There once was a large family, with many brothers, uncles, and cousins spread over many different places. Each of them led their own lives. The extended family spanned all sorts of lifestyles, from successful businessmen, dignified and well-dressed, to smart but somewhat irresponsible bon viveurs. They lived in many different places and they occasionally exchanged gifts and money, some more frequently than others (admittedly, this part is rather weak in its simplicity, but a single analogy can only be taken so far). But they were getting tired of running to Western Union, paying transaction fees, losing money on currency conversions due to volatility in exchange rates, and so on. Furthermore, some of the more powerful family members had gotten into nasty feuds (world wars).
So, under the leadership of some of the more powerful siblings (Germany and France) they thought: well, we have enough money to go down to an international bank and open a common family account in a solid currency, say, dollars (they in fact created their own currency and bank, perhaps to avoid associations with existing institutions, but it’s probably safe to say that they heavily mirrored those of one of the leading siblings). Then it will be so much easier to do the same things much more efficiently. The richer craftsmen and businessmen among them could send their stuff with less hassle and waste [e.g., paragraph seven], and the poorer ones could gain a bit by wisely using their portion of the funds and an occasional advance withdrawal.
The leading siblings knew how to keep their checkbooks balanced, and it seemed reasonable to assume that these methods were general enough and suitable for everyone. So, after opening the family account with all of them as joint holders, they shook hands and simply agreed to use the money wisely, pretty much in the way that had worked well for the richer and more productive ones (stability and growth pact). Once in a while they might briefly meet and agree on some further rules of how the money should be used, but basically each one of them went their way, living the life they always had, managing their portion of the family funds. One of the more cynical siblings (England) was a bit skeptical about opening a family account while living their separate lives apart, so it chose to stay out, at least for a while. Times were good for several years, but they didn’t last forever.
The first to get into trouble would be one of the younger cousins (Greece), who generally valued time more than money (he occasionally complains about that himself, but to little effect so far). Using some money from the family account, he did a few renovations to make his home look better and bought some decent clothes. Using the family account to boost his creditworthiness and sporting a sharper new look, he managed to get a credit card with a promotional 0% APR (Euro membership). He even threw a big party that impressed many (Olympic games). But after a few years, the credit card companies came back asking for payment, and he found himself in deeper trouble than before the good times had begun.
Some of the other relatives had also started getting into trouble, even if not all of them had been as irresponsible. But the immediate problem was that cousin. What was the family to do? Other people had started noticing, and were beginning to have some questions. ”What kind of family are you?” Your cousin deserves what he gets, but did you really think it was that simple to run a family with such a diverse crowd? Obviously the little cousin should be taught a lesson and become more mature and responsible. But it should also be a lesson that could be repeated on other relatives, if necessary.
One option would be to kick him out (bankruptcy). It might get him to change his ways (or not), but a homeless relative does not make the family look good, even if he’s largely responsible for his predicament (which he is, by the way). And what would happen to the other relatives that weren’t doing that great either? A 0% promotional APR cannot last forever, and it’s not hard to shoot yourself in the foot with it, even if you aren’t irresponsible. Will other relatives head for the door too? If they do, will they come back? And is it possible to neatly untangle the finances, after decades of using a common account? Furthermore, the cousin may start hanging out with “strangers”, some of which may be of questionable character (IMF, Russia, etc). In fact, keeping him out of undesirable company might have played a role in inviting him to the extended family account in the first place.
Another option would be to bring him and his family into the home of a richer and more dignified family member, force him into a suit, grab him by the hand (or neck), and teach him how behave like a grown up under close supervision. But the other members of the household (citizens), who contribute to its finances (pay taxes) and get food and shelter in return (welfare and other benefits) would rightfully protest. “Who is this noisy, scruffy guy in our home? Why do we have to feed him and pay so much attention to him?” The cousin’s family, who also valued time over money (e.g., preferring a relaxing lifestyle on modest means over hard work), was also not very happy. “I just wish we could go down to the beach and spend 2-3 hours enjoying coffee under the sun like we used to. And why is your big cousin telling us what to do anyway?” In addition, it was always likely that other, equally noisy and scruffy distant relatives might show up knocking at the door of the mansion, and demand the same attention. This was certainly more than big cousin had signed up for when opening the family bank account.
Then there is a third option, which does not so much focus on teaching a lesson, but on saving face and postponing the worst trouble. Just give the little cousin a scolding and some pocket money to pay the rent and interest for a few months. At least he wouldn’t be out in the street. And, who knows, he might change his ways on his own in the meantime. Sweeping the mess under the rug is unlikely (although not provably impossible) that it’ll lead to any long-term solution, but it’s the option easiest to swallow by everyone involved.
Anyway, I’ll stop the anthropomorphic analogies here. Using a different analogy, I’ll add that tweaking the knobs (fiscal policy targets) and, perhaps, changing batteries (bail-out loans) won’t do much good in the long run if the machine is basically broken. But it’s hard to fix it if getting down to the cogs and gears that make it work (politics) is taboo, perhaps even more than it used to be (compare Victor Hugo’s vision of the “United States of Europe” more than a century ago, with the Lisbon treaty).
Although it’s a rather overloaded term, you can probably call me a technocrat. As such, Deng Xiaoping’s famous quote (“it doesn’t matter if it’s a black cat or a white cat, it’s a good cat as long as it catches mice”) is basically appealing. Cats competing with each other and against mice sounds like a “natural” situation, so it’s easy to overlook whether it’s the only possible state of affairs. However, if they’re domesticated and not out in the wild, it’s not hard to imagine the mice and both cats colluding to, basically, take it easy. Sometimes what is “natural” should be examined more closely.
Greece is the first to draw wide attention to such questions, but I don’t think it will be the last, nor is it the first mishap along European integration. I’d venture that, unless the EU collapses, everyone will find their place in it. Eventually.
I’ll finish with an annotated graph (original source via metablogging.gr, and public Google spreadsheet with subset of the data), showing Greek public debt (central government) as % of GDP over the past 40 years. I’ll just point out that 1981 looks like a particularly interesting year, for various reasons.
Postscript. It’s often mentioned that “Greece has been in default for 50 years during the past two centuries.” This is true; after independence in 1821, Greece was bankrupt starting at the end of the 19th century under Charilaos Trikoupis, and ending after WWII. During this period, Greece was involved in a number of wars in the Balkans and Asia Minor, growing and shrinking in size a few times. Obviously, this didn’t help financial matters, but I don’t think it bears much similarity to the current situation.
I’ve also been puzzled somewhat about the role of corruption. Obviously, it’s not good and I’m not trying to justify it in any way. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to be the sole cause of trouble, as is often suggested. Several East Asian countries (notably China, although it’s not the first neither the only one) have shown progress despite corruption. I don’t have an answer, but it seems to me that, when you steal money, it matters where you steal it from. If I swipe some cash from my little brother’s wallet, it will make my brother poorer and angrier, but it probably won’t bankrupt the household; someone earned that money, even if it wasn’t me. However, if I pocket an advance withdrawal using the credit card our father gave us, it’ll get everyone in trouble, eventually.
Finally, as for 0% APR credit cards, it’s rather different if, say, Bill Gates (US) gets one versus if I get one (not that I’m that irresponsible : ). One of us has deeper pockets and that makes a difference on whether we deserve it, on the kind of trouble we can get in, and even on the moral hazards we face. As long as the card is used wisely for an appropriate period of time, it isn’t necessarily bad. Any comparisons between US and Greece are, at best, premature.]]>
At least in data mining, “fully automatic” is an often unquestioned holy grail. There are certainly several valid reasons for this, such as if you’re trying to scan huge collections of books such as this, or index images from your daily life like this. In this case, you use all the available processing power to make as few errors as possible (i.e., maximize accuracy).
However, if the user is sitting right in front of your program, watching your algorithms and their output, things are a little different. No matter how smart your algorithm is, some errors will occur. This tends to annoy users. In that sense, actively involved users are a liability. However, they can also be an asset: since they’re sitting there anyway, waiting for results, you may as well get them really involved. If you have cheap but intelligent labor ready and willing, use it! The results will be better or, at the very least, no worse. Also, users tend to remember the failures. So, even if end results were similar on average, allowing users to correct failures as early as possible will make them happier.
Instead of making algorithms as smart as possible, the goal now is to make them as fast as possible, so that they produce near-realtime results that don’t have to be perfect; they just shouldn’t be total garbage. When I started playing with the idea for WordSnap, I was thinking how to make the algorithms as smart as possible. However, for the reasons above, I soon changed tactics.
The rest of this post describes some of the successful design decisions but, more importantly, the failures in the balance between “automatic” and “realtime guidance”. The story begins with the following example image:
Incidentally, this image was the inspiration for WordSnap: I wanted to look up “inimical” but I was too lazy to type. Also, for the record, WordSnap uses camera preview frames, which are semi-planar YUV data at HVGA resolution (480×320). This image is a downsampled (512×384) full-resolution photograph taken with the G1 camera (2048×1536); most experiments here were performed before WordSnap existed in any usable form. Finally, I should point out that OCR isn’t really my area; what I describe below is based on common sense rather than knowledge of prior art, although just before writing this post I did try a quick review of the literature.
A basic operation for OCR is binarization: mapping grayscale intensities between 0 and 255 to just two values: black (0) and white (1). Only then can we start talking about shapes (lines, words, characters, etc). One of the most widely used binarization algorithms is Otsu’s method. It picks a single, global threshold so that it maximizes the within-class (black/white) variance, or equivalently maximizes the across-class variance. This is very simple to implement, very fast and works well for flatbed scans, which have uniform illumination.
However, camera images are not uniformly illuminated. The example image may look fine to human eyes, but it turns out that even for this image no global threshold is suitable (click on image for animation showing various global thresholds):
If you looked at the animation carefully, you might have noticed that at some point, at least the word of interest (“inimical”) is correctly binarized in this picture. However, if the lighting gradient were steeper, this would not be possible. Incidentally, ZXing uses Otsu’s method for binarization, because of it is fast. So, if you wondered why barcode scanning sometimes fails, now you know.
So, a slightly smarter approach is needed: instead of using one global threshold, the threshold should be determined individually for each pixel (i,j). A natural threshold t(i,j) is the mean intensity μw(i,j) of pixels within a w×w neighborhood around pixel (i,j). The key operation here is mean filtering: convolving the original image with a w×w matrix with constant entries 1/w2.
The problem is that, using pure Java running on Dalvik, mean filtering is prohibitively slow. First, Dalvik is fully interpreted (no JIT, yet). Firthermore, the fact that Java bytes are always signed doesn’t help: casting to int and masking off the 24 most significant bits almost doubles running time.
|Method||Dalvik (msec)||JNI (msec)||Speedup|
JNI to the rescue. The table above shows speedups for two implementations. The naïve approach uses a triple nested loop and has complexity O(w2mn), where m and n is the image height and width, respectively (m = 348, n = 512 in this example). The 1-D equivalent would simply be:
for i = 0 to N-1: s = 0 for j = max(i-r,0) to min(i+r,N-1): s += a[j]
where w = 2r+1 is the window size. The second implementation updates the sums incrementally, based on the values of adjacent windows. The complexity now is just O(mn). An interesting aside is the relative performance of two implementations for sliding window sums (where w = 2r+1 is the window size). The first checks border conditions inside each iteration:
Initialize s = sum(a..a[r]) for i = 1 to N-1: if i > r: s -= a[i-r-1] if i < N-r: s += a[i+r]
The second moves the border condition checks outside the loop which, if you think about it for a second, amounts to:
Initialize s = sum(a..a[r]) for i = 1 to r: s += a[i+r] for i = r+1 to N-r-1: s -= a[i-r-1] s += a[i+r] for i = N-r to N-1: s -= a[i-r-1]
Among these two, the first one is faster, at least on a laptop running Sun’s JVM with JIT (I didn’t time Dalvik or JNI). I’m guessing that the second one messes loop unrolling, but I haven’t checked my guess.
It turns out that there is a very similar approach in the literature, called Sauvola’s method. Furthermore, there are efficient methods to compute it, using integral images. These are simply the 2-D generalization of partial sums. In 1-D, if partial sums are pre-computed, window sums can be estimated in O(1) time using the simple observation that sum(i…j) = sum(1..j) – sum(1..i-1).
Savuola’s method also computes local variance σw(i,j), and uses a relative threshold t(i,j) = μw(i,j)(1 + λσw(i,j)/127). WordSnap uses the global variance and an additive threshold t(i,j) = μw(i,j) + λσglobal, but after doing a contrast stretch of the original image (i.e., linearly mapping minimum intensity to 0 and maximum to 255). Doing floating point math or 64-bit integer arithmetic is much more expensive, hence the additive threshold. Furthermore, WordSnap does not use integral images because the same runtime can be achieved without the need to allocate a large buffer. Memory allocation on a mobile device is not cheap: the time needed to allocate a 480×320 buffer of 32-bit integers (about 600KB total) varies significantly depending on how much system memory is available, whether the garbage collector is triggered and so on, but on average it’s about half a second on the G1. Even though most buffers can be allocated once, startup time is important for this application: if it takes more than 2-3 seconds to start scanning, the user might as well have typed the result.
Anyway, here is the final result of locally adaptive thresholding:
Conclusion: In this case we needed the slightly smarter approach, so we invested the time to implement it efficiently. WordSnap currently uses a 21×21 neighborhood. Altogether, binarization takes under 100ms.
Another problem is that the orientation of the text lines may not be aligned with image edges. This is called skew and makes recognition much harder.
Initially, I set out to find a way to correct for skew. After a few searches on Google, I came across the Hough transform. The idea is simple. Sayyou want to detect a curve desribed by a set of parameters. E.g., for a line, those would be distance ρ from origin and slope θ. For each black pixel, find the parameter values for all possible curves to which this pixel may belong. For a line, that’s all angles θ from 0 to 180 degrees, and all distances ρ from 0 to sqrt(m2+n2). Then, compute the density distribution of parameter tuples. If a line (ρ0,θ0) is present in the image, then the parameter density distribution should have a local maximum at (ρ0,θ0).
If we apply this approach to our example image, the first maximum is detected at an angle of 20 degrees. Here is the image counter-rotated by that amount:
Success! However, computing the Hough transform is too slow! Typical implementations bucketize the parameter space. This would require a buffer of about 180×580 32-bit integers (for a 480×320 image), or about 410KB. In addition, it would require trigonometric operations or lookups to find the buckets for each pixel, not to mention counter-rotation. There are obvious optimizations one can try, such as computing histograms at multiple resolutions to progressively prune the parameter space. Still, the cost implied by back-of-the envelope calculations put me off from even trying to implement this on the phone. Instead, why not just try to use the users:
Conclusion: Simple approach with help from user wins, and the computer doesn’t even have to do anything to solve the problem! Incidentally, the guideline width is determined by the size of typical newsprint text at the smallest distance that the G1′s camera can focus.
Next, we need to detect individual words. The approach WordSnap uses is to dilate the binary image with a rectangular structuring element (in the following image, the size 7×7), and then expand a rectangle (shown in green) until it covers the connected component which, presumably, is one word.
However, the size of the structuring element should really depend on the inter-word spacing, which in turn depends on the typeface as well as the distance of the camera from the text. For example, if we use a 5×5 element, we would get the following:
I briefly toyed with two ideas for font size detection. The first is to do a Fourier transform. Presumably the first spatial frequency mode would correspond to inter-word and/or inter-line spacing and the second mode to inter-character spacing. But that assumes we apply Fourier to a “large enough” portion of the image, and things start becoming complicated. Not to mention computationally expensive.
The second approach (which also appears to be the most common?) is to to hierarchical grouping. First expand rectangles to cover individual letters (or, sometimes, ligatures), then compute histogram of horizontal distances and re-group into word rectangles, and so on. This is also non-trivial.
Instead, WordSnap uses a fixed dilation radius. The implementation is optimized to allow near-realtime annotation of the detected word extent. This video should give you an idea:
Conclusion: Simple wins again, but this time we have to do something (and let the user help with the rest). But, instead of trying to be smart and find the best parameters given the camera position, we try to be fast: fix the parameters and let the user find the camera position that works given the parameters. WordSnap uses a 5×5 rectangular structuring element, although you can change that to 3×3 or 7×7 in the preferenfces screen. Altogether, word extent detection takes about 150-200ms, although it could be significantly optimized, if necessary, by using only JNI only, instead of a mix of pure Java and JNI calls.
Postscript: Some of the papers referenced were pointed out to me by Hideaki Goto, who started and maintains WeOCR. Also, skew detection and correction experiments are based on this quick-n-dirty Python script (needs OpenCV and it ain’t pretty!). Update (9/2): Fixed really stupid mistake in parametrization of line.]]>
Politically-correct and totally un-sarcastic as I am, I originally wanted to go with some combination of “principled anarchy”. Now, that was available! Apparently, nobody wanted to touch it with a ten foot pole, not even cybersquatters; which kind of gave me a hint. Wouldn’t want to, say, end up in a three-letter-agency watchlist, at least not while in the US on H1B. They might not share my sense of humor.
So, armed with online thesauri, dictionaries, the internet anagram server, and things like that, I set out on a name quest. I don’t remember anymore what I tried; “coredump” (which, in case you didn’t know, has “code rump” as an anagram—still available, if you’re interested), “segfault”, “brainfart”, “farout”, and pretty much anything else I could think of: all taken. Even these names as well as these are taken (thank god!).
At some point I was naïve enough to hope that a Tolkien name would be free. No luck of course, anything semi-pronnounceable was taken. You’d have to go as far as, say, ”gulduin” (which, by the way, means “magic river” in Elvish) to find something available. Good luck getting people to remember that! Oh well, at least I had a reason to actually read some of the Silmarillion; if you’ve tried this and you’re not a religiously devoted Tolkien fan, you know what I’m talking about.
After the first week of searching, I think I even got temporarily banned from Yahoo! whois search. In desperation, I finally turned to one of many domain name generators. I asked omniscient Google to give me one and, as always, it obliged. By now I had decided that I wanted a name as free of any connotations as possible (say, like Google or Slashdot, not like Facebook or YouTube). I went through things like “fractors”, “naphead”, “magnarchy”, “aniarchy”, “mallock”, “hexndex”, “squilt”, “terable”, and so on. It’s amazing how several weeks of searching in frustration temper one’s standards of quality. Anyway, one day “bitquill” popped up: neutral, inoffensive, bland, unusual, and a composite which is short and almost pronnounceable! I couldn’t ask for much more, so I registered it.
That, and “clusterhack”. Sorry. I couldn’t resist.]]>
Overall, the Android APIs are quite impressive, even though some edges are still rough. It was reasonably easy to get up to speed, even though my prior experience on mobile application frameworks was zero. The toughest part was getting used to the heavily event-based programming style, as well as the idea that your code may be interrupted, killed and restarted at any time.
Activity lifecycle. Although Android supports multitasking and concurrency, on a mobile device with limited memory and no swap it’s likely that the O/S will have to kill some or all of your tasks to reclaim resources needed by higher-priority, user-visible processes (e.g., an incoming phone call). If you have non-persistent or external state, such as open database connections or separate threads that fetch data in the background, things may get a little tricky. Although Android has auxiliary features such as managed cursors and dialogs, you still need to know they exist and use them properly.
However, even things like screen orientation changes are handled by terminating and restarting any affected activities. At first, while spending a couple of hours to figure out why my app was crashing when I opened the keyboard, I bitched about this. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who was confused. To my surprise, I found that many Android Market apps crash when the screen is rotated. Some Market apps even come with grave-sounding warnings that, e.g., “the life counter [sic] resets on screen orientation change =/ Will fix for new version.” Luckily, I also found numerous good posts about orientation changes, such as this or this (the series by Mark Murphy are pretty good, by the way), as well as a post on the official blog.
In retrospect, handling orientation changes in this way is a good thing: it forces app developers to be prepared. After I fixed my code to handle orientation changes gracefully, I found that I was also ready to properly handle other sources of interruption: when an incoming call came as I was testing my app, everything worked out beautifully.
Now, whenever I download an app, I perform the following test: I flip the keyboard open when the app executes a background operation, even if I don’t need to type anything. If the app crashes or gets into an inconsistent state (something that happens surprisingly often), that’s a strong indication that the code is not very robust.
Event handling. For APIs that are so heavily event-based, one of my gripes was that some (but not all) event handlers are based on inheritance rather than delegation. These design choices are probably due to performance reasons that may be specific to Dalvik, the Android VM which is motivated partly for non-technical reasons.
However, inheritance sometimes complicates things. For example, Android supports managed cursors and dialogs via methods in the base Activity class. On more than one occasion I found that managed threads would also be nice. Implementing this requires hooking into the activity lifecycle events (and has, on occasion, been over-engineered to death). Because there are several Activity subclasses (e.g., ListActivity, PreferenceActivity, etc), there is no simple way to extend them all. If lifecycle events were handled via delegates, it would be possible to implement a background UI thread manager as, say, an activity decorator that can be added to any activity instance.
The delegation-based event model was introduced in Java 1.1 precisely to address such shortcomings of the inheritance-based model. But, being pragmatic about performance on current mobile devices, I should probably not complain too much. Still, some API design choices seem a bit arbitrary, perhaps even Microsoft-esque: why would performance be an issue with lifecycle events (which are presumably rare, but handlers use inheritance) but not with click events (which are presumably more frequent, but handlers use delegation)?
Data sync and caching. Another gripe was the lack of syncable content providers, something I’ve mentioned before. Also, content providers aren’t really appropriate for network-hosted data. The requirement that content providers use an integer primary key (row ID) is reasonable for local databases and simplifies the APIs, but requires some book-keeping when that’s not the “natural” primary key.
Ideally, I’d like to see some support for caching remote data on the SD card (which would require gracefully handling card removal, and transparently fetching data either from the cache or the network). Although the core APIs provide all that is necessary to implement this from scratch, it was getting too complicated for my simple “weekend hack” app, so I decided to drop it.
I hope that, in the near future, porting web apps to mobile devices will become easier with the support for offline applications and client-side storage in HTML5, as well the proposed geolocation APIs (all of which are already part of Google Gears). An application manifest might include “web activities”, translating intents into HTTP POST requests, while granting device access permissions to those activities (e.g., see promising hacks such as OilCan). Porting might then involve little more than writing a new stylesheet. Perhaps that’s where Palm is going with its WebOS which apparently supports both “native application” and “web application” models, but information is rather thin at the moment.
Epilogue. My first Android app was an interesting learning experience, not only from a technical standpoint (perhaps more on this in another post). I also found that Android is quite stable. I sometimes used my phone for live debugging, forcefully killing threads and processes through ADB. Let me put it this way: if it wasn’t for the RC33 OTA update, my phone would now have an uptime of a few months. For a piece of software that barely existed a year ago, this is impressive.
There is plenty of documentation available, but at times it can take some searching to find the necessary information. However, since Android is open-source, it’s always possible to consult the source code itself (which is fairly well-written and documented).
Note: This post was mostly written sometime around February. Since then I had no time to try SDK v1.5, but I believe most points above are still relevant.]]>
After coming back from Seoul, New York seemed even dinkier than the last time I returned from a trip. As I was boarding the plane at Incheon, I picked up a copy of the Wall Street Journal (Asian edition). I had enough time to read almost all of it, as KAL arrived into Narita early, but Continental was six hours late. It might as well have been called “The GM Journal”, since about two thirds of the stories were about GM and Chrysler, and how the US government is trying to save them from doom due to chronic mis-management and exorbitant legacy costs.
My wife, who has a far more sensitive nose than me, jokes that the first thing you smell upon disembarking the plane is cigarette smoke in Greece, and garlic in Korea. Upon arriving at Newark (or any NYC airport, for that matter), even I can smell the mouldy carpets. Getting on the subway the next morning, the smell was even worse and the signs of age everywhere. I sat down, right across a poster ad by NYC Department of Consumer Affairs that read “Debt Stress? You’re not alone”. Someone had plastered a makeshift sticker on top, reading “Kill Your Boss”. After a ride on Metro North, I got into a taxi to work. It was one of those Ford relics, with a severely dented right side, a cracked windshield and a barely functioning transmission, but still street-legal. As the cab ended up triple-booked and I was the last one to get off, I got a 35-minute scenic tour through backstreets and pothole-riddled roads before finally arriving to the office.
The experience was enough to make me look up the definition of “developing country” in Wikipedia. Honestly, I don’t get why South Korea is sometimes still listed as such (e.g., in WSJ and, if memory serves me right, in the Economist), while the US isn’t. Something tells me it’s more than GM that needs patching up. Anyway, welcome back home!]]>
I’m now experimenting with a separate tumblelog to post most random thoughts but, in the meantime, here you go Google: one more post about “pointless life (bits)”!]]>
First, in a networked environment, it is common standards, rather than a single, common software platform, which further enable information sharing. So, Google may be doing Android for precisely the opposite reason than I originally suggested: to avoid the emergence of a single, dominant, proprietary platform. Chrome may exist for a similar reason. After all, Android serves a purpose similar to a browser, but for mobile devices with various sensing modalities.
Finally, mobile is arguably an important area and Google probably wants to encourage diversity and experimentation which, as I wrote in a previous post, is a pre-requisite for innovation. This is in contrast to the established mentality summarized by the quote I previously mentioned, to “find an idea and ask yourself: is the potential market worth at least one billlion dollars? If not, then walk away.” In fairness, this approach is appropriate to preserve the status quo. (By the way, in the same public speech, the person who gave this advice also responded to a question about competition by saying with commendable directness that “Look: we’ll all be dead some day. But there’s a lot of money to be made until then.”) But for innovation of any kind, one should “ask ‘why not?’ instead of ‘why should we do it?’” as Jeff Bezos said, or “innovate toward the light, not against the darkness” as Ray Ozzie said.]]>
This is certainly true of the end-products of intellectual labor, such as the article you are reading. However, it is also true of more mundane things, such as checkbook register entries or credit card activity. Whenever you pay a bill or purchase an item, you implicitly “create” a piece of content: the associated entry in your statement. This has two immediately identifiable “creators”: the payer (you) and the payee. The same is true for, e.g., your email, your IM chats, your web searches, etc. Interesting tidbit: over 20% of search terms entered daily in Google are new, which would imply roughly 20 million new pieces of content per day, or over 7 billion (over twice the earth’s population) per year—all this from just one activity on one website.
When I spend a few weeks working on, say, a research paper, I have certain expectations and demands about my rights as a “creator.” However, I give almost no thought to my rights on the trail of droppings (digital or otherwise) that I “create” each day, by searching the web, filling up the gas tank, getting coffee, going through a toll booth, swiping my badge, and so on. However, with the increasing ease of data collection and distribution in digital form, we should re-think our attitudes towards “authorship”.
People call me “Spiros”, my identity documents list me as “Spyridon Papadimitriou” and on most online sites I’m registered as spapadim. However, sometimes I’m s_papadim or spiros_papadimitriou, and so on. Like most people, I lost track of all my accounts a time ago. Vice versa, I’m not the only “Spiros Papadimitriou” in the real world. For example, I occasionally get confused with my cousin, and receive comments about my interesting architectural designs! Nor am I the only spapadim on the net.
A framework and mechanisms that allow (but do not enforce) asserting and verifying which of those labels (i.e., names, userids, etc) refer to the same entity (i.e., me) is missing. However, this is a prerequisite: how can we talk about data ownership and tackle portability, transparency and accountability, if we have to jump through countless hoops just to prove identity?
Some people, especially in the US, may object or even outright panic at the thought of such a global identifier. In Greece, and in much of Europe, we’ve had national identity cards for decades. Which is fine, as long as you know they exist and what are permissible uses-in other words, as long as transparency is ensured. Furthermore, the illusion of privacy should not be confused with privacy itself—if in doubt, I suggest reading “Database Nation” (official site). Its examples are largely US-centric, but the lessons are not.
OpenID (despite some shortcomings) and OAuth are emerging as open standards for authentication and authorization. OpenID allows reuse of authentication credentials from one site on others: I can reuse, say, my Google username and password to log in to other sites (e.g., to leave a comment on this blog), without having to create yet another account from scratch. OAuth resembles Kerberos’s ticket granting service but for the web, permitting other web services to ask for access to a subset of personal information: I could allow Facebook to access only my Google addressbook and not, potentially, all of my data on any Google service. OpenID and OAuth can, at least in principle, work together.
Both high-profile individual developers and major companies are involved in these efforts. For example, Yahoo! already supports OpenID and plans to support OAuth as well, while Google supports OAuth directly and OpenID indirectly in various ways. Wide adoption of these standards would be a major step forwards for data portability and web interoperability. However, I suspect they fall slightly short of providing a truly permanent and global personal identity. What if, for any reason, my Yahoo! account disappears, either because I decided to shut it down or because Yahoo! went bust?
I was going to suggest a DNS-based solution and I was surprised when I found that the generic top-level domain .name has been instituted since 2001 to provide URIs for personal identities. You can register for a free three-month trial on FreeYourID (after that, it’s $11/year). What’s more, their service already provides OpenID authentication. In principle, this should allow easy switching of authentication and authorization service providers. Just as I can still keep the “label” for this site even if I move to a different web host, I can still keep my personal “label” no matter who I choose to manage my personal information. So, now my universal username is spiros.papadimitriou.name, any emails sent to firstname.lastname@example.org will find their way to me, you can call me on Skype using spiros.papadimitriou.name/call, and so on.
With such a unique identity tied to authorization and authentication services, the Giant Global Graph and its materializations would be one step closer to becoming really useful. If I want to use my identity to log and controll access to my data, I should be able to prove my claims. Currently, FOAF and XFN allow assertion of relationshipt but provide no way to verify them.
The point of this mental exercise so far is the following: A unique identity that can be verifiably associated with each and every data item that I produce is a prerequisite for making data ownership claims. Subsequently, we need to ask what fundamental rights should be associated with data ownership. The first is the right to keep my information with me or, in other words, “data portability”. Just as I can freely move my money from one financial institution to another, I should be able to move any of my information from one data warehouse to another.
For example, consider my web search history. I don’t think I need to argue about the importance of historical information to improve search quality. If I decide for any reason to move to another search provider, I should be able to carry along all the information that’s directly associated with me. This should include my search keyword history, as well as any additional information I may have contributed.
The actual details, however, may not be that straightforward. Take, say, the third hit on a Google search. Who is the “creator”? Me by entering the search keywords, Google by producing the search results in response to those keywords, or the person who wrote the web page that contains them in the first place? Similarly, when I buy gas, who is the “creator” of the transaction entry: me, Mobil, or American Express?
Even though intuition can often be wrong, my intuitive response to the Google search example would be that both I and Google have an ownership claim on this particular search, which includes the query keywords as well as a ranking of URLs. On the other hand, the person who wrote the contents of, say, the third URL has ownership claims only on those, and not the search results. Furthermore, the thousands of people that provided feedback to Google’s ranking algorithms by clicking on this URL on similar searches have ownership claims on those searches, but not on mine.
Finally, those two ownership claims (on keywords and on rankings) should probably not be treated the same. If they were, then, say, MS Live could effectively copy Google by getting many users to move. It seems reasonable to have the right to move my search history, but not the actual search results. However, I can imagine that some form of ownership claim on the rankings may be useful for other personal rights.
This is a highly idealized example and I’m not sure what an appropriate litmus test for ownership is, but some form of legal consensus must be in place.
The second fundamental right is that I should know who is using my personal information and how. For example, if an insurance company accesses my credit history to give me a rate quote, I can find this out. It may not be a completely painless process but it is certainly possible today, with a regulatory framework that ensures this. Similar regulations should be instituted to cover any and all forms of access to personal information.
Data access should be fully transparent to all parties involved. If the an insurance company accesses my medical records, I should know this. If the government does a background check on me, I should know this too. Transparency is a prerequisite for accountability. Otherwise, individuals have very limited power to protect themselves from improper uses of their personal information.
Much of the privacy research in computer science seems to assume that we can keep the existing legal and regulatory frameworks intact. Computer scientists taking such a position is even sadder than lawyers doing so; we have no excuse of failing to understand the technical issues. We cannot and should not make this assumption. Technical solutions should be subsidiary to new regulations. But that doesn’t mean technologists cannot lead. We should work towards supporting full transparency (for both individuals, as well as governments and corporations) rather than opacity and I’m currently in favor of a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach (and help lawmakers figure out the answers). After all, if there is anything that the DRM wars have taught us, it’s that information really wants to be free. Why do we think it’s technically hard (to say the least) to prevent copying of music, movies and software but we still think it may be possible to prevent copying of personal information? As I pointed out in an older post, it’s usually the use and not the possession of information that’s the problem.
My point in this post is simple: we should not fight the wrong war. Instead, we need an easy way to make data ownership claims, and use this to enforce at least two fundamental rights: the ability to keep any personal data with us, and the ability to know who is using this data and how.
Postscript. This post was wallowing for a while as a draft (originally separated from this post, then forgotten). Since then, a recent MIT TR article discusses some aspects of data ownership. Even better, I have since found an excellent short piece in the same issue by Esther Dyson, with which I could not agree more.
Update. After posting this last night, I did some further Googling and found another piece by Esther Dyson in the Scientific American. If you’ve read through my ramblings so far, then I’d urge you to read her article; she’s a much better writer than me, and has apparently been thinking about these issues for almost a decade, way before many people even knew what the Internet is. I should probably follow her more closely myself, as I agree disturbingly often with what I’ve read from her so far.]]>
I recently upgraded to a T-Mobile G1 (aka. HTC Dream), running Android. The G1 is a very nice and functional device. It’s also compact and decent looking, but perhaps not quite a fashion statement: unlike the iPhone my girlfriend got last year, which was immediately recognizable and a stare magnet, I pretty much have to slap people on the face with the G1 to make them look at it. Also, battery life is acceptable, but just barely. But this post is not about the G1, it’s about Android, which is Google’s Linux-based, open-source mobile application platform.
I’ll start with some light comments, by one of the greatest entertainers out there today: Monkey Boy made fun of the iPhone in January, stating that “Apple is selling zero phones a year“. Now he’s making similar remarks about Android, summarized by his eloquent “blah dee blah dee blah” argument. Less than a year after that interview, the iPhone is ahead of Windows Mobile in worldwide market share of smartphone operating systems (7M versus 5.5M devices). Yep, this guy sure knows how entertain—even if he makes a fool of himself and Microsoft.
Furthermore, Monkey Boy said that “if I went to my shareholder meeting [...] and said, hey, we’ve just launched a new product that has no revenue model! [...] I’m not sure that my investors would take that very well. But that’s kind of what Google’s telling their investors about Android.” Even if this were true, perhaps no revenue model is better than a simian model.
Anyway, someone from Microsoft should really know better—and quite likely he does, but can’t really say it out loud. There are some obvious parallels between Microsoft MS-DOS and Google Android:
An executive once said that money is really made by controlling the middleware platform. Lower levels of the stack face high competition and have low profit margins. Higher levels of the stack (except perhaps some key applications) are too special-purpose and more of a niche. The sweet-spot lies somewhere in the middle. This is where MS-DOS was and where Android wants to be.
Microsoft established itself by providing the platform for building applications on the “revolution” of its day, the personal computer. MS-DOS became the de-facto standard, much more open than anything else at that time. Subsequently, Microsoft took a cut of the profits out of each PC sold ever since. Taiwanese “PC-compatibles” helped fuel Microsoft’s (as well as Intel’s) growth. The rest is history.
In “cloud” computing, the ubiquitous, commodity infrastructure is the network. This enables access to applications and information from any networked device. Even though individual components matter, it is common standards, rather than a single, common software platform, which further enable information sharing. If you believe that the future will be the same as the past, i.e., selling shrink-wrapped applications and software licenses, then Android not only has no revenue model, but has no hope of ever coming up with one. Ballmer would be absolutely right. But if there is a shift towards network-hosted data and applications, money can be made whenever users access those. There are plenty of obvious examples which could be profitable: geographically targeted advertising, smart shopping broker/assistant (see below), mobile office and add-on services, online games (location based or not), and so on. It’s not clear whether Google plans to get directly involved in those (I would doubt it), or just stay mostly on the back end and provide an easy-to-use “cloud infrastructure” for application developers.
The services provided by network operators are becoming commodities. This is nothing new. A quote I liked is that “ISPs have nothing to offer other than price and speed“. I wouldn’t really include security in their offerings, as it is really an end-to-end service. As for devices, there is already evidence that commoditization similar to that of PC-compatibles may happen. Just one month after Android was open-sourced, Chinese manufacturers have started deploying it on smartphones. Even big manufacturers are quickly getting in the game; for example, Huawei recently announced an Android phone. Most cellphones are already manufactured in China anyway. The iPhone is assembled in Shenzhen, where Huawei’s headquarters are also located (coincidence?). The Chinese already have a decent track record when it comes to building hardware and it’s only a matter of time until they fully catch up.
So, it’s quite simple: Android wants to be for ubiquitous services as MS-DOS was for personal computers. But Microsoft in the 80s did not really start out by saying “our revenue model is this: we’ll build a huge user base at all costs, which will subsequently allow us to get $200 out of each and every PC sold”? Not really. Similarly, Google is not going to say that “we want to build a user base, so we can make a profit from all services hosted on the [our?] cloud and accessed via mobile devices [and set-top boxes, and cars, and...].” Such an announcement would be premature, and one of the surest ways to scare off your user base: unless Google first provides more evidence that it means no evil, the general public will tend to assume the worst.
The most interesting feature of Android is it’s component-based architecture, as pointed out by some of the more insightful blog posts. Components are like iGoogle gadgets, only Android calls them “activities.” Applications themselves are built using a very browser-like metaphor: a “task” (which is Android-speak for running applications) is simply a stack of activites, which users can navigate backwards and forwards. The platform already has a set of basic activities that handle, e.g., email URLs, map URLs, calendar URLs, Flickr URLs, Youtube URLs, photo capture, music files, and so on. Any application can seamlessly invoke any of these reusable activities, either directly or via a registry of capabilities (which, roughly speaking, are called “intents”). The correspondence between a task and an O/S process is not necessarily one-to-one. Processes are used behind the scenes, for security and resource isolation purposes. Activities invoked by the same task may or may not run in the same process.
In addition to activities and intents, Android also supports other types of components, such as “content providers” (to expose data sources, such as your calendar or todo list, via a common API), “services” (long-running background tasks, such as a music player, which can be controlled via remote calls) and “broadcast receivers” (handlers for external events, such as receiving an SMS).
I think that Google is really pushing Android because it needs a component-based platform, and not so much to avoid the occasional snafu. If embraced by developers, this is the major ace up Android’s sleeve. Furthermore, the open source codebase is the strongest indication (among several) that Google has no intention to tightly regulate application frameworks like Apple, or to leverage it’s position to attack the competition like Microsoft has done in the past. Google wants to give itself enough leverage to realize it’s cloud-based services vision. If others benefit too, so much the better—Google is still too young to be “evil“. After all, as Jeff Bezos said, “like our retail business, [there] is not going to be one winner. [...] Important industries are rarely made by single companies.” I find the comparison to retail interesting. In fact, it is quite likely that many “cloud services” themselves will also become commodities.
I’d wager that really successful Android applications won’t be just applications, but components with content provided over the network. A shopping list app is nice. It was exciting in the PalmPilot era, a decade ago. But a shopping list component, accessible from both my laptop and my cellphone, able to automatically pull good deals from a shopping component, and allow a navigation component to alert me that the supermarket I’m about to drive by has items I need—well, that would be great! Android is built with that vision in mind, even though it’s not quite there yet.
It’s kind of disappointing, but not surprising, that many app developers do not yet think in terms of this component-based architecture. In fairness, there are already efforts, such as OpenIntents, to build collections of general-purpose intents. Furthermore, the sync APIs are not (yet) for the faint of heart. Even Google-provided services could perhaps be improved. For example, Google Maps does not synchronize stored locations with the web-based version. When I recently missed a highway exit on the way to work and needed to get directions, I had to pull over and re-type the full address. Neither does it expose those locations via a data provider. When I installed Locale, I had to manually re-enter most of “My Locations” from the web version of Google Maps. So, there are clearly some rough edges that I’m sure will be smoothed out. After all, there have been other rough edges, such as forgotten debugging hooks, something I find more amusing than alarming or embarrassing and certainly not the “Worst. Bug. Ever.”
Android has a lot of potential, but it still needs work and Google should move fast. The top two items on my wish list would be:
But not many people will buy an Android device for what it could do some day. Google has created a lot of positive buzz, backed by a few actual features. Now it needs some sexy devices and truly interesting apps, to really jumpstart the necessary network effect. Building the smart shopping list app should be as easy as building the dumb one. In the longer run, the set of devices on which Android is deployed should be expanded. Move beyond cell phones, to in-car computers, set-top boxes, and so on (Microsoft Windows does both cars and set-top boxes already, but with limited success so far)—in short, anything that can be used to access network-hosted data and applications.]]>
What about advice for CS teachers and professors?
That it’s time for us to start being more honest with ourselves about what our field is and how we should approach teaching it. Personally, I think that if we had named the field “Information Engineering” as opposed to “Computer Science,” we would have had a better culture for the discipline. For example, CS departments are notorious for not instilling concepts like testing and validation the way many other engineering disciplines do.
Is there anything you wish someone had told you before you began your own studies?
Just that being technically strong is only one aspect of an education.
Alice has proven phenomenally successful at teaching young women, in particular, to program. What else should we be doing to get more women engaged in computer science?
Well, it’s important to note that Alice works for both women and men. I think female-specific “approaches” can be dangerous for lots of reasons, but approaches like Alice, which focus on activities like storytelling, work across gender, age, and cultural background. It’s something very fundamental to want to tell stories. And Caitlin Kelleher’s dissertation did a fantastic job of showing just how powerful that approach is.
The interview was conducted a few weeks before his death. I’ll just say that, somehow, I suspect someone not in his position would never have said at least one of these things. It’s a sad thought, but Randy’s message is, as always, positive.]]>
On the left is the view outside the window and on the right is what you see inside.]]>
I’m told that managed buildings may skip some of these, but the apartment we found is in a condominium. Even though the landlord had already approved us, our broker prepared all the paperwork to a tee for the upcoming condo board review.
He even sent us some anonymized character reference letter samples. Some were quite amusing. For example (emphasis mine):
[...] I have always found him to be serious and responsible about his works [sic] and his private life. His home life is extremely quiet, and I would think ideal for his neighbors. Virtually all of his social gatherings are conducted in restaurants. He travels throughout nine months of the year and would probably be at home for only short periods of time between those trips. And quite frankly, his time at home is usually spent resting as part of his recovery from his traveling and preparation for his next trip. He is just the kind of quiet, unobtrusive neighbor that I would like to have.
I couldn’t help but wonder how many boards went through letters like this one. For a moment or two, I entertained the thought of asking a friend to write a pithy one-liner instead:
Spiros = corpse – odor + money ⇒ Spiros = dream tenant !
but I eventually decided that the “⇒” notation might be too much and dropped the idea altogether.
I just hope those sample letters do not really reflect life in NYC!]]>
“The combine harvester, [...] is a machine that combines the tasks of harvesting, threshing and cleaning grain crops.” If you have acres upon acres of wheat and want to separate the grain from the chaff, a group of combines is what you really want. If you have a bonsai tree and want to trim it, a harvester may be less than ideal.
MapReduce is like a pack of harvesters, well-suited for weeding through a huge volumes of data, residing on a distributed storage system. However, a lot of machine learning work is more akin to trimming bonsai into elaborate patterns. Vice versa, it’s not uncommon to see trimmers used to harvest a wheat field. Well-established and respected researchers, as recently as this year write in their paper “Planetary Scale Views on a Large Instant-messaging Network“:
We gathered data for 30 days of June 2006. Each day yielded about 150 gigabytes of compressed text logs (4.5 terabytes in total). Copying the data to a dedicated eight-processor server with 32 gigabytes of memory took 12 hours. Our log-parsing system employed a pipeline of four threads that parse the data in parallel, collapse the session join/leave events into sets of conversations, and save the data in a compact compressed binary format. This process compressed the data down to 45 gigabytes per day. Processing the data took an additional 4 to 5 hours per day.
Doing the math, that’s five full days of processing to parse and compress the data on a beast of a machine. Even more surprisingly, I found this exact quote singled out among all the interesting results in the paper! Let me make clear that I’m not criticizing the study; in fact, both the dataset and the exploratory analysis are interesting in many ways. However, it is somewhat surprising that, at least among the research community, such a statement is still treated more like a badge of honor rather than an admission of masochism.
The authors should be applauded for their effort. Me, I’m an impatient sod. Wait one day for the results, I think I can do that. Two days, what the heck. But five? For an exploratory statistical analysis? I’d be long gone before that. And what if I found a serious bug half way down the road? That’s after more than two days of waiting, in case you weren’t counting. Or what if I decided I needed a minor modification to extract some other statistic? Wait another five days? Call me a Matlab-spoiled brat, but forget what I said just now about waiting one day. I changed my mind already. A few hours, tops. But we need a lot more studies like this. Consequently, we need the tools to facilitate them.
Hence my decision to frolic with Hadoop. This post focuses on exploratory data analysis tasks: the kind I usually do with Matlab or IPython/SciPy scripts, which involve many iterations of feature extraction, data summarization, model building and validation. This may be contrary to Hadoop’s design priorities: it is not intended for quick turnaround or interactive response times with modestly large datasets. However, it can still make life much easier.
First, we start with a very simple benchmark, which scans a 350GB text log. Each record is one line, consisting of a comma-separated list of key=value pairs. The job extracts the value for a specific key using a simple regular expression and computes the histogram of the corresponding values (i.e., how many times each distinct value appears in the log). The input consists of approximately 500M records and the chosen key is associated with about 130 distinct values.
The plot above shows aggregate throughput versus number of nodes. HDFS and MapReduce cluster sizes are always equal, with HDFS rebalanced before each run. The job uses a split size of 256MB (or four HDFS blocks) and one reducer. All machines have a total of four cores (most Xeon, a few AMD) and one local disk. Disks range from ridiculously slow laptop-type drives (the most common type), to ridiculously fast SAS drives. Hadoop 0.16.2 (yes, this post took a while to write) and Sun’s 1.6.0_04 JRE were used in all experiments.
For such an embarrassingly parallel task, scaleup is linear. No surprises here, but it’s worth pointing out some numbers. As you can see from the plot, extracting simple statistics from this 350GB dataset took less than ten minutes with 39 nodes, down from several hours on one node. Without knowing the details of how the data were processed, if we assume similar throughput, then processing time of the raw instant messaging log could be roughly reduced from five days to just a few hours. In fact, when parsing a document corpus (about 1TB of raw text) to extract a document-term graph, we witnessed similar scale-up, going down from well over a day on a beast of a machine, to a couple of hours on the Hadoop cluster.
Hadoop is also reasonably simple to program with. It’s main abstraction is natural, even if your familiarity with functional programming concepts is next to none. Furthermore, most distributed execution details are, by default, hidden: if the code runs correctly on your laptop (with a smaller dataset, of course), then it will run correctly on the cluster.
Linear scaleup is good, but how about absolute performance? I implemented the same simple benchmark in C++, using Boost for regex matching. For a rough measure of sustained sequential disk throughput, I simply cat the same large file to /dev/null.
I collected measurements from various machines I had access to: (i) a five year old Mini-ITX system I use with my television at home, running Linux FC8 for this experiment, (ii) a two year old desktop at work, again with FC8, (iii) my three year old Thinkpad running Windows XP and Cygwin, and (iv) a recent IBM blade running RHEL4.
The hand-coded version in C++ is about 40% faster on the older machines and 33% faster on the blade [Note: I'm missing the C++ times for my laptop and it's drive crashed since then -- I was too lazy to reload the data and rerun everything, so I simply extrapolated from single-thread Hadoop assuming a 40% improvement, which seems reasonable enough for these back-of-the-envelope calculations]. Not bad, considering that Hadoop is written in Java and also incurs additional overheads to process each file split separately.
Perhaps I’m flaunting my ignorance but, surprisingly, this workload was CPU-bound and not I/O-bound—with the exception of my laptop, which has a really crappy 2.5″ drive (and Windows XP). Scanning raw text logs is a rather representative workload for real-world data analysis (e.g., AWK was built at AT&T for this purpose).
The blade has a really fast SAS drive (suspiciously fast, except perhaps if it runs at 15K RPM) and the results are particularly instructive. The drive reaches 120MB/sec sustained read throughput. Stated differently, the 3GHz CPU can only dwell on each byte for 24 cycles on average, if it’s to keep up with the drive’s read rate. Even on the other machines, the break-even point is between 30-60 cycles [Note: The laptop drive seems to be an exception, but I wouldn't be so sure that at least part of the inefficiency isn't due to Cygwin].
On the other hand, the benchmark throughput translates into 150-500 cycles per byte, on average. If I get the chance, I’d like to instrument the code with PAPI, validate these numbers and perhaps obtain a breakdown (into average cycles for regex state machine transition per byte, average cycles for hash update per record, etc). I would never have thought the numbers to be so high and I still don’t quite believe it. In any case, if we believe these measurements, at least 4-6 cores are needed to handle the sequential read throughput from a single drive!
The common wisdom in algorithms and databases textbooks, as far as I remember, was that when disk I/O is involved, CPU cycles can be more or less treated as a commodity. Perhaps this is an overstatement, but I didn’t expect it to be so off the mark.
This also raises another interesting question, which was the original motivation for measuring on a broad set of machines: what would be the appropriate cost-performance balance between CPU and disk for a purpose-built machine? I thought one might be able to get away with a setup similar to active disks: a really cheap and power-efficient Mini-ITX board, attached to a couple of moderately priced drives. For example, see this configuration, which was once used in the WayBack machine (I just found out that the VIA-based models have apparently been withdrawn, but the pages are still there for now). This does not seem to be the case.
The blades may be ridiculously expensive, perhaps even a complete waste of money for a moderately tech-savvy person. However, you can’t just throw together any old motherboard and hard disk, and magically turn them into a “supercomputer.” This is common sense, but some of the hype might have you believe the opposite.
Once the original, raw data is processed, the representation of the features relevant to the analysis task typically occupies much less space. In this case, a bipartite graph extracted from the same 350GB text logs (the details don’t really matter for this discussion) takes up about 3GB, or two orders of magnitude less space.
The graph shows aggregate throughput for one iteration of an algorithm similar to k-means clustering. This is fundamentally very similar to computing a simple histogram. In both cases, the output size is very small compared to the input size: the histogram has size proportional to the number of distinct values, whereas the cluster centers occupy space proportional to k. Furthermore, both computations iterate over the entire dataset and perform a hash-based group-by aggregation. For k-means, each point is “hashed” based on its distance to the closest cluster center, and the aggregation involves a vector sum.
Nothing much to say here, except that the linear scaleup tapers off after about 10-15 nodes, essentially due to lack of data: the fixed per-split overheads start dominating the total processing time. Hadoop is not really built to process datasets of modest size, but fundamentally I see nothing to prevent MapReduce from doing so. More importantly, when the dataset becomes really huge, I would expect Hadoop to scale almost-linearly with more nodes.
Hadoop can clearly help pre-process the raw data quickly. Once the relevant features are extracted, they may occupy at least an order of magnitude less space. It may be possible to get away with single-node processing on the appropriate representation of the features, at least for exploratory tasks. Sometimes it may even be better to use a centralized approach.
My focus is on exploratory analysis of large datasets, which is a pre-requisite for the design of mining algorithms. Such tasks typically involve (i) raw data pre-processing and feature extraction stages, and (ii) model building and testing stages. Distributed data processing platforms and, in particular, Hadoop are well-suited for such tasks, especially the feature extraction stages. In fact, tools such as Sawzall (which is akin to AWK, but on top of Google’s MapReduce and protocol buffers), excel at the feature extraction and summarization stages.
The original, raw data may reside in a traditional database, but more often than not they don’t: packet traces, event logs, web crawls, email corpora, sales data, issue-tracking ticket logs, and so on. Hadoop is especially well-suited for “harvesting” those features out of the original data. In its present form, it can also help in model building stages, if the dataset is really large.
In addition to reducing processing time, Hadoop is also quite easy to use. My experience is that the programming effort compares very favorably to the usual approach of writing my own, quick Python scripts for data pre-processing. Furthermore, there are ongoing efforts for even further simplification (e.g., Cascading and Pig).
I was somewhat surprised with the CPU vs I/O trade-offs for what I would consider real-world data processing tasks. Perhaps also influenced by the original work on active disks (one of the inspirations for MapReduce), which suggested using the disk controller to process data. However, there is a cross-over point for the performance of active disks versus centralized processing; I was way off with my initial guess on how much CPU power it takes for a reasonably low cross-over point (which is workload-dependent, of course, and any results herein should be treated as indicative and not conclusive).
Footnote: For what it’s worth, I’ve put up some of the code (and hope to document it sometime). Also, thanks to Stavros Harizopoulos for pointing out the simple cycles-per-byte metric.]]>
Nope. Not much of a plan.]]>
However, the article offers no concrete examples at all, so I’ll venture a suggestion. In a growing open source ecosystem of scalable, fault-tolerant, distributed data processing and management components, MapReduce is emerging as a predominant elementary abstraction for distributed execution of a large class of data-intensive processing tasks. It has attracted a lot of attention, proving both a source for inspiration, as well as target of polemic by prominent database researchers.
In database terminology, MapReduce is an execution engine, largely unconcerned about data models and storage schemes. In the simplest case, data reside on a distributed file system (e.g., GFS, HDFS, or KFS) but nothing prevents pulling data from a large data store like BigTable (or HBase, or Hypertable), or any other storage engine, as long as it
Arguably, MapReduce is powerful both for the features it provides, as well as for the features it omits, in order to provide a clean and simple programming abstraction, which facilitates improved usability, efficiency and fault-tolerance.
Most of the fundamental ideas for distributed data processing are not new. For example, a researcher involved in some of the projects mentioned once said, with notable openness and directness, that “people think there is something new in all this; there isn’t, it’s all Gamma“—and he’s probably right. Reading the original Google papers, none make a claim to fundamental discoveries. Focusing on “academic novelty” (whatever that may mean) is irrelevant. Similarly, most of the other criticisms in the irresponsibly written and oft (mis)quoted blog post and its followup miss the point. The big thing about the technologies mentioned in this post is, in fact, their promise to materialize Margo Seltzer’s vision, on clusters of commodity hardware.
Michael Stonebraker and David DeWitt do have a valid point: we should not fixate on MapReduce; greater things are happening. So, if we are indeed witnessing the emergence of an open ecosystem for scalable, distributed data processing, what might be the other key components?
Data types: In database speak, these are known as “schemas.” Google’s protocol buffers the underlying API for data storage and exchange. This is also nothing radically new; in essence, it is a binary XML representation, somewhere between the simple XTalk protocol which underpins Vinci and the WBXML tokenized representation (both slightly predating protocol buffers and both now largely defunct). In fact, if I had to name a major weakness in the open source versions of Google’s infrastructure (Hadoop, HBase, etc), it would be the lack of such a common data representation format. Hadoop has Writable, but that is much too low-level (a data-agnostic, minimalistic abstraction for lightweight, mutable, serializable objects), leading to replication of effort in many projects that rely on Hadoop (such as Nutch, Pig, Cascading, and so on). Interestingly, the rcc record compiler component (which seems to have fallen in disuse) was once called Jute with possibly plans grander than what came to be. So, I was pleasantly surprised when Google decided to open-source protocol buffers a few days ago—although it may now turn out to be too little too late.
Data access: In the beginning there was BigTable, which has been recently followed by HBase and Hypertable. It started fairly simple, as a “is a sparse, distributed, persistent multidimensional sorted map” to quote the original paper. It is now part of the Google App Engine and even has support for general transactions. HBase, at least as of version 0.1 was relatively immature, but there is a flurry of development and we should expect good things pretty soon, given the Hadoop team’s excellent track record so far. While writing this post, I remembered an HBase wish list item which, although lower priority, I had found interesting: support for scripting languages, instead of HQL. Turns out this has already been done (JIRA entry and wiki entries). I am a fan of modern scripting languages and generally skeptical about new special-purpose languages (which is not to say that they don’t have their place).
Job and schema management: Pig, from the database community, is described as a parallel dataflow engine and employs yet another special-purpose language which tries to look a little like SQL (but it is no secret that it isn’t). Cascading has received no attention in the research community, but it merits a closer look. It is based on a “build system” metaphor, aiminig to be the equivalent of Make or Ant for distributed processing of huge datasets. Instead of introducing a new language, it provides a clean Java API and also integrates with scripting languages that support functional programming (at the moment, Groovy). As I have used neither Cascading nor Pig at the moment, I will reserve any further comparisons. It is worth noting that both projects build upon Hadoop core and do not integrate, at the moment, with other components, such as HBase. Finally, Sawzall deserves an honorable mention, but I won’t discuss it further as it is a closed technology.
Indexing: Beyond lookups based on row keys in BigTable, general support for indexing is a relatively open topic. I suspect that IR-style indices, such as Lucene, have much to offer (something that has not gone unnoticed)—more on this in another post.
A number of other projects are also worth keeping an eye on, such as CouchDB, Amazon’s S3, Facebook’s Hive, and JAQL (and I’m sure I’m missing many more). All of them are, of course, open source.]]>
Upon coming back to New York, somewhat to my surprise, it was the US that felt comparatively dinky. A few years ago, it used to be the other way around. However, the contrast between new developments around the 2004 Olympics and New York’s crumbling infrastructure was at least noticeable this time.]]>