You can’t CV Dazzle your whole body

Genevieve Bell tweeted a link to a NYT article today, “When No One is Just a Face in the Crowd“. It’s about commercial face recognition systems being used in stores for identifying shoplifters or big spenders.

I’m sure facial recognition software is getting better all the time, but, from what I understand, it’s still a bit delicate. Change the lighting or the angle of the camera and recognition accuracy takes a dive. Or you can mess with the set of points on your face that the recognition engine is trying to identify.

Colleagues of mine have been working on what they call Soft Biometrics. Here’s the abstract to a recent book chapter:

In a commercial environment, it is advantageous to know how long it takes customers to move between different regions, how long they spend in each region, and where they are likely to go as they move from one location to another. Presently, these measures can only be determined manually, or through the use of hardware tags (i.e. RFID). Soft biometrics are characteristics that can be used to describe, but not uniquely identify an individual. They include traits such as height, weight, gender, hair, skin and clothing colour. Unlike traditional biometrics, soft biometrics can be acquired by surveillance cameras at range without any user cooperation. While these traits cannot provide robust authentication, they can be used to provide identification at long range, and aid in object tracking and detection in disjoint camera networks. In this chapter we propose using colour, height and luggage soft biometrics to determine operational statistics relating to how people move through a space. A novel average soft biometric is used to locate people who look distinct, and these people are then detected at various locations within a disjoint camera network to gradually obtain operational statistics. (Denman, Fookes, et al. (2012) Identifying customer behaviour and dwell time using soft biometrics in Video Analytics for Business Intelligence [Studies in Computational Intelligence, Volume 409].)

Now, that’s pretty heavy on jargon, but what it means is rather than using facial recognition, it’s possible to identify a person based on their height, clothes and gait, without having to get a good picture of their face. Denman, Fookes et al are able to identify someone as that person walks from camera to camera through a space, still based only on non-facial features. Actually, the system picks each person-shaped-and-moving thing in a video stream and assigns it an identifier and then tries to get as much biometric information about each person-shaped-and-moving thing as it can. In the demo I’ve seen, it’s possible to query a video archive in near-natural language, for “a person of average height wearing dark blue pants and a red short-sleeve shirt” and have it return a series of clips matching that criteria.

This is less accurate than facial recognition for identifying a person who you know. You can’t tell a soft biometric system to “see if Ben was in the mall in the last three hours”. But you could link it to a credit-card data stream and then tell it, “if Ben made a purchase on his credit-card in the mall in the last three hours and we had a camera at that point-of-sale terminal, what time and through which door did he enter the mall?”

Cool/scary, right?

Shamrock Organisations and the Present of Work

I’ve been (re)-reading a late 80s management book lately. It’s called The Age of Unreason by Charles Handy.

My friend said to me, “why are you reading a management book!?”. Because, I said, it helps me think through some of the changes in work and, importantly, the things that people are saying about changes in work.

The Age of Unreason is about changes that Handy saw happening in white-collar work in the late 80s and early 90s. One of the concepts that’s most often referenced from TAoU is the “Shamrock Organisation”. A Shamrock Organisation is comprised of three “leaves”. The British Library’s Management and Business Studies Portal has a good summary of the three leaves.

The first group is a core of qualified professional technicians and managers. They are essential to the continuity of the organisation, and have detailed knowledge of it, and of its aims, objectives and practices. They are rewarded with high salaries and associated benefits, in return for which they must be prepared to give commitment, to work hard and to work, if necessary, long hours.

The second group consists of contracted specialists who may be used, for example, for advertising, R&D, computing, catering and mailing services. They operate in an existential culture; and are rewarded with fees rather than with salaries or wages. Their contribution to the organisation is measured in output rather than in hours, in results rather than in time.

The third group – the third leaf of Handy’s shamrock – consists of a flexible labour force, discharging part-time, temporary and seasonal roles. They operate within a role culture; but Handy observes that while they may be employed on a casual basis they must be managed, not casually, but in a way which recognises their worth to the organisation.

I’ve found this a really good lens for thinking about how people talk about the new kinds of work that are “just around the corner”. Or for thinking about how people, for example casual lecturers (or adjuncts in the American sense) are effectively locked out of the sort of employment they aspire to. Or for thinking about why the kind of permanent positions experienced by people in my parent’s generation may never be available again.

For example, Dan Pink’s Free Agent Nation is about people leaving the first leaf of the Shamrock, the professional core, for the second leaf, the contracted professionals. (Pink briefly refers to TAoU in FAN.) FAN is pretty positive about the changes in employment status of the people who make up the case studies in the book.

One thing that Handy notes is that the Shamrock organisation is compelled to always try to reduce the size of the core. So, if you’re in the core and you choose to leave for the second leaf, that benefits the organisation. But, what this also means is that getting in to the core is pretty difficult and that even if you’re in the core, the organisation is incentivised to push you into another leaf.

Handy thought that people would be pretty happy to forego the dedication to the organisation required by the core for the freedom offered by the second leaf. He thought that the lack of security experienced by people in the second leaf would be balanced by the “Portfolio Careers” they’d develop. Many of Handy’s examples of these Portfolio Workers are of people like him: mature upper-middle class professionals who’ve already had well developed “core” careers. It’s not clear how someone starting out would develop the expertise needed to build a suite of careers, rather than (just) one.

It helps to remember that TAoU was written at the height of the boom in the UK. For a certain type of person, in a fairly narrow sort of career, everything that Handy was talking about came to pass. And it was awesome. These days, not so much. Right?

In an age of austerity, and in a highly service-oriented economy, the Shamrock Organisation takes a darker turn. The pressures to reduce the core are the same but now there are fewer opportunities in the other leaves — fewer opportunities to develop expertise and fewer opportunities to move between leaves as time and circumstances require.

Handy said that the core embody the culture of the organisation. But the constant pressure to reduce the size of the core seems like it would have two effects on the organisational culture — it would encourage overt displays of loyalty and it would compel moves to downsizing the outsourcing. This is apparent in Universities with the well known situation of the casualisation of teaching and the contract-isation of research positions.

If you’re in the contract leaf or the project-work leaf, things like the casualisation of employment are a problem. Labour rules are set up for core workers. Back when most people were core workers, that was a good idea.

But, if you’re in the core and your job is to shrink the core and keep it small, the casualisation of employment is brilliant! Instead of the organisation carrying all those core workers and, thanks to labour laws that were set up for core workers, all the liabilities associated with their entitlements (you know that simply having your annual leave on the books costs your employer money, right?) you’ve now got a far more focusable and flexible workforce, able to take advantage of new strategic opportunities that arise.

Overall, what this means is that there’s no going back to the long term job of old. It just can’t be done because the organisations where the jobs are don’t want to return to that time.

It’s a bit gloomy but that’s why I read old management texts. Come back next week when I go through Handy’s fascinating/terrifying (and possibly already in progress) vision for the future of education.

Writing the (dreaded) academic bio

Every time I need to write a bio for a conference or a paper, I rush it and I’m never happy.

A bit of quick googling revealed this great post at GradHacker from about two years ago. Unfortunately (for me), the GradHacker post is directed at, obviously, PhD students and very recent graduates so is fairly focussed on “how to present your brief academic career in the best light”. Presenting a slightly longer academic career in 100-200 words (or as little as 50, sometimes!) is its own problem.

GradHacker’s advice is good, though:

First, three big picture things to keep in mind that will pretty much always outweigh any smaller, more specific tips: context, audience, and purpose.

And these matter, because:

Context, audience, and purpose matter because they should help you decide what information about yourself you’ll want to emphasize. With these three points in mind, you’ll want to think about things like: What kinds of information will my audience be looking for in this particular context? What kinds of information will my audience be interested in for this particular context? Is my tone/style appropriate for this context/audience/purpose?

I’ve been thinking about academic bios because tomorrow, my college Lindy Osborne and I are presenting at QUT’s Higher Education Research Network Symposium and I had to write a bio for that. We’re giving a workshop on Shut Up and Write, so I tailored my bio in that direction. Here it is:

Dr Ben Kraal is a research fellow with the People and Systems Lab in the Creative Industries Faculty at QUT. His research interest is ethnomethodology of systems and services, particularly in healthcare, though his recent focus has been airports. He is an enthusiastic writer, until the time comes to commit pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, when he needs all the help he can get, often in the form of a tomato.

I think I’ve managed to get the context, audience and purpose fairly right. It’s a bit glib, I guess, but the conference organizer liked it.

What do you think makes a good academic bio?

Get to the end. It’s important.


I’m going to guess that you’ve seen the Motherfucking Website that’s been doing the rounds of social media. But, I’m not sure that everyone made it to the end. It’s pretty important:

I’m not actually saying your shitty site should look like this. What I’m saying is that all the problems we have with websites are ones we create ourselves. Websites aren’t broken by default, they are functional, high-performing, and accessible. You break them.

If you look at the source of that page, it’s pretty basic. It reminds me of the day when I would code HTML by hand, from scratch, in a text editor. (In other news, get off my lawn.)
But why are we creating these problems? Where do they come from? Today I read this article about research by Erin Cech on the ways that engineering education might diminish concerns for public welfare.

“Issues that are nontechnical in nature are often perceived as irrelevant to the problem-solving process,” Cech said. “There seems to be very little time or space in engineering curricula for nontechnical conversations about how particular designs may reproduce inequality – for example, debating whether to make a computer faster, more technologically savvy and expensive versus making it less sophisticated and more accessible for customers.”

Motherfucking Website isn’t specifically concerned with accessibility or social justice. But it does (swearily) identify things that are now so “normal” to do in software that it’s surprising to have them drawn to our attention.

No fanfare? No parade?


And with that, teaching was done for the semester.

That was the most full-on semester I can remember having since I was an undergraduate student. I coordinated, lectured and tutored one subject and tutored in three others. In between teaching and post-graduate supervision I think I had about 10 hours of uncalendared time each week, split into one or two hour windows.

I think it went well. The students seemed happy enough, going by their feedback in class and in the official surveys of that sort of thing.

Next semester brings more teaching, and another new unit, to me, but a far lighter load.

But that’s for February. Until then: ready, set, research!

But what about the basics?

Dan Hill on MOOCs and design education:

Design and architecture education however is, I believe, more than ever about collaboration, on working through holistic projects together, face to face, in transdisciplinary teams, learning through doing on real projects with real clients. While digital tools can support this, affording some new patterns of activity, the pull back to the physical, embodied and genuinely social is profound, particularly as systems and outcomes become more complex, more entwined, more hybridised.

Yes, but what about the basics?