Monday, 27 August 2018

CanCon 2017: Computers Don’t Do That

This is a recap of the panel “No, You Can’t Actually Do That With a Computer”, which took place during CanCon 2017 (Oct 13-15) at 9pm on Friday. Handy tips for next time you’re writing technology, and want there to be an element of realism. A reminder that while I may have missed my calling as a courtroom stenographer, I have no recording to double check here, and mistakes happen. We begin with introductions.


CanCon 2017 Computer Panelists

Pippa Wysong was the moderator, who “will just try to keep things on time, and keep from talking programming languages”. Dan Smith works in the computer security industry (for an antivirus company we haven’t heard of in North America). Kris Ramsey has over 14 years of experience in support, has worked for HP, and is now with the Ontario Government as phone support. “No, software doesn’t do that, or yes it can do that, you need to spend a lot more money.” Robert Krten has been a consultant for a long time, mostly on embedded systems like the X-ray Radiator, and has self-published some non-fiction. Farrell McGovern (who started the CanCon convention) has been working with computers since he soldered together an Apple II clone in the early 1980s. He’s technically built an OS (custom Linux for the US).


PET PEEVES & A.I.


Pippa: Let’s start with anecdotes.
Rob: I have a pet peeve. Infinite image enhancement. Two pixels of a guy’s face gets big.
Kris: And with HP, people trying to blow up resolutions on printers. It’s not 10k dpi (dots per inch). Or people scan in images at 2,000 dpi. There isn’t something that can handle it, and you’ll fill up a drive, and it will take hours. “Can’t we do it faster?” No.
Farrell: You can only get so much accuracy and resolution, the rest is noise.
Kris: Exactly.
Dan: Zoom and enhance is the number one thing that drives everybody nuts. I’d almost be willing to believe it if it was multiple images combined, with satellites, low resolution and high resolution.

Kris: My pet peeve is related. Colour matching.
 (Farrell laughs)
Kris: You know what I’m talking about. Printer support for HP on Macintosh, getting the exact same image out of a printer as what’s on a screen. It’s a laser colour printer. People hear “laser” and suddenly it can do anything. People do not realize that what you see on the screen is RGB, Red-Green-Blue, but when you print something it’s CMYK (Cyan-Magenta-Yellow-blacK), four different coloured dots. It does not match perfectly. Only if you use Pantone. And those calibrated printers are expensive, bigger than this table. Ink costs hundreds of dollars, used in print shops, and all those colours have numbers. The red on Coke has a specific Pantone colour, anyone else uses it, Coke can legally sue them.
Farrell: For Doctor Who, the police booth has a specific blue.
Kris: Right. You need to be authorized to use it when it’s licensed, or a company will come after you. That bright screen image, it’s going to look dark when you print it out because of colour shift. And on the screen it’s backlit, so it won’t look exactly the same, it’s the same mixture but your eyes won’t perceive it as the same.

Rob: And there’s hacking on a system. “Oh, I’m in.” Was the password root?
Kris: Some people would have used that.
Rob: Yes.
Farrell: Sometimes it’s a bit right, like in the “Matrix”. Map a network, open ports and such. White hat hackers almost fainted when they saw it.
Rob: And scrolling down? Nobody scrolls down.
Farrell: In Star Trek Discovery, they’re looking for a code to fix their snazzy drive. Code is from StuxNet.

Pippa: Something that came up, in the background, is computer attitude and sense of self preservation. Can it do that?
Kris: Not yet.
Farrell: It can emulate it.
Kris: Can something made of silicon be considered alive, will it be possible?
Rob: There’s a panel tomorrow.
Farrell: It comes down to the Turing Test.
Dan: They can fool you into thinking they do it today. They don’t.
Farrell: The group who create it have to figure out all the possible questions, then come up with answers, and understand the syntax and ways of saying the same thing. It gets complex very, very quickly.
Kris: A system that can learn, answering questions that no one’s programmed it, is real AI (artificial intelligence). As far as I know, we’re nowhere near that.
 (There’s mention of IBM’s Watson, and pulling in informations.)

Pippa: Comment at the back?
Audience Member: “Bicentennial Man” [Asimov story that became a film], where robot wins case for his freedom. Chat robots spoofing people, may program in wanting to be free.
Farrell: A classic novel is “When H.A.R.L.I.E. was One” (writer David Gerrold, from Star Trek). It explores what is a person.
 (There’s mention of the 2017 film Singularity)

Pippa: Touching on AI, could we get a Data [from Star Trek]?
Kris: “Positronic brain” was someone pulling Asimov out of their ass.
Dan: Science Fiction confuses everything, in 100 years god knows. Two years ago, we’d have said that computers can’t beat humans at Go. But now humans have no hope.
Farrell: In a very narrow focussed area, they [AI] can become very good. But adaptability is probably one of the greatest things of the human animal.
Kris: Also, with Data, you need to get over the Uncanny Valley. That’s more technical.
Pippa: Which is?
Kris: When something looks just human enough, but not enough to be considered human.
Farrell: It’s subconscious.
Kris: Yeah, a subconscious creep factor. Data works because we can tell it’s a man dressed up. With a robot, there’s that unconscious sense, it’s creepy enough that people have trouble accepting that. You can make something non-human look friendly and cute, like WALL-E. So, WALL-E with Data’s voice.
Farrell: Anime explores that a lot too.
Kris: Yes, exactly.


DOING IT WRONG/RIGHT


Audience: Are there some shows or movies that did it [computers] right?
Dan: That is very hard.
Rob: Scorpion [TV Series] is the worst for anything science related... except in this one case. Saw a TED talk. You set up a camera in a closed room, and the camera, by looking at frames coming in from the bag of chips, can spy on a conversation. They take successive frames, and see differences, and data comes from the edges. My pet peeve is Scorpion, yet they got that right.
Farrell: One thing I’m glad is off the air is CSI:Cyber.
Rob: Yeah, you watch it and think, you were so close.
Farrell: There’s the Holmes one. (Someone provides “Elementary”.) They took a CSI:Cyber plot and did it correctly. The main character of that was in a famous movie, Hackers. Had the villain from Hackers in the episode playing the villain too.
Kris: The [British] show Sherlock, the gentleman who has the information on everyone. I don’t want to spoil it, but it shows the best cyber-security ever. It’s all up here, as any time something’s on a computer, it can get out. Not just hacking in, but social security is a large part of it. If you walk into an office, see how many people don’t say a word, thinking you’re supposed to be there.


Farrell: People, don’t click on attachments. Don’t use Outlook either.
Rob: A VP of IT once sent an email around saying “don’t click on this attachment that’s going around” and it’s there in the email.
Kris: There was an email about happy little elves... don’t hit “reply all”. It got sent to an entire organization, that’s a few hundred people. People had to “reply all” saying don’t send. Which shuts down Email servers. Don’t send out large emails, cap email amounts. Pictures of kids to colleagues, it’s a few hundred MB or more, clogging servers and crashing the system. Organizations run on email, if they’re crippled, my call volume goes up, and I don’t like that.
Audience: One Email list was everyone in the department.
Farrell: Outlook makes it so easy to do that.
Audience: Chains of people chaining.
Kris: I just have to mention happy little elves, and people cringe.
Farrell: Outlook’s “automatic away” also, someone had one set up. Have to honour certain flags, they said we don’t want that... first message sent saying “hi”, got half of people replying back. Half a million emails going through the server.

Kris: You can’t not pay attention to what you’re doing. Consider the auto-archive feature, which will archive all emails. If you’re not paying attention, you don’t know where it was archived. Created probably on your personal computer. Backing up to personal computers is a logistical nightmare, whereas the servers get backed up nightly. So, save it on a server, and we may recover it. On your PC, it’s gone, and people get very angry about that. You need to pay attention to what you’re doing with your data. And limits. The limit is 2 GB, if you have more in under 30 days, what the hell are you doing? System called the Vault, all that’s left is a thumbnail, so you can recover it. Efficient, if you use it. But it has to be enabled. People don’t think of limits, they think space is endless, hearing about terabyte drives. But the system has to be built for it. You can do it, but it takes hundreds of millions of dollars.
Farrell: Similar thing, transferring files. I need 5 TB of this database, zip zip zip.
Rob: Two days later...
Farrell: It’s scary.
Kris: And the progress bar on the screen [in fiction].
Farrell: Ten minutes, 5 hours, 27 days, 1 epoch, 5 seconds, done.
Rob: And bouncing servers from here to Russia, no, you have to get a search warrant and go to the next jurisdiction. Then again. Certain emails will leave something.
Farrell: In the header.
Kris: Phishing and spam.
Rob: But arbitrarily blocking traffic from X to Y, via 16 servers somewhere else, no.

Audience: What about [TV show] Person of Interest?
Kris: I haven’t seen the last 2 seasons yet. But I liked it as a procedural show, and how it built up. The machine was never omnipotent, it was looking at probabilities and interpreting data. And that makes sense. It started giving answers it wasn’t programmed for, passed my AI test, doing something unexpected. In the 2nd or 3rd season, Howard...
Rob: Harold.
Kris: Sorry, yes, his reaction was being freaked out by what it could do and was doing. I don’t think that’s impossible, you can do it... but we haven’t cracked it yet.
Farrell: It’s plausible Science Fiction.
Kris: Exactly. You can’t interpret all this data on a computer yet, there’s not enough raw processing power. Even St. Catherines [city in Ontario] covered in cameras would be too much for maybe some supercomputers.
Farrell: Unless you knew when and in what area to look, and then you have a chance.
Kris: Which is where the show goes.

Audience: If you decentralize? Local systems that ship it off to a regional system?
Kris: Then you’re limited by bandwidth.
Audience: Sure, but as a local thing.
Kris: Would still need to be scaled up to handle the data. Depends on how small you can get a system to be. We can take 72 hours for changing a phone number to go through, with servers all over Ontario. Maybe when we have more fibre optic?
Dan: I disagree. I think with a particular thing you’re wanting, facial recognition, they still kind of suck at it, but computers can do things real time.
Kris: You need to be focussed on it.
Rob: Can compress it down to meta data. A Mercedes has gone through the intersection.
Farrell: Or more likely license plate.

Audience: About searching all databases, and realizing where something’s last seen. They can collect data, but no way they’re processing it for anything useful in the next ten years to look for terrorists.
Farrell: Can use it for forensics.
Audience: So find someone after they’ve done something, sure.
Kris: That’s why a lot of that is security theatre.
Farrell: Do we explain the term?
Kris: Any time you go through customs, they’re doing everything to make you THINK it’s safer, when they can’t. There’s a limit on what they can do. What a lot of it is, is putting people through crap that doesn’t do anything.
Audience: There’s asking questions to trigger responses.
Farrell: Like the Voight test from Blade Runner. A classic example is, putting an antivirus program on a system. If I put another one, it’s twice as safe? Reality is it might make it less safe, even less than having nothing.
Kris: Or using antivirus and thinking it’s completely safe now.


ORGANIZATIONS & SECURITY


I asked a question here! About compatibility in fiction, which systems can talk to each other.
Rob: We can interface alien spaceships.
Kris: Haven’t you seen Independence Day? All you need is a Mac.
Audience person: Or Sandra Bullock in The Net.
Dan: This is a magical time, all these devices that can’t talk to one another. In the 1990s, open wifi and it just works?
Kris: A thought, what if the open source movement had never taken off, and we were still separating silos? All IBMs or token ring networks.
Audience person: Most of the web is on open source software.
Kris: And how much of it exists now due to information sharing over the net. No Twitter, no Facebook.
Farrell: And scientists who can’t share their data. There’s life changing things that could be happening now.
Audience person: Government funding needs to be published open source, not where you have to pay.

Audience: What about two people typing on a keyboard at the same time, useful?
Rob: NCIS. When DiNozzo and Abby type on the same keyboard.
Audience: In reality though.
Kris: If someone only had one hand? Or in the future it might be possible. Keep up with me, you damn machine, it’s physical impact sometimes.
Rob: USB keyboards can be done, it’s the human co-ordination that’s the challenge.
Kris: For NCIS those two could have been enough in synch to do it.
Audience: And every time NCIS gets hacked, we just remove the network cable. From a USB key in an envelope. But at my work I can’t put in a USB key that isn’t part of the organization, it won’t work. It will tell me, unauthorized USB key has been reported to security.
Rob: It’s already secure, so why would you worry.

Kris: You can’t have a system that’s secure which is completely accessible. There’s always that balance. The new blackberry system is a primary example. Can have blackberry on an iPhone, by downloading the pain in the ass of the UEM (Unified Endpoint Management), then blackberry works. I’m dealing with non-technical people over a phone, because we can’t remote into a phone.
Rob: If you could [remote], that would be a security risk.
Kris: But I might be able to fix something. Just give me your IP address.
Rob: Don’t touch anything, stand back.
Kris: We used to have separate different systems.
Farrell: PC Anywhere.
Kris: Need to make sure you’re using the right system for the right organization. The push towards standardization in government has made things nicer. So you can’t have blackberry native to the phone itself. You can’t import all your contacts from outlook into the phone and call from the phone. It’s a technical limitation. iPhones are too open, not secure enough for government work. And anything on the phone is technically government property. You can’t use your work computer for personal reasons. Yes, things aren’t technically possible, but there’s other reasons you shouldn’t do things. Because of what you’re exposing yourself to.
Rob: Find USBs in a parking lot, reason they work is because USB is Universal. Then it doesn’t show up as a memory stick but as a router. You want to connect to Google, yes, that’s this IP address in China, that’s how they get you. Things you can do if you’re devious enough.
Kris: Take it to Radio Shack.
Dan: What?
Kris: The Source, whatever. With a pack of USB drives, drop yours in with others, they’ll be sold and people will think they’re secure. You’ll get a few that way [in the parking lot], you’ll get more by having them think it’s trustworthy.

Farrell: On Youtube, the show Hak5. They cover a lot of good things about computer security and how to audit. Something that looks like a USB, says “Hi, I’m an HID” (Human Interface Device) like a keyboard. Can download a payload from a website, can penetrate with large things into a network.
Rob: Another good resource is BlackHat, Defcon. All their presentations are videos online. For fun, look up Denial of Service Dog and War Kitty. “Dog” shuts down all TVs, it’s a service animal right there.
Pippa: Only a few minutes left.
Dan: One thing we haven’t said that drives me nuts, is that [in fiction] computers WORK. I spent half my day yesterday trying to figure out how to get rid of a space. Billions of hours have been spent trying to get something on a webpage moved by a pixel.
Kris: I’ve had people wondering how their keyboards get set on french. Or the best is when the screen flips. “Try Alt-Up.” “You’re a genius.”

Audience: My husband’s a system analyst. Someone set a screen’s colours, cursor and font to black.
Kris: Good one. Or take a screenshot of the computer, dump everything in there, and use that screenshot as background. Do not leave your computer unlocked around IT people.
Farrell: Take a file of gigabyte size, of just zeroes. Then compress it. It’s “Just a zip file” and suddenly their hard drive is full.
Pippa: We are the last session, can go a bit longer.
Kris: No, we can’t tell if someone else is using your email. Someone else could come and use your computer, unless there’s a camera watching your station, who knows.
Farrell: Or unless someone misspells something you spell correctly. Until we have digital signatures.


Pippa: One question, some of these problems are people not following directions. Can some of these be changed with user interfaces?
Kris: No.
Farrell: Yes.
Kris: Sometimes the problem is humanity.
Dan: People don’t expect things to work that way any more. Not going to fix the interface, it defies expectations. Any time you don’t know what the computer’s talking about to you, that’s when things go off the rails.
Pippa: New version of Windows, and everything’s in a different place.
Farrell: Two things that can improve the user experience is education, and user interface design. [Yet] A lot of times the latter isn’t done by the people who have to use it.
Kris: Yes, it’s written by engineers.
Farrell: Or specialists.
Kris: A lot of my job is interpreting tech stuff to people who aren’t tech savvy. They’re not dumb, but put in front of computer [they don’t understand].
Pippa: And Robert, medical companies?
Rob: I tend to avoid that. I don’t care what colour it is, I get the control system right.
Farrell: I’ve done lots of UI (user interface) design, and have won awards. Wrote “Electronic Trade Show” and my design philosophy was, if you had to click more than three times to get to data you want, something is wrong. When I built the Linux, it was for medical office management, enabled the server to pop up things on the workstation using SSH execution. If a doctor wanted a prescription, the database would fill into a form then pop up a word based document, enter instructions and done. Doctor didn’t have to worry about saving it.
Rob: Where did you get a font to make things unreadable?
Farrell: Comic Sans.
Pippa: I think we’re pretty much at an end here. Thanks.
***

That concluded things on Friday. For more, have a look at my main CanCon 2017 post when it goes live (I’ll link it). A reminder that attributions/quotations may have errors due to my typing speed, so don’t take them as fact, and mind the context. If you have something to add, do leave a comment for me! Thanks for reading.

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