Big Problems with Big Data

A recent piece in FT Magazine questions the claims of big data hucksters.  From FT:
Cheerleaders for big data have made four exciting claims, each one reflected in the success of Google Flu Trends: that data analysis produces uncannily accurate results; that every single data point can be captured, making old statistical sampling techniques obsolete; that it is passé to fret about what causes what, because statistical correlation tells us what we need to know; and that scientific or statistical models aren’t needed because, to quote “The End of Theory”, a provocative essay published in Wired in 2008, “with enough data, the numbers speak for themselves”.

Unfortunately, these four articles of faith are at best optimistic oversimplifications. At worst, according to David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge university, they can be “complete bollocks. Absolute nonsense.”

MS Releases Office for IPad

From The Verge:
After years and years of rumors, Office for iPad is finally here. At a press event in San Francisco this morning, Microsoft Office general manager Julia White has unveiled the company’s latest mobile Office app. While Office for iPad was originally rumored for a release in 2012 and 2013, it's available as three separate applications (WordExcelPowerPoint) in Apple’s App Store today.

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope Project on Track in 2014

By L. Lawless 

With all of the earthly unpleasantry of the ever-encroaching surveillance state, it is nice to think that NASA is using its powers of sight to gaze upon the galaxy like never before. The James Webb Space Telescope, currently being completed at the Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland, is due to launch in 2018 and will use infrared capabilities to observe the universe from a gravitationally-stable location (known as the “L2” LaGrange point) 1.6 million kilometers away. However, fluctuating annual budget issues are putting the project (NASA’s most ambitious telescope launch since the Hubble) in possible jeopardy, with administrators worried that sequestration-induced budget cuts may further delay the launch (which at the time of the project’s conception had been slated for no later than 2011).

Currently at Goddard, several elements of the telescope are being prepared for testing in the facility’s cryogenic chamber, which simulates the environment of outer space by using liquid nitrogen to create a super-cooled sealed environment. The Fine Guidance Sensor, Mid-Infrared Instrument, Near Infrared Spectrograph and Near Infrared Camera will be subjected to Goddard’s thermal vacuum chamber this year in what may prove to be an expensive round of testing. Due to the necessity of continued testing for both the flight and engineering models of the telescope’s equipment, the Webb’s 2013 budget of $627.6 billion would not have been enough to continue to sustain the project as planned. However, thanks to sequestration negotiations and the White House’s interest in the telescope as a major space initiative, Congress recently granted the project $658.2 million for 2014. If further sequestration issues are not dealt with in the years to come, the volatility of the budget will force NASA to take money from other projects to assure the continued development of the Webb project.

The extremely sensitive thermal imaging cameras and optics must be extensively calibrated so that the telescope will have the capacity not just to identify planets, but to characterize their composition. The Webb’s primary optic (main mirror) is 6.5 meters across, and is comprised of 18 smaller hexagonal mirrors that will be folded into the nosecone of a rocket and then deployed once in space. Once in place, mirror calibration is made possible by small activators that can manipulate and hold the mirrors in place for weeks at a time (working as one unit, calibrated down to nanometers) in conditions that could reach -400C. The mirrors themselves are made of gold-coated beryllium substrate, which is optimum for maintaining stability in an unpredictable space environment. Concise testing of these elements is critical, as the mirrors and actuators must be calibrated down to billionths of a meter to achieve the project’s peak results. The Webb telescope will use its precise thermal imaging array not just to see and characterize planets, star formations, and various other phenomena through clouds of space dust, but also to examine remnants of light from the early universe that may lend clues as to the nature of space’s oldest galaxies.


Lee Lawless is a writer and musician living in New York City.

Social Media Censorship Leads to Tor Surge in Turkey

From The Daily Dot:
Turkey’s online censorship and banning of Twitter is fueling mass adoption of Tor, the most popular anonymity network online, as a tool to circumvent government obstruction.
Just days ago, the software had already hit a pace of 10,000 new users per week. Now the pace has picked up significantly; Turks are now moving to Tor at a rate of 10,000 new users per day for a total of over 50,000 users and growing.

Obama Admin Proposes Overhaul of Illegal NSA Surveillance Programs

From the NYT:
The Obama administration is preparing to unveil a legislative proposal for a far-reaching overhaul of the National Security Agency’s once-secret bulk phone records program in a way that — if approved by Congress — would end the aspect that has most alarmed privacy advocates since its existence was leaked last year, according to senior administration officials.
Under the proposal, they said, the N.S.A. would end its systematic collection of data about Americans’ calling habits. The bulk records would stay in the hands of phone companies, which would not be required to retain the data for any longer than they normally would. And the N.S.A. could obtain specific records only with permission from a judge, using a new kind of court order.
Of course, these assertions by anonymous administration officials are less than worthless until we see the actual details of the proposal.  Anyone who's been paying attention should be quite amused by this trial balloon.  Remember, just a few months ago, the Democrats and Republicans were running around telling us that all this illegal surveillance was necessary to "protect" us from the "terrorists".  It is time to repeal the Patriot Act, which continues to provide the legal excuse for these unconstitutional encroachments on the rights and liberties of the people, and to remove the Democrats and Republicans from all public offices. 

Tech Industry Begs Senate Leader to Oppse Ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership Framework

An open letter to Senator Wyden from Fight for the Future:
Dear Senator Ron Wyden,
Congratulations on your recent appointment as Chair of the Senate Finance Committee. As technology companies with business models inextricably linked to the Internet, we admire your work as a staunch defender of users and online rights—most prominently when you led the fight against SOPA and PIPA in Congress.

Today we write about another emerging front in the battle to defend the free Internet—massive trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. These highly secretive, supranational agreements are reported to include provisions that vastly expand on any reasonable definition of "trade,” including provisions that impact patents, copyright, and privacy in ways that constrain legitimate online activity and innovation. We applaud your prior efforts as Senator to bring transparency and public participation to trade negotiations. We strongly urge you to uphold and expand this dedication into your new role.

None of the usual justifications for trade negotiation exclusivity apply to recent agreements like the TPP. Even assuming that it is legitimate to shield the discussions of certain trade barriers—like import tariffs—from political interference, the provisions in these new trade agreements go far beyond such traditional trade issues.

Based on what we’ve seen in leaked copies of the proposed text, we are particularly concerned about the U.S. Trade Representative's proposals around copyright enforcement. Dozens of digital rights organizations and tens of thousands of individuals have raised alarm over provisions that would bind treaty signatories to inflexible digital regulations that undermine free speech. Based on the fate of recent similar measures, it is virtually certain that such proposals would face serious scrutiny if proposed at the domestic level or via a more transparent process. Anticipated elements such as harsher criminal penalties for minor, non-commercial copyright infringements, a 'take-down and ask questions later' approach to pages and content alleged to breach copyright, and the possibility of Internet providers having to disclose personal information to authorities without safeguards for privacy will chill innovation and significantly restrict users' freedoms online.

Some aspects of U.S. copyright law, such as the DMCA's safe harbor provisions, have helped foster the vibrant tech industry in this country. But in other areas, we are due for major reforms—a fact made clear by Register of Copyrights Maria Pallante's call for the "Next Great Copyright Act" and the House Judiciary Committee's efforts to implement that reform. In light of these needed revisions, the U.S. system cannot be crystallized as the international norm and should not be imposed on other nations. It is crucial that we maintain the flexibility to re-evaluate and reform our legal framework in response to new technological realities. Ceding national sovereignty over critical issues like copyright is not in the best interest of any of the potential signatories of this treaty.

We can only build a successful innovation policy framework—one that supports new ideas, products, and markets—if the process to design it is open and participatory. Unfortunately, the trade negotiation process has been anything but transparent. Our industry, and the users that we serve, need to be at the table from the beginning to design policies that serve more than the narrow commercial interests of the few large corporations who have been invited to participate.

We urge you not to pass any version of Fast Track or trade promotion authority, or approve any mechanism that would facilitate the passage of trade agreements containing digital copyright enforcement provisions designed in an opaque, closed-door process. 
As the new Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, you are in a position to shape U.S. policy to keep this country a place where innovation thrives. We look forward to your continued dedication to the interests of technology and its users.

Why We Need Decentralized DNS . . .

Last week, the US government announced that the Commerce Department would relinquish control over internet root servers and open the process to the so-called multi-stakeholder model.  Many are not holding their breath. From Wired UK:
The battle over the future of the internet has begun in earnest. Bear with us: it's immensely technical, but it's also immensely important.
Because the internet first emerged, grew, and prospered in the United States, the US government has a special relationship and disproportionate influence over what is now regarded as a global public good. While the US is unwilling to relinquish its role as chief internet steward, this is becoming an increasingly untenable position, particularly as the NSA/Snowden revelations continue to shake global confidence.
In this context, and perhaps accelerated by last week's damning critiques in the European Parliament and the UN Human Rights Council, the US government announced late on Friday, in a smart front-footed move, that it intends to release oversight of its long-treasured IANA contract under which the US Commerce Department contracts ICANN, a private US company, to perform key internet administration tasks. The government has proposed a transition plan for these tasks to be administered directly by the "global multistakeholder community" (read: ICANN), via a process to be determined by ICANN and approved by the US government in September 2015. This prescriptive, carefully-limited announcement is the long-awaited fulfilment of a promise made 16 years ago when ICANN first came into being, and it would be the first time since the net's inception that the US government would abandon formal oversight. Of course, US vested interests in ICANN as a US-based company, subject to US law, and partial to US industry, remain, as does the almighty US technical and economic leverage over the digital ecosystem.
You might think (and you'd be right), that it is rather odd that one country, and indeed one company, even holds this net administration contract. But such are the breaks of history and the clutch of commerce.