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.

Am I a tech hoarder?

You have probably heard—or worse, experienced—stories of elderly men & women living amidst huge piles of debris: newspapers, clothes, food. Today I learned about a reality TV show called Hoarders where viewers can be duly shocked at how some people choose to live, presumably to assure themselves that their own piles of debris aren’t so bad considering. Following that logic comes an article in ITWorld about tech hoarders: geeks and nerds who keep piles of long-obsolete equipment, either because it’s still in perfectly good working order (you never know when you might need it), or for spare parts. Some of the photos are quite amusing, particularly the lamp stand made out of a pile of rack-mount Linux servers.

This got me thinking about whether I may be a tech hoarder. I’ve decided I’m not, with a few caveats. I do have lots of cables, but that’s a hard-learned lesson. Any tech job requires at least a few cables, and a missing $5 cable can hold up a $100,000 project. Back in 1988, my networking teacher told me “You’re not a network engineer, you’re a cable puller. If the cable doesn’t work, nothing works.” So I’ve always hung on to cables.

And yes, dear reader, I still have my Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III that I bought in 1980, and my original 512K Macintosh (“and you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984″), along with their software on 5″ and 3” floppy disks. Maybe I thought they’d be teaching props, or eventually, museum pieces. I think they will eventually be museum pieces, but eventually is probably still a long time from now.

Hoarding, of course, is not the same thing as collecting. I plead guilty to collecting on several counts: chiefly books, but I still have all my LPs (remember those?) and I now own four accordions. A collection may not always be tidy, but it is lovingly cared for, and the collector knows exactly where a given item can be found. I shall wax eloquently on collecting in another blog post.

So what’s my next step? I’m getting rid of some stuff tomorrow at an electronics recycling event in Berkeley, organized by my wife Arlene Baxter on behalf of the Berkeley Association of Realtors. In the pile so far is an old television, a dead PC and a bunch of old cables and DC converters. Ok, so I am getting rid of a few cables. I’m pretty sure I’ll never need them again. I think.

Off the grid

After discovering that a favorite physical therapist no longer worked at the clinic, I thought to myself “hey, no problem, I’ll find him online.” Except that I couldn’t: Google, Facebook, white pages, name misspellings… all my attempts failed. The fellow seemed to have no online presence at all. At first I was frustrated, then I laughed at myself. How quickly we become accustomed to the new reality — just fifteen years ago the Web didn’t exist.

The ability to ‘disappear’ and re-emerge elsewhere with a new identity is as old as history. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus returns home to Ithaka after 20 years and pretends to be a beggar: as no one recognized him, he could have remained so indefinitely. In the California Gold Rush, many men chose to leave their old lives behind, giving themselves new names and life stories. This was paralleled in the 1960s and 70s, notably by gay men escaping small towns for more tolerant cities such as New York and San Francisco.

Today, it is essentially impossible to disappear and move unnoticed to another state, another country, another continent. We can’t board an airplane without our ID. We can’t take our money because it’s all electronic and traceable. We can’t hide because everyone in the world has a TV and a cell phone camera.

So where did my physical therapist go? Darn!


Yesterday at the Usenix Technical Conference in San Diego, I listened to a delightful talk about the Antikythera Mechanism, a 2000-year-old bronze object recovered from a shipwreck in 1901 but only later recognized as an astronomical calculator.

The speaker, Diomidis Spinellis, has written a software emulation of the mechanism, allowing the viewer to see how the different sets of gears move. There’s a particularly ingenous pair of gears known as k1 and k2, which help represent the Moon’s elliptical orbit.