Blind Date (More Unauthorized Online Experimenting)

blind-date

Following up from news a couple of weeks ago about Facebook manipulating its users, this week news abounds regarding a dating agency that has been conducting some experiments on its users.

The New York Times reports that the online dating agency OK Cupid has been manipulating the data it gives to its clients, to find out how compatibility and looks effect the dating process. The company conducted 3 different experiments, in one it hid profile pictures, in another, it hid profile text to see how it affected personality ratings, and in a third, it told some hopeful daters that they were a better or worse potential match with someone than the company’s software actually determined.

So as we might imagine they came up with a series of findings, that we could loosely interpret as the following:

1. If you are told that the person is more compatible you are more likely to contact them.

2. Users are likely to equate “looks” with “personality,” even in profiles that featured attractive photos and little if any substantive profile information

3. When the site obscured all profile photos one day, users engaged in more meaningful conversations, exchanged more contact details and responded to first messages more often. They got to know each other. But when pictures were reintroduced on the site, many of those conversations stopped cold.

Well as far as I can see number 1 is pretty self evident. If you send me a note saying that a person is not compatible then I probably won’t bother them with my personal issues., 2 is quite interesting, if I like the looks of someone I am more likely to think that they are an interesting person, may be fun and without doubt the perfect match for me. And also the third is quite obvious, if I don’t know what a person looks like I might imagine their looks and would be more likely to want to get to know them.

The OK Cupid blog will fill you in on the details.

One interesting line from the blog states that “guess what, everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work”. Wise words, but I wonder if everybody realizes that. And what power they wield!

Now I would like to raise the issue of how someone can design an algorithm to measure my compatibility with another person. What will make us more compatible? Height? Interests? Worldview (and if so how can you put that into numbers)?

There is an interesting book by Hubert Dreyfus called “What Computers Can’t Do”, and in it he argues that there are some areas and situations that cannot fully function. A computer program is based on expertise, on experience that can be categorized. If there are subject matters that are impossible to completely formalise, then they are impossible to formalize in computer programs (such as the one they use to find my perfect partner if they exist).

As a human I think we make decisions based upon generalizations of a situation. Characteristics are judged based upon experiences, I once knew someone with those characteristics and they were great, or stubborn, or nasty, etc. Research suggests that we play games such as chess in this way. We do not think about a long series of possible moves in the way a computer plays, but we see a situation, it reminds us of another situation that we have confronted in the past, and we act according to our experience of action in similar situations.

I am sure some readers have experience in this field, and I would be very happy to get some comments and expand my understanding.

Amazon – destruction and revival

Amazon's LogoAmazon. A great big, greedy multinational company. Destroying countless companies and even eradicating whole industries in a matter of years.

France has recently taken measures to protect book shops, as it understands the devastating impact Amazon’s operations can have on a country. Jeff Bezos (Amazon’s founder) argues that “Amazon is not happening to book selling, the future is happening to book selling” suggesting that people want to buy books online now, and that virtual books would be rising in popularity without Amazon’s help.

In the UK, Amazon have come under scrutiny for not paying their fair share of tax.

BBC research suggests that the way in which Amazon treat their employees, means that their employees face a higher risk of mental illness.

There are numerous other scandals surrounding this online retail giant, but is it all bad? Believe it or not, Amazon is also proving a critical element in the survival of some industries and communities.

Royal Mail

Royal Mail and AmazonThe Royal Mail has had a turbulent decade. The internet has started to reduce the number of letters sent. Why pay to send a letter when you can send an email for free? Why fill your house with bank statements and insurance documents, when you can now access them all online? There are of course reasons why you might want to send a letter or receive a hard copy of something, however ultimately, the rise of the internet has significantly impacted the demand for postal services.

Amazon has actually played a critical role in the success of Royal Mail over the last few years. Yes if someone shops online, shops loose out on purchases, however online orders have to be delivered somehow, and the organisation with by far the biggest distribution network in the UK, is the Royal Mail. As a result, Amazon currently work closely with Royal Mail and provide the organisation with a massive amount of business.

So am I saying Amazon is actually good for Royal Mail? Well until Amazon opens up its own distribution network, and fills the skies with drones, yes, I think it is.

Rural Communities

Remote communities are often cut off from the rest of society in many ways. They often have very few local shops, which do not stock a wide range of goods, meaning local residents often have to travel miles to shop, or just go without. If you want to buy a new radio alarm clock (costing £20) do you take a 30 mile round trip to the nearest town to buy it, or do you order it on Amazon – probably for £15 – and have it delivered to your door the next day?

Without Amazon (and other online retailers) such communities would be cut off, leading to people either having to leave, or them feeling isolated and outdated.

Small Retailers

Like eBay, Amazon lets anyone buy and sell their goods through the site. Customers have the assurance that they will get good customer service, and if something goes wrong, Amazon will deal with the problem.

Many individuals now make a living from selling goods through Amazon. Some manufacturers sell directly through Amazon. Some people buy goods somewhere else and then sell them on Amazon for a profit. So Amazon is creating more jobs than just those who work for the company.

Authors

Amazing, J.K. Rowling struggled to get the first book of her Harry Potter series published. She was turned down several times, before she eventually managed to persuade Bloomsbury to publish her book. Amazon lets anyone publish a book. Nobody reviews it to see if it is any good, it just gets ran through a copyright checker, which determines whether it is original or not, and therefore how much of any profits the author is able to take home.

Our in-house expert on this is Mr Hankins, so if you want any more info, check out his article on the book he wrote and published on Amazon, and feel free to ask him question there.

Are Amazon another Google? Do they want to own everything, and destroy all their competition. Probably yes. But need everything they do be negative? No, almost everything they do will have some good related to it.

Nanofoods

This week I want to put two of my little pets together. Nanotechnology and food might sound like two very different topics, like a cat and a gerbil to use the pet metaphor, but you would be surprised. Many products in fact have manufactured nanoparticles in them, and we eat them.

Now we might ask if this is safe, and some would say of course it is. Some have great reservations about it, and some point to the fact that there has been little research done into the matter and that it might be better not to eat them anyway.

Friends of the Earth US have recently published a report entitled Tiny Ingredients, Big Risks, and it is free to download here.

To give you a flavour of what is on offer, I just take a few lines from the report:

A ten fold increase in unregulated and unlabeled nanofoods over the last 6 years

Nanomaterials are found in a broad aray of everyday food (cheese, chocolate, breakfast cereals etc)

Major food companies are investing billions in nanofood and packaging

An increasingly large body of peer reviewed evidence indicates that nanomaterials may harm human health and the environment

Nano agrochemicals are now being used on farms so entering the environment

US regulation is wholly inadequate

Public involvement in decision-making regarding these problems is necessary

The products containing unlabeled nano-ingredients range from Kraft American Singles to Hershey’s chocolate. They are made by major companies including Kraft (KRFT), General Mills (GIS), Hershey (HSY), Nestle (NSRGY), Mars, Unilever (UL), Smucker’s (SJM) and Albertsons. But due to a lack of labeling and disclosure, a far greater  number of food products with undisclosed nanomaterials are likely currently on the market.

To give you an idea we are talking about silver, titanium dioxide, zink and zink oxide, silicon and copper, as well as the traditional carbon nano tubes that are found in food packaging and freshness labelling technologies.

The report documents 85 food and beverage products on the market known to contain nanomaterials — including brand name products, and points out that the nanofood industry will soon be worth $20 billion.

This is a detailed report, it lists the products that have been found to contain these materials, the health problems associated with ingestion of such materials in animals and calls for action. It does not make for light reading, but it appears to me to be a technology that is being sneaked in through the back door, and soon like genetic modification will be difficult to avoid.

Take a look back at my food series for more tasty stuff.

Deep Sea Mining Agreement

bbc bulk cutter

Time moves like molasses as they say here, but it moves.

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a post called Mining the Seabed. Almost exactly a year before that I wrote a post about the possibility of sending robots to mine asteroids. All science fiction I heard you say, but oh wait.

A couple of weeks ago Nautilus Minerals, a Canadian mining corporation, signed a deal with the Papua New Guinea government to start digging (mining) the seabed just off their coast.

The mining will be done from the surface. A series of large machines (310 tonnes), one of which we see in the photo above, will be operated from ships, placed on the seabed and will effectively break up the top layer so that the ore can be pumped up as slurry (muddy stuff).

Now this doesn’t sound too good to me, but the operators claim that “It’s a resilient system and studies show that life will recover in 5-10 years. An active venting site 1km to the south East has the same bugs and snails and the current will carry the bugs and snails to the mine site. We expect it to recover quite quickly.”

Greenpeace don’t agree. The truth is we don’t really know who is right. What we do know though is that there is big money involved. The bed is rich in gold and copper, and we need this stuff for far more than wedding rings and rheumatism charms.

Now as some of you will know, my mission in life is to promote responsible innovation through my work at the Bassetti Foundation, and we can take a look at the developments above from this perspective. We all use gold and copper, and it is in great demand. My computer won’t work without electricity, copper cables, solder, silicon etc, so we can be as forthright as we like but we are the ones creating the demand.

Companies are looking to supply us and make a profit, there now seems to be a viable mining approach that will involve getting it from under the oceans. Nobody will be able to stop them doing it, so we need to think about how they are going to do it, and where.

There is probably no real way of knowing how quickly the seabed will reform or how much damage is going to be caused, there are no qualified experts in mining to conduct the operations (it’s a first time gig) and international regulation still needs to be drawn.

There does not seem to have been much public debate, we won’t be able to monitor proceedings ourselves and at the best of times, mining is a dirty affair.

So this could be a disaster waiting to happen, or it could be a fantastic opportunity to create a framework that could address all of the problems above and be applicable in other fields.

Last year some academics published an article about their experiences working in a geoengineering project. Similar set of problems as described above, but social scientists were involved in the project and participated in the decision-making process. The outcome was extremely interesting, the project scientists decided to suspend their research and rethink their positions. The article is free to download here, where there is also a more precise description. It’s easy to read and very interesting.

What have you agreed to?

Padlocked gateImage Credit

Whilst reading Animal Farm in school, my English teacher at the time had a reasonably poor memory, and as a result we would reread chapters several times, and we never actually finished the book. I did however get to see a (very impressive one-man) theatre production of the book, and I have seen the 1999 film – who’s idea was it to have a happy ending!

Anyway… today, in a BBC article it is reported that according to Fairer Finance, many car insurance policy documents are longer than George Orwell’s Animal Farm. One of the longest of the documents they found was Danske Bank’s terms and conditions which  contained almost 70,000 words – that’s more words than Animal Farm put together with Of Mice and Men – which was incidentally another book I read at school.

Of UK financial services companies, HSBC came in top with 34,162 words, whilst LV was the lowest with 6,901 – 27,261 fewer words.

Why?

For financial institutions legal jargon is important. Terms and conditions provide organisations with legal protection and are in some ways a measure of credibility and assurance – would you place trust in a bank which didn’t have any terms and conditions? I understand that they are important, but why do they need to be so long and full of technical jargon?

Do you think companies are aiming to dissuade people from reading their terms by making them so long-winded? If so, what could a business put in its terms? Could a social media site claim ownership of your face? Don’t be silly.

Do long, wordy terms of service not discriminate against slower readers, and people who have a life? Sometimes I struggle to keep up with my university reading, so how/why on earth am I expected to read a novel length script of jargon each time I open a current account?

Help is out there!

Facebook, Google and Twitter are no angels either, many websites also have ridiculously long terms of service. There is however consumer help for judging these sites, thanks to Terms of Service Didn’t Read. I use their browser extension for Firefox, and it is helpful.

YouTube tosdr

YouTube is rated D by Terms of Service; Didn’t Read

Fairer Finance have started a petition to try and bring down the small print and force organisations to be more concise and consumer friendly. Visit the campaign page and you can also send them any examples you have of annoyingly pointless small print.

Vehicle Reversing cameras, a real safety improvement?

Congratulations on a beach

Congratulations Jonny! You have the honour of posting Technology Bloggers 500th article – which is also your 125th! It is also the first post of Technology Bloggers fourth year. (Image Credit)

A car reversing cameraImage Credit
At the end of last month the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (USA) finalized long-delayed rules that will require automakers to install back-up cameras in all vehicles by May 2018. This was a long fought battle, the auto makers not wanting to be forced to adapt such measures.

And we must consider the costs, possibly between $500 and $900 million a year, to be borne by the purchaser, manufacturer and of course the state. The legislation is aimed at avoiding death or injury caused when drivers reverse over their own children or the elderly (the main victims in such accidents).

All well and good I say, maybe the rules will save some lives, and we should bear in mind that they did take 10 years to pass. But how many lives will they save?

A Typical view in reverse

We have to bear in mind that auto-mobile manufacturers estimate that upwards of 60% of all cars would have had the technology as standard by 2018, we are talking about the remaining 40%, so an incremental improvement on an already rolling ball. But how many people are killed each year in the USA in accidents of this type?

According to this article, fittingly enough from the Detroit News, 60 to 70 lives a year would be saved if all the fleet had rear view cameras, but of course as stated above 60% would have already had the cameras, so the legislation itself would save about 15 lives a year and save 1300 injuries. But how many injuries and deaths are there a year in the USA?

On average in recently in the USA there have been about 35 000 deaths and more than 2 million injured in motor accidents. According to the US Census Bureau most of those were caused by speeding and alcohol.

Now I would question the rationale of spending the amounts of money required to install cameras in all cars when the number of lives saved is going to be so small. We are talking about between 15 and 25 million dollars per life, when there may be better ways of spending this money and saving more lives.

If we look at the legislation in context, I think there are other questions that need to be asked too. The US government Distracted Driving website offers another bewildering array of statistics and related information, with mobile technology use once more taking the blame for accidents. But we might imagine that it is illegal to text and drive, but it is not in all states. Several states still allow you to send a text message while driving. Texas for example bans texting for bus drivers and novice drivers, and in school areas for everyone, but I can drive and text in Texas perfectly legally. Arizona only bans bus drivers from texting, and in south Carolina there are no rules about using mobile technology while driving.

Although road deaths have come down dramatically in the USA, those related to driver distraction have gone up. This could be related to changes in how the statistics are reported, or might be related to increased usage of mobile devices, I cannot tell that from the data provided in the census.

A table is available here that summarizes the current situation.

As a quick comparison in the UK you can be charged with reckless driving if you are involved in any accident, and texting and hand held telephone use is against the law. If you are eating or drinking however this can also be taken into account, and there is research that suggests that eating and drinking while driving can dramatically slow down reaction time. Check out this article in the Telegraph newspaper.

So I want to ask a serious question about this US legislation that we could ask about a lot of other legislation. Do these new rules really make driving safer, or do they make us feel that we are safer, or do they just make us feel that we are doing the right thing?

I don’t honestly believe that this legislation will really make driving much safer for anyone, although this is of course my own opinion. I am not making light of accidents that involve reversing over children or old people, but there must be plenty of more efficient ways of cutting down road deaths than this (like taking action to deter mobile phone or texting use for example).

Marketing High Quality Digital Music, PONO

I have never managed to get into digital music for several reasons. I don’t like wearing headphones, I get paranoid as I hear people calling my name in the background, and I think that they distract people’s attention. This is really noticeable while I am riding my bike on the pavement with the kids. People who are walking while listening to headphones are less aware of their surroundings, they tend to zig zag while they are walking and they cannot hear you coming.

This report in Businessweek addressed the problem a few years ago, although it has many methodological issues, and this article on the Treehugger website offers similar data while raising some good questions about the intentions and interpretations.

In Kenya they seem to be taking the problem seriously and in fact it will soon be a traffic offense to cross roads in Mombasa while wearing headphones or on the phone if legislation proposed by the Mombasa County Assembly is approved.
So no headphones means I don’t have one of those miniature storage devices to listen to. But I have never really got into digital downloads either. The problem there is quality. I like vinyl, take a look at the photo below of my record player.

My Sharp Record Player

My Sharp Record Player

This is a beautiful machine, 1983, plays both sides of the record, sumptuous quality, style personified and even comes in a portable version (mine also runs on batteries but the speakers don’t attach as the portable versions do).

So I have never had a system to play digital music that is half as good as this, although recently I have got closer with the Studio Pro 4 speakers that I found by the side of the street here in Cambridge (see this post for details). But even taking that into account, the sound is just not the same.

I have a vinyl and CD copy of the Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats, and playing the two together the difference in enormous. The digital version is sharper and the sounds are purer, but that was not what the boys had in mind when they were recording it. On MP3 the differences are even more noticeable. But convenience rules nowadays, and streaming of low quality music reigns.

Now Niel Young is with me on this, as are Sting and various other musicians. Niel wants to offer high quality music reproduction to people like me, and is preparing to launch his new baby Pono.

The player looks a bit like a regular MP3 player, but the files are much bigger so not as easily stored or downloaded, but the quality is much higher (say those who are marketing it). You can find some statistics in the article above. The data would suggest a vast improvement in quality, but as ever the proof of the pudding as they say.

And there is a cost issue. The player will cost about $400, and an album maybe $25. This is obviously marketed at people who have some disposable income and are looking for quality, probably musicians in their 40’s just like me.

We might wonder how big the market is, but if we note that the project raised about $2.5 million on Kickstart in a few days, maybe there is enough money and enough people around to make it a success.

So the question is for the technology community, will you (or more importantly I)  buy it?