Adonis Diaries

Archive for May 24th, 2015


Demise of America’s once-mighty streetcars: What happened?

This post is part of a series on the past, present, and future of commuting in America.

Back in the 1920s, most American city-dwellers took public transportation to work every day.

There were 17,000 miles of streetcar lines across the country, running through virtually every major American city.

That included cities we don’t think of as hubs for mass transit today: Atlanta, Raleigh, and Los Angeles.

Nowadays, by contrast, just 5 percent or so of workers commute via public transit, and they’re disproportionately clustered in a handful of dense cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago.

Just a handful of cities still have extensive streetcar systems — and several others are now spending millions trying to build new, smaller ones.

So whatever happened to all those streetcars?

“There’s this widespread conspiracy theory that the streetcars were bought up by a company National City Lines, which was effectively controlled by GM, so that they could be torn up and converted into bus lines,” says Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia and author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.

But that’s not actually the full story, he says. “By the time National City Lines was buying up these streetcar companies, they were already in bankruptcy.”

Surprisingly, though, streetcars didn’t solely go bankrupt because people chose cars over rail.

The real reasons for the streetcar’s demise are much less nefarious than a GM-driven conspiracy — they include gridlock and city rules that kept fares artificially low — but they’re fascinating in their own right, and if you’re a transit fan, they’re even more frustrating.

The golden age of the streetcar

grand rapids 
<img alt=”grand rapids” src=””>

Electrified streetcars in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Grand Rapids Historical Society)

During the 1800s, animal-drawn streetcar lines were built in cities across the United States.

Starting in the 1880s, they were replaced by electrified streetcars, which quickly became the dominant mode of transportation in many cities.

Running streetcars was a very profitable business. Cities expanded, and people who found themselves living too far from work to walk depended on them.

(Some real-estate developers built nearby suburbs around streetcar lines.)

Over time, the businessmen who ran the streetcars, called “traction magnates,” consolidated ownership of multiple lines, establishing powerful, oftentimes corrupt monopolies in many cities.

atlanta streetcar <img alt=”atlanta streetcar” src=””>

In 1902, Atlanta had an extensive streetcar network. (Georgia Railway and Electric Company)

Eventually, many of them contracted with city governments for the explicit right to operate as a monopoly in that city. In exchange, they agreed to all sorts of conditions.

“Eager to receive guarantees on their large up-front investments, streetcar operators agreed to contract provisions that held fares constant at five cents and mandated that rail line owners maintain the pavement around their tracks,” writes Stephen Smith at Market Urbanism.

Until the start of World War I, these conditions weren’t a huge problem. But soon afterward, they became excessively onerous — because even though these companies were making sacrifices to act as monopolies, they were no longer operating as them.

What really killed the streetcar: gridlock and artificially low fares

fresno <img alt=”fresno” src=””>

A Fresno streetcar stuck in traffic, in 1938. (Fresno Beehive)

The decline of the streetcar after World War I — when cars began to arrive on city streets — is often cast as a simple choice made by consumers.

As a Smithsonian exhibition puts it, “Americans chose another alternative — the automobile. The car became the commuter option of choice for those who could afford it, and more people could do so.”

But the reality is more complicated.

“People weren’t choosing to ride or not ride in some perfect universe — they were making it in a messy, real-world environment,” Norton says.

The real problem was that once cars appeared on the road, they could drive on streetcar tracks — and the streetcars could no longer operate efficiently.

“Once just 10 percent or so of people were driving, the tracks were so crowded that [the streetcars] weren’t making their schedules,” Norton says.

cars could drive on streetcar tracks — so they slowed them down dramatically

In some places, like Chicago, streetcars retained dedicated rights of way, and they survived.

Pretty much anywhere else, they were doomed. “With 160,000 cars cramming onto Los Angeles streets in the 1920s, mass-transit riders complained of massive traffic jams and hourlong delays,” writes Cecilia Rasmussen at the Los Angeles Times.

What’s more, in many cities the streetcars’ contracts required them to keep the pavement on the roads surrounding the tracks in good shape.

This meant that the companies were effectively subsidizing automobile travel even as it cannibalized their business.

And paying for this maintenance got more and more difficult for one key reason: many contracts had permanently locked companies into a 5-cent fare, which wasn’t indexed to inflation.

five cent token <img alt=”five cent token” src=””>


Especially after World War I, the value of 5 cents plummeted, but streetcars had to get approval from municipal commissions for any fare hikes — and the idea of the 5-cent fare had become ingrained as something of a birthright among many members of the public.

“Nobody on these commissions would approve fare increases to cover costs, because that would get them in trouble with their constituents,” Norton says.

The public had little sympathy for the traction magnates who’d entered into these contracts.

Today, many progressives and urbanists are boosters of streetcars, but back then they were often seen as a bastion of corruption — especially because of their owners’ history of violent strike-breaking.

The quiet death of the streetcar

decommissioned streetcars <img alt=”decommissioned streetcars” src=””>

Decommissioned streetcars awaiting destruction in Los Angeles, 1956. (Los Angeles Times
photographic archive

Because of these factors, some streetcar companies began going into bankruptcy as early as the 1920s, when they were still their cities’ dominant mode of transportation. Huge costs and the falling value of fares forced them to cut back on service, steadily pushing people to the convenient, increasingly affordable automobile.

As they fought to stay alive during the Great Depression, many companies invested in buses, which were cheaper and more flexible.

Initially they operated mainly as feeder systems to bring commuters to the end of lines, but as time went on, they began to replace some lines entirely.

That wasn’t enough to save most of these companies, especially as city, state, and federal governments pumped more and more money into roads.

“By the ’50s, planners put a priority on bringing cars into cities with new urban highways,” Norton says. “That really made streetcars truly impractical to get around on.”

detroit streetcar <img alt=”detroit streetcar” src=””>

One of Detroit’s final streetcars, shown as part of a special parade in 1956. (Dave’s Electric Railroads —Stephen M. Scalzo collection)

By the 1950s, virtually all streetcar companies were in terrible shape. Some were taken over by new municipal bus companies, while a total of 46 transit networks were bought up by National City Lines — the holding company linked to GM, as well as oil and tire companies, that’s at the center of all the conspiracy theories.

While it’s true that National City continued ripping up lines and replacing them with buses — and that, long-term, GM benefited from the decline of mass transit — it’s very hard to argue that National City killed the streetcar on its own. Streetcar systems went bankrupt and were dismantled in virtually every metro area in the United States, and National City was only involved in about 10 percent of cases.

It’s also not exactly right to say the streetcar died because Americans chose the car.

In an alternate world where government subsidized each mode equally, it’s easy to imagine things playing out quite differently.

So what killed the streetcar? The simplest answer is that it couldn’t compete with the car — on an extremely uneven playing field.

Andrew Bossone shared and commented on this link

A conspiracy theory I’ve always bought into that’s partly true.

It wasn’t a GM-driven conspiracy.|By Joseph Stromberg


MC Distribution’s Hania Mroué

Launches Cinémathèque de Beyrouth In Cannes

by 35mm from Beirut

Hania Mroué, founder and director of Metropolis Art Cinema in Beirut and MC Distribution, discusses the market in this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and the launch of Cinémathèque, a new initiative for the Lebanese cinema industry.

As a film distributor (MC Distribution), do you feel that there’s a market for Lebanese cinema in Cannes?

MC Distribution mainly handles the distribution of Lebanese films in the Middle East.

We rarely take films for international sales, even when we do have the rights for the international market.

Cannes is very important because we meet distributors and programmers; it allows us visibility in the biggest market of the world, where all the festival programmers are present, and looking for films for premieres.

Hence, when we have a film that hasn’t made its world premiere, the best thing to do is to have it with us in Cannes, to talk about it, about the director, its public screenings, etc., even before it’s finished, to create a buildup and anticipation.

That’s about the extent of what we can do here as distributors.

We can’t sell films because it’s a very competitive market and you need big budgets to be visible.

Lebanese films are produced with very small budgets, and no one has a budget for promotion. They barely have money to finish the film.

That’s why we look for alternative ways to distribute them. We try as much as possible to meet with VOD platforms where we can potentially have them distributed after the festival.

You are the founder and director of Metropolis Cinema, which is the only independent-film theatre in Lebanon.

As a programmer, could you tell us how you handle the film selections? And what audience do you choose them for?

Since Metropolis is so far the only art house cinema in Lebanon, we feel that we have the responsibility to present as many international films as possible to the Lebanese audiences.

I say “audiences” in plural because our target audience is varied, which makes our work more interesting. We’re not looking for films for a niche audience, we’re targeting a broader scene.

As MC Distribution, we handle the distribution of some international titles like Xavier Dolan’s film last year. That’s why I’m not alone here, we have a team of 4 people watching almost every film in every section.

They’re also looking for market screenings, not just films, presented in the Official Selections.

We’re also looking for partnerships (distributors, sales agents, other festivals, international institutions), which is very interesting, and sometimes more important than looking for titles.

You announced the launch of the Beirut Cinémathèque; tell us about the project.

This project is somehow an evolution of Metropolis as it is right now: we’re not creating something new, we’re just developing what we’ve been doing for the past nine years.

We have been acting like a Cinémathèque without calling ourselves one: we’ve been showing many retrospectives, world wide classics, we also organized two very important retrospectives of Lebanese cinema – “Ajmal Ayyam Hayati” and “Al Liqa’ El Thani” – where we showed Lebanese films from the 50s to the 80s, films that we rarely see on the big screen.

We realized that we lack the presence of a Cinémathèque, not in the sense of an institution that restores or preserves film heritage, but one that also promotes and shows those films.

This is our mission. We’re also interested in having archives and trying to preserve what can be preserved.

We’re not only looking for very old titles, but for films that are 10-15 years old – films shot on 35mm, because if the print doesn’t exist anymore, the films are at risk of disappearing forever.

The archives are very important, along with the documentation about Lebanese cinema (posters, scripts, props, photos of shooting, making of, etc.).

When I say “we”, I don’t only mean the board of Metropolis, or people who are very involved in this – like Joanna Hadjithomas, Khalil Joreige, Georges Schoucair, or Rabih el Khour – but also institutions in Lebanon that have been somehow archiving and documenting for the past 15 years at least (festivals such as Ayyam Beirut el Cinema’iyyah, Beirut DC, Né à Beyrouth, but also La Fondation Liban Cinema, and producers like Orjouane).

We’re mainly talking about a collaboration with those sorts of institutions to create something that is useful and needed, where everybody can feel they have a contribution.

It’s important to add that we’re not trying to replace the National Cinémathèque and we’re not trying to ignore the role of public institutions.

Unfortunately, we know that The Ministry of Culture lacks the means to reactivate the role of the National Cinémathèque.

What we’ll try to do is to work together with the public institutions to continue the work that they’ve started. Not only The Ministry of Culture, but also The Ministry of Tourism and the Lebanese Tourism Office in Paris, the latter of which are supporting our initiative. It’s thanks to them that we are able to present this project officially in Cannes.


Interested in Feats of memory anyone can do? 

I’d like to invite you to close your eyes.

Imagine yourself standing outside the front door of your home.

I’d like you to notice the color of the door, the material that it’s made out of. Now visualize a pack of overweight nudists on bicycles.

They are competing in a naked bicycle race, and they are headed straight for your front door. I need you to actually see this.

They are pedalling really hard, they’re sweaty, they’re bouncing around a lot. And they crash straight into the front door of your home.

Bicycles fly everywhere, wheels roll past you, spokes end up in awkward places.

Step over the threshold of your door into your foyer, your hallway, whatever’s on the other side, and appreciate the quality of the light.

The light is shining down on Cookie Monster. Cookie Monster is waving at you from his perch on top of a tan horse. It’s a talking horse.

You can practically feel his blue fur tickling your nose. You can smell the oatmeal raisin cookie that he’s about to shovel into his mouth. Walk past him.

Walk past him into your living room. In your living room, in full imaginative broadband, picture Britney Spears.

She is scantily clad, she’s dancing on your coffee table, and she’s singing “Hit Me Baby One More Time.”

And then follow me into your kitchen. In your kitchen, the floor has been paved over with a yellow brick road and out of your oven are coming towards you Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Lion from “The Wizard of Oz,” hand-in-hand skipping straight towards you.

2:10 Okay. Open your eyes.

2:14 I want to tell you about a very bizarre contest that is held every spring in New York City. It’s called the United States Memory Championship. And I had gone to cover this contest a few years back as a science journalist expecting, I guess, that this was going to be like the Superbowl of savants. This was a bunch of guys and a few ladies, widely varying in both age and hygienic upkeep.  

2:45 They were memorizing hundreds of random numbers, looking at them just once.

They were memorizing the names of dozens and dozens and dozens of strangers. They were memorizing entire poems in just a few minutes.

They were competing to see who could memorize the order of a shuffled pack of playing cards the fastest. I was like, this is unbelievable. These people must be freaks of nature.

3:09 And I started talking to a few of the competitors. This is a guy called Ed Cook who had come over from England where he had one of the best trained memories. And I said to him, “Ed, when did you realize that you were a savant?” And Ed was like, “I’m not a savant. In fact, I have just an average memory. Everybody who competes in this contest will tell you that they have just an average memory.

We’ve all trained ourselves to perform these utterly miraculous feats of memory using a set of ancient techniques, techniques invented 2,500 years ago in Greece, the same techniques that Cicero had used to memorize his speeches, that medieval scholars had used to memorize entire books.” And I was like, “Whoa. How come I never heard of this before?”

And we were standing outside the competition hall, and Ed, who is a wonderful, brilliant, but somewhat eccentric English guy, says to me, “Josh, you’re an American journalist. Do you know Britney Spears?” I’m like, “What? No. Why?” “Because I really want to teach Britney Spears how to memorize the order of a shuffled pack of playing cards on U.S. national television. It will prove to the world that anybody can do this.”  

4:35 I was like, “Well I’m not Britney Spears, but maybe you could teach me. I mean, you’ve got to start somewhere, right?” And that was the beginning of a very strange journey for me.

4:48 I ended up spending the better part of the next year not only training my memory, but also investigating it, trying to understand how it works, why it sometimes doesn’t work and what its potential might be.

5:01 I met a host of really interesting people. This is a guy called E.P. He’s an amnesic who had, very possibly, the very worst memory in the world. His memory was so bad that he didn’t even remember he had a memory problem, which is amazing. And he was this incredibly tragic figure, but he was a window into the extent to which our memories make us who we are.

5:25 The other end of the spectrum: I met this guy. This is Kim Peek. He was the basis for Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie “Rain Man.” We spent an afternoon together in the Salt Lake City Public Library memorizing phone books, which was scintillating.  

5:45 And I went back and I read a whole host of memory treatises, treatises written 2,000-plus years ago in Latin in Antiquity and then later in the Middle Ages.

And I learned a whole bunch of really interesting stuff. One of the really interesting things that I learned is that once upon a time, this idea of having a trained, disciplined, cultivated memory was not nearly so alien as it would seem to us to be today. Once upon a time, people invested in their memories, in laboriously furnishing their minds.

6:26 Over the last few millennia we’ve invented a series of technologies — from the alphabet to the scroll to the codex, the printing press, photography, the computer, the smartphone — that have made it progressively easier and easier for us to externalize our memories, for us to essentially outsource this fundamental human capacity.

These technologies have made our modern world possible, but they’ve also changed us. They’ve changed us culturally, and I would argue that they’ve changed us cognitively. Having little need to remember anymore, it sometimes seems like we’ve forgotten how.

7:05 One of the last places on Earth where you still find people passionate about this idea of a trained, disciplined, cultivated memory is at this totally singular memory contest. It’s actually not that singular, there are contests held all over the world. And I was fascinated, I wanted to know how do these guys do it.

A few years back a group of researchers at University College London brought a bunch of memory champions into the lab.

They wanted to know: Do these guys have brains that are somehow structurally, anatomically different from the rest of ours?

The answer was no.

Are they smarter than the rest of us? They gave them a bunch of cognitive tests, and the answer was not really.

7:48 There was however one really interesting and telling difference between the brains of the memory champions and the control subjects that they were comparing them to.

When they put these guys in an fMRI machine, scanned their brains while they were memorizing numbers and people’s faces and pictures of snowflakes, they found that the memory champions were lighting up different parts of the brain than everyone else. Of note, they were using, or they seemed to be using, a part of the brain that’s involved in spatial memory and navigation. Why? And is there something the rest of us can learn from this?

8:27 The sport of competitive memorizing is driven by a kind of arms race where every year somebody comes up with a new way to remember more stuff more quickly, and then the rest of the field has to play catchup.

This is my friend Ben Pridmore, three-time world memory champion. On his desk in front of him are 36 shuffled packs of playing cards that he is about to try to memorize in one hour, using a technique that he invented and he alone has mastered. He used a similar technique to memorize the precise order of 4,140 random binary digits in half an hour. Yeah.

9:12 And while there are a whole host of ways of remembering stuff in these competitions, everything, all of the techniques that are being used, ultimately come down to a concept that psychologists refer to as elaborative encoding.

9:29 And it’s well illustrated by a nifty paradox known as the Baker/baker paradox, which goes like this:

If I tell two people to remember the same word, if I say to you, “Remember that there is a guy named Baker.” That’s his name. And I say to you, “Remember that there is a guy who is a baker.” And I come back to you at some point later on, and I say, “Do you remember that word that I told you a while back? Do you remember what it was?”

The person who was told his name is Baker is less likely to remember the same word than the person was told his job is that he is a baker. Same word, different amount of remembering; that’s weird. What’s going on here?

Well the name Baker doesn’t actually mean anything to you. It is entirely untethered from all of the other memories floating around in your skull. But the common noun baker, we know bakers.

A bakers wear funny white hats. Bakers have flour on their hands. Bakers smell good when they come home from work. Maybe we even know a baker. And when we first hear that word, we start putting these associational hooks into it that make it easier to fish it back out at some later date.

The entire art of what is going on in these memory contests and the entire art of remembering stuff better in everyday life is figuring out ways to transform capital B Bakers into lower-case B bakers — to take information that is lacking in context, in significance, in meaning and transform it in some way so that it becomes meaningful in the light of all the other things that you have in your mind.

11:13 One of the more elaborate techniques for doing this dates back 2,500 years to Ancient Greece. It came to be known as the memory palace.

The story behind its creation goes like this: There was a poet called Simonides who was attending a banquet. He was actually the hired entertainment, because back then if you wanted to throw a really slamming party, you didn’t hire a D.J., you hired a poet. And he stands up, delivers his poem from memory, walks out the door, and at the moment he does, the banquet hall collapses, kills everybody inside.

It doesn’t just kill everybody, it mangles the bodies beyond all recognition. Nobody can say who was inside, nobody can say where they were sitting. The bodies can’t be properly buried. It’s one tragedy compounding another.

Simonides, standing outside, the sole survivor amid the wreckage, closes his eyes and has this realization, which is that in his mind’s eye, he can see where each of the guests at the banquet had been sitting. And he takes the relatives by the hand and guides them each to their loved ones amid the wreckage.

12:33 What Simonides figured out at that moment is something that I think we all kind of intuitively know, which is that, as bad as we are at remembering names and phone numbers and word-for-word instructions from our colleagues, we have really exceptional visual and spatial memories.

If I asked you to recount the first 10 words of the story that I just told you about Simonides, chances are you would have a tough time with it. But I would wager that if I asked you to recall who is sitting on top of a talking tan horse in your foyer right now, you would be able to see that.

13:15 The idea behind the memory palace is to create this imagined edifice in your mind’s eye and populate it with images of the things that you want to remember — the crazier, weirder, more bizarre, funnier, raunchier, stinkier the image is, the more unforgettable it’s likely to be.

This is advice that goes back 2,000-plus years to the earliest Latin memory treatises.

 So how does this work? Let’s say that you’ve been invited to TED center stage to give a speech and you want to do it from memory, and you want to do it the way that Cicero would have done it if he had been invited to TEDxRome 2,000 years ago.

What you might do is picture yourself at the front door of your house. And you’d come up with some sort of an absolutely crazy, ridiculous, unforgettable image to remind you that the first thing you want to talk about is this totally bizarre contest. And then you’d go inside your house, and you would see an image of Cookie Monster on top of Mister Ed. And that would remind you that you would want to then introduce your friend Ed Cook. And then you’d see an image of Britney Spears to remind you of this funny anecdote you want to tell.

And you go into your kitchen, and the fourth topic you were going to talk about was this strange journey that you went on for a year, and you have some friends to help you remember that.

14:50 This is how Roman orators memorized their speeches — not word-for-word, which is just going to screw you up, but topic-for-topic.

In fact, the phrase “topic sentence,” that comes from the Greek word “topos,” which means “place.” That’s a vestige of when people used to think about oratory and rhetoric in these sorts of spatial terms. The phrase “in the first place,” that’s like in the first place of your memory palace.

15:20 I thought this was just fascinating, and I got really into it. And I went to a few more of these memory contests. And I had this notion that I might write something longer about this subculture of competitive memorizers. But there was a problem. The problem was that a memory contest is a pathologically boring event. (Laughter) Truly, it is like a bunch of people sitting around taking the SATs.

The most dramatic it gets is when somebody starts massaging their temples. And I’m a journalist, I need something to write about. I know that there’s this incredible stuff happening in these people’s minds, but I don’t have access to it.

16:00 And I realized, if I was going to tell this story, I needed to walk in their shoes a little bit.

And so I started trying to spend 15 or 20 minutes every morning before I sat down with my New York Times just trying to remember something. Maybe it was a poem. Maybe it was names from an old yearbook that I bought at a flea market. And I found that this was shockingly fun.

I never would have expected that. It was fun because this is actually not about training your memory. What you’re doing is you’re trying to get better and better and better at creating, at dreaming up, these utterly ludicrous, raunchy, hilarious and hopefully unforgettable images in your mind’s eye. And I got pretty into it.

16:45 This is me wearing my standard competitive memorizer’s training kit. It’s a pair of earmuffs and a set of safety goggles that have been masked over except for two small pinholes, because distraction is the competitive memorizer’s greatest enemy.

17:05 I ended up coming back to that same contest that I had covered a year earlier. And I had this notion that I might enter it, sort of as an experiment in participatory journalism. It’d make, I thought, maybe a nice epilogue to all my research. Problem was the experiment went haywire. I won the contest, which really wasn’t supposed to happen.


17:36 Now it is nice to be able to memorize speeches and phone numbers and shopping lists, but it’s actually kind of beside the point. These are just tricks. They are tricks that work because they’re based on some pretty basic principles about how our brains work.

And you don’t have to be building memory palaces or memorizing packs of playing cards to benefit from a little bit of insight about how your mind works.

18:06 We often talk about people with great memories as though it were some sort of an innate gift, but that is not the case.

Great memories are learned.

At the most basic level, we remember when we pay attention.

We remember when we are deeply engaged.

We remember when we are able to take a piece of information and experience and figure out why it is meaningful to us, why it is significant, why it’s colorful, when we’re able to transform it in some way that it makes sense in the light of all of the other things floating around in our minds, when we’re able to transform Bakers into bakers.

18:44 The memory palace, these memory techniques, they’re just shortcuts.

In fact, they’re not even really shortcuts. They work because they make you work. They force a kind of depth of processing, a kind of mindfulness, that most of us don’t normally walk around exercising. But there actually are no shortcuts. This is how stuff is made memorable.

19:09 And I think if there’s one thing that I want to leave you with, it’s what E.P., the amnesic who couldn’t even remember that he had a memory problem, left me with, which is the notion that our lives are the sum of our memories. How much are we willing to lose from our already short lives by losing ourselves in our Blackberries, our iPhones, by not paying attention to the human being across from us who is talking with us, by being so lazy that we’re not willing to process deeply?

19:56 I learned firsthand that there are incredible memory capacities latent in all of us. But if you want to live a memorable life, you have to be the kind of person who remembers to remember.

Patsy Z shared this link

بسبب موسم الامتحانات النهائية, نتمنى لجميع متابعين تيداكس بغداد من الطلبة الأعِزاء كل التوفيق ونهدي لهم هذا الحديث الرائع عن تقنيات تستخدم لتقوية الذاكرة وإسترجاع المعلومات بصورة اسهل!
شاركنا ببعض الطرق التي تستخدمها لتقوية تركيزك وذاكرتك في هذه الفترة..

There are people who can quickly memorize lists of thousands of numbers, the order of all the cards in a deck (or ten!), and much more. Science writer Joshua Foer describes the technique — called the memory palace — and shows off its…|By Joshua Foer




May 2015

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