What does “Big Data” mean?

In an article in yesterday’s New York Times, Dennis Overbye writes about “Big Data”. This is a phrase that I deal with every day: my company, Aspera, writes software that can quickly copy huge amounts of data over the Internet. Many types of businesses generate Big Data: movie studios, where a full-resolution feature movie can consume more than 4TB; bio-tech firms, where DNA sequencing produces TBs of data, and the subsequent genomic analysis even more; web sites like YouTube which receive multiple TBs of video content every day and must store, organize and collate them for easy retrieval; and so on. This is what the computer industry means by “Big Data”.

But that’s not what Dennis Overbye meant in his New York Times article. He used “Big Data” to mean the heaps of data that Facebook, Google, or the Government are using to keep track of us and our buying habits, so that they know more about us than we do ourselves. Overbye meant “Big Data” with a clear allusion to George Orwell’s “Big Brother”. As he wrote, “Big Data is watching us, but who or what is watching Big Data?”

I am very interested in this unexpected usage of “Big Data”, especially as I use the phrase every day when talking with customers. In our Facebook Age, neologisms can go viral within days. If the computer industry loses control of “Big Data” we’ll be obliged to coin a new phrase to avoid the undesirable Orwellian overtones. I’d suggest one, but I haven’t thought it up yet.

It’s not about the bars or the antenna—but it is about PR.

Apple is certainly taking its lumps about the iPhone 4 antenna, and Apple’s competitors are no doubt loving the whole episode. But as Spencer Webb of AntennaSys so elegantly pointed out on This Week in Tech (two weeks before Consumer Reports dissed the iPhone), all you have to do is put a rubber case on the iPhone and the dropped calls will stop. You were going to put a case on your iPhone anyway, right?

Apple’s previous problem was having to admit that the iPhone iOS showed more signal-strength bars than it should have: but as Spencer Webb also pointed out on TWiT, that’s a complete red herring. There’s no such thing as two bars, or four bars. It’s digital, not analog. Back when phones were analog the bars mattered, but on digital phones bars are meaningless. You either have enough signal strength for a connection, or you don’t. Instead of bars, the signal indicator should be a big dot that’s either red or green. The only reason that phone companies continue to show the bars is because the public thinks bars still have meaning and demand that they be there.

We have created these reception problems ourselves. All tiny phones have congenital antenna problems, because the best antennas are big and long. Mobile phones used to have pull-out antennas, and reception would be far better if those still existed. But the public hated them, so they no longer exist. Yet we demand “five bars”.

All of which is to say that Apple has completely screwed up the public relations on AntennaGate. They could have said “bars are meaningless on digital phones,” but instead they apologized for the bug in iOS. They could have said “Human hands cause call drops on all smart phones,” but instead they pretended the problem didn’t exist. Now they’re providing free cases for all iPhone owners. This whole kerfuffle is one part technology and three parts PR.

The knapping o’ the flint

Yesterday I attended a delightful session at the Hillside Club on flintknapping, the process of making stone tools, with Dr Bruce Bradley. Far from just a technical demonstration about how to make knives out of rocks, it was a fascinating conversation about anthropology and ancient cultures before the invention of metallurgy.

Bruce Bradley describes the obsidian flake he will produce when he strikes the nodule in just the right way. His striking tools and another obsidian nodule are on the ground at left, other kinds of flint and chert nodules on the right.

First we watched Bruce’s 1988 video Flintknapping, where he makes four tools from a single piece of obsidian. I first thought he meant four individual finished obsidian tools, but in fact he meant four successive tools from the same piece of obsidian. Assuming that an archaic Native American hunter has just killed a bison, Bruce first made a knife with which to skin the bison. After the skinning process is finished, Bruce then reformed the skinning knife into a rougher, serrated tool for separating the meat from the bones. Once the meat has been removed, Bruce worked the tool into a thin knife for slicing the meat into strips (in order to dry and smoke the meat for preservation). The fourth and last tool in the sequence is a spearhead to attach to the spear so that the hunter is armed for the home journey (and because the hunter’s original spearhead was probably damaged when he killed the bison). Thus, what starts out as a large skinning knife ends up as a spearhead less than half the size.

An hour later, the Buchanan Eared arrowhead is nearing completion. Note all the flakes on the ground produced by the knapping process. Many of these can be made into smaller tools.

After the video, we all moved outside to watch Bruce create a “Buchanan Eared arrowhead”, which was the type made by the local Ohlone tribes. During his work, Bruce happily answered many questions, such as:

  • Is it possible to tell whether the maker of a given piece was right-handed or left-handed? Some people think so. It’s still a matter of discussion.
  • Do you ever find student-made pieces in an archaeological setting, as if it were an ancient classroom? Yes! There is a site in France where tools were dug up along with all the flakes from that tool’s production. By carefully piecing all the flakes together, the researchers were able to rebuild the original nodule and demonstrate the skill (or lack of it) as the piece was shaped. In several instances, they were able to show an beginner knapper who got stuck at a particular place, followed by a few expert strokes by the teacher to show the student how to fix the problem, followed by more novice clunking.
  • Do you agree with the hypothesis that the development of knapping technology went hand-in-hand with the development of human language? Lots of work is being done in this area. One researcher conducted two sets of training sessions with brand-new knapping students: one using standard English, and the other using no spoken words at all—only hand signals. He found that the ‘mute’ group could only progress so far: there existed situations where gestures could not help the students solve the problem at hand.
  • Are there many modern arrowheads on the market being represented as old authentic ones? Yes indeed, very many. Experts can generally tell them apart, but be extremely careful if you’re buying ancient artifacts.

Here are the electronics we recycled today

Yesterday was Earth Day, and today is electronics recycling day at our house. I’ve had a growing box of obsolete equipment for some time, because the last thing I want to do is throw that stuff into the landfill. Then my wife Arlene Baxter, Chair of the GREEN Council at the Berkeley Association of REALTORS®, organized an electronics recycling event at the BAR office. Here is what we recycled today:

Analog TV, scanner, laptop, firewall, modem, camera, floppy drives, serial switch and a bunch of cables. All obsolete. Don’t throw away, recycle!