Excerpts

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Innovation, that word which is appropriate sparingly but ascribed constantly, is truly the proper description for the work of inventor Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, a one-woman Jobs and Woz. As Steven Johnson points out in his latest book, How We Got to Now, excerpted in a Financial Times article, new inventions usually are born to many parents working within the same base of knowledge, but the Victorian duo thought completely outside of the box, leaping a full century ahead of everyone else with their ideas about computers. From the FT:

“Most important innovations – in modern times at least – arrive in clusters of simultaneous discovery. The conceptual and technological pieces come together to make a certain idea imaginable – artificial refrigeration, say, or the lightbulb – and around the world people work on the problem, and usually approach it with the same fundamental assumptions about how it can be solved.

Thomas Edison and his peers may have disagreed about the importance of the vacuum or the carbon filament in inventing the electric lightbulb, but none of them was working on an LED. As the writer Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine, has observed, the predominance of simultaneous, multiple invention in the historical record has interesting implications for the philosophy of history and science: to what extent is the sequence of invention set in stone by the basic laws of physics or information or the biological and chemical constraints of the environment?

If simultaneous invention is the rule, what about the exceptions? What about Babbage and Lovelace, who were a century ahead of just about every other human on the planet? Most innovation happens in the present tense of possibility, working with tools and concepts that are available in that time. But every now and then an individual or group makes a leap that seems almost like time travelling. What allows them to see past the boundaries of the adjacent possible, when their contemporaries fail to do so? That may be the greatest mystery of all.”

 

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Granted the lower end of Hollywood pay is still relative wealth to most folks, but it’s worth noting that even show business, like much of our economy, has a growing income disparity. At the upper stratosphere, the big money still exists for some (but not all) star actors and directors, but the mid-level creative person has been all but squeezed out of existence. You take what you are offered or it is offered to someone else. From an article on the new normal of movie-industry salaries by the Hollywood Reporter:

“How bad is the decline in actor salaries over the past decade? Despite the huge sums still being raked in by such superstars as Robert Downey Jr. (his $75 million comes from his 7 percent, first-dollar slice of Iron Man 3, as well as his $12 million HTC endorsement deal) and Sandra Bullock (a 15 percent, first-dollar deal on Gravity and about $10 million more for her summer hit The Heat), most actors are feeling a definite squeeze, especially those in the middle.

‘If you’re [a big star], you’re getting well paid,’ says one top agent, ‘but the middle level has been cut out.’ Sometimes with a hacksaw. Leonardo DiCaprio made $25 million (including bonuses) forThe Wolf of Wall Street, while co-star Jonah Hill got paid $60,000. Granted, that’s an extreme example — Hill offered to do the part for scale (and got an Oscar nomination for his trouble). …

‘The middle range doesn’t exist anymore,’ one studio executive says of the current financial landscape for feature film directors. ‘Either you’re paying for a modern master, or you’re paying a lot less. The days of paying $3 million or $4 million, knowing they’re just doing the job, that doesn’t exist.’

The going rate for modern masters? Between $7 million and $10 million for auteurs like Paul Greengrass and Ridley Scott, more if the film is considered a tentpole. Christopher Nolan is said to have made $20 million against 20 percent of gross for Interstellar. Backend is otherwise rare these days for the non-A-list.

On the other end of the scale, emerging directors can expect $250,000 to $500,000 for their first big studio feature, but there are exceptions (one European auteur was said to have recently have been paid $1 million for his first Hollywood blockbuster).”

Magical thinking is not limited to the religious, as the secular likewise often imbue objects with some degree of sentience, as psychologist Bruce Hood points out in a Wired UK piece by Katie Collins. The opening:

“‘I’m a collector; I collect unusual things,’ says University of Bristol psychologist Bruce Hood speaking at WIRED2014 in London. He asks the audience if they would wear a beautiful cashmere cardigan that he had collected, that was freshly washed and that was once owned by a famous individual. Many raise their hands, but they slink down again when Hood says the cardigan belonged to the serial killer Fred West.

It is not true — in fact the cardigan is one of Hood’s own — but he is making a point: many people hold the belief that a piece of clothing that has come into close contact with a serial killer has somehow been contaminated by the immoral acts committed by its owner. ‘That is what I call supernatural,’ he says. Hood is interested in why we are prepared to believe the unbelievable. The killer cardigan is not connected with religious belief he points out, but that doesn’t stop the majority of people feeling that there’s a hidden property in the clothing that would stop them wearing it.

Hood explains that this is a phenomenon known in psychology as ‘essentialism.’ ‘This is what I’m obsessed with at the moment,’ he says. It is an idea that can be traced back to the days of Plato and that is based on the concept that people can have a strong emotional connections to objects; that they can be imbibed with an ‘essence.'”

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The anarchic experiment that is the Internet has been viewed with a mixture of awe and fear, but as that unbridled energy careers back into our physical world–something that will happen more and more–the old guard and the new wave are unsurprisingly at odds. A little more on the Sharing Economy, from Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times:

“THE regulatory woes seem to be never ending for the newest wave of tech start-ups — the on-demand apps that connect people who need something (a driver, a house cleaner, a grocery shopper) with people who want to do the job.

On Thursday, the New York State attorney general said most Airbnb listings in the city violated zoning and other laws. Officials in California and Pennsylvania recently warned car services like Uber and Lyft that they might be unlawful. And workers’ rights advocates have questioned whether the people who provide these services should receive benefits, spurred by recent reports that some Homejoy house cleaners are homeless.

Why have these companies run into so many problems? Part of the reason is that they think of themselves as online companies — yet they mostly operate in the offline world.

They subscribe to three core business principles that have become a religion in Silicon Valley: Serve as a middleman, employ as few people as possible and automate everything. Those tenets have worked wonders on the web at companies like Google and Twitter. But as the new, on-demand companies are learning, they are not necessarily compatible with the real world.”

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A good way to guard against an epidemic in America would be to extend the Affordable Care Act to all citizens, to make it truly universal. But Ebola has flipped the script at the midterm elections, with government-hating Republicans who fought Obamacare and planned to use it as a rallying cry despite its early successes, now decrying the government’s lack of intervention. From Gary Silverman at the Financial Times:

“Republicans are suddenly asking very Democratic questions about what federal government can do to improve public health. Bloomberg News even reported that members of the appropriations committees in the Republican House and Democratic Senate are working on ways to throw more money at the problem. This would be done by increasing anti-Ebola spending in a bill aimed at keeping the government operating after December 11.

Yet the newfound Republican faith in the federal solutions has been accompanied by a hardening of hearts when it comes to the man behind Obamacare.

Conservatives are seizing on the spread of Ebola as evidence of the president’s unreliability – linking it to the advances of Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, management deficiencies at the Secret Service and the arrival of illegal immigrants from Mexico.”

 

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The human species may survive the Anthropocene but likely not very well. Myopia has been as much a villain as any, as humans seem to have a default mode that focuses us on short-term needs rather than long-term survival. Does instant gratification eventually give way to staving off extinction? From Tom Chivers at the Telegraph:

“Not all scientists agree that the ‘Anthropocene’ term is helpful. [Climate scientist Tim] Lenton says it points to a real phenomenon, and the distinction in the stratigraphic record will be crystal clear to future geologists, but ‘gut instinct is to be careful about our hubris as a species, about seeing ourselves as hugely powerful and important.’

None the less, he says, ‘we have had a huge impact on the planet and we predict that impact escalating. We are a very unusual animal in having these effects on the globe. Life, such as cyanobacteria, has changed the atmosphere before, but animals usually don’t.’

‘The Great Oxygenation led to Snowball Earth, and almost the total extinction of life. At each of these mass extinctions, some life has sneaked through, but it might not happen every time, and even if it does we might not be the life that sneaks through.’

But the ‘Anthropocene’ need not, necessarily, be a synonym for human-caused global catastrophe. We have reasons to believe that we could be that life which sneaks through. ‘We are very good at telling apocalyptic stories, and there is science behind them,’ says Lenton. ‘But we’re an ingenious species.’

Lynas and Lenton agree we can’t go back to a pre-industrial age ‘that would lead to a mass extinction of humans,’ says Lynas. But technologies – nuclear power, carbon capture, efficient recycling of raw materials – could allow us to enjoy a modern lifestyle even with a population of billions. The trick is, says Lenton, to use our species’ foresight. ‘We have to decide on the sort of world we want, and to design the Anthropocene we want.'”

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No shocker that NYC landlords with large holdings in popular Manhattan neighborhoods are illegally exploiting Airbnb, though the city is pretty much turning a blind eye to individual residents on the wrong side of zoning laws. For better or worse, the Sharing Economy is a thing now and will continue to be. From David Streitfeld in the New York Times:

“The housing broker and its imitators, like the taxi service Uber and its clones, have been prompting upheaval just about everywhere they go.

Admirers say these stars of the so-called sharing economy are breaking up monopolies that have grown greedy and lazy. They are empowering individuals. Critics say that the start-ups are unsavory efforts to avoid regulation and taxes, and that the very term ‘sharing economy’ is ridiculous.

In some contentious spots, like San Francisco, where the local government endorsed a plan last week to essentially legalize Airbnb, a resolution may be in sight. But in New York, where real estate is often viewed as a blood sport, the battle is only deepening.

Mr. Schneiderman and city regulators will also announce Thursday a joint enforcement initiative to shut down illegal hotels. Various regulators will investigate violations of building and safety codes and tax regulations.

‘Anyone operating an illegal hotel should be on notice that the state and city will take aggressive enforcement actions in this area,’ said Mr. Schneiderman. ‘A slick advertising campaign doesn’t change the fact that this is illegal activity.’

He was careful, however, to speak of ‘illegal hotels’ rather than ‘illegal rentals.’ Airbnb is already too popular to dislodge completely, no matter what the housing laws say. It also delights travelers, who get a cheaper and usually more interesting place to stay.”

‘Most of our hosts are regular New Yorkers, and the overwhelming majority live outside of Manhattan,’ Mr. Papas said.

As for the 72 percent of listings that Mr. Schneiderman said were illegal, {Airbnb spokesperson Nick] Papas said it was hard to tell what was going on.”

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What would a person with a 1,000 IQ be capable of? How can our relatively puny intelligences even fathom such a thing?

In Stephen Hsu’s Nautilus article “Super-Intelligent Humans Are Coming,” he walks through the process of genetic modification which would lead to heretofore unknown brain power, with the average IQ being ten times what it currently is, which may not be in the immediate offing but aspects of which are closer than might be imagined. An excerpt:

“Super-intelligence may be a distant prospect, but smaller, still-profound developments are likely in the immediate future. Large data sets of human genomes and their corresponding phenotypes (which are the physical and mental characteristics of the individual) will lead to significant progress in our ability to understand the genetic code—in particular, to predict cognitive ability. Detailed calculations suggest that millions of phenotype-genotype pairs will be required to tease out the genetic architecture, using advanced statistical algorithms. However, given the rapidly falling cost of genotyping, this is likely to happen in the next 10 years or so. If existing heritability estimates are any guide, the accuracy of genomic-based prediction of intelligence could be better than about half a population standard deviation (meaning better than plus or minus 10 IQ points).

Once predictive models are available, they can be used in reproductive applications, ranging from embryo selection (choosing which IVF zygote to implant) to active genetic editing (for example, using CRISPR techniques). In the former case, parents choosing between 10 or so zygotes could improve the IQ of their child by 15 or more IQ points. This might mean the difference between a child who struggles in school, and one who is able to complete a good college degree. Zygote genotyping from single cell extraction is already technically well developed, so the last remaining capability required for embryo selection is complex phenotype prediction. The cost of these procedures would be less than tuition at many private kindergartens, and of course the consequences will extend over a lifetime and beyond.

The corresponding ethical issues are complex and deserve serious attention in what may be a relatively short interval before these capabilities become a reality. Each society will decide for itself where to draw the line on human genetic engineering, but we can expect a diversity of perspectives. Almost certainly, some countries will allow genetic engineering, thereby opening the door for global elites who can afford to travel for access to reproductive technology. As with most technologies, the rich and powerful will be the first beneficiaries. Eventually, though, I believe many countries will not only legalize human genetic engineering, but even make it a (voluntary) part of their national healthcare systems.

The alternative would be inequality of a kind never before experienced in human history.”

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While Elon Musk’s EV charging stations are impressive to look at, they may be redundant if the “gorging” paradigm of refueling can be transformed into a “grazing” one. From Alex Davies of Wired:

“Beyond the (significant) question of cost, Envision’s longterm plan for the EV ARC includes a fundamental change in how we think about refueling our cars. The idea of building a network of DC Fast Charging stations (like Tesla’s proprietary Superchargers) is ‘silly,’ [Envision Solar CEO Desmond] Wheatley says, because it’s based on the way we gas up engine-powered cars. It’s a ‘gorging’ mentality, when an electric vehicle calls for a ‘grazing’ mentality advocated often call ‘opportunistic charging.’ Eventually, you’ll charge our cars the way you charge your phone: while you sleep or work, and just about anytime you don’t need it in your hand. That has ‘become part of our cultural norm,’ Wheatley says.

‘The problem is we’ve got 100 years of cultural norm that says I must be able to pull over somewhere, and I must be able to fuel in three to five minutes. That’s what we’ve all be ingrained to think. I’m convinced that today’s children will think it’s hilarious that we ever pulled off the highway to charge.’ And, he argues, electric cars will eventually offer enough range to cover a distance anyone would want to drive without stopping to sleep, except the most energy drink-fueled college students. ‘Charging infrastructure will be ubiquitous. It’s my mission to make sure that it’s all renewably energized.'”

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Boozy, skirt-chasing Leonid Brezhnev, a bearish man whose eyebrows continued where his fur hat left off, can be seen in retrospect as a relative calming influence in Soviet history despite the folly of the Afghanistan War. He may have been Nero fiddling, but the music soothed his people. In the Moscow Times, writer Pyotr Romanov sees some similarities between Brezhnev’s reign and Vladimir Putin’s, believing them both to be periods of gestation. An excerpt:

“These times are somewhat similar to the Brezhnev era. Once again, the Russian people are dozing, somewhere in the depths of society the distant lightning of future changes is flashing and a popular leader who has long remained in office has skillfully built a relationship with those around him and with his people.

Therefore, if the people forgave Brezhnev for the war in Afghanistan, today’s Russians will forgive President Vladimir Putin the Western sanctions imposed over the conflict in Ukraine.

Of course, there are also many differences between these two periods. For example, Brezhnev was no workaholic. As an experienced party apparatchik, he only retained personal control over staffing decisions. He considered everything else ‘secondary,’ although he applied that label to a great many important issues….

However, Putin is very different. Even during the four years that he formally worked as prime minister under former President Dmitry Medvedev, Putin never relaxed his grip on the levers of power. He has centralized power to an unprecedented degree.

We know what brought an end to the Brezhnev era, but we can only guess what will put an end to the Putin era. The two periods are also similar in that the opposition, as it tugs on the shoulder of the slumbering populace, once again has little idea of what it will do with those people once they finally awaken.

And that is why there is absolutely no guarantee that the perestroika of the future will ultimately succeed.

As writer Kurt Vonnegut rightly pointed out: ‘Considering the experience of past centuries, can a reasonable person entertain the slightest hope that humanity has a bright future?’

I share his lack of historical optimism.”

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The Economist has an interesting baseball piece in wake of the Los Angeles Dodgers poaching the Tampa Bay General Manager Andrew Friedman, arguing that superstar chief executives aren’t as valuable as they’re made out to be, that the supply of them outstrips the demand, and that clubs left in the hands of mediocre GMs (e.g., Ruben Amaro Jr. of the Phillies) are the result of poor ownership decision rather than scarcity. It’s a broadside against the Great Man Theory, suggesting that while setting up a good organization and process are hallmarks of a talented exec, the organization then becomes bigger than the individual leader. An excerpt:

“Hiring the talented Mr Friedman is hardly the worst or most wasteful decision in recent Dodgers history. The gap between what he is paid and what he will contribute pales in comparison with what the club is squandering on Andre Ethier or Brandon League. And Mr Friedman’s sterling reputation may help Los Angeles to attract elite researchers and scouts, who are the real sources of competitive advantage, from other clubs.

But far from the $100m a year or so that Mr Morris suggests that Mr Beane deserves, no member of a front office is worth as much as even a half-decent MLB player. The reason GMs make less money than players do isn’t because owners are blind to the contributions of an elite executive. It’s because there are far more people capable of running an MLB team at a high level than there are people capable of playing for one, and less scarcity leads to less value. The only front-office decision that really matters is the owner’s choice to embrace modern management techniques. Once a club chooses to take the plunge into the 21st century, there will be no shortage of brainiacs ready, willing and able to implement that strategy.”

 

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We tend to equate wealth with intelligence in America, and that’s often a false association. Hiltons and Johnsons who inherit money often seem as dumb as posts, and even someone who has basic smarts like Mike Bloomberg has had many points added to his IQ erroneously because he amassed vast wealth by identifying a small shortfall in financial information which could be exploited. He was really great at one particular endeavor, much the same way as Harlan Sanders was with chicken, not an amazing Renaissance Man. It showed in the very uneven job he did as NYC mayor.

So it’s best not to take as gospel the opinions of the super-rich because knowing one thing isn’t knowing everything. That said, I’ll grant Bill Gates is far more intelligent and intellectually curious than your average person, monied or not. Here’s the opening of his review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which he agrees with overall:

“A 700-page treatise on economics translated from French is not exactly a light summer read—even for someone with an admittedly high geek quotient. But this past July, I felt compelled to read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century after reading several reviews and hearing about it from friends.

I’m glad I did. I encourage you to read it too, or at least a good summary, like this one from The Economist. Piketty was nice enough to talk with me about his work on a Skype call last month. As I told him, I agree with his most important conclusions, and I hope his work will draw more smart people into the study of wealth and income inequality—because the more we understand about the causes and cures, the better. I also said I have concerns about some elements of his analysis, which I’ll share below.

I very much agree with Piketty that:

  • High levels of inequality are a problem—messing up economic incentives, tilting democracies in favor of powerful interests, and undercutting the ideal that all people are created equal.
  • Capitalism does not self-correct toward greater equality—that is, excess wealth concentration can have a snowball effect if left unchecked.
  • Governments can play a constructive role in offsetting the snowballing tendencies if and when they choose to do so.

To be clear, when I say that high levels of inequality are a problem, I don’t want to imply that the world is getting worse. In fact, thanks to the rise of the middle class in countries like China, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and Thailand, the world as a whole is actually becoming more egalitarian, and that positive global trend is likely to continue.

But extreme inequality should not be ignored—or worse, celebrated as a sign that we have a high-performing economy and healthy society.”

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Andreas Mogensen, Denmark’s first astronaut, answered questions from Andreas Digens of Vice, not straying far from conventional wisdom when considering the next 35 years of space exploration. An excerpt:

Question:

Do you believe we can send people to Mars? 

Andreas Mogensen:

I think we can send people to a new place in 2030. Whether it’s Mars, an asteroid, or to the moon again, I don’t know. But if we choose to send people to Mars, then we could easily do it. We are so much further ahead than when the US sent people to the moon. We can do it, but it’s a political decision. 

Question:

Do you think there’s life in space? 

Andreas Mogensen:

There are two further questions to that question. The first is: is there life on Mars? It looks like there’s been liquid water on the surface, which is the key to life. It also looks like the climate used to be warmer. That’s why we’re so interested in exploring it. We want to look for bacteria or microorganisms. If we find that, it would be huge, as it would be the first time we’d seen evidence of life on other planets.

Moreover, in the last 15 years we’ve been able to locate planets around other stars. Until 15 years ago, we only knew about eight or nine planets in our own solar system. Today, we’ve found 1,000 planets in orbit around other stars. What we want to do is to have powerful telescopes in orbit to look at all these planets that are very far away from Earth. Light years away. Then we can see if their atmospheres have oxygen and water, which is what a planet needs to sustain life. It could get very interesting in the next 50 years”

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Holy fuck, Wavy Gravy is still alive. Known as Hugh Nanton Romney (Romney 2016!) before adopting his meat-sauce moniker, he was the Woodstock Era’s psychedelic drum major, and he has some amazing stories to tell, none of which he can remember. WG just did an AMA at Reddit, in which he dosed the entire Internet. A few exchanges follow.

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Question:

Do you think the pranksters changed culture? What are your thoughts on the medical uses of psychedelics?

Wavy Gravy:

Absolutely. The Prankster changed the culture by driving ac across the country in these painted buses. That was something no one had ever seen before. It was like the universe on wheels.

I think that psychotropics should be available to any ADULTS with psychiatrist spirit guide to help them over the rough patches on the quest to enlightenment.

back in the day this was applicable for Henry Luce, the publisher of Life magazine, as he was pictured conducting an orchestra of daffodils in his garden, Psychiatric at the ready.

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Question:

Were you ever a fan of the group Pink Floyd? And have you heard of their new album coming out in a month? What are your thoughts on the group and what do you remember about them during their times in the late 60s/70s?

Wavy Gravy:

In 1970 we did what Warner Brothers hoped would be a sequel to the movie Woodstock. It involved a caravan of painted buses driving across America putting on shows. Sound familiar? Except this time Warner Brother would fly in their stable of amazing artists like BB King, Jethro Tull or Alice cooper, on tiny stages, or Joni Mitchel strumming around our camp fire. The tour ended with us flying Air India to England, where we did a concert outdoors with Pink Floyd. It was drop dead uber awesome and amazing.

Question:

Why hasn’t this been released?

Wavy Gravy:

It was released. It was called Medicine Ball Caravan with the sub title “We have come for your daughters.”

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Question:

Hi Wavy. I live in Sunland/Tujunga, California. There is a piece of property for sale on a hilltop here that is said to be the original home of the Hog Farm Hippie Commune in the 1960’s. Can you tell us any stories of the old days on the hog farm? Do you have any pictures you can share? Some people claim that Charles Manson was there. I find it hard to believe that you and Manson were ever friends. Can you clear that up? Thanks.

Wavy Gravy:

Absolutely! We were given this mountaintop rent free if we would tend to 50 hogs the size of a davenport. One of which we later ran for president. She was the first female black and white candidate for that high office. On Saturday nights, we would go to the shrine auditorium and do light shows for all the great bands of the 60s. On Sundays, we would have a free show on our mountaintop with different themes. Kite Sunday, no wind until night time. Mud Sunday, it poured..who could slide in the mud the furthest! The hog rodeo where we painted these giant pigs with temper paint and rode around on them, we showed film of this to Salvador Dali in Paris. He loved the hog rodeo. Many pictures and stories are in my first book The Hog Farm and Friends and beautifully documented in Avant Garde magazine back in the day.

Oh yes, Charlie Manson was no friend of mine and was asked to leave which he did. Thank heavens!

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Question:

Just firstly would like to say thank you for sharing love. Secondly, I love being warm and social with everyone but I really want to make things better like you did; any idea why protests now a days aren’t being taken as serious?

Wavy Gravy:

Some are more seriously taken than others. A lot of demonstrations have gone electronic. I am amazed at how powerful a tool the computer has become and I am a self confessed luddite.•

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At Grantland, Steven Hyden has a smart article about Los Angeles Plays Itself, one of my favorite movies. A documentary about the role of the “most photographed city in the world” in film and on television during the twentieth century, Thom Andersen’s long-form survey is brilliant, insightful and fierce. An excerpt from Hyden:

“An exhaustive, exhausting, funny, trenchant, and frequently cantankerous work of film criticism and social commentary, Los Angeles Plays Itself was envisioned as a double feature, Andersen said. When viewed this way, the first half plays as a witty observational comedy and the second half as an impassioned political docudrama. Andersen starts off by griping about L.A. movies the way only a longtime Angeleno would: He nitpicks Alfred Hitchcock for setting several films in the San Francisco area and none in Los Angeles, and Sylvester Stallone for taking undue ‘geographic license’ with local streets for the car chases in Cobra. It’s not just a matter of realism — though Andersen is a stickler for realism. He’s an unabashed L.A. partisan who bristles at any perceived anti–Los Angeles sentiment, starting with the nickname ‘L.A.,’ which he finds diminishing.

‘People who hate Los Angeles love Point Blank,’ he says of John Boorman’s 1967 psychedelic noir, though he does express sardonic appreciation for Boorman’s taste in garish decor, which ‘managed to make the city look both bland and insidious.’ He’s less forgiving of how filmmakers always put their villains in the city’s modernist architectural masterworks. The work of John Lautner has been especially exploited in this regard, finding favor among Bond villains in Diamonds Are Forever and Jackie Treehorn in The Big Lebowski.

If Andersen were just a provincial crank, Los Angeles Plays Itself would peter out well before the second act. But his eccentric narration also sticks some weirdly insightful landings, like when he compares the bare-knuckled fascism of Jack Webb’s Dragnet TV series to the austerity of Ozu and Bresson, or marvels at how the supposed dystopia of Blade Runner is actually ‘a city planner’s dream’ of bustling streets, bright neon, and easily traversable aerial highways. ‘Only a Unabomber could find this totally repellent,’ he observes.”

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Freeman Dyson said that when the “games” begin, genetic engineering will be messy, and Nick Bostrom pointed out that it will be difficult for people (or nations) to recuse themselves from the proceedings. It’s, of course, important to remember that while the unnatural comes with dangers, so does the natural. The opening of “The Genetics Epidemic,” Jamie F. Metz’s Foreign Affairs meditation on the national-security angle of human enhancement, which might not be the most pressing consideration but is important nonetheless:

“The revolution in genetic engineering that will make it possible for humans to actively manage our evolutionary process for the first time in our species’ history is already under way. In laboratories and clinics around the world, gene therapies are being successfully deployed to treat a range of diseases, including certain types of immune deficiency, retinal amaurosis, leukemia, myeloma, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s. This miraculous progress is only the beginning. The same already existing technologies that will soon eliminate many diseases that have victimized humans for thousands of years will almost certainly be used eventually to make our species smarter, stronger, and more robust.

The prospect of genetic engineering will be exciting to some, frightening to others, and challenging for all. If not adequately addressed, it will also likely lead to major conflict both within societies and globally. But although the science of human genetic engineering is charging forward at an exponential rate, the global policy framework for ensuring this scientific progress does not lead to destabilizing conflict barely exists at all. The time has come for a meaningful dialogue on the national security implications of the human genetic revolution that can lay the conceptual foundation for a future global policy structure seeking to prevent dangerous future conflict and abuse.

The rate of recent progress in human genetics has been astounding.

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Google does many great things, but its corporate leaders want you to trust them with your private information–because they are the good guys–and you should never trust any corporation with such material. The thing is, it’s increasingly difficult to opt out of the modern arrangement, algorithms snaking their way into all corners of our lives. The excellent documentarian Eugene Jarecki has penned a Time essay about Google and Wikileaks and what the two say about the future. An excerpt follows.

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I interviewed notorious Wikileaks founder Julian Assange by hologram, beamed in from his place of asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. News coverage the next day focused in one way or another on the spectacular and mischievous angle that Assange had, in effect, managed to escape his quarantine and laugh in the face of those who wish to extradite him by appearing full-bodied in Nantucket before a packed house of exhilarated conference attendees.

Beyond the spectacle, though, what got less attention was what the interview was actually about, namely the future of our civilization in an increasingly digital world. What does it mean for us as people to see the traditional town square go digital, with online banking displacing bricks and mortar, just as email did snail mail, Wikipedia did the local library, and eBay the mom and pop shop? The subject of our ever-digitizing lives is one that has been gaining currency over the past year, fueled by news stories about Google Glasses, self-driving cars, sky-rocketing rates of online addiction and, most recently, the scandal of NSA abuse. But the need to better understand the implications of our digital transformation was further underscored in the days preceding the event with the publication of two books: one by Assange and the other by Google Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt.

Assange’s book, When Google Met Wikileaks, is the transcript (with commentary by Assange) of a secret meeting between the two that took place on June 23, 2011, when Schmidt visited Assange in England. In his commentary, Assange explores the troubling implications of Google’s vast reach, including its relationships with international authorities, particularly in the U.S., of which the public is largely unaware. Schmidt’s book, How Google Works, is a broader, sunnier look at how technology has presumably shifted the balance of power from companies to people. It tells the story of how Google rose from a nerdy young tech startup to become a nerdy behemoth astride the globe. Read together, the two books offer an unsettling portrait both of our unpreparedness for what lies ahead and of the utopian spin with which Google (and others in the digital world) package tomorrow. While Assange’s book accuses Google of operating as a kind of “‘Don’t Be Evil’ empire,” Schmidt’s book fulfills Assange’s worst fears, presenting pseudo-irreverent business maxims in an “aw shucks” tone that seems willfully ignorant of the inevitable implications of any company coming to so sweepingly dominate our lives in unprecedented and often legally uncharted ways.•

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In a Wall Street Journal interview conducted by Laura Hedli, Google driverless-car consultant Brad Templeton ponders how these new vehicles will be sold to the public. An excerpt:

WSJ:

How will this car be sold to people?

Brad Templeton:

You might sell it to people for a monthly fee. Plus they would have to pay per mile for gasoline, and to some extent, insurance and maintenance.

You also can sell this per mile like a taxi, except it would be much cheaper because 60% of the cost of running a taxi is the driver. It will basically be a cheap Uber [which allows a person to hail a private car or ride-share from a mobile phone], and with no need to talk to the driver.

WSJ:

If autonomous cars operated using a service model, as opposed to ownership, what will people pay per ride?

Brad Templeton: 

It will start somewhere between 50 cents and a buck. I think it could even get [to be] less than 50 cents a ride, but it won’t start cheaper.

For people who are going to make light use of it, then the per-mile price, rather than the monthly price, might actually be a good thing. Seniors stop buying cars because they don’t really feel like trading in anymore, and they cut their mileage by quite a bit.

WSJ:

Looking further down the road, what might we see in the self-driving market?

Brad Templeton: 

I think eventually people will build sleeper cars that can do an overnight trip. I don’t think it’s a very green vision, but you would probably be able to hire a car that doesn’t even have seats. It’s just got a bed. Get into it, lie down, and then eight hours later you wake up and you’re 400-500 miles away.”

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Speaking of not being paid for popular content, the NFL actually had the audacity to request that potential Super Bowl halftime acts pay the league for the high-profile slot. Thankfully, Katy Perry, who got the gig, and the other performers said “no.”

Being the star of the content doesn’t pay as well in most cases anymore and not just in the music industry; you’re expected to take less–or pay for the privilege–and figure out how to leverage the visibility in other money-making ways. The real “leads” are the event, the spectacle, the happening. You can be replaced. From ESPN:

“Pop star Katy Perry will be the halftime performer at Super Bowl XLIX, according to multiple reports.

Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesKaty Perry, who recently appeared on ESPN’s College GameDay, reportedly has committed to Super Bowl XLIX.

The game will be played Feb. 1, in Glendale, Arizona.

The Wall Street Journal reported in August that Perry, Rihanna and Coldplay were asked if they were interested in playing the Super Bowl. The newspaper also had reported that the NFL was looking for artists to pay up to perform at the game, which draws massive ratings.

Perry, in an appearance on ESPN’s College GameDay on Saturday, said she’s ‘not the kind of girl to pay to play the Super Bowl.'”

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Somebody makes money from book sales, but those people, most of them, are not writers. Plenty of authors actually lose money publishing their titles, having to pay their own expenses and taxes. At The Popcorn Chronicles, novelist Patrick Wensink reveals the earnings for his Amazon bestseller, Broken Piano for President, and they truly are revealing. An excerpt:

“Even when there’s money in writing, there’s not much money.

I was reminded of a single page in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; specifically, the section where Dave Eggers breaks down his $100,000 advance on sales from his publisher. He then lists all his expenses. In the end the author banked a little less than half. It wasn’t bad money — just not the ‘I bet Dave Eggers totally owns a Jaguar’-type of income I expected. I mean, his name was on the cover of a book! He must be rich.

That honesty was refreshing and voyeuristic. I always said if I ever had a chance, I’d make a similar gesture. As a person learning about writing and publishing, there was something helpful about Eggers’ transparency. So here is my stab at similar honesty: the sugar bowls full of cocaine, bathtubs full of whiskey, semi-nude bookstore employees scattered throughout my bedroom tale of bestseller riches.

This is what it’s like, financially, to have the indie book publicity story of the year and be near the top of the bestseller list.

Drum roll.

$12,000.

Hi-hat crash.

I just started getting my royalty checks from July the other day (the publishing industry is slow like that). From what I can tell so far, I made about $12,000 from Broken Piano sales. That comes directly to me without all those pesky taxes taken out yet (the IRS is helpful like that).

Don’t get me wrong; as a guy with a couple of books out on an independent publisher I never thought I’d see that kind of money. Previously, my largest royalty check was about $153. I’m thrilled and very proud to say I earned any money as a writer. That’s a miracle. It’s just not the jewel-encrusted miracle most people think bestseller bank accounts are made from.

The book sold plus or minus 4,000 copies. (The publishing industry is hazy like that. What with sales in fishy-sounding third-world countries like Germany and England.) Being on an indie press I receive a more generous royalty split than most: 50 percent after expenses were deducted.

You can do the math.”

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I wish it were true that space tourists who hop aboard Virgin Galactic would return immediately wanting to help and heal the planet they (temporarily) left behind, as that venture’s Head of Mission, George Whitesides, believes, but I don’t think human beings work that way. While having more globalized travel has slowly–painfully slowly–contributed to humanity’s improvement on Earth in some ways, let’s not forget that such far-flung voyages first led not to a desire to mitigate suffering but to genocide, enslavement and predation of every kind. While Galactic won’t cause such horrors, it may be more a Disneyland effect than a remedy. From Sarah Knapton at The Telegraph:

“Promising that the first commercial flights into space will begin next Spring, Mr Whitesides, said: ‘It’s a simple observation but there is something called the overview effect, which is scientifically documented. When people go into space they come back with a different perspective and I think many of the challenges we face over the next century are essentially planetary challenges and so we need to have that planetary perspective to solve them

‘So I think we are going to have tens of thousands of people who are leaders in their community coming back and bringing that planetary perspective with them. I think that perspective is really important to solving some of our biggest problems on Earth.’

That may be a bold promise, but it is one to which Mr Whitesides – and his boss – appear committed.

‘I truly feel that the things we are doing at Galactic are going to be very important for the future of the world, for the future of humanity,’ he said, speaking to The Sunday Telegraph to mark the 10th anniversary of the project.

That grand, almost spiritual, vision is being reflected in something very concrete, the design of the inside of the SpaceShipTwo craft currently being developed to shoot its passengers into space and back.

The spacecraft’s cabin – being designed by Adam Wells, who was responsible for the first-class cabin of Virgin Atlantic – will be beautiful but utterly minimal, so as not to detract from the passenger’s view of the Earth below.”

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Software companies were bigger winners than their hardware counterparts during the personal-computing boom, and it’s worth wondering whether the same will be true of driverless cars. For instance, Google seems to have no interest in being an auto manufacturer (beyond prototypes) but is desperate to come up with the software for robocars that can be sold to other outfits. And what of companies that supply sensors and such, will they likewise be the true victors? From Chris Bryant and Andy Sharman of the Financial Times:

“Who will build the self-driving car of the future?

Fired-up by Google’s driverless prototype, carmakers such as Mercedes-Benz and Volvo are already testing autonomous vehicles on public roads.

But the advanced sensors and electronics that form the building blocks of self-driving cars are often made by suppliers, not the car manufacturer.

Some fear that, in the long term, carmakers that lag behind in autonomous vehicle technology face a future akin to today’s PC assemblers – with the big profits accruing to the companies behind the software and electronic content underneath.

‘It’s all the suppliers into the industry who, in the fullness of time, will gain the power,’ says a senior industry analyst, who works closely with the leading carmakers. ‘If I’m the buyer, I don’t care if it’s a 1.9-litre car or a 2.4 – because I’m not driving it.'”

 

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If you’re wondering what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would have thought of Putin’s engagement in Ukraine, he pretty much answered the question during a 1994 interview, and he was fully in favor of repatriation of the state. From Paul Klebnikov’s discussion with the once and former dissident, which was reprinted in Forbes at the time of his death in 2008:

Forbes:

Tension is mounting between Russia and the now independent Ukraine, with the West strongly backing Ukrainian territorial integrity. Henry Kissinger argues that Russia will always threaten the interests of the West, no matter what kind of government it has.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, [historian] Richard Pipes and many other American politicians and publicists are frozen in a mode of thought they developed a long time ago. With unchanging blindness and stubbornness they keep repeating and repeating this theory about the supposed age-old aggressiveness of Russia, without taking into consideration today’s reality.

Forbes:

Well, what about Ukraine? Hasn’t Russia made threats toward several of the former U.S.S.R. member states?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

Imagine that one not very fine day two or three of your states in the Southwest, in the space of 24 hours, declare themselves independent of the U.S. They declare themselves a fully sovereign nation, decreeing that Spanish will be the only language. All English-speaking residents, even if their ancestors have lived there for 200 years, have to take a test in the Spanish language within one or two years and swear allegiance to the new nation. Otherwise they will not receive citizenship and be deprived of civic, property and employment rights.

Forbes:

What would be the reaction of the United States? I have no doubt that it would be immediate military intervention.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

But today Russia faces precisely this scenario. In 24 hours she lost eight to 10 purely Russian provinces, 25 million ethnic Russians who have ended up in this very way–as ‘undesirable aliens.’ In places where their fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers have lived since way back–even from the 17th century–they face persecution in their jobs and the suppression of their culture, education and language.

Meanwhile, in Central Asia, those wishing to leave are not permitted to take even their personal property. The authorities tell them, ‘There is no such concept as ‘personal property’!’

And in this situation ‘imperialist Russia’ has not made a single forceful move to rectify this monstrous mess. Without a murmur she has given away 25 million of her compatriots–the largest diaspora in the world!

Forbes:

You see Russia as the victim of aggression, not as the aggressor.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

Who can find in world history another such example of peaceful conduct? And if Russia keeps the peace in the single most vital question that concerns her, why should one expect her to be aggressive in secondary issues?

Forbes:

With Russia in chaos, it does sound a bit far-fetched to see her as an aggressor.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

Russia today is terribly sick. Her people are sick to the point of total exhaustion. But even so, have a conscience and don’t demand that–just to please America–Russia throw away the last vestiges of her concern for her security and her unprecedented collapse. After all, this concern in no way threatens the United States.”

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The excellent comic Aziz Ansari has a bit in which he talks about the way we’ve grown overdependent on Google, doing mindless searches for things like “the best toothbrush,” when we were perfectly capable of buying a toothbrush before search engines ever existed. We would just go to the store and buy a toothbrush that looked like it was good. And it always was.

Funny, yes, though I’ll argue fiercely that search engines don’t weaken our brains but give us every opportunity to improve them. (And if they’ve done the former rather than the latter, than the fault probably lies with us.) Never before have we had in our shirt pockets access to the storehouse of the world’s knowledge.

Ian Leslie’s well-considered Salon article, “Google Is Making Us All Dumber,” argues the counter, asserting that the efficiency of Google’s search has removed pretty much all of the actual search, weakening us neurologically. The piece starts with a Pablo Picasso quote about machines only being good for answers, which is amusing for its wit but also because more and more, that’s no longer true. The opening:

“In 1964, Pablo Picasso was asked by an interviewer about the new electronic calculating machines, soon to become known as computers. He replied, ‘But they are useless. They can only give you answers.’

We live in the age of answers. The ancient library at Alexandria was believed to hold the world’s entire store of knowledge. Today, there is enough information in the world for every person alive to be given three times as much as was held in Alexandria’s entire collection —and nearly all of it is available to anyone with an internet connection.

This library accompanies us everywhere, and Google, chief librarian, fields our inquiries with stunning efficiency. Dinner table disputes are resolved by smartphone; undergraduates stitch together a patchwork of Wikipedia entries into an essay. In a remarkably short period of time, we have become habituated to an endless supply of easy answers. You might even say dependent.

Google is known as a search engine, yet there is barely any searching involved anymore.”

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Baseball doesn’t make me happy or sad regardless of won-loss records, which could make it seem like I’m not really a fan, but I am. It’s just a wonderful distraction, and I love it for its lack of consequence. It was a different thing to me as a kid, but that’s what it is now and evermore.

But one point that does pain me is the way MLB ran the Montreal market into the ground, seemingly salting the infield dirt on the way out. Such a beautiful and strange city–and unis! And I will always have the childhood memory of seeing Donald Sutherland, that Expos fan, at Shea Stadium for a Montreal road game, when I was too young to fully appreciate who he was. (Little Kiefer, I believe, was there with him.)

Last Spring when my Mets faced the Toronto Blue Jays in Montreal, it was a test run of sorts for something that had all but been given up on until recent years: the game’s potential return to North America’s un-Paris. In a piece in The Walrus, Adam Gopnik writes about his intensely personal connection to the bygone ballclub. An excerpt:

“What made the Expos special? First, and most important, it was their look, their logo. Jerry Seinfeld said, memorably and accurately, that when we root for pro sports teams we’re really rooting for clothes, since the players have no real connection to the teams, and they change allegiances at the flick of an additional zero. But to say that we are rooting for laundry is to say, in another sense, that we are rooting for flags. Team colours—the Dodgers blue, the Yankees pinstripe, even the Maple Leafs maple leaf—are the heraldry of the cities in which they play. Since cities are the largest unit for which we can credibly claim the emotions—love, attachment, patriotism—that nationalists annex to nations, the laundry our hired athletes wear assumes an outsize symbolic importance. The uniforms of teams become the flags of towns.

All of this to say, simply, that the Expos had a great flag. Their tricoloured uniform and cap—red, white, and blue in neat pinwheeling form—remain hugely popular to this day, long after their demise. A circus cap, a bowling team logo—everything that was said against it was part of what gave it charm. It was the rare heraldic symbol that refused to take itself entirely seriously. And yet, truth be told, from a pure design perspective it wasn’t all that hot. It was a kind of triple pun: a stylized evocation of a ball and glove, which also spells out M-B-E, perhaps indicating ‘Montreal,’ ‘Baseball,’ and ‘Expos,’ but also seeming to suggest C-B, the initials of Charles Bronfman, the majority owner and Seagram heir. Still, the logo didn’t have to be articulate to be affecting. Whatever it meant, it meant Montreal.

The team’s colours were the same as those of the Canadiens: Montreal, like Luke Skywalker’s Tatooine, was a planet with two suns, and the Habs were always much the brighter. But where the Canadiens’ colours evoked turn-of-the-century amateur athletic clubs, on the Expos they had a pleasingly elementary look, like a kindergarten’s collective ideal of a baseball cap. The Expos always acted as the happy-go-lucky younger brother to the Habs’ grim older one, burdened as the Canadiens were with the eldest sibling’s duty to win, and win again. The Habs were serious; the Expos were not.

In those days, the Habs were more of a church than a club. Tickets to the Forum were as hard won as tickets to an audience with the Pope, and the atmosphere inside the arena was quiet, brutal, and expectant. I still recall, having somehow found a ticket for a game in 1971, jumping up and down when Claude Larose—Claude Larose!—scored; a man one row back asked me, in French, never to do so again. No one had trouble finding a seat for the Expos, and no one minded when you jumped up and down, even if it was for no reason at all.

And then there was a certain magic to the choice of the name, which was part of the legacy of Expo 67 itself, and redolent with the charm of a certain moment in Montreal history. The hangover of Expo 67 was more than merely positive—Expo was the last great world’s fair, the finale in a great sequence that began in the mid-nineteenth century and briefly turned mercantile cities into celebratory ones. Even in the mid-’70s, the nationalist pop band Beau Dommage could still sing of Expo positively: ‘En soixante-sept tout était beau / c’était l’année d’l’amour, c’était l’année d’l’Expo / chacun son beau passeport avec une belle photo’ (‘In sixty-seven everything was aglow / it was the year of love, it was the year of Expo / everyone had a beautiful passport with a beautiful photo’). Everything at Expo worked, and everything was wonderful. The Expos name carried that triumph onto the ball field.”

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