How the MTA Introduced the Touch Screen to New York City

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In a recent piece for Next City writer and illustrator Aaron Reiss looks at the design of the MTA’s automated ticket kiosk. As a germaphobe, Reiss hates the amount of screen-touching the MTA kiosk requires, but as he investigates the history of the machine and meets with its creator he begins to understand the reasoning behind the design:

The first thing [the machine’s creator, industrial designer Masamichi] Udagawa did was to provide some context for the realities of New York City in the late 1990s, when the MTA ticket vending system was being developed. What I hadn’t realized before was exactly how novel these machines were at the time.

“This was the first time a touchscreen was really [going to be] introduced to the public [in New York City],” remembered Udagawa. “When [the MTA ticket] machine came out in 1999, 50 percent of subway riders didn’t have bank accounts, so they had no experience with ATMs, let alone touch screens.”

It’s interesting to note here how in the late 1990s the ATM could be used as both an inspiration and as a cautionary tale. Remember, the iPhone was a good seven years off and touchscreens were far less common than they are today. That guided Antenna’s design in a major way. “It was a different world in ’99, even if it was only 15 years ago,” Udagawa said.

The issue is perhaps best illustrated by Udagawa’s explanation of the “Press to Start Screen,” one of the features of the MTA design that most niggled at me.

A huge number of people who tested early mock-ups of the machine were at a complete loss when met with the new touchscreens, he said.

At this point, I was beginning to see the problems with my hyper-efficient ideas of trimming excess screens. I was quickly grasping that the system I battled with daily was created for a different time.

In the late ‘90s, when Udagawa and his team were hired by the MTA to make the machines more user-friendly, riders had a very different relationship with technology and in particular, with technology in the public realm.

Aaron Reiss, writing for Next City. 

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Slither and Hiss: Four Stories About Snakes

Photo: Brian Gudzevich

This week, I’m sharing four stories about snakes and the people who love, hate, and tolerate them in equal measure. But first, a haiku:

Scary, beautiful
Important to religion
Slithering and scaled.

1. “The Pentecostal Serpent.” (Asher Elbein, The Bitter Southerner, September 2014)

An Atlanta zoo. A dusty office at the University of Tennessee. The mountains of Appalachia. A small church in Alabama. How has the life of the handled snake touched each of these? Read more…

The Unlikely Roots of Solitary Confinement

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In a perverse tribute to human endeavor, solitary confinement began as a reform. Thinkers in Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States in the late 18th and early 19th centuries imagined that it might be possible to induce criminals to change from within, especially if they could be kept isolated from one another and from the corruptions of the outside world. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s famous design for a Panopticon—a circular prison with a central “inspection house” that allowed authorities to look into any cell at any time—was predicated on the idea that the prisoner under constant surveillance would internalize authority’s gaze, and cease misbehaving.

The Panopticon itself was never built, but Bentham’s ideas of solitary confinement and penitent reflection appealed to Pennsylvania Quakers, who incorporated them into an idea for a new kind of prison that was built. Philadelphia’s huge Eastern State Penitentiary, completed in 1829 and still standing, deviated from the Panopticon by making no cell visible to any other; rather, cells were located in corridors that radiated like spokes on a wheel from a central hall. Each cell had a Bible, and each prisoner was given piecework jobs. Cultivators of silence, the Quakers believed that isolation would help criminals mend their ways. The Pennsylvania system was copied all over the world, and the word “penitentiary” became universal.

One reason for the rapid spread is that the new penitentiaries appeared to be an advance over capital and corporal punishment, which had been the main penalties up to that time. As Michel Foucault observed, the locus of punishment shifted from a criminal’s body to a criminal’s mind. Reformers in England believed they had found in solitary confinement the “most terrible penalty” short of death that a society could inflict—and yet, in their view, the penalty was also “the most humane.” It turned out that the therapeutic value of isolation was negligible; in fact, solitary confinement made prisoners worse, to the point of driving many of them mad. The penitentiaries were successful, however, in inflicting punishment and keeping prisoners away from society—which, people felt, was on the whole a bargain.

Ted Conover, writing in Vanity Fair about the psychological horrors of solitary confinement.

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What It Was Like to Record Michael Jackson’s Voice

The Jackson 5 in 1972. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
The Jackson 5 in 1972. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

I was still in Detroit, and I got a call from Berry Gordy — he was out in California — and he said, “We signed these kids. We finished the album and listened to all the mixes, and I don’t like any of the mixes. I’ll send you the multitracks, and I want you to remix the whole album.” And I said, “Anything you want me to do?” He said, “No, do what you think is best.” It was The Jackson 5’s first album. I was in the studio, all by myself mixing. I’ll tell ya, the first time I heard Michael’s voice, my jaw hit the floor. “This little kid can sing!” But yeah, that’s how it started, and, like I said, that’s how he [Berry] trusted people. He trusted my ability to scrap all the mixes that he had, send me the multitracks, and say, “You do it.”

So the first time you heard Michael’s voice, would you say that you instantly knew he was the real deal?

His pitch was great and he had good emotion. He was like an adult in a kid body. He really impressed me. He wasn’t just singing words — he came from the heart. Once I moved up to L.A., I was with him a lot. Michael was a good kid; I really liked Michael. He would sit next to me in the control room and would ask, “What does this do? What does that do? Why does that happen?” He was very into the behind the scenes thing too. He was always fascinated by the equipment, how things were accomplished, and how you do it. He was very soft-spoken and very polite, until he got behind a microphone, and all of a sudden, bang — “Who is that guy?” I liked him a lot. He was a very nice person. He was genuine. It was not easy to be Michael Jackson. He couldn’t go anywhere without putting on a disguise, because he’d be mobbed. I heard one time he had never been into a grocery store, because he couldn’t even walk into a grocery store. Jermaine [Jackson] was telling me they went to a grocery store when they’d closed, and they flipped the manager a couple of bucks so that Michael could walk around. He couldn’t believe all the aisles and shelves of food — that blew his mind.

-Russ Terrana, in Tape Op magazine, on his time working as Motown’s chief studio engineer.

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Paradise Lost: ‘I Did Not Die. I Did Not Go to Heaven’

Photo: AJ Mangoba
Photo: AJ Mangoba

Alex Malarkey was paralyzed from the neck down in a car accident when he was six years old. The young boy claimed to have visited heaven, seen his stillborn sister and talked with Jesus. Years later, he began to recant the story touted in his bestselling book, but no one would listen–until now. Michelle Dean reports at The Guardian:

“I did not die. I did not go to heaven. When I made the claims, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough,” Alex wrote.

Jokes playing on his surname have been made far and wide, but Alex Malarkey is not James Frey for the evangelical set. He was not, and still is not, an adult. He is dependent on the care of others. Contesting this book would mean discrediting his own father as his co-author. It would also pit Alex against an evangelical publishing industry that has made huge profits off too-good-to-be-true memoirs that demand readers take them, quite literally, on faith.

At a time when publishing is under pressure from Amazon and e-books, near-death experience books are reliable, even phenomenon-level business: the story of [Colton] Burpo – which includes visions of Jesus on a horse and his miscarried baby sister during an emergency appendectomy – has reportedly sold more than 10m books, and The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven moved over 1m copies before its publisher pulled the book from shelves on Friday.

The publisher, Tyndale House, said in a statement it was “saddened to learn” that its co-author “is now saying that he made up the story of dying and going to heaven.” Since the scandal broke, the Malarkeys have not spoken publicly. According to family members, Kevin Malarkey seems to be standing by the book. The agent who sold Alex’s story to Tyndale House – who reassured them by telling them how the book money could help, his mother wrote on her blog – has also remained silent.

But a closer look at family correspondence and social media postings in the years in between reveals how a push for sales can obscure the truth when it’s easier not to listen. Since at least 2011, Alex and Beth Malarkey have been telling people, on her blog, that the memoir had substantial inaccuracies. Emails obtained by the Guardian from Phil Johnson make clear they have been telling the publisher directly since at least 2012.

When pressed to acknowledge the prior correspondence, Tyndale House admitted in a statement that: “For the past couple of years we have known that Beth Malarkey … was unhappy with the book, and believed it contained inaccuracies.”

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Finding Stories in Familiar Territory: An Interview With Miranda July

Photo: Todd Cole
Photo: Todd Cole

Jessica Gross | Longreads | January 2015 | 14 minutes (3,540 words)

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Miranda July’s films, sculptures, books, and performance art pieces share not only a very particular, off-kilter aesthetic, but also a deep concern with human connection. An example of this can be found in her 2011 film, The Future, in which a couple navigates their relationships with each other, with their soon-to-be-adopted cat, and with their individual selves. July procrastinated on writing the film by visiting and interviewing people who’d listed items in the Pennysaver. That detour facilitated the screenwriting process—The Future ended up featuring one of the sellers she’d met—and formed the basis of another project, the book It Chooses You. July’s new app, Somebody, approaches human connection from a different angle: It delivers text messages to their intended recipients via the nearest Somebody-using stranger.

July’s debut novel, The First Bad Man, centers on Cheryl, a forty-something woman hampered by compulsive thoughts and behaviors, a psychosomatic throat condition, and loneliness. She lusts after a man she’s met through work, and is constantly visited by the soul of a baby she had a strong connection with in childhood. Cheryl lives alone—until Clee, her boss’s blond, curvy daughter, comes to stay. Their relationship enters violent and erotic terrain, and rearranges Cheryl’s literal and internal worlds. We spoke recently by phone about her relationship with her characters, the evolution of her work, and where her novel came from. Read more…

Really Old Stuff: A Reading List About Our Prehistoric Past

Image: Lisa Weichel
Image: Lisa Weichel

Even with digital archives and electronic records keeping track of our lives, we often find it a challenge to piece together our own pasts, to say nothing of our parents’ or grandparents’. What, then, of the lives of humans and organisms whose only traces are already thousands of years old?

From an aspen colony that has been cloning itself for over 80,000 years to a coral reef fossilized eons ago, these stories bring to life irretrievable worlds and challenge our notions of time and durability.

1. “First Artists” (Chip Walter, National Geographic Magazine, January 2015)

Admiring intricate cave paintings in France, Germany, and South Africa, Walter explores how humans laid the foundation to visual art in “sporadic flare-ups of creativity” some 30,000-60,000 years ago.

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