Broken Soldiers, Tibetan Monks, and the Love of God

A few weeks ago Nad took part in a fund raising event for injured forces; on the television this week I watched “Battle for Haditha” recreating the events leading to a massacre of Iraqi civilians by US Marines and “The Passion” recreating the events leading to the first Easter and the crucifixion of Jesus; and in the news are the reflections of 5 years of bloodshed, occupation, freedom, and fledgling velocity (choose your own words) in Iraq and of rioting in Tibet.

Look around you, can you see
times are troubled, people grieve
see the violence, feel the hardness
all my people, weep with me

Kyrie Eleison, Jody Page Clark

pulling a plane for charityNad maintains the website for, which was set up by the emergency services at Birmingham Airport in response to seeing the injured soldiers brought back from Afghanistan and Iraq. The charity does not in any way support the forces in the field, or politically support the conflicts themselves, but is purely about humanitarian aid for those people who have returned, often with severe injuries, and for their families. However, despite this Nad has been criticised by those who ask “question why (he), a Muslim, (has) chosen to support a charity that attempts to aid the very soldiers that are killing our brothers and sisters abroad.” (see Nad’s blog entry).

In the “Battle for Haditha” both US Marine’s and Iraqi ‘insurgents’ were shown as people who in different ways cared and protected their own. It is natural and human to care for those close to us, who share ties of family, nationality, race or religion. Those closest to us, our children, parents, friends, have first place in our affections and often a special call on us. This human love is a good thing. But is not the end of things.

I was disappointed that the Dalai Lama, whilst outspoken against Chinese actions against Tibetan rioters, was relatively muted in addressing Tibetans themselves. The riots there began with Tibetan crowds attacking ethnic Han Chinese and even Muslim Hui1. The targets here were not police stations and public buildings, but shops, homes and ordinary people. It seems the Chinese held back for fear of international sentiment while ordinary people were killed or made homeless. Then when the Chinese security forces were unleashed they struck hard … hitting back at those who had hurt their own.

Dalai LamaIn the Dalai Lama’s press release he says that “a form of cultural genocide has taken place in Tibet”, “the Chinese government discriminates against these minority nationalities”, and in their response to the situation the authorities “believe that further repressive measures” are the way forward – this is I am sure all true. However, in contrast, about the rioters themselves, the Dali Lama merely says “the demonstrations and protests taking place in Tibet are a spontaneous outburst of public resentment built up by years of repression”.

Why is it so hard for him to denounce the ethnic attacks of Tibetans themselves as well as the repression of the Chinese authorities? But I know I am the same, overlooking the understandable failings of those close to me or those I support, whilst feeling righteous anger over the way they, the other, treat my own kind.

The Dalai Lama shows a deep, and human love for those he is responsible for.

In Gethsemane, one of Jesus’ friends, tries to defend him when temple guards come to arrest him2. The unnamed disciple (I always assume Peter), strikes with his sword and cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s slave. Jesus admonishes his followers and heals the slave. On other occasions Jesus talks with, shares food with or heals Jewish Priests, Roman Centurians, lepers and prostitutes – friends and enemies, the unclean and the immoral,

In a recent blog “A Charter for Compassion“, Nad discusses a TedTalk by Karen Armstrong on the Golden Rule. This comes in many forms, some more about harm “Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you”, some about behaviour “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”3. Most personal is the form from Leviticus “Love your neighbour as yourself”.

But who is my neighbour? My family, friends, the Welsh (maybe even the English), people I work with, the person next door, in this Internet age perhaps FaceBook friends, or people who add my photos as Flickr favourites? Jesus is asked this and in response tells the story of the “Good Samaritan”. In school I recall we wrote variants of this where the Jew and the Samaritan were replaced by rival football teams, or Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. This story of the Samaritan caring for someone who would have despised and persecuted him goes beyond human love, it is the love of God.

If the story were told today who more likely that an injured British soldier and young Muslim man.

Those who criticise Nad, show that very human love, just like the Dali Lama, just like I see so often in myself – caring for those close to us, “our brothers and sisters” in race, religion or political beliefs. In working beyond that, Nad shows no less than the Love of God.

  1. see Guardian report
    Oh my God, someone has a gun …‘[back]
  2. Matt. 26:51, Mark 14:47, Luke 22:50[back]
  3. see Wikipedia’s page on the “Ethic of reciprocity” for a wide variety of versions fo this from nay cultures and religions[back]

It-ness and identity: FOAF, RDF and RDMS

Issues of ‘sameness’ are the underpinnings of any common understanding; if I talk about America, bananas or Caruso, we need to know we are talking about the ‘same’ thing.

Codd’s relational calculus was unashamedly phenomenological – if two things have the same attributes they are the same. Of course in practice, we often have things which look the same and yet we know are different: two cans of beans, two employees called David Jones. So many practical SQL database designs use unique ids as the key field of a table effectively making sure that otherwise identical rows are distinct1.

The id gives a database record identity – it is a something independent of its attributes.

I usually call this quality ‘it-ness’ and struggled to find appropriate (probably German) philosophical term to refer to it. Before we can point at something and say ‘it is a chair’, it must be an ‘it’ something we can refer to. This it-ness must be there before we consider the proeprties of ‘ot’ (legs, seat, etc.). It-ness is related to the substance/accident distinction important in medieval scholastic debate on transubstantiation, but different as the bread needs to be an ‘it’ before we can say that its real nature (substance) is different from its apparent nature (accidents).

In contrast RDF takes identity, as embodied in a URI, as its starting point. The origins of RDF are in web meta-data – talking about web pages … that is RDF is about talking about something else, and that something else has some form of (unique) identity. Although the word ‘ontology’ seems to be misused almost beyond recognition in computer science, here we are talking about true ontology. RDF assumes as a starting point it is discussing things that are, that exist, that have being. Given this of course several distinct things may have similar attributes2.

Whilst RDMS have problems talking about identity, and we often have to add artifices (like the id), to establish identity, in RDF the opposite problem arises. Often we do not have unique names even for web entities, and even less when we have RDF descriptions of people, places … or books. Nad discusses some of the problems of cleaning up book data (MARC, RDF and FRMR), part of which is establishing unique names … and really books are ‘easy’ as librarians have soent a long time thinking about idetifying them already.

FOAF (friend of a friend) is now widely used to represent personal relationships. In this WordPress blog, when I add blogroll entries it prompts for FOAF information: is this a work colleague, family, friend (but not foe or competitor … FOAF is definitely about being friendly!).

FOAF has an RDF format, but examples, both in practice … and in the XMLNS RDF specification, are not full of “rdf:about” links as are typical RDF documents. This is because, while people clearly do have unique identity, there is thankfully no URI scheme that uniquely and universally defies us3.

In practice FOAF says things like “there is a person whose name is John Doe”, or “the blog VirtualChaos is by a person who is a friend and colleague of the author of this blog”.

In terms of identity this is a blank node “the person who …”. The computational representation of the person is a placeholder, or a variable waiting to be associated with other placeholders.

In terms of phenomenological attributes, the values either do not uniquely identify an individual (here may be many John Doe’s) and the individual may have several potential values for a given attribute (John Doe may not be the body’s only name,and a person may have several email addresses).

In order to match individuals in FOAF, we typically need to make assumption: while I may have several email addresses, they are all personal, so if two people have the same email address they are the same person. Of course such reasoning is defeasible: some families share an email address, but serves as a way of performing partial and approximate matching.

I think to the semantic web purist the goal would be to have the unique personal URI. However, to my mind the incomplete, often vague and personally defined FOAF is closer to the way the real world works even when ontologically there is a unique entity in the world that is the subject. FOAF challenges simplistic assumptions and representations of both a phenomenological and ontological nature.

  1. Furthermore if you do not specify a key, RDMS are likely to treat a relation as bag rather than a set of tuples! Try inserting the same record twice.[back]
  2. For those who know their quantum mechanics RDMS records are like Fermions and obey Pauli exclusion principle, whilst RDF entities are like Bosons and several entities can exist with identical attributes.[back]
  3. As it says in The Prisoner “I am not a number” … although maybe one day soon we will all be biometrically identified and have a global URI :-/[back]

modelling entities and the history of ideas

A few weeks ago I was watching my friend Nad and some of his colleagues map out the key semantic entities for a domain ready for creating an open repository on the Talis Platform. Then this morning, by chance, I just came across an entry in the Portland Pattern Repository on “Stars: A Pattern Language for Query Optimized Schema1. This described a form of entity relationship modelling where one identifies “while business entities” (key business things like transactions) and then ‘dimensions’ that relate to them looking specifically for “people, places and things” … and time as a special case. The idea is that information about, say, a product, a customer or a salesperson tends to be scattered in different tables, linked at best implicitly by shared values (e.g. , a product code.) which may not actually be the key to any specifoc table. By giving these key entities their own tables, the linkage between them becomes obvious and queries are easy to form.

This sounded just like the focus in Semantic Web ontologies on having a shared set of classes and a unique identifier for entities in those classes to enable “linked data”. In SemWeb we have a class and the entity URI, but serving the same goal as the table and row key did in the “Stars” pattern, more than a decade ago.

However, this then reminded me again of the similarities between current ontologies and Extended Entity Relationship Models which were popular at least 20 years ago (I recall colleagues at York using this in the Aspect IPSE project2 in the Alvey programme). There were variants of EERM, but key concepts were (like standard ER) to have relationships explicitly defined – usually in tables containing ONLY foreign keys, and (unlike standard ER) to allow sub-typing/sub-classes (e.g. person > employee > academic). Like Semantic Web ontologies, the relationships were reified into tables and became first class, unlike SemWeb, ternary and higher order relationships were allowed, not just binary ones.

I was half way through writing Nad a mail with the Stars link, and was referring to the EERM and did a Google to find the correct acronym … and then that mail turned into this blog, partly because it was getting long and partly because it was so hard to find good references to EERM. There was no Wikipedia page, minimal entries in a few online dictionaries and even hard to find good paper references. The best link seems to be a 1994 book by Martin Gogolla3, but that was at least 8 years after I knew it was popular, but I guess when it had become stable. A bit more Googling unearthed a 1986 Computer Surveys article4 (whch I could NOT find using “extended entity-relationship model” in ACM DL’s own search) and eventually a 1981 paper5, although I’m not sure the latter uses the term in the same way as later EERM.

It was interesting and alarming to find, yet again, how difficult it is to find certain things in the web even in computing… like anything that happened more than 10 years ago! Some of this is to do with effective searching (like the ACM DL search), some because it is not there. However, as we rely more and more on online search, the recency effects produced by combinations of search ranking and availability can only get worse. This feels more like the attributes of pre-literate culture … the new digital stone age?

  1. also reported in: Peterson, S. 1995. Stars: a pattern language for query-optimized schemas. In Pattern Languages of Program Design, J. O. Coplien and D. C. Schmidt, Eds. ACM Press/Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., New York, NY, 163-177. [entry@ACM DL][back]
  2. Hitchcock, P. 1989. The process model of the aspect IPSE. SIGSOFT Softw. Eng. Notes 14, 4 (May. 1989), 76-78. DOI=[back]
  3. M. Gogolla. An Extended Entity Relationship Model. Fundamentals and Pragmatics. Springer, Berlin, LNCS 767, 1994[back]
  4. Teorey, T. J., Yang, D., and Fry, J. P. 1986. A logical design methodology for relational databases using the extended entity-relationship model. ACM Comput. Surv. 18, 2 (Jun. 1986), 197-222. DOI=[back]
  5. P. De, A. Sen and E. Gudes, An Extended Entity-Relationship Model with Multi Level External Views, in Proceedings of ER’81, North-Holland, 1981, pp. 455-472.[back]

the electronic village shop – update and kit

I forgot last week when I wrote my post “the electronic village shop – enhancing local community through global network” that Fiona had mentioned a blog, Silversprite, from the Outer Hebrides that mentioned the flip side of this; in a post “Tesco comes to the Outer Hebrides“, he mentions the potential conflicts between Tesco online and village shops. It is interesting that Tesco does not itself deliver direct, but you can give a local delivery firm as your drop off point and they do the last leg of the delivery … of course this delivery point could be the local shop!

I also remembered after that some years ago (2002) I had an email enquiry from someone who had found a reference to the electronic village shop in one of my talks. He was wondering how to revitalise his own village shop which was about to close and asked if I had any advice. The following is edited version of my reply where I pondered on what was possible as a single shop without buy-in from one of the big franchise chains:

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tales from/for Berlin – appropriation, adoption and physicality

A few weeks ago I had a short visit to Berlin as a guest of Prometei, a PhD training program at the University of Technology of Berlin focused on “prospective engineering of human-technology-interaction”. While there I gave an evening talk on “Designing for adoption and designing for appropriation” and spent a very pleasant afternoon seminar with the students on “Physicality and Interaction”.

I said I would send some links, so this is both a short report on the visit and also a few links to appropriation and adoption and a big long list of links to physicality!

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