March 1, 2024

Bits Blog: The F.A.A. Flip-Flop on Electronics Continues

F.A.A. pilotsNick Bilton/The New York Times Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple, discusses pilots using iPads in flights.

In November, after repeatedly being told on airplanes to turn off my Kindle or iPad during takeoff and landing I picked up the phone — while back on the ground, of course — and called the Federal Aviation Administration to ask why.

Les Dorr, a spokesman for the F.A.A., told me the agency would rather err on the side of caution when it comes to digital e-readers and iPads on planes.

But a few weeks later, the F.A.A. changed its mind — slightly — saying that American Airlines pilots would be allowed to use iPads instead of paper flight manuals in the cockpit during some phases of flight.

Now, the F.A.A. has approved iPads for pilots “during all phases” of flights. It is also exploring outfitting flight attendants with iPads, too.

Wait? I thought the F.A.A. said that digital e-readers and iPads could harm a plane?

When I followed up with the F.A.A. last year to ask why pilots can use iPads, but passengers can’t, the agency told me that more than two iPads on a plane would involve a “significantly different scenario for potential interference than unlimited passenger use, which could involve dozens or even hundreds of devices at the same time.”

Yet now the agency is changing its mind about that rule, too.

Maya Leibman, chief information officer for American Airlines, noted in Monday’s news release that: “Our flight attendants have also been piloting an initiative on hand-held tablets, which will give them better information about the customers on their flight and their travel needs. We’ll have more to share on this and other industry-leading technologies in the weeks and months to come.”

So first it’s no iPads because of potential interference. Then two iPads are O.K. — but only two. Now we will have five or six iPads on airplanes? You won’t hear any complaints about the direction of this trend from me or most of the traveling public — only about the speed with which it is occurring.

The F.A.A. seems to be appeasing the public by saying that “an aviation rulemaking committee will be formally established this fall and will meet for six months.” But these meetings will easily take over a year to conclude.

In the meantime, let’s see how easily flight attendants who are wandering the plane with their own tablets in hand can persuade passengers to turn off their devices, too.

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Disruptions: Teaching the F.A.A. That Dogs Don’t Buckle Up

A sign on a Virgin America flight tells passengers to turn off electronic devices.Nick Bilton/The New York TimesA sign on a Virgin America flight tells passengers to turn off electronic devices.

If you’ve ever flown Virgin America, you will have seen the cartoonlike safety video that plays before the flight takes off.

In one scene, about a minute into the video, a man is shown sitting next to a large bull as he fumbles with his seat belt. A voice-over says, “For the 0.0001 percent of you who have never operated a seat belt before, it works like this.”

Few people know that the bull was originally a dog. But when the Federal Aviation Administration reviewed the video, one of the many concerns it had was that passengers would think dogs, which are sometimes on flights, had to wear seat belts — I’m not kidding here — so it made Virgin America change the dog to a bull, as bulls are, thankfully, not allowed on planes.

According to people who were involved in the making of the video, there were six months of meetings with the F.A.A. and changes to the video before it was finally approved.

This was government bureaucracy at its finest, and we may be in for another round of it.

Late last month, the F.A.A. announced that it was putting together an industry working group to study portable electronics usage on planes during takeoff and landing. (Don’t worry about chattering passengers: this is for e-readers and tablets, not for cellphones.)

But how long can these tests take? Given the six-month back-and-forth over a dog wearing a seat belt in a safety video, they might not be finished until the next millennium.

The F.A.A. has indicated the process will take at least a year. “The government-industry group, established through an aviation rulemaking committee, will be formally established this fall and will meet for six months,” it said in a statement.

But the airlines and electronics makers I have spoken with are willing to do whatever it takes to help the F.A.A. approve these changes in a timely manner.

Jeff Bezos, chief executive of Amazon, told me the company had done its own tests on its Kindle e-readers and Fire tablets to help hasten the changes. “We’ve done experiments,” he said. “We loaded a plane with Kindles.”

I asked what happened in the experiments. He looked at me as if I were asking the dumbest question he had ever heard. “Everybody landed,” he said. “It wasn’t a problem.”

Mr. Bezos said Amazon had submitted the results and was waiting to hear back from the F.A.A. But, he said, “They’ve got a process.”

Some airlines, including JetBlue and Virgin America, have notified the F.A.A. of their willingness to help, too.

But the current system of testing electronics devices will most likely have to change before gadgets can be used during takeoff and landing. The agency’s rules state that an airline must test each iteration of a device on each type of plane, without passengers, before it can be approved.

“With individual testing needed for every version of every electronic device out there, it’s practically impossible for an airline to take on the testing independently, so we’re pleased the F.A.A. is evaluating it and taking steps in that direction,” said Abby Lunardini, vice president of corporate communications at Virgin America. She said changing the rules would make flying more enjoyable for Virgin America passengers.

“We are keen to help in any way we can,” said Jamie Perry, director of product development at JetBlue. “The current situation is not working for customers, for airlines or for the F.A.A.”

As new e-readers and tablets are announced on an almost weekly basis, it seems the F.A.A. might have to accept truths like these: People are smart enough to know that dogs don’t wear seat belts, and reading devices like Kindles and iPads don’t affect an airplane’s avionics.

“This is a change that needs to happen,” Mr. Bezos said. “It’s time.”

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Disruptions: Life’s Too Short for So Much E-Mail

Royal Pingdom, which monitors Internet usage, said that in 2010, 107 trillion e-mails were sent. Corporate employees sent and received 105 e-mails a day.Tony Cenicola/The New York TimesRoyal Pingdom, which monitors Internet usage, said that in 2010, 107 trillion e-mails were sent. Corporate employees sent and received 105 e-mails a day.

Just thinking about my e-mail in-box makes me sad.

This month alone, I received over 6,000 e-mails. That doesn’t include spam, notifications or daily deals, either. With all those messages, I have no desire to respond to even a fraction of them. I can just picture my tombstone: Here lies Nick Bilton, who responded to thousands of e-mails a month. May he rest in peace.

It’s not that I’m so popular.

Last year, Royal Pingdom, which monitors Internet usage, said that in 2010, 107 trillion e-mails were sent. A report this year from the Radicati Group, a market research firm, found that in 2011, there were 3.1 billion active e-mail accounts in the world. The report noted that, on average, corporate employees sent and received 105 e-mails a day.

Sure, some of those e-mails are important. But 105 a day?

All of this has led me to believe that something is terribly wrong with e-mail. What’s more, I don’t believe it can be fixed.

I’ve tried everything. Priority mail, filters, more filters, filters within filters, away messages, third-party e-mail tools. None of these supposed solutions work.

Last year, I decided to try to reach In-box Zero, the Zen-like state of a consistently empty in-box. I spent countless hours one evening replying to neglected messages. I woke up the next morning to find that most of my replies had received replies, and so, once again, my in-box was brimming. It all felt like one big practical joke.

Meanwhile, all of this e-mail could be increasing our stress.

A research report issued this year by the University of California, Irvine, found that people who did not look at e-mail regularly at work were less stressed and more productive than others.

Gloria Mark, an informatics professor who studies the effects of e-mail and multitasking in the workplace and is a co-author of the study, said, “One person in our e-mail study told us after: I let the sound of the bell and pop-ups rule my life.”

Ms. Mark says one of the main problems with e-mail is that there isn’t an off switch.

“E-mail is an asynchronous technology, so you don’t need to be on it to receive a message,” she said. “Synchronous technologies, like instant messenger, depend on people being present.”Although some people allow their instant messenger services to save offline messages, most cannot receive messages if they are not logged on. With e-mail, it is different. If you go away, e-mails pile up waiting for your return.

Avoiding new messages is as impossible as trying to play a game of hide-and-seek in an empty New York City studio apartment. There is nowhere to hide.

I recently sent an e-mail to a teenage cousin who responded with a text message. I responded again through e-mail, and this time she answered with Facebook Messenger. She was obviously seeing the e-mails but kept choosing a more concise way to reply. Our conversation moved to Twitter’s direct messages, where it was ended quickly by the 140-character limit.

Later, we talked about the exchanges, and she explained that she saw e-mail as something for “old people.” It’s too slow for her, and the messages too long. Sometimes, she said, as with a Facebook status update, you don’t even need to respond at all.

Since technology hasn’t solved the problem it has created with e-mail, it looks as if some younger people might come up with their own answer — not to use e-mail at all.

So I’m taking a cue from them.

I’ll look at my e-mail as it comes in. Maybe I’ll respond with a text, Google Chat, Twitter or Facebook message. But chances are, as with many messages sent via Facebook or Twitter, I won’t need to respond at all.

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Disruptions: Resolved in 2012: To Enjoy the View Without Help From an iPhone

Nick Bilton/The New York Times

Last week, I drove to Pacifica, a beach community just south of San Francisco, where I climbed a large rocky hill as the sun descended on the horizon. It painted a typically astounding California sunset across the Pacific Ocean. What did I do next?

What any normal person would do in 2011: I pulled out my iPhone and began snapping pictures to share on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

I spent 10 minutes trying to compose the perfect shot, moving my phone from side to side, adjusting light settings and picking the perfect filter.

Then, I stopped. Here I was, watching this magnificent sunset, and all I could do is peer at it through a tiny four-inch screen.

“What’s wrong with me?” I thought. “I can’t seem to enjoy anything without trying to digitally capture it or spew it onto the Internet.”

Hence my New Year’s resolution: In 2012, I plan to spend at least 30 minutes a day without my iPhone. Without Internet, Twitter, Facebook and my iPad. Spending a half-hour a day without electronics might sound easy for most, but for me, 30 unconnected minutes produces the same anxious feelings of a child left accidentally at the mall.

I made this resolution out of a sense that I habitually reached for the iPhone even when I really didn’t need to, when I might have just enjoyed an experience, like the sunset, without any technology. And after talking to people who do research on subjects like this, I realized that there were some good reasons to give up a little tech.

For example, I was worried that if I did not capture that beautiful sunset and stuff it into my phone, I’d forget it.

“Even with something as beautiful as a sunset, forgetting is really important as a mental hygiene,” said Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, a professor of Internet governance at Oxford University and the author of the book “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.”

“That things in our past become rosier over time is incredibly important,” he added. “As we forget, our memories abstract and our brain goes through a cleansing process.” Mr. Mayer-Schönberger said that keeping a perpetual visual diary of everything could slow down our brains’ purging process.

Constantly interacting with our mobile devices has other drawbacks too. There are more pictures in my iPhone of that 45-minute hike at Pacifica than most families would have taken on a two-week vacation before the advent of digital cameras.

As a result, I had no time to daydream on that hike, and daydreams, scientists say, are imperative in solving problems.

Jonah Lehrer, a neuroscientist and the author of the soon-to-be-released book, “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” said in a phone interview that our brains often needed to become inattentive to figure out complex issues. He said his book discussed an area of the brain scientists call “the default network” that was active only when the rest of the brain was inactive — in other words, when we were daydreaming.

Letting the mind wander activates the default network, he said, and allows our brains to solve problems that most likely can’t be solved during a game of Angry Birds.

“Like everyone else, I really can’t imagine life without that little computer in my pocket,” he added. “However, there is an importance to being able to put it aside and let those daydreams naturally perform the cognitive functions your brain needs.”

Jonathan Schooler, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara who has focused his research on daydreaming, put it this way: “Daydreaming and boredom seem to be a source for incubation and creative discovery in the brain and is part of the creative incubation process.”

I don’t intend to give up my technology entirely, but I want to find a better balance. For me, it’s that 30 minutes a day for daydreaming.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and tell my Twitter followers about my New Year’s resolution.

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Disruptions: Tests Cast Doubt on F.A.A. Restrictions on Kindle and iPad

EMT Labs, a testing center in Mountain View, Calif., measures electromagnetic interference from gadgets to ensure that they meet Federal Communications Commission standards.Nick Bilton/The New York TimesEMT Labs, a testing center in Mountain View, Calif., measures electromagnetic interference from gadgets to ensure that they meet Federal Communications Commission standards.

The Federal Aviation Administration has its reasons for preventing passengers from reading from their Kindles and iPads during takeoff and landing. But they just don’t add up.

Since I wrote a column last month asking why these rules exist, I’ve spoken with the F.A.A., American Airlines, Boeing and several others trying to find answers. Each has given me a radically different rationale that contradicts the others. The F.A.A. admits that its reasons have nothing to do with the undivided attention of passengers or the fear of Kindles flying out of passengers’ hands in case there is turbulence. That leaves us with the danger of electrical emissions.

For answers, I headed down to EMT Labs, an independent testing facility in Mountain View, Calif., that screens electrical emissions of gadgets that need to pass health, safety and interference standards.

Before I share the results of the tests EMT ran, let me explain what this means. Every electronic device throws off electrical emissions. This is the slight hum of energy that emanates from a device when in use. Labs like EMT test electronics of all sizes to ensure that they meet government standards and will not interfere with other electronics when in use.

Gadgets are tested by monitoring the number of volts per meter coming off a device. The F.A.A. requires that before a plane can be approved as safe, it must be able to withstand up to 100 volts per meter of electrical interference.

When EMT Labs put an Amazon Kindle through a number of tests, the company consistently found that this e-reader emitted less than 30 microvolts per meter when in use. That’s only 0.00003 of a volt.

“The power coming off a Kindle is completely minuscule and can’t do anything to interfere with a plane,” said Jay Gandhi, chief executive of EMT Labs, after going over the results of the test. “It’s so low that it just isn’t sending out any real interference.”

But one Kindle isn’t sending out a lot of electrical emissions. But surely a plane’s cabin with dozens or even hundreds will? That’s what both the F.A.A. and American Airlines asserted when I asked why pilots in the cockpit could use iPads, but the people back in coach could not. Yet that’s not right either.

“Electromagnetic energy doesn’t add up like that. Five Kindles will not put off five times the energy that one Kindle would,” explained Kevin Bothmann, EMT Labs testing manager. “If it added up like that, people wouldn’t be able to go into offices, where there are dozens of computers, without wearing protective gear.”

Bill Ruck, principal engineer at CSI Telecommunications, a firm that does radio communications engineering, added: “Saying that 100 devices is 100 times worse is factually incorrect. Noise from these devices increases less and less as you add more.”

The F.A.A. does allow some electronics during takeoff and landing. Portable voice recorders, hearing aids, heart pacemakers and electric shavers are permitted during all times of a flight.

So I took a Sony voice recorder that I bought at Best Buy and tested that too. The results? The voice recorder puts off almost exactly the same electrical emissions as the Kindle. In many instances of the test, the voice recorder actually emitted more.

In 2006, a report commissioned by the F.A.A. determined that people could not use electronics during takeoff and landing. I asked Dave Carson, a Boeing engineer who was co-chairman of the group that wrote the report, why we are allowed voice recorders and electric razors but not Kindles and iPads.

In an e-mail, Mr. Carson said that voice recorders and razors had been determined to “not cause interference with the navigation or communication system of the aircraft on which it is to be used” though he wrongly thought that the F.A.A. banned those devices nonetheless. Mr. Ruck said: “The only reason these rules exist from the F.A.A. is because of agency inertia and paranoia.”

The F.A.A. and other groups seem to be running out of reasons we can’t use digital e-readers on planes during takeoff and landing. Maybe their next response will be: “Because I said so!”

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