Conquering Rome

The disciples gathered at the Mount of Olives ((Acts 1:12)) with growing expectation. They could tell that Jesus was leading up to a big moment. The triumphant Messiah was untouchable. Death itself could not stop him. He could now travel anywhere in the world in an instant, and they had already known he was a miracle worker. Their imaginations ran wild with scenarios: He could appear inside the Holy of Holies and announce himself to the startled high priests as their new king. For that matter, he could show up in Tiberius’ bedroom, strike down that false “son of a god”, and declare himself the world’s rightful Caesar.

The world had no power over him now, and the disciples knew that victory lay ahead. They could be forgiven a moment’s thought to their own impending reward, as those who had chosen to follow when he had been a little-known Galilean construction worker turned rabbi. They were ready to see the dreams of their ancestors fulfilled. Today could be the day when Israel returned to its rightful place as a world power. Was it? They had to know, and so they asked him. ((Acts 1:6))

For Jesus, this question posed three problems:

In some sense, the answer was “no”, and would always be “no”. Their culture’s view of what the Messiah was meant to be had muddied the waters so much that having the kingdom restored was unimaginable to them without wars and conquests, but that had never been the real plan.

In another sense, the answer was “yes”, and actually “that has already happened”. He, as Israel’s one righteous representative, had battled and defeated death. The announcement of his rule had already gone out to all of creation. If they could not see it, it was only because of the deep-rooted rebelliousness of mankind.

In the most important sense, it simply wasn’t helpful. Jesus knew many people who were so obsessed with foretelling the Messiah, and finding every shred of scripture pertaining to him, that they had missed him when he was standing right in front of them. “That’s God’s concern, not yours”, he told them. ((Acts 1:7)) “I have a different mission for you, but you can’t do it without the holy spirit’s power. I need you to announce my kingdom to the entire world.” ((Acts 1:8))

Redefining Christian

In his introduction to “Mere Christianity”, C. S. Lewis shared his concern that the word “Christian” was losing its meaning. Instead of describing a person who held a certain set of beliefs, he feared that it would soon be reduced to a general term for a nice person, much like “gentleman” had ceased to describe someone of noble birth and become a generic term for anyone who was well-mannered. He would no doubt be delighted to hear that, in the half century since his death, those within the church have worked tirelessly to ensure that no one these days thinks that “Christian” means “a good person”.

The World Had Changed

At the beginning of the book of Acts, Jesus’s resurrection was already starting to have a dramatic effect. The powers-that-be, while not mentioned by Luke explicitly, were obviously shaken by more and more reports that the man they had publicly executed was alive. Even those who dismissed such reports could feel a growing public sentiment that they were not eager to challenge. In this short vacuum of uncertainty, Jesus chose to spend forty more days teaching his disciple about the kingdom of God. ((Acts 1:3))

That his disciples needed further teaching about something that he had focused on throughout his ministry illustrates just how contrary it was to their culture. Even when Jesus had used the plainest possible language, his followers had failed to understand, mistaking the literal for parables and parables for reality. Now that they had seen his predictions literally fulfilled, he tried once again to explain God’s plan.

Exactly what Jesus told his disciples we can only guess from what they later told others. It is likely that much of what he said was still beyond their understanding, but in time they would remember and understand. They could see that Jesus was preparing them for something, but what that might be was still a mystery. Even if they had wanted to act, Jesus forbade it. They were to wait in Jerusalem until they were “baptized with the holy spirit.” ((Act 1:4-5))

The number of disciples now stood at around one-hundred and twenty, including Jesus’s earthly family. For forty days he lived among them as he had before, but everything was radically different. His human flesh was now glorified, and he traveled freely between the realms of heaven and earth, appearing behind locked doors and moving instantly between distant places. That Jesus was alive at all after his brutal crucifixion was amazing, but it slowly began to dawn on his followers that this resurrection was not like the few others they had seen.

The Jewish teachers had long awaited the resurrection of the dead. Not a single resurrection, but the resurrection of all the righteous Jews at the end of the age, when God would judge wickedness and reconnect heaven with earth. That God had carried out this resurrection for one man in their own time was a puzzle. In some ways it seemed as though the world had ended, but no one had noticed!

The disciples could not miss the symbolism when, forty days after his resurrection, he invited them to meet him on the mountain across the valley from Jerusalem. Just as Moses had spent forty days on Mount Sinai before being given the old covenant, they hoped that, after their forty days of preparation, the last battle was finally about to begin.

Time-Aware Alternative to RDF

Human beings, in general, are very sloppy with our understanding of the universe. We can hold contradictory information in our heads with little trouble, and are just fine with ambiguity and missing data. Computers, on the other hand, usually find the human way of storing data completely useless. For example, a resources like Wikipedia is excellent for humans researching a topic, but if you wanted a computer to do anything meaningful with it, you’d need to use its semantic cousin, WikiData. Warehouse filling artificial intelligences are just starting to be able to comprehend documents that the human mind instantly grasps.

One popular system for storing “semantic” information is called RDF, which is essentially a way of telling a computer the relationship between two nouns. The data is stored as a “triple”, with two nouns and a relationship. One of the most common ones would be something like (“Bob”, “has wife”, “Kelly”). It’s a very useful and powerful way to express concepts, and has strong backing from the W3C for sharing data across the world wide web.

The problem I see with this format is that it is only meaningful in the present tense. Many relationships change. For example, right now the President of the United States is Barack Obama, but in a couple of years that will be wrong. As far as I can tell, there is no good way to express this information using RDF.

Additionally, RDF has no way of annotating your relationship. For example, if I want to say that Bob is married to Kelly, it might be helpful to include a link to the newspaper article announcing the wedding. If someone wanted to contest any information about that relationship, they could look at the sources, and maybe add some of their own.

I’ve looked for good alternatives to RDF that take this into account, but so far I haven’t found anyone working on the same problem. Here are the essentials of what I think I would want:

  1. There are four main entities in the system: things, events, attributes, and relationships
  2. Things are essentially just a unique ID that has multiple attributes.
  3. Events can create things and/or set, modify, or delete attributes on them.
  4. Attributes have a type and a value. Each type defines which values are valid. Values may be hierarchical. Attributes only store data that cannot be conclusively determined from other attributes.
  5. Relationships are mutual attributes. They have a type and link two or more things, but don’t belong to any of them.
  6. Events must happen at a time, though that time does not need to be specific, and can be relative to another event.
  7. Any event can have annotations.
  8. An event can be caused by a thing, but that is not required.
  9. Each database is uniquely namespaced.
  10. All data is normalized. The system will refuse to store contradictory data.

What you should end up with is historical data that a computer can understand and answer questions about. It would probably not be in the least bit performant, but that is a secondary concern.

My one big puzzle with this reality mapping system is deciding what to do about ambiguous history. There needs to be a way to tell the system that an event is unconfirmed (meaning it may or may not have happened) or contested (meaning we are not sure which event happened). This seems like something that would have a fundamental impact on the structure of the system, so I doubt it’s safe to assume it can be added later.

Is there anything else you would want in your ultimate semantic storage system?

Targeted Advertising

Our world today runs on advertisements. Physical space is filled with billboards of all shapes and sizes. Newspapers and magazines devote an enormous amount of space to them. Ads support our watching of television and the internet-based equivalents. And, of course, many webpages delight in covering themselves in advertisements, hoping to collect a bounty for enticing visitors to click an ad.

With the rise of readily available computing power, advertisers find themselves more and more anxious to ensure that their ads are reaching the right people at the right time. Profiles of every web visitor are compiled. The content of every page is scanned to determine its topic. Computers behind the scenes are constantly computing which ad is best suited to the current situation. And sometimes they make a perfect match:

Targeted Advertising

What is Strange?

If you picked up the New Testament and read it without the benefit of being a part of the institutionalized church, you could get the impression that the ideas it presents are offensive, shocking, and hard to accept. That’s only natural, given all the stories it tells about people’s strong reactions to the Gospel. Jesus teaches and many disciples leave him. The religious leaders get so distraught about Jesus’s message that they plot to murder him. People stirred up riots when the first disciples started spreading the Gospel. Even secular powers, including Ceasar himself, commanded the message to stop. Those Christians who continued to teach in the name of Jesus despite the threats were imprisoned and executed.

If you grew up inside Christianity, however, you know that actually the message is a nice, boring one about how to feel good. It’s a message of how great we are when we do good things, and how horrible other people are when they do bad things. It’s about finding out that God is mad about the same things, and at the same people, as you are. The Gospel message, in simplest terms, is that if you say the right prayer and are initiated into our group, you too can look down on sinners and feel morally superior.

It would be very strange to find Christians who reject this Gospel. Why wouldn’t they want to work their way up the ladder of spirituality? Who wouldn’t want to fit into one of these nice slots we’ve prepared for them? How could they not accept such a perfect system, fine-tuned over two-thousand years? What we have today is obviously a vast improvement over the messy and downright dangerous early days of the church.

Why would anyone want to be so strange?

All Systems Go

Without further ado, I announce the launch of this website. Please enjoy it, but if it becomes addictive seek help. Do your best not to break anything, and if that doesn’t work, let someone know so we can clean it up before anyone else notices.

Thanks for your attention.