Urban Studies

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From the September 2, 1938 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

From the September 4, 1938 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl LI halftime performance was dubbed “apolitical” by many news outlets, though that’s an odd way to describe a singer interrupting Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” for a blast of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” the latter being an angry retort to the former. From Murray Kempton in 1981:

Woody Guthrie had composed “This Land Is Your Land” as a bitter parody of “God Bless America.” It had originally closed with the stanza:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief office I saw my people
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me.•

• • •

The Dustbowl was central to the songwriter’s sardonic bite, but Guthrie had some dalliances with the un-Oklahoma of New York City beginning in 1940, which resulted in the two articles below published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The first looks at Guthrie’s involvement in It’s All Yours, an anti-Fascist, anti-Hitler musical drama performed in 1942 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was co-directed by singer-songwriter Earl Robinson as the piece says, but what goes unmentioned is that the other director was Nicholas Ray, who would begin his big-time Hollywood career a half-dozen years later. In the second article, Guthrie brings his dirty boots to the home of etiquette expert (and erstwhile Staten Island Advance reporter) Amy Vanderbilt to celebrate the publication of Bound For Glory. As Charles B. Driscoll writes in the second piece: “Woody isn’t Phi Beta Kappa, but he knows a lot that they don’t teach in schools.”

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From October 5, 1942:

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From April 5, 1943:

Smartphone-enabled rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft are disruptors that provide greater convenience and information but also kill steady, secure jobs and place people deeper inside a surveillance machine. The thing is, nothing seems more prone to disruption than these businesses themselves. I’ve already mentioned how the emergence of driverless cars could make possible an ownerless and growing fleet of taxis. But why wait for autonomous, with its imprecise start date?

LibreTaxi is an app that removes the middleman, letting the fare and driver do cash (and, soon, Bitcoin) business directly. Roman Pushkin’s brainchild actually wasn’t designed to compete with the Kalanicks, instead aiming at rural and out-of-the-way locales that Uber and others do not service and likely never will. But it has begun creeping into urban areas, and some other similar apps to come will be aimed directly at the behemoths. 

Below is the opening of Pushkin’s recent Medium essay and a few exchanges from a Q&A he did with Bitcoinist.


From Medium:

Uber, a company evaluated at $60B, will unlikely go to remote Siberian region where I was born. About 1000 people still live there. It’s not far from Russian Silicon Valley — Academgorodok in Novosibirsk, only 80 miles. But there is no road to such villages: deepest forest, Taiga, and the river. It takes about 2 days to get there by boat.

Sometimes I think that nobody understands remote regions better than me. And I don’t mean Russia only. I lived in 10 countries before I settled down in San Francisco Bay Area. I found that problems in Russian remote regions are very similar to problems Indian/Nepali remote regions have. And I expect they are the same somewhere outside of big cities in South Africa, China, Latin America and Middle East.

I remember when I visited my relatives in Siberia ~10 years ago, and explained them how cellphone works. They never heard about that and now they are lucky to have their own cell tower. Now they have few computers, mobile phones, internet connection. They use motorbikes to get to the same villages around in summer, and use special light vehicles to do the same in winter time. But with all of the technology available they’re still struggling with problems western civilization solved already.

To my surprise, when I visited my native village 2 years ago, nobody knew what Uber is.•


From Bitcoinist:

Question:

What is LibreTaxi?

Roman Pushkin:

It’s free alternative for Uber, Lyft, etc. It doesn’t compete with these companies directly. I made it for a remote area where I was born and found that people around the world like it. Uber probably won’t go to remote and rural areas, so LibreTaxi is perfect for that.

Question:

What problem does LibreTaxi solve?

Roman Pushkin:

People need a ridesharing service in remote and rural areas where big companies will never go. At least I started with this idea in mind. Now I see how people are starting to use it in some cities as an Uber replacement. Also, you can never predict what type of taxi you want – boat, helicopter, rickshaw etc. LibreTaxi is open-sourced under MIT license. People can update it relatively easy or add vehicle types and run Uber-like services for their areas independently.

Question:

Are you targeting any specific markets, cities or demographics?

Roman Pushkin:

Our main market is rural areas, but it seems like it’s expanding into cities now. I have to think about improving and polishing functionality to make it even more easier to use.•

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#deleteuber exploded across Twitter last night when the ride-share company tried to exploit the flash taxi drivers’ strike at JFK against Trump’s anti-immigrant ban. It was alarming the company treated a Constitutional crisis as if it were business-as-usual but unsurprising considering Uber’s past dubious ethical behavior and Travis Kalanick’s recent defense of his relationship with the Administration: “We’ll partner with anyone in the world.” Really? Trips to internment camps, even?

There are other reasons to be wary of piecemeal employment, that Libertarian wet dream, and the main one is that it often undermines solid middle-class jobs and replaces them with uncertainty. And, no, despite what some might say, most Uber employees aren’t entrepreneurs just driving until venture-capital seed money comes in for their start-up; they’re actually trying to somehow subsist in this new normal. It isn’t easy.

The opening of Eric Newcomer and Olivia Zaleski Bloomberg piece:

In the 1970s, the Safeway grocery store in San Francisco’s gleaming Marina neighborhood, known as the Social Safeway, was a cornerstone of the pre-Tinder dating scene. Armistead Maupin made it famous in his 1978 book, Tales of the City, calling it “the hottest spot in town” to meet people. For years afterward, locals called it the “Singles Safeway” or the “Dateway.”

Forty years later, German Tugas, a 42-year-old Uber driver, got to know it for another reason: Its parking lot was a safe spot to sleep in his car. Tugas drives over 70 hours a week in San Francisco, where the work is steadier and fares are higher than in his hometown, Sacramento. So every Monday morning, Tugas leaves at 4 a.m., says goodbye to his wife and four daughters, drives 90 miles to the city, and lugs around passengers until he earns $300 or gets too tired to keep going. (Most days he nets $230 after expenses like gas.) Then, he and at least a half dozen other Uber drivers gathered in the Social Safeway parking lot to sleep in their cars before another long day of driving.  

“That’s the sacrifice,” he said in May, smoking a cigarette beside his Toyota Prius parked at the Safeway at 1 a.m., the boats in the bay bobbing gently in the background. “My goal is to get a house somewhere closer, so that I don’t have to do this every day.”

The vast majority of Uber’s full-time drivers return home to their beds at the end of a day’s work. But all over the country, there are many who don’t.•

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Are we hypochondriacs or are we really very sick?

Many among the Silicon Valley super-rich and deep-pocketed folks are increasingly convinced U.S. society may collapse and are working accordingly on plans to allow them to ride out the storm. Escaping an American nightmare isn’t just for Peter Thiel anymore, as some of his peers are purchasing wooded acreage, stocking up on gold coins and learning survival skills. Prepping 2.0 is for the money makers more than the Jim Bakkers.

What could be spooking them so? We now have more guns than people, traditional institutions are under siege, wealth inequality is spiraling out of control, political polarization has reached its zenith, climate change is worsening, a seeming sociopath is in the White House and tens of millions of citizens are looking for someone, anyone, to blame. Doesn’t sound like a menu for a Sunday picnic.

In an excellent New Yorker piece, Evan Osnos reports on the financial elite readying themselves for the big withdrawal. One retired financial-industry lobbyist tells him: “Anyone who’s in this community knows people who are worried that America is heading toward something like the Russian Revolution.”

An excerpt:

Last spring, as the Presidential campaign exposed increasingly toxic divisions in America, Antonio García Martínez, a forty-year-old former Facebook product manager living in San Francisco, bought five wooded acres on an island in the Pacific Northwest and brought in generators, solar panels, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. “When society loses a healthy founding myth, it descends into chaos,” he told me. The author of Chaos Monkeys, an acerbic Silicon Valley memoir, García Martínez wanted a refuge that would be far from cities but not entirely isolated. “All these dudes think that one guy alone could somehow withstand the roving mob,” he said. “No, you’re going to need to form a local militia. You just need so many things to actually ride out the apocalypse.” Once he started telling peers in the Bay Area about his “little island project,” they came “out of the woodwork” to describe their own preparations, he said. “I think people who are particularly attuned to the levers by which society actually works understand that we are skating on really thin cultural ice right now.”

In private Facebook groups, wealthy survivalists swap tips on gas masks, bunkers, and locations safe from the effects of climate change. One member, the head of an investment firm, told me, “I keep a helicopter gassed up all the time, and I have an underground bunker with an air-filtration system.” He said that his preparations probably put him at the “extreme” end among his peers. But he added, “A lot of my friends do the guns and the motorcycles and the gold coins. That’s not too rare anymore.”•

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Utopias don’t often end well. Usually they just fall flat, but sometimes they fall spectacularly apart. Shangri-las, you could say, have a nasty habit of becoming shambolic. 

It’s not just madmen like Jim Jones and August Engelhardt who fail to realize Edens. Perfectly reasonable souls like George Ripley and Bronson Alcott saw their farms turn fallow, their dreams go awry. Creating a better way is complicated business.

The common denominator of these failures: human beings. Wonderful though we are, we tend to make a mess.

Recently read Jordan Harrison’s 2011 play Maple and Vine, a drama about a couple bedeviled by the technological world who quit society and join a gated community that’s “set” in the 1950s, a place that has gone an awful long way to “make America great again.” It becomes apparent over time that it isn’t so much the modern world as the human condition that the “escapees” are primarily fleeing. 

Self-sustaining cultures are difficult to manage for a variety of financial and logistical reasons, but a considerable obstacle is that we bring our humanness, that blessed and cursed thing, with us as we sail into the “new world.” To quote the Professor Irwin Corey: “Wherever you go, there you are.”

In Emma Green’s excellent Atlantic piece, the reporter looks at Americans who want out of the new abnormal, a place that seems to them tricked out, dumbed down and Trumped up. The connective tissue of the many “intentional communities” she visited is environmentalism, but they’re also trying to evade politics, which, I’m afraid, is unavoidable. The opening:

For the last eight years, Nicolas and Rachel Sarah have been slowly weaning themselves off fossil fuels. They don’t own a refrigerator or a car; their year-old baby and four-year-old toddler play by candlelight rather than electricity at night. They identify as Christian anarchists, and have given an official name to their search for an alternative to consumption-heavy American life: the Downstream Project, with the motto to “do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”

As it turns out, exiting the system is a challenging, time-consuming, and surprisingly technical process. Here in the Shenandoahs and central Virginia, a handful of tiny communities are experimenting with what it means to reject the norms of contemporary life and exist in a radically different way. They seem to share Americans’ pervasive sense of political alienation, which arguably reached an apotheosis with the election of Donald Trump: a sense of division from their peers, a distrust of government. The challenges of modern politics—dealing with issues like climate change, poverty, mass migration, and war on a global scale—are so vast and abstract that it’s difficult not to find them overwhelming. But instead of continuing in passive despair, as many Americans seem to do, the people in these communities decided to overhaul their lives.

These communities show just how hard it is to live without fossil fuels, a government safety net, or a system of capitalist exchange. They struggle with many of the same issues that plague the rest of America, including health problems, financial worries, and racism. At the center of their political lives is a question that every American faces, but for them, it’s amplified: whether to save the world or let it burn.

Their answers are different, but they share one thing. They’ve seen what modern American life looks like. And they want out.•

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From the December 18, 1926 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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From the March 19, 1939 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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From the November 8, 1903 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

San Diego wants to be “Robot Alley,” or at least that’s the ambitious goal of Henrik Christensen, leader of UCSD’s Contextual Robotics Institute. In an excellent San Diego Union-Tribune Q&A conducted by Gary Robbins, the engineer comments on the impact of autonomous vehicles (which he believes are “10, 15 years out”), technological unemployment (“we’ll see significant displacement of taxi drivers, truck drivers”), Universal Basic Income (“in the U.S., that would be a really hard thing”) and robots that learn (“they’re going to use potentially all of the data that’s available about you.”)

On the last topic, Christensen believes machines that know every last detail about us will be especially useful in the care of our graying population, though he realizes this elaborate stream of info can be abused–and it certainly will be, especially in societies that value markets above all else, where people are often thought of as consumers rather than citizens. Are such invasions of privacy more driven by political and economic systems than the technology itself? Will robots be kinder in Sweden?

The opening:

Question:

Automation and robotics are advancing quickly. What impact will this have on employment in the United States?

Henrik Christensen:

We see two trends. We will use robots and automation to bring manufacturing jobs back from overseas, primarily from Southeast Asia. At the same time, we will see some jobs get displaced by automation. There will be fully automated, driverless transportation in this country by 2020, and that will eliminate some jobs now held by workers like truck drivers and taxi drivers. 

Question:

Will there be a net increase or decrease in jobs?

Henrik Christensen:

To be honest with you, we don’t know. There was a recent study on this by the National Academies, but there wasn’t enough good data to make it clear what the outcome will be. We do see a lot of change occurring. Amazon is printing books at its local distribution centers, then sending them on to customers. They print the book, put a cover on it, and off it goes. That cuts down on transportation jobs and costs. 

Question:

Are you saying that Amazon is just beginning to do this?

Henrik Christensen:

It’s happening today. This program has been in existence for more than a year. The last estimate I heard was that 65 percent of the books Amazon delivers are printed in its local distribution centers. Amazon wants to do (widespread) deliveries of groceries, too.

Question:

But doesn’t this assume that the technology of driverless vehicles is much further along than it actually is?

Henrik Christensen:

My own prediction is that kids born today will never get to drive a car. Autonomous, driverless cars are 10, 15 years out. All the automotive companies — Daimler, GM, Ford — are saying that within five years they will have autonomous, driverless cars on the road.•

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Charles “Chuck” Connors was full of life, and other stuff.

The so-called “Mayor of Chinatown” was an Irishman dubbed “Insect” by his neighbors until his penchant for cooking chuck steaks over open fires in the streets earned him a new nickname. An inveterate self-promoter, he was a tour guide, vaudevillian, boxer, bouncer and raconteur. Some of his stories were even true.

One that wasn’t: For a fee, he showed tourists “authentic” Chinatown opium dens, which were often merely apartments he rented and filled with “extras” paid to pretend to be dragon chasers. The crafty man realized that narratives about urban blight, told just so, could be commodified.

Although he initially wasn’t so appreciated by his Chinese neighbors, Connors eventually earned their esteem and his blarney was sadly missed when it was permanently silenced. An article in the May 10, 1913 Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced his death.

From the September 14, 1947 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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From the February 5, 1889 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

 

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He who isn’t busy being born is busy dying, wrote the Nobel Prize winner.

For China, the vertiginous arrival of urbanism has been a rough birth, fueled by a crash course in capitalism which willed into existence insta-megalopolises in search of residents. The building boom has led to “crazy bad” air pollution, and even stiff measures to combat it have prove unable to force the choking genie back into the bottle.

The thing about such breakneck capitalism is you have to keep feeding it massive servings because the end can mean economic disaster, so Chinese companies in the city-building business running out of desirable plots of land at home need to look abroad for acreage to conquer with outsize projects. They hope to export their model, which certainly is bad environmentally and may prove a financial folly.

The landscaped lawns and flowering shrubs of Country Garden Holdings Co.’s huge property showroom in southern Malaysia end abruptly at a small wire fence. Beyond, a desert of dirt stretches into the distance, filled with cranes and piling towers that the Chinese developer is using to build a $100 billion city in the sea.

While Chinese home buyers have sent prices soaring from Vancouver to Sydney, in this corner of Southeast Asia it’s China’s developers that are swamping the market, pushing prices lower with a glut of hundreds of thousands of new homes. They’re betting that the city of Johor Bahru, bordering Singapore, will eventually become the next Shenzhen.

“These Chinese players build by the thousands at one go, and they scare the hell out of everybody,” said Siva Shanker, head of investments at Axis-REIT Managers Bhd. and a former president of the Malaysian Institute of Estate Agents. “God only knows who is going to buy all these units, and when it’s completed, the bigger question is, who is going to stay in them?”

The Chinese companies have come to Malaysia as growth in many of their home cities is slowing, forcing some of the world’s biggest builders to look abroad to keep erecting the giant residential complexes that sprouted across China during the boom years. They found a prime spot in this special economic zone, three times the size of Singapore, on the southern tip of the Asian mainland.

The scale of the projects is dizzying.•

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From the November 17, 1901 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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From the July 20, 1901 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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When he was born in 1830, nobody could have imagined Henry Hale Bliss would be killed 69 years later by a horseless, electric automobile, or that such a thing could even exist. In modern context, it would be similar to someone birthed in 1980 dying in 2050 because their driverless vehicle was hacked by a terrorist with a smartphone. Things change, sometimes with surprising swiftness.

The death of the New Yorker remains notable because he was the first recorded fatality of an American car accident, his head and chest crushed by a Manhattan taxicab as he exited a streetcar. Bliss’ demise was covered in an article in the September 14, 1899 New York Times. The story:

H. H. Bliss, a real estate dealer, with offices at 41 Wall Street, and living at 235 West Seventy-fifth Street, was run over last night at Central Park West and Seventy-fourth Street. He was injured fatally.

Bliss, accompanied by a woman named Lee, was alighting from a south-bound Eighth Avenue trolley car, when he was knocked down and run over by an automobile in charge of Arthur Smith of 151 West Sixty-second Street. He had left the car, and had turned to assist Miss Lee, when the automobile struck him. Bliss was knocked to the pavement, and two wheels of the cab passed over his head and body. His skull and chest were crushed. 

Dr. David Orr Edson, son of ex-Mayor Edson, of 38th West Seventy-first Street, was the occupant of the electric cab. As soon as the vehicle was brought to a standstill he sent in a call to Roosevelt Hospital for an ambulance, and until its arrival did all he could to aid the injured man. When he was taken to the hospital Dr. Murray, the house surgeon, said that Bliss was so seriously injured that he could not live.

Smith was arrested and locked up in the West Sixty-eighth Street Station. It is claimed that a large truck occupied the right side of the avenue, making it necessary for Smith to run his vehicle close to the car. Dr. Edson was returning from a sick call in Harlem when the accident happened.

Mr. Bliss boarded at 235 West Seventy-fifth Street. The place where the accident happened is known to the motormen on the trolley line as “Dangerous Stretch,” on account of the many accidents which have occurred there during the past Summer.•

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The amazing, Zeitgeist-capturing photograph above, taken by Brett Gundlock of Bloomberg, shows drivers in Mexico City gridlock being peppered with advertisements floated by Uber drones. While you might think it dangerous that even slow-moving vehicles are besieged by hovering appeals sent from the heavens or thereabouts, Travis Kalanick, the leading ridesharer’s CEO, wants to remove that worry, eliminating the burden of drivers so they can instead plug their ears and eyes into other machines. Why stop and smell the roses when you can count the drones?

Autonomous vehicles are likely upon us, whether that means they arrive at high speed or merge more gradually with the Digital Age. While making the roads and highways safer was the early selling point for these cars, their establishment will have a profound effect on surveillance, employment, urban design, ethics, capitalism and even human nature itself. Of course, there will be unintended consequences we can’t yet even appreciate.

It’s also worthwhile to mention that the intervening period between fully human driving and fully automated control will not be without incidence, in much the way that horse-drawn carts and internal combustion engines made for uneasy partners on the road during that earlier transition. One thing I’m sure of is driverless cars will not create a “utopian society,” a promise often assigned to new technological tools at their outset before we remember that the function they provide was never the main problem with us to start with.

In a New York Review of Books piece on Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman’s Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road AheadSue Halpern looks at the industry’s dream scenario of fleets of autonomous taxis and the significant roadblocks to its realization. Even if the challenges are met, cheaper rides might not reduce wealth inequality but exacerbate the problem.

An excerpt:

The major car makers, rushing to make alliances with tech companies, understand their days of dominance are numbered. “We are rapidly becoming both an auto company and a mobility company,” Bill Ford, the chairman of Ford Motor Company, told an audience in Kansas City in February. He knows that if the fleet model prevails, Ford and other car manufacturers will be selling many fewer cars. More crucially, the winners in this new system will be the ones with the best software, and the best software will come from the most robust data, and the companies with the most robust data are the tech companies that have been hoovering it up for years: Google most of all.

“The mobility revolution is going to affect all of us personally and many of us professionally,” Ford said that day in Kansas City. He might have been thinking about car salespeople, whose jobs are likely to become obsolete, but before that it will be the taxi drivers and truckers who will be displaced by vehicles that drive themselves. Historically these have been the jobs that have provided incomes to recently arrived immigrants and to people without college degrees. Without them yet another trajectory into the middle class will be eliminated.

What of Uber drivers themselves? These are the poster people for the gig-economy, “entrepreneurs”—which is to say freelancers—who use their own cars to ferry people around. “Obviously the self-driving car thing is freaking people out a little bit,” an Uber driver in Pittsburgh named Ryan told a website called TechRepublic. And, he went on, he learned about Uber’s plans from the media, not from the company. “If it’s a negative thing, they let you find out for yourself.” As media critic Douglas Rushkoff has written, “Uber’s drivers are the R&D for Uber’s driverless future. They are spending their labor and capital investments (cars) on their own future unemployment.”

All economies have winners and losers. It does not take a sophisticated algorithm to figure out that the winners in the decades ahead are going to be those who own the robots, for they will have vanquished labor with their capital. In the case of autonomous vehicles, a few companies are now poised to control a necessary public good, the transportation of people to and from work, school, shopping, recreation, and other vital activities. This salient fact is often lost in the almost unanimously positive reception of the coming “mobility revolution,” as Bill Ford calls it.

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Tubes would eventually bring mail to every home, but they weren’t of the pneumatic variety. In a predictive piece he wrote for the December 30, 1900 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, U.S. Postmaster General Charles Emory Smith offered that the type of inter-borough pneumatic tubing system utilized in early-1900s New York City might someday be linked to every individual residence. He was right in the big picture, even if he got the details wrong.

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From the August 5, 1943 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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One thing we can be assured of is computerized data not staying in a container, resting easily or behaving. Information, in this sense, truly wants to be free–as in liberated–especially since so many stand to profit from its agglomeration and dissemination. We’re just at the beginning of the Internet of Things, in which a conversation among machines, a real-time exchange of numbers and pictures and more, will likely make quotidian life more efficient and convenient while it quietly obliterates privacy.

Excerpts follow from two pieces on the impact of data on transit and surveillance in the next five years. The first is a Verge Q&A with outgoing U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, and the latter a speculative scene by Peter Moskowitz from Fusion about the inescapable transparency of American political activism in 2020.


From the Verge:

Question:

It’s November, 2021: what does the world look like?

Anthony Foxx:

By 2021, we will see autonomous vehicles in operation across the country in ways that we [only] imagine today… Families will be able to walk out of their homes and call a vehicle, and that vehicle will take them to work or to school. We’re going to see transit systems sharing services with some of these companies. It’s not just autonomy in the vehicles. You’re going to see trucks running more closely together, which result in fuel savings and positive climate impact. You’ll see companies that will start to use unmanned aircraft to deliver products to us. My daughter, who will be 16 in 2021, won’t have her driver’s license. She will be using a service. …

Question:

Data collection can enable autonomy, but only if it’s shared across the industry. How do you encourage that sharing?

Anthony Foxx:

I want us to have a broader imagination of how data can lift the safety advantages of autonomous cars. [If] I drive over a pothole and you are driving behind me, and see what happens to my car, you glean that understanding and you think to avoid that pothole. If an autonomous car runs over a pothole, will it be able to communicate and share that data not only with cars of the same type [of car], or a particular manufacturer, but [with] all autonomous vehicles regardless of who made it? That’s one question I think the industry needs to spend time on, because there are issues around propriety of information. We found in the aviation arena that information is shared between commercial carriers all the time on an anonymous basis. [The information] doesn’t identify the carrier specifically, but it identifies the situation and it allows us to attack safety challenges much more quickly. What if, for example, a car… averts an accident by making a particular move? Can that information now be shared among other vehicles?•


From Fusion:

It’s 2020, and you live in Chicago. A little bit about yourself: You’re politically active. Not a front-of-the-lines activist necessarily, but someone who cares about race, and income inequality, about the state of policing and the police state. You’re tech savvy—not a hacker or a programmer—but you know your way around social media, and that’s where you get a lot of information about events like readings, birthdays, whatever. You see an event in your Facebook newsfeed one day, a protest against police brutality, let’s say, and you click “attending.”

Here’s what happens next.

You’re already being watched before you leave your house. No one’s eyes are necessarily on you. But you are being tracked, logged, recorded, nonetheless. We’ve all heard about how much data sites like Facebook and Google collect on you, even when you’re not on the sites. They often know your location, what you’ve purchased, and what you’re searching for. Most of us give those companies our data voluntarily, without even knowing exactly how it’s used, either by private companies, or by the police state. 

Surveillance has always been legal in the U.S., but before the proliferation of technology, it required manpower. Someone had to be actively surveilling you, driving a car behind yours, clicking a camera, jotting down notes on your every move. Now, tracking people is cheaper and easier than ever.

In 2020, law enforcement agencies are using this data in smarter, more precise, and creepier ways. Technologies were developed long ago to track you and your friends via your Facebook feed. So were databases where pictures of faces are stored indefinitely for use with facial recognition software. Cameras watching our moves on subways and in traffic and on the street have been inconspicuously recording for decades.•

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It didn’t begin auspiciously for George and Willie Muse, born black, poor and albino to a sharecropper family in the Jim Crow South. It seemed to get even less promising when they were kidnapped in 1899 from their doting mother in Virginia and forced to appear in itinerant freak shows as “Eko and Iko, sheep-headed, cannibalistic Ambassadors from Mars.”

The siblings were given room, board and mandolin lessons by a parade of handlers but were otherwise kept a safe distance from their earnings. Ultimately, their mother reclaimed them 28 years later through the legal system, liberating her boys who then signed a deal with Ringling Brothers that allowed them to retain complete rights to their merchandising. The two grew quite well-off, selling out Madison Square Garden numerous times and performing for the Queen of England. They were international superstars in an era before mass media. One brother, Willie, lived to 108, dying in 2001, having left a footprint in three centuries.

It’s likely a wilder tale than that of any sideshow act from the twentieth century, more than Chang & Eng or the “Two-Headed Nightingale” or anyone. In Truevine, a book by Beth Macy published last month, the author ponders the troubling question of whether the kidnapping and sideshow existence were ultimately better for the Muses than the privations and prejudices of the South would have been. Perhaps, though clearly neither was ideal. Reports are Paramount is angling to acquire big-screen rights to the book.

Two Brooklyn Daily Eagle articles are embedded below, the first documenting their mother first finding her sons after a nearly three-decade search, and the second revealing the men’s intelligence, which belied how the circus presented them to the public.


From October 20, 1927:

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From May 14. 1928:

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Almost all the promises Uber used to sell itself as an agent for social good have turned out to be utter bullshit.

The rideshare service isn’t in business to employ Iraq War veterans or keep African-Americans safe from police brutality. Travis Kalanick’s outfit isn’t here to free you from the shackles of bureaucracy, unless you’re very troubled by a steady income and benefits. It isn’t part of the solution for employment woes, as people who should know better have said. At long last, Uber is a corporation that will do whatever it takes to make as much money as possible without regard to the effect it has on human beings, drivers, passengers and anyone else.  

Another piece of the company’s hype as an agent for social change has fallen into tatters. The idea that Uber would make transportation colorblind has turned out to be a fugazy. From Gaby Del Valle at the Gothamist:

Uber has long claimed that its platform prevents drivers from engaging in discriminatory practices, like refusing to pick up people of color, but a new study suggests that Uber and other ride-sharing apps haven’t stopped drivers from racially and sexually discriminating against passengers.

According to a study conducted over two years by the National Bureau of Economic Research, black passengers are more likely to wait longer for a ride or have their ride canceled than their white counterparts, while women are likely to be taken on longer rides by drivers who either want to charge them more money or flirt with them (or both).

The study involved nearly 1,500 rides in Seattle and Boston, and the findings are based almost entirely on data from Uber rides, since Lyft displays the rider’s name and picture before a driver chooses to accept the ride, making discrimination nearly impossible to quantify.

In Seattle, undergraduate students from the University of Washington were given identical phones with Uber and Lyft pre-downloaded and told to take a few pre-determined routes. They were instructed to note what time they requested the ride, when the ride was accepted by the driver, what time they were picked up, and when they got to their destination. The results showed that wait times for black passengers were up to 35 percent longer than they were for white drivers.

In Boston, researchers set up two different Uber and Lyft accounts for each rider—one with an “African-American-sounding” name and one with a “white-sounding” name—and had passengers order rides from both. (“White” passengers had names like Allison, Brendan, and Brad while “black” passengers had names like Aisha, Hakim, and Darnell).

In Boston, profiles that appeared to belong to black men had a cancellation rate of 11.2 percent, compared to just 4.5 percent for passengers who appeared to be white men. Passengers believed to be black women had a cancellation rate of 8.4 percent, compared to 5.4 percent for white women.•

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futuristiccar4567driverless

In the 1969 National Geographic feature “The Coming Revolution in Transportation,” the idea of driverless autos centered on retro-fitting roads and highways, making them over into “guideways.” An excerpt:

The Unicontrol Car–a research vehicle built to test new servomechanisms–is easy to drive. Still, it does have to be driven. I asked Dr. Hafstad about the proposed automated highways that would relieve the driver of all responsibilities except that of choosing a destination.

“Automated highways–engineers call them guideways–are technically feasible today,’ Dr. Hafstad answered. “In fact, General Motors successfully demonstrated an electronically controlled guidance system about ten years ago. A wire was embedded in the road, and two pickup coils were installed at the front of the car to sense its position in relation to that wire. The coils sent electrical signals to the steering system, to keep the vehicle automatically on course.

“More recently, we tested a system that also controlled spacing and detected obstacles. It could slow down an overtaking vehicle–even stop it, until the road was clear!”•

It hasn’t worked out that way. The eyes and ears of the operation–the brains, really–will be within the vehicle with an assist perhaps from wi-fi–enabled gadgets on the outside; any contributions from driving surfaces will be secondary. Key to the “formal education” of cars will be the sharing of information among them, which will permit constant learning. Perhaps someday they’ll be smart enough to tell us how to replace millions of jobs lost in the trucking, taxi, delivery and limousine industries.

From a smart interview Jason Anders of WSJ conducted with Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang, whose company is tasked with supplying Teslas with autonomous capability:

Question:

Tesla announced that all of its coming vehicles are going to have your technology. Is Elon Musk pushing things too fast?

Jen-Hsun Huang:

If you don’t develop the technology and deploy it, it never gets better. At some level, you have to put it on the road. But what’s important is it’s a massive software problem. So companies like Tesla who have a great deal of software capability have an advantage. There’s a rigorous methodology of developing software. The software becomes better and better over use.

Question:

What can’t the cars do today?

Jen-Hsun Huang:

A whole lot of stuff. We’re going to have an AI inside the car that’s going to look around corners. So even if you’re driving, the AI might prevent you from an accident. There’s all kinds of things that the AI could predict on your behalf.

Question:

Can the car be doing too much?

Jen-Hsun Huang:

The thing to realize is the quality of the software improves over time, whereas people’s performance of driving decreases.

Question:

What about at first, when very few cars on the road are driverless?

Jen-Hsun Huang:

Making sure we don’t cause an accident is something we can control, and we ought to do that as quickly as possible.

But the cars will learn from every other car’s experience. We’re going to see capabilities of computers grow way faster than at any time in the history of our industry.•

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chinaoxygen-e1443212251420-1

A horrifying sign of the times is the peddling of packaged air, sold in bottles so that those with disposable income in badly polluted locales can breathe freely. It sounds like a smog-saturated setting imagined for a dystopic, futuristic novel, or, you know, contemporary China. Considering one of the two major American political parties would like to shutter the EPA and its nominee wants to remove “70 or 80% of the regulations,” we all might want to grab a six-pack if we can afford to.

From 

Would you pay $100 for a whiff of Welsh air?

In some of the world’s most polluted cities, people apparently will: Sales of bottled air from fresh-smelling places are taking off.

An Australian company is hawking six-packs of air bottled in places like Bondi Beach in Sydney or the eucalyptus-covered Blue Mountains. A Canadian firm sells containers of Rocky Mountain breeze as an antidote to smoggy skies (“a shot of nature,” its marketing promises).

Aethaer, a British company, is hoping to turn packaged air into a popular luxury item in fast-growing markets like China. The company sells glass jars holding 580 milliliters (a bit more than a pint) of air from Wales — with a “morning dew feel,” according to its website — for 80 pounds, or $97.

The company’s 28-year-old founder, Leo De Watts, said he hoped buyers would come to regard his product as a collectible, like a “sculpture or a limited-edition print made by an artist.” “Clean air is actually a very rare commodity,” he said.

The market for all kinds of pollution-fighting tools is booming in many smog-choked cities in China, India and Southeast Asia. Innovations abound, including air purifiers that are attached to bicycles and outdoor towers that are meant to suck up smog.

Bottled air is one of the least practical but most talked-about ideas.•

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