Science Addiction

A dormant blog by Devanshu Mehta

Tag: Technology

The Barefoot Criminal of the Future

shoe print

Threat Level blogger Ryan Singel writes about Dr. Sargur Srihari, a computer science professor at Buffalo University, who is building a search engine to allow police to search shoe prints.

It would work by allowing forensic units to submit a photographs of a print and have the system figure out the gender, size and brand. No, CSI: Boise, that problem hasn’t been solved yet.

Of course, says Srihari:

Still Srihari says any would-be criminals would be smart to avoid sneakers. “Go in a suit if you commit a crime — there are no prints on dress shoes,” Srihari said.

Avast! It be Anti-Pirate Technology!

pirate ship and dragon

Maybe we can blame it on the three Disney movies, but pirates are back in full strength– these days off the horn of Africa.

Nick Davis who, for $30,000, will arrange a team of private guards to travel on your boat and scare away pirates. Without any lethal weaponry.

He runs a company called APMSS- Anti-Piracy Maritime Security Solutions (Non-Lethal). I would have thought they would have gone something cooler, like “Avast Ye Lilly Livered Scallywag“. Alas!

While I don’t know what technology APMSS uses specifically, these are the kinds of things that are used against pirates.

  • Long Range Acoustic Device
    This is a crowd-control device that can emit high frequency and high volume sounds that are capable of permanently damaging hearing.
  • Magnetic Audio Device
    This can be used as a modern version of the bullhorn in its simplest capacity- to notify, direct or warn the enemy.
  • Thermal Imagers
    To see in the dark, through smoke and so forth.
  • Night Sun Torches
    Not sure what these are, but they sound like something I’d want.
  • Anti-Boarding Systems
    Things like 9000 vole electrifying fences and alarms that will activate floodlights and a siren on detecting pirates. The shock is supposed to be painful but not fatal.
  • Finally, knives
    On NPR, when confronted with the possibility that a pirate may get on board, Davis admitted that they may resort to knives. And they are trained Marines and former Special Forces types.

And then, there are the lethal variety of technology. Of course, as Davis said, if they fire first, they are the pirates.

Best “Inventions” of 2008

In listing the best inventions of 2008, Time magazine uses the word “inventions” quite loosely. I believe they use it to mean: any thing that involves science or technology that may have been created, manufactured, marketed or launched in or around 2008.

I mean when you think about the great inventions of 2008, do you think of a web site that allows you to watch video? (#4

Or maybe it conjures images of a Chevrolet car that was unveiled in 2007 and won’t be launched until 2011? (#7 Chevy Volt)

Or maybe the process of removing vowels from internet spam to render them absurd- a process that was started in 2002 by Teresa Nielsen Hayden, whom Time fails to mention. (#42 Disemvoweling)

Or maybe a facebook-like web site, that’s different! It is only for employees of US intelligence service employees, and that makes it an invention! (#32 Facebook for spies)

Or maybe it’s the fact that a major party candidate sold merchandise. What an amazing invention- if only Al Gore did that. Oh wait- he did. (#23 The Branded Candidate)

The people who created the Large Hadron Collider must be weeping at their luck, since they placed one rank behind, which is clearly a superior invention. What will we “invent” next? I’m guessing it will be t-shirts for spies and a facebook for presidential candidates- brilliant!

Change Watch: Privacy, Innovation and a side of Transparency


Tim Jones at the EFF has just finished his threepart series outlining how the new leadership in Congress and the Executive branch can restore what has been lost over the past eight years.

There are two aspects to how privacy has deteriorated over the past eight years. On the one hand, claiming war time needs, the government has increased warrant-less surveillance of Americans by alarming proportions. Jones highlights the flawed FISA Amendments act which granted immunity from litigation to telcos, the States Secrets Privilege, which allows the executive branch to shield itself from judicial review. The abuse of National Security Letters to acquire data from Internet service providers has also been increased. On the other hand, corporations have much more control of user data than ever before and the balance is decidedly against the consumer. In Jones’ words, “the privacy of personal data should not depend on how long an ISP has stored that data or whether the data is stored locally or remotely. “

Innovation is an area that most directly affects consumers and technologists. Jones suggests– and I agree- that balance should be restored to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) and that serious patent reform is required. Both issues, as they currently stand, favor the incumbents over consumers and inhibit innovation.

On transparency, the government should resemble the Sunlight Foundation— if you haven’t already and take a look at how they are working on making data about the government available in formats that are easy to parse, process, analyze and visualize. Obama has promised much in this direction- and is certainly a refreshing web site- but the post-January reality will be determined by his administrations response to Freedom of Information Act requests and opening up the data of all branches of government.

Until inauguration day on the 20th of January, I will be covering some of the aspects of the transition to the Obama administration that affect technology and open government in a series called Change Watch .

Change Watch: Of the People, By the People

The new web site keeps getting better. There is a section that allows you to submit ideas for the new administration. Also, while you’re there, take a look at the science and technology agenda section.

Change Watch: Everybody Has a Wish List

Everybody has a wish list for the new President, including the Government Accountability Office. It’s strange how one arm of the legislative branch has a ready list of things they need from the next President. Do they know they have a President in office right now?

In any case, there are two points in their list that are of our interest:

  • Retirement of the Space Shuttle: To get this done, they want the administration to fill key leadership positions in NASA, which should be interesting. Leadership in NASA has recently had a contentious relationship with the scientific community over climate research.
  • Digital TV Transition: Not sure what they want the next President to do here, but basically they want the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to be more proactive.

Again- they already have an FCC, an NTIA and President Bush, and yet they are willing to wait until the end of January for “urgent” action.

Until inauguration day on the 20th of January, I will be covering some of the aspects of the transition to the Obama administration that affect technology and open government in a series called Change Watch.

John McCain: For and Against Net Neutrality?

I was reading John McCain’s Technology Policy page on his web site and the following stood out:

John McCain Will Preserve Consumer Freedoms. John McCain will focus on policies that leave consumers free to access the content they choose; free to use the applications and services they choose; free to attach devices they choose, if they do not harm the network; and free to chose among broadband service providers.

When Regulation Is Warranted, John McCain Acts. John McCain does not believe in prescriptive regulation like “net-neutrality,” but rather he believes that an open marketplace with a variety of consumer choices is the best deterrent against unfair practices.

The problem? The first paragraph about “preserving consumer freedoms” lists four things that McCain will protect- access content, apps and services, attach devices, and choice of service providers. In the next paragraph, he says that he does not believe in net-neutrality. The problem is that those four freedoms are what the FCC and other independent activists have adopted as the four principles of Net Neutrality.

So- is McCain simply against using the word net-neutrality, while agreeing with it on the four core principles? Lawrence Lessig has a detailed video about McCain’s policy, where he makes the argument that McCain is against regulating network neutrality but would rather leave them to “faith” on the network companies. The video follows (after the jump): Read the rest of this entry »

Track Your Stolen Laptop for Free

Researchers at the University of Washington and University of California, San Diego have released a free and open source software called Adeona. It tracks your stolen or lost laptop without relying on proprietary or centralized software or databases. And unlike commercial services, it preserves the privacy of the user- it uses cryptography mechanisms so that only the user has access to the laptop location information.

Adeona is designed to use the Open Source OpenDHT distributed storage service to store location updates sent by a small software client installed on an owner’s laptop. The client continually monitors the current location of the laptop, gathering information (such as IP addresses and local network topology) that can be used to identify its current location. The client then uses strong cryptographic mechanisms to not only encrypt the location data, but also ensure that the ciphertexts stored within OpenDHT are anonymous and unlinkable. At the same time, it is easy for an owner to retrieve location information.

It is licensed under GPLv2, and is available for Linux, Mac OS X and Windows. Like Lojack for cars, simply the prevalence of such software can serve as a deterrent for casual theft. A determined thief can replace the operating system before using (or selling) it, but a lot of consumer electronics theft is casual and opportunistic.

Airport Security Checkpoint: For Kids!

Is your child growing up with false hope? Never fear, Playmobil has just the toy for you:

From the Manufacturer: The traveler hands her spare change and watch to the security guard and proceeds through the metal detector. With no time to spare, she picks up her luggage and hurries to board her flight!

Presenting, the Playmobil Security Check Point- so your child can fantasize about a police-state before living in one. If your lucky, maybe she can run it! Of course, the best part are the reviews:

I was a little disappointed when I first bought this item, because the functionality is limited. My 5 year old son pointed out that the passenger’s shoes cannot be removed. Then, we placed a deadly fingernail file underneath the passenger’s scarf, and neither the detector doorway nor the security wand picked it up. My son said “that’s the worst security ever!”. But it turned out to be okay, because when the passenger got on the Playmobil B757 and tried to hijack it, she was mobbed by a couple of other heroic passengers, who only sustained minor injuries in the scuffle, which were treated at the Playmobil Hospital.

The best thing about this product is that it teaches kids about the realities of living in a high-surveillence society. My son said he wants the Playmobil Neighborhood Surveillence System set for Christmas. I’ve heard that the CC TV cameras on that thing are pretty worthless in terms of quality and motion detection, so I think I’ll get him the Playmobil Abu-Gharib Interogation Set instead (it comes with a cute little memo from George Bush).

Of course, remind your kid to leave the set at home the next time you travel. Never know what will happen if the authorities find a detailed model of their awesome security system in your luggage.

(via Schneier and Threat Level)

Portrait of a Creator as a Sims Freak

Fantastic profile of Dr. Bostrom, the director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, in <a href=””>the New York Times</a>. <blockquote>In fact, if you accept a pretty reasonable assumption of Dr. Bostrom’s, it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation. [..] Dr. Bostrom assumes that technological advances could produce a computer with more processing power than all the brains in the world, and that advanced humans, or “posthumans,” could run “ancestor simulations” of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems.</blockquote>

I’ve had a similar theory for a while now, which I’ve tried to spin in to a fantasy novel (someday…) about a creator as a high-on-sugar kid with a LEGO set, albeit a LEGO set that builds intricate worlds. I’m paraphrasing, of course.

In any case, none of these ideas are ‘Matrix’-like pluggable-hybrid humans; they’re actually completely simulate that live in the circuits. The tubes, as they say in Alaska. I’d buy this theory, except there’s no way of knowing if it’s true. This isn’t the Truman Show, where you can walk out the end of the world or where everyone else is in on the joke. So, ultimately, it’s a cool hypothesis but I’m already set against unprovable creators.