said 'yes'. When we got the machine (Intel x286 PC) set up at home, I immediately locked myself up in the room, installed BASIC, got out my old book and it all started from there.

I remember pestering the local dealer for some 3-D graphics development tools. He gave me a disappointing 'Harvard Graphics'. It took me some time to understand that the machines of that time could not handle that kind of processing power.

Over the years, especially in India, I have noticed a difference in the way various people approach this technology. Whereas for me it was a total joy, others seemed indifferent. People get computer science degrees without having any real interest in computers. It's all for the money.

Over time the desktop computer will probably disappear. It will become part of the media box under the TV or a small portable hand held device. However, as long as it is here, it will play an increasing part in our lives.

Happy B'day PC!

1micron: length equal to 0.000001 of a meter
2MHz: MegaHertz, measure of frequency
3bit: smallest unit of computer memory

Sep 3, 2006

Digital Universe v. Google & Wikipedia

Google is the new Microsoft these days. The company that everybody else is slowly learning to fear and hate. Yet the company motto is 'Don't be Evil'. So why the negative interest?

I guess, we don't like anybody having too much power over us. Google almost exclusively controls our window to the internet, our digitised knowledge universe. It maintains this blog website. School children don't research library books any more, they just thumb their noses up at books saying 'whatever', and search on Google for the topics of their essays. Few question if the results of their searches are facts from authoritative sources. So when they get bad grades, they may grow distrustful, disillusioned and frustrated.

Same applies to Wikipedia. Though Wikipedia does not open a window onto the internet, it opens a window onto a storehouse of contributed knowledge. Anybody can enter this site and make a contribution, by writing an article or sub-article on any topic they fancy, anonymously. Wikipedia has grown bigger than the Encyclopedia Britannica (the knowledge storehouse king in the print world) in the number of articles it contains. It's usually the major reference point in the internet for those seeking knowledge. Though it can be usually accurate, there are no factual guarantees on the information and no accountability.

Yet still, how can these web services and presences grow so important and powerful? Simple answer - you made them. The internet is very democratic, it makes leaders of those whom we vote for. The more of you that use the website - the more important it becomes. To what extent can these web presences control you? They try to make it easier for you to get what you want from them.

Now, bear with me for this paragraph. Imagine the knowledge sum of humanity organised in an internet based tree of classification. The trunk of the tree is 'everything', and the branches are the various diversifications of interest - say, Science, Humanities, Religion, Philosophy etc. Then the branch of Science may create several sub-branches - Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Biology and so on. Let this tree be planted by a foundation of eminent world citizens, and then each branch of knowledge be given to an acknowledged expert to maintain, let them then give each sub-branch to further specialised expert of that branch to maintain. The expert controls her/his domain, and allows contributions to be manifested on that branch that the expert knows to be authoritative, factual and relevant. Instead of expert per branch, we are also allowed expert committees. Too good to be true?

Enter the Digital Universe. Yes, that's not a term - it's a name. I recently had the good fortune to attend a presentation by Joe Firmage, CEO and founder of ManyOne Networks, and founder of the Digital Universe Foundation. I felt a bit guilty opting out of a rare department lunch happening at the same time, but I felt there was something compelling about the invite I had recieved.

Joe explained that the internet world that we experience today is very commercial and biased towards the interests that control it. It is time to take the controls of that experience back in our hands. This is initially enabled by creating portals for every area of our conceivable interest and placing these as our primary entry points into the internet. Any commercial interests would then have to address us through this unbiased medium. Other interests that are don't have commercial backing but have importance to the topic at hand would have equal representation. An example given was global warming.

These portals are like the branches that I outlined a couple of paragraphs ago, and they would be able to connect to sub-portals of more specialised interests. And the experts building these? These are called stewards. Stewards can be a single expert or a committee of experts who sign an agreement to be responsible for their portals in an unbiased way. The list of stewards already signed on so far is an intimidating list of the best-in-the-field Professors and Phd doctors. People who know what they are talking about and won't let us down with unreliable knowledge. There will be no anonymous people on this network, everyone has to provide a name and details - so there's accountability. Aside from the expert managed area, there's a public area for registered users, but it is expected to have a ratings system to determine its validity.

I was still sceptical about this whole idea, being pretty sure that the real-world scenario would not let such an idealised scenario to exist. Then I went further through their list of team members and found more impressive names. There are people from NASA, Nokia, Cisco, Morgan Stanley, and even a Hollywood Producer. Most deliciously there's Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia. So visionaries tempered by actual achievers. In the Board of Directors, there are very recognisable names like Jane Goodall, a famous primatologist and Ann Druyan, author and wife of Dr. Carl Sagan of the landmark Cosmos TV Series fame. There are a lot of significant believers in this project.

In the presentation Joe wowed us with very impressive graphical interfaces (in fact reminiscent of Cosmos TV series) that were able to present the classification (or taxonomy) of the Digital Universe and led through hyperlinks into the various platforms that have been built so far. There was also a very interesting Geographical Viewer (akin to Google Earth) that works through the browser.

It's all very interesting, though time will ultimately test whether this initiative acquires the momentum required to become a major web presence. I wish it all the best.

There may be several weaknesses. There seemed to be a sense that the Digital Universe will act as a valve that controls commercial interests taking up the internet users' mindspace. This will not make the business world happy, so will commercial interests be able to kill it? That probably depends on how many users sign up for this. If the mass of users exceeds a critical volume then businesses will have no choice, otherwise the Digital Universe will be bypassed. Currently, Joe said, that the target audience is the college going population - students and teachers. It sounds like they intend to skip current mature generations and aim for the minds that can still be moulded in their context, furthermore it's logical since they are the most likely to find this useful in their necessary research. Another point that I sensed was that it projects as a 'high-brow' site controlled by denizens in academic ivory towers. Now what determines who is qualified to be a steward? So far, it sounds that one would have to have a pantheon of academic qualifications, so non-academic experts and commentators would be unnoticed.

The internet is supposed to be, after all, the great equaliser.