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When it comes to human-made material goods, it would seem that cheap abundance is within sight for the first time in our species’ history. The rub is that the cost of getting there has been sky-high environmentally, with scary repercussions staring us in the maw.

As we’ve witnessed in California, in the U.S. we haven’t made great decisions when it comes to safeguarding our water supply, that precious resource. Water economist David Zetland, author of The End of Abundance: Economic Solutions to Water Scarcity, just conducted an Ask Me Anything at Reddit. A few exchanges are embedded below.


Question:

Yesterday, there was a picture on r/pics of a California lake (almost empty) in 2014 and the same lake with much more water in it from this year. How are things going in California? (I realize you no longer live there.) Are conditions improving there? What needs to happen now to get them even better?

David Zetland:

Yes, I did too. I hope that some of the 5000+ people who upvoted it see your comment :)

“Things” are ok. The environment is really under stress due to drought and climate change (hard to separate), and El Niño didn’t fix anything. The biggest problem in the State is groundwater, which is barely regulated and hardly measured (there are laws now, but it will take 5+ years to implement anything).

People in cities may say “nothing’s wrong” b/c their taps flow but they are missing the environmental and groundwater stress.

I’m not an optimist in terms of improvements, as the dominant perspective is growth of population, agriculture and urban landscapes. All of these are increasing demand in a system that’s “managed” to the hilt, meaning there’s very little space for safety if things go wrong. (The big nightmare is an earthquake that “disturbs” the Delta, thereby cutting off water to SF as well as half of SoCal. That could happen tomorrow.)

I’ve suggested for years that California needs to reduce water transfers, to get regions to focus more on local supplies (i.e., recycling wastewater, saving rainwater) rather than calling for more dams or transfers.

I moved to the Netherlands b/c I don’t trust California’s water management to do much more than get by, with a good chance it will fail (it already has for communities losing access to well water or facing polluted well water).


Question:

Do you view cities like LA and LV as unsustainable, or is there a way for large cities to exist in desert climates without robbing other regions?

David Zetland: 

Good question. EVERY city is unsustainable in some way, due to the way they need to concentrate food, energy, water, etc. Those that are farther from those sources thus need to be smaller. LA was amazing back in the 30s, but grew off imported water (you can even go back earlier, to the 1913 LA Aqueduct if you want to pinpoint an issue).

The main idea is that ALL cities should pay the full cost of their resource use/environmental impact. Very few do, but it’s FAR worse when politicians allow them to get away with stuff/subsidize their growth.


Question:

If the planet is made up of mostly water, why are we concerned about the scarcity of water?

David Zetland:

Wrong place, wrong time, wrong quality.

Wettest place on earth has shortages.


Question:

I’ve always wondered – why not just price water according to its scarcity? Give the first x gallons cheap or free to residential customers, then charge against an accelerating price scale? That would dissuade large inefficient users, but still allow people to stay clean and healthy in their homes.

David Zetland:

You’re right in principle, but the details should be implemented differently. More.


Question:

What little things can people do to help use less water ?

David Zetland:

Little: Turn off taps when not using water. Bigger: Don’t have a lawn. Fix leaks. Biggest: Don’t eat meat.

Mega: Get involved in regional water management, to help those who do not care as much change their habits (via changed incentives — prices — more than preaching).•

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For those raised under capitalism who’ve absorbed the teachings of that system, a post-scarcity Second Machine Age sans labor is awfully difficult to envision. It’s essentially the technology-driven collapse that Karl Marx envisioned. Something has to replace the work that disappears, doesn’t it? Some mixed blessing for us to enjoy/endure? Even if intelligent machines can somehow make such a tiol-free scenario possible, we’re not even sure that we want it. Few aspire to drudgery. but genuine productivity feels good.

Eventually and maybe not gradually enough to make the transition smooth, we’ll be inside a new machine that operates under different rules, and we’ll have to likewise reinvent ourselves. Right now the spectre of mass technological unemployment has allowed the idea of Universal Basic Income to capture hearts and minds in Silicon Valley, discussion that has reverberated far beyond that well-appointed patch of Silicon Valley, even into the Oval office. Not all the plans are equal–or even good–but they are being discussed in halls of power.

Two excerpts below from: 1) President Obama discussing Basic Income in a Bloomberg interview, and 2) Ilana E. Strauss’ Atlantic piece about the possibility of a labor-free society that doesn’t promote ennui.


From Bloomberg:

Question:

Some economists suggest that globalization is going to start targeting all those services jobs. If you want to keep up wages in that area, doesn’t it push us toward something like a universal basic income?

President Obama:

The way I describe it is that, because of automation, because of globalization, we’re going to have to examine the social compact, the same way we did early in the 19th century and then again during and after the Great Depression. The notion of a 40-hour workweek, a minimum wage, child labor laws, etc.—those will have to be updated for these new realities. But if we’re smart right now, then we build ourselves a runway to make that transition less abrupt, because we’re still growing, and we’re beating the competition around the world. Look, for example, at smart cars, where the technology basically exists now. The number of people who are currently employed driving vehicles of some sort is enormous. And some of those jobs are pretty good jobs. You know, people are worried about Uber, but the fear is actually driverless Uber, right? Or driverless buses or what have you.

Now, there are all kinds of reasons why society may be better off if smart cars are the norm. Significant drops in traffic fatalities, much more efficient use of the vehicle, so that we’re less likely to emit as much pollution and carbon that causes climate change. You know, drastically reduced traffic, which means we’re giving back hours to families that are currently taken up in road rage. All kinds of reasons why we may want to do that. But if we haven’t given any thought to where are the people who are currently making a living driving transferring into, then there’s going to be deep resistance.

So trying to separate out issues of efficiency and productivity from issues of distribution and how people experience their own lives and their ability to take care of their families, I think, is a bad recipe. It’s not an either/or situation. It’s a both/and situation.•


From Strauss:

People have speculated for centuries about a future without work, and today is no different, with academics, writers, and activists once again warning that technology is replacing human workers. Some imagine that the coming work-free world will be defined by inequality: A few wealthy people will own all the capital, and the masses will struggle in an impoverished wasteland.

A different, less paranoid, and not mutually exclusive prediction holds that the future will be a wasteland of a different sort, one characterized by purposelessness: Without jobs to give their lives meaning, people will simply become lazy and depressed. Indeed, today’s unemployed don’t seem to be having a great time. One Gallup poll found that 20 percent of Americans who have been unemployed for at least a year report having depression, double the rate for working Americans. Also, some research suggests that the explanation for rising rates of mortality, mental-health problems, and addiction among poorly-educated, middle-aged people is a shortage of well-paid jobs. Another study shows that people are often happier at work than in their free time. Perhaps this is why many worry about the agonizing dullness of a jobless future.

But it doesn’t necessarily follow from findings like these that a world without work would be filled with malaise.•

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The New York Times has been dealing with computers in one way or another since the 1970s, but the tool went from aid to threat once the Internet took hold in the middle of the 1990s. In under a decade, the old way of doing business became passé and clinging to it a danger. The real challenge is for the former newsprint company to continue reinventing itself in ways that won’t degrade the journalism. It’s not as easy task, and it’s especially difficult for reporters to deal with a sky perpetually falling while trying to do an often busy and bruising job. It’s no wonder new Public Editor Elizabeth Spayd told Poynter she’ll “pay attention to the newspaper’s business efforts as well” as the content. There’s no separating them anymore.

In a Politico piece, the excellent Joe Pompeo examines the company’s maneuverings in this fraught media age. An excerpt:

On the business side, the Times’ decision in 2011 to start charging people to read an unlimited number of articles on nytimes.com proved to be a life-saving calculation, bringing the Times more than a million digital-only subscribers to date and nearly $200 million in circulation revenue last year alone.

But the water is rising again and those numbers must grow. Soon, the Times is likely to hit a ceiling on how many people in its existing audience it can convert into paying subscribers. If it can’t get more money out of the same customers, it must find new ones.

That’s what’s behind a plan implemented earlier this year that puts $50 million behind the prospect of getting many new readers to open their wallets in foreign markets, where the Times is creating digital editions tailored to non-Americans.

A unit creating content that might just pass for journalism were it not paid for by advertisers also is making dents in the Times’ march toward $800 million in digital revenues by 2020, an ambitious goal considering digital revenues were just south of $400 million in 2015.

The problem is that while print advertising is still a big slice of company revenues ($441.6 million out of $1.58 billion in 2015), it’s been plummeting year after year as marketers become hotter on digital, and tech giants like Facebook and Google dominate online ad growth.•

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In the same decade humans set foot on the moon, the most soaring technological achievement of our species, Sir Edmund Hillary went on an expedition to the Himalayas to search for the Abominable Snowman. There are still some among us all these years later who believe Yeti roams the Earth and the moonwalk was faked.

Great scientific knowledge and utter disregard for facts can exist in the same moment. There’s perhaps no more perplexing aspect of modern life than conspiracy theories mucking up the works, from chemtrails to 9/11 Truthers to Birthers to anti-Vaxxers. Endless information was supposed to set us free from such madness. It did not. The new tools have made it easier to spread lies, to conduct a war on info, to even run an essentially fact-free Presidential campaign.

Excerpts from two articles follow: 1) Christopher Mele’s New York Times article about those who believe the Orlando massacre a staged or “false flag” event, and 2) William Finnegan’s New Yorker commentary on Trump’s appreciation for unhinged conspiracist Alex Jones, who believes pretty much every job an inside one.


From Mele:

Jesse Walker, the author ofThe United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory, said fear, the human need to find patterns and tell stories, and the recognition that conspiracies are not impossible help fuel such theories. The stories — no matter how outlandish — can bring meaning and a measure of comfort in a world that can make no sense, he said.

False-flag theories have long been around. One focused on the assassination attempt in 1835 of President Andrew Jackson, during which the president fought off a gunman whose two weapons misfired. Conspiracy theorists at the time believed Jackson had hired the gunman as a way to drum up sympathy for himself, Mr. Walker said.

Unlike the 1800s, stories today benefit from instant delivery through the internet and social media. One of the better-known purveyors is Alex Jones, who hosts an internet show at the website infowars.com. The day of the Orlando shooting, he posted a  video in which he asserted that the government had let the massacre happen so it could pass “hate laws to deal with right-wingers” and to disarm gun owners. He did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Mike Rothschild of Pasadena, Calif., who has researched and written about conspiracy theories, described the world of false-flag believers as a “bank of awakened internet sleuths that has got it all figured out.” They see it as their duty to warn others about secret elites in government who are plotting against citizens, he said.•


From Finnegan:

On December 2nd, while the awful news from San Bernardino was erupting, bit by unconfirmed bit, I was surprised by the crisp self-assurance of a couple of bloggers whose names were new to me. They were on it—number of victims, names of shooters, police-radio intercepts. Soon, though, the bloggers veered off from the story that other news sources were slowly, frantically putting together. The information being released by the authorities did not match the information the bloggers were unearthing, and the latter quickly deduced that, like other “mass shootings” staged by the government, in Newtown, Connecticut, and elsewhere, this was a “false flag” operation. The official account was fiction. One Web site that carried the work of these “reporters” was called Infowars. I made do with other sources for news. But I kept an eye on Infowars and its proprietor, Alex Jones, who is a conspiracy theorist and radio talk-show host in Austin, Texas. Jones’s guest on his show the morning of the shooting had been, as chance would have it, Donald Trump. Jones had praised Trump, claiming that ninety per cent of his listeners were Trump supporters, and Trump had returned the favor, saying, “Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down.”

Jones’s amazing reputation arises mainly from his high-volume insistence that national tragedies such as the September 11th terror attacks, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Sandy Hook elementary-school shooting, and the Boston Marathon bombing were all inside jobs, “false flag” ops secretly perpetrated by the government to increase its tyrannical power (and, in some cases, seize guns). Jones believes that no one was actually hurt at Sandy Hook—those were actors—and that the Apollo 11 moon-landing footage was faked. Etcetera. Trump also trades heavily in imaginary events and conspiracy theories. He gained national traction on the American right by promoting the canard that President Obama was born outside the United States—a race-baiting lie that the candidate still toys with on Twitter. But birtherism is only the best-known among Trump’s large collection of creepy political fairy tales. You’ve probably heard the one about vaccines and autism. He even pushed that during a Presidential primary debate, on national television. Do you really believe that Obama won the 2012 election fairly? Wrong. Fraud. (At the same time, it’s Mitt Romney, total loser, who let everyone down.) Bill Ayers, not Obama, wrote “Dreams from My Father.” There is no drought in California, and the Chinese, outwitting us per usual, invented the concept of global warming to undermine American manufacturing. And so on.

Does Donald Trump actually believe any of this?•

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Jeannette Piccard, bold balloonist, is pictured directly above with her husband, Jean, and Henry Ford, the anti-Semitic automaker on hand to wish them–and their pet turtle–well on a daring 1934 trip via gondola into the stratosphere, which turned out to be a bumpy ride. Jeanette is usually credited as the first woman in space; her spouse was the twin brother of Auguste Piccard, the family’s most famous aeronaut. (The siblings would decades later inspire the name of Patrick Stewart’s Star Trek captain.) Jeannette traveled far not only up there, but also in here, following up her aviation exploits and a stint at NASA by being ordained an Episcopalian priest. An article in the October 23 Brooklyn Daily Eagle recorded the fraught moment when she reached the high point of her life, literally at least.

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Philosophically, there’s a debate to be made that we don’t want AI to resemble us too much nor be too seamless. Maybe we should know it’s different and present. Given time, those distinctions will blur no matter what we consciously decide because that’s the nature of people and their machines.

There are vital practical reasons, however, for AI to be able to recognize our body language, and one MIT experiment is allowing its algorithm to learn about their carbon neighbors via binge-watching TV programs. Isn’t that how a lot of human newcomers to a language absorb the details of a culture, by viewing soaps and sitcoms?

From Tim Moynihan at Wired:

THE NEXT TIME you catch your robot watching sitcoms, don’t assume it’s slacking off. It may be hard at work.

TV shows and video clips can help artificially intelligent systems learn about and anticipate human interactions, according to MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Researchers created an algorithm  that analyzes video, then uses what it learns to predict how humans will behave.

Six-hundred hours of clips from shows like The Office and Big Bang Theory let the AI learned to identify high-fives, handshakes, hugs, and kisses. Then it learned what the moments leading to those interactions looked like.

After the AI devoured all that video to train itself, the researchers fed the algorithm a single frame from a video it had not seen and tasked it with predicting what would happen next. The algorithm got it right about 43 percent of the time.•

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If Donald Trump loses in November, America will prove, as it did during the Revolutionary War, to be slightly less incompetent than Britain. That type of sliver can make all the difference. It can birth or preserve a superpower.

Not everyone thinks Brexit is a particularly pertinent barometer for the Trump-Clinton shitstorm, but Edward Luce of the Financial Times writes that the throw-the-bums-out U.K. referendum has heartened American conservatives, even if they themselves detest the angry, orange face of their party. It might be as self-delusional as the Romney campaign’s internal polling, or maybe the whole world really has gone mad. Luce criticizes the Democratic nominee for running a campaign that’s “too nebulous to excite.”

Luce’s opening:

Listen. Can you hear the British lion roar? People on Europe’s side of the Atlantic may strain to do so through the din of Thursday’s shock result. But in parts of America it came through loud and clear. Among conservatives in particular the UK has become an instant king of the jungle. To Donald Trump’s supporters and critics alike, Brexit is that rare event that evoked the same instinct. What happens to Brussels need not stay in Brussels. It can happen to Washington too.

So much for Britain’s demonstration effect. What of America’s reality? The parallels between America’s coming election and the UK referendum are real, particularly if you are on the side that is expected to lose. Much like Britain’s Leave campaign, Republicans are beset by divisions, nervous of hijack by racist fringe groups, heavily discounted by the betting industry, and facing a well-oiled establishment opponent.

Mr Trump’s fate — and those of many hapless down ballot Republicans — appears to be sealed. Only fools would gamble the presidency on such a person. Why risk so much for a brief emotional release?

The answer is not quite so confident after Brexit. It was natural Mr Trump would interrupt his golf marketing stopover in Scotland on Friday to congratulate the British for taking “their country back. That, after all, is what he is promising America. It was slightly odder that he observed Scotland going wild over the vote” after almost two-thirds of Scots opposed Brexit. But Mr Trump has a knack of seeing things others cannot. Witness his imaginary fan base of Hispanic and African-American voters.

Yet he was not alone. The projection of American conservative dreams on to the UK referendum result went deep.•

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There’s no denying Kevin Kelly is a techno-optimist, something his new book, The Inevitable, speaks to. The Wired cofounder, who returned to Russ Robert’s podcast, EconTalk, to promote the title, said three years ago when guesting on the program: “We’re constantly redefining what humans are here for.” He’s further developed his thinking on that topic this time around.

I agree with Kelly and Roberts that our new tools and systems (Deep Learning, AI, etc.) will make us better off in the long run (though it will be complicated), but I’m concerned about the near- and medium-term, when industries will likely rise and fall with disquieting regularity and financial headaches may find those who aren’t, say, successful authors or research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Roberts briefly puzzles over people concerning themselves with technological unemployment at a time when the U.S. unemployment rate hovers around 5%. I don’t think it’s Trumpian to say that percentage doesn’t quite speak to the number of citizens struggling nor the long-stagnating wages. Wikipedia and smartphones are wonderful, but they’re not quite a substitute for a degree of economic security. 

Two exchanges are embedded below.


Russ Roberts:

Just to play pessimist for a minute: We think about artificial intelligence, for example, today–and you mention both these kind of things in your book–is it really that exciting that our thermostat gets to know us? Is it really that exciting that my car beeps at me when I’m going out of my lane or can parallel park–which is great for my 16-year old worried about is his driver’s license test? But these are not transformative applications.

Kevin Kelly:

Yeah. This too. It seemed it at first, very invisible. Well, you might not recall, but in the 1920s or something Sears Roebuck, the mail-order catalog company, was selling the Home Motor. And the Home Motor was this immense, 15-pound motor that was going to sit in the center of your home and automate all the appliances and whatnot in your home. That industrial revolution thing worked because it became invisible–we don’t have the big motor turning everything; we have like 50 motors in our homes that became invisible. So, to some extent, this stuff is working because we don’t see it. Because it’s not something that is visible. And it succeeds to the extent that it transforms while we don’t see it. So, that’s one thing. And the second thing I would say about that is that, we’re sitting on this huge wave of the First Industrial Revolution which brought this incredible prosperity to us all, the fact that we see around us that we no longer in the agricultural hunter-gatherer era were–we had to do everything with human muscle or with animal muscle, animal power. We invented something called ‘synthetic artificial power.’ And we harnessed fossil fuels, and carbon fuels, to give additional power that we couldn’t do. And all that we see is basically a result of this artificial power. So when we drive down the road in your car, you have 250 horses working for you at that moment. Just turn a little knob, you’ve got 250 horses powering you down to do whatever you want to do. And then we distributed that power through a grid to every home and farm in the country; and so farmers could employ that artificial power to do all kinds of things; and factories could use that artificial power. And everything that we had built around us was because of the artificial power that we made. Well, now, we’re going to do the same thing with artificial intelligence. So, instead of–in addition to having 250 horses driving you down the road, you are going to have 250 minds–which we are going to get from AI, from artificial intelligence. And that, we’re also going to put that onto a grid and distribute it around the country so that like any farmer could just get and purchase as much artificial power and artificial intelligence as they want, to do things. And just as that artificial power, was this incredibly transformative, incredibly progressive, incredibly powerful platform to give us all that we enjoy now, this artificial minds that we are going to get on top of the artificial power is going to transform us in an equal way: it’s going to touch everything that we do. And I think actually it will transform us more than that first Industrial Revolution did.•


Russ Roberts:

A lot of people worry about the impact of artificial intelligence on employment. We’ve talked about this–it’s now becoming a recurring theme. And of course it’s ironic we’re having this theme when unemployment in the United States is 5%. But, put that to the side. I think people are legitimately worried about what might be replaced by what. And you talk about it at length. I just wondered about two points you make. You talk about the fact that there are jobs that we didn’t know we wanted done. I’m going to read a little excerpt here:

Before we invented automobiles, air-conditioning, flat-screen video displays, and animated cartoons, no one living in ancient Rome wished they could watch cartoons while riding to Athens in climate-controlled comfort. One hundred years ago not a single citizen of China would have told you that they would rather buy a tiny glass slab that allowed them to talk to faraway friends before they would buy indoor plumbing, but every day peasant farmers in China without plumbing purchase smart phones. Crafty AIs embedded in first-person-shooter games have given millions of teenage boys the urge, the need, to become professional game designers–a dream that no boy in Victorian times ever had. In a very real way our inventions assign us our jobs. 

You want to add anything to that?

Kevin Kelly:

I think maybe I kind of maybe say it this way: Our jobs into the future will be to invent jobs that we can automate and give to the robots. So, we’re on a kind of a path, on an escalator–that we’re going to keep inventing new things that that we desire to be wanted to do; we’ll figure out how to do them, and once we figure out how to do them we’ll automate them–basically giving them to the AIs, and a box. So, in a certain sense our job is to invent jobs that we can automate. And I think that part of inventing jobs may be our job–human job–for a while, because we have better access to our latent desires than AIs do. Although eventually even perhaps that job is–at least assisted by AIs.

Russ Roberts:

I’m going to read another quote which says what you just said, but it’s so beautiful. You say,

When robots and automation do our most basic work, making it relatively easy for us to be fed, clothed, and sheltered, then we are free to ask, “What are humans for?” Industrialization did more than just extend the average human lifespan. It led a greater percentage of the population to decide that humans were meant to be ballerinas, full-time musicians, mathematicians, athletes, fashion designers, yoga masters, fan-fiction authors, and folks with one-of-a kind titles on their business cards. With the help of our machines, we could take up these roles; but of course, over time, the machines will do these as well. We’ll then be empowered to dream up yet more answers to the question “What should we do?” It will be many generations before a robot can answer that.•

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The Economist wonders if machines will cause mass unemployment. I’m not sure that’s precisely the right question.

Let’s argue for a moment that Deep Learning and automation don’t cause technological unemployment in a truly sweeping fashion over the next several decades. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re safe from social disorder. One of the factors in the waves of nativism and anti-immigration we’re currently experiencing in many developed countries is the diminishment of the middle class. Isn’t it possible that positions disappearing into the machines could be less than comprehensive yet still occur at a level that would lead to further deterioration. What, exactly, is that tipping point? How much can be absorbed before things fall apart?

From the Economist:

Economists are already worrying about “job polarisation,” where middle-skill jobs (such as those in manufacturing) are declining but both low-skill and high-skill jobs are expanding. In effect, the workforce bifurcates into two groups doing non-routine work: highly paid, skilled workers (such as architects and senior managers) on the one hand and low-paid, unskilled workers (such as cleaners and burger-flippers) on the other. The stagnation of median wages in many Western countries is cited as evidence that automation is already having an effect—though it is hard to disentangle the impact of offshoring, which has also moved many routine jobs (including manufacturing and call-centre work) to low-wage countries in the developing world. Figures published by the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis show that in America, employment in non-routine cognitive and non-routine manual jobs has grown steadily since the 1980s, whereas employment in routine jobs has been broadly flat (see chart). As more jobs are automated, this trend seems likely to continue.

And this is only the start. “We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg. No office job is safe,” says Sebastian Thrun, an AI professor at Stanford known for his work on self-driving cars. Automation is now “blind to the colour of your collar”, declares Jerry Kaplan, another Stanford academic and author of “Humans Need Not Apply”, a book that predicts upheaval in the labour market. Gloomiest of all is Martin Ford, a software entrepreneur and the bestselling author of “Rise of the Robots”. He warns of the threat of a “jobless future”, pointing out that most jobs can be broken down into a series of routine tasks, more and more of which can be done by machines.

In previous waves of automation, workers had the option of moving from routine jobs in one industry to routine jobs in another; but now the same “big data” techniques that allow companies to improve their marketing and customer-service operations also give them the raw material to train machine-learning systems to perform the jobs of more and more people. “E-discovery” software can search mountains of legal documents much more quickly than human clerks or paralegals can. Some forms of journalism, such as writing market reports and sports summaries, are also being automated.•

A Texas millennial using apps and gadgets to disrupt Big Church doesn’t really seem odder than anything else in this hyperconnected and tech-happy entrepreneurial age, when the way things have been are threatened at every turn. At Experience Life in Lubbock, Soylent has yet to replace wine and there’s no Virtual Reality confessionals, but self-described “computer nerd” Chris Galanos has done his best to take the “Old” out of the Old Testament with his buzzing, whirring House of God 2.0. Is nothing sacred anymore?

From Robyn Ross at Texas Monthly:

The church’s casual, contemporary atmosphere drew a record 8,048 people to its ten services this past Easter. Outside the Southwest Campus, at the edge of town, where new homes rise from the windswept fields, a staffer played techno music at a booth that resembled a radio station remote broadcast. Greeters in shirts reading “Welcome Home” scanned the crowd for newcomers and escorted them to a VIP tent where they could pick up Dunkin’ Donuts and coffee. Inside, a volunteer with a glow stick escorted them from the lobby into the dark auditorium to reserved seats in the front row.

The cavernous space was lit only by the spotlights trained on the worship band and the screen behind it, which displayed the lyrics to the songs. By the time the band stopped playing, the room was packed with more than a thousand people, many of them wearing jeans. After some introductory remarks, the screen darkened, and a video began to play. A robed man portraying the disciple Peter—an eLife staffer, actually—appeared on the screen. “All I ever wanted to do was fish,” he began, explaining how he’d become one of Jesus’ disciples before recounting how Jesus was betrayed, crucified, and resurrected.

Near the end of the hourlong service, Chris Galanos, the church’s 34-year-old founding pastor, took the stage to preach on 1 Peter 1:18–20. Bespectacled, slight, and wearing jeans and an eLife polo shirt, he shifted his weight forward and back as he spoke, like a fencer preparing to lunge. “Peter’s reminding his readers, ‘You guys remember how Jesus ransomed you from your empty life? That ransom was the precious blood of Jesus.’ ” Galanos closed his Bible and looked at the crowd. “Have you ever asked God for ransom? Because people think they can get to heaven by being good, but we need a savior. You can’t pay your own ransom.”

At the end of his message, the band began to play, and row by row people rose to their feet, applauding. As spotlights twirled above the crowd and a fog machine hissed, the amplified bass reverberated through the crowd like a collective heartbeat. A woman held up her smartphone to film the scene as people lifted their hands in praise, a sea of outstretched palms silhouetted against the glowing screen.

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

  1. what would andy warhol do if he was president?
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  5. was one of donald trump’s parents an orangutan?
  6. deborah friedell writing about trump
  7. malcolm gladwell on ron popeil
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  10. chinese cloning factory
This week, a dishonest, divisive man with bizarre hair enjoyed a political victory, and it actually wasn't Donald Trump/

This week, a dishonest, divisive man with bizarre hair enjoyed a political victory, and it actually wasn’t Donald Trump.

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  • Tyler Cowen worries about the state of men in America (and elsewhere).
  • Evan Osnos turned out an article and Reddit AMA on guns in the U.S.
  • My hunch is the advent of driverless cars won’t lead to Suburbia 2.0.
  • Sustainability isn’t about recreating the past but learning from it.

Almost five years ago, I wondered if China, with its present government, could successfully transition from opening fake Apple Stores to creating a company as globally popular as Steve Jobs’ giant. Well, the citizens certainly purchase more authentic iPhones these days, but there’s still no hot product to export, for all of the country’s new wealth. Perhaps it’s just too soon or maybe a society so controlled doesn’t foster entrepreneurship.

In the Evan Osnos AMA I posted some exchanges from earlier this week, one questioner noted that China is expanding its presence on the world stage, while longtime powers like England and the U.S. seem to want to recede from globalization and into the past. But at the same time, the new superpower of Asia is beginning to experience its own growing pains–and not just financially. 

As Disney opens its first Shanghai theme park, it’s become clear to Chinese authorities and the citizenry that multinational entertainment-business deals with the West come with cultural and, perhaps, political concessions, even of it’s “China’s Disneyland” and not merely a “Disneyland in China,” as Bob Iger puts it with maximum politesse. The opening of “When Walt Went to China,” an article by Charles Clover at the Financial Times:

It is hard to think of two organisations that love synchronised dancing more than the Disney corporation and the Communist party of China. So when the two came together for the opening ceremony of Disney’s new $5.5bn theme park in Shanghai, the display was unsurprisingly choreographed to perfection.

Buzz Lightyear, Princess Elsa, Winnie the Pooh, Captain Jack Sparrow, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck: the full weight of Disney’s intellectual property holdings was arrayed in phalanx in front of the world’s largest Disney Palace — and China’s watching politburo — each dancing toy action figure, princess or superhero representing a discounted cash flow in the billions of dollars.

Fireworks, speeches, more fireworks, more speeches: there was not a lot of room for subtlety. This was, after all, the world’s biggest entertainment company celebrating its beachhead into the world’s fastest growing entertainment market. Everything was done to reinforce the impression that we were watching a salient event in the recent history of the world, the formation of a new strategic partnership or new power sharing agreement — that the global entertainment industry was now a US-China duopoly.

Yet Disney’s journey to Shanghai has been long and fraught, underlining Beijing’s schizophrenic relationship with mass American culture. Western brands are a particular neurosis for China — Mark Zuckerberg, for example, is treated as a celebrity whenever he comes to China, but Facebook remains blocked. Luxury brands such as Gucci count China and Chinese tourists as their main market, but also their most prolific copier and counterfeiter. That China has not yet created a globally successful brand is a peculiar source of humiliation in Beijing amid soul searching as to why.•

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LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JUNE 24: British Prime Minister David Cameron resigns on the steps of 10 Downing Street his wife Samantha Cameron listens on June 24, 2016 in London, England. The results from the historic EU referendum has now been declared and the United Kingdom has voted to LEAVE the European Union. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

As was the case with Donald Trump clinching the GOP nomination despite the deep disbelief of the American professional class, it seems Brexit’s success blindsided UK pundits and betting houses because few in positions of power and privilege could fully wrap their heads around such a self-immolating move. The question remains: How many Brexit supporters (and Trump ones) don’t comprehend the economic ramifications of anti-immigration policies and how many do know and simply don’t care?

Clive Crook of Bloomberg View has an excellent and sober-minded Reddit AMA about Brexit and its aftermath. A few exchanges follow.


Question:

Can you please give a general outline on the history behind this referendum? Why was this referendum even held at all? I see a lot of references to “Cameron’s gamble”; why did he feel he needed to gamble?

Clive Crook:

Cameron promised a referendum partly (his critics say entirely) to stifle dissent in the Conservative Party, so that they could unify and win the last general election. It worked — except, as you notice, for one thing! He underestimated the country’s disaffection with the EU (outside London anyway) and then, I think, fought a not very good campaign to Remain, overdoing “Project Fear”. The EU could have done a lot more to help him win, by the way. They saw him as a nuisance, not as an ally. Plenty of blame to go around.


Question:

How embedded is misinformation in 21st century politics?

Clive Crook:

Deeply! For sure. But I think it’s wrong to cast the breakdowns we see all around us as nothing more than the high-information elite vs the low-information rabble. What we’re seeing in Britain, in the rest of Europe, and in the US too, is a popular revolt against the elites. This is very dangerous — but it’s intelligible and not entirely without justification. I think it’s really important to keep that in mind.


Question:

Why were the betting houses so wrong?

Clive Crook:

That’s puzzling. The polls all through showed a close race. In the past few days, Leave moved ahead according to several polls. Yet the pollsters and the betting markets discounted the data — in the pollsters’ case, their own data. Not sure why. Like most people I thought undecideds would divide disproportionately in favor of Remain — the safe choice — but that didn’t happen.


Question:

What will be the first major crisis that common people in the UK will ‘feel’?

Clive Crook:

The next few days may qualify. Extreme financial-market turbulence can be dismissed as the City’s problem for a short while — but not if the govt and bank of England have to undertake emergency measures to stem the panic. Later, the big risk is collapsing inward investment.


Question:

Will Britain realistically be able to have more control over immigration independent of the EU?

Clive Crook:

I’m sure it would have more control. But you’re right to wonder whether it would like the results. Immigration has been a big net benefit to the UK.


Question:

Is this evidence that globalism has failed? Is the psychology of “diversity” just too difficult for people too manage?

Clive Crook:

Maybe. But I don’t know if it’s diversity so much. Partly, I guess. But the key trade-offs, I think, are: (1) benefits of globalization (higher living standards in the aggregate) vs costs (displaced workers), and (2) economic integration (net benefit) vs political integration (diminished self-government). Brexit is all about (2).


Question:

What are the odds of a united Ireland, do you think? Scotland’s already gone, in my estimation. I wonder because my wife is Irish and we’re wondering what the new map will look like. It’s astounding.

Clive Crook:

I don’t know if Scotland’s as good as gone. This is a very bad result for them, but the collapse in the oil price has turned the independence math against them. By the way, though, I can’t see that Scottish independence would be such a bad thing. If I were a Scot I would probably have voted for independence — confident that relations between Scotland and England would be friendly enough to preserve most of the benefits of full union. Ireland could be a problem if feelings get inflamed — but that should be avoidable. Brexit needn’t stop free movement of UK and Irish citizens across the N Irish border. If both sides want that — and they do — I think it can be worked out.


Question:

As an American I can see the seeds of discontent among the “working class,” etc. Here, however the dialogue/agenda has turned towards thinly veiled racism. What percentage of this decision do you think is based on race, or at least xenophobia?

Clive Crook:

I think it played a part. Outright racists made Brexit their vehicle. But I don’t think 52 percent of Brits are racists. I don’t think it’s necessarily racist to worry about open borders, or to think that Britain’s policy on migration (liberal or illiberal, as the case may be) should be decided in Westminster not Brussels. Tactically, by the way, I think it was a mistake to denounce the Leave campaign as basically driven by bigotry. If you call people bigots, you’re insulting them. And insulting people is not a good way to argue them round to your point of view.


Question:

Short outline of the best case scenario going forward? If that’s too broad, could ANY conceivable good come of this?

Clive Crook:

I can imagine an outcome not that different from being a full member of the EU — a kind of associate membership. Deep economic integration but without free movement of labor and all the apparatus of EU nation-building — you know, parliament, executive and supreme court. That would have suited Britain better all along. It was never on the table. Conceivably, it now might be. Though I wouldn’t bet on it. Other countries might want that dispensation too, and it would be the end of the organizing vision of Europe that’s guided things this far.•

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Bomani Jones conducted the Playboy Interview from Paris with Ta-Nehisi Coates, in the aftermath of the writer experiencing unexpected, large-scale success from his meditations on American racial injustice, a subject that often seems to plunge the country into mass amnesia. In one passage, the author is questioned about the difference between white and black Americans spewing nonsense theories, touching on, among others, political scientist Charles Murray, who thinks it’s somehow possible to be truly and deeply in love with both meritocracy and Sarah Palin.

An excerpt:

Question:

Is there anything related to race that you once believed and now look back on and say, “What was I thinking?”

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Yeah, there are crazy things that I believed. That whole iceman thing was total bullshit.

Question:

I take it you’re talking about Michael Bradley’s book The Iceman Inheritance, which attributes white racism to, among other things, sexual maladaptation in Caucasians.

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

See, these motherfuckers believe shit now and argue on it. I’ve had these fights with Andrew Sullivan about IQ. That’s his iceman. There’s no science behind this shit. But see, you’ve got institutions and guns behind it, right? You’ve got a whole power structure behind it that allows them to stand on the crazy shit I could not go out on. When I went to Howard they were like, “Ain’t no way you’re going to leave here talking that shit.” These motherfuckers get to go to Harvard and come out talking that shit. Charles Murray did this bubble study. Did you see that shit?

Question:

I did not.

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

How to determine whether you live in a bubble or not. It’s totally based on white people. No black person would take that study and have it tell them anything about their life. This motherfucker got the backing of Washington. These motherfuckers just get to spout crazy. This cat Marty Peretz, who used to run The New Republic, was an active racist and bigot spouting the worst poison in the world. This guy is in high reaches of society, getting degrees from Harvard. My pops said this shit to me one time: “The African’s right to be wrong is sacred.” When we’re wrong, it’s craziness, but when they’re wrong, it’s…Harvard.

Question:

In your back-and-forths with Sullivan and Jonathan Chait, they seemed to be wondering what was wrong with you. What was your thought when people said you seemed down, when you believed you were dealing in facts?

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

That’s what they say when they can’t fight you. They abandon the whole thought of any sort of empirical, historical, evidence-based argument, and they say, “Well, I don’t like where you’re coming from.” It’s like if I tell you I have empirical evidence that the world is going to end in five days and you’re like, “I don’t like how that sounds. Why are you bumming me out?” That’s something people apply to the dialogue around racism but they don’t apply to other shit. Kathryn Schulz won a Pulitzer Prize for this incredible piece that basically says the Pacific Northwest is going to get hit by a huge tsunami that will kill a lot of people. It’s the most pessimistic, dire shit you’d ever want to read. What if they said to Schulz, “You could sing us a song”? When people can’t fight you, they say, “Why are you so pessimistic?” It’s a different question than “Are you correct?”•

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The old legends were no help to us.

One of my favorite journalists at the New Yorker–anywhere, really–is Evan Osnos, who does wonderful work whether reporting on China or politics or whatever. His latest piece, “Making a Killing,” published in the wake of the horrific Orlando massacre, investigates the gun industry in America, now a “concealed-carry” country and home to an unofficial militia of millions with often-minimal firearms training.

He writes of this surprisingly recent phenomenon: “In 2015 fatalities from mass shootings amounted to just two per cent of all gun deaths. Most of the time, when Americans shoot one another, it is impulsive, up close, and apolitical.” Despite a marked decline in crime and hunting in recent decades, manufacturers have for a quarter century sold fear in order to peddle their lethal wares. It’s largely been wildly successful.

Osnos also conducted a companion Ask Me Anything at Reddit (a few exchanges are embedded below) in which he shares his belief that the nature of the debate is in flux, perhaps veering more toward stricter regulations. One aspect of the topic not discussed in either piece is the near-term future of 3D printers, which will probably be able to turn out an endless supply of perfectly workable handguns at some point over the next decade. When you have printers printing out other printers and so on, it’ll be difficult to get a grip on guns regardless of laws.


Question:

More than half of handgun deaths are suicides. A significant percent of the remainder are perpetrated by and against those willfully engaged in illegal gang and drug activity (not your stereotypical NRA member). And nearly all are due to handguns rather than rifles. Why is gun control focused on the low-hanging fruit of NRA and “assault weapons”?

Evan Osnos:

You’re absolutely right about the preponderance of gun deaths coming from handguns, not long guns. Often, this gets lost in the moments after a mass shooting that involves a long gun (usually semiauto, obviously). But I wouldn’t characterize the NRA as “low-hanging fruit.” They have been the most successful advocates for gun rights in the last century. The organization is essential to any discussion of guns, and they would agree with that (though not with criticism of them, of course).


Question:

I listened to a brief portion of your interview on Fresh Air and you said (paraphrasing) that the moment you introduce a gun to your house, you double the chances of a homicide. Is this not the fallacy of correlation and not causation? The moment I introduce a lawnmower to my house, I significantly increase my chances of accidents involving lawnmowers. If I have a swimming pool installed, I significantly increase the chance of drowning. You paint the picture of an uninformed gun owner by and far, responsible gun owners understand and take steps to minimize the risks of gun ownership.

Evan Osnos:

I hope you’ll have a chance to listen to the whole thing. The guns vs. swimming pool analogy has been dealt with pretty well elsewhere, so I won’t rehash other than to say that it’s difficult, but not impossible, to use a swimming pool to kill a spouse in a domestic dispute — or to use a swimming pool to kill your neighbor, or, if you’re unwell, to massacre people in a movie theatre. I’m not trying to be facetious; it’s an important point: Bringing a gun into the house raises your risks of homicide and that’s precisely the point. It’s not just the risk of homicide to a home invader, obviously.


Question:

In your reporting, what was the biggest myth about guns that you discovered?

Evan Osnos:

There are myths on both sides: Many gun-control advocates imagine gun-owners = NRA. They’re not the same. As I write in my piece many gun-owners are turned off by the fear-mongering, the insults to their intelligence. At the same time, I met a lot of gun owners who are convinced that urban elites want to confiscate their guns. The truth is that urban elites, if you want to call them that, could care less what others have stashed in their safes — they just don’t people getting shot all the time. There is so much room for people to meet in the middle on this, but it requires putting aside some myths we are convinced are true.


Question:

I’m in the process of reading your article, so I apologize if you covered this at length already, but in the research you’ve done, what would you say is the most impactful move that could be taken to immediately curb, to any extent, gun violence?

On a non-gun related point, what is your favorite piece that has been published by the New Yorker this year?

Evan Osnos:

Anybody — especially people who favor free markets — should conclude that the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act was a big mistake. Imagine if Exxon was protected from liability after the Valdez? That’s not how markets should work. It will probably be revised or repealed to make sure that companies are doing safe work — as with any industry.

Also, on TNY pieces, Patrick Keefe has been on a tear. Read and diagram and study anything he writes.


Question:

What was the most difficult aspect of investigating the NRA at that depth?

Evan Osnos:

I appreciated the fact that the NRA welcomes journalists to the annual meeting etc. It’s a fair way of ensuring people understand the organization. But the leadership, and the businesses that support the NRA, are oddly secluded. Wayne LaPierre gives very few interviews, and gunmaker CEOs almost never talk. It’s too bad because they could make a case for themselves.


Question:

I’ve read about how, for the NRA, part of selling self-defense is marketing towards women. As you were reporting, did you encounter many “success stories” involving women who used their guns?

Evan Osnos:

The NRA is making a big push on marketing to women — and it’s been doing this consistently for two decades. But it’s been an uphill climb. The General Social Survey shows that gun ownership among women has barely budged. This data drives the industry crazy, because they say they are seeing more women customers. So what gives? Multiple gun dealers told me they think that women are coming in more often as part of a group or a family. But it’s hard to get them to buy in the long term. So the core gun owner remains: white, male, aging.


Question:

I am uneducated in the gun industry and try not follow politics but here’s a question. Do you think that with big Associations like the NRA there is even a chance to get any sort of reform? It seems like we are in a battle that cannot be won, they simply have too much money and too much influence on politics for any real change to happen IMO.

Evan Osnos:

Actually, strangely perhaps, I have a different view: Studying guns reveals just how NON-static American political history is. Nothing stays the same for long. The strength of our system is, in fact, the resilience and flexibility of it. It’s the gay-marriage principle. History happens slowly, then all at once. I’m increasingly convinced we’re on course for a rapid shift of opinion on guns.•

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From the June 20, 1895 New York Times:

Newark, N.J.–There is trouble here between stockholders of the Universal Industrial Power Company, a corporation organized to furnish capital for manufacturing a machine for producing perpetual motion, and Michael Patrona, the inventor.

As a result of the trouble Patrona is now guarding with a shotgun the little shop where he claims to have the invention almost complete. He is afraid, he says, that capitalists who advanced the money will steal the design.

Patrona is an Italian and came to this country less than a year ago. Through Civela & Ceste of New-York he was introduced to capitalists here, among them Newark’s richest Italians. He represented to them that he had discovered the secret of perpetual motion.

The result of these representatives was the organization and incorporation of the Universal Industrial Power Company. Money was advanced from time to time to pay for castings, machinery, and other supplies, and also for $1 a day which Patrona was allowed while working on the machine. Thus far $8,000 has been advanced.

Patrona called a few days ago for more funds to put the machine together, claiming that all the parts were finished. The stockholders objected to putting up any more money until they had evidence of the success of Patrona’s labors. He refused this request on the ground that he might be robbed of his invention, on which he had been laboring for years. He assured the stockholders, however, that this would be the last call for funds.

The stockholders were just as obstinate as Patrona. As a result he has armed himself with a shotgun, and stands guard at the entrance to the building which holds what he calls his great invention.

Counsel for both sides will try to effect a compromise.•

I’m disappointed a relatively sober-minded person like James Baker can’t see past partisanship in regards to Donald Trump, Daddy Warbucks as an aspiring war criminal, but it’s no surprise Donald Rumsfeld supports the odious GOP nominee.

Rumsfeld, and unmitigated disaster as W’s Defense Secretary (Trump agrees), is still using his bullshit fog-of-war lexicon of obfuscation, deeming Trump a “known unknown,” and arguing Hillary should be indicted, a comment he makes without a seeming shred of self-awareness of the piles of dead bodies that were needlessly rendered such by both his willful actions and gross incompetence. 

From David Martosko at the Daily Mail:

An animated Rumsfeld, 83, was even more eager to talk about the Trump phenomenon, saying that a year ago ‘you could count on one hand’ the number of people who thought he would be the GOP nominee.

While the former defense secretary said he and Trump have never met, he agrees with the real estate tycoon about what Trump calls the potential for a ‘Trojan horse’ infiltration of terrorists among the Syrian refugees whom the Obama administration has been resettling in the U.S.

‘He’s absolutely right,’ he said. ‘Anyone who thinks the radical Islamists are not going to try to utilize every venue they can find to infiltrate in the United States, and in western European countries, to achieve their goals – these people just don’t get it.’ 

Rumsfeld framed the choice between Clinton and Trump in terms political historians will find familiar, relying on the words he used in 2002 to describe questions about the U.S. intelligence community’s ability to spot weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

“Mrs. Clinton is a known known. Donald Trump is a known unknown who’s a recent entry into the equation,’ he said, attributing the insight to his wife.

‘And I am a lot more comfortable with a known unknown, who I will support, than with a known known who is unacceptable.’•

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martin_scorsese_iphone_siri (3)

Uber has gone to great and often-unsavory lengths to try to promote itself as a savior of Labor–that is, when CEO Travis Kalanick isn’t having a wet dream about firing all the drivers.

Some live in a Libertarian fantasy in which the typical rideshare employee is just spinning the wheel until seed money comes in for his or her Silicon Valley startup, but any closer inspection tells you that solid, regulated taxi jobs are being replaced by sketchy, unstable ones. That doesn’t mean that Uber and Lyft haven’t offered improvements over traditional car services or that they should be unduly restrained, but let’s be honest about what’s happening here: The Gig Economy is bad for working-class people, who are already besieged by a variety of woes. 

An excellent BuzzFeed investigation by Caroline O’Donovan and Jeremy Singer-Vine has uncovered leaked documents that lay waste to the longstanding ridiculous contention that Uber drivers can make close to six figures if they keep their feet on the gas. An excerpt:

Detroit

“I like the job. But financially, it’s not doing it for me.”

This according to Steve Rogers, a 61-year-old driver who told BuzzFeed News that he’s been on the platform about a year. His experience jibes roughly with the data Uber gathered on Detroit, where the typical full-time driver barely earned more than Michigan’s current minimum wage of $8.50 per hour.

Of course, because Uber drivers are not employees of the company, Uber is not legally obligated to pay them the minimum wage.

Uber’s data represents all trips taken in Detroit between Dec. 7 and Dec. 21, 2015. During that period, Detroit drivers earned approximately $13.70 an hour before expenses and — given the assumptions above — about $8.77 an hour after expenses, according to BuzzFeed News estimates that were supplemented by additional data from Uber. That’s less than the $10 an hour Walmart promised to pay its employees in 2015.

Contract and wage work are not perfectly comparable. Uber argues that retail employees at companies like Walmart don’t enjoy the same independence and flexibility as Uber drivers. But as employees, Walmart workers are often entitled to benefits that contract Uber drivers don’t receive.•

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Recently, I published a post about Elon Musk’s Nick Bostrom bender, which has seen the Oxford philosopher influence Space X founder’s opinions on machine intelligence and reality as a video-game simulation. A little more on that topic via a Mark Robert Anderson piece at The Conversation, who debunks the Sims scenario while acknowledging the Martian hopeful may be right on certain points regarding Augmented Reality. An excerpt:

The idea that humans live in a reality controlled by external bodies, whether computers or otherwise, has been around for a while. This has been a question explored by philosophers and even physicists over the centuries. The philosopher Nick Bostrom drew thesame conclusion in 2003.

The similarities between the arguments put forward by Musk and Bostrom go further than proposing we are part of a larger computer simulation, though. Both consider the development of artificial intelligence (AI) to be a dangerous field of technology.According to Musk, the result of progress in AI research and development will be the end of civilisation.Bostrom takesa similar standpoint should appropriate risk assessment not be carried out on development projects.

Fact or fiction?

But is this just paranoia? The claims carry more than a passing resemblance to science fiction movies, such as The Matrix and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but are Musk and Bostrom voicing valid causes for concern?

The case that we are not living in a simulation is strongly supported by resource arguments. Consider the sheer computing power needed to run such a simulation. A simulation system would need to manage all the entities in the world and all their interactions. This would require a vast amount of processing. Further support can be found in arguments relating to quantum mechanics – to run a truly lifelike simulation of a city, with all its trillions of interactions, would require a city-sized computer. This makes the case for our existence in a simulation very unlikely.•


So strange and wonderful: In 1972, Rod Serling introduces I’ve Got a Secret host Steve Allen to the home version of the video game Pong. Begins at the 15:40 mark.

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It’s easier for builders to draw Utopia on a blank slate, what with all the imperfections that developed cities already possess, but urban centers that have grown organically from the bottom up offer lots of hidden stability. Perhaps because of new smart technologies and China’s top-heavy urbanization, some are still trying to create Shangri-La from scratch. Case in point: Songdo and Masdar, smart insta-cities that are supposed to show the rest of us the way it should be done. Things haven’t gone according to plan, however, because cities are at least as much biological as technological.

In a Demos Helsinki post, social psychologist 

2) SMART IS ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE TO PLAN

Unlike it is often made to seem in the hyped-up press, smart cities like Songdo and Masdar are seldom celebrated by the people who live in them – at least not in the way they were expected to. For example Songdo was envisioned as a futuristic international business hub, drawing residents from all over the world. Instead, it is now almost exclusively made up of Koreans:99 percent of homes are sold to locals. Similarly, it cost 22 billion dollars to build Masdar,but it is now barely occupied and more than halfway from reaching its ambitious emission reduction goals.

”When we plan, we tend to think that we understand people and what they want and need. We don’t”, Annala explains. ”Cities are highly complex organisms.” According to Annala, turning cities smart will require systematic engagement of those who are expected to live in these environments. ”Without end-user testing and systematic learning, it is practically impossible to plan a smart city that is loved by its inhabitants.”•


Masdar City abandoned its plan for a fleet of driverless, electric pod cars to replace gas-guzzling taxis.

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New York Times Newsroom AP Photo

John McPhee has been plying his trade as a writer long enough to have experienced computers as first a promise and then a threat. 

In a 1975 New Yorker piece, P-1800” (which is paywalled), the journalist was on the scene at the moment the New York Times was first transitioning from typewriters to computers, to create a work environment that was portable and largely paperless, the same year Businessweek first used that latter term. It involved not only word processing but being able to send the work via telephone line and save it to disc. In 2010, Peter Hessler of the Paris Review asked McPhee about the destabilization of the media industry by the new tools. Excerpts from the articles follow.


From the New Yorker:

Joseph Martin, a computer methodologist at the Times has been pursuing for years what he describes as ‘the ideal philosophy of creating a newspaper.’ According to the ideal philosophy, you start by ‘capturing the keystroke at the origin.’ Keystroke? The reporter, at the typewriter, hits the original keystrokes of a story. Martin aims to absorb them electronically, retain them in a computer, and eliminate all the laborious and manifold retypings that now occur as a piece of writing makes its way, typically, from reporters through bureaus to the home office to the desks of editors and eventually to linotype machines. The ideal philosophy also calls for the elimination of the typing paper that writers write on, which is regarded as an unnecessary and archaic encumbrance. Following suggestions of reporters and editors, and with the help of an electronics firm in Westchester, Martin has coaxed into being a device that can actually do this. The Times is just up the street from us. We went over there the other day to have a look.

In the third-floor newsroom, we found routine cacophony: a large open space as aswarm with bodies as the floor of a stock exchange, copy paper in motion everywhere, copy editors looking like physicists with crooked cigarettes and feral eyes, reporters hugging telephones or already down in the trenches–sporadic bursts of typing. The machine that was going to tranquilize this scene was locked away in a quiet cubicle. We were led to it by Joe Martin, a slim and somewhat solemn man with graying crewcut, and by Socrates Butsikares, an editor of decades’ experience on various news and feature desks, who now coordinates editorial-staff interests with those of the rest of the company and is thus deeply involved in the electronic innovation. A big man, Butsikares wore a bright-yellow shirt, and there were lemons on his tie. We were joined as well by Israel Shenker, who is an old friend of ours and is one of the Times’ bright-star reporters and most skillful writers. Shenker had not previously seen the machine that was designed to change the world.

At thirty-two pounds, it rested heavily on a table. Resembling a small blue suitcase, it was eighteen inches by thirteen by seven. It would fit under an airline seat. Its name was Teleram P-1800 Portable Terminal. Butsikares unpacked it. Its principal components were a TV-like cathode-ray tube and a freestanding keyboard that had the conventional ‘qwertyuiop’ arrangement of a typewriter keyboard plus flanking sets of keys that had designations such as ‘SCRL,’ “HOME,’ ‘DEL WORD,’ ‘DEL CHAR,’ ‘CLOSE,’ ‘OPEN,’ and ‘INSRT.’

Butsikares plugged the keyboard unit into the TV-screen unit, sat down, and began to write. As his fingers fluttered, words instantly surfaced on the screen, up to forty-four characters per line:

WASHINGTON, D.C.–President Ford said today that he would no longer ask the Congress to soak the poor while his fat-cat rich friends take away the wealth of the Republic.

‘Now, suppose you want to get a little color into this,’ Butsikares said, and he began tapping keys–marked with arrows pointing up, pointing down, pointing sideways–around the word ‘HOME.’ A tiny square of light known as the ‘cursor’ began to move up the face of the tube. It was something like the bouncing ball that used to hop from word to word in song lyrics on movie screens. It climbed to the first line, then moved left until Butsikares stopped it in the space between ‘Ford’ and ‘said.’ He tapped the ‘INSRT’ key. He then wrote:

, who was wearing his faborite blue suit and his soup-stained blue tie,

The new words came into the space after ‘Ford,’ and to accommodate them the cursor kept shoving to the right all the other words in the sentence. They went around corners and down the screen. Busikares moved the cursor until it rested upon and illuminated the ‘b’ in ‘faborite.’ He pressed the ‘DEL CHAR’ (delete character) button, and the ‘b’ vanished. He replaced it with a ‘v.’ ‘Now, suppose you want to take a word out,’ he said, and moved the cursor to the word ‘away.’ ‘All the cursor has to do is touch any part of the word,’ he went on. ‘Then you hit the ‘DEL WORD’ key, and it’s gone.’ Away went ‘away,’ and the words to either side moved to within a space of each other. Similarly, the cursor could–if directed to–eat whole lines, whole paragraphs. ‘What you have written is not set in cement,’ Butsikares said. ‘You can change anything easily. If I had my druthers, I’d rather write on this thing than on any typewriter I’ve ever seen.”•


From the Paris Review:

Question:

Do you worry about outlets diminishing for writers?

John McPhee

I’m really concerned about it. And nobody knows where it’s going—particularly in terms of the relationship of the Internet to the print media. But writing isn’t going to go away. There’s a big shake-up—the thing that comes to mind is that it’s like in a basketball game or a lacrosse game when the ball changes possession and the whole situation is unstable. But there’s a lot of opportunities in the unstable zone. We’re in that kind of zone with the Internet.

But it’s just unimaginable to me that writing itself would die out. OK, so where is it going to go? It’s a fluid force: it’ll come up through cracks, it’ll go around corners, it’ll pour down from the ceiling. And I would have counseled anybody ten, twenty, and thirty years ago the same thing I’m saying right now, which is, as a young writer, you should think about writing a book. I don’t think books are going to go away.•

ukip

Not being intimately familiar with the nuances of the U.K.’s politics and culture, I’m wary of assigning support for Brexit to ugly nativist tendencies, but it does seem a self-harming act provoked by the growing pains of globalism. It may not be as dumb a move as a President Trump, for instance, but some of the same forces are at play, particularly when it comes to the pro-Brexit, anti-immigration UKIP party.

It’s not shocking that Britain and the U.S. are trying to dodge the arrival of a new day and greater competition, a time when empires can’t merely strike back at will. We’re richer now, we have better things, but the distribution is very uneven and we feel poor inside. For some, maybe a surprising number, blame must be assigned to the “others.” As Randy Newman sang: “The end of an empire is messy at best.”

From Andrew Brown’s excellent Boston Globe essay about Brexit, which the great Browser pointed me to:

In 1945, things were dreadful, but everyone knew their role and knew what their country should do. Now things are very much better, but no one knows where they belong. The post-war consensus and much of the optimism lasted until about 1973 but collapsed altogether under Margaret Thatcher. In a sense, this campaign is the last outworking of her legacy. Both sides of the argument are the children of Thatcher, who opposed the European Union rhetorically and emotionally but did as much as any political leader to knit us into the single market.

The Remainers are largely those who profited from her revolution: the rich, the skilled, and the educated, especially those who live in London and the South East portion of England. At the same time, they tend to be the people who resisted and were repelled by her message and her instinctive social nostalgia. They are, in a word, Blairites: He largely continued her policies but switched the rhetoric 180 degrees to welcome a future as quite glorious — and imaginary — as Thatcher’s vision of the past had been.

Under both Tony Blair and Thatcher, and under their successors, the rising prosperity of London and the South East has been accompanied by an astonishing loss of jobs, hope, and self-confidence in other parts of the country. There, in the traditional heartland of England, is where the Brexit movement draws its emotional strength. The Leavers are mostly those who lost out from what Mrs Thatcher did but drew nourishment by what she said. So they felt doubly betrayed in the post-Blair era, when the economics of the new order went on hurting them, and the rhetoric turned against them, too.

But the Leavers are not a homogenous group. Take away their English nationalism, and they fall into two profoundly opposed groups. By far the largest are the foot soldiers, small-c conservative and genuinely hostile to immigrants of every sort. (More than half the immigrants in this country are from outside the European Union.) The ordinary Leavers are found almost everywhere outside London, in all the places where globalization has devastated the economy and where many of the jobs that are left have gone to foreigners.

They are nourished by the extraordinary and unremitting hostility to “Migrants” in some parts of the press.•

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dentondaulerio

There’s almost no publication I’d like to see go out of business, apart from anything resembling Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic trash of a bygone era. Even when it’s seemingly hopeless that today’s dubious properties will improve, I still hope. The worst of them present some useful news and contribute to the dialogue to a degree.

Gawker is far from hopeless or the worst. It has presented lots of useful information and opinions along with some glaringly reckless stupidity. Hopefully, the Peter Thiel-backed Hulk Hogan lawsuit won’t a be a fatal error for it and its many sister sites. Of course, it won’t really matter in the long run if no lessons have been absorbed on the inside of the independent institution.

In a Time Q&A conducted by Belinda Luscombe, Gawker founder Nick Denton speaks candidly about his trial and finances. Denton makes two comments I disagree with:

1) He says he admires Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes because they put out “good, true, provocative stories.” For the most part, the two men have enriched themselves by delivering distortions of the truth under the guise of news.

2) On Thiel stealthily funding the Hogan lawsuit, Denton says, “I doubt that any billionaire will be pursuing precisely this template again, having seen how strong the backlash is.” If no other billionaires fund a similar suit, I doubt it will be because of any backlash. If someone is that petty and that rich, popular opinion probably doesn’t mean a whole lot. If another such case fails to materialize, it would be because there aren’t too many people with Thiel’s wherewithal that also have his many personality quirks.

In one exchange, the embattled publisher reveals his thoughts on the near-term reality of the media business. God help us if Facebook, a non-news company, is the only general-news brand in a few years. The excerpt:

Time:

What will the media landscape look like five years down the road?

Nick Denton:

First of all, I think that properties like Gizmodo and Lifehacker and Deadspin and Jezebel have a much better chance of prospering in this new world than general news brands, news and media brands. Facebook will be the only general news brand, and maybe another social network or two. The more specialized, more focused publications will be the ones that prosper. I think that’s one thing that’s going to happen. And my personal interest is to find a way online to allow writers and readers and subjects and sources to debate and develop a story together. Not necessarily through conflict and trollery, but through civil disagreements online which further everybody’s understanding of an issue.•

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Elon-musk-iron-man (1)

If you look through history, great inventors had their breaks from reality–Edison believing he could create a device to communicate with the dead, Marconi thinking he had the ability to exchange Morse Code with Martians. That seems to be part and parcel of large-scale technological dreamers. Elon Musk acknowledges that he’s sometimes given to delusions, but it’s possible that driverless electric cars, the  near-term colonization of Mars and the Hyperloop are not among them. Time will tell.

At Recode’s Code conference, Musk announced the autonomous-car challenge essentially solved and commented on this poisonous U.S. political season. He remarked that the President is the “captain of a large ship with a small rudder.” Musk may be working with a smaller vessel, but he believes its rudder world-changing.

From Brad Stone at Bloomberg Technology:

The South Africa-born entrepreneur is known for his unvarnished views on, say, how malevolent artificial intelligence could doom the human race or space exploration being key to humanity’s evolution. Musk — who said he occasionally succumbs to delusion — debated the best form of government (democracy) for a putative Mars colony, and the need for entrepreneurs to start businesses from iron-ore smelters to pizza delivery that can thrive in that planet’s harsh environment. But he also touched on matters far closer to home, including the divisive U.S. elections. Asked about controversial Republican candidate Donald Trump, Musk said no one person had the clout to affect the entire country, not even the Commander-in-Chief.

“I don’t think this is the finest moment for our democracy,” he said. “Being U.S. president is being the captain of a large ship with a small rudder. There is a limit to how much good or bad a president can do.”

Business-wise, Musk welcomed competition in what he called an increasingly crowded electric and self-driving arena, including from Apple Inc., which he expected to begin producing cars in volume by 2020. The iPhone maker however has never confirmed any plans on that front. Google Inc. on the other hand, which has spent years researching and testing autonomous vehicles, posed no direct threat.

“There’ve been so many announcement s of autonomous EV startups. I’m waiting for my mom to announce one,” he said. “Google’s done a good job of showing the potential of autonomous transport, but they’re not a car company.”•

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