Jack Ma thinks our current technological age may lead to WWIII, but otherwise he’s pretty hopeful. 

The Alibaba executive chairman recently told CNBC: “The first technology revolution caused World War I. The second technology revolution caused World War II. This is the third technology revolution.” His time frame for the possible global cataclysm is the next three decades, when many of us may be disrupted and disenchanted by improving Artificial Intelligence.

Chilling, sure, but China’s richest man also foresees 16-hour workweeks, wider markets for local products (Chinese consumption will be the engine that drives the world economy, he’s said) and plenty of new travel opportunities. My friends, you have to break some eggs to make that omelette.

If there will be blood, perhaps it’s appropriate that data is the new oil, as Louise Lucas of the Financial Times asserts in writing about the outsize success of Ma’s corporation. “Information collection,” a fairly benign term for the biggest gusher ever, is at the heart of the growth. An excerpt: 

If data are the new oil, Jack Ma, former English teacher turned China’s richest man, is the new John D Rockefeller.

Like Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, Mr Ma’s Alibaba is a lucrative and rapidly growing business. Earlier this month, it forecast annual revenues would increase 45 to 49 per cent, besting analysts’ consensus estimates by 10 percentage points and adding $42.25bn to its value — almost an entire Barclays bank — the following day.

“Alibaba is evolving into a big data conglomerate,” enthused Jessie Guo, analyst at Jefferies, and one of the many who attended the group’s two-day investor conference in Hangzhou this month.

Revenue guidance and discussions at the event “indicate we are at the beginning of data-driven monetisation”, added Chi Tsang, head of internet research at HSBC.

Alibaba’s vertically and horizontally integrated services span shopping, movies, finance and logistics, all collecting information on people’s spending, location and viewing. Once refined, the data are fed back to merchants, who in turn can better target their goods and sell more over Alibaba’s ecommerce platforms.•

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IEEE Spectrum has an interesting article in which a raft of scientists and futurists are questioned about the ETA of conscious machines and their potential impact. Notably, nobody says such a development is impossible nor does anyone suggest pursuit of such has a good chance to extinct us.

Robin Hanson, author The Age of Em, sticks to his previous prognostication that our increasingly technological future may bring us an economy that doubles every month, which might seem inviting to a society in stagnation, but a world that could potentially “turn over” so quickly would be a shock to the system to anyone not gradually eased into it.

Marthine Rothblatt, the Sirius founder turned Transhumanist and developer of “consciousness software,” believes robots will largely be “good,” saying that she’s “confident the computers will be overwhelmingly friendly since they will be selected for in a Darwinian environment that consists of humanity. There is no market for [a] bad robot, no more than there is for a bad car or plane. Of course, there is the inevitability of a DIY bad human-level computer, but that gives me even more reason to welcome human-level cyberintelligence, because just like it takes a [thief to catch a thief], it will take a human-friendly smart computer to catch an antihuman smart computer.”

There’s also no market for terrorism or for genocide, but those things happen. We can’t avoid far stronger tools because of the human capacity to cause chaos, but we have to at least consider the possibility that our own doom is embedded in these advances.

Rodney Brooks is perhaps the most sober of all the participants. In Errol Morris’ 1997 documentary, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, the roboticist famously says that in tomorrow’s world of intelligent machines, humans might not be necessary. Brooks, who has since backed off that statement (“You can’t expect me to stand by something I said during a long day of filming 20 years ago!”), now mocks what he believes to be reckless conjecture about the future.

An excerpt:

Question:

When will we have computers as capable as the brain?

Rodney Brooks:

Rodney Brooks’s revised question: When will we have computers/robots recognizably as intelligent and as conscious as humans?

Not in our lifetimes, not even in Ray Kurzweil’s lifetime, and despite his fervent wishes, just like the rest of us, he will die within just a few decades. It will be well over 100 years before we see this level in our machines. Maybe many hundred years.

Question:

As intelligent and as conscious as dogs?

Rodney Brooks:

Maybe in 50 to 100 years. But they won’t have noses anywhere near as good as the real thing. They will be olfactorily challenged dogs.

Question:

How will brainlike computers change the world?

Rodney Brooks:

Since we won’t have intelligent computers like humans for well over 100 years, we cannot make any sensible projections about how they will change the world, as we don’t understand what the world will be like at all in 100 years. (For example, imagine reading Turing’s paper on computable numbers in 1936 and trying to pro­ject out how computers would change the world in just 70 or 80 years.) So an equivalent well-grounded question would have to be something simpler, like “How will computers/robots continue to change the world?” Answer: Within 20 years most baby boomers are going to have robotic devices in their homes, helping them maintain their independence as they age in place. This will include Ray Kurzweil, who will still not be immortal.

Question:

Do you have any qualms about a future in which computers have human-level (or greater) intelligence?

Rodney Brooks:

No qualms at all, as the world will have evolved so much in the next 100+ years that we cannot possibly imagine what it will be like, so there is no point in qualming. Qualming in the face of zero facts or understanding is a fun parlor game but generally not useful. And yes, this includes Nick Bostrom.•

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In the immediate aftermath of the GA-06 defeat of Jon Osoff, who has charisma on loan from Martin O’Malley, Liberal Twitter exhorted Democrats to develop a clearer policy message. When trying to win votes, it’s better to be lucid (except when it’s not), but policy isn’t what elevated Trump to the Oval Office–he had none–or Karen Handel to Congress. In addition to Kremlin machinations and FBI blunders, what enabled the Klu Klux Kardashian to be elected was his peddling of a deeply racist, xenophobic message that found the ready ears of nearly 63 million citizens. If lots of people are voting to Make America White Again, sound fiscal policy won’t make a dent.

It’s not that Dems can’t defeat such ugliness at the voting both–they’ve done it before and even won the popular tally in 2016–but they need the right candidate more than anything else. Someone bold and broadly appealing whose authenticity is unquestioned. Easier said than done, I suppose. 

In the Slate piece “A GOP Without Fear,” Jamelle Bouie, who consistently rises above the clatter, argues that Republicans don’t fear the horrendous effects of the AHCA, the first attempt by either party to literally murder its base, since identity politics rule the day. In other words, you can’t fall from grace when grace itself isn’t valued.

An excerpt:

It’s likely that Republicans know the bill is unpopular and are doing everything they can to keep the public from seeing its contents before passing it. As we saw with the Affordable Care Act, the longer the process, the greater the odds for a major backlash. But this presupposes a pressing need to pass the American Health Care Act, which isn’t the case, outside of a “need” to slash Medicaid, thus paving the way for large-scale, permanent tax cuts. The Republican health care bill doesn’t solve any urgent problem in the health care market, nor does it represent any coherent vision for the health care system; it is a hodgepodge of cuts and compromises, designed to pass a GOP Congress more than anything. It is policy without any actual policy. At most, it exists to fulfill a promise to “repeal Obamacare” and cut taxes.

Perhaps that’s enough to explain the zeal to pass the bill. Republicans made a promise, and there are forces within the party—from hyperideological lawmakers and conservative activists to right-wing media and Republican base voters—pushing them toward this conclusion. When coupled with the broad Republican hostility to downward redistribution and the similarly broad commitment to tax cuts, it makes sense that the GOP would continue to pursue this bill despite the likely consequences.

But ultimately it’s not clear the party believes it would face those consequences. The 2018 House map still favors Republicans, and the party is defending far fewer Senate seats than Democrats. Aggressively gerrymandered districts provide another layer of defense, as does voter suppression, and the avalanche of spending from outside groups. Americans might be hurt and outraged by the effects of the AHCA, but those barriers blunt the electoral impact.

The grounds for political combat seem to have changed as well. If recent special elections are any indication—where GOP candidates refused to comment on signature GOP policies—extreme polarization means Republicans can mobilize supporters without being forced to talk about or account for their actual actions. Identity, for many voters, matters more than their pocketbooks. Republicans simply need to signal their disdain—even hatred—for their opponents, political or otherwise. Why worry about the consequences of your policies when you can preclude defeat by changing the ground rules of elections, spending vast sums, and stoking cultural resentment?•

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From the April 18, 1928 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“Spying among friends, that isn’t done,” Angela Merkel has said, but the absolutely least surprising thing in this period of constant shocks is that Germany was apparently spying on America as America was spying on Germany. Of course.

Nearly three years ago, I assumed that at the very least “Germany didn’t want to delve too deeply into NSA spying because Germany has been complicit in it.” It isn’t surprising the surveillance was bilateral at least during the first decade of this century because one truism about the technological tools we’ve created is they will be used. The argument that we’ve managed to (mostly) not employ nuclear weapons so we can control privacy-obliterating devices is silly because these instruments and methods are decentralized and available to all, and governments and corporations and individuals will give in to the temptation to use them regardless of the law.

Also: Spying isn’t one big boom but instead death by a thousand cuts. Each individual act won’t feel calamitous. In Errol Morris parlance, these surveillance tools are fast, cheap and will continually be out of control.

From “German Intelligence Also Snooped on White House,” a Spiegel piece by Maik Baumgärtner, Martin Knobbe and Jörg Schindler:

Documents that Spiegel has been able to review show that the BND, until a few years ago, actually had considerable interest in the United States as a target of espionage. The document states that just under 4,000 search terms, or selectors, were directed against American targets between 1998 and 2006. It is unknown whether they continued to be used after those dates.

The German intelligence agency used the selectors to surveil telephone and fax numbers as well as email accounts belonging to American companies like Lockheed Martin, the space agency NASA, the organization Human Rights Watch, universities in several U.S. states and military facilities like the U.S. Air Force, the Marine Corps and the Defense Intelligence Agency, the secret service agency belonging to the American armed forces. Connection data from far over 100 foreign embassies in Washington, from institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Washington office of the Arab League were also accessed by the BND’s spies.

The entries also prove the existence of a top-secret anti-terror alliance between Western intelligence services, including those of Germany, the United States and France. Spiegel already reported back in 2005 on the elite unit, which is named Camolin. The papers now show several BND selectors were “Camolin-related.”

It’s Unlikely Spying Was Unintentional
 
Also on the selector list were lines at the U.S. Treasury Department, the State Department and the White House. Were they really all just “coincidental capture” as the former BND head claimed? Was it just an oversight?

That’s unlikely.•

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In January, I wrote this:

More than two centuries before Deep Blue deep-sixed humanity by administering a whooping to Garry Kasparov, that Baku-born John Henry, the Mechanical Turk purported to be a chess-playing automaton nonpareil. It was, of course, a fake, a contraption that hid within its case a genius-level human champion that controlled its every move. Such chicanery isn’t unusual for technologies nowhere near fruition, but the truth is even ones oh-so-close to the finish line often need the aid of a hidden hand.

In “The Humans Working Behind The Curtain,” a smart Harvard Business Review piece by Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri, the authors explain how the “paradox of automation’s last mile” manifests itself even in today’s highly algorithmic world, an arrangement by which people are hired to quietly complete a task AI can’t, and one which is unlikely to be undone by further progress. Unfortunately, most of the stealth work for humans created in this way is piecemeal, lower-paid and prone to the rapid churn of disruption.

An excerpt:

Cut to Bangalore, India, and meet Kala, a middle-aged mother of two sitting in front of her computer in the makeshift home office that she shares with her husband. Our team at Microsoft Research met Kala three months into studying the lives of people picking up temporary “on-demand” contract jobs via the web, the equivalent of piecework online. Her teenage sons do their homework in the adjoining room. She describes calling them into the room, pointing at her screen and asking: “Is this a bad word in English?” This is what the back end of AI looks like in 2016. Kala spends hours every week reviewing and labeling examples of questionable content. Sometimes she’s helping tech companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft train the algorithms that will curate online content. Other times, she makes tough, quick decisions about what user-generated materials to take down or leave in place when companies receive customer complaints and flags about something they read or see online.

Whether it is Facebook’s trending topics; Amazon’s delivery of Prime orders via Alexa; or the many instant responses of bots we now receive in response to consumer activity or complaint, tasks advertised as AI-driven involve humans, working at computer screens, paid to respond to queries and requests sent to them through application programming interfaces (APIs) of crowdwork systems. The truth is, AI is as “fully-automated” as the Great and Powerful Oz was in that famous scene from the classic film, where Dorothy and friends realize that the great wizard is simply a man manically pulling levers from behind a curtain. This blend of AI and humans, who follow through when the AI falls short, isn’t going away anytime soon. Indeed, the creation of human tasks in the wake of technological advancement has been a part of automation’s history since the invention of the machine lathe.

We call this ever-moving frontier of AI’s development, the paradox of automation’s last mile: as AI makes progress, it also results in the rapid creation and destruction of temporary labor markets for new types of humans-in-the-loop tasks.•

The Harvard Business Review report was terrain previously covered from a different angle by Adrian Chen in Wired in 2014 with “The Laborers Who Keep Dick Pics and Beheadings Out of Your Facebook Feed.” The journalist studied those stealthily doing the psychologically dangerous business of keeping the Internet “safe.” The opening:

THE CAMPUSES OF the tech industry are famous for their lavish cafeterias, cushy shuttles, and on-site laundry services. But on a muggy February afternoon, some of these companies’ most important work is being done 7,000 miles away, on the second floor of a former elementary school at the end of a row of auto mechanics’ stalls in Bacoor, a gritty Filipino town 13 miles southwest of Manila. When I climb the building’s narrow stairwell, I need to press against the wall to slide by workers heading down for a smoke break. Up one flight, a drowsy security guard staffs what passes for a front desk: a wooden table in a dark hallway overflowing with file folders.

Past the guard, in a large room packed with workers manning PCs on long tables, I meet Michael Baybayan, an enthusiastic 21-year-old with a jaunty pouf of reddish-brown hair. If the space does not resemble a typical startup’s office, the image on Baybayan’s screen does not resemble typical startup work: It appears to show a super-close-up photo of a two-pronged dildo wedged in a vagina. I say appears because I can barely begin to make sense of the image, a baseball-card-sized abstraction of flesh and translucent pink plastic, before he disappears it with a casual flick of his mouse.

Baybayan is part of a massive labor force that handles “content moderation”—the removal of offensive material—for US social-networking sites. As social media connects more people more intimately than ever before, companies have been confronted with the Grandma Problem: Now that grandparents routinely use services like Facebook to connect with their kids and grandkids, they are potentially exposed to the Internet’s panoply of jerks, racists, creeps, criminals, and bullies. They won’t continue to log on if they find their family photos sandwiched between a gruesome Russian highway accident and a hardcore porn video. Social media’s growth into a multibillion-dollar industry, and its lasting mainstream appeal, has depended in large part on companies’ ability to police the borders of their user-generated content—to ensure that Grandma never has to see images like the one Baybayan just nuked.

So companies like Facebook and Twitter rely on an army of workers employed to soak up the worst of humanity in order to protect the rest of us. And there are legions of them—a vast, invisible pool of human labor.•

Chen has now teamed with Ciarán Cassidy to revisit the harrowing topic for a 20-minute documentary called “The Moderators.” It’s a fascinating peek into a hidden corner of our increasingly computerized world–one that’s even more relevant in the wake of the Kremlin-bot Presidential election–as well as very good filmmaking. 

We watch as trainees at an Indian company that quietly “cleans” unacceptable content from social-media sites are introduced to sickening images they must scrub. That tired phrase “you can’t unsee this” gains new currency as the neophytes are bombarded by shock and gore. The movie numbers at 150,000 the workers in this sector trying to mitigate the chaos in the “largest experiment in anarchy we’ve ever had.” For these kids it’s a first job, a foot in the door even if they’re stepping inside a haunted house. You have to wonder, though, if they will ultimately be impacted in a Milgramesque sense, desensitized and disheartened, whether they initially realize it or not.

We are all like the moderators to a certain degree, despite their best efforts. Pretty much everyone who’s gone online during these early decades of the Digital Age has witnessed an endless parade of upsetting images and footage that was never available during a more centralized era. Are we also children who don’t realize what we’re becoming?

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The text below I wrote just prior to the Trump Inauguration to preface an article about the GOP trying to gut the House’ outside ethics watchdog. It came to mind today again when thinking about Republican efforts to pass a draconian healthcare bill, with the “softer” Senate version being even worse in some ways.

At some point, things fall apart. It’s terrifying to even think about.

From January 2:

No one won the 2016 American Presidential election. Not really.

I don’t mean in a figurative sense that we all lose because a fascist kleptocrat will soon be in the Oval Office, though, yes, of course, there’s that. I’m saying that not only did most of the people vote for the losing candidate, but even those who chose Trump aren’t in favor of GOP policies.

Apart from his most blindly enthusiastic supporters, few Americans are deluded about Trump, even those who pulled the pin with his name. They do not like him. He was used as a blunt instrument, a brick to toss through the window, a way to send a message that a corrupt and broken system must immediately be repaired. The Republicans now seem to have forgotten that they’re inside that building and that the approval ratings of this congress are at historic lows. Because they are avaricious opportunists, they likely will not notice that the whole thing is apt to be burned down if the cries are ignored. Trump, as miscast as may have been as a messenger for the disgruntled, working-class masses, was the final warning.

It’s a message that will almost definitely go unheeded. Republicans believe Americans want Obamacare repealed (they don’t), Medicare gutted (no, again), Social Security privatized (nope), unions demolished (wait a minute) and tax cuts for the highest earners (um, what?). Mitch McConnell, a creature from the black lagoon, is convinced citizens don’t really want the swamp drained, blithely unaware there may be a meat hook with his name on it.

Those who most feel like they’re bleeding are about to be bled dry. I’m not suggesting supporters of the orange supremacist deserve a whole lot of pity. I mean, I would play the world’s smallest violin for them, but the GOP just cut the school music program.

I’m really not joking, though. The GOP’s complete misunderstanding of the moment may provoke very bad things, “unspeakable things” in the President-Elect’s reckless lingo. People have tired of bread and Kardashians, and some sort of breaking point feels near. Even a good agnostic like myself can say “God help us all.”•

Gained much insight early in the year from reading Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, which analyzes how wealth inequality can be interrupted and reversed, his analysis stretching back far earlier than the Gini coefficient to the time of the development of rudimentary tools like spears.

How do we make the world more equal? To put it simply, through great pain, unless you’re into mass mobilization warfare, plague, bloody revolution or societal collapse. (I think Steve Bannon is deeply in love with at least two or three of these options, though not to make the economy more equal.) Of course, leveling doesn’t necessarily mean the raising of all boats but sometimes the sinking of every last ship. Scheidel asserts that wealth inequality has been the logical outcome of stable societies, with leveling occurring for relatively brief spells by virtue of the sweep of history or the spread of Influenza. 

The book isn’t entirely resigned, believing that perhaps past won’t be prologue, holding out hope that human progress can find new means of mitigation. Of course, sitting here at this moment in time, that doesn’t look like the plausible near-term scenario.

Scheidel has just published a smart essay for Aeon wondering anew if we can arrive at a more-equal playing field with trampling all the players. He isn’t sanguine about our chances, thinking genetic engineering may further complicate matters. An excerpt:

History offers very little comfort to those in search of peaceful levelling. To be sure, it is perfectly possible to reduce inequality at the margins: if Latin American countries have done it, the US, UK or Australia certainly ought to be able to accomplish the same, using an array of policy measures, from fiscal interventions, basic incomes and the targeting of concealed offshore wealth, to carefully focused investment in education and campaign finance reform. However, policymaking does not take place in a vacuum, and not everything that worked well for the postwar generation, say, could be easily implemented in today’s more globally integrated, competitive and deregulated environment. Throughout history, truly substantial compressions of inequality invariably had much darker origins, and no similarly powerful alternative mechanisms have since emerged.

It is always tempting to assume that the lessons of history are no longer relevant because the world has changed so much – as indeed it has. But we must bear in mind that the exact same claim could have been made back in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, when inequality declined even as economies boomed and the middle classes thrived. There was no obvious reason why this should ever change: and yet change it did. It is just as likely as not that we are currently riding another upward wave in the concentration of income and wealth, continuing a pattern that stretches back thousands of years. In the not-too-distant future, robotics, genetic engineering and biomechatronic enhancements of the human body could well create inequalities we can barely even imagine. And if they do, will it all end in yet another unforeseen, sudden and dramatic violent turn?

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Not all whistleblowers are created equal. Julian Assange is, after all, no Daniel Ellsberg, even if the latter leaker supports him.

The WikiLeaks founder is nothing if not a Trump-ish world figure, having climbed onto that stage while our current President was still more Kim Kardashian than Kim Jong-un, busy weighing the relative merits of Arsenio Hall and Gary Busey in a make-believe boardroom.

Assange has repeatedly proven himself over the past seven years to have been deeply irresponsible with both the lives of innocent people–even at-risk ones–and the truth. Slavishly devoted to his own privacy despite having no regard for anyone else’s, he’s a vainglorious, egotistical asshole with a deep misogynistic streak and multiple sexual assault allegations on his public record. (If you want to hear more, someone locate Billy Bush and get the bus running.) That doesn’t even take into account Assange apparently working as a Putin stooge over the last several years, with his organization becoming a Kremlin house organ far more effective than Pravda ever was during the Soviet days.

A question remains despite his odious behavior: Even if what Assange practices is some sort of voodoo journalism, will it endanger genuine practitioners if he’s arrested and tried for espionage? That inquiry was a lot more germane before Trump and hopefully will be again after him, since any U.S. reporter or news organization are targets of the White House’s wrath during this terrible time, no questionable practices required.

In writing about Risk, the Laura Poitras documentary about the world’s second-most-infamous Kremlin crony, Sue Halpern of the New York Review of Books wonders over this very issue. An excerpt:

Despite Assange’s vocal disdain for his former collaborators at The New York Times and The Guardian, his association with those journalists and their newspapers is probably what so far has kept him from being indicted and prosecuted in the United States. As Glenn Greenwald told the journalist Amy Goodman recently, Eric Holder’s Justice Department could not come up with a rationale to prosecute WikiLeaks that would not also implicate the news organizations with which it had worked; to do so, Greenwald said, would have been “too much of a threat to press freedom, even for the Obama administration.” The same cannot be said with confidence about the Trump White House, which perceives the Times, and national news organizations more generally, as adversaries. Yet if the Sessions Justice Department goes after Assange, it likely will be on the grounds that WikiLeaks is not “real” journalism.

This charge has dogged WikiLeaks from the start. For one thing, it doesn’t employ reporters or have subscribers. For another, it publishes irregularly and, because it does not actively chase secrets but aggregates those that others supply, often has long gaps when it publishes nothing at all. Perhaps most confusing to some observers, WikiLeaks’s rudimentary website doesn’t look anything like a New York Times or a Washington Post, even in those papers’ more recent digital incarnations.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that WikiLeaks publishes the information it receives much like those traditional news outlets. When it burst on the scene in 2010, it was embraced as a new kind of journalism, one capable not only of speaking truth to power, but of outsmarting power and its institutional gatekeepers. And the fact is, there is no consensus on what constitutes “real” journalism. As Adam Penenberg points out, “The best we have comes from laws and proposed legislation which protect reporters from being forced to divulge confidential sources in court. In crafting those shield laws, legislators have had to grapple with the nebulousness of the profession.”

The danger of carving off WikiLeaks from the rest of journalism, as the attorney general may attempt to do, is that ultimately it leaves all publications vulnerable to prosecution. Once an exception is made, a rule will be too, and the rule in this case will be that the government can determine what constitutes real journalism and what does not, and which publications, films, writers, editors, and filmmakers are protected under the First Amendment, and which are not.

This is where censorship begins. No matter what one thinks of Julian Assange personally, or of WikiLeaks’s reckless publication practices, like it or not, they have become the litmus test of our commitment to free speech. If the government successfully prosecutes WikiLeaks for publishing classified information, why not, then, “the failed New York Times,” as the president likes to call it, or any news organization or journalist? It’s a slippery slope leading to a sheer cliff. That is the real risk being presented here, though Poitras doesn’t directly address it.•


“This is not the film I thought I was making”:

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There was something rotten inside Robert Louis Stevenson, as there is in all of us to varying degrees, but he had a name for it: Mr. Hyde. Not to suggest the author’s voluminous and varied output can be reduced to one novella–I’m talking about the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, of course–but it’s rare that something can written about the human mind, in this case the subconscious, that will be true as long there are people.

An article in the December 17, 1894 Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced the death of the sickly author, who’d once described himself as “a mere complication of cough and bones.” He’d actually perished two weeks earlier from a cerebral hemorrhage he experienced while living on the Samoan Islands. His last words were a question posed to his wife: “Does my face look strange?”

Baseball is very different than it used to be yet more or less the same. Maybe that’s because it was always a strange thing, with no uniform playing field.

In 1900, it was considered America’s pastime, even more popular than cricket which was still wildly successful. Two decades later, the latter sport was largely gone from the scene, and baseball survived despite the existential threat of the 1919 Black Sox scandal. The game thrived during its prolonged mythologizing epoch, when narratives reigned, and has grown even wealthier now that numbers have ascended.

There are some dark clouds on the horizon. The average fan is quite old, African-American athletes in recent decades have gravitated to other sports, those bountiful regional cable contracts may prove bad bets not repeated, etc. It’s already no longer America’s favorite game, but you would think that as long as it can provide giant blocks of family-friendly entertainment, it will find itself in a good place in a media-saturated society. Its chances are certainly better than two of the other team-sports leagues, the NFL and NHL, with their head-injury issues.

In a fun ESPN article, Tim Kurkjian and a panel of unnamed experts imagine what changes will come to the game in 20 years, in terms of rules, technology and training. There’s plenty to argue over, and I disagree with some aspects. If baseball has contracted to just 28 teams by 2037 as Kurkjian predicts, either MLB will be doing poorly or the nation will in rough shape, perhaps locked be in Civil War 2.0 (likely!). I also don’t understand why, by that point, computers calling balls and strikes won’t be able to adjust to a batter’s stance. Seems easier to figure out than, say, driverless cars.

Three short examples from the ESPN piece is followed by the opening of George Will’s WSJ review of Smart Baseball, a book about next-level stats by Keith Law, whom the reviewer likens to baseball’s “Wittgenstein,” which may be the George Will-est thing ever.


From Kurkjian:

  • In 20 years, all players will be monitored to an intense degree. Heart rate and brain function will be watched in several ways, including through the bloodstream, and will detect when the stress level, among other levels, is too high. The monitors will determine when a player reaches failure capacity, which could reduce the risk of injury and alert a performance risk. It’s a paradox: Players are bigger, stronger and fitter today, but they get hurt more often. There will be far more healthy players and less use for the disabled list in 2037.
  • There will still be four umpires on the field as opposed to sensors on player’s uniforms and on each base to electronically determine out or safe calls. Instead of having a laser system at home plate to call balls and strikes because such a system can’t always account for the shifting size of a player’s strike zone or the element of a crouch, the home plate umpire will be standing behind the pitcher’s mound. Many in the game will acknowledge that is the best vantage point to call balls and strikes, especially the horizontal strike zone — inside and outside. For the vertical ball/strike call (high or low) advanced technology will provide an augmented reality for umpires, it will help them better see what they see. The home plate umpire will touch a receiver on his belt and receive a signal, such as a buzz, to help him better call a pitch.
  • There will be no American League and National League, it will all be under one MLB. There will be no Oakland Athletics or Tampa Bay Rays. The game will not expand to Mexico or Japan or Las Vegas. Instead, it will contract from 30 to 28 teams. That will make scheduling easier and more equitable: All teams will play each other six times, 27 times six equals 162. The top 10 teams in the game will make the playoffs.

From Will:

“Philosophy,” wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein, “is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” Baseball has found its Wittgenstein.

Or, more precisely, another Wittgenstein. Keith Law, a senior baseball writer and analyst for ESPN, is a member of the growing cohort of exasperated baseball analysts who persuasively argue against what they consider the bewitchment of the sport’s intelligence by outdated or ill-considered metrics.

The title, and especially the subtitle, of Mr. Law’s book—Smart Baseball: The Story Behind the Old Stats That Are Ruining the Game, the New Ones That Are Running It, and the Right Way to Think About Baseball—indicates he did not get the memo recommending intellectual tentativeness. In today’s garden of baseball journalism, the flora includes many practitioners who are not shrinking violets, and Mr. Law himself is a human cactus with a prickly impatience regarding those he considers slow learners.

Baseball is the sport with the longest season: 162 games before 10 teams play on into October, with two often finishing in early November. As a game of distinct episodes—pitch by pitch, out by out, inning by inning—it generates an ever-richer sediment of data as new technologies yield ever-more refined measurements: spin rates of pitches, “tilts” (angles of break) of sliders, launch angles of swings, exit velocities of balls coming off bats, and so on. These measurements are massaged by a new generation of mostly young and well-educated front-office “quants.” All 30 teams have analytics departments; the Astros have a “director of decision sciences.” Many of these savants’ baseball-playing careers peaked in Little League. They work, not always harmoniously, with their teams’ managers, who are expected to use the data when putting together lineups and making in-game decisions.

Mr. Law’s demolition derby begins by disparaging the hitting and pitching metrics we grew up reading beneath the bubblegum residue on the backs of baseball cards—batting averages, runs batted in, wins, saves, fielding percentage. •

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“It started off as a kind of utopian promise,” Andrew O’Hagan writes of the Internet in a new Guardian essay that meditates on the death of privacy and, perhaps, the novel. During Web 1.0, some worried that this new-to-the-masses technology would be co-opted, watered down and lose it’s anarchic spirit, becoming a tool of corporations and governments. Never let it be tamed, they exhorted. Well, it never has been tamed and still has become a tool of corporations and governments. The anarchy is actually useful to them (see U.S. Presidential election, 2016).

The thing is, we’re still in the prelude of what the Internet will become and of what being connected will mean. Marshall McLuhan feared the Global Village, and we’re going to experience a version of it beyond what the visionary contemplated. That’s what the Internet of Things will effect, with every last object becoming a computer. It will bring great benefits while also being a machine with no OFF switch. We’ll all permanently be inside a contraption that may be antithetical to human nature. It will contain sensors but perhaps not sense.

As far as O’Hagan’s fears about the effect of social media on fiction, I addressed a similar subject in a 2015 essay about Charlie Brooker’s outstanding television program Black Mirror:

It’s tough being Paddy Chayefsky these days. Charlie Brooker, the brilliant satirist behind Black Mirror, comes closest. If he doesn’t make it all the way there, it’s not because he’s less talented than the Network visionary; it’s just that the era he’s working in is so different. I’ve read many articles about Brooker’s impressive program and pretty much all of them miss the point I believe he’s making about our brave new world of technology. That includes Jenna Wortham’s New York Times Magazine essay, which referred to Mirror as “functioning as a twisted View-Master of many different future universes where things have strayed horribly off-course.” The Channel 4 show is barely about the future. It’s mostly about the present. And it isn’t about the present in the manner of many sci-fi works, which create outlandish scenarios which can never really be in the service of telling us about what currently is. Brooker’s scenarios aren’t the exaggerations they might seem at first blush. In almost no time, our hyperconnected world delivers something far more disturbing than his narratives.

Chayefsky and Andy Warhol and Marshall McLuhan could name the future and we’d wait 25 or 50 years as their predictions slowly gestated, only becoming fully manifest at long last. None of that trio of seers even lived long enough to experience the full expression of Mad As Hell of 15 Minutes of Fame or the Global Village. Brooker will survive to see all his predictions come to pass, and it won’t require an impressive lifespan.•

O’Hagan, author of The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age, believes that since we’ve surrendered an interior life (“everything became fake”), there really isn’t even a way to observe the present let alone predict the future, and that writers and readers alike are being wrecked by living in public. The novel is a dogged form and may find a way to persist regardless of each of us living in our own Reality TV show while being flattered by or fired upon by armies of bots. Perhaps it can serve as an antidote to such an existence? The writer himself believes that could be the ultimate outcome. Regardless, his excellent essay is one that can be meditated on in myriad ways.

An excerpt:

The other day I taped over the camera on my computer. Then I went upstairs and disabled the data collection capability on the TV. Because of several stories of mine, I’d suffered a few cyber-attacks recently, and, though a paragon of dullness, I decided to greet the future by making it harder to find me. One of the great fights of the 21st century will be the fight for privacy and self-ownership, which is also, to my mind, the struggle for literature as distinct from the dark babble of social media. Writers thrive on privacy, not on Twitter, and so do readers when the lights are low. Giving your sentences thoughtlessly away, and for nothing, seems a small death to contemplation, and does harm to the profession of writing, where you’re paid because you’re good at it. We are all entertainers now, politicians are theatrical in their every move, but even merely passable writers have something large at stake when it comes to opposing the global stupidity contest. Literature, which includes great journalism, might enhance the public sphere but it more precisely enriches the private one, and we are now at the point where privacy, the whole secret history of a people, might be the only corrective we have to the political forces embezzling our times.

In the interests of “national security”, in the service of “global harmony”, you are now obliged to become your own Winston Smith, both watched and self-watching. The TV downstairs may not be “off” at all – it may be “fake-off”, a condition defined in a joint programme of June 2014 between the CIA and MI5 called “Weeping Angel”. (Certain models of televisions are programmed to stay on, with their cameras operative, and the “data” they collect can be harvested by agencies.) The principle, as with Britain’s Prevent campaign, is to assume that everyone with a private life might have something to hide, which means that nobody, in the future, unless they have sinister motives, should expect the luxury of privacy. Some TVs and all phones operate “as a bug, recording conversations in the room and sending them over the internet to a covert CIA server”, reported WikiLeaks as it released the “Weeping Angel” documents. Being bugged at home or stopped and searched in the street and having your “information” handed to security agencies are now understood to be security measures, and questioning it will make you an enemy of the Daily Mail’s “common sense”. One doesn’t have to be much of a freedom fighter nowadays to be branded a member of the “liberalocracy”: all you have to do is believe in free speech and freedom of movement, and stand up for basic rights of sovereignty over your own thinking. Only recently have these sanctities been taken for the demands of a potential terrorist.•

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10 search-engine keyphrases bringing traffic to Afflictor this week:

  1. brian wilson psychologist eugene landy
  2. timothy leary prison experiments
  3. robert white head transplant surgeon
  4. alexandre dumas’ personal physician dr. gruby
  5. doctor hypnosis
  6. ted nelson predicted technological future
  7. machines are for answers, humans are for questions
  8. executed by an elephant
  9. madcoms machine-driven communications
  10. i’ve been writing about the potential for authoritarianism in the united states for 20 years

This week, President Trump Googled “treason” and learned it was sort of serious. He immediately called his best lawyer.

What do you think, Morty? Am I going to get a warning?

It’s a capital offense, dum-dum.

That sounds bad. Will I have to pay a fine?

You’ll be hanged by your neck until you die, and it’s possible your head might pop off.

I don’t want kids kicking around my head like a soccer ball, Morty. Make sure someone picks it up.

Will do, peabrain.

Can everybody please excuse me for a moment. I have to take a call from a very prominent chimpanzee lawyer.

 

Jeet Heer writes of Trump as a capo with nuclear capabilities.

Bill Kristol thinks Trump may be the ruination of the GOP.

• Richard Evans offers historical context on Trump’s baffling behavior.

• Richard Reeves takes aim at the mockery that is American meritocracy.

• Sara Roy reports from the Gaza Strip, a deeply desperate place.

• Kazakhstan’s EXPO 2017 in Astana is a $5 billion boondoggle.

• Zeeya Merali considers the morality of humans creating baby universes.

• Cars that are almost driverless are useful but not transformational

• Ornithologist Rich Prum answers question about duck copulation.

• Old Print Articles: The last days of Sigmund Freud. (1938/39)

• A brief note from 1945 about J. Edgar Hoover.

• This week’s Afflictor keyphrases: Roxane Gay, Tex Rickard, etc.

The very idea of a World’s Fair seems antiquated. No one really has to travel anywhere to see the future when we hold supercomputers in our palms. And the idea of roping off tomorrow for us too gaze at from a safe distance is an anachronism. What’s next happens all around us all the time, and when every object becomes a computer, we’ll be deeply and permanently within the experiment, resting, if uneasily, inside the machine.

Somehow Kazakhstan didn’t get the memo. The former Soviet nation is currently hosting EXPO 2017, which cost billions to create, in what’s a bewilderingly remote location. Almost nobody has shown up to look at the “City of the Future,” for instance, because they already live there. While that’s truer in the West than in the developing world, such events are headed for obsolescence everywhere in an increasingly wired, connected world.

Beyond modern technological and cultural dynamics, blame has to fall on autocratic President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who foolishly hoped the huge outlay would burnish Kazakhstan’s world image. It’s an ill-considered vanity project hatched by a repressive regime. While China has been able to successfully stage similar events in the recent past, large-scale authoritarian dreams can fail spectacularly even if the people are essentially forced to purchase tickets.

James Palmer penned a smart article on the perplexing project for Foreign Policy, reporting that one resident told him the “government is running tramps through the turnstiles to keep the numbers up.” The opening:

ASTANA, Kazakhstan    I was the only visitor in Greece. As I walked through the tunnel of philosophers, eager young Kazakhs accosted me. “This is the Greek alphabet! It has 24 characters, and it was the original language of science. Here, please, come and take a photo by the sea.” They hustled me over to a Mediterranean backdrop. They outnumbered me five to one, I succumbed to relentless explanation.

It was a sunny afternoon on the second day of EXPO 2017, held on the outskirts of Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. The Expo boasts of being “the Olympics of economy, business, and culture,” a global event where each participating country showcases its national achievements in its own “pavilion” and crowds come to see pieces of the wider world. But today — at the first Expo ever held in a post-Soviet state — there weren’t any crowds.

The Expo was being held on the outskirts of Astana, near one of the city’s many construction sites, in a purpose-built park. Dubbed a “future city” but looking more like a vast conference center, the organizers claimed the site was self-powered, fueled by a mix of wind and water. Each pavilion takes up anywhere from one room to several floors in a giant ring of new buildings built to encircle a great sphere of black glass at the center, the Kazakhstan pavilion. Viewed from the west, the dome loomed over neighboring apartment buildings. “There’s two big ways to piss off the Kazakhs,” a delegate commented, “Mention Borat, or call the dome the Death Star.”

The obvious lack of attendees, by contrast, didn’t require mentioning. Greece wasn’t the only deserted pavilion. Many were barren of anyone except staff. A few of the big names — China, Germany, the United States — had clusters of a couple of dozen visitors at a time, but outside most nations I snaked my way through empty rail guards. On the avenues outside, two out of every three people were wearing lanyards. I eavesdropped on a conversation between two European delegates: “We have to plan for the worst-case scenario — if there are no visitors to our event.”•

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Ducklings, like the babies of pretty much any species, are adorable. Full-grown ducks seem to me to be kind of assholes. Not killing machines like owls or heartless predators like vultures, but irritating. Always quacking. Fuck off. I don’t care for the attitude.

· · ·

Louis CK, also sort of an asshole, has spoken of duck genitalia: “I’ve heard that ducks have one hole, and they pee out of it, and they shit out of it, they get fucked in it, and they lay eggs out of it. That has got to be one dirty, smelly hole.” That being said, Louis still seems far pervier.

· · ·

In a fascinating Spiegel Q&A, Johann Grolle questions ornithologist Richard Prum about duck copulation, a process that sounds like a nightmare. The opening (so to speak):

Spiegel:

Professor Prum, among all the wonders of nature you were most inspired by the sex of ducks. Why?

Richard Prum:

For a long time, I have been fascinated by the sex life of birds. But there is probably no other species where the deep sexual conflict between male and female sex is as blatant as in ducks.

Spiegel:

And so you started studying their genitalia?

Richard Prum:

No, it was actually even more simple than that. I had a prospective post-doctoral student who was looking for something to do, and she was interested in studying genitalia. I said to myself: Well, I have never worked on that end of the bird before. As a result, we studied duck sex intensively for six, seven years.

Spiegel:

What surprised you most?

Richard Prum:

Oh, there were many surprises. Not the least that we had all these descriptions of duck genitalia, and when we looked ourselves, we said: There is almost nothing to see. How could this be? That is how we discovered that the genitalia of ducks regress and regrow each year, so that a 10- or 15-centimeter penis in the summer will reduce to less than 1 centimeter in the winter and then grow back the next year.

Spiegel:

This is part of the sexual conflict you mentioned before? 

Richard Prum:

Yes, indeed. Mate choice occurs first. In winter the males do these elaborate displays, and the females choose the one they like most. Because, parallel to the evolution of the males’ display behavior, the females have evolved preferences for these displays. We call this “coevolution.”

Spiegel:

So far, this sounds quite harmonious.

Richard Prum:

Yes, it is. The pairs stay together until the clutch is laid and the females incubate. The conflict part comes next. Because now some of the males pursue an alternative mating strategy, which is to violently enforce copulation. For this they make use of their penis, which is regrown by now. This penis is a very bizarre structure. It is counterclockwise coiled, and erection takes place in less than half a second. Erection, penetration and ejaculation in ducks is one and the same event, and it happens very, very rapidly.

Spiegel:

How do the females react?

Richard Prum:

It’s very interesting.•


“A huge barrel of fucking duck vaginas.”

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Those who are no position to talk are often the loudest of all. Those most in need of improvement are frequently the least likely to seek it. Projection of inner turmoil is a key component in the creation of a sick society, a hellscape for destroyers and their dictator.

Regardless of what anyone thinks of his system and methods, it’s no small irony that Sigmund Freud died against the backdrop of one of the worst explosions of repressed rage the world has ever known. The Jewish “Father of Psychoanalysis” was hectored and hounded in his dying years by Nazis, who desperately needed the very inspection of self he encouraged. Freud ultimately fled Austria in a weakened state and died in London. All four of his elderly sisters would were unable to escape Vienna ultimately be killed in concentration camps.

Three Brooklyn Daily Eagle articles below tell part of the story.

____________________

From March 22, 1938:

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From June 4, 1938:

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From September 24, 1939.

I know, roughly, how it ends for Trump, but how does it turn out for America and the world? I often feel about humanity the way Lee Child does in a New Statesman interview:

Question:

Are we all doomed?

Lee Child:

Of course we are. Evolutionary history shows we’re a vicious bunch, clever but not clever enough. We’ll be done soon, and the planet will recover. Call it fifty thousand years, from the invention of language to extinction. A tiny blip.•

I’ll confine myself for now to the immediate disaster, even if it’s connected to the longer-term, climate-related one. We know five things:

  1. Russia aggressively hacked our election.
  2. The Kremlin wanted Trump to win.
  3. Team Trump had an extraordinary number of meetings during the campaign with dicey Russian figures and have repeatedly lied about the contact.
  4. Trump was eager to remove Russian sanctions.
  5. Trump desperately wants to preempt any investigation into the preceding factors.

If these were merely unusually suspicious but unrelated occurrences, Robert Mueller would be the person I’d want investigating me. He’ll get to the bottom of it and has the credibility to be believed despite the awful appearance if all involved are innocent. If I were guilty, wow, he’s the last person I’d want un-digging the grave.

No matter how things develop, the one thing we can be certain of is that Trump, a human being devoid of shame or decency, will make everything far worse than it need be. He’ll make sure that there’s copious collateral damage and it will be you and me.

Two excerpts follow.


The opening of Richard Evans’ first Foreign Policy piece, “The Madness of King Donald,” which provides historical context for moments when a leader has lost it:

Donald J. Trump, the 45th president of the United States, has not been in office for very long, but already the contours and characteristics of his rule have become clear. Rather than govern conventionally, through officers of state appointed for their competence and experience and with the agreement, however reluctant, of Congress, he has chosen to gather round him an informal coterie of friends, advisors, and relatives — many of them, like himself, without any experience of government at all — while railing against the restrictions imposed on him by constitutional arrangements such as the independence of the press and the judiciary.

Trump’s entourage resembles nothing more closely than the court of a hereditary monarch, with informal structures of rule elbowing aside more formal ones. Trump did, after all, win widespread support in the electorate by promising precisely this: shaking up, bypassing or overthrowing the Washington establishment and trying something new.

The result, however, has been chaos and confusion, contradiction and paralysis. It has become clear that the president of the United States is someone who does not read his briefs; who does not take the advice of experts in the intelligence field or indeed in any other; who fires off brief statements without thinking whether they are consistent with his administration’s declared policies; who is seemingly incapable of putting together a coherent sentence with a subject, a verb, and an object; who is apt to give away state secrets to a foreign power; and who seems to have no respect either for the truth or for the Constitution (not least in respect of freedom of religion and freedom of speech). He may not be mad, but a growing number of commentators allege that Trump is suffering from dementia, or is mentally subnormal, or is suffering from a personality disorder of some kind.

In a situation where a head of state is incapable of carrying out his duties properly, what guidance can history offer us?•


In a smart blog post, Michael Dorf riffs on Thomas Nagel’s essay about consciousness “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?” in arguing that normal people lack the tool set to comprehend Trump. An excerpt:

Here’s my hypothesis: Normal humans are similarly unable to understand or explain what it feels like to be Donald Trump, because in some respects Donald Trump is different from normal humans, just as bats–in virtue of their ability to echolocate–are also different from normal humans.

I can illustrate the hypothesis with a recent example of Trump’s behavior. In the aftermath of the London Bridge and Borough Market attack, Trump tweeted “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!'” The tweet was indecent for two reasons: First, any reasonable human being would have expressed solidarity and sympathy; and second, the premise of the tweet–that Mayor Sadiq Khan said that Londoners need not be alarmed about terrorism–was false.

Khan had said that Londoners ought not be alarmed by the increased police presence they would see in the wake of the attack. When this was patiently explained, Trump did not apologize. Instead, he vented again, calling the clearly correct response a “pathetic excuse.”

If we were dealing with a normal human being–even a normal but evil, stupid, or ignorant human being–we might ask whether Trump deliberately misconstrued the original statement by Khan for some nefarious purpose, whether he somehow misunderstood the original statement by accident, or whether there is some other explanation for this bizarre and despicable behavior. But Trump is not a normal human being. He is not even a normal but evil, stupid, or ignorant human being. Trump is Trump. Asking what Trump was thinking or feeling when he decided to launch a patently unfair and grotesque attack on the Mayor of London while the latter was working to soothe and protect the people of London is like asking what echolocation feels like to a bat. The same appears to be true of much of Trump’s inexplicable behavior.•

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Here in America–as in many other places in the world–we live in desperate times, barely capable of running our country despite great wealth, so the idea of us engineering new forms of life or even an entire universe seems beyond reason. Have we earned the right to play creator?

Freeman Dyson has written of a revolutionary vision for next-level space colonization, suggesting we design a baseball-sized, biotech Noah’s Ark that can “seed” the Milky Way with millions of species of life. “Sometime in the next few hundred years,” he’s theorized, “biotechnology will have advanced to the point where we can design and breed entire ecologies of living creatures adapted to survive in remote places away from Earth.” Dyson believes this scenario favorable to launching humans (as we know them) into radically unforgiving environments.

That’s mind-blowing enough, but some theoretical physicists takes matters a giant leap further, wondering if we can actually create new baby universes in vitro. Zeeya Merali, author of A Big Bang in a Little Room, has a smart Aeon article on the moral implications of “cosmogenesis.” She interviews Anders Sandberg, among others, on the thorny topic. The opening:

Physicists aren’t often reprimanded for using risqué humour in their academic writings, but in 1991 that is exactly what happened to the cosmologist Andrei Linde at Stanford University. He had submitted a draft article entitled ‘Hard Art of the Universe Creation’ to the journal Nuclear Physics B. In it, he outlined the possibility of creating a universe in a laboratory: a whole new cosmos that might one day evolve its own stars, planets and intelligent life. Near the end, Linde made a seemingly flippant suggestion that our Universe itself might have been knocked together by an alien ‘physicist hacker’. The paper’s referees objected to this ‘dirty joke’; religious people might be offended that scientists were aiming to steal the feat of universe-making out of the hands of God, they worried. Linde changed the paper’s title and abstract but held firm over the line that our Universe could have been made by an alien scientist. ‘I am not so sure that this is just a joke,’ he told me. 

Fast-forward a quarter of a century, and the notion of universe-making – or ‘cosmogenesis’ as I dub it – seems less comical than ever. I’ve travelled the world talking to physicists who take the concept seriously, and who have even sketched out rough blueprints for how humanity might one day achieve it. Linde’s referees might have been right to be concerned, but they were asking the wrong questions. The issue is not who might be offended by cosmogenesis, but what would happen if it were truly possible. How would we handle the theological implications? What moral responsibilities would come with fallible humans taking on the role of cosmic creators?•

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Almost developing a driverless car isn’t nearly the same thing as perfecting a fully driverless one, that last two or three percent to be worked out making all the difference. Getting most of the way there is useful but not transformational. When autonomous has truly arrived it will impact environment, safety, economics, law and urban, suburban and rural life in myriad ways. 

Mary Barra just announced GM is deploying a new fleet of (almost) driverless vehicles for testing. Despite the bold headlines, that’s no so different than what other traditional automakers and Silicon Valley startups are doing, though the company is stressing that it’s uniquely positioned to mass-produce the cars once autonomous is a going concern–whenever that is. If money and talent are mainly what’s required, the industry has those factors covered. GM alone is spending $600 million annually on their division and is in the process of recruiting nearly 1,200 additional engineers.

While those are solid, well-paying positions, the lucky new hires endeavoring to remove human hands from the wheel will also, if successful, be disappearing millions of blue-collar jobs. That will make us richer in the aggregate but put undue pressure on segments of society, though as Nicholas Carr recently wrote, the promised AI-induced jobspocalypse has yet to materialize despite all the bold predictions. Has our “death” been greatly exaggerated or just deferred?

My best guess is that new tools, once envisioned, often take longer to perfect than we hope (or fear)–remember that Lillian Ross reported on VCRs and a Netflix-like service in 1970! The process, however, may speed ahead faster now than in the past because tools today are cheaper and more powerful. It’s probably more a question of whether we’ll produce an adequate array of new positions to replace the old ones and enable workers to educate and re-educate themselves to continually cope with shifting landscapes.

Two excerpts follow, the first about GM’s announcement, and the second concerning AI’s possible impact on the middle class.•


From Brent Snavely in USA Today:

LAKE ORION, Mich. — General Motors said Tuesday it has finished making 130 self-driving Chevrolet Bolt test vehicles, an achievement that the automaker says will help put it at the forefront of the race to develop and deploy autonomous cars.

CEO and Chairman Mary Barra said GM is the only automaker currently capable of mass-producing self-driving vehicles.

“The autonomous vehicles you see here today are purpose-built, self-driving test vehicles,” Barra said before several hundred employees gathered at the plant in Lake Orion, Mich., Tuesday. “The level of integration in these vehicles is on par with any of our production vehicles, and that is a great advantage. In fact, no other company today has the unique and necessary combination of technology, engineering and manufacturing ability to build autonomous vehicles at scale.”

The self-driving version of the Chevrolet Bolt is the second generation of vehicles capable of handling nearly all road situations on their own without driver intervention. They are equipped with the latest array of equipment, including cameras, radar, sensors and other hardware designed and built by GM and its suppliers.

The new version of the self-driving Bolts must still be driven with a person behind the wheel who is alert and ready to take control if necessary.•


From Cade Metz at Wired:

IN FEBRUARY 1975, a group of geneticists gathered in a tiny town on the central coast of California to decide if their work would bring about the end of the world. These researchers were just beginning to explore the science of genetic engineering, manipulating DNA to create organisms that didn’t exist in nature, and they were unsure how these techniques would affect the health of the planet and its people. So, they descended on a coastal retreat called Asilomar, a name that became synonymous with the guidelines they laid down at this meeting—a strict ethical framework meant to ensure that biotechnology didn’t unleash the apocalypse.

Forty-two years on, another group of scientists gathered at Asilomar to consider a similar problem. But this time, the threat wasn’t biological. It was digital. In January, the world’s top artificial intelligence researchers walked down the same beachside paths as they discussed their rapidly accelerating field and the role it will play in the fate of humanity. It was a private conference—the enormity of the subject deserves some privacy—but in recent days, organizers released several videos from the conference talks, and some participants have been willing to discuss their experience, shedding some light on the way AI researchers view the threat of their own field.

Yes, they discussed the possibility of a superintelligence that could somehow escape human control, and at the end of the month, the conference organizers unveiled a set of guidelines, signed by attendees and other AI luminaries, that aim to prevent this possible dystopia. But the researchers at Asilomar were also concerned with more immediate matters: the effect of AI on the economy.

“One of the reasons I don’t like the discussions about superintelligence is that they’re a distraction from what’s real,” says Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, who attended the conference. “As the poet said, have fewer imaginary problems and more real ones.”

At a time when the Trump administration is promising to make America great again by restoring old-school manufacturing jobs, AI researchers aren’t taking him too seriously. They know that these jobs are never coming back, thanks in no small part to their own research, which will eliminate so many other kinds of jobs in the years to come, as well. At Asilomar, they looked at the real US economy, the real reasons for the “hollowing out” of the middle class. The problem isn’t immigration—far from it. The problem isn’t offshoring or taxes or regulation. It’s technology.•

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• For the most part, poor people in America (and most other places) are rich people without money. Many try to pin moral failings on those who are struggling, but plenty of folks who’ve inherited wealth have drug and drinking problems, mental-health issues, divorces and other challenges. They just have a cushion to (usually) prevent them from falling painfully and finally to the ground.

• David Brooks has a tendency to get practically orgasmic about American meritocracy, about how our best and brightest walk in the halls of power educationally and beyond. It seems a cruel myth. Many of the students in these institutions are very intelligent (though not Jared Kushner, whose felon father purchased him a seat at Harvard), but the attendees have often been bolstered by a specific type of background that allows them to fully develop their skills and match them to expectations. Money is often part of the equation. Luck matters.

• Standardized tests were established in the U.S. on the strength of meritocratic impulses, the hope of finding diamonds in the rough, but they’ve long since been stripped of their egalitarian origins. Expensive tutors, test-prep courses and other means of tipping the balance have un-leveled the playing field. And there are perfectly intelligent young people who culturally aren’t prepared for these exams but could flourish in the right environment.

• The lack of equality ventures beyond school and work, existing, very dangerously, in courts and prisons. In addition to the two sets of justice that exist based on black and white in America, another one is divided by the colors of collars. Donald Trump can launder money and commit all manner of ethically dubious behavior and never spend a day behind bars, while Jeff Sessions envisions even more private prisons full of those without money for good lawyers who’ve committed low-level crimes. The Attorney General is now in position to see these dark dreams come to fruition.

From “Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich,” Richard Reeves’ NYT op-ed which argues the problem goes beyond the 1%:

I always found the class consciousness of Britain depressing. It is one of the reasons we brought our British-born sons to America. Here, class is quaint, something to observe in wonder through imported TV shows like Downton Abbey or The Crown.

So imagine my horror at discovering that the United States is more calcified by class than Britain, especially toward the top. The big difference is that most of the people on the highest rung in America are in denial about their privilege. The American myth of meritocracy allows them to attribute their position to their brilliance and diligence, rather than to luck or a rigged system. At least posh people in England have the decency to feel guilty.

In Britain, it is politically impossible to be prime minister and send your children to the equivalent of a private high school. Even Old Etonian David Cameron couldn’t do it. In the United States, the most liberal politician can pay for a lavish education in the private sector. Some of my most progressive friends send their children to $30,000-a-year high schools. The surprise is not that they do it. It is that they do it without so much as a murmur of moral disquiet.

Beneath a veneer of classlessness, the American class reproduction machine operates with ruthless efficiency.•

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One of the problems with the type of political tumult we’re now experiencing in the U.S. is that a stable government is required for people to let their minds explore culture freely and to focus outwardly on world situations that need attention. Right now, almost all our attention is directed at preventing Trumpers from dismantling democracy, leaving little bandwidth for anything else. Of course, even during the best of times, America has mostly ignored the deepening humanitarian crisis of the Gaza Strip.

According to a new London Review of Books article by Sara Roy, the troubles have gone much further than just electricity cuts (a move President Mahmoud Abbas requested of Israel to pressure Hamas) and other quotidian inconveniences. Economic hardship born of blockades has led to societal breakdown, with begging and prostitution the new normal, as nearly 70 percent of the population relies on international humanitarian assistance for basic survival. Drug abuse has increased, and suicide and divorce rates have skyrocketed. Bad has become worse.

Being a political football kicked from many sides has made inhabitants of the area increasingly open to extremist sects that can at least offer them some money. They’re not necessarily militants, just pragmatists. One Gaza businessperson tells Roy that Israeli-owned factories opened in the squeezed section would provide employment to young, jobless men and shut down the extremists. We’re not likely to learn anytime soon if he’s right, and if this generation of Palestinians may be more open to peace than the preceding one was or the succeeding one might be.

One bright spot in the article: “Gaza has a talented, tech-savvy population; if ever there were peace, an American investor said, ‘Gaza’s internet sector would become another India.’ The number of internet users in Gaza is reportedly equal to that of Tel Aviv.” Still, not much will come of it within the current reality.

From Roy:

Need is everywhere. But what is new is the sense of desperation, which can be felt in the boundaries people are now willing to cross, boundaries that were once inviolate. One day a well-appointed woman, her face fully covered by a niqab, arrived at the hotel where I was staying to beg. When asked politely to leave by the hotel staff, she aggressively refused and insisted on staying, obliging the hotel staff to escort her off the property with force. She wasn’t asking to beg but demanding to. I had never seen this before in Gaza. Another day a teenage boy came to our table quietly pleading for money for his family. By the time I got out my wallet, the staff had approached and gently ushered him out. He didn’t resist. He was educated and well-dressed and I kept thinking he should have been at home studying for an exam or out with his friends by the sea. Instead he was asked to leave the hotel and never return.

Perhaps the most alarming indicator of people’s desperation is the growth of prostitution – this in a traditional and conservative society. Although prostitution has always been present to a small degree in Gaza, it was always considered immoral and shameful, bringing serious social consequences for the woman and her family. As family resources disappear, this appears to be changing. A well-known and highly respected professional told me that women, many of them well-dressed, have come to his office soliciting him and ‘not for a lot of money’. (He also told me that because of the rise of prostitution, it has become harder for girls to get married – ‘no one knows who is pure.’ Families plead with him to provide a ‘safe and decent space’ for their daughters by employing them in his office.) Another friend told me that he had seen a young woman in a restaurant trying to solicit a man while her parents were sitting at a nearby table. When I asked him how he explained such incomprehensible behaviour he said: ‘People living in a normal environment behave in normal ways; people living in an abnormal environment do not.’

And Gaza’s environment is by most measures abnormal.•

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J. Edgar Hoover, flanked in the middle photo by Walter Winchell and Joe DiMaggio, was seriously considered for the post of Major League Baseball Commissioner twice, in 1945 and 1951, a career change that would have probably been better for American governance if not for the sport.

From the February 7, 1945 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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We’re doomed, Bill Kristol writes on Twitter, if Trump and Pence are all we have to offer. He was talking about the GOP, but the same might be said of the whole of America. This Administration has done permanent damage to the office of the Presidency, moving it into aberrant territory no matter how much we try to not allow its kleptocratic, sociopathic and autocratic nature be normalized. The power of the position allows it to define an awful lot. 

It has taken the Republican’s Constitution-defying rejection of Merrick Garland (orchestrated by McConnell but also supported by that great patriot McCain) to the nth degree. And it may only get worse. Newt Gingrich is now questioning whether Robert Mueller can really be true and impartial, a hilarious statement from that famously immoral, profiteering gasbag. It seems a trial balloon aimed at the eventual firing of the Special Prosecutor (and one that was echoed by Trump’s spelling-challenged lawyer). If that occurs, there should be no faith that Congress will act to protect us. The party is a now a safe distance beyond complicit.

Taking things a few paces deeper into Twilight Zone territory was today’s bizarre meeting in which Trump assembled cabinet members to rain down praise upon him, like Billy Mumy’s evil child demanding people think only “good thoughts” or they’ll wind up jack-in-the-boxes in the cornfield. Reince Priebus, an ambitious man with no shame, said “we thank you for the opportunity and blessing to serve your agenda.” Somebody better get a saddle ready because a horse may soon be joining the Senate.

It wasn’t too long ago–four years to be precise–when perfectly bright and well–intentioned person like Bill Gates was decrying that the American President didn’t have more sway over the country. “Some days I wish we had a system like the U.K.,” he said, “where the party in power could do a lot and you know, you’d see how it went and then fine you could un-elect them.” He was speaking of President Obama, of course, and the problem with having such a deeply decent person like 44 in the Oval Office is it can make it difficult to envision about worst-case scenarios.

Two excerpts follow: One from Kristol in the Weekly Standard about the tidal wave of youth that may wipe out the GOP in coming elections, which is hopeful in believing we’ll continue to be free and democratic and not a dictatorship or interrupted by Civil War 2.0. The other by Jeet Heer of the New Republic looks at Trump as a capo with nuclear capabilities trying to run Washington the way Gotti ran Queens.


From Kristol:

Lost in the back and forth—and especially in the efforts to be somewhat reassuring—was the most notable finding in the poll. It had to do with age. Donald Trump’s job approval/disapproval was 40 percent, 54 percent among Americans 65 and over; it was an almost identical 39 percent, 55 percent among 50-64 year olds; it was slightly worse at 35 percent, 55 percent among those 35 to 49 years old; and among Americans 18 to 34, Donald Trump’s job approval was 19 percent approve, 67 percent disapprove, an amazing -48 percent.

Now we are not knee-jerk respecters of youth. We give no greater weight to the opinions of the young than to those of the old. In fact, we’re inclined to give them less, as the young lack experience, and experience is a great teacher. We would even go so far as to say that the overvaluation of the sentiments of the young may be one of the curses of our age.

On the other hand, one would have to be blind not to see the political risk for Republicans and conservatives in these numbers. First impressions matter. Most people don’t change their political views radically from the ones they first hold. For young Americans today, Donald Trump is the face of Republicanism and conservatism.

They don’t like that face. And the danger, of course, is that they’ll decide their judgment of Trump should carry over to the Republican party that nominated him and the conservative movement that mostly supports him. If he is indeed permitted to embody the party and the movement without challenge, the fortunes of both will be at the mercy of President Trump’s own fortunes.•


From Heer:

The mafia analogies aren’t just casual gibes, but speak to something fundamental in Trump’s background and character. In his younger days, Trump was mentored by Roy Cohn, a mob lawyer, and he consorted with criminals, notably convicted felon Felix Sater. Trump’s record shows “repeated social and business dealings with mobsters, swindlers, and other crooks,” David Cay Johnston, who has extensively investigated Trump’s mafia tieswrote in Politico last year, and “Trump’s career has benefited from a decades-long and largely successful effort to limit and deflect law enforcement investigations into his dealings with top mobsters, organized crime associates, labor fixers, corrupt union leaders, con artists and even a one-time drug trafficker whom Trump retained as the head of his personal helicopter service.”

It was perhaps inevitable that Trump would run into conflict with the likes of Comey, Bharara, and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates (whom Trump also fired, after she refused to defend his executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries). Trump supporters might dismiss these figures as Washington insiders—inhabitants of “the swamp”—but they are more accurately seen as representatives of the legal and administrative state. They are all experts in the law and bureaucracy; they know the rules, understand why the rules exist, and enforce them. In other words, they are the polar opposite of Trump, an anti-professional to whom laws were meant to be broken.

But the mafia shouldn’t be seen as the antithesis of government, and rather as an alternative apparatus. The mafia tends to thrive when the administrative state is weak or corrupt, and thus unable to protect and provide for its citizens. Trump’s message as an outsider candidate was that normal politicians were unable to protect ordinary Americans, in part because they were too hamstrung by laws and regulations. Like a mafia don, Trump promised he’d deliver for the people, even if it meant breaking the rules (as when he boasted he’d break the Geneva convention to fight terrorism).•

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