One of these things is just like the other… May 1, 2013Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV302 , comments closed
Quick, why is a raven like a writing desk? The riddle can be found in Lewis Carroll’s book, Alice in Wonderland, and was said to be amusing because the raven and writing desk aren’t similar at all. Ha-ha! The lack of answer hasn’t stopped people from trying to find one: Perhaps because Poe wrote on both? Or because there is a B in both and an N in neither?
I couldn’t help think of this dilemma of things unlike other things when I saw this article: Dressed up tablets the future of cash registers.
“With the advent of tablets, particularly the iPad, many stores have traded in their clunky cash registers for mobile devices. Now, though, they are dressing up those tablets with inventive accessories to make them both more pleasant to look at and more practical for cashiers.”
The article is mostly about the idea that tablets can be an improvement over “clunky” and “plastic” cash registers, especially if the tablet can be wrapped in wood, silver or logos or carried around a store to serve customers individually.
“Some designers believe conventional cash registers interfere with the relationship between customers and sales people. From a design point of view, it’s a disaster, and from a retail point of view, it’s a disaster because employees are standing behind these refrigerators,” said Dean Heckler, who owns his own design firm in Phoenix.
Who knew? Cash registers (and refrigerators?) are getting in the way of sales.
But, to return to my theme of ravens, writing desks and things that don’t go together, what struck me about this story is that tablets and cash registers do go together. Tablets (and computers in general) owe a fair historical debt to the humble cash register. They certainly come from the same technological tradition of adding machines: cash registers were and are just special-purpose calculators or computers, and easily rank as one of the most important computing devices that existed before there were electronic computers. A glance at the history of a company like NCR (National Cash Register Corporation) from the late 19th through to the early 21st century confirms that the technologies were intertwined. Famously, Thomas J. Watson, the many who led IBM in the first half of the 20th century, up to and into the modern computer era, acquired his substantial business acumen working for NCR. So let’s not forget the historical connection between cash registers and tablets before retiring the former.
Finally, the article also highlights one of the apparent risks of handing cashiers a tablet: that employers might find them “goofing off on the store’s iPad by playing Angry Birds or checking email.” I was a little surprised at the lack of security on such a tablet, not just to control the labour but to prevent malware, viruses, spam and the like on a device intended for processing financial transactions. But, perhaps this speaks to another lesson from the history of computing: that general-purpose computers will often surpass and replace special-purpose computers. This was true of the office machine industry of the early 20th century (replaced by general purpose computers starting in the 1950s), true of the elite, high-speed supercomputers in the 1960s and 1970s (replaced by personal computers and workstations in the 1980s and 1990s), true with pagers of the 1980s and 1990s (replaced by smartphones today), and now its true with cash-registers and tablets.
Two treasure-hunting robots April 29, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Sometimes, the daily news provides items that make for an inadvertent but interesting pair. Today’s news provides just such a comparison, both from the Huffington Post.
The first item concerns a robot that has revealed burial chambers under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent at Teotihuacan, near Mexico City. Teotihuacan was the site of an ancient civilization that built this monumental city, ever more thoroughly excavated by archaeologists.
New technologies have permitted the excavations to go even further. A 2011 survey using ground-penetrating radar revealed an unexplored tunnel under the Temple. This year, a 77-pound robot named Tlaloc II-TC (after Mexico’s ancient god of rain) was used to inspect the tunnel and see what may be seen. The result was the discovery of several burial chambers, perhaps even those of the rulers of the City.
(Courtesy of INAH)
The second item concerns a young man, who goes by the handle “ioduremetallique”, who has designed a robot that excavates pop cans from vending machines. Have a look!
The design is clever, and I am sure that newer versions will work even faster.
Robots can be great prostheses, helping people to reach places that are difficult or impossible otherwise. Besides helping us stretch our physical limitations, they will help to challenge our ethical boundaries as well.
Journalism vs. social media April 25, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
In a recent posting on the Boston Marathon bombings, the relationship between traditional news media and social media was raised. In particular, Michael Skolnik of GlobalGrind.com argued that the bombings showed how news media were on the back foot in their competition with social media. How can journalists compete with Tweeters in terms of gaining attention when Twitter provides so much information so fast?
And the news seems to just get worse for the news. For example, hackers broke into the Associated Press’s Twitter accounts and posted a fake news item about bombs detonating in the White House and injuring President Obama. The fake bulletin sent markets into a brief downfall:
The latest hack was by far the most significant: the single AP tweet stunned investors and effectively wiped out $136.5 billion of the S&P 500 index’s value in a matter of minutes.
Robert Charette at IEEE Spectrum notes that the market slide may have been the result of automated trading algorithms that react almost instantly to machine-readable news stories. Charette further notes that Bloomberg news service plans to incorporate Tweets into the information considered by these algorithms. It seems that the traditional news media is getting cut out of the loop.
However, the situation may be saved if news writers are replaced by algorithms. Companies like “Narrative Science” already have software that can write passable news stories, at least in certain fields of discourse such as sports reporting. With Moore’s Law in view, it should not take long to cut reporters out of the loop entirely, enabling news services to produce stories as fast as social media junkies (and trading algorithms) can parse them.
This situation may seem like an out-of-body experience for some journalists, as they become bystanders in their own field. Or, perhaps the problem is that we are starting to view the news as just the quickest source of the most information, which networked computers are better at delivering, instead of the considered analysis of events, which people are still better at.
One little, two little, three little spreadsheets… April 24, 2013Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV302 , comments closed
Remember when spreadsheets were killer apps? Back in the early days of microcomputers, Apple and IBM sold a lot of hardware on the backs of spreadsheets like VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3. People wanted the software and sought out the specific computer hardware to run it.
Over the last 30 years, many white collar “knowledge workers” have grown accustomed to spreadsheets as part of the standard software suite that accompanies any personal computer. Microsoft, Apple, and Google all include a version in their office offerings, and there must be millions of spreadsheets in use in offices around the world tracking accounts, employees, and other numeric data.
Apparently, even famous economists make use of spreadsheets in their analysis. Last week a story came to light of a student from the University of Massachusetts unable to repeat the results of 2010 paper by two Harvard professors, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff. After struggling for some time, the student requested the original spreadsheet used by Reinhart and Rogoff, and discovered the problem.
…the mystery of the irreproducible results was solved. First, they omitted some data; second, they used unusual and highly questionable statistical procedures; and finally, yes, they made an Excel coding error.
Ah well, who doesn’t make an adding mistake every now and then? The problem, at least from the perspective of the rest of the world, was that the 2010 paper had been widely used to support a claim that economic growth will slow significantly if the public debt-GDP ratio exceeds a threshold of 90 percent. Hence, governments should practice internal austerity measures to encourage economic growth. In these difficult global economic times, the paper achieved significant influence among those looking to discourage government spending. It’s now also a notorious example of misusing a spreadsheet.
Various pundits have tried to wring lessons from this about economic policy (more vs less government spending), but what would an historian (or historically-minded computer scientist) say? What else: “I’ve seen this before”.
Trolling through the RISKS archive of computer related risks to the public, there are dozens of discussions surrounding the difficulties with spreadsheets. While many entries catalog the problem with “smart software” that tries to outguess the user, one interesting study from 1995 suggested that using a spreadsheet is like programming and so spreadsheets are as likely to have bugs as any program.
So there’s probably a lesson in there about teaching all undergraduates (and professors) how to use spreadsheets properly. As I’ve written elsewhere, the University of Waterloo achieved considerable success in the 1960s with the somewhat unusual goal at the time of teaching everybody on campus how to program. WATFOR was a Fortran compiler created for this purpose in 1965 and sold around the world. Perhaps we should strike while the iron is hot in 2013! Guess what? Everybody is going to learn WATsheet.
Or maybe not. One RISKS contributor writing about the Reinhart and Rogoff issue dug back in their memory banks to the 1980s and a spreadsheet-like project they’d worked on named Javelin. It was a technical success, in that it probably would have prevented the sorts of problems that foiled the Harvard professors, but a business failure. Tellingly:
In marketing focus groups, we learned two things: a) any spreadsheet large enough to be interesting had bugs, and b) nobody cared. One telling comment was “it’s my manager’s job to check that my spreadsheet is correct.”
Huh. So history really does repeat itself. If manager means “grad student”.
Public photography April 24, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
An article in PhotographyIsNotACrime argues that the police response to the Boston Marathon bombings reveals hypocrisy regarding public photos (hat tip to Bruce Schneier). Since 9/11, taking photos of buildings or public spaces has been regarded sometimes with suspicion: Perhaps the photos are preparations for a bombing plot. However, the police in the Boston Marathon bombing case solicited public photographs as a part of their investigation. Isn’t that hypocritical?
Adding to the hypocrisy is that these same authorities will most likely start clamping down on citizens with cameras more than ever once the smoke clears and we once again become a nation of paranoids willing to give up our freedoms in exchange for some type of perceived security.
Read in this general way, this policy does seem hypocritical: It is ironic that police could both repudiate and advocate public photography, and do so in a way that benefits them at the expense of photographers. However, is it really police policy to prohibit all photography in public, e.g., taking pictures of family members as they cross the line at a marathon? I doubt it, and I don’t suppose that police will be cracking down on such things in the coming weeks.
Douglas McCormick at IEEE Spectrum notes that facial recognition software played no role in the identification of the bombing suspects. Even though the suspects had drivers’ photos on record, the software did not connect them with photos of people at the bombing site. That was accomplished by police. However, police are adopting more automatic, visual surveillance equipment, e.g., New York City’s Domain Awareness System. This system will include cameras in public places and entry or exit points to the City, tracking each vehicle that enters the city until it leaves.
(So, next time you visit NYC, smile! Or don’t–it screws up the biometric assessment.)
In any event, I think that the situation reveals not so much police hypocrisy as a general ambivalence towards the gift of ubiquitous picture snapping. Most of us enjoy taking pictures of all sorts in public spaces and sharing them with others. We also fear people who use this capability against us. The question becomes: Who do we trust with it, and to what extent?
Boston Marathon bombings and social media April 23, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, some attention has been focussed on the role of social media in the subsequent events.
This NPR piece discusses the vitriol that characterized some of the response:
Both the Boston FBI and the Boston Police Department have chosen Twitter as one of their main ways to communicate with the press and the public, but in addition to the useful information they gathered by these means, many Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and comment sections of news stories have been littered with threats, slurs and hate speech directed at Muslims or anybody with a perceived connection to the suspects and a lot of that was happening even before they were identified.
In short, the police used social media as a way of disseminating and collecting information as a part of their investigation. The general public used it to follow the situation, to intervene in it, or, in some cases, to exploit it for their own purposes.
The discussion raises two points. In the first, it is clear that some social media users took the opportunity to “troll” for attention, that is, to say inflammatory things in order to garner attention for themselves. In the second point, the discussants contrasted the social media response with that of the news media. An advantage of social media, e.g., Twitter, is that it provides immediate feedback. An advantage of news media is that it can be more accurate. Of course, the news media did make a number of errors in their reporting. But then, some social media responses seemed ill-considered; e.g., Reddit General Manager Erik Martin apologized for the crowdsourced “witch-hunt” conducted by users of his site.
Michael Skolnik of GlobalGrind.com draws the following conclusion:
This will be a day that we will remember as media will drastically change in this country and traditional media have to figure out how to compete with real time news.
It is true that the news media needs to get people’s attention to persist as a business. It is not clear that the news media should become more like social media. It does not seem like a good idea to conflate the roles of social media and police. Should social media be conflated with the news? Or, would we be better served if the two were differentiated? How?
Juror sent to jail April 22, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Wired notes that young Benjamin Kohler was recently sent to jail for two days. His crime? He was found in contempt of court for texting during a trial at which he was a juror:
When prosecutors were playing a video-taped interview with the defendant, Judge Dennis Graves suddenly halted the trial after noticing a light glow around juror Benjamin Kohler’s chest. The judge, who had previously instructed jurors to pay attention and not to use mobile phones, immediately halted the proceeding and ordered everybody to vacate the courtroom except Kohler, the Sheriff’s Department said.
As Kohler could not give a satisfactory explanation for his actions, the judge jailed him in order to give him time to reconsider them.
Traditionally, jurors on duty are separated from their other affairs so that they may concentrate on their role in the court. It was once possible to achieve that separation straightforwardly by constructing isolated court rooms and buildings. Of course, in the era of wireless networks and portable smart phones, four walls will no longer do the trick.
The mismatch between the expectations of judges and those of jurors can be quite serious. Kohler was sent to jail. A British woman was convicted of contempt for contacting the defendant via Facebook during trial. In a case in Arkansas, the judge ordered a new trial for a defendant accused of a capital crime because a juror was caught tweeting about the proceedings.
The role of juror is basically to comprehend and weigh evidence presented to them in order to generate a justified verdict. Mike Masnick at TechDirt has argued that jurors should be able to use the ‘net to achieve this end. The more information they bring to bear, the better their decisions will be.
Although this argument makes some sense, it sets aside the problem of due process. As noted above, the traditional role of juror requires a fair degree of isolation and attention. Smart phones undermine both: They connect people constantly and ubiquitously, and they divide attention the same way. Responses in the legal system have generally been to uphold the traditional model, as the Kohler case suggests. Could the role of juror be re-conceived, to make it more compatible with the realities of modern life?
One possibility would be to crowdsource jury duty. Put a camera in the courtroom and allow any willing person to watch the proceedings. Those who watch for long enough (and fulfill some other preconditions) would be permitted to vote on the verdict. Allow jurors from developing countries to participate and the cost of jury deliberations could be lowered considerably!
Another possibility would be to gamify the process. Jurors could earn badges for assessing evidence and making arguments on the trial’s Facebook page. Those who advance enough levels by the end of the trial would be allowed to vote on the verdict. That would help to address the problem of paying attention–make jury duty more compelling.
Any other ideas?
CrashAlert! April 15, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Technology Review has posted a little item on a smart phone app called “CrashAlert”, that is designed to help users avoid collisions while walking-and-texting. The prototype uses Kinnect sensors to monitor the surroundings of the user, while the app issues a popup warning whenever a collision seems imminent.
Why not just watch where you are going?
“People aren’t going to just stop texting and walking, and in order to incorporate [cell phones] into our everyday new habits, they have to help with the things they take away from us, like peripheral vision,” [Hincapié-Ramos, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Manitoba’s human-computer interaction lab] says.
This point may be correct: The utility that users derive from texting-while-walking may outweigh, for them, the disutility of the odd collision. Perhaps, then, the system can be made to work in the user’s favour.
The idea of people wandering the streets wearing safety gear to prevent them striding into lamp posts invites ridicule, as we have already seen in the case of the WalkSafe app. Isn’t it degrading to rely on a smart phone app to undertake a basic situational, cognitive function? “Why do we want to encourage people to be disconnected from the world?” asks professor Clifford Nass of Stanford. Professor Hourcade of Iowa, in a repetition of the app-give-and-take strategy, notes that the app could be augmented to increase situational awareness in a way: CrashAlert might also notify people when their friends are nearby so that they can collide sociably.
The argument that apps can increase utility beyond what unaided cognition can achieve may well be true. A road full of self-driving cars may, in the end, be safer than roads are today. Similarly, a future sidewalk full of people steered by their smart phones may involve fewer jolts than do the sidewalks of today. Yet, the issue of degradation remains: The future sidewalk appears, from today’s perspective, to be populated by imbeciles. Of course, the denizens of today’s sidewalks might look stupid to those of the future, who will laugh at our foolishness for wasting our time looking around for obstacles to avoid.
Still, I wonder whose utility will be maximized in this brave, new concourse. I look forward to walking in a manner that maximizes the number of ads I can view before reaching my destination!
Scared yet? April 11, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
It has been a while since we had any scary Internet security bulletins, so here are a couple.
First is this story from FastCompany about how “cybercriminals” took control of the heating system in a New Jersey manufacturing plant:
According to ICS-CERT, hackers exploited vulnerabilities in industrial heating systems which were connected to the internet, and then changed the temperature inside the buildings.
Actually, this hack sounds useful. Have you never wished you could take control of the HVAC in your building? It seems that you can, if you know the right cybercriminals, or are one yourself.
Second is this story from ComputerWorld about a conference demo by hackers showing how they built an Android app (awkwardly named “PlaneSploit”) that allows them to take control of airplanes in flight:
Once he was into the airplane’s computer, he was able to manipulate the steering of a Boeing jet while the aircraft was in “autopilot” mode. The only countermeasure available to pilots, if they even realized they were being hacked, would be to turn off autopilot. Yet many planes no longer have old analog instruments for manual flying. [Security consultant Hugh] Teso said he could take control of most all airplane systems; he could even cause the plane to crash by setting it on a collision course with another plane. He could also give the passengers a serious adrenaline rush by making the oxygen masks drop down.
Happily, Teso demonstrated his ability on a simulated flight since a real demonstration would be “too dangerous and unethical”.
How do such security issues arise? Well, no system is ever perfectly secure. However, I think that Bruce Schneier has a point when he argues that security is usually an after-thought:
Companies find that it is cheaper to weather the occasional press storm, spend money on PR campaigns touting good security and fix public problems after the fact, than to design security in from the beginning.
As long as security is treated as a bolt-on, vulnerabilities like the ones above will remain a fact of life when dealing with networked gear.
In the privacy of your car? April 5, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
The term “black box” can refer to a recording device, often associated with planes or trains, that records operational data during usage. The black box was in the news not long ago in connection with the fate of Air France flight 447 that crashed in the mid-Atlantic in 2009. The black box contained data from the instruments and control systems of the plane that helped investigators to reconstruct the accident, with a view to preventing similar disasters in future.
What is less well known is that cars often contain black boxes as well, where they are known as Event Data Recorders (EDRs). Like black boxes in airplanes, EDRs were designed to record instrument and control data with a view to safety, that is, the reconstruction of accidents for purposes of preventing future problems. The nature of an EDR depends on the make of the car and local regulations, but a typical list of data captured would include:
- engine rpms;
- applications of the brakes;
- applications of the accelerator.
Naturally, such data is useful not only for safety but for legal purposes, for example, determination of fault in an accident. So, who owns the data, and who can gain access to it? For what purpose?
The issue is not new but has received renewed interest because the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has proposed making the devices mandatory on all cars, starting next year.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has proposed that people should be able to opt out of having the data recorded, and that police should require a warrant before having access to any data available.
If US law is unclear on the subject, it appears that Canadian law is no further ahead. Here is an excerpt from a recent article on the topic:
There is no legislation in Canada specifically governing the admission into evidence of EDR data. The federal and provincial Evidence Acts should be amended to permit the admission of the evidence either as a “business record” or on a basis similar to blood-alcohol test devices.
I am not sure what that means, but it sounds interesting.
What sort of privacy protections, if any, are appropriate for EDRs?