Archive for January, 2005

economic indicator bugs

Monday, January 31st, 2005

Here’s a somewhat obscure item but it illustrates just how much technology can affect every part of society and it fits in well with the globalization articles.

Statistics Canada regularly calculates various economic indicators for Canada, including the the GDP and the trade surplus. According to this report, a technical glitch caused the most recent reported trade surplus to be off by almost $4 billion!! They claim the technical problem has now been corrected. But not before it created a chain reaction of events, including the miscalculation of the US GDP, which is aparently calculated by US officials using Canadian data.

The global economic system has become intensely dependent on computerized data management and data transmission systems. As financial services become more integrated and the movement of capital and goods increases in speed, this dependence will only increase. So many millions of numbers floating out there, good thing they only get confused once in a while.

Young people today…

Monday, January 31st, 2005

I read an interesting book a number of years ago called Growing Up Digital by Don Tapscot. The book is based on a series of interviews Tapscot conducted with kids aged 2 to 22 during the mid-90s. He draws some interesting conclusions about how the information age will affect young people. Among the themes he explores: a hightened perceived need for instant communication with those close to us; feelings of dependence on technology; and perhaps most interesting, changes in the way kids learn.

I often think about what it was like to learn about technology when I was young and then I look at my young cousins who have been on MSN since they could bang a keyboard. They are certainly getting a very different perspective.

This news item about a 19-year-old who was sentenced to jail time for creating a worm (a kind of computer virus) made me think of another, more insidious way in which technology has affected young people.

Ticking time bomb in the land of outsourcing

Monday, January 31st, 2005

Appears that we do more than export jobs to India, we also outsource our e-waste!

Bangalore faces e-waste hazards

“E-waste is like slow poison. After 50 years what will happen to our environment?” asks the Pollution Board chairman, S Bhoomanand Manay, calling for a concerted effort by both government and private agencies to tackle the menace.

“Most of the industry, especially the IT companies, are vaguely aware of the problems of e-waste,” says Mr Manay.

In another irony of outsourcing IT, read this older article from the BBC: India’s silicon valley faces IT exodus. In it the author reports that multinational IT businesses are threatening Bangalore’s municipal government with a pullout if it doesn’t “improve the roads, manage unruly traffic, improve power supply and expedite building of flyovers, hotels and an international airport near the city limits”. Of course, the very economic structure that attracts businesses to this area doesn’t provide sufficient taxes to improve the municipal infrastructure.

Cat Blogging Background

Saturday, January 29th, 2005

Lest you think I’m the only one who Friday cat blogs, check out one of my favourite blogs, Eschaton, and its most recent cat blogging photos.

If that’s not enough, check out the blog, the Carnival of Cats, that entirely devoted to other peoples’ Friday cat blogging photos. AND if that’s still not enough, read the NYtimes article on the Friday cat blogging phenomenon.

RFIDs replacing Barcodes

Friday, January 28th, 2005

Barcodes have been used for more than 30 years to identify products, we can pretty much find them on all packaging. But it seems like the retail industry is running out of barcodes number (it’s only 12 or 14-bit) and that the barcode is not good enough anymore. A newer technology that will most likely replace barcodes is currently emerging, RFID (Radio frequency identification). A RFID is basically a simple microchip that has a number and act as radio antena so it can be remotely scanned. It has considerable advantages over the conventional barcode including that every single product can be assigned a unique number (instead of usually a number per type of product), and tags can be scanned remotely in bulk, instead of product by product. RFIDs are already widely used in applications such as security cards, anti-thief system in music stores, etc… But now the retail industry seems to want to replace all barcodes by RFIDs. Wal-Mart is already requiring its top 100 suppliers to place RFID tags on product cases and pallets by January 2005, beginning in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
This new practice raises a couple of important issues on privacy and environment. A lot of people seems to be concerned with the privacy issue see PCWorld article and RFID Privacy Blog, because all RFID can be remotely tracked.
Some organization seems to start being interested in how to extract these microchip to continue to be able to recycle the packaging materials. OFFE
However from my google search I have not found any study about the environmental impact of producing all these silicon microchips that could replace all barcodes (that’s a lot of microchips).
Interestingly some other people believe that it could improve recycling management as well. see Industrial Ecology and the Digital Revolution

Extending battery life through nanotechnology

Friday, January 28th, 2005

Via Slashdot I see that the company BatMax (i.e., battery maximization and not something to do with Batman as I originally thought) has announced the development of a nanoceramic to extend the life of rechargable batteries in e-devices. The nanoceramic sheet simply attaches to the back of rechargable batteries used in cellphones, pdas, mp3 players, etc.

Batmax does have an environment statement. Whether this ends up being more environmentally friendly or not is difficult to determine. If the technology is true to its advertising, it will reduce the charging time and the need for charging, therefore reducing electricity consumption. It will delay the purchase of new batteries, thus reducing the number of batteries disposed of and the toxic leachates in landfills. However, the extent of chemicals used in the production of these nanoceramics remains an unanswered question.

(For further information on nanotechnology, the technology used to create the nanoceramic, check out the US National Nanotechnology Initiative .)

Mr Evil Goes to University

Friday, January 28th, 2005

Mr Evil Goes to University

Are We Making Things More Difficult For Ourselves?

Thursday, January 27th, 2005

We have become like nomads again, constantly on the move. Although telecommunications has provided an outlet so that we don’t have to travel as much, instead it has spurred more interaction, and the amount of travelling is increasing as a result. We travel so much, that our homes are becoming less permanent. Whereas we used to have 99-year leases prior to the Industrial Revolution, now we see more impernanent homes, such as those on time-share, RVs and motor homes, even capsule hotels found in Japan used commonly by business people who need a cheap place to stay overnight. People seem to be bored with what they’ve got, and are seeking something new. It seems like time has sped up, and as computers were supposed to save us time, rather they have spurred a race against the clock. Even with all this technology, some people are working 60 hr. weeks or more in some cases. During the Industrial Revolution in Paris, it took 100-200 years to construct a cathedral and the architecture is still standing today. Renovations are done in order to keep the spirit of the buildings alive. However, in Canada and the USA this is not typically the case. Buildings often go up in a matter of months, and can be torn down in a matter of weeks. Maybe people should take development at a slower pace, both construction and technology, and really think about what we are doing. Can we see this product working 80-100 years from now or is it just going to end up in the waste stream, and if so, could we take apart those devices and devise an entirely new, enticing product with the same parts? The answer would usually lead to no, right now, since products are so specialized and are always changing. In terms of architecture, we don’t really need a lot of new buildings to change things. We just need to be more creative with what we’ve got. So many times I’ve seen malls go out of business, and developers think the solution is to build another mall somewhere else and tear down the old one, creating a false sense of demand. The people, the city, and the environment can’t afford such dumb solutions. I would recommend the movie “SHOWER” about a father who runs a traditional bath house in China and his son goes away and works in the City as a businessman. It is about the struggle of traditional vs. progress in modern China, but touches on some interesting issues. Perhaps we could watch the movie in class during the myth and metaphor section?

Hi Tech is low impact on the environment, especially for its workers

Thursday, January 27th, 2005

For those of you new to the subject of environmental impacts of computers, I highly recommend a series of pieces by Jim Fisher of Salon Magazine. Although written in 2000 and 2001, I haven’t seen better reporting on the health effects of working in the semiconductor industry, particularly in the clean rooms, where chips and disks are made. He certainly bursts the notion that clean rooms have anything to do with worker safety. He also provides depth to the problem of linking chemical exposure, especially when it’s low level and chronic exposure, to cancer.

Poison Valley, parts 1 and 2

Poison PCs

Energy Waste

Tuesday, January 25th, 2005

Okay, I did some googling, and found out that appliances and computers do indeed use electricity even when they are turned off! But I didn’t find anything about power bars using electricity (which doesn’t mean they don’t. If they do use electricity when turned off, it’s probably a very minute amount. Anything that is plugged into an outlet, there is some transfer of energy there, and the appliances, even when turned off, are draining power. Better thing to do is just unplug appliances, computers, synthesizers, whatever, when not in use, in order to save electricity and save money!) On the Energy Alternatives website, they refer to this energy drainage as “Phantom Loads”.


Tuesday, January 25th, 2005

Ergonomics forms an integral part of the computers-environment-society dynamic because the physical design of computing and its related work environment has significant public health implications. The US Occupational Health and Safety Administration estimates that at least one-third of all workplace injuries are musculo-skeletal disorders (according to the US Dept of Labor, these include afflictions of muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, cartilage, and spinal discs). Many of these injuries come from computer work where, for example, the mouse is too far or the monitor is too low or the chair is improperly adjusted.

OSHA maintains an excellent resource on computers and public health, which is OSHA’s etools site. Take the ergonomic checklist to determine how ergonomic your computing environment is.

Impact of quantum computers on current data security technologies

Tuesday, January 25th, 2005

(I hope this post is not too technical, let me know if it is).
Most conventional crytography algorithms are based on mathematical problems that are hard to solve with the existing algorithm technologies and computing power. The currently most widely used of these mathematical problem is the problem of factoring a large number that has been made from the multiplication of two large prime numbers. If you can factor the large number (find the two prime numbers it was made from) you can break the code and find the key to decrypt the message.
The most notorious cryptography technology that uses this mathematical problem is RSA. RSA is a public-key cryptography system that is used everywhere, you might have heard of it before. The current size of the large number to factor is 128 bits. That’s why you hear 128-bit encryption all the time. A 128-bits number is quite hard to factorize, you need either a lot lot lot of computing power or to invent a new very clever algorithm or … build a quantum computer. Many believes quantum computers to be the next generation of computers. Although we are still far from building one, a lot of people are worried about it and a lot of research is going on about finding new ways to encrypt data (including quantum cryptography). Because as Prof. Brassard (a cryptography expert at university of montreal) said “If a quantum computer is ever built, much of the conventional cryptography will fall apart”. As more and more aspects of our life get digitalized (banking, commerce, etc…) and are secured with RSA… you can imagine the disastrous consequences that this could have on our society on a world wide scale.

This paper contains an interesting list of facts about the impact of quantum information processing on data security (first part).
For the more technicaly and mathematicaly inclined (and brave too), here’s a link to an introduction to quantum computing at the university of indiana. And here’s how RSA works and how it can be broken.

Multiple Personalities

Tuesday, January 25th, 2005

Communication through bulletin boards, netmeetings, email and other internet mediums is becoming the norm. how often do you send a quick email rather than call a friend to see what the plans are for the weekend? or have a net meeting rather than an in-person meeting. Putting aside the significant cost advantages as well as distance and schedually bridges that internet communication provides, there are some interesting ideas on why people sometimes prefer communicating via the net rather than person to person.

There was a study done at the University of Alberta in 2000 titled: Exploring Social Communication in Computer Conferencing. In the study, there is discussion on the idea that some people, namely students, who feel uncomfortable participating in traditional classroom social interaction activities will show a completely different personality during internet communication. I have experienced it myself during various netmeetings, people who are normally shy and passive sometimes lead the online discussion, offer numerous opinions and question the remarks of other discussants.

What is it that causes this shift in personality? Is the computer screen less intimidating than human faces? or is it the forums themselves, which can be “manipulated to create open, supportive and cooperative environment[s]”, as the U of A study suggests? And why have classrooms gone from being open, supportive and cooperative environments to areas of intimidation, peer pressure and passive behaviour? are computers and the internet taking us away from the need to interact socially in person, or is the degradation of human behaviour (intimidation, peer pressure, impatience, power trips, etc) driving us to seek new mediums for communication?

There question that baffles me the most is: which personality is real? The personality that is shown when a person is in physical presence of other humans or the person’s online personality? It appalls me to think that there may come a day where our lives are so dependent on the internet that our personalties are defined completely by our online behaviour.

Does anyone have any thoughts? just think about it, I can already see personality differences, online and in the classroom, amongst our classmates.

GIS and Access to Information

Tuesday, January 25th, 2005

When you have a chance, you should check out the paper on the Sillicon Valley Toxics Coalition website: SVTC under the heading “Sustainable Water” on the right, then under “Publications”, “GIS and Health”. Or rather, here’s the link directly to the paper: Interactive Applications of GIS in Understanding Community Environmental Health The paper emphasizes collaboration from varying sectors in promoting the health field and trying to increase the public and private knowledge base overall, through the exchange of information. It claims that new technologies are more often developed outside the public sector and rather should be reintigrated into the public sector. It focuses on the interactive use of Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers (PRTRs), originally known a emission inventories, that are made available to the public. For instance, SVTC’s EcoMaps include “information identifying the name and contact information of the polluting facility’s environmental, health and safety officer” (Stanley-Jones 20). This allows the community to question the particular company’s involvement in pollution prevention; however, as the paper reveals later, the information is often screened first by state agencies, and by the company itself, and the company can choose what information, if any, it wants to disclose to the public. Stanley-Jones argues we need more collaboration between community members and government policy-makers, through ‘democratic interactivity’: “Individuals and civic organisations must become the co-producers of environmental information guiding public policy if the cognitive challenges to managing such information are to be met” (Stanley-Jones 23). He promotes community-based monitoring projects as an effective means for attaining this, and lists a number of organisations that have taken this approach. I think this is a good approach, because it seems to be more holistic, in incorporating the public to a larger extent in policy decisions. If we limit information exchange to just a select few, we are limiting ourselves from increased knowledge, and as a result we often make less informed decisions which in turn, can often lead to negative consequences. It is interesting to wonder what kind of reprecussions this will have in the future in the health field. Suppose you can quickly find out which neighbourhood has the most polluting factories nearby, and statistics can help determine your life span if you choose to live there…of course, there are many factors linked to health, and landscapes do change, so perhaps it may not reach that level. The implications of this paper seem promising, though, as the paper seems to encourage more responsibility of companies towards the environment. As a result, this may lead to tighter regulations, and in turn, the standards will keep going up, and we will try to arrive at better solutions, with the help of both private and public sectors…what are your thoughts on this?

Computers Can’t Add or Why Some Simulations Can’t Cut It

Tuesday, January 25th, 2005

A lot of stock these days gets put into simulations of various complex events. For most of these simulations, there aren’t poor underfed graduate students doing calculations by hand, of course we use our computers to do these simulations for us.

Computers approximate our answers. In same cases for the sake of expediency: there’s an infinite number of numbers out there, it’s faster and cheaper to just ignore some of them, and of course, this leads to some inaccuracy and a loss of precision in performing calculations. However in a lot of cases, they approximate because we just don’t know what the ‘actual’ solution is. I’m not sure how many of you remember your calculus, but they always seemed to kind of ignore some integration questions, and for good reason, for almost all functions there’s no way known to get an exact integral. A lot of those functions are used all over the place. Similarly for many differential equations, and finding roots of polynomials of degree 5 or more, there’s no general solution we know of, so we approximate, and then proceed to use those approximations to make further approximations, and so on.

Now this works pretty well in practice for most applications. After all, we seem to be doing alright in space, using computers we seem to be able to have gone to the moon and launched many shiny objects. But for things which exhibit complex or chaotic behaviour, it turns out our computer models have quite a number of limitations. Want to do equations with gravity with 3 masses? We can do somewhat decent approximations, throw in say 20 masses, and things tend to get out of control pretty quickly. The weather is another system that we model, we’re able to gather quite a lot of data, and they have very powerful computers working on very complex models, and for all that the best predictions we have are at most a few days in advance, and are often wrong at that. Whoops!

So, the universe doesn’t give us exact answers most of the time, and sometimes even when it does, we prefer to take the quick and dirty route. Does this mean we throw our simulations of complex systems out? Of course not. Even if they get they’re never completely ‘right’, often the approximations can still give us a lot of insight.

In a lot of those climate change simulations I’ve seen discussed, of course the industry hacks like to bring this up as uncertainty about the actual effects of various inputs to the simulation. This is where people, and common sense, come in. Those simulations need people to analyze their results, to run them with different data, more data, better data, manual corrections, etc., to see what our approximations are telling us about the underlying universe. The models themselves have no fundamental truths to them. There’s still some art there.

General Simulations
Gravity Simulations

Fun with Lasers (courtesy of Pete)

Friday, January 21st, 2005

I use a laser pointer like a cat-remote control. (You can just see the red dot, note the claws.) The best part about getting the cat all riled up and aggressive is when I point the laser at a visitor’s feet and watch them frantically dance with each other.


Internet Security and other Stuff

Thursday, January 20th, 2005

This relates to the article entitled “The Social Life of Information” but also to what we were discussing in class the other day, about cd or computer disk waste. The article seemed to bring up more questions than it answered. In terms of the music industry, it is very easy to download music from the internet and not have to buy cd’s. And this is usually done illegally, which hurts the music industry. But on the other hand, if people are downloading music onto an mp3 player, which can be used and reused, less cd’s are required, so that may be a reason to embrace this action, because the consequences to the environment are less than if you kept buying cd’s. But people often get blank cd’s and download music onto them, so in effect, the internet may encourage more cd use.

The article talks about the fluidity involved in information exchange, and sugests that musicians should “shift their income streams from products and copyrights (that rely on fixity) to performance (which is fluid)” (pg. 198). Taking this a step further, the fluidity of the internet has had some pros and cons. For instance, the bank ING Direct relies on telecommunications and internet communications for transactions. They do not have a lot of physical buildings in place, but rather they are able to offer a higher rate of interest because they do not have to construct or heat as many buildings, because most of the exchanges occur online or on the phone. On the one hand, this reduces the waste involved in construction of a building, and reduces energy in heating or cooling the building, but on the other hand, does this encourage more computer and phone use? And if banking is leaning towards this approach, instead of relying moreso on paper documents, ultimately we have something less tangible to rely on, and so security becomes a big issue, as was expressed in the article with the vinegar residue on the paper. It limits us from seeing a larger picture, and ironically too, it is allowing us to reach out and learn more about the bigger picture. But check out this news article on internet security: Wireless Net In the future, will we be able to track criminals that use a system that is so versatile and open to loopholes? We will have to keep updating security systems as each new technology becomes more complicated and advanced.

Semiconductors factories in Quebec

Tuesday, January 18th, 2005

As I said in class… I thought I had already heard that there was a semiconductor facotry in Bromont, Quebec. Well I googled a bit and actually found out that there is more than one. I found that there’s at least two:
Dalsa semiconductorsthat are making semiconductors wafers, with a capacity of 10,000-15,000 wafers/month.
– And IBM, which have their world largest microchip packaging facility in Bromont that produces tens of millions of chip packages per year and according to this article uses appoximately 1,500 different chemicals.
I have not found any report on the waste management of these facilities in Bromont yet. Anyone can find something???


Saturday, January 15th, 2005

Sorry for the delay. I have finally found the info I was thinking of regarding Darwin and religion during last Tuesday’s class. It was from the November 2004 issue of National Geographic, in the article “Was Darwin Wrong?”, by David Quammen. According to this article, Darwin had done some studying to become a clergyman during his undergrad at Cambridge, but realized that science suited him better. Quamman even exposed the idea that the delay in the release of Darwin’s work was partially due to him not wanting to publish something that was so contrary to conventional Christian beliefs; he was especially worried about offending his wife. Darwin’s wife, Emma, was a seemingly devout Christian and “prayed for his soul” when her husband chose an agnostic belief structure.

It is interesting to note that there exists two very distinct categories that some naturalists fit into. Those that are skeptical of a God’s work in nature, like Darwin, and those that undoubtedly believe that no force other than God could have created something as magnificant, perfect and sacred as the natural world (like John Muir for instance). I’m not saying that all naturalists must fit into one or the other, just these are two categories that do exist.

Images of Titan

Friday, January 14th, 2005

Okay, not computers, society and environment but tres cool. First images of the Huygens probe to Titan, the giant moon of Saturn.

(via Pete Barry)