A million miles of spaghetti eaten every day!

Oil IT Journal editor Neil McNaughton attends the Semantic Web Interest Group—part of the World Wide Web Consortium’s Technical Plenary. He discovers a brave new world of real-time knowledge capture in action. In the midst of the IT decision makers—debating semantics and ontologies, he finds himself a bit out of his depth. Braving traumatic early memories of an off-topic question, he nonetheless takes on the W3C SWIG on his old hobbyhorse of Units of Measure.

Way back, my dad, a biology teacher, parked myself (age 10) and my brother (5) in an ornithology lecture while he went off for a drink with the organizers. I listened dutifully until the Q&A session and then—as a pre-nerd—concentrated on formulating my query. Questions came on the types of birds migrating to and fro, the ground speeds attained, birds’ ages and sociology. I was about to formulate my own ersatz twitcher’s query when I was pre-empted by my brother. He asked, causing me instant mortification and immediately entering the family annals, ‘Did you know that a million miles of spaghetti are eaten every day?’


This early trauma (for me—my brother was well pleased with his instant recognition) has made me wary of the off-topic remark. And yet, it is the editorialist’s lot to be permanently on the brink of the gaffe—the question that reveals that you haven’t been paying attention, that you are in the AGM of the local real-estate collective by mistake (yes that has happened too!), or that you just haven’t a clue about the matters being discussed.


This month we were lucky to get an invitation to attend the Semantic Web Special Interest Group (SWIG)—part of the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) 2004 Technical Plenary held in Cannes, France. This is a yearly event, shared between the US and Europe, with a ‘who’s who’ of the computing world in attendance. Early in the proceedings, my neighbor whispered to me that this was ‘where the future of IT was being decided’. I was impressed.


Not having brought my laptop with me, I was in a vanishingly small minority. The IT decision makers unfolded a range of PCs and other mobile devices. The hotel was equipped with a wireless network and soon everyone was busy reading the news, tunneling into their network or whatever. Once all were up and running, surprise, surprise, about 40% of the SWIG use Apple Mac’s—showing the success of Apple’s strategy of deploying a Unix OS.


The meeting began with a bit of self congratulation on the fact that the Semantic Web project had just delivered its first standards—the Resource Description Format (RDF) and Web Ontology Language (OWL). More of which later. As the meeting got underway, I was struck by the frenetic activity of the participants. This was not the laid-back mouse clicking of the web surfer in search of divertissement. This was elbow-jostling, ten finger typing at breakneck speed. It was just as well that I had left my machine at home—for every twenty keystrokes forward I need at least five back arrows.


What was going on? Turns out that this was audience participation of a semantic nature. While the speaker spoke and the Power Point bullets flew, the assembled IT stewards were collectively composing a web log (a blog) of the proceedings. One indeed was a scribe—but all were participating—with asides, quips and references to topics under discussion located and posted in real time. In fact you can read these proceedings on rdfig.xmlhack.com. They are as you might expect rather impenetrable. But as Marshal MacLuhan said, ‘it’s the medium not the message, stupid!’


The media that should be—because they are many. From IRC, through Blogs to Wiki’s there is a range of exciting new technologies which turn the passive ‘teacher and class’ paradigm into a dynamic, collaborative knowledge-creation effort. Arguably the first new thing in KM since the invention of Power Point. In so far as these technologies are ‘semantic’ you could also say that the SWIG eats its own dog food. There is an XML/RSS feed (see Oil ITJ Vol. 9 N° 1) of the proceedings for syndication.

Data types

As for me, being computer-less and completely out of my depth, it seemed like an ideal moment to ask the ‘million miles of spaghetti question’. The debate was moving around the higher planes of RDF graphs, ontologies and serializations but every now and then, reference to typing was made. The SWIG, like the XML community, is concerned that strong typing should be built into its specifications.

Units of measure

Seizing a lull in the conversation I dropped the big one. ‘Data typing is important but what about units of measure?’ IT looks after own with ‘strong typing’ of data pigeonholes and then throws caution to the wind when the value of ‘3.75’ is stored as a floating point representation without recording if the length is feet, miles or meters. This causes spacecraft to crash, bridges to fall down and wells to be drilled in the wrong place (maybe I already wrote that editorial). Since one aim of the SWIG is for machine-readable catalogues, it would seem prudent to make a UOM description and discovery mechanism part of the specification.

W3C vs. ISO?

The answer was a reflective, ‘Yes this has cropped up before. Maybe this has more to do with ISO than W3C’. There appeared to be little enthusiasm for action. Behind the scenes, as my subsequent researches suggest, this could be the tip of the iceberg—in that W3C and ISO seemingly don’t get along. Can you believe that? Two standards orgs that don’t get along? And impacting the future of both IT and engineering big-time? One thing is for sure, many end users of this future technology, including oil companies, are conspicuously absent from the W3C and may be missing out on the ‘future of IT’.

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