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The Future of Fitness Tech: The Pentagon Responds to Strava Snafu

The Future of Fitness Tech: The Pentagon Responds to Strava Snafu

fitness tech

As a military mother, I’m always tuned to news that might affect my two older sons. Recently, they’ve have found themselves working on the same base, and have started using that good old sibling rivalry to egg each other on during lunch hour workouts. They use all kinds of apps to keep track of their progress — so I’m going to have to warn them of the new development in the “Strava saga,” that spooked the American military back in the winter.
 
Strava is an app that can be loaded on a smartphone or a device like a Fitbit, that automatically tracks running and cycling routes, and also accepts user-input data. In November of last year, the company released a heat map of every single activity uploaded to the app over two years of operation. This was a pretty cool move: you could look up the most popular exercise routes all over the world for inspiration, for one.
 
However, canny users soon spotted “hot” routes in unexpected places like Afghanistan, Syria, and Djibouti. Military analysts quickly realized that Strava data had been uploaded to the map automatically by servicepersons’ fitness trackers. As they jogged their bright orange routes gave away sensitive information about the location of bases, their configuration, and how many people worked there. 
 
This week, the Pentagon has issued its response: active duty personnel are ordered to restrict their use of route-tracking exercise apps, at the discretion of their commanders. Exercise is critical to the armed forces; it’s important to note they aren’t banning the devices, just cracking down on anything that has geolocation capabilities.
 
“‘It goes back to making sure we’re not giving the enemy an unfair advantage and we’re not showcasing the exact location of our troops worldwide,’ Pentagon spokesman Col Rob Manning told reporters on Monday.

Areas, where they could be restricted, include military outposts being used against the so-called Islamic State in Syria. […]

‘The goal of this policy is to focus more on the features instead of the devices,’ Pentagon spokeswoman Maj Audricia Harris told the [BBC].

‘Next thing you know there might be contact [lenses] with the same capability, so we want to focus on the feature and not the actual medium.’”
 
Perhaps the Canadian forces will be next to ditch the telltale tech? If so, my sons are going to have to find some other — old-fashioned!— way to get inside each other’s heads at their work gym.

Automaker’s New Glasses Help Solve Old Problem of Motion Sickness

glasses

Ah, high summer in Ontario!: The time for ice cream, swimming, and road trips. But, if you’re among the 1/3 of the population who are highly susceptible to motion sickness, that last one might be a lot less fun than the others.

And, you’d know the various treatments by heart: fresh air, scopolamine, that acupressure point on your wrist. But now, French automaker Citroën has thrown its considerable design might behind a new remedy. The company has partnered with Boarding Glasses to create a luxe version of the latter’s currently pre-ordering product.

“Seetroën” glasses boast four hollow rings in place of lenses: two in front, and two at the temples. The rings are filed halfway with blue fluid. When worn, the fluid aligns with gravity, creating a horizon that registers in the wearer’s peripheral vision. Motion sickness is caused by a conflict in motion reported to the brain by the eyes and the inner ears. Having a horizon in view — either real, as through the windshield of a car, or artificial, as with these glasses on a tiny-windowed plane — allows the inputs to correlate.

They do look… a bit doofy. (See them in action in this video) So, it’s a good thing that

“ […] passengers don’t need to wear the Seetroën glasses for their entire trip. Once they put them on and stare at an unmoving object, like a smartphone or a book, it takes about 10 to 12 minutes for the brain to resolve its feeling of confusion and nausea. For roughly 95 percent of the population, that should be all that’s needed to eliminate motion sickness until the next time they climb into a vehicle.”

Or, if you’re anything like me, the sweet, sweet relief could override your concern that you’re coming off like a Batman villain in seat 21C!

Math Solves A Beatles Mystery

math and numbers

The history of work is full of great duos: Banting and Best, Reiner and Brooks, Fay and Poehler. But, as a music fan, my favourite team would have to be Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney!
 
Like any genius creative pair, John and Paul had evenly matched, but complementary, working styles. Their legal songwriting credit, Lennon/McCartney, was testament to how closely knit their identities were. But, one or the other often contributed more to individual songs. While a many of those are well documented (“Can’t Buy Me Love” is Paul all over; “Ticket to Ride” is totally John), actual authorship of others is disputed — sometimes by Lennon and McCartney themselves.
 
Enter science and math! Mathematicians (and Beatles fans) Mark Glickman of Harvard and Jason Brown of Dalhousie have developed a method of gleaning statistics from Lennon/McCartney songs of clear authorship and applying them to a particularly murky case. “In My Life”, off 1965’s Rubber Soul, was remembered by both Lennon and McCartney as chiefly their own song, with minimal contribution from the other. Both can’t be right.
 
So Glickman and Brown “decomposed” all original Beatles songs from 1962-1966 into 149 individual components that occur frequently. Using their math skills they then organized those components into five categories with a focus on how the melodies behave. Melody is a key marker in the Beatles’ case, as McCartney wrote with more variation than Lennon.
 
“‘Consider the Lennon song, “Help!”’ says Glickman. ‘It basically goes, “When I was younger, so much younger than today,” where the pitch doesn’t change very much. It stays at the same note repeatedly, and only changes in short steps. Whereas with Paul McCartney, you take a song like “Michelle,” and it goes, “Michelle, ma belle. Sont les mots qui vont très bien ensemble.” In terms of pitch, it’s all over the place.’”
 
Using the extraordinary amount of data they pulled, Glickman and Brown determined the probability of McCartney having written “In My Life” is 0.18 — meaning Lennon’ story checks out. So, a new working duo has solved a mystery about one of history’s greatest… A testament to the enduring power of the pair!

Mindfulness of… Futility?: Meditation and Workplace Motivation

mindfulness meditation

We at DFC are notorious fans of work-life balance. As a trend in both business and private life, mindfulness meditation caught our eye early on, and it remains a hot topic today.
 
In (very!) short, mindfulness meditation involves paying close attention to the present moment, without judgment. It helps increase a practitioner’s sense of their presence in the world, and may uncover what is true to them, and therefore actually important for their contentment.
 
This has great benefits for the private citizen, and we’ve seen that mindfulness can have a positive impact at work too — from decreasing stress to increasing self confidence, to boosting working memory. But a new study on the connection between workers’ mindfulness meditation practices and their motivation on the job shows that there might be too much of a good thing — at least from a “boss’s” perspective.
 
Behavioural scientists Dr. Kathleen D. Vohs and Dr. Andrew C Hafenbrack conducted five experiments on groups of workers, some of whom meditated and others, as controls, journaled or daydreamed. The researchers then instructed their subjects to complete several business tasks, like editing memos. They then quizzed each subject on how motivated they were to complete this busy-work and found that those who had meditated mindfully were on average less inclined to do it. From the New York Times:
 
“Those people didn’t feel as much like working on the assignments, nor did they want to spend as much time or effort to complete them. Meditation was correlated with reduced thoughts about the future and greater feelings of calm and serenity — states seemingly not conducive to wanting to tackle a work project.

Then we tracked everyone’s actual performance on the tasks. Here we found that on average, having meditated neither benefited nor detracted from a participant’s quality of work. This was bad news for proponents of meditation in the workplace: After all, previous studies have found that meditation increases mental focus, suggesting that those in our studies who performed the mindfulness exercise should have performed better on the tasks. Their lower levels of motivation, however, seemed to cancel out that benefit.”
 
While the researchers’ Times article gently warns bosses “you don’t want your employees to meditate,” BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow claims that what “bosses” want is not motivation, but blindness to personal potential. Doctorow sees a correlation between this pooh-poohing of meditation and the criminalization of “mind-expanding” substances back in the ’60’s, when “the boss class realized that people who could perceive greater truths would be unshackled from meaningless materialism and the need to work to attain status goods.”
 
There is a powerful connection between meditation and personal fulfilment. But there seems to be a darker flip side — where existential anxiety spurs willingness to do work meaningless to oneself in aid of someone else’s goal. The former is great for the quality of life: the latter great for business. I wonder, as capitalism begins to falter and all the old rules fly out the window, which will fail first?
 

Of Bicycles and Scarves: Knitting on a European Commute​

This week, I find myself in Hamburg, Germany, visiting my youngest son, who works here as a chef. It’s been a while since I’ve visited northern Europe, and I am struck afresh by the many small differences between Canadian daily life and life here. Delicious, strange berries! The coffee culture!
 
Also, people here are a lot more relaxed about city biking. It’s lovely to see collaboration and friendliness (well, a German level of friendliness) between cyclists and drivers, especially coming from a country where that relationship can get a bit… intense.
 
Dutch design student George Barratt-Jones has taken the eminently reasonable European pastime of peacefully riding a bike, and turned it into something even cooler — a gadget! Inspired by a cold day waiting for a train and Einhoven station, Barratt-Jones envisioned a stationary bike that powered a loom, which, with five minutes of exercise, would spit out a knitted scarf. So, he built it. From his project description:
 
“Imagine [it’s] the midst of winter. You are cold and [bored] waiting for your train at the station. This pedal powered machine gets you warm by moving, you are making something while you wait and in the end you are left with a free scarf! That you can decide to keep yourself or give to someone who needs it more… [It’s] all about spreading joy and making those boring moments more fun.”
 
Check out the video of the Cyclo Knitter in action here!
 
I love how this designer found a little niche of unused time and turned it into something productive for his fellow passengers. And I love how bicycles are involved! Now, if only we could bring this spirit of collaboration to Canadian biking — though, with our winters, I feel like we’d have to generate snowsuits, not scarves.

New Proof: The Peter Principle in Action​

We at DFC consider ourselves enormously lucky that we get to be our own bosses. This is for the usual reasons: We set our own goals  are thoroughly invested in every aspect of our company, and do our work while surrounded by natural beauty of the Frontenac Arch! But there’s a new reason why we’re glad no one’s in charge of us coming down the pipes…
 
Three professors have taken it upon themselves to attempt to prove the “Peter Principle;” a formulation first presented semi-facetiously by Dr. Laurence J. Peter in 1968, that states: “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” The researchers — Danielle Li (MIT), Kelly Shue (Yale), and Alan Benson (Uminn) — crunched the performance-related numbers from a staggering 53,035 sales reps at 214 different American companies over six years. They did so to see if subjects followed the Peter Principle trajectory: doing well in a position and being promoted as a result, until they hit the failure point of landing in a position they cannot meet the demands of, and can therefore not be promoted up from. Bingo: managerial incompetence.
 
During the experiment, 1,531 of the best sales reps were promoted to managers, where the numbers quickly showed they began performing poorly. The researchers found a trend of repeated promotions for excellent salespeople, without consideration that their skills — that they were excellent at — might not transfer to management. This led to periods of instability not just for the promoted person, who took a productivity hit while they learned their new job, but for the entire team under them. From Forbes:
 
“A company that relies too heavily on sales as a criterion for promotion pays twice for the mistake. Removing a high-performing sales associate from the line potentially upsets her client relationships and puts the revenue of those accounts in jeopardy. The team newly under her direction is at greater risk of under-performing as she struggles in a role that demands quite different abilities. […]

The starkness of the results took Dr Benson by surprise. “I expected that the best salespeople would become merely-good managers: some skills translate to management and others don’t,’ he said. ‘To see that the best salespeople were becoming the worst sales managers was surprising.’”
 
The conclusion standard companies can draw from this new proof of the Peter Principle is that promotions are not as easy as they might seem, and can cost a lot of productivity if candidates are not accurately assessed for their real skills, rather than a demonstrated level of amorphously defined “success.” The conclusion that non-standard companies (like DFC!) can draw? Maybe it’s better to be your own manager — because if your manager is incompetent, you have no one to blame but yoursel

Marshmallow Test Take 2: The Sociologic Hullabaloo

marshmallow bonanza

If you’ve ever investigated the culture of business or self improvement, you’ve likely heard tell of the marshmallow test: the study done at Stanford in the 1960s on young kids attending the university’s preschool program. Run by professor of psychology Walter Mischel, the test involved placing a marshmallow in front of a preschooler and telling them that, if they could successfully hold off eating that marshmallow for AN ETERNITY (fifteen minutes), they’d get a second marshmallow as a reward — then leaving them alone to rely on their own willpower. Mischel and team then tracked the kids into later life, and found that the ability to delay gratification led to greater incidences of “good” personality traits, like confidence — as well as, critically, higher SAT scores.
 
A new study out of NYU is now calling this classic test into question. This new team has tried the test again with an expanded subject pool, both in terms of numbers (900 versus the original 90), and of factors like race/ethnicity, parents’ education level, and household income. With a more representative sample, they have discovered that self-control is less an individual choice and more a result of social and economic background — and that in turn is the stronger predictor of later success.
 
“[A]mong kids whose mothers did not have college degrees, those who waited did no better than those who gave in to temptation, once other factors like household income and the child’s home environment at age 3 […] were taken into account. For those kids, self-control alone couldn’t overcome economic and social disadvantages.

The failed replication of the marshmallow test does more than just debunk the earlier notion; it suggests other possible explanations for why poorer kids would be less motivated to wait for that second marshmallow. For them, daily life holds fewer guarantees: There might be food in the pantry today, but there might not be tomorrow, so there is a risk that comes with waiting. And even if their parents promise to buy more of a certain food, sometimes that promise gets broken out of financial necessity.”
 
In short, context is key! In science and, most importantly, in life. Sometimes, personal responsibility includes taking ownership of your context in addition to your actions, and recognizing when the latter might not help you out with the former. Now, as an adult, I’m off to snack on as many marshmallows as my heart desires!

Not That Kind of Green Coffee

green broccoli

I’m no Brassica-phobe: I love broccoli. Steamed, roasted, in a crunchy salad or creamy soup: its flexibility and high vitamin C content make it one of my favourite green veggies.

But I draw the line at a new way of consuming broccoli developed in Australia, land of the weird  — where it is dehydrated, pulverized, and sprinkled in espresso-based drinks.

Hort Innovation developed the powder to combat two unfortunate vegetable trends: the fact that the average Australian is not consuming their recommended 5 – 7 daily servings of vegetables, and that a staggering amount of produce is turfed before reaching stores because it is too “ugly” to sell. But Australians love their coffee — which has led to this unholy piggybacking of veggie upon java.

“The production process involves pre-treatment before drying and powdering the vegetable, to retain as much of the original colour, flavour and nutrients as possible.

The result may even be healthier than stir-fried florets — according to recent research, the best way to maximize the health benefits of broccoli is to chop it up as finely as possible to produce myrosinase activity (although the CSIRO hasn’t mentioned if myrosinase survives the drying process, so the jury is still out).

To make broccoli coffee, the powder is added to the cup after the espresso shot has been pulled. Steamed milk is added, and more broccoli powder is sprinkled on top.”

Apparently the broccoli powder does not seamlessly incorporate into the beverage: the taste is still a bit… cruciferous. But the creators are now investigating ways of bringing the powder to the home market — I imagine you’d have an easier time getting it down in a green smoothie or on top of a salad. (Though, if you’re already consuming smoothies and salads, Australia is probably not worried about you getting your seven daily servings…) I think we can agree that the concept — increasing veggie consumption while reducing food waste — is great. It’s just a matter of finding a more palatable execution!

The Golden Record and Alien Thought

record for alien consumption

And here I thought the biggest problem with NASA’s Voyager probes, launched for deep space exploration in 1977, was that they came with a handy map of how to get to Earth for whomever in the universe might be tempted to pop by and eat us. But a pair of scientists have taken a closer look at Voyager 1 and 2’s “Golden Records” — two duplicate plaques containing 115 images of life on our planet, natural and human-made sounds, as well as greetings in 55 languages. And what they hypothesize here is a failure to communicate.
 
Movies like Arrival epitomize recent trends in thinking about possible alien contact. There is no reason to expect humanoids with forehead ridges to show up; so who says that a civilization who might come across a Golden Record would have any reference point for what we’re trying to tell them?
 
Rebecca Orchard and Sheri Wells-Jensen of Ohio’s Bowling Green State University say that if aliens’ senses don’t include sight or hearing — let alone if they have a completely different way of organizing outside inputs — they will miss out on a good chunk of the shiny goodwill message from our humble planet.
 
“Orchard and Wells-Jensen went through the material on the record and considered what an alien civilization with a different suite of senses might make of it. The barrage of greetings ‘pile up in a way that could be construed as arguing’, said Orchard, in a language that has ‘no grammatical congruity’. That is, if they can hear.

The 12-inch gold-plated copper disc has audio on one side and images on the other, and this could lead to further misunderstandings, the researchers believe. If an alien civilization tried to match sounds to their objects, life on Earth can look very strange. ‘What if you pair the image of an open daffodil with the roar of a chainsaw?’ said Orchard.”
 
The Golden Record does take on darker shades when we think of accidentally confusing entities we might never begin to understand.
 
Perhaps our only hope is for one of the Voyagers to evolve itself into a more powerful, bionic being that can amplify and translate our peaceful message! Until then, you can find me preparing to greet our alien visitors by marinating myself in barbecue sauce.

A New Hub for Gadgets Boosts Accessibility in Gaming

We at DFC love elegant solutions — especially when they open up new experiences to folks underserved by the status quo. This is why we join most of the gaming community in a giant “w00t!”  in response to the just-announced Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC).
 
Created to address the accessibility challenges of the standard controller that ships with Microsoft’s popular Xbox family of consoles, the XAC is a streamlined flat white oblong that boasts but a few key inputs. Besides the two menu buttons and the d-pad, two hand-sized black buttons — the “A” and “B” keys — take up most of the real estate on the face of the device. These buttons can be reprogrammed with the Xbox Controller app, but their ease and variety of ways with which a gamer with different mobility requirements can hit them (wrist! elbow! foot!) doesn’t change.
 
But the really cool functionality of this device is unveiled when turned on its side. Arrayed there are nineteen 3.5mm jacks, all ready for a prospective user to plug in as many pieces of equipment they need to make up their unique gaming setup. The XAC becomes a hub for joysticks of all kinds, foot pedals, cheek- or head-operated buttons, sip/puff switches, and more! From Ars Technica’s incredibly comprehensive report on the XAC’s debut:
 
I watched MikeTheQuad, a member of the Warfighter Engaged community of disabled veteran gamers, test the XAC out. As a tetraplegic, Mike has some range of arm and hand motion, but his individual fingers are not up to the burden of holding a controller and pressing all its buttons. […]

Mike used a standard Xbox gamepad alongside the XAC, plus a few large buttons plugged into the unit to rest near his wrists for easier access. That positioning flexibility is no small perk. XAC’s combo of wireless protocols, 20-hour battery, and mounting brackets means someone like Mike can pretty much put the hub wherever is most convenient.

Mike also quite frequently flicked his wrist at the XAC’s two big ‘dumb’ buttons to access controls like crouching or weapon swaps. As I watched Mike flick at the XAC with the same speed I might move my thumb from the ‘A’ button to the ‘Y’ button, I thought for the first time in my life about what a privilege it is to quickly tap around all of a gamepad’s buttons.”
 
While the XAC team does consider themselves a bit late to the overall accessible gaming scene, they are happy that their new device brings unprecedented flexibility to the table for an equally accessible price ($99.99 USD; other controllers on the market can go for $300 change). And, they profess to the belief that anyone else — Nintendo, Sony — should be able to look to the XAC for inspiration for their own platforms. The object is to get as many gamers as possible having as much fun as possible, without barriers. And who doesn’t love fun? — At least as much as elegant solutions!