October 24, 2011

Saving Faces

When it comes to technology, I often think companies with powerful new applications can fail to see the difference between ‘can we?’ and ‘should we?’. As private companies develop increasingly bottomless resources for storing our most personal information, we, their customers, should constantly be asking how much of this is really necessary, and how much are we giving away by letting it happen.

Back in 2010, Geekosystem reported that Facebook were introducing facial recognition software into their network’s functions. Combined with the tagging function that can be used on photos, this software could be used to ‘recognize’ all your friends in all your photos and tag them accordingly.

I found an article in ‘ The Guardian’ a while back that confirms it’s full steam ahead for the internet giant’s new facility. And an article in ‘PC World’ explains why this is a profoundly creepy development. Facebook have long shown that they can play fast and loose with their members’ privacy. Given that private communications with your friends is a big part of the service Facebook offers, this carelessness can result in deeply personal stuff you thought was treated as confidential, ending up on view to the world.

This type of software has been in use across the world in law-enforcement for some time, but Google, Apple, Sony, Microsoft and other private companies are putting it to use too.

For those who’ve never come across it before, facial recognition basically works like this:

Computer software analyzes the features of your face in a photo and breaks the information down into a mathematical algorithm. It can record the proportions of your face – the relative position, size, and/or shape of the eyes, nose, cheekbones, and jaw. It then simplifies the information in the image down to the bare basics needed for identification. Another version might identify you by the blemishes in the surface of your skin; or there are even approaches that record the physical shape of your face in a 3D model. What it boils down to, though, is your face can be recorded in systems of numbers that can be identified and cross-referenced much faster than an image can – just as law enforcers worldwide can already do with fingerprints.

Except you can’t fingerprint someone as they pass you on the street.

A writer on Zippycart discusses how, in the near future, this technology could be used to target you with advertising when you’re out and about, or perhaps even get you arrested in a police state because you were once photographed in the wrong place, or with the wrong people.

Facial recognition software is already being trialled for use in schools, to replace the roll call, including one school in Dublin. I have a major problem with this – not the technological monitoring of kids’ attendance as such, but the taking and storage of children’s biometric data by a private company. I went into some of the issues around this a while back, when I learned about new systems being used to fingerprint kids in school libraries.

I have always been curious about, and interested in, new technology. But my real interest is in our relationship with its functions, and the practical ways that this affects our lives.

This introduction of facial recognition into our everyday lives is just at the early stages, and at this level, it’s still a rather fumbling, benign presence. The success rate varies, but is often much less than 50%. It can be foiled by such minor things as sunglasses, long hair, low or unconventional lighting, poor resolution and even facial expressions. If you’re on camera, give it a big smile and it might not be able to read your face.

So it’s easy for calls of caution to be dismissed as paranoia. But I figure it’s better be cautious now, rather than frustrated and powerless later. And the fact this technology doesn’t work properly yet, but is already in widespread use, is a cause for concern in itself. If this it doesn’t do the job properly, why use it? Before we create massive honey-pots of information that can be lifted from a computer by anyone with the savvy to do it, misused through incompetence, or just mislaid by some eejit, let’s figure out if it’s the best way of doing things, and make sure the process doesn’t compromise our personal security.

I do harp on about this a bit, but there’s one fundamental principle I always keep in mind when I’m dealing with my information online:

Once you put something up on the web, it’s gone. Once the world has access to it, you can no longer consider it yours. And I don’t care who says what about the privacy they can guarantee online. Nobody can guarantee privacy online. Encryption can be extremely secure, but people aren’t. I always assume any online lock can be unlocked. And that’s working on the theory that the company supplying the web service to you, isn’t going to take it upon itself to do something dodgy with your information. There’s no guarantee of that either.

So when some big company tries to sell you a flash new service, but it involves using some of your most personal information – and biometric data is as personal and as important as it gets – ask not just what you could do with that technology, but what that technology could do to you.

October 12, 2011

Road Work

So I’ve been on the road a lot over the last couple of weeks. Children’s Book Festival kicked off for real with two days in Clare at the end of September, doing sessions in Ennis and Corofin, Ennistymon and Miltown Malbay. On the way back, I stopped at the Cliffs of Moher. I think I was there when I was a kid, but can’t remember.

With the new tourist facilities, it’s all very packaged, but you still get the spectacular views. And given the damage that crowds do in a place like that (it was crowded, even at the end of September), you can see the need. I liked the design of the place, the sweeping, curving lines and the way it’s built into the landscape. That said, the taps in the men’s toilets win the award for the Dumbest Taps Ever Created. With a wide, horizontal spout and a stupid ledge instead of a sink, they will without fail, spray your crotch with water. Lads, you know how that looks.

On the car stereo was an audio-book – Ken Bruen’s ‘Magdalen Martyrs’. One of Eoin Colfer’s favourite writers, Bruen is biting and blunt, but thoughtful – an excellent writer. But he relies on references to other writers way too often for my tastes, and there’s a lot of wallowing in the perils of alcoholism, using up space that could be used to show his self-destructive detective working the story more. It’s the first book of Bruen’s that I’ve checked out, and I’ll definitely dip in again, but I’d like to see (or hear) more his own words, and less of other people’s.

On the way back, I drove through the moon-like stone slopes of the Burren, sweeping down the tightly winding curves of Corkscrew Hill like a giddy kid (a giddy kid who drives very carefully, of course). Then it was onto the motorway back home. Bruen had finished up by then. Maybe it’s the banks along the sides of motorways, but I can never seem to get a decent radio reception on them. A pain in the neck, given how boring motorway driving can be.

On Thursday, the 29th of September, I was in Clonee, in Meath, for an event that’s becoming increasingly rare in Ireland – and was never a common occurrence to begin with: the opening of a school library. I had done a residency earlier this year in Colaiste Pobail Setanta, so it was a pleasure to come back for the official opening of their new library. The shelves were less than half full, and most of the stock had been donated by the students, but it will apparently be run by students, so filling the rest of those shelves should be an experience in itself. I wish them the best of luck with it.

On the Friday I was in Dromineer, in Tipperary, to do a couple of sessions with Transition Years, as part of the Dromineer Literary Festival. The sessions took place in the sailing club, with a fantastic view out onto Lough Derg (which I had to compete with for the students’ attention). I didn’t get to see any of the other events in the festival, but their other guests that week included Jennifer Johnston, Dermot Healy, Mary Arrigan and Vincent McDonnell. Sounded like an interesting mix, but I was keen to get home.

Downtime is at premium this month, and this was one of the few weekends I was going to have over the next while to spend with my kids. The next week was to be another busy one.

October 11, 2011

Attention-Seeking

This is a bit of a mental week (I’m in eight different places this week alone – more, if you count individual libraries in a county), but I wanted to post a few things before I forgot.

First off, if you’re a budding new author – or indeed a frustrated old one – Irish PEN are hosting a panel talk on writing for children this Thursday (the 13th) in Dublin, featuring yours truly, but also properly interesting people such as leading agent, Julia Churchill; Puffin Ireland publisher, Paddy O’Doherty; and authors Sarah Webb and Anna Carey. You can find out more about it here.

I recently did a guest post for the Meath Libraries blog after running a series of comic-book workshops. You can read that here. I’ll be doing a few more in other places before the month’s out – I’ll link to them as they happen.

If you’re into science fiction and/or fantasy, I’ll be at Octocon, the National Irish Sci-Fi Convention in the Camden Court Hotel in Dublin. I can’t make the Saturday, but I’ll be there Sunday. Yes, there may be one or two nerds present, but they are mostly harmless, and often very entertaining (usually on purpose). Drop in if you can – it’ll be like Scooby Snacks for the brain.

And finally, my last post was a tribute to my old Mac, with which I have had a ten-year turbulent relationship, but whose design and reliability I have long been thankful for. The man who deserves the hero’s portion of that thanks died this week. Steve Jobs changed the way we regard technology, and though everybody talks about the iPod, the iPad and the iPhone, I got hooked a lot earlier than all that. Whatever issues I might have with Apple, I’m the first to admit that Steve Jobs and his people were among the first to make computers for the way human beings were designed to work.

Rest in peace, Mr Jobs.

October 4, 2011

‘Are You Sure You Want to Shut Down Your Computer?’

This post is a tribute to my Power Mac G4, a machine with which I have had a long and tumultuous working relationship; a machine I have cursed almost as often as I’ve admired. Hold onto your hats, ‘cos this could get a bit nerdy.

Despite the numerous break-ups (and one or two break-downs) this Mac and I have endured, I have listened with bemusement to other people who have bought PCs and found themselves replacing them a year or two later. It’s hard to fathom anyone tolerating a situation like that. Whatever faults this stubborn git of a computer might have had, quitting wasn’t one of them.

For anyone who recognizes this model and is gaping at its venerable age, yes, I bought it new, and have been using it constantly as my main computer ever since. Yes, it is the Quicksilver model (the 733 MHz one). Yes, that model was released in 2001. And yes, it was getting painfully slow towards the end.

After nigh on ten years, I’ve finally given in and retired it from active service.

I’m sorry to say that I’ve met another machine – the inevitable newer model (not completely new; refurbished and upgraded, but new to me) one that can offer me some mystery, some excitement and . . . dare I say it . . . a smoother ride. I’m writing this post on that new Mac, as my old workmate sits disconnected in the corner of the room, awaiting a new life as a back-up drive.

There were times when I wanted to take a hammer to the old ****er, but when it comes down to it, it has served me well. It’s taken me from a career in freelance illustration and design, into one as a writer-illustrator of more than twenty books. We’ve done a lot of late nights together, moved house/studio four times, worked on painted artwork, digital art, websites, speeches, online teaching courses, workshop materials, research, books and any number of other tasks. We never played games together (except for the psychological ones) – it was always strictly business. But then, this is a passionate business.

I handle the minor maintenance stuff myself. The G4 has failed me completely only once (the result of a power surge I failed to guard against), and I’ve had the RAM and hard drive upgraded just the once too. On both those occasions – and when it came time to transfer everything on the hard drive onto the new computer – I went to the lads in Back From The Future, on Aungier Street in Dublin. Combining just the right mix of expertise, friendly service and character, they sell a great range of new, refurbished and end-of-line technology. And best of all, they don’t just fix computers, they fix Macs – and with a minimum of fuss. A rare breed. They’ve been a main street business for nine years, they now have a second shop open in Dun Laoghaire, and Colin, one of the owners, does technology reviews on TV3. So despite competing with big-name retail branding power, they’ve well and truly staked out a place for themselves in the market. And as the publishing world goes increasingly digital, we’re going to need down-to-earth people to make sense of the ever-increasing mass of technology that our industry will depend on. If you have a computer problem, if nobody else can help . . . sorry, that’s the wrong eighties screen phenomenon. Anyway, Back From The Future – they’re good.

Which is just as well, because when you have to disconnect the machine your whole business is running on and leave it in someone else’s hands, it can be a bit unnerving. Backing stuff off is all very well, but not having my work computer just leaves me feeling so exposed. Maedhbh warned the kids to tread carefully around me for those few days. But now I’m back! And I still have all my books and files and everything.

On a rather fitting note, the first TED talk I checked out on the new Mac was this one, about using Google’s reservoir of millions of digitized books – an unprecedented historical record – to look at the changing trends to be found in that ocean of text. Some are profoundly important, like proof of rising sea levels and a demonstration of the effects of censorship in Nazi Germany. And then some are downright silly, like the levels of frustration demonstrated by the word ‘argh’, from those with just one ‘a’ to those with eight. Intriguing statistical information, delivered with comedic timing.