Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Oh, Craptcha

Surely, you have at some point or other run into a Captcha image, the distorted word (or other alphanumeric combination) that's meant to be a guard against bots gaining access to somewhere. The idea, of course, is that while these distortions are no problem for a human to decipher (though I've had occasions where I've had to refresh quite a few times before I got something readable enough to confidently punch in), a computer has trouble reading anything even slightly altered, and thus could be stopped just by putting a little bend in the letters and running a line through them, or photocopying a word out of a book or a house number from Google Street View, or something like that. In the process, as people enter in what the book or the house number is saying, that actually helps computers record the contents of those books or images.

There's just one small issue with this, which has just been realized by Google: if you tell a computer what enough distorted images are saying, eventually the computer will become able to read them itself, and then the game is up. Google has created a program that has shown itself capable of 90% accuracy when presented with a Street View house number, and 99.8% accuracy when given "the hardest category" (PDF) of distorted text. This opens up a big ol' security flaw, and Lord knows we've about heard enough of online security risks lately, what with Heartbleed and all.

This is not to say Captcha is going away. Google believes it can patch up the way it works so as to better thwart a bot, which to a degree one would think comes down to taking the images it did miss and doing more of that, but because the percentage is just so high, product manager Vinay Shet is also hinting that it may be less text-based altogether in the future. Perhaps audio makes more of an appearance.

Which will work fine, until Siri learns to actually understand human speech. Then the mental arms race will begin again.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

That's It, Twitter Is Over

Okay, folks, what's Rule #1 about being in an airport? The very first task anyone in the facility knows by heart to fulfill?

That's right. 'Don't make a bomb joke'. Over and above those tiny little details like actually getting on your plane. Even more imperative than that is to not make any wisecracks about bombs or terror threats or anything of the sort. Don't even say the word 'bomb'. Don't even allude to the word 'bomb'. Because if you can't follow that simple rule, the airport people are not going to be happy with you. Aside from things like being interrogated and going to jail, you will miss your plane.

This rule does not stop applying if you are not at the airport. The airport people will also be angry if you merely tweet a bomb joke at them. You might have heard about the case of a 14-year-old girl from Rotterdam, Netherlands identifying herself on Twitter as Sarah (but who will officially be going unidentified due to her age). She tweeted to American Airlines in a joking manner that she was actually a guy named Ibrahim, was a member of Al Qaeda, and would be doing something "really big" on June 1st. She was then shocked- shocked!- when American Airlines tweeted back that they are going to be involving the authorities. And sure enough, Sarah was arrested in Rotterdam this morning and her Twitter account has been suspended and her address already claimed by someone else.

That would have been bad enough. But then came the copycats. In response to this chain of events, what the Washington Post counts as "at least a dozen other people" have made joke bomb threats of their own to American Airlines. I fully expect at least some of these people to also be arrested, if not all of them. Because as we have already established, airlines do not screw around with this. At all. It is standard operating procedure to treat each and every one of the threats they get deadly seriously, because they are sure as hell not about to let a plane get blown up and then try to explain their inaction to grieving families and a grieving nation afterward by going 'well, we thought it was a joke, so we didn't follow up on it'. No no. Not going to happen. You joke about a bomb in front of airport types, you go to jail. The end. They don't give a damn if you're joking.

May we consider this a lesson not to blindly follow everything that looks like it could be turned into a meme? Consider first whether it should.

Jesus Christ. You'd think we wouldn't have to go over this.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Again? Really? We're Doing This Again?

Yes. Yes, we're doing this again. The first two times we've covered this are evidently not enough. You had to know that the Mayan calendar was not going to be the end of the end-of-the-world predictions, but given that we have a blood moon on the horizon- that is just a fancy word for a total lunar eclipse, which will be visible tonight, weather permitting (and here it is not permitting)- that is apparently the signal to drag someone out of the woodwork to predict the End Times. Especially since tonight's eclipse will be the first of a relatively rapid string of four, each occurring at about a six-month interval.

Tonight's Rapture Whack-A-Mole contestant is John Hagee, pastor of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio. This is his second end-of-the-world prediction, which is popularly known as 'one more than you ought to need if you actually have any idea what you're talking about'. Hagee was one of those touting the Mayan-doomsday prediction, and with the world having selfishly refused to explode into a million tiny bits, Hagee is using the eclipses as his rationale to try again. He predicts a window between now and October of next year.

Hagee put a book out in October about this, I should note. I refuse to link to it. Or mention the name of the book. Maybe its sales suck. Also, Cornerstone is a megachurch. That also seems relevant somehow.

In any case, go outside and look at the pretty moon and ignore the whackadoodle making hay of it.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

From The Department Of Nope

Lacking very much time tonight, as I have a short turnaround between shifts at work, I suppose I'll have to satisfy myself by noting the world's latest bout of extreme-sports lunacy: Two-time Everest summitteer Joby Ogwyn, wearing a wingsuit, will be flinging himself off the summit of Mount Everest on May 11, weather permitting. The Discovery Channel will be airing... this... at 9 PM Eastern.

Amazingly, Red Bull appears to have nothing to do with this.

Ogwyn will be aiming for the base camp. Of course, what he's aiming for and what Everest's weather will actually be steering him towards might be two entirely different things. Base camp is situated on a relatively large plateau, so it's not as if he's trying to hit the head of a pin. The problem is really more a matter of will he make it that far without the wind slamming him down into a semi-random part of the mountain where there's every chance he'd end up tumbling down to who knows where. Also, if he has to bail out for some reason, the crow's-flight path from summit to base camp will have him riding a ridge that serves as the border between Nepal and China. If he for whatever reason lands on the Chinese side, that's a whole different set of problems.

Also, there is the tiny little matter of getting up there in the first place. He will not be flown to the summit; he'll have to climb it again to qualify for the jump. And he has one failed attempt alongside his two summits, so him getting up there at all is no guarantee. And when he jumps, he'll be doing so having just climbed Mount Everest immediately beforehand.

Not for a billion-dollar bracket.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Sporcle Wind Sprints

I think it's Sporcle day. Do you think it's Sporcle day? I don't give a damn, because I say it's Sporcle day.

I am presenting you with an empty list of 197 countries. In order to fill it in, you are to tell me a principal language of each of those countries.

There are three minutes on the clock. It was enough for me to score a solid 190.

Or for you math folks out there, I have a challenge for you too: I'd like you to fill in 11 rows of Pascal's Triangle. You will have 90 seconds.

Random News Generator- Kazakhstan

Russia, as you know, is focused on Ukraine, and just how many chunks of it Vladimir Putin can carve out and put into Russia. Sitting due east of Ukraine, across southern Russia proper, you have Kazakhstan. The thought amongst observers is that any section of any former Soviet nation that has a significant ethnic Russian population ought to be worried that they might be next, but that isn't Kazakhstan's only concern right now. The country has a significant oil export business, hampered by Western sanctions against Russia. It's not so much who Kazakhstan is selling to as much as it's about the fact that in order to actually export the oil, it has to run through Russian pipelines controlled by Russian companies and get blended with Russian oil before it reaches the Black Sea.

The oil has to go through somewhere... and the second-best option for Kazakhstan happens to be Iran, an option they are currently considering.

Action by Russia against them, though, is enough of a concern that they're running security drills to be on the safe side. They've also rushed a new law into force, which allows the government to block or shut off a means of electronic communication without a warrant. The government already had this ability; what has changed is they no longer need a warrant to do it. What has also changed is that media reporters are now required to supply government officials with copies of their reports 24 hours prior to broadcast, which gives the government a full day to decide, nope, we don't want this going out and you have to shut down now. The intended purpose here, at least publicly anyway, is to nip any Putin-inspired pro-Russian separatist, independence or annexation talk in the bud before talk turns to action. (Of course, this doesn't prevent in-person gatherings.) Other, similarly reactionary laws are in the pipeline.

How much they'll actually be needed, what effect they'll have, and whether they'll be relaxed or repealed once the danger has passed, remains to be seen.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

IDK Whr Plane Is BRB 4 Frthr News PLZ RT

I have gone on record as saying that I don't concern myself overly much with the exact method of reporting someone does, caring more about its execution. I think there are two rules any journalist must follow:

1. Provide the best understanding of your given topic that you can possibly provide on that day.
2. Under no circumstances should you leave your audience dumber than when they started.

Past that, I leave it up to the individual. There are so many ways to achieve these ends for any given story that I consider journalism to be something of an art form. Rachel Maddow, Nate Silver and Stephen Colbert will report the same story in wildly different fashions, even though all three would be likely to do a good job with it.

There are, however, limits, and CNN, I think, has found one. They've just announced the launch of CNN Digital Studios, intended to provide news more likely to be shared through social media. Among their products will be 'Your 15 Second Morning', a newscast lasting a maximum of 15 seconds intended to be shared via Twitter.

I see no good coming of this. As I just said, reporting is something that can be done in limitless ways. So why artificially impose a limit, and a severe limit at that? You've seen Twitter. Everyone knows of their 140-character limit. Sometimes the message you wish to convey simply requires more than 140 characters to express. When that occasion arises, there are two things one can do: use additional tweets (which defeats the point of the character limit), or truncate the message. To do the latter, you'll start hunting for spare letters or words to cut from the tweet, often to the point where the tweet ends up looking like a text-messaged mess. If you're not willing to do that, you have to start cutting content so that the tweet remains readable. And when content is cut, misunderstandings of the message can easily result, thereby violating Prime Directive #2. Vine videos, limited to six seconds, can see the same thing happen, with videos typically degenerating into a series of rapid-fire jump cuts.

15 seconds isn't going to be much more useful than 6. CNN is going to have to cut useful information out of their reports in order to be able to give them within 15 seconds.

Granted, that presumes that useful information exists in the first place. Another of the announced projects: "Crossfire Reloaded".