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Is gene therapy finally here? May 6, 2016

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , add a comment

Gene therapy is a medical approach to treatment that, roughly speaking, involves manipulating a patient’s genes in order to improve their health. This might involve disabling a malfunctioning gene, replacing it, or even inserting a novel gene. Gene therapy has long been thought to be a natural candidate to treat genetically conditioned ailments such as cystic fibrosis.

In spite of its obvious promise, gene therapy has spent many years in the wilderness. The death of Jesse Gelsinger in a gene therapy trial in 1999 sent research into a long tail spin. However, certain forms of gene therapy have now made their way through clinical trails and are emerging into the medical marketplace. The results are mixed.

The first gene therapy in medical service is alipogene tiparvovec, known as Glybera, which is a treatment for lipoprotein lipase deficiency, a malfunction of people’s fat-processing metabolism. Glybera consists of trillions of viruses containing the correct lipoprotein lipase gene, which the viruses prompt a patient’s body to reproduce.

In spite of its arrival in clinical use, Glybera is already considered a flop. The basic problem is that lipoprotein lipase deficiency is very rare. Partly for this reason, doses of this treatment cost $1 million each. Needless to say, there have been few individuals or insurance companies lining up for it.

On the bright side, in getting approval and proving salutary, Glybera led the way for other gene therapies.

So, prospects are finally looking up. For example, a genetic therapy for severe combined immune deficiency, also known as Bubble Boy disease, is set to emerge from trials. The therapy is touted as a cure since it works by replacing the defective genes that give rise to the ailment. It has a good track record:

The treatment is different than any that’s come before because it appears to be an outright cure carried out through a genetic repair. The therapy was tested on 18 children, the first of them 15 years ago. All are still alive.

It is not yet clear what price will be asked, although officials with GlaxoSmithKline say it will not approach $1 million.

Investors and researchers in gene therapy are happy with the way things are going. Still, new developments have not stirred the hype accompanied by earlier efforts. Gene therapies may work well for ailments caused by single-gene errors. Yet, even most genetically conditioned medical problems are too complex to be addressable through the work that brought about these latest treatments.

Self-driving cars coming soon? May 5, 2016

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment

Google has recently announced a partnership with Chrysler to install its self-driving car system in the Chrysler Pacifica. The immediate aim is to further test its system with the aid of 100 modified units of the popular minivan.

Adrienne Lafrance of The Atlantic considers the project a genius move. Google has taken pains to present its self-driving car project in a non-threatening way, as evidenced in the form of its cute little bubble buggy. Who would be afraid of a car—even a robotic one—when it looks like a marshmallow?

Roughly the same logic applies to the Pacifica. As a minivan, it fits into an established, even staid, category of vehicle:

But even more than that, picking a minivan for Google’s first direct collaboration with an automaker is really about what the Chrysler Pacifica—and minivans more broadly—represents. Boring ole safety and reliability. This is the kind of car that gets a tumble of kids to and from field hockey practice without incident; it is not a vehicle you expect to see speeding down the freeway, weaving in and out of traffic.

So, the public will be quicker to feel OK with, and to trust, a self-driving car that arrives in this form.

Certainly, this approach stands in contrast to that of Tesla, which has introduced self-driving vehicles in the form of its high-flying fleet of electric cars.

Beyond the issue of how people will respond to self-driving cars, there is the matter of what they will do once a computer takes the wheel. Barrie Kirk, of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence, speculates that people will have more sex in cars as a result. Certainly, sex in cars is nothing new, as visitors to a Lovers’ Leap or a drive-in movie theatre can attest. However, in those cases, the cars were stationary.

Tesla drivers have already recorded themselves doing odd things in their autopilot-equipped Model Ss, such as brushing their teeth or reading books. As confidence in such services increases, minds may turn to other pursuits. And, minivans seem particularly well suited to them.

So, perhaps technology is about to change our perception of minivans from boring brat haulers to mobile love lairs. One hopes that they will have tinted windows.


2017 Chrysler Pacifica Limited

(Automotive Rhythms/Flickr.com)

DNN: 4 May 2016 May 4, 2016

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment

It is interesting to observe the forces that shape the adoption of new technologies. Drones, for example, have proved challenging for regulators. However, they are being adopted readily in other social spheres.

In the arts, drones have been recruited into dance performances and they have been deployed for making graffiti. Now, Gizmag reports, Japanese advertising firm MicroAd has used drones as part of a choreographed performance with Mt. Fuji as a backdrop. The purpose of the performance is to promote this “Sky Magic” service for aerial advertising at special events. One may be coming soon to a festival near you!

Fastcompany reports on efforts to make drone racing into a spectator sport. The Drone Racing League has approached marketing firm Culprit Creative to turn drone races into broadcast-worthy events. The result is the design of a race course that allows for spectacular stunts and, of course, crashes. The aim is to be a cinematic as possible, evoking high-movie races scenes from Tron and Star Wars. If these designers can capture the look and feel of these popular experiences, then we may be seeing much more of drone racing on our screens.

Although watching drones may become a pastime, having drones watch us is already pretty well established. Some ski resorts already offer a service where drones follow skiers downhill to record their exploits. Now, Gizmag reports that there is an underwater drone that can follow divers around to record their dives. The iBubble can function autonomously for about an hour. It can also be steered remotely. I assume that many dive videos will be put on social media for others to admire.

So, the urge for both promotion and self-promotion has prompted some love for drones.

The social construction of bike share systems April 26, 2016

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV 201, STV202 , comments closed

An interesting article has appeared in The Journal of Urban Technology: “Disassembling Bike-Sharing Systems” by Fabio Duarte, a professor of urban management at Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Paraná. In brief, the article analyzes the adoption of bike share systems (BSSs) in accord with Bijker’s account of the social construction of technology.

The article examines the social aspects of the recent success of BSSs in major world cities. Of course, bike share systems help to solve certain urban mobility problems. Yet, their acceptance has also been conditioned by non-technical factors. Duarte focusses on three:

  1. Electronic keys: Users of BSSs typically buy a membership in a system and are issued a unique ID to use when borrowing and returning bikes. Besides solving management issues, these keys also provide a surveillance function, tracking where and when their users are moving. BSSs are a sign that people seem to be OK with the commodification of this personal data.
  2. Credit cards: Payment is typically made through credit cards. Although this practice does solve a management issue, it also excludes people who do not have access to credit cards, e.g., the urban poor. It is worth noting that there are exceptions, such as Philadelphia’s BCycle, which accepts cash.
  3. Advertising: BSSs are often subsidized by private companies, especially banks, which then get to place their logos prominently on the bikes. Thus, the bikes become traveling billboards for the sponsors. In some cases, this move helps sponsors to skirt restrictive public advertising bylaws. Also, it means that BSSs are more likely to be found in urban areas where there are customers wealthy enough to afford banking services.

As Duarte stresses, none of these points mean that BSSs are nasty or ought not to exist. It simply means that their design is the result of social as well as technical criteria.

Uber watch: 22 April 2016 April 22, 2016

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV 201, STV302 , comments closed

Let’s look at some interesting events in our ongoing UberWatch.

Uber has recently settled a couple of lawsuits launched against it. For example, it just settled class-action lawsuits in Massachusetts and California by disaffected drivers who wanted the ride-hailing company to classify them as employees instead of contractors. Final sums were not published but upwards of $100 million in California was cited. The settlement does not decide the matter of employment. However, Uber did agree to modify a number of practices in which it appears to act as an employer. For example, Uber agreed not to summarily deactivate drivers for turning down a certain number of ride requests, an action that seems much like firing them.

This is not to say drivers will no longer get deactivated, just that Uber will cut them more slack and be more transparent about its rationale for doing so.

Uber also settled another California lawsuit regarding the stringency of its driver background checks. Uber agreed to pay out $28.5 million to the 25 million complainants and to moderate the language it uses to describe its security checks. The company will also get high-tech on its partners’ asses, developing biometric identification and voice verification for the purpose.

Uber also recently released its first transparency report. Companies like Google and Apple use these to inform people about the kinds of information requests they get from authorities regarding their customers, the idea being to deflect some of people’s anxiety about their privacy at nosy police, regulators, etc.

Obviously, Uber has some juicy data about people and their doings and whereabouts, which Uncle Sam sometimes finds quite interesting:

Uber does not specify how many riders and drivers were affected by disclosures to law enforcement officials, but the company says the government requested data related to a total of 613 rider and driver accounts. Of those requests, Uber’s report shows it “fully” complied with 31.8 percent of the requests and produced some data for 84.8 percent of the cases.

Uber is getting a bumpy ride in China. It’s Chinese subsidiary, called YouBu, is in tough against home-grown giant Didi, an amalgamation of services launched by Tencent and Alibaba. The competition is heightened by the fact that Chinese regulators tend to strongly back the home team. The result is that each side is spending eye-watering amounts of cash to secure marketshare and drive the other guy out of business. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick recently admitted that his company lost $1 billion in China so far subsidizing rides to build up clientele. On the bright side, Uber has raised $1.2 billion to expand further into the country. However, Didi has raised $3 billion for the same purpose.

Meanwhile, car-maker Nissan has come up with a strategy to compete with Uber. It reckons that people will want to stay in their own cars, instead of sharing, if they are adequately connected and entertained:

As drivers make their vehicles more personal and extensions of their homes and offices, they will be less interested in sharing and will likely insist on retaining their own autos, said Philippe Klein, Nissan’s chief planning officer.

“Your smartphone, you’re not sharing it. It’s becoming more and more a personal object,” Mr. Klein said.

The same theory should apply to vehicles, he said.

Maybe, but will people who already have their own smartphones really mind sitting in the same car as others who are similarly equipped?

Some regulators are making nice with the ride-sharing giant. For example, the city of Altamonte Springs, Florida, is subsidizing Uber fares along routes that complement its transit system:

The city will cover 20 percent of any ride beginning or ending in Altamonte Springs — 25 percent for rides to or from the local commuter rail station.

The scheme makes some sense. A subsidy might help to get commuters out of their own cars and into a private carpool instead. Also, a carpool system might be more effective in servicing suburban commuters since it is usually uneconomical to run busses through myriad and windy suburban streets.

It will be interesting to see how the project develops.

DNN: 20 April 2016 April 20, 2016

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

Readers of this blog will be aware that drones have challenged authorities when it comes to appropriate regulation. The trend continues.

The New York Times notes that Chinese authorities are quite concerned about the use of commercial drones in their country, which is interesting as many drones are made there.

Zhang Fanxi, spokesman for DJI, China’s biggest consumer drone manufacturer, confirms that the company receives many requests from the government for drone data. Drones generate plenty of records, usually including where they have been and what they have observed. Uncle Xi, it turns out, is sometimes interested in that information.

The privacy concerns of this situation are clear enough. It also raises political concerns where the drone data would apply to Hong Kong, which is a semiautonomous area and sensitive to actions taken by central authorities.

The central government is also sensitive about drones in certain areas. It has shot down a drone found flying over Beijing and spanked (verbally, not literally) a tourist who took footage of Beijing from a drone.

In the U.K., a drone has reportedly collided with a commercial aircraft at Heathrow airport. If the report is confirmed, then this would be the first such collision on record. Although nothing major resulted from the incident, it underlines concerns about how to enforce regulations that require people to keep their toys out of commercial airspace.

It remains unclear what the consequences of such strikes may be. It may relieve you to know that researchers in Denmark are looking into the matter by launching drones (or drone parts) into slices of pork. I imagine that pork is used as a stand-in for the human head. Nice!

For those thinking of taking the law into their own hands, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has some bad news. The agency recently confirmed that it considers shooting down a drone to be a felony. This notion seems to be at odds with the ruling of a Kentucky judge who exonerated William Meredith for shooting down a drone near his property in that state. It seems that official attitudes towards drone defense have not completely settled.

In some ways, however, drone law may be in advance of the technology. For example, a Technology Review article argues that drone technology is not yet up to the task of home delivery. The U.S. Senate is considering a bill that would “pave the way” for drone deliveries within two years. However, critics argue that the technology will not be sufficiently safe or robust in that time frame.

“You have to assume they’ll fall out of the sky,” says Nicholas Roy, a professor at MIT who worked with Google on its drone delivery effort, called Project Wing. “So how do you make sure these vehicles are reliable enough—both the hardware and the software?”

Beats me! In the meantime, pizza delivery will have to continue the old fashioned way.

Finally, as food for thought, here is a recording taken from a drone that recently flew through the window of an office building in Capetown, South Africa, and into the head of David Perel. Perel obtained the video from a memory card that he extracted from the wayward device.

Welcome to Kuwait, now open wide! April 19, 2016

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The Kuwait Times reports that the country is about to create a DNA database that will contain genetic “fingerprints” of all citizens, residents, and also visitors.

The article contains a Q&A session with an unnamed senior official of the Ministry of the Interior. The official says that the purpose of the tests is to assist with paternity and criminal cases. In other words, sample fingerprints will be matched against a database compiled by police.

In fact, the scheme was begun about a year ago when citizens and foreign residents were required to provide samples for a database. The move was a response to a suicide bombing in Kuwait City perpetrated by Islamic State militants. Reports do not indicate how the system is used to address the issue of future bombings.

Presumably, visitors to the country will be required to provide a cheek swab. Compliance is mandatory. Citizens who refuse to comply risk a year in prison or a fine of up to $33,000 (US). It is not clear what sanction might be applied to visitors who refuse to provide samples.

It may be that the Kuwaiti government will receive some pushback on the law. In the S and Marper v United Kingdom case (2008), the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK’s policy of indefinite retention of DNA profiles of people not convicted of any crime was inconsistent with their rights and, indeed, “cannot be regarded as necessary in a democratic society”. A universal DNA database goes well beyond what the infringing UK law called for.

Obviously, the ECHR has no jurisdiction over Kuwait but Europeans may want their governments to weigh in on the propriety of a foreign government amassing such a database. At present, there has been no response from other governments concerning the Kuwaiti announcement.

Big Brother in New Jersey? April 18, 2016

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV 201, STV302 , comments closed

An item in NPR notes the increasing installation of microphones in transit, such as the trains of New Jersey Transit.

The trains include little signs that state, “video and audio systems in use”, meaning that cameras and microphones are present that may record whatever is happening onboard. Officially, their function is to deter criminal activity, although they clearly help authorities in sorting out complaints after the fact. However, NJ Transit is cagey about exactly how the recordings may be used.

Passengers seem to accept the presence of cameras as a legitimate security measure. However, some complain that microphones that may record their conversations are too Orwellian. They expect their conversations to remain private.

This article brings to mind the notion of a “panaudicon“, a system of universal auditory surveillance intended to deter or identify anti-social behavior. The basic idea is that if people are aware that their unwelcome or illegal forms of speech will be discovered by authorities, then they will train themselves not to say such things in the first place. Thus, society can function more smoothly.

Are the microphones in NJ Transit capable of supporting this function? Rowell Notbohm, CEO of Apollo Video Technology, which supplies such equipment, says that their gear is not intended for this purpose:

“Typically it’s not gonna hear a conversation between two people that are sitting next to one other,” says Notbohm. “The idea is to be able to capture the interaction between passengers and the operator. And then any big altercation or noises that are going on in the vehicle.”

However, as noted in an earlier posting, systems of this sort may be capable of monitoring how “aggressive”, etc. an utterance on a train is.

In any event, NJ Transit has not disclosed what they do with the recordings they make from this equipment. The ACLU has demanded that they do so. At the very least, NJ Transit should publish a privacy policy that covers this situation.

What sort of policy would be appropriate?

Simplicity in design April 15, 2016

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

Simplicity is a quality that is almost universally praised in design. Yet, it can be hard to achieve. In particular, the intention of making a design simple is often at odds with the urge to put a computer in everything.

So, it was interesting to see this TED Talk by a young designer named Mileha Soneji. She wanted to design some things to help a favorite uncle live better with Parkinson’s disease, an ailment accompanied by frustrating tremors. Ms. Soneji was determined that her ideas would be simple ones.

I can just imagine the kind of solutions many designers would visualize, e.g., cups or walkers with computer-guided handles or legs using noise-cancelling technology to produce a steady ride. Some of these ideas might be appropriate, e.g., a stable spoon. However, a willingness to think of solutions without fancy or costly features is something that designers should also cultivate.

Depending on software April 14, 2016

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed

Technology scholar Neil Postman used the term ecological to refer to the extent to which technology becomes embedded in our lives. Very often, people think of technology adoption as a matter of accretion. That is, when a new technology comes along, it simply makes some aspect of life more pleasant, efficient, etc. In fact, new technologies can fundamentally overhaul our lives.

The classic example is cars. As Henry Ford would agree, a car is not just a faster horse. Along with the adoption of automobiles, we adopted zillions of miles of paved roads and acres of parking lots, drive-thru restaurants, fossil fuel dependency, suburban living, etc. The impact of cars was “ecological”; if we somehow replaced cars with their predecessors, that is, horses, our civilization would cease to function. When a technological change is ecological, there is no going back.

The adoption of computers can be viewed similarly. As computerized devices become more ubiquitous, it is interesting to think about how they have brought about—or are bringing about—ecological change. Three recent news items provide food for thought.

The first is an item from IEEE Spectrum about how Americans have become dependent on tax software to prepare and file their annual tithe. Last year, the article notes, 85% of individual tax returns in the U.S. were filed by software like TurboTax. This observation has some interesting implications.

For example, it means that software companies are the main interpreters of the byzantine US tax code for Americans. It also gives the software makers much clout as well as an interest in keeping the tax code as puzzling as possible. Finally, it means that the tax model presented by these programs is becoming the tax code for many practical purposes. At what point will this confusion become an irreversible fact of life?

An article from Slate discusses Google’s new Calendar function called Goals. Basically, the software takes your stated life goals, such as doing more Yoga or learning Spanish, and schedules time for these activities in your Google calendar. Goals acts like a good secretary, scheduling your life for maximum productivity.

The article cautions that such function is inherently limiting in some sense. It can only schedule time for activities that it understands, for example:

Goals implicitly tells us what constitutes a practicable goal, and in so doing may limit the features that make us human. You can practice a new skill—and even specify what skill you’d like to practice—but you can’t work on becoming a better listener or a more generous friend.

In other words, Goals views its clients instrumentally, that is, through the outcomes they can accomplish. It does not view its clients as having intrinsic qualities, such as personality or character, that may be in need of time. The author worries that as we become more dependent on such services to organize our lives, we will increasingly adopt their model of what a worthwhile life is like.

The third article is an exposé of sorts by FastCompany about why Microsoft has been releasing a bunch of goofy little computer vision apps that perform tricks like determining what kind of dog you are. (Disclosure: I am a Brussels Griffon.) Recently, the corporate giant announced that it is developing an AI that classifies objects for the blind. Blind clients can use a smartphone or smart-glasses app that basically tells them what they are looking at. That would include people, dogs, buildings, signs, menus, etc.

As the article notes, the utility of the device for blind people seems clear. Such a service would help to make the world much more accessible for people that have been designed out of the built environment in the past. It provides a new kind of sight.

As such, this new technology seems decidedly un-ecological. It simply takes the world as it is and allows more people to see it. True, but it is also part of a trend towards software-mediated presentation of the world (aka “augmented reality”), of which the best known recent example was Google Glass. Facebook recently announced that it is working on augmented reality glasses that will present the world to users as Facebook sees it. No longer will you need to pull a smartphone from your pocket to see a Facebook posting; it will simply appear in your field of view! How would adoption of such technology change our current way of life?

When thinking about how computerized and networked devices affect our practices, it is important to recognize that they may not only make some practice easier or more efficient. They may also fundamentally overhaul how we live.

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