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Petrotopias eventually run dry, so the key is to use the oil money to diversify the economy, and that’s what Dubai has succeeded in doing with global air travel, though there have been pretty terrible human costs. From “The New Jet Age,” Graham Boynton’s curiously amoral Vanity Fair article on the topic, which somehow elides all mention of the abuse of workers that’s fueled the building boom:

“The emergence of these carriers marks the fourth tectonic shift in international aviation since Pan Am’s founder, Juan Trippe, democratized the industry in the early 1950s. Prior to Trippe’s intervention, air travel was the domain of the ruling classes, and fares between the U.S. and Europe were fixed by the stodgy International Air Transport Association. However, in 1952, Trippe decided to introduce a tourist-class fare between New York and London and thus began a decades-long battle between free-market flying and cartel-led regulation that would see the rise and fall of carriers such as Sir Freddie Laker’s Skytrain in the 70s and People Express in the 80s, along with the breakout success of Virgin Atlantic.

The second shift came with the arrival of the jet age, in 1958, the introduction of the Boeing 747 a little over a decade later, and then the 1978 deregulation of the U.S. airline industry. In the early days of mass air travel, national airlines such as Pan Am and TWA and flag-carrying European airlines (British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa) ruled the world through government-protected colonial-route networks. But as the colonies evaporated and new business models challenged regulation, the legacy U.S. behemoths began to fall. First Eastern, then Pan Am, then TWA.

Southeast Asia then heralded the third tectonic shift. Introducing high-quality, service-led air travel, airlines such as Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Thai, and the rest all flourished as the international business-travel market grew, and as the old-world airlines struggled to survive. These fleets provided more comfortable seating, particularly at the front of the cabins, and a level of in-flight service that Western airlines had failed to offer with any conviction since the 50s.

Now we are in the fourth age. U.S. airlines are merging and morphing into giant entities with large domestic networks and relatively small international reach, offering only passable amenities on rather old equipment. Meanwhile, the Gulf airlines feature quality service at a competitive price. Peter Morris, chief economist at the aviation consultancy firm Ascend, says that these carriers have now ‘built enough critical mass to be a genuine threat to the traditional European airlines and in the near future to the Americans.’

‘They say that Dubai is Shanghai on steroids,’ notes [Emirates president Tim] Clark as he stares out of his office window in the terminal, admiring a row of gleaming Emirates A380s.”

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I’m not saying the Singularity won’t ever occur, but I really doubt it happens within the very aggressive timeline of the next 30 years or so. Physicist Louis Del Monte strongly disagrees. From Dylan Love at the Business Insider:

“The average estimate for when this will happen is 2040, though Del Monte says it might be as late as 2045. Either way, it’s a timeframe of within three decades.

‘It won’t be the Terminator scenario, not a war,’ said Del Monte. ‘In the early part of the post-singularity world, one scenario is that the machines will seek to turn humans into cyborgs. This is nearly happening now, replacing faulty limbs with artificial parts. We’ll see the machines as a useful tool. Productivity in business based on automation will be increased dramatically in various countries. In China it doubled, just based on GDP per employee due to use of machines.”

‘By the end of this century,’ he continued, ‘most of the human race will have become cyborgs [part human, part tech or machine]. The allure will be immortality. Machines will make breakthroughs in medical technology, most of the human race will have more leisure time, and we’ll think we’ve never had it better. The concern I’m raising is that the machines will view us as an unpredictable and dangerous species.’

Del Monte believes machines will become self-conscious and have the capabilities to protect themselves.”

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Ken Silverstein, a Big Oil reporter who’s written a book about the industry’s shadowy middlemen and facilitators, recently sat for an Ask Me Anything at Gawker. Michael Busch of the Los Angeles Review of Books also just interviewed the journalist, and here’s the opening:

Question:

Unlike most books dealing with the oil industry, yours examines the internal machinery of the business, and the players who grease its wheels. Can you start by outlining the scope of your investigation into the world of oil, and the various actors it involves?

Ken Silverstein:

I’ve been writing about the oil industry for more than 15 years, and during that time, I’ve traveled multiple times to Africa and Central Asia, mostly, and Houston, of course. It’s hard to think of any commodity or good that is more important to international commerce than oil. Or more sensitive, for that matter. In this sense, it’s comparable to the global arms trade in its different hidden worlds, which is always interesting. For this project I was funded by Open Society to specifically look at middlemen and oil trading firms that have an enormous role in this trade, but whom are almost never written about. There’s all sorts of great reporting and writing about the oil industry, but rarely do we get a look at these players who are hugely significant but almost entirely hidden.

Question:

Fixers, for example.

Ken Silverstein:

There are fixers, who act as middlemen between the oil industry and those governments from whom oil companies wish to obtain concessions. For a very long time now, oil was mostly pumped in the Third World and generally shipped to the First World, and it was First World companies who controlled the trade. As our illustrious former Vice President, Dick Cheney, put it, ‘The good Lord didn’t see fit to put oil and gas only where there are democratically elected regimes.’ He was saying this at a time when he was still with Halliburton, and using it as a justification for the fact that his company was doing business with some pretty shady regimes.

It’s a good point. Because so much of the oil we rely on is located in the Third World, getting access to it has frequently involved bribing governments. Sometimes those bribes have been legal, and sometimes they haven’t been legal, but payoffs to corrupt government officials have always been involved. In the old days, there were a lot of direct bribes made until the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act was passed in 1974. In Europe, bribes were legal until much more recently — you could deduct them in your taxes. But if you are a company executive, you would rather have other people dealing with these governments than having to do it yourself. It’s a very dicey area, and that’s what makes fixers useful. Companies like to have intermediaries who know a country well, or several countries. Of course, I don’t want to blame all of the corruption only on Third World governments. The companies obviously don’t like making payoffs, but they do it because they benefit; they want to win influence and government friends in the corrupt, undemocratic countries that control oil.

In Equatorial Guinea, for example — a country rich in oil but suffering under a terrible dictatorship — Exxon wanted access to the country’s deposits. The President, Teodoro Obiang [Ngeuma Mbasogo], had land, and the company bought it directly from him. President Obiang has been in power since 1979, so ‘president’ is a generous title. ‘Ruler’ is more accurate. In any event, Obiang sold Exxon some land, where they could build their own compound and develop the land for exploitation. It is safe to say they overpaid enormously for that land. It would be difficult to prove that this constitutes a ‘bribe,’ but these are the sorts of tradeoffs that are made in the name of access.

Ed Chow, a longtime Chevron executive, put it most succinctly. In places like Nigeria or Kazakhstan, he said, ‘You get the land, but you don’t provide a lot of jobs, you may be destroying the environment, and most of the profit goes to international capital. The companies don’t have a strong case to sell to local communities, so they come to not only accept highly centralized governments but to crave it. It’s a lot easier to win support from the top than to build it from the bottom. As long as we want cheap gas, democracy can’t exist.’”

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Utopian communes usually go wrong, wronger or wrongest, but The Farm, a hippie collective in Tennessee founded 43 years ago by ex-marine Stephen Gaskin, who just passed away, came to no horrible conclusion. The opening of his New York Times obituary by Douglas Martin:

“Stephen Gaskin, a Marine combat veteran and hippie guru who in 1971 led around 300 followers in a caravan of psychedelically painted school buses from San Francisco to Tennessee to start the Farm, a commune that has outlived most of its countercultural counterparts while spreading good works from Guatemala to the South Bronx, died on Tuesday at his home on the commune, in Summertown, Tenn. He was 79.

Leigh Kahan, a family spokesman, confirmed the death without giving a specific cause.

By Mr. Gaskin’s account, the Farm sprang in part from spiritual revelations he had experienced while using LSD, the details of which he described to thousands of disciples, who gathered in halls around San Francisco to hear his meditations on Buddhism, Jesus and whatever else entered his mind.

But to his followers, he ultimately offered more than spiritual guidance. In founding the Farm, they said, he gave concrete form to the human longing for togetherness coupled with individual expression that had energized the counterculture.”

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Journalism isn’t a science and while any individual organ might have its code of ethics, there is no overriding one. While that’s probably necessary, it’s alway left plenty of room for manipulators who have reduced the field, leaving it scarred and scorned with few believers. Yet the omnipresence of quasi-news like Rupert Murdoch’s outlets must have some effect, right? If you had said six years ago that President Obama would have reversed a good deal of our economic troubles, helped secure the recovery of the stock market, improved job numbers despite growing automation, kept us out of military quagmires in an exploding world, achieved something approaching universal healthcare (which seems to be good for the economy as well as good in general), heightened support for civil rights (e.g., gay marriage) and moved us in an environmentally sounder direction, and that he would do those things with an extremist opposition party controlling congress for the majority of the time, I think most Americans would have been very pleased. Yet poll after poll supposedly depicts him to be a remarkably unpopular President, with Fox News gleeful and Chuck Todd, a modified Van Dyke having a panic attack, declaring the sky is on the ground. It’s a little strange then that the two most important “polls”–the ones in November of 2008 and 2012 that involved actual polling places–were won rather convincingly by Obama. I think “winning” the media isn’t necessarily the same thing as winning, though not everyone agrees.

From Anders Herlitz’s Practical Ethics piece about the practice of news:

“Covering news and reporting events to a larger group of people is, from a historical perspective, very new. Newspapers with large readerships date back to the 19th century. Photojournalism became widespread in the 1930s. News in the common household’s TV starts becoming widespread in the 1950s. In the early days, to report news was to report facts, to publish an image was to give the audience the opportunity to with their own eyes see what happened in other places in the world. Journalists were witnesses to events in the world, and readers, viewers, listeners, were given the opportunity to through the journalist build their own opinions, to increase their knowledge about their countries, and about the world. Journalism and independent media outlets became a cornerstone of democracy. A well-informed people make better judgements, better choices, and this is enabled by the work of journalists. The culmination of this is the Vietnam War. Journalists were allowed to do their job, and to witness and report back to the American public what took place in Vietnam. Consequently, it became clear that news that in no way were false, untrue or fabricated could in fact generate a reaction in the public that, from the perspective of certain very powerful groups, was highly undesirable. How something is reported matter. Images matter. Details matter.

In the last couple of decades, powerful agents of the most various kind have learned to appreciate this insight to a larger and larger extent. Wars are no longer fought only on the battlefield, the success of political movements depend on what kind of media coverage they get, international relations issues depend on how the world perceives of the events, corporations know very well that they benefit from no media coverage at all of certain elements essential to their organizations (e.g. oil extraction in countries where there is no respect for human rights, assembly factories in poor countries, the origin of certain natural resources needed for the end-product), and even certain individuals are well-aware of the importance of their ‘personal brand’ and do their best to control how they are depicted in the media.”

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From an Economist report about higher education, an astounding triumph of modern humanity but one that must change to be sustainable and effective, a passage about the forces of disruption:

“Higher education suffers from Baumol’s disease—the tendency of costs to soar in labour-intensive sectors with stagnant productivity. Whereas the prices of cars, computers and much else have fallen dramatically, universities, protected by public-sector funding and the premium employers place on degrees, have been able to charge ever more for the same service. For two decades the cost of going to college in America has risen by 1.6 percentage points more than inflation every year.

For most students university remains a great deal; by one count the boost to lifetime income from obtaining a college degree, in net-present-value terms, is as much as $590,000 (see article). But for an increasing number of students who have gone deep into debt—especially the 47% in America and 28% in Britain who do not complete their course—it is plainly not value for money. And the state’s willingness to pick up the slack is declining. In America government funding per student fell by 27% between 2007 and 2012, while average tuition fees, adjusted for inflation, rose by 20%. In Britain tuition fees, close to zero two decades ago, can reach £9,000 ($15,000 a year).

The second driver of change is the labour market. In the standard model of higher education, people go to university in their 20s: a degree is an entry ticket to the professional classes. But automation is beginning to have the same effect on white-collar jobs as it has on blue-collar ones. According to a study from Oxford University, 47% of occupations are at risk of being automated in the next few decades. As innovation wipes out some jobs and changes others, people will need to top up their human capital throughout their lives.

By themselves, these two forces would be pushing change. A third—technology—ensures it.”

In an excellent new Aeon essay, Linda Marsa asks a severely dystopian question: Will the parallels of widening income disparity and innovations in medicine lead to two very different lifespans for the haves and have-nots? The opening:

“The disparity between top earners and everyone else is staggering in nations such as the United States, where 10 per cent of people accounted for 80 per cent of income growth since 1975. The life you can pay for as one of the anointed looks nothing like the lot tossed to everyone else: living in a home you own on some upscale cul-de-sac with your hybrid car and organic, grass-fed food sure beats renting (and driving) wrecks and subsisting on processed junk from supermarket shelves. But there’s a related, looming inequity so brutal it could provoke violent class war: the growing gap between the longevity haves and have-nots.

The life expectancy gap between the affluent and the poor and working class in the US, for instance, now clocks in at 12.2 years. College-educated white men can expect to live to age 80, while counterparts without a high-school diploma die by age 67. White women with a college degree have a life expectancy of nearly 84, compared with uneducated women, who live to 73.

And these disparities are widening. The lives of white, female high-school dropouts are now five years shorter than those of previous generations of women without a high-school degree, while white men without a high-school diploma live three years fewer than their counterparts did 18 years ago, according to a 2012 study from Health Affairs.

This is just a harbinger of things to come. What will happen when new scientific discoveries extend potential human lifespan and intensify these inequities on a more massive scale? It looks like the ultimate war between the haves and have-nots won’t be fought over the issue of money, per se, but over living to age 60 versus living to 120 or more. Will anyone just accept that the haves get two lives while the have-nots barely get one?

We should discuss the issue now, because we are close to delivering a true fountain of youth that could potentially extend our productive lifespan into our hundreds – it’s no longer the stuff of science fiction.”

 

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Salon’s raison d’être is to serve up red meat to blue states, to provide liberals with just enough news of conservative outrages, whether it’s the personal opinions of fat-necked fartbag Donald Trump or the judicial opinions of that cracker barrel Antonin Scalia, to keep those clicks coming. But that doesn’t mean what the site reports isn’t true or valuable. Case in point: Paul Rosenberg’s new article about the Christian Right’s separatist dreams. There are scary extremists out there seemingly beyond rational thought, some armed and others in office, who want the country to be what it used to be, even if it never really was what they think it was. History may not be on their side, but they’re sure God is. From Rosenberg:

“A Saturday ago at the annual conference of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal accused President Obama and other Democrats of waging a war against religious liberty and all but openly threatened a violent revolution, AP reported:

‘I can sense right now a rebellion brewing amongst these United States,’ Jindal said, ‘where people are ready for a hostile takeover of Washington, D.C., to preserve the American Dream for our children and grandchildren.’

Of course, Jindal’s speech didn’t come out of nowhere. Jindal is notorious as a weather vane, not a leader. So this is a clear sign of the need to take threats of right-wing violence seriously — and to look to its justifications as formulated on the Christian right.

As the latest wave of theocratic violence continues to play out in Iraq, it must feel exotic for most Americans, for whom theocratic violence is something that happens elsewhere. Yet, the idea of such violence coming to America — something Jindal is apparently eager for — is hardly far-fetched. Violence against abortion providers has been with us for decades, after all, and as Jindal’s pandering suggests, there could well be much worse to come, according to a new article from Political Research Associates, ‘Rumblings of Theocratic Violence,’ by Frederick Clarkson, author of Eternal Hostility: the Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, and co-founder of Talk2Actionorg. While violent rhetoric is nothing new on the Christian right, Clarkson observes, there are reasons to take such rhetoric more seriously than ever before. Above all, some of those most dedicated to the idea of America as a Christian nation are beginning to lose faith in their inevitable success.

‘[S]omething has changed in recent years,’ Clarkson notes, as ‘disturbing claims are appearing more frequently, more prominently, and in ways that suggest that they are expressions of deeply held beliefs more than provocative political hyperbole.’ He also cites ‘powerful indications in the writings of some Christian right leaders that elements of their movement have lost confidence in the bright political vision of the United States as the once and future Christian Nation — and that they are desperately seeking alternatives.”

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While Cliodynamics uses quantified information of the past to chart the future, most alternative histories seem to be based on supposition rather than statistics. In a Financial Times piece highlighting the best books of the summer, conservative British politician Kwasi Kwarteng suggests what sounds like a very good volume which focuses on counterfactuals:

“I have enjoyed many books this year but one that stood out, partly because of its unusual nature, was Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History (Little, Brown) by Richard J Evans. Counterfactuals are the kind of guessing game we play when we wonder what would have happened if, say, Napoleon had won the battle of Waterloo. Evans’s book reveals how much of our modern thinking about history is dominated by counterfactuals. For example, in the last 20 years, many novels have featured lurid depictions of a Britain conquered by the Nazis. Altered Pasts is a good read, which stimulates further reflection about the nature of history.”

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The poor and middle class in America are not only under siege by the automation of industries but by our inability to execute policies that intelligently remedy disparity, that keep the gulf from growing so wide. In the final installment of “The Great Divide” series at the New York Times, Joseph Stiglitz looks at how we traveled from World War II to 99 and 1. An excerpt:

“Our current brand of capitalism is an ersatz capitalism. For proof of this go back to our response to the Great Recession, where we socialized losses, even as we privatized gains. Perfect competition should drive profits to zero, at least theoretically, but we have monopolies and oligopolies making persistently high profits. C.E.O.s enjoy incomes that are on average 295 times that of the typical worker, a much higher ratio than in the past, without any evidence of a proportionate increase in productivity.

If it is not the inexorable laws of economics that have led to America’s great divide, what is it? The straightforward answer: our policies and our politics. People get tired of hearing about Scandinavian success stories, but the fact of the matter is that Sweden, Finland and Norway have all succeeded in having about as much or faster growth in per capita incomes than the United States and with far greater equality.

So why has America chosen these inequality-enhancing policies? Part of the answer is that as World War II faded into memory, so too did the solidarity it had engendered. As America triumphed in the Cold War, there didn’t seem to be a viable competitor to our economic model. Without this international competition, we no longer had to show that our system could deliver for most of our citizens.

Ideology and interests combined nefariously. Some drew the wrong lesson from the collapse of the Soviet system. The pendulum swung from much too much government there to much too little here.”

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People who glorify McJobs as dignified, honest work are almost always those who don’t have to do them. In a Financial Times essay, Douglas Coupland, who sees our technology-driven tomorrow as tragicomedy, revisits the neologism for dead-end, soul-killing, low-wage work that he popularized in his 1991 novel Generation X, back when most people thought such stalled careers were a phase the young people were going through and not our future, all of us. An excerpt:

“Back in the early 1990s I began to see the start of a process that’s currently in full swing: the defunding and/or elimination of the mechanisms by which we once created and maintained a healthy middle class. What was once a stage of life is now turning into, well, all of life.

In the early 1990s I wanted to set a book in a fast-food restaurant and in order to make field notes, I tried hard to get a job in various Vancouver-area McDonald’s restaurants but, as a reasonably well-nourished male in his mid-thirties with no references on his application, I raised too many alarm bells and I never got a job, and good on fast food for having HR mechanisms that can filter out infiltrators like me. A decade later I ended up setting a blackly comic novel in a Staples (The Gum Thief), which is basically fast food but with reams of A4 instead of pink goo-burgers. The point was to foreground the fact that a minimum wage job is not a way to live life fully, and to be earning one past a certain age casts a spell of doom upon its earners, sort of like those middle-class Argentines who lost their jobs in the crash 15 years ago and never went back to being middle class again.

McDonald’s campaigned for years and ultimately failed to have the definition of the word McJob revised in the Oxford English Dictionary, in 2006 even renting a big screen in Piccadilly Circus to put forth its viewpoint. The saga of this process is a fun read on Wikipedia but, given the accelerating shrinkage of the middle class, it all seems like a frivolous corporate bonbon from a nearly vanished era. Discussions of a minimum wage in 2014 seem to have a nasty bite. As I’ve said before, we’re all going to be working at McDonald’s into our eighties (not all, of course, on the minimum wage) but the relentless parade of numbers that are making this clear to us is starting to frighten people to the core. It’s really happening.”

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If you were living in extreme poverty, in a place rotten with disease, who would you rather see, someone with a laissez–faire attitude who was proud of himself for not causing any unintended consequences as he stood on the sidelines, or someone like Jeffrey Sachs or Bill and Melinda Gates, who, sure, can’t make the world perfect, but who might give you some of the tools you need to survive, maybe even thrive a little? It’s awfully easy to dismiss philanthropists for their failings as they learn the best ways to succeed, but if I were in great need I would always gravitate to people who might give me something real even if it wasn’t ideal. From Samiha Shafy and Mathieu von Rohr’s Spiegel interview with Melinda Gates:

Spiegel:

In your speech at the WHO, you said that you and your husband despise inequity. But isn’t it strange when you return from your trips to your luxurious mansion on Lake Washington outside of Seattle? A property for which you have to pay more than a million dollars a year in taxes.

Melinda Gates:

I think it is the same for you if you go to the developing world and then come home and get into your car with seat heaters. Or you come home, turn on your shower and you have hot water. I don’t care whether you live in a small apartment or in a giant house, there are inequities. Quite frankly, neither Bill nor I would build that house again if we had it to do all over again. But it’s a matter of what are you doing to battle those inequities and for Bill and me, we have now oriented our life around that. We’re spending not only our money, but also our time.

Spiegel:

Are you doing so partly out of a sense of guilt?

Melinda Gates:

No, I wouldn’t say guilt. We feel like we have a responsibility. Any of us that is lucky enough to grow up in a country like Germany or Great Britain or Japan or the US ought to do something for the rest of the world.

Spiegel:

The French economist Thomas Piketty recently triggered a debate with his book in which he argues that iniquities are also growing in the industrialized world. His recipe is that of raising taxes for the very rich. Do you agree with him?

Melinda Gates:

Bill and I are both in favor of an estate tax and we’ve actually been quite outspoken about that. But it hasn’t gotten very far in the US. If you’re in the upper quartile of income in any of these wealthy economies, you ought to give back more than other people. Bill, Warren Buffett and I are quite involved in trying to get people of substantial wealth to commit to giving half back, either in their lifetime or at their death.”

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Neuroscientist Carl Hart shares contrarian views about drugs in his new book, High Price. In addition to refusing the idea that methamphetamines destroy a person’s looks–that widely held belief is just the result of a very successful anti-drug propaganda campaign, he argues–Hart doesn’t think crack is nearly as addictive as it’s made out to be. From an interview by Amy Chozick in the New York Times Magazine:

Question:

You begin your book High Price with a story about an experiment you did. You offered a crack addict a hit or $5.

Carl Hart:

He chose the cash. Why did you lead with this? We have rigorous science to support that crack cocaine is not as addictive as people think and that they have been hoodwinked. I was hoping people would want to read further if they had a myth busted right up front.

Question:

How do you think Hollywood plays into our perceptions about drugs and addiction? It’s not only Hollywood.

Carl Hart:

One of Public Enemy’s bigger songs, ‘Night of the Living Baseheads,’ is all about this crack addict who’s just fiending. Public Enemy did so many good things, but on that song, they were wrong. And New Jack City is on TV, like, every week. Remember New Jack City?

Question:

Yes, the movie about a drug kingpin who turns an apartment complex into a crack factory.

Carl Hart:

Again, the filmmakers were trying to help their community, but the problem was that crack wasn’t the real problem. The real problem was unemployment, lack of education, lack of skills. Politicians are happy not to have to focus on those larger issues. You can just focus on crack cocaine, put more cops on the street and make tougher laws.”

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In a New York Review Books piece, Bill McKibben lays out the sobering ramifications of the Great Melt, which can be slowed down and perhaps managed to some extent with technological innovation and political will, but which cannot be stopped. An excerpt:

“In mid-May of this year, a pair of papers were published in Science and Geophysical Research Letters that made clear that the great glaciers facing the Amundsen Sea were no longer effectively ‘buttressed.’ It turns out that the geology of the region is bowl-shaped: beneath the glaciers the ground slopes downward, meaning that water can and is flooding underneath them. It is eating away at them from below and freeing them from the points where they were pinned to the ground. This water is warmer, because our oceans are steadily warming. This slow-motion collapse, which will occur over many decades, is ‘unstoppable’ at this point, scientists say; it has ‘passed the point of no return.’

This means that as much as ten feet of sea-level rise is being added to previous predictions. We don’t know how quickly it will come, just that it will. And that won’t be all. A few days after the Antarctic announcement, other scientists found that much of Greenland’s ice sheet shows a similar underlying geology, with warm water able to melt it from underneath. Another study that week showed that soot from huge forest fires, which are more frequent as a result of global warming, is helping to melt the Greenland ice sheet, a remarkably vicious cycle.

In certain ways none of this really comes as news. A leading glaciologist, Jason Box of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS), has calculated that given the paleoclimatic record, our current atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases are probably enough to produce an eventual sixty-nine feet of sea-level rise.2 But it’s one thing to know that the gun is cocked, and another to see the bullet actually traveling; the news from the Antarctic is a turning point. It doesn’t mean we should give up efforts to slow climate change: if anything, as scientists immediately pointed out, it means we should ramp them up enormously, because we can still affect the rate at which this change happens, and hence the level of chaos it produces. Coping over centuries will be easier than coping over decades.”

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Great interview by Tyler Cowen at American Interest with Ralph Nader, the consumer watchdog and politician who’s mostly been right and occasionally colossally wrong, tied to the latter’s publication of Unstoppable, a book about finding political common ground in a divisive age. In one exchange, Nader decries the corporatization of sports, which he believes has made us passive spectators. I suppose this might be true of athletics, but I don’t think in a broader sense that the average person has ever participated more in society than right now. Of course, a participatory culture is only as good as its participants. An excerpt:

Tyler Cowen:

Do you think we need a more communitarian culture to push back against the corporate state and its abuses? I’m very struck by something in your book The Seventeen Solutions, for instance, where you talk about how America needs a new tradition of sports. Sports, you say, shouldn’t be something corporate-run that people watch on television, but something they do themselves, something that creates community, something that brings people together. Is that kind of social cohesion a necessary first step?

Ralph Nader:

Yes. We’ve become too much of a spectator culture, spending the better part of each day in front of screens. One of the consequences is that the few more athletic kids play while the rest watch, and the lack of physical activity leads to obesity. It’s not just youngsters; adults conform with the purposes of corporate advertising. The processed food producers and some other corporations, like pharmaceuticals, get rich when Americans get fat.

Corporations are also extremely adept at commercializing childhood and maneuvering around or undermining parental authority. They urge children to nag their parents at a young age to buy junk food, soft drinks, and violent video games. You see fewer kids out in the street now, just playing. These old games we used to play, like hopscotch—kids today wouldn’t even know what you’re talking about. But they do know a lot about video game violence and the heroes and villains involved.

So I think we do need a broad recognition of the need to bring the neighborhoods and communities into more participatory sports. Just a hoop, and throwing the ball into a hoop—anything to connect human to human rather than let kids wallow more and more in virtual reality. The whole electronic world is affecting us in ways we have yet to discover. That amount of time spent day after day in front of these screens can’t not have an effect on the human mind, and probably not a healthy one.”

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I don’t agree with Joe Pappalardo of the Guardian who believes the U.S. should scrap government space programs and rely on investment in the private sector–I think there should be a competition between the two–but his article does spell out really well how reasoning not supported by facts can lead to policy based on gross distortions. The opening:

“‘Elon Musk,’ the satellite industry insider told me over a beer, ‘has got to be the luckiest son of a bitch alive.’

Musk – the insanely dedicated, wealthy and polarizing founder of PayPal, Tesla and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) – is on a hot streak when it comes to spaceflight. He’s raiding revenue streams from Nasa and the US military to fund a private manned space program. His main weapon: low prices, with SpaceX offering satellite launches at about one-fifth the price of competitors at just over $60m a pop.

Sooner or later, the haters say, Musk’s streak will end in a fiery accident, or a satellite horribly deployed. That kind of disaster, naturally, would undercut the current soaring confidence in SpaceX, from investors, private-space believers and even taxpayers.

Another group of doubters on Capitol Hill say the industries needed to keep private space exploration viable simply don’t exist, necessitating a mini-Apollo push from Nasa, despite soaring progress from the Elon Musks of the world and soaring prices for government programs.

‘There’s a sense that America is falling behind, with our best days behind us,’ lamented Rep Lamar Smith of Texas on Wednesday, at yet another painful hearing of the House Committee on Science and Technology. ‘Today, America’s finest spaceships and largest rockets are found in museums rather than on launch pads.’

He’s wrong: Right now there are more space spacecraft and launch systems being designed and tested than any other moment in human history. Smith and others in Congress may be hooked on pork for their districts, but Washington doesn’t know how to build a space program. Inconsistent planning and politics have so stultified Nasa, after all, that America today has no way to launch people into space.”

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The opening of “New World Order,” a Foreign Affairs essay by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of The Second Machine Age, and Michael Spence, which astutely examines the new normal and what it will likely bring:

“Recent advances in technology have created an increasingly unified global marketplace for labor and capital. The ability of both to flow to their highest-value uses, regardless of their location, is equalizing their prices across the globe. In recent years, this broad factor-price equalization has benefited nations with abundant low-cost labor and those with access to cheap capital. Some have argued that the current era of rapid technological progress serves labor, and some have argued that it serves capital. What both camps have slighted is the fact that technology is not only integrating existing sources of labor and capital but also creating new ones.

Machines are substituting for more types of human labor than ever before. As they replicate themselves, they are also creating more capital. This means that the real winners of the future will not be the providers of cheap labor or the owners of ordinary capital, both of whom will be increasingly squeezed by automation. Fortune will instead favor a third group: those who can innovate and create new products, services, and business models.

The distribution of income for this creative class typically takes the form of a power law, with a small number of winners capturing most of the rewards and a long tail consisting of the rest of the participants. So in the future, ideas will be the real scarce inputs in the world — scarcer than both labor and capital — and the few who provide good ideas will reap huge rewards. Assuring an acceptable standard of living for the rest and building inclusive economies and societies will become increasingly important challenges in the years to come.”

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Google’s Larry Page, who believes you’ll eventually have a brain implant, tells Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times, somewhat defensively, one of the main obstacles of technologists who wish to quantify and mine our lives: 

Farhad Manjoo:

You’re saying the usefulness of the products will change how people feel about them?

Larry Page: 

Yeah, and we know that if we talk about things before people see them, there’s a much more negative reaction. That’s one of the things we learned. It’s really important for people to be able to experience products; otherwise you fear the worst without seeing those benefits.

I’m not trying to minimize the issues. For me, I’m so excited about the possibilities to improve things for people, my worry would be the opposite. We get so worried about these things that we don’t get the benefits. I think that’s what’s happened in health care. We’ve decided, through regulation largely, that data is so locked up that it can’t be used to benefit people very well.

Right now we don’t data-mine health care data. If we did we’d probably save 100,000 lives next year. I’m very worried that the media and governments will try to stoke the people’s fears and we’ll end up in a state where we could benefit a lot of people but we’re not able to do that. That’s the likely outcome.”

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Baseball-stats and true-crime expert Bill James is a brilliant and occasionally maddening person, who can cut through the bullshit of JFK assassination theories yet create some doozies of his own in defending Joe Paterno’s handling of Jerry Sandusky. James’ politics unsurprisingly seem to be complex, a bricolage of beliefs. On his site, he’s provided a simple and straightforward solution to the executive-pay portion of the wealth-disparity argument in America. Courtesy of Tim Marchman at Deadspin, here it is in a nutshell:

“I suppose it is quasi-socialist of me, but I do favor a ’10 to 1′ law stating that no company may pay any employee more than ten times as much as it pays any other employee, on a full-time basis. Enforceable by lawsuit: If your company pays anyone else ten times more than they pay you, you can bring suit against the company AND against the person who is excessively compensated.”

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In his day, Richard Nixon was more of a Liberal in most ways than Barack Obama, though it isn’t completely sensible to measure Presidents outside of the era in which they serve. For all his enthusiasm for universal healthcare and racial quotas, Nixon was hated by the Left, and justifiably so, for his handling of Vietnam and his paranoia about the press, campus activists, anti-war demonstrators, the Black Power movement, Women Libbers, the Democratic National Committee, and, well, everything. He had no reason to fear on the homefront, however, where he enjoyed the unwavering support of his spouse, Pat, who was orphaned as a teenager and would not allow a second family to slip from her grasp. From “Watergate Wife,” a May 1974 People article about the First Lady less than three months before her husband became the only U.S. President to resign:

“Even among her staunchest supporters, the question about Patricia Nixon lingers. As visitors queue up to greet her in the Blue Room or crowds press around her at airport rallies, the unspoken curiosity is there: How does she hold up? How can she survive the bruising stress of Watergate?

‘Get it out of your head that this is a woman who takes to her bed with smelling salts,’ cautions a woman reporter who sees her often. ‘Pat Nixon is the tough one in that marriage.’

That is quite a testimonial. While Richard Nixon built his political reputation on toughness, Pat has always seemed the fragile partner. An intensely private woman, married for nearly 34 years to one of the most public of men, she has endured a succession of taxing campaigns behind a facade of smiling good humor. Even now, as President Nixon battles to stay in office during what may be the climactic crisis of a stormy career, his wife has dutifully kept up appearances. Although increasingly wary of the press, she conscientiously tends to ceremonial functions and continues to show her smile like the flag.

Despite her insistence on toughing out Watergate, Mrs. Nixon, of course, has been feeling the pressure. She made herself a virtual recluse in the White House throughout much of the winter, retreating within her family for solace. Only in March, on a goodwill visit to Latin America, did she appear to blossom with a sense of release. The hectic six-day trip afforded her both a reprieve from the solitude and relief from the drumfire of Watergate. When a reporter intruded on her new ebullience by asking about ‘the strain’ of the past year in Washington, she recoiled with a look of dismay. ‘I don’t really wish to speak of it,’ she said abruptly, then added, ‘You all drink some champagne.’

Pat Nixon has long been regarded as a sort of auxiliary personality in Washington—a presidential appendage with little of the lively independence that Jackie Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson brought to the position of First Lady. Although, paradoxically, she has only two or three close friends outside her family, she seems comfortable among welcoming crowds especially when she is alone, out from under her husband’s shadow. Plunging into a happy sea of strangers, she bubbles over with chatter and cheerfulness and exudes a casual warmth that the President lacks.

But it is endurance that is her own special pride. Once committed, she never breaks an engagement—’I do or die,’ she says. ‘I never cancel out,’—and rarely is so much as a hair out of place. Her secret, she confides, is an ability to deny the demands of her senses. ‘I hate complainers,’ she says, ‘and I made up my mind not to be one. So if it’s cold, I tell myself it’s not cold, and if it’s hot, I tell myself it’s not hot. And you know, it works!’

Her stoical tolerance of discomfort, however, does not extend to critical comment about her husband. It is the vulnerable side of her own personal strength. Her schedule of White House duties—greeting the poster child of the month, playing host to women’s groups—is carefully drawn to avoid embarrassing confrontations. Her mail is likewise thoroughly screened. She rarely grants interviews and is constantly on guard against even the most innocuous questions. Recently, a reporter asked innocently if she were looking forward to going to Europe, should the President decide to visit there soon. ‘You never know what’s going to happen,’ she replied with her mask of a smile. ‘You live for each day.’ It is understandable, perhaps, that after years of warring between the President and the Washington press corps, she should regard the media with instinctive distrust. ‘It’s right out of The Merchant of Venice,’ she recently told her close friend Helene Drown in a discussion of Watergate repercussions. ‘They’re after the last pound of flesh.’”

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Marc Andreessen is sure that the Information Age, like the Industrial Age before it, will lead to an explosion of wealth, and he’s probably right. But who will own that wealth? Will it be concentrated or diffuse? Can a highly automated society provide enough jobs or will we be playing with our smartphones in the margins? Will we have to settle for bread and Kardashians? At Jacobin, in an open letter to Andreessen, Alex Payne asserts that the average person isn’t as frightened by robots as those who own them. An excerpt: 

“While I didn’t jibe with your take on recent macroeconomic history, I was heartened to see that you’re interested in empowering individuals through technology:

[T]he current technology revolution has put the means of production within everyone’s grasp. It comes in the form of the smartphone (and tablet and PC) with a mobile broadband connection to the Internet.

If we’re going to throw around Marxist terminology, though, can we at least keep Karl’s ideas intact?

Owning a smartphone is not the equivalent of owning the means of production. I paid for my iPhone in full, but Apple owns the software that runs on it, the patents on the hardware inside it, and the exclusive right to the marketplace of applications for it. If I want to participate in their marketplace, Apple can arbitrarily reject my application, extract whatever cut of my sales they see fit, and change the terms whenever they like.

Same story with their scant competitors. It seemed like a lot of people were going to get rich in the ‘app economy.’ Outside of Apple and Google, it turns out, not so much. For every WhatsApp there are thousands of failures.

The real money in tech is in platforms, network effects, scale. Sell pickaxes and jeans to the miners, right? Only today it’s Amazon selling the pickaxes. The startup with its servers on EC2 is about as likely to find gold as a ’49er panhandler. Before the startup goes out of business, Amazon gets paid.”

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From an excellent give-and-take at the New York Review of Books blog between philosophers Tim Crane and John Searle, the latter, who doesn’t believe that humans should have the automatic right to housing simply by virtue of being human, shares his views on animal rights:

Tim Crane:

Coming back to the question of rights, since every right requires a corresponding obligation, does it follow from your view that animals don’t have rights, since they have no obligations?

John Searle:

Most rights have to do with specific institutions. As a professor in Berkeley I have certain rights, and certain obligations. But the idea of universal rights—that you have certain rights just in virtue of being a human being—is a fantastic idea. And I think, Why not extend the idea of universal rights to conscious animals? Just in virtue of being a conscious animal, you have certain rights. The fact that animals cannot undertake obligations does not imply that they cannot have rights against us who do have obligations. Babies have rights even before they are able to undertake obligations.

Now I have to make a confession. I try not to think about animal rights because I fear I’d have to become a vegetarian if I worked it out consistently. But I think there is a very good case to be made for saying that if you grant the validity of universal human rights, then it looks like it would be some kind of special pleading if you said there’s no such thing as universal animal rights. I think there are animal rights.

Tim Crane:

Why does that mean they have rights?

John Searle:

For every right there’s an obligation. We’re under an obligation to treat animals as we arrogantly say, ‘humanely.’ And I think that’s right. I think we are under an obligation to treat animals humanely. The sort of obligation is the sort that typically goes with rights. Animals have a right against us to be treated humanely. Now whether or not this gives us a right to slaughter animals for the sake of eating them, well, I’ve been eating them for so long that I’ve come to take it for granted. But I’m not sure that I could justify it if I was forced to.”

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Algorithms replacing workers and upending industries wouldn’t be so frightening provided we had some political solution to reconcile a free-market economy and an automated one should not enough new industries bloom to keep wealth from being even more unevenly distributed. But political solutions aren’t our forte right now. I think Steven Rattner, who did yeoman’s work during the auto bailout, is far too optimistic about the labor market, at least during this painful, transitional period, but he believes the Information Age will play out the same way as the Industrial Age. From “Fear Not the Coming Age of Robots,” his op-ed piece at the New York Times:

“Call it automation, call it robots, or call it technology; it all comes down to the concept of producing more with fewer workers. Far from being a scary prospect, that’s a good thing.

Becoming more efficient (what economists call ‘productivity’) has always been central to a growing economy. Without higher productivity, wages can’t go up and standards of living can’t improve.

That’s why, in the sweep of history, the human condition barely improved for centuries, until the early days of the industrial revolution, when transformational new technologies (the robots of their day) were introduced.

Consider the case of agriculture, after the arrival of tractors, combines and scientific farming methods. A century ago, about 30 percent of Americans labored on farms; today, the United States is the world’s biggest exporter of agricultural products, even though the sector employs just 2 percent of Americans.

The trick is not to protect old jobs, as the Luddites who endeavored to smash all machinery sought to do, but to create new ones. And since the invention of the wheel, that’s what has occurred.

When was the last time you talked to a telephone operator? And yet if rotary dial telephones hadn’t been invented, millions of Americans would currently be wastefully employed saying “Central” every time someone picked up a telephone receiver. More recently but similarly, the Internet has rendered human directory assistance nearly extinct.

Of course, I can’t prove that the impact of some new wave of technological innovation won’t ever upend thousands of years of history. But it hasn’t happened yet.”

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A great person doesn’t necessarily make for a great journalist, and vice versa. Nicholas Kristof of the the New York Times is a solutions-oriented reporter and an admirable person who dearly wants to change the world for the better, but as an activist-journalist, his work as the former clearly interferes at times with that of the latter. His need for a particular type of narrative has compromised some of his work. From “The White Knight,” by Amanda Hess at Slate, a passage about what drove him to develop his victim-and-savior narrative structure:

“In March of 2004, Kristof took on an issue other American journalists wouldn’t touch. ‘The most vicious ethnic cleansing you’ve never heard of is unfolding here in the southeastern fringes of the Sahara Desert,’ Kristof reported from the Chad-Sudan border. ‘It’s a campaign of murder, rape and pillage by Sudan’s Arab rulers that has forced 700,000 black African Sudanese to flee their villages.’ Kristof reported regularly on the Sudan for two years, turning his op-ed perch into a bureau of one. But back in New York, his neighbors were obsessed with the plight of Pale Male, a red-tailed hawk that had been kicked out of the nest he’d built on the ledge of an upscale apartment complex by the building’s co-op board. ‘New Yorkers were all up in arms about a red-tailed hawk being homeless,’ Kristof told the Columbia students. Meanwhile, ‘I couldn’t get them to care as much about hundreds of thousands of people’ who were being ‘kicked out of their homes’ only to ‘disappear without a trace.’

The disconnect inspired Kristof to delve into social science studies on the psychological roots of empathy, which led him to an emerging body of work based on what inspires people to donate to charity. In one study, researchers told American participants the story of Rokia, a (fictional) 7-year-old Malian girl who is ‘desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger, even starvation.’ Then, they told them that 3 million Malawian children are now facing hunger, along with 3 million Zambian people and 11 million Ethiopians. The researchers found that Americans were more likely to empty their pockets for one little girl than they were for millions of them. If they heard Rokia’s story in the context of the dire statistics of the region, they were less inclined to give her money. And if they were informed that they were being influenced by this dynamic, the ‘identifiable-victim effect,’ they were less likely to shell out for Rokia, but no more likely to give to the greater cause. To Kristof, the experiment underscored the ‘limits of rationality’ in reporting on human suffering: ‘One death is a tragedy,’ he told the students, ‘and a million deaths are a statistic.’

Kristof’s most celebrated columns carry echoes of Rokia. They focus on one victim’s compelling story, letting her narrative soar over the complicated political, environmental, and cultural contexts of her suffering. The columns dangle the possibility of a solution to her strife. (Americans respond to a tale where ‘Rokia is hungry, and you feed her, and she lives happily ever after,’ Kristof said.) And they often feature what he calls a ‘bridge character,’ an American humanitarian hero who swoops in, armed with Rokia’s rations.”

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Scott Carney is an investigative journalist whose 2011 book, The Red Market, looks at the world’s very unsettling illicit trade in human flesh, including an Indian “blood farm,” in which a former dairy farmer kidnapped people, drained their blood and sold it. Carney just finished writing his next book, which focuses on the grisly and confusing death of a man at an Arizona Tibetan retreat, but his new Ask Me Anything at Reddit still mostly centers on underground human-organ trafficking, which is usually less about a shanghaied victim than pure economic predation. A few exchanges follow.

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Question:

How much of the illegal trade is actually non-consensual though? Do a lot of people sell their organs on the black market out of economic necessity or are they mostly forced into it by gangsters?

Scott Carney:

It’s impossible to get accurate statistics of anything having to do with the illegal organ trade–but from what I witnessed it seems to me that the majority of the trafficking occurs because very rich companies and hospitals take advantage of desperately poor individuals. So, technically, most of it is consensual, it’s also incredibly coercive. There’s a reason that after every major tsunami and earthquake that the organ brokers come in right after the relief agencies.

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Question:

So it’s less kidnapping people and leaving them in bathtubs full of ice and more pressuring incredibly poor people into selling their organs or face starving to death?

In a way that’s much worse, rather than individual acts of violence it’s an entrenched economic problem that is a lot harder to fix than simply arresting a few kidnapping gangs.

Scott Carney:

Yes. It’s really rare to kidnap people–especially tourists. However, it DOES happen. In this article in Foreign Policy I wrote about several cases where people are simply picked up off the streets and robbed of their organs. That said, it is generally a lot less risky for the brokers to simply convince people they’ve entered into a fair trade, rather than raise suspicion amongst law enforcement.

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Question:

How valuable are each of the harvested body parts approximately? Does it vary widely around the world or are different organs more valuable in different countries?

Scott Carney:

This is a tough question because body parts don’t have a fixed value. Their price fluctuates like a used car. However, I did write a piece for Wired a few years ago where I tried to come up with general prices. Check it out here.

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Question:

How big is this industry estimated to be? How many organ trades a year are we talking worldwide? Obviously with all things criminal we don’t have exact stats but are we talking tens of thousands or millions or what?

Scott Carney:

It is easily worth billions of dollars, but there is no solid statistic that I can point to. It turns out that the criminals are terrible at filing quarterly reports. The best I can point to is a WHO report that says that 10% of organ transplants happen on the black market.

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Question:

Are there any other known places in the world where black market organ trading occurs? And how do they transport the organs?

Scott Carney:

It’s a global problem. I think just about every country has some relation to it. Live organs aren’t usually transported across international lines. In those cases the patients fly abroad for surgery.

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Question:

Do you think an increase in voluntary organ donation would help reduce this market?

Scott Carney:

This is a fascinating question that has more than one answer. I tackle it in the last chapter of my book a little bit. In short, I have to say no. While voluntary donation will increase the overall supply of organs, it does nothing to stem the overall demand. Since 1984 when the National Organ Transplant Association started up the waiting list for a kidney was almost seven years long. Today, with vastly expanded voluntary supply (I think it is something like 50,000 transplants a year now), the list is still just as long. What is happening is that as the supply grows, doctors find more eligible recipients for organs. It’s perverse, but the demand for organs is actually a reflection of the supply. Not the other way around.•

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