Archive for August, 2010

Condensation Computing

It’s a frequent observation that computing has oscillated between centralized and distributed. We’ve gone from centralized computing facilities (which were effectively single-user, but only the administrators could use them) to time-sharing to personal computers to server farms. Data has moved from the card deck you kept in your office to the tape deck at the computer center to the hard disk on your personal computer to the hard disk on a centralized server to a cloud site like Flickr. E-mail has moved from a mailbox on a timesharing system to your personal computer to a cloud site like GMail. People increasingly access data from their phones, but the data is stored in the cloud.

Right now we are clearly in a distributed trend. Data is increasingly stored in the cloud and accessed from a variety of devices. People shift from phones to laptops to desktops and expect to see the same list of contacts, the same e-mail, the same calendar. The cloud sites are an extreme version of centralization: millions of users store their data in the same place. What will the computing world look like when and if it oscillates back to a more distributed system?

One possibility is that people will increasingly acquire their own data storage which will be accessible over the net. They’ll keep small cheap redundant servers to hold their data. They’ll have one server at home and one at the office, and they will automatically sync up. Access will be very fast most of the time, and will be possible at over times. The servers will be updated automatically and so forth, and they will (somehow) be easy to administer. The advantage will be fast access to data most of the time and actual control over your data. If you want to delete something, it’s gone, and not available for resurrection.

That particular vision is easy for me to think of because it’s similar to our ideas when I co-founded a company, Zembu, back in 1998. I don’t know how compelling it is. I suspect that going back to a distributed environment will require some cost advantage, and I’m not sure I see that here. Much of cloud computing these days tends to be free, in the sense that advertising pays the bills. Few people will spend money to avoid ads. Few is more than zero, but it’s not enough to build a business on.

During any predominant paradigm it’s difficult to see what the next paradigm will be. History suggests that we will oscillate back, that the cloud will condense at some point. But history is not always right. It seems inherently unlikely to me that data will increasingly be centralized. But I don’t know what the alternative will look like.

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Changing Minds

I’ve long felt that most people do not change their minds about things that are important to them, including areas like religion and politics. I think most people seem to pick a set of beliefs sometime in early adulthood or before and stick to them. It’s not that people are necessarily close-minded as such. It’s just that there are major aspects of life for which no argument can be sufficiently convincing in practice.

This has always just been a pet belief of mine. I’ve rarely managed to convince people that it is correct, which of course just reinforces my belief. Oddly, however, there was recently some scientific research which somewhat supports it. The theory is, essentially, that people disregard facts that disagree with their beliefs in order to reduce cognitive dissonance. The research was based on facts seen in news reports, so one interpretation of it is that people don’t believe the news, and that it doesn’t say anything about personal conversations. Still, I find it interesting, and of course, if true, it has implications for the ideal of an informed voting population.

Here is a Google Docs link to the study. Here is a Boston Globe article. I don’t expect you to be convinced, unless of course you already are.

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Medical Side-Effects

My aunt died 12 days ago. I don’t want to write about my personal feelings about this, but I do want to write something about the events that led to her death. I don’t know all the details, but this is the basic story I heard as it evolved. Two or three years ago, at the age of 60, my aunt had a chest X-ray for some reason. She was in reasonably good health, but this X-ray picked up an unexpected growth of some sort. The doctor recommended that they wait six months and take another look. After six months, they looked again, and the growth was still there, and, though it was hard to be certain, it might have gotten slightly larger. The doctors started discussing the possibility of doing a biopsy to see if it was cancerous. My aunt was understandably alarmed about all this, and on the advice of a doctor agreed to go ahead with the biopsy.

I don’t know exactly where the growth was, but the operation for the biopsy was major. They had to left up the rib cage and make a major incision in the chest. I spoke to her just after the operation and she was still grappling mentally with how major it was, how weak she felt, and what her projected recovery was going to be like. As it happened, she never truly recovered. While she did leave the hospital for a time, she had a series of increasingly serious infections due to the side-effects from the operation, and spent more and more time at the hospital. After a couple of years of this, she died from one of the infections. The biopsy showed that the growth was benign, and she would have been fine if nothing had been done.

This all happened in the U.S., where medicine has a strong bias toward doing something rather than nothing. Doctors get paid when something is done, not when nothing is done. I believe that U.S. culture in general is biased toward taking action rather than waiting. It would be unfair of me to blame this entirely on the medical system. Once the growth was detected, my aunt would have worried about it if nothing had been done. But I don’t think she truly understood what she was getting into with the operation even if all had gone well.

In the end, she died at the age of 62. The cause of death was the modern medical system. Perhaps she would have done better if she had felt differently about the information, or if she had gotten different advice, or if she had lived in a different country. We’ll never really know. But it’s certainly hard to feel comfortable about what actually happened.

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