Excerpted

You are currently browsing the archive for the Excerpted category.

Three great images by futurist/illustrator Syd Mead.

Are driverless cars wheels with a computer or a computer with wheels? The latter seems more the truth. In “The Two Cultures of Robocars,” Google consultant Brad Templeton weighs this question. The opening:

“I have many more comments pending on my observations from the recent AUVSI/TRB Automated Vehicles Symposium, but for today I would like to put forward an observation I made about two broad schools of thought on the path of the technology and the timeline for adoption. I will call these the aggressive and conservative schools. The aggressive school is represented by Google, Induct (and its successors) and many academic teams, the conservative school involves car companies, most urban planners and various others.

The conservative view sees this technology as a set of wheels that has a computer.

The aggressive school sees this as a computer that has a set of wheels.

The conservative view sees this as an automotive technology, and most of them are very used to thinking about automotive technology. For the aggressive school, where I belong, this is a computer technology, and will be developed — and change the world — at the much faster pace that computer technologies do.

Neither school is probably entirely right, of course.”

Tags: ,

The worst idea for changing baseball this season–even worse than this–is the one which anchors Tom Verducci’s latest SI column. He suggests the sport should ban defensive shifts because they’re suppressing offense. What a ridiculous thing. It’s oblivious about the history of game, something Verducci actually knows well, which has always seen fluctuations in runs and run prevention, but even more than that, it’s ignorant of how information works.

Analytics in the sport has gotten rich, implementation of such knowledge has improved, so let’s handicap those who are using the numbers well? That’s a good way to keep baseball from growing and improving, to restrain its evolution. It’s similar (though obviously far less important) to the cockamamie notion that English should be made America’s “official language.” You know, we should somehow control and constrain language, as if that were possible. As William Burroughs said: “Language is a virus from outer space.” So, to some extent, are any living, growing things which use information, including baseball. Let them evolve. From Verducci:

“Support of an ‘illegal defense’ rule – or at least the consideration of it – is gaining some traction in baseball. Such a rule might stipulate, for instance, that you cannot have three infielders on one side of second base. A shortstop would be able to shift as far as directly behind second base on a lefthanded hitter, but no farther.

Is it time for such a rule? My gut reaction is that it is time to at least think about it. All-fields hitting needs to increase. But Maddon, himself a former hitting instructor, believes that it will take years for the counter-response to make an impact. He said the emphasis on using the whole field to hit must begin with organizational teaching in the low minors. ‘You can’t make the same impact with guys already at the major league level,’ he said.

So you may be talking about three years or more before you start seeing real change. Can baseball keep selling such a low-scoring, low-activity environment in the meantime?

Teams have figured out not just where hitters are most likely to hit the ball, but also that the second baseman should not be stationed so close to the first baseman, as he was for the past 100 years or more. It’s not just that a shortstop or third baseman is shifted to the right side against lefthanded hitters; it’s that the second baseman often can play a deep rover-type position in rightfield – it’s a matter of logic that the second baseman can play as far away from the first baseman as does the third baseman. More depth means more range, which means fewer chances for a hit to a hitter’s preferred field.”

Tags:

The opening of “Beyond the Bones: The Archaeology of Human Networks,” Alun Anderson’s New Scientist review of two books on evolution which suggest that our historical development may have rested more on surviving each other than the elements:

“‘HELL is other people,’ goes Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous line. It is a hell that may have created us and our culture, judging by two new books. They show that the idea that we are defined by our struggles to deal with our fellow humans is shaking up archaeology and how we think about the key force driving human evolution.

The first book is Thinking Big by archaeologists Clive Gamble and John Gowlett and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar. It is the story of a seven-year project – From Lucy to Language – that confronted archaeologists with the social brain hypothesis of human evolution.

The result is a dramatic demolition of the ‘stones and bones’ approach to archaeology, which keeps researchers firmly fixed only on the physical evidence they dig up, and a move towards a grand look at the evolving human mind. There is ‘more to humanity than the bits of chipped bone,’ write the authors as they seek a framework for all human psychological traits, from kinship and laughter to language and ceremony. Old dogma is derided as never moving beyond ‘WYSWTW’ (What You See is What There Was).

The second book is a solo effort by Dunbar, the key thinker behind the social brain hypothesis. In Human Evolution, he lays out the big ideas that the archaeologists later took up. At its heart is the observation that as brains grew bigger, so did the groups we live in: bigger brains were built for and by social life. Modern humans have a cognitive limit of about 150 friends and family (the well-known ‘Dunbar’s number’). Within that circle are an average of five ‘intimates,’ 15 best friends and 50 good friends. Chimps have an average community size of 55.

Studies of living, non-human primates show why you might need bigger brains to live in bigger groups.”

Tags: , , ,

You ever wonder how someone–that person–became successful and famous and known all over the world? Maybe if things had gone differently and they didn’t get a particular opening, they would have been working a much smaller stage.

I think that way about the Rev. Billy Graham, the pulpit master who became a White House chaplain of sorts across several generations, thanks to two gatekeeper guardian angels, William Randolph Hearst and Henry Luce, anointing him America’s preacher. While Graham’s continuous access to the nation’s highest office may be unusual, at least he’s not a dunderhead like his son, Franklin, nor is he lacking in gravitas as is the grinning megachurch mogul Joel Osteen, an aspirationalist with heavenly hair.

Two excerpts follow from “Blunt Billy,” Roy Rowan’s 1975 People interview with Graham, in which the evangelist discusses becoming Hearst’s rosebud, and his disappointment in Richard Nixon over Watergate.

________________________

People:

Have you been surprised by your success? 

Rev. Billy Graham:

Extremely. There were two men who were the keys to my impact and success. One was William Randolph Hearst. I never met him, but I was told by William Randolph Hearst Jr. that one night in 1949 his father came with Marion Davies to a service out of curiosity, went back to the office and sent a two-word teletype to all of his newspapers: PUFF GRAHAM! The next night the place was crawling with reporters and photographers. I said, “What’s happened?” They said, “You’ve just been kissed by William Randolph Hearst.” 

People:

Who was the other man? 

Rev. Billy Graham:

Henry Luce. At Bernard Baruch’s suggestion, Mr. Luce got on an airplane and flew to Columbia, S.C., where I was preaching and spent three days with me. We stayed in the same house. He wanted to see if I was real. We’d sit up until 2 a.m. talking. After that I was on the cover of LIFE two times and the cover of TIME once. 

_________________________

People:

Why did you feel compelled to speak out on Watergate?

Rev. Billy Graham:

Richard Nixon was my friend. I admired him a great deal, and I respected him. I knew his father and his mother. I participated in the funeral of his mother. But just as Johnson was caught in the Vietnam war, Nixon was caught in Watergate. In defending some of his friends, Nixon just got deeper and deeper and deeper. He didn’t realize what was happening was actually breaking the law.

People:

Do you think President Nixon was personally guilty of misconduct?

Rev. Billy Graham:

I would have to say he was. I really believed in him, but I didn’t know that all that stuff was on tape. When the language came out which I had never heard, and the apparent misrepresentation to the American people, I was shocked and surprised. This was a Nixon I didn’t know.

People:

Did discovering this “Nixon you didn’t know” change your feeling about him?

Rev. Billy Graham:

I would have to use the word “disappointment.” Yet I still have great affection for Nixon, and great respect for him. As Special Watergate Prosecutor Leon Jaworski said, Nixon went through something worse than death. Nixon amazingly has lived through it. For about a year, we weren’t in contact much. Now our friendship has been reestablished. I stopped in San Clemente recently and spent an hour with him. He’s more like his old self before he became President. He’s joking, he’s kidding, he’s laughing a lot. Watergate was barely mentioned. You can see that he has overcome the psychological hump.

People:

How should Nixon make amends?

Rev. Billy Graham:

Nixon can tell the total truth in the book he’s writing. I think he will. But I could be wrong. I was wrong before.

People:

What do you think is in Nixon’s future?

Rev. Billy Graham:

Mr. Nixon is a tremendous student. After he lost the California governor’s race, he didn’t think he’d ever have a chance politically again. I said to him, “Mr. Lincoln once said, ‘I will prepare, and someday my chance will come.’ ” I said, “You get prepared, and there’ll be a place of service for you somewhere.” I was thinking he might be secretary of state. I was not thinking of him as President of the United States. Now I would seriously doubt if Nixon would ever be called back into government service.

Tags: , , , ,

Through the prism of structural changes at TaskRabbit, Sam Biddle of Valleywag looks at (perhaps) the future of labor, in which the wishes of workers disappear into algorithms, and we’re all lackeys, everyone Walmarted. You know how you love cheap service? That’s your job now. The opening:

“The employment of the future is here, and it’s terrific for everyone except the people doing the work. TaskRabbit, which lets you outsource the things you don’t want to do to people who need money, is at the forefront of this chore revolution, and it’s already making some lives harder.

In 1994, professors Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio published a book titled The Jobless Future, surveying sea changes in the way people work. It didn’t look good: ‘Today, the regime of world economic life consists in scratching every itch of everyday life with sci-tech,’ they wrote. A big heap of trivial problems were being solved by a bigger heap of trivial jobs, marked by a trend ‘toward more low-paid, temporary, benefit-free blue and white collar jobs and fewer decent permanent factory and office jobs.’

Twenty years later, we’ve nearly perfected this ephemeral gig machine with TaskRabbit, a software engine that does for labor what Snapchat’s done for memories.”

Tags: ,

For a good part of the 1965 season, the outfield at the Houston Astrodome had no actual living grass but a surface of dirt and dead grass painted green. The team had yet to figure out how to block out the glare of the sun and also let enough light into the roofed stadium to grow grass. And there was no Astroturf yet, so the problem was painted over.

California’s drought is forcing a similar solution. At the Guardian, there’s a photo essay about Green Canary, a company which returns brown lawns to their preferred color with the aid of a coat of paint. Here’s a mission statement from the company’s site:

Green Canary is a cost effective, advanced aqueous polymer formulation for maintaining the aesthetic appearance of grass and lawns on residential and commercial properties. Green Canary is a turn key product and service that transforms dry, diseased, or dormant grass into green eye-pleasing turf. This non-toxic surface treatment is safe for children and pets, and Green Canary contains no VOCs or other environmental hazards. What’s more, Green Canary helps to conserve water, minimize maintenance, and eliminate lawn care chemicals. Costing merely a fraction of new grass and traditional upkeep, Green Canary will have you seeing green — in your yard, as well as your pocket book.”

Three entries from “17 Ways Driverless Cars Could Change America,” by Dan McLaughlin of the Federalist, which meditates on the consequences (and unintended consequences) of autonomous vehicles.

__________________

4. Changing Who Can Drive: Driving, today, is a hallmark of responsible adulthood. Getting a driver’s license at 16 or 17, and learning to safely operate a motor vehicle, is a major rite of passage. High schools spend teaching time on Driver’s Ed. Driver’s licenses are the most widely-used form of photo identification, and whether the government should issue them to people who are in the country illegally is a continuing source of political controversy. People with serious physical or mental handicaps cannot drive. People who have had too much to drink, or are high on drugs or heavily medicated, cannot or should not drive. And at the other end, for the elderly, losing the ability to drive when their eyesight and reflexes fail can be a major blow to their independence.

None of these things need be true of a driverless car. A child old enough to ride a bicycle or take the subway unescorted could be old enough to take a driverless car trip, especially assuming (as discussed below) improvements in anti-theft technologies and the impossibility of even moving the car without being tracked. The elderly and the handicapped could gain greatly from the increased mobility and independence of being able to use a driverless car to go places and shop for groceries. On the other hand, the demise of the driver’s license creates challenges for the many ways in which it is used as a de facto identification card, and could create pressure for a new federal identification card.

__________________

7. Destroying Car Culture: Here we move from the specific to the general, because cars, in America, are not just an appliance. They represent a deep expression of how American culture expressed and asserted itself in the 20th Century. Cars meant independence, and the bond between an American—particularly an American man—and his car was deep and profound, the subject of numerous songs and movies. People drive for fun, to see places, to get away, they tinker with their cars, love their cars, and argue about their merits. That bond will inevitably be lost in a world where the car is no longer controlled and steered by the individual, but is simply a delivery service for a requested address.

Sentiment aside, this is the cost of progress. In the 19th Century, we had a horse culture. Horses were the companion of the settler, the wagon train, the cavalryman, the cowboy. Even if you lived in a big city, where people traveled by carriage and goods were delivered by horse-drawn wagons, most every American knew some of the basics of horsemanship: how to mount a horse, win a horse’s trust, command and steer a horse, and re-shoe a horse at need. Today, horsemanship is the province of the very rich, the very rural, and those who make a living dealing with horses, and is alien to most Americans. In time, the same will be true of car culture—the wealthy will race on private tracks, the country boys and girls will drive off road, but the rest of us will be escorted around by machines without thought for how to drive them. We may not even be able to foresee all the ways that changes how we view our own lives and the culture we live in.

__________________

15. Fewer Used Cars, More Inequality: The more cars involve electronics rather than simple machinery, the costlier they are to design and repair, and the shorter their likely shelf life. That’s bad news for poorer people who want to own one. Traditionally, the low end of the used-car market was a haven for men, especially young men, who had little money but had the know-how to keep a fading piece of machinery running for a few more years. Doing that with the kind of sophisticated computer systems and pricey components needed to run driverless navigation systems is something a lot fewer young men, especially the less educated, are prepared to do.

Tags:

We’ve shrunk the world, and now it’s portable and harder to see. That’s good and bad. To paraphrase Norma Desmond, is it just the pictures that have gotten smaller, or is some part of us also diminished? In the macro, it’s a huge victory, but there are losses even in the greatest gains. From Neil Gough at the New York Times:

“For the first time, more Chinese people are gaining access to the Internet with mobile devices than with personal computers.

The shift is significant, if expected, in China, which is the world’s biggest market for both Internet and smartphone users.

China had 632 million Internet users at the end of June, an increase of 14.4 million since the end of December, according to a semiannual report published on Monday by the official China Internet Network Information Center, which is known as CNNIC. Of those, 83.4 percent reported gaining access to the Internet with mobile devices, exceeding for the first time the percentage who reported using computers to go online, at 80.9 percent.

The results of the survey showed that more Chinese were heading online to send instant messages (through popular mobile apps like Tencent’s Weixin, or WeChat), listen to music, play video games and read.”

Many Kentuckians who now have Obamacare love the care and hate Obama. When it comes to affordable health insurance, they need it, they want it, they wish they could live without it. Passages follow from a BBC piece about the health-care reform that dare not speak its name in the Blue Grass State and an Ezra Klein Vox post about the aftermath of the Halbig case ruling.

_________________________

From Claire Bolderson’s “Obamacare in Kentucky: The luxury of seeing a doctor“:

“Liberty Sizemore leans back in her chair and beams. The 26-year-old filling station cashier has just been told her enrolment in Obamacare is complete.

Now she can have her first routine doctor’s appointment for seven years.

‘I am so happy,’ says Sizemore as she waits at the Grace Community Health Centre in Clay County, Kentucky, ‘I’ve not had insurance since I turned 19.’

But Sizemore is also nervous. She is seriously overweight and was warned in her teens that she was likely to develop diabetes. Without health insurance she has not been able to afford tests or check-ups to see if she has indeed got the disease.

‘I’ll go to the hospital only in an emergency,’ says Sizemore, who is still paying off the $10,000 bill for removing her appendix two years ago.

‘That’s what’s on my credit card right now,’ she sighs, ‘hospital bills.’

Sizemore is one of 421,000 people in Kentucky who’ve signed up since the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, widely known as Obamacare, came into force last October.

Like many, she now qualifies for Medicaid, the government programme that pays for health care for the poorest Americans. Under the new law, the federal government offers states money to expand Medicaid so that many more people on very low wages, like Liberty Sizemore, are covered.

There are also federal funds for new state insurance exchanges where Americans can shop for private plans. Some plans are heavily subsidised by the government, depending on the applicant’s income level.

Kentucky is one of a minority of states – and the only one in the South – to have taken Washington’s money and embraced all the reforms.

But it has done it without embracing the man after whom they are named.

‘The president is not all that popular in the state,’ says Democratic Governor Steven Beshear, pointing to Mr Obama’s 34% approval rating in Kentucky (eight points below the latest national figure reported by Gallup). ‘So we don’t talk about Obamacare,’ he explains.”

_________________________

The opening of Klein’s “No, the Halbig case isn’t going to destroy Obamacare“:

“The Halbig case could destroy Obamacare. But it won’t. The Supreme Court simply isn’t going to rip insurance from tens of millions of people in order to teach Congress a lesson about grammar.

As Adrianna McIntyre explains, the Halbig case holds that Obamacare’s subsidies are illegal in the 36 states where the federal government runs (or partly runs) the exchange. The plaintiffs rely on an unclearly worded sentence in the law to argue that Congress never intended to provide subsidies in federally-run exchanges and so the subsidies that are currently being provided in those 36 states are illegal and need to stop immediately.

This is plainly ridiculous. The point of Obamacare is to subsidize insurance for those who can’t afford it. The point of the federal exchanges is to make sure the law works even in states that can’t or won’t set up an exchange.

For Congress to write a law that provides for federal exchanges but doesn’t permit money to flow through them would have been like Congress writing a transportation law that builds federal highways but doesn’t allow cars, bikes or buses to travel on them.

That was…not what Congress thought it was doing.”

Tags: , , , ,

Go here to listen to a really good Econtalk discussion between economists Russ Roberts and Mike Munger about the sharing economy. Uber and Airbnb certainly provide improved offerings (though not always a lower price), but they also skirt tax and regulatory rules. It’s pretty clear that consumers want a peer-to-peer economy, but there are consequences for those who’ve adhered to traditional regulations. What if you spent a million dollars on a NYC taxi medallion a few years ago only to find out the value of your purchase has cratered (which hasn’t happened yet but potentially could) because of Uber and Lyft and the like? These companies have improved the transportation market, they’ve innovated ways for consumers to connect to cabs, but they aren’t playing by the rules.

So here’s the question: What happens to all parties when the rules have changed in practice but not (yet) on paper? Munger thinks New York will ban Uber, but it’s hard to believe those market forces will be constrained for very long. Nor should they be, really. One passage from the discussion:

Russ Roberts:

We should explain. A medallion is–

Mike Munger:

A license.

Russ Roberts:

It’s a license that allows you to, in the case of a cab company, to pick up a stranger on the street who is raising his hand, saying, ‘Taxi’. There has always been an out for limos. You can always call a limo service to your house. I don’t think they need the same–they don’t have the exact same regulatory structure. But certainly, it is against the law in almost every city in America to cruise around and offer to pick up somebody who is raising his or her hand looking for a taxi and act like a taxi. And what Uber has done is be a little bit different. Sort of like that, but a little bit different. And that’s what the regulatory issue is.

Mike Munger:

Yeah. It’s much harder for the police. You don’t have to raise your hand, now. You just press a button on your phone unobtrusively. And the police don’t know. For all they know, it’s your friend picking you up at the airport.

Russ Roberts:

But, I think you exaggerate slightly. So, the medallion–now medallions have sold recently for as much as a million dollars.

Mike Munger:

In New York.

Russ Roberts:

In New York. Despite the Chicago story. So, there are people who are still investing in the right to be a taxi cab driver, either because they think that Uber is not as important as we do, or they think that Uber will be stopped and shut down and will not be a competitive force.

Mike Munger:

I predict that Uber will be stopped and shut down.

Russ Roberts:

Okay, I’m going to go against you there. I’m going to disagree with you. It is under tremendous regulatory pressure. Pittsburgh just announced–

Mike Munger:

I just meant in New York. In New York City. I just think that the people who made that, are making a good bet. It’s too easy to make a sting operation.

Russ Roberts:

Okay. We’ll see. But I do think that–the question isn’t that–I don’t think that Uber is illegal right now. It’s a gray area. Pittsburgh has just ruled that it must comply with the Pittsburgh Utility Council’s, or Pennsylvania Utility Council’s regulations. In Europe there’s tremendous pressure to shut down Uber, not allow them. But remember, there is tremendous pressure from riders. Who like it. And I think–I want to make sure we make something clear here. There are two aspects to this attractiveness of Uber. One of them–I don’t think it’s so much the price. I don’t think the price is that much different. I think it’s the convenience and power of it, on a calm, normal day; and I think it’s its ability change price on the fly, using a fairly sophisticated algorithm.

Mike Munger:

But the taxi companies can mimic all of that. They’ll do it within a month. It’s easy to do. If that were the reason, that’s easy to do. It’s basically open-source software.

Russ Roberts:

I don’t know about that. Um, you are suggesting then that the cab company doesn’t offer me a web, a phone-based opportunity to hail a cab because they don’t need to? Because they have a monopoly?

Mike Munger:

Yeah.

Russ Roberts:

I don’t know. I think the software is what gives Uber its comparative advantage.

Mike Munger:

It’s interesting that the taxi companies are so awful at this. So, if nothing else, Uber may force the taxi companies to improve the way that you connect with a taxi. But I think the cost advantage is really a problem, because it actually raises a lot of questions about the nature of due process. Suppose that we don’t take any action and the value of these medallions falls to zero. Are we obliged to offer compensation, because we in effect made a regulatory decision that is a taking? This property right, this medallion, had significant value. We made a choice, without due process, that said we are going to reduce the value of this medallion to zero. Are we obliged to compensate?

Russ Roberts:

Who is ‘we’?

Mike Munger:

The state. Just like we would if we were taking your land under eminent domain to build a road.”

Tags: ,

Irving “Swifty” Lazar, whose entire head was made of bifocals, was a lawyer who learned you could make a killing as an agent if you held fast to situational ethics. From Harry Minetree’s 1975 People article about Lazar, as he had just closed a book deal for a disgraced Richard Nixon and had agreed to let the former President sit for an interview with David Frost:

“On a bright morning last August, Irving Paul (Swifty) Lazar, the literary agent, was having breakfast beside the pool at his Beverly Hills home when the telephone interrupted. It was Ron Ziegler, ex-President Nixon’s ex-press secretary, calling from San Clemente. Mr. Nixon, Ziegler said, was eager to see Lazar to discuss ‘some business.’ Lazar, who had a pretty good idea what the business was, crisply replied that he was leaving for Europe shortly, but he would be happy to see Mr. Nixon upon his return.

On August 31 the dapper, billiard-bald Lazar and Nixon met over a three-hour lunch at San Clemente. Afterward, agent Lazar returned home in his black limousine with the exclusive rights to sell the former President’s memoirs in his attaché case. No matter that Swifty, a lifelong Democrat, had been an indefatigable fund-raiser for John F. Kennedy. Or that his Washington representative, Ann Buchwald, the wife of political satirist Art Buchwald, quit as a result of the Nixon deal. There was a buck to be made, in fact millions of bucks and, true to the 10-percenters’ code, Lazar had a flexible philosophy to suit the occasion: ‘In a deal you give and take. You compromise. Then you grab the cash and catch the next train out of town.’

Not many literary agents can afford to be so candid about their modus operandi. But then not many of them can afford a California mansion with genuine Picassos, Roualts, Chagalls and Dalis on the walls, a Rolls-Royce and a Mercedes in the garage, an elegant pied-a-terre in New York, offices in Beverly Hills, New York, London, Paris and Rome, $40,000-a-year phone bills and a custom-made wardrobe. There is only one ‘Swifty’—a soubriquet Humphrey Bogart laid on him after Lazar acquired three hot screen properties for him in the space of 24 hours—and indeed there is hardly room for more than one Swifty in the agents’ trade.

With characteristic speed, Lazar put together a package for Nixon: he sold the paperback rights to the book, which will probably appear in three volumes, to Warner Paperback Library for $2.5 million, the television rights for a Nixon interview to David Frost for another $750,000 and is asking for a hard-cover advance in the neighborhood of $1 million. (Although Lazar says Nixon was persuaded to accept Frost’s proposition because of the ‘interesting approach,’ the word around Hollywood is that the interesting approach was simply the highest bid.) Still to be negotiated are foreign rights, book clubs, a possible movie and other spin-offs that will propel the former President back into millionaire status and guarantee Swifty Lazar fees well in the area of half a million. Even so, Lazar went through considerable soul-searching before he decided to represent Nixon. ‘He asked the advice of everyone he knows,’ says Art Buchwald. ‘But it’s probably for the best. When a politician gets in trouble he deserves the best lawyer and the best literary agent around. You use the agent to pay the lawyer—that’s the way it goes.’

Nixon represents only the latest in Lazar’s ledger of famous, infamous, literary, political and showbiz clients. Over the years, he has represented Hemingway, Ira Gershwin, Truman Capote, Clifford Odets, Vladimir Nabokov, Neil Simon, Herman Wouk, Lerner and Lowe, John Huston, Edna Ferber, Buchwald, Noël Coward and Richard Rodgers, among others.”

Tags: , , , ,

Speaking of the emergence of really smart machines, philosopher Nick Bostrom’s new book, Superintelligence, has just been published in the UK (with the U.S. edition available later this year). Here’s a piece from Clive Cookson’s Financial Times review:

“Since the 1950s proponents of artificial intelligence have maintained that machines thinking like people lie just a couple of decades in the future. In Superintelligence – a thought-provoking look at the past, present and above all the future of AI – Nick Bostrom, founding director of Oxford’s university’s Future of Humanity Institute, starts off by mocking the futurists.

‘We are still far from real AI despite last month’s widely publicised ‘Turing test’ stunt, in which a computer mimicked a 13-year-old boy with some success in a brief text conversation. About half the world’s AI specialists expect human-level machine intelligence to be achieved by 2040, according to recent surveys, and 90 per cent say it will arrive by 2075. Bostrom takes a cautious view of the timing but believes that, once made, human-level AI is likely to lead to a far higher level of ‘superintelligence’ faster than most experts expect – and that its impact is likely either to be very good or very bad for humanity.

The book enters more original territory when discussing the emergence of superintelligence. The sci-fi scenario of intelligent machines taking over the world could become a reality very soon after their powers surpass the human brain, Bostrom argues. Machines could improve their own capabilities far faster than human computer scientists.

‘Machines have a number of fundamental advantages, which will give them overwhelming superiority,’ he writes. ‘Biological humans, even if enhanced, will be outclassed.’ He outlines various ways for AI to escape the physical bonds of the hardware in which it developed. For example, it might use its hacking superpower to take control of robotic manipulators and automated labs; or deploy its powers of social manipulation to persuade human collaborators to work for it. There might be a covert preparation stage in which microscopic entities capable of replicating themselves by nanotechnology or biotechnology are deployed worldwide at an extremely low concentration. Then at a pre-set time nanofactories producing nerve gas or target-seeking mosquito-like robots might spring forth (though, as Bostrom notes, superintelligence could probably devise a more effective takeover plan than him).

What would the world be like after the takeover? It would contain far more intricate and intelligent structures than anything we can imagine today – but would lack any type of being that is conscious or whose welfare has moral significance. ‘A society of economic miracles and technological awesomeness, with nobody there to benefit,’ as Bostrom puts it. ‘A Disneyland without children.’”

Tags: ,

Kurt Vonnegut pointed out that some of us get wicker furniture and some get bubonic plague. It seems counterintuitive, but perhaps the kindest thing we can do to help the plagued is to buy more twiggy chairs. 

The idea that the best citizen is a good consumer isn’t a new one, though it’s always been complicated because of feelings of personal guilt and concerns about ecology. In his Aeon essay, “The Good Consumer,” Florian Schui, argues against the self-reproach, and while he acknowledges the environmental costs of free-market capitalism, he seems less worried about it than most. The opening:

“Westerners are constantly worrying about consuming too much and living too well. This is not a new concern. For at least the past 2,000 years we have worried about having to pay a price for prosperity. What is perhaps more surprising is that we continue to worry. During the first millennia of human existence, increases in consumption were extremely slow, but over the past 200 years or so industrialisation led to an unprecedented increase in prosperity in the West. This was topped off by a super-increase in the 1950s and ’60s. And yet, we have still not had our comeuppance. Instead, for most Westerners, the principal outcomes have been longer and more comfortable lives.

That said, the benefits of increasing prosperity are distributed highly unequally, making growing inequality perhaps the most pressing economic and social problem of our era. Consumption is one of the areas where inequality is felt most strongly, not so much due to excessive consumption at the top, interestingly enough, but because of increasing deprivation at the bottom. If we want to correct this imbalance, through redistribution, we need to recognise that this will inevitably result in a further substantial increase in overall consumption. That might be no bad thing, providing policymakers make the effort to understand the long tradition of criticising consumption that is almost as old as Western civilisation.”

Tags:

The German soccer team, triumphant at the just-completed World Cup, is called, with a mixture of awe and envy, “The Machine,” which suggests that the squad is somehow circumventing the natural order of things. Of course, that’s not the case. The real machines, however, are now competing at the latest RoboCup, AI’s version of the football competition, and the question is when will machines be able to kick us from soccer dominance the way Deep Blue did Kasparov in chess. Seems an absurd notion, for now. From a new Economist article:

“In the early years of RoboCup, there were huge differences in quality between the teams. No longer. The best of the little league routinely finish their ten-minute-long games with the low scores characteristic of well-matched human teams. Indeed, Dr [Manuela] Veloso’s squad came in second last year, after a penalty shoot-out following a 2-2 game.

Nor need only the players be robots. In a step that many of FIFA’s critics may admire, Dr Veloso and her team are developing automated referees. That will not stop some teams from exploiting decidedly human traits, such as fouling by forcefully bumping into another robot. But it may result in more effective enforcement of things like the maximum kick-speed rule.

What fascinates Dr Veloso most about RoboCup is the execution, during the game, of moves that had not been deliberately inserted into the algorithms controlling the robots. She is ebullient about an unexpected three-way pass and chip, worthy of a minor Messi and his Argentine teammates. Such unanticipated plays are examples of emergent behaviour, a hallmark of artificial intelligence at its highest level, and something she reckons RoboCup teams in all leagues will produce a lot more of with each passing year.

So is 2050 an unrealistic deadline for robots to beat the best humans at football? Half a century is roughly the time that separates ENIAC, America’s first electronic computer, from Deep Blue, the IBM machine that beat chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1997. Judged in that light, RoboCup’s goal does not seem absurd. Indeed, the question may be whether, come 2050, there are still any human football players around who have not been prosthetically enhanced in some way, making them cyborgs. RoboCup v RoboCop, anyone?”

Tags:

I don’t think a questionable Turing Test means we should be granting robots marriage licenses or social security cards, but there are ethical and legal questions to be addressed as society becomes increasingly automated and performance-enhancement on a grand scale becomes widespread. From Mark Goldfeder’s CNN piece “The Age of Robots Is Here“:

“Robotic legal personhood in the near future makes sense. Artificial intelligence is already part of our daily lives. Bots are selling stuff on eBay and Amazon, and semiautonomous agents are determining our eligibility for Medicare. Predator drones require less and less supervision, and robotic workers in factories have become more commonplace. Google is testing self-driving cars, and General Motors has announced that it expects semiautonomous vehicles to be on the road by 2020.

When the robot messes up, as it inevitably will, who exactly is to blame? The programmer who sold the machine? The site owner who had nothing to do with the mechanical failure? The second party, who assumed the risk of dealing with the robot? What happens when a robotic car slams into another vehicle, or even just runs a red light?

Liability is why some robots should be granted legal personhood. As a legal person, the robot could carry insurance purchased by its employer. As an autonomous actor, it could indemnify others from paying for its mistakes, giving the system a sense of fairness and ensuring commerce could proceed unchecked by the twin fears of financial ruin and of not being able to collect. We as a society have given robots power, and with that power should come the responsibility of personhood.

From the practical legal perspective, robots could and should be people.

Tags:

I think we’re pretty much doomed without superintelligence, though it could also do us in. It’s just a gamble we’ll have to take. From Anders Sandberg’s Guardian article about doomsday scenarios, “The Five Biggest Threats to Human Existence“:

“Intelligence is very powerful. A tiny increment in problem-solving ability and group coordination is why we left the other apes in the dust. Now their continued existence depends on human decisions, not what they do. Being smart is a real advantage for people and organisations, so there is much effort in figuring out ways of improving our individual and collective intelligence: from cognition-enhancing drugs to artificial-intelligence software.

The problem is that intelligent entities are good at achieving their goals, but if the goals are badly set they can use their power to cleverly achieve disastrous ends. There is no reason to think that intelligence itself will make something behave nice and morally. In fact, it is possible to prove that certain types of superintelligent systems would not obey moral rules even if they were true.

Even more worrying is that in trying to explain things to an artificial intelligence we run into profound practical and philosophical problems. Human values are diffuse, complex things that we are not good at expressing, and even if we could do that we might not understand all the implications of what we wish for.

Software-based intelligence may very quickly go from below human to frighteningly powerful. The reason is that it may scale in different ways from biological intelligence: it can run faster on faster computers, parts can be distributed on more computers, different versions tested and updated on the fly, new algorithms incorporated that give a jump in performance.

It has been proposed that an ‘intelligence explosion’ is possible when software becomes good enough at making better software. Should such a jump occur there would be a large difference in potential power between the smart system (or the people telling it what to do) and the rest of the world. This has clear potential for disaster if the goals are badly set.”

Tags:

Pierre Boulle wasn’t exactly embarrassed, just perplexed, by the success of The Planet of the Apes, his 1963 French novel which became an unlikely American film franchise in a time before franchises were really a thing. It seemed to him an odd, little fantasy that shouldn’t have approached the popularity of something like the Oscar-winning The Bridge Over the River Kwai, yet it did. A good deal of the big-screen appeal was the remarkable make-up work of John Chambers, who made monkeys out of men (and women), and Boulle was aware of this contribution, but he still couldn’t account for the reception. Here’s a (rough) translation into English of an interview Boulle did about Apes, though I’m not sure of the source:

“Question:

What inspired you to write Planet of the Apes?

Pierre Boulle:

I do not really remember. I think it was during a visit to the zoo, watching the gorillas. I was impressed by their almost human expressions. This led me to imagine what would a man/monkey relationship. Some believe that I had King Kong in mind when I wrote my book, but this is totally false. Frankly, I have never considered it one of my best novels, but more like a fun fantasy. I’m not very happy with the final result: I think I could have done better with parts of the book.

Question:

Do you think the film is faithful to the book?

Pierre Boulle:

You should never ask that of an author whose novel has been made into a film. There have been a lot of changes, and some very disconcerting. My planet had three suns for example. The first part of the film is excellent, and the monkeys’ makeup is particularly successful. I do not like the end with the Statue of Liberty. I prefer mine where finally we were not on Earth but of course on another planet. But critics loved it, so maybe I’m a bad judge. I knew from the outset that the producer Arthur P. Jacobs wanted this. He had it in mind from the first day and told me about it. I replied ‘Why not try it?’ Critics have approved, but I’m a little more rational writer and I prefer everything to be explained from A to Z. I am also completely unable to work in a group, which seems a necessity in the production of a film. When I write, I am alone. I give the book to my editor, and do not want to change anything, to the last comma.

Question:

But you have started working on the sequel to Planet of the Apes?

Pierre Boulle:

True. After the success of the first film, Arthur asked me to write more for him. It was called Planet of Women. They initially agreed, but then there were so many changes. I read the script of the Secret of the Planet of the Apes, and it interested me because it had nothing to do with my work. It was completely different. This does not bother me because the film did not ultimately matter to me. I rarely see movies. It is also strange that what I write inspires such visual and adaptable on-screen elements.

What would you attribute the success of the Planet of the Apes?

Pierre Boulle:

Honestly, I have no idea.”

Tags: ,

I don’t think there’s been an American stand-up comic over the last five years who’s worked at close to the same level as Maria Bamford, CK and Oswalt and Burr included, so I was happy to see her the subject of an insightful profile by Sara Corbett in the New York Times Magazine. Stand-up mostly attracts people who have some significant degree of instability, but does the very act of writing and telling jokes exacerbate those issues? It certainly doesn’t seem to be a palliative, not the talk therapy you might expect, the repetition perhaps more deeply ingraining the problems than releasing them. From the Times piece:

“Bamford has a song that she sometimes performs onstage called ‘My Anxiety Song.’ It has no melody. Instead, it sounds more like an incantation, a desperate verbal hum. ‘If I keep the ice-cube trays filled,’ she chants, ‘no one will diiiiieeee.’ She continues, in a monotone, ‘As long as I clench my fists at odd intervals, then the darkness within me won’t force me to do anything inappropriate or sexual’ — here, she drops her voice a couple of notes — ‘at dinner partieeeees. . . . ‘

This, she is saying, is the agony of O.C.D., the skewed sense of cause and effect that first began to plague her when she was about 10. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 2.2 million adult Americans contend with some form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s not uncommon for the symptoms to appear during childhood. Bamford is patient when explaining the particulars, aware that when she jokes about having wanted to chop up her family into bits or imagining what it would be like to lick a urinal, it can make her sound weird and also scary. But she makes a distinction: It’s the thoughts that are weird and scary, not the person. And while most of us are prone to having fleeting notions that would qualify as inappropriate, in the mind of someone with O.C.D., they are more likely to lodge themselves and repeat. The thoughts don’t tend to inspire action, only fear. It’s like having a homegrown terrorist in the brain.”

Tags: ,

Eventually you’ll have the implant, promised Larry Page several years ago, explaining that Google would someday literally be in your head, but isn’t it there already? Don’t we already see things radically differently, our brains having been tapped from the outside? Hasn’t that already made things better and also worse?

From Robert Pogue Harrison’s New York Review of Books anti-disruption screed,”The Children of Silicon Valley,” which I don’t agree with in the macro, though I acknowledge it makes some salient points:

“Our silicon age, which sees no glory in maintenance, but only in transformation and disruption, makes it extremely difficult for us to imagine how, in past eras, those who would change the world were viewed with suspicion and dread. If you loved the world; if you considered it your mortal home; if you were aware of how much effort and foresight it had cost your forebears to secure its foundations, build its institutions, and shape its culture; if you saw the world as the place of your secular afterlife, then you had good reasons to impute sinister tendencies to those who would tamper with its configuration or render it alien to you. Referring to all that happened during the ‘dark times’ of the first half of the twentieth century, ‘with its political catastrophes, its moral disasters, and its astonishing development of the arts and sciences,’ Hannah Arendt summarized the human cost of endless disruption:

The world becomes inhuman, inhospitable to human needs—which are the needs of mortals—when it is violently wrenched into a movement in which there is no longer any sort of permanence.

The twenty-first century has only aggravated the political, moral, social, and environmental concussions of the twentieth. There would be reason to applaud the would-be world-changers and start-up companies of Silicon Valley if they made it their business to resist or reverse this process of planetary upheaval, the way environmentalists seek to do with the wounds we have afflicted on nature. Sadly they have no such militancy in their souls, nor much thoughtfulness. With a few exceptions, our new tech armies rarely take the time to think through what they are doing. Or if they do, they tend to think in ways that only add to the turmoil and agitation.

Silicon Valley, and everything it stands for metonymically in our culture, has indeed affected billions of people around the planet. The innovations have come fast and furious, turning the past four decades into a series of ‘before and after’ divides: before and after personal computers, before and after Google, before and after Facebook, iPhones, Twitter, and so forth. In the silicon age, ‘changing the world’ means at bottom finding new and more ingenious ways to turn my computer or smart phone into my primary—and eventually my only—access to ‘reality.’

In truth Silicon Valley does not change the world as much as it changes my way of being in it, or better, of not being in it.”

Tags:

Hoaxes that work do so because they play upon a deep-seated fear or satisfy a psychological want–a need, even. That’s why we’re able to suspend disbelief about something that seems ridiculous in retrospect. When I published the post about a passage from Daniel Lieberman’s recent book, The Story of the Human Body, it reminded me that he (briefly) touches on the story of the Tasaday people, a “stone-age” tribe discovered in 1971 in Philippine caves, which was untouched by wars hot and cold, threats of nuclear disaster, and trends in which clans–families–were unable to stay together. It was a sensation that National Geographic granted a cover and a 32-page story, and, of course, it was a hoax. But it had a good, long run, with Charles Lindbergh himself spending some of his final moments of life writing the foreword for a popular book about this make-believe people. The opening of a 1986 New York Times article by Seth Mydans, written when the work finally began to stop working:

“MANILA, May 12— After more than a decade, scientists and reporters have returned to visit a remote Stone Age tribe called the Tasaday, and found that its earlier contacts with the outside world have set it on what appears to be an irreversible road to change.

The new visits have also reopened a debate on the authenticity of the Tasaday, who have now been found to possess bits of clothing, knives, bows and arrows, a mirror and domesticated dogs.

In interviews, two anthropologists who recently revisited the tribe said these new possessions, which had aroused the scepticism of Swiss and German reporters who saw them recently, were an expectable product of the tribe’s first contacts with outsiders in the early 1970′s.

Discovered in 1971

The scientists said they now feared that, if new protective measures were not taken, an influx of researchers, journalists and tourists would destroy their fragile way of life, already imperiled by the approach of loggers, slash-and-burn farmers and the armed insurgencies that share the forests of the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

The Tasaday, a group of fewer than 30 people, were discovered in 1971 and drew international attention as a cave-using tribe of hunter-gatherers who dressed in orchid leaves and bark, knew no enemies and had no words for war, for ocean or for other peoples.

When two groups of journalists trekked into the jungle recently, they found the tribe members wearing bits and pieces of clothing and displaying other signs of outside influence, and the visitors raised cries of ‘hoax’ and ‘fairy tale.’

The two anthropologists who visited soon afterward, however, in the company of John Nance, author of a book on the tribe, and a television crew, said the changes were not surprising, and indeed enhanced the scientific interest of the group.

‘Textbook Case of Change’

‘We’re seeing a textbook case of social change, compressed in time,’ said one of the anthropologists, Jesus Peralta, who is curator of anthropology for the National Museum of the Philippines.

The other anthropologist who visited, Carlos Fernandez, said, ‘Before we first met them, they were purely forest gatherers.’

‘Then they learned to use a blade, to set traps and now they are learning to hunt,’ he went on. ‘Before long they will try their hand at planting.

‘This is one of the most exciting subjects for an anthropological investigator.’

Mr. Nance, the author of The Gentle Tasaday, who traveled last month to Mindanao with the two anthropologists, said the Tasaday’s preference for T-shirts and other articles of clothing was only natural. ‘If leaves were better, we’d all be wearing leaves,’ he said. Brides From Another Tribe

The scientists said the question of a hoax had always been present and remained a possibility. But they said such details as the stone tools and the language used by the Tasaday would be extremely difficult to fabricate.

‘Unless another anthropologist produces conflicting data, then the literature stands,’ said Mr. Peralta.

Many of the changes were thought to be the result of two outside influences: a tribal hunter named Dafal, and the marrying of women from a nearby tribe called the Blit.

A small group of primarily male cousins, the Tasaday’s main request of the scientists who discovered them was for brides. Mr. Peralta said that, in the years since then, 15 Blit women and two men had married into the tribe.

Trapping and Weapons

Dafal and the Blit spouses brought with them clothing, beads, knives, rice and cigars, the scientists said.

They also said they taught them to trap and use bows and arrows to supplement their traditional diet of yams, the hearts of palms and rattan, and fish, frogs and tadpoles.

‘They were already in transition when we first met them,’ Mr. Nance said, referring to their earlier contacts with Dafal. ‘Scientists worked to reconstruct what their life had been like before that, and people took the reconstruction as the current reality.’

He said this had led to misconceptions and to the recent accusations of a hoax.”

 

Tags: , , , , ,

At this point, the question may not be whether cars are going to transition, at last, to electric, but whether solar farms will be able to provide enough relatively clean electricity to meet the demand. China is certainly on board with EV, having received an unlikely nudge from SARS. From Dennis Taylor at the Monterey County Herald:

“What was lost on that audience, he said, is the fact that China now has more than 200 million electric-vehicle drivers — a statistic that by next year is expected to eclipse the total number of drivers in the United States.

A big part of the electric-vehicle surge in China can be traced to the 2002 epidemic of the SARS virus, during which many mass-transit users became afraid to board a bus and discovered that for $200 to $450 they could instead purchase a 1-horsepower electric motorcycle.

The alternative caught on: In 2013, the Chinese bought 37 million two-wheeled electric vehicles, Jurvetson said.

Electric motorcycles (which look a lot like bullet bikes), electric cars, even electric boats were among the vehicles showcased just outside the Hyatt’s convention center as Jurvetson spoke to a large and enthusiastic crowd at the symposium, drawing parallels between the future of electric cars and commercial space-travel vehicles that are the focus of SpaceX.”

Tags:

Manias are nothing new in America, and one that stretched from Huntington Beach to Thailand was that of The Children of God, a cult infamous for Flirty Fishing and Hookers for Jesus, which was rife with child abuse and perhaps worse. The group was the subject of “A Violent Act Jolts the Serenity of the Peace-Preaching Children of God,” a 1975 article by Jerome Doolittle of OUI, a magazine that really, really wanted to check the world for crabs. The cult “rebranded” itself a few years after this piece was published. The opening:

“The Victory Monument in Bangkok sits in the middle of a huge traffic circle. All around the circle are bus stops. Vendors sit on the sidewalks in the heat, selling mangoes and durians and mangosteens and little pieces of broiled chicken liver spitted on bamboo slivers. People are everywhere, practically all of them Buddhists. Three are not, though. They are:

  • Little John, 20 a Thai student wearing a faded-blue T-shirt decorated with a giant Levi Strauss & Co. emblem
  • Gang, a four-year-old Thai boy
  • Shema, an 18-year-old American girl who is braless in accordance with the precepts of her religion, which is Christianity as interpreted and amended by David Brandt Berg, 55, aka Moses David.

The three are passing out Thai translations of a brief tract called ‘You Gotta Be a Baby.’ It reads, in part: Dear Lord, please forgive me for being bad and naughty and deserving a good spanking! Thank You so much for sending Jesus, Your son, to take my spanking for me.

They are distributing the tracts on behalf of a sect called the Children of God, and the distribution process is know as litnessing- witnessing by literature. For a time there, the Children of God in Bangkok had to cool it on the litnessing, but now the hullabaloo over the murder has pretty much died down and they are back at it again, as other Children of God are doing in 100 countries all over the earth. Praise God!

In Bangkok the Children of God work out of a former noodle shop in an alley behind a movie theater. The neighborhood is not fashionable and neither is the theater. One day not long ago, to give you an idea, it was playing a winner called The Crazy Boys at the Supermarket.

The steel folding shutters of the noodle shop were almost closed, leaving just enough of a gap for someone to squeeze through. Since the murder, no one at C.O.G. headquarters has been anxious to overexpose himself. Inside were two American males, caught in the tension zone between boyhood and manhood, complexions not quite cleared up yet. Around their necks, they wore chains from which hung small metal yokes, symbols of their servitude to God. On their faces, they wore smiles- the slightly awkward smiles offered by people told to smile for the camera.

OUI magazine? They were sorry, but they hadn’t heard of it. It sounded interesting, though; the human form was beautiful, nothing to be ashamed of. (Or parts of it, at any rate. In the letters of Moses, it is written: ‘I don’t see anything beautiful about these crotch shots of the women sticking their fannies right under your nose.’ And it is further written: ‘You’d rather see some beautifully draped cloth covering that uncomely part’ and making her form even more attractive, than just plain corny-porny, ugly-wugly, nitty-gritty, smarty-smelly, hara-kiri crotches!’)

Perhaps I would like to stop by a little later in the day, when Gibeah would be there. Gibeah speaks for us. What hotel was I in? The Trocadero, hadn’t I said? What room number had I said? I hadn’t said, but it was 421. (Why would they want to know the room number? Did they want to visit me? With what in mind? I was nervous because of the murder.)

When I went back, it turned out that the Children of God were nervous about my motives, too.”

Tags:

Via the excellent Browser, here’s the opening of “Choosing a Driving Plan: 2035, United States,” a post at A History of the Future which examines automobiles in a post-driver, post-ownership landscape:

“The ‘driverless’ car revolutionised every aspect of transportation — particularly the business model. This brochure demonstrates how people struggled to come to grips with the new world:

Life used to be simple. If you wanted to travel, all you had to do was buy a car and put gas in it every so often. Sure, keeping a car was expensive, and it bled value every minute you weren’t using it, and you had to pay for parking and repairs and insurance, and you wasted thousands of hours of your life in the mindless drudgery of driving, but at least you knew you had absolutely no choice in the matter.

Well, it’s 2035 now, and while we’re blessedly free from the monotony and expense of driving, we’re also faced with a bewildering range of options for getting from A to B. The plummeting cost of cars (we can surely drop the term ‘driverless’ by now), along with their tight network integration, has seen a thousand flowers bloom in the burgeoning ‘cars as a service’ sector.

With so many choices available it’s easy to get confused, but don’t worry: we’re here to help you find your perfect car plan!

(Before we begin, those Pay As You Go plans that seem so cheap with their free miles and entertainment? Unless you’re a penniless hermit who only makes ten trips a year, or you hate the idea of being able to travel wherever you want, whenever you want, forget it.)

Now we’ve gotten that out of the way, here a few general tips on finding a good plan.

First off, don’t go for flat-rate pricing for ‘car minutes’ or ‘car miles.’”

A city that’s too orderly is a museum and dying. You can look at it, but it can’t look back at you. A metropolis shouldn’t merely be shelter and welter, but you don’t want it to be lifeless any more than you’d want it to be lawless. It should, to some degree, be a mess. From Will Wiles’ new Aeon essay,The Concrete Tangle“:

“In 1974, when mainstream discourse held the metropolis to be a behavioural sink fit only to be turned over to the waiting Droogs, the British author Jonathan Raban’s treatise Soft City made a case for city dwelling. Writing chiefly about London and New York, Raban acknowledged that they could be unfriendly and often violent (far more so than today), but added that they offered hugely attractive social and psychological possibilities. Where Mumford finds the teeming metropolis alienating and false, Raban sees it as a splendid masquerade, a place where one is free to try on and slough off identities multiple times in a day, a stage for exploring and defining the self. The difficulty and danger become perverse sources of pride and belonging, distinguishing the seasoned urbanite from the greenhorn. The city’s anonymity and restless flux are in fact its strength: its plasticity, its softness, where it awaits ‘the imprint of an identity’.

Raban’s free and expressive city life requires fluency in certain conventions. One has to learn the city’s codes, its languages. ‘So much takes place in the head, so little is known or fixed,’ he writes. ‘Signals, styles, systems of rapid, highly conventionalised communication, are the lifeblood of the big city. It is when these systems break down – when we lose our grasp on the grammar of modern life – that the Envies [a violent gang] take over.’

These ‘systems’ constitute an invisible social infrastructure; one, indeed, in which we might see a certain resemblance to the city’s tangle of service mechanisms. Both are always multiple, improvised, threatening to break under the weight of the city’s sheer extremity:

Language codifies an order, a hierarchy, a stable view of the world, which is grossly exceeded by the reality of the modern city: and the arrival of the immigrant propels him into abstractions and the contemplation of his own internal state of mind. It is a source of transformations and distortions of scale which can only be received with dumb wonder. In American fiction and autobiography, the townscape of New York is turned into a giant perceptual conundrum, as if it has been deliberately designed as a monstrous challenge to eyes and ears accustomed to the human proportions of village and small-town architecture. … If the city is normal, then he is a dwarf; if he is normal, then the city must be some kind of concrete optical illusion, for what perspective or grammar exists in which such breathtaking heights and breadths are possible? Shifting in size, at once dwarfed and elevated by these amazing confusions of scale, the greenhorn lurches forward into his myopic destiny. … City architecture is an eloquent proclamation of the absolute strangeness of city life, a reminder that here you abandon hope of holding on to your old values, your old language.

The city is a machine for teaching people to be city-dwellers. But first it necessitates submission, which it extracts by means of its scale, but also its complexity, its confusions – its tangle.”

Tags: ,

Carlos Slim, who enjoys cable, thinks people should work 33 hours a week but compress their labor into just three days. Not so much because of automaton making jobs scarce but for quality-of-life reasons. From Jude Webber at the Financial Times:

“We’ve got it all wrong, says Carlos Slim, the Mexican telecoms tycoon and world’s second-richest man: we should be working only three days a week.

Attending a business conference in Paraguay, Mr Slim said it was time for a ‘radical overhaul’ of people’s working lives. Instead of being able to retire at 50 or 60, he says, we should work until we are older – but take more time off as we do so.

‘People are going to have to work for more years, until they are 70 or 75, and just work three days a week – perhaps 11 hours a day,’ he told the conference, according to Paraguay.com news agency.

‘With three work days a week, we would have more time to relax; for quality of life. Having four days [off] would be very important to generate new entertainment activities and other ways of being occupied.’

The 74-year-old self-made magnate believes that such a move would generate a healthier and more productive labour force, while tackling financial challenges linked to longevity.”

Tags:

« Older entries § Newer entries »