Thursday, September 14, 2006

Google has your life (maybe)

There has been a lot of publicity lately about all the searches stored by big search engines. Aside from pure IP address storage that Google performs for each search, if a user is logged into the account, all searches executed from the tabs of the current browser (such as Firefox) will be associated with that user and stored on Google's computers. This is not news.

However, there is another side to the Google mail system as well - people like it because it allows them a lot of space for storage but they also forget that their mail is searchable by the Google company. This means that if they make their a primary email account, all their bank conformations, money transfers, airline tickets, reservations in restaurants, car rental confirmations, book purchases and a vast amount of other stuff people nowadays do online (all this stuff sends you an email confirmation) will be searchable by the "Do no evil" search engine company. This is basically all of your financial, leasure and other life data stored in one spot for someone to mine.

Additonally, many people think that their Gmail account is just another name in the Internet universe. However, once you start receiving email confirmations for various purchases and memberships, this "account" becomes associated with a physical address, credit card etc.

Many people don't think before they start storing their life online.


Monday, September 04, 2006

R.I.P. Steve Irwin

Sadly, today the world lost one of its best citizens - Steve Irwin died from a stingray sting while filming one of his documentaries.

Wikipedia link about Steve Irwin

Here is a quote from Steve that we should all remember (him by):

"These Hitlers use the camouflage of science to make money out of animals... So whenever they murder our animals and call it sustainable use, I'll fight it. Since when has killing a wild animal, eating it or wearing it, ever saved a species?

There are people who butt out their cigarettes in gorilla-paw ashtrays, with wastepaper baskets that were once elephant feet, who have ivory ornaments… who wear cheetah fur. Don't buy these things! Then there'll be no market and the animals won't be killed.

We have domesticated livestock raised for consumption and perfectly good fake leather and fur, so why must we kill wild animals to satisfy the macabre taste of some rich person"

Monday, August 28, 2006

Funny Bulgarians

From the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, a stand selling spices:

Saturday, July 15, 2006

ipw2200, ubuntu and wpa-psk

Here is the content of my script that starts the wpa-psk wireless configuration using wpa_supplicant:

sudo wpa_supplicant -i eth1 -c /etc/wpa_supplicant.conf -D wext -B

Note that wpa_supplicant is using the wext module, NOT the ipw module.

Here is the contents of the wpa_supplicant.conf file:

ssid="your ssid here"
#psk="your password here"
psk=your psk key here

The psk key above can be generated using the wpa_passphrase tool.


Thursday, June 29, 2006

Wolfram's New Kind of Science Conference and Summer School

If you have not read Wolfram's book, it can be found here. It is a result of Wolfram's 20 years of work in the field of complexity and cellular automatons. In it, he shows how complexity can follow from simple rules applied to simple initial conditions. He then continues to state that most of modern science is about atacking complexity with complex explanations. Wolfram is a strange guy. If you get to talk to him, he really is one of those people who consumed a lot of scientific fields, almost to a point that he acts as a "live" convergence point for many of the principles and concepts of various sciences. Unfortunately, it seems like many people have not accepted his view of the world as a computer (at least not as a system of cellular automaton rules). People like Ray Kurzweil point out interesting things that Wolfram does not address (see the comment here. Kurzweil (like many others) thinks that it is fine that a cellular automaton rule like 110 is a universal computer, however, the secret to explaining the world is not in the computer, it is in the software. Kurzweil also (in my opinion validly) wonders about the order of complexity in the behavior of automata. Basically, the complexity never increases. The question is why not?

Wolfram Inc. (or whatever its full name is) seems like an interesting place to work at. It is headquartered in Urbana-Champaign (Illinois) but apparently his immediate surrounding NKS crowd lives and works in various places like Vienna, Paris, Italy, Boston etc. Seems to work for them.

I have a couple of pet-peeves with NKS. Firstly, for many complex problems in the "real" world, the sea of possible rules that could be applied to "fit" the data is almost infinite. One usually does not even know where to start. Wolfram states that in classical science we come up with a law or a formula only because the system we are observing is simple enough to be "shortcut". In real complexity we do not have the luxury of a shortcut but instead need to run the system to find out where it goes. However, if we look at our own reasoning processes as inherently complex (or at least we think so now), deciding on a subset of rules to apply based on some constraint or on what we know about the system is essentially shortcutting the process. So, does this imply that our reasoning is simple? If so, why have we not found a shortcut for it yet? Or have we?
Another point of contention, in my mind, is the fact that there is no real methodology to approaching the chosing of a certain rule to apply to a real problem. Apparently, NKS was invented to address Wolfram's dissatisfaction with the state of current science. But, it is not easier to solve an applied problem in NKS than in the traditional world (the problem of the enormous amount of rules that are possible to apply).

Currently majority of the NKS research is focused on the "pure" side of the science. People will come up with a rule and then expore its behavior (almost always graphical/visual analysis). Some more serious people will do mathematical and statistical analysis of the results. It is clearly easier to do this kind of "pure" research than to chase rules to fit real world data. However, every science needs basic research.

This post was initially about the NKS conference and the summer school held in 2006 at Brown University in Providence, RI. The conference was in Washington DC, June 16-18. I must say I left the conference disappointed - most of the presentations were on pure NKS research and they looked unfinished (or barely started). The authors saw some potentially interesting behavior, however, it seems like the tools and the methodology for the analysis of this behavior is in the eye of the beholder. One could definately benefit from some kind of a manual on the topic. Anyways, most of the presentations ended up with "I am confident that automata will yield such and such revelation when I continue my research". Suffice it to say, many people would yell "Show me the bacon!".

The summer school is somewhat more scientific. The people around Wolfram give lectures daily and it is not uncommon to see a line go by on the screen that says "All complexity in nature can be explained by simple rules". What such lines are missing is a big, red, flashing "HYPOTHESIS" word in front. Gentleman, we need to prove such grand statements. There are also people who are very serious and systematic in their study of classical science. These people tend to have more serious lectures. Wolfram's talks are somewhat confused. He is obviously a very knowledgeable man and it seems to make his discussions move from point to point in a Brownian fashion. His live experiments are similar but also full of speculation that is somewhat unfounded (at least to people like me). For example, one of the problems was to generate a certain imaginary crystalline structure from certain elements (constraints). Presumably, this could be synthesized in a lab as a novel material. This is fine and this kind of science is fascinating. However, Wolfram went on to speculate what this crystal would be used for, in his opinion, one of the uses would be filtration. His next statement was that it was essentially like a kidney glomerule. When he googled up an image of a glomerule, it was clear the two are completely unrelated. One has to wonder how many such wild speculations the man makes in front of people who are unable to google-challenge him or are unwilling to. My take on this is: stick to your specialty: physics, mathematics, automatons, whatever it is.

Finally, I will finish with the big question: WHY? If you manage to model DNA, stock market, social networks or whatever with an automaton rule - what does it say about the DNA or the stock market. OK, we fit the data but the question is WHY?