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Staff Editorials

Ample caution a must as technology progresses

Concerns by watchdogs, and some members of congress, over facial-recognition software used by government agencies and businesses may not unsettle many of us. Unless you really follow and ponder technology it’s hard to understand and to see potential harm.

The use of facial recognition software has made the news several times recently. Federal immigration agents used millions of the photos in state drivers license databases to look for people illegally in the country using advanced facial recognition software.

And the city of Detroit has come under fire for using facial recognition software to look for wanted people on numerous security camera feeds around the city. The problem, according to critics, is the software is much less accurate for people with darker skin tones, thus it is more likely to produce false matches for minorities. 

Making sure the software is accurate is crucial but, assuming it can be made accurate, those uses seem pretty legitimate.  Of course, if it’s of dubious accuracy, the software sounds like something out of a dystopian sci-fi movie. 

The bigger threat lies in what else can be done on the grand scale by scanning faces, and especially as the programs are being vigorously developed by private companies. According to The New York Times, anyone whose photo was ever uploaded to the dating site OKCupid may be in a database now used by private interests for facial recognition software testing. The Times reported that one database had 10 million different images and another had two million.

Not surprisingly tech behemoths Facebook and Google are leading the way with efforts to develop facial recognition uses.

Congressman Doug Collins, who represents the eastern half of Pickens County, has been vocal about protecting privacy in the digital age by empowering individuals to guard their own information and expecting the private sector to be good stewards of information submitted online. In a strong statement released last week (see Other Voices on this page) Collins put forth principles he wants incorporated into this effort. His statement acknowledges that the speed of innovation and the complexity of the issue make it a challenge  to create legislation to hem it in.

Frankly, it is hard to foresee what problem would arise by Facebook and Google or the government being able to put a name on your face in a photo and make that searchable. Yet there is something unsettling that tech companies seek to identify you in pictures, even when your name was not attached. It is similar to being recognized by a creepy dude you don’t know. 

Lack of specifics aside, the fact we can’t see a problem right now doesn’t mean we don’t need oversight, controls and more thinking on the subject. As Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, said in an interview in the Times article, “It’s time for a timeout. Let’s figure out how we can put in safeguards that protect our fundamental liberties.”

Another snippet in the same Times article clearly justifies the fear of technology slipping through the controls. Using AI involving bodies and faces, a software program called DeepNude allows users to create realistic nude shots starting with photos of whomever they chose.

Obviously that software is troubling. Not only does it open all kinds of doors for perverts, but consider the extortion/revenge possibilities.

According to the Times account, the creator of DeepNude deleted his program shortly after it was posted to a code-sharing website. Too late, as the article stated, it had already been copied and posted in other spots, and is now impossible to pull back as there are “too many dark corners” of the internet.

We may not immediately see a threat with expanded facial recognition software but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t support efforts to put controls in place before it is too late.

 

Why our July 4th celebration is the best

There are certainly bigger July 4th celebrations in bigger cities but none are better than our Jasper, Ga. celebration. 

Other celebrations of America’s independence may have flyovers of military aircraft and more elaborate floats and those are nice, but impersonal. Those evoke spectacle, ours here evokes community.

Jasper’s Main Street is the only parade where you’ll find Pickens County faces. Not just our  officials and candidates but that guy from down the street and the swim team and the guy who has the place that fixes your car. 

And, appropriately enough, those are our veterans wearing their uniforms and representing the DAV, veterans park group, American Legion, Legion Riders and Marine detachment coming through. Look at the faces of those soldiers and you know why America has won the wars, not one showed signs of being bothered by the 90-plus degree heat out there in uniforms, carrying flags.

All the people in the parade throwing candy and waving are people you know as neighbors, fellow church members or from the businesses you deal with. Heck, you’d probably wave at many of the folks on the floats and firetrucks if you saw them standing on the roadside, not even at a parade.

The floats rolling down Main Street are there because they are a part of this small town and that’s what makes our July 4th celebration special.

This classic Norman Rockwell-ish Independence Day doesn’t happen by magic or by tax dollars. It happens by hard work from the Jasper Lions Club.

For people who don’t know the history, the Lions were formed on June 22, 1939. Two weeks later they partnered with the Jaycees (a service organization that has since gone defunct) and got involved in the mid-summer celebration for Jasper. 

And since that time there have been some doozies of celebrations. Ask any long time Jasper resident about “The Fourth” and they probably have a story to tell of when the rides were set up on Main Street or when they had greased pole climbing and greased pig chasing.

For all 80 years of their service, the Jasper Lions have supplied their time, effort and money to make the big day happen. Their members arrange everything from the opening parade and entertainment to the rides and the fireworks.

The local club doesn’t assemble the rides, but they make sure there is a company coming and they find the fireworks guys who close out the day.

Please keep in mind that the rides are important for families who can’t make the trip to metro amusement parks. If the Lions didn’t bring these rides to town, some kids would never get to hop on a Ferris wheel.

And the money generated by the festivities and raffles fund the Lions work throughout the year, including a home for developmentally disabled, eyeglasses for those who need them and health checks and summer camps among other projects.

Lions Club President Leslie Miller said  about 90 percent of their club members were involved either in preparation or on the 4th. She said, “it’s still fun except sometimes it doesn’t seem that fun until you are sitting there watching the end of the fireworks and know that another one is in the books.”

The Lions have been doing this for years  and they see many of the same faces return every time for Bingo and the fireworks, according to Lion Eloise Lindsey. She said people tell her they save money throughout the year for their “Bingo money.” 

It’s not just a holiday for these people, it’s  a family reunion – which is a sentiment you’ll never find in a big city event.

 

Level field for bricks and mortar

The Rev. Billy Honor of the recently formed Faith, Justice and Truth Project has declared loopholes allowing some online retailers to skip paying sales tax “a moral issue” which may be overstating it.

But certainly the state needs to level the playing field between brick-and-mortar stores and online third-party facilitators for business reasons.

It’s hard to believe that in the 1990s online retailers were given generous preferences, such as avoiding state sales taxes, to help them get off the ground. We’d say that worked a little too well and offers yet another piece of evidence of what can, and usually does, go wrong when government gets involved in the free market.

What the Georgia legislature has already considered and should push through when they convene in 2020 is going after the sales taxes not being paid by third party facilitators. The state last year started requiring sales tax on direct online purchases, but it missed the facilitators, which is a massive piece of online revenue.

As explained in an article by Maggie Lee in the Saportareport.com, “Not all online purchases come with a sales tax in Georgia. For example, at Walmart.com or Amazon.com, buying something that one of those companies is selling out of their own warehouse will incur a sales tax. But if it’s something that some third party has listed for sale via that site, the seller is likely not collecting sales tax.”

The Faith, Justice and Truth Project projected that the state is missing more than $500 million in sales tax revenue from the facilitators, though the state projected that the revenue might be nearer $150 million.

Either way it would help all Georgians to see this revenue collected to fund items like the teacher pay raise that will be coming out of state taxpayer pockets.

While Georgia is in the 9th year of economic expansion finding consumption tax revenue like this greatly helps the state government expand without looking for more from income tax.

A more convincing reason we’d like to see the state ensure that all online purchases, including Uber rides and Airbnb, pay their share is about fairness to businesses right here in Jasper and other small towns that not only pay their sales taxes but also employ local people and support local causes. And, keep in mind at the county level, our Pickens County retailers pay property taxes which support schools and county operations, while online retailers do not. If anything, online retailers should pay a higher sales tax as they get by without contributing to a commercial property tax base.

There is simply no reason to allow online retailers of any kind to skate by while local Main Street businesses shoulder the brunt of funding public services. At one point there might have been some argument about the difficulty for online merchants to identify where the sales were being made, but with advances in technology and tracking of spending at their sites, this surely doesn’t apply any longer. If a bricks-and-mortar store and online direct seller can calculate what they owe the state so can the facilitators.

For the anti-any-tax critics, please consider this wouldn’t be a new tax, just seeing that everyone pays their fair share of existing taxes.

Our nation has always looked to its local business community to provide scholarships, support volunteer fire departments and employ teenage kids in the summer. Let’s support local businesses with our purchases and see that the state supports them by requiring the same taxes out of any online retailers.

As the Rev. Honor said in an AJC.com article, “It is a moral issue as it levels the playing field for brick-and-mortar businesses.”

 

Drive-through county

By Dan Pool, Editor

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The problems hampering business growth in Pickens County can be summed up with an exchange I had with an older Georgian from the metro-area while I was on vacation.

When I said I was from Jasper, his response was, unfortunately for our image, the typical, “Oh, I know where Jasper is. We drive through there on our way to Ellijay and Blue Ridge.”

We are a drive-through county. 

Our identity or brand, as the marketing crowd likes to say, is “Pickens County is that place people drive through to reach the mountains.” To get a perspective of just how many of these people are passing through on the way to somewhere else, watch traffic on Highway 515 heading north Friday and coming back south on Sunday evening.

I’ve thought for some time we should demand that Cherokee County give us their brand motto “where metro meets the mountains.” It’s an inaccurate description for Cherokee County with no relevance at all for Woodstock and south Cherokee. They are purely metro and no significant mountains rise inside their borders. 

We are where metro from the south meets mountains to the north. 

For our own calling cards, we have Jasper’s motto “The First Mountain City,” which isn’t bad. But, it appears that Pickens County is just Pickens County, Ga. They do not claim the Marble Capital of Georgia on their website and several state tourism websites inaccurately list Jasper as the marble capital, rather than the county or more accurately Tate/Nelson/Marble Hill.

The Chamber of Commerce uses the tag line, “where business meets the great outdoors,” which seems more aspirational than accurate, with the decided lack of business meeting us as the root problem. “Where business meets the great outdoors” has a nice ring and perhaps the county should use this one as well to develop a uniform character for the county.

New graphics and a snazzy motto would be nice. Just like lights on our downtown building are nice. Having the Old Jail open regularly is nice. None of these are game changers and no one claims they are. No one expects the lights to suddenly create a shopping mecca here.

But all the efforts help. Just like it would be great to see the city of Jasper install some kind of median beautification plan on Highway 515, like Ellijay’s crepe myrtles or Blue Ridge’s flowers, something to let people know they are somewhere when they arrive here on 515. A fourlane streetscape representative of the qualities of this county shows that our community cares, and it might inspire a few people to see what the businesses there offer.

We certainly don’t want to divert all the traffic from Highway 515 or else we’d ended up like Blue Ridge – a tourist trap that has consumed the small town, making for robust cash register sales but not a place locals can congregate.

The best thing we have going for us in Jasper and Tate at the moment is the momentum of business openings. New restaurants, dessert shops and stores have given a spark of hope that the towns are on the right path to vitality.

Tourist dollars really are the ultimate in economic development as the those spending them don’t stick around to put kids in school, ask for their road to be paved and hopefully have no contact with our emergency responders.

And the county, cities and Chamber of Commerce need to support this mission. The question is how.

Assuming the state DOT would frown on us putting a gate and detour sign on the fourlane, we need to explore ideas to entice tourists to give our towns a chance to show what makes this a great place. More of the  cohesive identity/marketing, better 515 curb appeal and continued work with joint economic development of the chamber/county and city may help -- eventually.

One day we may attract some of the northward migration of tourists. Until then keep in mind that coming downtown to Tate, Talking Rock or Jasper make nice outings for all of us and our support is vital to these businesses until that time.

 

Tiny Homes - Bigger Picture

Last week we reported that the planning commission is studying possible tougher rules for RVs which appear would also apply to Tiny Homes – those popular, (at least in the digital world) cute structures, often built on trailer bodies.

The gist of the preliminary discussion was that people living permanently in RVs usually leads to problems. The planning commission discussed how they could give a temporary pass for people living in campers while their permanent home is under construction. Otherwise, people need to reside in RVs only in fully-regulated campgrounds and, even then, they need to crank up and take a trip once every 90 days.

Rodney Buckingham, the county director of planning,  said this is being ignored by people who have added permanent additions to what are intended as vehicles. Commission members noted this is a national trend. A search online confirms what the commission saw looming. Glamorized “#vanlife” and Tiny Home advocates extol the virtues of a life without permanent walls or a lengthy mortgage.

For anyone who has not been on a dealer’s lot, RVs can be expensive. The small, but very nice, Winnebago Revel starts at $134,000. And like anything you can certainly spend as much as you want for the big behemoths. 

Or, RVs can be found cheap. Used models are listed with prices of $10,000 or less. In north Georgia, where empty and affordable rental housing is as elusive as credible Bigfoot evidence, people - even families - may be tempted to view an RV as their only option.

Simply put, people need to respect neighboring properties and have their sewage handled properly, but let’s not be too quick to shut down a line of housing that could alleviate the shortage of affordable homes here.

As to whether you would rather have on your street an apartment complex or a Tiny Home development or RV park is a tough question to answer without seeing the details of each. This is what we advocate our local governing authorities do: be flexible, look at the details and think outside the stick-built-box.

As presented by the regional commission, the state of Georgia generally frowns upon housing other than the normal stick-built home. Inspections guidelines don’t offer much leeway for creativity, especially not for something smaller.

The first response from code writers like the regional commission regarding their preference for traditional housing comes down to safety. The state doesn’t want people to live in unsafe conditions – if it is new housing, that is. A glaring discrepancy is that older homes can be firetraps with rotten steps and exposed wiring and no one ever inspects, which makes the safety argument ring a bit hollow. There is also a related argument that if you own land in America and want to build your home from straw, sticks or bricks, you should be free to do so, but we’ll leave that point to deeper thinkers.

For now, we simply ask our planning commission to be broad-minded and open to  different takes on what constitutes a legal residence. Similar to their hard work developing forthcoming codes for event venues, the planning commission should recognize there is a lot of difference between one property to the next and rigid rules won’t work. 

It’s hard to support a government telling the owner of a well-made Tiny Home and 10 acres of wooded property that they can’t live on their own land – assuming they meet sewage requirements. But, it seems reasonable that the county/city codes should prevent someone from parking a 20-year-old camper in the middle of a crowded residential area and announcing “We’re Home.”

Instead of forcing iron-clad rules onto the books, our planning commission should follow their own example with venues and work to develop criteria, but at the same time recognize unique situations abound with the difference in lot sizes, locations, building plans and landowners’ desires.