Long Live to the Semantic Web

I had a conversation this week that reminded me of my old days of thinking that the Semantic Web was going to make the world a much better place. Well, I can’t say that I was right there. Before I go further on why, let me step back and explain what I thought the Semantic Web was going to accomplish:

One of the problems of the internet is that you build these linked silos (sometimes not even linkable) of information and activity. Let’s say that you want to go to a coffee shop that is walking distance to you, has good reviews, and that a friend of yours has recommended. Today the only way you can do it is to hope that there is a service out there that has merged all those features and that is nice enough to allow you to filter things that way. But there are services out there that allow you to know what is walking distance (for your definition on how long you are willing to walk), there are reviews, there are communications with friends. It’s just that they are not connected in any way.

What the Semantic Web was going to do was to allow you to have a “meta-internet” which allows people to build features on top of other people’s data and activities that would tailor to specific goals. It would still maintain “ownership” of the data (e.g. it wouldn’t require somebody to crawl and keep a copy of all the data), it would just abstract the presentation of the data to a specialized system. And that system then becomes the source for even more specialized systems.

Sounds cool? Well, I thought it did (and actually part of me still thinks it’s cool). But it didn’t work (there are still semantic web researchers out there, so maybe some people think it hasn’t worked yet, but it may still one day work). Why didn’t it work? There are many really hard problems:

  1. There are many technical challenges of doing this distributed dynamic queries efficiently considering you don’t own pieces of it, so you have to constantly deal with potential availability and latency issues.
  2. Representing data in a way that it’s expressive and reusable is very hard. On my days of working at the Amazon catalog, I’ve learned the cost of getting high quality domain-focused data at scale. Imagine getting data that is “complete” so that it can be correctly connected to other things… So expensive that companies would need to have a very strong financial motivation to do it. Without owning the experience and guaranteeing stickiness, ad impressions, and constant feedback on how you can improve things, it’s very hard to show that financial motivation.
  3. Building the higher level applications also isn’t easy. The logic-based language that is used to represent knowledge and be able to navigate through it isn’t for the faint of heart.
  4. There are lots of security considerations around interacting through data.

That’s it. Can’t be done? Well, maybe there could be some partial light at the end of the tunnel. The key piece that is changing is that we now have much higher level “programming languages” that might be able to at least solve for (3) by moving away from this complex logic-based language into more of a natural language approach. Behind a lot of what voice assistants do today is technology that was researched by the Semantic Web people.

Another thing that has continuously evolved is on making data available through APIs. It’s not the same as (1) where everybody is talking the “same language” and you can connect concepts almost “out of the box” by just adding configuration. Every API that you integrate you need to write code specifically for it. But back to the higher level programming languages idea, maybe it’s becoming pretty easy to consume those APIs more consistently, so we can build that joint knowledge.

Now we are left with financial incentives for companies to open up their data and security considerations. On the security side there are some pieces of support for it, but making that efficiently and have some transitive permission model is still an open question (which points towards things like OpenID, which didn’t get much traction either). On the financial incentives, well… That’s not my area of expertise. If it wasn’t so expensive to do, I’d harbor some hope that a Wikipedia-like solution would eventually happen (like Wikidata), but I’m not so sure it can.

Maybe it will be built internally at a company to power their voice assistant and search and then the US government will come along and force it to break it apart and the only way they can keep powering both with the same source was to open it up for everybody to use. Yeah, wouldn’t that be cool?

The amazing power of Comcast

A week ago or so I received a robo call from Comcast/Xfinity saying that my current cable modem as too old and it will not support the speed improvements that they were doing with their network. But I was eligible for a free upgrade and I had to reply to some mail that I was going to receive or go to some website for more information.

When you receive a message implying that my internet could be faster, of course I complied and requested a new cable modem. And that cable modem arrived yesterday.

Before I installed it, I decided to do a speed check and then compare with the speed of the new modem. Surprise: nothing changed! I still have 30Mbps down and 6Mbps up after installing the new modem (which, by the way, is about double the size of the old one). So, besides the size, what is new? A couple of “Trojan Horse” things:

  1. Support for their phone service: if I decide to use the Xfinity phone service, I don’t need a new box, they just need to activate it and I connect a phone to the back of it and I’m good to go.
  2. Expansion of their “free” WiFi system: basically everybody that has their router receive the ability to have an “xfinitywifi” network. I actually don’t care too much about it. I do believe that they could have gotten the technology right and create an isolated network that does not use the same IP that I have and will not affect my bandwidth much. My concern with it is:
    1. It adds even more WiFi networks around me – see the list below
    2. It’s not trivial to turn it off. I can’t even turn off the WiFi that comes with it to use internally. I already have WiFi at home and I spent a lot of time having to expand my network to put the WiFi in a place that the whole house is able to work, and that’s not anywhere close to where the cable modem is.

Thanks, Comcast…

Thinking of the new Squarespace 7

It’s actually interesting what is going on with user interfaces… Basically little by little, everything migrates to WYSIWYG-style. Squarespace 6 was a step in that direction but created a very strange environment in which you could edit the site “inline” or on a different UI. And some things would be editable in one place, others in another (e.g. sidebars would be configured in one place (show/hide/left-right), and populated in another). It was very strange, but, at the same time, it would make it cleaner to see the preview without a lot of menus appearing when you mouse over things, etc.

Now Squarespace moved to their version 7 and pretty much got rid of the non-inline editing mode. Now all my edits happen directly on the preview. It’s pretty cool as a technology, but it does bring an interesting set of challenges. For example, on the SJC website if I hover on the menu on top in edit mode, there is an overlay of “Navigation | Edit” that actually covers part of my menu! Also sometimes my mouse is hovering on something and I don’t notice and suddenly there is “extra content” on my page that I didn’t expect.

But it does streamline editing. I haven’t played with it that much, but I think it’s a step on the right direction. The most important thing that they did right this time, that they couldn’t do with the Squarepace 5 to 6 transition is that it’s a feature that I can turn on for my website and not a matter of redoing the whole website as they required for the previous transition. Great job, Squarespace!

Funny blog comment spam

Apparently I still have old blogs laying around out there that allow people to spam the comments. Most of the time those spam messages are boring. I get things like “I really like your post. You should check my blog”. But this one, while in the same class, was funny because of a number of things. Before I enumerate them, though, let me paste the comment (links removed to not drive people to and from their site, as I don’t know what it is):


Thai recipes commented on Challenged by real-world ontologies – recipes

One of my apparently never-ending projects that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about lately is how to build a system to …

Have you ever thought about creating an ebook or guest authoring on other blogs?
I have a blog based on the same topics yoou discuss and would love tto have you share some stories/information. I know
my readers would apprecioate yiur work. If you’re even remotely interested, feel free to shoott me an e mail.

So, what makes it funny in my opinion:

  1. Spelling: if you want to try to get somebody to guest author in your blog, or something like that, make sure you are a good writer so that people want to be “seen” with your posts.
  2. Topic: my blog post is about ontologies about recipes and not recipes themselves. The “person” that commented comes from a blog called “Thai recipes”, which doesn’t seem to be very related.
  3. Lack of specificity: if you are trying to convince somebody to join you, you should be a little bit more specific what you think can be the help on both directions.
  4. ebook? I didn’t get the reference to writing one. Why would I be flattered if somebody asks me if I want to create an ebook?

Anyway, I don’t even know my password to access that blog anymore (probably I could recover it if I really wanted to), so I don’t plan on doing anything else about it.

I should get back to thinking about recipe ontologies, thought. It was a great source of entertainment. I just need to first get to having time. Today I did have time, but was spent dealing with my backlog at work from my 3-week paternity leave/vacation.