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DNN: 13 Oct. 2015 October 13, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment

Personal drones: Are they friend or foe?

So, keep calm and drone on.

Can you dislike Facebook now? October 9, 2015

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Today, it appears that Facebook has finally provided something that many users have long desired: a “dislike” button. Well, not exactly. Instead, Facebook users can now respond to a posting with an emoji. Called “Reactions”, users can give not only the old thumbs-up but also a heart (for love), a stunned face (for “wow”), a crying face (for sad), etc.

reaction emojis

The new emojis resolve an old problem, disambiguating the act of “liking” something. When someone posts news that they won the lottery, a like would naturally be interpreted as approval and maybe also as a request to borrow some money. However, when someone posts news of their divorce, a like could be interpreted as schadenfreude, that is, taking pleasure in their misfortune.

Now, reactions can be more nuanced and, hopefully, more clear.

Nevertheless, the new design is not a “dislike” button. Disliking is something that Facebook dislikes, as explained by Wired:

It could too easily be read as an indictment of the person posting, or of the article being shared, rather than its subject. It would require a different set of icons for brands, lest paid-for ads get drowned in a sea of downturned thumbs. Most important, it would instantly turn Facebook into a place where people can expect to feel bad about themselves. With the possible exceptions of church or the gym, no one wants to go to a place like that.

In other words, getting disliked would push people away from the site and thus be bad for business. So, there is no thumbs-down icon in Reactions.

This development illustrates at least two things. First, it illustrates the difficulty of dealing with technostressing elements in design. Disliking something is a useful part of communication but also sometimes an unpleasant one. Thus, it requires careful handling. Second, Facebook is not simply in the communication business but in the advertising business. Thus, its handling of negative feedback is also conditioned by its revenue model. 😐

Robo-washer hand cleaner October 8, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment

Gizmag has a short feature on a design called the Robo-washer by inventor Donal Vitez. The purpose of the design is to wash and dry people’s hands automatically when those are inserted into a special basin. The robo-washer shoots jets of “anti-bacterial water” onto people’s hands, followed by a drying cycle employing hot air. The robot-washer is also environmentally friendly in the sense that it recycles its own water.

Here is a promotional video about the design:

Certainly, the Robo-washer is something new and its water-conservation feature is interesting although still unclear in nature. Also, the drying features seems underwhelming, as people can be seen using paper towels to dry their hands after retracting them from the unit. Finally, we have sinks, hand dryers, and hand sanitizers in our washrooms already. Perhaps the novelty of a robot sink will simply wear off.

So, is the Robo-washer an innovation or a gimmick?

DNN: 7 Oct. 2015 October 7, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , add a comment

Let’s consider some ways in which drones may affect employment.

This ABC News report raises the interesting issue of whether or not drones will take away jobs from humans. Drones have already replaced wedding photographers, the article notes, and are poised to deliver packages to your door (or, like Santa Claus, your roof). How far will this trend go? Mary Cummings of MIT and Duke Universities admits that drones may displace workers in the crop-dusting and package-delivery industries. She adds that police and traffic helicopter piloting may go the way of the dodo as well. However, she argues that new opportunities created by drones will outpace the redundancies that they create:

“Ultimately, drones will create more jobs than they replace, they will save lives, and they will give us capabilities we only dream about – like everyone owning our own flying cars,” Cummings said.

Can’t wait!

One job category not considered above is paparazzi. However, their days may be numbered as well. Governor Jerry Brown has just signed into law a bill limiting the right to fly a drone over private property for the purpose of making recordings. This measure makes sense as such recordings can legally constitute harassment even when made in public.

Acceptance of the bill marks a change for the Governor who has rejected several other bills that would regulate or criminalize certain uses of drones, such as flying them over fires and thus bothering fire fighters. The Governor is concerned that a creating a raft of drone-specific offenses will stifle innovation. However, as pointed out in Slate, the political situation may change after some knucklehead flies his drone into a rescue helicopter.

Although drone laws may put some paparazzi out of work, additional employment may be created for hackers. Researchers in Singapore have discovered how to use drones to hack into the Wi-Fi networks of tall buildings. Once safe from ground-level interference, hackers can use drones to loft smartphones to altitudes enabling them to reach high-level networks. They describe two uses of their technique:

One, which they call Cybersecurity Patrol, detects open Wi-Fi printers and can be used for defensive purposes to uncover vulnerable devices and notify organizations that they’re open to attack. The second app performs the same detection activity, but for purposes of attack. Once it detects an open wireless printer, the app uses the phone to establish a fake access point that mimics the printer and intercept documents intended for the real device.

In a city with many skyscrapers, such as Singapore, such a system could be pretty handy for those interested in corporate espionage and the like. Of course, someone might notice a drone hovering outside their windows. Perhaps if the drones were disguised as birds, then the scheme might work.

One job that drones have supplanted is that of bombing crops with moths. Yes, you read that correctly. Popular Science reports that the US Department of Agriculture has used drones to release moths over cotton fields. The moths in question were sterilized by radiation, so it is hoped that they will reduce the local population of cotton-eating pink bollworms by mating with fertile local moths who would then not have any offspring.

Now I know the first thing that I will do with my new, flying car!

Too many selfies? October 5, 2015

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

The road to selfiegeddon is strewn with likes. So, here are more signs that the end is near.

The Atlantic reports that police in Winnipeg were able to use a selfie to track down some car thieves. Lucille Lavoie of Winnipeg was unloading groceries from her car when it was stolen by three youths. Later, when checking her computer at home, Lavoie found selfies taken by the thieves in the stolen car using her smartphone. It seems she had an automatic photo upload feature turned on:

“I clicked on it, and, my goodness, there it was, yeah the three of them,” she told a local Canadian news source, adding that it “felt like it was Christmas.”

She took the information to police who then found and arrested the suspects.

A controversy was touched off recently when local sportscasters took exception to the sight of a group of young women taking selfies (and otherwise engaging with the smartphones) during Arizona Diamondbacks baseball game. They mocked the young women apparently for being too self-absorbed to watch the game, apparently living out a common stereotype of millennials.

They would not be the first sports organization to feel abused. As pointed out in an earlier post, Manchester United banned smartphones from its home pitch because they felt too many fans were turning their backs on the game.

Fox Sports found the mockery somewhat embarrassing and offered the young women of the Alpha Chi Omega sorority free tickets to a later game. The sorority asked that the tickets be donated to their charity, A New Leaf, an organization that helps families in poverty.

Still, the selfie-obsessed millennial trope is not dead. In her recent appearance on Saturday Night Live, Miley Cyrus played an entitled youth for a new show entitled “The Millennials”. Behold!

OMG! What’s the world coming to?

Dishonesty and design October 1, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : Uncategorized , comments closed

Today, Volkswagen is the poster-boy of dishonesty in technology. The world’s biggest carmaker has covered itself in shame by grossly and wantonly deceiving regulators and the public about the performance of its diesel engines. Worse still is the news that this practice is neither unusual and has even been tolerated before by European regulators.

To be fair to VW, though, it might do to point out that members of the public are not above being dishonest for the right incentive. I am thinking here of the news of a group of hackers who have designed UnFit Bits, ways of deceiving exercise trackers like FitBit. For example, they have discovered that a FitBit will register calorie-burning exercise when attached to a pendulum or power drill.

Similar results can be obtained with a tracker attached to a swing, pendulum, or bicycle wheel.

Why bother? Two reasons:

  1. Users may be concerned about their privacy. Sure, companies that provide these health services claim to have excellent security measures. However, experience suggests that any data they have will also soon be available to Xi Jinping, Barak Obama, and Vladimir Putin, to name but a few.
  2. Some insurance companies are beginning to offer discounts to people who work out. The idea is that such people present a lower risk of ill health and thus merit lower premiums. The people behind UnFit Bits want everyone to have the same opportunity.

It is easy to be critical of dishonesty when it works against you. It is easy to be sympathetic when it works in your favour. Perhaps VW can try this tactic, as suggested recently by Conan O’Brien.

New autism genes revealed? September 30, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed

An article on Medical Xpress discusses recent findings related to a genetic component of autism. In a very large, genomic study, researchers at UC San Francisco and elsewhere identified 65 genes—28 with very high confidence—that play a role in the occurrence of autism.

The study does not reveal exactly how the genes contribute to this condition, but the results are considered suggestive:

The 65 high-confidence genes, 27 of which are newly identified in this study, fall into two main functional categories, one related to the development and function of synapses—the crucial sites where communication among brain cells takes place—and the other involving chromatin, the term for the DNA-protein complex that packs the genome into chromosomes in cell nuclei and governs how and when genes are expressed.

“The relationship between these two broad categories is a key question in autism research,” said Sanders. “They may be two separate biological paths to the disorder, or two sides of the same coin, with the chromatin-related genes identified in this study regulating the expression of those that drive synapse formation and function, or vice versa.”

This result is certainly of interest in the study of autism. What I found more interesting, in a way, was the title of the news article itself: “New autism genes are revealed in largest-ever study”. Of course, the study revealed nothing like an “autism gene”, that is, a gene that gives someone autism. What it did was to identify a set of genetic loci whose configuration may explain why some people are more at risk of autism than others.

The expression “autism gene” is a form of the gene-for concept, that is, that there are specific traits solely associated with specific genes. People sometimes speak of a gene for obesity, a gene for aggression, a gene for intelligence, and so on.

As Anne Buchanan points out in her blog, this conception of gene function is simplistic and confusing:

This becomes all the more important when it is considered that most elements in the genome, and in particular most protein-coding regions (‘genes’ in the usual sense of the word), have many different uses even within the same species — even within the same organ or system at any given time and/or during its development. So is a gene expressed in teeth, limbs, and gut a gene ‘for’ teeth? And if the homologous gene in flies — that ‘tooth gene’ — is expressed in (say) limbs and brains in vertebrates, is it now a limb gene? a brain gene?

In fact, the gene-for concept is a manifestation of genetic essentialism, the view that people (or any organism) can be known or treated on the basis of their genes alone.

The article about autism does not endorse genetic essentialism. However, the use of an essentialist expression in the title reminds us that such ideas are still present as stereotypical or quick-and-dirty ways of thinking about people and genes.

Sustainability and lifestyle September 29, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

The Atlantic Citylab has an interesting article that sheds light on a relationship between sustainability and lifestyle. Sustainability is sometimes (often?) seen as a largely technical matter of improving efficiency in consumption. Although this project is relevant, it also embodies an inherently conservative perspective, namely that of preserving a sort of consumerist lifestyle. The article illustrates a tension that this perspective can entail.

At a recent summit, many heads of state signed on to the new, UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals collectively represent a broad and ambitious program for addressing global problems such as hunger, poverty, and climate change. However, goals on the last two topics raise a conflict.

In order to alleviate poverty, the SGDs call for improvements in access to energy, meaning electricity. Generating enough additional power to supply people in developing nations with access comparable to that now available in developed nations would lead to a sharp increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Clearly, that result would make attainment of the goal on climate change more difficult.

To square this circle, the International Energy Agency proposes that an urban household should use about 550 kWh/year. Yet, that is about what a large, American refrigerator uses alone:

According to World Bank data, no country in the world with an income per capita above $10,000 has electricity consumption below 3,880 kWh per person per year. That’s nearly eight times the IEA target for a whole household.

As developing nations gain better access to electricity, they are likely to use it in ways that Westerners use it now. For example, air conditioning has become an indispensable part of life in North America, making people more productive in summer and enabling millions to live comfortably in warmer parts of the continent. (And to refrigerate vast spaces like the Houston Astrodome!) As many developing nations reside in warmer parts of the globe, AC will be high on their to-do lists.

There are at least two ways of resolving this tension. The first is to develop ways of generating and consuming power that are compatible with demands to preserve the environment. Such an endeavor has been compared to a “global Apollo program.” This approach will be popular with developers of new technologies but it is not clear that it would work out. The second way is for Westerners (among others) to change their lifestyles so as to consume less. In view of past experience, this hardly seems more feasible.

At some point, as the article implies, painful choices may be forced upon us by circumstances.

At any rate, the tension serves to highlight an assumption often left implicit in promotion of sustainability, that is, that sustainability should not mean any let-up in increasing consumption as a lifestyle and machine for economic growth.

How are you doing on Facebook? September 28, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed

From The Atlantic comes an article discussing an interesting patent recently filed by Facebook. The patent discusses how the social network might use its data to generate credit scores for users. Facebook could calculate a score for users based on the scores of their Facebook friends. Any lender might use this information to accept or deny a loan application.

As the article points out, this notion has some unpleasant associations with redlining, the practice of denying loans to people based on where they live. Redlining was applied mostly to “black” neighborhoods with the effect of keeping many African Americans from access to credit that they would otherwise have had. Since users’ Facebook friends tend to be of one ethnic background, a Facebook credit score could be discriminatory.

The article notes that Facebook is unlikely to pursue this idea. For one thing, it would likely freak out many users and make them more concerned for their privacy. Also, it might subject Facebook to scrutiny under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which would require the company to be much more transparent about what it does with user data. Finally, it might open the social network to lawsuits claiming that it credit ratings were discriminatory. These are all outcomes that the company would likely rather avoid. What is unclear, then, is why the company would patent the idea at all.

Another interesting tidbit was an overheard snippet of lunchtime chatter between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. CNBC reports that Merkel was complaining to the CEO about the abundance of postings on social media decrying the wave of Syrian refugees reaching Germany. Zuckerberg replied that the company was working on the problem, and then the microphone was turned off. Facebook has said it will do something about racist or hate postings in its German service but it is not clear what that might mean.

On a related note, an Australian tribunal has ruled that unfriending a coworker on Facebook may be considered bullying. A real-estate agent Rachel Roberts complained that she had been the target of several incidents of harassment and belittlement from superiors at work. An unfriending on 29 Jan. 2015 was listed as one such event and was accepted as such by the tribunal. As the article notes, employers down under are probably reading the news this morning and wondering how to revise their social media policies.

An article from Salon remarks on the role of Facebook in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Although Hillary Clinton remains the front-runner, rival Bernie Sanders has the lead in Facebook likes:

According to data obtained by Quintly, a social media analytics firm, Sanders’ presidential campaign page began the day of Saturday, August 22 with 1,197,290 likes to Clinton’s 1,199,797. By the end of the day, he had 1,218,879 to her 1,205,437. His lead has only increased since then.

Curiously, data suggest that Mrs. Clinton is more popular with users in Baghdad than in any American city. This fact may be evidence of the use of “click farms”, that is, the use of workers in developing countries who are paid to “like” pages to increase their apparent popularity. It may be that the Clinton campaign is not buying the likes itself but is paying advertisers to promote it who, in turn, purchase likes to meet their obligations. However, Clinton has form: an Inspector General’s report shows that she purchased likes while Secretary of State.

If there is a common thread to these items, then perhaps it is about how far Facebook has managed to integrate its version of life into public life in general. Technology critic Neil Postman argued that, at some point, technological change becomes “ecological”, meaning irretrievably integrated into life in general. When will social media reach this point, if it has not already?

Žabky z Flickru 02.jpg

Žabky z Flickru 02” by momo – Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Happy Birthday Free to You September 23, 2015

Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV302 , comments closed

As many news sources have reported, the song Happy Birthday now belongs to the public domain. Mostly. Some piano arrangements of the song are still protected, but the basic tune and lyrics are now free in the United States for anyone to use. Despite the lyrics having been written over 100 years ago, and the tune being even older, the song had been protected by copyright in the United States and its modern owners, who had no connection to the original creators, were still earning millions of dollars per year on licensing fees.

There is a great paper by Robert Brauneis from 2010 which explains the history and problems with copyright and Happy Birthday. It’s at, although you may need a university account to access it. So, I suggest the following take on the problem:

The Happy Birthday story has always been a good way to introduce students to copyright, what it is designed to protect, whether it goes too far, and ultimately how culture and technology interact. It’s something we all know (as pointed out in the video, most people have probably heard it more than any other collection of pop songs combined) and the problems are easy to grasp but not always easy to solve.

Just how much culture should be protected and preserved and for how long, and how much should be made available to others to use freely? The Happy Birthday song, I think many might agree, was withheld from the public for too long, but the court decision really only turned on a technicality when it was discovered that it had been published before it was properly copyrighted. Which doesn’t really deal with the greater argument that too many other aspects of our culture have been “locked away” behind the frequent extensions of copyright. At one point, copyright lasted a few decades; now it persists for a lifetime after the death of the creator. The decision did little to address this critical problem, and neither do many of the news stories today.

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