Urban Studies

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From the September 19, 1934 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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The “Sacred School of the White Brotherhood” sounds like an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan, but it was actually a 1920s cult–perhaps a “pagan love cult”–dedicated to racial peace, among other things, that had branches in several American cities.

The organization ran afoul of the law when it was said to have endeavored to “breed a Superman” with the help of a Berkeley coed and a 15-year-old boy. The pre-hippie hangout located in Oakland was raided in ’27 on the orders of District Attorney Earl Warren, with officers arriving before a baby could be made.

Of course, a very public scandal ensued, especially since numerous civic and business leaders were said to be among the members. Gertrude Wright, the so-called “High Priestess” whose bungalow doubled as cult headquarters was among those who fled to Mexico to escape a possible jail sentence. An article about the brouhaha appeared in the March 12, 1927 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

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Forgive the people of China for their lack of fealty to reality after a dizzying 25 years of transformation. The breakneck pace of urbanization and industrialization must have often seemed shockingly otherworldly, and the same could be said of problems attendant to the big switch: the world’s highest cancer rates and worst air pollution. Maybe some citizens need a break from their vertiginous world.

Or perhaps China is leading the world in early adoption of VR technologies more practical reasons. The real estate boom on the mainland and the new money that allows Chinese people to buy overseas has popularized the use of Virtual Reality goggles that allow potential buyers to “take a tour” of a property from afar–or one yet to be built–normalizing the professional use of the tool. This utilization of the technology may provide the country with a foundational advantage in future uses of VR. That’s a possibility, though an early lead can disappear in a hurry as gadgets become cheaper and better.

From the Economist:

In the West the interest in VR has mainly focused on consumer applications like gaming. By contrast, in China business applications are an immediate and profitable avenue for growth. Property developers like Vanke are using VR to peddle expensive properties that are overseas or not yet built, and architects are using it in design. Education is another promising field. NetDragon, a Chinese software firm that attracted attention when it acquired Britain’s Promethean World, an online education outfit, for some $100m last year, is testing how VR software and hardware can be used in mainland schools (one idea is that headsets could tell when children are tilting their heads, indicating boredom, meaning a change of subject or teaching method is required).

Companies specialising in VR are spending a great deal of time examining the growth in China’s market. In addition to the quick adoption by Chinese businesses, this is for two other reasons to do with the consumer side, reckons Huang Zhuang, founder of China’s Nao Chuan Yue, a startup VR outfit. First, mainlanders are enthusiastic early adopters of whizzy technologies, even if the early versions are somewhat imperfect. Second, China leads the world in the use of the mobile internet. Mr Huang is convinced that the majority of users in future will access VR via their web-connected smartphones, not via goggles attached to personal computers or self-contained devices.

In other countries, including America, it is difficult for people to try out VR technology, notes Ryan Wang of Outpost Capital, a Californian venture-capital firm with investments in the sector. They have to fork out $1,000 or more to experience high-end VR. That means there is as yet no clear, affordable path for American consumers to adopt the technology, says Mr Wang.

China, on the other hand, already has a full infrastructure in place for consumers to try it out.•

From the August 12, 1894 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Don’t know if Uber is driving city dwellers to move to suburbia or if ridesharing is simply there to convenience those squeezed out of urban areas by rising costs. Globalization has meant, among other things, increased competition for square feet in popular cities from non-locals, which has helped drive real-estate prices sky high. That’s true in New York, of course, but also in less-obvious locales like Vancouver. Exacerbating matters, Airbnb enables landlords (if illegally) another avenue to collect rent sans leases, elevating prices in the thinned-out stock of residences available to longer-term tenants. 

Zoning laws are often blamed for lower-income folks being routed out of cities, but I’ve witnessed segments of NYC build new houses with abandon, without the necessary corresponding infrastructure projects to support the expansion, which can severely limit livability. These new buildings also are not a realistic option in major metropolises for those who aren’t already doing very well financially.

Regardless, it seems presently that some Americans are headed to less-dense places, though it’s not yet clear if that’s a long-term trend, since a significant percentage of us are drawn moth-like to bright lights. Tyler Cowen, who was among the first to announce that average is over (which may be more true in demand than supply), believes Uber and Lyft and the like have played a role in the shift, and he anticipates driverless, when it arrives, will further this reverse migration. Perhaps, but that would signal that people flocked to cities mainly to avoid commuting, which likely has never been the primary attraction of the urban enclave. The economist further feels that drones, VR, the IoT and other new tools will soup up the suburbs, exurbs and rural spots, making them more desirable.

From Cowen’s Bloomberg View column:

Self-driving vehicles are also likely to help the suburbs most. One of the worst things about the suburbs is the commute to the city or to other parts of the suburbs. But what if you could read, text or watch TV – safely — during that commuting time? What if you could tackle your day’s work just as you do on a train or plane? Commuting would seem a lot less painful. As driverless vehicles evolve to accommodate work and leisure uses of the automobile space, pleasure will replace commuting stress. 

What about drones? They too would seem to favor remote areas where it is harder to access useful goods and services. Drones may do more for exurbs and rural areas than for the suburbs, but it seems cities will gain least. Walking or biking to nearby shops is a potential substitute for drone delivery. Rolling sidewalk drones might find it harder to negotiate crowded cities, and cities with a dense network of tall buildings may be less friendly to flying drones. Population density may increase the risk of a drone falling on someone.

Now think about virtual reality. Its advocates claim that it will be used for sex, to simulate travel and to watch sporting events and concerts with an intense 3-D accompaniment. You will be able to do all that in the comfort of your living room or basement. So you won’t need a city for vivid cultural experiences.•

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The end is near, more or less. It depends on how you keep time.

In 1925, a larger-than-usual number of Americans believed the fateful moment had arrived, so they hunkered down and waited for the apocalypse. Others refused to just sit idly by and took their own lives, fearful that a great beam of light was to announce their annihilation. 

The source of these beliefs appear to have been a pair of doomsayers preaching on opposite coasts, Margaret Rowen of the Seventh Day Adventists in California and Robert Reidt of Long Island. The parallel prophecies caused panic until their announced arrivals passed without incident.

Several stories in the February 6, 1925 Brooklyn Daily Eagle marked the madness.

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From the July 31, 1931 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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A misbegotten Manhattan baby show was staged, appropriately, at Midget Hall, in 1877. There was a little one who barked like a dog, a tyke without hair or nails and many others said to look “hideous.” The special attraction was the “baby who attempted to commit suicide.” It was nearly as shamefully exploitative as an hour of today’s Reality TV. An amazingly insulting eyewitness account of the horror was published in the November 26 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 

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From the September 28, 1891 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Raymond Orterg check presented to Lindbergh.

In 1919, New York City immigrant hotelier and restaurateur Raymond Orteig had an inspiring if dangerous idea to speed up the development of aviation. He established a $25,000 prize to go to the first pilot to complete a successful solo flight between New York and Paris. The businessman received a great return on his investment as numerous aviators individually poured time and resources into the endeavor. The first six attempts ended in failure and death, before Charles Lindbergh collected the check from Orteig, who had flown to Paris for the occasion.

I was reminded of Orteig by a recent Vivek Wadhwa column in the Washington Post which compared him to Peter Diamandis, who 20 years ago established the $10,000,000 X Prize to similarly stimulate space travel. Below is a Brooklyn Daily Eagle feature published a few months after Lindbergh’s 1927 triumph, which told of Orteig’s unlikely rags-to-riches story and how he sparked one of history’s great moments.

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Illustration of Marage’s talking machine from Scientific American.

The practical talking machine invented by Dr. R. Marage in fin de siècle Paris was a sensation for awhile, though it seems to have passed silently into the vortex of technological history.

A member of the French Academy of Medicine, Marage was attempting with his device (photo here) to outdo Thomas Edison and his phonograph, which reliably offered recorded sound, though it was the latter invention that ultimately found a market. It’s only in our time that chatbots and Siri have begun to scratch the surface of machine-conversation potential. While the science behind Marage’s apparatus was immaterial to those innovations, it does remind that the dream of non-human speech long predated Silicon Valley.

An article from the Scientific American touting his achievement was reprinted in the November 3, 1901 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

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Many within the driverless sector think the technology is only five years from remaking our roads and economies. Perhaps they know enough to be sure of such a bold ETA, or perhaps they’re parked in an echo chamber. Either way, it appears this new tool will enter our lives sooner than later.

Beyond perfecting technology that works in all traffic situations and weather conditions are knotty questions about ethics, legislation, Labor, etc. Excerpts follow from two articles on the topic. 


From Anjana Ahuja’s smart FT piece on the problem of crowdsourcing driverless ethics:

Anyone with a computer and a coffee break can contribute to MIT’s mass experiment, which imagines the brakes failing on a fully autonomous vehicle. The vehicle is packed with passengers, and heading towards pedestrians. The experiment depicts 13 variations of the “trolley problem” — a classic dilemma in ethics that involves deciding who will die under the wheels of a runaway tram.

In MIT’s reformulation, the runaway is a self-driving car that can keep to its path or swerve; both mean death and destruction. The choice can be between passengers and pedestrians, or two sets of pedestrians. Calculating who should perish involves pitting more lives against fewer, young against old, professionals against the homeless, pregnant women against athletes, humans against pets.

At heart, the trolley problem is about deciding who lives, who dies — the kind of judgment that truly autonomous vehicles may eventually make. My “preferences” are revealed afterwards: I mostly save children and sacrifice pets. Pedestrians who are not jaywalking are spared and passengers expended. It is obvious: by choosing to climb into a driverless car, they should shoulder the burden of risk. As for my aversion to swerving, should caution not dictate that driverless cars are generally programmed to follow the road?

It is illuminating — until you see how your preferences stack up against everyone else.•


From Keith Naughton’s Businessweek article on legislating the end of human drivers:

This week, technology industry veterans proposed a ban on human drivers on a 150-mile (241-kilometer) stretch of Interstate 5 from Seattle to Vancouver. Within five years, human driving could be outlawed in congested city centers like London, on college campuses and at airports, said Kristin Schondorf, executive director of automotive transportation at consultant EY.

The first driver-free zones will be well-defined and digitally mapped, giving autonomous cars long-range vision and a 360-degree view of their surroundings, Schondorf said. The I-5 proposal would start with self-driving vehicles using car-pool lanes and expand over a decade to robot rides taking over the road during peak driving times.

“In city centers, you don’t even want non-automated vehicles; they would just ruin the whole point of why you have a smart city,” said Schondorf, a former engineer at Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. “It makes it a dumb city.”

John Krafcik, head of Google’s self-driving car project, said in an August interview with Bloomberg Businessweek that the tech giant is developing cars without steering wheels and gas or brake pedals because “we need to take the human out of the loop.” Ford Chief Executive Officer Mark Fields echoed that sentiment last month when he said the 113-year-old automaker would begin selling robot taxis with no steering wheel or pedals in 2021.•

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The past isn’t necessarily prologue. Sometimes there’s a clean break from history. The Industrial Age transformed Labor, moving us from an agrarian culture to an urban one, providing new jobs that didn’t previously exist: advertising, marketing, car mechanic, etc. That doesn’t mean the Digital Age will follow suit. Much of manufacturing, construction, driving and other fields will eventually fall, probably sooner than later, and Udacity won’t be able to rapidly transition everyone into a Self-Driving Car Engineer. That type of upskilling can take generations to complete.

Not every job has to vanish. Just enough to make unemployment scarily high to cause social unrest. And those who believe Universal Basic Income is a panacea must beware truly bad versions of such programs, which can end up harming more than helping. 

Radical abundance doesn’t have to be a bad thing, of course. It should be a very good one. But we’ve never managed plenty in America very well, and this level would be on an entirely different scale.

Excerpts from two articles on the topic.


From Giles Wilkes’ Economist review of Ryan Avent’s The Wealth of Humans:

What saves this work from overreach is the insistent return to the problem of abundant human labour. The thesis is rather different from the conventional, Malthusian miserabilism about burgeoning humanity doomed to near-starvation, with demand always outpacing supply. Instead, humanity’s growing technical capabilities will render the supply of what workers produce, be that physical products or useful services, ever more abundant and with less and less labour input needed. At first glance, worrying about such abundance seems odd; how typical that an economist should find something dismal in plenty.

But while this may be right when it is a glut of land, clean water, or anything else that is useful, there is a real problem when it is human labour. For the role work plays in the economy is two-sided, responsible both for what we produce, and providing the rights to what is made. Those rights rely on power, and power in the economic system depends on scarcity. Rob human labour of its scarcity, and its position in the economic hierarchy becomes fragile.

A good deal of the Wealth of Humans is a discussion on what is increasingly responsible for creating value in the modern economy, which Mr Avent correctly identifies as “social capital”: that intangible matrix of values, capabilities and cultures that makes a company or nation great. Superlative businesses and nation states with strong institutions provide a secure means of getting well-paid, satisfying work. But access to the fruits of this social capital is limited, often through the political system. Occupational licensing, for example, prevents too great a supply of workers taking certain protected jobs, and border controls achieve the same at a national level. Exceptional companies learn how to erect barriers around their market. The way landholders limit further development provides a telling illustration: during the San Fransisco tech boom, it was the owners of scarce housing who benefited from all that feverish innovation. Forget inventing the next Facebook, be a landlord instead.

Not everyone can, of course, which is the core problem the book grapples with. Only a few can work at Google, or gain a Singaporean passport, inherit property in London’s Mayfair or sell $20 cheese to Manhattanites. For the rest, there is a downward spiral: in a sentence, technological progress drives labour abundance, this abundance pushes down wages, and every attempt to fight it will encourage further substitution towards alternatives.•


From Duncan Jefferies’ Guardian article “The Automated City“:

Enfield council is going one step further – and her name is Amelia. She’s an “intelligent personal assistant” capable of analysing natural language, understanding the context of conversations, applying logic, resolving problems and even sensing emotions. She’s designed to help residents locate information and complete application forms, as well as simplify some of the council’s internal processes. Anyone can chat to her 24/7 through the council’s website. If she can’t answer something, she’s programmed to call a human colleague and learn from the situation, enabling her to tackle a similar question unaided in future.

Amelia is due to be deployed later this year, and is supposed to be 60% cheaper than a human employee – useful when you’re facing budget cuts of £56m over the next four years. Nevertheless, the council claims it has no plans to get rid of its 50 call centre workers.

The Singaporean government, in partnership with Microsoft, is also planning to roll out intelligent chatbots in several stages: at first they will answer simple factual questions from the public, then help them complete tasks and transactions, before finally responding to personalised queries.

Robinson says that, while artificially intelligent chatbots could have a role to play in some areas of public service delivery: “I think we overlook the value of a quality personal relationship between two people at our peril, because it’s based on life experience, which is something that technology will never have – certainly not current generations of technology, and not for many decades to come.”

But whether everyone can be “upskilled” to carry out more fulfilling work, and how many staff will actually be needed as robots take on more routine tasks, remains to be seen.•

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From the October 13, 1929 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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As long as the Earth is around, they’ll be those who wrongly argue that it’s flat.

Few did so more vehemently than evangelist Wilbur Glenn Voliva, one of the most famous advocates of Flat Earth theories in America during the first half of the 20th century. In 1906, the preacher gained power over the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion, Illinois. He turned the community of 6,000 into a multi-pronged industrial concern, taking advantage of the very low wages he paid members of his flock. By the 1920s, Voliva owned one of the most powerful radio stations in the nation from which to preach his anti-science views, a forerunner of the many dicey religious figures to come who would mix mass and media.

While Voliva despised globes, it was the advent of aerial photography (and his own outsize financial improprieties) that dimmed but did not end his career. After all, despite any proof, some still see what they want to see.

Three articles below from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle follow the arc of his notable life.


From June 22, 1924:

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From April 19. 1931:

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From October 12, 1942:

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From the July 17, 1951 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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William James Sidis amazed the world, and then he disappointed it.

A Harvard student in 1910 at just 11 years old, he was considered the most astounding prodigy of early 20th-century America, a genius of mathematics and much more, reading at two and typing at three, who had been trained methodically and relentlessly from birth by his father, a psychiatrist and professor. It was a lot to live up to. There was a dalliance with radical politics at the end of his teens that threw him off the path to greatness, resulting in a sedition trial. In the aftermath, he quietly disappeared into an undistinguished life.

When it was learned in 1937 that Sidis was living a threadbare existence of no great import, merely a clerk, he was treated to a public accounting which was laced with no small amount of schadenfreude. He sued the New Yorker over an article by Gerald L. Manley and James Thurber (gated) which detailed his failed promise. He was paid $3,000 to settle the case by the magazine’s publishers just prior to his death in 1944.

Three portraits below from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle chart Sidis’ uncommon life.


From March 20, 1910:


From May 5, 1919:

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From July 18, 1944:

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Not that long ago, it was considered bold–foolhardy, even–to predict the arrival of a more technological future 25 years down the road. That was the gambit the Los Angeles Times made in 1988 when it published “L.A. 2013,” a feature that imagined the next-level life of a family of four and their robots.

We may not yet be at the point when “whole epochs will pass, cultures rise and fall, between a telephone call and a reply“–I mean, who talks on the phone anymore?–but it doesn’t require a quarter of a century for the new to shock us now. In the spirit of our age, Alissa Walker of the Curbed LA works from the new report “Urban Mobility in the Digital Age” when imagining the city’s remade transportation system in just five years. Regardless of what Elon Musk promises, I’ll bet the over on autonomous cars arriving in a handful of years, but it will be transformative when it does materialize, and it’ll probably happen sooner than later.

The opening:

It’s 2021, and you’re making your way home from work. You jump off the Expo line (which now travels from Santa Monica to Downtown in 20 minutes flat), and your smartwatch presents you with options for the final two miles to your apartment. You could hop on Metro’s bike share, but you decide on a tiny, self-driving bus that’s waiting nearby. As you board, it calculates a custom route for you and the handful of other passengers, then drops you off at your doorstep in a matter of minutes. You walk through your building’s old parking lot—converted into a vegetable garden a few years ago—and walk inside in time to put your daughter to bed.

That’s the vision for Los Angeles painted in Urban Mobility in the Digital Age, a new report that provides a roadmap for the city’s transportation future. The report, which was shared with Curbed LA and has been posted online, addresses the city’s plan to combine self-driving vehicles (buses included) with on-demand sharing services to create a suite of smarter, more efficient transit options.

But it’s not just the way that we commute that will change, according to the report. Simply being smarter about how Angelenos move from one place to another brings additional benefits: alleviating vehicular congestion, potentially eliminating traffic deaths, and tackling climate change—where transportation is now the fastest-growing contributor to greenhouse gases. And it will also impact the way the city looks, namely by reclaiming the streets and parking lots devoted to the driving and storing of cars that sit motionless 95 percent of the time.

The report is groundbreaking because it makes LA the first U.S. city to specifically address policies around self-driving cars.•

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From the March 17, 1904 New York Times:

Jacksonville, Fla. — While in a cage with three lions this afternoon, Alfred J.F. Perrins, the animal trainer, suddenly became insane. Soon after he entered the cage Perrins struck one of the lions a vicious blow and cried, “Why don’t you bow to me, I am God’s agent.”

Perrins then left the cage, leaving the door open and saying, “They will come out, as God is looking after them.” He then stood on a box and called on the spectators to come and be healed, saying he could restore sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, and heal any disease by a gift just received from God.

The lions started to leave the cage and the spectators fled. The cage door was slammed by a policeman, who arrested Perrins. Physicians announced Perrins hopelessly crazed on religion. He has been in show business thirty years, having been with Robinson, Barnum, and Sells.•

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Many of the goals of the Industrial and Digital Ages have been aimed at trying to make heretofore irreducible things smaller: putting the contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin, reducing musical recordings and newspapers to pure data, etc. In that same vein, scientists endeavored to shrink an entire meal to the size of a pill long before Rob Rhinehart made dinner drinkable with Soylent. An article in the August 28, 1899 Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on such efforts.

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From the July 31, 1928 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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It’s no mere coincidence painkillers have been the hot drug in America in this new century, because, wow, it’s hurt. 

Until recently, I had relatives living in the Oxy capital of NYC, and when I visited and walked around, it was a bit like encountering zombies, lost souls still hopeful enough to continue buying lottery tickets but unable to wish for more. That’s as much as the Dream lives not only there but in many stretches of the U.S. It’s been decades of decline for the former middle class, and for a lot of folks it feels like endgame. It’s not their imagination.

Big Pharma incentivized doctors to hand our fistfuls of opioid scripts, sure, but the loss of hope was the other toxic half of the equation. Hard drugs were once the province of the poor who were already at rock bottom and comfortably middle class kids who could afford a (temporary) fall, but almost nobody can pay that price anymore, even as the nation grows wealthier in the macro. That’s led some to do the unthinkable, to embrace a Berlusconi who dreams of being a Mussolini, someone who wants to Make America White Again. That’s a lottery without a winning number.

The great David Simon, the Victor Hugo of Baltimore, just conducted a Reddit Ask Me Anything and addressed this topic, among others. A few exchanges follow.


Question:

I can genuinely say that The Wire directly inspired me to pursue the career path that I’m in today. I first watched the show while in college, and it informed me about many issues that I had previously been unaware of or apathetic too. Bubbles story arc connected with me so deeply that I took my first sociology course and began volunteering with homeless populations. Today I’m working as a substance abuse and mental health care coordinator in the field of community health, where I primarily work with lower income and homeless individuals.

The content you create has an impeccable ability to educate the public about real world issues through compelling storytelling that is absolutely unmatched. Thank you for the work that you do and inspiring me to pursue a career in a field that I previously wouldn’t have considered.

At this point what do you believe needs to happen to start making an impact in combating the growing opioid epidemic in our country?

David Simon:

I believe the abuse of narcotics — whether street drugs or pharmasale — is the result of a fundamental existential crisis among working and middle-class Americans in the same way that it was once that for the underclass. We need to return to an economic model that values labor, and the human lives that comprise labor.


Question:

What’s your take on the Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter situation?

David Simon:

Black lives matter. So do blue lives. But the context of the “black lives matter” credo is that unlike blue lives, or white lives — which have de facto mattered in our country for generations — African-Americans have been far too vulnerable to unnecessary and hyperbolic response by law enforcement. This is simply so, and is now evidenced by the smart phone revolution.


Question

Where do you see print journalism heading in the next decade? Any examples of recent work that you find interesting?

David Simon:

I want and we need to see an on-line revenue stream for journalism established that ensures that professional reporters can earn a living covering the quotidian beats of institutionalized America. When stuff is funded, it’s good and fixed and every day. Citizen journalist is not a phrase I take seriously in any sense. I think Pro Publica and Mother Jones and a number of on-line elements show great chops; but the money still isn’t right. People need to pay and copyright has to matter again, or it can’t grow as it needs.

Question:

What can a common person do to stop the death of journalism?

David Simon:

Pay for it. Online. Pay a little bit each month. You did when they dumped it on the doorstep, and you can pay even less than that now to support the salaries of trained reporters and photographers and videographers.


Question:

What’s your bucket list project or subject that you’d like to tackle?

David Simon:

A history of the CIA from post-WWII to 9/11/2001. And a narrative of the American leftists who fought in Spain and paid early for our stated ideals. Also, a small feature film about David Maulsby, a rewrite man, and Jack, a gorilla at the Baltimore Zoo. I’ll say no more about that.•

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Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd was more famous than infamous, which seems a strange thing.

During the 1930s, the soft-featured felon participated in a string of brazen bank robberies and left behind a body count, but such was the hatred for financial institutions in America during the Great Depression that he was widely considered a Robin Hood if not a saint. Stories circulated that he shredded mortgages of down-and-out farmers while emptying safes and shared his ill-gotten gains with the hungry and disheartened, which was nearly everyone.

Who knows? Maybe he found time for such acts of benevolence in between shootouts and jail breaks, but these legends had more to do with what a desperate people needed than what a lone gunman was delivering. It was Woody Guthrie who put it all in perspective in his great song named after the beloved criminal, writing “Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered / I’ve seen lots of funny men / Some will rob you with a six-gun / And some with a fountain pen.”

Two Brooklyn Daily Eagle articles from 1934 recall Floyd’s wide renown at the end of his wild run.


From October 23, 1934:

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From October 29, 1934:

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In an Atlantic Q&A, Derek Thompson has a smart conversation with the Economist’s Ryan Avent, the author of the soon-to-be-published The Wealth of Humans, a book whose sly title suggests abundance may not arrive without a degree of menace. Avent is firmly in the McAfee-Brynjolfsson camp, believing the Digital Age will rival the Industrial one in its spurring of economic and societal disruption. An excerpt:

The Atlantic:

There is an ongoing debate about whether technological growth is accelerating, as economists like Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (the authors of The Second Machine Age) insist, or slowing down, as the national productivity numbers indicate. Where do you come down?

Ryan Avent:

I come down squarely in the Brynjolfsson and McAfee camp and strongly disagree with economists like Robert Gordon, who have said that growth is basically over. I think the digital revolution is probably going to be as important and transformative as the industrial revolution. The main reason is machine intelligence, a general-purpose technology that can be used anywhere, from driving cars to customer service, and it’s getting better very, very quickly. There’s no reason to think that improvement will slow down, whether or not Moore’s Law continues.

I think this transformative revolution will create an abundance of labor. It will create enormous growth in [the supply of workers and machines], automating a lot of industries and boosting productivity. When you have this glut of workers, it plays havoc with existing institutions.

I think we are headed for a really important era in economic history. The Industrial Revolution is a pretty good guide of what that will look like. There will have to be a societal negotiation for how to share the gains from growth. That process will be long and drawn out. It will involve intense ideological conflict, and history suggests that a lot will go wrong.•

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Seminal reading about NYC of the last five decades is “My Lost City,” Luc Sante’s brilliant 2003 New York Review of Books paean to an era not too long ago when hardly anyone here was a have-not, even if they were poor, with a trove of printed matter and records and furnishings to be had on many a curb to whomever was willing to haul it away. The riches poureth over and provided a different, and often deeper, kind of wealth. Okay, some people truly had it worse four decades or so ago. For instance, child prostitutes were a staple of Times Square. Relentless gentrification, however, wasn’t the only way to deal with that horror.

Sante has now republished “The Last Time I Saw Basquiat” in the NYRB, another piece about a time of greater creativity that’s been lost, though he’s hopeful in asserting that the struggle against wealth inequality for an affordable, working-class New York continues. I wish I felt the same. In Cohen-esque terms, the war to me seems over, the good guys having lost. 

An excerpt:

The last time I saw Jean I was going home from work, had just passed through the turnstile at the 57th Street BMT station. We spotted each other, he at the bottom of the stairs, me at the top. As he climbed I witnessed a little silent movie. He stopped briefly at the first landing, whipped out a marker and rapidly wrote something on the wall, then went up to the second landing, where two cops emerged from a recess and collared him. I kept going.

A month later he was famous and I never saw him again. We no longer traveled in the same circles. I was happy for him, but then it became obvious he was flaming out at an alarming pace. I heard stories of misery and excess, the compass needle flying around the dial, a crash looming. When he died I mourned, but it seemed inevitable, as well as a symptom of the times, the wretched Eighties. He was a casualty in a war—a war that, by the way, continues. Years later I needed money badly and undertook to sell the Basquiat productions I own, but got no takers, since they were too early, failed to display the classic Basquiat look. I’m glad it turned out that way.•

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