Police and pepper spray November 23, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
One of the unintended consequences, I imagine, of the Occupy Wall Street movement is a boost in sales of pepper spray for police. For example, Lt. John Pike of the UC Davis police was recently filmed liberally applying pepper spray to Occupiers at the Davis campus. The spray is intended to provide a non-lethal option for police who are engaged in crowd control or faced with a potentially violent person to deal with.
One of the concerns with pepper spray has been escalation of its use. That is, it seems as though pepper spray is being used not only as an alternative to a police baton but as an alternative to lesser forms of verbal or physical intervention. As this Wired article puts it:
Indeed, while law enforcement scholars unanimously acknowledge that, on a per-violent-incident basis, pepper spray results in fewer injuries than direct physical violence, research suggests that having pepper spray could lead to higher numbers of violent incidents.
Why is that?
The Wired article considers how the presence of pepper spray may affect the psychology of the police officers who have it. One suggestion seems to be that police opt for pepper spray simply because it is immediate and effective. By design, the spray is overwhelming and would tend to quickly end a confrontation in favour of the officer. “If it is there, they will use it.”
Another possibility is that pepper spray changes how police officers approach a situation. Criminologists Paul Friday and Richard Lumb are quoted as asking rhetorically:
“Do officers become more assertive in suspect confrontational situations when they are ‘armed’ with an additional tool? Does the possession of OC spray unreasonably increase the sense of self-confidence and security and thereby create a self-fulfilling prophecy of threat?”
I guess what this means is that having pepper spray in the arsenal could make officers feel less of a need to compromise or take it easy in a confrontation. This feeling, in turn, may tend to raise the “temperature” of an interaction, making it more likely that a situation will turn violent enough to justify the use of pepper spray. This would be an example of technology as more than just a tool. This explanation seems plausible, although it does not explain incidents like that of Lt. Pike, who was clearly faced with a non-violent situation.
Criminologist Roger Dunham argues that there may be some social psychological factor involved:
“In their culture, it’s important to have authority. Most policemen will say that the only thing they have to protect them is authority, and they’re very sensitive to people who do not respect their authority,” he said. “When an officer gets on the scene, the number-one thing they’re supposed to do is take control” — and that dynamic is heightened when they know that other police will judge their actions.
On this view, the possession of pepper spray is socially technostressing (to expand on the concept as defined by Ron Westrum). That is, officers are sensitive to their status as the people in charge of a situation. This sensitivity is heightened when other officers are present who may judge an officer as not sufficiently assertive. Using pepper spray provides an officer with a ready means of showing who is in charge and thus relieving this form of social stress.
Another possibility discussed by Mike Masnick and due to Bob Ostertag of UC Davis is that police forces are becoming increasingly militarized. That is, police officers are becoming more like soldiers, troops in the “war on drugs”, “war on terror”, or perhaps America’s supposed class war. On this view, the police have been caught up in an increasingly confrontational view that social groups in the US have adopted towards one another. As we all increasingly view the social order as coming unglued, the police feel more intensely the pressure to control people who seem to threaten it.
There may be something to this suggestion. Lt. Pike seems to brandish his pepper spray theatrically, playing to the crowd in a way. I get the impression that he was putting on a performance that he wanted others to observe and learn from: “Don’t make trouble, or this will happen to you!” I am not sure that militarization is at work in this instance, but Lt. Pike seems to regard himself as simply part of a larger social situation, starting with his audience.
Any or all of these explanations may contain some truth. It would be easy to speculate about additional factors as well. Perhaps police officers are experiencing the effects of job deskilling. Crude as it is, perhaps pepper spray acts like a kind of negotiation-in-a-can, reducing the need for officers to master the art of verbal de-escalation, for example. At any rate, pepper spray seems to illustrate the observation that even a relatively simple design can have effects that are unexpected and hard to understand.
On the lighter side, such as it is, I draw your attention to this display of viral art depicting Lt. Pike and his pepper spray. It may make your eyes water, but in a good way. Here is my favourite:
(Disclosure: As a philosopher, watching Socrates get pepper sprayed right before drinking hemlock seems perversely funny to me.)
uwaterloo.xxx November 21, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
The site St. Louis Today has an article about universities that have been buying up .xxx domain names. The .xxx domain area is intended to allow for a special space on the Web for pornography services. (Is that truly necessary? By all accounts, the ‘net is already quite efficient at delivering smut.) I hesitate to think of some of the domain names to be appearing there, but washingtonuniversity.xxx was not one of them. Is the University becoming more broad-minded about its services?
Not so, as it turns out. Washington University is reserving the domain name in order to prevent it from becoming associated with any pornographer in future. It turns out that this concern is not unfounded; there is a pornographic connection with the name Washu:
But the school does share a name with a female character, Washu Hakubi, from the world of Japanese animated cartoons. The anime genre has inspired a subset of cartoons heavy on sex and violence, leaving open the possibility that Washington University could find itself an accidental victim.
So, the University is taking pre-emptive action against the website “WashU.xxx”. From the article, it seems that many universities are doing the same thing; the cost is only $200 per name, so they feel that they would rather be safe than sorry. It seems that the precautionary principle applies.
This matter raises a couple of questions. First: Is the University of Waterloo about to open up a .xxx site? A quick Web search fails to turn anything up, suggesting that it is not. At least, not yet. Second: if it did, what would be on it? The WashU site will point to nowhere, the article states. I guess that we could expect something about equally stimulating from Waterloo, which has always resisted the use of suggestive imagery.
Balls on the playground? November 16, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Matt Gurney at the National Post comments on Earl Beatty Public School in Toronto that has banned the use of balls in the playground. Apparently, the school board was reacting to several near misses and one incident in which a parent was struck in the head by a soccer ball and suffered a concussion. In response, the board has banned the use of soccer balls, footballs, volleyballs, basketballs and tennis balls. Only foamy, Nerf-style balls are allowed for play on the grounds. (I imagine that non-foam balls are still allowed for gym classes.)
Gurney is sarcastic, calling the ban “brave”, and wondering rhetorically what other risks the board and parents will see fit to terminate next. Play involves risk, so the only way to eliminate risk is to ban play altogether.
I suspect that there is more going on here than Gurney lets on. A concussion can be a serious injury and calls for a serious response. Probably, many readers are aware of the ongoing issue of NHLer Sidney Crosby whose concussion has sidelined him since this January. With this in mind, the school board may have decided that a ban was the only action in their arsenal that acknowledged the seriousness of the incident on the playground.
Playground safety has become a minor controversy. On the face of it, it seems that playgrounds could not be made too safe. After all, no one wants the children to get injured, so any affordable safety measure seems warranted. However, as Edward Tenner has noted, there is a payoff to having safety risks on playgrounds: It teaches kids how to deal with risk and danger at a time when they are fairly resilient to falls and bruises. Encountering moderate safety risks helps children to acquire confidence in themselves that stands them in good stead later in life. Without such experience, they may grow up to be overly fearful of danger. This point does not imply that we should place children in mortal peril or anything like that (unlike at Hogwarts), but that there is a “sweet spot” of risk that can be considered healthy.
So, there are grounds to object to a ban on balls in the playground: It may reduce injuries in the short term but hamper development in the long term. As schools are intended to promote development, banning balls from the playground is counter-productive.
Of course, this point does not address the other aspect of the problem that the school faces, namely that of dealing appropriately with a serious injury to a parent. Without knowing more about the exact circumstances, it is difficult to say anything specific. In general, however, I would think it appropriate that the school should carry insurance to help compensate anyone who is injured in this sort of “freak” accident. A payout may or may not undo the damage, but it could demonstrate that the school cares and takes its responsibilities seriously, without detracting from the children’s education.
Playing in public spaces November 14, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Improv comedian Charlie Todd gives a TEDx talk about putting on amusing activities in public spaces. Examples include “no pants day” on the New York City subway, or having a group of 50 volunteers in blue polo shirts hang out in a Best Buy store, making it look as though the store has been flooded with employees (who wear that sort of shirt as part of their uniform).
One issue raised by the video concerns the appropriate use of public spaces. We tend to think of such use in terms of casual enjoyment, that is, walking around, drinking coffee, or in terms of organized expression, such as a public rally. The idea of playing in way that distracts people from their own affairs would normally be considered inappropriate. Of course, there is not normally anything actually illegal about such japes and buskers are welcome (or tolerated) in some locations. Also, the invention of the flash mob has expanded people’s notion of what public spaces may be used for.
Todd argues that play as public spectacle is acceptable and, indeed, healthy for a couple of reasons. First, it is a constructive way of spending time. He mentions that some critics consider his antics to be a waste of effort. Why not do something more serious? His response is that play is not necessarily a waste of time. Children do it for no other reason than that it is fun. Provided no one is harmed or threatened, why does this reasoning not also apply to grown-ups?
Second, the activities create a kind of positive, shared experience. The best example from the video is the “no pants” day. As the comic nature of the jest becomes clear, people in the audience look at each other and laugh. At that point, the experience becomes enjoyable for them. Further, it forms a shared experience that brings people together. Strengthening social solidarity is something that public spaces are indeed supposed to promote.
Hm. What sort of jests would be appropriate and acceptable in a public space like our campus?
Does IT take away jobs? November 10, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
The Economist has recently published an intriguing blog posting on the displacement of jobs by IT. The entry is framed as an examination of the so-called Luddite fallacy: the view that efficiencies realized through the automation of work lead to job losses. It was this view that supposedly led the Luddites to smash their bosses’ sock making machines. (I feel constrained to point out that this mischaracterizes the Luddites of history who actually approved of automation but fought their employers’ project of undermining established labour standards.) As the article explains, this view is seen as a mistake:
Economists see this as a classic example of how advancing technology, in the form of automation and innovation, increases productivity. This, in turn, causes prices to fall, demand to rise, more workers to be hired, and the economy to grow.
In brief, the unemployed find new jobs and move on.
The article then raises the current economic situation as a counter-example. Automation and innovation continue apace today, yet unemployment remains stubbornly high. Why have the unemployed not yet moved on to find other jobs? The answer may be that automation really has eliminated that work.
The contention in the article, if I understand it correctly, is basically that automation is beginning to dominate the economy as a whole. In the past, for example, agricultural workers whose jobs were made redundant by farm equipment could move to the city and find work in factories. Now, however, the ability of computerized machinery to perform not only manual labour but cognitive labour has left people without another sector where they can migrate to. In effect, the article points out, the machines have become not only manual labourers but also mid-level, white collar employees.
This is where the problem hits close to home, if you like. Until now, people could find remunerative, white-collar work by undergoing advanced training, so that they could perform cognitive work that computerized technology was not capable of. In short, people could go to university. However, as doctors, lawyers, and programmers are being made redundant, it becomes harder for universities to give human beings a competitive advantage, certainly one that will last them for long in view of the pace of technological progress. Perhaps the increasing drive to make university studies more efficient or, at least, cheaper through putting courses online could be viewed as a response to this pressure. However, when students can no longer expect to find jobs as a result of their studies, they will probably stop signing up.
The article tries to finish on an up-beat note. Humans still have comparative advantages over computers: “the ability to imagine, feel, learn, create, adapt, improvise, have intuition, act spontaneously.” Whether these advantages will translate into employment is unclear, but it could happen. It may also suggest a resurgence of the liberal arts in education; these are the areas where imagination, feeling, creativity, and so on are traditionally cultivated. This is not to say that such qualities are lacking in the more technological disciplines, but these have tended to emphasize analytical skills and approaches more and more over the years. Shifting to a more artsy, less analytic curriculum might not prove easy or agreeable. However, it may prove necessary.
First armed, law-enforcement drone purchased November 4, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Just recently comes the news that the police department of Montgomery County, Texas has purchased an aerial drone capable of carrying weapons. The ShadowHawk, from Vanguard Defense Industries, looks like a miniature black attack helicopter, and is piloted remotely by an operator on the ground, much like the aerial drones that the US military uses in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The drone carries a set of cameras and is designed to gather information, although it can also be used to take less-than-lethal action:
He [Michael Buscher, CEO of Vanguard Defense Industries] said they are designed to carry weapons for local law enforcement. “The aircraft has the capability to have a number of different systems on board. Mostly, for law enforcement, we focus on what we call less lethal systems,” he said, including Tazers that can send a jolt to a criminal on the ground or a gun that fires bean bags known as a “stun baton.”
Wow! Extreme discomfort from above!
My initial reaction was that I hope it will prove more reliable than the toy helicopter that I got (myself) for last Christmas. It flew for about a dozen flights and then could no longer get off the ground. However, judging from the video, that fear is probably ungrounded.
I suppose that there are two obvious concerns regarding the uptake of this drone. The first concerns privacy. Clearly, the drone can be used for surveillance. Under what authority can it be deployed? Would training its cameras on someone’s backyard constitute a police search under the law? If so, a judge would have to issue a warrant. If not, then are the police acquiring an intrusive new power?
The second concern turns on fairness. I can foresee circumstances where the drone would come in handy in dealing with following lawbreakers or even incapacitating people who pose a threat to public order. However, there may come times when the use or even the mere presence of a drone could be used to, say, tazer people who do not deserve it or to restrain people from exercising their freedom of expression out of fear of a potential hovering menace.
There are also issues of flight safety, as raised in a report by the Government Accounting Office:
Pilots of small aircraft have expressed concerns that drones cannot practice the see-and-avoid rule that keeps aircraft from colliding in mid-air. Since the drone’s camera may be aimed somewhere else, pilots said police controllers may not be able to see and avoid other aircraft in the area during a sudden police emergency.
Finally, there is the possibility that the drones could exacerbate fears of crime. The presence of fences, guards, and cameras can have the effect of heightening peoples’ fears about criminal activity, even out of proportion to the actual threat. Such things remind them about the worst-case scenario of what may occur in a public space shared with strangers. The over-use of drones could increase this tendency. Over-use may be incentivized for police, who may benefit from fear of crime, especially in an era of public budget cutbacks. It will be interesting to see if drone activity tends to increase when the police budget is discussed in council meetings.
From little blue men to brown shirts, in two easy steps! November 1, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100, STV205, STV302 , comments closed
My children both love colouring pages, particularly if it is one of their favourite characters: little blue men (mostly men) about three-apples high, talking and fighting robots that “transform” into vehicles, fruit-themed dolls, race cars that talk and join international spy mysteries, and so on. Their favourite source for images to colour is our printer, or rather, the computer it’s plugged into and from there the world wide web. It’s surprisingly easy to find colouring pages with just a few keywords. So easy, in fact, that it can be disappointing and even baffling to them when Mom and Dad can’t find the exact, hoped-for image. Fortunately, when that happens, my children just move on and draw what they had in mind anyways, colouring as they go.
I couldn’t help but think of their colouring habits when I heard about the Origo, a 3-d printer intended for children:
In the promo video, the boy envisions a new toy, designs it on a computer, and out it pops from the printer. While the Origo is still a prototype, if 3-d printing (as we’ve discussed a few times here) came to kids, and I began to wonder how long it would take before entire websites sprang up to provide toys to download. As it turns out, such websites exist already. The things there are still fairly primitive: gears, and other simple devices are common. But how long until people can design (or 3d-scan) a Smurf, Transformer, Strawberry Shortcake, or Lightning McQueen that works in a 3d printer, and then starts sharing these designs online? As one blog puts it, “this could be last toy your child would ever need“.
I can only imagine the intellectual property hazards. Not that copyright violations or trademark infringements are an unknown problem in the 3d-printing world. Star Trek had replicators, and I’d be willing to be some Golden Age sci-fi writers already envisioned dozens of social, political and economic consequences to such technology, decades before it was even possible to print objects. What comes to my mind is the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, of a boy who magics a broom into doing his work, then compounds his problem by making more brooms.
The moral of that story was to leave great magic to the master. And what that made me think of was a report a few months ago that 3d-printers were being used for ATM fraud:
In June, a federal court indicted four men from South Texas (PDF) whom authorities say had reinvested the profits from skimming scams to purchase a 3D printer. According to statements by the U.S. Secret Service, the gang’s leader, Jason Lall of Houston, was sent to prison for ATM fraud in 2009. Lall was instrumental in obtaining skimming devices, and the gang soon found themselves needing to procure their own skimmers. The trouble is, skimmer kits aren’t cheap: They range from $2,000 to more than $10,000 per kit.
Secret Service agents said in court records that on May 4, 2011, their undercover informer engaged in a secretly taped discussion with the ring’s members about a strategy for obtaining new skimmers. John Paz of Houston, one of the defendants, was allegedly the techie who built the skimming devices using a 3-D printer that the suspects purchased together. The Secret Service allege they have Paz on tape explaining the purchase of the expensive printer.
“When [Lall was] put in jail, we asked, ‘What are we going to do?’ and we had to figure it out and that’s when we came up with this unit,” Paz allegedly told the undercover officer.
Will stories like these leave 3d printing in some kind of licensing limbo to prevent these sorts of shenanigans? Will it come to pass that every 3d printer is given individual serial numbers and registered by a central authority, akin to the registration of typewriters to the KGB during the Cold War? Many colour printers already output nearly invisible id codes, to prevent (or at least trace) bank note fraud. Of course, the dream of some 3d-printer hobbyists is a printer that can print itself, so there could be a mighty-big loop hole to that plan (keeping in mind the lessons of Ken Thompson, and his famous Turing Award Lecture: “Reflections on Trusting Trust“, which is probably a topic for another blog item).
To say nothing of kids growing up in a world where it is increasingly possible and commonplace to imagine and create all in one go, or, perhaps more dangerously: wish, download and create all in one go. Instead of Origo, maybe they should have called it “Santa’s Workshop”…