Eyes on the River


Pacific Standard just published my piece on mapping rivers above and below the surface in its January/February 2016 issue. This was a fun one that grew out of reading a 2012 NYT blog post about a nascent river-mapping project by a guy named Kristian Gustavson. For years, I just couldn’t get the idea of river mapping out of my mind. So I contacted Gustavson and he was kind enough to host me on one of his river runs down the Sacramento back in 2014. I got an up-close view of the kind of cowboy science he and his team were doing.

It was great, but I needed to find others who were collecting compelling visual data for monitoring waterways. Turns out, there’s a growing need to track river ecosystems because dams are being removed and more rivers are flowing freer than they have for decades. I was excited, then, to come across FishViews, a company out of the Pacific Northwest that’s tackling the challenge of river mapping with serious verve and engineering muscle. Inspiring stuff. Add in the non-profit American Rivers’ mapping collaboration with Google, there seemed to be enough activity around river mapping to warrant a full fledged story.

Here’s an excerpt:

The thing about a wild river is that it’s not all rapids. A wild river—a protected resource in the United States and other countries—can be a trickle or a torrential flow; its water can be silty or clear; it can carve through canyons or spread out over grasslands; and a single wild river can be all these depending on the season and terrain.

The thing that makes a river wild is that its course hasn’t been significantly diverted by dams or other engineering projects: It experiences all its seasons and naturally supports its plants and animals. Simply put, a wild river flows free.

I didn’t know it until recently, but I’d never seen a wild river. Almost every waterway that looms large in the American psyche is significantly engineered, or, more often, over-engineered. The Colorado, Columbia, and Mississippi, just to name a few, are all significantly dammed to make reservoirs of ready water for communities far and wide.

This summer, though, I did experience a wild river, one of the few remaining in the West—virtually. I was able to pull up water-level shots and take a float trip down the Yampa in northwest Colorado.

You can read the piece here.

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I’m pleased to announced that the book I’ve co-authored with Nathan Eagle, Reality Mining: Using Big Data to Engineer a Better World, has won a 2015 PROSE Award. This award goes to a best-in-category academic book; we won in the Computing and Information Science category. The grand prize winner this year was Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty. Not bad company.

To see a list of all PROSE winners, go here.

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Mars Needs Women

Credit: Juliana Jimenez Jaramillo
Credit: Juliana Jimenez Jaramillo

My most recent essay is about why an all-female Mars mission makes good economic sense. The upshot: women, on average, are smaller than men and require much less food. On a round-trip Mars mission, you’d want to bring your food with you, all 2.5 years worth of it. The weight adds up. The more your payload weighs, the more fuel you need, which adds weight of the whole system, which in turn requires more fuel, which costs more money. One way to save dollars? You could cut the payload weight of food in half by flying smaller women instead of larger men.

Of course, there’s much more to the story. It includes the surprising history of female astronauts in America, dating back to the 1950s and the more recent cost-benefit research of female astronauts in the early 2000s. And there’s also my personal experience as a HI-SEAS crew member, which is what gave me the idea for the essay in the first place.

The piece ran in Slate and was accompanied by excellent artwork by Juliana Jeménez Jaramillo. The internet responded with excitement and words. Jokes were made and accusations of discrimination against men were levied. In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I especially liked turning our image of a “manned” mission to Mars on its head. It’s so common to assume any sort of space expedition will be composed of mostly men. Now, hopefully, people who read my piece can also easily entertain one that’s mostly women.

In the days that followed the essay’s publication, I was invited to do a number of radio interviews for programs including BBC World Service, a show on Sirius radio, a.m. and f.m. shows, and All Things Considered on NPR. And the absolute highlight: the story was turned into a limerick for Wait Wait …Don’t Tell Me.

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Lies by Design


ComputerDeceptioncEmoryAllenI wrote an essay for the most recent issue of Pacific Standard in which I investigate the extent to which modern technology deceives us. In some of these deceptions we play an active role. I’m thinking, in particular, of placebo buttons (elevator close buttons or crosswalk buttons that don’t actually perform their stated function). We press them to as if we’ve done our duty, but in reality many elevator doors and crosswalks work on their own timers.

But there are other examples of deceptive technologies that aren’t so harmless. These include online ads or shopping carts that trick us into clicks we don’t intend, or confusing settings on social networks that end up allowing our profiles to reveal more information than we intend.

My piece for Pacific Standard looks at a variety of modes of deception in technology and poses the question: how we might think about designing deception into future computer systems? And ultimately, how exactly should our artificial intelligence lie to us?

Click here to read the full essay.

Click here to listen to me discuss deceptive technology on New Hampshire Public Radio’s “Word of Mouth.”

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