Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The illusion of Gaia

The Gaia Hypothesis was first proposed by James Lovelock back in the 1960s. In its simplest form it is often described as viewing the Earth as a single organism. It proposes that the different parts of the Earth (atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere and lithosphere) are closely integrated, and therefore form a complex, interacting system.

It further attempts to explain how these components interact with the natural elements of the Earth (animals and plants). In essence, it tries to demonstrate that there is a physical connection between the natural elements of the Earth, with the other elements just described.

Extracted from Wikipedia:
"This theory is based on the idea that the biomass self-regulates the conditions on the planet to make its physical environment (in particular temperature and chemistry of the atmosphere) on the planet more hospitable to the species that constitute its life."

For those with a keen mind and eye, the idea of Gaia was very firmly introduced into the film Avatar. The Navi tribe were portrayed as being physically and spiritually connected to their environment in a manner that is largely compatible with Gaia.

However, as much as the hypothesis may have gained in popularity recently from films such as Avatar, the reality is that it is incompatible with the natural forces that govern our existence.

Gaia has been criticised by many scientists, including Ford Doolittle, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins.

In his 1982 book, The Extended Phenotype, Richard Dawkins argued that organisms could not act in concert as this would require foresight and planning from them. He rejected the possibility that feedback loops could stabilise the system. Dawkins claimed "there was no way for evolution by natural selection to lead to altruism on a Global scale".

In 1981, W. Ford Doolittle, in the CoEvolution Quarterly article "Is Nature Motherly" argued that nothing in the genome of individual organisms could provide the feedback mechanisms Gaia theory proposed, and therefore the Gaia hypothesis was an unscientific theory of a maternal type without any explanatory mechanism.

Gaia is at odds with natural selection, and with evolutionary processes. To act for the greater good of the planet, and to ensure its continued survival is unfortunately pure fiction. You only have to look at the wholesale destruction that human beings are inflicting to know this.

Organisms act in their own self interests to ensure they have the lion share of resources (food, water, territory), thus ensuring the survival of not just themselves, but more importantly, their progeny. When group collaboration provides a better solution, then altruistic traits will become more prevalent.

Gaia is also almost certainly a religious metaphor. Every species and component of the Earth interacting together to form a beautiful planet of wondrous variety could have been lifted from the sacred text of practically any religion.

For all of its charm, Gaia is an illusion. It contradicts many well understood scientific theories. It would require planning and foresight, which natural selection simply does not have. It is a work of fiction that belongs in films such as Avatar, and has no place in reality.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Things social media cannot do

Social media channels pervade our lives, we use them all the time for networking, socialising, marketing and so on. It’s easy to get drawn into the positive spin that surrounds them. With so much media attention, and with so many advocates (every marketer seems to have the inside info on how to use them to promote your business), it’s easy to see how many business have come to regard social media as the magic bullet for increasing their sales and brand. They have become seduced by the increasingly pervasive influence of social media.

The harsh reality of course is that social media cannot solve every business problem, no matter what the pundits may have you believe. Nor is it a quick fire solution for achieving rapid marketing or business objectives.

Social media should instead be regarded as an enabler to change, rather than the change itself. It is the catalyst for change. It cannot create what does not already exist.

To manage expectations, it is as important to know what social media cannot do, as to know what it can do.

So what sorts of things can social media NOT do:

• Social media cannot replace a marketing strategy
• Social media cannot change the intrinsic appeal or success of your brand
• Social media cannot be a success factor without a realistic level of investment

Social media cannot replace a marketing strategy
Many businesses think that having a Facebook page, a Twitter account or a Youtube channel is social media marketing. Understanding the opportunities within social media, and how your marketing strategy can be executed is what makes for real marketing – not the vehicles themselves.

Without a clear marketing strategy, you are prone to quantifying simple metrics such as number of fans, followers or friends as benchmarks of success. These numbers are often taken without any context, and without any relevance to how they impact on the business.

Social media cannot change the intrinsic appeal or success of your brand
Nothing can save a bad product or service, no matter how much it is dressed up by social media. You still need to have a product or service that adds value to the customer. Unless your brand gives the customer some tangible business benefit, no amount of marketing will save it.

Social media cannot be a success factor without a realistic level of investment
Setting up a Facebook page, a Twitter account or a Youtube channel are inexpensive, and so are often referred to as “earned media”, meaning that they are free or cheap. It’s true, setting up these things is cheap. However, a well developed, integrated, ongoing social media strategy will incorporate a host of tools, technologies, applications, design and so on. You will also probably require monitoring and analysis tools, not to mention the time and effort to maintain all these elements on an ongoing basis.

Social media is not a silver bullet. It is not the solution by itself. It requires planning, investment and creativity to make it work. You still need to have a valuable service or product. You still require a strategy for marketing that service / product. You still require investment to ensure you can maintain an adequate level of marketing across your chosen social media channels.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Bridging the Human and Data Webs

“Today's web is built predominantly for human consumption. Even as machine-readable data begins to appear on the web, it is typically distributed in a separate file, with a separate format, and very limited correspondence between the human and machine versions. As a result, web browsers can provide only minimal assistance to humans in parsing and processing web data: browsers only see presentation information.” W3C RDF Primer

Web pages are written using a language called HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language). Without going too far into a technical explanation of what that is, it is basically a means of adding specific attributes to your web page that is then rendered by your browser.

For example the attribute (more commonly referred to as a tag) for adding bold to a piece of text on a web page is to use the bold tags and

<b>This is bold text</b>

The above text when viewed in a browser will appear as bold courtesy of the bold start <b> and finish </b> tags. HTML consists of many hundred such tags for formatting text, adding links and images and all manner of other formatting types. All web pages are built from HTML, so it’s a very important language within the world of the web.

Web pages are naturally created for humans to look at. Humans visit web sites, buy things online, read blogs and so on, so this makes perfect sense. But there are scenarios when it may be useful for the web page to be understood by other applications or programs. Say your web page is an events page, containing dates, times and places of events. Wouldn’t it be really useful if these events could be added to your Outlook calendar by simply marking them up in a specific way.

By creating more intelligent web pages we are more able to build intelligent applications that are able to use the additional information from the web page. Applications will be able to act upon and respond to this additional information, merge related content, update other applications, all based on additional information (or tags).

This is where RDFa (Resource Development Framework-in-attributes) comes in. RDFa is a recommendation for embedding rich metadata into web content. It does this by adding attribute level extensions to HTML (or more precisely XHTML).

To prevent web page authors adding their own ad hoc metadata elements to their web pages, RDFa metadata must use those elements as defined by the Dublin Core standard. The Dublin Core metadata elements are used widely within the fields of libraries, as well as computing. They provide a standard way of adding supplementary information to resources, including web pages.

Dublin Core
The Dublin Core is able to add the following metadata elements to content:
The Simple Dublin Core Metadata Element Set (DCMES) consists of 15 metadata elements:
  • Title
  • Creator
  • Subject
  • Description
  • Publisher
  • Contributor
  • Date
  • Type
  • Format
  • Identifier
  • Source
  • Language
  • Relation
  • Coverage
  • Rights

Example of adding information about a web page
In the following example the text on the web page is enhanced by representing the heading tags of <h2> and <h3> to indicate that they represent the author and title of the web page.

Here is the original XHTML
<h2>Dominic’s Little Blog</h2>
<h3>Dominic Burford</h3>

Here is the transformed XHTML containing RDFa elements.
<div dc="http://purl.org/dc/elements/1.1/">
<h2 property="dc:title"<Dominic’s Little Blog</h2>
<h3 property="dc:creator"<Dominic Burford>/h3>

The dc above stands for Dublin Core.

To explain what we have done here, we have introduced the Dublin Core namespace to the page by adding a reference to http://purl.org/dc/elements/1.1/

We then assign the <h2> tag to indicate that it represents the title of the document by assigning the property attribute (an attribute introduced specifically to support RDFa) to be the title.
<h2 property="dc:title">Dominic’s Little Blog</h2>

We then assign the <h3> tag to indicate that it represents the author of the document by assigning the property attribute to be the creator.
<h3 property="dc:creator">Dminic Burford<h3>

Example of adding contact information
Next, we can embed contact information (email, phone number etc) onto the page. This will allow users visiting the web site to easily add the contact details into their Contact Management System.

Here is the original XHTML
 Dominic Burford
 Email: <a href="mailto:dominic@blog.com">dominic@blog.com</a>
 Phone: <a href="tel:+999 999">+999 999</a>

Here is the transformed XHTML containing RDFa elements
<div typeof="foaf:Person" foaf="http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/">
<p property="foaf:name">
 Dominic Burford
 Email: <a rel="foaf:mbox" href="mailto:dominic@blog.com">dominic@blog.com</a>
 Phone: <a rel="foaf:phone" href="tel:+999 999"<+999 999</a>

To add contact information, you are obviously going to need to describe yourself (or whoever the author is). Unfortunately, the Dublin Core vocabulary does not contain property names for describing contact information, but the Friend-of-a Friend (FOAF) vocabulary does**. Using RDFa it is quite common to combine vocabularies (Dublin Core and Friend-of-a-Friend) on the same page.

** FOAF is the vocabulary used by social networks such as Facebook when finding friends you have in common with other friends. It does this using the attribute knows.

To explain what we have done, we have introduced the Friend-of-a-Friend namespace to the page by adding a reference to http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/.

This is similar to what we did in the earlier example.
<div typeof="foaf:Person" foaf="http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/">

Next we introduce the contact information using elements from the FOAF vocabulary.

Contact Name
<p property="foaf:name">

<a rel="foaf:mbox" href="mailto:dominic@blog.com">dominic@blog.com</a>

Telephone number
<a rel="foaf:phone" href="tel:+999 999">+999 999</a>

The FOAF type we have used is of type person which contains attributes for name, mbox (email) and phone.

Although these examples were fairly trivial, they should provide enough evidence for the usefulness of adding additional information to web pages. This is done in a consistent way using standard elements, attributes and vocabularies. Adding such information to web pages makes them much more useful, and brings the web ever nearer to becoming a semantic and social web.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The election May 2010 - go out and vote!

As I am sure everyone is by now aware, the UK election is tomorrow. From 7am 6th May (almost) every UK citizen will be able to cast their vote, and influence which of the major political parties gets into government.

On many issues they are very similar, and listening to them on the recent TV debates it was often difficult to tell them apart (except when they were arguing).

This is the closest election I can remember. In elections past, the result was almost a foregone conclusion. This time however, the opinion polls are very tight, and everything is still there for the taking.

This is the first election where your vote really does count! Nothing is certain, and everything is up for grabs.

Make sure you go and vote in tomorrow's election!