Friday, November 30, 2012

Using the Internet as an Investigative Tool to Solve Crimes

I just read an article on about an amazing piece of investigative work performed on the internet to find some art thieves.  The interesting piece in the article is right down near the very end.

To summarize the brilliant idea, Jefferey Gundlach, who seems to be this very rich financial genius, had a very extensive art collection at his home in Santa Monica.  In September of this year, thieves robbed more than $10 Million in artwork as well as his Porsche, wine, and watches.  As part of the artwork haul the thieves walked off with two works by his grandmother, who was an amateur painter.

The local police and the FBI were both brought in to investigate the crime.  A substantial reward was offered for the return of the stolen items.  Gundlach also gave the investigators a tip for solving the crime. He said that thieves would most likely do a Google search using his grandmother's name to find out more about the artist and the value of the stolen paintings.  He suggested they check the Internet to see if anyone had googled the name.  As it turned out there were exactly two such searches -- one by him and one by the thieves.  The thieves were arrested and all the artwork was recovered.

This story shows true brilliance by Gundlach. My hat is off to him on the idea to look for the thieves in this way.

All this elation should be tempered with the most obvious implications of what happened here.
Obviously, Google provided the information to the authorities. I am assuming they had a search warrant of some sort to get access to the information. It raises the alarm that anything you may do on the internet may be dissected by the government (or for that matter, even by corporate entities) for all sorts of reasons having nothing to do with crime.  Sort of like Big Brother watching over your thoughts, don't you think?  I read the other day that Facebook is now going to be selling personal information that they have collected.  I suspect that we have not seen what the future holds for us in this arena yet. [Note: interestingly, I received an email today that was clearly initiated by the sale of information on my Facebook page to a commercial entity.]

This is a very touchy issue. Appropriate limits must be placed on the use of this kind of powerful "reverse search" capability. I also recall that after the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings for his nomination to the Supreme Court that limits were placed on access to information on what books or VHS tapes (or DVDs) anyone can access at a library or "video store".  The issue seems to have been a factor in the Netflix decision to break up their mail order business from their video streaming business as the laws are quite different on what they could do with this information in each case depending on whether it was information on a DVD rental or a downstream.

As a result of the terrorist attacks of 9-11 we had enactment of legislation in the "Patriot Act" on the ability of law enforcement to access this kind of information without a warrant.  Still, there should be very clear limits and controls. Don't you think?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Anthropology 101

Louis Leakey
I remember well the first day of my Anthropology 101 course at the University of Illinois. I believe it was 1965. Of course, I had no idea who the lecturer for the course was going to be. All I knew at the time was that I was required to take a certain number of courses in the social sciences to get my B.S. in Mathematics. I picked this course because I thought it might be interesting. I had no idea what I had gotten myself into.
At the beginning of the first lecture there were these two professorial types at the front of the jam-packed lecture hall. It was one of those rooms where each row is at a higher elevation than the row in front of it. The first fellow to speak, I think, was the head of the Anthropology department. He introduced the other fellow, who, it turns out would be the instructor for the course: Louis Leakey. Mr. Leakey had just arrived on the campus from Kenya where he had been, for the previous 40 years, conducting digs looking for our prehistoric human ancestors. He was, of course, responsible for finding "Lucy", the earliest know bipedal primate known to exist, the Australopithecus.
Of course, when we got to the subject of human archeology he spoke with some authority.  It was his work at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, often called the "cradle of mankind" that had created the most astounding specimens to date in the field.
I really wanted to become an archeologist after being inspired by him.  My major concern was the isolation of being in such remote locations for such long periods of time that ultimately made me look toward more down to earth scientific disciplines.  I think his enthusiasm for his life's work was the real key to understanding him.  He loved, so much the work he did.

Heinz Von Foerster (1911-2002)

Heinz von Foerster was a visionary scholar, academician, one of my mentors, and a dear friend.

I first met him while I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois in the 1960s.  At that time he was a Professor of Electrical Engineering, head of the Biological Computer Laboratory, and a member of the Coordinated Science Laboratory associated with research in the Artificial Intelligence where I had a research position. I published one paper with him.  When I met him my first impression was that he was the best incarnation I had ever seen of the proverbial “mad scientist” who was hell bent on creating something that would destroy the earth. His accent, complexion, facial expressions, and hairline (if that is what you want to call a bald head) seemed to look just like those images I associated with an old Frankenstein movie. The only thing he was missing was the white lab coat.  This first image of him could not have been further from reality.  In truth, yes, he was a scientist, and, yes, he did want to create ideas that would change humanity, and, yes, even a few people might say that he was so intense that you might be inclined to think that he was “mad”, but few would argue that he wanted to destroy anything, except, ignorance.

I eventually was his student in a graduate seminar course, I worked with him in the research lab.  I published one paper with him. And, most importantly, he honored me by agreeing to be on my dissertation committee.  As we got to know each other, we became friends and I was brought into the circle of intellectual thinking that surrounded him. I was introduced to his colleagues, including Humberto Maturana, and John Lilly, to mention a few. Heinz was very outgoing, was a showman with quite a flair for speaking and was a magnet for attracting controversy.

In 1960 he and two of his associates wrote an article (von Forester, Heinz, Patricia M. Mora, and Lawrence W. Amiot. "'Projections' versus 'Forecasts' in Human Population Studies." Science, Volume 136, Number 3511, April 13, 1962)  wherein they proposed a formula for a best fit to historical data on world human population which indicated that the human population of the Earth would become infinite on Friday, November 13, 2026. The so called “Doomsday Equation” was asymptotic to this date. Critics pointed out that the human population was finite and that, given the 9 month gestation period for humans, it was, therefore, impossible to become infinite by any date.

While the article was intended at one level to be tongue and cheek, having, for example, selected Heinz’s own birth date as the “Doomsday”, the paper generated a storm of protest both in the scientific and in the lay press. He received much notoriety for the article, including New York Times and Time magazine articles and three now famous Pogo comic strips.

I remember well, sitting in his office and looking at the original signed Pogo comic strip hanging on the wall behind his desk.  Those who knew von Foerster could see at his very core his unique and profound sense of humor.

Heinz, like my grandfather, was from what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, though Heinz was from Vienna.  He studied physics at the Technical University of Vienna.  Subsequently he received a Ph.D. in physics in 1944 at the University of Breslau.  After the War he took a position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1949) in the department of Electrical Engineering.  In 1958 he affiliated himself with the department of Biophysics and founded the Biological Computer Laboratory in 1962.  In the latter ‘60s he affiliated himself with Robert Chien at the Coordinated Science Laboratory.   For a short account of his life see his New York Times Obituary.

He is best known as a fairly substantial Information Theorist, having participated in the Cybernetics phenomenon. This was actually no surprise, since he came from a very intellectually famous family.  The famous Mathematician/Logician Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of his relatives.  He was a Guggenheim Fellow twice and President of the the Wenner-Gren Foundation for anthropological research. He was the editor of the Macy Conference volumes entitled Cybernetics (1949-53).  He knew John von Neumann, Norbert Wiener, and Margaret Mead, just to mention a few of the people he collaborated with.. He is well known for what is now referred to as the von Foerster Equation.

After retirement from the University of Illinois in 1976 he moved to California and i next met up with him when he was on the Board of Directors of Atari Corp. He had built a home for himself and his wife in Pescadero CA and had converted the basement into his office.

I am glad to see that he has been honored appropriately both during the latter part of his life and certainly after his long distinguished career.