Saturday, April 17, 2010

Surreal Saturday: The Periodic Table Of Periodic Tables (Flickr via Neatorama)

Nothing more to say, really. Click on the pic or this link to get the full image... (via Neatorama)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do (

"A revolutionary new theory showing how we can predict human behavior..."

"...the patterns of human mobility in an era of total surveillance..."

"Your life may look random to you, but everything from your visits to a web page to your visits to the doctor are predictable, and happen in bursts."

I haven't even had a chance to read Laszlo Barabasi's new book, Bursts, (it doesn't come out until the 29th) but the quotes above (from the book itself, Clay Shirky and Ogi Ogas) have got me pretty excited.

Yes, yes, some of it is back of the book puffery but more important than the quotes is the author. We still use Barabasi's book, Linked, as supplemental reading material in our theory class. It is an intellectually rich, yet still accessible, look at the emerging science of networks and I heartily recommend it.

Now, it seems that Barabasi thinks he can make some accurate predictions regarding human behavior. This, of course, is going to be of definite interest to intelligence analysts. I will hold comments until I actually get to see the book but, given the reputation of the author...let's just say my spider sense is tingling.

One of the most fascinating things Barabasi is doing in advance of the release of his book is a little social experiment. You can go to the Bursts website and "adopt" a word from the book (You can see my certificate above -- I got the word "along").

Once you adopt a word, you can gain points by guessing other words in the book. As you and others who are playing the game do so, the book gradually becomes revealed to all of the players. Top point scorers also get signed free copies of the book from Barabasi.

I am just guessing but I suspect that Barabasi thinks that the data generated from the activity of the players will confirm some aspect (or many aspects) of his predictive model. I can see where number of participants might well come in bursts (My posting this to my blog may cause, for example, a burst of activity). I can see where sections of the book will be uncovered by the participants in bursts of activity and how the number of books sold might also occur in predictable bursts. I can also see how one burst might be predictive of the next burst.

Pure speculation, of course, but even if I am wrong, the Bursts game is fun (and a clever piece of marketing strategy) and the game of trying to figure out what Barabasi is up to this time is even funner.
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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Google Proves Massively Useful Once Again; Continues To Try To Dominate World (Google Docs)

One of my former students (Thanks, Meg!) sent me the big news: Google has added real-time, collaborative editing to Google Docs. This means that you and up to 9 collaborators can jump on a single Google Doc and simultaneously type and edit.

While this may not appear to support Google's attempt at world domination to quite the extent the headline to this post makes it seem (whew!), it does.

Previously, a wonderful little online product called Etherpad was the only such real-time collaborative tool available. Lots of people loved it but, when Google (the plot thickens...) bought it out a few months ago, the people who wept loudest were -- wait for it -- teachers.

I myself had used it in the classroom. It was easy and efficient and got students working together quickly without a whole lot of admin fuss and bother. The final collaborative product wasn't very pretty (no real formatting options) but, once the content was agreed upon by the students working on the project, it was easy to move that content into Word or PowerPoint or, for that matter, Google Docs, to pretty it up.

For those of you who did not have a chance to experience the magic of Etherpad, you can still see what all the fuss was about. Google (kindly) made the code for Etherpad open-source and several people developed almost identical clones of the product (my favorite is I strongly encourage you to find a buddy or two and use this product. Everyone who has played with it, loves it.

Particularly teachers.

Where teachers go, students are sure to follow. Once you have had a taste of the speed, the increased level of intellectual engagement and, frankly, the fun of real-time collaboration, it will be very difficult to go back to the old emailing-the-doc-around-sort-of-thing. Google is more than happy to share its apps with schools and over 7 million students currently use them. Students (at least here at Mercyhurst) are already using Google products extensively and Google has just given the millennials one more reason to go Google and stay Google.

I have a couple of gripes, though. First it seems you have to have a Google account to set up a Google Doc. It is unclear whether or not you have to have a Google account to access the doc (We tried this in my Advanced Analytic Techniques class today and people with Mercyhurst addresses could not access the site while people with Gmail addresses could). This was not the case with Etherpad.

Likewise, you can only have 10 active collaborators at a time (though more can view the doc). While I recognize that teachers and classes aren't the only audience for this product, maybe in Mountain View they only have 10 students to a class but I would suggest that this is not the norm.

More importantly, some of the features demoed in the video below were not obviously available to us when we did get access. If the version we used this afternoon is supposed to look like the version in the video, it didn't -- and there was no obvious way to change it. We also experienced some lag in seeing each others' edits, something I had not experienced before with Etherpad.

Finally, the URL for sharing a doc looks like this:

Not the easiest thing to share...

One thing you can count on with Google, though, is that it will continue to improve its flagship products. I may not like what they are currently offering ( I am sticking with for the time being) but I am virtually certain it will get better over time (and, in this case, fairly quickly, I expect).

Whether you like Google or you hate it, don't blink -- it is definitely coming to a document near you soon.

One last thought: My personal hope is that someone will take the open source Etherpad code and make an extension for MediaWiki. Can you imagine the increase in productivity (not to mention usage...) of Intellipedia with an extension that allowed easy real-time collaboration? Yoikes!
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Monday, April 12, 2010

How Large Is The World's Intelligence Industry? Now We Know... (Thesis Month)

One of the questions that has really bothered me over the years concerns the size of the national security intelligence "industry" worldwide. When you add it all up, how much money do the states of the world spend on intelligence and how many people are involved in government intelligence work?

These questions are important. There is a popular impression in much of the world that "intelligence is everywhere", that it is both all powerful and omnipresent. Creating or encouraging this impression in dictatorial countries might even be part of the system of repression. Knowing the answers to these questions could help reformers more accurately assess their risks.

Even in democratic countries, however, understanding the resource limits of the national security intelligence apparatus at the broadest possible levels, where the need for citizens to know where their money is being spent can be appropriately balanced with the legitimate operational concerns of the working intelligence professional, seems to make sense.

From a more provincial standpoint, it also seems important for educational institutions to have some sort of a feel for the need for trained professionals in intelligence work if the university model is ever going to supplant government training as the primary way into the intelligence communities of the world.

The answer to this question, however, is obviously difficult to uncover. Most countries do not want to discuss how much they spend on intel each year. Oftentimes, it is even difficult to figure out which organizations within a country are actively engaged in intelligence work.

It is with great pleasure, then, that I announce the final results:

The national security intelligence industry accounts for about $106 billion dollars a year and employs about a million people worldwide.
These are the numbers generated by Chris Hippner in his interesting and exhaustive thesis titled, A Study Into The Size Of The World's Intelligence Industry.

While Chris has done a good (extraordinary, really) job of collecting as many facts and figures as he could regarding the intel budgets of every country on the planet, he had to rely on estimates for many of them.

These estimates are based on GDP and on the spending patterns of countries where the data is available, a method which Chris readily admits is fraught with some difficulty (I note with some interest, though, that Chris has posted a note to his online thesis encouraging people to send him more accurate figures. It will be interesting to see how many people take him up on the offer...).

I am also sure that Chris has missed some organizations. It is virtually certain that there are organizations out there which are well known to people living in a particular country to be wholly controlled by that country's intelligence apparatus for which Chris has not accounted. Such errors are essentially unavoidable given the global scope of his thesis work.

Likewise, Chris simply did not have time to examine either the growing presence of intelligence units in law enforcement or business (My own guess is that this would approximately double the total value of the industry).

All that said, this thesis does exactly what needed to be done -- give us all a starting point for further research and refinements.

A full copy of the thesis is located below or you can go to Chris's site on for other viewing and download options.

A Study Into the Size of the World's Intelligence Industry
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