Data in the Cloud from Dallas to Mars

There’s a lot going on at this week’s Microsoft Professional Developers Conference (PDC 09); it’s a traditional launchpad for cool new stuff. I thought I’d point out several of the government-relevant announcements and technology roll-outs.

I specifically want to spotlight something called Codename Dallas, and how NASA and others have begun using it. In the keynote this morning Microsoft’s Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie told PDC attendees (and his streaming-video audience) that a landslide of new sensors and observational systems are changing the world by recording “unimaginable volumes of data… But this data does no good unless we turn the potential into the kenetic, unless we unlock it and innovate in the realm of applications and solutions that’s wrapped around that data.”

Here’s how we’re addressing that, with a bit of step-by-step context on the overall cloud-computing platform enabling it.  The steps are: 1. Azure, 2. Pinpoint, and 3. Dallas.

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Bad News for the Pithy

Just my luck. Right when I start to push out the pithy quotes, Reader’s Digest announces that it is filing for bankruptcy. I remember the days when everyone would recite the newest pearls from their “Quotable Quotes” column.

My little gems, such as they are, came in two recent interviews, both on the subject of semantic computing and the semantic web. The subject matter in each is somewhat similar – I wasn’t asked so much about future work that Microsoft is doing, but for assessments of different approaches in semantic computing past and present, and where the field is heading.

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Seeking Semantics in Government

Anyone who uses Twitter and has to cram thoughts in to 140 characters knows that technology doesn’t always mix well with “semantic meaning.” That reminds me of an old Hollywood story (here’s a version from Wikipedia):

Cary Grant is said to have been reluctant to reveal his age to the public, having played the youthful lover for more years than would have been appropriate. One day, while he was sorting out some business with his agent, a telegram arrived from a journalist who was desperate to learn how old the actor was. It read: HOW OLD CARY GRANT?

Grant, who happened to open it himself, immediately cabled back: OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?

WashTechWashington Technology magazine has a long (overly long) feature today about semantic computing, entitled “Open Government Looks for New Technologies.”  It has nothing to do with Cary Grant, but I have a few minor quibbles with the article (written by a freelancer from New York).

The premise is in the subhead: “Web 3.0 could help make Obama’s dream of government transparency a reality.”  The article goes on to give a basic – very basic – primer on semantic tagging and its potential application in government uses. Underline that word, “potential.”

Aside from the new Data.gov website’s use of minimal Dublin-Core metadata, there’s no actual government use cited. In fact, despite the premise, the article actually contains more evidence that government agencies are actively shying away from adopting semantic approaches. A spokesperson for GSA is typical, saying only that ““We are monitoring the situation as the technology matures; it is not factoring into our business requirements at this point.”  And a spokesperson for the site at www.Recovery.gov, now controversial for the manner in which it was contracted out, says they are “focusing on other priorities.” 

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Semantic Reality (Microsoft Acquires Powerset)

Fact: At last, the public announcement this afternoon of one of the most-rumored secrets in tech: Microsoft is acquiring Powerset, taking us one major step forward in semantic technologies. 

Analysis: There’ll be plenty of analysts looking at this, and I expect the acquisition will get a lot of buzz just as Powerset did originally when launched.  After all, Microsoft is buying a company which was called a “Google-Killer” by everyone from the New York Times to various esoteric search-technology blogs.  [Update: it's already started on TechCrunch.]

If you haven’t used Powerset’s first announced product, semantic searching of Wikipedia, check it out on their site and you’ll begin to see why there’s been so much interest in their technical approach. I’ve know founder Barney Pell for a while now, and we’ve mused about the possibilities of adding Powerset’s strengths to Microsoft’s global scale.  The more I played with PowerLabs, before its full launch, the more I was convinced of its power.

When I was working at DIA, one of our dreams was a semantically enabled intelligence enterprise. IC analysts and advanced users within any other enterprise vertical are going to find some very interesting capabilities finally possible when Powerset technology is wedded to the FAST search software already being deployed at web scale.

But that’s only the beginning. 

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Microsoft Research Reclaims Value of Pi

pi-techFACT: Educators in the state of Alabama are chafing as the state celebrates a dubious anniversary: today marks ten years since the Alabama state legislature voted to change the value of the mathematical constant pi from 3.14159… to the “Biblical value” of 3.0.  Ramifications were felt across the state. 
Now, a team of Microsoft Research computer scientists have announced success in a groundbreaking effort to refactor the Biblical value, using modern high-performance computing hardware and machine-translation technologies on the original Old Testament texts.
  
ANALYSIS:  Looking back, an April 1998 issue of Science and Reason newsletter written by physicist Mark Boslough recounts the political and cultural battles which went behind the Alabama legislative change. The legislature of the “Yellowhammer State” justified the change by citing biblical injunction. As one supporter put it: “the Bible very clearly says in I Kings 7:23 that the altar font of Solomon’s Temple was ten cubits across and thirty cubits in diameter, and that it was round in compass.”

The use of “3.0” as the value of pi led to problems in schools, businesses, and local scientific pursuits, including a group of frustrated engineers at the NASA research facility in Huntsville.  According to NASA/Huntsville’s director of special projects “Dr.” Jim Simon (doctorate pending), “We had strayed from using our Microsoft software and instead had been trying to figure out how to use an advanced Google search platform, which was sold to us as a powerful Cloud Computing system.”

Unfortunately, that effort proved frustrating for the “rocket scientists” any time they used calculations involving pi, based on the Alabama-standard value of 3.0, mostly because they were under the mistaken impression that they were contractually barred from using Cloud Computing on any sunny days. Given the hospitable local weather that left them unable to use their computers for an average of 290 days each year.

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