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Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig is crowdfunding in the hopes of financing a run for President not as a protest candidate but as a referendum candidate, one who would resign and cede the office to his Veep after a very brief first act of fixing our troubled political system (campaign finance, gerrymandering, etc.). We certainly need these things to occur, but it almost definitely won’t happen, at least not directly, because of Lessig’s quixotic campaign. Elizabeth Warren was really the only potential candidate who had a chance of undoing at least some of this wrong-mindedness, but she isn’t running.

I’m hopeful that Lessig and other campaigns will make these important issues central in the way the Occupy movement pushed wealth inequality into the mainstream. However, Lessig himself doesn’t believe just making reform one of many major issues will work–it needs to be a candidate’s number one and perhaps only concern. Let’s hope that’s not true, because a person running to reform and resign isn’t likely getting elected. What would make for a spellbinding TED Talk doesn’t necessarily translate into a real-life solution.

Lessig and his supporter Jimmy Wales (a “foreigner,” as President Trump would call him) just did an AMA at Reddit. A few exchanges follow.



What led you to decide to run yourself instead of remaining an advisor to Sanders’ campaign? Don’t you think that the MOST LIKELY scenario would be that, by some (increasingly likely) miracle, Sanders overtakes Clinton for the nomination? Why can’t Sanders introduce the Citizens Equality Act and do the same things you want to do, but remain president?

Lawrence Lessig: 

I became convinced that Sanders has been seduced by the consultants, whose aim (this is why they’re hired) is to elect him rather than run a campaign that might be harder, but would give him the mandate to lead. I believe Bernie can get elected. But if he runs his campaign as he has, it will be Obama v2.0 (not in the substance but in the inability to pass or even propose reform).



Could Elizabeth Warren be your Vice President?

Lawrence Lessig:

Yes, absolutely. Politically, it would make sense for one of us to move out of MA (and that would be me since she’s the senator). That’s because the constitution wouldn’t permit MA to cast its votes for both of us, and so if the election were close, that would risk one of us not making it. But constitutionally, there is no bar (except the rule that forbids a state to vote for two people from that state).



How can we connect issues of campaign finance and voter equality with the day-to-day practical & emotional realities of regular Americans?

Lawrence Lessig:

The pundits think Americans are stupid. I don’t. I think that if you connect the dots, they’ll get it. Start with the issues they care about — health care, social security, student debt, minimum wage, the environment, network neutrality, copyright (ok, a guy can dream) — and show them how EVERY ISSUE is linked to this one issue. Try an obvious metaphor: An alcoholic could be losing his liver, his job, his wife. Those are the worst problems someone can have. But unless you solve the alcoholism, none of those problems is going to be solved.



Why did you decide to create the Citizens Equality Act instead of trying to get a Constitutional amendment passed like Wolf PAC is trying to do?

Lawrence Lessig:

Because (1) we need reform NOW (not 3 years from now), (2) a majority in Congress is more likely than 2/ds (to propose), or 3/4ths (to ratify), (3) because changing the way campaigns are funded is something Congress could do tomorrow, and should. An amendment may well be necessary — if the Supreme Court doesn’t fix the superPAC problem it is certainly necessary — but we can’t afford to wait. We need to act through Congress now.



Say you’re elected, and the Citizen Equality Act of 2017 isn’t passed by Congress. Now What?

Lawrence Lessig:

Not an option. With 50 referendum representatives, and a president that doesn’t care about what’s next, it gets passed.

I get the anxiety here. I really do. But here’s the reality: We have a government that doesn’t work. We need the best shot to getting a government that does work. Making “reform” one of 8 issues on a platform is not a plan. It’s a wish.



A healthy democracy requires the enforcement of law. But today, law enforcement officials are able to routinely violate citizen’s legal and Constitutional rights with impugnity.

Do you believe Campaign Zero’s policy proposals (link) are adequate to provide communities adequate means to hold their police departments accountable, safeguard individual’s rights, and eliminate racial bias? Do you believe the adequately safeguard the disabled, the non-neurotypical, and the mentally ill?

If not, what additional policies would you support?

Lawrence Lessig:

Agreed. This ties to the culture of inequality that is America today. We don’t have equal citizens, and that spreads to every aspect of social life. The stupid war on drugs turns police into drill sergeants, and they treat citizens as grunts in boot camp. The only way we change this is to reaffirm the basic equality of citizens, and use that power to undo these idiotic laws.•

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As Ben Crair reports in a colorful Businessweek piece, on a typical Saturday, about 12,000 visitors make their way to the Zoo Zajac, a ginormous German pet store that houses a quarter-million animals, many of which are exotic or unusual. It’s the Harrods of hamsters and hares.

Not everybody is there to buy; most just want to spend the day gawking in wonder. It’s a great free show, but the business would go belly up if it tried to exist by selling live animals–the real money is in accessories and merchandise. Being located in the European country with the lowest birthrate is a plus: Empty nests have room for birds and such.

The owner, Norbert Zajac, has been threatened and protested for selling puppies, but his greater concern is that a Chinese entrepreneur will eventually create a larger outlet than his, erasing him from the Guinness World Book of Records.

An excerpt:

Today, Zajac’s pet shop fills a 130,000-square-foot warehouse in an industrial part of Duisburg. It’s called Zoo Zajac, and it unfurls, like an airport terminal, along a horseshoe in the road. It’s more than twice the size of the White House and three times as large as a Whole Foods Market. It is, according to Guinness World Records, the biggest pet shop in the world. A visitor can spend as much as €9,000 ($10,000) on a two-toed sloth or as little as €1.19 on a box of crickets. She can buy armadillos, meerkats, coatis, and monkeys; or fill aquariums with jellyfish, tetras, shellfish, and piranhas. Zoo Zajac sells 50 species of tarantula and maintains one of the finest reptile collections in western Europe—better, even, than many zoos. It houses about 250,000 individual animals of 3,000 different species. A walk around the place is essentially an endurance sport, which is why Zajac, a heavy man with two bad knees, zips up and down the aisles on a black moped. The vehicle never leaves the premises and logs more than 2,500 miles a year.•

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Grandpa Friedrich Trump was a “whoremaster,” and in retrospect, he was the classy one.

After leaving Germany as a lad and rechristening himself as the more-Americanized “Frederick,” Donald’s pop-pop burnished his bank account by selling liquor, gambling and women to miners in rooming houses he built in boomtowns before they went bust. He always managed to stay just ahead of the law.

In a Politico piece, Gwenda Blair, who authored a book about Trump history, writes that his grandfather was the template for Donald, who has been most influenced by the “family culture of doing whatever it takes to come out on top and never giving up.”

The opening:

One hundred and thirty years ago, in 1885, Friedrich Trump stepped off a boat in lower Manhattan with a single suitcase. Only sixteen years old, he had left a note for his widowed mother on the kitchen table back in Kallstadt, a village in southwestern Germany, and slipped off in the middle of the night. He didn’t want to work in the family vineyard or get a job as a barber, the profession for which he’d been trained. He wanted to become rich, and America was the place to do it.

Friedrich wasted no time, and he did it by pushing the behavioral boundaries of his time, much as his grandson Donald would a century later. By the early 1890s, Friedrich had learned English; morphed from a skinny teenager into an adult man with a handlebar moustache; become a naturalized U.S. citizen, an easy matter at a time when there were no immigration quotas (much less debates about “birthright”); changed the spelling of his name to the more American-sounding Frederick; and made his way to Seattle, a wide-open city filled with single, rootless newcomers who’d arrived expecting to make their fortunes but found themselves facing the same uncertain economic prospects they’d wanted to leave behind.

A quick study, Trump headed for a prime location, the city’s red-light district, known as the Lava Beds. There he leased a tiny storefront restaurant named the Poodle Dog, which had a kitchen and a bar and advertised “private rooms for ladies”–code for prostitutes. It would allow the resourceful Trump, who renamed it the Dairy Restaurant, to offer the restless, frustrated public some right-now satisfaction in the form of food, booze and easily available sex.•

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What’s most maddening about the Islamic State is that if the rest of the world decided it was not going to allow this atrocious behavior, the group could be put down quite readily. But, of course, that’s not how global politics works, it’s a more fractious and complicated thing, and sometimes that can be galling.

While I’m no longer shocked by the brutal murders committed by these deviants, they still hit me harder than the trashing of antiquities, though that’s another horror. In a Guardian article, Julian Baggini argues that if you inversely feel more outraged about the ISIS assaults on dead cities than living humans, you’re not necessarily being inhumane. An excerpt:

Caring about how people live also means caring about those aspects of human culture that speak to more than our needs for food, shelter and good health. It involves recognising that there are human achievements that transcend our own lives and our own generations. We come and go, but we are survived by the fruits of our peers and those who came before us. There is a humility in seeing, as Rick did in Casablanca, that the problems of a few “little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”.

When Isis destroys ancient sites it is not just attacking buildings, it is attacking the values their preservation represents, such as a recognition of the plurality of cultures that precede and surround us, as well as a respect for the achievements of past generations and a sense that we are custodians for the generations to follow. The destruction of the Temple of Baal Shamin is a brutally shocking sign that this is an organisation that has no respect for the diverse history and culture of civilisation but seeks instead to erase everything except what it holds dear. It shows that even when Isis does not kill, it doesn’t let people live as they legitimately desire to do, which is a particular kind of terror of its own.

The destruction of people and places might appear to be quite different, but the distinction is not as neat as it first seems.•


In what’s an otherwise very good Fast Company article about autonomous cars, Charlie Sorrel conveniently elides one really important fact: not all the kinks have yet been worked out of the driverless experience. While Google has done extensive testing on the vehicles, inclement weather is still poses a challenge for them and visual-recognition systems need further enhancement. So, yes, legislation and entrenched human behaviors are significant barriers to be overcome, but the machines themselves continue to need fine-tuning.

Still, it’s an interesting article, especially the section about the nature of future cities that await us should we perfect and accept this new normal. An excerpt:

Famously, Google’s self-driving cars have clocked up 1.7 million miles over six years, all without major incident.

“In more than a million miles of real-world testing, autonomous vehicles have been involved in around a dozen crashes (with no major injuries),” says John Nielsen, AAA’s Managing Director of Automotive Engineering and Repair, “all of which occurred when a human driver was in control, or the vehicle was struck by another car.”

Self-driving cars are already way better than people-piloted cars, so what’s the trouble?

“Current laws never envisioned a vehicle that can drive itself, and there are numerous liability issues that need to be ironed out,” Nielsen says. “If an autonomous vehicle gets in a collision, who is responsible? The “driver,” their insurance company, the automaker that built the vehicle, or the third-party supplier that provided the autonomous control systems?”

How will the laws adapt? And how will we adapt? People are hesitant to embrace change, but the change that driverless cars will bring to our cities and lifestyles is enormous. What will it take to get there?•

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Jerry Kaplan, author of Humans Need Not Apply, thinks technology may make warfare safer (well, relatively). Perhaps, but that’s not the goal of all combatants. He uses the landmine as an example, arguing that a “smarter” explosive could be made to only detonate if enemy military happened across it. But any nation or rogue state using landmines does so precisely because of the terror that transcends the usual rules of engagement. They would want to use new tools to escalate that threat. The internationally sanctioned standards Kaplan hopes we attain will likely never be truly universal. As the implements of war grow cheaper, smaller and more out of control, that issue becomes more ominous.

In theory, robotized weapons could make war less lethal or far more so, but that will depend on the intentions of the users, and both scenarios will probably play out. 

From Kaplan in the New York Times:

Consider the lowly land mine. Those horrific and indiscriminate weapons detonate when stepped on, causing injury, death or damage to anyone or anything that happens upon them. They make a simple-minded “decision” whether to detonate by sensing their environment — and often continue to do so, long after the fighting has stopped.

Now imagine such a weapon enhanced by an A.I. technology less sophisticated than what is found in most smartphones. An inexpensive camera, in conjunction with other sensors, could discriminate among adults, children and animals; observe whether a person in its vicinity is wearing a uniform or carrying a weapon; or target only military vehicles, instead of civilian cars.

This would be a substantial improvement over the current state of the art, yet such a device would qualify as an offensive autonomous weapon of the sort the open letter proposes to ban.

Then there’s the question of whether a machine — say, an A.I.-enabled helicopter drone — might be more effective than a human at making targeting decisions. In the heat of battle, a soldier may be tempted to return fire indiscriminately, in part to save his or her own life. By contrast, a machine won’t grow impatient or scared, be swayed by prejudice or hate, willfully ignore orders or be motivated by an instinct for self-preservation.•


Image by Ted Streshinsky.

In his New Yorker piece about Tracy Daugherty’s Joan Didion biography, The Last Love Song, Louis Menand states that “‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ was not a very good piece of standard journalism.” Well, no. Nor was the Flying Burrito Brothers very good classical music, but each of those assessments is probably beside the point.

Menand claims Didion poorly contextualized the Hippie movement, but the early stages of his own article suffers from the same. He asserts the Flower Child craze and the thorny period that followed it was similar to the Beats of the previous decade, just weekend faddists lightly experimenting with drugs. But the counterculture of the late-1960s blossomed into a massive anti-war movement, a much larger-scale thing, and the youth culture’s societal impact wasn’t merely a creation of opportunistic, screaming journalism. Menand wants to prove this interpretation wrong, but he doesn’t do so in this piece. He offers a couple of “facts” of indeterminate source about that generation’s drug use, and leaves it at that. Not nearly good enough.

I admire Menand deeply (especially The Metaphysical Club) the way he does Didion, but I think her source material approaches the truth far more than this part of Menand’s critique does. Later on in the piece, he points out that Didion wasn’t emblematic of that epoch but someone unique and outside the mainstream, suggesting her grasp of the era was too idiosyncratic to resemble reality. But detachment doesn’t render someone incapable of understanding the moment. In fact, it’s often those very people who are best positioned to.

The final part of the article which focuses on how in the aftermath of her Haight-Ashbury reportage, Didion had a political awakening from her conservative California upbringing, though not an immediate or conventional one. This long passage is Menand’s strongest argument.

An excerpt:

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is not a very good piece of standard journalism, though. Didion did no real interviewing or reporting. The hippies she tried to have conversations with said “Groovy” a lot and recycled flower-power clichés. The cops refused to talk to her. So did the Diggers, who ran a sort of hippie welfare agency in the Haight. The Diggers accused Didion of “media poisoning,” by which they meant coverage in the mainstream press designed to demonize the counterculture.

The Diggers were not wrong. The mainstream press (such as the places Didion wrote for, places like The Saturday Evening Post) was conflicted about the hippie phenomenon. It had journalistic sex appeal. Hippies were photogenic, free love and the psychedelic style made good copy, and the music was uncontroversially great. Around the time Didion was in San Francisco, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and soon afterward the Monterey Pop Festival was held. D. A. Pennebaker’s film of the concert came out in 1968 and introduced many people to Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Ravi Shankar. Everybody loved Ravi Shankar.

Ravi Shankar did not use drugs, however. The drugs were the sketchy part of the story, LSD especially. People thought that LSD made teen-age girls jump off bridges. By the time Didion’s article came out, Time had run several stories about “the dangerous LSD craze.” And a lot of Didion’s piece is about LSD, people on acid saying “Wow” while their toddlers set fire to the living room. The cover of the Post was a photograph of a slightly sinister man, looking like a dealer, in a top hat and face paint—an evil Pied Piper. That photograph was what the Diggers meant by “media poisoning.”•

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If there’s one person Jesus Christ would not approve of, it would be a racist, adulterous, thrice-married braggart who builds gaudy buildings and casinos and vomits gold paint onto them. Christian conservatives who support “President” Trump have shown their so-called faith never had anything to do with religion. It’s always been about race and privilege. 

More worrisome is how the U.S. press has handled his odious campaign, treating it like a summer blockbuster full of fun special effects. Riveting! A joyride! Fun for the whole family!

It behooves journalists to cover any candidate making xenophobic comments seriously. When CNN announced that Trump drew 30,000 spectators in Alabama to hear him speak when the 45,000-seat stadium was more than half-empty, they aren’t doing their job but instead feeding a monster. When Maureen Dowd of the New York Times yukked it up with the vulgar hatemonger, it’s clear Trump wasn’t the only wealthy, out-of-touch person involved in the interview. (Thankfully, others at the Times are treating the matter more soberly.)

Even if the miserable magnate is deflated and floats away like a Thanksgiving Day balloon that marched into a pin, the paraders following him will still be there, full of rage and bigotry and entitlement.

From Edward Luce at the Financial Times:

It is February 2016 and the sky is falling on our heads. Donald Trump has just won the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. Those who predicted he would have long since imploded are scrambling to fallback positions. He will flame out on Super Tuesday, they insist. He will be ejected by primary voters in Jeb Bush’s Florida in March, they add.

If worst comes to worst, he will meet his Waterloo at the Republican convention in July — the first such brokered event in decades. Fear not, wise heads will reassure us, that man could never be president of the United States.

Like a stopped clock, conventional wisdom must eventually be right on Mr Trump. It goes without saying that sane people should hope so. Last week two of the billionaire’s more inflamed supporters beat up a homeless Hispanic man. All Mr Trump could initially say was that his followers were “passionate”. Make no mistake, the property tycoon who would be president is an unpleasant piece of work.

Conservatives should be especially worried. His plans to round up and deport the estimated 11.5m undocumented immigrants would require the federal power of a police state. His plan to scrap the 14th amendment’s birthright to US citizenship would corrode America’s soul.

Yet he must be taken seriously.•

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In between GE’s clumsy 1968 Pedipulator, an elephant-esque walking truck, and Boston Dynamics’ stunningly agile Big Dog and Cheetah, biomimetics went through plenty of growing pains. It’s a smart concept: Examine how land and marine creatures overcome obstacles and ape it with AI. Easier said than done, though. In “They’re Robots? Those Beasts!” a 2004 New York Times article, Scott Kirsner profiled Northeastern University’s Joseph Ayers and other roboticists exploring nature for inspiration. The opening:

JOSEPH AYERS was crouched over a laptop in a cool cinder block shed barely big enough to house a ride-on lawn mower, watching a boxy-shelled black lobster through a rectangular acrylic window.

Dr. Ayers’s shed is adjacent to a fiberglass saltwater tank that looks like a big above-ground swimming pool, and through the window, he observed as the seven-pound lobster clambered across the sandy bottom and struggled to surmount small rocks.

”He’s pitched backwards onto his tail, and his front legs aren’t really touching the ground,” said Dr. Ayers, a professor of biology at Northeastern University in Boston, sounding vexed.

A few minutes later, Dr. Ayers noticed a screw missing from one of the trio of legs extending from the right side of the lobster’s abdomen. Were this lobster not made of industrial-strength plastic, metal alloys and a nickel metal hydride battery, Dr. Ayers — the author of several lobster cookbooks, including ”Dr. Ayers Cooks With Cognac” — seemed frustrated enough to drop the robotic lobster into a boiling pot of water and serve it up for dinner.

Dr. Ayers was at his university’s Marine Science Center on the peninsula of Nahant, which pokes out into Massachusetts Bay. He was trying to get his robotic lobster ready for a demonstration in late September for the military branch that funds his work, the Office of Naval Research. By then, he hopes to have the lobster using its two claws as bump sensors.

”When it walks into a rock,” he explained, ”it’ll be able to decide whether to go over it or around it, depending on the size of the rock.”

Dr. Ayers is one of a handful of robotics researchers who regard animals as their muses.•


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The Nobel Physicist Frank Wilczek, author of A Beautiful Question, thinks CERN may soon go a long way beyond the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle and prove supersymmetry. In a Spiegel Q&A conducted by Johann Grolle, the scientist also explains what the consistency of natural laws says to him:


Are you astonished that nature obeys laws that we humans are able to understand?

Frank Wilczek:

This fact has deep meaning, and is not at all guaranteed. As a thought experiment, let us assume that the whole world is just a simulation on a gigantic supercomputer, where we are also just part of this simulation. So, roughly speaking, we are talking about a world in which Super Mario thinks that his Super Mario world is real. The laws in such a world wouldn’t necessarily be beautiful or symmetric. They would be whatever the programmer put in there, which means these laws could be arbitrary, they could suddenly change or be different from place to place. And there would be no simpler description of these laws than a very long computer program. Such a world is logically possible, but our world is different. It is a glorious fact that in our world, when we go really deep, we can understand it.•

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It’s no surprise documentarian Frederick Wiseman was asked about Reality TV in his Reddit AMA, since that form perverts his observational mode and cinéma vérité to communicate a simulacrum of truth, though it’s not true at all. Unsurprisingly, Wiseman is not a fan of the genre. 

If I had one question to ask the filmmaker, it would be this: When making Titicut Follies, did you feel like slapping the cigarette from the mouth of the hospital worker who was tube-feeding a patient, his ashes hanging precariously over the funnel? Fly on the wall or not, it must have been hard to resist.

A few exchanges follow.



Were there any of the early ‘reality shows’ that you were curious about? Do they fit in a tradition, in terms of TV or were people correct to think it was a new kind of thing?

Frederick Wiseman:

The longest I’ve ever watched a reality television show was 20 seconds. And that was once.



Has the proliferation of media (especially documentaries, news magazine shows, and reality TV) in the last 25 years changed the way subjects interact with a camera? Are they more rehearsed?

Frederick Wiseman:

In my experience, there is no difference between in shooting films now than when I started in 1966. Most people – 99% of people – don’t have any problem with being photographed and do not act for the camera.



Where do you draw the line when editing? Would you pull speech or sounds out of context, would you cut two shots together to look continuous if they were filmed weeks apart? Do you have explicit rules, or go with your gut?

Frederick Wiseman:

All editing requires compression of the sequence from its original length. I never change the order of events within a sequence, but necessarily have to condense the sequence while trying to remain faithful to my understanding of what is going on among the participants.



What do you think of personality driven documentaries? (e.g. Michael Moore)

Frederick Wiseman:

I don’t comment on other people’s work.



When you watch a documentary, are there any hack things people do that make you cringe?

Frederick Wiseman:

I don’t watch many movies of any sort – documentaries or fiction.



What are some of your favorite films?

Frederick Wiseman:

Ivan the Terrible, To Be Or Not To Be, A Day at the Races. And: Duck Soup.



What made you chose to focus on documentaries rather than fiction films?

Frederick Wiseman:

Technological advances in the late 1950s made it possible to make a movie about any subject where there was enough light to shoot film. Therefore, every aspect of contemporary life could be explored on film. There is great drama, tragedy, comedy in ordinary experience, which if you happen to be lucky enough to be present when it occurs, you can use in film. My goal is to make films of as many different aspects of life as I can.•


In a Wall Street Journal article, Christopher Mims writes that killer robots aren’t inevitable, spoiling it for everyone. I mean, we need to be obliterated by really smart robots, the sooner, the better. Please.

Mims is right, of course, that banning research on Strong Ai is the wrong tack to take to ensure our future. This work is going to go ahead one way or another, so why not proceed, but with caution? He also points out that many of the scientists and technologists signing the Open Letter on Artificial Intelligence are engaged in creating AI of all sorts.

An excerpt about the bad news:

Imagine the following scenario: It’s 2025, and self-driving cars are widely available. Turning such a vehicle into a bomb isn’t much harder than it is to accomplish the same thing with a conventional vehicle today. And the same goes for drones of every scale and description.

It’s inevitable, say the experts I talked to, that nonstate actors and rogue states will create killer robots once the underpinnings of this technology become cheap and accessible, thanks to its commercial use.

“I look back 10 years, and who would have thought people would be using cellphone technology to detonate IEDs?” says retired Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, who as chief of research spent four years heading up the Navy’s work on autonomous systems.

And what about killing machines driven by artificial intelligence, which could learn to make decisions themselves, a fear that recently bubbled to the surface in an open letter signed by the likes of Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking. The letter warned that an arms race was “virtually inevitable” between major powers if they continue to develop these kinds of weapons.•


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Was anybody else put off by Maureen Dowd’s New York Times op-ed about Donald Trump, in which she allowed the hideous hotelier to run roughshod over her column space, while labeling him as a “braggart” or “cartoonish,” when a more accurate description would have been “vicious racist”? Does it seem that an attempt at a fun piece about a gutter-level racist is wrong?

Not only is he king of the Birthers, but the hideous hotelier has also said that “laziness is a trait in blacks” and described Mexicans as “rapists.” That’s not someone who should be treated as an amusingly undiplomatic blowhard who sticks his foot into it by boasting about his golf courses or denying Heidi Klum perfect-ten status. 

Dowd treated the whole sordid affair as if it was just harmless entertainment, an amusing sideshow (even featuring an extra-fun lightning round!), when Trump’s bigotry and those attracted to it are anything but a laugh. It’s unadulterated ugliness that should be called out by anyone who interviews him. Believing that the campaign is foolishness that will eventually blow away isn’t an excuse for a reporter to abdicate responsibility. In this instance, Dowd failed to be the equal of Megyn Kelly.

From her NYT piece:

The billionaire braggart known for saying unfiltered things is trying to be diplomatic. Sort of.

It has suddenly hit Trump that he’s leading the Republican field in a race where many candidates, including the two joyless presumptive nominees, are sputtering. He’s got the party by the tail — still a punch line but not a joke.

The Wall Street Journal huffed that Trump’s appeal was “attitude, not substance,” and the nascent candidate is still figuring out the pesky little details, like staff and issues, dreaming up his own astringent campaign ads for Instagram on ISIS and China.

The other candidates, he says, “have pollsters; they pay these guys $200,000 a month to tell them, ‘Don’t say this, don’t say that, you use the wrong word, you shouldn’t put a comma here.’ I don’t want any of that. I have a nice staff, but no one tells me what to say. I go by my heart. The combination of heart and brain. When Hillary gets up there she reads and then goes away for three days.”

As he headed off this weekend to see the butter cow in Iowa — “Iowa is very clean. It’s not like a lot of places where you and I would go, like New York City” — Trump is puzzling over a conundrum: How does he curb the merciless heckler side of himself, the side that has won over voters who think he’s a refreshing truth teller, so that he can seem refined enough to win over voters who think he’s crude and cartoonish?

How does he tone it down when he’s proud of his outrageous persona, his fiery wee-hours Twitter arrows and campaign “gusto,” and gratified by the way he can survive dissing John McCain and rating Heidi Klum when that would be a death knell for someone like Scott Walker?

“Sometimes I do go a little bit far,” he allowed, adding, after a moment: “Heidi Klum. Sadly, she’s no longer a 10.”



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It’s a very big if, but if Tesla has an autonomous electric-car service on the roads by 2025, as Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas predicts, well, that would change everything. No one, though, can predict precisely what it would mean, except that it likely would be bad for Labor. Still, you have to bet it will take much longer to build such a global, robotic fleet.

From CNN Money:

Jonas believes that within the next 18 months, Tesla will share plans for an app-based, on-demand “mobility service.” Commercial introduction to this Uber-like service could occur in 2018, with the Model 3 serving as the backbone.

The first version of this service would be human-driven, just like today’s other ride hailing services. But then Tesla could move to a model where robots do virtually all the work even though real people sit at the driver’s seat just in case it’s required.

Jonas predicted Tesla could transition to a fully autonomous service by 2025, that it would have nearly 600,000 cars in its global fleet — or roughly the same size as Hertz today.

“The holy grail of shared mobility is replacing the mistake-prone, fatigued and expensive human driver with a robot that drives with greater accuracy and precision,” Jonas wrote.•


If gene-editing was utilized to keep animals from wanting to harm one another–no more predators, no more prey–you think there might be a few unintended consequences? Some, right? David Pearce, a philosopher and Transhumanist, wants to engineer all suffering out of existence, from the ecosystem to the human brain. Given enough time, I suppose anything is possible. Excerpts follow from two interviews with Pearce.


The opening of a 2014 i09 Q&A by George Dvorsky:


The idea of re-engineering the ecosystem such that it’s free from suffering is a radically ambitious project — one that’s been referred to as the “well intentioned lunacy” of a futurist. That said, it’s an idea rooted in history. From where do you draw your ideas and moral philosophy?

David Pearce:

Sentient beings shouldn’t harm each other. This utopian-sounding vision is ancient. Gautama Buddha said “May all that have life be delivered from suffering”. The Bible prophesies that the wolf and the lion shall lie down with the lamb. Today, Jains sweep the ground in front of their feet rather than unwittingly tread on an insect.

My own conceptual framework and ethics are secular — more Bentham than Buddha. I think we should use biotechnology to rewrite our genetic source code; recalibrate the hedonic treadmill; shut down factory farms and slaughterhouses; and systematically help sentient beings rather than harm them.

However, there is an obvious problem. On the face of it, the idea of a pain-free biosphere is ecologically illiterate. Secular and religious utopians tend to ignore the biology of obligate carnivores and the thermodynamics of a food chain. Feed a population of starving herbivores in winter and we’d trigger a population explosion and ecological collapse. Help carnivorous predators and we’d just cause more death and suffering to the herbivores they prey on. Richard Dawkins puts the bioconservative case quite bluntly: “It must be so.” Fortunately, this isn’t the case.•


From a 2007 interview by Ingo Niermann of the German edition of Vanity Fair:

Vanity Fair:

You claim that it is possible to eradicate all suffering on earth, whether physical or mental. When?

David Pearce: 

It will technically be possible to get rid of all suffering within a century or two. Its abolition would be practical only if it were agreed in the sense of something like the moon program or the human genome project – if there was a degree of social consensus. There are certainly technological obstacles, but they are dwarfed by the ethical-ideological ones. Many people’s negative reaction to the idea of a world without suffering comes from a fear that someone is going to be manipulating and controlling them. Partly, too, the abolition of suffering seems to make a mockery of one’s life projects. Most of us spend the greater part of our lives seeking happiness for ourself and others we care about. But we do so in extremely inefficient and in many cases self-defeating ways. This is a problem with existing human society. Even though we have made extraordinary progress technologically and medically, we aren’t any happier than our ancestors. Even if we could arrange society in the most utopian way imaginable, there would be some people who would still be depressed and anxious. There would be some people who would be consumed by jealousy or unhappy love affairs. No amount of environmental reform or manipulation is going to get rid of suffering. Only biotechnology can eradicate its neural substrates.

Vanity Fair: 

Statistics say that on the average people in Bangladesh are happier than in the Western World.

David Pearce: 

In Bangladesh, if you lose a child through malnourishment or disease it’s absolutely dreadful, just as it is if you lose a child here. But yes, statistically the hedonic set-point around which our lives fluctuate is pretty similar whether you live in London, Berlin or Bangladesh. If someone offers you a million dollars, for instance, you get a quick boost in the same way that (to use a more extreme example) crack-addicts do. Even though crack-addicts know that the drug is going to make them awfully miserable in the long-term, they still strive for their next hit. Here in the rich West, we know money won’t make us happy, but we strive for it compulsively.

If you take suffering seriously, the only way to eradicate it is by biological reprogramming. In the short run, this may involve superior designer drugs. In the long run, the only realistic way to abolish suffering is through genetic engineering.

Vanity Fair: 

There would be a very simple method to make all people happy straight away: by putting electrodes in their pleasure centres.

David Pearce: 

Wireheading is offensive to human dignity, to our conception of who we are. The real value of wireheading is that it serves as an existence-proof for people who are sceptical that it is possible to be extremely happy indefinitely. Wireheading shows there is no tolerance to pure pleasure. The normal process of inhibitory feedback doesn’t seem to kick in. We don’t understand why this is the case. When we do, it will be a very important discovery.

Vanity Fair: 

The anaesthetist Stuart Meloy discovered accidentally that by putting an electrode in a certain area of the spinal cord a woman could experience endless orgasms. But he had a hard time finding enough people volunteering for a trial.

David Pearce: 

I can’t see wireheading as an evolutionary stable solution. Wireheads will not want to have children, or want to look after their children.

Vanity Fair: 

But what is your idea of paradise engineering? What should an ever-happy life be like?

David Pearce: 

It is not a uniform happiness but a world with a motivational system based entirely on gradients of well-being. Think of your ideal fantasy. With the right biological substrates, the reality could be millions of times better.•

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Like many in postwar America, Ray Kroc found it rather easy to make money. It’s different today for the franchise, struggling in a much more competitive global economy. The typical McDonalds restaurant has half the staff it did 50 years ago, and there’s a chance that number could go much lower, owing to automation.

How much of the human element can be sacrificed from the Hospitality Industry (restaurants, hotels, etc.)? Probably a good deal, enough to hollow out staffs peopled by low-skill workers as well as novices and retirees. The push for a national $15 minimum wage (which workers dearly need) has some wondering if the process will be hastened.

From Lydia DePillis at the Washington Post:

Of course, it’s possible to imagine all kinds of dramatic productivity enhancements. Persona ­Pizzeria’s [Harold] Miller predicts that drone delivery systems will eventually get rid of the need to come into a restaurant at all, for example. [Middleby Corp COO Dave] Brewer has a bold prediction: He thinks that all the automation working its way into restaurants could eventually cut staffing levels in half. The remaining employees would just need to learn how to operate the machines and fix things when they break.

“You don’t want a $15-an-hour person doing something that the person who makes $7 an hour can do,” Brewer said. “It’s not downgrading the employees. It’s that the employees become managers of a bunch of different systems. They’ll become smarter and smarter.”

The value of a human touch

Not everybody, however, agrees that machines could make that much of a dent in labor costs. Implementing new systems is expensive, and mistakes can be devastating. And for some concepts, it’s possible that the presence of employees is actually a restaurant’s competitive advantage. Compared with grocery stores and gas stations, many people come to restaurants exactly because they want some human interaction.•


An industrial video from 50 years ago about AMF, which brought automation and computers to bowling, trying to make fast food even more inhuman.


In 1999, Michael Crichton played what he knew to be a fool’s game and predicted the future. He was not so successful about culture. Things he got wrong: Printed matter will be unchanged, movies will soon be dead, communications will be consolidated into fewer hands. Well, he did foresee YouTube.

Crichton, who was fascinated by science and often accused of being anti-science, commenting in a 1997 Playboy interview on technology creating moral quandaries we’re not prepared for:

I think we’re a long way from cloning people. But I am worried about scientific advances without consideration of their consequences. The history of medicine in my lifetime is one of technological advances that outstrip our ethical systems. We’ve never caught up. When I was in medical school—30-odd years ago—people were struggling to deal with mechanical-respiration systems. They were keeping alive people who a few years earlier would have died of natural causes. Suddenly people weren’t going to die of natural causes. They were either going to get on these machines and never get off or—or what? Were we going to turn the machines off? We had the machines well before we started the debate. Doctors were speaking quietly among themselves with a kind of resentment toward these machines. On the one hand, if somebody had a temporary disability, the machines could help get them over the hump. For accident victims—some of whom were very young—who could be saved if they pulled through the initial crisis, the technology saved lives. You could get them over the hump and then they would recover, and that was terrific.

But on the other hand, there was a category of people who were on their way out but could be kept alive. Before the machine, ‘pulling the plug’ actually meant opening the window too wide one night, and the patient would get pneumonia and die. That wasn’t going to happen now. We were being forced by technology to make decisions about the right to die—whether it’s a legal or religious issue—and many related matters. Some of them contradict longstanding ideas in an ethically protected world; we weren’t being forced to make hard decisions, because those decisions were being made for us—in this case, by the pneumococcus.

This is just one example of an ethical issue raised by technology. Cloning is another. If you’re knowledgeable about biotechnology, it’s possible to think of some terrifying scenarios. I don’t even like to discuss them. I know people doing biotechnology research who have decided not to pursue avenues of research because they think they’re too dangerous. But we go forward without sorting out the issues. I don’t believe that everything new is necessarily better. We go forward with the technology while the ethical issues are still up in the air, whether it’s the genetic variability of crop streams, which is a resource in times of plant plagues, to the assumption that we all have to be connected all the time. The technology is here so you must use it. Do you? Do you have to have your cell phone and your e-mail address and your Internet hookup? I was just on holiday in Scotland without e-mail. I had to notify people that I wouldn’t be checking my e-mail, because there’s an assumption that if I send you an e-mail, you’ll get it. Well, I won’t get it. I’m not plugged in, guys. Some people are horrified: “You’ve gone offline?” People feel so enslaved by technology that they will stop having sex to answer the telephone. What could be so important? Who’s calling, and who cares?•

I can’t find a transcript of the recent address by NASA’s Parimal Kopardekar at an unmanned aerial systems conference at the Ames Research Center, but there’s some coverage of it by Elizabeth Weise at Stuff.co.nz. The aviation expert thinks we’ll all soon–very soon–have a drone to do our bidding, conducting research and running errands. Of course, once they’re ubiquitous, it will be easy to introduce mayhem into the system, easier than it is with the traditional postal system. That’s something we’ll have to work on.

Weise’s opening:

Forget getting the latest, greatest cell phone. The next indispensable tech tool may be a drone of your own. And daily life may never be the same.

“I see a time when every home will have a drone. You’re going to use a drone to do rooftop inspections. You’re going to be able to send a drone to Home Depot to get a screw driver,” said Parimal Kopardekar, manager of Nasa’s Safe Autonomous System Operations Project at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

And this won’t happen in some long-distant future. “This is in five or 10 years,” Kopardekar said.

Kopardekar gave a keynote talk at a conference on Unmanned Aerial Systems Traffic Management hosted by Nasa and the Silicon Valley Chapter of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International last week.

“We can completely transform aviation. Quickly,” said Dave Vos, lead of Google’s secretive Project Wing, which is working with Nasa – as are some 100 other companies – on an air traffic control system for small, low-altitude drones.

An effective air traffic system – needed to keep the skies under 500 feet from turning into a demolition derby – will play a major role in turning drones from a plaything into an engine of the economy, one affecting package delivery, agriculture, hazardous waste oversight and more.•

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Sometimes life takes a sharp turn for the better and it seems like progress, like we’ve moved onward and upward for good. Probably more often than not, these jolting victories are transient, a brief interlude. So it was for American cinema in the late ’60s and ’70s, a fascinating time of personal filmmaking that disrupted and then dissipated. 

That’s not to say the Studio System that preceded it or the globalized Blockbuster Era which has replaced it haven’t turned out great movies, but damn, that auteur period had soul. It’s not unfair to say that those producers and directors pushed envelopes and their successors push product. 

One of the greats of that golden era, William Friedkin, was interviewed by Mike Fleming Jr. of Deadline. The opening:


Today’s executives and filmmakers say they revere the 70s, but they are under pressure for formulaic global blockbusters that lack edge and authorship. What made that era possible that isn’t in place today?

William Friedkin:

There were a number of factors. Studios were run by guys who really loved films, and many of them had been producers. Probably the biggest factor is, there were no formulas. A studio did not have to turn out a number of films that had to be formulaic, like they do today. A whole movement back then was spurred by the release of Easy Rider. Studios felt that if a couple of hip filmmakers could go out, without a script, with a small crew and make a film like that with very few resources, then the directors must know what they were doing. This benefited the younger guys of my generation. The studios just felt that maybe we had some formula.


Did you?

William Friedkin:

We didn’t. We were mostly influenced by the European films of the ‘60s. The French New Wave. Italian neo-realism. Kurosawa and other Japanese filmmakers. We were inspired by them and not bound to any formula. The French Connection, for all its success, was a real departure for a cop film, which was why it took us two years to get it made. Every studio turned it down. Many of them turned it down two or three times over a two year period.



William Friedkin:

They didn’t get it. The chase scene was never in a script. I created that chase scene, with the producer Philip D’Antoni. We just spit-balled ideas. We walked out of my apartment, headed South in Manhattan and we kept walking until we came up with that chase scene, letting the atmosphere of the city guide us. The steam coming off the street, and sound of the subway rumbling beneath our feet, the treacherous traffic on crowded streets. We didn’t have a lot of time, because Dick Zanuck, who had already turned it down, told us that he would make the film for a million and a half dollars if we could get it done right away, because he knew he was going to get fired. And he was right. That’s why we settled on Gene Hackman who was not our first choice. We walked 55 blocks and came up with a chase. Nobody ever asked to see a script. We went three hundred thousand over that million and a half dollar budget, and they wanted to kill me every day for that. Nobody spent the kind of money they do today. You had groups of guys running the studios who were afraid they might be out of touch, and young filmmakers who had fresh ideas that were more like what indie film is today than what fit the classic Hollywood movie, which was the musicals of the ‘40s and the ‘50s like Singing in the Rain. What prevails in American film today that didn’t then was, if a film succeeds and seems to represent a formula, it will be repeated over and over, with more and more computer-generated images. I can’t think of any superhero film that existed in the 70s. None come to mind. No formulas and the start was the fear of those executives back then that Easy Rider caused in the hearts of guys running the studios back then.


Were you aware you were working in a special time for the movie business? What was the best thing about working in movies back then, with so much freedom?

William Friedkin:

We were not aware that it was a golden era.•


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Things deemed inconvenient if you are employed at Amazon: getting cancer, having a relative get cancer, miscarriages. If you are “selfish” enough to engage in these activities, you’ll be put on notice and likely reduced to tears. Jeff Bezos’ gigantic success has long been reported to be a ridiculously bruising and demanding workplace only a sociopath could love, a place that attracts the highest achievers and routinely lays them low. 

Tremendous job by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld of the New York Times for the deepest profile yet of a company that’s the envy of the business world and a pretty horrible place to work. How can Amazon get away with such practices, a seeming social experiment that preys on workers psychologically? “Unfairness is not illegal,” is the way one lawyer in the piece puts it. The question is whether some of the tools used to quantify employees at the online retail behemoth will become common. Probably.

An excerpt about Elizabeth Willet, a former Army Captain who discovered a new kind of combat during her brief employment at Amazon:

Ms. Willet’s co-workers strafed her through the Anytime Feedback Tool, the widget in the company directory that allows employees to send praise or criticism about colleagues to management. (While bosses know who sends the comments, their identities are not typically shared with the subjects of the remarks.) Because team members are ranked, and those at the bottom eliminated every year, it is in everyone’s interest to outperform everyone else.

Craig Berman, an Amazon spokesman, said the tool was just another way to provide feedback, like sending an email or walking into a manager’s office. Most comments, he said, are positive.

However, many workers called it a river of intrigue and scheming. They described making quiet pacts with colleagues to bury the same person at once, or to praise one another lavishly. Many others, along with Ms. Willet, described feeling sabotaged by negative comments from unidentified colleagues with whom they could not argue. In some cases, the criticism was copied directly into their performance reviews — a move that Amy Michaels, the former Kindle manager, said that colleagues called “the full paste.”

Soon the tool, or something close, may be found in many more offices. Workday, a human resources software company, makes a similar product called Collaborative Anytime Feedback that promises to turn the annual performance review into a daily event. One of the early backers of Workday was Jeff Bezos, in one of his many investments. (He also owns The Washington Post.)

The rivalries at Amazon extend beyond behind-the-back comments. Employees say that the Bezos ideal, a meritocracy in which people and ideas compete and the best win, where co-workers challenge one another “even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting,” as the leadership principles note, has turned into a world of frequent combat.•

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Anyone who’s studied Silicon Valley for about five minutes knows that community’s shocking success is a hybrid of public-private investment, not just some free-market dream realized. Before the Y Combinator, there’s often an X factor, namely a government incubator like DARPA which births and nurtures ideas until they can crawl into the arms of loving venture capitalists. The Internet, of course, is the most obvious example. Even the transistor itself sprang from Bell Labs, which was essentially a government-sanctioned monopoly.

The economist Mariana Mazzucato hasn’t been shy about shooting down the excesses of the sector’s mythologizing, which boasts that brilliant upstarts with startups simply think (ideate!) their way into billions. Not quite. These lone creators don’t only lack the funds to develop an Internet or transistor, Mazzucato doesn’t believe they have the time or stomachs for such risks, either. The market demands corporations opt for safer short-term gain or the shareholders will revolt. (Look at the blowback Google’s received for its moonshot investments, perhaps one reason it reorganized itself into Alphabet this week.) The companies aren’t, then, caged lions held back by regulation, but, as Mazzucato sees it, usually kittens unable to roar on their own.

From John Thornhill at the Financial Times:

Even Silicon Valley’s much-fabled tech entrepreneurs are not as smart as they like to think. Although Mazzucato lavishes praise on the entrepreneurial genius of the likes of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, she says their brilliance tells only part of the story. Many of the key technologies used by Apple were first developed by public-sector agencies. Most of the key technologies that do the clever stuff inside your iPhone — including its geo-positioning system, the Siri voice-recognition service and multi-touch screen — were the offspring of state-funded research. “Government has invested in basic research, it has invested in applied research, it has invested in concrete companies [such as Tesla] all the way downstream, doing what venture capital should be doing if it was really playing the role it says it plays,” she says. “It is an incredibly active, mission-oriented role.”

One of the original engines of Silicon Valley’s creativity, she argues, was the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), founded by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958 following the alarm caused by the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik rocket. Darpa, run by the US Department of Defense, has since pumped billions of dollars into cutting-edge research and was instrumental in developing the internet. According to Mazzucato, the publicly funded National Institutes of Health has played a similar role in nurturing the US pharmaceuticals industry. The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (Arpa-E), set up by President Barack Obama and run by the US Department of Energy, is designed to stimulate green technology.

Mazzucato points to the critical role played by government agencies in other economies, such as China, Brazil, Germany, Denmark, and Israel, where the state is not just acting as a market regulator, it is actively creating and shaping markets. For instance, the Yozma programme in Israel that provided the funding and expertise to create the so-called “start-up nation”. “My whole point to business is, ‘Hello, if you want to make profits in the future, you had better understand where the profits are coming from’. This is a pro-business story. This is not about socialism,” she says.

Her arguments stray into more radical territory as we discuss how the fruits of this technological innovation should be distributed. If you accept that the state is part responsible for the success of many private sector enterprises, she says, should it not share in more of their economic gains?•


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How different would the world be if everyone could write as immaculately as Pico Iyer?

In a NYRB essay, he meditates on Las Vegas and Pyongyang, two vastly different symbolic cities that are each rooted in a denatured fantasy, both of them oases or mirages, depending on if your wager can conquer the long odds or not. In the former, you’ll likely get taken, and in the latter you might get killed. An excerpt:

Any of us could, of course, list the differences between the two cities of mirages. The one is a shameless efflorescence of capitalism that is, for its enemies, a glittering symbol of the decadence and emptiness of the West; the other the world’s last by-the-book, state-controlled monument to Stalinist brutality, whose forty-story blocks are consciously designed to cow citizens and remind them that it’s a privilege never to leave their hometowns without permission or to be executed simply for glimpsing a foreign newspaper.

The one is a sort of adolescent’s Girls Gone Wild vision of freedom run amok, in which visitors are encouraged to believe that you can do and be anything you like, for a night; the other is a terrifying model of order and regimentation in which even the woman who chatted me up on a showpiece subway train might well have been a prop set there by the government. While drunken frat boys get themselves photographed next to bikini-clad showgirls dressed as flamingoes on Las Vegas Boulevard, in Pyongyang every visitor—on every visit—is obliged to get up in jacket and tie, pass through a dust-cleaning machine, and bow before the embalmed figures of the nation’s two departed leaders. When Hunter Thompson wrote, “For the loser, Vegas is the meanest town on earth,” he hadn’t been to Pyongyang, where even the sometime-winners are abruptly sent before the firing squads.

Yet both cities are products of a mid-twentieth-century spirit that saw what power and profit could be found in constructing mass fantasies ab nihilo—in the deserts of the West, out of the rubble of the Korean War.•


As we witnessed with horror in Ferguson, the tools we create to fight wars overseas find their way back to the home front, free markets taking over where DARPA and other Defense departments trail off. Beyond guns and drones, surveillance equipment is the latest boomerang returning, and there are few rules in place to moderate their use, the technology, as usual, outstripping legislation. 

From Timothy Williams at the New York Times:

SAN DIEGO — Facial recognition software, which American military and intelligence agencies used for years in Iraq and Afghanistan to identify potential terrorists, is being eagerly adopted by dozens of police departments around the country to pursue drug dealers, prostitutes and other conventional criminal suspects. But because it is being used with few guidelines and with little oversight or public disclosure, it is raising questions of privacy and concerns about potential misuse.

Law enforcement officers say the technology is much faster than fingerprinting at identifying suspects, although it is unclear how much it is helping the police make arrests.

When Aaron Harvey was stopped by the police here in 2013 while driving near his grandmother’s house, an officer not only searched his car, he said, but also took his photograph and ran it through the software to try to confirm his identity and determine whether he had a criminal record.•


Hugo Gernsback may have been America’s first professional futurist, and while he wasn’t always right he was always interesting. Gernsback invented the first home radio kits right after the turn of the nineteenth century and sold his gadgets by mail order from his Brooklyn offices. He loved science fiction as much as science–saw them as complements, really–and published some of the earliest examples of the form in his publications, including Amazing Stories. He coined the term “television,” and when he wasn’t explaining the concept to 1920s newbies, he was conducting early broadcasts, an expensive endeavor that helped bankrupt him.

Just four years before his death, the July 26, 1963 issue of Life profiled the man in “Barnum of the Space Age,” which reported his prophecies for the future. The opening:

Science is now so big, so flamboyant and so barnacled with politicians, press agents, generals and industrialists that Hugo Gernsback, who invented it back in 1908 (and has re-invented it, annually, since) can scarcely make himself heard above the babble of the late-comers. Although he is now 78, Gernsback is still a man of remarkable energy who raps out forecasts of future scientific wonders with the rapidity of a disintegrator gun. He believes that millions will eventually wear television eyeglasses–and has begun work on a model to speed the day. “Instant newspapers” will be printed in U.S. homes by electromagnetic waves, in his opinion, as soon as U.S. publishers wrench themselves out of the pit of stagnant thinking in which Gernsback feels they are wallowing at present. He also believes in the inevitability of teleportation–i.e., reproducing a ham sandwich at a distance by electronic means, much as images are now reproduced on a television screen.Gernsback pays absolutely no attention, while issuing such pronunciamentos, to the fact that the public is rapidly becoming inured to scientific advance and that scientists themselves may not actually stand in need of his advice and counsel. He paid as little attention to the head-tapping some of his announcements set of in the 1920s–a period in which he was often considered nuttier than Albert Einstein himself.

Gernsback, in fact, has felt himself impelled to preach the gospel of science ever since his youth in Luxembourg–not so much, apparently, for the good of science as for his own satisfaction and the delights of seeing his name in the papers. In 55 years as a self-appointed missionary, he has stiffly ignored both the cackling of the heathen and the cries of competing apostles. Moreover, as founder, owner, and guiding spirit of Gernsback Publications, Inc., a New York-based publishing enterprise which has produced a succession of scientific and technical books and magazines (among them Amazing Stories, the first science-fiction monthly), he has not only provided himself with a method of firing endless barrages of opinion, criticism and augury but the means of making a good deal of money as well.

Neither Gernsback’s instinct for the unorthodox, however, nor his unabashed sense of theater has prevented his full acceptance as a member of the science community. Dozens of today’s top scientists were attracted to their calling by reading his magazines as boys, and a good many–including Dr. Donald H. Menzel, director of the Harvard Observatory– earned money for college tuition by writing for them. He is heralded as the “Father” of modern science fiction (the statuettes which are annually awarded to its top writers are, in his honor, known as Hugos, but he is simultaneously a member of the American Physical Society and a lecturer before similar learned groups. The greatest inventors and scientists of the early 20th Century–among them Marconi, Edison, Tesla, Goddard, DeForest and Oberth–corresponded freely with him and came, in many cases, to admire and confide in him as well. The Space Age caused no diminution of this cozy relationship with the great; RCA’s General David Sarnoff is among his friends and pen pals, and so are former Atomic Energy Commissioner Lewis L. Strauss and President Kennedy’s science adviser, Dr. Jerome Wiesner.

This admiration is solidly based. Gernsback, in his unique career, has not only done his best to prepare the public mind for the “wonders” of science but has sometimes managed to tell science itself just what wonders it was about to produce. for instance, he conceived the essential principles of radar aircraft detection in 1911–a year when the airplane itself was barely able to stagger off the ground. This early concept was so complete that Sir Robert Watson-Watt, whose radar tracking devices helped save London in the Battle of Britain, considers him the original inventor.

Gernsback not only coined the word “television” (he refuses to accept credit for that since he has discovered a Frenchman used an equivalent of the word a little earlier) but in 1928, as owner of New York’s radio Station WRNY, actually instituted daily telecasts with crude equipment. His list of successful scientific prophecies is almost endless and the perspicacity with which he has reported scientific thinking on the part of others is remarkable. In the 1920s, to make the point, he was force-feeding his readers all sorts of crazy stuff about atomic energy and about the problems of weightlessness and orbital rendezvous to be encountered in “space flying.”

It is, therefore, difficult not to believe that U.S. science has been influenced in many ways as a result of Gernsback’s extraordinary career in evangelism…•

The future usually arrives gradually, even frustratingly slowly, often wearing the clothes of the past, but what if it got here today or soon thereafter?

The benefits of profound technologies rushing headlong at us would be amazing and amazingly challenging. Gill Pratt, who oversaw the DARPA Robotics Challenge, wonders in a new Journal of Economic Perspectives essay if the field is to have a wild growth spurt, a synthetic analog to the biological eruption of the Cambrian Period. He thinks that once the “generalizable knowledge representation problem” is addressed, no easy feat, the field will speed forward. The opening:

About half a billion years ago, life on earth experienced a short period of very rapid diversification called the “Cambrian Explosion.” Many theories have been proposed for the cause of the Cambrian Explosion, with one of the most provocative being the evolution of vision, which allowed animals to dramatically increase their ability to hunt and find mates (for discussion, see Parker 2003). Today, technological developments on several fronts are fomenting a similar explosion in the diversification and applicability of robotics. Many of the base hardware technologies on which robots depend—particularly computing, data storage, and communications—have been improving at exponential growth rates. Two newly blossoming technologies—“Cloud Robotics” and “Deep Learning”—could leverage these base technologies in a virtuous cycle of explosive growth. In Cloud Robotics— a term coined by James Kuffner (2010)—every robot learns from the experiences of all robots, which leads to rapid growth of robot competence, particularly as the number of robots grows. Deep Learning algorithms are a method for robots to learn and generalize their associations based on very large (and often cloud-based) “training sets” that typically include millions of examples. Interestingly, Li (2014) noted that one of the robotic capabilities recently enabled by these combined technologies is vision—the same capability that may have played a leading role in the Cambrian Explosion. Is a Cambrian Explosion Coming for Robotics?

How soon might a Cambrian Explosion of robotics occur? It is hard to tell. Some say we should consider the history of computer chess, where brute force search and heuristic algorithms can now beat the best human player yet no chess-playing program inherently knows how to handle even a simple adjacent problem, like how to win at a straightforward game like tic-tac-toe (Brooks 2015). In this view, specialized robots will improve at performing well-defined tasks, but in the real world, there are far more problems yet to be solved than ways presently known to solve them.

But unlike computer chess programs, where the rules of chess are built in, today’s Deep Learning algorithms use general learning techniques with little domain-specific structure. They have been applied to a range of perception problems, like speech recognition and now vision. It is reasonable to assume that robots will in the not-too-distant future be able perform any associative memory problem at human levels, even those with high-dimensional inputs, with the use of Deep Learning algorithms. Furthermore, unlike computer chess, where improvements have occurred at a gradual and expected rate, the very fast improvement of Deep Learning has been surprising, even to experts in the field. The recent availability of large amounts of training data and computing resources on the cloud has made this possible; the algorithms being used have existed for some time and the learning process has actually become simpler as performance has improved.•


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