Urban Studies

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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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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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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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From the October 23, 1924 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Barnesville, Mass. (By the Associated Press) — Excitement which had prevailed with the first announcement that H.T. Opsahi, science teacher in the Barnesville High School, had been arrested and released on $2000 bonds in connection with charges that he used an “electric chair” to punish insubordinate students, had abated today with parents, members of the school board and Opsahi all apparently content to await the outcome of the preliminary hearing next Saturday. …

The use of the “electric chair,” according to Opsahi, was the outcome of a method to “scare” the students who since the beginning of school would not subject themselves to discipline. It was made from a standard office chair to which a high frequency coil had been attached, Opsahl said, and under the most favorable conditions to the transmission of the current, it “would merely cause a tingling sensation to the student being punished.”•

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Buckminster Fuller was right on some vital points even if most of his designs never made a leap from the drawing board. He knew, for instance, that the idea of race was a phony tribal concept steeped in ignorance, wealth inequality was a real threat to democracy and childbirth per family would decline as the infant mortality rate decreased.

The theorist, who certainly realized the delicate balance of our environment, may or may not have been right when he insisted pollution itself was a great resource gone unharvested, a recyclable more or less, but that’s an awfully dangerous assumption. Even if it’s so, our “creation” of these raw materials could extinct the species long before we establish a collection day. Technocracy has its merits, but I wouldn’t want to wager everything on it.

In a smart Aeon essay, Samanth Subramanian wonders about the renewed capital of Fuller’s teachings in this time of climate peril and technological prowess, when those domes Elon Musk dreams of printing on Mars may soon be as needed on Earth. The opening has a great, largely forgotten anecdote about a Vermont town deciding in 1979 to build a Fuller-ish dome around itself to deal with falling temperatures and rising gas prices, before quickly quashing the project. The writer also de-mythologizes much about the Futurist, whose self-promoting prowess was Jobsian long before Jobs was born.

An excerpt:

Fuller wasn’t the first person to dream of domed cities – they’d featured for decades in science fiction, usually as hothouses of dystopia – but as an engineering solution, they feel thoroughly Fullerian. Implicit in their concept is an acknowledgement that human nature is wasteful and unreliable, resistant to fixing itself. Instead, Fuller put his faith in technology as a means to tame the messiness of humankind. ‘I would never try to reform man – that’s much too difficult,’ Fuller told The New Yorker in 1966. Appealing to people to remedy their behaviour was a folly, because they’d simply never do it. Far wiser, Fuller thought, to build technology that circumvents the flaws in human behaviour – that is, ‘to modify the environment in such a way as to get man moving in preferred directions’. Instead of human-led design, he sought design-led humans.

Winooski’s grand dome never went into construction. By the end of 1980, after the election of Ronald Reagan as president and a summer of stormy criticism over the cost and visual impact of the project, the mood had shifted. But Fuller, who had first advanced the idea of a domed city in 1959, continued to champion it until his death in 1983. ‘The way consumption curves are going in many of our big cities, it is clear that we are running out of energy,’ he wrote. ‘It is important for our government to know if there are better ways of enclosing space in terms of material, time, and energy.’ The most ambitious of his urban lids was the dome he wanted to lower over midtown Manhattan, a mile high and two miles in diameter. As well as a perfect climate, Fuller said, the dome could protect New Yorkers against the worst effects of a nuclear bomb going off nearby.

In the great flux of postwar United States, Fuller was convinced that the world was marshalling its resources poorly and unsustainably, and that change was a burning imperative. The world finds itself again passing through a Fullerian moment – a phase of political, environmental and technological upheaval that is both unsettling and exhilarating. Within this frame, Fuller’s life and ideas – the sound ones but also those that were tedious or absurd – ring with a new resonance.•


Fuller introduces the Dymaxion House in 1929.

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From the May 11, 1910 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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In 1789, Benjamin Franklin identified death and taxes as the only things we can be certain of. It wasn’t a completely original quote, but it seemed a permanent truth, with no one betting against the continued presence of graveyards and other shovel-ready projects. Some Futurists would like to make a liar of the most famous kite flier, delivering to our doorsteps a-mortality and post-scarcity, like a couple of pizzas lowered gently by a drone.

On the economic side of things, Transhumanist Presidential candidate, Zoltan Istvan, not a fan of tariffs, recently found a kindred soul in visionary Venus Project architect and theorist Jacque Fresco, who even at 100 years old still hopes to radically remake our cash-and-ownership economy into a resource-based one.

In a Vice “Motherboard” piece, Istvan argues that Fresco’s far-out ideas, which would not only eliminate taxes but also currency, may be the best means to preventing violent upheaval should the robots devour all the jobs. An excerpt:

Over the next 20 years, I see automation taking nearly all jobs, and I doubt capitalism will survive that. As a result, I advocate for beginning the process of eliminating taxes and doling out a universal basic income—one that swallows welfare, Social Security, and all health services. Otherwise, I see inequality dramatically growing and an even larger befuddled welfare system than we have now. When robots take all the jobs, I also see civil strife and revolution occurring if corporations and the government don’t give back enough to society.

For me, the most important aspect of the future is to actually get there, and I worry that without giving something to unemployed humans, a dystopic society of violence and chaos will come about. The last thing America—and the scientific community—needs is a civil war.

Some experts have predicted that fully automated luxury communism is the way to go, and it’s a term increasingly being thrown around. Basically, it argues that humans should be pampered by technology, and to do so, communism should finally become the dominant economic system. Fresco doesn’t buy this.

He thinks that if we could just get rid of money and ownership, most of the humanity’s problems would disappear. And he claims only a resource-based economy—an idea he said he’s been working on since he was 13 years old—could do this.

The resource-based economy goes like this: In the future robots will do all the jobs (including creating new robots and fixing broken one). Now, imagine the world is like a public library, where you can borrow any book you want but never own it. Fresco wants all enterprise like this, whether it’s groceries, new tech, gasoline, or alcohol. He wants everything free and eventually provided to us by robots, software, and automation.•

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From the November 25, 1936 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Before the village became global, husband-and-wife explorers Carveth and Zetta Wells used new media and old-fashioned derring-do to make the world a little smaller.

The microphone- and camera-ready couple were lecturers and media personalities in between jaunts to exotic locales, with Zetta even hosting a weekly NBC show in 1946-47, in which she introduced 16mm home movies of their travels. It was an intoxicating time of visiting boat builders living inside volcanoes, watching fish climb trees and chaperoning Raffles the Mynah bird to an appearance on You Bet Your Life.

Below are two Brooklyn Daily Eagle articles about the peripatetic pair and the aforementioned 1957 video of Groucho Marx getting the business from a boid.


From July 18, 1929.

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From August 12, 1945,

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At the 6:50 mark.

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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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