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There’s now a computer program that lets you control someone else’s face

In the prophetic 1997 film “Face/Off,” John Travolta figures that the only way to avoid going back to prison was to surgically replace his face with that of Nicolas Cage’s. Although medical science has not really gotten to the point where that isn’t still completely laughable, a new technology out of Stanford University is getting us closer.

Researchers have figured out how to make one person’s face mimic the facial expressions of another, in real-time video. The method, announced in a paper (pdf) that will appear in a special edition of the scientific journal ACM Transactions on Graphics later this year, uses a regular computer, special cameras, and some seemingly magical new software.

The research team comprises computer scientists from Stanford, the Max Planck Institute, and University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany.

Their system requires a bit of set-up: A pair of cameras needs to calibrate with each new face, then renders it in digital 3D. Then the program tracks both subjects’ facial expressions using cameras that can sense depth, texture, face shape and location, and maps movements of prominent facial features like nose, mouth, and eyes, from one person’s face onto the avatar of the other. The end result: You can appear to control a friend’s face with your own.

(To make up for the fact that not everyone’s mouths are the same size, the program puts in an eerily fake set of perfect teeth to fill in any gaps.)

It's like Photoshop, but for video.It’s like Photoshop, but for video.

Matthias Niessner, one of the researchers on the project, told Quartz that the team’s main motivation was to create something that could aid multi-language videoconferences like Skype.

David Bowie might be interested in seeing this.David Bowie might be interested in seeing this.

In the future, interpreters could translate someone speaking in real time, and the end user would just see the person they’re watching speak to them in their own language.

In their research paper, the team said they believe that this technology could pave the way to having photo-realistic avatars in virtual reality settings.

Niessner added that the team was also interested in applying this technology to movies, dubbing them for foreign audiences. “Most important though: It’s a crap ton of fun playing around with the system,” Niessner said.


Scientists and mathematicians aren’t all white men—but you wouldn’t know that from the movies

What do you see when you picture a scientist?

For most people—myself included—the default answer is probably a white man in a lab coat, hunched over a microscope. The same image arises for the archetypical computer programmer (a white man in a hoodie, hunched over a computer) and mathematician (a white man in a threadbare cardigan, hunched over a pile of composition books).

In other words, not only do we tend to assume that all scientists, technologists, and mathematicians have poor posture—our go-to image of STEM professionals is typically white and male. Ada Lovelace Day is the perfect opportunity to change this picture.

Ada Lovelace is widely considered to be the world’s first computer programmer. A close friend of 19th-century mathematician Charles Babbage, in 1842 she published the first programs for his proposed analytical engine—a machine that was never built but bore the essential traits of a computer. Nearly a century later, her notes helped inspire Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computers.

Lovelace was clearly a trailblazer. But where is her biopic?

Rather than yet another film about Steve Jobs, we need popular representations of women like Patricia Bath, who became the first African-American female doctor to patent a medical invention by developing a laser device to remove cataracts. The story of astronaut Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, is also blockbuster-ready.

When we fail to tell stories about women in science and math, we reinforce the impression that few women have patented inventions, derived important equations or otherwise contributed to scientific discoveries. This dearth of visible role models can discourage young women from pursuing careers in STEM. It also bolsters ignorant claims that women simply lack interest in these subjects—or that they’re incapable of the intellectual rigor required by such fields.

But as Gloria Steinem once said, “women have always been an equal part of the past. We just haven’t been a part of history.” In order to change public perceptions about gender and STEM, we have to put a spotlight on the contributions of women past and present.

To that end, the TED Fellows program recently published a portrait of 12 women scientists conducting groundbreaking research in subjects ranging from astrophysics to archaeology and genetics. The photograph of a dozen leading women in science gathered together obliterates the white-man-in-a-lab-coat stereotype better than any image I can recall.

What stuck with me even more than the striking image was this accompanying quote from one of the scientists:

“This week, a cab driver asked me, ‘What do men say when you tell them you’re a scientist? Because you don’t look like a scientist,’” marine biologist Kristen Marhaver says. “In this picture, I see a twinkle in each of our eyes, saying, ‘No, that’s the thing, sir. I do look like a scientist.’”

Equally powerful was the #ILookLikeAnEngineer hashtag that spread through Twitter earlier this year after an engineer participated in her startup’s recruiting campaign and received a torrent of skeptical comments regarding her appearance.

These efforts expose the problem with assuming that an entire category of professionals should look one particular way—whether defined by gender, ethnicity, age, body shape, style of dress or any other category. A jockey looks nothing like a linebacker, yet both are athletes. Lupita Nyong’o bears little resemblance to Robert De Niro, but both are Oscar-caliber actors. The same logic applies to people in STEM.

Chances are the next big breakthroughs in science, technology, engineering and math will come from people who look less like Albert Einstein and more like “first lady of physics” Chien-Shiung Wu or computer scientist Grace Hopper. By destroying stereotypes about what kind of person “belongs” in STEM, we can encourage new generations of women to work toward life-changing innovations.

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South Africa’s ‘next president’ is entangled in another corporate tax dodging allegation—this time its with MTN

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South Africa’s deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa—long seen as the most likely next successor to president Jacob Zuma—has  seen his name caught up in another corporate tax dodging allegation, this time with Africa’s largest mobile phone company MTN.

Last week Friday, amaBhungane, an investigative journalism organization, and Finance Uncovered, a global network of journalists, published a story alleging that Africa’s largest mobile network, MTN, was involved in shifting millions of dollars from its subsidiary companies in Nigeria, Uganda, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana to companies in Dubai and Mauritius in order to avoid its tax obligations. This all happened under Ramaphosa’s watch, as he was chairman of MTN’s board of directors, between 2001 and 2013.

In September last year, South Africa’s Mail and Guardian reported that Lonmin—a mining company which Ramaphosa was a board member of between 2010 and 2013—was involved in a scheme to move profits generated from its platinum mining activities in South Africa to Bermuda.

While Ramaphosa, one of South Africa’s richest men, has taken a strong public stance against tax avoidance as deputy president it doesn’t seem to be in tune with his former life as a captain of industry. It is also causing a revision to the expectation that he is next in line when Zuma’s term ends in 2019.

According to the report, MTN subsidiary companies in Nigeria, Uganda, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana paid “management fees”—which according to MTN cover for elements like back office support, technology transfer (to subsidiary companies) and use of the MTN brand.

While it is common for telecom companies to charge their subsidiaries management fees—as MTN itself argues in a response to a set of questions asked by the investigative team—the bone of contention is whether the large sums of money flowed to “real offices staffed with people doing actual work to earn the money” as the investigative report states.

MTN’s ‘management fees’

The investigative team reports that despite MTN having its headquarters located in South Africa, 55% of the “management and technical fee payments” flow to “MTN International” (MTNI)—a company which has no staff and is located in Mauritius. The remaining 45% was paid to MTN Dubai—a subsidiary which the company says it renders international financial services and shared services to MTN Group.

Territories like Dubai and Mauritius are better known as “tax havens”—many multinational companies stash their profits here using complicated payment systems to subsidiaries. The lure of a low tax rate, or a sometimes a zero-rate tax regime, is hard to resist: it means multinationals can cut the cost of doing business without paying tax in the country they’re required to do so.

Country Offshore country Amount Period
Nigeria Dubai R3.7 billion *earmarked (Nigerian government ordered MTN to reverse R2.6 billion) 2007-2013
Uganda Mauritius R85.6 million 2009
Ghana Dubai R3.7 billion 2008 – 2013
Côte d’Ivoire Mauritius R512.9 million 2012 – 2013
 Source: amaBhungane, Finance Uncovered

Chris Maroleng, MTN spokesman said the company has not been involved in any tax avoidance scheme and that it had responded fully to the investigative team’s claims.

“We have been able to prove that we’re tax compliant in all our operational jurisdictions. We have not infringed any laws and we have nothing to hide,” said Maroleng. He added that MTN had been in contact with the amaBhungane and Finance Uncovered team for a “protracted period” and that the company had satisfied itself with all of its responses.

The deputy president’s office said it is referring all queries on the matter to MTN.

Meanwhile, the Right 2 Know campaign, a South African organization that advocates for freedom of expression and anti-corruption, has played on a MTN ad-slogan from 2009 to signal their discontent. MTN frequently used the South African slang word “ayoba” (loosely translated as “cool”) in their ads. Now R2K—is calling for the investigations against—has spun the slogan back to the company and Ramaphosa. Their version: “Tax dodging is not ayoba.”

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68% of Chinese men are smokers—and millions will die because of it

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China is becoming a smoker’s paradise—and a doctor’s nightmare.

Cigarettes are an increasingly gendered health risk in China, according to a new study that reports 68% of Chinese men smoke, compared to just 3.2% of women.

The study of male and female smoking trends, published in medical journal The Lancet on Oct. 8, doesn’t mince words when it comes to health risks. The authors conclude that smoking will cause roughly one in five adult male deaths in China during the current decade. And the fatality rate will rise steadily without preventative action.

“About two-thirds of young Chinese men become cigarette smokers, and most start before they are 20. Unless they stop, about half of them will eventually be killed by their habit,” study co-author Zhengming Chen from the University of Oxford wrote in a statement.

The report, which studied a total of 730,000 people in China, warned that tobacco caused about one million deaths in 2010. Unless smokers give up the habit en masse, the death toll will rise to two million in 2030 and three million in 2050.

separate Lancet article on how to reduce smoking in China warned that although men are most obviously at risk, they are not the only ones affected. Young women are an attractive target to the tobacco industry, and hold “the allure of increasing sales by crafting appeals based on themes of independence, glamour, sophistication, sexuality, and social acceptance.”

The authors of that study, Jeffrey Koplan and Michael Eriksen of the Emory Global Health Institute in Atlanta, noted that while still only a relatively small percentage of total smokers, young women have increased their tobacco usage “substantially” since the 1980s.

The report also notes several political issues that make it difficult to reduce China’s fondness for tobacco:

Complicating any efforts to reduce the public health burden of tobacco is the fact that China is the world’s largest grower, manufacturer, and consumer of tobacco and has the largest workforce devoted to tobacco farming, manufacturing, and sales. Being a government monopoly, China Tobacco (the Chinese National Tobacco Corporation) provides over 7% of the Central Government’s annual revenue through both taxes and net income.

Widespread misinformation about tobacco in China is not helping public information efforts. Popular myths claim that smoking is less hazardous to Asian people and that tobacco is an “intrinsic and ancient part of Chinese culture,” according to Koplan and Eriksen.

To combat the health risk, earlier this year Beijing introduced a smoking ban in all offices, shopping malls, restaurants, bars and airports. Some four million smokers live in Beijing, smoking an average of 14.6 cigarettes per day, according to Global Times. But an earlier attempt to ban the practice in 2008 was widely ignored and it remains to be seen whether the latest ban will have an effect.

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Sweden’s liberal image is a mirage that hides a very ugly problem

Sweden is supposedly a liberal utopia: a land of generous welfare, substantial foreign aid donations, and green-fingered sustainability. But Sweden’s noble image is hiding an ugly truth.

Racism is blighting Swedish society, and people of African descent face daily harassment and hate crimes, according to a United Nations report presented to the UN human rights council earlier this week. Yet the country is so convinced by its tolerant reputation that it refuses to acknowledge the problem. The report found:

The Swedish philosophy of equality and its public and self-image as a country with respect for human rights, non-discrimination, and liberal democracy blinds it to the structural racism faced by Afro-Swedes and Africans in its midst.

There has been a 31% rise in reported “Afrophobic” hate crimes from 2010 to 2014, according to the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (pdf). The UN Working Group of Experts of People of African Descent reported “a real fear within the communities, especially for young black men, that they could be violently attacked at any time.” Structural racism means that black people in Sweden have reduced access to health care and education, according to the UN report, while “the police view people of African descent as criminals rather than a vulnerable community that needs protection.”

But Sweden is so convinced by its own reputation that the government has removed the word “race” from the Discrimination Act—because the law assumes that all people belong to the human race. The United Nations was unimpressed:

The Working Group is aware that to delete “race” from the lexical corpus does not eliminate racism based on racial discrimination. Rather it may be a way to ignore, minimize, or obscure the reality of the specifically “racial” racism faced by a part of the Swedish population.

There are roughly 200,000 Africans and people of African descent living in Sweden, who make up 2% of the country’s 9.6 million population. But the UN found that Sweden did not properly address or acknowledge its involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.

A xenophobic political party, the Swedish Democrats, won almost 13% of the national vote in 2014 and became the third-largest party. Yet Sweden continues to cling onto its “self-perception of being a tolerant and humane society,” according to the UN report.

Sweden has the world’s best reputation for its social and economic policies, and is understandably proud of its status. But if Sweden’s benevolent reputation is unfounded, it risks becoming a mask for the very intolerance Sweden claims to avoid.

This post was updated with details of the Swedish Democrats’ results in the 2014 general election.

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