Codebreaking: Humans are the weakest link

People are the weakest link in all computer systems. We hear about the best cryptography money can buy: integrity checking, sender/receiver identity authentication, digital signatures, and then someone leaves a list of passwords on a post-it note stuck above a computer and in an instant renders all the algorithms pointless. Or the same someone automatically gives out his password over the telephone or by email when ‘technical support’ asks so that they can reset it – another victim of phishing. Continue reading “Codebreaking: Humans are the weakest link”

Visualisation: Information is power – just avoid drowning in data

 Map of Great Fire of London Copyright © The British Library Board.
(The Great Fire of London map at the British Library website)

In the 1530s when Henry VIII realised that dissolving the monastries would get him much needed assets, he commissioned a map of London, paying particular attention to ‘lawless’ Southwark. He wanted to see if the borough had any money he could take off them. Henry VIII was a smart man, he knew that the right sorts of information bring wealth and power.

I saw the resulting map last year at the British Library exhibition London: A Life in Maps along with many others – maps of wills and estates, Victorian cab fare maps, cycling maps and tourist maps. Each map was primarily motivated by the need to learn more about an area of London in order to make or save money, especially when making your way around the ever growing London.

In part, this was because travelling around London has always been a daunting thing to do and if you don’t know your way around, you can waste a lot of time and money on convoluted travel. Visualising how everything was connected was impossible to do until Phyllis Pearsall personally pounded the streets, all 3 000 miles of them and put together the world’s first A to Z. She realised that London had to be presented as a cohesive system of streets, buses, and tubes. Like all fantastic ideas, it is so obvious – but back then no one had ever thought of it.

This wasn’t the first time cross referencing different types of data could help people. In 1830’s Dr John Snow used a map of London on which to plot water pumps next to cases of cholera in order to identify how the disease was being spread. He concluded that it was an infected pump near where the outbreak had occurred, and not an airbourne miasma which was the hysterical masses feared. Once he had identified and closed the infected pump, it was easier for Joseph Bazalgette to get the support he needed to build sewage systems which are still used to this day.

Breaking news infographic style

Many online journalists have adopted the same visualisation techniques to present breaking news. They have maps which plot events and eye witness accounts either by video or audio. This information is put up online, as it happens. People get an immediate insight to events good and bad and can make informed make decisions that may save lives.

Techniques range from sophisticated virtual reality programs to simple line graphs. Sometimes this is done well as in the Dr Snow example, other times techniques can be badly employed. Edward Tufte has written extensively about the way to avoid chart junk so that more meaningful graphics can be produced either by hand or as in the case of scientific visualisation by harnessing the power of computers.

In meteorology, molecular modelling, and medicine, computers show us things we could never have seen otherwise: the inside of a bone, or a hairline fracture not detected on an x-ray but visual in a 3D rendered pelvis.

Even football is given a helping hand. Redbee’s Piero software uses live footage from football matches and ties it to a virtual stadium to calculate the exact coordinates of players and the ball during those crucial moments not seen by the referee or caught on camera. Piero creates new virtual camera angles (or viewpoints) and approximates what happened so that the right decisions can be made.

Recognising and reading the patterns

Previously we thought that the field of artificial intelligence would produce systems which could crunch through the numbers alone and present the solution to us. Now we know this is still for the future. We humans are adept at recognising patterns and making links in an almost intuitive manner which is impossible to replicate in a computer. Cognitive scientists try to crack the secrets of the brain and our minds to understand how we reason. Until the time when we can let our machines reason with us, we need to stick with and have control over what we want see.

Football technology is an ideal application for visualisation as there are a limited number of rules to represent and a field of play to be modelled which gives us all of our constraints and the context within which to search. Other applications such as monitoring bridges or the people/traffic flow through a town can be without boundaries so we are left just to literally stare at the waves of data as they happen.

To counter this feeling of being deluged, we need good systems which we as the viewers can interact with and which we, the users, can fix constraints and context. In this space we can then explore and search, using interactions which are translated into algorithms. We exploit and manipulate new viewpoints (like Piero does), we fixate on a viewpoint, we apply analogies and metaphors to find different ways of interpreting what we see and then we transform or combine our data, again to find different viewpoints. The problem is, we sophisticated humans can do this automatically, computers can’t yet, they can only flag up certain patterns that we have told them about.

Maps: Ideal information systems

Exploration is difficult to support, often because the visualisation aspects of software often dominates to such an extent that basic functionality is compromised. Information is presented to the user in a potentially misleading manner and the wrong conclusions are drawn. To counter this, there needs to be a direct correspondence between the human perception of the physical world and the abstract computer-internal representation. Maps are a perfect example of this correspondance and have worked well for centuries. Henry VIII obviously knew how to manage his data.

Google Maps allows you to look at the abstraction of the map and superimpose it on the photographic representation. You can zoom in and look at the trees and houses and still be aware of the street names. This is an accessible form of augmented reality which would have been difficult for the man in the street to imagine on such a widescale i.e., the whole world, even ten years ago. Imagine what Henry VIII would have done with such information at his fingertips, whilst sat in his palaces. He would have zoomed in on Southwark borough and had a magpie’s view of the rich pickings.

Augmenting referees – why didn’t Piero help Uriah?

Last week, Uriah Rennie let Newcastle player James Milner’s goal stand even after his teammate Scott Parker had been flagged off-side and had jumped out of the way of the ball and (too late) West Ham goalkeeper Roy Carroll’s view. West Ham had been two goals up since the first five minutes of the game and possibly onto their first away win of the season. Instead, they left St James Park with only one point for their efforts. Continue reading “Augmenting referees – why didn’t Piero help Uriah?”

WordPress

wordpress logo

I have kept an electronic diary for three years now. I upgraded my handwritten diary back in 2003 and have never missed pen on paper. Yes, searching your own diary is geeky but I like it. It is something I do much more often than I thought I would. It is much quicker to have a search engine go through your words rather than flicking through pages of handwritten stuff.

I was using the free to-download-and-try version of the Zoom search engine (http://www.wrensoft.com/zoom/) on basic xhtml/css pages with ssi and I was very happy with it. Zoom is easy to install and use. It lets you search up to 50 pages free before you need to upgrade (pay some cash to get more functionality). The only problem was that it wasn’t designed specifically with the blogging style approach I wanted where the search list of pages would be updated automatically. I needed something more cohesive so after looking at various blogging and CMS alternatives I swapped over to WordPress and then having got so excited about it for my own diary I used it to set up this technology blog too.

WordPress is a stylish piece of blogging software for people who want to produce nice web pages either for themselves – like me and my ‘dear diary’ just on my computer – or to publish online, but don’t want to have to learn too many technical details. It is an example of good open source software – free to download and simple to install – if your server is set up with everything WordPress needs to run.

There is a large community of programmers beavering away. If you do get stuck you can join in one of the news groups and get the answer to your problem. If you get really confident it is easy to put a new look on your website online or offline with templates you can download.

To do anything more sophisticated there is a bit of a learning curve, but it may be worth it if you want to host podcasts or to produce feeds to other sites. There is lots of documentation on the site and the WordPress book only costs a tenner which is cheaper than a new nice diary for penning your thoughts in.