Excerpts

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I’m always surprised economies, for all their failings, work as well as they do. Similarly, I’m continually shocked more people don’t commit murder. I suppose I’m a pessimist.

Life on Earth is complicated, and it likewise will be out there when we start traveling regularly in space, attempting to set up colonies and mine asteroids. There’ll be crushing mishaps and perhaps direct democracy and trillionaires. What a brave new world that will be.

In the Financial Times, John Thornhill writes of far-flung finances, thinking about the need for regulation when we fan out among the stars. He’s not hopeful we’ll do better on the moon or Mars. An excerpt:

To stimulate fresh thinking, Nasa challenged economists, including the Nobel Prize-winning Eric Maskin and Mariana Mazzucato, to examine the economic development of low earth orbit, or “commercial space”. Their suggestions were published this month.

The critical question is how the public sector best interacts with the private sector. In 2011, Nasa set up the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space to encourage public institutions and commercial enterprises to use the ISS as a platform for innovation. The economists have several good ideas for this. Comprehensive databases could be created to record space research. Smarter insurance could help entice thinly capitalised start-up companies. Biotech firms could be incentivised to exploit a microgravity environment.

But based on most of the contributions to Nasa, it looks as if the space economy will end up pretty much like the one on earth, where the cash-strapped public sector remains in thrall to the private sector. The worry is that the infrastructure costs will be socialised while the profits are privatised.

That would be a shame.•

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Mere consumerism can’t explain the whole of innovation, as I’ve mentioned. Cool gadgets you can slide into your pocket are good things, but they’re not everything. 

Silicon Valley’s investment in smartphones and social media is tapering, as Artificial Intelligence, from driverless cars to robot workers, has, urged on by Deep Learning, come into fashion, writes John Markoff of the New York Times. Is it all a bubble? Probably somewhat, but a lot of actual foundation can be laid during such a time of exuberance. 

In Markoff’s book Machine of Loving Grace, he held that we could make a conscious choice between A.I. and Intelligence Augmentation, but when different companies and countries are competing with so much on the line, such questions often answer themselves. 

An excerpt:

In the most recent shift, the A.I. idea emerged first in Canada in the work of cognitive scientists and computer scientists like Geoffrey Hinton, Yoshua Bengio and Yann LeCun during the previous decade. The three helped pioneer a new approach to deep learning, a machine learning method that is highly effective for pattern recognition challenges like vision and speech. Modeled on a general understanding of how the human brain works, it has helped technologists make rapid progress in a wide range of A.I. fields.

How far the A.I. boom will go is hotly debated. For some technologists, today’s technical advances are laying the groundwork for truly brilliant machines that will soon have human-level intelligence.

Yet Silicon Valley has faced false starts with A.I. before. During the 1980s, an earlier generation of entrepreneurs also believed that artificial intelligence was the wave of the future, leading to a flurry of start-ups. Their products offered little business value at the time, and so the commercial enthusiasm ended in disappointment, leading to a period now referred to as the “A.I. Winter.”

The current resurgence will not fall short this time, said several investors, who believe that the economic potential in terms of new efficiency and new applications is strong.

“There is no chance of a new winter,” said Shivon Zilis, an investor at Bloomberg Beta who specializes in machine intelligence start-ups.•

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Briefly, Cleveland was a city of champions. Then the Republican National Convention came to town.

Donald Trump, a whiter version of the Pillsbury Doughboy, welcomed his Fellini-esque family and friends to an auto-da-fé of an opening night. Antonio Sabato Jr., who lacks gravitas even by the modest standards of an underwear model, assured everyone during a TV interview that President Obama is Muslim, making him seem a sure thing for wacko-of-the-night honors, having clearly edged out Chachi and Melania. It was Iowa Congressman Steve King who ultimately beat back the competition, crediting caucasians with building civilization, which, of course, isn’t true and doesn’t mention that we “contracted out” most of our labor.

Veep also-ran Lt. General Mike Flynn was also given the platform, quickly subduing it and choking the life from it in his burly forearms. In a Spiegel interview, Flynn refers to Trump an an “underdog,” a strange descriptor for someone who inherited millions and had his daddy bail him out when he made a casino go broke.

An excerpt:

Spiegel:

Can you explain Trump’s fascination for strong leaders like Vladimir Putin or Saddam Hussein, whom he recently praised as an effective hunter of terrorists?

Mike Flynn:

He respects people who are selfish about their country. Putin is a guy who is very selfish about Russia and about the Russian federation, and he understands the history of his country. You can’t say, “I don’t like you.” You’ve got to respect him. He’s a world leader.

Spiegel:

Is Putin a reliable partner for America?

Mike Flynn:

Putin will be a reliable partner for certain things for the United States, yes. Absolutely. We need to have a relationship from the top to the bottom, same with China.

Spiegel:

Trump just urged Saudi Arabia and Japan to become nuclear powers as well. With comments like that, is he not encouraging a dangerous nuclear arms race?

Mike Flynn:

The threat of nuclear warfare is very, very low. Trump is no fool, and he sees the world as a globalized world. In the conversation we’re having right now, we’re talking about historical aspects of regions of the world, so sort of world history. It’s not that he needs a lesson in world history, but it’s very important that you understand the history of Europe, the history of Africa, the history of the Middle East. What are the trends that we could expect to see in the next few years, like the next 10 to 50? Will there be another major war? Will there be a war between China and the United States? We talked a lot about that, and we talked about sort of what were the “What Ifs?” What are the potentials, and what are the things you need to be prepared for when you step into office?

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Gerontologist Aubrey de Grey has a wife who accepts his two younger girlfriends, so of course he wants to live forever.

His quest for immortality is so fervent it leads him to sometimes make proclamations too bold: In 2004, the scientist said “the first person to live to 1,000 might be 60 already.” Not likely. De Grey would likely blame the lack of large-scale funding from governments, GMOs and individuals in the research he and other like-minded souls are doing–and he has a point. We waste an awful lot of money on killing that might be better spent on other things, defeating cancer and Alzheimer’s among them. Certainly Silicon Valley has gotten into the game in recent years.

For whatever excesses de Grey and his colleagues are guilty of, I’m with them in the big picture. Those of us today won’t likely live to see the benefits, but what a nice thing to do for our descendants, to give them more time. They’ll probably be able to work through any wrinkles that attend the great benefits.

De Grey just did an AMA at Reddit. A few exchanges follow.


Question:

Are there any well-known people who support human longevity? Couldn’t the support of people like Bill Gates or Elon Musk considerably boost funding of any projects?

Aubrey de Grey:

We have support from a few celebrities, such as Steve Aoki and Edward James Olmos, but we definitely need more. Yes, any billionaire would do!

Question:

Has Elon Musk ever spoken with Dr. dr Grey or anyone else from SENS on matters related to radical life extension?

Aubrey de Grey:

Briefly, a decade ago. I’d sure love to speak with him again.


Question:

A question about cancer:

Many people claim that most cancers are lifestyle related.

I sometimes find it difficult to convince these people that funding cancer research is of paramount importance as they tend to be bogged down in an ‘either/or’ way of thinking:

“We should put the emphasis on environmental/lifestyle/societal changes instead of spending even more money on research (…or stuffing people with even more medicines)”

So my question is: out of the ~1,700,000 cancers diagnosed every year in the US, is there a consensus on how many could be avoided with better lifestyle (not smoking, healthy diet, limited exposure to household & cosmetic chemical products, limited exposure to pollution etc.)? 10%? 50? 90?

Aubrey de Grey:

There’s a wide range of opinion; I tend to agree with Bruce Ames that lifestyle matters rather little with the exception of smoking.

We should do our best to remove whatever is present in the environment that might contribute to cancer, no doubt. But still we can’t ever remove all harmful agents 100%. For instance, how can we remove HPV from the environment? We have vaccines to help prevent HPV infections but even those are not effective against every strain. So what do we tell patients with cervical cancer? We cannot focus on just prevention or just therapy. Both should be worked on. Not sure about percentages, but if there is a change you can make to your lifestyle that decreases your chances of getting cancer by 10% then by all means do it!


Question:

Do you think there is a limit to how long you can keep the human body going for, even with aging defeated? i wonder when our brain will run out of room for memories… or maybe we will start erasing old memories once we have reached X number of years old?

Also, and this one’s more personal, do you think supplement pills and vitamin pills and algae powder pills are worth taking if you already have basic food needs and exercise needs fulfilled? i have heard of people not eating as much vegetables because they think the pills make up for it. Are they making a grave error?

Aubrey de Grey:

No limit, no. We already erase memories – it’s called “forgetting”! A varied and balanced diet is always better than relying on supplements.


Question:

I am among the minority of people who have said at a every young age that I want to live a very long time, 150+, but all my friends and family all say they would never want to live that long. How do we change people’s perception of growing old and make them think long term?

Aubrey de Grey:

That’s the wrong thing to try to convince people of. Instead, convince them that the diseases of old age are inseparable from the aspects of age-related ill-health that we don’t label as diseases, so that the only way we’ll ever “cure” Alzheimer’s etc is by defeating the whole lot together. Then they won’t be distracted by the unnerving side-effect that they might end up living a long time.•

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In “Beyond 120,” a really good Tablet article about radical life extension, Ted Mann reveals he’s come to believe game-changing, age-defying treatments are reaching critical mass, thanks in large part to expanding computational power being applied to the big questions of genetics and biology. The problem he sees is a serious disconnect between discovery and distribution, a product of societal systems not keeping pace with an explosion of science.

An excerpt:

We don’t intuitively grasp exponential rates of change. It’s hard for us to handle and examine them with our imagination because we have little or no experience of them in daily life. Exponential growth in knowledge creation is what’s happening, and this is not merely new knowledge being created faster than before.

Yet knowledge is fundamentally different from a thing, like an iPhone; as the product of a creative process, according to the quantum computational physicist David Deutsch, who has written of this extensively, it is unpredictable in principal. We can’t know what we will discover, nor therefore can we anticipate the dangers that powerful new technologies will present.

As computational techniques and technologies become more deeply integrated into all the sciences, as Deutsch predicts, what we are currently seeing is a rapid change in the rate of creation of new, objectively true knowledge. Deutsch also points out, as a matter of fact, not speculative opinion, that at some point an increasing rate of change of knowledge creation must turn exponential. That’s a physical law. If our knowledge creation processes aren’t disrupted by rising social disorder, increasing political polarization, economic disaster, or any other reason, then they must transform our world more dramatically, rapidly, and irreversibly than internal combustion engines, electricity, the transistor, and nuclear energy have already done.

Yet our existing social institutions and our legal and regulatory structures date in many cases to the 1700s and before. Legal, political, and economic structures were intended to accommodate a much slower, arithmetical, additive, rate of change. The absence of trained reporters at the science desks of major networks and news organizations is also huge problem and a direct consequence of the decay of our traditional news outlets, which were rooted in 16th-century technology and flattened by the digital age.•

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Once humans conjured a Creator, they placed him in the past, in the beginning, the progenitor of us all. But what if a supreme being exists at the far end of the narrative? Many have wondered about this possibility, that some superintelligence controls us from the future, but decades ago theoretical physicist Jack Sarfatti tried to prove it on a scientific basis, believing it may be possible for us to construct a “future machine.” 

“If the future machine works, we become gods,” he said in Alex Cain’s “Jack Sarfatti’s Future Machine,” an article in the inaugural 1984 issue of High Frontiers, which billed itself as the “Space Age Newspaper of Psychedelics, Science, Human Potential, Irreverence & Modern Art.” Sarfatti had a vision for the future (and the past and present) that was incredibly FAR and decidedly OUT, a precursor to Nick Bostrom’s idea (and Elon Musk’s contention) that we are merely creations of tomorrow’s intelligence, prone to its plans for us, characters in its game.

Sarfatti was central to the synthesis of early hacker culture and the final drops of the acid-soaked one, attempting to drive the Further bus through a wormhole. In the ’84 piece, Sarfatti made this proposal: “That’s the real meaning of Abraham’s covenant with God, in the Old Testament. God is simply the intelligence of the future, talking backwards in time to the prophets. That’s what revelation is all about, in this theory. Jesus Christ was a time-traveler from the future. Let’s put it this way. Jesus himself may have been born of Mary, but his mind was imprinted by the superintelligence.” If a 2011 Vice article is any indication, Sarfatti still clings to his unproven belief and doesn’t suffer fools–or even polite, intelligent interviewers–gladly.

On the same topic, Joshua Rothman recently penned a smart New Yorker blog post, using Musk’s Bostrom bender as a jumping-off point to ponder the possibility that all the men and women are merely players in a game–a simulated game from the future. The writer wonders if it matters if we live in a simulation, which it does, for two important reasons: 1) If such a god exists, responsible for genocide and natural disasters, he isn’t just an absentee father but rather a child abuser, and 2) Calvinism in cyberspace would remove all agency from humans. An excerpt:

Does it matter that we might be living in a simulation? How should we feel about that prospect? Artists and thinkers have come to various conclusions. The idea of living as a “copy” in a simulated world was explored, for example, in “Permutation City,” a 1994 novel by the science-fiction writer Greg Egan, which imagines life in the early days of simulation-creation. The protagonist, a computer scientist named Paul Durham, becomes his own guinea pig, scanning his brain into a computer to create two Pauls; while the original Paul remains in the real world, the digital Paul lives in a simulated one, which is a little like a modern video game. Standing in his simulated apartment and looking at a painting—Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights”—Paul can’t quite forget that, when he turns around, the simulation will stop rendering it, reducing it to “a single gray rectangle” in an effort to save processing cycles. If we live in a simulated world, then the same thing could be happening to us: Why should a computer simulate every atom in the universe when it knows where our eyes aren’t looking? Simulated people have reasons to be paranoid.

There’s also something melancholy about the idea of simulated life: the thrill of achievement is compromised by the possibility that everything has already happened to our descendants. (Presumably, they find it interesting to watch us fight the battles they have already lost or won.) This sense of belatedness is the theme of “The Talos Principle,” a somber and captivating video game by the Croatian studio Croteam. In the game, a plague has begun to wipe out humanity and, in a desperate bid to preserve something of our history and culture, human engineers have built a small simulated world populated by self-editing computer programs. Over time, the programs improve themselves, and you play as their descendent, a conscious program living long after the demise of humanity. Wandering through picturesque ruins of human civilizations (Greece, Egypt, Gothic Europe), you encounter fragments of ancient human texts—“Paradise Lost,” the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Kant, Schopenhauer, e-mails, blog posts—and wonder what it’s all about. The game suggests that simulated life is inescapably elegiac. Even if Elon Musk succeeds in colonizing Mars, he won’t be the first one to do so. History, in a sense, has already happened.•

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The excerpt from Gay Talese’s The Voyeur’s Motel that unfortunately ran recently in the New Yorker was more than enough for me–way more than enough–and I won’t be investing the time to read the dodgy book. Absent journalistic and personal ethics, the story has been further muddied by revelations of fabrications that basic reportage would have uncovered. Excuses have been made, but the work is stained by the worst excesses of New Journalism, which opened the craft to a wider style, sure, but also made reporting prone to dubious veracity and methods. It’s odd the piece ended up in the New Yorker, which under David Remnick has largely been an impenetrable fortress against such slipshod narratives.

Jack Shafer has read the book so we don’t have to, reviewing it for the New York Times. His opening:

The average reader will greet more with anger than sadness Gay Talese’s disclosure — almost halfway through his book The Voyeur’s Motel — that the detailed sex journal underpinning this zany work of nonfiction can’t be trusted. 

Talese — whose use of the tools of fiction to propel factual accounts helped found New Journalism in the 1960s — drops the self-impeaching evidence casually. Calling into doubt the veracity of his book, Talese writes that the suburban Denver motel owner Gerald Foos claims to have started observing and transcribing the private business of his guests in 1966, peering down at them through 6-by-14-inch surveillance grates he installed in the ceilings of a dozen rooms of his 21-unit motel. The problem with the Foos account, Talese adds, is that he didn’t buy Manor House Motel until 1969, meaning that he must have imagined several years of the wild motel bed-sports described in his journal. 

Further evidence that the Foos story is cooked: “And there are other dates in his notes and journals that don’t quite scan,” Talese writes, stating that Foos “could sometimes be an inaccurate and unreliable narrator.” 

Ordinarily when a journalist discovers profoundly discrediting testimony like this, he utters “Whoa,” itemizes the discrepancies and digs deeper. But not so Talese, who only shrugs at the revelation that his main source has lied to him without detailing the fibs. “I cannot vouch for every detail that he recounts in his manuscript,” he writes.

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In an Esquire interview conducted by Luke O’Neil, Jesse Ventura claims to be weary of stupid Americans, but who else buys the idiotic conspiracy theories he peddles to gain attention and money? Only Alex Jones has profited more from the gullibility of the masses. It’s not exactly a harmless vocation, either, since his 9/11 Truther nonsense encourages citizens with a loose grasp on reality to be further governed by such garbage. It’s not that Ventura doesn’t ever address any genuine coverups or such, but that actually makes it worse, intermingling horseshit with honesty, as if there really were no difference between the two.

An excerpt from the Q&A’s introduction:

John Kerry once said, “In America, you have a right to be stupid.” Nowhere is that more true than in the world of politics. That quote leads off Sh*t Politicians Say, the latest book from Jesse Ventura, a man who knows of what he speaks.

In the book, the onetime governor of Minnesota, Vietnam veteran, actor, professional wrestler, media personality, and current icon of libertarian-hued, conspiracy-minded wokeness, walks us through a collection of some of the dumbest things U.S. politicians have said throughout history. And things have only gotten stupider over time. 

“Stupid seems to be everywhere these days,” Ventura writes. “Some believe it’s because the human race is getting stupider and stupider with every passing year. Me? …I’d like to thank television, the internet, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle for bringing more stupid to the public consciousness more efficiently than ever before.”•

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Maybe Nick Bilton has been dining with Peter Thiel too much, but he feels, as the prickly PayPal cofounder does, that technology is in a creative torpor. In his latest Vanity Fair “Hive” piece, the journalist looks at the Pokémon Go pandemonium, which has mobilized more people than Turkey’s coup attempt, as proof Americans are waiting for the roar of the next cool tool and settling for Augmented Reality Meowiths. 

Perhaps. But that may be a confusion of real progress and our desire for gadgets, which are often used more as toys than tools. Sometimes those two dovetail, as in the case of the iPhone, but actual advances don’t necessarily arrive on schedule nor fit in a pocket–it’s not just about consumerism. True game-changers aren’t uniformly just fun and games.

An excerpt:

Sure, the game is fun. But it’s not necessarily indicative of a larger trend in augmented reality, a technology that goes back over a decade. Rather, it’s symptomatic of a much larger problem in the tech industry: that there is no major new innovation on the horizon. We have quietly slipped into an era of technological stagnation, where the next several years will bring few meaningful changes to the industry. The reason for this, and the larger problem that investors should be worried about, is that today’s technological advances have hit a ceiling, or are pretty close to one. It’s not that the visionaries are out of ideas, or that they are unaware of what consumers want next. Instead, it’s that the limitations of physics are preventing today’s tech companies from releasing things that today’s consumers are pining for. The ideas behind driverless cars are here, the technology not so much. The same is true for virtual reality, where you have to be plugged into a wall to really experience it’s power. Or for wearable gadgets, or Siri, which are too lethargic and inaccurate to be true products—yet.

Even the technology we readily use today isn’t in need of an upgrade. Our smartphone cameras are sharp enough. Our iPads are fast enough. Our laptops are thin enough. While the electronics industry has been trying to cram 3-D television and curved televisions and not-very-smart “smart televisions” down our throats for the past several years, most people have ignored these advances. The 50-plus-inch TV we paid $500 for at Best Buy is thin enough and crisp enough. There is nothing that TV-makers can offer that will entice us to run out to buy a new one. There is no new social-media platform on the horizon, either. According to a study last month, people in more than than half a dozen countries are spending less time on most social sites. We don’t need another Twitter. We don’t want another Facebook. Snapchat is fun enough.

This is exactly why everyone is obsessing over a game on their smartphones. Consumers are yearning for something else; something new and exciting. But it doesn’t exist.•

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José Luis Cordeiro writes in an h+ piece that “indefinite lifespans should be possible in a few decades.” Sounds swell! Until that fine day, however, he suggests we opt for cryopreservation, a relatively inexpensive process that even the most fabulously wealthy among us seldom choose, which shows either a lack of sense or lack of gullibility. In the near future, Cordeiro writes, the frozen ones may be reawakened into eternal life. 

An excerpt 

Toward Immortality

We might soon reach what I call the “death of death”, when death will be basically optional. We might never be completely immortal, since we might always die from accidents, or be killed in many ways, but the objective is to kill involuntary death. Living indefinitely will be possible from both the hardware (biological) side and the software (mental) side.

On the hardware side, English biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey believes that we will soon reach “longevity escape velocity”, which basically means that with continuously increasing lifespans, we will be adding more years to our existence for every additional year that we live. This idea has also been called the “Methuselarity” or “Methuselah Singularity”. Many experiments are currently being done to extend the life, and also rejuvenate, little mice that actually share a big part of our own genome.

On the software side, American engineer and futurist Ray Kurzweil believes that by 2029 an artificial intelligence will pass the Turing Test, and by 2045 the so-called “Technological Singularity” will be reached. That means that artificial intelligence will reach and surpass human intelligence levels, and we will augment and complement with such additional intelligences. We will then connect our biological neocortex to an artificial exocortex, and we will be able to upload and enhance our minds.

Either through our hardware, our software, or both, we will be able to advance towards the idea of the death of death, at least as much as possible, escaping any accidents and avoiding to be killed.

The Bridge Toward Immortality

As discussed earlier, indefinite lifespans should be possible in a few decades, but what can we do until then? The sad truth is that people will continue dying for the next few years, and the only way that we know today to preserve them relatively well is through cryopreservation. Indeed, cryopreservation can be considered as Plan B until we reach Plan A of indefinite lifespans.•

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Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom believes “superintelligence”–machines dwarfing our intellect–is the leading existential threat of our era to humans. He’s either wrong and not alarmed enough by, say, climate change, or correct and warning us of the biggest peril we’ll ever face. Most likely, such a scenario will be a real challenge in the long run, though it’s probably not currently the most paramount one.

In John Thornhill’s Financial Times article about Bostrom, the writer pays some mind to those pushing back at what they feel is needless alarmism attending the academic’s work. An excerpt:

Some AI experts have accused Bostrom of alarmism, suggesting that we remain several breakthroughs short of ever making a machine that “thinks”, let alone surpasses human intelligence. A sceptical fellow academic at Oxford, who has worked with Bostrom but doesn’t want to be publicly critical of his work, says: “If I were ranking the existential threats facing us, then runaway ‘superintelligence’ would not even be in the top 10. It is a second half of the 21st century problem.”

But other leading scientists and tech entrepreneurs have echoed Bostrom’s concerns. Britain’s most famous scientist, Stephen Hawking, whose synthetic voice is facilitated by a basic form of AI, has been among the most strident. “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” he told the BBC.

Elon Musk, the billionaire entrepreneur behind Tesla Motors and an active investor in AI research, tweeted: “Worth reading Superintelligence by Bostrom. We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes.”

Although Bostrom has a reputation as an AI doomster, he starts our discussion by emphasising the extraordinary promise of machine intelligence, in both the short and long term. “I’m very excited about AI and I think it would be a tragedy if this kind of superintelligence were never developed.” He says his main aim, both modest and messianic, is to help ensure that this epochal transition goes smoothly, given that humankind only has one chance to get it right.

“So much is at stake that it’s really worth doing everything we can to maximise the chances of a good outcome,” he says.•

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Driverless cars seem more a matter of when than if, though the ETA differs wildly depending on who’s doing the talking. For the technology to be transformational, the wheel must be torn from the dash, the vehicle in control of itself 100% of the time. Otherwise, it’s a useful tool and one that would still likely reduce deaths, but it won’t be world-changing. If autonomous truly comes to pass, not only will individual vehicle ownership be unnecessary, even fleets of taxis can essentially own themselves.

From the Economist “The World If” issue, an excerpt from “If Autonomous Vehicles Rule the World“:

For a different vision of the driverless future, visit Heathrow airport outside London, and head to a “pod parking” area. Transfers between the car park and terminal are provided by driverless electric pods moving on dedicated elevated roadways. Using a touchscreen kiosk, you summon a pod and specify your destination. A pod, which can seat four people, pulls up, parks itself and opens its doors. Jump in, sit down and press the start button—the only control—and it drives you to your destination, avoiding other pods and neatly parking itself when you arrive, before heading off to pick up its next passengers.

Like riding in the autonomous Audi, travelling by pod is thrilling for the first 30 seconds—but quickly becomes mundane. The difference is that self-driving vehicles that can be summoned and dismissed at will could do more than make driving easier: they promise to overturn many industries and redefine urban life. The spread of driver-assistance technology will be gradual over the next few years, but then the emergence of fully autonomous vehicles could suddenly make existing cars look as outmoded as steam engines and landline telephones. What will the world look like if they become commonplace?

The switch from horse-drawn carriages to motor cars provides an instructive analogy. Cars were originally known as “horseless carriages”—defined, like driverless cars today, by the removal of a characteristic. But having done away with horses, cars proved to be entirely different beasts, facilitating suburbanisation and becoming symbols of self-definition. Driverless vehicles, too, will have unexpected impacts. They will look different. Early cars resembled the carriages from which they were derived, and car design took some years to escape its horse-drawn past. By the same token, autonomous vehicles need look nothing like existing cars. Already, Google’s futuristic pods are on the public roads of California, and some concept designs, liberated from the need to have steering wheels and pedals, have seats facing each other around a table.

Autonomous vehicles will also challenge the very notion of car ownership.•

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When Russian oligarch Dmitry Itskov vows that by 2045 we’ll be able to upload our consciousness into a computer and achieve a sort of immortality, I’m perplexed. Think about the unlikelihood: It’s not a promise to just create a general, computational brain–difficult enough–but to precisely simulate particular human minds. That ups the ante by a whole lot. While it seems theoretically possible, this process may take awhile.

In his latest excellent Atlantic article, Princeton neuroscientist Michael Graziano plots the steps required to encase human consciousness, to create a second life that sounds a bit like Second Life. He acknowledges opinions will differ over whether we’ve generated “another you” or some unsatisfactory simulacrum, a mere copy of an original. Graziano’s clearly excited, though, by the possibility that “biological life [may become] more like a larval stage.”

An excerpt:

Let’s presume that at some future time we have all the technological pieces in place. When you’re close to death we scan your details and fire up your simulation. Something wakes up with the same memories and personality as you. It finds itself in a familiar world. The rendering is not perfect, but it’s pretty good. Odors probably don’t work quite the same. The fine-grained details are missing. You live in a simulated New York City with crowds of fellow dead people but no rats or dirt. Or maybe you live in a rural setting where the grass feels like Astroturf. Or you live on the beach in the sun, and every year an upgrade makes the ocean spray seem a little less fake. There’s no disease. No aging. No injury. No death unless the operating system crashes. You can interact with the world of the living the same way you do now, on a smart phone or by email. You stay in touch with living friends and family, follow the latest elections, watch the summer blockbusters. Maybe you still have a job in the real world as a lecturer or a board director or a comedy writer. It’s like you’ve gone to another universe but still have contact with the old one.

But is it you? Did you cheat death, or merely replace yourself with a creepy copy?•

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I’m not exactly happy that doping and organized crime are mounting problems for eSports, but it is sort of amusing, speaking as it does to the human ability to develop, nurture and ruin almost anything.

Some gambling books accept wagers on professional wrestling, for chrissakes, in which predetermined finishes are known to a certain amount of employees and their friends and families, so why shouldn’t an actual contest like video games attract “legitimate businessmen” looking for someone to take a dive? And if classical musicians down beta blockers to still nerves, of course eSports competitors use PEDs to fight stronger and longer.

From Matt Kamen at Wired:

ESIC was announced at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, and introduced by Ian Smith, the body’s first integrity commissioner. A UK lawyer, Smith’s background has largely been in traditional sports such as football and cricket, and he sat on the Athletes Committee of UK Anti-Doping for five years.

Smith says there are four key areas that ESIC wants to tackle. Three – cheating using software hacks such as aimbots; DDoS attacks to slow down opponents’ ability to react in matches; and doping – he describes as “easy” to deal with in the longer term. The fourth, match fixing, presents a much bigger – and growing – problem.

“We’ve had very prominent arrests in Korea in Starcraft II, and there have been a number of other cases and allegations […] around fixing,” Smith says. “We’ve found that that’s actually pretty low-level fixing, but the main issue is the growth of the esports betting market. Looking at 2015, the legitimate esports betting market was at around the $250m mark. That probably means the illegitimate market […] was running at around two to three billion dollars.”

While acknowledging that those figures are currently “peanuts” in betting terms, Smith adds that projections put the legitimate market at $23bn by 2020 – and the illegitimate market, if current trends continue, at $200-300bn.

“That’s the point at which organised crime knows that there’s a decent return on any corrupt investment they make in the sport,” Smith says.•

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Zoltan Istvan’s Presidential campaign has failed, if you grade it on votes and other such mundane things.

The Transhumanist Presidential candidate, however, never was running to win but to raise consciousness about immortality and genetic engineering and other outré matters. Some of his far-reaching ideas are covered in “What to Eat for Breakfast if You Want to Live Forever,” Carey Dunne’s Extra Crispy article. I winced a little when I first read some of his predictions but was happy to discover the phrase “in the next few centuries.” Usually, Transhumanists are so aggressive in their prognostications it really damages their arguments. Even several hundred years is probably too bold for what Istvan proposes, though in its essence, it isn’t really any different than what Sir Martin Rees sees eventually happening.

An excerpt:

As president, Istvan might push for a doughnut tax. “We need guidelines saying doughnuts and things like that are bad,” Istvan says, echoing some current public health advocates. “Humans can’t control their appetites. We need legislation that would discourage people from [unhealthy] eating. I wouldn’t mind creating new taxes for fast foods. They’re just as much of a killer as cigarettes.” 

Anti-doughnut laws would be a provisional measure, though, until we all “become machines.” In Istvan’s transhumanist dream world, breakfast wouldn’t exist at all. “I advocate for getting rid of food entirely,” he says. “I love eating and drinking—that’s why I own a vineyard, Zolisa, in Argentina—but from a transhumanist perspective, it’s a terrible system. Same thing with pooping: Total waste of time, totally nonfunctional. There’s no question we’re gonna get rid of our organs within the next [few centuries]. These things are going the way of the dinos.” For a more efficient system, Istvan predicts, “Biohackers will learn to splice DNA into cells to photosynthesize our energy—that’s the future of the human being, if we remain biological.”•

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Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World

The one time I interviewed Werner Herzog, in 2005, I asked him how he survived the threatening situations he encountered while making his sometimes death-defying films and in his life. He replied: “I’ve been fortified by enough philosophy.” Ever since then, I’ve always asked myself if I’ve been similarly fortified, if I’ve read and thought enough so that even when I’m deeply shaken, there’s something essential within me that remains solid.

Herzog just did a Reddit AMA, which includes an exchange that speaks to this idea. The excerpt:

 Question:

You’ve covered everything from the prehistoric Chauvet Cave to the impending overthrow of not-so-far-off futuristic artificial intelligence. What about humankind’s history/capability terrifies you the most?

Werner Herzog:

It’s a difficult question, because it encompasses almost all of human history so far. What is interesting about this paleolithic cave is that we see with our own eyes the origins, the beginning of the modern human soul. These people were like us, and what their concept of art was, we do not really comprehend fully. We can only guess.

And of course now today, we are into almost futuristic moments where we create artificial intelligence and we may not even need other human beings anymore as companions. We can have fluffy robots, and we can have assistants who brew the coffee for us and serve us to the bed, and all these things. So we have to be very careful and should understand what basic things, what makes us human, what essentially makes us into what we are. And once we understand that, we can make our educated choices, and we can use our inner filters, our conceptual filters. How far would we use artificial intelligence? How far would we trust, for example, into the logic of a self-driving car? Will it crash or not if we don’t look after the steering wheel ourselves?

So, we should make a clear choice, what we would like to preserve as human beings, and for that, for these kinds of conceptual answers, I always advise to read books. Read read read read read! And I say that not only to filmmakers, I say that to everyone. People do not read enough, and that’s how you create critical thinking, conceptual thinking. You create a way of how to shape your life. Although, it seems to elude us into a pseudo-life, into a synthetic life out there in cyberspace, out there in social media. So it’s good that we are using Facebook, but use it wisely.•

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When I first learned Google was testing driverless cars, I wondered how long it would be before hackers were able to wrest the wheel from robotic hands. Of course, with the amount of computing power increasingly installed in newer models, vehicles needn’t really be fully driverless for such a reality to potentially come to pass.

According to “Motoring with the Sims,” an Economist report on how simulated driving is helping autonomous-car manufacturers test situations that would be too dangerous to try out on public roadways, it may just be five years until our vehicles can be turned into rolling hostage situations. An excerpt:

On top of this testing of accidental interference with a car’s wireless traffic, the team will also try to hack deliberately into vehicles—something that it would be illegal as well as irresponsible to attempt on public roads. Such tests, nevertheless, need to be done. Carsten Maple, a cyber-security expert at Warwick, reckons criminals are only about five years away from being able to disable a car’s ignition remotely, holding it to ransom until the owner has made a payment. Indeed, in 2015 Fiat Chrysler recalled 1.4m vehicles in America after security researchers showed it was possible to take control of a Jeep Cherokee via its internet-connected entertainment system.

Despite the potential problems, though, Dr Jennings and his team are convinced that genuinely driverless vehicles have a big future. At first this future could be in controlled and specially designated areas, such as city centres. One vehicle that will be tested in the simulator has been designed with just such a purpose in mind. It is an electrically powered passenger-carrying pod produced by RDM, a firm in Coventry. The pods are already being tested in pedestrianised areas of Milton Keynes, a modernist British city. RDM says they are also intended for use in places such as airports, shopping centres, university campuses and theme parks.

On the open road, however, it may take longer before steering wheels become obsolete. Even after extensive testing in simulators, the performance of autonomous systems will still need to be verified in the real world. And no self-driving system will ever be completely foolproof. As the Florida crash showed, accidents will still happen—although, mercifully, there may be fewer of them.•

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There are tons of futurists now, even if they identify by other names (economists, political scientists, etc.) You could easily make an argument that today is the golden age of tomorrow.

An aversion to myopia is great, though thinking solely about the future also has its costs. In a Fast Company article about the current fixation on futurism, D.J. Pangburn focuses on Hal Niedzviecki’s Trees on Mars, a book that questions our constant obsession with the next big thing and distrust of those who don’t buy into such sci-fi scenarios.

When wealthy technologists talk excitedly about space-mining minting the first trillionaires while offering those left behind the promise of some basic income, it becomes clear they don’t realize they’re encouraging bloody revolution. But a scan of books published in the last few years reveals numerous titles by technologists and futurists wary of where we’re headed, believing investments must be made in the present as well.

An excerpt:

Another recurring theme in Trees on Mars is Niedzviecki skeptic’s view of the futurist. He sees the ascension of the futurist to a preeminent place in society—and the idea that all should become futurists for individual and collective progress—as deeply problematic.

Should everyone be a futurist? Niedzviecki doesn’t think so, but he is seeing a massive revolution in how societies are positioning themselves around technological success, a repositioning of education around technology; a reorganization of societal goals around the “latest chimeras of success”—the best futurists who knew what was going to happen before it happened, like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. In doing this, Niedzviecki believes we run the risk of condemning those people who really don’t feel it’s necessary or interesting to think as futurists.

“It’s self-satisfying bullshit from a small set of people who were able to take advantage of this and sell this,” Niedzviecki says. “And my line of frustration runs through the whole book and perhaps culminates when I go to SXSW Interactive.”

There Niedzviecki sat in on a panel dealing with disruption, where he listened to “high-priced, famous gurus” tell attendees that if they can’t keep up with the pace of disruption then they are failures that will be left behind. Niedzviecki recalls sitting there thinking: “That’s not the way it is—that’s the way you have made it.”

“I think the vast majority of people who preach disruption do not understand the ramifications of what they’re saying,” Niedzviecki said.•

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Donald Trump, an audiobook of The Turner Diaries narrated by Andrew Dice Clay, clearly won’t fulfill his promise to unite the Republican Party.

The hideous hotelier rose to prominence in primary season by going smashmouth on the GOP establishment, which has made it rather difficult to assemble a wide coalition at the upcoming convention. Trump doesn’t necessarily require the aid of the usual suspects to win the general election, though it might be helpful if they could control their utter disdain for him. That hatred was actually useful to the cankerous candidate in initially earning the support of the party’s angry base, but it may not play as well on a bigger stage. 

From Alex Isenstadt at Politico:

Each presidential election year, Republicans eagerly await their national convention — a four-day celebration that draws thousands of GOP operatives, donors and lobbyists who are ready to party.

This year — the year of Trump — it’s anything but a party.

Many GOP regulars are skipping Cleveland entirely. (“I would rather attend the public hanging of a good friend,” says Will Ritter, an up-and-coming Republican digital strategist who worked on the three previous conventions.) And among those who are making the trek, there’s an overwhelming sense it won’t be fun at all. At a time when many Republicans are deeply dissatisfied with their nominee, pessimistic about their prospects for victory in the fall and alarmed about the direction of their party, there’s a reluctance about attending the convention more typically reserved for going to the DMV, being summoned for jury duty or undergoing a root canal.

“This is the first year in the past two decades that Republicans aren’t excited about attending the convention. Normally, we’re all jazzed up about getting together and celebrating our nominee,” said Chris Perkins, a GOP pollster who has attended every Republican convention since 1996. “There’s nothing to celebrate this cycle. I’m going because I have to, not because I want to.”

Those who are going often say they’re doing so out of a sense of obligation — to meet with clients or to hold meetings before making a beeline back to the airport. As the Republican Party prepares to nominate a figure who is registering historically high disapproval ratings, some don’t want to advertise their presence in Cleveland. “Don’t use my name,” said one senior party strategist. “I don’t want anyone to know I’m there.” (A few days after the interview, the strategist got back in touch, having decided not to go, after all.)”•

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Putin-v2

Vladimir Putin has chased off his political enemies–the ones he hasn’t killed–just as readily as he’s made outside investors quickly retreat, wary of his tilt toward totalitarianism. One of the dispossessed, the former billionaire banker Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is biding his time in London until Putin’s ouster or death, assembling if not a shadow government then at least an ever-expanding “cabinet” of experts that might someday replace the Kremlin kleptocracy with a modern, uncorrupted state. The sweep of history is often uncooperative, however, so there’s no guarantee these men and ladies in waiting will ever be called to duty. Even if Khodorkovsky’s moment does arrive, perhaps his years in prison and abroad have made him estranged not only from his country’s land but also its modern spirit.

Masha Gessen, who’s consistently filed some of the very best analysis of Putin’s reign, interviewed the exile for Vanity Fair “Hive” and penned another great piece. An excerpt:

Soon after he was released from prison, Khodorkovsky came to the conclusion that Russia was not ripe for an armed revolution—and that, in any case, violent revolution would bring far more suffering than it could possibly alleviate. I sensed a hint of disappointment when Khodorkovsky laid out this conclusion for me in November 2014. He really does believe that armed struggle is the only threat that, in the present moment, could truly influence the regime. It was armed struggle, or the threat of it, that toppled the oligarchic government of Ukraine, in 2014. But most anti-Putin Russians are not prepared to make that kind of sacrifice. “And I think people do have the right to live a quiet life in our country,” Khodorkovsky admitted. “Things suck, but life goes on. And people go on, and accumulate a little bit of capital—apartments and things. And I guess as long as people can go on living like that, it would be wrong to break it. Russia has broken enough lives already, of enough of its citizens.” Khodorkovsky’s own life is a vivid example, and not the worst: his company was effectively confiscated by the state; his billions have been reduced to millions; many of his former employees are in prison; many more are in exile; one is dead; and Khodorkovsky himself cannot go home.

If there is no potential for immediate armed struggle, he acknowledged, “this regime cannot be toppled. It will continue moving along its own trajectory.” The trajectory cannot be indefinite. Like all closed systems, the regime will eventually come to an end—if only because Putin himself will eventually die. The question is, What happens then?

It could be 20 years from now, at which point Khodorkovsky will be in his 70s. He told me that he never said that his project would be completed in his lifetime: “Just because we may not see cold fusion in our lifetimes is no reason not to work on it.” His own plan is to devote the next 10 years preparing Russia for its next chapter: creating a network of many thousands who have a wide range of skills and experience working together. Quoting another Putin opponent in exile, Garry Kasparov, Khodorkovsky said, “We are running a marathon that can at any moment turn into a sprint.” He went on, “And when the starter pistol goes off, as can happen at any moment, society must know that there is a team capable of assuming the role of government. If we are not that team, then there will be another team that takes over. And if the other team doesn’t exist, then we descend into a crisis of governance.” That is the sad story of regime change almost everywhere.

Khodorkovsky’s math is straightforward: “Right now there are about two million people on the state payroll in Russia, including roughly 600,000 who actually work in the federal government. Out of those, tens of thousands will be lost”—in the transition to a new regime—“and will need to be replaced. Some of these people will have worked in key positions. This means that we need several thousand people, if not tens of thousands of people, who are capable of playing a political role that goes beyond technical competence: we need people who will be able to direct the process of transitioning to a new direction.”

The goal is twofold: first, to assemble an army of civilians who are capable of performing all the tasks that need doing in a country; and second, to find ways, in a nation where the public sphere has been effectively destroyed and communication severely restricted, to publicize the existence of such people and create an atmosphere of trust and goodwill around them, even as those of them who are physically in Russia are being silenced, marginalized, discredited, and killed.•

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Only slightly less misbegotten than the former Tribune Publishing’s new five-letter curse of a name, “tronc” is the vision forward of its leading stockholders, who may, if they maintain control of the company, hold sway over the Digital Age reinvention of 160 of what we used to call “publications.”

In “Desperate Times, Desperate Measures,” an excellent LA Weekly piece by Hillel Aron, the writer traces how Michael Ferro, with a poor won-loss record in the business, plans to revitalize the flagging fortunes of not only the Los Angeles Times (as a “global entertainment brand”) but also the wider industry. Aiding him is the second-largest stockholder, Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon who seems to not realize that while great journalism might seem magical, it is not magic. It’s mostly drudgery and some inspiration. He’s quoted in the piece as saying that “one piece of technology…would use artificial intelligence to take a text story and convert it to video, generating as many as 2,000 videos a day.” Sounds like a plan, though not a particularly good one.

The bigger question may not be whether Ferro and Soon-Shiong fail, but if anyone can succeed. I don’t know that trying to remake the New York Times into The Daily Show is any better of an idea. As Aron relates, it isn’t merely the Internet or destabilizing new tools and shifting cultural attitudes that caused the ink to bleed red.

An excerpt:

Ferro’s track record is spotty at best. While he did help stabilize the Chicago Sun-Times after it emerged from bankruptcy, his three years as chairman of the company that owned the paper included laying off every staff photographer and creating a content farm called Aggrego, which produced a flood of non-reported blog posts — and did not prove to be a significant economic or technological success.

These grandiose proclamations, this bluster, this pretense that he has the answers that no one in the industry has come up with — that’s what you have to buy into in order to accept that all of this is real,” says Robert Feder, a former media columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, who now writes a daily media blog licensed by the Chicago Tribune.

“I don’t want to shit all over Ferro, because I wish there were a lot more people willing to experiment and take risks,” former L.A. Times deputy publisher Nicco Mele says. “But there is no silver bullet, and to suggest that there is is wildly misleading.” …

One of the myths about the newspaper industry is that it’s getting killed by the internet, by technology and social media. The reality is more complicated — and more troubling for journalism.

“It’s not just about the internet,” former L.A. Times deputy publisher Mele says. “It’s about changing habits and deep cultural changes. People are valuing opinion over news. People are less engaged in the day-to-day of their own communities. People are much more mobile and transient. If there was one trend that is really underappreciated, it’s, since Watergate, the continuing erosion of trust in the institutions that once made America great — the press first and foremost.”

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Project Nourished

Pill dinners never quite caught on, and I don’t believe Virtual Reality dining will become a going concern anytime soon. Certainly there’s great potential in the entertainment portion of the hospitality industry. Do a karaoke duet with a hologram of your favorite pop singer or enjoy hearing a virtual Bobby Short at a piano bar. Even the windows and decor could be changed at will.

When it comes to the actual food, however, humans tend to like having their senses pleased rather than tricked. That hasn’t stopped the people at Project Nourished from experimenting with tools that go far beyond your basic utensils. From Erin Carson at CNET:

It might be the best meal you’ve never had.

A group of about 30 people in Los Angeles is experimenting with how we eat food, but not like Uber offering delivery or a bakery concocting a new donut-pastry combo. This time, you can put away the forks, knives, oven mitts and double mezzalunas.

It’s called Project Nourished, and what’s on your dinner table is a virtual reality headset, some devices that look like they came from a modern art museum, and something called “3D printed food.”

The way it works: You put on the headset and you’re transported to an interesting location, which is probably the most normal element of this exercise.

Also on the table are several other devices. One is an “aromatic diffuser,” which has a tube sticking out of it that blasts food aromas at you. Another is a “bone conduction transducer” that wraps around the back of your head to mimic the sounds and vibrations of chewing. There’s a cup for drinking. Finally, there’s a utensil shaped like tweezers. For eating.

Put all those items together, and you could be eating sushi in Japan, or be having a simulated food experience totally foreign to this world.

In reality, you’d be wearing odd-shaped devices that make you look like someone glued pieces of a honeycomb-shaped ball on your head, all while you chew on a piece of algae.•

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When we talk of finding life on other planets, we often tend to think, narcissistically, of something that at least vaguely resembles us, or the Earth’s animals, plants and microscopic organisms. The real mindblower, though, would be if we discover something Other, life that reminds us of nothing we’ve known, not contained in our books or brains. So much more will become possible then.

In a smart Atlantic essay, Ross Andersen writes of accompanying astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger to Colorado’s majestic Maroon Bells mountains and coming to understand how small they might actually be when we learn more about our neighbors in space. An excerpt:

As we stood admiring the Maroon Bells, I asked Kaltenegger whether she thought there were scenes like this all across the cosmos. “No,” she said, before explaining that Earth was but a single, limited expression of nature’s raw creative power. Just as our planet contains many habitats with many ecologies, each with its own diverse creatures, other planets may play host to living worlds that look nothing like our own.

“Take mountains,” she said. “Earth’s crust is quite thin, which means its mountains can only reach so high.” This seemed ungrateful, surrounded as we were by jagged, vertical rock faces, studded with dense pine stands. “If Earth’s crust were thicker, the mountains could be much larger,” she said.

On some distant planet, there might be peaks that tower more than 100,000 feet above an alien sea. These extraterrestrial peaks might be forested, or they might be coated in an alien form of vegetation, or something beyond the reach of our current imagination.•

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080326-N-9623R-007 Iraq (March 26, 2008) Construction Electrician 2nd Class Greg Martinez, assigned to the convoy security element (CSE ) of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 17, controls the MARCBOT IV, a remote controlled vehicle mounted with a video camera which is used to investigate suspicious areas without putting team members at risk. NMCB -17 CSE teams are highly trained Seabees tasked with the safe movement of various convoys to and from their missions. NMCB-17, also known as the "Desert Battalion", is to Iraq and other areas of operations supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kenneth W. Robinson (Released)

Racism and guns are never far away in America, but the bloodshed of the last few days has been particularly sickening, a reminder that African-Americans are still prone to an instant death penalty for minor or phantom offenses, and that the endless supply of powerful guns has made us all, even the police, sitting ducks.

Adding to the troubling nature of the carnage is the unprecedented domestic use of a “bomb robot” by Dallas officers to kill a suspected sniper, a tactic employed by U.S. soldiers in Iraq that’s the latest “dividend” to return home from that misbegotten war. I’m sure the police were just trying to keep any more innocent people from being murdered, but the precedent is chilling.

From Daniel Rivera at Fusion:

Early Friday morning, a police standoff with a suspect in the killing of five police officers in Dallas came to an abrupt end on Friday morning in an unusual way.

“Negotiations broke down. We had an exchange of gunfire with the suspect,” Dallas police chief David Brown explained in a press conference. “We saw no other option but to use our bomb robot and place a device on its extension for it to detonate where the suspect was.”

You read that correctly: “bomb robot.”

Typically, in violent standoffs involving gunfire, police wait out the suspects, or try to deploy snipers of their own to remove the threat. The general rule is that if police are not directly under threat of taking fire, they should try to bring home the suspect alive. Brown, though, said the robot was the only choice the force had. 

“Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger. The suspect is deceased,” he said.

The use of a robot to kill someone has taken police observers aback.•

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When Gloria Steinem went undercover in 1963 serving cocktails in a Playboy club to pen the Show magazine article “A Bunny’s Tale,” the young writer viewed the Hefner-inspired job as analogous with the experience of all women of that age: They were servers, subordinates, the help.

Fifty-three years later, as Hillary Clinton is the betting favorite to serve in a different capacity, as President of the country, Steinem sits for a portrait by Samiha Shafy of Spiegel. Two excerpts from the smart piece follow, including a doozy of an anecdote about that dapper sexist Gay Talese.


She didn’t set out to be the leader of a movement and she was initially frightened by the prospect of appearing in public. When she had to speak to an audience, her mouth felt as though she had swallowed dust. “I felt I could be an observer, but not a participant,” she says. Had she been able to publish the texts that she wanted to write, that’s likely as far as her activism would have gone.

But that was back in the 1960s. Steinem recalls being a young journalist riding in a taxi with the famous scribes Gay Talese and Saul Bellow. All three were covering Bobby Kennedy’s Senate campaign and they were coming from an appearance by the candidate. Steinem sat squished between the two and she was just saying something about Kennedy when Talese suddenly bent over her toward Bellow and said: “You know how every year there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer? Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl.”

Then the men began complaining about the traffic. Humiliated, Steinem fell silent. When she got out of the cab, she was furious — at herself because she hadn’t objected or at least slammed the door shut.


Steinem says that all you really need to know about a society is how it treats its women. It is no accident, she says, that many modern-day terrorists grow up in an environment where men have control over women. “The most reliable indicator of whether or not there is violence inside a country, or whether it will use military violence against another country, is not poverty or access to natural resources or religion or even degree of democracy,” Steinem writes. “It’s violence against females. It normalizes all other violence.”

She argues that what differentiates democracies from authoritarian systems is the right of women to control their own bodies. That also means the freedom to end an unwanted pregnancy, an issue that continues to deeply divide the US in this election year of 2016. Just in March, Donald Trump said that abortions should be illegal and that women who have abortions should be punished.

In the first issue of the magazine Ms., which she founded in 1971, Steinem demanded that abortions be legalized. She printed the names of 52 women who admitted to having had the procedure in secret, often under life-threatening conditions. And she added her name to the list as well. Back when she was 22, she had gotten engaged. He was a good man, she says, but she didn’t want to get married, preferring instead to go to India on a study fellowship. On the way there, she realized that she was pregnant. In London, she found a doctor who agreed to help her under two conditions: that she never reveal his name and that she promise to make the best out of her life. She dedicated her recently published memoirs to the doctor.•

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