Saturday, June 04, 2011

The Net is back up in Syria -- why did they take it down? Why reconnect?

As shown in this graph from Renesys. Syria, like Egypt in January, was disconnected from the Internet for 28 hours, but is now back online.

Why did they take it down? Why did they reconnect it?

I am sure the takedown was under consideration and debated internally for some time. The deciding factor may have been the world wide revulsion at the YouTube video showing the tortured and mutilated body of 13-year old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb. (A good place to read about that is David Brooks' commentary on it in the New York Times. If you want to see the video itself, you can find it on YouTube. I've not watched it -- Brooks' description was sufficient for me.)

Why did they reconnect to the Internet? Perhaps they realized the futility of stopping the flow of information into and out of the country, as illustrated by this tweet:
@MadeInSyria Dial up access for #Syria: +46850009990 +492317299993 +4953160941030 user:telecomix password:telecomix, 11 hours ago
Perhaps it was the dictator's dilemma -- Syrian economic institutions had grown too dependent upon the Net to cut it off. Regardless, it is back up and the Twitter stream for #syria is again reporting on the situation, for example:
@MalathAumran: Hama reports tens of tanks gathering about 60 at the southern entrance of the city #Syria, 1 hour ago

@jenanmoussa: Ten dead as helicopter opens fire in #syria(n) city of #Edleb: al arabiya, 2 hours ago

@weddady: 63 peaceful protesters killed yesterday by the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in #Syria.. in other news, the world is watching.., 2 hours ago

@MalathAumran: Idleb: Military helicopters are shooting randomly on Jisr Alshghour city for half an hour now. more details @ #Syria, 2 hours ago

@guardian: Syrian forces kill 70 protesters #Syria
2 hours ago

@FlashNewsPlus, #Syria: extremely disturbing report from witnesses that wounded are being taken from Al Badr hospital in #Hama and killed. via @MalathAumran, 8 hours ago
Messages like these are being read by government leaders and citizens around the world, and they cannot easily be ignored. They are also important for the people in Syria who can know what is going on in cities other than their own.

The Syrian government would like to suppress this news, but they cannot. Do they now wish they had reined in the Internet from the beginning, as, for example, Cuba did and continues doing? Cuba has paid a price for that decision, but it may have helped prolong Castro's regime.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Web of Data -- WolframAlpha is two years old

We talk about different ways to retrieve stored data. Text search ala Google is most common, but we also have relational databases like Zoho Creator, hierarchical taxonomies like the Yahoo Directory or the Dewey Decimal system used in libraries, and keyword tags like the label terms in the right hand column of this blog.

Wolframalpha, which just celbrated its second birthday, stores and retrieves structured data, but it goes beyond retrieval, using the data for computation. For example, when I entered "New York to Los Angeles at 100 miles/hour," it computed the straight line distance using geo-coordinates and then computed the time to travel that distance at 100 miles/hour. (Click the image to enlarge it).

It also showed the assumptions it made -- that I meant the city New York, not the State or Financial Note and I meant Los Angeles, California, not Chile -- and it inferred that I wanted it to compute travel time from the fact that I had included a velocity (100 miles/hour) in my query. It also "knows" that a velocity is an example of a broader class, rate.

It easily handed unit conversions. When I modified the query, asking it to calculate "Los Angeles to New York at 1 inch per hour," it reversed the direction of the arrow in the diagram and told me the trip would take 17,804 years 3 months 24 days 22 hours 35 minutes.

My next query was "calories in 2 slices of bread and 2 tablespoons of peanut butter and 2 tablespoons of jelly." It calculated the weight of the ingredients, looked up the number of calories of each and displayed the result: 440 calories. It also displayed other nutrition facts like the amount of fat, cholesterol, and saturated fat.

WolframAlpha has information on many types of object, but it is limited. When I asked for the "calories in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich," it overlooked the bread, and assumed two tablespoons of peanut butter and one of jelly. It does not have data on "sandwiches."

But, the next version may. Wolfram is constantly adding new data. During their second year they added data in these categories: US Economy,International Data, US Social Statistics, Culture and Media, Geography, Astronomy, Chemistry, Earth Sciences, Engineering, Health and, medicine, Life Sciences, Materials, Physics, Money and, Finance, Units and Measures, Math, and Technology and Computer Systems.

It is noteworthy that Wolfram has decided their staff would add new data. This is in contrast to Freebase, a structured data storage and retrieval system, in which any user is able to add data, wiki style. (Freebase lacks the computation ability of Wolframalpha).

Freebase and Wolfram are building a "web of data" as opposed to a web of HTML and javascirpt pages. They include semantic information -- they know about the data they are storing.

Is this the future of the Web? Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web protocols, is now focusing his attention on the semantic web and Google has acquired Freebase. Google knows you are an instance of the class person -- what can they infer about you?

More on Nature's forthcoming digital texts

A few days ago, I posted a positive note about a series of electronic texts announced by Nature Publishing. It sounded like a significant improvement over the electronic textbooks being offered by other major publishers, so, I followed up with an email interview of Vikram Savkar, Publishing Director for Nature Education. The questions and answers follow, and the added emphasis is mine, not his -- all good stuff.

When will it be possible to play around with the etext or at least a sample interactive lesson or other material?

We expect to be able to demo sample modules for press in early to mid August, ahead of publication of the full product for the broader market on September 1 2011. Review access will be available to instructors from September 1, 2011.
Is the etext a collection of interactive lessons or are the interactive lessons a supplement to an integrated textbook?
The interactive lessons in fact are the textbook. Each lesson is a thorough exploration of the topic at hand, beginning with background information, followed by a discussion of core concepts, mid-point self-tests, interactive activities to allow the student to apply core concepts, and end of lesson test questions. There are approximately 200 such lessons arranged in the sequence in which introductory biology courses are usually taught. Instructors will be able to rearrange the lessons if they teach topics in a somewhat different order. The lessons are interactive in two senses. First, because they are online - and integrated with the gradebook, annotation tools, self-tests, end of lessons test questions, and so on - students will actively drive their own progress through the material, with continual feedback to let them know where they stand. Second, most lessons contain rich interactive demonstrations (available in both Flash and HTML5 versions) that immerse students even more deeply in particularly key concepts. Taken as a whole, the interactive textbook combines what is best from print textbooks (thorough text, peer reviewed figures) with the best of what is only possible online. Note that the textbook will come with a rich set of supplements, including lecture notes, instructor guides, and more.
How often will it be revised?
One of our core goals in designing Principles of Biology was to enable it to evolve frequently, in response to both emerging scientific discoveries and suggestions that instructors have on how to expand particular modules. We plan to make these revisions on an ongoing basis. Instructors will be able to choose on a case by case basis whether or not they import these revisions during the semester, so no instructors will ever be surprised by an automatic update to the text. We think of this approach as creating a "living edition".
Will it be for sale to the general public as well as students?
Yes (and I agree with you, I think there are many lifelong learners who could benefit from this book) Principles of Biology will be available for individual purchase from the Nature Education website from September 1, 2011. The general public can pay $49 by credit card and will receive the same lifetime access that students do, with the same continual revision to maintain scientific currency.
To what extent, if any, will uses be able to cache material for offline study?
Students will have access to an offline digital version, which has most of the instructional content but won't be tied into the gradebook and a few other connection-dependent features. It's not a substitute for the full interactive textbook, but it should allow students to do some good studying on a plane or wherever else they happen to have time but no internet access.
What about DRM?
There is some DRM, but the heart of the anti-piracy strategy we've chosen for this program is ensuring that the official product is so effective that there is a significant disincentive to use a pirated version. For example, the assessments that we've integrated into every page of the textbook will feed into the online gradebook that instructors use to evaluate students' progress. Students who don't purchase the digital product won't be in the gradebook . . . that will be inconvenient for them. I'm sure some people will try to bend the rules. Overall, by pricing this product affordably, adding in plenty of value online, and mixing in a little bit of DRM, I believe we've created a strong case for people to use this product as intended.
Have you any art or sample videos that we can look at or link to?
Not just yet . . . the website is still in development and testing. We'll have samples available to you in August. We do have a few mock-ups of an iPad view of Principles of Biology if you would like to use them in the piece. These are early design concepts at this stage. You can see an example here.
Will there be a computer science "book" in the series? Will there be versions for non-majors, for example, "IT literacy" as opposed to computer science?
Since the natural sciences are our core strength as a publisher, our primary focus is to expand the program across most of the life and physical sciences in next few years. I would say that expansion into fields like computer science would likely only be through partnerships with publishers who specialize in those spaces.
If they deliver what they seem to be promising, and live up to the policies I've highlighted above, these will be terrific books. Since they are limiting themselves to life and physical science, I hope other publishers are watching.

(Here is another interview of Savkar -- check it out).