Mentioning The Second Machine Age reminded me that the book makes reference to the 2004 Popular Science piece, “Debacle in the Desert,” which reported on the inaugural DARPA Great Challenge, a 142-mile traverse across the Mojave for driverless vehicles. The “winner” completed fewer than 8 miles. It was pure folly. Just six years later, autonomous vehicles were not only easily crossing desolate spaces but being discussed seriously as probable in the near future for busy streets, and by 2014 they’ve racked up tens of thousands of miles of test runs on highways. The progress in just a decade has been astounding, even if they’re still some major obstacles. The opening of Joseph Hooper’s PopSci piece:

“When last we visited with the men and women, the boys and girls, the Red Teams and Blue Teams and Road Warriors of the DARPA Grand Challenge off-road robotics race, back in March, we signed off on a note of authentic ambivalence. The teams themselves were all over the map, from rehearsing victory speeches to praying they would pass the qualifying round and be allowed on to what was anticipated to be a 210-mile course from outside Los Angeles through the Mojave Desert to somewhere just west of Vegas. The race’s organizers, for their part, couldn’t quite muster a consensus on how to handicap the event. Race manager and resident sunny optimist Col. Jose Negron unblinkingly predicted that a team would cross the finish line in under 10 hours to claim DARPA’s million-dollar prize in the race’s inaugural run-yet course designer Sal Fish couldn’t bring himself to share this official vision. ‘It’s still hard to get it in my brain,’ Fish said, ‘that this is all going to happen with robots.’ Chalk one up for Mr. Fish.

Here, to spare you the suspense, is how things looked once the dust had cleared on race day, March 13: Carnegie Mellon University’s Red Team, the presumptive race favorite-in the minds of many race insiders, the only team with a realistic shot at the million-dollar prize-had ended the race at mile 7.4, its Humvee’s belly straddling the outer edge of a drop-off, front wheels spinning freely, on fire. SciAutonics II dropped out of the running at mile 6.7, its Israeli dune buggy stuck in an embankment. Digital Auto Drive quit at mile 6.0, its Toyota Tundra stymied by a football-size rock. The Golem Group stopped at mile 5.2, its pickup stuck on a hill with insufficient throttle to move forward. Team Caltech, another race favorite, dropped out at mile 1.3, its Chevy Tahoe SUV having careened off course and through a fence. Team TerraMax, a heavyweight collaboration between Ohio State University and the Oshkosh Trucking Corporation, was out at mile 1.2, stopped of its own accord, a 32,000-pound six-wheel military truck flummoxed by some bushes. These, it should be noted, were the Grand Challenge success stories. The rest of the field went haywire at or just beyond the starting chute in full view of the press who packed the grandstands erected for the event.”

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Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s The Second Machine Age, a first-rate look at the technological revolution’s complicated short- and mid-term implications for economics, is one of the best books I’ve read in 2014. The authors make a compelling case that the Industrial Revolution bent time more substantially than anything humans had previously done, and that we’re living through a similarly dramatic departure right now, one that may prove more profound than the first, for both good and bad reasons. In a post at his new Financial Times blog, McAfee takes on Peter Thiel’s contention that monopolies are an overall win for society. An excerpt:

“His provocation in Zero to One is that tech monopolies are generally good news since they spend heavily to keep innovating (and sometimes do cool things unrelated to their main businesses such as building driverless cars) and these innovations benefit all of us. If they stop investing and innovating, or if they miss something big, they quickly become irrelevant.

For example, Microsoft’s dominance of the PC industry was once so worrying the US government went after it in an antitrust battle that lasted two decades. Microsoft still controls more than 75 per cent of the market for desktop operating systems today, but nobody is now worried about the company’s ability to stifle tech innovation. Thiel paraphrases Leo Tolstoy’s most famous sentence: ‘All happy companies are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.’

I like Thiel’s attempt to calm the worries about today’s tech giants. Big does not always mean bad and, in the high-tech industries, big today certainly does not guarantee big tomorrow. But I’m not as blithe about monopolies as Thiel. The US cable company Comcast qualifies as a tech monopoly (it’s my only choice for a fast internet service provider) and I struggle mightily to perceive any benefit to consumers and society from its power. And there are other legitimate concerns about monopsonists (monopoly buyers), media ownership concentration and so on.

I once heard the Yale law professor Stephen Carter lay down a general rule: we should be vigilant about all great concentrations of power. We won’t need to take action against all of them but nor should we assume that they’ll always operate to our benefit.”

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From the June 24, 1946 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“Adelaide, Australia, reports that a blood donor had such a high percentage of alcohol in his veins that the recipient immediately became intoxicated.”

Walter Isaacson, who has written his second Silicon Valley book, The Innovators, just conducted an AMA at Reddit. Elon Musk will no doubt be pleased with the headline quote, though for all his accomplishments, he certainly hasn’t emulated Benjamin Franklin’s political achievements, nor will he likely. A few exchanges follow.

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Question:

Hey Walter, who is the Ben Franklin of 2014?

Walter Isaacson:

The Ben Franklin of today is Elon Musk.

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Question:

I thoroughly enjoyed your biography on Steve Jobs! Thank you for your diligence!

I know you talked about how you had never done a biography on a living person before. What it easier to feel like you could get a more accurate picture of a living subject? Did you have a system in place that you felt would prevent the tainting of your perspective based on the bias of the person you were interviewing?

Walter Isaacson:

I have done living people before: Kissinger, the the Wise Men. With a living subject, you get to know (if you take time to do a lot of personal interviews and listen) a hundred times more than you can learn about a historic person. I know much more about the chamfers of the original mac than about all of Ben Franklin’s lightning rod and kite-flying experiments. I tend to be a bit soft when writing about someone alive, because I tend to like most people I get to know.

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Question:

I’m surprised to see computers have not evolved beyond silicon in nearly 30-40 years. What are your thoughts?

Walter Isaacson:

It would be interesting if we built computers not based on digital circuits using binary logic — and instead tried to replicate the human mind in a carbon-based and wetware chemical system, perhaps even an analog one, like nature did it!

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Question:

What are your thoughts on singularity? Do you think it will happen, and if so, when? 

Walter Isaacson:

The theme of my book is that human minds and computers bring different strengths to the party. The pursuit of strong Artificial Intelligence has been a bit of a mirage — starting in the 1950s, it’s always seen to be 20 years away. But the combination of humans and machines in more intimate partnership — what JCR Licklider called symbiosis and what Peter Thiel calls complementarity — has proven more fruitful. Indeed amazing. So I suspect that for the indefinite future, the combination of human minds and machine power will be more powerful than aiming for artificial intelligence and a singularity.•

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If one thing can destabilize China’s authoritarian form of capitalism, it might be the extreme pollution that’s attended the febrile pace of urbanization. A quick bit from a Fast Company post by Adele Peters about architect Alexander Balchin’s conceptual Clean Air Tower, a “portable” skyscraper inspired by China’s poor air quality which sucks pollutants from the atmosphere:

“Beijing is notorious for its record-breaking air pollution, but 12 other cities in China have even dirtier air. Dozens more fail to meet minimum standards for air that’s safe to breathe. While the Chinese government has committed billions to cleaning up pollution, those changes are happening slowly, especially in cities with little political clout. In the meantime, here’s another approach: Modular skyscrapers that suck up dirty air.

The Clean Air Tower, from China-based architect Alexander Balchin, is a conceptual design envisioned for the city of Binhai. ‘It’s one of China’s many ‘overnight cities’ where an entire city of skyscrapers is built simultaneously, all in a matter of years,’ Balchin explains. The air-cleaning building is designed to be easy to take apart and reconstruct, so if air quality improves in Binhai, the skyscraper can move to another city.”

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From Richard Hollingham’s BBC piece “Five Steps to Colonizing Mars,” a section about the development of government in space should we inhabit our neighboring planet and create a self-sustaining civilization:

“I have written before of the challenges of governing an extraterrestrial colony. The early missions – particularly those involving space agencies – will almost certainly be run with a hierarchical command system. The past 50 years of human spaceflight have taught us that, in the extreme environment of space, this is the safest way. However, there is a fine line between a Star Trek-type command structure and a brutal military dictatorship, and as the settlement matures, some sort of democracy is going to be favoured.

‘A space colony is a tyranny-prone environment,’ says Charles Cockell, an astrobiologist from the University of Edinburgh who is also leading research on developing a constitution for space habitats. ‘If somebody gets control of oxygen, they could very well have control over the whole population and threaten dire consequences in return for extraordinary levels of power.’

As a commander of a space colony on Earth, Tarvin is one of the few people to have any experience of overseeing a Mars base. ‘It’s certainly not a Star Trek-style military environment,’ he says. ‘It’s a small group of highly motivated people and it really doesn’t take much effort to manage them.’

A government also needs all the structures that go with it. Any new society needs an economy as well as systems to maintain the habitat, provide employment, health, childcare, social care and education. In short: Mars needs bureaucrats.”

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All these new technologies and the ones to come will create great wealth, but it will be up to us to figure out how to deal with rising inequality and technological unemployment. We’re likely looking at a long, hard slog getting from here to there. A few exchanges follow from an excellent Reddit AMA on the topic conducted by Ryan Avent, economics correspondent for the Economist.

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Question:

The industrial revolution destroyed a lot of jobs but also created a lot of new ones. What makes this new changes different? Won’t new opportunities replace the obsolete jobs?

Ryan Avent:

Maybe! We certainly shouldn’t rule it out.

But one thing I’ve tried to bring out in my writing on these subjects is that the industrial revolution was a huge mess for a lot of people. We can look back today and note that there’s tons of employment at high wages and so obviously everything worked out. But there were whole generations at a time during the IR that really never saw much benefit at all from industrialisation. Old ways of life were torn up, people found themselves in horrible, deadly cities, and wages were awful for long stretches of time. There was a reason people thought maybe communism wasn’t such a terrible idea.

Quite possibly this revolution won’t be as unpleasant or transformative. But it still might make for very hard times for workers for several decades (we’re well on our way, actually).

Then one has to think forward and say, ok, where will technology be in 20 years? Is there a point at which things will slow down enough for workers to catch up? I’m not sure. In the meantime, I think there is a strong argument for more action to cushion workers against economic troubles.

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Question:

What do you think is the nascent technology that will most greatly exacerbate inequality, both within nations and between them? Which one will do the most to decrease inequality?

Ryan Avent:

Over the longer term, and looking within nations, I think AI is likely to contribute most to inequality. It’s possible that AI will be a skill leveller, but I suspect it will not be. Those with more cognitive skills will be better at managing the intelligence at their disposal, asking the right question, etc.

Across nations, we’re talking advanced manufacturing and robotics. The huge advantage that emerging markets have relative to the developed world is a large stock of cheap labour. If technology means that firms no longer need to tap into those labour pools to make things cheaply, then it will be very difficult for developing economies to find a foothold in the global economy and raise their incomes.

In the short term, more mundane stuff will probably raise inequality. Mobile technology that allows really good teachers to reach many more students will reduce the need for mediocre teachers, for instance.

In the short term, peer-to-peer platforms could help reduce inequality by making it easier to match underemployed workers with people who are looking for particular skillsets. Over the long term, I’m not sure. Bionic implants? A drug that made it easy for any worker to be disciplined and conscientious might actually go a long way.

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Question:

Things seem pretty bad for low-to-mid-skill workers in developed nations: stagnant wages, increased disability enrollment, and lower workforce participation. The explanations I’m most familiar with include race-to-the-bottom globalization, technology, and now this gloomy-but-vague secular stagnation hypothesis.

So, two questions. First, do you agree & how do you break down attribution between causes these days? Second, if this trend continues do you expect to see larger shares of the population supported exclusively by transfers, and does this worry you (for practical reasons or otherwise)?

Ryan Avent:

I don’t know whether I’d consider secular stagnation a cause or just a way of describing a bunch of symptoms that may or may not be related to one particularly malady.

The big factors at work here seem to me to be technology and globalisation (which is related and dependent in some ways on technology). Interestingly, it’s not just workers in developed nations that are being affected. Wages have risen rapidly for workers in China, for instance, but in many parts of the emerging world inequality has been rising just as in the rich world, as has the share of national income going to owners of capital rather than workers.

The actual break-down depends on when and where you’re talking about. For service-sector workers now or manufacturing workers in the 1980s, technology was the biggest deal. For manufacturing workers in the 2000s it was almost all China.

Unless there is a big change in the way technology affects labour markets, there will be no getting around much greater transfers. That doesn’t worry me that much in and of itself. What does worry me is how we get there (or fail to). Political conflict over redistribution is often nasty, and politicians often seek to defuse it by redirecting anger to foreigners. Could be a very messy few decades, politically speaking. Messier.•

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"I'm also open to work in what i call 'gray areas.'"

“I’m also open to work in what i call ‘gray areas.'”

Im in need of making cash asap (BROOKLYN )

Hello im a 44 yr old married man and father who has worked since age 17, however i had to go on ssd for the past several years ,, although i can no longer do the back breaking work i once did ,, i have experience in other fields as well such as nightclub asst manager, doorman ,, etc ,,,, self storage sales ,, bouncer even though im 5 ft 7 ,,,,, and lobby attendant ,, i have good references im a loyal trustworthy guy who comes to work to work not chat on the phone or play with the text ,,, Im also open to work in what i call gray areas, things are bad financially for me the past 2 years and I need a break from someone out there ,,,,,, im a stand up guy who won’t let anyone down ,, and if i cant do something i will tell you upfront not waste your time ,,, please if anyone can help all im looking for is a chance to get myself and my family back on our feet ,,, Im open to all suggestions but I do not take my clothes off for no one so none of that crap please ,,, whether its a job or you need someone to do something you cant do for whatever reason I just may be your man.

 

Just as talkies were announcing themselves across America, genius Russian silent film director Sergei Eisenstein was dejectedly departing Hollywood, no richer financially or creatively for his failed attempts at pleasing U.S. movie producers. An article in the May 1, 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle made clear his disenchantment with the business end of show business and the automaton nature of the burgeoning studio system.

eisenstein4

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Malcolm McLaren, the late rotter, introduces Conan O’Brien, in 1995, to his punkish insouciance.

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The Aloft Hotel in Cupertino currently employs a single robot butler to deliver sundries to its many guests, but soon there’ll be an army of such dumb smart waiters in all lodgings. As the poet of despair once sang: “The bell hop’s tears keep flowing / The desk clerk’s dressed in black.” From Matt McFarland in the Washington Post:

“The situation usually plays out like this. You’re unpacking in a hotel room and realize you forgot something. Rather than trek to whatever store might be near, you call the front desk and ask for a razor, toothpaste or whatever you need. The hotel then sends someone up with the delivery.

Except for the Aloft Hotel in Cupertino, Calif, which will begin using an R2D2-esque robot for such trips. Fittingly, Aloft’s parent company, Starwood Hotels, tests the latest technology at the Silicon Valley hotel. Guests can enter their rooms with a smartphone app and bypass the traditional check-in process at the front desk.

For now, only one robot will shuttle around the hotel’s hallways in a pilot program, but Brian McGuinness, global brand leader at Starwood’s Speciality Select Brands, expects multiple robots in the halls of all of Aloft’s locations by early 2016.

The robot, which Aloft is calling the Botlr, is capable of safely riding elevators and navigating winding hallways. Botlr uses a camera and sonar to map out the hotel so it isn’t smashing into walls or falling down unanticipated steps. An elevator was retrofitted to communicate wirelessly with Botlr. The elevator car alerts Botlr that it’s in the lobby and safe to board. Botlr then boards, and passes on what floor it wants to travel to.”

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L.A. Weekly is reporting that its concerning story about Uber, penned by one of that company’s drivers, was responded to with some chicanery by the Silicon Valley ride-share service. From a post by Sarah Fenske:

“Yesterday — barely 24 hours after we published a first-person essay critical of Uber — L.A. Weekly‘s editorial assistant was contacted by a stranger offering a first-person essay about how great Uber is.

It was kind of strange. It was purportedly written by a former taxi driver named Cabdi Xuseen (‘Confessions of a Former L.A. Taxi Driver,’ the title read), but it came from the email of a different person, someone with the improbable name of Tawny Valentine. ‘This piece is exclusive to the L.A. Weekly and we hope that you would consider placing it,’ Valentine wrote.

A former cab driver with his own PR handler? Curious.

The essay was all about how great it was working for Uber. ‘I’ve driven a lot of things for a lot of different people throughout my career: taxis, limos, and even 18-wheel trucks. But now, I drive for myself, with Uber. I get to be my own boss. I make my own hours. My car is my small business, and I am free to run it as I see fit.’

Our editorial assistant emailed Valentine back. Normally, she told her, we hear from writers directly. What was her relationship with Xuseen? Valentine dodged the question, but sent us Xuseen’s cell, explaining, ‘Cadbi saw the piece that ran yesterday and wanted to author a response.’

Naturally, we called Xuseen. And he had a different story. Valentine had contacted him. He didn’t seem to have seen our piece at all. Instead, she’d reached out to him because he was one of Uber’s top-rated drivers — 4.87 out of 5 stars, he told us proudly.

So we emailed Valentine again. She reached out to him? Who was she working for?

Only then did the truth come out. ‘We work with Uber.'”

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In a Medium post, Steven Levy interviews Andrew Conrad of Google X, who explains the company’s attempts at an early-detection health system, which will be miniaturized computer particles that “live” in your bloodstream and are read by an external wearable, something akin to a Star Trek tricorder. An excerpt:

Andrew Conrad:

The first thing you realize is the triggers of diseases usually start way before they’re clinically apparent. They are usually subtle and rare. Most of the time people are not sick. That means monitoring would have to be done continuously. You have to measure all the time because if you only measure once a year when people visit he doctor—or in men’s cases, once a decade—you’re going to miss huge swaths of the possibility of detecting disease early. So we have to make a continuous monitoring and measuring device. Since it’s continuous, it has to be something people wear, right? Can you imagine if you had to carry a sixty-pound thing around with a radar dish on your head and poke yourself with needles every hour? People just wouldn’t do it.

So the radical solution was to move away from the episodic, ‘Wait ‘til you feel a big lump in your chest before you go into the doctor’ approach, and do a continuous measurement of key biological markers through non-invasive devices. And we would do that by miniaturizing electronics. We can make a little computer chip which has three hundred and sixty thousand transistors on it, yet it’s the size of a piece of glitter. One of the other ways is to functionalize nanoparticles. Nanoparticles are the smallest engineered particles, the smallest engineered machines or things that you can make. Nature does its business on the molecular level or the cellular level. But for two thousand years we’ve looked at medicine at the organ or the organism level. That’s not the right way to do it. Imagine that you’re trying to describe the Parisian culture by flying over Paris in an airplane. You can describe the way the city looks and there’s a big tower and a river down the middle. But it’s really, really hard to opine or understand the culture from doing that. Its the same thing when we look at systems—you can see that there’s a complex system, but unless you’re down at the level where the transactions occur, it’s very hard for you to imagine how it works.”

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In an excellent new Wired piece, Kevin Kelly predicts the near-term future of AI and reminds that search was never the principal goal of Google. He also explains that our attempt to define artificial intelligence has a parallel, tacit quest: redefining what being human means. An excerpt:

“A picture of our AI future is coming into view, and it is not the HAL 9000—a discrete machine animated by a charismatic (yet potentially homicidal) humanlike consciousness—or a Singularitan rapture of superintelligence. The AI on the horizon looks more like Amazon Web Services—cheap, reliable, industrial-grade digital smartness running behind everything, and almost invisible except when it blinks off. This common utility will serve you as much IQ as you want but no more than you need. Like all utilities, AI will be supremely boring, even as it transforms the Internet, the global economy, and civilization. It will enliven inert objects, much as electricity did more than a century ago. Everything that we formerly electrified we will now cognitize. This new utilitarian AI will also augment us individually as people (deepening our memory, speeding our recognition) and collectively as a species. There is almost nothing we can think of that cannot be made new, different, or interesting by infusing it with some extra IQ. In fact, the business plans of the next 10,000 startups are easy to forecast: Take X and add AI. This is a big deal, and now it’s here.

Around 2002 I attended a small party for Google—before its IPO, when it only focused on search. I struck up a conversation with Larry Page, Google’s brilliant cofounder, who became the company’s CEO in 2011. ‘Larry, I still don’t get it. There are so many search companies. Web search, for free? Where does that get you?’ My unimaginative blindness is solid evidence that predicting is hard, especially about the future, but in my defense this was before Google had ramped up its ad-auction scheme to generate real income, long before YouTube or any other major acquisitions. I was not the only avid user of its search site who thought it would not last long. But Page’s reply has always stuck with me: ‘Oh, we’re really making an AI.’

I’ve thought a lot about that conversation over the past few years as Google has bought 14 AI and robotics companies. At first glance, you might think that Google is beefing up its AI portfolio to improve its search capabilities, since search contributes 80 percent of its revenue. But I think that’s backward. Rather than use AI to make its search better, Google is using search to make its AI better.”

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From the June 12, 1953 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Santiago, Chile — Alicia Torres, owner of a slaughter house charged with using dog meat in sausages, testified in her own defense that ‘dog meat is good for rheumatism.'”

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Legislation isn’t going to curb government surveillance nor will prosecutions put a halt to individuals hacking and leaking such information. The tools have become greater than the law–and they will grow even greater still. The other reason we won’t stop snooping is because most of us like it, not just the feeling of protection it gives us in these supposedly scary times, but also the acknowledgement that attends being monitored. We like to watch, and we like being watched. How important we must be. From a David Cole post at The New York Review of Books about Laura Poitras’ Snowden Affair documentary, Citizenfour:

“Snowden’s effort to tame his unruly hair also reveals the self-consciousness that seems to have pervaded every step of his decision to disclose the NSA files. He knows, of course, that he is being videotaped; he invited Poitras in, after all. (In addition to recording his every waking hour in the hotel room, she produced on the spot a twelve-minute film that was released the same week as the first disclosures, which introduced Snowden to the world as the NSA leaker.) Poitras does her best to conceal her presence as the filmmaker, but everyone involved knows they are being filmed, and that someday this will be shown on movie screens around the world. As a result, there are relatively few instances of real candor.

In this respect, Citizenfour unwittingly reflects the tenor of the digital age not just in its subject matter, but in its style. The film’s content concerns the ability of the government in the twenty-first century to monitor all of us at all times. The goal of the NSA’s mass surveillance programs is to ‘collect it all,’ as the agency itself declared in a PowerPoint slide leaked by Snowden. Technology has made that goal possible in ways that could hardly be imagined a decade ago. Snowden’s disclosures have put the world on notice that these are not abstract or speculative dangers.

But as Poitras’s real-time filmmaking itself reminds us, it’s not just the NSA and its sophisticated computers that make dragnet data collection possible. It’s also a defining feature of a world in which we are personally and collectively complicit in the recording of virtually everything we do.”

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From an excellent post at the Public Domain Review about the Charles Blagden experiments with extreme heat 240 years ago in England, conducted at the same time that revolutionary foment was aboil in the American colonies:

“In 1774 and 1775 the British physician and scientist Charles Blagden conducted a series of experiments concerned with exploring the effects on the human body of extremely high temperatures, ‘air heated to a much higher degree than it was formerly thought any living creature could bear.’ In what equated to something akin to a ‘super-sauna,’ Blagden and his co-experimenters (including a dog) subjected themselves to enormously hot temperatures. Beginning at a modest 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius), by the 1775 session they progressed to temperatures upward of a whopping 260 degrees Fahrenheit (127 degrees Celsius). Not surprisingly the air was at times quite literally scorching, and a full cladding of clothing was mostly worn to protect their skin, though Blagden did experiment one time being in the room naked from the waist up with only a suspended cloth protecting him from the rays of the hot irons. Among his many observations, in his latter 1775 report to the Royal Society, Blagden became the first to explicitly recognise the role of perspiration in thermoregulation, seeing that the body temperatures of both the heat-subjected humans and heat-subjected dog were significantly lower than the air they were exposed to. The dog endured a temperature of 236 degrees Fahrenheit (113 degrees Celsius) for a full hour, with seemingly little distress, and recording a body temperature of only 110 Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius) – higher than a dog’s normal body temperature, but significantly cooler than the room. In reality the dog’s temperature was probably lower by a few degrees, as Blagden acknowledged he had a bit of trouble taking the measurement. In any case, such a difference in body and room temperature was an important one. Fearing the reliability of his thermometers, Blagden thought up a control for this thermo-regulating tendency of living bodies which he’d observed – a fat juicy steak.”

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A reminder that Joe Angio’s documentary opens at Film Forum today. Buy tickets here. Read more about the movie in the New York Times here and here.

 A repost from October 9:

Four years ago, I began telling you about Joe Angio’s Revenge of the Mekons documentary, which was then just in its Kickstarter phase. Now it’s a completed, critically acclaimed movie about the legendary punk band, has played numerous festivals and is ready to begin its run at Film Forum in New York, the city’s best cinema. It’s scheduled for five showings daily from Wednesday, October 29 through Tuesday, November 4. (Buy tickets online at the theater’s site; I’ll leave a link at the top of the front page so that you can get there easily.)

Revenge of the Mekons is a movie that combines rock music, independent filmmaking and journalism, the second, third and fourth worst career choices possible. (Fuck you, Radio Shack clerk!) It’s a profile of a complicated and revolutionary group which refuses to go away after 37 years and continues evolving and making great music. It’s also a testament to maintaining focus on what’s important regardless of changing fashions (and the same can be said of the film itself).

Take a look at the trailer.

In addition to watching an exciting film, you’ll also witness a number of special guests introduce various screenings, including Mekons Jon Langford and Steve Goulding, The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn and the great critic Greil Marcus. Jonathan Franzen, who’s featured in the movie, is not scheduled to introduce a screening because he has Jonathan Franzen money, so fuck you. But one of my favorite writers, Luc Sante, will present a showing because he does not have Jonathan Franzen money. You’ll recognize Sante as he’ll be the one dressed like a Bolshevik, muttering something about an 1890s Bowery barber who severed a customer’s tongue with a straight razor. Nice and normal, Luc.

And I promise that if you go see this movie at Film Forum, I will never, ever mention it again.

Until the home video release.

Thanks, Darren.

We sell Victrolas.

I moonlight at Victrola Hut.

sparring club opening

I’m looking for fighters who want to train and beat the shit out of each other…period. Controlled sparring. Must be at least 18.

 

Jeffrey Goldberg’s devastating Atlantic essay plumbs the depth of distrust between the Obama White House and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who seems more and more like a one-man Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld, desultory and self-preserving to the nth degree. The “chickenshit” quote refers to his lack of will, which has good and bad ramifications: He won’t order a major military strike, such as one against Iran, but nor will he move forward the peace process with the Palestinians. The opening:

‘The other day I was talking to a senior Obama administration official about the foreign leader who seems to frustrate the White House and the State Department the most. ‘The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickenshit,’ this official said, referring to the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, by his nickname.

This comment is representative of the gloves-off manner in which American and Israeli officials now talk about each other behind closed doors, and is yet another sign that relations between the Obama and Netanyahu governments have moved toward a full-blown crisis. The relationship between these two administrations— dual guarantors of the putatively ‘unbreakable’ bond between the U.S. and Israel—is now the worst it’s ever been, and it stands to get significantly worse after the November midterm elections. By next year, the Obama administration may actually withdraw diplomatic cover for Israel at the United Nations, but even before that, both sides are expecting a showdown over Iran, should an agreement be reached about the future of its nuclear program.

The fault for this breakdown in relations can be assigned in good part to the junior partner in the relationship, Netanyahu, and in particular, to the behavior of his cabinet. Netanyahu has told several people I’ve spoken to in recent days that he has ‘written off’ the Obama administration, and plans to speak directly to Congress and to the American people should an Iran nuclear deal be reached. For their part, Obama administration officials express, in the words of one official, a ‘red-hot anger’ at Netanyahu for pursuing settlement policies on the West Bank, and building policies in Jerusalem, that they believe have fatally undermined Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace process.

Over the years, Obama administration officials have described Netanyahu to me as recalcitrant, myopic, reactionary, obtuse, blustering, pompous, and ‘Aspergery.’ (These are verbatim descriptions; I keep a running list.)  But I had not previously heard Netanyahu described as a ‘chickenshit.’ I thought I appreciated the implication of this description, but it turns out I didn’t have a full understanding. From time to time, current and former administration officials have described Netanyahu as a national leader who acts as though he is mayor of Jerusalem, which is to say, a no-vision small-timer who worries mainly about pleasing the hardest core of his political constituency.”

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The opening of Kenneth Turan’s 1988 New York Times profile of Robert Towne, one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest screenwriters, who had been suffering through his professional and personal worst, and was angling for a career renaissance.

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PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif.— Half a dozen years ago, Robert Towne, the Oscar-winning author of Chinatown, The Last Detail and Shampoo, hit bottom with a noticeable, almost cinematic thud. Alternately battered by ”a hideous custody battle” with his ex-wife, by the death of a dog he was ”shamelessly attached to,” and by a debilitating series of studio battles over his first directorial effort, Personal Best, and his script for Greystoke, he ”walked out on a desolate beach filled with garbage from Santa Monica Bay and felt I had nothing left.”

”There was a guy on the beach with his wife and he came up to me and said, ‘Excuse me, but we made a mistake. We came out here but because of a bus strike, our transfer tickets don’t work and we can’t get back downtown. Can you help us?’ I reached into my pocket and gave him all the money I had.

”I realized that that was the best thing anybody could have done for me. I was feeling completely impotent, and here on this beach was one guy I could do something for. It made me feel that I was not completely useless, that somehow things would be O.K.”

If Mr. Towne’s life were indeed a script, that turnaround would have been effected in an It’s a Wonderful Life twinkling. But its reality is that it has taken him six years to be sitting where he is, newly moved into the cozy den of a rambling Normanesque pile in Ronald Reagan’s old neighborhood in Pacific Palisades. He is remarried, has joint custody of his 10-year-old daughter, two new dogs and a new film that he’s written and directed, Tequila Sunrise, which opens on Friday. Yet not only are echoes from what, he says, ”the Irish would refer to as ‘the troubles’ ” very much with him, they in fact provided one of the underpinnings for his new project.

”Anytime you’re involved in legal matters, as I was with my divorce and Personal Best, you feel like a criminal, which made it particularly easy to identify with McCussick,” Mr. Towne says of Sunrise’s protagonist. Played by Mel Gibson, Dale McCussick is a longtime drug dealer who is desperately trying to get out of the business. His best friend since high school, Nick Frescia (Kurt Russell), also has a more than nodding acquaintance with drugs; he is a cop who’s just been named head of narcotics for Los Angeles County. And both men have the most passionate of interests in Jo Ann Vallenari (Michelle Pfeiffer), the hostess of a trendy South Bay restaurant.

”It’s a movie about the use and abuse of friendship,” Mr. Towne says. ”It’s natural to have occurred to someone who has close friends in Hollywood. People in the movie business don’t hesitate to say: ‘We go back a long way. You owe me one.’ I owe you one what?”

As with Chinatown, Mr. Towne has chosen to make his points within the framework of an elaborately plotted melodrama. ”I think melodrama is always a splendid occasion to entertain an audience and say things you want to say without rubbing their noses in it,” he says. ”With melodrama, as in dreams, you’re always flirting with the disparity between appearance and reality, which is a great deal of fun. And that’s also not unrelated to my perception of my life working in Hollywood, where you’re always wondering, ‘What does that guy really mean?”’

With his close-cropped salt-and-pepper beard, tousled graying hair and soft, almost hypnotic voice, the 53-year-old Mr. Towne could pass for a particularly potent counterculture guru, and, in fact, in an industry starved for wise men, he is often cast in that role. His near-legendary uncredited contributions to scripts other people wrote include restructuring Bonnie and Clyde and creating the Al Pacino-Marlon Brando tomato-garden scene in The Godfather, which Francis Coppola acknowledged in his Oscar acceptance speech.•

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Even though the headline of this November 5, 1928 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article refers to plural “autoists,” Jimmy Burns is the lone driver named who made cross-country trips blindfolded, guided only by his trusty dog Pedro. No explanation for Burns’ behavior is provided.

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The promise of in the 1920s of automated department stores with robot salespeople was a false one, the technology nowhere near complete. But the robo-staff is ready for its close-up now, as Lowe’s is testing out the nouveau machinery in some of its stores. From Mae Anderson at Phys.org:

“The robots are coming. Lowe’s is testing whether new bots on wheels can improve its customer service, like helping a shopper find a match for something as simple as a nail.

Four robots are being tested an Orchard Supply Hardware store owned by Lowe’s Companies Inc. in San Jose, California.

The robots dubbed OSHbots look like white columns with two large black screens on either side of them, and wheels to help them move. They are equipped with 3D cameras so they can scan and identify items. And customers can research items they want to buy on their screen. Then the robot can lead them to the aisle where an item is located.

‘They’re based on making a science fiction story a reality,’ said Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Lab.

The robots also have a database of what inventory is in stock at the store, so they can let customers know if something is out of stock or not.

‘People can come in with a random screw and say Mr. Robot, I need more of these, and if we do have it in the store, they can find it,’ Nel said. The robots can speak in English and Spanish.”

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An Islamic State recruiter calling himself Abu Sattar, who brings potential warriors into the fold to smite the infidels or some such bullshit, sat for an interview with Hasnain Kazim of Spiegel. Why? Was it a part of recruitment? Was it a different need? An excerpt:

Spiegel:

Do you believe that those who behead others are good Muslims?

Abu Sattar:

Let me ask you this: Do you believe that those who launch air strikes on Afghan weddings or who march into a country like Iraq on specious grounds are good Christians? Are those responsible for Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib good Christians?

Spiegel:

You are dodging the question. The events you speak of were not undertaken in the name of a religion and were heavily criticized in the West. Once again: What is a good Muslim for you? What kinds of people are you recruiting?

Abu Sattar:

A Muslim is a person who follows Allah’s laws without question. Sharia is our law. No interpretation is needed, nor are laws made by men. Allah is the only lawmaker. We have determined that there are plenty of people, in Germany too, who perceive the emptiness of the modern world and who yearn for values of the kind embodied by Islam. Those who are opposed to Sharia are not Muslims. We talk to the people who come to us and evaluate on the basis of dialogue how deep their faith is.”

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Zero Americans have died so far on U.S. soil from the Ebola virus, but the media, politicians and the public have all acted like wackjobs about the non-epidemic. Sure, we should be providing as much aid as possible to Liberia and other effected states, but we shouldn’t live in fear in America, something we seem to have done almost constantly since 9/11, which has led only to bad policy. Those concerned about Ebola or some other potential plague taking hold stateside should push for the Affordable Care Act to be truly universal and demand that congress allow President Obama to name a Surgeon General, something Republicans have refused to do as a way of hampering Obamacare. From Edward Luce in the Financial Times:

“Based on the death rate so far, Americans have a higher chance of marrying Kim Kardashian than dying of Ebola – or so the tweet goes. But the uneven tug of war between the federal government, which is sticking to scientific talking points, and politicians on the stump, who are falling one by one to an epidemic of panic, is no joke. More than 45 per cent of Americans believe that either they, or close friends and relatives, will contract Ebola, according to the Kaiser family foundation. More than three-quarters support imposing a US travel ban on flights to and from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Though led by Republicans, the panic is becoming bipartisan. In the past few days, three US states – New York, Illinois and New Jersey – have imposed a 21-day quarantine on anyone who has had contact with an Ebola patient. Two have Democratic governors, both of whom are facing re-election next week. In the midterm congressional elections, Democratic candidates are scrambling to repudiate President Barack Obama’s opposition to a travel ban. Among these are Kay Hagan, the embattled Democratic senator from North Carolina, and Jeanne Shaheen, who faces a tough fight in New Hampshire.”

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