2017 Academy Awards: Who will win the Oscar for best picture? (poll)

2017 Academy Awards: Who will win the Oscar for best picture? (poll)

Salon

Oscars-VIDEO-PHOTO

Its that time of year again, when seasoned critics and amateur movie buffs alike gather round their televisions for the film industry’s biggest showdown.

The 89th Academy Awards air on Sunday night, and all of Hollywood is abuzz. This years nominees for the coveted Best Picture title were in part obvious — the list of nine includes crowd favorites “La La Land” and “Hidden Figures” — but include a few underdogs — the Sundance favorite “Manchester by the Sea” and “Arrival,” a fresh take on alien invasions.

With the exception of the surprising victory of “Spotlight” last year, the winner has always seemed clear in the past. Those films that take home other awards for best picture tend to win the Oscar for best picture, and this year seems to follow that trend. With its catchy score, relatable and likable cast and “uncontroversial” theme (not to mention it’s already overflowing trophy case,) La La Land is considered the clear frontrunner.

However, it might have some competition. According to a Fandango/USA Today poll, 26 percent of moviegoers thought “Hidden Figures” — the story of the three black female math stars behind NASA’s space race in the 1960s — should take home the big win, putting it 1 percentage point ahead of “La La Land.”

“Hidden Figures” was also the highest grossing film on the list, bringing in a total of $144.2 million since its release.

While there is some fierce competition, critics warn not to forget the little guy. “Moonlight,” the story of a poor young black gay man, has critics raving, especially given many Hollywood stars’ public stances on the current political climate. Richard Brody of the New Yorker anticipates that this years Oscars are more about substance than style, and if he’s right, Moonlight could take the big win.

The full list of best picture nominees includes:

“Arrival”

“Fences”

“Hacksaw Ridge”

“Hell or High Water”

“Hidden Figures”

“La La Land”

“Lion”

“Manchester by the Sea”

“Moonlight”

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Hate is coming to a campus near you: Meet the evangelical bigot helping Trump deregulate America’s colleges

Hate is coming to a campus near you: Meet the evangelical bigot helping Trump deregulate America’s colleges

Salon

Jerry Falwell, Jr.

Jerry Falwell, Jr. (Credit: Getty/John Moore)

In her first week as secretary of the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos has faced an extraordinary amount of scrutiny — both for her family’s history of supporting homophobic legislation and her lack of qualifications. A group of students attempted to block DeVos from entering a Washington middle school shortly after her confirmation.

But DeVos, a charter school advocate with a history of donating to anti-gay causes, isn’t the only education appointee that should worry LGBT people, as well as just about everyone else who wants safe, affirming education for America’s youth. Liberty University’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., who has been tapped by the Trump administration to lead a task force on reforming higher ed, is a nightmare waiting to happen. His appointment — to an undisclosed advisory position — will put at risk every student across the U.S. already vulnerable to harm. With DeVos and Falwell at the helm, all children will be left behind.

Although Falwell has been unavailable for comment since his role in the administration was announced, a spokesman for the evangelical campus founded by his late father, Jerry, spoke on his behalf. The Liberty representative told NBC News that the right-wing leader’s goal will be to clean up the “overregulation and micromanagement” of U.S. colleges. How does Falwell Jr. plan to do that? By gutting sexual assault response programs at universities.

“Falwell. . . wants to cut federal rules on investigating and reporting sexual assault under Title IX, the federal law that bars sexual discrimination in education,” Religion News  has reported. “The Liberty University head believes on-campus sexual assault investigations are best left to police.”

In 2011 the administration of President Barack Obama issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to universities introducing new regulations under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to encourage universities to take measures to prevent on-campus sexual assaults. Whereas campus rape cases can often drag on months without resolution, the letter advised colleges that most incidents should be fully investigated and resolved within 60 days. Rather than basing decisions on a “clear and convincing evidence,” the guidance put forward a standard for judging cases: a “preponderance of the evidence.”

During her confirmation hearing, DeVos dodged a question about whether she would uphold those changes, arguing that commenting on the subject would be “premature,” and Falwell’s background on sexual assault is troubling.

Liberty University hired Ian McCaw, the former athletic director for Baylor University, in the midst of an ongoing rape scandal at his former college. Jasmin Hernandez, a student at the university, claimed McCaw knew that one of his star athletes, Tevin Elliott, had a history of sexually assaulting women and ignored his record. Hernandez further alleged that after not being made accountable for his prior actions, the football player went on to rape her. In a press release, Falwell Jr. personally praised the hiring of McCaw, saying that his example “fits perfectly with where we see our sports program going.”

If it surprises you that Falwell Jr. would applaud someone accused of covering up sexual abuse, know that the Liberty University president also once told CNN’s Erin Burnett that he would vote for a presidential candidate found guilty of rape. When asked about accusations from more than 10 women that Trump, then a White House hopeful, had groped them without consent, Falwell Jr. said, “We’re not electing a pastor. We’re electing a president.”

But if you’re looking for an indication of how Falwell Jr., who was first offered the secretary position before turning it down, would advise the Department of Education, his university’s anti-LGBT history offers a sterling example.

Falwell’s father, famously known as the face of the Moral Majority movement in the 1980s, created the nonprofit, Christian institution in 1971 to uphold his far-right conservative values. Liberty University, based in Lynchburg, Virginia, and founded in 1971, espouses Creationism. Kevin Roose, who spent a semester undercover at Liberty, wrote in New York magazine that prior to the elder Falwell’s death in 2007, he had instructed members of the student body that should the culture at Liberty ever become liberal, they “should return to campus and burn it down.”

As Roose claimed, Liberty University’s student body has become increasingly progressive in recent years, but the college has not. The Baptist university’s honor code strictly forbids “homosexual conduct or the encouragement or advocacy of any form of sexual behavior that would undermine the Christian identity or faith mission of the University.” That policy boils down to a simple mandate: You can be gay at Liberty but can’t act on it.

The Christian Post  has reported that students found to be in violation of the honor code face a “$500 fine and 30 hours of disciplinary community service.”

Liberty University has come under fire in recent years for denying discounted tuition to military spouses in same-sex relationships. The university charged $590 per credit in 2015, but anyone in a legally recognized relationship with a member of the armed forces could pay just $275 — at least, as long as they were heterosexual. School policy states the credit is “available to ‘spouses’ as defined by Liberty University as a husband or wife of a service member who together are in state-sanctioned marriage and are natural-born members of the opposite sex.”

In addition to openly discriminating against same-sex couples, Liberty University removed a chapter about the origins of human sexuality from the textbook of its Psychology 101 course.

Responding to claims that deleting the content constituted homophobic bias, Falwell Jr. claimed in a press release that nothing “could . . . be further from the truth.” In a clever bit of pivoting, he added, “At Liberty, we believe firmly in academic freedom for our faculty and a commitment to the free and open exchange of ideas. This is in stark contrast to many major universities where students are often ridiculed in the classroom for expressing ideas that faculty deem to be politically incorrect and protests often result in speakers being disinvited from appearing because of their viewpoints.”

The second-generation evangelical leader has attempted to market himself as being more compassionate to the LGBT community than his father, a notoriously anti-gay bigot. The elder Falwell repeatedly compared queer people to alcoholics and adulterers and blamed society’s tolerance of homosexuality for the 9/11 attacks. His son, meanwhile, applauded Trump for mentioning LGBT people at the Republican National Convention, saying that he backed the his platform “100 percent.”

That statement, while seemingly supportive of the LGBT community, isn’t as affirming as it sounds. As many pointed out throughout the election, Trump didn’t have an LGBT platform, and the few stances he adopted changed throughout the race. After North Carolina’s legislature passed House Bill 2 in March, Trump criticized the notoriously anti-LGBT law, which prevents transgender people from using the bathroom that most closely corresponds with their gender identity. Then shortly afterward, Trump flip-flopped, saying he supports the rights of states to set their own restroom policies.

Falwell Jr. sat on Trump’s religious advisory board, a group that helped push him to the right on issues on which he was once viewed as being socially liberal. That board was a Who’s Who of anti-gay figures on the far right. It included Robert Jeffress, a Southern Baptist preacher who believes LGBT people are pedophiles ; Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition who claims hate crime laws are designed to criminalize the Bible ; and Ronnie Floyd, who wrote an entire book on how the so-called gay agenda is “dividing America.”

For someone who believes Liberty University doesn’t discriminate against gay people, Falwell Jr. sure likes to hang out with bigots. His college also works closely with Liberty Counsel, the right-wing law firm that defended Rowan County clerk Kim Davis, the Kentucky woman was briefly jailed two years ago for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The Liberty president will now work closely with a woman who has spent her entire life fighting against equal rights for LGBT people. As I previously wrote for Salon , Betsy DeVos has a long track record of donating to anti-gay organizations, including the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, a group that has referred to the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision on marriage equality as a “fatwa.” Reports claim that DeVos, whose father and father-in-law are both anti-LGBT activists, gave at least $300,000 to campaigns in Florida and Michigan to limit the constitutional definition of marriage to one man and one woman.

If DeVos plans to roll back recent gains on LGBT student rights under President Obama, there’s no reason to believe Falwell would stop it. Last year the Obama administration issued guidance to schools advising them to allow trans students to use the restroom of their choice.

Having forces in the Education Department who have worked to dismantle LGBT protections in their path could be devastating for these vulnerable populations.

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Trump administration to lift transgender bathroom guidance

Trump administration to lift transgender bathroom guidance

Salon

Inclusive Bathroom

(Credit: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is revoking U.S. transgender guidelines, stepping into an emotional national issue and stripping students of federal protections to use bathrooms and locker rooms matching gender identities that differ from their birth certificates.

The administration is coming down on the side of states’ rights, revoking federal guidelines that had been issued by the Obama administration. Without the Obama directive, it will be up to states and school districts to interpret federal anti-discrimination law and determine whether students should have access to restrooms in accordance with their expressed gender identity and not just their biological sex.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Wednesday the current directive, issued last August, is confusing and hard to implement. An official with knowledge of the plans told The Associated Press that anti-bullying safeguards would not be affected by the change.

That official was not authorized to speak publicly about the plans and did so on condition of anonymity. Spicer did not say when the Trump administration action might actually come.

A federal judge in Texas put a temporary hold on the Obama guidance soon after it was issued — after 13 states sued.

Even without that hold, the guidance carried no force of law. But transgender rights advocates say it was useful and necessary to protect students from discrimination. Opponents argue it was federal overreach and violated the safety and privacy of all other students.

“The president has made it clear throughout the campaign that he is a firm believer in states’ rights and that certain issues like this are not best dealt with at the federal level,” Spicer said.

Conservative activists hailed the change, saying the Obama directives were illegal and violated the rights of fixed-gender students, especially girls who did not feel safe changing clothes or using restrooms next to anatomical males.

“Our daughters should never be forced to share private, intimate spaces with male classmates, even if those young men are struggling with these issues,” said Vicki Wilson, a member of Students and Parents for Privacy. “It violates their right to privacy and harms their dignity.”

However, the reversal is a setback for transgender rights groups, which had been urging Trump to keep the guidelines in place. Advocates say federal law will still prohibit discrimination against students based on their gender or sexual orientation.

Still, they say lifting the Obama directive puts children in harm’s way.

“Reversing this guidance tells trans kids that it’s OK with the Trump administration and the Department of Education for them to be abused and harassed at school for being trans,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

Spicer denied media reports that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has been criticized for her stance on LGBT issues, had opposed the change but was overruled by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose agency was also involved in the process. Spicer said any disagreement was merely over wording and timing.

“There is no daylight between anybody,” Spicer said, adding that DeVos was “100 percent” on board with the decision.

The Obama administration’s guidance was based on its determination that Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education, also applies to gender identity.

While not legally binding, the guidance sent a warning that schools could lose funding if they did not comply.

Republicans have pushed back, arguing that the federal effort was an example of Obama administration meddling in state and local matters. Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick equated it to blackmail and said his state was ready to forfeit federal education money rather than comply.

The Trump administration’s decision to revoke the guidelines was first reported by The Washington Post.

Legal experts said the change in position could impact pending court cases involving the federal sex discrimination law, including a case to be heard by the Supreme Court in March, involving a Gavin Grimm, a transgender teen who was denied bathroom access in Virginia.

The justices could decide not to hear the case and direct lower courts to decide that issue.

In a phone interview with the AP, Grimm said of the Trump action: “It’s not positive. It has the possibility of hurting transgender students and transgender people. We’re going to keep fighting like we have been and keep fighting for the right thing.”

Fifteen states have explicit protections for transgender students in their state laws, and many individual school districts in other states have adopted policies that cover such students on the basis of their gender identity, said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign. Just one state, North Carolina, has enacted a law restricting access to bathrooms in government-owned buildings to the sex that appears on a person’s birth certificate. Lawmakers in more than 10 states are considering similar legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

___

Associated Press writers Ben Finley in Norfolk, Virginia, and Todd Richmond in Madison, Wisconsin, contributed to this report.

 

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In the face of the Trump presidency, Katy Perry asserts her political self, but to what end?

In the face of the Trump presidency, Katy Perry asserts her political self, but to what end?

Salon

Katy Perry

Katy Perry performing during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia (Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Katy Perry won’t let the Trumpocalypse keep you off the dance floor.

The 32-year-old pop singer debuted “Chained to the Rhythm” at the Grammy awards. Announcing that the chanteuse would devote her brand to “purposeful pop,” she wore an armband emblazoned with the word “PERSIST,” a nod to Elizabeth Warren’s protest on the Senate floor against Jeff Sessions’ confirmation. As she read a letter from Coretta Scott King admonishing the civil rights record of the Alabama Senator, Republican Mitch McConnell shouted her down, saying: “She persisted.” That phrase has since become a rallying cry against the new administration.

Perry, one of Hillary Clinton’s most passionate supporters during the 2016 race, wrote on Twitter that the 2016 election was a moment of awakening for the singer, known more for squirting whip cream from her breasts than her political awareness.“Sometimes it’s scary opening up to consciousness,” she wrote, “makes you realize how asleep you were, and how OK you were with it.”

The catchy tune, which is the first single from Perry’s yet-to-be-released fourth album, is intended to mark a shift in her public persona. Produced by the ever-ubiquitous Sia, “Chained to the Rhythm” marries Perry’s glittery facade — as well as her torrid love affair with mixed metaphors — to an undercurrent of Trump-era malaise. “Living our lives through a lens,” she croons. “Trapped in our white-picket fence/ Like ornaments/” The bridge, courtesy of Bob Marley’s son, Skip, stops just short of calling for a coup. “Up in your high place, liars/” the 20-year-old sing-raps. “Time is ticking for the empire/”

Rebooting her persona appears to be working for the former California Gurl: “Chained to the Rhythm” is breaking records on Spotify , with more streams in its first 24 hours than any other song in the platform’s history.

Selling herself as “woke” is good marketing for a singer about to enter the second decade of her career, a transition that’s been extremely unkind to pop contemporaries from Jessica Simpson to Lily Allen. But the issue is that Perry has been selling herself as enlightened for some time, even as her discography is littered with a distasteful undercurrent of homophobia and racism. If the diva hopes to rescue America from Trump with booty-shaking jams, Perry needs to save herself first.

The pop mainstay first stormed onto the scene with “I Kissed A Girl” in 2008, the rare song to upset both Christian conservatives and the LGBT community. Republicans didn’t like the Dr. Luke-produced thumper because it appeared to promote homosexuality , but queer critics took issue with the seemingly affirming tune’s underlying premise: It’s OK to make out with other girls as long as you aren’t a lesbian about it.

Perry claims that she penned the No. 1 hit — which actually has four writers attached — after catching a glimpse of Scarlett Johansson, then Woody Allen’s muse, in a magazine. But the track dabbles in the sort of girl-on-girl action you might find at a frat party, Sapphic action strictly for the purpose of male attention. The singer, who reminds us in the song that she has a “boyfriend,” repeatedly reminds her audience that it’s all in good fun: “You’re my experimental game/ Just human nature.”

One particular couplet, though, really drove a stake all the way through the heart of LGBT listeners. “It’s not what, good girls do,” Perry sings. “Not how they should behave.”

These are odd sentiments for someone who has repeatedly referred to herself as a supporter of the queer community. The debut of “I Kissed a Girl,” which spent seven weeks atop the pop charts, coincided with the passage of Proposition 8 in California, a voter referendum that overturned an earlier Supreme Court decision legalizing marriage equality at the ballot box. After same-sex union were voted down in her home state, Perry told DoSomething.org: “I am a gay activist and I say that proudly. I voted no on Prop 8.”

Perry has billed herself as an ally to LGBT people throughout her career, dedicating the music video to “Firework” to the It Gets Better campaign . Over vaguely inspirational lyrics imploring asking listeners have “ever [felt] like a plastic bag/ drifting through the wind/ wanting to start again,” the video shows two boys kissing in a crowded dance party. But as The New York Times noted, there was something a little more than opportunistic behind its veneer of queer affirmation. The song, which Perry also claimed was a tribute to Jack Kerouac , was written in 2009, well before Tyler Clementi’s suicide made the issue of anti-gay bullying a nationwide topic of conversation.

Clementi was a Rutgers student who took his own life in 2010 after being outed by his roommate. The lyrics for “Firework” are so vague and nonspecific they could be applied to anything. Like the video for Christina Aguilera’s thematically identical “Beautiful,” the video also makes room for a young cancer patient and a teen struggling with body negativity.

It’s also nakedly hypocritical about someone who once implored an effeminate ex to kill himself in a song to advocate for tolerance and understanding. Although “I Kissed a Girl” proved her big break in the U.S., it wasn’t her first release here. That would be “Ur So Gay,” offered up as a promotional single from “One of the Boys.” The triphop-inspired track failed to chart on the Hot 100 but managed to go Gold on the strength of digital downloads.

On “Ur So Gay,” Perry bemoans the fact that she fell in love with a straight man who acts gay. Among the metrosexual fellow’s chief sins are that the fellow wears makeup, likes Hemingway and listens to Mozart — basically that he behaves like a woman, is culturally refined and has good taste in books. The singer would like you to know that these traits are bad and men who enjoy such things are not desirable. Her solution? “I hope you hang yourself with your H&M scarf/” she sings, later adding: “You’re so gay and you don’t even like boys/”

Perry recorded the song in 2008, which you could reasonably argue was a long time ago. Perhaps she released it, learned from the extremely negative feedback from the LGBT community, regretted the controversy and moved on.

Unfortunately not. Shortly after “Ur So Gay” was released, Zack Rosen of The New Gay confronted her about claims that the song is homophobic and Perry shrugged off the criticism. She told Rosen the backlash was “unfortunate,” a response that should be read as analogous to “I’m sorry if you’re offended.” In an episode of “MTV Unplugged” recorded the same year, Ms. Perry would double down on defending “Ur So Gay.” She called the anti-LGBT anthem “one of [her] favorite songs.”

Rather than dropping the tune, “Ur So Gay” would remain in her rotation. Even while using bullied youth to sell copies of “Firework,” Perry dedicated the song to a male concertgoer in 2010 — a former crush who didn’t return her affections.

Perry has willfully continued making these sorts of mistakes her entire career, refusing to grow and evolve as an artist. Critics pointed out that the lyrics of “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” an 80’s throwback complete with a sax solo courtesy of Kenny G, heavily allude to date rape and it didn’t help that the video shows someone getting roofied — as if getting drugged and sexually assaulted where just a wild and wacky thing that happens when you’re busy having fun. At the 1:40 mark, you can clearly see a male partygoer putting something in his female conversation partner’s drink .

The singer has also been lambasted for featuring minstrel depictions of black women , with oversized posteriors and giant pink lips, in her performances. During the video for “This Is How We Do,” she pulls an Iggy Azalea — donning cornrows, slicked down baby hair and an exaggerated pucker. If the intent weren’t obvious enough, Perry eats a watermelon.

Maybe Perry — who has continually defended her right to be as racist and homophobic as she wants — has finally come of age and matured as an artist and a human being. Stranger things have happened.

But then again, probably not. Even while debuting her new socially conscious Barbie image, Perry managed to take not one but two unnecessary swipes at Britney Spears on the Grammys red carpet. Spears, who had a very public breakdown in 2007, famously cut off all her hair at the height of media fascination about her mental health. She has since sought treatment and appears to be doing well, releasing a well-received comeback album, “Glory,” last year. The former party girl spends most of her time Instagramming about Caesar salads.

When Ryan Seacrest asked Perry why she took such a long break in between releasing records, the singer didn’t tout her newfound wisdom. She called it “taking care of your mental health.” Perry added, “I haven’t shaved my head yet.”

As the saying goes, if it ain’t woke, don’t fix it.

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Oscars 2017: How to piss off Trump and influence people

Oscars 2017: How to piss off Trump and influence people

Salon

Marlon Brando

(Credit: Getty/Keystone/Youtube/Oscars/Mireia Triguero Roura)

At next Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, a few winners will be going onstage with a lot to say in a short amount of time. This is, of course, always the case; the context is just different this year, when some winners will have the opportunity — or the burden — to acknowledge the great orange elephant in the room.

The challenge for awardees wishing to make an effective political statement is that last year the show’s producers began asking winners to limit their acceptance speeches to 45 seconds, with instruction to cut down on “thank yous.”

Not everyone complied — with the time limit or the cutting of “thank-yous.” But perhaps this year, those wishing to say something political will avoid “thank-yous” to be more efficient. In 45 seconds, a person can speak about 100 words; to spend 30 of them thanking the family, friends, management, God, cast, crew, director and Oprah leaves enough time for a political message that is the length of this paragraph.

Of course, if you are Hollywood royalty or have won one of the night’s big awards, you don’t have to worry about getting played off the stage. McConaughey’s 2014 speech, the longest in televised Oscars history, was 549 words. That’s only .04 percent of “In Search of Lost Time,” but it’s probably sufficient space to thoughtfully air a few grievances. For reference, Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech  last month was 669 words; in it, she said, “thank you” six times, talked about how sickened she was by the president’s behavior and stressed the importance of Hollywood, foreigners and the press.

Streep caught the president’s attention  with her speech and was quickly deemed “one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood.” But an Oscar winner probably need not craft such a long and thoughtful speech to achieve the same ends. With live television generally, and awards shows in particular, viewers tend to remember moments: Cuba Gooding Jr. gleefully screaming, “I love you! ” and then jumping in the air when he won the best supporting actor honor in 1997. Halle Berry sobbing when she considered what her 2002 best actress award meant for women of color. Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift to say, “I’mma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time.” Marlon Brando protesting Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans by sending Sacheen Littlefeather to reject his best actor award in 1973.

By contrast, who can recall what Leonardo DiCaprio said about climate change last year in his very eloquent two-and-a-half-minute best actor award acceptance?

Besides being memorable, politically minded winners will need to consider their ultimate objective. Is it to simply communicate opposition to the world? Upset the president? Get the president’s ear? Or influence viewers?

Achieving the first objective would be fairly straightforward, the second fairly easy and the third fairly futile (see Trump’s response to the “Hamilton” cast’s respectful plea to the vice president). The fourth objective, meanwhile, is both achievable and could yield significant returns. While it may be a case of correlation without causation, when John Oliver urged viewers in the wake of the recent election to donate to important causes, organizers for several of the ones named reported  large spikes in donations.

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“Creepy . . . but impressive” facial recognition software is going to the next level

“Creepy . . . but impressive” facial recognition software is going to the next level

Salon

Facial recognition surveillance system

(Credit: Getty/Maxiphoto/Salon)

Facial recognition systems — computers that can verify a person’s identity from a digital image or video still — have been around for a few years now. Following a recent explosion in big data analytics and artificial intelligence, facial recognition software is about to spread well beyond security cameras and criminal databases.

Computers are becoming so good at recognizing faces that soon enough consumers will be able to use them to make purchases, book tickets and unlock doors simply by looking into a camera lens and letting the software make rapid simultaneous measurements of the face that’s as distinct as a fingerprint. This far more secure, AI-powered facial recognition software would be more convenient and create new exciting apps and hardware, but it could also let security forces track and identify people with far more precision.

“It’s a little creepy, but undeniably impressive,” wrote Will Knight, a reporter for MIT Technology Review, which published a piece on Wednesday about some of the latest facial recognition technology. The article is part of a series of reports on the latest breakthrough technologies poised to change the way we live and interact with the world.

It is no coincidence Knight flew to China — a security obsessed country — to check out the latest in facial recognition software from Baidu, China’s version of Google, and Face++, a billion-dollar startup located in a Beijing suburb. Baidu’s technology is currently being used by Didi (China’s answer to Uber) to allow customers to confirm the identities of their drivers and is being deployed in the tourist-heavy city of Wuzhen to provide ticketless access to attractions. And Chinese security officials are deploying the technology to hunt down criminal suspects by drawing from its national ID database as well as images collected from public security cameras that dot the country.

Brian Bergstein, an editor at large for MIT Technology Review, said the publication decided to designate facial recognition as one of the 10 new technologies to watch this year because of the boost it’s received from artificial intelligence.

“It’s not so much facial recognition itself as a technology; it’s the new applications that facial recognition is making possible,” Bergstein told Salon. “What we’ve really highlighted here is the fact that when you combine facial recognition technology with deep learning, the AI technique that’s emerged over the last few years, what you get is facial recognition that’s good enough to identify people even when video of them is grainy or even if the video is shot at an odd angle.”

Indeed, this may be one of the profound advancements and possibly the most disturbing. With extreme accuracy, the new technology can take a blurry image and identify what parts of the image should be used to create the fingerprint-like facial profile. The results have been extremely accurate, according to Knight.

Deep learning is a relatively new form of artificial intelligence involving a network of complex algorithms that are loosely based on the neural networks of a human brain. It’s basically a very potent pattern recognizer that draws from an immense amount of data that enables computers to do things like automatically add accurate colors to black-and-white photos or visually translate the text of a restaurant menu snapped by a smartphone camera.

But while this technology has the potential to make consumer life easier with ticketless train rides and transactions that don’t require a form of laminated identification, it will have increasingly significant ramifications for privacy and state surveillance.

“The risks to privacy and civil liberties are substantial with technologies like facial recognition that can be used to identify and track people covertly, even remotely, and on a mass scale — for example, identifying individuals at lawful protests,” Jeramie D. Scott, national security counsel for the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center, told Salon. “The public should be skeptical of any surveillance technology implemented for consumer convenience that builds a mass surveillance network the government can appropriate for intentions beyond the scope of the original purpose.”

Indeed, as facial recognition technology grows more powerful, it may also heighten privacy concerns. Like many emerging technologies that rely on collecting massive amounts of data, it will be up to the public and lawmakers to decide how far they want to compromise privacy in exchange for convenience.

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Donald Trump is struggling to keep his border wall promise

Donald Trump is struggling to keep his border wall promise

Salon

Border Wall

(Credit: Jason Hoekema/The Brownsville Herald via AP)

It has already been established that a U.S.-Mexico border wall, which was one of President Donald Trump’s most famous campaign pledges, would cost at least $20 billion  and most likely do little if anything to improve America’s border security . Then again, these discussion may be moot anyway, since it doesn’t look like the Trump administration has made much progress in actually constructing the thing.

“He hasn’t made any progress other than to say, we’re going to do it,” Seth Stodder, a former senior homeland security official, told The Guardian . “They’re pretty far away. I don’t think they’ve made much progress.”

The Trump administration actually hasn’t presented a plan to Congress for its border wall, The Guardian reports, because various government agencies have attacked it for being too expensive and too difficult to construct. One preliminary report suggested three phrases that would have included 26 miles of barrier constructed in parts of California and Texas, then 151 miles of barrier constructed in parts of Arizona and Texas and finally an additional 1,080 miles of barrier to link the first two phases with the 654 miles that have already been fortified.

The estimated cost of this project would be almost $22 billion, although Trump naturally has disagreed with the claim that his border wall’s price tag would be unsustainable.

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In addition to the concerns involving costs and bureaucratic red tape, there is also the detrimental environmental impact that a border wall would quite likely have. Environmentalists are concerned that up to 111 endangered species could be threatened by the construction of a border wall.

Of course, perhaps the biggest reason of all to doubt Trump’s border wall is that the so-called crisis with undocumented immigration that motivated it is actually non-existent.

“Here’s the crucial context much of the coverage glossed over as reporters rushed to document Trump’s wall initiative: Overall the total number of undocumented immigrants living in the United States has been slightly declining  over the past decade,” wrote Eric Boehlert of Media Matters . “Apprehensions at the U.S. border have generally been in decline  over the past 16 years. And specifically, the number of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico who were stopped at the border has fallen  in recent years, with the figure being cut in half since 2010.”

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