Chris Kanich: Privacy on the Modern Web

Billions of people use the Internet every day for all sorts of activities, from shopping to gambling to dating to academic research. For the vast majority of users, a browser is the primary interface between them and the world wide web. Yet the very fact that browser features are so ubiquitous makes them extremely vulnerable to privacy and security compromises. Not only browser history, but all sorts of data such as browser size, location and time of day could become extremely invaluable to third parties, whether they are Internet giants like Google, Facebook and Apple or more nefarious users. Companies such as Microsoft and Mozilla have tried to combat consumers’ privacy concerns by introducing private browsing modes, but it seems that even these may not be entirely foolproof ways of surfing the Internet anonymously.

This week on The Provocateur I talk to Chris Kanich, assistant professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, to discuss the privacy and security issues raised by the modern web. We start by exploring the history of browser features since the mid-’90s, from hypermedia to JavaScript to the fully integrated browsers of today. Then we move onto the privacy and security vulnerabilities created by ubiquitous code such as that found on Google Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Finally we investigate a range of legal and ethical implications, from the EU’s directive on the ‘right to be forgotten’ to monitoring terrorism online and even the security complications of cloud computing.

You can listen to the podcast here: 

Further Reading:

Eckersley, P. (2010) ‘How Unique is Your Web Browser?’ in Atallah, M. J. and N. Hopper (eds.) Privacy Enhancing Technologies: Proceedings of the 10th International PETS Symposium. Cham: Springer.

Snyder, P. et al. (2016) ‘Browser Feature Usage on the Modern Web’, Proceedings of the 2016 Internet Measurement Conference.

Ryan Nichols: The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake and Its Cultural Aftershocks

Lisbon is probably best known today as one of the cultural capitals of Europe, but it is also remembered as the victim of one of the deadliest and most powerful earthquakes ever recorded in European history. The disaster struck on 1st November 1755, registering an estimated 8.5-9.0 on the modern moment magnitude scale. It triggered fires and a tsunami, in the end claiming as many as 100,000 lives. The catastrophe was not just a literal earthquake, though; it was also a cultural earthquake, as it brought simmering religious tensions to the fore, threw Portugal’s imperial ambitions into disarray and even arguably changed the course of the Enlightenment in the latter half of the 18th century.

Today on The Provocateur I interview Ryan Nichols, associate professor of philosophy at California State University Fullerton, to discuss the cultural aftershocks of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. We explore the historical context of Lisbon and Portugal before the earthquake; the immediate effects of the disaster on Portuguese politics and society; discussions of the earthquake by 18th-century philosophers including Voltaire and Rousseau; how Ryan’s research in the cognitive science of religion can help explain the aftermath of the quake; and the wider cultural reverberations of this episode for the history and philosophy of science.

You can listen to the podcast here: 

Further Reading:

Araujo, A. C. (2006) ‘The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 – Public Distress and Political Propaganda’, E-journal of Portuguese History 4(1), article 3.

Braun, T. and J. Radner (eds.) (2005) The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755: Representations and Reactions. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation.

Chester, D. K. (2001) ‘The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake’, Progress in Physical Geography 25(3), pp. 363-383.

Dynes, R. R. (2000) ‘The Dialogue between Voltaire and Rousseau on the Lisbon Earthquake: The Emergence of a Social Science View’, International Journal of Emergencies and Disasters 18(1), pp. 97-115.

Festinger, L. et al. (1956) When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the End of the World. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Gutscher, M-A. (2004) ‘What Caused the Great Lisbon Earthquake?’ Science 305(5688), pp. 1247-1248.

Kelemen, D. (1999) ‘Why Are Rocks Pointy?: Children’s Preference for Teleological Explanations of the Natural World’, Developmental Psychology 35, pp. 1440-1453.

Marques, J. O. A. (2005) ‘The Paths of Providence: Voltaire and Rousseau on the Lisbon Earthquake’, Cadernos de Historia e Filosofia da Ciencia 3(15), pp. 33-57.

Neiman, S. (2004) Evil in Modern Thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (For a critique see Nichols 2014, below.)

Nichols, R. (2014) ‘Re-evaluating the Effects of the Lisbon Earthquake on Eighteenth-Century Minds: How Cognitive Science of Religion Improves Intellectual History with Hypothesis Testing Methods’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 82(4), pp. 970-1009.

Pereira, A. S. (2009) ‘The Opportunity of a Disaster: The Economic Impact of the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake’, The Journal of Economic History 69(2), pp. 466-499.

Rousseau, J-J. (1967) ‘Letter to Voltaire, 18 August 1756’, in Correspondance Complète de Jean Jacques Rousseau, vol. 4, ed. J. A. Leigh, trans. R. Spang, 37–50. Geneva, Switzerland: Voltaire Foundation.

Voltaire (2000 [1759]) ‘Candide, or Optimism’, in Candide and Related Texts, ed. and trans. D.Wootton, 1–83. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.

Domhnall Iain MacDonald: The Biology of Pain

Pain is arguably one of the most central features of human experience. Many of us routinely experience pain in our lives, from the smallest cut to the most traumatic injury. Chronic pain, too, poses a serious challenge to our public health institutions. Philosophers have even argued that pain is morally bad: John Stuart Mill, for one, famously described happiness as “pleasure and the absence of pain”; the purpose of government, Mill thought, was to maximise the former and minimise the latter. Yet some individuals spend their entire lives feeling absolutely no pain at all and scientists are hoping to discover a breakthrough painkiller through analysing the genetic mutations that make people unable to feel pain.

This week on The Provocateur I talk to Domnhall Iain MacDonald, a PhD student in neuroscience at UCL, to discuss the biology of pain. Among other things, we cover the biological usefulness of pain to humans; whether non-human animals feel pain and the ethics of testing painful sensations on animals; and the latest frontiers in clinical pain research.

You can listen to the podcast here: 

Further Reading:

Hiyasaki, E. (2017) ‘End Pain Forever: How a Single Gene Could Become a Volume Knob for Human Suffering‘, Wired, 18 April.

Kiesel, L. (2016) ‘All Pain is Not Equal‘, Relief, 28 June.

Sutherland, S. (2016) ‘Pain Research in Animals: Why Do It, and What Can It Tell Us?‘ Relief, 10 January.

____ (2017) ‘Taking Aim at New Pain Drugs‘, Relief, 19 January.

Aarti Jagannath: The Mysteries of the Body Clock

It is difficult to overstate the impact that technology has had on us, transforming our ways of life and making us more connected than ever before. Where once you had to take days or months to reach the other side of the world, now you can fly from London to Hong Kong in a matter of hours. Where not so long ago in human history we could only rely on candlelight, now artificial lighting is so ubiquitous that we take them for granted. The demand for ever faster connectedness is having unprecedented effects on our circadian rhythms: jet lag is perhaps the best known example of one way in which the body clock gets disrupted, but the problems associated with electricity are arguably even greater, precisely because our 24/7 society is completely dependent on it in order to function. Body clock disruption has been implicated in a whole range of diseases, from depression to cancer, so it is now more urgent than ever before that scientists try to understand the mechanisms of the body clock, so we are in a better position to fix it when it does go wrong.

In this episode of The Provocateur I talk to Aarti Jagannath, a research fellow at the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Oxford, to help us unravel the mysteries of the body clock. We discuss the fundamentals of the body clock and what happens when it gets disrupted in a whole range of scenarios, from shift work to divers undergoing decompression to students pulling the occasional all-nighter. We also talk about the ways in which neuroscientists are trying to figure out how to reset our natural circadian cycle and even how some biologists are coming up with innovative treatments that exploit the body clock to better target cancer cells.

You can listen to the podcast here: 

Ross Keller: Fighting the War on Cancer

It is difficult to find someone whose life has not been touched in some way by cancer and indeed ‘the big C’ is probably one of the most well-known public health concerns. Ever since American scientists officially declared war on cancer in the 1970s, millions of lives have been saved through increased awareness, early detection and vast amounts of investment into research and development. But it seems we are no closer to the original target of eradicating cancer by the 2020s. According to the National Cancer Research Institute, the disease continues to kill more than eight million people worldwide every year, with 60 per cent of new cases occurring in the Global South. Overall cancer deaths are expected to increase by 60 per cent by 2030, largely due to an ageing global population. There is some hope however, as researchers around the world are racing to find the Holy Grail of cancer biology: a completely foolproof cure.

This week on The Provocateur I am joined by Ross Keller, a PhD candidate in Biomedical Sciences at Penn State College of Medicine, to discuss the ways in which he and other cancer biologists are pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the fight against cancer. We first briefly talk about what cancer is before going on to cover the traditional weapons used to tackle cancer, the ways in which cancer can outwit us and the startling new frontiers in cancer treatment. Ross has also written an excellent blog series covering the War on Cancer: the first part can be read here.

You can listen to the podcast here: 

To donate to Cancer Research UK, click here.

Further Reading:

Journalistic articles:

Begley, S. (2017) ‘Most Cancer Cases Arise from “Bad Luck”‘, Scientific American: STAT, 24 March.

Keller, R. (2015) ‘Why is Tanning Dangerous?’ Lions Talk Science, 13 April.

____ (2016) ‘Immunotherapy: Awakening the Immune System to Fight Cancer’, Lions Talk Science, 13 September.

____ (2017) ‘What is Radon? And How Does It Impact Health?’ Lions Talk Science, 15 February.

Scientific reading (assumes graduate level biology):

Hanahan, D. and R. A. Weinberg (2011) ‘Hallmarks of Cancer: The Next Generation’, Cell 144(5), pp. 646-674.

McGranahan, N. and C. Swanton (2017) ‘Clonal Heterogeneity and Tumor Evolution: Past, Present and the Future’, Cell 168(4), pp. 613-628. 

Jon Major: The Future of Solar Cells

Climate change is almost never far from the environmental news agenda and the question of how to transition to a low-carbon economy in the face of an impending peak oil crisis is a serious problem for public policy. Solar power has often been touted as an answer, but its image is plagued by common perceptions that it is either expensive or inefficient or even both.

Today on The Provocateur I talk to Dr Jon Major, an EPSRC Research Fellow at the University of Liverpool, whose research aims to solve both these issues at once. Using the unique properties of a particular semiconductor called cadmium telluride, he and his team hope to develop solar cell technologies that are both cost-effective and also extremely energy efficient. Among other things, we discuss the nuts and bolts of how solar cells actually work, developments in solar technology since the 1950s, the incredible uses of solar power in developing countries and what the future may hold for solar power as a real low-carbon breakthrough.

You can listen to the podcast here: 

Brian Earp: The Ethics of High-Tech Sexual Orientation Conversion Therapy

While prejudice on the basis of sexual orientation is still widespread throughout the world, in recent decades laws have been enacted in various countries banning so-called conversion therapy: (typically) psychological attempts to change individuals’ sexual orientation from homosexual or bisexual to exclusively heterosexual. Advances in neuroscience in the not-too-distant future could mean that conversion therapy could be delivered in a ‘high-tech’ manner, for example by administering a drug that could rewire the neurochemical signals in our brains.

This possibility brings with it a raft of ethical issues and today on The Provocateur I talk to Brian Earp, Research Fellow at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford University, to broach these issues. We discuss the possible harms of conversion therapy and whether neuroenhancement-based conversion therapy in particular produces any distinctive harms, explore arguments in favour of the practice and touch on some policy implications.

You can listen to part one of the podcast here: 

Part two is here: 

Note: In the broadcast I mention a second episode with Brian (discussing female and male circumcision), but unfortunately this has been postponed to next month due to scheduling issues. Watch this space!

Further Reading:

Cruz, D. B. (1999) ‘Controlling Desires: Sexual Orientation Conversion and the Limits of Knowledge and Law‘, Southern California Law Review 72, pp. 1297-1400.

Earp, B. D., A. Sandberg and J. Savulescu (2014) ‘Brave New Love: The Threat of High-Tech “Conversion” Therapy and the Bio-Oppression of Sexual Minorities‘, AJOB Neuroscience 5(1), pp. 4-12.

Gupta, K. (2012) ‘Protecting Sexual Diversity: Rethinking the Use of Neurotechnological Interventions to Alter Sexuality’, AJOB Neuroscience 3(3), pp. 24-28.

Haldeman, D. C. (2002) ‘Gay Rights, Patient Rights: The Implications of Sexual Orientation Conversion Therapy‘, Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 33(3), pp. 260-264.

Levy, J. T. (2005) ‘Sexual orientation, exit and refuge’, in Eisenberg, A. and J. Spinner-Halev (eds.) Minorities within Minorities: Equality, Rights and Diversity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Okin, S. M. (1999) ‘Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?’ in Cohen, J. et al. (eds.) Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sandel, M. (2007) The Case Against Perfection. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shidlo, A. et al. (eds.) (2001) Sexual Conversion Therapy: Ethical, Clinical and Research Perspectives. New York, London and Oxford: The Haworth Medical Press.

Tozer, E. E. and J. A. Hayes (2004) ‘Why Do Individuals Seek Conversion Therapy? The Role of Religiosity, Internalized Homonegativity, and Identity Development‘, The Counseling Psychologist 32, pp. 716-740.