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Why did women exit computing? October 22, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , add a comment

NPR has an interesting article discussion the problem of why women began avoiding computer science in the mid-1980s. Until 1984, women were catching up to men in terms of the enrollment in computer science programs. Since then, however, the enrollment of women as a percentage of total enrollment has steadily declined. The trend certainly applies to the University of Waterloo:

Female enrolment there [in Computer Science] reached its peak in the late 1980s, at 33 per cent. Since then it’s been sliding. In fall 2010, women accounted for just 12.5 per cent of enrolment in computer science at Waterloo.

This gender disparity does not occur in many other parts of the world, so what gives here?

One factor that may have influenced the decline of women was the advent of the personal computer or, more precisely, the tendency of families to purchase them for boys and not girls. By the mid-1980s, many boys arrived in computer science programs with years of hobby experience which their female classmates tended not to have. Professors began to assume such a level of acquaintance, thus leaving their female students behind.

To examine this claim (albeit anecdotally), it is interesting to look back at home computer advertising at the time. Here are some ads from that period. See what you think of how males and females are portrayed in them, especially as to how they relate to the computer.

OK. Being a big Star Trek fan, I have to start with Captain Kirk:

It’s not just a game machine, although you sure can play games on it! All male.

Here is Radio Shack’s Color Computer:

Well, sis does get to watch her brother use the computer!

Now, here is an ad for the Commodore 64:

No! That tune is going to be in my head all day! The ad shows men and women using the machine (or, at least, taking orders from it) but in stereotyped ways. Junior appears to be programming it whereas his teacher just pushes buttons on a software package that someone else designed. Not sure what the women in bikinis have to do with anything but I am no ad man.

IBM ads from that era featured a Charlie Chaplin character using the PC mostly for business. So, no women or children are shown using the machines, just Chaplin. As per the olde tyme theme, women are shown in supportive roles only. I like this ad for the IBM PC Convertible, though, for its prescient depiction of distracted driving.

And then there is Apple. I could show the famous 1984 ad but no computers actually appear in it. Instead, have a look at this ad from around 1987.

Think different!

In any event, the idea that gender-biased PC sales helped to filter women out of computer science is certainly interesting. It does raise another question: Are PC sales still gender biased, or what would account for the persistence of the gender problem in Computer Science?

Apple and Facebook open the egg freezer October 20, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , add a comment

As pointed out in this IEEE Spectrum column by Tekla Perry, both Apple and Facebook have made the news lately for extending their employee fertility coverage to egg freezing. Roughly speaking, both companies now include in their employee health insurance coverage of a medical procedure whereby employees can have some of their eggs frozen. The procedure costs about $10,000 and then $500 per year for annual storage.

There are at least two ways of viewing this measure. One is that promoted by a satirical piece in The Onion entitled “Facebook Offers To Freeze Female Employees Newborn Children.” The piece implies that the measure is meant to tell female employees to put doing their jobs ahead of raising a family by postponing the latter until the former is accomplished. Moreover, the measure could suggest to some managers that women who nevertheless start families sooner rather than later are not team players.

Perry takes another view, which is that women “don’t have forever” to begin motherhood and that this measure will prompt them to consider their parental aspirations at the same time that it provides them with a means of planning for them.

I have no inside information about Apple or Facebook but I agree with Perry that neither company has sinister intentions. Apple and Facebook are trying to attract female employees in a sector not generally known to be female-friendly and the coverage can be seen as simply another part of the effort.

However, I disagree that the message is that women “don’t have forever”. In fact, with egg freezing, women will have longer than they would otherwise to conceive healthy offspring. (Egg quality tends to decline with age.) The question then becomes: What to do with this expanded time frame?

As Neil Postman has pointed out, technological measures have implications, whether we intend them or not. Egg freezing, along with surrogacy, is a means of displacing pregnancy via technology. As with surrogacy, the results can be mixed. In either case, though, the technology tends to emphasize the logistical aspects of parenthood at the same time it complicates them. Companies providing such coverage should take measures to ensure that it is not used against employees and perhaps also provide professional counseling to employees who are interested in taking advantage of it.

Not the right baby? October 17, 2014

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International surrogacy has been in the news lately and for some unfortunate reasons. For example, an Australian couple has discovered that the surrogate baby they arranged for in India is not genetically related to the father. The arrangement with the unnamed Indian surrogacy service was that the father’s sperm would be used with a donor egg in the IVF procedure leading to the surrogate birth. Upon their return to Australia, the couple apparently had a paternity test done, which showed that the father is not a biological parent of the baby. What they intend or are able to do about the situation is not clear.

The news comes close on the heels of another item involving Indian surrogacy for Australians. In 2012, an Australian couple found out that a surrogacy procedure commissioned by them had resulted in twins. However, the couple wanted only one child of a specific gender in order to gender-balance their family. As a result, they took only the baby of the desired gender and left the other in India. Australian officials initially withheld a visa for the one child in order to persuade the couple to take both children with them.

A person described as a friend of the couple claimed to have taken the unwanted twin. However, authorities doubt the story and suspect that money was given in exchange for the adoption. In other words, the twin may have been sold, surely a contravention of Australia’s human trafficking laws.

I should emphasize that these sort of issues are not somehow confined to Australia. For example, a British surrogate mother recently reported that one of a pair of twins she birthed for another family was rejected by the mother. The mother took the healthy twin but refused the other on the grounds that it had congenital Myotonic Dystrophy, a progressive muscle-wasting condition.

The surrogate mother said: “I’ll never forget what she said on the phone.
“I remember her saying to me, ‘She’d be a f****** dribbling cabbage! Who would want to adopt her? No one would want to adopt a disabled child’.”

Canadian parents have also abandoned surrogate babies, so the issue is not geographically isolated. However, with international surrogacy making the procedure more widely available, such problems will only grow in number. It seems like time that governments should get together and establish some ground rules to protect the children and others involved.

Drone News Network: Oct. 15, 2014 October 15, 2014

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

What kinds of relationships will people (and animals) have with drones? Some recent drone-related stories give us some food for thought.

Is this sort of thing nature photography or wildlife harassment?

Drones help people to push certain limits in their relations with each other (and animals) for good and for ill. The rules of engagement are still up in the air.

What’s in your gullet? October 14, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed

People are understandably curious about what is in the food they eat. As readers of the blog will know, such curiosity is sometimes expressed in terms of concern for “natural” ingredients and the presence of adulterants. Today’s post continues these themes.

First, McDonald’s has set up a campaign to let people know (or reassure them) about what they will get at the counter. The campaign seems to add to their previous efforts at transparency, such as posting calorie counts, and simply to counter endless rumors about what McFood actually contains. They set up a question booth so that people can suggest questions for the company to address (e.g., “does McDonald’s even sell real food?”).

If you want, you can watch “MythBusters” former co-host Grant Imahara investigate food facilities to find out the answers. Whether or not this campaign will quash rumors of horse meat, lips and eyeballs, or worms in the beef remains to be seen.

Chemist Raychelle Burks attempts to reassure people about rumors regarding the additive Class IV caramel color in Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte. In brief, some of the additive does break down into 4-methylimidazole which is nasty in largish does. However, the amount present in the trendy drink do not rise to that level of concern, in the view of the FDA. The dose makes the poison.

Burks argues that concern about the issue illustrates the problem of “chemophobia”, the irrational fear of synthetic chemicals. She points out that many natural chemicals are dangerous, even water, in large doses. In (partial) defense of the chemophobes, we have evolved or learned to deal with those challenges, whereas synthetic chemicals are more often unknowns.

So, if you are now feeling more sanguine about your food additives, let me point you to this David Suzuki backgrounder about nitrosamines. These chemicals occur in various ways, but arise in food from frying or as preservatives. The backgrounder states that they have been “linked” to various conditions, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Whether or not the average exposure is dangerous seems to be contested:

It’s suggested that higher exposures are necessary to cause cancer, but that the lifetime accumulation of smaller doses may play a role in other diseases.

Maybe Grant Imahara could shed some light on the subject.

Selfie regard October 10, 2014

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

Well, we have not had a selfie post in a few days, so the time has clearly come again:

rembrandt self portrait

(Hohum/Wikimedia commons)

Are you Estonian? Do you want to be? October 9, 2014

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

Estonian flag

The Baltic country of Estonia is beginning its program of extending Estonian identification to non-nationals. In other words, non-Estonians can now become “e-residents” of the country. What does that mean?

First, Estonia has jumped into the e-identification scheme for its own citizens with both feet. The country is very “wired” and depends crucially on Internet connectivity. Online voting is held for governments at all levels, and Internet access is considered a fundamental right. Every Estonian is issued a digital identity card and health e-insurance before leaving the hospital. All official transactions are backed by this digital identity, which can be used to authenticate tax returns, transit tickets, emails, etc.

The basis of this scheme is a secure digital identification system provided by the Estonian government. Citizens are identified with some biometric data and checked against a variety of databases. If all goes well, ID cards are issued that can be queried against this information:

Estonia’s system uses suitably hefty encryption. Only a minimum of private data are kept on the ID card itself. Lost cards can simply be cancelled. And in over a decade, no security breaches have been reported. Also issued are two PIN codes, one for authentication (proving who the holder is) and one for authorisation (signing documents or making payments). Asked to authenticate a user, the service concerned queries a central database to check that the card and relevant code match. It also asks for only the minimum information needed: to check a customer’s age, for example, it does not ask, “How old is this person?” but merely, “Is this person over 18?”

In a way, the identity system is like what Facebook wants its login to be, a trusted source of online authentication. The difference is that the government system is more strictly regulated and maintains higher privacy standards (that is, does not sell profiles to advertisers).

Why would non-Estonians want in? The e-residency leaflet explains some of the advantages to non-citizens:

[E-residency] is especially useful for entrepreneurs and others who already have some relationship to Estonia: who do business, work, study or visit here but have not become a resident. However, e-residency is also launched as a platform to offer digital services to a global audience with no prior Estonian affiliation.

Also, an upcoming European Union rule requires EU countries to accept each other’s digital IDs, so an Estonian ID could make dealings with people in the EU easier for anyone.

The application costs €50 and will be rolled out in Estonian government offices worldwide in the coming years. The government hastens to add that the ID system is simply a service. Membership does not imply the right to enter or stay in Estonia.

Although it is not widely accepted yet, such an online ID system may become appealing for Canadians in future. Our own government has no such system, nor is it likely to in the foreseeable future. Private ID systems have been subject to hacking and also suffer from privacy issues. Perhaps the main concern with the Estonian system is the possibility of Russian hacking attacks like those of 2007.

So, are you interested in becoming an e-Estonian?

Gene Genie October 8, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed

A couple of concepts that sometimes appear in our Biotechnology & Society course are in the news today.

First comes news that scientists with the Coffee and Caffeine Genetics Consortium have discovered more gene variants (loci) that are associated with coffee drinkers:

The most notable loci discoveries were named POR and ABCG2, and act indirectly by altering the metabolism of caffeine. BDNF and SLC6A4, loci perceptive to the rewarding and reinforcing properties of caffeine, were also found to be predictive of coffee drinking. Last identified were GCKR and MLXIPL, two loci previously not linked to behavior, but prevalent in high consumers.

The report suggests that, as a result, “DNA determines coffee drinking”. In other words, this news is interpreted as an instance of genetic determinism in action: People with a certain genetic complement will inevitably drink coffee if afforded the opportunity. Other reports, however, note that the effect “is quite small”. So, it seems that this case is not an instance of genetic determinism after all, and that no “Java gene” has been discovered, yet!

From the Guardian comes news that a Consumer Reports study reveals that many foods labelled “natural” contain GMO ingredients:

A majority of US packaged foods labeled as “natural” and tested by Consumer Reports actually contained a substantial level of genetically modified ingredients, according to a report issued Tuesday by the non-profit product testing group.

Readers of the blog will recall that the term “natural” is highly contested in consumer products. For example, is vanilla made by GM yeast natural or not? Well, GMO ingredients are certainly natural in the sense that they are not supernatural, that is, made in ways that violate the laws of nature. Of course, they have been subject to human intervention but that standard would include all agricultural products. Perhaps “natural” refers to foodstuffs made from plants and animals that are descendants of organisms that evolved without human intervention. Is that what people have in mind when they see “natural” on a food label in the grocery store?

The issue of naturalness is sure to become more contested. The article notes that the Grocery Manufacturers Association is pushing the FDA to allow the term to be applied explicitly to GMO foods.

(With apologies to David Bowie.)

When is video gambling theft? October 7, 2014

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

Wired has a very interesting piece about a couple of men who found a bug in the software of a video poker machine. John Kane and Andre Nestor were old friends who were both addicts of video gambling and had long experience with video poker in particular. To make a long story short, they figured out how to exploit a bug in the software of a popular video poker machine, Game King, that is widely found in US casinos. Eventually, their winnings raised enough suspicions that both were arrested and charged with crimes.

An interesting question raised in the article concerns what, exactly, the pair were guilty of. Nestor was of the opinion that he had simply beat the machine and his arrest was a form of persecution by the machines’ makers, backed by the state:

As the [FBI] agents walked him to their car, Nestor stopped in front of a television camera and let loose. “I’m being arrested federally now—for winning at a slot machine!” he shouted in disbelief. “This is what they do to people! They put a machine on the floor, and if it has programming that doesn’t take your money and you win on their machine, they will throw you in jail!”

In short, it is a crime not to lose at video poker.

Of course, prosecutors had a different view. They charged the pair under a Computer Fraud and Abuse act. After all, exploiting a bug in the machine’s software was not playing by the accepted rules of poker. It was not even a gamble.

The defense argued that Kane and Nestor were simply pushing the buttons provided by the designers as the interface to the machine. Doing so does not involve an intrusion in any normal sense of the word. If the providers do not like the results, then it is up to them to change the interface.

In the end, the prosecutors dropped the hacking charges and went with “conspiracy to commit wire fraud”, perhaps relating to the fact that Kane called and travelled over state lines during the episode. That charge hardly cuts to the nub of the matter and the charges were finally dropped altogether. That is not to say that the pair got to keep the winnings.

Did Kane and Nestor commit theft? Or, did they simply beat the system? If the pair had been exploiting a bug in an ATM, I think that the concept of theft would certainly apply. However, it is easy to sympathize with a pair who found a way to beat a descendant of the one-armed bandit at its own game. Does that matter?

DNN report, Oct. 6, 2014 October 6, 2014

Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed


It has been at least a week since the last Drone News Network report, so another one is past due:

So, remember to smile when you hear that buzzing noise overhead. It could be the police, model airplane enthusiasts, or photographers making a documentary about you. And don’t shoot!

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