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More designer babies on the way? July 7, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , add a comment

A short item in the New York Post repeats a rumor that Kanye West and Kim Kardashian recently opted for IVF treatments, not because Kim has fertility problems but because the couple wanted to ensure that they had a boy. Since they already have a daughter, the Post reports, they decided on a policy known as family balancing, which would mean their next child should be a boy. In order to ensure this outcome, according to the rumour, Kim had IVF in which only male embryos were implanted.

Whatever the truth of this contention, the article points out that the increasing availability of IVF treatments does make the selection of baby traits such as gender increasingly feasible. And, people are clearly anxious to take advantage of it. For example, the US is perhaps the most popular destination for international fertility tourists interested in determining the gender, skin colour, or other traits of their children because it offers IVF service cheaply without many questions asked.

Probably, we can expect to see more in future. I have noted in an earlier posting that egg freezing is becoming increasingly common among career-oriented, middle-class women. Companies like Apple and Facebook cover this procedure for their employees.

In a recent issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics, Dr. Kevin Smith of Abertay University argues that freezing of the sperm of 18-year-old men should become the norm in Britain, and be covered by the National Health Service. Eighteen years of age is when sperm quality in men is at its best. Since men are waiting longer to become parents, there is an increased risk of problems, including genetic conditions, with their sperm. Turning to sperm from their younger selves would mitigate this risk.

The suggestion has been criticized. Some argue against it on technical grounds, saying that sperm do not freeze well. Others argue on social grounds that it would be better simply to support people who want to have children in their early careers with good childcare services, for example. Much will depend, I suspect, on whether or not the insurance industry would cover such a service at a cheap enough rate.

In any event, it seems likely that reliance on IVF will increase, even simply as a means of control over reproduction among people who do not have fertility problems in the conventional sense. If so, then more “designer babies” are indeed on their way.

A smiling baby.jpg
A smiling baby” by Kenny Louie from Vancouver, Canada – Hah!
Uploaded by russavia. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Who should Google look out for? July 6, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , add a comment

Scott has pointed out that the adoption of new communications technologies has often been accompanied by pious hopes that they will lead to world peace. The recent mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina reveals that communications technologies sometimes have the opposite effect. For another example, consider how well ISIS has used the Internet to pursue its violent agenda.

Of course, it could still be the case that new communications technologies increase peace overall. Steven Pinker, for example, argues that the risk of violent death has decreased in recent history, at the same time the telegraph, telephone, and the Internet became more integrated into modern society. Not everyone accepts that account, however.

If communications technologies are not inherently peace-inducing, could they be designed to tilt the scales in favour of peace? This question arises in connection with a recent article in The Atlantic asking, “Should Google tell the truth?” Conor Friedersdorf notes that Google has many options in how it ranks search results. In particular, it could rank results to favour the interests of some parties over others. When someone searches for a route to drive from A to B, for example, Google could return a route that leads past a particular restaurant, if that business advertises with Google. Friedersdorf argues that Google should favour the interests of the driver and provide the fastest and safest route possible.

(In a previous post, Patrick Lin has speculated that your Google car might deliberately take you by Krispy Kreme when it can get away with it.)

How paternalistic should Google get in ranking search results? If someone searches on the terms “Should I vaccinate my child”, then Google could steer them towards information that supports child vaccination, on the grounds that this procedure is better for the user because it is known to protect their children.

In addition, Google does steer people away from certain results, such as child pornography or searches that might violate the privacy of others, although it does this to favour the interests of people other than the searcher.

The incident in South Carolina raises the issue of how Google should handle searches that would lead to racist literature. The search giant has been criticized before for how its autocomplete function sometimes suggests racist search terms. Should Google attempt to steer people away from racist sites on the grounds that it would be better for them if they were not exposed to such views or better for any potential victims of racism? Or, would such a response amount to an egregious form of censorship?

In any event, the difficulties posed by such questions illustrate that simply being able to communicate more easily with others through a new technology does not, in itself, resolve any tensions that may exist between the parties. Communications work through protocols of different kinds, and those protocols may be configured in many ways, in accord with many interests.

The internet = good or bad? June 25, 2015

Posted by Scott Campbell in : Uncategorized , comments closed

In Nicholas Negroponte’s 1995 book Being Digital, the MIT Media Lab professor predicted that “digital technology can be a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony”.

Such an optimistic view of an up-and-coming communication technology is not uncommon: in the mid-1940s television was perceived as tool to bring peace and understanding to the world. In the mid 19th century, the emerging global telegraph network was understood by world leaders in much the same way. Queen Victoria’s first trans-Atlantic message declared her hope that the cable would strengthen the ties of friendship and common interests across the ocean; President Buchanan believed the cable would diffuse “civilization, liberty and law throughout the world”.

So what to make of the events coming out of South Carolina in the last week? The Charleston church mass shooting on June 17 led to the deaths of nine people, all African Americans. The suspect, who I won’t bother to name, was apparently motivated by racist and violent beliefs about white supremacy. While a considerable amount of public and media attention has been on the Confederate Flag, the role of the internet is worth considering. Consider this piece by Leon Neyfakh, staff writer:

One of the most chilling revelations about Dylann Roof, the alleged murderer of nine parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel AME Church, is that his descent into crazed and deadly racism began with a simple Google search. According to a manifesto he posted online sometime before his rampage, Roof had his “awakening” after seeing news reports about the death of Trayvon Martin. Roof describes hearing and seeing Martin’s name everywhere, looking him up on Wikipedia, and “being unable to understand what the big deal was.” After that he typed “black on White crime” into Google and came upon the website of a far-right group called the Council of Conservative Citizens. After that day, Roof wrote in his manifesto, he was never the same.

As Neyfakh points out, the same event–the death of Martin and 2012 trial of his killer–that created a civil rights movement known as
Black Lives Matter also created this Charleston tragedy. So, while an optimist might celebrate the anti-racist activism and positive outcomes made possible by the internet, it’s worth recognizing that those same technologies and tools are equally available to racist and white supremacist organizations, which again, I won’t bother to name or link to.

The reality is that communication technologies are not machines for cranking out freedom or peace any more than they are explicitly tools
of oppression, persecution or despotism. While there are arguments to consider in terms of the neutrality of technology, covered many times on this blog (see just-a-tool or neutral-technology, simple optimistic (or pessimistic) views of technology should be taken with a grain of salt. As one related story about the Confederate Flag controversy on points out:

Free speech is great and all, but the internet is probably the best argument against it.

Quieting turbines through biomimicry June 23, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

One of the attractions of wind turbines is that they provide energy without carbon emissions or other unwanted side-effects. However, they do sometimes generate one form of pollution, namely noise pollution. The noise of the turbines slicing through the air can be technostrhessing for those in the vicinity. Sometimes, this effect leads to the speed of the blades being limited, to cap the amount of noise that they make.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have applied techniques of biomimicry in an attempt to solve the problem. In particular, they have looked to owls to provide a solution. Owls are well known for their ability to swoop on small mammals at high speeds, all without making a sound. Naturally, the flight feathers of owls are adapted to produce this performance:

The team discovered that the birds’ flight feathers, which create lift, have a downy covering, a flexible comb of bristles along the leading edge, and a porous fringe on the trailing edge.

The team has fashioned a plastic material that can be added to the trailing edge of a turbine blade in order to produce an analogous effect. In wind tunnel tests, the addition has reduced the noise of turbine blades by 10 decibels, a useful reduction.

Now, it remains to be seen if the material performs well in the field. If it works, it could be deployed also in other contexts where turbine noise is an issue, such as in aircraft.

This research provides a nice example of biomimicry. That is, it shows how an adaptation from a particular organism may be used as a model for a design feature in an artifact. It seems functional, efficient, and elegant and will work (or not) independently of other facts of owl biology.

It may not mean that wind turbines will become less noisy. Rather, it may be that, if adopted, this design feature will allow turbines to generate more power for a given amount of noise pollution.

Snowy Owl in Flight 2 (6446947671)

By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Snowy Owl in Flight 2 Uploaded by Magnus Manske) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Technostressing train stop June 22, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

Kitchener-Waterloo is in the throes of getting a light rail train system. Part of the process is the design of the stops. One design, for a stop at historic Victoria Park, was criticized at a public consultation for bearing a loose resemblance to a swastika. The offending component is a square wall divided into a 5×5 grid with coloured tiles in each space. The colouring pattern was intended to represent the Iron Horse trail in gray, passing through green and blue tiles representing, I assume, land and water. In addition to being bland (or trite), some members of the public thought it reminiscent of the Nazi emblem.

Before-and-after pictures are provided by the Kitchener Post.

Not wanting to risk any such association, however vague, city councillors voted to change the design to a uniform, polished stone, an attempt to echo cladding on historic buildings in the area.

This design represents an interesting form of technostress. In this case, the design prompts unpleasant associations and thus disapproval. Political symbols like the swastika have the power to affect people deeply, even when their presence is ambiguous and unintended.

Recall the five principles of flag design put forward by the North American Vexillological Association

  1. Keep it simple
  2. Use meaningful symbolism
  3. Use two to three basic colors
  4. No lettering or seals of any kind
  5. Be distinctive

This incident suggests that the same principles might be applied to the design of any public signage intended to convey symbolic meaning. Of course, the second principle might be edited to read, “Use meaningful and appropriate symbolism”.

Is Uber an employer? June 18, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

Services designed to expand and exploit the sharing economy are much in the news of late. Yesterday, I posted a note about Airbnb, an app/service that allows people to rent out the accommodations on a casual (or not) basis. Uber is another app/service that allows people to give rides to others in their personal cars on a casual (or not) basis. Uber is controversial in a number of ways, including the issue of how it treats its drivers.

The New York Times reports that the California Labor Commissioner’s Office has issued a ruling on this matter. Uber driver Ms. Barbara Ann Berwick filed a claim against Uber in that State for not compensating her for expenses incurred in the conduct of her work:

In the course of driving for Uber from July to September 2014, working 60 to 80 hours a week, she said, she earned about $11,000 before expenses and taxes.

“If you work it out, if I didn’t get compensated for expenses, I’d be working for less than minimum wage,” Ms. Berwick said.

On 3 June, the Commissioner ruled in her favor, ordering Uber to pay Ms. Berwick $4,152.20 compensation. Uber is appealing the ruling.

At the root of the case is the matter of whether or not Ms. Berwick is an employee of Uber. Uber takes the view that drivers using its app are freelance contractors and not employees. Thus, they are liable for their own expenses. The Commissioner ruled that, under California law, Ms. Berwick is an employee. Uber retained a significant degree of control over her conduct, e.g., it determines fares. Also, her services were “integral” to Uber’s operations. The Commissioner cited a legal precedent on which pizza delivery people, even though they provide their own cars, gas, and insurance, are deemed employees.

Although the ruling applies to only this one case, it has certainly attracted broad attention. I note that Canadian law appears to be broadly similar to that in California on this matter. So, could Canadian Uber drivers make similar complaints?

The implications for Uber are significant. Uber has more than 1 million drivers worldwide. This driver pool is affordable to the company because drivers essentially pay their own way. If Uber is required to pay expenses, cover health insurance, etc., then they cannot afford so many employees.

Is Airbnb good for cities? June 17, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV 201 , comments closed

The New York Times has an interesting debate article on the propriety of Airbnb for large cities like New York. More specifically, the issue is how Airbnb affects the housing stock in cities that are already short of it. Four authors give four different perspectives:

  1. In up-market housing, Airbnb effectively turns housing into hotels. This displaces residents in favour of tourists and is arguably illegal in New York. In down-market housing, which is often subsidized, Airbnb allows residents to capture some of the subsidy spent on them as personal income. That seems like double-dipping.
  2. Airbnb makes housing stock more efficient by admitting underused accommodations onto the market. This measure effectively increases the housing stock. Governments should collaborate with services like Airbnb, perhaps deputizing them to collect hotel taxes.
  3. There is too much uncertainty in the situation to say what is really going on. Cities should wait to collect better statistics before moving to quash this innovation.
  4. Airbnb accommodations are a small fraction of the affordable housing stock. Cities should concentrate on increasing that stock rather that pursuing distractions like Airbnb.

Each perspective is worth considering. Is Airbnb a service that mobilizes an underutilized resource? Or, is it a way in which a private service has found to capture big cities’ expenditures on affordable housing by substituting better-off visitors for poorer residents? Or, none of the above?

Privacy and facial recognition June 16, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed

The New York Times reports that civil liberties and consumer groups have backed out of talks regarding privacy and the private application of facial recognition technology. You know, think of Minority Report where businesses use recognition systems to track people’s public movements and sell them things. Trade associations generally want permissive use of the technology, which would help increase the effectiveness of their targeted advertising. Privacy advocates, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, argue that more restrictive regulation would be better.

Readers of the blog will know that there are at least two models of privacy. On one, a person enjoys privacy when data about them is not associated with them. Having databases full of information about people is not considered a privacy problem if it is “anonymized”, that is, does not identify who the data records are about. Sometimes, anonymity is not as solid as it may seem.

Another model of privacy involves control over personal information. On this view, a person enjoys privacy when they control who gets personal information about them and under what circumstances. This model is sometimes compared to informed consent in medical research: access to patients is allowed only when patients understand what is at stake and freely agree to it.

The control model is ambiguous about how consent to access is given. One view is that access is open by default and cut off only if the person involved explicitly opts out. This is known as implied consent. The recent, European “right to be forgotten” law takes this view: It assumes that Google may store information and present information about people until and unless those people opt out by filing a request for that purpose. This model is more permissive and, not surprisingly, is usually favored by marketers like Google.

Another view is that access is closed by default and allowed only if the person involved explicitly says that they agree to it. This is known as express consent. Express consent is required by some legislation, such as the new Canadian Anti-Spam Law (CASL). This model is less permissive and, not surprisingly, favored by privacy advocates.

Privacy advocates have walked out of discussions because marketers would not agree to the express consent model:

But the privacy advocates said they were giving up on talks because they could not achieve what they consider minimum rights for consumers — the idea that companies should seek and obtain permission before employing face recognition to identify individual people on the street.

On this view, personal tracking via facial recognition is like spam under CASL.

Marketers are not likely to agree to anything more stringent that the implied consent model:

With or without the consumer advocates, the participants intend to continue trying to develop a workable code of conduct for facial recognition privacy, said Carl Szabo, policy counsel for NetChoice, an e-commerce trade association.

​ “We think we can reach consensus on transparency, notice, data security and giving users meaningful control over the sharing of their facial recognition information with anyone who otherwise would not have access,” Mr. Szabo said in an email.

Reaching consensus without the agreement of half the parties sounds like doublespeak to me but, then, I am in philosophy and not marketing.

What standard should apply? When people venture out in public, do they implicitly agree to be tracked by private services, even those with whom they have no standing arrangement, through biometric technology? Or, should such tracking be considered an exception, on a par with spamming or harassment?

Parking apps June 12, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

David Streitfeld has written a nice piece in the New York Times blog about public parking systems. Often, public parking in a city is provided on an egalitarian, first-come, first-served basis. The only qualification a driver needs to use an available space may be change for a parking meter.

In some cities, this social contract was recently disrupted by apps such as Monkeyparking, which allow people in desirable spots to auction them off on the service. Although auctions are economically efficient, they fundamentally change the social contract from egalitarian to market-driven, that is, from first-come, first-served to the willingness and ability to pay. As a result, they have been deemed officially unwelcome in a number of cities.

Responses have varied. The post notes that companies like Zirx have created valet services. As you arrive at your destination, press a button on your Zirx app, and a valet in a yellow shirt will find you and park your car in a “partner garage” while your go about your business. When you are ready to retrieve the car, just press another button. Average cost is $15/day.

As Streitfeld notes, one unintended consequence of such services may be to increase driving activity. Having to deal with parking sometimes prompts people to carpool, take transit, or pass on trips altogether. Make parking more frictionless and more driving will occur.

A better solution, according to Donald Shoup of UCLA, is smart parking meters that charge according to demand. Like congestion charging, such charges would help to keep car traffic at acceptable levels without disrupting the first-come, first-serve social contract. As an added bonus, it would allow cities to capture the value of their parking spaces instead of conceding them to app designers:

“Why should an app developer get all the money from underpriced curb parking when the city could be getting it?” Dr. Shoup asked. “This could be a new source of revenue and greatly reduce congestion as well.”

For those people unable to pay increased rates, the take could be used to support transport alternatives such as mass transit.

Cheap parking contributes to collective problems such as traffic congestion and its consequences. Of course, people like it because it makes life more convenient, certainly for those with cars. So, they are reluctant to pay much for it. However, smart meters may be seen as more acceptable than apps like Monkeyparking that arrogate the value of public parking to themselves.

Are smart meters a good response to the arrival of services such as Monkeyparking or Zirx?

Classified Canadian consumption June 10, 2015

Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100, STV302 , comments closed

According to a recent article in the New York Times, 42 percent of Canadians have used Kijiji, the online classified service. As the article notes, the funny word with all those i’s and j’s is “practically synonymous with classifieds” in this country.

Kijiji Logo

Kijiji Logo

South of the border though, the dominant version of an online classified advertising service is Craigslist. The Canadian preference is presented initially as a puzzle by the Times, but it eventually explains how of Kijiji, eBay’s largest Canadian operation, survived in a globalized, online world with no apparent borders and that always seems to converge on singular services with goofy names. Google, Twitter, Uber, and Facebook: they are all kings in their respective fields with a global reach that squashes virtually all competitors. Kijiji has somehow thrived in Canada. Should that surprise us?

Not really. There are plenty of successful alternatives to each of these services around the world, but they are often highly regional. As the article points out, Friendster seems to have survived the Facebook onslaught in the Philippines and Malaysia, and for a variety of political and nationalist reasons, there are various social-networking and search alternatives in China and Russia. The simple lesson is that even in a globalized world, similar technologies and patterns of use does not always necessarily lead to technological convergence or even cultural convergence, where we all act and think the same way. Slight differences in cultural attitude or politics or economics or geography or language can open wedges to sustain key differences.

Kijiji survived in Canada, according to the authors, because of good timing (it got started before Craigslist could get going and establish itself) and because of a “thrifty” Canadian mindset:

“Canadians are traditionally penny pinchers, which manifests itself in consumer buying differences,” said Warren Shiau, consulting director of buyer behaviour research at the market analysis firm IDC Canada. “Kijiji has no fees for anything outside of a few specific big-ticket categories, which appeals to the penny pinchers in us.”

So it succeeded because we’re cheap. Not necessarily up against Craigslist, the presumed competitor, which to my knowledge also has very few fees for normal classified ads. Kijiji was also cheaper than eBay, it’s parent company, which did charge transaction fees. The auction site also didn’t do “local” very well, at least not here in Canada. What with the lower population density and large shipping distances between potential buyers and sellers, online auctions didn’t seem to succeed as well as in the United States. Instead, a service to facilitate local, in-person deals did.

In David Nye’s book, “Technology Matters”, he has an important phrase: “differentiation replacing standardization”. Consumers often seek out variety and uniqueness in their buying habits, which can replace or displace standardized mass-produced goods made efficiently with rigid mass-production techniques. For example, Henry Ford produced the Model T very successfully for almost twenty years without change before he was forced to adopt General Motor’s notion of annual models whose only difference year-to-year might be cosmetic. Consumers wanted something different, something distinct. In that sense, maybe Canadian consumers just wanted something different from Craigslist.

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