furia furialog · New Particles · The War Against Silence · Aedliga (songs) · photography · code · other things     ↑vF
An adequate computer language allows humans to communicate with machines about machine concerns.  

A good computer language also facilitates communication between humans about machine concerns.  

A great language allows machines to participate in conversations between humans about human concerns.  

There are not very many of this last sort. As I've mentioned before, I'm trying to write one. I've been calling it a query language, but I've started to think I shouldn't. It's a language for talking about data-relationships, where most other things called "query languages" are for excerpting data, and the two are different qualitative goals even when the individual tasks end up being logistically similar. I'm trying to do for data-relationships what the system for symbolic algebra did for numbers. Not what algebra did for numbers, thankfully, just what we accomplished by making up a written syntax for expressing algebra compactly and precisely.  

So here's just one real-world example from yesterday. We were talking, elsewhere, about how you calculate overall ratings for bands in a large reviews database. The simplest thing is just to average all their ratings. In Thread, my data-relationship language, this is:  


I.e.: For each artist, get their albums, then get those albums' ratings, then average all the ratings. But this is maybe not the best statistic, as it weights albums proportionally to the number of reviews. Maybe we want to average the ratings for each album, and then average the album-averages to get the artist average. That's a hard sentence for a person to read, and the computer can't read it at all. But in Thread it's just:  


Run this, though, and you see that the top of the list is dominated by bands with very small numbers of very high ratings. Not really what we're trying to find out. So let's include only bands with at least 25 ratings:  


This is better, but maybe not as much better as you'd think. It turns out that there are a number of bands for which a small number of people have written a large number of reviews. Maybe what we really want is to average the ratings for each user, not for each album. That way one person giving the same high rating to 8 different albums counts as 1, not 8. And we'll only consider artists with ratings from 25 different users, not just 25 ratings total. This is:  


Better, but it's still pretty easy to game this by creating new accounts and filing one very high rating from each of them. We can mitigate that, though, by trusting only ratings from users who have rated, say, at least 5 different albums, from at least 3 different artists. That's:  

Album|Trusted Rating=(.Rating:(.User:(.Rating.Album::#5.Artist::#3)))  

Artist|(.Album.Trusted Rating/User::#25.(.group._Average)._Average)

Better again. But there are still a few pretty obscure things at the top of the list. This doesn't prove that the results are flawed, of course, but scrutinizing them, and thinking about the sample-size effects of rating variation at this scale, reveals that the highest and lowest ratings are having pretty dramatic effects. Perhaps it would be smart to toss out the top and bottom 10% of the per-reviewer averages, averaging only the middle 10%. This keeps one perspective-challenged fan or one vengeful ex-bassist from single-handedly jumping the ratings up or down. Thus:  

Album|Trusted Rating=(.Rating:(.User:(.Rating.Album::#5.Artist::#3)))  

Artist|(.Album.Trusted Rating/User::#25.(.group._Average)#._Trim 10%._Average)

The result of this, in fact, is this leaderboard. By these rules Immolation is currently the top-ranked band in the Encyclopaedia Metallum.  

The English version of this final formulation is "bands with 25+ reviewers of their full-length albums, counting only reviewers who have filed at least 5 reviews and covered at least 3 bands; scored by averaging the ratings from each reviewer, dropping the top and bottom 10% of these reviewer-averages, and then averaging the remainder". This is a long sentence for people, and a useless sentence for machines, and as long as this is our canonical format, we will be at considerable risk for error every time we retranslate into a computer language. Put this in SPARQL or SQL or MQL, though, and it would be essentially inaccessible to people. So you chose between knowing what you want and not necessarily getting it, or knowing what you're getting but not whether it's what you want.  

I think we have to do better. The human stakes for data-comprehension are approaching critical levels, and our tools have not kept up. Worse, the shiny new tools in the big labs are not ready yet and not even that great.  

So Thread is my own personal attempt at doing better. Could it be the language we could actually share, humans and computers, to talk about data? I can't prove it is yet, and the project in which it's embedded is still working towards its public debut, so you can't make up your own mind yet, either. But for the past couple years I've been using it to talk to computers, and to myself, and even to a few coworkers, and the experience at least gives me hope. I know it's powerful, and I know it's compact.  

Like any language, of course, we'd have to learn it. I make no claims of it being "intuitive", whatever meaning that term might have for a symbolic-reasoning language, nor do I claim it's trivially implemented at scale. It's cryptic in its own particular way, and poses its own technical challenges. But I'm not trying to minimize anybody's absolute difficulty, I'm trying to maximize the ratio of power to difficulty. If, reading those examples above, without a formal tutorial or even an actual diagram of the data model in question, you have at least a sense of what might be going on, then it's at least possible I'm getting somewhere.  

[Note from a few days later: in re-reading these queries I actually noticed a methodological error! The first time I did this, I neglected to sort the ratings before trimming the first and last few. That is, I did this:  

Album|Trusted Rating=(.Rating:(.User:(.Rating.Album::#5.Artist::#3)))  

Artist|(.Album.Trusted Rating/User::#25.(.group._Average)._Trim 10%._Average)

where I should have done this:  

Album|Trusted Rating=(.Rating:(.User:(.Rating.Album::#5.Artist::#3)))  

Artist|(.Album.Trusted Rating/User::#25.(.group._Average)#._Trim 10%._Average)

The operative difference is the "#" for sorting right before "._Trim 10%" in the second query, which is what makes the trim function take off the highest and lowest ratings, rather than just the first and last.  

But even this error is kind of my point. The language is a tool for me to talk to myself over time.]
Site contents published by glenn mcdonald under a Creative Commons BY/NC/ND License except where otherwise noted.