Fake Photos-A Thing of the Past?

image
image from WSJ.com

You may have already heard about the Chinese antelope that weren’t: This, from WSJ’s Jane Spencer and Juliet Ye:

Earlier this week, Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, issued an unusual public apology for publishing a doctored photograph of Tibetan wildlife frolicking near a high-speed train.

The deception — uncovered by Chinese Internet users who sniffed out a Photoshop scam in the award-winning picture — has brought on a big debate about media ethics, China’s troubled relationship with Tibet, and how pregnant antelope react to noise.

The photographer and editor involved have since resigned. But this took two years to out; you look at the photo now and you just know that it’s not real. And this, of course, is not the first time photos have been doctored by news organisations that should know better (there’s Reutersgate, as it’s sometimes called, when Lebanese freelance photographer Adnan Hajj was caught allegedly duplicating flares, buildings and plumes of smoke for Reuters. More on photoshopping at Wikipedia). How can we avoid this?

One option is to be a bit more discerning about the pictures we see, whatever their provenance. Another is to turn to technology. Academics Jessica Fridrich, David Soukal and Jan Lukáš looked at

detection of a special type of digital forgery – the copy-move attack in which a part of the image is copied and pasted somewhere else in the image with the intent to cover an important image feature.

Their paper [PDF] investigated the problem of detecting the copy-move forgery and described what they called “an efficient and reliable detection method”. John Graham-Cumming, best known for his work on Bayesian spam filters, made it a reality with an algorithm that implements automatic detection of image alteration using copy/paste. (OK, he did it because he wanted to win money in a spot the ball competition, but it’s still good work.)

A guy called John Wiseman has made a few modifications to the code so it works faster, and has shown how it works well in detecting the alterations in Adnan’s photos:

image

image

The blue and red bits are where there are duplicated pixels. The code didn’t work very well on the Chinese antelope picture because that involves splicing two pictures together more than copy/move. But it’s worth a look.

Is this going to bring to an end Photoshopping? Probably not. But it might make us more skeptical, and if tools like this are readily available, more likely to run suspect photos through the wringer until we’re sure that what we see actually happened like that.

China Eats Crow Over Faked Photo Of Rare Antelope – WSJ.com

The New Newswire: a Dutch Student Called Michael

Twitter is now a news service in its own right. ReadWrite Web, an excellent website dedicated to Web 2.0 stuff, points out that the recent earthquake in England–not that unusual in itself, apparently, but rarely actually strong enough to be felt by humans—was reported first by Twitterers and by a Twitter-only news service called BreakingNewsOn (www.twitter.com/BreakingNewsOn): 

This story broke over Twitter in the past half hour, and nothing is up yet on the BBC sites, the Guardian, or the Telegraph. This story is breaking live on Twitter.

Looking at the situation a few hours later, it’s certainly true that mainstream websites have been a bit slow with the story. From what I can gather, the timeline is something like this (all times are in GMT):

Quake hits south of Grimsby 00:56  
First tweets 00:57  
BreakingNewsOn 00:59 (“Unconfirmed reports of earthquake in London”)
BreakingNewsOn 01:01 (“Reports of earthquake, working to confirm”, followed by lots of tweets)
BreakingNewsOn 01:10 (confirmation from European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre)
Dow Jones Newswires 01:29 (quotes BBC report)
Associated Press 01:30 (garbled alert)
Reuters 01:36 (“Quake shakes Britain, no casualties reported”)
AFP 01:45 (“Moderate quake shakes Britain”)
BBC twitter feed 01:56 (“Tremors felt across England”)

There may be some holes in here: I don’t have the exact time when the BBC website first carried the story, but I’m guessing it’s a few minutes before the wires. And this is not the first BreakingNewsOn has been ahead: It was, according to some reports, first on the Benazir Bhutto assassination, although I’ve not been able to confirm that. 

So who or what is BreakingNewsOn, and how does it scoop the big guys on their own turf? The service is actually pretty much one guy, a 20-year old Dutch student called Michael van Poppel, according to this interview by Shashi Bellamkonda. He is a news junkie, and makes money from it too, doing something called web-trawling—searching the net for stuff he can sell to the big players. (He was the guy who last September dug up a videotape of Osama bin Laden, which he then sold to Reuters.) 

Van Poppel works with a couple of other people and is clearly experienced and voracious in hoovering up web content. But it’s also about citizen journalism, crowd sourcing, whatever you want to call it: in the case of the UK quake, the first alerts actually came from witnesses, who twittered about the jolts they felt; it was BreakingNewsOn’s skill in harvesting that information, and staying sufficiently close to its readers for them to think to share their experience, that led to the fast turnaround. 

Of course, there’s much about this that is new. Everyone is now a reporter, if they find themselves in the middle of news. And everyone can be a media publisher: In this case it’s one 20-year old student with a twitter feed and an Internet-connected computer. And, finally, everyone can now subscribe to that once holiest-of-holies: a newswire service that updates in real time. Only now it’s not called a Reuters terminal or a Bloomberg but Twitter. 

But behind that, not much has changed. I’ve covered a few quakes in my time, and it’s all about finding the stuff out quickly by getting it out quickly. Nothing much has changed. No one was injured or killed, and it sounds like there was no falling masonry or damage to buildings. But that’s no excuse: earthquakes are news, and especially if they’re the strongest in the country for more than two decades

Twitter is perfectly suited for breaking news, because it’s all about short pithy sentences and updates. As ReadWrite Web points out, during the California wildfires last year, Twitter and other citizen journalism tools were used by people on the ground, scooping the mainstream press. And all this offers some lessons for the mainstream press that it would be wise to absorb: 

  • Mainstream media cannot afford to be slow off the mark on stories like this, since their value to high-paying subscribers is intimately tied to their speed;
  • Alert streams are no longer the province of market traders;
  • Traditional media needs to find a way to work with these new sources of news, or else find a way to add value that such services cannot. In this case it could have been finding a way to reflect in the headlines the unusual nature of this event;
  • Traditional media has to both monitor these new sources of news–the tweets from ordinary folk surprised to be shaken awake by a tremor—and work with them to ensure that they, too, benefit.

Some might say that what van Poppel does isn’t news. I’d contest that. He did everything right in reporting the story: it’s big enough an event to merit an “unconfirmed” snap, a quick follow-up which contains what we old newshounds would call an advisory letting subscribers know what he’s doing and to expect more. When he got confirmation he put out, all within 10 minutes. That’s a time-tested, old-fashioned and reasonable news approach. He leveraged the new media, but he showed an understanding of news values and what his readers needed. 

Kudos to him. We all could learn a lesson.

(An extended version of this post is available for publication to newsprint media as part of the Loose Wire Service. More details here, or email Jeremy Wagstaff directly.)

Beyond Information Delivery

image

Newspaper delivery guy, Jakarta 2007

Over at Loose Wire sister site ten minutes I just wrote a review of ShifD, a new Web 2.0 clippings service that works, in theory, between desktop and mobile. More interesting, I reckoned (quoting myself; sorry), is that

it’s developed by two guys from within The New York Times’ R&D Lab, so you can’t help wondering where something like this might fit into the world of newspapers.

I’d love to see, for example, a five-digit code at the end of each news story in my newspaper/magazine that I could key into my phone and which would then store a copy of that story on my desktop. Would save me carrying a  magic marker around and then forgetting to clip it when I got home. Forget reading the NYT on my handheld: That ain’t going to happen to an old fogey like me; but I’d love a way to store what I liked somewhere useful so that I wouldn’t forget it.

Maybe this is how newspapers need to think of themselves. The medium is not really the problem: I want my newspaper in traditional form, because it’s tried and tested and works for me. But it doesn’t me I don’t want it in other forms too: For when I’m crushed on a subway, where flipping back the pages of the IHT might not be welcomed by my fellow sardines, or when I’m stuck without reading matter waiting for a friend (hi, Mark!)

And of course other people have their requirements too. The medium is going to always be different, depending on the individual. So it’s the content that is the constant, the one element you want to ensure your readers/users are able to access whenever and wherever they want.

And that doesn’t mean just reading it once. Nowadays, as information bombards us, we are more selective about what we read. Two points here: We get a lot of stuff thrown at us, so our ability to recall stuff is weaker. And, because our time is precious, when we do allocate it to something, we don’t want to feel that time is wasted or lost.

Ergo, the value comes in being able to help us users store information we’ve already decided to commit some of our scarce resources to so we can maximise our benefit from it. Whatever article or piece of information it is, chances are that if we bothered to read it, or read most of it, we’ll hope that we retain some of it for future usage.

That, I reckon is where something like ShifD comes into its own. But not if it’s a standalone service. Then it will merely fight with all other services out there that offer something similar. Its power will come if it can be harnessed with NYT so that however, whenever and wherever I dedicate some of my time to reading that august rag, I can be sure of a simple way, via my phone or desktop, of storing anything I read that I consider to be valuable and worth keeping.

In this sense, if you want to get all grand about it, the future of media lies not so much in the format and medium of delivery to the consumer but in the format and delivery of retention by the consumer. I as a consumer want the media provider to provide a way for me to maximise my utility from reading it, by recognising that reading something is not the end of the relationship with that article.

For me, the consumer, it’s the beginning: I’m hoping the piece will change my life sufficiently, from advice on buying new shoes to understanding the threat to my future from a Second Cold War. That, I suspect, is the challenge of today’s media.

SMS, Toilets, Bike Theft and Cars

image

I remember an instructive conversation with a guy who developed services for the mobile phone. I was suggesting some fancy service or other that involved a small app sitting on the phone. He said it wouldn’t fly with users. “No downloads, no registration, keep it simple,” he said. “Or it won’t stick.”

Maybe that’s why SMS is so powerful and why, still, it’s the method of choice for services on the cellphone. Emily over at textually.org has found some more, illustrating how SMS is not just about simplicity, but flexibility.

Tackling a more urgent problem there is SMS toiletting, where text messages help you relieve yourself. In London, Shanghai, and, via MizPee, anywhere in the U.S., those caught short can SMS for the address of the nearest loo. To guarantee you  have a pleasant experience, some toilets in Finland are locked. Of course, then you can open the door of a locked loo by SMS.

Then there’s what I’d call, for want of a better term, conditional SMS: You’ll only get your SMS depending on certain factors:

  • An SMS service that delivers text messages based on the recipient’s location. JotYou  lets you specify a location so your friends get your message only when they arrive at school or the mall. Yeah, I can’t quite figure out the use for this yet either, but I’m sure there are some.
  • Or a service, yet to be launched, that will ensure the sender knows when his message has been read. More on this anon.

When you marry the SMS with other tools, you can dream up some great services. Like this one from the UK:

  • A system that combines a motion detector and SMS is being used to deter and catch bicycle thieves in Portsmouth, England (picture above). When the bicycle owner locks up their bicycle they send a text to a security office to trigger the system to guard it. Then if someone then moves, or tries to move the bicycle, a sensor in the lock emits a silent alarm which triggers a CCTV camera to zoom in and take a picture. Result: bike theft down by 90%.

Bottom line. SMS still has a lot of leg left to it. Why? Because it’s simple. Because every phone can do it. Because it’s cheap. Because it’s tied to the most versatile device we’ve yet come up with: The mobile phone.

Breaking Out of Those Silos

image

If you’re looking for the future of news, a pretty good example of it is at UK startup silobreaker, which isn’t a farm demolition service but a pretty cool news aggregation and visualization site. In other words, it lets you look at news in different ways. And it’s caught the attention of Microsoft, who today announced it had select the company for its Startup Accelerator program.

The website itself looks pretty normal on first glance–news on the left, three columns of stuff. But look closer. Four boxes on the right offer different sorts of information: a trends chart showing “media attention” (presumably the number of mentions in the news) of different Windows products:

image

Another shows the relationships between Rio Tinto, other companies, topics and cities:

image

And my favorite, a map showing all the places where things are happening in the news. Move your mouse over them and details will pop up in a small box:

image

Drop down lists of topics along the top of the website allow you to select your area, and it’s a satisfying range to choose from. Open the terroism page, for example, and you get a bunch of stories on terrorism, as well a map of hotspots (already zoomed in on the Middle East and Central/South Asia), and a trend map showing how media interest in terrorism in Afghanistan has risen markedly in recent weeks against that of Iraq and the U.S. Who knows how accurate this stuff is, and where it comes from, but it’s still an interesting way to slice and dice the data:

image

Not everything works quite as it’s supposed to but there’s still lots of quality in here, and it puts pretty much every other news site to shame. And it’s not even as if these elements are particularly new; I’ve long sung the praises of newsmaps and mindmaps as a way for online newspapers to get with the program, and it’s frankly been disappointing that so few have tried these things out.

Demise of Contemplative Space


Demise of Contemplative Space
Originally uploaded by Loose Wire.

Now there are TVs on buses, in lifts, in waiting rooms, is there any room left for contemplation?

In tandem with my earlier musings about the demise of downtime, we’re seeing those places that once, by accident or design, encouraged pondering, mulling, whatever you want to call, shrink in number.

In this case, it was a Singapore bus where passengers are assaulted by strategically placed screens and ubiquitous noise (playing a three minute opera based on the word ‘miaow’) . I used to love sitting on a bus and looking at the world outside, generally speaking undisturbed, everyone collectively lost in their individual thoughts. Now all eyes are inward, drawn towards the TV that is so hard to ignore.

No TVs on the subway — yet. Think I’ll take that next time.

Dark Age Messengers

image

Maybe I’m missing something, of I’ve been taken in by those TV ads of guys walking across stepping stones made out of frogmens’ skulls, but I expect the big couriers to be somewhat snappier and higher-tech these days. Not based on today’s experience:

  • Call their hotline to get a guy in either Mexico or the Philippines (based on accent, and he wasn’t saying) who scolded me for giving the second line of the address first, and then refused to accept the package as documents when I told him it was a book (it’s actually a pile of edited pages, so I guess it could be either.) Stoopid that I am, I didn’t realise the huge difference (commercial invoice in triplicate and duties for one, nothing for the other) and should have said “documents” when he asked me. So that session was a bust.
  • My colleague, the recipient and courier account holder tried the other end, and we got somewhere, though both of us still had to give the details twice, including something called a “control number” (I’ve just been watching Terry Gilliams’s Brazil so I’m on the lookout for things like this) to “smoothen things out”.
  • Of course when the guy came there were no documents, no smoothing things out, so we had to do everything by hand. All nine sections. Good luck to whoever has to decipher my atrocious handwriting. We’ll be lucky if the package makes it before Christmas.

So, questions:

What happened to those handheld computers that couriers were using a few years ago to do all this? Wouldn’t it be easier? Just type out the details or input them from Central Service — the guy with the van already has my address, presumably, unless he just drove around knocking on everyone’s doors, and as the recipient is the one being billed, presumably all they need is his account number for all those details to pop into the appropriate fields.

And then don’t get me started on the whole “give-me-your-details-over-the-phone-and-can-you-spell-your-name-again-is-it-German-no-it’s-not-it’s-English-like-Shakespeare” (not that I have anything against German names) thing. Why can’t we do this any better?

Off the top of my head, type “Fedex” or “UPS” into Skype and you’re instantly connected to customer service where you can type your details in so they won’t be misheard, and you don’t have to sit on the line listening to “Rhinestone Cowboy” on a loop (actually it was worse; I think it was “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro).

I’d be up for a USB dongle that the guy carries, and the customer slips into their computer (who doesn’t have one sitting around these days?) and a little courier program pops up so the user can fill in the details from their laptop or desktop. He just plugs it into his handheld device and the data zips across and self-checks. Courier guys could carry round free branded ones and hand them out as promotional items and so customers can fill out the fields in advance.

Or if that’s too complicated, going to the website and opening up a chat box with a customer representative. (I’ve just checked Fedex’s customer support page and it involves filling out 14 different fields. And don’t try to sidestep any:

image

Yeah, I’m going to fill all those in.

Maybe these courier firms are smarter in other parts of the world, but I didn’t come away feeling impressed. I’m sure their package tracking systems are second to none — i.e. once the atoms are in the system. But it seems that the burden is still being passed to the customer, when it could be so much less painful for both parties if it was electronic.

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,

Tony’s Camera


Tony’s Camera
Originally uploaded by Loose Wire.

How many people, I wonder, have had this experience: a nightmare with a smartphone and a return to trusty basics. My friend Tony has a BlackBerry, but this is his phone of choice, and after his N91 died in midflight (literally) he decided he wouldn’t take a chance on a phone being anything more than a phone anymore. This ancient museum-piece is now his main phone and he’s very happy with it. And he being in telecoms too!

Reflecting On Yourself


Reflecting On Yourself
Originally uploaded by Loose Wire.

Why are people so easily absorbed by their own reflection? Is it narcissism, or do we tend to face the transport that we await? Is it easier to look at ourselves than at other people? Are people thinking about themselves when they look, or are they critically appraising their looks? Why don’t we feel self-conscious gazing at our reflections in public? Why do men do it as much as women?

How Reliable Is Google Maps?

image

Was looking for a Singapore hotel this morning on Google Maps, which would seem to be a good place to start, and was perturbed to find it flagged in five different places, most of them several streets apart (above). These are all links from companies advertising rooms. So you’d think they would try to get it right. (Amusingly, the sponsored link at the top is for a hotel of the same name in Vancouver, which is slightly further down the road and across several oceans):

image

So, some ways to go, I suspect, before the era of ubiquitous searchability and and mobile findability, or whatever it’s called.