Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Distracted Driving and Cut-throat Capitalism

Here are a few games that are fun and sciencey to keep you sane at work.

Driving whilst Distracted

The New York Times recently published a Distracted Driver game to gauge your distraction while you're texting on the road. The game puts you driving on a road having to negotiate a number of toll booths along the way. The game tests your ability to drive through the correct gates without any distractions, and then it makes you write a couple of text messages whilst still having to negotiate the booths.

After you finish the game, you get a comparison of your result with everyone else who has played. I improved the second time I played, my first results are below. I didn't see a grey lady either time!

The science of mobile phone use whilst driving is a developing field, with most of the research suggesting that you are just as impaired, or more so, if texting or using a hand-held mobile as you are if you are drunk. A couple of great resources if you are interested are:
  1. The Dutch national road safety research institute (SWOV). Their publication SWOV Fact sheet: Use of mobile phone while driving was published in 2008 and contains a great deal of up-to-date research. Their conclusion is that the negative effects of mobile phone use whilst driving are caused by both physical and cognitive distraction. Although physical distraction can be reduced through the use of such aids as handsfree phones and speed dialling, cognitive distraction remains the crucial problem. They conclude that handsfree phones do not have significant safety advantages over handheld phones. They also point towards research suggesting that talking on a mobile phone is associated with cognitive distraction that may undermine pedestrian safety.
  2. Applied Cognition Laboratory, Department of Psychology, University of Utah - David Strayer has published a wealth of research on the impact of using in-car technologies on driving performance and traffic safety. It is well worth a browse of their published articles.

Cut-throat Capitalism

Piracy has a romantic history often associated with walking-the-plank, peg-legs and saying Arrrrr a lot - there is even an international talk like a pirate day on the 19th of September each year. However, modern piracy in Somalia is a deadly game and nothing like the stereotype. Nevertheless, Wired Magazine has had some fun with this and brings us Cut-throat Capitalism in which you are a pirate commander staked with $50,000 from local tribal leaders and other investors, and your job is to guide your pirate crew through raids in and around the Gulf of Aden, attack and capture a ship, and successfully negotiate a ransom.

The game is addictive and highly strategic. Initially I kept alienating my crew by being nice in my negotiations, so they eventually deposed me as captain. Then when I was too tough on my hostages, the Navy was called in. Eventually, I was successful in negotiating a $3 million ransom.

Piracy off the Somalian coast is seen as a business by those who conduct it, and as such it can be analysed by economists (who, in general, love to think that the world revolves on an economic axis). Wired has taken a look at the economics of piracy and found that the typical payoff for piracy in Somalia today is 100 times what it was in 2005. One of the reasons why it is flourishing today is because it exploits the incentives that drive international maritime trade. Shippers, insurance companies, private security contractors, and national navies stand to lose less by tolerating it rather than attempting to stop it - insurance covers the ransom, ships and goods are not lost and no one dies. The pirates know that they can keep escalating the situation to see just how much the "market" can bear. The negotiation process also involves risk/reward calculations.

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