Seattle Monorail 2
Seattle Center Monorail, 1962; Seattle Times

When the monorail connecting Haneda Airport and downtown Tokyo opened up on September 17, 1964, a month prior to the opening of the XVIII Olympiad, it was yet another symbol of Japan’s revitalization and cutting edge.

The people who built the monorail in Tokyo likely saw the successful models before deciding on developing a monorail system of their own. Two of them were in the US – Disneyland in Los Angeles, which opened in 1959, and the Seattle Center Monorail, which debuted in 1962.

Half a century later, Haneda is still a reliable way to get to Haneda Airport. The Seattle Center Monorail is more of a decorative transportation option that takes you from one tourist destination to another. Still, the Seattle monorail transports over 2 million people a year. And for only a $2.50 one-way fare, the Seattle monorail takes you from Seattle Center, home of the city’s Space Needle, to WestLake Center, the heart of Seattle, in only 2 minutes. As you can see in the video, it’s a pleasant ride that gives you a great above ground view of the city!

 

Most of us think about the luge and skeleton competitions once every four years during the Winter Olympics, if at all. Regardless, watching these competitions will get the tension up for anyone. Sliding down an icy curvy course at speeds of over 130 kph without breaks, with very little to protect you looks crazy dangerous….thus the thrill.

Just in case you’re interested, there are a few significant differences between two sliding events that seem similar to the untrained eye: the luge and the skeleton. The most obvious difference is that luge competitors race down the sliding course feet first, face looking to the sky, while skeleton competitors zip down the course head first. Here are a few more:

skeleton sled vs luge sled
skeleton sled top, luge sled below

Runners: Luges have razor-sharp blades for runners while skeleton sleds have metal tubes for runners.

Starting Point: Luges for individual competitors (as well as bobsleigh) start higher up the course than skeleton (although women at a lower point than men)

Starting Method: Luge competitors start from a sitting position, pushing off from the starting point with their hands, while skeleton competitors sprint at the start like bobsleigh teams, running for about 40 meters, admittedly somewhat awkwardly as the sled is very low to the ground.

Steering: Lugers on their backs with their feet at the front and so the way the luge is designed is for the luger to steer with their legs, pushing down on the left “kufen,” the hook-shaped part of the runner, for example. The challenge is steering without being able to see. Skeleton competitors can see very clearly, and since they are nestled in a “saddle” attached to the skeleton sled, they can steer more easily than lugers with subtle shifts in body weight can alter the direction of the sled.

Speed: All factors being considered, lugers are able to hit faster speeds than skeleton competitors. Lugers start higher up the course, and their feet-first approach is more aerodynamic than the head-first approach of skeleton sliders. Clearly, a round helmet creates greater air resistance than two feet pointed straight ahead. According to the science guy, Bill Nye, “so serious are luge sliders about drag, the soles of their shoes have no tread, and the heels are permanently set to keep them walking on tiptoes to the starting gate.” As a result lugers can hit speeds of 145 to 150 kph, while skeleton sliders max out at around 130 kph.

 

National Stadium design_Kengo Kuma 2
Kengo Kuma’s design for the Tokyo 2020 National Stadium

 

936 more days to go until the Opening Ceremonies of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Here are a few of my favorite stories and thoughts on Tokyo2020.

 

2020 Mascot Candidates
Tokyo 2020 Mascot Candidates

If you’re flying in and out of Haneda Airport from January 9, 2018, you may be surprised to see a new team on hand to assist you. The team will be made up of seven robots designed to assist staff and visitors at the busy domestic and international airport, located very near the central part of Tokyo.

Robots will be there to provide information, offer interpretation into four different languages or carry your bags, for example. When you’re at Haneda in January, you’ll see a C-3PO ancestor, the”EMIEW3″ robot, which is less than a meter tall and can provide you with information in English and Japanese.

 

Robots at Haneda 2
The EMIEW3

 

With the number of foreign visitors to Japan climbing rapidly – the total number of visitors to Japan exceeding 24 million this year – combined with a tight labor market, Haneda officials realize that they will need robots to increase productivity and meet the needs of travelers. Additionally, there is a pride associated with showing the world during the Tokyo2020 Olympics that Japan is cutting edge.

As Yutaka Kuratomi, a representative from the Japan Airport Terminal, said in this article, “We want foreign tourists to think that the Japanese people are cool when they come here.”

Fujitsu 3D Gymnastic Modeling

The robots aren’t quite taking over by 2020. But they will be assisting gymnastic judges at the 2020 Olympics.

The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) intends to employ laser technology in order to provide data and recommendations to judges instantaneously to supplement their own judgment based on what they see with their own eyes.

Fujitsu, which is a Tokyo 2020 Gold Partner, has been focusing its 3D sensory technology on the world of gymnastics in order to provide real-time feedback on techniques a gymnast is attempting and making, the elements of which can be hard to catch by the naked eye. This technology, an advance on the more familiar technology of applying motion capture balls all over the body of an athlete, does not require the subject to apply anything. Instead a device that emits lasers from a single point, one that looks like a camera, feeds data that processes, essentially, 360 degree views of the subject.

With that amount of data captured, the software is able to assess exactly how the body has moved through the air. Benchmarking against standards of excellence inputted into the software, the system is then able to provide a report to judges what techniques were attempted or made, and then assess points to those series of techniques. In essence the 3D sensory system can do the gymnastic judge’s job.

Clearly, there is an advantage a non-human system has over a human – a “robot” will not get tired or cranky at the end of the day, nor will it allow unconscious biases about nationality, race, appearance, etc to seep into its judgment. But there has been some concern, as there should be.

According to this article, whenever you place your measuring and evaluating systems in the hands of algorithms, you are subject to hacking of some sort.

“In gymnastics, you can have 10 to 100 independent moves the system is trying to score. If the algorithm were manipulated by even a small portion you could affect the overall outcome score and it would be very hard to detect,” said Betsy Cooper, the executive director for long-term cybersecurity at UC Berkeley.

Fujitsu 3D Sensing Technology for Gymnastics
Fujitsu 3D Sensing Technology for Gymnastics

Any technology that relays information from an external source – like this 3D sensor does – to a computer is at risk. Mix the technology with a scoring panel of judges, and there is room for manipulation. “You can manipulate the algorithms to change the score one out of every five times, making it hard to detect. That area is most disconcerting. Whoever has an interest in the outcome of these major sporting events will also have an interest in trying to take advantage of any such system,” Cooper said.

This is why, the plan is to have 3D sensory system only assist judges, not replace them.

Perhaps the greatest impact will be in faster development of gymnasts. Coaches and gymnasts can examine the data, understand the micro-movements that keep their points down, and apply their practices to improving their movements to get their points up.

In other words, the next generation of gymnasts will grow up on this feedback, understanding what specific things they need to do for perfection at very early stages in their career. In this new age of digital analytics and 3D modeling, athletes are able to approach perfection at a faster rate than ever before.

Long Jump in meters

Whenever I write a story on an American high jumper, long jumper or a discus thrower, I have to go through the painful back-and-forth conversion between feet and meters, inches and centimeters.

It used to be the holy grail in the United States and Britain to run a mile in fewer than four minutes, until Roger Bannister broke it, which broke the mental barrier and allowed others to blast through the four minute wall. Today, however, no one really cares about the mile, as the standard racing distance is the 1,500 meters, which is a little less than a mile.

Now, track and field in the US has generally gone metric. For example, the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships hold the same distance running events that other countries do: 100 meters, 800 meters, 5,000 meters, 110 meter hurdles etc. In fact, the organization, USA Track and Field, adopted distances using the metric system in 1974.

They were ahead of their time apparently, because in 1975, the US Congress passed an act that states preference for the metric system of weights and measures, which was followed by an executive order from President Gerald Ford. Essentially, the entire world had already adopted the metric system. Politicians and businessmen alike wanted the US to get with the international game plan. However, for some reason, probably related to a tremendous resistance to change, the act and the order watered down by stating adoption was voluntary.

What was this resistance? Listen to this fantastic podcast on design, 99 Percent Invisible, and their story on America’s implementation of the metric system, titled Half Measures. History professor, Stephen Mihm is quoted as saying in the podcast that interestingly, uncommon bedfellows united to resist: astronomers, theologians and industrial engineers:

But abandoning the U.S. customary system did not sit well with a lot of people, including and influential group of “astronomers, theologians, and cranks,” Mihm explains. “And keep in mind that those categories which we consider separate and distinct today were not at this time.” This group spun together scientific arguments with other wild and nonsensical ideas, and developed a theory that to abandon the inch was to go against God’s will. Converting to metric, they argued, would be tantamount to sacrilege.

But the real core resistance to metrication came from a different group entirely: some of the most innovative industrialists of their day. Engineers who worked in the vast machine tool industry had built up enormous factories that included everything from lathes to devices for cutting screw threads — and all of these machines were designed around the inch. The manufacturers argued that retooling their machines for a new measurement system would be prohibitively expensive. They also argued there was an “intuitiveness” to the customary system that made it ideal for shop work.

Imperial Metric Conversion for cooking
Imperial – Metric Conversion for Cooking

This reluctance for to fully shift to the metric system can result in engineering miscalculations, sometimes with tragic or costly consequences:

  • In 1983, an Air Canada Flight ran out of fuel mid-flight because the ground crew and the flight crew all calculated fuel requirements in pounds instead of liters, granted this mistake happened just after the Canadian government required conversion to the metric system. Fortunately, the pilots managed an incredible “dead-stick” landing, gliding safely to a nearby airstrip.
  • In 1999, NASA lost a $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft because engineers in Lockheed Martin calculated thruster data in pounds to NASA while NASA engineers were making their calculations in metric units called “newtons.”
  • In 2003, a car on the Space Mountain roller coaster ride at Tokyo Disneyland derailed due to a broken axle, resulting in the injury of 12. Apparently, new axle parts ordered in 2002 were measured in inches as opposed to millimeters, making the new axles off spec.

In the end, there are bigger issues than the momentary confusion of trying to know how far 5,000 meters is in feet or miles. And to be fair, American institutions have gradually adopted the metric system due to its partnerships and obligations internationally.

And yet, the fact that America still clings officially to inches, quarts and Fahrenheit can be a pain. Don’t we know that we are shooting ourselves in the foot?

Lourdes University eSports scholarship.jpg

You can get a scholarship in e-Sports.

Lourdes University, a small mid-western school in Sylvania, Ohio, announced in January 2017 that the “Gray Wolves” of Lourdes intends to field three teams to compete in two eSports leagues – the National Association of Collegiate eSports and the Collegiate StarLeague, and that scholarships are available for game gamers.

Lourdes’ President Mary Ann Gawalek explained that “Competitive video gaming requires students to possess excellent critical thinking, problem-solving and teamwork skills – which are transferrable to their academic pursuits. In addition, these individuals must follow a strong fitness regimen and have a healthy mind and spirit.”

It’s also possible that institutions are picking up on what gamers already know – eSports is becoming big business. Estimates stated in Business Insider and Newzoo indicate that advertising and sponsorship monies dedicated to eSports ranges from USD440 million to USD700 million, with expectations of growth to anywhere from USD800 million to USD1.5 billion by 2020.

The IOC has seen this trend, and eSports aligns with the committee’s desire to continuously draw in the youth market. Recent additions like surfing, skateboarding, sports climbing and three-on-three basketball to the 2020 Games are a direct result of that strategy. And so, the organizers of the 2024 Paris Olympics are studying the possibility of including eSports. However, when IOC president, Thomas Bach, was asked for his views on eSports, he provided a point of view that was a shot across the bow of the gaming industry.

esports The_International_2014.jpg

“We want to promote non-discrimination, non-violence, and peace among people,” Bach said to the SCMP, an Alibaba-owned paper. “This doesn’t match with video games, which are about violence, explosions and killing. And there we have to draw a clear line.”

Fans of eSports pointed out the hypocrisy, in their view, of the IOC saying no to eSports while awarding medals in boxing, shooting, fencing, judo and wrestling, for example.

While eSports includes games of explicit violence, like Counter-Strike or Overwatch, Bach and the IOC may be open to non-violent eSports that actually mimic sports in the more traditional sense, like soccer or basketball.

But when I first heard this story, my personal skepticism sensor didn’t tick up because of the violence. I simply couldn’t see eSports as an Olympic event because it doesn’t feel like a sport. To me sports are acts of intense physicality. I love chess, but I don’t view it in the same way as running, jumping, swimming throwing or a whole host of similar actions.

I could be biased. I had an original Atari game counsel, and an early Nintendo Fami-con way back when. But I would never consider myself a gamer. Watching people play electronic games is impressive, but beyond incredible hand-eye coordination, I haven’t yet reached the conclusion that eSports are more sport than game.

eSports enthusiasts may counter that Dressage or prone rifle shooting are more game than sport, and I’d have to agree that there is a range of physicality in such tournaments as the Olympics. But I still can’t shake the feeling that eSports are not truly sports.

In the end, my opinion doesn’t matter.

As Around The Rings notes, the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou will award medals in eSports. And if the organizers of the 2024 Paris make a more specific recommendation for non-violent games for the eSports category, the IOC may have to consider its inclusion.