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kottke.org posts about nyc

Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 16, 2018

I really like these drawings of NYC with a historical bent by illustrator and “amateur historian” Julia Wertz.

Julia Wertz 01

Julia Wertz 02

They’re from a book Wertz wrote & illustrated called Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City. Gothamist recently interviewed Wertz about the book and her work.

Q: Bob Dylan (and my boss, Jake Dobkin) both like to exclaim that “nostalgia is death.” Which probably says more about them, and their own particularly complex relationships with nostalgia, than anything else. But do you think of yourself as a nostalgic person? How does nostalgia play into your appreciation of the urban landscape?

A: I understand what people mean by that expression, but it categorizes nostalgia in too simple a way. Nostalgia is like an intoxicant — in moderation it can be a rewarding experience, but if abused/overused, it becomes toxic. To indulge in nostalgia is to romanticize the past and stop living in the present. This could be totally fine for short periods of time, just a nice way to remember a pleasant time you experienced, but if it becomes a way of thinking, it ruins the present because there’s no way the present moment can compare to a fabricated, romanticized version past. Nostalgia has a way of erasing the shitty parts of reality. Like when people are nostalgic for, say, NYC in the 1800’s — the horse and buggies, the handmade shop signs, the elaborate suits and dresses — they’re forgetting (or perhaps never knew) that the city then was a filthy cesspool of trash and sewage, disease was rampant, and the clothing was insufferably hot and restrictive, and sometimes even deadly for women cooking with open flame.

NYC is boring

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 18, 2018

In The Death of a Once Great City Kevin Baker argues that the current affluence of NYC has made the city “unremarkable” and “boring”.

New York has been my home for more than forty years, from the year after the city’s supposed nadir in 1975, when it nearly went bankrupt. I have seen all the periods of boom and bust since, almost all of them related to the “paper economy” of finance and real estate speculation that took over the city long before it did the rest of the nation. But I have never seen what is going on now: the systematic, wholesale transformation of New York into a reserve of the obscenely wealthy and the barely here — a place increasingly devoid of the idiosyncrasy, the complexity, the opportunity, and the roiling excitement that make a city great.

As New York enters the third decade of the twenty-first century, it is in imminent danger of becoming something it has never been before: unremarkable. It is approaching a state where it is no longer a significant cultural entity but the world’s largest gated community, with a few cupcake shops here and there. For the first time in its history, New York is, well, boring.

The chimeras of the NYC subway

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 14, 2018

The NYC subway is home to many interesting characters and creatures but perhaps none as delightfully weird as Matthew Grabelsky’s straphanger chimeras.

Matthew Grabelsky

Matthew Grabelsky

Matthew Grabelsky

(via colossal)

Through a Different Lens, a book of Stanley Kubrick’s photography

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 01, 2018

Kubrick Photo Book

Kubrick Photo Book

Kubrick Photo Book

Kubrick Photo Book

Kubrick Photo Book

There is much to admire in how Stanley Kubrick’s movies are constructed, but the director’s keen compositional eye is perhaps the most noticeable. Before becoming a filmmaker, Kubrick honed his observational skills as a photographer in NYC. Look magazine hired him when he was just 17 years old to fill the pages of the publication with photos of life in the city. A new book, Stanley Kubrick Photographs: Through a Different Lens, celebrates Kubrick’s photography, showcasing how that youthful talent would eventually translate into a great filmmaking career.

Through a Different Lens reveals the keen and evocative vision of a burgeoning creative genius in a range of feature stories and images, from everyday folk at the laundromat to a day in the life of a debutant, from a trip to the circus to Columbia University. Featuring around 300 images, many previously unseen, as well as rare Look magazine tear sheets, this release coincides with a major show at the Museum of the City of New York and includes an introduction by noted photography critic Luc Sante.

Kubrick’s photos are also on display at the Museum of the City of New York until late October 2018.

MTA Country, a game about the NYC subway

posted by Jason Kottke   May 22, 2018

MTA Country

Everyday Arcade, which is responsible for The GOP Arcade (sample game titles include The Voter Suppression Trail and Thoughts & Prayers: The Game!), has designed a new game called MTA Country. Based on the SNES title Donkey Kong Country, the goal of MTA Country is to guide Andrew Cuomo, Bill de Blasio, and celebrity straphanger Gregg Turkin past hazards like track fires and stalled trains to their destination. That ending though… Hmm…

Ultra ultra HD 12K aerial video of NYC

posted by Jason Kottke   May 22, 2018

Phil Holland shot some aerial footage of NYC that he stitched together into a video with a resolution of 12K. That’s a 100-megapixel image, folks, “48.5 times the resolution of HD 1080p”. Holland has a writeup of the process used to capture the video, which is available at a down-sampled resolution of merely 8K. He shared several down-sampled 4K stills from the video, but I wish he would have included a 12K image as well, just to see what kind of detail is possible.

Is 12K footage of any practical use without 12K displays? My computer screen has 5K resolution, so I can’t even view 8K video or photos at full resolution, much less 12K. Does a 12K image down-sampled to 8K viewed on a 5K display look better than a 5K image on a 5K display? Better than an 8K image down-sampled to 5K on a 5K display?

Update: Cinematographer Steve Yedlin, who most recently was director of photography for The Last Jedi, did a comparison of different resolutions last year and concluded that bigger is no longer better. No Film School has a short summary of Yedlin’s findings.

The biggest takeaway for filmmakers is that we have already likely passed the point where extra resolution is noticeable to an end user. While going from standard definition to high definition was a huge leap in image quality, going from HD to UltraHD won’t even be noticeable for most users, and anything beyond that offers no benefit at all. The goal of these tests it to have technical discussions in a fashion that is understandable by laypeople, and Yedlin does a great job of that.

This is a similar conclusion to where we’ve been with smartphone and other digital cameras for awhile: megapixel count is no longer the thing that matters. (via @byBrettJohnson)

What America can learn from Europe about redesigning urban traffic patterns

posted by Jason Kottke   May 16, 2018

In the NY Times, architect and urban designer John Massengale discusses how four European cities (London, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Copenhagen) addressed their urban traffic problems and how NYC might apply those lessons to fix its own traffic issues. Massengale shared what the Dutch learned in reconfiguring their streets:

1. When drivers slow down to 20 m.p.h. or below, they are less likely to hit people and much less likely to seriously injure or kill people if they do hit them.

2. The best way to slow cars down is to throw away all the techniques that traffic engineers developed to make traffic flow quickly.

3. When you throw out all the detritus of traffic engineering, it becomes much easier to make beautiful places where people want to walk. Bike riding becomes more pleasant and safer as well.

His four-step plan to fix traffic in Manhattan is equally simple in principle:

The next step is to adopt congestion pricing below 96th Street in Manhattan and then:

1. Decrease the number of Manhattan streets that function as transportation corridors primarily devoted to moving machines through the city.

2. Design and build Slow Zones where people actually drive slowly.

3. Make the transportation corridors that remain better urban places, with a better balance between city life and moving cars.

Seems to me a vital part of this is fixing, expanding, and subsidizing the subway system…get everyone using the subway. Better, more reliable, and cheaper public transportation = less demand for taxis and Lyfts. As Bogota mayor Enrique Peñalosa said, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport.”

Ask A Native New Yorker (and Gothamist!) is back

posted by Jason Kottke   May 11, 2018

New York City got an injection of good news earlier this year when WNYC announced they were buying Gothamist with an eye toward relaunching the site. After a successful Kickstarter campaign to procure additional funding, the site has resumed its dogged coverage of NYC.

Also back is Jake Dobkin’s great advice column, Ask A Native New Yorker. Past installments have considered burning NYC questions like Should I Buy A Mattress On Craigslist?, Should I Move Upstate?, and Is It Wrong To Read Over Someone’s Shoulder In The Subway? The series relaunched with this question: What Should I Do About My White Neighbor’s ‘Thug Life’ Doormat?

Some things never change, like gentrifiers still acting like jackasses to their new neighbors. Take this doormat: your new neighbor from Long Island probably just thought it was a cute demonstration of her realness-after all, Tupac did grow up in Harlem. She probably wasn’t even alive when his “Thug Life” album came out in 1994; it likely just seeped into her consciousness as an Internet meme, or however young people get their culture these days. What she’s failed to consider, obviously, is how other residents of the building might feel about them literally stomping on the legacy of one of the most mourned and respected rappers of all time, or the message it sends when white people appropriate the culture of black people for use as ironic home decor.

In the most recent one, published today, a reader asks: Can I Ask A Dog To Give Up Its Subway Seat?

You shouldn’t have to ask the dog, or its owner, for the seat, because the law is quite clear on this: “no person may bring any animal on or into any conveyance or facility unless enclosed in a container and carried in a manner which would not annoy other passengers.”

There is of course an exception for “working dogs for law enforcement agencies,” “service animals,” animals-in-training, and the like, but all of them “must be harnessed or leashed.” The law clearly does not include “emotional support” dogs, and no, that letter you made your therapist write (or bought from the internet) to get your canine friend on airplane won’t help.

But Dobkin doesn’t just leave it at that…as with many of his answers, he considers the situation from the perspective of all the parties involved (the questioner, the dog, the dog owner, the MTA, fellow passengers) and then widens the scope of his answer to include NYC’s growing mass transit crisis. Good stuff.

Street photos of NYC from 1969 to 2006

posted by Jason Kottke   May 08, 2018

Jeff Rothstein NYC

Jeff Rothstein NYC

Jeff Rothstein NYC

“Urban observer” Jeff Rothstein has been wandering the streets of NYC taking B&W photos since the early 1970s. Among the photos, you can find snaps of John and Yoko, Bob Dylan, and Muhammad Ali. What’s interesting is because they are black & white and the look of NYC’s streets haven’t changed that much (from some angles at least), you can’t often tell when a particular photo was taken unless you look closely at clothing styles or signage in the background. And even then…NYC kids have been wearing Adidas kicks for more than 30 years.

You can buy his book, Today’s Special: New York City Images 1969-2006, right here on his website. (via craig mod)

The Summer of ‘78, NYC in photos

posted by Jason Kottke   May 07, 2018

NYC Summer 78

NYC Summer 78

NYC Summer 78

In the summer of 1978, eight NY Times staff photographers, who had some time on their hands because of a newspaper strike, set out to document people using NYC’s parks. They took almost 3000 photos, which were recently rediscovered in a pair of cardboard boxes, forgotten and unseen for decades.

The infamous wretched New York of the 1970s and 1980s can be glimpsed here, true to the pages of outlaw history.

But that version has never been truth enough.

The photos speak a commanding, unwritten narrative of escape and discovery.

“You see that people were not going to the parks just to get away from it all, but also to find other people,” said Jonathan Kuhn, the director of art and antiquities for the department.

The NY Times has a selection of the photos and there’s an exhibition featuring the photos on view at The Arsenal Gallery in Central Park until June 14.

The Design of Childhood

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 24, 2018

C&C Brooklyn Bridge

Design? Parenting? Playgrounds? iPads? Architecture? Toys? Probably Lego? Alexandra Lange’s upcoming book about “how children’s playthings and physical surroundings affect their development”, The Design of Childhood, is firmly in my wheelhouse.

Parents obsess over their children’s playdates, kindergarten curriculum, and every bump and bruise, but the toys, classrooms, playgrounds, and neighborhoods little ones engage with are just as important. These objects and spaces encode decades, even centuries of changing ideas about what makes for good child-rearing — and what does not. Do you choose wooden toys, or plastic, or, increasingly, digital? What do youngsters lose when seesaws are deemed too dangerous and slides are designed primarily for safety? How can the built environment help children cultivate self-reliance? In these debates, parents, educators, and kids themselves are often caught in the middle.

It’s out in early June, but you can preorder it on Amazon.

P.S. That photo is a model of the Brooklyn Bridge built by 7-year-olds at City & Country School in NYC made almost entirely out of unit blocks.

In the 7s, children engage in a formal study of the infrastructure and geography of New York City. Through extended block work, they explore the relationships among city systems of government, transportation, communications, commerce, and utilities. New issues continually arise: Who makes the laws, and how are they carried out? How does traffic flow? Where does water come from? The city study culminates with the building of a permanent city, complete with running water and electricity, and an historical study of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The blocks all have official names (like pillar, double unit, cylinder, etc.) but the kids have their own names for them based on the shapes: squarie, roundie, brickie, buttery (because it’s shaped like a stick of butter), half buttery, archie, rampie, cubie, longie, middlie, and so on. So for example, if you’re constructing a model of the Empire State Building, that might call for several longies, a few middlies & squaries as you get closer to the top, a buttery + half buttery for the spire, and then several strategically placed colorful cubies for the nighttime lights.

Philip Glass: “I expected to have a day job for the rest of my life”

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 24, 2018

I enjoyed reading Lolade Fadulu’s interview with Philip Glass about the composer’s early life and how he made a living in NYC before being able to fully support himself with his music (which didn’t happen until he was in his early 40s). As a boy, his mother made sure he got a musical education and his job at his father’s record store exposed him to the idea that people paid money for art:

To this day, among my earliest memories was someone would give my father $5 and he’d hand them a record. So the exchange of money for art, I thought that was normal. I thought that’s what everybody did. I never thought there was anything wrong about making money.

As an adult, Glass worked odd jobs (plumber, mover, cab driver) to have the independence to work on his music:

I had an ensemble at the time. I would go out and play for three weeks. We would come back from the tour, and we usually had lost money so I had to make money immediately. I put an ad in the paper. My cousin and I ran the company, and I moved furniture for about three or four or five weeks. Then I went on tour again. Again, we lost money.

That went on for years. I thought it was going to go on for the rest of my life, actually. It never occurred to me that I would be able to make a living, really, from writing music. That happened kind of by accident.

I was interested in jobs that were part-time, where I had a lot of independence, where I could work when I wanted to. I wasn’t interested in working in an office where everything would be very regimented.

As his musical career took off, Glass continued to take his other work seriously. From a 2001 profile of Glass in The Guardian:

Throughout this period, Glass supported himself as a New York cabbie and as a plumber, occupations that often led to unusual encounters. “I had gone to install a dishwasher in a loft in SoHo,” he says. “While working, I suddenly heard a noise and looked up to find Robert Hughes, the art critic of Time magazine, staring at me in disbelief. ‘But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here?’ It was obvious that I was installing his dishwasher and I told him I would soon be finished. ‘But you are an artist,’ he protested. I explained that I was an artist but that I was sometimes a plumber as well and that he should go away and let me finish.”

But after Einstein on the Beach dazzled critics at the Metropolitan Opera, Glass’s days in the driver’s seat of a cab were limited:

The day after the performance, Glass was back driving his taxi: “I vividly remember the moment, shortly after the Met adventure,” he says, “when a well-dressed woman got into my cab. After noting the name of the driver, she leaned forward and said: ‘Young man, do you realise you have the same name as a very famous composer’.”

Glass is my favorite composer, but as much as I love his music, I might appreciate the way he has approached his work and career almost as much.

Pristine restoration of a 9-minute silent film of NYC street life from 1911

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2018

Last year, MoMA presented a nine-minute short film of locales around NYC that was shot in 1911.

This documentary travelogue of New York City was made by a team of cameramen with the Swedish company Svenska Biografteatern, who were sent around the world to make pictures of well-known places. (They also filmed at Niagara Falls and in Paris, Monte Carlo, and Venice, although New York 1911 is the only selection in the Museum’s collection.) Opening and closing with shots of the Statue of Liberty, the film also includes New York Harbor; Battery Park and the John Ericsson statue; the elevated railways at Bowery and Worth Streets; Broadway sights like Grace Church and Mark Cross; the Flatiron Building on Fifth Avenue; and Madison Avenue.

The film was only on the MoMA’s site for a brief time1 but lately some copies have popped up on YouTube, including the one embedded above. Note: this particular copy of the film has audio added and has been slowed down to a “natural rate”. I’d turn the sound off…the added foley effects are poorly done. If you want to see the original video, watch this one.

  1. No idea why they took the video down. Are there licensing issues? Or are they just trying to force an artificial scarcity? Why not just leave it up as a permanent exhibit? If you’re an art museum, you should share the art you have access to as much and as widely as possible.

Photographer captures the same people on the same NYC street corner many times over 9 years

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 26, 2018

Peter Funch

Peter Funch

For 9 years, photographer Peter Funch stood on a street corner near Grand Central Terminal, photographing the same people over and over again on their commutes to work…often wearing the same clothes and drinking the same drink. The result is 42nd and Vanderbilt (also available as a book).

The corner of 42nd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue… what’s that? It’s a patch of nowhere that hides, like similar patches of nowhere, in all cities everywhere. It’s the space of Edward Hopper. It’s the real estate equivalent of a Styrofoam packing peanut. It’s blank, and it’s in this blankness that we circle back to Warhol and repetition and the aesthetic experience we enjoy when we look from one Marilyn to the next to see which screened face has what kind of silkscreen printing error.

Reminds me a little of several things, but mostly of Hans Eijkelboom’s People of the Twenty-First Century.

The Boho’s Lament

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 23, 2018

From Dustin Cohen, a short film of Phillip Giambri performing his spoken word poem The Boho’s Lament about the changing character of New York City.

Wait a minute. Weren’t we all part of that retched refuse? Weren’t we the outcasts, the freaks, the faggots, the tattooed rockers, weirdos, nerds, and techno geeks from all those puckered-ass towns in the middle of America? When we were ridiculed, bullied, and beat up, we came down here to the Village, immigrants from that other America seeking refuge, freedom to let out the crazy creative shit inside.

Drone shots of NYC

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2017

Among Humza Deas’ hundreds of shots of NYC on his Instagram are a collection of drone shots of the city taken in the fall.

Humza Deas Drone

Humza Deas Drone

Humza Deas Drone

I know that last one has been filtered to within an inch of its life and I normally don’t cotton to those sorts of shenanigans, but this one makes me feel so fricking autumnal that I’ll allow it.

How a neural network algorithm sees Times Square

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 28, 2017

AI scientist Clayton Blythe fed a video of someone walking around Times Square into an AI program that’s been trained to detect objects (aka “a state of the art object detection framework called NASNet from Google Research”) and made a video showing what the algorithm sees in realtime — cars, traffic lights, people, bicycles, trucks, etc. — along with its confidence in what it sees. Love the cheeky soundtrack…a remix of Daft Punk’s Something About Us.

See also a neural network tries to identify objects in Star Trek:TNG intro. (via prosthetic knowledge)

Update: Well, it looks like the video is offline for whatever reason. You can see some animated screengrabs at prosthetic knowledge.

See what it takes to run MoMA

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 22, 2017

At the Museum is a new video series by MoMA in NYC that offers a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to run a world-class modern art museum. The first episode, embedded above, follows the staff as they prepare for new exhibitions, both in the museum and across the Atlantic.

As the Museum of Modern Art prepares to ship 200 masterworks by artists like Picasso, C’ezanne, Rothko and de Kooning for a special exhibition at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, other MoMA staff begin to install a new line-up of exhibitions in New York.

New videos are posted each week. (via the kid should see this)

What the NYC cabbie saw

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 31, 2017

Joseph Rodriguez

Joseph Rodriguez

Joseph Rodriguez

Joseph Rodriguez drove a cab in NYC in the 70s and 80s and for some of that time, he took photos of his fares and of the city out of the windows of his cab. It’s a street-level look into the city’s more gritty past.

“I loved the frenetic energy of the city at that time. I once picked up a guy from the Hellfire club, an S&M club, and by the time I dropped him off on the Upper East Side, he had changed his leather cap and everything and put on a pink oxford shirt and some penny loafers. ‘Good morning, sir,’ the doorman said.”

You can see more of Rodriguez’s work here.

The Windows of New York

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 20, 2017

Windows Of New York

Windows Of New York

Windows Of New York

Windows Of New York

Windows Of New York

José Guizar is a Mexican designer living in NYC with an obsession for the city’s windows. For his Windows of New York project, he’s done dozens of illustrations of all styles of window from around the city (mostly lower Manhattan).

The Windows of New York project is a illustrated fix for an obsession that has increasingly grown in me since I first moved to this city. A product of countless steps of journey through the city streets, this is a collection of windows that somehow have caught my restless eye out from the never-ending buzz of the streets. This project is part an ode to architecture and part a self-challenge to never stop looking up.

(via @ladyslippers)

Chilling video footage of a 1939 pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 16, 2017

On February 20, 1939, a crowd of 20,000 gathered at Madison Square Garden for a “Pro-American” rally sponsored by the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization. I’d seen photos of the event, but I didn’t know there was film footage as well.

There is a moment during an on-stage scuffle involving a protestor (a Brooklyn man named Isadore Greenbaum), right around the 4:15 mark, when a young boy in the background rubs his hands and does a gleeful jig — I…I don’t even know what to say about how I felt watching that. After Greenbaum is spirited away, his clothes nearly ripped from his body, the crowd roars. As director Marshall Curry said in an interview about the film:

In the end, America pulled away from the cliff, but this rally is a reminder that things didn’t have to work out that way. If Roosevelt weren’t President, if Japan hadn’t attacked, is it possible we would have skated through without joining the war? And if Nazis hadn’t killed American soldiers, is it possible that their philosophy wouldn’t have become so taboo here?

(via open culture)

A report from the 2017 New Yorker TechFest

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 10, 2017

Last Friday, I attended the New Yorker TechFest, a one-day, single-track conference about technology, an accompaniment to the larger New Yorker Festival. Overall, I thought the conference was really good, a sentiment echoed by other attendees. What follows is my impressionistic take on the interviews and talks.

Siddhartha Mukherjee. Author of The Emperor of All Maladies, one of my favorite nonfiction books of the past five years. He mentioned therapeutic nihilism, a view of medicine which went out of fashion due to effective medicines and procedures. They talked about the progress in medicine (and accompanying complexity), which is all relatively recent: in 1945, there were three treatments available to patients with heart problems (give them oxygen, drain fluid through the feet, and morphine for the pain) but now there are 90 available treatments. That complexity is an area where AI can help…using machine learning to read chest x-rays more effectively or suggest courses of treatments for a given set of vitals/symptoms.

But Mukherjee warned that “new diagnostic techniques almost always over-diagnose” and that, in relation to CRISPR, extraordinary technologies require extraordinary public response…i.e. we need to have a public conversation about how/why/when these technologies are used. Mukherjee is also involved with biotech startup Vor Biopharma, which is attempting to modify human immune cells to attack cancer cells.

Garry Kasparov & Daniela Rus. Kasparov was one of the world’s best chess players (prob still is tbh) and Rus is the director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT. Kasparov’s face was injured from a taxi accident the day before, an accident that would not have occurred had he been in a self-driving car — he said car accidents due to human error will look ridiculous and barbaric to our children.

(Quick sidebar: I’ve been teaching my 8-year-old daughter a little about cars. She’s been helping me pump gas and after we filled up a low tire the other day, I popped the hood and explained how the engine and cooling system worked. And she said something like, “Daddy, when I’m old enough to drive, cars probably won’t have a motor in them because they’ll all be electric.” From the mouths of babes…)

Kasparov talked about his Deep Blue match, noting that it was the first time in his career that he knew that an opponent was better than he was and that today, free iPhone chess apps are more powerful than Deep Blue was. At one point when talking about tech’s effect on vastly improved medicine and healthcare, he quipped that without technology, old people wouldn’t even be around to complain about new technology. Rus and Kasparov both emphasized the role of AI and robots in society, namely that “robots can do predictable work in predictable situations”, machines will dominate closed systems but open systems are different, and “The machine has a steady hand. It will always prevail.” At times, these pronouncements sounded either comforting or like warnings. Both also noted that education has not kept pace with technology; Kasparov said the current paradigm of kids sitting and listening to a teacher is “antique”.

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg. Ginsberg is a designer and artist who explores synthetic biology in her work. One of her projects is E. chromi, in which color-producing bacteria could, for instance, turn your poop purple if the water you’re drinking is polluted.

E Chromi

Ginsberg is also trying to work out what it means when people try to make things “better”.

Along with the first two sessions, this conversation really underscored how no one at the conference really talked about technology, which has become something of a meaningless word. Instead, the discussion was about the ethics, politics, and philosophy of technology (whereas at other tech conferences, the talk revolves mostly around business and investment). How does the political conversation keep pace with the increasing speed of technological innovation? Interviewer Michael Spector noted that humans have never developed a technology and then never used it, and that sometimes the tech world’s approach is “I just hope something good happens before something bad happens”.

Jaron Lanier. One of the best sessions. They could have given Lanier a microphone and let him go on for an hour or more. As an 11-year-old, he designed the geodesic dome house that he and his father lived in — “people went through dome phases in my generation” — but it later collapsed, leading Lanier to say that you should definitely let your 11-year-old design your house, but just don’t actually live in it. “When you code, you start thinking of everything as code. You want to optimize and debug people and the world.” He credited Norbert Wiener with the idea of the computer as a potential ultimate Skinner box and said that Facebook is a fantastically effective real-time Skinner box. He chided FB and Google in particular for this, saying that we are not their customers, that we’re the rats in the cage, pushing levers to get treats while they make billions skimming our attention off to advertisers. Silicon Valley is well-meaning, but power corrupts.

Lanier told the story of an apocryphal early-80s Silicon Valley service called Rent-A-Mom, that would take care of all mom-like duties for the archetypal socially inept male programmers of the era and that the startups like Uber, Blue Apron, and Stitch Fix have essentially made the service a reality. Except that “sometimes your mom tells you the truth and we haven’t done that service yet”. Lanier’s newest book, Dawn of the New Everything, is out in November.

The Future of Food. Not very interesting. Felt like paid placement for large food service companies. Although Dan Barber did tell an interesting story about harvesting a carrot at just the right time (after the first frost) so that it converts all the starches to sugar and is super-sweet. Oh, and the sushi at lunch was pretty good.

Jony Ive. In retrospect, Remnick was perhaps not the best choice to interview Ive. I can’t think of who else from the magazine would have been better, so maybe they should have gotten an independent outsider who has followed Apple extensively for the past 20 years — John Gruber for instance.

That said, while Ive said very little about what he’s up to at Apple, he did speak about his process and how he thinks about creativity, particularly about the tension between curiosity (being open, creative, child’s mind, anything goes) and focus (the need to make this one thing work and ignore everything else). Ive called Steve Jobs the most focused person he’d ever met.

Carrie Goldberg & Brianna Wu. Another excellent session. Listening to these two women talk about their desire to publicly stand up against some of the most reprehensible and dangerous behavior imaginable was inspiring. Goldberg was almost levitating on stage because one of her clients’ stalkers has just been arrested for online harassment, a rare event that Goldberg is working on making more common. Goldberg talked about her taxonomy of offenders in cases like these: assholes (jilted ex, revenge porn), perverts (who do it for sexual gratification), trolls (they love feeding the flames), and psychos (are actually mentally disturbed).

Wu said while Twitter bears most of the brunt of the online harassment backlash, Facebook is “much much much more of a problem” and they care much less about fixing it than Twitter does. She also called the failure to prosecute Gamergate one of the biggest mistakes of the Obama administration and that there are more consequences for bad acts in Grand Theft Auto than there are IRL for women who get threatened online.

Gina McCarthy. Excellent. McCarthy was the head of the EPA under Obama. A very impressive person…I had forgotten what an extremely competent public servant sounded like. I don’t have much beyond that…I didn’t take notes because I was too enthralled as she deftly explained how politics intersected with the law. McCarthy for President? Sign me up.

Michael Lynton. Chairman of Snap. This did not make me any more interested in signing up for Snapchat. Or confident that Snap can remedy their poor start as a publicly traded company.

Gabriella Coleman & Thomas Rid. I didn’t take too many notes for this talk either…was too busy paying attention. I do remember Coleman saying that a big reason why Wikileaks took off was that they made it easy for both journalists and normal people to easy search through the leaked documents. The inherent importance of the documents is significant, but making it accessible increases their relevance.

Bill Maris & Thomas Rando. Maris discussed the concept of longevity escape velocity, the theoretical point at which human life expectancy increases faster than passing time, resulting in a scenario where you can live forever (assuming you don’t get hit by a bus…which would be less likely if all future buses are self-driving).

Van Jones. CNN commentator and author of Beyond the Messy Truth (out today). I don’t watch cable news so I didn’t know much about Jones, but I came away impressed. His comparison of poor rural whites who get dinged for voting against their own economic self-interest and wealthy coastal liberal who are lauded for voting against their own economic self-interest was particularly apt. Jones talked about the central tension of the US, trying to reconcile the founding reality of America vs the founding dream of America. He also called Bernie Sanders “a 143-year-old political Muppet”. Oh, and they should have paired Jones with someone other than Adam Davidson…or just let him do a 30-minute talk (which he pretty much did anyway…the man knows how to commentate).

Keller Rinaudo. Rinaudo is the CEO and co-founder of a company called Zipline. Zipline engineers national-scale medical delivery systems via drone. When he first started to explain how it works, I was like, oh that’s a cool concept, I wonder how far off something like that is. And then it became apparent that Zipline actually works, now. WAT? In Rwanda, Zipline has cut blood delivery times to remote areas from several hours to 15-30 minutes.

Really impressive. And a good note to end on: technology that truly does make the world better.

On Seneca Village, torn down to make way for Central Park

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 05, 2017

Seneca Village

Written and illustrated by Ariel Aberg-Riger, The City Needed Them Out tells the story of Seneca Village, a predominantly black NYC neighborhood destroyed in the 1850s to make way for Central Park. This article in the NY Times from July 9, 1856 expressed the city’s sentiment about the village and its inhabitants.

Seneca Village

Objects, a coffee table book of artifacts related to the New York City subway

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 13, 2017

NYC Subway objects

NYC Subway objects

From the team that brought us the reissues of the NASA Standards Manual and the NYCTA Graphics Standards Manual comes New York City Transit Authority: Objects by Brian Kelley (@ Amazon), a book full of photographs of artifacts related to the NYC subway and other transit systems in the city.

Kelley started collecting MTA MetroCards in 2011, and he quickly became fascinated by other Subway-related objects. This catalogue is the first of its kind — presenting a previously uncollated archive of subway ephemera that spans three centuries.

Kelley posts photos of many of the artifacts he’s found on Instagram.

Lego New York

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 07, 2017

Lego New York

From J.R. Schmidt, a rendering of New York City in Lego. Prints are available. Be sure to check out his other work as well…cool stuff.

See also Christoph Niemann’s I Lego NY book. (thx alastair)

X-ray maps of NYC subway stations

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 08, 2017

X-ray maps of NYC subway stations

X-ray maps of NYC subway stations

The subway and the street level of NYC are two very different worlds and even long-term residents have a difficult time understanding how they fit together. Architect Candy Chan has drawn a series of x-ray maps of NYC subway stations that show their layouts and orientation compared to the geography of the streets above. (Tip: you can zoom the maps for more detail.)

The series is an extension of her station layouts series. Prints are available in Chan’s shop.

Voronoi diagram of people enjoying a park

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 03, 2017

Voronoi Bryant Park

Starting with an overhead shot of people sitting out in the sun in NYC’s Bryant Park, Rod Bogart laid what’s called a Voronoi diagram on top of it. A Voronoi diagram is a way of mapping out areas where any point in a given area is closer to a seed point than it is to any other seed point. You can think of it as a sphere of influence…and in this case, you can see how the park-goers have organized themselves into having their own personal space. As Bogart says:

It’s fascinating to see the real world optimization problem of wanting to get a nice large patch of grass.

I often think about Voronoi diagrams when I get into an elevator.

I stand alone in the elevator, right in the middle, equidistant from the four walls. Before the doors close, a woman enters. Unconsciously, I move over to make room for her. We stand side by side with equal amounts of space between the two of us and between each of us and the walls of the elevator. On the 12th floor, a man gets on and the woman and I slide slightly to the side and to the back, maximizing the space that each of us occupies in the elevator. At the 14th floor, another man gets on. The man in front steps to the back center and the woman and I move slightly toward the front, forming a diamond shape that again maximizes each person’s distance from the elevator walls and the people next to them.

See also “the human ellipse”.

A supercut of movie scenes set in NYC

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 29, 2017

Sergio Rojo has cut together scenes from more than 70 movies that are set in NYC, including Manhattan, Ghost, Tootsie, Taxi Driver, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Birdman, and The Devil Wears Prada. Familiar locations like Times Square, Central Park, the Brooklyn & Manhattan Bridges, the subway, the Empire State Building, the NYPL, and the Statue of Liberty are all amply represented. (via gothamist)

Amazon’s data-driven bookstores

posted by Jason Kottke   May 24, 2017

Amazon Bookstore

Over at Recode, Dan Frommer has a look inside Amazon’s first NYC bookstore, opening Thursday in the mall in the Time Warner Center. I haven’t visited any of Amazon’s stores yet (they’ve got several around the country), but what I find interesting from the photos is how up-front they are about the shopping experience being data driven. There are signs for books rated “4.8 Stars & Above”, a shelf of “Books Kindle Readers Finish in 3 Days or Less”, a section of “If You Like [this book], You’ll Love [these other books]”, and each book’s shelf label lists the star rating and number of reviews on Amazon.com. Another sign near the checkout reads “Over 7950 Goodreads members like this quote from Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Prince: ‘We live and breathe words.’”

Other bookstores have books arranged according to best-seller lists, store-specific best-sellers, and staff recommendations, but I’ve never seen any store layout so extensively informed by data and where they tell you so much about why you’re seeing each item. Grocery store item placement is very data driven, but they don’t tell you why you’re seeing a display of Coke at the end of the aisle or why the produce is typically right at the entrance. It’ll be interesting to see if Amazon’s approach works or if people will be turned off by shopping inside a product database, a dehumanizing feeling Frommer hints at with “a collection of books that feels blandly standard” when compared to human curated selections at smaller bookstores.

P.S. So weird that there’s no prices on items…you have to scan them with a store scanner or a phone app. Overall, the store feels less oriented towards its book-buying customers and more towards driving Prime memberships, Amazon app downloads, and Kindle & Echo sales (which might be Amazon’s objective).

Update: Jia Tolentino on Amazon’s stores.

The store’s biggest shortcoming, though, is that it is so clearly not intended for people who read regularly. I normally walk into a bookstore and shop the way a person might shop for clothes: I know what I like, what generally works for me, what new styles I might be ready to try. It was a strange feeling, on Thursday, to do laps around a bookstore without feeling a single unexpected thrill. There were no wild cards, no deep cuts, no oddballs — just books that were already best-sellers, pieces of clothing I knew wouldn’t fit me or that I already owned.

Tolentino also notes that the fiction section in the NYC store contains fewer than 200 different titles.

My social media fast

posted by Jason Kottke   May 19, 2017

Last week (approx. May 7-14), I stopped using social media for an entire week. I logged out of all the sites and deleted the apps from my phone. I didn’t so much as peek at Instagram, which is, with Twitter and old-school Flickr, probably my favorite online service of all time. I used Twitter as minimally as I could, for work only.1 I didn’t check in anywhere on Swarm. No Facebook. As much as I could, I didn’t use my phone. I left it at home when I went to the grocery store. I didn’t play any games on it. I left it across the room when I went to bed and when I worked.

Many people have given up social media and written about it — the digital equivalent of the “Why I’m Leaving New York” essay — but since I didn’t write about leaving New York, I’m going to do this instead.

I used to be very good about using my phone and social media appropriately. More than a decade of working on kottke.org taught me how to not be online when I wasn’t working (for the most part). I tried super hard not to use my phone at all around my kids and if I was out with friends, my phone stayed in my pocket.2

Almost a year ago, after 13+ years in the city, I moved from lower Manhattan3 to rural Vermont. It’s beautiful here. I live in a house in the country surrounded by horse pasture and there’s great skiing in the winter. The nearest town is only five minutes away by car; it has a two-screen movie theater, a handful of restaurants (none of which are typically open after 10pm), two grocery stores, but nowhere to get a proper donut, sushi, or bowl of ramen. (The nearest ramen is an hour’s drive away.) While I was writing this post yesterday afternoon, the power in my house went out and didn’t come back on for three hours, forcing a delay in publication. It’s been difficult to meet people. Folks here are nice, but they mostly remind me of the people in the small town I grew up in (aka why I moved to the city in the first place). I work from home at a desk in my bedroom and some days, the only beings I’ll talk to are Siri, my landlord’s horses, and some days, my kids and their mom.

Social media, mostly through my phone, has been an important way for me to stay connected with friends and goings on in the wider world. But lately I’d noticed an obsessiveness, an addiction really, that I didn’t like once I became fully aware of it. When I wasn’t working, I was on my phone, refreshing Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook repeatedly in an endless series, like a little old lady at Caesar’s Palace working several slot machines at the same time. And I couldn’t stop it — my phone was in my hand even when I was trying to concentrate on my kids, watching a movie, or reading a book. So, I quit for a week to see what would happen. It’s not a super-long time period, but here’s what I noticed:

- Once I’d set my mind to it, it was pretty easy to go cold turkey. Perhaps my Twitter usage and keeping up with the news for kottke.org acted as a nicotine patch, but I don’t think so. Instagram was the toughest to stay away from, but I didn’t crack once.

- As the week went on, it was more and more evident that it wasn’t so much social media as the phone that was the problem. Even now, a few days after the conclusion of my experiment, I’m leaving my phone at home when I go out or across the room when I’m doing something. I’m going to try hard to keep this up.

- Buuuut, when you have kids, there is no such thing as giving up your phone. There’s always the potential call from their school or their mom or their doctor or another parent regarding a playdate or or or. I spend enough time online at my computer for work that I could mostly do without my phone, but with kids, that’s not really an option.

- Not a single person noticed that I had stopped using social media. (Not enough to tell me anyway.) Perhaps if it had been two weeks? For me, this reinforced that social media is actually not a good way to “stay connected with friends”. Social media aggregates interactions between loved ones so that you get industrialized communication rather than personal connection. No one really notices if a particular person goes missing because they’re just one interchangeable node in a network.

- My no-social week, for a variety of reasons, was probably the shittiest week I’d had in more than a year. Total emotional mess. Being off social media didn’t make it any better, but I doubt it made it worse. Overall, it was probably a good thing I wasn’t subjecting my friends and followers to self-subtweets and emo Instagram Stories…I was already scoring enough own goals without social media’s help.

- So, what did I do instead? I wish I could say that I had loads of extra free time that I used to learn Spanish, clean my house, catch up with old friends, cook delicious meals, and finish a couple work projects. Perhaps if shittiest week ever hadn’t been happening, I would have done some of that. Still, I did end up going to bed early every night, read a couple books, and had more time for work and dealing with kid drama.

After the week was up, I greedily checked in on Instagram and Facebook to see what I had missed. Nothing much, of course. Since then, I’ve been checking them a bit less. When I am on, I’ve been faving and commenting more in an attempt to be a little more active in connecting. I unfollowed some accounts I realized I didn’t care that much about and followed others I’ve been curious to check out. Swarm I check a lot less, about once a day — there was a lot of FOMO going on when I saw friends checked in at cool places in NYC or on vacations in Europe. And I’m only checking in when I go someplace novel, just to keep a log of where I’ve been…that’s always fun to look back on.

Mostly, I’ve resolved to use my phone less. Being on my phone was my fidget spinner…this thing that I would do when there was nothing else to do or that I would use to delay going to bed or delay getting out of bed in the morning. Going forward, I’m going to be more mindful about its use. If nothing else, my hands and thumbs might start feeling better.

  1. Yeah, I did not stop using Twitter. Ideally I would have, but Twitter is a huge source of information for this here website and I couldn’t afford to give it up without ditching work for a week, which I did not want to do because I wanted to maintain my normal schedule. But I didn’t look at Twitter on my phone, didn’t reply to or fave any tweets, muted some non-news/link accounts I follow, and limited my usage to “business hours”.

  1. Still one of my favorite tweets is from Scott Simpson: “My new standard of cool: when I’m hanging out with you, I never see your phone ever ever ever.”

  1. Haha, you’re getting a mini leaving NYC essay anyway. Suckers!