Monday, August 23, 2010

Your sign board

Yesterday I read from the Internet a photograph of a sign board below.  It is supposed to be a joke of someone by putting it outside his house.  However, it struck me as being much more than a joke.  It has a philosophical undertone and reflects the reality and the dilemma we face everyday with regard to our personal data.

A philosopher said: You are just what you did.  What you are is the things you did that others remember you.  The things you did are your personal data.  Others need to know such data in other to remember, or even recognize, your existence.  If you want others to do something for you, which is now a daily essential event in the modern world, you need to flash your personal data around.

Your personal data is the sign board you display to the world outside your house.  Everyone walks by will look at it.  If the sign board says you need something and it is available with someone, he may offer the service.  A sign board displayed in public is not a private sign.  If it is displayed in public then you cannot ask the public not to read it.  The bottom line is: What is written on your sign board is your responsibility.  At least you have to write down sufficient personal data in order that others cold understand what you need.  Now the problem: He may pass on your personal data to someone else so that your need is met; or guess what your future needs are and act accordingly.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Drunkard's Walk

The Drunkard's Walk
How Randomness rules our lives
by Leonard Mlodinow

There are many books on randomness.  Most of them explore the very frequent random events occurring around us; that randomness is actually the norm in nature instead of the determinism and causality human beings seek.  Random walk is a scientific term describing the movement of atoms in fluid.  In fact, such phenomenon should be more accurately termed drunkard's walk.  The atom is moving in a path until it strikes another atom and changes course.  The event of meeting another atom is random.  It is like a drunkard who may think he is walking straight until he runs into someone or an obstacle which changes his direction.

However, the book is not about scientific phenomenon.  It is about the fact that randomness rules our lives.  There are illusions in life that we think events happened for a reason while they are not.  Chance plays a very significant part in the unfolding of the future.  We need to be clear about this fact and to develop the right attitude to deal with it.

A major part of the book is devoted to the history of the science of statistics: how it is developed slowly and for what reasons.  It helps build respect for this discipline of science and caution on the abuse of its use.  On numbers such as quantity, distance, size, etc, humans live within a very narrow range.  We are only comfortable with numbers we can observe in our daily live.  Very large numbers and very small numbers were mysterious some centuries ago.  Their explanation could only be given in theological term.

As science developed, many people were not comfortable with this belief.  They realized their limitation even in performing simple measurement.  The result was a revelation that there are errors in everything.  This conclusion spurred the development of the law of errors, where errors were duly acknowledged and respected.  The first formal presentation of errors is the standard deviation in scientific measurements.

Gambling is a human trait which separates us from other living things.  Gamble is a game we play for fun since many centuries ago, accepting chance as the rule of the game.  Very often it led to superstitious behaviour which is still seen today.  All along, some people gambled for a living.  Eventually there were conscious studies of the secret of winning the game.  The law of probability was developed from long term observation of the results of dice rolling and roulette turning.  Someone managed to make a fortune in spotting the abnormality of chance owing to defected dices and roulette wheels.  The method of probability eventually grew into the law of normal distribution and the Bell Curve.

The author explains in great length the human nature which tends to seeing chance as causality.  Long term observation of a phenomenon will sometimes lead to clustering of results.  They may be interpreted as positive results but they could actually be false positives occurring by chance.  Human mind has a confirmation bias.  We preferentially seek evidence to confirm our preconceived notions, and we interpret ambiguous evidence in favour of our ideas.  Our brains seek patterns in everything we see and interpret them as order, while many patterns could just occur by chance.

The conclusion of the book is that we need to realize how randomness rules our lives.  The determinism, fate and causality we believe may just be the result of chance.  The drunkard's walk has a special meaning other than its scientific definition.  We may be walking a path we wrongly believe as the definite way, but we may be the drunkards under the influence of alcohol.  Our lives will change course at every random event.  The best way to deal with it is the realization of the role of randomness and chance in our lives, and be prepared to distinguish between patterns and results happened by chance and those occurred for a reason.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Research in Motion may as well rest in peace.  The most powerful feature of its Blackberry phone is being banned in UAE, Saudi Arabia and India.  The feature is the encrypted email and SMS being sent to a server of choice.  It is different from many public-domain webmail and SMS services which transmit data unencrypted.

Blackberry's push-mail service, together with the secure transmission, has an edge over many smartphone competitors which just use the Internet public network.  Many corporations and even the US president use Blackberry.  Despite its small display screen and lack of functions, it still has a place in the market.

It is very interesting to see the development of the data privacy issue nowadays.  We all want transparency of information.  We want to know what is going on around us, to the extent that we even claim the right to information as a human right.  Any attempt to withhold information is seen as unethical.  Any cover up by any organizations, or individuals, on the truth of anything will be seen as a cardinal sin.  This is being used by the press as the spear as well as the shield in exposing information for a living.

On the other hand, we want to guard our own information.  We also claim that keeping our personal information secret is a human right.  The recent news coverage on the Octopus has created a phobia that our personal data are being made known to many.  I think from now on, it will be more difficult for the salesmen on the street to get any personal data by disguising as surveys, interviews, discount offers, and even charities.

The lesson of the Blackberry reveals a reality: That all governments want to know what is in your mind.  This is a marked difference from the Google China case where the government wants you not to know something.  Censorship on communication exists everywhere and in many forms, some on security issues, some on moral issues, and some on political issues.  They all boil down to the same action.  You may call these the trinity of censorship.  The Blackberry case is such reality in reverse.  Governments, as well as many organizations with an intention, are already acquainted with what is in our mind.  The US Government openly admits that she monitors telecommunication including telephone voice and the Internet traffic.  She has a huge operation and uses complex filtering technology to catch any mention of certain keywords, and could follow-up accordingly.  I presume many governments are doing the same.  So when UAE, Saudi Arabia and India found out that they are inconvenienced by the encrypted information in the intercepted Blackberry traffic, actions are taken to stop such service.  Personal data privacy is an illusion.

I read from some commentaries in the news that people in Hong Kong do not have much concern on their personal data privacy; that citizens think the leak of personal data would only lead to a few more mail advertisements or telephone calls; that the real issue is actually the violation of human right and the rule of law.  In fact, exchange of personal data is a normal activity in a society.  We often exchange name cards, and give our personal information in order to obtain personalized services.  People very often give out personal data of others in good intention, such as references to friends, potential employers, schools, and also, mark this shifting dividing line, to insurance companies, salesmen of valuable services, etc.  It is a matter of self interest whether such disclosure may do you good or disturb you.

Besides the case of personal data privacy, or any data privacy for that matter, the Blackberry case has a far reaching effect on information technology.  The processing, transmission and storage of data are also subject to such struggle: convenience vs privacy of information.  It has a direct impact on the latest development of cloud computing.  You may wish to read a more detailed description of cloud computing I wrote in 2008.   In short, the crux of cloud computing is just like the Blackberry traffic, that encrypted information is stored in the Internet instead of your computer.  There are now many such services for you to connect to an offsite server through the Internet for data backup, virtual drive, or offsite computing.  Since its inception some years ago, cloud computing is now taking off with the improvement of availability, i.e. fast and always-on Internet connection, and improvement of data security.  Seen from the Blackberry case, the security issue could be compromised.  The latest moves of Research in Motion and Google seem to suggest that companies are yielding to the pressure of governments in opening up private communication for monitoring and allowing censorship on Internet access.  The only protected communication may only exist in virtual private networks.  In the mean time, we need to bear in mind that what we are communicating could be monitored by others.