Your Face, Their Algorithm: NSA facial recognition

“You are being watched... The government has a secret system, which spies on you every hour of every day.”

-Opening credits, Person Of Interest

 

Yesterday marked the end of the first year of the Edward Snowden revelations about the horrifying, beyond-the-ravings-of-the-worst-tin-hat-wearing-paranoid extent of American high-tech surveillance, particularly by the National Security Agency. The latest release tells of the extent to which the NSA is researching facial recognition - specifically, the Identity Intelligence project, which harvests millions of pictures of faces online in order to provide data to train their facial recognition algorithms.

In one of the more striking cases of fact and fiction intertwining, this scenario could have been taken wholesale from the CBS TV show, Person Of Interest. Created by Jonathan Nolan a couple of years before the Snowden revelations, the show initially tells of the efforts of the reclusive designer of The Machine (an artificial intelligence computer bought by the government for post-9/11 surveillance, deliberately restricted by its creator to only provide the social security numbers of those about to be involved in violent crime) to aid those who are deemed by The Machine ‘irrelevant’ to national security but still endangered.

Effectively splitting the concept of Batman between two people (the Inventor/Billionaire, portrayed by Lost’s Michael Emerson and The Warrior, in this case an ex-CIA wetworks specialist needing a new, less bloody purpose, played by Jim Caviezel), it brought a clever very-near-future science fictional edge to the idea of the vigilante hero. The show rapidly evolved - not unlike The Machine itself - from an entertaining weekly action/procedural show to one of the best examinations of the effect AI may have on humanity ever shown and a sly commentary on the modern surveillance state.

The Snowden revelations broke during the writing of the second season of the show, and influenced the series considerably. For their Season 3 Comic-Con presentation last year, the show gave away key fobs with the image pictured at right on them.

Nolan and fellow showrunner Greg Plageman have often spoken in interviews about how little fiction their technology actually has - Nolan in particular has often talked about how Google and other firms have spent billions on researching Artificial General Intelligence, whose algorithms can be put to many uses, both fair and foul. (One such interview is here - NB some spoilers for the series.)

Season 3 ended last month with a deepening of the government’s use of AI to detect possible terrorists, plunging headlong into a dystopian world where police and the military locate, detain and even kill those whose metadata is deemed Relevant by an unseen computer algorithm. And frankly, the show looks less and less like science fiction as it goes on.

In commemoration of the Snowden anniversary, a world-wide group of activists established the Reset The Net initiative, offering people free and open-source tools to better protect their identity. I use these tools - so should you.

And, as for facial recognition? Here the options are more limited - especially in the wake of anti-mask legislation which has appeared in several countries (restricting the rights of everyone from devout Muslim women to V-For-Vendetta-mask wearing Anonymous protesters). Possibilities include the CV Dazzle technique of using a combination of asymmetrical make-up and hairstyles to confuse the algorithms that detect faces, and these nifty Infrared LED caps which blind CCTV cameras. And, of course, the awareness that we are watched... the modern pantechnicon surrounds us, and it matters that we remember to look back. Though always, to remember the risks.

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Person of Interest returns to TV in September. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Dinosaurs and Dragon Bones

 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

"Eric Prokopi, 39, was sentenced by US District Judge Alvin Hellerstein for smuggling a 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus skeleton from Mongolia into the United States by making false statements to US officials, including that the then-unassembled bones were merely reptile fossils from Great Britain.

Once assembled, the skeleton was sold by Dallas-based Heritage Auctions for more than $1 million before it was seized by the U.S. government and returned to Mongolia."

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnew...

Robert Plot's 1677 work The Natural History of Oxford-shire featured a drawing of the bone of a giant dug up by Plot himself. The image is now recognised as one of the earliest known western illustrations of a dinosaur bone.

In 1811, at the age of twelve, Mary Anning and her brother Joseph dug up a four foot skull on the Blue Lias cliffs in Lyme Regis in Dorset. A few months later, Mary found the rest of the skeleton. Henry Hoste Henley of Sandringham, Norfolk, who was lord of the manor of Colway, near Lyme Regis, paid the family twenty-three pounds for it. Hoste then sold the skeleton to William Bullock, a well-known collector, who displayed it in London. Mary Anning's family were fossil hunters who would sell the curiosities they found to tourists visiting the area. Once considered little more than a mud-lark, today Mary is recognised as one of the most important figures in 19th century palaeontology.

It was not until 1824 that William Buckland - president of the Geological Society of London - wrote the first full account of a dinosaur detailing the discovery of fossilised giant reptile bones from a creature which he christened Megalosaurus ("great lizard").

The taxon Dinosauria (from which we get the word dinosaur) was formally named in 1842 by paleontologist Sir Richard Owen, who used it to refer to the "distinct tribe or sub-order of Saurian Reptiles" whose fossilised remains were by now being being discovered and catalogued around the world.

By the the latter half of the 19th century fossils were being discovered and catalogued with such ferocity that in America two palaeontologists - Edward Drinker Cope of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and Othniel Charles Marsh of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale - became bitter rivals. These former colleagues became engaged in what came to be known as the Bone Wars - between 1877 and 1892, both paleontologists used their wealth and influence to finance their own expeditions and to procure services and dinosaur bones from fossil hunters. By the end of the Bone Wars, both men had exhausted their funds in the pursuit of paleontological supremacy.

Long, long before Plot unearthed his giant's bone -circa 300 BC - the Chinese book Shennong Bencao Jing ("Divine Farmer's Materia Medica") documented the medicnal use of "dragon bones" ("longgu") and "dragon teeth" ("longchi"):

"Dragon bone is sweet and balanced. It mainly treats heart and abdominal demonic influx, spiritual miasma, and old ghosts; it also treats cough and counterflow of qi, diarrhea and dysentery with pus and blood, vaginal discharge, hardness and binding in the abdomen, and fright epilepsy in children. Dragon teeth mainly treats epilepsy, madness, manic running about, binding qi below the heart, inability to catch one's breath, and various kinds of spasms. It kills spiritual disrupters. Protracted taking may make the body light, enable one to communicate with the spirit light, and lengthen one's life span."

Dragon bone is still used in Chinese medicine today. In 2002 samples of dragon bone and dragon tooth obtained from the market place were analysed by several Chinese institutes. The results showed that they contained the bones of stegodons (long-legged saber-toothed elephants), wooly mammoths, wooly rhinoceros, and hipparions (three-toed horses) among other long extinct species. [1]

In 2006 Li Chui, a farmer in Shaping Village in Ruyang County, central China's Henan Province, unearthed a large quantity of dragon bones - enough, he thought, to make him quite a bit of money at the then going rate of 1.4 yuan per kg. The dealer who Li Chui spoke to about selling the bones reported the find to the Beijing-based Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Scientists from the institute spent the next two years on the site. They concluded that the bones belonged to Asia's tallest and heaviest dinosaur that may have lived as long ago as one hundred million years. They named it the Yellow River Dinosaur.[2]

Few (if any) would argue that it is wrong to want to preserve the remains of these amazing creatures which are, after all, finite - there are only so many bones embedded in ancient rock and buried beneath the earth. Some, however, say that with so many people wanting to own fossils there's a danger that we could all lose out. In a recent article on io9.com, scientist and columnist Mika McKinnon wrote "A privately-owned fossil is like privately-owned art, a collectable lost from public view for the pleasure of a special few. While I understand that is exactly the appeal of being rich and privileged, it seems deeply unfair to hide something created by our planet away from public access [...] When a beautiful fossil that has high scientific value is purchased by a collector for their personal enjoyment, that scientific utility is lost to the entire planet." [3]

We've come an amazingly long way in a short few hundred years in our understanding of dinosaurs via their remains. It's tragic enough that many fossils have already been ground down or boiled away in the name of medicine, it would be awful to think that one day the most magnificent which survive might only be viewed by a wealthy elite. Becoming as rare and legendary to the average person as dragon's bones.

[1] http://www.itmonline.org/arts/dragonbone...

[2] http://www.bjreview.com.cn/science/txt/2...

[3] http://io9.com/fossil-poaching-and-the-b...

News Briefs 04-06-2014

Thanks to Susan & King Babar

Quote of the Day:

"“Were you on the square?” the immigration official asked.
“I was,” Chan said, expecting to be detained.
Frowning, the official leaned in.
“Then go and tell the world,” the official said softly, before waving him through."

~Excerpt from the article The Tiananmen Massacre: 25 Years Later, Three Students Tell What They Saw

'The Owlman' Stalks Unsuspecting Users of Chat Roulette

The Owlman on Chat Roulette

You no longer have to go into the woods to have a terrifying encounter with some strange Fortean being...you can now do it in the comfort of your lounge via the Internet. As part of the marketing for the indie movie Lord of Tears (created on the back of a successful Kickstarter campaign), the 'Owlman' from the story made some surprise appearances on unsuspecting users of Chat Roulette (an online chat system which pairs random people from across the globe in webcam-based conversations). The results are at times hilarious, but also give some fun insights into the different ways people react when seeing something from beyond the outer limits.

(Warning: some strong language)

News Briefs 03-06-2014

Better late than never! Here's the Tuesday news briefs:

Quote of the Day:

Our generation is the first ever to have made the search for self-awareness a crime, if it is done with the use of plants or chemical compounds as the means of opening the psychic doors.

Alexander 'Sasha' Shulgin

'The Slenderman' Blamed for the Attempted Murder of a 12-Year-Old-Girl

The Slenderman

It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt: the modern mythological monster 'Slender Man', a meme born on the Something Awful forum just short of five years ago (June 10, 2009), is today being blamed as being the inspiration for an attempted murder. Prosecutors say two 12-year-old(!) girls from southeastern Wisconsin took another girl into the woods, stabbed her 19 times, and left her for dead. The victim managed to crawl to a sidewalk, where a cyclist found her:

One of the girls told a detective they were trying to become "proxies" of Slender Man, a mythological demon-like character they learned about on creepypasta.wikia.com, a website about horror stories and legends. They planned to run away to the demon's forest mansion after the slaying, the complaint said.

"I recognize their young ages but it's still unbelievable," Court Commissioner Thomas Pieper said during one of the girls' initial court appearances Monday.

...Both girls were charged as adults with first-degree attempted homicide Monday in Waukesha County Circuit Court; they each face up to 60 years in prison if convicted.

Readers of our Fortean anthology series Darklore will be well-acquainted with the Slenderman, as in Volumes 6 and 7 writer Cat Vincent explored the mythology at length. His introduction to the topic, written some three years ago, seems eerily prescient now:

We don’t often get to see the birth of a monster.Just over two years ago, a new monster was born. Because it was born on the internet, we can see the exact moment of its conception. We can follow its growth from a pair of photographs into a full-fledged mythology. We can see the point where it crossed over from a merely imaginal creature into something that haunts the minds of many. And we can see exactly when it became a creature of true occult significance. Its path is clear and distinct. Its legacy is undeniable.

The monster’s name is Slenderman. And its influence continues
to grow.

Cat finished that essay by saying "On the internet, nobody knows if you’re a dog. Or a tulpa. And if enough people describe something as a thought-form...could this collective imagining actually make that form manifest?" If this horrible event is indeed some sort of 'manifestation' of the thought-form, let's hope that it's the end of it as well.

For those interested in learning more about the topic, both of Cat's articles are available on-line: "The Slenderman" in PDF format on the Darklore website, and "Killing Slenderman" here on The Daily Grail.

The Last Alchemist

Alexander 'Sasha' Shulgin in his lab

"Technically, chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change", said the fictional chemist Walter White on the hit television show Breaking Bad. "Electrons change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements combine and change into compounds. But that's all of life, right? It's the constant, it's the cycle. It's solution, dissolution. Just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation". Walter White's words paint him as much a latter-day alchemist, ruminating on the mysteries of life and metamorphosis, than as the criminal crystal meth technician that he was.

His words also serve as a succinct description of the questions that drove real-life drug chemist, Alexander 'Sasha' Shulgin, who entered the state of physical dissolution at around 5pm on June 2nd, 2014, just a couple of weeks short of his 89th birthday. Shulgin too was fascinated by the study of change - in his case, how the mind and consciousness could be modified so profoundly through interactions with the most nuanced changes to molecules. "I was always interested in how, if you move one carbon atom, for example, on amphetamine, you can change it from being a strong stimulant to a psychedelic," he once told a reporter. "How is it that the difference of one atom produces such a dramatically different result in the human? The answer is, nobody knows."

Shulgin though, was no Walter White. His concern was not with power or making money (so much so that wife Ann once quipped that a little money would have been nice), and for the most part his experiments synthesizing new drugs were done on the right side of the law (he held a Schedule 1 license until 1994). It was always that question, about the change in consciousness produced by chemical modifications, that drove him throughout his life. And as such, the test subject for the synthesized psychedelics that he invented was always, primarily, himself (as well as another willing subject, wife Ann). Their seminal books TiHKAL and PiHKAL ('Tryptamines/Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved') provide a permanent record of their bio-assay experiments; a typical entry, such as that for the tryptamine DIPT, includes the chemical procedure to synthesize the drug, followed by comments on the qualitative aspects and duration of the experience (18mg: "Wild effects noted in an hour. Remarkable changes in sounds heard"; 250mg: "Shortly after I ingested the substance I heard a spirit say, 'Once in a lifetime.' She encouraged me to believe that I would have more life after the experience. But, there was a feeling of foreboding"). Each entry finished with a personal commentary, which might touch on anything from chemistry notes to possible applications of the drug. Not all experiences were interesting or enjoyable though, as one might expect when experimenting with the effects of newly designed chemicals – the Shulgins suffered, on various occasions, nausea, periods of unconsciousness, and terrifying psychological symptoms.

This combination of precise chemistry skills with the drive to self-experimentation and self-exploration evokes the label of 'alchemist' all too easily. And Sasha Shulgin's physical appearance ... Read More »

News Briefs 02-06-2014

Wrap your brain cells around this lot:

Quote of the Day:

People do not seem to realise that their opinion of the world is also a confession of their character.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Paranthropology 5:2

2

The latest issue (Vol 5, Number 2) of the free PDF journal Paranthropology ("anthropological approaches to the paranormal") is now available to download (or you can read it online via Scribd). Here's the complete rundown of features in the latest issue:

  • "Profane Illuminations: Machines, Indian Ghosts, and Boundless Flights through Nature at Contemporary Paranormal Gatherings in America", by Darryl Caterine
  • "Magic or Science: A Look at Reiki in American Medicine", by Joshua Graham
  • "Hidden Apprenticeships, Hidden Loves: Transmission of Enhanced Awareness in Mediumistic and Shamanic Traditions", by David Gordon Wilson
  • "Communication Across the Chasm: Experiences With the Deceased", by John A. Napora
  • "Book Hauntings", by Mark Valentine
  • "Orbs, some definitive evidence that they are not paranormal", by Steven T. Parsons
  • An interview with Andy Sharp (English Heretic), by Hannah Gilbert
  • "Playback Hex: William Burroughs and the Magical Objectivity of the Tape Recorder", by James Riley
  • A review of the 'Exploring the Extraordinary Conference' (Gettysburg College, March 21 to 23), by T. Peter Park
  • A review of Folie et Paranormal (Renaud Evrard), by Jean-Michel Abrassart
  • A review of Speak of the Devil: Tales of Satanic Abuse in Contemporary England (J.S. La Fontaine) by Michael J. Rush

And in case you haven't read this great resource before, all of the previous issues remain available to download from the site as well. I know from experience the work that goes into doing something like this, so if you get something out of the journal make it your mission to throw some money their way with a PayPal donation.