Category: Uncategorized

The identity crisis of the internet

May 26th, 2010 — 8:05pm

The architecture of the Internet is fundamentally decentralized, a fact that continues to impress to this day. The breadth and depth of the sea of applications and uses we have made of it, and its resilience, impress perhaps all the more, because many of our experiences from everyday life tell us that some of the strongest things in society are singular and centralized — huge companies and governments, for instance. I’m actually not an expert on internet architecture, but my understanding is that the only thing that is fixed in it is the DNS system, which relies on some top level hardcoded IP addresses and coordination.

But even though the Internet is built on a decentralized architecture, it also supports applications/services that are highly centralized in their architecture and in their intended use. Google and Facebook are two very famous such applications. On the other extreme are applications that might be called P2P, including notorious file sharing systems such as Bittorrent, and also simple email (which was designed for decentralized use but is becoming heavily centralized with services like Gmail).

In recent days there’s been much discussion about Facebook’s role, particularly since it has been taking more and more liberties with the vast amounts of data about it users that it holds, scaling back the notions of privacy and integrity as they see fit. Many people are calling for decentralized alternatives to Facebook to rear their heads, and I suppose people have been calling for decentralized search engines as well for some time.

Much seems to be at stake here. What’s the future direction of the internet? A few giants holding all the data, monopolising certain functions, or a distributed network of peers, creating functionality together? The debate is ideologically charged and could be mapped into a big government/small government discussion, although I think it would be fruitless to do so. What is certain is that radically different applications can be created using the centralized/decentralized models and that it is rarely a case of merely “porting” an app from one architecture to another, the way you port an application from C to Java. On an abstract level, the two models could serve as substrates for the same functionalities (such as social network services), but the concrete implementations would have very different characteristics.

Do we create centralized applications because our legal systems, property rights systems, and so on, have not evolved at the same pace as our infrastructure, so that our tendencies, habits and ideals from a brick-and-mortar world are preserved in the world of fiber and switches, appearing ever more outdated?

In Sweden this debate has been especially pronounced recently with companies like Flattr being firmly on the side of decentralized models. Flattr is trying to be a universal donation system for content on the internet, and the vision behind it is a large number of decentralized creators of “content” (which are themselves consumers).

I’m not sure which model will win in the long run. I prefer to think that both models have a role to play and that they can coexist nicely. But lately it seems as if the centralized model has had a bit too much momentum. Let’s dig deeper into the decentralizing potential of the internet!

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Call for research interns

March 11th, 2010 — 4:30pm

The project I’ve been working on for some time (the last year or so) is starting to acquire a more definite form, and hopefully more information about it will be released in the coming months. Its official name is now Poplar, and the current official overview is available here. Basically it revolves around protocol based component composition for Java.

There is now an opportunity to do a paid internship for 2-6 months at Japan’s National Institute of Informatics in this project. If you are a masters or Ph.D. student who is interested in programming languages and software engineering, and you think the project sounds interesting, please do consider applying. Unfortunately the internship is only open to students of institutions who have signed MOU agreements with NII. The list of such universities, which includes many institutions from around the world, as well as more formal information, is available here. If you know or want to learn Scala, all the better!

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Nomura’s jellyfish

January 21st, 2010 — 5:14pm
Nomura's Jellyfish

Nomura's Jellyfish. Picture by Kenpei at the Osaka aquarium. GFDL license.

Nomura’s jellyfish, a species frequently encountered in Japan and China, is one of the largest in the world. The body can reach a diameter of 2 m. Since they create big problems for the fishing industry, Japan has now sought China’s help on the issue. It is thought that a recent proliferation of the species, huge swarms appearing every year since 2000, originates at the mouth of the Yangtze river.

Evolution can do fascinating things sometimes. Upon reading about this, a doubtlessly romantic and delusional notion entered my mind. What if the sea ecosystem, or a subset of it, say 10-100 species, perceive the human fishing industry as a threat that needs to be defended against, and in response create an evolutionary niche where a new kind of species can thrive, a species whose only purpose is to obstruct fishing? A romantic notion since it plays off the mythical idea that human beings are at war with nature, or that nature is good and man is evil, something I don’t really believe in. But an interesting one nonetheless. Is such a development possible?

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Presentations: one lump of sugar, or two?

November 9th, 2009 — 10:42pm

A glimpse of the monomorphic life

Recently I watched a friend give a presentation on a research topic he’s been working on for years. I found the presentation to be fascinating, and the clearest explanation of his work that I have seen to date. But I felt compelled to criticise him on one point.

In order to lighten up the speech a bit, he had chosen to include characters from a popular science fiction movie on every other slide, using them to explain the results he had attained in theoretical computer science. The link between the characters and the results was nearly non-existent; the pictures were clearly only there to lighten the presentation up a bit. I had been irritated by people’s tendency to do these things for some time, so I decided to point it out. One extreme example of this tendency gone too far occurred recently in a presentation about the database CouchDB – readers can Google for the slides to see the full controversy, though they are somewhat NSFW. (I don’t want to make moral judgments in this context, but I think the academic/professional domain can be kept free of these controversies. Save those battles for where they belong!)

So there’s a tendency for people to sugarcoat their presentation topic sometimes. The arguments in favor of doing this are that it can lighten an intrinsically heavy subject a lot, and save people from nearly falling asleep from compounded boredom (such as a conference where 30+ presentations about results in theoretical computer science are given). Essentially it mixes in some sugar with the sour stuff, yielding what might be called a sweet and sour talk. The medicine becomes easier to swallow.

But isn’t there something essentially contradictory about mixing contemporary pop culture so freely with results that, in this case, were about essentially pure mathematical theory? For one thing it takes the essentially perennial and debases it, linking it up with images that are hopelessly stuck in a short timeframe. For another, it can be seen a vote of non-confidence in your own ideas. It can be seen as saying “I know this is boring and useless to you, so please bear with me, and look at these amusing pictures until it’s over.” I’m not a good presenter, but in order to become one, I think I need to have sufficient confidence in my ideas to present them unsweetened unless the circumstances are extreme. I need to make my audience see the value in my ideas. Also, it’s quite different if the sugar coating is of the kind that helps people get into your idea, or if it’s the kind that just distracts (this case).

My view is therefore that one should use one’s lumps of sugar with restraint. Maybe a situation where this is called for is when the audience necessarily contains some people who are on the level that you need to be talking to, and many other people who are not on that level, and cannot possibly be brought up to it. In this situation, the sugar might be used to keep the second group somewhat alive and alert. And this is in fact the kind of situation my friend wrote the presentation for originally. So, no scorn on him, just a word of warning to the general public!

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Basic research in the UK

September 25th, 2009 — 1:52pm

The Guardian reports that a new government panel will henceforth judge what research is worthy of funding in the UK. Universities will have to make the case for their research projects in order to receive money. Reuters UK, perhaps keen to draw attention, blurt out that “‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees face [a] funding battle”.

Examples cited by Reuters UK include surf science, golf management and winemaking. I agree that these are probably vocational qualifications rather than fields meriting university study. But for blue skies projects in the natural sciences or the humanities, the payoff and effects on society are very hard to judge in advance. After all, we very often conduct the research precisely to evaluate these benefits.

The incentive situation with basic research is different today from what it was during the cold war era. When basic research was a national affair, not to be shared freely in the scientific community, it was probably possible to gain a national advantage by investing more in basic research. Today it’s all too easy to make the argument that other countries will reap the benefits, so why pay for the investment? Essentially a reverse prisoner’s dilemma: out of selfishness, you are tempted not to invest, but everybody benefits more if everybody invests. But surely this is too simple a view of the situation.

Where will countries that cut down on basic research be in the league tables of the future?

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