November 22, 2013
Untold reams of paper, barrels of ink and reels of film have been used to analyze and pick apart every detail of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza 50 years ago. But now there’s an entirely new way to examine the tragic event, made by Danish graphic designer Leif Sørensen: an interactive 3D diorama that shows the surrounding buildings and area, the path of each of Lee Harvey Oswald’s gunshots and the position of Kennedy’s car at these fateful moments.
Sørensen originally built the model for the Danish newspaper Fyens Stiftstidende to use in printed graphics, then uploaded it to the Sketchfab site, a platform for sharing interactive visualizations. “I thought it would be interesting to give people a feeling of what the place was really like,” he says. “A lot of people have seen maps, but this gives a little more feeling of the surroundings.”
He created the model using historic photos and maps, and used three straight lines to depict the three gunshots fired by Oswald from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. The green line represents a missed shot fired by Oswald—likely the first shot he fired, shortly after Kennedy’s limousine turned onto Elm Street, according to the Warren Commission, the body of Congressmen and other officials that investigated the assassination. The shorter red line shows the second shot, which hit the president in the upper back, passed through his body and hit Texas governor John Connally, who was sitting directly in front of him. The longer red line shows the third shot, which hit Kennedy in the head after his car had traveled a bit further down the street.
The model also shows a number of other key observers, including Abraham Zapruder, who inadvertently shot the most complete footage of the assassination (he’s shown in gray, standing on top of the curved concrete pergola structure) and Bill and Gayle Newman, who dropped to the grass near Zapruder to cover their children (shown in yellow, near the grassy knoll).
“Of course, we could have added many more people to the scene, and even more shots, but this is the official version, according to the Warren Commission’s report,” Sørensen says. “So we wanted to depict this as accurately as possible.”
Sørensen’s isn’t the only 3D model of the event—ESRI, the mapping software company, has also produced their own digital visualization, used in the video below:
October 14, 2013
The unassuming rectangular box that you’re seeing can, in some ways, be thought of as a time machine.
Its inventors, Chad Russell and Charles Butkus, conceived of the device as a way for users to surf web pages without being inundated by the proliferation of advertisements, reminiscent of how people experienced it in the good old early days of the internet. “The idea started as a casual conversation with a friend about how cluttered the internet had become,” says Russell. “These days not only do you have banner ads, but also video commercials and advertising embedded into you mobile apps. They’re everywhere.”
After testing several hacked “Linux boxes” as prototypes, the duo came up with AdTrap, a mini-computer that connects to both your router and modem, and functions as an advertising firewall. The final product was designed to be entirely hardware-based so that it automatically removes all ads without the need for installed software or configuration. Simply plug it in and the low-powered machine instantly blocks out display ads, app-based ads and even the type of video ads commonly programmed into your favorite YouTube videos. And, it enables users to do this on every one of their devices.
“The unique thing about AdTrap is that it is run on a full web server, so it has better ad blocking abilities than just software,” Russell says. “And the ability to prevent video commercials from rolling is a new innovation, which I believe makes it interesting.”
Only a month after launching a funding campaign in November on the crowdsourcing site Kickstarter, Russell and his development team at the Palo Alto-based security software startup Bluepoint Security well exceeded their fundraising goal, finishing with $213,392 worth of seed money.
Since the simple days of text, photos and links, online advertising has become big business, essentially subsidizing much of what exists on the web. Data from the Interactive Advertising Bureau reveals that a record $20 billion was spent on advertising in the first half of this year alone, doubling the amount spent in 2007.
Third party solutions designed to combat this intrusive trend isn’t anything new. Popular browser plug-ins like AdBlock Plus have been widely available for a a few years now, and fundamentally, AdTrap employs many of the same strategies. But the mere fact that users can put in place such comprehensive ad filtering, and do it with such ease, can, in the long run, pose a substantial threat to the main source of revenue for a vast percentage of major publications (not to mention Silicon Valley stalwarts such as Facebook and Google).
As the project has rolled ahead (shipment began in August), Russell has yet to receive a single legal challenge or even stir up any complaints. He isn’t at all surprised since he sees the device as neatly falling into the same category as other widely-accepted means of filtering internet content, such as firewall security systems and parental control software like NetNanny. He also doesn’t think of the project as a means of waging war on advertising.
“We are not against ads,” says Russell. “The main problem with the way a lot of advertisements work nowadays is that they encroach upon people’s privacy by collecting data on their online activity, which many prefer outside parties not to have. Basically, internet users are paying for content by trading in their private information.”
Russell is hardly alone in working towards developing alternatives that would help users protect their privacy. Recently, a team of former Google employees figured out a way to buck their former employers by releasing Disconnect search, a free browser plug-in that prevents search engines such Google, Bing and Yahoo from keeping tabs on your search habits. The uprising against the long arm of marketing has reached a level where Russell says that even advertisers are fearing broader ramifications on the industry as a whole.
In fact, he mentioned that the company has begun negotiating with a small number of prominent firms to formulate a model that just might work better for all parties involved. For example, a few of the discussions have revolved around a potential opt-in system that gives users the choice to allow for ads from certain parties in exchange for a small payment. The advantage for sellers, he explains, is the potential to receive more individual attention from audiences without having them become annoyed by the sheer barrage of flashing click bait.
Even so, there are still other pressing concerns. Like, for instance, what if the technology eventually takes off? Would the internet, as a whole, suffer? Will it lead to sites cutting back on content, or might cash-strapped outlets resort to producing cheaper, lower-quality content?
Russell argues that online publishers need to continue evolving as they’ve always been. He points out that other media entities, like Pandora, have shifted to giving users a choice between having to listen to ads and the option of a commercial-free paid subscription.
“Listen, I wouldn’t like to see every site put up a paywall either,” says Russell. “But when you rely solely on advertising, it’s almost like you’re saying content isn’t worth anything. People should be allowed other means to subsidize content. If you’re against that, it makes me wonder what the value of that content is in the first place.”
October 4, 2013
You have to hand it to Google.
Yes, Google Glass is one nifty technology, but wearing glasses with a little camera attached seems to reek of geek, the kind of gadget that would appeal most to men and women who, as young boys and girls, wanted so much to believe in X-ray glasses.
Yet twice now, Google Glass has managed to crash one of America’s biggest glamor parties—New York’s Fashion Week. Last year, all of the models in designer Diane Von Furstenberg’s show strutted down the runway accessorized by Google. And, a few weeks ago, at this year’s event, anyone who was anyone—top models, fashion editors, reality show judges—was walking around shooting pictures and videos with their clever camera glasses.
Still, if Google Glass is to go mainstream, it needs to move beyond the air kiss crowd and geek buzz. That part of the plan starts tomorrow in Durham, North Carolina, the first stop in what Google says will be a national roadshow. With Google Glass expected to hit the market by early 2014, it’s time to start letting the general public see what all the chatter’s about.
The camera never blinks
So, it’s also time to begin taking a closer look at what it might mean to have a whole lot of people walking around with computers/cameras attached to their heads.
There’s obviously the matter of privacy. Google Glass wearers will have the ability to shoot a steady stream of photos and videos as they go about their daily lives. A group of U.S. congressmen raised the issue to Google earlier this year, as have privacy commissioners from Canada, the European Union, Australia, Israel, Mexico, Switzerland and other countries.
Google’s response is that the camera will not be that surreptitious since it will be voice-activated and a light on the screen will show that it’s on. Google also insists that it won’t allow facial recognition software on Google Glass—critics have raised concerns about someone being able to use facial recognition to track down the identity of a person they’ve captured in photos or videos on the street or in a bar.
Others are worried about so much visual data being captured every day, particularly if Google Glass hits it big. The video and images belong to the owner of the glasses, but who else could get access to them? Google has tried to assuage some of those fears by pointing out that all the files on the device will be able to be deleted remotely in the event that it’s lost or stolen.
Thanks for sharing
Then there’s this. In August, Google was awarded a patent to allow for the use of something known as “pay-per-gaze” advertising. In its application, the company noted that “a head-mounted tracking device”—in other words, Google Glass—could follow where the person wearing it was gazing, and be able to send images of what they saw to a server. Then, any billboards or other real-world ads the person had seen would be identified and Google could charge the advertiser. As noted in the New York Times’ Bits blog, the fee could be adapted based on how long the ad actually held the person’s gaze.
Here’s how Google proposed the idea in its patent: “Pay-per-gaze advertising need not be limited to online advertisements, but rather can be extended to conventional advertisement media including billboards, magazines, newspapers and other forms of conventional print media.”
Since it became public, Google has downplayed the patent—first filed in 2011—saying it has no plans to incorporate the eye-tracking capability into Google Glass any time soon. “We hold patents on a variety of ideas,” the company responded in a statement. “Some of those ideas later mature into real products or services, some don’t. Prospective product announcements should not necessarily be inferred from our patents.”
There are other ways advertising could be integrated into the Google Glass experience. Digital ads could pop up in a person’s glasses based on what they may be looking at. Say you’re walking down the street and suddenly an ad for the restaurant down on the corner shows up on your display screen. That could get real old real fast—but it’s not that improbable. Or maybe you’d see virtual ads—for which advertisers pay Google—which would replace real-world ads that appear in your line of vision.
No doubt, though, Google Glass will provide us with plenty of ethical dilemmas. When, for instance, will you be justified in telling someone to please remove their camera glasses? And will there be places and situations where glasses in the filming position are universally seen as bad form—say, at dinner parties, or stops at public bathrooms or in the midst of messy breakups?
But there’s another aspect of Google Glass—or most wearable tech, for that matter—that’s particularly intriguing. It has to do with the power of real-time feedback to change behavior. Studies have shown that nothing is more effective at getting people to slow down their cars than those digital signs that tell you how fast you’re going. It’s feedback to which you can immediately respond.
So, will a steady stream of data about our personal health and exercise make us take our bad habits a lot more seriously? Sure, you can forget the occasional crack from your partner about your weight gain. But a smart watch reminding you all day, every day? What about prompts from your smart glasses that give you cues when you start spending money recklessly? Or flagging you on behavior patterns that haven’t turned out so well for you in the past? Can all these devices make us better people?
Sean Madden, writing for Gigaom, offered this take: “This is social engineering in its most literal sense, made possible by technology, with all of the promise and paranoia that phrase implies.”
Wear it well
Here are other recent developments on the wearable tech front:
- Remember when all a watch needed to do was tick: Samsung has jumped into the wearable tech business with the release of its Galaxy Gear smart watch, although some critics have suggested that it’s just not smart enough.
- If teeth could talk: Researchers at National Taiwan University have designed a sensor that when attached to a tooth can track everything your mouth does during a typical day—how much you chew, how much you talk, how much you drink, even how much you cough.
- How about when you need more deodorant?: A Canadian company is developing a machine-washable T-shirt that can track and analyze your movement, breathing and heart activity.
- Don’t let sleeping dogs lie: Why shouldn’t dogs have their own wearable tech? Whistle is a monitoring device that tells you how much exercise your dog is getting while you’re at work. Or more likely, how much he’s not getting.
Video bonus: Here’s a Google video showing how Glass can keep you from ever getting lost again.
Video bonus bonus: With luck, advertising on Google Glass will never get as bad as it plays out on this video parody.
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August 27, 2013
As we in America head into the Labor Day weekend, let us pause to consider that these days when you refer to an army of workers, you could be talking about people managed by their smartphones. That’s pretty much how it works with an outfit called Gigwalk,which has found a way to build a big temp worker network strictly through a iPhone app–and now it’s become available on Android phones.
Gigwalk’s M.O. is to use its app to quickly mobilize temp workers for projects that cover a lot of territory. Say, for instance, a big company needs pictures of restaurants or current menus for an online guide. Gigwalk puts out the word on its app and people get a chance to make a little extra money, usually at $12 to $15 an hour.
Kudos to Gigwalk for creating a new type of labor market to deal with jobs that otherwise would probably be too complex logistically to get done. It’s been suggested that it could become the “eBay of work.”
So it’s all good, right? Well, mostly. But there’s another aspect of Gigwalk’s model that may give you pause. It scrupulously gathers performance data on it each of its temps, with the goal of being able to better match them with future gigs. It tracks how long it takes a person to respond to a job alert on their app–too slow and you ding your rating. It tracks the GPS on a temp’s phone see how long they spend on a job and takes that into account in measuring his or her productivity. It analyzes customer surveys, naturally, but it also evaluates how much complexity a person can handle on a project before they seek help.
All of this is wrapped into a “mathematical profile” that Gigwalk says makes it more likely that their temps will succeed because it’s easier to assign them to work for which they’re best suited. And the Gigwalk people are quite proud of that. As CEO Bob Bahramipour told Bloomberg BusinessWeek: “We know more about our workers than anyone has ever known about workers.”
Co-founder and CTO Matt Crampton had more to say in a recent interview on Salon:
“Behind the scenes we are watching everybody while they are going about doing their work. We are building these mathematical profiles on top of people, figuring out who is doing good jobs on a variety of gigs. We can figure out what kind of jobs you do well and start routing more complex, higher-paying jobs to you based on the skills we see inside our system. And then we can provide companies with workers with the specific kind of skill sets they need to get work done.”
It’s all perfectly logical, a deep bow to meritocracy, and as Crampton notes, if businesses–particularly retailers–find that this approach can consistently provide them with competent, geographically distributed temps, they’ll start to look for other ways to use them. And that could end up creating new kinds of jobs.
But there is the matter of Gigwalk’s worker profiles. Sure, they may be well-intentioned, but what to make of job performance grades largely driven by data and spawned by algorithms? How inviolable will they be? And who ultimately could have access to them?
Maybe I’m being paranoid–writing about algorithms as the engine of 21st century life will do that to you–but are we seeing the first hint of something like career credit ratings? Could you one day moan that your data points have done you wrong?
Matters of privacy
Here are other recent developments in the realm of digital privacy:
- Is it in your DNA to want to let people know what’s in your DNA?: A small start up in Minneapolis named Miinome wants to create what it calls the first “member-controlled human genetic marketplace.” It would electronically store the DNA data of anyone who has had their genome sequenced. Haven’t gone there yet? Well, Miinome would do this for you for free or at low cost. In return, you’d have the option of sharing select aspects of your DNA data–say, gluten intolerance or a genetic disposition to male pattern baldness–with marketers who could target offers to you based on what your genes say about you.
- It’s my life and you’re not welcome to it: According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, more than half of all U.S. teenagers who use mobile apps have avoided certain ones because they would have to share personal information. And just under half of the teenagers surveyed said they have turned off location-tracking features in apps they’ve downloaded. The researchers said they found that American teenagers tend to think about privacy in the sense of “social privacy” or whether an app is “creepy,” but don’t seem to worry much about personal data being captured through advertising or governmental surveillance, as adults do.
- Thanks for sharing: Medical and health mobile apps are a boom business–an estimated 97,000 different ones now are out in the marketplace. And plenty of people are sharing lots of very personal information through those apps, assuming that it will stay secure and private. Not quite. A recent study found that many health apps firms don’t encrypt the data they receive and that fewer that half of those analyzed didn’t post privacy policies. Others didn’t disclose that captured data could be made available to third parties.
- Not that I don’t trust you: A “Boyfriend Tracker” app was removed from the Google Play app store in Brazil last week in response to complaints about potential invasion of privacy abuses–but not before tens of thousands of Brazilians downloaded it. The app lets users obtain a call history, receive any incoming or outgoing text messages, identify a partner’s location on a map using GPS, and actually turn on the phone to listen in to the surrounding environment.
- Help us help you get pregnant: Earlier this month, an app called Glow was launched with the goal of helping women get pregnant. Technically, it’s a free fertility app, but one that goes way beyond just tracking a woman’s menstrual cycle. It asks users to enter very detailed information about their health and sex lives–including frequency of sex and sexual positions. The more detailed the info is, say Glow’s creators, the more precise the app can be in projecting a woman’s best chance for getting pregnant. Glow is unique in another way, too. Users who sign up for a service called Glow First can get help paying for fertility treatments.
Video bonus: Rick Smolan, author of “The Human Face of Big Data” weighs in on how much we don’t know about what happens to all the personal info we’re so happy to share.
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July 11, 2013
“There is no doubt that over time, people are going to rely less and less on passwords. People use the same password on different systems, they write them down and they really don’t meet the challenge for anything you want to secure.”
None other than Bill Gates said this. Back in 2004.
People in the business of keeping data secure will tell you that passwords should have gone the way of dial-up Internet by now. Sure, back in the day, when we only needed them for two or three websites and hackers weren’t nearly so diabolical, we could get away with using the same “123456″ password for everything, without worrying that someone on the other side of the world was a click away from emptying our bank accounts.
Ah, sweet innocence. Now, we have an average of 24 different online accounts, for which we use at least six different passwords. And we need them for tablets and smartphones, too. If we’ve heeded the security gods—although most of us haven’t—we’ve abandoned the memorably quaint for strange, long combos of numbers, letters—capital and lower case—and symbols that dare to be remembered. (Then again, most of us don’t seem to have a knack for this passwords thing, considering that year after year, the world’s most popular password is still the word “password.”)
Not that conjuring up the perfect password guarantees immunity from code crackers. Just last week the giant game company Ubisoft admitted that its database had been breached and advised those with Ubisoft accounts to change their passwords immediately. Last summer’s big cybersecurity caper was a hack of LinkedIn, in which more than 6 million encrypted passwords were exposed.
It’s time, it would seem, for a better idea.
So, who figures to make the first big splash in the post-password world? Right now, a lot of the betting is on Apple, with speculation that the killer feature of the iPhone 5S coming out later this year will be a fingerprint scanner, perhaps embedded under the home button. Some Apple watchers think the iWatch, also expected on the market by the end of 2013, will likewise come with scanner capabilities that would allow the device to verify the user’s identity. Apple tipped its hand last year when it paid $356 million for AuthenTec, a company that develops fingerprint scanners.
Other big names pushing for the password’s demise are Google and PayPal, two of the key players in an industry group known as FIDO, which stands for Fast IDentity Online Alliance. FIDO isn’t boosting any particular approach to identity recognition; mainly it plans to set industry standards. But it is promoting what’s known as two-step verification as a move in the right direction.
This is when you’d be identified by a combination of “something you know”—such as a password—with “something you have”—such as a token that plugs into your device’s USB port—or “something you are”—such as your fingerprint. This combo of a password and a device you carry around with you—Google security experts have suggested a log-in finger ring—would be a lot safer than a simple password, and would let you use an easy-to-remember password, since the account can’t be hacked without your ring or your fingerprint.
And once fingerprint sensors or face and voice recognition software become more common, it will be that much easier for passwords to simply fade away.
That feels inevitable to Michael Barrett, chief information-security officer of PayPal and president of FIDO. “Consumers want something that’s easy to use and secure,” he says. “Passwords are neither.”
A fingerprint scanner on your phone is only the beginning. There are a number of other inventive, and yes, even bizarre ideas for replacing passwords. Among them:
- Coming soon to a stomach near you: Let’s start strange. At a conference in late May, Regina Dugan, head of advanced research at Motorola, suggested that one day you’ll be able to take a pill every day that would verify your identity to all of your devices. The pill would have a tiny chip inside and when you swallow it, the acids in your stomach would power it up. That creates a signal in your body, which, in essence becomes the password. You could touch your phone or your laptop and be “authenticated in.” No, it’s not happening any day now, but the FDA has already approved its precursor—a pill that can send information to your doctor from inside your body. In other words, it’s a lot more plausible than it sounds.
- So, how about a tattoo that spells “password:” But that’s not all Dugan projected for the future. She also showed off an electronic tattoo. Motorola, now owned by Google, is working with a company named MC10, which has developed this “stretchable” tattoo with its own antenna and sensors embedded in it. It’s so thin, it can flex with your skin. And it would serve as your password, communicating with your devices and verifying that you are who you say you are.
- Now, what are all these keys for?: Back to the present. A Canadian company called PasswordBox is now offering a free app that remembers and automatically enters all your passwords across all your platforms. It signs you into websites, logs into apps, and enables you to securely share your digital keys with friends and loved ones—all through an app for your smartphone and a Chrome browser extension for your desktop. Its pitch is one-click login everywhere.
- Would my heart lie?: Another Canadian company called Bionym is building its business around the fact that heartbeats, like fingerprints, are unique. Its approach is to turn your heartbeat into a biometric pass code that’s embedded in a wrist band which, in turn, uses Bluetooth to let your machines know you’re the real deal.
Video bonus: Let’s go back to the future with John Chuang, a researcher at the UC Berkeley School of Information. He’s working on the idea of allowing people to verify their identities through their brain waves. Okay, at least hear him out.
Video bonus bonus: The Internet Password Minder is a stroke of…something. Even Ellen DeGeneres was impressed, in a funny way.
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