Thursday, August 23, 2007

Search engines

Research work is now quite easy with massive data on the Internet. Many people depend on the Internet for information. You can type anything in any search engine and you will be given much information related to any topic you like. It is so common nowadays that such action has become natural to us. We do not have a second thought in using the Internet as the most common and versatile source of almost all information.

We know that the Internet is not benign. It is a jungle out there and we have to be aware of all sort of traps. So, please also be aware of the search engines of large companies because your personal data is leaking while you search.

All servers of search engines log information whenever someone does a web search. The data logged are search keywords, IP addresses of the search requests and information in cookies. Cookies can authenticate the user and keep information such as the user's preferences. With such information, the identity of the user can be traced. The search engine companies may not normally do the trace, but there are incidents that assistance is given to the police for the tracking down of criminals. The companies however would do behavioural targeting for the purpose of advertisement placement and data-mine the database of search records for marketing research.

Recently, Google announced a new policy on search data privacy that the company would anonymize the final eight bits of the IP address and the cookie data of search records after 18 months. The information on specific searches would remain indefinitely. However, Google also acknowledged that log anonymization would not guarantee that the government could not be able to identify a specific computer or user, although it would add another layer of privacy protection to the user data.

CNet recently did report on the topic on the topic based on interviews with several large search engine companies on their practices. These companies are now undergoing a trade war on the front of search engine privacy policy. There are advertisements on their privacy policy to the effect that their customers are better protected. Whatever the policy, it seems personal data is leaked in the first instance when you search.

Five companies were surveyed:, AOL, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. appeared to be the best claiming that the search records would be deleted within hours with nothing done on them. All other companies kept the records for a year to one and a half years. Two companies linked user information to the search records and three companies did behavioural targeting.

Whether this constitutes to personal data privacy violation is a personal judgment. I think it is unavoidable to release some personal data when you use the services of others. The main issue is to defend ourselves on illegal and harmful use of the personal data. Besides the pledge of the companies on data security, we need to be alert of our assets in cyberspace and be vigilant all the time.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Illusion of freedom

In considering different views of different groups on the Queen's Pier saga, I brought up the issue of freedom in honouring opposite views on grounds of freedom of speech. Freedom is not confined to freedom of speech. Freedom of action is another important aspect. Freedom of the will also has a deep philosophical meaning. The Queen's Pier saga is a non-issue to me. Anyone these days can data-mine the internet and come up with a few pages of arguments for and against any topic. The issue of freedom that emerges from the saga is many-fold. First, the freedom of speech is well preserved. People can freely express their mind. Second, freedom of action is conflicting. It is not possible to have the best of both worlds. Third, are we really free in our stand on the issue? Are there hidden causes, or prejudice, that made us think that way?

I wrote some notes of reading on the free will from a book of rudimentary philosophy. The question of free will was well explored in the past by renowned philosophers, but the conclusions are diverse. The debate on determinism and indeterminism passed down the centuries and people just chose to believe what suited them. The notion that everything is determined and has a cause is one of the beliefs of some religions. On the other hand, many people are keen to hold their destiny themselves and consider that mankind being supreme must be free. Some religion gurus tried to explain by saying God is omniscient and omnipotent and at the same time God gives mankind a choice. This conflicting idea is a puzzle to many.

However, freedom could be an illusion which exists only in the human mind. When human being evolved to the point of attaining self-consciousness, his mind was freed to recognise himself as the first person entity. The interaction with everything else became subordinate to the first person and there were many ways available to him in dealing with everything and with different consequences; thus the unrestricted free will. Human being are able to imagine anything real or not real.

Being born free is just an imagination and exists only in the mind. As soon as human comes into this world, he is actually not free. The first hurdle is the physiological constraints. We may wish to climb over the cliff and fly to the other side, but our inability to fly restricts our freedom. Early human might be free to roam the land and go wherever he wished. However, the constraint of the landscape and the threat of other competitive wild animals, both preys and predators, dictated the movement. They could only follow food and water, and avoid dangerous ground.

Coming into the modern age of the last few thousand years, human solved the problem of food and shelter, and reasonably achieved some personal security. The mind was set to ponder the orders of the world. There was an old saying that the mind was like a white sheet of paper. Before you were free to write on it, people came write on it for you. From early childhood to adolescence, human was continuously fed one-sided knowledge and value. Experts in psychology said that family influence and education at childhood were the major factors in shaping one's character, while children did not have the freedom to choose. It will take tremendous efforts and many years of mature learning to be able to get back a little more free will. Many never do.

Perhaps the insurmountable hurdle to freedom is that it quite commonly conflicts with others. Human discovered this fact at the very early stage of evolution. Running free on your own chasing food or being chased for food was just too dangerous. Co-operating with others would be advantageous in providing better security, better chance of getting food, and improving the chance of survival. The cost of such actions was that some freedom had to be surrendered. Living in a community would mean that a member had to concede some of his freedom when it would conflict with others. A member could not have all the food but have to share it, and had to face the danger of organized fight against threat instead of avoiding it. The restriction to freedom has evolved into moral senses like co-operating with others, respecting others, being altruistic or just plain polite.

Now the difficult part. As societies evolved, there came many forms of hierarchy, from clan leaders to kings and emperors, bishops and imams. In many cases, there was an unequal share of freedom. Just over 200 years ago, we finally evolved into a form of democratic society where it was claimed that all men/women are created equal, and they are all free persons under democracy. But how can they be all free when there are so many conflicting elements around. So far, the accepted rule of the game for democracy is the majority rule, that when there is a conflict, the minority must obey the majority. This is sometimes called the tyranny of democracy. How can this be maintained? If we set aside the civilized manner of some modern human being, the majority rule scenario is a natural phenomenon because the majority usually have the upper hand in resources and power. They normally win in battles. It is a wise move not to engage in violent conflict where the majority would win anyway. Thus the minority submit freedom. In a civilized society, there is a gentlemen agreement that the view of the majority is the way to go. But is it really the case? What about the minority, and their freedom? Take for example in a free society where people have divergent views on things, the proportion of the majority to minority could be small, say only 55 to 45. If the minority value their freedom and think that they act morally, they could rebel. This is not uncommon in many democratic societies where protests are frequently seen against majority decisions. Think Gandhi and Martin Luther King, who advocated the philosophy of nonviolent resistance against the establishment. There are also many examples of coup d'etat on democratic governments; just to show some of the cases of minority rising against the majority. In any of these cases, whether for good or bad or true or false democracy, freedom was at stake, and people were not content. The Queen's Pier saga can be likened in a similar manner. It is not relevant that the issue has gone through the process of consultation, legislation, administration and judicial consideration, supposedly by the majority rule, it can still be argued on citizens' rights and freedom that the minority, self-proclaimed as majority, could take on nonviolent resistance, thus infringing the freedom of the other side. The result is that only one side could have total freedom of action. For now, at least both sides could have the freedom of speech.

Seen from another angle, public choice is another attempt to capture freedom. Public choice is an entire system of democracy where the public at large choose the direction and decide on issues concerning public sector management and public policy making. In practice, it operates under a representative system where elites get elected to act on behalf of the people. Although the people has an illusion of freedom in electing the representatives, they actually give up their freedom to the elected representatives based on empty promises and flowery speeches. The checks and balances are not very effective. Representatives may be elected on a marginal majority. Once elected, they are only required to please a marginal majority of that marginal majority. Election engineering recurs every few years and the public is again the target of freedom robbery. This is a bigger subject where we could seek better literature. However, explaining public choice mechanism could not make it better. There is a theory that we could put everything on universal suffrage. In the present world, technology could allow us to do so by recording the wish of every person on every issue. But this still could not solve the problem of the illusion of freedom because of, first, the majority rule, and second, that our freedom was already contaminated at childhood and that we may only think as we were told.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The top 10 dying computer skills

IT evolves very quickly. New products are coming into the market by the month. The skills required to handle the technology have to be updated frequently. This is always a problem for the technicians that they have to keep on learning new techniques, some from scratch. IT managers are a little bit better because managerial skills may stay a little longer than technology. Although IT managers may not be required to handle day-to-day technical details, they have to keep abreast of the development in the field and know the whats and whys.

I was amused to read an article from Network World Asia on the top 10 dying computer skills. This is the thing which IT managers have to keep in mind: to know the usefulness of the skills of your technicians. The article actually said dead computer skills, but there is still a little demand on some of the skills as there are some companies which are using old IT infrastructure set up some years ago. Technicians with old skills can still make a living, for the time being, on maintenance work.

The list of 10 may not be agreed by everybody. There are certainly more than 10 obsolete skills; and someone is certainly still using the old technology and happy about it. Just take a look below to refresh your mind.

1. Cobol - The last time the Cobol rush is the Y2K delusion when very old machines were to be rescued. Not any more now.

2. Non-relational DBMS - They have been replaced by the relational DBMS approach, embodied by SQL databases such as DB2, Oracle and Microsoft SQL Server.

3. Non-IP networks - TCP/IP has largely taken over the networking world, and as a result, there is less demand than ever for IBM Systems Network Architecture (SNA) skills.

4. cc:Mail - This store-and-forward LAN-based e-mail system from the 1980s was once used by about 20 million people. However, as e-mail was integrated into more-complex systems such as Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange, its popularity waned, and in 2000, it was withdrawn from the market.

5. ColdFusion - This once-popular Web programming language released in the mid-1990s has been superseded by other development platforms, including Microsoft's Active Server Pages and .Net, as well as Java, PHP and other open-source languages.

6. C programming - As the Web takes over, basic C languages are also becoming less relevant, although C++ and C Sharp are still alive.

7. PowerBuilder - Today, PowerBuilder developers are at the very bottom of the list of in-demand application development and platform skills, with pay about equal to Cobol programmers. Nevertheless, PowerBuilder 11 expected to be released this year, which has the ability to generate .Net code, may still be available.

8. Certified NetWare Engineers - Everyone had Novell in the 90's. But within a two-year period, they'd all switched to NT. Novell has retired several of its NetWare certifications, including Master CNE and NetWare 5 CNE, and it plans to retire NetWare 6 CNE.

9. PC network administrators - With the accelerating move to consolidate Windows servers, some see substantially less demand for PC network administrators.

10. OS/2 - Initially created by Microsoft and IBM and released with great fanfare in 1987, the collaboration soon unraveled. IBM finally discontinued sales in 2005.