RDF Semantics Specs Web

Semantic web: dull as dishwater edition

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Mathew Ingram has decided that the problem with the semantic web is that it’s as boring as dry toast. Of course, by Mathew’s standard, all the stuff that makes the web work is also boring as hell. It’s probably a good thing, then, that some people looked beyond the need for immediate titaliation when it comes to the tech underlying this environment, or Mathew’s audience for his opinions would be his immediate family members, and perhaps those neighbors not quick enough to run away when seeing him approach.

He also writes:

It’s all about plumbing and widgets and data standards, all of which have names like FOAF and TOTP and SIOC and whatnot. It’s right off the dork-o-meter. The Lone Gunmen from The X-Files would have a hard time getting interested in this stuff, let alone anyone who isn’t married to their slide rule or their pocket protector.

Now, taking Mathew’s complaints of No glitter! No glitter! Mama, Mama, where’s my glitter! seriously, I decided to put my slide rule down for a sec and see if I couldn’t respond to his one statement about no one knowing what this all means.

First, there was the web. The web was dumb, but it was hyperlinked.

Then, there was search. Search followed hyperlinks, scraped pages, massaged keywords and tested the strength of the links. The web was still dumb, but number crunching helped generate some smarts. Think of your favorite dog. Yeah, that smart.

Next, there was the semantic web. The semantic web says, You and I can derive understanding from this blob of text on this page, but applications can’t. Applications can pull keywords and run algorithms, but can only approximate what this blob of text is all about. What if we add a little information to this blob of text so that applications don’t have to crunch numbers or make guesses as to what we mean?

How do we add a little information? A hundred different ways. We can use microformats, or RDFa, or RDF, or whatever the HTML5 people cook up for us. With this little bit of extra information, applications can access a web page list that’s created with UL/LI elements, but instead of having to look at the text in the list and try to guess what the list is all about, it can read that little bit of data and know that the list consists of recommended books. Perhaps they can take that little list of books and use another application to look up these books at Amazon. Or at their library. Or better yet, click a button and load all the books into our Kindle. (Assuming that Mathew doesn’t subscribe to the Steve Jobs school of, “We don’t read, we aint’ got no books, gimme the vids”, school of thought.)

The little bit of information might, instead, be an address for an event, triggering the browser to add that event information to a desktop calendar application.

It could be information about people we know and how we know them, so that when we move from Facebook, which is today’s darling, to MyPowerBase, we can tell MyPowerBase to add all people who we have defined as friends, but not those defined as just contacts.

If the information is embedded in a photo–wow, information embedded in a photo, how dull–when we upload the photo to a site like Flickr, it could automatically be added to a map, with all the other photos from the same location. It can be pulled up on a search someday, when we ask the web to show us all photos for St. Louis, or for a certain block in St. Louis. Perhaps it can even help us find photos that are licensed Creative Commons so we can steal them.

I might write about a product or company, and the little bit of information I add to my post might help others who are thinking of doing business with the company, or buying that product. Sure, search engines can scrape the content and try and gleam useful bits based on keywords such as the product or company name, but we’ve all had enough really strange search results to know how far search can go, no matter how brainy the algorithm.

Someday, I’ll be able to write about movies and add just a little bit of extra information, and we can do the same for movies. Or music. Or cooking recipes (“give me all recipes on the web that use apricot jam and bourbon, but I don’t want chicken”). Or even poetry, though don’t mention poetry around Sir Tim–it makes him peevish.

Mathew is very addicted to FriendFeed, which allows him to pull in all the activities of his friends in various places. I bet if we scratched the surface of this application, a lot of the data that makes the application tick comes courtesy of the semantic web dorks.

I could go on and on, but I’ve already been away from my slide rule too long. Instead I’ll end with the best for last: because all of these different ways of adding that tiny little bit of useful information to blocks of text or photos or video files or what have you are based on agreed upon specifications, we can use applications to merge this data and use it for something new; something we haven’t thought of yet. See, now that’s when it really gets exciting because rather than coming up with an idea and then taking five years to get enough data to test it, we’ll already have the data, at no extra effort or cost.

Maybe I’ve been cooped up in my cube with my computers and code for too long, but that strikes me as kind of interesting. In a dorky sort of way.


Shiny, happy people going to Congress

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

I was rather surprised to read about Lawrence Lessig’s consideration about running for Congress, based on his “Change Congress” platform. I don’t live in his district, so couldn’t vote for him. I’ll probably be roundly condemned for saying that I wouldn’t vote for him, even if I could.

I don’t doubt Lessig’s ethics and concerns, or his charisma, but I don’t have a lot of faith that he’s a person capable of bringing about the change he seems to seek. I look back on his work regarding copyright law, especially Creative Commons, and I don’t feel anything long term or widespread has been created from this effort. The Creative Commons movement has had some serious challenges the last few years, challenges that have been basically disregarded by Lessig and others among the CC leadership. They have consistently demonstrated a “see no criticism, hear no criticism” policy when it comes to questions and concerns raised about the Creative Commons. I can’t see how this unwillingness to confront criticism, or even acknowledge it, would make Lessig an effective Congressman.

As for Lessig’s newest passion, I watched the video associated with the Change Congress movement, and at first glance, one can’t see anything to criticize. After all, who doesn’t want to lessen the impact of contributions from the passing of legislation? To limit the power of those evil PACs? To bring about campaign reform? However, this initial view of the issue is rather naive, as well as incomplete. For instance, let’s look more closely at the contributions by Political Action Committees, or PACs, and their evil influence on American politics.

There are tobacco company PACs and PACs associated with the drug companies, oil, credit card companies, and other big businesses. No one denies how these PACs have influenced legislation that has harmed people like you and me. However, one of the most significant PACs is Emily’s List, which supports Democratic women candidates who are pro-choice. Another of the top 100 contributing PACs is the American Federation of Teachers, just one of the many union-based PACs. Right next to Walt Disney, as a major contributing PAC is the National Committee for an Effective Congress, a progressive PAC.

If you think about it, other than not officially being registered as a PAC, the Facebook group and web sites attempting to draft Lessig for Congress has all the characteristics of a PAC. One, moreover, financed primarily by people outside of Lessig’s district, a major criticism of PACs. Lessig, himself, wrote a post yesterday about accepting contributions from ActBlue, which can be considered, or perceived, as a PAC. Evidently PACs are only evil when they’re not?

Another issue Lessig brings up is the concept of “earmarks”. According to the Office of Management and Budget, earmarks are “are funds provided by the Congress for projects or programs where the congressional direction (in bill or report language) circumvents the merit-based or competitive allocation process, or specifies the location or recipient, or otherwise curtails the ability of the Executive Branch to properly manage funds.”

We all know about the bridge to nowhere in Alaska, whereby the powerful Senator Ted Stevens attempted to grab 230 million in congressional appropriations for building a bridge to an island that has a total population of 50 people. Earmarks have long been a bone of contention in Congress, and it would seem to be in the best interest of the people to eliminate this “scam” on the American people. Yet many of the people supporting Lessig might be surprised to learn that the fight against earmarks has generally been commanded by Republicans, while the concept of earmarks has generally been supported by Democrats.

One justification for earmarks is based on the belief that the individual congressional members best know what projects need support in their districts, as compared to what the Federal government determines is the best use of federal money. However, the reality is that earmarks have been used, too frequently, to reward business and other PAC contributors who donate money to campaigns. In addition, earmarks are all too frequently given out based on congressional tenure, rather than strength of argument or worth of project.

In other words, the concept of earmarks is actually good, it’s the execution that suffers. Regardless of the good or bad, or President’s Bush’s heavy warnings aside, the 2008 FY budget allocates $16 billion for earmarks out of a total budget of about $3 trillion. Or approximately one-half of one percent of the total budget. That’s 0.00533 of the total budget, for those preferring a more precise, digital representation.

The last platform issue related to Lessig’s Change Congress initiative has to do with public financing of candidates running for office, which is also indirectly related to the other two issues. The point of public financing is that candidates would then no longer be beholden to Big Money Interests.

Let’s look more closely at public financing of candidates, a concept equivalent to being “agin sin” in today’s American political environment.

The benefit of public financing is obvious: remove the influence Big Money brings to elections. The problem with public financing, however, is that it doesn’t limit the amount of money that can be spent by outside groups. So, the current crop of candidates may be limited in how much they can spend, but “Moms for Obama” could spend up to the limits of law, joining with “Truck drivers for Obama” and “Apple Growers for Obama”. This is in addition to money spent by each party promoting members of the party, as well as money spent through a dozen or so loopholes.

There are probably a half dozen organizations focusing on political campaign reform, some more successful than others. There’s Clean Money Clean Elections, efforts by Public Citizen, and Open Secrets Tracking the Payback. All of these organizations are populated by people who have been committed to this action for years, even decades. People knowledgeable about the issues and problems, as well as informed about the loop holes (and how to plug).

Which then leads us back to the whole Change Congress platform. Here we’re talking about an organization populated by neophytes who got a hankering to “change Congress”, without once considering that some of most important changes must occur at the local and state level, and in the executive branch, as well as Congress. Populated by people who seem to think that all one needs is a weblog, the right social network (and associated tools), and a leader who is wired.

In a way, this new Change Congress movement is precisely why I would not vote for Lessig. Rather than join with others who have been working these issues for the last several years, start up a new effort with lots of cool slogans and neat videos, and catchy phrases–no real plans, no organization, no experience. After all, all we need to make change is a catchy video and a great speech, right?

Rather than working for change, seems to me this effort is working counter to change. Take the fact that if Lessig ran, he’d be running against Jackie Speier, a person he, himself, praises for all of her hard work in public service. What else was it that Lessig spoke out in his video? The fact that Speier took contributions from the insurance industry, while being part of the insurance industry review board.

What would be interesting to see is how these contributions break down, because some of the contributions I’ve been able to discover are from PACs who contribute to all politicians, Republic and Democrat, equally. The embattled Ameren in Missouri did the same thing before it stopped contributing to any candidate. And it’s not as if Speier is the only candidate to take industry campaign money, or work with industry lobbyists. Perhaps it’s that she’s the only one that doesn’t have a catchy Hollywood produced YouTube video?

Regardless, accepting the contributions was Wrong, with a capital ‘W’. It is “old school politician”, according to Lessig. What on earth has Speier done that could possibly make up for such a heinous act? I mean, what do we know about Speier other than this campaign contribution?

Well, we know that Jackie Speier was shot five times when she accompanied her boss, Congressman Ryan to Jonestown. That she helped generate the funding for Caltrain, the light rail system I used to ride, and love, when I lived in California. That she’s been an ardent privacy and consumer rights advocate. That she has sponsored bills to introduce campaign reform in California. Co-authored the book, This life is Not the Life I Ordered. That she worked to ensure that all health plans in the state include maternity benefits. Has served as a state representative until reaching term limits. That she has the unreserved support of other state and federal level Democrats, and is beloved of progressives.

Yes, nothing that really makes up for accepting those insurance industry campaign contributions. Bad womans.

What do we know about Lessig other than he’s anti-DRM, for Creative Commons, and wants campaign reform? He says of himself that he shares Speier’s views on Iraq and health care, is a “liberal Democrat” who is “pro-market, free trade”, which should make Apple and Google happy.

I have no doubts that Lawrence Lessig’s intentions are good, and perhaps he would make a good Congressman. I do agree that we need to counter the influence money has on Congress, especially when it comes to consumer laws and the environment. Hard to say anything more about Lessig, as I’ve not heard him speak on most of the issues most important to me. Everything I’ve read about him, though, says he’s a good man who is passionate about his causes.

If Lessig joins the political arena, though, he’d better be forewarned: if what I wrote in this post seems critical, perhaps even harsh, it’s a love poem compared to what others will write. And unlike what happened with the Creative Commons, he can’t pretend the critics don’t exist and if we’re ignored, we’ll go away. He’d better have a thicker skin than I’ve ever seen on him. Thicker skin and open ears and eyes.

Technology Weblogging

WordPress at the top: not

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

The biggest mistake I ever made was to install WordPress at the top level. The second, was to use “smart” URLs.

My site was restricted due to bandwidth overlimit this morning, something that shouldn’t have happened. When I checked my stats, one site,, was hammering my bandwidth. Checking the recent visitors list, this domain was grabbing my feed every minute, except it was grabbing the Burningbird feed, which was then redirected to the new combined feed, at

This feed, created by the aggregator, Venus, hadn’t changed, but with the redirect, it was coming up fresh and sparkly new. Now, that doesn’t excuse the fact that this site was accessing it every minute, but I’m not sure that my twisted convoluted redirects to feeds wasn’t at least partially responsible. To make matters worse, I used an inline SVG object yesterday, which shouldn’t tax bandwidth limits overmuch…unless your feed is being hammered.

(Not to mention that using SVG inline absolutely killed my entry at Planet RDF…)

Of course, when I redirected my Burningbird main feed, /feed/ to atom.xml, this redirected all other variations of /feed, including /feed/atom, /feed/rdf, and so on. Not just for Burningbird, but all sub-domains, too. So I had to add more redirects, which attempted to bypass WordPress’s programmatic management of URLs. I had to so many redirects in my sites to get feeds to serve correctly, I wasn’t sure who was getting what. So I’ve removed all of them.

One of my site changes is to remove WordPress at the top level. I’m replacing it with a page generated by Venus that combines all feeds from WordPress installations in sub-domains. Each sub-domain gets its own WordPress installation. Some will get the full installation, and others will get my new semi-forked version that I’ve named Curmudgeon WordPress. Curmudgeon WordPress is a WordPress installation that has had all the reader interactive bits, such as ping back, registration, XMLRPC, and comments, and their associated includes and admin functions removed.

When I get all this finished, no more RDF feeds, no more RSS feeds. You get one feed for each WordPress installation, an Atom feed. And you get one overall feed generated by Venus, name and location TBD, generated once per day.

In the meantime, feeds may be a problem. My bandwidth may be exceeded. Yada yada, you know the rest.