Tuesday, December 04, 2007

UPDATED: Helping the Ogbuji Family

Some of you have contacted me about where to send items or other forms of well wishing to the family of Chime Ogbuji. The best way to help the family is to donate the Ogbuji Family Fund, set up by Chime's father, Dr. Linus Ogbuji. Donations may be made by clicking the "Donate" button on http://thekingdomkids.org/fund/.

Thanks in advance to anyone providing what comfort they can.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Tragedy

Chime Ogbuji, SemWebber extraordinaire and brother to Zepheira business partner Uche has suffered the most tragic occurrence of which I can conceive. Chime lost two of his children in a fire over the weekend, and his third is in critical condition. I waited for the last two days to say something meaningful, but there just are no words for this. I am so, so sorry for Chime and his family. The sad tale is reported here. Chime, our thoughts are with you.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Poor State of SPARQL Implementations

*Sigh* I had a simple task. Really I did. I am putting the final touches on a journal article and wanted to expand an example to be more interesting. All I wanted to do was demonstrate (in SPARQL) that multiple RDF graphs can be pulled in from URLs and the dynamically-assembled graph queried. I wouldn't have thought that was such a big ask for 2007. Alas, I was wrong.

Here is the query:


prefix sec: <http://www.itee.uq.edu.au/~dwood/ontologies/sec.owl#>
prefix rdf: <http://www.w3.org/1999/02/22-rdf-syntax-ns#>
SELECT ?class ?test ?testresults
FROM <http://www.itee.uq.edu.au/~dwood/ontologies/sec-example.owl>
FROM <http://www.itee.uq.edu.au/~dwood/ontologies/sec-testresults.owl>
WHERE {
?class rdf:type sec:OOClass .
?test sec:isTestOf ?class .
?test sec:hasTestResults ?testresults
}


Redland won't do it because it does not support FROM (or FROM NAMED). The same for OpenLink Virtuoso SPARQL and JRDF. Sesame 2.0 might do it, but I got tired of looking. I'll have to get back to it tomorrow.

In the meantime, I hacked around the problem by using a little-known feature of JRDF - one can import a series of RDF or OWL files and query the subsequent graph. It is annoying, and requires local copies of the documents, but it works (kind of).

The really sad thing is that Tucana had this feature (in the iTQL query language) in 2000 or 2001. Mulgara still does, of course. Paul assures me that SPARQL support in Mulgara is finally close. That is wonderful, but it does make me feel a bit guilty for not contributing to it given its obvious need.

I still (since 2000) think that querying multiple data sources from the WEB makes the SEMANTIC WEB a bit more useful, and interesting. *Sigh* I guess I will have to either contribute more or live with it.

UPDATE: Sesame does not support SPARQL datasets according to this bug, even though a patch has apparently already been contributed.

UPDATE: OpenLink Virtuoso demos at http://demo.openlinksw.com/sparql and http://demo.openlinksw.com/isparql now both return results. However, they return four results where I expect two.

Dave Beckett claims that the latest Redland/Rasql from svn now supports the query, but that he also gets four results.

Danny's SPARQLer now returns correct results (two).

Thanks to everyone who responded! Having proper FROM and FROM NAMED support opens a floodgate of potential new SemWeb applications.

UPDATE: Changing "SELECT" to "SELECT DISTINCT" returns the correct two results from Virtuoso. I suspect that change may be needed with others, too.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Returning HTTP 303s for Semantic Web URIs

The World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Technical Architecture Group (TAG) attempted to settle a long standing debate about the use of URL resolution called http-range-14 a couple of years ago by ruling that "If an 'http' resource responds to a GET request with a 303 (See Other) response, then the resource identified by that URI could be any resource." Roy Fielding's original suggestion for the TAG finding is here.

That is a very subtle point. The idea was to cleanly separate those resources that are referred to by an HTTP URL and those that cannot be referred to directly, but might have an HTTP URL assigned to them anyway. The latter include physical items in the real world. Importantly, many of the objects assigned URIs in Semantic Web descriptions are given HTTP URLs but cannot be directly referred to on the Web.

Programmatic resolution of an HTTP URL may refer to an object in the real world (that is, an arbitrary resource) or an information resource (in some virtual form, such as an HTML page or an image or a movie). In that case, the HTTP response code would be 303 instead of 200. A 303 is an indication that the thing referred to may not be an information resource, it may be either an information resource or a "real" object. The body of the 303 (and the Location header) can provide information about the resource without encouraging you to think that what was returned really was a representation of the resource (as you would with a 200 response).

Most HTTP resources are expected to respond to a GET request with a 200 (OK) response and the body of a 200 is an "information resource". The definition of an information resource is that the entire content of the referred object may be "conveyed in a message".

But what about resources that cannot be conveyed in a message? My dog is a resource, as is my car, or myself. These things cannot be conveyed in a message, they can only be referred to. That is where HTTP 303 response codes come in.

RFC 2616 defines HTTP version 1.1 and its response codes. Section 10 defines a 303 thusly:

The response to the request can be found under a
different URI and SHOULD be retrieved using a GET
method on that resource. This method exists primarily
to allow the output of a POST-activated script to
redirect the user agent to a selected resource. The
new URI is not a substitute reference for the originally
requested resource. The 303 response MUST NOT be
cached, but the response to the second (redirected)
request might be cacheable.

The different URI SHOULD be given by the Location
field in the response. Unless the request method was
HEAD, the entity of the response SHOULD contain a
short hypertext note with a hyperlink to the new URI(s).
NB: An information resource should only be returned by an HTTP GET, not a POST, hence the discussion of POST. I unfortunately don't know of many people who bother to comply with Web Architecture to that extent.

Thus, the body of a 303 response is under-specified. There are several open questions. Some of them are:
  • What should it contain?
  • How should it be formatted?
  • Does a "short hypertext note" constrain implementations to a text/html MIME type?
  • How short is "short"?
  • Can there be more than one Location header?
  • If not, what do all the other URIs in the hypertext tell a user? Arbitrarily anything? If so, there is no limitation.
Uche, Eric and I have been trying to answer those questions. I should rightfully include Brian, too. Uche has proposed that the body of a 303 response include RDF (but not necessarily in RDF/XML format!). Eric has suggested encoding RDF content using RDFa, which would allow for the "short hypertext note" to include machine-readable RDF without breaking any existing implementations. The obvious downside is that RDFa is not a standard (merely an Editors Draft) and may not become one.

I rather like the idea of using RDFa, but a broader solution may be to always include a text/html body part, but use a multipart/alternative structure to allow for the body to hold RDF data (in whatever form) if it is present. That way, an implementation would not have to run the body through an RDFa parser just to determine whether any RDF content was present. The use of an additional header to indicate the presence of RDF content would also do it, regardless of the body type.

Of course, others have derided the use of HTTP URLs (emphasis on the Locator aspect) to reference arbitrary resources in the universe (for which the URI, I for identifier, was designed) and for some good reasons. However, I see tremendous value in being able to marry information space with meat space via the resolution of HTTP URLs. In fact, the automated manipulation of Semantic Web content depends upon it. That is why the TAG's finding makes a lot of sense. The use of 303 response codes to both separate resolution from description while maintaining universal addressing ties the abstraction of the Internet to the real world.

The new Persistent URL (PURL) service, now in construction, will allow PURLs to be created that can return 303 responses. The use of 303s to represent arbitrary real-world resources will enable PURLs to coalesce the fragmented persistent identifier space. Do we really need LSIDs, DOIs, INFO URIs and the rest? My answer is, "Not if the Web Architecture supports all their requirements". The representation of arbitrary objects via HTTP URLs and the ability to return multiple See Also URLs from a response would seem to do just that.

TimBL has raised a concern that the information resource contained in a body of a 303 response should not contain anything very interesting, because it is not addressable (in context of the linked data discussion). I disagree. The address of the 303 body is directly addressable because that is what is returned when the URL that got you there is resolved. Further, the 303 status informs a user that the information resource in the body is not the requested resource itself, merely information about it. That is, the URL addresses both the (real world) resource and the information resource in the 303 body and the 303 status allows one to cleanly separate which one you may wish to refer to at any given time, either programmatically or by a human.

As Paul points out, the use of a 303 response code does not put a requirement on the semantics of the identifier. A 303 response may be used to present information to a human user, while at the same time providing an indication to a computer that the resource you addressed is not the one that was returned.

I have posted about http-range-14 issues before, but not in this amount of detail. I think that proper answers to the questions above will be critical to the success of the Semantic Web because we must have a mechanism to programmatically determine whether an HTTP URL refers to an arbitrary thing in the wide universe or that relatively small subset of things that we call information resources.

A big question in any new use of HTTP is how existing browsers have implemented handling of the return codes. I was quite surprised that Firefox and Apple's Safari redirect to the Location header in a 303! For example, go to the home page for Tom Heath (http://kmi.open.ac.uk/people/tom/) and you will be redirected to http://kmi.open.ac.uk/people/tom/html. Neither browser will show you that an intermediate 303 return code was issued or that the browser followed it. You can see the 303 by using something like HTTPTracer or wget. It is also interesting to note that Tom is using a text/html body describing in human terms what the Location header says (a "short hypertext note", captured using HTTPTracer):


HTTP/1.1 303 See Other
Date: Wed, 29 Aug 2007 16:54:19 GMT
Server: Apache/2.0.52 (Red Hat)
Location: http://kmi.open.ac.uk:8888/people/tom/html
Content-Length: 332
Connection: close
Content-Type: text/html; charset=iso-8859-1

<!DOCTYPE HTML PUBLIC "-//IETF//DTD HTML 2.0//EN">
<html><head>
<title>303 See Other</title>
</head><body>
<h1>See Other</h1>
<p>The answer to your request is located
<a href="http://kmi.open.ac.uk:8888/people/tom/html">here</a>.
</p>
<hr>
<address>Apache/2.0.52 (Red Hat) Server at kmi.open.ac.uk Port 8888</address>
</body></html>


Tom is using a 303 in the manner described by RFC 2616, and it is important to note that it does not conflict with the TAG finding regarding http-range-14. His response does, in fact, refer to "any resource".

The fact that browsers are automatically (and incorrectly, in my opinion) redirecting to the URLs specified in 303 Location headers suggests to me that Semantic Web applications will need to be careful. We can rely upon our own programmatic handling of 303s, but not the browsers'. We should also, again in my opinion, ensure that we do not break existing browser implementations if we can help it. The use of creative 303 body messages and perhaps new headers is one way out.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Some Kind Words

Steve Goschnick at Solid Software in Melbourne, Australia had some kind words for my paper entitled "RESTful Software Development and Maintenance" given at the 2006 Open Source Developers Conference in Melbourne. Thanks, Steve!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Press Release for PURL Code Rewrite

Zepheira, OCLC and the W3C announced today a project that we have been working on for a month; the complete re-write of the software behind the Persistent URL (PURL) service.

The full press release is here.

I am particularly happy to say that we are working toward a proper Open Source (Apache 2) release of the new code, and enhancements to deal with important issues for the Semantic Web (such as support for HTTP Range-14 return codes). OCLC has also asked us to help build a community around the code to assist both its maintenance and its future direction. That is a refreshing change and should be welcomed by all.

I can't wait to start building services on top of this stuff.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Zepheira Team Picture

Here is a good shot of the current Zepheira team. It was taken at the 2007 Semantic Technologies Conference during the Zepheira reception.

Left to right are Brian Sletten, Eric Miller, Kathy MacDougall, Bernadette Hyland, Uche Ogbuji and yours truly.

Defining Liberalism

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's wonderful Quirks and Quarks radio show interviewed David Sloan Wilson on 23 June 2007 regarding his new book Evolution for Everyone. I belatedly caught the podcast while on holiday, oddly enough in Canada.

Prof. Wilson specifically addressed group dynamics and the thinking of humans in terms of social groups. It seems easy for Westerners to think of ourselves as individuals and ignore our obvious group dependencies. He mildly denigrated the thoughts of Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan and the other evolutionary rationalists when he discussed the place of religion. Interestingly, Wilson noted that 95% (his measurement; I have not verified it but do not think he was speaking rhetorically) of conversations between people in a church relate not to theology but to group dynamics (how people can/could/should get along with each other). He uses this fact to suggest that religious thinking evolved (in a biological sense) to assist us with group behavior. He didn't mention the Baldwin Effect in the podcast, but I look forward to seeing whether it is discussed in the book.

I am particularly interested in the "us versus them" boundary in human behavior and Wilson discussed that. He noted the peculiar tendency of soldiers to act altruistically toward each other while killing the enemy; an extreme form of "us versus them" behavior and one close to the behavioral patterns found in and between hunter-gatherer groups. Then he said a fascinating thing: if one were to consider the group size to be larger, then one sees the killings as immoral. That immediately made me think about liberalism in our society.

What makes a liberal? Why do some people (myself included) become more liberal as they age? I was reared in a conservative, mostly rural society, attended a military college and was surrounded by conservative people until leaving the Navy. However, my thoughts became more liberal as I traveled and observed. Bill Clinton has said "The Democrats win when people think", which may be the same thing. Using Wilson's way of thinking, it suddenly makes sense that the ivory halls of academe are bastions of liberalism. Travel and thinking tend to make one see the world as a wider and more interconnected place. The group size one sees, in other words, becomes larger. Perhaps, as in the case of some, the observed group size becomes the size of the entire population.

I think this is a very, very useful meme. It is the first way of thinking about the differences between people's politics of which I am aware that both satisfies Occam's razor and provides a basis for further negotiation. Once the basis for disagreement is known, a solution is surely closer.

TKD Virginia State Games

I participated in my first Tae Kwon Do tournament a couple of weeks ago at the Virginia State Games near Richmond. It was surprisingly fun. Our dojang did well. I was particularly pleased at picking up the gold for forms, even if it was the old guys' division. In the picture below, I am the geek on the right.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Ultramicroscopicvolcanicsiliconiosis?

My nine-year-old son came home today from a summer day camp to inform me that the longest word in the English language is ultramicroscopicvolcanicsiliconiosis. Is that so? It is not in my dictionaries and a Google search returns zilch. Does anyone know for sure? Can you quote an authoritative source? I would accept the Oxford Unabridged, but don't have a copy at home.

The word apparently refers to a lung disease caused by the inhalation of fine volcanic ash.

APC 1500 Back-UPS

I installed an APC 1500 Back-UPS uninterruptable power supply on my desktop computer yesterday. We get not-infrequent brown-outs and even the occasional power outage in F'burg.

Setup was a breeze. The only trick was needing to connect the battery, which came pre-charged (thereby causing a discharge arc when connecting - I was not warned in the manual and it took me by surprise). The included PowerChute Personal Edition software installed easily on my PowerMac Quad G5. I was pleased to see that I now have a battery icon in my Finder bar and it works to indicate the status of the battery.

The G5, a 23 inch screen and a 17 inch screen, my laptop power supply, Klipsch speakers, a USB hub and an external hard drive add up to about 300 W, giving about 15 minutes of power from the battery. When the machine is sleeping and the monitors are off, the power usage drops way down.

I tried the obvious test by unplugging the power cord. The UPS functioned as expected. The alarm (4 beeps per minute) sounded and the machinery stayed up. Oddly, I did get a dialog box warning me that a USB device was removed and not properly dismounted first. I think that came from the USB monitoring cable on the UPS, but am not certain.

The only (very minor) complaint is a faint smell of ozone. I think I would rather get used to the ozone than risk losing a HDD, so I'm happy.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Mikayla's Yellow Belt

Congratulations to my daughter Mikayla for her advancement to Yellow Belt (8th Gup) in Tae Kwon Do. Here she is with Master Mark Grenier, dad and brother Aidan.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

GetHuman

GetHuman is a very, very cool site to collect and disseminate paths around semi-automated corporate call centers. The way one gets an actual human being on the phone is documented for hundreds of big corporations.

GetHuman was founded by blogger Paul English (see the blog that started it all). He started the site "out of his own frustration in trying to obtain excellent customer service." Since then he has built a small but productive team to actually take on the corporations' poor customer service policies.

GetHuman had the beautiful audacity to create a "standard" to which they would like companies to comply. The site grades companies on their compliance with that standard. I can only hope that this idea gets enough legs under it to make a brand.

I see GetHuman as a community workaround to a systemic failure; Corporations set up mostly-automated call centers that saved their time, not their customers' time. Perhaps a Semantic Web solution could be developed to facilitate mostly-automated call centers that serve both interests. In the meantime, the GetHuman standard is a nice way to encourage the eight hundred pound gorillas in our midst to act responsibly with our time.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Lots of Zepheira Press

Zepheira has been getting a lot of press recently. The Zepheira news page certainly has links to more podcasts and respectible publications than any other company I have have the privilege to be part of.

Investors Business Daily came out today with an interview of several key SemWeb leaders, including Eric Miller. The article itself expires after today (!) so I have created a PURL for it so we can eventually move the redirection when IBD pulls their head out.

The article was typical journalistic fare, attempting to be "balanced" in the same way that Fox News is. That is done by showing both sides of a story - even when there are not, in fact, two sides. We see this sort of nonsense with science reporting when reporters go increasingly out of their way to find a few scientists willing to publicly doubt the phenomenon of climate change or willing to say that nuclear fusion will happen commercially within the decade. In the case of the Semantic Web, the same old doubters of 1999 come out to play and get quoted every time, ignoring the clear commercial successes of the last few years.

It is interesting to see Tim O'Reilly routinely quoted in the press now putting the SemWeb in a more positive light than last year: "The Semantic Web is the idea of marking up computer information in such a way that computers can infer meaning from it."

The journalist managed to get basic facts wrong, too, as when he says, "Internet protocols make it hard to search for many basic items on a Web site, such as a simple address or phone number." or "A resource description framework (RDF) and Web ontology language (OWL) are new technologies that can solve that problem. They serve as a kind of wrapper or tag to describe the data inside." RDF and OWL are hardly new (both were standardized in 2004 and pretty stable years before) and of course the Internet protocols have nothing to do with linguistic searching.

He also gets some things right: "This new vocabulary lets computers find and access data on their own. The goal is letting the machines perform rote tasks to gather information and merge the results.", and he mentions products from Oracle and Adobe.

Eric is quoted reasonably. That is a relief. "These Web standards should help companies spot new relationships among huge sets of data and use the findings for better conclusions about their business, says Eric Miller, president of Web startup Zepheira."

I rather liked the MySpace example and wonder if it came from Eric:


For instance, MySpace might let personal pages share information with the pages of relevant friends or colleagues in the social network.

Take someone whose MySpace page describes a fondness for vintage jazz. By entering that information once, that person could automatically be linked to others who share the same interest.

Furthermore, that information could be applied to future Web searches for new music releases. In effect, using metadata could become a way to make MySpace "truly mine," said Miller.

"This means there is a much more flexible, personalized integration point to really connect people," he said. "The notion here is to enter data just once, but to use it often."

Friday, May 18, 2007

Thieving and Sneaky Administration

The US Transportation and Security Administration (TSA) has finally upset me. I've been giving them a lot of slack in recent years because I know it is hard to do what they do and harder still to do it within a huge bureaucracy. Recent events have caused me to reconsider my good behavior.

A couple of months ago I accidently left a tiny Leatherman Squirt on my key ring when I went to Dulles Airport near DC. It was my mistake and I fully expected it to be taken by security (even though the cutting blade is no larger than the file on a set of nail clippers and therefore no conceivable threat to anyone's life). I gave it to the TSA agent on the other side of the metal detector. He looked at it, smiled and put it into his own pocket. It was obvious that he intended to keep it.

Last week I flew to New York State for a meeting. I had my iPod in my only bag, which I carried on. On my way through airport security in Ithaca, a TSA agent told me that my bag would would need additional search. She searched it all right, and stole my iPod at the same time.

I understand that it is hard to find good, honest people to do a job like that. Maybe that should tell us something about the way we attempt to provide "security". Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Exposing Secret Army Research

My friend Chris sends this update from a super-secret R&D lab:

"As many of you know by now, the Army has adopted the Advanced Combat Uniform (ACU). The ACU is the most advanced digital camouflage uniform in the world. It is the result of millions of dollars and thousands of hours or research in the Army's newest, state of the art, camouflage testing facility. While the exact location of the facility is still secret, we can now reveal the first ever photograph from inside this facility."

GRDDLable Home Page

Now that GRDDL is a W3C Candidate Recommendation, it is high time to (finally!) have a machine-understandable home page! Mine now returns 49 embedded triples according to the online Redland parser.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Semantic Tagging in my Home

I was planning to blog (one day...) about my daughter's tagging of items in my house, but Weeble beat me to it.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Science and Religion: The Short Course

OK, here I go again. This one will generate some comments. I have finally figured out why science and religion (of any form) are natural enemies.

Science has determined that the universe is going to end eventually, either in a "Big Crunch" or in an ever expanding heat death. If I understand the current physics correctly (I do not, but may have a handle on the summaries), the odds seem to be in favor of an expanding universe piddling away the last of its energy in heat death. To summarize the findings of cosmology, there is nothing that we are going to do to stop that. Not on Earth, not in space, not in the future, no way, no how. We are along for the ride.

Even in the short term, science informs us that life on Earth could end abruptly from an asteroid, or via a passing star in some millions of years. Of course it will end eventually, upon the expansion of our sun past the orbit of our planet as part of its natural life cycle.

Science also informs us that we are driven to preen, to prepare, to want, to enjoy sex, purely for the reason that our ancestors survived better than their peers having those traits. Eat, survive, reproduce. That is all life has ever been about.

That view of the universe is less than uplifting for some readers.

Religion, on the other hand, asks us to believe in a mythology for the sakes of making ourselves feel better about the fate of the universe. The role of any mythology, to paraphrase Joseph Campbell again, is to put oneself in accord with the universe. That means to weather the fears of childhood and the hormonal storms of adolescence without self distruction and, at the other end of life, to accept death gracefully. How are we supposed to do those things, ask believers, when science tells us that life is ultimately meaningless?

I propose a new meme for the new century. Let's see the beauty of the universe for what it is. It really is an incredible place. Let's revel in it, for it is what it is and we, small and fragile, are who we are. We may try to change who or even what we are with our science, but we cannot finally escape the heat death of the universe itself. We are still along for the ride. We might as well care for each other. We might as well take care of our planet. We might as well make a heaven for ourselves, right here and right now, than to live in a hell of our own making.

Can science point us to a new morality? People have tried before and eugenics was the result. "Social Darwinism" was engendered by a scientific viewpoint, right? Yes, but I think we can do better this time. We can think the problem through, iterating the meme as we see fit. Consider some morality that might flow from scientific thought:
  • If our lives are ultimately meaningless, shouldn't we watch after our own happiness while we are here? We should get to work on a culture of gardening; we have a lot of work to do to make Earth a nice place.
  • If no gods are going to save us, should we not consider saving ourselves? Waiting for the Rapture should no longer be an excuse for inaction.
  • If we recognize ourselves for what we really are, could we find a way to stop being ruled by greedy, power-hungry nutters? Perhaps the reason so many senior executives, politicians and religious leaders fail to live by their own standards is that it takes a badly broken person to want those jobs to begin with. They deserve our pity and our help.
Religion and science are natural enemies because they differ on the meaning of life. The success of science in predicting and explaining the workings of our universe suggest that we should start work on a means of answering those questions traditionally left to religion. How do we learn to accept our fate? How do we learn to enjoy the ride? It can be done. It is, after all, a very lovely universe to die in.

Tucana/Kowari/Mulgara Podcast

Paul Miller of Talis interviewed me yesterday for a podcast about Mulgara. We covered the history, present and immediate future of Mulgara and its predecessors, Tucana and Kowari.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Breaking CFLs

Compact Flourescent Lamps or CTLs have been hailed as a wonderful new way to save energy and they are. Even though they do contain some significant pollutents they have less than power plants would create to make up for the energy saved. CTLs are a no brainer, right?

Better think some more. A friend IM'd me today to discuss an interesting conundrum. He has a young child who, in a fit of pique, kicked a CTL in his bedroom lamp and broke it. The roughly 4 mg of powered mercury are now embedded in the carpet, the bedding, the curtains, the boy...

It is legal in the US to dispose of CTLs in regular trash. Naturally, this results in a lot of mercury contamination landfills. Consumer guidance has focused on this issue; how and where to dispose of them properly. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any guidance on avoiding them in the bedrooms and play areas frequented by young and rambuctious children.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Are We Too Safe?

My father grew up during the depression, on a subsistence farm. His family lost two young children from illness. Adults regularly failed to live to old age. As my mom said, "If you got sick, you probably died." Those were the days before antibiotics, before antivirals, before cancer cures. Food was scarce, jobs were scarce and life was hard.

My father recently made the interesting observation that people of his era are not as scared - of everything - as younger generations are. His generation is not scared to live for fear of dying. He specifically mentioned worries about optimizing diet and exercise and extreme fears for children. Why shouldn't little Johnny climb that tall tree or run in the road? Sure, he might fall or get nailed by a car. It happens. It is an interesting attitude.

Those of us who expect, really expect, to live to be one hundred years old, and to be free of pain, mobile and healthy the entire time, have a different outlook. We do worry about our safety. We do feel a need to take care of ourselves. We increase the investment that we make in our bodies because we expect to rely on that investment later. What price do we pay for that expectation?

I never saw a wild thing
Sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead
From a bough
Without ever having felt sorry for itself.
— D. H. Lawrence

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Awesome Aussie Send-Up

David Morgan-Mar, the twisted genius behind Irregular Web Comic, has done it again. He has a pearler of a podcast from back of Bourke. There is an accompanying transcript here for you cyberbludgers out there.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Uncertainty Reasoning for the World Wide Web

THe W3C has started a new "incubator" activitity to look at Uncertainty Reasoning for the World Wide Web. This could be interesting, since it is one of the few activities that I have seen that explicitly addresses the open world nature of the Semantic Web. I'll be watching this one.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Working on a New Book: REST in Java

I am pleased to announce that Brian Sletten and I will be writing a new book entitled REST in Java. It will be published by The Pragmatic Programmers. We have not yet set a delivery date for the manuscript.

The book will cover the creation of Service Oriented Architectures (SOA) using the Representational State Transfer (REST) architectural style. I believe that this will be a fun and exciting project.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Tales from an Afghani Winter

My friend Chris, an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, is currently serving in Afghanistan. He sent me email describing the situation there shortly after Vice President Cheney was targeted by a suicide bomber. It certainly sounds every bit as dangerous as we hear in the press, in spite of comments to the contrary. The bomb killed about 20 people.

"We've been getting lots of press due to the Vice President's visit and the suicide bomber.  Nobody covered the rocket strike last week.  My office actually looks toward the gate the suicide bomber hit yesterday.  There are many layers of security and blast walls etc, I was never in any danger.  I sit in a safe building looking at computer screens most days.  You do however, get good at the sounds of explosions here.  When our planes drop bombs it is a hollow woomp, then when EOD teams blow-up captured explosives, IEDs, etc., it is a muffled boom because they usually place the items in a disposal pit, but when you hear a sharp crack like yesterday you know it isn't good.  When I looked out my window and saw the local villagers running toward the gate I knew it wasn't the usual odd mortar or rocket.  We had a memorial for the victims early this morning before the coffins were taken to the plane.  The US soldier was from the unit in the same building as my office is in."

Friday, February 23, 2007

Andrae Muys, Randall Swartz and Me

Andrae just pointed me toward a nice photo on Flikr from December 2006 at the Open Source Developers Conference in Melbourne, Australia. It was taken of Andrae Muys of Mulgara, Randall Swartz of Perl fame and me (left to right) in the Caulfield train station.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Replacing Text in HTML Tables

One of my students asked me how to replace text in an HTML table when links were clicked. I thought it was a useful technique once we worked it out, so here it is.

The code:
<script type="text/javascript">
<!--
function fillTable(value)
{

var stuff_a = "This is some stuff.";
var stuff_b = "This is some <b>other</b> stuff.";
var content = document.getElementById('content');

if (value == 'a') {var stuff = stuff_a;}
if (value == 'b') {var stuff = stuff_b;}

content.innerHTML=stuff;
}
//-->
</script>

<table border="1">
<tr>
<td><a href="javascript:fillTable('a')">Choose me!</a></td>
<td rowspan="2"><div id="content">Default content.</div></td>
</tr>
<tr>
<td><a href="javascript:fillTable('b')">or me.</a></td>
</tr>
</table>


Unfortunately, Blogger won't let me insert Javascript so I can't show a running example on this site :P

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Honesty and Trust

I was recently involved (peripherally) with a business partnership that broke up. The partners did not see eye-to-eye. Their lack of synchronization was not immediately apparent, but it became more so with time. Six months into their venture, they decided to part ways. That got me thinking about honesty, trust and models for those social dynamics. Specifically, I seem to recall that a natural clustering occurs between social entities that act honestly versus those who don't. Naturally, I hit the Web looking for answers.

It turns out to have been the great economist Adam Smith who observed that market interactions lead to "bourgeois social virtues" like honesty. Go figure. The quote is not from Smith (he did not use words like "bourgeois") but from Francis Fukuyama, whose paper at the IMF is referenced below.

Social models of trust seem to be based on incentives and costs (economic models). That approach has worked to a degree, although most economists will readily admit that it doesn't explain significant types of human behavior (e.g. Open Source Software). Not surprisingly, much of the academic literature focuses on either (a) describing trust systems based on costs and incentives or (b) suggesting incentives to make participants in a system more honest.

In the literature of evolution, there are many well-known examples of deception such as hidden ovulation in human women (unlike most other mammals) and uncertainty relating to paternity. There are strong reasons for such deception and so the ability to deceive is actually encoded in our genes! That sheds an interesting light on our social norms, doesn't it? I have come to think of social norms for honesty arising from incentives and costs, but being continued and expanded as a meme - an idea package in a Dawkinsian sense that takes on a life of its own.

There is an interesting paper on "social capital" (of which trust is an effect) and civil societies at the International Monetary Fund. It contains some useful definitions and references:

In anthropology, studies of the great apes have shown that their systems of behavior are similar to ours, but simpler. That provides a nice avenue for study. Rebecca Frank's work at UCLA made sense to me. She discusses social interactions of baboons, where coordination is valued to attain group goals so repeated deceptions become "unprofitable".

Come to think of it, I think I saw that kind of behavior on Animal Planet's Meerkat Manor show. One of the meerkats (Tosca, I think) was tossed out of the group for bearing young when she was not the dominate female. That was an unacceptable social interaction for which she was punished.

There are papers that demonstrate clustering of honest and dishonest people, such as Spatial Structure and the Evolution of Honest Cost-Free Signalling by Krakauer and Pagel. Interestingly, they suggest that islands of honesty can evolve even in situations where there is no cost and a net reward for deception.

"Web 2.0 ... The Machine is Us/ing Us"

Professor Ernie Ackermann sent me a link to an excellent YouTube video today on Web 2.0. Michael Wesch, an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, created it. Check it out. I plan to show this to my class, The Internet: Technology, Information and Issues. The video covers many of the ideas that we have discussed, including hyperlinking, the separation of content from presentation (HTML -> XML), standards, blogs, social interactions, the creation of the world's hive mind. Way cool and very nice work.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gmP4nk0EOE

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Broken Culture

I have commented before about the prevailing culture of extra-marital affairs prevalent in the military. Today's news brought an extreme example. NASA Astronaut and Navy captain Lisa Nowak, married with three children, became embroiled in a love triangle with another astronaut and an Air Force officer. She is now charged with attempted first-degree murder and other lesser offenses. Holy smoke. Learn to keep your pants on, people.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Fiber-to-the-Home in Brisbane

The Queensland, Australia state government has announced Project Vista to bring fiber to homes and businesses in Brisbane. Later they say they will provide it to a greater area of Southeast Queensland.

It will be interesting to see what they do without a "last mile" problem. They are asking academics in the region to suggest content and services to utilize all that bandwidth. Being Queensland, they naturally list gaming as a possible advantage.

Businesses are slated to get fiber as well as homes. That is a big change from the cable rollout, which paradoxically left businesses out. The possibilities for Voice Over IP for all local calls is interesting. Combine that with Metropolitan Wide Area Networks and watch the telcos scream!

I wonder how long it will be before Microsoft sues them over the name?

Friday, January 26, 2007

Pushing Expose

How far can you push Mac OS X's Expose?

I was inspired to find out after being pointed to this image of some hundreds of Apple Mail windows in Expose.

The image below was done on a PowerMac Quad G5 with 4 GB of RAM. There are about 1000 windows (600+ email messages, roughly 300 Finder windows, 4 iChat windows, 1 Safari and 1 iCal). I originally tried to open 1079 mail messages, but Mail crashed. Perhaps a 1024 limit in Mac Mail?

Expose took about five minutes to render, but the return to the Desktop was almost instantaneous. Expose is apparently not cached, because going back to it without touching windows caused another long redraw.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

No Habeas Corpus? Really?

It is amazing to consider the lengths that people will go to justify unjustifiable positions.

On January 18, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales questioned the right of U.S. citizens to Habeus Corpus. In a statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gonzales said, "There is no expressed grant of habeas in the Constitution; there’s a prohibition against taking it away."

According to Robert Parry, writing in the Baltimore Chronicle & Sentinal, "Gonzales’s remark left Specter, the committee’s ranking Republican, stammering." I'll bet it did. Parry goes on to say that "Applying Gonzales’s reasoning, one could argue that the First Amendment doesn’t explicitly say Americans have the right to worship as they choose, speak as they wish or assemble peacefully. The amendment simply bars the government, i.e. Congress, from passing laws that would impinge on these rights."

When we sacrifice our principles for momentary gain, we lose more than the moral high ground. We lose the justification for our identity as a nation. Gonzales' approach is not just morally wrong, it is dangerous for our country. Perhaps not so oddly, that was my argument against the war in Iraq.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Post-Katrina Biloxi

The Gulf Coast is still a mess well after Katrina. My parents drive through the area last week on a trip to Biloxi, MS. Here is a report from my mom:



The weather was dreadful so we rented a car for one day and drove around and saw the damage from the hurricane. Those poor people, I have never seen so many Fema trailers in my life. Piles of old houses, trees, and everything you can think of. Motels still standing with the furniture that didn't blow away still there and you can see right through the buildings. 38 people died in one motel where they decided to ride it out. The whole inside is gone with the people. There is a road along the gulf that had beautiful old large homes there for a century or longer. All gone. A few have been rebuilt but most are just empty lots. Mile after mile of this.

Life as Haiku

The Washington Post has a section (rather strangely, I think) entitled Life as Haiku. The entry from Sunday, January 21, 2007 features my friend Ajay from Entreiva. Cool. I'll bet he doesn't plan to remember his friends when it comes time to spend the $100...

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Teaching Philosophy

I was recently asked by the University of Mary Washington to write a statement of teaching philosophy. Here it is:





“The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.”
-- Winston Churchill


We have the great fortune of living at a time when our field of Computer Science is influencing our society, and the world at large, in an unprecedented way. The Internet has drastically increased communication between disparate parts of the world and enabled new ways of doing business, conducting research and simply having fun. It has brought computers and computer-based communications into mainstream use. Our students have passed their adolescence with a presumption of “always on” services, from laptops to cell phones to iPods. These portable computers are remaking our civilization. Naturally, the Internet presents us with challenges, too, such as spam, pornography and identity theft. The amplification of human communication has amplified our human foibles as well.

I suggest that the Internet has also presented us with a particular didactic problem. Enrollment in Computer Science courses is down in all English-speaking countries at the same time Internet usage is skyrocketing. The way people learn, and their desire to learn subjects requiring dedicated concentration seems to be changing. Perhaps this is related to the trend of “multitasking” and the shortened attention spans due to it. Can one expect students to learn Computer Science in a series of short sittings?

We have new advantages, though. I recall as a child asking my father questions. He would answer if he knew and, if not, on Saturday we would go to our local library. That experience contrasts strongly with the experience of my children; if I do not know the answer to a question, my wife may since she has multiple degrees and a wealth of experience, unlike my mother. If neither of us know the answer we can turn to Google. We can immediately augment our answer with images, movies, graphs and charts. We can allow time for following questions. The process of learning does not have to stop when our personal limits are discovered.

How are we to effectively integrate the ever-changing Internet into our classrooms? How will it change our approaches to testing? How will our teaching styles evolve to reach students who simply think differently than we do? I don't have the answers, but I think the questions should be on our minds as we build the universities of the future.


“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
-- Albert Einstein


I was lucky to stumble into the United States Navy. Of all the things I learned in the service one stands out. The Navy has a culture, embedded in centuries of tradition, of continuous learning. The first thing I did in the Navy was go back to school for seven months. Upon reaching my first ship I was handed a large stack of books and training materials. As soon as I qualified, I was given a new goal then another, and another. The Navy broke my Midwestern, Rust Belt expectation of preparing for a job that one would do the remainder of one's life. The concept of continuous learning is a gift I try to pass onto every student.

Developing critical thinking in students is another important goal. Many students just want answers, and yet they as adults will be faced with a world full of questions. How do we address global warming? Overpopulation? War? Can we solve poverty in Africa by bringing the Green Revolution there? Is industrialized food production a good idea? Do we need biodiversity to survive? What will happen when the oil runs out? It is their generation, not just ours, who will have to answer those questions. They will not be able to do so without the ability to ask questions, probe for answers and come up with them on their own. The days of rote learning should be left behind us.

I enjoy my consulting role as a professional problem solver. There is a joy to fixing something broken. There is a joy in creating something new. I hope that my enthusiasm for my chosen profession comes across to my students and encourages them.

I like to teach by analogy. I like to walk around, to see what students are doing. I like to tell students what to do and like to observe how they do it. I like to keep my eyes open so that I can assist those who may need extra help so they don't lose interest. I think that tests should allow students who listen to pass, who read to do well and who think to get an “A”.


“Establishing lasting peace is the work of education; all politics can do is keep us out of war.”
-- Maria Montessori


Our species replaces each generation to establish our future. We have the obligation to teach our young to ensure their success. It is only a convenience that they sometimes appreciate it. I teach in order to contribute.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

My Post on Slashdot's Front Page

After many years, one of my posts finally made it to Slashdot's front page. The story is about the Navy's new 8-Megajoule Rail Gun, built by BEA Systems and recently tested at the Navy Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia.

The Slashdot comments were typical; lots of people commenting without having read the article. Still, a couple of insightful people had a thread on launch loops that is worth reading. I'm sure most people stop reading the paper when they see "Launch track, 2000 km long" :)

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Kadomo Group

I am pleased to formally announce my participation in The Kadomo Group. I alluded to this move in a previous post, but should really say what that means.

I will be holding my consulting company, Software Memetics, in abeyance and working full time with Kadomo. My role there is Chief Technical Architect, a title I share with the talented Uche Ogbuji. Uche founded Fourthought and has been published widely on XML.

I am pleased to say that I know most the Kadomo team well, including the founder Dr. Eric Miller (formerly of the W3C), author/speaker/super coder Brian Sletten, Daniel Krech from UMD MIND Lab, Kathy MacDougall from Sun and Vicki Mueller from OCLC. I was more than happy to get to know the energetic entrepreneurial couple Karen and Frank Bresky through Eric's introduction. It is an honor to be asked to join such a good group.

Kadomo is a services company focusing on the application of Semantic Web technologies, with some skunk works in the making. I am already busy with a financial services company in New York and will also be helping with business development and extensions to Mulgara.

Keep an eye on this space. It took me two years to emotionally commit to a new company, but I'm back. Somebody toss me some water every quarter marathon, eh?

Yet Another Way to Win in Iraq

I have posted a number of times on the (bloody, senseless and ill considered) war in Iraq. In fact, I've suggested several concrete ideas, such as waging peace and choosing our time to leave.

Now I bring you another one: How to Win the War in Al Anbar (a PDF of a Powerpoint presentation) by Captain Travis Patriquin, US Army (deceased). It boils down to understanding and working with the people of Iraq. That includes growing moustaches (because Iraqis trust people with moustaches) and working with the local leaders. Everyone interested in this war should read and comprehend the simple truth of Capt. Trav's presentation.

The sad thing is, of course, that Capt. Trav didn't make it. He was killed by an IED, probably indirectly related to the fact that he didn't have the Army's ear. The ABC news story has more detail, but I found out about him from some military friends. It seems Capt. Trav's presentation has struck a nerve among tacticians. I emailed it to President Bush (yes, really) but didn't really expect an answer.

It always seems to be the way. In spite of all the bureaucratic obstacles thrown in their paths, some tactical field officers manage to break the code. It happens in every war, in every army. You don't believe me? Have a read of The Savage Wars of Peace or Queen Victoria's Little Wars.

The Washington Post has a page for Capt. Trav on their Faces of the Fallen.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Starting Work at the University of Mary Washington

I am excitedly preparing for my first course at the University of Mary Washington. I'll be teaching CPSC 104 - The Internet: Technology, Information and Issues this semester. I just completed the Web syllabus today for those interested. Brian has graciously agreed to give a guest lecture on the future of the Internet in April. Thanks, Brian!

UMW is a wonderful place to work and, I suspect, to study. The HR, departmental and library staffs have all been superbly efficient and knowledgeable. I have been very impressed with the ease of learning my way around. It is a nice change from the sheer size and complexity of the University of Maryland.

Also, I have a soft spot for teaching institutions. Although the faculty researches, the focus of UMW is clearly on teaching. That gives the students a chance to, umm, learn. Unlike the larger universities, which are fine for graduate or even good upper division students, but hell on the average undergrad trying to learn how to be away from home for the first time. I think I will like UMW very much, indeed.

I am only an adjunct instructor, and only very part time. The majority of my waking hours are still going toward our new venture over at The Kadomo Group. Still, striking a good balance between academia and actually doing is much more fun for me than either extreme could be.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Waging Peace (Really)

The American public has been told several things repeatedly since the 2004 presidential campaign season began more than two years ago. We have been told that (a) we must stay in Iraq, (b) there is no alternative plan for Iraq other than a military victory and (c) there is no acceptable alternative to winning the war. Unfortunately, all of these have been proven false.

Before the US invaded Iraq, a few US and UK senior officials suggested a non-military option to destroy Al Queda in Afghanistan. Their plans had one thing in common: They suggested waging peace. Build roads, these liberals said. Build schools. Give people jobs. Oh, wait. They weren't liberals. Chris Patten is an old school UK conservative. Michael Scheuer is a Republication career CIA officer. These people were ignored. Their ideas were too radical, and the potential results too far fetched. No more far fetched than forcibly imposing a Jeffersonian democracy, that's true, but never mind.

At a time when our policy in Iraq is eerily reminiscent of Richard Nixon's Vietnamization ("We'll stand down as they stand up"), and failing in exactly the same way, the time has come to trumpet the success of one man trying hard to do the right thing. Enter Colonel Jim Linder, US Army.

COL Linder is a career Special Forces officer and currently head of the US Army's task force fighting Al Queda-backed Abu Sayyaf on the Philippine island of Jolo. His strategy? To wage peace. No kidding. And it is working. COL Linder and his men partnered with NGOs, the Philippine government and US military assets to bring government services like roads, schools and medical care to the remote region. Linder's quote, hopefully to made famous soon, is "It's not about how many people we shoot in the face, it is about how many people we get off the battlefield."

This small corner of the US Army has successfully ended Abu Sayyaf dominance on the neighboring island of Basilan by the same methods. The techniques are now known as "the Philippines model" among military strategists. Why is the US military not emulating this model on a large scale? Because we are bogged down so badly in Iraq that the military can't implement that strategy anymore. Reliance on traditional strong-arm tactics while ignoring any strategic goals other than nebulous victory has cost us a real chance at success.

Once we lose the war in Iraq (and I am going publicly out on a limb here to say that we will), I hope that we learn the important lesson that COL Linder and his troops can teach us. You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Or was that my mother? Either way, it works. It also has the nice side effects of completely failing to disrupt the fabric of society, failing to pollute the land and water and doesn't even kill people.