Safety glasses March 31, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
The BBC reports that about 87,000 people per year are injured by glass attacks each year . After a few pints and a few words, pub patrons sometimes take to smashing glasses and attacking each other. The results can be bad cuts and scars, requiring stitches and medical treatments.
What to do? The Home Office asked designers to come up with a safer beer glass, which they have now done. The new glasses use new coatings and material arrangements to produce glasses that resist shattering into shards that are useful as weapons.
The new glasses are reminiscent of the anti-stab knife designed in Britain last year, meant to reduce injuries and deaths through stabbings with knives resulting from domestic disputes.
It is easy to deride efforts like these. For one thing, they are directed at the symptoms of social problems, such as drunkenness and domestic violence, instead of their causes. Could these glasses reduce the urgency people feel to address these social problems? Also, could the presence of these safety features backfire? Lowering the cost, in terms of injuries, of assaults could raise their frequency. Or could drunk and angry bar patrons simply turn to something worse?
While admitting the justice of these objections, the new glass designs seem worth trying out. The beer glass would tend to be the first weapon at hand when harsh language seems insufficient, and blunting that weapon promises to reduce the severity of any subsequent fight.
I am also encouraged to see designers taking an interest or even some responsibility for social problems. Not that they can solve all of society’s ills. However, our built environment is more than just a set of tools, but reflects our cultural values. Respect for personal security is one value that we should be concerned about.
The not-so private lives of cars March 31, 2010Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV302 , comments closed
I recently ran into some car trouble that requires body work and thus a paint job, which made me think about privacy (and a higher insurance premium). Bare with me.
The particular model of our family car is not uncommon in the Waterloo region (I’ll give you a hint, it’s one of the retro-styled autos that appeared in the last decade or so) and the particular paint colour can be found on many different vehicles from that particular manufacturer (one of the Detroit big three), but taken together these two elements make it particularly rare. To my knowledge, the only other model around here with that colour has a rear spoiler. Visually, it’s easy to see the difference if you know what you’re looking for but at least one friend had a case of mistaken identity when he spotted the “spoiler” car thinking it was me. While the dented door on our car currently makes it highly identifiable, the body shop has promised me that they’ll match the colour on the repaired door so that it will be very difficult to see if any changes have been made to the car. It will go back to being almost unique, if you’ll pardon the oxymoron.
But how much information is needed to uniquely identify my vehicle and potentially track its travels? Every car on the road has a unique Vehicle Identification Number, but these are impossible to obtain (and track) without opening the car. The license plate is far more accessible to those with good observation skills (and memory), but I’ll wager most people can’t remember their own plate let alone that of their acquaintances. Of course, the police and toll roads have been using license plates to track vehicles by sight and, more recently, electronically.
It’s worth pointing out that Google Street View uses computer algorithms to blur photos of license plates (as well as faces), but is this enough? Do I have any privacy in my relatively rare vehicle, even if the license plate is unreadable? For what it’s worth, I happened to be driving behind the Google Street View vehicle for a few hundred metres on one of the days it passed through Waterloo, and when the images went online late last year, there I was on a major road just a block from our house. My face isn’t visible in any of the photos, but just how much more information would be necessary to confirm my identification and location if someone knew the model and colour of the car? Time of day could be estimated by the position of the sun, the weather, or perhaps catching an outdoor clock in a nearby view of the streetscape. Combined with public information about my occupation and office location and probable destination, could it be anyone else?
Perhaps Google should develop an algorithm to remove cars from the roads as well, although I understand it’s possible to request removal of personally identifying information from Streetview (including yourself or your car). Nothing I’ve described is hidden from view. As Google’s privacy page says: “Street View contains imagery that is no different from what you might see driving or walking down the street.” and does anyone on a public road expect privacy?
Nonetheless, I can still be surprised by the wide variety of accessible-yet-hidden information that might be used to violate a person’s expectations of privacy. For instance, many people who browse the web understand that `cookies‘ can be used as a unique identifier and that to increase their privacy cookies can be erased or refused. Unfortunately, virtually every web browser spits out a great deal of information about the characteristics of the software in use, characteristics which might be compared to the colour of my car. For instance, it will report to any site you visit what version of web browser it is, which fonts and plugins–such as Flash, Quicktime, or Java–are available (and which version), and more. In the aggregate, this is more than enough information to uniquely identify 85% of all web browsers, and it’s currently much more difficult to prevent. Go on, give it a try, and see how unique you are.
What would it take to improve privacy? With the internet, a normalized browser, or at least one more polite about what it says about me and my browsing software and habits. With my car, perhaps a paint job? A light brown or silver, among the most popular colours for cars? They hide dirt well, my father might say. In more ways than one it would seem.
When to block cell phone calls? March 29, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
There has been debate about when, or whether, it is good policy to block cell phone calls in US prisons. The debate promises to take on new urgency with the development of femtocells, tiny and cheap cell phone base stations. Special base stations can be set up to lure cell phones into connecting to the network through them, but then not servicing any calls.
Besides prisons, this technology could be used almost anywhere where cell phone conversations might be regarded as inappropriate, e.g., in a restaurant, movie theater, car, classroom, etc. Furthermore, cell phones operate in a portion of the radio spectrum that is centrally regulated. Therefore, the use of femtocells to deny cell phone service will have to be handled through regulation. There is clearly a problem of fairness here: Some calls that should get through will not, whereas some calls that should not get through will get through.
What sort of regulation should be applied?
Of course, blocking may not be the appropriate solution. Imagine if you could use your cell phone to indicate to a cell phone user nearby that you were unhappy about their conduct. Point your phone towards them and hit the “TOO LOUD” button.
Assault alert March 26, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
A FastCompany article mentions a smartphone app, called LightAlert that has been developed for a competition by two university students. The app will alert the user when she enters an area where a sexual assault has occurred. The idea is to allow the user then to make an informed decision about whether or how to proceed.
There are some clear potential wins with such an app. A woman who is not familiar with a region might not know where sexual assaults tend to occur. This app would provide that knowledge, gleaned from police reports on the Internet. In an era where people are becoming less knowledgeable about their physical surroundings, such an app could provide important information in a timely way.
I can see three social issues that need to be considered:
- What constitutes an “area”? That is, how near to a reported assault location do you need to be to trigger an alert? Probably, this feature could be configured by the user. An issue of fairness arises: If the distance is very large, then perfectly safe areas will trigger alerts. People and businesses in them could be tarred with a bad reputation that they do not deserve. If the distance is small, then unsafe areas will fail to trigger alerts, leading women who think they are safe (no alert) into danger spots.
- A similar point would arise from the latency of the assault reports considered. Should an assault generate a warning if it occurred ten years ago? Five? One? The user could probably configure this setting too, but an issue of fairness still persists, as with distance.
- What sort of liability will the app provider assume? Suppose that a woman is assaulted in an area she entered when no alert sounded, but the lack of alert was due to a bug or technical glitch in the app. (Software of any complexity will fail to work as intended sometimes.) Would the app developer be liable to a lawsuit on the grounds of negligence? If so, for how much? Probably, the vendor of the app will need some good insurance before going to market.
I suppose you could imagine other issues, a little more far-fetched. With the aggressive marketing of weapons like personal tasers to women, a woman who receives an alert may be more likely to identify someone as a potential assailant and take pre-emptive action, perhaps without justification.
None of these points establishes that the app is a bad idea. Instead, it simply needs to be thought through a little further.
Would you like a plastic bag? March 25, 2010Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100 , comments closed
In 2007, the Ontario government announced that a “greener, healthier province” ought to consume fewer plastic bags and created incentives for its citizens to choose reusable bags. There were grumbles about having to remember reusable bags for each trip to the store and reminders to keep them clean, but evidence suggests that far fewer customers are choosing plastic bags, particularly after the carrot became a stick, and each bag cost an extra 5 cents. Most stores sell reusable bags for a dollar.
Last week, one of our reusable bags tore in half after cramming in too many library books. Now what? Recycle it? Throw it out? Some duct tape? It came from a store that offers a life-time guarantee to replace bags that wear out, but it isn’t clear at all what will become of the torn bag after I turn it in for a replacement.
I was reminded of this minor personal dilemma as I watched the beautiful (and maybe a little silly) “Plastic Bag“, a short film by American director Ramin Bahrani, which
Traces the epic, existential journey of a plastic bag (voiced by Werner Herzog) searching for its lost maker, the woman who took it home from the store and eventually discarded it. Along the way, it encounters strange creatures, experiences love in the sky, grieves the loss of its beloved maker, and tries to grasp its purpose in the world.
It’s a bit of a fairy tale as well as a morality tale. The final line is poignant, and certainly made me reflect on a film I show in STV100, Shipbreakers, a very compelling NFB documentary about the ship breaking yards of Alang, India. There (and elsewhere around the globe), hundreds of ocean-going ships are recycled each year, but under terrible occupational and environmental conditions: “a death a day” goes one refrain. Recycling is not always green, it seems. The paradox is that these ventures create thousands of jobs, bring millions of tons of steel to regions without an indigenous steel industry, and create wealth and opportunity where none existed before.
My two children (both under five) are fascinated when the garbage truck comes by each week and clamor for a good spot at the window. It’s too bad that our interest in waste often drops when the truck drives away, but such films help.
Brutalism is brutal! March 25, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
A recent survey conducted by the Boston Globe asked readers to rate the most hated buildings in the city. Somehow, buildings in the Brutalist style took the prize. As a style, brutalism (supposedly from the French “brut”, meaning “raw”) emphasizes honesty (they are made largely of concrete and display this fact prominently) and boxy shapes. Consider the Boston City Hall, below.
Students and faculty at Waterloo and many other Canadian universities will recognize the style, as it was popular during the era of university expansion around 1970. Think of the Math and Computer Building here at the University of Waterloo.
The style was originated, I think, with the architect Le Corbusier, who wanted a look that was honest, progressive, and international (insensitive to local architectural idiom). It has been criticized on all these grounds, by people who dislike the sight of ominous concrete slabs and its detachment from the past and the local.
What do you think of the brutalist buildings in your acquaintance?
(The correspondence between hated buildings and brutalist ones in this study may be confounded by the fact that both groups include many government buildings, which people might hate because of their role in society, and not their layout.)
The mindset that made brutalism popular also came with a penchant for knocking down historical buildings and replacing them with futuristic ones. Guelph, where I live, suffered the loss of a number of fine buildings downtown in this manner. Now, as Yogi Berra might observe, its deja vu all over again: People would like to get rid of some of their ugly, brutalist buildings and replace them with something more approachable and more local in spirit.
This desire points out one of the problems with many brutalist buildings: being so massive and hardened, they are not easily modified. It is as if the designers wanted not only to detach their buildings from the past but to determine their future as well. However, as Stewart Brand points out in How buildings learn, good design allows people to modify their buildings to suit their needs as these needs become more clear to them. To design buildings well, designers need perhaps to display some modesty in limiting the adaptability, the openness to alteration, of their creations.
Work 2.0: u r fired :( March 24, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
Sixteen-year old Chelsea Taylor was recently sacked (that’s British for “fired”) from her job at a cafe called “Cookies” after she was sent out with a ten pound note to buy some cookies. (Why Cookies had no cookies is not for mere mortals to know.) She returned without cookies and without the money having, she said, lost it.
The owner was not impressed and told Elaine, the manager, to fire Chelsea. Not being able to raise Chelsea on the phone, Elaine fired her via Facebook. Wow!
I wonder if they are still Facebook friends?
Seriously though, the incident raises some issues, such as privacy. I doubt that Chelsea really wanted to have this firing known to everyone within her Facebook circle (or the whole world, for that matter). Social media tools tend not to facilitate distinctions between people you know casually, at work, or at school, and so it can be hard to keep information flowing in the channels that you would prefer. It seems clear that this situation needs to change.
It will also be interesting to see how things work out for Chelsea. Perhaps she will be able to turn this 15 seconds of fame to her advantage. A chain of cookie shops, or a book deal, maybe? I do not mean to be too sarcastic, as I do not know Chelsea in the slightest and she did not solicit this situation. However, it does illustrate a truth of the Web 2.0 economy: attention is a scarce resource and, if you can grab it, it is an opportunity to make money. Is this a good thing, or will it tend to turn the entrepreneurial spirit into a temptation to cry like a baby for attention?
Finally, of course, there is the effect of the Internet on the nature of work itself. Here is how Chelsea responded to her Facebook pink slip:
“Even if she had sent me a text message or something it would have been better than on Facebook. She didn’t have the guts to tell me face-to-face.”
In the past, managers and employees usually had to deal with each other face-to-face. That can create a lot of anxiety on occasion, on both sides. The uptake of information technology into the workplace has brought about many efficiencies, by, among other things, assimilating management to data management. Now the chickens are coming home to roost. As information technology increasingly mediates the employer-employee relationship, that relationship is going to increasingly resemble the relationship between a user and a spreadsheet. What can employees do to ensure that managers continue to see them as people?
The Boneyard March 23, 2010Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100 , comments closed
One topic discussed in STV100 is the nature of technological obsolescence. What makes something obsolete? How can it be characterized, if at all? And, assuming something has become obsolete, what happens then? Marshall McLuhan said “If it works, it’s obsolete”, which is an interesting starting point for discussion, but recently I was drawn to “The Boneyard“: billions of dollars of decommissioned military aircraft spread across thousands of acres of Arizona desert.
Officially known as Davis-Monthan Air Force Base – 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG), it is the final resting place for thousands of fighter jets, bombers, and aircraft of uncertain obsolete status. Most have been out of production for decades, but are kept for spare parts. The B-52 Stratofortress was designed in the early 1950s for intercontinental nuclear bombing missions, and a small number of the enormous turbojets are still in active service after almost 60 years, though the last one rolled off the production line in the 1960s. Others, like the F-14 Tomcat, a supersonic air-superiority fighter first flown in the 1970s (and famously by Tom Cruise in the 1986 movie Top Gun), are no longer in active service in the US military but survive in other armed forces. The Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force purchased a fleet of F-14s 35 years ago, and a handful are reportedly still in flying condition although a change in political relations makes it doubtful they have access to the AMARG’s supply of spare parts. Still other aircraft have simply been stored in Arizona because of the favorable conditions–low humidity and packed soil–and can be brought back to flight status immediately.
Are these residents of the Boneyard obsolete? Clearly, they still work for somebody, somewhere (AMARG takes pains to point out that they don’t own these planes, just as a storage locker company does not own the contents of their rented lockers). Ultimately, the lesson is straight-forward. Obsolescence is more than a matter of age, or use and it comes down to perspective and context.
A CSTV blog March 23, 2010Posted by Scott Campbell in : Announcements , comments closed
In the distant past, the Centre for Society, Technology and Values had a newsletter with news, a calendar, notices, research, and comments on recent events or discoveries. It’s time to resurrect that part of CSTV with a blog to supplement the existing information about CSTV people, courses, and the STV Option.
We have a nice backlog of posts from our two instructors, and we hope to involve other members of the CSTV community. Feel free to comment on any posts from this point on, though we’ll be moderating comments for the time being. We also welcome contributions! If you’d like to post news about upcoming events, a book or movie review, or pose a question to the CSTV audience, contact the webmaster.
Health 2.0 March 22, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
FastCompany has an interesting article about the future of health care. Frog design is planning a social networking system for the collection, dissemination, and exploitation of health data. Imagine that your doctor works for Facebook, and you will get a rough idea of the proposal.
The proposal has some obvious benefits.
- Data about the average person’s health is pretty sparse. You may know your height and weight, and your doctor probably wrote down some further observations about your last visit, but that might be about it. Imagine instead, for example, that your bathroom mirror could scan you and detect the growth (or otherwise) of spots on your skin! The onset of chronic conditions could be detected early and those condition nipped in the bud.
- Making this information available, through appropriate filters, to your family and physician would create social pressure on you to conform to a healthier lifestyle. As your weight increases beyond the average for your cohort or social circle, for example, the encouragement (or possible derision) of your friends will move you off the couch and outside for some exercise.
- The use of networked computers to collect and aggregate all this data and influence will solve some heavy logistical problems, like scheduling health care appointments at the appropriate place and time, and seeing that your physician has the relevant data when it is needed.
There are also some challenges that implementation will face. Beyond the technical obstacles, some social issues may become important:
- Networked databases create questions of privacy: Who will control the data? (Usually, the user.) What will the provider do with it? Scan it to sell drugs or insurance to the users? How secure will it be? We know from the recent Gmail hacks in China that data in the cloud can be compromised.
- Ubiquitous data collection also creates problems of false alarms. Recent research suggests that too much mammogram screening leads to too many biopsies and other interventions. The presence of copious medical data can actually harm people if every lump and blip is seen as an early symptom of illness.
- Several questions of fairness arise also. Who will perform all the tasks of health monitoring for families that the new system will create? The article pictures a mother, “Susan”, fulfilling that role. Women already perform much of the health-related labor in our society, such as looking after ailing parents, much of which is unpaid. Will the system envisaged by Frog create yet more work for mothers already pressed for time?
- Another question of fairness could be framed in this way: Paul Polak points out that 90% of designers spend their time designing for 10% of the world’s population. This situation is natural as the 10% that are the focus of designers’ efforts are the people with the money that the designers want. However, it does mean that most people see minimal benefits in their lives from all those efforts. Would a social networking health system lead to a similar disparity of effort and benefit?
This issue brings us to the politics of health care, which has become almost a blood sport the United States. How (or should?) the federal government ensure that the benefits of such a new system are distributed in society?