Posts Tagged ‘ ethics ’

A Nostalgic Look Back: Cloning

Whatever happened to cloning?

No, no, this is a legitimate question.  I remember about ten years ago, maybe a little bit more than that, there was a buzz around ‘cloning’ as the next big scientific development.  I was in high school at the time, and I recall devouring every news story about Dolly, the first cloned sheep, that I could get my hands on.  I imagined a future in which the tiniest bit of our genetic material could be used to replicate life, and pondered the murky ethics that arose from this.  And then time passed, and the whole craze just sort of faded away.

I was reminded of this in reading Robert Pepperell’s 2003 edition of Posthuman Condition: Consciousness Beyond the Brain, in preparation for my term paper.  In the preface, Pepperell mentions with much urgency developments in the field of genetics and cloning specifically, and what this might mean in the re-definition of the ‘human’.  He references in particular a 2002 article in the Sunday Times about the imminence of the first successful human cloning (I’m fuzzy on this point, but I suspect my lack of memory suggests it wasn’t as successful or as imminent as Pepperell claims.)

So my question is this:  What happened to all the hype about cloning?  Would it have featured importantly in my Posthumanism course had it been offered eight years ago?  Is it strange that cloning hasn’t even gotten the merest mention in class?

Too Much Information, part 2: Recontextualization

The second article I want to discuss is “Data as a natural resource” by Matthew Aslett, and deals principally with the idea of transforming data—records decontextualized—into products (records recontextualized as commodities).  Aslett introduces the concept of the “data factory”, a place where data is “manufactured”.  He also highlights this in the context of “Big Data”—the current trend of accomodating larger and larger collections of information.  The problem is, “Big Data” are useless unless you can process them, analyze them, contextualize them.  Aslett suggests that the next big trend will be “Big Data Analytics”, which will focus on harnessing data sources and transforming them into products.  Assigning meaning to the raw, free-floating information, as it were.

One of the things I like about Aslett’s article is his analogy between data resources and energy resources, comparing the “data factory” with the oil industry.  Data is the new oil; useable data can be very valuable, as eBay and Facebook (Aslett’s two main examples) demonstrate.  What’s interesting about both eBay and Facebook, and why Aslett draws attention to them in particular, is that they don’t in themselves produce the data; they harness pre-existing data streams (the data “pipeline”), building on transactions that already take place, automate these transactions for their users, and parse their user data into saleable products.  In the case of Facebook, this comes in the form of ad revenue from targetted marketing, based on the most comprehensive demographic information available online (a user base of 500+ million); for eBay, it is the combination of transactional and behavioural data that identifies its top sellers and leads to increased revenue for them.  If Facebook or eBay didn’t exist, as Aslett points out, people would still communicate, share photos, buy and sell products.  They have just automated the process, and acquired the transaction records that are associated with such interactions in the process.

This makes me wonder about the ownership implications, once again, and about the Facebook terms of use I trotted out in a previous blog entry.  Is it fair for Facebook to profit off your personal information in this way?  To control your data?  Isn’t it a little worrisome that eBay and Amazon track what I buy online well enough to make quite accurate recommendations?  In terms of IAPP discussed in the last class and of David Flaherty’s list of individual rights, it is troubling to consider that, if the countless disparate traces of me online were somehow pulled together and processed, someone could construct a reasonable facsimile of me, my personality, my identity.  And isn’t this what Aslett is really talking about when he uses the word “analytics”?

Aslett, M. (2010, November 18).  Data as a natural energy source.  Too much information. Retrieved on November 26, 2010 from http://blogs.the451group.com/information_management/2010/11/18/data-as-a-natural-energy-source/

A Matter of Security

The big story over the weekend was about John Tyner, a software engineer who refused the TSA body scan and pat-down at the San Diego airport, and was subsequently removed from the airport and fined $10,000 for being uncooperative.  What makes this a big story is the fact that Tyner recorded the entire incident on his cell phone and then posted it on YouTube; he also wrote a full account on a blog using the moniker “johnnyedge”[1].  The video and blog have gone viral in the 48 hours since the incident took place, the YouTube video receiving over 200,000 hits.

There is quite a lot going on in this story that is worth examining.  First off, the relatively new practice of using the backscatter x-ray scanners and the TSA’s policy to administer a full pat-down to any passengers that opt-out of the scan have been under fire since they were first introduced.  Several stories have surfaced in the last year regarding the new technology, though none quite so markedly as Tyner’s.  One of the concerns raised was whether or not the body scan images were saved and stored [2]; the TSA confirmed that this was not the case in August, although it continues to be an issue raised in the argument against the body scans.  The issue does raise the question of precisely what does happen with the images?  How do the scanners work?  Is there no memory that stores images, even in the short term?  What if the scan does reveal someone in possession of something nefarious?  Doesn’t the scan represent evidence?  Surely there must be some system in place to preserve the image when this happens—if not, it does not seem particularly effective.  And if yes, the question is whether or not such a system violates the human rights of passengers.

I bet the TSA is rather unhappy right now, given the rising tidal wave of public discontent it is now facing.  I’ve written a lot about web content as records in this journal, so I won’t over-emphasize it now, but clearly the video/audio record Tyner preserved and uploaded to the Internet will impact the TSA’s operations—the extra time and labour spent dealing with uncooperative passengers, of navigating the negative press, and of correcting its policies and procedures will directly translate into dollar amounts.  As one article on Gizmodo suggests, there is a lot of money for manufacturers and lobbyists in the implementation and use of the new body scanners [3]; there’s a lot of money at stake if their adoption is stymied by bad press and public outrage.  And why?  Because one person recorded this activity and made the record public.

A movement in the US has grown around the rejection of the body scan technology and the TSA’s policies.  The website “I Made the TSA Feel my Resistance” has gone up, and is calling for “National Opt-Out Day” on November 24—the busiest day of the year for air travel.  It encourages passengers to refuse the body scan when they go through security. [4]

While I’ve always been sympathetic with the challenging (let’s face it—impossible) task of providing airport security, I think Tyner’s use of records and the web are useful in one very important way.  It forces us to ask: In what way does the body scan technology protect passengers?

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[1] The original blog post and videos are available here: http://johnnyedge.blogspot.com/2010/11/these-events-took-place-roughly-between.html

An article by the Associated Press about the story’s popularity can be viewed here: http://www.mercurynews.com/breaking-news/ci_16617995?nclick_check=1

As well as a blog post on the CNN Newsroom website by one of the network’s correspondents can be viewed here: http://newsroom.blogs.cnn.com/2010/11/15/dont-touch-my-junk/?iref=allsearch

[2] The issue of whether the images are stored or not was first raised last January, as represented in this article on CNN.com: http://articles.cnn.com/2010-01-11/travel/body.scanners_1_body-scanners-privacy-protections-machines?_s=PM:TRAVEL

The TSA refuted these claims at the time on their blog: http://blog.tsa.gov/2010/01/advance-imaging-technology-storing.html

The issue again made headlines in August with the following article on cnet: http://news.cnet.com/8301-31921_3-20012583-281.html

Which the TSA again refuted: http://blog.tsa.gov/2010/08/tsa-response-to-feds-admit-storing.html

[3] Loftus, J.  (2010, November 14).  TSA Full-Body Scanners: Protecting Passengers or Padding Pockets?  Gizmodo. Retrieved on November 15, 2010 from http://gizmodo.com/5689759/tsa-full+body-scanners-protecting-passengers-or-padding-pockets

This article also effectively summarizes the current controversy surrounding Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT).

[4] http://www.imadethetsafeelmyresistance.com/

Robots Frozen in the Snow

I realize I haven’t been posting as frequently as I should.  The reasons for this are less about my having nothing to post and more a complete lack of time to do so.  The Asimov Robot Stories research continues, though I’ve lost a bit of the momentum I’d gained last term thanks to impending deadlines.  I will be presenting my paper Meditating on the Robot (see below) at HuCon at the end of the month.

Among other things, my time is being dominated by a project with the University of Alberta Press’s forthcoming publication, Weeds of North America.  As part of a project management course, I’m offering my services (for free) to help develop a database system that could be used for future editions of the field guide.  It would essentially be an updatable and comprehensive catalogue of weeds.  Completion of the project, of course, is contingent on my learning how to build a database (or, if the deadline starts looming, finding someone who can).

There’s a few other things I’ve been working on, but nothing concrete enough for me to post here.  I’m currently workshopping my research proposal about using social media in organizations for mission statement dissemination, particularly in terms of methodology.  If the project looks feasible and I’m feeling good about it, I’m looking at submitting an application for ethics review this summer, and starting interviews in the Fall/Winter terms.

I’ve also been mulling over how I could approach future research with XML/Mandala browser; the Robot Stories paper got me thinking about how XML can be used as a new form of close reading that allows users to compile and compare notes in a visual, intuitive medium (i.e. rich prospect browser, like Mandala).  Recently it struck me that it would be relatively easy to conduct a user study with a variety of undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty in the English dept as subjects to test this.  I could consider the results in terms of reader response theory, or simply present them as informing new methods in scholarship.  Questions/Issues: how would I compare XML-close-reading with traditional close reading?  Is it even possible?  How would I go about writing a program that would allow users to encode texts without actually having to learn XML?  Something that could output the XML that could then be viewed in Mandala.

Downloads:

PDF – Meditating on the Robot

Blind Weighman

I’ve been reading the following article about 19-year-old Matthew Weighman, “one of the best phone-hackers alive”, recently sentenced to 11 years in prison for his crimes.  Weighman was born blind.  Fascinating stuff.

W I R E D Threat Level | Blind Hacker Sentenced to 11 Years in Prison

Relying on an ironclad memory and detailed knowledge of the phone system, the teenager is known for using social engineering to manipulate phone company workers and others into divulging confidential information, and into entering commands into computers and telephone switching equipment on his behalf.

The FBI had been chasing Weigman since he was 15 years old, at times courting him as an informant. He was finally arrested in May of last year, less than two months after celebrating his 18th birthday.

Even more interesting is the “factual resume” (read: confession) written by Weighman and his lawyer describing in detail the various crimes he was charged with, and the part he played in them.

…If they haven’t already been sold, I’m betting Hollywood buys the movie rights before the end of the week.

Pirate Bay for Sale, Sold!

I haven’t had a chance to give True Blood even a cursory examination, but this review reminds me that there’s still a lot of good TV I’m missing out on.

The Guardian | True Blood is biting into the Buffy effect

The connection to Buffy doesn’t hurt.

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Every so often there’s a review of some startup or other that catches my eye.  Epicenter on Wired.com has an interesting review right now of Google alternatives for search engines that makes for an interesting read. 

W I R E D Epicenter | Cool Search Engines That Are Not Google

The smartest one we found is Collecta. It scours the net for the most recent blog posts, news stories, tweets and comments and displays them in a continuous waterfall. It’s a torrent of information to keep track of, but if you are worried about your company’s online reputation or want the latest news on Iran, it’s indispensable.

Collecta makes me think of a beefier, richer version of the various RSS feed catchers I’ve tried over the months/years, but desguised as a search interface.  I’d like to reserve judgment until I’ve had more time to mess around with it, but at a glance it looks impressive. 

Keeping tabs on local news and events isn’t easy — even in the days of news aggregators. Enter Trackle. Think of it as a standing search engine that will notify you of news and events you want to know about. Want to follow stocks, know the weather, find news about your neighborhood, buy a treadmill on Craigslist, follow the big game while at work or find deals on specific products? Trackle searches constantly for you and sends you emails or text messages (your choice) when Apple stock falls or your team scores a run. The interface is clunky, but the idea of a search robot beats the hell out of an RSS feed any day.

After having a look at Trackle, I’m a bit iffy.  This is basically what I use Twitter for.  I think the idea of a search bot personalized to your interests is a worthwhile one, but the service needs to be refined.  It is a beta, though; Trackle is worth keeping an eye on, if only to see what developments will come out of it over time.

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7.7 Million. 

That’s the price of a Pirate Bay.  The new owners of the website hope to turn it into a profitable and legitimate venture.  I’m thinking the odds are against them, but who knows?  It looks like they’ve put some serious thought into their business model: 

W I R E D | After Sale, Can Pirate Bay Survive?

This comes on the heels of the much-publicized trial of The Pirate Bay’s original owners, now each facing 1 year of jail time and $3.5 million in fines.  (I feel frankly, like many, that outcome was a disappointing step backward in the realm of electronic copyright.)

This week: Google, Bing, and ‘bawdy houses’

I’m going to look at a few articles I’ve meant to write about from the last week. 

Firstly: 

I really have nothing intelligent to say about this, besides how wacky it is that 21st-century legislation in Canada still refers to locations in which prostitution takes place as “common bawdy houses”. 

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This week Microsoft launched Bing, their official attempt at going head-to-head with the omnipresent (potentially omnicient?) Google.  Bing includes a search engine, mapping software to compete with Google Maps, and even 411 business/business category searches.  I got the following in another email at work (this tends to happen a lot):

Lost in all the excitement around today’s public preview launch of Bing, Microsoft’s new search engine, was the subsequent launch of Bing 411. This is a direct swipe at another Google product, GOOG-411.

Both are free and both use speech-to-text technology and voice recognition to completely automate directory assistance calls. GOOG-411 (1-800-466-4411) has been going for a while, and is surprisingly intuitive. It keeps adding features like nearby intersections.

My take on this?  Bing is a Google clone.  There have been a few attempts in the past by others to compete with Google, and all have failed miserably.  But if anyone has the money and the influence to face-off against Google, it’s Microsoft.

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Speaking of Google and searching, here’s an interesting article by the nearly-as-omnipresent (at least in matters webby-and-right-wise) Cory Doctorow in this week’s Guardian: Continue reading