Thursday, September 29, 2011

Online Privacy is a Myth

Online privacy has become a major concern. With the rapid growth of social media and mobile devices people are spending considerable time on the internet. According to comScore Media Metrix average American net surfers spent 32 hours per month in 2010.

According to the recent Nielsen report, 80% of active internet users visit social networks and blogs. Facebook is the most visited U.S. website. Nearly 40% mobile owners use their mobile phones to access social media content.

The norms of privacy have changed over years. A few years back people were scared to have an online presence but now have gotten savvy enough to put frequent status updates. We have become comfortable sharing our geographic location, associations, education, work history and pictures of ourselves and our loved ones. Friendship is not just limited to people but even to brands. Such information is key to online advertisers who can then target customized ads.

In October 2010, Wall Street Journal broke a story on Facebook how most of the popular Facebook apps had been transmitting people's names and in some cases their friends names to at least 25 advertising and data firms that track online activities of users. RapLeaf was one of such tracking companies that compiles and sells information on users online activities. The company had linked Facebook user ID information obtained from apps to its own database of Internet users, which it sells.

Wall Street Journal recently reported that Facebook is nearing a settlement with Federal Trade Commission (FTC) if approved would require Facebook to get explicit consent from its 800 million users before making privacy changes. The probe started when Facebook made changes to users account that exposed their names, pictures and other personal information which the user had specifically confined to specific people. As part of the proposed settlement, Facebook would also submit to government reviews of its privacy practices for 20 years.

Google has had similar issues with its soon to be shut down Google Buzz service where they exposed the users contacts to general public through their profile page without consent. Google entered into a similar pact with FTC on the issue.

Klout, a startup, that integrates with Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and many more to measure just how effective one's online presence is also ran into a privacy issue. Klout was creating auto-profiles for users including children who never registered for one with them. After the huge uproar Klout is no longer creating auto-profiles for anyone and user can delete existing profiles.

In the age of social networks its hard to keep yourself off of one so it is critical to understand the impact of information you share online. Understand the privacy settings of your online accounts to adopt tighter privacy control. Here's the disheartening part, even with such settings there is no guarantee. Even though you may not disclose personal information, but your online friends may unknowingly do it, referring to your school or employer, gender, location and interests. Computing power has grown exponentially to correlate all this information to produce a social signature of you which can be quite accurate.

The best advice is to realize that your online activities are more public than you may think and so act accordingly.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Apple iPhone Rumor Mill

On September 27 Apple announced iPhone event on October 4 which read "Let’s talk iPhone". Whether we will see a new iPhone 5 or an iPhone 4GS remains to be seen. The rumor mill is grinding like previous iPhone releases. Lets take a look at the how the iPhone 4 rumors turned out.

Release DateApril 2010June 2010
Network4G LTE3G
CPU Speed> 2 GHz1 GHz
Graphics chipPowerVR SGX545 GPUPowerVR SGX535 GPU
Maximum Storage64 GB model32 GB model
Camera5 megapixel with LED flash5 megapixel with LED flash
Screen Resolutionhigher than 320x480640x960 @ 326ppi
ApplicationsVideo chatVideo chat - Facetime

In addition to the above list there were various other rumors including stylus, push antenna, bumpy screen fueled by patents that Apple filed over the years.

Here is a list of rumors for next iPhone release (a.k.a iPhone 5).
  • Hardware improvements - Faster CPU with dual core A5 chip, 1 GB memory, improved graphics chip PowerVR SGX543, fully HD 8MP camera, bigger 4 inch display, slide out keyboard.
  • Applications - Voice navigation, iCloud, iOS 5.
  • Carriers - Sprint in addition to existing AT&T and Verizon.
The good part is that we don't have to wait much longer to find out.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Cognitive Computing Chips

Advancement in computer chips over the last few decades have been focused on getting things faster and more compact. Fundamentally the chip design hasn't changed over the last 50 years, is still based on Von Neumann architecture of sequential execution of instruction sets.

IBM Research recently announced a new generation of computer chips that are designed to emulate human brain's abilities for perception, action and cognition. Cognitive chips are designed to process large amounts of data using very little power. Unlike traditional computers it does not require any programming rather learns from experiences, finds correlations, creates hypotheses - and learns from - the outcomes, emulating the human brain.

To mimic the cognitive abilities of brain, IBM brought together the disciplines of neuroscience, nanoscience and supercomputing. The digital circuits inspired by neurobiology constitute “neurosynaptic core” with integrated memory (replicated synapses), computation (replicated neurons) and communication (replicated axons). There are two working prototypes - one core contains 262,144 programmable synapses and the other contains 65,536 learning synapses.

Why is this important? Such a system can find wide ranging use. By monitoring the world water supply it can analyze ocean temperature, pressure, wave height and develop a decision model to accurately predict tsunamis. By monitoring financial transactions it can prevent fraud and spurious activity.

This does sound science fiction. Are we closer to building truly intelligent systems that can replace humans? Only time will tell, for now I am excited to be living in such exciting times.

To read more about the technology, click here.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Incentivized Innovation using Crowdsourcing

Heritage Provider Network, a California physicians group announced a competition, the goal of which is to develop a predictive algorithm that can identify patients that will be admitted to a hospital within the next year using historical claims data. The competition started on 4 April 2011 and will run until 3 April 2013, grand prize money is $3 million along with milestone prizes totaling $230,000.

Contest entrants will be provided with deidentified Heritage patient records collected over a period of 3 years. The contestants can participate individually or as a member of a Team.

Heritage believes this can be game changing in our efforts to fixing American health care system. In 2006 more than $30 billion was spent in unnecessary hospitalizations. By predicting how many days the patient spends in the hospital, health care providers will be able to take better preventive measures thereby reducing unnecessary hospitalizations. This will be a win-win for both patients and the providers.

Heritage isn't the first to use such incentivized competition approach, applying Internet enabled crowdsourcing to solve complex scientific problems. In 2006, Netflix the online movie rental company held a contest, the goal was to improve their Cinematch recommendation engine accuracy rate by more than 10%. The dataset comprised of 100 million movie ratings from scrubbed clean Netflix customer data. According to the website, 51051 contestants on 41035 teams from 186 countries participated with the winner walking away with a prize money of $1 million in late 2009.

This is truly remarkable as it allows the scientists and researchers from around the world to apply their expertise in solving large-scale predictive modeling to solve problems in various fields of science, commerce and politics.

Space Tourism is real

Is space tourism for real? It has actually been for a while (over the past decade) but only to select individuals who paid somewhere between $20 million to $35 million. Russian Soyuz capsule flew the space tourists to International Space Station for a period of about 10 days. The exorbitant cost involved and safety concerns have been large impediments.

This may change in very near future. Virgin Galactic is promising to make it safe and affordable. Tickets would cost $200,000 and the company already has started bookings for the trips. Already the company has booked hundreds of future astronauts from all over the world. The timeline for the actual travel though is not yet clear.

Founded by Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, The Spaceship Company headquartered at Mojave Air and Space Port is actively engaged in building the first fleet of commercial spaceships (SpaceShipTwos) and carrier aircraft (WhiteKnightTwos) that will constitute Virgin Galactic's fleet.

In 2006, Federal Aviation Administration came out with more than 120 pages of rules for space tourism that covers everything from passenger medical standards to pre-flight training of the crew. Virgin Galactic claims that the required medical assessments are simple and nonrestrictive and most people with good health should be able to clear.

Are you ready for space tourism or the bigger question is do you have the $200,000 to take the leap?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Selenium Tips for better automation

Selenium provides a powerful and yet simple way to write and execute automated browser tests but poorly designed tests can add a lot of maintainability headache. Here are some tips that I have learnt using Selenium.

1. Use CSS Selectors rather than XPATH
They are faster and much more readable. Don't just take my word for it, read more at this blog.

2. Use UI Map for storing UI object locators
The idea here is to use a central place to store all the UI object locators of application under test. This is advantageous in two ways. This makes the logic in the tests cleaner thereby easier to read and less prone to modifications when application UI changes. The maintainability improves as there is only one place to make changes when application UI does change which happens all the time.

3. Use waitForCondition instead of timeout
In the Web 2.0 world we find a lot of pages using dynamic elements that load asynchronously without loading the parent page. The classic method waitForPageToLoad fails miserably and very often people resort to using certain timeout assuming the element will be available after that. This technique is very inefficient and error prone. Instead use the waitForCondition. The method takes two arguments - a javascript snippet that evaluates to a boolean value and a timeout in milliseconds. The javascript snippet is run repeatedly until it evaluates to "true" or until the timeout is reached after which the command returns an error.

4. Write user extensions to extend selenium api for your application
Sometimes its more efficient to have Selenium execute your custom Javascript functions natively. Extending selenium to add your own actions, assertions and locator strategies is easy, more information can be found in the official selenium documentation here.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality as the name suggests is reality that has been augmented by computer generated elements like sound, graphics and text. For example the yellow first down line shown in the television broadcasts of American football games.

Now with the explosion of portable electronic devices augmented reality may start to find even more interesting uses in everyday lives of people. Mobile app development company Layar is one of the first to deliver AR on the mobile phone. Using Layar development kit users can create AR apps that uses mobile phone's camera, GPS and compass feed. The technology can be a big hit with publishers and brand agencies who can provide more targeted ads based on what you are viewing.

Interestingly even Apple is considering its use. In February 2010, Apple filed a patent with US Patent and Trademark Office titled "Augmented Reality Maps". In Apple's method, the device using its camera, geographic position, direction and tilt can determine what objects are being viewed. The device than overlays additional information regarding the current object in view thus enhancing reality. The video feed could not only show facts about the object in view but also provide information on more-distant object. The user can then interact with the display (touch screen) and select other distant objects whose information is available currently. If the user chooses to request directions to the remote object the directions will be overlaid onto the presently displayed video feed.

How is this different from other AR apps that exist today? Apple notes that to achieve the same in other applications user must switch application or at minimum the AR view. This transition can be confusing to the user who now has to relate the objects in the augmented view with the real objects.

This is an interesting area and we will see some exciting applications in near future.