The cost of software patents August 26, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
If you want to send eyeballs rolling in their sockets, at least in the software industry, using the word “patent” in a sentence is just about foolproof. Having said that, here is an excellent piece by Planet Money on NPR about Intellectual Ventures, whose entire purpose is to uphold patents purchased from others. It is both entertaining and informative; quite worth a listen!
The piece presents some interesting investigative reporting and I won’t ruin the fun by rehearsing the whole thing for you. Suffice it to say, their conclusion is that the current US patent system is the cause of billions of dollars being misspent on legal manoeuvers instead of on innovation. As the reporters point out, such a result is seemingly contrary to the goal of the patent system, which is to promote progress in science and the useful arts (and not in the legal profession).
The report itself does not prove that the current patent system is not meeting its purpose. To do that, we would have to determine that the money spent on legal fees is not outweighed by whatever innovation is spurred by the issuance of patents. In any event, the way in which patents are being used in the software industry, akin to molotov cocktails or nuclear weapons, does not give rise to hope.
Rise of the germs that make the Planet of the Apes August 22, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed
I went to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes this last weekend, in my professional capacity, of course. It was a good movie, on the whole, and the CGI apes were extraordinarily convincing. (Spoiler alert.) In the film, Dr. Will Rodman attempts to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, which his father suffers, through genetic therapy. He engineers a virus, ALZ 112, that somehow helps to restore brain function. However, testing on chimps is discontinued due to a violent breakout by one of the subjects, so Rodman tests the treatment on his father, who experiences an amazing recovery. Accidentally, a newborn chimp, Caesar, receives the treatment, resulting in an augmentation in his intelligence that eventually reaches human level. Rodman raises Caesar at home where he is treated as almost one of the family.
Unfortunately, Caesar is taken from Rodman and caged in a facility due to some aggressive behaviour. At the same time, Rodman creates ALZ 113 using a more aggressive virus that he hopes will overcome the shortcomings of its predecessor. Long story short, Caesar becomes a kind of simian Spartacus, infects the other apes at the facility with the new virus, bringing them to his level of intelligence. The virus that augmented the apes, though, is highly infectious and fatal to humans. The apes escape San Francisco across the Golden Gate bridge, violently opposed by the police, while ALZ 113 begins to decimate the human population.
I found it interesting that the film replaced concerns about the atomic bomb underlying the original movie with concerns about genetic engineering. The update struck me as very suitable. The film also manages to avoid the cliche of scientists “playing God”. Neither is there a secret government program to create an army of augmented ape soldiers. Instead, Rodman has good intentions: He wants to cure Alzheimer’s. Although his goal is noble, his drive to reach it leads him to take some questionable actions, such as testing the ALZ 112 on his father on the sly. The fact that this test is successful, at least in the short term, emboldens him to develop the more potent and dangerous ALZ 113 without taking sufficient safety precautions. His boss, who one might expect to provide some detachment and guidance in this matter, is instead gripped by greed at the prospect of how much money a treatment for Alzheimer’s could make him.
In the original film, the astronaut George Taylor discovers that humanity was just too wedded to violence to avoid blowing itself up once the atomic bomb had been invented. The basic atavism of humanity was a popular concern at the time. In this film, humanity is undone not by an primitive tendency toward violence but by a well-intentioned but reckless drive for perfection.
The movie raises issues in the ethics of animal research and the goals of genetic therapy research. Here is something further to ponder: In the movie, the raising of the apes’ intelligence is an accident, though one with fateful consequences. However, genetic technology may one day provide us the ability to do this intentionally and for real. Should we? Perhaps the question is similar to another one that people like to think about: Should we clone Neandertals?
This is London August 16, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
I could not resist continuing the “London” theme of the past few posts, this time with the old salutation of the BBC radio service.
Anyway, as Scott points out, governments tend to prefer low levels of encryption (or other privacy technologies) for public use so that they can monitor for traffic that threatens public security. This interest is legitimate; after all, public security is one of the fundamental mandates of a legitimate government. Of course, less legitimate governments than David Cameron’s also pursue policies of easy access and control over public communications technology. This they do in order to suppress legitimate political protest. Some critics of the UK government’s stance argue that pursuing a policy of intervention in social media etc. makes the British government no different than, say, the Chinese government. Indeed, Chinese commentators with Xinhua have noted the “U-turn” of the British government on Internet surveillance with evident pleasure:
And the Internet is also a double-edged sword that cuts both ways. For the benefit of the general public, proper web-monitoring is legitimate and necessary.
It is not yet clear exactly what powers the British government wants but I doubt that they will equal those of the Chinese government.
It is important to note that conceding that a legitimate government has a legitimate concern for pubic order does not mean conceding that citizens have no rights to privacy. One of the roles of privacy rights is to shelter individual citizens from false positives of surveillance, that is, occasions when a citizen’s innocent communications are misidentified by authorities as a threat to public order. Consider a recent incident in which a 20-year old man from Essex, England has been arrested for using his BBM and Facebook via his cell phone to organize a water fight. Police monitoring his communications have charged him under the 2007 Serious Crimes Act. This incident sounds, from this distance, like a false positive, that is, an instance where an innocent communication has been errantly deemed criminal. (To be fair, some previous water fights have ended in violence.)
The problem, then, is not whether or not to allow police to spy on people at will or to prohibit them from performing any surveillance at all. Instead, the problem is to balance the rights of individuals to privacy and the protection that it affords them with the rights of others in society to go about their business without fear for their security of person.
London calling, should anyone be able to listen? August 11, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100 , comments closed
As a followup to Cameron’s post, I want to make a quick comment along the same topic.
My thoughts revolved around the supposed neutrality of these communication tools. It is difficult not to point out the irony that in Egypt in February such technologies were praised by the West as tools of the revolutionaries, but now, they are condemned in the West as the tools of thugs, hoodies, or yobs and should be suspended or banned. To those criticizing such a ban, “A Blackberry is just a tool, to be used for good or evil” is a fairly common response. Banning Blackberries makes as much sense as banning hammers, bats or boots used by looters to smash windows, when these things can also be used for hitting nails, baseballs (cricket balls?), or hiking trails.
But I wonder about how neutral these tools really are? As sources have claimed, RIM’s BBM was chosen by rioters because it offers private, encrypted messaging that, for example, Twitter does not. The encryption is one of RIM’s best-known features, making its smartphones and tablets that much more valuable to banks, governments, the military and other who require secure and privacy communication. But public encryption technology is not valueless or neutral. Just as censorship technology is linked to forms of authoritarianism, presuming the existence of an authority who knows better than you what you should be allowed to see, encryption presumes, inherently, that people value private correspondence, that people value secrets, that people should have the right to hide something from the public.
By contrast, that Twitter does not use encryption and does not password protect all its users’ tweets also represents a value-based decision: that some kinds of communication should be open, publicly searchable, and free for anyone to read. So if you value your privacy, don’t tweet!
The value of encryption hitting up against the value of government being able to view its citizens communication is hardly a new issue. The encryption wars of the late 20th century are a recent example of this problem and it is clear, at least to me, that these are not “neutral” tools. I think if they were, people probably wouldn’t be debating this at all.
London calling August 10, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
You have no doubt been hearing about the repeated riots in London and other major UK cities. One aspect of the riots that has drawn attention is the role of smartphones, especially BlackBerrys, in helping rioters coordinate their activities. Apparently, the rioters prefer Blackberry’s Message service because it is encrypted and thus not subject to police monitoring. This observation has led to calls for RIM to suspend the service, which it has not done, although RIM has offered to cooperate with authorities in other ways. Similarly, Twitter has refused to shut down the Twitter accounts of rioters.
(Andy Armstrong/Wikimedia Commons)
The situation serves to illustrate that communications technology, to the extent that it has facilitated this malfeasance, is a two-sided affair. It has been widely credited with facilitating movements for democratic change in various Arab countries, as you are well aware. It could hardly be argued that the London riots are an Arab Spring, although some commentators see resemblances. Clifford Stott, of the University of Liverpool, speculates that the riots have been exacerbated by class conflicts:
… he suspects that it boils down to social class and is defined by economic deprivation. “They seem to be targeting the middle class. It’s like a kind of class warfare on the streets of Britain. To them their targets are legitimate.”
It is curious to me to think of BlackBerry owners as belonging to a socio-economic rank lower than the middle class, but perhaps he is right.
In the meantime, RIM has been threatened by hackers if they do indeed cooperate with authorities.
Also, sales of police batons and baseball bats have taken off on Amazon in the UK. Some vendors are explicitly promoting them for use by shopkeepers in defense of their property.
In the coming days, police will probably use BlackBerry Message service logs, Twitter feeds, CCTV recordings, and Amazon sales records to gather evidence to prosecute smartphone-wielding rioters and/or bat-wielding vigilantes. At that point, it may be easier to reconcile ourselves to the trade-offs of privacy and security that networked communications technologies bring.
Update: London police are indeed using Flikr photos to identify looters in the riots.
“I’ve been working on the Facebook, all the livelong day” August 9, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV404 , comments closed
Is there a better technological symbol of Canadian nationhood than the railway? Unquestionably, the Canadian Pacific Railway was vital to the foundation of the country, and the image of Lord Strathcona hammering “The Last Spike” is one every school child must encounter at some point in their Canadian history lectures.
E. J. Pratt’s epic poem, “Towards the Last Spike” memorializes the moment, but according to one dissertation Pratt may be the exception to the rule, at least culturally speaking: “Canadian literature has in fact made very little deliberate effort to propagate the idea that the railway is a vital symbol of Canadian unity and identity.”
While investigating this, I was reading R. Douglas Francis’ The Technological Imperative in Canada and came across a remarkable passage describing the Victorian experience of railways, particularly among those who grew up in the pre-rail era:
It was only yesterday; but what a gulf between now and then! Then was the old world. Stage-coaches, more or less swift, riding-horses, pack-horses, highway-men, knights in armour, Norman invaders, Roman legions, Druids, Ancient Britons painted blue, and so forth — all these belong to the old period… But your railroad starts the new era, and we of a certain age belong to the new times and the old one. We are of the time of chivalry as well as the Black Prince of Sir Walter Manny. We are of the age of steam.
Could anyone in their mid-thirties or older not read that and think that instead of railroads, we ought to substitute the internet? How easily it can be rewritten to coincide with the opening decade of the 21st century:
It was only yesterday; but what a gulf between now and then! Then was the old world. Postcards, more or less swift, newspapers, books, the six o’clock news, TV networks, news anchors, hockey on the radio, encyclopedias printed on paper, and so forth — all these belong to the old period… But your internet starts the new era, and we of a certain age belong to the new times and the old one. We are of the time of fingers smudged with ink as well as Black Prince of Hollinger International. We are of the age of electronics.
The whole thing could possibly be drawn from the Beloit Mindset list, the annual tongue-in-cheek list of common knowledge that an 18 year old entering university or college won’t have. (From this year’s list: “12. Clint Eastwood is better known as a sensitive director than as Dirty Harry.”) The list that probably wouldn’t exist without email (it started as a popular email forward in the late 1990s) but ironically has now been published in a book.
Progress? Everything old is new again? History repeating itself? Or am I just getting old?
New infertility treatment on the horizon August 9, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed
Japanese researchers have succeeded in generating viable sperm cells from mouse stem cells. They know the sperm derived from these stem cells are viable because they were used successfully to fertilize a mouse egg. Furthermore, the fertilized eggs were implanted in a mother mouse and carried to term. The offspring then had little mice of their own, showing that the procedure did not seem to have any unhealthy effects on the recipients.
One application of this research would be a male infertility treatment:
Dr Allan Pacey, a leading researcher into male fertility at the University of Sheffield, said: ‘This is quite a step forward in developing a process by which sperm could be made for infertile men, perhaps by taking as a starting point a cell from their skin or from something like bone marrow.
Of course, this treatment might also be used to produce viable sperm cells from a female donor. Thus, any woman wishing to be a father could also be treated for her ‘infertility’ with this procedure.
So, here is another way in which the fruits of biotechnology seem unnatural, that is, by upsetting the model of family generation and inheritance that is built in to the English language. This research presents an instance of how technological development can challenge time-honored linguistic assumptions. Think of how the invention of time travel (has had) affected grammatical tense in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
The major problem is simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner’s Time Traveler’s Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. It will tell you, for instance, how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be described differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time in the further future, or a time in the further past and is further complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations while you are actually traveling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own mother or father.
Most readers get as far as the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up; and in fact in later aditions of the book all pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs.
Recall also this previous post on whether human-derived gelatin is vegetarian.
When thinking about whether or not the products of genetic engineering are “unnatural”, it might help to remember that what counts as natural or otherwise, particularly when it comes to what human beings do, is a function of what technology may be taken for granted, which is always a moving target.
Mouse heart model for nanoparticle toxicity? August 5, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Here is an interesting notice about the effects of common nanoparticles on a mouse heart. First, the heart: The Langendorff heart is “an isolated rodent heart flushed with a nutrient solution in place of blood” that serves as a means of detecting the effects of stuff on the cardiovascular system. See the picture below.
Potentially toxic substances are suspended in the fluid to which the heart model is exposed. The rhythm of the heart is monitored for effects. In this case, various nanoparticles such as titanium dioxide and silicon dioxide were tested in this way. Effects were observed:
Carbon black, spark-generated carbon, titanium dioxide and silicon dioxide led to an increase in the heart rate of up to 15 percent with altered ECG values that did not normalize, even after the nanoparticle exposure was ended.
So, it seems that the heart function was indeed affected by the presence of the nanoparticles. Staempfl offers the following explanation:
According to Stampfl and Nießner, it is very likely that the neurotransmitter noradrenaline is responsible for the increased heart rate brought on by nanoparticles. Noradrenaline is released by nerve endings in the inner wall of the heart. It increases the heart rate and also plays an important role in the central nervous system – a tip-off that nanoparticles might also have a damaging effect there.
These results are of some concern as some of these nanoparticles are common. Some are present in the air as the results of diesel combustion, others are contained in commercial products. Titanium dioxide, for example, is a common ingredient in sunscreen, where it blocks out UV rays.
It is not clear what toxicological consequences follow from these phenomena. Are titanium dioxide nanoparticles from exhaust fumes infiltrating the nervous system and affecting people’s hearts or brains? What about titanium dioxide nanoparticles absorbed through the skin when sunscreen is applied? Also, what are the consequences of the buildup of these particles in the environment? The Langendorff model does not address these questions, so the next step, I hope, is to find some way of doing so.
Open government August 4, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Dan Tapscott praises BC’s DataBC program in which the BC government will make available to the public a variety of datasets for citizens to mash up.
B.C. is making close to 2,500 data sets available, such as birth rates, provincial obstacles to fish passage, old-growth management areas, carbon emissions statistics and information on schools. This information is searchable and available for anyone to use. The goal is to help citizens and businesses make informed decisions, conduct research, analyze statistics and develop applications.
I certainly agree that this idea is a good one and would like to see it adopted by other governments in the country. (BC also has a winning carbon tax. What are they doing right that the rest of the nation is not?)
Tapscott goes so far as to call this development an example of a new paradigm in government:
In the past, governments collected tax dollars from citizens. Government employees inside the boundaries of government created services that were delivered back to the citizens. This exchange of tax dollars for services will continue, but, courtesy of the Internet, there’s an expanded model of government whereby government acts as a platform.
This claim is a little over the top: The government has always been tasked as a “platform”, providing information and services to the public as a means of fostering public discourse and private enterprise. What is different is the scope of access to this information. In the past, obtaining such information meant reading through wordy bureaucratic reports or petitioning ministry offices. Having it readily accessible, and searchable, through your computer is new, as is the greater availability of computers and the ‘net itself.
As Tapscott says, we can expect many good and interesting results from this measure. As ever, though, greater accessibility and searchability is not an unmixed blessing.
As noted by Wired, open government can have its drawbacks. Consider the case of the website that collects and displays Florida mugshots. When you are arrested in Florida, your mugshot is almost immediately made publicly available on government websites in accordance with the State’s broad sunshine laws. Rob Wiggen has created a website that trawls this government info and posts people’s shots and rap sheets on the Web. Of course, his website, florida.arrests.org, is indexed by Google, meaning that anyone arrested in Florida will soon find their mugshot coming up at the top of any Google search of their name. Rather than suffer the embarrassment and possible negative employment repercussions of this situation, some people pay exorbitant amounts to third party sites to get their information removed. Sounds a lot like extortion.
So, total access to government data may not be an unalloyed good. In that case, we have to consider what data should perhaps be held back or aggregated, or when some personal embarrassment is a price we should be willing to pay for the greater good of society.
Facial recognition: Can I opt out? August 3, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Bruce Schneier posts here that facial recognition systems are bound to become ubiquitous soon. Systems under development now suggest that companies and law-enforcement agencies will have the ability to tag people in real-time as they go about their business in public spaces.
Eric Schmidt recently characterized constant and ubiquitous facial recognition as creepy, saying that Google would have to be careful to deploy it in a way that does not freak people out. Facebook, of course, plans to use it to make it easier for you to spy on your friends.
Schneier’s main beef is that authorities seem to have a tendency to use it in a way that violates the innocent-until-proven-guilty principle. John Gass, a Massachusetts resident, had his drivers license revoked due to being confused with a potential terrorist:
After frantic calls and a hearing with Registry officials, Gass learned the problem: An antiterrorism computerized facial recognition system that scans a database of millions of state driver’s license images had picked his as a possible fraud.
It turned out Gass was flagged because he looks like another driver, not because his image was being used to create a fake identity. His driving privileges were returned but, he alleges in a lawsuit, only after 10 days of bureaucratic wrangling to prove he is who he says he is.
Wouldn’t it be easier to simply issue Gass a new face? I also liked the part where the State does not keep statistics on the number of errors the system makes. That way, there is no hope of properly monitoring or regulating its performance.
Anyway, I would like to know if any provision can be made to opt out of being automatically identified by government or corporate face databases. After all, there seems to be broad support for a do-not-track list for Canadians online, along the lines of the US list suggested by the FTC. Being identified through facial recognition software is a form of tracking, so why not apply the same idea to this issue?
I can imagine that companies would make the system opt-out by default, so that everyone who has tagged their photo on Facebook, say, is enrolled in the facial recognition setup. Then, users could opt out through an account setting, suitably hidden away in a sub-menu so as to discourage its use. I would prefer a system that is opt-in by default, so that a person’s face would not be deployed in the system without their express consent.
One objection to the idea is that it may not be effective. Michael Geist has complained that the Canadian do-not-call list has produced lots of complaints but few consequences for telemarketers who ignore it. Any form of control over the public use of facial recognition would have to have some teeth in it.
Still, it would be a good idea to think about what sort of control might be suitable for constant and ubiquitous facial recognition, before it becomes a serious problem.