We Built a (Legal) Facial Recognition Machine for $60

The law has not caught up. In the United States, the use of facial recognition is almost wholly unregulated.

The New York Times has an opinion piece by Sahil Chinoy on how (they) We Built a (Legal) Facial Recognition Machine for $60. They describe an inexpensive experiment they ran where they took footage of people walking past some cameras installed in Bryant Park and compared them to known people who work in the area (scraped from web sites of organizations that have offices in the neighborhood.) Everything they did used public resources that others could use. The cameras stream their footage here. Anyone can scrape the images. The image database they gathered came from public web sites. The software is a service (Amazon’s Rekognition?) The article asks us to imagine the resources available to law enforcement.

I’m intrigued by how this experiment by the New York Times. It is a form of design thinking where they have designed something to help us understand the implications of a technology rather than just writing about what others say. Or we could say it is a form of journalistic experimentation.

Why does facial recognition spook us? Is recognizing people something we feel is deeply human? Or is it the potential for recognition in all sorts of situations. Do we need to start guarding our faces?

Facial recognition is categorically different from other forms of surveillance, Mr. Hartzog said, and uniquely dangerous. Faces are hard to hide and can be observed from far away, unlike a fingerprint. Name and face databases of law-abiding citizens, like driver’s license records, already exist. And for the most part, facial recognition surveillance can be set up using cameras already on the streets.

This is one of a number of excellent articles by the New York Times that is part of their Privacy Project.

JSTOR Text Analyzer

JSTOR, and some other publishers of electronic research, have started building text analysis tools into their publishing tools. I came across this at the end of a JSTOR article where there was a link to “Get more results on Text Analyzer” which leads to a beta of the JSTOR labs Text Analyzer environment.

JSTOR Labs Text Analyzer

This analyzer environment provides simple an analytical tools for surveying an issue of a journal or article. The emphasis is on extracting keywords and entities so that one can figure out if an article or journal is useful. One can use this to find other similar things.

Results of Text Analyzer

What intrigues me is this embedding of tools into reading environments which is different from the standard separate data and tools model. I wonder how we could instrument Voyant so that it could be more easily embedded in other environments.

Peter Robinson, “Textual Communities: A Platform for Collaborative Scholarship on Manuscript Heritages”

Peter Robinson gave a talk on “Textual Communities: A Platform for Collaborative Scholarship on Manuscript Heritages” as part of the Singhmar Guest Speaker Program | Faculty of Arts.

He started by talking about whether textual traditions had any relationship to the material world. How do texts relate to each other?

Today stemata as visualizations are models that go beyond the manuscripts themselves to propose evolutionary hypotheses in visual form.

He then showed what he is doing with the Canterbury Tales Project and then talked about the challenges adapting the time-consuming transcription process to other manuscripts. There are lots of different transcription systems, but few that handle collation. There is also the problem of costs and involving a distributed network of people.

He then defined text:

A text is an act of (human) communication that is inscribed in a document.

I wondered how he would deal with Allen Renear’s argument that there are Real Abstract Objects which, like Platonic Forms are real, but have no material instance. When we talk, for example, of “hamlet” we aren’t talking about a particular instance, but an abstract object. Likewise with things like “justice”, “history,” and “love.” Peter responded that the work doesn’t exist except as its instances.

He also mentioned that this is why stand-off markup doesn’t work because texts aren’t a set of linear objects. It is better to represent it as a tree of leaves.

So, he launched Textual Communities – https://textualcommunities.org/

This is a distributed editing system that also has collation.

Skip the bus: this post-apocalyptic jaunt is the only New York tour you’ll ever need

Operation Jane Walk appropriates the hallmarks of an action roleplaying game – Tom Clancy’s The Division (2016), set in a barren New York City after a smallpox pandemic – for an intricately rendered tour that digs into the city’s history through virtual visits to some notable landmarks. Bouncing from Stuyvesant Town to the United Nations Headquarters and down the sewers, a dry-witted tour guide makes plain how NYC was shaped by the Second World War, an evolving economy and the ideological jousting between urban theorists such as Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. Between stops, the guide segues into musical interludes and poetic musings, but doesn’t let us forget the need to brandish a weapon for self-defence. The result is a highly imaginative film that interrogates the increasingly thin lines between real and digital worlds – but it’s also just a damn good time.

Aeon has a great tour of New York using Tom Clancy’s The Division, Skip the bus: this post-apocalyptic jaunt is the only New York tour you’ll ever need. It looks like someone actually gives tours this way – a new form of urban tourism. What other cities could one do?

Anatomy of an AI System

Anatomy of an AI System – The Amazon Echo as an anatomical map of human labor, data and planetary resources. By Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler (2018)

Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler have created a powerful infographic and web site, Anatomy of an AI System. The dark illustration and site are an essay that starts with the Amazon Echo and then sketches out the global anatomy of this apparently simple AI appliance. They do this by looking at where the materials come from, where the labour comes from (and goes), and the underlying infrastructure.

Put simply: each small moment of convenience – be it answering a question, turning on a light, or playing a song – requires a vast planetary network, fueled by the extraction of non-renewable materials, labor, and data.

The essay/visualization is a powerful example of how we can learn by critically examining the technologies around us.

Just as the Greek chimera was a mythological animal that was part lion, goat, snake and monster, the Echo user is simultaneously a consumer, a resource, a worker, and a product.

Every Noise at Once

Ted Underwood in a talk at the Novel Worlds conference talked about a fascinating project,  Every Noise at OnceThis project has tried to map the genres of music so you can explore these by clicking and listening. You should, in theory, be able to tell the difference between “german techno” and “diva house” by listening. (I’m not musically literate enough to.)

The structure of recent philosophy (II) · Visualizations

In this codebook we will investigate the macro-structure of philosophical literature. As a base for our investigation I have collected about fifty-thousand reco

Stéfan sent me a link to this interesting post, The structure of recent philosophy (II) · Visualizations. Maximilian Noichl has done a fascinating job using the Web of Science to develop a model of the field of Philosophy since the 1950s. In this post he describes his method and the resulting visualization of clusters (see above). In a later post (version III of the project) he gets a more nuanced visualization that seems more true to the breadth of what people do in philosophy. The version above is heavily weighted to anglo-american analytic philosophy while version III has more history of philosophy and continental philosophy.

Here is the final poster (PDF) for version III.

I can’t help wondering if his snowball approach doesn’t bias the results. What if one used full text of major journals?

Every time Ford and Kavanaugh dodged a question, in one chart

There was a striking difference in style — and substance.

Vox has a nice interactive visualization of Every time Ford and Kavanaugh dodged a question, in one chart. The two visualizations, one for Ford and one for Kavanaugh, show at a glance how the latter dodged a lot more questions. You can click on the sections which are marked as dodgy and see the full text. Nice clear use of visualization to tell a larger story and let the user explore.

What a fossil revolution reveals about the history of ‘big data’

Example of Heinrich Georg Bronn’s Spindle Diagram

David Sepkoski has published a nice essay in Aeon about What a fossil revolution reveals about the history of ‘big data’. Sepkoski talks about his father (Jack Sepkoski), a paleontologist, who developed the first database to provide a comprehensive record of fossils. This data was used to interpret the fossil record differently. The essay argues that it changed how we “see” data and showed that there had been mass extinctions before (and that we might be in one now).

The analysis that he and his colleagues performed revealed new understandings of phenomena such as diversification and extinction, and changed the way that palaeontologists work.

Sepkoski (father) and colleagues

The essay then makes the interesting move of arguing that, in fact, Jack Sepkoski was not the first to do quantitative palaeontology. The son, a historian, argues that Heinrich Georg Bronn in the 19th century was collecting similar data on paper and visualizing it (see spindle diagram above), but his approach didn’t take.

This raises the question of why Sepkoski senior’s data-driven approach changed palaeontology while Bronn’s didn’t. Sepkoski junior’s answer is a combination of changes. First, that palaeontology became more receptive to ideas like Stephen Jay Gould’s “punctuated equillibrium” that challenged Darwin’s gradualist view. Second, that culture has become more open to data-driven approaches and the interpretation visualizations needed to grasp such approaches.

The essay concludes by warning us about the dangers of believing data black boxes and visualizations that you can’t unpack.

Yet in our own time, it’s taken for granted that the best way of understanding large, complex phenomena often involves ‘crunching’ the numbers via computers, and projecting the results as visual summaries.

That’s not a bad thing, but it poses some challenges. In many scientific fields, from genetics to economics to palaeobiology, a kind of implicit trust is placed in the images and the algorithms that produce them. Often viewers have almost no idea how they were constructed.

This leads me to ask about the warning as gesture. This is a gesture we see more and more, especially about the ethics of big data and about artificial intelligence. No thoughtful person, including myself, has not warned people about the dangers of these apparently new technologies. But what good are these warnings?

Johanna Drucker in Graphesis proposes what to my mind is a much healthier approach to the dangers and opportunities of visualization. She does what humanists do, she asks us to think of visualization as interpretation. If you think of it this way than it is no more or less dangerous than any other interpretation. And, we have the tools to think-through visualization. She shows us how to look at the genealogy of different types of visualization. She shows us how all visualizations are interpretations and therefore need to be read. She frees us to be interpretative with our visualizations. If they are made by the visualizer and are not given by the data as by Moses coming down the mountain, then they are an art that we can play with and through. This is what the 3DH project is about.

Plato’s Virtual Reality

From a Humanist note I came across the fine essay on virtual reality, The Promise and Disappointment of Virtual Reality. It starts and ends with Plato’s cave and the responsibility of those freed from the cave to go back in and help others. Alas the state of VR technology doesn’t yet seem good enough to free us from reality and in this case the reality of VR is the commercialism of it.

But Plato’s Cave presupposes that those freeing the prisoner from their chains to reveal the true nature of “reality” are altruistic in their intent—that the world being shown the freed prisoners is indeed the truth. It is an allegory that does not allow for the world as it is today, or the pervasive desire to escape it.

The continued commercial failure of VR may represent an unconscious resistance to jettisoning our connection to the real. Maybe we are waiting for that blockbuster game to drive mass-market appeal. Perhaps the technology simply is not good enough yet to simulate a truly authentic—and profitable—experience. In this sense we are trapped. We crave authenticity of experience but, despite the efforts of philosophers, authors and auteurs, our imaginations appear limited to what we can individually consume and identify with. While capitalism lumbers on, we cannot see anything but the shadows on the wall.

What is nice about this essay by Mark Riboldi is the tour of the history of virtual reality technologies and dreams. What he doesn’t talk about is the sense of disappointment when the first generation of VR didn’t live up to the hype. I remember in the 1990s believing in VR (and lecturing on it.) When it proved clunky and nausea-inducing I felt let down by technology. Perhaps I and others had dreamed too much into VR led on by novels like Neuromancer. I was convinced VR was the logical next thing after the GUI. We had gone from a one-dimensional calligraphic screen to a two-dimensional desktop … wasn’t the three-dimensional virtual world next?

It is also worth mentioning that there have been a number of people writing about gender differences in how VR technology affects us. See Closing the Gender Gap in Virtual Reality. The technology seems to have been designed for men and calibrated to the male experience of reality.