Thursday, June 30, 2005

Virtual cosmetics and hyperreal imagery

A correspondent recently pointed me to Collision Detection, blog of technology writer Clive Thompson. Many pointers to intriguing research, but I want to comment on Thompson's thoughts on the strange hyperreality of HDTV:

To understand why high-def is so unforgiving, consider the numbers. Today's new top-of-the-line HD televisions can display two million pixels, nearly 10 times the resolution of a regular, old-style TV set. Also, the screens are the size of a tabletop. Watching a show in high definition is thus rather like being Gulliver in the land of Brobdingnag -- where every pore on the giants' faces looms like a shell-blasted crater. Many new HDTV owners have tuned in to high-definition celebrity events, only to discover that their favorite stars suddenly look downright haggard.

. . .

"It's almost too realistic, too digital and computery," complains Alexis Vogel, a veteran celebrity makeup artist who recently worked on "Stacked," a high-def show starring Pamela Anderson. "We'd all like to go back to the old days." Makeup artists are now engaged in an arms race with the new medium. But they face a paradox: while makeup is more necessary than ever, its artifice is more obvious. You can't slather on powder when every grain looks like a boulder on your client's face. And interestingly, many cosmeticians predict that high-def could actually reduce the amount of plastic surgery in Hollywood, because the tiny seams look Frankensteinian at such high resolution. High-def is, in essence, a medium peculiarly unsuited to dissembling. "It's harder to change people from their natural form," Vogel adds.

This will probably put an ever-higher premium on genuinely natural beauty -- those lucky few people who require virtually no touch-up. Indeed, high-def fans say that some stars look better in the new medium: Anna Kournikova, George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones glow like supernovas, and, Vogel says, "in high-def, Halle Berry's skin is so beautiful and flawless, she's almost a genetic freak."

Maybe. But I believe that humans' capacity for deception surpasses their capacity for sniffing out authenticity, not least because people want to be deceived.

Traditional cosmetics may be inadequate, but there's no reason cosmetics have to be applied to the face, rather than the image of the face. I'm reminded of a rumor I heard, some years ago, that for one of Meg Ryan's later movies, the studio paid a claque of Photoshop monkeys to digitally retouch each individual frame in which her face had appeared. Now, in hi-def, retouching will be more than a matter of blasting people's faces with the clone tool; but there's no reason that retouching has to be done so crudely or so manually. Some future SIGGRAPH proceedings will carry a paper titled (roughly) "Photorealistic real-time cosmetic enhancement of human skin textures", and it will describe how to generate skin with realistic pores, hairs, and a healthy translucent "glow" under a variety of lighting conditions.

Now, this use of virtual cosmetics will merely preserve, approximately, the status quo in our relationship with media images; in a way, it's boring. But the real revolution comes when computational cosmetics becomes commoditized, and built into every digital camera and camcorder. You could, if you wanted, look absolutely fabulous, baby, in every single digitally captured image of yourself. The old fogeys --- i.e., us --- might recoil in horror at the inauthenticity, but kids would undoubtedly embrace it. Everybody could look like a movie star, but only in pictures. Whereas teenagers today grow up yearning to possess the flawless bodies and faces of celebrities, teenagers in this future might grow up yearning to possess the flawless bodies and faces of their own digitally projected selves.

One is tempted to think that this mediated narcissism would be wholly novel, and certainly the phenomenon's sheer scale would be; but in a sense we will only have come full circle in the history of visual representations of people. Because, of course, before the camera's dispassionate warts-and-all gaze became the typical mode of portraiture, all images were mediated by the eyes and hands of portrait artists, who inevitably would idealize the subject (often at his or her request).

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

More on dying in Iraq and the US Army

Following up my recent post on surviving a tour of duty in Iraq, some recent related links:

  •'s jbc on the gradual upward trend of US deaths in Iraq since March 2003.
  • BruceR: On the relatively small fraction (by historical standards) of fatalities suffered by officers vs. enlisted men in Iraq, and some possible implications.
  • Lucian K. Truscott IV: On the nosedive in junior officer morale, and possible long-term effects on the Army.
  • Digby: On chickenhawkery more generally.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Mole

He pressed his index finger to her mole.

"There," he said.

She looked down. "What are you doing?"

"Memorizing your identifying marks."


"So I'll be able to tell if they take you away and switch you with somebody else."

She paused. "That's such a you thing to say. Who are they?"

"I don't know. People or entities beyond my understanding."

Years later, while having dinner with his friends, the conversation briefly turned to a movie that, he recalled, he'd first seen with her. He didn't think much of it, and the conversation rapidly drifted elsewhere.

But on the drive home, his thoughts spiraled back to her, and it occurred to him that he didn't remember where the mole was, and he didn't care that he'd forgotten; and therefore the man he'd become was a stranger to the man he'd once been, however much the two men resembled each other. He found the consequent irony almost, but not entirely, too obvious to mark in his mind: in the end, he'd been the one stolen --- from himself --- and switched with somebody else.

Monday, June 27, 2005

SCOTUS kills Grokster

BoingBoing has the most complete link rundown so far. My initial reaction was: "OK, now I know for certain that the Supreme Court is a bunch of hacks whose judgment gets warped by proximity to monied interests." However, the full picture, as Copyfight points out, may be more nuanced than that. I'll reserve judgment till I see how the legal community reacts.

UPDATE(S) (28 June): More links...

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Surviving a tour of duty

Josh Marshall and Atrios are both suggesting that young, healthy conservatives who support the war ought to enlist. Marshall's quotes ("Frankly, I want to be a politician. I'd like to survive to see that.") are especially damning.

So, this prompted me to wonder: how big a gamble, exactly, does a person run by enlisting in the military today?

Well, there are about 170,000 US troops deployed in southwest Asia; this includes those in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as supporting forces elsewhere in the region. There have been about 1,738 deaths and 13,074 injuries since the Iraqi invasion. One might be tempted, naïvely, to conclude that there's about 1% probability of death and 10% probability of injury, but that's not right, because in the 28 months since the March 2003 invasion far more than 170,000 troops have been rotated through Iraq and Afghanistan. Salon's Mark Benjamin reports that "well over 1 million US troops" have gone to war since the initial invasion of Afghanistan. The DoD's casualty reports for Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom) and Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom) yield 1,854 deaths and 13,337 wounded. So, naïvely, we obtain 1,854 / 1,000,000 = 0.001854, or about a 0.2% chance of dying.

But that assumes that the probability of death has been constant since the invasion of Afghanistan, which probably isn't the case. Peacekeeping operations in Iraq today, for example, probably have a different casualty rate than the initial invasion of Afghanistan. So, to obtain a better estimate, I use this page's claim that the average tour of duty in Iraq, to date, has been about 320 days, or about 10.5 months. Then I sum the monthly casualty data for the past 12 months (I assume the past year most closely resembles the expected casualty rate over the next year), yielding a total of 876 deaths, or 73 deaths per month. Dividing by the 170,000 serving in southwest Asia in any given month, your probability of dying in any given month will be 0.000429, which means your chance of survival will be 0.99957; raising this to the 10.5 power yields a tour-of-duty probability of survival of 0.9955, yielding a probability of dying over a tour of duty in southwest Asia of: 0.45%.

Of course, this is a pretty crude estimate. If you're an infantryman in Mosul, then your probability of dying will be higher; if you're stationed in Kuwait, then it will be much, much lower. Those who enlist now will probably be sent somewhere in Iraq, where people are most desperately needed. Still, 170,000 troops is a lot, and your probability of being one of the roughly eight hundred who will die during your tour of duty is pretty small.

Now, given the awfulness of the potential outcome, this probability is nothing to shake a stick at, but we should be clear that those who support the Iraq War, but refuse to enlist, are not fleeing from a certain or even likely death sentence. They are fleeing from a combination of hardship and calculated gamble which they have no problem inflicting on others. For the overwhelming majority of US personnel in the Global War on Terror (as the DoD calls it), service to the country consists of a couple years of hard duty and sacrifice, no more --- after which they go back to serving their careers, families, and communities again. I'm not sure whether this makes chickenhawks more hypocritical or less, but there you have it.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Libertopia and the fabrication bomb (a parable)

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, there was a land called Libertopia. In Libertopia, the right to private property was absolute and there was no taxation. Law enforcement, infrastructure construction, national defense, and nearly all the other supposed "functions of government" were all handled by private companies.

In fact, the only government was a system of courts, which were funded by a system of voluntary donations; these donations were run through a secure cryptographic protocol for anonymized electronic cash that erased all information about donors, and even the amounts donated, so that nobody could effectively claim to buy influence. Yet the courts always met their budget needs exactly (the donation servers were shut down for the year as soon as the annual goal was met). Libertopian judges were subject to a training and apprenticeship regimen so rigorous and effective that they were known all across the planet for their fair-mindedness and keen insight.

Of course, Libertopia also had the planet's most efficient and flawless market. First, they had a virtually cost-free electronic cash transfer system. Second, they had the planet's most pristine standards for corporate accounting and transparency (set by private-sector certification agencies, a sort of Libertopian Underwriter's Laboratory for corporate governance). Third, they had a ubiquitous nationwide information technology infrastructure which made sure that buyers and sellers always had the best possible information about the current state of the market. And, of course, all of Libertopia's citizens were rational market actors, as they had been educated in private schools that, due to market pressures, were the envy of the planet.

Although this system led to vast disparities in personal wealth, nobody was subject to poverty in an absolute sense --- for an elementary result in Libertopian economics (which was far more advanced than Earth's) demonstrated that, in a frictionless market, the economic value of an active, healthy human being's outputs was always greater than the inputs required to sustain his or her life. And as for the unhealthy, disabled, or elderly, there was the insurance market: prudent citizens bought enough insurance against these eventualities for themselves and their children. And all Libertopian citizens were prudent.

And so, all of Libertopia's citizens were prosperous and happy. It was universally held by the planet's economists --- who, of course, understood the theory of markets exceptionally well, having been provided with such a magnificent concrete embodiment of their theories --- that Libertopia was the best of all possible nations. Except for a few irrational holdouts, all the world's peoples were busily remodeling their societies after Libertopia. Become Libertopia, went the dictum, and the market shall provide.

One day, a Libertopian nanotechnology researcher named Alice came up with the Holy Grail of nanotechnology: a universal fabricator. The physics behind the universal fabricator is far beyond the ken of mere Earthlings like us, so I will not bother to explain it. The universal fabricator was so efficient that it could generate arbitrary physical objects, using only an equivalent mass of matter of any sort, plus a token amount of energy. Being a savvy individualist, Alice quit her job at Nanogen, waited for the non-competition clause of her employment contract to expire, and founded a startup. Shortly afterwards, Alice Inc. started producing nearly limitless quantities of every imaginable good under the sun, all pouring from a single cornucopian factory located in a heavily guarded complex in the middle of the desert. Alice Inc.'s stock price shot through the roof, and Alice became the world's richest person by several orders of magnitude.

Many of Alice's competitors went out of business, but the nimble and resourceful Libertopian people found new jobs, either working in the vast supply chain that distributed and resold Alice Inc. goods, or providing personal services (as butlers, sex workers, etc.) that could not be performed by mere objects.

Nobody could duplicate Alice's technology. Any publicly traded company that even came close was shortly bought out, taken over, and liquidated. After some years, only one small, secretive, privately held company succeeded, by partnering with a network of the world's foremost university researchers in nanotechnology.

They were horrified at what they found. For it turned out that the Alice Fabricator's operation caused a localized fluctuation in the strong and weak nuclear forces; and the fluctuation was harmonic, so that as more matter was fabricated by the Alice Fabricator, the fluctuation's magnitude increased. They calculated that at the current rate of production in the Alice Inc. plant, this localized fluctuation would cause the entire planet's atoms to spontaneously collapse inward on each other within ten years.

They published their results. The initial skepticism gave way, gradually, to a near-universal consensus among nanotech researchers that the results were correct. All the nations of the world quickly embargoed Alice's goods; and even many Libertopians decided to boycott products with the Alice Inc. label.

But Libertopia's largest businesses had been built around the new economic order of Alice: countless retail distributors, shipping companies that hauled garbage to the Alice plant and hauled goods away, and resellers who built value-added services around Alice Inc. products. And the stockholders didn't want to go broke; the boards of directors didn't want to lose power; the employees didn't want to lose their jobs; the consumers didn't want to give up their cozy material comfort. So these people began looking more closely, and they found a myriad of reasons to continue with business as usual:

"Think of all the jobs, all the communities, our entire way of life! Surely we shouldn't destroy all this based on the word of a few anti-business eggheads. Another series of studies, conducted by the Libertopian Institute for Environmental Science, shows that the Alice Fabricator will not destroy the world at all. In fact, recent results in quantum mechanics suggest that there have been random fluctuations in the strong nuclear force since the beginning of time, or that the observed fluctuations are due to an artifact of the instruments used to measure the nuclear forces. Besides, Alice is brilliant; she invented the Fabricator, so she'll probably come up with a way to fix the process pretty soon anyway. Plus, the issue's less pressing now, since worldwide embargo of Alice Inc. products has already reduced the output of the Alice fabrication plant a great deal. And these Chicken Little doomsday prophets are all hypocrites --- why, the food they eat was probably produced using Alice brand farming machinery, and the gas that fuels their buses was probably produced using Alice brand petroleum extraction robots! Just by riding the bus to the supermarket and buying an apple, they're doing more to make the strong force fluctuate than the average die-hard consumer of Alice Inc. products!"

That some of these statements contradicted each other, or were simply tendentious, didn't bother the people who uttered them in the least, for they were defending their very way of life. The nanotechnologists continued to shout, but their cries fell largely on unsympathetic ears. A majority of Libertopians continued buying Alice Inc. products happily.

For three years, as the evidence continued to mount, Alice Inc. kept on merrily humming, inundating the Libertopian populace with a tidal wave of material luxury. Eventually, a desperate group of citizens --- mostly scientists and a few wealthy philanthropists --- sued Alice Inc., on the unprecedented grounds that potentially destroying the world was an actionable tort, and demanding an injunction against further fabrication. But Libertopia had absolute respect for private property rights, and for the market. A series of court rulings, going all the way to the Supreme Court of Libertopia, upheld Alice Inc.'s right to continue doing business. Here are a few selected quotes from the Supreme Court's unanimous and strongly worded opinion:

The plaintiffs make two distinct principal arguments. First, they argue that continuing to operate the fabricators constitutes a credible and imminent threat of violence. However, although their comparison to 'a cosmic gun held to the planet's head' is colorful, it cannot be sustained conclusively by the science. An equal number of experts have been called on both sides . . . This court is reluctant to make a ruling on a matter of science, overriding the normal processes of the scientific market . . .

Second, plaintiffs argue that even if the nuclear force fluctuations will not have the dramatic effects predicted by some scientists, the production of nuclear force fluctuations constitutes a market externality, which must be corrected to maintain efficiency, as per Levine v. Terrence. However, even granting, arguendo, that the observed fluctuations are due to the defendant's activities, it is unclear why injunctive remedy is required, rather than fair compensation. . . .

Additionally, this court finds unconvincing the extraordinary claim that the defendant's actions constitute a tort against the entire planet's population. In support of this claim, the plaintiffs cite the Bayard v. Northeastern Regional Electric standard for determining the size of the population affected by market externalities. However, Bayard only establishes such liability when a specific and demonstrable chain of causation connects the act to an injurious effect on the plaintiffs, which does not hold in this case. To date, no injury by Alice Inc. has been demonstrated against any specific party. Indeed, if we were to follow the plaintiffs' line of argument to its absurd conclusion, then all non-nano-fabrication based industrial plants in the economy would be held liable for their carbon dioxide emissions, since the global atmosphere is shared by all . . .

Seven years later, every atom in the world imploded on itself at the speed of light. All that remains today of the magnificent Libertopia, and the planet upon which it resided, is a black hole.

Q1: Whose fault is the destruction of the world?

Q2: If the Alice Fabricator had only a 50% chance of destroying the world, how would your reaction to this thought experiment change? Only a 10% chance? A 1% chance? What if, instead of destroying the world, it would simply destroy several cities and kill a few hundred million people?

Q3: Is the difference between the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the Alice Fabricator a difference of kind, or one of degree?

Oh, uh, file under .

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Cato conference on Law & Economics of File Sharing & P2P Networks

File under : A half-day conference, dated about a year ago, featuring a keynote address by Rep. Rich Boucher (D-VA-09) on the side of Good, and a luncheon address by Jack Valenti on the side of Evil. Sandwiched in between are two panels, one moderated by Cato's Adam Thierer and the other moderated by libertarian technology journalist Declan McCullagh.

Unfortunately the feeds are only available in RealAudio/RealVideo formats, which means I'm not going to watch them anytime soon. C'mon, is it really so hard to throw up a torrent of an MPEG?

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

De-link request; or, "This blog will self-destruct in three months..."

Executive summary: If you link to this blog using my real name in the link text, then please remove that link, or edit the link text so that it does not include my real name.

My real first name is a rather rare string on the web, which means that if you type it into a web search engine, you will get, more or less, a compilation of everything I've ever said or done publicly on the Internet and very little else. This has its good points, but it also means that everything in my online life is fully transparent to anyone who bothers to look for it.

It turns out that, although I've been pretty careful to avoid making any connection between my real-life persona and "Cog", this blog recently became the top hit on Google for my first name, ahead of my professional home page. Since I will, hopefully, be applying for jobs next winter, this is a somewhat undesirable situation.

Therefore, if you're aware of any links to this blog, on sites that you maintain, that use my real name in the link text, then I ask that you remove that link, or edit the link text so that it does not include my real name. If this blog continues to be the top hit for my first name on the web, then I will have to strongly consider taking it down in the coming months, and moving elsewhere.

(Of course, some of you may consider this a good thing; but if that's so, then why are you reading, anyway?)