Perception attack

I wrote yesterday’s post about cyber-cloaking while thinking about the recent article in the New York Times claiming that Google will soon be coming out with augmented reality glasses.

A.R. glasses are essentially a form of client/server technology. As you walk around in the world, you are the client, and a remote server that knows your location is downloading content into the wearable computer that drives your display glasses. In that sense wearable A.R. is not all that different from the client/server architecture we use every day when we browse the web.

Except that A.R. cloaking attacks could be a lot more interesting and scary. Imagine somebody being able to hack into your very perception of the world around you. For example, you and your friends are walking down the street together, all wearing the latest and greatest designer A.R. shades, checking out cool virtual sculptures, store displays, interactive movie ads. What you don’t know is that a clever cloaking attack is targeting just you, so that you only think you are seeing what everyone else is seeing.

I’ll leave it to you to imagine what such a perception attack could be used for. The possibilities, I’m afraid, are endless.

Inside-out cloak

This morning I got an email from a friend who works at Google, saying that one of our NYU-related websites had been hacked. All the text had been replaced by ads for sexual enhancement products.

I went to our site, and emailed her back that everything was fine. Then she emailed me again to say that the problem was still showing up on her screen. For a while it was quite a mystery.

Eventually we figured out that our site had been hit what might be called an inside-out cloaking attack.

“Cloaking” in web parlance means making a harmful site look innocuous to search engines, so that people will click on an innocent seeming link in Bing or Google and then suddenly find themselves on the offending site.

It’s generally done by hacking into the server to add a script that checks who is visiting the site (by looking at the visitor’s IP address). If the visit is from the Bing or Google domains, the visitor sees innocent text. From anywhere else, the visitor sees something quite different.

Today’s attack was a kind of inside-out cloak. Our web site would seem just fine to almost anybody in the world, but if you happened to be from Google or Bing, you would find all those nasty ads. Which means that when Google’s software robots index the page, they get the version with the spam links. This makes the web ranking of those ad sites go up.

Fortunately, we were able to find and fix the problem because our site was visited today by an actual human at Google — a visitor with a far more discerning eye than any mere robot.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away

Yesterday’s post segues nicely into today’s. I am planning to give a talk in a few weeks at a company with which I share research interests. The title of the talk, which aims to provide a glimpse into the possible future of augmented reality, won’t be all that surprising to some of you who have been following this blog: “Beyond Princess Leia in a Beam of Light”.

My host and I both loved this title, but there was discussion among her colleagues about whether some of the younger people at the company would get it. I wasn’t all that worried. After all, some things are forever. Princess Leia in that beam of light is iconic, like Shakespeare, Bach, Sinatra, Marilyn. The Beatles. Right?

Well, this evening I found myself in front of a room of very smart and savvy master’s students, mostly in their early to mid twenties. A perfect opportunity to reassure myself that all was fine. I asked them whether the phrase “Princess Leia in a Beam of Light” raised any associations.

One student, very tentatively, said that he thought so, but he couldn’t be sure. None of the others had any idea what I was talking about.

Just to double check, I then asked them how many had seen “Star Wars”. Most raised their hands. I realize only now that when those students think of “Star Wars”, they might be thinking of something very different — something, perhaps, with Jar Jar Binks.


21 Club

I have just been invited, unexpectedly, to the 21 Club here in Manhattan.

The place is legendary, and I’ve never been there before. Fortunately, they will let me in because, as it happens, I am over 21. 🙂

If anything extraordinary happens (like that time I ended up getting drunk with Matthew McConaughey in some Hollywood bar, while we smoked cubans and analyzed John Sayles movies), I will let you know.

Meanwhile, I need to go home and put on a proper jacket. Because without one of those they won’t let you in.

Even if you’re over 21.

The vampire analogy

Today’s post is a complete change of pace. I’ve been thinking about the extraordinary recent popularity of vampire narratives in popular culture. And it occurs to me that there is something very specific about the semiotics of the vampire: Symbolically, vampires are to sexual passion as humans are to friendship.

Think about it. Vampires are immortal, yet they can die in a moment. In fact, they instantly expire either the moment their heart is pierced, or the moment they are exposed to the light. This is a precise analogy to the power of romantic sexual passion. When you are in love, it is forever — you feel that your love transcends all space and time, even mortality itself. We are all capable of experiencing these powerful feelings toward otherwise total strangers.

Yet such passion can (and often does) end in an instant — the moment the bubble of illusion is burst, or the moment some outside truth brings in the harsh light of day. And then that all powerful, all consuming feeling, a feeling that pulses through our very blood, can simply vanish, as though it had never been.

Friendship is more like humans. Not transcendent, nor all-powerful, nor even immortal, yet very hard to kill. Unlike a lover, if you try to stab a friend through the heart, your friendship might very well survive the betrayal. Between friends, blood runs warm but rarely hot.

We are drawn to the vampiric power of sexual desire, to its promise of eternal flame, to that extraordinary heightening of all the senses which only passion can bring. Yet in the harsh light of dawn, when we awake from our fever dream, it is friendship that will still be there.

Mapping Pride and Prejudice

Sharon requested I present a map view of “Pride and Prejudice”, as I did for “The Great Gatsby”. As you can see by clicking on the interactive Java applet, P&P is a far more capacious place than Gatsby.

I’ve added a few things to the interaction. Now, in addition to using the arrow keys, you can get around the novel by dragging your mouse, and I suggest you expand your browser to full-screen when viewing it. Clearly I’m thinking here not just of reading eBooks, but of providing ways for people to interactively collaborate over the complete landscape of a narrative.

In addition to delineating its 61 chapters, I’ve also added three other examples of meta-data: The various mentions throughout the novel of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, and Pemberley. The latter is Mr. Darcy’s magnificent estate, as well as a key plot element of the novel.

If you click on the three buttons toward the top, you enable a view of every mention of each of these three items. Even a cursory examination of their respective distributions is very revealing. Elizabeth permeates the novel — she is just about everywhere. In contrast, mentions of Mr. Darcy ebb and flow, in a continual teasing pattern.

To my surprise, Pemberley is rarely mentioned over the course the book, except for a small cluster of mentions near the beginning and then a much denser set of clusters about two thirds of the way through.

To me the biggest surprise comes in chapter 35. Except near its very beginning, this chapter mentions neither Elizabeth nor Mr. Darcy at all. It turns out that the bulk of the chapter consists of Mr. Darcy’s infamous letter to Elizabeth. The letter seems at first glance to contain one mention of Mr. Darcy himself, but a quick visit to the spot reveals that in fact Mr. Darcy is referring to his father.

I am becoming convinced that this ability to take in an entire narrative at a glance, and then to see visual answers to questions about that narrative, may just be the beginning of a new way of thinking about books.

Novel exploration

I’ve been astonished at how useful my little novel viewer has turned out to be. I’ve been using it to explore both “The Great Gatsby” and “Pride and Prejudice”. In both cases, structural elements of the novel jump out at me that I had never before noticed when reading the books themselves.

I think the fact that the novel now has a well defined terrain is really helping. Those differently textured parts of the book that represent dialogue and prose description are always found in the same geographic location. I strongly suspect that this consistency will be a big factor in whether collaborative communities end up using such a visualization for cooperative exploration and analysis of literary works.

A novel view

Continuing yesterday’s discussion … when F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “The Great Gatsby”, he didn’t write a sequence of pages, but rather a sequence of words, sentences and paragraphs. How any particular published edition parses that novel into pages is largely an accident of things like font choice, page size and margin spacing. In that sense, a continuous papyrus scroll would actually embody a more faithful rendering of his work.

If physical books start to be replaced by eBooks, there is an opportunity to move nearer to the actual structure of a novel. Of course the long one dimensional image of a physical papyrus scroll is very unwieldy indeed. But since we have computers, we can find ways to fit such an image into a more manageable two dimensional structure, without compromising its fluid continuity.

In particular, we can imagine wrapping such a scroll around the surface of a torus (i.e.: donut) to make an endless ribbon. Much as an enormous strand of DNA is folded into the small space of a living cell, we can use such a helical winding to form an easily navigable two dimensional structure — because in addition to going up and down the text ribbon, we can also go sideways to take rapid shortcuts through the novel.

Best of all, this structure makes it easy to display the novel all at once, in a way that reveals its inherent structure, once we have discarded the irrelevancy of pages. Meta-data such as chapters, locations, or character presence/absence in scenes can be displayed in a clear and easy to understand way.

For example, in this Java applet I’ve taken “The Great Gatsby” and dropped it into such an interface. To suggest what’s possible, I’ve mapped the “what chapter is this” meta-data into color, which makes it easy to find chapter boundaries.

The presence of a shared visual map of the entire novel makes it easier to build tools that support search and queries, collaborative dialogs and layers of critical commentary over and around the text.

Yet even before such features are added, this visual organization illuminates the author’s work. For example, you can tell at a glance which parts of Fitzgerald’s novel are dialog, and which are descriptive passages, simply from the texture of the map.

After pages

For a number of years after the invention of the horseless carriage, its form factor continued to resemble that of the horse drawn carriage. Over time, those similarities became progressively less appropriate, and in some ways they started to become downright inconvenient.

Horse drawn carriages had evolved to optimize for the conditions in which they typically operated — relatively slow speeds, and often very very bad road conditions. So the wheels needed to be huge, with very large clearance between carriage and ground, and the steering mechanism was optimized for this form factor and for slow speeds.

The co-evolution of automobiles and paved roads changed the game completely. Once they could run on more modern roads, and therefore operate at far higher velocity, automobiles quickly evolved in design away from the early “horseless carriage” and toward the form factor we know today.

Today, when books on paper and ebooks coexist, ebooks are still organized into pages, roughly simulating the experience of reading a physical book. But at some point in the near future, physical books might become so marginalized that they will no longer be a driving force in the design of a reader’s experience.

When this happens, the page as a form factor might simply go away, to be replaced by something more appropriate to the experience of reading text on a screen. Just as the form factor of the ancient papyrus — one long continuous sequence of lines of text — was long ago replaced by the discrete random-access structure of text organized into sequential pages of paper, we might soon see another radical change in text organization, as the very concept of a “page” gradually fades into history.

The mouse you know

I attended a talk this morning by Frans B. M. de Waal, who discussed the extensive results from his research team on cooperative and ethical behavior among non-humans.

The audience laughed in delight at experiments that showed an angry capuchin monkey demanding equal pay for equal work, a chimpanzee handing the correct tools to another chimpanzee so the latter could complete an assembly operation, elephants coming up with surprising inventions to help each other with cooperative tasks, and an ape refusing a reward from a human unless a equitable share was also given to another ape.

But there was one point where the audience just went thoughtfully silent. Describing an experiment that showed that a mouse becomes significantly more sensitive to pain after it has seen another mouse in pain (an experiment that, needless to say, raises its own ethical issues), de Waal mentioned that the effect is only observed if the mouse knows the other mouse.

It may have been the first time most people in the audience had ever thought about friendship among mice.