Sheila and Yair do the world
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  • The age of information

    Posted on November 3rd, 2010 Sheila Yair 14 comments

    glassesI am sitting here at my friends’ house admiring their one-year-old daughter. As I am watching her, the actual her, there is also a video of her at 6 months playing in the background. Now, this little girl has about a year of existence under her belt (if she could wear one), but around a year and a half worth of documentation. It would take you about a year and a half to go through all the videos and pictures of her. Well putting first time parents pride aside, I am trying to describe the amount of pixels this little creature has already indirectly has created. I can’t even start to estimate the number. But as I am contemplating this, a flash goes off and another 8 million pixels come in to existence. Now, only 35 years ago when the first digital camera was put to the test in the Kodak labs, it took 20 seconds to generate a 10 kilo pixels image. So there was probably less than a mega pixel present on the face of this planet. I can’t begin to imagine the number of pixels my friend has but can anyone even try to estimate the number of pixels existing in the whole world? And I have just talked about images, what about all the text oriented information? The video? The charts?

    We are swimming in an ever-increasing ocean of bites and pixels.

    The difference between oceans of data and information is accessibility. Google, Microsoft, yahoo and others have made fortunes realizing this. Your data is only as valuable as its accessibility. I could have all the answers in the world, all of them, even the big ones, but if I can’t match them to the questions then really all I have is a pile of yes, no and make a left on the next traffic light. I mean here I have an answer, “Yes”, but if I don’t know if it is to, “is there a god?”, or, “is it my turn again to throw out the garbage?”, I really have nothing. So on that pretext, I begin my story on information.

    We were heading back to the U.S. from Italy and we got one of those connection flights, switching in Frankfurt. Upon arrival in Newark we went to my Aunt and Uncle’s house. That evening was dedicated to talk and battling jetlag. The next day it was time to show a few pixels. We had been on the road for almost a year and a half and in our many iniquities, we accumulated quite a few pixels. So out comes the laptop, and as I try to plug it in I notice the plug is a little difficult in fitting. But as I turn the machine on I am prompt to sign in as Clive. It takes me a second to realize what happened here. The first theory was of a virus taking over the computer. But that lasted for a half of a second. I then thought maybe Sheila created a new user and deleted us as users. But that also was in the split second group as far as existence. I then realized the inevitable. This was not our laptop. As we went through security and took out our laptop a switch has occurred. Now if I was sporting one of those trendy air books it would be one thing, but I am one who never quite understood the concept of a laptop. The totally incongruous name aside, a laptop should be portable, hence small and light weight. Having lived in New York City for a long time I dislike cramped spaces, even if it is a screen. So I carry an 18 inch dead weight around which I call a laptop. But here in line to security in Frankfurt, right behind me or in front of me is standing another person with the same misguided concept of what a laptop should be. And he or she is even carrying a product of the same making. What are the chances?

    So here we are with a little bit of data, which we will try to convert into information. Especially the whereabouts of my precious pixels from a year and a half of traveling.
    OK Sherlock what do we have? Well not too much- we have a first name, ‘Clive’. OK don’t panic, this is the age of information. So off we go to look for Clive on Facebook, only 30,000. A first name is not the best search term but we narrowed it from 7 billion people to possibly 30,000. Next we know it happened on the Air India flight going to Newark. So we call both Air India and Newark to see if anybody has reported a missing laptop. Newark is a maze of phone numbers that lead to other numbers, that finally get to a voice message of a very honest Sargent who quite simply tells you he is totally overworked and the airport police understaffed, so he can’t really get to this phone nor listen to the messages too often, but you should never the less leave a detailed description of the item you have lost. Well we are still in pitch dark here as far as the case goes, so we leave that detailed message. Then we come up with the bright idea of calling the laptop maker. Who ever dealt with databases knows that every table in a database has a key, one unique definition every row of information that makes it easy to locate. And while we only have a first name for our computer holder, we do have the serial number of his or her computer which the company can easily locate, thus having access to their address and having the ability to put in contact the two misfortunate parties and have them both retrieve their lost computers. Ah, the beauty of turning raw data to valuable information, these are the moments that put smiles on database administrators, the moments that make this great age of information worthwhile. Well in order not to disclose the computer manufacturer I will only use their initials, so I will refer to them as HP.

    Off to the phone we go barley able to contain our excitement at solving this little case. As we call this HP Company’s customer service we are very quickly disenchanted. We realize immediately that we are talking to the country from where our airline originated. Yes this is one of those many off shore calling centers that take half an hour just to understand your problem. It then takes you about half an hour to try and decipher the reply. The woman on the other line tells us she cannot do anything for us and we should go to the local police station and report it. “They will get your computer back”, she assures us in her very heavy accent. I can just see the clerk’s face in Morristown New Jersey as I explain to him about my mishap in Frankfurt Germany and ask if he can do anything. “Why sir that is horrible, I am dispatching three units right away. We are also going to have to involve some FBI units on this one, as it is international. Heck we might as well get MI-6 and the Mosad in on this you don’t know how big this might get.” Well off we go to the local police station. “They will get it back for you”, echoes in our heads. The police officer at the desk is very nice and does a great job not bursting in laughter as we ask him what can we do. Well he lets us fill in a form and he even assigns a case number to it.

    So back to calling India. Some times in a database you have certain tables that are confidential, restricted, password protected. We know where the data is, we can almost see it, so hopefully this case number will be the password that makes it available to us. In India another representative answers and again tells us the local police is best to deal with this. We inform her that we went there already and even have a case number. She says she can’t give us private information like that. I tell her I do not want any information, just call Mr. Clive and give him all my information and tell him I have his laptop. No can do. She says that maybe if the local police station calls them she might be able to talk with them. At this point I stop being polite about this whole local police option and explain to her that the local police are not going to do anything. This happened in Germany and they have nothing to do with this. I am forced to draw my last card, the all mighty, “let me talk to your supervisor.”

    The offshore representative: My supervisor can’t talk to you right now.

    Me: I’ll wait (it’s an 800 number going all the way to India).

    The offshore representative: He will tell you what I told you.

    Me: I still want to talk to him.

    The offshore representative: He doesn’t want to talk to you.

    Me: You mean to tell me HP customer service is refusing to talk to a customer? Can you say that again because I am going public with this one.

    The offshore representative: …OK, a supervisor will call you back.

    A little like those automated menus, if you are stubborn enough you eventually will talk to someone. So now a person from the U.S. actually calls us. Of course each time we have to go through the whole story describing the incident. He tells me it is a breach of privacy and that the best I can do is open a ticket and give HP consent to hand over my information if and when Clive calls them. Let’s assume Clive does call you guys, and complains, do you really think someone will put the two cases together and say hey lets get these two people talking? No the supervisor admits. Well then, ‘Why do you even suggest this as the solution?’ I think to myself. I reiterate that I do not want any information, I just want HP to inform Clive of the whereabouts of his laptop. I ask the supervisor if he wouldn’t be glad to hear from somebody if he were to lose his computer? He admits he would but stands firm on the fact that it would be a breach of privacy. He is in eternal loop mode now, and he will give me the same answer until I hang up. I tell him I am very disappointed with his company and the level of their customer service, “it is a breach of…”, he replies. I part with a polite and aggressive mid sentence hang-up. These companies won’t think twice before sending you promotional material or even sending your email to other companies. But to inform you someone has found your laptop, well that would breach your privacy. Well how is one to read all their non-privacy breaching promotional spamming if he doesn’t have his computer?

    My uncle, who works for a company that deals with this HP company extensively, says he will try and get one of the big players over at HP to help us. The only thing he comes back with is that the computer was purchased in the United States. That’s not a huge help, but it is good to know.

    Well it seems we are back to square one with only a first name. OK, the other party involved here is the airline. We are a little sick of the phone by now, and decide on a house call, an actual visit to the airlines offices in Manhattan. Yes let’s see if the personal touch will get more results.

    So Sheila goes in to the lions den to see if she can meet with someone who is a little less of a privacy advocate and is actually willing to help two lost computers find their way home. At this point it has been three days, we have not heard anything from the nice Sargent at Newark, we have exhausted the HP possibility and the local police not surprisingly has filed our case in the paper recyclable bin. Since we had Sheila’s name and last name on our login screen we figured Clive will have a much easier time finding us than we him. Sheila does only have about 6 cousins and 2 aunts who are named exactly as her, right down to the middle name. Don’t even ask about that, it’s an Irish thing. So we posted a message on her Facebook wall and made it public. We even opened a tweeter account and tweeted our distress. But there is a sea of information out there and Clive has shown no sign of life. I start thinking we will never see our computer again, with all our software, images, music etc. Oh well at least we have another computer to reformat and start over with.

    So back to Sheila at the Air India office. She is greeted by a very nice representative. She reservedly describes our predicament along with all our efforts to retrieve information. The representative takes pity on Sheila and starts ticking away at he computer. Yes there was a Clive on your flight, she informs her along with his last name. It seems he booked his ticket through Expedia, let me call them. You know how when your stuck in a traffic jam, moving 5 inches in 15 minutes and all of a sudden it clears and opens up, those few first moments of blissful moving, that energy of actually propelling the car at the speed it was built for. Well that was the feeling as information about Clive started to appear. His full name, his email, a phone number. It is the information super highway, the Clive one, we have been waiting so long to ride. Sheila, sure that this information won’t be shared with her, whips out her eyeliner. She secretly writes all this down in nervous bulky shaky letters. Once off the phone, the representative happily hands over to Sheila all the details. She tells her the phone number is an Indian one, probably of the agent who booked the ticket, the email also looks very abstract and random. But beggars can’t be choosers and this information is a huge leap in the case.

    We go back to the internet and this time our search results are narrowed down to two. There is one Clive in Illinois and one in New Orleans. Now this is a data set that is manageable. We search for any contact information about these two Clives but to no avail. At this point my aunt steps in and suggests we try the 10 digit number, it might not be from India. Sometimes you are so busy trying to solve something while the solution is right there in front of you staring at you. Low and behold the area code is none other but New Orleans. Can it be? Can this be the closing to the case? With trembling fingers we dial the number. It is an answering machine with a British accent. Well that is promising since the Clive in New Orleans is of British decent according to the internet. We leave a message describing our peculiar situation and ask if this might be the right Clive. After less than a minute there is a call back. It is him. He was very tired and busy and didn’t even unpack his bags yet. So while we were jumping through hoops, pulling out our best detective skills, he didn’t even know he lost his computer. We exchanged addresses and shipped our wrong computers off. After a few days our laptop is back home along with all the pixels and bites we love so much. Elementary my dear Watson, we started with 7 billion people brought it down to 300 million then to 30 thousand then 2 and then one. The age of information, where data is flowing everywhere and occasionally put together as some useful information.