Friday, December 7, 2007

Futurama Review

Futurama is Back
The seminal science fiction cartoon returns on DVD
Hartford Advocate Dec. 07, 2007
Futurama returning in any form is great, but a direct-to-DVD version is nearly perfect. The animated show's creators, including Simpsons progenitor Matt Groening, invented a multi-layered television comedy show that looked both backwards and forwards. Steeped in science fiction minutia, the show portrayed a future where every conceivable science fiction scenario had come true, where the incredible is mundane and where everything is possible, but nothing seems to work.

Bender's Big Score
, the first of four DVD exclusive Futurama films — they're going to be split up and broadcast as 16 half-hour episodes on Comedy Central in 2008 — is both innovative and antiquated. The format allows them to bypass broadcast television, and include a wealth of special features that reward the obsession the show inspires in its fans (including a full episode of Everyone Loves Hypnotoad, and an equally inscrutably hypnotic Futurama-focused higher math lecture). But considering Blu-ray, Bit Torrent, video iPods and such, DVDs frankly seem like a dying technology. Which is perfect for Futurama.

Even Futurama's biggest fans should acknowledge why the show had limited success in its 72 episode run (seven episodes fewer than the original Star Trek. Or was it? Have at it, nerds.). Certainly it was mishandled by the Fox Network, who shuffled its time slot and ultimately canceled it, but the show had a fundamentally narrow appeal.

It rewarded science fiction literacy, referencing pure mind sugar for geeks like the 1939 World's Fair, Invasion of the Saucer Men and the Grandfather Paradox, but presented them with twitchy, irreverent humor. America just doesn't have the hipster nerd resources to sustain such a project.

There's also a matter of tone. Where the show's most immediate ancestor, The Simpsons, centered on a family and occasionally broke up its nihilism with sentimental warmth, the only mainstream concession Futurama made was the broad humor of an alcoholic misfit robot with criminal tendencies. It might as well have "cult hit" written in binary and Klingon in the opening credits.

Freed from the constraints of pretending to have mass appeal, the Futurama team mine the show's mythology and history for Bender's Big Score, packing the screen with obscure references to past Futurama episodes, and meta-references to the Family Guy (another show retired, then revived by Fox) and South Park. The plot, a giddy mix of Primer-style time-travel anomalies, alien con men and a surprisingly affecting romance, would have been pretty much impossible with broadcast television's constraints on time and ambition.

A lot of it's very funny — I mentioned the alcoholic misfit robot, right? — but more importantly, it's viciously smart. The speculative ideas are precise and fully realized. As the creators explain in the commentary track, every complicated time leap was fully sketched out, and scrutinized for logic and clarity. Time travel paradoxes aren't just acknowledged, they're exploited for punch lines.

If after watching Signs you angrily questioned why an alien race allergic to water would invade a planet with water covering two thirds of its surface, Bender's Big Score will be extremely satisfying. If you never considered that, well, maybe Futurama isn't for you. On the bright side, re-runs of Everybody Loves Raymond are on TV, like, all the time now!
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Voting Machine Clash

No-Confidence Vote
A Trinity professor and the secretary of the state square off over new voting machines
Hartford Advocate Nov. 24, 2005

Last week's voting machine demonstration at the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven in Woodbridge was strange. Although the center is a massive space, the actual demonstration was held in a cramped alcove. The six machines on display -- two each from the three companies that had made the cut for consideration, Avante, Danaher and Diebold -- were swarmed with people. There were no lines, no clear sense of order.

The event was the third of five statewide demonstrations of the three voting machines that had made the state's final cut for selection. Avante's and Diebold machines were high-tech touch-screen voting machines with interfaces clearly influenced by Microsoft Windows. The Danaher machine looked like the clunky lever voting machines that the new machines were supposed to replace. Each machine produced a hand-countable paper receipt, in accordance with a state bill passed last February.

"We have had 500 or more people on average at every demo this week," said Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz. It was more than she expected. "I was lying awake on Sunday night thinking 'What if no one comes?' Then we got to Buckland Mall and there were 75 senior citizens lined up early to try to check it out."

Last week's demonstrations were the culmination of a long, much-delayed voting-reform process. In 2004, Bysiewicz's office issued a Request For Proposal, or RFP, to voting machine vendors in order to begin replacing Connecticut's approximately 3000 voting machines, and to complywith the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 which established standards on voter procedures. The state hopes to have the process completed by Jan. 1, the deadline set by Congress for HAVA compliance.

One style of machine was conspicuously absent from the statewide display, in spite of the actions of voter advocacy group True VoteCT. The group, which formed about a year ago, is a coalition of computer science professionals and others with expertise in issues relating to voting technology.

Through their research, the group's members determined that optical scan technology was the best voting system for Connecticut. Optical scan systems work similarly to SAT scoring. A voter would mark up a dots on a form similar to the one familiar to anyone who's taken a multiple-choice test in the last 30 years.

"Optical scans have been around for a long time," True VoteCT organizer Ralph Morelli said. "It's a proven, mature technology."

Morelli, a tenured professor of computer science who has worked at Trinity College for 20 years, is a strong advocate of optical scan technology. He says the optical scan automatic paper trail would ensure transparency, avoid programming glitches that can occur with other machines, and cost less than those touted by the state.

The members of True VoteCT claim that Bysiewicz has largely ignored the group's optical scan recommendation throughout the process, and say the bids she requested are for "Direct Record Electronic (DRE)" machines, or e-voting machines. Bysiewicz and her staff have repeatedly denied that they are excluding any technology, particularly optical scan.

Morelli and other members of his group have made their concerns known to Bysiewicz. In addition to attending public question-and-answer sessions and round-table discussions of voting reform, True VoteCT members have sent several dispatches to Bysiewicz's office (which may be found on website).

On Sept. 19, Morelli sent a letter to Bysiewicz, asking her to reconsider optical scan technology and strongly recommended that she look into one particular machine called the Automark.

In Bysiewicz's reply, dated Oct. 5, the secretary noted that the group had consistently lauded Automark. Questioning the group's independent credentials, she refused to meet with members of True Vote on the grounds that they were endorsing the technology.

"Although you assert your organization is a 'non-profit, non-partisan advocacy group' without 'any kind of relationship with voting machine vendors,' the bulk of your letter is devoted to extolling the virtues of a single product by a single manufacturer, the Automark by ES&S," Bysiewicz's letter states.

Morelli and his fellow True VoteCT member Rich Sivel laughed when asked if they were shills for Automark.

"No one in the group has any interest in the company. No one in the group has any stock in the company. And in addition, we have a healthy skepticism about the technology," Sivel said.

A copy of Bysiewicz's response was sent by someone to Trinity College president Jim Jones. Morelli's letter was not written on college letterhead, and Morelli identified himself as a member of True VoteCT, not as a Trinity professor. He included his business card in the envelope, he says, so that he could be easily contacted.

Bysiewicz said she understood the inclusion of the business card to mean Morelli was speaking as a representative of the college. Morelli said he was surprised that the letter had been copied to Jones.

"I asked [President Jones] if he knew the secretary -- I assumed that's why she might have copied him on the letter," Morelli said. "He said that he didn't know her, and that we should be applauded for working on the issue."

When asked if her office routinely sends copies of letters to the bosses of her correspondents, Bysiewicz said, "That's something you'd have to ask my communication office."
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DMV Technology

Identify Yourself
New Connecticut DMV technologies cause worries
Hartford Advocate Feb. 10, 2005

On Jan. 11, Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Gary DeFilippo sent out a media advisory concerning steps the DMV is taking to reform the agency. Two bullet points briefly addressed potentially troubling technological changes the agency is undertaking.

The first said the DMV would begin performing "high-tech match-up[s] of faces in its license file to determine if the same face is on a license or if a different one is there." The second said a new document-authentication "proofing process using state-of-the-art technology will be used to determine the validity of passports, out-of-state driver's licenses, military identifications, etc."

The aim is to "combat both the issuance of licenses in criminal matters of identity theft and to illegal aliens or those without the proper immigration and naturalization documentation."

DMV spokesman Bill Seymour confirmed that the DMV is seriously upgrading its hardware.

"We're going to do a couple different kinds of face match-ups. The first kind of face match-up is where we compare your face now to your face when you came in the last time to have your renewal," Seymour explained. "The next match up we're going to do is faces to addresses in our database. That way we can make sure we have one face for one address and not the same face for multiple addresses."

Viisage, a Littleton, Mass., security technologies firm, is supplying the DMV with face-recognition technology (FRT). Viisage has manufactured Connecticut driver's licenses since 2002 -- presumably the license photo library can be easily navigated.

Proponents of FRT believe a face can identity a person as accurately as a fingerprint or a DNA sample. Viisage will provide the DMV with biometric technology that allows for searches and matches of faces in databases.

Viisage is one of several companies at the forefront of biometric technology. According to the website of the Biometric Consortium, a U.S government-funded group that records and studies the technology's development, "biometrics are automated methods of recognizing a person based on a physiological or behavioral characteristic. Among the features measured are face, fingerprints, hand geometry, handwriting, iris, retinal, vein, and voice."

Biometric technology digitizes and analyzes faces, voices and other identifying features. Then the data is converted into a numeric code that becomes, to a computer, as unique and instantly recognizable as a Social Security number.

In theory, biometric face-matching can be instantaneous and precise. A computer can read a line of code and match it to another line. The problem is that biometric technology currently seems about as exact a science as phrenology; it failed in three of the most public tests it has faced.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Americans wanted science-fiction solutions to problems caused by terrorists whose weapons are barely above the level of cavemen, and were willing to sacrifice privacy for them. Biometric technology became white hot. Stock prices skyrocketed for companies involved with biometrics. The first day of stock trading following the Sept. 11 attacks saw a 90 percent increase in the value of Viisage's share price.

Shortly after Sept. 11, Viisage CEO Tom Colatosti notoriously claimed that biometric face-recognition technology could have been a factor in preventing the Sept. 11 attacks. "If our technology had been deployed, the likelihood is [the terrorists] would have been recognized," he told a group of reporters.

But even before Sept. 11, the United States was pushing biometrics technology really hard on both the federal and state levels. Tests of the technology, before and after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, did not turn out very well.

In a summer 2001 experiment in Ybor City, an entertainment district in Tampa, Florida, the whole city was put under surveillance. Hidden video cameras recorded activities in public spaces like open-air shopping malls and outdoor restaurants. Law enforcement officials used biometric technology provided by a New Jersey company called Visionics (which would later fold into Identix). The experiment was fraught with false positives. The most dramatic is the story of Ron Milliron. According to the St. Petersburg Times:

"Rob Milliron, then 32, wound up on a surveillance camera one day while at lunch in Ybor City. Tampa police used his photo to demonstrate the system to local news media. A woman in Tulsa, Okla., saw his picture and fingered him as her ex-husband who was wanted on felony child neglect charges. Three police officers showed up at Milliron's construction job site, asking if he was a wanted man. Turns out he had never married, never had kids, never even been to Oklahoma."

The Ybor City program was shut down in August 2003. Ultimately, no arrests were made because of the surveillance. Local cops deemed the experiment a failure.

"It was of no benefit to us, and it served no real purpose," Capt. Bob Guidara of the Tampa police told the Associated Press after the experiment was shuttered.

In 2002 Viisage took part in a Super Bowl biometric experiment, scanning the faces of people at the game, allegedly looking for terrorists. At first, the experiment was deemed a modest success -- 19 suspects were fingered due to the technology. No arrests were made because of the surveillance, though.

Then, Viisage and rival security technology firm Identix went head-to-head in a study at Logan Airport that lasted from January to April of 2002. Working with a database of 40 employees, the competing companies tried to identify faces in the crowds. That test had a reported failure rate of 40 percent.

"This is a high-tech Band-Aid that's not going to make us any safer, and will give us a false sense of security," Barry Steinhardt, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Program on Technology and Liberty, told the Boston Globe after the results of the Logan Airport tests came to light. "As someone who flew 100,000 miles last year, I don't want to risk my safety on this technology."

Applying biometric technology to photographs -- how the DMV is using the technology -- is likely to be a more accurate use of the approach than scanning faces in crowds. With photographs, particularly institutional identification photographs, the circumstances are far more controlled than in the case of videotaped people in a crowd. All the backgrounds are the same, faces are the same proportion and caught at the same angle. Crowd photography variables like lighting and shadows are eliminated.

However, judging from other reports on biometrics, there are still more factors to consider.

Last December, the New York Times reported that international passport guidelines advised people posing for passports that, "only closed-mouth, 'neutral' expressions will be allowed," so that they could be read by biometrics instruments. Throwing a bone to the irrepressibly cheerful, the guidelines state that a "smile with closed jaw is allowed, but is not preferred." So don't you dare smile with an open mouth unless you want the terrorists to win.

The assumption is that while faces change as people age, the mathematical value of their features stays fundamentally the same over time. Once the biometric features of the face are determined, the theory holds, they can be used as identification throughout an individual's life. Critics argue that this premise is fundamentally flawed, claiming that skin diseases and aging can throw biometric data out of whack.

In light of last year's scandals at the agency, few argue that the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles needed restructuring and reform. But it's not clear how much face-recognition technology and biometrics directly addresses those problems.

In August 2004, an employee at the Norwalk DMV was charged with accepting bribes in exchange for providing illegal immigrants with driver's licenses. Further investigations uncovered over 400 other fraudulent licenses issued by that employee in 2003 alone. Three DMV workers have been charged in connection with the investigation.

The scam the DMV employees worked was notably low-tech. The operation relied on corrupt insiders working at DMV offices and a lack of supervision of those employees. A high-tech scan of faces in a database provides for more accountability, as does the agency's implementation of biometric fingerprint-scanning systems for recording employee use of machines.

But still, the question of motivation lingers. Viisage provides identification work for six other states' DMVs. A recent Associated Press article listed Rhode Island, North Carolina, Delaware, Illinois, Oklahoma and another state that declined to be identified because of security concerns, as customers. Viisage also works on U.S. passports and, according to the Viisage website, provides services for the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department, several city law enforcement agencies and, curiously, for Pakistan's national identification program.

Despite repeated inquiries to Viisage and the public relations firm that represents the company, I was not able to speak with anyone representing the company. As a result, I don't know whether Viisage maintains a central database of photographs and biometric data or if its clients create their own using Viisage's technology.

If Viisage controls the database, well, that's quite a bit of technology in the hands of a private company. If it doesn't, it's easy to imagine how several databases that share the same technology could be linked up.

Of course, Viisage is not the only company that works with biometrics or face-recognition technology, nor is it the largest. Firms such as Identix and Digimarc are also major players in biometric security.

Since Sept. 11, the idea of a national identification card and information database has been floated and rejected several times. All of these unconnected pools of centralized information, though, could easily be channeled together after a national crisis.
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