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DNN: 26 Aug. 2015 August 26, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , add a comment

The buzz about commercial drones continues to climb:

  1. Gizmag reports that drones have become popular with wildlife researchers in Australia. A team of biologists at the Australian National University have modified a drone to track the radio ID tags attached to some wild animals. The drones track migratory birds by flying well above the tree canopy, so as not to scare their quarry, and report their location on Google Maps when a signal is detected. The technology could also be used to locate “pest” species.
  2. Following animals around may be good for researchers but is it good for the animals themselves? A study of bears tracked in the woods of Minnesota found that the presence of drones raised the heart rates of the bears. (The bears had been fitted with GPS locators and heart-rate monitors for a hibernation study, in case you are wondering.) This observation suggests that animals may be stressed by the presence of drones even if their behaviour does not show it.
  3. A team of civil engineers from the University of Illinois has developed a drone system to monitor progress of work at construction sites. The system records video of the site at given time periods, building up a 3D model of changes in structure over time. This model can be compared with construction plans in order to assess progress. Issues could then be spotted and dealt with in an appropriate manner. More controversially, the team is working on an extension to the system that can monitor the efforts of each construction worker in real time. Such surveillance might be useful for worker safety reasons but could also become a privacy issue or the beginning of some sort of robo-Taylorism for construction workers.
  4. The Daily Beast reports that the state of North Dakota has passed a law allowing police to deploy drones carrying “less-than-lethal” weaponry. Such weapons would presumably include tasers, tear gas, and guns firing rubber bullets. The bill was originally written to prohibit police drones from carrying any weapons but was amended apparently without causing much discussion about the need for armed drones. It will be interesting to see how people receive the first videos of police drones firing tear gas on civilians in Bismarck.
  5. The famous insurer Lloyds of London has compiled a set of insurance risks posed by commercial drones. The five categories of risk are (1) negligent or reckless use, (2) inconsistent regulation, (3) poor enforcement, (4) vulnerability to cyber attack, and (5) privacy infringement. Training, licensing, and new insurance schemes will be needed to handle these issues. Lloyds expects the value of the commercial drone business to reach $91 billion within 10 years.

The Jazz cup August 25, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, Uncategorized , add a comment

If you were around in the 1990s, you may recall its seminal events, such as the introduction of Windows 95, the Y2K bug, or the floating of the Titanic. But, do you recall the Jazz paper cup? In every dentist’s office, beside every water cooler, and in every hospital cafeteria was a stack of paper cups with a sassy dash of purple and teal.

Jazz paper cup

(Screenshot/Solo Cup Company/

Now fading from the collective subconscious, the Jazz cup was once ubiquitous. Recently, fans of the fading paraphernalia managed to track down its designer. To make a long story short, the designer turned out to be Gina Ekiss, then an employee in the art department of the Sweetheart Cup Company, who submitted the design as part of an internal, company contest. The rest, as they say, is history.

It would be interesting to know why this pattern became so widespread. Is it the colour scheme? The dynamic jaggedness of the lines set against their simple backgrounds? The childlike brushstrokes?

Whatever the case, the Jazz design nicely illustrates an important aspect of style in design: The presentation of a commodity product has a lot to do with its success or failure in the marketplace. The Jazz design was used to decorate some classic, commodity products, namely, disposable cups, plates, and bowls. Undecorated, different brands of cups, etc. are nearly impossible to tell apart, so the decoration must distinguish them. The Jazz design certainly accomplished that, pushing sales of the cups for years and, evidently, creating a group of fans who persist to this day.

Brain stimulators August 20, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

I have been intrigued by recent Dilbert cartoons in which Dilbert has invented a brain stimulator. The 19 August cartoon is entitled “Software killed Ted” an runs as follows (click the link to see for yourself):

Boss: “I have a report that you killed Ted in a cafeteria brawl.”
Dilbert: “Not exactly. My brain stimulator had a software glitch, and it made me homicidal for a minute.”
Boss: “So, you’re a murderer, right?”
Dilbert: “Software killed Ted. I was only the weapon.”

This cartoon should make good fodder for some introductory philosophy classes.

The “brain stimulator” refers to Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (TDCS), a technology that induces electrical currents in the brain through electrodes on the scalp. The technology was developed originally for medical applications, such as treatment for Parkinson’s patients or people with clinical depression. More recently, DIY enthusiasts have been using reports of that research to hack together homebrew versions that they use on themselves.

More recently, startup companies have been marketing inexpensive, consumer versions. A prime example is Thync, which is controlled by a smartphone app and has two modes: Calm and Energized. Calm mode induces a mood similar to that induced by smoking a joint of marijuana, according to beta testers, while Energizing mode is more like drinking a cup of coffee.

Brain hacking presents some obvious concerns. Interpersonal variation in brain organization is fairly high, so an intervention that is calming for one person may have another effect on someone else. The long-term implications of persistently inducing moods through TDCS is unclear as well. To date, induced moods seem innocuous enough insofar as they resemble the results of familiar brain manipulation techniques such as drinking caffeinated beverages. Yet, it is conceivable that such devices could induce more powerful or problematic states of mind such as the one experienced by Dilbert.

One other issue occurred to me as I read this cartoon. Since devices like the Thync are controlled via smartphone apps, they are probably hackable themselves. That is, third parties might be able to gain control of the stimulators and manipulate them in some way. Consider a recent demonstration in which hackers took over a Jeep Cherokee remotely while it was being driven on an Interstate. What could hackers do with someone whose stimulator they hacked into? (If they are really good, perhaps they could hack into a person’s car and stimulator at the same time!) It beats me but I look forward to reading about it in an upcoming cartoon.

Uber news August 18, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

Uber continues to expand and make waves. It has, for example, recently appeared in our neck of the woods, where cities like Guelph and Waterloo are trying to figure out how to handle its introduction. Does it violate city taxi bylaws, for instance? Taxi operators argue that it does, and are not happy with the situation. Guelph Red Top taxi recently fired one of its drivers for moonlighting with Uber. “You can’t work for Coke and Pepsi,” says Jesse Mendoza of Canadian Cab.

Let’s have a look at some recent news items concerning the service:

  1. The Uber app allows users to see where available cars are located in their vicinity. It turns out that this display is not quite accurate, and by design. This inaccuracy could be viewed as a deception, an exaggeration of how many cars are available near the user in order to make the service more appealing. Uber argues that the display is meant to be more symbolic than realistic. Showing more than a handful of cars would make the display cluttered and confusing. Also, Uber fudges the position of Uber cars in order to prevent them from being the targets of malefactors. Of course, Uber should protect the privacy of its drivers. Does Uber do enough to protect the privacy of its passengers?
  2. Natalie Singer of the New York Times argues that calling Uber a ride-sharing service is a misnomer. Sharing, she points out, implies that the service is a selfless act on the part of the sharer. Uber is not selfless; it is a for-profit company that takes a cut of each act of “sharing”. The term “renting” would be more accurate. Uber also describes its operators as “partners”, to avoid the implication that they are employees who are due normal employee benefits and considerations. Uber employs the rhetoric of sharing and partnering in order to avoid the kind of regulation that would apply to them as a taxi operation. After all, what mean government bureaucrat could want to burden “sharing” with a lot of rules? Singer notes that the Associated Press avoids the expression “ride-sharing” to describe services like Uber:

    In a telephone interview, David Minthorn, co-editor of the A.P. Stylebook, told me that “sharing” tends to imply an informal agreement among people, like carpooling. So it seems inaccurate, even euphemistic, he said, to use “sharing” in the context of commercial enterprise.

    “We prefer a more forthright description,” he said.

  3. Uber is also seeking to diversify its offerings and attract new business. For example, it is testing out “Suggested Pickup Points“, that is, places where customers can go that are convenient for both passengers and drivers and that would speed up the process of sharing renting a ride. Customers would receive a discount for so doing. As Jarrett Walker of Human Transit points out, this concept sounds much like what is known in transit circles as a “stop”. Walker argues that the nature of the task of providing efficient and affordable mobility in large quantities naturally leads to the kind of solution that transit systems hit upon long ago.
  4. But, Uber is not just for transporting people! The service is introducing a feature called UberEATS that allows customers to order meals made available by restaurants partnering with the service. The idea is not new (consider the JustEat service in Waterloo) but Uber’s heft and scale will quickly make it a tough competitor for local businesses.

There is no word yet on when Uber will launch a garbage sharing collection service but similar services do exist.

It’s an Uber, Uber, Uber, Uber world!

Tinder: Sign of the times? August 17, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed

Vanity Fair recently published a rather disheartening article on the effect of Tinder and similar dating apps on people’s attitudes towards relationships (note: contains some graphic language). To make a long story short, Nancy Jo Sales’s investigation of New York City’s hook-up culture paints a picture in which the quantity of intimate relationships has become far more important than their quality. The article suggests that the Tinderization of romantic relationships has become general, that young people are increasingly finding it difficult to even conceive of or engage in a meaningful relationship.

There have been a number of responses to this claim. Alexander Howard at Huffington Post notes that attitudes towards sex and marriage have been changing for a long time. People have been increasingly postponing marriage, leaving them an extended time for engaging in briefer liaisons. Even so, marriage remains a common goal in life among young people. Also, some studies suggest that so-called millennials have fewer sexual partners per year than did their predecessors in generation-x, on average.

This conclusion is hard to square with Sales’s contention. Perhaps the problem is her focus on New York’s hook-up scene: People in this subculture are rather different in their attitudes towards relationships than are people in the general population, so that we should not make inferences from one to the other.

This is not to say that apps like Tinder raise no concerns. Howard notes that Tinder presents sexual relationships as a kind of online shopping experience. It does present users with copious choices and rating mechanisms, for example. As Marshall McLuhan said, in a different context, “the medium is the message.” In this case, the message seems to be that sex is a merely a commodity and that anyone you meet through Tinder is to be viewed merely as a means of obtaining it.

Whatever impact this presentation may have on users, it seems to further reflect an unhealthy sexism in the technology industry itself. Women are notoriously under-represented in the technology sector, and it can manifest a lamentable “bro-culture”, featured in “apps” like Titshare that allow users to share pictures of themselves staring a breasts. Tinder, with a user base that is 68% male, reflects a similar ethos.

It is not clear that Tinder marks the takeover of romantic relationships by a marginal hook-up culture. It does, however, reflect an attitude abroad in the technology community that hook-up culture is in some way especially manly or ideal, and that is unfortunate.

In praise of the Bell 500 August 14, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

Ian Bogost has written an interesting piece in The Atlantic on how portability ruined the phone call. Bogost notes an increasing distaste for phone calls, especially among younger users of smartphones. I recall last year when Jeff Bezos demonstrated the Amazon Fire Phone, he was primarily interested in its ability to sell you Amazon products and scarcely mentioned its ability to make calls.

Bogost considers three reasons for this development. First, he points out that smartphone connections are less reliable than landline connections. Mobile telephony naturally suffers more from missed connections and dropped calls, which is frustrating for callers. They might naturally come to prefer asynchronous modes of communication, like gchat, in which such frustrations do not arise (though others might).

Second, he points out that mobile phones are used in a wider variety of environments, where acoustical interference is more likely. Landlines were often used in isolated environments like living rooms or offices. Mobile phones are often used in Starbucks or cars where acoustic interference makes phone conversations harder to follow and thus more annoying.

Third, Bogost argues that the experience of talking on a mobile phone lacks positive physical qualities provided by the handset from a standard Bell 500 model phone. The set, from industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, was very “handy” and had a good heft and feel:

The 500 handset is solid and hefty while not being too heavy to lift and hold for long periods. That it could be held at all, and that we would enjoy holding it—this is an unsung virtue of the handset. Whether grasped at its center like a handle, cradled at the rounded mouthpiece base with the thumb and forefinger, or wedged between the ear and the shoulder to allow the use of both hands freely, the 500 handset conforms to the ergonomics required for listening and speaking.

Holding the handset to your ear, face, and lips constituted an intimate experience, that Bogost calls “undeniably carnal”.

WE500dialphone” by ProhibitOnions at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by JohnnyMrNinja using CommonsHelper.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In addition, the ritual process of using a landline phone made the whole experience more significant:

This tactile sensuality coupled to other rituals of telephony—the time-consuming process of shwk-whirrrr dialing or touch-tone button-pressing to enter a number that you could recite as a koan; the sound of the dial tone initiating the invitation to dial; the definitive physical sensation of conclusion as you returned the handset to the cradle to end a call; the fact that the call itself was metered and possibly expensive—which all together made telephony a full-body experience, no matter the content of the conversation, from break-up to take-out.

With the demise of the flip-phone in favour of the soap-chip form factor, the modern smartphone is just not so fun to use. Thus, Bogost implies, comes its fall from favour.

Certainly, there is merit in all these observations. Curiously, his analysis leaves out the chief complaint that people level against phone calls, namely their perceived intrusiveness. Phone calls demand a response from their recipients, without delay. That strikes some users as pushy, especially given the ease and convenience of asynchronous media like texting that give recipients the option of waiting before make a reply.

In any event, the telephone has certainly lost its centrality in person-to-person communications at a distance. This slip may be in part from the move to mobile telephony, or the assimilation of phone calling to the smartphone’s touch-screen interface, or competition with other media available on the same platform. Yet, the Bell 500 has not gone entirely into that good night. As Bogost points out, the silhouette of its handset is still found on the icon for the telephone function of smartphones today.

Phone Shiny Icon.svg
Phone Shiny Icon” by JessekoeckhovenOwn work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Facial recognition and policing August 13, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed

The New York Times has published a piece on increasing use of facial recognition software by police. For example, police could take someone’s picture with a smartphone or tablet and search for matches in a database of mugshots or even of driver’s licenses.

The technology is being used in many places on a trial basis. This means that there are often no written policies on when such technology should be used. Do officers require the permission of the person being photographed? Do they need strong reasons to suspect the person of misconduct? Should they have to fill out a report when the service is used? Should the photographs be stored; for how long, for what purpose, and accessible by whom? In many cases, police departments have no set polices in response to these questions.

It is easy to see the utility of the service. Police could use it to know more about who they are dealing with in a difficult situation. It could be used to identify criminals who evade detection using aliases.

Of course, there are trade-offs. The article comments that the “error rate” is as high as 20%, meaning false positives where innocent people are misidentified as criminals. Also, the system may be applied in a biased manner. Consider the example of Mr. Harvey of San Diego, who was photographed without his permission for DWB (“driving while black”):

He said he had been told he was in a gang database, even though he has never been a gang member. He recently spent nearly a year in jail on gang conspiracy charges that were dismissed in March. “I don’t know how good a gang member I could have been, not having a criminal record,” he said.

The use of photographic databases continues an established practice of collecting biometric data by authorities. The FBI keeps databases of fingerprints and mug shots for this purpose. These practices are broadly accepted.

At the same time, people have resisted the installation by civic authorities of integrated surveillance centers where data from gunshot detectors, facial recognition systems, license plate readers, etc. are combined into a central, tracking system. The use of facial recognition apps that apply to photos seems to fall somewhere in between. The issue becomes one of how far authorities should be allowed to go in monitoring members of the general public.

Biodirect from Monsanto August 11, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed

Technology Review has an interesting article about a new agricultural technology from Monsanto. It’s called “Biodirect” and consists of RNA molecules that are sprayed onto plants. As I understand it, the basic idea is as follows: RNA molecules of specific design are sprayed onto plants. Once there, the RNA may be ingested by plant pests, such as the potato beetle. The RNA changes the pest’s digestive process in a manner that is lethal to it. Alternately, the RNA may be absorbed into the cells of the plant, changing operation of its cells to produce chemicals that are toxic to pests.

The technology has several features to recommend it. First, it does not require genetic modification of plants, a process that has proved expensive and controversial. In effect, the RNA modifies the operations of plant cells externally, thus without the need for intrinsic, genetic changes. Second, it provides for greater adaptability. During a drought, for example, a plant could be sprayed with RNA to make it more drought resistant, and not otherwise. Third, the RNA sprays can be made specific. For example, a spray can be made that is lethal to potato bugs but not to ladybugs. Finally, RNA sprays are not persistent, lasting only days to weeks in the soil environment.

Naturally, not everyone is convinced that the technology is a good idea. Some researchers have had difficulty reproducing effects claimed by Monsanto researchers, but research is still in an early stage. Others argue that the products may not be robust enough to work effectively in field conditions. Another concern is the possibility of unintended consequences, e.g., on pollinators such as bees. As the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reviewers point out, while RNA may be “natural”, its introduction into the environment at a potentially continental scale is something new.

While the EPA seems inclined to caution, Monsanto argues for a more permissive approach:

In an 81-page letter to the agency, Monsanto lobbied against any special rules. It said RNA products should actually be spared safety tests it called irrelevant, including those designed to assess whether they were toxic to rodents and whether they could cause allergies, as well as in-depth studies of what happens to the molecules in the environment. Only proteins cause allergies, Monsanto said. And when the company doused dirt with RNA, it degraded and was undetectable after 48 hours.

As ever, the dilemma for policy makers is whether or not to exercise caution, and wait for firm evidence the technology is safe, or to go ahead, and wait for evidence of serious harm.

What would you recommend?

Robotic furniture August 7, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed

The Economist has an interesting piece on Stanford researchers who are developing robotic furniture. This furniture is not merely robotic in the sense that Roombas are. Instead, these robots attempt to monitor and interact with people in their environment to help in the accomplishment of certain goals.

For example, there is the footstool that attempts to provide its services when it looks like you might want to put your feet up. Then there is the drawer that opens a little when it thinks you might want access to its contents. My favorite is the roving garbage can that wiggles to suggest you should throw something into it.

It is interesting to see how people react. Some get the idea straight away and respond appropriately. Others find the interaction creepy. One even helps the robot when it encounters problems. (Unlike poor Hitchbot in Philadelphia!)

Designers have long dealt with issues surrounding how people interact with inanimate objects or robots that simply work on command. Designing interactions with animate and autonomous robots presents an interesting challenge, including the development of gestures and a social etiquette that will enable both sides to understand each other and behave appropriately. As such, the need for designers to study and understand people as social animals will become all the more important as autonomous robots proliferate.

Altered Images August 6, 2015

Posted by Scott Campbell in : Uncategorized , comments closed

Although it hasn’t come up lately, photoshopping, photo editing and “fauxtography” has been favourite topic here for a while. To that end, I’d like to point to the “Altered Images” online (and physical) exhibition at the Bronx Documentary Centre for a wonderfully curated set of photos.

This exhibition explores disputed images in photojournalism and documentary photography–photos that have been faked, posed, or manipulated. From photography’s earliest days, a small number of photographers and editors have misled the public. Others have made mistakes of judgment and execution. Regimes have used altered images as propaganda. This exhibition examines prominent cases and ethical documentary practice.

What I love about the exhibit is how well it shows that “photoshopping” is just a recent and specific digital iteration of a much older analog phenomena, and that photographs have never been entirely trustworthy.

There are some modern classics here, like the 1994 O.J. Simpson Time magazine cover (edited to make Simpson look more sinister), or the 2006 smoke over Beirut (terribly photoshopped to exaggerate the smoke and drama).

But as the exhibit reminds, editing can happen even before the shutter release. Robert Capa’s famous 1937 “Falling Soldier” photo of a Spanish soldier being shot in the head? It almost certainly didn’t take place where Capa said, and allegations have swirled for decades that it was wholly or partly staged.

Capa, The Falling Soldier, 1937

Capa, The Falling Soldier, 1937

Roger Fenton’s famous 1855 photo “The Valley of the Shadow of Death”? As Errol Morris showed in 2012, Fenton added canonballs to the road to increase the drama.

Fenton, In the Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855

Fenton, In the Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855

The presence of a camera itself can alter reality. A series of Pulizer-Prize winning photos from 1971 that depict torture and killing in Bangladesh? Or violence incited by the presence of photographers?

Plus the exhibit includes some old-school analog photo manipulation, typically altered for political propaganda purposes.

It’s a good review of the credibility of images, and a good reminder that we shouldn’t necessarily blame technology when it’s clearly some other human drive exhibited over many decades that leads to altered images and ‘fauxtography’.

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