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Immortal relationships

I saw a beautiful meme yesterday that said that from the perspective of a cat or dog, humans are like elves who live for five hundred years and yet aren't afraid to bond with them for their whole life. And it is depicted as beautiful and wholesome.

It's so different from all those stories of immortals, think of Vampires or Highlander or the Sandman, where the immortals get bitter, or live in misery and loss, or become aloof and uncaring about human lives and their short life spans, and where it hurts them more than it does them good.

There seem to be more stories exploring the friendship of immortals with short-lived creatures, be it in Rings of Power with the relationship of Elrond and Durin, be it the relation of Star Trek's Zora with the crew of the Discovery or especially with Craft in the short movie Calypso, or between the Eternal Sersi and Dane Whitman. All these relations seem to be depicted more positively and less tragic.

In my opinion that's a good thing. It highlights the good parts in us that we should aspire to. It shows us what we can be, based in a very common perception, the relationship to our cats and dogs. Stories are magic, in it's truest sense. Stories have an influence on the world, they help us understand the world, imagine the impact we can have, explore us who we can be. That's why I'm happy to see these more positive takes on that trope compared to the tragic takes of the past.

(I don't know if any of this is true. I think it would require at least some work to actually capture instances of such stories, classify and tally them, to see if that really is the case. I'm not claiming I've done that groundwork, but just capture an observation that I'd like to be true, but can't really vouch for it.)


Molly Holzschlag (1963-2023)

May her memory be a blessing.

She taught the Web to many, and she fought for the Web of many.


Doug Lenat (1950-2023)

When I started studying computer science, one of the initiation rites was to read the Jargon File. I stumbled when I read the entry on the microlenat:

microlenat: The unit of bogosity. Abbreviated μL, named after Douglas Lenat. Like the farad it is considered far too large a unit for practical use, so bogosity is usually expressed in microlenats.

I had not heard of Douglas Lenat then. English being my third language, I wasn’t sure what bogosity is. So I tried to learn a bit more to understand it, and I read a bit about Cyc and Eurisko, but since I just started computer science, my mind wasn’t really ready for things such as knowledge representation and common sense reasoning. I had enough on my plate struggling with resistors, electronegativity, and fourier transformations. Looking back, it is ironic that none of these played a particular role in my future, but knowledge representation sure did.

It took me almost ten years to come back to Cyc and Lenat’s work. I was then studying ontological engineering, a term that according to Wikipedia was coined by Lenat, a fact I wasn’t aware of at that time. I was working with RDF, which was co-developed by Guha, who has worked with Lenat at Cycorp, a fact I wasn’t aware of at that time. I was trying to solve problems that Lenat had tackled decades previously, a fact I wasn’t aware of at that time.

I got to know Cyc through OpenCyc and Cyc Europe, led by Michael Witbrock. I only met Doug Lenat a decade later when I was at Google.

Doug’s aspirations and ambitions had numerous people react with rolling eyes and sneering comments, as can be seen in the entry in the Jargon File. And whereas I might have absorbed similar thoughts as well, they also inspired me. I worked with a few people who told me “consider yourself lucky if you have a dozen people reading your paper, that’s the impact you will likely have”, but I never found that a remotely satisfactory idea. Then there were people like Doug, who shouted out “let’s solve common sense!”, and stormed ahead trying to do so.

His optimism and his bias to action, his can-do attitude, surely influenced me profoundly in choosing my own way forward. Not only once did I feel like I was channeling Lenat when I was talking about knowledge bases that anyone can edit, about libraries of functions anyone can use, or about abstract representations of natural language texts. And as ambitious as these projects have been called, they all carefully avoid the incomparably more ambitious goals Doug had his eyes set on.

And Doug didn’t do it from the comfort of a tenured academic position, but he bet his career and house on it, he founded a company, and kept it running for four decades. I was always saddened that Cyc was kept behind closed doors, and I hope that this will not hinder the impact and legacy it might have, but I understand that this was the magic juice that kept the company running.

One of Doug’s systems, Eurisko, became an inspiration and namesake for an AI system that played the role of the monster of the week in a first season episode of the X-Files, a fact I wasn’t aware of until now. Doug was a founder and advisory member of the TTI/Vanguard series of meetings, to which I was invited to present an early version of Abstract Wikipedia, a fact I wasn’t aware of until now. And I am sure there are more facts about Doug and his work and how it reverberated with mine that I am unaware of still.

Doug was a person ahead of their time, a person who lived, worked on and saw a future about knowledge that is creative, optimistic and inspiring. I do not know if we will ever reach that future, but I do know that Doug Lenat and his work will always be a beacon on our journey forward. Doug Lenat died yesterday in Austin, Texas, two weeks shy of his 73rd birthday, after a battle with cancer.

To state it in CycL, the language Cyc is written in:

 (#$dateOfDeath #$DougLenat "2023-08-31")
 (#$restInPeace #$DougLenat)


So, I went to the store with Little One today, and couldn't find the butter.

I ask the person at the cheese stand, who points me to the burrata. Tasty, but not what I'm looking for. I ask again and he sends me to the bread section.

I can't find it at the bread section, so I ask the person at the pastries stand where the butter is. She points me to the bagels. I say no, butter. She says, ah, there, pointing to the bathrooms. I'm getting exasperated, and I ask again. She points back to the cheeses with the burrata. I try again. She gets a colleague, and soon they both look confused.

Finally my daughter chimes in, asking for the butter. They immediately point her to the right place and we finally get the butter.

I haven't been so frustrated about my English pronunciation since I tried to buy a thermometer.


The Jones Brothers

The two Jones brothers never got along, but both were too stubborn to leave the family estate. They built out two entrances to the estate, one from the south, near Jefferson Avenue, and the newer, bigger one, closer to the historic downtown, and each brother chose to use one of the entrances exclusively, in order to avoid the other and their family. To the confusion of the local folk (but to the open enjoyment of the high school's grammar teacher, who was, surprisingly for his role, a descriptivist), they named the western gate the Jones' gate, and the southern one the Jones's gate, and the brothers earnestly thought that that settled it.

It didn't.


The Future of Knowledge Graphs in a World of Large Language Models

The Knowledge Graph Conference 2023 in New York City invited me for a keynote on May 11, 2023. Given that basically all conversations these days are about large language models, I have given a talk about my understanding on how knowledge graphs and large language models go together.

After the conference, I did a recording of the talk, giving it one more time, in order to improve the quality of the recording. The talk had gotten more than 10,000 views on YouTube so far, which, for me, is totally astonishing.

I forgot to link it here, so here we go finally:


Hot Skull

I watched Hot Skull on Netflix, a Turkish Science Fiction dystopic series. I knew there was only one season, and no further seasons were planned, so I was expecting that the story would be resolved - but alas, I was wrong. And the book the show is based on is only available in Turkish, so I wouldn't know of a way to figure out how the story end.

The premise is that there is a "semantic virus", a disease that makes people 'jabber', to talk without meaning (but syntactically correct), and to be unable to convey or process any meaning anymore (not through words, and very limited through acts). They seem also to loose the ability to participate in most parts of society, but they still take care of eating, notice wounds or if their loved ones are in distress, etc. Jabbering is contagious, if you hear someone jabber, you start jabbering as well, jabberers cannot stop talking, and it quickly became a global pandemic. So they are somehow zombieish, but not entirely, raising questions about them still being human, their rights, etc. The hero of the story is a linguist.

Unfortunately, the story revolves around the (global? national?) institution that tries to bring the pandemic under control, and which has taken over a lot of power (which echoes some of the conspiracy theories of the COVID pandemic), and the fact that this institution is not interested in finding a cure (because going back to the former world would require them to give back the power they gained). The world has slid into economic chaos, e.g. getting chocolate becomes really hard, there seems to be only little international cooperation and transportation going on, but there seems to be enough food (at least in Istanbul, where the story is located). Information about what happened in the rest of the world is rare, but everyone seems affected.

I really enjoyed the very few and rare moments where they explored the semantic virus and what it does to people. Some of them are heart-wrenching, some of them are interesting, and in the end we get indications that there is a yet unknown mystery surrounding the disease. I hope the book at least resolves that, as we will probably never learn how the Netflix show was meant to end. The dystopic parts about a failing society, the whole plot about an "organization taking over the world and secretly fighting a cure", and the resistance to that organization, is tired, not particularly well told, standard dystopic fare.

The story is told very slowly and meanders leisurely. I really like the 'turkishness' shining through in the production: Turkish names, characters eating simit, drinking raki, Istanbul as a (underutilized) background, the respect for elders, this is all very well meshed into the sci-fi story.

No clear recommendation to watch, mostly because the story is unfinished, and there is simply not enough payoff for the lengthy and slow eight episodes. I was curious about the premise, and still would like to know how the story ends, what the authors intended, but it is frustrating that I might never learn.


The right to work

20 May 2023

I've been a friend of Universal Basic Income for thirty years, but in the last twenty years, I have growing reservations about it, and many questions. This article about an experiment with a right to work was the first text in a while I read on it that substantially impacted my thinking on this (text is in German). I recommend reading it.

Work is not just a source of money, but for many also a source of meaning, pride, structure, motivation, social connections. Having voluntary access to work seems to be one major component that is necessary on a societal level, in addition to a universal basic income that allows that everyone can live in dignity. Note: I think work should be widely construed. If someone has something that fills that need, that's work. Raising children, taking care of a garden, writing a book, refining piano skills, creating art, taking care of others, taking care of yourself, all these easily count as work in my book.

I wish we were willing and able to experiment with different ways of structuring society as we are willing and able to experiment with technology. We deployed the Internet to the world without worrying about the long term consequences, but we're cautious about giving everyone enough money to not be hungry. That's just broken. I was always disappointed about the fact that sociology and politics as studied and taught by academia were mostly descriptive and not constructive endeavors.


Wikidata - The Making of

19 May 2023

Markus Krötzsch, Lydia Pintscher and I wrote a paper on the history of Wikidata. We published it in the History of the Web track at The Web Conference 2023 in Austin, Texas (what used to be called the WWW conference). This spun out of the Ten years of Wikidata post I published here.

The open access paper is available here as HTML:

Here as a PDF:

Here on Wikisource, thanks to Mike Peel for reformatting: Wikisource: Wikidata - The Making Of

Here is a YouTube trailer for the talk:

And here is the full talk (recreated) on YouTube:


20 years of editing Wikipedia

11 May 2023

Today it's been exactly twenty years since I made my first edit to Wikipedia. It was about the island of Brač, in the German Wikipedia.

Here is the version of the article I have created: Brač (as of May 11, 2003)


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