You are currently browsing the archive for the Science/Tech category.

Speaking of a romantic age of advertising, here are videos of David Ogilvy of Ogilvy & Mather; and George Lois, who is responsible, along with Harold Hayes, for the classic Esquire covers, and on his own for the “I Want My MTV” campaign. The Ogilvy clip is from the ’60s and the Lois from 1974.

Tags: ,

I’ve mentioned before that Tom Landry, legendary coach of the Dallas Cowboys, was computer savvy in the 1970s (here and here), but the team’s faith in AI stretches back a decade prior, when original GM Tex Schramm invested in some hardware to help crunch numbers for the draft, hoping to remove confirmation bias and other human negatives from the equation. The opening of “Make No Mistakes About It,” Tex Maule’s 1968 Sports Illustrated article:

“The best computer in the world today is a small machine about the size and consistency of a ripe cantaloupe. It can digest, evaluate and extrapolate more data than the most sophisticated hard-metal device yet evolved and can do it quicker and better. The huge computer complex—a machine that takes up more than a thousand feet of floor space—has one advantage over the little one. It has a better memory.

Both types of machine are used in modern professional football, and next week they will be working overtime as the combined National and American football leagues meet to draft this year’s crop of eligible players. The little machines—the cantaloupes—rest in the skulls of the coaches and scouts of the game. The big one—the computer machine—accepts the data given it by the little ones, analyzes it, shuffles through its memory bank and returns black and white judgments to the brains for further evaluation.

In professional football the use of the computer has proliferated enormously during the last five years. The trend began with the escape of a general manager from a professional football team to a short term as an assistant to CBS Sports Director Bill MacPhail. It grew with the immigration of an Indian statistics expert to the U.S. and reached fulfillment when a young man who had made his living taking pictures of newborn babies in Milwaukee hospitals gave up his job to follow his hobby. The three together—led by the ex-CBS executive—easily developed the most intelligent scouting system in all sports.

Tex Schramm, formerly general manager of the Los Angeles Rams and now president of the Dallas Cowboys, decided upon computerized consideration of football players while he was associated with CBS. The Rams, during the years Schramm worked for Owner Dan Reeves and luxuriated in what was then by far the most efficient scouting system in pro football, consistently came up with the best draft in the National Football League and just as consistently lost to other teams that grabbed their discards. Deluged with fine young talent in those years, the Rams tended to drop ripening players in favor of bringing in the new ones.

‘While I was with CBS, I thought the whole thing out very carefully,’ Schramm said the other day. ‘I decided that I had undervalued experience and overvalued youth. And I decided, too, that I would have to find an objective method of deciding on the worth of a football player when I went back into pro football. The only defect in the Ram scouting system was that the people involved all had built-in prejudices of one sort or another. I thought we had to find a way to judge players without emotion. We used computers to figure scores and standings when I was in charge of CBS coverage of the Winter Olympics in 1958, and I discussed using computers to evaluate football players with IBM experts then. But I didn’t get a chance to put the idea into operation until 1962, when I was with the Cowboys.’

As examples of what Schramm means by emotional judgment, he admits that for years he has been partial to speed to the exclusion of other qualities when judging the ability of a player. ‘If a guy can run a 9.4 hundred,’ he says, ‘I’ll overlook a lot of faults. Some coaches have built-in prejudices against small colleges, and some coaches feel that a Big Ten player automatically is good. There are prejudices for and against regions and for and against individual coaches. These prejudices all lead to inaccurate judgments.’

Restored to football in 1960, when Clint Murchison bought the Dallas franchise, Schramm hired Photographer Gil Brandt of Milwaukee as his chief scout and installed a detailed and expensive scouting system. Because there were so many other details to be mastered, it was not until 1962 that he began to solve the problem of objective analysis. In that year the Cowboys were approached by a subsidiary of IBM, Service Bureau Corporation, which was trying to develop a market in handling pro football accounting systems. Schramm countered with the suggestion that SBC try to develop a method for applying computers to the multiple problems of scouting. Eventually SBC sent an Indian—Salam Qureishi—to Texas to look the situation over.”

Tags: , , , , , , ,

If you’re interested in advertising, New York City in the ’60s, Mad Men or the subtle levers of the free market, “The Quiet Persuader,” a 1967 installment of the BBC’s Inside America series, is great fun. It profiles Young & Rubicam exec Steve Frankfurt at 33, during the middle of that decade when the industry was flush and fascinating, when TV, the medium in which he excelled, was becoming the center of the ad world. Frankfurt’s work was so highly regarded that he was even hired to create the title sequence for To Kill a Mockingbird and other films. His first wife, Suzie, who also appears in the documentary, was a highly regarded interior designer and a friend and collaborator of Andy Warhol.

Tags: ,

In a Nautilus Q&A conducted by John Steele, which focuses on the valuation of nature, Cambridge economist Sir Partha Dasgupta offers up a dismal view of our future:


What do you think the world will look like in 50 years?

Sir Partha Dasgupta:

I’m pretty pessimistic. I don’t believe humanity is going down the tube; that is meaningless. There will be always some rich people who will overcome the problems that we will face, and enough rich people. But I think the idea that we are in a universal movement towards progress, for example the idea that we will eliminate poverty in 10 years, 15 years, yes, we can do it for a short period, but the way we are attacking nature, the way we are handling nature, she’s biting back. She bites back at the local level; we already know that. Catastrophe is not a feature of the future. Villages have been wiped out in various parts of the world, as we know, over the decades, civil unrest, civil war amongst tribes, neighbors, which we have seen in our own time, are not exactly unrelated to resource scarcities. These are battles for resources. The epiphenomenon might be cultural divides and so forth, but at the end of the day when you’re very poor you worry about who’s going to feed your child, and our baser instincts, our nobler instincts are suppressed. So in my judgment we have seen enough of that. To think that those things can be cured on a large-scale basis, I don’t have many hopes because we are doing enormous damage to the oceans, we have done enormous damage. Obviously the theme of this conference in large measure has been over climate, and God knows what we have in store in 30, 40 years’ time.

Now, it doesn’t really mean that, as I say, the idea isn’t like that we’re all like lemmings, we all fold under the roof. No, it’s not going to happen like that. The richest parts of the world will find ways, because they have enough resources to be able to overcome the difficulties, at least in some measure. They may not be able to prosper as much. But I hate to think what’s going to happen in the drier parts of the world, sub-Saharan Africa, Northern India. I don’t know what will happen there, but to think that it’s all progress ahead of us if we get our institutions right, I think probably we are a bit too late for that. Many of these processes have very long-term irreversibilities. I mean, my climate science friends tell me that even if you were to have a zero emission now, the cumulative effect of the past will come to terrorize us in some form or the other in the future. So I think we’re going to see deep poverty in various parts of the world, even as we move in whatever direction we have to move, because we’ve set in motion processes which are amazingly tenacious, some of them being our own habits. I don’t think we have in the modern era come to terms with the fact that collective action is required with the greatest urgency at every level, community level, and there is collective action at the community level; we see it everywhere in some form. At the national level far less so, and of course at the international level we see mainly disappointments. So we’ll survive, but this idea of progress which we have become accustomed to over a 250-year period since the beginning of the industrial revolution, certainly in the past 60, 70 years, I mean since the end of the Second World War, there’s been this very optimistic and rightly so, optimistic view with the knowledge that we had that reasoned behavior will take us there, but we’ve been using the wrong metric.”

Tags: ,

Edward Castronova, Indiana University telecommunications professor and student of video-game economies and cryptocurrencies, just did an Ask Me Anything at Reddit. One exchange that cuts to the heart of virtual money:


If you had $500 to invest in a virtual currency if your choice, which one would it be and why?

Edward Castronova:

I would not invest in any coin at the moment. I don’t like risky investments at all. All cryptocoins are risky at the moment and, from 60,000 feet, they do not show enough signs of better or worse right now. It’s like social network software in 2005. Would you bet on MySpace, Friendster, or Orkutt? It turned out that Facebook was the winner.”


The opening of Mark Harris’ Guardian report on the FBI’s investigation into robocars, which could be deployed as fleets of driverless taxis or as automated bomb-delivery systems–or both:

“Google’s driverless car may remain a prototype, but the FBI believes the ‘game changing’ vehicle could revolutionise high-speed car chases within a matter of years. The report also warned that autonomous cars may be used as ‘lethal weapons.’

In an unclassified but restricted report obtained by the Guardian under a public records request, the FBI predicts that autonomous cars ‘will have a high impact on transforming what both law enforcement and its adversaries can operationally do with a car.’

In a section called Multitasking, the report notes that ‘bad actors will be able to conduct tasks that require use of both hands or taking one’s eyes off the road which would be impossible today.’

One nightmare scenario could be suspects shooting at pursuers from getaway cars that are driving themselves.”


From Zachary Crockett’s Priceonomics post which recalls a proposed mission scrubbed from the collective memory, the time when the United States considered a Sagan-aided plan to put a kaboom on the moon:

“As far back as 1949, Chicago’s Armour Research Institute (known as the IIT Research Institute today) had studied the effects of nuclear explosions on the environment and atmosphere. In 1958, the program was approached by the United States Air Force and asked to determine the hypothetical consequences of a nuclear explosion on the Moon. Sensing that national morale was low after the Soviets launched Sputnik, the U.S. government coined a plan: they’d nuke the Moon, causing an explosion so big that it’d be visible from Earth. They hoped the explosion would not only boost the confidence and approval of Americans, but serve as a show of power to the Soviets.

Led by renowned physicist Leonard Reiffel, a ten-person research team was formed under a rather auspicious project title: ‘A Study of Lunar Research Flights’ (or, ‘Project A-119′). Immediately, the team began studying ‘the potential visibility of the explosion, benefits to science, and implications for the lunar surface.’ An essential element to ensuring that the explosion would be seen from Earth was determining the mathematical projection of the expansion of the resulting dust cloud in space; Carl Sagan, a young doctoral student at the time, was brought in to help find an answer.”

Tags: ,

In an attempt to wring absolutely all the magic from romantic crushes, John Allen Paulos of the New York Times looks at the science and statistics behind human desire. We’ve been doing it all wrong! An excerpt:

“Let’s begin by imagining a person to be an assemblage of traits. Many are personal — our looks, habits, backgrounds, attitudes and so on. Many more are situational: how we behave in the myriad contexts in which we find ourselves.

The first relevant statistical notion is sampling bias. If we want to gauge public feelings about more stringent gun control, for instance, we won’t get a random sample by asking only people at a shooting range. Likewise, a fleeting glimpse of someone, or a brief exchange with him or her, yields just a tiny sample of that person’s traits.

But if we find that sample appealing, it can lead to a crush, even if it is based on nothing more than an idealized caricature: We see what we want to see. In the throes of incipient romantic fog, we use what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, calls System 1 thinking — ‘fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic and subconscious.’”


Tags: ,

Because it was inevitable, Timothy Leary once met Charles Manson. In prison, of course–Folsom to be exact. The LSD guru had been apprehended by the FBI in Afghanistan and extradited. One of his cellmates was the Helter Skelter dipshit. Leary documented the meeting in a 1976 article in OUI, a muckraking magazine that once uncovered Pia Zadora’s ass. The article’s opening:

“Commodore Leri, Agent from Central Intelligence assigned to earth, third planet of the G-type Star, sits on the bench of the holding cell of Soledad Prison, dressed in the white jump suit worn by transferees. On his left, John O’Neill, a slick good-looking big-city Irishman down for ten to life for murder two. To his right, a tall, slim, pretty cowboy named Ted with Indian cheekbones and a deep tan. Ted babbles evasively. He has been in and out of the joint for years and has the reputation of being a professional fuck-up. (‘He ain’t playing with a full deck,’ whispers O’Neill. ‘He’s one of the girls and a snitch, too.’) The three hold one-way tickets to the Dark Tower, and that has formed a bond among them. The Dark Tower is Folsom, a trans-Einsteinian Black Hole in the Earth Galaxy from which nothing ever escapes but feeble red radiation.

Leri had done some primatology research in Hollywood after the Tate-LaBianca murders and was fascinated by the wave of fright that swept through the film colony. The chic reaction was to install gate locks, which were opened by remote control after visitors identified themselves over an intercom. Whatever solace this arrangement provided, it certainly would not have thwarted the creepy-crawly Mansonites, who avoided the gate at the Tate house because they suspected that it was electrified. So Leri wrote a memoir for OUI magazine to show that none of the human fears that Manson systematically exploited can be neutralized by external defenses. These terrors, he wrote, are internal neurological reactions and, in order to understand Manson, one must understand the neurology of human fear.

Manson, it was said, stimulated fear in others in order to gain power.

‘One aspect of Manson’s philosophy especially puzzled me: his strange attitude toward fear,’ Vincent Bugliosi says in Helter Skelter. ‘He not only preached that fear as beautiful, he often told the family that they should live in a constant state of fear. What did he mean by that? I asked Paul [Watkins, Manson's second-in-command].

‘To Charlie, fear was the same thing as awareness, Watkins said. The more fear you have, the more awareness, hence the more love. When you’re really afraid, you come to ‘Now.’ And when you are at Now, you are totally conscious.’

Let us give credit where credit is due: Manson’s manipulation of fear has its roots in the paranoia behind the Cold War military posture, the antidrug scare campaigns, the addictive success of the most-popular movies and crime shows, the actions of all bureaucracy and law-enforcement agencies, and the operation of our penal institutions.

Before we can understand Manson, we must realize that a prison system is a microcosm of a culture and that the American prison system is run on raw fear and violence.”


Leary (sans Manson) interviewed at Folsom.

Tags: , ,

You know a really good way to get brain damage? Have another human being kick a soccer ball sixty yards really high into the air and then strike it with your head before it falls to the ground. How many times did we see that scenario during the just-completed World Cup, the goalie booming the ball past mid-field and some striker taking one for the team? 

The research of soccer players getting CTE is far behind such investigations in American football, and most of the science and tech that has entered the game is more about optimizing immediate performance than impact on long-term health. The 2014 tournament is certainly the one in which technology came of age on a global stage. From “The Science Behind World Cup Success” by Brielle Buis at Sports Illustrated:

“Science has a growing a role in the game, and if used correctly heart rate monitors, GPS trackers, and monitored recovery devices can make player regeneration more efficient. ‘Where many teams struggle is that you can’t half use science and kind of follow it but [also] kind of just go with your gut. It won’t work,’ says [Rutgers exercise science professor Shawn] Arent.

The evidence of teams already using technology can been seen throughout the tournament as players remove their jerseys revealing heart rate monitors strapped around their chests. Whether their teams are using the devices correctly is up for question, but according to Arent, ‘The teams’ knowing that the technology exists is a step in the right direction.’

In order to maximize the benefits of science, according to Arent, coaches need to fully buy into it and bring in a science staff, a performance staff, and a medical staff, because the best coaches in the world are really good at soccer but they aren’t trained in exercise science.

[FC Dallas head coach Oscar] Pareja realized the benefit of heart rate monitors to guide the team’s recovery in Texas, where the heat and humidity play a large role, but the affect of the temperature cannot always be seen by the naked eye. ‘We use heart rate monitors every time we step on the field, tracking the players training loads,’ he says. ‘You can see the difference in the training load data based on the weather and heat.’

In a tournament in which teams play anywhere from three to seven matches, the heart rate monitors could reveal when teams should train on their off days and when they should recover. ‘I’ve realized just as important as training is, recovery is equally as important,’ says Pareja.”

Tags: , ,

An excerpt from “How to Choose?” Michael Schulson’s Aeon essay about the reasons why dumb luck sometimes outdoes deduction:

“Over the millennia, cultures have expended a great deal of time, energy and ingenuity in order to introduce some element of chance into decision-making. Naskapi hunters in the Canadian province of Labrador would roast the scapula of a caribou in order to determine the direction of their next hunt, reading the cracks that formed on the surface of the bone like a map. In China, people have long sought guidance in the passages of the I Ching, using the intricate manipulation of 49 yarrow stalks to determine which section of the book they ought to consult. The Azande of central Africa, when faced with a difficult choice, would force a powdery poison down a chicken’s throat, finding the answer to their question in whether or not the chicken survived – a hard-to-predict, if not quite random, outcome. (‘I found this as satisfactory a way of running my home and affairs as any other I know of,’ wrote the British anthropologist E E Evans-Pritchard, who adopted some local customs during his time with the Azande in the 1920s).

The list goes on. It could – it does – fill books. As any blackjack dealer or tarot reader might tell you, we have a love for the flip of the card. Why shouldn’t we? Chance has some special properties. It is a swift, consistent, and (unless your chickens all die) relatively cheap decider. Devoid of any guiding mind, it is subject to neither blame nor regret. Inhuman, it can act as a blank surface on which to descry the churning of fate or the work of divine hands. Chance distributes resources and judges disputes with perfect equanimity.

Above all, chance makes its selection without any recourse to reasons. This quality is perhaps its greatest advantage, though of course it comes at a price. Peter Stone, a political theorist at Trinity College, Dublin, and the author of The Luck of the Draw: The Role of Lotteries in Decision Making (2011), has made a career of studying the conditions under which such reasonless-ness can be, well, reasonable.

‘What lotteries are very good for is for keeping bad reasons out of decisions,’ Stone told me. ‘Lotteries guarantee that when you are choosing at random, there will be no reasons at all for one option rather than another being selected.’ He calls this the sanitising effect of lotteries – they eliminate all reasons from a decision, scrubbing away any kind of unwanted influence. As Stone acknowledges, randomness eliminates good reasons from the running as well as bad ones. He doesn’t advocate using chance indiscriminately. ‘But, sometimes,’ he argues, ‘the danger of bad reasons is bigger than the loss of the possibility of good reasons.’”

Tags: ,


Wernher von Braun, center, with Willy Ley, right, in 1954.

Ley with daughter Xenia at the Hayden Planetarium, 1957.

Speaking of Nazis, the top photograph offers an odd juxtaposition: That’s Wernher von Braun, a rocketeer who was a hands-on part of Hitler’s mad plan, whose horrid past was whitewashed by the U.S. government (here and here) because he could help America get a man on the moon; with Willy Ley, a German science writer and space-travel visionary who fled the Third Reich in 1935. A cosmopolitan in an age before globalization, Ley only wanted to share science across the word and encourage humans into space and onto the moon. He knew early on Nazism was madness leading to mass graves, not space stations. When Ley arrived in America after using falsified documents to escape Germany, he worked a bit on an odd rocket-related program: Ley led an effort to use missiles to deliver mail. It was a long way to go to get postcards from point A to point B, and an early attempt failed much to the chagrin of Ley, who donned a spiffy asbestos suit for the blast-off. Here’s the story of the plan’s genesis in the February 21, 1935 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“It may be a long time before you can take a trip to the moon or to Mars in a rocket, but the time is not far off when rockets will be used to carry mail and to catapult airplanes from ships or from the ground.

This, according to Willy Ley of Berlin, who arrived today on Cunard-White Star liner Olympic for a seven-month stay in the United States, during which time he will work on the development of the rocket with G. Edward Pendray of Crestwood, N.J. Mr. Pendray is president of the American Rocket Society. 

Mr. Ley said that a friend in Austria had used rockets successfully in the delivery of mail between two towns, only two and a half miles apart, but separated by high mountains. In a very short time, he said, the rocket may supplant all other means of mail delivery.

Its use as a catapult for airplanes, he said would make it possible to equip planes with smaller engines, because airplane engines now require most of their horsepower to take off and can do without it in the air. By using rocket as a catapult, this extra horsepower would not be necessary, he pointed out.

Also on the Olympic were Dr. Walter Braun, young German physician, who has come to live with his brother, Fred Braun of 468 8th St., Brooklyn; William M.L. Fiske, recently chosen captain of the American bobsled team which is to compete in the coming Olympics, who has been in Europe on business; the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, who will visit friends in South Carolina. The ship was a day late due to terrific headwinds it met in the crossing.”


In 1952, Ley being interviewed, preposterously, about flying saucers, and also about space travel:

Tags: , ,

Elon Musk, whose ambitions are part Edison and part Tesla, just announced he’s building a spaceport in Texas, aiming to send up rockets at an exceptionally fast clip. From Ashlee Vance in Businessweek:

“The new site in Texas, though, would give SpaceX a clean slate to put its unique spin on a spaceport. Knowing Musk, I believe this would mean an ultrafuturistic design coupled with loads of automation. The space industry could certainly benefit from this type of modernization, since it’s still relying, in most cases, on decades-old sites that were mainly built to send up missiles.

The SpaceX spaceport will be in Cameron County, where the company has been gobbling up land not far from the border with Mexico and near the cities of McAllen and Brownsville. The FAA has granted SpaceX approval (pdf) for 12 commercial launches per year on a 56.5 acre parcel of land. SpaceX would mostly be launching its current Falcon 9 rockets and its upcoming Falcon Heavy rockets.

Musk’s ultimate goal is to get to Mars, and he wants to be able to perform several launches a day, so that enough equipment and people could be sent to the planet to sustain life. The Texas site represents the first steps toward perfecting some of the launch technology needed to pull this off.”

Tags: ,

A three-wheeled concept car, the General Motors Roundabout was introduced at the 1964 World’s Fair as part of the “Futurama II” exhibit. Like the Electric Shopper, it was meant mostly as a chore vehicle. It looked like the future. It was not. From Concept Car Central: “The Runabout was a three-wheeled commuter car with two built-in shopping carts in the trunk for trips to the mall or grocery store. The front wheel could turn 180 degrees for easy parking. Aerodynamically similar to the Firebird IV concept, the Runabout featured a sliding canopy which provided access to the four seats. Driver equipment was sparse, though the Runabout had no driveline, and had to be rolled into the showroom.”


In an interview conducted by Michael Proctor at King’s Review, astronomer Martin Rees is asked the two questions he probably receives most: 1) How did life begin here and 2) Is there life out there? (Thanks Browser.)


Martin Proctor:

Obviously, you think that the Big Bang is the correct explanation for the origins of the universe, as opposed to, say, the steady state theory. Do you feel there is a place for any sort of external force or creator?

Martin Rees:

We don’t know about the very beginning. The Big Bang may be embedded in some grander structure where there are many, many Big Bangs. I think all bets are off with regards to how it started and whether there even was a beginning. I think the aim of studying the cosmos is to push back the causal chain. Newton explained why the planets move in ellipses, but he wrote in a couple of places that he found it mysterious that the planets were moving on more or less the same plane, what we call the ecliptic, whereas the comets come from more random directions. He thought that must be providence. We understand now why planetary orbits are more or less coplanar – it’s a consequence of their origin in a dusty protostellar disc. And we’ve pushed back the causal chain to understand the formation of atoms, stars and galaxies, but there’s always a further step as well.

Martin Proctor:

Is there ‘life out there’?

Martin Rees:

That’s one of the most fascinating questions of all. But it’s a biological question. And biology is a more difficult subject than astronomy in that it deals with more complicated phenomena. We don’t even understand how life began on Earth. We understand how Darwinian evolution led from simple life to our complex biosphere. But people don’t understand the transition from complex chemistry to the first metabolising and reproducing systems. It’s gratifying that some really serious biochemists are now addressing this question When we understand that, it will tell us two things: whether it’s likely or unlikely that extraterrestrial life is widespread; and whether there is something particularly special about the chemistry on which terrestrial life is based. In other words, would we expect any other life to have the same DNA? So we don’t know that. Even the most firmly Earth-bound biologists would be fascinated by this issue. Another exciting prospect is that observations will tell us whether some of these planets have a biosphere. That will be do-able within ten or twenty years by the next generation of giant telescopes, powerful enough to provide sharp images, and collect enough light to identify the spectrum of a planet even if it’s millions of times fainter than its parent star.”

Tags: ,

Dubai, which is taking the lead in the air, hopes to forge ahead with air-conditioning as well, announcing plans for the first temperature-controlled, indoor city, the Mall of the World. I want to know more about the “specialized surgical procedures and cosmetic treatments” available in the “Wellness District,” which will cater to “medical tourists.” If the emirate’s real-estate market is as much a bubble as some think it is, we may have the first ghost town with a quiet-cool setting. From Belinda Lanks at Businessweek:

“Dubai is the land of superlatives. It already lays claim to the tallest building and the biggest fish tank in the world. Now the city has unveiled plans to build the largest mall and biggest indoor theme park in what will be the first temperature-controlled mini-city.

The 8-million-square-foot shopping center, dubbed Mall of the World, will include 100 hotels, a medical resort, event facilities, and a theater district—all of which can be shielded from the elements by a large retractable roof. The project, according to the developer, Dubai Holding, will be built ‘in phases in alignment with the gradual growth of family tourism in Dubai.’

Attracting shoppers from abroad is the goal.”


“Catering to medical tourists in a 3-million sq. ft. area”:


What the late Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione loved almost as much as a hot piece of ass was cold fusion. At one point during his outsize life, Guccione, along with wife Kathy Keeton, funded a lab staffed with dozens of scientists studying the hypothetical nuclear reaction. From a 2004 New York article by Anthony Haden-Guest: 

Omni also attests to the couple’s shared enthusiasm for the scientific fringe. Cold fusion, for instance. In 1989, two scientists claimed that they had proved experimentally that limitless free energy could be harmlessly produced from water. Mainstream scientists failed to duplicate the results and condemned the claims as piffle —which did not deter Bob and Kathy. ‘At one point, Penthouse magazine was supporting 82 scientists in San Diego,’ Guccione told me. ‘Eighty-two scientists from around the world. We had Russians, Israelis, computer experts, physicists. They were all working on this fusion project.

‘And we were doing very well. But we had reached a point where we needed to create a device which would ignite the plasma. That device would have a life of about one ten-thousandth of a second and cost about $35 million to build.

‘And since I was the sole supporter, I couldn’t go any further.’”

Tags: ,

From Marcus Wohlsen’s Wired piece about the potential for an automated version of the Cynk penny-stock fiasco, the bloodless machines not yet able to decipher the language of human irrationality:

“That said, Cynk’s rise probably has less to do with a software glitch and more with a bug in human programming that blinds some people to the myth of a free lunch. Given the low volume of trading in Cynk shares—fewer than 400,000 shares yesterday, with a closing price of $13.90 per share—no one made or lost a whole lot of money, at least not by Wall Street standards. The winners and losers likely were typical penny stock hustlers, day traders chasing small jumps and drops. A few might have thought Cynk was the white whale they’d been chasing all along, and some of them may have landed it.

But the potential for an automated version of that kind of quick-buck thinking is there. After all, high-frequency trading, as revealed by Michael Lewis and others, is a similar kind of arbitrage, just at much faster speeds and informed by microseconds of insider knowledge that come from hardwired connections to the stock exchanges. While most high-frequency trading remains grounded in statistical analyses of patterns in the markets themselves, the AP Twitter hack example shows trading firms are letting their machines comb social media and the news in search of competitive advantage.

The problem is that computers still aren’t smart enough to parse the complexities of human communications in a way that makes them reliable arbiters of what news is actually worth trading on.”


If ousted Citigroup chairman Vikram Pandit had made the following comments, recorded by Tom Braithwaite in a “Lunch with the Financial Times piece, twenty years ago, they would have been bold, forward-thinking statements. Now? Meh. Feels like he’s playing catch-up. An excerpt:

“‘Data is like . . . You’re too young, but there was a movie with the [line about] plastics.’ When I assure him I’m familiar with The Graduate, he says: ‘Data is this generation’s plastics. I don’t see business models being truly successful until you get it.’

Pandit has a fondness for big concepts and management-speak and it can be difficult to bring him down to earth. I press him for examples. ‘You have large auto companies saying, ‘Where is the growth?’ and, on the other hand, you have a SMAC stack that’s created Uber. What’s interesting is that all those intangible abilities are inside the auto companies to make it happen.’

He has been investing in a steady stream of companies that he thinks embody innovative ideas that might make them the next Uber, the suddenly ubiquitous taxi-ordering app. At the same time, he is chairman of TGG Group, a consulting company set up by Steven Levitt, co-author of pop economics book Freakonomics – which aims to help corporations unlock their inner Ubers.

Starters cleared away, Pandit isolates a small breadcrumb in the expanse of white tablecloth and tweezers it between his finger nails. Behavioural economics, he says, provides an ‘uncanny ability to predict how you’re going to behave.’ Levitt, best-known for a book which explores the business model of drug-dealers and cheating sumo wrestlers, is applying his analysis of human behaviour to companies in ways that ‘will be in textbooks in 10 years.’”

Tags: ,

The opening of Bill Gates’ WSJ piece revealing his favorite business book, which was penned decades ago by a New Yorker writer whose name probably doesn’t resonate so much today:

“Not long after I first met Warren Buffett back in 1991, I asked him to recommend his favorite book about business. He didn’t miss a beat: It’s Business Adventures, by John Brooks,’ he said. ‘I’ll send you my copy.’ I was intrigued: I had never heard of Business Adventures or John Brooks.

Today, more than two decades after Warren lent it to me—and more than four decades after it was first published—Business Adventures remains the best business book I’ve ever read. John Brooks is still my favorite business writer. (And Warren, if you’re reading this, I still have your copy.)

A skeptic might wonder how this out-of-print collection of New Yorker articles from the 1960s could have anything to say about business today. After all, in 1966, when Brooks profiled Xerox, the company’s top-of-the-line copier weighed 650 pounds, cost $27,500, required a full-time operator and came with a fire extinguisher because of its tendency to overheat. A lot has changed since then.”

Tags: , ,

Two brief newspaper articles which announced the invention, in 1907, of an automatic typewriter by Thomas A. McCall, which was at the time being demonstrated at business conventions, including one at Madison Square Garden. It eventually came to the market under the name the Hooven Automatic, a carbon paper-less way to reproduce scores of form letters and memos.


From “Truly Wonderful Machine,” in the August 5, 1907 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“In Columbus, O., a man has produced a mechanical typewriter that promises to eliminate the present day pretty stenographer that has become such a familiar figure in the modern office. This machine will actually write letters at the rate of one thousand words a minute, continuously, and do the work correctly and automatically. This wonderful machine will be on exhibition at the national business shows to be held in New York and Chicago this fall. The machine may be operated in two ways. If it is desired to make a number of copies of the letter, with different names and addresses, it will perform this work producing in each case an original letter in one, two or three colors, fill in the name and address and add the signature.

A business man desiring to dictate may use this automatic typewriter by talking his letters into a device like a phonograph, transfer the record to the machine, turn on the electric current and go home. The next morning the letters will all be done, and the machine will automatically stop when all the letters are written. It will also address envelopes or wrappers and count them as well.

It will write forward or backward, and if desired the lines may be justified like type, which at the present time is impossible on ordinary typewriters. With the general introduction of this machine wives of business men will breathe easier, for the machine is warranted not to flirt. The national business shows, where the machine will be shown to the public for the first time, will be held in Madison Square Garden in New York October 12 to 19 and in the Coliseum, Chicago, November 9 to 16.”


From “Machine May Replace Typewriter Girls,” in the October 15, 1907 Los Angeles Herald:

“Typewriter girls may find their occupations gone if what is said of a new invention turns out to be true. It is exhibited at the business show now in progress in Madison Square Garden and is an automatic typewriter run by compressed air and capable, it is said, of writing from 5,000 to 10,000 words an hour for twenty-four hours at a stretch.

The invention is the work of A. McCall of Columbus, Ohio.”


Cars are smaller and fewer and less gassy in America, but home-size growth halted only briefly during the depths of the Great Recession, subsequently regaining the lost square footage and then some. Even our most famous environmentalist, Al Gore, lives in a climate-killing monster with more-than-ample mantle space for his Nobel and Oscar. From Henry Grabar’s Salon piece, “We Must Kill the McMansion!“:

“This surfeit of space is a potent symbol of the American way of life; it speaks to our priorities, our prosperity and our tendency to take more than we need. But the superlative size of our houses isn’t just a foam finger America can hold up to the world. It’s correlated with land use patterns and population density, which in turn determine the environmental impact and personal health of communities, and whether they can support a diverse range of businesses, facilities and transportation choices. It’s no coincidence that a modern American suburb like Weston, Florida, has just one-third the population density of Levittown.

Given the environmental, infrastructural and financial costs of Americans’ insatiable spatial appetites – the share of our budgets devoted to housing is 41 percent, up from 26 percent in the Levittown era – you can understand why some saw good news in the recession-era report that our houses had begun to shrink. Between 2007 and 2010, for the first time in a half century, the average size of new U.S. homes fell by more than a hundred square feet, dropping back toward 2004 levels.

It was no peak; last year, the average size of new American houses reached an all-time high of 2,679 square feet. The increase in space per person has been even more dramatic. Between 1973 and 2013, the average American household shrank from 3.01 to 2.54 persons; new homes give Americans more than 1,000 square feet per family member, on average. That’s roughly twice as much space as we had in 1973.

You may consider this an indicator of success, excess, or both. Planners consider it a challenge. Economic growth, as the prolific planner Pedro Ortiz has written, drives urban expansion far more than population growth. In Madrid, for example, the average person’s living space expanded from 129 square feet in 1974 to 301 square feet in 2007 — a nearly threefold increase. While the population hardly changed between 1975 and 1995, the city’s footprint expanded by 50 percent.

The phenomenon is universal. But American homes dwarf those in nearly every other country on Earth.”

Tags: , ,

Cheap is often expensive, and low prices come off of someone else’s bottom line, almost always workers. In a The Daily Dot piece, Tim Jones-Yelvington argues against the sharing economy for the injuries it causes labor, though I don’t think regulation will cause it to screech to a halt. Nor should it, really. Beyong ride-sharing, driverless cars are going to displace workers, and we shouldn’t try to stop that innovation from occurring. We do, however, need some nimble political solutions to deal with the transitional pain of change and automation. An excerpt:

“What Uber and their ilk are fighting for is their right to evade regulatory protections that ensure not just safety for passengers, but also basic labor protections for the professional taxi drivers for whom cabs are a primary source of income. According to Uber, policies like the one pending in my home state of Illinois will destroy thousands of jobs for people in need of cash to pay their bills, including ‘military veterans, teachers, retirees, students, students, the unemployed and underemployed.’ (See also: babies and dogs.)

They’re referring to the part-time drivers who participate in the low-cost non-taxi ridesharing service UberX, who are currently not required to hold commercial licenses, and who are facing some pretty sketchy working conditions, including unpredictable percentages owed to Uber and unreliable protection from the company in case of accidents.

But UberX drivers are also undercutting professional cab drivers and could arguably be described as scabs, helping encourage an overall race to the bottom. With their help, the taxi cab business is now going the way of many other industries in the 21st century, as what was once a potentially viable career is displaced by contingent, part-time, and more easily exploited workers.”


The Economist has a review of The Improbable Primate: How Water Shaped Human Evolution, Clive Finlayson’s new book which argues that H2O was what made us modern, though I’ve always thought it likely that it was a confluence of numerous factors. The opening:

“ACCORDING to the standard treatment in evolutionary biology, about 1.8m years ago man’s brain became larger, his gut became smaller and he started walking upright. No ape had done that before. It was an important milestone in the story of human evolution.

The ancestor in question, Homo erectus, could use simple tools and hunt. His diet was more meat-based than plant-based. Meat has more calories than food derived from plants. Humans had transformed themselves from tree-climbing apes that needed to spend a lot of time searching for food to upright, meat-consuming hunters that could roam large distances. So successful was this transformation, evolutionarily speaking, that in due course the descendants of Homo erectus, modern-day Homo sapiens, had no problems colonising the far reaches of the globe.

A few years ago Richard Wrangham, a British primatologist at Harvard University, challenged this accepted wisdom by arguing that learning to cook had made apes human. People cannot easily digest raw meat, he said. Cooking food increases its nutritional value. Mr Wrangham showed that Homo erectus learned to cook with fire about 1.8m years ago. This development conferred evolutionary benefits that ultimately led to the dominance of Homo sapiens today.

In a new book, Clive Finlayson, a zoologist and palaeontologist, who is the director of the Gibraltar Museum, offers another view of 7m years of human evolution. Instead of food, he focuses on water, advancing the theory that the spread of Homo sapiens across the globe was driven largely by changes in climate and access to fresh water.”

Tags: ,

Web 1.0 firms prided themselves not just on the informality of their office space but the austerity. Giant tech firms aren’t just lavish now, but their campuses possess identities as pronounced as those of nation-states. Some day (and relatively soon) they will all be gone, but presently they are gleaming cities on a hill. What do the offices of Google and Twitter and Apple tell us about our more collective future? From Kate Losse’s essay “Tech Aesthetics” at Aeon:

“The trend towards office design as an expression of employee taste began after the dotcom crash, when tech companies auctioned off all of their Aeron chairs and ping pong tables, which had come to symbolise tech-office playfulness. As a result, tech offices of the early 2000s tended towards a more sober utility, meant to reassure investors of their restraint.

It took a new generation of companies to renew the playful tech aesthetic. In 2004, Mark Zuckerberg moved Facebook from his dorm room at Harvard University cross-country to its headquarters in Silicon Valley. The company’s first office on Emerson Avenue in Palo Alto recreated Zuckerberg’s dorm room in its design aesthetic, with a video game room replete with ratty couch and rattier blankets. Meanwhile Google’s headquarters in nearby Mountain View adopted a playful, more elementary-school feel with primary colours, exercise balls, and oversized robot sculptures. By 2007, the Day-Glo look – what one could call the ‘orange period’ – had taken over tech, transforming conferences, T‑shirts, and offices into seas of bright orange, yellow and lime green.

The economic crash of 2008 ushered in a new, almost military sobriety, best represented by Facebook’s renovation of an old Hewlett-Packard building in the Stanford Research Park in Palo Alto complete with cavernous, sterile rooms and cement floors. As the economy recovered over the next several years, a new idiosyncratic kind of luxury began to flourish, evident in the appearance of custom pieces, hand-hewn wooden trimmings, and the increasingly eclectic fixtures that mark today’s tech offices. This latest trend can be read as an attempt to disguise work – with trimmings that suggest personality in place of the smooth, ordered humming of a corporate workforce.

This is why the walls in Facebook’s latest headquarters in Menlo Park are covered in graffiti: it makes an office sited on suburban marshland seem like a buzzy urban street. Reassuringly for its well-off workers, however, it’s still a high-end kind of street where the graffiti is done by artists on commission rather than by some masked figure spray‑painting without permission.

What connects Facebook’s incongruous graffiti and Twitter’s incongruous log cabins is their expense. Both represent a complete renovation of the space, making graffiti and log cabins (not in themselves luxurious) seem like high-end amenities.”


« Older entries § Newer entries »