Excerpts

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Marvelous Mookie Betts was selected by the Boston Red Sox as the 172nd pick of the 2011 draft in part because of the new science of neuroscouting, research that aims to go far beyond traditional evaluations. From Alex Speier of the Boston Globe:

“He wasn’t a typical high school stud,” said Theo Epstein, the former Red Sox general manager and current Cubs president of baseball operations. “He’s an undersized kid. It’s really the athleticism and actions that drew us to him. Danny really believed in him.

“Through further evaluations and some of the proprietary testing we developed over the years, it was really clear that this kid not only had the speed, not only had the athleticism, not only had the arm, not only had the feel for the game, but also was pretty elite in his hand-eye coordination, his reaction time, and the way his mind worked as well.”

What, exactly, does Epstein mean about the workings of Betts’s mind?

“I can’t talk about that stuff,” he laughed, “because then I’d have to kill you.”

That “stuff,” according to several sources familiar with the Sox’ scouting efforts with Betts, was a new effort in 2011 to have prospects take part in neuroscouting tests.

For years, pitch recognition has been a great separator when scouting amateur players. Given that a high schooler might never see a fastball that cracks 90 miles per hour or be challenged by a legitimate major league breaking ball, there is significant guesswork in determining whether apparent bat speed will translate to production against top pitching in the pros.

In an attempt to crack that mystery, the Sox started instructing their area scouts to put potential draftees through a series of computer exercises meant to measure reaction time to pitches. Betts became a heralded part of that pilot program.

“I missed my lunch period because I was doing neuroscouting,” recalled Betts. “[Watkins] just said, ‘Do this, don’t think about the results.’ I did what I could. It was just like, a ball popped up, tap space bar as fast as you could. If the seams were one way, you tapped it. If it was the other way, you weren’t supposed to tap it. I was getting some of them wrong.

“I wasn’t getting frustrated, but I was like, ‘Dang, this is hard.’ ”•

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Bylined at Gawker to a writer named Teller Red is “My Time Living in a New York City Commune,” an account of modern-day collective life in the nation’s most vibrant urban center. These communes have always existed in NYC despite being thought of as more rural or small-town entities situated where real estate is cheaper. The need for togetherness and structure overcomes the inhospitable market factors, at least for a while. An excerpt:

Kana was a Wiccan, feminist attorney, and I was clearly the first black person she knew. Over the three plus years we spent as housemates, we battled often, our mutual defenses and stereotypes clashing, but our respect and friendship became stronger. She had zero problem speaking truth to power, and took pride in her ability to solve problems.

“You know that’s why you’re always fighting, right?” I told her once as she stirred her coffee in our kitchen. “Because you feel useless if you aren’t a savior, so you create shit to fix.” It wasn’t the equivalent of her swooping in to rescue me from, and later school me about, known community predators, but she confessed it made her think about her reputation around the houses as something of a troublemaker.

Perhaps it was her consideration of this possibility that kept her mostly silent the one day I needed her to challenge authority most. It started because I’d baked a cake to bring to dinner one night, sliced it, then ventured to the bathroom before heading across the street to the dining room. When I exited the bathroom, Tina—a community vet who was new to our particular house—was at the stove cooking, and half the cake was gone. I knew no one could have eaten it that quickly (she had!), so I laughed and asked, “Ok, who hid half the cake?” Tina’s face instantly matched her box-red hair as she took the plate the cake was on, dumped it in the trash, and stormed out, yelling that she was about to get my ass kicked out.

The community had few official rules, but no violence or “non-negotiable negativity” were tolerated. People could be as loopy as they wanted, but if called on something that infringed on someone else’s comfort, they had to be open to discussing and resolving it. These concepts neatly underscored another community must: commitment to non-judgment. I saw this concept beautifully mastered and modeled by a few in the core group (the 20 or so members who committed to share their finances, and were responsible for planning the day-to-day running of the community). They really were able to separate an act from a person’s value, something I’d never witnessed or experienced. It was the example that helped me navigate through the many times an otherwise decent person made a spectacularly stupid or racist comment. It was difficult for me to suspend personal judgment when I felt someone was so clearly fucking wrong, but being the recipient of the unconditional positive regard some of them showed me was profoundly moving, and it remains a gift I strive to give in all my relationships. On this day, it was Tina’s behavior that was least in line with the rules, so I was hardly worried when our exchange became the subject of a community session to discuss and resolve the cake-trashing incident.

The meeting was presided over by Tato, a Napoleanic core member who remains, to this day, the most arrogant, condescending asshole I’ve ever met in my life.•

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If things had broken differently, Robert Schuller might have sold something other than God.

The recently deceased Christian televangelist knew how to market. He was a Mad Man with keen psychological insight who realized that a Philip Johnson-designed cathedral made of glass would stand for something in a modern world of shifting ethics and allegiances, when we had become individuals unmoored from a sense of community–when we were alone. We belonged to the free market now and he would use that same market to provide us with a sense of “healing.” Which isn’t to say that Schuller lacked true faith, but that his belief in entrepreneurship was as robust as it was for the Lord.

From an Economist piece about the “pastorpreneur”:

The key to his success was his relentless customer focus. In a 1983 interview with the Los Angeles Times he described his Crystal Cathedral as a “22-acre shopping centre for Jesus Christ” and called himself a “religious retailer”. Just as a good shopping centre should provide everything from groceries to shoes, so a good megachurch should provide everything from Bible studies to dance classes, he argued; and just as a retailer should know his customer, so a pastorpreneur should know his flock. He conducted regular surveys of his audience and, more important, the people he wasn’t reaching. (“There are still a heck of a lot of people out there overdosing, blowing their brains out and getting herpes.”) He recognised that the precondition for success in retailing of any kind, spiritual or secular, was good parking.

His sermons also conformed to his belief in giving the audience what they wanted. He recognised that the fire-and-brimstone preaching of the old Evangelicals had limited appeal in a world of McDonald’s and Disneyland. He preached a different Protestantism, that owed as much to Norman Vincent Peale, the author of “The Power of Positive Thinking”, as it did to Martin Luther. “The classical error of historical Christianity is that we have never started with the value of the person,” he wrote in his book, “Self-Esteem: The New Reformation”.

He added three other elements into this customer-friendly formula. Economies of scale helped him reduce the costs of reaching a bigger audience; the “Hour of Power” made him the world’s most widely watched preacher. He knew that the first rule of marketing is to hold people’s attention; so he built his cathedral from glass, installed one of the best organs in the world and invited a constant stream of celebrities, including presidents and film stars. And he understood cross-promotion: his bestselling books promoted his church services, and vice versa.•

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I’ve just started reading Imagined Worlds, the 1997 Freeman Dyson entry in the Jerusalem-Harvard Lecture series. It’s something of a summation speech of Dyson’s remarkable–and sometimes perplexing–career, even though he is thankfully still with us and still thinking. If you’re vaguely familiar, it’s the book with the tag line “Imagine a world where whole epochs will pass, cultures rise and fall, between a telephone call and a reply.” Telephone calls, remember those?

I mention it because Imagined Worlds is one of the 76 choices Stewart Brand included on his 2014 Brainpickings reading list of books to “sustain and rebuild humanity.” The first 20 choices:

  1. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David R. Montgomery
  2. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  3. The Odyssey by Homer translated by Robert Fagles
  4. The Iliad by Homer translated by Robert Fagles
  5. The Memory of the World: The Treasures That Record Our History from 1700 BC to the Present Day by UNESCO
  6. The History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor
  7. The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories edited by Robert B. Strassler
  8. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War edited by Robert B. Strassler
  9. The Complete Greek Tragedies, Volumes 1-4 edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore
  10. The Prince by Machiavelli, translated by George Bull, published by Folio Society
  11. The Nature of Things by Lucretius
  12. The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World by Peter Schwartz
  13. The Way Life Works: The Science Lover’s Illustrated Guide to How Life Grows, Develops, Reproduces, and Gets Along by Mahlon Hoagland and Bert Dodson
  14. Venice, A Maritime Republic by Frederic Chapin Lane
  15. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom
  16. The Map Book by Peter Barber
  17. Conceptual Physics by Paul G. Hewitt
  18. The Encyclopedia of Earth: A Complete Visual Guide by Michael Allaby and Dr. Robert Coenraads
  19. The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov
  20. Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon

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It’s likely America won’t much longer get to choose its timetable for proceeding with delivery drones, not if the robotic vehicles fill the skies in China. Our superpower rival is still delivering a small number of packages each day in this new manner, but it has the regulatory room to expand rapidly. From Carl Engelking at Discover:

While companies like Amazon are chomping at the bit to launch drone delivery services in the United States, packages are already soaring through the air in China.

Two years ago, residents in the city of Dongguang spotted experimental SF Express-branded delivery drones hovering overhead with packages in tow. SF Express is the country’s largest mail carrier, and it presently delivers roughly 500 packages a day via drone. Now, the company says it plans to expand its services and double the number a packages it sends each day, according to a Chinese news report.

The state of drone couriers in China couldn’t contrast more with the situation here in the United States.

Opening the Skies

SF Express deploys octocopters that can carry about six pounds, so they’re only used for small express deliveries. In China, commercial drone use is legal; businesses simply need to get authorization from aviation authorities regarding the type of drone being used. Retailer Alibaba is also experimenting with delivering teas via drone in China.•

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You don’t read anything like Joseph Mitchell’s articles in the New Yorker anymore because that New York City no longer exists. Of course, even back during the ’30, ’40s and ’50s, it didn’t completely exist.

In the early and middle parts of last century, there was a lot more lassitude in regards to what was printed as fact, and Mitchell certainly wasn’t above employing poetic license when weaving one of his unforgettable narratives. Janet Malcolm, a fellow New Yorker scribe, though one of a different and more veracious era, writes in the NYRB about Thomas Kunkel’s new Mitchell bio, Man in Profile. An excerpt:

Mitchell studied at the University of North Carolina without graduating and came to New York in 1929, at the age of twenty-one. Kunkel traces the young exile’s rapid rise from copy boy on the New York World to reporter on the Herald Tribune and feature writer on The World Telegram. In 1933 St. Clair McKelway, the managing editor of the eight-year-old New Yorker, noticed Mitchell’s newspaper work and invited him to write for the magazine; in 1938 the editor, Harold Ross, hired him. In 1931 Mitchell married a lovely woman of Scandinavian background named Therese Jacobson, a fellow reporter, who left journalism to become a fine though largely unknown portrait and street photographer. She and Mitchell lived in a small apartment in Greenwich Village and raised two daughters, Nora and Elizabeth. Kunkel’s biography is sympathetic and admiring and discreet. If any of the erotic secrets that frequently turn up in the nets of biographers turned up in Kunkel’s, he does not reveal them. He has other fish to gut.

From reporting notes, journals, and correspondence, and from three interviews Mitchell gave late in life to a professor of journalism named Norman Sims, Kunkel extracts a picture of Mitchell’s journalistic practice that he doesn’t know quite what to do with. On the one hand, he doesn’t regard it as a pretty picture; he uses terms like “license,” “latitude,” “dubious technique,” “tactics,” and “bent journalistic rules” to describe it. On the other, he reveres Mitchell’s writing, and doesn’t want to say anything critical of it even while he is saying it. So a kind of weird embarrassed atmosphere hangs over the passages in which Kunkel reveals Mitchell’s radical departures from factuality.

It is already known that the central character of the book Old Mr. Flood, a ninety-three-year-old man named Hugh G. Flood, who intended to live to the age of 115 by eating only fish and shellfish, did not exist, but was a “composite,” i.e., an invention. Mitchell was forced to characterize him as such after readers of theNew Yorker pieces from which the book was derived tried to find the man. “Mr. Flood is not one man,” Mitchell wrote in an author’s note to the book, and went on, “Combined in him are aspects of several old men who work or hang out in Fulton Fish Market, or who did in the past.” In the Up in the Old Hotelcollection he simply reclassified the work as fiction.

Now Kunkel reveals that another Mitchell character—a gypsy king named Cockeye Johnny Nikanov, the subject of a New Yorker profile published in 1942—was also an invention. How Kunkel found this out is rather funny. He came upon a letter that Mitchell wrote in 1961 to The New Yorker’s lawyer, Milton Greenstein, asking Greenstein for legal advice on how to stop a writer named Sidney Sheldon from producing a musical about gypsy life based on Mitchell’s profile of Nikanov and a subsequent piece about the scams of gypsy women. Mitchell was himself working on a musical adaptation of his gypsy pieces—it eventually became the show Bajour, named after one of the gypsy women’s cruelest scams, that came to Broadway in 1964 and ran for around six months—and was worried about Sheldon’s competing script.

“Cockeye Johnny Nikanov does not exist in real life, and never did,” Mitchell told Greenstein. Therefore “no matter how true to life Cockeye Johnny happens to be, he is a fictional character, and I invented him, and he is not in ‘the public domain,’ he is mine.” Mitchell’s Gilbertian logic evidently prevailed—Sheldon gave up his musical. But the secret of Johnny Nikanov’s wobbly ontological status—though Greenstein kept quiet about it—had passed out of Mitchell’s possession. It now belonged to tattling posterity, the biographer’s best friend.•

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I wish Ray Kurzweil would live forever, but I fear he won’t make it.

Like almost everyone reading this (and writing it!), the brilliant inventor and futurist will likely die sometime in the twenty-first century. Kurzweil hopes to defy the odds–defy death itself–by taking a regimen of supplements which cost thousands of dollars a day, hoping he will remain alive and healthy until technology can make him immortal in one fashion or another. A passage from a new profile of the Googler by Caroline Daniel of the Financial Times:

Though the 67-year-old Kurzweil looks fresh-faced (he uses antioxidant skin cream daily), he is ageing, even if his “biological age comes out in the late forties. It hasn’t moved that much.”

But this is peanuts compared with Kurzweil’s ultimate goal: to live for ever. That means staying healthy enough to get to what he dubs “Bridge Two, when the biotechnology revolution will reprogramme our inherited biology”, and “Bridge Three”: molecular nanotechnology enabling us to rebuild our bodies.

Radical life extension has been on Kurzweil’s mind for decades. Today such sci-fi heroics to save mankind from death are being embraced by Silicon Valley’s tech elite. Billionaires such as Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder, call death “the great enemy”; death is no longer seen as inevitable but as the latest evil to be “disrupted”. Google, too, has created a separate venture, Calico, to combat ageing. “I had a discussion two years ago with the head of Google Ventures about longevity. It resulted in Calico. I’m an adviser.

“I think every death is tragic. We’ve learnt to accept it, the cycle of life and all that, but humans have an opportunity to transcend beyond natural limitations. Life expectancy was 19 a thousand years ago. It was 37 in 1800. Everyone believes in life extension. Somebody comes out with a cure for disease, it’s celebrated. It’s not, ‘Oh, gee, that’s going to forestall death.’ ”

A scientist in Newsweek magazine in 2009 mocked Kurzweil, saying his was “the most public mid-life crisis” ever. “These are ad hominem attacks. There’s what I call ‘death-ist’ philosophy of people who celebrate death,” he responds.

Kurzweil claims the fundamental mistake his critics make is in believing progress is linear. This is his key thesis: “The reality of information technology is it progresses exponentially . . . 30 steps linearly gets you to 30. One, two, three, four, step 30 you’re at 30. With exponential growth, it’s one, two, four, eight. Step 30, you’re at a billion.”

If medical progress might once have been a hit and miss affair, he argues that we are now starting to understand “the software of life.”•

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Wearables will soon be small enough that you’ll forget you’re wearing them, and you’ll have no idea who else is. They’ll have many great applications and will improve life, but I bet there’ll be times when we long for the dorky obviousness of Google Glass. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich shows off the button-sized Curie Module, available in the second half of 2015, by “conducting” a group of robot spiders.

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Some in what is still called the newspaper industry remain hopeful print will have an extended senescence. At least another decade or several more. How can you blame them? That’s still the way they collect most of the revenue. But that’s unlikely. The only two exit strategies would seem to be papers that aggressively (and successfully) transfer to digital-only and those valuable enough to be snapped up by deep-pocketed media companies or technologists who can help them ease their way across this scary expanse. The good news, I think, is that people are always going to want information. The bad is that right now the blueprint for success isn’t close to completed. Even the New York Times–especially New York Times?–has seemed for several years a candidate to be sold to one of the Bloombergs of the world. 

In a message to the talented Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, media analyst Clay Shirky predicts the death will not be gradual but will speed up and slow down and speed up anew. He also offers four suggestions to the flagging industry. The fourth one, labeled “the most important piece of the puzzle,” seems a stretch to me, an uneasy mixture of patronage and profits. An excerpt:

I asked Mr. Shirky what he thought news organizations, or specifically The Times, should do, given his prognosis. And we had a long exchange about that — too much for here and now.  But I’ll summarize his main points:

1) Demystify the end of print. (“Constant speculation does no one any good, but nor does the fantasy that this is anything but hospice care.”)

2) Do more to cut costs, companywide. (“The most valuable long-term dollar to an organization with declining revenues is a dollar you don’t spend.”)

3) Give huge emphasis to finding new advertising dollars from mobile-device readership. (“The catastrophe of believing that the iPad would bring full-page, glossy, high-margin brand-building to the Internet was perhaps the cruelest trick Steve Jobs ever played on the media industry, already a long list.”)

4) Think of subscribership as membership. In short, get some percentage of the loyal readers of The Times to pay more — some of them a lot more — to support what Mr. Shirky calls their “indispensable paper.” This is the most important piece of the puzzle, he believes.•

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A volcano the intensity of the one in 1815 that disrupted the world will occur again at some point, but even though there is more to destroy now, the impact by some measures–on agriculture, say–will probably not be as great today. From the Economist (by way of the Browser):

IF ALIENS had been watching the Earth during 1815 the chances are they would not have noticed the cannon fire of Waterloo, let alone the final decisions of the Congress of Vienna or the birth of Otto von Bismark. Such things loom larger in history books than they do in astronomical observations. What they might have noticed instead was that, as the year went on, the planet in their telescopes began to reflect a little more sunlight. And if their eyes or instruments had been sensitive to the infrared, as well as to visible light, the curious aliens would have noticed that as the planet brightened, its surface cooled. …

In his book Eruptions that Shook the World, Clive Oppenheimer, a volcanologist at Cambridge University, puts the number killed by the ash flows, the tsunamis and the starvation that followed them in Indonesia at 60,000-120,000. That alone would make Tambora’s eruption the deadliest on record. But the eruption did not restrict its impact to the areas pummelled by waves and smothered by ash.

When the sulphur hits the stratosphere

The year after the eruption clothes froze to washing lines in the New England summer and glaciers surged down Alpine valleys at an alarming rate. Countless thousands starved in China’s Yunnan province and typhus spread across Europe. Grain was in such short supply in Britain that the Corn Laws were suspended and a poetic coterie succumbing to cabin fever on the shores of Lake Geneva dreamed up nightmares that would haunt the imagination for centuries to come. And no one knew that the common cause of all these things was a ruined mountain in a far-off sea.

While lesser eruptions since then have had measurable effects on the climate across the planet, none has been large enough to disrupt lives to anything like the same worldwide extent. It may be that no eruption ever does so again. But if that turns out to be the case, it will be because the human world has changed, not because volcanoes have. The future will undoubtedly see eruptions as large as Tambora, and a good bit larger still.•

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If we progress intelligently, we should be able to feed a much-larger world population while being kinder to animals and the environment. That can’t be done at hatching factories and the like, but perhaps biotechnology can fill the cupboard. An exchange from Techononmy between Paul Gurney of McKinsey and Andras Forgacs, co-founder of Modern Meadow, developer of cultured animal products:

Paul Gurney:

What is the advantage of removing the live animal from the equation?

Andras Forgacs:

Sure, so just by way of context, at Modern Meadow we have a food program and we have a materials program. We’re developing a way to grow leather and leather-like materials without having to slaughter animals, and we’re also developing a way of growing meat and umami savory products without having to slaughter animals. Now, that said, the animal is not completely absent from the equation, because you need to source the cells from somewhere. So, in the case of our food program, we take cells from the very best animals you could possibly imagine, the healthiest animals, and by the way the process does not need to kill the animal. So this a great way of going to the prize winning heifer, the most delicious Angus cow, taking cells from it, the cow can continue to live a very happy life.

Paul Gurney:

So you take a biopsy, basically?

Andras Forgacs:

Exactly. You take a biopsy, and then we expand those cells in very large quantities. So we’re effectively becoming the world’s most efficient mammalian cell factory. Now the advantage—and in the materials program, we actually may not ever need to go back to the animal, because we can do things at the cellular level that means we never have to go back to the animal again. But the advantage of doing that is that animals take a lot of space.

If you put all the livestock industry all together, it’s using about a third of all available land, ice-free land in the world, directly or indirectly, for grazing or for feed crops. They consume a lot of water, and they contribute to a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. So by taking animals out of the equation and just relying on a much smaller donor pool of animals, the process is a lot less resource intensive. And you also have a lot more control over the process. Animals have a fairly inefficient feed conversion ratio. It takes about ten pounds of grain for a cow to produce a pound of bodyweight, and you only consume, effectively use one third of that mass for food.

Paul Gurney:

And ridiculous amounts of water, right?

Andras Forgacs:

Exactly.•

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Driverless cars remake the roads–and the economy–once they are fully autonomous. Until then, the gradual integration of elements is useful though not truly revolutionary. Those final few percentage points are tricky, but it appears technologists are headed in the right direction. In a blog post, Brad Templeton, Google driverless consultant, puts the just-completed Delphi cross-country drive into context. An excerpt:

Most of the robocar press this week has been about the Delphi drive from San Francisco to New York, which completed yesterday. Congratulations to the team. Few teams have tried to do such a long course and so many different roads. (While Google has over a million miles logged in their testing by now, it’s not been reported that they have done 3,500 distinct roads; most testing is done around Google HQ.)

The team reported the vehicle drove 99% of the time. This is both an impressive and unimpressive number, and understanding that is key to understanding the difficulty of the robocar problem.

One of the earliest pioneers, Ernst Dickmanns did a long highway drive 20 years ago, in 1995. He reported the system drove 95% of the time, kicking out every 10km or so. This was a system simply finding the edge of the road, and keeping in the lane by tracking that. Delphi’s car is much more sophisticated, with a very impressive array of sensors — 10 radars, 6 lidars and more, and it has much more sophisticated software.

99% is not 4% better than 95%, it’s 5 times better, because the real number is the fraction of road it could not drive. And from 99%, we need to get something like 10,000 times better — to 99.9999% of the time, to even start talking about a real full-auto robocar.•

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Radicals, be that terrorists or any manner of zealots, may be driven as much by mental illness as ideology. Are the kids signing up for the life of ISIS much different than the confused, damaged minions who roomed on a ranch with Manson? Young, troubled minds are open to such dangers. At New Scientist, epidemiologist Kamaldeep Bhui writes about radicalization as a mental health issue. An excerpt:

Research in the US following the 9/11 attacks suggested that having sympathies for terrorist acts and violent protest is a sign that people are susceptible to future radicalising influences. We took that as our starting point and assessed these kinds of sympathies in men and women of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin living in the UK.

We found that these views were uncommon – they were held by just 2.5 per cent of our sample – and were unrelated to poverty, political engagement, or experience of discrimination and adversity. However, we did find a correlation between extremist sympathies and being young, in full-time education, relative social isolation, and having a tendency towards depressive symptoms.

In contrast, we found that being born outside the UK, general ill health or having large social networks were all associated with moderate views. We also found that women were as likely as men to hold extreme sympathies, although the association with depression was stronger in men. Frequency of religious worship and attending a place of worship were not correlated with extremist leanings.

Such findings challenge many of the pervasive ideas about what drives radical beliefs, including the notion that religious orthodoxy fuels extremism.•

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As Galileo noted, much to his detriment, it all revolves around the sun.

I’ve mentioned how much I love Yuval Harari’s new book, Sapiens, and I recall something he wrote about our dear star: Every 90 minutes enough energy is delivered to Earth to power the planet for a year. We won’t really be doomed in the immediate future by energy scarcity but perhaps by want of ideas in harnessing it. 

But if the sun dies eventually, could we live on another planet, a star-less rogue one, and survive, even thrive in the gloom and on the margins? Perhaps, but it won’t be easy, as Sean Raymond writes in “Life in the Dark,” the latest great Aeon essay. The opening:

I’s 10,000 years in the future. You are a space explorer, preparing to land on the surface of a newly discovered world that might support life. This planet is dark, so dark that you can’t identify any of its surface features. All you can see is an ominous black circle blocking the stars. You enter its atmosphere and descend through a thick layer of clouds detectable only by the spaceship’s sensors. There is no light outside your ship. No sunlight. No stars. You turn to your commander, perplexed, and shout: ‘Wait a minute! This planet has no Sun! What the hell are we doing here?’

The Sun gets a lot of good press. Nearly everyone likes sunny days and rainbows. Solar panels are virtuous. Sunlight drives photosynthesis, which produces the oxygen we breathe. Our bodies make such mood-improving substances as vitamin D from sun exposure. Sun worship and solar deities appear throughout recorded history. We love our Sun.

But, does the Sun live up to the hype? Do we really need it? Yes, we do. If the Sun were to suddenly turn off, Earth would freeze over into an ice ball. Our planet’s geological thermostat – the carbonate-silicate cycle – is useless without the Sun. Lakes, rivers and ponds would freeze first. It would take decades but the ocean would eventually freeze solid. Some heat would continue to leak out of Earth’s interior at volcanoes and mid-ocean ridges. Eventually, Earth would look like Hoth, the ice-covered planet from the film The Empire Strikes Back. Most of Earth’s life would vanish.

Earth was born and grew up with the Sun. It’s not playing fair to just make the Sun disappear. Let’s consider a different type of planet, an Earth that never had a Sun, a ‘rogue’ or ‘free-floating’ planet. These planets don’t orbit stars. They wander the stars. They are free citizens of the galaxy. It might seem like the stuff of science fiction but several free-floating gas giants have been found in recent years.

Our own gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, are leashed to the Sun on well-behaved orbits, but this might not be the norm in our galaxy. One study, published in Nature in 2011, suggests that the Milky Way contains two rogue gas giants for every star. That particular study remains controversial, but most astronomers agree that rogue planets are common in our galactic neighbourhood. And for every rogue gas giant there are likely to be several rogue Earth-sized rocky worlds. There are likely tens to hundreds of billions of these planets in our galaxy.

A free-floating Earth would miss out on many of the things we enjoy on our actual Earth. There would be no seasons or sunsets. And with no Sun to revolve around, no birthdays. But could a rogue planet support life, let alone a vibrant biosphere like Earth’s?•

 

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Capitalism is good except when it’s bad–and vice versa. It’s the best machinery we’ve come up with to grow wealthier in the aggregate, and it’s still quite a shitstorm. 2008 was only the most recent reminder. Will political tumult caused by technological employment force it to be seriously moderated? In a Spiegel interview conducted by Romain Leick, Marxist jokester Slavoj Žižek sees gathering clouds in the Western political structure-democracy, namely–but he probably always does. The opening:

Spiegel:

Mr. Žižek, the financial and economic crisis showed just how vulnerable the free market system can be. You have made it your task to examine the contradictions of contemporary capitalism. Are you anticipating a new revolution?

Slavoj Žižek: 

Unfortunately not.

Spiegel:

But you would like to experience one? Are you still a communist?

Slavoj Žižek: 

Many consider me to be a crazy Marxist who’s waiting for the end of time. I may be a very eccentric, but I’m not a madman. I am a communist for lack of something better, out of despair over the situation in Europe. Six months ago, I was in South Korea to gave talks on the crisis in global capitalism, the usual you know, bla bla bla. Then the audience started to laugh and said: What are you talking about? Just look at us — China, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam — we’re doing very well economically. So who is that has slipped into crisis? It’s you in Western Europe — or, more precisely, in parts of Western Europe.

Spiegel:

Well, it’s not quite as simple as that.

Slavoj Žižek: 

Still, there’s some truth to it. Why do we Europeans feel that our unfortunate situation is a full-fledged crisis? I think what we are feeling is not a question of yes or no to capitalism, but that of the future of our Western democracy. Something dark is forming on the horizon and the first wind storms have already reached us.•

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In their Matter essay, “Our Transparent Future,” Daniel C. Dennett and Deb Roy examine transparency from an evolutionary perspective and guess where this new normal (abnormal?) is taking us. When the Internet of Things is the thing, when drones and such shrink to the head of a pin, transparency will be the rule, almost everything knowable and leakable, which is a blessing and curse. And you’ll hardly hear the monitoring. It will flow like electricity through a wire, so quiet. The opening:

More than half a billion years ago a spectacularly creative burst of biological innovation called the Cambrian explosion occurred. In a geologic “instant” of several million years, organisms developed strikingly new body shapes, new organs, and new predation strategies and defenses against them. Evolutionary biologists disagree about what triggered this prodigious wave of novelty, but a particularly compelling hypothesis, advanced by University of Oxford zoologist Andrew Parker, is that light was the trigger. Parker proposes that around 543 million years ago, the chemistry of the shallow oceans and the atmosphere suddenly changed to become much more transparent. At the time, all animal life was confined to the oceans, and as soon as the daylight flooded in, eyesight became the best trick in the sea. As eyes rapidly evolved, so did the behaviors and equipment that responded to them.

Whereas before all perception was proximal — by contact or by sensed differences in chemical concentration or pressure waves — now animals could identify and track things at a distance. Predators could home in on their prey; prey could see the predators coming and take evasive action. Locomotion is a slow and stupid business until you have eyes to guide you, and eyes are useless if you cannot engage in locomotion, so perception and action evolved together in an arms race. This arms race drove much of the basic diversification of the tree of life we have today.

Parker’s hypothesis about the Cambrian explosion provides an excellent parallel for understanding a new, seemingly unrelated phenomenon: the spread of digital technology. Although advances in communications technology have transformed our world many times in the past — the invention of writing signaled the end of prehistory; the printing press sent waves of change through all the major institutions of society — digital technology could have a greater impact than anything that has come before. It will enhance the powers of some individuals and organizations while subverting the powers of others, creating both opportunities and risks that could scarcely have been imagined a generation ago.•

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China’s economic boom has been like nothing the world has ever seen, and that financial might will continue translating into political capital. But is the country headed for a painful correction similar to the one experienced by Japan in the 1990s? Perhaps, and that doesn’t even take into consideration a gigantic older population that will need to be supported as modernization increases lifespan. From Martin Wolf at Financial Times:

…why should anybody doubt China’s ability to grow quickly for years?

The first reason is that growing very quickly is rather like riding a bicycle: it goes well so long as speed is maintained. Once it slows, however, a bicycle starts to wobble. This is why managing deceleration is so hard. The second reason is crucial: the Chinese economy is highly unbalanced. Slowing an unbalanced economy is particularly hard.

A salient aspect of the unbalanced economy is the high savings rate and thus its reliance on investment as a source of demand. Yet, as the economy slows, the demand for investment is likely to fall more than proportionately. The reason is that past investment was done on the assumption of annual growth at 10 per cent. With growth substantially slower, excess capacity will be chronic. What do people do when they have excess capacity? They stop investing. That is also why China’s government needs to keep growth up: if it fails to do so, investment might collapse, with devastating effects.

That is not all. The combination of a debt overhang with a slowing economy is particularly damaging. Yet that is what the credit-fuelled, property-related investment boom has created. As growth slows so would the ability to service debt, even if underlying investments might ultimately be profitable. This decline in debt-servicing capacity would generate a “balance-sheet recession” in demand. That would add to the adjustment to investment outlined above. This combination is what laid the Japanese economy low in the 1990s.

If the Chinese economy is to shift into its new normal on a stable and sustainable basis, it has to avoid any such collapse.•

Stan Freberg, a household name for several decades in America, just passed away. He defied easy categorization, doing many things–satire, records, voice acting, radio, etc.–but was probably best at being an adman, lending the form a wryness and angst it hadn’t previously enjoyed. He was sort of the Philip Roth of the 30-second spot. Or maybe Joseph Heller? From his NYT obituary by Douglas Martin:

Mr. Freberg was a hard man to pin down. He made hit comedy records, voiced hundreds of cartoon characters and succeeded Jack Benny in one of radio’s most prestigious time slots. He called himself a “guerrilla satirist,” using humor as a barbed weapon to take on issues ranging from the commercialization of Christmas to the hypocrisy of liberals.

“Let’s give in and do the brotherhood bit,/Just make sure we don’t make a habit of it,” he sang in “Take an Indian to Lunch,” a song on the 1961 album “Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America,” a history lesson in songs and sketches. Time magazine said it may have been the “finest comedy album ever recorded.”

His radio sketches for CBS in 1957 included some of the earliest put-downs of political correctness (before that idea had a name). One sketch entailed a confrontation with a fictional network censor, Mr. Tweedlie, who insisted that Mr. Freberg change the lyrics of “Ol’ Man River,” starting with the title. He wanted it renamed “Elderly Man River.”

Mr. Freberg made his most lasting impact in advertising, a field he entered because he considered most commercials moronic. Usually working as a creative consultant to large agencies, he shattered Madison Avenue conventions. He once produced a musical commercial nearly six minutes long to explain why his client, Butternut Coffee, lagged behind its competitors by five years in developing instant brew.

His subversive but oddly effective approach caused Advertising Age to call him the father of the funny commercial and one of the 20th century’s most influential admen.•

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With Dick Cavett, giving the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi a deserved roasting.

A vintage Freberg Cheerios commercial, which was very offbeat for the time.

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Idi Amin, peckish Ugandan dictator, was a barbaric monster and also a dad. One son, Jaffar Amin, a colorful character and something of a revisionist, is profiled by Justin Rohrlich in Foreign Policy. An excerpt:

Jaffar, now 48, lives in Kampala with his wife and six kids. A prolific Facebooker, he regularly posts pictures of his family, including his father, along with anecdotes, reminiscences, and the odd complaint about the current state of Uganda.

I’ve always been interested in the private lives of dictators, and a couple of years ago, after a quick search, I landed on Jaffar’s profile. I sent him a friend request, along with a note asking if he’d be willing to share his story with me for an article. I expected a polite “No thanks.” But Jaffar responded right away, agreeing to forward along “generic” answers to questions he has either been asked over the years, or ones he assumed he would be asked.

What he sent was anything but generic. One afternoon in August 2013, I looked at my inbox to find dozens and dozens of pages littered with almost stream-of-consciousness reminiscences about life with his father. It took a while to make sense of it all — some of it seemed to be notes for a future book, some of it taken from a talk Jaffar had given, and some of it consisted of large, disjointed blocks of text pasted directly into the email.

Jaffar doesn’t come off as some sort of evil dictator’s demon spawn, but rather as an everyday guy living in the suburbs. He spent 11 years working as a manager for DHL. These days, he picks up commercial voiceover gigs when he can — his dulcet tones have urged people to visit the Kampala showroom of a South Korean furniture company called Hwansung, to tune in to 88.2 FM, and to fly Qatar Airways.

Though I wouldn’t describe the two of us as “friends,” Jaffar and I have spoken on the phone a handful of times to discuss our possible collaboration. After about a year, Jaffar’s emails started coming with signoffs like, “God bless you and your family.” He recently wrote to me, “I owe you a wealth of thanks for bringing out the human side of my parent.”

At the same time, Jaffar has also obviously grown somewhat weary of discussing the past. Early on, when I asked one too many follow-up questions, Jaffar replied, “You could be a run-of-the-mill blogger for all I [know], for I have always only given Interviews to the Established Media Houses so consider this my last correspondence with you[,] take the gift or simply trash it or bin it as we Anglophones are fond of expressing.”

It was far from our last exchange.•

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People will eventually be able to engineer people, and then what?

It may be necessary for the survival of the species, but the games will be messy and so much could go wrong. But if, say, China started doing it, how would other nations not?

I’m pretty sure it was David Epstein who discussed how this type of human alteration is not realistic in the short term because genes have such complicated, multifaceted functions. But there’s nothing theoretically impossible about it given more time. If we don’t do ourselves in, eventually we’ll be making ourselves over.

From Michael Tennesen at Salon:

We’ve proven we can change the genetic makeup of plants and ani­mals, so how about us? We don’t need to wait for natural selection: we can start selecting right now. The cost of genomic sequencing, the key to moving modern medicine from reactive standards to per­sonalized prevention, has fallen astronomically. When the Human Genome Project was announced in 1990, deciphering the genome of one man was budgeted at $3 billion. By 2001 the cost was down to $3 million. In 2010 it was below $5,000. By 2012 it was below $1,000. At this rate, in ten years a fully sequenced human genome should cost about $10.

As genetic screenings become more common, designing the body to alter genetic weaknesses will be more common as well. Angelina Jolie getting a double mastectomy because of a gene in her body that makes her more susceptible to breast cancer is just the start. It may one day be possible to change the gene rather than the result. The negative aspect is that many genes perform more than one function. Changing a gene to match a given result may have unintended conse­quences. Trial and error will be necessary here.

What will be the big forces behind genetic manipulation? The University of Washington’s Peter Ward sees parents as strong se­lective forces, since many will want their offspring to live long, look good, and be brainy. “If the kids are as smart as they are long-lived— an IQ of 150 and a life span of 150 years—they could have more chil­dren and accumulate more wealth than the rest of us,” wrote Ward in a January 2009 article for Scientific American. Socially they would be drawn to others of their kind, which could lead to speciation.

Parental desires could provide the big necessary push for the cre­ation of designer genes if only to ensure that their children will be talented, the right height, or the right weight. Such considerations could be a major force for not just designer genes but designer chil­dren. Stanford University’s Rob Jackson speculates, “What would happen if women could order Brad Pitt’s sperm from the back of a magazine? Even better, what if they could mix Will Smith’s smile and George Clooney’s eyes from a catalog? It will fundamentally change the human race.”

What if we could alter male genes to make the perfect soldier? Ac­cording to Henry Harpending, “The Chinese talk about that often— without batting an eye.” The perfect soldier . . . what about the perfect nuclear physicist?•

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With the Internet, for the first time we truly stepped inside the machine–and vice versa.

The Internet of Things will heighten the process, as we’ll be tracked and quantified like never before, a process which holds great promise and threat. The catch: You won’t be able to opt out. From Danny Bradbury at the Guardian:

Whenever someone introduces a pervasive new technology, someone else gets worried about it. With many already worried about surveillance issues, it’s no wonder that nightmare privacy scenarios surrounding the IoT have been popping up.

“The scariest thing is that we don’t know what the scariest thing is,” said Geoff Webb, senior director of solution strategy at identity and access management firm NetIQ.

The problem with the IoT is that no one quite knows what it’s going to look like. It’s a continuum that things like Amazon’s Dash, connected cars and smart meters usher us along, rather than a state that we suddenly enter. No one really understood how the internet was going to affect things, and the impact of the IoT will probably be more pervasive, rolling out over time, but affecting us more immediately and in more profound ways.

One thing we can predict is that an internet of sensors and other devices could generate a vast ocean of information about our activities.

“People can pull that information together in ways that are very difficult to predict,” said NetIQ’s Webb.

Some rental car firms now include sensors in the vehicles that warn drivers if they are driving too recklessly, based on how quickly and volatile its movements are. Some services are using phone services to do the same. He worries that people might be denied car insurance, for example, based on sensors like these delivering data to interested parties.

“The capacity to correlate information is going to change all of those interactions,” worries Webb. “I lose power over a great deal of my life when there’s a massive amount of information over me that I don’t have control over.”

What about other breaches, though, that may be more difficult to avoid, or are simply invisible? Could your utility’s smart meter – or your Google Nest device – know when you arrive and leave at your home based on energy usage patterns? When your smart bathroom scale beams data to a cloud-based health service, could that data be used by a health insurance provider?•

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I read once that if the population density of Brooklyn was applied to the whole of America, we’d be able to fit everyone into New Hampshire. Now, New Hampshire would most likely become a real sty, but it shows how inefficiently we’re using our land.

I don’t think any of us want rampant and unrelenting building in every nook of each neighborhood, but it’s clear that U.S. home prices are jacked up artificially by overaggressive zoning laws. There has to be a middle ground. From an :

BUY land, advised Mark Twain; they’re not making it any more. In fact, land is not really scarce: the entire population of America could fit into Texas with more than an acre for each household to enjoy. What drives prices skyward is a collision between rampant demand and limited supply in the great metropolises like London, Mumbai and New York. In the past ten years real prices in Hong Kong have risen by 150%. Residential property in Mayfair, in central London, can go for as much as £55,000 ($82,000) per square metre. A square mile of Manhattan residential property costs $16.5 billion.

Even in these great cities the scarcity is artificial. Regulatory limits on the height and density of buildings constrain supply and inflate prices. A recent analysis by academics at the London School of Economics estimates that land-use regulations in the West End of London inflate the price of office space by about 800%; in Milan and Paris the rules push up prices by around 300%. Most of the enormous value captured by landowners exists because it is well-nigh impossible to build new offices to compete those profits away.

The costs of this misfiring property market are huge, mainly because of their effects on individuals. High housing prices force workers towards cheaper but less productive places. According to one study, employment in the Bay Area around San Francisco would be about five times larger than it is but for tight limits on construction.•

Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots, is interviewed by Marguerite McNeal at Wired about the specter of technological unemployment. The story is labeled as “Sponsored Content” and seems to have been paid for by Nokia. Advertorial, I suppose. The ugh side of the media landscape. 

At any rate, Ford answers a question about the role social safety nets will play if we’re all out of work and out of luck. What will the highly ambitious do in such a new world order? It’s similar to the McAfee solution. The exchange:

Question:

So in the all-automated economy, what will ambitious 20-somethings choose to do with their lives and careers?

Martin Ford:

My proposed solution is to have some kind of a guaranteed income that incentivizes education. We don’t want people to get halfway through high school and say, ‘Well if I drop out I’m still going to get the same income as everyone else.’

Then I believe that a guaranteed income would actually result in more entrepreneurship. A lot of people would start businesses just as they do today. The problem with these types of businesses you can start online today is it’s hard to put enough together to generate a middle-class income.

If people had an income floor, and if the incentives were such that on top of that they could do other things and still keep that extra money, without having it all taxed away, then I think a lot of people would pursue those opportunities.

There’s a phenomenon called the Peltzman Effect, based on research from an economist at the University of Chicago who studied auto accidents. He found that when you introduce more safety features like seat belts into cars, the number of fatalities and injuries doesn’t drop. The reason is that people compensate for it. When you have a safety net in place, people will take more risks. That probably is true of the economic arena as well.

People say that having a guaranteed income will turn everyone into a slacker and destroy the economy. I think the opposite might be true, that it might push us toward more entrepreneurship and more risk-taking.•

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To be an early adopter in technology, you sometimes need to have as much money as vision. As Andrew McAfee notes in his latest Financial Times blog post, if you want to see how the 99% will soon live, just take a look at the 1%. No, the majority won’t soon have more money (less, probably), but the coveted goods and services of the privileged will soon probably become accessible to almost all.

Of course, the cheapening of these lifestyle choices, a further Walmartization of our economy, isn’t good for Labor. McAfee offers a remedy, if not a new one. An excerpt:

Of the many things I’ve learnt from Google’s chief economist Hal Varian, perhaps my favourite is his elegant and thrifty approach to prediction. “A simple way to forecast the future,” he says, “is to look at what rich people have today.” This works. Applying this method a few years ago would have led one to foresee the rise of Uber and the spread of smartphones around the world, to take just two examples.

Hal’s point is that tech progress quite quickly makes initially expensive things — both goods and services — cheaper, and so hastens their spread. Which is why this progress is the best economic news on the planet (I wish there were stiffer competition for that title these days).

So what do the rich have today that will soon spread widely? A recent article in the online magazine Matter probably holds a clue. Lauren Smiley’s “The Shut-In Economydetails the parade of delivery people and service providers that show up each evening at the apartment complexes that house San Francisco’s tech elite. Smiley writes that “Outside my building there’s always a phalanx of befuddled delivery guys… Inside, the place is stuffed with the goodies they bring.”•

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I’m pretty sure the NFL will be an all-robot league one day. Blocks getting knocked off minus the concussion-related litigation. But what if the machines grow intelligent and hire lawyers? Who am I kidding? They’ll be the clients and the lawyers.

In a Scientific American piece, Hutan Ashrafian isn’t only concerned about conscious machines extincting us but also how we will treat them and how they’ll treat each other. An excerpt:

Academic and fictional analyses of AIs tend to focus on human–robot interactions, asking questions such as: would robots make our lives easier? Would they be dangerous? And could they ever pose a threat to humankind?

These questions ignore one crucial point. We must consider interactions between intelligent robots themselves and the effect that these exchanges may have on their human creators. For example, if we were to allow sentient machines to commit injustices on one another—even if these ‘crimes’ did not have a direct impact on human welfare—this might reflect poorly on our own humanity. Such philosophical deliberations have paved the way for the concept of ‘machine rights.’ …

Animals that exhibit thinking behaviour are already afforded rights and protection, and civilized society shows contempt for animal fights that are set up for human entertainment. It follows that sentient machines that are potentially much more intelligent than animals should not be made to fight for entertainment.

Of course, military robots are already being deployed in conflicts. But outside legitimate warfare, forcing AIs and robots into conflict, or mistreating them, would be detrimental to humankind’s moral, ethical and psychological well-being.•

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