Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Poor pubs and clubs :~(

I read today with some annoyance the bitching of pubs and clubs about how smoking bans put in place last year have meant that they've lost millions of dollars from gambling revenue.

Club revenue from pokies fell from $295 million in March 2007 to $230 million in March 2008. Total turnover - the amount of money put through the machines - fell from $3.6 billion in March last year to $2.9 billion this March.


"There is growing evidence that the continuing drop in revenue is not related just to the indoor bans. With petrol prices up substantially this year and several more interest rate increases announced, households are clearly reducing how much they gamble." Some clubs would not survive, [chief executive of Clubs NSW, David Costello] said.

Poor pubs and clubs! Now some of them will have to close, because they can't get their hands on the easy no-need-to-actually-do-anything-but-buy-a-machine money from .... wait, what?! Come on guys, this is freaking fantastic news! Smoking bans, helping gamblers kick their (gambling) habit!

Of course on the second page they mention in one small paragraph that the CEO of AHA, Sally Fielke, said "some venues had reported a rise in food sales since the smoking ban". See, now, this is what I'm Tolkien about.

Put up or shut up, pubs and clubs of NSW/ACT, and find a way to decently earn your income, through, you know, actually providing services rather than leeching off the gambling and nicotine addicts.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Just a heads-up...

Just to let everyone know, this week some rather Important People will be hanging around the hallowed halls of CAPPE. Firstly, Professor Simon Rogerson from the Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility at De Montfort University in England, Professor Don Gotterbarn, from the Computer and Information Science Department at East Tennessee State University, and finally, Justice Michael Kirby, all of whom are here for a conference on Ethical Governance of ICT and the Role of Professional Bodies which is on Thursday and Friday. Unfortunately it's too late to register for the event, but I'll be sure to keep you all updated (perhaps in real-time, depending on internet access!) on what goes on!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Its virtually war (just)?

I was reading today about the escalation of hostilities between chinese hacker-patriots and u.s. hacker-patriots. <>
Now, there is every possibility that this is a media beat up, grasping at virtual straws in an effort to restore interest in a populace with an imploding attention span. A few years ago, there was a big hack done on some microsoft stuff, using worms or trojan horses or some other techno-monsters. In response, microsoft supposedly sent out its own worms to follow the original worm and patch things up. Or something like that, maybe I'm making it up. But at the time, the idea of virtual warfare really interested me. And then this article reignited my interests.

If this mutual chinese v. u.s./anyone v. anyone else aggression is the beginnings of a virtual war (if being a very big if), then it raises a few questions. In virtual wars, do theories of just war apply? If not, is there a continuum between virtual war and direct warfare, with parallel evolution/devolution of just war theories? With the recent discussions on this blog about neuroweapons, do they sit in the grey area between recognised domains of just war, and virtual war? How do you determine casualties in a virtual war? Is it in economic terms (which seems to miss the point of at least some key elements of just war theories) or does there have to be human (and/or animal) suffering? What of attacks on virtual worlds like Second Life? Do avatars have souls? Can we count our dead if they are only avatars? Do avatars have rights? If not, when do they gain them?


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Neuroweapons, oh my!

From this post of Catie's. I'm not going to delve too much into the legal ramifications too much, the article mentioned in the post, and the mindhacks article go into this a lot.

Now this is a juicy dual-use dilemma. White, in his paper, mentions the beneficent side of this technology: enabling people with severe physical disabilities to gain back some of their independence. Specifically, White mentions mind-control prosthetics. Hello bionic revolution! This has numerous potential positive effects on the level of health care in western societies, and White notes that DARPA has plans for using the research to help out veterans. This is great news, to my mind, because the greatest cost to a country in terms of war is not necessarily the death toll, but the number of injuries. Now, I'm not saying that getting hurt is worse than dying (in all cases, at least), but in terms of the burdens inflicted upon the wounded soldier's psyche, the burdens on the health care system, and the families of all those involved. it'd be lovely if a quadriplegic could have some mobility. For a pentaplegics (so neck also immobilised, which often entails lack of speech, and essentially is full paralysis), this could mean better communication with the outside world, something terribly important.

What about the negative, though? Obviously, there is the new set of weapons coming out, which have many implications for what it means to commit a war crime, as White mentions in detail. But I'd like to raise another negative outcome of this new technology. This requires me to digress slightly, to fill in a couple of points about the nature of combat. I'm referring here primarily a conception taught to me by the late Philip D'Alton, who was a lecturer in sociology at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and I had the great fortune to be taught by personally. The conception of war we have, unsurprisingly, is a glorified one. Even to look at the dioramas in war memorials, in all their `realism,' we fail to understand the sheer brutality summed up best by Karl von Clausewitz, the immortal slogan: "War is Hell." We fail to understand that in the scenario of modern war, although casualties may be low compared to the advent of total war, or the analogues we can best envision in nuclear holocaust or world war, injuries are generally present in combat at a 1:8 ratio, death:injury. This ratio, in the case of certain recent maneuvers by the United States military, may be as high as 1:16. So imagine that in the current actions in Iraq, not claiming in excess of 3,000 lives, that between 24,000 and 48,000 men have been wounded in one aspect or another. not all of these are life threatening, and not all of these are disabling, but many are. We here "1 killed, 6 wounded" on the news, those 6 may be cuts and bruises, or amputations, internal bleeding, organ failure, etc. And those of us back home have no conception of this, short of the occasional movie that bothers to go partly into this detail (there have been more recently, but still not many compared to the swathe of rambo-esque movies out there).

So what does it mean for an army controlled from home? What does it mean to have a soldier whose understanding of the nature of war is, even after a tour of duty, no more than a kid's after a run through on a video game (although if you believe Jack Thompson, they are more likely to kill you...)? As war becomes not only more clinical and sterile on our TV screens, inuring many in our society to be tacitly accepting of whenever a country decides to head off to another conflict, but more sterile for the soldiers, it would be my opinion that the normative concepts that stay our hand when we conceive of going to war are eroded, and this is a terrible thing. The foundations of any conception of a Just War rely on an intuition that understands that war is hell. People die, limbs are shot off, landmines tear face apart, people walk in a daze with vital organs spilling out. I'm not sure how many of you, dear readers, have ever actually been in a fist fight of any kind, but for myself at least there is a certain understanding that if that's what getting punched in the face/ribs/ear feels like, getting shot is going to be a darn sight worse.

I'm not one of those guys who disagrees with the conflict in Iraq because I "don't support the troops." I support the sacrifice a career soldier makes in choosing to take the act of killing and dying on as his principal vocation. But what has to remain in the consciousness of those who sanction a war, and in a democratic society the citizen forms a part of that process, is that there is a fundamental aspect of war which, while necessary, should inform our decision. If we take the understanding of suffering away from the process of war, this could be highly problematic.

So, not so much a rant on neuroweapons, so much as a rant on what removing the soldier from combat could mean. It's almost 10, I should, you know, write my thesis. Or something.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

How to deconstruct almost anything

"My Postmodern Adventure" by Chip Morningstar.

This is a brilliantly funny essay, for computer geeks and non-computer geeks alike. Also particularly amusing for postmodernists!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

More scaremongering on cyber-terrorism

Watch out everyone, any second now we could all crash and burn due to massive cyber terrorist attacks which might paralyse our entire existence blah blah oh please, this really is the biggest amount of stupid stirring scaremongering...

Today's bandwagon jumper is the SMH with Tom Allard panicking about "cybergeddon" as the dust continues to stir around McClelland's snooping on employees without their knowledge or consent law.

The practitioners, both actual and potential, of cyber attacks are numerous. Nation states, whether acting alone or in alliance with "technopatriots" are using it for espionage and as a potential weapon for military actions.

Organised crime is also deeply involved. The threat of crashing a valuable computer network is a powerful tool for blackmail, as is the pilfering of commercially sensitive information. Commercial secrets can also be sold to rivals.

Come on guys. Any company worth its salt should have some sort of back up contingency plan. I'm sure the US NSA is hardly sitting on its butt wondering why they're losing sensitive information.

But the big problem I have here is just the whole article seems to want to back up the A-G's proposed law, yet all the examples mentioned in the article are about people outside the company ... no, not employees! And if it is an employee it's more likely to be through some sort of horrid virus that's turned their computer into part of a bot net.

Companies need to stop pointing fingers at other people to try to deal with the threat of cyber terrorism. It's like building a safe deposit room without hanging any doors and then trying to foist the protection of it off onto the police. It's just stupid. Companies and governments need to take responsibility for the information that's available on networks that are hooked up to the internet. They need to take responsibility to set up secure networks that are continuously monitored and updated to the latest threats. It'll take a few bad experiences I'm sure but eventually people will cotton on to the notion that cyber-security is your own responsibility, and noone else's -- it's just too risky.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Freedom Of Speech And Body Image

Reading daily papers, as is my want, I wandered into this article, and thought that perchance some might find it interesting.

Those pesky French are developing a law that bans websites from promoting extreme thinness. (see copy of article at the end .) I thought that this was an interesting case in that raises issues of the normative aspects of communication, i.e. annorexia websites, but more importantly, of legal measures being put in place to prevent or restrict such normative affects.
That our sense of self is affected by society around us is probably no major controversy. That laws can be put in place to mediate these affects is quite a different kettle of fish. Should freedom of speech be restricted in support of vulnerable peoples? Is an annorexia website or a photo in a fashion magazine covered by a right to freedom of speech? Are these laws another slide down the slope of the state restricting our access to the internet, and is that a bad thing? etc etc etc

From The Age:
French law to block anorexia websites

Paris, April 17, 2008

IN IMAGE-CONSCIOUS France, it may soon be a crime to glamorise the ultra-thin. New legislation aims crack down on websites that advise anorexics how to starve — and could be used to hit fashion industry heavyweights, too.

The French parliament's lower house has adopted the groundbreaking bill that would make it illegal to incite extreme thinness.

It recommends fines of up to 45,000 euros ($A76,805) and three-year prison sentences for offenders. It next goes to the Senate in the coming weeks.

Fashion industry experts have said that, if passed, the law would be the strongest of its kind anywhere. And given France's longtime status as a fashion capital, it could send shock waves through the industry worldwide.

The anorexia-linked death of a Brazilian model in 2006 prompted efforts throughout the international fashion industry to address the health repercussions of using ultra-thin models.

The bill is short on specifics. Critics noted that it does not spell out who it is targeting or even define "extreme thinness". Doctors and psychologists welcomed the move, but said anorexia's link with media images remains hazy.

French politicians and fashion industry members signed a non-binding charter last week on promoting healthier body images. But the bill's author, conservative MP Valery Boyer, said this did not go far enough.

Her bill has focused attention on pro-anorexia websites that, for instance, give advice on how to eat an apple a day — and nothing else.

Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot said websites that encourage young girls to starve should not be protected by freedom of expression.

Ms Boyer said her proposed law would also enable a judge to sanction those responsible for a magazine photo of a model whose "thinness altered her health".

"That is the objective of this text," she said without specifying who might be prosecuted.


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Scary neuroweapons

This article (thanks Nicholas) is just plain scary.

The big question is, with new weapons being able to be developed that act before you've even thought about it (preconsciously), could you be charged with a war crime if you use one illegally? Or is it, without any intention involved, merely an accident?


Dedicated to Adam...

"Hanging is too good for a man who makes puns; he should be drawn and quoted."

--Fred Allen

You are now officially warned...

Blogging can kill.

Phorm: like a human organ farm for advertisements

While I'm busy being outraged, here's something interesting I found today, a BBC article discussing a new advertising company called Phorm.

This is the rub:

Phorm works by connecting a users' web surfing habits to a series of advertising channels in order to target adverts.

Keywords in websites visited by a user are scanned and connected to advertising categories, and then matched to particular adverts.

It means a user who has been visiting web pages with lots of references to cars, for example, could then see adverts for cars when visiting a website that has signed up to Phorm's service.

So basically it builds up a profile of your browsing habits while essentially snooping on you, then presents you with targeted advertisements.

If that's starting to sound a little evil, then here comes the clincher: it uses anonymous ISP data, that is, information taken from the ISP -- you don't have to install anything on your computer.

But it's opt-in, which is good... and they don't store or personalise any data, which is good... however to sweeten the deal (and to make ISPs possibly start to require it for their subscribers), they add in a bunch of useful things like phishing and fraud protection.

It could, however, be illegal, because it's intercepting information between the ISP and the user. But IT specialist Alexander Hanff went one step further:

"What Phorm is trying to do is to turn people into products - a global warehouse selling pieces of us to the highest bidders."

I'm really not sure how to feel about this one, except for a vague sense of uneasiness, because this is almost like a lime cordial maker paying the water company to put lime cordial directly into the pipelines that go to peoples' houses. And that makes me a bit upset.

"Don't Be Evil"

Of course we all love Google, fine benefactors of this very blog and other numerous useful things on the Internet. They're the good guys of the Internet, up against evildoers such as B$i$g Corporation$ out to make $$$$$ off things which they're more than happy to offer for free, as long as you don't mind the occasional advertisement. Their corporate motto is of course "Don't Be Evil", a motto that gives us all the warm and fuzzies!

It's been questioned a few times of course, like when Google went into China and agreed to forget that Tiananmen Square happened when complying with their Golden Shield project. Then, Sergey Brin (with whom I have 2 degrees of separation) and Eric Schmidt said that it wasn't so much "being evil" that was needed to look at but some sort of "evil scale" where they decided that it'd be better to go in to China than stand on principle and tell them to bugger off unless they opened up.

Recently, the whole controversy over Google Earth and the Google Trucks running around with cameras mounted on the top taking photographs of the street level and poor ordinary citizens conducting their everyday business and whether or not this may indeed violate peoples' privacy. They're already being sued by a couple for taking photographs inside their private driveway, but won't commit to obscuring faces.

Anyway, all this has prompted their vice-president, Marissa Mayer, to talk about being evil recently.

"It really wasn't like an elected, ordained motto," Google's vice-president and 20th employee, Marissa Mayer, said in an interview during her trip to Sydney last week.

"I think that 'Don't Be Evil' is a very easy thing to point at when you see Google doing something that you personally don't like; it's a very easy thing to point out so it does get targeted a lot."

To me it's a bit of a shame that such a powerful standard is being washed out by a company that cared enough to put it in in the first place. Or maybe this is just more a problem of corporate reality making a couple of geeks who came up with a cute algorithm for web searching rethink how to approach the business world.

By the way, Fake Steve Jobs would like you all to know that Marissa has an interesting laugh. Oh yeah, and that it's just that Google's finally realised that "[the motto] was always bullshit, right from the start".

Problems with the private sector...

A topic that seems to be increasingly relevant in the last few days of posting (here, and here) is the invasiveness of corporate practice on other areas of life. So with that in mind, I thought I'd throw some news from Nature out there, in the form of this article.

So this article gives us a quite disturbing set of events whereby

"a company conducting a clinical trial, having its employees design the trial, analyse the data, write the paper, and then towards the very end recruit academic authors to put their name on the paper to give it that seal of supposed authenticity "

Two words for this: not cool. Peer-review for a number of years has come under attack for encouraging, among other things, nepotism and sexism. The literature is vast, and a study (albeit, a potentially rewarding and important study) in itself, which I don't feel confident trying to portray to you in a single blog post. What is important to note, is that in the Journal of the American medical Association (JAMA), where the study mentioned in Nature is soon to appear, this phenomena of 'ghost authorship' has been mentioned for at least 10 years.

What is the problem here? Well, apart from the fact that, as Nature mentions, this particular cache of studies are actually so doctored as to be plain ol' fraudulent in their content, it's also a subversion of the current system of scholarship practiced over the world. If the peer-review system wasn't on shaky footing before, it's certainly been shown to be in even more strife. The tobacco industry has been employing researchers for decades to attempt to show that smoking isn't as bad as everyone thinks (nice, guys), but this is a new level of subversion, the actual hiring of external researchers as front-men for internal research.

Priority is one of the big prizes in scholarly research. It always has been, as we aren't generally the type to earn the big bucks. But lo and behold, the private sector has found a way to tap into this prize, by effectively giving away research to motivate their own ends. It seems like a win-win situation: the company gets their research, and a researcher gets to be a first name. This is not so much an issue in philosophy, but in the natural and life sciences there is a huge emphasis on being a first name. I mean, computational science/high-end physics papers can have tens, occasionally hundreds of names on a paper. No one wants to be obscured behind the impenetrable wall of `et. al.' And hence the problem - the prize of research, priority, has been subverted.

How does one counter this? It's not easy, and will most likely require a restructuring of peer-review (a shout out to my friends who are big on `designing in ethics'). The first, if somewhat cumbersome method I can think of to alleviate this problem is to require a defense of a paper funded by industry, but I don't think we have enough peer-reviewers for this. The second would be a change in emphasis on the importance of priority in research in the current academic climate, but that's even harder to accomplish.

the method of discovery mentioned in Nature may show some promise, but requires a diversification of talents in the academic community. I'm talking about encouraging and promoting the meta-study: a study of studies. Hell, this might even allow us to get our highly critical social theorist brethren into the fray. To examine a wide range of studies on a topic allows us to see trends in data that may not appear otherwise.

I'll quote a personal example to illustrate: my honours thesis in nuclear physics revolved around the debunking of a number of popular ideas in a particular field of plasma physics. The problem was that people had initially misunderstood a set of phenomena, and had published based on this misunderstanding, which was never picked up. It, over the span of 30-odd years, became canon within this field, until one day my then-supervisor was alerted by a PhD student that the description of the system was false. As in, the data that people continued to collect, to describe other phenomena, was all based on an interpretation of a system which was false. The data had been replicated time and time again as a side product of other projects, and still no one noticed. It followed that an analysis of the literature pointed to how and where the misunderstanding occurred.

That was a benign example, certainly far removed in intention from the current situation, but I hope I get my point across- by looking at what has come before, we can see patterns that each individual study can't display. In my example, it was a misunderstanding of theory, in Ross' example written up in nature, it was the subversion of a practice within the scholarly methods of reporting. Both of these are important, but it takes a particular type of research to see where things are going wrong. Academic maintenance, so to speak.

I can't see that corporations are going to stop trying this. It's up to the academy to make it that much harder for private sector interests to subvert our practices in an effort to push products.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Follow-up to employee email snooping article

So the water becomes a little muddier here -- turns out the Attorney-General's office is quite well renowned for attempting to bring in crazy authoritarian initiatives to restrict Australians under the guise of anti-terrorism solutions.

According to Crikey today (subscription possibly required), some of the A-G's secretary's recent efforts include attempting to silence criticism of ASIO after they wrongly detained Izhar ul-Haque (rejected by the commission), others in the office helped Howard with his infamous "children overboard" mess and providing the false allegations of weapons of mass destruction that dragged Australia into war. Apparently it seems that this lot quite enjoy close relations with the private sector.

Bernard Keane writes in the above article:

The private sector, across areas such as transport, communications, IT and energy, is a willing participant in the process of establishing a system for monitoring and protecting their facilities and the public infrastructure they use, all in the name of preventing or effectively responding to terrorism. After all, the process allows companies access to government funding for the maintenance and upgrading of monitoring and information-collection systems they would otherwise have to invest in themselves, enables – in the name of greater security – the development of new regulatory requirements that raise the barriers to entry for possible competitors, and transfers an element of operational risk to taxpayers.

Still think this is all about keeping Australians safe?

P.S. for some fun acronym bureaucracy in the world of Critical Infrastructure Security (CIS), this is a good read.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Is losing employee consent the price to be paid for cyber-terrorism safety?

I read with some initial horror this morning that the Federal Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, has proposed amendments to the Telecommunications (Interceptions) Act among other legislature to be introduced in order to combat cyber-terrorism. These amendments apparently (I can't find the original documents for all the searching I have done so far today after trawling the parliament website, all I could find is a proposed amendment from February that just expands warrant powers) allow companies and others who run critical infrastructure (apparently the financial system, stock exchange, electricity grid, transport system, etc.) to monitor employee use of the internet including email and other communications without their consent. The Act so far only allows those working in security agencies to be monitored without consent.

McClelland and Julia Gillard have spoken out to say that these amendments will help in securing Australia's infrastructure against cyber-terrorism, because a terrorist attack on critical infrastructure would "reap far greater economic damage than would be the case of a physical attack", according to McClelland, which Gillard backed up soon after.

Why do the A-G and Julia Gillard suppose that cyber-terrorists are likely to be working from within an infrastructure company? McClelland used the example of the Estonian hackers which used a bot-net of thousands of external zombie computers to take down the system. This isn't something that will be fixed by monitoring, all it requires is decent Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack prevention mechanisms, which are available. And even if they still think that insider jobs facilitate terrorist attacks, why do they think that cyber-terrorists that may happen to be inside the company are likely to be stupid enough to communicate through company channels?

I'm also interested in what sort of mechanisms they are putting in place to avoid situations where employers with a grudge could use this law to poke into private affairs of their employees who are in no way a danger to the company or Australia's infrastructure, and how they are proposing that employers effectively monitor their employees for terrorist activity. What sort of delegation of these powers would there need to be to, say, someone employed by the company to monitor other employees? What sort of checks and balances are there for this? It seems like it would be detrimental to Australia's security if employers could act as if they were security experts and identify likely threats from innocuous emails.

Another thing that needs to be asked is why consent needs to be taken away. Consent can be construed as a waiver of normative expectations, according to Neil Manson and Onora O'Neill (and my upcoming thesis on informed consent in ICT will explain why I think this is a reasonable model to apply to ICT). It seems here that by legislating consent out of a workplace agreement that the government here is almost attempting to make workplace surveillance the norm. This surprises me coming from a supposedly liberal government! Why is not having an employee's consent important to this bill? Surely we can have a bill that allows for all the other parts with explicit knowledge of the employee. Many companies already have internet use policy agreements with their employees, which involve degrees of surveillance. Legislating this sort of thing is fine, but surely, like collecting tax file information or as part of a standard contract for employment, the legislation could include some sort of policy for detailing the surveillance and obtaining consent from the employee?

McClelland has said that information from these communications could be used in "for instance, disciplinary matters regarding the employees' conduct or any other privacy issues. In other words, you're not interested in communications from employees' friends, their children, other family members." I fail to understand why this sort of thing isn't already covered by the existing legislation though, or why it is necessary to remove consent from the equation, or put employers (and/or the person delegated to deal with these matters) in charge of judging the relevance of personal communication.

I agree that infrastructure is a juicy target for potential cyber-terrorist attack, but this set of laws is not the way to protect infrastructure. Infrastructure needs good solid protection through careful construction and management and contingency plans, not the ability for employers to be able to monitor their employees' internet use. If that's not what this is about, then terrorism needs to be fully disconnected from the discourse about this law. Otherwise, it's just fear-mongering, something more suited to the dim dark past of Australian government history.

New Policy Proposes That Work Emails Be Screened For Threats

Our friends of the Governmentmental variety are proposing new legislation to access personal work emails in order to prevent attacks on vital infrastructure.

Now many of you paranoid types may see this as an infringement on privacy or some other such things. Some of you may even go so far as to devote years of your life writing thaecis on such things.
Anyway, my reason for posting is not to rant about this, but the hope that if people are interested in this, that they post new info and or links about this policy, if it becomes enacted etc.

That is all.

Careful, this may prevent any thesis work

An enemy of mine sent me this this morning. It is pure evil, and has the potential to suck you in for ever. You have been warned...

E Coli is going to need a labour union...

So we've finally made itty bitty bacterium start to pull their weight. Scientists have recently discovered how to turn on and off certain switches in the RNA of Escherichia coli, enabling it too chase the pesticide atrazine. The artcile in Nature, released last week, relays the views of the scientists on a couple of possibilities associated with this technology. I'm sure, even as an unlearned non-biologist, that finding pesticides and programming bacterium to move things around are just the start.

I mean, the life sciences community has made bacteria able to create biological sensors to find Uranium in Water (for a less technical explanation, I refer you to this handy comic), and the ability to program bacterium to selectively bind to chemicals is old hat by now. Soon we could be using bacterium to do the grunt work in environmental renewal operations. And with the advances we've had in physical chemistry, recently, such as the leaps and bounds we've taken in Uranium Metallurgy, these are exciting times indeed.

The question that any ethicist working with dual-use or risk assessment will pose, of course, is one enquiring into the risks of creating these novel bacterium to do our (at times, quite literally) dirty work for us. What if these bacterium were to breed uncontrollably and start their own biological-disaster-party? My view? I'm skeptical as to the likelihood of this nightmare ever occurring. The study that prompted this post illustrated the problems associated with taking these things out of the lab: the poor likkle bacteria just can't compete with the rest of nature. plus, I hear it's not that hard these days to effectively 'neuter' bacteria. I agree that genetic mutation is a concern we should look at, and certainly more work needs to be done, not just technically but to see how these things react with natural systems. But such new technologies have the power to clean up a world that is badly in need of some cleaning. And when you have rivers like the Ganges bestowing bathers, washers, drinkers and worshipers with hearty doses of poisonous heavy metals, I think the benefits seriously outweigh the risks.

Friday, April 11, 2008

I want to own the color purple

That's right. I want to own the colour purple. No, not the novel/Oprah Winfrey movie. The color itself. Now, perchance I have been perched at my desk too long, without contact with the mammals, but I pursuade to you to hold judgment.
In a court case decided today, the learned judge Peter Heerey found in favour of the D. L. that C. S. did not own the color purple.

What kind of a world is this, justice be topsy-turvey cry I, when a good social citizen like C.S. cannot rightly border that which is theirs. I hold you to your conscience dear sirs/maddams of the readery, that we be slipping into a crocodile nest of the purest ill if this precedent be held.
Stand, brothers and sisters, and walk as one with me while I cry freedom for my rights and fight for my color!

See this:

Chocolate giant Cadbury has lost a court bid to stop rival Darrell Lea using the colour purple.

The Federal Court has dismissed an application by Cadbury Schweppes that the use of purple by Darrell Lea amounted to misleading and deceptive conduct.

Justice Peter Heerey said he was not persuaded that Darrell Lea in using purple had passed off its business or products as those of Cadbury or had contravened the Trade Practices Act.

"I am not satisfied that such usage has resulted, or would result, in ... purchasers of chocolate being misled or deceived," Justice Heerey said.

Cadbury had claimed customers linked purple with their products and mistook Darrell Lea's goods for Cadbury's, and vice versa.

But Darrell Lea had said Cadbury's knowledge was limited to inspection of goods on display and physical surroundings, and did not involve any observation of consumer behaviour.

How much does informed consent actually waive?

One of the things I've been looking at recently is Neil Manson and Onora O'Neill's "Rethinking Informed Consent in Bioethics", which puts forward the idea of dropping autonomy as the justification for informed consent (with a bunch of compelling arguments, the most compelling being that we really just don't know exactly what autonomy means), and instead using informed consent procedures as a waiver of normative expectations. For example, taking a knife and stabbing it into a person's body is not usually something you would expect to be acceptable, but surgeons will commonly do so given that the patient has gone through a particular set of informed consent procedures. So informed consent here is being used as a waiver of the expectation that one would normally not get stabbed in the chest by someone else.

This sort of idea is obviously already in use (most medical informed consent procedures for example require a certain amount of disclosure of information, some measure perhaps of how much the consenter understood the information, perhaps also some sort of competency test, and then some sort of signing of a waiver that absolves the practitioner of responsibility), but what Manson and O'Neill do is cut to the chase and rub out any lofty goals of achieving autonomy and full understanding and rather difficult-to-obtain idealistic goals like that, and get straight into what it is that informed consent wants to achieve for all practical purposes.

So it is with this in mind that I find this article today (excuse the terrible pun in the headline), about a (rather stupid) man and his then (also rather stupid) girlfriend who wanted to scam a local council out of compensation by claiming that a wall fell on the girlfriend's leg, breaking it. Of course, what does the scheming couple do? The girl puts her leg up on some bricks and the guy jumps on it, breaking it in several places. Oh yeah, and their friend films it on a mobile phone camera.

He claims they filmed it so he had proof she consented to it, and she says she gave her consent to him jumping on her leg (and even suggested they do it in the first place). At the trial of the man, the judge seemed to think this consent was not a mitigating factor.

When jailing Thomson, Judge Francis Gilbert said: "This is an extraordinary case. You broke Miss Hingston's leg deliberately at her request and with her consent in order to make a false claim against the city council. Whether or not she consented or suggested the scheme, it is no defence. You inflicted really serious harm to another person deliberately and with pre-meditation for a wholly financial motive."


I find this quite an interesting case, because although obviously they're both quite stupid people (I mean come on...) she did give her consent. However there could be an argument to say that the man just took advantage of her stupidity, but how are we to know that for sure (unless he confesses to it)?

So to put that back into Manson and O'Neill's informed consent procedure, she acknowledged and agreed to a waiver of the jumping on her leg for a particular purpose. Now it seems that the actual jumping on the leg is not theoretically the issue at stake, but the reasoning behind it that the judge takes issue with. So how should we take that into account? Should we perhaps have waivers of waivers? Or restrict legitimacy of waivers to waiving "reasonable normative expectations"? What would constitute a reasonable normative expectation then? Obviously to this couple, it was a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

Some things to think about!

By the way, the couple are apparently no longer together!

Replies to Catherine

In response to This post

I'm not sure what I think. I'm personally not a fan of drugs,1 and we do have sanctions against doping in such things as sports events. So why would this be any different?

I want to draw the readers attention to another set of disciplines that has associations with drugs: the creative arts. Music, in particular (at least according to my musician friends) has a thriving drug culture, far in excess of scientists in terms of the variety and regularity of consumption. And yet, while these artists may be committing crimes, it is not often expressed in terms of their cheating their field by taking drugs, which (and especially I suspect, considering some of the modern art scene) may enhance the `creative process.' It would seem that artists dope quite heavily in terms of using substance to enhance performance. And yet, despite the legal and health problems associated with drug use, it does seem to be a bit of a norm in society that painters, musicians and other dramatic and creative artists will use drugs.

This isn't just to target the arts. Any fan of my good mate Hunter S. Thompson will be aware of a certain precedent his story and indeed popular media (he says after watching an episode of about a drug-using journalist portraying the journalism industry as a bit drug-oriented, although perhaps I could go out on a limb and say that's less hallucinogenic (Thompson aside) and my stimulant-based.

So what would be wrong with scientists? I guess one way to look at this is to compare our intuitions as to which one of any of the variety of drug-using sections of society scientists can be most closely identified with, and what the drugs are actually doing. If we identify them with athletes, and the use of drugs to augment the scale of their performance based attributes, i.e. steroids, HGH, and diuretics all augment an attribute that directly relates to the performance of the skill of the athlete: strength, muscle building capacity, or weight. It is also very goal-driven: the drugs are consumed with the end of the drug use being a short period (generally) of competition.

It would seem that the use of scientists is more long-term - they use drugs to aid them in staying focused over long periods of time. In this case, I would compare them to journalists: they use stimulants or anti-anxiety meds to allow them to remain focused for long periods of time. The drugs (the study aid capacity of Ritalin I imagine is based around it's affects of ADHD - it actually allows you to think about one thing longer, while keeping the frantic energy of high-stress jobs intact) are designed not to enhance an attribute. If they were taking drugs to enhance data retention, mathematical ability, or some other cognitive function, we could compare them to the doping of athletes. If their drugs made them more creative, then maybe artists, but it seems to me that the primary end of these drugs is that one that escapes us all: time. Time not worrying, not procrastinating (he says writing in a blog instead of his thesis); time to study. That's a journalist mentality.

So the question now remains is: is this morally permissible? And that's a harder problem to examine. I can't go to the moral high ground here: I've had more than my fair share of 3am, wired-on-inconceivable-amounts-of-caffeine mathematics sessions during my honours thesis and previous to that in undergrad. What I can say is that it does reinforce a certain preconception about the sciences: that the big leaps in science is a young man's game. It's played like a high-stakes game, as the study shows with the higher proportions of drug users being in the younger age groups. Is this acceptable? In terms of data retention, the job of the young scientist (he'll need it all for later studies!), and mathematics that borders on the divine, it sure as hell helps. But I can't seem to grasp an opinion. My primary concern is that it promotes the increasing drug-oriented culture of our society, which I have some problems with on an intuitive level. I think that life needs to slow down, but I can understand why some people can't. Maybe the scientists should get into yoga? That is meant to help concentration. I can speak with personal experience on the advantages of meditation in improving composure and concentration.

But pills are a lot easier.

1Okay, that's not the whole truth: I am a big fan of coffee, but after 4.5 years of strenuous study as a physics major I've developed such a tolerance to it that it doesn't do anything anymore to me, apart from the emotional feeling of contentment I get from the smell.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

20 Percent of Scientists Admit Using Brain-Enhancing Drugs Do You?

20 Percent of Scientists Admit Using Brain-Enhancing Drugs: "A recent online poll by the journal Nature found that 20 percent of scientists had taken drugs to boost their brains."

(Via Wired News.)

I thought Nick might be interested in this, since he's interested in the "freedom of the scientist"... what about mental freedom, Nick, mental freedom! *runs*


I'm Nick, another postgrad here in the CAPPE ANU/CSU realm. ANU = Australian National university, CSU = Charles Sturt University, but we generally all hang out on the ANU campus.

My area of study lies in censorship, freedom of the scientist, and regulation of sensitive research, among (many) other things. So I'll probably be posting a lot about conspiracies, repressive governments, and WMDs. Oh, and occasionally ranting about stupid people trying to suppress science (Intelligent Design community, I'm looking at you).

Today, just to give you a taste, I've been working on completing my first chapter of my thesis, in which I hope to develop a series of moral arguments that nuance between acceptable and unacceptable methods and motivations for restriction of information. Which for today has meant pouring over commentaries (not archival materials, thankfully) on Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Why? Because due to an unsettling lack of coherence about perceptions of censorship, I've decided to do a historical analysis of the phenomena in an attempt to understand it better. Following a cursory reading of the literature, I started to write, and then realised how little I knew about censorship. It's been a long couple of months...


Well, I'm Catherine and I'm a CAPPE postgraduate student. My area of study is informed consent in information technology, so I'll be the "shock horror" tech story correspondent for this blog :-) Okay, well, one of them. Heh.

I'm almost done with my thesis, which is a little scary because it feels like I hardly started. Did I mention done time-wise? Yeah. But I am more than 1/10 through the writing which makes me vaguely happy.

I started up this blog and hope that other CAPPE people will join in and post because it's nice to have an active postgraduate community, and I think this year's lot of postgrads at CAPPE is a particularly intersting and diverse group of people with lots to offer (and blogging fingers!).

CAPPE is the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, located at ANU in Canberra, Australia. Standard disclaimer applies: the opinions etc. posted here are in no way representative of CAPPE or anyone but the individual who posted them.