Printing a menu May 22, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment
Here is an instance of two separate threads of technology coming together. First, I have blogged here before on the prospects for including insects in western food. This measure makes quite a bit of sense: Insects are a good source of protein and can be raised much more efficiently than our conventional food animals. In fact, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has recent argued that insects will become essential to food security in future.
One of the main difficulties facing such plans is the “yuck factor”. That is, consumers in many countries find (deliberate) consumption of insects to be disgusting. So far, the most obvious plan to address this issue is to design high-end foods that disguise the insects or make it chic to consume them, e.g., the Ento box.
Another approach would be to reduce them to an invisible component of food manufacturing. This possibility is raised by the advent of 3D food printers. Quartz reports on a grant from NASA received by Anjan Contractor to develop 3D food printers for use in space vehicles. Providing astronauts with food that is light, non-perishable, nourishing and interesting is a challenge (think “Tang“). Having a machine that could use a small set of basic ingredients and turn out a variety of food types would certainly help to address this need. For example, a pizza would lend itself to this treatment:
Pizza is an obvious candidate for 3D printing because it can be printed in distinct layers, so it only requires the print head to extrude one substance at a time. Contractor’s “pizza printer” is still at the conceptual stage, and he will begin building it within two weeks. It works by first “printing” a layer of dough, which is baked at the same time it’s printed, by a heated plate at the bottom of the printer. Then it lays down a tomato base, “which is also stored in a powdered form, and then mixed with water and oil,” says Contractor.
Finally, the pizza is topped with the delicious-sounding “protein layer,” which could come from any source, including animals, milk or plants.
In fact—and here is the connection—the basic ingredients for the printer could be almost anything, including: algae, duckweed, grass, lupine seeds, beet leafs, and insects!
All sorts of worthy food stocks that are efficient to produce but are held in low regard might be suitable for food printing. The implication, as Contractor realizes, is that food printing could be used to help address the nutrition needs of an ever-increasing world population. Of course, this plan would require some substantial changes in how food is made and distributed. For example, the plan would not work if everyone had to have their own 3D printer. Instead, this technique would have to be adapted to the needs of industrial food production. In that case, we would have to avoid the tendency of industrial food to lean so heavily on the salt, sugar, and fat. Also, many consumers would have to adjust their cultural expectations about cuisine, that is, what things are fit or unfit to eat.
Perhaps such a transition would be made easier if the ingredient in question were simply a non-distinct protein layer in a pizza.
Toilet uptake August 20, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Wired has an interesting little piece on the problem of getting people in the developing world to adopt new toilet designs. In some places, sanitation is somewhat primitive and human waste finds its way easily into major water systems, where it can cause the spread of dangerous diseases. Where sanitation infrastructure is not available, the path to better sanitation involves the provision of toilets, perhaps of the composting variety.
Mushfiq Mobarak, working with the Gates Foundation, notes that technical solutions to the problem are well known. The main problem lies in getting people to adopt the toilets. For one thing, the cost of new toilets would usually be borne by the individuals purchasing them, whereas the payoff–in the form of freedom from epidemic disease–accrues to the whole community. In that situation, a person might prefer to wait for the neighbors to buy the toilets, at which point he would reap the rewards for free:
“Jointly, we’re better off adopting, but we’re all making decisions individually,” Mobarak said. From an individual perspective, “What I’d really like is for everyone else to adopt, but not me. And everyone will be thinking this way.”
In economic terms, this situation is known as a positive externality, a benefit realized in a transaction by someone who is not paying for it. In many cases, such transactions will simply not occur because the people involved would rather wait for others to pay to produce the benefit.
One solution would be to simply have the price of the toilets subsidized by the community, e.g., through tax revenue. However, potential purchasers might still prefer to spend the remaining purchase cost on something else that has a higher priority in their view. That might be education, electricity, rent, or some other good. In economic terms, these other possibilities are known as opportunity costs, that is, other options that are sacrificed when one option is pursued.
Another solution would be to “enlarge the pie”, that is, to provide some additional benefit with the toilet that would accrue to the purchaser alone and would make up for the externality or opportunity costs. The article describes how this was done for another design, that being an efficient cook stove. Like a toilet, a stove produces pollution that can be harmful to the whole community. So, the purchaser of an efficient stove is providing a benefit for the community that the community does not pay for. To overcome the problem of this positive externality, the designers included a novel feature in their cook stove design:
That’s now being accomplished by giving the stoves power-generating functionality, with embedded USB ports for charging devices, said Mobarak.
The heat from the stove can be used to power a small generator, useful for charging gadgets like cell phones, which are widespread in places like Bangladesh where access to electricity is otherwise unreliable.
So, then, what individual benefit could a toilet provide to its owners alone? Well, it could save its owners from having to defecate in public, a practice that not unusual in many places in South Asia:
Apart from making the new toilets as inexpensive as possible, said Fisher [co-founder of KickStart], the key is making them a social norm and object of aspiration, and making pit latrines and in-the-open defecation an object of community opprobrium.
In other words, the solution lies not in changing the design of the toilet but in changing the social norms of the community.
There is a tension inherent in this approach. Making something an “object of aspiration” means, in economic parlance again, making it a positional good, that is, something whose value depends on how it compares with other things like it. Rarity is often key to the value of such goods. For example, an antique car is valuable in part because there are not many comparable cars around. A Model T would not be so valuable (or “aspirational”) if everyone had one. Likewise, a toilet can be aspirational only if they are relatively rare. Yet, the benefit of sanitation accrues only if the toilets are common.
It seems like the most effective strategy left is that of stigmatizing the lack of a toilet. Yet, a punitive approach (“community opprobrium”) promises to be difficult and unappealing. Instead, it might be an idea to adapt the aspirational approach: Offer the toilets in a range of designs, from the simplest and cheapest to the fanciest and most expensive. The fancier toilets would be the rare, aspirational items, with the simpler, cheaper ones serving as “gateway” loos. The aspirational benefit of the different toilet designs could be realized by their owners when guests in the house have to use the owner’s WC and can admire the toilet there. A somewhat similar situation exists in consumer contexts in countries like Japan.
Of course, what constitutes a fancier toilet would take some time and effort to determine. And tasteful advertising would be necessary too. My point is simply that the introduction of toilets into new settings requires us to consider the whole social structure of that setting which, in this case, might cause us to reconsider whether or not one toilet is really the whole answer.
Design for outcomes August 17, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
I think that the video largely speaks for itself. However, it is quite brief, so it would be instructive, I think, to rehearse some of the points made there with respect to the role of designers as advocates for social improvement.
- Prestero mentions that designers should design for outcomes, not for awards. He explains the failure of the award-winning incubator as being too designery. The motto is a bit misleading as design of any kind is for outcomes; the problem consists in assigning priority to outcomes appropriately.
- Another issue that is raised is the divide between the design and manufacturing aspects of innovation. Very often, designers are not involved in the production or distribution of their designs. This allows designers to adopt immediate goals in design that run contrary to their long-term goals of social improvement.
- Getting users to trust the equipment is mentioned as an important consideration. A design has to look trustworthy to users. Awareness of the culture of the users is critical to getting the “Buck Rogers” look that proved advantageous in this case.
- Uncovering the distribution chain was also critical. In this case, decisions to adopt infant incubators are made not by doctors but by hospital administrators, so that it is crucial that the design should meet their expectations.
- “There is no such thing as a dumb user, only dumb products.” This expression provides an interesting take on design for usability. To be useable, a design should make it easy for users to apply the design correctly and hard for users to apply it incorrectly. For many designers, this means “idiot proofing”, adopting a adversarial attitude towards users, resulting in gear that seems hostile to them. Prestero, however, regards his users with sympathy and seeks a design that feels reassuring when used correctly, that is, the infants appear to be warm while in the Firefly.
Prestero’s approach has much going for it. Let’s hope for great success for the Firefly.
Chew your food! May 25, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
An interesting article in this week’s Science discusses the interaction between diet and teeth in human history (registration required). The article summarizes some work presented at a conference on the “Evolution of Human Teeth and Jaws: Implications for Dentistry and Orthodontics,” National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, 28–30 March, Durham, North Carolina.
Some of the results presented do not surprise. For example, a comparative study of dental hygiene in two Maya villages in the northern Yucatan shows that a modern diet is bad for your teeth:
Young adults in the town of Dzilam González had three times as many cavities as those who live in a poorer, more isolated village nearby where people can’t afford soft drinks every day, according to a new study. In the poorer village, people eat a traditional diet of maize tortillas at every meal. The richer village has a pizzeria in its central square, shops with ads for soft drinks, dentists’ offices—and significantly more tooth decay in people aged 20 to 30….
Clearly, the refined sugars present in quantity in modern foods increase the risk of cavities.
The history of these refined sugars is less well known. It seems that they were introduced to the West from the Middle East as a result of the conquests of Alexander the Great. Their use increased steadily, to the detriment of the teeth of Europeans:
But the biggest spike was from 1800 to 1850, when Britain took control of the West Indies and imported far more sugar than previously. Sugar helped fuel the Industrial Revolution, which was a transition from an agriculture-based economy to a machine-based economy. In 1874, the British reduced the tax on sugar, and it became available to all social classes. “In London, mostly 1800 onwards, they have absolutely dreadful teeth,” Hillson says.
More surprising is the relation of diet to occlusion, the way in which the upper and lower teeth interface. Youth eating an industrial diet are known not merely for cavities but also for overbite, where the upper teeth overlap the lower ones. It seems that this condition may also be related to the Western diet. Our preference for processed foods means that we do not need to chew as hard as our ancestors did. However, chewing seems to stimulate the growth of the lower jaw:
Chewing stresses stimulate growth of alveolar bone, the thin layer of bone surrounding the roots of teeth, which causes children’s lower jaws to grow more robust and longer, with little overbite or malocclusion. As a result, when the ancient Egyptians closed their jaws, their upper and lower incisors (the four front teeth) met in an edge-to-edge bite, with good spacing between the teeth in their robust faces. People today, who eat softer foods, have a “scissors configuration” bite, in which the upper incisors protrude over the lower incisors, because the lower jaw is smaller than the upper one.
From this story, I infer that the common requirement for braces in Western children also stems from the design of our foods, our preference for soft foods especially.
On the whole, it appears that our teeth are designed for a diet of coarse, non-sweet foods but that we have developed a preference for soft, sugary foods. The result is an elevated risk of cavities and misaligned teeth, and the subsequent technological response of dentistry.
Naturally, the deployment of this technology is influenced by culture. Consider the stereotype of bad British teeth referenced by The Simpsons. The Guardian explains that the crookedness of British teeth relative to American teeth may be the result of different cosmetic sensitivities. In short, Americans set more stock in having a model smile, whereas the British consider it vain. Thus, braces are deployed more in North America, so that children there can have the smartest smiles.
So, our teeth tell quite an interesting story about our culture, in which our technologies of food and dentistry play a central role.
Eating insects April 11, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV203 , comments closed
Insects are not a traditional part of the Western diet. Thus, news that insects or insect parts are to be found in Western foods has proven controversial. Consider, for example, the news that Starbuck’s strawberry Frappuccino contains extract of cochineal, a pink dye obtained by grinding up the bodies of certain beetles. Cochineal is a traditional reddish dye and is considered perfectly safe to eat. Nevertheless, it seems to be more than many Starbucks’ customers bargained for.
Besides the “yuck” factor, putting cochineal in a food means that it is not vegetarian, which deprives food containing it of part of its market. Of course, even this problem gets sticky. After all, insects like our food and there is no way of keeping them entirely away from it. Thus, many staples commonly contain certain levels of bug parts, including chocolate, peanut butter, and wheat flour. Since zero tolerance for bug parts is impossible to attain, regulations for food safety are set with more leeway. For example, the FDA allows wheat flour to contain up to 150 bug fragments per 100 grams without being considered unfit. So, it seems that our food contains a soupçon of insect anyway.
Of course, not everyone is averse to eating bugs. The aborigines of Australia eat Witchetty grubs, which are a good source of protein. There are also restaurants where insects can be found on the menu. Consider the “bobotie pie with pumpkin mash” that is served with an “insect crumble” at Specktakel in Haarlem, the Netherlands. The article goes on to point out that the European Union is spending millions of euros figuring out how to incorporate more insect matter in food. Why? Because insects are a cheap source of protein:
Ph.D. student Dennis Oonincx is checking out his mealworms living in the cricket lab, and says his research into how the worms metabolize a waste product shows how superior insects are as a protein source — better than cattle or sheep.
“You can produce more food for people with less input,” he says. “It’s good food and it’s better for the environment.”
As the human population grows, eating insects may become an economic necessity.
Economic necessity aside, the stink over cochineal shows that culture will remain a major barrier to insect cuisine. However, if high-end restaurants can interest customers in fancy bug dishes, perhaps public tastes will change:
MasterChef Thomasina Miers has created a three course meal, starting with worm crisps, followed by grasshopper salsa tacos and cricket tostados topped with pecorino, radish and orange – and finishing with chocolate-coated locusts for pudding.
“The packet says they’re like popcorn with a difference,” winces Bennett-Jones, after a worm crisp: “I would stress the difference.”
“A bit like crunchy anchovies,” says another guest about the crickets. I grab some tostadas. They’re juicy, salty and have plenty of texture. I have eaten the future, and it tastes delicious.
Just think of your next chocolate bar as practice for the future of food.
(Survivorman eats a Witchetty grub, time 3min 53 s.)
Megamind and technology November 18, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV100 , comments closed
Last weekend, I went with my daughter and her friend to see Megamind 3D. It is good if you want 90 minutes of light entertainment and/or look back kindly on the Superman movies with Christopher Reeve and the earlier TV serials starring George Reeves. (Alert – spoilers follow!)
(Image courtesy of Imdb.com.)
The movie revolves around the super-villain Megamind, an alien refugee on Earth gifted with an extraordinary cranium and technological inventiveness. Naturally, he struggles to defeat the super-hero Metro Man, a different alien refugee gifted with extraordinary physical powers, invulnerability, and good looks. The plot twist comes when Megamind unexpectedly succeeds in killing Metro Man and is able to bend Metro City (which he pronounces to rhyme with “atrocity”) to his evil will. His problem is that, since his evil consisted entirely in his opposition to Metro Man, Megamind had never considered what his policies as leader of Metro City would be. He eventually returns to a dominant motivation from his childhood, that is, trying to win the love of others, the lovely reporter Roxanne Ritchi in particular.
(Image courtesy of Imdb.com.)
Anyway, the movie parodies many of the themes and motifs from the Superman of the Cold War era. In that way, it displays an old ambivalence in American culture about the nature of high technology and its role in society. Americans have harnessed technology to industrialize their country and massively raise their standard of living. America as we know it is hardly imaginable without its technology. Yet, technology, unlike Superman with his unalterable regard for “truth, justice, and the American way,” sometimes seems like a hired gun ready to work for the highest bidder no matter what the consequences.
One of the seminal moments in the American technology-society relationship in the 20th Century was the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957. The notion that the Russians would soon own the space above the United States was shocking and demanded a response. Thus, the “Space race” was born.
(Image courtesy of the US Air Force via Wikimedia Commons.)
One component of the shock was that the US might not inevitably dominate the world of technology. Instead, it appeared that technology might allow an inferior political system, that is, communism, to dominate a superior system, that is, democratic capitalism. It is an old sort of concern. In his play the Clouds, the ancient Greek comedic playwright Aristophanes presents the new-fangled learning of Socrates as merely a way of making a weak argument look better than a strong argument. In brief, he presents Socrates’ philosophical ideas as a kind of intellectual fancy dress that can be applied to a lot of stupid and subversive ideas in order to make them appear like the smartest and most progressive ideas around. Truly great but old-fashioned looking ideas seem to pale in comparison. (This trope of intellectuals dressing up dumb ideas to hoodwink people has been fruitfully employed by conservatives ever since.) Substitute “communists” for philosophers and “technology” for fancy dress and you get something like the following: communists may be able to use technology to help their inferior political system appear better than the superior, American political system. Thus, we should regard technology with some suspicion.
The trope comes through in Megamind as it picks up on and parodies the Superman of the Cold War era. Metro Man is physically powerful, invulnerable, completely virtuous, and also handsome. Megamind is none of these things. Instead, he is clever, skulking, grasping, and unsightly. However, he is able to use technology to make up some ground on Metro Man, e.g., by developing death rays, a dehydration gun, an invisible car, a powerful robotic exoskeleton, a holographic projector that alters his appearance, and so on. He is like Sputnik, a reminder that natural American strength and virtuosity are always in danger from weak, evil, but cunning and inventive opponents. Of course, the same perspective could be applied to Islamist terrorists today.
So, how to reconcile the threat represented by technology with a deep regard for it and its importance to the good life in American culture? Megamind performs the maneuver creatively. Metro Man simply removes himself from the scene. Being super-powerful, invulnerable and totally virtuous means that he faces no true challenges in life: He is always able to save Metro City and is never tempted to do it harm. His victories have become as tedious as they are inevitable. So, he fakes his own death in order to pursue a career in an area outside his gifts, namely music. The consequences for Megamind are devastating. Like Wile E. Coyote without the Roadrunner, Megamind has no idea what to do with Metro City now that it is within his grasp. His life was all about his opposition to Metro Man. Without that opposition, he is rudderless. By accident, he also starts to become involved with the reporter Roxanne Ritchi and, when she is threatened by the super-villain Tighten, he discovers the virtue that he had lost sight of as a youth, namely the desire to love and be loved by others. And so, he takes on the role of super-hero in defending Ritchi and Metro City from Tighten. Of course, not possessing any of Metro Man’s natural gits, Megamind must make use of his cleverness and technological prowess to accomplish his new goal. Thus, the conundrum is resolved: technology may not make you virtuous but, in the hands of good people, it is enough to ensure the triumph of virtue.
Well, it works for Megamind, but is it really true?
To vuvuzela or not to vuvuzela, is that the question? June 18, 2010Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100 , comments closed
I’m not much of a soccer/football fan, but it can be easy to be swept up when FIFA’s World Cup arrives every four years (during the last championship in 2006, I was living in Little Portugal in Toronto and it was really easy to get swept up given the celebrations, partying and good-natured carousing that took place every time Portugal or Brazil took to the field).
This time, what’s on everybody’s lips is the vuvuzela, a cheap plastic horn:
If you’ve caught even a tiny fraction of any World Cup game, you will have heard the constant buzzing and humming of South African fans blowing on their vuvuzelas. At levels loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage apparently. If you have read a single report about the World Cup, you will have already learned of the many reactions to the horn, chief among them that the noise generated by thousands of fans is annoying and distracting. More colourful descriptions include “satanic … a stampede of noisy elephants, a deafening swarm of locusts, a goat on the way to slaughter, and a giant hive full of very angry bees.”
Alot of people don’t like them, but FIFA has refused to ban them. Their argument is that this is a South African-hosted tournament and South Africans want their vuvuzelas. This particular sporting tradition may only be twenty years old, but it’s their tradition.
So, what to do if you’re used to the European traditions of singing or whistling, and just can’t get used to the elephant in the room? The technological solution is an audio filter to stop the buzzing before it gets to your ears. Consumer Reports has a handful of suggestions, including adjusting the treble on your television and the extreme measure of muting the audio completely. Those watching the games of over the internet that also possess the right software and some audio know-how can do much more more:
Not sure what that will do for the complaints of the actual players on the pitch who can’t hear shouted instructions from a few metres away.
This is, of course, one of those society-technology conflicts where all the really interesting always stuff happens. Is the audio filter a reasonable technological solution to a social problem? The BBC is said to be considering it for their broadcasts. Are there other ways to resolve the problem that would satisfy additional or different social groups? One of the vuvuzela manufacturers has already worked to reduce the decibel level the horn generates, but how do you encourage people to switch? It would seem that offering complementary vuvuzela earplugs, as the same manufacturer does, would be counter productive but I guess that depends on why they are encouraging people to switch, doesn’t it.
When is computer security worthwhile? April 14, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
A recent NPR podcast discusses work by Cormac Herley of Microsoft about why people often do not abide by security measures urged on them by security experts. He argues that not heeding the advice is merely rational, from an economic standpoint.
Herley performs a cost-benefit analysis and shows that if you weigh the costs of many security measures against the putative benefits, then the payoff is not sufficient to warrant the effort. The main costs of security are having to use and manage passwords, and to keep up to date on the latest security measures for your machines, networks, etc. Since time is money, these efforts can add up. On the other side of the equation, the benefits of security provisions are often speculative (what really are the odds of a hacker getting your password?) and their effectiveness uncertain (what is the point of a great password if a virus simply lifts it from your browser keychain?). See this excellent summary at TechRepublic. From this perspective, ignoring much security advice is simply a rational act.
Contrast this view with that of security experts. In their view, all security measures should be met by effective countermeasures. Only then is security possible. This view accounts for the costs of security failure but leaves out many of the costs of obtaining success.
Solutions to the problem require security experts to factor in the costs that security measures impose upon users. For example, is it really worthwhile requiring users to revise their passwords every month? (If someone steals your password, would they not use it right away, rendering your later revision useless?)
From my perspective, another interesting observation here is the difference in outlook between security experts on the one hand and users on the other. Each group has their own culture and priorities. Like any other designers, security experts design effectively only if they understand the outlook of their intended audience.