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In the beginning

"Let there be a planet with a hothouse effect, so that they can see what happens, as a warning."

"That is rather subtle, God", said the Archangel.

"Well, let it be the planet closest to them. That should do it. They're intelligent after all."

"If you say so."

Simia
fiction

Lion King 2019

Wow. The new version of the Lion King is technically brilliant, and story-wise mostly unnecessary (but see below for an exception). It is a mostly beat-for-beat retelling of the 1994 animated version. The graphics are breathtaking, and they show how far computer-generated imagery has come. For a measly million dollar per minute of film you can get a photorealistic animal movies. Because of the photorealism, it also loses some of the charm and the emotions that the animated version carried - in the original the animals were much more anthropomorphic, and the dancing was much more exaggerated, which the new version gave up. This is most noticeable in the song scene for "I can't wait to be king", which used to be a psychedelic, color shifted sequence with elephants and tapirs and giraffes stacked upon each other, replaced by a much more realistic sequence full of animals and fast cuts that simply looks amazing (I never was a big fan of the psychedelic music scenes that were so frequent in many animated movies, so I consider this a clear win).

I want to focus on the main change, and it is about Scar. I know the 1994 movie by heart, and Scar is its iconic villain, one of the villains that formed my understanding of a great villain. So why would the largest change be about Scar, changing him profoundly for this movie? How risky a choice in a movie that partly recreates whole sequences shot by shot?

There was one major criticism about Scar, and that is that he played with stereotypical tropes of gay grumpy men, frustrated, denied, uninterested in what the world is offering him, unable to take what he wants, effeminate, full of cliches.

That Scar is gone, replaced by a much more physically threatening scar, one that whose philosophy in life is that the strongest should take what they want. Chiwetel Ejiofor's voice for Scar is scary, threatening, strong, dominant, menacing. I am sure that some people won't like him, as the original Scar was also a brilliant villain, but this leads immediately to my big criticism of the original movie: if Scar was only half as effing intelligent as shown, why did he do such a miserable job in leading the Pride Lands? If he was so much smarter than Mufasa, why did the thriving Pride Lands turn into a wasteland, threatening the subsistence of Scar and his allies?

The answer in the original movie is clear: it's the absolutist identification of country and ruler. Mufasa was good, therefore the Pride Lands were doing well. When Scar takes over, they become a wasteland. When Simba takes over, in the next few shots, they start blooming again. Good people, good intentions, good outcomes. As simple as that.

The new movie changes that profoundly - and in a very smart way. The storytellers at Disney really know what they're doing! Instead of following the simple equation given above, they make it an explicit philosophical choice in leadership. This time around, the whole Circle of Life thing, is not just an Act One lesson, but is the major difference between Mufasa and Scar. Mufasa describes a great king as searching for what they can give. Scar is about might is right, and about the strongest taking whatever they want. This is why he overhunts and allows overhunting. This is why the Pride Lands become a wasteland. Now the decline of the Pride Lands make sense, and also why the return of Simba and his different style as a king would make a difference. The Circle of Life now became important for the whole movie, at the same time tying with the reinterpretation of Scar, and also explaining the difference in outcome.

You can probably tell, but I am quite amazed at this feat in storytelling. They took a beloved story and managed to improve it.

Unfortunately, the new Scar also means that the song Be Prepared doesn't really work as it used to, and thus the song also got shortened and very much changed in a movie that became much longer otherwise. I am not surprised, they even wanted to remove it, and now I understand why (even though back then I grumbled about it). They also removed the Leni Riefenstahl imaginary from the new version which was there in the original one, which I find regrettable, but obviously necessary given the rest of the movie.

A few minor notes.

The voice acting was a mixed bag. Beyonce was surprisingly bland (speaking, her singing was beautiful), and so was John Oliver (singing, his speaking was perfect). I just listened again to I can't wait to be king, and John Oliver just sounds so much less emotional than Rowan Atkinson. Pity.

Another beautiful scene was the scene were Rafiki receives the massage that Simba is still alive. In the original, this was a short transition of Simba ruffling up some flowers, and the wind takes them to Rafiki, he smells them, and realizes it is Simba. Now the scene is much more elaborate, funnier, and is reminiscent of Walt Disney's animal movies, which is a beautiful nod to the company founder. Simba's hair travels with the wind, birds, a Giraffe, an ant, and more, until it finally reaches the Shaman's home.

One of my best laughs was also due to another smart change: in Hakuna Matata, when they retell Pumbaa's story (with an incredibly cute little baby Pumbaa), Pumbaa laments that all his friends leaving him got him "unhearted, every time that he farted", and immediately complaining to Timon as to why he didn't stop him singing it - a play on the original's joke, where Timon interjects Pumbaa before he finishes the line with "Pumbaa! Not in front of the kids.", looking right at the camera and breaking the fourth wall.

Another great change was to give the Hyenas a bit more character - the interactions between the Hyena who wasn't much into personal space and the other who rather was, were really amusing. Unlike with the original version the differences in the looks of the Hyenas are harder to make out, and so giving them more personality is a great choice.

All in all, I really loved this version. Seeing it on the big screen pays off for the amazing imagery that really shines on a large canvas. I also love the original, and the original will always have a special place in my heart, but this is a wonderful tribute to a brilliant movie with an exceptional story.

Simia
review
movie

210,000 year old human skull found in Europe

A Homo Sapiens skull that is 210,000 years old had been found in Greece, together with a Neanderthal skull from 175,000 years ago.

The oldest European Homo Sapiens remains known so far only date to 40,000 years ago.


Simia

Draft: Collaborating on the sum of all knowledge across languages

For the upcoming Wikipedia@20 book, I published my chapter draft. Comments are welcome on the pubpub Website until July 19.

Every language edition of Wikipedia is written independently of every other language edition. A contributor may consult an existing article in another language edition when writing a new article, or they might even use the Content Translation tool to help with translating one article to another language, but there is nothing that ensures that articles in different language editions are aligned or kept consistent with each other. This is often regarded as a contribution to knowledge diversity, since it allows every language edition to grow independently of all other language editions. So would creating a system that aligns the contents more closely with each other sacrifice that diversity?

Differences between Wikipedia language editions

Wikipedia is often described as a wonder of the modern age. There are more than 50 million articles in almost 300 languages. The goal of allowing everyone to share in the sum of all knowledge is achieved, right?

Not yet.

The knowledge in Wikipedia is unevenly distributed. Let’s take a look at where the first twenty years of editing Wikipedia have taken us.

The number of articles varies between the different language editions of Wikipedia: English, the largest edition, has more than 5.8 million articles, Cebuano — a language spoken in the Philippines — has 5.3 million articles, Swedish has 3.7 million articles, and German has 2.3 million articles. (Cebuano and Swedish have a large number of machine generated articles.) In fact, the top nine languages alone hold more than half of all articles across the Wikipedia language editions — and if you take the bottom half of all Wikipedias ranked by size, they together wouldn’t have 10% of the number of articles in the English Wikipedia.

It is not just the sheer number of articles that differ between editions, but their comprehensiveness does as well: the English Wikipedia article on Frankfurt has a length of 184,686 characters, a table of contents spanning 87 sections and subsections, 95 images, tables and graphs, and 92 references — whereas the Hausa Wikipedia article states that it is a city in the German state of Hesse, and lists its population and mayor. Hausa is a language spoken natively by 40 million people and as a second language by another 20 million.

It is not always the case that the large Wikipedia language editions have more content on a topic. Although readers often consider large Wikipedias to be more comprehensive, local Wikipedias may frequently have more content on topics of local interest: the English Wikipedia knows about the Port of Călărași that it is one of the largest Romanian river ports, located at the Danube near the town of Călărași — and that’s it. The Romanian Wikipedia on the other hand offers several paragraphs of content about the port.

The topics covered by the different Wikipedias also overlap less than one would initially assume. English Wikipedias has 5.8 million articles, German has 2.2 million articles — but only 1.1 million topics are covered by both Wikipedias. A full 1.1 million topics have an article in German — but not in English. The top ten Wikipedias by activity — each of them with more than a million articles — have articles on only hundred thousand topics in common. 18 million topics are covered by articles in the different language Wikipedias — and English only covers 31% of these.

Besides coverage, there is also the question of how up to date the different language editions are: in June 2018, San Francisco elected London Breed as its new mayor. Nine months later, in March 2019, I conducted an analysis of who the mayor of San Francisco was, according to the different language versions of Wikipedia. Of the 292 language editions, a full 165 had a Wikipedia article on San Francisco. Of these, 86 named the mayor. The good news is that not a single Wikipedia lists a wrong mayor — but the vast majority are out of date. English switched the minute London Breed was sworn in. But 62 Wikipedia language editions list an out-of-date mayor — and not just the previous mayor Ed Lee, who became mayor in 2011, but also often Gavin Newsom (2004-2011), and his predecessor, Willie Brown (1996-2004). The most out-of-date entry is to be found in the Cebuano Wikipedia, who names Dianne Feinstein as the mayor of San Francisco. She had that role after the assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone in 1978, and remained in that position for a decade in 1988 — Cebuano was more than thirty years out of date. Only 24 language editions had listed the current mayor, London Breed, out of the 86 who listed the name at all.

An even more important metric for the success of a Wikipedia are the number of contributors: English has more than 31,000 active contributors — three out of seven active Wikimedians are active on the English Wikipedia. German, the second most active Wikipedia community, already only has 5,500 active contributors. Only eleven language editions have more than a thousand active contributors — and more than half of all Wikipedias have fewer than ten active contributors. To assume that fewer than ten active contributors can write and maintain a comprehensive encyclopedia in their spare time is optimistic at best. These numbers basically doom the mission of the Wikimedia movement to realize a world where everyone can contribute to the sum of all knowledge.

Enter Wikidata

Wikidata was launched in 2012 and offers a free, collaborative, multilingual, secondary database, collecting structured data to provide support for Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, the other wikis of the Wikimedia movement, and to anyone in the world. Wikidata contains structured information in the form of simple claims, such as “San Francisco — Mayor — London Breed”, qualifiers, such as “since — July 11, 2018”, and references for these claims, e.g. a link to the official election results as published by the city.

One of these structured claims would be on the Wikidata page about San Francisco and state the mayor, as discussed earlier. The individual Wikipedias can then query Wikidata for the current mayor. Of the 24 Wikipedias that named the current mayor, eight were current because they were querying Wikidata. I hope to see that number go up. Using Wikidata more extensively can, in the long run, allow for more comprehensive, current, and accessible content while decreasing the maintenance load for contributors.

Wikidata was developed in the spirit of the Wikipedia’s increasing drive to add structure to Wikipedia’s articles. Examples of this include the introduction of infoboxes as early as 2002, a quick tabular overview of facts about the topic of the article, and categories in 2004. Over the year, the structured features became increasingly intricate: infoboxes moved to templates, templates started using more sophisticated MediaWiki functions, and then later demanded the development of even more powerful MediaWiki features. In order to maintain the structured data, bots were created, software agents that could read content from Wikipedia or other sources and then perform automatic updates to other parts of Wikipedia. Before the introduction of Wikidata, bots keeping the language links between the different Wikipedias in sync, easily contributed 50% and more of all edits.

Wikidata allowed for an outlet to many of these activities, and relieved the Wikipedias of having to run bots to keep language links in sync or of massive infobox maintenance tasks. But one lesson I learned from these activities is that I can trust the communities with mastering complex workflows spread out between community members with different capabilities: in fact, a small number of contributors working on intricate template code and developing bots can provide invaluable support to contributors who more focus on maintaining articles and contributors who write large swaths of prose. The community is very heterogeneous, and the different capabilities and backgrounds complement each other in order to create Wikipedia.

However, Wikidata’s structured claims are of a limited expressivity: their subject always must be the topic of the page, every object of a statement must exist as its own item and thus page in Wikidata. If it doesn’t fit in the rigid data model of Wikidata, it simply cannot be captured in Wikidata — and if it cannot be captured in Wikidata, it cannot be made accessible to the Wikipedias.

For example, let’s take a look at the following two sentences from the English Wikipedia article on Ontario, California:

“To impress visitors and potential settlers with the abundance of water in Ontario, a fountain was placed at the Southern Pacific railway station. It was turned on when passenger trains were approaching and frugally turned off again after their departure.”

There is no feasible way to express the content of these two sentences in Wikidata - the simple claim and qualifier structure that Wikidata supports can not capture the subtle situation that is described here.

An Abstract Wikipedia

I suggest that the Wikimedia movement develop an Abstract Wikipedia, a Wikipedia in which the actual textual content is being represented in a language-independent manner. This is an ambitious goal — it requires us to push the current limits of knowledge representation, natural language generation, and collaborative knowledge construction by a significant amount: an Abstract Wikipedia must allow for:

  1. relations that connect more than just two participants with heterogeneous roles.
  2. composition of items on the fly from values and other items.
  3. expressing knowledge about arbitrary subjects, not just the topic of the page.
  4. ordering content, to be able to represent a narrative structure.
  5. expressing redundant information.

Let us explore one of these requirements, the last one: unlike the sentences of a declarative formal knowledge base, human language is usually highly redundant. Formal knowledge bases usually try to avoid redundancy, for good reasons. But in a natural language text, redundancy happens frequently. One example is the following sentence:

“Marie Curie is the only person who received two Nobel Prizes in two different sciences.”

The sentence is redundant given a list of Nobel Prize award winners and their respective disciplines they have been awarded to — a list that basically every large Wikipedia will contain. But the content of the given sentence nevertheless appears in many of the different language articles on Marie Curie, and usually right in the first paragraph. So there is obviously something very interesting in this sentence, even though the knowledge expressed in this sentence is already fully contained in most of the Wikipedias it appears in. This form of redundancy is common place in natural language — but is usually avoided in formal knowledge bases.

The technical details of the Abstract Wikipedia proposal are presented in (Vrandečić, 2018). But the technical architecture is only half of the story. Much more important is the question whether the communities can meet the challenges of this project?

Wikipedia and Wikidata have shown that the communities are capable to meet difficult challenges: be it templates in Wikipedia, or constraints in Wikidata, the communities have shown that they can drive comprehensive policy and workflow changes as well as the necessary technological feature development. Not everyone needs to understand the whole stack in order to make a feature such as templates a crucial part of Wikipedia.

The Abstract Wikipedia is an ambitious future project. I believe that this is the only way for the Wikimedia movement to achieve its goal, short of developing an AI that will make the writing of a comprehensive encyclopedia obsolete anyway.

A plea for knowledge diversity?

When presenting the idea of the Abstract Wikipedia, the first question is usually: will this not massively reduce the knowledge diversity of Wikipedia? By unifying the content between the different language editions, does this not force a single point of view on all languages? Is the Abstract Wikipedia taking away the ability of minority language speakers to maintain their own encyclopedias, to have a space where, for example, indigenous speakers can foster and grow their own point of view, without being forced to unify under the western US-dominated perspective?

I am sympathetic with the intent of this question. The goal of this question is to ensure that a rich diversity in knowledge is retained, and to make sure that minority groups have spaces in which they can express themselves and keep their knowledge alive. These are, in my opinion, valuable goals.

The assumption that an Abstract Wikipedia, from which any of the individual language Wikipedias can draw content from, will necessarily reduce this diversity, is false. In fact, I believe that access to more knowledge and to more perspectives is crucial to achieve an effective knowledge diversity, and that the currently perceived knowledge diversity in different language projects is ineffective at best, and harmful at worst. In the rest of this essay I will argue why this is the case.

Language does not align with culture

First, it is wrong to use language as the dimension along which to draw the demarcation line between different content if the Wikimedia movement truly believes that different groups should be able to grow and maintain their own encyclopedias.

In case the Wikimedia movement truly believes that different groups or cultures should have their own Wikipedias, why is there only a single Wikipedia language edition for the English speakers from India, England, Scotland, Australia, the United States, and South Africa? Why is there only one Wikipedia for Brazil and Portugal, leading to much strife? Why are there no two Wikipedias for US Democrats and Republicans?

The conclusion is that the Wikimedia movement does not believe that language is the right dimension to split knowledge — it is a historical decision, driven by convenience. The core Wikipedia policies, vision, and mission are all geared towards enabling access to the sum of all knowledge to every single reader, no matter what their language, and not toward capturing all knowledge and then subdividing it for consumption based on the languages the reader is comfortable in.

The split along languages leads to the problem that it is much easier for a small language community to go “off the rails” — to either, as a whole, become heavily biased, or to adopt rules and processes which are problematic. The fact that the larger communities have different rules, processes, and outcomes can be beneficial for Wikipedia as a whole, since they can experiment with different rules and approaches. But this does not seem to hold true when the communities drop under a certain size and activity level, when there are not enough eyeballs to avoid the development of bad outcomes and traditions. For one example, the article about skirts in the Bavarian Wikipedia features three upskirt pictures, one porn actress, an anime screenshot, and a video showing a drawing of a woman with a skirt getting continuously shorter. The article became like this within a day or two of its creation, and, even though it has been edited by a dozen different accounts, has remained like this over the last seven years. (This describes the state of the article in April 2019 — I hope that with the publication of this essay, the article will finally be cleaned up).

A look on some south Slavic language Wikipedias

Second, a natural experiment is going on, where contributors that are more separated by politics than language differences have separate Wikipedias: there exist individual Wikipedia language editions for Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, and Serbocroatian. Linguistically, the differences between the dialects of Croatian are often larger than the differences between standard Croatian and standard Serbian. Particularly the existence of the Serbocroatian Wikipedia poses interesting questions about these delineations.

Particularly the Croatian Wikipedia has turned to a point of view that has been described as problematic. Certain events and Croat actors during the 1990s independence wars or the 1940s fascist puppet state might be represented more favorably than in most other Wikipedias.

Here are two observations based on my work on south Slavic language Wikipedias:

First, claiming that a more fascist-friendly point of view within a Wikipedia increases the knowledge diversity across all Wikipedias might be technically true, but is practically insufficient. Being able to benefit from this diversity requires the reader to not only be comfortable reading several different languages, but also to engage deeply enough and spend the time and interest to actually read the article in different languages, which is mostly a profoundly boring exercise, since a lot of the content will be overlapping. Finding the juicy differences is anything but easy, especially considering that most readers are reading Wikipedia from mobile devices, and are just looking to satisfy a quick information need from a source whose curation they trust.

Most readers will only read a single language version of an article, and thus any diversity that exists across different language editions is practically lost. The sheer existence of this diversity might even be counterproductive, as one may argue that the communities should not spend resources on reflecting the true diversity of a topic within each individual language. This would cement the practical uselessness of the knowledge diversity across languages.

Second, many of the same contributors that write the articles with a certain point of view in the Croatian Wikipedia, also contribute on the English Wikipedia on the articles about the same topics — but there they suddenly are forced and able to compromise and incorporate a much wider variety of points of view. One might hope the contributors would take the more diverse points of view and migrate them back to their home Wikipedias — but that is often not the case. If contributors harbor a certain point of view (and who doesn’t?) it often leads to a situation where they push that point of view as much as they can get away with in each of the projects.

It has to be noted that the most blatant digressions from a neutral point of view in Wikipedias like the Croatian Wikipedia will not be found in the most central articles, but in the large periphery of articles surrounding these central articles which are much harder to keep an eye on.

Abstract Wikipedia and Knowledge diversity

The Abstract Wikipedia proposal does not require any of the individual language editions to use it. Each language community can decide for each article whether to fall back on the Abstract Wikipedia or whether to create their own article in their language. And even that decision can be more fine grained: a contributor can decide for an individual article to incorporate sections or paragraphs from the Abstract Wikipedia.

This allows the individual Wikipedia communities the luxury to entirely concentrate on the differences that are relevant to them. I distinctly remember that when I started the Croatian Wikipedia: it felt like I had the burden to first write an article about every country in the world before I could write the articles I cared about, such as my mother’s home village — because how could anyone defend a general purpose encyclopedia that might not even have an article on Nigeria, a country with a population of a hundred million, but one on Donji Humac, a village with a population of 157? Wouldn’t you first need an article on all of the chemical elements that make up the world before you can write about a local food?

The Abstract Wikipedia frees a language edition from this burden, and allows each community to entirely focus on the parts they care about most — and to simply import the articles from the common source for the topics that are less in their focus. It allows the community to make these decisions. As the communities grow and shift, they can revisit these decisions at any time and adapt them.

At the same time, the Abstract Wikipedia makes these differences more visible since they become explicit. Right now there is no easy way to say whether the fact that Dianne Feinstein is listed as the Mayor of San Francisco in the Cebuano Wikipedia is due to cultural particularities of the Cebuano language communities or not. Are the different population numbers of Frankfurt in the different language editions intentional expressions of knowledge diversity? With an Abstract Wikipedia, the individual communities could explicitly choose which articles to create and maintain on their own, and at the same time remove a lot of unintentional differences.

By making these decisions more explicit, it becomes possible to imagine an effective workflow that observes these intentional differences, and sets up a path to integrate them into the common article in the Abstract Wikipedia. Right now, there are 166 different language versions of the article on the chemical element Helium — it is basically impossible for a single person to go through all of them and find the content that is intentionally different between them. With an Abstract Wikipedia, which contains the common shared knowledge, contributors, researchers, and readers can actually take a look at those articles that intentionally have content that replaces or adds to the commonly shared one, assess these differences, and see if contributors should integrate the differences in the shared article.

The differences in content may be reflecting difference in policies, particularly in policies of notability and reliability. Whereas on first glance it might seem that the Abstract Wikipedia might require unified notability and reliability requirements across all Wikipedias, this is not the case: due to the fact that local Wikipedias can overlay and suppress content from the Abstract Wikipedias, they can adjust their Wikipedias based on their own rules. And the increased visibility of such decisions will lead to easier identify biases, and hopefully also to updated rules to reduce said bias.

A new incentive infrastructure

The Abstract Wikipedia will evolve the incentive infrastructure of Wikipedia.

Presently, many underrepresented languages are spoken in areas that are multilingual. Often another language spoken in this area is regarded as a high-prestige language, and is thus the language of education and literature, whereas the underrepresented language is a low-prestige language. So even though the low-prestige language might have more speakers, the most likely recruits for the Wikipedia communities, people with education who can afford internet access and have enough free time, will be able to contribute in both languages.

In which language should I contribute? If I write the article about my mother’s home town in Croatian, I make it accessible to a few million people. If I write the article about my mother’s home town in English, it becomes accessible to more than a hundred times as many people! The work might be the same, but the perceived benefit is orders of magnitude higher: the question becomes, do I teach the world about a local tradition, or do I tell my own people about their tradition? The world is bigger, and thus more likely to react, creating a positive feedback loop.

This cannibalizes the communities for local languages by diverting them to the English Wikipedia, which is perceived as the global knowledge community (or to other high-prestige languages, such as Russian or French). This is also reflected in a lot of articles in the press and in academic works about Wikipedia, where the English Wikipedia is being understood as the Wikipedia. Whereas it is known that Wikipedia exists in many other languages, journalists and researchers are, often unintentionally, regarding the English Wikipedia as the One True Wikipedia.

Another strong impediment to recruiting contributors to smaller Wikipedia communities is rarely explicitly called out: it is pretty clear that, given the current architecture, these Wikipedias are doomed in achieving their mission. As discussed above, more than half of all Wikipedia language editions have fewer than ten active contributors — and writing a comprehensive, up-to-date Wikipedia is not an achievable goal with so few people writing in their free time. The translation tools offered by the Wikimedia Foundation can considerably help within certain circumstances — but for most of the Wikipedia languages, automatic translation models don’t exist and thus cannot help the languages which would need it the most.

With the Abstract Wikipedia though, the goal of providing a comprehensive and current encyclopedia in almost any language becomes much more tangible: instead of taking on the task of creating and maintaining the entire content, only the grammatical and lexical knowledge of a given language needs to be created. This is a far smaller task. Furthermore, this grammatical and lexical knowledge is comparably static — it does not change as much as the encyclopedic content of Wikipedia, thus turning a task that is huge and ongoing into one where the content will grow and be maintained without the need of too much maintenance by the individual language communities.

Yes, the Abstract Wikipedia will require more and different capabilities from a community that has yet to be found, and the challenges will be both novel and big. But the communities of the many Wikimedia projects have repeatedly shown that they can meet complex challenges with ingenious combinations of processes and technological advancements. Wikipedia and Wikidata have both demonstrated the ability to draw on technologically rather simple canvasses, and create extraordinary rich and complex masterpieces, which stand the test of time. The Abstract Wikipedia aims to challenge the communities once again, and the promise this time is nothing else but to finally be able to reap the ultimate goal: to allow every one, no matter what their native language is, to share in the sum of all knowledge.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the valuable suggestions on improving the article to Jamie Taylor, Daniel Russell, Joseph Reagle, Stephen LaPorte, and Jake Orlowitz.

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Simia

Toy Story 4

Toy Story 4 was great fun!

Toy Story 3 had a great closure (and a lot of tears), so would, what could they do to justify a fourth part? They developed the characters further than ever before. Woody is faced with a lot of decisions, and he has to grow in order to say an even bigger good-bye than last time.

Interesting fact: PETA protested the movie because Bo Peep uses a shepherd's crook, and those are considered a "symbol of domination over animals."

Bo Peep was a pretty cool character in the movie. And she used her crook well.

The cast was amazing: besides the many who kept their roles (Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Joan Cusack, Timothy Dalton, even keeping Don Rickles from archive footage after his death, and everyone else) many new voices (Betty White, Mel Brooks, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Bill Hader, Tony Hale, Key and Peele, and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers).

Movie
Review

The end of civilization?

This might be controversial with some of my friends, but no, there is no high likelihood of human civilization ending within the next 30 years.

Yes, climate change is happening, and we're obviously not reacting fast and effective enough. But that won't kill humanity, and it will not end civilization.

Some highly populated areas might become uninhabitable. No question about this. Whole countries in southern Asia, central and South America, in Africa, might become too hot and too humid or too dry for human living. This would lead to hundreds of millions, maybe billions of people, who will want to move, to save their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Many, many people would die in these migrations.

The migration pressures on the countries that are climatically better off may become enormous, and it will either lead to massive bloodshed or to enormous demographic changes, or, most likely, both.

But look at the map. There are large areas in northern Asia and North America that would dramatically improve their habitability for humans if they would warm a bit. Large areas could become viable for growing wheat, fruits, corn.

As it is already today, and as it was for most of human history, we produce enough food and clean water and shelter and energy for everyone. The problem is not production, it is and will always be distribution. Facing huge upheaval and massive migration the distribution channels will likely break down and become even more ineffective. The disruption of the distribution network will likely also endanger seemingly stable states, and places that thought to pass the events unscathed will be hurt by that breakdown. The fact that there would be enough food will make the humanitarian catastrophes even more maddening.

Money will make it possible to shelter away from the most severe effects, no matter where you start now. It's the poor that will bear the brunt of the negative effects. I don't think that's surprising to anyone.

But even if almost none of today's countries might survive as they are, and if a few billion people die, the chances of humanity to end, of civilization to end, are negligible. Billions will survive into the 21st century, and will carry on history.

So, yes, the changes might be massive and in some areas catastrophic. But humanity and civilization will preserve.

Why this post? I don't think it is responsible to exaggerate the bad predictions too much. It makes the predictions less believable. Also, to have a sober look at the possible changes may make it easier to understand why some countries react as they do. Does this mean we don't need to react and try to reduce climate change? If that's your conclusion, you haven't read carefully along. I said something about possibly billions becoming displaced.

IFLScience: New Report Warns "High Likelihood Of Human Civilization Coming To An End" Within 30 Years

Web Conference 2019

25 May 2019

Last week saw the latest incarnation of the Web Conference (previously known as WWW or dubdubdub), going from May 15 to 17 (with satellite events the two days before). When I was still in academia, WWW was one of the most prestigious conference series for my research area, so when it came to be held literally across the street from my office, I couldn’t resist going to it.

The conference featured two keynotes (the third, by Lawrence Lessig, was cancelled on short notice due to a family emergency):

Watch the talks on YouTube on the links given above. Thanks to Marco Neumann for pointing to the links!

The conference was attended by more than 1,400 people (closer to 1,600?), making it the second largest since its inception (trailing only Lyon from last year), and about double the size than it used to be only four or five years ago. The conference dinner in the Exploratorium was relaxed and enjoyable. Acceptance rate was at 18%, which made for 225 accepted full papers.

The proceedings are available for free (yay!), so browse them for papers you find interesting. Personally, I really enjoyed the papers that looked into the use of WhatsApp to spread misinformation before the Brazil election, Dataset Search, and pre-empting SPARQL queries from blocking the endpoint. The proceedings span 5,047 pages, and are available online.

I had the feeling that Machine Learning was taking much more space in the program than it used to when I used to attend the conference regularly - which is fine, but many of the ML papers were only tenuously connected to the Web (which was the same criticism that we raised against many of the Semantic Web / Description Logic papers back then).

Thanks to the general chairs for organizing the conference, Leila Zia and Ricardo Baeza-Yates, and thanks to the sponsors, particularly Microsoft, Bloomberg, Amazon, and Google.

The two workshops I attended before the Web Conference were the Knowledge Graph Technology and Applications 2019 workshop on Monday, and the Wiki workshop 2019 on Tuesday. They have their own trip reports.

If you have trip reports, let me know and I will link to them.

Trip report

Wiki workshop 2019

24 May 2019

Last week, May 14, saw the fifth incarnation of the Wiki workshop, co-located with the Web Conference (formerly known as dubdubdub), in San Francisco. The room was tight and very full - I am bad at estimating, but I guess 80-110 people were there.

I was honored to be invited to give the opening talk, and since I had a bit more time than in the last few talks, I really indulged in sketching out the proposal for the Abstract Wikipedia, providing plenty of figures and use cases. The response was phenomenal, and there were plenty of questions not only after the talk but also throughout the day and in the next few days. In fact, the Open Discussion slot was very much dominated by more questions about the proposal. I found that extremely encouraging. Some of the comments were immediately incorporated into a paper I am writing right now and that will be available for public reviews soon.

The other presentations - both the invited and the accepted ones - were super interesting.

Thanks to Dario Taraborelli, Bob West, and Miriam Redi for organizing the workshop.

A little extra was that I smuggled my brother and his wife into the workshop for my talk (they are visiting, and they have never been to one of my talks before). It was certainly interesting to hear their reactions afterwards - if you have non-academic relatives, you might underestimate how much they may enjoy such an event as mere spectators. I certainly did.

See also the #wikiworkshop2019 tag on Twitter.

Trip report

Knowledge Graph Technology and Applications 2019

23 May 2019

Last week, on May 13, the Knowledge Graph Technology and Applications workshop happened, co-located with the Web Conference 2019 (formerly known as WWW), in San Francisco. I was invited to give the opening talk, and talked about the limits of Knowledge Graph technologies when trying to express knowledge. The talk resonated well.

Just like in last week's KGC, the breadth of KG users is impressive: NASA uses KGs to support air traffic management, Uber talks about the potential for their massive virtual KG over 200,000 schemas, LinkedIn, Alibaba, IBM, Genentech, etc. I found particularly interesting that Microsoft has not one, but at least four large Knowledge Graphs: the generic Knowledge Graph Satori; an Academic Graph for science, papers, citations; the Enterprise Graph (mostly LinkedIn), with companies, positions, schools, employees and executives; and the Work graph about documents, conference rooms, meetings, etc. All in all, they boasted more than a trillion triples (why is it not a single graph? No idea).

Unlike last week, the focus was less on sharing experiences when working with Knowledge Graphs, but more on academic work, such as query answering, mixing embeddings with KGs, scaling, mapping ontologies, etc. Given that it is co-located with the Web Conference, this seems unsurprising.

One interesting point that was raised was the question of common sense: can we, and how can we use a knowledge graph to represent common sense? How can we say that a box of chocolate may fit in the trunk of a car, but a piano would not? Are KGs the right representation for that? The question remained unanswered, but lingered through the panel and some QnA sessions.

The workshop was very well visited - it got the second largest room of the day, and the room didn’t feel empty, but I have a hard time estimating how many people where there (about 100-150?). The audience was engaged.

The connection with the Web was often rather tenuous, unless one thinks of KGs as inherently associated with the Web (maybe because they often could use Semantic Web standards? But also often they don’t). On the other side it is a good outlet within the Web Conference for the Semantic Web crowd and to make them mingle more with the KG crowd, I did see a few people brought together into a room that often have been separated, and I was able to point a few academic researchers to enterprise employees that would benefit from each other.

Thanks to Ying Ding from the Indiana University and the other organizers for organizing the workshop, and for all the discussion and insights it generated!

Update: corrected that Uber talked about the potential of their knowledge graph, not about their realized knowledge graph. Thanks to Joshua Shivanier for the correction! Also added a paragraph on common sense.

Trip report

Knowledge Graph Conference 2019, Day 1

On Tuesday, May 7, began the first Knowledge Graph Conference. Organized by François Scharffe and his colleagues at Columbia University, it was located in New York City. The conference goes for two days, and aims at a much more industry-oriented crowd than conferences such as ISWC. And it reflected very prominently in the speaker line-up: especially finance was very well represented (no surprise, with Wall Street being just downtown).

Speakers and participants from Goldman Sachs, Capital One, Wells Fargo, Mastercard, Bank of America, and others were in the room, but also from companies in other industries, such as Astra Zeneca, Amazon, Uber, or AirBnB. The speakers and participants were rather open about their work, often listing numbers of triples and entities (which really is a weird metric to cite, but since it is readily available it is often expected to be stated), and these were usually in the billions. More interesting than the sheer size of their respective KGs were their use cases, and particularly in finance it was often ensuring compliance to insider trading rules and similar regulations.

I presented Wikidata and the idea of an Abstract Wikipedia as going beyond what a Knowledge Graph can easily express. I had the feeling the presentation was well received - it was obvious that many people in the audience were already fully aware of Wikidata and are actively using it or planning to use it. For others, particularly the SPARQL endpoint with its powerful visualization capabilities and the federated queries, and the external identifiers in Wikidata, and the approach to references for the claims in Wikidata were perceived as highlights. The proposal of an Abstract Wikipedia was very warmly received, and it was the first time no one called it out as a crazy idea. I guess the audience was very friendly, despite New York's reputation.

A second set of speakers were offering technologies and services - and I guess I belong to this second set by speaking about Wikidata - and among them were people like Juan Sequeda of Capsenta, who gave an extremely engaging and well-substantiated talk on how to bridge the chasm towards more KG adoption; Pierre Haren of Causality Link, who offered an interesting personal history through KR land from LISP to Causal Graphs; Dieter Fensel of OnLim, who had a a number of really good points on the relation between intelligent assistants and their dialogue systems and KGs; Neo4J, Eccenca, Diffbot.

A highlight for me was the astute and frequent observation by a number of the speakers from the first set that the most challenging problems with Knowledge Graphs were rarely technical. I guess graph serving systems and cloud infrastructure have improved so much that we don't have to worry about these parts anymore unless you are doing crazy big graphs. The most frequently mentioned problems were social and organizational. Since Knowledge Graphs often pulled data sources from many different parts of an organization together, with a common semantics, they trigger feelings of territoriality. Who gets to define the common ontology? What if the data a team provides has problems or is used carelessly, who's at fault? What if others benefit from our data more than we did even though we put all the effort in to clean it up? How do we get recognized for our work? Organizational questions were often about a lack of understanding, especially among engineers, for fundamental Knowledge Graph principles, and a lack of enthusiasm in the management chain - especially when the costs are being estimated and the social problems mentioned before become apparent. One particularly visible moment was when Bethany Sehon from Capital One was asked about the major challenges to standardizing vocabularies - and her first answer was basically "egos".

All speakers talked about the huge benefits they reaped from using Knowledge Graphs (such as detecting likely cliques of potential insider trading that later indeed got convicted) - but then again, this is to be expected since conference participation is self-selecting, and we wouldn't hear of failures in such a setting.

I had a great day at the inaugural Knowledge Graph Conference, and am sad that I have to miss the second day. Thanks to François Scharffe for organizing the conference, and thanks to the sponsors, OntoText, Collibra, and TigerGraph.

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