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Friday, April 28, 2006

Computers != Magic

One phenomenon that I hate, and have recently seen grossly played out, is that on most TV shows/movies/radio shows/whatever, computers are portrayed as being magic. They can all of a sudden do anything, and read your mind as to how to do it. The comptuer has every software package known to man, and some that aren't, pre-installed and already running. A prime example:
The other day on Numb3rs, there was scene that contained example after example of horrific examples of this phenomenon. Some house blew up, and it turned out it belonged to a drug dealer/child abuser. Go figure. So they recovered a hard drive from the wreckage and sent it to the lab to scan it for data. Real enough.
So they cut to the lab. The tech says something to the effect of "I've got the hard drive hooked up to this computer; it's the same model that it came from." First red flag popped up. What? It's a hard drive. A hard drive's a hard drive's a hard drive. They've been the same practically since they were invented. It doesn't matter what system you plug it into, other than hardware barf, but if you're just recovering data, that *shouldn't* matter. But I figured, whatever, they can play it safe if they want.
Then the next sentence came. "It's not booting, so I'll have to open it up." WHAT? Rule one in recovering a hard drive: You don't try to boot it! Good gracious, people, throw it in as a secondary hard drive and try to read it. If just the boot-critical files were damaged and everything was fine, you would declare the hard drive a lost cause and open it up. That's just plain stupid! Even if it does boot, who knows what parts were knocked out that might be critical. And if you didn't have it in the same system (which they were, uh, prudent enough to do), it would do hardware barf.
So I barely recover from the shock and outcry of trying to boot a damaged hard drive, and the tech unscrews the cover (quite quickly and easily, I might add. Having taken a few hard drives apart in my time, it's not near that easy, but it's TV). She then takes her magic magnetic wand that looks like a blunt silver pencil with a black tip, and waves it over a small pie slice of the hard drive. I was amazed - I don't know what data recovery is really like, but that can't be how they do it. Considering data is stored in a spiral, waving the wand around a small pie slice is going to get a bunch of fragmented files.
Despite the technical impossibilities of the quick, brief, and random sweep, file names magically appeared on a console-like screen. First, I highly doubt they would be using a console, but I'll give them that. But I was again shocked that the simple wand could work so efficiently. Coming up with gobs of filenames from a single sweep? That's amazing!
Then it really went downhill. Charlie (the star) recognized a .jpg on the screen. That's fine, pictures are good. So he exclaims, "Look! JPEG!" To which the tech adeptly replies "Oh, that's probably a digital image." I was amazed by her technical prowess. Determining that a JPEG is a picture takes years of college and postgraduate study to fully comprehend.
So, using their magical program and the sparse data recovered from their magical wand, the tech opens up the picture. It turns out to be a house. Charlie babbles something about enhancing edges by tweaking the colors by negative one degree. It seemed somewhat plausible, but negative one degree kind of made me wonder. So he types half a line into his magical console that magically appeared, and the picture changes a tad. Indeed, edges seem more defined. Then he says, "What if I do this..." and types another half a line into the magical psychic command prompt. Magically, a picture of a girl (presumably the guy's victim) appears.
So I know that data can be hidden inside a picture, and pictures inside of pictures. Indeed, steganography is pretty cool. But to be able to reveal it that quickly, with that little effort, without knowing anything for sure about how it was encrypted/hidden, kind of seemed a little far-fetched. I'm no expert in the area, but it seemed quite impossible. Once they get the picture, they're all shocked for a minute and then get back to business of finding the guy and now the victim.

So there's my example. Don't get me wrong, I love Numb3rs and watch it regularly. It's a great show. I just used it as an example of this pervasive phenomenon because I remember it from last Friday's show so well, and it was so incredibly horrible. I know some readers will say, "It's TV, it's not supposed to be real." And I like some good fiction (War Games, anybody?). But when they pretend to be all techie and "wow, we're cool because we can do fancy stuff on our computers" and are way beyond any realm of reality, it bugs me. Another classic example for me is from Adventures in Odyssey, when a common misconception is demonstrated when a police officer bursts into the room and demands "The CPU and all the components." CPU is the processor (see my other rant). A chip and the mouse and keyboard won't do you much good. Leave all the good stuff - the hard drive, for instance? It's another good example of trying to be techie (it sounds cool), but failing miserably. Again, good show, bad computer reference. It's way too common, and I despise it.

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