Not Math But Myth

By vocation and avocation, I am a Systems Analyst…but the systems I analyze are not computer systems. They are complex systems and include technology, environment, people, processes, motivations, constraints, incentives, expectations…they cross disciplines and are generally pretty messy. My job is to apply systems thinking and other techniques and do a kind of root cause analysis.
In practice, it’s like trying to untangle a knotted ball of string. Where the some of the string is chewed gum and some of the string is hagfish, and the entire yuckball is protected by a variety of game level challenges, and if I don’t get it down to solvable parts, well, sometimes people die and sometimes billions of dollars are lost. And sometimes there’s no impact, it’s just that things aren’t as nice as they otherwise could be.
I love my job.
But, like being a teacher or a writer, I can’t ever STOP my job. I never ever stop trying to see connections; I never stop switching between curiosity and expertise; I never stop trying to understand the underlying WHY that prompts the observable what and how. I never stop trying to understand the feedback loops.
Which means that the trend in the WEIRD world over the last few years towards a new Dark Age of ignorance, in the face of more available information than ever in our history, has become a scab I can’t stop picking.
There’s a lot to unpack here: I do think that the sheer AMOUNT of information has overwhelmed people’s ability to deal with it, so they are limiting what they intake to just what they already want to believe. The incentives of capitalism have motivated information corporations to automate that; a lot has been written about algorithms and echo chambers and Fox News. There are certainly parallels with the medieval European Church seeking to control people by ensuring their ignorance and the modern billionaires and conservative parties seeking the same thing.
But how did we, as a whole, get to a place where that became possible?
I can run some excellent data science on the actions and trends, but that only reduces things to math. Yes, that math may help predict the next action, but the math stays at the what and how level. It doesn’t get to the WHY. I believe there’s a deeper level that causes the movements we see in the math: myth.
Or, to be accurate, a lack of myth.
We’ve (and by “we” I mean the WEIRD world – Western Europe and the US primarily, but there are elements in the BRIC countries, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia) forgotten our monomyth, the basic underlying structure that tells us how to be human. We’ve become too obsessed with math – who has the most money, mainly – and we’ve allowed reality TV and social media to replace the folk traditions, legends, mythologies, even the deeper truths in religion. We’ve turned away from our guides, and as a result, fallen into the nightmares that those stories warn of.

Guess My Name

Here’s an example. This is an excerpt from the prologue to The Hero With a Thousand Faces, the seminal work by one of the saints of my personal pantheon, Joseph Campbell. I’d like you to read it and tell me who you think it’s describing. The person may or may not be a literal King; we don’t have many of those in 2019, but we do have a few people who fit the description. It’s a bit erudite, so if you like, you can skip down to my blog-style gloss of it. But mainly: who is being described here?
….according to the ancient legend, the primary fault was not the Queen’s but the King’s; and he could not really blame her, for he knew what he had done. He had converted a public event to a personal gain, whereas the whole sense of his investiture as king had been that he was no longer a mere private person. The [sacrificing a symbol of his wealth / ceding something he’d promised to give up / giving a part of his wealth / a record of his wealth / connection to his private holdings] to [God/the gods/the public] should have symbolized his absolutely selfless submission to the functions of his role. The retaining of it represented, on the other hand, an impulse to egocentric self-aggrandizement. And so the King “by the grace of God” became the dangerous tyrant HoldFast — out for himself.
Just as the traditional rites of passage used to teach the individual to die to the past and be reborn to the future, so the great ceremonials of investiture divested him of his private character and clothed him in the mantle of his vocation. Such was the ideal whether the man was a craftsman or a king. By the sacrilege of the refusal of the right, however, the individual cut himself as a unit off from the larger unit of the whole community: and so the One was broken into the many and these then battled each other, each out for himself, and could be governed only by force.
The figure of the tyrant-monster is known to the mythologies, folk traditions, legends, and even nightmares of the world; and his characteristics are everywhere essentially the same. He is the hoarder of the general benefit. He is the monster avid for the greedy rights of my-and-mine. The havoc wrought by him is described in mythology and fairytale as being universal throughout his domain. This may be no more than his household, his own tortured psyche, or the lives that he blights with the touch of his friendship and assistance; or it may amount to the extent of his civilization. The inflated ego of the tyrant is accursed to himself and his world no matter how his affairs may seem to prosper. Self-terrorized, fear-haunted, alert at every hand to meet and battle back the anticipated aggressions of his environment, which are primarily the reflections of the uncontrollable impulses to acquisition within himself, the giant of self-achieved independence is the world’s messenger of disaster even though, in his mind, he may entertain himself with humane intentions.
Wherever he sets his hand there is a cry (if not from the housetops, then – more miserably – within every heart): a cry for the redeeming hero, the carrier of the shining blade, whose blow, whose touch, whose existence, will liberate the land.

In today’s language

According to a story that’s been with us for millennia, the wealthy ruler of a prosperous civilization became ruler, in part, because of a big, attractive, symbol. He’d promised to give it up if and when he became the ruler, but when that happened, he refused. He pretended to give it up, but he made no real sacrifice to become the ruler instead of a private citizen. As a result, a horrifyingly bad thing happened, and the nation was thrown into conflict with its neighbors. The ruler chose to kidnap and murder children from neighboring nations by the boatload rather than to reveal his lie or make any personal sacrifice.
In other words, he became a tyrant, out only for himself. Campbell calls this type “HoldFast” – Lex Luthor trying to stop Superman from making a better world, Magneto resisting the thought of peace, Darth Vader clinging to his childhood pain. “He is Holdfast not because he keeps the past, but because he keeps.” The Holdfast is the villain who may think of himself as working for the greater good, but who is actually out to make himself as important and powerful as possible. Letting the Holdfast win means the world stays in the dark.
He hoards everything for himself, and maybe for his close family. In so doing, he destroys everything and everyone (probably even himself and his own family).  His domain may be just his own tortured psyche, or his household, or a circle of friends and acquaintances who will be twisted and ruined, or an entire nation. He’s egotistical yet terrified.

That feeling? Of living in a bad novel? This is why.

There have been Holdfasts in reality as well as mythology, of course. They tend to come to power in realities where the people have forgotten the myth, or the myth has been corrupted or hidden from them. It always works out badly, for everyone (even the Holdfast). The tragedy is that it didn’t have to happen, because there are always plenty of signals for those who understand the universal language of human nature (and who haven’t had their info flow censored).
This is why people are reacting badly to Davos (and why Davos pivoted pretty fast from “the super-rich getting together to help the world” to “the super-rich getting together to wank about helping the world without actually having to be uncomfortable in the slightest or give up even a dime.” It’s why people are hating on billionaires in general. It’s why people are starting to question whether late-stage capitalism is actually a good or helpful structure for a health, happy society.
It’s also why we should reject media that fill the space of myth and story, but aren’t. They are the psychological equivalent of empty calories. They don’t give us any insight or help or support on how to live, so we accept rulers that refuse to divest themselves from their personal companies, refuse to show their tax returns, etc. We accept “philanthropists” that won’t do anything mildly uncomfortable but want us to believe they can make actual change.
We don’t, for the most part, live in small communities with honest spiritual leaders, who tell us the truth and provide helpful guidance. We’ve ceded that to Fox News, mega-churches, and Facebook. Holdfast was inevitable.
But not invincible.

Security via clarity

Check out this NYT article about yet another person who was erronesously placed on an USG watchlist. In this case, he exonerated himself to the FBI by providing them an abundance of information about himself…then kept that going.

“You want to watch me? Fine. But I can watch myself better than you can, and I can get a level of detail that you will never have.”

This is probably an excellent answer for people who can be open about their identity, only have one identity, and would like to make sure that they aren’t confused with any of the other 7 billion people on the planet. For those who need to maintain multiple identities without making it clear that they ARE maintaining multiple identities (like, oh, FBI agents), I’m not sure that the level of effort required here would be feasible.

FBI launches facial recognition database

I wonder how well this is going to play with social media photo tagging, because you know they will try to integrate it.

I can’t wait until someone gets arrested because their Facebook photo looks like a criminal’s photo.

(via NextGov)

The FBI by mid-January will activate a nationwide facial recognition service in select states that will allow local police to identify unknown subjects in photos, bureau officials told Nextgov.

The federal government is embarking on a multiyear, $1 billion dollar overhaul of the FBI’s existing fingerprint database to more quickly and accurately identify suspects, partly through applying other biometric markers, such as iris scans and voice recordings.

Often law enforcement authorities will “have a photo of a person and for whatever reason they just don’t know who it is [but they know] this is clearly the missing link to our case,” said Nick Megna, a unit chief at the FBI’s criminal justice information services division. The new facial recognition service can help provide that missing link by retrieving a list of mug shots ranked in order of similarity to the features of the subject in the photo.

Today, an agent would have to already know the name of an individual to pull up the suspect’s mug shot from among the 10 million shots stored in the bureau’s existing Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. Using the new Next-Generation Identification system that is under development, law enforcement analysts will be able to upload a photo of an unknown person; choose a desired number of results from two to 50 mug shots; and, within 15 minutes, receive identified mugs to inspect for potential matches. Users typically will request 20 candidates, Megna said. The service does not provide a direct match.

Michigan, Washington, Florida and North Carolina will participate in a test of the new search tool this winter before it is offered to criminal justice professionals across the country in 2014 as part of NGI. The project, which was awarded to Lockheed Martin Corp. in 2008, already has upgraded the FBI’s fingerprint matching service.

Local authorities have the choice to file mug shots with the FBI as part of the booking process. The bureau expects its collection of shots to rival its repository of 70 million fingerprints once more officers are aware of the facial search’s capabilities.

Thomas E. Bush III, who helped develop NGI’s system requirements when he served as assistant director of the CJIS division between 2005 and 2009, said, “The idea was to be able to plug and play with these identifiers and biometrics.” Law enforcement personnel saw value in facial recognition and the technology was maturing, said the 33-year FBI veteran who now serves as a private consultant.

NGI’s incremental construction seems to align with the White House’s push to deploy new information technology in phases so features can be scrapped if they don’t meet expectations or run over budget.

But immigrant rights groups have raised concerns that the Homeland Security Department, which exchanges digital prints with the FBI, will abuse the new facial recognition component. Currently, a controversial DHS immigrant fingerprinting program called Secure Communities runs FBI prints from booked offenders against the department’s IDENT biometric database to check whether they are in the country illegally. Homeland Security officials say they extradite only the most dangerous aliens, including convicted murderers and rapists. But critics say the FBI-DHS print swapping ensnares as many foreigners as possible, including those whose charges are minor or are ultimately dismissed.

Megna said Homeland Security is not part of the facial recognition pilot. But, Bush said in the future NGI’s data, including the photos, will be accessible by Homeland Security’s IDENT.

The planned addition of facial searches worries Sunita Patel, a staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, who said, “Any database of personal identity information is bound to have mistakes. And with the most personal immutable traits like our facial features and fingerprints, the public can’t afford a mistake.”

In addition, Patel said she is concerned about the involvement of local police in information sharing for federal immigration enforcement purposes. “The federal government is using local cops to create a massive surveillance system,” she said.

Bush said, “We do have the capability to search against each other’s systems,” but added, “if you don’t come to the attention of law enforcement you don’t have anything to fear from these systems.”

Other civil liberties advocates questioned whether the facial recognition application would retrieve mug shots of those who have simply been arrested. “It might be appropriate to have nonconvicted people out of that system,” said Jim Harper, director of information policy at the libertarian Cato Institute. FBI officials declined to comment on the recommendation.

Harper also noted large-scale searches may generate a lot of false positives, or incorrect matches. Facial recognition “is more accurate with a Google or a Facebook, because they will have anywhere from a half-dozen to a dozen pictures of an individual, whereas I imagine the FBI has one or two mug shots,” he said.

FBI officials would not disclose the name of the search product or the vendor, but said they gained insights on the technique’s accuracy by studying research from the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
In responding to concerns about the creation of a Big Brother database for tracking innocent Americans, Megna said the system will not alter the FBI’s authorities or the way it conducts business. “This doesn’t change or create any new exchanges of data,” he said. “It only provides [law enforcement] with a new service to determine what photos are of interest to them.”

In 2008, the FBI released a privacy impact assessment summarizing its appraisal of controls in place to ensure compliance with federal privacy regulations. Megna said that, during meetings with the CJIS Advisory Policy Board and the National Crime Prevention and Privacy Compact Council, “we haven’t gotten a whole lot of pushback on the photo capability.”

The FBI has an elaborate system of checks and balances to guard fingerprints, palm prints, mug shots and all manner of criminal history data, he said.

“This is not something where we want to collect a bunch of surveillance film” and enter it in the system, Megna said. “That would be useless to us. It would be useless to our users.”

Google Group Members to Use Facial Recognition to Identify London Rioters


A new Google Group called “London Riots Facial Recognition” has appeared online, in the wake of the riots that rocked the U.K. capital over the weekend. The group’s goal is to use facial recognition technologies to identify the looters who appear in online photos.

The group appears to be thoughtfully considering its actions, in threads titled “Ethical Issues,” and “Keeping Things Legal,” for example. They’ve also stated that “it’s important we only use legal sources for images.”

However, there’s a major “creepy” factor to this undertaking, too. The idea that a group of people would team up online to use (misuse?) facial recognition technologies in this way, notably outside professional law enforcement channels, seems like a modern take on vigilante style justice, where the torches of the angry villagers have turned into APIs and algorithms.

In one newer thread, started just this morning, a commenter offers their assistance in building a tool using the Face.API, which could help identify people in photos posted on Facebook, Flickr and Twitter. There is even talk of using the Facebook Graph API and the Twitter API in conjunction with the one to help better identify the criminals.

While clearly, we have nothing against criminals being brought to justice, there still may be some concerns involved with this type of online behavior. As argued here on Hacker News, this method could incriminate people who were not participating, but were bystanders, or simply trying to get home. Whether their actions here are legal, whether or not they involve public photos, the question is – do we want to crowdsource justice in this way?

Facebook wants real identities only

Last week, Facebook’s marketing head, Randi Zuckerberg, caused a stir when she asserted that online anonymity has to go away. But the reason large, powerful networks are pushing for a world in which our verified and authenticated identities exist online isn’t simply to stop cyber-bullying and to create incentives for users to behave more nicely. This is about money. Part of the company’s drive is also to help users leverage their online identities to transform and accelerate online commerce.

More at TechCrunch.

Real-time facial recognition pulls multiple identity aspects

This week at the Black Hat security conference researchers from Carnegie Mellon University demonstrated how facial recognition technology can be used to positively identify a person and possibly even to gain access to their personal information.

The Carnegie team used three relatively simple technologies to create their face recognition system: An off-the-shelf face recognizer, cloud computing processing, and personal data available through the public feed at social networking sites such as Facebook.

They were even able to reproduce some of the effects using a smartphone app that overlayed parts of their deduced ID data onto a view of the world in real time using an augmented reality app.

Read more at Fast Company.