In Fear Of Facial Recognition

One of the features that was added to the technology mix during the period between the purchase of my old phone and the purchase of my new iPhone is facial recognition software.  During the set-up process at the Verizon store, I held the iPhone as if I were looking at messages, moved my head from side to side and up and down until the phone had acquired about a 270-degree look at my head and indicated that it had seen enough, and the facial recognition feature was activated.

facialrecognition_1-672x372Now, whenever I pick up the phone, the software kicks in automatically and substitutes for the entry of passcodes.  It’s pretty amazing technology, really, and it’s a lot faster and less clumsy than the passcode-entry process.  I really like the convenience element.

But . . . as a result of this Apple has got my face memorized and digitized and stored somewhere.  And, the modern tech sector world of information-selling and data-trading being what it is, who knows who else now has the capability to instantaneously identify my less-than-noble features.  My cell phone service provider?  Every Apple subsidiary and affiliate and technology partner?  The FBI, the CIA, or the Department of Homeland Security, or some Russian or Chinese hackers?

Recently San Francisco passed a ban on the use of facial recognition software by police and other agencies, and other cities are considering similar legislation.  The proponents of such measures tout them as a victory for privacy and a safeguard against governmental overreach that could conceivably allow governmental agencies to track citizens as they go about their daily lives.  Opponents note that facial recognition software can help the authorities solve crimes — as the article notes, the technology was used to identify a mass shooting suspect last year — and that it can help to secure our borders and airports.

I’ve long since concluded that while privacy is nice, in the modern world you have to make countless choices that can affect your privacy in different ways.  Do you pay with a credit card that tracks your purchases, or cash?  Do you use a cell phone that keeps track of your location?  Do you participate in social media and share some of your life through Facebook, Twitter, and the countless other outlets?  Have you traveled outside of the U.S. recently and returned to the country using one of those passport and facial scanning re-entry terminals?  It’s hard to argue, too, that a face that you show to the world each day, that appears on your driver’s license, and that is captured regularly by the various surveillance cameras positioned throughout American society, is something that is extraordinarily private.

All things considered, I’m not too troubled by the use of facial recognition software.  It’s the protection of other highly personal information — such as health information and financial information — that is of much more concern to me.

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Needless Work

The Schiller Park rec center parking lot used to have a wide open,  fan-shaped entrance.  It had a welcoming, graceful feel to it, well befitting the rambling, shady feel of the old park itself and the elegant brick houses that surround it.

But a few weeks ago a work crew showed up and ripped it out.  In its place they poured this concrete monstrosity, which blocks the entrance and sticks out like a sore thumb.  They put up a traffic sign and painted direction arrows, too, just in case drivers might not get the idea from the lanes created by the concrete blockade.

Why was this done?  I’m guessing there was an accident or two at the entrance, as a car swung too wide in entering or exiting, and somebody decided that “public safety” required that this ugly, stark roadblock was therefore necessary to protect our hapless populace from the acts of a few inept motorists.  Who knows how much it cost in dollars — but the aesthetic cost is tremendous

I can’t help but think it’s a bit of a metaphor for America writ large these days, with some faceless government functionary deciding that everyday people need to be sternly directed into precise channels of behavior.  The result is predictably hideous.

Cold Rage

IMG_0461Today Columbus is having one of those brutal days, when the temperature is in the single digits and a hard, cold wind strikes you like a fist.  So when I walked home from work this afternoon, I was surprised to see a vigorous protest on the Broad Street sidewalk in front of the Ohio Statehouse, with still other protestors marching on the sidewalks circling Statehouse square.  The group of bundled-up protestors — men, mostly, from what I could see — were waving Don’t Tread on Me, Confederate, “III,” and American flags, handing out leaflets, and chanting at the behest of a guy holding a bullhorn.

What were they protesting?  Just about everything.  One handout had the Declaration of Independence on one side and the Bill of Rights on the other, and another encourages people to contribute to the “Ohio to Michigan:  Flint Water Drop,” which is described as “a multi-state effort to collect and deliver much-needed water to the residents of Flint, Michigan.”  One sign said “We Demand Justice” for the man shot by the authorities in connection with the Oregon public land protests.  The “III” flag is called the Nyberg three percent flag (purportedly because only three percent of the colonists fought the British during the American Revolutionary War) and apparently is a favorite of people who hold anti-government, anti-gun control views.   And when a city bus rolled up, the guy with the bullhorn started bellowing:  “Hands up!  Don’t shoot!” — which is a chant used by the protestors against the police in Ferguson, Missouri.

IMG_0464There was a lot going on at this protest, a heady mix of what might be viewed as some liberal and some conservative issues that had energized this group, but the overall message was clear:  these guys were furious.  Angry enough to come out to the center of downtown Columbus on an appallingly cold day to vent their spleens in a public forum.  Incensed about the government that they think has let them down and failed the people.  Outraged that the people of Flint, Michigan can’t get safe drinking water and willing to organize their own, people-driven effort to help the people of Flint even when the local, state, and federal government seem to be unable to do so.  To these folks, Flint is not a conservative issue or a liberal issue, it’s an issue of basic governmental functioning and competence.  If a government can’t be trusted to do the basics like provide drinking water that doesn’t poison its own citizens, then what good is it, and what are all those taxes we pay being used for?

Many pundits wonder what is driving people to support “anti-establishment” candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  I think a lot of it is anger, like the rage that motivated the cold protestors in front of the Ohio Statehouse today.  It’s not political parties that have spurred them on, it’s their own perception of a country in a downward spiral.  They’re not going to put up with the direction in which they think their country is heading, and if the government isn’t going to recognize the problems and change of its own accord, then they’re just going to have to change the government.

The last two lines of the “Ohio to Michigan:  Flint Water Drop” leaflet read:  “We the People are uniting to assist and support communities in need.  No matter your race, religion, group or political affiliation, we all must come together.”  It’s really not hard to see how angry people at all points on the political spectrum might unite behind that kind of message.

Unfinished Business

Permit me, if you will, to rant about an example of the kind of thing that drives me up a wall about government.

Some weeks ago, work was begun on the brickwork at the intersection of Lynn Alley and Third Street.  The bricks were torn up and moved, the dreaded skinny, miniature orange barrels were set up, a sign was posted, yellow tape was strung, and what formerly seemed to be a perfectly good, serviceable sidewalk was wrecked.

IMG_7161_2Why?

No one knows.  But we would have been willing to accept it, gladly, if only the repair work had been promptly completed.

But, of course, it wasn’t.  It has been weeks now, and the same pile of bricks remains unmoved, and the same crappy orange barrels and unsightly yellow tape and collapsed sign block the right-of-way.  Some bricks have been laid, imperfectly, on part of the sidewalk, and all of the luckless pedestrians have to inch their way through the one point of passage that remains.

Seriously?  In all of Columbus, Ohio, is there no one who can finish the damned job?  It’s not even a major job, just a matter of placing a few bricks and removing the yellow tape and appalling orange barrels.  Are there no bricklayers in Columbus who can competently recreate the perfectly adequate brickwork that was there before?  Is there no city employee, elected official, or urban planner who feels even a whiff of pity for the poor downtown workers who must squeeze by this stupid, apparently permanent roadblock and eyesore just because some worker or supervisor doesn’t care enough to finish what they started?

As I said, this is the kind of thing that drives me up a wall.  And it’s so totally unnecessary!

Sled Away, Kids!

Sometimes government regulations make you shake your head in wonder.  So it is with the ban on sledding on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.

People can freely walk on the grounds of the Capitol, so security can’t be the reason for banning sledding.  Instead, Capitol Police justified the ban by citing statistics that there are more than 20,000 sledding injuries in America each year — a rationale which would justify banning sledding everywhere.  Do the Capitol Police really think we’ll buy the notion that they did some analysis of sledding injuries before deciding to impose a silly ban on an age-old winter activity?  I suspect that the real reason for the sledding ban is that some crusty old members of Congress didn’t like the sound and commotion of kids having fun on one of the rare days when the District of Columbia gets enough snow to make sledding feasible and told the Police to do whatever they needed to stop it.

I’m glad that parents and kids went sledding in defiance of the idiotic ban, which should never have been imposed in the first place and is just another example of unnecessary government overreach.  The Capitol is our building; our elected representatives just work there.  So long as security isn’t impaired, we should be permitted to use the grounds for leisure activities like sledding or playing frisbee.  And parents — not the Capitol Police —  should making the decisions about the safety of their kids’ activities.

So sled away, kids!  And learn that sometimes you need to stand up — or sled down — for your rights.

The CDC And The Mass Breakdown Of Governmental Competence

For years the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was one federal agency that seemed to be a model of governmental efficiency and capability.  Like NASA in the glory days of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the CDC was a little agency with an important mission and dedicated employees who helped to guide the national responses to epidemics and infectious diseases.

That’s why the recent stories about some appalling security lapses at the CDC are so troubling.  In one instance, poor handling of anthrax — a disease that the CDC’s own website cautions can cause serious illness and death — potentially exposed a number of employees to the bacteria.  In another incident, CDC employees improperly shipped a deadly strain of bird flu to a Department of Agriculture poultry research lab.  The breakdowns are especially disturbing because the CDC also is supposed to ensure that other laboratories follow federal safety standards.  The CDC is investigating these breaches and developing new procedures to address the “potential for hubris” in an agency that may have grown too comfortable with working with dangerous spores, bacteria, and infectious agents.

Given the CDC’s public health mission, any security breakdown that could expose people to a deadly infectious disease could be catastrophic.  But the CDC’s problems seem to be symptomatic of a larger, equally concerning issue:  a broad-scale series of failures in federal agencies.  In the past year, we have witnessed a colossal failure in an attempt by the Department of Health and Human Services to build a functioning health insurance exchange website, mass failures by the Veterans Administration to provide adequate care for veterans, a stunning security breach that allowed Edward Snowden to spirit away enormous amounts of highly classified data, and a southern border so porous that thousands of unaccompanied minors have been able to cross into our country.  And those are just a few of the stories.

For years, there has been a divide in this country between those who want the government to assume a more significant role in regulating our affairs and those who resist that approach because they believe a larger government role means less freedom and fewer individual liberties.  The recent dismal performance of our federal agencies suggests that a new factor should enter into the equation:  is the federal government even competent to do what we are asking it to do?  In view of the many recent breakdowns in governmental performance, that is a very fair question. 

How Fat Are Our Kids?

This week a federal study reported that the obesity rate for American kids between 2 and 5 years of age fell 43% in a decade. The study, undertaken by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to be published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, indicates that obesity during that age group has declined from 14 percent in 2004 to 8 percent in 2012.

Not surprisingly, there’s disagreement about what might have caused the decline. Some argue that federal programs, including the availability of food stamps and the women, infants, and children assistance program and federal nutrition guidelines, other national efforts such as First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative, and pressure on food companies to stop targeting ads to young children are responsible for the decline. Others question whether there really was an “obesity epidemic” in the first place and are skeptical that federal programs had anything to do with the decline reflected in the CDC study.

I don’t have a dog in that fight. My question is more fundamental — why are people celebrating the finding that “only” 8 percent of little kids are obese? That seems like a pretty damning figure to me. How does a two-or three-year-old become obese, except by the inattention of their parents? Most two- and three-year-olds I know aren’t out shopping for themselves. Don’t their parents know how to say no?