Aristillus

A large crater to dump my thoughts

Archive for July 2012

Help! We’re drowning in data

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The age we live in is the first with an overabundance of data. It’s had a tremendous influence on our daily lives.

Cheap electronics and digital processing have made it possible to gather and organize all data imaginable. All online stores, and most regular ones have easy access to their transactions in digital form. Video cameras keep an eye on dangerous corners and other interesting or boring views. The integrated GPS, GSM and Wi-Fi in phones is used to pinpoint the location of its user. (Radio)telescopes capture vast amounts of images. And, of course, web browsers and web servers are aware of the web pages we visit.

In addition, the extremely low cost of digital storage, compared to the technology available to previous generations, has made it possible to record this information and keep most of it around for a long time. At least for as long as it could possibly be useful.

Gathering digital information usually is not hard, nor expensive. There is often barely any effort involved at all, because the data is already generated or digitized as part of some other process – it just needs to be stored. Storing large amounts of data is not trivial, but also not unreasonably hard. This is also one of the reasons why most internet giants are reluctant to throw away data; it can come in handy later, but once it’s gone it’s completely gone or at least hard to regain.

The real challenge is in organizing and accessing the information in a useful and simple manner. This is a hard problem. Not only does the information need to be available, it needs to be available in a structured manner. Having millions of petabytes of raw data at your disposal isn’t very useful without knowing where to look or how to interpret what you find. Likewise, it isn’t possible to iterate over all available data for every single query. If you’ve used the web in its early days you will remember that search engines only provided a very simple subtext match over all pages everywhere and returned results in no particular (useful) order. They were some help in navigating your way through the web, but there was still a skill set (and a lot of patience) required to actually finding what you were looking for. This challenge – making all information everywhere¬†available in a usable manner, and fast – seems to be what Google is all about.

Having all of this data available, and the ability to access it in a meaningful way, is absolutely awesome. ¬†It’s an information engineers’ wet dream. It helps eliminate information asymmetry. It’s what allows my phone to know where I am without having GPS enabled (it uses the location of the nearby WiFi access points instead). It’s what makes it possible for me to find the full details and contents of any book in mere seconds. It’s what makes it possible for last.fm to predict the concerts I’m interested in in my direct vicinity.

It’s also pretty fucking scary, considering the effect omni-accessible information has on our privacy.

Perhaps the current use of the centrally available data by the state is reasonable, but there is little or no monitoring of how this data is used. The mere availability enables easy widespread abuse by any (future) totalitarian state.

Written by aristillus

July 24, 2012 at 22:53

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Reading update

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Freakonomics by Levitt & Dubner

Very quick and fun read. It discusses incentives and then discusses how they have affected certain real-life situations. In some ways, this book seems to be more about sociology than economics. It is interesting that a wide range of topics is covered, but there is little justification in the book for the relations the authors find.

The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux

I picked this up because it’s a classic, and I was curious how a travelogue of a fairly simple journey could be so well regarded. It didn’t disappoint.

The Broker by John Grisham

What can I say? I was feeling vulnerable and lonely at a foreign train station, and this was the most reasonable thing I could find. It was okay.

Economics by The Economist

Not the book with the most imaginative title, but very well worth the read. It takes a practical look at the modern economy, using real-life examples. It’s a bit biased towards laissez-faire capitalism, which is to be expected from an Economist publication, but it does attempt to cover other viewpoints as well.

Written by aristillus

July 20, 2012 at 11:04

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Confessions of a recovering workaholic, pt. 10

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The process of looking for work is oddly liberating.

Of course I know there is a bigger world out there than just the tiny section of technology I’ve spent the last few years worrying about, but it’s nice to find out that world is still there and that it’s a welcoming place.

Recruiters are a lot like vultures around prey. As soon as one of them finds out you’re considering working somewhere else they all magically seem to know, and they start circling in. There is probably some funky brain wave thing going on; I doubt they would tell each other.

Looking for a job is a lot like dating, more than I realized. I’m starting to get better at both (practice, eh?), and enjoying the process more than I did.

Written by aristillus

July 19, 2012 at 01:04

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Love between the covers

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The Economist had an interesting article back in ’10 about books and their influence on online dating.

And speaking of “books”… I came across a dating site for Ayn Rand admirers, and it’s fairly big too – about 30,000 members. I guess I can’t say I’m surprised, but it is still sort of weird to see people describe their personality in terms of their relation to Atlas Shrugged.

Written by aristillus

July 11, 2012 at 00:23

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Hotels, literally

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If disasters were actually acts of God, I’m sure more of them would involve boring conference hotels.

Hotel buildings that were built from scratch, with the intention of being used as (conference) hotels, usually have a certain air about them. They’re spacy, have fancy designs and lots of light. They’re also bland, bleak and homogeneous. Despite their outside fanciness and prices, it’s usually hard to tell them apart once you’re inside.

The hotel I’m staying in at the moment is a fortunate exception to this rule. It’s got a nice ambiance. They have a bookish theme going on, so there are books in every room, high bookshelves around the dining area and closeup pictures of books and writers in the corridors. The rooms actually have older furniture rather than the same slightly-better-than-IKEA-ish crap in each room, and the artificial light doesn’t make you feel like you’re about to be harshly interrogated.

Written by aristillus

July 8, 2012 at 00:49

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Confessions of a recovering workaholic, pt. 9

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There. I’ve decided. I’m moving on. I am not sure what is next, exactly. But it has to be different. Elsewhere. Exciting. Challenging. Fuck this shit.

Written by aristillus

July 3, 2012 at 13:23

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