This week, it became which dessert won't be popular this Thanksgiving.

This week, it became clear which dessert won’t be popular this Thanksgiving.

  • Steve Ballmer is going to profit hugely from corporate welfare.
  • Robotics will reinvent the security industry.
  • William Gibson existed has always existed in dual temporal realities.
  • AC Grayling points out that we’re already sort of Transhumanist.
  • A brief note from 1910 about a winner.

Peggy Noonan, who will tell you how to be an American, you stupid, loves reading the tea leaves or some such bullshit, explaining how the nation feels, based on her own ideology and false narratives. Her latest WSJ opinion piece is a real spectacle, calling for making boys into men by teaching them how to toxify the country, a place which is home, after all, to the skeleton of Ronald Reagan. Having a federal job program for unemployed people that builds or rebuilds infrastructure would be great, humanistically and economically, but it needn’t shouldn’t revolve around a certain pipeline. From Simon Malloy at Salon:

“Noonan also shared her thoughts on the Keystone XL pipeline, which … well, here, just read it:

And there is the Keystone XL pipeline and the administration’s apparent intent to veto a bill that allows it. There the issue is not only the jobs the pipeline would create, and not only the infrastructure element. It is something more. If it is done right, the people who build the pipeline could be pressed to take on young men—skill-less, aimless—and get them learning, as part of a crew, how things are built and what it is to be a man who builds them.

On top of that, the building of the pipeline would show the world that America is capable of coming back, that we’re not only aware of our good fortune and engineering genius, we are pushing it hard into the future. America’s got her hard-hat on again. America is dynamic. ‘You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.; Not just this endless talk of limits, restrictions, fears and ‘Oh, we’re all going to melt in the warm global future!’

I am completely at a loss for why Keystone XL, among the many construction jobs available to young men (but not women, apparently), would be uniquely capable of transforming ‘skill-less, aimless’ young men into real American manly men of manly valor. Apparently the pipeline will carry not just horribly toxic tar-sands oil, but also good old-fashioned American gumption (imported from Canada).

And I’m absolutely baffled at the suggestion that the world will stand up and take notice of American engineering and dynamism because we successfully built a long metal pipe.”

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I’m really going to enjoy the Buckwild Obama of the last two years of his Administration. The President has always been playing the long game, and though some announced his Presidency as “over” even before the Democratic losses in the recent mid-terms, he’s continued moving forward with his policies and now really has no reason to listen to the shouting people on the TV box. With immigration reform, he’s also put his opponents on their heels. From Noam Schrieber at The New Republic:

“Intellectually, of course, conservatives understand the importance of sticking to procedural objections even here. They can read polls as well as the rest of us. And the polls say that while Americans overwhelmingly favor the substance of Obama’s preferred immigration reforms, they also oppose enacting the reform by way of executive fiat.

No surprise then that the conservative message machine has gone on at length about the ‘constitutional crisis’ the president is instigating. The right has compared Obama to a monarch (see here and here), a Latin American caudillo, even a conspirator against the Roman Republic. (Ever melodrama much?) The rhetoric gets a little thick. But if you boil it down, the critique is mostly about Obama’s usurpation of power and contempt for democratic norms, not the substance of his policy change. Some Republicans no doubt believe it. 

And yet, try as they might to stick to the script, there’s something about dark-skinned foreigners that sends the conservative id into overdrive. Most famously, there’s Iowa Congressman Steve King’s observation last year that for every child brought into the country illegally ‘who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.’

While King tends to be especially vivid in his lunacy, he’s no outlier.”

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Here’s a new twist in the Peer Economy I don’t think will work, especially as ridesharing becomes more popular: You don’t have to pay for parking at the airport (and you’ll receive other amenities) if you allow your car to be rented while you’re out of town. From Lori Aratani at the Washington Post:

“A San Francisco-based company is putting yet another spin on the Washington area’s sharing economy, giving travelers flying out of Dulles International Airport free parking and a car wash in exchange for permission to rent their cars to other drivers.

FlightCar launches Wednesday at Dulles and two other U.S. airports. Participating travelers can drop off their cars at a designated lot near Dulles. In exchange for letting FlightCar offer a vehicle for rent, the travelers receive free parking, a Town Car ride to the airport, a car wash and per-mile payment if the vehicle is rented — to a pre-screened driver — while they’re away.

‘Everyone goes to the airport, everyone has trouble parking, so it just make sense,’ said Kevin Petrovic, president and co-founder of FlightCar.”

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I love reading Nicholas Carr, so bright he is and such a blessedly lucid writer, though I don’t always find myself agreeing with him. I won’t blame him for the headline of his latest WSJ piece, “Automation Makes Us Dumb,” but I do take issue with his idea that we should be alarmed that AI is causing “skill fade” in airline pilots, making it dangerous to fly. It’s no less scary for a plane to crash by human hand rather than because of a computer failure (or because of some combined failure of the two). It’s bad regardless. But accidents on domestic airlines in America have become almost non-existent as the crafts have become more computerized and we’ve learned to navigate wind shears. That wouldn’t be the case without machines aiding planes, which are, you know, machines. I think Carr’s enthusiasm for “adaptive automation” makes sense, at least in the short and medium terms, though ultimately I favor whatever most often prevents plane noses from touching earth. From Carr:

“In the 1950s, a Harvard Business School professor named James Bright went into the field to study automation’s actual effects on a variety of industries, from heavy manufacturing to oil refining to bread baking. Factory conditions, he discovered, were anything but uplifting. More often than not, the new machines were leaving workers with drabber, less demanding jobs. An automated milling machine, for example, didn’t transform the metalworker into a more creative artisan; it turned him into a pusher of buttons.

Bright concluded that the overriding effect of automation was (in the jargon of labor economists) to ‘de-skill’ workers rather than to ‘up-skill’ them. ‘The lesson should be increasingly clear,’ he wrote in 1966. ‘Highly complex equipment’ did not require ‘skilled operators. The ‘skill’ can be built into the machine.’

We are learning that lesson again today on a much broader scale. As software has become capable of analysis and decision-making, automation has leapt out of the factory and into the white-collar world. Computers are taking over the kinds of knowledge work long considered the preserve of well-educated, well-trained professionals: Pilots rely on computers to fly planes; doctors consult them in diagnosing ailments; architects use them to design buildings. Automation’s new wave is hitting just about everyone.”

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The idea that we have passed peak-car in America has been circling the block for a few years, that we would simply purchase miles the way we do minutes. While the Sharing Economy is part of the shift, the transformation won’t be complete until autonomous vehicles are perfected, and the final five-to-ten percent of that process isn’t easy. From Jerry Hirsch at the Los Angeles Times:

“Personal transportation is on the cusp of its greatest transformation since the advent of the internal combustion engine.

With the rise of self-driving vehicles, ride-sharing, traffic congestion and environmental regulation, we may not even own cars in the future, much less drive them.

A glimpse of the coming revolution can be seen in the models debuting this week at the Los Angeles Auto Show. Hidden under their hoods and dashboards are sensors that take the first steps toward autonomous driving. Already, cars can park themselves, slam on the brakes to avoid crashes and adjust steering to stay centered in a lane.

But the disruption will go well beyond who is — or isn’t — at the controls. For a century, cars have been symbols of freedom and status. Passengers of the future may well view vehicles as just another form of public transportation, to be purchased by the trip or in a subscription. Buying sexy, fast cars for garages could evolve into buying seat-miles in appliance-like pods, piloted by robots, parked in public stalls.”

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It sounds odd, but it seemed to some in the Roaring Twenties that the best way to get to the airport was by plane. In an article in the February 19, 1928 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, an engineer predicted that soon city dwellers would be able order up small planes that could take off from or land on midtown buildings which had been retrofitted as small airports, saving themselves from the veritable tortoise-like transport of trains and taxis.

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The first two paragraphs from Bee Wilson’s London Review of Books piece about the new autobiography by Vivienne Westwood, the designer who made punk a big thing but lost interest when she realized her tattered tees were a fashion statement but not a political one:

“Some time in 1979, after the death of Sid Vicious and before the enthronement of Margaret Thatcher, Vivienne Westwood ‘lost interest’ in punk. She and her lover Malcolm McLaren had been at the heart of the British version: they had dreamed up much of the look, the attitude and the lyrics, though not the sound. A full year before David Bowie adopted the same hair style, Westwood had her hair bleached blonde and cut ‘coupe-sauvage’ style: tufty, asymmetrical and barmy-looking. She went to America and dressed the New York Dolls. Together, she and McLaren assembled the Sex Pistols, whom they got to know thanks to SEX, the clothes shop they (McLaren and Westwood) ran on the King’s Road. There is fierce disagreement as to whether Westwood or John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, thought up the title ‘Anarchy in the UK’ – he says it was him; she says it was her – but there is no doubt that she had a powerful influence on the way punks, including Lydon, dressed. She was the first to design T-shirts covered in punk ‘bricolage’, ranging from studs and chains to chicken bones to nipple zips, and she was the one who put a safety pin through the queen’s mouth on a T-shirt. By 1977, teenagers all over the country were copying the look she had started: the spiky hair, the studs, the clothes daubed with antisocial messages. It wasn’t what Westwood had wanted, though. She was hoping for revolution. ‘When I turned round, on the barricades,’ she says in Vivienne Westwood, an autobiography written with Ian Kelly (rather than the usual ghostwritten celebrity tosh), ‘there was no one there. That was how it felt. They were just still pogoing. So I lost interest.’

The prevailing impression of Westwood that we get from the book is of a leader whose people have been a constant disappointment to her. ‘The way I thought about ‘punk’ politics,’ Westwood says now, ‘was this: at the time, we were just becoming aware of these terrible politicians torturing people – I’m thinking of Pinochet, for instance … The idea was that kids would try to put a spoke in the wheel of this terrible killing machine.’ She saw herself as someone who would ‘confront the rotten status quo through the way I dressed and dressed others’. But it turned out that the kids were mainly interested in buying the new rubber skirts and bondage gear from her shop and playing punk rock records. Whoever deserves the credit for the title ‘Anarchy in the UK,’ the people listening to the music were not taking the message seriously enough. Few punks got the connection – so obvious to Westwood – between wearing a distressed top featuring a swastika, the word DESTROY and defeating Pinochet. Westwood believed her clothes – which she saw and still sees as her art – were inexorably leading punks towards radical politics. When you put on a punk garment such as a real dog collar, Westwood says, ‘basically you are insulting yourself, but you’re also clearing yourself of all egotism.’ But when she turned round, they were just spitting and jumping. So she moved on.”

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Apart from yikes!, I’m sort of out of words when it comes to Asuna, the tween robot created by Japanese inventor Hiroshi Ishiguro, which tries to exit the uncanny valley at the far end. Currently controlled remotely, an autonomous version is, of course, in the works. From Maria Khan at IBT:

“Life-like robots are taking Japan by storm and will soon be seen as actresses and even used as clones of the deceased.

‘Earlier this month, Robotics Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro showcased his latest creation, Android ‘Asuna’ at the Tokyo Designers’ Week.

Dubbed a ‘geminoid’, Asuna was well-liked by the visitors at the show, who said the robot was very human-like and had a nice voice.

‘[Asuna] would make a good date; a cheap date!’ said one man.

Most of the visitors remarked ‘sukoi’ meaning ‘amazing’ upon seeing Asuna, due to her human-like skin and facial expressions.

Some visitors, assuming Asuna was just another human, respectfully bowed before her requesting a selfie with her.

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Income inequality may not end up being the primary economic challenge of these automated times, but it certainly is a glaring symptom of a lot of problems. From Suzanne McGee at the Guardian:

“Which would you think would be larger for Ford Motor, a company that last year reported revenues of $139.4b: the taxes it pays the US federal government or the compensation it pays its CEO?

If you picked option B, congratulations – you may be cynical, but you’re right. Alan Mulally, Ford’s CEO, pocketed a compensation package that totaled $23.2m while Ford itself got a US federal tax refund of $19m.

And Ford isn’t the only company to pay its CEO more than it forked over to Uncle Sam.

Seven of the country’s 30 largest corporations paid more to their CEOs than they did in taxes last year, according to a just-released study by the Center for Effective Government and the Institute for Policy Studies.

At the same time, Citigroup qualified for a $260m tax refund from the IRS, thanks to a special waiverthat enabled it to capture the full tax benefits of buying unprofitable businesses. This could be a tax gift that keeps on giving, as the bank has been on a tear to keep earning more to take full advantage of the provision.

The rift between tax burden and executive pay for big companies is ‘getting worse,’ says Scott Klinger, director of revenue and spending policies at the Center for Effective Government.”

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A strong central government is often made out to be the enemy in America, but I doubt Mexicans would agree. Our neighboring nation isn’t all bad news–there are some positive economic signs–but an illicit and decrepit system of governance, oftentimes merely a marriage of politicians on the make and men with guns, has allowed for horrors. From Marian Blasberg and Jens Glüsing’s Spiegel article about the disappeared 43 student teachers who were likely killed by gangsters on the orders of a local mayor:

“After more than an hour, they reach a remote village where a roadblock brings the convoy to a halt. A dozen armed men approach and indicate that they should get out of their vehicles.

[Civilian militia leader Cristóforo] García turns off the engine and he and his group suddenly find themselves standing at an intersection surrounded by men with a distrustful look in their eyes. And once again, nobody knows who is behind the masks worn by the others.

“What do you want here?” demands an older man in a sombrero who appears to be their leader.

García explains that they are looking for the disappeared students but the man doesn’t believe him. Just a few minutes ago, the man says, a military convoy rolled through the village and points to a helicopter circling overhead. It looks as though they are carrying out an operation nearby. Perhaps they are once again looking for mass graves.

‘What do you have to do with them?’ the leader demands.

‘With this government?’ García asks. ‘Nothing. We don’t have a government. Do you?’ 

The man in the sombrero shakes his head. His village is called Tianquizolco and is home to a couple hundred indigenous farmers. As in other villages in Guerrero, they have founded their own police force. Someone has to protect us, the man in the sombrero says, adding that people disappear from here all too often as well.

Then, suddenly, the situation changes. The distrust between the two groups vanishes at the moment that the military convoy tries to pass through the village a second time. Together, the two groups block the way and stop the vehicles. The entire village is now in an uproar. The man in the sombrero demands that the military present identification, but they don’t have any documents with them.”

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The American overreaction to Ebola, a real epidemic in Liberia but not here, probably has more to do with unstated anxieties than spoken ones. We’re in a globalized world now, on the cusp of a post-white country, in a time of technology and terrorism, invaders everywhere. Close the airports, strengthen the borders, quarantine the threats. 

People have always tried to place a name to their fears, even if it was the wrong one. If you go back 100 to 150 years, life was commonly brutal and brief. Famine and disease and war were seemingly everywhere and knew no solution, treatment or permanent treaty. Anarchy was fashionable, science terrifying (“What hath God wrought!“), fascism about to rise and revolution in the air. The world seemed haunted. Even the “unsinkable” Titanic drank itself to death. Could some of that era’s carnage, even the shocking capsizing of that famous British passenger liner, have occurred because we had the temerity to disrupt nature’s order and aroused a mummy’s curse? Of course not, but sometimes the sick are not very circumspect of the diagnosis. From Rose Eveleth’s Nautilus piece “The Curse of the Unlucky Mummy“:

“Sometime in the 1860s, five recent Oxford graduates took a trip to Egypt. Together they sailed down the Nile, a tourist attraction even then. To remember their trip, they bought a souvenir in the mummy pits of Deir el-Bahri—the coffin lid of a priestess of Amen-Ra. The high priests of Amen-Ra, named after an Egyptian deity, were military rulers who commanded southern Egypt in the 21st Dynasty (1085 to 945 B.C.), a time of turmoil and strife. Powerful and prone to keep secrets, the priesthood worked to appease the gods that Egypt had clearly angered. With her wide, baleful eyes, open palms, and outstretched fingers, the priestess on the coffin lid seemed to cast a malevolent allure.

On their way back from Egypt, two of the men died. A third went to Cairo and accidentally shot himself in the arm while quail hunting and had to have it amputated. Another member of the group, Arthur Wheeler, managed to make it back to England, only to lose his entire fortune gambling. He moved to America and lost his new fortune to both a flood and a fire. The coffin lid was then placed under the care of Wheeler’s sister, who attempted to have it photographed in 1887. The photographer died, as did the porter. The man asked to translate the hieroglyphs on the lid committed suicide. The coffin lid seemed almost certainly cursed. But this was only the beginning.

Today, the 5-foot-tall ‘mummy board’ lives in the British Museum, where it’s officially known as ‘artifact 22542.’ The mummified priestess that may have lain beneath it has been lost to eternity. But it has another, more commonly used name: ‘Unlucky Mummy.’ Since its arrival at the museum in 1889, the Unlucky Mummy has been blamed for everything from the sinking of the Titanic to the escalation of World War I. How this piece of wood become so intimately and persistently connected with death and destruction is a story of the endlessly swirling tales that people tell when they are afraid—of change, of politics, of science. It is the kind of story that never dies, only feeds upon itself, updating and morphing and tightening its grip no matter how much light is thrown on it.

By the time the Unlucky Mummy arrived at the British Museum, its reputation had seeped through British private society. While the museum curators generally scoffed at the alleged curse, men at soirees, dinner parties, and ‘ghost clubs,’ traded stories of its powers. But it wasn’t until 1904 that the broader public got a whiff of the curse. That was the year that a young, dashing, and ambitious journalist named Bertram Fletcher Robinson published a front-page article in the Daily Express, called ‘A Priestess of Death,’ about the allegedly haunted mummy. ‘It is certain that the Egyptians had powers which we in the 20th century may laugh at, yet can never understand,’ he wrote.

Three years later, Robinson died suddenly of a fever, and his friends immediately thought of the mummy’s curse. ‘The very last time I saw him he told me a wonderful tale about a mummy which had caused the death of everybody who had to do with it,’ wrote Archibald Marshall, an English author and journalist.”

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In Jared Lindzon’s Impact Lab piece which predicts that the average travel speed for human transport by 2030 will be at or near 250mph (I’ll take the under), the author looks at “Re-Programming Mobility,” a report by NYU Rudin Center for Transportation Policy research scientist Anthony Townsend, which imagines a quartet of extreme traffic scenarios being realized in the next 15 years. An excerpt:

“In his report Townsend takes an in depth look at four possible outcomes in four specific locations, though he says that they’re meant to serve as a representation of the country as a whole. In his report he outlines concerns over government partnerships with private companies, and considers how those agreements could play out over the long haul.

The first scenario takes place in Atlanta, where a near-bankrupt municipal government of the future is unable to afford repairs to its crumbling infrastructure, so it enters a partnership with Google.

‘The idea there is that Google does get to implement its vision of driverless cars, and does so in part with the state government in Georgia,’ said Townsend. ‘You get a whole lot of land use impacts from them, hyper urban sprawl, neighborhoods that aren’t connected to this network and get left behind, and then you get a lot of difficult questions around the role of a single company having so much control over infrastructure.’

The second scenario considers a dystopian future for Los Angeles, where self-driving cars are forced to share the roads with manually driven vehicles, creating unsafe and unpredictable roadways.

‘It’s not a world where we all have these identical perfect pod cars — you have no idea what to expect from other drivers,’ he said. ‘On top of that you’re basically doubling the number of cars, because all of a sudden kids and senior citizens and visually impaired people are going to be buying cars for the first time, so it’s a world of messy transition, and the L.A. region basically becomes unlivable.’

The third scenario takes place in New Jersey, where global warming has caused a series of brutal winters and severe weather patterns, which in turn put a strain on road maintenance. Once the city exhausts its resources, it calls upon the state to help rebuild the transit system.

‘They build a network of high speed, electronically hailed busses and rapid transit,’ said Townsend. ‘So you’ve basically got busses running at 6-inches of separation through the Lincoln Tunnel to make up for the real capacity they never built.’

The fourth and final scenario imagined by Townsend and his team considers the future of transportation in Boston, where smart transit systems and electric bikes help support a city of students living in high-density single-person apartments, while sharing transit routes with freight vehicles leaving the harbor.

‘Most shipping companies can’t keep up with the volume, but you’ve also seen Amazon and Google and EBay getting into same-day delivery, so you can imagine what might happen in the extreme is that they would start forcing all the freight to be delivered at night,’ he said. ‘So the city would be for people during the daytime and robots at night.’”

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The weather report for NYC on Google one day last week told me the temperature was “79°” when it was actually 59°. I realized the info was mistaken because of common sense, but machines don’t yet have that quality nor will they likely in the near run. While I’m sure driverless cars and crowd robotics will reduce auto accidents, the system will always have ghosts, and it’s reasonable to ask whether they will put ghosts in our “machines.” It seems a pretty safe bet that our cognition will shift when we offload driving and navigation responsibilities to algorithms, that some abilities will atrophy, even if we come out ahead in the aggregate. From Katia Moskvitch at the BBC:

“Technology wasn’t supposed to work that way. Manufacturers have supported drivers with power steering, cruise control, antilock brakes and electronic stability controls. Then they gave us sophisticated on-board computers that power car entertainment systems and fine-tune our cars’ performance on the go. Today we drive sleek, aerodynamic vehicles with more computing power than early Space Shuttles.

And yet, in many ways, it’s now the technology itself that’s getting in our way. Yes, today’s cars can help us not just to stay in line, keep to the speed limit and maintain the correct distance to the car ahead. However, there’s also a huge drawback: the more we rely on technology, the less we pay attention to what’s happening around our cars.

Lack of learning

Who, for instance, can confidently adjust all the systems of a car without getting lost in confusing menu choices? Or take something as basic as the cruise control: with our foot off the accelerator, how often do we have to make a sharp brake because we forget to disengage the cruise control?

The problem, though, runs deeper than that. A survey commissioned by in 2008 by UK newspaper The Mirror found that 1.5 million motorists have veered suddenly in traffic when following their GPS instructions without taking notice of the cars around them. And about 300,000 drivers have crashed after following instructions from their satnav.

Then there’s the problem of what happens when the tech is taken away. Drivers who use their GPS daily on regular routes are more likely to get lost on days when their electronic guide is left at home, or out of battery. That’s true even if they make this trip many times over several days, because it’s much more difficult for the brain to remember a navigation system’s step-by-by instructions; on the contrary, it prevents the brain from learning a city’s geography.”

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From the September 16, 1910 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Oklahoma City — George Palmer yesterday reached home after a walk of 8,500 miles. He started from here the first of last December, walked to San Francisco, thence to New York, and thence home.”

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I can’t guarantee there will always be Broadway, but I’m sure there will always be theater. I feel the same way about books, even if brick-and-mortar stores are (sadly) in a steep decline. There will permanently be a hunger for written stories. 

Of course, it takes some training to take advantage of the endless supply of volumes now available to us, and James Patterson is concerned that reading is an endangered species. He’s right to question what an Amazon monopoly on book pricing might mean, though I think the money he’s allocating to TV ads encouraging reading might be better spent on simply buying comic books for low-income families with young children. Having grown up in very modest circumstances and having learned to read on Mad magazine, I can vouch for such a plan. Based on his interview with Erin Keane of Salon, Patterson is certainly aware of the power of pleasure reading early in life. An excerpt:

Question:

What’s the goal here? More independent bookstores, more book sales?

James Patterson:

I think the goal is just more people reading. And to do that, a lot of things have to happen. Actually, to me, the group that can do the most good here is Amazon. Amazon could actually dedicate itself to saving books and literature in this country. It really could. And that would be the easiest fix, directionally.

I think they probably think they’re doing that, but they’re not, at least not yet. Yes, they want to lower prices, and you know, theoretically that’s fine, but I don’t know how we’d do that on a practical level and keep stores… You know, in terms of evolving the system as opposed to fracturing the system, [Amazon is] in a position to do something. The government is in a position to do something. Ironically, you know, we have a very liberal president, and he doesn’t seem terribly interested in the subject, unfortunately. I know he’s got a lot on his plate already, but you know. I mean, look, all over Europe you have governments who protect the publishers and protect books.

Question:

Yeah, there was that New York Times Bookends piece recently about how France treats books as an ‘essential good,’ like food and utilities. They’re taxed at lower rates, price discounts are pretty severely controlled. Is that a model that you think would be useful?

James Patterson:

No, I don’t think it’s a model, but I think it’s something to pay attention to. I think the government could be more involved. I mean, obviously the government has stepped in when banks were in trouble and the automobile business was in trouble. I think it’s something that local, state and federal government could be doing more.

This is once again symbolic, the kind of leadership pledge, you know. We’re gonna ask people to write to the President, write to their Congress and their representatives. And have the President take a pledge that once a month, he’ll appear in public carrying a book, he’ll visit a library store, or you know, the local representative. And then to have some of these [politicans] going on record in government sessions that they’re concerned about the state of reading in our country. And they should be.

Because, look, with our kids, and that’s a big deal with me, kids are not reading as broadly as they should and as they used to. We’re getting more and more of this kind of tunnel-vision, get on your little mission to become a doctor, lawyer, mathematician, engineer, etc., and [kids] really don’t read. My son’s at a very good prep school, and they don’t read as much as I’d like them to do, in terms of breadth of reading. You know, they don’t know who a lot of the famous authors [are]. Not that they should matter who they are, but … my own thing about kids at the top [is] that in the course of high school they’re exposed to a couple hundred really good, interesting authors, you know, ranging from Toni Morison to Cormac McCarthy to Truman Capote to Saul Bellow, etc., etc., and just be familiar with different voices and ways of looking at the world. I think that’s important in terms of really good readers.

More important, maybe, is at-risk kids, because, and this is a big deal with me, I do a lot, as much as any individual can do, but at-risk kids, if they’re not… if they don’t become competent readers—I’m not talking about readers for life, I’m talking about competent readers—how are they going to get through high school? If you’re not a competent reader. And that’s an epidemic around this country, kids who cannot read at a competent level. How you gonna do history, how you gonna do science? You just can’t. I mean, you sit there and you struggle and it takes 15 minutes to read the first page. That doesn’t work. In a lot of cases, it’s correctible.

Question:

There’s research that says that kids who grow up in a household where there are books in the house are more likely to become constant readers than those who don’t. 

James Patterson:

That’s a piece of it. That’s a piece of it. What happens in the schools is a piece of it. I just gave a talk, and I was asked to talk on this subject in front of all of the middle school principals in New York City, public schools, and they asked me to talk about the principals encouraging students to read for fun, to read extra stuff, to read outside of the Common Core, to read things, because the more they read the better they get at it. It’s really simple. I’ll go into schools and I’ll go, ‘Who plays soccer?’ ‘Yeah! Yeah, yeah, yeah!’ ‘You better now or three years ago?’ ‘We’re better now! Yeah!’ ‘How come?’ ‘Cause we play a lot! Yeah!’ ‘Okay, same thing, dudes.’ If you read, and you can read fun stuff, you can read comic books, you can read a lot of different… there’s a lot of ways to get that exercise, get that reading muscle worked on. If you do that, you will become good readers, and school will be easier.

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A little more insight into the online recruitment methods of the Islamic State, which employs both medieval barbarism and new-school social networks, from Britta Sandberg’s Spiegel interview with former FBI agent Ali Soufan:

Spiegel: 

Do you know how many people are working in the IS propaganda department?

Ali Soufan:

We do know that a whole army of bloggers, writers and people who do nothing else other than to watch social media are working for IS. According to our research, most are based in the Gulf region or North Africa. The program was started by Abu Amr Al-Shami, a Syrian born in Saudi Arabia. And we know that at one point more than 12,000 Twitter accounts were connected to IS. This is one of the unique tactics used by this group: the decentralization of its propaganda work. The Islamic State has maximized control of its message by giving up control of its delivery. This is new.

Spiegel:

What does that mean in reality?

Ali Soufan:

They use, for example, these so-called ‘Twitter bombs’ by following the most popular hashtags on the social media service, like the one for the 2014 World Cup. They send out messages using those hashtags so that everybody following the hashtag #worldcup will receive messages from IS, even if they aren’t interested in it.

Spiegel:

And this method is successful? They are recruiting among World Cup football fans?

Ali Soufan:

There are millions and millions of people around the world who will get the message. They have amazing reach, but only hope to have an impact on 1 or 2 percent of the targeted population. In June 2014 they had only 12,000 foreign fighters, but today there are 16,000 foreign fighters within IS. They include recruits from China, Indonesia and, of course, Europe as well. They send their messages in many different languages, even Dutch.”

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At his Financial Times blog, Andrew McAfee talks about the plunging “red line” of Labor’s portion of earnings, accelerating in the wrong direction as automation permeates the workplace. Robotics, algorithms and AI will make companies more profitable and shareholders richer, but job seekers (and holders) will suffer. And going Luddite will help no one in the long run. An excerpt:

“I expect the red line to continue to fall as robots, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, autonomous vehicles, and the many other technologies that until recently were the stuff of science fiction, permeate industry after industry. Policies intended to keep these advances out of a country might halt the decline of the labour share for a while, but they’d also halt competitiveness pretty quickly, thus leaving both capital and labour worse off.

I think the continued decline of the labour share, brought on by tech progress, will be a central dynamic, if not the central dynamic, of the world’s economies and societies in the 21st century. It’s a story much more about what will happen to the livelihood of the 50th percentile worker than to the wealth of the 1 per cent. And a much more important story.”

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An interesting take on Transhumanism from philosopher AC Grayling in his new Reddit AMA:

Question:

Was wondering your thoughts on Transhumanism? At what point do we cease being human when we start giving ourselves synthetic upgrades?

AC Grayling:

Interesting question! – but perhaps we are already ‘trans’ with respect to our forebears, given the way we modify ourselves, survive and flourish as a result of surgery, antibiotics, the survival and reproduction of people who in earlier times would have died in childhood, medical prostheses, airplanes and electronic communications. Of course you mean (say) brain implants and intelligence-enhacing drugs, in vitro selection of superior genetic endowments, electronic replacements for organs and muscles…well, at a certain point we will have crossed a grey area between human beings as we now know them, and something more electronic or genetically modified than that: and perhaps those future beings will have a clearer grasp (because they will be far smarter!) than we do about where the line lay.”

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Novelist William Gibson has always seemed to exist in two moments at once, ours and the one about to occur. He comes by the duality naturally, having been raised with a foot in two temporal realities. A couple of quick passages follow from a new Gibson Q&A conducted by David Kushner of Rolling Stone.

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Question: 

You also lost your father when you were a kid. How did that affect your development as a writer?

William Gibson:

Well, in the first place, I think there’s simply the mechanism of trauma in early life, which as an adult having watched other people go through that now, I can understand as being profoundly destabilizing. But the other thing it did was it caused my mother to return to the small town in Virginia from which both she and my father were originally from. So my earliest childhood memories were of living in a 1950s universe of Fifties stuff, as the construction company my father worked for built infrastructure projects across the South. . .lots of Levittown-style subdivisions. After my father’s death we returned to this little place in the mountains where you look out the window and in one direction, you might see tailfins and you’d know you were in the early Sixties. In the other, you’d see a guy with a straw hat using a mule to plow a field — and it could have been like 1890 or 1915. It felt to me like being exiled in the past; I was taken away from this sort of modern world, and partially emerged in this strange old place that, perhaps because of the traumatic circumstances of my arrival, I never entirely came to feel a part of. I observed the people around me as though I was something else. I didn’t feel that I was what they were. I can see that as the beginning of the novelistic mind.

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Question: 

At the time you coined “cyberspace,” you’d supposedly barely spent any time on a computer. That’s hard to believe.

William Gibson:

Oh no, I had scarcely seen one. Personal computers were not common objects at all, and I had been writing short fiction on the kind of manual portable that hipsters are starting to pay really good money for now. And then a friend of mine called from Texas and said, “My dad just gave me this machine called an Apple IIc, and, like, it automates the writing of fiction — you’ve gotta get one.” So I went down to a department store, which was the only Apple dealership in town. I bought the IIc and the printer and the bits you needed to make it work and took it all home in a box, and never looked back. It was a godsend for me because I can’t type, and having this endlessly correctable, effortlessly correctable way to write was fantastic.

Question: 

In fact, you came up with the idea of cyberspace after seeing some kids playing video games in an arcade. What was it about them that inspired you?

William Gibson:

It was their body language, this physical manifestation of some kind of intense yearning. And it seemed to me that had they been able to, they would have reached through the screen — like, reached through the glass — and directly manipulated the pixels to get the result they wanted. It was the combination of that seeing these gamers and those ads for early laptops. I made the imaginative leap that behind the screen of each personal computer, there was a notional space. And what if the notional space behind the screen of each computer was a shared notional space? And that was all it took to have the cyberspace idea. I had some vague, vague sense of what the Internet then consisted of, because I knew a few people in Seattle who worked for very, very early iterations of the Seattle digital tech scene. They talked about DARPA, they talked about the Internet. The idea that there was an Internet was less a part of what I was doing than my sense that there could be a shared notional space and that it would be extra-geographical. The space behind the screen was the same space behind the screen in Vancouver or Nairobi.•

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Today at work (32/f)

They brought “guests” in. And they wanted Irish Car Bombs, so I did it. I took one, too. Then I needed a cig right away. Here I go…outside and smoked with them.

I’ve come to the realization that I can’t function unless I’m stoned.

And here’s another secret, cock is overrated.

Who needs some horny dickwad trying to fuck you while you’re trying to lure a little kitten into your lair?

Whatever.

E.O.Wilson has suggested we set aside half the Earth for non-human species, to protect against their extinction and our own, but the “land grant” will probably be far less generous, and architecturally progressive zoos that replicate natural habitats may ultimately be a remembrance of things past not just for elephants and otters and their environs but perhaps for us and ours as well. From “The Dark Side of Zootopia,” Charles Siebert’s New York Times essay about a Danish zoo being redesigned to represent a vanishing reality:

“Zootopia, as it will be known, is still some five years from completion. A 300-acre reconfiguration of the Givskud Zoo in southern Denmark, it is among the latest visions of the Danish architectural wunderkind Bjarke Ingels, who is a crafter of low-sweeping, undulant structures that hew so closely to the contours of their natural surroundings that they at times appear subsumed by them. Eschewing the anthropocentric architecture of traditional zoos — the pagodalike pavilions of native Asian animal exhibits or the thatched jungle-lodge verandas of the African — Zootopia will secrete visitors in those airborne pods or in unseen quarters within the habitats: cratered lodges for viewing the savanna; subterranean bunkers and huts for watching the tigers or lions; cabins concealed by bamboo or stacks of lumber, allowing viewers to all but nuzzle up to pandas and grizzlies. The design enfolds the buildings and us humans into the landscape as a means of sparing the animals from our obtrusive gawking, if not fully freeing them. …

Ultimately Zootopia is not a reinvention of the zoo as much as a prefigurement of its inhabitants’ only possible future, at least on our relatively brief watch. That is, a wilderness with us lurking at its very heart, seated at open-air cafe tables, before we venture back out toward a dimly remembered past and steal our glimpses of it from discreet encampments designed to hide us not from the animals but from our own irrepressible need to spy on them. By the time its gates open circa 2020, Zootopia could well be one of the singular achievements of the anthropocene, a time when human representations of the wild threaten to become the wild’s reality.”

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For John Wanamaker, being America’s first great merchant wasn’t merely about ringing cash registers. It was also about innovation in a number of ways, many of which weren’t directly reflected in the bottom line.

The owner and operator of a pair of humongous department stores, one opened in 1876 in Philadelphia and the other 20 years later in Manhattan, Wanamaker believed that rather than than looking at your customer as a short-term mark, you should cultivate a long-standing relationship based on trust and satisfaction–not the conventional wisdom at the time–and introduced the price tag and allowed money-back guarantees. He was the first to wisely exploit the power of print advertising, but he sold you what he’d promised.

He also turned his emporiums into experiments in communications and technology, having telephones in his stores as early as 1879, allowing his roofs to be used as launching pads for balloonists in aviation’s pioneering days and installing into his sprawling shops wireless radio stations (customers listened to live reports of the sinking of the Titanic). Having the world’s largest playable pipe organ in his on-site theater and a working train car suspended from the ceiling to carry children around the toy department were nice flourishes as well. Wanamaker didn’t spoil his customers by starving his employees: He paid them holiday bonuses and gave them medical care and athletic facilities and other benefits. His passing was reported in an article in the December 12, 1922 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, an excerpt from which follows.

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The Sharing Economy is still a very small portion of the GDP, but it will likely grow, whether or not Uber, one of its biggest current stars, exists or not. Credit Peter Thiel with saying early and loudly that the dominant rideshare company might Napster itself out of existence, so flagrant it is in flouting laws and even common sense. Travis Kalanick’s outfit might survive these early bumps, but they’re getting to be frequent and embarrassing. None of these dubious methods are new to Silicon Valley, of course, Microsoft itself having been just as aggressive in its heyday. Of course, that company was already a giant when its behavior came to light, and it was ultimately punished by the government for its actions. Uber is in a much more vulnerable position. From Scott Austin and Douglas MacMillan at WSJ:

“In his bid to upend the taxicab industry, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has simultaneously declared war on taxi drivers, governments around the world and smaller rivals like Lyft.

But on its war path to a $30 billion valuation, Uber continues to battle itself with questionable comments and tactics that are in danger of harming the company’s reputation and becoming a liability.

The latest controversy came Monday night when Buzzfeed reported that an Uber executive suggested the company should invest $1 million in an opposition research team to dig up dirt on media critics’ personal lives and families. The comments from Emil Michael, Uber’s senior vice president of business, were made at a dinner in New York that included Kalanick, celebrities and some journalists.

Michael was directing his words in particular at PandoDaily editor Sarah Lacy, who he believes has written harsh words about Uber including accusing the company of ‘sexism and misogyny.’ As Buzzfeed reported:

At the dinner, Michael expressed outrage at Lacy’s column and said that women are far more likely to get assaulted by taxi drivers than Uber drivers. He said that he thought Lacy should be held ‘personally responsible’ for any woman who followed her lead in deleting Uber and was then sexually assaulted.

Then he returned to the opposition research plan. Uber’s dirt-diggers, Michael said, could expose Lacy. They could, in particular, prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life.”

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Paul Bowles, good novelist and great short-story writer, penned, in 1963, a travel story for Holiday about a place he knew well, Morocco. Here’s a section about mad love in Marrakesh:

“The next day was hotter. We climbed along the slowly rising ramp of the Middle Atlas, the great range that lies between the Rif and the Grand Atlas, a gray, glistening landscape. The shiny leaves of the scrub live-oaks, and even the exposed bedrock beneath, reflected the hot light of the overhead sun. Farther along, on the southern slope of the mountains, we passed the mangled body of a large ape that had not got out of the road fast enough—an unusual sight here, since these animals generally stay far from the highways.

All afternoon we had been speeding down the gradually descending valley between the Middle Atlas and the Grand Atlas. The sun went down ahead of us and the moon rose behind us. We drank coffee from the vacuum bottle and hoped we would get into Marrakech in time to find some food. The new Moroccan regime has brought early closing hours to a land where heretofore night was merely a continuation of day.

After the lunar brightness of the empty wasteland, the oasis was dark. The highway went for miles between high mud walls and canebrakes; the black tracery of date palms rose above them, against the brilliant night sky. Suddenly the walls and the oasis came to an end, and ahead, standing in the rubble of the desert, was a big new cinema trimmed with tubes of colored neon, the tin and straw shacks of a squatters’ colony clustering around it like the cottages of a village around the church. In Morocco the very poor live neither in the country nor in the city; they come as far as the outer walls of the town, build these these desparate-lookingbidonvilles out of whatever materials they can find, and there they stay.

Marrakech is a city of great distances, flat as a table. When the wind blows, the pink dust of the plain sweeps into the sky, obscuring the sun, and the whole city, painted with a wash made of the pink earth on which it rests, glows red in the cataclysmic light. At night, from a car window, it looks not unlike one of our Western cities: long miles of street lights stretching in straight lines across the plain. Only by day you see that most of these lights illumine nothing more than empty reaches of palm garden and desert.

Over the years, the outer fringes of the Medina have been made navigable to automobiles and horse-drawn buggies, of which there are still a great many, but it takes a brave man to drive his car into the maze of serpentine alleys full of porters, bicycles, carts, donkeys and pedestrians. Besides, the only way to see anything in the Medina is to walk. In order to be really present, you must have your feet in the dust, and be aware of the hot dusty smell of the mud walls beside your face.

The night we arrived in Marrakech, we went to a café in the heart of the Medina. On the roof under the stars they spread matting, blankets and cushions for us, and we sat there drinking mint tea, savoring the cool air that begins to stir above the city after midnight when the stored heat of the sun is finally dissipated.

Abruptly out of the silence of the street below, there came a succession of strange, explosive cries. I leaned over the edge and peered into the dim passageway three floors beneath. Among the few late strollers an impossible, phantomlike figure was dancing. It galloped, it stopped, it made great gravitation-defying leaps into the air as if the earth under its feet were helping. At each leap it yelled. No one paid any attention. As the figure came below the café, I was able to identify it as a powerfully built young man; he was almost naked. I watched him disappear into the dark. Almost immediately he returned, doing the same inspired dance, occasionally rushing savagely toward other pedestrians, but always stopping in time to avoid touching them.

He passed back and forth through the alley in this way for a quarter of an hour or so before the qahaouaji, having made the tea, climbed the ladder again to the roof where we sat. When he came I said casually: ‘What’s going on down there?’ Although in most places it would have been clear enough that a madman was loose in the streets, in Morocco there are subtle distinctions to be made. Sometimes the person turns out to be merely holy, or indisposed.

‘Ah, poor man,’ said the gahaouaji. ‘He’s a friend of mine. We were in school together. He got high marks and played good soccer.’

‘What happened?’

‘What do you think? A woman, of course.’

This had not occurred to me. ‘You mean she worked magic on him?’

‘What else? At first he was like this—’ He let his jaw drop and his mouth hang open; his eyes became fixed and vacant. ‘Then after a few weeks he tore off his clothes and began to run. And ever since, he runs like that. The woman was rich. her husband had died and she wanted Allal. But he’s of a good family and they didn’t like her. So she said in her head: No other woman is going to have him either. And she gave him what she gave him.’

‘And his family?’

‘He doesn’t know his family. He lives in the street.’

‘And the woman? What happened to her?’

‘He shrugged. ‘She’s not here any more. She moved somewhere else.’

At that moment the cries came up again.

‘But why do they let him run in the street? Can’t they do anything for him?’

‘Oh, he never hurts anybody. He’s just playful. He likes to scare people, that’s all.’

I decided to put my question. ‘Is he crazy?’

‘No, just playful.’

‘Ah, yes. I see.'”

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