Sunday, November 19, 2006



When customary occasions for a general giving of gifts approach, there is often discussion of custom and protocol, meaning and intent surrounding the choice of gifts and recipients, and this post is part of such a discussion.

No occasion of this sort provokes more such discussion in my experience than Christmas, the Christian commemoration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and his reception as the promised redeemer of not only his own people but of all the world.

There's usually a general lament of how crassly commercial the season has become, blunting and even negating the general spirit of good will engendered by the holiday's roots. Some feel that this is a genuine loss; others point out that without any actual basis in historical fact or genuine belief for the sentiment, its degeneration into hollow custom and even debauchery is hardly remarkable. The argument is equally powerful whether you believe that the lack is in genuine belief or in the factual basis for the belief.

This is not one of those. I do have similar sentiments, into which I will offer some insight here, but to lament such a thing seems no more useful or meaningful to me than to lament that people do wicked things or that I have to get up in the morning and go to work five days a week; it's not as though nothing can change it, but of the things that can, complaining usually isn't one.

I do believe and accept the historical basis for the Christmas holiday. There is no divine commandment to celebrate it, and historically it is quite doubtful that the Roman holiday that some early church leader apparently chose to repurpose happened to coincide with the actual anniversary of the birth of Jesus. Nevertheless, Jesus was born, and I do believe that his birth was cause for celebration of the highest magnitude -- even without the attestation of not one but a "multitude of the heavenly host" -- because of everything that happened before, because of the words of the prophets and of God himself, and because of everything that happened after. This birth was the first tangible sign of all that he accomplished later in living a completely sinless life and offering himself as the only possible redemption of my - well, less than sinless - life.

Having devoted several paragraphs to what I'm not going to say, I'll begin my actual message. This is not a lament but an exhortation, and an examination of gift-giving that I hope will make it easier to dodge the diabolical ironies that can plague the most sincere and thoughtful givers, robbing them of the joy and satisfaction of giving and receiving when gifts are customarily exchanged.

First, let me appear to contradict myself by pointing out that by definition, gifts are never exchanged. Exchange of value is the definition of a commercial transaction; truly seeing the mutual giving of gifts as an exchange nullifies the value of both gifts, because neither is actually a gift but an obligation in the light of the other. A gift, by its definition, is given by one who is not obligated to one who is not deserving.

Neither does a gift produce obligation in the recipient. Hopefully, it will produce gratitude, by all means - and gratitude may (and often should) express itself in many of the same ways, hence the confusion. But if something is given in a way that implies a requirement of reciprocity, it ceases to be a gift.

Without keeping the above in mind, both giver and receiver can be robbed of the joy of a gift.

Though applicable at any time or season, I concentrate here on Christmas both because it's fairly imminent and because I believe that the nature of God's gift, which ostensibly underlies the gift-giving motive at this season, is similarly misunderstood, with far more serious implications.

First, God was not obligated to rescue us from our own wickedness. He had the power; no one else did; and we were desperately in need (since those three items sum up the essential differences between the doctrine of Christ and all of the world's other religions, understanding this is crucial - so to speak...). Nevertheless, the fault was all our own, and repeated calls to repentance had, more often than not, shortened the life expectancy of those who conveyed them. Many centuries of this made it plain that God would have been unquestionably justified in condemning all of us without appeal. His offer, then, of a substitution - His life for ours - can be seen as nothing but an unparallelled love and generosity.

Does this produce in us an obligation? No. If we do not respond with love, joy, gratitude, exultant praise and faithful obedience, it shows us to be the same unfaithful, ungrateful, ungodly people we had already been unequivocally proven to be, but God's gift does not obligate us to these, or it would not be a gift, despite (or especially because of) the fact that God himself was the giver. Of course, we were already obligated to him because he was God, but you see how meaningful that obligation was to us...

Hopefully, you can find some encouragement for yourself in all that. For my part, when it comes to gifts, I don't want to feel obligated to give; that reduces it to a debt, and I deal with debts either by just paying them or fretting about them until I do, and I feel poorer for it. For those I love who seem to feel that they are owed something by me(and happily, off the top I really can't think of any) then, I can remind myself that whatever they think, I am offering love and not paying a debt, though in truth I may owe them my love because either they brought me into the world, or I them, or because (in one case only) I promised before God and the law that I would.

Far more than not wanting to feel obligated myself, I don't want others to feel obligated to me - not only would the giving not give them joy but I certainly don't want to feel that what I received was not something the person really wanted to give to me just to please or help me or otherwise express affection or regard.

So for those of you who know me, and are likely either to be expected to give gifts to me or to expect a gift from me, forget those expectations, all of them. Know that I will not feel slighted, or snubbed, or insulted, or robbed, or whatever people feel when they receive less than they think they should have received - that will be impossible, because I deserve nothing from you, and that if I receive anything at all, I will take it as the willing gift of your heart to mine in celebration of the divine gift that inspired this holiday .

Likewise, you may - and I hope you will - interpret what you receive from me in the same way, with the caveat that between my conceiving and your receiving are many miles of chaotic neural pathways that may cause the result to be difficult to interpret, or even to disappear altogether.

So, because of Christmas and what it celebrates rather than just because it's near, I wish you peace and joy, and hope that you will receive it whether or not you receive something more tangible and temporal wrapped in pretty paper with a nice note on it.

Friday, October 28, 2005


Trust is a dirty word...?

Ben Laurie has a rant on this, and my comment, which I posted there also, follows.

But you're right. It's another word that has had its apparent meaning augmented and blurred by hype, and its real meaning atrophied by disuse. A big part of what I mean when I say "trusted third parties aren't".

Hopefully the live presentation filled the gaps of meaning in the slides that were intentionally provocative, to shake complacent minds awake. I can at least imagine an interpretation of these slides with which I can strongly agree.

But did he have to quote Ed Gerck? My head still hurts, and that was at least seven years ago...

It is, I agree, very important to agree on consistent meanings of words, and this is the primary point that I take from the presentation. It is also, as I have observed, beyond hope when commercial products are involved, with market positioning by people who generally know and/or care less about such things than about their effect on their audiences' purchasing decisions.

The biggest lesson I have been learning in this area is one that I have learned repeatedly at successively higher levels. At the beginning, it was Carl Ellison's claim that certificate validation is a closed loop, by which I later understood that he meant the same as my "you are your own root" epiphany. In other words, the only party you do ultimately trust, in all of the senses Gollman explores, is yourself.

Later, Rivest and Lampson's SDSI work in 1996, "all names are local", which parallels Carl's points in his earlier musings on the meaning of identity, pointed out the futility of attempting to reconcile subjective points of view into global identifiers, because no one had the necessary objectivity to accept them. Even Steven Kent, the PEM author from BBN, had to admit that there was never going to be a single global naming authority, which was a feature of PEM.

Now, with Semantic Web efforts finding slow adoption, I note that someone (I don't remember who, but I think it was at the Simile project at making the observation that "metadata is in the eye of the beholder", signifying that even meaning itself, and the labels by which it is conveyed, are subjective; hence the PiggyBank project that arranges for semantic maps, correlating one person's meanings to another's.

In every case, trust is a bridge between what you know by experience and what you choose to believe. Gollman explores the many architectures of such bridges, including their foundations, materials, and structures, and as such, helps to explain how one word has acquired so many meanings. English, mongrel that it is, does not have a consistent formal syntax that facilitates distinct expression of different aspects of a concept. For example, I said that trust is a bridge. In common use, it is also appropriate to say that trust is the traversal of that bridge, or the underlying belief that it can be traversed safely and that its far end is where it purports to be.

The need in electronic commerce (by which I mean more than strictly commerce but all of the interchanges, social and commercial, that are newly enabled by networks) is indeed for building "trust", but more precisely for creating trustworthy means of allowing individuals to make reliable informed choices regarding the trustworthiness of information. The more closely and dependably these model familiar mechanisms, of course, the more dependable their use will be.

To tie this all together, then: what is needed is a means for expressing "trust" policies (meaning specifications of logical processes, contexts and conditions yielding particular access-control or acceptance decisions) to a mechanism users can "trust" (to do exactly as told) in a language they can "trust" (i.e. believe that its implications are consistent with their expectations). To achieve this, it (the near end of the bridge) must be solidly anchored in their subjective reality - which means, among other things, that they understand it well enough to use it the way they want to; this, in turn, depends on being able to give things names and meanings of their own, and to specify in detail what kind of attestations they choose to believe, under what circumstances, and from whom. Part of that involves the understanding of at least one other entity's meaning and naming schemes.

A beginning point for understanding such a language and its supporting mechanisms might be to express, in natural language, the exact meaning of the kinds of mechanisms we rely on in the real world, analyze them to understand their contextual assumptions, and see if we can abstract general principles that will allow us to construct templates of decision models.

You might, for example, walk through the door of a fast-food restaurant, glance up at the menu, and ask for a combo, then plunk down the demanded quantity of cash. Why did you do that? Well, in the abstract, you gave something of value in the hope of getting something of (subjectively) greater value. There is a risk, however: you might not get the value you were hoping for. Any number of things could have prevented it, such as: the person waiting on you might have been a stranger off the street; the cooks might be crooked; the beef may be bad; this might not even be the store you thought it was!

You chose to take the risk because you believed, all things considered, that you would get the expected value. In fact, in all probability you didn't even consider most of the possibilities I enumerated above, because your experience told you that the evidence before you - the sign out front, the uniforms and badges, the smell of food cooking, the sight of the food being prepared, the dozens or hundreds of other (presumably) satisfied customers, the fact that it was all public - was consistent with your expectations.

If, on the other hand, you had been led in there in a space suit, with no visual, auditory, or other sensory input from outside except for a communication headset with which you could only hear the supposed counter person, how many of those doubts would occur to you, and how many more that I haven't mentioned? If you knew the person leading you was someone whose character you trust, and whom you knew was not similarly disadvantaged, perhaps none of them. But if you didn't know either their character or their competence, or even their identity... That's the situation we face online today, and a clue to the kinds of mechanisms that must exist to support the same kind of confidence we're comfortable with in live, in-person exchanges.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


This is me.

Frankly, I only created this blog because Blogger wouldn't let me post comments on another blog without an ID. So I registered, and got this blog.

So maybe I'll post something some day, but not right now, except to explain the blog name.

My name is apparently more common than I am, and so I am frequently the subject of mistaken identity.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?