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Egg freezing party January 26, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , add a comment

FastCompany has an interesting piece on a newish phenomenon, the egg-freezing party. This is not a culinary get-together but an information seminar for women who are considering freezing their ova for use when they are older.

Young women in professional careers are increasingly postponing pregnancy on the grounds that having babies in their twenties to early thirties inhibits advancement at work. The problem with postponement is that egg quality declines later in life, resulting in higher risk of miscarriages, birth defects, etc.

Egg freezing offers a technological solution. Women can freeze eggs while they are young and then have them fertilized and implanted later on through IVF when they are ready to start families. As the article notes, this procedure is no longer considered experimental. Also, it is covered in the health insurance packages offered by some employers.

To promote this new service, some providers are staging “egg freezing parties” where interested women meet over hors d’oeuvres and drinks to learn more about the technology. Unlike the Tupperware parties of old, the parties do not involve women selling to each other. Instead, providers themselves give short talks and answer questions.

As the article reports, the results can be awkward and confusing. The technology is still novel, so the long-term implications are not clear. However, some women remain interested in it:

After an event about 20% to 25% of the people in attendance will book consultation appointments that night, according to EggBanxx. About three quarters of those people will show up, and about half of those people will go through with the procedure. In a room full of 45 women, about five will opt for freezing.

The uptake of this technology raises some questions. For example, what should be done with eggs that go unused? Who owns them in the event of the death of the donor? Will use of egg freezing increase demand for surrogate mothers? Time will tell.

Anti-automobilism in Ontario January 23, 2015

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In an earlier post, I noted Carleton Reid’s discussion of anti-automobilism around the turn of the 20th century. Fittingly, Ontario History has just published an article by Christopher Los on early anti-automobilism in Ontario.

At the turn of the century, automobiles were pretty scarce but nevertheless created waves. As elsewhere, part of the reason was that automobiles were quite expensive and thus were mostly owned and operated by wealthy Ontarians for recreation. As a result, the appearance of automobiles played into social tensions between classes, with the lower orders feeling put out by wealthier folk and their new rides.

The first Motor Vehicles Act in the province was passed in 1903. It required autoists to slow down at intersections and stop if requested to do so by other users of the roadway. (There were not stop signs, signal lights, or painted lanes on roads at the time.) The act also required motor vehicle registration and assigned a speed limit of seven miles per hour. Clearly, the Act was meant to placate disquiet about the new technology on the block.

Motorists were not thrilled and formed groups, such as the Toronto Automobile Club, to advocate for changes in the Act. Most notably, they wanted the speed limit increased to ten miles per hour. Their lobbying paid off and the limit was raised for the final version of the Act.

As cars become more numerous, tensions continued to mount. Besides being the playthings of the well-to-do, early automobiles were largely owned by urban elites. Rural Ontarians, who comprised about 50% of the population, objected that car drivers were reckless, scaring horses and forcing horse-drawn vehicles from the roadway. Under pressure from rural voters, the government amended the Act in 1905 to address their concerns. One major amendment was to assign liability to motorists in the event of any loss or damage “incurred or sustained by any person through the frightening of a horse or horses or other animals by a motor vehicle.” Furthermore, the liability fell on the owner of the vehicle even if another person were operating it at the time of an incident. Finally, the burden of disproving negligence on the part of the owner in such a case fell on the defendant (owner), and not on the plaintiff. The Act was nearly unique in assuming the guilt rather than innocence of the defendant. Clearly, these measures are quite stringent.

More amendments of a similar nature were added in 1906. These included making the offences that are today known as fleeing the scene of an accident and drunk driving. Also, license plates were enlarged and their illumination required so that vehicles could be easily identified by others even after dark. In addition, three offences under the Act would get the owner’s license suspended for a year. Three strikes and you’re out!

The tide seemed to be turning in favour of motorists. In 1909, there were proposals from rural county councils to prohibit motoring on Sundays and some other day of the week. However, this measure was not adopted. In 1912, speed limits were increased to 15 mph in cities and 20 mph on country roads. Measures against “wanton” or “furious” driving were adopted, tending to replace explicit mention of horses. The increasingly popularity of automobiles and increasing political muscle of automobile clubs had the effect of turning legislation from hostility towards cars to an attitude of acceptance and regulation.

However, as Los notes, several provisions from the earliest versions of the Act remain in Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act (p. 164):

The strict liability of a vehicle owner in the event of any accident involving her vehicle remains in place (although the effects of such a provision are made slightly less onerous by the requirement for mandatory insurance.) Owners remain obligated to stop at the scene of an accident and identify themselves. And just as the legislature mandated in 1905, the onus for disproving negligence in the event of an accident lies upon the vehicle’s owner.

Although cars are now the kings of the road and they no longer play into the same social divisions, it is interesting to note that these distrustful provisions from the earlier era remain in the legal framework regulating them.

Cycling and obsolescence January 21, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment

The auto industry is usually the canonical example of stylistic obsolescence. General Motors president Alfred Sloan is usually credited with the invention of the model year in the mid-1920s, that is, the practice of visibly changing the look of its cars so that they would go out of style quickly, thus prompting more turnover in car purchases. In his book Roads were not built for cars, Carleton Reid argues that this practice was earlier established in the cycling industry.

Reid notes that the cycling industry was innovating quickly in the 1890s (pp. 194ff). For example, the weight of the average Safety bicycle went from 42 lbs in 1890 to 22 lbs in 1895 due to the use of new forms and materials. Not content with selling new bikes merely on the ground of technological improvement, the industry also employed stylistic obsolescence. Reid quotes Henry Ford, who despised the idea, who made this attribution in his 1922 autobiography:

My associates were not convinced that it was possible to restrict our cars to a single model [the Model T]. The automobile trade was following the old bicycle trade, in which every manufacturer thought it necessary to bring out a new model each year and to make it so unlike all previous models that those who had bought the former models would want to get rid of the old and buy the new.

Apparently, the annual model change originated with American farm equipment manufacturer McCormick but was taken up by cycle manufacturers. The implication is that it was then transferred from cycling to the automobile industry.

It would be interesting to see some examples of annual model changes in cycle catalogs of the era.

The use of stylistic change to drive sales is controversial. On the one hand, it stimulates economic activity and can be used by designers to suggest to consumers the presence of technological improvements that would not otherwise be apparent. On the other hand, it can be used to disguise a lack of technical innovation and thus mislead consumers or simply as a means of exploiting consumers’ sensitivity to being seen with out-of-date goods. It is interesting to know that cycle designers used the tactic when cycling was at its apex of social cachet.

How many babies is too many? January 20, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , add a comment

Bionews has an interesting item on the case of Mitsutoki Shigeta, a Japanese man who appears to be the father of at least 15 surrogate babies in Thailand. Last year, Thai authorities raided his apartment there, discovering nine surrogate babies with their nannies and one pregnant surrogate. It appears that Shigeta had fled to Maccau with the remaining infants.

So, what is wrong with this picture? First, Thai authorities suspect that Shigeta is trafficking his offspring, that is, selling them through some sort of adoption process. What evidence they have for this suspicion, other than his profligacy, remains unclear.

Second, although Shigeta is reportedly from “a wealthy family”, it is not clear that he has the means or intention to support so many children. Certainly, fifteen or more children would be an incredibly large number to raise even for a man of means. Shigeta is quoted as giving some bizarre reasons for his choices, so that he could

These claims hardly support the conclusion that Shigeta had any credible or acceptable plan in mind.

Third, Shigeta’s plans may well involve an abuse of the surrogate mothers he hired. A single apartment crammed with nine infants, nannies, and expecting women starts to sound like a kind of procreative sweat shop.

Finally, the sheer scale of Shigeta’s ambitions is astonishing. Some reports suggest he planned to have hundreds or thousands of surrogate children. Let us suppose for the sake of argument that the objections above could be addressed acceptably. In that case, would it still be acceptable for one man to father so many children? At some point, the process becomes too like the production of a bulk commodity.

According to BioNews, mothers of nine of the babies are suing for custody. They argue that Thai authorities are not caring for the children adequately. One can imagine that the authorities did not anticipate such a situation and were not prepared for it.

The Thai government has placed a moratorium on commercial surrogacy and is considering its options. Certainly, the laissez-faire approach was too open to abuse. How much regulation should be placed on commercial surrogacy? The report says that authorities are thinking of criminalizing it.

DNN: 19 Jan. 2015 January 19, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

The popularity of drones continues to take off. Wired Magazine reports that some ex-Googlers have formed a company named Skydio to develop software that can make personal drones essentially self-flying. At present, the “smartest” personal drones use GPS units to determine their location and fly to a designated destination. Skydio is working on software that allows drones to navigate according to what their cameras “see”.

One result of this work is that drones can use their cameras to obey gesture directions from their owners:

I was holding a smartphone, my arm extended like a wizard casting a spell, and I kind of felt like I was. I raised my hand up and to the right. The small quadcopter drone buzzing a few yards in front of me followed. Then I waved my arm in a sweeping arc to the left. Again, the drone obeyed as cameras mounted on the aircraft recorded my moves.

The hope is that drones will be easily controlled through a smartphone app. When that happens, personal drones may become much more widespread than they are already.

That news will not sit well with everyone. News of near misses between personal drones and airplanes continue. Recently, Senator Charles Shumer (D-NY) called for the FAA to hasten its delivery of rules for personal drones, motivated by drone sightings at New York airports. At this point, the Agency has set 2017 as the year in which it will launch a set of rules. Shumer wants the work sped up so that people will know how they are expected to use their new toys.

IEEE Spectrum reports that a different group of Silicon Valley types are fashioning a different response to the situation. They are embarking on the design of an interceptor drone, called Rapere:

When you see a drone that you want, uh, taken care of, simply press the “GO” button on the Rapere. It’ll launch itself, visually locate any other drone within range, and then fly up and hover above that drone while dangling a bit of wire beneath itself. The wire gets all tangled up on the other drone’s rotors, causing it to crash (maybe). Rapere then returns to base, and you can smugly salvage a nice GoPro or whatever from the pile of wreckage.

The design of Rapere is optimized for the job of locating other drones quickly and accurately and performing its one maneuver. As a result, it has a very short battery life.

Even before such an interceptor is built, its legality is clearly open to question. On the face of it, it would not be legal to simply destroy someone else’s property, even if it is hovering over your backyard. It will be interesting to observe the court cases that will result when something like Rapere is put to use. The arrival of ubiquitous drones will certainly stir debate about people’s expectations of privacy, especially on their own property. Currently, the default is that the airspace of the country is (largely) in bounds for aerial vehicles. It may be that this default should be modified, although perhaps not by the use of interceptor drones.

Google Glass on ice for now January 16, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

News has spread that Google Glass is being put on hold by the company. More specifically, Google is shutting down its Glass Explorer program, on which clients pay $1500 to try out the prototype, and reorganizing the Glass division. So, we may not much more of Glass, at least, for a while.

The Atlantic has a short article diagnosing the problems with Glass. One issue is that Glass made its wearers look “dorky”, which, we might say in this blog, means awkward and embarrassing, or technostressing. Another issue that that people sometimes found Glass to be “creepy”, that is, an encroachment on their right to privacy, even in public spaces. In response, some non-users sought to assert control with bans on the device, e.g., in some bars and restaurants, or software to prevent Glass users from connecting to the Internet.

A more subtle problem is the Google Gaze, the tendency of Glass users to treat others as props in their activities.

So, what should we conclude about Glass? Is it, like the Segway, a technically admirable design that simply failed to find a niche in our cultural setting? Or, is it an example of a technology too far ahead of its time, like air conditioning?

Google may look at it in the second way. The Glass project is moving out of the Google X incubator site and becoming its own thing. Furthermore, it will now be under the supervision of Tony Fadell, a key figure in the design of the original Apple iPod. So, we may yet see more of Glass, and it more of us.


(Antonio Zugaldia/Wikimedia commons)

Anti-automobilism January 14, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

In an earlier post, I noted how Carleton Reid has attempted to clarify the connection between cycling and motoring in the early days of both. Another aspect of this history is the resistance sometimes seen to both modes of transportation.

In terms of automobiles, the newfangled machines were often unwelcome, particularly in rural areas. Objections emphasized the tendency of cars to startle horses or to recklessly force others (including cyclists) from the roadways. Also, as Reid notes, early motoring was a pastime of the wealthy, urban classes, thus adding an element of class and urban/rural antipathy to the mix. In Europe, early motorists were sometimes pelted with stones. It seems that the Netherlands was especially hostile (p. 49):

… a woman German motorist … recorded in her diary [1905] that “a journey by automobile through Holland is dangerous, since most of the rural population hates motorists fanatically. We even encountered older men, their faces contorted with anger, who, without any provocation, threw fist-sized stones at us.

In the United States, autoists were sometimes greeted by stones also, although a few were shot at or whipped. Some objectors even strung wire across roadways were drivers were known to travel!

According to Reid, Canada placed some of the most restrictive laws on motoring, particularly in Nova Scotia (p. 48):

In Kings County, Nova Scotia, no automobiles were allowed on public highways at the weekend, a rule enforced until at least 1910. Nova Scotia was a hotbed of anti-automobilism. The editor of New Glasgow’s newspaper said that motor cars were “gasoline devils,” and—predating the rule in Nazi Germany that all Jews had to wear yellow badges—local bylaws in New Glasgow forced “auto people” to wear distinctive badges on their clothing, marking motorists as misfits even when not driving their “running stinkers.”

Interestingly, some upper class people also objected to automobiles roaming the countryside. Reid quotes Lady Violet Greville who wrote in 1899 that automobiles zooming through the countryside disrupted her rural idyll.

Interestingly, as Reid documents, many of the objections to automobiles were earlier raised against cyclists. Cyclists were initially well-to-do city folk who took their bikes out for rural jaunts, sometimes with a speed or aggressiveness that upset local residents. As many cyclists took to motoring around the turn of the century, they took this issue with them.

If I recall, Henry Ford was concerned to design the Model T as a car that would find favor with rural Americans. In part, this concern was motivated by Ford’s own experiences in farming as a youth: Apparently, he liked farms and rural settings but disliked the drudgery involved in farming. The Model T was supposed to work well on rural roads and help with farm labour, thus winning rural support for the new technology. Reid’s work suggests that the need to win this support was, at the same time, a need to overcome serious class and lifestyle divisions as well.

Local events: Han Radder January 14, 2015

Posted by Scott Campbell in : Events , comments closed

The Waterloo Chair in Science and Society is hosting Hans Radder next week, with two public talks of interest:

Monday, Jan. 19: Theory and Practice of Scientific and Technological Patenting: An Overview of the Philosophical and Social Issues, Monday, January 19, 2015; 3:30-5:00 p.m. Balsillie School of International Affairs (Room: 1-42)


Tuesday, January 20: Discussion of `The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University’, Tuesday, January 20, 2015, 3:00-5:00 p.m. University of Waterloo (Room: HH 357)

Hans Radder

Professor Emeritus
Philosophy of Science and Technology
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Netherlands

Hans Radder holds degrees in physics (1975: MSc., from VU University Amsterdam) and in philosophy (1978: MA, cum laude, from the University of Amsterdam; 1984: PhD, cum laude, from VU University Amsterdam). From 1980 through 1987 he co-edited the philosophical journal Krisis. He has published several books and edited volumes and many articles. Currently, he is professor of philosophy of science and technology in the Faculty of Philosophy at the VU University Amsterdam. He is a fellow of the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences and of the Center for Interdisciplinary Research at Bielefeld University, Germany. (

Whence (and whither) the cubicle? January 13, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

The Economist has a nice review of the history of the cubicle. Of course, the main point of a history is to address the question: Can we finally get rid of the damn things?

The origin of the cubicle stems from the work of Herman Miller designer Bob Probst, who designed the Action Office in the late 1960s. By creating a set of detachable, re-configurable office furniture modules, Probst hoped to make the office space more dynamic, stimulating, and productive for white collar workers. Previously, office spaces were either a set of distinct rooms organized along corridors, or a grid of efficiency desks laid out in the open for easy surveillance. Probst thought both arrangements dehumanizing and counterproductive.

Unfortunately, we all know how the story turned out. Other furniture companies turned out simplified versions of the Action Office at a discount, featuring flimsy, cloth-covered partitions to be arranged rigidly at right angles. Far from increasing flexibility at work, the cubicle created an environment for employees that the author likens to battery hens.

The move seemed rational at the time. After all, cubicles were cheap and seemed to provide each employee with a modest amount of personal space, a fundamental need of the happy human animal. Also, as office furniture, the depreciating value of the cubicles could be written off for tax purposes. A win-win!

Unfortunately, the promise of cubicles proved elusive. Many problems arose. The high walls of the cubicles interfered with air circulation, making the spaces stuffy. Chemicals used in treatment of the cubicle cloth dispersed into the air, exacerbating the problem of sick building syndrome. Cubicles provided little real privacy, leaving occupants prone to interruptions and exposed to environmental noise, thus heightening stress. Also, although cubicle walls do not block sound, they are effective at cutting off light, thus depriving occupants of healthy sunlight from windows.

And, cubicles have been getting smaller:

On top of all this, cubicle workers who feel that the walls are closing in on them are onto something. When cubicle spaces are renovated, says a design firm, they often shrink from eight feet by ten per person, to five foot by five. In 1994 the average North American office worker had 90 square feet of space. By 2010 this was 75 square feet. (Executive management gained floor space over the same period, according to the International Facility Management Association.)

In terms of design, the example of the cubicle illustrates some useful concepts. For example, it illustrates the concept of bounded rationality: The decision to reconfigure office spaces with cubicles made sense in view of the assumptions and priorities of managers. They are cheap, efficient, and seem to provide employees with private spaces that would facilitate their work and make them happy. Considerations of noise, light, atmosphere, etc., were not seen as relevant. So, the ill effects of cubicles can be viewed as unintended consequences of their introduction.

Happily, designers have been trying to reverse what they started inadvertently. Herman Miller, for example, is promoting the Living Office, a composite space with a variety of working affordances:

It looks rather like a fancy hotel: open-plan but with desks set in friendly clusters and separated by low, clear partitions. Workers can also perch at a counter-top next to the coffee station, or lounge on sofas in a plaza or café-style seating in a courtyard. Benches nicknamed “landing strips” are placed outside conference rooms to encourage post-meeting chats. Pods are available for concentrated work, and even for relaxation. Everywhere there are glass-encased meeting rooms and a few solo spaces. About 30% of the staff have no permanent desk.

Hopefully, the idea will catch on.

Anyone remember Office Space?

The history of bikes and cars January 12, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

I have been reading Carleton Reid’s book, “Roads were not built for cars“, a volume funded through a KickStarter campaign. The book provides a compendious overview of the take-over of roadways by cars and, especially, the role of the bicycle in this episode. I will not attempt a review (you can find one here) but may post notes about some of the things conveyed in the work.

One of the first things that Reid tackles is the debt that automotive pioneers had to cycling. In fact, many pioneering autoists started as cyclists or in the cycling business. One example is Carl Benz, arguably the creator of the first motor car (pp. 10-15). Reid notes that Benz’s original Patent Motorwagen was really a motorized tricycle. In fact, one of Benz’s own patents refers to it as a tricycle. Benz was a cyclist, having learned to ride a friend’s velocepede in the late 1860s. In 1883, Benz formed a company with Friedrich Wilhelm Esslinger and Max Kaspar Rose to manufacture internal combustion engines. The two colleagues were also involved in the manufacture of bicycles, which seems to have inspired Benz to experiment with motorized cycle designs (p. 12):

Unlike the horse-drawn carriages of the day, which used heavy, wooden-spoked wheels, Benz used lightweight, wire-spoked tricycle wheels for his first Patent-Motorwagen. He also used lightweight cycle-tubing, cycle chains and innovations such as the differential gear developed by James Starley of Coventry. A newspaper, reporting on the Benz vehicle in 1886, called it a “Motoren-Velociped”, or motorized velocipede.

Here is a picture of the first version of 1885.

Benz's patent-motorwagen

(Saforrest/Wikimedia commons)

This connection between cycling and automobile history was deliberately revised by the Nazis for a variety of reasons. For one thing, some figures in that history were Jewish, such as Max Rose. Another reason was the cycling was associated with Britain, which had popularized the activity and spurred German interest in it (besides originating the gear system). The Nazi propaganda ministry was keen to downplay any debt to this former adversary and may have ordered German encyclopedists to erase the connection from their works.

In addition, Reid argues, cycling had become associated with the lower classes by the 1930s. Cyclists were basically people who could not afford cars. A glorious innovation by a Teutonic inventor should not have such humble (and proletarian) associations. Max Rauck, first curator of the Daimler-Benz archive, claimed that Benz had invented the Motorwagen as a stroke of genius, without external influences.

Ried also speculates that Hitler, who celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Benz Motorwagen in 1936, may have had personal reasons for revising the historical record. During the First World War, Hitler had served in the German army has a Radfahrer, that is, a bicycle courier, running messages between headquarters and fighting units. While quite a dangerous job, it was not a glamorous one (p. 15):

Hitler may have preferred to have been motorized: it would have been more glorious to have been a Kradfahrer, a motorcycle messenger.

The Nazi regime did pass a number of “anti-cycling” laws, perhaps reflecting the Führer’s antipathy towards the technology.

Subsequent historians seem to have uncritically followed the Nazi line on Benz’s innovation. In fact, early automotive technology was founded to a large extent, on cycling technology. Also, cyclists were among the early adopters of automotive technology and Benz’s Motorwagen was no exception. If we want to understand the origin of the automobile and its early adoption, then we need to de-Nazify this history.

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