PopTech Blog

Posts by Lindsay Borthwick

Password protected? 1,000 most frequently used passwords

You wouldn’t leave your door unlocked when you’re not at home. Yet, you probably do the online equivalent every day, exposing your bank account, inbox, social network – even your very identity - to the prying eyes of hackers.

After all, in this digital age, protecting our privacy comes down to those simple strings of characters that cause no end of grief: passwords. So we routinely commit the deadly sins of password protection—picking passwords that are easy to guess, using the same ones for multiple purposes, and never bothering to change them—even though we know better.

I recently stumbled across Top 1000 Passwords—a simple visualization of the one thousand most popular passwords extracted from a few leaked databases—that drives this point home. The folks at Dazzlepod, a web development company, created the Wordle to remind us just how easy it is for a hacker to take a leaked database and extract from it pairs of e-mail addresses and passwords. It's constructed from data on more than 400,000 users.

(They detail how to crack passwords here.) 

The top 5 passwords?

  1. 123456 (appearing more than 5,000 times)
  2. password
  3. 123456789
  4. qwerty
  5. 12345678


Collaboration alert: Sarah Fortune and Lukas Biewald

In 2010, Sarah Fortune came to PopTech looking for a solution. The 2010 PopTech Science Fellow and researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health had hit a wall in her research on Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. She needed a way to analyze streams of images of the bacteria -- as quickly and cheaply as possible -- or one line of her research would stall.

“I thought maybe we could crowdsource it,” she recalled in front of a packed house at PopTech 2011. “So I asked onstage, ‘Is there an app for that?’ Unbelievably, someone in the audience called out and then made it happen.”

That someone was Josh Nesbit, a 2009 Social Innovation Fellow, who connected Fortune to Lukas Biewald, co-founder of CrowdFlower, an Internet-based crowdsourcing company. The rest, as they say, is history.

To learn more about their collaboration, watch their PopTech 2011 talk or read the rest of this post from the conference.

Snowflakes made to order

When Kenneth Libbrecht utters the words “let it snow,” the universe obliges — even in southern California, even in the summer. Libbrecht is a physicist at Caltech, but he’s also a snowflake designer, manipulating water and air in his laboratory to produce the exquisite ice crystals we love to sing about —and to play about in — each winter.

But why? What secrets can a tiny, elemental snowflake yield to science today? As Libbrecht recently told the journal Nature (subscription required):

We see these beautiful structures falling from the sky, and we still cannot explain how they came to be. When you ask how snowflakes form, you are really asking about how molecules go from a disordered gaseous state to an ordered crystalline lattice. Unexpected phenomena can emerge — snowflakes are one fascinating example.

So his interest boils down to wanting to understand how crystals grow, the physics of which may find application in materials science. More specifically, Libbrecht is trying to understand why temperature has such a dramatic impact on the shape of snow crystals, producing simple, needle-like crystals at one temperature and extraordinarily complex, star-like ones at another. It's hard to believe, but the physics responsible for this transformation is still a mystery.

It should be said that Libbrecht’s interest in snowflakes isn’t purely academic. He’s an accomplished snowflake photographer, an author of several books on the icy crystals, and a pilgrim of sorts, who travels to snowflake “hot spots” – in Canada and Japan, for example – in search of the world’s best snow crystals. (Visit his website, SnowCrystals.com, for a flurry of facts and images about snowflakes including whether any two are the same.)


Why neuroscience may help save the oceans

Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols believes we’re psychologically tethered to our primordial home, the ocean. Sound far-fetched? Then think for a moment about how you feel when you’re standing on a beach, looking out at the seemingly endless blue horizon, or when you pick up a seashell and “listen” to the sound of waves crashing ashore. There’s something about it, isn’t there? Nichols has termed this feeling "blue mind," he explained in a recent interview published in OnEarth, and he's enlisted the help of neuroscientists to study it.

Twice in the past year – once in June, then again a few weeks ago – he gathered those researchers, as well as environmentalists, conservation scientists and artists together, in California, at the BLUEMiND Summit, to start exploring this connection. Nichols said in the interview:

Sound, for example, affects our brain and influences our emotions. If I ask you to close your eyes and turn on a recording of the ocean, I can change your mood immediately. There’s a huge body of research on the science of music and the brain, but almost nothing on the sound of the ocean and the brain. That’s probably going to be the first study that comes out of the Blue Mind Summit....

His interest in the way our brains respond to the deep blue sea isn’t merely academic. He sees it as the foundation for a new kind of response to the environmental crisis facing the oceans: NeuroConservation. This 21st-century form of conservation would harness new discoveries about the brain and behavior, courtesy of advances in cognitive neuroscience, to help people become better environmental stewards. “Without a deeper understanding of our brains, we’re not going to ‘think our way out’ of the current biospheric crisis,” Nichols writes at Mindandocean.org.


Interview: Jonathan Rothberg on speed-reading your genome

In an interview he gave to the journal Nature last year, Jonathan Rothberg, the CEO of biotech company Ion Torrent, cited Steve Jobs as his biggest influence. While that's probably true of many tech entrepreneurs, Jobs recent death, from cancer, is bound to have affected Rothberg more than most. That's because the Connecticut-based engineer and serial entrepreneur invites comparison to the former Apple CEO in a way that few people do. After all, just as Jobs revolutionized personal computing, Rothberg is doing the same for biology and medicine. At the heart of both revolutions is the humble silicon chip.

About 10 years ago, Rothberg pioneered a faster and cheaper method for reading genomes called next-generation sequencing, which is currently the gold standard in research labs around the world. Now, he has launched a desktop gene machine that may finally usher in the long-awaited personal genomics revolution by dramatically cutting the cost of decoding an individual’s DNA sequence and fingering their genetic weaknesses. This, in turn, creates the possibility that we'll soon be able to diagnose and treat a host of diseases on an individualized basis -- chief among them, cancer. Unlike its predecessor's, Rothberg's new invention -- the Ion Personal Genome Machine (PGM) -- reads DNA using semiconductor technology, making it cheaper, faster and more scalable than any other.

Due to the sequencing power of both generations of his machines, Rothberg has laid claim to a lot of firsts: he led the effort to sequence the first individual genome (James Watson’s of the double helix), initiated the first large-scale sequencing effort of ancient DNA -- the Neanderthal Genome Project, and helped crack the mystery behind the massive disappearances of the honey bee, as well as a deadly E. coli outbreak in Germany.

We sat down with Rothberg at PopTech 2011 to discuss how making DNA sequencing more accessible stands to transform medicine.

PopTech: You've sequenced the genome of James Watson, one of the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA. Have you sequenced your own?
Jonathan Rothberg: I get this question from my wife because I recently sequenced Gordon Moore's genome, who's the founder of Intel. And, as you mentioned, I’ve sequenced Jim Watson's genome. She asked me, “Why do you always sequence 80-year-old Caucasian men? They’re healthy.” I sequence them precisely for that reason. Because except for educating people about why it’s important to sequence for medicine, for discovery, for making drugs, for diagnostics, for understanding the progression of disease, for finding a cure for breast cancer, I think genetic materials is private and that you should have a reason to sequence it. You should be sequencing because you are trying to understand disease, you should be sequencing because you are trying to make a diagnostic, you should be sequencing because you are making a drug. So, no, I haven’t.

What's your vision for the future of genome sequencing and personal genomics? Some scientists have suggested that every baby should have its heel pricked and its genome sequenced at birth.
My vision is that sequencing will develop in an analogous way and be equal or greater in importance than imaging has been to medicine, just as how part of medical practice we have X-rays, MRIs and CAT scans.

I do, though, have a vision that starts with the heel prick, where, in a newborn unit of a hospital, every child has his or her sequence done. And I think there will be a time when that will make sense -- when the economics makes sense and when we have data that correlates sequence with disease, sequence with things we can take action on. Then it will make sense to sequence the whole genome.

Over the next five to 10 years, we will have to be sequencing -- and working to make sense of the sequence -- so that a decade from now, when that heel is pricked, we'll be able to do something. For example, does that child need a different diet, or should that child stay out of the sun? So right now, I think sequencing is best done as it's needed -- so you have a person with cancer or a newborn who is sick and you use that sequence to inform medical decisions. As we have more medical information along with the sequence, I think it will become a more general tool. And the nice thing is that by that time, it will be cheap enough that it can be universal. Read more...

Saturday talk of the Day: Daniel Kish on blindness and freedom

Daniel Kish is a self-described “real-life batman” who uses echolocation to navigate the physical world. Kish, who has been blind since he was an infant, depends on the click of his tongue to send sound waves out into the environment. Those waves bounce off his surroundings and return information to him through his sense of hearing. His ear is now so finely tuned that he can ride a bike through busy streets or go for a hike in the woods unaccompanied. In fact, neuroscientists have shown that his brain responds to acoustic signals as if they were visual stimuli.

But the most remarkable thing about Kish isn’t his sensory talent. It’s the way he has used it to empower sight-impaired individuals through his organization, World Access for the Blind. “We work with hundreds of thousands of students all over the world who cannot open their eyes. Yet the students we work with don't harken to the ideas of fear and limitation and restriction,” he told PopTech participants this morning. “We have found a way to help them open their eyes, to reclaim their freedom, to reestablish their own capacity to direct their lives in the manner of their own choosing.”


Interview: Nobel Laureate Rajendra K. Pachauri

As chair of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Rajendra Pachauri oversees an organization that synthesizes the work of hundreds of scientists into reports that drive global policy, negotiates agreement from the world’s governments, and puts a public face on the most pressing environmental issues of our time. He also serves as director general of TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) in his native India, and as director of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute. And if that’s not enough, he has had to contend with a rising tide of climate denialism that has sought to undermine the IPCC’s reputation and confuse the public and its leadership, all at a time when the world needs to be advancing, rather than retracting, solutions to climate change. 

In 2007, in his Nobel acceptance speech, Pachauri concluded with the question, “Will those responsible for decisions in the field of climate change at the global level listen to the voice of science and knowledge, which is now loud and clear?” In an interview this week with PopTech, he talked about why he’s still optimistic that we will rise to the challenge.

PopTech: You’ve been the head of the IPCC since 2002. Is the discourse around climate change different today than it was 10 years ago?
Rajendra Pachauri: I would say the level of awareness is much higher. And I think people realize that the stakes are much higher today. 

Climate change denialism is still a problem, particularly in the U.S. How is the IPCC working to combat climate skeptics and those with vested interests?
We have been rather deficient in our ability to communicate our scientific messages to the public in the past. We’re trying to repair that, to the extent possible, but I have to admit that there’s only so much that we can do. Ultimately, it’s up to other organizations that pick up the scientific findings that we bring out to disseminate them to the public -- and that certainly includes the media.  

In the end, I think scientific reality will dawn on the consciousness of people all over the world. It’s just a matter of time. After all, if you go back in history, there is no area of scientific discovery where there wasn’t very intense questioning -- and often opposition --to what new knowledge brought out. And therefore climate change, which has major public policy and economic implications, is not going to be accepted unopposed. That’s something that we should have expected, and I think we just have to do our best as a scientific body.


Science Fellow spotlight: Iain Couzin

Iain Couzin, Science Fellow

Science Fellow Iain Couzin is striving to understand how and why animals coordinate their behavior: why fish swim in schools, caribou migrate in herds, birds fly in flocks and insects tend to swarm. Today, standing against a backdrop of photos from Mauritania, where he has been studying the swarming behavior of desert locusts, Couzin explained that despite 50 years of research, fighting locusts is still more of an art than a science. This is partly because scientists haven’t sought to understand locusts' collective behavior, until now.

Juvenile locusts are wingless and march in bands. In Couzin's lab, they'll march in circles for hours a day, a highly coordinated behavior. By focusing on local interactions between the locusts, as well as another insect, the Mormon cricket, Couzin and his collaborators have discovered that they march together not out of cooperation but out of self-interest.  “Locusts and crickets are not cooperating. They run out of protein and they run out of salt. They move to avoid getting cannibalized," he said. "The outcome is forced motion."

Couzin hopes to use this new-found understanding of the insects’ mass movements to help predict outbreaks and control pests, especially in places like Mauritania where plagues can devastate local economies. But their collective dynamics may also help him understand animal migration, the spread of disease and even climate change.

Images: Kris Krug for PopTech (photo); Perrin Ireland, Alphachimp Studio (illustration)

Video: Amy Cuddy's power poses

Social psychologist Amy Cuddy's pioneering research shows that subtle manipulations in posture can actually change our hormone levels and dramatically alter the way we feel and are perceived by the people around us. Just two minutes in one of Cuddy's power poses boosted testosterone and lowered cortisol levels, and actually changed the performance of research participants in stressful situations. She channeled these findings into empowerment training tips. Check out her PopTech presentation to find out how you can use your body language to win in the boardroom, your next job, interview or public performance.

Friday round-up: Highlights, snapshots & quotable moments

Today we heard from an Egyptian human rights activist who demonstrated in Tahrir Square, a strategic adviser to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a social psychologist who studies the power of body language and two researchers developing bioacoustic technologies.  

Here’s what showed up on Twitter and Flickr, caused a stir in the audience and had our staffers whispering backstage. Is your favorite moment missing? Add it to the mix!

Hayat Sindi: PopTech Science and Social Innovation Fellow announced the launch of a new NGO, the Institute for Imagination and Ingenuity, dedicated to engaging the hearts and minds of young people throughout the Middle East.  "I meet young people with great ideas, but without resources, encouragement, or access to realize their dreams. I want to inspire our youth to innovate and to bring their dreams to reality."

We've disconnected the right and left sides of our brain and we're not allowing innovation to drive the national forward.
-- Capt. Wayne Porter, former strategic adviser to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and co-author of the groundbreaking article “A National Strategic Narrative.”

Saman Arbibi and Kambiz Hosseini: Their Persian-language TV program, Parazit, on Voice of America started as a 10-minute pilot three years ago and has become an international phenomenon, drawing more than 700,000 followers in Iran. They transform material provided by people on the street, juxtaposing humor against the injustices unfolding in that country today. 

Expand without dominating or without complimenting.
-- Social psychologist Amy Cuddy on the body language that will help you land the job at your next interview.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: The first female director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State discussed her “Lego Model” of foreign policy, in which coalitions are formed not by states but by various social actors -- government, industry and so on. " A networked world of social actors provides a model that is much more resilient when bad things happen." 

We're swimming in data. Ninety percent of the data that exists today was created in the past two years.
-- Robert Kirkpatrick, director, UN Global Pulse, on harnessing the power of open data.

Red Teaming: The Art of Challenging Assumptions: Ellyn Ogden, a coordinator of the fight against polio for USAID, described the motivating power of envisioning failure. She is harnessing the "Red Teaming" techniques developed by the US military to plan the subtler, more complex strategies she believes are necessary to eliminate every last, elusive case of the disease. “There are 444 cases of polio left in the world as of last week. We have room for hope that we are going to eradicate [the disease] quickly."

Image: Kris Krug