Which Face is Real?

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But while we’ve learned to distrust user names and text more generally, pictures are different. You can’t synthesize a picture out of nothing, we assume; a picture had to be of someone. Sure a scammer could appropriate someone else’s picture, but doing so is a risky strategy in a world with google reverse search and so forth. So we tend to trust pictures. A business profile with a picture obviously belongs to someone. A match on a dating site may turn out to be 10 pounds heavier or 10 years older than when a picture was taken, but if there’s a picture, the person obviously exists.

No longer. New adverserial machine learning algorithms allow people to rapidly generate synthetic ‘photographs’ of people who have never existed. Already faces of this sort are being used in espionage.

Computers are good, but your visual processing systems are even better. If you know what to look for, you can spot these fakes at a single glance — at least for the time being. The hardware and software used to generate them will continue to improve, and it may be only a few years until humans fall behind in the arms race between forgery and detection.

Our aim is to make you aware of the ease with which digital identities can be faked, and to help you spot these fakes at a single glance.

I was at a conference last month where research was presented which concluded pretty solidly that the mechanisms used to make “deepfakes” meant that it was probably impossible to create artificial intelligence that can learn to distinguish between real and fake pictures of humans. Simply put, this is because the way we make such images is with generative adversarial networks, an AI technique which thrives upon having an effective discriminator component, and any research into differentiating between real and fake images feeds the capability of the next generation of discriminators!

Instead, then, the best medium-term defence against deepfakes is training humans to be able to identify them, and that’s what this website aims to do. I was pleased that I did very well on my first attempt (I sort-of knew what to look for already, based on a basic understanding of the underlying technologies) but I was also pleased that I was able to learn to do better with the aid of the authors’ tips. Nice.

Proposal to allow specifying a text snippet in a URL fragment

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To enable users to easily navigate to specific content in a web page, we propose adding support for specifying a text snippet in the URL. When navigating to such a URL, the browser will find the first instance of the text snippet in the page and bring it into view.

Web standards currently specify support for scrolling to anchor elements with name attributes, as well as DOM elements with ids, when navigating to a fragment. While named anchors and elements with ids enable scrolling to limited specific parts of web pages, not all documents make use of these elements, and not all parts of pages are addressable by named anchors or elements with ids.

Current Status

This feature is currently implemented as an experimental feature in Chrome 74.0.3706.0 and newer. It is not yet shipped to users by default. Users who wish to experiment with it can use chrome://flags#enable-text-fragment-anchor. The implementation is incomplete and doesn’t necessarily match the specification in this document.

tl;dr

Allow specifying text to scroll and highlight in the URL:

https://example.com##targetText=prefix-,startText,endText,-suffix

Using this syntax

##targetText=[prefix-,]textStart[,textEnd][,-suffix]

              context  |-------match-----|  context

(Square brackets indicate an optional parameter)

This is a feature that I’ve wished that the Web had on many, many occasions. I’m sure you’ve needed it before, too: you’ve wanted to give somebody the URL of (or link to) a particular part of a page but there’s been no appropriately-placed anchor to latch on to. Being able to select part of the text on the page and just copy that after a ## in the address bar would be so much simpler.

Chrome's experimental fragment text link targetting
Naturally, I tried this experimental feature out on this very web page; it worked pretty nicely!

Chrome’s implementation is somewhat conservative, requiring a prefix of ##targetText= (this minimises the risk of collision with other applications which store/pass data via hashes), but it’s still pretty full-featured, with support for prefixes and suffixes to the text to-be-selected. I quite like it, but of course it needs running down the standards track before it can be relied upon as anything other than a progressive enhancement.

I do wonder, though, whether this will be met with resistance by ad/subscription-supported content creators as a new example of the deep linking they seem to hate so much.

(with thanks to Jeremy Keith for sharing this)

When Experienced Women Engineers Look for New Jobs, They Prioritize Trust and Growth

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How can we increase gender representation in software engineering?

Our Developer Hiring Experience team analyzed this topic in a recent user-research study. The issue resonated with women engineers and a strong response enabled the team to gain deeper insight than is currently available from online research projects.

Seventy-one engineers who identified as women or non-binary responded to our request for feedback. Out of that pool, 24 answered a follow-up survey, and we carried out in-depth interviews with 14 people. This was a highly skilled group, with the majority having worked in software development for over 10 years.

While some findings aligned with our expectations, we still uncovered a few surprises.

Excellent research courtesy of my soon-to-be new employer about the driving factors affecting women who are experienced software engineers. Interesting (and exciting) to see that changes are already in effect, as I observed while writing about my experience of their recruitment process.

“One of the best things about working at The Bodleian… Pretending to be a PhD student…”

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One of the best things about working at The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford? Pretending to be a PhD student for a photo shoot! Watch out for me appearing in a website near you…

Natalie pretends to be a PhD student.

My team and I do get up to some unusual stuff, it’s true. I took part in this photoshoot, too:

I’m absolutely not above selling out myself and my family for the benefit of some stock photos for the University, it seems. The sharp-eyed might even have spotted the kids in this video promoting the Ashmolean or a recent tweet by the Bodleian

The Real Dark Web

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I was perhaps thinking about dark matter when I read this tweet from Andy Bell.

The vast majority of respondents are still using Sass and vanilla CSS? Wow! This made me pause and think. Because I feel there’s an analogy here between that unseen dark matter, and the huge crowd of web developers who are using such “boring” technology stacks.

This! As a well-established developer who gets things done with a handful of solid, reliable, tried-and-tested toolsets, I’ve sometimes felt like I must be “falling behind” on the hot-new-tech curve because I can’t keep up with whichever yet-another-Javascript-framework is supposed to be hip this week. Earlier in my career, I didn’t have this problem. And it’s not just that we’re inventing new libraries, frameworks, and (even) languages faster than ever before – and I’m pretty sure we are – nor is it that my thirty-something brain is less-plastic than the brain of my twenty-something younger self… it’s simpler than that: it’s that the level of productivity that’s expected of an engineer of my level of seniority precludes me from playing with more than a couple of new approaches each year. I try, and I manage, to get a working understanding of a new language and a framework or two most years, and I appreciate that that’s more than I’m expected to do (and more than many will), but it still feels like a drop in the ocean: there’s always a “new hotness”.

But when I take the time to learn a “new hotness”, these days, nine times out of ten it doesn’t “stick” for me. Why? Because most of the new technologies we seem to be inventing don’t actually add anything to the vast majority of use cases. Hipper (and often smarter) developers than me might latch on to the latest post-reational database or the most-heavyweight CSS-in-JS-powered realtime web framework, and they dominate the online discussion, but that doesn’t make their ideas right for my projects. They’re a loud minority with a cool technology, and I’m a little bit jealous that they have the time to learn and play with it… but I’ll just keep delivering value with the tools I’ve got, thanks.

Passport Photos

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"Passport Photos" photo of a man with a fire next to him.

“Passport Photos” looks at one of the most mundane and unexciting types of photography. Heavily restricted and regulated, the official passport photo requirements include that the subject needs to face the camera straight on, needs a clear background without shadow, no glare on glasses and most importantly; no smile.

It seems almost impossible for any kind of self-expression.

The series tries to challenge these official rules by testing all the things you could be doing while you are taking your official document photo.

I love this weird, wonderful, and truly surreal photography project. Especially in this modern age in which a passport photo does not necessarily involve a photo booth – you’re often permitted now to trim down a conventional photo or even use a born-digital picture snapped from an approved app or via a web application – it’s more-feasible than ever that the cropping of your passport photo does not reflect the reality of the scene around you.

Max’s work takes this well beyond the logical extreme, but there’s a wider message here: a reminder that the way in which any picture is cropped is absolutely an artistic choice which can fundamentally change the message. I remember an amazing illustrative example cropping a photo of some soldiers, in turn inspired I think by a genuine photo from the second world war. Framing and cropping an image is absolutely part of its reinterpretation.

Ancient Roman ‘Pen’ Was a Joke Souvenir

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Ancient Roman stylus

The tradition of buying cheap, joke souvenirs for your loved ones while travelling dates back at least two millennia.

During an archaeological excavation at a Roman-era site in London, researchers found around 200 iron styluses used for writing on wax-filled wooden tablets. One of those styluses, which just debuted in its first public exhibition, holds a message written in tiny lettering along its sides. The inscription’s sentiment, according to the researchers who translated it, is essentially, “I went to Rome and all I got you was this pen.”

Also found in this excavation, I assume, were t-shirts printed with “I ❤ Pompeii” and moneyboxes in the shape of the Parthenon.

Bus Station, Unbound

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Back in February my friend Katie shared with me an already four-year-old piece of interactive fiction, Bus Station: Unbound, that I’d somehow managed to miss the first time around. In the five months since then I’ve periodically revisited and played through it and finally gotten around to writing a review:

All of the haunting majesty of its subject, and a must-read-thrice plot

Perhaps it helps to be as intimately familiar with Preston Bus Station – in many ways, the subject of the piece – as the protagonist. This work lovingly and faithfully depicts the space and the architecture in a way that’s hauntingly familiar to anybody who knows it personally: right down to the shape of the rubberised tiles near the phone booths, the forbidding shadows of the underpass, and the buildings that can be surveyed from its roof.

But even without such a deep recognition of the space… which, ultimately, soon comes to diverge from reality and take on a different – darker, otherworldly – feel… there’s a magic to the writing of this story. The reader is teased with just enough backstory to provide a compelling narrative without breaking the first-person illusion. No matter how many times you play (and I’ve played quite a few!), you’ll be left with a hole of unanswered questions, and you’ll need to be comfortable with that to get the most out of the story, but that in itself is an important part of the adventure. This is a story of a young person who doesn’t – who can’t – know everything that they need to bring them comfort in the (literally and figuratively) cold and disquieting world that surrounds them, and it’s a world that’s presented with a touching and tragic beauty.

Through multiple playthroughs – or rewinds, which it took me a while to notice were an option! – you’ll find yourself teased with more and more of the story. There are a few frankly-unfair moments where an unsatisfactory ending comes with little or no warning, and a handful of places where it feels like your choices are insignificant to the story, but these are few and far between. Altogether this is among the better pieces of hypertext fiction I’ve enjoyed, and I’d recommend that you give it a try (even if you don’t share the love-hate relationship with Preston Bus Station that is so common among those who spent much of their youth sitting in it).

It’s no secret that I spent a significant proportion of my youth waiting for or changing buses at (the remarkable) Preston Bus Station, and that doubtless biases my enjoyment of this game by tingeing it with nostalgia. But I maintain that it’s a well-written piece of hypertext interactive fiction with a rich, developed world. You can play it starting from here, and you should. It looks like the story’s accompanying images died somewhere along the way, but you can flick through them all here and get a feel for the shadowy, brutalist, imposing place.

Browsers are pretty good at loading pages, it turns out

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The <a> tag is one of the most important building blocks of the Internet. It lets you create a hyperlink: a piece of text, usually colored blue, that you can use to go to a new page. When you click on a hyperlink, your web browser downloads the new page from the server and displays it on the screen. Most web browsers also store the pages you previously visited so you can quickly go back to them. The best part is, the <a> tag gives you all of that behavior for free! Just tell the browser where you want to go, and it handles the rest.

Lately, though, that hasn’t been enough for website developers. The new fad is “client-side navigation”, where instead of relying on the browser to load new pages for you, you write a bunch of JavaScript code to do it instead. It’s actually really hard to get it right—loading the new page is simple enough, but you also have to write code to display a loading bar, make the Back and Forward buttons work, show an error page if the connection drops, and so on.

For a while, I didn’t understand why anyone did this. Was it just silly make-work, like how every social network redesigns their website every couple years for no discernable reason? Do <a> tags interfere with some creepy ad-tracking technique? Was there some really complicated technical reason why you shouldn’t use them?

Spoiler: good old-fashioned <a> hyperlinks tend to outperform Javascript-driven client-side navigation. We already learned about one reason for this – that adding more Javascript code just to get back what the browser gives you for free increases the payload you deliver to the user – but Carter demonstrates that progressive rendering goes a long way to explaining it, too. You see: browsers understand traditional navigation and are well-equipped with a suite of shortcuts to help them optimise for it. They can start rendering content before it’s all downloaded, offset (hinted-at) asynchronous data for later, and of course they already contain a pretty solid caching engine and you don’t even have to implement it yourself.