the electronic village shop – enhancing local community through global network

The internet seems to be about remote connections, international communities and globalisation. We may surf the web, scan blogs or talk to friends across the globe, but may not know the person next door. Indeed in Channel 4’s recent documentary “My Street“, Sue Bourne, who produces TV documentaries seen by millions, gets to meet her neighbours for the first time.

But there is another side, where global networks could help local communities to grow and reconnect with one another. Some things are happening grass roots up, some need changes in public policy or intervention, and some may never happen.

The electronic village shop is a dream I’ve had for now well over 15 years, and may happen, or may not … and maybe definitely will not if I don’t do something myself! However, there are other signs of local connections growing.

I have talked about these issues and the electronic village shop at different times over the years1, but have never previouslly written about them, so eventually …
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  1. Talks mentioning the electronic village shop: Understanding the e-Market and Designing Products to Fit, London, Jan. 2000, Cyber-economies and the Real World, Pretoria, Sept. 2001. and Toys for the Boys or Jobs for the Girls, Cheltenham, Nov. 2001[back]

practical RDF

I just came across D2RQ, a notation (plus implementation) for mapping relational databases to RDF, developed over the last four years by Chris Bizer, Richard Cyganiak and others at Freie Universität Berlin. In a previous post, “digging ourselves back from the Semantic Web mire“, I worried about the ghetto-like nature of RDF and the need for “abstractions that make non-triple structures more like the Semantic Web”, D2RQ is exactly the sort of thing, allowing existing relational databases to be accessed (but not updated) as if they were and RDF triple stores, including full SPARQL queries.

As D2RQ has clearly been around for years, I tried to do a bit of a web search to find things the other way around – more programmer-friendly layers on top of RDF (or XML) allowing it to be manipulated with IDL-like or other abstractions closer to ‘normal’ programming. ECMAScript for XML (E4X) seems to be just this allowing reasonably easy access to XML (but I guess RDF would be ‘flat’ in this). E4X has been around a few years (standard since 2005), but as far as I can see not yet in IE (surprise!). I guess for really practical XML it would be JSON, and there’s a nice discussion of different RDF in JSON representation issues on the n2 wiki “RDF JSON Brainstorming“. However, both E4X and RDF in JSON still are just accessing RDF nicely not adding higher level structure.

Going back to the beginning I was wondering about any tools that represent RDF as SQL / RDMS in order to make it available to ‘old technology’ … but then remembered that SPARQL creates tuples not triples so, I guess, one could say that is exactly what it does :-/

Beyond Reason

I thought I had stumbled across the web site of an obscure religious cult or maybe just an extreme evangelical sect.

The signs were there. First the changing banner at the top showing images of The LEADER, sometimes looking meaningfully into the distance, sometimes preaching to his devoted disciples, and sometimes staring you directly in the eye convicting you of … you don’t know what but something. Then there was the sidebar densely packed with adverts for books (mostly by The LEADER) including the quotation from the review (by someone you had never heard of) telling you this book would “change the world”. Not to forget the devotional DVDs featuring The LEADER as narrator, or of him talking with others Of Like Mind … a sure sign of these fundamentalist sites when they only discuss with those Of Like Mind.

You need never be fooled, the signs are always obvious – even the address the “Upper Branch” office in California (I assume novitiates start on the Lower Branch) and the inevitable link to a ‘Foundation’ in this case a Foundation for “Reason and Science” – definite shades of Mary Baker Eddy!

The comments at the ends of articles were a little more unusual – it is only the most open cults (or the most confident in their brainwashing) that allow their members voices – but these were not exactly what I expected certainly unmeasured, but with a tone somewhere between MySpace and British National Party … definitely Mid-West Millenialist. About 1 in 7 were even odder with some words I couldn’t make sense of (a form of net-speak?) and even when the words were English the order seemed random and virtually grammarless .. of course, glossolalia … Pentecostal influences. … but most unsettling of all were the images chosen by the contributors as their icons, some I could not even recognise and wonderd if were even legal,

and the site? … (and I feel I ought to pronounce the name in hushed tones), the self professed “clear thinking oasis” … well no false modesty here.

Amongst the top level tabs on the pages are the ‘Store’ (what else) ‘Donate to RDF’ (the Richard Dawkins Foundation silly, not the semantic web notation!) and ‘Science’ and ‘Reason’. Under ‘Science’, we see everything from Archaeology to Psychiatry, Economics and Law .. yes he really is omniscient. Under ‘Reason’ we find less entries: ‘News’, an FAQ and … out of only five content categories … “Religion as Child Abuse” … note not even “Religion and Child Abuse” but “Religion as Child Abuse”. It is good to know that ‘Reason’ has such a staunch defender.

cover image: when they severed earth form skyRecently I have been reading “When They Severed Earth From Sky“. The authors, Barber and Barber, describe recurrent patterns in myths across the world – not in a Jungian sense of archetypes, but because we all share a common human nature and cognitive make-up (they subtitle the book “How the Human Mind Shapes Myth”). They mention (p.93) the frequent myth of cannibalism ascribed to one’s enemies citing Arens’ “The Man Eating Myth“, in particular are accusations of abuse against children: the Romans accused the early Christians of infanticide and the Medieaval Christians did the same to the Jews. … it seems Myths die hard and ‘Reason’ can always be helped by a bit of mud slinging.

As an academic I am a little taken aback that a fellow academic would lend his name (or should I say His Name) to a site like this, but I guess every wandering preacher needs to earn a buck … and anyway he is an Oxford professor and I was a Cambridge man so never did trust the other place.

More seriously, for some time I have had a half-written entry about the religious issues of evolution. I use evolutionary arguments frequently in my work, but wish to distance myself from the pseudo-religious evolutionists … maybe soon I’ll finish it.

Significantly (yes this is one of those confession moments), after all my life being a solid Darwinist, there was a period in my mid-twenties when I doubted Evolution (brothers pray for me) … and it was exactly writing like this that made me doubt. If the arguments for evolution were made in this way and those who supported it were so unreasoned, could one trust it at all.

Although mentioning Genesis will I am sure instantly condemn me, I was reminded while looking at this site of the tower of Babel and the people who thought that if they built enough of an edifice they would become like God.

chimpThe one redeeming feature on the Dawkins’ site is that amongst the many images of him gazing into the distance, or preaching to the converted is one of a chimpanzee. If you can at least see the funny side of yourself there is some hope.

material culture – textiles and technology

A couple of weeks ago I was at a ‘Long Table’ discussion on Technology and Democracy at [ space ] in Hackney. The ‘Long Table’ format was led by Lois Weaver (I now note the name although didn’t at the time) and took the form of a simulated dinner art where the participants chatted about the topic. We were invited to write on the table cloth as we posed questions or espoused viewpoints – this later became part of the Not Quite Yet exhibition opening the next day.

Because of the table cloth sitting in front of me I was reminded of the role textiles have played both as significant technology themselves and in the development of technological society. It was the spinning jenny and the cotton mills that created the industrial revolution and it was needle manufacturing that was the inspirations for Adam Smith‘s division of labour. In the context of the discussion of ‘democracy and technology this is particularly poignant. Before the factories spinning and weaving were skilled cottage industries described so well in Silas Marner [G|A] and the importance of the textile factory was as more about exerting control over production than about efficiency of production.

The Object of Labout - cover imageToday a book arrived from The Book Depository for Fiona “The Object of Labour: Art, Cloth and Cultural Production”. It is a majestic tome and I’m looking forward into dipping into it sometime. It says it explores the “personal, political, social, and economic meaning of work through the lens of art and textile production”. Interesting its 408 pages are covered in words and the etymology of ‘text’ itself from Latin texere to weave 🙂

Somehow whilst my mind wandered over this I came to ponder the term material culture (maybe because have recently been re-reading Malfouris “The cognitive basis of material engagement” and Mike Wheeler’s response to it “Minds, Things, and Materiality“). The word ‘material’ has many meanings ‘raw materials’ for industry, ‘material evidence’ in law … but if you say the word to a person in the street ‘material’ means simply cloth. So interesting that cloth has played such a strong part in material culture and is ‘material’ itself.

This led me to wonder about the words (like text and textile) when the special meaning of material as cloth arose or even of they have different roots. Turning to the Shorter OED I looked up the definition of ‘material’. It is long, over half a column The etymology is again from Latin materia – matter – and there are meanings related to that (as in material culture), the legal and philosophical meanings, the sense of documents or sources used for writing, indeed the implements of writing ‘writing materials’ … but nowhere material as simply cloth, not even in the addenda of recent words.

The most common meaning of material, the most mundane, the one that sits next to my skin as I write – forgotten, written out of the dictionary, as the hand-loom weavers were written out of industrial production.