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Wernher von Braun, center, with Willy Ley, right, in 1954.

Ley with daughter Xenia at the Hayden Planetarium, 1957.

Ley with daughter Xenia at the Hayden Planetarium, 1957.

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The top photograph offers an odd juxtaposition: That’s Wernher von Braun, a rocketeer who was a hands-on part of Hitler’s mad plan, whose horrid past was whitewashed by the U.S. government (here and here) because he could help America get a man on the moon; and Willy Ley, a German science writer and space-travel visionary who fled the Third Reich in 1935.

A cosmopolitan in an age before globalization, Ley only wanted to share science around the world and encourage humans into space and onto the moon. He knew early on Nazism was madness leading to mass graves, not space stations. When Ley arrived in America for a supposed seven-month visit by using falsified documents to escape Germany, he worked a bit on an odd rocket-related program: Ley led an effort to use missiles to deliver mail. It was a long way to go to get postcards from point A to point B, and an early attempt failed much to the chagrin of Ley, who donned a spiffy asbestos suit for the blast-off. An article on the plan’s genesis ran in the February 21, 1935 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

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According to the Economist, the narrative of Donald Trump as avenging agent of white working-class Americans left behind by globalization and technology is a seriously overstated myth. The great majority of his supporters, the magazine reports, are doing quite well. My best guess is the well-to-do ones are likely drawn to the hideous hotelier by Identity Politics or racial bias. 

In a Newsweek piece, “Trump Revolution Rooted in Resentment of Technology,” Kevin Maney relies on other reports that conversely name a lack of college degree the surest indicator of a Trump follower. The columnist argues that our economy is currently one of Atoms vs. Bits, which means a battle between a declining industrial sector and an ascendant information one. The Atoms, Maney writes, are the truckers, factory workers and other laborers raging against the dying of the light.His theory is an oversimplification as any broadly drawn one is, but it’s hard to deny the societal transformation we’re now experiencing. 

Which idea about Team Trump is more correct? Both are probably true enough to be troubling in their own ways, as the rise of the current hate-filled nationalism knows many parents.

Maney’s opening:

We’ve got two Americas now: Atoms America and Bits America.

People used to worry about a digital divide. Well, that’s now looking more like the border between North Korea and South Korea—tense and bristling with pointed missiles, one nervous misunderstanding away from mayhem. This new dynamic is evident in everything from the transgender bathroom laws in the South to proposals from Silicon Valley to institute basic income for all the people technology is going to throw out of work.

And while we’re at it, let’s include the 2016 presidential election, which is really all about Atoms vs. Bits.

Twenty years ago, Nicholas Negroponte, then head of the MIT Media Lab, wrote about the changing relationship between atoms and bits in his book Being Digital. Atoms make up physical stuff. Bits are digital. As Negroponte presciently pointed out, atoms represent the old economy of manufacturing and trucks and retail stores and, as it turns out, a lot of middle-class work. Bits drive the new economy—which today includes mobile apps, social networks, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, 3-D printing and other technologies that are eating the old economy.

Atoms America is getting poorer and angrier. Bits America pretty much rules the global economy and churns out billionaires.

Atoms America wants to “make America great again” because reclaiming the past seems a hell of a lot better than whatever the future holds. Bits America patronizingly believes that the Atoms people would be fine, at least in the short run, if they would only take some Khan Academy courses and learn to code.•

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China and Apple have risen to new heights simultaneously, and that’s not completely a coincidence. Steve Jobs’ products were manufactured in Foxconn factories and sold for prices that would have been impossible had they been made in a more developed country like, say, America. While the Chinese couldn’t afford the products initially and settled for knockoffs, during the Tim Cook era they’ve embraced the genuine iPhone with both hands. 

Apple’s recent announcement that it would invest $1 billion in a Chinese ride-hailing company may have seemed odd on the surface, but down below it was an investment in driverless, Chinese markets and, ultimately, markets all over the world. Whether the wager pays off is years from being known, but it is an informed gamble.

From Brian Fung at the Washington Post:

Apple’s backing of the ride-hailing company makes sense for a host of reasons. The blossoming partnership could insulate the U.S. tech giant from a global slowdown in iPhone sales. It may lead to even greater visibility for Apple in China, something it has spent years pursuing even as the country has frustrated other foreign tech companies. And the deal could help Apple understand how to build better online services, an area where the company has had mixed success but is increasingly exploring with ventures such as Apple Pay and Apple Music. (Besides, the vast majority of Apple’s $233 billion in cash and securities is parked overseas. Investing that money in the United States would come with a hefty tax bill.)

Through the deal, Apple is expected to gain access to highly valuable data on the 11 million trips a day made through Didi. That information will be immensely useful, not only for Apple’s traditional business selling phones and computers in China, but also for its attempts to design a vehicle that could someday appeal to drivers around the world, analysts say.

“This valuable data is critical to all manufacturers interested in developing a fully autonomous future,” said Tony Lim, an analyst at Kelley Blue Book. “The learnings from China can be applied here in the U.S. and other industrialized nations.”•

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YIWU, CHINA - MAY 18: (CHINA OUT) A "female" robot waiter delivers meals for customers at robot-themed restaurant on May 18, 2015 in Yiwu, Zhejiang province of China. Sophomore Xu Jinjin in 22 years old from Hospitality Management of Yiwu Industrial and Commercial College managed a restaurant where a pair of robot acted as waiters. The "male" one was named "Little Blue" (for in blue color) and the "female" one was "Little Peach" (for in pink) and they could help order meals and then delivered them to customers along the magnetic track and said: "Here're your meals, please enjoy". According to Xu Jinjin, They had contacted with the designer to present more robot waiters to make the restaurant a real one that depends completely on robots. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

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If, like myself, you gained great insight from The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, a book that predicted technology was poised to reinvent our economy specifically and society more broadly, you might be wondering if the authors have changed their minds in any essential way since it was published in 2014. That would have once been a ridiculously short time to reconsider such paradigm-shifting prognostications, but no more. In that span, AlphaGo enjoyed a convincing victory, Tesla owners traveled 100 million miles on Autopilot and SpaceX safely landed a reusable booster rocket on a drone ship. 

McAfee just (remotely) delivered a keynote address, “The Future of Jobs,” for Agoria in Belgium, and the short answer is he believes what he did before but only more so now. The MIT professor has grown even more assured due to technological progress in three keys areas: 1) speech comprehension, 2) pattern recognition and matching and 3) non-repetitive tasks. These advances he’s witnessed in his research have convinced him that “if the world’s best medical diagnostician today is not a piece of technology, it will be fairly soon.”

On AlphaGo’s triumph and Deep Learning, McAfee says, “If you give these machines enough examples, they don’t need to be taught by a human being anymore. This is a big difference…we don’t know exactly what the implications are going to be.” Even the inventors of AI Go champion were shocked by its play, which might be a wonderful development but is also definitely a little concerning. 

“When I look into the future,” he says, “i see technology acquiring human level or, in many cases, even superhuman level abilities in jobs that use to belong to human beings alone. These technologies are coming more quickly than what we thought ten years ago or even five years ago….We’re going to see a lot of technologies coming into the economy taking over tasks and jobs.”

Although McAfee is largely optimistic about tomorrow, he acknowledges there are no easy answers for job and wage problems. The prescriptions he offers are similar to the ones he and Brynjolfsson suggested in Second Machine Age: Don’t embrace Ludditism or try to protect the past, remove barriers to entrepreneurship and, if necessary, utilize the earned income tax credit and other social safety nets to bring everyone up to a decent standard of living.

McAfee is a staunch believer that work is an agent for good in society in myriad ways and must be preserved, but I’m not sure if that will be possible if the technological onslaught he foresees arrives over the next several decades.•

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My near-term concerns about Labor have nothing to do with jobs being handed over to robots powered by brain scans of the greatest geniuses among our species. It may seem thin gruel by comparison, but Weak AI (driverless cars, delivery drones, robot bellhops, etc.) can do plenty to destabilize society. Not only are jobs traditionally filled by humans to disappear but entire industries will rise and fall with dizzying speed. In the aggregate, this transition could be a good thing, with the resulting challenge being we need to find an answer not for scarcity but distribution. 

The futuristic scenario I presented at the opening comes from the pages of The Age of Ems: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth, a speculative book by Robin Hanson, who often seems to be mid-chug on a sci-fi bender at Chalmun’s Cantina. The author feels AI is evolving too slowly in its march toward intelligent machines but his scanning scheme is close to reality. Whatever scenario is realized to bring about superintelligence, however, Hanson believes the sea change is coming very soon and everyone will be caught in its waves. In the very long run, anything is possible, but I’m not too anxious over his theory, though I plan on reading the title.

Pivoting off Hanson’s new volume, Zoe Williams has written a thoughtful Guardian piece about fashioning a stable and fair society if work is offloaded to Ems, AIs or WTFs. An excerpt:

Robin Hanson thinks the robot takeover, when it comes, will be in the form of emulations. In his new book, The Age of Em, the economist explains: you take the best and brightest 200 human beings on the planet, you scan their brains and you get robots that to all intents and purposes are indivisible from the humans on which they are based, except a thousand times faster and better.

For some reason, conversationally, Hanson repeatedly calls these 200 human prototypes “the billionaires”, even though having a billion in any currency would be strong evidence against your being the brightest, since you have no sense of how much is enough. But that’s just a natural difference of opinion between an economist and a mediocre person who is now afraid of the future.

These Ems, being superior at everything and having no material needs that couldn’t be satisfied virtually, will undercut humans in the labour market, and render us totally unnecessary. We will all effectively be retired. Whether or not we are put out to a pleasant pasture or brutally exterminated will depend upon how we behave towards the Ems at their incipience.

When Hanson presents his forecast in public, one question always comes up: what’s to stop the Ems killing us off? “Well, why don’t we exterminate retirees at the moment?” he asks, rhetorically, before answering: some combination of gratitude, empathy and affection between individuals, which the Ems, being modelled on us precisely, will share (unless we use real billionaires for the model).•

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One person can make a big difference, which can be a good or bad thing.

St. Louis has become an unlikely world capital of chess thanks to the constant urging and philanthropy of Rex Sinquefield, who was raised in an orphanage after his father’s death and grew fabulously wealthy via index funds. His largesse extends beyond the cerebral game of kings and pawns, however, as the megarich Missouri man has also poured millions into promoting a staunch right-wing economic agenda. To some he’s a hero and to others a mixed blessing.

From David Edmonds at BBC News:

Much of this has to do with one man. Rex Sinquefield, a grey-haired man in his early 70s, is sitting in the audience watching the US Chess Championship. He’s in his shorts, wearing a baseball cap, and fuelling his concentration with glass after glass of Diet Coke. Sinquefield is a rich man, and he likes chess. He likes it so much he’s put tens of millions of dollars into the game. No, he’s not partially responsible for the renaissance in American chess, former US champion Yasser Seirawan corrects me – he’s entirely responsible.

The scale of Sinquefield’s wealth is unknown. He claims, a bit implausibly, that he himself has no idea. Unlike other super-rich, he’s not one to brag about his bank account, though it’s widely assumed he’s a billionaire. The money comes from a career in finance – he created some of the first index funds, funds that are cheap to run because they simply track the performance of a stock-market index.

In Missouri, Rex is a deeply contentious figure, a looming giant of local politics -Tyrannosaurus Rex, he’s been called. He pushes a radical free-market agenda and wants to abolish the state income tax. He’s funded right-wing think tanks and backed selected candidates to the tune of $40m (£28m) – no-one in the state has ever given more. Missouri is the only state in the United States which has no limits to campaign donations, a freedom Sinquefield has exploited to the full. Laura Swinford of Progress Missouri, an advocacy organisation, believes his power in politics is pernicious: “I think we would all throw ticker-tape parades down the centre of the city if he would only focus on chess and his charitable donations,” she says.

But Sinquefield says his political donations are small change compared to the sums he has spent on chess and other charities.•

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Like Charles Bukowski’s ill-fated little children, newspapers have been dying in the trees in this new millennium. Perhaps you’ll be lucky and an apparently journalism-friendly plutocrat minted in Gilded Age 2.0 will plunk down some change for your favorite newspaper, as Jeff Bezos did with the Washington Post, or maybe Sam Zell acquires Tribune Media and all manner of mishegoss ensues. Those are the uneven outcomes of the Digital Era, in which you need to pray for the right billionaire to come to your rescue.

When Sheldon Adelson recently ponied up the cash for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, anonymously at first, the second scenario seemed most likely to materialize. It still does. The right-wing casino owner and subject of a criminal probe was purchasing power, hoping to silence reporting that ran counter to his financial interests and political agenda. Accusations and resignations in the newsroom have become commonplace, though Adelson has attempted to quell dissent by pumping cash into the beleaguered property, which it desperately needs. The news business has always been a Faustian bargain, even during the flush years, but the end-of-days reality for broadsheets and tabloids has often brought with it a whole different degree of compromise.

From Sydney Ember’s excellent New York Times piece about the growing credibility gap inside the embattled publication:

With newspapers struggling to survive, it is not uncommon for wealthy businesspeople to step in and buy them — Jeff Bezos with The Washington Post, for instance, and John Henry with The Boston Globe. Each case presents potential conflicts in covering the owner’s businesses, as well as concerns that the owner might attempt to influence coverage.

The problem is particularly acute for The Review-Journal. Mr. Adelson, the chairman of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, is a casino magnate, a powerful Republican donor, a patron of education and a fierce defender of Israel, and his myriad interests present an almost singular example of how aggressive journalism can collide with the pursuits of a paper’s owner.

That new dynamic has roiled the ranks of the newsroom, creating a divide between top editors who see it as part of their job to review coverage of Mr. Adelson, and staff members who chafe at what they perceive as inappropriate interference. In the nearly six months since Mr. Adelson purchased the paper, at least a dozen journalists have quit, been fired or made plans to leave soon; many cite a strained work environment and untenable oversight, in particular regarding the coverage of a bitter legal dispute related to Sands’s operations in Macau.

There are advantages to having a billionaire as an owner, staff members agree. The newspaper has hired reporters and a graphic artist, and is upgrading its videography and photography equipment. Some employees, including Ms. Robison, have been given pay raises. A broken sewer pipe under the building has been fixed. Recently, the paper bought drones to use for news coverage.•

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From the August 20, 1850 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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MOOCs feel mostly like misses for the moment but so did the phonograph and automobile originally. Outsize ambitions still abound, with Sebastian Thrun of Udacity having recently said, “If I could double the world’s GDP, it would be very gratifying to me.” Yes, that would be nice. In John Thornhill’s smart Financial Times piece about online education, the former Google driverless guru has a more sober quote: “It is not clear that the existing universities are the right places to create education.”

Higher education’s endless layers of administration, insane sticker prices and pauper professors have left an opening for MOOCs, but this nouveau learning industry will likely be only as successful as its products are good. Thornhill opens his piece about EdTEch with a story about French education innovator Xavier Niel:

With no teachers, timetables, or exams, Ecole 42 is a strange kind of educational institution, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Students shuffle into this tech-enabled school whenever they want and work as hard as they need.

Is this the future of education?

Xavier Niel, the French internet and telecoms billionaire who founded the coding school for young adults in Paris in 2013, certainly thinks so. He chose the school’s number for a reason. As fans of Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy know, 42 is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything.

So sure is Mr. Niel that he has found the answer that he has committed himself to funding Ecole 42 for the next decade and is spending a further $100m on a new school in San Francisco. There are several ironies in a French entrepreneur teaching Silicon Valley geeks how to code.

Mr. Niel argues that smartly designed online courses are more effective than traditional classroom teaching methods. Students learn best by pursuing online projects by themselves and by interacting with each other. Peer-to-peer lending may be going through a rough patch, but peer-to-peer learning may be on the rise. “We are preparing people to learn together,” he says.•

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Isabell Hülsen of Spiegel conducted an excellent Q&A with Henry Blodget, that mixed blessing, about digital and traditional media landscapes. The subject reinvented himself with Business Insider, returning to his journalistic roots after being charged with securities fraud and banned for life from the sector.

Blodget is relatively sanguine about the future of online journalism, though he acknowledges those seeking success will have to skillfully balance serious reportage and cat memes. There’s no discussion about the many publications basing a good chunk of their futures on video, which seems likely another bubble that could pop once advertisers take a closer look.

In one exchange, Blodget says this: “In the new world of digital, there are no must-read publications any more.” That reminds me of something Jake Silverstein, the excellent editor of the New York Times Magazine, said not that long ago. He asserted his ambition was to make his publication indispensable, one you had to read if you wanted to sound informed at a party. That simply doesn’t exist anymore–the party’s over. That reality has probably made our world better in the big picture, though something has been lost with what’s been gained.

An excerpt:

Spiegel:

The power of digital publishing lies in the ability to know what readers like, which stories they actually read and which ones they don’t — and to give them more of what they like. This creates the danger of a filter bubble.

Henry Blodget:

What do you mean by filter bubble?

Spiegel:

Reading becomes a sort of self-optimization and self-reference, the only things that get through to me from the flood of information are those which I want to consume and which I like. My Facebook and Twitter feeds filter what fits into my conception of the world.

Henry Blodget:

I don’t think that is actually what is happening. In fact, we have more information than ever before, and it is harder than ever to avoid actually seeing what the other side is saying. Yes, we focus on publications that we feel speak to us, but that is exactly the same way it was 20 or 100 years ago. In the US, two million people have subscribed to the New York Times and many more millions think theNew York Times is a terrible, liberal paper they would never read. We can, of course, choose to put ourselves in a bubble of only people who agree with us, but in the digital world there are many more ways of saying “Hey, here is something you might want to consider.”

Spiegel:

How compatible is the idea of offering readers more and more of what they like with the role of journalists in a democratic society: to publish information that is relevant to our social coexistence but not necessarily read by millions of people; to investigate and uncover scandals and cases of wrongdoing?

Henry Blodget: 

Before the internet, big publications were like hydrants in the desert. There were relatively few of them, we needed each one of them tremendously and they had control over what was delivered. Now they are like little streams flowing into a massive ocean. An example: Before the internet, a journalist would write an article about a company that the company felt was unfair and missed a point. All they could do was write a letter to the editor and wait, and maybe a week later it would be printed, or not. Now, they can go to medium.com and immediately publish a long rebuttal, saying the journalist forgot this and did not consider that, the analyst is wrong here. Everybody pulls that immediately into the debate. So it is a much more democratic field for ideas.•

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China’s authoritarianism is an existential risk politically, though it does have some short-term benefits. Case in point: A top-down plan being overseen by Baidu is insinuating autonomous technology in Wuhu, aiming over a five-year stretch to turn it into the world’s first driverless city. More accurately, at the end of that term, robocars and human-driven ones are to share the road, the way horse-drawn and machine cars did for a spell more than a century ago. If it can work in Wahu, it will be possible anywhere.

From BBC Technology:

Chinese hi-tech firm Baidu has unveiled a plan to let driverless vehicles range freely around an entire city.

The five-year plan will see the autonomous cars, vans and buses slowly introduced to the eastern city of Wuhu.

Initially no passengers will be carried by the vehicles as the technology to control them is refined via journeys along designated test zones.

Eventually the test areas will be expanded and passengers will be able to use the vehicles.

“They want to be the first city in the world to embrace autonomous driving,” said Wang Jing, Baidu’s head of driverless cars, in an interview with the BBC’s Click programme.

“This is the first city that is brave enough, daring enough and innovative enough to test autonomous driving,” he said.•

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Car accidents are almost never accidents in the truest sense of the word, with the culpability overwhelmingly residing with drivers who are distracted, drunk, pilled up, sleepy, agitated or simply incompetent. It’s been especially bad recently with traffic-related deaths rising at an alarming rate. These are exactly the kind of facts technologists cite when touting the lifesaving powers of driverless, which will happen at some point even if it’s not quite as soon as Musks and Googlers hope. Until that day, some in the traffic-safety world think we’d be better served by a change in vernacular that would stop referring to these crashes and collisions as “accidents.”

From Matt Richtel at the New York Times:

Roadway fatalities are soaring at a rate not seen in 50 years, resulting from crashes, collisions and other incidents caused by drivers.

Just don’t call them accidents anymore.

That is the position of a growing number of safety advocates, including grass-roots groups, federal officials and state and local leaders across the country. They are campaigning to change a 100-year-old mentality that they say trivializes the single most common cause of traffic incidents: human error.

“When you use the word ‘accident,’ it’s like, ‘God made it happen,’ ” Mark Rosekind, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said at a driver safety conference this month at the Harvard School of Public Health.

“In our society,” he added, “language can be everything.”

Almost all crashes stem from driver behavior like drinking, distracted driving and other risky activity. About 6 percent are caused by vehicle malfunctions, weather and other factors.•

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Since the 16th century, the human brain has often been compared to a machine of one sort or another, with it being likened to a computer today. The idea that the brain is a machine seems true to me, though the part about gray matter operating in a similar way to the gadgets that currently sit atop our laps or in our palms is patently false. But I still find myself lazily referring to brains as computers, product of my age that I am. 

In a wonderfully argumentative and provocative Aeon essay, psychologist Robert Epstein says this reflexive labeling of human brains as information processors is a “story we tell to make sense of something we don’t actually understand.” He doesn’t think the brain is tabula rasa but asserts that it doesn’t store memories like an Apple would.

It’s a rich piece of writing full of ideas and examples, though I wish Epstein would have relied less on the word “never” (e.g., “we will never have to worry about a human mind going amok in cyberspace”), because while he’s almost certainly correct about the foreseeable future, given enough time no one knows how the machines in our heads and pockets will change.

An excerpt:

A healthy newborn is also equipped with more than a dozen reflexes – ready-made reactions to certain stimuli that are important for its survival. It turns its head in the direction of something that brushes its cheek and then sucks whatever enters its mouth. It holds its breath when submerged in water. It grasps things placed in its hands so strongly it can nearly support its own weight. Perhaps most important, newborns come equipped with powerful learning mechanisms that allow them to change rapidly so they can interact increasingly effectively with their world, even if that world is unlike the one their distant ancestors faced.

Senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms – this is what we start with, and it is quite a lot, when you think about it. If we lacked any of these capabilities at birth, we would probably have trouble surviving.

But here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever.

We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representations of visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation into a long-term memory device. We don’t retrieve information or images or words from memory registers. Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not.

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Leon Theremin, who died in 1993 at age 97, was most famously the creator of an electronic instrument in the 1920s that seemingly stole music from the air. Considered the Russian counterpart to Thomas Edison for his innovations in sound and video, he also created ingenious spying devices for the Soviet Union when he returned to his homeland–perhaps he was kidnapped by KGB agents but probably not–after a decade in the U.S. Two January 25, 1928 Brooklyn Daily Eagle articles (here and here) reported on the inventor’s Manhattan demonstration of his namesake instrument in front of a star-studded audience.

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Here’s a 1962 demonstration of the Theremin on I’ve Got A Secret. The mysterious machine still needed explaining more than three decades after its invention. Musician Paul Lipman does the honors.

Theremin making music himself.

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I recently listened to a decades-old Jack Gariss radio lecture about Arnold Toynbee’s views on history and religion, with the host relating he’d come to disavow certain previously held beliefs in the aftermath of the Apollo moon landing. Gariss felt after Einstein and Armstrong, our place in the center of the universe had vanished. Everything was relative now. “I did not realize how much I’d changed, perhaps we’d all changed, in our perspective,” the spiritual guru said in response to re-reading An Historian’s Approach to Religion. As we aim for Mars and intelligent machines and more, we’re traveling even further from what were once considered indelible truths.

As the world turns, religions are supposed to stay steadfast, to provide a mooring to hold on to as progress runs ahead in other ways. Of course, that’s never been entirely true, as beliefs have continually evolved over centuries, if at a glacial pace. But something different is happening now with the Christian faith, as it’s begun to feel the stress of the rapid transformation of the Digital Age and the increasingly connected Global Village. Can Christianity pivot from its often-harsh Biblical teachings to reinvent itself for our decentralized era? If it somehow did, would that actually be beneficial or harmful to future progress?

In a Salon article, Zoltan Istvan considers the limits of Christian relativism:

In April, the pope made history when he told his flock to accept divorced Catholics. Last week, NPR reported a gay preacher had been ordained as a Baptist minister. Next year it might well be evangelicals in the deep South turning pro-choice. Everywhere around us, traditional Christian theology and its culture is breaking down in hopes of remaining relevant. The reality is with incredible scientific breakthroughs in the 21st century, ubiquitous information via the Internet, and an increasingly nonreligious youth, formal religion has to adapt to survive.  

But can it do so without becoming obsolete? Perhaps more importantly, can Christianity — the world’s largest religion with 2 billion believers — remain the overarching societal power it’s been for millennia? The answer is not an easy one for the old faith-driven guard.

To remain a dominant force throughout the 21st century, formal religion will have to bend. It will have to adapt. It will have to evolve. Hell, it will have to be upgraded. Welcome to the growing impact of Christian relativism.•

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

  1. joyce carol oates mike tyson
  2. grantland article about don king
  3. old time boxing promoter tex rickard
  4. evel knievel with johnny carson
  5. why is charlie rose like that?
  6. famous fat man putty philpotts
  7. life magazine editor ralph graves
  8. chief red fox 100 years old
  9. u.s. military robotization
  10. how do people get new ideas? asimov

This week, Donald Trump stood on the balcony of a luxury NYC building and finally released his tax returns to a curious public.

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  • Facebook may actually be less biased than traditional media.

 

0521160210-00Three months before we reached the moon, a moment when machines eclipsed, in a meaningful way, the primacy of humanity, National Geographic published the 1969 feature “The Coming Revolution in Transportation,” penned by Frederic C. Appel and Dean Conger. The article prognosticated some wildly fantastical misses as any such futuristic article would, but it broadly envisioned the next stage of travel as autonomous and, perhaps, electric.

The two excerpts I’ve included below argue that tomorrow’s transportation would in, one fashion or another, remove human hands from the wheel. The second passage particularly relates to the driverless sector of today. Interesting that we’re skipping the top-down step of building “computer-controlled” or “automated” highways, something suggested as necessary in this piece, as an intensive infrastructure overhaul never materialized. We’re attempting instead to rely on visual-recognition systems and an informal swarm of gadgets linked to the cloud to circumvent what was once considered foundational.


“People Capsule”: Dial Your Destination

Everywhere I found signs that a revolution in transportation is on the way. 

The automobile you drive today could probably move at 100 miles an hour. But you average closer to 10 as you travel our clogged city streets.

Someday, perhaps in your lifetime, it could be like this….

You ride toward the city at 90 miles an hour, glancing through the morning newspaper while your electrically powered car follows its route on the automated “guideway.”

You leave your car at the city’s edge–a parklike city without streets–and enter on the small plastic “people capsules” waiting nearby. Inside, you dial your destination on a sequence of numbered buttons. Then you settle back to reading your paper. 

Smoothly, silently, your capsule accelerates to 80 miles an hour. Guided by a distant master computer, it slips down into the network of tunnels under the city–or into tubes suspended above it–and takes precisely the fastest route to your destination.

Far-fetched? Not at all. Every element of that fantastic people-moving system is already within range of our scientists’ skills.•


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Consider automated cars–and when you do, look at the modern automobile. Think of the rapid increase, in the past decade, of electric servomechanisms on automobiles. Power steering, antiskid power brakes, adjustable seats, automatic door locks, automatic headlight dimmers, electronic speed governors, self-regulated air conditioning.

Detroit designers, already preparing for the day your vehicle will drive itself, are getting practical experience with the automatic devices on today’s cars. When more electric devices are added and the first computer-controlled highways are built, the era of the automated car will be here.

At the General Motors Technical Center near Detroit, I drove a remarkable vehicle. It was the Unicontrol Car, one step along the way to the automated family sedan.

In the car a small knob next to the seat (some models have dual knobs) replaced steering wheel, gearshift lever, accelerator and brake pedal.

Moving that knob, I learned, sends electronic impulses back to a sort of “baby computer” in the car’s trunk. The computer translates those signals into action by activating the proper servomechanism–steering motor, power brakes, or accelerator.

Highways May Take Over the Driving

Simple and ingenious, I thought, as I slid into the driver’s seat. Gingerly I pushed the knob forward. Somewhere, unseen little robots released the brake and stepped on the gas.

So far, so good. Now I twitched the knob to the left–and very nearly made a 35-mile-an-hour U-turn!

But after a few minutes of practice, I found that the strange control method really did feel comfortably logical. I ended my half-hour test drive with a smooth stop in front of a Tech Center office building and headed upstairs to call on Dr. Lawrence R. Hafstad, GM’s Vice President in Charge of Research Laboratories. 

The Unicontrol Car–a research vehicle built to test new servomechanisms–is easy to drive. Still, it does have to be driven. I asked Dr. Hafstad about the proposed automated highways that would relieve the driver of all responsibilities except that of choosing a destination.

“Automated highways–engineers call them guideways–are technically feasible today,’ Dr. Hafstad answered. “In fact, General Motors successfully demonstrated an electronically controlled guidance system about ten years ago. A wire was embedded in the road, and two pickup coils were installed at the front of the car to sense its position in relation to that wire. The coils sent electrical signals to the steering system, to keep the vehicle automatically on course.

“More recently, we tested a system that also controlled spacing and detected obstacles. It could slow down an overtaking vehicle–even stop it, until the road was clear!”

Other companies are also experimenting with guideways. In some systems, the car’s power comes from an electronic transmission line built into the road. In others, vehicles would simply be carried on a high-speed conveyor, or perhaps in a container. Computerized guidance systems vary, too. 

“Before the first mile of automated highway is installed,” Dr. Hafstad pointed out, “everyone will have to agree on just which system is to be used.”• 

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Even in Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian state there are haves and have-nots who experience wildly different lifestyles. In the midst of the politically driven arrests and murders, military parades and nuclear threats, there exists a class of super rich kids familiar with squash courts, high-end shopping and fine dining. “Pyonghattan,” it’s called, this sphere of Western-ish consumerist living, which is, of course, just a drop in the bucket when compared to the irresponsible splurges of the Rodman-wrangling “Outstanding Leader.” Still weird, though. 

From Anna Fifield at the Washington Post:

PYONGYANG, North Korea — They like fast fashion from Zara and H&M. They work out to be seen as much as to exercise. They drink cappuccinos to show how cosmopolitan they are. Some have had their eyelids done to make them look more Western.

North Korea now has a 1 percent. And you’ll find them in“Pyonghattan,” the parallel ­universe inhabited by the rich kids of the Democratic People’s Republic.

“We’re supposed to dress conservatively in North Korea, so people like going to the gym so they can show off their bodies, show some skin,” said Lee Seo-hyeon, a 24-year-old who was, until 18 months ago, part of Pyongyang’s brat pack.

Women like to wear leggings and tight tops — Elle is the most popular brand among women, while men prefer Adidas and Nike — she said. When young people go to China, they travel armed with shopping lists from their friends for workout gear.

At a leisure complex next to the bowling alley in the middle of Pyongyang, they run on the treadmills, which show Disney cartoons on the monitors, or do yoga.•

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Founder and Chairman of Microsoft Bill Gates holding a copy of Business Adventures by John Brooks.

It’s funny Bill Gates is such a big fan of The Great Gatsby since F. Scott Fitzgerald was responsible for the line, “There are no second acts in America,” a very quotable and completely ludicrous uttering, silly especially in the case of the Microsoft founder, who it could be argued has had the best second act of any notable U.S. citizen.

In his earlier incarnation as a cutthroat software mogul, Gates was an a-hole. No way around it. His business practices were dicey from the start and his personal behavior detestable. You can’t take from him all he accomplished with Microsoft, but it was definitely done with poor form, for all the riches.

The sweater-clad, avuncular 2.0 Gates, the one who is eradicating disease and building the future along with his wife, Melinda, is a revelation, however, a wonder. He could have collected cars and sports franchises, rested on his laurels. Instead he chose to direct his analytical abilities to directly reduce the suffering of so many.

Gatsby is among his selections for Gates’ “My 10 Favorite Books” entry at T Magazine, which also includes my favorite title of 2015, Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Excerpts of the four books I’ve also read:

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari

This look at the entire history of the human race sparked lots of great conversations at our family’s dinner table. Harari also writes about our species today and how artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and other technologies will change us in the future.

Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street, John Brooks

Warren Buffett gave me this fantastic collection of articles that Brooks wrote for The New Yorker. Although Brooks was writing in the 1960s, his insights are timeless and a reminder that the rules for running a great company don’t change. I read it more than two decades ago, and it’s still my pick for the best business book ever.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

The novel that I reread the most. Melinda and I love one line so much that we had it painted on a wall in our house: “His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.”

The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker

Proof that the world is becoming more peaceful. It’s not just a question for historians, but a profound statement about human nature and the possibility for a better future. This book may have shaped my outlook more than any other.•

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Came across a Vanity Fair article yesterday about Olivia de Havilland, who is still alive at 99 and living in Paris, where she’s resided for the past 61 years. Funny that, according to the piece, she grew disenchanted with Hollywood in particular and America in general in the 1950s because television’s emergence was making people stay home and ruining social life. The explosion of TV (and near-TV) content today and the many ways to watch it seems to me to have done even worse damage to NYC. People binge-watch programs here the same way as everywhere else and the landscape seems flatter. It’s like Disneyland for tourists, but many of the best characters stay inside their homes.

In a slightly related vein: While I was shocked to read that the Gone with the Wind actress is still alive, to become a centenarian if she makes it just another six weeks, Simon Kuper of the Financial Times writes that some researchers believe 105 is a conservative estimate for the average lifespan for those born in the West today. A lot can happen between now and then–pandemic, asteroid, climate disaster–but it’s worth considering, if conditions hold relatively steady, how life will change when ten decades becomes routine. Certainly career and education will be altered dramatically, even more so since technology is currently destabilizing both sectors.

Kuper’s opening:

baby born in the west today will more likely than not live to be 105, write Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott of London Business School in their crucial new book, The 100-Year Life. That may sound like science fiction. In fact, it’s only cautiously optimistic. It’s what will happen if life expectancy continues to rise by two to three years a decade, its rate of the past two centuries. Some scientific optimists project steeper rises to come.

If turning 100 becomes normal, then the authors predict “a fundamental redesign of life.” This book shows what that might look like.

We currently live what Gratton and Scott call “the three-stage life”: education, career, then retirement. That will change. The book calculates that if today’s children want to retire on liveable pensions, they will need to work until about age 80. That would be a return to the past: in 1880, nearly half of 80-year-old Americans did some kind of work.

But few people will be able to bear the exhaustion and tedium of a 55-year career in a single sector. Anyway, technological changes would make their education obsolete long before they reached 80. The new life-path will therefore have more than three stages. Many people today are already shuffling in that direction.•

 

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On what would have been Andre the Giant’s 70th birthday, a reminder, via a 2014 Open Culture post, that playwright Samuel Beckett, a neighbor, sometimes drove the future wrestler-actor to school. The passage:

In 1958, when 12-year-old Andre’s acromegaly prevented him from taking the school bus, the author of Waiting for Godot, whom he knew as his dad’s card buddy and neighbor in rural Molien, France, volunteered for transport duty. It was a standing gig, with no other passengers. Andre recalled that they mostly talked about cricket, but surely they discussed other topics, too, right? Right!?•

1964, New York, New York, USA --- Samuel Beckett on the set of his movie, , looking at a fish through a magnifying glass. --- Image by © Steve Schapiro/Corbis

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From the March 20, 1929 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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My argument throughout the worst political season in modern U.S. history has been that as desperate as many Americans may be in the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse, the rise of Trump has less to do with the fear of falling than the fear of other. From the first crude utterances about Mexicans during his campaign announcement in June, the hideous hotelier been selling an embrace of white privilege, an angry rebuttal to the election of our first African-American President. The methods and madness behind realizing this promise of making American white again change daily–only the supremacy is consistent. When Trump encouraged Mitt Romney in 2012 to attack Obama with the racist Birther garbage, he clearly wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Perhaps Thomas Frank and others believe that if only Kansans had been whispered to just so that none of this would have happened, but the hate speech Trump offers seems to be precisely what a surprising number of Americans want to hear.

The opening of “This Is How Fascism Comes to America,” Robert Kagan’s blistering Washington Post editorial:

The Republican Party’s attempt to treat Donald Trump as a normal political candidate would be laughable were it not so perilous to the republic. If only he would mouth the party’s “conservative” principles, all would be well.

But of course the entire Trump phenomenon has nothing to do with policy or ideology. It has nothing to do with the Republican Party, either, except in its historic role as incubator of this singular threat to our democracy. Trump has transcended the party that produced him. His growing army of supporters no longer cares about the party. Because it did not immediately and fully embrace Trump, because a dwindling number of its political and intellectual leaders still resist him, the party is regarded with suspicion and even hostility by his followers. Their allegiance is to him and him alone.

And the source of allegiance? We’re supposed to believe that Trump’s support stems from economic stagnation or dislocation. Maybe some of it does. But what Trump offers his followers are not economic remedies — his proposals change daily. What he offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence. His incoherent and contradictory utterances have one thing in common: They provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger. His public discourse consists of attacking or ridiculing a wide range of “others” — Muslims, Hispanics, women, Chinese, Mexicans, Europeans, Arabs, immigrants, refugees — whom he depicts either as threats or as objects of derision. His program, such as it is, consists chiefly of promises to get tough with foreigners and people of nonwhite complexion. He will deport them, bar them, get them to knuckle under, make them pay up or make them shut up.•

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It’s not that Uber shouldn’t switch to driverless vehicles when that technology is perfected, but the company shouldn’t simultaneously be selling themselves as a panacea for a tough employment market, using everyone from military veterans to the murdered Eric Garner to sell such nonsense. When not touting his company as a savior for those squeezed from a shifting job market, Travis Kalanick has spoken out fo the other side of his mouth about wanting to replace every Uber driver. He’s welcome to speak about how autonomous cars will be good for the environment and safety and costs–they likely will be–but he shouldn’t be trying to soft-pedal the effect it will have on Labor.

From Uber’s latest release on its driverless initiative:

If you’re driving around Pittsburgh in the coming weeks you might see a strange sight: a car that looks like it should be driven by a superhero. But this is no movie prop — it’s a test car from Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center (ATC) in Pittsburgh.

The car, a hybrid Ford Fusion, will be collecting mapping data as well as testing its self-driving capabilities. When it’s in self-driving mode, a trained driver will be in the driver’s seat monitoring operations. The Uber ATC car comes outfitted with a variety of sensors including radars, laser scanners, and high resolution cameras to map details of the environment.

Real-world testing is critical to our efforts to develop self-driving technology. Self-driving cars have the potential to save millions of lives and improve quality of life for people around the world.  1.3 million people die every year in car accidents — 94% of those accidents involve human error. In the future we believe this technology will mean less congestion, more affordable and accessible transportation, and far fewer lives lost in car accidents. These goals are at the heart of Uber’s mission to make transportation as reliable as running water — everywhere and for everyone.

While Uber is still in the early days of our self-driving efforts, every day of testing leads to improvements. Right now we’re focused on getting the technology right and ensuring it’s safe for everyone on the road — pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers. We’ve informed local officials and law enforcement about our testing in Pittsburgh, and our work would not be possible without the support we’ve received from the region’s leaders.•

 

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