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This week, Donald Trump appeared much more Presidential after his son Donnie Boy Jr. cut off Dad’s vestigial tail.

Now you look less like a donkey or Satan, Dad.

Now you look less like a donkey and Satan, Pops.

Good. I dont need more bad publicity.

Good. I don’t need more bad publicity.

 

  • There are relatively few female futurists. Why?

In a great Matter piece about the nightmare of climate change, Margaret Atwood revisits a 2009 Die Zeit article she wrote about possible outcomes for a future in which the world is no longer based on oil: one of accommodation, one of ruin and another in which some states are more capable of managing a post-peak tomorrow than others, a planet still inhabited by haves and have-nots, though one rewritten according to new realities.

Atwood asks these questions, among others: “Can we change our energy system? Can we change it fast enough to avoid being destroyed by it?” Despite it all, the novelist holds out hope that we can master an “everything change,” as she terms it.

An excerpt:

Then there’s Picture Two. Suppose the future without oil arrives very quickly. Suppose a bad fairy waves his wand, and poof! Suddenly there’s no oil, anywhere, at all.

Everything would immediately come to a halt. No cars, no planes; a few trains still running on hydroelectric, and some bicycles, but that wouldn’t take very many people very far. Food would cease to flow into the cities, water would cease to flow out of the taps. Within hours, panic would set in.

The first result would be the disappearance of the word “we”: except in areas with exceptional organization and leadership, the word “I” would replace it, as the war of all against all sets in. There would be a run on the supermarkets, followed immediately by food riots and looting. There would also be a run on the banks — people would want their money out for black market purchasing, although all currencies would quickly lose value, replaced by bartering. In any case the banks would close: their electronic systems would shut down, and they’d run out of cash.

Having looted and hoarded some food and filled their bathtubs with water, people would hunker down in their houses, creeping out into the backyards if they dared because their toilets would no longer flush. The lights would go out. Communication systems would break down. What next? Open a can of dog food, eat it, then eat the dog, then wait for the authorities to restore order. But the authorities — lacking transport — would be unable to do this.•

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Ted Cruz, who’s trailing my left testicle in the race for the GOP Presidential nomination (“Vote Ball ’16!”), must be flummoxed, feeling he should be the rightful leader of the Cliven Bundy wing of the Republican Party. Did he not engineer a shutdown of the entire government for no good reason? Hasn’t this Canadian immigrant shown adequate disdain for “foreigners”? Has he not tirelessly opposed gay marriage, even though he demands government otherwise not encroach on personal liberties? Has he not made every effort to dismantle Obamacare (when not busy signing up for it)? This man has bona fides.

Unfortunately for him and others, Donald Trump, a craps table with a combover, has won over the “crazies,” as John “Complete the danged fence!” McCain has called them. It’s difficult for President Trump to lose support because he doesn’t particularly stand for anything, apart from a vicious brand of entitlement stoked by prejudice. If you’re on board with that, mere facts won’t deter you.

From Megan Murphy at the Financial Times:

Absent a catastrophic implosion, Mr Trump has a lock on one of the coveted spots in the first primetime Republican debate on August 6. Given the sheer size of the party field, Fox News, the event’s host, has said only the top 10 candidates will appear on stage, as determined by an average of five as yet undisclosed national polls.

As lesser-known figures scramble to make the cut, top-tier contenders such as Mr Bush are grappling with how to avoid getting trumped by a man who is a master of publicity and self-promotion.

“Debates are still gladiatorial battles,” said Alex Castellanos, a veteran Republican strategist. “It is the coliseum, and we do it to see who emerges as the victor.”

A stage with Mr Trump on it creates a challenge for candidates who have so far chosen to focus mostly on their own messages as opposed to attacking a man who kicked off his campaign by labelling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “criminals” and has since struck a chord with voters who fret the US is in decline.

Imagine a NASCAR driver mentally preparing for a race knowing one of the drivers will be drunk. That’s what prepping for this debate is like.”•

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There’s some question about how much futurists actually frame tomorrow and how much it reveals itself despite their input, but not quite knowing, we certainly need a strong representation of women and minorities in the mix, and we don’t have that. Maybe the underrepresented could suggest something other than jetpacks and trillionaires, which we don’t fucking need.

In her Atlantic piece Why Aren’t There More Women Futurists?” Rose Eveleth points out that the media’s go-to talking heads in this unlicensed, nebulous discipline are the male figures who dominate science and tech. Their dreams of utopia are often homogenous, corporate and patriarchal. It’ll be difficult to diversify futurism without attacking society’s underlying sexism.

Eveleth’s opening:

In the future, everyone’s going to have a robot assistant. That’s the story, at least. And as part of that long-running narrative, Facebook just launched its virtual assistant. They’re calling it Moneypenny—the secretary from the James Bond Films. Which means the symbol of our march forward, once again, ends up being a nod back. In this case, Moneypenny is a send-up to an age when Bond’s womanizing was a symbol of manliness and many women were, no matter what they wanted to be doing, secretaries.

Why can’t people imagine a future without falling into the sexist past? Why does the road ahead keep leading us back to a place that looks like the Tomorrowland of the 1950s? Well, when it comes to Moneypenny, here’s a relevant datapoint: More than two thirds of Facebook employees are men. That’s a ratio reflected among another key group: futurists.

Both the World Future Society and the Association of Professional Futurists are headed by women right now. And both of those women talked to me about their desire to bring more women to the field. Cindy Frewen, the head of the Association of Professional Futurists, estimates that about a third of their members are women. Amy Zalman, the CEO of the World Future Society, says that 23 percent of her group’s members identify as female. But most lists of “top futurists” perhaps include one female name. Often, that woman is no longer working in the field.•

 

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The year before “Professor” Alphonse King, whose academic credentials were questionable, reportedly crossed the Niagara River on a water bicycle, he tried to traverse its channel with tin shoes of his own invention. Each weighed 30 pounds, and the results were unsurprisingly mixed. From the December 12, 1886 New York Times:

Buffalo–An attempt was made to-day to outrival the feats of Donovan, Graham, Hanslitt, Potts and Allen in braving the terrors of Niagara, which though a failure in one way, was a success in another. Mr. Alphonse King, who is the inventor of a water shoe, gave exhibitions some years ago in this country and Mexico and not long ago in Europe. He gave one in the Crystal Palace in London, and while there attracted the attention of Harry Webb, an old-time manager, who made him an offer of a year’s engagement to come to this country. While here some time ago Mr. King had looked over Niagara River below the Falls and believed that he could walk across the channel on the patent shoes. He came to this country four weeks ago and has since that time been in New-York City practicing for the trip. While there, Thomas Bowe, hearing of King’s determination to attempt the trip, made a wager of $1,500 with Webb that King could not walk 100 feet in the current. The money was deposited with a New-York newspaper, and on Friday afternoon Messrs. King and Webb, accompanied by A.C. Poole, of Poole’s Eighth Street Theatre, reached the Falls.

The trip to-day gave King two cold water baths, and demonstrated that while he could walk with or against the current all right it was impossible to walk across the river because of the eddies, which twice upset them. He retired confident that what he set out to do could not be done. King’s ‘shoes’ are of tin, 32 inches long, 8 inches wide, sloping at the top, and 9 inches deep. Each weighs 30 pounds. They are air-tight and have in the middle an opening large enough to admit the feet of the wearer. At the bottom are a series of paddles, which operate automatically as fins.•

Predictive medicine powered by Big Data can alert you if you’re unwittingly headed downhill–and we all are to varying degrees–but what if this information isn’t just between you and your doctor?

CVS is phasing in IBM’s Watson to track trends in customer wellness. Seems great, provided you aren’t required to surrender your “health score” to get certain jobs the way you now must sometimes submit to drug tests. What if you needed a certain number to get a position the way you’re required to have a good credit score to get a loan? Seems unlikely, but tools are only as wise as the people who govern them in any particular era. Like most of the new normal, this innovation has the potential for great good–and otherwise.

From Ariana Eunjung Cha at the Washington Post:

[CVS Chief Medical Officer Troyen A.] Brennan said he could imagine the creation of mobile apps that would integrate information from fitness trackers and allow Watson to identify when a person’s activity level drops substantially and flag that as an indicator of something else going on. Or perhaps act as a virtual adviser for pharmacy or clinic staff that could help them identify “early signals” for when interventions may not be working and additional measures should be considered.

“Basically, if you can identify places to intervene and intervene early, you help people be healthier and avoid costly outcomes,” he said.

He added that the key to making these types of systems work will be to open lines of communication between a pharmacist, clinic staff and a patient’s physician, and that technology can help facilitate this dialogue.•

 

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In the latest excellent Sue Halpern NYRB piece, this one about Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk bio, the critic characterizes the technologist as equal parts Iron Man and Tin Man, a person of otherworldly accomplishment who lacks a heart, his globe-saving goals having seemingly liberated him from a sense of empathy.

As Halpern notes, even Steve Jobs, given to auto-hagiography of stunning proportion, had ambitions dwarfed by Musk’s, who aims to not just save the planet but to also take us to a new one, engaging in a Space Race to Mars with NASA (while simultaneously doing business with the agency). The founder of Space X, Tesla, etc., may be parasitic on existing technologies, but he’s intent on revitalizing, not damaging, his hosts, doing so by bending giant corporations, entire industries and even governments to meet his will. An excerpt:

Two years after the creation of SpaceX, President George W. Bush announced an ambitious plan for manned space exploration called the Vision for Space Exploration. Three years later, NASA chief Michael Griffin suggested that the space agency could have a Mars mission off the ground in thirty years. (Just a few weeks ago, six NASA scientists emerged from an eight-month stint in a thirty-six-foot isolation dome on the side of Mauna Loa meant to mimic conditions on Mars.) Musk, ever the competitor, says he will get people to Mars by 2026. The race is on.

How are those Mars colonizers going to communicate with friends and family back on earth? Musk is working on that. He has applied to the Federal Communications Commission for permission to test a satellite-beamed Internet service that, he says, “would be like rebuilding the Internet in space.” The system would consist of four thousand small, low-orbiting satellites that would ring the earth, handing off services as they traveled through space. Though satellite Internet has been tried before, Musk thinks that his system, relying as it does on SpaceX’s own rockets and relatively inexpensive and small satellites, might actually work. Google and Fidelity apparently think so too. They recently invested $1 billion in SpaceX, in part, according to The Washington Post, to support Musk’s satellite Internet project.

While SpaceX’s four thousand circling satellites have the potential to create a whole new meaning for the World Wide Web, since they will beam down the Internet to every corner of the earth, the system holds additional interest for Musk. “Mars is going to need a global communications system, too,” he apparently told a group of engineers he was hoping to recruit at an event last January in Redmond, Washington. “A lot of what we do developing Earth-based communications can be leveraged for Mars as well, as crazy as that may sound.”

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In a Good magazine piece, Jordan E. Rosenfeld argues that some Americans already born may live to 150 years old. He also tries to conjure economic solutions should that wonderful, challenging thing come to pass. 

There really are no answers, however, to supporting a population that gray, at least not according to current standards. Of course, it’s always questionable to apply modern arrangements to a future scenario, as if everything will remain the same except for one significant thing. That’s a sure way to make bad prognostications.

Perhaps if aging increases radically, we’ll also see by then mass automation and 3D printing becoming cheap and ubiquitous, leading to unprecedented abundance. Or maybe not. But Labor would definitely have to change significantly if the average person gets 15 decades, and it will be dramatically altered in the coming years even if we don’t.

From Rosenfield:

The first humans expected to live to age 150 are already alive, according to experts on aging and longevity. …

Astonishing or not, longer life will force people to rethink how (and how long) they work, and focus more on increasing the quality of these longer lives rather than rushing to retirement in their relatively spry 60s.

“We are at this huge historical event where people are living longer than they have ever lived, and our lifespans have practically doubled,” says Tamara Sims, a research psychologist at Stanford’s Lifespan Development Lab. “My mentor Laura Carstensen talks about redesigning the model and expanding our definition of middle age. It requires a cultural change, no easy task.”

One such way to redesign the model, Sims suggests, is rather than working furiously until the “magic age” of 62.5 (the earliest you can access social security benefits without penalties), people could “borrow time from their golden years.” This means people would work less in the early years—maybe part time—to raise families, pursue creative goals, and stay healthy, with the awareness that they’ll work longer than their parents and grandparents.•

 

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Should I say a short story about climate-change apocalypse is fun? Choire Sicha’s brief, new Matter fiction, “Table of Contents,” certainly is, though it’s suitably sobering as well. The author imagines a scenario in which the seas have risen in a bad mood, and the narrator tries to aid the survivors by printing key entries from our modern Library of Alexandria, Wikipedia, before the plug is pulled. The opening:

I don’t know which will last longer, the paper or the ink. Eventually the paper will burn or the ink will fade, so read this all as fast as you can.

But of Wikipedia’s five-million articles, these 40,000 seemed to be the most super-important.

They’re crammed in these eight plastic-bagged boxes. because I printed it all single-side. That way you can make notes on the back! For instance, definitely keep track of who has babies with whom. (See the page for Incest, then check Consanguinity.) I put in some Bics, they should last a few… years? No idea.

After that, you can look up the Pen page.

I also put in Pen (Enclosure) in case you domesticate animals later.

In any event, please do not leave the entirety of portable human knowledge out in the rain.•

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Matthew Hahn interviewed Hunter S. Thompson for The Atlantic in 1997, discussing the impact of the Internet on journalism and culture, among other matters. Thompson didn’t fully grasp that the Internet was going to become the preeminent medium, thinking it merely a consolation prize for the masses, but he was particularly prescient about the ego-feeding nature of newly decentralized landscape. An excerpt:

Matthew Hahn:

The Internet has been touted as a new mode of journalism — some even go so far as to say it might democratize journalism. Do you see a future for the Internet as a journalistic medium?

Hunter S. Thompson:

Well, I don’t know. There is a line somewhere between democratizing journalism and every man a journalist. You can’t really believe what you read in the papers anyway, but there is at least some spectrum of reliability. Maybe it’s becoming like the TV talk shows or the tabloids where anything’s acceptable as long as it’s interesting.

I believe that the major operating ethic in American society right now, the most universal want and need is to be on TV. I’ve been on TV. I could be on TV all the time if I wanted to. But most people will never get on TV. It has to be a real breakthrough for them. And trouble is, people will do almost anything to get on it. You know, confess to crimes they haven’t committed. You don’t exist unless you’re on TV. Yeah, it’s a validation process. Faulkner said that American troops wrote ‘Kilroy was here’ on the walls of Europe in World War II in order to prove that somebody had been there — ‘I was here’ — and that the whole history of man is just an effort by people, writers, to just write your name on the great wall.

You can get on [the Internet] and all of a sudden you can write a story about me, or you can put it on top of my name. You can have your picture on there too. I don’t know the percentage of the Internet that’s valid, do you? Jesus, it’s scary. I don’t surf the Internet. I did for a while. I thought I’d have a little fun and learn something. I have an e-mail address. No one knows it. But I wouldn’t check it anyway, because it’s just too fucking much. You know, it’s the volume. The Internet is probably the first wave of people who have figured out a different way to catch up with TV — if you can’t be on TV, well at least you can reach 45 million people [on the Internet].•

Algorithms may be biased, but people certainly are. 

Financial-services companies are using non-traditional data cues to separate signals from noises in determining who should receive loans. I’d think in the short term such code, if written well, may be fairer. It certainly has the potential, though, to drift in the wrong direction over time. If our economic well-being is based on real-time judgements of our every step, then we could begin mimicking behaviors that corporations desire, and, no, corporations still aren’t people.

From Quentin Hardy at the New York Times:

Douglas Merrill, the founder and chief executive of ZestFinance, is a former Google executive whose company writes loans to subprime borrowers through nonstandard data signals.

One signal is whether someone has ever given up a prepaid wireless phone number. Where housing is often uncertain, those numbers are a more reliable way to find you than addresses; giving one up may indicate you are willing (or have been forced) to disappear from family or potential employers. That is a bad sign. …

Mr. Merrill, who also has a Ph.D. in psychology…thinks that data-driven analysis of personality is ultimately fairer than standard measures.

“We’re always judging people in all sorts of ways, but without data we do it with a selection bias,” he said. “We base it on stuff we know about people, but that usually means favoring people who are most like ourselves.” Familiarity is a crude form of risk management, since we know what to expect. But that doesn’t make it fair.

Character (though it is usually called something more neutral-sounding) is now judged by many other algorithms. Workday, a company offering cloud-based personnel software, has released a product that looks at 45 employee performance factors, including how long a person has held a position and how well the person has done. It predicts whether a person is likely to quit and suggests appropriate things, like a new job or a transfer, that could make this kind of person stay.

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That excellent Wesley Morris writes for Grantland about the new Brando documentary, Listen to Me Marlon, which uses a digital version of the actor’s head–a decapitation of sorts, as the writer notes–which is an apt metaphor for an actor who spent his later years trying to tear his flesh from fame and the burden of his own talent–a self-induced sparagmos in Greek-tragedy terms, and one that seemed to rob him of his sanity.

Brando created his 3-D doppelganger because he dreamed of completely detaching himself from his work. He was often barely there in his later performances, even great ones–reading cue cards from Robert Duvall’s chest in The Godfather, clearly showing up solely for the paycheck in Superman. As Morris notes, the performer was making a mockery of the process and himself. Was that because his excellence hadn’t made him happy? Or was he a deconstructionist child, breaking to pieces a formerly favorite toy to understand what it had been? Maybe both.

Morris’ opening:

Maybe you’ve already heard, but in the future, actors will all just be holograms that directors will use as they see fit. That’s what Marlon Brando thought, anyway. In the 1980s, he went ahead and made a digital version of his face and head at a place called Cyberware. At the time, it was a state-of-the-art rendering. That 3-D heads haunts Listen to Me Marlon, a documentary by Stevan Riley that opens Wednesday in New York. The film is guided by Brando’s ruminative regret — about his fame, his talent, his worth as a father, about a life he felt he wasted.1 It combines news and on-set footage with material from Brando’s private archive, including the many hours of audio recordings Brando made before he died in 2004. The recordings were attempts at therapy. More than once the movie cuts to the spinning gears of cassette tapes with titles like “Self-Hypnosis #7” and so on.

Listen to Me’s wacky, spiritual power seems to emanate from that floating, rotating, mathematical arrangement of digital lasers that form Brando’s visage, which an effects team has re-created from the Cyberware scans. It’s a ghostly effect, intentionally incomplete — dated but hypnotically so.•

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The world is richer and smarter and healthier than ever, which is great, except that many of the forces that enabled these wonderful advances may also bring about the end of the species or at least cause an unprecedented die-off and severely diminish life for the “lucky” survivors. That’s the catch. 

In an Economist essay, Christoph Rheinberger and Nicolas Treich write of the ineffectiveness of traditional tools in assessing the cost of a potential climate-change disaster, which hampers attempts to mitigate risks, the unimaginable being incalculable. An excerpt:

Interestingly, the Pope’s letter recognises that “decisions must be made based on a comparison of the risks and benefits foreseen for the various possible alternatives”.

However, estimating these benefits means that we need to determine the value of a reduction in preventing a possible future catastrophic risk. This is a thorny task. Martin Weitzman, an economist at Harvard University, argues that the expected loss to society because of catastrophic climate change is so large that it cannot be reliably estimated. A cost-benefit analysis—economists’ standard tool for assessing policies—cannot be applied here as reducing an infinite loss is infinitely profitable. Other economists, including Kenneth Arrow of Stanford University and William Nordhaus of Yale University, have examined the technical limits of Mr Weitzman’s argument. As the interpretation of infinity in economic climate models is essentially a debate about how to deal with the threat of extinction, Mr Weitzman’s argument depends heavily on a judgement about the value of life.

Economists estimate this value based on people’s personal choices: we purchase bicycle helmets, pay more for a safer car, and receive compensation for risky occupations. The observed trade-offs between safety and money tell us about society’s willingness to pay for a reduction in mortality risk. Hundreds of studies indicate that people in developed countries are collectively willing to pay a few million dollars to avoid an additional statistical death. For example, America’s Environmental Protection Agency recommends using a value of around $8m per fatality avoided. Similar values are used to evaluate vaccination programmes and prevention of traffic accidents or airborne diseases.

Mr Posner multiplies the value of life by an estimate of Earth’s future population and obtains an illustrative figure of $336m billion as the cost of human extinction. Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, argues that this approach ignores the value of life of unborn generations and that the tentative figure should be much larger—perhaps infinitely so.•

 

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From the January 11, 1885 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

A Barton County man has a living chicken without a head. Attempting to cut off a chicken’s head, the axe passed through the head of the chicken immediately in front of the ears, thus leaving a small portion of the brain attached to the neck. The chicken did not take this as an execution of his death warrant and got up and stood on his feet, to the astonishment of this would be executioner, who then contrived a plan to feed him by dropping food and drink into the thorax, which has so far proved a success. The chicken is now doing well.•

 

Even many economists who’ve made their bones doing macro often encourage the next generation to do micro (while continuing to do macro themselves), but something tells me the attraction of being a “big-picture thinker,” no matter how fraught that is, won’t simply dissolve. 

In his Foreign Policy piece, “Requiem for the Macrosaurus,” David Rothkopf argues the opposite, believing that macroeconomics is entering into obsolescence, that the sweep of history can’t be framed in blunt terms as it’s occurring. He feels now is the moment to move beyond this “medieval” state, with real-time Big Data leading the way. Rothkopf’s contention would certainly explain why traditional measurements seem inept at understanding the new normal of the Digital Age–why nobody knows what’s happening. An excerpt:

Being wrong has long been a special curse of economists. You might not think this would be the case in a so-called “science.” But, of course, all sciences struggle in those early years before scientists have enough data to support theories that can reflect and predict what actually happens in nature. Scientists from Galileo to Einstein have offered great discoveries but, due to the limits of their age, have labored under gross misconceptions. And in economics we are hardly in the era of Galileo quite yet. It is more like we are somewhere in the Middle Ages, where, based on some careful observation of the universe and a really inadequate view of the scope and nature of that universe, we have produced proto-science—also known today as crackpottery. (See long-standing views that the Earth was the center of the solar system or the belief that bleeding patients would cure them by ridding them of their “bad humors.”)

Modern economic approaches, theories, and techniques, the ones that policymakers fret over and to which newspapers devote barrels of ink, will someday be seen as similarly primitive. For example, economic policymakers regularly use gross estimates of national and international economic performances—largely aggregated measures based on data and models that are somewhere between profoundly flawed and crazy wrong—to assess society’s economic health, before determining whether to bleed the economic body politic by reducing the money supply or to warm it up by pumping new money into its system. Between these steps and regulating just how much the government spends and takes in taxes, we have just run through most of the commonly utilized and discussed economic policy tools—the big blunt instruments of macroeconomics.

I remember that when I was in government, those of us who dealt with trade policy or commercial issues were seen as pipsqueaks in the economic scheme of things by all the macrosauruses beneath whose feet the earth trembled, whose pronouncements echoed within the canyons of financial capitals, and who felt everything we and anyone else did was playing at the margins.

But think of the data on which those decisions were based. GDP, as it is calculated today, has roughly the same relationship to the size of the economy as estimates of the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin do to the size of heaven. It misses vast amounts of economic activity and counts some things as value creation that aren’t at all.•

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I argued yesterday that Indian sprinter Dutee Chand should be able to compete against other women, despite a high testosterone level, because all elite athletes, not just her, have considerable natural advantages of one kind or another. (And we’re not even sure that a high T-level is an athletic edge.) Some basketball players have longer wingspans, some swimmers superior lung capacity. No one penalizes them. I wonder if the protest against Chand is caused by ignorance of biology or if it’s provoked by an unwitting bigotry over a challenge posed to traditional sex roles.

Such boundaries aren’t always clear, especially in age when sexual identity is in flux, but a total absence of them would result in a single competition for both sexes, something that might be devastating to women in sports like basketball, where size matters greatly.

In a really smart New York Times piece, Juliet Macur takes a deeper look at the complex issue. She doesn’t believe there’s an easy solution, but that all roads forward should crossed delicately, with respect for the athletes. An excerpt:

The arbitration panel in the Chand case is at least trying to inch closer to a solution. But as [Dr. Eric] Vilain suggested, there might be no solution. 

He believes that track’s governing body won’t be able to prove that women with hyperandrogenism have a great advantage over other women because it is impossible to determine that high testosterone equals a big advantage. Too many other factors go into an athlete’s success, like nutrition and training, he said. Yet the court seems to require a clear cause and effect to consider the I.A.A.F.’s rule fair.

“Looking at this does not compute for me,” said Vilain, who is an expert on the biology of intersexuality and helped formulate the International Olympic Committee’s rules on hyperandrogenism.

And that leads us back to something the arbitration panel said in its decision: “Nature is not neat.”

So the way sports officials handle this issue won’t be neat, either, because maybe it can’t be neat.•

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The problem with anarchy is that you can’t control it.

That’s the lesson (hopefully) learned by Gawker and its techno-optimist founder, Nick Denton, after publishing an atrocious post outing a media executive for no other reason than sport, and having since been the center of a shitstorm fueled by what’s apparently a mass delusion inside the company.

In a 2014 Playboy Q&A conducted by Jeff Bercovici, Denton extolled the virtues of the radical transparency and the “natural monopolies” of Google, Uber and Amazon, seemingly without realizing this new order could also cause injury. Two excerpts follow.

__________________________

Playboy:

What are the implications for the broader society? What does America look like from inside the Panopticon?

Nick Denton:

When people take a look at the change in attitudes toward gay rights or gay marriage, they talk about the example of people who came out, celebrities who came out. That has a pretty powerful effect. But even more powerful are all the friends and relatives, people you know. When it’s no longer some weird group of faggots on Christopher Street but actually people you know, that’s when attitudes change, and my presumption is the internet is going to be a big part of that. You’re going to be bombarded with news you wouldn’t necessarily have consumed—information, humanity, texture. I think Facebook, more than anything else, and the internet have been responsible for a large part of the liberalization of the past five or 10 years when it comes to sex, when it comes to drinking. Five years ago it was embarrassing when somebody had photographs of somebody drunk as a student. There was actually a discussion about whether a whole generation of kids had damaged their career prospects because they put up too much information about themselves in social media. What actually happened was that institutions and organizations changed, and frankly any organization that didn’t change was going to handicap itself because everyone, every normal person, gets drunk in college. There are stupid pictures or sex pictures of pretty much everybody. And if those things are leaked or deliberately shared, I think the effect is to change the institutions rather than to damage the individuals. The internet is a secret-spilling machine, and the spilling of secrets has been very healthy for a lot of people’s lives.

__________________________

Playboy:

You’re more willing than most people to organize your life according to principle and see how the experiment turns out.

Nick Denton:

You could argue that privacy has never really existed. Usually people’s friends or others in the village had a pretty good idea what was going on. You could look at this as the resurrection of or a return to the essential nature of human existence: We were surrounded by obvious scandal throughout most of human existence, when everybody knew everything. Then there was a brief period when people moved to the cities and social connections were frayed, and there was a brief period of sufficient anonymity to allow for transgressive behavior no one ever found out about. That brief era is now coming to an end.•

Driverless cars and trucks are the future, but when, exactly, is that? 

It would be really helpful to know, since million jobs of jobs would be lost or negatively impacted in the trucking sector in the U.S. alone. There’s also, of course, taxis, delivery workers, etc.

In the BBC piece What’s Putting the Brakes on Driverless Cars?, Matthew Wall examines the factors, legal and technical, delaying what’s assumed more and more to be inevitable. An excerpt:

The technology isn’t good enough yet

Many semi-autonomous technologies are already available in today’s cars, from emergency braking to cruise control, self parking to lane keeping. This year, Ford is also planning to introduce automatic speed limit recognition tech and Daimler is hoping to test self-driving lorries on German motorways.

But this is a far cry from full autonomy.

Andy Whydell, director at TRW, one of the largest global engineering companies specialising in driver safety equipment, says radars have a range of about 200-300m (218-328 yards) but struggle with distances greater than this.

As a result, “sensors may not have sufficient range to react fast enough at high speed when something happens ahead,” he says. “Work is going on to develop sensors that can see ahead 400m.”

Lasers and cameras are also less effective in rainy, foggy or snowy conditions, he says, which potentially makes them unreliable in much of the northern hemisphere.

Even Google has admitted that its prototype driverless car struggles to spot potholes or has yet to be tested in snow.

And how would a driverless car cope trying to exit a T-junction at rush hour if human-driven cars don’t let it out?•

 

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Camille Paglia is enraged, of course. 

In a really interesting Salon interview conducted by David Daley, she discusses the link she sees between Bill Cosby’s behavior and Bill Clinton’s. Well, they certainly both have a sense of privilege that’s allowed them to treat women as objects. Paglia seems convinced that this dynamic will play a role in Hillary’s Presidential campaign, but the difference between hypocrisy and lunacy is in her favor when citizens make their way into voting booths. Like most Paglia tirades, there’s a good deal of truth partially obscured by hyperbole and extravagant generalizations.

An excerpt, in which she plugs one of her books in the most arrogant of terms:

So I say there is a big parallel between Bill Cosby and Bill Clinton–aside from their initials!  Young feminists need to understand that this abusive behavior by powerful men signifies their sense that female power is much bigger than they are!  These two people, Clinton and Cosby, are emotionally infantile–they’re engaged in a war with female power. It has something to do with their early sense of being smothered by female power–and this pathetic, abusive and criminal behavior is the result of their sense of inadequacy.

Now, in order to understand that, people would have to read my first book, Sexual Personae–which of course is far too complex for the ordinary feminist or academic mind!  It’s too complex because it requires a sense of the ambivalence of human life.  Everything is not black and white, for heaven’s sake!  We are formed by all kinds of strange or vague memories from childhood. That kind of understanding is needed to see that Cosby was involved in a symbiotic, push-pull thing with his wife, where he went out and did these awful things to assert his own independence. But for that, he required the women to be inert. He needed them to be dead!  Cosby is actually a necrophiliac–a  style that was popular in the late Victorian period in the nineteenth-century.

It’s hard to believe now, but you had men digging up corpses from graveyards, stealing the bodies, hiding them under their beds, and then having sex with them. So that’s exactly what’s happening here: to give a woman a drug, to make her inert, to make her dead is the man saying that I need her to be dead for me to function. She’s too powerful for me as a living woman. And this is what is also going on in those barbaric fraternity orgies, where women are sexually assaulted while lying unconscious. And women don’t understand this! They have no idea why any men would find it arousing to have sex with a young woman who’s passed out at a fraternity house.  But it’s necrophilia–this fear and envy of a woman’s power.

And it’s the same thing with Bill Clinton: to find the answer, you have to look at his relationship to his flamboyant mother.•

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New York City had nearly a thousand millionaires in 1905, and seemingly everyone wanted to part them from their money. Cranks would frequently write a gigantic number on a piece of scrap paper and expectantly hand it to a bank teller, believing it was a sure thing. They were escorted from the building–and often sent to Bellevue. But in the waning days of the Gilded Age, some took things a step further, paying unannounced visits to the well-to-do in their mansions. Precautions were taken, which included howitzers. From an article in the November 12, 1905 New York Times:

…The Morosini mansion at Riverdale-on-the-Hudson is equipped with very extraordinary and picturesque apparatus as a proof against burglars and other unwelcome visitors. Several small-bore cannon and sundry howitzers are planted around the house, each piece of ordinance being connected with the house by an electric wire.

Whenever occasion demands, a button may be pressed inside the mansion, and any one or all of the cannon can be fired off. In addition to this novel safeguard the grounds surrounding the mansion can be illuminated by means of electric bulbs scattered thickly among the trees and shrubbery.

Recently there was occasion one night for the police to answer a call from the Morosini mansion, two servants having become obstreperous. As the vehicle containing two officers from the King’s Bridge Station passed through the gate, the lawn for a hundred feet about suddenly burst into light. Adjacent trees glowed with a hundred dazzling flashes. Surprised, the officers came to an abrupt halt. But presently continuing on toward the house, every foot of the way was similarly illuminated, lights budding everywhere, making the grounds almost as brilliant as day. During a subsequent survey of the premises the police learned that all the windows on the ground floor were connected with heavily charged electric wires. When the family retires a switch is turned on, and any one attempting to open a window from the outside is apt to be fatally shocked.•

Reality stars happened for numerous reasons, most notably because TV and print, destabilized by the Internet, needed insta-celebs to provide cheap content–actual stars were too expensive in the new economic reality–so dysfunction was commodified, and the modern version of the circus freak show was popularized. They’re pretty much walking products, all the Housewives and Bachelors, desperately trying to sell themselves in a market where the middle has disappeared and the bottom is the best most can hope for.

In 2007, Lynn Hirschberg of the New York Times Magazine penned “Being Rachel Zoe,” a profile of the image maker at an inflection point in the culture, when faux celebs were becoming the real thing, when the sideshow moved to the center ring. An excerpt:

As always, Zoe (pronounced ZOH) was dressed for the designer she was viewing. She was wearing a bright pink nubby wool Chanel jacket, black pants and her usual five-inch platform open-toed shoes. All the Zoe trademarks were in place: she was very tan; her long blond hair was carefully styled to look carefree; there were ropes of gold chains around her neck and stacks of diamond bangles on her wrists; and enormous (Chanel) sunglasses nearly obscured her face. Even wearing high heels, she is short and stick-thin, but Zoe, who is 36, does not seem fragile. The masses of jewelry, the outsize sunglasses, the whole noisy, ’70s-inspired look add up to a hectic, ostentatious, theatrical sort of glamour.

It’s the look she has duplicated on her clients, making the so-called Zoe-bots paparazzi favorites, as well as walking advertisements for a host of top designers. A cross-pollinator of the worlds of Hollywood celebrities, high fashion and tabloid magazines, Zoe has become a powerful image broker, a conduit to the ever-more lucrative intersection of commerce, style and fame. Early in her career, in 1996, she worked as a stylist at YM magazine, dressing such teenage pop stars as Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson, girls who were young enough to be molded and popular enough to be influential. Around the same time, magazines like Us Weekly began inventing their own cadre of celebrities, like Paris Hiltonand Nicole Richie. They had no discernible accomplishments or talent, but they did seem to go out a lot, and they thrived under the flash of the paparazzi. Magazines like Us constructed provocative narratives around them — their romantic woes, their drug problems — and Zoe, who began working with Richie in 2003 when she was viewed only as Hilton’s plump sidekick, saw an opportunity. “Nicole is now what people refer to as the big thing that happened,” Zoe told me in Paris. “Everything went from nowhere to everywhere. Nicole was about creating a look. Because of her fashion sense, which was really my fashion sense, she became famous. It was a huge moment: Nicole became a style icon without being a star.”

And then Nicole became a star, too. Because of circumstances that remain murky, Nicole and Rachel no longer speak. But the relationship made their careers. Zoe began working with Lindsay Lohan, Kate Beckinsale and other tabloid-ready stars eager for a new fashion identity. Now she has 20 clients, each of whom reportedly pays her more than $6,000 a day to dress them for events, big and small. Some pay only for premieres and award shows; some also retain Zoe to provide clothes for their daily lives. The financial scope of her business also includes incentives in the form of money and/or clothes, accessories or jewels, offered by designers eager to dress a particular Zoe client for a particular event. “Around three years ago, everything began to change,” Zoe said as she ran through puddles toward the entrance of the Chanel show. “The nature of what, or who, is a celebrity has expanded. We aren’t saving lives here, but we are creating images, and images create opportunities in a lot of areas.”•

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Jeez, Jim Holt is a dream to read. If you’ve never picked up his 2012 philosophical and moving inquiry, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, it’s well worth your time. For awhile it was cheekily listed No. 1 at the Strand in the “Best Books to Read While Drunk” category, but I don’t drink, and I adored it.

In a 2003 Slate article, “My Son, the Robot,” Holt wrote of Bill McKibben’s Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, a cautionary nonfiction tale that warned our siblings soon would be silicon sisters, thanks to the progress of genetic engineering, robotics, and nanotechnology. It was only a matter of time.

Holt was unmoved by the clarion call, believing human existence unlikely to be at an inflection point and thinking the author too dour about tomorrow. While Holt’s certainly right that we’re not going to defeat death anytime soon despite what excitable Transhumanist promise, both McKibben and the techno-optimists probably have time on their side.

An excerpt:

Take McKibben’s chief bogy, genetic engineering—specifically, germline engineering, in which an embryo’s DNA would be manipulated in the hopes of producing a “designer baby” with, say, a higher IQ, a knack for music, and no predisposition to obesity. The best reason to ban it (as the European Community has already done) is the physical risk it poses to individuals—namely, to the children whose genes are altered, with unforeseen and possibly horrendous consequences. The next best reason is the risk it poses to society—exacerbating inequality by creating a “GenRich” class of individuals who are smarter, healthier, and handsomer than the underclass of “Naturals.” McKibben cites these reasons, as did Fukuyama (and many others) before him. However, what really animates both authors is a more philosophical point: that genetic engineering would alter “human nature” (Fukuyama) or take away the “meaning” of life (McKibben). As far as I can tell, the argument from human nature and the argument from meaning are mere terminological variants of each other. And both are woolly, especially when contrasted with the libertarian argument that people should be free to do what they wish as long as other parties aren’t harmed.

Finally, McKibben’s reasoning fitfully betrays a vulgar variety of genetic determinism. He approvingly quotes phrases like “genetically engineered thoughts.” Altering an embryo’s DNA to make your child, say, less prone to violence would turn him into an “automaton.” Giving him “genes expressing proteins to boost his memory, to shape his stature” would leave him with “no more choice about how to live his life than a Hindu born untouchable.” Why isn’t the same true with the randomly assigned genes we now have?

Now to the deeper fallacy. McKibben takes it for granted that we are at an inflection point of history, suspended between the prehistoric and the Promethean. He writes, “we just happen to be alive at the brief and interesting moment when [technological] growth starts to really matter—when it spikes.” Everything is about to change.

The extropian visionaries arrayed against him—people like Ray Kurzweil, Hans Moravec, Marvin Minsky, and Lee Silver—agree. In fact, they think we are on the verge of conquering death (which McKibben thinks would be a terrible thing). And they mean RIGHT NOW. When you die, you should have your brain frozen; then, in a couple of decades, it will get thawed out and nanobots will repair the damage; then you can start augmenting it with silicon chips; finally, your entire mental software, and your consciousness along with it (you hope), will get uploaded into a computer; and—with multiple copies as insurance—you will live forever, or at least until the universe falls apart.•

 

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Robotics will likely play a big role in the future of spectator sports, though I don’t envision the discipline taking over ESPN in prime time in the near future. Auto racing is, of course, already a human-machine hybrid, but are familiar athletics to be encroached upon by AI or will robotic-specific sports rise? Are drones to be the new chariots?

In a Medium article, Cody Brown, who’s more bullish on robot athletics in the near term than I am, gives seven reasons for his enthusiasm. An excerpt:

3.) Top colleges fight over teenagers who win robotics competitions.

If you’re good at building a robot, chances are you have a knack for engineering, math, physics, and a litany of other skills top colleges drool over. This is exciting for anyone (at any age) but it’s especially relevant for students and parents deciding what is worth their investment.

There are already some schools that offer scholarships for e-sports. I wouldn’t be surprised if intercollegiate leagues were some of the first to pop up with traction.

5.) Rich people are amused by exceptional machines.

There is a reason that Rolex sponsors Le Mans. A relatively small number of people attend the race but it’s an elite mix of engineers and manufactures. Many of the people who became multimillionaires in the past 20 years got it from The Internet or some relation to the tech industry. They want to spend their money on what amuses them/their friends and robotics is a natural extension. Mark Zuckerberg recently gave one of the top drone racers in the world (Chapu) a shoutout on Facebook.•

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Uber’s claims that it’s good for Labor are nonsense, and the press conference in Harlem even used Eric Garner’s name to sell that hokum. The rideshare company is potentially good in some ways–consumer experience, challenging the taxi business’ racial profiling, being friendlier to the environment–but it didn’t beat Mayor de Blasio because of those potentially good things, but because it outmaneuvered him on a big lie. That’s worrisome.

Chris Smith of New York smartly sums up the gamesmanship:

De Blasio hadn’t been prepared for the onslaught. What was truly disorienting for him — and politically ominous — was that the roles had been scrambled. The mayor assumed he was the progressive defender of moral fairness and the little guy: Of course city government should regulate anyone trying to add 10,000 commercial vehicles to New York’s streets. Of course he needed to protect the rights of Uber’s “driver-partners.”

Yet Uber was able to deftly outflank de Blasio on his home turf, co-opting pieces of his message, splitting him from his normal Democratic allies, and drawing together an opposition constituency that could haunt de Blasio in 2017. To do so, Uber deployed a sophisticated, expensive political campaign waged by lobbyists and strategists trained in the regimes of Obama, Cuomo, and Bloomberg. That campaign worked in part because even though Uber the company is motivated by the pursuit of profit, not social justice, Uber the product has some genuinely progressive effects. So Uber went straight at the mayor’s minority base, drawing it into its vision of the modern New York. The company’s ad blitz highlighted how Uber’s drivers are mostly black and brown. It held a press conference at Sylvia’s, in Harlem, where the company basically accused the mayor of discriminating against minorities by daring to try to rein in its growth. It pushed data to reporters showing that Uber serves outer-borough neighborhoods that for years were shunned by yellow cabs.

In doing so, the company was able to dispel its aura of Bloomberg-era elitism. Newer services like UberPool, which allows drivers to pick up multiple passengers who split the fare, would ease congestion and make the city greener. Uber exploited its appeal to a youthful, techie, multiracial liberalism, selling itself as about openness and choice — a choice that was being stymied by old bureaucratic ways that have no business in the new city. This was a direct hit on de Blasio’s greatest vulnerability: the mayor’s seeming defense of an entrenched and hated yellow-taxi monopoly that’s been one of his most prolific campaign contributors.•

 

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The news business isn’t dead, just a tale of haves and have-nots like most of contemporary culture, and we may have reached an inflection point in that arrangement over the past year or so. From Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post to Nikkei snapping up the Financial Times, those publications with a global name are being acquired and reformatted for a mobile world where smartphones are the main medium. 

The question for me remains whether the New York Times, the most valuable erstwhile newspaper in the U.S., will be able to go it alone as a “mom-and-pop” shop, or if they must also become part of a gigantic, diversified company. I’d hope for the former and bet the latter.

From Matthew Garrahan at the Financial Times:

What has convinced investors to take another look at news? “There has been a lot of disruption but there has never been a lack of consumer demand for quality news content,” says Jim Bankoff, chief executive of Vox Media.

Another clue can be found in the actions of Apple and Facebook, which have built news offerings. The technology companies have realised that, like photo sharing and music apps, news can attract and retain users of their mobile services. This year will be the first when smartphones are responsible for 50 per cent of news consumption, up from 25 per cent in 2012, according to Ken Doctor, an analyst with Newsonomics. The smartphone has become “the primary access point for many readers,” he says.

The news brands that have attracted the most interest are digital, mobile and global. For Nikkei, buying the FT gives it an opportunity to expand into new markets — particularly in Asia, says Mr Doctor, where markets such as South Korea, Indonesia and India are growing rapidly. The FT “gives Nikkei more weight and more smarts in how to compete,” he says.•

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