Walking on water

20150503-Christo imageIN 1983 Christo surrounded 11 islands in Biscayne Bay, off Miami, with 600,000 square metres (6.5m square feet) of luminous pink fabric. The installation, called “Surrounded Islands”, was completely removed after two weeks. On one morning of its brief existence an elderly woman entered the project’s main office. She was livid. “It looks like you’ve emptied a bottle of Pepto-Bismol into the bay!” she raged. That afternoon an elderly man walked in and asked who was responsible for the project. After the morning’s experience Christo was nervous, but still introduced himself. “It’s fantastic,” the man said. “It looks like you’ve emptied a bottle of Pepto-Bismol into the bay!”

Christo, born Christo Javacheff in Bulgaria, delights in the story. He marvels at art’s ability to provoke such emotion and at how perceptions can differ so markedly. He hopes his latest project, “The Floating Piers, which is planned for a 16-day stint next summer, on Lake Iseo in northern Italy, will stir similar passions.

“The Floating Piers” will be a series of golden walkways connecting Sulzano on the mainland to the islands of Monte Isola and San Paolo. Christo says his intention is to create a beautiful, temporary work of art. Temporariness is important to him, he says, for containing an aesthetic quality he calls the “presence of the missing”.

The project will be Christo’s first big work for ten years, and the first since the death of his wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude in 2009. Built of 200,000 specially designed polyethylene cubes normally used in the yachting industry for pontoons, the 16 metre-wide piers will float on the lake. Fastened to the lake floor every 50m, with anchors up to 90m deep and some weighing 7 tons, it is an ambitious vision. Sloping, unfenced sides will allow boats to ride up onto the piers so promenaders can alight. The cubes will be covered with 70,000 square metres of fabric: three kilometres of yellow road will move on the water; another 1.5km will flow through the tight pedestrian streets in Sulzano and Peschiera Maraglio. The contrast of the gentle fluidity on the water and the sturdy presence of the land will be sexy, says the artist.

The project is expected to cost $10m, which Christo will fund through the sales of sketches of the plans, scale models and past works. He does not balk at the cost. “These projects are our children,” he says. “Do you have a budget for your children?” He refuses commissions and sponsorship so as to remain in control.

A Harvard Business School report from 2006, looking at the way Christo and Jeanne-Claude fund their work, cited “illiquidity, uncertain valuations and faddishness” as reasons banks often avoid lending for arts. For “The Gates” (2005), which went up in New York’s Central Park, Bank Leu, then a subsidiary of Credit Suisse, provided Christo with a credit facility of $10m, and held $60m-worth of his works as collateral. In return, Christo paid an annual fee of $10,000, 1% of the unused credit, and 1% plus LIBOR (the rate banks charge for lending to other banks) of the credit used. Such a business model is rarely seen in the art world, but its unconventionality was in keeping with the work. And it certainly delivered: the estimated 4m visitors who saw “The Gates” brought in around $250m for New York City. It is a lesson not lost on the Italian government.

It took only a year to get permission for “The Floating Piers”; some of Christo’s projects have needed decades. “Wrapped Reichstag” (1995), which covered the German parliament building in silver fabric for two weeks, took 24 years to come to fruition. It was only made possible when the-then Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, horrified at the concept, put the decision to a vote in the Reichstag. He lost.

Operating at a scale that will inevitably draw opposition from some aggrieved party, political or otherwise, is one thing. To do it repeatedly, viewing the conflict and frustration as part of the art, invites the suggestion that Christo actually enjoys the confrontation. He denies it. But when asked about Jeanne-Claude, he says she was “a ferocious critic, and I miss this all the time.”

This article was commissioned by The Economist

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Augmented reality: In the eye of the beholder

tupac-hologramAS READERS of The Economist will no doubt recall, Tupac Shakur, a rapper, was murdered in 1996. It therefore came as a surprise, to say the least, when he appeared on stage in 2012. Clever visual manipulation it certainly was, but claims that Mr Shakur’s performance was a hologram were overblown. Holography maintains its sense of magic, but significant consumer applications have remained doggedly distant.

The growing interest in what is known as augmented reality (AR) may finally change that. AR is an approach to take the world that consumers see and overlay information or interfaces onto it. Just how that will be done is a subject of fervent speculation and sporadic, staggering investment. In October, a total of $542m was raised from investors including Google by Magic Leap, a company which deals in augmented reality technology (but no one seems to have figured out just what kind).

One of the problems, though, is that where information is to be added to the field of vision, it invariably interferes. Current AR devices like Google Glass incorporate a small screen in the furniture of the wearer’s glasses. Far from augmenting reality, such devices actually deny wearers some of it. But it may be worse than that; a paper published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that Google Glass users actually have worse peripheral vision than those who wear glasses of a similar size. The technology creates blind spots where there were none.

Holography may provide a way out of this conundrum. Holograms are created by sending two laser beams onto a material that can capture an image, such as photographic film. One beam travels directly, and the other reflected off an object to be imaged. The criss-crossing of the two beams creates a pattern that, when itself lit up with ordinary light, projects a faithful 3D image of the object. What makes the idea suitable for AR systems is the fact that the film can be transparent.

TruLife Optics, a London-based firm, in collaboration with Britain’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL), has created a holographic element the size of a postage stamp. They start with a thin, transparent layer of a mix of chemicals familiar from traditional photographic film, including gelatin and silver halides. They create the holographic pattern by firing a laser through it onto a mirror. The incoming and reflected beams interfere in the film and leave a pattern that acts, itself, like a mirror. The firm’s idea is to use two of these transparent holograms, placed at either end of a “waveguide” that looks a bit like a microscope slide. An image projected onto one of them is turned and funnelled along the waveguide. When it hits the second hologram, it is turned again, parallel to the incoming image but shifted along a bit.

Because the whole assembly is transparent, an image projected from, say, the region of the ear in a forward direction could therefore be projected into the eye without interfering at all with vision. But the work needs more focus than that. Existing AR technologies rely on a fixed point of focus, which might lead to fatigue. Simon Hall, of the NPL, has been working with the TruLife team on a way around that. Mr Hall reckons that the solution is to use the same kit to bounce harmless infrared light off of the eye and collect what comes back. That gives clues as to where the eye is looking and, crucially, at what distance it is focused. The incoming image can then be re-focused to accommodate where, and at what depth, the wearer is looking. Or it could be used to determine that the wearer is looking away, and the image can be turned off altogether. Because, sometimes, you just want to watch Mr Shakur perform.

This article was published in The Economist on 5th November 2014.  See this link.

Hacking aircraft: Remote control

cyberjackingIN ONE of his many former lives, Gulliver qualified as a pilot. He therefore exudes an aura of unquestionable confidence when striding into an aircraft cabin, secure in the belief that, if the worst happens and both pilots have the fish, he could take charge of the cockpit and calmly land the plane, Sullenberger-style. Cue the applause.

At least he did. Nowadays, he is less sure, for two reasons. First, fly-by-wire has become the norm. As the direct link between bicep and control surface has been severed, it has rendered much of Gulliver’s skill obsolete. Second, the technical sophistication of modern aircraft means that pilots are no longer necessarily masters of the plane’s destiny. As Britain’s parliament heard last week, protecting the data links connecting ground and aircraft from cyber hackers is a “conundrum for the future”.

How realistic is it for computer hackers to interfere with aircraft while they are in the air, a phenomenon known as cyberjacking? It partly depends on terminology. Hijacking and fully controlling an aircraft by remote means borders on the impossible, according to David Stupples of City University in London, a specialist in communications. But interfering with an aircraft’s systems, including inducing a catastrophic failure, in order to extort money is a distinct possibility, he warns.

There are two ways this could be done, one more likely than the other. The first is a cyber attack from the outside. Passengers increasingly demand internet connectivity for work, games, movies and the like. But drilling holes in fuselages for additional antennae is costly and inefficient. So internet signals are routed through existing communications architecture, such as the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), which is used for short messages, or the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), an anti-collision system. As these both send and receive information they can, in theory, be targetted. When aircraft become more connected to the wider world they begin to look, electronically at least, like fixed structures. If banks can be hacked, why not aircraft?

Yet such an attack from outside is unlikely due to the technical challenges of overcoming software architectures that, unlike banks, are currently unfamiliar and largely bespoke. It would be far easier to pay a disgruntled employee to implant malware either directly into the aircraft during a maintenance routine or through the jetway when the aircraft docks to upload the In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) system. (The IFE on the Boeing 787 used to link to the flight control system, but the company have since rectified this, according to Mr Stupples.) Just the threat of activating such a program when a flight is in the air could be enough to trigger a ransom.

So why hasn’t it happened yet? There are two probable answers. First, the airlines and authorities are aware of the danger and are actively taking steps to address the threat, including designing fall-back systems to revert to basic manual control in the event of an anomaly discovered in the system. Second, the integration of aircraft systems, which increases the chances of finding a way through the entire architecture, is a relatively new development, brought in with the move to fibre optic cabling and data buses.

But there is another possibility: perhaps it has already happened. Just as smartphones have been disabled with “ransomware” (“send money to this account and you’ll get the code to unlock your phone”) perhaps airline companies have had erroneous messages pop up indicating the malicious potential of an anonymous extorter. If so, would they tell the passengers and watch the share price collapse? Mr Stupples is gloomy: “if it can happen, it will”.

This article was published in The Economist on 4th November 2014.  See this link.

Plastic stochastic

Scan 34“DON’T bail out the big banks on Wall Street another time,” thundered Richard Durbin, an American senator, “Once in a political lifetime is enough!” His amendment to the Dodd-Frank financial reform of 2010 capped the fees banks can charge merchants to process debit-card transactions, on the grounds that banks were gouging businesses and their customers. But the limits on “interchange fees”, as the financial jargon has it, have not worked out as planned. They have resulted, by one calculation, in the transfer of between $1 billion and $3 billion annually from poor households to big retailers and their shareholders. These were not the beneficiaries Mr Durbin had in mind when the amendment came into effect three years ago this week.

Stores accept cards to increase their sales. Both the bank that issues the card and the one that handles the retailer’s account charge them a small fee for the privilege, as does the card network—an arrangement often criticised as opaque and anti-competitive. American banks, Mr Durbin claimed, took in more than $1 billion a month from such fees. The rules implementing his amendment capped interchange fees for most transactions at 21 cents plus 0.05% of the sum charged—a 45% cut. Retailers, Mr Durbin assumed, would pass the resulting savings to consumers.

Many in the rich world have been thinking along the same lines: the European Commission is currently seeking to reduce interchange fees for credit and debit cards to one low and uniform level throughout the European Union. The Reserve Bank of Australia has already mandated a cut, from 0.95% to 0.55%. Under pressure from regulators, le Groupement des Cartes Bancaires, which processes most domestic card transactions in France, has also reduced interchange fees, from 0.47% to 0.32% of the value of the transaction on average.

Mr Durbin’s amendment has cost the banks $6.6 billion-8 billion annually, according to a paper by the International Centre for Law and Economics (ICLE), a think-tank. But retailers, whose profits have been sapped by the weak recovery from the financial crisis, seem to have pocketed most of the windfall, just as they did when interchange fees were cut in Australia. (Their shares jumped when the new rules were announced.) Meanwhile the banks, which are in even worse shape, have tried to make up for the lost revenue with higher charges for other things, including monthly fees for having a debit card, or even a current account. In 2009 banks provided 76% of America’s current accounts free of charge; last year the figure was only 38%. The higher charges in turn, have pushed 1m Americans out of the formal financial system—not the result Mr Durbin was aiming for.

This article was published in The Economist on 4th October 2014.  See this link.

Future, imperfect and tense

Time LostIF YOU want something done, the saying goes, give it to a busy person. It is an odd way to guarantee hitting deadlines. But a paper recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests it may, in fact, be true—as long as the busy person conceptualises the deadline in the right way.

Yanping Tu of the University of Chicago and Dilip Soman of the University of Toronto examined how individuals go about both thinking about and completing tasks. Previous studies have shown that such activity progresses through four distinct phases: pre-decision, post-decision (but pre-action), action and review. It is thought that what motivates the shift from the decision-making stages to the doing-something stage is a change in mindset.

Human beings are a deliberative sort, weighing the pros and cons of future actions and remaining open to other ideas and influences. However, once a decision is taken, the mind becomes more “implemental” and focuses on the task at hand. “The mindset towards ‘where can I get a sandwich’,” explains Ms Tu, “is more implemental than the mindset towards ‘should I get a sandwich or not?’”

Ms Tu and Dr Soman advise in their paper that “the key step in getting things done is to get started.” But what drives that? They believe the key that unlocks the implemental mode lies in how people categorise time. They suggest that tasks are more likely to be viewed with an implemental mindset if an imposed deadline is cognitively linked to “now”—a so-called like-the-present scenario. That might be a future date within the same month or calendar year, or pegged to an event with a familiar spot in the mind’s timeline (being given a task at Christmas, say, with a deadline of Easter). Conversely, they suggest, a deadline placed outside such mental constructs (being “unlike-the-present”) exists merely as a circle on a calendar, and as such is more likely to be considered deliberatively and then ignored until the last minute.

To flesh out this idea, the pair carried out five sets of tests, with volunteers ranging from farmers in India to undergraduate students in Toronto. In one test, the farmers were offered a financial incentive to open a bank account and make a deposit within six months. The researchers predicted those approached in June would consider a deadline before December 31st as like-the-present. Those approached in July, by contrast, received a deadline into the next year, and were expected to think of their deadline as unlike-the-present. The distinction worked. Those with a deadline in the same year were nearly four times more likely to open the account immediately as those for whom the deadline lay in the following year. Arbitrary though calendars may be in dividing up time’s continuous flow, they influence the way humans think about time.

The effect can manifest itself in even subtler ways. In another set of experiments, undergraduate students were given a calendar on a Wednesday and were asked to suggest an appropriate day to carry out certain tasks before the following Sunday. The trick was that some were given a calendar with all of the weekdays coloured purple, with weekends in beige (making a visual distinction between a Wednesday and the following Sunday). Others were given a calendar in which every other week, Monday to Sunday, was a solid colour (meaning that a Wednesday and the following Sunday were thus in the same week, and in the same colour). Even this minor visual cue affected how like- or unlike-the-present the respondents tended to view task priorities.

These and other bits of framing and trickery in the research support the same thesis: that making people link a future event to today triggers an implemental response, regardless of how far in the future the deadline actually lies. If the journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step, the authors might suggest that you take that step before this time next week.

Note: The text for this final Babbage post was originally submitted some four weeks ago. The editor claims full responsibility for procrastinating over the post’s production and publication, blaming his conception of time for the delay.

This article was published in The Economist on 3rd October 2014.  See this link.