You are currently browsing the archive for the Excerpts category.

Dr. Eugenie Clark, an ichthyologist who specialized in sharks–even sleeping ones–just passed away at 92. She was not a fan of Jaws, the Spielberg blockbuster adapted from Peter Benchley’s novel. From her New York Times obituary by Robert D. McFadden:

For all her scientific achievements, Dr. Clark was also a figure of popular culture who used her books, lectures and expertise to promote the preservation of ecologically fragile shorelines, to oppose commercial exploitation of endangered species and to counteract misconceptions, especially about sharks.

She insisted that Jaws, the 1975 Steven Spielberg film based on a Peter Benchley novel, and its sequels inspired unreasonable fears of sharks as ferocious killers. Car accidents are far more numerous and terrible than shark attacks, she said in a 1982 PBS documentary, The Sharks.

She said at the time that only about 50 shark attacks on humans were reported annually and that only 10 were fatal, and that the great white shark portrayed in Jaws would attack only if provoked, while most of the world’s 350 shark species were not dangerous to people at all.

“When you see a shark underwater,” she said, “you should say, ‘How lucky I am to see this beautiful animal in his environment.’ ”•


“The big ones are the females.”

Tags: ,

In a belated London Review of Books assessment of The Second Machine Age and Average Is Over, John Lanchester doesn’t really break new ground in considering Deep Learning and technological unemployment, but in his customarily lucid and impressive prose he crystallizes how quickly AI may remake our lives and labor in the coming decades. Two passages follow: The opening, in which he charts the course of how the power of a supercomputer ended up inside a child’s toy in a few short years; and a sequence about the way automation obviates workers and exacerbates income inequality.


In 1996, in response to the 1992 Russo-American moratorium on nuclear testing, the US government started a programme called the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative. The suspension of testing had created a need to be able to run complex computer simulations of how old weapons were ageing, for safety reasons, and also – it’s a dangerous world out there! – to design new weapons without breaching the terms of the moratorium. To do that, ASCI needed more computing power than could be delivered by any existing machine. Its response was to commission a computer called ASCI Red, designed to be the first supercomputer to process more than one teraflop. A ‘flop’ is a floating point operation, i.e. a calculation involving numbers which include decimal points (these are computationally much more demanding than calculations involving binary ones and zeros). A teraflop is a trillion such calculations per second. Once Red was up and running at full speed, by 1997, it really was a specimen. Its power was such that it could process 1.8 teraflops. That’s 18 followed by 11 zeros. Red continued to be the most powerful supercomputer in the world until about the end of 2000.

I was playing on Red only yesterday – I wasn’t really, but I did have a go on a machine that can process 1.8 teraflops. This Red equivalent is called the PS3: it was launched by Sony in 2005 and went on sale in 2006. Red was only a little smaller than a tennis court, used as much electricity as eight hundred houses, and cost $55 million. The PS3 fits underneath a television, runs off a normal power socket, and you can buy one for under two hundred quid. Within a decade, a computer able to process 1.8 teraflops went from being something that could only be made by the world’s richest government for purposes at the furthest reaches of computational possibility, to something a teenager could reasonably expect to find under the Christmas tree.

The force at work here is a principle known as Moore’s law. This isn’t really a law at all, but rather the extrapolation of an observation made by Gordon Moore, one of the founders of the computer chip company Intel. By 1965, Moore had noticed that silicon chips had for a number of years been getting more powerful, in relation to their price, at a remarkably consistent rate. He published a paper predicting that they would go on doing so ‘for at least ten years’. That might sound mild, but it was, as Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee point out in their fascinating book, The Second Machine Age, actually a very bold statement, since it implied that by 1975, computer chips would be five hundred times more powerful for the same price. ‘Integrated circuits,’ Moore said, would ‘lead to such wonders as home computers – or at least terminals connected to a central computer – automatic controls for automobiles and personal portable communications equipment’. Right on all three. If anything he was too cautious.•


Note that in this future world, productivity will go up sharply. Productivity is the amount produced per worker per hour. It is the single most important number in determining whether a country is getting richer or poorer. GDP gets more attention, but is often misleading, since other things being equal, GDP goes up when the population goes up: you can have rising GDP and falling living standards if the population is growing. Productivity is a more accurate measure of trends in living standards – or at least, it used to be. In recent decades, however, productivity has become disconnected from pay. The typical worker’s income in the US has barely gone up since 1979, and has actually fallen since 1999, while her productivity has gone up in a nice straightish line. The amount of work done per worker has gone up, but pay hasn’t. This means that the proceeds of increased profitability are accruing to capital rather than to labour. The culprit is not clear, but Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue, persuasively, that the force to blame is increased automation.

That is a worrying trend. Imagine an economy in which the 0.1 per cent own the machines, the rest of the 1 per cent manage their operation, and the 99 per cent either do the remaining scraps of unautomatable work, or are unemployed. That is the world implied by developments in productivity and automation. It is Pikettyworld, in which capital is increasingly triumphant over labour. We get a glimpse of it in those quarterly numbers from Apple, about which my robot colleague wrote so evocatively. Apple’s quarter was the most profitable of any company in history: $74.6 billion in turnover, and $18 billion in profit. Tim Cook, the boss of Apple, said that these numbers are ‘hard to comprehend’. He’s right: it’s hard to process the fact that the company sold 34,000 iPhones every hour for three months. Bravo – though we should think about the trends implied in those figures. For the sake of argument, say that Apple’s achievement is annualised, so their whole year is as much of an improvement on the one before as that quarter was. That would give them $88.9 billion in profits. In 1960, the most profitable company in the world’s biggest economy was General Motors. In today’s money, GM made $7.6 billion that year. It also employed 600,000 people. Today’s most profitable company employs 92,600. So where 600,000 workers would once generate $7.6 billion in profit, now 92,600 generate $89.9 billion, an improvement in profitability per worker of 76.65 times. Remember, this is pure profit for the company’s owners, after all workers have been paid. Capital isn’t just winning against labour: there’s no contest. If it were a boxing match, the referee would stop the fight.•

Tags: , , , ,

3D-printing pioneer Behrokh Khoshnevis is at odds Ma Yihe, the CEO of Winsun, the Chinese company which last year printed 10 concrete houses in a single day, feeling his methods have been appropriated. Beyond this international squabble, the sector seems poised for a big future, with the ability to quickly build cities from scratch, turn out affordable housing for low-income dwellers, quickly rebuild communities devastated by natural disasters and even erect space colonies. From Nicola Davison at the Guardian:

Khoshnevis, who is also working with Nasa on 3D-printed lunar structures, has no doubt that in the future, a large portion of cities will be printed. “I think in about five years you are going to see a lot of buildings built in this way,” he says.

He hopes the technology will help address a worldwide shortage of low-income housing. “I think it is a shame that at the dawn of the 21st century, about two billion people live in slums,” he says. “I think this technology is a good solution.”

He adds that 3D printing will encourage governments to build affordable homes because of savings in time and cost. A significant difference between traditional construction methods and 3D printing is efficiency. If in the future a London borough wished to build a public housing estate, for instance, they could hire a developer with a 3D printer. The printer would then be delivered to the site along with the construction material and architectural design on a flash drive. “They plug it in, hit a button and the buildings get built,” Khoshnevis says. “The nice thing about it is that we can build beautiful, dignified neighbourhoods – not cookie-cutter, box-like houses.”

Not all architects are convinced that 3D printing is good for architecture as a discipline.•

Tags: , ,

The decentralization of media in particular and technology in general is a threat to government, and the Internet of Things, while it has the potential to improve many aspects of life, can also provide a countermeasure to leadership that wishes to quell disquiet. It’s a tension with no end in sight. From Ian Steadman at New Statesman:

Another classic example to cite here is Nest’s thermostat, which users can buy to replace their normal, boring one. It’s clever in that it learns from what you do to it – turn down the temperature at certain times of day, and on certain days of the week, and it’ll automatically build up a profile of your heating habits and adjust before you know you want to do it yourself. And it saves energy from learning not to heat empty homes! Put one of these in every home in the country and the environmental savings could be vast. What possible downside could there be?

Well, as author and digital rights activist Cory Doctorow explained to me when I interviewed him last year, imagine an Arab Spring-type situation in a country with very cold winters, universal Nest thermostat adoption and a dictator with no qualms about mass surveillance of web and mobile data communications. On the first day of a mass uprising the security services can stick fake mobile signal towers up around the public square of the capital and hoover up the unique identification addresses from the smartphones of every single protester there. (These towers exist, even here.) That night, as the temperature drops to its bitter coldest, every single protester finds their heating system remotely disabled. Hypothermia takes care of the dictator’s problem.

This is not science fiction. It’s entirely possible with existing technology, and only made unrealistic because that technology hasn’t reached universal rates of adoption. This is the upcoming Internet of Things, if we’re not careful.•

Tags: ,

The first Hyperloop is slated to be built next year in California. It’s not to be a test track but a fully operational, though only five-mile version, of the nouveau transportation system designed by Elon Musk. From Alex Davies at Wired:

The Hyperloop, detailed by the SpaceX and Tesla Motors CEO in a 57-page alpha white paper in August 2013, is a transportation network of above-ground tubes that would span hundreds of miles. Thanks to extremely low air pressure inside those tubes, capsules filled with people zip through them at near supersonic speeds.

The idea is to build a five-mile track in Quay Valley, a planned community (itself a grandiose idea) that will be built from scratch on 7,500 acres of land around Interstate 5, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Construction of the hyperloop will be paid for with $100 million Hyperloop Transportation Technologies expects to raise through a direct public offering in the third quarter of this year.

They’re serious about this, too. It’s not a proof of concept, or a scale model. It’s the real deal. “It’s not a test track,” CEO Dirk Ahlborn says, even if five miles is well short of the 400-mile stretch of tubes Musk envisions carrying people between northern and southern California in half an hour. Anyone can buy a ticket and climb aboard, but they won’t see anything approaching 800 mph. Getting up to that mark requires about 100 miles of track, Ahlborn says, and “speed is not really what we want to test here.”

Instead, this first prototype will test and tweak practical elements like station setup, boarding procedures, and pod design.•

Tags: ,

Despite some instances of revisionist history, Bill Gates knew early on exactly how disruptive the Internet would be, and now he feels the same about Weak AI. And he’s not alone. The question is how quickly technological unemployment will spread. Could more than 30% of all jobs vanish within a decade without new ones to replace them? Or will it be a slower fade to black for the remnants of the Industrial Age? From Timothy Aeppel at the WSJ:

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, speaking in Washington last year, said automation threatens all manner of workers, from drivers to waiters to nurses. “I don’t think people have that in their mental model,” he said.

Robot employment

Gartner Inc., the technology research firm, has predicted a third of all jobs will be lost to automation within a decade. And within two decades, economists at Oxford University forecast nearly half of the current jobs will be performed with machine technology. 

“When I was in grad school, you knew if you worried about technology, you were viewed as a dummy—because it always helps people,” MIT economist David Autor said. But rather than killing jobs indiscriminately, Mr. Autor’s research found automation commandeering such middle-class work as clerk and bookkeeper, while creating jobs at the high- and low-end of the market.

This is one reason the labor market has polarized and wages have stagnated over the past 15 years, Mr. Autor said. The concern among economists shouldn’t be machines soon replacing humans, he said: “The real problem I see with automation is that it’s contributed to growing inequality.”•

Tags: , ,

Computer scientists long labored (and, ultimately, successfully) to make machines superior at backgammon or chess, but they had to teach that AI the rules and moves, designing the brute force of their strikes. Not so with Google’s new game-playing computer which can muster a mean game of Space Invaders or Breakout with no coaching. It’s Deep Learning currently focused on retro pastimes, but soon enough it will be serious business. From Rebecca Jacobson at PBS Newshour:

This isn’t the first game-playing A.I. program. IBM supercomputer Deep Blue defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. In 2011, an artificial intelligence computer system named Watson won a game of Jeopardy against champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

Watson and Deep Blue were great achievements, but those computers were loaded with all the chess moves and trivia knowledge they could handle, [Demis] Hassabis said in a news conference Tuesday. Essentially, they were trained, he explained.

But in this experiment, designers didn’t tell DQN how to win the games. They didn’t even tell it how to play or what the rules were, Hassabis said.

“(Deep Q-network) learns how to play from the ground up,” Hassabis said. “The idea is that these types of systems are more human-like in the way they learn. Our brains make models that allow us to learn and navigate the world. That’s exactly the type of system we’re trying to design here.”•

Tags: ,

Steve Jobs banned typewriters from Apple offices in 1981, no matter how advanced they were, and the NYPD may be very belatedly launching a similar initiative. It’s just stunning to realize that old-school keyboards are still a staple in the city’s policing. From Azi Paybarah at Capital New York:

The New York Police Department would be forced to phase out its use of typewriters, under the terms of a bill being introduced tomorrow by Councilman Danny Dromm of Queens. …

Mayor Bill de Blasio and police commissioner Bill Bratton have made upgrading NYPD equipment a key part of their reforms of the department. In addition to giving every police officer an official email address for the first time, they are also equipping officers with smartphones and tablets, and the NYPD is aggressively using social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.•


Tags: , , , ,

I haven’t yet read Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, the one that Elizabeth Kolbert took to task for not being bold enough. (Kolbert’s own volume on the topic, The Sixth Extinction, was one of my favorite books of 2014.) In an often-contentious Spiegel interview conducted by Klaus Brinkbäumer, Klein contends that capitalism and ecological sanity are incompatible and calls out supposedly green captains of industry like Michael Bloomberg and Richard Branson. An excerpt:


The US and China finally agreed on an initial climate deal in 2014.

Naomi Klein:

Which is, of course, a good thing. But anything in the deal that could become painful won’t come into effect until Obama is out of office. Still, what has changed is that Obama said: “Our citizens are marching. We can’t ignore that.” The mass movements are important; they are having an impact. But to push our leaders to where they need to go, they need to grow even stronger.


What should their goal be?

Naomi Klein:

Over the past 20 years, the extreme right, the complete freedom of oil companies and the freedom of the super wealthy 1 percent of society have become the political standard. We need to shift America’s political center from the right fringe back to where it belongs, the real center.


Ms. Klein, that’s nonsense, because it’s illusory. You’re thinking far too broadly. If you want to first eliminate capitalism before coming up with a plan to save the climate, you know yourself that this won’t happen.

Naomi Klein:

Look, if you want to get depressed, there are plenty of reasons to do so. But you’re still wrong, because the fact is that focusing on supposedly achievable incremental changes light carbon trading and changing light bulbs has failed miserably. Part of that is because in most countries, the environmental movement remained elite, technocratic and supposedly politically neutral for two-and-a-half decades. We are seeing the result of this today: It has taken us in the wrong direction. Emissions are rising and climate change is here. Second, in the US, all the major legal and social transformations of the last 150 years were a consequence of mass social movements, be they for women, against slavery or for civil rights. We need this strength again, and quickly, because the cause of climate change is the political and economic system itself. The approach that you have is too technocratic and small.


If you attempt to solve a specific problem by overturning the entire societal order, you won’t solve it. That’s a utopian fantasy.

Naomi Klein:

Not if societal order is the root of the problem. Viewed from another perspective, we’re literally swimming in examples of small solutions: There are green technologies, local laws, bilateral treaties and CO2 taxation. Why don’t we have all that at a global level?


You’re saying that all the small steps — green technologies and CO2 taxation and the eco-behavior of individuals — are meaningless?

Naomi Klein:

No. We should all do what we can, of course. But we can’t delude ourselves that it’s enough. What I’m saying is that the small steps will remain too small if they don’t become a mass movement. We need an economic and political transformation, one based on stronger communities, sustainable jobs, greater regulation and a departure from this obsession with growth. That’s the good news. We have a real opportunity to solve many problems at once.•

Tags: , , , ,

The head transplant has long been a goal of some on the outer edges of scientific research. (Oriana Fallaci profiled the main such controversial pioneer, Dr. Robert White, for Look in 1967.) Now a divisive surgeon, Dr. Sergio Canavero, believes that within two years he’ll be able to successfully transfer a human head from a shattered or dying body and graft it onto a donor body. Sure, if there was some safe way for Stephen Hawking or anyone similarly afflicted with a degenerative disease to have a new lease on life, that would be great, but it almost definitely won’t happen within Canavero’s timeframe and really shouldn’t happen anytime soon. We’re nowhere near close to being able to deal with such an operation, medically or ethically. From Ian Sample at the Guardian:

The Italian doctor, who recently published a broad outline of how the surgery could be performed, told New Scientist magazine that he wanted to use body transplants to prolong the lives of people affected by terminal diseases.

“If society doesn’t want it, I won’t do it. But if people don’t want it, in the US or Europe, that doesn’t mean it won’t be done somewhere else,” he said. “I’m trying to go about this the right way, but before going to the moon, you want to make sure people will follow you.”

Putting aside the considerable technical issues involved in removing a living person’s head, grafting it to a dead body, reviving the reconstructed person and retraining their brain to use thousands of unfamiliar spinal cord nerves, the ethics are problematic.

The history of transplantation is full of cases where people hated their new appendages and had them removed. The psychological burden of emerging from anaesthetic with an entirely new body is firmly in uncharted territory. Another hitch is that medical ethics boards would almost certainly not approve experiments in primates to test whether the procedure works.

But Canavero wants to provoke a debate around these issues. “The real stumbling block is the ethics,” he told New Scientist. “Should this surgery be done at all? There are obviously going to be many people who disagree with it.”•

Tags: , , ,

I seldom refer to articles from CNN, Jeff Zucker’s golden shower of sorta news, but I will in the case of a new piece, “The Future of War Will Be Robotic,” published on the cable channel’s site by Peter W. Singer, whose work I greatly admire. Singer–not the famed ethicist but the author of Wired for Warpoints out one of the most important and overlooked stories of the calamity of the Iraq War: the technologizing of the American military machine, which has ramifications overseas and on the homefront. And the U.S. isn’t alone in this arms race in which the limbs are bionic. Singer’s opening:

The rise of the robot on the modern battlefield has happened so fast, it is almost breathtaking — that is, if you are not a robot yourself.

When the U.S. military invaded Iraq just over a decade ago, it only had a handful of unmanned systems, aka drones, in the air, and zero deployed into the ground forces. Today, its inventory in the air numbers well over 7,000, ranging from the now famous Predator and Reaper to the Navy’s new MQ-8 Fire Scout, a helicopter drone that just completed a series of autonomous takeoffs and landing tests from the back of a guided-missile destroyer.

On the ground, the inventory numbers some 12,000, ranging from iRobot’s PackBots, used to search for roadside bombs in Afghanistan, to the U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Lab’s tests with Qinetiq’s Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System, a tracked robot that mounts cameras and a machine gun.

This revolution is by no means just an American one. At least 87 other countries have used military robotics of some sort, ranging from the UK to China, which has an especially fast-growing drone fleet, as shown off at its recent arms trade show.

A number of nonstate actors have added robots to their wares as well, including most recently both sides of the Syrian civil war, as well as ISIS. Both sides in the Ukraine conflict are also using them.

These robots, though, are just the start. If this was 100 years ago, they would be the equivalent of the Bristol TB 8, the first bomber plane, or the Mark I, the first tank used in battle. A host of changes awaits us. Their size, shape and form will move in wild and, for many, quite scary new directions.•


I always say that the matter with Kansas is Kansans. Yes, sometimes while we’re busy with our lives our elected officials do things that the majority didn’t anticipate, but in the bigger picture I think we get pretty much what we deserve–what we desire, actually. That’s not the case in every country, but I do believe it to be true most often in America. 

In analyzing Russia under Putin in a new Politico piece, Keith Gessen feels the same, arguing the state isn’t being led wayward by a rogue, but that he’s representative of the will of Russia, and history would not have unfolded otherwise had a different leader emerged at the time of Putin’s rise in 2000. An excerpt:

The other popular candidate to replace Yeltsin was Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow. Luzhkov had become popular through his regular-guy image—he was short, chubby and plain-spoken and often wore a little peasant’s cap—and his ability to attract foreign and domestic investment to Moscow. In this he significantly out-competed the potentially better-situated former capital, St. Petersburg, which during the reign of Anatoly Sobchak and his right-hand man Vladimir Putin experienced an embarrassing run of dissolution, disinvestment, and outright criminality. Despite his success as Moscow mayor, Luzhkov was also fabulously corrupt—his wife, Yelena Baturina, went into the construction business and just happened to emerge as the first female billionaire in Russia—and in the end not particularly good at solving some of Moscow’s most pressing problems, like congestion. (Instead of investing in public transport, Luzhkov eliminated traffic lights and rammed through more roads, to little avail.) He was also a rabid Russian nationalist who had a nasty habit of declaring that Crimea was actually part of Russia. He particularly liked saying this while visiting Sevastopol, where the Russian Black Sea fleet shared territory with the Ukrainian fleet. It got to the point where the Ukrainian authorities declared Luzhkov persona non grata and refused him entry to the country.

These were the leading contenders for the presidency in early 1999. The calculus changed in the fall of that year when the relatively unknown Putin was appointed prime minister and the Yeltsin-friendly Channel One began a masterful defamation campaign against both Luzhkov and Primakov. Then the apartment bombings took place, serving as a pretext for another round of war with Chechnya. Putin was no longer a short, squeaky-voiced  unknown but a wartime leader, and he was duly elected in (early) elections in March 2000.

The point is, even if Putin hadn’t come out on top, the other candidates were also nationalists who lamented Russia’s loss of superpower status.•

Tags: ,

In a CBS San Francisco piece, Silicon Valley futurist Zack Canter goes all in on autonomous cars, predicting not only that they will somewhat disrupt private ownership in the near term but that driverless ridesharing will be to individual ownership as the Model T was to the horse and buggy, essentially eliminating it in anything but insignificant numbers.

Well, first things first: The final, difficult elements of the robocar process have to be figured out, everything from object recognition to poor-climate handling. Should that occur, then, yes, taxis with human drivers will be a thing of the past, and those jobs will go away for good. The article’s PricewaterhouseCoopers prognostication that “the number of vehicles on the road will be reduced by 99%” is something none of us alive right now will ever live to see. An excerpt:

A Columbia University study suggested that with a fleet of just 9,000 autonomous cars, Uber could replace every taxi cab in New York City13 – passengers would wait an average of 36 seconds for a ride that costs about $0.50 per mile.14 Such convenience and low cost will make car ownership inconceivable, and autonomous, on-demand taxis – the ‘transportation cloud’ – will quickly become dominant form of transportation – displacing far more than just car ownership, it will take the majority of users away from public transportation as well. With their $41 billion valuation,15 replacing all 171,000 taxis16  in the United States is well within the realm of feasibility – at a cost of $25,000 per car, the rollout would cost a mere $4.3 billion.


The effects of the autonomous car movement will be staggering. PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that the number of vehicles on the road will be reduced by 99%, estimating that the fleet will fall from 245 million to just 2.4 million vehicles.17

Disruptive innovation does not take kindly to entrenched competitors – like Blockbuster, Barnes and Noble, Polaroid, and dozens more like them, it is unlikely that major automakers like General Motors, Ford, and Toyota will survive the leap. They are geared to produce millions of cars in dozens of different varieties to cater to individual taste and have far too much overhead to sustain such a dramatic decrease in sales. I think that most will be bankrupt by 2030, while startup automakers like Tesla will thrive on a smaller number of fleet sales to operators like Uber by offering standardized models with fewer options.•


There’s a lot more juice in that melon on our shoulders, but how to squeeze it out? Savants, whether congenital or by the consequence of head injury, have a portion of their brains that are super-developed to compensate for a part that’s underwhelming. How can we all unlock these gifts without a “lucky” concussion? From Allie Conti’s Vice interview with psychiatrist Darold Treffert, who specializes in savants:


How far are scientists from making all of us geniuses?

Darold Treffert:

I don’t know if you’re familiar with Allan Snyder’s work in Australia, but he uses what’s called RTMS, which is a rapid pulsation that you can apply to the scalp and actually immobilize an area of the brain with electrical currents. It’s used in neurology to discover the source of epilepsy, so it’s an accepted procedure. What he said was based largely on the work of Dr. [Bruce] Miller, who who studied 12 patients with dementia and discovered some of them developed some astounding abilities as their dementia proceeded. They tended to have lesions in the left temporal area. So Dr. Snyder said, “What if we took a group of volunteers and we immobilized parts of the left hemisphere temporarily? Would we see any special skills emerge?” He found subjects actually increased their abilities. So he’s developed something he calls the Thinking Cap, which you can put on and use. So there may be some technological approaches to enhancement.


What other ways can we bring out our inner geniuses, besides newfangled contraptions?

Darold Treffert:

In the long run, I don’t think we’re gonna have some striking technological solutions, although others disagree and feel there will be a capacity to turn on and turn off some of our abilities by using technology. Meditation is another method to access different circuity in the brain. And somebody wrote to me recently indicating that his idea was that the reason that a lot of [retirees] pick up new skills is not just because they have the time, but the aging process itself is producing “brain damage” which is leading them into new areas of ability. And I think that’s probably true.


If everyone became a genius through a medically induced process, would the world descend into chaos?

Darold Treffert:

I think the more that we access our hidden potential the better. We’re not gonna all be Picassos or Mozarts or Einsteins. So I don’t think that it would be a huge avalanche of new abilities in everyone. To the extent to which we are able to mobilize that would be very manageable and a good thing. I think we would still be a balanced society.•


Morley Safer’s classic 1983 60 Minutes profile of “Rain Man” George Finn.

Tags: , , , , ,

I seriously doubt Edward Snowden will be used as a pawn in the current gamesmanship between Russia and much of the rest of the world. He’s really not that valuable in any practical sense. He proved something–that the U.S. became a surveillance state in the wake of 9/11–which was already pretty obvious to everyone, and apparently approved of by most Americans. And I don’t see how his revelations will change much (except superficially) since technology isn’t going to move sideways or backwards. Regardless of laws, there will be more spying and more leaks proving it. At the same time, I believe in strong protections for whistleblowers who are not gathering information for their own spying purposes.

Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Oscar-winning Citizenfour director Laura Poitras just did an AMA at Reddit. Some Snowden exchanges follow.



Can you explain what your life in Moscow is like?

Edward Snowden:

Moscow is the biggest city in Europe. A lot of people forget that. Shy of Tokyo, it’s the biggest city I’ve ever lived in. I’d rather be home, but it’s a lot like any other major city.


Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov has described your daily life as circumscribed by Russian state security services, which he said control the circumstances of your life there. Is this accurate? What are your interactions with Russian state security like? With Russian government representatives generally?

Edward Snowden:

Good question, thanks for asking.

The answer is “of course not.” You’ll notice in all of these articles, the assertions ultimately come down to speculation and suspicion. None of them claim to have any actual proof, they’re just so damned sure I’m a Russian spy that it must be true.

And I get that. I really do. I mean come on – I used to teach “cyber counterintelligence” (their term) at DIA.

But when you look at in aggregate, what sense does that make? If I were a russian spy, why go to Hong Kong? It’s would have been an unacceptable risk. And further – why give any information to journalists at all, for that matter, much less so much and of such importance? Any intelligence value it would have to the russians would be immediately compromised.

If I were a spy for the russians, why the hell was I trapped in any airport for a month? I would have gotten a parade and a medal instead.

The reality is I spent so long in that damn airport because I wouldn’t play ball and nobody knew what to do with me. I refused to cooperate with Russian intelligence in any way (see my testimony to EU Parliament on this one if you’re interested), and that hasn’t changed.

At this point, I think the reason I get away with it is because of my public profile. What can they really do to me? If I show up with broken fingers, everybody will know what happened.


Don’t you fear that at some point you will be used as leverage in a negotiation? eg; “if you drop the sanctions we give you Snowden”

Edward Snowden:

It is very realistic that in the realpolitik of great powers, this kind of thing could happen. I don’t like to think that it would happen, but it certainly could.

At the same time, I’m so incredibly blessed to have had an opportunity to give so much back to the people and internet that I love. I acted in accordance with my conscience and in so doing have enjoyed far more luck than any one person can ask for. If that luck should run out sooner rather than later, on balance I will still – and always – be satisfied.



How can we make sure that people still want to leak important information when everyone who does so puts the rest of their lives at stake?

Edward Snowden:

Whistleblower protection laws, a strong defense of the right for someone charged with political crimes to make any defense they want (currently in the US, someone charged with revealing classified information is entirely prohibited from arguing before the jury that the programs were unlawful, immoral, or otherwise wrongful), and support for the development of technically and legally protected means of communications between sources and journalists.

The sad truth is that societies that demand whistleblowers be martyrs often find themselves without either, and always when it matters the most.



Mr. Snowden, if you had a chance to do things over again, would you do anything differently? If so, what?

Edward Snowden:

I would have come forward sooner. I talked to Daniel Ellsberg about this at length, who has explained why more eloquently than I can.

Had I come forward a little sooner, these programs would have been a little less entrenched, and those abusing them would have felt a little less familiar with and accustomed to the exercise of those powers. This is something we see in almost every sector of government, not just in the national security space, but it’s very important:

Once you grant the government some new power or authority, it becomes exponentially more difficult to roll it back. Regardless of how little value a program or power has been shown to have (such as the Section 215 dragnet interception of call records in the United States, which the government’s own investigation found never stopped a single imminent terrorist attack despite a decade of operation), once it’s a sunk cost, once dollars and reputations have been invested in it, it’s hard to peel that back.

Don’t let it happen in your country.•


Tags: , , , ,

You could argue that Tunisia’s uprising was the match that lit the Middle East, as some struggles reverberate beyond their borders because they speak to a widespread dissatisfaction. The Paris Commune was viewed this way by outsiders during the late 1800s. Via the lovely Delancey Place, a passage from James Green’s Death in the Haymarket about the American interpretation of the French uprising:

When the French army laid siege to Paris and hostilities began, the Chicago Tribune’s reporters covered the fighting much as they had during the American Civil War. Many Americans, notably Republican leaders like Senator Charles Sumner, identified with the citizens of Paris who were fighting to create their own republic against the forces of a corrupt regime whose leaders had surrendered abjectly to the Iron Duke and his Prussian forces.

As the crisis deepened, however, American newspapers increasingly portrayed the Parisians as communists who confiscated property and as atheists who closed churches. The brave citizens of Paris, first described as rugged democrats and true republicans, now seemed more akin to the uncivilized elements that threatened America — the ‘savage tribes’ of Indians on the plains and the ‘dangerous classes’ of tramps and criminals in the cities. When the Commune’s defenses broke down on May 21, 1871, the Chicago Tribune hailed the breach of the city walls. Comparing the Communards to the Comanches who raided the Texas frontier, its editors urged the ‘mowing down’ of rebellious Parisians ‘without compunction or hesitation.’

La semaine sanglante — the week of blood — had begun as regular army troops took the city street by street, executing citizen soldiers of the Parisian National Guard as soon as they surrendered. In retaliation, the Communards killed scores of hostages and burned large sections of the city to the ground. By the time the killing ended, at least 25,000 Parisians, including many unarmed citizens, had been slaughtered by French army troops.

These cataclysmic events in France struck Americans as amazing and distressing. The bloody disaster cried out for explanation. In response, a flood of interpretations appeared in the months following the civil war in France. Major illustrated weeklies published lurid drawings of Paris scenes, of buildings gutted by fire, monuments toppled, churches destroyed and citizens executed, including one showing the death of a ‘petroleuse’ — a red-capped, bare-breasted woman accused of incendiary acts. Cartoonist Thomas Nast drew a picture of what the Commune would look like in an American city. Instant histories were produced, along with dime novels, short stories, poems and then, later in the fall, theatricals and artistic representations in the form of panoramas.

News of the Commune seemed exotic to most Americans, but some commentators wondered if a phenomenon like this could appear in one of their great cities, such as New York or Chicago, where vast hordes of poor immigrants held mysterious views of America and harbored subversive elements in their midst.•


In the last 50 years, LBJ was arguably the only U.S. President more a more liberal domestic agenda than Richard Nixon, who seriously pursued the establishment of universal healthcare and a minimum-income guarantee for all Americans. But though he may have backed some noble policy, his ignoble mien and criminal methods made him a walking caricature of pure evil, an immoral mountebank meant for mockery. Hunter S. Thompson, for one, was not a fan. From “He Was a Crook,” the journalist’s classic and caustic postmortem of the disgraced President at the time of his death in 1994:

The family opted for cremation until they were advised of the potentially onerous implications of a strictly private, unwitnessed burning of the body of the man who was, after all, the President of the United States. Awkward questions might be raised, dark allusions to Hitler and Rasputin. People would be filing lawsuits to get their hands on the dental charts. Long court battles would be inevitable — some with liberal cranks bitching about corpus delicti and habeas corpus and others with giant insurance companies trying not to pay off on his death benefits. Either way, an orgy of greed and duplicity was sure to follow any public hint that Nixon might have somehow faked his own death or been cryogenically transferred to fascist Chinese interests on the Central Asian Mainland.

It would also play into the hands of those millions of self-stigmatized patriots like me who believe these things already.

If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.

These are harsh words for a man only recently canonized by President Clinton and my old friend George McGovern — but I have written worse things about Nixon, many times, and the record will show that I kicked him repeatedly long before he went down. I beat him like a mad dog with mange every time I got a chance, and I am proud of it. He was scum.

Let there be no mistake in the history books about that. Richard Nixon was an evil man — evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand it. He was utterly without ethics or morals or any bedrock sense of decency. Nobody trusted him — except maybe the Stalinist Chinese, and honest historians will remember him mainly as a rat who kept scrambling to get back on the ship.•

Tags: ,

New knowledge that awakens us from a collective stupor can be initially disquieting, whether it’s in the area of art or politics or science or anything else. It drives us from comfort. But we have a way of adapting, and eventually what shocks us is put in a museum. I would think that superintelligence, should we ever create it, would adapt to fresh–and sometimes disappointing–information as well or better than we would. But in “Will Super-intelligences Experience Philosophical Distress?” an h+ post, philosopher and computer scientist John G. Messerly wonders if this is so. An excerpt:

Will super-intelligences be troubled by philosophical conundrums? Consider classic philosophical questions such as: 1) What is real? 2) What is valuable? 3) Are we free? We currently don’t know the answer to such questions. We might not think much about them, or we may accept common answers—this world is real; happiness is valuable; we are free.
But our superintelligent descendents may not be satisfied with these answers, and they may possess the intelligence to find out the real answers. Now suppose they discover that they live in a simulation, or in a simulation of a simulation. Suppose they find out that happiness is unsatisfactory? Suppose they realize that free will is an illusion? Perhaps they won’t like such answers.
So super-intelligence may be as much of a curse as a blessing. For example, if we learn to run ancestor simulations, we may increase worries about already living in them. We might program AIs to pursue happiness, and find out that happiness isn’t worthwhile. Or programming AIs may increase our concern that we are programmed. So superintelligence might work against us—our post-human descendants may be more troubled by philosophical questions than we are.•


“Labor savings” sounds great except if you’re part of the Labor part being “saved.” Then you’re heading to the margins of the economy, perhaps in search of a giant mustache that you can affix to your automobile. The Boston Consulting Group, which I disagree with somewhat about the near-term future of autonomous cars, believes Weak AI, and the technological unemployment it will bring, is at an inflection point. It’s great in the aggregate but maybe not so much for you. Yet you wouldn’t want your nation to be left behind, either. An excerpt from the Robotics Business Review about which countries BCG thinks will own the sector:

Five nations will take the lead

“The biggest gains in labor savings,” says the BCG report,  “will occur in nations that are at the forefront of deploying industrial robots, such as South Korea, China, the U.S., Japan, and Germany.

“Manufacturing labor costs in 2025, when adjusted for normal inflationary increases and net of other productivity measures, are projected to be 18 to 33 percent lower in these economies when advanced robots are factored in.

“In China, one of the world’s largest markets for robots, greater use of automation could compensate for a significant part of the loss in cost competitiveness that is expected to result from rapidly rising factory wages and the growing challenge of finding manufacturing workers.

“Economies where robotics investment is projected to lag—and where low productivity growth is already a problem—are likely to see their manufacturing competitiveness deteriorate further over the next decade. Such nations include France, Italy, Belgium, and Brazil.”•

In “How to Live Forever,” a lively New Yorker blog post, Tim Wu considers whether the self would continue should we eventually be able to upload our consciousness into a computer. No, we certainly wouldn’t remain in the same sense. Of course, we never remain the same. If we were somehow able to live indefinitely, we’d be markedly different as time went by. Even within our current relatively puny lifespans, great changes occur within us and the through line we tell ourselves exists may be just a narrative trick. But I grant that some sort of container-based consciousness makes for a more radical departure than merely the depredations of time. From the second the changeover occurs, life, or something like it, is altered. From Wu:

Some people don’t consider that a problem. After all, if a copy thinks it is you, perhaps that would be good enough. David Chalmers, a philosopher at the Australian National University, points out that we lose consciousness every night when we go to sleep. When we regain it, we think nothing of it. “Each waking is really like a new dawn that’s a bit like the commencement of a new person,” Chalmers has said. “That’s good enough…. And if that’s so, then reconstructive uploading will also be good enough.”

If the self has no meaning, its death has less significance; if the computer thinks it’s you, then maybe it really is. The philosopher Derek Parfit captures this idea when he says that “my death will break the more direct relations between my present experiences and future experiences, but it will not break various other relations. This is all there is to the fact that there will be no one living who will be me.”

I suspect, however, that most people seeking immortality rather strongly believe that they have a self, which is why they are willing to spend so much money to keep it alive. They wouldn’t be satisfied knowing that their brains keep on living without them, like a clone. This is the self-preserving, or selfish, version of everlasting life, in which we seek to be absolutely sure that immortality preserves a sense of ourselves, operating from a particular point of view.

The fact that we cannot agree on whether our sense of self would survive copying is a reminder that our general understanding of consciousness and self-awareness is incredibly weak and limited. Scientists can’t define it, and philosophers struggle, too. Giulio Tononi, a theorist based at the University of Wisconsin, defines consciousness simply as “what fades when we fall into dreamless sleep.” In recent years, he and other scientists, like Christof Koch, at Caltech, have made progress in understanding when consciousness arises, namely from massive complexity and linkages between different parts of the brain. “To be conscious,” Koch has written, “you need to be a single, integrated entity with a large repertoire of highly differentiated states.” That is pretty abstract. And it still gives us little to no sense of what it would mean to transfer ourselves to some other vessel.

With just an uploaded brain and no body, would you even be conscious in a meaningful sense?•


In contrast to the new Economist report which argues that Silicon Valley carmakers will lose the race to traditional ones in creating the vehicle of tomorrow, automotive analyst Marc Winteroff contends, in Phil LeBeau’s CNBC post, that much of Big Auto will disappear once robocars are perfected. The opening:

Marc Winterhoff sees the great auto shake out coming over the next 15-20 years. That’s when self-driving, or autonomous drive, vehicles will take off, according to the head of the automotive practice for the business strategy firm Roland Berger.

“When we start to see critical mass with autonomous drive vehicles, there will be clear winners and losers in the auto industry,” said Winterhoff. “The losers will include the mass market auto brands.”

In a new study looking at the future of mobility and how we’ll transport ourselves in the future, Winterhoff sees a surge in demand for vehicles that offer a premium experience, like Mercedes-Benz or BMW.

He also expects tech firms like Google and Apple to be big winners because they can offer vehicles or branded models where we can take our “connected lives” into our cars in ways we may not be able to imagine right now.•

Tags: ,

Vladimir Putin is a Western capitalist by another name no matter the pose, but unlike of the Cold War Soviet Union, which was ideologically opposed to the United States but usually more glacier than inferno, he’s a reactionary given to ad-hoc governance–and that’s dangerous. Paul Sonne, the Moscow correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, gets to the heart of the matter in a very lucid AMA at Reddit. A few exchanges follow.



I think that the question that is on everyone’s mind is: How close are we to a full scale armed conflict that has Russia on one side and the EU/US on the other?

Paul Sonne:

Very good question. I don’t think we’re there yet. Though the risk is real. It has become a much more pressing question amid the debate over whether the US should or should not provide lethal arms to Ukraine (so far Washington has said it has provided only non-lethal aid). Those who are against providing weapons have warned of the possibility of sort of sleepwalking into a full-scale confrontation with Russia, because if the weapons do not serve as a deterrent, and Russia escalates in response by providing equally powerful weaponry to the rebels, then what does the US/EU do? The good news is that I do think EU and US leaders are aware of this risk, which is probably why we have yet to see any weapons deliveries.



How noticeable an effect are the Western sanctions having? Are they affecting everyday life for the average Russian?

Paul Sonne:

Though the main reason Russia’s currency has plummeted is the plunge in oil prices, I think it’s fair to say that the sanctions were a contributing factor – and most every Russian is certainly feeling the effects of the ruble’s stark devaluation. Russia’s response to the sanctions (banning an array of foodstuffs from the EU and the US) has been felt in supermarkets. Some higher-end stuff (such as Italian mozzarella) is now unavailable, but that affects only a smaller slice of the population. The broader population has felt a rise in food prices more generally.



What is your impression of the Russian people and their perception of the crisis in Ukraine? Do you find that many are heavily influenced by Russian State Media?

Paul Sonne:

Yes. Polls repeatedly show that Russians are indeed heavily influenced by state television. You can find an article on one of those polls here.

The effects are palpable. For example, even though most of the rest of the world believes Russia-backed rebels downed MH17, polls show that the bulk of Russians believe the airliner was downed by Ukrainian forces – something Russian state television has been alleging since minutes after the crash.



in your opinion, is another cold war or worse likely in the near future?

Paul Sonne:

We’re already seeing a level of confrontation between Russia and Europe/US that is reminiscent of the Cold War. But we’re not going to see a return of the same thing, because the world is different, more globalized and connected. One of the key differences is that Russia doesn’t have an explicit opposing ideology in the way that the Soviet Union did during the Cold War. Much of the Cold War was directed by the concept that democracy had to triumph over communism – it was not just a geopolitical confrontation but also a battle over how countries and the world should be run. Though the Kremlin of late has tried to emphasize how much Russia’s ideology differs from European liberalism, it’s not a full-scale articulation of an alternative system. What we see in Russia today is more a modified version of what you see in Europe or the US, not a completely different way of organizing society as you had in the Soviet era.•

Tags: ,

Emily Nussbaum, the New Yorker TV critic, is as good as it gets, a dynamite writer and thinker. The latest example is “Last Girl in Larchmont,” a postmortem of Joan Rivers and her singular (and sometimes disquieting) brand of feminism. It’s a perfect bookend to Jay Ruttenberg’s 2007 late-life Heeb portrait of the comic as she was climbing to the top one last time, hoping for a final hurrah which indeed arrived. From Nussbaum’s piece:

Onstage and on TV, she had a girl-next-door cuteness, a daffiness and a vulnerability, that lent a sting to her observations: if this nice Barnard coed, in her black dress and pearls, saw herself as a hideous loser, clearly the game was rigged.

As the rare female New Comedian, Rivers’s persona also hit a nerve, playing as it did off a contemporary slur, the Jewish American Princess. In 1959, Norman Mailer had published a notorious short story, “The Time of Her Time,” in which a bullfighter gives a Jewish college girl her first orgasm by means of sodomy and the phrase “dirty little Jew”; the same year, Philip Roth published “Goodbye, Columbus,” with its iconic Princess, Brenda Patimkin. In 1971, Julie Baumgold wrote a cover story for New York, at once disdainful and sympathetic, called “The Persistence of the Jewish American Princess,” portraying the type as a spoiled girl who wouldn’t cook or clean. Obsessively groomed, the JAP has been crippled by her mother, who refuses to let her daughter call herself ugly. She’s “the soul of daytime drama,” waiting for a rich man to save her: “Clops and blows come from Above, but still she expects. It isn’t mere hope; it is her due.”

Rivers took that sexist bogeywoman and made it her own, raging at society from inside the stereotype: she was the Princess who did nothing but call herself ugly. She vomited that news out, mockingly, yearningly, with a shrug or with a finger pointed at the audience. “Arf, arf,” she’d bark, joking that a rapist had asked if they could just be friends. A woman I know used to sneak into the TV room, after her parents fell asleep, for the illicit thrill of seeing another woman call herself flat-chested. If Rivers’s act wasn’t explicitly feminist, it was radical in its own way: she was like a person trapped in a prison, shouting escape routes from her cell.•

Tags: , ,

At the beginning of 1970, directly following the Apollo 11 moon landing, Life published Rudi Gernreich’s predictions about the future of fashion. He foresaw a harsh landscape of environmental damage, overpopulation and traffic-clogged highways, all of which would inform designers who would create unisex protective garb made of alternative fabrics. While his fashion prognostications weren’t accurate, embedded in Gernreich’s ideas are some prescient remarks about technological innovations. An excerpt:

In cold, wintry weather, predicts Gernreich, “both men and women will wear heavy-ribbed leotards and waterproof boots. It will be impossible to drive to stores because of traffic, so all clothes will be ordered from a catalogue or TV set. And since animals which now supply wool, fur and leather will be so rare that they must be protected, and weaving fabric such as cotton will be too much trouble, most clothes will be made entirely of cheap and disposable synthetic knits.”

Clothing will not be identified as either male or female, says Gernreich. “So women will wear pants and men will wear skirts interchangeably. And since there won’t be any squeamishness about nudity, see-through clothes will only be see-through for reasons of comfort. Weather permitting, both sexes will go about bare-chested, though women will wear simple protective pasties. Jewelry will exist only as a utility–that is, to hold something up or together, like a belt or for information, like a combination wristwatch, weather indicator, compass and radio. The esthetics are going to involve the body itself. We will train the body to grow beautifully rather than cover it to produce beauty.

The present cult of eternal youth is not honest nor attractive, says Gernreich. “In an era when the body will become the convention of fashion, the old will adopt a uniform of their own. If a body can longer be accentuated, it should be abstracted. The young won’t wear prints but the elderly will because bold prints detract. The elderly will have a cult of their own and the embarrassment of old age will fade away.”•



As is their wont, technologists would like driverless cars on the road yesterday, but traditional automakers would rather ease into the sector with assisted-driving functions introduced gradually. A new Economist report is bearish on Silicon Valley’s chances of becoming kings of the road even should the industry go electric and autonomous, citing the nouveau carmakers’ lack of infrastructure (in both manufacturing and corporate) in dealing with many problems inherent to the business. I think the piece’s prediction from Boston Consulting that “cars with even limited self-driving features will never exceed 25% of sales” will only be true if they’re eclipsed by fully autonomous models before surpassing that number. Otherwise most models will probably soon have numerous robocar features at the disposal of human drivers. An excerpt:

The head of Google’s autonomous-car project, Chris Urmson, nevertheless argues that the conventional carmakers’ incremental approach will slow them down, and that a leap straight into fully self-driving vehicles will pay off quicker. However, even if he is proved right in terms of developing the technology, there are two other big barriers to overcome: regulatory approval, and drivers’ nervousness at ceding control entirely to a computer.

Carmakers have had to become adept at handling mountains of regulations and fending off liability lawsuits. These will be huge issues when any self-driving car is involved in an accident—which they will be, even if less frequently than ones driven by humans. Slowly feeding in autonomy may be a better way of convincing road users and legislators of the technology’s benefits. In a pessimistic forecast, the Boston Consulting Group reckons demand for cars with even limited self-driving features will never exceed 25% of sales, and fully autonomous ones will account for just 10% of sales by 2035 (see chart 2).

Perhaps technology firms can accelerate the future of the car. But whatever happens, this is a difficult business to break into. Google would like the carmakers it hopes eventually to supplant to help seal their doom by building its vehicles under contract. Unsurprisingly, none seems too keen on this. Apple’s cash pile of $178 billion is more than enough to set up a carmaking division and tool up its factories. But the technology firms have no manufacturing culture, and the skills needed to market, distribute and provide after-sales service for cars is unlike anything they are used to.•


« Older entries § Newer entries »