Urban Studies

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If driverless cars were to emerge only after all infrastructure has been uniformly upgraded and every possible hazard anticipated, it might be a long wait. An override to these problems is autonomous vehicles being connected to a network–and each other–and constantly be “educated.” In Steve Ranger’s ZDNet interview with Jim McBride of Ford’s driverless division, the latter addresses this issue, promising that shift from driver to driverless will “not terribly dissimilar from [the shift from] horses and carriages going to cars.” An excerpt:


What are the big technical challenges you are facing?

Jim McBride:

When you do a program like this, which is specifically aimed at what people like to call ‘level four’ or fully autonomous, there are a large number of scenarios that you have to be able to test for. Part of the challenge is to understand what we don’t know. Think through your entire lifetime of driving experiences and I’m sure there are a few bizarre things that have happened. They don’t happen very frequently but they do.


How do you build that kind of intelligence in?

Jim McBride:

It’s a difficult question because you can’t sit down and write a list of everything you might imagine, because you are going to forget something. You need to make the vehicle generically robust to all sorts of scenarios, but the scenarios that you do anticipate happening a lot, for example people violating red lights at traffic intersections, we can, under controlled conditions, test those very repeatedly. We have a facility near us called Mcity, and it’s basically a mock-urban environment where we control the infrastructure. While you and I may only see someone run a red light a few times a year, we can go out there and do it dozens of times just in the morning.

So for that category of things we can do the testing in a controlled environment, pre-planned. We can also do simulation work on data and, aside from that, it’s basically getting out on the roads and aggregating a lot of experiences.•

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From the June 16, 1946 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:




Speaking of the End of Days, utter societal collapse in the United States doesn’t seem likely to me, even if we’re apparently dumber and more racist than feared. Many of my fellow Americans disagree, however, thinking things will soon fall apart. In advance of the November elections, the panic-room business is booming, as some among us are counting their gold coins and covering their asses.

The opening of “Prepping for Doomsday,” Clare Trapasso’s Realtor.com article:

The apocalypse has become big business. And it’s getting bigger every day.

In the ’50s, homeowners fearing Communist attacks built bunkers in their backyards and basements, hung up a few “God Bless Our Bomb Shelter” signs and called it a Cold War.

But today, Americans en masse are again preparing for the worst—and Communists are just about the only thing not on their list. What is? Terrorist attacks, a total economic collapse, perhaps even zombie invasions. Or maybe just a complete societal breakdown after this November’s scorched-Earth presidential election.

But this is not your Uncle Travis’ guns-and-canned-foods-militia vision of Armageddon preparedness. While the fears of survivalists and so-called preppers are modernizing, so too are their ideas and methods of refuge.

The business of disaster readiness is getting higher tech, higher priced, and way more geographically diverse, with state-of-the-art underground shelters tricked out with greenhouses, gyms, and decontamination units in the boondocks and the latest in plush panic rooms in city penthouses.

Welcome to the brave (and for some, highly profitable) new world of paranoia. 

“There’s a lot of uneasiness in society. You see it in politics. You see it in the economy. The world is changing really, really quickly and not always for the better,” says Richard Duarte, author of “Surviving Doomsday: A Guide for Surviving an Urban Disaster.”

Prepping “gives them a certain comfort that at least they’ve got some sort of preparations to … take care of their family if things start falling apart all around them,” he says.•

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Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President in June to a crowd of paid actors, which was sort of quaint in this Digital Age, as if he were Frank Sinatra in the ’40s crooning before “fainting” bobby soxers who’d been slipped a few dollars in advance to encourage their dizzy spells. You would think the practice of poseur appreciators and persuaders would be passé in our time, when there are bots and algorithms to goad the gormless, but there are things about human flesh that still cannot be replicated by machines. In some cases, all the world’s a stage and we’re all merely players–or at least some of us who are been compensated for pretending to be paparazzi or protesters or proponents. 

In “Crowd Source,” Davy Rothbart’s smart California Sunday Magazine article, the writer profiles a company that can make any carpet red and anyone a Kardashian, selling the aura of popularity in this Reality TV era. They offer a little extra–they offer extras, with titles like “Selfie Guy.” The opening:

The text message says to show up at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott Hotel at 11 a.m. on a Monday. But through some combination of traffic and my own chronic lateness, I find myself rushing into the lobby at 12 minutes after, aware that it’s not a good look to be late for work, my first day on a new job.

I’ve been hired by a company called Crowds on Demand. If you need a crowd of people — for nearly any reason — Crowds on Demand can make it happen. Now it has taken me on as one of its crowd members, although the specifics remain a mystery. It’s an odd sensation to be headed into a gig with no idea what task I’m expected to perform. All I know is that I’ll be making 15 bucks an hour.

In the hotel lobby, Adam Swart, the company’s 24-year-old CEO, is greeting a dozen other recruits. Handsome, fit, sporting slacks and a button-down shirt, Adam bears an uncanny resemblance to House Speaker Paul Ryan, though he’s more than 20 years younger. He circles around us with manic energy, as though jacked up on six cups of coffee. While he gently reprimands me for my lateness, I take his tone to mean, You’re off the hook this time, but don’t do it again. He leads us downstairs to a ballroom in the basement and gives us the lowdown.

The Marriott, Adam explains, is hosting a conference for life coaches from around the country. As these folks arrive in the ballroom to register and pick up their badges, lanyards, and gift bags, our job is to treat them like mega-celebrities, to behave like a wild throng of fans desperate for their love. As it turns out, this is one of Crowds on Demand’s most pop­­ular services.•


Mathew Brady.

Mathew Brady.


President Lincoln.

Ulysses S. Grant.

Ulysses S. Grant.

Robert E. Lee.

Robert E. Lee.

The Civil War would have a name without Mathew Brady but not a face.

Other notable photographers worked in that tumultuous, internecine period, but it was Brady and his pioneering photojournalism that truly captured the visages burdened by the fate of a nation. While Brady was rich in life experience, his relentless attempt to record the Civil War with the expensive daguerreotype process essentially bankrupted him. He expected the U.S. government to eagerly purchase his trove in the post-war period and restore his financial standing, but the money never materialized. Brady died penniless in the charity ward of New York’s Presbyterian Hospital in 1896. Two years before his death, a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article misspelled his first name while chronicling how money troubles cost him his gallery in Washington D.C. 


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Whether we’re talking about baseball umpires or long-haul truckers, I’m not so concerned about machines ruining the “romance” of traditional human endeavor, but I am very worried about technological unemployment destabilizing Labor. Perhaps history will repeat itself and more and better jobs will replace the ones likely to be disappeared in the coming decades, but even just the perfection of driverless cars will create a huge pothole in society. The Gig Economy is a diminishing of the workforce, and even those positions are vulnerable to automation. Maybe things will work themselves out, but it would be far better if we’re prepared for a worst-case scenario.

Excerpts from two articles follow: 1) Mark Karlin’s Truthout interview with Robert McChesney, co-author of People Get Ready, and 2) a Manu Saadia Tech Insider piece, “Robots Could Be a Big Problem for the Third World.”

From Truthout:


Let me start with the grand question raised by your book written with John Nichols. I think it is safe to say that the conventional thinking of the “wisdom class” for decades has been that the more advanced technology becomes (including robots and automated means of production, service and communication), the more beneficial it will be for humans. What is the basic challenge to that concept at the center of the new book by you and John?

Robert W. McChesney:

The conventional wisdom, embraced and propagated by many economists, has been that while new technologies will disrupt and eliminate many jobs and entire industries, they would also create new industries, which would eventually have as many or more new jobs, and that these jobs would generally be much better than the jobs that had been lost to technology.

And that has been more or less true for much of the history of industrial capitalism. Vastly fewer people were needed to work on farms by the 20th century and many ended up in factories; less are now needed in factories and they end up in offices. The new jobs tended to be better than the old jobs.

But we argue the idea that technology will create a new job to replace the one it has destroyed is no longer operative. Nor is the idea that the new job will be better than the old job, in terms of compensation and benefits. Capitalism is in a period of prolonged and arguably indefinite stagnation.•

From Tech Insider:

The danger lies in the transition to an economy where the cost of making stuff—industry—has become more or less like agriculture today (with very few people employed and a very low share of GDP). With appropriate policies in place, developed countries can probably manage that transition. They have in the past, and therefore it is safe to assume they most likely will in the future. It does not mean that we will not experience dislocations and conflicts, but we do have old and established institutions—government, the press, the public sphere— that allow us to resolve such conflicts over time for the greater benefit of all.

The real challenge will be beyond our comfortable borders, in the developing world. In both nineteenth-century Europe and twentieth-century Asia, national development has followed a similar pattern. People moved from the countryside to urban centers to take advantage of higher-paying jobs in factories and services. Again, South Korea offers a startling, fast-forward example of that: it underwent a complete transformation from a poor, rural country to a postindus trial, hyperurban powerhouse in less than fifty years. It was so rapid that most visible traces of the past have been erased and forgotten. The national museum in Seoul has a life-size reconstruction of a Seoul street in the 1950s, just like we have over here, but for the colonial era. And imagine this, China went down that very same path at an even faster clip. Half a billion impoverished people turned into middle-class consumers in three decades.

However, this may not happen again if manufacturing is reduced to the status of agriculture, a highly rationalized activity (read: employing very few people). The historically proven path to economic growth and prosperity taken by Korea and China might no longer be available to the next countries.•

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The publication of a recent unauthorized biography of Joan Didion has reopened the conversation on her career, with some turning their guns on her canon, but I still vote “yes,” especially in regards to her writing about her native California. 

One assignment in the Golden State that never panned out as planned was her 1976 reportage of the Patty Hearst trial in San Francisco, which was supposed to run in Rolling Stone. Didion couldn’t find the thread of the court proceedings of the debutante terrorist but used the experience to work over some of her own knots.

A few of her recollections of this period have been published in the New York Review of Books. The essay jumps around, touching on two different coming-of-age stories which occurred, roughly speaking, in the same milieu. Really intended for Didion completists. The introduction:

I had told Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone that I would cover the Patty Hearst trial, and this pushed me into examining my thoughts about California. Some of my notes from the time follow here. I never wrote the piece about the Hearst trial, but I went to San Francisco in 1976 while it was going on and tried to report it. And I got quite involved in uncovering my own mixed emotions. This didn’t lead to my writing the piece, but eventually it led to—years later—Where I Was From (2003).

When I was there for the trial, I stayed at the Mark. And from the Mark, you could look into the Hearst apartment. So I would sit in my room and imagine Patty Hearst listening to Carousel. I had read that she would sit in her room and listen to it. I thought the trial had some meaning for me—because I was from California. This didn’t turn out to be true.

—March 23, 2016•

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From the August 11, 1925 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:




When Tyler Cowen wrote his provocative 2013 Time cover story about Texas being the future of America, I pushed back a bit, wondering if the swarm of transplants to the state might change it profoundly, whether Texas as we know it–conservative, small-government, uber-capitalist–was even the future of Texas, let alone the rest of us. 

In a wonderfully written article, Manny Fernandez of the New York Times explores this tension between red and blue and old and new, with lifelong Texans making a fierce stand culturally, attempting to turn their home into something of a “superstate.” The new attitude is a blend of official and unofficial initiatives that began, not coincidentally, after the election of the first African-American President. Despite the pride and ardor, it may be a last stand in this digital, multicultural age.

An excerpt:

The idea that Texas is the last place is part of a new phenomenon. People throughout the state say they believe that their way of life is under assault and that they are making a kind of last stand by simply being Texan. It is this fear, anger and sometimes paranoia that lurks beneath the surface of Texas politics and that underlies the expansion of gun rights, the reflexive antagonism toward Washington, and the opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and other issues that seems essential for succeeding in state politics these days. Senator Ted Cruz’s remarks dismissing New York values at a Republican debate should come as no surprise. That’s how people from the last best place talk about other places.

But Texas is not under attack. It is merely changing as America changes with it. It is a majority-minority state that has become increasingly diverse and nonwhite — rural Texas is shrinking while urban and suburban Texas is expanding — and the tension between what Texas is and what it was has come to define the state.

The hard-right domination of Texas politics frustrates the state’s Democrats and plenty of others in Austin, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. They are agitated, but they stay put because they view Texas as forever, and Republican Texas as a kind of temporary occupation. It’s hard to know if they’re right, but easy to see why people’s emotional investment in Texas transcends conservative politics.

As the world grows smaller, as technology obliterates the significance of where we live and work, as Americans become more transient, Texas resists. It declares, to itself and the nation: Place matters. America needs a superstate, or to put it another way, an antistate. Sometimes we love it here and sometimes we are disgusted here, but, to twist Gertrude Stein’s line about Oakland, Calif., there is a here here. We tattoo Texas on our arms, buy Texas-built trucks and climb fire escapes with Texas dirt in our pockets. Place, we are unsubtly suggesting, matters.•





Of all the early 20th-century American astrologers, Evangeline Adams probably did the most to modernize and legitimize the craft, and that’s a shame.

Adams, installed in an apartment above Carnegie Hall at the end of her brilliant career, spent her early years dodging prison sentences for practicing fortune telling before the bullshit was legalized. She differentiated herself from the competition by updating the lexicon for the Industrial Age crowd, sprinkling her predictions with terms like “machines” and “electrical forces.” She was also quite adept at using her powers of persuasion to draw in gullible boldface names (Eugene O’Neill, Tallulah Bankhead, J. Pierpont Morgan, etc.), who gave her a cachet she would not have otherwise enjoyed. But the astrologer’s greatest gift may have been playing the press, aggressively publicizing those occasions she guessed correctly and making her many boneheaded pronouncements go quietly away.

In 1929, she uttered her worst prediction, telling a radio reporter the Dow Jones “could climb to Heaven” just weeks before the bottom fell out. Also interesting is that her most celebrated on-target prognostication, in which she said in 1923 that America would be engaged in a world war in 1942, looks less impressive if you read the fine print. WWII would be provoked, she asserted, when a second American Civil War spread all over the globe. Her 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle obituary, embedded below, lauds her “extraordinary record for accuracy.”





Speaking of automata through the ages, the article embedded below from the July 31, 1887 Brooklyn Daily Eagle surveys some highlights from the field, with special attention paid to 18th-century French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson, who breathed “life” into the Digesting Duck (pictured above), among other locomotion machines.




Key to making driverless cars a going concern is enabling them to communicate with other vehicles, to receive constant updates, to have maps redrawn in real time. That conversation won’t only be amongst vehicles, however. It will involve all manner of smartphones and sensors and more, utilizing an Internet of Things approach in advance of a truly dense IoT.

In a Detroit News article by Neil Winton, Delphi Automotive executive Jeff Owens believes we may see fleets of driverless taxis popping up in municipalities within five years. Well, who knows? It wouldn’t stun me if someone tried it in that span, though there’ll still be lots of work to do. He touches on the connectivity issue. An excerpt:

Automotive manufacturers have made great strides in automating almost all functions, but it’s the final 5 percent which might be the hardest hurdle to jump. A self-driving car would be able to handle all kinds of physical decisions for braking, steering and avoiding other cars, but how would it handle a situation where a legal decision was required? …

“At the end of the day, technology won’t be the inhibitor, it will be the legal framework,” he said.

Owens said vehicle connectivity which allows cars to talk to each other and share data is building up ahead of full autonomy to improve safety and avoid accidents.

“Vehicle control algorithms will be ready to take on all kinds of problems including that cyclist example. Already cars like the Mercedes S class (its top-of-the-range sedan) and the Audi Q7 (SUV, and the Tesla Model S) allow you to set the auto pilot on the highway which allows hands-off driving. The driver will still be keeping watch, but it helps for a relaxed experience,” Owens said.

“Connectivity used to be just entertainment, now it’s vehicle-to-everything — literally really connected to everything like the infrastructure and providing cloud-based information that will help a safe journey,” he said.•



From the November 3, 1952 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:


The Univac 1 computer got off to a good start in 1952 when it predicted that Eisenhower would win easily over Stevenson even though the press thought the reverse outcome was a near-certainty. It faltered a bit in the 1954 midterm Senate races and was mocked. (“Tilt!” was hollered in the newsroom by one wiseass when it became clear that the prognostications were errant.) But by the 1956 Presidential election, the computer once more nailed the Eisenhower triumph over Stevenson. No TV broadcast of any major election ever went without a computer again. 

In this 1952 clip, Walter Cronkite cedes the floor the machine which at this early point in the night thought Eisenhower was a 100-1 favorite to win. Nervous CBS brass were so concerned that the “electronic brain” was wrong that they initially pretended it had mechanical difficulties and was being unresponsive.


From the November 27, 1911 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:



In 2011, Foxconn promised a million robots would be installed in its factories within three years. That did not transpire. Overzealous promises by a large corporation, however, shouldn’t be mistaken for epic failure on a national scale. For China, it’s just a dream deferred and likely not by much.

The nation is not only hugely populous but also overwhelmingly graying, desperately needing autonomous machines to take up the slack. Perhaps, as Daniel Kahneman has prophesied, “Robots will show up in China just in time.” That may be so, but some of the country’s younger workers will be destabilized by the transition, and what’s necessary in China may be extremely tumultuous for other countries with markedly different demographics.

In “China’s Robot Revolution,” Ben Bland of the Financial Times looks at the future arriving in a hurry, writing that “the benefits of the robot revolution will not be shared equally across the world.” You wouldn’t want to be living in a country that’s left behind in the Second Machine Age, but progress will have its costs. The opening:

The Ying Ao sink foundry in southern China’s Guangdong province does not look like a factory of the future. The sign over the entrance is faded; inside, the floor is greasy with patches of mud, and a thick metal dust — the by-product of the stainless-steel polishing process — clogs the air. As workers haul trolleys across the factory floor, the cavernous, shed-like building reverberates with a loud clanging.

Guangdong is the growth engine of China’s manufacturing industry, generating $615bn in exports last year — more than a quarter of the country’s total. In this part of the province, the standard wage for workers is about Rmb4,000 ($600) per month. Ying Ao, which manufactures sinks destined for the kitchens of Europe and the US, has to pay double that, according to deputy manager Chen Conghan, because conditions in the factory are so unpleasant. So, four years ago, the company started buying machines to replace the ever more costly humans.

Nine robots now do the job of 140 full-time workers. Robotic arms pick up sinks from a pile, buff them until they gleam and then deposit them on a self-driving trolley that takes them to a computer-linked camera for a final quality check.

The company, which exports 1,500 sinks a day, spent more than $3m on the robots. “These machines are cheaper, more precise and more reliable than people,” says Chen. “I’ve never had a whole batch ruined by robots. I look forward to replacing more humans in the future,” he adds, with a wry smile.•







Lord and Lady Tycoon.

Tycoon & Lady Tycoon.

War dividends of the technological kind snaked in many directions in mid-century America, from kitchen appliances to bowling-ball return machines to business gadgets. In the latter category, new machines reaching the market promised greater automation, the ability to listen and talk and memory augmentation. These are areas reaching a significantly more mature phase now, with Siri and such. An article in the October 24, 1950 Brooklyn Daily Eagle introduced readers to the Dormiphone, the Auto-Typist, the Robotyper and the Tycoon (and Lady Tycoon) soundscriber.

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It’s hard to conjure a more perfect example of the dual nature on contemporary industry and technology, the boon and the bane, then Tesla’s reason for being confident about the Chinese market. The head-spinning transformation of that state has lifted millions from poverty–and delivered to them the world’s worst air pollution and highest cancer rates. Elon Musk’s EVs promise to filter air inside the vehicle so that it’s 800 times cleaner than Beijing’s oxygen. Just make sure you’re door is not ajar.

From CNBC:

If you’ve ever taken a deep breath in Beijing, you’ll understand why Tesla is so excited about “bioweapon defense mode.”

Given China’s well-documented problems with air quality, Tesla is hoping the cabin-filtering feature will be a major selling point as it expands sales of its electric cars there.

“One of the most interesting features for the Chinese market is the bioweapon defense mode,” said Jon McNeill, head of global sales and service for Tesla, in an interview with Chinese broadcaster CCTV that was posted on Twitter Wednesday.

“It creates air that’s 800 times cleaner than the outside air,” he added.•

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Visited Miami Beach many times when younger and the South Beach area once, and I did not approve. The only thing that really interested me were the lessons learned from the Art Deco architecture. For one, Miami has the largest concentration of such buildings in America anywhere outside of NYC. The reason? The city fell into such disrepair in the latter half of the 20th century that nobody cared to raze the glorious old structures and make something new. Disinterest is great for architectural preservation. The other more trivial items were fun. For instance, the exterior walls of the edifices were often built significantly higher than the penthouse apartment to make it look like there was an extra floor at the top, allowing mobsters to build open-air gambling parlors on roofs that were shielded from prying eyes, even binoculars, of police on the street.

Investors certainly care about Miami now, at least until it drowns, and the city is one of the places in the U.S. that is currently urbanizing its suburbs, which sounds odd, but there’s a demand even from those who don’t embrace cities with big shoulders to reside in a place where there’s some there there.

From the Economist:

Today the fad in south Florida is not golf villages or retro towns but ready-made city centres. Half an hour’s drive south of Sunrise, another Metropica-like development, City Place Doral, is under construction. Two others with even taller towers, Miami Worldcentre and Brickell City Centre, are going up in central Miami. A huge development called SoLe Mia will rise in north Miami. All will combine “walkable” shopping streets, offices and homes—mostly two- and three-bedroom flats in towers. Like a rash, similar developments are popping up in other American states and as far away as China and Vietnam.

Builders call these developments “mixed-use”, a term that fails to capture what they are up to. The idea of combining flats, offices and shops even in a single building is not new: look at an old New York district like Chelsea. Metropica and its kin try to create urban cores in places that lack them. Whereas new urbanist settlements often promote a small-town ideal, these sell big-city life, which is why they have words like “metro”, “city” and “centre” in their names. The salesmen claim that residents will be able to live, work and be entertained in a single district.

Ersatz city centres are multiplying now partly because it takes about this long after a financial crisis to begin a big project. Another reason is the rising price of land. Jeffrey Soffer of Turnberry Associates, a big Miami developer, points out that south Florida has almost run out of room to sprawl. Pinched between the Everglades in the west and the Atlantic in the east, it must go up. And although some cities, including Miami, are probably building too many high-rise flats, demand is fairly strong. Foreigners want to own them (most of the people buying flats in Metropica are Latin Americans) and young Americans want to rent them, partly because they find it hard to get mortgages to buy family homes. The towers are growing bigger: 48% of flats constructed in America in 2014 were in buildings with at least 50 units.•



From the October 25, 1912 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:


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It would seem that convoys of driverless trucks would be far easier to test and perfect than other autonomous vehicles. In the early stages of adoption, you could just put two human drivers in the first truck and have them alternate sitting behind the wheel. The trailing rigs could be programmed to follow suit of the lead vehicle. The destinations are also much easier to execute, as they’re predetermined and not changing and challenging like with taxis.

It’s estimated that eight million American jobs depend on the trucking industry (not only drivers but also support staff and workers at businesses frequented by truckers, like diners and such). Those will likely be gone in a few decades, not offset by savings to consumers realized as automation increases production and reduces prices.

The opening of Ryan Petersen’s Techcrunch article “The Driverless Truck Is Coming, and It’s Going to Automate Millions of Jobs“:

A convoy of self-driving trucks recently drove across Europe and arrived at the Port of Rotterdam. No technology will automate away more jobs — or drive more economic efficiency — than the driverless truck.

Shipping a full truckload from L.A. to New York costs around $4,500 today, with labor representing 75 percent of that cost. But those labor savings aren’t the only gains to be had from the adoption of driverless trucks.

Where drivers are restricted by law from driving more than 11 hours per day without taking an 8-hour break, a driverless truck can drive nearly 24 hours per day. That means the technology would effectively double the output of the U.S. transportation network at 25 percent of the cost.

And the savings become even more significant when you account for fuel efficiency gains. The optimal cruising speed from a fuel efficiency standpoint is around 45 miles per hour, whereas truckers who are paid by the mile drive much faster. Further fuel efficiencies will be had as the self-driving fleets adopt platooning technologies, like those from Peloton Technology, allowing trucks to draft behind one another in highway trains.

Trucking represents a considerable portion of the cost of all the goods we buy, so consumers everywhere will experience this change as lower prices and higher standards of living.•



Image by Gerd Ludwig.

There are good reasons for our fixation on the fall of civilization, on the end of us all, and climate change is at the top of the list. But I think along with valid fears, there is fantasy: We simply would like to imagine society toppling, to shuck it off, to start all over again. There’s just something so heavy about modern life, with its clutter and conditions. The weight is too heavy to bear. That’s why we’re always envisioning the apocalypse, staring at ruins (real and virtual), why we feel like the walking dead. 

In addition to the endless fictional content available for binge-watching is disaster tourism, and you couldn’t pick a better-worse place than Chernobyl, site of the largest nuclear catastrophe in world history. We made that. How clever we are. From photographers to writers to sightseers with an eye for necropoles, it’s become a hot spot since it cooled somewhat. In a smart Spiegel piece, Hilmar Schmundt and Phil Thoma write insightfully of the disaster porn “created” during the Soviet Era and those who like to watch. 

The opening:

Footsteps crunch across shards of glass and cameras chirp as a group of visitors pushes its way through an evacuated school inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Yellowed school books still sit on the desks, Soviet propaganda hangs on the walls and there are several gas masks dangling about. Mobile phone screens glow in the half-light. Time is kept by the ticking of Geiger counters, the hideous heartbeat of gamma rays.

“It’s quite morbid here,” says Alex, from Munich. The well-dressed 20-something takes a few selfies, smiling coolly in front of the backdrop of ruins. “I like offbeat experiences,” he says. Alex works for an online portal and enjoys traveling to exotic places: to the Nyiragongo volcano in Congo, for example, or to the mountain gorillas in Rwanda. He has also taken a weightless flight with an Airbus and joined a tour through North Korea.

Alex is in Chernobyl with a few friends from school and, as a specialist in strange destinations, the trip was his idea. Chernobyl is a powerful brand name: It has become a post-apocalyptical product, simple to consume.

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Singapore may not be Disneyland with the death penalty as William’s 1993 Wired article was famously titled, but how about a theme park as a surveillance state?

I’ve posted before about the city-state’s government investing in copious cameras and sensors in an effort to become the world’s first “smart nation.” Everything will be measured, everything monitored. It seems a deeper and wider realization of Stafford Beer’s efforts in the 1970s to centralize all of Chile’s businesses with Project Cybersyn. Difference is, Singapore’s system is about much more than money.

In a Wall Street Journal article, Jane Maxwell Watts and Newley Purnell report that “any decision to use data collected by Smart Nation sensors for law enforcement or surveillance would not, under Singapore law, need court approval or citizen consultation.” The opening:

SINGAPORE—This wealthy financial center is known world-wide for its tidy streets and tight controls on personal behavior, including famous restrictions on the sale of chewing gum to keep the city clean.

Now Singapore may soon be known for something else: the most extensive effort to collect data on daily living ever attempted in a city.

As part of its Smart Nation program, launched by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in late 2014, Singapore is deploying an undetermined number of sensors and cameras across the island city-state that will allow the government to monitor everything from the cleanliness of public spaces to the density of crowds and the precise movement of every locally registered vehicle.

It is a sweeping effort that will likely touch the lives of every single resident in the country, in ways that aren’t completely clear since many potential applications may not be known until the system is fully implemented.•

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Before media connected us all every second, there was Robert L. Ripley.

The creator of Believe It or Not!–a comic strip in the Hearst papers, then a radio program and finally a T.V. show–traveled the globe beginning in the 1920s in search of oddities and curiosities to entertain and inform Americans, long before travel abroad was something possible for most. His items didn’t exactly go viral–everyone caught them all at once during the Newspaper Age. In Ripley’s own wry way, as a spiritual descendant of P.T. Barnum, he worked to make the world smaller, to establish a Global Village.

As an early King of All Media, he was helped aided in his amateur anthropology and archaeology by his able researcher, Norbert Pearlroth, and helped immensely by his onetime sports editor, Walter St. Denis, who suggested the three-word, exclamatory column title that remains a recognizable phrase even in the Internet Age.

Heart problems ended Ripley’s life young, as recorded in his obituary in the May 28, 1949 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.


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Speaking of solid, middle-class jobs being disappeared by technology, Elon Musk has tipped his hand, if just a bit, on a driverless vehicle that he believes can replace much of public transportation. Could be great for congestion and environmentalism, though not so much for bus drivers.

From Marie Mawad at Bloomberg Technology:

Tesla’s Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk is working on a self-driving vehicle he says could replace buses and other public transport in order to reduce traffic in cities. But he’s keeping the development a secret.

“We have an idea for something which is not exactly a bus but would solve the density problem for inner city situations,” Musk said Thursday at a transport conference in Norway. “Autonomous vehicles are key,” he said of the project, declining to disclose more. “I don’t want to talk too much about it. I have to be careful what I say.”•

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hills (2)

Two excerpts follow from John Weaver’s 1970 Holiday profile of the Hollywood Hills in flux, written at a time when fading early-film stars were joined in the smoggy gorgeousness by newly minted rock royalty, hippie cults, motorcycle gangs, and, worst of all, clinical psychiatrists.

Each of the through canyons—Laurel, Coldwater, Benedict, Beverly Glen—has its own distinctive personality.

Laurel is Southern California’s semi-tropical version of Manhattan’s East Village. Mediter­ranean villas dating back to the first hoarse days of talking pictures are hemmed in by dilapidated shacks owned by absentee landlords. The can­yon’s natural fire hazards have been intensified of late by shaggy young nomads who turn on in the blackened ruins of burned-out mansions where Theda Bara may once have dined. The daily life of the community swirls around a small shopping center, “The Square,” which boasts the old-fashioned Canyon Country Store and a pleasant cafe, the Galleria.

Coldwater and Benedict are more sedate and affluent (their watering hole is the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel). When a newcomer to the community set out to cast his vote in the last municipal election, he was somewhat taken aback to find his polling place was a home in the $150,000-to-$200,000 class. The booths faced the pool.

“I half-expected to have my ballot served by the butler,” he recalls.

One of the most curious sights of his new surroundings, he has found, is the dawn patrol of stockbrokers and speculators who, because of the three-hour time differential between the East and West Coasts, can be seen silhouetted against the sunrise as their Cadillacs and Continentals lum­ber down the hills in time for the first ticker-tape reports from Wall Street.

To the west, near the sprawling campus of the University of California at Los Angeles, lies Beverly Glen, the friendliest of all the canyons, as tourists discover when they stop for dinner at its charming wayside inn, the Four Oaks. The Glen has the feeling of a sycamore-shaded resi­dential street in a rural college town. Associate professors and graduate students live cheek-by-­jowl with a mixed lot dominated by the profes­sions and the arts.

“The Glen defies any kind of rational analysis,” says Jack Thompson, veteran leader of its homeowner organization. “Take the houses on my street, for instance. They’re occupied by a com­puter sciences teacher, a rock singer, a furniture man, an attorney, a sprinkler equipment sales­man, an actress and a clinical psychiatrist.”

Historically, the Hills have been hospitable to the indulgence of individual tastes, no matter how bizarre, but at times one man’s life style en­croaches on his neighbor’s, as the Benedict Can­yon Association discovered when it began to get complaints from members who found themselves living downwind of a stable. In Coldwater, the neighboring canyon to the east, homeowners banded together to block Frank Sinatra’s applica­tion for a private helistop. The singer finally gave up on Los Angeles and headed for the desert.

“The air isn’t fit to breathe, so I’m clearing out,” he an­nounced in the fall of 1968, and a year later he got support from, of all places, the coroner’s office. The body of a young woman, stabbed to death, was found in the hills not far from Sinatra’s abandoned retreat. The dead girl was new to Southern California, the coroner deduced, because her lungs showed none of the ill effects of smog.•

A mile-long stretch of county ter­ritory with a gamey history (it was Hollywood’s place to drink and gamble during Prohibition), the Strip has become a children’s playground where middle-aged tourists in slow-moving Gray Line buses peer out in horror at the outlandish getups of the young, many of whom have fled the same wall-to-wall certainties about soap and success to which the tourists will return, unchanged. (Mother, to Aunt Martha: “They looked half-starved, poor things. Goodness knows what they eat.” Father, to Uncle Fred: “The girls wore these little skirts up to here and blouses you could see through, and not a thing underneath, not a thing.”)

Homes in the hills above the ac­tion, once the property of men with ulcers and wall plaques attesting to their ability to peddle cars or endow­ment policies are now sprouting For Sale signs. (In the Sunday papers they are advertised as “Swinger’s Pad,” “Artist’s Retreat” and “Funky Mediterranean.”) Large areas are be­ing surrendered to motorcyclists, call girls and young couples of every known sexual persuasion (the enclave is referred to in heterosexual circles as “The Swish Alps”).

The Strip has become a buffer zone between the hippie communes of Laurel Canyon and the marble resting places of moneylenders and paving contractors who look down on Bev­erly Hills from the majestic heights of Trousdale Estates. The Beverly Hills border separates young swing­ers who are making out from elderly plastics who have it made.

The two generations live side by side in the high-priced side streets off Coldwater and Benedict Canyons, where Charlton Heston works out in the pool of his stone fortress and Harold Lloyd plays golf on a multi­million-dollar estate a brisk canter from Tom Mix’s old spread.Valen­tino tried to win back his second wife by sinking a borrowed fortune in a hillside place where, he said, he wanted his friends “to remember me as permanently fixed on a set at last.” His Falcon’s Lair, now the property of Doris Duke, is a short walk from the Benedict Canyon estate where Sharon Tate, three friends and a young passerby were slaughtered last August.

The separate worlds of Benedict Canyon and the Sunset Strip coexisted on Sharon Tate’s rented estate. The international film crowd bounded up Cielo Drive in sports cars to groove in the main house (“In my house there were parties where people smoked pot,” Miss Tate’s husband said after­wards. “I was not at a Hollywood party where someone did not smoke pot”).

“The poshest homes on the quiet­est lanes of all of the better canyons are often as not, symbolically, board­ing houses, whose leases or titles are written in a kind of quick-fading ink,” Charles Champlin, the Los Angeles Times entertainment editor, wrote after the tragedy. “They are way-stations on the way up or down, in or out.”

“The stars move out,” a Beverly Hills realtor once remarked to a New York Times reporter, “and the den­tists and psychiatrists move in.”•

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