Saturday, September 30, 2006

Astrophotographer takes amazing picture

This picture will probaby be all over the Internet soon, but I still think it is worth blogging about here. A French astrophotographer named Thierry Legault took this image using a (serious) hobbyist-grade, ground-based telescope with digital camera attached. We've all been spoiled, maybe even jaded, by the Hubble Space Telescope images in recent years, so it is nice to see Earth-bound telescopes accomplishing amazing things as well. This version is reduced in size, but if you follow the article link (below), you can see an enlarged version that lets you see the Space Shuttle Atlantis and the International Space Station (ISS) against the Sun. It really gives one pause to consider the relative sizes of the objects considering that they are some 93 million miles (150 million km) apart!

Of course, this was not taken with typical mass-produced (Chinese-made) optics mounted in a plastic tube. I haven't seen the specifications of his set-up, but the cost mentioned in the newspaper article (5,000 GBP or a little under 10,000 USD) probably means lambda 6 or better glass (that was tested, not "claimed", to be lambda 6, as some disreputable distributors and manufacturers often do).
Aside: By using lambda in this way, I mean the measure of the wavefront integrity of the light as passes through the telescope. The closer it is to perfect the higher the number is. Lamdas of 1 to 3 are what you expect from mass-produced consumer-grade scopes. Lamda 6 from serious amatuer scopes. Lambda 12 is military grade. And lambda 20 is simply amazing to look through. High lambda telescope optics usually come from Russia, although I have also seen high-quality binocular assemblies from Japan. My comments are based on my personal experience and if you have a different opinion, please speak up as I am always interested in learning more about high-end optics and astronomy.
Taken all together, good quality glass, good quality digital camera, probably some image enhancement (frame averaging), decent weather, perserverence, and a keen interest in astronomy combine to give us this eye-catching image. My congratulations go out to Mr. Legault.

(Image source: the Daily Mail (UK))

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Camera obscura

I am one of those parents who occassionally wishes he could be his own kids some days. My oldest two (boys) went to the local science museum this past weekend and attended a very interesting session on camera obscura (WiKi page here). They even made drawings on tracing paper and transparencies - very cool!

Sigh... and I had to be on business travel (again)...

Tamper detection

How do you tell if audio or video evidence has been tampered with? If protections were built in before hand, such as with watermarking, a CRC (cyclical redundancy check), or hash (e.g. MD5), it is easy. If not, then what? This popular technical media article from CNET on tamper detection for photos (photographs) gives a decent overview.

Lossless Audio Blog

A professional colleague (and friend) in the UK recommended that I check out the following blog: The Lossless Audio Blog. It is described as:
Lossless Audio loss·less au·di·o Pronunciation: 'los-l&s au·di·o Function: adjective 1. occurring or functioning without loss 2. A term describing a data compression algorithm which retains all the information in the data, allowing it to be recovered perfectly by decompression.
I have added it to my own RSS reader just so I won't miss anything. I hope you enjoy it too.

(Hat tip: Greg G)

Recovered video evidence a significant part of a terrorism case

I've posted multiple times about recovered evidence. In summary, it can be the best and the worst evidence - best for value and worst for the quality of what you have to work with. Here is a news report on a case where it plays a significant part in an effort to disrupt terrorist operations.

On an audio/video recording broadcast on TV, the defendent says in Arabic that:

he wants to take revenge for the injustices that Muslims undergo across the entire world. Police found the video tape when he was arrested last October.

The video's message is directed at "the Muslims in Europe, my parents, my brothers in the jails of the despots and the government and people of the Netherlands".

The defendent's words speak for themselves.


A professional colleague (and friend) recommended that I read the Wikipedia page on decibels (dB) - and it is indeed very well done.

(Hat tip: Tom D)

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Study Finds Sharp Drop in the Number of Terrorism Cases Prosecuted

The New York Times has published an article on the results of a study conducted out of Syracuse University that claims to have found a drop in the number of terrorism cases prosecuted in the USA since 2002. The stated causes are a lack of evidence and other legal problems. Not taking at face value what one reads in the newspapers is prudent, particularly in light of recent plagarism, photoshopping, and other incidents, along with the (sometimes acknowledged, but often not) biases of the news media. However, that being said, there are likely some important truths buried in the study and article for those who care to dig for them.

One thing that came to mind while reading the article is that terrorism has created a dilemma for judicial, law enforcement and security agencies alike - how can we 'stop' terrorism? Can we treat it like a typical law enforcement function (i.e. wait until after the crime occurs, collect forensic evidence, investigate, and prosecute)? That fits in with our modern day western ideas of justice, but it means that innocent people die (I am using the term "innocent" in a western context, not in the context used by militant Islam).

If we want to prevent a terrorist act from occurring in the first place, that means that there will be a lot less evidence, by definition. That is where the trouble begins - going to trial (in court and in the media, unfortunately) without gunshot residue on the suspect's hands, so to speak. Instead, the evidence is about possession and conspiracy - which often is not nearly as damning as the aforementioned gunshot residue or, now, DNA is to a general public 'trained' by the CSI television series. But prosecutions based on possession are not a first, by any means - for instance you can't carry a set of lock-picks in the USA unless you are a locksmith (or law enforcement officer trained as such, loosely speaking) or possess child pornography. However, conspiracy is a difficult thing to prove in a court of law; it often looks less convincing to the public, and it gives the defense and its supporters more room to raise doubts about the quality or integrity of the evidence (which is their right, under western-style legal systems). On the other hand, it does increase the chances that an innocent person might be caught up in the web of conspiracy; in the cases where errors may creep in, we trust our system of checks and balances in the judicial process to catch most, if not all, of those. (It is not feasible to implement a "perfect" system, but we do want to get as close to that as practical).

But what else can we do? If we go the intelligence-led disruption route (i.e. we do not try to prosecute and instead focus even earlier in the "chain" on disrupting the cells, networks, and plans in their formative stages), there is even less forensic evidence that will stand up in court. Now we are talking about association, membership, or being a possible threat to the community. That brings with it even more problems than prosecuting cases based on conspiracy and possession. What does the government do then? Deport the suspected terrorist? To where? Most of the places they come from give the civil rights activists apoplexy at the thought of sending them back, but likewise the activists are against detaining them indefinitely instead. I got acousted on the street not long ago by just such an activist, who insisted that detained terrorists who could not be convicted in a western court of law should be released back into the local community at large. My response was to suggest that was a fine idea, as long as he would agree to take them into his own home first.

Now, notwithstanding my attempt at wit, I believe in and respect civil rights and due process. However, I do think it is disingenuous for political activists to ignore the complicated issues involved in disruption operations and the inherent tradeoffs involved. It is just not a serious proposition to release all suspected terrorists - not if they are still considered dangerous by reasonable, informed people - even if it can not be proven in a court of law. What will the public say, and what will the moral culpability of a government be, if they go on to commit acts of violence? "You knew that they could be a danger to the community and you released them?!"

This is probably the right point to note that as a practical matter, we can not simply "eliminate the causes of terrorism", no matter how ideal a solution that may sound like. The lessons of history teach that there will always be someone out there who will take offense at the slightest provocation (intentional or not) to use it as a justification for their actions. If you combine that with Islamist beliefs about the Houses of Islam and War, including the return of all lands formerly under Islam to its dominion, and western decadence, it appears impossible to eliminate the causes of Islamic terrorism through negotiation or appeasement.

Some of the grey-haired wisemen say that the only strategy that will work is a combination of prosecution, where possible, and disruption, where not, to keep things damped down (and thereby minimize the loss of life and limb) until this generation of "militants" grows old enough to mellow out. That may be a pessimistic, alarmist, or overly geo-political observation, but it seems true nonetheless.

Getting back on my earlier train of thought, what does all this mean for forensic evidence? Well, there are some patterns in how forensics has changed in the last several years - computer forensics has become increasingly important, for one thing. Why? Others have said that, besides computers' obvious increasing penetration into every facet of western life, it is because computers are a medium of choice for communication amongst the members of the terrorist networks, their support networks, and religious/political base. So, forensic examiners will go where the evidence is. Expect to hear much more about computer forensics over the coming years, but also expect audio and video forensics to continue to play important roles, even if they aren't the flavour of the day, so to speak. After all, seeing and/or hearing the suspect implicating himself or caught in the act, such as through video-taped last-will-and-testaments and security camera images, is no less convincing evidence today than it was before computers.

A cool generation going deaf?

Here is another article, this time in the New Straits Times, on how the iPod generation is damaging their hearing by playing too loud volumes directly into their ears (using earbuds). I've blogged on this subject myself before, but the whole story is not being told - the ear has a self-protection mechanism built in. The stapes (one of the three bones of the middle ear) can actually pull back (decouple) from the cochlea (the inner ear) in response to loud sounds, thereby protecting it from damage. Unfortunately, this protection mechanism degrades as we age, so it functions best when we are young (and stupid). I'm not aware that the degree of protection has been thoroughly mapped against age, but it may be that a late-teenager or young twenty-something can get away with listening to some rock-and-roll at loud volumes but I wouldn't recommend it for anyone older, and that includes aging hippies - that would be just asking for trouble.

What do Mozart, Beethoven and Steve Vai have in common?

Music and, it appears, a positive influence on brain function. Predictably, after all the hype about the Mozart Effect from a few years ago, some researchers wanted to see if the effect could be replicated with rock music. So, they ran a study comparing the problem solving efficiencies of students while listening to silence, Beethoven, and Steve Vai (for those who haven't had the good fortune to come across him, he is an incredibly talented instrumental rock guitarist).

Here is a quote from Dr Leigh Riby, who, along with George Caldwell (both cognitive psychologists at Glasgow Caledonian University) performed the study:
What we found was surprising. While classical music appears to have an effect on everybody, we also found that there is a significant effect on people exposed to their favourite type of music.
The study results were published in the current edition of Consciousness and Cognition, the science journal. You can read a newspaper write-up here.

Hear the Sun Sing

Standford University has an interesting site on the Internet regarding helioseismology, which is the study of the Sun using sound (pressure) waves. To accomplish this, images are captured of the Sun's surface; the movements of the surface are extracted and converted to audio signals; and, finally, the signals are filtered and analyzed to determine things about the internal structure and dynamics of the Sun. One neat thing that comes out of it is that you can listen to the filtered audio signals - a technologically derived "music of the spheres". It takes the poetry out of the whole process but it can still be beautiful in its own (geeky) way.

This humorous quote caught my eye:
So, like seismologists who study earthquakes, helioseismologists study "quakes" on the sun. Their job is a bit like figuring out how a piano was put together by listening to it fall down the stairs!
The site is by the Stanford Solar Center; information and audio files can be found here.

(Hat tip: ICAD mailing list, run by the International Conference on Auditory Display)

Monday, September 04, 2006

Effects of 9/11 on small technical-security businesses

This article basically gets it right judging by what I have seen - in short, if you were not providing computers, communications, or x-ray screening products, then you didn't see much in the way of increased purchases of tech-sec products after 9/11, at least in the USA.

I believe that I can actually generalize even further based on my (admittedly unscientific) polling of tech-sec product companies by saying that 9/11 vacuumed up budgets to pay for extra personnel-related charges (e.g. overtime pay) and to procure screening equipment (e.g. the aforementioned x-ray machines). The confusion that resulted from merging lots of componets into the new DHS (Department of Homeland Security) further locked up RD&E as well as Production procurement budgets, most of which have not returned to pre-9/11 levels for the many small businesses across the USA. Finally, the major security-defense contractors got big integration contracts, which pulled even more money from small tech-sec businesses.

So, contrary to popular belief, the last few years were not kind to small businesses in this field. The good news for them is that it looks like this situation is changing.

(Author's note: edited for clarity after initial post - blogging on too little sleep!)

Specialy careers in forensics

Here is a link to a short article in the Lousiville (Kentucky) Courier-Journal on forensic careers in state and local law enforcement organizations. Here are the high-points of the article:

The Louisville Metro Police Department employs about a dozen forensic experts in its Evidence Technician Squad, Computer Forensics and Analysis Squad, and Video Forensics and Analysis Squad.

The average annual salary for the department's evidence technicians is about $39,700, said Officer Dwight Mitchell, a Louisville Metro Police spokesman.

Forensic experts are also employed by the state of Kentucky with salaries ranging from about $75,000 for a forensic scientist specialist to about $175,000 for a chief medical examiner.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Using video technology to assist with tunnel vision

Tunnel vision is a debilitating side-effect for some sufferers of glaucoma and RP (retinitis pigmentosa). Scientists at the Schepens Eye Research Institute, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, have been trying to help these sufferers by overlaying processed video images on top of what would normally be seen. The device they have invented consists of a miniature camera, pocket-sized computer and transparent computer display mounted on a pair of eye glasses (see image above). The video is rendered at 30 frames a second to provide full-motion images. The processed image that is overlayed is a wider field-of-view image that only shows outlines of objects (obtained by filtering with an edge-detection algorithm)(see image below).

To view a video (avi or mov) follow this link to the Harvard web site. The Schepens press release is here.

(Hat-tip: Science Daily)
(Image sources: Graham Ramsey photo on Schepens web site and Science Daily)