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Will self-driving cars reduce congestion? November 27, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV 201, STV202 , add a comment

Wired has short piece about plans by Audi to introduce self-parking cars. That’s right: That would be a car that drops you off at your destination and then finds a place to park all by itself.

The reason for wanting such cars is obvious. Even the most die-hard car fan probably does not enjoy hunting for and maneuvering into parking spots. Being relieved of this chore is already popular with owners of current vehicles that can pull off parallel parks largely at the push of a button.

However, Audi hopes that self-parking cars of the more advanced sort will reduce traffic gridlock too:

Audi is working with a real estate developer [in Boston] to incorporate autonomous car tech in a program meant to drastically reduce the space lost to parking and the congestion caused by people trolling for a spot.

It turns out that parking-spot hunting contributes substantially to traffic in cities. So, in a city where empty spots are logged in a database that self-parking cars can access and use should minimize those extra vehicle miles travelled.

I have to admit to some skepticism about this conclusion. It assumes that the demand for parking is fixed and by making the process of finding it more efficient, the movement needed to exploit it will decrease. However, traffic is notorious for the phenomenon of induced demand. For example, in the past, building more roadway has stimulated demand for car trips, increasing the amount of traffic on the roads.

Making parking less costly for people in terms of time spent accessing it may also stimulate use of it. Think of it this way: If people no longer have to pay the price of laboriously finding a parking spot every time they make a trip, then the trip becomes less costly and thus more attractive.

As Jarrett Walker explains on this Human Transit blog, self-driving cars may actually increase traffic overall. Perhaps the only reliable to way to reduce the amount of trolling for parking spaces is to charge more for parking. That solution is not high-tech and not something Audi can sell but it is more likely to work.

DNN: 26 Nov. 2015 November 26, 2015

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

With the approach of Black Friday, a manic shopping event south of the border, many drones will likely be finding new homes soon. So, it is time once again to hover over some recent drone news.

As our eyes in the sky, drones can help people to regulate affairs on the ground. Consider a project by the New South Wales government in Australia to help patrol beaches for sharks. Soon, drones will commence hovering over the water off the shores of popular stands, sending pictures back to a central HQ where they will be examined for signs of sharks. When one is spotted, people at the site will be alerted to use the water at their own risk.

Also at sea, the European Maritime Safety Agency and the European Space Agency are considering using drones to monitor emissions from ships in the North and Baltic seas. Emissions standards in these areas have proven difficult to enforce. Now, drones can be equipped with “sniffers” that can sample ship emissions by flying through the exhaust plume of ships at sea and thus identify violators.

Not only can drones be employed at sea but NASA is considering sending a drone to Mars. A gadget called the Mars Helicopter could accompany the usual rover, flying around to spy out interesting places to check out and photographing the little green men who built the canals. (I made up that last one.) If development goes well, the drone could take off for the Red Planet in 2020.

As usual, drones have been finding their way to places they should not. A few days ago, a drone came within three meters of a small plane flying at the Waterloo International Airport. So far, the pilot of the drone has not been located.

Such incidents have led to calls for more regulation of drones. The powers that be in Waterloo Region may want to consider regulations enacted by the city of Chicago:

It prohibits the flying of drones within 5 miles of the city’s airports, and creates no-fly zones over churches, schools, hospitals, police stations and private property without the owner’s consent.

Critics consider the no-fly zones too expansive but the City Council seems to be prefer being safe to being sorry.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is still considering drone regulations. In particular, it is considering a registry in which each drone owner is entered, along with information about each of their drones. I expect drone owners to begin arming their machines so as to appeal to their Second Amendment rights to bear arms (Hey, it has been done already!) in order to stay off the list. As is well known, the Founding Fathers meant for Americans to have unfettered access to airborne weaponry.

Justin Peters at Slate raises the interesting question about the privacy of such a registry. The FAA suggests that the drone registry should be exempt from freedom of information requests by journalists (and others). He agrees that release of such information might constitute an invasion of privacy but fears that a blanket exemption from FOI requests is too restrictive. He also notes that the FAA has had little to say about how secure the registry will be. This issue is interesting since, as you may imagine, an unsecured government database will not remain private for long. In general, it will be important to define under just what circumstances the information in the database will be accessed and used.

And now, if you have not avoided enough work already, here is a short compilation of drone fails on video:

Car dealers won’t sell electric cars? November 25, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment

The New York Times has an interesting piece discussing resistance from car dealers about selling electric cars. The article notes that electric cars are considered an important part of America’s climate change mitigation strategy, so any impediment to getting them on the road is a concern. Thus, the role of car dealers in putting the brakes on electric car sales becomes a significant policy issue.

The article covers several reasons why car dealers might be cool on electric cars. For one, a big distinction of electric cars is their low emissions and fuel economy, points that dealers think are not motivating for customers. Only a fraction of motorists are truly interested in fuel economy argues a former chair of the National Automobile Dealers Association. So, pushing low-emission vehicles is like telling people to eat their broccoli when what they really want is donuts. (Mmmm. Donuts.)

Critics think that dealers are more concerned about the implications of electric cars for their bottom line. Being unusual, electric cars require more time to explain and sell, cutting into the return on investment for dealers, who are typically paid on commission. Electric vehicles do not require the same level of maintenance, including oil changes and other problems with moving parts. This robustness means less business at the lucrative service center. Some consumers complain that the dealers knew less about the cars than they did. After a career spent dealing with conventional cars, knowledge of electric vehicles among dealers may be scarce or rudimentary. Such a lack does not lend itself to enthusiasm for selling the vehicles.

A notable exception would be Tesla, which sells directly to consumers instead of through dealers.

When discussing the adoption of new designs, industrial designer Raymond Loewy argued that uptake is often impaired because businesses are not prepared to produce or distribute radically new things. It is the job of the designers to consider not only design itself but how it will appear to people who produce and market it. This observation may be one that should receive more attention by advocates of electric cars.

Doggie DNA tests November 23, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , add a comment

Genetic privacy is an ongoing challenge. One question raised on this topic concerns to whom people owe knowledge of their genetic material. Governments maintain DNA records of many convicted criminals, for example, which they use to keep a database of suspicious people. Now, a condo association in Florida has added a new twist: They want the DNA of their members’ dogs!

The Panama City News Herald reports that a condo association now seeks DNA samples from its members’ cats and dogs. The effort is an attempt to deal with pet poop deposited in common areas. Evidently, sampling and matching DNA from feces is cheap enough that the condo association plans to keep a DNA database of pets against which samples from “crime” scenes can be tested.

Several occupants of the condo (many of whom rent from the actual owners) feel that the move is invasive or misguided. One worries about false negatives, pets that leave deposits but are not owned by occupants:

“I don’t see how they can do it and do it right, because we have a lot of visitors here and they bring dogs,” the resident said. “Sometimes they have two or three (dogs) and sometimes they are big, sometimes they are little. Half of the time they (the HOA) don’t even know they (visiting dogs) are here.”

Another concern would be with false positives, that is, times when tests match with a pet in the database that did not leave the deposit. After all, DNA from the pets of occupants are probably all over the condo site so contamination would be a problem. What precautions would the Association take to avoid it in the sampling and testing process?

Pet droppings are an annoying issue in any social space. DNA sampling and matching seems like a way to implement a “polluter pays” regime, which seems fair. Even so, there remain the issues of how to deal with errors fairly and whether or not the accuracy of the process is sufficient to warrant its use in the first place.

Privacy and the Islamic State November 20, 2015

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

Today’s world of ubiquitous, networked IT makes communication vastly easier and more effective than ever. How else could people share emojis, vacation selfies and cat videos across the planet in fractions of a second? However, the trade-off for this outpouring of interconnection is that privacy may be compromised. Privacy is a problem not only for people determined to fine-tune their Facebook profiles or keep drones from photographing their backyards, but also for those who are up to no good.

It should not be surprising to learn that terrorists face similar issues. This fact is made clear by the news that ISIS has an operational security (OPSEC) manual and a help desk for jihadis trying to keep their doings secret. A 32-page manual on keeping communications from prying eyes and ears recently surfaced on the ‘net. It identifies means of keeping communications encrypted and rates different hardware and software packages on their usefulness for the purpose.

The level of operational security represented by the document is apparently pretty decent, reflecting an informed and current familiarity with the problems of private communication:

“This is about as good at OPSEC as you can get without being formally trained by a government,” Brantly, a cyber fellow with the West Point center, told WIRED. “This is roughly [the same advice] I give to human rights activists and journalists to avoid state surveillance in other countries. If they do it right, then they can become pretty secure.

This point is relevant to recent calls by various national security services to have backdoors implanted in encryption technology. However, this idea has been rejected by security researchers on the grounds that it would compromise security too generally. Besides which, the Paris attackers did not use encryption to coordinate all of their activities.

What can be done about the use of privacy by such groups for destructive purposes? Hacker collective Anonymous has stated that it is taking on ISIS. The group would seem like a logical candidate for a vigilante effort to penetrate ISIS’s veil of privacy. However, project #OpISIS has not yet yielded stellar results:

The effort has ebbed and flowed, but the past nine months have seen a significant increase in both the frequency and visibility of online attacks against the Islamic State. To date, hacktivists claim to have dismantled some 149 Islamic State-linked websites and flagged roughly 101,000 Twitter accounts and 5,900 propaganda videos.

However, there are signs that the effort is becoming more concentrated.

In the meantime, let’s consider another idea: To penetrate ISIS security, we should sell them stuff. Advertisers have perfected the art of identifying and profiling potential customers. In addition, they have many devious ways of tracking people and their interests. Consider this clever method for surreptitiously identifying mobile devices with certain people:

The TV is on in the background, and you’re replying to a quick email on your phone nearby. You don’t know it, but the devices are communicating. During a commercial, the TV emits an inaudible tone and your phone, which was listening for it, picks it up. Somewhere far away, a server makes a note: Both devices probably belong to you.

Yes, advertisers have figured out how to use inaudible sounds to correlate devices with users, without those users being aware of it.

Groups like the Center for Democracy and Technology regard this as an underhanded invasion of privacy. However, it might also be a great way of identifying terrorists. Simply apply the technology to advertisements for things that terrorists would like to buy, e.g., vacations to Syria, and see which devices show up and where.

If the problem is the privacy of groups like ISIS, then maybe the answer is in oldest privacy invading technology on the ‘net: advertising.

DNN: 19 Nov. 2015 November 19, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

Drones and humans can make a great combination but only if the humans behave themselves.

Were you considering asking Santa for a drone this year but put off by fears of flying your toy into restricted airspace? You would not want to be the next guy to fly his drone into the White House. If so, then Chinese drone maker DJI has a new feature you might be interested in. The company has expanded the geofencing facility in its drones. By default, drones will refuse to fly over designated areas such as airports, prisons, and (I imagine) 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Some defaults can be turned off by users:

“This is an example of the technology empowering operators to make smart decisions,” said Brendan Schulman, vice president of policy and legal affairs at DJI. “It’s an example of how technology solutions can address concerns.”

In other words, it enables users to make smart decisions by disabling their ability to make stupid decisions.

If you still feel intimidated at the awesome responsibility of drone ownership, then Wiley has the perfect stocking stuffer for you: Drones for Dummies! This book helpfully guides users through the materials that you would expect:

Drones for Dummies introduces you to the fascinating world of UAVs. Written with friendly instruction, Drones for Dummies provides you with the information you need to find the perfect drone for you, ways to use a drone and even drone etiquette and the laws and regulations governing consumer drone usage. Plus, you’ll discover the basics of flight, including how to use a drone to capture photos and video.

Regrettably, the volume cannot be delivered by drone, yet.

If you are now feeling more comfortable with drones, then you will be pleased to learn of a possible Russian doomsday weapon based on drone technology. New Scientist reports on a news leak concerning a Russian military program to equip drone submarines with nuclear dirty-bombs. The idea seems to be to equip a fleet of submersible drones that could, on remote command, sneak into any port or harbor city and set off a nuclear device, devastating the target and rendering it uninhabitable for a considerable length of time. It is unclear whether this program is for real or is some kind of saber rattling exercise by the Russian government.

If the thought of robotic drones now seems repugnant, then you might consider becoming a drone yourself. This idea may sound crazy but Gizmag reports on the development of a bona fide jetpack by inventor David Mayman. Mayman recently demonstrated the JB-9 by flying it around the Statue of Liberty. He considered the current model too tricky for general use but has hopes the the JB-10 will be available for the consumer market in coming years.

If that still sounds too wacky, then consider the news from the BBC that Dubai is purchasing jetpacks for its civil defense force. First responders will be able to use the jetpacks for quick reconnaissance in emergency situations. The jetpacks are made by a New Zealand company called Martin aircraft and are considered microlight aircraft for regulatory purposes. These devices are more capable than the consumer-style JB-9 but are also considerably larger.

The name jetpack is a throwback to the 1950s. Today, I think we should call such devices “human drones”. I now look forward to the publication of “Human drones for Dummies”.

A better scooter? November 18, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

From Gizmag comes a short piece about an electric “smart” scooter from Taiwanese firm Gogoro. (The “gogo” name sound appropriate but the whole moniker still sounds like the title of a Godzilla sequel to me.) Already on the streets of Taipei, the scooter will soon be seen in Amsterdam and then other European cities.

Electric scooters are nothing new but, as the piece explains, its fuel management is. Each scooter runs on a pair of handy-sized rechargeable batteries that lie below the seat. When the charge gets low, drivers can pull into a swap-and-go station run by the Gogoro Energy Network to exchange their depleted batteries for recharged ones. The whole operation takes only a few seconds.

Gogoro Smartscooter

(Maurizio Pesce/

The design makes for an interesting comparison with Better Place, the electric car system with swappable batteries promoted by Shai Agassi. Agassi’s vision was to sell car drivers a fleet of electric Renaults whose batteries could be swapped for recharged ones at specialized, roadside stations. Better Place had a commitment from Israel, which has issues with its oil-rich neighbors and likes the idea of an all-electric auto infrastructure. The whole project collapsed in 2013 for reasons that are explored in this FastComany article.

There are undoubtedly many reasons for its failure. A big one was that Agassi aimed to replace existing automotive infrastructure in very short order, when uptake of electric cars was (and remains) minuscule in proportion to the whole auto industry. Unlike Tesla, which aimed its products at wealthy early adopters, Better Place was aimed at the broad, smartphone-owning middle class. Yet, the company had nowhere near enough money to offer cars for rates comparable to the cost of a smartphone on a data plan.

Gogoro’s plan seems more sound. It does not require high-tech, automated swapping stations but only a bank of batteries that can be easily and quickly swapped by hand. Also, its scooters appear to cost about as much as conventional ones, so that the new design can be introduced without enormous subsidies. Plus, it does not appear to require a wholesale change of infrastructure from one technology to the other.

In previous posts, we have discussed Raymond Loewy’s MAYA principle: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. An innovative technology is likely to succeed only if it remains a reasonable fit with the current world. In this respect, Gogoro’s innovation seems to stand a better chance of success than did Better Place.

Ersatz shark fin November 16, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed

Earlier this year, I discussed a project at a startup named Pembient to produce facsimile rhino horn with 3D printers and other biotechnology. Rhino horn is much in demand as an ingredient in traditional medicines. However, rhinos from which the material comes are threatened. Matthew Markus of Pembient hoped to reduce demand for rhino horn by marketing an acceptable alternative.

Recently, The Guardian has published an article describing a similar effort aimed at shark fin. Shark fin is a soup ingredient in traditional Asian cuisines but is problematic for at least two reasons. First, sharks are stripped of their fins and then simply thrown back in the water. Second, shark populations are increasingly under threat:

WildAid, the conservation charity, claims fins from up to 73m sharks are used to make the delicacy every year, while a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN estimated that world imports of shark fins amounted to 17,154 tonnes with a value of $438.6m (£287m) in 2011.

New Wave Foods of San Francisco is using genetically modified yeast to reproduce the collagen found in shark fins and configuring it in a way that resembles the fins as well. The aim is twofold: (1) to break into a lucrative seafood market and (2) to undercut the popularity of actual shark fins, thus reducing the incentive of the shark fishery and the pressure on shark populations.

Naturally, the same caveats that apply to rhino horn apply here. Shark fin is a luxury item, prized because it is expensive and allows consumers to show off how wealthy they are. They might well not be interested in a cheap substitute. Moreover, a cheap substitute may legitimate and create more interest in the real thing.

Markus of Pembient argued that the introduction of good, substitute goods will eventually make those goods more broadly acceptable, ultimately undermining the market for rhino horn. New Wave might make the same response for mock shark fin. Either way, shark conservationists are not holding their breath:

“Anything that can suppress the demand or provide an alternative for shark fin is quite helpful in the short term, but there will always be a demand for shark products, whether that’s fin, meat, cartilage or other by-products,” says Paul Cox, managing director of the Shark Trust. “Ultimately, in order to safeguard the future of sharks, we have got to keep pushing for a combination of sustainably managed fisheries and responsible consumer supply chains.”

Shark fin stew.jpg

Shark fin stew” by TakoradeeOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Equitable ad blocking November 13, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

Technology Review has an interesting article on Wladimir Palant and his well-known software, AdBlock Plus. As you may know, AdBlock Plus is a browser extension that allows users to prevent the downloading and displaying of ads with the exception of those ads placed on a whitelist called “Acceptable Ads”.

Adblock Plus 2014 Logo.svg

Adblock Plus 2014 Logo” by Sven Hartz – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

There has been a long-simmering debate about the legitimacy of ad blockers. A prevalent business model on the Internet involves the provision of a “free” service to users in exchange for exposing users to ads. This model is a social contract between providers and users that underlies popular services like Google and Facebook.

One argument against ad blockers like AdBlock Plus is that they undermine the contract. Allowing users to access services without the exchange of attention to ads violates the deal and is tantamount to stealing.

One counterargument is that ads themselves fail to honour the contract. Many ads are annoying and use up an unreasonable amount of users’ resources without compensation. Also, advertisers often use ads to track users without their full knowledge or consent. Blocking ads is the only effective way users have of defending their rights.

Palant’s solution is the Acceptable Ads program, in which ads that are deemed respectful of users’ resources and attention are whitelisted. In Palant’s scheme, large-scale advertisers like Google or Facebook pay to get their ads cleared whereas small-time outfits can apply to have their assessed for free.

One complaint about this scheme is that it operates like an extortion racket. “That’s a nice business you got here. It’d be a shame if no one sees the ads!” (Has an adcidict?) In October, Palant’s company, Eyeo, announced that it is setting up an independent board to make whitelist determinations. In that way, Eyeo is no longer in a conflict of interest, being both judge and jury.

The hope is that this move will make for an equitable deal between advertisers and users. Advertisers will tone down the obnoxious and intrusive aspects of their ads and users will not block them. In that way, advertisers will not have to withdraw their funding and undermine all the services that people like and users will not fall back on what Palant calls the “nuclear option” of blocking all advertising, period.

Drugs in Russian sport November 12, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed

On Monday, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) tabled a report documenting systematic drug use and systemic corruption in the Russian elite sport system. Main findings of the report include:

  1. A Deeply Rooted Culture of Cheating
  2. Exploitation of Athletes
  3. Confirmed Athletes Cheating
  4. Confirmed Involvement by Doctors, Coaches and Laboratory Personnel
  5. Corruption and Bribery within IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations)

The New York Times article compares the current situation in Russia to that in the former East Germany during the Cold War, when athletes were systematically abused and enhanced in order to exhibit the glories of communism.

The report recommends that the Russian All-Russia Athletics Federation be suspended from international track and field competitions until these concerns are met. WADA head Dick Pound suggests that Russian authorities might be able to get their act together in time to have athletes compete in the Rio summer Olympics next year if they act immediately.

Some Russian officials have denounced the report, suggesting that it is part of a smear campaign or a distraction from the drug testing regime in the London Olympics of 2012:

But [Russian Sport Minister Vitaly] Mutko, who has been bullish in his response in contrast to a more measured official reaction from the sports ministry, said that if tests in London had failed to catch cheats “then your system is zero and even worse than ours”.

Hardly reassuring!

On the whole, Russian authorities want to be seen as sensitive to the issue. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian officials to conduct their own investigation, as a sign that he takes doping as a serious problem for elite athletics in general. Five athletes fingered in the report were suspended shortly before it came out.

In view of this turn of events, plus the recent FIFA scandal and other items, Pound muses that public opinion may be moving to the view that all elite sports are corrupt and pervaded by drug abuse. He may be right.

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