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This week: what your Fitbit might be telling us about you, how footballers see the future, and why there are so many phone boxes.
DEPT. OF UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES
Although we might know it intellectually, we're still a long way from getting used to the fact that our devices keep track of everything we do and share that information with the world. The fitness app Strava publishes 'heat maps' that show you where its users are, literally, generating heat - that is, exercising. It's pretty cool to look at, but it is also revealing to the world the location of secret military bases (soldiers do a lot of running in remote places). Wearables are also raising new issues for murderers. A man in Connecticut, accused of killing his wife, told police she was attacked by a masked assailant as she came through the door of their home after a trip to the gym (he then chased off the killer with a blowtorch, tragically too late). But when police examined data from the Fitbit the victim was wearing, they discovered that she was moving around the house for an hour after she got back.
SEEING THE GAME
I hope that even if you're not a football fan you'll find this slightly fuzzy clip interesting. It's from an interview with Harry Kane - the best striker in the Premiership - conducted by Thierry Henry (former holder of that title). They're discussing a video clip that shows Kane with the ball bearing down on an opposition goal. Rather than shooting, he passes to a teammate, who scores. The discussion is about how strikers make those micro-second, high pressure decisions - whether to shoot, who to pass to, and so on. Kane says something fascinating - that just before he takes a decision like that he has "three or four pictures" in his head of what is about to happen next. So in this case, he had a picture of himself turning and shooting, and he had pictures of possible passes to two different teammates, and he picked the picture with the highest probability of success. Versus other sports, the second-to-second action of football is unusually hard to predict: it's fast and complex, there are many moving parts. This kind of visual clairvoyance is what marks out the top players like Kane. Watching that reminded me of this study of "rubber-necked" footballers: the most effective midfielders are the ones who move their head from side to side with high frequency as the ball is being played to them. They're scanning the field, taking pictures, making calculations.
It's a sad truth that some dumb tweet can set Twitter alight and yet works of incredible journalism that involve more research and better writing than most books can pass by with barely a ripple. So I'm glad I came across this in my print copy of the New Yorker: it's the story how three women - two insiders and one prosecutor - took on the Calabrian mafia, known as the 'Ndrangheta', an organisation that at one time had global revenue equivalent to 3.5% of Italy's GDP. Even compared to the Sicilian mafia, the 'Ndrangheta' men had an oppressive and psychopathically vicious relationship to women, and when that was challenged the whole thing unravelled. The bravery of the protagonists here is amazing, and the story, which is beautifully written, has many jaw-dropping moments, like when the police raided a town and took over the local radio station because jailed mafia bosses were using its request show to communicate: "A prisoner would submit a question - Was my appeal successful? Were my orders carried out? - and his family would call in and request one song to signal yes and another to signal no."
Nearly everyone has a mobile phone - so why has there been a 900% increase in phone boxes over the last two years?
I'm going to be speaking at a media industry event in London, on March 14th, called The Power of Storytelling. It's aimed at businesses so ticket prices are high but if you can persuade your bosses to stump up, do so, because it promises to be a really fun and stimulating day. (If you use the discount code 'leslie' then you get a discount and I get a kickback.)
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