Imagine your final meal… July 29, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV404 , comments closed
Bear with me for a moment. I’ll return to the title of this post in a minute.
What, do you suppose, is good example of a Canadian technology? A hockey stick? Perhaps, although I would note that these days there are more Canadians on the soccer field than the ice rink. (Should that matter? Windmills and wooden clogs are symbols of the Dutch, yet both have fallen from use).
We’ll be working on this question of technological nationality in STV404, but one approach we’ll take is the comparative one. What is, for example, an American technology? Writing in The Atlantic several months ago, Nicholas Jackson presented the mousetrap as the best symbol of the American ingenuity of the small-time entrepreneur. Ralph Waldo Emerson is said to have declared that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path you your door. Jackson’s inspiration was an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History which emphasized the mousetrap:
“We chose them to represent technology because the drive to ‘build a better mousetrap’ symbolized to us the American drive to innovate.”
After all, there have been over 4400 different mousetrap patents subitted in the United States since the 1830s. Unfortunately, what Emerson actually wrote was:
“If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.”
Which says less to me about innovation (and nothing about mice or the trapping thereof) than it does about the role of hard work ethic, decent skills and good natural resources when it comes to success. Either way, I’m not sure that any of these characteristics are unique to America. Don’t Canadians work hard? Do we lack skills? Are we not famous for our natural resources?
Ah, but Jackson’s point is that most mousetrap patents have never made anyone any money. Instead, there are a handful of standouts, manufactured in the millions by a few large companies for decades on end with few changes, and anything new in this field would have an incredibly steep hill to climb. Does the mousetrap represent a lost American dream? Does it represent the small-time entrepreneur who is powerless against the Walmarts and big-box home-improvement stores? Or, like Hamlet, is Jackson’s choice a provocation, some sort of play-within-a-play, an attempt catch the conscience of a king, to spark a stronger response: surely, there are better American technologies than a mousetrap? (Okay, that last one is a stretch) .
Or, could the mousetrap some sort of indictment of the artificiality and industrial processing and production of American culture? You’re a mouse. You smell something familiar, perhaps edible and approach it. It’s a piece of cheese, sitting on a trap. So, your final meal: will it be American cheese, or real cheese? (Okay, that one is even worse).
Ultimately, I suspect that this challenge of understanding what it takes for a particular technology to acquire this status as a national symbol, endowed one with the ideal (or corrupted) national character or identity will prove more difficult than it seems, cheese or no cheese.
In-car infarctions July 28, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
A FastCompany article reports that Toyota plans to equip steering wheels in their cars with ECGs in order to detect when the driver is having a heart attack. The idea seems to be to read the drivers’ heart rates through their hands gripping the wheel. Why?
If a vehicle can detect that a driver is having a heart attack, alert him to pull over, and then automatically call 911, many lives could be saved.
Well, who would question the saving of lives on the road?
Some obvious issues with this plan relate to the sorts of errors such a system would make.
- False positives: The system could mistake some other event for a heart attack. Can the system distinguish the rhythm of a heart attack from, say, the rhythm caused by swerving to avoid a collision? Suppose that the driver was maneuvering suddenly to avoid a deer when the car says, “Hey! You’re having a heart attack! Pull over immediately.” Or, we might find out just how many people really watch porn while driving.
- False negatives: The system could mistake a real heart attack for something else. In that event, the system does not help to prevent consequences of a heart attack.
Then there is the problem of effectiveness of the response. Would alerting someone that they are having a heart attack help to save them from creating an accident? At low speeds, the driver may be able to pull over. However, news reports of drivers having heart attacks seem often to speak of the driver losing control of the car, as in the case of Macho Man Randy Savage:
TMZ spoke with Randy’s brother, Lanny Poffo, who tells us the wrestling legend suffered a heart attack while he was behind the wheel around 9:25 AM … and lost control of his vehicle.
Florida Highway Patrol tells TMZ … Savage was driving his 2009 Jeep Wrangler when he veered across a concrete median … through oncoming traffic … and “collided head-on with a tree.”
Would a flashing light or verbal alert prevent such outcomes or would the driver be too incapacitated? In that event, perhaps the car should flash the four-way lights and bring itself to a gradual stop. (Of course, that would not please porn viewers.)
Here’s an interesting thought: Suppose that the system can distinguish reasonably well between heart attacks and other sources of heart-rate anomalies such as sexual arousal. Should the car then issue you a warning in the latter case? Alert the police that you are a potential menace to others on the road? Or, perhaps, simply issue you a ticket? Once such data is available, the community may have a legitimate interest in its use to preserve public safety.
Another benefit touted for the system would be a simple increase in medical data:
A daily reading of your heart could result in patterns that might not be seen at your less-than-annual physical.
That may not be a bad idea, although it encounters the same issues as above regarding false positives and false negatives. Since we have not routinely collected massive amounts of health data on individuals (who are not currently hospitalized), your doctor, and Toyota, may not be sure how to interpret it. Which patterns merit concern and which are merely within normal variation?
Also, what would Toyota do with the avalanche of health data it receives about all these drivers? Would the company have the right to sell it to third parties? (Did you know that car rental agencies can share your credit card data with companies that operate speed cameras?) I can imagine that drug companies would be very interested. Perhaps they could identify new, suspicious heart-rate patterns in drivers that could be treated with patented drugs. And, as always, insurance companies might be interested also.
The good that might emerge from data-collection systems can be substantial. To realize these benefits, we have to be mindful of the potential challenges as well.
iPads in the cockpit July 27, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
The New York Times reports that commercial airline pilots will be using iPads instead of paper manuals in the cockpit. Instead of carting around 40 lbs. or so of manuals of various kinds, the aircrew will be able to consult their tablets:
There are the aircraft’s operating manual, safety checklists, logbooks for entering airplane performance data, navigation charts, weather information, airport diagrams and maybe a book of KenKen puzzles thrown in for good measure.
There are numerous benefits to the scheme. First off, not having to cart so much weight will be easier on the backs of the flight crews. Then, iPad apps will be easier and more efficient to access than bulky manuals, and will be updated automatically instead of through tedious swapping out of physical pages.
The main concern mentioned is safety. Could signals originating from the iPad not interfere with flight electronics? This worry is easily addressed:
Moreover, the F.A.A. said pilots at the two airlines would not have to shut off and store their iPads during taxiing, takeoff and landing because they had demonstrated that the devices would not impair the functioning of onboard electronics. Alaska Airlines pilots, like passengers, still have to put their iPads away during those critical phases of the flight.
Not considered in the piece are some of the advantages of paper manuals. For one thing, hackers on the ‘net cannot break into a plane’s binders and change their contents or crash them. Likewise, paper manuals cannot be infected by contact with other documents on the shelves, whereas iPads can indeed get infected with viruses and other malware. Paper manuals do not experience battery failures, nor can their batteries be hacked, unlike Apple’s batteries. Flight crews will not likely be distracted playing games on the manuals (or even reading them) when they get bored with monitoring the instruments.
Also, I wonder if iPads might not be adversely affected by the higher-than-normal levels of radiation to which they will be exposed during frequent flights. I would guess that Apple has not tested them for this contingency, although their EULA undoubtedly takes care of this issue. (Haven’t read the EULA? Let Richard Dreyfuss read it to you!)
In any event, the move makes sense to me. With Apple set to store all our data in the clouds, iPads aloft should have the shortest access times.
Government accountability and IT July 21, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
Can the government be made more accountable by consolidation of it’s IT infrastructure? “Yes,” argues Deborah Moores of the Globe and Mail. One of the obstacles to obtaining government data (assuming there are legitimate grounds for distributing it) is the very fact that governments often have multiple computing platforms. Those platforms may be incompatible or simply poorly connected, so that it is difficult to assemble relevant information when needed. So, a plausible solution would be to impose a single computing setup within the government.
(Image courtesy of Sub619 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Given the record of government IT projects, as revealed in several IEEE blogs, for example, this suggestion should be greeted with some scepticism. It is not that government computer installations should not be more efficient, it is that the complexity and cost of the task is so often underestimated.
Furthermore, efficient IT systems do not necessarily translate into greater transparency. The Chinese government has a pretty good system, which has not made it any more accountable. There is no deterministic relationship between IT and freedom of information, in spite of the early optimism among Internet developers that “information wants to be free“. Instead, transparency is a result of an administrative culture, the habits (and laws, of course) through which information is dispensed by those in office.
Instead, I would suggest that we seek a mandate from the government to be more transparent. Although the Harper government campaigned in the past on a platform of transparency, their record has been one of obscurantism and unaccountability, as Moore notes. If transparency is to be realized, let us aim for that goal directly, instead of hoping that it will follow as a side-benefit of an IT project.
Hewers of wood, drawers of water, bloggers of …? July 20, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV404 , comments closed
Establishing a Canadian identity is notoriously difficult. As Northrop Frye once wrote:
One disadvantage of living in Canada is that one is continually called upon to make statements about the Canadian identity, and Canadian identity is an eminently exhaustible subject.
Take for instance, a simple phrase from Harold Innis, who once indicated that we are a nation of “hewers of wood, and drawers of water”. It is part of his staples theory, in which Canada’s cultural, political, and economic history and status can be traced to the extraction and exploitation of resources, including timber, lumber and water, but also beaver fur, cod fish, wheat, and metals. Typically, these natural resources have been exported to either the British or the Americans empires, or both. (It is no coincidence that much of the English-language Canadian identity is wrapped in comparisons and contrasts with the British and Americans.)
Innis was developing these ideas mid 20th century, but I suspect that in these more secular times, most people don’t realize it’s a biblical turn of phrase (from Joshua 9), well worn before the question of Canadian identity might even have appeared, and really not all that positive. In Joshua, to be a hewer of wood or drawer of water (a woodcutter or water carrier) is to be a slave to the community. These are menial tasks that Joshua selected deliberately for a group of people to punish them for an act of deception. In the 18th or 19th century, many writers rejected the label outright, and understood that to be hewer or drawer was, at the very least, to be of the lower class, landless, or to accept a yoke of enslavement to another. Innis was not exactly complementing Canadians, it was a clear observation on Canada’s history as a colony whose role was to deliver the raw materials and resources to sustain industrialization and empires elsewhere.
Nonetheless, it remains a popular, easy expression that resonates. Google offers up many modern uses and variants:
- “Hewers of wood, drawers of subsidy“, from an undated but recent Financial Post article criticizing political policies that would subsidize the traditional resource industries.
- “Hewers of wood, pumpers of oil“, from a 2004 Canadian Auto Workers newsletter describing and criticizing Canada’s role in the modern world as an exporter of natural resources and raw materials for global industries.
- “From Hewers of Wood to Purveyors of Technology“, from a 2010 Federal Government report on Western Economic Diversification encouraging new “high-tech, green tech, petrochemical, or advanced materials manufacturing” in addition to resource-driven activities.
The fuller meaning of the phrase is sometimes lost, but it came across quite literally in an article in the Globe and Mail last month:
Oil, lumber and water are crucial resources, but some of Canada’s most coveted assets in coming years could be sprawling server farms that are cooled with the winter air and hidden away in non-descript buildings from coast-to-coast.
Unfortunately, the original print title “Hewers of wood, storers of data” is not online and one of the least catchy versions of that phrase, but it still caught my eye. And consider how well it captures the relevant aspects of Canada’s natural resources (brrr! it’s cold here!) and the original and somewhat demeaning notion of servant (unadorned facilities designed to process, store and serve data to the rest of the world). Thanks to the internet, the innovation can happen anywhere else in the world. Indeed, as the article notes, over 60% of the Canadian server farm clientele is international.
Would many Canadians identify with this particular crossing of technological and climatological fortune? I don’t know. Certainly, the challenges of long-distance communication were integral to the Canadian identity in the 20th century (consider the role of Anik-A1 with respect to the Canadian North). But what can be said of identity with respect to an “invisible” technology that is physically non-descript and symbolizes the shattering of national borders? We’ll work on some answers in the new STV404 course this fall.
Smart traffic management July 20, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
New York City is installing a new traffic management system called “Midtown in Motion”. The idea, as Ariel Schwartz points out in this FastCompany blog post, is to give traffic engineers more options to ease traffic flow through Midtown Manhattan:
Data from the sensors, cameras, and readers is sent to a control center, where engineers pinpoint “congestion choke points” as they happen and adjust traffic signals accordingly.
This system is more sophisticated than the established one in which traffic signal timings are adjusted simply by time-of-day. The point, of course, is to ease traffic congestion by seeing that traffic flows more efficiently through the existing system of streets.
(Image courtesy of Michael Danser via Wikimedia Commons.)
Although this approach seems reasonable, there are grounds for doubting that it will work as planned. Readers of this blog are familiar with Jevons’ Paradox, the claim that increased efficiency sometimes results in not less resource consumption but more. Jevons argued that making consumption of a resource more efficient was just like making it more plentiful. When a resource becomes more plentiful, it gets cheaper, with the result that more people consume it, and more of it, leading to an overall rise in consumption.
In this case, if the Midtown in Motion system succeeds in making traffic flow more efficient, this could be tantamount to increasing the capacity of the road system. It could be almost the same as if the City had built more roads. An increase in the supply of roadspace, Jevons might point out, could simply increase the amount of traffic. More people would take trips, and take more of them.
Curiously, this problem was pointed by Ariel in a recent posting regarding a traffic study conducted at the University of Toronto:
The disheartening study used data from hundreds of metro areas in the U.S. to reach the conclusion that there is a “fundamental law of highway congestion,” which essentially says that people drive more when there are more roads to drive on–no matter how much traffic there is. As a result, increased building of “interstate highways and major urban roads is unlikely to relieve congestion of these roads.”
This study surely lends weight to the concern that more efficient traffic management is not a solution to the problem of congestion.
In that case, what is the solution? According to this same study, the only solution shown so far to be effective is congestion pricing, that is, imposing a fee on drivers who use congested road networks. Increasing the cost of entering traffic is akin to decreasing the supply, almost as if some roadways were closed down. People respond by not driving or leaving their cars at home when they do travel. So, it is perhaps a sad irony that New York City has chosen the Midtown in Motion system over the alternative:
Midtown in Motion will certainly be a more popular traffic solution than congestion pricing, a scheme proposed by Mayor Bloomberg that would charge drivers a fee for entering Midtown during peak traffic times.
Well, politicians often have to do what is popular, but you cannot help the sinking feeling that New York is throwing its money away.
Human-derived gelatin July 19, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed
Researchers at the Beijing University of Chemical Technology have developed yeast that produce human gelatin. Gelatin is a part of the skin that, if I understand it correctly, helps to preserve its texture and cohesiveness. It has many uses and is important in cuisine for helping to shape Jell-o, marshmallows, and other such things. Up to date, gelatin has normally been derived from the skin and bones of cows and pigs. These researchers have inserted human DNA into yeast so that they produce the variety of gelatin that is produced by the human body and thus is found in human skin and bones.
(Image courtesy of Andy Johnson via Wikimedia Commons.)
Why the need for “human-derived” gelatin? For one thing, it promises to lower certain safety risks, such as the risk of contracting a pathogen resident in the animals from which gelatin is traditionally derived. Furthermore, human-derived gelatin is unlikely to cause adverse immunological responses that may result from ingestion of xeno-gelatin.
The possibility of using “human-derived” (HD?) gelatin in foods is challenging to traditional categories that govern what is edible and what is not. For example, marshmallows are not normally considered vegetarian because they contain this animal by-product. So, would marshmallows containing the new HD gelatin be considered vegetarian? On the one hand, the answer should be “yes”: the gelatin in such marshmallows was never a part of an animal’s body and so is not an animal by-product. On the other hand, the gelatin is chemically identical to the gelatin you would eat if you consumed human flesh, so you would be guilty of a kind of counterfactual cannibalism! So, what does it mean to be vegetarian? Is it based on historical or chemical criteria, that is, do you avoid substances because they came from animals or because they are indistinguishable from those that would come from animals? If you are a vegetarian due to animal welfare concerns, it seems as though the historical understanding is the appropriate one.
However, as the article suggests, there is also the “creepiness” factor, that is, eating something that is contained in human bodies. Of course, my body is mostly water, which does not prevent me from drinking at fountains. And it cannot be as creepy as the idea of drinking human milk from a bottle, as we could soon do now that researchers at the China Agricultural University have engineered cows that produce human milk. Still, people may find consumption of HD gelatin somewhat disgusting, so the issue of whether or not to label products that use HD gelatin will arise. I suppose that we can expect a repetition of the controversy over labeling of GM foods in the 1990s: Will labeling scare the ignorant away from something that is good for them, or will not labeling deprive consumers of their right to know what they are ingesting?
The issue may become more acute as the use of HD gelatin spreads to other products:
A San Francisco-based company called FibroGen is also developing “recombinant human gelatin” that has already been safely tested on humans as a stabilizer for vaccines. FibroGen is also talking with capsule manufacturers (think: capsules for medication) to study the feasibility of using recombinant gelatin in their products.
The use of HD gelatin in vaccines promises to be interesting, in light of the controversy over the use of ethyl mercury as a preservative in MMR vaccines. If people are wary about ingesting novel substances, they may be more so about being injected with them.
E-tickets July 12, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Here is an interesting little note from the Canadian Press about e-tickets. The term “e-ticket” probably makes you think “airplane ticket”, right? In this case, though, an e-ticket is a new way that police have of writing up wayward members of the public. That’s right! Instead of writing up a ticket by hand, police will be able to print one off.
(Image courtesy of US Navy via Wikimedia commons.)
There are two main advantages of e-tickets:
- Tickets can be issued more efficiently:
Officers will simply scan a driver’s licence on a computer inside their cruisers, then print out a copy for the driver while the ticket is being electronically sent to the courts.
- Tickets are more likely to stick:
[Winnipeg Police Inspector] Mr. LeMaistre says typing the tickets could also cut down on spelling errors and poor handwriting that sometimes can get tickets thrown out of court.
Is this development a good thing? Some critics argue that it is not:
Len Eastoe of Traffic Ticket Experts says it’s a big negative for the public as officers will be able to issue more tickets.
This argument recalls the argument about photo radar, which many critics feel is used by police as a cash grab, that is, to generate revenues through ticketing lots of minor moving violations. Of course, an e-ticketing system does address one of the critiques of photo radar, namely the absence of a police officer. That is, photo radar has been criticized for being automatic, no officer present, and thus omitting the opportunity for a police officer to exercise discretion or to watch for more egregious traffic violations such as texting-while-driving. Since the e-ticketing system is not automatic, this argument cannot be applied against it.
I commented in this blog post last year about a ticket-processing system that was so allegedly user-unfriendly and inefficient that police would refrain from writing tickets just so they would not have to use it. That situation seemed like a bad thing, so it seems odd to frown upon police having a more efficient system. Still, if the new system is expensive, it is easy to imagine that it could cause officers to be employed like human photo radar units, hiding behind bushes and passing out tickets for minor but profitable misdeeds.
Strawberry season July 5, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Strawberry season has been underway here for a few weeks. Soon, it will come to an end as the exhausted plants give up their last fruits to the pickers. I very much enjoy strawberry season and have always regarded it as a high point of the summer. However, all year is summer in the grocery store, as Michael Pollan has pointed out, and thereby hangs a tale.
(Image courtesy of ShakataGaNai via Wikimedia Commons.)
While strawberries may be seasonal fruits here in Ontario, they are grown all year round in California. Whereas, here, strawberries are picked and sold locally, often in farmers markets and roadside stands, there they are grown on an industrial scale, using industrial methods, and shipped across the continent. Grocery stores appreciate the regularity and reliability of the industrial production methods, and the economies of scale that they deliver. Customers enjoy being able to get strawberries whenever they have a yen to. Local growers, whose production depends much more on accidents of weather and growing conditions, and who produce at much smaller scales, have a hard time interfacing with the big box grocery chains.
The Guelph Mercury notes another tension in the relationship between local growers and big stores. When the local berries are in season, the grocery stores lower the prices on their imported stock:
The Ontario Berry Grower’s Association issued a release Wednesday stating California strawberries have been featured for the last two weeks at prices as low as $1 or $1.50 per pound.
“The consumer will wonder what is going on, if they can get (strawberries) in a store for $1 and an Ontario producer asks $4 for them,” he said.
Among other things, I think that this mode of competition illustrates the economic concept of a positive externality.
Briefly put, an externality is a cost or benefit that is imposed on someone by others without their knowledge or consent. A negative externality imposes a cost. Pollution is the classic example: A manufacturing process may require mixing water with noxious chemicals (think of oil sands production). The process can be made cheaper if the water is not subsequently cleaned up but is instead dumped into a river. Dumping imposes a cost on anyone downstream who wants to use the water: They must pay to clean it up before they can drink it, bathe in it, cook with it, and so on. In effect, they are unwittingly subsidizing the cost of the manufacturing upstream.
A positive externality is a benefit imposed on others. A good example would be a vaccine program. People who opt for the vaccine receive the benefit of immunity for themselves, of course. However, those around them who do not opt for the vaccine also receive a benefit: Because they are surrounded by vaccinated people who are immune, then their chances of contracting the targeted disease are reduced, even though they have made no effort themselves.
Negative externalities are a problem, in part, because they generate moral hazards. That is, they displace the cost of risks from those taking the risks, which may encourage foolish behaviour. A plant owner might not invest in safety equipment, for example, if he or she does not face the total cost of the consequences of safety failures.
Positive externalities can be a problem also, in part, because they can discourage beneficial activities. Suppose that the vaccine mentioned above is somewhat pricey and not available through a government program. Instead of being vaccinated themselves, people may prefer to let their neighbours get the vaccination. In that way, they gain much of the benefit of the vaccine without contributing to its purchase. If enough people decide to take this route and refuse to purchase vaccines, then producers of vaccines may decide that the cost of development is simply not worthwhile. Thus, vaccine development, which everyone probably favours, becomes anemic.
How does this relate to strawberries? Consider the timing of the price reductions on imported strawberries. They occur during the local strawberry season and not at other times of year (the article implies). By growing and marketing strawberries during the local season, local growers are conferring a benefit on the big stores that do not sell the local stuff. That is, they are generating interest in strawberries amongst the public. The grocery stores can benefit from this interest in the public even though they do not contribute to producing it. That is a positive externality. Its effect is to depress the production of strawberries locally.
One solution to the vaccine problem is government intervention. Governments often pay for the cost of certain vaccines, such as the seasonal flu vaccine, in order to remove the positive externality and encourage people to get the jab. In the article, Knapp hints that government intervention should be considered in the case of strawberries. Perhaps a tariff on imports? Or a law against predatory loss-leaders in grocery stores? It should be pointed out that governments have indeed intervened in the food system to keep down prices. For example, farm workers in Ontario are not permitted to unionize, which limits their bargaining power and keeps their wages low. This measure reduces costs to producers. Also, much seasonal farm labour in Canada is done by workers from abroad, e.g., Mexico, who work and live cheaply and thus also reduce costs to producers. To what extent these factors enter into strawberry production here, I am not sure. And, I suspect that farm production in California operates under similar conditions.
In the end, a tariff on imports might be a suitable measure, although it is unlikely that grocery store chains, which have much political clout, would stand for it. The province of Ontario does provide some advertising for locally grown foods through the Foodland Ontario program. Perhaps they could simply contribute to an advertising campaign specifically promoting the benefits of local strawberries, such as improved flavour, nutritional value, and connections with local producers.
In any event, we may need to decide if having a strawberry season is worthwhile supporting. Why not just have strawberries from day-neutral plants, which produce from July through September, or from California? With an increasingly urban style of living, detached from the natural variation of the seasons, the lapse of strawberry season may simply be accepted as a sign of progress.