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Does efficiency make the holidays brighter? December 17, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment

Recent research from NASA shows how the holiday season can be seen from space. Miguel Román and his team used satellite imagery to determine how much brighter some US cities become in the holiday period between Thanksgiving and New Year:

They found that major cities such as Dallas, Washington D.C. and Phoenix were between 20 and 50 percent brighter during the holiday season.

The research was limited to cities that do not get snow in that season, since snow increases the reflectivity of lights and jinxes the measurements used in the study. (So, there are no estimates for Canadian cities, for now.)

You might well file this result under the category “well, duh!”. We all know that people put up extra, outdoor lighting at this time of year. So, cities are bound to become brighter.

However, this phenomenon may well reflect something we like to mention in this blog periodically, namely Jevons’ Paradox. In rough terms, British economist William Jevons observed that gains in efficiency in the consumption of a resource can lead to increases in consumption overall. Light can be regarded in this way. In particular, the advent of efficient, LED lighting has undoubtedly prompted more interest in lighting up homes for the holidays. As a result, some of the efficiency gains due to LED technology have probably been lost to increased use of lighting.

The increasing use of festive lighting could be regarded as “dynamic rebound”, that is, a new form of consumption stimulated by increasing efficiency in the root technology. As anyone who as seen A Charlie Brown Christmas knows, holiday lighting has long been a competitive enterprise. People buy lighting and other decorations to display their enjoyment of the holiday and to compete with their neighbours. At some point, the competition induces the activity to take on a life of its own. I would venture a guess that LED lighting has spurred this phenomenon in the holiday season. I know it has in my household.

At least, from the new research, we know that Earth is the most festive planet in the solar system. If the Martians get in on the act, then do not despair: Laser lighting is even more efficient than LED lighting and is poised to replace it! When our children grow up, they will not be able to tell night from day during the holidays!

christmas lighting

(Christine Matthews/Wikimedia commons)

Neoeugenics and government in Quebec December 11, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed

DOE Human Genome Project

Neoeugenics, or liberal eugenics, involves the use of consumer biotechnology by individuals to influence what sort of children they have. A common form of neoeugenics occurs when prospective parents use genetic screening technology to ensure that their offspring will possess a given gene, or to ensure that they do not. As a consumer practice, neoeugenics differs from the original eugenics which was largely sponsored and enforced by governments.

In spite of its consumer orientation, neoeugenics is still influenced by governments. Governments can affect individual choices through regulation of reproductive technology, for example, or through coverage policies on public health insurance. Through means such as these, government actions continue to influence the reproductive choices of individuals.

An interesting example arises with Quebec’s Bill 20, which would regulate the coverage of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) technology under the provincial health care scheme. Through this bill, the government expresses its preferences about how people have babies.

For instance, the Bill requires that couples engage in sexual relations for a period in order to procreate naturally before IVF would be considered for coverage. This stipulation seems reasonable on the face of it: The government is merely trying to save itself the expense of covering IVF treatments that are not biologically necessary. However, this stipulation raises some interesting issues. First, what proof will the government require? Sex tapes? The measure seems inherently invasive. Second, how will it apply to same-sex couples? Obviously, sexual relations (with each other) will not result in conception. The obvious response would be to exempt same-sex couples. Yet, such treatment would seem to discriminate against straight couples. Is it the government’s policy to encourage parenting more among one group than the other? I would hazard a guess that this provision is unconstitutional.

A similar point applies to the provision requiring couples to undergo artificial insemination before trying IVF. Some people might have medical conditions, e.g., low sperm count, that would render the procedure ineffective. Again, same-sex couples would also be unable to comply with the provision.

Bill 20 also proposes to make it illegal for a women of 43 years or more to undergo IVF. Research suggests that women in this group have a low chance of success (ca. 13%) in conception, although interventions to increase it are under development. Clearly, such a measure would prevent older women from having babies, or prompt them to seek IVF overseas.

Bill 20 provides a tax credit for couples wanting to try IVF, scaled according to income. However, it still requires all users to produce a $8,000 to $12,000 co-pay for each cycle of treatment. Clearly, this requirement would put the treatment out of reach of lower-income Quebeckers. Some of them may try artificial insemination instead, which carries higher risks. Or, they may seek IVF overseas. In any event, this provision seems to favour reproduction among better-off citizens versus others.

In addition, the Bill extends the tax credit only to couples that do not have children. As a result, the Bill seems to be aimed to keep family size close to one child, at least among applicants who rely on such financial assistance.

Finally, same-sex couples seeking to use IVF would require donor eggs or sperm. Obtaining them involves a “psychosocial evaluation”, which constitutes another barrier to access.

On the whole, the Bill seems written to encourage fertility among the straight and relatively affluent population while discouraging it, in relative terms, among same-sex and less affluent citizens. This is not to say that the government of Quebec deserves unsavory comparisons with authoritarian regimes. However, it does illustrate that governments are still involved in important ways in the reproductive decisions of their citizens, and that their influence should be applied with due care for equal treatment under the law.

Uber-all impression: Precaution? December 10, 2014

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The ride-sharing (or taxi) service Uber is facing a storm of criticism over both privacy and safety concerns. An Uber driver in India is accused of raping a passenger in New Delhi. The man had a history of arrests for previous incidents, including a rape, but was admitted to the service. City authorities are now considering a moratorium on it. Chicago police are investigating allegations of rape against a passenger of the service there. A number of other accusations against Uber drivers are in various stages of progress in US courts.

Needless to say, Uber’s security screening is being increasingly scrutinized. The company claims that its checks are more than adequate:

Uber champions its “industry-leading standards” for vetting its drivers. On its website, it describes its background checks as “often more rigorous” than those in the traditional taxi industry.

However, it is not clear that Uber’s practices are always as rigorous as those in the taxi industry:

“We don’t know if their background checks are good, bad or indifferent,” said Max Tyler, a Colorado state representative who is critical of Uber’s approach to rider safety. “In Colorado, the bill [licensing Uber] did not have an F.B.I. background check, no fingerprint check, none of the things taxi drivers must go through.”

“Maybe Uber is doing a good job vetting drivers, maybe not,” he added.

In fact, Uber has successfully lobbied for light requirements for security checks in many states. The reason for this effort may have been prompted by Uber’s desire to expand rapidly, a process that would be lengthened and made dearer by stricter regulation.

However, issues with a few of Uber’s drivers has increased concern about security. Two California counties are now suing the service, claiming that it mischaracterizes its security screening in a way that may mislead customers.

Uber argues that it takes its security screening very seriously. In the US, it outsources this function to Hirease, a private screening company.

The situation with Uber illustrates a classic dilemma for regulators of new technology: Should they take a permissive view and allow the adoption of the new technology with minimal restrictions? Or, should they take a precautionary view and limit adoption of the new technology until it is proven safe?

In favour of the permissive approach is the fact that people clearly want the service that Uber provides and enjoy the cost advantages that it has over traditional taxi services. In favour of the precautionary approach is the fact that the risks associated with the service are not clear and may indeed be exacerbated by the rush to expansion in the marketplace. Uber argues that its safety measures are acceptable and that further impositions would function merely as anti-competitive measures favouring established taxi services. It critics argue that Uber’s measures should compare with those of established services but fail to do so.

Making matters more difficult is the uncertainty involved in the situation. Clearly, Uber’s service comes with risks to its passengers (among others). The magnitude and severity of those risks remain unclear, so comparisons with taxi services are difficult to make and substantiate. Yet, regulators need to do something. So far, they have been relatively permissive. That may yet change as scrutiny of the service increases.

Noise barriers December 8, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

Nate Berg has written an interesting item on a not-often-honored feature of the modern landscape: the highway noise barrier (or sound wall). Highways can be quite noisy with the roar of engines, the woosh of air shouldered aside, and the constant peeling of tires from tarmac.

With the increasing volume and speed of highway traffic, and the increasing intrusion of highways into cities, the first highway noise barrier was built in California in 1968. Since that time, many thousand of linear kilometers have been built in the US and abroad.

Noise barriers reside in an unusual environment. As a part of road configuration, they belong in the realm of building codes and civil engineering. At the same time, they are prominent pieces of the public realm, on view by many thousands every day. At the same time, they are often experienced only at high speeds. Thus, the issue of how they should appear becomes important.

For the most part, Berg notes, the walls are a model of simplicity: minimal and efficient, perhaps just a line of cinder blocks keeping a low profile along the edge of the roadway. Here is one example from a roadside in Germany:

plain noise barrier

(Jarba/Wikimedia commons)

However, in many cases, noise barriers are decorated in some way, perhaps with a texture stamped into concrete finish, or a pattern of contrasting colors set into their bricks. Consider this example from the Czech Republic:

textured noise barrier

(Honza Groh/Wikimedia commons)

A few noise barriers even rise to the level of artwork:

For example, Marilyn Zwak, of Cochise, Arizona, and two assistants applied 150 tons of adobe to the Thomas Road overpass on Phoenix’s Squaw Peak Parkway, shaping the twenty-four-foot-high support columns into evocative profiles inspired by Hohokam Indian zoological forms. On the retaining walls of the overpass Zwak installed thirty-four relief panels based on human, animal, and abstract images found on Hohokam artifacts. Then she invited neighborhood residents to imprint into the adobe their own designs or objects, ranging from tools to clothing remnants to the key to one of the houses that was demolished to make way for the freeway. Completed in 1990, the overpass has since been voted Phoenix’s most popular work of public art.

Of course, such examples are rare. For one thing, designers do not want to make the walls so interesting that they distract drivers from their task. However, they also do not want to make the walls so monotonous that they put drivers to sleep.

In brief, minimalism seems to be the key concept of noise barrier style. Barriers should be just varied enough in appearance to stave off road hypnosis but still dull enough to remain firmly in the background and not attract admiration or critique.

Persons and humans December 5, 2014

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On occasion, the daily news raises some items that provide food for thought, especially in combination. Today, this combination involves animals, human rights, and biotechnology.

First, the appellate court of New York has ruled against a case brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project to extend legal personhood to chimpanzees. The group identified four chimps in the State kept in cages and filed for a writ of habeas corpus, that is, asked the court to compel the chimps to attend the proceedings as witnesses. Such writs apply only to persons so, if granted, the court would concede the case.

However, the court declined to do so. It admitted that chimps are cognitively complex but nevertheless lack the capacity for legal culpability required for personhood under the law:

“[We] conclude that a chimpanzee is not a ‘person’ entitled to the rights and protections afforded by the writ of habeas corpus,” the judges write. Only people can have rights, the court states, because only people can be held legally accountable for their actions. “In our view, it is this incapability to bear any legal responsibilities and societal duties that renders it inappropriate to confer upon chimpanzees the legal rights … that have been afforded to human beings.”

This is not to say that chimps do not enjoy moral entitlements, just that they are not of the sort that human beings enjoy in view of their place in the social contract.

The second article applies to the person/animal distinction in a different way. Researchers as the University of Rochester Medical Center have created mice with more human-like brains. They injected cells from a human fetus into baby mice resulting in mice whose brains were composed largely of human neurons. Although the goal of the research is to create models of human neuro-aging and not a race of “super” mice, the researchers found that the mice were cognitively superior to their otherwise similar kin:

They found that mice with the human brain cells had memories that were four times better than their siblings who did not have the injections.
“We can say they were significantly smarter than control mice,” said lead researcher Professor Steve Goldman told New Scientist magazine.

The greater complexity of human neurons, it seems, affords these mice greater cognitive capacity.

Of course, the work raises issues about augmentation of non-human animals. For example, would primates with human neurons assume a human level of cognitive capacity?

Although Professor Goldman said that the cells did not make the mice ‘more human’ he admitted that the team had stopped short at injecting the cells into monkeys.
“We briefly considered it but decided not to because of all the potential ethical issues,” added Prof Goldman.
Other experts said it was astonishing that such a huge effect could be seen with just a simple injection of human cells.
“That the cells work at all in a different species is amazing and poses the question of which properties are being driven by the cell itself and which is by the new environment,” said Prof Wolfgang Enard, of Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.
But he added: “If you make animals more human-like where do you stop?”

Or, why would you stop at any given point? One reason might be the creepiness that many would feel over creating human-animal chimeras. Another would be discomfort over eliding the moral boundary between (mere) animals and persons. Would the New York State court take a different view of a chimp whose brain had been augmented with human neurons? Who knows!

The Soviet Union undertook to hybridize chimps and humans in the 1920s, for reasons best known to themselves. The project was unsuccessful and finally given up. So, we never had to face the problem of extraordinarily humanish animals. It seems, though, that time and biotechnology may be bringing us back to a confrontation with this issue.


(Emiichann/Wikimedia commons)

Telepresence service robots December 4, 2014

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

Telepresence robots allow a person to have a physical presence in a given location in spite of being located elsewhere. That is, a robot in one place can be controlled by a person in another one, allowing that person to interact with local people and objects. This capability has already been used, for example, in medicine, where doctors use robots to interact with patients in remote locations. Simple robots of this type, consisting mainly of networked tablets on wheels, are already on their way to Liberia to assist in dealing with the ebola epidemic there.

However, a reverse application is also in the works. Networked cleaning robots in western homes may soon be operated remotely by workers in developing nations. Until AI gets to the point where Roombas can actually tell clean towels from dirty ones, humans will have to supply the brainpower for such applications. However, humans in developing nations are available at little expense, thus the incentive for remote control.

A company called Willow Garage has already experimented with a humanoid remotely-controlled robo-cleaner. The robot trundled around their offices picking up garbage and cleaning dirty mugs and dishes. Interestingly, the employees did not enjoy the experience:

Willow Garage’s experiment, however, lasted less than a month. Instead of welcoming their cybernetic cleaners, employees were creeped out. “The robots would look at you and you’d have no idea who was on the other side,” recalls Maya Cakmak, then an intern at the company. “People got really uncomfortable.”

Ms. Cakmak has developed some remedies, such as filtering sensitive items out of the video feed. The result is to remove distinguishing features of the individual locations to be cleaned. In effect, locations to be cleaned are anonymized. Whether or not this measure makes people comfortable remains to be seen since it does nothing to personalize the relationship between the operator and the people near the robot.

Another concern centers on whether or not people will accept such “digital immigrants”. There is some tension these days in Western nations about the role of immigrants in their countries. Robots operating locally but controlled by foreigners may not seem any more acceptable. Of course, since labor obtained through this setup is cheap, on the order of $6/hr. on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, the price may win converts.

So, under what circumstances would you accept a remote-controlled robot picking up after you?

New online privacy laws December 3, 2014

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Laws protecting privacy online continue to develop.

For starters, the EU has issued guidelines regarding the recent “right to be forgotten” ruling by the EU Supreme Court of Justice. If you recall, Google was ordered by the court to suppress search results against people’s names that are “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant”. However, the court did not spell out exactly what this expression means.

The new guidelines aim to clarify the situation. Among the guidelines is the direction that Google is not to inform searchers and content authors when a search is affected by a request as this calls undue attention to a request that is, by definition, seeking to obscure the search result. The guidelines also invite Google to weigh the sensitivity of the data to the named party with the public interest in having access to the information. In brief, it appears that the right to be forgotten applies less to politicians and other public figures.

Microsoft’s Bing and the Yahoo! search engine have also begun to apply this privacy law.

On this side of the pond, California has seen its first conviction under its new anti-revenge-porn law. Mr. Noe Iniguez posted topless pictures of his ex along with derogatory comments on the ‘net, which has now landed him one year in jail followed by 36 months probation. Although this law is clearly aimed at harassment of women on the ‘net, it also functions to protect the privacy of intimate photos (and possibly other materials) even when those are not in the possession of the subject.

In Canada, the federal government has tabled Bill C-13, which aims to criminalize sharing of intimate materials without consent. Unfortunately, the main focus of the bill seems to be facilitation of police surveillance powers, partly through indemnifying companies that “voluntarily” hand over personal information upon request without a court order. How this measure will help victims of revenge porn is not clear. Certainly, it makes the Canadian bill rather unlike US measures.

In any event, the issue of privacy in the era of social media continues to challenge governments and regulators. EU and American lawmakers are pursuing the model of informed consent in their own ways. The Canadian government seems more interested in a panopticon model in which better behavior springs from more surveillance.

Drone News Network: 2 Dec. 2014 December 2, 2014

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As a new technology, drones do not fit easily under any existing social contract. Should they be treated like other aircraft or are they just toys like toy cars and trains?

These two videos make for an interesting contrast:

Chickens are not animals December 1, 2014

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NPR has a nice little segment featuring Andrew Lawler, author of the new book Why did the chicken cross the world?. The book explores the history of the chicken, including its cultural significance and its importance to the world food system.

Chickens have played notable roles in religion. They are sometimes sacrificed to gain favour with deities, for example. In the Western tradition, roosters are often found at the apex of buildings on weather vanes. This position harkens back to Luke’s account of Jesus’ arrest:

In the ninth century A.D., the pope reportedly decreed that every church in Europe should show a cock on its dome or steeple, as a reminder of Jesus’ prophecy that the cock would not crow the morning after the Last Supper, until the disciple Peter had denounced Him three times (Luke 22:34). Because of this story, “weather cocks” have topped church steeples for centuries, both in Europe and in America. The 11th century Bayeux Tapestry even includes a scene of a craftsman attaching a rooster vane to the spire of the Westminster Abbey.

Of course, chickens are mostly regarded as food today. The ascendency of the broiler chicken began after World War Two, according to Lawler, when the industry took advantage of the relative scarcity of preferred meats such as beef and pork. In 2009, the population of chickens in factory farms worldwide was estimated at around 50 billion.

One reason for the adoption of chickens has to do with the malleability of the bird. Breeders have created many different varieties of chicken for different purposes, from cock-fighting to egg-laying. The modern chicken is an efficient, egg and meat making machine.

To confirm the status of the modern chicken as a piece of food technology, Lawler discovered that the chicken is not legally considered to be an animal:

It was particularly disturbing to discover that under U.S. law, chickens are not even considered animals if they’re grown for food. So, in other words, there are no regulations that say how chickens should be treated. Now, this is very different, say, from pigs or from cattle, where there are some very strict guidelines that people have to follow. But the chicken is almost considered not even alive, which, after spending time talking to people about chickens around the world — I discovered that’s crazy.

In fact, since 2002, birds in general are not considered animals for the purpose of food and medical regulation, along with fish, mice, and rats, at least in the United States.

Perhaps it is too easy to detach legal concepts from everyday ones. After all, if corporations can be people, legally, then chickens might as well not be animals, legally.

On the face of it, it does seem crazy to regard chickens as not being animals. However, with the development of industrialized agriculture, popular food items are bound to be reduced to commodities in need of processing. The chicken has simply gone further down this route than most.


(Tm/Wikimedia commons)

Sustainability and fairness to future generations November 28, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

In rough terms, sustainability concerns how long a given mode of consumption can be maintained. Making a mode of consumption, such as personal mobility with cars, sustainable is often treated as a purely technical issue. However, sustainability is also inherently a moral issue. Using up a resource such as oil is a problem only if we care about the needs and wants of future generations. Would they like some oil too? If so, then we may have a moral obligation to share with them.

What kind of moral obligation? In this case, the issue seems to be one of fairness. When it comes to limited resources, like oil, the problem we face is how to distribute that resource among the interested parties. In other words, we ought to provide each party with its fair share. Establishing what constitutes a fair share is especially difficult in this case since future generations are, by definition, not present to voice their concerns. Without that information, identifying a fair share is problematic.

A new letter in Nature attempts to address this issue. The authors describe a method for establishing “cooperation with the future”. The method centers on the “Intergenerational Goods Game”, in which a body of people gets to decide on how to consume a limited resource. The first generation gets 100 units of this resource and decides for themselves on how much to consume and, therefore, how much to conserve for later generations. The Game is played repeatedly, that is, across multiple generations, to see how long it takes until the resource is entirely consumed.

Results vary with the setup of the Game. The researchers found that if all members of a generation each decide on their consumption for themselves, then the resource was usually (14 times out of 18 games) consumed entirely by the first generation. Not much sustainability there! Although most players (called “cooperators”) wanted to conserve for following generations, some (called “defectors”) did not. The defectors consumed quite a bit themselves but a number of cooperators, afraid that defectors would get more than their share, elected to use up the resource as well.

The most conservation occurred when generations were subject to a binding vote. That is, everyone in a generation got to vote on how much each player should consume and everyone got the median amount identified in the votes. In this case, the cooperators were able to restrain the defectors and every generation maintained their resources until the end of the Game.

The authors conclude that two criteria are needed for conservation of resources:

  1. An institution powerful enough to restrain defectors enables cooperators to enforce conservation.
  2. The median allocation system assures cooperators that other players, especially defectors, will not get an undue share of the resource.

Another conclusion that could be drawn from this study is that people use intra-generational fairness as a proxy for inter-generational fairness. That is, people mostly want to be fair to future generations and do so through a system that aims at establishing a fair distribution of a resource among members of the present generation.

Of course, such a model can lead to errors. The situation of future generations may differ substantially from the present, so that what it fair to them may differ from what we anticipate today. However, the present generation, especially in light of historical experience with patterns of resource consumption, remains the best source of wisdom to address problems of sustainability. To use this information to its fullest advantage, however, we also need robust and democratic institutions to put it to work and to deal with defectors.

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