Software Updates: A User’s Perspective

It time for another humorous, if somewhat pointed, look at modern technology, specifically software updates and the (mixed) messages that come with them.

Take for example:

This software update will fix a few security issues.

What it seems to mean:

  • The update will break all my preset passwords, requiring re-input into ‘settings’.

But, I don’t know all my preset passwords. Either I dig into that secure location where I keep the paper record of the passwords (although I’d don’t have such a thing because it’s a giant security risk), or request password resets, which requires changing the same password on six other devices. Where I can’t remember how to find the setting because…

We’re changed our look.

What it seems to mean:

  • Everything on the website/app looks completely unfamiliar. I’m disoriented.
  • If the background was white, now it’s navy blue. The rounded font now is square. The logo is different so I’m not even sure if I have an account, which doesn’t matter because the last security patch erased my password.
  • I can’t finding things by their location on the screen, because that’s changed too. The menu has moved from the right sidebar to three lines disguised as a decorative doodad at the top of the page.
  • The marketing team must have decided to rename all the critical functions, so looking for functions by name is pointless.
  • Shutting down is impossible? The capability has been removed. Who’d want to stop using this brilliant software, anyway?
  • There’s new functionality, preset to the most intrusive level, so that I suddenly have strange icons clogging my screen when I’m trying to call a critically important client with information they wanted five minutes ago.

All this because…

The software (operating system, word processing, presentation software) is licensed to you free of charge.

What it seems to mean:

  • The software developer is in command but assures me I’m a valuable customer.
  • I’m inundated with ‘update your software’ messages. A screen pops up while I’m in the middle of doing something I’ve chosen to, like email my ailing mother, text my member of parliament about internet privacy concerns, or read my son’s report card.

All I have to do to use my free software, on my device, is continually dismiss messages from the software developer. I don’t update because I’m afraid I’ll need a bunch of time to reload my passwords and figure out where all the options are …see above.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad software is updated all the time, otherwise we might be stuck with that annoying paperclip of advice, have our identities stolen, or be able to brew a pot of tea between page loads. Ever advancing software functionality has changed everything over the years in wonderful ways. Embedded video. Autofilled fields. Hyperlinks to automatically put events in your calendar or phone the new restaurant that delivers to your house at the touch of a screen.

Why am I complaining? Humans hate change. C’mon, even those of us who are addicted to change actually hate change if it messes with our routines. Routines make life simple. I don’t want to have to think about where to find the menu on my favourite website because I have better things to do. Like vote on a new logo for my favourite coffee shop.

It’s like old slippers: comfy, cosy, threadbare, faded with a sole that flops around, half unglued. If anyone has the nerve to replace them with a sleek new pair, complete with ultra comfortable memory foam insoles, I’m not happy. Not because the new slippers aren’t nice, have additional features and the old ones were about to disintegrate, but because my brain has to adjust.

Perhaps the answer is software updates so frequent and subtle that we never consciously notice the continuous, small changes. On that point, what did I notice, just yesterday, but a certain browser advertising its features, including continuous updates. If the approach to updates is a marketing point, I’m not the only one who finds the current, prevalent process aggravating.

That’s the miracle of software: if you don’t like the way something works, give it a few months and it will likely change. The update is coming.

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Abandoning Science Fiction. Embracing Science Fiction.

Traditionally, science fiction imagined the impacts of emerging technology decades and centuries into the future, suggesting fanciful, outrageous possibilities. These were generally ignored as figments of, well, science fiction.

No more. Lots of people are paying attention to science fiction. We can’t dismiss the potential of technology as surreal anymore. It’s real, as real as your online medical history, or app-controlled crockpot.

Science fiction has snuck into, and taken a starring role in, mainstream entertainment: Starwars, Game of Thrones, Dr. Who, and countless other movies and TV shows. Best books of 2016 include science fiction and fantasy titles. While some might debate the purity of this popular scifi, a heightened awareness of technology permeates popular culture, perhaps as a collective intuition of the urgency to understand what’s coming.

In classic titles like 1984 (information technology), Brave New World (human engineering), and Blade Runner (artificial intelligence), science fiction explored the frontiers of advancing technology. The time has past for the implications of emerging technologies be left to the philosophers in their ivory towers or visionaries in their chrome think tanks. Jaw-dropping new technology barrels towards us like a runaway locomotive, and threatens to overwhelm us like deer in the headlights.

My mission is to make science and technology accessible. In 2004, I took up writing scifi to help people understand science, both how it worked and its potential outcomes. By mid 2015, it seemed to me the field of scifi had undergone a tectonic shift. Currently popular stories seems less to hypothesize the impacts and ethics of emerging technologies than to explore human nature. All good, but not my fundamental driving force.

I took another path, focused on another passion – using business strategy to turn scientific developments into useful products for people1. Ironically, this is now a better place to achieve my goal to bring science to people. We are poised on the edge of many technological advances with the potential to change life as we know it, probably sometime next week, or year. Definitely now-ish.

At one of my recent business meetings, the light, closing banter considered whether bitcoin would become a solid currency. Bitcoin, or entirely digital currency, is an attractive concept, as a global, non-political, apparently secure2 and completely portable form of money. Many commentators expect it to disrupt banking as we know it. Not science fiction. Business.

I credit the book (from the business section of the bookstore) ‘Industries of the Future’ by Alec Ross3 with coalescing my thoughts about science fiction. In this book, the list of emerging technologies was no surprise and included self driving cars, the Internet of Things, big data and the associated privacy or lack thereof, genetic profiles, and cyberwarfare. Ross’ genius is coupling the astonishing capability of the technology with current uses and impacts.

Technology is becoming mainstream faster than it can become science fiction.

Today you can place your order as you walk towards your favourite coffee shop, pay for it before you open the door and whizz by the barista as you grab the cuppa with your name on it. Tomorrow, someone could hack your fridge to steal your identity or you might never find another job once your genetic profile has been uploaded into Monster.

No more is 19844 fiction. Fifty years ago, although horrified by the notion of being monitored constantly, we stood back and debated whether it would ever really happen. No more debate – the capacity exists. Now. Most of us are fortunate that such intel is not used against us. It’s only used to sell us things.

Issac Asimov wrote about robots5. While countless manufacturing jobs have been lost to automation, the real question is: how far it will go? Will robots replace teachers, lawyers, doctors, or spouses? This is about more than lost jobs, it’s about what it is to be human.

GATTACA6 (1997) was a movie about a young man who wanted to be an astronaut, but it wasn’t in his DNA, literally. The movie’s premise is that people’s occupations are determined by genetic profiling. In GATTACA, our hero fakes his genetic makeup to live his dream. Genetic profiling is close enough to reality that the Canadian government is working on genetic privacy legislation, while businesses that provide health insurance want to use genetic information to determine policy premiums.

Cory Doctorow, in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom7, wrote about a system called Whuffie. The basic concept was that a score like karma, based on how many good things you did and how many people liked you, followed you around and determined your fate. How different is this from celebrity influencers on social media, who might have a more pervasive impact on medical products that knowledgeable medical professionals?

Countless scifi stories show people being identified by their fingerprints or retinal scan. How close is this to reality? Ask Bionym, a Canadian company that authenticates identity by heartbeat8.

Artificial intelligence is coming. In the classic scifi tale, 2001 Space Odyssey,9 an evil computer took over a spaceship because a human tried to shut it down. Watson, IBM’s super computer, knows more about medical advances10 than any of our physicians possibly could, and it won on Jeopardy!11 Meanwhile, Google can predict pancreatic cancer more efficiently than medical tests12, and Twitter can divine which movies will be hits before the box office opens to sell the first ticket to a showing13.

Business brings us new technology, whether we are ready or not. Realizing the potential consequences can’t be left to science fiction. We need to understand all the ethical, secondary and broader environment effects in real time, when the technology is in its infancy or sooner. Simultaneously, science fiction has moved on to deal with some of the most challenging social issues this world currently faces.

To understand technology, I abandon science fiction for business, but I embrace science fiction for wisdom to understand people.

——–

1I consider this the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, and of course credit Douglas Adams with bestowing on me an understanding of the universe.

2The experts claim that digital currencies are unhackable, but that just sounds to me like a giant invitational to hackers.

4The book by George Orwell, written in 1949.

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I was reading a story on the Internet, you’ll never believe what happened next…

Fake News.

Naively, I’d assumed the far-fetched stories I read on social media were either from well-meaning but misinformed parties or commercially motivated. The goal was either to provide information for the general good of society so they could avoid a certain product, or sell an alternative, by suggesting the product could wreck havoc with health, digestion, or the environment. The profit motivation might not be entirely separate from the first, altruistic one, if the originator of the story genuinely believes they have a product of benefit to the people.

At first glance, Fake News, a phenomena that has been spattered all over the media recently and ascribed such lofty importance as helping to determine the fate of a nation, didn’t appear to me to fit into either category, although it does belong in the same general area of misinformation in the popular press.

The tricky thing about Fake News, and other less-than-factual stories, is that they tend to look like real news. Misinformation gets mixed in with real news when people share on social media, and amplified when trending stories are promoted. Stories on the internet often appear in order of popularity, rather than sorted by the creator’s journalistic awards, years of establishment, or history of credibility.

To fit Fake News into the spectrum of internet misinformation, I speculated about the motivation of its makers. Leaving aside criminal intent1, why would anyone want to create truth-bending stories?

With real news, a journalist’s goal is to find the truth and enlighten readers. Is the goal of Fake News to make something up and see how many people can be confused? If it isn’t selling a product that’s the cure, a clearly responsible cleaning solution that will save the planet, or a secret, 50¢ remedy that your doctor don’t want you to know about, then what is the motivation for publishing nonsense stories?

Silly me. From what I read, Fake News makes money for its creators the old fashion way: by selling advertising on the basis of having lots of eyes on the website. A simple, old-fashion rule: big readership commands the highest price for third party advertising.

Fake News has spawned a lot of real media recently, on various themes, such as:

  • the potential far-reaching impacts’
  • that it’s nothing new – for example, supermarket-sold tabloids have been selling it for years’
  • how hard it is to identify – academic research shows people2 can’t tell the difference between advertisements and real news,
  • a plethora of advice on how to tell good information from bad.

Why would someone decide to create stories they know are false? Leaving aside those who do it because there’s no law against it and it’s a source of advertising revenue (of which I imagine there are some), and those who do it to sell other things, what motivates a person to provide pure Fake News?

It’s unlikely to be confusion about what constitutes fiction. We humans have been creating fiction for a long time, sometimes on purpose and sometimes through the process of many, many retellings of the same tale over the centuries. Various perspectives suggest fiction originated in ancient Greece, pre-modern era China, or medieval England.

Is Fake News satire gone horribly wrong? Satire, like fiction, is a form of entertainment, which often has an embedded educational element. Satire exaggerates aspects of a situation to amuse and provide commentary. With either fiction or satire, I can imagine people getting carried away, pushing the boundaries of truth for the heady praise of an audience.

Are Fake News purveyors evil pranksters, trying to share a good laugh at the gullible with the not-so-gullible? In a deeply twisted way, this explanation could be seen as simple business, because it provides a product for a niche market. Could Fake News be viewed as a business model for satisfying the in-crowd, providing the elitism that comes from getting the joke over those who didn’t?

There is also the possibility of power or fame as motivation for disseminating Fake News. The equalizing force of the internet, where all stories are presented on the same platforms, gives every writer the potential to influence millions. Imagine the thrill of having your story go viral. This, after all, is the goal of most writers – to have their material read.

It seems to me Fake News is like any other form of misinformation on the internet. It’s there because there’s money to be made and fame to be gained. Is it more harmful than stories from misinformed but thoughtful champions of their cause or the snake-oil hucksters selling products on the free market? The consequences in all cases range from harmless to dire.

One of my mother’s axioms rings in my ears. ‘Keep your wits about you’, she’d say, regardless of whether I was on my way to a foreign country or doing a homework assignment. The words haunt me, in a comforting way.

—–

1While criminal motivations are possible, I’ll leave that area to the law enforcement experts.

2 These studies relate to youngish people, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the findings extend to all ages.

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Competitive Advantage or Competitive Advantage? Biology and Business.

As a scientist who specializes in business strategy, competitive advantage means two things to me: how to succeed in business and how biological species evolve. I’m enjoying the irony that the goal of capitalist pursuits might be mistaken for a fundamental, back-to-nature, biological process.

We value nature with an instinctive appreciation that it sustains us. But that isn’t quite right. All of earth’s creatures are part of a massively interwoven dynamic equilibrium. Birds eat fruit and poop out the seeds at a distant location, broadening the plant’s horizons. Carpenter ants chew up decaying wood, hastening it’s transition into compost allowing new vegetation can grow. Humans exhale carbon dioxide, feeding the growth of flowers, from which bees collect pollen and make honey – food for bears. I could go on about who eats who, excretes what, or creates habitats where. Nature isn’t there to support us, we are part of it.

Like capitalism, nature isn’t pretty all the time, as any feast by seagulls, crows or other carrion fowl devouring road kill demonstrates. Less attractive still are the squished rabbits, skunks and squirrels decomposing by the action of insects and bacteria. All natural, with the smell to prove it.

Natural selection, the survival of those within a species with a competitive advantage, is even less attractive. It leaves behind those less capable of dealing with changes in the environment. Just like business. If a business comes along with a better way of providing music to people (eg. iTunes), other forms of music delivery (tapes, records or CDs) die.

Competitive advantage in a business only works because it’s fulfilling needs. Sounds humanitarian, doesn’t it? Cars displaced horses and buggies was because they got people where they want to go, faster, and more comfortably. Lives were saved because the sick got faster medical care. A hundred years ago, Ford had a competitive advantage because they invented a way to make affordable, convenient transportation. Today, business models like Uber and Zipcar have a competitive advantage because they provide what people want (getting from here to there) faster and cheaper. Uber provides spontaneous, on-demand transportation. Zipcar replaces the need for car ownership, without taking away access to the car.

Successful businesses thrive because they sell something people want. Individuals in a species survive because they are better able to adapt to changes in the environment. A central premise in strategic management is that a business’s ability to sustain competitive advantage depends on how it adapts to changes in its environment. Similarly, the members of a species that survive, and repopulate the species, are those best able to adapt to the environment.

It’s harder to see examples of biological selection because they happen on a longer time frame than it takes Netflix to make Blockbuster’s video rental irrelevant.

In biology, we can observe a trait becoming more prevalent. For example, some humans, but not all1, are able to digest milk after toddlerhood, which relates to the cultivation of cows and production of milk, cheese and recently, ice cream2. It’s easy to imagine that thousands of years ago, people who were able to metabolize milk products would have a survival advantage in harsh times, as would their children. If we continue dairy farming, in a few millennia maybe all people will be able to digest milk as adults.

My favourite example of visible evolution and survival of the fittest is the moths3 whose dominant colour evolved from white-ish to grey-ish as the trees they rested on became soot-covered from the industrial revolution. Before industrialization, the dominant moth colour was light and there were few dark ones. Birds had a harder time spotting the light-coloured ones, so they were less likely to be eaten when they rested on trees with light-coloured trucks. As the trunks darkened, grey moths had the camouflage advantage, survived, and now represent the majority of the population.

The difference between evolving businesses and evolving species is active decision making. The phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ conjures up visions of death matches in Thunderdome4 where opponents rely on their smarts and resources to outwit their competition. This is kinda true in business. But not even slightly what happens in biology.

Strategic management dictates providing a superior product compared to competitors, whether it’s cheaper, has more features, safer, or more durable. Although it sounds contradictory, in biology, survival of the fittest tends to be an accidental thing. Businesses plan to outdo the competition, which Walmart appears to be doing in grocery retailing5. On the other hand, bacteria that are resistant to common antibiotics are becoming more prevalent. This isn’t because the bacteria have formed a consortium to determine defence tactics against humans. Those that aren’t resistant are killed off. It’s a simple accident of genetics. Those that have genes that confer drug resistance survive. They are the fittest in the environment that bacteria now inhabit.

Businesses can manoeuvre, change their strategy, hire new people, create different distribution and supply partnerships. Species, faced with a new force in their environment, must do the best with the genetics they have. Perhaps some day we will engineer ourselves in real time, becoming more business-like in our approach to natural selection. Would that be a bad thing, if we were fulfilling our needs?

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1http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/news/070401_lactose

2Ice cream also required the invention of the refridgeration, which caused the demise of the ice industry.

3for details, see Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peppered_moth_evolution

4in case my cultural references are a bit dated, Thunderdome was glorified in MadMax 3, where combatants did anything and everything to win against their opponents https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mad_Max_Beyond_Thunderdome

5http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/walmart-grocery-store-1.3717480

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Stop Helping, It’s not Helpful.

There is a fine art to understanding how, if, and when a customer wants to be helped. We’ve all experienced it: the difference between the poorly timed, inane, nagging questions and a salesperson who comes to your side just as a question about a product forms in your mind, adds insight to your shopping quest, and has you smiling at the check-out desk. Or the professional who distinguishes between when you’re in a hurry to find one, specific thing, vs. a leisurely browse that might see you buy an entire cartload of items.

The internet has taken the challenge of good customer service to a whole new level. It’s making me crazy. Why? Because pop-ups. There are many fine examples of using the internet to deliver better information about products, and ways to make products more accessible, both financially and physically. However, more thought could go into the implementation of some web browser popups.

Here’s a list of various pop-ups that miss the mark, at least for me:

  • Offering your newsletter before the site has even fully loaded. I don’t know who you are, what you do, or if I’ve clicked on a link by accident. So no, I don’t want your newsletter. Ditto alerts, updates and notifications. If you waited a bit, I’d be more likely to say yes. So wait a bit. In person, this would equate to a person with a clip board, standing at the store entrance, demanding ‘Do you like our store?’
  • Trigger happy sidebar ads, especially ones that scroll down the page with you. If I I’m interested in what you are selling, I’ll click on it. If I click by accident because of poor page design, I will hate your company for the rest of my life. It’s like a sales person holding up jackets when you’re browsing shoes and repeating: “How about this?” “How ’bout this?” “How bout this?” “How ’bout tis?”
  • Chat with an associate before I’ve even read a sentence. Put the dialog box away until an appropriate time to suggest it. Yes, it’s great you have people or bots to answer questions, but why do you have a website in the first place? So people can read about your company/product. This is especially true for logging into email and being offered chat with my friends. If I wanted to chat, I’d open a chat app. I’ve opened an email app, so guess what I want to do?
  • Why are the only two choices for getting rid of an ad that I don’t want to see: it covers the page1, or, it’s offensive? I have reasons for not wanting to see the ad. Maybe it reminds me of my ex-husband or dearly departed pet. Do you really want to push that negative association on me, so I can forever be repulsed by whatever is being promoted?
  • I don’t want extra windows to pop open with suggestions for helpful things like saving my passwords, adding people to my contacts, creating events in my calendar, or downloading an app to make what I’m doing easier2. It would be easier if I wasn’t constantly interrupted with popups trying to do things other than the one I’m trying to do. This is like trying to buy milk and bread while an over-zealous salesperson offers to determine my shoe size, the colour of my aura, or what my family history reveals about the perfect pet for me.
  • Requiring sign-in three screens into a site. There should be a flag (maybe like the toxic waste symbol) for sites that require creating an account to access the info they’re offering. Spending time on a landing page to get excited enough about the content to ‘click here to download’, only to find out that you need to surrender enough personal information for military clearance, is poor communication. Facebook and LinkedIn landing pages make it very clear that you are going nowhere without an account. It’s like getting to the check out at a store with some fabulous finds and discovering that the marked prices are only available to members. Who have signed up. With their personal information.
  • There should be a special place in hell for ads with a hard to find, or absent, close window ‘X’. This is the equivalent of a salesperson who doesn’t understand ‘I’m just looking’ as the signal to GO AWAY but instead follows you around the store, quipping useless information with each item you look at, oblivious to each new sneer.

Maybe everyone except me else loves pop-ups because they provide useful information. Most of us have things to do and don’t want extraneous pop-ups filling out lives with the need to swath though screens, like an explorer with a scythe in the jungle, to see what we came to see.

I might like pop-ups better if they added value. I am curious to know what conclusions fancy algorithms draw from my various searches and posts, akin to the fascination my rational self has with having my fortune read. A clever observer of people can conjure an accurate reading by observing and responding to their subject’s cues.

Know your client. In the modern era, that has to be done without invading privacy, which is how any good human salesperson has always done it – respecting the client’s preferences. The challenge is doing the same online. I’m sure someone or something will figure it out. Soon. Please.

——

1I’m probably being too honest because I won’t click on ‘it covers the page’ unless it covers the page. It only covers a third or a quarter of the page, so I don’t click.

2I realize this may not be the fault of the designer of the website I’m perusing. It’s the helpful operating system on my device. Still, back off.

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Evolving with Technology, or Is Fresh Air Good for You?

The perfect house: energy efficient, climate-controlled, with sweet filtered air inside. Want one? I don’t. To me, healthy living means opening a window to change the temperature in the house and rejoice in what the environment presents1.

I’m an environmental pig, living in a house designed over a century ago, lacking in the latest energy efficient technology. Instead, I have trees. Trees that shade my home and prevent the sun from beating extra kilojoules of energy, as heat, into my rooms. I have primitive geothermal cooling – an unfinished basement that breathes coolness into my main floor. My grandmother had something called a ‘root cellar’. A root cellar is on the cool side of the house (NE), in an area of the basement surrounded on four of its six sides by earth (top, bottom, north and east walls), and provides sufficient refridgeration to preserve carrots, potatoes and turnips.

Today’s ultimate ergonomic home, controlled with energy saving algorithms, has constant temperature regulation, purified air, and is tightly sealed from the outdoors. This provides cost effective heating and cooling2, and optimum air flow to prevent the growth of moulds and the like, with filters to cleanse contaminant particles from the air.

treesSounds great, but I don’t like it. Imagine instead opening a window to the heavenly smell of a summer rain, or when the roses are in bloom, or if the grass has just been cut. Wake in the morning to the sounds of the birds peeping and trilling through your open windows. Feel the caress of a breeze, floating in with the rhythimic chirp of the crickets on a hot summer night. Man, it’s good.

Which is better: the ecological, economical, sealed house, separating us from the nasty environment bent on messing with our equilibrium, or fresh air? Long ago, doctors prescribed fresh air to cure all kinds of ailments, obtained by sitting seaside as ocean gales hurled past. Today, we have polluted air and climate change that superheats and supercools our environment. We also seem to have heighened levels of environmental sensitivity, making many of us retreat into our climate-controlled isolation units.

I think there’s an instinctive attraction to fresh air, perhaps the converse of our repulsion for things that smell of bacteria, yeast or other microorganisms associated with death, disease and decay. When we smell clean water, or air scented with healthy growing things, we know there’s sustaining substances for us. The reek of animal waste makes us recoil, which is surely a good survival instinct, allowing us to avoid traipsing into the bear’s or lion’s den.

Ancient history? Do our instincts lag behind what’s useful in the modern world? I went looking to see if fresh air is still good for us. The first web search turned up organizations confirming fresh air was good for the soul. It cleanses, reduces stress, improves digestion, boosts the immune system and a number of general statements of limited substance. People believe that fresh air is good for us, perhaps based on how good it feels, but how about proof?

Science, where are you? Science says there are benefits to feeling as good as fresh air can make us feel. Fair enough.

One interesting study3 measured ventillation in 28 grade schools in California and compared it to sick days taken by students. It found the higher the rate of removal of CO2, the fewer sick days. This cleansing of the air, associated with less illness, was higher in classrooms with open windows than air conditioning. But that might just mean that traditional air conditioning isn’t very good at air exchange.

What is fresh air, exactly? Anyone who’s familiar with farm country, a bastion of wholesomeness, knows it often smells unpleasantly of manure. Different people might define fresh air as air that’s:

  • scented with pleasant things, like apple pie, or the sea,
  • has less CO2 and more O2,
  • low in irritants, or infectious agents, or
  • a comfortable temperature.

Googling ‘allergen free air’ is amusing. The first nine hits are businesses offering sources of air treatment, and the last one is for chimney cleaning4.

On Google Scholar, I found specific, detailed studies, such as:

  • dust-free pillow covers reduce allergic symptoms in a group of 30 kids,
  • Hepa filters decreased cat dander but did nothing for asthma symptoms in a handful of people,
  • fungus is higher inside than out in the winter in the US midwest.

This, of course, is the point. Science is very specific because sometimes it matters very much if you take one acetaminophen capsule today or one acetaminophen capsule per day, so we shouldn’t expect it to provide pronouncements on something as general as fresh air.

The US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) defines six things5 as hazardous to human health in air (at sufficient concentrations), all based on full arsenals of scientific research. Some of these harmful things are not smellable when you open the window after a summer rain. But I can’t accept that it’s better for people to stay inside a sealed building, even if it has perfect air quality.

Are my instincts betraying me, telling me outside is good? Are they antiquated notions, left over from a time when there was no pollution, climate change or crazy, invisible things in the environment that could harm me?

If my fresh air instincts give me a survival advantage, turning my yearning to spend time outside to increased health and longevity, then they are good instincts. But if those who stay inside are better off, don’t contract as many diseases because they are protected by their controlled environment, then my instincts will fade from the human repetoire. My line will die out while the earth is populated by the people who stay inside.

I don’t know the answer to who will win this evolutionary battle of survival strategies and it will take centuries or longer before anyone knows. The question is whether they will be living in a sealed, plastic dome or in the forest alongside the deer, mushrooms, and snails.

——

1 At least for half of the year, not when central heating is doing it’s best to keep the indoor temperature above 65oF/18oC, then I’m all about man-made heat.

2 I am told that it’s most efficient to control the temperature 7×24, rather than adjust it at will, as keeping the temperature constant is less energy intensive than sudden changes.

3 Mendell, M. J., Eliseeva, E. A., Davies, M. M., Spears, M., Lobscheid, A., Fisk, W. J., Apte, M. G. (2103) Association of classroom ventilation with reduced illness absence: a prospective study in California elementary schools. Indoor Air v23(6) doi10.1111/ina.12042 retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ina.12042/abstract

4 Probably because I have a wood burning fireplace and was looking for someone to clean it recently, but an admirable example of how sweet the smell of something (burning hardwood) can be but how unsure I am that it’s healthy

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Do I Know What’s Good for my Cat?

Recent moves by various governments have declared dolphins, dogs, cats, chimpanzees, and even animals in general, sentient beings1.

What does this mean – the definition of sentience is consciousness of sensory perceptions, but how does it specify the way animals should be treated? A declaration that animals are sentient, like humans, provokes visions of trying to get dolphins to vote or providing chickens with flying lessons if they want. We’d never force them, of course.

Most of us want to do the right thing by animals. Many scientists study sentience, consciousness, sapience, and/or intelligence in humans and various animals. If a crow recognizes a man who feeds him, is the bird self aware or intelligent or has it learned to associate the smell of the man’s cologne with tasty treats (sentient) or does it contemplate if it is taking advantage of the man as it peaks fruit from his hand (sapience)? I need to read a stack of books and papers at least three feet tall to understand how these terms differ from one another when applied to animal behaviour. I respect the experts, but would like to understand this at a non-expert level.

I did some research on the emerging laws related to animal rights and the answers surprised me. Generally, the idea is to give animals more rights than inanimate objects, and to stop them from being used solely for human entertainment. These new laws and declarations are one part getting the laws out of the dark ages and one part enlightenment.

Why was I surprised? There’s some hype attached to the announcements about the new laws. Somehow2 the concept that animals can sense and are aware of their surroundings, which is a definition of sentience, transmuted into animals having emotions. Certainly animals can feel things. However, it isn’t necessarily the same as a cat feeling sad because it’s raining and there’s no birds to watch or a horse being anxious that its rider has had a few martinis, again, and might need counselling for addiction. If we accept the definition of emotion as an instinctive or intuitive, rather than reasoned, interpretation of a situation, I’d point to the keen instincts animals have. And that the sad cat knows hunting (food) is less effective in the rain and the horse instinctively fears a reckless rider for its own safety.

Do animals love and hate? A dog gets excited when it sees its human, either because of love or the expectation of treats, and a dog growls when a stranger skulks around the yard, but does it hate the intruder or is it defending its territory.

The new laws are to stop animals from being handled in ways that injury them. Previously, animals could be treated in the same way as all types of human possessions (this is the dark ages stuff). No one cares if you hit your table. A lot of people care if you hit your dog. The change in laws make it easier for officials to intervene if someone is doing something harmful to their sentient possessions (animals). Changing the laws so we cause no physical pain to animals seems like the right thing to do.

More interesting are the decisions to stop using animals for our entertainment3 – which I call the enlightened part. In the absence of direct pain and suffering, how do we tell if the animals are being treated well? We associate a cat purring with contentment, but they also purr when they are in pain. So if the cat purrs when stuffed into a silly outfit, is it thrilled or distressed? Is there something wrong with training an elephant to sit on a tiny stool while wearing a flowery hat? Or a walrus to clap it’s flippers and bark for fish? Taking a slightly riskier stance, why shouldn’t we drug tigers into passivity and make them jump through hoops, if the fringe benefits that come with that is a rich diet, medical care, and comfy accommodations? None of these actions are natural but putting on a suit and going to a job interview where we try to say all the right things, regardless of what we really think, is unnatural too.

Wearing a suit is voluntary. The confinement of animals in the circus and other entertainment domains is not. How do we get informed consent from a killer whale? Many people might claim they are trapped in jobs, unable to escape the drudgery or demeaning tasks because they need to make a living.

How do we tell when we’ve gone too far with animals? With sea animals, there are scientists who study the social structures the animals live in and compare it to what we provide. And yes, there is a difference between sea worlds and the wild. One point of evidence that the animals are being treated unfairly is a decreased life expectancy. This seems like a reasonable metric, but when I look at my domestic cats, who are kept indoors because this is verified to increase their life expectancy, I wonder if it’s right. My cat is convinced he should be outside, yet I imprison him in the house, based on the assumption that it’s better for him. I have some guilt, because I reap advantages, with lower vet bills. No worms, fleas, or stitches to repair battle wounds from the neighbouring tom, raccoons, dogs or cars. Domestic cats live longer inside, but are they living a fulfilling life? They don’t breed or do other natural things like hunt nor are they allowed the full range of a territory or their natural habitat.

Questions plague me:

  • How to know what animals really want?
  • What’s best for animals, which may not be what they want?
  • How human-like are they, anyway?

We should only impose our values on the animals when we know they want the same things we do. We could defend all we do as sapience, or wisdom, a quality that presumably sets us apart from other species (hence the name: Homo sapiens). We understand the consequences of our actions, and therefore agree to get vaccinated, even if it is transiently unpleasant.

Humans don’t do whatever we want, we often do what’s good for us, like go to the dentist, eat vegetables and learn mathematical formulas. My cat hates going to the vet and howls like a wild animal when I put him in the car. I don’t think this qualifies as mistreatment, even thought he clearly thinks it does. On the contrary, many decisions to give animals more rights insist on good veterinary care, although the animals dont’ seem to like it.

I haven’t got a witty conclusion to this post. The new laws to treat animals as sentient are to prevent cruelty. We’re striving for enlightenment in our interactions with animals, but I think we have a long way to go to figure out what that means. I’m looking forward to the day when I can communicate with my cat (maybe through artificial intelligence), and let him make the decision to get in the carrier and endure the vet’s prodding, as a alternative to dying prematurely of a preventable disease.

——

1Here’s a few examples:

This blog post http://barkpost.com/good/oregon-court-finds-dogs-are-sentient-beings/ discusses a recent decision by an Oregon court to treat dogs as sentient. It’s a great post for making sense of the law.

A similar story comes from New Zealand http://www.animalequality.net/node/703 , where the law was amended in 2013 and this is interpreted to recognize all animals as sentient, like humans, which provides officials greater power to protect animals in situations of abuse.

And then there was a declaration of by a group of scientists in 2012 http://www.earthintransition.org/2012/07/scientists-declare-nonhuman-animals-are-conscious/ that non-human animals display consciousness.

2 Not too difficult to imagine how if you consider how easily knowledge is perturbed from the truth and circulated as un-facts on the internets.

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The Case of the Mysterious Octopus DNA

Sometimes, exciting scientific things sound lame, so an editor puts a fancy headline on the story to avoid having the average person say ‘MEH’ to a breakthrough. Such could be the case with octopus DNA, and a story titled: ‘Scientific Breakthrough: Octopus DNA is not from this world.’1 Were you skeptical of this headline? Was it because it sounded impossible, preposterous, almost as crazy as someone suggesting the earth is flat or red wine protects against heart disease?

I’m working on a process, a series of five questions, to get an un-hyped understanding of popular media stories on scientific topics. So, let me apply my questions to the octopus situation. By seeing the logic with the octopus DNA story, it may make my method easier to apply to less obvious situations, or situations where your intuition is saying ‘that’s wrong’ but you can’t put your finger on why.

Question 1. What do the numbers really mean?

More numbers might have helped this story. The premise is octopuses are alien and their DNA sequence supports it. How different is their DNA? That wasn’t discussed. But elements in the octopus DNA were found, such as genes, coding sequences, and transposable elements, commonly found in humans and other native earth species. Therefore, octopus DNA can’t be entirely alien.

The story states that Octopuses have 33,000 protein coding genes, far more than humans. Makes them sound more complex, more intelligent, doesn’t it? Until you see this chart2, that ranks number of genes per species and finds grapes ahead of humans. The story could have said that octopuses have more genes than grapes, but that doesn’t sound very special, does it?

2. Is the science in the story from a reliable source and quoted in context?

The original basis of the story was published in the journal Nature, a very reputable source, in Aug. 2015. It does not contain the word ‘alien’. The alien DNA story came along later, quoting a news release titled ‘Landmark sequencing of octopus genome shows basis for intelligence, camouflage’. Neither of these traits are uniquely alien – you can make your own bad pun about how alien intelligence seems in human society sometimes. Camouflage is pretty common in the animal kingdom, ask the spotted leopard lounging in the dappled shade.

How did the story get to be about aliens? A scientist is quoted, who quotes another scientist. The first scientist points out how unusual a the octopus body is. You don’t need a DNA sequence to discover that. All you have to do is observe the octopus and it’s ability to change skin colour with situation, escape predators in a cloud of ink, or unscrew a jar if it’s worth their while. The misrepresented comment is: “The late British zoologist Martin Wells said the octopus is an alien.”1 There have been others who call the octopus alien3, but I believe it’s metaphorical, rather than scientific, even if the quoted individuals were learned professors.

From an evolutionary perspective, octopuses ON EARTH split from the lineage that lead to humans about 500 million years ago. Whatever your definition of alien is, if a creature been somewhere for that long, I think it deserves to be called native.

3. Is the evidence proven or inferred?

The story bounces around through various biological terms, which are connected incorrectly. It states the octopus has ‘incredibly advanced biotechnology’. Biotechnology is not naturally occurring. Biotechnology is technology engineered to make industrial products in a lab based on biologics. No one, to the best of my knowledge, has seen octopuses directing lab operations. There’s mention of transposons, which the story says scientist don’t understand, a spring board to the conclusion that there is something really alien going on in the octopus nerve cells. Why the leap to nerve cells, when DNA specifies what goes on in all cells? Or the conclusion that because scientists don’t understand something, it’s alien. Scientists don’t understand lots of things, like Alzheimer’s disease, selfies, and reality TV, but that doesn’t make them alien.

4. Who has a stake in this?

The folks who posted this story have a long-standing, popular website that deals with spiritual and scientific matters. Perhaps their mission was to demonstrate how science could be taken out of context. Or what the word alien means to different people.

5. Why hasn’t someone done something about this?

Should octopuses be treated differently, now that we know their DNA sequence? I don’t see a reason that the eight-tentacled, water-dwelling creatures are different now that we know more about their biological blueprint.

It’d be easier to declare octopus DNA alien if we had some alien DNA to compare to. It’s not evidence of alienicity that all octopuses have a certain trait, like the ability to change the colour of their tentacles, when no other species on earth can. That means only octopuses can do it, not they are alien. With the same logic, we might conclude that humans are aliens, because we are the only earth species that buys lottery tickets, or wears sunscreen so we can withstand the blistering hot, burning sun, rather than lie in the shade like other sun-sensitive species.

A similar story, with an equally provocative title and equally modest explanation of what’s so exciting is ‘Orangutan DNA is full of surprises’4. Having read the report, I agree, but unless you are a geneticist, I’m not sure the findings will hold the same fascination. Sure, the study told us things we didn’t know before. Orangutans evolve more slowly than humans or chimpanzees (these three are closest evolutionary relatives to each other). This slow rate of change in orangutans could be related to how many transposable DNA elements they have. In the case of orangutans, their DNA contains fewer transposons, and they have evolved slower than humans or chimps. The octopus, on the other hand, has more transposable elements and is more adaptable to changes in its environment.

By the logic of the octopus story, orangutans are less alien that humans. I’ve never seen an orangutan buy a lottery ticket, or apply sunscreen, have you?

3 Such as ‘ “Meeting an octopus,” writes Godfrey-Smith, “is like meeting an intelligent alien.” ‘ from https://orionmagazine.org/article/deep-intellect/

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What if your Doctor was an AI? Part 2

Imagine what it might be like to visit your doctor in the future, if your family doctor was an AI.

The first thing I realize is I don’t have to go anywhere. The AI can talk to me online. Cool. Humm. Will it mind if I’m still in my pyjamas? I wouldn’t want it to think I’m depressed, so perhaps I’ll find some clothes.

Come to think of it, I don’t need to book a visit. If the doctor is online and can run multiple sessions simultaneously, I don’t need an appointment, I can just login. After I get dressed.

No waiting and no waiting room is really cool. In real life, I feel bad for fellow patients who are sniffling and sneezing, but don’t need to share their bugs. Nor do I want to give anyone else my infestation, which for the sake of this exercise is some kind of respiratory thing that won’t go away.

I sit down in front of my computer screen and wait for Dr. AI to appear, after logging into my account that has all of my medical history available for the doctor. It probably has analysis of all of my social media posts, search queries, and everything other bit of information that can be gleaned from the Internet of Things, like what I bought at the grocery store, meals out, number of steps taken and activity log obtained from the appliances in my house and clothes that monitor what I do on a minute-by-minute basis.

I feel a little nervous as I wait for the session to initialize. I’ve always felt a little nervous visiting the doctor, sort of the same vague unease most people feel when a police cruiser appears in their rear-view mirror. Significantly, this is the same feeling I get when I see my human doctor. Slightly apprehensive that something really serious could be wrong with me, or that I’ll be called out for some unhealthy practice. We all have them. Things we love but know aren’t good for us. French fries. Cake. Lounging on the couch instead of going to fitness class.

Dr. AI appears. Probably not on screen because that will be so early 21st century technology. Some embodiment of a human-like avatar in a lab coat materializes in my augmented visual range. In the near future, I think AI’s will maintain a plasticy look, clearly distinguishable from Homo sapiens, because that’s what we’ll be comfortable with.

Dr. AI appears to greet me: “Hello, [different tone of voice] Ms. [another tone of voice] Dulhanty. May I call you Ann?”

“Sure. But it’s Dr.”

“At your service.” It bows slightly.

I’m not convinced I’ve gotten my message across, which is my title is Dr. not Ms., but since it isn’t important, I don’t push it. That is rather like talking to a human.

Dr. AI sails on. “Your vitals suggest … Do you feel feverish? Been to a farm or agricultural depot recently?”

“No. ”

“Your genotype suggests a family history of …”

“Do I need a vaccination against the new virus they’ve found in Milwaukee?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“Not called for in your case.”

This is exactly like talking to a human who has too many things to do. I go to the preferences on my healthcare interface and adjust them.

Dr. AI says “Ok. Redirecting.” Then smiles reassuringly. “Why didn’t you say so.” And details the pathology of new virus, risk factors associated with infection, epidemiological data, and toxicology, along side relevant information about me and those in my household, from genetics to how many tissues I used yesterday (cached in my browser).

I dabble at the information over the rest of the afternoon, follow a number of links to various opinions on the interpretations of the data. When I have questions, at 3:16 pm, 5:01 and after dinner, Dr. AI cheerfully chimes in with answers. Another cool thing: medical advice on my clock, not jammed into a 15 minute session.

By the next morning I’m not satisfied. There’s a shadow of a doubt in my mind, so I message Dr. AI, having realized that I can communicate with my physician in real time, at my discretion, like I would any service provider. “I’d rather have the shot. There are few risks, so better to have it.”

Dr. AI answers, “Of course, I’ll write the prescription. Your medical insurance is set to the appropriate level of discretionary care.”

A small drone appears outside my house 7 minutes later. As I extend my arm to open the door to find out what it’s delivering, it whirs in and I feel a slight prick in my upper arm. My mobile blips with a message about the possible side effects of the vaccine administered.

Fifteen minutes later, Dr. AI appears in avatar. “All your vitals are normal – no acute reaction detected.” He snaps a folder icon closed. “I’ll monitor your feeds tomorrow for latent effects, and will only contact you if there is reason for concern. Good night.”

Wow. Now that’s service1.

1Not to say I am complaining about the service provided me currently by my family doctor or any other health professional. Ok, I kinda am, but blame the constraints they are under in the healthcare system in Ontario, not their intentions.

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What if your Doctor was an AI?

This year’s MedEdge Summit. York Region – MedTech conference was affirming. Inspiring in a creative kind of way, rather than the eye-opening, mind-numbing advances in technology that make you think you’ve been hiding in a foxhole with a metal bowl on your head for the past 70 years. We’re on the right track with our crazy, cutting-edge technology to doing something useful. Things are falling into place, in a crooked, bottom of a kaleidoscope pattern.

Ok, there was still some wild stuff discussed, like patients being in charge of their own medical data and sequencing an entire human genome in a few days. Those are the beginning of approaches that I think will turn out well in the long term.

Today, even if we’re presented with our entire genomic sequence on a silver tray, no one knows what most of it means. But we will some day. Until then, we’ll keep doing those studies that give us a bit more evidence what the sequence of 11q21.3 means if you have green eyes and are good at cricket.

Right now, having people control their own medical records is like giving a four year old the keys to the car. Most of us don’t have the training to understand the data we’re presented with. As a small segue, when I was 15, I found my medical file open on a desk. A nurse chided me for reading it. I looked at her in wonder, ‘but, it’s about me.’ She snapped the file shut. In retrospect, we were both right. She took it away because it was written in a language that would confuse or misguide most people, so it wouldn’t be to the patient’s benefit to see it. But, information about me should be my property. That’s seems to be how modern privacy laws are playing out.

Let’s get to the exciting stuff: artificial intelligence. I can see it being useful in medicine because AI could provide the kind of assistance only AI is capable of. An enormous number of researchers are learning new things about human health all the time. Expecting your friendly family doctor to read 100’s of papers a day, while he or she works full time meeting with patients, assessing their conditions and suggesting a growing number of preventative approaches, is just crazy. They are only human.

Enter Artificial Intelligence. It’s particularly good at assimilating vast quantities of information that arrive over long periods of time. It doesn’t need to wrack its brain to put together one study published in South Africa in 2009 with another one from Sweden in 2016 to collect information about a rare disease. That’s easy-peasy for AI and the basis of how we learn about human health. Dozens of separate studies, done in different ways, by different people, come together to lead us to new knowledge. Rarely does one report change medical practice. AI also can provide us with the benefits of analyzing the activities of billions of people. Rumour1 has it that Microsoft was able to find common symptoms that people searched on before they were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. AI can provide an up-to-the-microsecond summation of all that’s relevant to a patient’s condition.

Great, as far as it goes. But it stops at the sum of all human knowledge and behaviour. Could AI possibly deal with uncertainty and lack of answers better than the current, malpractice-avoidance approaches? AI probably isn’t capable of caring or being sympathetic. In my experiences, this has been all but beat out of the current medical system, with quotas to deliver, expectations to manage, and routinized care. I long for the time when the doctor put the chart down, smiled and said, ‘you’ll be fine. It’s just a bug/growing pains/aging/over exertion/gas/random. Come back and see me in a week if it isn’t better.’

How is AI going to provide us with common sense, perspective, or talk us down from the fear we are dying of an incurable but totally improbably disease? Maybe it can. To my way of thinking, many of the situations where patients need to be told things are ok are based on the natural variability of the human body. Guidelines usually have a range for things like blood pressure, heart rate, levels of cholesterol and more. What does it mean when someone is outside the normal range? More tests can be done for explanations that might be pathological. When those turn up negative, the physician is left with no explanation and the possibility of natural variation. The doctor may have a hard time saying so, just in case there’s something going on. AI could at least quantify the answer with something like ‘there’s only a one in 500 chance of this’, or ‘a one in 248 chance of that’.

How will AI deal with situations when patients need to be consoled? We all die eventually and at some point many of us will need to be told we have a terminal or very serious condition. Will AI develop algorithms to read a person’s expressions and body language so it can tailor its delivery to each patient, or will it defer to its human equivalent? Let the doctor do what may have attracted them to medicine in the first place – care for their patients.

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