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Shouldn’t you switch? March 6, 2015

Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV202 , add a comment

An article in the Atlantic a few days ago seem to catch people’s attention online. The story was about John Sylvan, inventor of “K-Cups”, an essential part of the Keurig coffee brewing system.

“I don’t have one. They’re kind of expensive to use,” John Sylvan told me frankly, of Keurig K-Cups, the single-serve brewing pods that have fundamentally changed the coffee experience in recent years. “Plus it’s not like drip coffee is tough to make.” Which would seem like a pretty banal sentiment, were Sylvan not the inventor of the K-Cup.

Almost one in three American homes now has a pod-based coffee machine, even though Sylvan never imagined they would be used outside of offices.

Not only are they expensive, the waste produced by single-use coffee pods is a serious environmental problem: “In 2014, enough K-Cups were sold that if placed end-to-end, they would circle the globe 10.5 times. Almost all of them ended up in landfills.”

Depressing. As Cam has pointed out before, the K-Cup and single use coffee pods have become a symbol of consumerism gone wrong, though some after-market products have been invented to reduce waste with re-useable pods.

But I also think the fascinating part of the story was buried a bit in the original article, and certainly missed in some of the online conversation that followed. The Atlantic included a reference to a 2009 article in the Journal of Cleaner Production that conducted a life-cycle analysis of consumer coffee brewing and revealed that instant coffee is the best for environmental footprint. The worst? The traditional drip filter coffee machines, because the end-users tend to be the most wasteful in terms of water and energy, typically making more coffee than necessary and leaving the hot plate on too long to keep the coffee warm indefinitely.

Although the article didn’t review K-Cups specifically, it did examine “capsule espresso” pods, and concluded that packaging only makes up 10% of the environmental impact. Ironically, the K-Cup’s wasteful packaging might make it a better source of that caffeine jolt than drip coffee becuase it helps reduce water and energy consumption at the manufacturing and end-consumer stages. Just think about how many pots of coffee every Tim Horton’s and Starbucks and William’s must pour down the drain every day whereas K-Cups use just enough water and electricity every time.

For all the noise about packaging and expense in the past few days, it’s not like anyone was unaware of these things before. And is anyone going to start using instant coffee because of this? It’s only marginally less convenient than coffee pods after all.

Maybe it’s time to update the old Folger’s commercial: “We’ve secretly replaced the fine K-cups you normally drink, with new, environmentally friendly low-footprint life-cycle friendly Folger’s Crystals… let’s see if anyone will notice!”

Novel surrogacy arrangement March 6, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , add a comment

One of the themes of this blog has been how in-vitro fertilization (IVF) technology has led to novel family arrangements and challenges. An item of interest in this thread comes with a report from The Guardian that a woman has acted as the surrogate mother for a man who is her son.

The news came to light during a court proceeding in which the man sought to officially adopt the child. The court heard how the man wanted to become a father but was not in a suitable relationship. Instead, he originally made an arrangement to have another female relative act as surrogate, but that person had to withdraw for medical reasons. At that point, his mother agreed to act in that role. The man’s sperm was used to fertilize donor eggs and a baby boy was successfully brought to term.

The court has ruled in the man’s favour, noting that the arrangement contravened no laws and that the man had already been raising the child “to a high standard”.

Traditionally, the idea that a man would have a baby with his mother would have been regarded as outrageous. It appears as such in the plot of Henry Fielding’s “The history of Tom Jones, a foundling.” In the event, the application of IVF, and also a donor egg, have entirely removed the legal issue.

The Lord helps those who take their selfies March 4, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment

It has been a while since we reviewed events in self-photography. Too long!

So, with this endorsement from NASA, we can feel good about our selfie obsession once more.

DNN: 3 March 2015 March 3, 2015

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

The antics of drones continue to fascinate and perplex:

Drones can deliver many interesting and useful things, and things that are unwelcome too. Have a look at this recent CBC documentary on drones and their various uses.

Genuine people personalities for cars? March 2, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment

If you have read (or seen video versions of) the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you will recall Marvin the paranoid android. Marvin was the result of an experimental program by the Sirius Cynernetics Corporation to give their products Genuine People Personalities. Unfortunately, Marvin’s personality turned out to be rather depressing.

Personalities for our personal robots may be coming sooner than you think. The Atlantic City Lab notes that researchers working on driverless cars are considering how users may customize them. After all, these robots need not only to navigate traffic successfully but also to make their occupants comfortable.

For example, consider a car navigating a narrow, medieval German gateway on a road. A human driver would tend to slow down to ensure that the car does not strike the sides of the gateway. A robot car, however, could make the calculations beforehand and pass through the gateway at speed. That behaviour would tend to make the car’s occupants uncomfortable:

“It’s perfectly fine and safe, but the people inside the car, they basically freak out in these situations,” says Dietmar Rabel, head of automated driving product management for HERE, an arm of Nokia that’s developing data tools to help car companies make driverless cars.

So, cars must be programmed to drive in ways that make people happy and not scared.

Then the problem becomes one of what kinds of driving modes to create. Some cars already feature driving modes of a crude sort, such as “Econo” mode, which typically prevents sudden accelerations. The possibilities for driverless cars are much broader. Some modes could be aimed at the personalities of their occupants, e.g., “Sports” mode for speedy drivers or “Defensive” mode for cautious ones.

It seems clear that some profiles would be non-starters, such as “Road rage”. Doubtless, some people might still “jail break” their cars and upload unhealthy profiles, just to be jerks.

Of course, driving modes would not stop there. Driving habits vary not only between individuals but between cultures. Drivers in some cities are notoriously aggressive whereas others are more polite. So, there could be a “Toronto” mode and a “Halifax” mode, to take two Canadian examples.

This notion raises an interesting question: Would profiles allow for violation of speed limits? The highway driving culture in Ontario allows for a certain level of speeding (unless you pass a police cruiser). So, the Google car, for example, could offer an “Ontario” mode that allows for at least some modest speeding.

Interestingly, this issue arises as we approach the 100th anniversary of the controversy over speed governors in Cincinnati in 1923. Angered by pedestrian deaths resulting from collisions with automobiles, citizens of the city campaigned for speed governors to be put into all automobiles allowed to run within city limits, forcing the cars to stay under 25 mph. The measure would keep “joy riders” from murdering more non-automotive users of the streets.

Auto clubs and auto makers campaigned against the measure, arguing that pedestrian deaths were due to “jay walkers”, that is, pedestrians who inattentively stepped out in front of cars. To make a long story short, they won. The conclusion that streets belonged to cars then became the norm in North America, relegating pedestrians to sidewalks and crosswalks.

The opportunity to program driver profiles into robot cars opens up the possibility that this issue could be revisited. It is unlikely that pedestrians would be invited to wander the streets at will. However, with human beings no longer behind the wheel of their robot cars, the understanding between them and pedestrians may be open for renegotiation, which might even include software speed governors as a part of their driving profiles.

What kind of driving profiles would you like to see for robot cars? Placid? Exciting? Or, bored and depressed?

DNN: 26 Feb. 2015 February 26, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

For several years, we have been talking about the impact that the cameras in smartphones have had on people and social media. Now, we will also be talking about how putting cameras in drones really helped them to take off:

There is no doubt that drones with cameras will take some getting used to.

Metadata and social networks February 25, 2015

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

In an earlier posting, Scott has discussed how much metadata can reveal about people. Metadata concerns information about a signal or communication as opposed to its content. Many surveillance programs are legally permitted to collect metadata because it is not considered to be a form of wire-tapping, that is, eavesdropping on the content of a communication. However, metadata, especially in the presence of big data techniques, can obviate the privacy protection afforded by prohibitions on wire-tapping.

IEEE Spectrum reports on results of research on how metadata can be used to reveal personal information. This research focussed on anonymized metadata from cell phone traffic. Cell phone traffic records are often shared for various purposes, such as real-time vehicle traffic monitoring of the type performed by Waze. Before release, such records are anonymized, e.g., personal information like names and addresses are removed.

What these researchers found is that the resulting metadata can be revealing:

The scientists analyzed 1 billion records logged whenever mobile phone users in three cities in two different industrialized nations connected to a cell phone tower, such as when they placed a call or sent a text. Each record included the time of the event, a unique anonymous ID for the call-maker and call-recipient, and the identity of the tower used by the call-maker and sometimes the call-recipient, which gives a rough estimate of where one or both are located.

The researchers found patterns in the locations of callers and recipients, and were able to make certain inferences about the social networks of those people:

One group is likely made up of friends or family, with similar [locational] patterns in the evening and on the weekends. Another group is similar during working hours but neither evenings nor weekends, and are probably co-workers. The last group had uniformly low levels of similarity, and were dubbed acquaintances.

The nature and structure of your social network is a reasonably informative piece of personal information about you.

This case illustrates a difficulty with the model of privacy as anonymity, discussed in this earlier post:

The problem is that what counts as personally identifying information depends on the ability of analysts to aggregate and correlate information about people. As data access and computing power increase, the ability to identify individuals from aggregate data increases rapidly.

In other words, anonymity depends not only on the content of some body of personal information but on the contextual information that can be related to it. That is why metadata is important: It can provide the means for third parties to infer personal information from anonymized data. This latest study is merely another example of this issue in practice.

The Internet of Barbie? February 24, 2015

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

A recent article in The Register describes a new doll under development at Mattel: a Wi-Fi enabled Barbie. The toy, labeled “Hello Barbie”, asks questions of children, records their responses and gives them replies. The magic is made by sending recordings of children over the Internet to a central system where they are parsed and where a suitable response is framed and transmitted back to the doll for the child to hear.

The Register notes how this news trails unfortunately after the news that Samsung’s smart TVs spy on their owners. That is, commands spoken by users to the TV are sent to a central site for processing, with a response returned to the TV set. Unfortunately for users of the TV, this setup means that their speech is kept at Samsung and is therefore up for grabs by various police agencies and hackers.

A similar issue arises for Hello Barbie. The privacy policy of the developer states that it has the right to transcribe and store recordings and images of toddlers for internal uses, such as improvement of the service. There is no mention of time limits or what responsibility the developer takes for security, etc.

What should we think of this development? On the one hand, adults often rely on voice-activated interlocutors on their smart phones, such as Siri on the iPhone. Also, parents of toddlers with Hello Barbie can access the recordings themselves to monitor their children remotely. On the other hand, the increasing installation of cameras and microphones into everything can simply become enervating.

Personally, Hello Barbie reminds me of the film genre of the possessed doll that tries to murder its owners. The IMDB has a category devoted to them! However, my favorite has to be the possessed Krusty the Clown doll from the Simpsons “Treehouse of Terror III”.

Happily, Hello Barbie cannot yet hold a knife.

DNN: 18 Feb. 2015 February 18, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

As I pointed out recently, designs can be evaluated in many ways, including their suitability for a given purpose or for the purpose itself. Drone design can be regarded in the same way.

The Drones for Good contest held recently in the United Arab Emirates has a winner: a crash-proof drone. A Swiss team has designed the Gimball drone, a drone fitted with a cage that keeps it from crashing into things by simply bouncing off them. The purpose of the drone is to investigate emergency zones, such as collapsed buildings and crashed planes, which require exploration that would be too dangerous for a human being but are too unpredictable for a drone to navigate without knocking into things. What is good about the drone is not its technical achievements, as such, but what it is equipped to do. You can find out about other entrants to the contest too.

Of course, drone design is quite non-specific, meaning that drones are often capable of performing many different tasks, some more laudable than others. To help keep drones on the up-and-up, the FAA has announced a draft proposal of its drone regulations. The proposal seems reasonable enough, although they would not suit everybody:

The guidelines set forward by the FAA would dictate that the aircraft only be flown within sight of the operator and that they don’t pose a threat to other aircraft, people or private property. It also includes not flying over people at all unless they are a part of the operating team, no dropping items from the vehicle, not exceeding speeds of 100 mph (161 km/h) or altitudes over 500 ft (152.4 m).

The regulations would give the green light to the use of drones for surveying, security, and many recreational applications. Notably, they would prohibit delivery services, such as those being contemplated by Amazon and Alibaba. Looks like you might have to get your tacos the old-fashioned way for now.

In the wake of the drone crash-landing on the White House lawn, efforts to limit drone flights with no-fly zones have increased. One such effort comes in the form of, a site where people can go to register their GPS coordinates as locations that drones should shun. The notion is voluntary and, so far, only one drone manufacturer has pledged to observe the restrictions. Also, one might wonder whether or not an opt-out default is appropriate. Nevertheless, manufacturers may take up the idea as an alternative to more stringent regulation.

If an online no-fly zone sounds too fancy-pants for you, then you might endorse the “drone shoot-down” bill currently before the Oklahoma legislature. As you must have guessed, the bill proposes to allow property owners to shoot down drones over their property. Johnny Drone Hunter would approve! However, it is not yet clear that the bill will pass.

Some French ornithologists have found that birds are more tolerant of drones that are many citizens of Oklahoma. In their research, the ornithologists approached flocks of wild flamingos with drones up to various distances and observed their response. The birds’ feathers were not easily ruffled:

After more than 200 trials, the researchers found that the drones could get within four meters of the birds without disturbing them 80 percent of the time. It didn’t matter whether the machine was white, black, or blue—or, notably, how fast it was flying.

The birds seemed to find the drone to be just weird and not threatening. The one exception was when the drone descended vertically down onto the flock, which may have simulated a predatory attack. (Interestingly, raptors may be less tolerant of drones in their airspace.) This result suggests to researchers that drones may be acceptable instruments to use for wild bird studies.

These items suggest an interesting interplay between drone design and drone regulation, one that will continue to evolve in the coming years.

Guerilla design: The Freedom clip February 17, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

A little while ago, I posted an item on the Kill the K-cup campaign, a project to reduce or eliminate the billions of Keurig K-cups consumed every year.

A related beef about the newest Keurig system is an on-board sensor that enforces the rule of “authorized K-cups only”. The sensor detects a special ink on the upper surface of K-cups and rejects any cups that do not have it. Such a system will be familiar to anyone who owns an ink-jet printer, which frequently require “genuine” ink cartridges from the manufacturer.

Keurig claims that this feature is designed to deliver the best and safest customer experience:

in order for us to deliver the optimal and safest brewing experience with our Keurig® 2.0 brewer, including the automatic adjustment of brew temperature and size control depending on which pack is inserted, our Keurig 2.0 Brewing Technology™ must read the lid and recognize the type of Keurig® pack that has been inserted. Because of this, the system will not brew unlicensed, or non-Keurig Brewed® packs.

Other coffee retailers feel that the point of such authentication is to head off any competitors who might offer K-cups and the like for less money than Keurig itself. Apparently piqued by this tactic, coffee marketer Rogers Family Company is distributing what it calls the “Freedom Clip”. This clip is a small gadget that fits over the sensor on the new Keurig machine and authorizes whatever cup is placed in the coffee maker. Thus, owners of the Keurig 2.0 can use “inauthentic” cups.

The Rogers Family Company lauds the device as a blow for consumer sovereignty: “… we at Rogers Family Company® believe that your right to choose any option is imperative.” The Huffington Post says that it promotes “coffee democracy”. The clip is available from Rogers Family Company at no charge.

The Freedom Clip is a good example of what I call guerrilla design. It is a product aimed to right some social injustice by means of the marketplace. In this case, the injustice is framed as a violation of consumer rights and not simply as a means for a competitor to market its own product.

So far, Keurig has not taken any action. In response to a query by Ars Technica, a spokesperson said:

While we will not comment on a competitor’s products, we are confident consumers will continue to delight in the best brewing experience from Keurig.

So, is the Freedom Clip a blow for democracy or consumer rights, or is it way for Keurig’s competitors to water down the K-cup experience, so to speak?

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