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Fish don’t need bicycles. July 29, 2015

Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV 201 , add a comment

The American feminist Gloria Steinem once said “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”. The American inventor Dean Kamen modified that with “A city needs a car like a fish needs a bicycle”. Apparently, the Dutch have figured it out, at least with regards to the latter. No, it’s not fish with bicycles, but cities without cars.

Over at Guardian Cities there’s an interesting article about the Dutch city of Groningen and how it became “the cycling capital of the Netherlands”. Essentially, in the late 1970s, a small number of committed local politicians crafted a traffic and urban development policy that removed cars from the center of the city and replaced them with bicycles and pedestrians. How did they do it?

The centre of Groningen would be divided in four sections. For motorists, it would become impossible to go from one section to the other: cars had to take the ring-road around the inner city, whereas cyclists could move freely about on new cycle paths constructed to accommodate them. Driving a car would become a time-consuming affair in the centre of Groningen. In the future, travelling by bike would be a much quicker option.

Of course, not everyone liked the idea: shopkeepers protested and threatened politicians. But the initial shift happened almost overnight, and came with flowers:

In 1977, the traffic circulation plan was implemented over a single night. Hundreds of new signs were put up to create one-way streets or change their direction. Overnight, the centre of Groningen became impenetrable for cars. The next morning, hostesses greeted confused motorists with flowers and leaflets that explained the new situation.

I have no way of knowing, but in my heart I just know they must have handed out tulips.

What’s remarkable to me is the interaction here between technology and culture. Today, cycling seems to be an ingrained aspect of the Dutch, but it wasn’t always the case. In Groningen, cycling had to be encouraged with a variety of measures. As one key figure recalled: “In the 70s, the general idea in the Netherlands was that cities needed to adjust to the car. What we wanted was to adjust the car to the city.” The apparent inevitability of automobiles was rejected and a different technology was chosen.

A "Fietsstraat": bicycles have priority over cars. Courtesy Wikimedia.

A "Fietsstraat": bicycles have priority over cars. Courtesy Wikimedia.

And although most of the city’s denizens seem to approve, now there is “some tension between pedestrians and cyclists” because the bicycles are everywhere and pedestrians can get run down. I think I’d rather take being hit by a bike than a car, and apparently Groningen has the cleanest air in the Netherlands. Seems like a good compromise.

The whole thing reminds be, somewhat tangentially, of the adoption of cars in major cities in the early 20th century. The technology was often welcomed as a breath of fresh air–quite literally–because would replace the thousands of horses that were used to pull carriages and wagons transporting people and goods across town. Not that people hated horses, but they hated the smell of urine, manure and everything else that went with keeping so many large animals in the middle of a city. As was discovered a few decades later, cars created their own problems in cities. But apparently, given a few decades, cars can also be removed and alternatives can be made to work. Just not horses.

Lane width and crash risk July 29, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment

An article in The Atlantic’s CityLab points to recent research on the relation between lane width and crash statistics in Toronto and Tokyo. Received wisdom has it that wider lanes are safer than narrower ones, so 12-foot (ca. 3.7m) widths are the norm.

However, Dewan Masud Karim’s analysis suggests that crash rates reach a minimum at a little over 10 feet (ca. 3m) width: 3.1m in Tokyo and 3.2m in Toronto. How so?

When lane widths are reduced under 3m, then drivers have less room to maneuver and risk of side-crashes rises. That result is unsurprising. It is somewhat surprising, though, that risk of side crashes should climb when widths exceed 3.3m. Karim explains:

… wider lanes (over 3.3~3.4m) are associated with a higher speed and lower security feeling that leads to higher crash risks.

In other words, higher lanes encourage faster driving, giving drivers less time to react appropriately in a potential crash situation. (The reference to “lower security feeling” is unexplained. Do wider lanes lead drivers to behave more aggressively, through some mechanism such as risk compensation?)

The work makes a clear case for narrower than conventional lane widths in road design. If crash risk is lowest overall at about 3.2 meters, then the common good would be served by imposing that lane width. Of course, this result does not apply on roads that see a relatively high volume of large vehicles, or that allows high speeds by law. Interestingly, the study also suggests that narrower lanes do not increase congestion, so drivers should not notice any difference in road performance.

Karim suggests alternate uses for the roadway saved through lane narrowing, including bike lanes and wider sidewalks. On the whole, it sounds like an idea worth investigating further.

Pee repelling walls July 27, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

The Atlantic’s CityLab has a little posting on the use of a technological fix for public urination: Pee-repelling walls. The city of San Fransisco is trying out a “superhyrdrophobic” coating for walls in areas that are prone to public urination, namely those around bars.

The coating works by making liquids splash violently away from walls. Thus, if someone pees on a treated wall, the urine is splashed back onto the offender’s legs causing, one assumes, substantial discomfort. The desired result is that people will be deterred from using walls for this purpose and seek out proper facilities instead. San Fransisco’s authorities were inspired by successful use of the strategy in the German city of Hamburg.

The scheme is an interesting illustration of the use of a technostressing design for pro-social purposes. Normally, we assume that good designs are technotonic, that is, pleasant to interact with. Of course, when deterrence is the aim, then an unpleasant interaction may be called for.

Here is a photo of the sign potential offenders will find on the treated walls.

Pee wall

(Courtesy of San Francisco Public Works/

Note that the sign does not mention the coating nor the location of appropriate facilities. Is that fair? Would you like to see your city use this technology?

E-sports and drug testing July 24, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203, STV302 , comments closed

The New York Times reports on a move by Electronic Sports League (ESL) to introduce drug testing into its system. Impetus for the change came from an admission by professional video gamer Kory Friesen that he used AdderAll during competitions:

“We were all on Adderall,” Mr. Friesen said of his team, for which he no longer plays. “Tons of people do it.”

AdderAll is a drug prescribed for people with ADHD but is sometimes used by others to improve concentration, e.g., students.

ESL has had a rule against drug use but did not specify a list of forbidden drugs nor pursue any kind of enforcement policy. Apparently, that will change as ESL consults the National Anti-Doping Agency of Germany and the World Anti-Doping Agency, which police athletic competitions such as the Olympics.

The use of performance-enhancing drugs in e-sports raises the same sort of issues as drugs in athletics. There is the issue of fairness (“a level playing field”), concerning whether or not some participant have an undue advantage over others.

Another motivation for drug testing would be to help secure the prestige of e-sports. Since professional sporting teams engage in drug testing, a similar regime in e-sports would bolster the claims of participants to be true sportsmen rather than simply entertainers:

“The more e-sports grows, the more it is going to be sanctioned by a governing body, and it was only a matter of time before this was part of it,” said Hector Rodriguez, owner of OpTic Gaming, a professional team. “We’re becoming an actual sport, so that’s why I welcome it. It’s an indication of growth.”

All sports place limits on the means players can use to achieve success (like recumbent bikes), and prohibitions on drugs are among them, so e-sports leagues may do the same if they so choose.

Then there is the issue that a sport is supposed to be a demonstration of human excellence. What this constraint might mean is unclear and changes with time and technological developments. In an era when the ability to use computerized devices deftly is generally applauded, e-sports seem like a natural fit. Even so, the ability to pop a pill does not seem like a similarly praiseworthy accomplishment. If it turned out to provide a decisive advantage to players (and that remains to be seen, so far as I am aware), then drug use would tend to lessen the claim of gamers to be regarded as sportsmen.

As cars get techier, they get safer, right? July 22, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

I was happy to find news on Dezeen that Ford is developing a lighting technology that can help drivers to see and avoid pedestrians (and other warm “obstacles”) in low-light conditions. This and other developments in driver awareness augmentation seem welcome, especially, as Donald Norman points out, as driver distractions seem to multiply.

Then, I was somewhat chagrined to the see an article in Wired about how hackers can take over several systems in Internet-enabled cars, such as the Jeep Cherokee. For starters, they can turn on your radio, engage your wipers (rain or no) and cut your engine. And, who knows what else? As volunteer driver Andy Greenberg in the hacked car put it:

Immediately my accelerator stopped working. As I frantically pressed the pedal and watched the RPMs climb, the Jeep lost half its speed, then slowed to a crawl. This occurred just as I reached a long overpass, with no shoulder to offer an escape. The experiment had ceased to be fun.

The hackers guiding this experiment, Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek, say that Chrysler is aware of some of the vulnerabilities and is working on a patch. They assure us that further openings remain for hackers interested in remotely controlling other people’s cars.

Discuss among yourselves!

Data breached. Or is that “Borked”? July 21, 2015

Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV302 , comments closed

Data breaches (the release of databases of private information into the public) or data hacks (the intentional theft of such private information) have become so common that Wikipedia can only keep a list of “notable incidents“. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse offers a much more comprehensive database of 4,567 data breaches since 2005. The data visualization gurus at Information is Beautiful even made these privacy disasters look good, aesthetically if not morally.

And yesterday, we all learned a little more about data breaches with the news that, an online dating website for people who are already married or in a partnership (their slogan: “Life is short. Have an affair.”) with its 37 million customers, had been “hacked”:

A Canadian-owned website for people seeking affairs was recovering from a cyberattack Monday after hackers stole confidential customer information, posted some of it online and threatened to publish all of it unless the company is shut down.

Not just hacked, but blackmailed unless it calls it quits! I guess there’s a certain irony that a website that facilitates affairs would be threatened in much the same way as a person might be if they were caught having an affair.

I had never heard of, but the unusual-to-my-ears name (which is, according to Wikipedia, just a contraction of two random, but popular female names) and nature of the data breach brought to mind an older, yet similar case of an invasion of privacy. Students of such matters may also remember “Bork’s Bill”, otherwise known in the United States as the Video Privacy Protection Act:

The origin of the VPPA was the ill-fated nomination hearings for Judge Robert Bork in 1988. Bork’s Washington, DC-area video store gave Bork’s rental records to a reporter for the Washington City Paper, a local newspaper. The paper published the records likely in an attempt to embarrass Bork, but succeeded more in scaring Congress into enacting protective legislation. The bill was drafted by Senator Leahy, who noted during the floor debate that new privacy protections are necessary in “an era of interactive television cables, the growth of computer checking and check-out counters, of security systems and telephones, all lodged together in computers….” S. Rep. No. 100-599, 100th Cong., 2d Sess. at 6 (1988).

Bork, who had nothing to do with the Muppets or the Swedish Chef (“Bork bork bork bork!”), was a controversial nomination for the Supreme Court without an apparent strong belief in the right to privacy. The newspaper attempted to apply the famous case law established by “good for the goose, good for the gander” to point out that if citizens had limited or no rights to privacy then that applied to Bork did too. And low and behold, US politicians quickly enacted the new law to protect everyone. I wonder if we’ll soon see the “AshleyMadison” bill should some powerful US politician turn out to be a client?

Incidentally, the page linked above about the VPPA has some interesting updates to the law in recent years that weakened it to the apparent benefit of Netflix and Facebook. With depressing news like that, maybe we all need cheering up with the other kind of “bork”, courtesy of the Swedish Chef:

DNN: 21 July 2015 July 21, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

Drones just keep on making news!

Here is some video that you will not likely see there:

Medical technology and empowerment July 20, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed

Technology provides people with a degree of control over nature. That is a central reason why people want it. What to do with that control can be problematic, as readers of the blog will appreciate. That may especially be the case with medical technology, where the control obtained is over one’s own body or the bodies of others.

In that vein, here are two interesting stories to consider. The first story from Time concerns egg freezing. Egg freezing is becoming an increasingly popular method for dealing with female fertility issues. The basic idea is that women around 30 years of age can freeze eggs when they are still of optimal quality for use in conception (through IVF) later in life. Initially seen as a medical measure for women with prematurely declining egg quality, the procedure is increasingly viewed as a way of postponing pregnancy for healthy, career-oriented women.

Egg freezing is thus increasingly presented as a kind of insurance policy for well-to-do women. Egg freezing companies have “egg freezing parties” where women can be given information about (or be sold) egg freezing services. It is covered under some insurance plans, such as employee plans at Facebook and Apple.

As the article points out, the implications of egg freezing are not well known. The procedure was only recently removed from the “experimental” list, and many eggs now frozen will not be used, if ever, for many years. Early data gives some indication that egg freezing is not a cinch:

… initial data provided exclusively for TIME by Dr. Kevin Doody, former chairman of the SART Registry, gives us the clearest picture so far. Of the 353 egg-thaw cycles in 2012, only 83 resulted in a live birth. After 414 thaws in 2013, 99 babies were born. Those are the most comprehensive live-birth rates for egg freezing, and they’re just under 24%.

Also, the difference in quality of eggs over a woman’s lifetime is variable, making the potential benefit of freezing hard to quantify.

The second item is from the Wall Street Journal on recent increases in double mastectomies:

An analysis of the National Cancer Data Base revealed that 12% of women who received surgery for Stages 0-to-3 breast cancer in 2012 underwent a double mastectomy, up from 2% in 1998. Nearly 30% of women under age 45 opted to have both breasts removed in the most recent year, according to the analysis by Dr. Katharine Yao, director of breast surgery at NorthShore University HealthSystem near Chicago.

Various factors may combine to explain this increase. Improvements in breast reconstruction, and their inclusion in medical insurance, has reduced obstacles to its use. Fear of cancer has probably also increased. There is also the “Angelina Jolie” effect, whereby celebrity double mastectomies add to the procedure’s popularity.

Some doctors resist the trend. Removing a healthy breast does not significantly reduce cancer risk, except in unusual cases, like that of Jolie, who have a genetic predisposition to it:

Dr. Michael Miller, chief of plastic surgery at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, says he doesn’t hesitate to argue with women who don’t have high risk factors yet opt to get both breasts removed. “I say, ‘Why don’t we simply remove your foot? It would make as much sense to remove your foot as to remove your breast. Either would contribute an equal amount to your survival.’ ”

However, the relationship between women and doctors has changed. Women seek more control over their bodies, and a double mastectomy provides a way of doing so in the face of a dreaded disease.

So, both egg freezing and double mastectomies can be seen as ways in which technology contributes to empowerment of women. Clearly, many women enjoy that power, enough to exercise it in the form of elective surgeries. As these cases illustrate, that power can be somewhat overwhelming; the uncertainty involved in each leaves women in a quandary about how to use it.

Also, developments in medical technology tend to change what people think of as healthy and unhealthy. Both articles make it clear how egg freezing and mastectomies have changed women’s views about the health status of their bodies. In particular, both developments extend the concept of illness further into the area of risk of possible future conditions.

Changes in such profound views are bound to be difficult.

Do restaurants review their customers? July 17, 2015

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

A piece from The Atlantic’s CityLabs notes that restaurants often Google customers when they make a reservation. A recent survey of the American public suggests that 40% of people do not mind, although 31% find it creepy or intrusive, 24% think that it is a good thing, and 5% are undecided. On the whole, it appears that 64% of Americans think that it is at least OK.

Of course, the survey was conducted by OpenTable, a purveyor of reservation software, so the objectivity of the survey may be open to doubt.

In any event, this survey raises the issue of what restaurants are doing when they Google prospective customers. Mostly, it seems to be aimed at maximizing the restaurant’s outcome:

Staff want to be prepared for high rollers and VIPs like chefs, celebrities, and politicians, and sometimes they just want to go the extra mile. Grub Street reported that maîtres d’hotel at New York’s Eleven Madison Park might draw on their research to wish you a happy birthday or pair you with a server from the same state. One restaurant manager told ABC News that he uses LinkedIn to prevent potential conflicts by, for instance, seating high-profile rivals “as far away as possible.”

The article notes that some restaurants have been engaged in this practice for years.

It seems innocuous enough. After all, anyone can Google you if they choose to. The more interesting question, in my view, is whether or not restaurants track customers over time. Are clients being profiled? It turns out that Amazon profiles its customers but does not allow them to examine or challenge the resulting profiles. Is the same true at restaurants? Who has access to the data?

I do not know about restaurants in general, but here is a relevant section from the privacy policy at the Olive Garden, Canada:

Notice to Canadian Residents
We collect, use and disclose your personal information with your consent, which may be express or implied. You may withdraw your consent to the use and disclosure of your personal information by us or by third parties for marketing purposes at any time by contacting us as specified below under “How to Contact Us.” If you would like to access, update or ask us to delete your preferences or the personal information that we have collected about you, please contact us, and we will respond to your request within 30 days.

So, the Olive Garden has a privacy policy whereby clients are enrolled in tracking by default and must opt out. However, they do allow for examination and challenge.

As for access, the Olive Garden mentions that it will share information with governments upon lawful request. It also shares data with “affiliates, franchisees and joint marketing partners”. As usual, all bets are off if the company decides to sell: “We reserve the right to transfer any information we have about you in the event we sell or transfer all or a portion of our business or assets (including in the event of a reorganization, dissolution or liquidation).” Finally, data on Canadians may be transferred to the U.S. or other countries, where it is subject to the local laws.

Is that creepy, meh, or a good thing?

DNN: 15 July 2015 July 15, 2015

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

A short article in Business Insider discusses efforts by a startup called CyPhy Works to build a kind of personal safety drone. Helen Greiner, formerly of iRobot, founded the company in order to promote the new idea. The idea has attracted over $13m in funding so far.

According to Greiner, CyPhy’s drones will help with a number of safety- and security-related tasks:

The drones will also be designed with an “unlimited” power supply so that it can perform persistently and with minimal intervention. This feature will lend the drone to military and, I assume, other security concerns.

Of course, there are people whose safety is somewhat precarious who might benefit from such a drone. However, the list of tasks for the drone also seems a little paranoid. Is personal security so under threat that a persistent drone chaperone is a good response?

I am also curious about the locational privacy issues raised by a drone that follows you or others around. Will CyPhy Works be acquiring and analyzing this data? Under what conditions? There is no mention on the Kickstarter site about what, if anything, happens to this information.

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