On locked Bathrooms & the right to poop

Aug, 2013

I’ve been freelancing on Wilshire Blvd, about a block away from where Biggie was shot. It’s a busy street with lots of foot traffic, which is nice because you don’t experience that much in LA.

Our building is 6 stories tall. Each floor has a shared restroom but the doors are always locked. The owners of the building want to deter passersby from entering, so they lock the bathroom doors and give each tenant a key.

It sucks. I hate asking for the key every day, essentially announcing that I have to poop.

Locked bathrooms are common around the city especially in gas stations and fast food joints. For the owners, inconveniencing customers with a bathroom key is better than dealing with a trashed restroom.

I’m drawn to situations like these. Where bureaucratic rules are at odds with the rights of the users who have to live with them. It’s bad design.

I’m not the only one who is annoyed. To my delight, one our of our neighbors has revolted. Every monday morning he tapes the door so it can’t stay locked. But then every weekend the cleaning people tear it down, presumably under orders from management.

It’s this strange bathroom themed cat and mouse game.

Here are some of his door hacks from the past few weeks:

Duct Tape on the latch:

Duct tape is an instinctive go-to solution. But the pressure from the latch pushes at the tape each time the handle turns. By tuesday the latch pushes through the tape and the door locks.

Medical/scotch tape over the latch:

This one looks janky. The scotch tape has less give than duct tape but this breaks down in a day or two as well.

Medical tape over the latch plate hole:

This solution attacks the latch plate. If the latch can’t find it’s way into the hole, the door won’t lock. Clever! He used medical tape and something like crumbled paper in the latch hole itself.

Unfortunately the tape was gradually scraped away by the latch and by midweek the system failed.

Two weeks ago I threw my hat in the ring. I decided to attack that stubborn latch plate. It seemed to me like a failure of materials that prevented the previous hack from working.

At first I considered a glue based solution but that violated the property owner’s rights too much. Glue was overkill. The solution had to be easily removable and also last through the week.

After doing some research I came upon this amazing prototyping material called Instamorph. It is moldable plastic that hardens at room temperature after you heat it in water.

If I could fill in the negative space of the latch hole with hard plastic that might do the trick…

After practicing on my door at home and briefly on the plate at work, I molded together this shape:

Voila! Perfect fit and easily removable. The latch slid over the hard plastic effortlessly.

The moldable plastic worked great all week. But in an odd twist of fate, our company moved a couple blocks away to a new location. Had we stayed there longer I could have done a 3d scan of the stopper and then 3D printed them en masse for every floor. Free stoppers for everyone!

But I’ll leave that to the next poor sap who needs to use the toilet.

The Societal impact of The Attention Economy

Aug, 2011

From 1970 to 2000 Americans gradually stopped spending time together. They joined fewer clubs, attended fewer dinner parties, and declined invites to join the local PTA.

In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnum explained this decline in social capital was due in large part to increases in TV viewership. Television was such a compelling product that we consequently spent less time cultivating relationships with our neighbors and family.

TV had privatized leisure time.

From 1970 to 2000, the average person’s attention graph went from looking like this:

To this:

Americans gave entertainment (television) more attention at the expense of time spent with friends and family.

But as bad as this decline in social capital was for the soul of the country, each of the four categories above stayed neatly in its own silo. Back then, choosing television over playing bridge with friends was very much an either/or decision.

Not anymore.

In 2011 our attention is more sought after than ever and technology (namely cell phones), enable friends, family, and websites to reach us anytime. Physical and digital requests for attention now blend together and elbow one another for space.

Some examples:

  • When Fred Wilson’s wife checks twitter during family time. (Her kids say she’s ‘there, but not really there’).
  • Reading a text while on a romantic date with your girlfriend
  • Checking personal email at the office

Nowadays our attention graph looks something like swiss cheese, with different categories intruding upon one another at small bursts throughout the day:

From Venkat’s brilliant post on the subject:

"But as you find and capture most of the wild attention, new pockets of attention become harder to find. Worse, you now have to cannibalize your own previous uses of captive attention. Time for TV must be stolen from magazines and newspapers. Time for specialized entertainment must be stolen from time devoted to generalized entertainment."

I don’t mind if Facebook steals time from magazines. But it’s troubling when it steals it from a family’s dinner time. Think of all the hours teenagers spend texting friends while out with their parents. Moments that 10 years ago would have been spent (however reluctantly) chatting and bonding.

It’s hard for mom and dad to compete with Facebook and it’s cohorts. They are battling against companies who are aggressively mapping out the human psyche in order to trigger user’s pleasure center buttons. How can dad’s cheesy jokes compete for Jr’s attention when he’s up against a small army of game psychologists who know exactly what little Timmy craves ?

Some Definitions

I think “Attention Parasite” is an accurate term for these occasions. An Attention Parasite can be defined as anytime an electronic device is used while social obligations would demand otherwise.

As seen in the previous swiss cheese diagram, these parasites cause our relationships with friends and family to become fragmented, with our days interrupted by short texts, tweets, and notifications.

What’s the end result?

I think in the same way that TV extracted value from society in the past 30 years, these Attention Parasites will continue to extract value anywhere you bring your phone. Church, Thanksgiving dinner, school.

It may seem like a strange thing for a physical place like a church to have to compete for attention with a digital product. But imagine if half of the congregation was on Facebook during sunday morning service. It would decrease the value of going to church for the good half, because the rest of the congregation would be mentally checked out. That would severely impact the feeling of community that many people get at church.

Bit by bit the value of these arguably boring institutions will be chipped away at. Death by 1000 tweets.

Can control what we pay attention to?

It’s difficult. In the timespan from 1970 to 2000 America decided television was a more compelling product than socializing, much to the detriment of society.

If Facebook is more engaging than grandma’s stories about the Great Depression then it wins. If personal email is more interesting than doing work it wins.

Plus it’s not always clear what deserves your attention. How do you measure the consequences of watching TV against a sunday evening chat with a neighbor? People don’t think about the long term consequences of either of those things in the moment.

I’m not sure what consequences of all this will be. I think as digital products become more compelling there will be an increase in generalized feelings of discontent since these digital products are lousy at fulfilling our hierarchy of needs.

Can Facebook ever rival hanging out with friends in real life? Is online porn better than actual sex? Can feelings of confidence, respect, and self esteem be experienced in digital methods that rival the real world?

Maybe once we realize these digital products aren’t very emotionally fulfilling we can start to channel our attention back toward areas that are.

The Anti-Trump Protests in Los Angeles Were Even Larger Than We Thought

Nov, 2016

Yesterday I went to the Anti-Trump rally that ended in downtown Los Angeles. After the event, the LAPD estimated the crowd size to be around 8,000 people.

That figure was not questioned by any major news source. The LA Times, , CNN, ABC and many others, all cited it. Only the New York Times did not.

Having seen the crowd with my own eyes, I thought it was larger than 8,000 people. I reached out to LAPD to find out how they got this figure and Officer Tony IM said: “It’s not an exact science, it’s a guess based on observations from our helicopters in the air, and officers on the ground.”

That meant their estimate was based solely on who was flying that day, if they were good at estimating crowds, and if they were biased about the election results.

I wanted a more exact number.

Finding Source Footage

The protest stretched many blocks down Wilshire Boulevard, and ended on the steps of the federal building downtown. Close up footage at one location wouldn’t be useful, but I did find this great panning shot on YouTube from a user named David Baca. When stitched together, the footage shows the entire length of the protest all the way down Wilshire.

Using buildings as reference points, together with Google Maps, I was able to determine that the crowd spanned from half a block east of Lucas Ave., all the way down to Westlake Ave, near MacArthur Park.

In the full-sized image you can see what appears to be a car moving north on Westlake Ave, (just under that red dot) that’s how I decided this was the point where the protest ended. Everything on the street east of that car is filled with protestors.

The Jacobs Method of Crowd Estimation

Originally I was going to slice up the image and use Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to count the protestors. This would have worked fine for the foreground, but the people in the distance were very blurry.

So I did some research and discovered “The Jacobs’ Method” of crowd estimation.

Herbert Jacobs was a professor in the 60’s at UC Berkeley. Being at Cal during the Vietnam War, exposed him to many protests outside outside his office window. He was curious about the size of these crowds, which led him to come up with a simple formula. It states that in a super dense crowd (like a mosh pit), one person takes up about 2.5 square feet. A moderate crowd is one person per 4.5 sq feet. A light crowd is one person per 10 sq feet.

With this formula in mind, I set out to find some dimensions of my crowd.

Crowd Length

The protestors started in MacArthur Park. By the time David shot his footage, the crowd had reached the front of his building. The tail end of the protest was around Westlake Ave, just a couple blocks east of the park. With this in mind, I used Google Maps to calculate the distance from David’s building to the end of the protest. It was 3,570 feet, almost 3/4 of a mile.

There’s a slight scattering of protestors between Witmer and Lucas, and also at the intersection of Witmer and Wilshire. Also as you can see in the full-sized image, there were very few cars parked on the street which was helpful in determining the crowd size. Besides these points, the density of the crowd looks fairly consistent.

Street Width

Street width was easy to determine. I used Google Maps to measure the distance from curb to curb at 6 intersections. The average was 55.94’. I decided to not include the sidewalk. While I recalled seeing a few protestors there, most were onlookers from the builders, so I decided to not count them.

The Final Verdict

3,570′ multiplied by 55.95’ = 199,741.5 sq ft. Given a medium density crowd (1 person for every 4.5 sq feet) that would give us a crowd size of about 44,386 people.

However the sample size has a few light patches of people here and there. And while the tail end near Westlake looks dense from the camera’s point of view, crowds tend to trail off near the end.

40k just seems like a lot. I wish there were more camera angles to validate that amount. If we were to use the “light” formula (1 person for each 10 sq feet), that would get us to to 20,000 people. I’d guess the actual number is somewhere in between. Whatever the amount, it’s much more than the LAPD’s estimate of 8,000.

So who cares how big the crowd is? 8,000 is a decent enough turnout right? That’s true, but hearing that number on the news isn’t likely to catch your attention. But 20,000? 40,000? That’s impressive. And it’s a better indicator of how many people were upset over last weeks election.

I would argue that any government agency has an inherent bias to under report the size of a protest like this. A larger than normal protest implies that things aren’t quite right. And that perception can threaten the status quo.

Ideally, an independent entity like a non-profit or news organization would measure these protests. I realize that news organizations are hemorrhaging money at the moment so they don’t have a budget for some kind of dedicated protest analyst. But it would be relatively straightforward for an enterprising programmer to create a camera that counts in real time the number of people passing by. At the LA protest yesterday there were dozens of photographers. We could spare at least one of them to stand by a modified camera that tallied passersby, making us less reliant on the possible bias of government officials.