(East (New (York))), (New (York))
In visiting the neighborhood I grew up I was struck by the sign for E New York Ave. But the street is named after East New York, not New York. Ambiguity is everywhere. Too bad the ICANN seems to be in denial.
31-Jul-2002Version 2: 2023-01-31 17:29:21

For those used to all sorts of strange computer quirks, the parentheses in the title are intentional. They are used to indicate how the title can be parsed.

It was just a simple street sign that said "E. New York Ave".

I was visiting the neighborhood where I grew up. East New York is actually in Brooklyn whereas West New York is in New Jersey. I left for college in 1967 and the family moved away in 1969.

I returned to an East New York that bears only a passing resemblance to the one I grew up in. But East New York Avenue is not the eastern part of New York Avenue. Turns out there is a New York Avenue but it parallel's Brooklyn Avenue. It would never occur to me to look it up under N for "New York" any more than I expect to find New York listed as York, New.

Those who don't come from that neighborhood would have no trouble looking up "New York Ave" and then choose "E". Those of us who come from there would be befuddled.

Stone Avenue has disappeared and become Mother Gaston Blvd but Delorme does the translation. Pennsylvania Avenue now has double signs. Is it fated to disappear? At least Delorme (and I presume the post office) knows enough to forward mail for Stone Ave addresses. I also ran across "Force Tube Ave" so-called because it used to mark the path of the force tube from the aforementioned reservoirs and the pump station.

If we used the ".COM" naming approach the old names would get reassigned and mail would no longer be delivered to those addresses. And, in the current climate, the address on one's identity card would become invalid or, worse, point to a potentially dangerous location. If we can't treat names independent of what the words mean we would have had to rename Force Tube Ave as soon as the tube was no longer in use.

Good thing that we haven't locked ourselves into the Procrustean naivet� that rules the DNS and ICANN. The ability to understand a word independent of its initial meaning is a fundamental part of our ability to communicate. We do this because we have to be tolerant of ambiguity. Imagine if I said turn right at the next street and you had to know the name of the street. If I say someone is an engineer you might just assume that they do design work when they really drive a train.

The degree to which we tolerate ambiguity is often surprising. I've discovered that when you shave off a beard and leave a mustache those people who knew you before the beard will ask when you grew the mustache.

We live in a world that is inherently ambiguous but are like fish who don't even know that water exists. In the same way we talk about the Millers without distinguishing between the profession and the surname. Ambiguity allows people to agree that pornography is bad. It isn't until they need to be precise that become apparent that the term "pornography" wasn't defined. This happens even in our internal dialog.

We deal with ambiguity by glomming onto the first sufficient interpretation as we listen (or read) and continue on. We usually don't even notice that there may be other interpretations. Given the number of possible interpretations of any given sequence of words it is surprising that we communicate as at all. We treat each failure to communicate or understand as a special case and thus avoid recognizing the larger issue. At best, issues of naming and ambiguity are treated as interesting philosophical concepts that have no direct relevance to the real world.

Our brains are very good at covering gaps in our knowledge. A striking example is our lack of awareness that there is a blind spot in our retinas where the optical nerves are gathered. See http://www.exploratorium.edu/snacks/blind_spot.html for a way to make the phenomenon visible.

Naming is simply the process of associating a name with something else. A good technical term for this is "binding". Once you become sensitive you find the problems of binding and ambiguity are pervasive. If you want to find all the books by "John Jones" using Amazon you find that you have no way to say which John Jones. You can only look for authors whose names happen to contain the letters sequences j-o-h-n and j-o-n-e-s. As humans it is obvious that when we say "John Jones" we are thinking of a specific John Jones rather than anyone with certain glyphs n their names.

The mindless literalness of computing devices forces us to be explicit about these distinctions. Yet we still manage to miss the point and ignore the obvious message. Perhaps it is no different from the 1950's when mother's thought everything their babies touched had to be sterilized except for the 90% of the day when they are crawling around and putting everything in their mouths. That 90% of the day was simply invisible.

Perhaps this explains the ".com" mania. We tend to assume that because we can guess the name of some very popular sites that the naming scheme works and makes sense. We gloss over the many serious and fatal flaws in such names as if they were the exceptions rather than the rule. What I find most disappointing is that even those technical adapt and aware of the details of the DNS implementation manage to sustain this dissonance.

A directory is simply a mechanism for going from a description of what we want (often simply a name) to a handle we can use. The classic example is the phone book. Even there we idealize the phone book as if everyone were correctly and unambiguously listed when, in reality, only billing names are listed and phone numbers are increasingly ephemeral.

The DNS was created to meet a need. The IP address is not a stable handle. Instead we use the DNS name as the stable handle. The Internet was a small community and, as in the medieval village, we could talk about the miller without making a distinction between the profession and the surname. The tax collector had to be able to identify the person and thus treated the name as an abstract identifier rather than a description.

In today's world we can't simply tell people to ignore the meaning of the words used in .COM names even though they make the DNS meaningless since names can't be stable and track changes in meaning. Instead we must understand the concepts of naming and binding and create an abstract handle that can be the stable identifier. After all, isn't the purpose of the DNS to provide some stable bindings?

Understanding the concepts of naming and ambiguity are a fundamental part of literacy like reading. But if you've read this essay then you do know how to read and are aware of how much you would miss if you couldn't.

Ambiguity is what gives the world its richness and complexity. The DNS is just one example of the importance of understanding the concepts such as naming.

In the meantime, next time you look up New York you should look under "Y" as well as "N". And I will continue to list East New York under "E".