Excerpts

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Before the robot birds carry away you and your children, they will first be used to scare actual birds from airports and landfills. From Kyle Vanhemert at Wired UK:

“Birds are nice enough, unless you work at places like airports, farms, and landfills, in which case they’re the sworn enemy. Today, there are a variety of tools and technologies for spooking unwanted birds — we’ve graduated from scarecrows to flash-bang grenades and other sophisticated armaments — but Nico Nijenhuis is undoubtedly working on the coolest. He’s building robot hawks that trick lingering critters into thinking they’re about to get snacked on.

Nijenhuis, a 27-year-old based in the Netherlands, is the mind behind Robirds, a line of robotic birds of prey. He’s hoping to sell them to the aviation and waste management industries under the name Clear Flight Solutions. (Company tagline: ‘We create birds.’ Fair enough!) Nijenhuis is currently testing remote controlled Peregrine Falcons and eagles with promising results. By the end of the year, he’s hoping to have fully autonomous robot birds on offer.”

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Oh, we’re going to be quantified whether we like it or not, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy sledding for makers of fitness monitors, especially with so many people seemingly wired to hate exercise. It appears to be less laziness than a natural proclivity. From an Economist article about the steep climb ahead for Fitbit and the like:

“The immediate problem is their limited appeal. They are primarily aimed at fitness fanatics, yet well over half of all Americans do not exercise regularly, and thus have little interest in the product. Fitness trackers also fail to keep the attention of those health-conscious consumers who do go out and buy them. Strikingly, one-third of users discard their devices after six months, according to research by Endeavour Partners, a consultancy. Some industry insiders speculate that the true number may be much higher than that. Wearable fitness-trackers are just not as addictive as smartphones and the like, it seems. The novelty of being able to track your steps, calories or other metrics is appealing at first, but swiftly wears off. Use a fitness tracker regularly, and you get pretty good at guessing the numbers.”

Terrorism hasn’t ended traditional war, really, just expanded the “playing” field. But it certainly is now a standard part of the operating procedure, with a globalized, connected world full of cheap, tiny cameras able to be shaken by a single atrocity. From an interview with the late futurist Olaf Helmer in a 1981 Omni magazine:

Omni:

Is there any other area where we seem to have a blind spot?

Olaf Helmer:

Yes, in the military budget. There’s a lot of talk now about inflation and the military budget, and I think rightly so. But what is being overlooked is the very strong possibility that war in the conventional sense might be completely obsolete, and we’re preparing for the wrong thing.

Omni:

What do you mean?

Olaf Helmer:

It is possible that the new form of war will be terrorism, and I fear that we are inadequately prepared to deal with that kind of warfare. We were held up by the Iranians with the threat that some harm would come to the hostages unless we handed over billions of dollars. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture other variations on that theme, involving perhaps whole cities immobilized by credible terrorist threats.. Then what, would the President do? We have thus far had no effective mechanism and firm policy for dealing with that kind of attack. I hope our military planning includes a shift in this direction.”

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In David Rothkopf’s recent Foreign Policy interview with Martin Indyk, two-time U.S. Ambassador to Israel, the diplomat predicted (accurately) the foundering of Benjamin Netanyahu’s popularity among Israelis and worried over the splintering of support for the country among Americans, especially young Jewish-Americans. Indyk also outlined the shifting political dynamics in the Middle East. An excerpt:

Martin Indyk:

Few people noticed that the Indian government came out in support of Israel in this war; social media in China was pro-Israel. It has developed strategic relations with both countries, and with Russia as well, that led Israel to absent itself from the vote of the U.N. General Assembly condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea. I think there’s a sense in Israel, particularly on the right, that they can afford to be defiant of the United States. Israelis also sense a potential for a new alignment with Gulf Arab states that didn’t exist before that is generated by their common interest in curbing Iran’s nuclear program and countering Iran’s efforts to dominate the region, opposing if not overthrowing Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and combating Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, with its stepchild Hamas in Gaza. Israel shares this array of enemies with the Sunni Arab monarchs and the Abdel Fattah al-Sisi regime in Egypt. You can see it in this Gaza crisis quite clearly, where the Saudis and the Egyptians in particular wanted Israel to take down Hamas.

So the combination of all of that leads Israelis to feel more independent of the United States, especially in the context of their sense that the United States is withdrawing from the region and therefore may be less reliable for Israel. These Arab states are also concerned about what they see as an American withdrawal and feel a greater need to cooperate under the table with Israel to help deal with the chaos and threats around them.”

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Two brief excerpts follow from Ashley Halsey III’s Washington Post article about a Carnegie Mellon driverless car being road tested in our nation’s capital, which highlight the challenges of making the vehicles completely autonomous.

__________________________

The computers running the car, for example, can see the police officer bustling into the middle of Constitution Avenue at First Street NW. But they can’t figure out why he is doing it — and neither can the people riding in the car. It turns out the officer wants to wave off a driver in another car who was making an improper turn.

Could the car have handled it without [passenger Jarrod] Snider’s help?

“Yeah, it started to slow down before I took over,” Snider says, “and as he stepped out of [our] lane and walked across the street, the car would have continued to go. The car obviously doesn’t understand gestures like ‘Stop here.’ ”

__________________________

The rest of the computers’ communication — currently and what’s planned in the future — come in chimes, beeps and vibrations. If the person in the driver’s seat touches the wheel or either of the floor pedals, much as with cruise control, the computer relinquishes control. If the computer needs the driver to take over, the steering wheel and passenger seat may vibrate.

“Sometimes, if it becomes not confident about something, it can tell you to take over, and if everything’s okay, it can tell you it’s ready to drive autonomous,” says Snider, lead engineer on the project at Carnegie Mellon. “It’s just providing some feedback to the driver.”

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Chris Dancy, who tracks and quantifies himself to the extreme, may not be exactly our future, but a significant amount of what is true in his life will become true in ours. Settling on common standards for the Internet of Things is an obstacle, but it only takes a single great product like the iPod or the iPhone to bring clarity. Apple and Google, meanwhile, are in a race to create the preeminent smarthome technology. We will be measured whether we want to be or not. The opening of Samantha Murphy Kelly’s Mashable article “The Most Connected Man Is You, Just a Few Years From Now“:

“DENVER, Colorado — Chris Dancy, the self-described ‘most connected guy in the world,’ reclines in a throne in the corner of his home office. The walls around him are a scrapbook of his life, pinned with foreign currency, concert tickets and pictures of his icons, like Michael Jackson and Andy Warhol.

In between stories of his travels, he mentions his newfound Internet fame. He has been thrown into the spotlight for using between 300 and 700 tracking and lifelogging systems at all times, from the fitness wristband Fitbit to the Beddit mattress cover.

But then the conversation shifts to his childhood, a time when Dancy (now 45) and his family struggled to make ends meet. While describing his mother’s role in helping them through a difficult time, he closes his eyes and cuts himself off. The lights in the room have started to flicker. It’s the only moment all day where you can hear a pin drop.

The blinking lights are a visual reminder for Dancy to slow down and focus on his breathing. The lights, like so many aspects of his unassuming, cozy home, are connected to the devices he wears; in this case, they sense his heart rate is up and signal it’s time for him to calm down. Similarly, classical music plays throughout the house if he loses his temper.

By looking at his data, he’s learned exactly what he needs to be his most productive self, such as setting the lights to a specific shade or programming the air levels in his bedroom so he can sleep soundly. He’s even monitored his heart rate while watching porn to become more aware of his sexual preferences: ‘I thought I was into certain types of people, but learned what I actually like most.’ He’s also lost more than 100 pounds along the way, just by tracking his daily habits and making small changes to be healthier.

Even his dogs are tracked; a product called Tagg logs their daily activities.

He’s been called everything from a cyborg to an alien for his extreme data collection routines, but Dancy is the future tech experts say is coming.

Dancy is the ultimate example of two revolutions underway in tech: the Internet of Things (smart thermostats, garage doors, toothbrushes, tennis racquets) and quantified self (what you learn about yourself from trackers). Apple and Google are the two biggest companies expanding their efforts in the ‘smart home’ market, which is projected to bring $1.9 trillion to the global economy by 2020, according to Gartner Research.”

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NCAA fighting college football players’ efforts to share in the huge revenue they produce would be maddening enough even if the sport didn’t leave a lot of these guys with a lifetime of serious health issues. The era when we thought of the game as a healthy way to build school spirit is over. It’s a destroyer. From Jimmy Golen at the Associated Press:

“BOSTON (AP) — Michael Keck played just two years of college football before he was knocked out during practice at Missouri State and gave the sport up for good.

He turned combative — punching holes in the wall. He began to struggle in school. Soon he was spending most of his time indoors, with blankets covering the windows to darken the room.

Keck died last year at age 25 of what doctors believe was an unrelated heart condition. His brain, at his request, was donated to the Boston University lab that has been researching a degenerative brain condition frequently found in contact-sport athletes.

The disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, had advanced to a stage never before seen in someone so young.

‘When you talk in terms of his age, being young, and you talk about his limited years of playing, it is one of the more severe cases,’ said Dr. Robert Cantu, a co-founder of the CTE Center at BU. ‘Had he lived to 70 or 80, we would have expected this to be a Grade 4 (the most severe form) case.’”

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It seems a cockamamie plan, one that has a reality TV show at its heart, but the Dutch space concern Mars One is promising to send four pioneers on a one-way trip to our neighboring planet within a decade. They will live there and die there, as settlers once did in the untamed Western United States, except you’ll be able to watch it all on your smartphone. I seriously doubt it ever happens. The opening of “Ultimate Reality TV: A Crazy Plan for a Mars Colony,” by Spiegel’s Manfred Dworschak:

“If his greatest wish is fulfilled, then Stephan Günther will one day die on Mars. He’s already thought long and hard about the eventuality. He would like his companions to pack his remains in an airtight coffin before depositing him outside the colony among the rocks.

‘Perhaps there are unknown forms of life on Mars,’ 45-year-old Günther says. ‘We can’t just intervene.’
It is a sentiment which displays the enlightenment of today’s conquerors. They want to take ownership of a planet, but they are concerned that their own remains could contaminate bacterial cultures in its dusty, rocky ecosystem.

Mars, to be sure, remains a deserted wasteland today, its ecology intact. But it could be that Günther could might be bouncing his way through rough craters beaming pictures back to Earth. Currently a flight trainer in Magdeburg, Germany, Günther has applied to take part in a unique voyage to our neighboring planet. A return trip is not part of the deal.

Conceiving the journey as one-way makes it vastly more feasible and less expensive. A Dutch foundation, led by businessman Bas Lansdorp, is behind the idea. ‘We want to send the first four settlers to Mars in 2024,’ he says, adding that ‘additional teams will follow.’

Some 704 candidates say they are prepared to leave Earth forever. A competition will decide which of them will be sent to be humanity’s permanent representatives on Mars. Lansdorp’s foundation, Mars One, plans to train those chosen for eight years as preparation for a radically new life.”

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When you have time, you want money. When you have money, you want time.

Life extension–immortality, even–is pursued by deep-pocketed technologists who are bad at saying goodbye. They believe the answers are a lot closer than they likely are. Of course, the defeat of death would pose myriad philosophical and ethical questions. From “The Eternal Problem Silicon Valley Can’t Solve,” Elizabeth Segran’s Fast Company feature about Dave Asprey and others trying to engineer an endless summer: 

“Over the last 15 years, Asprey has been tinkering with technologies in the hopes of slowing the aging process in his own body. He describes this as bio-hacking, using the hacker mentality to turbocharge his own biochemistry. And to hear Asprey tell it, that’s working: With a couple of scientific hacks, he’s lost hundreds of pounds, increased his IQ, and improved the quality of his sleep. All these things, he says, are also prolonging his life-span. He’s now sharing these techniques with others through Bulletproof Executive, the company he founded that creates coffee and other products to spike bodily performance, and as the chairman of the board of the Silicon Valley Health Institute, a group that meets monthly to discuss the latest developments in the study of longevity.

Asprey’s office, located just down the street from Google’s campus, is a microcosm of a growing Silicon Valley trend. Asprey is trying to stop individual bodies from aging–starting with his own–and investment is pouring into a growing number of companies whose stated goal is to increase human longevity and, in some cases, even cure death. Asprey freely admits that these are grandiose, quixotic endeavors. But in a place where geeks have changed the world with previously unthinkable breakthroughs in science, nothing seems impossible. ‘When you’re young and you’ve just created something amazing that makes you a ton of a money, you do egotistical things,’ Asprey says. ‘And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing: I want to swing for the fences. What is all of this cool technology we’re creating compared to getting an extra hundred years of life?’”

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The more EV makers in the race with Tesla to create the first widely affordable long-range electric car, the better. Right now Elon Musk’s main competitor in GM; the former cannot lose and the latter can ill afford to. From Steve LeVine at Quartz:

“One of the hottest clashes in technology pits two pathmakers in the new era of electric cars—Tesla and General Motors. Both are developing pure electrics that cost roughly $35,000, travel 200 miles on a single charge, and appeal to the mass luxury market.

The stakes are enormous. Most electrics have less than 100 miles of range. Experts regard 200 miles as a tipping point, enough to cure many potential electric-car buyers of ‘range anxiety,’ the fear of being stranded when their battery expires. If GM and Tesla crack this, sales of individual electrics could jump from 2,000 or 3,000 vehicles a month to 15 to 20 times that rate, shaking up industries from cars to oil, which were until now certain that large-scale acceptance of electrics was perhaps decades away. 

It is a substantial gamble for both companies. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has more or less bet his company on the contest. GM’s existence is not in jeopardy if it loses, but the outcome could still determine its place in the next generation of automaking.

The potential prize is not only profit, but outright technology leadership—the intangible aura that made Apple under Steve Jobs an outsized triumph. In this respect, the parvenu Tesla—just a decade old—holds the advantage. Musk’s first two models, with their grace, attitude and electronic showmanship, have dazzled critics, buyers and especially Wall Street. GM has impressed critics, too, with its Chevy Volt, which led the advent of plug-in hybrids, but there are doubts that it can best Musk in direct competition. However, if it can show it is generally Tesla’s equal, it would achieve unexpected street cred, while Musk would appear much more mortal.”

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Artificial Intelligence doesn’t have to do things the way you and I do them to do them better. We only believe that to flatter ourselves. The opening of Christopher Mims new Wall Street Journal article about AI, which demonstrates how it has quietly wormed its way into our lives:

“The age of intelligent machines has arrived—only they don’t look at all like we expected. Forget what you’ve seen in movies; this is no HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it’s certainly not Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied voice in Her. It’s more akin to what happens when insects, or even fungi, do when they ‘think.’ (What, you didn’t know that slime molds can solve mazes?)

Artificial intelligence has lately been transformed from an academic curiosity to something that has measurable impact on our lives. Google Inc. used it to increase the accuracy of voice recognition in Android by 25%. The Associated Press is printing business stories written by it. Facebook Inc. is toying with it as a way to improve the relevance of the posts it shows you.

What is especially interesting about this point in the history of AI is that it’s no longer just for technology companies. Startups are beginning to adapt it to problems where, at least to me, its applicability is genuinely surprising.”

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I think there are some people so awful that they deserve to die for the things they’ve done, but it’s still impossible to support the death penalty and its arbitrariness. In America, someone with wealth will never face execution, while the poor are prone. African-Americans are much more likely to suffer the ultimate consequences for a crime than white people who’ve committed the same. Males are much more likely to die than females. And because of prejudice and incompetence, the wrong people are sometimes put to death, which is the most sickening abomination.

And those who have to carry out the killing of the condemned are no doubt scarred by the process. In “The Witness,” Pamela Colloff’s Texas Monthly feature, she profiles former Texas Department of Criminal Justice Public Information Director Michelle Lyons, whose job it was to record the final moments of executed prisoners, an occupation that unsurprisingly came with hazards. An excerpt:

“Michelle already had a sense of what to expect. Fifteen months earlier, while covering for an absent colleague, she had entered the Death House for the first time to witness the execution of a convicted murderer named Javier Cruz. Years later, she would remember very little about it—only that she had dressed more formally than usual and that she had been unsure, at the outset, how she would feel when it was all over. The facts of Cruz’s case did not engender much sympathy: he had murdered two San Antonio men, one of whom he had gagged and bound, beaten with a hammer, and then strangled with the belt of a bathrobe. Michelle had found that watching Cruz slip into unconsciousness did not evoke any powerful emotions; she had scribbled in her yellow legal pad, typed up her story, and gone home. Covering executions was certainly no worse, she decided, than being a war correspondent or any other journalist who sees suffering up close; in fact, the cold efficiency of lethal injection made hers the easier job. When her father called her into his office the next day to check on her, she told him she was fine. As she saw it, her duty as a journalist was to be dispassionate. 

In the first year that Michelle served as the Item’s prison reporter, Texas executed forty inmates—the most people put to death in a single year, by one state, in American history. Governor Bush also happened to be making a run for the White House. This confluence of events caused hundreds of journalists to descend on Huntsville in the months leading up to the 2000 presidential election, mostly to issue withering assessments. On the night that Billy George Hughes, a man who had fatally shot a state trooper, was put to death, a TV show hosted by filmmaker-provocateur Michael Moore arranged for a pom-pom-waving cheerleading squad to stand outside the Walls and chant, ‘Texas, Texas, you’re so great, you kill more than any state!’ beside an illuminated execution scoreboard that read ‘George 117, Jeb 2.’ Rolling Stone published a blistering takedown of Huntsville in a piece called ‘Five Executions and a Barbecue.’ The media glare was relentless, transforming one execution that June—of an obscure Houston street criminal named Gary Graham, whose murder conviction had turned on the word of a single eyewitness—into an international cause célèbre. Riot police armed with tear gas stood outside the Walls on the night of his death while hooded Klansmen and rifle-toting members of the New Black Panther Party played to the cameras. At Graham’s invitation, the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Bianca Jagger served as witnesses.

During this time, Michelle kept a journal in which she recorded her own personal observations of the executions she witnessed, which had no place in the straightforward accounts she wrote for the Item. Rarely did she mention the media spectacle outside. Instead she cataloged the disquieting details that she noticed as she watched a succession of inmates be put to death. There was Betty Lou Beets, the second woman to be executed in Texas since the Civil War, who had shot not one but two of her husbands and buried them in her yard. (‘I couldn’t help but notice her tiny little feet,’ Michelle wrote. ‘She looked like somebody’s grandma—she was somebody’s grandma.’) There was Ponchai Wilkerson, who had once nearly managed to break out of death row, who stunned onlookers when he spit out a handcuff key as he lay on the gurney. (‘I felt sick,’ Michelle wrote the next day. ‘For a few seconds I had the crazy thought, ‘He’s going to get off that table and kill us.’ ’) And there was Robert Earl Carter, who had murdered six people, including his four-year-old son, and falsely implicated his friend Anthony Graves in the crime. (‘His last words were, ‘It was me and me alone. Anthony Graves had nothing to do with it,’ ’ Michelle wrote.) Carter’s admission on the gurney would later help exonerate his co-defendant, who was, at the time, awaiting his own execution date. 

Throughout her journal, she made mention of the anguish felt by both the inmates’ and victims’ families, who stood in witness rooms adjacent to each other, looking into the death chamber.”

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In vitro foods are happening now and will become a staple of our diets in the future, as a growing global population and environmental concerns demand it. Meat, of course, is the hardest to approximate, but that will also happen. Considering the processed crap we eat now, the so-called Frankenfoods may be significantly healthier. From Katie Murphy at the New York Times:

“Whether for moral reasons or because of a Jobsian belief in the superiority of their vision, high-tech food entrepreneurs are focusing primarily on providing alternatives to animal protein. The demand is certainly there. Worldwide consumption of pork, beef, poultry and other livestock products is expected to double by 2020. Animal protein is also the most vulnerable and resource-intensive part of the food supply. In addition to livestock production’s immense use of land and water, runoff pollution and antibiotic abuse, it is responsible for 14.5 percent of greenhouse gases, according to the United Nations.

Venture capital firms like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Closed Loop Capital, Khosla Ventures and Collaborative Fund have poured money into Food 2.0 projects. Backing has also come from a hit parade of tech-world notables including Sergey Brin of Google, Biz Stone of Twitter, Peter Thiel of PayPal and Bill Gates of Microsoft, as well as Li Ka-shing, Asia’s wealthiest man, who bought early stakes in Facebook and Spotify.

‘We’re looking for wholesale reinvention of this crazy, perverse food system that makes people do the wrong thing,’ said Josh Tetrick, the vegan chief executive of San Francisco-based Hampton Creek. His company has created an egg substitute using protein extracted from the Canadian yellow pea, incorporating it into Just Scramble, Just Mayo and Just Cookie Dough, which are starting to find their way onto grocery store shelves nationwide.”

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Remember when Al-Qaeda were the evildoers? Ah, the good old days. The opening of Samiha Shafy’s Spiegel interview with Brookings Institution fellow Charles Lister about the seemingly sudden rise of the Islamic State:

Spiegel:

How do you explain the history of the Islamic State (IS) to people who are stunned by its seemingly sudden rise to power?

Charles Lister:

In 1999, the IS father figure Abu Musab al-Zarqawi established a training base for his group in Afghanistan. After the United States invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, the group fled through Iran and ended up in northern Iraq. By 2003, it had effectively become Iraq’s main jihadist resistance movement. During the US occupation of Iraq, Zarqawi made a name for himself and his group. It implemented sharia law to such an extreme level that the various tribal forces rose up and drove them out in a movement called the ‘Awakening.’ The group suffered significant losses at the time. When the US began initiating its withdrawal, it marked the beginning of an opportunity for a revival of Zarqawi’s group. From about mid-2009 onwards, it began establishing a sort of shadow influence. It launched an escalating level of attacks against security forces, a campaign of intimidation against local officials — within the military, police and local governments — and one of extreme violence. The extent of the campaign created significant leverage for the Islamic State. It also helps to explain why the IS was able to take Mosul so quickly.

Spiegel:

You’ve said that the Islamic State has succeeded in doing essentially everything al-Qaeda had previously done, only better, with the exception of carrying out a foreign attack. How do the two groups compare?

Charles Lister:

Both seek to establish an Islamic state governed by sharia law, but they have very different strategies. Al-Qaeda has adopted a much more patient and long-term approach to implementing social control and governance, focused on creating the socio-political conditions for such a reality. The IS is much less patient in terms of this objective. Both in the mid-2000s and now, IS has always immediately sought to implement sharia law and govern the population just as soon as it takes control of a territory. Syria offers the best comparison in terms of strategy. Al-Nusra, the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, has extensive influence across the country at a social level, but they did not choose to implement sharia directly until quite recently because they felt the social conditions weren’t ready and that they would be rejected if imposed too soon. They have instead considered the long view.

Spiegel:

Would you say al-Qaeda is somehow less extreme than IS?

Charles Lister:

Absolutely.”

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Everything is reality now, and everything is fake, too. It’s all exists in a purgatory state, hurting less but meaning less. We feel it all, briefly, and then it’s quickly replaced by more. From Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Book 2

“Death makes life meaningless because everything we have ever striven for ceases when life does, and it makes life meaningful, too, because its presence makes the little we have of it indispensable, every moment precious. But in my lifetime death has been removed from our lives, it no longer existed, except as a constant item in all the newspapers, on the TV news, and in films, where it didn’t mark the end of a process, discontinuity, but, on account of daily repetition, represented, on the contrary, an extension of the process, continuity, and in this way, oddly enough, had become a source of our security and our anchor. A plane crash was a ritual, it happened every so often, the same chain of events, and we were never part of it ourselves. A sense of security, but also excitement and intensity, for imagine how terrible the last seconds were for the passengers.”

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The Browser pointed me to “Saving Horatio Alger,” Richard Reeves’ excellent Brookings essay about American mobility, which is our national religion even though we currently trail Europe in this area by most measures. We boomed in our early days because of Manifest Destiny, busted once there was nowhere left to push our borders and had another rising-tide moment at the end of World War II. Great stuff like a tidy little explanation of how Alger would have made a poor character in his own books, since he was never ragged nor rich. An excerpt about the downward slope that set in starting in the 1970s:

“America’s decisive role in World War II and its subsequent emergence as a superpower gave rise to the Great Prosperity: a new surge of economic energy alongside sizeable government investments in infrastructure, the military, science, and Social Security, and a recommitment to education, not least through the G.I. Bill. Between 1950 and the mid-1970s, as the U.S. economy grew by an average of 4 percent a year, the economic expansion drove wages and employment up, and income and wealth gaps narrowed. High taxes—high by historical standards, anyway—were levied on those with the biggest incomes and greatest wealth, and the government provided more services and cash assistance to the poor as part of Lyndon Johnson’s vision for the ‘Great Society.’ Upward mobility may not have improved; but since standards of living were rising at about the same rate across the income distribution, most people were much better off than their parents had been, even if they remained on the same rung of the income ladder.

From the mid-1970s on, however, the mass prosperity machine began to grind to a halt; productivity stagnated and growth slowed as global competition intensified. Inequality trends returned to their pre-war trajectory, with those on the top rungs climbing ever further upward, helped along by Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts, while those at the bottom and in the middle lagged behind. George H.W. Bush broke his ‘no new taxes’ pledge, but did nothing to alter the growing fissure between the rich and the rest.

Bill Clinton’s electoral success presaged a period of strong economic growth and some restoration of the fortunes of the middle class. But U.S. politics soon veered to the right. With the election of George W. Bush as president and the emergence of a new strand of populism culminating in the muscular Tea Party movement, the rightward drift continued, and the carefully tied knots of financial regulation were quietly loosened, one by one. Mobility rates remained flat.

The election of Barack Obama fleetingly signaled a new, more optimistic mood, the promise of a more generous, post-partisan politics, and a renewed commitment to the upward mobility Americans believe in so fervently. Here was a president whose election seemed a testament to America’s progress, and whose personal story proved, so it seemed, that the Horatio Alger story could be rewritten for a multi-racial nation. The uplift was short-lived. Today, the nation is limping away from the economic car-crash of 2008. Politics remains deeply partisan. And yes, mobility rates are still flat.”

 

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From “2050 and the Future of Infrastructure,” Thomas Frey’s ImpactLab piece, the section on tube-transportation networks, something that’s been dreamed of since the Victorian Age:

“When Tesla Motors CEO, Elon Musk, mysteriously leaked that he was working on his Hyperloop Project, the combination of secrecy, cryptic details, and his own flair for the dramatic all contributed to the media frenzy that followed.

Leading up to this announcement was his growing anxiety over California’s effort to build a very expensive high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco with outdated technology.

While the Musk media train was picking up steam, several reporters pointed out a similar effort by Daryl Oster and his Longmont, Colorado-based company, ET3, to build a comparable tube transportation system that was much further along.

Indeed both are working on what will likely be the next generation of transportation where specially designed cars are placed into sealed tubes and shot, much like rockets, to their destination. While high-speed trains are breaking the 300 mph speed barrier, tube transportation has the potential to make speeds of 4,000 mph a common everyday occurrence.

As Daryl Oster likes to call it, ‘space travel on earth.’

Even though tube travel like this will beat every other form of transportation in terms of speed, power consumption, pollution, and safety, the big missing element is its infrastructure, a tube network envisioned to combine well over 100,000 miles of connected links.

While many look at this and see the lack of infrastructure as a huge obstacle, at this point in time it is just the opposite, the biggest opportunity ever.

Constructing the tube network will be the biggest infrastructure project the earth has ever seen, with a projected 50-year build-out employing in excess of 100 million people along the way.”

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At Vox, Matthew Yglesias has a post about labor automation, “Robots Won’t Destroy Jobs, But They Will Destroy The Middle Class,” which focuses on a recent paper by economist David Autor that encourages education as a means of combating further income inequality. Yglesias suggests that wage growth for McJobs will likely lead them to be automated, but that’s happening regardless. That’s why the title of the post seems unlikely to turn out to be true. From Yglesias:

“Will automation take your job away? No, argues economist David Autor in a new paper presented at the Federal Reserve conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming on Friday. Instead, it’ll just push you into a menial low-wage job.

That, at least, has been the recent past of technology’s impact on the labor market, Autor suggests. We’ve seen what he calls ‘job polarization’ where automation has increased the demand for highly skilled managers and creative types, plus the demand for low-paid food prep workers and such. …

Autor says this more or less shows the importance of improving education. Someone who might once have been qualified for a pretty good secretarial job is nowadays only going to be qualified for a job at Chipotle, since modern technology reduces the need for secretaries. To save her from the dismal future of a burrito stomping on a human face forever, she needs to be trained up to the level where she can get a job as an app developer or devising burrito marketing campaigns.

The other view, which Autor doesn’t really mention, is that perhaps a strong labor movement could turn burrito-rolling into a highly paid job. The most likely answer, I think, is that to the extent you try to transform low-wage work into middle-wage work you simply encourage those newly middle class jobs to be automated.”

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If you ever wonder what baseball players like Yasiel Puig or Jose Abreu or the just-signed Red Sox outfielder Rusney Castillo go through to slide out of Cuba and into MLB unis, let’s just say that no one is helping them through the goodness of their hearts. It’s nothing personal, strictly business, less a freedom flotilla than a pirate ship. And these athletes, though they’re shaken down for big dough, are the lucky ones. If you can’t stroke a double to deep center, you’re little more than a hostage. From Curt Anderson of the Associated Press:

“MIAMI (AP) – A man accused of masterminding a human trafficking ring pleaded guilty Friday to U.S. extortion charges involving the smuggling of more than 1,000 Cubans, including baseball players such as Texas Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin.

Eliezer Lazo, 41, entered the plea Friday in Miami federal court. Lazo is already serving a five-year prison sentence for money laundering in a Medicare fraud case and now faces up to 20 additional years behind bars. Lazo agreed to cooperate with investigators, which could reduce his prison time when he is sentenced later this year.

Prosecutors say Lazo led an organization that smuggled Cubans by boat into Mexico, where they were held until ransom payments were made. The cost was typically about $10,000 for each person, although it could be much higher in the case of Cuban baseball stars such as Martin.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Davidson said the migrants who were not sports stars were often crowded together in rooms of 20 or more under armed guard, in prison-like conditions. If the smugglers weren’t immediately paid, Davidson said, ‘the Cuban migrants in Mexico were restrained and beaten while relatives could hear the screams on the phone.’

Court documents show that the valuable Cuban baseball stars were treated far better than others involved with the smuggling ring, even though they were watched over by armed guards.”

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In “How Plagues Really Work,” Wendy Orent’s new Aeon piece, she argues that the next pandemic won’t likely come from bird flu genes but from the crowded, inhospitable conditions of refugee camps or overwhelmed hospitals, where disease incubates. Considering how many war-torn areas there are in the world right now, that’s cause for concern. An excerpt which looks at an example from Ancient Greece:

“One mysterious ancient outbreak, the Great Plague of Athens, shows how deadly epidemics unroll in time. The Plague – said to have been caused by typhus, measles, small pox or Ebola, depending on whom you ask – exploded in Athens in the summer of 430 BCE, during the early days of the Peloponnesian War, a 27-year struggle between Athens and Sparta over hegemony in the Hellenic world. Pericles, the de facto leader of Athens, who pushed for war, developed a defensive strategy that proved fatal, to him and to as many as a third of Athenian citizens. He insisted on bringing all citizens – people who lived in the towns and rural areas outside the walled city – into Athens, leaving the rest of the city-state to be ravaged by the invading Spartans. The Athenian Long Walls ran down to the separate ports of Piraeus and Phaleron, each of which lay about four miles from the City of Athens proper. Thus sealed off, fronting only on the sea, Athenians could shelter safely, Pericles argued, until the Peloponnesian War was won.

The normal population of the city was around 150,000. Scholars estimate that 200,000 to 250,000 farmers and townsmen and their families came streaming in, bringing everything they could carry with them – down to the woodwork on their farmhouse walls. But Pericles had made no provision for the newcomers, who were used to their country manors, their quiet towns, their open fields. A few had homes or relatives within the walls. But most had nowhere to go, and huddled in stifling huts, or in tents flung up in the narrow spaces between the walls. The crowded encampments were ripe for virulent infection.

Physicians and attendants died quickly, and the only people who could care for the sick were survivors immune to further infection.”

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While Grover Norquist is baking his Libertarian ass at Burning Man, he’s simultaneously planning for Republicans to win back urban American by bogarting the Uber, riding the sharing economy to voting-booth victory. Of course, as Emily Badger pointed out last month in the Washington Post and Andrew Leonard expands on today in Salon, this economic disruption isn’t really staying within traditional Right and Left lanes. From Leonard’s piece:

“The semiotics of the announcement of David Plouffe’s hiring by Uber are fascinating. For example, consider how Plouffe used the word ‘inexorable’ in an interview with the New York Times.

‘We’re on an inexorable path of progress here,’ said Plouffe. Which translates as: Uber and the rest of Silicon Valley’s innovative disrupters are going to conquer us all in the long run, so we might as well just get used to it and stop throwing roadblocks in their way.

Beware! When a company with a name like ‘Uber’ is associated with ‘inexorable,’ resistance is obviously futile. And it’s worth recalling, this isn’t just about crushing existing taxi ‘cartels.’ Uber has made no secret of its ambitions to become a logistical hub that will compete with the likes of UPS and FedEx and Hertz, that will deliver groceries, as well as human beings, more efficiently than any other company. Uber’s algorithm is what’s inexorable. And an algorithm doesn’t boast any particular party identification: It’s just there to make consumers happy.

But fast on inexorability’s heels comes the issue of what the word ‘progressive’ really means. As Emily Badger reported, John Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor of Colorado, supported Uber’s hire by saying that Plouffe will bring the same ‘progressive approach’ to campaigning for Uber as has been demonstrated by Colorado’s ‘embrace of innovation and disruptive technology.’

When you pull your phone out of your pocket, click a couple of buttons, send a signal that bounces off a satellite, and a car-for-hire magically appears in front of you in a few minutes, it certainly feels like we are living in an age of technological progress. But the jury is still out on whether this kind of innovation is truly socially progressive. A society that puts consumers first has obvious disadvantages for workers.”

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Because of philosopher Nick Bostrom’s new book, Superintelligence, the specter of AI enslaving or eliminating humans has been getting a lot of play lately. In a Guardian piece, UWE Bristol Professor Alan Winfield argues that we should be concerned but not that concerned. He doesn’t think we’re close to capable of building a Frankenstein monster that could write Frankenstein. Of course, machines might not need think like us to surpass us. The opening:

“The singularity – or, to give it its proper title, the technological singularity. It’s an idea that has taken on a life of its own; more of a life, I suspect, than what it predicts ever will. It’s a Thing for techno-utopians: wealthy middle-aged men who regard the singularity as their best chance of immortality. They are Singularitarians, some seemingly prepared to go to extremes to stay alive for long enough to benefit from a benevolent super-artificial intelligence – a man-made god that grants transcendence.

And it’s a thing for the doomsayers, the techno-dystopians. Apocalypsarians who are equally convinced that a super-intelligent AI will have no interest in curing cancer or old age, or ending poverty, but will – malevolently or maybe just accidentally – bring about the end of human civilisation as we know it. History and Hollywood are on their side. From the Golem to Frankenstein’s monster, Skynet and the Matrix, we are fascinated by the old story: man plays god and then things go horribly wrong.

The singularity is basically the idea that as soon as AI exceeds human intelligence, everything changes. There are two central planks to the hypothesis: one is that as soon as we succeed in building AI as smart as humans it rapidly reinvents itself to be even smarter, starting a chain reaction of smarter-AI inventing even-smarter-AI until even the smartest humans cannot possibly comprehend how it works. The other is that the future of humanity becomes in some sense out of control, from the moment of the singularity onwards.

So should we be worried or optimistic about the technological singularity? I think we should be a little worried – cautious and prepared may be a better way of putting it – and at the same time a little optimistic (that’s the part of me that would like to live in Iain M Banks’ The Culture. But I don’t believe we need to be obsessively worried by a hypothesised existential risk to humanity.”

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Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese and employer of Jobs and the Woz during their formative years, just did an Ask Me Anything at Reddit. A few exchanges follow, with a couple at the beginning regarding the future intersection of business and technology. 

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Question:

With the Atari you were at the cutting edge of technology back in the day. If you were starting today, as a technology entrepreneur, what technologies would you focus on?

Nolan Bushnell:

I think that robots and entertainment will be very important in the future. I’m also very interested in businesses that will be enabled by autonomous or auto-drive cars. There will also be an interesting intersection between computers and biology. Harder tech, but important, is nanotech i.e. micromachines.

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Question:

What did you learn from trying the robot cafe concept — anything you’d like to bring back from it?

Nolan Bushnell:

I found that two-thirds of the population loved it and the last third hated it. Kids universally loved it, particularly ages 10-20. I think that adding games as well as automatic ordering will clearly be the fast food and the quick-casual structure of the future.

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Question:

What’s the biggest lesson you learned at Atari or Chuck E. Cheese that you wish you had known before you started?

Nolan Bushnell:

Don’t sell to big Hollywood studios. Atari had an extraordinary corporate culture that was destroyed within 2 years of the sale. I think that Atari would still be important today if that sale hadn’t occurred.

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Question:

Did Steve Jobs really stink that bad that he had to be relegated to work the night shift??

Nolan Bushnell:

Yeah. I knew that Jobs and Woz were fast friends and Woz worked days at HP. If I put Jobs on the night shift, I’d get two Steves for the price of one. A very good business proposition.

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Question:

How do you think new tech like the Oculus Rift and Google Glass can improve, dare I say evolve how people are educated today?

Nolan Bushnell:

I think that any time you can make life and tech seamless, you have the opportunity to affect the brain. The immersion of the Oculus Rift can give you a real sense of the Battle of Hastings or life in Dickinsonian England. Seeing the circulatory system from the inside has to be a learning experience. Google glass giving you data inputs for later analysis from your lab results clearly is a step in the right direction. If telephone or television (or any examples) early on get it exactly wrong, so will some of these technologies. But then we’ll figure it out.•

 

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You would think Google would want its autonomous cars to drive every loop–jump through every hoop–to prove that its software is safe and shut up naysayers. But the search giant instead hopes to speed up the process, lobbying California to certify the robocars based on test drives that are computer simulations which don’t involve real roads. From Mark Harris at the Guardian:

“Google has built a ‘Matrix-style’ digital simulation of the entire Californian road system in which it is testing its self-driving cars – and is lobbying the state’s regulators to certify them based on virtual rather than real driving.

The extensive simulation – reminiscent of the virtual cities created for human captives in sci-fi blockbuster The Matrix – exists entirely inside computers at the company’s Mountain View location, and the cars have so far virtually ‘driven’ more than 4 million miles inside it, facing challenges just like those in the real world, such as lane-weaving motorists, wobbly cyclists and unpredictable pedestrians.

The ambition of the simulation illustrates how serious the tech company is at developing self-driving cars, an innovation that has been independently estimated as worth billions of pounds if widely implemented.

California’s regulations stipulate autonomous vehicles must be tested under ‘controlled conditions’ that mimic real-world driving as closely as possible. Usually, that has meant a private test track or temporarily closed public road.

But Ron Medford, Google’s safety director for the self-driving car programme, has been arguing that the computer simulation should be accepted instead. In a letter in early 2014 to California state officials, which the Guardian has obtained under freedom of information legislation, Medford wrote: ‘Computer simulations are actually more valuable, as they allow manufacturers to test their software under far more conditions and stresses than could possibly be achieved on a test track.’

He added: ‘Google wants to ensure that [the regulation] is interpreted to allow manufacturers to satisfy this requirement through computer-generated simulations.’”

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One quick exchange from an Ask Me Anything at Reddit with paleontologist Peter Larson that lends perspective on our poverty of knowledge about the deep past:

Question:

Is there an estimate of what percentage of the fossil record we have? That is to say, of all the species that ever existed, how many have we found?

Peter Larson:

We probably know less than 1% of the species of dinosaurs that existed. If the entire population were to go out digging dinosaurs we might eventually reach a that 1% mark.”

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