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A new Ontario flag? May 21, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment

Today is the 50th birthday of the Ontario flag. Steve Paikin provides a helpful, potted history on the TVO blog. As he points out, the history of the Ontario flag is quite different than that of the national flag. In the wake of the controversy over Canada’s new flag, Ontario premier John P. Robarts realized that he had a political opportunity. Ontario had no official flag; it used the old Canadian Red Ensign for official functions. With the Red Ensign now history, and the public exhausted from the “flag flap“, Ontario could adopt a new flag—and Robarts could enjoy the credit—without much ado.

The answer was simple: Robarts simply took the Red Ensign and substituted the Ontario coat of arms for the national coat of arms. Voilà!

Drapeau de lOntario - Ontario flag (5625479477)
Drapeau de l’Ontario – Ontario flag by abdallahh via Wikimedia Commons.

The contrast with the national flag design marathon could hardly be greater:

And that’s how Ontario got its flag. No special committee hearings. No cross-country design contest. No nothing actually. Just the intuition of a premier.

Recently, people have started to question the appropriateness of the flag. For example, the big Union Jack in the corner may seem odd when almost 60% of people in the province claim no English or Scottish heritage.

Perhaps it is time for a renewal. The government could hold a contest akin to the one that gave us the Canada 150 logo. Wikimedia Commons already boasts a category for proposed Ontario flags, with 18 entrants. Many of these feature the provincial flower and its well-known logo.

New Ontario Flag Trilliumband.jpg
New Ontario Flag Trilliumband” by M4rcu5Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Any ideas? Before you take the plunge, have a look at library of Canadian logos made by the Northern Army Preservation Society of Canada. Also, bear in mind the five principles of flag design described 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

Have fun, and let us know what you come up with!

Sustainability and integration May 20, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment

A pair of interesting stories appeared on the ‘net today, both involving technology and its relationship with its setting. They make for an interesting contrast in significant ways.

The first story concerns the introduction of “Miracle Rice” into the Philippines in the 1960s. Design critic Bruce Nussbaum writes about how, when a member of the Peace Corps in that country at the time, he helped to conduct trials of this variety of rice developed by the International Rice Research Institute:

I assisted with a study comparing the efficacy of using water buffalo versus small Japanese tractors to cultivate rice fields with the new seed. Water buffalo had long been used in Asia to plow and level land, puddle rice fields, and cultivate field crops, all while providing no-cost fertilizer. Japanese planting tractors, on the other hand, had been recently introduced to help farmers save on labor time, since mechanized tillage requires fewer field laborers for the same output

It will not surprise you to learn that the tractor-based process was more efficient. Unfortunately, the more industrial style of production also entailed more reliance on gasoline, pesticides, and large-scale irrigation, all provided by outside sources. In rough terms, the social impact of adoption of industrial farming was a transfer of control from local peasants to wealthy oligarchs. The peasants rebelled and the result was more than a little bloodshed. Nussbam draws the following conclusion:

… the violence that resulted from the invention of this new food crop has always tempered my view of the optimism that is so much a part of design culture. The profession proclaims good intentions; and we must be fully aware of what harm good intentions may sometimes bring.

I have written elsewhere about how good intentions can sometimes lead designers to draw premature conclusions about the advisability of their work.

The second story involves the concept of Regenerative Design, promoted by architect Peter Busby of Perkins + Will. Regenerative design is about how sustainable design requires integration of designs with their settings. For example, consider the Visitor Centre at Vancouver’s VanDusen Botanical Garden:

Waste from the toilets is harvested to be mixed with food waste composting, while the water is separated out and purified for use in irrigation. Rammed-earth building blocks were formed by dredging ponds on the site, and the deeper water in turn led to a healthier ecosystem. The equivalent of staircases encourage all kinds of critters to get up to the green roof and feed; coyotes have been spotted up there.

The building tries to contribute to its local ecosystem in ways that the land might have done without a building on it at all.

Both stories are about the importance of integration to sustainable design. In the first place, the re-design of an agricultural system upended the social supports of peasant farmers, making their livelihoods unsustainable. They reacted with outrage. In the second place, the re-design of a meadow area is sustainable in the sense that it is integrated with the prevalent ecology. Together, these stories remind us that sustainability is an important consideration for designs of all kinds and that integration is an important component of it.

DNN: 15 May 2015 May 15, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

Drones are well known for allowing people to make their presence felt where they could not do so before. Sometimes, this ability gets people into trouble when their drones intrude on others. For example, another man has been arrested for flying his drone too close to the White House for the comfort of the Secret Service. What was he thinking? Immortal fame and personal fortune belongs to he who is the second to do something obviously stupid?

However, there is more to drones than simply providing a new way to pry into security areas. Because of their mobility and also their ability to carry small payloads, drones can be vehicles for self expression. Several recent news items attest to the possibilities:

With the advent of the personal drone, self expression has reached new heights! What will be next?

Canadian logos May 14, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed

As Scott has pointed out, Waterloo student Ariana Cuvin won the Canada 150 logo design contest with her colourful and stylized maple leaf. Speaking for myself, I like the design and it also makes an interesting example of how contests are more often used for these projects these days.

Besides featuring a maple leaf, Cuvin’s design carries on in a Canadian tradition of logographic work. Particularly in the 1960s, Canadian logo designers seem to have preferred simple, flat symbols. Consider the collection of Canadian logos by the Northern Army Preservation Society of Canada. On this site, you can find dozens of historic Canadian logos. I think that many of these will strike the viewer has having a family resemblance, one shared by Cuvin’s work.

Here are a few examples:

1976 Olympics
The Montreal Olympics, 1976.

1965 Air Canada
Air Canada, 1965.

Bank of Montreal 1967
Bank of Montreal, 1967.

Brewer's Retail, 1970
Brewer’s Retail, ca. 1970.

Canada Post
Canada Post.

CBC, 1966
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1966.

CN 1960
Canadian National Railway, 1960.

Government of Ontario, 1964.
Government of Ontario, 1964.

Loblaws, 1972
Loblaws, 1972.

NFB, 1969
National Film Board, 1969.

Ontario Hydro, 1965
Ontario Hydro, 1965.

Participation, 1971
Participation, 1971.

Shoppers Drug Mart
Shopper’s Drug Mart.

Toronto Maple Leafs, 1970
Toronto Maple Leafs, 1970.

Toronto Zoo, 1970s
Toronto Zoo, ca. 1970.

Canadian Centennial, 1967
Canadian Centennial, 1967.

As Scott notes, Cuvin’s design bears a particular resemblance to the Centennial leaf, perhaps not by coincidence. Cuvin’s design is distinguished by the layering of the fragments of the leaf and the aggressive angularity of its points. Still, it seems to pay homage to the many flat logo designs notable in Canadian design history. Perhaps it will be included in the Northern Army’s collection.

Canada 150, 2015
Canada 150, 2015.

Logo nogo May 12, 2015

Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV302 , comments closed

A few weeks ago, Canadians learned of the new logo for the 150th anniversary of their country. The stylized and colourful maple leaf was designed by University of Waterloo student Ariana Cuvin. Her submission was selected from among 300 other submissions to a contest aimed at secondary students run by the federal government.

Canada 150 logo (

I’m not a graphic designer so I’m not really in a position to critize her design effectively. For historical context, it does look a bit similar to the logo used for the centenary in 1967:

Canada Centennial Logo (Wikimedia)

Canada Centennial Logo (Wikimedia)

To my eyes, it also looks a lot better than the five potential logos that were revealed late 2013. Widespread dissatisfaction with those underwhelming designs appear to have led to the contest.

Original five proposed logos (

Original five proposed logos (

Not that everyone is happy with Cuvin’s logo or the way it was selected.

When the government announced last December that it was holding a student contest to choose the winning logo design, Graphic Designers of Canada, the national certification body for graphic and communication designers, complained the process would exploit students, who — aside from Cuvin — received no compensation for their work.

Cuvin, for her part, didn’t seem to feel exploited, but she did receive $5000 for a few hours of work (Cuvin admitted that she only found out about the contest a few days before the deadline and went “with something very simple”).

Many of Canada’s graphic designers felt that the government’s approach to the logo lacked a certain integrity for failing to compensate the other designers who submitted logos for their work. Does that seem a bit cranky? After all, unlikely means have been used before for similar ends: the 1967 logo by Stuart Ash was also selected in a contest. And the Flag of Canada itself, with red maple leaf on a white square field with two verticle red bands, was famously chosen in 1964 after controversial political bickering and clever manoeuvring. There was no committee of experienced and learned graphic designers involved.

But I think that misses the point, especially in an age of micro-jobs, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, and crowdsourcing. Should graphic designers be compensated for their work and experience? Or should they be expected to compete for free, even for a logo as important as that used for the 150th birthday of a country? It does seem to undervalue and undercut expertise and to exploit individuals and workers who are unable or unlikely to organize and negotiate better compensation. It also seems to be very similar to the problem Cam just pointed out with Uber and the sharing economy: doesn’t a contest let the government off by getting something for very little cost, without paying for benefits or security of traditional full-time employment of graphic designers?

It all reminds me a of a CBC “documentary” I heard a few years ago. Apparently the federal government has been looking for thousands of volunteers to replace paid workers for a while now! (Warning: the podcast is satire).

Uber and the sharing economy May 12, 2015

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

As in many other cities, the ride-sharing service Uber continues to elbow its way in to the hire-a-ride market in Toronto. Uber is controversial because of doubts about its privacy policy and safety record, but is highly popular with customers because its prices are often less than those of established taxi services. Recently, Uber has made some moves to mitigate the controversy in Toronto, as outlined by the TVO Agenda blog.

Uber has applied for a taxi brokerage license, despite the fact that it claims not to be a taxi service. The license costs less than $400 Cdn, so it is a drop in the bucket for Uber but seems aimed at turning down the heat in the ongoing contretemps with taxi drivers and some Toronto politicians. In its turn, the Toronto City Council deferred changing its taxi rules to apply specifically to whatever Uber is, properly described, until a judge rules on their legal injunction against it.

I was interested to read about the problem that councillor Gord Perks voiced about Uber:

“You need to know when you get in a cab that you’re not being gouged,” he said in defence of the city’s rules. “The fact that they’re destroying our ability to set those rules creates the risk that in five years, that’s how the taxi business evolves.”

This remark seems curious since Uber is known for providing cheap rides and not expensive ones.

If anything, Uber is suspected of gouging its drivers. This point is made in an interesting article by Emily Guendelsberger, a reporter who took an “undercover” job as an Uber driver. On her analysis, Uber is providing lower fares to passengers by making its drivers bear most of the expenses that would be covered by a taxi company in the case of taxi drivers. Gas, vehicle wear and maintenance, and insurance are born largely or entirely by drivers. Also, Uber tends to cut fare rates when it becomes established, and rides tend to become increasingly shorter and less profitable for drivers. As a result, it is difficult to make a living as an Uber driver, which increasingly attracts people who are already living in economic straits and are unlikely to make demands of the company.

The whole situation reminded me of Sam Bliss’s argument in a Grist posting called “The sharing economy is bullshit”. The sharing economy is supposed to be about helping people use goods from a common pool, which is more sustainable than everyone owning certain goods, such as cars, individually. Bliss argues that:

Airbnb is a rental broker. Uber and Lyft are unregulated cab services. Taskrabbit and similar “servant economy” enterprises let well-off people pay less well-off people to do their chores — without providing anyone the benefits and security of traditional employment.

On his view, sharing services run by for-profit businesses tend to make profits by displacing costs of their services on their “contractors”, customers, or society in general. Guendelsberger’s description of Uber seems to fit this characterization.

These considerations suggest that the challenge posed by Uber and the like has less to do with whether or not they resemble established businesses and more to do with the kind of jobs they create and how they realize their profits.

Birdmen! May 8, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

Before World War I, aviators were called “birdmen” because they sought to fly like birds. This expression is also the title of a new history of the pioneers of heavier-than-air flight, written by Lawrence Goldstone. It is an excellent book, recounting not only the technical developments that led to the earliest true airplanes but also the personal, legal, and commercial maneuvers that guided aviation development before the Great War.

The technical story is itself quite interesting. Many people were pursuing the development of powered flight but had different ideas about the crucial elements. Samuel Langley emphasized lift and stability and met with success in launching model gliders. However, he did not reckon with scaling problems as he shifted to full-sized craft and his Aerodrome simply plunged into the Potomac upon its trials in 1903.

The Wright brothers performed much more careful research into aeronautics and concentrated more on controllability of their Flyers. They innovated a system of three-axis control including wing warping that allowed their craft to be effectively steered. The result was their famous flight at Kitty Hawk later in 1903. Fatefully, the Wrights then patented their invention and looked increasingly to the patent, rather than further innovation, to exploit their success.

The great rival in those years was Glenn Curtiss. Curtiss was a speed demon who liked to race and made good motorcycle engines. These he adapted to airplanes, which he also began to design. His designs featured the use of ailerons in place of wing warping for maneuvering. In spite of the difference in designs, the Wrights considered this system a patent infringement and began a lengthy and exhausting lawsuit.

The tale of the litigation is rather tragic. The Wrights looked to licensing fees as a primary way to exploit their work, whereas others such as Curtiss looked to further innovations and publicity to develop the technology. Although Curtiss’s designs featuring ailerons were rather different than the Wrights’ designs, the Wrights’ patent was interpreted very broadly due to the then-popular doctrine of “pioneer” patents. In the end, the Wrights did win the lawsuit but the victory was pyrrhic; Curtiss and others were largely able to ignore or circumvent it.

Aviation pioneers were keenly interested in military applications. Everyone realized that airplanes could be used for reconnaissance (balloons had been used that way during the Civil War). In addition, early air shows often included competitions for accuracy in bomb dropping, that is, chucking a dud at a target from out of a cockpit, and even marksmanship with a rifle while in flight. The Wrights were keen to sell to the US army but, for several years, refused to provide demonstrations fearing the implications for the patent suits. Curtiss developed the earliest hydroplanes largely in order to secure interest from the US Navy. The advent of the First World War finally removed doubts amongst the senior brass about the utility of aircraft in warfare.

In the meantime, civilian airshows were a primary source of funds and publicity. The public experienced a kind of airshow mania. Some of the larger shows were attended by hundreds of thousands of people. Record setting flights were expected at any major event, with competitions for height, distance, and endurance. Daredevil flying was of particular interest. Given the fragility of the aircraft involved, crashes became frequent. Lincoln Beachy, perhaps the greatest stunt flyer of the era if not all time, pioneered maneuvers such as flying under bridges, inside buildings, and the “dip of death” where he would plunge straight at the ground from thousands of feet up while holding his arms outstretched and working the controls with his knees!

After crashes, crowds would charge out onto the field and strip souvenirs from the wreckage and even from the pilot’s corpse. Beachy was certainly under no illusions about what people came to witness (p. 322): “People come to see me die.” This he finally did after being trapped under his plane after it crashed into San Fransisco Bay during an air show in 1914. By then, the ghoulish fascination with crashes seemed to be abating.

Goldstone has written a lively and insightful book about the earliest days of powered flight, setting its technological challenges and solutions into the their critical social, legal, and political circumstances. Anyone wanting an introduction to this topic would do well to read it.

Advances in DNA forensics in the UK May 6, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed

An interesting article in the BBC remarks on some issues faced by British police in employing forensic DNA technology. Forensic technology, in this case, involves matching DNA obtained from a crime scene against profiles stored in a database.

The first problem is regulatory. Until a couple of years ago, the UK had a very broad set of rules for inclusion in their forensic database. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the rules erred in not sufficiently respecting people’s right to privacy. The UK government finally complied and deleted millions of records and set stricter rules for the inclusion of new samples. However, the rules they have adopted are so complex, in the eyes of Alastair MacGregor, the official who administers the system, they cannot be administered properly or fairly.

Furthermore, profiles thousands of people who have committed offenses outside England and Wales, including Scotland and Northern Ireland, have been deleted from the database when they probably should have been kept.

On the bright side, the deletion of millions of profiles has not reduced the number of matches made against the database:

“In the quarter from 1 April to 30 June 2014, the database produced 37 matches to murder, 127 to rapes and 6,111 to other crime scenes. In the same quarter of 2013, when the old system for retaining DNA was in effect, it produced 37 matches to murder, 103 to rapes and 6,141 to other crime scenes.”

Of course, the number of matches made is not a complete account of the performance of the database. As the BBC notes, the police are moving to a more sensitive system known as DNA 17, which samples 17 areas of DNA instead of just 11 under the previous SGM+ system. Having a more sensitive system means that there will be fewer false negatives, that is, times when DNA is present but not detected. However, the new system is not more accurate than the old one, so the increase in sensitivity means a decrease in specificity. In other words, the number of false positives is rising:

For instance, testing a door handle at a house burglary using DNA 17 may increase the chance of finding the intruder’s DNA, but it also increases the chance of finding the DNA of a neighbour who had popped in for a cup of tea, the policeman who responded to the 999 call, and a passer-by who had innocently transferred their DNA to the homeowner when they stood next to each other at a bus stop.

Duncan Woods, a forensic scientist with Keith Borer Consultants, notes that is becoming harder, as a result, to judge the significance of matches. How this difficulty will affect the use of DNA matches in investigations and court proceedings remains to be seen.

All of this illustrates some of the difficulties encountered when a technology is employed in the service of an important social institution, such as the police and justice systems. One the one hand, databases of DNA profiles can help investigators to solve criminal cases that might not be amenable otherwise. This increases public security. On the other hand, the privacy of individuals and the likelihood of them being held erroneously in suspicion may also increase, which is unjust. Finding a fair balance between these concerns is clearly no simple task.

UW and @HeForShe May 5, 2015

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

I attended the HeForShe 10×10x10 kick-off event at UW this morning. For UW to be the only Canadian organization to be participating in such an important and ambitious framework for gender equality is remarkable and somewhat exciting to contemplate. The five-year goals for the university are:

  1. Boost girls’ participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) experiences to build future female leaders
  2. Enhance female faculty representation to drive towards parity in the future
  3. Advance women into positions that lead the University

The first problem, achieving a better gender balance in STEM fields, is one that comes up frequently in STV courses. Students in my intro STV 100 class last night admitted that humanities and social sciences have a much better gender balance than engineering and mathematics. In STV 302 we go deeper and discuss what can be done to improve female participation and success rates in traditionally male-dominated fields such as computer science and software engineering.

But just how traditional are these problems? What historians of technology have shown is that there were plenty of women involved in the early history of computing. Some of the first and best programmers were women, at least until men discovered that writing computer code was an intellectual challenge and not something best left for low-paid clerks. The field was relatively quickly gendered in the 1950s and 1960s with men taking many of the plum jobs and leaving clerical tasks such as data entry for women.

Nonetheless, there have been a number of female success stories to celebrate, such as Trixie Worsley, the first female computer scientist in Canada. And tracking enrolment rates of female participation in computer science shows that the peak was surprisingly recent: in 1984 the proportion of women in the US receiving a BS in computer science was 37%! Unfortunately, that figure dropped close to 10% at many universities by the 21st century. At UW, the HeForShe goal is to increase female enrolment in STEM fields by the year 2020 to 33%, which seems eminently possible, considering that in at least one key STEM field, it was higher than that over 30 years ago.

What’s even better is that there have been some enormously good ideas developed in recent years to attract women to STEM. An article in the NYTimes this week shows how some very positive changes to make engineering inclusive to everybody can make a big difference:

If the content of the work itself is made more societally meaningful, women will enroll in droves. That applies not only to computer engineering but also to more traditional, equally male-dominated fields like mechanical and chemical engineering….

In the fall of 2014, U.C. Berkeley began offering a new Ph.D. minor in development engineering for students doing thesis work on solutions for low-income communities. Half of the students enrolled in the inaugural class are women. They are designing affordable solutions for clean drinking water, inventing medical diagnostic equipment for neglected tropical diseases and enabling local manufacturing in poor and remote regions.

Women seem to be drawn to engineering projects that attempt to achieve societal good.

In short, if engineering is about making the world a more humane place, then women will show up. Related research has shown that not only do these approaches improve gender diversity and balance in STEM programs, they also attract increased numbers of minorities and other under-represented groups.

So, congratulations to UW and best wishes to all of us at helping make gender equality a reality.

Science, technology and rationality May 5, 2015

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed

Plant geneticist Pamela Ronald recently gave a TED talk explaining why people should welcome GMO crops as a part of their food system. The talk outlines many of the advantages that arise from adoption of this technology.

I have no particular beef with the accomplishments that Dr. Ronald cites. However, the talk also touches on some technology-society issues that I find problematic.

The first issue is that once the science of plant genetics is worked out, then there is not much more to be said. Once genetically modified plants have been produced and tested in various ways by scientists, no reasonable obstacles remain to their adoption. This view tends to overlook the fact that once a plant (or anything else) is designed and offered for a purpose, it becomes a technology and the adoption of technology is not necessarily a straightforward matter. Readers of this blog will know that the adoption of a technology, or its transfer from one culture to another, is a complex phenomenon involving cultural, political, and ethical matters. Many research scientists just do not understand this fact and are then baffled or irritated when people don’t immediately adopt their work.

The second idea is that critics of the views of research scientists are all irrational or blinkered ideologists. Developers of GMO crops tend to view them primarily as “inputs” to a food system. So, if a researcher develops a more efficient input, then any rational person should be happy to use it in place of their old input. However, some people view a variety of rice or corn not as an input but, for example, as an item of cultural heritage or significance. Thus, its value is not only the price it can fetch per bushel or even how many mouths it can feed. From the former perspective, the latter is simply irrational. However, the difference is not that one group is rational and the other nuts, but that the two groups weigh the value of things differently.

To see the second point, it may help to look at our own culture. Many people in North America keep dogs or cats as pets and value them very highly. Recall in August 2013 when a couple of kittens were spotted on the subway tracks in a Brooklyn subway station. Rather than run over the kittens, subway officials stopped midday service for about two hours until the kittens could be rescued. Some observers pointed out that the stoppage cost millions of dollars in lost productivity as straphangers were made late for work. Also, the replacement cost of a kitten is essentially $0. However, many subway patrons said that they would rather be late than be responsible for crushing the cats.

In some cultures, cats and dogs are regarded in a more utilitarian way, as sources of labor or food. The idea of stopping work to rescue a couple of stray kittens would seem ridiculous and irrational to people in those cultures. Yet, the rationality or otherwise of the cat rescue depends upon how you weigh the value of their lives. The same observation applies also to the treatment of food or any other technology.

The two issues are interrelated. If the dissemination of technology is not appreciated as a kind of complex phenomenon separate from doing science and also involving judgements of value, then rejection of it will seem simply bizarre and irrational. People who do not see things from the same perspective as Western geneticists will be viewed as just anti-science. In many cases, this view is just not accurate and, furthermore, may impede the dissemination of technology that would otherwise be a good idea.

One thing I hope that students in STV courses can learn is that technology is not merely the application of science and that people who view technologies differently from them are not necessarily stupid.

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