« April 2011 | Main | June 2011 »

May 28, 2011

sorry, nobody believes you any more

Governments have got into the habit of offering massive amounts of foreign aid, then quietly abandoning their promises once public attention has moved on. It's nice to see them being called on it:

The Group of Eight (G8) countries will pledge $20bn in aid to post-autocratic Arab countries that have toppled heads of state and moved towards democracy, according to European officials. ... While the $20bn would add a strong boost to the countries' economies, Al Jazeera's Jackie Rowland pointed out that the G8 had failed in the past to fulfill aid commitments. She said that by the end of the conference, leaders were expected to publicly admit that neglect. "We're expecting them to admit that there's been a shortfall in the aid that was promised... and the aid that was actually delivered," our correspondent said.

May 20, 2011

The Libyan ambassador in Berlin has defected

The Libyan ambassador in Berlin has finally defected. Sort of.

This is months after many of his counterparts in other countries, and at the UN quit. It was the defecting Libyan ambassador who persuaded the UN to meet on Libya, and to pass UN Resolution 1970 to impose an arms embargo. The Security Council at the time wanted to postpone meeting on Libya, but the diplomatic defections forced their hand.

Meanwhile, in Berlin, the Libyan diplomats remained loyal. I remember one occasion where our protest at the embassy was even greeted by a counter-protest inside its gates, the staff feverishly waving pictures of their Brother Leader -- and, presumably trying to ignore the loathing of their countrymen opposite.

Anyway, better late than never. The ambassador, Jamal al-Barag, defends the delay:

Spiegel how could you have remained in your position?
Barag Because Schalgham [the Libyan UN ambassador, some kind of mentor/boss to the German ambassador] advised it. Since the UN passed Resolution 1973 [the no-fly zone resolution, on 17 March], I have done no more political work. I only come sporadically into the office. But we have more than 700 Libyan students in Germany. I ensure that they receive their €1800 each month, that their health insurance and tuition fees are paid.

Barag, who comes from Misrata, reports that he receives news of friends and acquaintances being killed on a daily basis. That he's spent 2 months watching this without criticising it is, to put it in the best line, testimony to the power of blind loyalty.

May 18, 2011

How do you describe a face?

How do you describe a face? Given my ability to forget almost everybody I meet, it's a question that bothers me on an almost daily basis. I'm always trying to figure out some procedure by which I can break a face down into its component parts, remember them methodically, and so be able to recognize somebody the next time I see them.

Oddly, I've not yet been able to find any systematic method for doing so. There are tantalizing hints that such systems exist, but they're never spelt out simply on the internet.

In Snow Crash, Stephenson imagines the value of a reliable synthetic face for living in a virtual world:

He was working on bodies, she was working on faces. She was the face department, because nobody thought that faces were all that important - they were just flesh-toned busts on top of the avatars. She was just in the process of proving them all desperately wrong. ... The Black Sun really took off. And once they got done counting their money, marketing the spinoffs, soaking up the adulation of others in the hacker community, they all came to the realization that what made this place a success was not the collision-avoidance algorithms or the bouncer daemons or any of that other stuff. It was Juanita's faces. Just ask the businessmen in the Nipponese Quadrant. They come here to talk turkey with suits from around the world, and they consider it just as good as a face-to-face. They more or less ignore what is being saida lot gets lost in translation, after all. They pay attention to the facial expressions and body language of the people they are talking to. And that's how they know what's going on inside a person's head - by condensing fact from the vapor of nuance.
That's the dream, then. As for the reality: there's probably something of that ilk in Second Life, but I've not yet hunted it down. The real action on the digital side is in computerised face recognition, which is alas of little use for people wanting themselves to describe faces. Early work was based, like old-fashioned anthropometry, on measuring the distance between 'anchor points' found in all faces. But as it's moved towards more statistical methods, which get results but can't be imitated by humans. Meanwhile the police have procedures to help witnesses identify the characteristics of a face:
most composites are put together by asking a witness to describe the parts of a face -- the eyes, nose, mouth or chin -- and then assembling those pieces to create a likeness. The popular FACES computer composite system, for instance, offers witnesses 63 head shapes, 361 types of hair, 514 eyes, 593 noses and 561 lips to choose from.

What are these part of the face? This paper contains a list, extracted from the Farkas System of facial recognition. The full list is apparently present in full only in Leslie Farkas' textboook Anthropometry of the head and face

The Visage Project seems to be an attempted online classification of faces through identifying features. The demonstration is hampered by too-small images, but the descriptions of characteristics are useful.

Another branch of work looks at the face in terms of emotions. This area was spearheaded by Paul Ekman, an anthropologist trying (with some success) to demonstrate the similarity of emotions across human cultures. His Facial Action Coding System is a means of describing facial emotion, muscle by muscle. He's spent the past decade training police, writing popular books, and even inspiring a TV series -- but nonettheless seems to be a serious and broadly respected academic. The effort required to use FACS, though, is considerable -- and it's concerned with changes in exprerssion, not with the permanent structure of the face.

Finally, there's a certain degree of scepticism about the idea of learning faces section by section. It isn't normal, you see:

Several brain studies have shown that we tend to see a face as a whole, and we pay more attention to the relationship among the parts of a face than we do to the parts themselves. "Every cognitive scientist who has studied faces has concluded that faces are processed holistically. In fact, we now know that at least as early as six months of age, babies are engaged in the holistic processing of faces, not individual features," Dr. Wells said. "You can take people who've been married 15 or 20 years and the husband or wife can be quite incapable of describing a single feature of the spouse's face accurately," added Christopher Solomon, technical director for a British composite company called VisionMetric Ltd.

Still, for now I'll take the facial-component approach over the alternative of recognizing friends by their hair and shoes, and becoming confused whenever anybody has a haircut.

May 16, 2011

python mode function

Oddly, there seems to be no mode function in the python standard library. It feels like something that should have an optimized C version squirreled away somewhere. 'Mode' is too ambiguous to be easily searchable, alas. Anyway, here's a will-have-to-do-for-now version:

from collections import defaultdict
def mode(iterable):
    counts = defaultdict(int)
    for item in iterable:
        counts[item] += 1
    return max(counts, key = counts.get)

Should be reasonably fast (for pure-python), though could eat up a lot of memory on an iterable contaning large items.

May 14, 2011

Still putting out


There's a strange way in which today's capitalism is repeating in reverse the early capitalism in which although workers are, in reality, wholly dependent on capitalism, they are formally - legally and ideologically - treated as independent contractors. This spurious reconfiguration of the worker as entrepreneur unites informal workers in the third world and precarious workers in the first

This is something that struck me very strongly when reading The Making of the English Working Classes. Industrialisation began with outsourcing. Or rather, with putting-out, which Weber describes like this:

The peasants came with their cloth, often (in the case of linen) principally or entirely made from raw material which the peasant himself had produced, to the town in which the putter-out lived, and after a careful, often official, appraisal of the quality, received the customary price for it. The putter-out's customers, for markets any appreciable distance away, were middlemen, who also came to him, generally not yet following samples, but seeking traditional qualities, and bought from his warehouse, or, long before delivery, placed orders which were probably in turn passed on to the peasants.

This is the system which was gradually absorbed into factory-based textile production -- and with it the destruction of previous social life, and the structuring of life around the working day.

Now, as with so much else, we've taken a loop around from centralised production, and are replaying the pre-industrial system at an octave's difference. That means opportunities to recreate social life, to escape the homogenous regimentation of the factory -- but also a return to the forms of exploitation most present just on the cusp of the industrial revolution.

Hence there's plenty of reason for politicised microserfs to turn back to history, explore how the peasants of the 18th century were -- and weren't -- able to assert themselves against the putters-out.

[crossposted to the art of thinking praxis]

May 10, 2011

ad-hoc webserver from the shell

Here is a neat trick to make the current directory hierarchy available online: $ cd /tmp $ python -m SimpleHTTPServer Serving HTTP on port 8000 ...