Archive for April, 2005

Of computer bugs and public health

Monday, April 11th, 2005

I just found an article in the globe and mail about the potential hazards to hospital patients in having computers in patient-care areas. Apparently, computer keyboards are great places for viruses (real life ones) to make homes. one hospital in toronto had to throw out all of their keyboards during one virus outbreak.. the viruses that hospitals are worried about are genearlly only found in hospitals but have the potential to be lethal. the study that was reported conclusively recommends increased handwashing after computer use in hospitals!! more work needs to be done to dertermine how much cleaning (i.e. germicides and such) keyboards can handle.

Here is the article

youth conference on climate change

Monday, April 11th, 2005

While this is no UN event, you guys should check out the following site: YC3. This conference is run by youth for youth and will be a chance for youth concerned about climate change to get together and generate action! There will be plenty of large group sessions, but also smaller workshops that will give participants the chance to come up with action plans for climate change awareness campaigns/events/etc in their communities. Notably, David Anderson (past minister of the Environment) and Elizabeth May (Executive Director of the Sierra Club of Canada) will be speaking and/or running workshops at the conference!

So while this conference will happen in British Columbia, in one building, this July – where everyone will be close enough to touc – there is still a huge amount of technology and computers being used in the logistics. For instance, the steering team is made up of members from many different locations in Canada – they have never all met or even talked on the phone… all steering committee meetings thus far have taken place with the help of MSN netmeeting! Email is very useful as well and the beautiful website is helping to attract delegates from different parts of the country and even different parts of the world! Go computers!

Check the site out! Maybe you or someone you know would want to participate!

Now that’s technology

Sunday, April 10th, 2005

Stand aside, Christo and Jeanne Claude! Consider this effort to save a glacier.

A Swiss ski resort worried about global warming’s ill effects on its future is taking matters into its own mittened hands. At the ski season’s end in May, the Andermatt resort will cover some 32,200 square feet of the Gurschen glacier with an insulating PVC foam in hopes of keeping its black diamonds from melting into bunny slopes. The foam, which costs some $84,000 and can be stored during winter for reuse, was constructed by Swiss technicians to protect the snow layer from heat, ultraviolet rays, and rain. The country’s glaciers have lost about a fifth of their surface area in the last 15 years, according to a Zurich University study linking the loss to global warming, and the ice field above Andermatt is retreating by about 16 feet a year, a resort spokesperson says. If the PVC-foam trial is successful, the resort plans to cover more of the glacier, and other resorts may also get in on the doggy-bagging technique. [emphasis added]

Also see the Telegraph article, Glacier goes under wraps .

World Wide Fund for Nature points out the irony in this approach, that

although the use of petroleum for PVC production is comparatively more moderate than in other types of plastic, PVC production implies the use of chlorine, with toxic by-products and dioxin emissions that represent a huge environmental and health hazard.

No Place to Hide

Sunday, April 10th, 2005

No Place to Hide is one of two new books reviewed in a NYTimes article on how little privacy we have in an information age of data mining and post 9-11 security. Some key grafs:

O’Harrow [the author of No Place to Hide] notes that many consumers find it convenient to be in a marketing dossier that knows their personal preferences, habits, income, professional and sexual activity, entertainment and travel interests and foibles. These intimately profiled people are untroubled by the device placed in the car they rent that records their speed and location, the keystroke logger that reads the characters they type, the plastic hotel key that transmits the frequency and time of entries and exits or the hidden camera that takes their picture at a Super Bowl or tourist attraction. They fill out cards revealing personal data to get a warranty, unaware that the warranties are already provided by law. ”Even as people fret about corporate intrusiveness,” O’Harrow writes about a searching survey of subscribers taken by Conde Nast Publications, ”they often willingly, even eagerly, part with intimate details about their lives.”

The author devotes chapters to the techniques of commercial data gatherers and sellers like Acxiom, Seisint and the British-owned LexisNexis, not household names themselves, but boasting computers stuffed with the names and pictures of each member of the nation’s households as well as hundreds of millions of their credit cards. He quotes Ole Poulsen, chief technology officer of Seisint, on its digital identity system: ”We have created a unique identifier on everybody in the United States. Data that belongs together is already linked together.” Soon after 9/11, having seen the system that was to become the public-private surveillance engine called Matrix (in computer naming, life follows film art), Michael Mullaney, a counterterrorism official at the Justice Department, told O’Harrow: ”I sat down and said, ‘These guys have the computer that every American is afraid of.’ ”

The reviewer goes on to note that 10s of thousands of records from data miners have been stolen, likely by identity thieves. Yikes.

Canadians who think they’re immune need to remember that Air Canada shares passenger data from its US flights with the US and the majority of our buying patterns are captured by largely US companies and cross-referenced with census tract-specific patterns stored by Statistics Canada.

Read the first chapter of No Place to Hide.

Religion and GIS

Saturday, April 9th, 2005

Very elegant use of geographic information systems for reporting on religion:

A Century of Catholic Conclaves

Get Perpendicular

Saturday, April 9th, 2005

Schoolhouse rock marketing?

Get Perpendicular

Friday Cat Blogging

Friday, April 8th, 2005

Pete’s cat, Billy, demonstrating what cats do while you are at work…

Are you real if you can’t be googled?

Thursday, April 7th, 2005

from Juan Cole’s blog on the google smear.

The Google search has become so popular that prospective couples planning a date will google one another. Mark Levine, a historian at the University of California Irvine, tells the story of how a radio talk show host called him a liar because he referred to an incident that the host could not find on google. That is, if it isn’t in google, it didn’t happen. (Levine was able to retrieve the incident from Lexis Nexis, a restricted database).

It seems to me that David Horowitz and some far rightwing friends of his have hit upon a new way of discrediting a political opponent, which is the GoogleSmear. It is an easy maneuver for someone like Horowitz, who has extremely wealthy backers, to set up a web magazine that has a high profile and is indexed in google news. Then he just commissions persons to write up lies about people like me (leavened with innuendo and out-of-context quotes). Anyone googling me will likely come upon the smear profiles, and they can be passed around to journalists and politicians as though they were actual information.

I’m interested in this post not for its political content, although Horowitz has gained considerable notoriety in the US for his Academic Bill of Rights, which protects “non-partisan”, that is conservative speech on campus. See here and here and here. Rather, this post suggests that we are coming to be defined by the online documentation of our lives. In other words, you’re not real (i.e., you don’t exist) if you cannot be googled. However, because there’s no way to easily check the accuracy of Google entries, Cole points out that you could still be “fake” even if you’re found online. We can easily say that our lives are a social construction, made up of our experiences as well as others’ perceptions of us. Googling adds a virtual layer.

Hmm. If you’re only real because of what is reported about you online, then some guerilla tactics are possible. Perhaps we could encourage children from a very early age to start sprinkling the web with news about themselves ;-).


Wednesday, April 6th, 2005

As was mentioned in slashdot a few days ago, the maker of wordpress (the blogging software used for this blog) was hosting link spam, designed to artificially raise the ranking of websites in search engines by having hidden links to websites that regular users don’t see, but search engine crawlers do. Such practices contribute to the irritating occurance of clicking on links from Google that lead to ‘index’ pages that exist only to link to advertising and pop-up ads (which sadly have begun making an appearance in Firefox again). WordPress is an open source project, and the default configurations have links back to the website (the bottom of this page has it for example). Now all of those links pointing towards give wordpress more authority, which is then used for these somewhat nefarious purposes.

The general consensus was that it was a poor move, which has caused WordPress to be removed from Google’s, Yahoo’s, and MSN’s indices, and no doubt the maker of WordPress feels sufficiently bad about it that he will think twice before doing it again.

The question is, at what point must we examine our usage of tools, based on their source? In this case, the questionable behavior was quickly rectified. But what if the department of defence (or… Microsoft!) released open source tools. Should people have ethical qualms about using that code based on its source? What if it is released and then used for generally evil purposes? Or for a more general example, what about contributing to projects that are generally used to further causes I personally do not agree with? I generally try to buy non-evil products, should it be ok to use ‘free’ projects with evil associations?

Predicting the Future!

Wednesday, April 6th, 2005

In one of the Philip K. Dick short stories I read, the premise was that the sci-fi writers are in fact predicting the future, without even knowing it, and people from the future who had a problem, decided to travel back in time, to get the person from the past, to write more of the story, to determine the solution to the problem they were having, that the author had already correctly predicted.

It was kind of a funny idea, and the story is somewhat amusing. As we discussed today even if we discount the idea that people are actually seeing into the future, it may be that science fiction is inspiring people to try to create what they read or see in novels and on tv or in movies.

However, the most interesting futurist on the internet has to be John Titor. Someone sent me his site a few years ago, which details how he is a time traveler from the future, who has come back to our times to apparently make an internet site detailing the world’s demise over the next few years. Not to the credit of my friend who sent it to me, they seemed quite convinced. I have long since lost the initial website, but here is a summary page and the Wikipedia entry.

The internet can create some interesting myths, which would probably otherwise have a lot more difficulty spreading. Beyond John Titor, another category of links people send me ‘secretly’ are posts about the oil peak, which predicts massive oil shortages very soon, due to various factors.

When things develop enough, sometimes these websites create enough momentum they begin to look like legitimate information, and people start to buy it. I wonder how long it will be before we see a religion with its primary texts written electronically? If it could gain a foothold, it would certainly have the potential to spread very rapidly.

Google adds satellite maps

Tuesday, April 5th, 2005

The Associated Press reports on a new Google feature that incorporates satellite maps.

Online search engine leader Google has unveiled a new feature that will enable its users to zoom in on homes and businesses using satellite images, an advance that may raise privacy concerns as well as intensify the competitive pressures on its rivals.

The actual site is here. I can see why people would be alarmed. You can zoom in really close.

the power of the net

Tuesday, April 5th, 2005

We have already mentioned the Gomery inquiry in class a little bit. Well now it seems that an unassuming American blogger has triggered a political crisis in Canada by publishing testimony from the inquiry that was subject to a publication ban.

Here is a story from the Globe about this.

I won’t link to the actual blog in question for fear of us getting sued!

Controlling a Computer with your Mind

Monday, April 4th, 2005

This is truly bizarre. John Donoghue, a professor of neuroscience at Brown University in RI has developed a brain chip that reads brain signals and allow those who are paralysed the ability to control everyday objects by thought alone. That means one can think a t.v. on or off, alter volume, and even move a computer cursor just with the brain. The chip is inserted into the motor cortex and wires are fed into a computer which analyses the brain signals, the signals are then transformed into cursor movements, which gives the user the ability to control computers just by their mind. What about those who have a really active mind? Will they be able to control their impulses? It is one thing to think of something bad, and something quite different to actually DO something bad. But with this technology, perhaps there will be a thinner line here…

Chicago Center for Green Technology

Monday, April 4th, 2005

This would be a fun class trip in the future…the Chicago Center for Green Technology is a building complex that has used green, or sustainable technology in its design. It uses natural light to help heat the building, and has a lighting system that adjusts the electricity depending on the amount of light outside. It has a green roof, to absorb rainwater and to reduce the amount of water going into the sewer system. Large cisterns also capture the water and reuse it to water the landscape. The building encourages people to use other modes of transportation besides cars. It has bike racks and showers and features outlets for those who drive electric cars. But there are only 2 dedicated spaces for those who carpool. Over 40% of the materials used in the renovation were purchased within less than 300 miles of the site (helping to decrease transportation distance). And over 40% of the materials used in the construction of the building were made from recycled materials. It is only the 3rd building in the US to use high standards of green technology. Where and when will we see the others?

The Waste Returns

Monday, April 4th, 2005

The Guardian newspaper reports that the UK Environment Agency is investigating a recycling company as containers of garbage mislabelled as clean recyclable paper are being shipped back to Britain. This follows up on an earlier post when the contaminated recyclable paper was first discovered on its way to the developing world.

Thanks, Prof. Badami, for noting the story.

technology for cheap

Monday, April 4th, 2005

Check our the $100 laptops MIT labs are going to mass produce for the developing world. Is this a good idea? Already in the first world, we’re thinking about slapping on technology tax, to account for environmental “costs”, but technology already depreciates quickly over time. It would help bridge the digital divide, and would make it more equitable, but this also means more waste…and what about destroying the essence of cultures, with technology that will proliferate across nations, or is it something lost, something gained? Will this also be decreasing our diversity? I still think there should be something said about the amount of waste this will generate…the article doesn’t mention anything about whether the technology is less hazardous, and suppose first world countries started offering laptops at $100 a piece? Consumption would increase, no doubt…

Tunes for the bathroom

Saturday, April 2nd, 2005

With a nod to Liam, who made our only other post about toilets, here’s a report from yesterday on the announcement for the iPotty dock:

Apple Japan announces, pulls iPotty dock

Early Friday morning, the Japanese web site of Apple Computer briefly hosted pages depicting an previously unannounced iPod peripheral called “iPotty” (JPY 104,970, approx. $1000), a beige-and-white electric toilet seat featuring an integrated iPod dock on its right side. Presumably intended only for the domestic Japanese marketplace, iPotty promises to deliver music playback and an “optional scent eliminator” to drown out embarrassing bathroom sounds and smells. Availability is listed at 1-3 weeks, indicating an imminent release.

E-Waste laws

Saturday, April 2nd, 2005

Talk about funny acronyms, the Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) directive which makes electronic manufacturers responsible for the recycling and disposal of goods, was going to become a law in the UK in August; however it has been pushed back to 2006. Read the BBC Newsarticle that highlights the story. Apparently the legislation is complicated, because, as the UK WEEE program manager notes, “When you look at the detail, it is complex. It requires interaction with people we don’t usually interact with.” And I thought ICT would make processes faster…government organization is still a slow process. In some ways this is good, in other ways, like with the urgency of environmental hazards, it is bad.

google gulp

Friday, April 1st, 2005

This is funny! I think it might be an inside joke or something…

Scientific American Magazine gives up

Friday, April 1st, 2005

The editors of Scientific America have decided to give up on the evolution debate:

In retrospect, this magazine’s coverage of socalled evolution has been hideously one-sided. For decades, we published articles in every issue that endorsed the ideas of Charles Darwin and his cronies. True, the theory of common descent through natural selection has been called the unifying concept for all of biology and one of the greatest scientific ideas of all time, but that was no excuse to be fanatics about it.