Posted by Adam Wills
The best-kept secret in the Negev is not Dimona (home of Israel’s hush-hush nuclear program) but Ben-Gurion University, said Israel Consul General Jacob Dayan, who introduced robotics professor Amir Shapiro during a Ben-Gurion event that attracted several dozen people to the Luxe Sunset earlier this month.
Shapiro, who served as a visiting researcher at Caltech 2007-2008, looks to nature for inspiration when crafting his robots. For fun, he designs navigation algorithms for multi-limbed robots and locomotion methods for snake-like robots at Ben-Gurion University, where he’s a lecturer with the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
One project Shapiro is involved with features agricultural robots that can spray and pollinate date palm trees – a process that requires three people (one driver, two assistants working at heights of more than 50 feet) and which has lead to deaths due to falls on uneven terrain. With an automated system, target spraying would be handled by one driver and a robot, which could recognize dates by sight and handle straying/pollination duties with little human involvement.
A military project under development in Shaprio’s lab features a tunnel-mapping system, which resembles two remote-controlled tanks linked by a single metal bar. The robot would traverse the length of a tunnel and report back with details on slope, depth, angle, etc. This, in turn, could help the IDF determine where to strike so a tunnel couldn’t be rebuilt.
But it’s the robot snakes Shapiro designs, like his Big Ben (pictured above, wearing a smile), that capture the imagination of onlookers. Engineers turn to nature for examples – monkeys, insects, donkeys – when creating robots that can climb, fly or carry equipment. And yet it’s the snake that people want to watch slither in corkscrew fashion or pump along in waves.
The snakes, he says, are not so unusual – these search-and-rescue systems are segmented, featuring different motors that can produce their own independent motion. The snake can slowly move through small pockets in a collapsed building to find trapped survivors, or work its way through pipes to find something as mundane as a blockage.
This technology is several years old, Shapiro says, but the real twist is to eventually create the first autonomous snake, which could operate independently of humans.
The IDF snake-like robot featured recently in television news coverage is not one he was directly involved with, Shapiro said. But he did study alongside its creator, Alon Wolf of Technion, whom Shapiro says wasn’t happy with the IDF distributing video of snake, which is not ready for field use.
Copying the natural movements of animals is the current trend in robotics, but Shapiro says that the next stage in robot evolution will be the ability of these systems to act on their own. The real trick, he says, is to get the system to repair themselves and to build other robots without human involvement.
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July 15, 2009 | 4:57 pm
Posted by Sam Gliksman
We all know the power of word of mouth. Positive or negative reviews impact the success of any product. In our current age of social networking, electronic word of mouth has the ability to make a product sink or swim faster than ever. Last Friday it seemed that Sacha Baron Cohen had created another monster hit with his new film Brüno. Early ticket sales on opening day had many Hollywood insiders predicting that Brüno would gross around $50 million on opening weekend. As it turns out, sales for Brüno peaked on opening day and actually fell the rest of the weekend, finishing with “only” $30.4 million. What happened? According to Time magazine, “Brüno could be the first movie defeated by the Twitter effect”.
Although Brüno won the weekend movie battle, it fell well short of initial predictions. Brüno certainly was a hit with many reviewers but its outrageous, in-your-face humor was too much for many movie-goers to stomach. A quick review of the thousands of “tweets” about Brüno on Twitter shows many harsh comments such as “im angry, apalled”, “Do not waste your money seeing Bruno” or “Worst movie I have ever seen”. With techsavvy moviegoers tweeting their opinions to millions of followers, Twitter trends have an instant impact on the success of a movie. In the words of Time, “Instant-messaging can make or break a film within 24 hours. Friday is the new weekend.”
You can follow Sam on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SamGliksman
July 8, 2009 | 4:40 pm
Posted by Sam Gliksman
I have this practice of jotting down my article ideas in a file and then coming back to them later when I’m ready to write. Ideas come freely. On the other hand, planting my rear down on a seat long enough to write a full article is far more daunting. As a result, the list grows progressively longer and, given the pace of change in technology, earlier ideas become dated very quickly.
In reviewing my list of article concepts today I noticed one item a few months back about an up and coming micro-blogging site called Twitter. Maybe you’ve heard of it? Figuring that it’s better later than never I thought I’d write a review for the last two of you left on the planet that don’t use Twitter. The rest of you are invited along as well.
For most of its initial, formative years the internet was comprised of websites that had static content composed by programmers. As internet technology developed we reached a platform commonly referred to as “Web 2.0” which contains a host of tools that allow anyone, with any skill level, to post web content in a variety of new formats. One such tool is the “blog” - a shortened form of the term “web log”. What you’re reading now is a blog. It’s a web page maintained by an individual that contains entries with thoughts and opinions on any topic. It’s usually displayed in chronological order and adding entries is similar to typing a word processing document.
From Blogs to Micro-Blogs
Just as we became comfortable with blogging, along came a new concept called “micro-blogging”. If blog entries are discussions on a topic then micro-blog entries are brief snippets. Twitter - www.twitter.com - is a micro-blogging website. Users sign up for free accounts and then submit micro-blog entries called “tweets” which are limited to 140 characters in length. Entries can be submitted by a variety of means - some as simple as typing a message on a cell phone. You then simply start posting entries about what you’re thinking or doing.
Users of Twitter can also “follow” other users and get access to all their updates. Prominent Twitterers amass audiences of several thousand up to a million followers. Others have a small handful of followers.
The micro-blogging sensation has grown exponentially in just the last few months. Twitter’s surging popularity has seen its membership grow from around one million members a year ago to an estimated 20 million members today and several thousand new members join every day.
Why do people use Twitter? New York Times columnist David Pogue describes it as “a complicated cross between a chat room and private e-mail”. The founders of Twitter were looking for a way that people could keep in touch often and easily. The main theme of Twitter is stated simple on its web page - “What are you doing”? Entries can be as mundane as where you’re going, what you’re eating, what movie you just saw and so on. For some, Twitter provides a feeling of connectedness with others. For others, there’s definitely a large element of ego-stroking knowing that others are “following” your words and actions.
You’d have to wonder why anyone would care about the mundane, everyday details of another’s life. Do I really care whether you ate Fruit Loops or Cherios for breakfast? I certainly don’t need to hear that you had too much to drink last night and no offense, but if I need information about a new movie then I’ll read a newspaper review before searching for your blurted 30 character tweet as you walk out of the theater.
So why then is Twitter so popular? The fact is, many people broadcast really interesting comments in their tweets. If you hook up with like minded people then you can get important information that’s pertinent to your area of interest. You can also search for tweets on any topic much as you would use google. Follow firsthand the thoughts of political leaders, historians, cultural figures and more. Discover the latest developments in your industry. Get frontline, breaking news reports from people at the scene. When the recent wildfires broke in Australia people on the ground were tweeting about the location of the fires and the directions in which they were heading. When a US Airways plane famously landed in the Hudson River a few months ago, the news was initially broken in a tweet from a person that watched the plane land. Four minutes after the crash, he tweeted, “I just watched a plane crash into the hudson river in manhattan.” There are many interesting Twitter related tools as well. Try using Twitterfall - www.twitterfall.com - and type in a search term such as “global warming”. Watch live as posts about global warming from people all around the world scroll on screen. Corprate execs have also started to wake up to the potentials of using Twitter. Companies such as Starbucks and Amazon actively use Twitter for marketing and research.
There’s no question that Twitter can be another one of those incredible wasteful activities that keep us glued to our computer screens while everything that needs to get done sits waiting for attention. It can however also be an amazing communication tool that lets you know instantly about things that you care about. Someone is online tweeting about it right now.
You can follow Sam Gliksman on Twitter at www.twitter.com/samgliksman
May 15, 2009 | 4:30 pm
Posted by Sam Gliksman
A Congressional briefing last week entitled “Hate in the Information Age” highlighted the fact that we’re experiencing a sharp increase in hate and terror propaganda on the Internet. To make matters worse, new interactive web 2.0 services allow extremists to leverage technologies such as blogs and video sharing to promote their agenda on popular sites such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube.
At their core, social networking sites provide a simple mechanism for connecting with friends and like minded people across the Internet. Anti-Semitic propagandists and terror supporters however use these sites as a dynamic tool for spreading their propaganda against Jews and Israel. What should be particular cause for concern is that they are targeting the teens and young adults that form the majority of members at social networking sites such as Facebook.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, an associate dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, presented the results of their Digital Terrorism and Hate Project’s annual study to the Congressional Hearing. He reported that they had observed a 30% increase in the presence of hate groups online in the last year. Most of it can be attributed to posts in blogs and discussion forums. “The Internet is a fantastic marketing tool,” Rabbi Cooper noted.
Unlike more traditional web sites, group pages on social networking sites can be harder to find and track. “You can market and train followers while bypassing traditional Web sites. It makes it very, very difficult for law enforcement to follow what’s going on,” he said. According the Wiesenthal Center report, “Extremists are leveraging 2.0 technologies to dynamically target young people through digital games, Second Life scenarios, blogs, and even Youtube and Facebook style videos depicting racist violence and terrorism.”
I discussed the various Holocaust Denial sites on Facebook in my last blog post. It does however seem that the more you dig, the uglier it gets.
How bad is it? A quick look at the page of one group called “We hate Israel” gives you an idea of what can still pass uncensored on Facebook. The main page contains the image of a large swastika made from the letters in the word Israel. There’s a poster of the Twin Towers on fire with a large caption stating “The Jews. We all know it was them.” The group blog is littered with posts such as “Kill all Israel people!!!”, “Death to Israel!” and “Hitler took the (right) decision with the Jewish people. They must all be burned at the same time”. Other posts threaten that there will be a strike in October that will wipe out all of Israel. Companies such as Disney and Pepsi are accused of being Zionist (it’s claimed that Pepsi derived its name as an acronym from “Pay Every Penny to Save Israel”!). Yes, even Facebook - the company that is allowing the group to spread this vicious anti-Semitic dribble - is supposedly “owned by a Zionist”!
I should clarify that sites such as Facebook state expressly that they do not allow objectionable groups, comments or images to appear on their web pages. They will actively search for and censor any pornographic or violent images. Their terms of service clearly state “You will not post content that is hateful, threatening, pornographic, or that contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.” In addition, “You will not use Facebook to do anything unlawful, misleading, malicious, or discriminatory.” Inexplicably however, it seems that extremists espousing hatred or threatening violence towards Jews and Israel fall under their radar.
To be fair, Facebook - albeit under significant pressure - has removed a number of Holocaust Denial sites recently. The most offensive includes a cartoon of Hitler in bed with Anne Frank, posted from Lebanon. Some of the extremist groups still using Facebook however include Stormfront, National Socialist Life, Libertarian National Social Movement, Aryan Guard, FARC, Al Shabab Mujahideen, Hamas (Multiple), Hezbollah (multiple), Faloja Forum, Support Taliban, Support Taliban and scores of anti-Israel sites.
May 9, 2009 | 2:57 pm
Posted by Sam Gliksman
With the advent of increasingly simple, interactive web technologies anyone can now publish their opinions on the internet. For example, websites such as Facebook allow users to form social groups where they can connect and communicate with each other. Friends and family can stay in touch. Online communities can share information and opinions. On occasion however those opinions can be offensive and social networking sites such as Facebook can be used as a launching pad for establishing and expanding those offensive views.
This week CNN reported that Facebook was under pressure to remove Holocaust denial pages from its website. The issue at hand is not new. Is the right to free speech absolute or can an opinion become offensive to the point that it demands censorship?
The Holocaust Denial movement seeks to deny or minimize the Holocaust, in which Nazis killed about six million European Jews during World War II. Texas attorney Brian Cuban has been leading an effort to have Facebook remove pages of groups with names such as “Holocaust: A Series of Lies,” and “Holocaust is a Holohoax” removed from its site.
Cuban points out that Facebook is in the private realm and therefore has a clear right to review and censor content published on its website. According to Cuban, “This isn’t a freedom-of-speech issue. Facebook is free to set the standard that they wish.” Facebook’s own Statement of Rights and Responsibilities says that users “will not post content that is hateful, threatening, pornographic, or that contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.”
Brian Cuban, the brother of the NBA Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, is of Russian Jewish descent and has written about his fight to have the Holocaust-denial pages removed on his site, The Cuban Revolution.
See the full story on cnn.com
May 1, 2009 | 7:08 pm
Posted by Sam Gliksman
What is it about the estate laws in Nigeria that make it so diffiicult for princes to retrieve their millions in inheritance? We’ve all received that hoax email from someone that needs your help in recovering millions in a bank account. One of the more common forms of hoax email is the “phishing” scheme. Phishing is when an email sender tries to trick the recipient into thinking the message is from someone else. The message may ask you to “update,” “validate,” or “confirm” your account information. Phishing emails typically attempt to trick people into revealing financial data, or direct you to spoof sites or phone numbers to call where they ask you to provide personal data.
The consequences of falling prey to a phishing scam can be devastating. Scammers potentially gain access to your credit card, social security number, bank account, password or personal information. Your data is traded on the black market and, in a worst case scenario, you end up becoming the victim of identity theft. Some creative scammers even use your data to defraud others of greater amounts of money. In one scenario, a scammer will gain access to your account information on an auction site such as eBay. Trading in your name they sell a fake item worth thousands of dollars. A buyer bites and you’re left explaining why don’t know anything about it.
It’s estimated that over 100 million phishing e-mails are sent ... every day! Losses are estimated at over $1 billion a year.
What does a phishing scam look like?
A phishing scam can take many forms. The scam is traditionally spread through email and might appear to come from a financial institution, company you regularly do business with, ecommerce site such as ebay or Paypal or from a social networking site. Phishing email often includes official company logos and can look convincingly like they come from legitimate websites.
The following is an example of what a phishing scam in an e-mail message (as displayed on an informational page on the Microsoft website) might look like.
Note that the graphic header is the actual logo taken from the real company’s website. The email includes a masked link to a fake website. The text of the link appears to be from the actual company’s website but if you place your mouse pointer above the link (rest it above - do not click the link) it reveals that the real address is actually a totally bogus site (18.104.22.168 ...). Scammers will sometimes also use addresses that contain minor alterations of the real company’s name (eg. wellsfagro.com) in the hope that you don’t notice. In either case, clicking on the link will take you to a spoofed site that attempts to have you submit your personal information.
There are several steps you can take to help protect yourself against phishing scams:
1. Don’t respond to emails that ask for personal, financial or account information. They are almost always scams.
2. Mouse over links in the email and read the pop-up that displays the actual address. See if looks genuine or not (then don’t click it anyway…).
3. Use anti-virus software and keep it up to date.
4. Never, ever email sensitive personal information. Even if you are sending it to a legitimate source, it will likely sit in somebody’s Inbox for a period of time where it can be read or stolen.
5. Check your bank and credit card statements for any unusual charges.
6. If you are using a Windows computer, upgrade your web browser to either Internet Explorer 7 or later or Firefox 3 or later. Both contain a phishing filter that warns you if you are about to enter a site that appears to be spoofed.
And just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…
“Smishing” is the growing practice of sending phishing scams via SMS text messaging. Email filters have become more proficient at recognizing and blocking phishing schemes. This has pushed scammers to search for alternative digital delivery methods for their spoofed messages. SMS texts avoid filters normally associated with emails. Very few SMS messages are blocked and it can be difficult to determine if a message is real. Smishing text messages will prompt you to call a phone number. When you call, a phony operator will ask for your personal or financial information in order to complete some bogus financial transaction or account change.
The solution here is crystal clear. No legitimate company or financial institution will send you a text message asking you to call them and submit personal information. Do not reply. It’s that simple.
April 10, 2009 | 7:15 pm
Posted by Sam Gliksman
Newsweek recently ran an article describing President Obama as our nation’s first “Blackberry President”. The article relates how we have all become dependant on communications technology and confirms what most of us already knew – this flood of new technology is having a huge impact on the way people think and interact. From texting and instant messaging to email alerts and telephone ring tones, a constant barrage of technology based “interruptions” is eroding our ability to concentrate.
As a result, our performance on tasks that require steady focus and attention deteriorates. In its most severe form, interruption generated errors have been thought to be a major cause of several plane and train accidents. On a more everyday level, our children and students find it increasingly difficult to read their required chapter for homework or complete that five paragraph essay they were assigned this morning. They can often stay on task only by interacting with their friends via computer video chat, instant messaging or the newest fad, Blackberry Based Messaging (BBM). Instant communication with your community requires just a few simple clicks. Silent, uninterrupted contemplation is fast becoming a lost art.
Interruptions have become so commonplace that we also don’t think twice about interrupting each other either. One study stated that the average worker only spends around 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted. We’ve even become conditioned to welcoming the interruptions. What’s the first thing most people do when they get a new cell phone? They customize their seductive call to action – the ring tone. When we’re not being interrupted we’re still so conditioned to thinking in short bursts that it’s difficult to maintain concentration for any length of time. How many of us check for messages and email every few minutes even when there isn’t any indication that one has arrived?
What can we do and what can we suggest for our children and students? Some simple recommendations include:
1. Know when to turn off your ring tone. If you have a meeting or need to read something that requires attention, start by turning off the ring tone on your phone. If your child has homework, suggest that they either turn off their cell phone altogether or at least place it somewhere where they won’t be tempted to use it.
2. Turn off automatic audible alerts and pop ups for emails and instant messages. Check them when it’s convenient for you rather than allowing them to constantly divert your attention.
3. Establish a pattern of using your technology at “coarse breakpoints”. These are defined as natural breaks in concentration – the completion of a task, the end of a paragraph etc. Interruptions that fall right in the middle of a thought or task make it difficult to return and continue that process. Research shows that it’s far easier to return to your task if your interruption falls in a more natural breakpoint.
Asking kids to just “turn everything off” may yield results … if it can be accomplished. Speaking as someone that uses technology at every turn, going “cold turkey” certainly can make you feel like Odysseus tied to the mast. A solid recommendation is simply to take control. Manage your use of technology. Use it at times that are convenient for you and don’t allow the technology to constantly redirect your attention. Turn off alerts and decide when you will check your messages. Technology will make us more productive and improve our quality of life if only it is used appropriately.
April 3, 2009 | 4:02 pm
Posted by Sam Gliksman
It has happened to all of us. You compose an email and click the Send key ... only to instantly realize that you sent it to the wrong person. Your next step is to frantically scramble for your email Outbox to try and stop the transmission. You open the Outbox just in time to see the email disappear from your pending list, spread wings and fly out into the cyber universe.
Did you just get sweaty palms reading that? If you’re lucky your gaffe was an innocuous little message inadvertently sent to the wrong friend. No harm, no foul. If you’re unlucky it was an email that will end up insulting someone or damaging a business relationship. However if you’re really, really unlucky, you mistakenly sent the email to an entire list of the wrong people. Maybe 28,000 people?? Yes, that’s what some unfortunate fellow at UC San Diego did earlier this week. In what has been an exceptionally difficult college admission year in California, 28,000 applicants to UC San Diego received an acceptance email earlier this week. The e-mail began, “We’re thrilled that you’ve been admitted to UC San Diego”. Their jubilation quickly turned sour however when they later received a second email stating that a mistake had occured. They had actually not been accepted. According to UCSD admissions director Mae Brown the email was sent to the entire list of 46,000 applicants instead of only the 18,000 who had been accepted.
Oops ... sorry.
We live in an age of instant communications. Email has already replaced “snail mail”. That debate has long been officially concluded. Unfortunately the tortoise had no real fighting chance against the hare. In fact, email itself is now being scorned for being too slow and is being superceded by texting and instant messaging. People want and expect to receive information immediately. Not so long ago we had to wait days or weeks to receive information sent by mail. Today, critical data regularly traverses the globe in seconds.
Part of my working life is spent in the IT world. Rarely does a week pass without someone asking if they can retrieve an email that was sent in error. There are systems aplenty to recover deleted files. As a general rule however, you cannot recover an email once it has been sent. Speeding on the information super-highway can be a little dangerous at times. I know of at least one administrator at UC San Diego that is longing for the good old days of the tortoise.
The full LA Times story is at http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-ucsd-reject1-2009apr01,0,7943711.story