1972 Canada-Russia Summit Series Hockey Game 8: A Social Network Analysis Part One (1st Period)

The 1972 Canada-Russia Summit Series to some is a defining moment in Canada’s history. At the height of the Cold War, 28 hockey players went into a tournament thinking they it was an exhibition series that no one would take seriously. By the end, the 28 were defenders of Canadian hockey against the surprising hockey prowess and political power of the Russian bear. The final game, number 8 in the series of 8 was particularly dramatic. After a closely-fought first period, the Canadians fell 5-3 in the second, but came back to tie it in the third until 19:26 of the third period when Paul Henderson … well if you don’t know the story, you probably aren’t Canadian and don’t care anyway. Well, here’s the game on YouTube if you want to see more.

Game 8 is a good case for social network analysis centrality at work. A hockey game is a network where people pass a puck to and from each other over the course of 60 minutes. Each time the puck passes from one player to another, we can create a directed tie. We may also be able to make some statements about the game. For instance, is it more important to give or receive a pass from a diverse group of players? Who passes to the biggest passers? Who receives passes from them? Rather than going through all this preamble how about I just get to it?

The Roster

Maybe later I will add the last names, but right now I’m going with the numbers.  You can use this roster as a key to find your favourite players.

Team Canada

  • 02: Gary Bergman
  • 03: Pat Stapleton
  • 05: Brad Park (if it weren’t for Bobby Orr, the greatest defenseman of his era)
  • 06: Ron Ellis
  • 07: Phil Esposito (big goal scorer and captain of the team)
  • 08: Rod Gilbert
  • 10: Dennis Hull (Brother to Bobby)
  • 12: Yvon Cournoyer (The Roadrunner)
  • 17: Bill White
  • 18: Jean Ratelle (One of the great Rangers, amazing goal scorer)
  • 19: Paul Henderson (A very good player, but the hero of the series)
  • 20: Pete Mahovlic (Overshadowed by his brother Frank, but actually very good)
  • 22: J.P Parise (Great player, but got thrown out early for threatening to slash the refs)
  • 23: Serge Savard (Eventually became captain of the Habs)
  • 25: Guy Lapointe
  • 27: Frank Mahovlich (Big “M” – hero of the Toronto Maple Leafs)
  • 28: Bobby Clarke (was chosen last for the team, but brought the Broad Street Bully element to the game.)
  • 29: Ken Dryden

Team Russia

  •  02: Alexandre Gusev
  •  03: Vladimir Lutchenko
  • 06: Valeri Vasilev
  • 07: Gennadey Tsyganov
  • 08: Vladimir Vikulov
  • 09: Yuriy Blinov
  • 10: Alexander Maltsev
  • 12: Yevgeni Mishakov
  • 13: Boris Mikalov
  • 15: Alexander Yakushev
  • 16: Vladimir Petrov
  • 17: Valeri Kharlamov
  • 19: Vladimir Shadrin
  • 22: Vyacheslav Anisin
  • 25: Yuri Liapkin
  • 30: Alexander Volchkov
  • 20: Vladimir Tretiak

Getting the Data Using R’s iGraph Library

The data were created using edge lists separated by spaces. Here is a sample of what it looks like:

Off16 Can07 
Can07 Can23 
Can23 Rus26 
Rus26 Rus22 
Rus22 Can29 
Can29 Rus22 
Rus22 Rus26

A few things that may be added in the future are the times of the pass, goals, steals (although this could be calculated on its own), power-play information and so on. But for now, I just have the edge lists. The first entry is the “from” player (Rus=”Russia”, Can=”Canada” and Off=”Official / Referee”) and the second is the “to” player.  You can enter the information in to an R graph object pretty easily using iGraph. You can assign descriptive values to the hockey players (vertices) by using V(df)$description.  In this case, I’ve used color to easily identify the Russians from the Canadians in the graph plots (igraph will automatically plot the colors if there is a descriptor available).

el <- read.csv("summitseries.txt", header=F, sep="") #sep="" means any whitespace
df <- graph.data.frame(el) # create a graph from the dataframe el

#Create a color vertex trait so that Russians are red; Canada is white and the Refs are black.
V(df)$color <- ifelse(substr(V(df)$name,1,3)=="Rus", 
               "red", ifelse(substr(V(df)$name,1,3)=="Can", "white", "black"))

Overall Degree

Degree refers to the number of different people a person passed/lost the puck to, or received/stole the puck from. It’s basically a count of the number of “sticks” for each ball.

The code to calculate the values is this:

V(df)$degree <- degree(df) 

Each player gets a value based on the total number of pucks received or sent.  To plot:

plot(df, vertex.size=V(df)$degree, layout=layout.kamada.kawaii)

This is what the graph looks like:

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 11.21.54 PM

This graph is not particularly meaningful, but it does offer a few insights. For instance, Phil Esposito (#7) was out a lot in this game and managed to both take passes away from the Russians as well as lose them. It kind of speaks to his garbage can approach to hockey – his play in this period, like most days was gritty and he found himself in the midst of almost every play. This also shows quite a bit of the classy Russian style of play with a lot of quick passes and fancy footwork. Almost every player on the Russian team had the puck quite a bit. Vladimir Shadrin (#19) is mostly ignored in the English world today, but he was amazing in this series, scoring more than even the Russian hero Valeri Kharlamov (#17) who barely shows up on the charts.

Out Degree

V(df)$outdegree <- degree(df, mode="out")

“Out” degree is the same measure, but only counting “outgoing” passes. These represent passes made or intercepted.

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 11.28.23 PM

Like I said earlier, Phil Esposito (#7) was finding himself giving the puck away quite a bit in this first period, but also making some pretty strong passes. Brad Park was also pretty busy. Both these guys happened to score goals in the period by the way. On the Russia side, Lutchenko (#3) and Yakushov (#15) are nothing particular special in the pass department even though they scored goals as well. That could be because the Russians were much more team players.

In Degree

V(df)$outdegree <- degree(df, mode="in")

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 11.51.10 PM

Not too much more to say about this one, except that it’s not too different from the outdegree measures. This is not that surprising given that if you have the puck either you are going to pass it or someone will steal it from you. I should also note that goalie Ken Dryden (#29) was pretty busy in this period. Not good for Canada.

Bonacich Power (Beta=0.5)

Now we can look at some eigenvector-like centrality measures. There are a variety of them, but I’ve decided to use Bonacich in this case. Bonacich uses a beta value that assigns a weight to the degree centrality of the neighbours. In the case of a positive value (cooperative networks), the more “passy” your neighbour, the more power you have. Unfortunately, this method produces both positive and negative values which is a little challenging for plotting.  So I have a little linear mapping function that I borrowed from here:

linMap <- function(x, from, to)
          (x - min(x)) / max(x - min(x)) * (to - from) + from

And then assign the values and plot.

V(df)$eigen <- bonpow(df, exp=0.5)
plot(df, vertex.size=linMap(V(df)$eigen, 0, 25)

Screen Shot 2015-02-17 at 12.16.15 AM

The picture is a little bit different in this case. Now we see the great New York Ranger, Jean Ratelle (#18) finding his way into the largest influencer position along with Bobby Clarke (#28). On the Russian side, Yakushev (#15), Karlamov (#17) & Mishakov (#12) find themselves in their rightful place as the elite members of their team. Phil Esposito, on the other hand shrinks to almost nothing.  Why? Well, he tends to find himself taking and losing the puck from defensive players more than picking up passes from his line-mates Yvon Cournoyer (#12) & Frank Mahovlich (#27).

Bonacich Power (Beta=-0.5)

V(df)$bonpow <- bonpow(df, exp=-0.5)
plot(df, vertex.size=linMap(V(df)$bonpow, 0, 25)

The picture is also quite different when looked at from a negative Bonacich power perspective. Usually negative bonacich power is used for networks that are competitive in nature, when it’s much better to have less powerful neighbours.Screen Shot 2015-02-17 at 12.17.12 AM

In this case, it’s pretty obvious that its the defensemen that have the least powerful as neighbours.  This makes sense because defensemen usually end up playing with a wider variety of forwards than other forwards do. Canada’s top defenseman, Brad Park, certainly found himself passing to and from the lesser lines in the first period, and likely stealing from Russia’s lesser lines as well!

Conclusion (for now)

This post goes to show that you can get a different answer from a social network analysis depending on how you decide to measure it. There are no mind-blowing revelations here (likely because the game was somewhat even at this stage) but still quite a bit of diversity among the different graphs that it gives pause. At the end of the day, this is why it is important to think clearly about your research question before you start looking at your data.  If you don’t, you’ll probably find yourself getting the answer you want just by rolling through different measures. I haven’t even gone through all the possibles – betweenness, closeness, clustering values and alpha centrality are all measures I’ve decided to leave out just for now (but may revisit later).

Another thing that might be interesting to look at is what the centrality values look like when I separate the Canadians from the Russians – from that perspective you could see how well the teams play with each other. Also, we could look at the edges where the puck changed hands from one team to another. In this case the negative bonacich power may be quite telling as per who was really coughing up the puck to the wrong people.

The data is not up in my git site yet, but I will share it eventually. I’ll keep the data open so that people can add or edit it as needs be. Certainly there may be problems with the way I coded everything. It was not always easy to see who was touching the puck. Sometimes I just had to guess based on position and the usual line-ups.

How to Talk to an “Aspi” – Asperger’s, Autism, Labels, Stereotypes and Strategies

Update: After writing this, I read this great article by someone name Astrid who has Aspergers and think it’s a great counterpoint to what I said here.   I now can’t imagine this post being ‘out there’ without a link to that post.   I have no real response to Astrid except to acknowledge the tension between the perception of Aspies as ‘elite’ (in a way) and the often unfair expectations that those perceptions have on people with Asperger’s.


My son is a genius in so many ways you cannot imagine.   He is now six years old.    He has been talking since he was barely 12 months old.    His vocabulary could make Rex Murphy feel like he needs to go back to grade school.

He can tell you the some interesting properties of many chemical elements you’ve never heard of.   He once wrote Martyn Poliakoff of the Periodic Table of Videos to ask him:

  • What do people use Beryllium for (just watch this video)?
  • What is the most dangerous element?  (there are various reasons for danger.   Plutonium is very toxic.   Fluorine and Cesium are the most reactive.)   What is the least dangerous element?  (probably Helium)
  • How do you suppose ununoctium is very small when it has the most protons?   (It’s not small, but only a very small amount has ever been made – and the experiment that claimed to have made ununoctium has its critics for sure).
  • If bananas contain potassium why do they not explode when you put them in water?   (it’s not elemental potassium that bananas contain, but potassium ions, which do not explode in water).

There’s more.   He’s gotten as far as level 8 in Globetrotter XL (a game where you are asked to pinpoint the geographic location of world cities).    He can probably describe most of the world flags and definitely all of the U.S. state flags.    He can name all the state capitals and nicknames.   (Also, he is Canadian, so he has no real education on this topic.)    When he was 3, I could rely on him to give me accurate instructions on how to drive to someone’s house after only a single visit.

When he got to school, however, we learned that he was having difficulty socially.    We are also realizing that there are some issues with some areas of his academic life too.   That’s when we discovered that he’s an ‘aspi’ – a child with Aspergers.    Whether that’s a diagnosis, a personality type or just a way for so-called ‘normal’ people to marginalize him, I’m not quite sure.   I do know that paying attention to the nuances of his learning style has been really helpful to let him deal with everyday life things.

So he must be socially awkward right?    Must be like Rainman, right?    Spock?    Temperance Brennan from Bones?    Keeps to himself, right?   He must shy away from social situations and show little emotion to others, right?    Total lack of empathy in favor of logic and detail.   It’s all obvious!

Well, no.   My child is  extremely engaging, interesting and (in a way) interested in people.    The differences are more subtle and hard to pin-point.   You’d know there’s a problem somewhere with the way he interacts with others, but you would find it hard to pinpoint what.    But, if you meet a kid that:

  • Is very welcoming and friendly.   Almost assuming right off that you are a friend.
  • Is very polite on the phone.
  • Assumes that you are interested in what he is talking about.
  • Assumes you want to participate in the things he wants to do, and maybe gets angry if you don’t.
  • Interrupts your conversations with others.
  • Gets upset over basic requests or instructions.
  • Asks surprising questions and offers amazing insight on a wide range of topics.
  • Will do a speech as if he were defending a thesis, but then fail at answering basic open-ended questions about the same topic.
  • Is surprisingly slow at getting ready for going outside etc.
  • Will repeat certain behaviors and actions over and over again.

That might be my kid.

If you happen upon a kid you might think is an aspi, here are some things you could consider:

No Surprises

Little surprises will make Mr. 6 anxious.    Simple requests like ‘go brush your teeth’ can turn into total battles if they appear (to him) to come from left field.    A better approach is to give him a list of the things that need to happen, preferably with time-limits to go with them.

Be Patient

Mr. 6 will ramble.    It’ll take him a few shots of ‘umm…  uh…  I have a question for you…’ etc. before he comes out with what he needs to say.

Turn Open-ended Questions into Multiple Choice

No matter how many times I ask Mr. 6 ‘what does he want for dinner’ he will always reply ‘i don’t know, what is there?’    And he’s a picky eater – he only has a few things that he enjoys eating!    On the other hand, if I hand Mr. 6 a menu, he will be able to give me ideas even if nothing on the menu is appealing to him.    So if you want to ask Mr. 6 why he is angry, you should say ‘I think you might be angry because:

a) you are disappointed about not getting candy

b) you are a mean grouch

c) someone called you a mean name

d) someone ate your lunch’

Even if all of these ideas are absolutely wrong, Mr. 6 will be able to take one of options and give you some insight into how he is feeling.

Act Like a Librarian

There may be no actual evidence to support this assertion, but sometimes it’s like Mr. 6 has a Library of Congress in his head with no retrieval system to find the right information at the right time.    If you are able to help him out with a little subject classification, he may be able to find the right book in his head and recite its contents in detail with amazing analytical capability.

Get Ready to Have your Mind Explode

When I explained my little ‘act like a librarian’ technique to a doctor, Mr. 6 corrected me and said ‘it’s like I have to build a tall building and I don’t know what materials to start with.’    That doctor is probably still cleaning up the grey matter from her office after that insight.

Model Behaviors

Mr. 6 will always be better at imitating the positive behaviors he sees in other than understanding how he is annoying you.    If he can come up with a rule about what to do at the right time, he will do it.    He understands that people get annoyed at him, but he doesn’t always understand why.   Show him an example of how he could behave when certain things happen and he’ll be happy to oblige.

Is Something Else Bothering Him?

Mr. 6 hates loud sounds.    It might not be you, but where you are standing that is bothering him.    If an environment is complicated or noisy, it might be causing problems for Mr. 6.

It’s About Learning Difficulty, Not Emotional Problems or Intelligence

If you are the sort of person who just likes to label and ignore people with learning trouble, just listen to Temple Grandin for a few minutes.    People on the Autism spectrum have the potential not only to be productive members of society, but to transform society for the better.   Like the way a wide range of overachievers just so happen to be dyslexic, there’s a comparable list for people with Aspergers (grain of salt needed for both lists, however).

So there’s my contribution on the challenges that go along with the gift of having an ‘Aspi’ in your life.     Mr. 6 makes me smarter.    He also breaks a wide range of assumptions I have about people learn, teach, ought to behave, and so on.

Dawn of the Dewey: What About A New Standard?

Tim Spalding of Library Thing has initiated an idea for an open source, crowd created replacement for the Dewey Decimal System called OSC.   On the whole, I am for starting anything.   I think entrepreneurialism like this is a good thing.   Competition of any kind cannot hurt the process of information organization — it makes everyone stronger, smarter and more productive.  There’s more discussion about it by Tim from this Wednesday’s Uncontrolled Vocabulary.

I do get a little up in arms when I hear pretentious snark about someone’s idea.    More of it was thought to appear on librarian.net, although it seems it may not have been snark after all?

Having skimmed over the forum, one of the concerns I have at the outset is that the ideas appear to be mimicing, rather than replacing the DDC.     I would like to see people using their minds more about this issue.   Mimicing is a definite no-no from an aesthetic point of view, and it makes me question what the point of such a replacement in the first place?   I say if you are going to do something new, make it new.   Make it noticeably 2008, rather than an updated 18-hundred-whatever.

The other issue I have is that thinking about book order in the abstract is quite different from action thinking.   Considering that this replacement will be largely about placing books on a relative shelf order, I think we should be developing that standard while actually shelving books.   So, here is my idea:

  • Go to your local public library’s catalogue and using any random selection process of your choice, place a hold on 20 or more books.
  • Put those books in a shelf order, that makes sense to you.
  • Try an alternative shelf-order.
  • One more alternative shelf-order.
  • Post those titles and shelf orders to the Library Thing forum on this issue
  • Explain how you came to these shelf orders, which one you liked the best and why.

Or you can do something else similar.   The broad point i want to make is that, if this thing is going to replace DDS, then it ought to be based on some sort of new foundations, hopefully considering not only what the user thinks, but how the user will eventually use the system.  The only way to get at how people use something is through action.

All in all, I love this idea and kudos to Tim Spalding for proposing it.    And by the way, he is looking for a leader for this project — someone who will facilitate the process without dominating it.   You got the guts?  Go for it!

Does a Fish Know It’s Wet? : Access to Scholarly Journals in Public Libraries

Heather Morrison discusses what she calls an “access gap” for scholarly journals in public libraries.   She claims:

The local public library will have interlibrary loan service; however, with limited staffing looking after everything from storytime for preschoolers to special services for teens, adults, seniors, and more, not to mention buying books and running the library, the public library cannot begin to think about providing the same level of service as a university document delivery service, with a much smaller gap to fill.

The issue will be a familiar one for anyone who works in a public library.   While most libraries will attempt to provide access to some journals, the reality is that other needs take precedent over scholarly work.   Certainly, fostering a love of reading in children cannot begin with scholarly journals; literacy work is not supported by scholarly database;   “pop” non-fiction will get a library more “thank god for the library” comments than anything coming out of Ebsco.

In short, one can easily dismiss Morrison’s analysis with the simple statement:  “there’s little demand for it.”

There a conundrum in public libraries that always creeps up as well.   How far do we go to educate learners?   Do we fill our collections with Charles Dickens and Homer as a way to expand minds, or do we let the paper backs flow with the hopes that something comes out of your mass-produced formulaic and barely literate romance, western or mystery novel?    Do we let Google satisfy your average reference query, or do we drag people kicking and screaming to the databases where they may get the real goods on what’s going on in the world (sort of).

Morrison also uses the example of typical alumnus who, as a student, has access to just about everything under the sun, research-wise, but who has their access reduced to less than 5% of they had before.   Considering many of these alumni will be professionals — working as public servants, lawyers, doctors, or whatnot — this is a great concern.   One that, clearly, public libraries ought to address if they were not so busy keeping up with all their other services.

The group Morrison does not mention, however, is the group that most concerns me — those who do not know scholarly journals exist in the first place, or who, for one reason or another do not care.  Again, the conundrum appears again.   Is this a case where a fish does not know it’s wet, or the natural order of things.   Most of the people I know leaving college were more than happy to stop taking courses and being told what reality is — not because profs were so particularly paternal/maternal but because there is life beyond intellectual pursuits and they wanted a piece of that life.   On the other hand, it is hard to say what choices people would make if they had a choice among the blogosphere, wikipedia, mainstream news and scholarly literature and full awareness of latter’s role in understanding the truth.

A good example is the pseudo-myth of the online predator.  As Bruce Schneier has uncovered, most parents’ fears of online predators lurking after their children are unfounded.   The mainstream news, and even Google for a good while, would suggest differently — it is the scholarly literature that is best able to handle such a question without blurring the issue behind sensationalism and fear.  If parents were more easily able to access and evaluate such literature, there could be a lot of headaches saved all over the world on this issue.   Climate change is another obvious issue that comes to mind as well.  Ditto most health scares.   Anyone who thinks gaming is a waste of time should look at the time wasted worrying about things that don’t matter.

I   don’t have any answers here, although I will say that Morrison’s support of open access scholarship seems a reasonable response to me.   Bring the scientific research out into the public eye via Google is better than throwing big chunks of public library budgets at the big name academic publishers.    Perhaps the more real research there is, the more Digg and Wikipedia will use it as a check on what they present to their audiences.   The better Wikipedia articles are, in fact, those with the most citations.

On the other hand, scholars are as much a victim of the wet fish syndrome as those who do not read it.   Writing in the scholarly world is focussed on those things non-researchers could care less about: methodologies, procedures, scholarly pedigrees and the like.   Is there any wonder why a book like Guns, Germs and Steel will always have more popular interest than anything on Geo-ref?   Maybe popular non-fiction is the better road to knowledge?

It’s very very hard to speculate on a world where access to scholarly information was truly free to all.    Humankind’s reaction to a little bit of truth should not be underestimated, for its volatility.    Personally, I think the dream is worth a shot.

It’s not as if I don’t agree much with you, Michael Gorman

And it’s not as if you haven’t already read about it on the Britannica blog.   I’ve made my comments already at the source where it belongs.   And I commented too on Andrew Keen’s “me too” post.

But I decided I don’t want to write a blog post about the Michael Gorman thing.   I want to highlight somethings that I’ve seen that support the idea that we [society] needs a break from Web 2.0 and then I want to highlight things that I’ve seen that support the opposite.

I Thought Gorman-y Thoughts When. . .

  •  I first saw the “Keep Your Fucking Hand Down and Shut Up — No One Cares” Facebook group  “For all those students who want to repeatedly stab themselves in the eye with a sharp object when some moron raises his/her hand to answer a rhetorical question, relate his/her life story, or pointlessly argue with the professor and thereby needlessly prolong class.”     Well, I suppose it’s not that bad, since they are talking about the extreme case where someone talks their head off without letting other people talk.    But I’ve also seen cases where a desperate prof looks as if he/she is trying to pull hen’s teeth to get a comment out of a dumbfounded classroom.    No way.   Put your hand up and ask a (relevant) question — 2 times per class at minimum.   You’re paying for that damn education and listening passively to a lecture is just about the worst way for you to be remembering what you are being taught.   If Web 2.0 is about bullying people into an anti-intellectual stance, then I say forget it!
  • I hear about/see stupid kids videotaping themselves beating each other up.    Never should such a thing be considered entertainment.   The same applies to the voyeuristics that occur with the Iraq beheadings and other atrocities.
  • When a list of nauseating sexist/classist/racist comments appears on a website and someone tries to defend it as “funny.”   Nope.   Only funny in the way that people would laugh when they saw you slip on ice and crack your head on the pavement.
  • When I read “me too” comments.  ‘Nuff said.
  • When I think about my personal desire and inability to publish something significant.   It could be about funding or time, but mostly I think it’s about TMI.

I Thought Gorman is just Sooooo Wrong when. . .

  • Five weeks to a social library happened.  Months later I still heard from students who claimed that they learned more from that course than from any other course they paid for.
  • I got to read the spoilers for the Saw movies without having the embarrassing experience of wetting myself in a public theatre.
  • I saw Wafa Sultan speak on Al Jazeera this evening via YouTube.    The ability to see and hear Arabic television could only be a dream prior to Web 2.0.

The obvious response to all of the Gorman concerns is that he is right and he is wrong.   The world is changing.   We will lose some things and we will gain others.   I don’t think the world will blow up though.

But if you consider the trees lost to published materials though.   That might cause the world to blow up.

Forget Web 2.0, I Bring You. . . the Semantic Web!

At the CLA Emerging Technologies Interest Group Pre-Conference, Mark Leggott presented something he titled “Library 2.0: Threads in the Tapestry.” If you have ever seen or heard Mark talk, you would know that he appears to enjoy using metaphors to organize his talks. This time it was the “Lady and Unicorn” tapestry that covers the six senses.

The theme of the day was the next phase of Library 2.0, namely what is being called “the Semantic Web” or “Web 3.0.” The wikipedia article on the semantic web is quite a bit convoluted, but the main premise is a web that not only contains great content, but also stores content that can be understood and/or processed by machines in ways that are meaningful to humans.

Even more specifically, semantic web products mine the data of already existing social softwares and uses that data to draw links and connections to other articles. Take, for instance, Freebase which is looking to provide rich information experiences by mashing up the wikipedia database with detailed metadata and a variety of other services. The result being that, if you search for James Cameron (say) you may be able to capture the links through which that person is known, say the movies he made, the people he is related to, restaurants he’s been said to favor, people who have criticized his works and so on. The result is a rich data experience where the web basically predicts the other things which may interest or entice you.

To consider the extent to which the semantic web can go for libraries, consider the following three (relatively) new technologies:

  1. Micropaper — visual output devices (ie. monitors) that have the size and flexibility of paper.
  2. The Surface Computer — a multi-touch interface that could basically turn the mouse into moose.   I discussed other possibilities for this technology before.
  3. Photosynth —
    and there’s more to be found in the TED talks presentation/demo.

So imagine this. A Micropaper monitor that uses surface computer technology for interfacing. Right there, you have paper that can be interfaced in ways that are very similar to a book — and then some, because you could manipulate the text, zoom in and out, rotate the items and so on.

Then add photosynth. You could conceivable have your new “book” that can store entire volumes belonging to any author. You could have it go audio and highlight the words as they are being spoken.

But let’s go further. You could have a scientific article with a footnote that is actually the entire cited article with the quoted text highlighted. That means you can check for context in ways never heard of before!

Or how about reading the Hunchback of Notre Dame with detailed information about the history of Victor Hugo and a complete tour of the Cathedral sitting right there in your little paper-like monitor!

There’s alot about this technology that is both exciting and scary for libraries. It’s like I get my mind blown just about every day!

Review: Margaret Somerville The Ethical Imagination: Journeys of the Human Spirit 

Margaret Somerville (2006). The Ethical Imagination: Journeys of the Human Spirit. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.
In ethics class, I was taught about the deontological and utilitarian approaches to moral behavior. The utilitarian looks at ethics specifically in terms of outcomes. That is, the most appropriate behavior is the one that brings the greatest benefit to the most amount of people. Few would ever take this approach to its extreme. For instance, most would find it quite unpalatable to kill a single healthy person simply to save the lives of many (as in to provide organ transplants or bring leads to a cancer cure).

The deontological approach basically says that moral behavior should be set via a set of principles, meaning that there are sacred things that cannot be breached no matter what. Taking the deontological approach to the extreme is also fairly nonsensical, or at least unrealistic. Take for instance the argument that shutting down internet access in libraries is justified even if it means saving only one child from falling into the hands of a predator. Clearly, some balancing of risks is necessary to create a working society.

Margaret Somerville argues in favor of the deontological approach and defends it quite effectively against the pedant’s fear of the word “sacred” in secular thought. Most importantly, she distinguishes between the religious sacred and something she calls the secular sacred. The point of the secular sacred (as I understand it) refers to the rituals and values that are common to humans whether they have a particular religion or not. She sees this as an appropriate middle ground among the utilitarians and deontological-types and also among the religious and non-religious.

Basic Presumption in Favor of the Natural

Somerville also advocates something she calls a “basic presumption in favor of the natural.” When we consider ethical questions, she proposes that we approach them with an understanding of the natural as the “sacred” first, then to apply other social idols (science, technological, law and culture to name a few) . In a broad sense, this makes perfect sense. We ought to put life (for instance) before advancement of technology, or the preservation of social order.

What has been more controversial are some of the conclusions Somerville makes. For instance, Somerville is an opponent of unnatural birth methods such as in-vitro fertilization, other genetic alteration/manipulation/favoring. Convincingly, Somerville notes that “non-natural” birth children feel a loss of identity because they do not know their natural fathers/mothers and that this harm represents a breach of ethics on the part of the parents and the society that allowed such procedures.

Somerville mentions children alot in her book. She ties the bonds of parent and child to the “sacred”:

She notes that “many people experience” the sacred “on first seeing their newborn baby” (59) and that

parents and children’s bonds to one another — especially a parent’s unconditional love for their children simply because they are their children — are often described as sacred.

Once the stage for a sacred is set, and especially the stage where children are sacred, then begins the path to the primary target of Somerville’s book, namely the moral relativists. In essence, moral relativism suggests that identity and perceptions of identity are socially constructed and so, therefore, is morality. She paints a picture of the moral relativist as ultimately self-centered. Thus, she argues, people who speak of the benefits of such things as in-vitro fertilization are focussed on the benefits coming to the adults and not to the harm that may befall the “children” of such a procedure.

The Same-Sex Marriage Argument

Even more controversial, and nonsensical in my view, is Somerville’s position on same-sex marriage. In a nutshell, Somerville argues that since marriage is “a compound right . . . to marry and [to] found a family” then an ethical society cannot accept same-sex marriage and protect “children’s” right to such things as the knowledge of biological parents, freedom of a “natural” identity and so on.

This goes against Somerville’s premise that we should make presumptions in favor of the natural. If same-sex relationships are “natural” and people truly fall in love, and at the same time het couples start families (naturally) from outside the confines of marriage, then we ought to presume that the technology (marriage) is broken and not the couples who want to be married. Further, if the problem is the “production” of offspring in unnatural situations (such as through genetic manipulation, cloning or IVF), then that is what the ethical focus should be. Laws, even constitutionally enshrined ones, can be modified to accomodate a society’s change in values and should do so accordingly. Further, same-sex couples do have options to avoid a future loss of identity in their children. Open adoption, for instance, guarantees that children can maintain a relationship with their natural parents throughout their lives while being raised by adoptive parents. While claiming not to condone discrimination or inequality, Somerville at least begins with an assumption that same-sex couples are predestined to unethical parental behavior (if you agree with Somerville’s argument that IVF and etc. are unethical).

There are other “natural” that need attention as well. Naturally, human beings are most closely associated with promiscuous species of primates. Thus, monogamy is a human-designed construct — a cultural norm more than a natural state. Further, despite arguments from Somerville in the opposite, “single-sex” reproduction does occur naturally, most recently discovered in Komodo dragons through parthenogenesis. Granted, parthenogenesis has not occurred to humans to my knowledge, but it does raise questions about what “natural” means and how it should be applied. For one, the manipulation of nature is the human race’s greatest adaptation strategy, and as an adaptation strategy, it is natural. Where do we draw the lines between “nature” and “technology?”

Then, there is the question about what we mean by “children.” Clearly, the “sacred” baby is not the one that suffers loss of identity, but moreso the more grown-up “child” who could experience loss of identity in a gazillion other ways resulting from their parent’s behavior. Ought mixed-race couples be restricted from marriage because of identity issues of their children later in life? Part of the experience of parenthood is causing harm to your children for self-centred purposes (sexual gratification, “biological clocks,” “help on the farm” (in agrarian societies), “someone to take care of me when I’m older” and so on).

And herein lies the challenge of the deontological track — we can create principles that can gather popular (if not universal) consensus, but do we apply these principles for the principle’s sake or to rationalize previously held opinions of our own? Let it be said that every deontologist needs a utiliarian, (even a moral relativist) conscience and vice versa to keep the practice of “doing ethics” in check. Thank goodness that in a diverse world such as ours, there is always such a conscience to be found in peers if not inside our own heads.

UPDATE:   Margaret Somerville clarifies some points in a comment (also found below):

Dear Ryan Deschamps,
I’ve just seen your review of The Ethical Imagination and read it with interest. Some clarifications are needed however.

First, I am not against IVF as such. I am against some uses of it. Broadly speaking when it is used to “repair nature when it fails” (for instance, to overcome infertility from blocked fallopian tubes) it does not raise ethical concerns that would indicate it should not be used. When, however, it is used to do what is “impossible in nature” (for example, to make a baby that has the genetic heritage of two women and no man – this has just been achieved with female mice in a Japanese experiment) I believe its use is unethical.

The ethics of new reproductive technologies (NRTs) are linked to same-sex marriage, because marriage, as you rightly note in your review, automatically gives the right to found a family. As I predicted in my book, married same-sex couples in Canada, where same-sex marriage is legally recognized, are now claiming that the law which prohibits certain uses of NRTs is unconstitutional because it infringes their rights to found a family in the ways they wish to do. These prohibited ways currently include cloning and paid surrogate motherhood. In the future the use of some of the emerging technologies that would make shared genetic babies between same-sex spouses possible would be an issue. I believe that all of these ways of bringing children into existence are unethical from the perspective of the resulting child which is the sole reason that I oppose same-sex marriage.

Having said that, I agree that discrimination against homosexual people is a horrible wrong that needs to be prevented and that homosexual couples need to be able to protect each other, for instance, financially. Consequently while I oppose same-sex marriage because of its impact on children’s rights, I think that we need to legally recognize civil partnerships that provide the necessary protections to same-sex couples.

Thank you for your interest in my work.
Margo Somerville

Things Noticed: RFID Firewall article Mentions Libraries

The Popular Science blog has an entry about an invention by Melanie Rieback called the “RFID Guardian.” Like a regular Firewall, it blocks attempts to access information via RFID unless you want them to.

It sounds like a neat invention, but the thing that struck me was this:

a personal firewall she’s developing [. . .] will protect your privacy in an world where your clothes, library books, and passport contain RFID tags.

It’s very interesting to me that library books were mentioned in this venue. We don’t have RFID at Halifax Public Libraries, but we are definitely talking about it. I wonder what are the ethics of a world where some people can blog RFID calls and others cannot, and most of it based on whether someone can afford a piece of technology.

A little bit scary to think of a world where only the few can reasonably expect to have something resembling a private life. Although, like most things, it will probably become affordable (and hackable) faster than we can say “Circ [everything under] de Soleil.”