The search for MH370 March 12, 2014Posted by Cameron Shelley in : Uncategorized , add a comment
I noted yesterday that there is very limited capacity to track aircraft, like MH370, once they have set out over the open ocean. This limitation means that there is not much information that can be used to direct the ongoing search for the missing plane.
Reports that military radar showed the plan changing course in mid-flight have been contradicted by the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF). So, it appears that military surveillance will not provide any tracking data in addition to what already exists from civilian sources.
Some additional data from the plane have been dug up, however. The Boeing jet was equipped with Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), whose purpose is to provide maintenance data to engineers on the ground in order to track equipment performance. Malaysian Airlines has not acknowledged that they have received any useful information (or any at all) from this source. However, Rolls Royce, the maker of the plane’s engines, received two reports from the plane about its engines. Those reports were transmitted on take-off and during ascent. The engines are also programmed to report in during mid-flight and landing but no such reports are on record.
It is not clear yet whether or not this data would be useful for the search.
The search does continue and has been intensified. As noted in a Wired report, much of the search involves aircraft crews looking out of windows or doors at the surface of the sea, trying to spot debris. In the absence of specific data about the course and fate of flight MH370, the deployment of the searchers follows a generic search pattern.
However, searching is also being carried out in armchairs across the globe. US satellite company DigitalGlobe has organized a search through recent satellite imagery of the region. People with Internet access can aid the search by looking through pieces of these images for debris, a virtual version of what airmen in the region are doing.
Interest in this task is high and has actually resulted in overloading of DigitalGlobe’s servers.
Efforts to crowdsource search through satellite imagery go back at least to the effort organized by Amazon to find the wreckage of Steve Fossett’s aircraft in 2007, which ended without success. It seems that locating wreckage from the plane will depend not on high-tech sleuthing but on simply getting enough eyeballs to bear on the surface of the sea.
The disappearance of flight MH370 March 11, 2014Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Malaysia Flight M370 disappeared sometime between its take-off in Kuala Lumpur on March 8, and its scheduled arrival in Beijing later that same day. The plane, a Boeing 770-200, ceased all contact with the ground after reaching its assigned cruising speed and altitude.
(Boeing 777-200ER Malaysia AL (MAS) 9M-MRO – MSN 28420/404, now lost; courtesy of Luccio ERRERA/Wikimedia commons)
A large, international effort is underway to locate the aircraft. Malaysian authorities have set up a control center to coordinate search activities. Chinese authorities have contributed eight vessels, with more underway. The US has dispatched a Lockheed Martin P-3C long-range search plane from Okinawa, and a guided-missile destroyer equipped with two helicopters.
So far, no sign of the missing plane has been found.
As pointed out in this Wired article, it may seem strange that a whole airliner could just disappear without a trace today. For one thing, no distress message was received. However, this situation might be expected in the event of a sudden emergency:
There was no indication anything was amiss. This is not terribly unusual, because a flight crew’s first priority in an emergency is dealing with the situation at hand. “Aviate, navigate, then communicate” is the mantra. Airline pilot and blogger Patrick Smith says the radio silence “doesn’t startle me.”
“It’s actually uncommon for there to be a distress message,” he said. “It goes one of two ways. The first is something happens so catastrophically and so suddenly that there wasn’t time for it. Secondly, crews are trained so that communicating with the ground is secondary to dealing with whatever urgency is at hand.”
Also, the flight took place over the open ocean, the South China Sea to be more exact. Although most landmasses are covered fulsomely by radar, the same is not true of the sea where large tracts are not under civilian surveillance. Since the vast majority of air traffic is uneventful, there has been no reason to go to the trouble of establishing ubiquitous coverage. Of course, military radars might be a different story.
Finally, the plane’s GPS system records its location but does not transmit that information anywhere. So, the plane probably tracked its own location but did not alert anyone else. That information might become available when or if the flight data recorders are recovered.
Without much in the way of tracking, it is difficult for authorities to narrow down the search area. Also, finding things on or in oceans is much more difficult than on land, even with advanced remote sensing equipment. As a result, the search promises to be difficult.
I suppose, then, that one of the disturbing aspects of this incident is the reminder that the technology we use to track things is designed for our familiar, terrestrial environment. It does not extend well to the sea.
Superhuman music March 10, 2014Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV205, STV302 , add a comment
New Scientist has an interesting piece on Jason Barnes, the “cyborg drummer”. Barnes lost the lower portion of his right arm in an accident, but did not give up his goal of being a drummer.
After enrolling at the Atlanta Institute of Music and Media, Barnes met Gil Weinberg, a roboticist at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Weinberg’s lab has built a number of music-playing robots and they collaborated on a robot arm for Barnes that would allow him to play the drums.
It appears that they have succeeded!
In fact, Barnes is able to play in a way that would not be possible for an unaugmented human drummer. It will be interesting, then, to find out how Barnes chooses to use his prosthesis and how his performances will be received.
This situation is not without precedent. Of course, Weinberg’s robots are able to play instruments in ways that human players could not. Further back in history, a number of composers have created music especially for automated instruments. For example, Conlon Nancarrow composed pieces for the player piano. These pieces were often beyond the ability of humans to play, with effects that can be striking. Have a listen!
Both situations remind us of how our conception of music depends on the instruments that are available to produce it. In the past, instruments have been played by direct manipulation of the player. With the advent of robotic instruments or appendages, music can now be produced through programming. How will that affect what counts as music?
Thermal imaging and police search February 28, 2014Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
A nice little item on NPR highlights how legal standards can be challenged by developments in technology. In this case, the development is the design of consumer thermal imaging devices.
(Black Hills Thermal Imaging/Wikimedia commons)
A company called FLIR Systems is about to market a thermal imaging system for the iPhone that will cost under $350. The system attaches to the phone and allows it to display a false-colour image showing hot and cool surfaces in front of the camera. The system has a number of consumer applications, such as spotting water leaks behind walls, or signs of fever in children.
Whatever people might choose to do with it, it could make thermal imaging a normal capability that people in American society would have.
As the article points out, this possibility relates to some Supreme Court rulings restricting the use of thermal imaging by police. In one case, the US Supreme Court ruled that police who had located a marijuana grow op using thermal imaging gear to spot heat lamps had conducted an “unreasonable search” under the terms of the US Constitution. Their reasoning centered on the oddity of the thermal equipment used:
“Where … the government uses a device that is not in general public use, to explore details of the home that would previously have been unknowable without physical intrusion, the surveillance is a Fourth Amendment ’search’ and is presumptively unreasonable without a warrant,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia.
Probably, you can guess the problem here. What if thermal imaging devices become household items? In that event, the use of such things by police could no longer be considered an extraordinary measure.
So, is it now open season for police searches using thermal imaging? Not yet, but much depends on how people choose to use this new capability. As it is, even people with such gear would, I think, tend to refrain from applying it to spy on others in their own homes. I imagine that people’s interest in their own privacy would motivate them to maintain the current social contract in which prying into people’s property, even where possible, is not pursued. If people tend to refrain from such practices, then police use of thermal imaging for that purpose would still be considered “unreasonable.”
Of course, if the next iteration of Google Street View includes thermal images, then expectations may change.
Doping at Sochi February 24, 2014Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed
The Sochi Winter Olympics are now over, topped off by a commanding win by the Canadian Men’s Hockey team over Sweden.
In another way, though, the Sochi Games will continue for years. By that, I mean that samples collected from athletes will continue to be tested for signs of illegal doping.
As of Sunday, 23 February, the number of positive tests from the Sochi Games had grown to six. Briefly, here is the list:
- Swedish hockey player Nicklas Backstrom tested positive for psueudoephedrine. However, an NHL press release states that it is merely an ingredient in an allergy medication that Backstrom takes regularly and that is not banned by the NHL. Nevertheless, Backstrom did not play in the final game against Canada.
- Austrian cross-country skier Johannes Duerr tested positive for EPO, which he has admitted using. The incident reflects badly on the Austrian team, which was caught up in a doping scandal in Torino.
- Latvian hockey player Vitalijs Pavlovs tested positive for methylhexaneamine, a stimulant, after Latvia’s game with Canada. Pavlovs claims that he consumed the substance unknowingly in a food supplement. In any event, the IOC has retroactively thrown him out of the Games.
- Ukrainian cross-country skier Marina Lisogor tested positive for trimetazidine, a stimulant. She claims not to have knowingly consumed the substance but has been ejected anyway.
- Italian bobsledder William Frullani has been ejected from the Games after testing positive for the stimulant dimetylpentylamine, a common component in nasal decongestants. He had not yet competed when the positive test was announced.
- German biathlete Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle tested positive for the stimulant methylhexanamin. Sachenbacher-Stehle protests that she did not knowingly consume the banned substance. German magazine Bild speculates that it may have been present in a special “mood tea” consumed by Sachanbacher-Stehle, given to her by a “mental trainer”, who is not connected with the national team.
As testing continues, more cases may emerge.
Indeed, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) keeps samples from Olympic competitions for 10 years (recently increased from 8 years) in case it can apply new testing techniques to past samples. It appears that WADA is already re-testing samples from the Vancouver and Torino Winter Olympics. A retired Estonian skier is already protesting a positive test from the Torino Games, for example.
Looking ahead, there are more doping techniques that may be banned in coming years. Perhaps the most curious involves xenon, one of the “noble” gases. It appears that athletes can gain a performance advantage from inhalation of a mixture of xenon and oxygen, just for a few minutes before bed. One effect of this procedure is to raise levels of the hormone EPO, which stimulates production of red blood cells. More red blood cells increases oxygen-carrying capacity, thus enhancing performance, especially in endurance sports.
The article in the Economist notes that this treatment appears to have been in use by Russian athletes since the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. Who else might be using it remains unclear.
Also unclear is whether or not the IOC will ban it. The resemblance of the technique to doping with EPO suggests that it should be banned. However, it is also similar to the use of low-oxygen tents to increase EPO levels in the body, which is allowed by the IOC. Former WADA President Richard Pound regards it as cheating:
Let us realize without doubt that this is doping and it is impossible to say in this process that the rules are not clear.
Current President Craig Reedie says that the matter will be taken up at WADA’s next meeting.
Curling tech February 21, 2014Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Canada has met with great success in curling competition in the Sochi Games. To me (not a curler), it looks like a fairly simple matter of sliding some stone down a strip of ice, a sort of glazed version of shuffleboard. However, there are hidden, high-tech aspects to the game.
For example, each curling stone (or “rock”) is equipped with “Eye on the hog” technology. Each handle contains an electronic circuit designed to sense a magnetic strip buried under the ice at the “hog line”. This line marks the point before which the curler must release the stone on its way down the rink. If the stone is released before crossing the line, then a green LED is lit. If not, a red LED lights up. (You can see a nice animated graphic of the situation here.) In the past, judges had to stare across the hog line on each throw to determine its legality. Now, the technology does the work.
The “Eye on the hog” technology originated a the University of Saskatchewan but is now owned by a Chicago company called Littelfuse.
Curling brooms have also come a long way. In the old days, curling brooms resembled the corn brooms that were once common in kitchens. Today, curlers “sweep” with brushes made from hollow tubes of fibreglass or carbon fibre, with bristles of hog or horse-hair.
Also, since shortly before the Vancouver Games, the brush heads contain a strip of reflective material. This strip helps to reflect heat generated by the brushing motion back towards the ice surface, where it does the most good. In fact, the introduction of this design was motivated by the work of Tom Jenkyn, professor of Kinesiology and Engineering at Western University in Ontario:
For decades, perhaps centuries, curlers believed when they swept, they melted the ice ever so slightly and that allowed the rocks to travel farther and curl less.
“What actually happens is that infrared heat photons warm the ice,” Jenkyn said.
“Those photons are created and travel off in all directions as you sweep. We discovered that by putting a reflective device in the broom head, a lot more of those photons would be redirected back onto the ice, thereby increasing the heat.”
Although some critics regarded the new brush design as “trickery”, it has been widely adopted.
Finally, curling has adopted the methods of “big data”:
“Most top teams are using some sort of statistical package to analyze each player, the whole team, the other team, for shooting percentages as well as game-plan execution,” says [US curler, John] Benton. “These packages have become extremely detailed in what is tracked and how. Much more than simple shooting percentages.”
Like baseball, curling seems like a sport ripe for data analytics. It depends on strategic decision making and unfolds slowly enough that statistical analysis can be deployed in the course of the game itself. “Moneyball”, meet curling!
So, although curling seems to be a simple endeavour conceptually, it too has seen its share of technological innovation. What lies in store for the future? I’m guessing autonomous stones!
Sochi security February 20, 2014Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
One prominent display of technology at the Sochi Olympics has been security. Naturally, much of the visible security has come in the form of metal detectors and men with guns. Initially intrusive, attendees of the Games have noted that the use of these technologies has let up somewhat over the course of the proceedings:
Ahead of the games, guards at security stations around Olympic Park and in the nearby mountains carefully checked every bag, car and body. Some visitors with food were forced to eat it before passing through the gates.
In recent days, however, visitors have made it through metal detectors with coins, keys, watches, belts and credit cards. The metal detector at one well-visited hotel on the Sochi shore doesn’t appear to be used at all — and when a visitor offered to have her bag checked, she was waved past.
There has been little trouble from terrorists so far, despite threats by Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov calling for attacks on the Games. Of course, that does not count the suicide attack on Volgograd last December.
And how should we count the tour of Sochi just finished by protest band Pussy Riot, a tour that included a public flogging by Cossacks using horsewhips?
In addition, the group was accosted by hecklers who waved dead chickens at the women and chanted “We like sex with chickens.” Why?
The chickens were apparently a reference to a 2010 stunt carried out by Voina, a radical art collective to which some Pussy Riot members previously belonged, in which a participant stole a whole raw chicken from a supermarket and inserted it into her vagina.
One of the hecklers, Sergei Balashov, claimed that the group had just been walking past by chance, and denied that they were ordered to disrupt the press conference. “We happened to be walking, and have the chickens with us, which was very lucky,” he said. “Everything in Sochi is brilliant, it’s a great place to live, we don’t need these people protesting here.”
The man in the chicken costume said: “We don’t like people who have sex with food. We don’t want them here.”
What does one say to this?
In any event, the band topped off its tour by releasing a sardonic video entitled, “Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland,” which you can see below. Well, where there is control, there will be resistance.
Of course, not all surveillance technology has been in plain sight. For instance, Russian officials implied that they had video cameras secreted in the hotels rooms of guests:
Dmitry Kozak, the deputy prime minister responsible for the Olympic preparations, seemed to reflect the view held among many Russian officials that some Western visitors are deliberately trying to sabotage Sochi’s big debut out of bias against Russia. “We have surveillance video from the hotels that shows people turn on the shower, direct the nozzle at the wall and then leave the room for the whole day,” he said. An aide then pulled a reporter away before Mr. Kozak could be questioned further on surveillance in hotel rooms.
A spokesman later denied that cameras were secreted in the guest rooms.
Surveillance at the Games is not limited to cameras. A good report from the CBC notes that security measures include Deep Packet Inspection technology that allows authorities to track who is communicating electronically with whom, where, and what they are saying:
In short, Soldatov explained to CBC News, every phone call, every email, every social media message in Sochi will be accessible, traceable by Russia’s Federal Security Service — the FSB — the organization in charge of securing the Olympics.
Probably, officials use the technology mostly not to intercept terrorists but to listen in on the plans of protestors. Perhaps this attentiveness explains why the Sochi has been quiet enough that the metal detectors seem to have lost their lustre.
Sochi memes February 19, 2014Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
One popular item concerns lists of crashes at the games. As noted in this collection of pictures from Fox News, anyone who has ever fallen on a pair of skis or skates can probably enjoy some Schadenfreude while viewing pictures of Olympian wipeouts. To be honest, it sometimes seems amazing that any of the athletes get to the finish line intact.
Users of Photoshop have also been busy with photos of the Games. Perhaps the most curious example of the genre is the set of pictures generated from shots of pairs ice skating where the male partner has been removed. Check it out! There is certainly something peculiar in seeing women twirling in mid-air while apparently levitating over the ice.
As usual, the Web site KnowYourMeme is a fund of images in celebration of the weirder side of life online. That goes double for Sochi!
My sentimental favourite would have to be this animated GIF of Canadian Nordic ski coach Justin Wadsworth replacing a broken ski for Russian skier Anton Gafarov. The replacement allowed Gafarov to finish the race with some dignity after his own ski broke.
The incident recalls the time when Norwegian coach Bjørnar Håkensmoen gave Canadian skier Sara Renner a pole to replace one that had snapped in half in the Torino Olympics in 2006. The donation helped her to win the silver medal. It is always pleasing to see good sportsmanship on display.
Of course, another perspective on sportsmanship in skiing is offered by this little GIF of the biathlon event.
Obviously, this sort of thing does not happen often!
Perhaps the most famous meme from the Sochi Games will be the expression of disappointment on the face of American skater Ashley Wagner as she learns her score in the team competition.
Indeed, this face has become a prolific meme. It also recalls the meme from the London Olympics of the sour expression on the face of Makayla Maroney after snagging only a silver medal in gymnastics. Will Ashley Wagner’s “Angry Face” outdistance “Makayla’s Not Impressed”? I assume that if it does not, Ashley will remain angry and if it does, Makayla will remain unimpressed.
Valentines Day at Sochi February 14, 2014Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
As it is both Valentine’s Day and the end of the first week of the Sochi Winter Olympics, it seems appropriate to comment on love Olympic style.
The Olympics, it has long been acknowledged, are a venue where a great deal of love occurs. That this should be so is not surprising: Elite athletic competition is a stressful endeavor and, when it is all done, the need to unwind is compelling. In a village crammed full of other Olympians in the same situation, hookups are bound to occur.
Knowing this, officials have provided over 100,000 condoms, all for around 3,000 athletes.
Of course, Olympians, as a particularly fit and conditioned group of people, might seem especially attractive. Some are even willing to share. For example, US skier Julia Mancuso recently posed for racy photos for GQ magazine, and Lebanese skier Jacky Chamoun is taking some heat for topless photos she did for a calendar three years ago.
In line with the highly wired nature of the Sochi Games, Olympic athletes have been using the Tinder app to arrange for hook-ups. The app works very efficiently: Instead of reading wordy biographies of potential dates, Tinder simply displays pictures of other users in the immediate vicinity. All the user has to do is swipe left for “no” or right for “yes”.
If that seems a little too modern, then People Magazine has posted some cute old fashioned paper cut-out Valentine cards that Olympians might use to send each other little missives.
I should finish by noting that romance at the Games is not dead. Witness the fascination of the media in covering Canadian skater Charles Hamelin. He and girlfriend (and fellow skater) Marianne St-Gelais enjoyed a spontaneous smooch after Hamelin’s victory in the men’s 500m in Vancouver 2010. After Hamelin’s gold medal performance in the men’s 1500m in Sochi, St-Gelais was on hand again for another kiss. And the media was on the alert to broadcast the event, giving it at least as much play as the win.
Perhaps, in the midst of all the technological trappings of the Olympiad, it helps to humanize the event.
Sochi Olympics coverage February 13, 2014Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Although social media has highlighted, among other things, some of the issues with venues at the Sochi Games, I would have to say that the media coverage of the events has been engaging and trouble-free. And that is saying something, as the Sochi Olympics is the most data-intensive games yet held.
This piece from the BBC outlines the challenges that have faced organizers. It notes, for example, that many of the things in the games are being tracked. For example, each bobsleigh contains a package that senses the sleigh’s speed, acceleration, G-forces, and altitude on the course, and relays the data in real time back to a central server. Officials may use the data to scrutinize the conduct of the events and media networks can use the data in their coverage of them.
As you might imagine, the weight of each tracking unit was an important consideration. Designers managed to get each unit down to 300g, a weight that does not, I suppose, affect the performance of the sleigh.
This tidbit also suggests the importance of wireless communications in the Sochi Olympics. Indeed, the demands to provide and service wireless devices is much higher even than in the Vancouver Olympics:
At the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, the ratio of wired to wireless devices was four-to-one, according to Dean Frohwerk, head of networking architecture for Avaya, an official IT Olympic Partner providing services to the 40,000 officials, athletes, journalists and support staff at the Games.
“At Sochi this has reversed,” he says. “We made provision for up to 120,000 bandwidth-hungry devices on site per day, equivalent to three gadgets per person.”
Atos, the company that has been handling the integration of all the communications and data systems in Sochi, has been planning and preparing for the event for five years. So far, the system appears to have worked without a hitch.
Another interesting aspect of the media technology at Sochi is the use of drones to obtain camera coverage of certain events. It appears that drones are being used to obtain footage of outdoor events, especially skiing and slope-style snowboarding. Drones can get close to the action without requiring an intrusive physical footprint, and are usually quiet enough not to disturb competition. Plus, using a drone is much cheaper than hiring a film crew and helicopter.
There are potential problems with the use of drones. For example, one might crash into the crowd or even the competition. Also, drones could be hacked and taken over by malefactors over the Internet. However, these risks are evidently thought to be minimal.
A truly dizzying perspective on the events in Sochi can be gained from space. It seems that some NASA satellites and even folks aboard the International Space Station have taken pictures of the city from orbit during the games. For example, here is a false-colour image of Sochi at night, taken from the NASA Goddard Flickr feed.
(NASA Goddard Photo and Videostream/Flickr.com)
Interestingly, not all the vistas of Sochi originate with high-tech cameras and robots. Apparently, alpine ski coaches are still in the habit of climbing trees to obtain good views of the downhill courses. From these perches, a coach can best ascertain what line a skier might take down a slope during competition. There is even a competition of sorts for the best perches, which coaches claim and then augment with more-or-less comfortable seats.
Reporters have even been spotted climbing the trees in order to interview the coaches of contending skiers.
The advent of television coverage had a profound effect upon the Olympics in previous decades. I wonder what the impact of robots and big data in the Games will be in the coming years.