A world without GPS


Technology creeps up on us until it runs everything. From the New Yorker:

The radio signal that is the lifeblood of the Global Positioning System originates from a constellation of twenty-four satellites, orbiting more than twelve thousand miles above Earth. When it reaches the ground, after about sixty-seven milliseconds, it is so weak as to be almost imperceptible. (G.P.S. experts often compare processing the signal to trying to read by the light of a single bulb in a city thousands of miles away.) The signal tells the receiver the precise moment at which it left the satellite. Given four of these cues, processed simultaneously, the receiver can extrapolate its position in three dimensions. A timing error of as little as a millisecond can throw its calculation off by nearly two hundred miles. […]

That’s a lot of responsibility for such a weak signal. The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently determined that, within thirty seconds of a catastrophic G.P.S. shutdown, a position reading would have a margin of error the size of Washington, D.C. After an hour, it would be Montana-sized. Drivers might miss their freeway exits, but planes would also be grounded, ships would drift off course, commuter-rail systems would be tied up, and millions of freight-train cars with G.P.S. beacons would disappear from the map.

Read the rest.

A world without GPS

Remembering Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks

There have been many wonderful and moving obituaries of the great Oliver Sacks, but I think the most touching tribute is a recent episode of Radiolab, where Dr. Sacks was a regular guest:

When Radiolab was just starting out, Robert asked Dr. Oliver Sacks if he could help us, maybe send us a few story ideas. Over the years he has shared with us stories of chemistry, music, neurology, hallucinations and more, so much more. Because Oliver notices the world and the people around him with scientific rigor, with insight, and most importantly, with deep empathy. ‪When he announced a few months ago that he had terminal cancer and wasn’t going to do any more interviews, we asked him if he’d talk with us one last time. He said yes‬. So Robert went, as he has done for 30 some years now, to his apartment with a microphone, this time to ask him about the forces that have driven him in his work, in his unique relationships with his patients, and in his own life.

Listen to that episode here. 

And don’t stop there, because there’s an archive of Radiolab episodes featuring Dr. Sacks. I highly recommend Oliver Sacks’ Table of Elements, CliveUnlocking The Secrets of Time, About Face, and Happy Birthday, Good Dr. Sacks.

See also Dr. Sacks’ many superb articles for the New Yorker, and of course his recent autobiography.

Remembering Oliver Sacks

Revisiting the idea

Says Kottke, Drew Dernavich sent the above cartoon to the New Yorker in 2007:

I submitted this cartoon to the New Yorker in 2007 and it was rejected. It was an almost-but-not-quite kind of idea, but worth revisiting.

And then…

I finally got around to revisiting the idea a while ago, and came up with a much simpler and better setup, which appears in this week‘s New Yorker.

I was fascinated to learn the process that occurred in those six intervening years:

So it took six years to come up with a better cartoon for this one simple idea. The process wasn’t so simple, but as I retrace my steps in those six years, I can definitely see the formula for success. My approach was to say “whatever,” move on to the next thing, forget completely that I had ever done this cartoon in the first place, go to sleep, get up the next day and drink coffee, eat and drink as I usually do, work at some stuff, work at some other stuff, get up earlier some days and later some days, do social things every once in a while, try to eat healthy, go on vacation, waste time on the internet, try to lead a normal life, try not to lead a boring life, go to the doctor, return my DVD copy of the Wire Season 3 Episodes 1-2 because it was scratchy, decide to sign up for honors points at hotels in case I ever need to use them but then forget what my password is, have my appendix explode, have a bunch of relationship problems, drink a bunch of Shiner Bock one summer for some reason, go to a baseball game at Wrigley Field for the first time, buy long-sleeved shirts in the springtime when they’re cheaper because stores are trying to clear them out, do a Vine video, Google “Murray Head” because I didn’t know he was the guy who sang “One Night in Bangkok” because who needs to know that information, get rid of a bunch of books I don’t need anymore, upgrade my phone, and then wake up one day and then think “hey – I have a funny idea about warning shots that’s better than the one I had several years ago.”

This process was all pretty intentional, and it worked so well that I’m going to use it for every cartoon I do that gets rejected. But I don’t want to be protective of it. I’m happy to share this process with you for you to use in your work as you see fit.

Revisiting the idea

The problem with brainstorming

From the New Yorker, a history and critique of brainstorming, as popularised by BBDO ad man Alex Osborn in the late 1940s:

The underlying assumption of brainstorming is that if people are scared of saying the wrong thing, they’ll end up saying nothing at all. The appeal of this idea is obvious: it’s always nice to be saturated in positive feedback. Typically, participants leave a brainstorming session proud of their contribution. The whiteboard has been filled with free associations. Brainstorming seems like an ideal technique, a feel-good way to boost productivity. But there is a problem with brainstorming. It doesn’t work.

The first empirical test of Osborn’s brainstorming technique was performed at Yale University, in 1958. Forty-eight male undergraduates were divided into twelve groups and given a series of creative puzzles. The groups were instructed to follow Osborn’s guidelines. As a control sample, the scientists gave the same puzzles to forty-eight students working by themselves. The results were a sobering refutation of Osborn. The solo students came up with roughly twice as many solutions as the brainstorming groups, and a panel of judges deemed their solutions more “feasible” and “effective.” Brainstorming didn’t unleash the potential of the group, but rather made each individual less creative. Although the findings did nothing to hurt brainstorming’s popularity, numerous follow-up studies have come to the same conclusion. Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, has summarized the science: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.

Read the whole piece here.

The problem with brainstorming

You’ve got to pick a pocket or two

Photograph by Martin Schoeller / The New Yorker

I enjoyed this New Yorker profile of Apollo Robbins, a man with an almost supernatural ability to relieve people of their belongings:

In magic circles, Robbins is regarded as a kind of legend, though he largely remains, as the magician Paul Harris told me, “the best-kept secret in town.” His talent, however, has started gaining notice further afield. Recently, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and the military have studied his methods for what they reveal about the nature of human attention. Teller, a good friend of Robbins’s, believes that widespread recognition is only a matter of time. “The popularity of crime as a sort of romantic thing in America is profoundly significant, and Apollo is tapping into that,” he told me. “If you think about it, magic itself has many of the hallmarks of criminal activity: You lie, you cheat, you try not to get caught—but it’s on a stage, it has a proscenium around it. When Apollo walks onstage, there’s a sense that he might have one foot outside the proscenium. He takes a low crime and turns it into an art form.”

Read it all here, and watch Robbins in action below.

Update: A much better video of Robbins than the one from YouTube below is now available on the New Yorker site.

You’ve got to pick a pocket or two