Thoughts

On the automation of surveillance

We are seeing an increased use of surveillance at every level of our lives (on the street, at work, online, on our phones, etc.), and we see increased use of automation (simple, algorithmic and AI) to sort through all our activities. It’s a worrisome trend. We should be asking questions such as:

  • Who’s surveilling us and why? It’s easy to answer this with two terms: government and big tech, but the answers can be and should be much more granulated.
  • Who’s keeping track of that data? Exactly who are the players who have access to our data, who are running analysis on it and who are storing it, backing it up, etc.
  • How long is our data kept and where?
  • When algorithms decide our human fate, is that just? Should we tolerate it?
  • Who wrote the algorithms and are they skewed in some way? Given the recent censorship issues on Facebook and Twitter, I think algorithms are clearly written with an agenda in mind and they can be easily skewed to fit the needs and wants of the companies who apply them.
  • And many more questions like this…

I’d first like to point out the following: we live in a human world, and we’re meant to relate to each other in human ways; it doesn’t work well otherwise.

However, as I’ve pointed out in past posts, the world is too full of humans, and there are many complications that arise from that. Chief among them is this: an unusually large proportion of them aren’t relating to their fellow humans in human (or humane) ways and they are engaging in violence, murder, kidnappings, rape, pedophilia and other perversions, vandalism, theft, looting, corruption at all levels, drugs, road rage, terrorism, con schemes, etc.

That’s when law enforcement and governments, unable to keep track of every one of these so-called “humans” with existing personnel, turns to computers, mass surveillance, facial recognition, algorithms that identify suspicious behavior, etc., in an effort to sort through the mass influx of human faces, some of which are engaged in criminal/inhuman activities. The issue of why personnel cannot be ramped up in these institutions so that humans can sort through and keep track of these activities is up for debate, but I think we can all agree that when surveillance and automation are used to flag and identify the activities listed above, so that humans can sort through them, it is probably okay, and it is probably to be expected.

It is not okay when automation of surveillance is used to:

  • Spy on our private activities simply for the purpose of keeping track of everything we do, “just in case” we do something wrong,
  • Restrict freedom of speech, such as when social media algorithms simply won’t allow us to post certain links or words on our accounts, or will outright censor certain subjects or people,
  • Dig through our online activities and disqualify us from obtaining a job simply for having posted something questionable in the past, or to destroy our lives altogether, as today’s cancel culture and supposed race inequality movement is actively trying to do to so many people,
  • Monitor all our communications, such as our messages, emails and telephone calls, in the name of national security,
  • And the list can probably go on and on…

Here’s my understanding of the direction of this trend so far: as long as humans will continue to grow in number and to present a very complex environment where it’s thoroughly difficult or outright impossible for a limited number of people involved in law enforcement to keep track of illegal activities, the arguments for the use of automation in surveillance (to the point where artificial intelligence will handle a large part of it) will continue to mount. Also, as long as hidden agendas will continue to be tolerated in government, in the media and in academia, hidden surveillance will continue, for various nefarious purposes, such as persecution, extortion, a building up of arguments to support certain policies, etc.

The solution as I see it is to decrease the world population till we stop being numbers and countless faces and we become communities once more, where we know everyone who lives around us, where we are not one nameless face in a mass, in a ridiculously large throng of people, but a meaningful, contributing member of a neighborhood, a village or a town. That’s when surveillance and its automation will no longer matter. It won’t even be an issue anymore. We’ve got to stop multiplying like rabbits. We’ve got to stop focusing on large numbers. We’ve got to focus on quality, not quantity. We’ve got to focus on meaningful human interactions and meaningful numbers when it comes to our communities and our towns. To those of you who live in smaller communities, what I’ve just said is obvious, but to those who still prefer to live in large cities, I think my words will sound quite strange. And for them and because of them, mass surveillance and the automation of surveillance will continue…

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Thoughts

On voting rights

Yesterday’s presidential elections in Romania have prompted me to write about something that’s been on my mind for some time: voting rights in a so-called “democratic” country.

I’m concerned about the quality of the electorate and their capability to make objective decisions for the good of the country, not just for their own good. I’ve seen the average comprehension and literacy levels of adults drop across the board, on both sides of the pond. It’s a scary prospect, to be faced with a general electorate that can understand less and less of what you, as a legitimate candidate, are trying to communicate. If this keeps up, our future presidential candidates will need to yell, “Me, give food! Me, give shelter!”, wait for the grunts of approval to subside, then add “Press red button for me! No press red button, no food!”

Pandering to the lowest common denominator leads to short-sighted political decisions, to skeezy populism, to electoral promises/lies, and to a wanton disregard for the kind of leadership that is needed in a world increasingly screwed up by people — the kind of world where governments need to start making long-term, tough, redressive decisions and abide by them through regime changes.

We can look at the origins of democracy (Greece, Rome) in order to see how they handled voting rights, and the main takeaway in those cultures was to not let anyone vote who didn’t have “skin in the game”. By that the Greeks meant well-to-do men who’d also served in the military and the Romans meant men who came from good families (aristocratic) and were well-educated. Women weren’t allowed to vote, and neither were immigrants.

Here’s my proposal:

  • First we need to start thinking of the act of voting as a privilege, not as a right. It’s rightfully a privilege that can be lost if one screws up.
  • We won’t take away any of the hard-won voting privileges that exist in current democratic countries. Clearly women’s voting rights will stay. Clearly naturalized citizens will be able to continue to vote. But we’ll add some requirements; more specifically, the ones below.
  • You must be actively employed or own an active business entity, and you must have done so for at least 1 year prior to voting. In other words, you must be a contributing member of society who’s been working productively, or employing people productively, and paying taxes to that society. This is the crux of my proposal: if you want to have a say in how a society is currently run (which is the definition of a vote), you must currently contribute to it.
  • This means that certain groups of people will not get a vote: the retired and the unemployed. These are the two classes of people who’ve been skewing elections in the wrong direction in Romania for decades, and who almost sabotaged the current presidential election. Criminals will also lose their voting privileges, and rightly so.

I have nothing against retired people; they’ve put in a lifetime of work and they deserve their pensions, but they always vote for the people who will promise them $10-20 more in their monthly pension checks, regardless of what horrible things those people have done and will do to the country. And it’s a lot harder for them to vote objectively. A lot of them vote subjectively, particularly through the lens of nostalgia. This has to stop if a country is to move forward.

I have nothing against someone who’s temporarily unemployed and is looking for a job, but we have a huge problem in Romania with people who game the unemployment system and collect checks while they’re working here and there on the gray and black markets. They’re sucking up aid from the government any way they can, including by making babies for the sole purpose of getting more money per month from the government, while they contribute nothing. And their political allegiance is to any party and/or group of politicians that will bribe them off ahead of the elections and will promise to keep their aid coming. These people are uneducated, morally bankrupt shirkers whose only cares are whether they have enough cheap crap to stuff into their mouths and working television sets. They produce nothing except body odor, and they contribute nothing except body waste. They are the biggest threat to a country’s fiscal stability, particularly in the face of a decreasing work force, because they start barking and getting violent as soon as you tear them away from the teats on which they’ve been suckling. No politician wants to touch them, but they’re a problem that has to be addressed.

Thankfully, anyone excluded from voting under the rules I’ve proposed above can quickly remedy the situation by getting a job or starting a small business and contributing to the society in which they’re living. Then they’ll have earned the privilege to vote.

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Reviews

The Education of Little Tree (1997)

A little boy loses his parents during the depression, and his grandparents take him to live with them in their mountain cabin. The premise is simple, but the lessons are many. I liked this movie because it taught respect for native Indians.

Let’s face it, the “red skins”, as they used to be called, owned this land. It was theirs long before it was ours. The early American settlers drove them out of their homes and used every possible means to push them aside, to disown them of their inheritance.

That was shameful. And what added insult to injury was the way they tried to “integrate” them into society after they’d been pushed aside for so long. This film tells the story of one such boy. Half-Cherokee, he is forced into an “Indian” school, where he is treated like an animal. The idea is to erase all sense of individuality and family out of him, and to get him to become an “American”.

You might think the subject matter is outdated, but only recently, the Canadian government has had to issue an official apology to Canadian Indians for their treatment of their children.

Quoting from the article: “Between 1870 and 1996, an estimated 150,000 indigenous children were wrenched from their homes and sent to Christian boarding schools, where many were sexually and physically abused.”

The movie offers a solution that I only wish more Indian children had taken. The little child runs away from the school (aided by his grandfather) and spends his teen years hiding from government officials who want to put him back in what they call “schools”. He gets a real education from his uncle, an experienced Cherokee who acts as his surrogate father and prepares him for a solitary, sometimes troubled, but free life in the mountains.

I get raised hackles every time I hear the word “freedom” trumpeted about, yet find clear proof of forced behavior or oppression. For all its talk of freedom, the US has always managed to oppress certain of its population, throughout time. First it was the native Indians, then it was the slaves, then its Japanese and German citizens during WWII, then the presumed Commies during the vile McCarthy trials, then various other groups during the 20th century. Now, this oppression has culminated into the mass reduction of our liberties through the so-called Patriot Act, a filthy lie of a misnomer if I ever heard of one.

The real patriots always stand up for the rights of all, and they always question the system in order to keep it in check. Sometimes, the best statement a free person can make is to stay free, even if it means thumbing your nose at idiotic rules and policies and living in the mountains, outside of society. Because eventually, the government comes around to realize its idiocy, and issues an apology. By the way, the American government is long overdue on just one such apology.

If you want to find out more about the movie or buy/rent it, you can find it at Amazon, Netflix and IMDB.

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Thoughts

Barack Obama's smart politics

I’m watching Hillary Clinton’s concession speech right now, and I just realized something. Obama was accused of playing dirty politics a few years ago in Chicago, when he eliminated his competition. He checked their candidacy applications to make sure they obeyed all the rules when collecting the required signatures. None of them fully qualified, so they were eliminated before the fight even began. I say those people who think that’s dirty politics are wrong. That’s smart politics.

People are saying the campaign he’s running now tries to project a different image. They say he’s trying to seem nicer. Again, I say they’re wrong. He’s the same. He’s been playing smart politics all along, and that’s exactly why we need him in the White House.

When he entered the race for president, he knew he’d spent too little time in the Senate and in politics to build enough of a public name, the sort of name that draws the popular vote. He also knew there was still plenty of prejudice in America toward blacks — as evidenced aplenty in WV and other states.

What Obama did was genial. He looked around at the situation and made the best move he could make. Instead of trying to attract the popular vote, which he knew would come around eventually but not during the primaries, he went after the superdelegates, and won them one by one until he clinched the democratic nomination.

He knew exactly what to go after to get where he needs to go. That’s why his smart politics are exactly what we need right now, both inside and outside the US, and that’s why I support him. We don’t need Bush’s sawed-off shotgun approach. We need someone who will examine the situation and take a clear, calculated move to get the win in a difficult situation. We need Barack Obama.

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Lists

Condensed knowledge for 2008-03-13

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Thoughts

Barack Obama for the win

Barack Obama ‘08I felt compelled to post this after watching Barack Obama’s “Call to Renewal” speech, given on 6/28/06 in Washington, DC. I’ve supported Sen. Obama for the last few months, and after watching this, I know I want to see him as president.

Obama is the kind of man that appeals to my heart and mind. He is a highly intelligent person who takes the time to think through issues that matter. He wants to find the common ground between the various faiths that exist in this country, and to unite us under common moral and ethical goals instead of using the popular (and disgusting) method of “divide and conquer”, employed by most politicians nowadays.

There is nothing moral or ethical in polarizing people’s points of views and creating large gaps in beliefs, which discourages plurality and discussion toward the common good. Yet most preachers and Republicans do it. It’s a filthy practice which has people voting for certain questionable candidates simply because their churches or local leaders endorse them.

I’m going to ask you to handle this election differently. I want each of you reading this to make up your own minds about who you’ll vote for. Speaking as a Christian, that’s the way God would have it. That’s why He gave us the privilege of free choice.

If you’re concerned about faith and how Barack Obama handles his, then please watch this video. He talks in no uncertain terms about religion and politics, about his own faith in God (yes, he’s a Christian), and about the many hot-button issues tied to religion (like abortion) that are at the forefront nowadays.

I would love to see Sen. Obama be our next president. There is such a precedent-shattering contrast between him and our current administration…

Obama can express himself, he can think, and he is a logical, rational person who makes me confident that he will be able to handle difficult situations and make the right choice. Plainly put, Obama is a leader.

Please, take the time to watch his Call to Renewal video. It’s 40 minutes long, but you will not regret a single minute of that time after you’ve watched it. You can also find it on his website in the Speeches section (browse for Call to Renewal). And please, tell your friends about it. It’s worth spreading the word about this!

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Thoughts

Living in a mad world

There are two things I want to talk about today. The first took place right here in the US, and the second happened in Italy. Both happened recently.

We’ve got a conductor who has forgotten the US still means freedom. Apparently, a tourist, possibly from Japan, who knew very little English, was taking photos of the scenery (mostly nature) on an Amtrak train between New York City and Boston. The conductor saw him, and asked him to stop in the “interest of national security”. Huh?! For taking photos from a train? For trying to preserve the memories of a trip?

But that wasn’t enough. She screamed at him even though he didn’t understand what she was saying, then called the police in and had him arrested and removed from the train. Yeah, you read that right.

How wrong is that? It’s the sort of thing that makes one’s blood boil. At the very least, that conductor, and the policemen that went along with that sick gag should be censured or suspended, so they can all remember we don’t arrest people willy-nilly in the US, not for taking photos from a moving train open to the public.

The Economist reports that Italy has passed a decree authorizing the expulsion of any Romanian immigrant who is deemed a danger to public safety. This bothers me a lot, since I’m Romanian by birth and upbringing, and I want to clarify the situation.

There was an incident where an Italian woman was killed and possible raped by a Romanian immigrant. There’s a catch to the story though. That was NOT a Romanian immigrant, it was a gypsy from Romania. There’s a BIG difference, so let me explain.

It’s hard for Americans to understand this sort of thing, but ethnicity is a very touch issue in Europe, particularly in Eastern Europe. Just think of the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or go back through the last few hundred years and look at the geography of Europe. All of those governmental and boundary changes created and continue to create ethnic conflicts which may smolder for years, or break out into open war, which is what happened in Bosnia. I’m not saying this to set up my arguments, just to give you some background info. There is no animosity between Romanians and gypsies, just deep-seated and justified frustration with these nomadic people that have chosen to settle in Romania over time.

I was born and grew up in Romania, so I’m a bit more aware of these things than outsiders who decry the situation in the country without really knowing what’s going on. You see, we’ve got a lot of gypsies in Romania. They’re nomadic people, but they’ve chosen to settle there in the last few hundred years. Other countries have them as well, but we seem to have been “blessed” with unusually large numbers of them. There are a few classes of gypsies, and they can be differentiated based on how well they integrated into society, and how clean they are.

First you have the Gabors, which are the most civilized. They’re clean, hard working, responsible people and integrate well into society. I have no issues with them and would be happy to have them as my neighbors. There’s another group whose name escapes me — I don’t know much about them except that while they’re more aloof, they’re also fairly decent in terms of how they interact with other people.

Unfortunately, you then have the gypsies per se, a very mixed class of individuals and families that share these common characteristics: they do not integrate into society, they live mostly in shanty towns, they have little or no hygiene or cleanliness, and they have a very high rate of crime. They call themselves the Roma, which is a title I must protest. It’s much too close to the word Romanian or Roman, and they hail neither from Romania, nor from Rome.

You do not talk about normal living when you talk about these gypsies, the so-called “Roma”. You find them begging on the streets or dealing in God knows what, but mostly, you find quite a large number of them stealing, raping and murdering. This isn’t an exaggeration and has been their historical record. Since they do so poorly in Romanian society and certainly have no interest in obeying the laws of the country, they do not deserve to be called Romanians, and indeed, I would not call them citizens of Romania or bestow on them the rights that go along with that citizenship.

When Romania got accepted into EU, several programs got started whose aim was to integrate these gypsies into society. So far, they have failed. Why? They’re too different and have no interest in life as civilized people know it. Really, they don’t, and if you don’t believe me, you’re welcome to go there and try to integrate them yourself. You will fail miserably.

At any rate, it’s these gypsies that immigrated to other European countries in droves when the borders were opened, along with a number of actual Romanians. When the gypsies arrived in these Western European countries, they started engaging in their usual behavior: living in shanty towns, polluting society in general, participating enthusiastically in crime and other misdemeanors, etc. When they’d get caught by the police, they’d say they were Romanian citizens, which, as I’ve just explained, is not quite true. Ethnically speaking, they most certainly aren’t Romanians, and behaviorally speaking, they’re an entirely different breed.

A few years ago, there was a case where gypsies caught and ate swans from a German lake. There was an uproar, and Romania got the blame for it. As if normal, law-abiding Romanians had something to do with that… Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying genuine Romanians don’t engage in crime, because every orchard has its rotten apples, but at least the crime rates are very different among Romanians and gypsies.

In the recent case in Italy, we’ve got a gypsy who lived in one of their shanty towns, who accosted, beat up and possibly raped an Italian woman. Who got the blame again? Romania. Why? Because that gypsy was from Romania. Was he a Romanian? Not really. So now we’ve got Italians horribly worked up against Romanians in general, when most of the Romanians that went to Italy did so to find honest work that they couldn’t get in Romania, who’s still having problems with its economy.

It’s just not fair that Romania keeps getting blamed for the actions of gypsies, which, as a group, cannot be controlled or integrated into any society or country where they happen to live. I wanted to set the record straight when it came to this, and do hope that I’ve managed to make my point.

Updated 11/29/07: Came across a great photo-documentary of gypsy life in several countries. Have a look at it. It has photos of gypsies from Romania as well. Try not to romanticize things as you look at the photos. There’s nothing romantic about an utter lack of hygiene or living in a hovel.

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Places

Construction, people and traffic jams

For the past month, there’s been construction going on at the American Legion Memorial Bridge. I use it everyday to get to and from work. They’ve closed a lane on the right side, and that’s a huge inconvenience. So much traffic goes over that bridge every day, particularly during rush hour, that the single lane closure backs traffic up for several miles, all the way to Route 66.

Since no notice was given of the nature of the work, I thought they might be building an additional lane. But no, all they’re doing is cleaning and painting the bridge. It turns out that one lane’s going to be closed for 6-12 months, causing huge traffic delays for everyone. I have to file this one under really poor planning. For a road that important, they should have built a platform underneath the bridge and put the machines over there instead of inconveniencing everyone above with their work.

Things wouldn’t be so bad except for the rubbernecking delays. Everyone wants to look at the loud machines and the construction workers. They’re a sight to be sure, the machines noisy, big and smelly, and the workers sunburnt and stained all over with muck and grime — but that doesn’t excuse the traffic delays.

If some sort of wall were put in place to separate the construction work from the passing cars, people wouldn’t have anything to look at, and traffic would go much faster. But that wouldn’t be in character with the poor planning shown by blocking the full lane in the first place, would it? So my commute time (and that of tens of thousands of other people) is doubled, and there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it, since there is no other route we can take.

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Thoughts

How many of my photos were stolen?

For the moment, this is a rhetorical question. I’ve been re-thinking the way I publish my photos online in view of the recent and very prominent theft of Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir‘s photos from Flickr. Call me naive, but I really believed, and still would like to believe, that people will wish to stay legal and pay for the right to use my photos, especially for commercial purposes. That’s why I’ve been publishing my photos at full resolution. I wanted folks who weren’t able to pay (developing countries, for instance), or only wanted a nice desktop background, to be able to download a photo of mine and enjoy it without financial obstacles.

But I talked with my brother this morning, and he told me some things that made me think twice about my approach. He’s a professor at a university in Transylvania (Romania), and he does a lot of field research in ethnology and religion. He takes a lot of photos, and shoots a lot of video. When people ask him for copies of his work, he’s very nice about it and does so, hoping they’ll respect his academic work and cite him or ask for his permission when they use it. But he’s been finding out that they don’t. They’ll reuse his photos and his videos, and he won’t hear about it until he sees his work somewhere else. Just recently, someone entered one of his videos in a contest as their own creation, and he found out about it only after that person won. It was very disheartening. He’s now thinking of watermarking both his videos and photos, and of only publishing lower resolution copies on the Internet. He’s tired of constant theft and no attribution.

So I had to ask myself: how many of my photos have already been stolen? I haven’t yet heard of or seen a particular instance, but I also haven’t really looked around to see. It’s probably just a matter of time before I start finding my work in someone else’s portfolio, website or printed materials. When you combine high-resolution photos with people that have no respect whatsoever for someone else’s hard work, you’re asking for trouble. As much as I’d like to believe otherwise, good people, those that respect other people’s property, are few and far between, and it’s best not to tempt the thieves or uneducated ones by making good photos easily available.

I’ve taken some steps already. I used to upload to Flickr at full resolution. Not anymore. Since they offered Rebekkah no help whatsoever, and even deleted the photo where she complained of image theft, along with the thousands of comments that she received there, I’ve lost respect for them. If that’s how they’re going to treat one of their best users, then I sincerely hope they get what’s coming to them, and I hope it’s a wallop.

I may also start to watermark my images. As much as I hate this (it uglifies an image, imo), I’ll do it, just to make it harder to pass my photos around without crediting them properly. I may also start to copyright my photography with the Library of Congress, and pursue damages to the full letter of the law (up to $150,000 per incident).

Finally, I may also stop uploading at full res to Zooomr. I keep waiting for them to push out the Mark III upgrade, and it seems that every time Kris is ready to do it, something happens to stop it. This week was the third time the promised upgrade didn’t materialize, and I’m pretty disappointed. Mark III is supposed to have this really nice image theft prevention built in, so I could continue to upload a full res, but restrict the sizes available to casual visitors or even my contacts at certain resolutions, and only make the full res size available to buyers. But if Mark III doesn’t show up any time soon — and since Zooomr has no photo replace feature like Flickr — I may just delete all of my photos, or make them all private. I do not want to see my hard work go to waste.

It’s a real shame that we can’t function equitably as a society, at the local, state, national or global level. If only everyone would respect other people’s property (physical or intellectual), things would work a lot better. One would think the concept of property has been around long enough for most people and cultures to grasp it…

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Thoughts

Montgomery becomes first county in nation to ban trans fats

A few days ago, on May 15th, Montgomery County (my county) became the first county in the nation to ban trans fats from restaurants and marketplaces. Basically, anything made and or cooked in this county will have to contain no trans fats, or at least close enough to that — only 0.5 grams of trans fat are allowed per serving. There’s some leeway, and some establishments can continue to sell foods with trans fats for a while, but let’s hope the wiggle room doesn’t turn into a ballroom.

I think this is pretty cool, and it’s a step in the right direction. The law is meant to address the growing waistlines of Americans everywhere. While foods with no trans fats are great, we also need to limit our caloric intake (that means smaller portions) and get more physical activity. Legislation can only go so far. People need to take some personal responsibility if they wish to stay thin. Complaining about their weight at the water cooler won’t solve anything.

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