Royal Navy nuclear sub “Astute” runs aground: Dated charts to blame? October 29, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
The Daily Mail reports that the HMS Astute ran aground in shallow waters of the Isle of Skye recently. The sub has state-of-the-art navigational electronics, of course, but may have relied on outdated charts for some reason:
Senior Navy sources said submariners on the Astute would have also used computerised maps of the area and printouts to judge the vessel’s safest path in the shallow and it is these that may have misled the crew.
No word yet from the makers of the navigational system but it is traditional to blame the user in these circumstances, at least where GPS navigation systems are involved. If only the commander had realized that he, not the electronic chart, is the boss of the submarine.
(Image courtesy of PenumbraLpz via Wikimedia Commons.)
Of course, there is another possibility: The commander was texting while navigating. Has the Navy not yet banned this practice?
Computers improve the voting experience in Ontario? October 28, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
After the recent experience when University of Michigan students hacked into an e-voting website, and made it play the UofM fight song after each vote (among other things), I was interested to see how e-voting would be greeted in the recent municipal elections here in Ontario.
It was a mixed bag, as you might guess. Some observers were quite giddy with the immediacy and just plain coolness of having votes counted by computers. Here is a report from the Guelph Mercury:
Smart municipalities across Ontario, and Canada, are realizing that electronic vote counters make sense. They proved themselves again Monday night.
In Guelph, these machines were able to count 28,072 ballots more quickly than any human and told us who had been elected well before bedtime Monday night. Voters could tune in to the city’s website and get up-to-the-minute results as polls were entered into the system.
The city passed along updates as soon as it had them, getting the word out on its Facebook site and through Twitter updates. Polls closed at 8 p.m., and results followed shortly after. This is how an election should be run.
Forget spoiled ballots that can bog down polling stations. These machines spit them back out – and tell the voter to try again. Accepted ballots are immediately stored on a memory card, which is sent to election officials with the push of a button as soon as polls close.
The alternative, counting by hand, looks painfully archaic. In New Hamburg’s case, part of Wilmot Township, it was almost 2 a.m. before the final ballot had been counted and official results released. At midnight, almost half of the polling stations in the New Hamburg ward had still not reported, with tight races on the line.
Voting should be more like Tweeting, and it’s so futuristic!
Other experiences were less positive. Citizens in some Ontario municipalities found that their e-voting systems were not performing as expected:
Arnprior will have to wait until Tuesday night to declare its mayor after the electronic voting system used in many places across eastern Ontario crashed Monday night.
The online and telephone voting system was used by 33 municipalities, causing several problems across the region.
Arnprior resident Debbie Laventure was one of hundreds of voters locked out of the “Intelivote” electronic voting system.
“I tried on the telephone to phone in, couldn’t get through. I tried the computer; that wasn’t working, so went to the library and that didn’t work,” Laventure told CTV Ottawa on Tuesday.
Shortly before polls were scheduled to close, Arnprior’s returning officer made the unprecedented move to keep polls open for another 24 hours.
What a downer! Luckily, the machines were not to blame. According to a press release from Intelivote the problem was excessive voting:
“During the heavy load, the Intelivote system experienced a hardware server error that resulted in the entire load on the system being switched to the redundant load-sharing server,” the statement adds.
“A combination of the heavy voting activity and the administrative activity resulted in the system reducing the capacity to process voter activity over a 57-minute period.”
Damn! If only we could keep people from voting so much, or in such an unruly manner, e-voting would be so much easier!
Strangely, it seems that Ontarians are not totally sold on e-voting, according to the Law Times:
Already, places like Markham, Ont., have tried electronic voting with mixed results. There, participation at advanced polls increased dramatically, but overall turnout remained flat.
Given the concerns over the security and accuracy of such systems as well as their limited effect on participation, it’s clear that web-based options aren’t a panacea.
In short, digitizing an existing process may make it more futuristic, but it may not make it more engaging.
Perhaps the answer is to remove humans from the process altogether…
Streetview cars get lost? October 26, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
An amusing story has been making the rounds, about Google Streetview cars getting lost while photographing streets in Elsrijkdreef, near Amsterdam. Have a look at the picture in the article of a young man, apparently reading a physical roadside map while talking on a phone, with a line of Street Viewmobiles awaiting further directions.
(Image of Viewmobile courtesy of Arch via Wikimedia Commons.)
Apparently, the photo was embarrassing to some at Google:
A Google spokesperson denied the claims. She said: “It doesn’t look to me like they’re lost. The drivers undergo training so they know how to use the equipment and it looks like this might more likely be what they’re doing”.
Naheed Nenshi: a creation of social media? October 22, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
You have probably heard that Calgary has a new mayor, Naheed Nenshi. His election is surprising in the sense that:
- Nenshi’s campaign relied heavily on social media like Facebook and Twitter over more traditional strategies such as broadcasting;
- Nenshi beat some “establishment” candidates, such as Conservative Ric McIver;
- Nenshi has never held office before;
- Nenshi is a Muslim.
Congratulations, Mr. Nenshi.
(Image courtesy of Makelaesi via Wikimedia Commons.)
One of the issues raised by this win is the role of social media in it. It is clear that Nenshi’s use of social media played a big role, allowing him to overcome his relative lack of prominence and financial means by spreading his message through word-of-mouth, as it were. It also seems to have helped him to mobilize a large contingent of younger voters, who often sit out municipal (and other) elections. The voter turnout, at 53%, is quite high for such an election in this country.
One lesson from this event might be that “leveraging” social media is important to the success of a political campaign in the 21st Century. True, but, as pointed out in a recent CBC “At Issue” panel, the point is not that Nenshi’s message simply appeared on social media. The point is that Nenshi’s message resonated with people on social media. All the front-runners had their message out but only Nenshi, it would seem, had a message that spoke to his audience in a way that drove them to the polls. So, it is not that “the medium is the message”, to use McLuhan’s famous dictum, but that the medium brought the message and the audience together in a forceful way.
Dogs are still the best bomb detectors October 22, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Wired.com reports that, after $19 billion spent on high-tech bomb-detection equipment, dogs are still the best detectors available. According to the article, the Pentagon began to develop an artificial “dog’s nose” in 1997, but the effort has not borne fruit:
Despite a slew of bomb-finding gagdets, the American military only locates about 50 percent of the improvised explosives planted in Afghanistan and Iraq. But that number jumps to 80 percent when U.S. and Afghan patrols take dogs along for a sniff-heavy walk.
The US Congress is beginning to curtail spending on this and related projects.
(Image courtesy of The US Army via Wikimedia Commons.)
There is no mistake in thinking that a technological solution might do better than a dog at the task of detecting bombs, even those based on chemical fertilizers. However, to spend $19 billion before deciding that things are not going well does suggest a serious lack of program supervision.
Think of the number of bomb-sniffing dogs–a proven technology–that could have been purchased for that money or, really, a tiny fraction of it. Do planners really consider such opportunity costs when programs like this one are implemented?
Perhaps this project speaks to a phenomenon already raised in this blog, that is, the issue of technology being just a tool. The expression has many meanings, some more true than others. One of its meanings does seem to apply to this case: New technology is not desirable at any cost. It may seem as though a computerized solution to a problem must be better than an old-fashioned one, but it ain’t necessarily so. Although this project was started in the Clinton era, I cannot help but wondering if it managed to continue for so long due to the influence of the high-tech-loving Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary under Bush. Rumsfeld was a man who seemed to love high-tech tools, the more expensive the better.
(Image courtesy of the Department of Defense via Wikimedia Commons.)
New subway cars for the TTC October 15, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
(Image courtesy of Marcin Wichary via Wiki Commons.)
Chris Hume reviews the new subway cars being adopted by the TTC. The new designs offer a mix of changes over the old tin cans:
- The cabins are continuous, so you can move easily from one area of the train’s interior to another. No more squeezing from one car to the next through those little doors, I guess.
- Illuminated route maps should help newcomers to track their trips in progress.
- The seating remains the same size, a bit on the small side especially, as Hume notes, as “so many of us are fat.”
- The windows are larger but less numerous. Hume feels that this will make the train feel more claustrophobic, although the continuous interior may help with that.
Well, have you seen the new cars? What do you think of them? Come to that, what sort of public transit designs have you encountered that struck you as being particularly good or bad?
More GPS navigation follies October 7, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
The Globe and Mail has an article today about a young woman who followed the driving directions of her GPS unit and ended up not in Belleville, Ontario but in the Murray Marsh. The car became partially submerged in the marsh, forcing the woman to climb onto the roof while the OPP, heeding her call to 911, rescued her with ATVs.
(Image courtesy of SeppVei via Wiki Commons.)
The problem, of course, is that she trusted the directions of her GPS unit and, being unfamiliar with the area and driving through challenging weather conditions, she was not alert to the signs of trouble until too late:
On Tuesday night, she left a friend’s place in Campbellford, about an hour’s drive from Belleville. Unfamiliar with the region, she said she relied on her new Garmin GPS to get to her destination.
“That was the road it told me to take,” she said. “I don’t know the area at all, so I just thought it was okay, and apparently it was a swamp.”
It was pounding rain on the country roads, and visibility was poor. At first, she thought she was driving through puddles, but then her 2003 Mazda Protegé 5 stopped moving. Then water started seeping in, rising to seat-level.
Naturally, she feels “stupid” for getting into the predicament.
The article features links to other examples of travelers following their GPS units into the abyss, and an NBC news report, including a brief interview with UWaterloo’s own Colin Ellard, where the reporter smugly concludes that such incidents are best explained as a malfunction “behind the wheel” rather than on the dashboard.
We have discussed GPS navigation and their foibles before, but this latest incident provides an opportunity to discuss the issue of blame for failures of navigation. The producers of GPS units, and most reporters, simply blame the users: If only people were not so stupid, or were not so slavishly obedient to their gadgets, this sort of thing would not happen. Yes, sometimes people simply do stupid things, and sometimes they are overawed by their high-tech gear.
However, I think it must be conceded that GPS units are designed to fail in this way. How is that? Their guidance is based on simplifications about the road, the situation, and the driver, that are not always appropriate.
- To a GPS unit, the world is like a giant chess board, where the topology of the board and the locations of the pieces are all known with perfect certainty. The fact that road connectivity may change dynamically in a way that affects navigation is totally unrepresented. Nor is the possibility that the GPS unit’s information is simply false ever considered. Thus, the GPS unit provides its directions with the apparent greatest of confidence, no matter what.
- A GPS unit has no representation of the ambient conditions. In the story above, the woman was driving in the dark and through a heavy rain shower. Thus, she was not in a position to be critical of the GPS unit’s directions, if she had a mind to. Again, the GPS does not take these factors into account, even though such information is probably available to it through weather services over the Internet.
- A GPS unit has no representation of the cognitive state of the driver. People who are tired or stressed are not in a good position to evaluate GPS directions. As a result, drivers may follow the directions of their bossy GPS unit even when common sense suggests that this policy is not a good one.
In short, although GPS navigation units are presented to drivers as a kind of co-pilot, their design prevents them from acting like a co-pilot, especially in challenging circumstances. As people become more dependent on such units to find their way around, the situation becomes less promising. I understand, though, that designers of GPS units are starting to grapple with these issues. In the meantime, though, let us cut some slack to the poor souls who are guided by their high-tech toys into the middle of nowhere late at night in the rain.
Update: In Spain, a 37 year-old man drove his car into a reservoir following directions from his GPS navigator. The man drowned, although his passenger survived. The road had apparently been out of use since 1989, when the reservoir was constructed and flooded the roadway. This information was, evidently, not known to the GPS unit. Perhaps because it was dark, the driver did not realize his danger until too late:
“It seems the GPS system pointed them on to an old road that ends in the reservoir, and that in the dark they were unable to brake in time, with the car taking just a couple of minutes to sink,” the Red Cross said in a statement.
Stephen Colbert outs our Robot Overlords and Aaron Sorkin October 1, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
Well, if you did not catch the Colbert Report yesterday, allow me to point you there. In the opening segment, Colbert plugs his March to keep fear alive by discussing how recent developments in robotics are bringing the coming robocalypse closer to reality. Be afraid, be verrrry afraid!
He then discusses the new movie, The Social Network with filmmaker Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin expresses the view that Facebook merely provides people with a fancy way of re-packaging themselves for general consumption. When challenged by Colbert with the claim that people invent themselves all the time (so what’s wrong with Facebook providing this opportunity then?), Sorkin replies:
“I do think that socializing on the Internet is to socializing what reality TV is to reality.”
See the clip here. What does he mean? That Facebook interactions are scripted and shallow compared to the alternative? Is he right? Is that a bad thing?
Women and design October 1, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
There are many stereotypes about women and their attitudes in decision making. For example, women are supposed to be more risk-averse and thus prefer safer financial investments over riskier ones. Or women are not as good at math as men are. (Remember the Teen Talk Barbie of 1992 that said things like, “Math class is tough!”?)
Now Discover Magazine blog reports a study showing how stereotyping of women is a self-fulfilling prophecy. According to this research, women and men share a common pattern of decision making, until they are reminded of their gender. For example, the performance of girls writing a math test declined after they were asked to note down their gender. It appears that merely raising the issue of a gender stereotype, called stereotype threat, leads to poorer performance in female test takers. So, if these stereotypes enjoy any predictive validity, it is not because they indicate any deep-seated biological difference between males and females (e.g., testosterone levels) but because people tend to think that they are valid.
How does this result apply to design issues? Well, designing things for women means navigating many stereotypes about what women prefer as opposed to men. Often, designing for women seems to be treated superficially, e.g., the recent Renault Twingo Miss Sixty appeals to women through being coloured pink. Although a coat of pink paint may signal that something is supposed to be for women (that’s the stereotype), more substantial issues may not be considered. In the design of tools, for example, women may require designs that are smaller and lighter. Of course, sometimes the distinction between superficial and substantial is less clear, as in the design of firefighters uniforms so that they are less militaristic and thus more appealing to women, who might then be more willing to enter the profession.
Of course, this point also raises the issue of the effect of stereotypes on women’s choice of career in the design professions. By stereotype, women tend to be better suited to less technical design careers, e.g., interior design, and less well suited to more technical careers, e.g., mechanical engineering. The study cited above would seem to support the view that this conventional wisdom is ill-founded. Yet, the stereotypes remain potent, as the imbalanced gender ratios in some design professions suggest.
What effect have gender stereotypes had on design and the design professions in your experience?