Tag Archives: technology

On the record

June 28, 2014

This week’s New Yorker has a funny little piece from David Sedaris on walking the English countryside near his home in the company of his Fitbit pedometer. Describing his obsessive tendencies and ever-increasing daily step count, he writes,

I look back at that time and laugh—fifteen thousand steps—Ha! That’s only about seven miles! Not bad if you’re on a business trip or you’re just getting used to a new prosthetic leg. In Sussex, though, it’s nothing. Our house is situated on the edge of a rolling downland, a perfect position if you like what the English call “rambling.” I’ll follow a trail every now and then, but as a rule I prefer roads, partly because it’s harder to get lost on a road, but mainly because I’m afraid of snakes.”


To facilitate such a high daily total of paces as he ultimately accumulated, having a purpose is advisable, and Sedaris embraced trash collection. This practice reminds me of the bumly litter-picker who used to rove Wayne State’s campus, obsessively tidying the grounds. I never really got to talk with this guy — he was always very intent on his task — but I miss him making his rounds, figuratively darning the environment like an old sock. Sedaris recently began carrying a trash-collecting claw on a metal pole, which sounds like a big improvement over his former habits.

With it I can walk, fear snakes a little less, and satisfy my insane need for order all at the same time. I’ve been cleaning the roads in my area of Sussex for three years now, but before the Fitbit I did it primarily on my bike, and with my bare hands. That was fairly effective, but I wound up missing a lot. On foot, nothing escapes my attention: a potato-chip bag stuffed into the hollow of a tree, an elderly mitten caught in the embrace of a blackberry bush, a mud-coated matchbook at the bottom of a ditch.

Strawberry shrubbish.

Strawberry shrubbish.

In his most recent collection, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, for which I walked to the public library last year only to find I actually had to rent the book, he covers much of the same territory (trash removal being an ongoing thing and all). As one blogger said glowingly, inspired to reconsider his retirement plans, “I’m not sure why, but when David Sedaris talked about how he picked up trash alongside the highways and byways of Britain it seemed really cool. Maybe this is a mark of a good writer. They can talk about picking up trash and make it sound totally awesome.” Who knows how Sedaris even has time to write, with hauling around bags of refuse nine hours a day, but evidently it’s worth it. Perhaps this is just how literary greats roll.

Since getting my Fitbit, I’ve seen all kinds of things I wouldn’t normally have come across. Once, it was a toffee-colored cow with two feet sticking out of her. I was rambling that afternoon, with my friend Maja, and as she ran to inform the farmer I marched in place, envious of the extra steps she was getting in.

What noble thing-finderly spirit! Just wait until he mentions all the dead animals he comes across.


Sedaris’ sentiment at the death of his Fitbit is similar to that of many others — freedom! Of course, since it’s David Sedaris, there must be a twist. If a touch macabre is your kind of humor, don’t miss these droll musings on the true history of peppercorn sales and the relationship between fried chicken and sex. Read “Stepping Out” in The New Yorker.

“The Scourge”

November 3, 2013

Writing in the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman, whose eponymous blog routinely addresses subjects like lost airline baggage, the debt ceiling, and how you’re more racist and sexist than you think, wonders what would happen if more of us stopped ducking out of the way for wayward pedestrians absorbed in their phones. The solution he proposes is a “politeness enforcement tactic” — let the collision be inevitable, until people start looking where they’re going again. An eye for an eye, of course, being the optimal way to deal with such situations.

In Burkeman’s view, and as discussed here before, “distracted walking” has become a major concern:

[H]ere in New York, in the last few months, it feels as though we’ve crossed a threshold. Smartphones have been ubiquitous for years, of course – but much more recently, there seems to have been a shift in social norms. For many people, the unwritten rules of sidewalk choreography now include this: if what I’m reading or watching on my phone is sufficiently interesting to me, it’s entirely up to you to get out of my way, just as if I were very frail, or three years old, or blind. Or a lamppost.

It’s interesting how all of this distracted  phone use gets chalked up to texting when texting likely has little to do with what is going on in these ambulant devices. How much of this cellular oblivion is reasonable? While wandering at night through an unknown neighborhood, I checked the phone to see where I was, the bright maps app cutting through the darkness, mangling my night vision. At least, I figured, the rare oncoming car might have a better chance of avoiding a collision with me as I edged down the road with my face swathed in eerie light. Distracted by email, I shifted away from the map momentarily, returning later to reassure myself I was still on course. So what if I was? Blinded, my senses attuned to the rustlings of plants and animals, the clumsy crunching of grit and leaves underfoot. Shameful, to be inspecting the vague greyish map of the territory as though it were an appropriate substitute for the real landscape.

Specifics aside, the phenomenon that Burkeman is witnessing seems to lack validity in Detroit. While people are often on their phones, social norms here dictate that eye contact should be made while out on the street, and most likely a greeting should be issued, if not a protracted volley of pleasantries. Another missing piece is in the numbers. Detroit just doesn’t have enough people to ensure frequent sidewalk collisions with the few rude souls who refuse to engage with their non-virtual environment. While stumbling along one chilly day, probably reading about a “redesigned moufle” to keep phones within operating range in frigid temperatures, and the fingers that use them nimble, I crossed paths with another “oblivious” phone user. We looked up and smiled at each other. The moment was very nice, and, I guess, very Detroit.

Tahka, "redesigned moufle" to keep phones cozy. Heart-warming.

Tahka, “redesigned moufle.” Heart-warming.

Will this unfortunate tendency arrive in our city anytime soon? An increase in population most likely means more people are on the sidewalks, and these newcomers are often of the smartphone-using set (which includes, oh, just about everybody now). If we reframe the real “scourge” as valuing one’s own moral comfort over everybody else’s, we should be able to keep out of harm’s way.

In your own backyard

January 22, 2013

It’s easy to read stories about bad things happening elsewhere, to other people, and dismiss their purported improbability. Really, the dangers of walking and texting resulting in a disfiguring accident?, you think as you stumble along. Surely not for me.

Here is a courageous and humbling account from Wayne State University professor Geoffrey Nathan of his walking injury earlier this winter. It can happen to you, too, pretty much right in your own backyard. Perhaps even on your own concrete planter.


“But the ‘take-home’ is very simply–don’t text and walk. It’s dangerous. I could have been badly hurt, not just ‘defaced’.

End of lesson for today.”

Read the rest of “Don’t walk while texting (or emailing or browsing…)” and proceed with caution!

Studying walking yields pedestrian advice:

December 19, 2012

Don’t study while you walk. Or do much of anything else. Just walk.

Drivers have been encouraged to keep “thumbs on the wheel, not on the text” since Michigan enacted a ban on texting and emailing while driving. But what about cyclists and pedestrians?

In a study published last week, researchers from the University of Washington took to the streets to qualify distractions and quantify seconds it took to cross 20 risky Seattle intersections. Almost one-third of pedestrians were inattentive while maneuvering. Among the 1102 people studied, the most popular ambulatory activity was listening to music, which accounted for 11.2% of distracted pedestrians. The distracted pedestrians were also seen text messaging (7.3%) and making phone calls (6.2%).

Technological diversions correlated with speed and safety in clearing intersections unscathed. Worst off were the texters, who took an additional 1.87 seconds to navigate the intersection compared to attentive pedestrians — almost 20% longer. They were also nearly four times more likely to “display at least 1 unsafe crossing behaviour (disobeying the lights, crossing mid-intersection, or failing to look both ways)”. People listening to music walked faster through intersections compared to both phone users and undistracted pedestrians.

Smithsonian’s Smart News blog covers a few past studies on distracted pedestrians injuring themselves.

It’s not all grim tidings for walkers — on the other hand, researchers found that walking without the phone may counteract the frazzling of nerves that technological devices can promote. In a recent study by researchers at the University of Utah and the University of Kansas, unplugging and taking a walk in nature increased performance on a creative problem-solving exercise by an incredible 50%.

Previous studies have established that demanding cognitive functions, including selective attention, problem solving, inhibition, and multi-tasking are crucial to getting by in our media-saturated surroundings, and that the systems responsible for these functions can easily become overtaxed. Exposure to nature can restore functioning in these areas. Through this study, researchers have been able to add improved creative performance to the list of benefits realized by spending some time outside. Whether that is due to the walking, the nature, or to another variable is yet uncertain, but surely the message is clear enough.