The Beauty of ‘The Cloud’

on Jan 30, 2011

Imagine having a second brain – one that’s not just limited to the knowledge and information from your own self, but also has the collective knowledge of the world. This is no dream – it is real, here, and now – thanks to the emergence of cloud computing.

I’ve been speaking obsessively about the cloud for well over two years now. Yet it seems that not everyone understands what this means (someone may not be so technologically adept or they may be mixed up with the broad and different usages of the term cloud). This became apparent a month ago when I stopped using AOL Instant Messenger, citing incompatibility with the cloud as my reason – which resulted in a lot of questions from friends. So let me provide a clear definition of what I see as the cloud.

In a nutshell, the cloud is about having information (in its many manifestations as discussed below) universally accessible. The internet and all our various computers (with net access) are the tools that make this possible.

Access to the Cloud

In developed parts of the world and especially in urban areas, the internet is ubiquitous. Most people of at least moderate wealth can afford to own an internet capable device that fits inside their pockets (and can carry it with them at all times). I’m talking about app phones like the iPhone and Android devices as well as the iPod Touch and the plethora of tablet computers coming this year. This is the future – try and find a teenager that isn’t carrying one of these things. From the dedicated data lines available on these devices to the WiFi hotspots all over the place, all these devices are connected to the internet and its arsenal of information.

Types of Information

First, we have the world’s collective knowledge. Something like Wikipedia is astonishing in its own right. When I was a kid, I was among the few of my peers to have a computer at home and be able load up an encyclopedia on CD. So I had instant access to mostly up-to-date information while in my household. For anyone that was older than I was, the hunt for such knowledge as a child involved a trip to the library or bookstore (excluding the minority of folks that had expensive dead-tree encyclopedias in their homes). Jump to today – you can look up something on Wikipedia in an instant with your app phone and from any urban area. What I find more exciting is that we’re way beyond just encyclopedias of knowledge. You can see incredible people discuss world-stirring ideas on TED or learn an academic subject for free through the Kahn Academy. The collective knowledge of the world spreads further since any individual can share his or her insights through blog posts (such as this one you’re reading right now).

Another form of information harnessed into the cloud is media. TV shows and movies are available via Hulu and Netflix streaming, while more personal videos are seen on YouTube. Online news, from large news presses to bloggers, is instant – in accessibility and coverage. Print news is old news. Cloud music has made strides over the years, from online “stations” like Shoutcast, Pandora, and Slacker Radio to more collection style like mSpot (lets you upload your music online and access it from an internet connected device) to Spotify (pay a monthly fee access the world’s music library on any internet capable device [not yet available in the US]). I’m most excited for the recent rise of ebooks, which will overtake purchases of all dead-tree books in just a couple of years, if not sooner. I’ve waited my whole life to carry a library in my pocket; an added bonus is that with certain ebook platforms (like Kindle), even my highlighting and notes are stored in the cloud and accessible on all my devices. Even video gaming has moved on to the cloud. Steam is pretty popular among PC gamers since one can simply purchase and install games without leaving their chair (similar to how most other software is now acquired). Even more intriguing is the service OnLive, which doesn’t require any installation as the game lives and runs on their servers (in the cloud). Their box serves simply to bridge their servers to your TV and controllers.

The last major form of information is the kind we use personally. Communications are one part of this. Web based email (do people outside of corporations use anything else?) is ubiquitous and has served as a cloud based dumping ground for thoughts and files for years. Instant messaging, besides being always accessible, like via app phones, also allows us to store our chat logs online (AIM wasn’t good about this so I stopped using it). It’s incredibly handy to be able to reference a digital conversation from earlier when out and about. The same applies for other personal records like contacts, voicemails, and bank records. Even our productivity has moved to the cloud. Services like Google Docs put an end to losing your work if your computer crashes and the hassle of carrying work around on flash drives. A real interesting item in the cloud is our location. My app phone transmits my location online where certain trustworthy individuals can find out where I am at any given time (this has proved helpful in streamlining my communications). Likewise, this bit of information is very useful when combined with other tools, like to find nearby restaurants.

Where the Beauty Lies

The amount of information available today is tremendous and it’s only growing. Likewise, every single one of these forms of information is instantly accessible. Knowledge, TV shows, reading material, emails, documents – it takes mere seconds to get to this stuff and from anywhere there’s internet. There’s no need to print out stuff. There’s no need to spend unnecessary effort remembering every little thing. I’ve offloaded quite a lot to the cloud – which allows my brain space to do more advanced things.

Some Potential for Disaster

Now of course there are risks inherent in all this. Ease of access for us also means others can potentially have that same ease of access to our information. It’s a tradeoff but there are plenty of safeguards in place, should we use them wisely. Likewise, we do have to trust all these cloud services to respect our information. Transparency in these policies is important and we should insist on it. Also, by using the cloud heavily as I do, one does become dependent on it. Losing access to it can spell trouble or at the very least might be unnerving (I admit that I feel strangely uncomfortable when riding on the subway, where the lack of internet cuts me off from my article feeds, streaming music, and chats). Still, most systems are pretty reliable and we should still be smart about things. For example, I often memorize driving directions and use my navigation unit more for backup guidance. Again, it’s all a tradeoff and I feel I’m gaining significantly more in taking what the cloud has to offer.

The Future is in The Cloud

The handiness of the cloud is expanding in so many ways. Information is but one tool we find essential in our daily lives; there are other tools that the cloud has reached out to. Web applications are among the most interesting of these. Programs live in the cloud and sometimes offer usefulness beyond their desktop counterparts. For example, the aforementioned service, Google Docs, brings the ability for multiple individuals to collaborate on a document in real time. More of what we use on the desktop will move to the cloud. Other paradigms will shift for the better. Installing and maintaining software will no longer be a burden of the user. Printing out stuff will become passé (if it isn’t already). Powerful computers for personal use will be a thing of the past (except for specialists that really need it). It’s no surprise that anemic devices such as app phones, iPads, and netbooks are wildly popular – they offload their need for power to the cloud, where there is neither idleness nor wasted CPU cycles. Isn’t that just beautiful?

A Rally to Restore Sanity (and the First Amendment)

on Nov 1, 2010

This past weekend, I attended the Rally to Restore Sanity (and/or Fear), hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. It was an incredible experience, and perhaps one monumental to the direction of this country as over 200,000 individuals attended to support a cause not [directly] related to politics. The crowd in attendence was diverse – I was expecting a fairly young bunch but was pleasantly surprised to see much more than the 18-35 age demographic. There were plenty of folks older than 35 and many had brought their children with them. While this astounding rally was not a political one, it did relate strongly to the foundations of our democratic government, particularly to free speech.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution ensures the freedom of press. This is important in ensuring transparency in government and industry affairs. In essence, this permits anyone to call out these institutions on any fishy matters. Unlike in countries such as China or North Korea, you can bad mouth the government and not end up being taken away by the police. Instead, such coversation is actually encouraged in the US and we have a well paid [and listened to] media that is assigned the role of doing this. The very purpose of the media is to inform the citizenry, covering organizations and institutions such as government and business.

Despite fitting this definition, our present media machine is barely useful and perhaps even dangerous. It is full of noise – instead of providing useful information that we Americans can act upon, it tells us all the things to be afraid of, often unnecessarily so. It tells us the extreme points of view and that the country is divided among issues. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, pun intended, where most Americans are simply busy people that want a better country for everyone and are willing to compromise on issues to foster progress.

Although a significant part of our mass media is broken, there is much hope for it. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are not merely political satirists – they are also the most influential journalists of this generation. Yes, journalists. They have stepped up to do the job that the rest of broadcast media has blatantly failed at doing. The hundreds of thousands of rally attendees understand this on some level, many unconsciously. And plenty clearly know what this is all about, as one rally member’s sign cleverly stated, “I get my news from Comedy Central and my comedy from Fox News.” Equally interesting is that the mainstream media didn’t understand that the Rally to Restore Sanity (and/Fear) was in fact about them, as this article [and the laughable videos of CNN, NBC, and Fox embedded] articulates.

Aside from Stewart and Colbert, the internet itself has proved to be a fantastic tool in reinforcing the First Amendment. Blogs provide a world of information in a globally accessible domain. The thoughts I share in this very post will reach more people than ever possible just a few years ago.

Transparency is not only important for the American people, but also for politicians. I believe that most government officials truly want to stand up for their official constituents (as in people, not corporations) and make the country a better place for everyone. But there are plenty of politicians that use the lack of transparency to push their own agendas forward at the cost of the American people. Likewise, insidious corporations will push for their interests when their actions can’t be unveiled.  However, we’re at a transition point, and one that’s for the better. We are reversing the consolidation of media. We have better tools than ever before to allow for transparency. A better world for Americans will prevail so long as we let useful media restore our sanity and prevent overblown media from keeping the fear alive.

Transparency, Morality, and Why We’re Better Off Without Privacy

on Mar 12, 2010

An article on CNET today discusses how concerns for privacy are diminishing, especially in our ever-growing information age. In the work I do on human uniqueness, I’ve explored the evolutionary relationship of morality and transparency. It appears that this growing transparency (and thus decline of privacy) is a very good thing for our populations as a whole. A look at the human ethical sense shows why.

Shaped by natural selection, the human ethical sense is finely tuned to work in our especially social environment. Generally, the best self-serving strategy (and one that is indirect) is to contribute to your social coalition; directly selfish behavior is usually a bad strategy because of the strong coercive threat imposed by the rest of the group. The exception is when directly self-serving actions can go by unnoticed (privately). This would net a benefit for you but it wouldn’t be good for the others. Simply put, the greater the transparency (and the less the privacy), the better off a group is as a whole because this causes each individual to avoid the then inferior directly self-interested strategy.

A quote by federal judge Richard Posner in the CNET article illustrates this entire concept really well: “As a social good, I think privacy is greatly overrated because privacy basically means concealment. People conceal things in order to fool other people about them. They want to appear healthier than they are, smarter, more honest and so forth.” Issues regarding privacy are very evocative because of this; they involve an individual’s direct self-interest.

Our technology allows us to change the social norms of privacy. Individually it appears we’re getting comfortable with the decline of privacy. Between generations, there is no uncertainty since newer generations are better at adopting technology. There has certainly been friction (we’ve all heard of people getting busted by posting stuff to Facebook) but people will adapt to the growing transparency of their lives. The big question that remains: how so? Will our norms change to deem currently inappropriate behavior appropriate? Or will people commit less such inappropriate behavior? My best guess is that it’ll lean towards the former when there’s no social harm and towards the latter when it’s our collective interest that people change.

In the meantime, enjoy the ride. With the emergence of computers and internet in our pockets along with facial recognition technology, we’ll soon be able to learn all about a person by just looking at him. MIT is already on this. Perhaps we all better clean up our acts sooner rather than later.  And who knows, the world may very well quickly become a much better place.

Industries and Interests

on Jan 29, 2010

Many of my posts (present and future) discuss the “insidious” things that those in the industry do. This gives the impression that everyone in the industry will only act in their own interests and there seems to be little hope out there for humaneness. From an economic perspective, each company should do whatever is in its better interest. This is especially important for them becuause it is a matter of survival. If they don’t behave selfishly, and potentially insidious to others, they’ll be put out of business by another competitor. This is what happens within industries and the consequence is that industries are full of companies that keep pushing their own interests even if it harms others.

Here is a simple example that drives home this point. Suppose there are two companies manufacturing a certain good. Suppose Company A is can make their product with lesser cost to themselves, but it pollutes a river (or exploits foreign land, or uses child labor); Company B refuses to be so heinous, and thus has a higher price to its product. Company A will likely be more successful than Company B, and in the high stakes of business, all companies like Company B will be put out of business while only Company A types will remain.

It is futile to try to convince companies to act outside of their interests. However, there is still a way to persuade companies to act differently. The key is to shift their cost-benefit ratio so that acting in the interests of others is also acting their own interests. One way is through enforceable laws. A strict punishment, like for polluting the river or exploiting others, imposes a cost on the company and thus the company’s best self-interested strategy is to not break these rules. Another is by social economic enforcement. A company can punished by its consumers if they do not agree with the manner by which it operates. This works well when reputations are very important (they usually are) and it’s especially crucial that there is transparency to the company’s actions. It’s difficult to punish a company when we’re unaware of its awful tactics.

I believe most companies out there really want to do the morally conscious thing. Unfortunately, this often does not bode well for survival in the economic world and companies are left with the choice to either stand by its principles (and suffer great economic consequences) or to play along with the immoral game. Do you see other ways we can persuade companies to act in the interests of our global world?


on Jan 14, 2010

When you’re sick, a fever is actually good for you. This adaptive mechanism works by increasing the body temperature to a level that’s inhospitable to whatever pathogen is making you sick. Oddly enough, many over-the-counter medicines, as such Tylenol, are fever-reducers.  While the medicine makes one feel better, it actually extends the length of illness. The existence of such medicine gives the false impression that a fever is a bad thing. Yes, the presence of a fever does mean that one may be ill, but it also indicates that the body is naturally responding to the illness in a positive way.

However, we still have these medicines on the market. They are potentially misleading because they offer relief from the symptoms of illness (which they do) but they do little, or may even work against, real recovery. Unfortunately, for the public, it isn’t in the interests of drug companies to advertise the true nature of their product. Perhaps the government, which is supposed to represent the interests of the population, should be involved in such matters.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that these drugs should be banned or taken off the market. However, I do believe that anyone that considers these products be aware of their true consequences, negative and positive, to make a realistic decision. Some people may be willing to pay the cost of extended illness if they really want their illness symptoms out of the way for some important moment. That’s their decision to make and it should be an informed one rather that a misled one. Recent medical advice is consistent with the science as it states to “let the fever run its course.”  Perhaps there is hope in attaining greater transparency on drugs.

What are your thoughts on these over-the-counter drugs and do you use them?