Reflections on the Semantic Technology and Business Conference, SF 2012

In June, I attended the enlightening “Semantic Technology and Business” conference in San Francisco. These are my reflections.

First, a little background on myself – I graduated college in 2008 with a degree in philosophy and very little programming experience. I worked for three years at a very large, very technology-oriented hedge fund where I did macroeconomic modeling and built large statistical models. I left there in 2011 and ever since I’ve been pouring all of my energy into learning to program, learning semantic technologies, and learning the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

So, in short, I’ve come to the Semantic Web with a fairly non-traditional perspective compared to most Linked-Datanauts. For one thing, I could count on one hand the number of conference attendees under the age of 30. My informal impression is that most of the Semantic Web community consists of very experienced programmers with extensive backgrounds in either academia or in traditional large-corporation IT.

Some consequences of my relative youth and inexperience are that

1)   I’ve completely missed the decade long back-history of the Semantic Web;

2)   I have no experience in enterprise IT, and I don’t at all understand the technology problems large corporations face nor the politics that drive technology adoption;

3)   I’m easily befuddled by technical discussions that go deeper than my limited (but growing) technological understanding

I bother with the extended preamble because it explains why my impressions will have to be very…well…impressionistic. Eighty percent of the content at SemTechBiz was either about the (increasingly successful) war to convince enterprises to deploy Semantic technology, or else was focused on deeply technical low-level details of infrastructure technologies. In other words, it went above my head. Nevertheless, I do have a few hopefully at least mildly interesting remarks.

My impressions all center around one central theme – the Semantic Web is an adolescent industry. And that’s fitting, since it’s around 15 years old. All over the conference there were clear signs that Linked Data is out of its infancy and is being used in real enterprise settings to solve real pressing problems. For example, Merck is using Linked Data to power a widely used internal research tool. The U.S. intelligence community (seems) to be heavily using Linked Data for counter-terrorism and other purposes. Nearly all the major database vendors (Oracle, IBM, etc.) have released adapters to facilitate working with RDF. Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo all have semantic research teams and have come together to support the metadata standard (elements of which purportedly now appear on a startlingly high percentage of all webpages.) Facebook has convinced webmasters to mark up something like 40% of all webpages with RDFa open graph tags.

The technology stack is also improving rapidly. There were a lot of technologies demonstrated at SemTech that I’m excited about, especially around the theme of “scalability.” There are now billions of triples in the cumulative open Linked Data Cloud, which is far more than existing single-machine Triplestores (Semantic Web databases) can handle. So a move toward distributed computing is going to be critical.  Sindice Tech is making RDF processing much more scalable by applying Hadoop batch processing. The Bigdata triplestore (which I’m using for a project) is able to handle unprecedented volumes of RDF on a single machine or easily convert to a cluster. Google Refine is being applied to make ingesting large volumes of “idiosyncratic” RDF more manageable.

There was also a great deal of presumably-exciting-but-hard-for-me-to-understand technology targeted towards various enterprise problems.

For all the great stuff happening, there are also clear signs that the industry is not yet fully mature. I am very optimistic about the Semantic Web (which is why I’m devoting so much of my time to learning about it), and I sincerely believe that all the problems can and will be overcome. But the problems do exist.

From what I’ve been told, much of the (ever more robust) open source Semantic Web technology stack has been built primarily with government research money. Now the tap of money has turned off, and longstanding projects are struggling to generate cash flow to support themselves.

This is leading to one of what I see as the industry’s biggest challenges, fragmentation. There are many different small companies building and trying to sell important but basic infrastructure components like Triplestores or Enterprise Knowledge Management Platforms. Having personally tried most of the Triplestore options, I can personally attest that the offerings are probably not differentiated enough to really merit the existence of so many choices (and if anything the panoply of similar and usually under-documented options makes learning about and adopting the stack even more intimidating.) “Forking” makes some sense in the Open Source world, but it makes a lot less sense in the commercial world where one team of twelve can accomplish a lot more than four teams of three.

The other major problem is the talent pipeline – there are clearly a lot of very smart people working on Semantic technology (I personally met many of them at the conference). But one of the Semantic Web community’s greatest strengths – it’s internationalism – is also a weakness because it makes finding and consolidating talent to work on a single project very difficult. It’s just not feasible to start a company with employees in 10 different countries. And because the Semantic Web community is still small and the total number of skilled Semantic developers in any given country can be measured in the low thousands, the problem is even worse. We’re caught in a catch-22 where even ifan enterprise has a great use case and permission to spend millions of dollars on a Linked Data approach, they may (quite reasonably) demure simply for fear of not being able to find 10 developers to work on the project.

And on the other side of the pipeline, we’re suffering from a distinct lack of “MBA” types who are experienced at making emotional compelling sales pitches or raising money from investors. Ironically, the rest of the tech world has an enormous glut of MBA types who are desperately scrounging for developers to latch on to, but none of them seem to have discovered the Semantic Web world yet. Perhaps because we don’t have the MBA types to sell it to them!

I think that each of these problems will work itself out over time, but the one guaranteed cure-all is a single highly visible home-run commercial success. And I suspect that the company that will hit that home run is being started right now in a garage. 

It’s an exciting time to work on the Semantic Web. The technology is increasingly solid, powerful and mature, and it’s very clear that the community is still strong and still full of energy and ideas.

Big things are about to happen.

The (Literally) Lean Startup: How to Slim Down While Starting Up

Tl;dr: Use common sense and ignore fads – it all comes down to just diet, exercise, and discipline. Make a plan, stick with it, and you’ll lose weight. See below for specific tips.

When I started my first job out of college, I gained fifteen pounds in about three months. In retrospect it’s obvious why – I carried over my college eating habits into a new environment. The problem? In college, I fenced three hours every day. At work, my biggest exertion was standing up to grab free snacks.

Modern work environments (especially for hackers) are very unhealthy. Sitting for just four hours per day will literally kill you faster, and it’s damn hard to pivot your way out of diabetes or heart disease.

I managed to halt my post-college weight gain through a variety of expensive counter-measures (including the generally-very-expensive Paleo diet), but since sacrificing my income to join startup-land a year ago, I’ve had to give up all those luxuries.

Nevertheless, I’ve lost five pounds and gained a lot of muscle in the last twelve months despite sitting at a desk for an average of fourteen hours a day.

Here’s how I did it.

First, you need to accept that there are no secrets and no magic bullets. Everything on this list will be obvious, and the real trick is to integrate these elements into a plan and stick with it forever. And frankly, if you lack the willpower to set a plan and stick to it you should not be starting a company.

Your weight is ultimately governed by one simple equation:

Change in Weight = (Calories Eaten)/(Quality of Calories) – Calories Burned

That’s it.

Yes, there is a genetic component.  Yes, the more weight you lose the harder it is to lose more and keep it off (I currently weigh 15% less than I did when I was 14 years old). But both of those factors work by reducing the calories you burn.

If you’re fat, it’s because you’re burning fewer calories than you’re consuming. And you can always fix the problem by simply consuming less or burning more.

Specific Tips:


1.     Run. Running burns more calories per minute than nearly any other exercise you can do. Yes, it is painful and hard. That’s the point – the pain you feel is your muscles getting stronger and the exhaustion is your body’s now-maladaptive evolutionary response warning you against expending calories. And anyone can do it with practice – last year I could barely run a mile and a half, now I can run 10+ miles. Also, unless you have a serious prior injury, running is actually good for your knees.

2.     Set a Routine. Follow It. Consistency is crucial. Many days you’re going to feel like hell and want a break. It’s in your head. Your body still needs exercise. My routine is 3.5 miles on the treadmill, 30 Russian twists + 30 crunches + 10 leg lifts, 30 bicept / tricept curls. All together, it only takes about 40 minutes, and I try to do it at least five times a week (you need exercise basically every day for your entire life.) To help stick with the routine, try Pavlovian conditioning – choose a favorite daily activity and only allow yourself to do it after going to the gym (for me, I try to only Reddit after the gym.)

3.     Do a little exercise every time you stand up from your desk. This may be too disruptive in your work place, but if you’re alone do ten squats and fifteen jumping jacks every time you go the bathroom or get a drink. This will get your circulation going and (maybe?) mitigate the deadly effects of sitting all day.

4.     Podcasts in the gym. Exercise can be boring. Make it productive by listening to an excellent entrepreneurial podcast like Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders, This Week In Startups, or Mixergy.  If you run out of podcasts, get a book on tape (e.g. through Audible). Or if your brain needs a rest, catch up on Battlestar Galactica through the Netflix app (which works surprisingly well even on 3G).

5.     Endurance Cardio > Weightlifting. Jackedupius Startupicus Guy is a common sight, and having more muscle does help you burn marginally calories even while sitting. But building too much muscle takes up valuable gym time and can make it harder to run for long distances (which is what really burns the calories.) 

6.    Get FivefingersYes they look silly and are a bit expensive, but they’re awesome. I used to get blisters from my running shoes (which are equally expensive) after three miles, but I never get blisters from Fivefingers even after running 12 miles. And barefoot running is maybe better for you. Be careful because it takes some adjustment – you need to change your running stride to land on the ball of your foot, and it takes time to build up the calf muscles to avoid hurting your Achilles tendon. Start slow and be patient.

7.     Buy dumbbells. They’re cheap. Keep them by your desk and use them after the gym plus whenever you’re waiting for something. That’s about as much weightlifting as you need.

8.     Cheap Gyms are Fine. Basically all you should be doing at the gym is running on the treadmill and lifting weights. You don’t need to pay $100/month for fancy lighting and classes that are by and large a waste of time. A little dinge won’t kill you.

9.     Keep It Interesting. I like running outside so I created “the Subway Challenge,” where each weekend I take the subway to the end of a line, and run home to Brooklyn. The exploration has been awesome (and probably merits its own post), and being able to run gradually farther distances and make progress towards a big goal is very motivating. You can follow my #SubwayChallenge progress on Twitter (@rogueleaderr)

10. Avoid Protein Shakes. It’s tempting to think you need one to “help recover”, but two scoops of protein can have 400+ calories, i.e. enough to undo around 3 miles of running. Unless you’re bodybuilding, you don’t need more protein.


1.     This is What Matters – as much as I wish it were the other way around (because I love eating), diet generally has a much great effect on weight than exercise. Exercise burns disappointingly few calories – even my strenuous routine only burns around 600 calories, which is about the amount in a $2 McDonald’s triple cheeseburger. Cycling / elliptical / lifting etc. burn even fewer.  And food contains a lot of calories (122 in a glass of 2% milk, 216 in a cup of cooked rice). Dropping one glass of milk from your diet has about the same effect as running an entire extra mile.

2.     ~3,500 calories per pound of fat. Loosely speaking, if you want to lose ten pounds you need to burn 35,000 more calories than you eat. You can do that in a year by dropping just 100 calories from your diet each day (e.g. one small bag of chips.) Or you can just run 350 miles.

3.     Quantity is King, but Quality Counts. I have never seen a conclusive scientifically rigorous study showing that diets that restrict types of food but not calories have any real effect. But there are suggestions that some types of calories, specifically carbohydrates (grains, sugars) and foods with a high glycemic index (bread, rice) produce more weight gain per calorie consumed. And some foods (e.g. those high in saturated fat) will just kill you even if they don’t make you fat.

4.     Eat like a Caveman. Paleo works, at least for me. At my last job I spent a year completely avoiding grains, sugar, and dairy and I actually kept my weight flat despite minimal exercise. Ceteris paribus, it’s always better to get your calories from fruits, vegetables, lean meats, olive oil, and nuts. You don’t need to be fanatical about it, but even a shift in relative proportions will make a difference.

5.     Act like a Poor Caveman. The reason I stopped Paleo is that it’s expensive, both in money and time. Fruits, vegetables and meats have the nasty property of rotting when left in the pantry, so you either have to shop frequently (time expensive) or order from restaurants ($ expensive). So… EGGS! They’re super cheap, keep a long time, and it takes 3 minutes fry them.  I eat eggs for breakfast almost every day and my cholesterol is fine (the egg/cholesterol link has been debunked). And…

6.     Buy a crockpot. They’re cheap and awesome. I just bought this one for $20 and I’m loving it. They require extremely minimal prep time for cooking. And they also break down the toughness of cheap meat, making it practical and delicious to be “poor Paleo” by using lots of frozen meats and vegetables (which are much cheaper and non-perishable.) Just throw random meats and vegetables with tomatoes and broth and you have stew. If you want more heft, add quinoa or brown rice for a (relatively less bad) carbo hit.

7.     Fruit Smoothies: If you have a membership to Costco or another wholesaler (see if you can get on your parent’s membership if not), you can get relatively cheap frozen fruit, which never perishes, is full of vitamins, and makes delicious smoothies regardless of the quality or ripeness of the fruit.

8.     Take multivitamins.  Unless you’re paying a lot attention to the balance of your diet, it’s easy to accidentally get a subtle but insidious vitamin deficiency. Generic multivitamins cost around $0.08 per day, and take scurvy off the table. Just do it.

9.     (Bonus) Eat Less on Weekends. Outright dieting isn’t really an option for me because my cognitive capacity drops precipitously with my blood sugar, and I just can’t work when I’m hungry. But when I don’t need to work, it’s not the end of the world if I’m 10% dumber. So I’ve been experimenting with inverting my old “indulge on the weekend” approach and just plain ol’ restricting my caloric intake on weekends. I’ve been able to hold off weight without doing this, but I think it’s helping me break through my current plateau. Obviously don’t starve yourself, and be careful about exercising when you’re hungry.

And that’s all I’ve got for today.

There’s nothing magical here, but all these tips taken together have been enough for me to gradually lose weight and keep it off. If you’re disciplined about it, it should work for you too.

Comment below if you have any other good tips.