Buttbuttination – or – The Scunthorpe Problem

2. May 2010

I’m pretty sure everybody has come across this. You send a mail, type something in chat, or try to post something on a forum, and your statement is either rejected or comes out garbled. What’s at work there are filter systems, so you might find yourself talking about the “Buttbuttination of Abraham Lincoln” or the “Consbreastution of the United States”. Clbuttic. Okay, I’m embarbutted by the products of my fellow programmers…

Conclusion #1: Obscenity filters don’t work. At all.

Read the rest of this entry »

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They’re doing it again! Internet censorship

24. April 2010

I wrote a rant about internet censorship infrastructure last year, and I probably should give you a follow-up on the subject. Mrs von der Leyen (Germany’s family minister) was unsuccessfull in creating an internet censorship infrastructure. Thank God. Well, actually, thank Democracy. There was an election later in the year, which lead to a new coalition of political parties in charge. Funnily enough, Mrs. von der Leyen still has the same job, but her plans to “fight internet child pornograpy” (read: implement a massive censorship infrastructure that’s not going to help fighting against child pornography at all) were put on a hold.

So… “Yay for democracy”, right?

Wrong.

Somebody figured: “if you cannot do that on a national level, lets do it on a european (EU) level instead”. And instead of having one country with censorship, lets make it mandatory for every country in the EU. The whole thing seems to be a great f**king hydra. Makes me wonder what would happen if somebody chopped off Mrs. von der Leyen’s head…

Anyways. This is where Cecilia Malmström, a swedish EU minister comes into the picture. She created the website www.cleanternet.org, and puts this funny video online:

Thanks Mrs. Malmström. It’s people like you that stop me from losing all hope in democracy.

I concluded my last post about the subject with “If you are searching for a country with intelligent politicians, look elsewhere. Ours certainly ain’t.” May be Sweden is.


Evolution, missing links and whatnot.

21. March 2010

This has been lying around as draft for quite a while, because I wanted to do further research on the subject. Not having had time to do that, I now decided to publish it anyways, so if you find a mistake, feel free to comment.

1994. An american research team finds bones in Ethopia, only 75km from the location of the famous “Lucy“. They soon discover that they are about 4.4 million years old and belong to a yet unknown species, which they then had the honor of naming Ardipithecus ramidus. What followed were years of boring research and restauration.

15 years later. The research is published in the magazine Science

A day later. Everybody goes crazy about the “missing link” having been found. And every single creationist out there has comment on the fact that man clearly is not related to such low creatures as monkeys, and that all this Darwinism is so totally wrong, and that this finding proves nothing.

OMG. Why can’t they shut up? Once? Pwleeze?

Okay, calm down. Is this the “missing link” everybody has been looking for?

Sorry, but no. Simply because the missing link does not exist, there are numerous. But lets see what science has already found out so far:

The oldest fossils of homo sapiens (that is the sort of funny species you and I are part of) are about 200.000 years old and were found in Africa, also known as the archaic homo sapiens. The oldest fossils outside of Afrika are about 100.000 years old, which leads to the conclusion that around that time we left Africa and started conquering the rest of the world. DNA studies have proven that every human on this planet is linked to the same “genetic Eve” from Africa. So, no missing link for about 200.000 years.

At least two other species of the homo family lived during that period: homo neanderthalensis and homo floresiensis. Both are extinct, but neither species is our “ancestor” – they are our “siblings”. For a long time, scientists had thought that homo neanderthalensis was our ancestor, simply because at that point in time the known neanderthalensis fossils were older than those of homo sapiens. They were looking for fossils that were half-neanderthalensis-half-sapiens to prove that one evolved from the other. This was a “missing link” people tried to find for decades. Today, we know that no such fossil exists, because there is no direct link.

A fourth species, homo erectus is the common ancestor of all three.

How exactly the three younger species came about is where missing links set in again. Homo erectus appeared around 1.500.000 years ago. Sometime between 500.000 years ago and about 200.000 years ago, the three younger species evolved.

Unfortunately, the number fossils in that time period are very few, there are about 10. If they were nicely distributed in age and all from the same location there would be a gap of 30.000 years between each and every one of them. You might have guessed it: they are not. The fossils were found in different places and precisely dating them is a problem in itself. What adds to the problem is evolution having “jumps” every now and then, when it only takes very few generations to create a different species, and we are hoping to find just that: A half homo erectus, half homo sapiens fossil. Or half-erectus-half-neanderthalensis, for that matter. There are about three or four that might fit in that line, but scientific evidence is not good enough to actually put them into the right position in the evolutionary tree.

As you can imagine, the further one goes up that tree, the rarer the puzzle pieces get. Especially when it comes to fossils older than 3 million years, every single finding is important. “Lucy” is 3.2 million years old. Scientists think the split between apes and hominids must have happened around 7 million years ago. The number of fossiles that are between 4 and 7 million years old is pretty much: zero. That is a huge gap of 3 million years. Oh, you guessed it… the missing link!

Since we have finally found out what is commonly called the missing link… will a single fossil bridge the gap? Surely, no. If we cannot close a gap of 300.000 years with 10 findings, how could a single one close 3 million years? But every single discovery will make the picture a bit more complete, even if it turns out to be a side-line, like the neanderthalensis.

Okay. Now back to the story. We now know what we are looking for: All kinds of humanoid or apelike fossiles in the time span of 4 to 7 million years old.

What did they find? Something that is 4.4 million year old. Does it make a difference? yes. Do they have the missing link? no.

Thanks.

You can now claim the T-Shirt, and get on with your life.

Oh, since youre still around: If you still believe, Adam was created by God 5.000 years ago, please note that the Babylonians invented friggin’ glue a thousand years before that. And if you still think evolution is a “theory”, please note: so is gravity.

Further reading: National Geographic Little Green Footballs


“Top Ten” of doctored images

3. October 2009

There are a number of sites with “doctored” images on the net, but Time Magazine recently created what they believe are the Top Ten Doctored Images.

but lets see what Time came up with (links are to stories behind those images):

  1. abt. 1865: General Sherman was added to a group photo. Scientific American (and yes, that’s part of another top ten)
  2. abt. 1935: Trotzki and Kamenev were removed from a famous Lenin picture. Wikipedia
  3. abt. 1937: Goebbels was removed from a group photo with Hitler. Scientific American, again
  4. abt. 1970: A pole was removed from a photo Wikipedia
  5. 2003:  A cigarette was removed from a Beatles CD cover. BBC
  6. 1989: Oprah’s head was mounted to somebody else’s body. NYTimes
  7. 2005: Martha Stewart’s head was mounted to somebody else’s body for a Newsweek cover NPPA
  8. 2008: A malfunctioning missile launcher was removed, and replaced with the image of a fourth missile. NYTimes
  9. 2009: Kim Jong Il was added to a photo (Time Magazine has a whole series on doctored photos of him)
  10. 2009: Two women in a group photo of the israelian cabinet replaced by men. ABC News

Hmm… thats the top ten? By what measure? Importance? Kim Jong Il and Martha Steward? It seems they just produced a list of ten such images and somebody put the “Top Ten” title on, because it’s so catchy. If you want to choose your own top ten, this is a good place to start. But then again, it’s friggin Time Magazine! So it must really be the top ten, mkay?

Lets assume for a second those are actually the top ten, and see how and why those images were changed.

sorted by analog vs. digital (“photoshopped”)

  • analog image manipulation: 1 through 4
  • digital image manipulation: 5 through 10

sorted by type of change and intent

  • important person removed or added, changing context/meaning: 1,2,3,9,10
  • important items removed or added, changing context/meaning: 8
  • body parts removed or added, changing appearance: 6,7
  • secondary/distracting items removed without changing overall meaning: 4, 5

sorted by “who dunnit”

  • unknown: 1, 4
  • dictator / government: 2,3,9 (plus possibly #8)
  • publisher: 5
  • press / newspaper / news agency: 6,7,10 (plus possibly #8)

No matter whether you think Time Magazine was right in choosing those or not – image manipulation has been there ever since there were photographs. What has changed drastically is who does the manipulation. What used to be a propaganda trick of dictators, has appearantly become fashionable with newspapers and magazines. Oh, and the dictators still love it.

I personally couldn’t care less about some celebrities head on somebody elses body, and I’m not shocked that people like Stalin, Hitler or  manipulated photos. But look at the dates, and look at the effort that was probably needed: Digital image manipulation is new, its cheap and it brought a new player to the game: newspapers and news agencies. That does worry me.


Funny as HELL.

19. September 2009

A couple of days ago, I came across this article in the Daily Telegraph: Atheists offer to care for Christians pets after the Rapture

Funny as hell, right? Oh, does that count as blasphemy already? Yay! I qualify for atheist pet care 🙂

You can now safely send your $110 to me.


Push Technology – Finally There?

22. August 2009

Real push technology is here. zOMG. And it only took 12 years.

What am I talking about? Lets go back in time a bit.

Sometime around 1997, Netscape came up with the CDF-Format, and said it would revolutionize the web, because it would “push the web to the users” instead of the users having to fetch it from the web. People were all excited, Microsoft said they would do something much better called the “Active Desktop”, and everyone was on the edge of their seats.

Then, what happened? Appearantly, not much. CDF never became popular, and more or less faded away. So did Netscape, eventually. Active Desktop was a continuously crashing thingy that nowbody could make real use of, which had very little in common with CDF, and shouldn’t have been programmed in the first place. The revolution did not happen. At least not yet.

Funnily enough, there was no “pushing” involved at all. The users would have an application on their systems (conveniently bundled with the Netscape browser), which would periodically fetch a list of things from the web (the CDF data), see if there was anything new. It would then present the new stuff to the user. Notice the “fetch” part. Its the user application checking periodically if something new has arrived, not the server saying “hey, I got something new”. So if you set that application to check every 60 mins, you might get an important information 59 minutes late – just as if you had set your email application to fetch new mails only once an hour. The only thing you could do to prevent this would be to check often, causing lots of unnecessary traffic and load on both your PC and the server. The same information- the “list-of-things”-CDF-file – would be sent over and over again.

From a technology point of view its pretty much like a browser getting a certain webpage over and over again, only to be able to tell you whether it had changed since the last time you saw it. Meh.

The idea behind CDF actually made some sense, and became popular in a different form: RSS feeds. But RSS feeds inherited the same problem: it still is your pc fetching (or: “polling”) the information from the web. The subscriber (you) will check for content again and again, the publisher (the website) will continually answer with “these are the latest 10 news items”, your computer will repeatedly check if there was anything new, and if so, tell you about it. What a waste of resources, all because the server couldn’t shout at your system when something new was there.

Up to now, it seemed that was the end of the story.

So, what happened? Google and a bunch of smart guys who obviously were better at coding stuff than at giving it a good name came up with pubsubhubbub.

It starts out with the same situation: A publisher and a subscriber (hence the pub-sub in the name). Whats new is the hub. With the new protocol (which is an extension to RSS), the publisher can actively inform the hub if there is anything new. It is not necessary that the hub checks for new stuff, and thus, the publisher does not have to wait for the hub to check. The hub, in turn, is able to actively inform the subscriber (you) about new information. Again, it is not necessary for the subscriber to check with either the hub or the publisher for news. The publisher is actually “pushing” the information to the subscriber, via the hub. The round trip time of this procedure should be in the region of seconds.

You turn on your PC. Your RSS feed reader checks for news, because it might have missed whatever happend while it was turned off. Up to this point its the same as it has been since 1997. But now your RSS feed reader tells the hub “I’m here, tell me when there’s anything new”, and goes to sleep. If something new is there, the hub will then wake up your RSS reader …. tadaaa! Thats all there is to it.

Effectively, this means your RSS feed reader will be able to get the news only seconds after the publisher publishes it, without the traffic that would be caused if you set your RSS reader to check every second. Your PC actually uses less computing power and bandwith than before.

It only took a mindboggingly long 12 years until technology did what marketing said. And no, thats not going to be a revolution, but it sure is a neat solution to a very common problem.

Oh, and before anybody asks: there is no “bub” in it. They just thought it was funny calling it that.

Binary

P.S. Wake my hub if you have anything new 😛


Photoshopping – when pictures lie.

25. July 2009

I guess almost everyone has a digital camera these days, and we have all tried to enhance an image in some sort of image editing software. Now those who tried probably found out that editing images is difficult, and that for the most part it cannot be done with a few mouse clicks. From Adobe’s famous image editing software PhotoShop, this art has gotten the name “photoshopping”. If you know what you’re doing, you can substantially alter an image to your tastes. Done right, it can be an art in itself.

So, what’s wrong with photoshopping?

Lets just take an example, okay? Take this image that came through Reuters in 2006. What do you think it shows?

photoshopped-beirut

It shows Beirut on fire, right? And heavy black smoke, right?

Readers who know what a “clone brush” is, please look closely at the smoke in the upper left corner. Does that look “cloned” to you? It sure did to somebody.

Now as it turned out, that image wa really a photoshopped version of this image:

original-beirut

That is Beirut with one building on fire and some smoke.

Now, I’m totally not getting into why there was an israelian air strike in the first place, and what would be right or wrong with that. What I’m aiming at, is that we just cannot trust images anymore the way we used to. There have been numerous occasions where photoshopped images were released as “news”, this just happens to be a very prominent example.

This raises quite a few questions:

Q1. Why was the image altered in the first place?

I don’t know much about Adnan Hajj, the photographer, so I can only do guesswork on question 1. A lot of photographers get paid only if their photo gets published. So if you are a photographer, you want to get images that are exciting and news-worthy. The manipulated image sure looks more alarming than the original. With the level of competition on the news market, news agencies have outsourced more and more staff. People who only get their money if they sell a photo will be more likely to forge something to make a living than somebody who gets a regular salery no matter what.

On the other hand, Hajj is lebanese, and might have done that to shift public oppinion. But using the same kind of reasoning, the whole thing could also have been a setup to discredit anybody reporting on that side of the war.

Sorry, I cannot give you the real answer on what happened here, but it turns out not to be as important as you might think. Sure, Reuters could rely more on their own staff, but they cannot do so entirely. And there will always be somebody tampering with images just to get them sold or to make a point.

Q2. Did Reuters know the image was modified?

I’m not sure which answer I should hope for. Either they didn’t, which would be an unbelievable level of neglegance, or they did, which would be a level of bias only few people would expect from them either.

With only very few exceptions, it is possible to detect image manipulation. Even on a large scale. If they had any provisions to check for altered pictures, that would have caught Hajj’s image. Any experienced digital artist can easily see that it was photoshopped – if the Reuters staff didn’t, they’re blind or plain incompetent. There are ways to automatically detect such conduct, or at least raise a flag for further investigation. They could probably collect the RAW camera image files, which are a bit harder to manipulate, and check if the image had been altered.

On the other hand, what if they did know it was manipulated? Is Reuters biased, as some people think? Honestly, I don’t know, but if that were the case, they would be pretty stupid in releasing this particular photo. As said before, its rather easy to notice that the image is photoshopped, even with the low quality copy shown above. If they had wanted to manipulate public opinion, I personally find it hard to believe that they wouldn’t do a better job at it.

In the end, they were either sloppy at manipulating it, or they were sloppy checking for manipulation. That probably says more about how a news agency works than anything else.

(side note: if you don’t believe that this could have been automatically detected, here are two white papers on how it very well can be done: Image Manipulation Detection with Binary Similarity Measures [PDF],Image Manipulation Detection [PDF] )

Q3.  What does all that mean to us?

To us, it does not really matter why the image had been altered, since there will a number of reasons to do so, and there would always be reasons to do that.

It does shed a bad light on Reuters, and we have no reason to believe that Reuters is any different from other news agencies.

In the end, it should teach us that we cannot believe something to be true, just because we see a photo of it. Not that that would be all that new – there have been manipulations before digital imaging, and you never know how and why a picture came about. It could have been a set-up, an optical/analog manipulation or a digital one.

A picture sure can say more than a thousand words, but it can also tell more than a thousand lies.

Q4. So why am I blogging about the whole subject, anyways?

Its not new… been there, done that, got the t-shirt, now what?

Any new technology brings new opportunities and new pitfalls. This time its digital image manipulation and a stubling news agency. Next time it will be something else. What we really need is discussion on the technology’s implications.

We need to set moral standards on how a technology may be used, and where it should not.

After all, the pitfall doesn’t suddenly turn the technology into one from hell. It is always people who decide what they make of it – just think “nuclear fission” here. It can be used for nuclear bombs and in power plants. It is up to us to decide which uses we allow, and which we prohibit. Despite how tricky it can be to monitor its use we do need an open and public discussion on the use of technology.

There are a number of pretty new technologies that really do need such a discussion. Photoshopping is just one of them. I’d love to read your comments on this.