Of Beauty and Duty

TWO ladies to the summit of my mind
Have clomb, to hold an argument of love.
The one has wisdom with her from above,
For every noblest virtue well designed:
The other, beauty's tempting power refined
And the high charm of perfect grace approve:
And I, as my sweet Master's will doth move,
At feet of both their favors am reclined.
Beauty and Duty in my soul keep strife,
At question if the heart such course can take
And 'twixt the two ladies hold its love complete.
The fount of gentle speech yields answer meet,
That Beauty may be loved for gladness sake,
And Duty in the lofty ends of life.


            by Dante Alighieri

decisions … decisions … decisions … why cant they ever be simple …!

NFAS: Seedfield – My first ever field shoot ….

On Sunday I attended my first ever  NFAS field shoot. It was in Seedfield near Manchester so Richard and I got up pretty early Sunday morning and made breakfast for ourselves and John (Richard’s father) and Cliff (Richard’s older brother). After breakfast we set off around 7am, and got there just before 9am.

There were at least 80 archers competing on the day, everyone seemed very friendly so I didn’t really feel out of place and in fact I had a lot of fun chatting to some of the other archers. I took a load of pictures from the event which I’ve posted up on my flickr account.

It was my first ever field shoot so I wasn’t entirely sure of what to expect, but basically there were twenty targets scattered around this pretty large wood. The archers are divided into twenty groups of four. Each group begins on a different target. As all the members of the group finish shooting you move to the next target and so on. We go around the entire course twice. To put it into perspective, it took just under three hours to go around the circuit once.

You have to shoot at each target from one of three pegs that are placed at different distances. The red peg is the furthest and the blue peg the closet to the target. The idea being that you shoot once from the red peg, if you score then you don’t shoot again. If you miss however you then have to move to the white peg, if you miss there you move to the blue peg. So you shoot a maximum of three arrows at each target. You can score a wound, a kill or an inner kill, with points awarded based on which beg you scored from for example an inner kill from the red peg on your first arrow is worth 24 points.

What makes field shoot’s far more interesting is that you don’t neccessarily have a clear line of sight to the target as this picture shows (click to enlarge):

I often found myself having to shoot between trees, and since the targets can be at different elevations and varying distances it made the whole experience far more challenging. Up until this shoot I had only ever shot indoors at a fixed elevation which was roughly head height. I had no idea how I would get on in a forest.

Here’s a pic of the four of us:

And here’s one of me …

By the end of the day I was exhausted, everyone was! But I was over the moon … I managed to score 424 on my first ever shoot which apparently is an incredible score, considering I actually out scored a number of seasoned archers and I’ve only been doing this for five weeks!  I had a good teacher tho ;-)

I’m really looking forward to the next field shoot which is on December 16th!

SWIG-Uk Special Event: Alberto Reggiori & Andrea Marchesini – The BBC Content Aggregator for the Memoryshare Service

Alberto and Andrea presented some of the work they have been at Asemantics. Most notably they showed how they are using Semantic Web technologies on a developing a new generation of feed aggregators for the BBC’ MemoryShare service which is described as an archive of memories and events from around 1900 to today.

One of the key messages that Alberto tried to convey was around the adoption of RDF and the difficulties around trying to use it solve the various problems that are faced by the SemWeb community. In his opinion  RDF is …

  • Complex, because it tries to solve too many problems at once
  • Search is hard
  • Granularity management, Read/Write is hard
  • We currently have a poor software tool chain

He argues that the solution is to combine existing Web 2.0 technologies with RDF, and actually hide RDF, and instead present data in formats that are more widely accepted and entrenched, because customers don’t get The Semantic Web or RDF. I think Alberto got the biggest laugh of the day when he likened the adoption of RDF to the Resurrection and summarily pronounced on one slide that “RDF is Dead” only to have it resurrected three days later!

One of the things that Alberto and Andrea presented was some current work they are doing on an specifying and developing SPARQL to Objects (S2O) which a SPARQL Extension that maps RDF Graphs to JSON Objects. Whilst the output format seems pretty friendly I’m not convinced I like how it binds the semantic of the output to the semantics of the query – but guess there are some advantages to this approach.

I enjoyed Alberto’s talk and was able to spend a bit of time chatting to him during one of the breaks, he’s a passionate researcher with some interesting ideas. He recently did a podcast with my colleague Paul Miller as part of our Talking with Talis series, which you can listen to here.

SWIG-UK Special Event: Leigh Dodds, Facet Building Web Pages with SPARQL

You can view the slides from Leigh’s presentation here.

Leigh is CTO at Ingenta. They have built a web framework, called Facet,  for building web applications on top of RDF. In their opinion there was no good system for integrating RDF repositories with an existing web framework  in Java . Although the framework does have some limitations it seems to me that it is quite simple and perhaps even elegant.

It appears that by embracing some limitations in RDF Modelling Leigh has succeeded in building a framework that, on the face of it, provided a fairly flexible means of building web pages from an RDF Repository, and because of way it’s designed and built it lends itself to being integrated very easily into existing templating environments ( JSP, Velocity etc. ).

Leigh was asked several questions by the audience and his answers provided further insight

Question: how do you use this for searching when you get a list of results back?

Answer: Not using this for searching.

Which to me makes perfect sense each of the queries that are configured returns a sub graph, or lens that is effectively a view of data that you can pass to a templating engine for rendering.

Question: Is the schema annotation mechanism for a known data set rather than in general?

Answer: yes its application specific and configurable at application level.

Again I thought Leigh had made this clear during the presentation and therefore should have been obvious. Whilst some might consider this to a limitation, I wouldn’t necessarily view it as such.

Question: have you considered how your framework might work with Rich Clients, Ajax etc?

Answer: That’s why they support JSON output. Only currently doing basic AJAX lookups at the moment.

This is one of the features of the framework that does pique my interest, as we move more and more towards building richer client interfaces on the web there is an expectation that web frameworks and web services should support outputting data in JSON. At the moment our Platform doesn’t formally support this, but it is something we are definitely intending to do.

It makes sense to provide data back to the client in the format they need it rather than a fixed format that the application then has to process and convert. I’ve seen the problem when building desktop widgets, whilst XML is great and portable, most widget frameworks are based on ecmascript and understand JSON natively so wouldn’t it be nicer if web services would return JSON.

Anyway ldodds++ :)

Question: Will you open source it?

Answer: Hopefully, it will be, need to be dis-entangled but wanted to share the ideas here today so people can get a sense of the value.

I’m hoping that they do, I’d like to have a play around with the framework and possibly even extend it.

All in all I was actually pretty impressed with Leigh’s talk, I’ll be keeping an eye out for Facet.

SWIG-UK Special Event: Graham Klyne Building a Semantic Web accessible image publication repository

Graham begins by offering a little background information on why they want to be able to publish images using SemWeb technologies.

Previous approaches involved general purpose image databases based on conventional relational technology which was useful and worked but died due to licensing restrictions on the data.

With the semantic web technologies emerging a Semantic Image database was created using native RDF Storage. There was some success, but they had to develop all the heavy lifting, and fragility due to tightly coupled components. Graham commented on how this touched on Ian Davis’s talk and how useful a platform might be and how difficult it is to build one.

Their current approach is to based in Data Web Philosophy : the idea of linking available web data rather than creating new application stores. They based this on Southampton Uni’s EPrints. They use Jena and Joseki to provide a SPARQL endpoint for the metadata.

What does semantic web accessible mean?

Image metadata is accessible and queryable from multiple sources using SPARQL and images should be accessible using simple HTTP requests.

EPrints is an “OAI repository” which uses a common metadata ( e.g. Dublin Core ).

Graham goes on to talk about Global vs Local access – when accessing metadata from multiple repositories – they want to be able to get away from a single global coordinated index to more local and uncoordinated ones.

The problem with this is people will use different schemas, so over time connecting data together becomes and issue or concern. So they are looking at developing strategies to address this and over time perhaps a common schema might emerge. Currently there are two strategies for metadata conversion:

  • Meta Data Re-writing – which involves making an extra copy of the data.
  • Query Re-writing – instead of changing or copying data they change the query.

Graham believes a combination of the two is required. He goes onto describe an overview of their implementation – collect data using OAI and then use Joseki. They have had to modify the EPrints software as well as modify the database to accommodate domain metadata. What they have though is not a generic solution but they have achieved the creation of a platform ( not a semantic web platform ) within 6 weeks which is different to their previous experiences.

They are currently looking at implementing user interfaces – so they are looking at tools that can do faceting, and have a done some experimentation with JSPace and have implemented a facetted browser that uses a Joseki endpoint. They are looking at trying to use mspace, from Southampton, but haven’t been able to get a hold of the software yet. Graham goes onto show some screen shots of their User Interface.

Lessons learned :

  • Available tools do support Semantic Web accessibility, Joseki has been key to their progress.
  • Creating effective user interfaces is not easy.
  • Importance of loose coupling.

Wish list:

  • Sparql Update support to Joseki, will facilitate doing meta data updates from external hosts.
  • More generic web data publishing tool ( eg. METS )
  • Query Distribution
  • Merging data from multiple uncoordinated sources. ( FlyWeb )
  • Improving user interface will be an ongoing task

My Thoughts

What strikes me is that their requirements aren’t a million miles away at all from some of the basic services that the Platform provides. I’d be curious to see what they might be able to achieve if they had a Platform store which combines metadata and content together, or whether the same problem could be solved differently on the platform.

Questions: Can you give us some indication of the user tasks your trying to support? Graham describes the process scientists currently go through. From the lengthy description he provides the Interaction Designer in me wonders with taking a UCD design approach would be better to evolving an interface that would support them.

SWIG-UK Special Event: Ian Davis on the Talis Platform

You can view the slides for Ian’s presentation here:

Ian begins by describing the platform as a multi-tenant database with a REST based API. There are pools of content and metadata called Stores, which you can add content to and search and retrieve data and binaries from.

We want to bring the platform to as many developers as possible.

We use REST but also adopt existing protocols such as RSS this is so that we can re-use data formats and protocols where they exist, create and document where not. Any data stored in the platform is still your data.

Ian describes the API next, he talks about how you can use the API to

  • Add Content to a store using POST ( http://api.talis.com/stores/mystore/items )
  • Search Content in a store using GET ( http://api.talis.com/stores/mystore/items )
  • Adding Metadata POST RDF/XML to add RDF In Bulk ( http://api.talis.com/stores/mystore/meta ), you can also POST Change Sets which are lists of reified triples with a common subject.
  • Search Metadata using SPARQL ( http://api.talis.com/stores/mystore/services/sparql? ) this is limited to searching the metabox for a given store. Each store has a multisparql service to search multiple graphs.
  • Augmentation ( http://api.talis.com/stores/mystore/services/augment ) supply an RSS feed and augment it with additional triples. In other words take a search from one store and chain it with augmentation from another.
  • Faceting  ( http://api.talis.com/stores/mystore/services/facet ) uses indexed metadata to build facets for search terms.
  • OAI ( http://api.talis.com/stores/mystore/services/oai-pmh ) standard archiving and harvesting protocol,.
  • Snapshots – Can programmatically request a snapshot of your store. Produces a tar file accessible by HTTP, which contains all items from content box, all rdf etc.
  • Security – Coarse gained capability model, uses authentication via HTTP digest, with URI based identities.

Ian then goes onto talk about some of our future plans:

  • Relevance ranking for RDF – use relations between resources to influence ranking, as well as discover resources based on text search of their associated resources.
  • Personalisation and recommendation services – resources that are similar to X tend to have y, trails and suggestions based on usage.

Ian describes the architecture of the platform and some of technologies that it is built upon , for example Jena. Ian also talks about our goals in terms of scaling and resilience, our aim for zero downtime

Ian goes onto describe Marvin which a development project we are working on to deal with parallel data processing., the idea being that all content submitted to platform is processed in parallel.

Ian also talks about Majat, which is another development research project to that looks at Distributed storage and search .

Ian then goes on to show some examples of how the platform is currently being used by showing some of the applications we have built.

  • Talis Engage – a community information application that uses SKOS, SIOC and FOAF
  • Talis Prism – Library catalogue search
  • Project Zephyr – Academic resource/reading list management. Ian Also demo’d our relationship  browser which is embedded in Zephyr and allows users to explore data in the platform.

Question and Answers

Question: What SemWeb capabilities are customers warming to? It’s still early days.

Question: Are you doing reasoning in the platform.? Not yet.

Question: How much risk is involved in exposing SPARQL Service? Some risk, someone could write a horrible SPARQL query.

Question: Would you consider releasing this as a product and not a service? No, we are offering the platform as SaaS

Question: Can you categorise the kinds of apps this is best suited for? Any applications that are information rich.

Semantic Web Interest Group – Special UK Event

I was fortunate enough to attend Friday’s SWIG-UK Special Event hosted at HP Research Labs in Bristol. It was a wonderful day full of some very interesting talks from a pretty diverse range of speakers talking about how they are using SemWeb technologies to solve problems. Naturally we Talisians were there talking about The Talis Platform, what it is and showing some of the commercial applications we have built upon it. The work we are doing at Talis and the progress we have made in the development of our platform was received very well, which I have to say was a great feeling.

The day was also about meeting and making contacts amongst the SWIG community and from that point of view the day was a great success I got the chance to meet some very interesting individuals who are working on some amazing projects. I got the distinct impression that there was certainly a great deal of potential in the idea of letting some of these individuals try out their ideas on our Platform and that’s something that I am really excited about.

I have made notes on a number of the presentations from Friday which I will post up over the next couple of days.

Daniel Dennett: Ants, terrorism and the awesome power of meme

Found this wonderful TedTalk on You Tube by Dan Dennett, it summarises some of the ideas that he discusses at length in his new book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. I’ve always enjoyed reading his books. Dennett is a committed atheist, but this does not make him an enemy of the religious. His arguments and analysis are fair and the book’s purpose valuable and unlike Dawkins, Dennett takes a measured and rigorous approach: he seeks to explain religion rather than attack it. I’ve been reading his new book for a couple of days now and am thoroughly enjoying it. The Ted Talk below is very short but nevertheless Dennett manages to make some convincing arguments about the nature of ideas.

I’m Alive, I Believe in Everything

I'm Alive, I Believe In Everything

Self. Brotherhood. God. Zeus. Communism.
Capitalism. Buddha. Vinyl records.
Baseball. Ink. Trees. Cures for disease.
Saltwater. Literature. Walking. Waking.
Arguments. Decisions. Ambiguity. Absolutes.
Presence. Absence. Positive and Negative.
Empathy. Apathy. Sympathy and entropy.
Verbs are necessary. So are nouns.
Empty skies. Dark vacuums of night.
Visions. Revisions. Innocence.
I've seen All the empty spaces yet to be filled.
I've heard All of the sounds that will collect
at the end of the world.
And the silence that follows.

I'm alive, I believe in everything
I'm alive, I believe in it all.

Waves lapping on the shore.
Skies on fire at sunset.
Old men dancing on the streets.
Paradox and possibility.
Sense and sensibility.
Cold logic and half truth.
Final steps and first impressions.
Fools and fine intelligence.
Chaos and clean horizons.
Vague notions and concrete certainty.
Optimism in the face of adversity.

I'm alive, I believe in everything
I'm alive, I believe in it all.


                by Lesley Choyce 

… a load of horseshit?

Came across an interesting and amusing blog post by John Scalzi, describing his recent visit to the Creation Museum, here’s how he describes it:

Imagine, if you will, a load of horseshit. And we’re not talking just your average load of horseshit; no, we’re talking colossal load of horsehit. An epic load of horseshit. The kind of load of horseshit that has accreted over decades and has developed its own sort of ecosystem, from the flyblown chunks at the perimeter, down into the heated and decomposing center, generating explosive levels of methane as bacteria feast merrily on vintage, liquified crap. This is a Herculean load of horseshit, friends, the likes of which has not been seen since the days of Augeas.

You have to read the whole post it really did make me laugh out loud. Whilst the posting begins in a very irreverent manner Scalzi does succeeds in making some interesting points most notably about the nature of Creationism and his objections to it and not Christianity …

There have to be people who believe this horseshit unreservedly, but I suspect that perhaps the majority of the visitors I saw were Christians who may not buy into the whole “six days” thing, but are curious to see how it’s being presented. To be clear, the “horseshit” I’ve been speaking of is not Christianity, it’s creationism, which to my mind is a teleological quirk substantially unrelated to the grace one can achieve through Jesus Christ. Now, the Creation Museum rather emphatically argues that a literal reading of the Bible is essential for true Christianity — it’s got a whole red-lit section that suggests the ills of society are directly related to folks deciding that maybe some parts of the Bible are, you know, metaphorical – but that’s just more horseshit, of a slightly different flavor. There are lots of Christians who clearly don’t need to twist their brain like a pretzel to get around the idea that the universe is billions of years old and that we’ve evolved from earlier forms. For those folks, the Creation Museum is probably about culture, to the extent any installation largely created by someone who previously worked for Universal Studios can be about culture

I only came across the posting because I finally bought a copy of Bobby Henderson’s The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which  Rob recommended to me ages ago! I started reading it last night and am thoroughly enjoying, I must confess I haven’t laughed so much in ages! I’ll post up a review when I’m finished. I visited the official site for the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and that’s where I came across the link to Scalzi’s posting.

Rob and I have been debating the whole Creationism vs Evolution thing for a while now and if nothing else this has given me a bit more food for thought.