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

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?

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 Social Experiment

Most of you have no reason to know this, but I don’t like being around people I don’t know. Perhaps it’s the amount of time I spend with computers. Perhaps it’s some natural introversion. Maybe a doctor could diagnose it and prescribe a medicinal remedy, but I’d rather not find out. It’s not that I get nervous in front of crowds. Rather, the nuances of person-to-person communication escape me. I know most people don’t think that way. They don’t pay attention to social interactions, or even seem to care too much about the words that escape their lips. To me, though, holding a conversation with someone I don’t know is an unending string of paralyzing decisions.

Partially it’s because I have so few shared interests with others in my culture. The things that I spend most of my time thinking about are boring, obtuse, or weird. My wife does not share my social awkwardness. She is blunt and open, and sees no reason to change. She is the reason for my current social experiment.

Several times in the past, when women we know had been going through rough times in their marriages, Kelly offered them a place to stay. No one accepted her offer… until today. A friend of Kelly’s is going through a divorce and had to sell her house. Now she is moved into our guest room: the guest room we said would be used to help people in need. I realize now just how dear my privacy was. I have to be on guard all the time. I’ll try to post a follow-up to let you know just how badly my sanity has been damaged.

The End of All Things

This last weekend saw the opening of yet another end times thriller, this one staring Nicholas Cage. With the topic once again entering popular culture, our small group discussed various Christian theories about the future. What became apparent was that we all had a deep reluctance to consider specifics. People would only say “no one knows” or “why does it matter?”

After a few personal stories about our experiences with eschatology, themes began to emerge. Many in our group had watched the “official” position on the end times fluctuate wildly. Some of us had been alive for the speculation of 1988. Others recalled the Y2K hysteria, the prophecies of doom after the September 11th attacks,  and Harold Camping’s much-publicized announcement of the impending end. We had grown up while the Left Behind books were published, witnessed the excitement over them, and watched the backlash. In short, we were trained to believe nothing we heard on the subject.

Most of us who had grown up submerged in Christian culture also had stories about premillenialists bashing amillenialists, or post-tribulationists attacking pre-tribulationist. We had watched congregations split and seen people get angry or break down crying over the subject. Experience taught us that the cost of having an informed opinion was too great. If forced to choose between studying the topic or being part of a community, our decision was obvious. Better to say “I believe whatever you believe” and avoid causing offense.

Our generation is often labeled “post-modern”, meaning that we don’t believe in anything. On subjects like this, though, why would we? Everything we have seen suggests that the topic brings only pain, confusion, and ridicule. Would Christianity, and the world, be better off if we dropped Revelation and other parts of the Bible that we don’t understand? If our choice is between morbid fascination and ignorance, what are we to do?

The Sanity Experiment

I promised I’d let you know how my sanity is holding up under the strain of sharing my home. Truthfully, it hasn’t been as bad as I had feared. There were certainly some initial challenges, especially since I have expectations about the way things are done. For example, I was taught that when you leave a room, you turn the lights out. I always lock the door, of my house and my car, when I leave them. I never start a new box of cereal while there’s still some of the same cereal left. If I open something that says “refrigerate after opening”, I put it in the refrigerator. If I wash the dishes, I don’t leave any food on the plates at the end.

Some of these issues I’ve been able to sort out. Others, I’ve learned to mitigate or accept. A few are still eating at my sanity, so perhaps I’ll have another report for you in the future.

Uniformity Is Easy

When you listen and read one thinker, you become a clone… two thinkers, you become confused… ten thinkers, you’ll begin developing your own voice… two or three hundred thinkers, you become wise and develop your voice.

― Timothy Keller

There is a messiness to gaining wisdom. To get there, you must go through confusion, and when confused people interact it can become quite tumultuous. It’s simpler to deny that more than one viewpoint could have validity. Clones are easier to manage than thinkers.

Minding the Gaps

If you haven’t yet read my short story In the Gaps, and you don’t like “spoilers”, you may want to read that first.

Not every story has a story behind it, or at least that story is some variant of “I had an idea and wrote it down.” In the Gaps was not one of those.

Several years ago my friend Nate mentioned an idea he had for a story. “An atheist says there is no god, but that’s asserting a negative. To prove it, you would need to be omniscient. What if an atheist became god trying to prove there wasn’t one?”

What he meant was that if I say something like “There are no unicorns”, then all someone has to do to prove me wrong is show one unicorn. The lack of a unicorn is not proof that it does not exist, because it could be hiding somewhere in the jungle. Suppose I observed every square inch of the planet at the same time and found no unicorns. Would that be conclusive proof? Of course not. The unicorn could have burrowed underground, or be living on another planet. To prove a negative, you’ve got to observe all of reality at the same instant. In other words, you have to be a god.

It was a great concept, and I awaited his final product. Knowing him, it would be some stream-of-consciousness cerebral, and mildly trippy, piece of high art. The sole character would spend his days alone, trying to prove there was no god. He would eventually succeed, only to realize, to his horror, that he had become the very thing he had proved did not exist.

Great stuff, but a different story with that premise started to formulate, unbidden, in my mind. Eventually I asked him if I could borrow his idea for my story, and he agreed. Another couple of years passed, but I finally sat down and churned out what I call In the Gaps.

Sprinklings of Insanity

Have you ever watched in horror as someone repeatedly makes bad decisions? You think to yourself, “They must have learned from that,” yet there is always a next time. There are a few people in my life like that. Some eventually did turn things around. Others aren’t quite there yet. I’m not sure where this story fits.

Growing up in the American public school system, one of the greatest evils I was warned against was smoking. I still remember the pictures in my health textbook showing red healthy lungs next to black diseased lungs. There were stickers, comic books, and videos warning of the danger. Since no one in my immediate family, or even circle of friends, smoked around me, it was never a great temptation. As far as I can remember, no one ever tried to peer pressure me into trying a cigarette.

In more recent years, I’ve realized that smoking is not a great evil. It’s an addiction, and a dangerous one, but the people who smoke are mostly victims, not villains. I’ve made friends with a few smokers, and try to avoid flinching at the smell of ash when I’m around them. I actually like the smell of tobacco, just not when it’s on fire. One area where I do draw the line, though, is allowing them to smoke inside the house, as that would be an imposition on our non-smoking guests.

Our house guest was not a smoker when she moved in a month ago. Old habits die hard, though, and as the stress of her divorce got under her skin, the cigarettes returned. Aware that smoking inside the house was not allowed, she would escape to her car, where she rapidly burned through a cigarette and returned to the house reeking of smoke.

My nose isn’t that sensitive. Even when I know to pay attention for a smell, I still sometimes miss it. Kelly is just the opposite, and being in the first trimester of her pregnancy has made her sense of smell around ten times more sensitive. She would walk around the house and tell me exactly what our house guest had touched after one of her smoke breaks. A bit of quick research suggested that this “third hand smoke” during pregnancy was linked to lung development issues. It was not a startling find, but it was enough to make it clear something needed to be done.

When confronted with the difficulties caused by her new habit, our guest revealed that she actually had electronic cigarettes (which don’t burn into toxic ash), but chose not to use them. She agreed to upgrade her addiction, and, for the moment, that particular hiccup seems resolved.


I’ve sung the songs that call Jesus “the hope of nations”. I know that “gospel” means good news. Yet, from time to time, I lose my connection with that. It’s partially because I’ve been wrong a lot. I’ve learned that nothing is really good or bad, but that it’s all about who you’re talking to at the moment. What one person considers wonderful, the next considers an abomination. I’ve learned it’s just safer to assume that nothing is an absolute good.

Then, I’m confronted with Jesus. A man who cared for the alien, who gave healing to the sick, and friendship to the sinner. A man who saw the wickedness of the human race, yet gave grace to those who knew they didn’t deserve it. A man who spoke out against the corruption of religion. A man who forgave the soldiers who drove nails into his wrists. A man who died in the place of the rebels who rejected him.

If that is what God is like, isn’t that good news for us all?