September 10, 2012
This Wednesday, Apple, with great fanfare, will present the iPhone 5 to the world. Much will be written about its 4G speed, taller screen, longer battery life, thinner shape and two-tone look.
And much will be said about whether or not it is Steve Jobs’ final legacy. Was he actually weighing in on the new model until his dying day? Or is that story being floated to ensure the iPhone 5 cult classic status in the devout Apple community?
No doubt this will be the big tech innovation story of the month–although, as MIT’s Technology Review pointed out last week, we’ve reached the point with smartphones that improvements are more incremental than revolutionary. Now all the talk is about how big the screen is, not that you can control your phone simply by touching it.
Now that’s a good idea
But instead of joining the iPhone chorus, how about a little counter-programming. What follows are 10 recent inventions, none of which is likely to get much attention this week. But that doesn’t make them any less inspired.
1) All we are saying, is give bats a chance: One of the raps on wind turbines is that they kill thousands of birds and bats every year. But an 89-year-old retired engineer in California named Raymond Green has taken it upon himself to create a device that may lead to a solution. His invention, which he calls “Catching Wind Power,” is basically a large drum in which all the movable parts, including the killer blades, are contained. That would make them considerably less dangerous for flying creatures, and also, Green claims, quieter than what’s out there now.
2) Forgetting something?: As I noted in a recent post, hospitals are a bacterial war zone where one of the key weapons of the good guys is frequent hand-washing. But research suggests that health care workers wash their hands half as often as they should. Now an Israeli company named Hyginex is producing wristbands that wirelessly remind those wearing them that to scrub down. Sensors in soap dispensers track the movements of doctors and nurses, and if they approach a patient without washing their hands, their wristbands light up and vibrate.
3) The roads less traveled: Yes, there are apps out there that alert you to backups and accidents, but a group of German students has ratcheted traffic apps up a notch. Their Greenway app, now being tested by drivers in Munich, uses algorithms to predict where and how traffic will flow and gives its users directions to “traffic-optimized” routes. It also closely monitors the alternate routes and scales back its recommendations if they’re getting crowded. Greenway’s creators claim their directions, on average, get drivers to their destinations twice as fast as on their usual routes.
4) Say good-bye to helmet hair: It’s still Fashion Week in New York, so allow me to introduce the Hovding bike helmet. It’s the brainstorm of two Swedish women who have managed to do the seemingly impossible–merge fashion and bike safety. Their helmet actually looks like a collar, but if it senses impact, it inflates like an airbag around the rider’s head.
5) Go ahead, walk all over me: Scientists at the University of Manchester in the UK have developed a smart carpet. That’s right, a smart carpet. The rug’s backing contains optical fibers that distort when they’re stepped on and send a signal to a computer. That’s impressive, but to what end? First, it can, in the case of elderly person, determine if someone has fallen. It can also serve as an intruder alert if it detects unfamiliar footsteps near a window. Its inventors think it even has potential as a physical therapy aid able to predict mobility problems if it notices changes in a person’s walk.
6) Got juice?: If you drive a lot and need to keep your iPad charged, do I have a gadget for you. It’s a device that turns your standard car cup holder into a charging station, allowing you to juice up your tablet and your smartphone at the same time.
7) You’ve been drinking. I can see it in your nose: Two Greek computer scientists say that by using algorithms and thermal imaging, they’ve devised a way to spot inebriated people in public. Their method, in which they combine an infrared image with algorithms related to what happens to blood vessels in a person’s nose when they have too much to drink, would allow police to identify a drunk on more info than that they’re acting like one.
8) Flashlights are so over: You can have the biggest, shiniest belt buckle ever and it won’t help you much on a walk in the dark. But the Walker’s Path Illuminating Belt is custom-made for such occasions. It’s a hands-free LED safety light that wraps around your waist and can be adjusted to serve as either a wide-angle floodlight or a narrowly-focused spotlight.
9) Why shouldn’t bikes have growth spurts?: It’s one thing for your kids to grow out of their clothes and shoes, but you move into a whole other price range when they keep getting too big for their bikes. The Spanish bicycle designer Orbea has taken on the challenge, creating a bike that grows with a kid, appropriately called the Grow bike. The crossbar, stem and seats all can be lengthened, and since other components also are designed to last longer, Grow bikes, says Orbea, need to be replaced every five to seven years instead of every two to three.
10) Video bonus: Sugar kills: As much practice as we get, most of us just aren’t very good at knocking flies out of the air. But soon BugASalt could change all that–when flies comes buzzin’, it’s just the weapon for the job. It’s a toy gun that acts like a shotgun firing just enough salt to bring down a fly. Seeing is believing.
More from Smithsonian.com
July 16, 2012
But Sherlock Holmes, now he would have been impressed. The logic, the science, the compilation of data–all the stuff of Holmesian detective work.
I’m talking about something known as predictive policing–gathering loads of data and applying algorithms to deduce where and when crimes are most likely to occur. Late last month, the Los Angeles Police Department announced that it will be expanding its use of software created by a California startup named PredPol.
For the past six months, police in that city’s Foothill precinct have been following the advice of a computer and the result, according the the LAPD, is a 25 percent drop in reported burglaries in the neighborhoods to which they were directed. Now the LAPD has started using algorithm-driven policing in five more precincts covering more than 1 million people.
PredPol’s software, which previously had been tested in Santa Cruz–burglaries there dropped by 19 percent–actually evolved from a program used to predict earthquakes. Now it crunches years of crime data, particularly location and time, and refines it with what’s known about criminal behavior, such as the tendency of burglars to work the neighborhoods they know best.
Before each shift, officers are given maps marked with red boxes of likely hot spots for property crimes, in some cases zeroing in on areas as small as 500 feet wide. They’re told that whenever they’re not on calls, they should spend time in one of the boxes, preferably at least 15 minutes of every two hours. The focus is less on solving crimes, and more on preventing them by establishing a high profile in crime zones the computer has targeted.
Taking it to the streets
So, isn’t this pretty much what police always have done? Don’t they figure out patterns and spend most of their time patrolling high-crime areas? Well, yes and no. Good cops know trouble spots and veteran ones rely on what they’ve learned about a place over the years. But that’s largely based on personal experience and instinct, not statistical analysis.
It’s also true that many cities already have embraced CompStat, a law enforcement strategy launched in New York City in the mid-1990s and built around analysis of crime reports. CompStat was a big leap forward in applying data to crime-fighting, but it was still more about looking back than projecting forward.
PredPol and similar software that IBM has developed for police departments in Memphis and just recently, in Charleston, South Carolina, is far more precise and timely, with the data recalibrated daily. And while it might take a human analyst hours or even days to spot a pattern, the computer can connect the dots in seconds.
At the very least, say boosters of predictive policing, the software allows police to spend more time on the street instead of sitting in strategy sessions. Computers can handle more of the planning–which make this even more appealing to all the police departments losing officers to budget cuts.
Bad search results
But, as is often the case when computers call the shots, algorithmic crime-fighting makes some people nervous. Critics say it could easily lead to racial profiling or reinforcing stereotypes about certain neighborhoods, that once a computer identifies an area as a hot spot, it lowers the bar for what qualifies as suspicious behavior.
It’s only a matter of time, argues Andrew Ferguson, a Washington D.C. law professor, before a search based on predictive policing gets challenged in court. Here’s his take, from a recent interview with the Charleston (S.C.) City Paper:
“I think what you would say is the worst case — and I don’t even think this is that far-fetched — is that there will be a case where someone gets stopped on a street corner for suspicion of burglary. It’ll go before a court, and they’ll say, ‘OK, officer, what was your reasonable suspicion for stopping this person?’
“And he’ll say, ‘The computer told me,’ essentially, right? ‘The computer said look out for burglaries, I saw this guy in the location, so I stopped him because he looked like a burglar.’ And race, class, all of those things obviously are a part of it. And the judge will then just defer.
“How are you going to cross-examine the computer?”
21st century crime busting
Here are more examples of how technology is changing law enforcement:
- The eyes have it: As part of a project to expand on its old fingerprint database, the FBI is adding server space to store iris scans. More jails now are using high-res cameras to create images of prisoners’ irises when they’re booked.
- Smartphone justice: Britain’s Scotland Yard has created a smartphone app called Facewatch that encourages Londoners to help find criminals. Users enter their postal code and they’re shown pictures of suspects who may be in their areas. If they recognize somebody, they can tap on the image and send in that person’s name.
- Face to face: Engineers at Michigan State University have created algorithms that could make it easier to track down criminals by matching sketches made by police artists with images in a database of mug shots. That can make sketches, often based on unreliable traumamtic memories, more effective in solving crimes.
- Let’s go toss some robots: Police and firefighters have started using the Recon Scout Throwbot, an eight-inch long robot that can be thrown like a football, but lands upright and transmits video through its camera.
- The devil made me not do it: Researchers in Oregon say their analysis of more than 25 years of data suggests that crime rates tend to be lower in societies where many people believe in Hell and God’s punitive nature than in those where most people put their faith in a forgiving God.
Video bonus: For old times sake, spend a little time with Peter Falk as Columbo, the ultimate low-tech detective.
More from Smithsonian.com
June 11, 2012
These are tough times for storytelling.
While they’ve proven that brevity is not always the soul of wit, Twitter and Facebook have transformed what it means to communicate. We now write in quick bursts, sometimes completing thoughts, often not, with the goal always of cutting to the chase. No need for nuance or complexity. No reason for meandering twists to add flavor and depth or slow builds that unfold a story rather than eject it.
What hope in this world is there for the great long narrative, such as Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” or even more so, John Hersey’s 31,000-word epic, “Hiroshima,” which sold out the August 31, 1946 New Yorker within hours after the issue hit the street?
Actually, there’s a glimmer of hope, maybe even a glow.
Two relatively new companies actually are trying to make a business of saving long-form non-fiction, a quest that might seem to make as much sense as attempting to apply the rules of grammar to texting. Yet both are convinced that a lot of people still like to settle in for a long read of real-life stories.
Have I got a story for you
One, called Byliner, is taking a more traditional approach, albeit with a touch of social networking and personalized recommendations thrown in. The other, The Atavist, is experimenting with multimedia enhancements, adding video, music and other extras, without, hopefully, distracting the reader from the tale being told.
Byliner launched in San Francisco less than two years ago with a goal of collecting in one place, the best literary non-fiction and narrative journalism out there. It links out to articles on other magazine sites, but also publishes what it calls Byliner Originals–pieces such as author William Vollman’s “Into the Forbidden Zone,” a 20,000-word narrative about life after last year’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan and Jon Krakauer’s “Three Cups of Deceit,” which focuses on the myths and deceptions at the heart of Three Cups of Tea, the best-seller by Greg Mortenson. If a story takes off–they sell for $2.99 for download on iPads, Kindles and Nooks–a writer can earn considerably more than he or she could make selling the piece to a magazine.
Because their stories are online, writers can be much more current than in a book, and they can add updates, something rarely done in magazines. Byliner also provides recommendations to visitors based on other stories they’re read and liked–it’s been dubbed “the Pandora of non-fiction writing.” A few months ago, for “making literary nonfiction and journalism hip,” Byliner made it into the Top Ten of Fast Company’s list of most innovative media companies.
Mixing in maps and timelines
But it’s The Atavist, based in Brooklyn, that’s working closer to the cutting edge. It too champions longer nonfiction, but its iPad and iPhone app also invites readers to veer outside the text if it feels the story can be clarified or strengthened by adding video–a story, for instance, titled “Lifted” about a bank heist gone bad in Sweden, starts with security video of the robbers in action–or music or sound effects. Timelines, maps, and background info on the characters are also available, although they’re flagged through subtle gray arrows, the goal being to allow the narrative to flow, with minimal disruptions.
The Atavist publishes one major piece a month and each includes a feature through which you can easily toggle between the text and an audio version read by the author. A story for an iPad costs $2.99 and comes with the bells and whistles. Versions for Kindle and Nook, which are only text, cost $1.99.
But the real revenue engine at The Atavist is a custom-designed content management system that makes it fairly simple to not just create and publish multimedia stories, but also automatically adapts their format to the platforms on which they’re appearing. So the content for an iPhone will be optimized for a smart phone. The same goes for an iPad. And for a Kindle.
That’s potentially a game-changer in the storytelling business and it’s no surprise that the bulk of the Atavist’s revenue comes from licensing its software to other publishers. Later this summer it plans to release a free version to the public that will enable people to start self-publishing their own multimedia books.
And that shiny tool is what makes The Atavist much more than another digital publisher. It undoubtedly was a a big reason the company was able to raise $1.5 million in seed money a few weeks ago. And if you still have doubts about the potential of this venture, consider some of its new investors: Eric Schmidt (Google’s executive chairman), Marc Andreesen (one of Netscape’s founders) and a group called the Founders Fund, which is led by the likes of Peter Thiel (a founder of PayPal) and Sean Parker (co-founder of Napster and the first president of Facebook).
Not bad company to be in. Not bad at all.
Here are other recent takes on how and why we tell stories:
- Your life is a lie, actually many lies: A recent book by Jonathan Gotschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, elaborates on the reasons we tell stories, not the least of which is to bring meaning and order to the chaos of life. Also, as Maura Kelly pointed out in a recent review in The Atlantic, we tend to lie a lot to ourselves as we fine-tune the narratives of our lives.
- Here’s my brain’s story and it’s sticking to it: Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga talks about how research has found that a part of the left brain always wants to explain actions we’ve taken after they’ve occurred, the purpose of which is to turn behavior into a story that makes everything feel coherent.
- A wag of tales: In a fast-paced TED talk, storyteller Joe Sabia uses an iPad to trace the history of storytelling from the first interactive element–the pop-up book–to the re-versioning of Shakespeare on Facebook.
Video bonus: Here’s a little tutorial on how The Atavist tries to wrap extras through the thread of a narrative.
May 14, 2012
Today Mark Zuckerberg turns 28. Friday, he turns billionaire.
That’s when his creation, Facebook, is scheduled to go public, a move that, by some estimates, will make Zuckerberg worth about $19 billion. Not a bad week, eh?
But with all that fortune comes some pain. Soon every move he makes will be subject to Wall Street’s unsparing scrutiny, every misstep analyzed as more proof that he’s still closer to his Harvard dorm room than a CEO suite. He sought to reassure the skeptics and rouse the boosters at a pre-IPO roadshow last week, starting on Wall Street and ending in Silicon Valley.
Zuckerberg told potential investors that the company’s top priorities will be to improve the Facebook mobile experience–its members now average seven hours a month checking updates on their smart phones–and to develop a model for mobile advertising so each of us sees only the type of ads for which we’ve expressed a preference.
But Zuckerberg also mentioned another big Facebook frontier, one that could be just as big a part of our daily lives. It’s what’s become known as social TV–basically using social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, to connect people viewing TV shows, even though they’re watching on different screens in different zip codes, sometimes on different continents.
People have been talking up social TV for a few years now, but no question that it’s moving mainstream. Next week the first social TV “world summit” will convene in London and last week, at a social TV conference sponsored by Ad Age, network execs, such as Bravo EVP Lisa Hsia, suggested that all the the social chatter before, during and after programs is being seen as actual content and not just promotion. On Bravo, for instance, a new series, “Around the World in 80 Plates” was kicked off with a contest on Twitter and this summer a Facebook game tied to “Real Housewives of New York” will roll out, with top online players getting shout-outs on air.
But Facebook’s immersion in our TV-watching could go well beyond games and fan pages. At that same Ad Age conference, Kay Madati, who heads the social network’s entertainment division, raised the possibility of Facebook-enabled TVs being able to automatically record programs that a certain percentage of your friends had “liked.”
That’s what friends are for, right?
The power of the second screen
Some go so far as to suggest that Facebook could actually save TV. One is Nick Thomas, an analyst for London-based Informa Telecoms and Media. He acknowledges that, at the moment, Facebook seems more threat than boon because research shows more and more people are actually focusing on their small screens–laptops, tablets, smart phones–while occasionally looking up at the big screen.
But he argues that savvy TV programmers will tap into Facebook and Twitter chatter to boost a show’s fan community or turn live TV into a special event shared by millions–some with something actually witty, poignant or insightful to say. More often than not, the best part of award shows now are the tweets about what’s happening on stage. (There were an estimated 13 million social media comments made during this year’s Grammy Awards.) And nothing cranks up the drama of a sporting event like a torrent of tweets.
Case in point: Last week, after Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton hit three home runs in a ball game, word spread quickly on social networks, according to Bob Bowman, an exec for Major League Baseball. By the time Hamilton smacked a fourth homer, the audience for the game had swelled.
“As the player hits that third home run, fans are all over the place chatting about it,” said Bowman. “I think it’s complementary. As soon as something is happening, fans want to get to as many people as possible.”
But social TV isn’t just about the big boys. Here’s a sampling of some of the startups hoping to cash in on the obession with the second screen:
- Who says they couldn’t pay me to watch TV?: Oh, yes they can. Viggle is a free app that rewards you for watching TV shows. You simply “check in” by holding your iPhone to the TV screen and that earns you points depending on how long you watch. Once you earn enough–and it will take awhile–you can redeem them for products at Best Buy, Amazon, Starbucks, etc. Plus, the app keeps you entertained while you watch, providing you with games, quizzes, real-time polls, even video clips tied to the show. Active Viggle members–there are now 625,000–now check in about five times a day, with each session lasting an average of an hour and a half.
- Talk amongst yourselves: For those who want to bond with people who like the same TV programs, there’s GetGlue. It’s a social network designed to connect people around entertainment, but most of its action has been about TV shows. Once they check in, fans can let their friends know what they’re watching. They also can post comments, ask questions of other devotees, rate snarky retorts. Plus, members can collect stickers of their favorite stars. (I’ll trade you a Don Draper for a “Game of Thrones.”) So far, 2 million people have signed up.
- But wait, there’s more: When it started out, Miso was another iPhone app that let you check in to flag your friends about what you’re watching. But it has ratcheted things up with a feature called SideShows. These are slideshows of additional content–some of it created by fans–to run in sync with the show on the big screen.
- Making trends meet: BuddyTV combines a viewing guide on your smart phone with chat and fan discussions and also being able to announce what shows you are watching on Facebook and Twitter. But it also suggests shows that are airing now, coming up, trending, or on your favorites list.
- Name that tune: Shazam first became popular as a smart phone app that could identify songs for you. It made a big splash with its second-screen content during the Super Bowl and the Grammys and now SyFy, Bravo and USA are “Shazaming” shows and ads to keeps viewers engaged with a show from episode to episode.
Video bonus: Still not clear on social TV? GetGlue’s COO Fraser Kelton gives you the lowdown on the latest trends.
May 7, 2012
We all know there’s a whole lot more information in our worlds than there used to be. As to how much more, well, most of of us are pretty clueless.
Here’s a priceless nugget about all that info, compliments of Dave Turek, the guy in charge of supercomputer development at IBM: From the year 2003 and working backwards to the beginning of human history, we generated, according to IBM’s calculations, five exabytes–that’s five billion gigabytes–of information. By last year, we were cranking out that much data every two days. By next year, predicts Turek, we’ll be doing it every 10 minutes.
But how is this possible? How did data become such digital kudzu? Put simply, every time your cell phone sends out its GPS location, every time you buy something online, every time you click the Like button on Facebook, you’re putting another digital message in a bottle. And now the oceans are pretty much covered with them.
And that’s only part of the story. Text messages, customer records, ATM transactions, security camera images…the list goes on and on. The buzzword to describe this is “Big Data,” though that hardly does justice to the scale of the monster we’ve created.
It’s the latest example of technology outracing our capacity to use it. In this case, we haven’t begun to catch up with our ability to capture information, which is why a favorite trope of management pundits these days is that the future belongs to companies and governments that can make sense of all the data they’re collecting, preferably in real time.
Businesses that can interpret every digital breadcrumb their customers leave behind will have an edge, the thinking goes–not just who bought what where in the past hour–but whether they tweeted about it or posted a photo somewhere in the swirl of social networks. The same goes for the cities that can gather data from the thousands of sensors that now dot urban landscapes and turn the vagaries of city life, such as traffic flow, into a science.
Not suprisingly, political campaigns already are taking the plunge, furiously mining data as part of their focus on “nanotargeting” voters so that they know precisely how to pitch them for their votes and money. Among the conclusions analysts have drawn, according to New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall, is that Republicans show a preference for “The Office” and Cracker Barrel restaurants while Democrats are more likely to watch “Late Night With David Letterman” and eat at Chuck E. Cheese.
This rush to interpret digital flotsam explains why Google last week announced that it will start selling a product it calls BigQuery, software that can scan terabytes of information in seconds. And why a startup named Splunk, which has technology that can analyze huge amounts of customer and transaction data, saw the value of its shares soar almost 90 percent the day it went public last month. This, for a company that lost $11 million last year.
Rise of the data scientist
But even access to the best data deciphering tools is no guarantee of great wisdom. Very few companies have people on staff with the training not only to evaluate mountains of data–including loads of unstructured tidbits from millions of Facebook pages and smart phones–but also to actually do something with it.
Last year the McKinsey Global Insitute issued a report describing “Big Data” as the “next frontier for innovation,” but also predicting that by 2018, companies in the U.S. will have a serious shortage of talent when it comes to the necesssary analytical skills–as many 190,000 people. And it contends another 1.5 million managers will need to be trained to make strategic decisions with the torrent of data coming their way.
Not everyone, though, is a believer in the magic of Big Data. Peter Fader, a professor of marketing at Penn’s Wharton School of Business, isn’t convinced that more data is better. Not that he thinks a company shouldn’t try to learn as much as it can about its customers. It’s just that now there’s so much focus on aggregating every bit of data that he thinks volume is valued over true analysis.
Here’s Fader’s take from a recent interview with MIT’s Technology Review: “Even with infinite knowledge of past behavior, we often won’t have enough information to make meaningful predictions about the future. In fact, the more data we have, the more false confidence we will have…The important part is to understand what our limits are and to use the best possible science to fill in the gaps. All the data in the world will never achieve that goal for us.”
Who’s your data?
Here’s a sampling of how Big Data is being used to solve big problems:
- They know when they’ve been bad or good: While most companies are focusing on analyzing their customers, Amazon is scoring points by using Big Data to help theirs.
- The study of studs: You want to know which bulls spawn the most productive milk cows? The dairy industry has devised a way to crunch the numbers.
- Diagnosis by data: Researchers at SUNY Buffalo are analyzing massive sets of data in their effort to determine if there’s a link between multiple sclerosis and environmental factors, such as not enough exposure to sunlight.
- Looking for trouble: A company called Recorded Future is mining info from social networks and government and financial sites to make forecasts about how population growth, water shortages and extreme weather could lead to future political unrest and terrorism.
Video bonus: Capturing data is one thing. Making it look appealing and understandable is a whole other challenge. David McCandless waxes on the power of “information maps” in this TED talk.