A New Tractor Beam at the Speed of Sound

A New Tractor Beam at the Speed of Sound

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned in this space before, I’m quite fond of pointing out all the ways we are now living in the future Star Trek predicted. From our handheld communicators (cellphones), to PADDs (tablets), to heck, warp drive, we’re reaping the real-world results Gene Roddenberry’s imagination sowed.

And now, we may actually be developing a practical tractor beam! A team out of Spain’s Public University of Navarre and the University of Bristol has published the results of their experiment, in which they arranged tiny transducers to emit inaudible sound waves in several different patterns, called “traps.” The most effective traps created sound waves that actually lifted Styrofoam beads off the experimental surface.

The experiment is a game-changer in that

“‘[a]ll previous levitators had to surround the particle with acoustic elements, which was cumbersome for some kind of manipulations,’ says study leader Asier Marzo. […]‘Our technique, however, only requires sound waves from one side. It’s like a laser—you can levitate particles, but with a single beam.’[…]

‘Basically we copied the principle of light holograms to create these acoustic holograms,’ says Marzo.”

With this easier-to-manipulate (and, let’s face it, a smaller and therefore less expensive) set up, we could soon see the tractor beam applied to laboratory contexts, or even medicine and space travel. But for the latter, we definitely need to get on that warp drive first.

Work & effort are not the same, it’s all about balance

A few weeks ago I eluded to a new section on our website introducing a new initiative. And then a couple weeks ago we launched our new website with the new Lifestyle Workplace or TLW for short. It seems that we are (as usual) ahead of the curve and have just defined a product that more & more are writing about. For instance:

Outwitting the “Effort Trap” in your work

I found Oliver Burkeman’s article “No One Cares How Hard You Work” via the excellent finance blog The Billfold but its ideas resonate way beyond the money aspect of work. I think the attitude of Burkeman’s article is very much in the air, as many of us right now are searching for that elusive work-life balance.

Burkeman presents an interesting premise: Socialization has led us to believe that tired feeling as you sink gratefully into that bus seat at the end of a long day at the office signals a job well done. But it may simply signal energy lost — most likely frittered away — on busywork.

“Call it the ‘Effort Trap:’ it’s dangerously easy to feel as though a 10-hour day spent plowing through your inbox, or catching up on calls, was much more worthwhile than two hours spent in deep concentration on hard thinking, followed by a leisurely afternoon off. Yet any writer, designer or web developer will tell you it’s the two focused hours that pay most—both in terms of money and fulfillment. […]

Indeed, meaningful work doesn’t always lead to exhaustion at all: a few hours of absorption in it can be actively energizing—so if you’re judging your output by your tiredness, you’re sure to be misled.”

We are hardwired to find this sense of false accomplishment rewarding, and we reward others in our lives for it. (Burkeman cites Dan Ariely’s tale of a locksmith who as he got better — and therefore more efficient — at his job, started getting smaller tips, because his clients associated his speedier calls with doing less “work.”

It will take a lot of (wait for it) work to stop thinking about work in terms of effort expended. Experts like Burkeman and Ariely believe that, if we can, the sense of reward we will reap will be even greater.

The Uphill Battle of Women in the Sciences

Woman technologist

I recently communicated with one of my connections within LinkedIn, “catching up” and commiserating with her on the direction in which our preferred software platform (Lotus Notes, or whatever they call it, that we both program in) is going in the ever changing marketplace. What’s really interesting is how we originally “met” on LinkedIn – we are both nerd girls that like to program and we agreed to “stick together”!

As a former chemist, I’m always interested in hearing about other women in science and technology. Still to this day, I am in the minority, if not the only woman, in the room of a technical session. If the feminist movement of the 20th century has taught us anything, it’s that “the personal is political”; I often find that the best illumination of field-wide trends to be women’s ground level experiences.

Eileen Pollack’s (via The New York Times) is particularly illustrative, especially of the fact that bias against women in tech-y fields has not abated since her own school days in the early ‘70’s. (link)

The one-time student of physics at Yale, and now novelist and professor of creative writing, tells the story of the dearth of women in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) from her perspective. She felt unprepared for physics at Yale from the get-go, having had to rely on her own auto-didactic efforts when her high school teachers refused to let her into higher science classes, because “girls never go on in science and math.” Through her own efforts she graduated summa cum laude, but was not encouraged to pursue graduate studies, and was so demoralized by her experience that she never returned to the field.

Though there are more support systems for young women studying sciences today, Pollack still uncovers a “slow drumbeat of being under-appreciated, feeling uncomfortable and encountering roadblocks along the path to success” that chases many scholars away. (The quote is from Meg Urry, astrophysicist and current chair of the Yale physics department.) Pollack continues:

I was dismayed to find that the cultural and psychological factors that I experienced in the ’70’s not only persist but also seem all the more pernicious in a society in which women are told that nothing is preventing them from succeeding in any field. If anything, the pressures to be conventionally feminine seem even more intense now than when I was young.

I can think of many instances in my life where I had to fight others’ assumptions about my chemistry and technical talent, because of my gender, but I’d hoped things had changed for the new generation. Here’s hoping the field soon learns to appreciate women in science — the more minds at work, the better for all of us!

Hands-Free Driving May Not Be So Distraction-Free

In an effort to curb accidents due to distracted driving, many jurisdictions — DFC’s home province of Ontario included — have created laws penalizing the use of hand-held devices while on the road. This has led to a plethora of “smart” vehicle interfaces, like Uconnect and MyLink, and smartphone link-ups like Siri and Google Now, that help you do all the things you need to (program your GPS, update your Facebook, text your dining companions that you’re going to be late) by voice command. This development is based on the assumption that hands-free means less distracted, and therefore safer.

The assumption may need reexamining in light of the latest two studies (in a series of six) out of the University of Utah, funded by AAA: in-car voice command systems are proving distracting in their own way, sometimes causing a driver’s attention to take up to 27 (!) seconds to come back to the road. This is due to the fact that most of the interfaces aren’t sophisticated enough for their intended uses, and have trouble processing verbal commands. This forces drivers into longer, clunkier, and more frustrating interactions with them.

The studies investigated the relationships between drivers and vehicle interfaces, assigning points based on the complexity of the task,

“[… a] lower number for using voice commands only to make calls or change music when driving — the same tasks done with the in-car systems — and a higher number that also included using smartphones to send texts by voice commands.

Google Now rated highly distracting (3.0, 3.3), as did Apple Siri (3.4, 3.7), while Microsoft Cortana rated highly to very highly distracting (3.8, 4.1).

[Senior author Professor David] Strayer says of both in-car information systems and smartphone personal assistants: ‘These systems are often very difficult to use, especially if you’re just trying to entertain yourself. … The vast majority of people we tested ended up being frustrated by the complexity and error-prone nature of the systems.’”

The studies also found that older drivers, whose attention spans are perhaps less used to the incursions of technology, are more distracted than younger drivers by their cars’ “infotainment” systems. The reactions of both age groups point to the need to reverse the trend of maximum connectivity to “fun” while driving. Eliminating texting, music selection, Facebook updating and other unnecessary actions will allow systems to become better at supporting the driving experience — and allowing drivers to pay attention to what’s in front of them.

The Trials of Telepresence

We at DFC chuckled along with most of the audience of Community’s “Laws of Robotics & Party Rights” episode, in which the inherent hilarity of telepresence robots is exploited by h aving a convicted felon attend Greendale Community College via “an iPad on a stick,” and ineffectually try to murder Jeff Winger.(Seriously, convict Willy’s facial expression as his gentle bumps fail to send Jeff flying down the stairs is worth the price of admission!)

But, now that the idea has had the chance to mellow, some actual early adopters are reporting back from the real-world, showing us what may be the new new way of going to work.

These fearless folks include Emily Dreyfuss, who has documented her remote working experience from her desk in Boston, into a telepresence robot at her employer Wired’s headquarters in San Francisco. Dreyfuss’ avatar, which she dubs “EmBot,” is a Double, the model of telepresence robot sold by Apple and used in the above Community episode.

At first, things go well. Dreyfuss is struck by how in the office she feels: closer to brainstorming sessions, impulsive visits with her editor, and behind the scenes chats. But there are also benefits to the distance: in particular, since the attached iPad shows only her face, no one she works with is visibly presented with the fact she is very pregnant — a physical state she has seen change relationships between coworkers before.

But then, spotty Wi-Fi and a malfunctioning unit conspire against her. One day at work, EmBot begins shaking violently:

“ ‘What is happening?’ Davey cried from her desk.

‘EmBot is having a seizure!’ I screamed into the computer. ‘I don’t know what to do!’ […]

I turned her off on my end, but Davey reported that she was still seizing on her own, face blank. She was like the body of a chicken, walking bloody around the yard after the chef cuts its head off. I implored Davey to find a button to turn her off. She did. She docked her. She’s docked now.

My heart won’t stop beating. Maybe EmBot is corrupted and corroded and my time with her is over. Maybe EmBot is a monster. I feel like I just had a seizure.’”

Dreyfuss’ physical connection with EmBot, so positive when first created, is a source of anxiety when EmBot fails. Like all human connections with technology, hers has a bright side and a dark side; and I wonder, if we are to have a seamless telepresence experience in the workplaces of the future, who needs to evolve more — the human or the robot?

June 2016 update: The folks who make Double have informed me that their first iteration, has been discontinued and Double 2 has taken its place. Here is an updated link to Apple for the iteration, Double 2.

The Holiday-Health Connection

Even before our home and business’s move to bucolic rural eastern Ontario, we at DFC have long known the value of work-life balance. (In fact, we’re working on a new solution that supports just that: keep your eyes on this space in the coming weeks for more exciting details!

So it is with a heavy heart that we read an account in Quartz of the toll that workplaces take on their employees – mostly through lack of simple downtime.  The article is titled “This is what 365 days without a vacation does to your health,” and while there’s no precise stat on what damage an exact year without a holiday will do to you, there’s plenty to extrapolate from. For example, did you know that:

  • “Researchers from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and elsewhere found that people who worked more than 11 hours a day (compared to those who worked 7-8 hours a day) were more than twice as likely to have a major depressive episode”?


  • Allowing your mind to “wander” can actually increase access to your creativity – improving your ability to crack previously encountered problems? (From a study out of UC Santa Barbara.)


  • “People who take vacations may boost the mental health of those around them?” (This Swedish study assumed antidepressant sales as a marker for depression levels, and found a “practically significant” correlation between more vacations taken and fewer antidepressants prescribed.)

Startlingly, many of these statistics are from European studies – a continent that gives the general impression of having solved the work-life balance puzzle. In Canada, the most recent large-scale analysis shows us working more than 45 hours a week, with only 23% of us reporting that we are “highly satisfied with life.” Oof.

While these differences can perhaps be chalked up to cultural expectation, it also goes to show that none of us can afford to get complacent – not about work, and definitely not about our quality of life.