RFID keys: The car thief’s friend? April 29, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
The latest innovation in car keys is the RFID key fob. The fob contains an RFID that allows a car to sense its presence. If the RFID in the fob provides a signal accepted by the car, then the car doors can be opened and the car engine turned on without ever putting a key in the lock or the ignition! Otherwise, the car sits there like a brick.
Ron Garret notes that the adoption of RFID keys can ease the burden of someone looking to steal your car:
Another potential risk: back in the good old days, if you happened to leave your key in your car, a potential thief still had to 1) know it was there and 2) locate it in order for it to do him or her any good. No more. Now thanks to handy dandy RFID technology the thief can steal the car first and then search for the key after.
This situation illustrates a classic design tradeoff between convenience and security. On the one hand, it is convenient for car owners to not have to fish around for their key in order to insert it into locks and get into the car or start it up. On the other hand, it reduces the security of the car owner that the mere presence of the key is enough to permit access to it.
Such tradeoffs in design often result in issues of fairness. Consider the two groups of car owners involved here: (1) owners with regular keys and (2) owners with the new RFID keys. If the likelihood of car theft is low, then owners with the new RFID keys retain adequate security while enjoying greater convenience than owners with regular keys. If the likelihood of car theft is high, then owners with regular keys retain adequate convenience while enjoying greater security than owners with the new RFID keys. So, the car designers (or distributors) need to figure out what distribution of regular keys and the new RFID keys would be fair to both groups.
There are a number of ways to deal with this issue. One would be to let car owners decide for themselves which kind of key to have. Of course, this move would mean admitting to security problems with the new RFID keys, which car companies may be loathe to do. Alternatively, other security measures could be put in place that increase security with the new RFID keys without compromising convenience.
I do not have the answer to this problem, but it is one that is worthy of consideration.
Just sign here… April 28, 2010Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV302 , comments closed
When was the last time you read every line, every clause, every bit of fine print before you signed on the dotted line? Getting a loan for a major purchase like a house or a car might require dozens of signatures. Getting a job often requires a few too, as might any number of daily transactions. But you do want to read everything very carefully to avoid signing away your first-born child or your eternal soul, two of the more traditional but rarely seen clauses, at least outside of Dante’s Inferno.
But who knew that downloading a video game could be so risky? As was widely reported in mid-April, the UK video game retailer GameStation had recently added a special clause to their online term-and-conditions
“By placing an order via this Web site on the first day of the fourth month of the year 2010 Anno Domini, you agree to grant Us a non transferable option to claim, for now and for ever more, your immortal soul. Should We wish to exercise this option, you agree to surrender your immortal soul, and any claim you may have on it, within 5 (five) working days of receiving written notification from gamesation.co.uk or one of its duly authorised minions.”
Yes, it was an April Fool’s Joke. Yes, some 7500 people gave up their soul to GameStation. And yes, GameStation has agreed to relinquish any claims to these souls and removed the special terms. Those who read the agreements carefully that day and opted out of that particular contract were rewarded with a £5 gift certificate.
Very often, installing new software or registering for an online service requires you to click a checkbox, in lieu of a signature, acknowledging that you have read and agree to conditions of an End User License Agreement (EULA). These agreements typically consist of pages of legal mumbo-jumbo. Ideally, they set out rights and responsibilities of the software author, retailer, or user, but it seems that some of the lawyers behind these documents are also interested in a pound of flesh, if not more. For years, the legitimacy of these “shrink-wrap” or “click-wrap” licenses have been questioned and this prank certain reinforces the problem of most people blindly clicking in agreement. You can lose more than you might think.
PowerPoint: The enemy within? April 28, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
A recent New York Times article comments on the now well-known deficiencies of PowerPoint. Besides the program’s interface and reliability issues, it often seems bound to confuse communications and distort the decision-making process.
Consider the remarks of General McMaster, who banned PPT presentations from his briefings in the Iraq war:
“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”
Besides providing a procrustean bed into which information is to be lopped, PPT encourages the cramming of visual information into 8.5×11 graphics. Witness the graph below:
(Image courtesy of the New York Times)
While the graph may be accurate in some sense, it hardly aids understanding:
“When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” General McChrystal dryly remarked, one of his advisers recalled, as the room erupted in laughter.
The article says little about why, given all its manifest shortcomings, PPT is so popular. The following is all that is offered:
The program, which first went on sale in 1987 and was acquired by Microsoft soon afterward, is deeply embedded in a military culture that has come to rely on PowerPoint’s hierarchical ordering of a confused world.
So, what is bad about the software is also what makes it attractive?
Perhaps the adoption of PPT by the military (and who knows what other organizations) is an example of what I will call motivated design. That is, we would like to bring a confusing and chaotic world into some kind of order to understand it. This desire motivates us to accept to accept tools that help to present an ordered and comprehensible view of things, even if we really know such a view to be misguided or even counterproductive.
Information addiction April 27, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
I have made a number of past blog entries about how technology can be more than just a tool. In short, some technologies do not merely increase the size of the human tool box, they change the tool users as well.
We all know by now that information technology is more than just a tool in this sense. More confirmation, if it was necessary, comes from a recent study at the University of Maryland. Students were asked to forgo their IT for a day and then blog about it. Naturally, many found the attempt to be difficult, causing feelings of anxiety and boredom. They saw themselves as being like drug addicts trying to quit cold turkey. Some even turned to drugs for relief:
“My short attention span prevented me from accomplishing much, so I stared at the wall for a little bit,” one participant wrote. “After doing some push-ups, I decided to take a few Dramamine and go to sleep to put me out of my misery.”
I am reminded of the treatment of the Ring of Power in Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy: The Lord of the Rings. In those flicks, Jackson treats possession of the One Ring as like a drug addiction (although addiction to what was never clear to me). Anyway, at the finale, the Ring is cast into the fire of Mount Doom and the world relieved of its malevolent presence.
Now, instead of the One Ring, imagine that Frodo is fated to carry an iPhone to Cupertino. Instead of departing, Frodo smokes himself into a stupor on Longbottom Leaf until the urge goes away. Less cinematic but more realistic, perhaps.
Well, we have become dependent on tools before. North Americans could hardly live as they do without their cars, for example. Yet, while cars function somewhat like super leg augmentations, IT is unique (so far) because it functions somewhat like a super brain augmentation. Thus, it changes the behavior of the organ that makes humans most different from other creatures. For that reason, perhaps, the effects of IT seem at once the most awesome and the most scary of any technology yet.
Are tedious captchas a good thing? April 26, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
A recent New York Times article comments on how spammers may hire people to solve captchas on Websites. Say you were a spammer and wished to send people an email that originates on the New York Times (NYT) website. You know, “Your credit card number has won a contest; log in here to collect your prize from the New York Times”? The problem is that, in order to use the NYT email-an-article service, you must solve one of those little puzzles or CAPTCHAs.
(Photo courtesy of Ryan Staake; Wikimedia Commons)
These little puzzles are designed to be easy for people but difficult for computers. So, automating your spamming process is hard to do. Unless you can hire people to do the puzzles for you. Some spammers do just this, using impoverished people in India or Bangladesh to spend their days deciphering these little graphics, over and over again.
Many things could be said about this situation. On the one hand, such work seems degrading, an example of automation gone wrong resulting in the creation of mindless piecework through deskilling. On the other hand, if people are truly in such a poor situation that such work is economically attractive to them, then who is to say they should not do so? (Then there is the harm caused to the victims of the spam to consider.)
Interestingly, the article concludes by noting that the very tediousness of the CAPTCHA solving process impedes its economic sustainability:
That view was confirmed by an executive at one south Indian outsourcing company that advertises its captcha-solving prowess on a Web site. The executive, Dileep Paveri, said his firm had stopped offering the service because it was not very profitable.
His company, SBL, which is based in Cochin, got about $200 a month in revenue for each of the 10 employees it had hired to decipher the puzzles on behalf of a Sri Lankan client.
“We found that it’s not worth doing,” said Mr. Paveri, a manager in SBL’s business process outsourcing and graphics unit. Moreover, he added, “after some time, the productivity of people comes down because it’s a monotonous job. They lose their interest.”
You may dislike CAPTCHAs for being so boring. However, their very dullness may be one of their chief virtues, preventing them from becoming the foundation of an exploitive industry.
Volcanic ash: Deadly threat or minor menace? April 22, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Robert Charette at IEEE Spectrum points out that EU officials have characterized as flawed their decision to halt air traffic over Europe in the face of the ash cloud from the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. The computer models they relied on, say the officials, were based on “incomplete science” and incomplete data.
However, Charette points out, some volcanologists take the view that the halt in air travel was appropriate. So, the controversy continues.
(Photo courtesy of Makaristos, Wikimedia Commons)
This situation illustrates an age-old tension in decision making and design. When confronted with a potential risk, should we adopt a permissive view, that is, full steam ahead, or adopt a precautionary view, that is, better safe than sorry?
In his article on the Y2K issue, Farhad Manjoo notes that the precautionary approach was adopted. Billions were spent to update computer code prior to the arrival of the year 2000. And what happened? Almost nothing. The resulting non-catastrophe persuaded many observers that the whole project was a waste of resources. Of course, it could be that nothing happened because the project was a success. In general, Manjoo argues, the precautionary approach tends to be self-undermining because success actually tends to make it seem less compelling.
The same could be said about precaution in the face of the volcanic ash cloud. No planes fell out of the sky, but a lot of money was lost! Of course, we will never know what would have happened had flights not been canceled but, I’ve heard it said, there’s nothing like a smoking hole in the ground to change people’s minds.
A logo, computer haiku, and a contest! April 21, 2010Posted by Scott Campbell in : Announcements , comments closed
At some point in the pre-blog days and perhaps even in the pre-web days, CSTV had a logo that looked like this:
In the last decade or so it has fallen from use, but I still kinda like it. It certainly reinforces the idea that technology is about people, which is one of our foremost lessons, and it hints that technology is inclusive of society and of values. What do you see?
I was going to talk about logos and design (and perhaps the awkward logo rebellion at the University of Waterloo last year), but then remembered something I once heard: that a logo is the haiku of the design world. That is, both a logo and a haiku must be brief, elegant, obey simple rules, convey a timeless message, and the best are often of “jesting character”. Perhaps this is why haiku’s can be appealing to the techno-set, particularly at conveying some of the misapprehension and frustration associated with computers:
Your file was so big.
It might be very useful.
But now it is gone.
Yesterday it worked.
Today it is not working.
Windows is like that.
A crash reduces
Your expensive computer
To a simple stone.
Out of memory.
We wish to hold the whole sky,
But we never will.
Computers and haiku try to get along. About ten years ago a company used a haiku as a trigger for an email spam filtering system. Messages containing a copyrighted haiku were permitted though the filter; if an unauthorized email sender used the haiku they would be sued for copyright infringement and subsequently blacklisted. From what I recall, it didn’t work out all that well in the end. Some people have entertained themelves by making proverbial lemonade from lemons, transforming spam into haiku that does slip through:
Large screen DVD.
Is your husband performing?
Big trading alert.
There are also plenty of haiku generators on the web, none of which work very well either, unless all you want is a random and witless assembly of words. Earlier this year, the former CEO of Sun Microsystems announced his resignation to the world via haiku when the company he led was bought out.
I know of another example (though anecdotal) of a haiku used to prevent unauthorized computer activity, from almost 30 years ago. At least some versions of an early microcomputer designed at the University of Waterloo (known as the MicroWAT) required a secret passphrase to boot properly. Intended to protect the intellectual property within, it is quite difficult to make them run, if at all, without knowing the magic words. I’ve been told that the passphrase was a haiku, but no-one seems to remember what it was, haiku or not.
In light of this, I’m going to launch the first ever CSTV haiku contest, by inviting haiku contributions in the comments below that best describe the lessons or purpose of the Center for Society, Technology and Values, much as the old logo does. The normal haiku rules apply. Anyone is eligible, there is no immediate deadline, and assuming there is more than one or two entries I’m sure we can come up with a suitable prize for the winner. I’m no poet, but I know what I like.
Standardization of food April 21, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
(Image courtesy of Garitzko, Wikimedia Commons)
The American National Academies of Science has recently released a report calling for the US government to limit the amount of salt contained in processed foods.
The report found that Americans consume 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day on average (about a teaspoon-and-a-half), or more than 150 percent of the recommended maximum daily intake of 2,300 milligrams. That excess salt increases risk for high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
“It’s estimated that reducing sodium intake could prevent more than 100,000 deaths annually and save billions of dollars,” lead author Jane Haney, a former FDA commissioner now at the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine, told reporters.
On the face of it, reducing the tolerance level for salt seems plausible. After all, fat, salt, and sugar seem to be the major ingredients of most processed foods, and the ones that make them most addictive (and profitable).
The recommendation drew a predictably negative response from the food industry:
“The science simply doesn’t back up these recommendations.” Lori Roman, president of the Salt Institute, told NPR. “There will be negative unintended consequences, including the introduction of substitutes, which consumers may find much less desirable than salt, which has been consumed safely for thousands of years.”
True, salt has been consumed since time out of mind, although not by the bucket. And the issue of substitutes is a concern. If people are eating less of one thing, then they may be eating more of another one. Strangely, this observation sounds like a threat: “Give us back the salt, or we’ll lace your food with something worse!!!”
Anyway, the whole episode illustrates a facet of standardization. Standards are supposed to be heuristic rules of design that make it easier for designers to come up with solutions that are effective, efficient, or safe. Although this is one aspect of standards, they are also political footballs and may be set for reasons only partly related to technical issues.
Efficieny vs. resiliency April 19, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
You have probably heard about how the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull has shut down air travel over Northern Europe and even Newfoundland. It is, as yet, unclear how long or how widespread the interruptions will last.
(Photo courtesy of http://commons.wikimedia.org/)
One aspect of this event is that it illustrates a frequent tradeoff in design between efficiency and resiliency. The air travel system over the North Atlantic and Europe is designed primarily to be efficient. Airlines are under pressure to keep costs down: fuel prices are going up, passengers have less disposable income on average, and security costs are rising. To stay in business, the aviation industry is forced to trim away any extra capacity in airplanes, airports, and flight routes. Unused capacity is simply an unaffordable expense.
Unfortunately, extra capacity is also an important source of resiliency, that is, the ability to recover from failure. After many days of shutdown, the industry and governments are only beginning to plan for the recovery of the system, and to rescue passengers stranded in the middle of their trips. Perhaps they can be routed through Spain, and then placed on trains, or boats, or buses, in order to reach their destination. Unless they have to cross the pond. Without redundant travel capacity in the system, correcting the problems raised by its failure is expensive and difficult.
During good times, emphasis always falls on efficiency: People do not like to pay higher prices to maintain capacity that is not being used. During bad times, excess capacity seems like a better idea. This tradeoff is always a tricky issue for designers and planners. Given the unpredictability of some stresses, like volcanic eruptions, they are almost certain to lack the justification to have excess capacity “just in case”.
Human augmentation April 16, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Check out this interview with athlete/model Amee Mullens on the Colbert Report (15 April 2010). (This link may work only in Canada.) Ms. Mullens discusses the variety of prosthetic legs that she has for different occasions, such as walking, jumping, going out on the town, etc.
At one point, Colbert asks Amee, “Do you think, at some point, that people might opt for augmentation?” Of course, as she points out, they often do. Think of breast implants, eye glasses, or even clothing. Technology is, in some way all about augmentation. Not for nothing did Freud describe a modern human as a prosthetic god:
Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic god. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times.
(From Civilization and its discontents.)
I have noted earlier that even procedures such as knee surgery could be considered a kind of prosthesis.
In any event, as Colbert notes, Amee looks “smoking hot” in some of her prosthetic gear. Critics of technology often worry, with cause, that prosthetics can be injurious to human dignity (however you define that). It is good to note that sometimes prosthetics can also be surprisingly beautiful and enhance dignity instead.