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01 March 2008

Google’s Googlies

People were happy when it became the most popular search engine. When it offered virtually unlimited space in email accounts, only the competitors cribbed. Then it scared Governments with GoogleEarth and mobile phone operators with Rs 4,000 web-surfable cellphones. Here are two of its latest ‘Googlies’

Google is coming up with Google Health, its latest service — this time of personal health records management.

This is how the service will appear on your computer monitors. You first have to be a ‘user’; in web service’s parlance this means registering at the site with personal details — in this case, your medical history as your physician has diagnosed. On the right section of the screen, the user’s health profile will appear in a sidebar containing the medical conditions he has experienced, the medications he has used for treatment, allergies (if any) and procedures adopted for cure.

On the left hand side will appear another sidebar with URLs to the subscriber's profile data, medical contacts, health notices and drug interaction warnings, that is, side effects, if any.

More information, however, needs to be fed to the user’s profile, a purpose that will be served by the central column with buttons enabling you to add information to Google Health, import health records, find online health management tools and search for doctors.

Only for American users as of now, the web service’s screenshot will have a widget for appointments with doctors and chart describing the treatments as offered by the Cleveland Clinic with which Google announced a pilot programme to test its online health records system two weeks ago. From this it is believed that when this facility is made available worldwide, in developing countries like India Google is likely to seek collaboration from a few major hospitals.

Will any Government hospital be a part of the project? If yes, can they handle the fast data entry that the programme will demand? If no, it will not do justice to Google’s business approach of playing with large volumes or, in other words, catering for the masses. Private hospitals may be ‘smart’ but they aren’t for the middle class, let alone the poor.

Then there could be legal hassles. Personal health records are not protected by privacy and security laws and putting PHRs online raises a number of privacy risks. Individuals will be largely inconvenienced if their diseases were available for public scrutiny. In cases like HIV/AIDS, it also opens up the possibility of persecution by society.

However, Google Health will not include advertisements, at least initially. So, at the moment, advertisers cannot use health information to target the sick.

Enthusiasts argue that Google Health may be likened to Google News insofar as providing value and helping drive more searches are concerned. Well, Google Health may work on a similar strategy. But it’s difficult to digest the company’s claim that one’s medical information open for scrutiny by anyone is the same as looking for health-related information through Google Search. Of course, there is assurance from the company that Google has undertaken not to sell or share users’ data without their explicit permission.

But this isn’t about the company’s magnanimity. It is to avoid litigations. While giving individuals ‘complete control’ over their data sounds assuring, it would protect Google from liability should the revelation of health data lead to discrimination against or embarrassment for a user. That is, except for abject negligence on Google's part, Google Health users will have no one but themselves to blame if, say, they misdirect their health records to unintended recipients or leave their Google Health page on-screen while away from their desks.

An interesting twist in the story is that whatever Google does, Microsoft does it too. To give competition a fair chance, Microsoft does have its own health service, too: HealthVault. Announced last October, it is a private search experience, a secure online data repository and a health information management application. That is, owing to MSN’s search options being less popular than Google Search, HealthVault is a less publicised me-too Google Health.

All said and done, Google Health does mark a new chapter in the field of delivery of health-care services. Let’s hope, it does not wreck society by exposing individuals’ medical data.

Taking on Wiki:
For a couple of years now, Wikipedia has become an intriguing source that many researchers use to know what, when, why, where and how of everything. Open to tinkering by anyone who begs to differ with the content or wants to add stuff to it, Wikipedia has become quite a headache for both teachers and heads of Government institutions who have been at pains to explain to their students in schools and subordinates in offices which Wiki content to rely on and which not to. Google Sites could make it worse.

The plan for Google Sites was announced on February 28. It’s an addition to Google Apps that provides simple yet intuitive tools to create websites in collaboration. Based on the Wiki technology developed by JotSpot, which Google acquired in October, 2006, Google Sites will be as easy to edit as Wiki, but will look as good as a website. Even though working on Wiki is easier than working with HTML, it is essentially made by geeks and fiddled by geeks. The end-user is rarely the one who pokes his nose in what the Wikipedia says about anything or anybody.

Google Sites, on the other hand, can be edited in groups. Users can put up sites in minutes and, without any advanced technical skills, post a variety of files including calendars, text, spreadsheets, and videos for private, group, or public viewing and editing.

As questionable as information furnished on Wikipedia is, contents on Google Sites cannot obviously be used for scholarly works. Only the security of your system will be better: Though users can edit the HTML of their pages, controls are in place to prevent malicious code from being included. That means no IFRAMEs and limited JavaScript. Google Analytics, which uses JavaScript to gather Web site usage statistics, would work with Google Sites.

How personal you can make Google Sites depends on whether or not you pay Google. There are general services for the ‘Team’ and ‘Standard’ (both free) packages as well as customised services through ‘Premier’, a package that can be bought for $ 50 per user, per year.

For students there is good news. The Education Edition is free with Google Apps. The service includes 10 GB of storage. Google Apps Premier users receive an additional 500 MB per user account in the domain. That's in addition to the 6.4 GB and 25 GB of e-mail storage offered to Google Apps Standard and Premier Edition users respectively.

Here again there is competition with Microsoft SharePoint. Companies are likely to weigh Google Sites against SharePoint and Google may win some customers who are looking for a hosted solution. SharePoint so far has just been offered as on-premises software.

In terms of cost, licensing fee for the paid version of Google Sites and Microsoft SharePoint are comparable. But Google Sites does not impose the maintenance cost of in-house servers and people who tend them.

Feared by rivals, panned by critics:
Google, which had started basically as a search company, is now no longer just a techies’ darling. It is feared by its rivals and challenged in court for its aggressive hiring tactics. This writer, for one, happened to be called by a placement agency last year for an aptitude test to be conducted at the basement of an obscure building in Delhi’s South Extension. From its three follow-up calls to ensure I would turn up to several more to ensure I would join Google, I kept wondering whether Google was at all going to be my employer, so confusing were the nature of the intermediaries and the way they described my possible job profile. Eventually, those who joined had educational and professional backgrounds no better than those of call centre ‘executives’.

In February 2005, Google showed its hypersensitivity for the first time when it fired an employee over his blog postings, which included criticisms of the company. Later, another employee sued Google, claiming that she was wrongfully terminated before being hired again and then demoted after the company learned that she was pregnant.

Among other aspects of the company, nobody is actually sure of which hornet’s nest Google wishes to stir next. Google was once dragged to court by adult website Perfect 10 over the search company's use of photos in its image search database, and Google agreed to change the name of its Gmail service to Google Mail in the UK after being threatened with a copyright lawsuit there.

Google antagonised the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild that took the company to court, complaining that its plan to scan and digitise major library collections would violate copyright law. Google defended its plan by saying it won't expose more than snippets of in-copyright books.

But nobody can deny one big merit of Google. With its services, the people are spoilt for choice: Google Video, Google Mini (a budget enterprise search appliance), Google Earth with its 3D satellite images, Google blog search (an RSS reader), Google Talk (a voice-enabled instant-messaging program) and Google Base (a repository for any information that a user may want to turn into keywords for web-search). The last was a project many thought was an attempt to get into the lucrative online-classifieds market. It’s not far from being there.

Google, as secretive as always, was for two years being speculated to be interested in unused fibre-optic cable (ill known as ‘dark fibre’) because it wanted to build its own global network. Just last week it was announced that a consortium of six international companies, including Google, is to build an ultra high-speed submarine fibre optic cable system linking Japan and the US.

Following the outcry in 2004 over Gmail’s privacy — for the end-users, there just wasn’t a better free e-mail service — several other Google products stirred similar concerns, namely Web Accelerator and My Search History.

The Web Accelerator promised to reduce the waiting time in web-browsing mostly by a combination of caching and pre-fetching. But it appeared as if the accelerator was sometimes serving up the wrong cached page, showing you a page with someone other than you logged into the site, for example. It also effectively acted like a proxy and, among other things, allowed users to bypass China's firewall. While that firewall is quite bothersome, China must have been miffed at that development. Finally, with My Search History, what are the privacy implications of Google knowing almost most pages each user has ever visited anywhere on the web and the full contents of those pages?

But let’s for once look at the brighter side. Google is a hell for liars. It knows what you did last summer. Wink! Wink!

25 February 2008

A Shot In The Dark

The US claims that destroying one of its defunct satellites with a missile was necessary for the hazard its toxic fuel posed to life on Earth. It's an understatement that the world isn't convinced; neither are American experts. Here is an exposition of a six-week (perhaps more) long drama

Keep aside the game of American and international politics surrounding the recent shooting down of a defunct spy satellite by the US; the logistics and science involved in the exercise was simply fascinating. Once, not giving two hoots to international concern, the US Administration gave the order to demolish with a missile the 'dead' National Reconnaissance Office satellite, the Department of Defence needed to re-programme the weapons -- outfit three Navy cruisers, the USS Lake Erie, USS Decatur and USS Russell, with remodelled Aegis anti-missile defence systems and a total of three SM-3 missiles -- within a few weeks.

The confusion:
Too many cooks spoil the broth, they say. Much before the event and its prior plan caught the media's attention, the US Administration had summoned a high-powered team of 200 personnel -- Navy scientists, missile defence experts, the makers of the Aegis system and RIM-161 Standard Missiles-3 (Lockheed Martin and Raytheon respectively), as well as scientists from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory -- to study the feasibility of shooting down the satellite with a missile. Notable sub-contractors and technical experts in the team also included Boeing, Alliant Techsystems, Honeywell, Naval Surface Warfare Centre and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory.

The resultant report was a labyrinth of 'if's and 'but's. Should the satellite be shot down at all? If yes, can the American 'shooters' pull it off? On record, Lt Gen Carter Ham, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had opined on January 15 that it was difficult not only to hit the satellite but even to know the best time to shoot.

Mr David Wright, a senior scientist at the suggestively named Union of Concerned Scientists, had said that he would put the odds of a successful intercept at no better than 50 per cent. And he expressed concern that debris from a successful strike could harm other objects in relatively low orbits.

What if the first attempt failed? What if that attempt, despite failing to achieve a head-on collision with the fuel tank, were to deflect the falling satellite so much that the calculation of the new trajectory of its fall, for a possible second attempt to hit it, becomes terribly difficult? Moreover, officials wanted Atlantis voyage to be home to avoid the risk of being hit with the shot satellite's debris.

The most complicated of all problems was customising the Aegis system and compatible missiles. The technologies were originally designed to intercept ballistic missiles using heat sensors, but the spy satellite was cooler in temperature. To account for this difference, the three SM-3s needed new software, hardware, sensors and the launching systems, too, had to be given new sensors and software updates. Further, it would take a large crew of engineers to rewrite the code, debug it, and test it over and over again before the bus-sized satellite would fall (on our head?) in March.

It eventually took President George W Bush on January 4 to order what some experts are calling the "crash programme", though till as late as January 15, the US's defence sources that could be contacted by the media maintained an impression that it was all a tentative project. Granting them their right to secrecy, let's see how the American Administration went about it.

The plan and the apparatus:
It was planned that the Lake Erie, a cruiser that has participated in a dozen, mostly successful, tests to intercept mock enemy missiles in flight over the past six years, would take the first shot at the satellite at a distance of more than 240 km, just beyond the reach of Earth's atmosphere. And the SM-3 missile aboard the Lake Erie, equipped with a heat-seeking sensor modified in order to enable it to zero in on the satellite, whose heat 'signature' is smaller than that of a ballistic missile in flight, would hit the satellite.

Since the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defence System (alternatively called Sea-Based Midcourse) is designed to intercept ballistic missiles post-boost phase and prior to re-entry, it was ideal to shoot down the falling satellite which, in effect, was like a ballistic missile that leaves Earth's atmosphere only to return to hit enemy targets.

The SM-3 is a ship-based anti-ballistic missile which has been employed on several occasions in the past to shoot down defunct satellites. The US has been shooting them down since the 1980s, an era when the media was not as hyperactive, though this missile is newer. The SM-3 is not only used by the US Navy but also operated by the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force.

Six teams were placed across the US to be prepared for rescue efforts -- the spacecraft contained 1,000 pounds of hydrazine in a tank that could have survived air-friction while re-entering Earth's atmosphere, and a fuel tank liner made of beryllium -- lest the satellite hit any spot on American territory. It is for the reader to judge from the following section how much of the scare scenario was real and how much of it was hyped.

Hydrazine is a chemical of considerable military interest widely used as a rocket fuel and as a propellant for gas turbine generators. Exposure to high levels of hydrazine may lead to irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, dizziness, headache, nausea, pulmonary oedema, seizures and coma in human beings. Worse, acute exposure can also damage the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. The liquid is corrosive and may produce dermatitis from skin contact in humans and animals. At least one human being is known to have died from exposure to hydrazine hydrate.

As for beryllium, exposure to it would be less dangerous. Beryllium can be harmful if you breathe it. High exposure results in a condition that resembles pneumonia. Up to 15 per cent of people may develop inflammation in the respiratory system many years after the exposure. It would make them feel weak and tired, and can cause difficulty in breathing. It can also result in anorexia, weight loss, the heart enlarging towards the right side and heart disease in advanced cases. However, some people who are sensitised to beryllium may not experience any symptoms. And swallowing beryllium has not been reported to cause effects in humans because very little beryllium is absorbed from the stomach and intestines.

So, the US Federal Emergency Management Agency prepared a guide for the rescue teams that included information like above about the toxic chemicals. The agency warned officials not to pick up any debris or provide mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to anyone who has inhaled hydrazine or beryllium.

The preparedness:
Within two weeks of the January 4 order, the aforementioned US warships were fitted with modified Aegis anti-missile systems, the ships' crews were trained for an unprecedented mission and three SM-3 missiles were pulled off an assembly line and given a new guidance system.

The expanse of the 'laboratory' was not limited geographically to the US mainland in North America. The exercise involved ships and radar sites in the Pacific to high-powered telescopes in Hawaii and elsewhere to a specially fitted Air Force plane and a Navy ship that snoops on missile tests, as Aegis BMD equipped vessels would transmit their target detection information to the ground-based Mid-course Defence system, and engage potential threats using the SM-3, spread across this entire area.

The execution:
Only one missile was finally fired last Thursday, but the other two had to be ready, in case a second or third attempt was needed, howsoever precarious those latter attempts would have been. The Erie was accompanied by the Decatur and the Russell somewhere (the exact location hasn't been disclosed) in the Pacific Ocean north of the equator. The Decatur fed trajectory information to the Erie, and the Russell backed up the Decatur. As it turned out, the altitude at which an SM-3 hit the satellite was lower than what was pre-determined -- about 209 km above the Earth surface.

The Erie launched the attack at 08.56 am IST on February 21. It hit the satellite as the spacecraft travelled at more than 27,000 km/h. As the satellite was orbiting at a relatively low altitude at the time it was hit by the missile, some debris re-entered Earth's atmosphere immediately and the rest will keep falling for more than a month hence.

The cost:
With each SM-3 costing about $10,000,000, the tab for the munitions alone must have added up to almost $30,000,000, though Lt Gen Ham declined to divulge the overall expenditure. Two weeks ago, Pentagon officials had estimated the cost to be between $40,000,000 and $60,000,000. The customising of the Aegis system and missiles for the satellite mission had already incurred major costs. One may guess how much Raytheon and Lockheed Martin fleeced the American exchequer and what fortunes were made by the engineers who rewrote the code, debugged it, and tested it repeatedly, with some tests that might have been aimed at inflating their pay-cheques.

The stakes were even higher than what is incurred in a commercial software launch, as the system had to work perfectly in a 10-second window. There was no opportunity to fix problems with software patches later on (before this week's launch, the same anti-missile system had been successful on eight out of 10 attempts).

To what avail?
From a typical Indian point of view, the toxicology appears too far-fetched to merit such a gargantuan programme. For sure there are more people in the world who think like us, Indians. US officials had said that the hydrazine would have posed a potential health hazard to humans had it landed in a populated area, and now they can't say for sure if the red herring, or whatever, of hydrazine has actually vanished in thin air.

The odds of the 'accident' did not demand the experiment. But even if Pentagon had chosen not to shoot down the satellite, it thought it was worth trying to eliminate the chance. Throughout the lengthy drama, China, which had carried out a satellite destroyer test last year, said little more than "we're keeping a watch". Russia expressed its discomfiture more forthrightly. As for India, a tense atmosphere, too, looks amusing when you are not a party to the dispute.

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.