Open-Source Crime-Solving

Porting this post over from Socialtext:

I was struck by this article on the BBC:

Amateur sleuths keep cold cases alive

It struck me that this is another application of the open-source model — Internet technology can possibly be used in crime investigations to bring many dedicated minds to bear on problems that can’t be solved by the efforts of a few professional investigators.

AB — originally posted 23 April 2007

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Comments on Rhetorical Intimidation

Porting this post over from Socialtext:

I wrote up some comments this morning on my Reluctant Guru blog about the way people use rhetorical intimidation to gain the upper hand in disputes.

Some of the phrases I commented on are “pure and simple,” “just plain wrong” and “pseudo-science.”

Here’s what I wrote — I will use this space here to write updates:

“Pure and simple” — As in, “This is theft, pure and simple.” This is sometimes used to add artificial certainty to an assertion, to make things seem black-and white.

“Just plain wrong” — Used in similar ways to “pure and simple” to impose an oversimplified certainty to your own side in an argument.

“There is no dispute that ….” — Followed sometimes by a statistic, sometimes simply by the speaker’s opinion. My immediate urge when I hear this is to respond with, “I hereby dispute you.”

“Nonsense” — Used to describe someone else’s idea and to position your own as superior.

“Utter” — This one occurred to me just now, as it is sometimes used with a word like “nonsense” or “hogwash” to make the other person’s idea sound even more unreliable.

“Pseudo-science” — Used to describe an area of inquiry that conflicts with your own deeply-held opinions. A celebrity not long ago used this term to disparage psychiatry. It is often used to describe any investigation into the paranormal, and is sometimes used by partisans on either side of the evolution-intelligent design debate to describe one another’s models.

“Ideology” or “belief system” — Used to describe someone else’s values or way of thinking. Seems to me that using these terms places a slightly negative spin on the other person’s position — as if my own way of thinking is truly objective, whereas the other person’s is tainted by extremism. I guess a good test might be to ask, Am I willing to describe my own way of thinking as an ideology or belief system?

AB — originally posted 22 March 2007

Crimefighting by Crowdsourcing

Here is an investigation by Dutch police of a 1995 cold case in which they are inviting outside participation, with a reward offered:

http://www.politieonderzoeken.nl/gerwig-engels/gerwig.html

Also, here is the website for Victoria (Australia) Crime Stoppers, inviting assistance with solving crimes and finding fugitives:

http://www.vic.crimestoppers.com.au

Here is an interesting article on CNN about how the Internet was used to solve an old mystery:

Amateur sleuths keep cold cases alive 

AB — originally posted 15 May 2007

Rattling around in the box.

Some readers won’t like this illustration and, missing the point, will declare that you have to think outside the box. Just saying that ahead of time to forestall platitudes.

We live our lives inside a box. When we’re younger, the box is bigger, so we don’t run into the walls quite so often. But as we get older, the box gets smaller, so we keep running up against the limitations.

AB — originally posted 2 May 2007

I Want to Write It All Down

I want to write it all down — every single thought and experience, if possible. Get it on a page or in a poem or an article or in a book or on a web page. I want to take a picture of every scene and every face. Maybe even a movie or audio recording of every moment.

What if I could mount a video camera on my head, always running, storing it all somewhere? What if I could somehow store every word, every document, all of the evidence in a vast database somewhere?

Maybe that would keep it all from disappearing.

AB — originally posted 4/24/2004

Can You Bottle Viral Marketing?

Recently I’ve been writing about “viral marketing” for the book I’m working on. It’s got me thinking about the distinction between the forced viral marketing exemplified by Hotmail, Blue Mountain Arts, and other commercial companies, and the viral phenomena that seem to occur just by virtue of their own compelling natures.

I’m thinking particularly about happenings like these:

  • Mahir Cagri, the Turkish fellow, whose goofy personal home page gained millions of visitors a couple years ago.
  • All your base are belong to us,” an off-beat phrase that has proliferated around the Internet, derived from a badly translated 1980s Japanese video game.
  • Psycho Ex-Girlfriend, a site developed by a guy who decided to post audio files converted from voicemails left by a crazed woman he broke up with.

I wonder …

What is it about these examples that causes them to rise from obscurity, get broadcast around the Internet, and gain the attention of millions? Is it that they are so funny, goofy, weird, or engaging, that people just can’t resist sharing them?

Whole companies have arisen just for the purpose of creating “viral marketing campaigns” for their clients. Obviously, these campaigns work sometimes. But how often? I’ll bet many companies have spent tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands trying to creat a viral effect — with little or no result. On the other hand, the above examples seem to have “worked” with minimal effort on the part of the originator.

Can you really bottle viral-ness? Or does it have to just “happen”?

AB — originally posted about 2001

Asimov’s Foundation and the Elusive Future of Technology

For the past couple months I’ve been re-reading Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” science fiction series. Or rather, I’ve been enjoying the series on audio tape while traveling to and from work — a reading technology I could perhaps have imagined but didn’t, when I first read these books about 30 years ago.

In the original trilogy, “Foundation,” “Foundation and Empire” and “Second Foundation,” Asimov’s treatment of technology forces me to reflect on how much our vision of the future is colored by current technology, our own human limitations and the near unpredictability of developments to come.

Asimov wrote his initial three novels in the 1940s and 1950s. The saga is set many thousands of years in the future, after humanity has established a galactic empire. The premise of the story: Scientist Hari Seldon has foreseen that the galactic empire will crumble. To head off the 30,000 years of barbarity that would otherwise result, Seldon sets up a Foundation that will survive the decline and later establish a new (and, we assume, kinder and gentler) galactic empire.

When I read fiction, I always imagine a movie in my mind. Interestingly, when I read the “Foundation” novels, the movie I see doesn’t look like “StarWars” or “Star Trek: Voyager.” It looks more like “Plan Nine From Outer Space” or “Forbidden Planet,” movies of Asimov’s era (and my childhood). Cardboard sets, banks of toggle switches and Bakelite knobs, characters dressed in shiny collar-less tunics.

I suppose the reason might partly be the association of this story with the long-gone days of my own youth. But I think it has more to do with Asimov’s 1950 view of the future and the technology available at the time. His future universe is missing elements that are de rigueur in today’s movies.

The most obvious lack: Here is a galactic civilization that has had hyper-space travel for thousands of years, yet has virtually no computers! Scarcely a mention in the entire first three novels. The computer finally does appear in the sequel, “Foundation’s Edge,” written in the 1970s.

In reality, this isn’t surprising. How many people, even scientists like Asimov, could foresee how vital computers would become in business, industry, transportation, even everyday life, only 50 years later?

One computer-like device that does show up in the trilogy is the Second Foundation’s mysterious Prime Radiant, which is used over the centuries to track the progress of the Seldon Plan for re-establishing civilization. The Prime Radiant makes me think of today’s knowledge bases or collaborative workflow applications.

Another intriguing Foundation technology: The Galactic Lens, a 3D representation of the galaxy. A navigational aid, you can use the Galactic Lens to view any section of the galaxy from any viewpoint.

Nowadays we would use 3D imaging software to create the Galactic Lens. But as with the Prime Radiant, Asimov gives little idea of the underlying technology of the Galactic Lens. I don’t think he knew — he just liked the concept.

Here’s one touch I got a kick out of: When one of Asimov’s scientists has do some calculations, he whips out, not a scientific calculator, but that quintessential geek tool of my youth, the slide rule. Only this is no ordinary slide rule. This new gadget, the result of 20,000 years of nerd evolution, makes the slide rule look in some vague way ‘like a child’s toy.’

Without computers and networks, the communications technology of the trilogy sometimes comes across as amusingly clunky. No electronic messaging, no idea of a paperless office. Messages arrive in capsules, shot through tubes or teleported through hyper-space. When a capsule arrives, the message pops out on a piece of film, which — if it happens to be top-secret, as most are — shortly self-destructs a la “Mission Impossible.”

Young Arkady Darell, heroine of “Second Foundation,” doesn’t have a PC, laptop or PDA, but she does have a transcription machine with voice recognition functionality. Arkady speaks into the machine, and it prints out her words in a fancy calligraphic font. Although Asimov surely had no conception of a personal computer in the days he wrote these books, a form of fax machine had been around for many years, no doubt providing the germ of Arkady’s transcriber.

The sequel, “Foundation’s Edge,” reads much more like contemporary SF. Computers are ubiquitous and often mentioned. Asimov introduces an immersive computing experience leaning toward Gibsonesque cyberspace. The interface is interesting — you merely place your hands on a panel and communicate mentally with the computer, through your hands.

Reading the initial three stories, though, I get an overwhelming feeling that Asimov’s vision was limited by the technology that was current (or at least foreseeable) in his day. This is not in the way of a criticism — that would hardly be fair. In fact, what it does is to force me to think about our own current visions of the future. Surely we are just as much limited by the existing state of technology around us.

For seven years, I’ve listened to self-styled experts pontificate about ‘what the future holds for the Internet,’ and I’ve always thought what a lot of arrogant nonsense it is. When it comes to the Internet, I’ve always resisted the urge to predict longer than about six months into the future. Experience shows that as time goes on and human society gets more complex, the ability to predict the future becomes more and more nearly impossible.

I suppose I can see some trends that look promising. For example, convergence of media as the digital pipelines grow larger. I can also imagine a personal customized knowledge base with ubiquitous access, networked with other knowledge bases, both personal and public. It’s a system that uses artificial intelligence to learn and anticipate my needs and preferences. But there’s nothing surprising there. I certainly didn’t think it up myself. It’s an idea that’s already out there and is based on today’s thinking about the future and where technology is obviously heading.

I can imagine some possible technologies of the future — instantaneous travel by teleportation, time travel, telepathy. I can imagine living forever (although I don’t really think science or technology will be involved in the final solution to the problem of death). Right now, some of the staples of science fiction are genetic engineering, nanotechnology, cyberspace and artificial intelligence.

These are all projections of the future that exist in fiction, in religion, in the popular imagination, in the hopes of people. And no doubt some of them will come about. But even now, as with Isaac Asimov, our vision of the future is tied to what we see around us in the present. Big events and innovations that change our lives come in from left field and surprise us all. What inconceivable developments are just ahead? What profound limitations of vision are we right now laboring under?

We can make guesses, but realistically only some of us will guess only partly right only part of the time. Asimov was one of the better professional guessers of his time, so how far off must we amateurs be?

AB — Originally posted around 2001