WWW: An Ocean of Raw Data

Steven J. Searle

Web Master, TRON Web

The World Wide Web (WWW) is a tremendous information resource that heretofore only the heads of intelligence agencies probably had access to. At least, that's the way I felt when I first began using it. On two occasions in the mid 1990s while I was working in Korea, the WWW performed flawlessly to give me almost immediate access to what I wanted. On one occasion, a member of a multiplex cinema construction team I was working on asked me what TensaBarrier posts are. I told him they are probably the posts used to herd patrons at movie theaters, and I even drew a picture for him. He then asked me if I was sure. I said wait a minute and did a Web search via a search engine. Within seconds, the Web page for TensaBarrier posts popped up on the screen, and I printed out the "proof" for him. On another occasion, when that same employer told me that my contract would not be renewed, I used the Web to find a job opening in Japan within 48 hours using a job database aimed at speakers of Asian languages. In fact, the potential employer even had me take a translation test via the Web to confirm my Japanese-to-English translation ability. These two incidents seared into to my mind just how powerful a tool the Web can be.

But the Web is not all pluses and no minuses when it comes to searching for data. There are lots of data out on the Web that are inaccurate, misleading, and, sometimes, even deliberately false. For example, as part of my current job, I regularly search the Web to see what information is being posted about the TRON Project, particularly in English. Shockingly, some people have put up Web pages stating that the sole goal of the TRON Project was to develop a microprocessor [1], when in fact the TRONCHIP subproject was merely one several basic technology development subprojects; or that U.S. and other foreign firms were banned from participation, when in fact Northern Telecom (Nortel) helped draw up the CTRON specification and published technical papers in English that were freely available for purchase. Moreover, after the TRON Project was attacked by the Office of the United States Trade Representative, even Intel Corporation joined the TRON Association. (See here for an example of misleading information about the TRON Project.) How could someone get the facts so wrong? Well, the fact of the matter is that Japan and/or TRON bashing can be a lucrative business in the U.S., but telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about Japan and/or TRON will quickly get you ignored. And so analysts and/or Japan experts in pursuit of their financial wellbeing tailor their assessments to what their audiences would like to hear.

Lately, there has been a lot of negative press about Japan because its stock market is still sinking [2], its banking system is still saddled with hundreds of billions of dollars worth of non-performing loans, and its governmental debt is 134 percent of GDP, the highest in the developed world. For that reason, foreign analysts are predicting doom for the Japanese economy, but in many respects Japan's economy is actually stronger than that of the U.S. For example, less than 10 percent of Japanese households have money in the stock market, so the Nikkei's decline does not have a very large impact on consumer spending. Compare that to the U.S., where about one half of of households have invested in the stock market. Moreover, Japan has a very high personal savings rate, which means its huge governmental debt is low interest debt mainly owed to Japanese, not foreigners. Compare that to the U.S., where the savings rate is negative, the interest rate on the national debt is higher, and a huge chunk of it is held foreigners. [3] And that's not to mention the huge U.S. trade deficit, which is well over 4 percent of GDP. So things are not as bad as they seem in Japan. And then, when we look at other areas, Japan is outperforming the U.S., even though it is still mired in slow growth. Believe it or not, Japanese manufacturing output in 2000 was $1,260 billion, $50 billion higher than that of the U.S. in 2000. [4]

Some of my readers are probably astonished by these figures, but all of this information is readily available on the Web. And therein lies the secret to using the Web. Don't rely on a single source of information. Any information from at a single source should be treated as "raw data," until they are compared with data at other sources. There is an ocean of raw data out there on the Web, but a lot of it is, as I stated above, "inaccurate, misleading, and, sometimes, even deliberately false." However, when data from multiple sources overlap and tell the same story, then there is a good chance that you are getting a truer picture of what is going on. This, by the way, is the same technique used at spy agencies. A satellite photograph of a new jet fighter on a runway, for example, could easily be a wooden decoy. Thus an analyst might look for an infrared image, since wood and metal have different heat signatures. Of course, it might also be a metal decoy without an engine, so other infrared images would referenced to see if there was more heat coming from the leading edge of the wing and engine bay, which would indicate that the aircraft had actually flown. If that seemed to be the case, a human resource, i.e., a spy, might be asked to go to the area to confirm its existence and take a picture of it flying.

A lot of American stock investors have recently lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in paper wealth on the NASDAQ stock exchange as it crashed from 5,048 to around 2,000. This happened in spite of the fact that voices of caution started warning them way back in 1998 that tech stocks were overvalued by a huge margin. At that time, a group of concerned persons, who happen to be stock specialists, actually set up a Web page to warn them (http://www.itulip.com/), because they saw in the Internet tech stock boom the same mass self-delusion of instant riches that consumed the Dutch back in the 17th century. The Dutch in those days thought that massive investment in tulip bulbs was the royal road to riches. Unfortunately, most stock investors used the Web as a means of confirming their investment decisions, and there was no shortage of voices out there cheerleading the NASDAQ to new heights. Only after the crash of the NASDAQ was it reported that the leading analysts--actually, employees of the investment banks that profited handsomely from the initial public offerings of the Internet stocks they hyped--rarely issued a sell recommendation. The lesson to be learned from this fiasco is that the Web can easily become a means through which you can delude yourself into believing and/or doing anything. The only way to avoid that is to remember at all times that the Web was originally created for scholars, who as part of their profession are trained to think critically. Never forget that the Web is a minefield for the uncritical mind.


[1] The goal of the TRON Project is and always has been to develop a real-time "open architecture" for computerizing human society. Accordingly, the TRON Architecture is a total, or mega, architecture that includes numerous subarchitectures, one of which is a subarchitecture for designing microprocessors.
[2] Actually, the Nikkei is about to bottom out after a long downward journey of 11 years. That's right, once a speculative bubble pops, it takes an extremely long time for an economy to recover. In 2000, the U.S. bubble popped, but some analysts are foolishly predicting that the stock market will recover by the end of this year, 2001. More sober minds, however, are telling their readers to look at Japan. In fact, both Japan's bubble of the 1980s and the U.S. bubble of the 1990s are similar in that they were both the result of overextension of credit, i.e., credit was too easily available to too many people.
[3] IMF figures for the 1990s show Japan has net external assets of $1,153 billion, while the U.S. has net external liabilities of $1,537 billion, much of it owed to Japan. Thus, thanks to its huge pool of domestic savings, Japan can keep interest rates low, while the U.S. has to keep interest rates higher to attract foreign capital. As a result, it is going to be very difficult for Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan to continue to lower interest rates now that the U.S. economic bubble has burst. It is for that reason that that people are beginning to talk about "stagflation" in the U.S.
[4] I do not wish the reader to get the impression that I am trying to deny that Japan has economic problems. It does, but the biggest problems confronting Japan are actually political. In short, the Japanese people do not trust their leaders, and as a result they prefer to save money rather than spend it.