Avoidr: The flip side of Foursquare June 30, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
As you may know, Foursquare is a service that allows you to “check in” to locations using your smartphone. As a result, other subscribers to the service can find out where you are. This location awareness gives people to opportunity to meet if they are so inclined.
Foursquare is one realization of the use of IT for social networking. Like other social networking services, such as Facebook, it transmits information about you to your circle of friends as defined by your “social graph”. One issue with these services is that they tend to be all-or-nothing, e.g., you are either a friend or a fan to someone else, or else nothing. Many levels and kinds of relationship in the real world are not represented. This design decision is explicitly meant to encourage transparency, the unconditional sharing of information. Instead of reflecting relationships in the real world, Facebook friendships and the like are a new kind of relationship without the same nuance.
One of the most immediate difficulties of the social graph view of relationships is privacy, that is, control of an individual over the information that others have about them. Privacy controls are provided but they can be difficult to use and understand.
Enter a new plugin called Avoidr, created by Jesper Andersen. Avoidr allows you to nuance the information you use on Foursquare according to nuances in your real-world relationships with people. For example, it follows the locations of people whom you would rather not see and creates a list of places where you should not go. Basically, Avoidr creates a new social category, the “frenemy” if you like, to set beside “friend” and “fan”.
Here is how Andersen describes his view of the service:
On a somewhat less serious level, Andersen sees Avoidr as an intermediate stop on the way to defriending someone — it’s a kind of defriending-in-training. “I’m not against Foursquare,” he says. “It’s more that social networks should take into account that friendships ebb and flow.”
So, if you have an ex, a former boss, or someone to whom you owe money that you would rather not see today, then perhaps Avoidr is for you.
The service also raises interesting questions for the future form of social networking: Is it the beginning of a new trend in social networks, re-assertion of some of the status quo before Facebook, instead of the vision a simplified and radically transparent future?
To vuvuzela or not to vuvuzela, is that the question? June 18, 2010Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100 , comments closed
I’m not much of a soccer/football fan, but it can be easy to be swept up when FIFA’s World Cup arrives every four years (during the last championship in 2006, I was living in Little Portugal in Toronto and it was really easy to get swept up given the celebrations, partying and good-natured carousing that took place every time Portugal or Brazil took to the field).
This time, what’s on everybody’s lips is the vuvuzela, a cheap plastic horn:
If you’ve caught even a tiny fraction of any World Cup game, you will have heard the constant buzzing and humming of South African fans blowing on their vuvuzelas. At levels loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage apparently. If you have read a single report about the World Cup, you will have already learned of the many reactions to the horn, chief among them that the noise generated by thousands of fans is annoying and distracting. More colourful descriptions include “satanic … a stampede of noisy elephants, a deafening swarm of locusts, a goat on the way to slaughter, and a giant hive full of very angry bees.”
Alot of people don’t like them, but FIFA has refused to ban them. Their argument is that this is a South African-hosted tournament and South Africans want their vuvuzelas. This particular sporting tradition may only be twenty years old, but it’s their tradition.
So, what to do if you’re used to the European traditions of singing or whistling, and just can’t get used to the elephant in the room? The technological solution is an audio filter to stop the buzzing before it gets to your ears. Consumer Reports has a handful of suggestions, including adjusting the treble on your television and the extreme measure of muting the audio completely. Those watching the games of over the internet that also possess the right software and some audio know-how can do much more more:
Not sure what that will do for the complaints of the actual players on the pitch who can’t hear shouted instructions from a few metres away.
This is, of course, one of those society-technology conflicts where all the really interesting always stuff happens. Is the audio filter a reasonable technological solution to a social problem? The BBC is said to be considering it for their broadcasts. Are there other ways to resolve the problem that would satisfy additional or different social groups? One of the vuvuzela manufacturers has already worked to reduce the decibel level the horn generates, but how do you encourage people to switch? It would seem that offering complementary vuvuzela earplugs, as the same manufacturer does, would be counter productive but I guess that depends on why they are encouraging people to switch, doesn’t it.
Institutional bias at BP June 17, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is much in the news and on everyone’s mind these days, quite naturally. It appears that this spill is not the first troubling incident that has occurred at a BP wellhead in the Gulf (and perhaps elsewhere) in recent years. A blog article on a site called the Oil Drum indicates that there have been a number of near misses.
One issue is the repeated reliance on a “Blow Out Preventer” or BOP. This device is essentially a set of shears poised at the connection between the well on the seafloor and the pipe that transfers oil up to the rig (see below).
(Image courtesy of The Oil Drum.)
The BOP is meant to be the “last line of defense”, in other words, the last in a series of mechanisms meant to prevent a spill. The blog article notes that the BOP has been activated a number of times on wells in the Gulf, thus preventing spills (until this year). This news should have been not comforting but alarming for the operators, as the poster notes:
In the 2003 spill, and in many similar cases, the fact that the blind-shear BOP functioned as intended is not a sign that the system worked, for a truly fail-safe system would be where the last line of defense from disaster is never reached.
It seems plausible to guess that the effectiveness of the BOP on previous occasions gave rise to some complacency instead of alarm about the overall safety of the drilling apparatus.
R. G. Little, among others, has noted how institutions can be biased in how they deal with risk. Some will tend towards a precautionary approach, others a permissive approach. The preferred approach can be reinforced by events over time.
The classic example is NASA which, according to the Rogers Commission report, became complacent about the safety of Shuttle launches as taking greater and greater risks continued to pay off in successful launches. Then came the Challenger disaster.
One of the roles of regulation is to arrest this sort of process. A rule can be made that establishes a certain minimal safety margin for operation of an oil rig, Space Shuttle, and so on. Of course, regulations bring problems of their own: They can become outmoded, ignored, or altered to suit inappropriate interests. In the end, we rely on the intelligence, good will and integrity of those who are operating these devices and overseeing their operations.
Apple bans stuff from App Store…again June 15, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Apple has attracted some controversy lately for banning some apps with controversial content. The latest episode concerns a woman, seen naked from the waist up, in a graphic novel adaptation of Ulysses, by James Joyce.
These incidents make Apple seem prudish and uncool, if not downright censorious. Perhaps it is. However, it may simply be applying a precautionary strategy: Err on the side of caution and thus avoid upsetting what they see as their somewhat unadventurous target market. They can always change their minds if enough people make a fuss.
The alternative would be a permissive strategy: Let people put what they like in their apps and win plaudits from libertarians and the more avant-guard.
Both strategies are equally rational on their own merits. So why should Apple prefer one over the other? Evidently, Apple wants its designs to be perceived as comfortable and non-threatening and thus appealing to a broad audience. It makes sense, then, to be cautious and back down occasionally, instead of being permissive and risking being perceived as libertine. Would you want to be the person at Apple who approved an app that the public perceived as, say, an instance of child porn?
Police IT system changes how police work June 9, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
A recent Washington Post article discusses how a newly adopted IT system has changed the nature of policing in Farifax County. The system, called I/LEADS, was intended to automate data functions such as filing reports, entering traffic tickets, and so on. The system, however, is so unfriendly that police officers actively try to avoid using it. For example:
The aggravation of writing reports runs deep among officers on the street. In particular, many said, the new system, called I/LEADS, requires them to fill in many different screens, rather than writing on one or two sheets of paper, and when I/LEADS finds an error, officers said, it doesn’t tell where in the report the error is.
“One simple mistake causes you to pull your hair out,” one officer said. “You have to search to fix it. It takes a half-hour.”
One result of this aggravation is that officers have written 17,600 fewer traffic tickets this year than at the same point last year. Some of this reduction may be due to other factors but the I/LEADS system seems to bear some of the responsibility.
(Image courtesy of Jeff Dean at Wiki Commons)
Are these troubles just the teething pains of a new system? Robert Charette, in his IEEE blog post argues that the trouble goes deeper. The system specs seem to focus on the management function of I/LEADS, namely data-mining activities such as measuring officer productivity, instead of facilitation of the officers’ duties.
This example illustrates a couple of themes of our blog. First, as Jaron Lanier points out in his book You are not a gadget, designers of IT systems tend to regard people as merely sources of data. With its focus on management tasks, the I/LEADS system appears guilty of regarding police officers as nothing other than sources of input. As mere inputs, police officers were subject only to quality control measures, not to consideration of impact on their activities as human beings working for the police department.
Second, this example provides another illustration of how technology is sometimes more than just a tool. Inadvertently, the design of the I/LEADS system has produced not merely the same police behaviors with a new tool, but a new set of police behaviors with a new tool. Whether that change is for the better or worse may depend on where you stand on traffic tickets and other police behaviors, but it seems clear that the new tool embodies the priorities of management and not those of the officers themselves.
Is your Kindle sharing your thoughts? June 2, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
Amazon has recently introduced a Kindle feature that displays the most highlighted passages by Kindle readers. For example, as I write this, the most highlighted passage of all is the following from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers:
three things—autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward—are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.
The implication is that this passage is particularly worth of contemplation, as so many Kindle users have been struck enough by it to highlight it.
(Image courtesy of ShakataGaNai, Wiki Commons)
As always, when a company collects user data, there are privacy concerns. These concerns are nicely summarized by Bob Sullivan on his blog entry:
Even though the data is presented anonymously, a database of reading highlights could be a treasure trove for law enforcement. Officials would be able to determine the authors of the notes or the users who highlighted a passage by obtaining a court order. The records would also be available to lawyers engaged in civil proceedings, such as divorce cases, Stephens said. For example, the fact that a spouse had highlighted sexual passages in books could become an issue in a contested divorce, he said.
Besides these issues, there are also potential abuses. Groups of users could get together and highlight something controversial or offensive, for example.
Privacy issues aside, it is a little disturbing that this feature has been turned “on” by default. As a result, many Kindle users may well not be aware that their highlightings are being shared with the general public. Amazon has announced the feature through forum posts and help pages but seems, on the whole, to have introduced it on the sly. Perhaps readers with Kindles can shed some light on how or whether they found out about this behavior.
An ideology of violation June 1, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
A recent New York Times article notes an academic paper describing how hackers might be able to take control of your car. Modern cars feature lots of computers, many of which are networked together and becoming more so. Basically, the researchers found ways of taking control of various automotive systems, such as the brakes, while the car was in motion. Pretty scary thought!
“We noticed the extent to which automobiles were becoming computerized,” said Stefan Savage, a computer scientist at U.C.S.D. who was a member of one of two groups that have been studying the electronic control units of two different cars to look for network vulnerabilities that could be exploited by a potential attacker. “We found ourselves thinking we should try to get in front of this before it suddenly becomes an issue.”
Security is always a concern, but it’s a concern that can itself be exploited. That point is made by Jaron Lanier in his new book, You are not a gadget. He describes what he calls an ideology of violence on the Internet generally but also in academia in particular.
There are respectable academic conferences devoted to methods of violating sanctities of all kinds. The only criterion is that researchers come up with some way of using digital technology to harm innocent people who thought they were safe.
In 2008, researchers from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the University of Washington presented papers at two of these conferences (called Defcon and Blackhat), disclosing a bizarre form of attack that had apparently not been expressed in public before, even in works of fiction. They had spent two years of team effort figuring out how to use mobile phone technology to hack into a pacemaker and turn if off by remote control, in order to kill a person. …
The reason I call this an expression of ideology is that there is a strenuously constructed lattice of arguments that decorate this murderous behavior so that it looks grand and new. If the same researchers had done something similar without digital technology, they would at the very least have lost their jobs. Suppose they had spent a couple of years and significant funds figuring out how to rig a washing machine to poison clothing in order to (hypothetically) kill a child once dressed. …
People love their high-tech gear but do not really understand it. Nor can they control it as they could a bicycle or an old TV set. Academic researchers who do understand and can control it are able to gain publicity and make a living by exploiting their superior positions. Why do we put up with this arrangement when it comes to information technology but not to other technologies?
Lanier does not explicitly answer this question. Is it because we trust the academics involved in IT research? Yet, we would not trust chemists involved in laundry additive research, as Lanier implies. Is it because there is something special about IT that makes it different from chemistry, for example? Maybe, but I do not see a relevant difference between IT and chemistry. Is it because IT is so novel and chemistry is not? IT is indeed a new technology and it is developing and changing rapidly. For these reasons, our expectations of it are still unsettled. Thus, it is not clear to us why some security research is legitimate whereas other research might be merely exploitative. Chemistry has been around much longer and so is carried out within an established framework of regulations and expectations.
So, is car hacking research legitimate or exploitative? Well, Wired recently noted that a hacker used the remote shutoff system to immobilize 100 cars:
More than 100 drivers in Austin, Texas found their cars disabled or the horns honking out of control, after an intruder ran amok in a web-based vehicle-immobilization system normally used to get the attention of consumers delinquent in their auto payments.
Police with Austin’s High Tech Crime Unit on Wednesday arrested 20-year-old Omar Ramos-Lopez, a former Texas Auto Center employee who was laid off last month, and allegedly sought revenge by bricking the cars sold from the dealership’s four Austin-area lots.
It seems that the “hacker” or “intruder” did not find some nifty exploit for breaking into car immobilization systems. Instead, he used the “old fashioned” method of using another Texas Auto Center employee’s account for which he had obtained the password.
I would not advocate lax security for automotive computer systems but perhaps we would be better served by research into more common security problems, such as keeping disgruntled employees from sabotaging their former places of work.