[27 August 2008]
Liam Quin has been spending most of his blogging effort recently on his site fromoldbooks.org, but recently he posted a thoughtful piece on his ‘other blog’, In search of XMLence, on the relations among standard off-the-shelf vocabularies, customized vocabularies, what widely deployed systems can understand, and what people want to be able to say. (“The Super Information Archipelago”, 26 August 2008.)
One net result: if you use a vocabulary customized to your application, you get a better fit, at some cost in effort (or money) and immediate interchangeability (or interoperability) with other vocabularies. If you use standard one-size-fits-all vocabularies, you get free interoperability with others, at the cost of a poorer fit for the work you want to do in the first place. Liam imagines the situation of users of custom vocabularies as a kind of archipelago of islands of rich information in a sea of, ah, less rich information, sometimes connected by good bridges.
Something in the tradeoff (perhaps it’s the image of the islands) reminds me of the observation someone made long ago when they were teaching me about the three laws of thermodynamics. This was the kind of conversation where there was a little less emphasis on the laws as formulated in physics books than on the popular paraphrase:
- You can’t win.
- You can’t break even.
- You can’t get out of the game.
If the laws of thermodynamics say that entropy always increases, someone asked, then how is it possible that in some situations entropy seems to decrease, and order to increase? Many of us spend a lot of our time trying to build systems to organize things or information; if the universe is stacked against us, how is that we ever have even the illusion of having succeeded? (And is this a good excuse for not even trying to organize my desk?)
Entropy does increase, was the answer, but only in the universe as a whole — not necessarily at every point in the universe uniformly. You can increase the order, and decrease the entropy, in a restricted portion of the universe — just not in the universe as a whole.
It sheds light from a different angle on the issues of data islands and walled gardens.
Il faut cultiver notre jardin.