Traces of digital revolution

The digital world is upon us.  Everybody knows it and nobody ever argues with it anymore.  But that’s too general.  What is actually changing?  What are the specific examples?   Today I came across one, while catching up with Slashdot news.  Here is a quote from the post:

 “An inspired professor at University of Washington-Bothell, Martha Groom, made an interesting pedagogical experiment. Instead of vilifying Wikipedia as some academics are prone to do, she assigned the students enrolled in her environmental history course to contribute articles. The result has proven “transformative” to her students. They were no longer spending their time writing for one reader, says Groom, but were doing work of consequence in a “peer reviewed” environment, which enhanced the quality of their output.”

If you read through the comments to the post, there are many insightful thoughts too.  Here is one of those that I liked (apart from the age criteria):

Wikipedia should be output, not input, for students past a certain age. It gets them used to writing for real people as opposed to just for getting graded, it gives them the experience of having their writing edited by people of varying abilities, and it gives them motivation for doing research. Another, easier, option would be to assign students to correct Wikipedia articles.

Another comment mentions that this is not by far the first time that this happens.  It conveniently links to the page with more examples of school and university projects.

Happy birthday, mom!

(For those of you who don’t know, my mother came to Cyprus last Friday for just a few days to celebrate her birthday.  She is back to Moscow today.)

It was one of the shortest visits so far.  The longest one was when Maxim was born.  Ma stayed with us for a month or so.  There were a few two-weeks and 10-days stays.  There were some 1 week stays.  Those felt short, but we had enough time to pack all the fun in.  With 3 days at hand and all the preparations that had to be done for the actual celebration, we still managed to enjoy plenty of time together.

The celebrations were cool too.  A whole bunch of people, up in the hills with plenty of drinks, food, free time, and good mood – that’s a heck of a combination for great time.  It’s a bit sad that it’s over, but  I’m glad we didn’t spoil a second of it.  It was all fun.

Happy birthday mom.  Hope to see you again soon!

What is the future of communication?

Nikos pinged me just in time about the MicroMedia 5 minute meetup.  That’s basically a virtual meeting of a bunch of people, who each provide their own answer to one specific question.  Since the meetup is virtual, the answers should have been provided virtually as well.  And since it was all about micromedia, it was logical to expect micromedia tools to be used.  The question this time was: “What is the future of communication?“.

That’s one broad question if seen from all perspectives.  To avoid a non-stop thinking exercise, I limited myself to a version like “What is the future of communication from micro media point of view?“.  For those of you, who don’t know what micro media is all about, here is a quote from the meetup wiki:

  • Text: Microblogging tools like Jaiku, Twitter, Pownce, or Text messages
  • Audio: Twitter Gram, Utterz, Audioblogger, or other
  • Images: Get creative here, can you tell a story from photos?

These tools rushed into our digital lives recently, and got a large and important place there.  The applications of these tools vary from personal notes to corporate meetings, but most people use these for communication purposes.  So, here are the questions that I got thinking about:

  • How are these tools going to change in the future?
  • Will we get some new ones?  Will the old ones stay?  How much will those that will stay change?
  • What kind of tools will people prefer and why?
  • How will these tools be utilized?
  • How will people’s lives change because of these tools?

There is a lot that I can say  answering these, but most of it will be just water with no proof or reason to it.  For me it’s mostly based on personal experiences and feelings, rather then any specific studies or statistical data or anything like that.

Before I go on, here is the short answer the meetup question that I posted to Twitter.

Twitter-type short text services with open API and mobile/SMS integration will rule the future for a long time.

Now, for the long story.

I think plain text will dominate images, video, and sound for a very long time.  That’s not going to change in any foreseeable future.  I think so because:

  • Text is way easier to produce. Most of electronic devices these days have some sort of keyboard attached.  Text can be easily produced in a number of ways – full featured keyboard, simple mobile phone like keyboard, one button keyboard with a cycle through the alphabet, mouse/joystick pointer, speech to text conversion, etc.
  • Text is way easier to search.  Modern search engines are at the point of extracting meaning (when you tell them “car”, they understand that you mean “car”, “automobile”, “vehicle” and so on. When you tell them “the sound of bass”, they understand that you are probably talking about music rather than fishing).
  • Text is much easier to consume.  Most people won’t have troubles recognizing parts of the texts without reading them through letter by letter.  Most people skip chunks of texts when reading longer pieces.  Most people won’t have any troubles reading several texts at the same time.
  • Text is more portable and accessible. Read it from the screen or print it out or even re-write it by hand.  Devices that are needed to move text around are much cheaper and simpler than those for sound and video.

Now, most people will prefer short chunks of text to long chunks of text.  I’d rather read two sentences and move on to the next news section or topic, than spend three days trying to figure out what the author is trying to say.  Most people I know will have hard times writing an article one page long on any subject at all.  All the same people will have no problem spitting out a sentence or two.  Again, on any subject at all.

Because of the above, I think that short text services will blossom.  And they already grow  pretty fast.

Which of these are better?  Those that are simpler to use.  Twitter is doing a really good job here. One large text box, one submit button, and a counter of how many characters you have left for this message.  Nothing more.  It’s difficult to make it even simpler.

But ease of use shouldn’t be only for the end user.  It should be from all sides of the service.  And again Twitter is doing a pretty good job of it.   It has a simple and straightforward API, which allows programmers to create applications for this service in just a few lines of code (a few is as in one or two lines of code).  It has an RSS feed for everything, so it’s easy to get things out of it.  It has plenty of automation – TinyURL integration, direct messages, tracking, etc.  It has SMS integration, so it’s easy to use on the move.

Stuff like that will be at the top of micro media, I think.

Of course, other technologies will move forward, as they always do.  It will be easier and easier to create and move around sounds, videos, and whatever else is there.  Devices will get smaller.  Connections will get faster.  The content will get richer.

But, as with many other things, the limiting factor won’t be in the technologies.  It will be in people.  Think about images for example.  Those were with us for thousands of years.  Yet, only a few of us can draw a semi-decent picture.  And photography is of no help here.  Millions of terrible images out there show as to how effective we are with cameras.  We see things in 3D.  Images are 2D.  The software will hardly ever do a proper conversion.  And humans will hardly spend the time learning about the topic to do it themselves.  Videos are even more complex – we can’t manage static pictures properly, and now we have a full power to work with moving images.  Sounds aren’t much different.

People are buying multi-core multi-CPU hi-end machines and use them to play minesweeper mostly.   You give them a mobile phone which can control half of the universe, and they won’t even bother about an address book in it.  I don’t think this will ever change.  Things might improve both from the people’s and technology’s sides, but the huge gap will always be there.

These are my thoughts on how this whole micro media communication will play out in the future…

How busy is your desktop?

Accidentally, I stumbled upon a thought provoking post with the following words:

If you’re really using your computer, your desktop should almost never be visible. Your screen should be covered with information, with whatever data you’re working on. I can’t imagine why you’d willingly stare at a static background image– or even a background image covered with a sea of icons. Unless you consider your computer a really expensive digital picture frame, I suppose.

Well said!

I haven’t thought much about this before, but suddenly I realized that I can strongly relate to the above statement.  My desktop is never visible.  And it was always a bit awkward for me to pick a background image (I know use slide show, which cycles through all images in my Pictures/ directory) or a set of icons (I have a few in the corners of my desktop, but I never click on them, cause I never see them) to place on my desktop.

I’m going to set it to a solid color right now.  And I’m going to remove the useless icons too.

What about your desktop?  Does it look something like this?

Learning about Markov chain

I’ve been hearing about “Markov chain” for long enough – it was time I learned something. Wikipedia seemed like a good starting point. I have to warn you though, be careful with scrolling on that page, because you can easily end up looking at something like this:

partial Markov chain

If you aren’t a rocket scientist or someone who solves integrals for fun, by all means, use the contents menu or jump directly to the Applications section.That’s where all the fun is. Here are some quotes for you to get interested and for me to remember.


Markovian systems appear extensively in physics, particularly statistical mechanics, whenever probabilities are used to represent unknown or unmodelled details of the system, if it can be assumed that the dynamics are time-invariant, and that no relevant history need be considered which is not already included in the state description.


Several theorists have proposed the idea of the Markov chain statistical test, a method of conjoining Markov chains to form a ‘Markov blanket’, arranging these chains in several recursive layers (‘wafering’) and producing more efficient test sets — samples — as a replacement for exhaustive testing.

Queuing theory:

Claude Shannon’s famous 1948 paper A mathematical theory of communication, which at a single step created the field of information theory, opens by introducing the concept of entropy through Markov modeling of the English language. Such idealised models can capture many of the statistical regularities of systems. Even without describing the full structure of the system perfectly, such signal models can make possible very effective data compression through entropy coding techniques such as arithmetic coding. They also allow effective state estimation and pattern recognition

Internet applications:

The PageRank of a webpage as used by Google is defined by a Markov chain.


Markov models have also been used to analyze web navigation behavior of users. A user’s web link transition on a particular website can be modeled using first or second order Markov models and can be used to make predictions regarding future navigation and to personalize the web page for an individual user.


Markov chain methods have also become very important for generating sequences of random numbers to accurately reflect very complicated desired probability distributions – a process called Markov chain Monte Carlo or MCMC for short. In recent years this has revolutionised the practicability of Bayesian inference methods.


Markov chains can be used to model many games of chance. The children’s games Snakes and Ladders, Candy Land, and “Hi Ho! Cherry-O”, for example, are represented exactly by Markov chains. At each turn, the player starts in a given state (on a given square) and from there has fixed odds of moving to certain other states (squares).


Markov chains are employed in algorithmic music composition, particularly in software programs such as CSound or Max. In a first-order chain, the states of the system become note or pitch values, and a probability vector for each note is constructed, completing a transition probability matrix

Markov parody generators:

Markov processes can also be used to generate superficially “real-looking” text given a sample document: they are used in a variety of recreational “parody generator” software

Markov chains for spammers and black hat SEO:

Since a Markov chain can be used to generate real looking text, spam websites without content use Markov-generated text to give illusion of having content.

This is one of those topics that makes me feel sorry for sucking at math so badly. Is there a “Markov chain for Dummies” book somewhere? I haven’t found one yet, but Google provides quite a few results for “markov chain” query.