A couple years before Michael Herr began writing his amazing Vietnam reportage for Esquire–an experience which later served as the basis for his great book Dispatchesthe journalist penned “Bleecker Street: Bohemia’s Barometer,” a 1965 piece for Holiday magazine about his New York City neighborhood of Greenwich Village. He knew the community of that era as a tale of two cities, a divide among bewildered locals and invading “barbarians.” Herr, who turned 75 last month, also famously co-wrote the screenplay for Full Metal Jacket with his longtime friend Stanley Kubrick. Two excerpts from Holiday follow.


Between this corner and the Bowery, Bleecker Street is like a river running into swamp, block after block with no definable character. It is neither market nor tenement nor warehouse district, but a nondescript mixture of these, with a few grimy luncheonettes and some slum lofts thrown in: a vacuum. A walk down this end of Bleecker is an exercise in induced despair, emotional slumming. The cityscape here is so desolate that it becomes surreal. You feel that behind the brick building fronts there is nothing but emptiness, fixtures connecting nothing to nothing, stairs leading up to doors that open onto a void. At Crosby you come to the Bayard Building, the only work of Louis Sullivan that is left in New York. The façade, particularly in this setting, is magnificent. Beyond it, a two-minute walk will put you on the Bowery, where nothing ever changes.

By the press, the politicians, the police and the populace, Bleecker Street has been called practically everything: a “hotbed of incipient violence,” a slum, a honkytonk, a refuge for homosexuals and/or miscegenists, a hangout for beatniks and commies and dope fiends, a shameless tourist trap. But whatever it may or may not be, whatever strange flavors outsiders bring to it, Bleecker is primarily, prevailingly Italian.

There is an old blind man who sits in the afternoons near the corner at Sixth Avenue. He told me once that he has never left Naples. He sits close enough to the Hudson to smell the harbor, and all around him are the aromas of new produce, olive oil, fennel, roasting coffee and freshly killed meat. At least as much Italian is being spoken as English.

Bleecker Street days are not much like Bleecker Street nights. Afternoons are taken up by the business of the neighborhood: the schooling and recreation of children, the purchase of groceries, the delivery of commodities to fifty shops and stalls up and down the street. Whatever social life the older residents have is conducted on these sidewalks during daylight hours, when the sidewalks are still theirs.

On these afternoons there is a moon-faced woman in black polka-dotted housedress who leans on a crate of fresh plums, gesturing to customers over baskets of grapes. Her prices are marked, but she will tolerate a limited amount of bargaining. Some of this bargaining has gone on between her and the same customers for over twenty years. Up the street some old men in shirtsleeves stand in front of Ruggiero’s Fish Market, lunching on oysters from a card table set up on the sidewalk. They prepare each one separately, adding hot sauce and lemon. A Negro workman comes up to the table, and the old men throw down some coins and leave. At the corner, one of them mutters, Mulignam!” a dialect expression for eggplant, which is also their pejorative for Negroes. Then they cross the street to Father Demo Square. Of course the Negro knows what has happened.

This parade route for visiting liberals. anarchists, socialists, apolitical grousers, peace marchers and civil-rights workers is also a neighborhood of Ghibelline rigidity, prejudice, reaction. Not long ago the Carmine DeSapio sound trucks cruised along here begging votes in blaring Calabrese dialect. Now you can see the remains of a Goldwater poster peeling to reveal the spattered likeness of De Sapio oil brick walls at street corners, and the traditional Democratic block is finished. The mounting tourist traffic is an outrage to the residents, particularly among first-generation immigrants. For them, the thought of miscegenation is unbearable, and you can feel the hatred this generates up and down the length of the street. Some of the locals have turned this influx to their advantage, opening bars, restaurants and galleries, but most sit locked in severe parochial resentment. If the Evil Eye really worked, the sidewalks would be strewn with paralytics, heaped with the blind and the dead.


They call MacDougal “the Mess,” and not without reason. In summer, at the corner where it crosses Bleecker, the sidewalks are clogged every night of the week. During the rest of the year the crowds come only on weekends, but they come in such numbers that they make up for the Monday-through-Thursday calm. No one knows exactly what brings them or who they are or even who they think they are, but there are a lot of them. The word is out that this is Where It’s At. As usual, the word lies, but none of the thousands, the tens of thousands, who come here night after night will ever admit it.

Most of them are young, under twenty, of a type that used to be written of as “beatnik.” But that word hasn’t meant anything for years, and it certainly doesn’t apply to this crowd. These are cultists whose beliefs are murky, a whole generation sprung half-baked from a badly digested notion of Bohemia, malnurtured on mass-media accounts of groovy goings-on from Liverpool to Berkeley. What they appear to want, more than anything else, is to enchant, but there never seem to be any takers. They are the sons and daughters of Tarrytown orthodontists, Rochester retailers, Long Island manufacturers, Jersey City construction workers, all come to conduct one of the most elaborate flirtations in history. And they are not the only ones; their parents come, too, impeccably polished. expensively dressed, and they come for almost the same reason. Everyone wants his slice of hip cake.

Once, it was the bourgeoisie’s had joke to say they couldn’t tell the boys from the girls. but this is no longer a joke. Young men, apparently not homosexual, wear their hair shoulder-length: if it were cleaner you might say it flowed. It is a part of the fashion, and the MacDougal-Bleecker crowd pays careful attention to fashion. The real hippies have been forced into coats and ties, now that their old turf has been overrun by creeps.

It was the fashion, for several weeks last spring, for girls to walk along Bleecker carrying a single flower. If they could get nothing better, they would carry a plastic flower, but there were dozens of these girls with their flowers. That ended. They turned up wearing those Liverpool sailors’ hats. And little white ankle boots. Then bellbottomed denim slacks with broad-striped jerseys worn loose around the waist. On dress occasions they wore discotheque dresses and patterned stockings that made the skin on their legs look diseased. Then the boys began wearing watch caps—hadn’t the Beatles introduced them?—and a few even started wearing the slacks. The esoterics, gurus and prep-school liberals took to wearing rimless glasses, often with hexagonal lenses, and with the glasses came effete Danish pipes, and floppy felt hats like the ones W. B. Yeats used to wear—all kinds of Yellow Bookish paraphernalia. Fashion. And they come down here to parade all this, each one sure that the Village has never seen anything like it.

After dark the sidewalks become so crowded that you have to take odd little two-inch steps or else walk around the cars, police and motorcycles in the street. If you have had the practice you can discern the slightest trace of marijuana in the air, although they say that it is only Sano cigarette smoke. There is usually music, either from a passing folkie or from a transistor radio.

There is a folksong that goes:

When I die please bury me deep,

Down at the end of Bleecker Street,

So I can hear old Number Nine,

As she goes rolling by.

I can’t find out what this really means.•


Paul Krugman’s New York Times column addresses the puzzling state of contemporary economics, suggesting the effect of the new technologies on production has been grossly overstated. That might be true. Really smart people have been convinced of completely wrong things before, and Silicon Valley’s effect on the bottom line might just be the latest example. Or maybe, as Krugman acknowledges, we’re only in the prelude of the big change or perhaps the current equations aren’t sufficient to capture the new normal.

The one thing I’ll add is that automation probably can be a big deal for the economy in another sense, even if it doesn’t promote a sea change in production. Apps and automated workplaces don’t necessarily have to hugely increase production to completely obviate workers. It could be an even exchange of computers supplanting labor, torpedoing traditional industries while turning out similar products and services–think Uberization–though who will be able to afford them is the question.

From Krugman:

One possibility is that the numbers are missing the reality, especially the benefits of new products and services. I get a lot of pleasure from technology that lets me watch streamed performances by my favorite musicians, but that doesn’t get counted in G.D.P. Still, new technology is supposed to serve businesses as well as consumers, and should be boosting the production of traditional as well as new goods. The big productivity gains of the period from 1995 to 2005 came largely in things like inventory control, and showed up as much or more in nontechnology businesses like retail as in high-technology industries themselves. Nothing like that is happening now.

Another possibility is that new technologies are more fun than fundamental. Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal, famously remarked that we wanted flying cars but got 140 characters instead. And he’s not alone in suggesting that information technology that excites the Twittering classes may not be a big deal for the economy as a whole.

So what do I think is going on with technology? The answer is that I don’t know — but neither does anyone else. Maybe my friends at Google are right, and Big Data will soon transform everything. Maybe 3-D printing will bring the information revolution into the material world. Or maybe we’re on track for another big meh.


Muammar Gaddafi got what he deserved, but so few do.

Wernher von Braun, Nazi scientist, warranted a hanging for his crimes against humanity, but he had a talent considered crucial during the early stages of the Cold War, so his past was whitewashed, and he was installed as the leader of NASA’s space program, ultimately becoming something of an American hero. So very, very unfair.

But his horrific past in Germany bled over into his new one in the U.S. in his early ’50s plan to send a “baby satellite” into space for two months with a crew of three rhesus monkeys. The mission completed, the rocket would burn up as it reentered the atmosphere. To save the primates from the pain of an inferno, Braun wanted to create an automatic switch which would gas the monkeys to death–yes, a gas chamber in space. “The monkeys will die instantly and painlessly,” he wrote in a 1952 Collier’s article he co-authored with Cornelius Ryan. It staggers the mind.

The article:

WE ARE at the threshold today of our first bold venture into space. Scientists and engineers working toward man’s exploration of the great new frontier know now that they are going to send aloft a robot laboratory as the first step—a baby space station which for 60 days will circle the earth at an altitude of 200 miles and a speed of 17,200 miles an hour, serving as scout for the human pioneers to follow.

We rocket engineers have learned a lot about space by shooting off the high-flying rockets now in existence—so much that right now we know how to build the rocket ships and the big space station we need to put man into space and keep him there comfortably. We know how to train space crews and how to protect them from the hazards which exist above our atmosphere. All that has been reported in previous issues of Collier’s.

But the rockets which have gathered our data have stayed in space for only a few minutes at a time. The baby satellite will give us 60 days; we’ll learn more in those two months than in 10 years of firing the present instrument rockets.

We can begin work on the new space vehicle immediately. The baby satellite will look like a 30-foot ice-cream cone, topped by a cross of curved mirrors which draw power from the sun. Its tapered casing will contain a complicated maze of measuring instruments, pressure gauges, thermometers, microphones and Geiger counters, all hooked up to a network of radio, radar and television transmitters which will keep watchers on earth informed about what’s going on inside it.

Speeding 30 times faster than today’s best jets, the little satellite will make one circuit around the earth every 91 minutes—nearly 16 round trips a day. At dawn and dusk it will be visible to the naked eye as a bright, unwinking star, reflecting the sun’s rays and traveling from horizon to horizon in about seven minutes. Ninety-one minutes later, it completes the circuit—but if you look for it in the same place, it won’t be there: it travels in a fixed orbit, while the earth, rotating on its own axis, moves under it. An hour and a half from the time you first sighted the speeding robot, it will pass over the earth hundreds of miles to the west. The cone will never be visible in the dark of night, because it will be in the shadow of the earth.

If you live in Philadelphia, one morning you may see the satellite overhead just before sunup, moving on a southeasterly course. Ninety-one minutes later, as dawn breaks over Wichita, Kansas, people there will see it, and after another hour and a half it will be visible over Los Angeles—again, just before the break of dawn.

That evening, Philadelphians—and the people of Wichita and Los Angeles—will see the speeding satellite again, this time traveling in a northeasterly direction. The following morning, it will be in sight again over the same cities, at about the same time, a little farther to the west.

After about ten days, it will no longer appear over those three cities, but will be visible over other areas. Thus, from any one site, it will be seen on successive occasions for about 20 days before disappearing below the western horizon. In another month or so, it will show up again in the east. And while you’re gazing at the little satellite, it will be peering steadily back, through a television camera in its pointed nose. The camera will give official viewers in stations scattered around the globe the first real panoramic picture of our world—a breath-taking view of the land masses, oceans and cities as seen from 200 miles up. More than likely, commercial TV stations will pick up the broadcasts and relay them to your home.

Three more cameras, located inside the cone, will transmit equally exciting pictures: the first sustained view of life in space.

Three rhesus monkeys—rhesus, because that species is small and highly intelligent—will live aboard the satellite in air-conditioned comfort, feeding from automatic food dispensers. Every move they make will be watched, through television, by the observers on earth.

As fast as the robot’s recording instruments gather information, it will be flashed to the ground by the same method used now in rocket-flight experiments. The method is called telemetering, and it works this way: as many as 50 reporting devices are hooked to a single transmitter which sends out a jumble of tonal waves. A receiver on earth picks up the tangled signals, and a decoding machine unscrambles the tones and prints the information automatically on long strips of paper, as a series of spidery wavelike lines. Each line represents the findings of a particular instrument—cabin temperature, air pressure and so on. Together, they’ll provide a complete story of the happenings inside and outside the baby space station.

What kind of scientific data do we hope to get? Confirmation of all space research to date and, most important, new information on weightlessness, cosmic radiation and meteoric dust.

At a high enough speed and a certain altitude, an object will travel in an orbit around the earth. It— and everything in it—will be weightless. Space scientists and engineers know that man can adjust to weightlessness, because pilots have simulated the condition briefly by flying a jet plane in a rollercoaster arc. But will sustained weightlessness raise problems we haven’t foreseen? We must find out—and the monkeys on the satellite will tell us.

The monkeys will live in two chambers of the animal compartment. In the smaller section, one of the creatures will lie strapped to a seat throughout the two-month test. His hands and head will be free, so he can feed himself, but his body will be bound and covered with a jacket to keep him from freeing himself or from tampering with the measuring instruments taped painlessly to his body. The delicate recording devices will provide vital information—body temperature, breathing cycle, pulse rate, heartbeat, blood pressure and so forth.

The other two monkeys, separated from their pinioned companion so they won’t turn him loose, will move about freely in the larger section. During the flight from earth, these two monkeys will be strapped to shock-absorbing rubber couches, under a mild anesthetic to spare them the discomfort of the acceleration pressure. By the time the anesthetic wears off, the robot will have settled in its circular path about the earth, and a simple timing device will release the two monkeys. Suddenly they’ll float weightless, inside the cabin.

What will they do? Succumb to fright? Perhaps cower in a corner for two months and slowly starve to death? I don’t think so. Chances are they’ll adjust quickly to their new condition. We’ll make it easier for them to get around by providing leather handholds along the walls, like subway straps, and by stringing a rope across the chamber.

There’s another problem for the three animals: to survive the 60 days they must eat and drink.

They’ll prepare to cope with that problem on the ground. For months before they take off, the two unbound monkeys will live in a replica of the compartment they’ll occupy in space, learning to operate food and liquid dispensers. In space, each of the two free animals will have his own feeding station. At specific intervals a klaxon horn will sound; the monkeys will respond by rushing to the feeding stations as they’ve been trained to do. Their movement will break an electric-eye beam, and clear plastic doors will snap shut behind them, sealing them off from their living quarters. Then, while they’re eating, an air blower will flush out the living compartment—both for sanitary reasons and to keep weightless refuse from blocking the television lenses. The plastic doors will spring open again when the housecleaning is finished.

The monkeys will drink by sucking plastic bottles. Liquid left free, without gravity to keep it in place, would hang in globules. To get solid food, each of the monkeys—again responding to their training—will press a lever on a dispenser much like a candy or cigarette machine. The lever will open a door, enabling the animals to reach in for their food. They’ll get about half a pound of food a day—a biscuit made of wheat, soybean meal and bone meal, enriched with vitamins. The immobilized monkey will have the same food; his dispensers will be within easy reach.

For the two free monkeys, it will be a somewhat complicated life. The way they react to their ground training under the new conditions posed by lack of gravity will provide invaluable information on how weightlessness will affect them.

While the monkeys are providing physiologists with information on weightlessness, physicists will be learning more about cosmic rays, invisible high-speed atomic particles which act like deep penetrating X rays and were once feared as the major hazard of space flight. Theoretically, in large enough doses cosmic rays could conceivably cause deep burns, damage the eyes, produce malignant growths and even upset the normal hereditary processes. They don’t do much damage to us on earth because the atmosphere dissipates their full strength, but before much was known about the rays people worried about the dangers they might pose to man in space. From recent experiments scientists now know that the risk was mostly exaggerated—that even beyond the atmosphere a human can tolerate the rays for long periods without ill effects. Still, the best figures available have been obtained by high-altitude instrument rocket flights which were too brief to be conclusive. These spot checks must be augmented by a prolonged study, and the baby space station will make that possible.

The concentration of cosmic rays over the earth varies, being greatest over the north and south magnetic poles. The baby space station will follow a circular path that will carry it close to both poles within every hour and a half, so it can determine if cosmic-ray concentration varies that high up.

Geiger counters inside and outside the robot will measure the number of cosmic particle hits. The telemetering apparatus will signal the information to the ground—and for the first time physicists will have an accurate indication of the cosmic-ray concentration in space, above all parts of the globe.

Besides cosmic rays, the baby satellite will be hit by high-speed space bullets—tiny meteors, most of them smaller than a grain of sand, whizzing through space faster than 1,000 miles a minute.

When men enter space, they’ll be protected against these pellets. Their rockets, the big space station, even their space suits, will have an outer skin called a meteor bumper, which will shatter the lightning-fast missiles on impact. But how many grainiike meteors must the bumpers absorb every 24 hours? That’s what we space researchers want to know. So dime-sized microphones will be scattered over the robot’s outer skin to record the number and location of the impacts as they occur.

In the process of unmasking the secrets of space, the baby satellite also will unravel a few riddles of our own earth.

For example, there are numerous islands whose precise position in the oceans has never been accurately established because there is no nearby land to use as a reference point. Some of them—one is Bouvet Island, lying south of the Cape of Good Hope—have been the subject of international disputes which could be quickly settled by fixing the islands’ positions. By tracking the baby space station as it passes over these islands, we’ll accurately pinpoint their locations for the first time.

The satellite will be even more important to meteorologists. The men who study the weather would like to know how much of the earth is covered with cloud in any given period. The robot’s television camera will give them a clue—a start toward sketching in a comprehensive picture of the world’s weather. Moreover, by studying the pattern of cloud movement, particularly over oceans, they may learn how to predict weather fronts with precision months in advance. Most of the weather research must await construction of a man-carrying space station, but the baby satellite will show what’s needed.

To collect this information, of course, we must first establish the little robot in its 200-mile orbit. All the knowledge needed for its construction and operation is already available to experts in the fields of rocketry, television and telemetering.

Before take-off, the satellite vehicle will resemble one of today’s high-altitude rockets, except that it will be about three times as big—150 feet tall, and 30 feet wide at the base. After take-off it will become progressively smaller, because it actually will consist of three rockets—or stages—one atop another, two of which will be cast away after delivering their full thrust. The vehicle will take off vertically and then tilt into a shallow path nearly parallel to the earth. Its course will be over water at first, so the first two stages won’t fall on anyone after they’re dropped, a few minutes after take-off.

When the third stage of the vehicle reaches an altitude of 60 miles and a speed of 17,700 miles an hour, the final bank of motors will shut off automatically. The conical nose section will coast unpowered to the 200-mile orbit, which it will reach at a speed of 17,100 miles an hour, 44 minutes later. The entire flight will take 48 1/2 minutes.

After the satellite reaches its orbit, the automatic pilot will switch on the motors once again to boost the velocity to 17,200 miles an hour—the speed required to balance the earth’s gravity at that altitude. Now the rocket becomes a satellite; it needs no more power but will travel steadily around the earth like a small moon for 60 days, until the slight air drag present at the 200-mile altitude slows it enough to drop.

Once the satellite enters its orbit, gyroscopically controlled flywheels cartwheel the nose until it points toward the earth. At the same time, five little antennas spring out from the cone’s sides and a small explosive charge blasts off the nose cap which has guarded the TV lens during the ascent.

Finally, the satellite’s power plant—a system of mirrors which catch the sun’s rays and turn solar heat into electrical energy—rises into place at the broad end of the cone. A battery-operated electric timer starts a hydraulic pump, which pushes out a telescopic rod. At the end of the rod are the three curved mirrors. When the rod is fully extended, the mirrors unfold, side by side, and from the ends of the central mirror two extensions slip out. Mercury-filled pipes run along the five polished plates; the heated mercury will operate generators providing 12 kilowatts of power. Batteries will take over the power functions while the satellite is passing through the shadow of the earth.

With the power plant in operation, the baby space station buckles down to its 60-day assignment as man’s first listening post in space.

At strategic points over the earth’s surface, 20 or more receiving stations, most of them set up in big trailers, will track the robot by radar as it passes overhead, and record the television and telemetering broadcasts on tape and film. Because the satellite’s radio waves travel in a straight line, the trailers can pick up broadcasts for just a few minutes at a time—only while the robot remains in sight as it zooms from horizon to horizon.

As the satellite passes out of range, the recorded data will be sent to a central station in the United States—some of it transmitted by radio, the rest shipped by plane. There, the information will be evaluated and integrated from day to day.

The monitoring posts will be set up inside the Arctic and Antarctic Circles and at points near the equator. In the polar areas, stations could be at Alaska, southern Greenland and Iceland; and in the south, Shetland Islands, Campbell Island and South Georgia Island. In the Pacific, possible sites are Baker Island, Christmas Island, Hawaii and the Galapagos Islands.

The remaining monitors may be located in Puerto Rico, Bermuda, St. Helena, Liberia, South-West Africa, Ethiopia, Maldive Islands, the Malay Peninsula, the Philippines, northern Australia and New Zealand. These points, all in friendly territory, would form a chain around the earth, catching the satellite’s broadcasts at least once a day.

The monitor stations will be fairly costly, but they’ll come in handy again later, when man is ready to launch the first crew-operated rocket ships for development of a big-manned space station, 1,075 miles from the earth.

The cost of the baby satellite project will be absorbed into the four-billion-dollar 10-year program to establish the bigger satellite. We scientists can have the baby rocket within five to seven years if we begin work now. Five years later, we could have the manned space station.

One of the monitoring posts will view the last moments of the baby space station. As the weeks pass, the satellite, dragging against the thin air, will drop lower and lower in its orbit. When it descends into fairly dense air, its skin will be heated by friction, causing the temperature to rise within the animal compartments. At last, a thermostat will set off an electric relay which triggers a capsule containing a quick-acting lethal gas. The monkeys will die instantly and painlessly. Soon afterward, the telemetering equipment will go silent, as the rush of air rips away the solar mirrors which provide power, and the baby space station will begin to glow cherry red. Then suddenly the satellite will disappear in a long white streak of brilliant light—marking the spectacular finish of man’s first step in the conquest of space.•

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As usual, Christopher Mims gets to the heart of the matter in his latest WSJ column, this one about the so-called Sharing Economy, in which little or nothing is shared, the only real change being jobs destabilized by businesses that are pure app and no inventory. It’s a Libertarian dream, a market with fungible, low-paid workers and no nets, and you, rabbit, had better get used to your task because it’s fractional employment and you are a very common denominator.

Mims wonders how this new breed of workers will ultimately be classified and whether an eventual class-action lawsuit could kill the category, though I if I had to bet, I would guess that’s not how things unfold.

An excerpt:

The first thing everyone misses about the sharing economy is that there is no such thing, not even if we’re being semantically charitable. Increasingly, the goods being “shared” in the sharing economy were purchased expressly for business purposes, whether it’s people renting apartments they can’t afford on the theory that they can make up the difference on Airbnb, or drivers getting financing through partners of ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft to get a new car to drive for those same services.

What’s more, many of the companies under this umbrella, like labor marketplace TaskRabbit, don’t involve “sharing” anything other than labor. If TaskRabbit is part of the sharing economy, then so is every other worker in America. The only thing these companies have in common is that they are all marketplaces, though they differ widely in the amount of control they give their buyers and sellers.

In the minds of critics, perhaps the worst offender in how it controls its labor force is Uber. Uber sets the prices that its drivers must accept, and has lately been in the habit of unilaterally squeezing drivers in two ways, both by lowering the rates drivers are paid per trip and increasing Uber’s cut of those wages. Behavior like this has led to some pretty overheated but not entirely undeserved rhetoric.•


Some Silicon Valley employees save time by skipping solid food, instead slurping Soylent or Schmoylent or Schmilk or Schcum (made up the last one), protein powders containing essential vitamins which are mixed with water or milk. Certainly, it’s unnecessary. It doesn’t take any more time to pack light, healthy foods, but subcultures have their own viral trends, and sometimes good can come of them. Think Los Angeles in the ’60s and ’70s with health food and exercise. But perhaps these coders and venture capitalists might consider that teeth and jaws and stomachs benefit from the biting, chewing and digesting of solids.

From Brian X. Chen of the New York Times:

SAN FRANCISCO — Every night, Aaron Melocik, a software developer, follows a precise food routine. He blends together half a gallon of water, three and a half tablespoons of macadamia nut oil and a 16-ounce bag of powder called Schmoylent. Then he pours the beige beverage into jars and chills them before bringing the containers to work the next day at Metrodigi, an education technology start-up.

At the office, Mr. Melocik stashes one Schmoylent jar in the refrigerator and takes the other to his desk. From 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., he sips from the first jar for breakfast, and the second for lunch. He consumes about 14 fluid ounces of Schmoylent each day so he can focus on coding instead of grabbing a bite to eat.

“It just removes food completely from my morning equation up until about 7 p.m.,” said Mr. Melocik, 34, who has been following his techie diet since February.

Boom times in Silicon Valley call for hard work, and hard work — at least in technology land — means that coders, engineers and venture capitalists are turning to liquid meals with names like Schmoylent, Soylent, Schmilk and People Chow. The protein-packed products that come in powder form are inexpensive and quick and easy to make — just shake with water, or in the case of Schmilk, milk. While athletes and dieters have been drinking their dinner for years, Silicon Valley’s workers are now increasingly chugging their meals, too, so they can more quickly get back to their computer work.•

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From the March 4, 1929 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:



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It’s not that I’ve learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, but I’m not nearly as concerned about the future of books as I was only a couple of years ago. 

I certainly don’t think Amazon should be setting online book prices, and if it reaches monopoly level (and it may have already), that should be addressed on a federal level. I say that as someone who isn’t an Amazon hater. No company has made reading such a full and diverse experience.

There are so many great books being published now that I can’t even begin to keep up with them. That wasn’t supposed to happen as screens shrunk, publishers were pummeled, bricks and mortars were dismantled and libraries cut hours. 

I grew up in a neighborhood without a bookstore, and if I had then had a Kindle and an Amazon Prime membership, I would have had access to the most amazing collection of volumes in the history of the world. That was never possible before the Internet.

While books are more widely available than ever before, they’re certainly less visible offline. That could be remedied on a local level if small shops were incentivized with government funds, the way NYC does with supermarkets that sell sections of healthy food in poorer neighborhoods which don’t already have easy access to fresh produce. (Of course, these markets haven’t changed eating habits.)

So, I suppose I’m much more sanguine about the present and future of reading in the U.S. (or at least the opportunity to read) than Scott Timberg of Salon, who feels there must be serious intervention to save our literary culture. From Timberg:

It’s always good news when a bookstore opens, and when it’s an indie backed with significant amounts of cash, and run by someone who really cares, it’s even better. So like everyone else, we smiled when we saw the New York Times story about Diary of a Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney — whose series “has spawned three feature films that have earned more than $225 million worldwide” — opening a bookstore in Plainville, Mass. Like Parnassus, the shop novelist Ann Patchett co-owns in Nashville, this will allow people to stumble upon books they’d never thought of looking at, it will employ booklovers behind the counter, and will hold events that allow authors to reach readers. All good things.

But it also makes us wonder: In the Age of Amazon, are the only people who can open bookstores celebrity authors? And aren’t these cheery stories about these mostly anomalous events kind of distracting us from the big picture? …

But isn’t this a bit like the benefit concerts that we threw for ailing and dying musicians back in the days before national medical insurance? The fact that Victoria Williams, Vic Chetnutt and Alejandro Escovedo came close to dying because they lived in a country that denied people basic health coverage was the original sin – and larger context — there. Musicians and fans worked hard to apply a (much needed) band-aid with Sweet Relief concerts and the like. But in the long run we needed a broader safety net, not more passing of the hat.

So what’s the larger context here? Well, if you follow the conversation as it’s expressed by bookstore organizations and the Times story, everything is fine: Indies are bouncing back, and some really cool authors are opening new stores! But somehow the Times piece neglects to use the term “online bookselling” or name Amazon even once, or to mention that there are approximately half the number of indies now than there were in the ‘90s, even as we’ve added more than 60 million people to U.S. population since then.•


Not only are car dealers and renters challenged by GetAround, the new Airbnb-ish app that allows you to loan out your vehicle by the hour for a fee, but just imagine what the service will do, should it become successful, to no-tell motels and sex clubs. You know that new car smell? That will be gone.

Like much of the Peer Economy, it’s probably better for consumers and the environment, though it’s likely damaging to industries that actually provide solid jobs.

From Matt McFarland at the Washington Post:

For D.C. residents concerned that they won’t make enough income, GetAround is guaranteeing income of $1,000 in the first three months. Cars must have fewer than 125,000 miles and can’t be more than 10 years old. GetAround provides insurance for drivers during the rental period.

District resident Tara Boyle, 29, began renting her Mazda3 for $8 an hour a couple of weeks ago. Getaround recommended $7.50, but she wanted to charge more. (The $1,000 guarantee requires that you don’t raise your rate more than 20 percent above what Getaround recommends.)

Boyle can walk to work but didn’t want to sell her car, so she jumped at the chance for extra income. She hopes her car will be especially popular with other residents of the high-rise building she lives in. Boyle said she isn’t worried about a renter potentially scuffing up her bumpers during city driving, saying that comes with the territory.

“My dad said, ‘Why do you want to do this? There’s going to be weird people that are sweating in your car,’ ” Boyle said with a laugh. “I said, ‘Dad, a parking spot down here is, like, $200 a month, I want my car to pay for itself.’ ”•

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Free is expensive, but cheap may be even costlier.

The Freeconomy (Facebook, Google, etc.) will give you stuff you need–or your ego wants–but in return will extract your information. Money isn’t necessary among “friends.” How unseemly. You don’t put a quarter in the slot; the slot just takes what it pleases. These nouveau companies want inside your head, first virtually and eventually literally.

The Cheapoconomy is dicier still. Not only do services like Uber and others track you, but they reduce workers to glorified serfs, promising flexibility for minimal payment, destabilizing more secure industries. As they gain greater power, the laborers will be squeezed more–until they’re completely obliterated. It’s great for us, except if we’re one of them. And more of us in the coming decades will likely become them. We won’t just be the consumers. We’ll be consumed. 

The thing is, the Peer Economy (a funny name since the workers are not your equals) is an improvement over the old way when it comes to transportation and delivery services. The disruption was successful because it was, in many ways but not all, good. And that’s where we are, at a strange crossroads of capitalism, libertarianism and socialism. Who can give us a lift out of that neighborhood?

From Douglas Coupland at the Financial Times:

I think right now the Uber situation is like the Teamsters and garburators in the mid-20th century. There’s no real argument to not have Uber drivers. They are superior to taxis in all possible ways. The only thing stopping them are all these cab drivers who had to pay extortionate amounts of money for a medallion, and suddenly entering their arena are these new people with superior service in every way, who also didn’t get hosed buying a medallion (honestly, medallions? How is that even still a thing?). So of course taxi owners are angry, and of course they’re going to lash out and try to generate urban legends to frighten people who, the moment they use an Uber, will never use a taxi again if they don’t have to. Uber’s not alone in this sort of engineered fear environment. Remember the Craigslist killer?

Gosh — someone didn’t buy an ad in a newspaper, and for their stupidity they paid with their life.

And in Canada two weeks ago, the press revelled in the fate of an Edmonton couple who rented out their house on Airbnb, and came back only to find it trashed to the tune of C$100,000. Airbnb now has the largest hotel footprint in the world. Uber has image problems but they’re on the correct historical track. Craigslist, Lyft et al . . . the shareconomy? The freeconomy? It’s going to happen. And the moment these firms start paying more in taxes is the moment they officially suffocate to death the old economy.•


In 1972, when this variety special was recorded, Bob Hope had already turned into a terrible comedian, but Bobby Fischer was not yet behaving like a terrible person. The chess champ had just “won the Cold War,” besting his Russian counterpart Boris Spassky before the world in a bravura if sometimes bewildering performance. Long before Watson, Fischer was a supercomputer with his wires crossed, unable to conquer just one opponent: himself. While sharing a stage with Hope, he believed he knew what his future held, but he didn’t even know what was lurking inside of himself. Things were going to get strange and stranger.

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

  1. robert mitchum in jail
  2. mars expedition stress
  3. donald trump cologne ingredients
  4. the wicker man 1973
  5. behavioural economist george loewenstein
  6. tom snyder interviews gore vidal
  7. rudi gernreich predictions
  8. aubrey de grey defeating death
  9. gloves made from human skin
  10. how did walt disney’s mother die?
This week, perhaps David Letterman shouldn't have had Joan Rivers as his final guest.

This week, perhaps David Letterman shouldn’t have had Joan Rivers as his final guest.

This week, perhaps David Letterman shouldn’t have had Joan Rivers as his final guest.



  • Postmates wants to become the “Uber of goods,” but so does Uber.
  • Nicholas Carr thinks humans and computers should be a permanent team.
  • Smartphone-guided “cruise control for pedestrians” is troubling.
  • The DARPA Robotics Challenge is only open to rescue robots–for now.
  • Ai Wewei addresses human-rights abuses in the U.S. and China.
  • An Oliver Sacks reading list of 50 books.

If it isn’t already possible for a cyberterrorist to remotely hack a plane and commandeer its guidance system, such a virtual hijacking will soon be possible. Security expert Hugo Teso has been claiming for years that the deed can be accomplished with just a smartphone, not even a laptop required, and in the last week reports suggest that a commercial plane’s system may have been breached. Once a computer is inside of something, it’s hackable, whether it’s a plane, a driverless car or an autonomous lawnmower. An age of cheap and powerful tools means wonderful and horrible things happen. It will be a permanent race to stay ahead of hackers with ill intent. From Marcel Rosenbach and Gerald Traufetter at Spiegel:

The Spaniard’s name is Hugo Teso, and he now works for a data security firm based in Berlin. For the past several years, he has been commissioned by various companies to try to break in to their computers and networks. But because Teso is also a pilot and continues to hold a valid license, he has developed a reputation in the aviation industry as someone whose tech-security warnings should be taken seriously.

Teso has demonstrated that you don’t even need a computer to hi-jack a plane remotely. A smartphone equipped with an app called PlaneSploit, which Teso himself developed, could be enough. In theorycyber-terrorists could use such an app, or something similar, to take over a plane’s steering system and, in a worst-case scenario, cause the plane to crash.

Danger Facing Airlines and Passengers

Attacks on cockpit computers have been an issue at hacker conferences for years. But airlines and airplane manufacturers have long sought to play down their warnings — or they have ignored them altogether. Last week, though, the debate intensified. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is looking into whether a US-based IT expert named Chris Roberts actually implemented — at least in part, from on board an aircraft — the things that Teso has been warning about and simulating. He claims to have penetrated the entertainment system of a normal passenger jet several times and even to have manipulated the plane’s engines during a flight.

The claims and ensuing investigation have triggered a new debate about a danger potentially facing airlines and passengers.•

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The Strand in NYC, the only brick-and-mortar bookstore I still go to regularly, asked Oliver Sacks to create a shelf of his favorite titles. Below are the first ten. (The Weisman book is a particular favorite of mine.) See the whole list here.


It’s difficult for multi-billionaires to find good grade schools for their children, so Elon Musk designed and founded his own for his sons and some kids of SpaceX employees. From Kwame Opam at Verge:

Musk hired one of the teachers from the boys’ school to help found Ad Astra, and the school now teaches 14 elementary-school-aged kids from mostly SpaceX employees’ families. The CEO wanted his school to teach according to students’ individual aptitudes, so he did away with the grade structure entirely. Most importantly, he says learning should be about problem solving.

“It’s important to teach problem solving, or teach to the problem and not the tools,” Musk said. “Let’s say you’re trying to teach people about how engines work. A more traditional approach would be saying, ‘We’re going to teach all about screwdrivers and wrenches.’ This is a very difficult way to do it. A much better way would be, like, ‘Here’s the engine. Now let’s take it apart. How are we gonna take it apart? Oh you need a screwdriver!'”•

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Moore’s Law continues apace fifty years on, which is stunning and great and challenging. The computer chip growing yet shrinking has allowed for everything from smartphones to sensors to Siri to driverless cars, things which are remaking society and economics in fundamental ways, quantifying behavior and vanishing jobs. They may ultimately do more to reorder the way we live than politics ever could. 

Since Gordon Moore recognized the pattern in 1965, there’s been a continuous guessing game about when the rule would run into entropy. In 2006, Moore himself said this:

“I think Moore’s Law will continue as long as Moore does anyhow! Ha ha ha… I’m periodically amazed at how we’re able to make progress. Several times along the way, I thought we reached the end of the line, things taper off, and our creative engineers come up with ways around them…Materials are made of atoms, and we’re getting suspiciously close to some of the atomic dimensions with these new structures, but I’m sure we’ll find ways to squeeze even further than we think we presently can.”•

I think futurists get ahead of themselves, however, when they apply Moore’s Law to seemingly everything when it really only applies to integrated circuits. Chemical reactions are certainly not amenable to its rules,  which is why battery progress badly trails that of the computer chip. Immortality or a-mortality in any physical sense is not right around the corner because of Moore’s Law. 

From Annie Sneed at Scientific American:

Of course, Moore’s law is not really a law like those describing gravity or the conservation of energy. It is a prediction that the number of transistors (a computer’s electrical switches used to represent 0s and 1s) that can fit on a silicon chip will double every two years as technology advances. This leads to incredibly fast growth in computing power without a concomitant expense and has led to laptops and pocket-size gadgets with enormous processing ability at fairly low prices. Advances under Moore’s law have also enabled smartphone verbal search technologies such as Siri—it takes enormous computing power to analyze spoken words, turn them into digital representations of sound and then interpret them to give a spoken answer in a matter of seconds.

Another way to think about Moore’s law is to apply it to a car. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich explained that if a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle had advanced at the pace of Moore’s law over the past 34 years, today “you would be able to go with that car 300,000 miles per hour. You would get two million miles per gallon of gas, and all that for the mere cost of four cents.”•

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“DO NOT TOUCH eyes, face, genitals,”

Rare Super Hot Peppers



$2 EACH or 6 FOR $9.


  • PETER RED or PENIS PEPPER…30,000 shu
  • MORUGA SCORPION. . . 2,000,000 shu

WARNING: shu stands for scoville heat units. It’s a measure of capsaicin concentration. JUST AN EXAMPLE: MILITARY PEPPER SPRAY is 2,000,000 shu.

When handling these chiles use protective gloves or the oils could remain in your skin for 2 days.

DO NOT TOUCH eyes, face, genitals, pick your nose or you’re a** before washing hands with soap and COLD water or you will be sorry. Hot water makes it burn more! A mild liquid dish detergent seems to work best.


These chile peppers are not for jokes. If you have a friend who knows what they are up against and they take the dare to eat one, okay. But do not trick someone into eating one or you may have to drive them to the hospital! PLEASE handle these mature pepper pods with the same respect you would give a loaded gun! You will need to sign a Waiver and Release of Liability form upon purchase. They are the real deal!


Lost in the collateral damage of the 1973 coup d’etat in Chile that toppled Salvador Allende was Project Cybersyn, a singular computerized business control management system set up by British organizational guru Stafford Beer. “Cybersyn,” a portmanteau for Cybernetic Science, was an odd mélange of socialism, biology, business dynamics, computer science and space-age accoutrements. Telex machines in a Santiago-based control room (which seemed straight out of Star Trek) were used to sync up Chilean factories and provide real-time management for them. Its goal was no less than to regulate the entire national economy. It seems a questionable if fascinating idea whose time has finally arrived, for better or worse, with Big Data and quantification.

The control center was destroyed during the overthrow, but Beer’s influence went far beyond Chile or the business world; Brian Eno, an acolyte, wrote the forward to a collection of Beer essays. The following is an excerpt of Beer’s feelings about Project Cybersyn at its outset:

Dear friends, I should like to greet you personally to this place, in the development of which I have taken enormous personal interest, and for this reason I am asking you to take a special interest in it. What you see is the outcome of 18 months of hard work on the part of a group of extremely professional Chilean engineers who have devoted their efforts to solving corporate management problems. They have created for us  a series of tools to help us in the task of controlling the economy. Modern science, and specifically electronic  computer science, offers the Government a new opportunity to address modern economic problems. We have seen that the power of this science has not  yet been used in the so-called developed countries. We have developed a system on our own. What you are about to hear today is revolutionary – not only because this is the first time that this is applied in the world –  it is revolutionary because we are making a deliberate effort to give the people the power that science gives to us, enabling them to use it freely.•

From Eden Medina’s Jacobin piece “The Cybersyn Revolution,” which suggests lessons learned from the project we can apply today, a passage about the lo-fi nature of the future-forward system:

When Project Cybersyn was built during the 1970s, there were approximately fifty computers in all of Chile, and most were outdated. Nor could Chile call up IBM for help. IBM decreased its operations in Chile following Allende’s election because they feared the Chilean government would nationalize them. The Nixon administration had also instituted an “invisible blockade” to destabilize the Chilean economy and prevent Latin America from becoming a “red sandwich” with Cuba on one side and Chile on the other. This further limited Chile’s ability to import US technology.

As a result, Beer and the Chilean team came up with an ingenious way to create the data-processing network they needed to link the country’s factories to the central command center: they would connect the one outdated computer they had for the project to another technology that was not state-of-the-art: the telex machine — or rather, several hundred of them. And it worked.

In 1972, a national strike that grew to include forty thousand truck drivers threw the country into a state of emergency and disrupted the distribution of food, fuel, and raw materials for factory production. The government used the telex network created for Project Cybersyn to determine which roads were open, coordinate the distribution of key resources, and maintain factory production.

The Cybersyn network improved government communication and substantially increased the speed and frequency at which the government could send and receive messages along the length of the country. It lacked the technological sophistication of ARPANET, the US military communications system that was the forerunner of the Internet and a contemporary of Chile’s telex system. But the Chilean network used fewer technical resources at a lower cost and proved highly functional nonetheless. Older technologies were creatively re-envisioned and combined with other forms of organizational and social innovation.


In an Edge conversation, Australian professor David Christian, an admitted science geek, recalls asking himself this question: “Could you teach a history course that began with the origins of the universe?” It really doesn’t make sense that we’ve ever taught such studies any other way, just the result of a paucity of imagination or a lack of faith in students. 

I don’t know that the universe has any meaning as Christian suspects it might, but as Marshall McLuhan advised, we should use our powers to discern patterns, and I’ll add, to recognize when there’s a break from them, and this analysis should stretch back to the beginning of time, not just the earliest conflicts among the tribes who’ve recently arrived on Earth.

Two brief excerpts from Christian follow.


In modern science, and I include the humanities here, science in a German sense of science—rigorous scholarship across all domains—in modern science we’ve gotten used to the idea that science doesn’t offer meaning in the way that institutional religions did in the past. I’m increasingly thinking that this idea that modernity puts us in a world without meaning—philosophers have banged on about this for a century-and-a-half—may be completely wrong. We may be living in an intellectual building site, where a new story is being constructed. It’s vastly more powerful than the previous stories because it’s the first one that is global. It’s not anchored in a particular culture or a particular society. This is an origin story that works for humans in Beijing as well as in Buenos Aires. 

It’s a global origin story, and it sums over vastly more information than any early origin story. This is very, very powerful stuff. It’s full of meaning. We’re now at the point where, across so many domains, the amount of information, of good, rigorous ideas, is so rich that we can tease out that story.  E.O. Wilson has been arguing for this for a long time. In Consilience he argued for this. It’s the same project.   

It turns out, as we tell it at least, there is a coherent story.


If you move on to human beings (our fifth threshold of increasing complexity) you can ask the question, which students are dying to ask: What makes humans different? It’s a question that the humanities have struggled with for centuries. Again, I have the hunch that within this very broad story, there’s a fairly clear answer to that. If all living organisms use information about their environments to control and manage the energy flows they need to survive—biologists call it metabolism—or to constantly adjust—homeostasis—then we know that most living organisms have a limited repertoire. When a new species appears, its numbers will increase until it’s using the energy that its particular metabolic repertoire allows it to fill.                 

Yet look at graphs of human population growth and something utterly different is going on. Here, you have a species that appears in probably the savanna lands of East Africa, but it doesn’t stay there. During the Paleolithic—over perhaps 200,000 years—you can watch the species, certainly in the last 60,000 years, slowly spreading into new niches; coastal niches in South Africa. Blombos Cave is a wonderful site that illustrates that. Then eventually desert lands, forest lands, eventually into ice age Siberia, across to Australia. By 10,000 years ago our species had spread around the world.                 

This is utterly new behavior. This is a species that is acquiring more, and more, and more information. That is the key to what makes us different.•



From the August 13, 1907 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:


It’s perplexing the American school system (and no other that I know of) doesn’t employ video games as teaching tools, since they’re both satisfying and edifying and can allow students to pursue knowledge at a personalized pace. It’s a real lost opportunity to think learning can’t be vibrant and fun.

Beyond the classroom, Nicholas Carr wonders why software is created to pose no obstacles to us, to not challenge us but replace us. He addresses this point, among others, in an excellent discussion with Tom Chatfield of BBC Future. An excerpt:

Should life be more like a video game?

Tom Chatfield:

I was glad to see that you use video games in the book as an example of human-machine interactions where the difficulty is the point rather than the problem. Successful games are like a form of rewarding work, and can offer the kind of complex, constant, meaningful feedback that we have evolved to find deeply satisfying. Yet there is also a bitter irony, for me, in the fact that the work some people do on a daily basis is far-less skilled and enjoyable and rewarding. 

Nicholas Carr:

Video games are very interesting because in their design they go against all of the prevailing assumptions about how you design software. They’re not about getting rid of friction, they’re not about making sure that the person using them doesn’t have to put in much effort or think that much. The reason we enjoy them is because they don’t make it easy for us. They constantly push us up against friction – not friction that simply frustrates us, but friction that leads to ever-higher levels of talent.

If you look at that and compare it to what we know about how people gain expertise, how we build talent, it’s very, very similar. We know that in order to gain talent you have to come up against hard challenges in which you exercise your skills to the utmost, over and over again, and slowly you gain a new level of skill, and then you are challenged again. 

And also I think, going even further, that the reason people enjoy videogames is the same reason that people enjoy building expertise and overcoming challenges. It’s really fundamentally enjoyable to be struggling with a hard challenge that we then ultimately overcome, and that gives us the talent necessary to tackle an even harder challenge.

One of the fundamental concerns of the book is the fear that we are creating a world based on the assumption that the less we have to engage in challenging tasks, the better. It seems to me that that is antithetical to everything we know about what makes us satisfied and fulfilled and happy.•

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An article I found in a 1970 Life magazine is probably the earliest profile I’ve ever read of an average American family (well, a relatively affluent one) having a networked home computer. An added bonus is that it was written by Michael Shamberg, a guerilla filmmaker and journalist who has gone on to produce some crazy documentaries and Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained. The opening:

Computers for the home have been envisioned by science-fiction writers and engineers ever since a huge, unwieldy prototype was developed 25 years ago. The whole futuristic age the prophesied, with an omnipotent electronic monster named Horace in every living room, is still a long way from realization, but compact consumer computers have quietly entered the household. While the market hardly rivals TV sets or refrigerators, the computer-as-home-appliance is now more than just a toy for the wealthy or a mysterious instrument for technical specialists.

Those pioneer families who have one, like the Theodore Rodmans of Ardmore, Pa., have discovered their obedient machine can perform a large variety of useful functions. Dr. Rodman originally brought it home for medical research, but then his family found it could plan mortgage payments, help out with homework, even play with the children. Although the cost is still high, computers like theirs have come within possible reach of a two-car family budget. A small, self-contained model is available for $8,000, complete. The Rodmans’ computer system, called time-sharing, uses a Teletype terminal connected to a big central unit via telephone. It costs $110 a month rent, plus $7.50 per hour of use.

The Rodmans’ computer is no anthropomorphic robot that can accomplish physical feats. It cannot flip the light switch, monitor the thermostat or do the cooking. Rather, it is a sophisticated mental appendage with a capacity for problem-solving that is limited only by the family’s imagination. Neither Dr. Rodman nor his family had ever operated, much less programmed, a computer before a terminal was installed in their home last August. Since then they have assigned it so many chores that Mrs. Rodman says, half seriously, “It’s really become a member of the family.”

“For me, the main physical effect of having a computer at home is that I’m able to spend a lot more time with my family,” says Dr. Rodman, who is a lung specialist on the faculty of Temple University medical school in Philadelphia. “For all of us the real impact is mental. Programming a computer is like thinking in a foreign language. It forces you to approach problems with a high degree of logic. Because we always have a computer handy, we turn to it with problems we never would have thought of doing on one before.”•


Institutional racism in the American justice system and the sustained tragedy of Gitmo have allowed autocratic nations ready ripostes when called out on their human-rights abuses. China, a communist capitalist country with no tolerance for free speech, has been one to particularly turn the tables in recent years. In a Spiegel interview conducted by Bernhard Zand, artist Ai Weiwei addresses this dynamic. An excerpt:


Only two or three years ago, China was defensive when questioned about human rights issues. Now officials often reverse the accusation: What about the cases of racism in the United States? What about the violation of privacy by Western secret services?

Ai Weiwei:

No state or society can claim to have established human rights once and for all. What we have seen in the US lately is shameful. I use this word advisedly. If people are being abused or even killed during an arrest, this is highly disturbing. There are many cases and layers of racist behavior in the US — from police treatment to the issues of education and job opportunities. In America, however, such cases are being discussed publically.


And in China?

Ai Weiwei:

China is at a different stage of development, human rights are violated here much more often. And still, we see improvements even here. There is the current case of a policeman who shot a man at a railway station right in front of his family. At least, there was a public investigation against this policeman (which cleared him of wrongful action in the first instance). Something like this would never have happened only a few years ago, never. Such a case would have been dealt with as an “internal police matter,” no one would ever have heard of it again. This can’t be done anymore. The Internet has established a public sphere and developed a pressure which the government can no longer ignore. We should use this public sphere and redefine — beyond China’s borders — what a government is allowed to do, where its powers end and where the realm of a citizen’s privacy begins.•

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Robert Lane Greene, the Economist language columnist and author of You Are What You Speak, just conducted an unsurprisingly whip-smart Ask Me Anything at Reddit. One questioner wondered whether we should all be learning a Chinese dialect, and Greene used that opening to explain that the language is not headed for global-tongue status even as the nation gains great prominence on the world stage. The exchange:


If you’re going to learn a language, should everyone who doesn’t know Chinese learn it?

Lane Greene:

I’ve written about this several times, most recently


but also


and in my book.

The short version is this: China is hugely important and getting important faster. But Chinese is not getting more important at anything like the same rate as China.

What does this mean for the learner? If you plan to do any business that might involve intensive contact with China, definitely, learn Mandarin – it’ll be advantageous to understand the country and its people better than your competitors.

But here’s what it doesn’t mean: Chinese is not on a path to become a world language. It is overwhelmingly spoken by Chinese people, most of them in historically Chinese areas and the diaspora. It is not a lingua franca of wider communication. What does a Japanese person speak to a Cambodian? What does a Chinese businessman in Germany speak? A Swede holidaying in Portugal? You get my drift: lingua franca status comes when non-natives use a language for its practical access to lots of other people, including other non-natives.

So Chinese will get more important, no doubt. But it’s not on its way to lingua franca status.

And finally, I think the Chinese writing system is a huge impediment for the foreign learner, and therefore to the rise of the language in wider circles.•


Before cars or even bicycles were perfected, there were walking machines like the Aeripedis, or Pedomotive Carriage. They aimed to remove much of the strain of ambulation though, of course, the process still had to be manged by your brain.

When I heard about Max Pfeiffer’s “cruise control for pedestrians” last month, I thought at first it might be an April Fools’ Day joke, but that’s not the case. The system combines smartphone GPS and electrodes attached to your legs to offload your navigational responsibilities to the cloud. More or less, it’s “automated walking,” and the movements can be remotely directed by another party. If you’re someplace unfamiliar and don’t know what direction in which to head, actuated navigation can do the thinking for you, guide your every step.

At Wired UK, Evan Selinger argues that the scheme is a road to hell. An excerpt:

In order to truly get a handle on the significance of “actuated navigation,” we need to do more than just imagine rosy possibilities. We’ve also got to confront the basic moral and political question of outsourcing and ask when delegating a task to a third party has hidden costs. To narrow down our focus, let’s consider the case of guided strolling. On the plus side, Pfeiffer suggests that senior citizens will appreciate help returning home when they’re feeling discombobulated, tourists will enjoy seeing more sights while freed up by the pedestrian version of cruise control, and friends, family, and co-workers will get more out of life by safely throwing themselves into engrossing, peripatetic conversation. But what about the potential downside?        

Critics have identified several concerns with using current forms of GPS technology. They have reservations about devices that merely cue us with written instructions, verbal cues, and maps that update in real-time. Nicholas Carr warns of our susceptibility to automation bias and complacency, psychological outcomes that can lead people to do foolish things, like ignoring common sense and driving a car into a lake.Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly lament that it’s “dehumanising” to succumb to GPS orientation because it “trivialises the art of navigation” and leaves us without a rich sense of where we are and where we’re going. Both of these issues are germane. But while, in principle, technical fixes can correct the mistakes that would erroneously guide zombified walkers into open sewer holes and oncoming traffic, the issue of orientation remains a more vexing existential and social problem.

Pfeiffer himself recognises this dilemma. He told WIRED.co.uk that he hopes his technology can help liberate people from the tyranny of walking around with their downcast eyes buried in smartphone maps. But he also admitted thatwhen freed from the responsibility of navigating…most of his volunteers wanted to check email as they walked.” At stake, here, is the risk of unintentionally turning the current dream of autonomous vehicles into a model for locomotion writ large.•


“Actuated navigation is a new kind of navigation, reducing cognitive load.”


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