Tom Vanderbilt

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Following up on yesterday’s post about America’s foundering infrastructure, here’s a section from a New Republic piece by Tom Vanderbilt, who, in this segment, directs his ire at NYC’s woeful highways and information superhighway, overwhelmed by population density, poor planning and lack of resources. I could say that the city’s success has come with a heavy price, drawing more transplants and tourists than it could handle, except that I’ve live here my whole life and the infrastructure has always been an ordeal, in good times as well as bad.

Vanderbilt riffs off of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ harsh grades for our bridges and tunnels and Henry Petroski’s new book, The Road Taken. The excerpt:

As an interest group, we might expect a certain amount of grade inflation—or, in this case, deflation—from the ASCE; proclaiming the country’s infrastructure to be in decent working order is not likely, after all, to generate much work for engineers. But it does not take a vested interest to sense that America, whose roads and rails were once the envy of the developed world, has somehow gone astray.

To take New York City—where I live and where Petroski grew up—as an example, despite being constantly told I live in the center of the world, when it comes to infrastructure, I am constantly wishing I were elsewhere. When the subway comes screeching along, tinnitus on braking metal, I long for the silent rubber tires used by trains in Mexico City or Montreal. When I salmon against the crushing stream of pedestrian and bicycle traffic on the stingy walkway of the Brooklyn Bridge, I long for Brisbane’s capacious, car-free Kurilpa Bridge. Flying into any Gotham airport, the convenient, legible urban transport links one finds in Amsterdam or Geneva are absent. There are cities in Kansas, thanks to Google Fiber, that currently have better bandwidth than the nation’s media capital. Growing up in Brooklyn, many decades ago, Petroski notes that he and his childhood friends would occasionally go down the hill, from Park Slope, until they ran into the Gowanus Canal, “stagnant and odorous.” In 2016, the canal is still stagnant and odorous, an EPA Superfund site, even as glassy luxury condos rise on its fetid banks.

“America,” argues Petroski, gleaning a hoary image from Robert Frost, “is now at a fork in the road representing choices that must be made regarding the nation’s infrastructure.”•

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We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us. A passage from Tom Vanderbilt’s smart Wired interview with Netflix’s recommendations honchos Carlos Gomez-Uribe and Xavier Amatriain:


So if I’m viewing on my iPad at midnight, do I see different recommendations than I would on my TV at 8 pm?

Xavier Amatriain: 

We have been working for some time on introducing context into recommendations. We have data that suggests there is different viewing behavior depending on the day of the week, the time of day, the device, and sometimes even the location. But implementing contextual recommendations has practical challenges that we are currently working on. We hope to be using it in the near future.”

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From a Slate report by Tom Vanderbilt about a convention of lockpickers, an annual meeting of the original “hackers,” who must gain entry not to steal but because they need to:

“In fairness, the conference, known as LockCon, hosted by TOOOL (The Open Organization of Lockpickers, which demurely describes itself as a ‘growing group of enthusiasts interested in locks, keys and ways of opening locks without keys’) was a far tamer affair than I had expected, given that my visit had been foregrounded with viewings of, for example, a YouTube video showing TOOOL co-founder and president Barry (‘the Key’) Wels—as with hackers, a nickname is often de rigueur for lock pickers—opening a standard hotel door, from the outside, using a bent metal bar.

TOOOL, perhaps not surprisingly given that it spends its time figuring out how to open the world’s locks, is sensitive about its portrayal, and LockCon itself is ‘invitation only.’ As Wels had told me, ‘we spend a lot of time trying to keep the bad guys—or guys with bad intentions—out.’ Those who had gathered were a diverse and almost disappointingly legitimate lot, ranging from German pilots to Spanish locksmiths to a British distributed systems architect working in Iceland, not to mention the crew I had traveled with from Amsterdam in a borrowed RV driven by Wels: Deviant Ollam, Datagram, Scorche (and his girlfriend), and Babak Javadi, all members of the American branch of TOOOL and all employed, in one way or another, in the security business. And while LockCon had a whiff of Stieg Larsson—the hacker speak (e.g., ‘epic fail’) and T-shirts (‘Masters of Penetration’), the Northern European location and demographic tilt—its sense of mischief was largely sealed within the confines of the hostel’s conference rooms where, during the day, attendees sat through intensely technical presentations, and by night, fueled by healthy glasses of the hostel’s all-inclusive lagers, engaged in competitive lock-picking trials.

There is an inevitable lure to picking a lock. ‘A lock is a psychological threshold,’ writes Gaston Bachelard. The physicist Richard Feynman, himself possessed of what he termed the ‘puzzle drive’ and a notorious lock picker, described it as: ‘One guy tries to make something to keep another guy out; there must be a way to beat it!’ I have a firm memory of clicking open the lock on the bathroom door in my childhood home with a bobby-pin; that the lock is what is called in the business a ‘privacy lock,’ designed not at all for security but merely to prevent unintentional intrusions, did not diminish my ardor in that moment.” (Thanks Browser.)

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From “The Call of the Future,” Tom Vanderbilt’s Wilson Quarterly piece about the potential and pitfalls of the Internet as a tool:

“As we start to understand how people actually use the Internet, the cyberutopian hopes of a borderless, postnational planet can look as naive as most past predictions that new technologies would transform societies. In 1912, radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi declared, ‘The coming of the wireless era will make war impossible, because it will make war ridiculous.’ Two years later a ridiculous war began, ultimately killing nine million Europeans.

While it’s easy to be dismissive of today’s Marconis—the pundits, experts, and enthusiasts who saw a rise in Internet connection leading to a rise in international understanding—that’s too simple and too cynical a response. Increased digital connection does not automatically lead to increased understanding. At the same time, there’s never been a tool as powerful as the Internet for building new ties (and maintaining existing ones) across distant borders.

The challenge for anyone who wants to decipher the mysteries of a connected age is to understand how the Internet does, and does not, connect us. Only then can we find ways to make online connection more common and more powerful.”


Marconi demonstrates the wireless telegraph:

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FromLet the Robot Drive: The Autonomous Car of the Future Is Here,Tom Vanderbilt’s new Wired piece about humans on the verge of relinquishing control of the wheel:

“[Chris] Urmson, with the soft-spoken, intense mien of a roboticist who has debugged a Martian rover in the deserts of Chile, occupies the nominal ‘driver’s seat’—just one of the entities open to ontological inquiry this morning.

The last time I was in a self-driving car—Stanford University’s ‘Junior,’ at the 2008 World Congress on Intelligent Transportation Systems—the VW Passat went 25 miles per hour down two closed-off blocks. Its signal achievement seemed to be stopping for a stop sign at an otherwise unoccupied intersection. Now, just a few years later, we are driving close to 70 mph with no human involvement on a busy public highway—a stunning demonstration of just how quickly, and dramatically, the horizon of possibility is expanding. ‘This car can do 75 mph,’ Urmson says. ‘It can track pedestrians and cyclists. It understands traffic lights. It can merge at highway speeds.’ In short, after almost a hundred years in which driving has remained essentially unchanged, it has been completely transformed in just the past half decade.”


Kraftwerk, “Autobahn,” 1975:

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"Don't follow leaders/Watch your parkin' meters." (Image by Quadell.)

In an article on Slate about the obsolescence of traditional parking meters, Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic, reveals where, when and why the device originated. An excerpt:

“Seventy-five years ago, the world’s first parking meter cast its thin, ominous shadow on the streets of Oklahoma City. The meter was the brainchild of Carlton C. Magee, a local publisher and Chamber of Commerce Traffic Committee chief, and he hoped it would solve the city’s chronic parking problems. In the pre-meter days, police would drive around with stopwatches and chalk, enforcing the city’s parking time limits by marking the tires of cars seen squatting for too long, but the system was ill-equipped to handle the ‘endemic overparking’ problem. Even worse, a survey found that at any given time, 80 percent of the city’s spots were occupied by employees of downtown businesses—the very same businesses complaining that lack of parking was driving away shoppers. Calling for an ‘efficient, impartial, and thoroughly practical aid to parking regulation,’ Magee held a student-design contest and launched his instrument.”

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