Thursday, 13 September 2018

Age shouldn't be a barrier to playing competitive sports

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Basketball Victoria
Claire Jenkin, University of Hertfordshire
To stay healthy and fit, older people have traditionally been advised to take up gentle activities, such as walking and tai chi. But it’s time we added competitive sports to the mix.
Competitive sport is usually seen as a young person’s game. If you encourage children to take up sport when they are young, you establish lifelong participation – or so the theory goes.
In reality, even for those who enjoy playing sport, participation can vary depending on their stage of life and may be influenced by things like opportunities or priorities. People who don’t enjoy sport tend to drop out as soon as they can.
Given the physical demands, it is unsurprising that participation in most sports declines with age, resulting in few older people taking part.
Also, public health guidelines often suggest sport is for young people, but not for older people. But the development of modified sport for older people, which often lowers the impact of some traditional sports, may start to change this mindset.

Walking sport

Different types of modified sport for older adults exist, but by far the most popular are sports that replace running with walking. Walking football was perhaps the first – developed in the UK in 2011. Since then, hundreds of clubs have been established in the UK alone. England even played Italy in an international walking football tournament in May 2018.

Other sports have followed suit. There are now walking versions of rugby, netball and basketball. Although most of these walking sports were first developed in the UK, their popularity is spreading globally, with countries such as Australia now introducing similar programmes.
My colleagues and I recently undertook an evaluation of a walking basketball programme in Melbourne, Australia to understand why some people took up modified sports at an older age.
We asked the participants, aged 53-83, why they joined the programme and what benefits they experienced. Many participants said it was an opportunity to have fun and socialise. They enjoyed the competitive element and saw the sport as a chance to improve their health. They also found the sport to be mentally stimulating as they had to think about who to pass the ball to and figure out the best strategy for scoring a goal.

For some, it was an opportunity to reengage in a sport they had played when they were younger, while, for others, it was an introduction to sport. Regardless of their previous experience in sport, they all loved the programme.
For those who don’t like competitive sports, there are plenty of different ways to stay fit. zhu difeng/

Modified sport may not be attractive to all people. Some people might prefer more traditional activities, such as dance and tai chi. But the opportunity to play modified sport can be an excellent option for those who want to play competitive sport at an older age. As such, modified versions of traditional sports should be further developed, promoted and funded by public health bodies around the world to diversify physical activity options for this age group.The Conversation

Claire Jenkin, Senior Lecturer in Sports Development, University of Hertfordshire
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

KSI vs Logan Paul YouTube boxing match: stars sparring with traditional broadcasters to make millions

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Believe the hype. YouTube.
Lyndsay Duthie, University of Hertfordshire
The amateur boxing match between YouTube stars KSI (UK) and Logan Paul (USA) on August 25 could amass more than 20m views, if previous events are anything to go by. That’s more than watched the finals of the FA Cup, or Wimbledon.

This is big news and big business. With pay-per-view on YouTube priced at £7.50 a pop and tickets at the Manchester Arena going for anywhere between £34 and £516 – not to mention the profits from merchandise and sponsorship deals – this event will make millions for both competitors, regardless of who wins and loses.

Events such as this position YouTube as a major provider of high production-value content that speaks directly to its audience. For example, YouTube reaches 98.3% of Internet users in the age bracket 18 to 24 – a feat which today’s TV networks are still working hard to replicate.
But with power comes great responsibility, and while YouTube has tightened its rules about which YouTube videos can be monetised, the platform is still under pressure to take greater responsibility for the content posted on its site.

Meet the contestants

Both KSI and Logan Paul boast more than 18m subscribers each, having spent years uploading videos and building their following on YouTube. KSI’s real name is Olajide William Olatunji. He is a 25-year-old British YouTuber, who started out making videos of himself playing FIFA when he was just 15. Now, he earns an estimated £2.3m a year.
Logan Paul (left) and KSI (right). YouTube.

US YouTube star Logan Paul, age 22, first found fame on the super short form video sharing app Vine, before switching to YouTube where he now has two channels earning him around £11m a year.
KSI pioneered this new genre of crossover – the YouTube boxing match – with his first “grudge match” against YouTuber Joe Weller, who has 4m subscribers. Buoyed from his win against Weller in February this year, KSI said:
If any YouTuber wants it, you can come get it. Jake Paul, Logan Paul, any of the Pauls, I don’t care.
And what a smart move that was, gaining KSI an extra 2m subscribers, as well as fame among US YouTube users, when Logan Paul came on board.

TV executives, take note

Although most of their videos are free to view, YouTube stars can make massive earnings. According to numbers published by YouTube, KSI racks up more than 5m views each day, which converts to roughly £7,600 in revenue. After tax, he will make around £4,600 a day from YouTube alone.
Advertisers pay YouTube according to the number of views lasting more than 30 seconds or clicks to their ads. In turn, YouTube pays a proportion to the content creators.
How much a YouTuber earns from the advertisements on their videos depends on who watches them, and how much attention they pay to the ads. The loyal subscribers of YouTube stars such as KSI and Logan Paul make up a very specific younger demographic, which can otherwise be difficult for brands to reach on TV.
TV networks have also recognised the value of YouTube stars, and are already trying to get them involved in the more traditional format. For example, the BBC has recruited Thatcher Joe – aka Joe Sugg, brother of YouTube darling Zoella – to appear as a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing as a contestant, no doubt hoping his 10m YouTube followers will come along for the ride.
For the most part, YouTube is a solitary viewing experience. But this live boxing match is YouTube’s version of event TV – everyone will be watching at same time. The fact that YouTube can achieve viewers in the millions here makes it a real alternative traditional TV.

Money, money, money

YouTube has already announced its intentions to help its creators find other ways to make money, apart from advertising. And events such as boxing matches are one means to this end.
KSI and Logan Paul have both spent the past six months ramping up the hype for their fight, publishing “diss” tracks and updates on their training for their fans to follow. This is their main means of selling merchandise and tickets and building subscribers. Their loyal followers can’t get enough of their antics and will pay for the opportunity to see them in action.
It will also open the door to sponsorships: someone like KSI can point to the number of people watching his videos, to argue that big brands should get involved, as they are hitting the equivalent of viewing numbers for traditional TV and beyond, with longevity on their YouTube channels to exploit further.

Yet YouTube stars have been known to take drama to the extreme. Earlier this year, Logan Paul posted a vlog showing the lifeless body of a suicide victim, which was met with massive backlash from the wider public. In response, YouTube temporarily suspended ads on his channel.
It can feel like nothing is off limits if it will pull in subscribers. And this creates a difficult problem for YouTube, since it raises questions over online censorship and who is policing online content.
Logan Paul is so confident that he will beat KSI that he has bet $1m on himself to win. But this is pocket money, compared with the millions that he and KSI are on track to earn in merchandise and ticket sales. And whatever happens, a rematch has already been scheduled in the US in February 2019. Kerching!

The author would like to thank her son, Zach Duthie, for his help with the research for this article.The Conversation
Lyndsay Duthie, Head of Film and Television Programme, University of Hertfordshire
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Seeing food wasted makes us mad – but should it?

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Martin Cohen, University of Hertfordshire
There is currently a grand consensus of academics, policymakers and food campaign groups that “something must be done” to reduce food wastage. Malnutrition is real, but so too is the obesity crisis. But when everyone agrees, you can afford to be a little sceptical. Because food is about much more than just calories and nutrients. Food is also part of a wider cycle of products and services that we consume – and they also play a part in this story.
People point at reports from public bodies like the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), who claim that the world loses or wastes nearly a third of the food produced for human consumption. Estimates like this include things like crops that are not harvested, perhaps because of a supply glut. Difficulties with storage and transport also mean that a large proportion of global food “waste” occurs in Africa, where post-harvest losses of food grains are estimated at 25% of the total harvested production while fruit and vegetable losses can reach 50%.

European farmers may find it costs more money to harvest the produce than the crop will make if sold on a saturated market. A detailed study in Italy, in 2009, for example, claimed that the nominal value of cereals, vegetables and even “luxury” fruit and vegetables left to rot in the field was €3.5 billion.

Similarly, in the UK, a 2013 report estimated that 30% of veg never make it to the table.
And speaking of food not being harvested, the European Union’s policy of guaranteeing farmers certain prices whether there was a market for the crops or not resulted in the overproduction of food for years that produced things like “wine lakes” and mountains of fruits and vegetables – all of which had to be destroyed at additional cost.

Let them eat food waste

But today, in many countries, the focus in discussion of “food waste” is always at the end of the supply chain – the supermarket shelf. France led the way with a law that actually requires supermarkets to hand over food they are thinking of binning to charities for redistribution to people on low incomes. A staggering 1.85m people benefit from the 200m or so meals it produces annually.
Meanwhile, in Denmark, a network of alternative supermarkets selling surplus produce that would otherwise be wasted has been created. And in the UK, food waste campaigners from the Real Junk Food Project have opened a warehouse store in which customers are invited to shop for food thrown out by supermarkets and other businesses. The charity, which claims to have saved over a million kilograms of food from being wasted, sells it on a “pay as you feel” basis and says it has filled around 50,000 hungry bellies.

Read more: Enormous amounts of food are wasted during manufacturing – here's where it occurs

Food stores and restaurants are easy targets for campaigners, but the fact is that in countries like France and Britain, it is estimated that only 11% of food waste is from retail. The reality remains that in terms of volume, the real issues lie elsewhere. As a matter of practical policy, efforts to reduce this 11% of food waste are misguided. The FAO itself admits that throwing away food is often cheaper for end users than using or reusing.

When supermarkets, as in France, are either obliged to collect and redistribute food that is near its “sell by date”, or to resell it within the shop at a reduced price, the result is additional costs to the business, which will be passed on to consumers, who include people on low incomes. Supermarkets that sell off milk at half-price to “recover” their initial investment, must reduce their sales of milk at full price because the cheap purchase displaces the full-price one. This likely does not make economic sense, given that – as farmers complain – milk is supplied to supermarkets at less than the cost of bottled water.
Ready to be reduced. Matylda Laurence /

The same thinking means a French boulangerie will not sell its famous baguettes off cheap at the end of the day, because it makes more sense for them to maintain their profit margin than to “recoup” their investment in the original loaf.

Water politics

Which brings me to the case of water, our most indispensable nutrient. I was involved in a successful campaign in the 1990s to hold the Yorkshire Water company to account for its failure to maintain supplies to cities such as Leeds and Bradford during a rare regional downturn in summer rainfall. The feeling was that the company had put profit before responsibility by allowing more than one third of water to leak away uselessly from its pipes.

The figures for leakage – like the figures for food waste today – appalled frugal consumers. Questions were asked in the Houses of Parliament and the head of the company eventually resigned.
Despite all this, it’s true that it actually makes more sense, and costs a lot less money, to pump extra water through a leaky distribution system than to lovingly tend that system. Water in the UK is cheap to collect (you just have to create and connect reservoirs) while the distribution grid is expensive to maintain. When the government imposes water meters, for example, saying it will reduce “waste”, it simply prices up water and that affects the poorest consumers most of all.

A very similar story is true for food waste. When the European Union looked at the economic impact of reducing food waste it found that (paradoxically) the costs of being frugal were enormous. It estimated that in Germany, job losses resulting from reducing food production would amount to around 600,000 — and a similar hit for the two economies of Spain and Poland put together.
As everyone of us who has hesitated to leave food on our plate knows, despite being full up, there is, after all, no simple link between what we eat and what we need.

So next time you see supermarkets throwing away slightly off fruit, you can be a little bit more tolerant – in a sense, they are also creating jobs: jobs on farms, jobs in retail and jobs in the wider economy too.The Conversation

Martin Cohen, Visiting Research Fellow in Philosophy, University of Hertfordshire
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

What the world can learn about equality from the Nordic model

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Geoffrey M Hodgson, University of Hertfordshire
Rising inequality is one of the biggest social and economic issues of our time. It is linked to poorer economic growth and fosters social discontent and unrest. So, given that the five Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden – are some of the world’s most equal on a number of measures, it makes sense to look to them for lessons in how to build a more equal society.
The Nordic countries are all social-democratic countries with mixed economies. They are not socialist in the classical sense – they are driven by financial markets rather than by central plans, although the state does play a strategic role in the economy. They have systems of law that protect personal and corporate property and help to enforce contracts. They are democracies with checks, balances and countervailing powers.
Nordic countries show that major egalitarian reforms and substantial welfare states are possible within prosperous capitalist countries that are highly engaged in global markets. But their success undermines the view that the most ideal capitalist economy is one where markets are unrestrained. They also suggest that humane and equal outcomes are possible within capitalism, while full-blooded socialism has always, in practice, led to disaster.
The Nordic countries are among the most equal in terms of distribution of income. Using the Gini coefficient measure of income inequality (where 1 represents complete inequality and 0 represents complete equality) OECD data gives the US a score of 0.39 and the UK a slightly more equal score of 0.35 – both above the OECD average of 0.31. The five Nordic countries, meanwhile, ranged from 0.25 (Iceland – the most equal) to 0.28 (Sweden).

The relative standing of the Nordic countries in terms of their distributions of wealth is not so egalitarian, however. Data show that Sweden has higher wealth inequality than France, Germany, Japan and the UK, but lower wealth inequality than the US. Norway is more equal, with wealth inequality exceeding Japan but lower than France, Germany, UK and US.
Nonetheless, the Nordic countries score very highly in terms of major welfare and development indicators. Norway and Denmark rank first and fifth in the United Nations Human Development Index. Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden have been among the six least corrupt countries in the world, according to the corruption perceptions index produced by Transparency International. By the same measure, the UK ranks tenth, Iceland 14th and the US 18th.
The four largest Nordic countries have taken up the top four positions in global indices of press freedom. Iceland, Norway and Finland took the top three positions in a global index of gender equality, with Sweden in fifth place, Denmark in 14th place and the US in 49th.
Suicide rates in Denmark and Norway are lower than the world average. In Denmark, Iceland and Norway the suicide rates are lower than in the US, France and Japan. The suicide rate in Sweden is about the same as in the US, but in Finland it is higher. Norway was ranked as the happiest country in the world in 2017, followed immediately by Denmark and Iceland. By the same happiness index, Finland ranks sixth, Sweden tenth and the US 15th.
In terms of economic output (GDP) per capita, Norway is 3% above the US, while Iceland, Denmark, Sweden and Finland are respectively 11%, 14%, 14% and 25% below the US. This is a mixed, but still impressive, performance. Every Nordic country’s per capita GDP is higher than the UK, France and Japan.

Special conditions?

Clearly, the Nordic countries have achieved very high levels of welfare and wellbeing, alongside levels of economic output that compare well with other highly developed countries. They result from relatively high levels of social solidarity and taxation, alongside a political and economic system that preserves enterprise, economic autonomy and aspiration.
Yet the Nordic countries are small and more ethnically and culturally homogeneous than most developed countries. These special conditions have facilitated high levels of nationwide trust and cooperation – and consequently a willingness to pay higher-than-average levels of tax.
As a result, Nordic policies and institutions cannot be easily exported to other countries. Large developed countries, such as the US, UK, France and Germany, are more diverse in terms of cultures and ethnicities. Exporting the Nordic model would create major challenges of assimilation, integration, trust-enhancement, consensus-building and institution-formation. Nonetheless, it is still important to learn from it and to experiment.
The ConversationDespite a prevailing global ideology in favour of markets, privatisation and macro-economic austerity, there is considerable enduring variety among capitalist countries. Furthermore some countries continue to perform much better than others on indicators of welfare and economic equality. We can learn from the Nordic mixed economies with their strong welfare provision that does not diminish the role of business. They show a way forward that is different from both statist socialism and unrestrained markets.
Geoffrey M Hodgson, Research Professor, Hertfordshire Business School, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why CBT should stop being offered to people with schizophrenia

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Keith Laws, University of Hertfordshire
Cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT, has in the past decade become a standard tool for helping people with schizophrenia deal with their symptoms. Recent developments, however, raise serious questions about how effective this talking therapy really is for this illness.
Despite strongly advocating that all people with schizophrenia should be offered CBT, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) – the organisation that evaluates treatments for the NHS – has inexplicably neglected to update its evidence base since 2008. In the intervening years the number of randomised controlled trials – the gold standard for clinical research – assessing symptom reduction through CBT has doubled, and many of them cast doubt on the institute’s recommendations.
Very few trials had reported on the impact of CBT on social and professional functionality, or quality of life, so with this in mind we recently published the first meta-analysis assessing the impact of CBT on these aspects.
The results were not positive. While we found that CBT initially improved the ability of patients to function, the benefit was shortlived. CBT failed to alleviate the distress associated with the symptoms of psychosis. CBT also failed to improve quality of life, as measured in a patient’s sense of self, hope, well-being, relationships and so on. Indeed, not one CBT trial has ever reported a rise in quality of life for people diagnosed with schizophrenia.

A growing weight of evidence

This was just the latest study to raise question marks, and a 2014 meta-analysis by our research group had already concluded that claims that CBT alleviates classic symptoms such as delusions are “no longer tenable”.

CBT helps with a great many things. But perhaps not schizophrenia. Shutterstock

A 2014 meta-analysis from the Netherlands found that almost none of the latest studies reported reductions in schizophrenia symptoms, such as social withdrawal, apathy, or “emotional blunting” (having no positive or negative emotions). The authors concluded: “CBT studies focused on psychotic symptoms might not work as well in reducing negative symptoms as previously thought.”

Furthermore, a Cochrane review, an authoritative voice on evidence-based healthcare, concluded that CBT showed “no clear and convincing advantage” over other, sometimes much less sophisticated, therapies, or even simple, non-technical approaches such as befriending. This involves talking with the patient about neutral topics of interest, such as music, sport, books, pets and so on.
A smaller amount and lower quality of evidence was required to establish CBT as an intervention, than now exists for it to be rejected. Earlier trials of CBT for schizophrenia – such as those reported by NICE – were much less rigorous than their modern counterparts. For example, many early researchers did not use blind outcome assessment – that is to say, they knew which of their subjects had received CBT and which had not, potentially leading to confirmation bias. These earlier trials spuriously inflated the apparent benefits of CBT five or six times over.

Risk and reward

One of the main factors that can lead to the withdrawal of an intervention is if harm is seen to outweigh benefit. Psychological interventions such as CBT are often assumed to cause no harm, but a recent study urged caution. It warned: “The measurement and reporting of adverse effects in trials of psychological interventions for psychosis (and other conditions), is extremely poor.”

There is a question mark over whether patients actually want CBT in the first place. Shutterstock

The fact that harm is not routinely assessed, or is poorly assessed in psychotherapy trials should raise a red flag over recent calls for CBT to be an alternative to antipsychotic medication. The single recent, relevant study comparing the two treatments showed that adding CBT to antipsychotic medication gave no significant additional benefit, while adding antipsychotic medication to CBT produced significant improvement in symptoms.
But even setting aside efficacy and potential harm, do the patients themselves actually want CBT? Evidence suggests not – according to the 2014 National Audit of Schizophrenia published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, more than half of those offered CBT decline it.

The evidence used by NICE is low quality and outdated, and their endorsement of CBT is in dire need of reconsideration. There are serious doubts as to whether CBT actually reduces schizophrenia symptoms, and now also whether it improves key outcomes such as functionality, quality of life and symptom-related distress. If we want psychological interventions to evolve, then new research to be directed at developing and assessing alternative treatments.

The ConversationAnd if we want an accessible, cost-effective and equally potent alternative in the meantime, why not listen to the Cochrane group. We might do just as well with befriending.
Keith Laws, Professor of Cognitive Neuropsychology, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Coming soon: A total eclipse of the Moon

Dr Samantha Rolfe, University of Hertfordshire 

On Friday 27 July 2018, all of us in the UK will be able to watch a total eclipse of the Moon where the Moon will be in the shadow of the Earth for the longest amount of time this century. Those looking out on Friday will see that the Moon is a deep red colour whilst it is in “totality” as it rises (at 20:50 BST in Hatfield, Hertfordshire). It is this red colour has led to the name ‘Blood Moon’.

 A composite image showing the different stages of a Total Lunar Eclipse as seen from Earth. 

A total eclipse of the Moon occurs because the orbits of the Sun, Earth and Moon align such that the Moon moves directly into the shadow of the Earth. An alignment like this is also known as a syzygy, a (usually) straight line arrangement of three or more Solar System objects. However, unlike a Solar Eclipse where the Moon blocks out the disc of the Sun, we can still see the surface of the Moon during a Total Lunar Eclipse.  This seems like it wouldn’t be possible, as the Earth is blocking the light from the Sun, but during totality light from the Sun is scattered through the Earth’s atmosphere and still reaches the surface of the Moon, an effect known as Rayleigh Scattering. Rayleigh Scattering is what causes the sky to be blue and sunsets to appear red. The scattered light reaching the Moon is from the sunsets and sunrises all around the world.

You may not see the Moon from the moment it rises depending on what objects are on your eastern horizon – try to find a location with as few trees and buildings as possible. The Moon will eventually rise above any objects in your view and you will still be able to see the Blood Moon as the point of “greatest totality” (GT) occurs at 21:21 and totality continues until 22:13. Totality is when the Moon is in the full shadow of the Earth, the “umbra” (Latin for ‘shadow’).  The Moon will remain in the partial shadow of the Earth, the “penumbra” (pen, from the Latin for ‘almost, nearly’) until after midnight at 00:28, so there is plenty of time to see different parts of the eclipse.

This eclipse is extra special as the Moon is in totality for 103 minutes, the longest that will occur in the 21st century. Furthermore, it is a “Micro Moon”, where the Moon is furthest from the Earth in its orbit (apogee), appearing approximately 6 % smaller than an average Full Moon.

Somewhere between 3-5 Total Lunar Eclipses occur approximately every 5 years, but from any one location on Earth, the chances of viewing one is approximately every few years. For example, the next five total lunar eclipses visible from the UK, which include greatest totality, are: 21st January 2019 (greatest totality 05:12), 16th May 2022 (GT 5:11, occurs as the Moon sets), 31st December 2028 (GT 16:51), 18th Oct 2032 (GT 20:02) and 14th April 2033 (GT 20:12, occurs as the Moon rises). The previous total lunar eclipse visible from the UK was on 28th September 2015 (GT 03:47). As you can see from these dates, they don’t occur very often and the time that they occur can be relatively ‘unfriendly’ if you don’t want to get up early or stay up late to watch it.

A total lunar eclipse creates great photography opportunities as well as experiencing something amazing that doesn’t occur on any other planet in our Solar System (or maybe in the entire Universe!). Unlike a Solar Eclipse where you need special filtered glasses to avoid eye damage, Lunar Eclipses are safe to view with the naked eye.

Tips for watching the Blood Moon on Friday:

  • If possible find a good eastern horizon, free of trees and buildings. 
  • Pack a folding chair of blanket, a light jacket (despite the warm weather the evening will a lot cooler especially if you are exposed or higher ground), and some snacks (who doesn’t want to snack while watching an astronomical phenomenon), a camera and friends and family.
  • One more thing: fingers crossed for clear skies.

 Times and dates source:

Friday, 22 June 2018

Emotionless chatbots are taking over customer service – and it's bad news for consumers

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Daniel Polani, University of Hertfordshire
It’s so hard to speak to a real person on the phone these days. Almost any time you need to call your bank, doctor or any other service, you’ll probably be greeted by an automated service seemingly designed to prevent you from speaking to someone who actually works for the company. And that could soon get worse thanks to the rise of chatbots.

Chatbots are artificial intelligence programs, often deployed in apps or messaging services. They are designed to answer people’s questions in a conversational style rather than just pointing them towards information like a search engine. Companies such as Uber, Lufthansa and Pizza Express are already using them to field customer enquiries and take bookings, and many more are on the way.
They have the potential to improve some aspects of customer service, and are certainly easier to use than automated phone systems that struggle to understand even your basic personal details. But they’re also another hurdle separating customers from a human who can actually answer difficult questions and, crucially, show the compassion and good will that strong customer service is often based on. There’s a chance that chatbots could cause both consumers and companies to find this out the hard way.

Automating customer service, or at least part of it, is an inviting thought for many companies. Not only can it reduce the exposure of human employees to many of the unpleasantries of the job, it can also help screen out many common or trivial problems early on before the expensive attention of a human is needed. This could help companies reduce costs while calming customers who just need simple solutions to standard problems.

But replacing human employees with artificial ones isn’t that straightforward. To begin with, language, with all its variations and errors and despite really impressive progress in automatic recognition and translation, is still a tricky issue. Automated representatives are still significantly less competent and language-aware, and for some problems would be difficult or impossible to communicate with.

Good but not good enough

Talent is the ability to perform well. Mastery is the ability to fix an unusually difficult situation. There is an art to handling the exception, and good customer service is often about the unusual or unanticipated cases involving potentially angry customers. While chatbots can convincingly source answers to basic questions, AI isn’t yet smart enough to deal with the rare and exceptional examples.
Companies might not initially see this as a problem, as it introduces a way to separate customers whose service requires going the extra mile. Only those whose problems confuse the bot need to be passed on to a human employee. But going through this frustrating process of talking with a bewildered computer is likely to make the customer more angry with the service. In the long term, this could encourage them to take their business elsewhere, especially if it is difficult to get a human representative to come to the rescue when the bot fails to help.

‘It’s like this robot has no emotions.’ Shutterstock

I experienced a version of this issue myself when trying to book a cab following a train breakdown. When I called the one local company I had a number for, I was put through to an automated service that was completely unable to understand the pickup location, in all variations of naming and pronunciation that I could think of.

Through some serendipity, I was connected to a human representative, but before I had time to utter my predicament, he told me “I shall put you through to the booking system” – and the infernal loop resumed. The sad story ended with a very long walk, a lucky pickup by a human-driven black cab in an otherwise utterly deserted area, and a vow to henceforth shun the first company whenever possible.

Automated systems might be able to handle regular cases. But they can’t yet adapt themselves to exceptional circumstances or even recognise that the flexibility of human intervention is needed. And the problem, from the consumer’s point of view, goes further than that. Some situations require not just human understanding and problem-solving, but a level of compassion and empathy.
A chatbot can be programmed to adopt a certain style of interaction, but that will still sound oddly out-of-place in unexpected or difficult contexts. There is currently no practical road map in AI research for how to implement something that convincingly resembles human compassion.

Sometimes angry customers need kind words and the chance to express themselves to someone willing to listen, as well as or even sometimes instead of actually having their problem resolved. And often good customer service relies on gestures of good will made at the discretion of individual employees following their own feelings of empathy rather than a set of fixed rules.
This would be very hard for AI to replicate because it depends so heavily on the context of the situation. In my opinion, context understanding is still one of the major elusive and unsolved problems of AI, and is likely to remain so for quite a few years to come.

Despite this, the cost-saving promise and other benefits of automation appear so appealing that chatbots and other AI customer services are still set to drastically expand over coming years. The likely outcome, at least in the mid-term, seems to be an even more technocratic treatment of complaints with less flexibility. Or worse, once the algorithms become increasingly refined, an opaque decision-making process with very little room for the mellowing intervention of a human supervisor.

The ConversationIf we want to avoid this, we need to realise that the way to help is not paved with good intentions, but found in appreciating how limited AI currently is at understanding contexts, exceptions and the human condition.

Daniel Polani, Professor of Artificial Intelligence, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

What to expect on your graduation day

Image: University of Hertfordshire, taken by Pete Stevens. 

Hi, I’m Aroona, a University of Hertfordshire Humanities graduate who is currently on a short work placement in the University’s Marketing and Communications department. Today, I wanted to talk to you about my graduation day! 

I spent most of the summer excitingly dreading my graduation day. The stress-heightening period of dissertations, assignment and exams were finally over but the date: 7 September 2017, was a deadline that invited a new climax of relief and anxiety. The most alarming of all was how quickly three years had gone. The thought of graduating in my mind still seemed so distant.  

However, it all went by in a flash. One minute I was asking my sister to help me take my measurements when booking my robes. The next minute the ticket were printed. I even had a list minute dash to buy a dress.

Once the day arrived I had a very welcome bring-it-on kind of attitude to the day. The wait was finally over. My main concern, unsurprisingly for England, was the weather as we all hoped to have pictures taken outside and dreary and wet just wouldn’t cut the family photo album.

Thankfully the weather held up and as we also managed to reach The Alban Arena in time to see that graduates in robes, family and friends were already huddled around the various tents set up for the student-turn-graduate tour, so we could get ready for the afternoon ceremony. The real buzz was putting my robes on and the delight of it not being as heavy to wear as anticipated. The hat on the hand other took a bit of twiddling. Having photos taken professionally with my family was also quite a surreal experience – though unfortunately my makeup decide to run at that moment! The irony. We must have taken a hundred photos that day.

The most remarkable moment for me was seeing the familiar faces of the people I shared seminars with dressed in their robes and realising how much of a journey we had come on to arrive at this moment. Even strangers approached me to offer their congratulations as I walked to St Alban’s cathedral. Sitting amongst all the other graduates was a truly humbling and inspirational experience and as I was designated to sit at the front of the cathedral my eyes were fixed to the stage. When my name was read out, signalling it was my time to walk to the stage, I remember praying not to slip in my heels, as I shook hands with the Deputy Vice Chancellor. It was such a pivotal moment, but it happened so fleetingly.

The highlight of the day was throwing my graduate hat into the air with my friends, cheering and whooping, as they camenot so elegantly down on us. It was quite fun seeing how bad we were at catching our hats, but it made hilarious entertainment for our families standing by with their phones filming us. Afterwards we gathered at the arena again for refreshments, and a champagne glass of orange juice!

Finally returning the robes was a wind down moment after such an eventful, long and reflective day. Going to graduation is an exciting and memorable occasion and made more worthwhile when you have people to celebrate it with. I’ll be glad to relax as one of the guest audience, however, when it comes to my other siblings’ graduations. 


Britain must commit to upholding civil liberties if the EU is to agree on security co-operation after Brexit

Ermioni Xanthopoulou, University of Hertfordshire
The British government has made it clear it wants a new kind of security deal with the European Union after Brexit. In a speech in London on June 6, David Davis, secretary of state for exiting the EU, set out five aims for a new security partnership. He highlighted the need for a “lasting, positive” agreement, “a stable relationship, built on trust” – a relationship that “doesn’t need to be revisited or renegotiated”.

Davis promised that the UK would make appropriate contributions to the costs of programmes that underpin continued cooperation. And he added that the UK “would respect the remit of the European Court of Justice” when participating in EU agencies, without explaining exactly how.

But Davis’s comments came a week after a senior EU official suggested that the UK would not be able to make use of the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) after Brexit – which allows for the speedy extradition of suspects and convicted persons across EU countries. The official said Britain’s continued involvement could jeopardise “the lives and liberty of citizens”.

Part of the reason for this reluctance to allow Britain access to the EAW after Brexit is a question of trust – one of the key requirements for ongoing security cooperation.

European security

The EU framework on security is associated with protecting citizens against terrorism and serious forms of cross-border crime, such as drug trafficking and exploitation of irregular immigration. The narrative of the “War on Terror” after 9/11 radically influenced the concept of European security and was the catalyst for the adoption of counter-terrorism measures – which the UK was very active in helping to formulate.

The goals of European security are achieved by police and judicial corporation, including measures on extradition, intelligence databases, sharing information, and the quick recognition of orders and decisions.

One key example of this cooperation is the European Arrest Warrant, implemented by the UK in the Extradition Act 2003. The procedure is automatic and quick – judicial authorities complete a form and operate within a limited time frame and strict deadlines. A report published in 2013 by the Home Affairs Select Committee of the UK’s decision to join the EAW, said extradition under the process now takes on “average three months”, compared to around 10 months for a non-EU extradition.
As a member state of the EU, the UK has been able to opt in or out of EU-wide measures on criminal justice policy that it liked, which has been called cherry-picking.

But after Brexit, the UK won’t have automatic access to the security corporation framework. As a result, it will default to the inefficient, costly and politicised extradition treaties under international law, that the EAW replaced, unless a security partnership is concluded that will allow the UK access to the EAW scheme.
Police check vehicles on the French/German border in 2015. Hadrian/

Mutual trust remains elusive

The law surrounding police cooperation is based on the so-called model of mutual recognition. In contrast to other areas of EU law which require harmonisation, in this area security measures are recognised across member states – even if they are different. May has also used the term “mutual recognition” as a model of the kind of cooperation she wants with the EU post-Brexit.

But, crucially, the key precondition for this mutual recognition is mutual trust – which is what is currently missing in negotiations towards a new security partnership. This is why Davis keeps referring to the “decades of trust … that have existed” and wishes for “a stable relationship built on trust that doesn’t need to be revisited” – as if trust can be a static element. Yet trust requires some common ground to be generated. It requires certainty and consistency of patterns in that the other side will respect the freedom you risk for them.

The uncertainty of the UK’s position in Brexit negotiations does nothing but hurt trust and make security cooperation unlikely. This is because this area of security cooperation is so sensitive to civil liberties and the future protection of such liberties seems quite precarious. An example of this is the refusal, in February, of Irish judges to extradite several people requested by the UK under the EAW due to the uncertainty in relation to the law and their rights in the future UK.

It is not yet certain whether the UK government wishes to retain measures which are protective of rights. They include the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the EU victims’ protection framework, and the extensive EU procedural safeguards which act as common minimum standards for defence rights across the EU.

A chance to show willing

On the contrary, the government has repeatedly expressed its wish to retain many of the security measures that the EU offers which limit people’s freedoms, such as the European arrest warrant, Europol, European Criminal Records Information System. It is safe to say that the government is more interested in security than freedom.

The UK should now be doing its best to recover the trust of its EU partners by showing a strong and consistent position that human rights will be protected. To do this, the UK government should demonstrate an eagerness to retain all the EU measures which are protective of civil liberties.
On June 12 and 13, MPs are expected to vote on the 15 Brexit amendments from the Lords, one of which would put the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights directly into UK law. The government argues this is unnecessary, arguing that human rights are already protected in UK by other sources of law. But May is infamous for her hostility towards human rights law – and not retaining the EU Charter would fuel the sense of uncertainty around civil liberties after Brexit.

The ConversationInstead of trying to overturn the amendment, the government should eagerly incorporate it into the bill, alongside a commitment to keeping the rest of the protective measures to which it is currently signed up. This the only way that security cooperation should be maintained – and is the only way to prove the trustworthiness that Davis suggests EU partners should be taking for granted.
Ermioni Xanthopoulou, Lecturer in Law, University of Hertfordshire

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Why Love Island is the best kept guilty secret on British television

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Lyndsay Duthie, University of Hertfordshire
As is so often the case these days, we didn’t have to wait for series four of Love Island to actually go to air for Fleet Street to start salivating about the prospects of spending the summer with 11 “unfathomably ripped young men and scantily clad young women” – as The Guardian rather coyly put it – tasked with doing little else other than to select their daily swimsuit and, over the course of eight weeks, choose their ideal life partner.
With a little help from a bit of audience participation. And here’s the thing: 2017’s Love Island became the UK’s breakout televisual hit, giving ITV2 record viewing figures of 2.5m people. It was the most talked-about show of the summer, prompting 5 billion Twitter impressions and merchandise shipped by the truckload (Primark says it sold 197,000 Love Island slogan t-shirts during the series’ seven-week run). Some 25% of 16 to 25-year-olds were watching the show via tablet or smartphone and after season three ended, ITV Hub claimed it had regularly reached 56% of 16 to 34-year-olds – the show’s core demographic.
This is often a demographic that terrestrial TV finds it hard to engage with given the always available lure of Netflix and YouTube.
“This is a real case study for all of those nay sayers who say that 16 to 34s don’t watch telly,” Angela Jain, the boss of ITV Studios Entertainment told a conference hosted by the Royal Television Society in May, adding: “That’s bollocks isn’t it, because they’re watching this.”
But why is it such a hit? Yes the blue skies and holiday vibe helps, but at its heart it is still based on the idea of a love story – some have even heralded it as a modern-day Jane Austen. The story of fall in love is a narrative that has obsessed us since time immemorial. It’s why we’re still riveted by the work of Austen or Shakespeare: because we are all searching for someone who helps us make sense of ourselves.

There is also a sense of joining an exclusive club – you just need to get your head around Love Island slang (The Sun helpfully provided a lexicon) – not knowing what being “muggy” or “melty” is (disrespectful and soppy respectively) or that when someone is “grafting” (putting in some hard work on a member of the opposite sex) is tantamount to social suicide. Love Island gives the insiders’ guide to dating 21st-century style (with reports of parents watching with their teens to find out about millenial attitudes to dating, love and sex).
Feminist commentator and journalist Caitlin Moran penned a column for The Times in which she claimed that watching shows like Love Island is “good for you”, particularly if you’re a parent:
These may be ‘scripted reality shows’, but they are, essentially, amateur documentary recreations of what happens to you, over and over, in your teens and twenties. That’s why they’re so popular. That’s why you need to watch them with your children.

Rules of attraction

While it’s tempting to dismiss Love Island as just another reality show, it is surprisingly a critical – as well as a ratings – success, even from quarters which would normally be scornful of something like this. In a piece headlined: “Sun, Sex and Mugging Off: is it wrong to be watching Love Island, The Guardian revealed a host of high-profile viewers for whom Love Island 2017 was their "guilty secret”.
The shamelessly low-rent show has been attracting broadsheet think pieces by columnists, who wouldn’t normally watch reality TV because they’re far too busy listening to Radio 4 or reading worthy doorstop novels, all hand-wringing about whether it’s “wrong” to be watching it.
When the show was nominated for two BAFTAs, the twittersphere erupted in delight and outrage in equal measures. Moran was left stunned, tweeting happily:

Start of something wonderful

Ratings, rather than critical success, is probably the reason so many young people were thronging to ITV to be selected for the new show – 80,000 people applied within a week of applications opening.
So what will this series have in store? Show producers have promised a longer run, but more of the same with some tricks up their sleeve, yet to be revealed.
With islanders ready to declare their undying love and find “their type on paper”, will relationships last or become a summer fling with a chance to make millions as the newest reality stars. Money and fame aside, the chances of forming a lasting relationship on Love Island appear to be pretty slim – 2017’s loved-up winners Kem and Amber did not even make it to the end of the year.
The ConversationInstead, the ultimate winners are ITV who have reportedly sold the format for megabucks (reportedly set to recoup £1 billion from overseas versions). They say money can’t bring you love, but as the creators of this show would happily attest, the opposite certainly appears to be true.
Lyndsay Duthie, Head of Film and Television Programme, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, 4 June 2018

Your personal space is no longer physical – it's a global network of data

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Silvio Carta, Author provided
Silvio Carta, University of Hertfordshire
In the digital world, any action we do generates data – whether browsing the internet, answering emails or messaging our friends. Translated into radio waves, this information can travel almost effortlessly through space in a split second. Data are all around us, invisibly occupying the space between ourselves and other objects in the built environment. My colleagues and I conducted a study to understand how the presence of all this data alters our understanding of personal and public spaces.
As a case study, we set up an open Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) in Plaza de Los Palos Grandes in Caracas, for people to connect free of charge for a limited period of time. A total of 123 people connected to our WLAN with their devices, sending and receiving packets of information to and from servers across the world.

Our participants sent and received information right across the world. Silvio Carta, Author provided

From the packets, we extracted the location of the servers to which each user connected. In the image below, we generated one line for each connection established between the person and the servers. It demonstrates how the data generated by an email to a close friend, composed in the intimate space between you and your device, has the potential to reach across the world.
Here’s how it works: the smart phone converts your email into radio waves and sends the information to a WiFi router. It’s then passed to your email provider’s servers, then – through the internet’s Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), which controls the movement of data across the web – to the other provider’s servers and to your friend’s inbox.

Changing space

People tend to think that personal communication originates within the intimate dimension of our personal space. We consider the space immediately around us to be ours and personal – it’s where we think, formulate ideas and speak with others. This study gave us the opportunity to consider how the shape of our personal space is changing as we live our digital lives in public spaces.

The complexity of the data traffic emitted by each of us in the public space. Silvio Carta, Author provided

The term “personal space” has meant different things since architects, urbanists, sociologist and geographers started studying it. In the 1960s, personal space was thought of as the distances we maintain from others, to control our interactions with them. The size of this invisible aura could vary, depending on cultural values, the density of people around you and other circumstances.
Scholars have tried to argue that in the digital era, our “personal bubble” is not just physical – it’s also virtual. They claim that your personal bubble is a membrane which filters the data you that send out and the information you receive back. It’s the sum of all the settings and agreements across different digital platforms – including apps, social media and email – as well as the phone itself, which help you to manage your personal, group and public data and communications.

The personal space as global net originating from each of us. Silvio Carta, Author provided

But our results show that in the digital realm, personal space isn’t like a bubble which surrounds each person, helping to define the nature of their encounters, relationships, intimacies or invasions. In fact, it’s more like a global network of connections, reaching everywhere, coming from each person whenever they send or receive a packet of data.

Our images show how personal space disperses through the atmosphere and materialises in someone else’s device in a matter of seconds, leaving traces in a dispersed constellation of servers. Because of this, personal space has become dynamic – it changes in real time with our digital interactions.
Given how sensitive we are to invasions of our physical personal space, it’s remarkable that many of us don’t even realise the extent of our digital personal space, which is scattered around servers and other devices around the world. By visualising the massive size and dispersed form of our digital personal space, people will become more protective of their data, taking a greater interest in the level of encryption, privacy and permissions granted to each app they use.

The ConversationPersonal space is no longer the immediate space that surrounds us and that moves with us. It is rather something more abstract – globally distributed and possibly everywhere at any time. The next time we look at our phone to send a text message, we should envision the real extent of our space, that goes to the other side of the globe in seconds to pin back to us. Our personal space is not a bubble anymore – it is a global network.

Silvio Carta, Senior Lecturer and Chair of the Design Research Group, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Food safety warnings are making eating more dangerous

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Martin Cohen, University of Hertfordshire
California judges recently ruled that coffee must henceforth come with health warnings. This is definitely a landmark – but not quite in the way its proponents imagine. Rather, it underlines how food safety issues are at heart political.
Yes, coffee contains a chemical – acrylamide – which has been associated with cancer in rats. But you have to look pretty hard to find a food which doesn’t have some associated risk. Meanwhile, the EU database of “dangerous” chemicals looks more like an A-Z of everything food-wise rather than a few bad guys you might conceivably start to avoid.
Take bromate, which many baked goods contain. It is a notorious carcinogen that comes in several flavours, as it were, such as calcium, potassium, and sodium. Speaking of sodium, everyone knows that too much salt causes heart disease - but did you know that too little also increases the risk of death from heart attacks and strokes?
But let’s start with “A” and acrylamide, which can be found not merely in coffee but in fried potatoes and baked goods like crackers, bread and cookies, breakfast cereal, canned black olives and prune juice. The last of these I’d be prepared to give a miss, but otherwise for me, acrylamide is where the precautionary principle (that says chemicals are “guilty” until proved safe) becomes untenable. This is because the risks are tiny and the costs seem too high.
Nonetheless, in 2008, Heinz, Frito-Lay and others all settled lawsuits over the chemical with the California attorney general, promising to reduce the levels of acrylamide in their products. For the last decade, fast food restaurants in California have been obliged to post acrylamide warnings and pay penalties for not having done so.

Food hazards. Martin Cohen, Author provided

The streetlight effect

For me, this story illustrates a wider problem about not only food science but the scientific method in general. This is that “facts” are not quite as objective as we dearly love to believe and science is not quite so, well, scientific. This issue boils down to issues with experimental method and the purchasing by governments, lobbyists or corporations of the research results they desire.

Take that first aspect: experimental method. Most toxicity studies rely on the results obtained by giving vastly higher doses of a chemical to mice. With acrylamide, the studies showing potential cancer links in rats and mice used doses “1,000 to 100,000 times higher than the usual amounts, on a weight basis, that humans are exposed to,” one research review noted. Even water is toxic in great excess. What is dangerous at vastly higher doses may not be harmful in moderation.

Then there’s also the fact that the response of mice offers no definite information about the response of human beings. Indeed, even the response of a study group of humans will not reveal definitively how all humans may react (I can eat peanuts all day). Yet it’s difficult to test chemicals on people, so mice are made to serve instead. This is what social scientists call the “streetlight effect” – the coin was dropped in another street but it’s dark there so we’re looking for it in this lit one instead.

And there’s another reason why some questions get asked and some get quietly shelved: corporate lobbying. Take the currently hot issue of biphnol A (BPA), which most of us unwittingly get regular doses of via tinned foods. It’s been linked to diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and is considered an endocrine and hormone disruptor.

Should we be steering clear of tinned foods? HeinzTeh /

BPA has been the subject of much debate. For example, when the European Food Safety Authority concluded in 2015 that it was far less risky than some advocacy groups had suggested, they were accused of being in the pockets of the lobbyists. Maybe they listened because, not long after declaring it safe, they proposed classifying it as a reprotoxin; a substance presumed to have adverse effects on sexual function and fertility in men and women, as well as problems in children. This finding could pave the way for the chemical to be phased out in consumer products. This might sound like a good thing, but the alternatives aren’t necessarily safer.
On the contrary, the case illustrates a risk averse culture that leads to mismatches between “real hazards” and sensible policy.

Paying the piper

In this way, foods with trivial health risks (like unpasteurised dairy products) are hounded out of the market while others like red meat or high fructose corn syrup, which are far more dangerous, with risks of cancer or heart disease, remain immune. And there is little effort or interest to address foods like soya and rapeseed which are intimately part of the current system of billion dollar industrialised food production. Instead, the staples of small and medium scale producers, fish, olive oil, cereals, and anything unpasterurised, has been the subject of research that insists they must be avoided.

There is little method in this food safety madness, unless it’s that of the increasingly important role of lobbyists. These are smart people. They know that science must be obeyed. But on which point, when and for how long? The food industry has learned to co-opt scientific pronouncements for its own purposes, to power a Galbraithian manipulation of the mass market. We perceive the safety agencies as a brake on the food industry, but in reality they have become one of their tools – as the “revolving door” of senior appointments maybe indicates.

The ConversationNew discoveries about food risks are seamlessly incorporated into marketing strategies – “high in trans fats”, “low in salt”, “gluten free”. It really doesn’t matter what the exact finding is any more, as long as the end result is increased profits. Even at the cost of declining public health.
Martin Cohen, Visiting Research Fellow in Philosophy, University of Hertfordshire
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.