Monthly Archives: February 2013

Spesh To’ics Week 4; The well-being of innovative thinking

I had a great chat with Dr Maria Angela Ferrario a few days ago (Marie is a researcher at Catalyst) – inspiring this blog. It was one of those chats where we went in and out of all kinds of areas, and with a 3-day-long 30th birthday celebration having happened between then and now, I’m struggling to recall exactly what I was thinking when I had the epiphanylike moment. I think it was to do with the effect that forcing (or attempting to force) creative (or innovative?) thinking can have on one’s well-being.

I just tried typing a few key words into various search engines and came up with a few interesting-looking papers. This one, published by NESTA, is particularly interesting and makes some good observations, although its main conclusion is certainly along the lines of needs more investigation.

The reason for my interest is a personal one. I’ve been feeling increasingly rundown in the last few weeks, and while it’s possible I have an underlying health problem (I’ll go to the doctor if it persists) I actually think it’s more likely that my energy has been sapped by a combination of constant creative thinking, and an unrelenting calendar of social events (oftentimes low on sleeping, high on consumption). Obviously I could try to minimise the social stuff, but I’m not sure that would help at all (as it would simply open up even more time to think about being innovative).

Most reflective methods suggest (variations on the theme of) figuring out what happened, deciding what went well, and what has not gone so well. Since Christmas, I’ve had some ideas that have really excited me. They’ve come ‘from nowhere’. I’ve innovated: created them. Of course in hindsight – reflecting on the epiphanies – this isn’t the case. I think all innovation comes in increments, even if those increments happening over time lead to an atomised radical innovative ‘black swan’ moment. The constancy of that incremental thinking is sapping, and seemingly unrelenting. So the thinking has gone well, the ideation, coming up with ideas. The effect on me has not been so good. So the conclusion: find a way of mitigating this. What that mitigation can be, I’m not sure yet, but I’ll think on it (which, ironically, might well contribute to the problem, in the short term anyway).

The talk with Marie.. well that has stimulated a whole new branch to my thinking around special topics, maybe that’ll contribute to my run-down feeling.. but… maybe it’ll result in a great outcome for special topics, which could lead onto a great summer project, an entirely new – and exciting – direction for my PhD. Who knows. But what I’m sure of is that I need to figure out a way of managing these thought processes so I can think sustainably. Hmmm……. ideas?

Cloud computing and big/open data: tools for cosmic data Aikido?

It isn’t by chance that me and Rob Potts (colleague, and new friend, and universal tool for metamorphosing the everyday) have referenced each others’ blogs this week. It will continue, I hope. We are in fact attempting to instigate a general cross-referencing of the blogs that our HighWire cohort have to write for various modules this term in order to stimulate some innovation

The title of this post is a shout out to Rob’s blog Sustain and Release. Read that post and you might see what I mean about him being a universal tool for (occasionally in)coherent metamorphosis of the everyday into visual, spoken and cognitive metaphor (has he infected me?!). Rob says, in regards to sustainability:

Is this a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation?’ What is the smart way to proceed? Perhaps now we need to begin to work with matter, cosmic Aikido.

Professor Gordon Blair presented a lecture on cloud computing to us today. It didn’t contain anything I wasn’t, at least a little, aware of before.. however in the inimitable way that any good presenter can, Gordon’s lecture did make me think about these things in detail – something that is happening consistently in my time at Lancaster.

So back to the Aikido and cloud computing. Cloud computing isn’t a distinct thing. It is Google Apps,  it’s Dropbox, it’s Amazon EC2, it’s BitTorrent, it’s iCloud, it’s the data centres that startups and corporate giants use to harbor their data.

There is no hard and fast definition, and the list above could be a very long one, but in essence, cloud computing is a whole host of overlapping technologies. This is very well demonstrated in this image taken from Cloud computing: state-of-the-art and research challenges (Qi Zhang, Lu Cheng, Raouf Boutaba 2010), via Gordon Blair.

Cloud Computing Architecture

Cloud Computing Architecture

End users see the different levels as Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS) or Software as a Service (SaaS). The diagram shows the kinds of resources related to each of these layers, and the examples on the right show real world examples of each one. IaaS generally refers to quite raw, ‘low’ level stuff (such as simply having a virtual machine running Ubuntu, or Windows 8, that you have access to via ‘the cloud’). PaaS takes it up a level, maybe you will have access to a programming framework, or a database. You don’t really have to care how it works, but you know you can access it for your own means. Lastly SaaS is the kinds of things that I use everyday, Dropbox, Facebook, Google Apps: user-facing applications. Sometimes you might find that a SaaS is built atop one or both the two layers below it.

Cloud computing is great. It’s very clever, and with the bandwidth available these days, and the hyper-connectivity that in its own right is an intriguing area of study. With it I can happily go to the University campus knowing the papers that I need to read are stored in Mendeley’s online repository, my music is in Google Music, any other documents I need are accessible from Dropbox, and that if i have an innovative startup idea today, I can easily get the computing power needed to support it online – without huge outlay – by tomorrow, and that that solution will be scaleable. It’s incredible.

There is of course the hidden cost. It’s hard to find a reliable figure for this, but you could argue, legitimately, that searching Google twice (incidentally, for each hyperlink in this document I’ve searched Google at least once…) uses the same amount of energy as boiling a kettle. It isn’t fair, I don’t think, to make that comparison directly. However what is undeniably true is that the energy involved in running cloud based services, and the infrastructure that supports them, is magnificently huge. As an evangelist for general movement towards sustainability, and a leading expert in distributed computer systems this actually puts Gordon in a sticky place I would say; I don’t envy him on that front. I am aware of sustainability issues, and increasing care about them (and I want to do something about them) but… fortunately I’m not an expert in distributed systems! Conversely it’s a damn good job that some of the eminent experts in this field appreciate sustainability.

In the same session Gordon covered some issues related to big data and open data. I actually abhor the term big data, as it happens, based on its inherent ambiguity – but no matter. Cloud computing is one of the factors that has enabled big data to splurge across the world, and as a result big data has become a significant area of study (and – excuse me – a big business).

Big data, I think, should be respected and watched. The respect because it can harness great power for, potentially for both good and evil. Watched to make sure that this power is controlled equitably. It scares me to think how much information Google hold on me. It scares me to think how much money our personal data is worth to corporations. It scares me to think that if my DNA or health records become part of this big data craze and comes to be in the hands of corporations concerned with profiting from it. But at the same time the quirky correlations between Google search results and things like house prices or influenza outbreaks, if they continue to emerge and sustain, have huge potential for good in the world (those are just two examples of how people can utilise Google’s big data, there are many other vendors, types and examples). Another interesting story of how scary big data is comes from Malte Spitz. Spitz wondered one day exactly what data his mobile phone company was collecting about him, after a lengthy legal battle he finally received a file that contained 35,830 lines of coded data. From this data you can virtually relive Spitz’s life over an extended period. I really recommend this TED talk, delivered by Spitz, where he sums it up beautifully.

Cloud computing and big data (and indeed the Internet as a whole) share their thirst for energy, and there are no signs of this appetite abating. I find when talking to colleagues that some find it incredibly easy to become ‘anti’ quite quickly when thinking about this. The mixture of the gloomy global outlook when considering sustainability along with the bitterness derived by most when considering issues of privacy and trust related to big data is a heady mix, that can make those concerned with it appear reactionary. Conversely others that, I think quite pragmatically, conclude that big data (and sustainability issues) are with us to stay, oftentimes become equally vocal, and it isn’t difficult to find confusing theories that lead a logical observer toward a head-in-the-sand approach to the dilemmas here (on account of a how entangled the issues are). A third camp, and that is where I see myself, are optimistic that the benefits of big data can be realised while the issues of trust and privacy issues are dealt with sensibly. Apart from revolutionists, I haven’t heard any convincing argument as to how we could realistically dispense of these innovations now that we have them.

The final part of this cosmic data Aikido jigsaw is open data. Open data is an equally broad topic as big data, so I won’t go into any detail, but broadly speaking it means data that are publicly available. You could say that open data are to information, what the open source movement is to software applications. Like open source some see it as a tool or a model that fits into current paradigms, others see it as an entirely different philosophy. I think it has the potential to be both. One example of an open data project is OpenStreetMap, a global map that is made for people, by people, and is owned by people. New York City has a large repository of data that covers everything from wireless hotspots in the city (the most frequently viewed, via the open data portal) through to after school programmes, privately owned public spaces, fiscal stimulus data, and refuse collection tonnages. Another example of open data at work was after the large 2010 earthquake in Haiti the OpenStreetMap data for Port-au-Prince was taken from being virtually nonexistent, to some of the richest cartographic data that’s ever existed. This data was used by aid organisations and health agencies to great effect. In NYC you can view crime statistics on an interactive map, and maybe plan a safer route home, or decide where to live accordingly. It’s early days for open data, but so far some of the applications really have had impact, and are almost heartwarming to my mind.

It’s a difficult thing to imagine, but I really believe that if all of the elements of the system could be modeled to demonstrate that the utility and methods behind cloud computing can deliver the benefits of open and big data in a scaleable and sustainable way. Apart from a hell of a lot of work and ingenuity, it would require a ‘global’ cooperation. If you take global to mean whatever system you’re looking at, rather than ‘planet-wide’, then I think this really could be a reality in the not-so-distant future.

So what am I thinking? A hella distributed computer system. These distributed systems (some of which could be termed cloud computing) are really powerful. A system where every device would contribute its spare processing power and storage to the cloud, whether it be a phone, tablet, laptop, super computer, or a whole a datacentre. All data would be owned by everybody, so forcing a collective responsibility towards how much of it there is, and how it is used. To metaphoricalise it: imagine the world had a single well for drinking water. Nobody in their right mind would use it all up too quickly, neither would they treat it irresponsibly and contaminate it. Indeed if anybody tried to do either of those things, then everybody else would try to stop them. Interestingly the way I’m imagining this system, it could pretty much alleviate the privacy/trust issues associated with big data. You see, I think the best way to incentivise generators of big data to only generate, to only store data they need, and also to ensure that it is treated sensitively, is to store it in an entirely open cloud.

I realise having gotten to the end of this constructed idea of cloud-based cosmic data Aikido, that it is a little Utopian. Maybe a lot. However, there isn’t really anything to suggest that the idea couldn’t work on a relatively local level (look at Diaspora and BitTorrent), before being scaled up. Each increment of the network size would represent a net (pun?) ‘saving’, and a further step towards generating and using data responsibly.

Going a few steps further down the technological discovery line you can imagine how the Utopian vision described above could be supported by ubiquitous computing. It would be a challenge to quantify, but I dare say that if you added up all the spare processing and storage capacity that exists within the incredibly pervasive computer power in the world (including all the processes not only in phones, but in refrigerators, cars, escalators, boilers, routers, etc) – then you could maybe replace a large amount of the energy-gobbling (and expensive) data centres that power the (current incarnation of) the cloud and big data. On another note imagine that the way we store data could be disrupted by storing it inside DNAliving storage devices could be the answer to the practical problem of how to store seemingly infinite data (however, of course, this raises a whole myriad of ethical and trust concerns in its own right). It’s all possible though.

The European Union recently announced a €1 billion research project around large-scale brain simulations. I’m fascinated by it, and ever so slightly scared too. Depending on the outcome, maybe ubiquitous computing could become a vehicle for hosting a large scale virtual brain in a distributed manner. I think maybe I’ve watched too much Ghost in the Shell.

Put briefly, I love the things you can do with cloud computing, big data, and open data. I’m also aware that there are impacts. Computing is ubiquitous, but we’ve got to that stage without much thought for how to sustain it, or how to get the most out of it. Maybe it isn’t practicable, but, I’d like to think that there is a way in which all of these arenas are linked could be put to use and lean on each others’ strong points, while containing the negative connotations related to how we see them now.

Spesh To’ics Week 3; Confronted by volume

Well this week has been a week of procrastination for me. No greatly detailed research for Special Topics has taken place. Actually most weeks are procrasto-weeks for me, in reality. Maybe that has some benefit, but maybe that’s a different subject than the one I should be writing about! I think my ‘dinosaur brain’ (a term I’m told my sister’s boss uses.. I can’t find any references to it on the web, but I do like it!) has been working away in the background though, and is bearing some fruit.

I’m confounded by the complexity and depth of knowledge in general. It’s one of those things that when observed from a macro level is as tantalising as it is terrifying. I guess this is something that I’ll have to consolidate into my thinking and accept, particularly given my chosen area of research, which I suppose you can broadly just define as ‘the academic method’ (something that I do believe to be something of a nonsense, in the same way I believe the ‘scientific method’ is a tad nonsensical).

My reflective nugget for today is: reading is good. But also that not reading is good. I’m not sure if this is a general thing in certain ‘types’ of person, or if it is something that’s quite localised to myself. I’m pretty good at gobbling up a large volume of information all at once, but only if it is delivered in more aural or visual ways. Textual information I find hard to digest quickly. For academic purposes this is a problem, because the point of the academic study I’m currently embarked upon is to discover new things, to be innovative, to ‘create’ knowledge or wisdom. So being able to consume knowledge conveyed in lectures, videos, sound bites is one thing… but the vast majority of the knowledge that I need is trapped up inside PDFs. Not only that, but PDFs that have to be teased out of their (oh so large, and generally – in my experience – devoid of any usability for fledgling researchers like me) repositories and (if your eyes are anything like mine) generally printed on copious amounts of oh-so-cheap but oh-so-expensive paper (not to mention oh-so-easy-to-run-out toner, print credit or inkjet cartridges).

I’m finding some incredibly intriguing stuff though.

Patrick pointed me in the direction of Eugene Garfield – founder of the Institute for Scientific information. Some of Garfields early work describing the indexes he had set up, how to develop them, and how they might develop in the future (starting in the 1950s) seem to touch upon some of my own concerns with the established norms that exist today. This is something of an uncomfortable discovery: the thought that went into Garfield’s early work has not meant that we’re doing things any ‘better’. We’re just doing it on a much larger scale, and much quicker, but for my mind almost exactly the same processes are taking place, and I don’t like them!

A couple of notes from what I’ve been reading this evening. In Citation Indexes for Science (1983) Garfield says:

“… then in the future every author ought to be required to include the serial number of each item he referred to, so as to facilitate not only the compilation of citation indexes but also other operations such as requests for reprints”

Does this happen? Maybe a bit, but not in the most ‘usable’ way, not when compared to proper linked data. In my mind we could apply some wiki principles to how that could take place.. I’ve procured my friend Cormac’s thesis (Edit this space: participation and expansive learning in developing Wikiversity) to see if I can find some synergy with that.

From the same paper Garfield noted:

It also becomes quite obvious that many references to Selye’s paper were general and contribute little or nothing to the readers’ enlightenment…

A practice that is pervasive, still. And indeed something I can confess to having done myself, and I have been told is normal, and, something that I’ve been advised to do by academics in order to play the gameNow if there’s a game, intend on playing it as well as I can.. however going ahead willfully in a manner that involves doing things wrong on purpose seems ridiculous. There’s an obvious need, value, and dependency on citing earlier work. In the preface to another paper that Garfield contributed to Joshua Lederberg of Stanford University mentions that “A cumulative index to all of science would, of course, be a large undertaking but of course no larger than the problem to which it is addressed.” In the actual paper that was being prefaced in the previous quote, the writers concede that “For economic and editorial reasons [trying to make a comprehensive index] was not practical in these experiments“.

Oh, and here’s a photo of Eugene Garfield! (hot linked, I hope that that doesn’t contravene copyright – does it? – and also that the link stays up!)


It’s starting to become clear to me that this topic that I’m studying isn’t at all new. In fact, in spite of the contemporary abundance of computing power, appetite for open information, and ever-growing number of journals, articles, conferences, and scholars.. we’ve far from fixed the problem, or changed the nature of it. Rather it has grown exponentially, and somehow persists. The Observer reported last week that the Council for the Defense of British Universities published an open letter to government positing that the intention to make all publicly funded research freely is “attack on academic freedoms”. Now I don’t want to immediately disagree for David Attenborough, David Starkey, Richard Dawkins or Alan Bennett. But I think they’re shortsighted. I hope the government are not.