Friday, September 29, 2006

Semantic Web Best Practices and Deployment Working Group Now Closed

The W3C formally announced the closure of the Semantic Web Best Practices and Deployment Working Group today, which I co-chaired with Guus Schreiber. Guus, Ralph Swick and the members of the group deserve the vast majority of the credit for the group's results.

The Semantic Web Best Practices and Deployment Working Group was chartered to provide hands-on support for developers of Semantic Web applications in various forms, ranging from engineering guidelines, ontology / vocabulary repositories to educational material and demo applications. During its lifetime the group produced 6 W3C technical reports and 8 Working Drafts.

All published works will remain available on the working group's site.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Teaching at the University of Mary Washington

I am pleased to announce that I will be teaching a course next semester in the Computer Science Department at the University of Mary Washington next semester. Mary Washington is a small, traditional, liberal arts school located in Fredericksburg, Virgina - just three miles from my house.

The course is CPSC 104, The Internet: Technology, Information, and Issues. I am told to expect twenty students from various majors. The course fullfills one of the five "writing intensive" course requirements Mary Washington students need for graduation.

My thanks to Professor Ernie Ackermann for giving me this chance to build my academic resume.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

OCLC Compromised by the Patriot Act?

At the beginning of this year, I stated my intention to request banned books from the inter-library loan system in an attempt to determine whether OCLC was being compromised by the federal government. In short, is Big Brother really watching what we read? I sincerely hoped that the answer was "no". Unfortunately, I cannot report that.

I ordered Sayed Qutb's Milestones and the US Army's Improvised Munitions Handbook from the Ashburn, Virginia Public Library. The result was that I received Milestones after a long wait (about two months - which is much longer than normal) and never did receive the Improvised Munitions Handbook after waiting over eight months. Since it and other related books are listed in the inter-library loan system, I can only conclude that OCLC has been stopped by their own supervisors or the FBI from providing the book.

My last post on this issue was Taking a Stand on Banned Books, Part 5.

Time Ontology in OWL

The W3C Semantic Web Best Practices and Deployment Working Group (SWBP&D) has received permission to publish the First Public Working Draft of Time Ontology in OWL. No further work on this document is expected.

This is likely to be the last official act of the SWBP&D working group, which will be closed shortly as it is operating longer than its charter allowed. Many of its ongoing activities will be taken up by the newly formed Semantic Web Deployment Working Group.

Does Story Telling Explain Religion?

Bill Moyers asked a great question of Margaret Atwood in his interview series On Faith and Reason. He noted that religious people point to a god of some form as the cause for the rain falling and the flowers blooming. Specifically, he quoted a hymn by Franz Josef Haydn putting the issue quite poetically. A scientist, he said, would not have used poetry to elegantly describe these things, but would simply offer a physical explanation. Then he asked, "We need the poetry, don't we? Are we hard wired to seek that kind of meaning in life, that only poetry, religion and writing can give us?" Atwood intelligently replied in the affirmative, noting that we are a "symbol-making" race. "We seem to need, create and exist within structures of symbolism of one kind or another."

It occurs to me that our ability to communicate verbally with each other is a fundamental part of our humanity. We tell stories in order to communicate with the most complicated entity in our world - another human being. We are hard-wired to recognize faces and to view the world through the lens of the shared experiences that we collect via stories. Stories make, use and foster analogous thinking. As we tell stories which use analogies, we invent a world view which, poetically, describes the world around us. That is as close to a definition of religion as I have been able to create.

Does that make sense? That is my story, anyway, and I suppose I'll stick to it until someone tells me a better one.

The Death of the Human-Centric URL?

I have started to notice that conference presenters are leaning away from publishing the URLs to their work. Often they simply say something like, "just Google the name of the project." It is interesting that Web search engines have become good enough that we are now relying on them to indirectly address material. We use them to enable us to tell stories (which humans remember more easily) instead of directly giving an address. Many of my colleagues now take a similar approach to Web browser bookmarks. Why bookmark when searching is often faster?

Are we seeing the death of the URL as a human-centered address in the way that the Domain Name Service replaced our need to directly communicate IP addresses? If we are not communicating URLs directly to humans, do we need to spend so much time making them human-readable?

International Conference on Software Maintenance (ICSM) 2006

Following Software Evolvability 2006, I attended the first day of the IEEE International Conference on Software Maintenance (ICSM 2006), held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. on 25 September 2006.

Jean-Sebastien Boulanger of McGill University presented a tool to analyze Java programs for separating concern interfaces. They were particularly concerned with ensuring the principle of information hiding was followed when implementing interfaces. Their tool is called JMantlet and is an Eclipse plug-in. They analyzed the transaction concern in 26 versions of JBoss and, unsurprisingly, found that as the software evolved the implementations consistently became more aware of the transaction API.

Jonathan Maletic of Kent State University reported on a tool to generate documentation for method stereotypes (StereoCode). It is only for C++, but looks like a useful tool. I wish they had done it for Java. They also made use of the srcML tool to parse the raw source.

Suzanne Crech Previtali of ETH Zurich presented the best paper that I saw at the conference. Granted, I was only there for Sunday's workshop and Monday, but their work has some real promise. The paper was entitled, "Dynamic Updating of Software Systems Based on Aspects". They used an aspect-equipped JVM (Prose) to allow updates to running Java systems. Noting that classes or methods could be removed, added, modified or left unchanged, they first analyzed (automatically) which changes need to be made, then ordered those changes to prevent unwanted side effects, then inserted the updates systematically. I really liked their approach. Being a pessimist by experience, however, I did suggest to Suzanne that they not actually remove classes and methods to be removed. Instead, I suggested that they leave them there and modify them to simply throw an exception when called. Practically, because mistakes get made, there should be some more study done to ensure that this process works as advertised.

Software Evolvability 2006 in Philadelphia

I attended the Second International IEEE Workshop on Software Evolvability (program) at the IEEE International Conference on Software Maintenance (ICSM 2006), held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. on 24 September 2006.

Papers referenced below should become available on IEEE Xplore.

Why is it that on the academic publication scale journals trump conferences and conferences trump workshops and yet the most interesting interactions with colleagues and opportunities for creative insights occur at workshops? I think it is an unintended consequence of the drive to publish.

The event was held at the Sheraton Society Hill on Philadelphia's Dock Street. It is a perfect location for visitors. It is close to the historic district, home to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. The City Tavern, founded in 1773, is just around the corner. I particularly recommend the sweet potato and pecan biscuits, reportedly a favorite of Thomas Jefferson.

Commodore George Dewey's flagship USS Olympia lies on the Delaware River, just two blocks from the hotel. It was an easy walk, so I toured her during the lunch break. I have often used the Spanish-American War of 1898 as an analogy for the current war in Iraq (in that it was a war of choice, opened unilaterally by the US president for bogus reasons and resulted in decades of unwanted and expensive American entanglements overseas). It was thus fascinating to stand on the bridge of Olympia, from which Commodore Dewey said, "You may fire when ready, Gridley.", defeated the Spanish at Manila and established an American territory over the objection of the Philippine resistance government. Olympia is a fascinatingly transitional example of naval architecture. She bristled with guns, has a steel hull and was the first warship fitted with a water cooler. She had refrigeration, based on expansion of compressed air (not freon). Her copper coffee boiler was thoughtfully lined with lead (!) to prevent copper poisoning. She is a wonder of space, except in the crew's quarters, which still had hammocks and co-located mess tables. Her officers staterooms were each private and furnished with heavy wooden bureaus, wardrobes and desks, much nicer accommodation than on modern warships. On the other hand, the beautiful glass-and-wood skylight above her officers' country could have been lifted from a wooden ship of the line. She carries two steel masts used for auxiliary sail (a good idea when burning 20 tons of coal per hour when at top speed) and a metal-componented "rope" ladder to her forward lookout station. The battleship New Jersey, huge, imposing and arguably an icon of the military dominance of the United States during the twentieth century, was visible at her museum berth across the river at Camden, New Jersey. The Olympia was there when the US became a military superpower and the New Jersey helped to assure its dominance for nearly a half century.

Bob Laddaga from BBN Technologies gave the workshop's keynote on self-adaptive software. Unfortunately, he, like many older geeks, insisted upon applying control theory to large-scale, non-linear systems. I understand the temptation - I learned control theory when I was young, too. That doesn't make it a good idea. He admitted that the available mathematics were insufficient to the task, but apparently didn't have a better approach. We really need to break out of industrial modes of thinking to address these problems.

Christopher Nehaniv from the University of Hertfordshire spoke on "What Software Evolution and Biological Evolution Don't Have in Common". I was predisposed to enjoy this talk because he started off by mentioning that evolutionary approaches could equally apply to memetics. He used the design of spoons over time as an example. The paper was an attempt to rigorously define the differences between the natural and software domains. They defined the term genotype as inheritable information and phenotype as everything else (non-inheritable information). We could all argue that for a while.

The workshop chair, Paul Wernick (also of the University of Hertfordshire), asked whether certain software metrics, such as loose coupling between modules or high cohesion within modules had been proven to be correct. Nobody in the room knew the answer, but they all suspected not, at least not rigorously. I really need to track down the answer to that.

I wonder if whether the problem with applying evolutionary algorithms to software will suffer the same fate as control theory as applied to software. We are desperately searching for the right analogy, but having trouble defining what a genotype, or a phenotype or evolution in general are in relation to software. Which one is more complicated, software or biological species? Humans would seem to have roughly 30,000 (rather complicated) genes, and some pine trees have roughly 45,000 much simpler genes. Are the "genes" in software systems simple or complex? In short, applying Darwinian concepts may not make sense in that software does not ncessarily have a population of discrete peers, and so population genetics may not apply directly. Software evolution may need a new theory, developed from the beginning. Taqi Jaffri of Microsoft had the same thought. We talked during a break and he suggested that software evolvability may be the more general case that the biological evolution may be the smaller special case. I tend to think of it more like the figure below:



Interestingly, Nehaniv suggested that the software lifecycle concept should be considered harmful. The reason is that the lifecycle treats a software system in isolation from the system's deployed environment and its developers' intentions. Of course, that seems to be a direct analogy to Darwinian evolution ;)

One of the participants shouted out that one may control for result, or for process, but not for both. Reference?

Chris Landauer from the Aerospace Corporation spoke on "Wrapping Architectures for Long-Term Sustainability". He noted that the three aspects of a sustainable system are functionality, the expected environment and the expected styles of use. People focus on the first, to the exclusion of the other two. That three-prong model was a theme of the workshop.

Nicely, Chris quoted a colleque as calling software the "intellectual caulking material" of our constructed complex systems. I think that applies increasingly to our society as a whole. Consider our kitchens. The refrigerator in mind contains a control board which implements a control system to minimize energy usage. That board has an EEPROM on it, which is embedded software. The designers could certainly have created a purely analog control board, or an electronic one without an EEPROM, but they didn't. They used software as a caulking material.

Wen Jun Meng from Concordia University spoke on "A Context-Driven Software Comprehension Process Model". Her team took a workflow process to enhance software comprehension. They used an OWL-DL ontology and the Racer reasoner. The system is story-based and implemented as an Eclipse plug-in.

Markus Reitz of the University of Kaiserslautern spoke on "Software Evolvability by Component-Orientation - A Loosely Coupled Component Model Inspired by Biology". This is one of the first times I have seen a model of software components based on an ant colony analogy. It looks interesting. However, there are already so many software component models in existence. This one will have to prove that it is useful and that existing ones couldn't serve. Markus claims that his model was necessary. I will have to read the paper.

Bob Dickerson's thoughtful paper on the poor state of the computer industry was read in absentia by Paul Wernick. He had a cute take on software development methodologies, calling them "like tying an elephant to a knitting needle to keep it from rampaging on". I like it. Obviously, one needs a thicker needle.

I did have to correct Paul on one point in Bob's paper. Tim Berners-Lee did not invent the hyperlink (Ted Nelson did). TBL invented the URI.

Bob has decided that procedural programming, the major means of coding and a direct result of Van Neumann's original and still-used computer architecture, is a failure. He criticized the results of procedural programming strongly. However, I tend to support Fred Brooke's view that the problem is not the encoding of ideas, it is the mapping of intent to code. I think that most problems that we have with software development are directly relatable to a failure to understand what we wanted to do.

I presented a paper on my ongoing research, entitled "Toward a Software Maintenance Methodology using Semantic Web Techniques". I added quite a bit of REST orientation to my slides, since my thoughts on the REST architectural style are newer than the paper accepted at this workshop. It was well received. I think I am finally wrapping my head around the subtlety that is REST. It will be interesting to complete the implementation and get to the user studies. I need to prove that these ideas make some positive impact.

Slinger Jansen (Utrecht University) said that my work reminded him of Anthony Finklestein at University College London. He and his students apparently developed a tool called XLinkIt. I need to see the papers.

Huzefa Kagdi of Kent State University talked about "Software-Change Prediction: Estimated+Actual". His literature review included a nice summary of approaches to mining software repositories. He noted that software change detection tends to look at a very low level of the code (within the class/function level). His tool for this work is srcML, which I would like to look at.

Per J├Ânsson of the Blekinge Institute of Technology spoke on "The Anatomy - An Instrument for Managing Software Evolution and Evolvability". Ericsson in Sweden has a tool known as The Anatomy. Per hopes to reverse engineer the reasons that The Anatomy helps developers and generalize the results into a software engineering style. He wanted to know if the research project made sense. I guess so, since that is basically what Roy Fielding did with the Web and REST.

Paul Wernick (yes, again) presented a paper on his ideas regarding software evolution as an Actor-Network. Actor-Network Theory (ANT) treats society as an intertwined collection of networks of interacting people, things, ideas, etc. Besides actors, the network may include mediators. Actors are constrained by their connections, as well as being free to communicate via them. Complex (in the academic sense) behavior arises. He suggests that people (both individually and as organizations) and software as peers. He thinks that treating them as separate entities might be interfering with the search for the atomic elements of software evolution. He notes that a software system is evolved consciously, it doesn't "just happen". The system influences the users, who demand changes, which creates change requests, which causes developers to change the code... An initial conclusion is that an ANT approach results in a very complex model (surprise!) and is thus difficult to understand. However, ANT could help answer "soft" questions, such as, what happens if the project sponsor loses interest?

Bob Laddaga (BBN) commented that the ANT approach might be too friendly. He sees software evolvability as more of a competition. Paul and Kirstie Bellman (Aerospace Corporation) think that there is room for both friends and enemies in ANT.

Where do requirements fit into such a model? Requirements are a dream, or illusion, shared between the actors.

Ilia Heitlager of the University of Utrecht presented "Understanding the Dynamics of Product Software Development Using the Concept of Co-Evolution". He had an interesting thought that we only use a project management philosophy to create software and that projects have to end. Compare this to product software goals: Exponential growth. Ilia is a former software startup CTO and I was amused at his observations, which sounded familiar ("real data is dirty", "Hegel's Second Law bit us").

Ilia's team implemented their own XML-based pipe description language for their Web-based product. How much easier it would have been for them to have used NetKernel and DPML/BeanShell! This highlights a real problem in the software industry. We still tend to convince ourselves that we just must reinvent the wheel. Of course, licensing is often an issue.

Ilia pointed out the Abernathy and Utterback model for product manufacturing. It relates innovation to transition time. See Figure 4 in their paper. The model was defined in 1975, but has not been picked up by the software development community for some reason. His team is interested in determining whether the Abernathy and Utterback model is applicable to software. That sounds like a really great idea.

The workshop closed with a panel discussion. There a general consensus by the end of the panel that evolution in general transcends biological evolution and that software evolution may be quite different than "decent with modification".

Kirstie Bellman: "We do our students a disservice when we tell them that Computer Science has something to do with computers. It has more to do with our own cognition." This is a good point and a nice way to say it.

Paul doesn't like the term "maintenance". We don't really maintain a software release, we really continuously add features.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Pluto's rePublic

The Smithsonian Institution has a nice set of markers along the National Mall, starting in front of the National Air & Space Museum. The markers provide information about the planets in our solar system, including Pluto, and are spaced proportionally to their mean distance from the sun. Pluto's marker is a long way down the street, in front of the original Smithsonian castle.

Members of the public left condolences at the marker following Pluto's demotion to a dwarf planet by the IAU. Details of the notes at the base of the marker are available here.

I reported on Pluto's status change in the post Planet Status Resolved.