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The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released this week was, wow, dreadful. The New Yorker blog posted an except from Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2013 reaction to an early version of the findings that were leaked. An excerpt about the death of diversity, which may include you and I or the next generations of us:

“As bad as things look for humans, the prognosis for non-humans is, in many ways, worse. Under all the scenarios that the I.P.C.C. panel considered, including an implausible one in which the world imposes drastic limits on carbon emissions right now, a ‘large fraction’ of terrestrial and freshwater species face elevated extinction risks. Under the most likely scenarios, many species ‘will not be able to move fast enough during the 21st century to track suitable climates’, and there is a chance that some ecosystems, including the Arctic tundra and the Amazon rainforest, will undergo ‘abrupt and irreversible change.’ Forests are already dying back in some parts of the world because of warming-related stress, and more forests are likely to follow suit as temperatures continue to rise. As Grist put it in a summary of the findings, ‘Animal Planet will get really boring.’

As it happens, the very same day the I.P.C.C. report was leaked, President Obama issued an executive order titled ‘Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change.’ Among other things, it established a new Council on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, to be co-chaired by the head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and—suggestively enough—the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.

Promoting ‘preparedness’ is doubtless a good idea. As the executive order notes, climate impacts—which include, but are not limited to, heat waves, heavier downpours, and an increase in the number and intensity of wildfires—are ‘already affecting communities, natural resources, ecosystems, economies, and public health across the Nation.’ However, one of the dangers of this enterprise is that it tends to presuppose, in a Boy Scout-ish sort of way, that ‘preparedness’ is possible.’”


In an Aeon essay “Russia’s Sacred Land,” Peter Turchin, father of Cliodynamics, looks at psychology on a national scale, examining its irrational yet evolutionary underpinnings. In doing so, he downplays the role of Putin in the annexation of Crimea. An excerpt:

“States often behave in an opportunistic manner, grabbing real estate when they can and giving it up when the cost of holding it becomes too great. In 1732, Russia returned a large chunk of Persian territory that Peter the Great had conquered in the previous decade. In return, the Persians entered an alliance with the Russians against the Ottoman Empire. This kind of behaviour is well-described by realism. However, most states, historical and modern, also put some territory into a special category, one that is not subject to rational geopolitical calculation. Such land is ‘sacred’. It must be held at all costs.

Here we find an obvious manifestation of the bourgeois strategy in the hawk-dove game. States and populations that are willing to escalate conflict as far as necessary in defence of their sacred lands are more likely to persist in the international arena. Those that treat their core territory in a rational manner – forfeiting it in accordance with strategic imperatives, as, for example, several Germanic tribes did repeatedly during the Migration Period – get wiped out. As a result, we observe the coevolution of geopolitics and what the anthropologist Scott Atran has identified as ‘sacred values’. Geopolitical assets acquire an aura of sanctity.”


When we’re truly wired, when the Internet of Things is the thing, when the revolution is not televised but quantified, and it’s all seamless so seamless, will we even know to smile? From a Foreign Affairs piece by Neil Gershenfeld and JP Vasseur:

“The Internet of Things is not just science fiction; it has already arrived. Some of the things currently networked together send data over the public Internet, and some communicate over secure private networks, but all share common protocols that allow them to interoperate to help solve profound problems.

Take energy inefficiency. Buildings account for three-quarters of all electricity use in the United States, and of that, about one-third is wasted. Lights stay on when there is natural light available, and air is cooled even when the weather outside is more comfortable or a room is unoccupied. Sometimes fans move air in the wrong direction or heating and cooling systems are operated simultaneously. This enormous amount of waste persists because the behavior of thermostats and light bulbs are set when buildings are constructed; the wiring is fixed and the controllers are inaccessible. Only when the infrastructure itself becomes intelligent, with networked sensors and actuators, can the efficiency of a building be improved over the course of its lifetime.

Health care is another area of huge promise. The mismanagement of medication, for example, costs the health-care system billions of dollars per year. Shelves and pill bottles connected to the Internet can alert a forgetful patient when to take a pill, a pharmacist to make a refill, and a doctor when a dose is missed. Floors can call for help if a senior citizen has fallen, helping the elderly live independently. Wearable sensors could monitor one’s activity throughout the day and serve as personal coaches, improving health and saving costs.

Countless futuristic ‘smart houses’ have yet to generate much interest in living in them. But the Internet of Things succeeds to the extent that it is invisible. A refrigerator could communicate with a grocery store to reorder food, with a bathroom scale to monitor a diet, with a power utility to lower electricity consumption during peak demand, and with its manufacturer when maintenance is needed. Switches and lights in a house could adapt to how spaces are used and to the time of day. Thermostats with access to calendars, beds, and cars could plan heating and cooling based on the location of the house’s occupants. Utilities today provide power and plumbing; these new services would provide safety, comfort, and convenience.

In cities, the Internet of Things will collect a wealth of new data. Understanding the flow of vehicles, utilities, and people is essential to maximizing the productivity of each, but traditionally, this has been measured poorly, if at all. If every street lamp, fire hydrant, bus, and crosswalk were connected to the Internet, then a city could generate real-time readouts of what’s working and what’s not. Rather than keeping this information internally, city hall could share open-source data sets with developers, as some cities are already doing.”

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Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, completely unknown on the national stage in 1974, appears on What’s My Line? a mere two years before becoming President of the free world’s most powerful country.

  • Why do reporters keep asking Republican leaders for their alternative to the Affordable Care Act, as it were an opinion and not a law? After two national elections, passage in Washington (albeit partisan passage) and being upheld by a right-leaning Supreme Court, the legislation is still treated as something less than the law of the land. I suppose it’s liberal journalists trying to put the GOP on the spot because the party doesn’t have an alternative and doesn’t want one, really–it just wants the ACA to go away the way it wants legalized abortion to go away. But what’s the point? Even if Congress swings to the GOP in our gerrymandered country in the 2014 midterms, it won’t signal any chance at repeal with President Obama in the White House until the beginning of 2017. With tens of millions of people being insured by then through Obamacare, repeal is likely a moot point permanently.


In a New York Review of Books interview, George Soros elaborates on the desperation that is Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and his sabre-rattling on the world stage:

George Soros:

The important thing to remember is that Putin is leading from a position of weakness. He was quite popular in Russia because he restored some order out of the chaos. The new order is not all that different from the old one, but the fact that it is open to the outside world is a definite improvement, an important element in its stability. But then the prearranged switch with Dmitry Medvedev from prime minister to president deeply upset the people. Putin felt existentially threatened by the protest movement. He became repressive at home and aggressive abroad.

That is when Russia started shipping armaments to the Assad regime in Syria on a massive scale and helped turn the tide against the rebels. The gamble paid off because of the preoccupation of the Western powers—the United States and the EU—with their internal problems. Barack Obama wanted to retaliate against Syria’s use of chemical weapons. He asked for congressional approval and was about to be rebuffed when Putin came to the rescue and persuaded Assad to voluntarily surrender his chemical weapons.

That was a resounding diplomatic victory for him. Yet the spontaneous uprising of the Ukrainian people must have taught Putin that his dream of reconstituting what is left of the Russian Empire is unattainable. He is now facing a choice between persevering or changing course and becoming more cooperative abroad and less repressive at home. His current course has already proved to be self-defeating, but he appears to be persevering.”

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Freeman Dyson has been writing for years about an indefinite point in the future when biotech enthusiasts will be, à la their Homebrew Computer Club ancestors, tinkering in their garages, not creating new gadgets but new life forms. DARPA is, unsurprisingly, beating the hobbyists to the punch, as it did with computers and the Internet. From Meghan Neal at Vice:

“Ye sci-fi writers hard up for new material should spend an hour or so perusing the Defense Department’s 2015 budget proposal, especially the section covering the far-out research projects underway at DARPA, where the agency’s mad scientists are working to develop brain-controlled drones, biowarfare, engineer new life forms, and possibly attempt immortality.

If last year was the year of battlefield robots, cyborg soldiers, and weaponized drones, it looks like the next couple years will see the Pentagon gearing up for a deep dive into biotech. DARPA announced today it now has a unit devoted to studying the intersection of biology and engineering, the Biological Technologies Office.

The agency is betting that the next generation of defense tech will be take a cue from natural life, and as such one of the major focuses of the new unit will be on synthetic biology. It’ll ramp up research into manufacturing biomaterials, turning living cells, proteins, and DNA into a sort of genetic factory.

The goal is to create man-made, living supermaterials, prorammed through DNA code, that can be used for next-gen mechanical and electrical products, self-repairing materials, renewable fuels, solar cells, and so on.”

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The opening of “Automated Ethics,” Tom Chatfield’s excellent new Aeon essay about humans outsourcing moral quandaries to machines, which create some new challenges while eliminating many old ones:

“For the French philosopher Paul Virilio, technological development is inextricable from the idea of the accident. As he put it, each accident is ‘an inverted miracle… When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane, you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution.’ Accidents mark the spots where anticipation met reality and came off worse. Yet each is also a spark of secular revelation: an opportunity to exceed the past, to make tomorrow’s worst better than today’s, and on occasion to promise ‘never again.’

This, at least, is the plan. ‘Never again’ is a tricky promise to keep: in the long term, it’s not a question of if things go wrong, but when. The ethical concerns of innovation thus tend to focus on harm’s minimisation and mitigation, not the absence of harm altogether. A double-hulled steamship poses less risk per passenger mile than a medieval trading vessel; a well-run factory is safer than a sweatshop. Plane crashes might cause many fatalities, but refinements such as a checklist, computer and co-pilot insure against all but the wildest of unforeseen circumstances.

Similar refinements are the subject of one of the liveliest debates in practical ethics today: the case for self-driving cars. Modern motor vehicles are safer and more reliable than they have ever been – yet more than 1 million people are killed in car accidents around the world each year, and more than 50 million are injured. Why? Largely because one perilous element in the mechanics of driving remains unperfected by progress: the human being.

Enter the cutting edge of machine mitigation. Back in August 2012, Google announced that it had achieved 300,000 accident-free miles testing its self-driving cars. The technology remains some distance from the marketplace, but the statistical case for automated vehicles is compelling. Even when they’re not causing injury, human-controlled cars are often driven inefficiently, ineptly, antisocially, or in other ways additive to the sum of human misery.

What, though, about more local contexts? If your vehicle encounters a busload of schoolchildren skidding across the road, do you want to live in a world where it automatically swerves, at a speed you could never have managed, saving them but putting your life at risk?”


Automation will create wealth and foster new industries yet unthought of, but how will that wealth spread and will enough new jobs be created to replace the disappeared ones? My answers are 1) I don’t know and 2) not likely. From “A Mighty Contest” in the Economist:

“Robot-makers see their wares as a way of creating employment, both by allowing companies to make existing products more efficiently and by enabling them to manufacture new things that could not be made in any other way, such as ever more precisely engineered electronics and cars, not to mention films like Gravity. Others fear that their net effect will be to destroy a lot of jobs, and indeed that they may already be doing so. Nick Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford, has seen a big change of heart about such technological unemployment in his discipline recently. The received wisdom used to be that although new technologies put some workers out of jobs, the extra wealth they generated increased consumption and thus created jobs elsewhere. Now many economists are taking the short- to medium-term risk to jobs far more seriously, and some think the potential scale of change may be huge. Mr. Thrun draws a parallel with employment in agriculture, which accounted for almost all jobs in the pre-modern era but has since shrunk to just 2% of the workforce. The advent of robots will have a similar effect, he predicts, but over a much shorter period. Even so, he is sure that human ingenuity will generate new jobs, just as it created vast new industries to counteract the decline in agricultural employment.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, both at MIT, also have high hopes for the long-term effect of robots and similar technologies. But in a recent book, The Second Machine Age, they argue that technological dislocation may create great problems for moderately skilled workers in the coming decades. They reckon that innovation has speeded up a lot in the past few years and will continue at this pace, for three reasons: the exponential growth in computing power; the progressive digitisation of things that people work with, from maps to legal texts to spreadsheets; and the opportunities for innovators to combine an ever-growing stock of things, ideas and processes into ever more new products and services.

Between them, these trends might continue to ‘hollow out’ labour markets in developed countries and, soon enough, developing ones, as more and more jobs requiring medium levels of skill are automated away.”

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Over the past few years, you’d sometimes hear free-market extremists laud China’s lack of regulatory policy allowing for unfettered expansion of the nation’s economy. But there are, of course, no free lunches–and no free air, in this case. According to a post at the WSJ blog by Te-Ping Chen, environmental damage in China has entered the sci-fi stage. The opening:

“Proving that China’s fight against pollution has moved decisively into the realm of parody, bags containing mountain air were shipped into one particularly smog-addled city over the weekend.

No, it wasn’t a scene from Spaceballs. According to the organizer, a Henan-based travel company, 20 bright blue bags of air were shipped to Zhengzhou, capital of central China’s Henan province, as a special treat for residents. The air originated from Laojun Mountain, some 120 miles away from the city, and was brought as part of a promotional gimmick to show oxygen-deprived city residents what they’re missing.

In its account of the event, the state-run China News Service said that some of the residents who lined up for the chance to inhale—they were limited to a few minutes each—tried to wring the bags in order to extract every bit of air possible.

‘I felt my baby move right when I breathed in,’ one pregnant woman who participated in the event told the agency. ‘I would love to walk in the mountain’s forests after my child is born,’ Sun added.”


Very happy to see that the bizarre attack on economist Tyler Cowen at George Mason didn’t result in any serious injury. Strange world.

I think any nation as mobile and armed as this one (though thankfully there was no gun involved in this case) desperately needs universal healthcare with a strong mental-wellness component. Are there fewer incidences of gun violence in a country which has abundant firearms and universal coverage (e.g., Canada) than in the U.S., which is only now belatedly trying to guarantee care for all its citizens, because insured people can see a doctor when they need to? There are probably lots of cultural reasons for the disparity, but it seems like focus in this area could be beneficial.

From a really interesting 2009 interview Cowen conducted with philosopher Peter Singer, a dialogue about using immigration as a poverty-fighting tool:

Tyler Cowen:

For instance, in my view, what is by far the best anti-poverty program, the only one that’s really been shown to work, and that’s what’s called ‘immigration.’ I don’t even see the word ‘immigration’ in your book’s index. So why don’t we spend a lot more resources allowing immigration, supporting immigration, lobbying for immigration? This raises people’s incomes very dramatically, it’s sustainable, for the most part it’s also good for us. Why not make that the centerpiece of an anti-poverty platform?

Peter Singer:

That’s an interesting point, Tyler. I suppose, one question I’d like to ask is: is it sustainable? Isn’t it the case that if we take, as immigrants, the people who are the most enterprising, perhaps, of the poor countries that we’re still going to leave those countries in poverty, and their populations may continue to rise, and eventually, even if we keep taking immigrants, we will reach a capacity where we’re starting to strain our own country?

Tyler Cowen:

There’s two separate issues: one is ‘brain drain’ from the third world. I think here’s a lot of research by [Michael Clemens], showing that it’s not a problem, that third world countries that have even somewhat functional institutions tend to benefit by sending people to other countries. India’s a good example: a lot of Indians return to India and start businesses, or they send money back home. Mexico is another example. Maybe North Korea is somewhat different, but for the most part immigration seems to benefit both countries.

I don’t think we could have open borders; I don’t think we could have unlimited immigration, but we’re both sitting here in the United States and it hardly seems to me that we’re at the breaking point. Immigrants would benefit much more: their wages would rise by a factor of twenty or more, and there would be perhaps some costs to us, but in a cost-benefit sense it seems far, far more effective than sending them money. Do you agree?

Peter Singer:

I must admit that I haven’t thought a lot about immigration as a way of dealing with world poverty. Obviously, from what you’re saying, I should be thinking more about it, but I can’t really say whether I agree until I have thought more about it.”

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Because many are more driven by ideology than pragmatism, legislation like the Affordable Care Act isn’t only measured by accomplishment but also by party affiliation. Close to seven million previously uninsured Americans will have health insurance at this year’s deadline (and that’s not counting those added to Medicaid). Sick people who were denied insurance or had their policies cancelled when they became ill are now protected. The number of uninsured has dropped sharply and spiralling healthcare costs have slowed for the first time in memory. In future years, as we get closer to the goal of 30 million newly insured, that number will likely be attended by a lot of job creation. Universal coverage may be the low-hanging fruit that can boost employment. But the GOP will run against Obamacare in the 2014 and 2016 elections, and it will resonate with some.

An excerpt from Terry Gross’ 2009 interview with the late singer-songwriter Vic Chestnutt, whose was left largely paralyzed in a car accident while a teenager, and lived in debt his whole adult life because he wasn’t able to get health insurance:

Terry Gross:

So, what are your thoughts now as you watch the health care legislation controversy play out?

Vic Chestnutt:

Wow. I have been amazed and confused by the health care debate. We need health care reform. There is no doubt about it, we really need health care reform in this country. Because it’s absurd that somebody like me has to pay so much, it’s just too expensive in this country. It’s just ridiculously expensive. That they can take my house away for a kidney stone operation is -that’s absurd.

Terry Gross:

Is that what you’re facing the possibility of now?

Vic Chestnutt:

Yeah. I mean, it could – I’m not sure exactly. I mean, I don’t have cash money to pay these people. I tried to pay them. I tried to make payments and then they finally ended up saying, no, you have to pay us in full now. And so, you know, I’m not sure what exactly my options are. I just – I really – you know, my feeling is that I think they’ve been paid, they’ve already been paid $100,000 from my insurance company. That seems like plenty. I mean, this would pay for like five or six of these operations in any other country in the world. You know, it affects – I mean, right now I need another surgery and I’ve been putting it off for a year because I can’t afford it. And that’s absurd, I think.

I mean, I could actually lose a kidney. And, I mean, I could die only because I cannot afford to go in there again. I don’t want to die, especially just because of I don’t have enough money to go in the hospital. But that’s the reality of it. You know, I have a preexisting condition, my quadriplegia, and I can’t get health insurance.

Terry Gross:

Is it true you can’t get good health insurance?

Vic Chestnutt:

I can’t get – I’m uninsurable.•

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A clip from Walter Cronkite’s sit-down with Anwar Sadat in the shadows of the pyramids, in 1977, four years before the Egyptian president was assassinated. Sadat denies slave labor was used to build the incredible tombs.

Data, no matter how big or small, is only as good as those people–or algorithms–deciphering it. Even when Big Data can give us an answer to a problem, it doesn’t necessarily give us the root of the problem. When it’s read well, it’s a good complement to other methods of research; when read poorly, it can be used to create faulty policy: From Tim Harford’s latest Financial Times piece:

“Cheerleaders for big data have made four exciting claims, each one reflected in the success of Google Flu Trends: that data analysis produces uncannily accurate results; that every single data point can be captured, making old statistical sampling techniques obsolete; that it is passé to fret about what causes what, because statistical correlation tells us what we need to know; and that scientific or statistical models aren’t needed because, to quote ‘The End of Theory,’ a provocative essay published in Wired in 2008, ‘with enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.’

Unfortunately, these four articles of faith are at best optimistic oversimplifications. At worst, according to David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge university, they can be ‘complete bollocks. Absolute nonsense.’

Found data underpin the new internet economy as companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon seek new ways to understand our lives through our data exhaust. Since Edward Snowden’s leaks about the scale and scope of US electronic surveillance it has become apparent that security services are just as fascinated with what they might learn from our data exhaust, too.

Consultants urge the data-naive to wise up to the potential of big data. A recent report from the McKinsey Global Institute reckoned that the US healthcare system could save $300bn a year – $1,000 per American – through better integration and analysis of the data produced by everything from clinical trials to health insurance transactions to smart running shoes.

But while big data promise much to scientists, entrepreneurs and governments, they are doomed to disappoint us if we ignore some very familiar statistical lessons.”

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Death is death, but many of us have way more fear of a horrible demise that’s unlikely than a comparatively “benign” one which has a greater probability of occurring, even if the physical pain involved is equal. It’s an utter lack of control that seems to haunt us most.

U.S. commercial airlines almost never crash, but MH-370 floating mysteriously into oblivion has awakened fears of death by air when we know logically that a fatal car accident is much more likely. These same anxieties will likely play a role in determining how quickly we adopt driverless autos, which will save so many lives but will ultimately fail on occasion and kill someone who had no authority over the incident. That will seem scarier to some.

These fears don’t only govern our own decisions but can influence the creation of policy as well–policy that can end up costing more lives than it saves. An excerpt from Steven Pinker’s comments which appear in an Edge feature about Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman:

“As many Edge readers know, my recent work has involved presenting copious data indicating that rates of violence have fallen over the years, decades, and centuries, including the number of annual deaths in war, terrorism, and homicide. Most people find this claim incredible on the face of it. Why the discrepancy between data and belief? The answer comes right out of Danny’s work with Amos Tversky on the Availability Heuristic. People estimate the probability of an event by the ease of recovering vivid examples from memory. As I explained, ‘Scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age. No matter how small the percentage of violent deaths may be, in absolute numbers there will always be enough of them to fill the evening news, so people’s impressions of violence will be disconnected from the actual proportions.’

The availability heuristic also explains a paradox in people’s perception of the risks of terrorism. The world was turned upside-down in response to the terrorist attacks on 9/11. But putting aside the entirely hypothetical scenario of nuclear terrorism, even the worst terrorist attacks kill a trifling number of people compared to other causes of violent death such as war, genocide, and homicide, to say nothing of other risks of death. Terrorists know this, and draw disproportionate attention to their grievances by killing a relatively small number of innocent people in the most attention-getting ways they can think of.

Even the perceived probability of nuclear terrorism is almost certainly exaggerated by the imaginability of the scenario (predicted at various times to be near-certain by 1990, 2000, 2005, and 2010, and notoriously justifying the 2003 invasion of Iraq). I did an Internet survey which showed that people judge it more probable that ‘a nuclear bomb would be set off in the United States or Israel by a terrorist group that obtained it from Iran’ than that ‘a nuclear bomb would be set off’” It’s an excellent example of Kahneman and Tversky’s Conjunction Fallacy…”

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“All Watched Over
by Machines of Loving Grace”

I’d like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

As you probably realize if you read this blog with any regularity, I’m fascinated by religious and secular cults, groups of people who give themselves over to an idea, a hoped-for utopia, outside the mainstream, often threatening the mainstream. These offshoots can bring about death or disappointment, and sometimes they’re driven by genuine madness, though occasionally the mistrust is misplaced. I suppose what makes me so interested in them is that I’m a really individualistic person who can’t even fathom trusting so wholly in a culture, let alone a subculture. I’d like to know how that process works. What’s the trigger?

In his just-published New Yorker piece about The Journey to Waco, a sect member’s memoir that revisits the FBI’s disastrous 1993 siege of the compound, Malcolm Gladwell points out that negotiating with the devoted is different than making deals with those devoted solely to profit. A passage that compares Branch Davidians with early Mormons:

The Mormons were vilified in those years in large part because Joseph Smith believed in polygamy. But the Cornell historian R. Laurence Moore, in his classic book Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans, points out that the moral hysteria over the Mormons was misplaced. The Mormons were quintessential Americans. ‘Like the Puritans before them, the Mormons linked disciplined labor with religious duty,’ Moore writes. ‘Mormon culture promoted all the virtues usually associated with the formation of middle-class consciousness—thrift, the denial of immediate gratification, and strict control over one’s passions.’ Polygamy, the practice that so excited popular passions, was of little importance to the Church: ‘First, the vast majority of nineteenth century Mormons did not practice polygamy, and many of them found it distasteful, at least as a way of conducting their own lives. Second, those who did practice plural marriage scarcely exhibited the lascivious behavior made familiar in anti-Mormon literature. Plural wives were commonly the widowed or unmarried sisters of the original wife.’

So why were nineteenth-century Americans so upset with the Mormons? Moore’s answer is that Americans thought the Mormons were different from them because the Mormons themselves ‘said they were different and because their claims, frequently advanced in the most obnoxious way possible, prompted others to agree and to treat them as such.’ In order to give his followers a sense of identity and resilience, Joseph Smith ‘required them to maintain certain fictions of cultural apartness.’ Moore describes this as a very American pattern. Countless religious innovators over the years have played the game of establishing an identity for themselves by accentuating their otherness. Koresh faced the same problem, and he, too, made his claims, at least in the eyes of the outside world, ‘in the most obnoxious way possible.’

The risks of such a strategy are obvious. Mainstream American society finds it easiest to be tolerant when the outsider chooses to minimize the differences that separate him from the majority. The country club opens its doors to Jews. The university welcomes African-Americans. Heterosexuals extend the privilege of marriage to the gay community. Whenever these liberal feats are accomplished, we congratulate ourselves. But it is not exactly a major moral accomplishment for Waspy golfers to accept Jews who have decided that they, too, wish to play golf. It is a much harder form of tolerance to accept an outsider group that chooses to maximize its differences from the broader culture.”


“Was there no plan?”

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At Practical Ethics, Rebecca Roache, one of the interview subjects in Ross Andersen’s excellent Aeon piece about criminal punishment during a time of radical life extension, answers some of the more overheated criticism her philosophical musings received. An excerpt:

“Even if technology is harnessed to devise new punishment methods, it might not be clear how the new methods compare to old methods. Radical lifespan enhancement might enable us to send people to prison for hundreds of years, but would this be a more severe punishment than current life sentences, or a less severe one? On the one hand, longer prison sentences are more severe punishments than shorter prison sentences, so a 300-year sentence would be a more severe punishment than a 30-year one. On the other hand, consider that many prisoners sentenced to death in the US appeal to have their death sentences converted to life sentences. This suggests that a longer sentence is viewed by prisoners who are sentenced to death as less severe than a shorter sentence (followed by execution). I made this point in the Aeon interview, and some people took me to be rejecting the idea of technologically-extended life sentences on the ground that this would be too lenient, and therefore bad. In fact, my point was that it might not always be obvious how technologically-induced changes in a punishment affect its severity.”

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In a Spiegel interview by Marc Hujer and Holger Stark, former NSA director Michael Hayden addresses what he feels is the chilling effect the Snowden leaks have had on the Internet globally. I think, like it or not, the world is ultimately stuck with the Internet and a new normal in regards to privacy. An excerpt:


On the one hand, the United States promotes the Internet as a tool of freedom. On the other hand, it now appears to many people to be a tool of surveillance.

Michael Hayden:

I am quite willing to have a discussion about what my country has or has not done, but it has to be based on facts. Let me first point out that the NSA doesn’t monitor what every American is doing on the Internet. The NSA doesn’t check who goes to what websites. But you’ve got these beliefs out there now.


Your predecessor as head of the NSA, General Kenneth Minihan, compared the Internet with the invention of the atomic bomb. He said a new national effort should be dedicated to one single goal, ‘information superiority for America’ in cyberspace. It looks like you’ve gotten pretty close.

Michael Hayden:

We Americans think of military doctrine and ‘domains’ — land, sea, air, space. As part of our military thought, we now think of cyber as a domain. Let me define air dominance for you: Air dominance is the ability of the United States to use the air domain at times and places of its own choosing while denying its use to its adversaries at times and places when it is in our legitimate national interest to do so. It’s just a natural thing for him to transfer that to the cyber domain. I do not think it is a threat to world peace and commerce any more than the American Air Force is a threat to world peace and commerce.


But do you understand if people in other countries are concerned about one country trying to gain “superiority” over something transnational like the Internet?

Michael Hayden:

I certainly do, and I thoroughly understand that. Now, other countries are creating cyber commands, but we were first, public, and very forceful in our language. We are now accused of militarizing cyberspace. Around the time US Cyber Command was created, McAfee did a survey of cyber security experts around the world. One of the questions they asked of them was, ‘Who do you fear most in cyberspace?’ The answer for the Americans was the Chinese. With the plurality of people around the world, it was the Americans.”

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Kevin Kelly is probably the most articulate contemporary voice on matters relating to how the rise of the machines will remake the meaning of humanity, but, of course, these hopes and fears have been around for awhile. In Michael Belfiore’s new Guardian article, which I think is way too chipper about what will likely be a very painful transition to an autonomous society, he quotes Arthur C. Clarke from five decades ago on the topic. 

By the way, if memory serves, the Clarke essay that’s referenced predicted that by 2001 houses would be able to fly, and communities could migrate south when it was cold. I can’t be mistaking that detail, can I? The excerpt:

As early as the 1960s, Arthur C. Clarke, professional visionary and inventor of the communications satellite, predicted the end of menial labor (mental as well as manual), due to mechanization (and, more disturbingly, bio-engineered apes). In his essay The World of 2001, originally published in Vogue and reprinted in his book The View from Serendip, Clarke wrote: ‘the main result of all these developments will be to eliminate 99 percent of human activity … if we look at humanity as it is constituted today.’

Our salvation, in Clarke’s view, will lie in our looking toward loftier pursuits than all those kinds of jobs that machines will take over:

In the day-after-tomorrow society there will be no place for anyone as ignorant as the average mid-twentieth-century college graduate. If it seems an impossible goal to bring the whole population of the planet up to superuniversity levels, remember that a few centuries ago it would have seemed equally unthinkable that everybody would be able to read. Today we have to set our sights much higher, and it is not unrealistic to do so.”

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In this year’s Gates Annual Letter, which was mentioned during his appearance at the American Enterprise Institute, Bill Gates sees a world without impoverished nations in about 20 years. We certainly have the tools to make that a reality, though I would assume some nations will be held back by awful political realities. An excerpt:

“The bottom line: Poor countries are not doomed to stay poor. Some of the so-called developing nations have already developed. Many more are on their way. The nations that are still finding their way are not trying to do something unprecedented. They have good examples to learn from.

I am optimistic enough about this that I am willing to make a prediction. By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world. (I mean by our current definition of poor.)2 Almost all countries will be what we now call lower-middle income or richer. Countries will learn from their most productive neighbors and benefit from innovations like new vaccines, better seeds, and the digital revolution. Their labor forces, buoyed by expanded education, will attract new investments.”


In a new Financial Times article, Tim Harford looks at all angles of behavioral economics, which has reached its ascendancy in the years since Daniel Kahneman’s Nobel Prize win in 2002. In Kahneman’s hands, the discipline seems to have a lot of merit, but all too often with others its feels like shaky narratives supplanting other shaky narratives. There are so many variables in the world that easy answers can obscure complex situations. Did the Broken Windows Theory really lead to a reduction in crime in NYC when other cities that didn’t implement it experienced similar decreases? Is the answer more complicated? Is it not completely knowable? Does just replacing shattered glass make it easier to not address why we’re producing criminals? From Harford:

“In 2010, behavioural economists George Loewenstein and Peter Ubel wrote in The New York Times that ‘behavioural economics is being used as a political expedient, allowing policy makers to avoid painful but more effective solutions rooted in traditional economics.’

For example, in May 2010, just before David Cameron came to power, he sang the praises of behavioural economics in a TED talk. ‘The best way to get someone to cut their electricity bill,’ he said, ‘is to show them their own spending, to show them what their neighbours are spending, and then show what an energy-conscious neighbour is spending.’

But Cameron was mistaken. The single best way to promote energy efficiency is, almost certainly, to raise the price of energy. A carbon tax would be even better, because it not only encourages people to save energy but to switch to lower-carbon sources of energy. The appeal of a behavioural approach is not that it is more effective but that it is less unpopular.

Thaler points to the experience of Cass Sunstein, his Nudge co-author, who spent four years as regulatory tsar in the Obama White House. ‘Cass wanted a tax on petrol but he couldn’t get one, so he pushed for higher fuel economy standards. We all know that’s not as efficient as raising the tax on petrol – but that would be lucky to get a single positive vote in Congress.’

Should we be trying for something more ambitious than behavioural economics?”

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Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver was many things, and not all of them were good. But no one could deny he was a fascinating fashion designer. After fleeing the United States when charged with the attempted murder of police officers in Oakland in 1968, the revolutionary spent seven years hiding in a variety of foreign countries.  A mostly forgotten part of his walkabout was Cleaver surfacing as a fashion designer in Paris at the very end of his exile. As shown in the print advertisement above, his so-called “Penis Pants” had an external sock attached so that a guy could wear his manhood on the outside. Cucumber sales soared.

From an article Cleaver penned about the early part of his life at large for Ramparts in 1969, a look at the more serious side of expatriation:

“SO NOW IT IS OFFICIAL. I was starting to think that perhaps it never would be. For the past eight months, I’ve been scooting around the globe as a non-person, ducking into doorways at the sight of a camera, avoiding  English-speaking people like the plague. I used so many names that my own was out of focus. I trained myself not to react if I heard the name Eldridge Cleaver called, and learned instead to respond naturally, spontaneously, to my cover names. Anyone who thinks this is easy to do should try it. For my part, I’m glad that it is over.

This morning we held a press conference, thus putting an end to all the hocus-pocus. Two days ago, the Algerian government announced that I had arrived here to participate in the historic First Pan-African Cultural Festival. After that, there was no longer any reason not to reach for the telephone and call home, so the first thing I did was to call my mother in Los Angeles. ‘Boy, where are you at?’ she asked. It sounded as though she expected me to answer, ‘Right around the corner, mom,’ or ‘Up here in San Francisco,’ so that when I said I was in Africa, in Algeria, it was clear that her mind was blown, for her response was, “Africa? You can’t make no phone call from Africa!” That’s my mom. She doesn’t relate to all this shit about phone calls across the ocean when there are no phone poles. She has both her feet on the ground, and it is clear that she intends to keep them there.

It is clear to me now that there are forms of imprisonment other than the kind I left Babylon to avoid, for immediately upon splitting that scene I found myself incarcerated in an anonymity, the walls of which were every bit as thick as those of Folsom Prison. I discovered, to my surprise, that it is impossible to hold a decent conversation without making frequent references to one’s past. So I found myself creating personal histories spontaneously, off the top of my head, and I felt bad about that because I know that I left many people standing around scratching their heads. The shit that I had to run down to them just didn’t add up.

Now all that is over. So what? What has really changed? Alioto is still crazy and mayor, Ronald Reagan is still Mickey Mouse, Nixon is in the White House and the McClellan Committee is investigating the Black Panther Party. And Huey P. Newton is still in prison. I cannot make light of this shit because it is getting deeper. And here we are in Algeria. What is a cat from Arkansas, who calls San Francisco home, doing in Algeria? And listen to Kathleen behind me talking over the telephone in French. With a little loosening of the will, I could easily flip out right now!”


Cleaver was sadly not wearing his Penis Pants when he sat down in 1969 with William F. Buckley to discuss the Man and the Pigs and other handy generalizations. At the 3:28 mark.

Bill Boggs interviewing legendary thriller writer Robert Ludlum, who hasn’t let his 2001 death slow “his” writing output. No year specified, but it was likely 1982. More than 30 years after these comments, the author would no doubt have been even more angered about what privacy has become during the Internet Age. Video quality less than stellar.

I admire Google for its Bell Labs-sized ambitions, but Larry Page telling us to trust his company with our private information is only slightly less ludicrous than Mark Zuckerberg lecturing the President about the NSA. It’s just a ruse to try to convince the more gullible among us that Silicon Valley isn’t Big Brother-ish. That’s a lie, of course. The government and Google and Facebook and, to a good extent, the rest of us, are all working in the same direction: to gather as much data we can to survive in the Information Age. Page and Zuckerberg want what’s inside your head; they even want to implant information there. I don’t doubt that Page has plenty of noble intentions, but a publicly traded behemoth’s largesse only goes so far. The beast must be fed.

From a WSJ report of a conversation between Page and Charlie Rose, a handsome robot who once had an epiphany on a tennis court:

In what has become a Silicon Valley ritual, Page criticized electronic surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies, based on leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

‘We need to know the parameters of what the government is doing and why,’ Page said. ‘The government has done itself a disservice. I’m sad that Google is in the position of protecting you from what the government is doing.’

When it comes to individuals trying to shield themselves from private companies, however, Page said people shouldn’t be ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water.’

Page suggested sharing information with the ‘right’ companies is important for technology to advance, and that Google is among those companies. ‘We spend a lot of time thinking about these issues,’ he said. ‘The main thing we need to do is provide (users) choice” and show them what data will be used.’”

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