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Architecture for a multilingual Wikipedia

I published a paper today:

"Architecture for a multilingual Wikipedia"

I have been working on this for more than half a decade, and I am very happy to have it finally published. The paper is a working paper and comments are very welcome.

Abstract:

Wikipedia’s vision is a world in which everyone can share in the sum of all knowledge. In its first two decades, this vision has been very unevenly achieved. One of the largest hindrances is the sheer number of languages Wikipedia needs to cover in order to achieve that goal. We argue that we need anew approach to tackle this problem more effectively, a multilingual Wikipedia where content can be shared between language editions. This paper proposes an architecture for a system that fulfills this goal. It separates the goal in two parts: creating and maintaining content in an abstract notation within a project called Abstract Wikipedia, and creating an infrastructure called Wikilambda that can translate this notation to natural language. Both parts are fully owned and maintained by the community, as is the integration of the results in the existing Wikipedia editions. This architecture will make more encyclopedic content available to more people in their own language, and at the same time allow more people to contribute knowledge and reach more people with their contributions, no matter what their respective language backgrounds. Additionally, Wikilambda will unlock a new type of knowledge asset people can share in through the Wikimedia projects, functions, which will vastly expand what people can do with knowledge from Wikimedia, and provide a new venue to collaborate and to engage the creativity of contributors from all around the world. These two projects will considerably expand the capabilities of the Wikimedia platform to enable every single human being to freely share in the sum of all knowledge.

Simia

Stanford seminar on Knowledge Graphs

My friend Vinay Chaudhri is organising a seminar on Knowledge Graphs with Naren Chittar and Michael Genesereth this semester at Stanford.

I have the honour to present in it as the opening guest lecturer, introducing what Knowledge Graphs are and what are good for.

Due to the current COVID situation, the seminar was turned virtual, and opened to everyone to attend to.

Other speakers during the semester include Juan Sequeda, Marie-Laure Mugnier, Héctor Pérez Urbina, Michael Uschold, Jure Leskovec, Luna Dong, Mark Musen, and many others.

Change is in the air

I'll be prophetic: the current pandemic will shine a bright light on the different social and political systems in the different countries. I expect to see noticable differences in how disruptive the handling of the situation by the government is, how many issues will be caused by panic, and what effect freely available health care has. The US has always been on the very end of admiring the self sustained individual, and China has been on the other end of admiring the community and its power, and Europe is somewhere in the middle (I am grossly oversimplifying).

This pandemic will blow over in a year or two, it will sweep right through the US election, and the news about it might shape what we deem viable and possible in ways beyond the immediately obvious. The possible scenarios range all the way from high tech surveillance states to a much wider access to social goods such as health and education, and whatever it is, the pandemic might be a catalyst towards that.

Simia

Wired: "Wikipedia is the last best place on the Internet"

WIRED published a beautiful ode to Wikipedia, painting the history of the movement with broad strokes, aiming to capture its impact and ambition with beautiful prose. It is a long piece, but I found the writing exciting.

Here's my favorite paragraph:

"Pedantry this powerful is itself a kind of engine, and it is fueled by an enthusiasm that verges on love. Many early critiques of computer-assisted reference works feared a vital human quality would be stripped out in favor of bland fact-speak. That 1974 article in The Atlantic presaged this concern well: “Accuracy, of course, can better be won by a committee armed with computers than by a single intelligence. But while accuracy binds the trust between reader and contributor, eccentricity and elegance and surprise are the singular qualities that make learning an inviting transaction. And they are not qualities we associate with committees.” Yet Wikipedia has eccentricity, elegance, and surprise in abundance, especially in those moments when enthusiasm becomes excess and detail is rendered so finely (and pointlessly) that it becomes beautiful."

They also interviewed me and others for the piece, but the focus of the article is really on what the Wikipedia communities have achieved in our first two decades.

Two corrections: - I cannot be blamed for Wikidata alone, I blame Markus Krötzsch as well - the article says that half of the 40 million entries in Wikidata have been created by humans. I don't know if that is correct - what I said is that half of the edits are made by human contributors

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Normbrunnenflasche

It's a pity there's no English Wikipedia article about this marvellous thing that exemplifies Germany so beautifully and quintessentially: the Normbrunnenflasche.

I was wondering the other day why in Germany sparkling water is being sold in 0.7l bottles and not in 1l or 2l or whatever, like in the US (when it's sold here at all, but that's another story).

Germany had a lot of small local producers and companies. To counter the advantages of the Coca Cola Company pressing in the German market, in 1969 a conference of representatives of the local companies decided to introduce a bottle design they all would use. This decision followed a half year competition and discussion on what this bottle should look like.

Every company would use the same bottle for sparkling water and other carbonated drinks, and so no matter which one you bought, the empty bottle would afterwards be routed to the closest participating company, not back home, therefore reducing transport costs and increasing competitiveness against Coca Cola.

The bottle is full of smart features. The 0.7l were chosen to ensure that the drink remained carbonated until the last sip, because larger bottles would last longer and thus gradually loose carbonization.

The form and the little pearls outside were chosen for improved grip, but also to symbolize the sparkles of the carbonization.

The metal screw cap was the real innovation there, useful for drinks that could increase pressure due to the carbonization.

And finally two slightly thicker bands along the lower half of the bottle that would, while being rerouted for another usage, slowly get more opaque due to mechanical pressure, thus indicating how well used the individual bottle was, so they could be taken out of service in time before breaking at the customer.

The bottles were reused an average of fifty times, their boxes an average of hundred times. More than five billion of them have been brought into circulation in the fifty years since their adoption, for an estimated quarter of a trillion fillings.

Simia

A new decade?

The job of an ontologist is to define concepts. And since I see some posts commenting on whether a decade is closing and a new decade is starting tonight, here's my private, but entirely official position.

A decade is a consecutive timespan of ten years, and therefore at every given point a new decade starts and one ends. But that's a trivial answer to the question and not very useful.

There are two ways to count calendar decades, and both are arbitrary and rely on retconning, I mean, they really on redefining the past. Therefore there is no right or wrong.

Method one is by using the proleptic Gregorian calendar, and starting with the year 1 and ending with the year 10, and calling that the first decade. If you keep counting, then the twohundredandthird decade will start on January 1st 2021, and we are currently firmly in the twohundredandsecond decade, and will stay there for another year.

Method two is based on the fact that for a millennium now and for many years to come there's a time period that conveniently lasts a decade where the years start with the same three digits. That is, the years starting with 202, which are called the 2020s, the ones with 199 which are called the 1990s (or sometimes just the 90s), etc. For centuries now we can find support for these kind of decades being widely used. According to this method, tonight marks a new decade.

So whether you are celebrating a new year tonight or not (because there are many other calendars out there too), or a new decade or not, I wish you wonderful 2020s!

Simia

SWAT4HCLS trip report

This week saw the 12th SWAT4HCLS event in Edinburgh, Scotland. It started with a day of tutorials and workshops on Monday, December 10th, on topics such as SPARQL, querying, ontology matching, and using Wikibase and Wikidata.

Conference presentations went on for two days, Tuesday and Wednesday. This included four keynotes, including mine on Wikidata, and how to move beyond Wikidata (presenting the ideas from my Abstract Wikipedia papers). The other three keynotes (as well as a number of the paper presentation) were all centered on the FAIR concept which I already saw being so prominent at the eScience conference earlier this year. FAIR as in Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable publication of data. I am very happy to see these ideas spread out so prominently!

Birgitta König-Ries talked about how to use semantic technologies to manage FAIR data. Dov Greenbaum talked about how licenses interplay with data and what it means for FAIR data - personally, my personal favorite of the keynotes, because of my morbid fascination regarding licenses and intellectual property rights pertaining to data and knowledge. He actually confirmed my understanding of the area - that you can’t really use copyright for data, and thus the application of CC-BY or similar licenses to data would stand on shaky grounds in a court. The last keynote was by Helen Parkinson, who gave a great talk on the issues that come up when building vocabularies, including issues around over-ontologizing (and the siren call of just keeping on modeling) and others. She put the issues in parallel to the travels of Odysseus, which was delightful.

The conference talks and posters were really on spot on the topic of the conference: using semantic web technologies in the life sciences, health care, and related fields. It was a very satisfying experience to see so many applications of the technologies that Semantic Web researchers and developers have been creating over the years. My personal favorite was MetaStanza, web components that visualize SPARQL results in many different ways (a much needed update to SPARK, that Andreas Harth and I had developed almost a decade ago).

On Thursday, the conference closed with a Hackathon day, which I couldn’t attend unfortunately.

Thanks to the organizers for the event, and thanks again for the invitation to beautiful Edinburgh!

Other trip reports (send me more if you have them):

trip report

Frozen II in Korea

This is a fascinating story, that just keeps getting better (and Hollywood Reporter is only scratching the surface here, unfortunately): an NGO in South Korea is suing Disney for "monopolizing" the movie screens of the country, because Frozen II is shown on 88% of all screens.

Now, South Korea has a rich and diverse number of movie theatres - they have the large cineplexes in big cities, but in the less populated areas they have many small theatres, often with a small number of screens (I reckon it is similar to the villages in Croatia, where there was only a single screen in the theater, and most movies were shown only once, and there were only one or two screenings per day, and not on every day). The theatres are often independent, so there is no central planning about which movies are being shown (and today, it rarely matters today how many copies of a movie are being made, as many projectors are digital and thus unlimited copies can be created on the fly - instead of waiting for the one copy to travel from one town to the next, which was the case in my childhood).

So how would you ensure that these independent movies don't show a movie too often? By having a centralized way that ensures that not too many screens show the same movie? (Preferably on the Blockchain, using an auction system?) Good luck with that, and allowing the local theatres to adapt their screenings to their audiences.

But as said, it gets better: the 88% number is being arrived at by counting how many of the screens in the country showed Frozen II on a given day. It doesn't mean that that screen was used solely for Frozen II! If the screen was used at noon for a showing of Frozen II, and at 10pm for a Korean horror movie, that screen counts for both. Which makes the percentage a pretty useless number if you want to show monopolistic dominance (also, because the numbers add up to far more than 100%). Again, remember that in small towns there is often a small number of screens, and they have to show several different movies on the same screen. If the ideas of the lawsuit would be enacted, you would need to keep off Frozen II from a certain number of screens! Which basically makes it impossible to allow kids and teens in less populated areas to participate in event movie-going such as Frozen II and trying to avoid spoilers in Social Media afterwards.

Now, if you look how many screenings, instead of screens, were occupied by Frozen II, the number drops down to 46% - which is still impressive, but far less dominant and monopolistic than the 88% cited above (and in fact below the 50% the Korean law requires to establish dominance).

And even more impressive: in the end it is up to the audience. And even though 'only' 46% of the screenings were on Frozen II, every single day since its release between 60% and 85% of all revenue was going to Frozen II. So one could argue that the theatres were actually underserving the audience (but then again, that's not how it really works, because screenings are usually in rooms with hundred or more seats, and they can be very differently filled - and showing a blockbuster three times with almost full capacity, and showing a less popular movie once with only a dozen or so tickets sold might still have served the local community better than only running the block buster).

I bet the NGO's goal is just to raise awareness about the dominance of the American entertainment industry, and for that, hey, it's certainly worth a shot! But would they really want to go back to a system where small local cinemas would not be able to show blockbusters for a long time, involving a complicated centralized planning component?

(Also, I wish there was a way to sign up for updates on a story, like this lawsuit. Let me know if anyone knows of such a system!)


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Machine Learning and Metrology

There are many, many papers in machine learning these days. And this paper, taking a step back, and thinking about how researchers measure their results and how good a specific type of benchmarks even can be - crowdsourced golden sets. It brings a convincing example based on word similarity, using terminology and concepts from metrology, to show how many results that have been reported are actually not supported by the golden set, because the resolution of the golden set is actually insufficient. So there might be no improvement at all, and that new architecture might just be noise.

I think this paper is really worth the time of people in the research field. Written by Chris Welty, Lora Aroyo, and Praveen Paritosh.

Simia

The story of the Swedish Calendar

Most of us are mostly aware how the calendar works. There’s twelve months in a year, each month has 30 or 31 days, and then there’s February, which usually has 28 days and sometimes, in what is called a leap year, 29. In general, years divisible by four are leap years.

This calendar was introduced by no one else then Julius Caesar, before he became busy conquering the known world and becoming the Emperor of Rome. Before that he used to have the job title “supreme bridge builder” - the bridge connecting the human world with the world of the gods. One of the responsibilities of this role was to decide how many days to add to the end of the calendar year, because the Romans noticed that their calendar was getting misaligned with the seasons, because it was simply a bit too short. So, for every year, the supreme bridge builder had to decide how many days to add to the calendar.

Since we are talking about the Roman Republic, this was unsurprisingly misused for political gain. If the supreme bridge builder liked the people in power, he might have granted a few extra weeks. If not, no extra days. Instead of ensuring that the calendar and the seasons aligned, the calendar got even more out of whack.

Julius Caesar spearheaded a reform of the calendar, and instead of letting the supreme bridge builder decide how many days to add, the reform devised rules founded in observation and mathematical rules - leading to the calendar we still have today: twelve months each year, each with 30 or 31 days, besides February, which had 28, but every four years would have 29. This is what we today call the Julian calendar. This calendar was not perfect, but pretty good.

Over the following centuries, the role of the supreme bridge builder - or, in latin, Pontifex Maximus - transferred from the Emperor of Rome to the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. And with continuing observations over centuries it was noticed that the calendar was again getting out of sync with the seasons. So it was the Pope - Gregory XIII, later called The Great - who, in his role as Pontifex Maximus, decided that the calendar should be fixed once again. The committee he set up to work on that came up with fabulous improvements, which would guarantee to keep the calendar in sync for a much longer time frame. In addition to the rules established by the Julian calendar, every hundred years we would drop a leap year. But every four hundred years, we would skip dropping the leap year (as we did in 2000, which not many people noticed). And in 1582, this calendar - called the Gregorian calendar - was introduced.

Imagine leading a committee that comes up with rules on what the whole world would need to do once every four hundred years - and mostly having these rules implemented. How would you lead and design such a committee? I find this idea mind-blowing.

Since the time of Caesar until 1582, about fifteen centuries have passed. And in this time, the calendar was getting slightly out of sync - by one day every century, skipping every fourth. In order to deal with that shift, they decided that ten calendar days need to be skipped. Following the 4th of October 1582 was the 15th of October 1582. In 1582, there was no 5th or 14th of October, nor any of the days in between, in the countries that had the Gregorian calendar adopted.

This lead to plenty of legal discussions, mostly about monthly rents and wages: is this still a full month, or should the rent or wage be paid prorated to the number of days? Should annual rents, interests, and taxes be prorated by these ten days, or not? What day of the week should the 15th of October be?


The Gregorian calendar was a marked improvement over the Julian calendar with regards to keeping the seasons in sync with the calendar. So one might think its adoption should be a no-brainer. But there was a slight complication: politics.

Now imagine that today the Pope gets out on his balcony, and declares that, starting in five years, January to November all have 30 days, and December has 35 or 36 days. How would the world react? Would they ponder the merits of the proposal, would they laugh, would they simply adopt it? Would a country such as Italy have a different public discourse about this topic than a country such as China?

In 1582, the situation was similarly difficult. Instead of pondering the benefits of the proposal, the source of the proposal and the relation to that source became the main deciding factor. Instead of adopting the idea because it is a good idea, the idea was adopted - or not - because the Pope of the Catholic Church declared it. The Papal state, the Spanish and French Kingdoms, were first to adopt it.

Queen Elizabeth wanted to adopt it in England, but the Anglican bishops were fiercely opposed to it because it was suggested by the Pope. Other Protestant and the Orthodox countries simply ignored it for centuries. And thus there was a 5th of October 1582 in England, but not in France, and that lead to a number of confusions over the following centuries.

Ever wondered why the October Revolution started November 7? There we go. There is even a story that Napoleon won an important battle (either the Battle of Austerlitz or the Battle of Ulm) because the Russian and Austrian forces coordinated badly as the Austrians were using the Gregorian and the Russians the Julian calendar. The story is false, but it makes for a great story.

Today, the International Day of the Book is on April 23 - the death date of both Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare in 1616, the two giants of literature in their respective languages - with the amusing side-effect that they actually died about two weeks apart, even though they died on the same calendar day, but in different calendars.

It wasn’t until 1923 that for most purposes all countries had deprecated the Julian calendar, and for religious purposes some still follow it - which is why the Orthodox and the Amish celebrate Christmas on January 6. Starting 2101, that should shift by another day - and I would be very curious to see whether it will, or whether by then January 6th has solidified as the Christmas date.


Possibly the most confusing story about adopting the Gregorian calendar comes from Sweden. Like most protestant countries, Sweden did not initially adopt the Gregorian calendar, and was sticking with the Julian calendar, until in 1699 they decided to switch.

Now, the idea of skipping eleven or twelve days in one go did not sound appealing - remember all the chaos that occurred in the other countries for dropping these days. So in Sweden they decided that instead of dropping the days all at once, they would drop them one by one, by skipping the leap years from 1700 until 1740, when the two calendars would finally catch up.

In 1700, February 29 was skipped in Sweden. Which didn’t bring them any closer to Gregorian countries such as Spain, because they skipped the leap year in 1700 anyway. But it brought them out of alignment with Russia - by one day.

A war with Russia started (not about the calendar, but just a week before the calendars went out of sync, incidentally), and due to the war Sweden forgot to skip the leap days in 1704 and 1708 (they had other things on their mind). And as this was embarrassing, in 1711, King Charles XII of Sweden declared to abandon the plan, and added one extra day the following year to realign it back to Russia. And because 1712 was a leap year anyway, in Sweden there was not only a February 29, but also a February 30, 1712. The only legal February 30 in history so far.

It needed not only for Charles XII to die, but also for his sister (who succeeded him) and her husband (who succeeded her) in 1751, before Sweden could move beyond that embarrassing episode, and in 1752 Sweden switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, by cutting February short and ending it after February 17, following that by March 1.


Somewhere on my To-Do list, I have the wish to write a book on Wikidata. How it came to be, how it works, what it means, the complications we encountered, and the ones we missed, etc. One section in this book is planned to be about calendar models. This is an early, self-contained draft of part of that section. Feedback and corrections are very welcome.


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