Sunday, November 25, 2007

Fashionable Engineering Agendas

Sometimes I wonder if we all are stuck within our own jargon. "Nanotechnology and Nanolabeling - Essays on the Emergence of new Technological Fields" is the title of a dissertation that Nina Granqvist defended at the Helsinki School of Economics. It is a courageous attempt to distill what happens when some novel ideas turn into full-blown, and publicly funded, technology fields. I must admit that I haven't read the full thesis yet, on a whim I went to the actual defense and read parts of it up front and bits during the event. I don't know any socio-economics and in fact never had been to HSE before, but I like to believe that I grasped the essence of the thesis and the discussion.
One of the central thesises that was defended is that in the initial stages a field emerges through the action of a very small number of empowered visionary individuals. In other words through active agents, and not just solely because the time and circumstances are "right". But it seemed that it remained a bit unclear what exactly happens at that early stage and why some ideas stick and others don't. Here I humbly suggest a few words that may shed some more light on this.
The first word is engineering. First of all many novel ideas are ideas to solve a particular problem. And if somebody just has an idea for some technology the first thing to do is to figure out what problems can be solved with it. As only then can the idea be "sold". Of course if the technology promises to solve issues of great public interest it is easier to organize (public) funding for developing the underlying ideas. On the other hand one rarely see the emergence, with large governmental funding programmes, of a new area of science. The great efforts in nuclear physics with those huge accelerators etc. are perhaps a counter example, but I wouldn't be surprised if these efforts are to quite some extent are justified by promises of problem solving. And besides most of the actual work in that area, and practically all the spending is, on engineering. Relatively new areas of science that come to my mind are evolution, ecology and genetics, all subjects in biology. (Molecular) Genetics is an interesting example as it certainly grew quite quickly, and there have been largish publicly funded research programmes around it. But most, if not all, of these programmes were again about, or at least justified by, solving problems. Problems such as finding genes related to diseases which might help in finding cures. So my guess is that the visionaries very early on propose an engineering agenda, a set of problems that might be solved by developing new technology. And the sales process is easier when the agenda is simple yet ambitious.
The second word that kept popping up in my mind was fashion. Fashions "emerge", and also are initiated by a small group of active individuals. I strongly suspect that the work on the socio-psychology of fashion can shed some light on the emergence of technology fields, especially the early stages. If you're a person with some novel ideas it certainly helps if others regard you as a "trendsetter". And when a fashion is about to become fashionable, many people tend to join in. I think the thesis mentions both these phenomena, but not within the context of fashion. What I'd find personally very interesting is to see what exactly happens when something gets out of fashion. Does a technology field looses its glamor before it makes good on those promises ? I.e. is unmasked as a hype? The fashion point of view may be even more helpful when analyzing the emergence of technologies, that are much less government programme fueled. Such as Linux or Java.
A second very interesting observation in the dissertation is about framing and labeling. The analysis of the emergence of nanotechnology very nicely showed how the "nanotechnology" label was quickly used to denote something quite different from the early vision. This because the label was fashionable, but the associated engineering agenda did not appeal to established entities. During the defense event opponent Prof. Michael Lounsbury wondered if such established entities sometimes would want, and even could, impose their own labels. I think that's called branding.
All in all not a bad way to spend a rainy November afternoon in Helsinki!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Agriculture Layout

Sometimes the layout of newspapers pages results in very interestingly juxtaposed articles. This gets usually lost in the internet versions of such papers.
Todays Helsinki Sanomat featured an short interview with the Finnish Minister for Agriculture, Sirkka-Liisa Anttila, about her struggle to get the EU to accept, yet again, the so-called 141 farmers income subsidy. This subsidy is paid by the Finnish state (i.e. taxpayers) to compensate for the fact that it is more difficult to farm in Finland then in the other EU member states, that have warmer climates. Never mind that much of this subsidy will go to pig farms, like the ones of Mrs. Antilla, that as far as I know have all pigs inside, just like pretty much everywhere else. Anyway the article stated that the proposal is to provide, together with income-subsidy for "environmental measures", 129 million euro per year to approx. 29 000 farms. That is well over 4000 euro per farm.
This was (un-intendedly?) contrasted by an article right below about the economy in rural China. It featured an interview with a Chinese country side farmer, Jiang Jianzongh, who made some 600 euros from his cotton field. And he does consider himself to be in a quite reasonable position, with a small, but good house. Of course everything is cheaper in China, so one shouldn't compare one of the Finnish farmer's subsidies to a Chinese farmer's yearly income. For example, Jiang's daughter tries to get accepted into vocational school, which costs 500 euros per year, i.e. some 80% of the farms income. Whereas all schools in Finland are free of charge.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

This Is Not About The Semantic Web

Today went to see Ora Lassila defend his Ph.D. thesis, which describes in detail some of his implementations of the specifications of the Semantic Web. Prof. Lynn Andrea Stein did a nice job as opponent and had very good questions about the pros and cons of the choices that Ora had made; choices that every implementer would have to deal with. As befit to the thesis and the Semantic Web they mainly discussed implications of the various possible and actually used knowledge representations. In a sense Ora has tried to augment RDF, but on purpose avoiding making it too rich or too complex.

All in all quite a number of though provoking issues were raised. One thought that came from don't know where was how this would all relate to art. I came to wonder:
  • if it would be possible to represent, in RDF or an extension of it, the famous Margritte painting "Ceci n'est pas une pipe"
  • what size that graph (description) would be
  • and if the graph itself should be treated as an object of art

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Jobs and Titles

For several years I've been on LinkedIn, which for me was the first social network. It being the first such a network (for me) was the main reason to try it out. I haven't really used it for much, except that recently its critical mass has grown to the point where it is a nice way to get in touch with old university friends. So every now and then I get a request from somebody to join and that's how I visited my LinkedIn page last week. This time I noticed that it has a feature that informs about people having viewed one's profile. Naturally I am curious about the people that are curious about me, so I tried to follow a couple of the links that were provided. But viewers don't really leave traces of their identity, but typically their title and company, e.g. "Specialist at Nokia". Of course with some luck there is only one holder of that title in the company, but Nokia has 500 "Specialists" (that are known to LinkedIn). Which is not so strange for a technology company with over 50 000 employees. My profile was also viewed by "Director at France Telecom", and it turned out that FT has a staggering 177 directors (again as known to LinkedIn).