Explaining phantom cellphone vibrations

Some recent studies suggest phantom cellphone vibrations are common and here are some possible explanations for why they happen:

A handful of studies in recent years have examined the prevalence of phantom cellphone vibrations, and they’ve come up with impressive numbers, from 68 percent of the medical staff at a Massachusetts hospital to 89 percent of undergraduates at a midwestern university, to more than 90 percent of Taiwanese doctors-in-training in the middle of their internships…

Hallucination may not be the most appropriate term, according to Laramie. “You’re misinterpreting something, but there is this external cue. You’re not totally making it up.” A compelling alternative, he suggests, is pareidolia. “That’s the phenomenon where you see a face in the clouds or hear ‘Paul is dead’ when you listen to the Beatles backwards.” (Or see the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich). Essentially, it’s your brain getting a little bit carried away with its normally very useful talent for finding patterns in the world around you…

In his thesis research, he found the two biggest predictors of phantom vibrations and ringing were age (young people experienced them more) and the extent to which people relied on their phone to regulate their emotional state—checking their phone when they wanted to calm down, for example, or get an emotional boost. “My hunch is at this point it’s a generational thing,” Laramie said. Twenty- and thirty-somethings who grew up with cellphones and have them ingrained in their daily lives probably experience the effect more than older people or technophobes, he says…

Like Laramie, Bensmaia thinks phantom vibrations are a result of the brain’s penchant for filling in the gaps to find patterns. A visual equivalent, he suggests, is seeing the outlines of furniture when you walk through your house in near-total darkness, or seeing the image of a Dalmatian in a field of black and white dots (it’s hard to see at first, but once you detect the pattern it’s almost impossible not to see it)…

“What happens, I think, is that because your clothes are rubbing against your skin, you cause activity in the same receptors, and that activity is just similar enough to the activity caused by a vibrating phone that it triggers the learned association and the perception of a vibrating phone,” he said. It’s not clear exactly where in the brain that occurs, Bensmaia says, but it probably involves the primary somatosensory cortex and other higher-level areas that process the sense of touch.

Is it then too far of a leap to suggest that phones are rewiring our brains in certain ways? Granted, lots of objects or behaviors might prompt rewiring but I suspect a good number of people would recoil at this idea as they normally don’t think the connections between objects and actions and the brain.

“Testing a No-Cellphone Sidewalk Lane”

I’ve always been interested in the walking patterns of people along sidewalks, in public places, or in hallways so this TV test of cellphone lanes on sidewalks looks fascinating:

Sidewalk collisions involving pedestrians engrossed in their electronic devices have become an irritating (and sometimes dangerous) fact of city life. To prevent them, what about just creating a “no cellphones” lane on the sidewalk? Would people follow the signs? That’s what a TV crew decided to find out on a Washington, D.C., street last week as part of a behavioral science experiment for a new National Geographic TV series.

As might be expected, some pedestrians ignored the chalk markings designating a no-cellphones lane and a lane that warned pedestrians to walk “at your own risk.” Others didn’t even see them because they were too busy staring at their phones. But others stopped, took pictures and posted them—from their phones, of course.

Of course, you have to watch the show to find out the complete outcome. But, I would guess most people didn’t pay much attention to the markings. While the experiment targets cell phones, there are lots of ways pedestrians can create problems on sidewalks. Cell phones may be particularly dangerous because people keep moving while not paying attention but other issues abound including people who suddenly stop right in the middle of walking people or others who walk at least three people across and force others to move out of the way.

There are places where such signs or markings do seem to work. It is common in Europe to see signs telling people on escalators or moving walkways to stand to one side to let others pass on the other side. In contrast, Americans tend to clog up such pathways. Similarly, the BART in San Fransisco has markings indicating where to line up for train cars while waiting. This works with a system where the train always stops at the same place but it does create a more orderly system than the free-for-all that is often common around train car doors.

It would be interesting to know why people might or might not follow such directions. Are they not paying attention while walking (this is common amongst drivers who can tune out all of the signs)? Is there a lack of enforcement? Are sidewalks and other walkways seen as more democratic settings (they are public property after all) where people should be able to do what they want?

Cell phones are not an impediment to public social interaction

Recent research from a sociologist analyzing video footage of public spaces shows cell phones don’t limit public interaction:

Between 2008 and 2010, his team accrued enough footage to begin a comparison with the P.P.S. films — together the two collections totaled more than 38 hours. “Films were sampled at 15-second intervals for a total of 9,173 observation periods,” he writes in his article, which reads like a study in scholarly masochism. Hampton and a team of 11 graduate and undergraduate students from Penn spent a total of 2,000 hours looking at the films, coding the individuals they observed for four characteristics: sex, group size, “loitering” and phone use…

First off, mobile-phone use, which Hampton defined to include texting and using apps, was much lower than he expected. On the steps of the Met, only 3 percent of adults captured in all the samples were on their phones. It was highest at the northwest corner of Bryant Park, where the figure was 10 percent. More important, according to Hampton, was the fact that mobile-phone users tended to be alone, not in groups. People on the phone were not ignoring lunch partners or interrupting strolls with their lovers; rather, phone use seemed to be a way to pass the time while waiting to meet up with someone, or unwinding during a solo lunch break. Of course, there’s still the psychic toll, which we all know, of feeling tethered to your phone — even while relaxing at the park. But that’s a personal cost. From what Hampton could tell, the phones weren’t nearly as hard on our relationships as many suspect…

According to Hampton, our tendency to interact with others in public has, if anything, improved since the ‘70s. The P.P.S. films showed that in 1979 about 32 percent of those visited the steps of the Met were alone; in 2010, only 24 percent were alone in the same spot. When I mentioned these results to Sherry Turkle, she said that Hampton could be right about these specific public spaces, but that technology may still have corrosive effects in the home: what it does to families at the dinner table, or in the den. Rich Ling, a mobile-phone researcher in Denmark, also noted the limitations of Hampton’s sample. “He was capturing the middle of the business day,” said Ling, who generally admires Hampton’s work. For businesspeople, “there might be a quick check, do I have an email or a text message, then get on with life.” Fourteen-year-olds might be an entirely different story…

In fact, this was Hampton’s most surprising finding: Today there are just a lot more women in public, proportional to men. It’s not just on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. On the steps of the Met, the proportion of women increased by 33 percent, and in Bryant Park by 18 percent. The only place women decreased proportionally was in Boston’s Downtown Crossing — a major shopping area. “The decline of women within this setting could be interpreted as a shift in gender roles,” Hampton writes. Men seem to be “taking on an activity that was traditionally regarded as feminine.”

Perhaps there is such a reaction to people using phones in public because (1) they are a new technology and people still aren’t used to them – smartphones are only less than a decade old and/or (2) phones are less noticeable or personally intrusive in wide open settings like the steps of the Met but very noticeable in more confined settings where conversations can be heard.

I think there is also a lot sociologists could build on here with Hampton’s methodology. Video may seem archaic when you can utilize big data but it can still provide unique insights into social behavior. While the coding of the video was rather simple (they looked at four categories: “sex, group size, “loitering” and phone use”), it took a lot of time to go through the video and compare it to Whyte’s earlier film. This comparative element is also quite useful: we can then compare patterns over time. All together, think how much video footage is collected in public these days and how it might lend itself to research…

It is easy to eavesdrop on conversations while on mass transit

A writer highlights how easy it is to overhear conversations on mass transit:

On Amtrak, powerful people talk loudly and spill secrets.

This is my conclusion based on five years’ field research commuting on Amtrak’s Acela between cities along the East Coast.

By now, you’ve heard about former NSA director Michael Hayden, who on Thursday talked nonstop to a reporter—on background—as the train went north from Washington, D.C. toward New York City. A few seats behind Hayden was Tom Matzzie, former Washington director of political group MoveOn.org, who started live-tweeting his eavesdropping…

As someone who rides the Acela two to three times a week, I can tell you that what Hayden and Matzzie each did—talking loud and tweeting louder—isn’t unusual. In fact, private conversations are so often broadcast across the train car that it’s become fertile ground for competitive intelligence gathering, business development or, as in Matzzie’s case, gaining a whole bunch of new social media followers.

While it may be relatively easy to hear on Amtrak trains, this is also not hard on subways, buses, and other trains. There are plenty of people who talk loudly, particularly on cell phones. I wonder if the best way to stop such loud conversations is to tell people their safety (or even national security!) is at risk – the people around them could learn a lot and then harm them down the road.

Webb argues at the end that most people listening to these public conversations are “accidental spies,” people who would prefer not to hear. However, isn’t this part of participating in public spaces? One doesn’t have to go so far as to strain to hear what people are saying to analyze and/or enjoy human conversation. Why not listen to the lives of others? Doing so can be a lot more interesting than “reality TV” that is heavily edited and scripted.

A final thought: I wonder how many people read this commentary and then think how nice it is to drive themselves to work and elsewhere. No nosy people nearby then, particularly if you have tinted glass…

h/t Instapundit

Americans in poverty have electronics, showing how ubiquitous they are

This article is intended to suggest that Americans in poverty don’t have it that bad because of the items they have in their home. I would argue for a different interpretation: this shows how common and relatively cheap these consumer goods are.

American poverty just ain’t what it used to be. A new report from the Census Bureau found that 80.9% of households considered poverty stricken have cell phones along with their landline phones, and 58.2% have computers. 96.1% of those in “poverty” have televisions, and 83% have some sort of DVR.

The percentage owning refrigerators? 97.8%

Gas or electric stoves? 96.6%.

Microwaves? 93.2%

Air conditioning? Over 83%.

Washer? 68.7%

Dryer? 65.3%

Having these items is simply part of modern living. The adoption rate for new devices rises much more quickly today than it did a century ago. Take cell phones as an example. Here is one description about how quickly they spread in the United States:

Just a quick note for your next PowerPoint deck on megatrends: more than 90 percent of adults now have a cell phone, according to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. For people under the age of 44, that number is closer to 97 percent.

Pew calls the cell phone the fastest-adopted device in history. These things are subject to some variability because of when we start the clock, but the cellphone adoption rate is certainly up there with the radio and color TV, and far faster than computers or landline telephones.

Additionally, there is an important difference between absolute poverty and relative poverty. Sure, poverty in the United States doesn’t look like the most desperate poverty in the world but that doesn’t mean there aren’t clear differences and disadvantages between those with lower incomes and wealth than those with more.

Attempts to make cellphone towers look like trees may or may not work

Cellphone towers are ubiquitous parts of the modern landscape. Trying to make them look like trees…can be interesting.

South African photographer Dillon Marsh‘s compact photo series (all 12 Invasive Species images featured here) is a meditation on the weird, and small, variations of design in tree cellphone towers.

“In certain cases the disguised towers might not be noticed,” says Marsh. “But then an undisguised tower might not have been noticed either.”

An important chapter in the history of tree-shaped cellphone towers was written in South Africa. In the mid-’90s, Ivo Branislav Lazic (who worked for a telecommunications service company called Brolaz Projects) and his colleague Aubrey Trevor Thomas were commissioned by Vodacom to solve the visual pollution problem cellphones presented.

Lazic and Thomas came up with the world’s first palm tree cellphone tower. The Palm Pole Tower, made from non-toxic plastics, was installed in Cape Town in 1996…

Meanwhile, in the American Southwest, fledgling company Larson Camouflage was responding to similar style-sensitive network companies. Larson makes scores of different “trees” but it kicked everything off in 1992 with a naturalistic pine that concealed a disagreeable cell tower in Denver, Colorado. To dress up a cell tower in plastic foliage can cost up to $150,000, four times the cost of a naked mast. Marsh is skeptical about the need for high-tech camouflage.

My first thoughts in seeing these South Africa pictures is that the camouflage doesn’t look too bad. However, the towers/trees are simply too tall and don’t blend into the landscape. This is not a matter of bad design; the tower is taller than everything else.

This gets at a bigger question: why does this infrastructure have to be covered in the first place? We want cell phones but we don’t want to see the technology that it requires? I’m reminded of this sometimes when traveling into neighborhoods in Chicago. In many of these places, there is a tangle of electrical lines, alleys, and poles (street lights, signs, police cameras, traffic lights, etc.). Compared to the Loop or suburban neighborhoods which are more spread out or places where electric lines are buried, this can look ugly. But, it is part of city life and would be quite expensive to eliminate.

This doesn’t mean we have to settle for ugly cell phone towers. But, the alternatives may not be so great either.

New study says congestion could be lessened by reducing a small number of trips from certain neighborhoods

A new study suggests a targeted reduction of trips from certain locations could greatly reduce congestion:

To learn more about traffic congestion in the hope of finding ways of relieving it, an international team of scientists analyzed road use patterns in the San Francisco Bay area and the Boston area. They used mobile phone information from more than 1 million users over the course of three weeks to map out where drivers were concentrated on roads. (The data was rendered anonymous before the investigators looked at it, the study authors noted.)

Based on their analysis, the researchers suggest that certain neighborhoods in these urban areas were home to drivers that caused major congestion. The scientists found that canceling just 1 percent of trips from these neighborhoods could drastically reduce travel time that was otherwise added due to congestion.

“In the Boston area, we found that canceling 1 percent of trips by select drivers in the Massachusetts municipalities of Everett, Marlborough, Lawrence, Lowell and Waltham would cut all drivers’ additional commuting time caused by traffic congestion by 18 percent,” said researcher Marta González, a complex-systems scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “In the San Francisco area, canceling trips by drivers from Dublin, Hayward, San Jose, San Rafael and parts of San Ramon would cut 14 percent from the travel time of other drivers.”

The location of these neighborhoods apparently makes it easy for them to impact their cities. “Being able to detect and then release the congestion in the most affected arteries improves the functioning of the entire coronary system,” González  told TechNewsDaily.

There are many ways people might reduce the number of drivers hitting the road from these key neighborhoods, the scientists said. For instance, the authorities might encourage alternatives “such as public transportation, carpooling, flex time and working from home,” González said. Mobile phone apps that connect people using the same roads might help them coordinate carpooling, she added.

Two things stand out to me:

1. It seems like the advantage to this method is that it allows officials and drivers to target traffic flows from particular locations and then plan accordingly. More often, we settle for traffic solutions like adding more lanes over a stretch of highway or extending mass transit to a particular location. But this kind of analysis is able to help people target particular areas rather than having to apply catch-all solutions.

2. Collecting and using this data sounds very interesting. This is big data at work: taking information that is collected about over 1 million cell phone users and then using that information in a new way. It also allows researchers to see the system as a whole.

My next question would then be is it be easy politically to target particular areas for congestion reduction?