Conservation through competition May 26, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
A study by the Environmental Defense Fund, summarized in this FastCompany article, concludes that consumers who receive detailed power usage reports from their utilities tend to cut down on their electricity consumption. Particularly important also is information comparing the individual customer’s power usage to that of other, similar customers in the same region:
Homes that received the reports slashed energy consumption between 0.9% and 2.9% annually. That sounds like a small amount, but the EDF estimates that cutting residential electricity usage across the U.S by 1.8% would save over 26,000 GWh of electricity, cut greenhouse gas emissions by 8.9 million metric tons of CO2 each year (equivalent to the emissions of three 500 MW coal-fired plants), and help households save a combined total of over $3 billion dollars per year on electricity. That’s a lot of energy savings just for redesigning a bill.
This tendency of people to reduce power consumption when presented with richer information and under pressure of social competition has been noted before. It is interesting to consider how it might work.
(Image courtesy of Paulo Barcellos Jr. via Wikimedia Commons.)
First of all, the introduction of conservation measures does not necessarily result in conservation. Jevons’ Paradox suggests that the presence of more efficient gear can actually increase consumption. For example, the introduction of efficient, LED light bulbs could conceivably increase electricity usage as people find more places they want to light up. Why is it, then, that people who consume power more efficiently after receiving fancy power reports do not simply find more ways to consume power efficiently, thus increasing their overall consumption? Well, this possibility is not ruled out by the EDF report since it accounts only for power consumption in the home, and not at work or elsewhere.
Psychological research suggests that this possibility must be taken seriously. It has been shown that people who make an effort to conserve energy in one way can increase their consumption in another through a process of “moral capital”. That is, people increase their sense of moral righteousness through acts of conservation, thus acquiring “moral capital” that they then spend on themselves later through acts of extravagance. It is as though our moral compass includes a kind of sweet spot of righteous conduct that we aim towards, whether that means improving our conduct or debasing it. See Edward Tenner’s recent blog post on the perverse effects of conflict-of-interest disclosure.
Despite this reservation, I would not conclude that the EDF study has it wrong. Another psychological theory, cognitive dissonance, suggests that people really can be nudged into better behaviour. Researchers in an experiment asked pool patrons to take a survey about their attitudes towards water conservation and their past efforts to conserve water. The real point of the survey was to remind people that conservation is something they approve of, and that they probably have not done as much as they could to conserve water. In short, they were hypocrites. Researchers observed that these subjects took shorter showers than others afterwards, in an apparent effort to conserve water. Receiving a periodic energy consumption report could act like the survey in this experiment, reminding people of their approval of conservation as a good behaviour. That might dampen their tendency to return to their more extravagant former behaviour pattern.
Finally, as Marshall McLuhan would point out, the report itself conveys a powerful message to the utility’s clients: It changes power consumption from an individual (or family) concern into a communal one in which people compete or collaborate in groups. In other words, it reminds customers that their consumption of power affects not only themselves but everyone else on the grid. In turning consumption from an individual to a social concern, it opens people up more to social expectations. If people think that others are aware of their usage and would judge it harshly, then that is a powerful inducement for reduction also.
However, we will not really know what is going on until we have reliable data on the power consumption of individuals instead of light bulbs or homes.
Caution! Watermelon patch! May 20, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Do you recall the Monty Python sketch where the cyclist, Mr. Pither, runs into a Mr. Gulliver, who has developed safer foods?
Gulliver Yes, do you know that in our laboratories, we have developed a cheese sandwich that can withstand an impact of 4,000 pounds per square inch?
Pither Good heavens!
Gulliver Amazing, isn’t it? We have also developed a tomato which can eject itself when an accident is imminent.
Pither Even if it’s inside an egg and tomato roll?
Gulliver Anywhere! Even if it’s in your stomach, and it senses an accident it will come up your throat and out of the window. Do you realise what this means?
Pither Safer food?
I was reminded of this old bit when I read about exploding watermelons on Chinese farms.
(Image courtesy of Uğur Akgöz via Wikimedia Commons.)
Exploding watermelons, you ask? Read on:
The flying pips, shattered shells and wet shrapnel still haunt farmer Liu Mingsuo after an effort to chemically boost his fruit crop went spectacularly wrong.
Fields of watermelons exploded when he and other agricultural workers in eastern China mistakenly applied forchlorfenuron, a growth accelerator.
The report said the farmers sprayed the fruit too late in the season and during wet conditions, which caused the melons to explode like “landmines”. After losing three hectares (eight acres), Liu said he was unable to sleep because he could not shake the image of the fruit bursting. “On 7 May, I came out and counted 80 [burst watermelons] but by the afternoon it was 100,” he said. “Two days later I didn’t bother to count any more.”
As the article goes on to elaborate, there are many reasons why such things happen in China (and elsewhere too, of course). Since farm incomes are generally low, farmers often have more than one job. They may double as migrant workers elsewhere in the country, and so have a shorter and shorter time-frame for producing their crop. This leads farmers to use chemicals to speed things up.
As the Chinese population becomes more urban and affluent, their calorie intake will likely increase. Thus, there is more pressure for farms to produce calories. Demand for meat will likely increase too, which is more resource intensive than the previous diet that had more emphasis on vegetables. So, the use of fertilizers and stimulants will probably be increased to meet growing demand. And so on…
So, Dr. Gulliver had it both right and wrong. We, probably would be better off with more resilient food (as long as it does not become too tough to eat). However, one of the threats to the resilience of food–and the food system, I would add–comes from attempts to make it more efficient. I have noted before that efficiency in a system can come at the expense of resiliency, sometimes with unwanted consequences. There comes a point when the trade-offs made to get more bang for the buck from food, if I may put it that way, do not pay off.
See anything suspicious? May 13, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
FastCompany has an interesting piece on a smartphone app that lets you report suspicious items or events, e.g., an strange, parked car. The app, called “iSee-iSay”, was developed by a concerned citizen, George Perera, as a kind of suggestion to the US Department of Homeland Security. Perhaps they will buy the app from him, or develop a similar one, he hopes.
(Image courtesy of CZmarlin via Wikimedia Commons.)
Of course, one question that arises in connection with this app is what constitutes a suspicious thing or event, and will the system be open to abuse?
Users can simply and anonymously report white vans, brown paper bags, loud ticking, people with cameras, the sounds of footsteps in the woods, or anything else suspcious that they see. That info is sent to a “fusion center” in their respective state, which has staffers from the FBI, DHS, and so on at hand to review the reports, according to Perera.
Does he worry about a high rate of false positives? “You get false positives now,” he says. “Yes, you get those. But you know what? If you get one good one and can stop a 9/11 situation, or like the train in England, if you can stop one of those and save 100s or 1,000s of lives, it was worth it.”
Perhaps. With some experience, it might be possible to do a good enough job in sorting out the actual problems from all the inevitable false alarms. There are many similar security schemes afoot, e.g., one for scanning crowds for would-be arsonists.
There could be some unintended and undesirable consequences too. As noted by Anna Minton, the simple presence of security devices can serve to make people feel less secure, reminding them of their fears, even if their security is not really under threat. Having a suspicious activity monitor in your smartphone could make you more suspicious of the innocent activities of others, thus generating not only more false positive reports but also more mistrust among people.
You might reply that this problem would not necessarily come with an iSee-iSay app. After all, we have had the 911 emergency reporting system in place for years, and it does not seem to have overwhelmed emergency responders or generated undue fear of disasters among the public. That is true. However, as a society, we already had a pretty good grasp of what should be considered an emergency. Our notion of what is suspicious, it seems to me, is not so well fixed. Thus, it could be altered in an unhealthy way by the presence of suspicion-reporting software.
GPS navigation fatality? May 12, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
The unfortunate saga of Albert and Rita Chretien of Penticton, B.C. continues to take new turns. After recuperating for a few days in hospital, Rita Chretien has said that she and her husband got into their difficulties following their GPS navigator:
[Sgt. McKinney of the Elko County Sheriff’s Office] said the Chretiens used their new GPS to find the shortest route to Jackpot. If they had typed the town’s name into the device from anywhere in the area, the shortest route would have led them off-highway and along possibly a half-dozen different Forest Service roads labelled only with numbers.
“I’m no expert on GPS devices and how they work, but if you plug in for the shortest distance to any location, it’ll give you that, but that’s not always the best way to go,” McKinney said of the remote, rugged terrain.
(“Sat Nav” = “GPS navigator”; Image courtesy of David Stowell via Wikimedia Commons.)
Designers of GPS navigation systems tend to blame their clients for such incidents, arguing that people need to remember that they are the boss, not their GPS unit. Here is my favourite example:
Joachim Siedler, spokesman for market leader Blaupunkt, said it was absurd to blame the gadgets for human errors and noted motorists are clearly warned the devices are there to help, not to take decisions.
“If a traffic light is red it’s obvious you have to stop even if the satnav says ‘drive straight on’,” he said.
“People who drive into rivers and then blame their satnav are just too humiliated to accept blame themselves.”
One German did drive his car into the Havel River near Berlin on a foggy Christmas Day. He said his satnav had made a ferry crossing look like a bridge.
ADAC spokesman Maurer said humans are ultimately responsible for the blunders but noted that satnavs are not infallible.
“I was on a motorway recently and my satnav said ‘turn left now’,” he said.
“If I had done, I would have crashed into the guard rail. It was using an outdated, pre-motorway map.”
Perhaps people should consider carefully before even buying a system from a company that uses outdated maps!
A British man was even convicted of a crime two years ago for following his satnav directions nearly off a cliff.
There are many things one might say about this situation. I will just make two observations:
- No one seems to be tracking these sorts of errors. That is, to my knowledge, no research is being done on how often such mistakes happen, or what the consequences are. Thus, we have no way of evaluating claims that people are getting dumber or that the GPS systems are not well designed. If you know of any, then please let me know. So far as I can tell, we are simply conducting a huge, uncontrolled experiment on the public.
- How do GPS navigation mistakes compare with mistakes made by people using maps? Would the Chretiens have followed a route that looked short on a roadmap in the same way they appear to have followed their navigation unit? I doubt it, but it is hard to say without systematic research.
If GPS units do result in more navigational failures than maps, then it seems fair to conclude that there is something about their design that is contributing to the problem. What might that be? How could it be addressed? Until we as a society take this issue seriously, we will never know. Perhaps this latest incident will provoke some more thoughtful investigation of this issue.
Hapify yourself! May 10, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
The Huffington Post has an interesting review of a new iPhone app called Hapify. The basic idea of the app is to allow users to use their iPhones to record what makes them happy, e.g., a kitten falling asleep. Users can do so with a photo, description, or location. The software builds up a happiness profile of each user that can be shared with other users or the public at large. The payoff comes with the promise that the app can make you happy. Perhaps when you are down, it can call up a YouTube video of kittens being cuddly (are there many of those?), or a friend can buy you your favourite flowers, or a store can offer you a coupon towards the purchase of a new pair of shoes of the kind you like so much.
(Image courtesy of Kalan via Wikimedia commons.)
Critics might wonder if Hapify represents a positive trend. Could we become dependent on our smartphones to know when we are happy, like infants who depend on their mothers to figure out whether they are hungry, gassy, or poopy? Perhaps, without Hapify, we will not count a feeling as happiness unless it is duly recorded. Ordinarily, I would say that such a worry is ridiculous: After all, most Hapify users will be adults who are already mature enough to know when they are happy or not. That is the premise of the design. The situation could be different for children or teenagers, whose ability to grasp and manage their own emotions is not as well developed. Also, information technology has a special ability to act as a kind of external brain, thus changing your thinking patterns, e.g., making you more prone to distraction. Hapify, though, does not appear engaging enough for that to happen.
A more immediate issue is that Hapify may be (or become) designed to focus people’s attention on links between happiness and goods. The app is free to download and will be monetized through selling stuff to users through ads, or by selling profiles to advertisers. “Say, that store across the street has a sale on your favourite ice cream!” The focus on selling stuff may work for Hapify but it could place users on the hedonic treadmill. In brief: people do tend to feel happier when they acquire something nice, such as buying a new car or pair of shoes. However, they also quickly adapt to the new situation so that the feelings of happiness fade rapidly. More spending is required to get the next jolt of warm fuzzy feelings. So, Hapify might help drive people into overspending by constantly reminding them that it’s been a days since they last went out for dinner, or that their friend loves the new car he just bought.
A more subtle issue would be the effects of Hapify on the user’s social network. If my friends and I are all Hapify clients, does that make me responsible when my friends are not happy? You can imagine the kinds of reminders you might get: “Your friend Karl has not been happy for 35 hours! You should buy him a new watch to get him over this rough patch.” Of course, the happiness of my friends is my concern, but I wonder if a social network might tend to amplify this interest beyond reason, exaggerating the importance of happiness reports (and the lack thereof), the role of purchases in making friends happy, and the sheer number of “friends” whose happiness rests in my hands or wallet.
Also, shouldn’t that be “Happify” and not “Hapify”?
Are you a machine? May 5, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
When someone works smoothly and efficiently, we might say that, “you are a machine!” That is supposed to be a compliment to the person’s productivity, although it could be considered degrading too. However, a person who behaves in a stiff or wooden manner could be compared unfavourably to a robot. For example, our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has been compared by some to a robot: See this old Air Farce clip, and this more recent WarmSummerHotness sketch.
(Image courtesy of World Economic Forum via Flickr.)
Technological metaphors for people come in other forms as well. For example, my daughter recently had a class project wherein she had to identify my favourite song and her favourite song and compare them. Her favourite is Firework by Katy Perry, whereas I chose Back in black by AC/DC. You might think that the two songs have little in common. However, as I pointed out, both compare people to munitions: “You’re a firework” in the first case and “I’m a bullet, I’m a powerpack” in the second.
So, here is something to ponder: What are some other interesting technological metaphors for people, and what do they mean? When is a piece of technology appropriate for such a metaphor? (Why can a person be like a robot but not a USB cable, for example?)
Electronic health records and the environment May 4, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : Uncategorized , comments closed
A NYT blog entry discusses the results of a study done by Kaiser Permanente about the environmental impact of electronic health records.
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
The study draws some interesting conclusions. First of all, you would think that a major reduction in environmental impact would come from the elimination of paper. If anything, the study suggests the reverse:
In fact, the researchers found that if electronic records simply replace paper records — without changing how things are done — the national impact would be to increase carbon dioxide emissions by 653,000 tons. (Or putting more than 100,000 more cars on the road.)
So, simply digitizing the existing system is not an environmental winner. However, an environmentally friendly result can be obtained by using the technology to change how people access the medical system:
The gas reduction comes from doctors using the electronic records and e-mail to answer inquiries from patients about simple problems, like mild side-effects from a drug or muscle strains, and thus avoid visits to a clinic.
“What stands out is the opportunity to reduce automobile trips,” said Kathy Gerwig, Kaiser’s environmental stewardship officer.
So, the environmental benefit would come not from digitizing health records per se, but from distributing their use over the Web.
This note puts me in mind of work by Edward Tenner. In his book, Our own devices, Tenner discusses how technology and technique interact. Technology, I take it, you understand. Technique comprises the ways and methods people use to employ technology. The arrival of athletic shoes, for example, changed the way that people run when wearing them, as compared to other sorts of shoes or going barefoot.
If the study cited above is correct, the environmental benefits that could flow from electronic health records will proceed not from the technology but from the techniques that people use to deploy it. Precisely what techniques those will be remains to be seen. One obvious possibility is the use of social media by doctors. Some doctors advocate the use of social media whereas others regard it as a bad idea.
Also, I cannot help wondering if the study took into account the environmental impact of the use of the Web that medical work would induce. After all, even a simple Google search has a (disputed) environmental impact too.
The 2011 election May 3, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
Information technology is becoming ever more important for elections in Canada, as the recent federal election has made clear. Here are some of the interesting developments in that respect from the latter days of the election.
(Image courtesy of Dean Shareski via Wikimedia Commons.)
One blast from the past of infotech comes from the good old autodialer. Apparently, citizens in some ridings, including my own riding of Guelph, received taped phone calls telling them that the location of their polling station had been changed. The calls purported to be from Elections Canada. Of course, Elections Canada would not move polls in the final days of the election, nor would they autodial voters to tell them so. The purpose of the calls seems to have been to misdirect voters so they would not vote. Naturally, attempts to prevent voters from voting contravenes the Canada Elections Act. We can only hope that the complaints are investigated and the perpetrators charged.
There was also a kind of civil disobedience action against another provision of the Canada Elections Act, namely section 329 that prohibits the disclosure of poll results before all the polls in the country have closed. Such a ban goes against the grain of the use of social media by citizens to discuss election results as soon as they are available. As a result, many citizens planned to openly flout the law, e.g., by Tweeting their local results immediately. In fact, an aggregator of such Tweets, TweetTheResults.ca has been set up to ensure that anyone can easily find the illicit tweets.
Why does Canada have such a law, anyway? One obvious concern is that of fairness to voters on the west coast. Election results from Atlantic and Central Canada are available to them before their polls close. These voters may receive the news that a government has been elected before they are even able to cast their ballots. That could leave them feeling disenfranchised. Or it might just leave them confused, as US voters were during the 2000 federal election there as the TV networks mistakenly called that election twice: first for Gore, then for Bush. That must have confused voters in California as it occurred when their polls were still open. Of course, with the staggering of voting times in Canada, there is little opportunity for BC voters go get the news and then abandon or rush to their ballot boxes.
Robert McDermid, professor of Political Science at York University, raises another justification for the anti-publication law, which is to arrest the spread of disinformation about polling results. Originators of the law feared that telegraphy could be used transmit fake poll results in order to influence voters in the west coast. The same concern could certainly be applied to the ‘net, where disinformation can spread rapidly. However, as he points out, the opportunity to spread fake results after voting counting in Ontario and Quebec (where there are a lot of seats at stake) to BC before their polls close is on the order of 10 or 15 minutes. That is hardly enough time to make a significant difference for voters in BC.
On the whole, it appears that fake information spread during an election but before the polls open (see the first point) is the greater issue.
Finally, a company called 270soft.com has written a computer game version of the 2011 election. That’s right: Now you can experience the thrill of being Stephen Harper, Michael Ignatieff, Jack Layton, Gilles Duceppe, …, and run for office in the virtual version of Canada. The game sounds like it has some versimilitude:
The campaign moves forward one day at a time, with myriad tactical options available each turn. You can review statistics for individual ridings and target and set up ground operations for specific seats, choose to research important issues and create ads based on what you think the electorate cares about, and recruit famous crusaders who will pound the pavement for your party. You can also change your party’s platform, try to spin news stories, and travel to various regions to fundraise and barnstorm. Results are posted at the end of every turn in the form of news headlines and a list of activities carried out by all parties that day.
What about designing the attack ads? That’s where the real election action takes place! It also makes me wonder if computer simulations will become a routine part of electoral politics. That is, will political parties try to use such simulations in order to help set their campaign strategies? Their platforms? The timing of the election? Perhaps we’ll see in 2015.