In defense of the Semantic Web, Again.

With the official announcement that RDF is in Drupal core and the Semantic Web conference in DC, I wanted to take time to respond to “tales of a semantic web skeptic”. Healthy criticism, and a good read.

This piece is to defend the vision, if not the execution.

I helped get RDF into Drupal and spoke on the topic at two DrupalCons (one in Brussels and the other in Barcelona). No credit beyond that belongs to me, I’ve done no development on it since.

Arguments are mostly semantic about the semantic web. The computer science is done, the technology is used in real world applications in genetics, law, and military applications.

What is perhaps a PR shift is to differentiate the upper-case and lower-case semantic web.

The semantic web:

  • a data exchange standard for graph based meta data and logical meta data
  • a webservice with a standardized API
  • a graph database, or other specialized store
  • consumers or Agents

The Semantic Web (a la W3C)

  • RDF(S), RDFa, OWL(S), etc
  • REST/ SPARQL
  • Sesame, Jena, YARS, Redland, etc
  • Semantic Agents

Microformats and popularizations are all good. Folksonomy instead of Taxonomy – Clay Shirky, or rather, the mob (you and I) he describes, is hard to argue with. To mash up verified, trusted content in federated queries from heterogeneous data sources is cool to me, but not everyone.

Tim Berners-Less talk at Ted changes the term to “Linked Data”. That makes sense. I think there’s a struggle to create a revolution and an industry again – something with as big an impact as the web. Linked data is the web Sir Web wants/wanted. But the first web didn’t happen because a few folks wanted it. We needed it. As the YCombinator mantra goes “make something people want”. Making Semantic Web software has, in the past, made Semantic Web people happy… but not too many others (I have first hand experience in this).

A final two points:

Maybe it’s fair to say the community may be too top-down. Luckily, freedom of speech extends to computer code.

Not everyone is going to be inspired and “believe” in grand visions. Artificial intelligence is perfect analogy. Our culture has adopted the term – for better or worse – to mean lots of things.

Norman Borlaug – Nobel Peace Prize “Green Revolution”

Norman Borlaug recently passed away, and has perhaps saved millions of lives by improving food crop productivity. Fifty years later, a tremendous amount of science has been done since then. The Green in Green Revolution might not be appropriate any more.

Contributions to science can to be viewed as non-political and amoral. But there is a polarization and politicization of organic and “industrial” agriculture. My opinion is that the fundamental issue is sustainability. I think the course correction for industry still needs to be sustainability (economic, environmental and social)

If you are into agriculture – (food sources in general) – the video below is an interesting interview with Norman’s neighbors on the impact of chemical farming on soil and sustainability.

As a technologist from rural Maine, I like to keep in touch with ecology/agriculture topics. (my post at hacker news )

considering voting – technology and new paths towards democracy

I voted today, just an hour ago. The outcome of the election is unknown. There no reason for me to be cynical at the moment. In this moment, I’m happy.

Voting is one part of a participatory democracy – a clear path to being involved, belonging to something larger. However, Democracy, for me, is to be independent, educated, creative and unify around specific causes. These causes change depending on the world around us. This perspective on the purpose and meaning of democracy leads me to question voting as the best answer we have to creating democracy. Follows is a brief outline on how the internet and related technology offers new options for what government is, and does.

  1. Open Source voting machines:

    Paying private companies to write bad software on unsecured hardware is obviously crazy when we are talking about one of the most basic components to the infrastructure of democracy.

  2. Semantic Web and Open Government:

    If I am honest with myself, I have to admit that no matter how much research I do, I doubt I really know what is going on in our government. I’m pretty sure there is waste, but the waste is likely systemic as much as it is caused by corruption. There are complex organizations spending most of their energy just being complex. Institutional complexity can be reduced when there is insight into on what that organization is even up to – ie “transparent government”.
    Putting all government documents online isn’t enough to make Government transparent. When single laws are 800 pages, being able to search through the mountain of data is critical. But, even more difficult than finding what you want is summarizing and co-relating data. I won’t elaborate on specifics here, but if the the whole of our public government is open, searchable, and easy to collect and reorganize into digestible pieces of knowledge, then we’re all better off.

  3. Game Theory:

    Voting is not simple. Votes aren’t just counted, they are grouped, reassigned, allocated, recounted, averaged, rounded, molded. The game theory behind different voting mechanisms is a very well researched field. William Poundstone’s book gives a great intro into other voting systems. Hopefully on this day, November 4th, 2008, we overcome our flaws.
    Check out Ubuntu/OLPC contributor Benjamin Mako Hill’s online voting site Selectricty to try out other voting systems and the Ruby Vote voting software.

  4. Taxes:

    The internet can make where money flows more dynamic and accountable.
    Paying into the system is not, currently, the same thing as buying into it. My libertarian friends feel the pain most acutely. With 1 billion dollars spent on the election, each vote cost roughly $8. A billion dollars seems like a lot, but when all those voters pay $10,000 dollars or more in taxes a year, that’s a pretty good profit margin.
    So why can’t we vote on every little thing our money goes towards? Perhaps, because the world is too complex perhaps, or perhaps taxes are as sure as death. Death usually isn’t questioned. Well, with progress in genetics, there are folks questioning death too. I don’t have an answer, but I do think it’s fair to question our tax system and how the money gets spent when technology could make the flow of money more impactful, and provably so.

If you are cynical, I get it. However, while technology is nothing without people changing behavior, having safe and trusted options can open the door.

Amazon: from cloud computing to cloud forest

Cloud computing. A great idea, unlocking new markets, new opportunities for internet startups to have access to computing scale and power. Head in the clouds? Like clean electric cars, the electricity still comes from somewhere. Maybe the cloud isn’t puffy and white – it might just be black.

At a recent O’Reilly Ignite Boston, Tim O’Reilly gave the company spiel, mixed with a little extra enthusiasm and praise for technologists – a population thought of as family at O’Reilly, if not flock. The latter half of the talk uncovered the motivation for the emotion. Reminding me of Dennis Hopper Californian dramatics, he pleaded to do something that mattered. What mattered? The environment and education. Work on that, do something that matters.

Mr Big O. recounted ( or perhaps therapeutically re-lived what could be interpreted as post traumatic stress disorder) a meeting with the chief researcher for still partly secret International Report on Climate Change of a UN agency. Tim’s question was on humanity’s chances of surviving. The answer given: “we’re fucked”. Don’t trust the UN? So thinks the pentagon too.

Even if climate change isn’t “real” – the game still has to be played out because just maybe we are heading to the land of FAIL. Yes, Fuckdom. Not fuckdom like, “hey, I like to scare people”, but fuckdom like inheriting the worst code you’ve ever seen which depends on closed source. There’s a better chance of climate change being a big problem than you’ll ever succeed significantly in a start up. Personally, I want to maintain the legacy app called Earth….

Well, so speaking of startups, try out CO2 Stats. Simply place a widget like Google’s analytics on your site. measure C02 emissions based on available data about the servers and the clients (that’s you). Optionally you can have them automatically purchase carbon offsets for you, or, as in the case of this site – advertisers pay for your … gasses. ¬†

And if you don’t like C02stats – do you have a better idea?

Review of Clayton Christensen’s book Disrupting Class

Disrupting Class was an excellent resource in providing a technology and business vocabulary which is applicable to the deep challenges facing public education today.

To be honest, my view of education is emotive as it ¬†represents so many formative years of my life. I can not claim to bring objectivity to the dialogue. A relative writing¬†“Freedom to Learn”, as well as my mother being a retired special education teacher … I’m biased.

But it is as a technologist, sitting on the cusp of big change, that I can read with sense of calling – knowing that as a CTO of Better Lesson I’m privileged to be in the kind of position coveted by catalysts of renaissance, and admirers of diversity – where once there was only one word – philosophy. Besides the need to avenge my childhood (where I was to have skipped two grades, but also had the diplomacy of a Tasmanian Devil combined with winning the award for “Teachers Pest”, an award created just for me if I remember), maybe now I can make a lot of folks happy.

This is the kind of book that makes me happy. Happy to me is a wholestic thing. I want to make a lot of money without others suffering. I want to pursue knowledge that sustainably changes the world.

Introspection on setting and striving for goals.

When you work on something really hard for really long time – you have learned a lot. But, you might not be achieving the goals you set out to achieve. Something near the end is holding you back from success; invisible and powerful.

Over time, it’s easy to loose track of your goals. To more accurately describe that process for me, I pursue my goals stubbornly, with each subgoal towards achieving a larger goal becoming its own journey. I enjoy the journey, and my ethics, my principles and imagination keep me oriented in that process.

Gandhi said “The means is indivisible from the ends”. This is one of my favorite sayings. I do not believe the ends justifies the means.

Sometimes I’ll make my goals too high intentionally, so I can learn more, push harder. But pursuing success does eventually create a point of intersection between your knowledge and your abilities. That maturation point can happen at a lot of different stages.

Sticking with your goal may will lead you to the familiar difficult point at the end, when everything gets really difficult. Then, all of a sudden you realize its only one thing holding you back, and it only requires you to admit you were wrong about something.

When building a chain of interdependent tasks, there will inevitably be a weak or unfinsihed link. A chain with 10,000 links breaks with one weak link, and it seems so hard to fix because it is hard to find. That’s why knowing and admitting when you are wrong is so valuable, as is getting rid of what you don’t really need in life. After this general milestone is passed, things get easier….