Blown To Bits

Archive for the ‘What is information?’ Category


Sunday, January 3rd, 2010 by Harry Lewis

The problems that were widely feared fro the year 2000 — computers failing to add 1 to 1999 correctly because they had been coded to use only two digits for the “year” field — have actually occurred, 10 years late. There have been two reports of software thinking the day after December 31, 2009 is January 1, 2016.

Some phones are showing 2016 dates on received text messages.

And some retail computer terminals are making the same mistake, causing them to reject customer credit cards with expiration dates prior to 2016.

What’s up? There is some speculation on Slashdot that (a) only the last two digits are being stored (“10” instead of “2010”), and then (b) the “10” is somehow being interpreted as hexadecimal rather than decimal (which would make it decimal 16).

Nothing is truly hard to imagine in the hearts and minds of a corner-cutting coder, but (a), in this day of cheap memory and with the Y2K problem still in our rear view mirrors, would be really dumb, and (b) requires imagining a really perverse data representation (encoding the decimal digits in successive 4-bit “nibbles”, and then forgetting that you’d done that and interpreting the fully 8-bit byte as a binary number).

The Information in Your Plumbing

Saturday, October 17th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

In Chapter 2 of Blown to Bits we spend a lot of time on the way that cheap, distributed sensors have greatly increased the data we produce doing ordinary things. Our cars generate data just by braking and accelerating, and by going through toll booths; our supermarket purchases generate data when the barcoded items are scanned; everybody with a cell phone generates data, whether or not they are talking on the phone. These data trails produce footprints and fingerprints — records of our lives that we may or may not realize we are leaving behind.

Last week I heard a talk that made me realize how limited this mental framework was. Shwetak Patel, a 27-year-old assistant professor at the University of Washington, simply observed that lots of things people always did around their houses in the pre-digital era generate signals, which we are only now in a position to digitize and analyze.

Consider your plumbing, for example. Water comes into your house in one place, and the input is connected to a closed network running through all your faucets and toilets and even your water heater. If you were to bang on a pipe anywhere, it would ring every other pipe in the house.

Every time water flow is started or stopped–every time a valve is opened or closed–a shock wave is generated. When the shock wave is strong enough, for example if you shut a full-flowing faucet off abruptly, you cause a “water hammer” that audibly shakes pipes all through the house. But even small valves closing gently cause a mini-hammer–your automatic dishwasher shutting off, for example.

What Patel figured out is that every kind of valve causes its own distinctive ring. Your toilet is different from your shower, which is different from your lawn sprinkler. Patel figured out that you can listen to the pipe in one place–think of those old Western movies in which the Indians (as they were then called) listened to the rails for an approaching train–and monitor the plumbing activity in the whole house. By gathering data over an extended period, you can figure out how often people go to the bathroom, and which bathrooms they are using.

This is, of course, potentially very useful for monitoring utility usage, and for learning how people live. It is also, needless to say, quite creepy.

That’s just water. Patel can do the same thing with electricity. Your electric wiring is a big antenna. Flip a switch anywhere and it causes a transient in the wiring which produces electromagnetic radiation, which can be detected and analyzed. Oh, so I see you aren’t actually using compact fluorescents in your house.

Same for gas lines. Same even for HVAC systems–get a sensor inside an air duct and you can tell when people enter or leave the room, because they cause pressure changes that result in small air flows.

For different utilities, Patel requires different kinds of sensor installation. For different levels of specificity, he may need to calibrate the house. Other things he can figure out just by getting access to the utility line at any point, even where it enters the house from the outside.

Patel is a remarkably energetic and creative character. H is a winner of the Technology Review TR35 competition for inventors under 35. He has a fascinating history–he earned plumbers and electricians licenses while he was in high school and working for Habitat for Humanity, but wanted to do something more interesting than hammering nails. The intuition he gained there about how utility systems work meshed beautifully with his electrical engineering training in college.

We say in Chapter 8, about electromagnetic radiation, that one person’s noise is another’s signal. Patel’s work illustrates that beautifully. Listen to any of these utilities and you will hear random noise, which has made it hard, for example, to use domestic electric wiring for IP broadband diffusion. Turns out that noise has lots of information within it–you just have to know how to listen to it and what to do with the results.

The Orwellian Kindle

Friday, July 17th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

I love my Kindle. I love being able to go to China for a week and not having to judge which books to bring by their weight. I love that I can make the type the size I want, not the size the publisher decided to use to keep the page count down.  I love being able to buy on impulse (at least where there is Whispernet coverage, which is most definitely not everywhere). I love that I can dump 50 student papers on the damn thing and not have to carry a ream of paper around with me. I love that I can read immaterial bits, rather than heavy atoms.

I’ve never loved the fact that I can’t lend a book to my wife after I’ve gotten through reading it, though. And while I know that I’m kind of renting the books rather than buying them, so far that’s been OK. In fact it’s been great — when I accidentally deleted a book from my Kindle, I could get it back for free. Can’t do that with my copy of The Greening of America that is lost somewhere in my basement. Owning it does me no good.

Comes now an amazing ironic demonstration that the bits on my Kindle really aren’t mine. They are just on loan to me, with a big tether attached. Amazon accidentally sold some books to Kindle users that it didn’t actually have rights to. When if figured out its boo-boo, it took the books back, without asking. The buyers had their accounts credited, and whoosh, the books were gone. So much for the appearance of buying and owning.

The irony is that¬†the books were Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. If Orwell had thought of it, I am confident he would have done something with that image of tethered books always in jeopardy of being yanked from your hands without your knowledge or consent, and its reminder that if all your reading material is on your Kindle, then the complete profile of what you read is in the hands of Big Brother Amazon.

Added 7/18:

Randal Picker blogs this item as well (which is also featured in the NY Times). Picker concentrates on the fact that ultimately Amazon was simply withdrawing an illegally provided document, and his moral is about how copyright should be enforced.¬†Fair ’nuff. He notes the irony, and I note the illegality, so we’re not disagreeing, except perhaps about what the most important take-away lesson is. For me it’s not about copyright; it’s about making the public aware of the control possibilities when creative works are transformed from physical to digital objects. ¬†A born-again Jeff Bezos unhappy about the portrayal of Jesus in some novel, or a federal executive backed up by a judicial decision that some book is obscene, could, technically, easily take it away from everyone who thought they had bought it. A PATRIOT-Act inspired investigator wondering who is reading terrorist literature could get the answer from Amazon; in the digital world there is no walking into Revolution Books and paying cash. Which of these technical possibilities would actually be legal is another question, of course — and which, legal or not, might happen without anyone checking first is another question still.

Will Computerized Medical Records Save Money?

Thursday, March 12th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

That’s a key claim in President Obama’s health care plan — actually, it was a key claim of John McCain’s plan as well. It doesn’t take any acute powers of observation as a patient to notice the places where data has to be re-entered by a new doctor or hospital, or where important data isn’t available and the patient is asked to report it instead. (I was once asked about the results of a cardiac stress test I had had three years before, of which I had only the vaguest memory.) It’s reasonable to hope that computerized medical records could do for delivery of medical care what, say, computerized parcel records have done for parcel delivery.

But it’s also easy to dream of a perfect world that is unlikely to be reached or to look like the dream once we get there. And that is the bottom line on a good Wall Street Journal column by noted physicians Jerome Groopman and Pamela Hartzband, Obama’s $80 Billion Exaggeration. The $80 billion number, they report, comes from a four-year-old RAND Corporation study with a lot of wishful thinking and not a lot of data. The doctors raise a privacy concern, too — not that the data will be mishandled and leaked, but that the entire enterprise is in part designed as a monitoring program by the federal government.

Some have speculated that the patient data collected by the Obama administration in national electronic health records will be mined for research purposes to assess the cost effectiveness of different treatments. This analysis will then be used to dictate which drugs and devices doctors can provide to their patients in federally funded programs like Medicare. Private insurers often follow the lead of the government in such payments. If this is part of the administration’s agenda, then it needs to be frankly stated as such. And Americans should decide whether they want to participate in such a national experiment only after learning about the nature of the analysis of their records and who will apply the results to their health care.

The suggestion that the government will want to chew on the data to try to figure out what works is unsurprising. But it surely hasn’t been highlighted, and it raises some fundamental questions. What is the data in my medical record going to be used for, how long will the data be kept, and can I be sure it won’t be repurposed?

Who’s Swindling Whom?

Saturday, February 28th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

A few days ago, Roy Blount, Jr., writing as president of the Authors Guild, wrote an opinion piece in the NYT complaining that Amazon, which produces the Kindle book reader, was screwing authors and publishers. The alleged rip-off was this: The new Kindle II has a “talk” button. Push it and it reads the book to you in a computer-generated voice. Pretty much every computer shipped today has the same feature built into its operating system. The intonation isn’t perfect, either on Kindles or on your Windows machine or Mac, but Blount, I would judge, can see much better voices coming, and wants to stop this reading aloud in its tracks. Or rather, stop it long enough to collect a toll.

Blount complains that pushing the talk button turns the written word, which was all you paid for, into a “public performance.” He is magnanimously prepared to make an exception for blind folks. But if your daughter curls up in bed with a Kindle and pushes the talk button, he wants to collect an additional fee¬†for the mechanical voice in your child’s darkened bedroom, beyond what you paid Amazon.

[N]o, the Authors Guild does not expect royalties from anybody doing non-commercial performances of “Goodnight Moon.” If parents want to send their children off to bed with the voice of Kindle 2, however, it’s another matter.

Some buzz was starting to build around what legally constituted a public performance and whether pushing the talk button (on your computer or your Kindle) was really turning the bits from an ebook into an Audiobook. And then all of a sudden, under the cover of darkness of a 5pm Friday press release, Amazon flinched. It added one bit to all the bits that constitute an ebook download to the Kindle II. The one extra bit is set by the publisher, and it tells the Kindle whether the book can be read aloud. If Amazon sends your kindle the ebook with that bit off, pushing the Talk button will do nothing.

The publishing industry is retracing the steps of the music industry. Just as the recording industry is giving up on some of the more absurdly restrictive digital rights management schemes, book publishers are inventing new ones of their own.

Thanks to Chris Soghoian for pointing out the Amazon change of heart. The buzz is continuing about the legalities of this, and about whether the people who really got screwed were those who bought the Kindle expecting that the talk button would work the way it was initially advertised. But the common sense of it is unquestionable. It’s another reminder that when you “buy” a book or a song from a downloading service, you don’t own it. You are being allowed to use it only in ways the service dictates — and the service can even change its mind about that later.

Your Facebook Data Belongs to Facebook — Now and Forever

Monday, February 16th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

It’s always sobering to read those “I agree” documents you have to click on to register for a Web service. Almost no one ever does.

Facebook’s has always given it blanket rights to do what it wishes with the stuff you post on your Facebook page, including

to (a) use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any User Content you (i) Post on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof subject only to your privacy settings or (ii) enable a user to Post, including by offering a Share Link on your website and (b) to use your name, likeness and image for any purpose, including commercial or advertising, each of (a) and (b) on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof.

There’s more, about how Facebook can transfer those rights, and so on. What’s new today is that the agreement used to say that you could take back ownership of the data if you closed your account. No more. Now they own it forever, even if you decide you want to take it back.

So if you are, say, a college student foolish enough to post a stupid picture of yourself drunk or half-naked, and then you think better of it, and in fact think better of the whole Facebook idea and close your account, and in ten years you are running for Congress, Facebook will be perfectly within its rights to scan its records of dead accounts and sell the rights to that photo to the Associated Press, or People Magazine.

Would they do that? No way to be sure. Rationally we might choose to think that would be a stupid thing to do from a business standpoint, as it would discourage others from using the site. But such decisions are not always made rationally. And why would they be changing their policy now if they don’t anticipate doing exactly this in the future?

Added 8:30 PM 2/16: Mark Zuckerberg has blogged about this. He defends Facebook’s “philosophy” and what it would do “in reality” (as opposed, I guess, to what it has the legal right to do):

In reality, we wouldn’t share your information in a way you wouldn’t want.

Indeed, in reality, Facebook would probably realize what a losing long-term business proposition it would be to sell your drunken photos of yourself to the media.

Which is why, when Facebook did “in reality” launch Beacon and shared information in a way many Facebook users did NOT want, it quickly did an about-face. There seems to be push-back assembling again, though in the case of this change, no one can right now detect any difference.

Is there really no way to draft the legal language so it matches the reality of Facebook’s presumably good intentions?

The Last Piano Roll

Monday, January 5th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

QRS, a company in Buffalo, NY, has made its last player piano roll, after more than a century in the business. Readers of Blown to Bits, Chapter 8, will know that George Antheil famously realized that a player piano roll was a generalized digital code that could be used to control communications equipment as well as a musical instrument.

Like the controllers in virtually all communications equipment, piano rolls have been replaced by other digital media. According to the Buffalo News story, QRS “is now a leading manufacturer of digitized and computerized player-piano technology that runs on CDs.”

I wonder if Antheil used QRS pianos for his compositions.

What’s “Broadband”?

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Use of the term “Broadband” is unregulated in the US, but more and more people know they want it. Those conditions are ideal for shading the truth.

A new report in Great Britain states that more than 40% of “broadband” connections there are less than 2MB/sec. I’m not aware that any similar figures are available in the US, but I know some services offered as “broadband” are less than 1MB/sec. That’s still a lot better than dialup, which is limited to .06 MB/sec., but nowhere near the rates of at least 4MB/sec that make web surfing pleasant.

Another thing to realize is that ISPs split the channel capacity into upload and download speeds, generally allocating much more for download on the theory you shouldn’t be uploading movies (and they don’t care if you actually make your own). So they will give you two different numbers for the two directions — but it’s hard to be sure you can believe them anyway.

Manipulating the Stock Market

Saturday, October 4th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

In a piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I talked about the lessons to be drawn from the aftermath of a six-year-old bankruptcy story about United Airlines carelessly posted on a Bloomberg site, comparing it to wacky Internet rumors about the presidential candidates:

With human judgment so eclipsed by responses to atomized, instant data, can there be much doubt that intentional manipulations—of the markets, and of the electorate—should be expected?

Yesterday an anonymous citizen journalist posted to a CNN site that Steve Jobs had been rushed to a hospital after a heart attack, and Apple’s stock dropped 5.4%. The SEC is investigating.

Of course there are morals here. That citizen journalism, the exploitation of millions of eyes and ears through the wonder of Internet connectivity, is a wonderful evolution of journalism, except when it isn’t because any damn fool can say anything and there’s no validation or fact-checking. That instantaneity, much as we love it, sometimes has a big pricetag. And maybe that it’s worth asking whether the law protecting CNN in this case (it bears no responsibility for the anonymous poster’s falsehood) may be a little too generous.

But mostly what I’m thinking is that it didn’t take long for one of my predictions to come true. The other one, about the opportunity to manipulate the election by spreading a last-minute rumor, wouldn’t be timely quite yet. But I’ll bet there are people thinking about how to pull it off.

Everything Is Bits Today

Saturday, September 13th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Saturday is usually the weak newspaper day. Embarrassing news that must be revealed some time generally gets announced on Friday afternoon. Large parts of the newspaper staff are sidetracked to getting the Sunday paper ready.

But for some reason, to bits-oriented readers today’s New York Times is full of interesting stuff:

In Digital Age, Federal Files Blip Into Oblivion. A good report on the entirely unsurprising fact that digital files tend to get purged, either because people don’t realize they are important to preserve, or because new administrations tend to want to make a clean sweep and start afresh. It’s hard to put a high priority on archiving when the money could be used in some politically more expedient way. This all relates to our observations at the end of Chapter 2 about how digital information can last forever, but that’s no guarantee that it will even when you want it to.

Stuck in Google’s Doghouse. A great Joe Nocera piece on the mysteries of Google’s quality metrics and the plight of those trying to make a living through Google ads. Lots here that will make sense to readers of our Chapter 4.

Virginia: Spam Law Struck Down on Grounds of Free Speech. A great example of how hard it is to get Internet law right, as we discuss in Chapter 7. Virginia tried to control spam. A fine idea; spam is not only full of swindles, it uses enormous amounts of network bandwidth and processing locally at the machines receiving it. Unfortunately, according to the Virginia Supreme Court, the law is

unconstitutionally overbroad on its face because it prohibits the anonymous transmission of all unsolicited bulk e-mails, including those containing political, religious or other speech protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The conviction of a big-time spammer was overturned and he is free to prey on us all — in Virginia at least. I am sure that anti-spam laws in other states, and the federal statute, are being examined today in light of this decision.

Three big-time bits stories in one Saturday. And that’s not even counting the claim in the sexy front-page story that the Internet is contributing to the total collapse of the morality of Chilean 14-year-olds.