Musings on standards

I’ve been involved in standards work since the late 1970s, and I’ve always viewed the primary objective as interoperability. Interoperability demands unambiguous specifications (as much as humanly possible) and verifiable conformance – preferably machine-verifiable. A standards body creates a spec and defines conformance criteria; people implement that spec and test their implementations for conformance. That’s it. (I like to think in OO terms: a standard is an object with one method, conforms(), which takes an implementation and returns or false.) When someone proposes that a standards body address a particular issue, I always ask myself “how does this affect the spec?” and “what are the conformance criteria?”

About a year ago, this came up in a certain web services group: there was a great flurry of activity to try to develop glossary entries for the terms synchronous and asynchronous, even though the terms were not used in the standard. Everybody had their own pet definition, usually in terms of some (irrelevant) implementation behaviour. I tried to apply my usual thinking to the issue, and I got stuck. I generally find that this is a good reason not to act. (Of course such self-restraint is hard for a standards group: like fishes, lack of forward movement usually presages death….)

Economic `Armageddon' predicted; film at 11

Back on November 5th I blogged about the likely consequences of the “perfect storm” of the trade deficit, budget deficit, and oil prices, particularly the collapse of the dollar. Others have the same idea. In today’s Boston Herald, Stephen Roach, the chief economist at investment banking giant Morgan Stanley, waxed apocalyptic: “To finance its current account deficit with the rest of the world, he said, America has to import $2.6 billion in cash. Every working day. That is an amazing 80 percent of the entire world’s net savings.” Roach predicts a major slump, with a massive wave of bankruptcies.

Interestingly, the article concludes: “But […] there may be an alternative scenario to Roach’s. Greenspan might instead deliberately allow the dollar to slump and inflation to rise, whittling away at the value of today’s consumer debts in real terms. Inflation of 7 percent a year halves “real” values in a decade. It may be the only way out of the trap. Higher interest rates, or higher inflation: Either way, the biggest losers will be long-term lenders at fixed interest rates.”. And this is exactly the “stagflationary” scenario that I predicted.

(Via Boing Boing.)

West coast travel


A synopsis of the last few days…. On Friday we flew from Boston to Seattle for a weekend with Chris and Celeste. On Saturday we drove down to Renton to ride the Spirit of Washington train over to the Columbia Winery for lunch. Then on Sunday we went up to the Joe Bar for coffee, swung by the cathedral to meet folks, and then after lunch went to the Seattle Art Museum to see the stunning exhibition on Spain in the Age of Exploration. We would have gone on to look at the other exhibitions in the museum, but a fire alarm put paid to that. (This is getting to be a habit.)

On Monday morning we flew down from Seattle to San Jose. The plan was that we should get to SJC around 10:30; then Merry would meet up with her parents and drive down to Carmel Valley, while I picked up a rental car and head up to Sun’s Menlo Park campus for an important meeting. Initially things went thoroughly pear-shaped. First, we got a phone call from our alarm service saying that the burglar alarm had gone off, and that the police had been dispatched. Then Alaska Air delayed our flight from 8:14 to 9:35. (At least that gave me time to talk to the Brookline police and confirm that everything seemed to be OK at home.) The flight down the coast was OK, although the clouds obscured Mount St. Helens, and it was rather bumpy. And then when we reached San Jose the rendezvous with Merry’s parents didn’t work as planned. AARGH!! But eventually everything was sorted out, and I was able to phone in to the first 30 minutes of the meeting while driving up 101; the rest of the meeting went just fine.

Americans, evolution, religion, and post-modernism

During the recent US election campaign, the issue of American’s attitudes towards evolution popped up again. It’s usually presented as “X million Americans don’t believe in evolution…”, with the corollary at election time “…and they all vote Republican”. As I was dozing on the flight from Boston to Seattle on Friday, I found myself musing about this “fact” in various ways.

  • Do non-evolutionists get flu shots? After all, they don’t believe in the science that underlies the development of flu vaccines, and some of them (in Kansas) clearly don’t want their children growing up with the kind of education that would equip them to work on new vaccines.
  • How do Biblical inerrantists pick and choose those bits of the Bible they’ll use and those bits they’ll ignore? There are so many bits of blatantly allegorical and magical thinking, not to mention contradictions galore. Does consistency actually matter? If not, why not? Etcetera.
  • Why should I worry about all of this? Things like belief in quaint creation myths, or circumcision, or not eating meat on Fridays, are all just tribal membership memes, ways of identifying that you are a member of a group in a way that is relatively resistant to mixing or diaspora. True… but it becomes important when people seek to impose it on others, whether it be banning the teaching of evolution in Kansas or orthodox Jews stoning tour buses in Jerusalem on Shabbat.

After all this fact-free speculation, it was nice to be proved wrong… or at least to get a chance to appreciate the true complexity of the situation. Over at People for the American Way there’s a fascinating report on Evolution and Creationism in Public Education [PDF format]. It’s based on a 1999 survey of 1,500 people. Among the more intriguing findings is the fact that for many people the inclusion of creationism in schools is based not on their religious beliefs, but on what the report calls a “Post Modernist” perspective.

A second important contextual point is what we term the “post-modernist” influence. For about a third of Americans, their fundamentalist religious beliefs drive their support for including Creationism in the public school curriculum. However, for most Americans who would like to see some mention of God or a Divine role in the development of humans, along with the teaching of Evolution, it is not primarily religion behind their opinions. It is much more of what can be called a Post Modernist perspective (a “Hey, you never know” mentality). This perspective is characterized by a wide tolerance for many different beliefs, since no single belief is seen as the final and complete answer to any issue. Also, many parents want their children to be exposed to a wide range of views. Their reasoning is, “our kids should be given enough information so, when they grow up, they can make up their own minds.”

Of course this meant that the vast majority of people were opposed to the Kansas evolution decision because it reduced the “wide range of views” that kids would be exposed to. And as one would expect, support for creationism and opposition to evolution were generally linked with poor education and based on ignorance of the ideas involved. Ironically, people were far more confident in the “proven” status of the Theory of Relativity than of Evolution. The basis for such a belief seems hard to understand….

Building sci-fi?

SkyWeb Express graphic

When I first started reading science fiction back in the early 1960s, it seemed that all future cities were either shattered dystopias or cool, automated Jetsons-like worlds. This account seems typical: “Just swipe a prepaid card through a stanchion in front of an empty waiting vehicle, punch in the destination number, take a seat in the vehicle and our computer control system will sweep you non-stop to your destination.”

Well, apparently people are gearing up to actually build this stuff. Check out the SkyWeb Express website here, including the video clips. (But did they need to use such cheesy music?)

(Via Salon.)

A triangular route

We’re about to depart on a typically complicated trip. This one involves flying to Seattle for the weekend, then going down to Silicon Valley for a couple of days (work – for me, anyway); then down the coast to Carmel Valley for Thanksgiving, and home via San Jose. And, mirabile dictu, all of the flights are non-stop.

Travel plans (slightly updated)


In a couple of weeks I’ll be heading back to my birthplace for a Jini Community meeting. It should be a lot of fun….

Nit-pickers will notice that although the graphic shows West End tube stations, the the earlier, misleading graphic has been updated. The original version is still to be found on Graphics notwithstanding, Jini Community Meeting itself will be at The Brewery in the City of London, near Moorgate and the Barbican.

Humpty-Dumpty on IT


Herewith a collection of the most ill-defined terms in the computer business today. I’ve chosen them because in the last few months I’ve encountered at least two WILDLY incompatible uses of each one of them – often many more!

  • policy
  • virtualization
  • agent
  • edge
  • web service
  • solution
  • service
  • architecture
  • SOA

Anyone like to suggest a few more? I’ll roll them into the top-level blog item as updates. By the way, I’m not suggesting that we stop using these terms, but I would like to see more judicious qualification and less universalization…