Saturday, August 05, 2017

Count Steps or Else

It's one of the great names in one of the best bad movies of our time: Snake Plisken in "Escape from New York." If you don't know the 1981 film, it takes place in a then distant 1997, when the President's plane crashes into a Manhattan which has been turned into a maximum security prison controlled by violent gangs. Kurt Russell, as Snake, a "scruffy, one-eyed, famous special-forces-soldier-turned-convicted-armed-robber," is tasked with rescuing him in exchange for a pardon. As an extra added incentive, Plisken is injected with an explosive device that will only be defused if he completes the task. It's not too much of a spoiler to say he succeeds and lives, and is so successful that he is tasked several years later with rescuing the President's daughter from a similar hell in "Escape from LA" or he will not be given the antidote to the virus with which he was infected that time. Thankfully, the fictional president's family was not as large as the size of current occupant of the White House, or Plisken would still be making milk runs.

And what brings this current random bit of movie nostalgia to mind? It's the tale of Dina Mitchell and her activity tracker. Next to smartphones, activity trackers, of which Fitbit is the most ubiquitous, have become the must-have electronic accessory of the moment. At their simplest they have an accelerometer and so are able to measure movement, which they display as steps. The more advanced models can also record vertical changes as in climbing stairs, and even your sleep patterns. For most, the reports they offer are a mere curiosity, good as a gentle form of encouragement, coaching and prodding to get you up off the couch. Others are so obsessed with the readouts that you'd think they were training for the Olympics, and need to know their pulse-oxygen ratio at any given moment.

Still, few would argue that any movement is good movement, and if making the little flower bloom on the face of the device by hitting your target step count does it for you, then go for it. After all, what's the worst that could happen? The flower doesn't grow, that's all. Wake up the next day, and the whole thing resets and you go again. Even if you sync it with your computer, and you've linked it to a support group, it's not like you will be getting hate texts from your pals excoriating you for falling short of your goal. Odds of a Jeff Sessions-like public tweet-shaming are pretty low.

Which brings us back to Dina. Mitchell was a Fitbit user, and wore a Flex 2, given to her a few weeks before as a birthday present. Little is reported about her personal habits, whether she was a casual user or a serious physical fitness aficionado. What is known is that she was sitting quietly and reading a book when the device strapped to her wrist "exploded." She went to a local urgent care facility, where doctors removed small pieces of rubber and plastic from her arm left by the melting device, leaving behind second degree burns.

Fitbit said they were investigating the issue and issued a statement: "We are extremely concerned about Ms. Mitchell's report regarding her Flex 2 and take it very seriously, as the health and safety of our customers is our top priority." They said they have had no other reports similar to this, see no reason for people to stop wearing their Flex 2's, and offered Dina a new device to replace her old one.

You can look at this two ways. Taken at face value, it is a random accident to a poor woman, and it ends there. Nothing more. Or what they're NOT telling us is that this was a next generation device that they were field testing surreptitiously. In that scenario, it goes something like this: Dina's step count was low. Dina should have been up and moving. Dina decided that rather than go to the gym, she would sit in a comfy chair and read a book. Not on my watch, said the Flex 2. And BOOM! Just a little behavioral conditioning. You gotta believe that the next time Dina has a choice between getting on the treadmill, or sitting down and paging through Vogue, she'll think twice.

Just remember what could have happened to Snake.


Marc Wollin of Bedford refuses to count his steps. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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