Archive for May 1st, 2009

Theater of Illusion

One of my favorite blogs, Cognitive Daily, is launching a new feature, Cognitive Monthly, which features a long single-subject article. They’re hoping you’ll like the article enough to contribute a small fee.

The first month’s entry is about a subject that relates peripherally to something I discuss briefly in Traffic; i.e., the relationship between the way we see the world and how that world is captured in film (and by the way there’s another great NYAS event forthcoming this week that deals with that very topic). The piece is titled “The Illusion of Theater” and it, in their words, “covers the remarkable science behind what theatrical professionals seem, to laypeople, to do intuitively: create an environment that encourages us to believe that what we see on stage is a true representation of reality.”

In any case, here’s a sample of what the kind of stuff you’ll find in the piece:

How exactly does the music affect perception of a scene? In 2000, Marilyn Boltz conducted an extensive study to try to answer that question. Boltz wanted to know whether music alone could change the way viewers thought about a scene in a film, and furthermore, whether it could actually affect viewers’ memory later on. She showed viewers three ambiguous scenes, from Cat People, Vertigo, and the TV show The Hitchhiker, and played either “positive,” “negative,” or no music to accompany the scenes.

Boltz found that when viewers watched Malcolm McDowell and Nastassia Kinski talk in a benign scene from Cat People accompanied by positive music, they saw McDowell primarily as “kind/caring,” “loving,” or “playful.” When the negative music was played, he became “crazy/deranged,” “evil,” manipulative,” “controlling /possessive,” and “mysterious” (and this is without seeing him turn into a black leopard and rip someone’s arm off). When asked to predict what would happen next, viewers who had never seen the film and who saw the version with positive music (“Blossom Meadow” by George Winston) thought that McDowell and Kinski would have a happy life together and possibly fall in love.

Viewers who instead saw a version with negative music (from Rubycon by Tangerine Dream — of Risky Business fame) thought McDowell would “harm,” “kill,” or “do supernatural harm” to Kinski. The results were similar for scenes from Vertigo and The Hitchhiker. So music matters, whether we’re watching a bad ’80s HBO series or a Hitchcock classic—or a play by the son of a tenant farmer
in central England.

Posted on Friday, May 1st, 2009 at 2:42 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Even the Above-Average Suffer From the Lake Wobegon Effect

A new piece in Science by John D. Lee, “Can Technology Get Your Eyes Back on the Road,” had a number of interesting things about it but I particularly liked this fact about the “above-average driver” effect:

“Another survey found this superiority bias persisted even with expect police drivers when they rated their ability relative to that of their peers.”

It could be, of course, that we just have trouble thinking in terms of groups.

Posted on Friday, May 1st, 2009 at 9:10 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Seen Reading

I’m not sure how I’ve missed Seen Reading for this long, but the idea immediately captivated me. The blog’s author observes someone reading something on Toronto public transportation, notes the page number, then chooses a passage from that page and adds her own small fictional hypothesis. A typical example is here (and no, she hasn’t spotted anyone reading Traffic — yet).

The New York City subways are typically awash in outward-facing jackets, and I’ve often thought there should be a special MTA Bestseller list (a lot of people will be reading The Secret with the proposed fare hikes) — heavy, I think, on Salinger, Foer, Lethem, etc.

I’ve often wondered about the role of signaling that these book jackets send; are they all always “honest signals”? I am thinking of a recent anecdote relayed by the novelist Nicholson Baker in the New York Times. “Years ago, he walked into a temporary job with a copy of “Ulysses.” “I wanted people to know I wasn’t just a temp,” he said, “but rather a temp who was reading ‘Ulysses.’ ” And what will happen to that signaling (pretentious perhaps, but also useful) once the individual book is subsumed under the faceless silicon hegemony of the Kindle — which itself is a kind of signal. How many subway romances have been struck up because someone fell for someone reading a certain novel — say The Crying of Lot 49? With Kindle you might take them for a Pynchonite, only to find they’re reading James Patterson.

In driving, of course, literary signifiers are usually lacking, unless someone happens to have some Conrad or Koontz up on the dashboard. There are often audio signifiers (of a certain sort, no one’s ever cranking NPR up and down the block), of course, not to mention things like car make and model, a gun rack in the back or other accessories. My favorite example is something I saw in the little retail section of my local car wash: A fake GPS antenna. You may not have the fancy nav system, but this little shark-fin shaped piece of plastic will convince the world you’re never lost.

Posted on Friday, May 1st, 2009 at 8:41 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Cash for Clunkers: The Bike Edition

“Cash for clunkers” is a potentially bad idea, for a number of reasons that have been explored elsewhere.

But as long as one is seeking stimulus, and ostensibly green benefits, why not extend the program to bikes? The ETA (the other ETA!) has a petition here.

I’m looking to upgrade my old Gary Fisher and wouldn’t mind some tax joy.

Posted on Friday, May 1st, 2009 at 7:28 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Transport column to me at:

For publicity inquiries, please contact Kate Runde at Vintage:

For editorial inquiries, please contact Zoe Pagnamenta at The Zoe Pagnamenta Agency:

For speaking engagement inquiries, please contact
Kim Thornton at the Random House Speakers Bureau:

Order Traffic from:

Amazon | B&N | Borders
Random House | Powell’s

U.S. Paperback UK Paperback
Traffic UK
Drive-on-the-left types can order the book from

For UK publicity enquiries please contact Rosie Glaisher at Penguin.

Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



May 2009

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