Monday, November 29, 2010

Nerd Comics Might Save Humanity, Too

It looks like Randall Munroe is back in action at writing XKCD comics again, which hopefully implies good news.

But seeing his latest post reminded me of this one, which I briefly referenced back in July.

One of the things that I like about XKCD is that he puts some extra stuff in the "hover text". It only appears when you hover your mouse over the image of the comic. So you can only really experience it by going to the actual site (

These extra bits of hover-text are usually very funny. They've become a bonus that you eagerly await after reading the comic itself. Kind of like the prize at the bottom of the Kracker Jack box. But even when they don't initially seem completely related to the comic itself, they can throw a whole different twist onto the message. In this case, the comment turns what was already an awesome comic into one that will probably be my all-time favorite single comic strip:

"Maybe we're all gonna die, but we're gonna die in *really cool ways*."

This was supposed to be part of the Sci Fi Writers Will Save Humanity post, but it really deserved a post of its own.

Why is this one comic strip so important to me? Well, for one, I tend to be a bit a fault. I'm the girl standing behind the chair. I enjoy thinking about where the world is going, but this comic is also a reminder to me that I should live in the present, too. After many years of being told this by people I trust, I'm finally learning that I have to live in today's reality in order to have any chance of helping build the grand future I see.

But the hover-text is the real gem, here. In one sentence, it has solidified my approach to a future that is incredibly exciting, but simultaneously frightening and filled with potential for disaster.

The future will come. That much is certain and unavoidable. Like it or not, there's a possibility that it will be really, really, bad. But if you take an active role in shaping it, you'll (a) hopefully help avoid the really bad stuff, and (b) have one heck of a ride while it all unfolds.

So I chose to be excited about it all, while doing the best I can to ensure it comes out in a good way. If it doesn't turn out the way I want, I'll still enjoy being part of this moment in history.

Reminds me of something my father said long ago, the day I came home from school after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. "You know, everyone has to go sometime. But if you could pick your ending, what an awesome way to go!"

Monday, November 22, 2010

Where Does Scientific Data Go to Die?

John Timmer has a fantastic series of articles going over at Ars Technica. It has really drawn me back into the thoughts that initially triggered my decision to start TelemetryWeb.

I don't want to regurgitate all of the information in his articles, but the gist of it is that there are no good solutions for capturing, storing, and archiving scientific data. It isn't hard to imagine the massive amounts of data that have been lost on floppy diskettes that got stashed in some research professor's desk. And even if you had the disk, do you have the complete technology stack required to read it? You'd need the disk, the correct drive, the right kind of computer, and a program to read the bits.

Switching gears a bit (but not really all that much, as you'll see), initiatives like are really cool, because they encourage scientists to make their data available online. serves as a directory for scientific data sets. Want to download raw data about the migrations of Canadian Geese? You might find a link to it there.

But that's part of the problem, too: All you'll get is a link. It is up to the research project to find a place to put the data online, and maintain it for all eternity. How often do researchers get grants to keep their data online? A friend who works at the University of Minnesota School of Agriculture says that doesn't happen very often. In fact, one of her recent projects had a five-year plan. The first four years were the bulk of the research, and the fifth year was building a system to get the findings online. Funding was suddenly dropped after the fourth year. So a publicly-funded institution spent four years doing some really useful research, which could help farmers save millions of dollars and reduce the amount of chemicals they use to combat disease. But all that research is sitting in a drawer somewhere. Unused.

But let's say that you found something on that is actually available. Great! What then? Do you understand the format of the data? Do you need a proprietary software package to read it? Is there any information about how the data was collected? What instruments or techniques were used? Is the data applicable to the work you are trying to do? What are the error factors and quality metrics? Alas, doesn't address those issues.

TelemetryWeb has thus far been focused on commercial applications simply because lots of smart people have told me that there's no viable business model in the scientific research community. They may be correct, but I'd love to have an opportunity to prove them wrong. But in either case, I'd love to see TelemetryWeb used to support scientific research. I've always been a bit of a science nerd, and started out as a physics major. It is simply a personal interest of mine, and it would make me feel good.

But the thing is, I really don't see the problems of the scientific community as being significantly different from the commercial problems that TelemetryWeb is trying to solve, anyway. Long-term data warehousing, good meta-data catalogs, owner control over data sharing or publication, and the ability to collaborate across geographical and organizational boundaries are all challenges that I've personally faced in my work developing commercial applications.

There are certainly a lot of scientific applications where TelemetryWeb won't always be a good fit, at least as it is designed currently. But I've already spoken with several people about scientific research projects, and I'd be happy to chat with more people on the subject.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sci Fi Writers Will Save Humanity

I wrote a few weeks ago about the latest IBM Internet of Things video, called System of Systems, on YouTube. If you didn't read that post, the thing that surprised me the most was how the tone changed from their first video, clearly trying to address the fear that many people have when they first start comprehending the Internet of Things.

The worst thing that the Internet of Things industry can do is to ignore or trivialize these fears. Even if you believe that these fears don't have the power to stop the continuing evolution of technology (they don't), it doesn't mean that these fears should be allowed to simply exist without discussion, or that we can't learn something from them.

Queue the sci fi novelists! Depending on your definition, science fiction has existed for hundreds of years. The Wikipedia article also describes the genre as being difficult to define. But one item that seems a likely common ground for identifying a work of science fiction is that the author takes a "what if" approach to technology. What if humans could travel faster than light (Star Trek)? What if we lived in a world of continual surveillance (Brave New World)? What if we could actually travel under the sea for long distances and long periods of time (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea)?

These may be works of fiction, but they have an uncanny knack for picking out how technology impacts individuals and society. In fact, that's kind of the whole point of the genre, and what makes it interesting.

Of course, that doesn't mean they're going to be correct in their predictions! In fact, they probably aren't. For one thing, very few people seem to be very good at telling the future. But for another thing, we need to remember that these books are written to tell a story. They're entertainment, first. There's a double-edged sword in effect here. The best stories are about how the hero saves the world from a wide-spread evil. And that evil is usually either technology itself, or empowered by technology.

So we have to be careful about understanding where the realistic and interesting ideas stop and the story-telling begins. But that doesn't mean they're useless. The best ones frequently identify non-obvious interactions between societal traits and how the technology amplifies them. The way a good writer can trigger the imagination is very powerful in both shaping how we think and in giving other people new ideas.

But the most important aspect of the science fiction novel is how we can all relate to them. The popularity of the genre over the past fifty years has given the average person (in the affluent countries, at least) a keen awareness to technology that simply didn't exist ever before in history. We still have a long way to go to educate the public about the impacts of technology on privacy and other rights, but without science fiction, it is likely we wouldn't be able to hold a meaningful conversation on the topic at all.

Of course, a futurist is likely to have more meaningful and potentially accurate information about how technology will shape our lives. But unfortunately, they just don't usually tell a very good story!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Internet of Missing-Some-Things, Part 1

The Internet of Things buzz seems to be all over the place. It is certainly on the cusp of becoming a big market, and there's no doubt in my mind it will be huge. But before it can really rocket to the #1 technology revolution that it promises it can be, someone needs to solve a couple of key issues. Until then, it will still be the "Internet of Missing-Some-Things."

The IoT revolution was technically possible decades ago. When you can buy a device that can send data to the Internet, the technical possibilities expand greatly. But it wasn't economically or practically possible. It was too expensive to buy lots of devices like that. Even if you could afford the devices, the bandwidth was expensive and difficult to find, and you needed a pretty hefty power source to power it. So applications of devices that connected to the Internet were typically (1) relatively expensive, like PC's and web servers, and (2) limited by proximity to high bandwidth, like...well...PC's and web servers installed on a wired network, and (3) limited by high power demands, guessed it.

The three big drivers of IoT as it stands today are the huge downward cost pressures on "smart" device hardware, huge downward cost pressures on the cost of connectivity, and a relatively large increase in availability of network connectivity. Now that you can buy a cheap device that is smart enough to talk on the Internet, and the Internet is available in lots more places, IoT can become a reality.

But the real IoT revolution is still out of arm's reach. There's still two missing pieces of the puzzle: True ubiquitous connectivity, and ubiquitous electrical power for small devices.

As a server-side software developer who lives in a metropolitan area, it seems like there is power and connectivity everywhere. But talk to anyone who is building an embedded device, and you'll see that power and network connectivity are still relatively difficult to come by. Rural areas are an obvious example here. Farmers are still relatively limited in the monitoring devices they can use, simply because cell networks and power lines often don't cover their fields.

But even in places where you'd think it'd be easy to plop down a device, it isn't. It is still a relatively difficult conversation to convince a building owner to run power and Ethernet to the bowls of the elevator shaft, or into every corner of the warehouse.

Until power and connectivity is ubiquitous, the IoT revolution will always be somewhat limited. Fortunately, people are already working on those problems.