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GM humans July 30, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , add a comment

A report in The Independent discusses debate over the meaning of the term genetically modified, as applied to people. The issue arises in the context of the British government’s move towards approval of mitochondrial DNA replacement during IVF procedures.

Each cell in the human body has a mitochondrion, a body whose function is to provide energy for cellular metabolism. This function is regulated by DNA within the body which, unlike nuclear DNA, is inherited from the person’s mother. Some illnesses, such as MS, result from defects in the mitochondrial DNA (mDNA).

Advances in IVF technology will soon allow for replacement of mDNA in a cell with mDNA from a different cell. Such replacement could allow parents to ensure that their offspring to not inherit serious mDNA defects. Of course, replacement of mDNA with that of a donor means that those offspring will have three genetic parents, a conceptual novelty.

Because of this reason, and because it involved genetic manipulation, use of the mDNA replacement technology is controversial. In an apparent attempt to avoid some of the controversy, the British government has adopted a “working definition” of the expression genetically modified on which cells produced via mDNA replacement would not be considered GM officially:

The Health Department accepts the germ-line of future generations will be altered, but it insists, in its official response to the public consultation published last week, that this does not amount to genetic modification. “There is no universally agreed definition of ‘genetic modification’ in humans – people who have organ transplants, blood donations or even gene therapy are not generally regarded as being ‘genetically modified’,” the response says.

Of course, this statement is somewhat incoherent: If “genetically modified” has no precise meaning, then how does the Health Department know that people who have undergone genetic therapy, for example, are not considered genetically modified?

Interestingly, both supporters and critics of the policy deride the government’s method of getting the therapy approved:

Lord Winston told The Independent: “The Government seems to have come to the right decision but used bizarre justification. Of course mitochondrial transfer is genetic modification and this modification is handed down the generations. It is totally wrong to compare it with a blood transfusion or a transplant and an honest statement might be more sensible and encourage public trust.”

David King, from the pressure group Human Genetics Alert, said the Government is “playing PR games based on very dubious science” because any changes to the mitochondrial genes will amount to genetic modification. “Their restriction of the term to nuclear inheritable changes is clearly political. They don’t want people like me saying that they are legalising GM babies,” Dr King said.

So, is the government right that modification of non-nuclear DNA is not genetic modification? Or, is this definition just a way of trying to avoid criticism?

Mitochondrial DNA versus Nuclear DNA.gif
Mitochondrial DNA versus Nuclear DNA” by University of California Museum of Paleontology (UCMP) and the National Center for Science Education – “Marshalling the Evidence.” Understanding Evolution. University of California Museum of Paleontology. 22 April 2014. <>.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

GPS users have smaller brains! July 29, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment

Actually, according to a Citylab post, UberX drivers who use GPS navigation systems tend to have less well-developed spatial cognition skills than do professional cab drivers. Studies of London cab drivers, who must know their city by heart, have exceptionally well-developed posterior hippocampi, a brain region associated with memory function.


Recent research by Veronique Bohbot of McGill found that drivers who use GPS systems to navigate cities are less well endowed when it comes to their hippocampi:

According to Bohbot’s research, there are two ways of navigating. Spatial navigation methods are what we might use without GPS—using landmarks and visual cues to create cognitive maps that help us orient ourselves and get where we want to go. Stimulus-response navigation, however, is triggered when we go on “auto-pilot,” thoughtlessly following a path because we’ve either done it before or are following the directions of our handy GPS devices.

UberX drivers tend to rely on GPS services, thus their inferiority to London cab drivers and their ilk. As a result, UberX drivers will not know their city as well as professionals.

The conclusion of the post is that UberX drivers may not offer as good a service as pros, not knowing which areas to avoid at certain times, which ones are clogged by construction, and so forth. However, Uber has a fix: Customers can use the service’s driver rating system to incentivize drivers to learn their way around better. A driver who takes the optimal route should get higher ratings than one who gets needlessly stuck in traffic with passengers. Since drivers with higher ratings will get more business, and perhaps charge more, competition for good ratings will make up for the problem.

This procedure may be asking too much of passengers. A stranger to Washington D.C., for example, could not be expected to know that a driver’s performance is sub-optimal. Even the best drivers get stuck in traffic and even the worst get lucky from time to time. How is an outsider to know the difference?

It seems more likely that Uber itself has the required information. Comparison of the performance of different drivers at similar tasks at similar times would seem to be a good way of rating their skills.

Also, UberX drivers could subscribe to navigation services that take account of real-time traffic conditions. One example would be Waze, discussed in this earlier blog posting. Perhaps Uber could negotiate special terms for its drivers with such services.

In any event, the research provides another perspective on how GPS navigation services can lead to deskilling, that is, reduction in the skills required to perform an activity. Famously, assembly line work deskilled the labor involved. People working in Ford’s auto plant needed to know only how to turn a given nut or join two parts together, rather than how to assemble an entire car. Deskilling enabled Ford to make cars much more cheaply but made the work less intrinsically interesting.

Similarly, GPS navigation systems may end up making chauffeur transportation much cheaper but may also end up making it less mentally challenging for the drivers. This issue does not mean that Uber drivers will necessarily become more stupid. They may compensate by taking on more challenging tasks besides driving, such as witty conversation with passengers or texting while driving.

The drone report July 28, 2014

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

More stories from the Drone News Network:

Keep watching the skies!

Crocs and iPads July 24, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

There is a conjunction you probably were not expecting. However, recent news has connected them with a common issue: obsolescence.

First, there is news that Crocs is about to downsize. It will be closing 100 of its 600 stores and laying off about 180 of its 5000 employees. This move follows on a 44% drop in profit over the most recent quarter. Is the comfortable but gaudy footwear on its way out?


CrocsAccessories” by jespahjoy from UnknownFlickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Crocs have enjoyed a good run. The footwear kicked off in 2002 at the Ft. Lauderdale Boat Show as adapted for the yachty set. However, people soon took to them to the tune of $850 in annual sales in 2007. Celebrities such as Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Mario Batali, and George W. Bush wore them in public. However, sales have declined, despite attempts by the company to diversify into high heels, dress shoes and winter boots.

Why have Crocs become unpopular? One possibility is stylistic obsolescence, that is, Crocs have simply gone out of fashion. The shoes are strongly styled and thus exposed to the winds of change. Carey Dunne of FastCompany says that consumers simply came to their senses and realized how awful the shoes really look. Andrew Clark of The Guardian argues that Croc management was “caught out” by the 2008 recession:

“That initial style put them on the map. They moved quickly to expand it, not only in the US but around the world,” says Jim Duffy, a sportswear analyst at stockbroker Stifel Nicolaus. “But at the same time, the economy slowed down. They had overdistributed the product, they’d become too heavily dependent on the one style and they had inventory management problems.”

In other words, the recession created an artificial glut from which the product never recovered.

Second comes news of a slowdown in Apple iPad sales. Sales of the tablet were down 19 percent from the previous quarter and 9 percent from the same quarter last year. Although Apple CEO Tim Cook says that he is not worried, it is an unusual situation for the company. This is especially so since sales of Mac computers and iPhones have grown.

iPad stand

So, have tablets become obsolete already? Will Oremus at Slate provides three explanations for the situation:

  1. There are limitations on tablets that do not apply to computers or phones. Tablets are not as powerful as the former and not as portable as the latter. Thus, they are “third devices” which only so many people will have a use for.
  2. Tablets are “too durable.” Most iPad buyers are first-time purchasers, suggesting that people who already have iPads are not replacing them yet. The new iPads are not so much better than the previous ones that many people want to upgrade.
  3. Unlike iPads, iPhone purchases are driven by phone carriers who subsidize the cost of phones in exchange for multi-year contracts. In the absence of this sort of economic stimulus, people who might like to upgrade from their old iPad are unwilling to spend the money.

These points relate to “functional obsolescence”, where a design becomes obsolete because another one with more utility appears. The utility of iPads is somewhat restricted in the first place and has not increased rapidly compared to other devices. Also, the cost of iPads means that people are more likely to find more important things to spend their money on.

In short, despite their decline in sales, iPads should not be considered obsolete. If anything, it is their lack of obsolescence that has depressed sales.

All this suggests that obsolescence is not a simple phenomenon and manifests itself in different ways.

Lax oversight in US biolabs July 23, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed

If asked to name some of the most dangerous pathogens around, you might well put smallpox, anthrax, and avian flu near the top of the list. It is disconcerting, therefore, to learn that all three pathogens have been mishandled in top US facilities.

Smallpox virus.jpg

(“Smallpox virus” by Photo Credit:
Content Providers(s): CDC/ Fred Murphy – This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #2292.

Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.)

Several vials of smallpox were recently discovered on the shelves of a National Institutes of Health facility in Bethesda. Apparently, a scientist cleaning out a storeroom discovered the vials, which appear to have been sitting there since the 1950s.

Smallpox is a nasty infectious disease that has killed hundreds of millions of people. It was eradicated by a vaccination campaign in the 1970s. Today, known samples of the virus are kept only at the CDC headquarters in Atlanta and the VECTOR lab in Russia. The vials discovered in Bethesda have been shipped to CDC HQ for testing.

There is apparently no evidence that anyone has been exposed to the mislaid smallpox samples.

Anthrax is an acute disease caused by a bacterium common in the soil. It has been weaponized by several countries over the years. Anthrax bacteria were mishandled by CDC researchers only last month:

The potential exposure took place after researchers failed to follow adequate protection procedures to inactivate anthrax samples at one CDC lab in Atlanta before transferring them to three other CDC labs not equipped to handle live anthrax bacteria, …. Workers at those three labs, believing the samples were inactivated, were not wearing adequate personal protective equipment while handling the material.

About 75 people were exposed to the active spores as a result. The problem was discovered when the samples were prepared for disposal and found to be “live”.

The CDC is offering treatment to exposed workers and reassuring the public that there is no further danger of infection.

In light of the anthrax incident, a probe into other CDC procedures have revealed further lapses. This probe uncovered a case of mishandling of avian flu viruses. The Agriculture Department’s poultry lab in Athens, Georgia received a shipment of relatively benign H9N2 avian flu virus. However, the sample had been contaminated with the deadlier H5N1 virus. The poultry researchers noticed the problem when their entire flock of chickens died.

News of the issue did not travel quickly. The Agriculture lab reported the issue on May 23, but it was not reported to senior people at the CDC until July 7.

Also, the CDC says that it may never be able to determine how the problem occurred:

That’s because most of the materials used in the experiment to culture the virus were discarded shortly after they were used by the scientists performing the work, which occurred in March, CDC spokesman Tom Skinner told Reuters.

If you find these incidents worrying, then you are not alone. US lawmakers quizzed CDC director Thomas Frieden about the matter during a House Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee meeting:

Frieden was pressed for answers on why the national public health institute was not prepared to report or prevent dozens of breaches identified by federal investigators, and whether its staff recognized the huge risk to the public if dangerous microbes were to escape its labs.

“A dangerous, very dangerous pattern is emerging and there are a lot of unknowns out there,” Committee Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, said at the hearing. “Why do these events keep happening?”

Frieden admitted that the CDC had been lax and assured the committee that they were taking measures to rectify the situation. The agency has closed two labs responsible for mishandling of pathogens and is suspending transfers from the highest security facilities.

How could researchers be so careless with deadly pathogens? One possibility is the nature of the work itself. The daily routine of handling dozens of identical vials and following finicky protocols can reduce the vigilance of even the most contentious technician. Rules cease to be seen as public safety measures and are perceived merely as hoops that must be jumped through (or skirted) in order to get a job done.

A sense of entitlement can ensue. As experts dealing with dangerous pathogens in special facilities, researchers may come to underestimate the risks they take by not following procedures. A similar problem was found with the US military labs (USAMRIID) following the anthrax attacks of 2001:

As the FBI bore down upon the Army lab, it was revealed that dozens of dangerous pathogen samples were unaccounted for; researchers were in the habit of taking samples with them as they traveled or relocated to other facilities, and record-keeping was sloppy, at best.

A lax safety culture may also be an issue. There is no word that the CDC ever assessed the performance of its researchers. Airport security personnel are occasionally tested by people carrying fake bombs. Did the CDC ever issue pathogen transfer requests just to see how well procedures were followed? It is not clear.

The CDC has yet to start a plague, that I am aware of. However, this pattern of misbehavior suggests that there are systemic and dangerous problems with their work. Perhaps the idea that biosaftey at the CDC should be overseen by an independent agency, and not the CDC itself, is a good place to start.

The drones above July 21, 2014

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

The drone market is exploding, although not yet literally. So, there is always more drone news.

Perhaps some of these ideas could be integrated. What about tasering newlyweds after they say their vows? Or drones that follow athletes around telling them to give 110%?

Discuss amongst yourselves.

Dive like its the World Cup? July 18, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

The 2014 Soccer World Cup is now in the past and the trophy is, I assume, housed snugly somewhere in Germany. However, there is perhaps one last topic to discuss: Diving.

One of the more problematic aspects of the game on display is the tendency of players to “dive”, that is, to fake or embellish interference against them for tactical advantage. Probably the oddest instance of this practice was when Luis Suàrez held his teeth with his fingers after he bit Giorgio Chiellini, as if the Italian had just committed a foul against his gums.

More exemplary were the many times that Arjen Robben flopped to the turf, arms and legs splayed out behind him like a parachutist, mouth agape in simulated agony and outrage, eyes fixing the referee with a wounded glare.

Robben is particularly talented and deserves the “diver of the tournament” award. Most players simply roll around on the grass crying out as if their uniforms were on fire or their kneecaps had just exploded.

Diving leads to problems for the game. For one thing, it creates unmerited advantages for the diver’s team. For another, it baffles the American audience who, for the most part, watch the tournament only when the US is involved. Diving is not often seen in native sports such as hockey or football, where it is regarded as unmanly. (In addition, players in these sports are better armored and perhaps have fewer excuses.) It does occur occasionally in the NBA.

Diving also diminishes the pace of play. As the diver writhes in hopeful agony, others remonstrate with the referee about whether or not a free kick is warranted, while most stand around enjoying the unexpected rest break.

The Wall Street Journal went so far as to track all the dives, total up the time wasted as a result, and ranked the divers against one another. In reviewing 32 games from the tournament, the paper made the following observations:

During the first 32 games, there were 302 players who could be seen at some point rolling around in pain, crumpling into a fetal position or lying lifeless on the pitch as the referee stopped the match. These theatrical episodes ate up a total of 132 minutes of clock, a metric we have decided to call “writhing time.”

To be fair, it is actually possible to get hurt playing soccer. You can clang heads. You can snap a hamstring. You can get spiked in the soft tissue. There were nine injuries in total that forced players to be substituted from the game and to miss, or potentially miss, a match. These were discarded. That left 293 cases of potential embellishment that collectively took up 118 minutes, 21 seconds.

The study showed one thing emphatically: The amount of histrionics your players display during a match correlates strongly to what the scoreboard says. Players on teams that were losing their games accounted for 40 “injuries” and nearly 12.5 minutes of writhing time. But players on teams that were winning—the ones who have the most incentive to run out the clock—accounted for 103 “injuries” and almost four times as much writhing.

Interestingly, the U.S.A. came in 6th place in the WSJ’s ranking whereas the Netherlands came in second-to-last, in spite of Robben’s heroics.

A further problem created by all the diving was explaining the activity to children seeing it for the first time:

When children are young, they cheat because they want to win. We hope they’ll stop cheating when they learn that it’s unfair and that cheating has consequences. And as we try to teach them the “right” thing, the most popular sport on the planet encourages the wrong one.

That might be laying it on a little thick, but the point still remains.

The Daily Mirror suggests that technology could be used to get a grip on the situation. Perhaps an additional official could review disputed plays on a monitor. This review should not be hard to arrange at World Cup games since every move the players make is tracked by multiple cameras. Instant replay is already used in a number of sports. FIFA is apparently contemplating allowing coaches to challenge some referee calls, so it might be possible. What form should instant replay take?

In the meantime, interested parties on the Internet have taken the trouble to parody the situation. Here, for example, are the minions from Despicable Me:

Also, Canadian film company Fourgrounds Film has created the viral video, “Everyday football fouls”, to explore what life would be like if people behaved like diving soccer plays in normal life:

Anyone feel like eating Italian tonight?

Risks, Rockets, and ‘writers. July 16, 2014

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

The Risks List is a remarkable source of news about the friction between technology and society.

Two items on the most recent Risks digest caught my eye. First, a story about the Verruckt Water Slide in Kansas City: the tallest water slide in the world. Take a look at the video, and watch as the designer plunges 168 feet, 7 inches to the bottom of the slope:

My first reaction: “Where do I get in line?”. The USA Today article linked in the Risks item has some stomach churning descriptions of what it’s like to ride down. I had a second reaction after reading further:

In an interview, Schlitterbahn Waterparks & Resorts co-owner Jeff Henry said that “Our correction coefficients were all off. Models didn’t show air and water friction. A lot of our math was based on roller coasters at first, and that didn’t translate to a water slide like this.”

Huh. Math way off? Slow down. Risks is ful of problems like that. Perhaps most famous was the Mariner 1 disaster from July 1962, also known as “The most expensive hyphen in history”. In short, a mathematical notation wasn’t transcribed properly by the programmers of the rocket control code (it was an overbar, not a hypen) which led to the rocket flying an unusual path and then being remotely destroyed by central control to avoid a ground impact disaster.

More recently, the Mars Climate Orbiter crashed on the surface of Mars in September 1999 because one piece of software generated output in “English” pound units and another expected input in metric newton units. Oops. Look here for more on Risks about the Mars Climate Orbiter. Let’s hope the Verruckt is all pounds and feet. Or that it’s all metric. Incidentally, 168′7″ doesn’t equal a nice round number of metres, but one can never be too sure.

The other bit from Risks this week was an item about how German politicians were considering reverting to typewriters for secure communications to avoid eavesdropping by the American NSA.

The head of the Bundestag’s parliamentary inquiry into NSA activity in Germany said in an interview with the Morgenmagazin TV programme that he and his colleagues were seriously thinking of ditching e-mail completely.

Asked “Are you considering typewriters” by the interviewer on Monday night, the Christian Democrat politican Patrick Sensburg said: “As a matter of fact, we have—and not electronic models either”. “Really?”, the surprised interviewer checked. “Yes, no joke”, Sensburg responded.

Presumably these policitians are old enough to know how to use typewriters. When I show students a typewriter they get a bit confused: How do I start a new line? And just what is that bell trying to tell me?

My thought here was how this appears to be fact immitating fiction. The “Laundry Files” novels by Charles Stross feature an imaginary British security agency responsible for fighting off nightmarish sorts of Lovecraftian threats to the United Kingdom. And, in particular, one character refuses to upgrade to modern electronic computers, preferring to remain fixed in the era of microfiche, primarily to avoid the very same problem of electronic eavesdropping.

Wounding to heal July 16, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

In this neat TEDx talk, Nicholai Begg characterizes the problem of puncture in surgery and how he devised a way of reducing a salient risk.

It is interesting to note how an engineering approach to the problem bore fruit. Also, I like the simplicity of the solution.

The Department of Systems Design Engineering here at Waterloo is setting up a Biomedical Engineering Program to begin this fall. Perhaps students in the program will find interesting solutions to important problems like the one addressed by Begg.

Categories and hybrids July 15, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

Recently, I examined the crucial question, “Is a burrito also a sandwich?” The question concerns designs and the categories they fit into. In the burrito case, the problem involves a food design from one culture and the food categories from another one.

Category problems also arise from hybrid designs. Consider the following hybrid designs, all recently in the news:

One bit of advice often given to designers is that they must understand the “essence” of the thing that they are designing. One interpretation of this advice is that designers must know the category that they are designing in and what distinguishes it from other, related ones.

This advice is made somewhat problematic by the innovation and success of hybrid categories, such as the “phablet”, the fruity-beer, and the crossover. The arrival and adoption of these hybrid forms of technology undermines the view that designs really have an essence at all.

If true, then is there much point in a designer understanding the “essence” of a product category?

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