All posts by Jakke Mäkelä

Physicist, but not ideologically -- it's the methods that matter. Background: PhD in physics, four years in basic research, over a decade in industrial R&D. Interests: anything that can be twisted into numbers; hazards and warnings; invisible risks. Worries: Almost everything, but especially freedom of speech, Internet neutrality, humanitarian problems, IPR, environmental issues. Happiness: family, dry humor, and thinking about things.

Päivän heitto, 29.2.2012

Voiko kunnan liikeyritys olla radikaalin läpinäkyvä, vai estääkö laki sen?

Moni kilpailutus menee pieleen, kun tilaaja voi tuijottaa vain numeroita muttei totuutta niiden takana. Läpinäkyvyys ei välttämättä ole osallistuvien yhtiöiden etu, mutta väitän että se on aina asiakkaan etu.

Kunnallisessa toiminnassa (esimerkiksi jätehuollossa) kunta on joskus sekä asiakas että yksi kilpailevista toimittajista. Vaikka tässä on ongelmansa, se avaa mielenkiintoisia mahdollisuuksia. Kunnan omistama yhtiö joutuu kilpailemaan samoilla ehdoilla kuin muutkin. Kunta hankkeen tilaajana ei saa asettaa sitä erityisasemaan. Mutta entäpä kunta yrityksen omistajana?

Toisin sanoen: mitä tapahtuu jos yhtiön omistajat — eli kuntalaiset — vaativat yhtiöltä radikaalia läpinäkyvyyttä? Konkreettisesti se tarkoittaa, että yhtiö julkaisee tarjouspyynnön yhteydessä tietoja, jotka ns “terveen järjen” perusteella olisivat liikesalaisuuksia. Yritys saattaa voittaa kilpailun, tai olla voittamatta. Lopputuloksena kilpailjat joka tapauksessa tietävät yhtiöstä paljon enemmän kuin olisi tarpeen.

Samalla kuitenkin kuntalaiset saavat toimialasta tietoa, joka muutoin jäisi pimentoon.   Strategia saattaa myös hitaasti muuttaa ilmapiiriä avoimemmaksi; mitä useampi yritys tällaista linjaa noudattaa, sitä suuremmat paineet kaikille muillekin tulee. Kuntalaisten kannalta “uhraus” saattaisi siis kannattaa, vaikka se olisikin itse yritykselle liiketaloudellisesti huono.

Liikeyrityksen tehtävä vain on tuottaa omistajilleen voittoa ja lisäarvoa. Tämä strategia ei tuota kumpaakaan. Periaatteessa outojen tai huonojen päätösten tekeminen ei ole laitonta, jos omistaja ne hyväksyy. Mutta onko se käytännössä osakeyhtiölain vastaista?

En tiedä, siksi kysyn.

“Päivän heitto” on Zygomatican versio twiittauksesta. Joidenkin
kysymysten miettimiseen kannattaa kuluttaa vartti, ei enempää eikä
vähempää.

Examiner of Silly Patents, Part 1: Subliminal eyeglasses

Jakke Mäkelä

Every now and then I will take a silly patent and pretend it’s not silly. I will analyze and defend it in all faux-seriousness (see disclaimer at the end).  Usually I cannot defend it, but learn something in the process anyways. [Suomeksi/Finnish: Patenttimörökölli, osa 1]

One excellent resource for crazy patents is here.  Some of them would not make sense even in a parallel universe, but some of them can be explained. Up to a point.  I will start with one that I find endearing:  US 5,175,571 from 1992: “Glasses with subliminal message”. The idea, in short, is to project subliminal messages onto the glasses of the user (for more information on subliminal stimuli, see here).

The patent mentions (without citing sources) that subliminal messaging has been used successfully in the form of audio tapes and “can have significant results in producing character and behaviour improvement …. [and] are also said to produce greater success in business or in personal relationships or in sports”.

The novelty of the invention is that “similar if not better results can be obtained from subliminal-type suggestion, to which the subject is exposed more or less on a continuous basis even while he is engaged in other activities.”  The subconscious images can be either printed onto the glass, or removable disks can be used. The messages can be words, or “for persons with a personality problem such as an inferiority complex or a persecution complex, the graphics might simply be a single face, with a happy smile”.

Indeed. Nevertheless this is a credible patent! Even if subliminal messaging has not been proven to work, it is not physically impossible. (Physically impossible ideas, such as perpetual motion machines, cannot be patented even in the United States).The patent has been cited in later patents, including a design patent for pet sunglasses. There is nothing technically wrong with it.

The minor catch? Subliminal messaging  does not work.

However, I see a way to extend the idea. There are very narrow cases  where subliminal messages affect behavior. A weak effect was seen when a thirsty user had to choose between two equivalent  types of soft drink. Subliminal messages at the exact right moment can influence the choice of brand.  The effect is probably very small, but for a manufacturer even a tiny effect might be worthwhile, since in general advertising is not very effective.

What is needed to make US 5,175,571 work? The application needs to focus on advertising rather than psychological well-being. Take soft drinks. A manufacturer could purchase “space” on the glasses. The glasses need to be context-aware, to know when the user is near the soft-drinks section of a store. This is challenging but doable, for example by including a tiny camera within the glass frame and analyzing any bar codes that the camera manages to catch, or perhaps by using an RFID reader.

There are even more possibilities if the stores collaborate. Put a  Bluetooth receiver in the glasses, and Bluetooth transmitters in the store that identify the aisle. When the glasses detect that the user is at the soft-drink aisle, the subliminal ad is projected to the lenses. Thus the user gets the subliminal message at the only time when it can make a difference: at the exact moment of choice.

Even this version of the patent is silly, of course. Technically speaking, subliminal advertising is illegal in many countries. Even if the legal issues can be ignored: why on earth would anyone agree to wear such glasses?

In principle my attempt is a failure: I simply replaced one silly patent with another silly patent. But still I believe that the exercise was interesting. Things are not always what they seem to be.

Full set of Examinations of Silly Patents: click here.

Disclaimer: these analyses have very little to do with anything, and in particular have nothing to do with legal issues. Most of the patents cited are expired (or should be). I do not touch the “claims” section, which is the legally relevant part. These blogs constitute prior art, so that any new any ideas expressed here can no longer be patented.

Patenttimörökölli, Osa 1: Subliminaaliset silmälasit

Jakke Mäkelä

Maailmasta löytyy mielin määrin patentteja, joiden tekijöiden mielenterveyttä tekisi mieli epäillä. Parhaita on listattu esimerkiksi täällä.  Niille on helppo nauraa. Siksi teenkin päinvastoin, ja otan ne haudanvakavasti (ks huomautus kirjoituksen lopussa). Koitan selvittää, onko päättömissäkin patenteissa sittenkin päätä. Usein ei ole, mutta matkan varrella ainakin oppii jotakin.  [English version: click here].

Ensimmäinen löytöni on  US 5,175,571 vuodelta 1992: “Glasses with subliminal message”. Subliminaaliviestejä esittävät silmälasit. Idea: heijastetaan silmälasien linsselle viestejä, joita käyttäjä ei tietoisesti huomaa, mutta jotka vaikuttavat alitajuisesti. (Lisää aiheesta täältä sekä täältä).

Patentti kertoo (lähteitä mainitsematta) että subliminaalista viestintää on käytetty menestyksellä ainakin kasettinauhoituksissa, ja (vapaasti käännettynä) “sillä voidaan parantaa luonnetta ja käytöstä…. ja sen väitetään tuovan menestystä liike-elämässä, henkilökohtaisissa suhteissa ja urheilussa”.   

Keksinnön uutuus ääninauhaan verrattuna on, että “samanlaisia tai jopa parempia tuloksia saadaan, jos käyttäjään kohdistuu subliminaalista viestintää jatkuvasti, myös silloin kun hän ei kuuntele nauhoitusta”. Alitajuiset viestit voidaan joko painaa suoraan linsseille, tai sitten voidaan käyttää vaihdettavia levyjä. Viestit voivat olla sanallisia, mutta “jos henkilö kärsii esimerkiksi alemmuuskompleksista tai vainoharhaisuudesta, viesti voi yksinkertaisesti koostua onnellisesti hymyilevästä naamasta.”

Niinpä. Tämä on kuitenkin teknisesti täysin pätevä patentti. Vaikkei subliminaalinen viestintä toimisikaan, se ei ole fysikaalisesti mahdotonta. (Jopa USA:n patenttiviranomaiset  kieltäytyvät  nykyään myöntämästä patenttia mahdottomille asioille, kuten ikiliikkujille). Tätä nimenomaista patenttia on siteerattu myöhemminkin, esimerkiksi kun on haettu mallisuojaa  lemmikkieläinten aurinkolaseille. Se on siis patentti siinä missä muutkin.

Pieni ongelma? Subliminaalinen viestintä ei toimi.

Näen kuitenkin tavan, jolla ideaa voisi kehittää. Viime vuosina on huomattu erikoistapauksia joissa alitajuinen viestintä voi vaikuttaa hienovaraisesti käytökseen. Pieni vaikutus on huomattu silloin, jos janoinen käyttäjä laitetaan valitsemaan itselleen juoma. Subliminaalinen viesti juuri ennen valintaa voi kääntää tilanteen tietyn juomamerkin eduksi. Vaikutus on pieni. Silti se voi kannattaa, koska yleisesti ottaen mainostaminenkaan ei toimi.

Miten patenttia US 5,175,571 siis pitäisi muokata? Sovelluksen täytyisi keskittyä mainostamiseen, ei henkilökohtaiseen kehittymiseen. Virvoitusjuomat ovat erinomainen esimerkki. Valmistaja voisi ostaa “tilaa” silmälaseilta. Lasien täytyy vain tietää onko käyttäjä virvoitusjuomien lähellä. Tämä on haastavaa muttei mahdotonta. Tiedon voi saada esimerkiksi pienellä kameralla tutkimalla onko näkökentässä juomiin viittaavia viivakoodeja, tai vaikkapa RFID-lukijalla.

Mahdollisuudet moninkertaistuvat jos kauppa on järjestelmässä mukana. Bluetooth-lukija laseihin ja Bluetooth-lähetin kaupan hyllyyn. Kun lasit tajuavat että käyttäjä on virvoitusjuomahyllyjen lähellä, ne alkavat heijastaa subliminaalista viestiä linsseihin. Käyttäjää saa siis alitajuisen viestin sillä ainoalla hetkellä jolloin sillä voi olla vaikutusta: juuri kun hän tekee valintaa.

Ei tässäkään versiossa varsinaista järkeä ole. Sovellusta hankaloittaa esimerkiksi se, että subliminaaliviestintä on laitonta. Ja vaikka ei olisikaan: kuka täysjärkinen tällaisia laseja käyttäisi?

Periaatteessa siis en onnistunut ottamaan patenttia vakavasti. Muokkausehdotukseni on yhtä typerä kuin alkuperäinenkin. Mutta harjoitus oli silti mielenkiintoinen.

Kaikki Patenttimörökölliraportit: klikkaa tästä.

Huomautus: en käytä nimitystä “patenttimörökölli” sattumalta. Patenttipeikot ovat patenttimaailmassa hankala ja vakavasti otettava tekijä. Minä en ole. Näillä analyyseillä ei ole juurikaan tarkoitusta, eikä ainakaan mitään laillista merkitystä. En ota mitään kantaa varsinaisiin juridisiin väitteisiin. Näissä blogeissa mahdollisesti esiintyviä uusia ideoita ei lain mukaan enää voi patentoida, jos kohta ei kannatakaan.


Is aviation safety a shameful thing?

 

“Why do airlines stay so silent about safety issues? “

By almost any measure, flying is the safest way to move long distances. Most airlines make massive investments into safety. Yet to our surprise, we have found that it is difficult for a casual outsider to find out precisely what the airlines are doing with that invested money.  All airlines have a safety culture, yet this culture is opaque to outsiders. I found that only 35% of airlines even wish to mention safety on their web pages.

Silence certainly does not benefit the customers of an airline. Customers should be able to make informed choices, and this includes understanding the safety record. How can the average person find such information? It  doesn’t benefit the airlines either. In a culture of silence, safety only becomes visible when disaster strikes. The easiest way for an outsider to understand the airline’s safety culture is to read accident investigation reports on how it failed (from NTSBAAIBOTKESSHKBEA, and the like). This is hardly positive advertising.

I asked a simple question: just how opaque do the airlines want to be?  To answer, I went clicking through the web pages of 83 major airlines. The scanning was purposely quick, to simulate an ordinary customer who wants to know what general attitude the airline has toward safety. If a company provided concrete safety information, it was marked as “safety-positive”. Full report (pdf): Airlines are safe; why try to hide it.

I found only 35% of airlines to be safety-positive. To put it another way,  almost 65% of airlines try to downplay the role of safety, to the level of ignoring the question altogether in their communications.

I made some further analyses to determine what might lie behind this fact.  It is important to realize that the essential safety standards around the world are quite similar. All of the airlines in this sample fulfill some standards that could be legitimately used to show that there is a safety culture in place. It is very much a communications decision whether or not the airline wishes to emphasize this point.

I gave the benefit of the doubt as much as possible.  A sentence on a “safety as our priority” means nothing. However, any attempt at a more concrete desciption (even a clumsy one)  was credited. Information on engineering, maintenance, or safety-related technology was considered safety-positive even if the term “safety” was not used explicitly. Such information at least gives the impression that aviation is a technical activity requiring technical care. The analysis is not about how slick the presentation is; it is about whether a good-faith attempt is made.

This is crucial when comparing airline to airline. A poor airline may have just one page of information about the company. If that single page contains a single paragraph about the safety standards that the company follows, then the airline is safety-positive. At the other extreme, a large airline may have dozens of flashy pages on issues like corporate social responsibility, environment, and sponsorships. If such a company fails to even mention safety as a topic, it is deliberate.

The call was surprisingly easy to make. Airlines seem to either put a heavy emphasis on safety, or else avoid the topic altogether; there is not much middle ground.  The results were somewhat surprising. Only 35% of airlines even mentioned safety or technical issues. The majority essentially try to paint an image of aviation as a non-technical activity that entails no risk. Some other key findings (more extensively discussed in the report):


  • 65% of the safety-positive airlines are from developing countries with poor track records of safety. Africa and the former Soviet Union were heavily represented.  Quite clearly, concrete safety actions are clearly used to to improve trust in the airline’s safety.
  • Safety-positiveness is not just a “weapon of the weak”; large and successful airlines such as British Airways, Air Canada, Air Berlin, and All Nippon Airways all had extensive safety sections.
  • Two airlines, Garuda Indonesia and Pakistan International Airways, have briefly been on the EU blacklist of airlines banned from flying to the EU due to poor security. Interestingly, the safety sections of these airlines were among the most extensive in the sample.
  • Only 2 low-cost carriers out of 16 (12%) were safety-positive. The web page information for many low-cost carriers is extremely scanty in any case, so there may be a general attitude toward minimal communication. However, the two counterexamples (Norwegian and Pegasus) suggest that a low-cost structure does not fundamentally require such reticence; those two companies have a very strong focus on safety.
  • A striking feature is that US companies seem to be the most averse to safety-positiveness; of the 9 US companies studied, none mentioned safety at all.
  • A similar reluctance was seen in Middle Eastern companies, where only one of six companies had any safety information.

These results do not imply anything about what airlines should do; they simply point out what the airlines are currently doing. However, the scatter in the results does suggest that there is no fundamental reason to keep safety information hidden; transparency about safety is a communications and business decision.

Since the results from this initial study were so intriguing, we have launched a new Zygomatica project to find out more.

Data transparency in shipping safety: good or bad idea?

 

Radical transparency is an intriguing school of thought, with the philosophy that the best society is a transparent society. In other words, all data that can be opened should be opened. I find such transparency an interesting concept, and in many cases probably worth aiming for. The key question is: what is a realistic environment in which to begin experimenting with it? I focus here on one tightly restricted area: data transparency in shipping safety. [Finnish version: Click here]

For a slightly perspective on this issue by Niko Porjo, see here.

At the moment,  international standards require large ships to transmit AIS information. At minimum, this information contains, in standardized format, the ship’s identity, location, speed, and bearing. The AIS information is transmitted in the clear and its purpose is to help ships maintain positional awareness of other traffic.  Internet distribution of the data originally raised some controversy, but in practice the controversy is over: the AIS information is public.

It is quite sensible to ask a further question: should even more information from the ships be openly available? There are good reasons to ask this question; above all, in an emergency it would make the passengers active participants rather than passive subjects. It would also help to show up poor safety practices that would remain invisible in a closed environment. The technical problem can be stated quite simply: should the information currently collected by the black box  be available and public (although not necessarily in real time)? More radically, it is technically feasible to make all the information that is available on the bridge available to the public. Should it be made available?

Unfortunately, I tend to arrive at a pessimistic outcome for this specific case.  Openness would benefit the overall system. Unfortunately, it would not benefit any of the individual players, at least in the beginning stages. The problem with transparency in this particular area is that the first adopter ends up taking most of the risk. Although radical transparency is a good concept to aim for, shipping security does not seem like a reasonable platform in which to start experimenting with it.

The authorities cannot be bossed around

In practice, security is defined and enforced by national or international authorities. In a democratic system, it is in principle possible to force the authorities to make good decisions. Unfortunately, in a democratic system this is also painfully difficult in practice. Authorities are dependent on what  legislators decide. Legislation in turn is a slow process, undergoing massive lobbying from established interestes, and requiring a significant push from citizens.  Based on the lukewarm reception these issues are getting, it does not seem that there is any real  political push in this direction.

Laws and directives change most rapidly through major accidents, which lead to security recommendations.  Even then, the new directives may or may not be followed adequately, especially if they require significant amounts of money. Waiting for the authorities to act requires patience and (unfortunately) often new accidents. This path does work, but is not likely to lead to rapid or radical solutions.

Anonymization does not work

In order to balance between data transparency and personal privacy, security-related  information should be anonymized.   Unfortunately, this does not work in the Internet age, where all information (whether correct or not) will be on Twitter within minutes of an accident. The most tragic failure of anonymization is the  Überlingen air accident  of 2002, in which two aircraft collided. The  investigation report concluded that it was a system-wide problem, and no single individual was to blame. Nevertheless, a man who  lost his family in the accident blamed the air traffic controller, found out his identity and home address, and murdered him.

The Überlingen case is extreme, but in an open system there is no automatic mechanism to protect those initially blamed for the accident. It is a serious scenario is that in any accident, the people potentially responsible will be identified immediately, they will be blamed by the media, their personal information will be found immediately, and Internet mobbing could start immediately. The risk may look small now, but already cyber-bullying in South Korea shows that a risk exists. How many people would be willing to work under such circumstances?

Data without metadata is nothing

The technical problems are considerable. The AIS parameters are standardized tightly and are easily understandable.  If more generic information is to be transmitted, then its interpretation becomes problematic. Raw data is just rows of numbers;  processing, interpretation, and displaying are what make it into information.  Someone must do this, must be paid to do it, and must be responsible for quality control.

Some parameters will be considered trade secrets by the shipping companies (or at least in a gray area). Realistically speaking,  any shipping company will either not want to do such an analysis, or will want to keep the results secret. It is certainly possible to force a company to make the raw data available. Without extra incentives, it is barely realistic to expect the company to make the data available in a form which could be easily utilized by competitors.

Transparency benefits the unscrupulous

Transparency is an equalizing safety factor when all parties have the same information on all parties.  If one party stops sharing information, it creates a business advantage for itself (even more so if it begins to distort it). No idealism can change this fact; surveillance and enforcement are needed. The enforcement needs to be global. It can be argued that for technologies such as nuclear energy such a global enforcement system already exists; that is true, but nuclear energy was born in completely different historical circumstances than shipping, and was in fat able to start from a clean table.

Open real-time information also makes piracy easier. More information means more opportunities to plan attacks. Merchant ships near the coast of Somalia will certainly not be willing to participate in experiments in radical transparency.

Terrorism is invoked too easily, but it cannot be ignored. Any transparency model must accept the brutal truth that there are destructive entities. The sinking of a large passenger ship might not even be the worst-case scenario; societies can recover from large losses of life very rapidly, even though the scars are horrible.   A more worrisome scenario might be an  Exxon Valdez-type massive oil leak event next to a nuclear power plant.

What can we do?

Many people reflexively oppose this type of radical transparency, whether with good reason or by knee-jerk reflex. How could they be motivated to at least try?  Even if calculations clearly show that transparency is useful for the whole system in the long run, people are irrational and think in the short run. Given that the early adopters take a risk, how would this risk be compensated to them?  Shipping has a long history and legacy practices which are difficult to overcome. Radical transparency is something that absolutely should be tested in a suitable environment. However, I am forced to conclude that shipping safety is simply not a sensible environment in which to start.