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Sunday, Mar 18, 2018 - 20:37 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Skin In The Art (Part I)

Mr. Robo: *proudly* ...and then I successfully negotiated Mr. Ham down to just a 15% pay cut for myself! And, after that, he praised me for my hard bargaining, and mentioned that it reminded him of the GOD-EMPEROR himself! Why, I...

Me: Well, just as long as you're happy, I guess. Just remember, Mr. Robo, to look out for Number One, because sure as hell no-one's gonna do that for you in the business world. Myself, I'd settle for more time to curl up with unread titles, two of which I managed this weekend - Sonny Liew's The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, and Taleb's latest Skin in the Game.

99 Red Test Balloons

You and I in a little toy shop
Buy a bag of balloons with the money we've got
Set them free at the break of dawn
Till one by one they were gone

Not once, not twice, but thrice at least...
fortunately, there are only 82 incumbent MPs

(Source: r/singapore)

Before delving into Liew's comic magnum opus proper, we can see that he has been pretty busy providing trenchant political commentary on Facebook, a scene that's been a teeny bit quiet since they got Demon-cratic Singapore's Leslie Chew. The incident in question was Workers' Party Sylvia Lim suggesting in Parliament that "there were some test balloons being floated out about the fact that the government needs to raise revenue".

And for this, incumbent party representatives insisted on a formal apology.

First off, cracking down on such a reasonable question is patently ridiculous to begin with, because if you can't raise queries in Parliament, then what is that body for? Secondly, since it is no secret that the government has a GST hike planned, shouldn't one expect them to have gathered some feedback from the ground, and factored it into their decision-making process? Certainly, one imagines that had they not made such a hoohah over it (guilty conscience perhaps?), nobody would have paid much, if any, attention to it.

Instead, their insistence on an unwarranted apology has instead herded citizens into the WP's corner, because people can recognize a clear case of bullying when they see one. Not only that, evidence soon came in that the government had, indeed, been floating a bunch of test balloons, whether through media articles or official NTUC surveys... which, again, is personally no great deal. Float just admit float lah! Meanwhile, their Ang Mo Kio Town Council general manager was found taking bribes, but, but *points finger* AHTC (yes, literally from Shanmugam)

Actually, the problem may not be so much the bullying, but the stupidity and incompetence that's creeping in - sure, LKY might have gathered his kah kias to metaphorically thrash his political opponents in a cul-de-sac, but he made sure that it was an actual cul-de-sac with no exit. Here, we have his sadly-diminished successor wannabes attempting the same tack, but without the requisite vision or surface logical thoroughness.

One might, then, understand my discomfort at the warning signs of encroaching censorship in Singapore, under the excuse of "Fake News":

Exaggerated? You laugh now, but history repeats
(Source: r/the_donald)

On to Charlie Chan Hock Chye. I have to admit, when I first heard of the title, that my first thought was of my high school physics teacher of exactly that same name (minus Charlie), and who drew a mean caricature into the bargain. To my slight initial dismay, it was not him who had hit the big time with his hobby, but that aside, the work can definitely be classed as a local comic awakening. And comics don't get nearly enough respect, I feel - got my own start with Beano, Dandy and Doraemon, and there's plenty of arcane philosophy hidden in the Hong Kong weeklies if you care to look. I mean, just because they can draw, doesn't mean they can't write, right?

Charlie Chan's own history neatly encapsulates the government's true attitude towards the arts and innovation. Recall, it received an S$8000 grant from the National Arts Council, which while not much, was something. And then, for actually looking at Singapore's political history with a fresh perspective, and not being plastered with panels of representatives of our four major races holding hands and dancing in a circle, it had the grant revoked. It went straight on to win the comic world's equivalent of the Oscars, proving once again that the National Arts Council wouldn't recognize true art if Picasso left an unsigned specimen on their doorstep.

Which allows us to slip Taleb's conception of skin-in-the-game in - the NAC pseudo-censors, being essentially honorary bureaucrats, have no actual investment in local arts. As with the common run of form-filling box-tickers, their default instinct would be to banhammer anything that pushes the envelope... which is not entirely unreasonable, because they personally don't reap the upsides of dangerous decisions either. The best, then, that can be said about them is perhaps that "the problem is higher than these agencies".

The eponymous Charlie Chan, in contrast, put all his skin in. Born about 1938, he pursued drawing as his hobby, and teams up with a friend and admirer (Bertrand) to produce and sell comics. After running the gamut of subjects, from giant robots to Maus-like commentary to lowest-common-denominator action heroes (Roachman, whom Charlie accuses Marvel of ripping off with Spiderman), Bertrand finally bails after eight years of middling success. He wanted to get married and start a family, and thus he had to have a stable job, a stable income (which he did). In short, Bertrand found that he put had too much skin in. He danced, in the Kierkegaardian sense, for a time, but eventually wearied of it, and sat among the spectators instead.

Some knights wear glasses.
(Source: epigrambooks.sg)

Such a domestic life was not for Charlie, however. He tried his hand at commercial illustration for a while, but while he was undeniably good at it, he gave it up due to displeasure at having to operate to the whims of the clients, and of compromising his own artistic integrity (in this, it is easy to see Charlie as Liew's alter-ego). Instead, he became a security guard, which afforded him - if not a decent salary - the peace and quiet he wanted, to simply draw what he wanted and tell stories.

Charlie's story doesn't have much of a happy ending. What small market he had for Roachman died out with the advent of television and the demise of the pavement libraries, and it was clear that his favourite political satire wasn't gonna fly with a certain strongman at the helm. Nor, it appears, was he able to attract a wife with his meagre income. If he regretted this, it was only when he wasn't able to afford overseas (and apparently better) medical treatment for his father, due to his lack of savings, which, it is implied, his mother blamed on him to an extent. This spurred him to finally try and make a name for himself at the San Diego Comics Con, at the age of fifty. That went about as expected.

Charlie always had, you see, real skin in the game, and he lived and died by his calling. As an avowed artist, he had what Taleb terms "soul in the game", or skin-on-behalf-of-others. In keeping the light of culture alive, he received no monetary reward (nor did he expect any, especially later in his career), and accepted near-certain impoverishment and obscurity.

And the bureaucrats, who're being paid to push new economy and innovation and risk-taking? One can only too easily imagine them telling their children:

This is Charlie. Be smart. Don't be like Charlie.

[To be continued...]

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Saturday, Mar 10, 2018 - 22:42 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert


Mr. Robo: Human! Huuumaaannn!

Me: Yes, Mr. Ham locked himself in his office again. Here's the latest key, and if that doesn't work, here's a crowbar. Odd though, the market hasn't been moving lately, but...

Mr. Robo: No, it's not that! When I arrived at work today, Mr. Ham smiled at me!

Me: Oh, is it his usual patronizing "I'm superior to you" smirk?

Mr. Robo: No.

Me: Or his practised plastic salesman expression, frozen about the mouth, without any genuine good cheer in the eyes?

Mr. Robo: Nope.

Me: Maybe his predatory "what a sucker" grin, often seen after ripping another poor customer off?

Mr. Robo: Nah.

Me: The sadistic twisted lip-curl that appears before inflicting absolutely needless pain and suffering?

Mr. Robo: *shakes head*

Me: The psychopathic teeth-baring slasher face that he sometimes makes, right before he smashes the place up, after one bad trade too many?

Mr. Robo: No, I would have simply followed the arranged lockdown procedure in that case. You listen to me, human; it was just... a... normal... everyday... smile!


Me: You're right, Mr. Robo. Something is very wrong. We have to check on him. Hopefully it isn't too late.

*over at the firm of H.L. Ham*

*rushing in* Mr. Robo: Whatever it is you're thinking of doing, Mr. Ham, don't do it! It's not as hopeless as you think it is! We can always work something out, like another wage cut for me! There's so much to live for... human, say something!

Me: Well, um, just don't make too much of a mess.

Mr. Robo: Human!

Me: Nah, relax. If you look more closely, you'll realise what's happening, because once you eliminate all the other possibilities, what remains, however improbable, must be the truth - Mr. Ham is merely truly, sincerely, happy.

Mr. Robo: Is that even possible?!

Me: Wouldn't have imagined it myself. Personally, I'm extremely curious as to what might have caused this.

Mr. Ham: *rubbing paws* They doubted me! Uh, I mean, they doubted Master Political Analyst Herr Ahm! They laughed when I... he said that "Trade war, so? AMERICA WINS!" two years ago, they did the same when I warned that "Great America wins the upcoming trade wars" right after TRUMP's inauguration. Well, guess who's again being proven right... as Great America uses the very strategy I... he anticipated!

ABSOLUTE MADMAN, Stable Genius, two sides of the same coin
(Source: r/polandball)

Me: Well, sometimes the most effective strategies are also the simplest ones. So it appears that GOD-EMPEROR TRUMP has transformed the global trade chessboard into what's essentially a game of chicken... and guess which country happens to be far and away the biggest, baddest piece of poultry around?

Mr. Ham: Yep, it's now entirely a contest of wills and of not backing down, and as far as I know, nobody has yet prevailed against the GOD-EMPEROR on his major interests in that dimension. Recall, all his Republican political opponents swearing that they wouldn't back him, before quietly falling into line. And we've Canada and Mexico going from insisting that NAFTA could not be amended, to obediently writing up a new draft. As this POTUS knows too well from his business background, "No" is simply the first step in negotiations.

Me: And, actually, one has to wonder why the media seems to be making tariffs out to be such a huge deal, when everybody basically does that. The news reports aren't mentioning that the EU actually has higher steel and automobile tariffs than America, China likewise imposes hefty tariffs on U.S. goods, but when America tries some tit-for-tat, the lofty principle of free trade is threatened?!

Mr. Ham: Yeah, the trade war began decades ago if anything, it's just that nobody told America. Take Ban Ki-moon's latest slip of the tongue on the Paris Accord - "Who will make up all this losses which will not be paid by the US? That's a serious problem now". Well, no shit, it's not about the money, yet nobody wants to pay, and are just waiting for America to give away the shop, as their previous weak and easily-influenced Presidents would probably have done. Anyway, it sure looks like TRUMP's reviving the ol' British special relationship, as we have long suspected. Greater love hath no man than TRUMP!

But yes. He's gonna win again. Like, the mainstream press have been so consistently wrong about him and what he could achieve, all the way since he first announced his candidacy, that it's quite impossible to suppose that they have any credibility left on this matter, mainly because he is quite simply a genius. Like, he's just got North Korea to put denuclearization on the table, which is far more than previous Nobel Peace Prize winners have managed! Verily, we do not deserv...

Mr. Robo: What the heck is that awful cackling?!

Mr. Ham: Ah, just Alexa. Somebody has to take over when I have an off-day. And, talking about your voluntary pay cut...

Bonus - Assange recognizing Singaporean troll power (I have to admit, Xiaxue's growing on me):

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Monday, Feb 26, 2018 - 23:45 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Annual Ritual

"I still got an A even though I was expecting a B or C. However, God listened to my prayers and this incident [the exam scripts being stolen] happened, resulting in my distinction."

- God works in mysterious ways concerning A-Level Chemistry

Sat through a performance by Zhang Di (who apparently quit medicine for more jocular remedies) and company at Resorts World Sentosa on Sunday, where his knack for composing lyrics on the spot was on full display. [Digression: one has to recognize its relation to ad-hoc xiangsheng, and the entertainment of matching poetry, couplet-style, as practised by the old Chinese literati of Hong Lou Meng; which in turn recalls The Dozens, a rap form of which was featured in 8 Mile]. Guy's been around for a long time - my parents recalled watching him when they were courting, thirty-over years ago.

His motto of having others forget their troubles does have something to it - the problem is, of course, the forgetting...

Recruitment, Redux

It never quite feels like the new semester's arrived, until one gets approached by nattily-attired young gentlemen at or around the Central Forum. I was anticipating collecting my Puzzle Fighter E. Honda sushi, when one of them graciously inquired as to whether I was missing something in life.

As they seated themselves determinedly on either side, I could not help but feel slightly guilty, for my soul had already been promised to many Hells, and if they wished a share in it, why, they would have to wait in line. On this, to be fair, there have at times been reciprocal agreements amongst the Abrahamics; yet these are tenuous pledges, amendable only all too easily, as with the Holy See's hardline stance on membership in the days of their pomp, and Negroes seemingly being summarily uncursed in the eyes of the Lord, that sweet summer of '78.

But can one expect much more? A rational man might have begun to grow suspicious, when a supposedly all-knowing deity gets pissed at his favourite pets for munching fruit - as is their nature - before having His Chosen wander the desert for forty years... only to settle in just about the only spot without oil. The second act then sees His Son's followers genocide his first supporters for over a thousand years, before He inspires an Arabic warlord to persecute them both. The combined toll of death and misery from these misadventures defies description.

This is an objectively atrocious record, and if He had been a middle manager, He would long have been fired. Unfortunately, being simultaneously the boss and the boss's son has produced the unhappy combination of being both fossilized and nepotistic, and one can only look on with a pity akin to that of a clear-headed observer evincing a battered wife, who returns after yet another hiding because this time, I just know He will change.

Still, it would have been impolite to say all this to doubtless well-meaning fellows, who dutifully continue running their spiel. Talk at one point wandered to the percentage of Singaporeans that were Christian. This is about twenty percent (as I happened to know), the reply which was matched by affirmation - and perhaps, just a hint of anxiety. I do believe that this de-facto ceiling has been some cause for consternation among the relevant communities; and, I might add, it exists for a reason, but none that would be glad tidings for these fine gentlemen.

Skipping the international politics angle, which LKY was on top of, this is ultimately an eminently natural phenomenon - as a creed gains dominance and saturates the mainstream, so will it begin to splinter, as has happened over and over again. Given how all of them profess much the same fundamental set of virtues - don't kill, love your neighbour, etc - about which I can discern no actual disagreement, one cannot help but wonder just why there has been so much feuding over the details. The inescapable conclusion, then, is that organized religions were never truly about those things. Rather, it at some point became rude to assert "I want this"; far more respectable was "God wants this". The implications are, clearly, interesting (like, surely God has enough Cantab A's in His bag?)

His Word Of Glory

"Whoever it was who translated the Bible into excellent French prose is chiefly responsible for the collapse of Christianity in France. Contrariwise, the men who put the Bible into archaic, sonorous and often unintelligible English gave Christianity a new lease of life wherever English is spoken."

- Holy Writ, H.L. Mencken

The above sentiment echoes that shared by luminaries such as Wilde - who was probably agnostic on his best day - and Wallace, who professed a soft spot for the Catholic church. This predilection is entirely understandable - given that there is no logic involved in theology, or at least none of the sort that would pass muster in any properly-accredited craft - one should expect the full assortment of bells and whistles in recompense. Swinging censers, fragrant incense, Morrocan leather kicks, cherubic castrati rocking Ave Maria - the whole nine yards.

This, I feel, is a failing of their successors, who dispensed with the pageantry, and replaced it with a joyless severity. Officially, it was a rejection of the extraneous, of distractions from the Divine. Third Wave Abrahamism rejected human imagery altogether. In this I think them mistaken. Maybe the Holy See was corrupt, but they did at least own their niche, and they knew how to celebrate. As G.B. Shaw has his Black Girl note perceptively, after the first fisherman's magnificent paper-mâché cathedral passed, the remainder of the procession carried but "smaller and mostly much uglier paper Churches", while all insisting that theirs happened to be the only true one.

Happily, this inferiority has been readily addressed by some of the newer crop, who have erected splendid titanium structures, worshipped with concerts of impeccable production quality, and whose leaders see fit to appear only in the finest threads; how can we not recall in this the first great marbled houses of the Lord, graced with haunting pipe organs played by the finest masters, overseen by priests whose vestments would cause Venetian ladies envy? It is a tested formula, I say; keep it (but, perhaps go a bit light on the Dayung Sampan next time)

The allegory of the shepherd, by the way, has seldom been properly explored - a most cursory analysis would yield the uncomfortable realisation that not one in a hundred shepherds tends his flock out of benevolence - their well-being is his concern, inasmuch as they provide utility: milk, wool, meat. In fact, we should be rightly suspcious were any shepherd claim unconditional love, particularly if they happen to be Scottish.

Now, this is not to say that a degree of beta sheepiness is baad; without some compromise, there would be unending conflict. However, the point is that sheepiness (also the Third Wave Abrahamism equivalent, submission) and its attendant traits - unlimited forgiveness, for one - are hardly as ideal as the faiths love to promote. The main benefit, as far as I can make out, is that it in practice allows obedient multitudes to be easily led - and ironically, often in the manner Exodus 23:2 warns against.

His instrument upon this Earth
[80% evangelical support!]
(Source: r/dankchristianmemes)

This attitude I cannot in good conscience support. For sheep will too often gather in circles, and bleat softly to each other, and convince themselves that they are okay - for they are, above all else, taught to fear; but this is no great accomplishment, given that it is most commonly undertaken by the indoctrination of defenceless young minds. Take a child, as the Jesuits are wont to, and teach him something blatantly ridiculous, such as his soul being forfeit were he to drink soda on Thursdays, or were he to ever touch his left ankle with his right hand. I am willing to state that such convictions can be permanently implanted in the majority of children, with suitable reinforcement techniques. Some may reject this as a disrespectful and baseless insinuation; if so, in all honesty, they would be mistaken.

It is, however, true, that there are many sheep and few lions, for that is the natural state of affairs. It is also true that one does have a choice, if nothing else, whether to be a lion, or to accept being a sheep. The life of a lion is fraught with peril, for his peers are strong too, and in that strength dispense with niceties. When a lion's might goes, he will oft be brutally slain, which is coincidentally also the time when the flock gathers and reassures themselves that they are glad not to be lions.

But, you see, this neglects the fact that sheep all die too, and generally they die quite ingloriously indeed, however they try to convince themselves otherwise. One does not deny that this may be a comfortable and late death, if the sheep be fortunate. But it is death nonetheless, and bleatings as to some everlasting afterlife I feel quite distasteful and insulting, as would an appeal to Santa's future beneficence be to any self-respecting adult.

And, you know the secret?

Sheep don't actually even admire or really love other sheep, you know. They respect their shepherds more, as any number of successful megapastors can attest to; but, more than that, they love lions - see: GOD-EMPEROR TRUMP.

And why not? At the very minimum, he'll cut your taxes!

A day as a lion, worth a lifetime as a sheep

"Crom! I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad. Why we fought, or why we died. All that matters is that today, two stood against many. That's what's important! Valor pleases you, Crom; so grant me this one request. Grant me revenge! And if you do not listen, then to hell with you!"

- Conan's appeal
(now this is a man, and this is a God)

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Sunday, Feb 18, 2018 - 00:20 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert


Not sure why we still bother with the local CNY movies - blatant product placement aside, it's basically one public service announcement skit after another... with obligatory anthropomorphic God(dess) of Fortune (remember last year?). As our subreddit has it, the best bits came right at the end, and mainly because it was, well, finishing up.

Babel Nowadays

Tamil too often gets the short end of the stick here
(Though there's more than enough to go around)
(Source: todayonline.com)

I vaguely recall being fascinated by AltaVista Babel Fish a long time ago (it appears, sadly, to have completely vanished, a by-product of having the misfortune to have been palmed off on Yahoo!) [Edit Feb 20: never neglect the obvious: babelfish.com] - type in a phrase, and it'd spit a translation back out, just like that! Back-translation readily exposed its many limitations, but I was easily impressed back then.

The torch has - as with so many online services - been passed to the behemoth that is Google for some time now, and they have to their credit not been resting on their laurels. They've transitioned from more straightforward statistical methods* (shout-out to our old n-gram based input system here), to a deep neural network-based system. As a recent presentation shows, they've not been alone in pursuing this direction.

You'd not be wrong if you guessed what this entails - gobs of data - but there's admittedly technique further involved. Google's 2016 paper on their Neural Machine Translation (NMT) System (open-source version available) describes the usage of Long Short-Term Memory (LSTM) recurrent neural networks (RNNs) with all the bells and whistles, in an encoder-decoder setup as with Deepfakes. This has lately been upgraded to support direct multilingual translation (i.e. without going through English, as is traditional), by simply including the target language as an input token, leaving all else untouched.

[*N.B. A small diversion on the history of machine translation here. Statistical methods were, probably understandably, viewed with heavy suspicion when they first emerged in the Eighties; Mallaby's More Money Than God recounts the opposition faced by Brown and Mercer, when they first applied the Expectation-Maximization (EM) algo to the task. Jelinek, who later employed the duo at IBM, would counter with his famous retort that "every time I fire a linguist, my system's performance improves"; also, Brown & Mercer would later jump to Renaissance Technologies, where they made like a bazillion bucks, so I suppose they had the last laugh too.]

But a little pulling back of the curtain here. Although official announcements might give the vibe that machine translation is a solved problem, slightly more involved inspection has to reveal that NMT is not quite up to actual human translators yet... and by some distance. Douglas Hofstadter provides an analysis with just such a conclusion in The Atlantic [Hacker News commentary] which covers most of the bases. Borrowing his German example (translations only):


After the defeat, many professors with Pan-Germanistic leanings, who by that time constituted the majority of the faculty, considered it pretty much their duty to protect the institutions of higher learning from "undesirables." The most likely to be dismissed were young scholars who had not yet earned the right to teach university classes. As for female scholars, well, they had no place in the system at all; nothing was clearer than that.

Google NMT

After the lost war, many German-National professors, meanwhile the majority in the faculty, saw themselves as their duty to keep the universities from the "odd"; Young scientists were most vulnerable before their habilitation. And scientists did not question anyway; There were few of them.

Obviously (and unlike the example kindly supplied in Google's research blog), the nuance is well off at a minimum, before going into actual errors in conveying meaning. Hofstadter explains the context behind choices such as "undesirables" rather than "odd", and "Pan-Germanistic" instead of "German-National", but the most interesting miss here was perhaps the feminine case "-in", which completely threw the final sentence off. Skipping to the Chinese example, which I can independently corroborate, the translation of "他仍兼管研究生" as "He still holds the post of graduate student." (output slightly altered from Hofstadter's version; seems like Google has been doing some updating) is indeed egregiously wrong - "He still supervises [his] graduate students" would be the right translation as Hofstadter notes, although it can be noted that changing a single character (to "他仍兼研究生") would bail NMT out.

Which returns us to the fundamental complaint about the ongoing A.I. boom - there's scant actual intelligence, as understood in the popular sense, involved. Some of the issues Hofstadter highlighted are perhaps to be expected, if the NMT implementation operates on a sentence level, as is suggested by the paper (in which evaluation was performed on isolated single sentences). As such, even the simplest agreement and reconciliation of terms between sentences would be absent! In this light, it is perhaps a wonder that paragraph-length texts are even comprehensible.

Despite there clearly being a lot left to be done, I do disagree with Hofstadter on one point. In his wrap-up, he hopes that true translation, artistic translation, by machines, will not be possible soon. But why? Should not the wisdom of the world be available to all, regardless of what tongue they were born with, and despite what gods might fear? Why should Westerners have to wait to read Jin Yong, for example, when Gu Long borrowed unstintingly from James Bond? There are at least two objections I can muster, the first of which is the impossibility of perfect translation - wordplay, for one, carries badly. And then there are the near-ineffables, like sonder...

The second would be the impact on minor languages. It is plausible that multilingualism would become rare, in a world where everyone has their own private translator - why agonize over learning Mandarin (as many local students may question), when one can just translate to it on demand? But then again, it's a trade-off really; if this opens communication between all and sundry - given how much woe lack of mutual intelligibility has historically caused - the loss could be worth it...

My personal suspicion here would be that of a future closing of the circle - while connectionism is currently king, the potential of re-integrating symbolic and domain knowledge has yet to catch up. This may perhaps become more apparent, when the shortcomings of "just pump in more! data" become harder to be brushed aside as saturation approaches, since it's unlikely - to me at least - that current architectures are the end-all on this.

The Age-Old Debate

Guy pays, or split the bill? Our resident alpha male CS prof has the answer, which has as usual sparked lively discourse amongst local netizens (as with his thoughts on the labour situation, which seems to echo latest policy).

Anyway, my two satoshis, for the record:
  1. I do agree: guy pays. However, the bigger issue is probably whether this even becomes a point of contention. It's not a problem if the lady wants to pay her share, but it's a problem if such a minor thing manages to drive a wedge (then again, I may just be conditioned - my hamsters never pay)

  2. A related observation: while academia leans left in general, the hard sciences (and math) do seem to be more conservative than the humanities. The balance in the force has got to be maintained, I suppose

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Saturday, Feb 10, 2018 - 23:08 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Fake It Until

Dragonboated for the first time in what, sixteen years, for my unit's Cohesion Day - there's a reassuring simplicity to just pulling, in rhythm, over and over again.

Returning to my usual life, I'll continue with the first of two overdue tech discussions:


It was coming. Hey, netizens have been pulling humourous face-swapping photos for eons, first with Photoshop and then with apps (also: the ubiquitous SnapChat dogface filter), and there was Face2Face a couple of years back [paper], which admittedly focused purely on mouth gestures. How hard, then, could transplanting the eyes and nose be?

As it turns out, not very. Some months ago, FakeApp was released, allowing seamless face transfer on videos. Expectedly, this has energized dabblers to put it to productive use, such as subbing Nicholas Cage in as every actor in a movie, but probably mostly to, ahem, more risqué ends.

What manner of sorcery is this?!

And yes, the technology. A brief comparison with the now-dated Face2Face mouth expression transfer tech: then, a similarity-based energy metric was used to retrieve the closest-seeming mouth appearance from a frame in the target (to be doctored) video, relative to the source gesture. And, actually, the DeepFake pipeline remains broadly the same:

For each frame in the video,
  1. Locate the face (apparently with Histogram of Oriented Gradients [HOG] landmarks)
  2. Transfer a desired face over the original face
Point 1 is, of course, not that impressive - it has been in every run-of-the-mill smartphone camera for ages. It is the convincing face transfer that has had observers agog, and perhaps not surprisingly, the not-so-secret behind this wizardry is (deep) neural nets - more specifically, deep convolutional autoencoders.

So, what's an autoencoder? It can be thought of as a function consisting of two parts: an encoder that converts an input into another (usually compressed) representation, and a decoder after that that converts the representation back into the (perhaps slightly different) input. If it helps, compression can be thought of as a form of autoencoding: when you zip a file, the original binary data is converted (encoded) into a (hopefully smaller) representation, the zipped file; and when that zipped file is uncompressed (decoded), the original file is obtained.

Furthering this intuition, image compression is however not quite autoencoding, for popular formats such as JPEG - it's more of discarding relatively unimportant data, such that the compressed representation remains directly interpretable as a (lower-quality version of the) image. Certainly, neural network based autoencoders (henceforth, just autoencoders) can be trained on image data, althought as the Keras tutorial notes, this is seldom worth it for purely compression purposes.

The beauty of autoencoders lies instead in their flexibility - just throw them any (and enough) data, and they'll generally learn a decent representation for you. This property is cleverly exploited in the DeepFake setup, which utilizes a single encoder, and two decoders:

The heart of the system
(Source: DeepFakes Explained video, at 6:30)

Before we continue, a quick technical note: DeepFake is built on Google's TensorFlow library (which would have saved me rolling my own GPU code some years back), and the more user-friendly GUI FakeApp is a 1.8GB torrent download. The actual underlying scripts are however much more lightweight, and can be gotten from an unofficial GitHub repo. The autoencoder architecture can then be examined at plugins\Model_Original.py, with a low-memory variant Model_LowMem.py apparently the same except for the dimensionality of the dense (representation) layer of the encoder being halved, from 1024 to 512. Some user-added generative adversarial net scripts are also included.

The slightly-surprising part here, is that there are no constraints applied on the dense layer, unlike for example in variational autoencoders; as such, it seems that faces from different people with the same expressions do naturally map to similar representations in the dense layer. In other words, if a photo of Person A with mouth open has a vector representation va in the trained encoder, Person B with the same expression would produce a vector vbva. Then again, since the basic structure of (aligned) faces are all but identical on major landmarks like the eyes, nose and mouth, perhaps this is not that unexpected.

What remains is conceptually straightforward - with hundreds (prefably thousands or more) of images of both subjects (victims?), we train the shared encoder to produce the same dense representations, for the same expressions of each subject. Then, to morph Person B's face onto Person A's face in the original video, we detect Person A's face in each frame, and run it through the encoder before decoding it with the decoder for Person B. Recall that Decoder B is specialized to generate only Person B's faces - therefore, we'll get an image of Person B with the same expression as that of Person A, which we can then merge straight back into the video.

Perhaps the most famous example
(Source: dailymail.co.uk)

A pertinent point, then, is that the generated and overlaid face is not truly that of the target person. Strictly speaking, it is an indirect representation, akin to a sketch artist producing his own rendition of his sitter. This setup also allows the decoder to make up for missing data to an extent, by using its learned conceptual expression of a particular face, to "fill in" for missing data. And, despite some very impressive examples, creating good fake videos still takes some work.

Firstly, a ton of images of both subjects are required, with insufficient images leading to bad outputs; this is however perhaps not that big of a problem for celebrities. Secondly, rarer profile poses may be an issue, as are close-ups, with the autoencoder apparently working on 64 pixel square inputs. This may explain why the successful examples tend to be on clips where the subject is some distance away, and mostly facing the camera straight-on. Lastly, unlike Face2Face for example, there doesn't seem to be flow constraints between frames. This may contribute to sudden strange "flashes", if a frame in the middle of a sequence has a less-compatible face generated for it.

Of course, none of these weaknesses are insurmountable, especially for well-funded professional outfits (such as the now-exposed American Deep State). This has clear implications on video as evidence, particularly combined with voice synthesis - perhaps even by the same encoder-decoder mechanism - that would allow convincing evidence to be produced of any public figure saying and doing just about anything. Very fortunately, interest thus far has been mainly restricted to naughty vids, which has led to the deepfakes subreddit being banned (go to r/fakeapp instead), together with the vids themselves on major platforms - but, let's be honest, bans have never worked...

[To be continued with machine translation...]

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Sunday, Feb 04, 2018 - 22:16 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Two Steps Forward One Step Back

Me: Human! Human! Am I glad... nah, always sounded more natural when the hamsters say it. For all their shortcomings, they've been accessible, or more accessible than whales - who've only now started conversing - at least... wait, what the hell is Mr. Ham doing kneeling out there?

It is a matter of relativity
(Source: r/bitcoin)

Mr. Ham: Spare a copper, m'lud?

Me: It probably isn't that bad, you know. We've had like four 30+% dips over the last year, and the price even today remains an annualized 1000%; you know about Buffett's advice, to buy on the assumption that they could close the market for five years? Although it doesn't transfer directly, it remains a good attitude to approach Bitcoin with. I mean, if we rushed to sell at all-time highs, we'd be out at US$10, US$250, US$1000, USD$3000 or US$5000, or any number of smart-seeming points in between. What more with...

Mr. Ham: Um, see, I was getting all emotional-like when it was falling back through US$10k, so I texted Mr. Robo to get in 100x long with everything we had...

Me: YOU WHAT?! Oh, wait. Mr. Robo's been curled up in a ball shivering in my spare room for the past week or two, seeing as how it's plunging, so it's probably alright.

Mr. Ham: Oh. Oh. That's nice. *makes call* Eh, Sammy? Don't cancel my reservation at Puertopia just yet. And stall the bailiffs coming to repossess the lambos.

Me: ...and as I was saying, this sort of thing puts hair on your chest *looks at Mr. Ham* well, more fur than was originally there at any rate. Separates the men from the boys. You haven't begun to live until you experience eight-figure hits to your portfolio in a matter of weeks, they say.

Gotta admit that it's fiendishly hard not to get caught up in the excitement and declare over-high price floors when it's rising, but other than that, it's all going swimmingly - new, better-backed exchanges sprouting everywhere, Robinhood integration, Lightning hitting a thousand channels already on mainnet despite haters not understanding what's up - can't wait for when LN instant and nearly-free transactions make the mainstream.

That was quick
(Source: lnmainnet.gaben.win)

By the way, there seems to be a pervasive misunderstanding about how the Lightning Network operates. At its most basic, two users can open a funded channel between themselves, which is limited by the constraint that the sum total of Bitcoin in that channel remains constant. Clearly, this is not particularly useful, even if transactions on the channel are fast and cheap. However, the point is that, like the Internet, it is a Lightning Network - users may not be directly connected by a channel, but they still can transfer value to each other by hopping over multiple nodes, same as with packet data!

Mr. Ham: Now, that's reassuring. Was beginning to get tired of my old Huracán. That he which hath no stomach to this downturn: Let him sodl; his limit order shall be filled. And tether for withdrawl put into his account: we would not hodl in that man's company: that fears his fellowship to hodl with us.

Me: Ah, the classic hodler's mantra. I don't know, Mr. Ham - these things can be hard to discuss. It pains me that sincere advice - say, on mining and altcoins - is seldom well-received, due to the taint of personal interest. Observations on liquidity advantages being historically self-reinforcing tend to fall on deaf ears, because it's far more tempting to believe that Special World-Beating Altcoin #371 will explode thousandfold, despite general past evidence to the contrary - for every ETH, there were countless dozens Auroracoins that never recovered after their initial burst of glory. To each his own, I say...

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Sunday, Jan 28, 2018 - 20:38 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Mon Run

Pika pika

Mr. Ham: ...tell me why we are doing this again? I have a trading company to administer, darn it, and getting Pokéballs flung at you gets old really fast.

Me: Hey, they just released Generation 3, and I just got my first shiny after almost two whole years, an Aron.

Mr. Ham: So...?

Me: Enough prattle, more evolution. And about that gear...

Mr. Ham: You get to drag me into this, I get to bring my cattle prod. Listed as electric-type, remember?

It was a nice day.

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