What machines can tell from your face

machine facial recognition on punzhu puzzles

We are now living our lives in the age of facial recognition, and each new technology comes with its own pro’s and con’s.

THE human face is a remarkable piece of work. The astonishing variety of facial features helps people recognise each other and is crucial to the formation of complex societies. So is the face’s ability to send emotional signals, whether through an involuntary blush or the artifice of a false smile. People spend much of their waking lives, in the office and the courtroom as well as the bar and the bedroom, reading faces, for signs of attraction, hostility, trust and deceit. They also spend plenty of time trying to dissimulate.

Technology is rapidly catching up with the human ability to read faces. In America facial recognition is used by churches to track worshippers’ attendance; in Britain, by retailers to spot past shoplifters. This year Welsh police used it to arrest a suspect outside a football game. In China it verifies the identities of ride-hailing drivers, permits tourists to enter attractions and lets people pay for things with a smile. Apple’s new iPhone is expected to use it to unlock the homescreen (see article).

Set against human skills, such applications might seem incremental. Some breakthroughs, such as flight or the internet, obviously transform human abilities; facial recognition seems merely to encode them. Although faces are peculiar to individuals, they are also public, so technology does not, at first sight, intrude on something that is private. And yet the ability to record, store and analyse images of faces cheaply, quickly and on a vast scale promises one day to bring about fundamental changes to notions of privacy, fairness and trust.

The final frontier

Start with privacy. One big difference between faces and other biometric data, such as fingerprints, is that they work at a distance. Anyone with a phone can take a picture for facial-recognition programs to use. FindFace, an app in Russia, compares snaps of strangers with pictures on VKontakte, a social network, and can identify people with a 70% accuracy rate. Facebook’s bank of facial images cannot be scraped by others, but the Silicon Valley giant could obtain pictures of visitors to a car showroom, say, and later use facial recognition to serve them ads for cars. Even if private firms are unable to join the dots between images and identity, the state often can. China’s government keeps a record of its citizens’ faces; photographs of half of America’s adult population are stored in databases that can be used by the FBI. Law-enforcement agencies now have a powerful weapon in their ability to track criminals, but at enormous potential cost to citizens’ privacy.

The face is not just a name-tag. It displays a lot of other information—and machines can read that, too. Again, that promises benefits. Some firms are analysing faces to provide automated diagnoses of rare genetic conditions, such as Hajdu-Cheney syndrome, far earlier than would otherwise be possible. Systems that measure emotion may give autistic people a grasp of social signals they find elusive. But the technology also threatens. Researchers at Stanford University have demonstrated that, when shown pictures of one gay man, and one straight man, the algorithm could attribute their sexuality correctly 81% of the time. Humans managed only 61% (see article). In countries where homosexuality is a crime, software which promises to infer sexuality from a face is an alarming prospect.

Keys, wallet, balaclava

Less violent forms of discrimination could also become common. Employers can already act on their prejudices to deny people a job. But facial recognition could make such bias routine, enabling firms to filter all job applications for ethnicity and signs of intelligence and sexuality. Nightclubs and sports grounds may face pressure to protect people by scanning entrants’ faces for the threat of violence—even though, owing to the nature of machine-learning, all facial-recognition systems inevitably deal in probabilities. Moreover, such systems may be biased against those who do not have white skin, since algorithms trained on data sets of mostly white faces do not work well with different ethnicities. Such biases have cropped up in automated assessments used to inform courts’ decisions about bail and sentencing.

Eventually, continuous facial recording and gadgets that paint computerised data onto the real world might change the texture of social interactions. Dissembling helps grease the wheels of daily life. If your partner can spot every suppressed yawn, and your boss every grimace of irritation, marriages and working relationships will be more truthful, but less harmonious. The basis of social interactions might change, too, from a set of commitments founded on trust to calculations of risk and reward derived from the information a computer attaches to someone’s face. Relationships might become more rational, but also more transactional.

In democracies, at least, legislation can help alter the balance of good and bad outcomes. European regulators have embedded a set of principles in forthcoming data-protection regulation, decreeing that biometric information, which would include “faceprints”, belongs to its owner and that its use requires consent—so that, in Europe, unlike America, Facebook could not just sell ads to those car-showroom visitors. Laws against discrimination can be applied to an employer screening candidates’ images. Suppliers of commercial face-recognition systems might submit to audits, to demonstrate that their systems are not propagating bias unintentionally. Firms that use such technologies should be held accountable.

Read the complete article on The Economist magazine web site.

 

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Access to the prez while you wait

how to influence trump

Flier by Delcan & Company. Photo illustration by Sam Kaplan for The New York Times. Prop stylist: Gozde Eker. Lewandowski: Al Drago/Getty Images.

There are about 10,000 registered lobbyists in Washington — roughly 20 for every member of Congress — and thousands more unregistered ones: consultants and ‘‘strategic advisers’’ who are paid to help shape government policy but do not disclose their clients. By whatever name, they are the people companies and countries hire to help roll back regulations, unstick bids, tweak legislation or get meetings. Lobbying is at once Washington’s most maligned, enduring and essential industry. Underpaid young politicos and retiring lawmakers depend on Beltway lobby shops — known as ‘‘K Street’’ after the city boulevard that once housed many of them — for the high-six-figure salaries that will loft them into Washington’s petite aristocracy. Congress needs K Street, too: After decades of cutting its own staff and research arms, much of Capitol Hill’s institutional memory and policy expertise now resides in the lobbying industry. But the private sector needs lobbyists the most. The modern federal government is so sprawling and complex that it practically demands a specialized class of middlemen and -women.

Over the decades, lobbying has evolved from a niche trade of fixers and gatekeepers to a sleek, vertically integrated, $3-billion-a-year industry. A good lobbyist doesn’t go into a meeting asking for legislation; she or he already has the bill drafted, a coalition of businesses and trade groups poised to support it, a policy brief to hand out to reporters and to the officials positioned at dozens of decision points throughout the bureaucracy and relationships with advertising and polling firms to manage the public rollout. Everyone has a lobbyist — or three, or 50 — and the lobbyists know everyone. K Street is majestic and immovable, veined through Washington like fat through a prime steak.

Like virtually every other candidate for president, Trump campaigned against this thicket of money and influence, positioning himself as an outsider who would ‘‘drain the swamp.’’ This pledge would soon prove more rhetorical than real, but it contained a grain of truth. Trump arrived in Washington with a relatively short baggage train of Beltway relationships and obligations. He didn’t read policy briefs; he barely had policies. His inner circle was a hodgepodge of Breitbart alumni, nominally Democratic financiers, Trump Organization employees on loan, the odd reality-show star and Republicans who would have been unemployable in almost any other administration. The smart money in Washington — K Street and K Street’s clients, the big corporations and trade associations — didn’t quite know what to expect. But mostly, they didn’t know whom to call.

‘‘Many companies want to understand: What are the president’s priorities?’’ Corey Lewandowski told me in February, a few weeks after the inauguration. ‘‘But there are so few people in Washington who have a relationship or an understanding of him.’’ Lewandowski, the president’s former campaign manager, was happy to tell you that he was one of the few exceptions.

Lewandowski’s journey from obscure New Hampshire political operative to celebrity power broker was emblematic of how Trump’s election scrambled Washington’s hierarchies. Much like Stryk, Lewandowski had spent years in the lower ranks of conservative politics and lobbying. Being hired as Trump’s campaign manager moved Lewandowski into the political big time, and being fired, midway through the race, did little to dislodge him. There were speaking gigs, a stint as a reliably pro-Trump pundit on CNN. At one point last year, Lewandowski even tried selling a book, tentatively titled ‘‘Let Trump Be Trump’’; Stryk, introduced to Lewandowski by a mutual friend, helped him shop the proposal. ‘‘Corey had a brand,’’ Stryk told me, and that brand was valuable. HarperCollins offered Lewandowski $1.2 million, an astounding figure for a campaign manager — though the deal evaporated when Lewandowski refused to show HarperCollins a copy of his nondisclosure agreement with Trump.

Through it all, Lewandowski remained close to Trump and spoke to him often. But after the election, the White House job Lewandowski hoped for never quite materialized. Now Lewandowski, too, was on K Street. He had joined up with another former Trump aide, Barry Bennett, to start a lobbying firm called Avenue Strategies.

Unlike other people on K Street, Lewandowski did not pretend to be an expert on the legislative calendar or the fine points of the Administrative Procedure Act. He was an expert on Trump. ‘‘There are just so few people in Washington who know the president,’’ Lewandowski told me in February. ‘‘It’s a comparative advantage.’’ He was not shy about playing up their friendship. He sometimes tweeted from the White House grounds. When journalists or other visitors came to his office, on Pennsylvania Avenue a few blocks from the White House, he would point out his window to where, he claimed, he could see the president’s bedroom.

His mind-meld with Trump was what made him valuable to clients, Lewandowski explained to me. ‘‘I think what I bring is a level of understanding of the president’s thought process,’’ he said, ‘‘only because I had the privilege of being next to him for so long.’’ He was doing as many as nine or 10 meetings a day: Chief executives, prominent Republicans, even other lobbying firms wanted his advice. He offered it freely, Lewandowski told me. He wanted to be helpful. ‘‘You know what a guy said to me the other day?’’ he said. ‘‘ ‘You’ve got a hot hand. Just remember, that hand’s not going to be hot forever.’ ’’

One good source of business was the president’s habit of calling chief executives to the White House for televised meetings. In January, when the chief executive of Whirlpool was summoned by Trump to discuss how to revive American jobs, the company asked Avenue Strategies to advise it. As one lobbyist who shared clients with Lewandowski put it to me, companies like Whirlpool needed to know the lay of the land inside the White House: How much sway did Wilbur Ross have? Was Steve Bannon for real? And what should the company do if Trump started dumping on it on Twitter?

Everyone had seen what happened to Lockheed Martin. Lockheed, the federal government’s single biggest contractor, is a powerful presence inside the Beltway. But through the winter, Trump had lashed out at the company over cost overruns on the F-35 fighter jet. The company’s shares dropped each time, taking Lockheed’s value down by billions of dollars. These were the kinds of problems that Lewandowski believed others on K Street couldn’t help with. ‘‘If you’re a corporate C.E.O. and the president has tweeted at you and your stock has dropped 4 percent, you say: ‘Why am I paying all these guys so much money?’ ’’ Lewandowski said. The old model of Washington influence wouldn’t work on Trump, he believed. ‘‘They don’t know him, and they don’t know any of his guys, and they don’t understand how he thinks.’’ Eventually Lockheed, too, turned to Avenue.

Over the course of a few conversations with the company’s Washington office, Bennett told me, they advised Lockheed on how Marillyn Hewson, its president and chief executive, should approach conversations: ‘‘Short, direct, honest answers,’’ as Bennett recounted it for me later. ‘‘Feel free to educate the president. In the end, it’s going to be transactional.’’ The next time Hewson met with Trump, a week before the inauguration, she came bearing gifts: a potential F-35 price cut and a promise to add jobs at a Texas plant.

The Twitter attacks ceased. By the end of February, Trump was praising Lockheed. ‘‘They’ve just announced eighteen hundred new jobs,’’ Trump told reporters after a meeting with Hewson and other manufacturing executives. ‘‘I have to say this, Marillyn, you’ve gotten a lot of credit because what you did was the right thing.’’

Lewandowski’s help did not come cheap. A typical boutique lobbying firm might charge $10,000 to $15,000 a month. A big lobbying or law firm, with teams of para­legals or assistants and high overhead, might charge twice that, with a three-month retainer. Avenue sometimes asked for as much as $50,000 a month — a top-shelf price on K Street — and Lewandowski on occasion tried to go higher. But there were plenty of takers: By midwinter, Avenue had ‘‘more than a dozen, less than 50’’ clients, Lewandowski told me at the time.

The demand was so great that would-be Trump-whisperers were popping up in Washington like toadstools after a rainstorm. The former Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich, a ‘‘senior adviser’’ to the lobbying practice at Dentons, the world’s largest law firm, was hawking a book titled ‘‘Understanding Trump.’’ Established K Street firms were grabbing any Trump people they could find: Jim Murphy, Trump’s former political director, joined the lobbying giant BakerHostetler, while another firm, Fidelis Government Relations, struck up a partnership with Bill Smith, Mike Pence’s former chief of staff. All told, close to 20 ex-aides of Trump, friends and hangers-on had made their way into Washington’s influence business.

Read the complete article on The New York Times.

Government policy exacerbates hurricanes like Harvey

THE extent of the devastation will become clear only when the floodwater recedes, leaving ruined cars, filthy mud-choked houses and the bloated corpses of the drowned. But as we went to press, with the rain pounding South Texas for the sixth day, Hurricane Harvey had already set records as America’s most severe deluge. In Houston it drenched Harris County in over 4.5trn litres of water in just 100 hours—enough rainfall to cover an eight-year-old child.

In each of the past 3 years Texas has experienced a 500-year flood.  Three consectutive years; 3 consectutive 500-year floods.

The fate of America’s fourth-largest city holds the world’s attention, but it is hardly alone. In India, Bangladesh and Nepal, at least 1,200 people have died and millions have been left homeless by this year’s monsoon floods. Last month torrential rains caused a mudslide in Sierra Leone that killed over 1,000—though the exact toll will never be known. Around the world, governments are grappling with the threat from floods. This will ultimately be about dealing with climate change. Just as important, is correcting short-sighted government policy and the perverse incentives that make flooding worse.

The overwhelming good news is that storms and flooding have caused far fewer deaths in recent decades, thanks to better warning systems and the construction of levees, ditches and shelters. The cyclone that struck Bangladesh in 1970 killed 300,000-500,000 people; the most recent severe one, in 2007, killed 4,234. The bad news is that storms and floods still account for almost three-quarters of weather-related disasters, and they are becoming more common. According to the Munich Re, a reinsurer, their number around the world has increased from about 200 in 1980 to over 600 last year. Harvey was the third “500-year” storm to strike Houston since 1979.

At the same time, floods and storms are also becoming more costly. By one estimate, three times as many people were living in houses threatened by hurricanes in 2010 as in 1970, and the number is expected to grow as still more people move to coastal cities. The UN reckons that, in the 20 years to 2015, storms and floods caused $1.7trn of destruction; the World Health Organisation estimates that, in real terms, the global cost of hurricane damage is rising by 6% a year. Flood losses in Europe are predicted to increase fivefold by 2050.

One cause is global warming. The frequency and severity of hurricanes vary naturally—America has seen unusually few in the past decade. Yet the underlying global trend is what you would expect from climate change. Warmer seas evaporate faster and warmer air can hold more water vapour, which releases energy when it condenses inside a weather system, feeding the violence of storms and the intensity of deluges. Rising sea levels, predicted to be especially marked in the Gulf of Mexico, exacerbate storm surges, adding to the flooding. Harvey was unusually devastating because it suddenly gained strength before it made landfall on Friday; it then stayed put, dumping its rain on Houston before returning to the Gulf. Again, that is consistent with models of a warmer world.

Poor planning bears even more blame. Houston, which has almost no restrictions on land-use, is an extreme example of what can go wrong. Although a light touch has enabled developers to cater to the city’s rapid growth—1.8m extra inhabitants since 2000—it has also led to concrete being laid over vast areas of coastal prairie that used to absorb the rain. According to the Texas Tribune and ProPublica, a charity that finances investigative journalism, since 2010 Harris County has allowed more than 8,600 buildings to be put up inside 100-year floodplains, where floods have a 1% chance of occurring in any year. Developers are supposed to build ponds to hold run-off water that would have soaked into undeveloped land, but the rules are poorly enforced. Because the maps are not kept up to date, properties supposedly outside the 100-year floodplain are being flooded repeatedly.

In America the federal government subsidises the insurance premiums of vulnerable houses. The National Flood Insurance Programme (NFIP) has been forced to borrow because it fails to charge enough to cover its risk of losses. Underpricing encourages the building of new houses and discourages existing owners from renovating or moving out. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, houses that repeatedly flood account for 1% of NFIP’s properties but 25-30% of its claims. Five states, Texas among them, have more than 10,000 such households and, nationwide, their number has been going up by around 5,000 each year. Insurance is meant to provide a signal about risk; in this case, it stifles it.

Comments now working on mysimpleknitting.com

Here's looking at you, Babe.

If it’s not one thing it’s another, but the bugs have been worked out of the Comments portion of mysimpleknitting.com.

On some pages the Comment section appeared but didn’t accept comments, and now the Comment section appears on all pages and visitors can once again leave a Comment.

Several visitors tried to leave Comments earlier and I’m sure were a tad frustrated with the Comments not functioning properly. New web sites always experience some issues during the first week of operation. Hopefully this will be the last gotcha.

Must have been a twisted stitch somewhere in all the knitted code. It’s working now. Sheesh.

 

 

 

“Knitting is great again” hat on sheep

Knitting is great again at mysimpleknitting.com

Knitting is great again at mysimpleknitting.com

My friend’s updated knitting help site is rolling along fine. Open for two days now and only a few minor problems to correct.

Starting to get some knitting forum members. Maybe one of them will win the $25.00 gift certificate for Knit Picks in September.

 

New knitting help site opens with a couple of oops

 

sheep at mysimpleknitting.com

I made that? mysimpleknitting.com

My friend’s new knitting site, mysimpleknitting.com, went live yesterday with a couple of minor oops appearing almost immediately.

Nothing terrible happened. Teething problems always creep up whenever somethng digital is released to the public. All the testing and reviewing done during the past 5 months of building the site managed to clear away lots of little problems. Neither my friend nor I are computer experts or coders. All our training on computers has been by the seat of our pants and we’ve built up a small library of knowledge on computers. A very small library. We expected problems and we got them.

We had a goodly amount of traffic the first day and it seemed all the data was being delivered quickly. Visitors were spending time checking everything out. All the sheep were peaceful.

That’s it for now. Back to tending the flock at My Simple Knitting. Yes. Flock. Sheep live in flocks but the act is called sheepherding. Go figure. English language. Sheesh.