Category Archives: science and technology

“Games For Change” 2017 Student Challenge

And speaking of mobile apps with a social purpose….

The upcoming annual Games For Change (G4C) meeting has a lot of interesting stuff, on the theme “Catalyzing Social Impact Through Digital Games”. At the very least, this gang is coming out of the ivory tower and up off their futons, to try to do something, not just talk about it.

Part of this year’s activities is the Student Challenge , which si a competition that

“invites students to make digital games about issues impacting their communities, combining digital storytelling with civic engagement.

This year’s winners were announced last month, from local schools and game jams in NYC, Dallas, and Pittsburg. (Silicon Valley, where were you?) Students were asked to invent games on three topics,

  • Climate Change (with NOAA),
  • Future Communities (with Current by GE), and
  • Local Stories & Immigrant Voices (with National Endowment for the Humanities).

Eighteen winners were highlighted.

The “Future Cities” games mostly are lessons on the wonders of “smart cities”, and admonitions to clean up trash. One of them has a rather compelling “heart beat” of Carbon emissions, though the game mechanics are pretty obscure, doing anything or doing nothing at all increases Carbon. How do I win?

The “Climate Change” also advocates picking up trash, as well as planting trees. There is also a quiz, and an Antarctic Adventure (though nothing even close to “Never Alone”)

The “local stories” and “immigrant stories” tell stories about immigrants, past and present. (This kids are from the US, land of immigration.) There are two alarming “adventures” that sketches how to illegally enter the US, which is a dangerous undertaking with a lot of consequences. Not something I like to see “gamified”.

Overall, the games are very heavy on straight story telling, with minimal game-like features. Very much like the “educational games” the kids no doubt have suffered through for years. And not much like the games everyone really likes to play. One suspects that there were teachers and other adults behind the scenes shaping what was appropriate.

The games themselves are pretty simple technically, which is inevitable given the short development time and low budgets. The games mostly made the best of what they had in the time available.

I worry that these rather limited experiences will give the students a false impression of both technology and story telling. The technology used is primitive, they did not have realistic market or user testing, and the general game designs are unoriginal. That’s fine for student projects, but not really a formula for real world success, and has little to do with real game or software development.

Worse, the entire enterprise is talking about it. One game or 10,000 games that tell you (again) to pick up trash doesn’t get the trash picked up. If you want to gamify neighborhood clean up, you are going to need to tie it to the actual physical world, e.g., a “trashure hunt”, with points for cleaning up and preventing litter.

These kids did a super job on their projects, but I think the bar was set far too low. Let’s challenge kids to actually do something, not just make a digital story about it. How would you use game technology to do it? I don’t know. That’s what the challenge is.

  1. Games for Change, Announcing the winners of the 2017 G4C Student Challenge, in Games For Change Blog. 2017.


Native American “Wellness Warriors” App

At this week’s conference, the United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY), released their new “Wellness Warriors App”.

There are probably a bazillion “wellness” apps out there (and, confusingly, more than one “wellness warrior”).   This app is distinguished by begin designed to be culturally-based for Native American youth.

Cool! This is the kind of thing I hope to see more of: digital apps that strengthen community and culture rather than eroding it. So I had to take a closer look.

The idea of the project is to promote “wellness from a cultural perspective – fitness through cultural dance, healthy eating with traditional Native foods, and more.” These activities already enjoy considerable participation as an expression of cultural identity and solidarity. The app adds in an emphasis on the health benefits of these activities.

These are real world, face-to-face activities. What can a mobile app really do?

From a brief trial run, it looks like that one contribution is social connection with a digital community that promotes a broad solidarity across many locations and specific tribes. The app seeks to,

encourage Native youth to interact with each other in a way we’ve never seen before.

I’m not sure that this has never been seen before (I’m pretty sure that Facebook and everything else is already widely used by these kids), but it bundles all the stuff into a single, “just for us” app.

I admit that I don’t really know all the features WWA has, or how to use it reasonably. (I, for one, could use some directions! But I’m not in the target demographic, who are digital natives.)

Many of the features are familiar from generic apps, including sharing and messaging. The “wellness” aspect including some fitness tracking and charts (I don’t know how to use them), space for contributed regional recipes and a planner.

The ‘cultural sensitivity’ appears in many forms, such as the graphic design and in channels for various Indian languages. The “wellness tracker” itself is a self report meter through which you enter your current state of physical, mental, social, and spiritual wellness. These dimensions are probably used by many such wellness apps, but in this case they should be interpreted in the context of tribal heritage. The “social” and “spiritual” dimensions definitely have important and specific meanings for Native Americans.

This app, like any mobile app, is mainly talking, not doing. The activities of interest (eating, exercising, helping each other) are real world, face-to-face things. Digitally augmented talk is not necessarily going to promote wellness or fitness.

In general, I’m not optimistic on the effectiveness of any self-reported tracking features. Aside from the problematic nature of this kind of introspection, interrupting your life to fill in the data just seems too intrusive to work for long.

Also, I’ve never been interested myself in sharing fitness data (or recipes), so I wouldn’t be motivated by these features, even if I did take time to record my wellness. But lots of people, especially you youngsters out there, like to do this sort of thing. So there you go.

All that said, the cultural solidarity represented by UNITY should, in principle, add motivation and intrinsic rewards that make this app work better than a generic app with similar features would. It is also true that there already is a social network (UNITY and its many affiliated youth organizations), so this app overlays existing social connections, and therefore is more likely to be effective.

In other words, a digital app might or might not be especially effective for promoting wellness, but one that is embedded in a strong and positive cultural context might work better. As they suggest, the aim of the  game is “Finding wellness and healing within our cultures” which is a lot more meaningful than just “promoting wellness” in general.

This app inspires me to think of additional features that might make it even better. There are many possibilities that could be done technically, though I don’t know what will fit the spirit and practices of this group.  (Perhaps spinn off apps, if these are too far afield from “wellness”..)

Things that occur to me:

  • A gratitude meter–express gratitude every day
  • Ambient nature awareness channels, e.g., Bison cam streaming coverage of reintroduced Bison herds.
  • informal (social) games (in local languages!), with cultural content. E.g., guided meditation/story telling with traditional themes and images.
    • (can you make the game so great that kids everywhere–not just Native Americans– will want to practice Native American spiritual values, because its just cool?)
  • Idea market for mutual help (think “mindsharing”, with a cultural twist)
  • Platform cooperatives for sharing stuff (think Uber or AirBnB, except owned by the users). In this case, should be embedded in cultural heritage surrounding sharing and gifts.

Anyway, I look forward to seeing what happens with this app.

  1. United National Indian Tribal Youth, Cultural-based Wellness App to Launch at National Native Youth Conference, in UNITY – News. 2017.


Side effects – Xtreme End-to-End thinking!

I think that the one of the most important habits of good design and engineering is end-to-end thinking. Solving problems is fine, but they need to be the right problems, and this means they need to be solutions all the way to the actual ends of the system.

Pat Helland writes this month about an even more funky, extreme version of this principle: Side-Effect-Thinking.

He focuses on digital transactions which are the backbone of the digital world.

The basic observation is that digital systems are composed of many pieces and layers which interact through APIs that are specifically designed to hide the TMI. These systems are also connected to real world systems, which may act in response to a transaction.

The main point is, of course,

One system’s side effect is another’s meat and potatoes.” ([1], p. 39)

The whole idea of APIs is to hide how the system works. By design, we have no idea exactly what happens when we place an order, or change an order, or whatever. Lot’s of stuff goes on behind the scenes, and we neither know nor need to know about it.

Helland points out that a side-effect of this design strategy is that a transaction may have knock on effects much wider than we might guess. He describes a scenario of reserving a hotel room. This may trigger the hotel to increase staff for that period, to order additional supplies, reschedule maintenance, and so on. Suppliers may respond with new orders and reserve capacity. And so on. All I asked for is a room!

It becomes more interesting when you cancel the room request. In one sense, the transaction is reversed, and all effects undone—in the reservation systems. But the side effects are not and some cannot be undone.

“cancelled’ transactions don’t undo side effects

He also points out that “idempotent” operations are idempotent only from the viewpoint of the transaction system. Each execution may produce the same result, but each will have side effects. If nothing else, the traffic will be logged (many times and at many levels of the system).

(Historic note: in the early days of the web, it wasn’t uncommon for web servers to swamp their logging and other ‘hidden’ systems, even when there was only a few pages that never changed. The information delivered was trivial, all the work was side effects.)

As I said, all this stems from the completely sound and reasonable design principle of information hiding. It would be impossible to build distributed systems any other way. On the other hand, designers implementing the system would do well to think about side effects that the callers might cause.

I would note that side-effects like those described by Helland have been the source of break-ins and denial of service attacks. Any of the scenarios in the article could, if repeated many times, become a denial of service attack. Some of them would be weird and unprecedented attacks, such as creating local petrol shortages by spamming hotel reservation systems.

Side effects and their ramifications will be even more problematic as the Internet of Things deploys. I don’t really know what the IoT will actually be, but most visions of it imagine that everyday actions will trigger waves of automatic transactions among the “Things”, which will also cause real world actions. TMI to the TMth power!

Following the spirit of Helland’s scenarios, imagine that when you cancel your hotel reservation (triggering mischief in France and memory fragmentation in some database), your home infers that you will be home that day instead of away. The “smart home” had planned to stand down many systems and conduct maintenance, but now anticipating what you will need, and proactively purchases extra electricity and utilities, cancels a maintenance visit, and orders food. These orders in turn trigger a wave of transactions and just-in-time orders by the services. And so on.

If this sounds like a chaotic system, it might very well be.

Remind again, me why the IoT is a good idea?

  1. Pat Helland, Side effects, front and center. Communications of the ACM, 60 (7):36-39, 2017.

Blockchain Use Case: Supply Chains

This summer we’ve seen the cypto world sifting through the many possible use cases enthusiastically floated in past years [2], finding that some have promise and others seem to be fading. Remittance, local currencies, and “identity” seem to be fading. Blockchains don’t seem to be an overwhelmingly great technology for these problems.

Some use cases are still up in the air. Executable contracts, AKA, “smart contracts” are the flavor of the month in some circles, despite their catastrophic track record to date.

Other use cases for blockchains are still cooking. Land registries seem to be a good fit—though mainly as a convenience on top of already functioning legal systems.  Other similar registries might work, provided the legals are worked out.

But the one use case that is coming on very strong is “supply chains”. Blockchains are a pretty interesting technology for Provenance and, apparently, for seaports.

This summer, Antwerp’s gigantic container port joins Rotterdam and other major centers, doing their or pilot projects with blockchain technology [3].

As Noelle Acheson, points out in Coindesk, blockchain technology is getting serious attention from seaports, for many good reasons [1]. These operations are huge and operate on small margins. Even a tiny cost savings can amount to huge savings. Furthermore, there are zillions of companies all doing business with each other, based all around the world. Blockchain technology, or something similar, offers the hope of easy interoperability at minimal cost.

It seems to me that the case is pretty clear. Everything is already managed digitally, so much of the infrastructure (id codes, digital records, etc.) is already in place. I note that companies such as IBM and Microsoft are participating in these developments, and have built the current systems. I’m not sure if this is “disruption”, or just next generation engineering.

In addition, many of the operations can tolerate moderate latency, minutes or even hours to complete a transaction. Blockchain technology can meet such a requirement, even if it can’t handle the speed and scale of other cases.

This application makes use of public key cryptography to implement chains of trust and to share data in controlled ways. These are perfect use cases for PKI, with or without blockchains, per se.

The use case also requires interoperation among many, many players. This requires open interfaces and open data standards, for sure. Blockchain technology can be used as a robust mechanism for these machine interactions. It’s not the only way to do it, but blockchain may be a pretty good way.

Acheson suggests that the decentralized nature of blockchain should improve the security of the system, or at least the robustness in the face of cyber attack.

a distributed network of blockchain platforms could enhance the security and integrity of key operations

I’m not so sure how strong this case is, because the blockchain is only a tiny fraction of the whole system, and, in fact, not the most vulnerable. (For example, knocking systems off line stops operations, blockchain or no.) Given that the blockchain based system will introduce new vulnerabilities, it is difficult to say what the overall security implications are.

Acheson also suggests that there should be some kind of global standard and industry consortium to implement these concepts.

“it’s curious that an international blockchain consortium of ports and shippers has not yet emerged.

I’m not surprised and don’t really expect this to happen. First of all, shipping has been going on for millennia, and even today is characterized by a pretty loose set of agreements, ad hoc, and de facto processes.  Second, the internet itself works without such standards.  And third, these systems are built by global companies, which resist such non-competitive arrangements.  In short, don’t hold your breath.

Finally, I note that this use case suggests the importance of both public and private blockchains. For some purposes, especially consumer confidence and compliance, a public trace of sources is ideal. The people are looking at a public blockchain for this purpose.

On the other hand, container port operations probably will use a private blockchain for most of the work, or perhaps multiple private blockchains. There is no need for this information to be public (though it will be easy to audit when needed), and good reasons why the details should be private. For example, if you are worried about cyber security, you probably don’t want any kid on the Internet to be able to track your shipment of industrial chemicals every centimeter of its transfer. Nor do you want your competition monitoring your shipping traffic in order to infer details of your production capabilities and plans.

The bottom line is that blockchain technology may be a very useful augmentation for the already highly organized, digitized, and optimized business of transportation. It’s not quite as sexy as “reinventing money”, but it’s probably a good use of the technology, and it appears to have a strong economic case, too.

  1. Noelle Acheson Port of Call: Blockchain’s Impact on Supply Chains is Broader Than It Seems. Coindesk.July 3 2017,
  2. Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott, Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin is Changing Money, Business, and the World, New York, Portfolio/Penguin, 2016.
  3. Wolfie Zhao, Europe’s Second Largest Port Launches Blockchain Logistics Pilot. Coindesk.June 28 2017,


Cryptocurrency Thursday

Young and Yung on Cryptovirology

Adam L. Young and Moti Yung write this month in Communications of the ACM about their research from the 1990s, which developed the concept for what they called “cryptovirology” [1].  This is, of course, what we now call “ransomware”. These folks described the “business model” for ransomware very precisely circa 1997, including the use of electronic money.

As they comment, at the dawn of the Internet, they imagined and described in detail the fundamental technology that is used in “ransomware”. They say that this was a mashup (a term that barely existed in 1997!) of malware with public key cryptography, an innovation which few people had thought of at the time. (Evidently, they also had graphic images in mind from the original Aliens film. Whether this has much to do with the technology, it certainly sets the mood for the grim business of life-sucking infestation.)

The researchers make the interesting point that this is one of the first cases where cryptography has been used as an offensive weapon. Most uses of cryptography are purely defensive, and cryptanalysis aims to penetrate the defenses. Ransomware uses cryptography to inflict devastating damage.

The paper describes the interesting asymmetrical nature of the malware attack:

We discovered that public key cryptography holds the power to break the symmetry between the view of an antivirus analyst and the view of the at- tacker. The view of the antivirus analyst is the malware code and the public key it contains. The view of the attacker is the malware code, the public key it contains, and the corresponding private key. The malware can perform trapdoor one-way operations on the victim’s machine that only the attacker can undo.” ([1], p. 25)

They also warn that today’s splashy ransomware attacks are the tip of an iceberg of possible mischief, There are a variety of attacks that can be made with this approach, most of which is completely undetected by conventional defenses. A glance at the design of Stuxnet and other NSA tools will give a flavor of what kind of covert subversion might be possible.

These scary warnings aren’t accompanied by any simple solutions. (Well, ‘don’t use Microsoft Windows’ is probably good advice, in general.)

I note that much of current security research is irrelevant or even helpful to ransomware attacks. Faster computers and stronger cryptography will only make ransomware even more powerful and dangerous. PKI has become ubiquitous for routine protection, but it is also the key to ransomware. Distributed ledger systems enable secure digital money (e.g., Bitcoin), but this is also the perfect payment system for extortion. “Every exit is an entrance”, as they say.

This is a neat article by some legit pioneers.

  1. Adam L. Young and Moti Yung, Cryptovirology: the birth, neglect, and explosion of ransomware. Commun. ACM, 60 (7):24-26, 2017.

Adam L. Young, Moti Yung, Cryptovirology: the birth neglect and explosion of ransomware

Telepresence Robot – At the zoo

These days we see a lot of exciting stories about telepresence—specifically, live, remote operation of robots. From the deadly factual reports from the battlefields of South Asia through science fiction novels to endless videos from drone racing gamers, we see people conquering the world from their living room.

One of the emerging technologies is telepresence via a remote robot that resembles ‘an ipad on a segway’. These are intended for remote meetings and things like that. There is two way video, but the screen is mobile and under the command of the person on the other end. So you can move around, talk to people, look at things.

On the face of it, this technology is both amazing (how does it balance like that?) and ridiculous (who would want to interact with an ipad on wheels?) And, of course, many of the more expansive claims are dubious. It isn’t, and is never going to be, “just like being there”.

But we are learning that these systems can be fun and useful. The may be a reasonable augmentation for remote workers, not as good as being there, but better than just telcons. And, as Emily Dreyfus comments, a non representational body is sometimes an advantage.

Last year Sensei Evan Ackerman reported on an extensive field test of one of these telepresence sticks, called the Double 2. This test drive was an interesting test because he deliberately took it out of the intended environment, which stressed the technology in many ways. The experience is a reminder of the limitations of telepresence, but also gives insights into when it might work well.

First of all, he played with it across the continental US (from Maryland to Oregon) thousands of KM apart. Second, he took it outdoors, which it isn’t designed for at all. And he necessarily relied on whatever networks were available, which varied, and often had weak signals.

As part of the test, he went to the zoo and to the beach!

Walking the dog was impossible.

Overall, the system worked amazingly well, considering that it wasn’t designed for outdoor terrain and needs networking. He found it pretty good for standing still and chatting with people, but moving was difficult and stressful at times. Network latency and dropouts meant a loss of control, with possibly harmful results.

Initially skeptical, Sensei Evan recognized that the remote control has advantages.

I’m starting to see how a remote controlled robot can be totally different [than a laptop running Skype] . . . You don’t have to rely on others, or be the focus of attention. It’s not like a phone call or a meeting: you can just exist, remotely, and interact with people when you or they choose.

Whether or not it is “just like being there”, when it works well, there is a sense of agency and ease of use, at least compared to conventional vidoe conferencing.

This is an interesting observation. Not only does everybody need to get past the novelty, but it works best when you are cohabitating for considerable periods of time. Walking the dog, visiting the zoo—not so good. Hanging out with distant family—not so bad.

I note that the most advertised use case—a remote meeting—may be the weakest experience. A meeting has constrained movement, a relatively short time period, and often is tightly orchestrated.  This takes little advantage of the mobility and remote control capabilities. You may as well as well just do a video conference.

The better use is for extended collaboration and conversation. E.g., Dreyfus and others have used it for whole working days, with multiple meetings, conversations in the hall, and so on.  Once people get used to it, this might be the right use case.

I might note that this is also an interesting observation to apply to the growing interest in Virtual Reality, including shared and remote VR environments.  If a key benefit of the telepresence robot is moving naturally through the environment, then what is the VR experience going to be like?  It might be “natural” interactions, but it will be within a virtual environment.  And if everyone is coming in virtually, then there is no “natural” intereaction at all (or rather, the digital is overlaid on the (to be ignored) physical environments. There will be lots of control, but will there be “ease”?  We’ll have to see.

  1. Evan Ackerman, Double 2 Review: Trying Stuff You Maybe Shouldn’t With a Telepresence Robot, in IEEE Spectrum – Automation. 2016.


Robot Wednesday

Facebook’s AI Led Astray By Human Behavior

I don’t follow the roiling waters of online advertising giant Facebook. Having moved fast and broke things, they are now thrashing around trying to fix stuff that they broke.

This month a team of researchers at Facebook released some findings from yet another study [3]. Specifically, the experiments (which don’t seem to have been reviewed by an Institutional Review Board) are trying to build simple AI’s that can “bargain” with humans. This task requires good-enough natural language to communicate with the carbon-based life form, and enough of a model of the situation to effectively reach a deal.

Their technical approach is to use machine learning so that bots can learn by example. Specifically, they use a collection of human-human negotiations, and tried to analyze the behavior to discover algorithms to replicate human-like interactions.

With preposterous amounts of computing power, who knows? It might work.

Unfortunately, the results were less than stunning.

Glancing at the conclusions in the paper, the good news is that method was able to learn “goal maximizing” instead of “likelihood maximizing” behaviors. This is neat, though given the constrained context (we know that the parties are negotiating) it’s less than miraculous.

The resulting bots aren’t completely satisfactory, though. For one thing these machine intelligences are, well, pretty mechanical. Specifically, they are obsessive and aggressive, “negotiating harder” than other bots.  Also, the conversation generated by the bots  made sense at the sentence level, but consecutive sentences did not necessarily make sense. (The examples sound rather “Presidential” to me.)

But the headline finding was that the silicon-based entities picked up some evil, deceptive tactics from their carbon-based role models. Sigh. It’s not necessarily “lying” (despite Wired magazine [1]), but, in line with “negotiating harder”, the bots learned questionable tactics that probably are really used by the humans exemplars.   (Again, this rhetoric certainly sounds Presidential to me.)

The hazards of trying to model human behavior–you might succeed too well!

I’m not surprised that this turned out to be a difficult task.

People have been trying to make bots to negotiate since the dawn of computing. The fact that we are not up to our eyeballs in NegotiBots™ suggests that this ain’t easy to do. And the versions we have seen in online markets are, well, peculiar.

One question raised by this study is, what is a good dataset to learn from? This study used a reasonably sized sample, but it was a convenience sample: people* recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk. Easy to get, but are they representative? And what is the target population that you’d like to emulate?

(* We assume they were all people, but how would you know?)

I don’t really know.

But at least some of the results (e.g., learning aggressive and borderline dishonest tactics) may reflect the natural behavior of Mechanical Turk workers more than normal humans. This is a critical question if this technology is ever to be deployed. It will be necessary to make sure that it is learning culturally correct behavior for the cultures that it is to be deployed in.

I will add a personal note. I really don’t want to have to ‘negotiate’ with bots (or humans), thank you very much. The deployment of fixed prices was a great advance in retail marketing [2], and it is a mistake to go backwards from this approach.

  1. Liat Clark, Facebook teaches bots how to negotiate. They learn to lie instead. 16 2017,
  2. Steven Johnson, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, New York, Riverhead Books, 2016.
  3. Mike Lewis, Denis Yarats, Yann N Dauphin, Devi Parikh, and Dhruv Batra, Deal or No Deal? End-to-End Learning for Negotiation Dialogues. eorint, 2017.