Movies are the new ballet

This is my theory: superhero movies are filling that gap in our entertainment lives that would be filled with ballet, if we were wealthy and/or Russian. You go to the ballet to gasp in awe at the feats of physicality, to be emotionally manipulated by music, costume, movement, and spectacle, even if you don’t know what the fuck you are watching.

And let’s face it, Swan Lake makes a lot more sense than Captain America: Civil War.

That’s the only reason I can come up with to justify the giddy love for CA:CW, a movie that I and two 11-year-old boys found decidedly meh. The combination of beautiful women, muscular men, and choreography must just set the lizard brain awash in happy juice, decoupling it from all rational higher brain functions.

I love looking at Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans as much as the next person, and I love Sebastian Stan’s glower, Chadwick Boseman and Paul Bettany’s voices, and everything about RDJ’s Tony Stark (but mostly the cool tech). The costume design and manufacturing, the special effects, most of the fight choreography, the shot compositions: all great. But like so much ballet and opera, it’s sound and fury with no significance, no story that can survive even the barest consideration.

Spoilers follow.

From a big picture standpoint, MCU need Cap and Iron Man to fight in this one. They couldn’t do the Civil War storyline from the comics, because it’s no longer topical to talk about how awful the Patriot Act is (although it should be). Also, Tony was just an ass for no reason in the comics…but in giving Tony credible motivation for the movie, they put Cap in the position of being morally in the wrong. Which he should NEVER be.

There are two stories in CA:CW. One is about the Sokovia Accords, and the other is about vengeance, pretty much. It’s about the fact that the Winter Soldier killed Tony’s parents, and Cap has somehow known this and not told Tony. The Sokovia Accords is Scarlet Witch’s story, but since female characters don’t get to have stories, it’s used here as a giant misdirection for the audience and the backdrop for the bad guy to pull off his amazingly convoluted plan to set two of the Avengers at each other’s throats.

Swan Lake asks the audience to believe that a human can shapechange into a swan. Everything else is pretty straightforward, following the excellent advice that a story can only have one fantastical element in it. If none of the other rules of physics applied in Swan Lake, it would be surrealist at best, rather than a classic.  CA:CW asks the audience to believe all the superhero stuff: a woman can do telekenesis and mind control; a couple guys were given serums that made them super-strong and durable, frozen for 50 years, and are OK now; a man is mind-blowingly rich and flies around in a magic metal suit; several characters have suits or accessories of the magic metal, which breaks every law of physics; a guy can become bug-sized or giant-sized, still be heard when he’s bug-size and not dent the ground when he’s giant-sized, etc.

With all that the rest of the story needs to be plausible. Instead, we’re somehow supposed to believe that there were at least three perfectly positioned and IR-equipped cameras exactly at the spot where Bucky ambushed the Starks. One caught the action from the front of the car, one from the back, and one was just right to get a close-up inside the car. “No witnesses,” say Hyrdra, but man they were great about ensuring the video record.

OK, but even if you give the movie that dumbass premise, we then have to believe that Zemo decrypted all of the Hydra files Black Widow made public, somehow found the video in them when no one else did, and then thought “I know! I will make Iron Man and Captain America fight each other! This will tear the Avengers apart! Somehow that will make up for my loss…and it’s so easy! All I have to do is make sure Iron Man sees this. I’m sure Captain America already knows it, and I’m sure he will act to protect this Hydra assassin, because I’ve seen the first two Captain America movies and I know that Cap’s love for Bucky is stronger than any other relationship he has!”

Having come up with this watertight plan, Zemo does the obvious: he emails, Subject: You need to see this and attaches the mp4 file.

Except no, he doesn’t.

He teaches himself Russian and German (let’s assume he already spoke English and Sokovian), decrypts all the rest of the Hydra and SHIELD stuff on Wikileaks, builds an EMP generator in a closet in a German hostel (or brings it, which might be even harder) during UN meetings he clearly planned for, develops Mission: Impossible-level disguise abilities, makes himself look like the psychologist that he somehow knew would interrogate Bucky after Bucky is apprehended due in part to the interference of Black Panther, which Zemo somehow also knew about. Oh yes, he had previously disguised himself as Bucky in Vienna in order to have the cops go after Bucky. All that under the noses of the JTTF and JSOC, so that’s comforting. In and around this he located former Soviet Hydra agents, out-smarted and out-fought them, located the secret Hydra base in Siberia, dragged Cap, Iron Man, and Bucky to it, killed the Hydra murder squad (because he knew that it wouldn’t be ALL the Avengers coming after his ass), and then played the video there.

Zemo is AMAZING.

He is like 5000 times more competent than any of the Avengers. He should be running Stark Industries. He clearly plans big, and then fucking executes like a boss. And he’s got no superpowers and no bank account.

But we still have the Sokovia Accords. It’s almost possible to believe that people would be so scared of superhumans that they wouldn’t be able to think through “If Scarlet Witch had left the bomb on the ground, many more people would have died,” but I still feel like that was all a giant waste of screen time. Not as much of a waste as the Spiderman stuff, which was a mini-movie, because the Spidey stuff was just clearly a trailer for the next set of Spiderman movies.

It’s possible CA:CW could be recut to actually be about something. Zemo’s right – an empire that falls because it comes apart from internal fighting never returns. Marvel had a chance to talk about the internal fighting in the US, fomented and fed by the media’s control of what people see and when. Zemo chose what the heroes saw and when and led them to conflict, but there was a core of truth that pushed Red Guy and Blue Guy to fight. This could really have worked, but I suspect RDJ didn’t want to be seen as a Trump proxy, and Marvel, a media giant, didn’t want to criticize the media.

Next time, I’ll spend the $100 it cost me to take two kids to this movie on ballet tickets instead.


For Those Who Don’t Want To Believe

Excellent article from Jon Evans at TechCrunch about a month ago, relevant to the Nym Wars.

Cheap and/or ubiquitous cameras and facial recognition make surveillance ever more omnipresent; the dangers and uncertainties of other new technologies, like hobbyist UAVs, lead to calls for even greater scrutiny; and eventually online anonymity/pseudonymity will be the only kind there is. That isn’t entirely a bad thing. It’s because of crowdsourced surveillance that New York police lieutenant Anthony Bologna faces two investigations after apparently gratuitously pepper-spraying protestors. But it means the ability to remain pseudonymous online will only become more and more important in the years to come.

Do the services that connect people online seem to realize this? Sadly, the answer mostly ranges between “No” and “Hell, no.” Twitter is the only major social network that doesn’t have a real-names policy, and the only one with a history of going to bat for its users’ privacy. But while the online journalists in Mexico who dare to report on its brutal drug wars are beheaded after their real identities are connected to their online bylines, while Syrians are detained and interrogated because of their Facebook accounts, Vic Gundotra has idiotically compared Google Plus’s real-name policy to “wearing a shirt to a restaurant,” and both Eric Schmidt and Mark Zuckerberg’s sister Randi have called for real identities to be attached to all online activity.

“Digilantes” find that facial recognition still sucks

When a group of digilantes formed a Google Group last week dedicated to applying facial recognition technology to photos from the London riots to identify culprits, it caused quite a stir in the media. But the group’s organizer contacted Kashmir Hill at Forbes over the weekend to say that they have abandoned the project.

They created an experimental app using tools from and tested it with 30 of their friends. Their plan had been to release a Facebook app to the public so that people in the UK could volunteer to scan riot photos to see if any of the ne’er-do-wells were friends of theirs. (Not good friends, I’d have to assume.) They also gave me access to the app to give it a try. The results were too disappointing for the digilantes to actually release it. It wasn’t identifying people it should (friends of the guinea pigs) with high degrees of confidence, and it was saying with relatively high degrees of confidence that rioters were people who they were not.

Meanwhile, Scotland Yard says it is putting facial recognition technology into use, according to the AP, using a face-recognizing tool that was being developed in preparation for hosting the Olympics in 2012.

And Conor Friedersdorf writes in The Atlantic

[P]erhaps the British surveillance state won’t make much of a difference in preventing future riots or prosecuting people in the aftermath of this one. If law enforcement there isn’t any better at punishing rioters than their analogues in other countries, that’s a strong argument for rethinking their whole system: if surveillance doesn’t prevent wanton street violence and property destruction, the notion that its benefits outweigh its costs (loss of privacy and potential abuse by authorities) is all the more dubious.

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?

When Social Media Mining Gets It Wrong

(Technology Review)

Big problems could be ahead if we rely on conclusions drawn from individuals’ social-networking data.

A complex picture of your personal life can now be pieced together using a variety of public data sources, and increasingly sophisticated data-mining techniques. But just how accurate is that picture?

Last week in Las Vegas, at the computer security conference Black Hat, Alessandro Acquisti, an associate professor of information technology and public policy at the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University, showed how a photograph of a person can be used to find his or her date of birth, social security number, and other information by using facial recognition technology to match the image to a profile on Facebook and other websites. Acquisti acknowledges the privacy implications of this work, but he warns that the biggest problem could be the inaccuracy of this and other data-mining techniques.

Acquisti says that his current work is an attempt “to capture the future we are walking into.” In this future, he sees online information being used to prejudge a person on many levels—as a prospective date, borrower, employee, tenant, and so on. The Internet, he says, could become “a place where everyone knows your name”—a worldwide small town that won’t let you live anything down.

Beyond the obvious concerns about strangers knowing more than ever about you, Acquisti worries about what will happen when the technology makes mistakes. “We tend to make strong extrapolations about weak data,” says Acquisti. “It’s impossible to fight that, because it’s in our nature.”

A number of companies have already begun using social media to measure and track reputation. The Santa Barbara, California, company Social Intelligence, for example, performs social-media background screenings on prospective employees, promising to reveal negative information such as racist remarks or sexually explicit photos, or positive information such as signs of social media influence within a specific field. Other companies, such as Klout, track users’ level of social influence, allowing advertisers to offer special rewards to those with high scores.

But Acquisti’s research demonstrated the pitfalls of placing too much relevance on social networking data. His team took photos of volunteers and used an off-the-shelf face recognizer called PittPatt (recently acquired by Google) to find each volunteer’s Facebook profile—which often revealed that person’s real name and much more personal information. Using this information, the team could sometimes figure out part of a person’s social security number. They also created a prototype smart-phone app that pulls up personal information about a person after they are snapped with the device’s camera.

In their experiment, the team was able to match about one-third of subjects to the correct profiles. From there, they made other predictions. Seventy-five percent of the time, they correctly predicted subjects’ interests. They correctly predicted the first five digits of volunteers’ social security numbers about 16 percent of the time given two tries. (Accuracy increased with more attempts.)

But this means that two-thirds of the time, they did not identify people correctly. And those who were correctly identified were still incorrectly matched 25 percent of the time to particular personal interests, and more than 80 percent of the time to the wrong social security number.

Acquisti expects facial recognition technology to continue improving in coming years, and he asks what will happen once it is considered good enough to be trusted most of the time. It could be nightmarish for those who are misidentified. “There’s nothing that we, as individuals, can control,” he says.

Other researchers are exploring the reliability of mining social data. At Defcon, a hacking conference in Las Vegas last weekend, a group called the Online Privacy Foundation presented results of its “Big Five Experiment,” a study that aimed to match volunteers’ personality traits to qualities on Facebook profiles. After administering a personality test to volunteers, they mined profiles to identify key characteristics.

The Online Privacy Foundation researchers found a positive correlation between people whose personalities tended toward openness and those whose Facebook profiles were loaded with more information: longer lists of interests, longer bios, and more discussion of money, religion, death, and negative emotions. They also found a positive correlation between “agreeable people”—defined as “being compassionate, cooperative, having the ability to forgive and be pragmatic”—and Facebook statuses that were written in longer sentences, that discussed positive emotions, or had relatively more comments, friends, and photos. However, in both cases, the correlations were relatively weak.

The researchers conclude that a Facebook profile is hardly a reliable source of information. “The key point is to remember that this is a bet,” says the foundation’s cofounder Chris Sumner. “The message is that, yes, there is a link, but don’t use it on its own for critical decisions.”

Acquisti and Sumner say that new government policies may be needed to protect individuals from excessive data mining and from the misuse of their information. This could involve setting standards of accuracy for organizations to abide by. “The defining question of our time,” Acquisti says, “is how do we, as a society, deal with big data?”

Power and Identity

Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd argues in this article that ‘The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalized by systems of power.

I could point out that Google+ and Facebook are staffed by privileged men, so obviously these points wouldn’t have occurred to them, but I want to keep this blog more in the observer role of online identity…so I’ll just recommend you read Boyd’s article and think about what happens worldwide when people are forced to use one name for all spaces.  (One name to rule them all; one name to find them)

EFF Applauds New Electronic Privacy Bill That Tells the Government: Come Back With a Warrant!

(via EFF)

Today, Senator Patrick Leahy introduced much-needed legislation to update the Electronic Communication Privacy Act of 1986, a critically important but woefully outdated federal privacy law in desperate need of a 21st century upgrade. This ECPA Amendments Act of 2011 (S. 1011) would implement several of the reform principles advocated by EFF as part of the Digital Due Process (DDP) coalition, and is a welcome first step in the process of providing stronger and clearer privacy protections for our Internet communications and location data. Here is the bill text, along with a summary of the bill.

The upshot? If the government wants to track your cell phone or seize your email or read your private IMs or social network messages, the bill would require that it first go to court and get a search warrant based on probable cause. This is consistent with DDP‘s principles, builds on EFF’s hard-won court victories on how the Fourth Amendment applies to your email and your cell phone location data, and would represent a great step forward for online and mobile privacy protections.

The bill isn’t absolutely free of problems: although it clearly would require a warrant for ongoing tracking of your cell phone, it would also and unfortunately preserve the current statutory rule allowing the government to get historical records of your location without probable cause. It also expands the government’s authority to use National Security Letters to obtain rich transactional data about who you communicate with online and when, without probable cause or court oversight. You can count on EFF to press for these problems to be fixed, and for all of the DDP principles to be addressed, as the bill proceeds through Congress.

However, as the start of the process of updating ECPA for the always-on, location-enabled technology of the 21st century, Senator Leahy’s bill represents an incredibly important step in the right direction, and we at EFF look forward to working with Senator Leahy and others in Congress as they work to create new laws to better protect your online and mobile privacy. In the meantime, stay tuned for more commentary and analysis from EFF as the ECPA reform process moves forward.