Today's LATimes reports that Brandon Mayfield just won his $2 million lawsuit against the FBI for his wrongful detention in 2004. Brandon is the Oregon lawyer who the FBI pinched in connection to the 2004 Madrid train bombings because a partial fingerprint found in Madrid was a "close enough" match to his own. One quote from the article:
Michael Cherry, president of Cherry Biometrics, an identification-technology company, said misidentification problems could grow worse as the U.S. and other governments add more fingerprints to their databases.
The problem is emphasized in the March report from the Office of the Inspector General on the case, which reads much like a Risks Digest post and has a lot of take-home lessons. The initial problem was that the FBI threw an extremely wide net by running the fingerprints found in Madrid through the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), a database that contains the fingerprints of more than 47 million people who have either been arrested or submitted fingerprints for background checks. With so many people in the database the system always spits out a number of (innocent) near-matches, so the FBI then goes over the results. The trouble is that in this case (a) Mayfield's fingerprints were especially close, and (b) the FBI examiner got stuck in a pattern of circular reasoning, where once he found many points of similarity between the prints he began to "find" additional features that weren't really in the lifted print but were suggested by features in Mayfield's own prints.
People tend to forget that even extremely rare events are almost guaranteed to happen if you check often enough. For example, even if there was only a one in a billion chance of an innocent person being an extremely close match for a given fingerprint, that leaves about a 5% chance for each fingerprint checked of getting such a false positive. If we were to double the size of the database, that would rise to almost 10%. This kind of problem is inevitable when looking for extremely rare events, and applies even more broadly to fuzzy-matching systems like the TSA's no-fly list and Total Information Awareness (in all its newly renamed forms), which try to identify terrorists from their credit card purchases, where they've traveled or how they spell their name.
The New Scientist has a write-up on an EU-funded prototype system called Tai-Chi that can turn ordinary surfaces into a touch-pad input device just by attaching a tiny piezoelectric sensor (i.e. microphone) to the surface. In one configuration, the system figures out where you're touching / tapping by listening to how vibrations are distorted by the object and then either comparing to a database of vibration "fingerprints." The method requires calibration to create the database, but they're claiming accuracy to within a few millimeters.
From some email spam mail I just got:
Hi thisisjusttestletter. How are you ? Call me. Poor you, i don't even think how much spam you are recive. when they can
That makes two of us.
After 10 weeks, subjects taking sham pills said their pain decreased an average of 1.50 points on the 10-point scale. After 8 weeks, those receiving fake acupuncture reported a drop of 2.64 points. In other words, not receiving acupuncture reduces pain more than not taking drugs.
Kaptchuk says that the rituals of medicine explain the difference: Performing acupuncture is more elaborate than prescribing medicine. Other rituals that may make patients feel better include "white coats, and stethoscopes that you don't necessarily use, pictures on the wall, the way you reassure a patient, and the secretaries that sign you in." Careful manipulation of such rituals could make all types of treatment more effective, Kaptchuk suggests.
(Thanks to Jill for the link!)
I was in the Washington Park MAX Station in Portland yesterday, which includes a core sample taken during the tunnel's construction along with a 16-million-year timeline showing when each sample had been at the Earth's surface. Etched into the wall along the timeline include technical and mathematical discoveries, including 107 digits of pi. Only, I noticed as I read through the digits, it's wrong. The first row is correct, but the rest looks random. My friend and I speculated on our ride back why that might be. Was it an estimate, the result of calculating only the first several terms of an infinite series? A deliberate retelling of an historically significant blunder? A secret code left by the artist that translates to "help, I'm being held captive in a Portland artist colony!"?
Google to the rescue, it turns out this was either a clever way of representing the first 1000 digits of pi, or more likely was a simple misreading of the reference book from which the number came. As Mark Cowan points out in Underground Pi, the numbers etched in stone in the subway were taken from A History of Pi, which prints the digits in rows of 10 groups of 10 digits. The artist clearly took his numbers from the first column in that reference, thus printing the first thru tenth fractional digits, the 101th-110th, etc.
In his closing plenary at this year's CSCW, Bill Buxton made a provocative point about how to make a difference in the research world. His key point was that people often think of technology as alchemy, creating gold out of nothing. But alchemy (the creation of brand new ideas) is very hard and very rare, and is ultimately a fool's game. Most progress comes not from alchemy but from prospecting, the recognition of good ideas that are already out there, the understanding of which ideas are ripe for exploitation and the ability to marshal the right resources to get them into the world. He quotes Alan Kay: "It takes almost as much creativity to understand a good idea as to have it in the first place."
The example he gave was of the Blackboard, which was invented in 1801 and which Buxton claims revolutionized education more than every other technology introduced into schools since then put together. Before 1801 each child had his or her own slateboard, which he or she used to mark and correct answers before copying them down on paper. Buxton noted as an aside the irony that we're now trying to reintroduce slates into the classroom in the form of tablet PCs, but his main point was the fact that there're very few differences between a slate and a blackboard: a blackboard is just a slate that's been made an order of magnitude larger and hung on the wall. A technologist looking for novel innovation might overlook such a "minor" modification, and yet that slight change made all the difference.
This short "Perspectives" piece by Erik Vance, "Immigration For Lunch" really strikes a chord with me. Life without a large inflow of immigrants just sounds... boring to me.
The Guardian has a "gotcha" piece about how easy it is to crack the security on the RFID tags in the new UK passports. Bruce Schneier and Bruce Sterling have both commented favorably on the piece, but personally I don't see what all the fuss is about. The RFID chip contains a cryptographically signed digital copy of the main page of your passport, including a digital copy of your photograph. The idea is that this way you can't modify the name or paste your own photo into a stolen passport because the digital data won't match, and you can't modify the digital data because it has to be signed by the issuing country. After people expressed concerns that someone nearby could eavesdrop on the conversation between the passport and the RFID reader, they decided to encrypt the passport using your passport number, expiration date and date of birth, which is encoded using a barcode (or maybe a magnetic stripe). That way the customs official swiping your card can read the photo but someone eavesdropping on the RFID conversation can't.
There's only one concern the story mentions that makes even vague sense to me:
This means that each time you hand over your passport at, say, a hotel reception or car-rental office abroad to be "photocopied", it could be cloned with equipment like ours. This could have been done with an old passport, but since the new biometric passports are supposed to be secure they are more likely to be accepted without question at borders.
Certainly people trust computers a little too much, but this sounds like something proper training would solve. The idea that the RFID chip can be cloned doesn't seem like that difficult a concept to teach.
So what am I missing here?
Rush Limbaugh, on the results of last week's election:
The way I feel is this: I feel liberated, and I'm gonna - I'm just gonna tell you as plainly as I can why. I no longer am going to have to carry the water for people who I don't think deserve having their water carried.
Now, you might say, well, why have you been doing it? Because the stakes are high. Even though the Republican Party let us down, to me, they represent a far better future for my beliefs, and therefore the country's, than the Democrat [sic] Party does, and liberalism. And I believe my side is worthy of victory. And I believe it's much easier to reform things that are going wrong on my side from a position of strength.
Now, I'm liberated from having to constantly come in here every day and try to buck up a bunch of people who don't deserve it.
It's not often I complement Limbaugh, but good on him (and about damn time). I think Limbaugh is a buffoon, but I also think the country is a lot better off with a cacophony of buffoons all speaking their minds than a bunch of ditto-head water-bearers all marching in lock-step. It's something citizens of all political leanings need to keep in mind.
(Limbaugh quote via On The Media... in case you were wondering whether my radio taste had changed recently.)
EFF has a call out for prior art to help bust two broad patents:
The Patent Busting Project fights back against bogus patents by filing requests for reexamination against the worst offenders. We've successfully pushed the Patent and Trademark Office to reexamine patents held by Clear Channel and Test.com, and now we need your help to bust a few more.
A company called NeoMedia has a patent on reading an 'index' (e.g, a bar code) off a product, matching it with information in a database, and then connecting to a remote computer (e.g., a website). In other words, NeoMedia claims to have invented the basic concept of any technology that could, say, scan a product on a supermarket shelf and then connect you to a price-comparison website. To bust this overly broad patent, we need to find prior art that describes a product made before 1995 that might be something like a UPC scanner, but which also connects the user to a remote computer or database. Take a look at the description and please forward it to anyone you know who might have special knowledge in this area. You can submit your tips here.
Also in our sights is a patent on personalized subdomains from Ideaflood. For example, a student named Alice might have personalized URL 'http://alice.university.edu/' that redirects to a personal directory at 'http://www.university.edu/~alice/.' Ideaflood says that it has a patent on a key mechanism that makes this possible. We need prior art that describes such a method being used before 1999, specifically using DNS wildcards, html frames, and virtual hosting. Prior art systems might have existed in foreign ISPs, universities, or other ISPs with web-hosting services. You can submit tips here."
I'll betcha there's prior art in the augmented reality field that reads on the first patent, either from Steve Feiner's group at Columbia or maybe even the stuff we were playing with at the Media Lab. (I'll go rooting around once I meet a different deadline I'm spending my evenings on...)
...it will be as cheap to buy, per square foot, to buy 100 dpi full-color displays as the same square-footage of whiteboard today. In 7 years, displays with on the order of 20 times more pixels than are on that screen right now [pointing to a 15' x 15' projector screen] but the same size will be cheaper than that screen is right now without the projector. It's going to be about one to ten dollars a square foot for a 100 dpi full-color display that's 6mm thick. And the only question is which of the six or so competing technologies is gonna get there first.
And now, what does that mean? That's a technological affordance, it doesn't mean anything except that it's interesting because I'm a technologist. But as a designer, as a citizen, as a father, I care because now I can't think about watches, mobile phones, or any of these other devices out of the context of these portable wearable types of things moving around in space collectively and relating to those things there on the wall. What's that mean for education, what's it mean for business, how do we conduct our meetings? And that is CSCW, or a different branch of it. And the amount of effort put to that, to me, is still really low.
Personally I think he's being a little optimistic the time scale, but not by a lot, and he's certainly right that researchers need to be thinking about how that changes the environments in which we work and live. And he has a little built-in slack in his prediction: CSCW only meets every other year, so even if he's wrong we won't be able to collect on our drink until 2014.
To start your weekends out on a humorous note, I came across this joke in my digital photo shoebox. My Dad cut it out of a magazine several decades ago, and I've always loved it:
The Group Noun
Perhaps the story was old, but it was sweeping through academic circles:
Four dons were walking down an Oxford street one evening. All were philologists and members of the English department. They were discussing group nouns: a covey of quail, a pride of lions, an exaltation of larks.
As they talked, they passed four ladies of the evening. The dons did not exactly ignore the hussies — in a literary way, that is. One of them asked: "How would you describe a group like that?"
Suggested the first: "A jam of tarts?"
The second: "A flourish of strumpets?"
The third: "An essay of Trollope's?"
Then the dean of the dons, the eldest and most scholarly of them all, closed the discussion: "I wish that you gentlemen would consider 'An anthology of pros.'"
A Google search indicates it was originally printed in the Sept. 19, 1955 issue of Time Magazine, but I think Dad's copy was a reprint from a few decades later. That or he was a very erudite 10 year old!
Update 11/4/06: An update from my Dad: "Interesting bit of sleuthing you've done. In fact, at age 12 (at least approximately), I had to rely on others for my erudition, in this case coming from my father. He was absolutely ecstatic about this particular joke when he came upon it during his reading of Time, and after some explanation, I quickly became appreciative myself and clipped it out of the magazine."
In today's news, US soldiers lifted their cordon around Sadr City after an order from Prime Minister Maliki, essentially accepting that their search for a captured American soldier had failed and was not tenable given the increasing backlash from Moktada al-Sadr supporters. We also just ended the fourth deadliest month for American soldiers in Iraq, with
101 105 U.S. service members killed. Meanwhile, security company Kroll and engineering company Bechtel both announced they were pulling out of Iraq due to deteriorating security, and a briefing prepared by the US Central Command indicates Iraq has been rapidly sliding into chaos since the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra in February.
So with all that and the mid-term elections less than a week away, I guess there's no question why the President hopes we'll just forget the past two years and think it's still election 2004, huh?
9. The method of providing user interface displays in an image forming apparatus which is really a bogus claim included amongst real claims, and which should be removed before filing; wherein the claim is included to determine if the inventor actually read the claims and the inventor should instruct the attorneys to remove the claim.