Deepfakes and Face Swaps

Not long ago a Republican congressman posted a picture of Barak Obama shaking the hand of the Iranian head of state, a meeting that never happened. This kind of face substitution is something that is now becoming not only available but also rather easy to do. With the social media app Tik Tok and its Chinese counterpart, Douyin, both  owned by the same parent company Byte Dance, Face  Swap is either being  thought about or  being introduced, sometimes surreptitiously. Byte Dance who says Face Swap is mainly meant for Douyin also says it is meant to be used for fun, that placing a face, presumably that of the user, on another video or image could be amusing. But that means that the app would have data on the user’s face and could use it ostensibly for its own purposes, and thus, as it did with the Obama picture, be used to spread misinformation.  There is another important issue, what would Byte Dance as well as the social media apps do with all the data they would collect?

It all begs a big question, how are we to know what is real? That is as far as I can see one of the biggest challenges before us, and to my mind one of the biggest danger for the future. As a culture, our propensity to put appearances first will surely keep us from questioning what we see. Our tendency to gravitate towards knowledge  emanating from soundbites will reinforce that propensity, and our general need for comfort will act as a brake to go deeper and probe what we are seeing to hopefully look for the signs that will open the door to the truth—or falsity—we are looking at. Obviously, our culture is moving headlong into these new areas of technology.  And perhaps if we could learn to become more aware of  how quickly we can mistake the unreal for the real and untruths for facts, we could make a small step, albeit a very small one, towards the health of our future.

Where Nuclear Fallout and Climate Change Meet

In 1954 the US conducted nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands, 67 tests in fact.  Before leaving they took the radioactive materials and plutonium and buried them under a dome on a low lying atoll. But climate change has come to the Marshall Islands, and the rising seas are a threat to that dome and may destroy it because rising seas could unseal the toxic bomb inside the dome.  But nothing is being done. Meanwhile the Marshallese are experiencing a much higher level of thyroid cancer. Many families are and have been affected. It is safe to say the conditions have created a crisis for them. Climate change is affecting the whole of the islands, no more pristine coral reefs, high water temperatures, as high as 96 degrees, are killing thousands of black angelfish, pufferfish and other marine life, and the rising sea threatens inundations. The government is planning to build sea walls, but how long they will last is not known, nor how long before another nuclear disaster occurs.  Several countries now have nuclear weapons besides the US, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, France, several are on their way like Iran and North Korea, or are now trying to obtain them like Saudi Arabia, not to speak of non-state entities like terrorist groups.  While the Marshall Islands is an example of the consequences of what the pursuit of those weapons and the accompanying testing inevitably entails, they also stand for what happens when the unforeseen happens, when those consequences intersect with climate change and the problems it brings. Hopefully the whole situation and the dangers it poses will be a reminder of how dangerous nuclear weapons are for the world, for the survivors, for the countries involved and for how unpredictable disposing of radioactive materials can be. And perhaps in an oblique way it will also be a reminder of how imperative addressing climate change now is.

44% Have Low-Wage Jobs!

The Brookings Institution has a report that plainly says that 44% of the US labor force is low-wage earners. That is 53 million Americans 18-64 whose median wage (the point where as many fall below as are higher) is $10.22 an hour or an annual salary of $17.950. These are staggering statistics. I originally put the article away and yet was so struck by it, the numbers kept coming back. What haunts are the consequences. According to the report there is little chance of these workers being able to go into higher paying jobs. We say we have as near full employment as we’ve had in the last 5 decades, but what does it mean when almost half  the workforce can’t earn enough and can’t have access to upward mobility? These statistics open so many questions in a consumer driven economy. Since a recession is part of our future, won’t these workers be the first to bear the brunt? We speak of how politically divided we are. And that may be, but there are other divisions that are far more immediate to the well-being of citizens, economic equality for one. On a practical level, it’s not or ought not to be, difficult to imagine the hardships of living with so little money. When you’re struggling to that extent, it would seem that voting or participation in politics is not likely to be among your priorities.  Are these workers part of the growing number of working homeless, often families? And too what about the children? What kind of neighborhoods are they living in, what kind of schools? What does it mean for their future and the future of the nation? Perhaps even more to the point where’s the outrage when nearly half of our working force are low wage earners?

A Money Laundering Route

The route drug money travels in order to gain legitimacy is long and complex. A short BBC video illustrates it based on a 2017 case which convicted several people in a $250 million international money laundering operation, one where the architect of the scheme is still at large however. The cash originated from drug sales in Britain. A Moroccan money launderer picked it up and made contact with a money mule in Paris. The cash was then transported in the mule’s ambulance trucks and given to a money counter who neatly sorted it into piles of $1000. It was then picked up by middle aged women who drove to Antwerp in Belgium with the money. In Antwerp a black market gold dealer exchanged the money for gold, and apparently bought it back even giving fake receipts so all would look legitimate when taken out of the country. But that is not yet the end, then someone took a flight from Belgium to Amsterdam, and with almost clean money they flew to Dubai, to the gold market there, one of renown throughout the world. They bought gold which could then be sold and the cash deposited in regular bank accounts. All that making the cash’s origins untraceable to the drug dealers in Britain!  The effort, the hours, the people and no doubt the lives it took to piece this puzzle together begs our respect. The route laundering money from US drug sales must indeed be no less circuitous. The UN estimates that yearly $800 billion to $2 trillion are laundered. Maybe we’re outside this vast illicit matrix but knowing more about how money laundering works is nevertheless important.