Sunday, January 9, 2011

No More Gun Metaphors

In the aftermath of the awful shootings in Tuscon, all the politicians are expressing sympathy and all are saying that nothing they or their partisans have ever said has anything to do with the acts of the alleged shooter, who is, they say, a nut case, pure and simple.

During his campaign effort to unseat Giffords in November, Republican challenger Jesse Kelly held fundraisers where he urged supporters to help remove Giffords from office by joining him to shoot a fully loaded M-16 rifle. Kelly is a former Marine who served in Iraq and was pictured on his website in military gear holding his automatic weapon and promoting the event.
"I don't see the connection," between the fundraisers featuring weapons and Saturday's shooting, said John Ellinwood, Kelly's spokesman. "I don't know this person, we cannot find any records that he was associated with the campaign in any way. I just don't see the connection.
"Arizona is a state where people are firearms owners -- this was just a deranged individual."

But you can't have it both ways. Yes, he has no coherent political philosophy; you can't read much into the fact that he has both The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf on his reading list. But if he is so far out of touch with reality, do you really think he came up with his anti-government rants by himself? People respond to what is in the air.

Here is a nice simple suggestion. Let's ask our elected representatives to foreswear gun metaphors in their political discourse. No more cute gunsights on congressional districts, no more "Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly."

No bans, just a voluntary compact. Or would you really have us believe that the only way you can inspire your supporters is with imagery of bloodshed?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Watching You

Today's excellent report in the New York Times about successes in computer vision really only scratches the surface of what is happening. There are many, many tasks people do by watching or seeing that computers could do, imperfectly to be sure, but well enough to pay for themselves. I am thinking of things like watching for shoplifters (defined, say, as people who leave a store with more stuff than they entered with and did not go through a checkout process). I think one of the developing issues will be how to deal with false positives, when the computers alert authorities to something suspicious and really nothing untoward has happened. Will it be better or worse that the accusations are raised by computers than it would be if they were the result of bigoted, biased human judgments?

The single most interesting story was the last one, talking about the service Google offers to look up camera shots of buildings and works of art in its image database and return information about them:

Google could have put face recognition into the Goggles application; indeed, many users have asked for it. But Google decided against it because smartphones can be used to take pictures of individuals without their knowledge, and a face match could retrieve all kinds of personal information — name, occupation, address, workplace.
“It was just too sensitive, and we didn’t want to go there,” said Eric E. Schmidt, the chief executive of Google. “You want to avoid enabling stalker behavior.”
I am impressed by this show of corporate responsibility. But won't some entrepreneur do exactly this anyway, perhaps on a contract from the FBI or the NFL (terrorists at the Superbowl!) or the government of Singapore? Google may want to organize all the world's information and make it broadly accessible, and good for Google for trying to do that responsibly, but in the long run at least Google will not be the only guys capable of doing that.