Monday, August 25, 2008


Where does technology take us?

A couple of recent articles in the New York Times really make us think about some of the things we get from technological progress — some things that aren’t terribly obvious at first blush.

In one article, we see the technology in sports, and how it’s enabled this year’s Olympic swimmers to shatter speed records.

BEIJING — He swam so improbably fast, making up so much ground in a foaming, desperate attempt to reach the wall first in the 4x100-meter relay, that Jason Lezak not only won a gold medal for the United States on Monday, but he also helped to shatter the world record by nearly four seconds.

That race alone would have provided an astonishing day of swimming at the Summer Olympics, but it was the third world record of the morning and the seventh in three days of competition. An eighth record was set later Monday, matching the total number broken at the 2004 Athens Games.


Advances in training techniques, pool design and swimsuit technology have contributed to the increases in speed for swimmers, [...]

Training and physical techniques have, of course, improved performance in all sports over the years, and that’s a credit to the athletes and their coaches. At the same time, we forbid the use of drugs to enhance performance, and rightly so: with them, we’re measuring not the skill and technique of the athlete, but the effect of the drugs. Faster, higher, stronger drugs, more than faster, higher, stronger competitors.

How, then, faster, higher, stronger equipment? We’ve seen it many times before, with changes in baseball bats, tennis racquets, golf clubs, artificial turf... and now with swimming pools and swimsuits.

The pools are designed to reduce the effects of the water currents that the swimmers create as they race. The suits create less friction in the water and add buoyancy, to no negligible effect: it’s said that the new Speedo LZR Racer can shave up to 2% off the race times, and this in races that are often won or lost by hundredths of a second.

“When technology is used in a sport, it is important to be in control of the way it is being developed and where it might lead us,” Claude Fauquet, the technical director of the French swimming federation, said in reference to swimsuit technology.

Fauquet has called for more debate about the use of Speedo’s LZR Racer, the latest advance in the full-body suit craze popularized in the last eight years. The Racer has been worn in the setting of about four dozen world records since its introduction in February. The corsetlike suit is made by ultrasonic welding instead of stitching, can require a half-hour to put on and shoehorns the body into a more streamlined position.

Indeed. Nearly 50 world records broken this year alone, thanks in some significant part, it seems, to a newly designed swimsuit. Is that fair? I suppose that all current contestants can opt for the new suit if they want it (though I’m not sure about cost and availability issues), but it certainly makes the new records completely incomparable to the old ones. These are really new records set in a new sport: the sport of racing in a Speedo LZR Racer.

Shouldn’t they simply race naked? Then it’s the athlete alone, with less technological assistance (there’s still the question of the pool).

The other article points out how significant new communications mechanisms have become, as police now expect to get crime tips by text message, and are actively encouraging that.

For years, mayors, police commissioners, community leaders and others have sought to drill into the heads of New Yorkers a simple toll-free phone number to anonymously help in solving crimes: 1-800-577-TIPS.

Now, they want to enlist a younger generation of crime-busters. On Tuesday, the Police Department publicized directions for citizens on how to send text messages to the authorities, to provide the same sort of anonymous tips for investigators working on unsolved criminal cases.

The directions are simple, according to Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman. To initiate a conversation with detectives in the Crimestoppers bureau, callers must text the word CRIMES (or 274637 on a cellular phone).

Recognizing that many people, particularly young ones, prefer text messages to voice ones, the police have added that option in the hope of getting tips from citizens who wouldn’t have otherwise helped out. I do wonder how they can actually promise anonymity with this system, but if the public is willing to use it, I’m all for it. They shouldn’t (and they won’t) discontinue the voice option, of course. But adding more ways to help... can’t hurt.

1 comment:

Dr. Momentum said...

I don't think you've completely captured the reason why drugs are frowned on in sports. There is a safety aspect to the use of performance enhancing drugs, and rules are necessary if the sports committees don't want to see their organization encouraging the use of possibly dangerous drugs. It's not just that drugs can lead to a drug vs. drug competition.

I also don't find the pool design to be problematic. The pools are deeper (to reduce interference) and wider (also to reduce interference). It occurs to me that this pool design is also more fair to the swimmers in the outer lanes (the width issue, not the depth issue). So I see a compelling reason for that beyond increasing speed; a larger pool all around reduces interference among the swimmers, and between swimmer and pool.

The swimsuits are more problematic, and I think you ask a good question there.

But I look at motivation for my answer. The IOC clearly wants a successful games. If they can deliver exciting races and world records, it makes the job easier.

For better or worse.