The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Queued up for the flight

I'm about to head to SFO after this very-quick trip to California. My sleeping Surface will have these articles waiting for me to read:

And finally, check out this recruiting video from the New Zealand police (via Deeply Trivial):

Friday afternoon reading list

The following appeared in my inbox while I was in the air. I'll read them later:

I'll probably read them after my body wakes me up at 6am local time tomorrow. The westbound time change is so much easier than eastbound, but it's still hard to sleep in.

Middle-seat windows?

Emirates, despite what I may think about its ownership and massive state subsidies, has some of the coolest equipment in commercial aviation. Their latest innovation is to provide virtual windows for their interior first-class suites:

See, Emirates laid out its new First Class suites in a 1-1-1 configuration on the 777. The suites on the sides are treated to several windows, but what could Emirates do about the suites in the middle? Some people love aisle seats and others love windows. (And there are probably a strange few who even prefer neither for some unknown reason.) But people generally prefer to have an aisle AND window when possible. And if you’re in First Class, that seems like quite a reasonable request. There obviously can’t be windows in the middle of the aircraft, so Emirates did something awesome. It installed virtual windows. You can see them in action in this video:

I mean, that's just cool. And it has some really interesting implications:

This kind of technology can also allow designers to really get creative on new aircraft. Think about the B-2 stealth bomber. That kind of triangular “flying wing” design” could lend itself to commercial aviation some day, but windows would be a real challenge. Now imagine that could be built with virtual windows throughout the cabin, giving people a constant ability to look out without requiring any structural work.

Heck, you could make the whole airplane a virtual window if you want. That would result in something similar to Airbus’s 2050 concept airplane (though that plan apparently would, in theory, use transparent cell membranes or something crazy like that).

Yes, this may seem like it’s just a fake window, but it’s so much more. I’m excited about what it might mean for future aircraft development. Oh… and yeah, those new Emirates suites look pretty darn nice too.

I don't think I'll ever actually fly in an Emirates first-class suite, but I agree with Cranky Flier: there's a lot to be excited about in there.

Stuff to review

I've been in frenetic housecleaning mode today, since it's the first work-from-home Wednesday I've had in...let me see...10 weeks. And apparently I last had my housekeeping service here 16 weeks ago. (It wasn't that bad; I do clean up occasionally.)

The activity and actually having to do my job has led me to miss a couple of news stories, which I will now queue up to read:

  • Former President Obama spoke at the Economic Club of Chicago last night, and said, at one point, "American democracy is fragile, and unless care is taken it could follow the path of Nazi Germany in the 1930s."
  • Citylab outlines how the tax bill now working its way through reconciliation between the House and Senate will be really, really bad for cities. As if we didn't know. As if that wasn't a feature, rather than a bug.
  • And it doesn't take a Nobel-winning economist to understand the chutzpah behind the Republican Party's bait-and-switch on taxes and deficits. "Now, to be fair, there are some people in America who get lots of money they didn’t lift a finger to earn — namely, inheritors of large estates." How true.
  • In more neutral news, the Atlantic has the the year in photos (part 1), with more on the way later this week. I especially like the Turkish seagull (#22).
  • Finally The Daily WTF has an example of life imitating satire, and it's sad and funny all at the same time.

I'm now going to throw out all the empty boxes in my office closet, though it pains me to do so. After all, someday I might need to return this pair of wired headphones from 1998...

How will we react to aliens?

According to a new study, it seems to depend on how big they are:

Michael Varnum, a psychologist at Arizona State University and a member of its new Interplanetary Initiative, is trying to anticipate this response.

The scientists asked 500 people to describe their reactions to a hypothetical discovery of alien microorganisms. Respondents also had to predict how humanity at large would react. Like the journalists, people in the study used positive words. There were no characteristics that set responses apart, not a person's income, ethnicity, political orientation or traits such as neuroticism or agreeableness. But people felt that the rest of the country would be generally less agreeable.

That may be because “most Americans tend to think, on any desirable trait or ability, that they're better than the average person,” Varnum said.

So tiny aliens are OK, but larger ones are scary? Has no one read The Andromeda Strain?

Teenagers and Fitbits

A recent study found that activity trackers can actually de-motivate teenagers:

The problem with the monitors seemed to be that they had left the teenagers feeling pressure and with little control over their activities, as well as self-conscious about their physical abilities, said Charlotte Kerner, a lecturer in youth sport and physical education at Brunel University London, who led the study. The result was frustration, self-reproach — and less, not more, movement.

“You can’t just give a child a Fitbit for Christmas and expect them to be active,” Kerner said. “They will need educating on how best to negotiate the features.” Nudge them to set realistic step counts and other fitness goals, she says, and to consider whether they want to share their results with friends. For many young people, fitness may be better achieved in private.

I would be interested in why this happens, and how prevalent it is in adults. For some adults, like me, having an activity tracker is really motivating. I've arranged my life in part to make sure I get lots of steps, often more than 4,500 by the time I've gotten to work in the morning (or 9,000 if I walk the whole way).

Teenagers, though, really resent being told what to do. I wonder how this study could be altered to reduce that part of adolescent psychology.

Update: I just discovered that, when I hit 10,611 steps today, I'll have 15 million lifetime steps on Fitbit. Cool.

Uptown rats, downtown rats

A graduate student in New York has studied the genetic makeup of the city's rat populations, and discovered a divide between uptown and downtown:

As a whole, Manhattan’s rats are genetically most similar to those from Western Europe, especially Great Britain and France. They most likely came on ships in the mid-18th century, when New York was still a British colony. Combs was surprised to find Manhattan’s rats so homogenous in origin. New York has been the center of so much trade and immigration, yet the descendants of these Western European rats have held on.

When [Fordham University graduate student Matthew] Combs looked closer, distinct rat subpopulations emerged. Manhattan has two genetically distinguishable groups of rats: the uptown rats and the downtown rats, separated by the geographic barrier that is midtown. It’s not that midtown is rat-free—such a notion is inconceivable—but the commercial district lacks the household trash (aka food) and backyards (aka shelter) that rats like. Since rats tend to move only a few blocks in their lifetimes, the uptown rats and downtown rats don’t mix much.

I think rats are cool. I know they carry diseases and they have generally unpleasant habits in many cases, but they're symbiotic with us and they're all over every urban environment in the world. Also they make great pets—not New York feral brown rats, mind you, but your typical Norway lab rat is a pretty chill companion.

Making ride-shares pay for roads

CityLab has an interesting suggestion to manage the externalities of Uber and Lyft:

The policy journey of São Paulo, Brazil, a vast metropolitan region of 20 million people, has been telling. The city council initially banned all ride-hailing services via apps, spurred on by allies of the taxi industry. Other parties, recognizing the inevitable popularity of Uber as well as two more homegrown companies, 99 and Easy Taxi, pushed back. The compromise allows the companies to operate, but charges them for the use of streets per mile. A sliding scale was established—more if in the city center during peak hours with only one passenger; less for more passengers, cars in underserved areas, electric vehicles, women drivers, and accessible vehicles. A standing committee meets regularly on whether the charge needs to be modified. In the process, the city gets some raw data that can help with mobility policy.

The charges—for the privilege of using a public asset, the roadways, for commercial purposes—are estimated to bring in $50 million per year. Nearly a year after the policy was set, the experiment is going well, said Ciro Biderman, who recently left his position as chief innovation officer for São Paulo, where he led the design and rollout of the charges on transportation network companies.

Imagine, charging private companies a fee to use public assets.

The inconvenience of being a female veteran

You might not like the military or its mission, but I can tell you it's one of the more meritocratic organizations I've ever worked with. That's great if you're a woman—until you leave, as Sarah Maples explains:

The military doesn’t just urge women, it requires them—especially if they want to succeed—to view themselves on the same playing field as their male counterparts. They are also expected to behave and perform in traditionally masculine ways—demonstrating strength, displaying confidence in their abilities, expecting to be judged on their merits and performance, and taking on levels of authority and responsibility that few women get to experience. The uniform and grooming standards work to downplay their physical female characteristics. Additionally, the expectation—explicit or implicit—is that they also downplay other attributes that are traditionally considered feminine, such as open displays of emotion. That’s not to say that gender isn’t going to be noticed or that others aren’t going to make it an issue—they will. But highlighting female characteristics is undesirable. As General Lori J. Robinson, the U.S. military’s first female combatant commander, put it: “I’m a general, a commander, an airman. And I happen to be a woman.”

When many women leave the service, they expect that being a woman in the civilian community will be easier, but that isn’t always the case. They have to prove their abilities all over again, earn their place at the table again. As veterans, they’re not afraid to prove themselves. They proved themselves in boot camp. They proved themselves at tech training. They proved themselves every time they arrived at a new duty station. They have plenty of practice proving themselves. They can prove themselves one more time. The difference, this time, is that the individuals on the other end are not prepared for them to do so.

On active duty, women were my support network, a situation encouraged both by our small numbers—approximately 15 percent of the active duty force is women—and by the military’s emphasis on teamwork. My experiences with civilian women, however, have not always been as friendly. Other women veterans have also reported negative experiences with civilian women, ranging from lack of understanding and inability to relate to cold shoulders.

Complicating matters is that, while I and other women veterans make efforts to assimilate, we are often reluctant to completely lose the identity we developed in the military, particularly if it means assuming traditional gender roles. The idea that the male standard is the normal one has become so ingrained during service that women veterans don’t realize they’ve absorbed the spoken or unspoken message that adding “female” to something diminishes it.

It's an interesting read. I wonder how it applies to other societies? I'd be especially interested to learn about how Israeli and British female veterans are treated. (Very differently, I'd wager.)

Earth's rotation slowed and earthquakes are expected

Scientists have found a correlation (but, crucially, not a causation) between the earth's rotation slowing slightly and an increase in seismic activity:

Although such fluctuations in rotation are small – changing the length of the day by a millisecond – they could still be implicated in the release of vast amounts of underground energy, it is argued.

The link between Earth’s rotation and seismic activity was highlighted last month in a paper by Roger Bilham of the University of Colorado in Boulder and Rebecca Bendick of the University of Montana in Missoula presented at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America.

“The correlation between Earth’s rotation and earthquake activity is strong and suggests there is going to be an increase in numbers of intense earthquakes next year,” Bilham told the Observer last week.

Exactly why decreases in day length should be linked to earthquakes is unclear although scientists suspect that slight changes in the behaviour of Earth’s core could be causing both effects.

Energy has to go somewhere. And systems as large as the earth move a lot of energy around. Could get rumbly this year.