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Re: Pragmatic Problems in the RDF Ecosystem (Was: Re: Toward easier RDF: a proposal)

From: Martynas Jusevičius <martynas@atomgraph.com>
Date: Tue, 27 Nov 2018 15:58:51 +0100
Message-ID: <CAE35Vmzzw5rGnMgfFVfjYKzAT7oe=BajJVtFa_wptfvRZs8WMg@mail.gmail.com>
To: Steven Harms <sgharms@stevengharms.com>
Cc: Semantic Web <semantic-web@w3.org>
Steven,

good to get an "outsider's" POV. And you definitely stepped on some toes here :D

I don't want to go into detail, only address one issue re. tutorials
and documentation. It's the idea I had about a year ago, now I
remembered it and I think it is relevant to this thread:
"Data-centric, cross-specification semantic primer"
https://lists.w3.org/Archives/Public/semantic-web/2017Oct/0040.html

Would that address some of your concerns re. RDF specifications?

And of course we would need to SEO the **** out of such document,
using RDFa and schema.org and whatever is needed, to get it to the top
of the search results.

Martynas
atomgraph.com
On Tue, Nov 27, 2018 at 2:32 PM Steven Harms <sgharms@stevengharms.com> wrote:
>
> All,
>
> I've posted this online at my site for long-form reading (https://stevengharms.com/research/semweb-topic/2018-11-26-toward-easier-rdf/#post) but will include the full, long text below for those preferring the mail reader interface.
>
> Esteemed SW Community,
>
> I've been silent on this list because I am not a practising ontologist. I'm
> (just a) "middle 33% developer" who thought that making a graph of knowledge
> about books would be interesting[0]. I've tried to document[1] my experiences,
> up to the point a few weeks ago that I ground to a halt. When I saw David's
> post[2], I was excited because I thought it might occasion discussion around
> the simple, pragmatic problems that stymied me.
>
> I'd like to list a few signals that RDF* sends in the first hour of exploration
> to the pragmatic 33%-er (me)  that suggest that the explorer's further time
> won't pay off. I've also spent 2 hours with a near-identical (hand-wave)
> competitor, [AirTable][9], where I was able to get my prototype up and running in
> under 2 hours[10]. Based on these criticisms and comparison with the
> marketplace, a developer curious about RDF* receives ample signal to "close
> tabs, move on," and drop out of the funnel.
>
> A. Lack of a Clear Entry Point
> ==============================
>
> Compare "How do I write React" Google results with "How do I write RDF" Google
> results.
>
> * React's first hit[3] is served by its authority (reactjs.org). It links
>   to a description that is compelling, welcoming, and relatively easily
>   scanned.  It's visually attractive and modern as well. It looks maintained.
>
> Versus:
>
> * RDF's first hit is hosted by w3schools.com[4] and feels scanty (NB: Not even
> * a W3C link!)
> * RDF's second hit is hosted by a site whose look and feel is akin to a
>   textbook[5] and is equally exciting
> * RDF's third hit[6] is the same
> * RDF's fourth hit [7] is the first link that starts educating on the Jena API
>
> These sites look state of the art for the pre-Clinton era. Should one actually
> find the W3C spec, the look-and-feel there (to say nothing of the writing style
> and tone) suggests "Keep moving, peasant."
>
> As a pragmatic 33%-er, my intuition is screaming "Close tabs; abort."
>
> B. Lack of Technology Framing
> =============================
>
> Compare the React home[2] to any of those previous links [3][4][5][6]. The
> navigational tree hits topics that provide "big picture," "tools required,"
> "help if you get stuck," "what is this technology," and "when is it an optimal
> choice?" By comparison, I don't have any idea what RDF* thinks its use or chief
> benefits are.
>
> To the pragmatic 33%-er, React's site says: "You're welcome here, prepare to be
> awesome."
>
> C. A Highly Fractured Ecosystem
> ===============================
>
> Said Booth:
>
> > a painful reality has emerged: RDF is too hard for *average* developers.  By
> > "average developers" I mean those in the middle 33 percent of ability. And by
> > "RDF", I mean the whole RDF ecosystem -- including SPARQL, OWL, tools,
> > standards, etc. -- everything that a developer touches when using RDF.
>
> While RDF is wonderfully graspable in its simplicity: triples that can be
> serialized into multiple formats; its ecosystem  of clever acronyms and
> backronyms is tedious, over-precious, and opaque.  RDF* requires the learner to
> hold too many cognitive circuits open before anything starts to resolve. React
> avoids this by doing complete layers (e.g. no classes, classes without JSX,
> classes with JSX) where complete, albeit small, artifacts are created
> repeatedly.
>
> Most of these technologies' defining document is a W3C standard written in the
> opaque style of W3C standards (see Sporny, at length). While these standards
> cover cases exhaustively, they're difficult to understand applying to a toy
> example.  React makes tic-tac-toe from which I can extrapolate Twitter
> integrations or JavaScript widgets. RDF* has no such entry point.
>
> Supposing one finds a canonical entry point, RDF* feels like it solves someone
> else's problem and not mine (close tab; bye!).
>
> D. Lack of Automated Feedback
> =============================
>
> One of the greatest things that happened in learning HTML (1994, in my case)
> was the existence of validators to provide feedback of whether I was doing it
> right. The RDF* suite provides me no feedback as to whether I'm doing it right.
> When I get a serialization to parse, I can see a really pretty graph. Is that
> _right_? Is that _recommended_? No idea. It's like learning German, going to
> Germany, speaking German, and finding out that no one there will (patiently)
> correct you when you use the wrong article.
>
> In all seriousness, I used Juan Sequeda et al's GRAFO[8] in order to have
> something generate an artifact that I could use to confirm my use of hand-coded
> RDF* and OWL.  Booth's comparison to Assembly is apt; many times developers let
> `gcc` spit out Assembly code to get validation of their tedious-to-write,
> difficult-to-edit hand codings. I say more about tooling in H, and I, below.
>
> Where tooling is unavailable (or engineering effort costly in time / money), a
> suitable shim is possible with a (or multiple) canonical example(s).
>
> E. Lack of a Canonical Example
> ==============================
>
> In the dawn of the JavaScript frameworks (2014-ish) _everyone_ did a TODO app.
> One could compare Angular to Ember to Knockout to BatmanJS ('memba that?)  and
> see what trade-offs the various implementers made. It was a problem with a
> trivial domain but from whose implementation one could project the technology
> learning ladder.
>
> RDF* lacks a consistent example. Where it is consistent, it is trivially small.
> The most consistent example (in my experience) is using a `foaf:` ontology to
> make some boring and fairly shallow statement e.g. "Alice knows Bob." Great. So
> what? How do I start building classes, and predicates (schemas) and start
> creating graphs based on my ideas?
>
> "Read more specs, pleb."
>
> Sigh.
>
> While it's readily obvious that we could use (the fractured ecosystem of)
> ontology providers to assert more about Alice and Bob, to create a schema is an
> entirely opaque process that isn't "ramped to" based on grokkable atoms. Where
> do I go to get more properties? Should I mix multiple ontologies? Is there an
> example? No.
>
> F. Lack of Intermediate Canonical Example
> =========================================
>
> This is really an extension of E, but there's a huge gulf between some foaf-y
> triviality and "Model a Medical Product Ontology." Uhm, how about something
> obvious and fun (modeling board games, or card games, books, plays..anything?)
>
> G. Curiously Strong Rejection of SQL and OO as Metaphors
> ========================================================
>
> RDF* is neither SQL nor Object-Oriented programming, but dear Mithras, SQL and
> OO are powerful, pervasive metaphors that most RDF* learners' mental models
> appeal to when they're learning. Why aren't we translating trivial OO code or
> trivial DB modeling in those metaphors to RDF*?
>
> Considering the blood, sweat, tears, and bile I lost learning to write SQL
> construction commands I'm galled to type the following: It's easier to learn to
> write SQL tables by hand (schema as well as content) than it is to design an
> RDF* schema and load it up.
>
> (To say nothing of the gigabytes of tutorial material, StackOverflow posts, etc.
> to help correct and steer you out of the gutter.)
>
> I re-read this now and am staggered. RDF*'s a data format that's conceptually
> _simpler_ than SQL but which is _orders of magnitude_ harder to learn (see A-F,
> above).
>
> H. Lack of Tools
> ================
>
> Beginners drown in the options. Booth's suggestion of a default stack (even
> better if we could get it in http://repl.it) is very much needed. Give me a
> canonical (even dumbed down) version of tools that let me work through the
> canonical examples and then I'll write Python or Ruby or use GUI abstractions
> to get out of the, per Booth, assembly language verbosity of the RDF* stack.
>
> Many e.g. UNIX tutorials use nano (these days, I used pico back in the 90's).
> This is sensible. Trust that the learner will soon tire of the tool (or not)
> and decide to upgrade their tooling (unto `vim`, say). But by all means, make
> them effective!
>
> Why not use use turtle or N3 or (better yet!) JSON (because people know
> it) consistently? Whichever is simpler and more neatly fits in code samples.
> Because of the hesitancy to voice a strong opinion or a good starting point,
> beginners don't know where to start and drown in the undifferentiated murk.
>
> Close tabs; move on.
>
> I. Obvious Moribundity of Tools
> ===============================
>
> I first started learning about RDF* technology in Austin, TX at Cyc under the
> organizational passion of one Juan Sequeda in 2008-9. Can you imagine how
> staggered I was to find that the tooling ecosystem has made no appreciable
> progress in a literal decade? Name any other software that can see so little
> growth and still be called "vibrant." The majority of tools I downloaded
> required JVM and / or failed to start when installed locally. Web options were
> poor as well.
>
> I rather enjoyed my trial of Grafo[8] as it's the first twitch of life I've
> seen in this space since before the Obama administration.
>
> J. Faster, More-Than "Just Barely Good Enough" Competitors
> ==========================================================
>
> By way of comparison, I _just now_ used Airtable[9] to build my book cataloging
> proposal[1] in 2 intuitive, friendly hours and I can readily see how to extend
> it to serve my problem domain.
>
> I grant that I'm losing the advanced query structure of SPARQL (which confuses
> me to no end and promises hours of delightful spec reading; no loss) and the
> hopes for inference, but at roughly the same time it takes to grok one of the
> 1-5 standards one has to read to use RDF*, I have something that I can provide
> as a read-only share to anyone reading this post:
>
> https://airtable.com/shrJILw0CTILV0My2
>
> (*and* AirTable features like collaboration, note history sans RCS, read-only
> sharing, etc.)
>
> Airtable has existed substantially less time than RDF* and has solved a
> majority of the tool-chain, reference implementation, bootstrapping hurdles.
> React has done the same. Why as RDF*'s ecosystem so fundamentally failed to
> meet the quality, ease, and friendliness of these latecomer technologies?
>
> Conclusion
> ==========
>
> I'm sure I certainly stepped on some toes here. I'm sorry if I hurt YOUR
> feelings. No one likes to have tech they wrote or tech that they labored to get
> up and over the learning curve on whipped like this.
>
> I also know that I'm dissmissable with:
>
> * "Just RTFM better"
> * "If it was meant to be easy we wouldn't be getting PhDs in it"
> * "It's a specification, precision and authority outrank ease of use."
> * "Your dumb book logging idea is too simple a domain for technology this
>   powerful, use an Excel sheet, peasant."
>
> But I hope this can be a clarion call: commercial entities are doing similar
> work with beautiful interfaces that are intuitive and running laps around the
> RDF* universe. If the bar for RDF* remains as high as it is, the future of the
> web will be _theirs_ to decide; Facebook squashed foaf, Facebook / Google squashed
> OpenID, something like if not AirTable will squash RDF* at this rate.
>
> Kathy Sierra said one of the most profound things I ever heard at SXSW in the
> early aughts (about the time I was dabbling with SW): "When tools are great,
> users say 'This tool is awesome'; when tools or docs are awful, users say 'I
> suck.'" After 10 years of feeling like "I suck" in RDF* land, I'm starting to
> wonder why I'm still trying.
>
> Footnotes
> =========
>
> *: Booth has overloaded "RDF" to mean an ecosystem. I'll be using "RDF"
> similarly.
>
> References
> ==========
>
>     [0]: https://stevengharms.com/research/semweb-topic/problem_statement/
>     [1]: https://stevengharms.com/research/semweb/
>     [2]: https://lists.w3.org/Archives/Public/semantic-web/2018Nov/0036.html
>     [2]: https://reactjs.org/tutorial/tutorial.html
>     [4]: https://www.w3schools.com/xml/xml_rdf.asp
>     [5]: http://www.linkeddatatools.com/introducing-rdf-part-2
>     [6]: http://www.linkeddatatools.com/introducing-rdf
>     [7]: https://jena.apache.org/tutorials/rdf_api.html
>     [8]: https://gra.fo/
>     [9]: https://airtable.com
>     [10]: https://airtable.com/shrJILw0CTILV0My2
>
> --
> Steven G. Harms
> PGP: E6052DAF
Received on Tuesday, 27 November 2018 14:59:26 UTC

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