Friday, June 25, 2010

Serendipitous collisions

A really good idea is nothing more than the collision of a problem with a solution.

When the timing of that collision is just-right, wonderful things happen and a lot of money can be made.

A great example of this is a BNZ employee who was tasked with the job of thwarting the activities of card "skimmers" -- those evil little sods who secretly read the magnetic strip on your EFTPOS or credit card then transfer it onto a blank card so as to effectively create a perfectly functional clone.

Possibly because New Zealand has been rather late to the part on implementing chip-based cards, New Zealand has become a popular place for card skimmers to ply their trade. A while back there was a spate of ATMs which had been covertly fitted with card-skimmers and tiny cameras to catch not only the data on a card's magnetic stripe but also the PIN number used to access that card.

Shortly after this, banks fitted "anti-skimming" devices to their ATMs which were designed to thwart the simple devices being used by skimmers. Sometimes these work but reportedly, sometimes they don't. Besides which, there have been plenty of other ways in which those intent on capturing the gold hidden in your card's magnetic strip can obtain that data.

Well the nice man at BNZ was puzzling how to overcome card-skimming until such time as all Kiwis were using chipped plastic and came up with a really bright idea...

Why not alter the information each time the card is used -- effectively creating a digital fingerprint on the card that was changed after each transaction?

Sheer brilliance -- so long as the card reader was also a writer.

It means that each time the card is used, its fingerprint is compared with the one on file and if they don't match then it's clear that the card is a clone which is now a transaction or two out of date. What's more, even if the card skimmers get in first and make a transaction before the bonafide cardholder, he will be alerted when his own card is rejected at the next point of sale or ATM.

The idea was patented and now this chap's praises are being sung far and wide by the media. Well the NZ media anyway.

Now I bet a fair number of people reading this are saying to themselves "I could have thought of that, it's so simple". The truth is that yes, most of us could have though of it -- but we didn't. That's why this chap is a minor celebrity and stands to make a handsome amount of money from licensing, whereas the rest of us don't.

Now there are other problems that exist in the world for which a good solution is worth gold.

Take the problems BP are facing over their leaky well in the Gulf of Mexico.

Apparently there are tens of thousands of good ideas flooding in (via the web) to BP's troubleshooters. In fact, reports indicate that there are just too many ideas being submitted by optimistic "ideas guys" and BP simply don't have the time or resources to check out the viability of them all (come on, if they spent enough money they could).

Amongst those ideas are a few Kiwi ones which, on the surface of it, seem pretty good.

I wonder if they'll turn out to be as lucky as the guy from the BNZ.

There's a belief that everyone has a million-dollar idea at least once in their lives. The difference between those who make a million and those who don't is usually down to actually recognising the value of that idea and having it at the right moment in time.

Unfortunately, for the vast majority of us, we may have the idea but the timing and ability to leverage it into cash is never quite there.

In the meantime, let's hope that clever Kiwis continue to have those good ideas and, at least a few of us have the abiilty to turn those clever ideas into large amounts of cash.

Congratulations to the guy from the BNZ. I hope is idea makes him very wealthy and provides us with valuable extra protection against card skimmers.

Friday, June 18, 2010

A nice gesture

I wrote a while back about how there was some biffo going on between Apple and other companies over the use of "gestures" such as "pinching" and "stretching" on the iPad/iPod/iPhone touch-screens. Apple consider this their exclusive patented intellectual property and are keen to stop others from infringing it.

However, if the gear demonstrated at the recent E3 game symposium in the USA is any indicator, Apple's technology is already "so last year" and things are changing in the world of man/machine interface at an ever-increasing pace.

The big news was the Microsoft Kinect system, a powerful new interaction technique that actually relies on non-contact gestures to instruct a computer (in this case a games console) what to do.

Using a camera and some smart software, the Kinect system watches the player and converts not only their hand and arm gestures but even entire body movements into commands. Clearly this is great for gaming but it's already being touted as a "Minority Report" style interface for other IT applications.

The only problem being reported so far is that it doesn't work very well (or even at all) if you try to use it while sitting down in front of the screen. Apparently it currently relies on sensing the entire outline of a human figure in order to identify the various motions which are then converted to commands. Microsoft are said to be working on an enhancement to the software that will overcome this shortcoming.

So where to now for Kinect?

Will we see the cameras on our mobile phones being used to interpret gestures so that, in order to create email, select phone-numbers or perform other operations, we don't even have to touch the screen?

Will laptops recognize the frown on our faces when we make a mistake and automatically activate the "undo" function to restore a smile?

I guess that at this stage, nobody knows for sure -- but the incredibly short span of time has passed between the appearance of body-gesturing as science-fiction in Minority Report and the arival of Kinect hints that there may be even more exciting ways to interact with your computer, just around the corner.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The importance of your "private" email address

If you go back a few short decades, email addresses were things used by only a select few academics.

What point was their in having an email address when there was no ubiquitous communications network to transfer your messages anyway?

These days of course, everyone has at least one email address and usually several.

If you're smart you have public and private addresses. The public ones you use whenever you might expect them to be published or fall into the hands of spammers. Typically these are with web-based services such as GMail, Hotmail or Yahoo. Who cares if their servers are flooded with spam anyway?

Your private address(es) however, are things that should be guarded with much more care.

Private email addresses must be chosen carefully, so as to ensure their longevity and to avoid coinciding with guesses made by spammers. These addresses are best associated with your own domain name rather than your ISP or other domains that are beyond your control.

Many a Net-user has found themselves "disconnected" from regular contacts after an ISP folds or a minor web-based service has gone belly-up without warning -- effectively taking all the email addresses that depended on their domain name with them.

If you must use a web-based service for your "private" email addresses it's always a good idea to use cryptic or non-obvious names. Opting for an obvious name such as will net you a mountain of spam almost immediately, as will -- even if those addresses are available. Make your private email address long and cryptic. fftw99skvm.ppj@... is a good example, nobody's going to guess that one!

Now imagine you've gone to all the trouble of creating and protecting a nice "private" email address. The benefits are manifold...

Your intray is devoid of spam and you only get messages from people you consider to be important. What's more, you don't have to worry about genuinely important messages getting caught up in your spam filters, because you won't need spam filters.

Many important people (such as the rich and famous) rely on their private email addresses being kept secret. Without that secrecy, email would be virtually useless to them -- constantly clogged with messages from people they don't know and don't want to know.

Now imagine how you'd feel if, despite your careful planning and best efforts, that secret/private email address fell into the hands of hackers and became part of goodness knows how many spam-mailing lists.

Well spare a thought for iPad users in the USA who encountered exactly this problem last week when a stuff-up at US mobile provider AT&T saw a huge number of email addresses harvested by spammers.

How did they do it?

Well they discovered that by submitting the ID number of an iPad through a carefuly created script, the telco's system returned the email address associated with that iPad.

Amongst those who lost their highly valued "private" email addresses to spammers were the likes of film producers, Microsoft and Apple executives, publishers, high-ranking military officers and a whole host of others who'd rather not be named.

Right now, these folk are facing a tsunami of spam directed at those previously secret email addresses and chances are that they're having to create new addresses and advising all those affected about the change. It's a hugely expensive and annoying situation to be in.

If this proves anything, it shows that the more complex and sophisticated our technology becomes, the more fragile it can also be. Years of time and effort spent carefully protecting an email address from spam can be negated in the few milliseconds it takes for hackers to exploit a vulnerability in that complex technology.

Perhaps it also shows that being an early adopter is not without its risks.

In the meantime, it might pay to start creating a backup "private" email address, for when the inevitable happens.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Hi-tech weapons, a growing market

There's one thing that drives advances in technology faster than anything else -- it's armed conflict and, in particular, full-blown war.

Fields such as electronics and aviation absolutely rocketed ahead (no pun intended) during WW2 and the cold-war that followed.

Within the space of a few short years we saw the invention and widespread use of the jet engine, the invention and application of practical rocket technology, plus the arrival and development of radar and other radio-based navigational aids.

Even computing was given a giant kick in the pants with the need for devices such as the Colossus, arguably the world's first electronic computer.

It seems that even when funding dwindles for other forms of research, there's always plenty of cash available for the design, development and improvement of superior weapons.

So where are we up to with all these hi-tech weapons?

Well it's common knowledge that GPS and terrain-guided cruise missiles are currently the "state of the art" in arms technology. They can deliver anything up to and including a nuclear payload to targets which may be hundreds or even more than a thousand kilometres from the launch-point.

There are also a whole lot of new non-lethal weapons now being developed. These are specifically designed to deal with civil unrest, riots and non-military conflicts where disabling people is seen to be more acceptable than killing them stone dead.

One example of this is the Taser device now available to police. A small pyrotechnic charge propels a couple of darts, trailing wires, over a relatively short distance where they will puncture a target's clothing and skin to deliver a (usually) non-lethal electric shock. The original basic Taser model has now been augmented by hi-tech add-ons such as a laser-sight and an automatic video camera that records the events immediately leading up to and following its deployment.

Another proposed piece of hi-tech disablement weaponry are electromagnetic pulse weapons. These are designed, not to disable people, but vehicles and other electronic devices.

Right now the US government is considering a request to place EMP weapons along the USA's border with Mexico so as to try and control the flow of illegal immigrants. Other calls have been made for such devices to become a standard part of highway patrol equipment -- effectively replacing stop-sticks and other low-tech methods of disabling fleeing vehicles.

However, when it comes to controlling or disabling crowds of people rather than individuals, things get even more interesting, once a bit of high-technology is applied to the problem.

The Israelis are trialling a "sonic cannon" that uses intense soundwaves to disable and disorient crowds without causing permanent injury.

The US military have built and trialled what amounts to portable microwave-ovens that can bathe a crowd of enemy soldiers or rioters in a beam of radio frequency energy powerful enough to cause an intense burning sensation that forces them to flee the area.

These are just some of the latest hi-tech weapons systems that we know about. No doubt there are many more which remain classified and may be even more interesting in their application of science to the vexing issue of defending a nation or keeping the peace.

And to think, at one time, all we had to defend ourselves or attack others with were our fists and maybe a rock or tree-branch.

Isn't science wonderful?

Maybe this time, not so much.