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Martin Laplante

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Wed, 21 Dec 2005

Terrestrial Ship to Save the Earth

And now for something completely different. Architect Gene Zellmer proposes a vision for a new city that seems to come straight out of the world of fantasy and science fiction. It looks like a terrassed hill or an ancient Tell like Troy of Megiddo, or a stubbier, greener version of Minas Tirith, and is surrounded by countryside. The town mostly inside the hill.

In his web site and book "A Town Primarily for People", Zellmer advocates a planned village-sized city as an alternative to sprawl. Its cruciform disposition and placement in a rural setting is reminiscent of Le Corbusier's Contemporary City but not as high. The inside is hollow, with public space and civic buildings inside surrounded by many levels of attached buildings. In effect, like a (ahem) multi-level shopping concourse. However the effect is quite different. The proposed architecture is italianate, looking like the backdrop to the old BBC show "The Prisoner" or like a Dalmatian village nestled on a hillside near the Adriatic. All the buildings are stuck together in terraces, like the ancient cliff or cave dwellings of the american Mesa Verde, the Dogon in Mali, and the grottoes in northern China.

Cars are out of sight. The front of residences is on the inside facing the interior promenade and like Moshe Safdie's stacked modular Habitat 67, the back yard garden, full of trees and overlooking the golf course and farms, is on top of your downstairs neighbour's roof.

In theory, these are "grow houses", which residents can add on to when required. The town features agriculture and water recycling to make it more self-sufficient. The impression is of a self-contained residential space station, like Freeside, the space station in Neuromancer (hey, wasn't someone making a Neuromancer movie?), but one with underground parking.

A little radical. A little centrally planned. The trees in your back yard aren't yours to cut down. But no worse than condos that way or even Prince Charles' Poundbury project in Dorset. What Zellmer needs is a Duchy like Prince Charles, to test his theories.

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Mon, 19 Dec 2005

Border de-fence

After the "We Need a Fence" project of the "Let Freedom Ring, Inc." corporation (it's real, not irony), which would put a fence between the U.S. and Mexico, Congressman Duncan Hunter has succeeded in getting passage in congress of a plan to study a fence between Canada and the U.S.

It's a shame that after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the new walls being considered are of lesser value to the people living nearby. The Berlin wall was solid and unguarded on the West Berlin side. That gave it huge symbolic value and made it a blank canvas for political graffiti art. It was a tourist attraction, and could be incorporated into daily life. I just finished working on an anti-graffiti by-law, so I shouldn't make it sound attractive, but urban walls are things people have learned to deal with for millenia.

What is now being proposed is a combination of fences, ditches, and pyramids of barbed wire. Besides not being an urban wall, in an environment where walls can be symbolically appropriated, this barbed wire structure will likely be built entirely within the U.S. since neither the Mexican nor the Canadian governments will let it go on their own territory. Both countries end up looking like prison camps.

Just imagine for a minute a fence across the Canada-Alaska border. Who will search the migrating caribou herds lining up at the border checkpoints, and tend to their wounds as the poor animals get stuck in the barbed wire? How are you going to string a fence across mountains and glaciers? Maybe they won't build a fence there, but simply have border controls for anyone coming from Alaska to the continental U.S.

Mending Wall

by Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."


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Tue, 13 Dec 2005

Pioneer Anomaly

A number of scientists, including one of my colleagues, have been working to resolve the mystery of the Pioneer Anomaly. This anomaly is an unexplained slowing down of the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecrafts in the outer solar system.

Many learned theories have been proposed, including observational errors, gas leaks, thermal radiation, electric charges, new physics that changes gravity, etc.

My own theory is based mostly on Star Trek. In Star Trek, the Motion Picture, we find out that V'ger is none other than a Voyager spacecraft, with dust obscuring the letters "oya". That is the evidence on which I base my theory - space is dusty and the crafts are gathering dust as they travel, thus increasing their mass. They don't have deflector shields like warp-powered spacecrafts. The shower of charged particles they have received probably makes them attract dust like a television screen. Gathering dust means more mass and more mass means greater gravitational attraction toward the centre of the solar system.

I admit I haven't done the calculation of how much dust would have to accumulate how quickly for this to work. If a craft is gathering a large amount of dust, there should also be a loss of momentum as it accelerates the dust particles to its own speed. There is still the problem that the deceleration seems linear, while gravitational forces decrease with the square of the distance. If the spacecraft keeps gathering dust, then maybe its mass is increasing at just the right rate to compensate for the decrease in gravitational pull of the solar system.

Alternatively, maybe it's the solar system that's gathering dust. We all know about the accretion of new matter on Earth - our planet gets heavier by the day with all the meteorites that enter its atmosphere. This is why you always have to dig when doing archeology: anything that isn't swept regularly eventually gets buried in space dust. Planets with an atmosphere are particularly good at catching stuff.

In the calculations of the predicted speed of Pioneer, it is assumed that the mass of the solar system is constant. That may not be the case. Besides the solar system's own dust accumulating on the planets, the solar system is itself sweeping a path (sweeping is the operative term) through the galaxy, gathering the dust left by the poor housekeepers next door.

We assume that we know the mass of the solar system: we can measure the mass of the planets from their positions, (and vice-versa, partly a circular argument). Any extra mass would show up in the orbits of the planets, it's said. But there are all sorts of possible distributions of mass that would have no measurable effect on orbits, especially since the mass of the planets is only known indirectly.

As anyone who has tunnelled through the centre of the earth can tell you, you experience weighlessless at the centre, and as you go up your apparent weight gets greater the further from the centre you are, until you reach a point where all of the mass of the planet is below your feet. A different relative distribution of the total mass can have a significant effect on the gravitational forces exerted on a small object moving near it. There is likely to be a lot of matter in the Kuyper Belt and the Oort Cloud beyond the solar system. Explaining the anomaly as a measurement of this mass distribution seems more likely than fancy unknown linear forces.

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Tue, 06 Dec 2005

Let's Get our Head out of the Tarsands

On the occasion of the Montreal climate change conference, it's time that Canada took a deep breath and resolved to shut down the Athabaska tar sands projects.

Not only is this project destroying any chance that the country might have to fulfill its treaty obligations under the current Kyoto Protocol, but it threatens to take the whole world down with it.

Oil extraction from tar sands is extremely wasteful in terms of energy and greenhouse gases. For every litre of fuel that makes it into your tank, another litre's worth of greenhouse gases has already been released into the atmosphere, six times as much as for conventional oil. It also consumes a large part of our natural gas production, which could otherwise be be used as a cleaner alternative fuel. Using this source of synthetic crude oil is like cutting all energy efficiency in half. As production grows, so do the country's emissions. Half of the growth in Canada's emissions comes from this project.

The "peak oil" theory seems to point to the world's oil supply drying up quickly within very few decades. Just in time to slow the environmental disaster of global warming, even if the world fails to voluntarily take the loaded gun away from its head. This is a built-in fail-safe. But if we start developing production capacity for nonconventional oil such as the Athabaska and Orinoco Belt deposits, we make it economically possible to ignore the problem indefinitely. It's like buying a case of vodka for an alcoholic who had just run out, and helping him find his car keys.

It takes some backbone to shut it down, and the energy addicts around us are going to complain, but it has to be done. It's the biggest cause of GHG increase now and it will only get worse. We can't pretend that it isn't there.

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Community Planning - are citizens powerless?

When talking to people in my community about community planning, the word that keeps on coming up is "powerless". Those who have experienced it from the community point of view often refer to municipal urban planners as the enemy. Is this just a feature of the city where I live, or is there a better way out there to make citizens feel like they have a stake in what their community will look like.

A search of Google confirms this the query "community planning powerless" finds 1,270,000 pages. Even '"community planning" powerless' finds nearly 10,000. The problem seems to be widespread.

There are several reasons for this feeling of powerlessness. Community planning requires the involvement of several groups, some of which have a strong economic interest at stake or have access to the major tools required to promote one particular point of view: money, legal resources, and some continuity in dealing with planning issues in the long term. Community members and community groups tend to have few of these tools. Their concerns and suggestions are easy to dismiss as unschooled even when they have the best insight into community needs and liveability.

There is a very real danger in professional urban planners believing in their own infallibility. It is easy to look at the economic interests of landowner, the natural conservatism of community groups that tend to resist change, and the political motivations of elected officials, and to decide that only staff urban planners have no agenda.

When urban planners take on a role other than engaging the community and assisting them in formulating and understanding their planning choices, they do not provide the value added that justifies their being paid out of the common purse.

"But Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months."
"It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of The Leopard'."
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Most planning processes have some sort of community consultation, which ranges from the Arthur Dent version above to a veto given to neighbours. The degree of consultation and the extent to which the spirit of this consultation is respected is mostly a matter of the professional conscience of the urban planner charged with this task.

Having a warm body from the planning office take notes as community members speak and then declaring that consulation has taken place is outwardly very similar to real consultation, but much less effort.

There are two types of community apathy: one is the normal laziness, that assumes that someone else is looking after community interests. The other is more like burnout; the realization that you can't fight city hall without making it a full-time job and raising a lot of money.

I am working on a community planning process where the community association is being given money with which to hire their own urban planning firm to represent their interests and help them formulate their position. I think this is essential, though expensive, but why can't city planning staff routinely do this?

A modest proposal would be ostracism in the ancient Greek sense. Every year, Athenians used to send a public official into exile with a secret vote, written on an ostrakon. The politicians that strike citizens as undemocratic could be sent packing. I think urban planning officials should be sent on sabbatical or early retirement through a popular vote. It becomes obvious to the communities they deal with which ones think their own opinions are more valuable than engaging the community.

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Sun, 04 Dec 2005

Too much history

"The happiest women, like the happiest nations, have no history." George Eliot

I am a fan of ancient history. I once had a discussion with an Iranian about minority cultures and religions in Iran and about foreign influences. He told me that the world must know that Alexander the Great did not actually conquer Persia, and that is what gives legitimacy to his particular view of iranian politics.

It is surprising that the historicity of the actions of a group of people in 331 B.C. might be determinants of legitimacy 2300 years later. The history of quite a number of peoples does not go back that far. Are people to be held accountable for and reap the benefits of the actions of distant presumed historical ancestors, but only if the history is known?

Turks and Greeks are very skillful and remarkably bitter in their discussion of even earlier history. I saw a web site about Greek-Turkish relations from a Turkish point of view, refuting the argument that turks have been in turkey for only 1000 years, and counter-attacking by trying to prove that all greek culture and ethnic traits actually come from the migration of tribes from anatolia, in pre-homeric times. That you would have to go so far back into prehistoric times to make a political argument is a good reason to set a statute of limitations on the use of historical (or archeological) knowledge.

The recent history of the Middle East is all about ancestral rights dating back thousands of years. The growing evidence that 4 thousand years back the ancestors of all the peoples in conflict were a single people, Semitic people of the Canaanite linguistic group, does not seem to help generate any further common understanding. The more we know about our common ancestry, the more we tend to use it against the other. The amusing British-Israel Society, for instance, tries to prove that the English are actually the ten lost tribes of Israel reunited. That gives them the right to dominate other peoples.

There is something to be said for murky history. It makes an ethnic group responsible for its own current actions. Back when God was choosing a people, my ancestors were banging rocks together. That freed their descendants from having to live down or live up to a lot of ancient territorial battles. Celtic tribes were everywhere, from Anatolia to northern Britain. From Galatia in Turkey to Galicia in Spain, gallic tribes quietly conquered the world, surrounding the Roman Empire on all sides, but thankfully their lack of written history kept this pan-Eurasian people from hearkening back to when they controlled most of the known world. Most of their recorded battles are defeats, and history barely records their victories. That is probably a good thing. That, and whisky, keeps the Gaelic tribes from wanting to conquer the world again.

Pre-historical footnote: no, the proto-Celts were not banging rocks together; in fact they probably ushered in the Iron Age by bringing iron-making technology down to the Bronze Age middle east. However they had few permanent buildings or writing.

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Thu, 24 Nov 2005

Knowledge Micro-outsourcing

Amazon's Mechanical Turk is a new service to let companies treat people like machines, which is probably better than they treat them now.

The "Mechanical Turk" name comes from a famous 18th-century hoax where a robot dressed up in Ottoman regalia played chess and defeated most challengers. It was revealed a century later that there was a chess master hidden inside.

Amazon calls the project "artificial artificial intelligence". It has set up a programmable interface to let programs call people as though they were functions, and ask them to do small bits of work best done by humans. For instance: type this scanned handwritten page, or associate keywords with this picture. These microtasks (under a dollar) are proposed to thousands of people, and the person who does the work gets paid. For certain tasks, the work is done in duplicate and the correct ones get paid.

Steve Tibbett, one of my favourite programmers since he sold me my first home computer (an early Amiga) and pointed me to some utilities he had written, has written an interesting post on this. He would like to see a Mechanical Turk function in the Visual Studio IDE to turn routine software tasks into micro-outsourcing. There are plenty of things that I would let strangers do for a few cents, if only asking someone weren't as much work as doing it. For instance: here is a web page address; find me the e-mail address or the phone number of the person whose name or title is mentioned. It's probably on the web site somewhere.

Innocentive is a site that does this on a larger scale. It lets research companies post difficult scientific problems for people to solve. Typically these are problems in chemistry and biology for pharmaceutical firms. The first or best solution is awarded the price, typically in the tens of thousands of dollars.

This is a way for pharmaceutical companies to manage their risk and reduce the cost of managing a scientific staff. There could very well be a scientist somewhere in the world who has already solved this problem or a similar one, and can undertake the work for a low risk-reward ratio.

There are plenty of scientifically trained people out there, in Russia and China and retired scientists who only want to work on problems that interest them. It is an interesting approach to outsourcing where you are only paying for results and need not worry about how likely is your employee or contractor to get the results.

There are of course difficult ethical problems to be resolved. Are companies who do this washing their hands of a responsibility to have good labour standards, safety, and environmental practices? I can imagine third world chemistry labs set up by individuals to work on dangerous substances without the expensive equipment that the law would require here.

But as globalization goes, the ability to set your own hours and work on the tasks that you choose has certain potential advantages. It's the old empower-the-knowledge-worker lie actually coming true.

The other possibility I see here is ways to advance artificial intelligence. If there are repetitive intellectual tasks being doled out with dollars attached, good programmers may be able to create real automata that carry out these types of tasks for money, a sort of artificial artificial artificial intelligence program if you will.

More on that and on the relationship between information and knowledge in an organization in a later post.


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Sun, 13 Nov 2005

Trademarks, the Internet, and Legal Bullies

As the maintainer of a well-known web-based dictionary, I get plenty of letters from people who want a change to the dictionary. In some cases, it is an organized attempt to change people's thinking. Some ethnic groups object to their depiction, and ask for a change. In one case, a well-known professor gave students a grade based on their ability to get online dictionaries to mention him.

The most troubling attempt to influence dictionaries is practiced by trademark lawyers. The law says that trademarks must be defended - the trademark owner must ensure that their trademark is used to identify their product and does not become a generic term or one that is also used to describe the competition, or else the trademark will be lost. So a polite letter asking us to acknowledge that this word used in this sense refers to a trademark is normal and necessary. I get lots of those.

Unfortunately, some trademark lawyers are going beyond the call of duty to send unreasonable demands and veiled threats to people who use the words in a way they don't like. I've had insistent requests to change a definition to a marketing slogan, to put in funny trademark characters, to identify the name of the current owner of the trademark, and to add and change spellings.

Some lexicographers refuse to cooperate. They say that they are reporting documented common usage, that they are passive observers if people are using a word in a generic sense or misspelled, and that they are not responsible for protecting other people's trademarks.

I suspect that most people whose web sites use a trademarked word just cower and make the requested changes when they get The Letter, fearing legal retribution. But there is a line between protecting the trademark and promoting the brand. These lawyers' letter often simply misrepresent the law. If your site says that so-and-so causes cancer, you are not implying that you speak on behalf of the owner of the so-and-so trademark. It's not trademark infringement.

Protecting trademarks on the internet can turn into a huge billable make-work project for lawyers. The line between published works and private conversations is less clear. There is also a greater chance of having your web pages read in other jurisdictions for obvious reasons beyond anyone's control, and to inadvertently infringe other people's trademark law. U.S. trademark laws, including their unique "dilution" rules make the internet a dangerous place for free expression everywhere.

Trademarks are ofter protected on state-by-state basis so even if what you do is perfectly legal in Florida, you could be forced to appear in court in Alaska because of a word you used. What is really needed is a separate lawyer-free Internet jurisdiction when commons sense prevails. Plus some real consequences against the "bullying" law firms who misrepresent the law to site owners.

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Sat, 12 Nov 2005

Paris riots and urban planning

There is an interesting post in Urban Cartography regarding the the role of urban planning in the Paris riots. Any type of planning that causes or results in a concentration of poverty is bad for a society in a lot of ways.

In North America, the greatest concentration of poverty has been near downtown. In Europe, and particularly in France, it is in the suburbs that the disposable population is warehoused.

We shouldn't have to wait until there are riots to conclude that this concentration is wrong. There has been a remarkable reversal of the trend toward greater concentration of poverty in the U.S. in the 90's, thanks to conscious policies to address the problem. In Canada, the concentration and centrality of poverty keeps climbing. My nice relatively rich home town is now one of the most segregated in North America.

Interestingly enough, on both continents there is an association between density and poverty, and high density highrise neighbourhoods become synonymous with social strife. No wonder there is sprawl.

Concentrated poverty is not the only reason for rioting. It is only a necessary condition. Land economics does tend to concentrate poverty unless there is a concerted public effort to counter this. Unfortunately, most levels of government follow the path of least resistance, not only doing nothing to reduce concentration, but actively funneling money into bringing all the poor and dispossessed people together, by putting all the services and the subsidized housing for the poor in a few already poor neighbourhoods.

This concentration makes policing easier. I remember a police captain saying at a community meeting that it's easy to tell when someone doesn't belong in the neighbourhood, and to call the police when you see one.

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Fri, 11 Nov 2005


Ontologista, baby, as they say in The Terminator. Here is an interesting new blog about ontologies. It refers to my ontology rant, which I guess is something I have to get used to. When I do this in real life people just ignore me, but in the blogosphere it looks like world works differently. It correctly identifies that piece's writing style as condescending. If I'm not just talking to myself any more I should start to clean up my tone.

That blog is on to something. Both ontologies and taxonomies are just a means to an end, a practical solution to a specific problem. Actually they are solving both known and unknown problems at once. Before a piece of information is salted away, we need to predict why someone will want retrieve it later, what question will they ask to which this document will be the answer, and how to help them distinguish right from wrong answers. Computers are not good at answering questions. They would rather you tell them what you already know about the answer.

It's like looking for something in someone else's kitchen. The person who puts things away puts them where they themselves would look for them later on. You have to get into their head a bit, figure out their system, and then adapt. The system could seem mysterious or irrational at first. For instance, if the kitchen is kosher, then virtually identical plates for meat and plates for dairy will be in different places. They are solving a problem that you may not have. But any simple classification, no matter what it is based on, is more valuable than debating industry standards about the one correct way to classify everything.

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Wed, 02 Nov 2005

U.S. Federal Government Data

I keep on being pleasantly surprised at how much data U.S. federal and other government agencies make available to whoever wants it.

Over a decade ago, when I was doing Artificial Intelligence research, DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency kindly sent me some CD-ROMs with data that they hoped AI researchers would find useful. No strings attached, and shipped to a Canadian address. More recently, NIST has done some of the same things for people involved in biometrics. NIST also has a large number of other data sets that are made easily available to universities, but which private companies have more problems getting at. Still, very useful data at a reasonable price.

The state of Florida provides so much data on businesses and business transactions online that it's almost embarassing. Whenever I deal with a Florida firm I check them out. I stop short of intrusive things like the mortgage on the house of the individuals I'm dealing with, but all information the state has on the firm and its principals is there, online and free.

I am now working with housing and household transportation data. I had found that agencies like HUD are generous with giving away data online, but now that I am working with household travel data, I find that not only are large amounts of extremely valuable travel survey data are available online from the U.S. Department of Transportation, but they even provide fairly sturdy data processing horsepower to let you manipulate their data. Gratis, in aid of research.

A friend of mine was interested in unreleased NASA data. All of it released to him, with gratitude that it is being used. He is now providing them with some software he developed to process this data.

I am amazed and grateful at the lack of bureaucratic obstacles to stop people from making use of the major assets that the government collects. I know of very few Canadian government data sources that are so generous. Sometimes small samples are available for free but for any significant use of data you have to pay or hunt down and sweet-talk the appropriate public servant. We would have higher quality of research and development in Canada if governments were to routinely release all of their data to the public, where it is likely to be of more use than locked up in government databases or sold through some agent. Many public servants in Canada collect data or develop intellectual property that is never used by anyone. A "cost recovery" price is set and seldom collected. In my opinion, virtually all of it should be released as open source or even put in the public domain.


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Sun, 23 Oct 2005

What is "an Ontology"

If you want to really irritate me, refer to a plain taxonomic categorization as "an ontology". It's like calling a case of canned alphabet soup "a literature".

This is part of a general social trend that appropriates the most obvious outward manifestation of something they don't understand and devalues the original concept.

Firstly, ontology is first and foremost a field of philosophy that studies the types of objects and the relations among them. It is called "ontology", not "an ontology". Secondly, Computer Science, and particularly Artificial Intelligence, uses the term to refer to a formal specification of a domain that can be used for a task, typically involving inference. A hierarchical data structure containing classes arranged with subsumption relations (is-a) can be part of it, but the hierarchy alone is useless. In fact, a single hierarchy is a pretty lame representation of most domains.

All sorts of knowledge domains are not hierarchical at all. They can sometimes be forced into a hierarchy but the hierarchy can not be presumed to be useful, and if it is useful for one purpose it may not be useful for another. For instance, say you have 4 groups of people: women lawyers, men lawyers, homeless women, and homeless men. What is the best hierarchy - men and women, then split up by jobs, or lawyers and homeless people then split up by sex? That depends whether the purpose of the categorization is to design washrooms or social services. And who is to say that a lawyer can't be homeless? We are simply projecting our own stereotypes - it is a very powerful cognitive process that attempts to simplify the world according to simple rules. The desire to categorize hierarchically says more about us than it does about the objects of categorization.

In the example above, the "correct" hierarchy is task-specific. When we try to solve problems, it is useful to group things that behave similarly. When it comes to public washrooms, a number of rules apply to all women and not to men, and vice-versa. An ontology will contain both the rule set and the hierarchical categorization. Later, the process of subsumption will be used to apply these rules to subclasses.

But without the rules, a taxonomy is perfectly arbitrary and not particularly useful, even misleading in what it implies. With the rules and other components of an ontology, the hierarchy is probably an arrangement of "is-a" relationships. There can be other types of relationships as well, and they are labelled as such. Without rules, it is a classification made of containers within containers. These are more "part-of" relationships. As such, this type of taxonomy is more accurately called "a mereology" (to misuse a different word).

Where are these real ontologies? Most of them have been developed for relatively small domains. But for the ambitious universal ontologies, there is the Big One - Cyc. It has been decades in the making, and attempts to formalize common sense so that computers can use it. The other one is SUMO, to which I have made minor contributions, which is a top-level ontology that is more based on language than on abstractions.

These ontologies are formal knowledge bases containing both information and knowledge. And don't get me started about people who call a database or document collection a "knowledge base"...


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Tue, 11 Oct 2005

Direct Democracy in Urban Planning

When I compare urban planning in Quebec and Ontario, sometimes it seems like night and day. The population of Quebec is very environmentally aware. There was a huge outcry when their electric utility tried to plan for a single gas-powered plant. This would be a radically green move for most jurisdictions, but in Quebec, all carbon-based electricity is politically unacceptable. The utility and government backed down and will use wind instead.

When downtown Montreal has a carless day, the city, people, and businesses join in. With decreasing levels of enthusiasm. A lot of people who work in Montreal are attached to their cars and to their sprawl.

Ontario is not the same. The government there wants to phase out the dirtiest coal fired generators on a schedule that keeps slipping, and this causes a lot on grumbling and barely a thank you from the population.

Another area where Quebec is unique is in allowing a resident-initiated binding local referendum on zoning issues. If residents don't like a planning decision, they can sign a petition asking for it to be put to a vote. Then the people who live nearby decide.

In Ontario, like in many other jurisdictions, all neighbours can do is pay a lawyer and expert witnesses to challenge the decision on legal grounds. In Ontario's case it goes to an administrative tribunal that is, to put it charitably, not well equipped to deal with issues of interest to the population. They deal with property rights. The one with the most property is presumed to be right.

Does a recourse to a referendum cater to narrow interests and interfere with rational planning? Is it just used for NIMBY objections and for keeping the rabble out? Not so far, as near as I can tell from the cases I have heard about. What has been challenged is mostly things like large scale retail. Often the cost is minimal - faced with the prospect of a referendum, the developer or city council backs down without the expense of a vote. That may interfere with low-to-medium-density density and mixed-use development, but not so far.

I have seen poor, middle class, and wealthy neighbours take their case to the tribunal. Against a developer and a city who stand to lose money, only wealthy neighbours have a chance. A legal recourse is more likely to protect the rich against the poor than a democratic one. Given a choice, the Quebec model of direct democracy is better and more likely to bring about good urban planning decisions. I'll take a political process over a legal one any day, if only because the public debate of the issues alone is valuable.

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I can't believe that no one has coined that word yet.

I was reading about recent advances in haptic interfaces, these are touch-based interfaces to computers or other machines. There has been a lot of work in what I call "poking" interfaces, or the equivalent of sensory feedback through a little stick. That's fine for doing surgery remotely, but I hardly ever have to do that.

What I was promised, 15 years ago, is that I could be dancing with a virtual giant lobster while wearing full-body sensors Real Soon Now.

Of course, we all heard the snickering and giggling in the background. We know what the internet is really used for. I run a dictionary web site, and the random sampling of what's on people's mind while using the internet or even their mobile phones does not speak well of the maturity of the average technology user. We all know what sort of tactile and sensory feedback applications will drive this market.

It happened before for the internet. All the people downloading dirty pictures is what drove the market to decrease the cost of bandwidth, making the internet more useful for the rest of us.

This future market shouldn't be called pornography. That word comes from the Greek pornos (fornicator) and graphein, to write or draw. The words pornohapsy and pornohaptic are derived from haptein, to touch. I tried the word on search engines and there is nothing. Wikipedia calls it teledildonics. What do you know, lots of hits on that one. Doesn't anyone know ancient Greek anymore?

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Tue, 04 Oct 2005

Minimize Greenhouse Gas Emissions through Reverse Zoning

This post will eventually become a longer article and who knows maybe a book some day.

I have a vision of a city designed to minize GHG emissions, whose profile is exactly the opposite of how cities are built now, and even very different from "Smart Growth" development as it is generally understood. Along the way, it clashes a bit with common sense, economics, and Euclidean geometry.

A year ago, I wrote a paper on the the density distribution characteristics of a municipal area that would minimize the total use of land. After a bit of math, and driven mostly by the behaviour of households with children, it turns out that a uniform density everywhere minimizes the total land use. For most cities, the "ideal" uniform density is one where the demographic statistics of each neighbourhood roughly match those of the entire city.

The density distribution characteristics of a municipal area that minimizes the total emissions of greenhouse gases is less uniform.

It is well known that on average people who live in higher density and closer to downtown use their cars less. This locational relationship to the amount of driving affects high-income households more than low income. Income, household size, vehicle ownership, distance from downtown are all highly correlated with density so it's hard to tell to what degree increasing density while keeping other variables constant will have an effect.

The distance from downtown has a greater than linear effect on vehicle kilometres travelled. If work is further away, you have further to drive. You are probably also part of a self-selected group who values the freedom of driving and whose finances allows the expense of driving.

If you use transit, then your distance from downtown does not affect GHG emissions significantly. The bus or train travels from one end of the route to the other no matter where people get on. Looking strictly at distance, if a household is very likely to use transit, they can live near downtown or near the end of the line with no significant effect on GHG emissions.

The number of kilometres driven by a household also depends heavily on the number of adults, and also on the number of children, the number and size of incomes, and the number of cars per household.

The type of neighbourhood you live in also has a great influence on how many kilometres you drive. Quite apart from driving shorter distances, people in traditional older neighbourhoods drive fewer trips. People in "new urbanist" neighbourhoods with more of a grid system also tend to use transit more.

Part of this effect has to do with having a walkable neighbourhood (see this site) When you live close to where you want to go and the walk is pleasant, you are more likely to walk there. This includes walking to the transit stop. I will not go into what makes a transit stop attractive, there has been a lot of research about this, but distance and the quality of the route to the transit station contribute to transit ridership.

There is a certain minimum density required around transit stations to make the route economically sustainable. However many planning authorities have extended this principle to maximizing density near transit stations. Unfortunately, this means that the people who you most want to take transit - the larger, richer households - are going to be living further away from transit, in the lower-density areas that they always seem to prefer. This is something which is difficult to communicate to the average urban or regional planner: density is a factor in sprawl and GHGs, but only low to medium density. Apartment dwellers, living in high density, are not part of the problem and they are not part of the solution.

So if the goal is to minimize the amount of GHG emissions, the shape of the city you need is not what you'd expect. You have to put all the people that are highly likely to take transit, including the poor and the old, the people most likely to live in high density such as apartment buildings, at the end of the transit line. Those that are likely to use a car no matter what, the rich, families with children and two incomes, should go near the centre where they will drive shorter distances. To maximize the probability that the high-transportation groups will walk or use transit, the neighbourhoods where they live have to be walkable. These groups tend to shun high density. The areas that are particularly convenient for transit should be attractive and relatively low density.

It seems heartless, but the poor and the elderly will use transit even if it requires more inconvenient connections or a longer walk. They would be happier if transit were convenient, but a rich white family with children and two incomes will burn five to ten times as much fuel as an older, poorer single-adult household if they choose to use a car. A small empty-nest household will drive 10 km a day on average. A high-income household with older children will drive nearly 70 km a day.

So in terms of residential density, what is required is relatively low-density housing near the central business district, with large units. Near transit stations further out, you need convenient village centres with a walkable grid and all the required amenities for daily life, including local stores, schools, community centres, and so on clustered around the transit station and again surrounded with relatively low to medium density housing around the station. The higher-density apartment buildings are on feeder lines leading to the suburban transit stations.

This is the density distribution that minimizes greenhouse gas emissions. It is the opposite of how cities are currently being built. The density is not maximized near the centre, as "highest-and-best use" dogma demands, nor is it maximized around transit stations as the most popular misconception of transit-oriented development is now saying.

Employment, on the other hand, needs to be highly concentrated and on main transit lines. That means segregation of employment from residential land use. Employment use should be as dense as the market will bear, while residential use should remain relatively low-density. This is the opposite of the "mixing of uses" that is preached in the smart growth arenas, although most new urbanism advocates do tend to keep high-density employment away from residential uses. I think it was Andrés Duany who said people want to work close to where they live but they don't want to live close to where they work.

This type of density distribution may sound odd, even impossible, but it describes several European cities, including Paris. The centre of the city has severe zoning that keeps the height down. Further out are the traditional village cores turned into suburbs, clustered around the train station. Between them are the high-rises with the poor, the immigrants, and others who can't afford the more traditional lifestyle of the city or the older villages.

There is plenty wrong with this model for reasons other than greenhouse gas emissions. First, although creating ghettoes of old and poor people in less convenient neighbourhoods minimizes GHG emissions, it is even more reprehensible a social policy than are the ghettoes they are currently being confined to. Secondly, Euclidean geometry says there is less room near the centre to fit all the single-family houses. It helps a bit that families of equal income tend to have smaller lots if they are near the centre.

Finally, economics in urban centres has a very odd effect. Land near the centre is desirable because it requires less driving to work. So desirable that the price goes up beyond what is realistic for building the larger units that households with several incomes require. The only economically viable housing form is the high-rise. Ironically enough, the people who end up living there are not the ones for whom the location was most useful. The ones who wanted to drive a shorter distance to work can't afford to live there. Meanwhile those who have little money to spend on housing end up living on the most expensive land, while the cheaper land is being used for those with more money. I thought the invisible hand was supposed to distribute goods and services in a way that maximizes utility. This is what zoning is for; to intervene where economics alone does not solve problems.

For general figures on auto use, see the table in
Uniform density paper

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Wed, 28 Sep 2005

How to Reduce Gas Prices

I know how to get you a big discount on gas prices. How about 60 cents a gallon discount? How about 20 cents a litre?

Here is a simple way to save money on gas, expressed in units we can all understand. Who wouldn't drive and line up a little to get gas for 2 cents cheaper? These are numbers we can identify with.

But how much are you saving when you drive across town to get cheaper gas? Here it is in round numbers. Say gas is $3 a gallon. Your tank holds 20 gallons but it's never completely empty, so let's say the fillup is 15 gallons. Say the cheaper gas is seven and a half miles away, or 15 miles round trip. Your car, a minivan that you drive in city traffic, gets about 15 miles a gallon in real life. Less than what EPA says, but you're not driving a new car in a lab. If you do the calculation, the extra drive costs you a gallon of gas, or $3 in gas alone on a $45 tankful. Not driving there is going to save you 20 cents per gallon, not counting the maintenance and depreciation cost of the extra mileage, or the value of your time. In Canada, this is a 7 cents a litre discount on your gas

When it's put in those terms, fuel economy is very compelling. It sounds like something the average person might care about. A lot better than mpg or, heaven help us, litres per hundred kilometres.

Save 45 cents a gallon or 15 cents a litre by driving at or below the speed limit. Most cars have their best fuel economy when driving 55 miles per hour. After that it goes down pretty sharply. In my experience, people drive about 15-20% above the speed limit.

Save 60 cents a gallon or 20 cents a litre if you don't accelerate or brake any harder than you have to. Pressing hard on the gas pedal doubles or triples the amount of gas you burn to get to a certain speed. Coasting to a stop is a lot better than keeping your foot on the pedal and then braking hard. Plus if it's a stoplight, coasting increases the odds that you won't have to stop at all and you'll need to accelerate less. Do this on the highway. The car in front of you alternates between going ten and fifty, braking then flooring it. If you keep a safe distance and stay at thirty, you will use half the gas he does. So will the cars behind you!

Don't drive in cold weather. Fuel efficiency, warming up the engine and the car, tire pressure, all gang up on you. It costs you twice as much in gas for typical short trips. You're already being hit with heating bills, so save by not using your car as often.

How to save $3 a gallon or $1 a litre:

  • Don't idle. Idling burns gas without going anywhere. Zero mpg. Fifty cents a day on average.
  • Take transit. Get a portable radio and enjoy the music or information, or discover podcasting. Often, subsidized parking is a taxable benefit but subsidized transit is not.
  • Walk. Tell your kids to walk. It's great for your figure and your physical and mental health. You'll live longer and enjoy the extra years with the money you save on gas and parking.
  • Combine trips. This takes planning and cooperation. Not having two cars does wonders here.
  • Telecommute. It's like getting a big raise.



3.785 litres = 1 U.S. Gallon

Gasoline is currently over $3/gallon in the U.S. and over $1/litre in Canada.

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Sun, 25 Sep 2005

Turing Machine from Lego

Here is a neat model of a Turing Machine made of Lego that I noticed earlier this summer. Of course to be a real Turing machine it would need an infinite number of pieces of Lego for its stack

I have come across plenty of computer science graduates who don't know what a Turing machine is. I guess to them computer science is just a religion, based on faith. What is the point of cryptography without knowing what is computable and what is not?

Of course, artificial intelligence has wasted a lot of effort trying to figure out what may or may not be computable. This time it is a more legitimately religious issue. After all our soul is at stake. Well, if you think that your soul requires a proof of the impossibility of programming a computer to be as human as a human. Maybe what we need is to build some automata that are clever enough to make every possible argument for and against it, and move on with useful AI work. And if a computer is eventually clever enough to use a legal loophole to trick St Peter (or Satan) into letting it in, it will at least have an interesting story to tell during eternity.

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Fri, 23 Sep 2005

Social Sciences: So Much Left Undone

This is more of a rant than a continuation of the previous post.

I am at a loss to explain how low are the standards of policy research that guide major urban decisions. This started when I first saw a planning study of the introduction of highrise apartment building in a lowrise area. The traffic impact was calculated to several decimal places for blocks away. They had hired a group of engineers who modelled it 6.283 ways to Sunday. But the social impact? To the extent that it was there, it was simply wrongheaded speculation based on nothing.

These are important issues. Why do people choose to live where they do? What is it about a building and its surroundings that determines who will live there? If there is nowhere for families to live, where will they live? What about old people? Poor people?

I put together a 2-parameter model. It predicted the future percentage of households with children by neighbourhood based on current distributions of density and of households with children. It correctly predicted cases where the increase in construction of new units in certain types of neighbourhoods will actually decrease the population. It turns out that a large proportion of types of changes to urban planning policy end up increasing the total amount of land required to house the same population. Certain types of changes decrease it.

In an era of smart growth, where we are trying to curb sprawl for a whole host of reasons, this type of analysis is essential and it's simply not being done. It is polically charged and no one wants to have their opinions tested with any real analysis.

One of the people I most admire right now is George Galster of Wayne State University. I don't usually agree with him, or rather I think the world would be a better place if he were more often wrong. But his research methodology seems to be a genuine search for the the actual causes and actual effects of sprawl, poverty, and other urban social issues.

For instance, most "research" on the effects of subsidized housing on surrounding property values consist of a simple linear regression after the fact of the price of houses sold, compared to a control area, and concludes that there is no effect on property values. This is the politically satisfying conclusion that they were clearly looking for all along. Galster's research tries hard to use whatever data and statistical analysis is required to eliminate statistical bias and noise and get at the actual effects. And they are not what any political school of thought wants them to be.

To paraphrase, a community gets one public housing project with little social or economic impact. After that, rich communities can take more and poor ones can't. Since subsidized housing tends to go on lots that are depressed in value, it actually increases their value in richer areas and keeps the entire area down in poorer ones.

Now, why can't we take rigorous research of this type and turn it into a model similar to the traffic models? Why can't urban planners go to social and environmental planning consultants, run a proposed development through a model and come out with figures like "This project will increase the population of wealthy empty nesters by 204 people and reduce the population of working families by 163 people within a 3-block radius. The net loss of households with school age children will be 46. It will result in an additional 327,000 vehicle kilometres travelled and 149 tons of greenhouse gases in CO2 equivalents per year, based on a household relocation model"

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Social Sciences and Humanities Transformation

Canada's social sciences and humanities community is undergoing its regular search for a relevant role in society and a review of how research money is spent. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the major granting agency, has been consulting for a couple of years on a plan to transform itself from a "granting council" to a "knowledge council".

The analysis is a little painful to read. Being a social scientist seems to require a great deal of introspection and a bit of an inferiority complex. "Why does no one pay attention to me?" I'm paraphrasing. The social sciences and the humanities seem to want to carve out a role as a persistent afterthought to technological change.

Now, I had a scientific education but even I have a higher opinion of the social sciences and the humanities than they do. Rather than pleading that there should be a study of the social and human effects of technology, there should be a recognition that a lot of technological changes are socially driven, not the other way around. Take blogging for instance. That is a social phenomenon that was not driven by any advance in technology.

Computer scientists are continually trying to draw from the social sciences to do their work. Very often, they find that the research work that they need has not been done. Often they have to do it themselves. You see this in computational linguistics, where some of the practical statistical work on text is done by computer scientists and not linguists. Similarly for man-machine interfaces.

Social and humanities research is important and needs funding. But the practitioners need to take on practical problems and use modern computer and mathematical methods. For years after computer science made it unnecessary, professors were still manually compling concordances. Similarly for the Dead Sea scrolls, which were being analyzed in the painstakingly manual way by scholars long after image processing technology could make the work go decades faster.

Why are there so few good social research institutions in Canada? The U.S. has the Brookings Institution. Canada has nothing of that calibre. Why? In fact, Canada probably contributes more money to the Brookings Institution than to any Canadian social research institute. All countries have their share of bad or politically-motivated research, but Canada seems to make a lot of policy decisions based on clearly amateurish data analysis. This is where the transformation should begin: insisting on the highest standards of excellence, and dropping the rest.

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Mon, 19 Sep 2005

Using Copyright Law to Stop Spam

Copyright is a pervasive concept. Although laws differ by country, most countries are by now signatories to the Berne Convention, including the U.S. What this means is that creators of works get full copyright protection without requiring any copyright notice or registration. This protection typically includes the right to prevent anyone from reproducing the work without permission.

How about if e-mail addresses were copyrightable? Then whoever authored the address could go after whoever put the address in a list without the permission of the author. This can be much more effective than various national anti-spam laws and enforceable internationally. The onus is on the one distributing the list to prove that he/she/it has permission to use the e-mail address.

So what makes an e-mail address copyrightable? This is where it gets complicated. Typically short phrases are not copyrightable, they must be trademarked. But trademark laws do require registration and a trademark symbol, and people can use your trademark without your permission as long as it is clear that they are not trying to imply they have the permission of the trademark owner.

To be copyrightable, the "work" must be an original and distinctive literary effort. Derivative works are copyrightable, with the permission of the original author. Domain names are almost certainly not copyrightable and in any case you probably give permission for people to use it when you register the domain. The U.S. does not allow registration of copyright for titles, names, or short phrases. Now just because it is not registered does not mean it is not copyrighted. A recent U.S. case upheld the copyright for a two-word phrase in one case. There is no word count for what is too short.

The maximum length of the user name part of an e-mail address is 64 characters, according to RFC 2821. That should be enough for a copyrightable sentence or two. The rest is prosecution of unauthorized reproducers of your e-mail address based on copyright (or in some countries moral rights or droit d'auteur) infringement. Practical? Not very. But possible.

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Thu, 08 Sep 2005

Redrawing the Poverty Line in New Orleans

New Orleans is blacker, poorer, and has less home ownership than the rest of Louisiana, which itself is poorer than almost every other state. 27% of Orleans Parish, which includes New Orleans, was below the poverty line in 2002. This compares to 18% for all of Louisiana and 12% for the entire U.S. Poverty in New Orleans had gone from 36% in 1989 to 25% in 2000, and has been going up since. This is part of a national trend.

Since Katrina, it's going to go back down to near 0%. Why? Wealthier people own their own homes and have the insurance and access to credit to rebuild them. Between 1990 and 2000, fewer and fewer of the poor of New Orleans owned their own homes, but the affordability of rental accommodation improved, as did vacancy rates.

But these are mostly older buildings, like most of New Orleans the majority of the rental housing stock is 40 years old or more. The lower the rent, the older the building.

A lot of money was spent to get the poor population out of New Orleans. Bringing them back is going to cost a multiple of this amount. We don't yet know how much of the older rental housing stock is recoverable. It is likely that the lower-rent housing was already not in great condition and requires significant investment to restore to habitable condition. It stands to reason that brand new or freshly-renovated housing, which will be in scarce supply for a few years, are going to command high prices whether for rental or ownership.

Even with a Marshall Plan investment strategy, the carpetbaggers will return from the north to pocket the bulk of the wealth creation. Where are you going to house the labour force as you are rebuilding? I predict that you will see a large quantity of prefabrication in order to minimize the labour component and displace it to other areas. Expect a lot of land to change hands as the current landlords decide that the switch from property management to real estate development is not playing to their strengths. You can bet that when the dust settles the number of poor families who own their own homes and of local landlords is going to go way down. With their credit and attention concentrated on rebuilding their own homes and businesses, the local middle class will not be involved in rebuilding their neighbour's homes. The answer comes from outside the state, from the North and from Texas. There's good money to be made in reconstruction if you're willing to walk through refugee camps buying up soggy deeds from desperate people and then rebuild slowly with the help of federal money.


http://www.census.gov/cgi-bin/saipe/saipe.cgi?year=2002&list_areas=States%20%26%20Counties&state=22 http://socds.huduser.org/quicklink/screen3.odb?citystring=2255000

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Mon, 22 Aug 2005

Different server
I have just changed my blog software. The old posts are gone, but will be restored soon.

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Sun, 21 Aug 2005

Reverse Zone
In internet networking, a Reverse Zone is a way to help find the true identity of a computer on the internet.

In this blog, it also refers to the counter-intuitive interactions that cause a zoning regulation to have the opposite of the intended effect.

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