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The Science of New York City's Public Spaces

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Ever wondered if there is a formula architects follow before they build a park in New York City? There is.

Back in 1969, a social scientist by the name of William H. Whyte helped the New York City Planning Commission draft a plan for the public spaces in the city. At the time, Whyte was well-known for his work in planning new city spaces. After the spaces were built, however, Whyte developed a hungry curiosity for how the spaces were actually faring with the public.

He applied for and received a grant to study street life and public spaces in major cities across the country. This project came to be known as the Street Life Project. Whyte gathered a group of researchers, some cameras and notebooks, and set out to observe strangers in public space.

Often, Whyte would set up the cameras from high vantage points to record pedestrian movements with time-lapse photography.

As Whyte’s research developed, several common trends and characteristics about successful public spaces emerged. The New York City Planning Commission—along with organizations in other cities—would use his research for urban planning initiatives in the years to come. Many zoning incentives were created around Whyte’s research; the more an architect followed Whyte’s suggestions, the taller his skyscraper could be.

Sitting Space

First, Whyte looked at the popularity of different plazas in New York City. Spaces that were the same size had wide ranges of visitors. For instance, Park Avenue's plaza only had 17 visitors while the park at 77 Water Street had as many as 160.

But what could account for this difference? Whyte believed it was the number (and types) of sitting spaces, and after observing the plazas for an extended period of time, Whyte came up with several rules for sitting space.

First, sitting space should be physically comfortable with backrests and contours that mimic the human body. Sitting space should also be socially comfortable so that visitors have a seemingly unlimited amount of choice: “sitting up front, in back, to the side, in the sun, in the shade, in groups, off alone.” So, architects must think creatively; they must build ledges that can be seats, table tops, and foot rests all at once.

Seventeen inches is considered the optimum height for sitting space, but Whyte calculated that successful sitting space could be anywhere from one foot to three feet tall. Ledges should be at least 30 inches deep, although 36 inches deep is optimal. This specific width is enough for “two backsides” to comfortably sit on a ledge without physical or social discomfort.

Unlike ledges, Whyte highly discouraged architects from placing benches in a plaza. Benches, which are anchored to the ground, remove a visitor’s freedom of choice and ultimately deter them from visiting the plaza. Plus, when have benches ever been comfortable? Instead, Whyte suggested one-person movable chairs that allowed visitors to form groups or change their position based on the sun.

But what about the amount of sitting space? After much observation and calculation, Whyte determined that the most successful public spaces were made up of at least 10 percent sitting space. However, the New York Planning Commission was hesitant. They eventually compromised on the following requirement: architects would have to create one linear foot of sitting space for every 30 square feet of plaza.

Sun

Whyte also found that access to sunlight was an important indicator of a successful public space: "The more access to sun, the better, and, if there is a southern exposure, it should be made the most of.” Future zoning requirements in New York were centered on these principles.

Whyte suggested that public spaces buy “air rights” to surrounding buildings to keep them low and to protect their access to the sun. If this could not be achieved, Whyte encouraged builders to “borrow” sun from other places. With all of the glass windows and stainless steel that make up the city’s towering skyscrapers, urban planners could build parks that sat in the reflections of sunlight from these buildings.

Wind

If you’ve ever walked through New York City in the dead of winter, you are no stranger to wind tunnels. The skyscrapers within the city often channel wind into cold, uncomfortable gusts that move quickly down the connecting streets. If any open, public space is in the way of these wind tunnels, no one will visit it. Whyte suggested that public spaces create enclaves for themselves during the winter time.

Trees

If a space is going to collect sunlight, it’s also going to need shade. Whyte encouraged planners to plant trees in public spaces so that visitors could sit beneath them. New York’s open-space zoning took this into account: According to Whyte, “developers must provide a tree for every 25 feet of sidewalk. It must be at least 3.5 inches in diameter and planted flush with the ground. In plazas, trees must be provided in proportion to the space (for a plaza of 5000 feet, a minimum of six trees).”

Water

At the beginning of his research, Whyte noted that several public spaces in New York City offered beautiful views of waterfalls, sluiceways, and fountains of all types. However, none of these places allowed visitors to feel or touch the water. “One of the best things about water is the look and feel of it,” Whyte said. “It’s not right to put water before people and then keep them away from it.”

Whyte suggested that public spaces provide more access to waterfalls and pools, where visitors could touch the water with their hands or cool off their feet on a hot summer day. Whyte also noted that the sound of water allows a place to be more intimate because it masks conversations taking place between different groups of people.

Food

Whyte also noted that the most successful public spaces gave visitors the opportunity to buy food: “If you want to seed a place with activity, put out food.” Whyte pointed specifically to Rockefeller Plaza during the Christmas holidays, which contained around 15 pretzel vendors within a 40-foot space. People flocked to the area. According to Whyte, “food attracts people which attracts more people.”

Whyte was able to watch this concept in action as he observed a plaza. Originally empty, the owners of the plaza gradually put tables, chairs, and umbrellas into the space. Vendors quickly set up shop outside of the plaza and drew in passersby. The owners of the plaza saw how successfully food drew a crowd, and they eventually decided to open a small outdoor café in the area.

Although Whyte and his team of researchers proposed that New York’s zoning law make the provision of food a requirement, the Planning Commission denied this requirement.

The Street

Whyte also proposed that the most successful public spaces allowed strangers to watch one another—think of the ice skating rink in Rockefeller Plaza or the steps leading up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These vantage points allow people to participate in a commonly enjoyed pastime: people-watching.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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