Is There A Tech Solution To Solving All Crime?

Imagine if a tiny device was implanted in every human at birth that reported its identity and location to a central network.  How could criminals get away with crime if we knew who was near anyone when they were assaulted, kidnapped, raped or murdered?  If you wanted to snuff out your mortal enemy you’d have to wait until many people were near your victim and then hope to prove it wasn’t you, or kill at a distance.  Such a device would aid law enforcement to solve most crimes, probably deter most criminals, and make mystery novels very hard to write.  It would also make it hard to rob banks, burglarize houses, commit arson, steal cars, etc.

embedded-chips

And what if everyone also had an embedded device, like a tiny third eye, that videotaped everything they did – so we’d have almost perfect evidence of people’s actions and who was doing what to them.  All crime would have to be committed by drones and robots.  Any science fiction writers reading this? Here’s a free idea for a futuristic whodunit.

I’m not sure if we’d ever accept such technology.  We abhor crime, but crave privacy.  Yet, as more people fear crime, it pushes them to embrace more technology to fight crime.  The gun has always been the great equalizer, allowing the meek to fight the mighty.  Surveillance cameras now spy on the sneaky.  Alarm systems warn us of home invasions.  We’re constantly applying technology to solving crime.  Would people vote for universal system of identity and location?  I’m sure parents would consider it essential to track their kids – probably there’s nothing more gut wrenching than missing children.  But would you give up your privacy to deter violent crime?

I’m sure we could come up with controls so adults could still sneak around on their spouses, and kids could have some freedom to do things without their parents knowing.  We could make laws so the device couldn’t be used unless their was a crime.  I think many people would love such technology, but I can’t help feeling that it would terrorize a large segment of the population.  It smacks too much of Big Brother and 666.

JWH – 9/19/14

Raspberry Pi—Can An Old Dog Learn New Tricks?

My friends keep asking me:  “What do you all day now that your retired?”  “Puttering around in my small world,” might be one answer, but it’s not very specific.  One thing I’m actually doing, is playing with the Raspberry Pi, a gadget designed to teach kids about technology.  In some sub-cultures of the Geek world, the Raspberry Pi is a very popular little device.  It’s one of those toys that many grown-up kids love too!  I’ve always felt guilty for giving up on math when I was young, so I’m using my Raspberry Pi in an attempt to relearn math.  Maybe even go further than I did the first time around—but that might be Pi in the sky.  I’m just starting, and won’t know for months or years.  I’m not sure if it’s even possible for an old dog like me to learn something that hard and abstract.  I piddle at it a little bit at a time, whenever I feel like it.  I hope I can push myself to learn new things, even things that were hard for me to learn when I was young.  It’s an experiment, and the Raspberry Pi is a cool tool to conduct that experiment.

The Raspberry Pi is a small, single circuit board, that is a complete computer for $39 at Amazon.  It’s used to teach programming, mathematics, automation, robotics and embedded systems.  I had three reasons for buying the Raspberry Pi.  First, I read that it came with a free version of Mathematica.  Second, I wanted to learn Python.  Third, I wanted feel the same kind of fun I had in the 1970s and 1980s, with old 8-bit computers like the Atari 400 and Commodore 64.

The Raspberry Pi has been a success at teaching kids, so what about adults?

I bought the Model B a couple months ago, before the Model B+ came out.  Be sure and get the B+ now.

The Raspberry Pi mainly appeals to Do-It-Yourselfers and Makers.  It’s not a turn-key product.  You can buy just the B+ board if you have lot of computer junk sitting around the house to make it work, and get off with just spending $39.  You’ll need a USB keyboard and mouse, and if you want Wi-Fi, a Wi-Fi adapter.  I bought my Raspberry Pi as a little kit off Amazon ($62) that included the SD card already preformatted and loaded with  NOOBS, a power supply, HDMI cable, plastic case and WiFi adaptor.  If you want to save money and have a SD (microSD for B+) card lying around, it’s possible to format one yourself with a free download.  At first, I hooked it up to the Ethernet wire, and used the two USB ports for keyboard and mouse, but later moved the whole setup to another room, so I had to add an old USB hub to the first USB connector and the Wi-Fi USB to the second.

I bought the Amazon Basics keyboard and mouse for another $15.  But I now wish I had spent $9 more for a wireless keyboard so I could skip the USB hub.  My Raspberry Pi seems to be a growing octopus of wires.  If you start with the B+ model, it has 4 USB ports, removing the need for a USB hub.   Remember, the B+ model requires a microSD card.

I should mention right up front that the Raspberry Pi is not a fast machine.  If you lack patience or do not like to tinker, then the Raspberry Pi will only confuse and annoy you.  To be honest, I bought this $39 computer to get a free copy of Mathematica.  The cheapest other way to get Mathematica is to buy the home edition, which is $300 – or the new $150 a year online version.  Mathematica recently updated their Raspberry Pi edition to v. 10, their latest.  Wolfram is being very generous.

I’m hoping that Mathematica will give me a leg up on relearning math by making math more visually fun.  Python is also used by mathematicians, scientists, statisticians and big data miners.  Even though the Raspberry Pi is promoted as an educational tool the the young, it has tools suitable for grade school through graduate school.

If you want just want to learn Python and Linux, I’d recommend putting Ubuntu on any old machine you have – it will run much fastest than a Raspberry Pi.  Buying a faster SD card could speed up your system.  Check for compatible cards here.  It’s also possible to have different versions of Linux to boot up on different SD cards, and even other OSes. Even Raspian might be upgraded to run faster.  Having the Pi is essential for the free copy of Mathematica, and a fun gadget electronic and robotic projects, but most of the programming features can be installed on your existing computer.

I hooked my Raspberry Pi to an old HDTV via the HDMI cable, although you can hook it to your existing monitor if you have an extra HDMI port and just switch sources.  And I did that to begin with, but having two keyboards and mice on the desk is a pain.  I moved my whole setup to another room and think of my Raspberry Pi as my math studying computer.  It’s also possible to have a headless system, where the Raspberry Pi runs without being connected to a monitor or keyboard/mouse, and you remote into it from your main computer.  I might ultimately do that.

I lucked out and did everything without referring to any instructions.  And I was lucky.  When you first boot up you see a text-based configuration menu which OS did you want to install.  I guessed that I wanted Raspbian – which turned out to be right, because Raspian comes with the free version Mathematica and setups to program in Python, the reason why I bought the Raspberry Pi in the first place.

Installing Raspian takes a while, but after that you’re shown another text based menu – raspi-config.  If you live in the United States use the config_keyboard option, the default is for Great Britain.  If you get funny things from your keyboard, this is the problem.  I then told it I want to boot up in the GUI and restarted.  Now my machine boots into Raspian.

Raspian

I then ran WiFi Config (wsa_gui) to configure the Wi-Fi, and put in my password.  Again I guessed and lucked out at what to do.  If you have no Linux experience, you will need to find instructions for all of these steps.  Because people set up their Raspberry Pi machines with surplus parts it doesn’t always work.  That’s why I went ahead and bought the $62 kit from Amazon – and even still I was lucky that everything I added worked well with the Pi.

Now, I must reiterate  my first impression.  The Raspberry Pi is slow.  The Midori browser works, but is very slow, especially under my Wi-Fi.  Luckily Midori was recently replaced (9/15/14) with Epiphany browser, which runs much, much faster.   Using Raspian is slow too.  Not horrible, but running GUI apps takes much patience.  So much so, I’m not sure I want to run them.  Internet speed is also improved by being wired with Ethernet.

Python runs in text mode, so speed isn’t a factor.  The Wolfram Language also runs in text mode.  Mathematical has a graphical UI which takes a very long time to load, but once you’re in the notebook it’s fast enough crunching normal math problems.  Using the system to program electronic projects won’t require speed either.  The Raspberry Pi is not a desktop replacement computer, although if you’re patient it can do most things.  If you go to Google or YouTube you’ll find a endless examples of what people do with their Raspberry Pi.  I have mine set up on a table with a bunch of math, Python and statistics books.

I might discover that I can’t break through the math-barrier and switch to learning robotics.  Or I might really get into math and decide spending $300 for a Windows copy of Mathematica, but until then using the free version is a great bargain.  I like playing with the Raspberry Pi because it reminds me of the days when I loved reading Byte, Creative Computing and Compute!.

p.s.  If you don’t want to use Mathematica, but still want to study math and Python, I also recommend Sage, a free alternative to Mathematica that runs on Linux.  And it’s possible to run Linux within Windows, or run Sage as a binary on the Mac.  That way you need to buy nothing extra, or mess with new gadgets.

JWH – 9/18/14

Learning Geography for Jeopardy!

You know what makes me feel dumb?  Watching Jeopardy!  Jeopardy!, the classic TV game show is now in its 30th season, and since I retired I’ve been watching it daily.  I used to watch it as a kid starting back in 1964, the year it first came on, when I got to skip school, or in the summer time.  I’m not sure why it’s only in its 30th season when it’s 50 years old – I guess they only count the Alex Trebek years, and forgot old Art Fleming.  Watching Jeopardy! makes me feel dumb because often it has contestants who look and act completely mundane, yet who just bubble over as fountains of knowledge.  Even when I know what to ask, I often can’t pronounce the names and words right.  I’d crash and burn at the game.  Still one can dream.

central_america_map

The other day my friend Mike was telling me about his research in geography teaching programs for the iPad and I wondered if I studied them if I’d be better at playing along with Jeopardy!  Geography comes up pretty often and usually I don’t know what to ask.  By the way, the contestants on Jeopardy! must formulate the proper question to the answer provided.  It’s one of the reasons why it was so hard for IBM to program Watson to play the game.  To get some idea of how to play, take this practice test.

Mike likes Maps of our World, an app for iOS by Trilliarden.  There’s a free version, which you can buy additional maps, or buy the complete collection for $8.99.   MooW tests users on finding countries and capitals, and has training sessions to help you learn first.

Marianne Wartoft has written a program called Seterra that can be downloaded or played online.  Check out the online version, it gives a good idea what the Maps of our World app is like.  For me, it quickly shows how little I know.  I’m not bad, but I’m far from Jeopardy! material.

Mike and I wondered which platform produced the best programs:  desktop, mobile or online?  I’d bet a multi-gigabyte game, sold on a DVD, designed for large high-resolution monitors, would be the stunning platform for this kind of program.  But except for the cheesy old educational games, I don’t see anything offered.  Most of the software gold rushes these days are in the mobile app territories.  That’s a shame.  Mobile apps make me think of how MP3 music is low-fi compared to FLAC files.   Who wants to study geography on tiny screens?

Sheppard Software has a nice online page of Geography Games, that include voice pronunciation of names.  For $36 a year you can get an ad free version, and if I played it a lot I would opt for that because most online applications are butt-ugly with all the ads.  In fact, with this site, some of the colorful looking controls are really ads.  Thankful, once in the game, the ads are left out.  The program could spread out to fit my 1080p screen, but it doesn’t.   Although this Sheppard Software site is homely, it does offer more features than the the two programs above, requiring a lot more learning – just look at all the content it covers just for Mexico.  And I really like it pronounces the names for me.

When Mike brought up the idea of geography learning software I pictured a program with beautiful maps and a gee-whiz dazzling interface, and none of these programs have that.  Plus, Jeopardy! often requires knowledge of rivers, seas, oceans, mountain ranges, deserts, and other natural geographical features not related to man-made features.

Ultimately, it comes down to how many facts do I want to learn.  There’s 196 countries in the world at the moment.  I wouldn’t mind knowing how to spot them on an unlabeled map.  But do I want to take the time to learn 196 capitals?  There are 457 cities around the world with over a million people.  We’re approaching a 1,000 pieces of information to learn. That’s more than I want to stuff in my head, although it seems surprisingly ignorant not to know where a million people live.

I wonder if software is even the best way to learn about geography.  Would studying an atlas or almanac be a better way to learn?  And like a sixth grader, I’m asking myself, “Why do I need to learn this?  Will I use it when I grow up?”  Evidently, except at 3:30pm M-F, when Jeopardy! is on, I might not need it at all.  Like algebra and chemistry, avoiding geography in life is pretty easy, except being geographically challenged makes you look more like a dumbass to average person, than not knowing algebra and chemistry, which most people don’t know anyway.

I think the ideal way to learn geography is by reading books set in other countries.  Eva over at A Striped Armchair has a list of the books she’s read by country.  Since Jeopardy! covers a lot of book and authors, that might kill several birds at once.  But how long would it take to read just one book for each country?

Still, I grave an interactive program that would be teach me about the world, and constantly quiz me.  There’s a reason why educational software never caught on – it’s damn hard to program slick interfaces that can compete with video games for artistry. 

When it comes to a slick geography program, Google Earth is the one to beat.  It would be neat if it had an educational component with testing.  It would be cool to click on any country and see information about that country, like what movies and novels are set there, what kind of music and art come from its cities and citizens, what are links to the web that feature the best news about the country, what are some great blogs from its citizens, and so on.

If you think about it, the potential of software and learning really hasn’t been tapped yet.  Hell, we’ve probably haven’t even reached the Model-T stage of development yet.

JWH – 4/17/14

Will I Be Left in the Tech Dust If I Don’t Own A Smartphone?

I’ve been using computers since 1971.  Mainframes, minicomputers and microcomputers – labels that have long since disappeared.  I got my first personal computer in 1979.  I used FTP, Usenet, Gopher, email, years before the web, and remember being blown away when Mosaic came out in 1993.  I spent a lot of money on computer and gadgets over the years, but for some reason I don’t want to buy a smartphone.  Oh, I’d love to have a smartphone – I just don’t want the monthly bill.  And since nearly everyone else is becoming a smartphone user, will this leave me in the tech dust?

I have a poor man’s smartphone, the iPod touch and a pay-as-you-go dumbphone.  It essentially does most of what a smartphone does, and I only spend $50 every six months for 500 minutes.  I also have an iPad 2 and a Nexus 5.  I’m not totally out of it, but when I read Engadget I feel like I’m at a black tie party wearing a sports jacket and jeans, and even those are getting threadbare and moth eaten.

gsmarena_004

Now I’m reading about smart watches.  Pass.  Google glasses.  Pass.  Have I gotten too old to compute?

I am cheap, but then I’m retired.  I now spend about 99% of my time at home, so mobile devices just don’t have a compelling sell to me.  Yet, all the tech glamor is now in mobile devices.  I do use mobile apps on my Nexus 7, but I’d much prefer using most of them on my 23” monitor.

Is the bleeding edge of tech savvy now limited to on-the-go computing?  Am I joining the ranks of the cyber-Amish by not owning a smartphone.  Am I less of a geek for not wanting the latest smartphone every year?

Getting old is getting old, so I must accept that young people are going to do and know things I don’t.  BFD.  I’m not whining, but since I’ve retired I realized, more and more, I’m cutting myself off from the mainstream of people.  I’ve always done this.  Being a gluten-free vegetarian atheist has a way of isolating me from normal life.  Being a computer geek is something I’ve always identified with, so is choosing not to follow the cutting edge of tech another way to isolate myself?  (I can hear my friend Annie growling at me, “Hell yes, you moron.”) 

This reminds me of a friend who died about twenty years ago.  He had become so negative about life that he only like two things, Duane Allman’s guitar playing, and Benny Goodman’s clarinet playing.  Luckily I still love hundreds of things, but I’m starting to realize that list is shrinking.  Is that another way of defining aging – that you list of likes shrinks?

There another way of looking at though.  One I feel is more positive!  As we get older we juggle more balls, or spin more plates.  Remember those guys on Ed Sullivan that would keep plates spinning on sticks?  Back then, we called life “the 9 to 5 rat race.”  As we grew up we learned to spin more plates.  At some point in your life you realize that keeping all those plates spinning is a lot of damn work.  Then you go all Zen dog and start spinning fewer plates.  Retiring is moving into those years when you spin fewer and fewer plates.  And the positive spin I mentioned?  Well, you enjoy life more because you just keep the things you love most in motion.

JWH – 2/25/14

Visual Inspiration

Usually I am excited by words and concepts.  I am a lifelong bookworm, so I’m obsessed with black marks on white backgrounds.  Living in my head is my constant way of life, thinking wordy thoughts, even to the point of neglecting the colorful details of the external world around me.  But during the day I’m often startled by something visual that inspires me.  I love looking at the trees outside my window, which sets just above my computer monitor that I am typing at now.  I have two windows, the one looking into the internet and the other out onto the world.  The world is full of color, but because of my neglect of noticing it, I’m all the more moved by art.  And maybe, I prefer seeing reality though art rather than viewing reality directly. 

I love catching something visually fascinating as I drive to work each day – the structure of a church steeple, the outline of tree branches against the sky, the way shadows and glare affect my sight.  I wish I could turn what I see into art. I wish I was the kind of guy that hiked in nature and captured it artistically.  Because I spend so much time indoors, most of my visual stimulation comes from the computer screen or the television.

Every once in a while I see art that blows my mind, and generates a flood of thoughts.  The other day I found this computer animation that set my neurons on fire.

Be sure and play this in full screen mode at the highest resolution your computer can handle.  I’ve watched it many times now and it just gets better and better.  This visuals makes me think of mathematics and musical harmony.  This video is like seeing music.  This video is like seeing mathematics as if math wasn’t an abstraction of nature.  “Oscillate” was created by Daniel Sierra for his MFA Computer Art thesis, and you can see more about this work here.

What I find so inspiring about “Oscillate” is that it’s a visual abstraction that makes me see science.  All paintings, no matter how realistic, are an abstraction, in the same way that words and concepts are an abstraction about reality.  Art mimics the world.  “Oscillate” mimics abstract thoughts.  Daniel Sierra imagined seeing animated sine waves much like how classical Greeks imagined mathematics, but instead of putting his thoughts into words, he created a computer animation.

On one hand this video is like abstract art, it doesn’t look like the real world.  But I see it as a realistic painting of an actual abstraction in the real world.

JWH – 6/26/13

Dropbox and BoxCryptor: The Dangers of Encrypting Your Digital Life

In my never ending quest to get organized, I’ve been forced to explore the world of encryption.  I set up Dropbox to use as my primary drive for all my digital document filing.  Because my Dropbox files are replicated to all my machines at home and work this has caused a security problem at work.  We’re not allowed to store sensitive data on our local drives, and my own files will set off their security scanner.  So I’m being forced to encrypt my own documents.  Normally Dropbox encrypts your files for transfer over the net and at their storage site, and I’ve considered that good enough security.  However, I started thinking what would happen if someone came into my office when I just had stepped out.  Before Windows times out and locks my machine, people could see my home files in Dropbox, so I felt it was the time to study encryption programs.

We’re being forced to use TrueCrypt and BitLocker at work, so I was having to learn about this topic anyway.  It’s a scary subject because if you’re not careful you’ll lock all your critical files into an encrypted volume and you won’t be able to open it again. 

At first I thought I just set up a TrueCrypt volume inside of Dropbox, but I read there were some issues with that.  Dropbox sees TrueCrypt as a single file, so if you have a gigabyte of data locked down, that’s a lot for Dropbox to handle over the internet.  Doing some Google research I discovered BoxCryptor.  BoxCryptor encrypts file by file, so the overhead for Dropbox is much lighter.

BoxCryptor

BoxCryptor is free for personal use as long as you only create one virtual drive.  BoxCryptor creates virtual drives.  Save something to its drives and it’s automatically encrypted.  It works with Dropbox, SkyDrive and other cloud drive services, as well as regular drives.   After you install BoxCryptor you mount the drive and use this access point to see the files unencrypted. If you don’t mount the drive and browse to the BoxCryptor folder within Dropbox you’ll see your files, but they won’t open.  And evidently, with the free version, you’ll see the filenames unencrypted, they just won’t open.  It appears if you buy the full version ($44.99), it will encrypt the filenames too, if you want.

Encrypting your files can be dangerous.  If you forget your password, kiss those precious documents goodbye.  Unless you’re a master NSA hacker, you’ll have no chance of ever opening them again.  Also, there’s a file listing in your BoxCryptor folder called .encfs6.xml.  Delete it and access to your files are long gone too.  Wow-wee – just thinking about all this makes me nervous.

Using encryption is not for the unfocused mind or scatterbrain user.

Here’s the thing.  We’re moving into an age where all our personal information is digital.  It’s our responsibility to back up our digital life.  Dropbox is a good way to do that, but Dropbox stores your files in the Cloud.  If you’re paranoid about who can see your files you’ll need to think about encryption. 

Encryption takes extra work, extra precautions and can be a very risky endeavor if you’re careless.

Some people encrypt files because they worry that Cloud storage sites might peak at the good bits in their private files.  Other people encrypt their documents because they’re afraid their computers will be stolen and bad guys will steal their identity.  Still other people encrypt files because they don’t want people at home or at the office to mess with their stuff.  Criminals encrypt files because they don’t want the police or FBI use them as evidence.  There are many reasons to encrypt files.  You have to decide if its worth the effort.

When you encrypted a folder with BoxCryptor or TrueCrypt you’ll have to create a strong password that you must not forget, and you’ll be required to save a configuration key file that you should backup carefully.   If something happens to your machine and you want to recover your files from a backup to a new machine, you’ll need that configuration key file.

If you encrypt your life its very important how you handle the password and configuration key.  If your documents are very important you might want to put your passwords and keys into your will.  If a husband encrypts all his financial records and then dies, his wife won’t be able to see them.  If you’re an author and you last manuscript is encrypted, it won’t get published unless you’ve made provisions for your heirs to unlock it.

And it’s important how you configure BoxCryptor.  If you want to just hide your files from Dropbox, just use the defaults.  If you want to hide files from people that can access to your computers (either at home, work or at the thieves hideout), then don’t configure the mount drive to automatically remember the passwords.

JWH – 2/3/13