Whatever became of the Semantic Web?

I learned in a recent discussion on Fecebook that the semantic web was discussed during the Telluride Tech Fest back in 2002.

I’m not a member of the professional classes and don’t attend conferences and the like, but I certainly remember “semantic web” being quite the buzzword for a season or so. I looked it up a few times but never figured out for sure what it refers to. Just now looked it up on Wikipedia. It seems that distribution of machine-readable data is a large part of it. It seems to me that to the extent that machine-readability itself is monetizable (and it seems to me to be VERY monetizable) it will not be freely distributed. To quote James Alexander Levy, “For information to be free, the coordinates of the information must be free.” You can have all the speedy and public trials in the public record (as required by the US Constitution) but if machine readability of the public record is proprietary, there will be a business model for Intelius-like malignancies to offer $35-a-pop peeks at “the public record.”

I once downloaded and played with a MediaWiki plugin called Semantic MediaWiki. I found its markup schema too finicky and too labor intensive to be useful. Perhaps if I had a data entry staff… And there you have it. Workers deserve to be paid, so work product deserves intellectual property protections. But with data entry as a line of work degraded all the way to Mechanical Turk level piecework pay, you’d think machine readability would be too cheap to meter.

Perhaps it is, in terms of production costs, but the strategic advantages of information asymmetry (including asymmetric levels of machine readability) far outweigh the monetization opportunities of selling access to machine readability. To offer semantic web functionality as a product would be to leave money on the table, so instead of semantic web we have “big data.”

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Quotebag #123

chilke:
The ugly conclusion from [Mark] Blyth’s view, as I see it, is that is we cannot have full employment, otherwise inflation will inevitably be out of control. That is, we “need” a certain portion of the populace to be unemployed. I find this disturbing. It amounts to what is basically human sacrifice.
Heather Marsh:
Non-fake news is that which emanates from complete, open, sourced, audited information on a topic.
mccoyote:
Your calculator breaks during an exam, you better be able to do its job if only more slowly.
Thornton Hall:
Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he starves to death because there are no fish where he lives and what he actually wanted was money to buy a car to drive to the job he already had, but lost because his car broke down. But he died knowing how to fish.
Phineas Fisher:
Hacking, in its purest form, is not about engineering: it is about leveraging power dynamics by short-circuiting technology. It is direct action for the new digital world we all live in.
God, quoted by Neale Donald Walsch (h/t /u/anyeahrim):
If everyone knew everything about everybody’s money situation, there would be an uprising in your country and on your planet, the likes of which you have never seen. And in the aftermath of that there would be fairness and equity, honesty and true for-the-good-of-all priority in the conduct of human affairs.

 

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We have an SNR problem, not a bandwidth problem

I just read The Economic Bandwidth Problem by Frank Miroslav. It’s another just-so story about how trying to beat the Invisible Hand at efficient allocation makes no more sense than trying to initiate perpetual motion. That it would be an uphill battle, anyway, with the assumption that somehow an uphill battle necessarily brings “force” into the equation.

Two categories of non-market left ideas are given as examples. One is the “centrally planned state socialism” put forward by Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell. The other is Parecon as described by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel “over several books.” While the former is described as centrally planned, the latter is not described as decentralized. Parecon is also described as something to be found in books, with no mention of applications of it to the publication and distribution of books, and to other cooperative undertakings.


Some examples of applied Parecon

Perhaps the most distilled description of what anagorism is supposed to be is the anagorist slogan “against market and state!” I reflexively smell a straw man whenever anyone posits a dichotomy. My first instinct is to look for a third way that is categorically different from each of the two ways someone has conveniently placed in front of me. In this case, there seems to be an assertion that any instance of the idea of a planned economy belongs necessarily in either the category of “centrally planned economy” or the complementary category of decentralized planned economy, which “exists only on paper.”

Miroslav says the central problem at the heart of the economic calculation problem today is bandwidth. While more bandwidth would be useful, I feel I must disagree. The huge problem as I see it is signal-to-noise ratio, or the fact that the bandwidth that is available is used very, very wastefully.

Apparently, some of us have been led to believe that the coordination successes we’ve seen under capitalism can be turned towards socialist ends. I believe the source of this capitalist success is neither computing power nor bandwidth, but extreme information asymmetry. Would successfully counteracting this asymmetry, or even stealing the informational assets, serve socialist ends?

How extreme is the level of information asymmetry surrounding a typical transaction in the market economy as we know it? I contend that it’s the informational equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. Modern websites and mobile apps are designed specifically to transmit signal (behavioral data and other actionable data) in one direction and noise (basically bloat) in the other. “Basic informational realities of the universe” aside, this “Maxwell’s Dæmon” approach to accumulation of informational advantage seems to work. Maybe it doesn’t, and the businesses who are spending billions on the services of data brokers are basically buying snake oil. Then again, maybe we’re living in the best of all possible worlds. At any rate, when it comes to individual economic decisions, it appears to me that there are some very high bandwidth channels for accessing data that might be used for decision support. It also appears that the information landscape visible to individuals is largely controlled by business. Which price quotes offered up for price comparison, for example, is a question of which vendors have an exclusivity deal with the “comparison shopping” website. One thing that does not exist is a way to run queries against the combined product offerings of the global economy. This is a failure of signal-to-noise ratio, not of bandwidth.

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Can Silicon Valley itself be disrupted?

This started as a comment on Silicon Valley Only Has to Win Once by Aaron Renn. It quickly grew to a size that would be grossly inappropriate as a blog comment, so I took it here. Do read the article and prior comments. There’s some capital stuff in there.

Matt:

Tech can’t be “displaced,”

I think it maybe can, but I’m not quite sure.

The tail CAN sometimes [wag] the dog.

It sure can. In the case of Silicon Valley, of course, we’re talking about the l-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ong tail. The situation is highly asymmetric, but I believe at least the potential exists to go from sharecropping the long tail to wagging the dog with it.

…[old school locales] need to swallow their pride and accept that they can’t ‘beat ’em’ but that they can mostly definitely ‘join ’em’ if they’re willing to embrace the radical implications of the tech economy.

Meh, sounds like the kind of finger wagging that comes from the Mackinac types who love to make an editorial point of never missing a chance to use “legacy” as a code word for “labor.”

I believe Silicon Valley can be beat fair and square, without us all becoming techbrotarians or otherwise stooping to their level.

P Burgos:

Are there any tech companies that are really good at doing things in the real world (the world of atoms, not bits)?

I think that remains to be seen. I see that you don’t find their efforts so far to be all that promising. I think those may be trial balloons. They may be honing some formidable competencies when it comes to atoms.

But if those who do atoms better are dependent on “tech,” does it matter?

It doesn’t seem like the funding and startup system of Silicon Valley has the patience to pursue opportunities that require a bit of a longer timeline and more funding and interaction with a highly regulated industry.

If there’s such a thing as true AI, I would expect gaming of complex rule sets to be one of the early (and profitable) applications. ALEC certainly seems to have “computer aided drafting” (of state-level legislation, literally, “code”) down to some kind of science. One thing Silicon Valley does have is cash. I think it’s a safe bet there’s at least one “compliance consultant” who can be persuaded to be the Rudy Hertz of their trade.

Also, you mention the education market. Apple literally started by focusing on the education market. Maybe for higher profit margins (think price differences between textbooks and trade books, or if like me you’re old as dirt, price differences between Commodore 64’s and Apple ][‘s.) or maybe assuming some students will become yuppies who can cut PO’s. Possibly how they won over the creative class, not sure.

…it doesn’t seem that Silicon Valley is all that good at doing anything that requires making a profit and expertise that goes too much beyond using algorithms to do some task.

There’s probably some truth to that. This just happens to be the age of algorithms. An algorithm is a mathematical fact, even if advocates of software patents would like you to believe otherwise. As with any process of pure discovery, at some point the low-hanging fruits will have been harvested. Maybe some of them independently in multiple silos; “secret sauce” being what it is. But not forever. Maybe quantum computing is not too far off. Or maybe history’s verdict will be that age of algorithms is to algorithms as age of dinosaurs is to dinosaurs.

Steven Kaye:

So is the problem that companies are throwing people out of work? The cutting of safety nets for people who are unemployed?

Maybe. I’m quite concerned about safety nets for people who are employed. Basically, the body of code (codebase?) we call “labor law.” We spent the 20th century going from one incremental progress to the next, from wage and hour laws, to OSHA standards, to workers’ comp, and in one fell swoop we’re knocked all the way back to piecework pay. The so-called sharing economy is basically a DDOS attack upon labor law as a whole. Labor (organized or not, take your pick) doesn’t know what hit it. Neither does local political leadership. At some point, questions of legality are moot and all questions are purely de facto. Since the “sharing” “economy” has met zero effective challenge, I think we can probably expect more numerous and more intense launches of business models on a “who cares if it’s legal” basis.

Companies not sufficiently investing in (and participating in, probably more importantly) their communities? The gutting of unions? A largely apathetic public? A federal government that doesn’t want to hurt the goose that lays the golden eggs, for all the hearings on Facebook?

No, no, yes and yes, if you ask me. Companies stopped being citizens of nations, let alone communities, long before Silicon Valley became the thing it is. Likewise, unions had already been thoroughly busted and blasted to hell by Reaganomics (or by inevitable secular trends that coincided with it).

Apathetic public? Big time. Huge time. People talk about teaching kids to code as if it makes sense as a jobs program. Maybe it does, but my casual observation is that 100.00000% of programming jobs only consider people who already have years of programming experience. But I’d like to teach SQL to the kids and the grownups both. Even just a little SQL, maybe just take the curriculum as far as table joins. And then ask the kids (or grownups) in the class some “what if” questions. Like what if I somehow obtained access to the records of both the DMV and one of the major credit cards? What if I could access both TSA and Orblitz? It’s no wonder (and no joke) that the age of algorithms is also the age of “public”-private partnerships. I put public in scare quotes because I want to promote the idea that whatever stake the public has in the public sector, it has an even bigger stake in the public domain.

And besides the hardware and software companies, what about the venture capital firms that fund both incumbents and start-ups, enabling companies to scale and thus have more impact?

What, like Toys Я Us? Guitar Center?

Tech companies themselves can certainly be displaced because their own technology can become obsolete or usurped by competitors.

True, but I’d like to think that when we ask “can Silicon Valley be disrupted” we don’t mean the Silicon Valley incumbents such as they are, or northern California being the locus of the information arbitrage game, but whether we can disrupt the fact that there’s a viable business model that largely consists of building informational ratchets and informational one-way valves (remember, Silicon Valley only has to win once) that function as engines of information asymmetry. There have always been commercial advantages to those who have an intuitive feel for the “going rate” for something. But current information technology is a nuclear weapon compared to that. It’s conceivable to me that they know every individual’s price point for every product and service, and maybe even every individual’s “pain point.”

Perhaps it is a hard-wired feature of the universe that information does not want to be free. But, to quote Sabbah i Hassan X, “We can _______try!”

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Response to EU Commission on fake news

Heather Marsh

In your opinion, which criteria should be used to define fake news for the purposes of scoping the problem?

A simpler method would be to define non-fake news. Non-fake news is that which emanates from complete, open, sourced, audited information on a topic. By this definition, almost all news is fake news, but it doesn’t have to be. If we create platform-independent knowledge repositories which link, source and verify news from all sources by topic, any news which emanates from that source is not fake news. This will allow us to share news that may be as simplistic and incomplete as a meme, but still links to a complete, verifiable source. It also allows information from epistemic communities whose knowledge is at an elite level to be distilled down to any level of interest without losing truth, context or verifiability.

Please specify which categories of fake news are more likely…

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Quotebag #122

Michael O. Church:
Silicon Valley is a resource-extraction culture, similar to the Gulf States, but instead of the finite resource being petroleum, it’s the good faith of the American middle class, and the memory of a reasonably meritocratic mid-century, that’s being tapped.
floydmaster:
I like how when taxes are cut for the rich and we criticize it, we all get yelled at about how “it’s not a zero-sum game!!”

But when we propose paying the poor more, well, that’s going to drastically lower everybody else’s quality of life because then, magically, it is a zero-sum game.

It’s almost as if Free-Marketers will say whatever it takes to enforce their vision of eternally shitting on the working class and poor.

quoderat:
Next up from a delusional liberal near you: how the NSA and CIA are really just fuzzy little puppies who only want to lick your face and cutely attempt to navigate the stairs.
Goldkin:
It’s impossible to create a culture of shared values when you also have people so far above the power and logistics problems defining our current existence.

 

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Happy IED Day!

IED stands for “Idea/Expression Dichotomy.” The idea/expression dichotomy is one of those core concepts of common law that for some reason eludes the anti-copyright organizations behind so-called “Fair Use Week.”

So I take it these raw elements of punk are firmly in the ideas rather than expression category. What do they consist of? Rhythmic motifs? Maybe note sequences? Punk is fairly atonal and perhaps not the best example. I’m reminded of this anecdote that I read years ago in Wikipedia:

[Stephen] Schwartz uses the “Unlimited” theme as the second major motif running through the score. Although not included as a titled song, the theme appears as an interlude in several of the musical numbers. In a tribute to Harold Arlen, who wrote the score for the 1939 film adaptation, the “Unlimited” melody incorporates the first seven notes of the song “Over the Rainbow.” Schwartz included it as an inside joke as, “according to copyright law, when you get to the eighth note, then people can come and say, ‘Oh you stole our tune.’ And of course obviously it’s also disguised in that it’s completely different rhythmically. And it’s also harmonized completely differently…. It’s over a different chord and so on, but still it’s the first seven notes of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow'”.

It does say it’s an inside joke, so perhaps he wouldn’t have been sued for “stealing” a ninth note, or is that where “fair use” (maybe in scare quotes?) comes in? Is a specific note sequence copyrightable? What about a player piano roll? Or a MIDI file? What about sheet music? Certainly the copyright notice on P/V/G editions sold to the public contain dire warnings that it is illegal to use the sheet music for public performance. Is there no irony if it is a well known fact (as is commonly enough the case) that the band whose song is marked thus in some P/V/G or guitar tab songbook, happened to start out as a “cover band?” Is the very concept of a cover band illegal?

What about fanfic? I’ve heard horror stories about people in the Star Trek fanfic community being ceased and desisted because Paramount (or CBS, or whoever is the rightsholder this round of acquisitions) owns not only the TV series, movies, books, merch, but the core concepts such as the Federation, transporters, communicators, etc. Perhaps that’s why the new series The Orville makes a belabored point about having an alternative terminology for every organizational or technical concept in its particular universe–the Planetary Union instead of the Federation of Planets, quantum drive instead of warp drive, dysonium instead of dilithium, synthesizers instead of replicators, etc. Perhaps the “raw elements of science fiction” are less developed in the realm of expression and consist simply of facts about science.

Then there’s the ongoing Disnification of culture. What will be this year’s Disney blockbuster, with the happy meal tie-ins, the Hallowe’en costume tie-ins, the doggie chew toy tie-ins, etc.? This year, will it come from folklore, or classic literature? Maybe the latter, a dead-long-enough-to-be-out-of-copyright author such as Hans Chistian Anderson, perhaps? When re-telling of stories take place, I take it, the stories are ideas and the re-telling are expression? What about the characters of the stories? Certainly the particular visage of the (now) Disney character is a very hot intellectual property, but what about the image of the same character that forms in your mind as you read the dusty copy of the old book (or download DRM-free from a classic literature repository such as Project Gutenberg)? What if you saw the movie before you read the book? Does Disney then own a few of your brain cells?

One thing you probably remember if you watched any broadcast television during the DVD era (what, basically 10-20 years ago?) was the frequency with which movie studios (particularly Disney) would announce the DVD release of some blockbuster feature with the ad copy “buy it to own this Tuesday.” I’m not sure whether there is some business model reason that DVD release day was always on a Tuesday. I’m also unsure whether it was necessarily the case that the DVD’s were released to the “buy it to own” market prior to being sold to stores such as Blockbuster that existed back in those days, where one could rent DVD’s. CD’s and DVD’s are an interesting type of cultural artifact in that they’re clearly digital technologies, but they’re also clearly physical objects that one can carry around, eject from one player and insert in another, get autographed by the artist, sell into the used market, pretty much toss around like any other physical object. Thing is, even back then, the distributors of these media knew that the content, being digitally encoded, was basically one large binary number. So, while the ad copy giveth the impression of a thing you can “buy to own,” the fine print on the box states, circuitously but unambiguously, that the purchaser is purchasing license, not content. Same with the clickwrap boilerplate on boxed software titles, which were also an actually-existing thing during the DVD era.

Because the digital representation of an expression is literally nothing other than a large integer, creators are between a rock and a hard place. There is literally no way they can get paid reliably or fully if their distribution media are things, because the things can be pirated, thanks to original creations such as DeCSS. The inevitable end result is that what’s offered in the consumer market (and probably other markets) is not only a license rather than a copy, but is billed on a “per use” basis. If not on a “per use” basis, then a “per month” basis or some other basically finite license to access the content. Publishers of periodicals knew this decades ago; hence higher subscription rates for libraries than for individuals.

So it is that today’s fair use advocates misapprehend the idea/expression dichotomy. But there’s another dichotomy. This is also a true, rather than false, dichotomy. It is rooted not in legal precedent but in mathematics itself. You can have authorial rights over digital content or you can have general purpose computing. Pick at most one. It really is that simple, and it really is that starkly and truly dichotomous.

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