Ivan’s private site

August 15, 2013

Public Access—oh Irony!

Filed under: General,Links,Uncategorized — Ivan Herman @ 11:37

I found a Force11 reference on Google+ to a NYT article. The article is entitled “How to Share Scientific Data”, which is a topic I am interested in both privately and also professionally as part of my W3C work (publishing scientific data on the Web is coming to the fore as a major area of Data on the Web). The NYT article is, actually, “just” a short overview of a more detailed paper, written by F. Berman and V. Cerf, on ”Who Will Pay for Public Access of Research Data”, and published in Science. Because the NYT has duly  put a reference, I followed it. That is only a reference with the abstract; there is a separate link to the full text. But then… I am asked to subscribe to Science to access the paper which is is about 100$ for an annual subscription! In effect: one would have to pay 100$ to access a paper (o.k., possibly others, but that is the one I am interested in right now!) that looks at public access of data: isn’t this ironic? Sigh…

October 12, 2012

Nobel Peace Price for the EU

Filed under: General,Links — Ivan Herman @ 15:37
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First World War, somewhere in France or Germany, two brothers are on the front line. The unusual fact is, though, that they are facing one another: one is enrolled in the French army, the other in the German one. Luckily, they both survive the War and do not have to kill one another.

About 25 years later, one of the brothers is enrolled, again, into the German army to defend the Reich on the Rhine; his son joins the French resistance movement. Father and son are many miles apart, luckily, but in opposing armies nevertheless.

Jump ahead again about 35 years. The former French partisan lives in France, works for the local subsidiary of a German company, travels back and forth between the two countries; he believes (and says) that a new war between France and Germany is now unthinkable.

Unrealistic story? Far from it. The two brothers had a third brother, who happened to be my grandfather. They lived in small villages in the North-East of France in a region called Lorraine; part of this region (together with another one called Alsace) have changed hands between France and Germany four times in a century. The tragedy was that the two brothers happened to live on different sides of the artificial border, hence were enrolled in opposing armies.

This was Europe for a long time. It was also a Europe with borders, with an iron curtain (which also played a significant role in my life), with latent and dangerous tensions that could have led to new conflicts. But all this is history. Our children, in many ways, do not even understand this past; stories like the one above seem unbelievable and unrealistic to them. And this is the main achievement of the EU. It is not perfect (far from it), it currently has economic problems and tensions to solve; but every time I pass a border without even noticing it on my way from Amsterdam to Budapest or Paris I should (and I often do) remember the ordeals my own grandfather’s generation went through. It is therefore more than fitting that the EU, as an organization, has just received the Nobel Price for peace. A war-torn, suffering continent closed a terrible period by creating it; as one of my colleagues, Phil Archer, said on twitter: we can be proud of being European.

May 28, 2012

Ups and downs of voting in France via the Web…

Filed under: General,Links — Ivan Herman @ 12:42
Tags: ,

First round of parliamentary elections in France. Starting this year, as a French expat, I can also vote via the Web. This is really great. So I did it today. However…

  • I start up the relevant Web page on my machine (Mac Lion, Safari; I am fairly meticulous to run the latest system updates). It turns out that the system uses Java; the first program the voting page runs in the browser (using, I think, JavaScript) is to check the system configuration. And this check (which lasts 2-3 minutes!) fails. I run Java version 1.6.0 on my machine, it looks like (although I am not sure) that it asks for 1.6.2. Does such a minor version make such a difference? I have difficulties to believe. But there is more: first of all, my system update does not report any new release; but the voting program also says something like “if you have updated to 1.7, which is the latest release, then this would not work”. The advise they give to users: (re)install manually 1.6.2 from Oracle’s site. (Remember: Java updates are also handled by Lion’s own update service, one never goes directly to Oracle…)
  • Give up on Mac, go to my wife’s machine (Windows 7, also kept up-to-date). Start up Firefox, it makes all the checks but… fails. It turns out that the Java plugin for Firefox was disabled: indeed, Firefox, at some of the previous updates, disabled it, because it had a security issue. Go to preferences, enable the plugin (to be disabled later). Hurray, it works, I could cast my vote!
  • My wife also wants to vote, of course. So…  restart the voting page on Firefox. Surprise: it replies that we do not have the right privileges to start up the page any more. FTH? Classical windows reaction: quit Firefox, and then restart it again. And it works… she could also vote.

I have only one question: are computers illeterates also supposed to vote on line, too? Or is it reserved for experts?

March 13, 2011

Example for the power of open data…

Earthquakes around the globe on the week of the 11th of March

I wish I would not have to use this example… But I just hit it this morning via a tweet of Jim Hendler. RPI has an example on how can one combine public gov data (in this case, a Data.gov dataset on Earthquakes), its RDF version with a SPARQL query, and a visualization tool like Exhibit. The result is an interactive map on Earthquakes of the last week. Running the demo today reveals an incredible amount (over 160) of events on the coast of Honshu, Japan, which led to the earthquake and tsunami disaster on the 11th of March. I do not know how much time it took for Li Ding to prepare the original demo, but I suspect it was not a big deal once the tools were in place.

The demo is dynamic, in the sense that in a week it will probably show some other data than today. So I have made a screen dump for memento (I hope it is all right with Jim and Din). If you are looking at it now, it is worth zooming into the area around Japan to gain some more insight into the sheer dimensions of the disaster: there were  325 quakes (out of 411 around the globe) in that area during the week! I must admit I did not know that…

I have the, hopefully not too naïve, belief that tools like this may not only increase our factual knowledge, but would also help, in future, to help those who are now struggling in coping with the aftermath of this disaster. Yes, having open data, and tools to handle them and integrate them, is really important.

January 1, 2011

Lending electronic books?

Filed under: General,Links — Ivan Herman @ 10:23
Tags: , ,

This is the type of issue that is a bit too long for a tweet (although I tried…). Amazon has recently announced the possibility to lend Kindle books. So, if you own a Kindle book you can, for a while, make it available for your friends. But one feature is strange: while your book is on loan you cannot access your own book! What Amazon does is to desperately recreating the facilities that one is used to with printed books in the electronic world (even the prices are comparable, ie, a Kindle book is not really cheaper than its printed equivalent). This is really strange: e-books are a new medium, embrace it!

October 3, 2010

Lessons of the past…

Filed under: General,Links — Ivan Herman @ 12:00
Tags: , , , , ,
Two photos of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin

Two photos of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin; the left one represents the outer part of the grid, whereas the right one in the middle

A few years ago I was in Berlin and I also visited the Holocaust Memorial. It is a fascinating site, though it took a certain time to understand the intention of the artist. But, suddenly, I think I got it. The memorial consists of a set of gray blocks arranged on a grid; one can walk among the blocks along the grid lines although there is barely enough place for two persons at a time. On the outer parts of the grid the blocks are small; however, by getting closer to the center they become suddenly and unexpectedly high and oppressing (the extra trick is that the ground is also going down, but this is barely visible from the side, so the effect is surprising). And I mean really oppressing. The photos are just an an attempt to show the effects.

In some ways, the memorial is a representation of the poem by Pastor Martin Niemöller:

They came first for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.

Why do I speak about this now? Because, the last week-end, a liberal and a center-right party in the Netherlands have signed an agreement with a guy called Geert Wilders to form a minority government: the set up is that those two parties form the government but they can count on the votes of Wilders’ party in the parliament. Of course, this has not been done by the kindness of Wilders’ heart: the government has to adopt many of his ideas. And those are, in many respect, simple: his party is one of the toughest anti-muslim parties in Europe at the moment, whose fundamental approach is that anything that has even remotely something to do with Islam is evil and to be fought against with all legal (?) means. In other words, a party that takes one part of the population, declares it collectively to be the enemy and responsible for most of the woes in the country. Familiar?

One could say that, although I am a foreigner living in the Netherlands, I am not directly affected, so why bother? And that is true; after all, I am an atheist and a “European”, not a Turk or Moroccan that form the majority of the muslim population in the country. But I am also the descendent of Holocaust victims, so I cannot stop asking myself: is this just the first step Pastor Martin Niemöller is talking about? Maybe East-Europeans are next?  (After all Wilder’s party took a fairly strong anti-Rumanian and anti-Bulgarian attitude at the time of the European elections). Maybe any foreigner? Maybe the Jews?

Maybe it is time for me of thinking packing my stuff and move away from here?

April 5, 2010

Interactive fountain

Filed under: General,Hungary,Links — Ivan Herman @ 7:23
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A new toy in Budapest, Hungary: an interactive public fountain. Imagine a rectangle (about 10 by 5 meters) with jets of water shooting vertically up into the air at the perimeter. It looks like a room with walls of water. You approach the wall, and a small portion of that wall opens like magic (some parts of the jets stop working), you enter the room and the wall closes behind you (ie, the jets start working again). The same happens if you want to leave the room; you just approach the wall which gracefully opens to let you through. See the picture (click on it to get a somewhat larger image); it shows what happens…

That is whole idea. Simple but great; of course, many people enter the room at various places and various times, some of the jets are not yet in full force, etc, so it gives the fountain and ever changing aspect. When I saw it (yesterday) it was fairly cold outside, but I see in advance that in summer heat this will really be great fun!

As a techie: I tried to find and see the sensors that are, obviously, under your feet both inside and outside the water wall somewhere under your feet. I guess the trick is to have these sensors placed in a way that you do not see them at all to make it all really feel like magic. And indeed, though I tried, I did not see them…

Nice stuff!

February 27, 2010

Digital memories (or the lack thereof)?

Filed under: General,Links — Ivan Herman @ 18:15

A few weeks ago I visited my mother in the south of France. By moving around some furniture at her place we stumbled upon a bundle of old letters. Letters written by long gone friends from right after the War, i.e., around 1946, for example from  young American soldiers who were in Paris at the time when my mother was a student there. It was touching and also nostalgic to look at these old envelopes, written in a style and in a handwriting that that is really not of this time and age any more. But it is part of my mother’s life and hence, in some way, of mine, too.

However: what will I show to my son when I reach my mother’s age? I actually did write a some letters to my wife; after all, our relationship precedes the e-mail era. But we certainly do not do it any more. And my son’s generation clearly does not even know what it means to write handwritten letters to friends or family. It is all skype and facebook and email: although these can be archived, these messages are nevertheless inherently ephemeral.  What will he show to his children? We seem to loose something essential… and I am not sure what to put in its place.

October 16, 2009

Seduce with free services?

Filed under: General,Links,Social aspects,Work Related — Ivan Herman @ 8:01

I ran into this two times in a week. I hope it is just a coincidence…

The story is simple. You find some service on the Web which looks nice and helpful. There are various options: you may take a minimal service, which is free of charge, or you can also choose extra services for a fee. It sounds like a decent choice: if the minimal service fits your needs, you are happy, if you need more, you pay something. I presume we all use services like that.

But then… if you take the free option, you may get a mail after 2-3 years’ of  usage saying that sorry, the free service is discontinued next month; you are welcome to upgrade for the paying service, otherwise, well, good bye. As I said I got this type of mail twice in a week: one from a service giving a minimal synchronization of my phone’s calendar with Google’s, the other providing a simple email certificate for signing my mails. On a matter of principle I will not upgrade; I do not find this approach really acceptable.

So… will Gmail, WordPress, or other similar services decide that they have attracted enough customers, they can now start charging? As I said, I hope this was just a coincidence and not some sort of a general direction…

June 28, 2009

“Because a country using only one language and having only one custom is weak and frail”

Filed under: General,Hungary,Links — Ivan Herman @ 12:27
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Saint Stefan
Image via Wikipedia

I have already blogged a few weeks ago on the sad success of right wing extremist parties in Europe. One of the toughests and, in my view, most frightening one among those is the Hungarian “Jobbik” party, with its openly racist, anti-Semitic message. Being Hungarian, I feel embarrassed and saddened by their success… However, a new Facebook group, set up recently to fight against this Hungarian phenomenon, has made me realize a sad irony, too.

One of the historical figures of Hungary is St Stephen I of Hungary, the first king of Hungary. He established the Kingdom of Hungary more than a 1000 years ago, ensuring the future of his nation. As such, he has become, among others, the reference point for all nationalists and, of course, racist movements in Hungary.

St Stephen had a son, Prince Emeric (Imre); and St Stephen wrote a text to prepare his son to play his a role as a king. This old text, known as “Saint Stephen’s admonitions to his son Emeric”, is available on the Web thanks to the National Library of Hungary (sorry, only in Hungarian, I could not find an English translation). It consists of 10 general admonitions, the 6th being on the role of foreigners (the text actually uses the word “guests”) in the country. It would be a bit long to translate, but the title of this blog may be the most important sentence of the paragraph:

Because a country using only one language and having only one custom is weak and frail

(If you are interested by the original: “Mert az egy nyelvű és egy szokású ország gyenge és esendő.”)

Wise words coming from the “dark” middle ages! Worth for a number of people, from the Netherlands to Hungary, to think about…

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