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May 28th, 2011 § Enter your password to view comments. § permalink

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sorry, nobody believes you any more

May 28th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

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.

The Libyan ambassador in Berlin has defected

May 20th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

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 19th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink argues that shortage of metadata is specifically an internet problem:

It’s kind of humbling to see that even a quarter of a century ago, news formatted in International Press Telecommunications Council standards like IPTC 7901 , NITF or NewsML had more metadata associated with it than a lot of websites of today.

The “big blob of text” phenomenon we’re stuck with now wasn’t caused by newspapers sticking to their old, wary ways, but by the transition to a new medium, the internet.

via the mojo list

How do you describe a face?

May 18th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

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.

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe

May 17th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

There’s a quote from Blade Runner which has long irritated me. It’s sampled in some Juno Reactor track, and so slides into my subconsciousness every time I try to zone in/out with the trance:

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the darkness at Tannhäuser Gate.

Out of context, it just seems so petty. You’re describing the wonder and immensity of the universe, I thought, and this is the best you’ve got? All the cosmos can offer you is the pretty pictures? It’s the equivalent of dropping acid, then just admiring the hallucinations as pieces of theatre.

I was planning a blogpost to that effect.

Then I looked up the video, and suddenly I’m a convert:

I probably shouldn’t try to put the effect of the clip into words. Suffice it to say, all is forgiven. This isn’t somebody bragging, it’s the hopeless attempt to telegraph into dying breath the most intense moments of a ‘lifetime’. The machine will not communicate — it can’t, any more than a human can verbalise hir innermost thoughts. But there’s glory in the attempt.

Removing whitespace with sed

May 17th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Use sed to remove leading whitespace:

sed 's/^[ \t]*//'

The particular reason I want to do this is to turn my todo-list (a tree of tasks, marked off by when i completed them), into a sorted record of what I’ve done on a particular day. In other words, I want to go from this:

OED javascript
other tasks
2011-04-17 16:57:33 Sort out markdown for vim 45m
Thing I haven't done

To this:

2011-04-17 15:58:32 update blog with more cmds 3m
2011-04-17 15:58:59 modify timestamp to include date 20m [,,T,,D wil do for now]
2011-04-17 16:57:33 Sort out markdown for vim 45m
2011-04-17 17:39:04 [email to ejc about resources for journalists

Which can be done by removing whitespace, limiting to lines containing dates, and sorting

$ cat todo/todo.otl| sed 's/^[\t ]*//' | grep 2011 | sort

mode function in python

May 16th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

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 version that should be reasonably fast

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.

python mode function

May 16th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

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.

back to the future with ellis

May 16th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Warren Ellis is on an urbanism/retrofuturism jag:

the real world was always moving faster than science fiction: it’s just that back then the real future was broadcasting at 4.20 in the bloody morning and no-one was around to see it.


May 14th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

In less wanky news…
I’ll be in London next week, Thursday to Sunday. Then off to Bristol for a couple of days.

Let me know if there are things I should be going to!

Fiction Suit: comics and the politics of the pseudonym

May 14th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

[warning: 600 words of indulgent waffle on identity politics]

I’ve never been good at pseudonyms, collective identities, self-reinvention. Nonmetheless, I consider them a Good Thing at a fundamental level. Your identity, or mine, is the accretion of social conformism, gender roles, the acceptance of our own position in society. You can try to unpick it, layer by layer, but the chances are you’ll never get to a ‘real you’.

Or you can take the shortcut: choose another identity, put it on, change it once it’s no longer useful. Be Luther Blissett, be Spartacus. Be your friends, or your enemies, or some combination of them all.

steerpikelet just gave a wonderful interview, where she defends political action without a true name:

Anonymous is its own separate thing, an anarchic and brilliant thing, but the wider concept of anonymity itself as a political statement – whether online or offline – is gaining more and more ground as a way of rebelling against a political culture that not only seeks to root out unsavory elements with surveillance but which mandates individuality as a form of rigid conformity. Think about it: it you grow up being commanded to self-actualise, to be the best individual you can be, to define yourself by buying things, to be yourself and find your special centre and compete with your neighbors and colleagues, then choosing to be anonymous is an inherently revolutionary act, quite apart from the organising possibilities the phenomenon offers. Plus, there’s a growing sense that there is a great deal of power in the collective, in sharing a sense of solidarity, symmetry and protection in anonymity.

It’s perhaps not a coincidence that Laurie writes this in an interview with a comics blog. If there’s one area that comics have picked over in every possible regard, it’s the secondary identity. Start with a world that has Clark Kent/Superman as the mainstream, where almost every hero wears a mask or leads a double life. Then in the 80s, along come Alan Moore and friends, devote their considerable talents to picking apart every aspect of the superhero identity. The Guy Fawkes mask now identifying Anonymous is just the smallest part of this.

The climax of this tendency, to my mind, is Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. A cell of superpowered freedom fighters draw their personalities by lot; each necessary identity is filled by a different person each week. Characters live under layers of assumed identities, brainwashing themselves at each level to forget the next layer. Heroes and villains turn out to be the same groups, veiling their consciousness in order to play out their roles. The end result is reminiscent of, say, Shaiva Tantrism. By the end, it seems that everybody is part of the same identity: a character in a dream, a player in a video-game, the ‘fiction suit’ with which God walks the earth, or part of a hyper-dimensional being.

Yes, this is part plot device, part stoner esoterica. But it’s also a guide to discarding the unwanted parts of your past, and to acting as a group not based on prior hierarchies. And, as Laurie suggests, to dodging surveillance. When government and corporations devote so much energy to tracking and correlating our behaviour, it becomes almost a matter of duty to thow a spanner in the works. That is to adopt some identity not linked to a passport and a birth certificate. To dream a fiction suit, be it, share it, discard it, and move on to the next identity.

Firefox switch to tab

May 14th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

FF4 has a feature by which, when you try to open a second copy of a page, will flip to the existing tab rather than re-opening it.

This drives me crazy.

I usually have several dozen tabs open, across multiple screens, some not visible. When I re-open a tab I want it to appear right in front of me. Not (as happens now) to be brought to the front of a window I can’t even see.

this blogpost offers some solutions, most of which don’t seem to work.

What does seem to work is adding some junk to the end of the url. A hash should do it, or in extreme cases a hash followed by some random characters.

Still putting out

May 14th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink


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]

More B&T

May 13th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

More B&T:

BRIC – MIST – MAYHEM: “the creation of random geopolitical blocs is kind of fun. I mean, if you group Mexico with Afghanistan, Yemen, Haiti, Egypt and Moldova then you have MAYHEM; as indeed you do.

Libyan nukes:

Actually, come to think about it there seemed to be a fair amount of ritual involved in Libya giving up its nuke programme.

Step one: Libya buys a bunch of stuff from the Khan network

Step two: Libya hands it over and renounces its programme

Stepo three: Welcome to the international community! Here’s a guy we jugged earlier.

I always wondered if step one was taken in anticipation of taking step two.

On Torygeddon

it’s important not to get paranoid about this. Just because the management of the economy resembles something from a political science textbook about the period of destabilisation engineered to lay the groundwork for a coup doesn’t mean that it’s actually happening that way.

On Tunisia: “It obviously wasn’t a twitter revolution, or a wikileaks one for that matter. It was a “man burning himself alive in despair” revolution. The only thing digital about it was when he flicked his bic

Empire numerology: “So, Britain as superpower, 1759-1945. US as superpower, 1919-2008. USSR as superpower, 1945-1989. Clearly there’s a pattern here; each new power lasts approximately half the length of its predecessor. ..Unfortunately, this only gives the Chinese from 2008-2033 or thereabouts. Which sounds about right for a really serious demographic/elite incompetence crisis. India and Brazil only get 12 or 6 years, and at some point in the 2050s the world order starts to move like a singulatarian’s fantasy

ad-hoc webserver from the shell

May 10th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Here is a neat trick to make the current directory hierarchy available online:

$ cd /tmp
$ python -m SimpleHTTPServer
Serving HTTP on port 8000 ...

Quickly creating a shell script

May 10th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Suppose you want to create and run a short script. It’s often faster not to bother opening up a text editor. Instead, use shell history to write a file, then chmod and execute it:

$ cat > /tmp/
#!/usr/bin/env python
print('hello world')
$ chmod a+x !$
chmod a+x /tmp/
$ !$
hello world

The Hijab is anti-european

May 8th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Azerbaijan has banned wearing hijabs in schools.

In a move some say is designed to bring the secular predominantly Muslim country closer to Europe, Azerbaijan follows a number of other countries in banning religious head scarves in schools. It also follows the closure of several mosques late last year under a new law on religion.

Don’t you feel proud of the European export of tolerance?

[there’s a very similar dynamic behind Turkish regulation of the hijab, and Turkish secularisation in general]

Qatar arms to Libya

May 8th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

The New York Times reports that:

for the first time, Qatar put the question of supplying arms to the rebels on the table, but no agreement was reached.

Well, not really for the first time. Qatar has been pushing for arms shipments to the rebels for a long time:

“If they will ask for weapons, we’re going to provide them,” the amir, who is on a visit to the United States, told CNN in an interview. [xinhua, 15 April]

And the New York Times itself has reported on the rebels receiving foreign weapons, and speculated that Qatar is one source of them.

Kenneth Rexroth

May 7th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Bruce Sterling, Kenneth Rexroth. Rexroth was columnist in the San Francisco Examiner, through the 1960s. Elegant, thoughtful, panoramic. While I don’t quite share Sterling’s enthusiasm (“there are no blogs this good“), there’s good stuff here:

Looking back, it seems now that most of our crises have been crises of talk. We have been able to take it out by abusing each other. That is just dandy. Nobody pushed those banks of buttons over the U-2. The Chinese have not invaded Laos or Taiwan. The Marines have not landed in Cuba. The Congolese seem to be tiring. The UN proved able to cope with Khrushchev.

Who knows? We may talk ourselves out of the woods yet.

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