Ownership of Names (was Re: Public identifiers and topic maps)

Steven R. Newcomb srn at techno.com
Tue Sep 29 02:53:49 BST 1998

> From: John Cowan <cowan at locke.ccil.org>
> Consider John 3:14 (in the KJV version, to be concrete). 
> What is an FPI I can use for it?  I have the same unpalatable
> alternatives: "-//John Cowan//NONSGML KJV John 3:14//EN", which
> is a name I own but which is embarrassingly non-public, or
> "-//King James I of England//NONSGML John 3:14", which belongs
> to a man who is unlikely to register any names.

What John said.  This is the problem we're trying to address with
"public topics".

I think maybe what we're looking for here is some expressiveness that
even Library Science hasn't bothered with very much, due to the focus
on documents rather than on the things that documents talk about,
which is what really ties them together.  If you don't believe this is
a real issue, consider what kinds of listings you find in indexes.  Do
you find documents there?  No, you find the names of things, and only
some of those things are documents.  What we're looking for is a canon
for referencing things in general.

[Eliot Kimber:]
> Steve is talking about topics as though the topics were the things
> (i.e., the topic "Lake Geneva" *is* the actual lake).

Yes, that's exactly what I meant.

> But topics are not the things, they are descriptions of and opinions
> about things.  That's why I say that a topic is a document.

No, not at all; this is infinite regression.  What is the topic of an
airplane manual?  An airplane manual is not about documents.  It's
about airplanes.  We need a maximally canonical way to refer to
airplanes, snails, puppy-dog's tails, shoes, ships, sealing wax,
cabbages, and St. James's Bible: to the topics themselves, and not
just to more and more words about them and pictures of them.

<explanation>In topic map jargon, a "topic" is an information
construct that has names, occurrences, and roles played in
relationships with other topics.  But in common English usage, a
"topic" is anything that is regarded as a subject about which
communication occurs -- "a topic of conversation".  In topic map
jargon, the latter concept is called "public topic", because it is the
referent to which many topic-map-topics may commonly refer, thus
allowing users of various topic maps to determine when two
topic-map-topics, which may be in different topic maps, are really
about the same English-topic.  The fact that different
topic-map-topics may have many different names in many different
scopes is already well understood and well handled in the topic map
formalism.  The question we're facing here is how best to refer to
public topics (in English: topics).</explanation>

[Perhaps irrelevantly, I'm reminded of the fact that it's a provably
undecidable proposition that there is any connection, in reality,
between mathematics and reality.  The proof boils down to the
undecidability of the proposition that the catalog of all things
necessarily does or does not contain a listing for itself.  At that
level, this is a purely philosophical question.  However, I'm
concerned about more practical matters.  I just want a way to point to
the subject that I'm discussing so that other people can have a prayer
of attaining certainty as to what it is that I'm talking about.  I
can't afford to care whether there's any absolute value in the fact of
my pointing, any more than I care whether the number "4" is really a
valid class of which the number of wheels on my car is a valid
instance.  It's good enough for me if it works.]

It seems to me that this could be done as a chain of namespace/name
pairs in a very wide variety of equally compelling ways.  The main
problem is "Where to start?"  In other words, which of the "common"
namespaces in our world culture should be the first namespace of the
chain?  I think this is always going to be an artistic, political,
sociological, legal, and/or other-technical decision, and there is
plenty of room for differences between people.  It turns out that it
just doesn't matter; the real world of human knowledge is by
definition totally out of control, and we're just doing what we can to
leverage the technology of language to help us manage our fast-growing
wealth of knowledge.  (And what's a liberal education for, anyway, if
not to gain a working knowledge of the common namespaces?)

Back to John's example.  Here's a possible location chain for you:

Step 0: Namespace: (the most common of all namespaces)
        Name: "The Bible"  

Step 1: Namespace: "Editions"
        Name: "King James Version"

Step 2: Namespace: "Books"
        Name: "The Gospel According to John"

Step 3: Namespace: "Chapters"
        Name: "3"

Step 4: Namespace: "Verses"
        Name: "14"

And here's an equally serviceable example, for a somewhat different

Step 0: Namespace: (the most common of all namespaces)
        Name: "English literature"

Step 1: Namespace: "Reigning monarchs"
        Name: "James I"

Step 2: Namespace: "Titles"
        Name: "Holy Bible"

Step 3: Namespace: "Books"
        Name: "The Gospel According to John"

Step 4: Namespace: "Chapters"
        Name: "3"

Step 5: Namespace: "Verses"
        Name: "14"


Steven R. Newcomb, President, TechnoTeacher, Inc.
srn at techno.com  http://www.techno.com  ftp.techno.com

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