Is Google Glass too dorky? May 3, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
We recently heard from Sergey Brin that smart phones are emasculating. His solution? Google Glass, the spectacles that are your new, Googly eyes on the world.
Now, just as Google Glass is poised to take over the smart phone market, Marcus Wohlsen at Wired argues that Google Glass is too dorky to become a commercial success. By this, he appears to mean that Google Glass makes its wearers, at least the white male ones, appear too obviously cut off from their physical and social environment. Unlike nerdiness, which implies a social awkwardness that is not without its charms, dorkiness is offensively bad, he observes. As potential Google Glass wearers recognize this problem, they will stay away in droves, thus dooming the design.
To make his case, he provides an analogy with the Segway, a sort of two-wheeled, self-balancing golf cart that was set to revolutionize personal mobility but never did. The failure of the Segway was, Wohlsen explains, due to how dorky it made its riders:
But that transformation hasn’t happened. And it won’t. Why? Because Segways are lame. They’re too rational. They fail to acknowledge all the irrational reasons people love their cars.
There may be something to this argument. As Paul Graham explains, people on Segways may seem obnoxious and detached to other people on the streets:
When you’re riding a Segway you’re just standing there. And someone who’s being whisked along while seeming to do no work—someone in a sedan chair, for example—can’t help but look smug.
This observation may explain why people enjoy watching “Segway fails” videos, like this one:
However, as Gary Rivlin explained in an earlier Wired article, the Segway had other, substantial issues. For one thing, at a price point of $3,000 to $7,000, it was never going to outsell the bicycle. For another thing, the Segway is fairly heavy, about 80 lbs, and travels fairly fast. This means that a collision with a Segway rider on a busy sidewalk is no fun. As a result, the Segway was classified as a motor vehicle in many places, forcing it off the sidewalks, full of vulnerable pedestrians, and onto the roads, full of impervious cars. The Segway lives on, but in a niche market with police patrollers and tourist “walkabouts”.
So, will Google Glass be the Segway of 2013? I do not know, but the main issue may be not how smug wearers appear to others but how good they are at avoiding collisions with them as the walk and surf the ‘net.
Parents and offspring in the biotech era October 30, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed
I have commented several times here on the difficulties for family concepts raised by biotechnology. The New York Times has an interesting article related to this topic, concerning a women who is prohibited, for now, from being named the mother of her child.
The woman and her husband entered into a surrogacy arrangement, due to her infertility. The couple arranged in advance to have a judge declare her to be the mother of the child, and to be recorded as such on the child’s birth certificate. A hospital worker, not knowing how to implement the order, queried the New Jersey bureau of vital statistics, which called the Attorney General’s office, which sued to have the arrangement overturned. The State won the suit, which the State Supreme Court has now declined to overturn. Thus, the mother’s best legal option is to become the stepmother of the child she has already been raising for three years.
The State intervened in the case apparently because they were unhappy to see the surrogate mother’s rights set aside by a court order in this way. Interestingly, the law allows for the biological father, that is, sperm donor, to surrender his parental rights fairly straightforwardly. The gestational mother’s rights, however, are a different matter. The couple argued that this distinction in law between sperm donors and surrogate mothers is discriminatory against women. However, the court ruled, in effect, that being a gestational mother is simply different than being a mere sperm donor:
A sperm donor, the court said, lacks the “temporal, physical and emotional investment” that builds as a woman carries a child for nine months.
Certainly, a man’s biological investment in gestation is minimal when compared to a woman’s investment. Still, it does not follow that those rights are inalienable. Yet, the laws of the State do not pronounce clearly on the matter. Legislation to handle such cases was passed by the State legislature but vetoed by the governor, seemingly on the grounds that the law would be precipitous.
Turning to another item, an article in Nature describes technology that can be used to conduct a mitochondrial DNA swap within an embryo during IVF. During the procedure, mitochondrial DNA from a donor is substituted for mitochondrial DNA of the embryo, originating with the mother. The point of this procedure would be to substitute “healthy” mitochondrial DNA for defective DNA, so as to avoid the risk of conditions, such as MS, associated with mitochondrial DNA issues.
Permission from the US FDA to proceed with this research may take a while to obtain. The procedure would create an embryo that is, in genetic terms, descended from perhaps three individuals, that is, a nuclear DNA mother and father, and a mitochondrial DNA parent. It is unclear how such an arrangement would stand under US law.
As ever, biotechnology challenges the notions of family that are enshrined in law. IVF allows technologists to pick apart roles that were bound up together as a result of our evolutionary and cultural history. Perhaps, someday, it will not be noteworthy for a child to have an odd number of parents.
Bicycle cameras July 24, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Today’s New York Times brings a couple of interesting articles about cyclists. The first concerns cameras that cyclists can wear to record their rides. Originally designed so that epic rides could be re-enjoyed later, the cameras are now being used by cycling commuters to record any accidents they may have while on the streets. For example, a cyclist named Evan Wilder was sideswiped by a car and knocked off his bike. The driver sped away but Mr. Wilder was able to obtain the license plate number from the video stored in his camera. Police arrested the owner and charged him with leaving the scene of an accident.
(Alisdair McDiarmid/Wikimedia commons)
Many cyclists will see such gear as a way of leveling the playing field, that is, of addressing an imbalance of power with motorists who, after all, have a big advantage in size and power on the roadway. Some drivers, it seems, also have an adversarial attitude towards cyclists, that cameras might help to curb:
“It’s a fact of life that on American roads that you get punked, cut off purposely, harassed, not once but on a regular basis,” said Bob Mionske, a former Olympic cyclist who is now a lawyer representing bicyclists in Portland, Ore. “If motorists start to hear about bikes having cameras, they’re going to think twice about running you off the road.”
So, cycle cameras may help to make things fairer for cyclists.
The next article concerns how New York City is sending errant cyclists to remedial classes. Cyclists who are written up for violations such as riding outside of bicycle lanes (where they are available) or riding on sidewalks are sent by judges to a class hosted in a sports store in the Upper West Side. The idea is to remind cyclists what the laws concerning cycling require of them, or simply to educate them where they are not clear on the matter:
“You couldn’t possibly ticket all of the stuff you see irresponsible cyclists do,” said Judge Felicia Mennin, who worked with the nonprofit organization Bike New York to develop the new sentencing option.
But, she acknowledged, some riders may be honestly confused about what is allowed. “There are a lot of laws and not always clarity about abiding by the law,” she said.
Cycling education is rudimentary in North America, so most cyclists learn the rules of the road informally. As a result, their behavior will tend to vary with their personal and cultural background. Perhaps our approach should be more systematic, as it is in the Netherlands.
In any event, the introduction of cameras for cyclists could have unforeseen consequences. If an accident occurs involving a bicycle, the video might be subpoenaed in court, even if the video weighs against the cyclist. In a recent case in British Columbia, a hang glider pilot was charged with obstruction of justice after he swallowed a memory card containing video of a flight where his passenger fell to her death. I imagine that the courts would take a similar view of videos recorded by cyclists in the event that they are caught violating the law.
It seems inevitable that we will be surveilling one another more and more with cameras. As with the recent case of Steve Mann, the results may not alway be what we expect or would like.
Fertility follies March 28, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203 , comments closed
Fertility technology continues to bring new possibilities that challenge conventional legal and cultural norms. Here are three recent stories that illustrate the disruptive potential of this technology.
First, a couple in the Netherlands has discovered that the husband does not produce sperm and thus cannot father a child. Not surprisingly, the couple has determined to find a sperm donor to make up the deficit. Wanting the donor to provide DNA related to the husband, the couple chose the husband’s father as the donor. Of course, this would make the husband’s father both the “father” and grandfather to the child. Obviously, this arrangement is confusing when seen from a conventional perspective. Besides the conceptual problem, it raises concerns that there could be confusion over which man should assume the role of father in the child’s life:
Some experts say the emotional toll on the child is too great to justify the procedure. “The notion that this child’s grandfather would be his biological father is just too bizarre for the child’s sake,” said George Annas, chair of the Department of Health Law, Bioethics & Human Rights at Boston University School of Public Health. “Family relationships are confused enough as they are when they’re not intergenerational,” Annas said.
Is the risk of conflict in parenting roles really enough to nix the arrangement? Of course, people have expressed concerns that it would be too weird for homosexual couples to raise children, resulting in two fathers or two mothers. However, research suggests that this concern is unfounded.
Second, Mrs Karen Capato has applied to the US Social Security Administration for survivor benefits for a child conceived years after her husband’s death, using sperm from him that were frozen beforehand. The current law requires that a man be alive at the time of conception in order for benefits to be available, a stipulation that made perfect sense in the 1930s when the law was written. The US Supreme Court is considering the matter. Beyond the niceties of the law, the conceptual issue here is not paternity (which is clear enough in genetic terms) but that of being a survivor. In order to survive something, you usually have to experience it, as with survivors of the Titanic disaster. How, then, can you survive something that occurred before you were even conceived?
Third, we have an issue of fertility tourism, the practice of leaving one’s country in order to receive fertility treatment. In this case, an American/Israeli dual citizen, Ellie Lavi, left the US and travelled to Israel to conceive and bear twins from anonymously donated sperm and egg:
And then she tried to apply for U.S. citizenship for her daughters—and the State Department rejected her case. The reason: Lavi could not prove that either the egg or sperm she used were donated by an American citizen. It didn’t matter that she carried the girls in her body, gave birth to them, and raised them.
As the article notes, the facility with which fertility technology and international travel are now available make it easy for people to engage in such arrangements without considering their legal implications. In the end, governments will have to get together and negotiate how they will handle such situations, as they will only become more common in the years ahead.
There you have it: Fertility technology continues to confound conventional conceptions. It seems that we need some new ideas to cope.
Defaults and child pornography February 17, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
Canada has been the scene of some controversy this week as the Federal government has introduced Bill C-30, aka the “Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act”. Michael Geist provides an overview of the proposed legislation. In a nutshell, the Act gives police additional powers to obtain information about Internet users from their ISPs without a warrant.
The additional powers proposed in the bill are controversial in their own right. What propelled the issue onto the front page, so to speak, was the comments of the Public Safety Minister, Vic Toews (above), who is tabling the bill. In the House of Commons, Minister Toews responded as follows to a question from an Opposition member about the bill:
As technology evolves, many criminal activities, such as the distribution of child pornography, become much easier. We are proposing measures to bring our laws into the 21st century and to provide the police with the lawful tools that they need. He can either stand with us or with the child pornographers.
As Geist notes, the Minister has been saying similar things in defense of the bill for a while now. However, this latest slur sparked an angry response, leading the government to backpeddle somewhat on the bill.
The Minister’s remark provides a particularly crass example of an established argument for increasing police surveillance in society. Briefly put, the argument is that transparency increases security by making it harder for criminals to hide their misbehavior. Only criminals, the argument continues, would want to hide what they are doing.
A problem with this argument is that it overlooks a problem raised by transparency, which is the problem that innocent behavior can be mistaken for criminal activity, leading to the harassment and punishment of innocent people. If someone enters the expression “child pornography” into the search window on their browser, for example, then are they searching for child pornography, or preparing for a class about crime on the Internet? One role of privacy on the Internet is to protect innocent citizens from official suspicion. Police already enjoy considerable powers of surveillance and cooperation from Internet Service Providers. By extending their powers, the bill moves towards changing the default from innocent until proven guilty to its opposite. No one is trying to block legitimate police action against child pornography; it is simply that there are other important issues at stake.
(It is worth noting that the name of the Bill was changed at the last minute from its previous name, the “Investigating and Preventing Criminal Electronic Communications Act”. The Bill increases police powers in a general way, and is not focussed specifically on child pornography. This observation suggests that the issue of child pornography was raised not so much to help vulnerable children but to blacken the character of the bill’s critics.)
Contrast this situation with the following: Researchers at the University of Worcester in England have shown that digital photos of children posted to Flickr could expose them to unwanted attention. The researchers noted that photos posted to this photo-sharing site (like many others) contain geotagging data that describe where (and when) the photo was taken. This information can be gleaned by anyone viewing the photos and combined with other data from the Internet to produce an accurate idea of where the child lives. Whether this data puts the children at considerable risk from predators is unclear.
However, there may be a straightforward way to mitigate any risk: Change Flickr so that it identifies photos of children being uploaded and strips out the geotagging data by default. A pop-up dialog would allow users to override this default if they so choose. Such a solution would focus specifically on the problem at hand and would not create undue problems for those uploading photos without children pictured in them. (Well, the issue of identifying which photos deserve special treatment could involve some subtleties.)
In any event, these examples illustrate the importance of defaults in handling sensitive issues such as child pornography. It seems unobjectionable to request that people consider the information they post online about their children, by default. It is objectionable, however, to identify all Canadians as potential child pornographers, by default, especially in legislation that does not seem to be designed to address this problem specifically.
Patents and public shame March 10, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302, Uncategorized , comments closed
Here is a brief article from FastCompany about Apple threatening SUN with a patent lawsuit in 2003. Jonathan Schwartz, then CEO of SUN, simply replied that SUN has many patents on Unix, on which Mac OS X is based, and could thus make big trouble for Apple in a countersuit. Legal proceedings never commenced.
I am reminded, once again, of the following dialog from the 1991 movie Other People’s Money:
Kate Sullivan: Well, for someone who has nothing nice to say about lawyers, you certainly have plenty of them around.
Lawrence Garfield: They’re like nuclear warheads. They have theirs, so I have mine. Once you use them, they fuck up everything.
The fact that intellectual property practice is like nuclear deterrence is entertaining but also enlightening. With my property, I keep it locked up or on my person, and I seldom have to worry about anyone stealing it. In the era of electronic information technology, intellectual property is so easily compromised that the default is not safe-keeping but mutual assured destruction.
Yet, what keeps people from simply taking my stuff? I think it has a lot to do with the potential shame of being caught in public with stolen goods. What kept Apple from suing SUN in 2003? Apparently, it was the potential embarrassment of being exposed as IP hypocrites in public. In that respect, at least, intellectual property rights and normal property rights seem to share the same social standing. It’s just that the means of shaming is different.