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San Diego wants to be “Robot Alley,” or at least that’s the ambitious goal of Henrik Christensen, leader of UCSD’s Contextual Robotics Institute. In an excellent San Diego Union-Tribune Q&A conducted by Gary Robbins, the engineer comments on the impact of autonomous vehicles (which he believes are “10, 15 years out”), technological unemployment (“we’ll see significant displacement of taxi drivers, truck drivers”), Universal Basic Income (“in the U.S., that would be a really hard thing”) and robots that learn (“they’re going to use potentially all of the data that’s available about you.”)

On the last topic, Christensen believes machines that know every last detail about us will be especially useful in the care of our graying population, though he realizes this elaborate stream of info can be abused–and it certainly will be, especially in societies that value markets above all else, where people are often thought of as consumers rather than citizens. Are such invasions of privacy more driven by political and economic systems than the technology itself? Will robots be kinder in Sweden?

The opening:


Automation and robotics are advancing quickly. What impact will this have on employment in the United States?

Henrik Christensen:

We see two trends. We will use robots and automation to bring manufacturing jobs back from overseas, primarily from Southeast Asia. At the same time, we will see some jobs get displaced by automation. There will be fully automated, driverless transportation in this country by 2020, and that will eliminate some jobs now held by workers like truck drivers and taxi drivers. 


Will there be a net increase or decrease in jobs?

Henrik Christensen:

To be honest with you, we don’t know. There was a recent study on this by the National Academies, but there wasn’t enough good data to make it clear what the outcome will be. We do see a lot of change occurring. Amazon is printing books at its local distribution centers, then sending them on to customers. They print the book, put a cover on it, and off it goes. That cuts down on transportation jobs and costs. 


Are you saying that Amazon is just beginning to do this?

Henrik Christensen:

It’s happening today. This program has been in existence for more than a year. The last estimate I heard was that 65 percent of the books Amazon delivers are printed in its local distribution centers. Amazon wants to do (widespread) deliveries of groceries, too.


But doesn’t this assume that the technology of driverless vehicles is much further along than it actually is?

Henrik Christensen:

My own prediction is that kids born today will never get to drive a car. Autonomous, driverless cars are 10, 15 years out. All the automotive companies — Daimler, GM, Ford — are saying that within five years they will have autonomous, driverless cars on the road.•

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Jared Kushner’s role in the political rise of his Ku Klux Kardashian father-in-law is as puzzling as it is frightening.

Can he truly be oblivious of the neo-Nazi demons he’s helped unloose? THEY do not really like him and his family. Is he cognizant but believes these hatemongers can be used and controlled the way “family values” folks were by Newt and Rove during the nineties and aughts? What’s been activated, mainstreamed and normalized during this disgraceful campaign season won’t be easily managed.  

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The impending Presidency of a tweeting, vainglorious incompetent is so unsettling that many Americans are now wistful for the good old days of a gentlemanly war criminal like George W. Bush and the relatively liberal Richard Nixon (though we were just reminded of the blood he had on his hands). The next Administration won’t be pretty, there will be no moderating and the most hopeful outcome is that a kleptocrat bleeds dry citizens who were already running a quart low. The more upsetting possibilities include 240 years of U.S. liberal governance being flushed down the vortex or this latter-day Bishop Coughlin deciding to nuke a nation he sees as a pawn. “Unspeakable things,” will happen, he promised. Believe him.

From John Cassidy at the New Yorker

To be sure, other men who were ill-qualified, ethically challenged, or potentially unhinged have occupied the Oval Office during the Republic’s long history. John Tyler and Millard Fillmore, two mid-nineteenth-century Whigs, are often cited in the first category. During the nineteen-twenties, Warren G. Harding brought the stench of corruption right into the West Wing, where he played poker with his cronies from Ohio, some of whom were busy enriching themselves at federal expense. And, when it comes to addled Presidents, we have the accounts that have been handed down of Richard Nixon as the Watergate scandal reached its climax—brooding, cursing, drinking heavily, driven to the edge of madness.

But historical comparisons to Trump only go so far. Tyler and Fillmore, the tenth and thirteenth Presidents, were both experienced politicians who were serving as Vice-Presidents when their bosses died. (Tyler had been the governor of Virginia and also represented the state in the U.S. Senate. Fillmore was a former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.) Although Harding’s name will forever be associated with the Teapot Dome scandal, which involved the secret leasing out of federal oil reserves, he wasn’t accused of lining his own pockets. Nixon, a Shakespearian figure racked by personal insecurities, was also an intelligent man blessed with great powers of concentration. According to Arthur Burns, the economist he appointed to head the Federal Reserve, Nixon could have “held down a chair in political science or law in any of our major universities.”

Trump, then, is sui generisHe has no experience in elected office—in these demented times, that was part of his popular appeal. His reputation as a hugely successful businessman has little basis in fact, as does his claim of being worth ten billion dollars. Until he launched his Presidential campaign, in which he showed some genuine skill as a rabble-rouser, his talents had lain in attracting other people’s money, promoting himself in the media, and playing a role on reality television—the role of Donald Trump, the great dealmaker.•

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I am the whitest white boy imaginable. A really pasty fuck. My head is like a gigantic ball of cotton. When I hiccup, tiny marshmallows fall out of my mouth. And I’m male and straight and check off every other mainstream box America’s got.

That doesn’t stop Twitter Nazis from sometimes assailing me with hate speech, throwing the n-word in my direction to bait me. I block and report them, but even if they lose their account, they can instantly and anonymously start a hundred more.

Why would I want to spend time batting away evil sociopaths when I can be speaking to nice people or reading a book or exercising? And if my Caucasian, male self is on the receiving end of such nastiness, imagine how those who identify differently are pursued by these bigoted trolls.

That’s sad because I’ve also used Twitter to communicate with lots of bright folks I never would have met and to recommend really smart pieces of journalism. Still, like most non-insane people who use the social-media service, I think every day about deactivating my account. I’m sure I eventually will.

In an excellent Guardian piece, Lindy West explains she didn’t deactivate because of “trolls, robots and dictators” but due to Twitter’s negligence in countering them. It’s an oversight, the writer believes, that allowed for the “perfecting” of mass hatred. An excerpt:

I hate to disappoint anyone, but the breaking point for me wasn’t the trolls themselves (if I have learned anything from the dark side of Twitter, it is how to feel nothing when a frog calls you a cunt) – it was the global repercussions of Twitter’s refusal to stop them. The white supremacist, anti-feminist, isolationist, transphobic “alt-right” movement has been beta-testing its propaganda and intimidation machine on marginalised Twitter communities for years now – how much hate speech will bystanders ignore? When will Twitter intervene and start protecting its users? – and discovered, to its leering delight, that the limit did not exist. No one cared. Twitter abuse was a grand-scale normalisation project, disseminating libel and disinformation, muddying long-held cultural givens such as “racism is bad” and “sexual assault is bad” and “lying is bad” and “authoritarianism is bad”, and ultimately greasing the wheels for Donald Trump’s ascendance to the US presidency. Twitter executives did nothing.

On 29 December, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted: “What’s the most important thing you want to see Twitter improve or create in 2017?” One user responded: “Comprehensive plan for getting rid of the Nazis.”

“We’ve been working on our policies and controls,” Dorsey replied. “What’s the next most critical thing?” Oh, what’s our second-highest priority after Nazis? I’d say No 2 is also Nazis. And No 3. In fact, you can just go ahead and slide “Nazis” into the top 100 spots. Get back to me when your website isn’t a roiling rat-king of Nazis. Nazis are bad, you see?

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In 1987, Omni invited Robert Heilbroner to speculate on the U.S. and global economy in 2007. Ten years after his target date, many of his predictions still ring true.

The economist was prescient about income inequality, the creative disruption of technology and the threats to American exceptionalism. He was also aware that a new superpower might emerge, though he believed it would be Japan, not China.

Heilbroner also foresaw the race to the bottom that was the McJob before Douglas Coupland coined that term, writing, “These industries [steel and automotive] have been seriously imperiled, and their place as employers has been replaced by what I call the McDonald’s employers. More people work for McDonald’s than work for U.S. Steel, but McDonald’s has no ladders. The problem is serious.”

His forecast:

There is an alarming possibility that our economy is moving in the direction of what some people call a two-tier society — a large population of people with middle-class or higher incomes and values, with a considerable bulge at the top. and a large number of people who have been economically and culturally uncoupled from the main society.

What’s most alarming is that the ladder that has connected the bottom to the top is now missing some important rungs. There were certain industries, like the steel and auto industries, that provided more or less continuous ladders of jobs from the bottom to the top. You could enter as an unskilled person, acquire new skills, and move up the ladder to secure, unionized, better-paying jobs. But now these industries have been seriously imperiled, and their place as employers has been replaced by what I call the McDonald’s employers. More people work for McDonald’s than work for U.S. Steel, but McDonald’s has no ladders. The problem is serious.

A great many economists, myself included, feel uneasy about the fact that 70 percent ol the economy does what is called service work and only 30 percent does what is called goods-related work. New technology keeps entering the economy and disrupting employment. When you look back at how the American economy developed, you see a migration off the farm into the factory and out of the factory into the office. The main push has come from technology. There has been relatively little new machinery to push people out of the office, but that’s changing now. If the computer creates jobs in the office, the service sector will increase and there will be no squeezing of employment. But if technology bumps service people out of work, I don’t know where they are going to go.

Personally. I think American optimism is in for a very severe challenge. We have always considered ourselves virtually to have a right to be number one in the world. But of course we don’t have any such right or assurance. And we have to resign ourselves to the unsettling fact that we are number two, or three, or four in many ways. In terms of health, for instance, we have fallen seriously behind, and that’s a big blow to our self-image.

In the next 20 years the government will have to take active steps in providing work and income tor the bottom one third of the population. The government grudgingly provides some sort of income, but it doesn’t provide work. And work is essential for people’s self-esteem and also for the building of many kinds of infrastructures that are needed in the country.

It is quite possible, it seems to me, that America will emerge from its present, wholly unaccustomed struggle for world position very worse off than it is today; that we will not find the right combination of talents and the right distribution of workforce in various occupations; that we will not develop the right technologies and will end up with a seriously disadvantaged economy. Not so long ago England was still regarded as one of Ihe most remarkable economies in the world, but it is now slightly less productive than Portugal. I think it is quite possible that the day of unquestioned American preeminence may be finished.

We could suddenly find that the way Americans live, their chances for life expectancy, their amenities of life are not as. good as, let’s just say, the Germans’ or the Swedes’. We might fail to produce the necessary output to bring our living standards and quality of life up to an acceptable level.

In the old days we tended to think about political possibilities in terms of left and right. Since Iran we’ve realized there is another dimension “up and down.” There is potential for a great deal of political mischief and sabotage in “underdeveloped” countries, and anyone who tries to think about the future has to consider that. There is going to be lots of trouble.

It is clear which countries are emerging as economic powers. It is entirely possible that Japan is going to be the England of the future — I mean the 1850’s England. Japan may be the organizer for a “Pacific Rim” economy — as England was for Europe a century ago. Japan may combine its leadership and technology with the inexpensive manpower and the intelligence of the Chinese, the Malaysians, the Taiwanese, the Indians, the Koreans. It is quite possible that there will be a new world economic “empire” out there, which will severely challenge the formerly undisputed hegemony of the West. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union, as far as I can see, will continue to be very bureaucratic and will be very unlikely to make any economic changes.

Sooner or later this terrific debt problem has to be resolved, and there is only one possible way to resolve it, and that is to “forget” it. The debt is unrepayable, and it is going to be swallowed by a number of people taking their lumps— banks, corporations, and governments. And some of the borrowers will have to swallow bitter pills. The decks have to be cleared. I suspect that under international agreements the old debts are going to be washed away, forgiven, or rephased — such wonderful jargon words!

I think everyone recognizes now that the achievement of a better world is more complicated and difficult than some of us thought 20 years ago.•

Which one of you geniuses broke Mark Zuckerberg? We can’t have anything nice because of you people!

I’m not a big fan of Facebook. Every day hundreds of millions of citizens around the world create content for the corporation for free, which would make it by far history’s largest sweatshop except even those toiling in airless factories are paid a pittance. Not only do “friends” contribute this work, they’re also tracked relentlessly and occasionally serve as lab rats for social experiments.

Even beyond the corrosive nature of surveillance capitalism, the whole enterprise just seems unhealthy psychologically. I don’t think every day should be a high school reunion. Maybe we should leave some things behind, move on, grow up. Facebook just seems like an unhappiness machine to me.

None of my peeves seem to bother the communications wunderkind, but perhaps the recent fake news outrage has driven him over the edge? Two recent stories about Zuckerberg make it clear he’s had a come-to-Jesus moment and also a come-to-Jarvis one. He’s searching for guidance or God or AI or some entity with intelligence. Zuck may be the sort of billionaire hippie we haven’t seen since Gerald Levin. Hopefully, it works out better for him.

Two excerpts follow.

The opening of “Mark Zuckerberg Builds an AI Assistant to Run His House — and Entertain His Toddler,” a WaPo piece by Abha Bhattarai:

Mark Zuckerberg has a new housemate: Jarvis, an artificial intelligence assistant he created this year that can control appliances, play music, recognize faces and, perhaps most impressively, entertain his toddler.

The Facebook founder spent 100 hours putting together the virtual assistant — named after the artificial intelligence system in “Iron Man” — which understands spoken commands as well as text messages, he wrote in a 3,000-word Facebook post Monday.

Among Jarvis’s skills: adjusting the home thermostat, turning on lights and operating the toaster. The virtual assistant texts Zuckerberg images of visitors who stop by during the day and opens the front door for those it recognizes. It can also tell when Zuckerberg’s 1-year-old daughter, Max, wakes up “so it can start playing music or a Mandarin lesson,” he wrote.

In a tongue-in-cheek video he posted Tuesday on Facebook, Zuckerberg offers an example of Jarvis at work: “Max woke up a few minutes ago. I’m entertaining her,” the virtual assistant (voiced by Morgan Freeman) tells Zuckerberg, before turning his attention to the toddler. “Good morning Max, let’s practice our Mandarin.”

The year-long project was part of an effort to learn about the state of artificial intelligence, Zuckerberg wrote.•

The opening of April Siese’s Quartz post “Mark Zuckerberg Says He’s No Longer an Atheist“:

For years, Mark Zuckerberg identified as an atheist—at least on his profile page. But in a holiday message posted on Dec. 25, the Facebook CEO nods at a potential return to religion.

Zuck wished his friends a “Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah from Priscilla, Max, Beast and me!,” to which one user replied “Aren’t you an atheist?”

“No,” Zuckerberg responded. “I was raised Jewish and then I went through a period where I questioned things, but now I believe religion is very important.”

The Facebook founder has alluded to his spirituality in the past. During a trip to China in 2015, Zuckerberg “offered a prayer for peace and health for the world and for my family” in front of Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an. “Buddhism is an amazing religion and philosophy, and I have been learning more about it over time,” he wrote on Facebook at the time. “I hope to continue understanding the faith more deeply.”•

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Had time during the New Year’s break to read eight books. That always makes me feel happy. Included among the titles were Annie Baker’s 2013 play, The Flick, which is about the million tiny muggings that occur among otherwise decent people when technology shifts, money grows scarce and lines are drawn; Zero K, an interesting if not top-shelf DeLillo, though it’s awfully difficult for a prophet in these breakneck days; and Henry Miller’s 1940s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, in which the expat author returns to his native land to occasionally admire the beauty but to mostly spit on the dirt. 

I really enjoyed the latter title, except for the author’s boneheaded appreciation for great things that a slave culture can produce. Nightmare, a bookend to his later nonfiction tour de force Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, is perhaps best known for its piece about Weeks Hall’s New Iberia mansion, Shadows-on-the-Teche, but I’m partial to “A Desert Rat,” “With Edgard Varèse in the Gobi Desert” and “Hiler and His Murals.” 

Here are three passages of Miller’s darkest, most apocalyptic thoughts about humanity as it moved into a modern, technological age, the first two from the books’ preface and the third from the Varèse chapter:

As to whether I have been deceived, disillusioned…The answer is yes, I suppose. I had the misfortune to be nourished by the dreams and visions of great Americans–the poets and seers. Some other breed of man has won out. This world which is in the making fills me with dread. I have seen it germinate; I can read it like a blue-print. It is not a world I want to live in. It is a world suited for monomaniacs obsessed with the idea of progress–but a false progress, a progress which stinks. It is a world cluttered with useless objects which men and women, in order to be exploited and degraded, are taught to regard as useful. The dreamer whose dreams are non-utilitarian has no place in this world. Whatever does not lend itself to being bought and sold, whether in the realm of things, ideas, principles, dreams or hopes, is debarred. In this world the poet is anathema, the thinker a fool, the artist as escapist, the man of vision a criminal. …

Disney works fast–like greased lightning. That’s how we’ll all operate soon. What we dream we become. We’ll get the knack of it soon. We’ll learn how to annihilate the whole planet in the wink of an eye–just wait and see. ..

To-morrow all that we take for granted may wear a new face. New York may come to resemble Petra, the cursed city of Arabia. The corn fields may look like a desert. The inhabitants of our cities may be obliged to take to the woods and grub for food on all fours, like animals. It is not impossible. It is even quite probable. No part of this planet is immune once the spirit of self-destruction takes hold. The great organism called Society may break down into molecules and atoms; there may not be a vestige of any social form which could be called a body. What we call “society” may become one interrupted dissonance for which no resolving chord will ever be found. That too is possible.

We know only a small fraction of the history of man on this earth. It is a long, tedious painful record of catastrophic changes involving the disappearance of whole continents sometimes. We tell the story as though man were an innocent victim, a helpless participant in the erratic and unpredictable revolutions of Nature. Perhaps in the past he was. But not any longer. Whatever happens to this earth to-day is of man’s doing. Man has demonstrated that he is master of everything–except of his own nature. If yesterday he was a child of nature, to-day he is a responsible creature. He has reached a point of consciousness which permits him to lie to himself no longer. Destruction is now deliberate, voluntary, self-induced. We are at the node: we can go forward or relapse. We still have the power of choice. To-morrow we may not. It is because we refuse to make the choice that we are ridden with guilt, all of us, those who are making war and those who are not. We are all filled with murder. We loathe one another. We hate what we look like when we look into one another’s eyes. 

What is the magic word for this moment?•


Mentioned Freeman Dyson’s “Astrochicken” idea in the “Afflictor’s 50 Great 2016 Nonfiction Pieces” post and just realized last year was the one the physicist targeted for the realization this tiny spacecraft that would be not built but grown. Well, most futurists are too aggressive with their time frames. Still nothing theoretically impossible about it.

First encountered the thought experiment in Infinite in All Directions, a template of sorts for all Dyson’s great science-fiction-ish essays and lectures that were to follow (though he first proposed this noveau spacecraft in 1979’s Disturbing the Universe). In reviewing Infinite in the New York Times, Roger Penrose wrote: “His centerpiece is a one-kilogram spacecraft ‘astrochicken,’ which will be ready to launch in 2016. It will not be built but grown by the use of genetic engineering, and it will depend on artificial intelligence and solar-electric propulsion for its operation. Accompanying it will be a ‘Martian potato,’ a ‘comet creeper’ and a ‘space butterfly.'”

An excerpt:

The basic idea of Astrochicken is that the spacecraft will be small and quick. I do not believe that a fruitful future for space science lies along the path we are now following, with space missions growing larger and larger and fewer and fewer and slower and slower as the decades go by. I propose a radical step in the direction of smallness and quickness. Astrochicken will weigh a kilogram instead of Voyager’s ton, and it will travel from Earth into orbit around Uranus in two years instead {197} of Voyager’s nine. The spacecraft must be far more versatile than Voyager. It must land on each of Uranus’ moons, roam around on their surfaces, see where it is going, taste the stuff it is walking on, take off into space again, and navigate around Uranus until it decides to make a landing somewhere else. To do all this with a 1-kilogram spacecraft sounds crazy to people who have to work and plan within the constraints of today’s technology. Perhaps it will still be crazy in 2016. Perhaps not. I am dreaming of the new technologies which might make such a crazy mission possible.

Three kinds of new technology are needed. All three are likely to become available for use by the year 2016. All three are already here in embryonic form and are advanced far enough to have names. Their names are genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and solar-electric propulsion. Genetic engineering is fundamental. It is the essential tool required in order to design a 1-kilogram spacecraft with the capabilities of Voyager. Astrochicken will not be built, it will be grown. It will be organized biologically and its blueprints will be written in the convenient digital language of DNA. It will be a symbiosis of plant and animal and electronic components. The plant component has to provide a basic life-support system using closed-cycle biochemistry with sunlight as the energy source. The animal component has to provide sensors and nerves and muscles with which it can observe and orient itself and navigate to its destination. The electronic component has to receive instructions from Earth and transmit back the results of its observations. During the next thirty years we will be gaining experience in the art of designing biological systems of this sort. We will be learning how to coordinate the three components so that they work smoothly together.

Artificial intelligence is the tool required to integrate the animal and electronic components into a working symbiosis. If the integration is successful, Astrochicken could be as agile as a hummingbird with a brain weighing no more than a gram. The information-handling apparatus is partly neural and partly electronic. An artificial intelligence machine is a computer {198} designed to function like a brain. A computer of this sort will be made compatible with a living nervous system, so that information will flow freely in both directions across the interface between neural and electronic circuits.

The third new technology required for Uranus 2 is solar-electric propulsion. To get from Earth to Uranus in two years requires a speed of 50 kilometers per second, too fast for any reasonable multistage chemical rocket. It is also too fast for solar sails. Nuclear propulsion of any kind is impossible in a 1-kilogram spacecraft. Solar-electric propulsion is the unique system which can economically give a high velocity to a small pay load. In this system, solar energy is collected by a large, thin antenna and converted with modest efficiency into thrust. The spacecraft carries a small ion-jet motor which uses propel-lant sparingly and gives an acceleration of the order of a milligee.

Nobody has yet done the careful engineering development to demonstrate that the energy of sunlight can be converted into thrust with a power-to-weight ratio of 1 kilowatt per kilogram. That is what Uranus 2 needs. But solar-electric propulsion is probably an easier technology to develop than genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. Since I am talking science fiction, I shall assume that all three technologies will be available for our use in 2016. I can then give a rough sketch of the Uranus 2 mission.

The mission begins with a conventional launch taking the spacecraft from Earth into orbit. Since the spacecraft weighs only 1 kilogram, it can easily ride on any convenient launcher. During the launch, the spacecraft is packaged into a compact shape, and the biological components are busy reorganizing themselves for life in space. During this phase the spacecraft is a fertilized egg, externally inert but internally alive, waiting for the right moment to emerge in the shape of an Astro-chicken. After it is in a low Earth orbit, it will emerge from its package and deploy the life-support apparatus needed for survival in space. It will deploy, or grow, a thin-film solar collector. The collector weighs 100 grams and collects {199} sunlight from an area of 100 square meters. It feeds a kilowatt of power into the little ion-drive engine which sends the spacecraft on its way with a milligee acceleration sustained for several months. This is enough to escape from Earth’s gravity and arrive at Uranus within two years. The same 100-square-meter collector serves as a radio antenna for two-way communication with Earth. This is ten times the area of the Voyager high-gain antenna. For the same rate of information transmitted, the transmitter power of Astrochicken can be ten times smaller than Voyager, 2 watts instead of 20 watts.

The spacecraft arrives at Uranus at 50 kilometers per second and grazes the outer fringe of the Uranus atmosphere. The 100-square-meter solar collector now acts as an efficient atmospheric brake. Because the collector is so light, it is not heated to extreme temperatures as it decelerates. The peak temperature turns out to be about 800 Celsius or 1500 Fahrenheit. The atmospheric braking lasts for about half a minute and produces a peak deceleration of 100 gees. The spacecraft leaves Uranus with speed reduced to 20 kilometers per second and passes near enough to one of the moons to avoid hitting Uranus again. It is then free to navigate around at leisure among the moons and rings. The solar-electric propulsion system, using the feeble sunlight at Uranus, is still able to give the spacecraft an acceleration of a tenth of a milligee, enough to explore the whole Uranus system over a period of a few years.

The spacecraft must now make use of its biological functions to refuel itself. First it navigates to one of the rings and browses there, eating ice and hydrocarbons and replenishing its supply of propellant. If one ring tastes bad it can try another, moving around until it finds a supply of nutrients with the right chemistry for its needs. After eating its fill, it will use its internal metabolic processes with the input of energy from sunlight to convert the food into chemical fuels. Chemical fuels are needed for jumping onto moons and off again. Solar-electric propulsion gives too small a thrust for jumping. The spacecraft carries a small auxiliary chemical rocket system for {200} this purpose. We know that a chemical rocket system is biologically possible, because there exists on the Earth a creature called the Bombardier beetle which uses a chemical rocket to bombard its enemies with a scalding jet of hot liquid. It manufactures chemical fuels within its body and combines them in its rocket chamber to produce the scalding jet. Astrochicken will borrow its chemical rocket system from the Bombardier beetle. The Bombardier beetle system will give it the ability to accelerate with short bursts of high thrust to escape from the feeble gravity of the Uranus moons. The spacecraft may also prefer to use the Bombardier beetle system for jumping quickly from one place to another on a moon rather than walking laboriously over the surface. While living on the surface of a moon, the Astrochicken will continue to eat and to keep the Bombardier beetle fuel tanks filled. From time to time it will transmit messages to Earth informing us about its adventures and discoveries.

That is not the end of my dream, but it is the end of my chapter. I have told enough about the Uranus 2 mission to give the flavor of it. The underlying idea of Uranus 2 is that we should apply to the development of technology the lessons which nature teaches us in the history of the evolution of life. Birds and dinosaurs were cousins, but birds were small and agile while dinosaurs were big and clumsy. Big main-frame computers, nuclear power stations and Space Shuttle are dinosaurs. Microcomputers, STIG gas turbines, Voyager and Astrochicken are birds. The future belongs to the birds. The JPL engineers now have their dreams on board the Voyager speeding on its way to Neptune. I hope the next generation of engineers will have their dreams riding on Uranus 2 in 2016.•

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Apart from nearly 63 million American voters, everyone knows manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back. 

Our President-Elect has threatened to repatriate industries outsourced in the last few decades, particularly those lost to China, seemingly blissfully unaware that reshoring during a time of increasing automation will make for diminishing returns. 

As John Lyons of the Wall Street Journal reports, manufacturers in Shenzhen can barely muster a collective shrug over Trump’s threats to tariff the U.S. back to greatness. They don’t think the work is going anywhere, except perhaps to neighboring provinces with cheaper labor or, eventually, into the robotic arms of machines.

An excerpt:

Mr. Trump is using coercion and enticement to get firms to manufacture in the U.S. During the campaign, he vowed to get Apple to “build their damn computers and things” in America. This month, Apple supplier Foxconn said it may expand operations in the U.S.

But it remains unclear what operations or how many jobs such a move would generate. The other trend under way at Foxconn is a shift to more-automated factories using cost-saving robots. Foxconn declined to comment on its specific customers and plans.

“If these jobs come back to the U.S. they are going to be for people who manage 1,000 robots in an automated factory,” said Christopher Balding, a finance professor at Peking University in Shenzhen. “It will be jobs for computer nerds, not the people who voted for Trump.”•

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Angus Deaton is cognizant that it’s absurd for a Princeton economist who’s been knighted by the Queen of England to lecture the “elites,” but he can’t help himself. Hardly anyone can these days.

Over several courses of fine food, he tells Shawn Donnan of the Financial Times about spending his summers trout fishing in Montana, retiring on Nobel Prize money and, oh, about those damned elites!

Okay, I’ll now stop being a smart ass. Deaton seems like a lovely, concerned person as does his wife and fellow economist, Anne Case. The couple famously collaborated on 2015 paper which revealed a shocking spike in the mortality rate of middle-aged white Americans. In my original post about the findings, I wondered how significant a role the opioid epidemic played in this stunning development. During his interview with Donnan, Deaton considers the same question.

An excerpt:

Deaton retired from his position at Princeton in the spring but he and Case are continuing to dig into the data. Since the election others have seized on the correlation between places with high white mortality rates and votes for Trump. But the link to those who report suffering from physical pain is even greater, Deaton says. He sees an epidemic of pain and a related flood of opioids into communities over the past decade as being, more than globalisation or economic dislocation, the real cause of rising mortality among middle-aged white Americans.

With Gallup’s help he has been collecting data on how many people report having felt physical pain in the past 24 hours and says the numbers are staggering in the US. What is causing that epidemic — and its links to Trump’s rise — remains unclear, he says. He seems more willing to blame pharmaceutical companies and doctors for overprescribing opioids. A surge in addiction (drug overdoses caused more deaths in the US last year than auto accidents) has, he argues, proved far more fatal than globalisation.


Deaton’s 2013 book The Great Escape argued that the world we live in today is healthier and wealthier than it would otherwise have been, thanks to centuries of economic integration. He sees efforts to blame globalisation for woes in the US Rust Belt or Britain’s beleaguered industrial areas as a mistake.

“Globalisation for me seems to be not first-order harm and I find it very hard not to think about the billion people who have been dragged out of poverty as a result,” he says. “I don’t think that globalisation is anywhere near the threat that robots are.” …

In his book, Deaton argues there is an inextricable link between progress and inequality and his views on wealth and innovation are complicated by that. “It’s hard to think that Mark Zuckerberg is actually impoverishing anyone by getting rich with Facebook,” he tells me. “But driverless cars are another matter entirely,” with millions of truck and other drivers likely to lose jobs.•

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Gillian Tett of the Financial Times wonders whether the perplexing elevation of an unqualified orange supremacist to the Oval Office could accelerate the loss of jobs to machines in our technological age, a mass outsourcing not beyond borders but beyond species. A fair concern, though not my main one.

First there’s the possible end of 240 years of American democracy to fascism, not an impossible outcome. Also there’s potential for nuclear war, worsening climate change, shredding of the Constitution, establishment of Muslim registries, harassment of undocumented workers, and an assault on women’s health from a seeming sociopath whose early moves suggest he wants to leave them bleeding from the wherever.

But Tett makes good points in the area she investigates, suggesting that perhaps automation will lead to a freestyle-chess-tandem arrangement between humans and computers, creating more and better jobs–unless policy disturbs that process. Certainly that was the result of the Industrial Age, though I’m not convinced past is prologue in this case. The cooperation between carbon and silicon workers may be provisional, with computers ultimately relieving us of too many of our duties in too brief a period of time.

Then again, I just spent 15 frustrating minutes navigating an automated customer-service phone system which was dumb as a rock. Maybe there’s hope for us yet?

An excerpt:

Consider the findings of Benjamin Shestakofsky, an anthropologist who spent 19 months inside a California company that uses digital technologies to connect buyers and sellers of domestic services. Mr Shestakovsky initially assumed that his research would show how machines were replacing human workers. When he did grassroots analysis he realised that the company was growing so fast, with such big and complex computing systems, that it was constantly drafting more humans — not robots — to monitor, manage and interpret the data. “Software automation can substitute for labour but it also creates new human-machine complementaries,” he told an American Anthropological Association meeting recently, noting that companies “are creating new types of jobs”.

Shreeharsh Kelkar, another anthropologist, saw the same pattern in the education world. Until recently it was presumed that the rise of digital teaching tools would make human teachers less important. But watching educators in action, Mr Kelkar found that human teachers are working with these digital tools to be more efficient. The issue is not that computers are automating jobs away, he says, but that “assemblages of humans and computers are emerging”.

An obvious response is that it is far from clear whether these anecdotes are typical, nor does anyone know whether these new “assemblages” of human and machine will create enough jobs to offset those lost to automation. In addition, new digitised jobs may seem less attractive than the old roles since they are often structured as “contingent work”, with self-employed workers who provide services on demand.

Still, the findings of the anthropologists should not be ignored.•

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Nihilism is sometimes an end but more often a means.

Truth can be fuzzy and facts imprecise, but an honest pursuit of these precious goods allows for a basic decency, a sense of order. Bombard such efforts for an adequate length of time, convince enough people that veracity and reality are fully amorphous, and opportunities for mischief abound.

Break down the normal rules (written and unwritten ones), create an air of confusion with shocking behaviors and statements, blast an opening where anything is possible–even “unspeakable things”–and a democracy can fall and tyranny rise. The timing has to be right, but sooner or later that time will arrive.

Has such a moment come for America? The conditions haven’t been this ripe for at least 60 years, and nothing can now be taken for granted.

In an excellent Guardian opinion piece, Ece Temelkuran explains how Turkey became a post-truth state, a nation-sized mirage, and how the same fate may befall Europe and the U.S. She certainly shares my concerns about the almost non-stop use of the world “elites” to neutralize the righteous into paralysis. An excerpt:

This refashioning of a post-truth, post-fact Turkey has not happened overnight. The process has involved the skilful and wilful manipulation of narratives. We gave up asking the astonished questions “How can they say or do that?” some time ago. Truth is a lost game in my country. In Europe and America, you still have time to rescue it – but you must learn from Turkey how easily it can be lost.

It started 15 years ago, with a phenomenon that will now be familiar to you, when intellectuals and journalists reacted to a nascent populism with the self-critical question: “Are we out of touch?” To counter that possibility, they widened the parameters of public debate to include those who were said to be representatives of “real people”. We thought our own tool, the ability to question and establish truth, would be adequate to keep the discourse safe. It wasn’t. Soon we were paralysed by the lies of populism, which always sounded more attractive than our boring facts.

We found, as you are now finding, that the new truth-building process does not require facts or the underpinning of agreed values. We were confronted – as you are being confronted – by a toxic vocabulary: “elite”, “experts”, “real people” and “alienated intellectuals”. The elite, with experts as mouthpieces of that oppressive elite, were portrayed as people detached from society, willing to suppress the needs, choices and beliefs of “real people”.

Events moved quickly.•

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I find myself thinking often of a passage from the opening chapter of Ian Frazier’s excellent 2000 book, On the Rez. In telling about Chief Red Cloud’s visit to the White House in 1870, Frazier examined our age and came to some troubling conclusions, all of which seem even truer 16 years on. Real freedom in our corporatocracy is more expensive than ever, but it’s cheap and easy to be discarded. The excerpt:

    In 1608, the newly arrived Englishmen at Jamestown colony in Virginia proposed to give the most powerful Indian in the vicinity, Chief Powhatan, a crown. Their idea was to coronate him a sub-emperor of Indians, and vassal to the English King. Powhatan found the offer insulting. “I also am a King,” he said, “and this is my land.” Joseph Brant, a Mohawk of the Iroquois Confederacy between eastern New York and the Great Lakes, was received as a celebrity when he went to England with a delegation from his tribe in 1785. Taken to St. James’s Palace for a royal audience, he refused to kneel and kiss the hand of George III; he told the King that he would, however, gladly kiss the hand of the Queen. Almost a century later, the U.S. government gave Red Cloud, victorious war leader of the Oglala, the fanciest reception it knew how, with a dinner party at the White House featuring lighted chandeliers and wine and a dessert of strawberries and ice cream. The next day Red Cloud parleyed with the government officials just as he was accustomed to on the prairie—sitting on the floor. To a member of a Senate select committee who had delivered a tirade against Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Sioux leader carelessly replied, “I have grown to be a very independent man, and consider myself a very great man.”

     That self-possessed sense of freedom is closer to what I want; I want to be an uncaught Indian like them.

Another remark which non-Indians often make on the subject of Indians is “Why can’t they get with the program?” Anyone who talks about Indians in public will be asked that question, or variations on it; over and over: Why don’t Indians forget all this tribal nonsense and become ordinary Americans like the rest of us? Why do they insist on living in the past? Why don’t they accept the fact that we won and they lost? Why won’t they stop, finally, being Indians and join the modern world? I have a variety of answers handy. Sometimes I say that in former days “the program” called for the eradication of Indian languages, and children in Indian boarding schools were beaten for speaking them and forced to speak English, so they would fit in; time passed, cultural fashions changed, and Hollywood made a feature film about Indians in which for the sake of authenticity the Sioux characters spoke Sioux (with English subtitles), and the movie became a hit, and lots of people decided they wanted to learn Sioux, and those who still knew the language, those who had somehow managed to avoid “the program” in the first place, were suddenly the ones in demand. Now, I think it’s better not to answer the question but to ask a question in return: What program, exactly, do you have in mind?

    We live in a craven time. I am not the first to point out that capitalism, having defeated Communism, now seems to be about to do the same to democracy. The market is doing splendidly, yet we are not, somehow. Americans today no longer work mostly in manufacturing or agriculture but in the newly risen service economy. That means that most of us make our living by being nice. And if we can’t be nice, we’d better at least be neutral. In the service economy, anyone who sat where he pleased in the presence of power or who expatiated on his own greatness would soon be out the door. “Who does he think he is?” is how the dismissal is usually framed. The dream of many of us is that someday we might miraculously have enough money that we could quit being nice, and everybody would then have to be nice to us, and niceness would surround us like a warm dome. Certain speeches we would love to make accompany this dream, glorious, blistering tellings-off of those to whom we usually hold our tongue. The eleven people who actually have enough money to do that are icons to us. What we read in newsprint and see on television always reminds us how great they are, and we can’t disagree. Unlike the rest of us, they can deliver those speeches with no fear. The freedom that inhered in Powhatan, that Red Cloud carried with him from the plains to Washington as easily as air—freedom to be and to say, whenever, regardless of disapproval—has become a luxury most of us can’t afford.•

After decades of lies and obfuscation about the neatly packaged premature death it was selling to Americans, Big Tobacco finally saw its light dim on the home front, so the industry decided to make up for the shortfall by exporting with a vengeance. Big Pharma is now on a similar trajectory in regards to opioids. As notoriety about the tremendous damage done to U.S. (and Canadian) citizens threatens the sector domestically on an existential level, it endeavors to pivot to a world stage, looking enthusiastically for wounds to numb.

Following up on yesterday’s post about the wake of a needless epidemic driven by greed and aided by wealth inequality, I read “OxyContin Goes Global,” a Los Angeles Times piece by Harriet Ryan, Lisa Girion and Scott Glover, which notes that as North America goes through withdrawal, other nations are just now being enticed. The opening:

OxyContin is a dying business in America.

With the nation in the grip of an opioid epidemic that has claimed more than 200,000 lives, the U.S. medical establishment is turning away from painkillers. Top health officials are discouraging primary care doctors from prescribing them for chronic pain, saying there is no proof they work long-term and substantial evidence they put patients at risk.

Prescriptions for OxyContin have fallen nearly 40% since 2010, meaning billions in lost revenue for its Connecticut manufacturer, Purdue Pharma.

So the company’s owners, the Sackler family, are pursuing a new strategy: Put the painkiller that set off the U.S. opioid crisis into medicine cabinets around the world.

A network of international companies owned by the family is moving rapidly into Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and other regions, and pushing for broad use of painkillers in places ill-prepared to deal with the ravages of opioid abuse and addiction.

In this global drive, the companies, known as Mundipharma, are using some of the same controversial marketing practices that made OxyContin a pharmaceutical blockbuster in the U.S.

In Brazil, China and elsewhere, the companies are running training seminars where doctors are urged to overcome “opiophobia” and prescribe painkillers.•

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American astronaut Edgar Mitchell is one selection in this year’s annual New York Times Magazine postmortem potpourri, “The Lives They Lived.”

The sixth person to walk on the moon, Mitchell fell back to Earth not with a thud, like, for instance, Buzz Aldrin, but into the warm embrace of Me Decade pseudoscience. A legit Ph.D. taken with ESP, telekinesis, remote healing, etc., the spaceman set up shop to study paranormal fields not long after his egress from Apollo 14.

A piece from a 1974 People profile of the spaceman, “Edgar Mitchell’s Strange Voyage,” is followed by a passage from Charles Homans’ beautifully written NYT remembrance.

From People:

Like most men who have felt a huge booster rocket light up on the pad beneath them and the beginning vibrations of a launch into space, Ed Mitchell is never far from some reminder of his most astounding hours. The walls of his cramped office in Palo Alto, California, where his esoteric business is the study of parapsychological phenomena, are hung with photographs celebrating the Apollo 14 mission, in which Mitchell was the lunar module pilot and became the sixth man to walk on the surface of the moon. One of the pictures shows the U.S.S. New Orleans, the recovery ship that picked up the Apollo crew in February 1971. As Mitchell pointed out to a visitor, his first name is misspelled “Egar” in the commemorative inscription. In a wry Cockney imitation, Mitchell said of that error, “It keeps me ‘umble.”

Humble or not—and the topic has priority among people who know him—Ed Mitchell has maintained a high public profile. Interest in him has even increased since his flight, a rarity in astronaut fame shared only by John Glenn. The reason for this is twofold: Mitchell had a transcendent personal experience during his moon flight, and he has been proclaiming it ever since—on the lecture circuit, to influential listeners wherever he can collar them, and in a book coming out in June. To an extent that seems almost to contradict his native skepticism and training in hard science, Ed Mitchell has become a man obsessed by the idea that the world can be changed by the right application of human awareness, and he has quite literally made it his business to apply it.

To his determination Mitchell brings great self-confidence, not exactly a new acquisition. He is remembered by some from his pre-moon flight days at NASA as rank-conscious and overbearing. Apparently more mellow now, the president and founder of the Institute of Noetic Sciences nonetheless explained his forgivable ignorance about the identity of Pop Star Mick Jagger by saying not long ago, “I’m too busy making history. I don’t have time to read about it.”

Still, there are ample grounds to support his good opinion of himself. At 43, Mitchell has come a head-swelling distance to his present eminence in a field on the frontier of behavioral studies. From a modest start in a Southwest ranching family during the Depression (he used to wash down crop dusters’ airplanes to get free rides), he gained the top academic rank, or very near it, at every school he attended. He holds a Ph.D. in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT. Before his retirement from NASA in 1972 (and from the U.S. Navy as a captain) he was generally regarded as one of the brightest and most intellectually adventurous of the astronauts. His credentials as a pilot were most impressively stated by Alan Shepard, the cool and utterly unhumble boss of the Apollo 14 crew. “He’s a great flyer,” said Rear Admiral Shepard, a man frugal in praise of others, “simply outstanding.” And, of course, Mitchell has kicked up moon dust, which puts him in a very special brotherhood. In some substantial way, that experience has profoundly marked the life or outlook of each of the 12 men who have known it. One, Jim Irwin, became an evangelist preacher, and Alan Shepard described his own transformation. “I used to be a rotten s.o.b.,” he has said. “Now I’m just an s.o.b.”

It was Mitchell’s moon visit—or the changes it wrought in him—that led to his current total preoccupation with the frontiers of psychic research and parapsychology, fields in which there is a booming interest but that are still considered only marginally respectable by many scientists.

“The experience I had on the flight was akin to a religious experience,” explained Mitchell in a soft, weary voice, the gray hair just beginning to show in his reddish-brown beard. “It was euphoric, one of those rare moments in life when you seemed to be able to reach out and touch the universe, when you had an intuitive flash about the real meaning of truth.”

After between 25 and 30 hours of such mystic perceptions, Mitchell came back to earth determined to do something about the truth he understood so starkly from a lunar distance. The solution, he felt, lay in a sort of planet-wide consciousness-raising, which would be accomplished through the scientific applications of parapsychology (sometimes called psi). It was a field he had been interested in long before the flight, and indeed, without NASA’s knowledge he had set up an experiment in extrasensory perception to be conducted during the mission with four men back on earth. The test involved the men on earth guessing the correct order of certain standard symbols as Mitchell “sent” them from space by telepathy and it was later judged to be a moderate success.

At any rate, in Mitchell’s new resolution, such psi techniques could include ESP, clairvoyance, telepathy and psychokinesis (the use of psychic energy to bring about physical changes, like bending forks with well aimed thinking). All these and more could be employed in the quest for greater realization of the power of the human mind.•

From NYT:

In the Apollo years, NASA sent military test pilots into space, not poets or preachers; they came back in possession of extraordinary knowledge that, by dint of personality or professional inclination, they seemed helpless to communicate. As the Gemini and Apollo astronaut Michael Collins once put it, “It was not within our ken to share emotions or to utter extraneous information.” Asked what it was like to go to the moon, Apollo 12’s Pete Conrad replied: “Super! Really enjoyed it!”

But then there was Mitchell. After returning to Earth, he left NASA, grew a beard and divorced his wife. He founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which advocated exploring the universe by means of inquiry that lay outside of science and religion. He sought out South American shamans and Haitian Vodou priests, promoted the benefits of Tibetan Buddhist lucid dreaming, visited the homes of people who claimed their children could bend spoons with their minds. He went on Jack Paar’s talk show with the self-proclaimed psychic Uri Geller. Two more marriages, one of them to a former Playboy playmate, came and went. He got deep, very deep, into theories about extraterrestrials. He had a posthumous cameo in the cache of John Podesta’s hacked emails that WikiLeaks published this year, which included messages Mitchell sent to Podesta (a U.F.O. buff) asking him to discuss the possibility of disclosing the federal government’s records of alien contact. He signed the emails “6th man to walk on the Moon.”

If he got weird sometimes — O.K., a lot of times — could you really blame him?•


War may seem to favor those with a clear head and steady hand, but strategy is only half the battle. A sense of invincibility must be achieved in the combatants, at least until technology allows all the killing machines to be actual machines.

Human beings are no angels, but genocide and beheading, for instance, are not, thankfully, our default mode. Such heinous courses can be decided on by sober if sinister minds but their commission sometimes requires moods altered either by hysteria and brainwashing or, more simply, pharmaceuticals. The Nazis favored crystal meth and ISIS Captagon, these forms of amphetamine not only helpful with focus and energy but also able to disappear inhibitions.

Crimes against humanity can certainly occur without speed, but oftentimes you’ll find a pervasive drug culture in close proximity to such atrocities. It’s not the source of evil but a way to lubricate the war machine.

An excerpt from “Don’t Fight Sober,” Mike Jay’s London Review of Books piece on new volumes on the topic by Łukasz Kamieński and Norman Ohler:

The unreliable narratives that always build up around illicit drugs are compounded by the fog of war. Exaggeration, doubletalk and disinformation bend reality into mythic shapes. The image of the Captagon-crazed jihadi is reminiscent of the Assassins, whose story was imported to Europe by Marco Polo: they were said to have been brainwashed with a dose of hashish and persuaded by their fanatical leader that suicide missions would be rewarded with an eternity in paradise. Recent scholarship has established that ‘assassins’ (or ‘hashishin’) was a pejorative term applied to them by their enemies: in fact they were a strictly ascetic order whose adherents abstained from all drugs including alcohol. The appeal of the myth is obvious: if the drugs made them do it, their motives require no further investigation. Asked after the Bataclan attacks whether the killers had been on drugs, Montasser Alde’emeh, a Belgian-Palestinian expert on radicalisation, turned the question succinctly on its head: ‘Unfortunately, they don’t need it. Their ideology is their Captagon!’

In Shooting Up, a historical survey of drugs in warfare that grew out of his research into future military applications of biotechnology, Łukasz Kamieński lists some of the obstacles to getting the facts straight. State authorities tend to cloak drug use in secrecy, for tactical advantage and because it frequently conflicts with civilian norms and laws. Conversely it can be exaggerated to strike fear into the enemy, or the enemy’s success and morale can be imputed to it. When drugs are illegal, as they often are in modern irregular warfare, trafficking or consumption is routinely denied. The negative consequences of drug use are covered up or explained away as the result of injury or trauma, and longer-term sequels are buried within the complex of post-traumatic disorders. Soldiers aren’t fully informed of the properties and potency of the drugs they’re consuming. Different perceptions of their role circulate even among participants fighting side by side.

Kamieński confines the use of alcohol in war to his prologue and wisely so, or the rest of the book would risk becoming a footnote to it. A historical sweep from the Battle of Hastings to Waterloo or ancient Greece to Vietnam suggests that war has rarely been fought sober. This is unsurprising in view of the many different functions alcohol performs. It has always been an indispensable battlefield medicine and is still pressed into service today as antiseptic, analgesic, anaesthetic and post-trauma stimulant. It has a central role in boosting morale and small-group bonding; it can facilitate the private management of stress and injury; and it makes sleep possible where noise, discomfort or stress would otherwise prevent it. After the fighting is done, it becomes an aid to relaxation and recovery.

All these functions are subsidiary to its combat role and Kamieński’s particular interest, the extent to which drugs can transform soldiers into superhuman fighting machines.•

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Just started reading Peter Frase’s Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, though I believe capitalism will be just fine.

You and me, however, we’re fucked.

The problem is that an uber technologized version of capitalism may not require as many of us or value as highly those who’ve yet to be relieved of their duties. Perhaps a thin crust at the very top will thrive, but without sound policy the rest may be Joads with smartphones. In this scenario, we’d be tracked and commodified, given virtual trinkets rather than be paid. Our privacy, like many of our jobs, will disappear into the zeros and ones.

While the orange supremacist was waving his penis in America’s face during the campaign, the thorny question of what to do should widespread automation be established was left unexplored. That’s terrifying, since more and more outsourcing won’t refer to work moved beyond borders but beyond species. Certainly great investment in education is required, but that won’t likely be enough. Not every freshly unemployed taxi driver can be upskilled into a driverless car software engineer. There’s not enough room on that road.

The opening of a new piece about automation by the NYT‘s always clear-eyed Claire Cain Miller, who understands both numbers and people: 

The first job that Sherry Johnson, 56, lost to automation was at the local newspaper in Marietta, Ga., where she fed paper into the printing machines and laid out pages. Later, she watched machines learn to do her jobs on a factory floor making breathing machines, and in inventory and filing.

“It actually kind of ticked me off because it’s like, How are we supposed to make a living?” she said. She took a computer class at Goodwill, but it was too little too late. “The 20- and 30-year-olds are more up to date on that stuff than we are because we didn’t have that when we were growing up,” said Ms. Johnson, who is now on disability and lives in a housing project in Jefferson City, Tenn.

Donald J. Trump told workers like Ms. Johnson that he would bring back their jobs by clamping down on trade, offshoring and immigration. But economists say the bigger threat to their jobs has been something else: automation.

“Over the long haul, clearly automation’s been much more important — it’s not even close,” said Lawrence Katz, an economics professor at Harvard who studies labor and technological change.

No candidate talked much about automation on the campaign trail. Technology is not as convenient a villain as China or Mexico, there is no clear way to stop it, and many of the technology companies are in the United States and benefit the country in many ways.•

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Louis Harris, the most famous American pollster of the twentieth century, just died at 95. I worked for the company in its last pre-acquisition days when I was an undergraduate. The offices were located at 630 Fifth Avenue, a building with a giant Atlas statue at its entrance. On a lunch break one day, I sat across the street on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral reading a copy of The Stories of John Cheever. I absorbed “The Country Husband” (still my favorite tale by the writer), which coincidentally mentions the very same Atlas building right before my eyes. Cool. 

What I can recall about the experience:

  • The break room had a shrine to the late professional wrestler Bruiser Brody, who had been murdered in 1988 in a backstage altercation Puerto Rico. There’s even a Mountain Goats song about the stabbing.
  • The Harris Poll was the least buttoned-down workplace I’ve ever come across. The crew was a mix of anarchist squatters from the Lower East Side (who apparently had no regular access to soap), a few college students like myself, a handful of aspiring actresses and theater directors, several little people, and some LGBTQ folks who told me they had trouble getting non-phone work because they couldn’t or wouldn’t masquerade as something that was more acceptable in America at the time. Oh, and there was a very nice and quiet middle-aged woman who was said to be a former Bob Fosse dancer who’d fallen on hard times.
  • The employees were almost universally extremely liberal politically, even radical, though that seemed to have no influence over survey outcomes. Many polls wound up reflecting a strong conservative opinion.
  • I was instructed that when conducting phone surveys I needed to be more assertive with women in the Midwest, since they could be bossed around. It wasn’t exactly in those words, but close. I was told precisely that when Middle American females told me they weren’t interested in doing a survey that I was to ask to speak to the “man of the house.”
  • I once referred to the company as “Lou” Harris and was immediately told to never, ever do that again. The founder had retired by then but was still a sort of spectral presence.

From Robert D. McFadden’s New York Times obituary of the man who called too much:

He preferred to be called a public-opinion analyst rather than a pollster, a word that he believed trivialized what he did, which went beyond gathering data into new realms of interpretation — useful to clients of his consulting firm and more meaningful to millions who watched his analyses on the CBS and ABC television networks or who read his nationally syndicated newspaper and magazine columns.

His results were sometimes wrong. And critics questioned his early practice of using his polls to promote candidates — notably John F. Kennedy in his 1960 presidential race — for whom he worked as a campaign strategist. But he gave up political advocacy after a few years to concentrate on public polling and analyses for the newspaper and television jobs that made him a household name in America.

In the 1960s, he developed television’s ability to project national election winners on the basis of early returns after polls closed in the East. But critics said projections before the polls closed in the West discouraged some voters from casting ballots, and the networks voluntarily ended the practice.

Mr. Harris denied that his work affected the outcome of elections or corrupted voting processes. He rejected charges that he was too commercial, although he made a fortune in market research. And he scoffed at accusations that his polls reflected a liberal Democratic bias; he said he often worked for Republicans and was guided by principles of fairness and accuracy.

Like Elmo Roper and George Gallup, his pioneering predecessors, Mr. Harris plumbed attitudes with face-to-face interviews, using carefully worded questions put by trained interviewers to subjects selected as part of a group that was chosen as demographically representative of the nation. (Telephone interviews, faster and less expensive, came into wide use in the late 1970s, and proved to be just as valid.)•

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Henry Miller was oft thought of in his time as a smutty writer, and not without reason, though his best work centered on the psychology of individuals, cities and nations.

Case in point: A bravura passage from 1957’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch about the future of America, and the future of the world, which were one and the same to the writer’s mind. He saw the emergence of a tyranny–or something like it–of technology, which might bring about the end of scarcity and hunger, though he believed we’d crave all the same, perhaps even in a more profound way. Maybe Peter Thiel’s disgraceful political pivot will enable a marriage between the despotism of tech and a government even more autocratic. 

The excerpt:

“If you do not know where you are going, any road will take you there.”
(Out of Confusion, by M.N. Chatterjee (Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch Press, 1954).

There are days when it all seems as simple and clear as that to me. What do I mean? I mean with regard to the problem of living on this earth without becoming a slave, a drudge, a hack, a misfit, an alcoholic, a drug addict, a neurotic, a schizophrenic, a glutton for punishment or an artist manqué.

Supposedly we have the highest standard of living of any country in the world. Do we, though? It depends on what one means by high standards. Certainly nowhere does it cost more to live than here in America. The cost is not only in dollars and cents but in sweat and blood, in frustration, ennui, broken homes, smashed ideals, illness and insanity. We have the most wonderful hospitals, the most gorgeous insane asylums, the most fabulous prisons, the best equipped and the highest paid army and navy, the speediest bombers, the largest stockpile of atom bombs, yet never enough of any of these items to satisfy the demand. Our manual workers are the highest paid in the world; our poets the worst. There are more automobiles than one can count. And as for drugstores, where in the world will you find the like?

We have only one enemy we really fear: the microbe. But we are licking him on every front. True, millions still suffer from cancer, heart disease, schizophrenia, multiple-sclerosis, tuberculosis, epilepsy, colitis, cirrhosis of the liver, dermatitis, gall stones, neuritis, Bright’s disease, bursitis, Parkinson’s-disease, diabetes, floating kidneys, cerebral palsy, pernicious anaemia, encephalitis, locomotor ataxia, falling of the womb, muscular distrophy, jaundice, rheumatic fever, polio, sinus and antrum troubles, halitosis, St. Vitus’s Dance, narcolepsy, coryza, leucorrhea, nymphomania, phthisis, carcinoma, migraine, dipsomania, malignant tumors, high blood pressure, duodenal ulcers, prostate troubles, sciatica, goiter, catarrh, asthma, rickets, hepatitis, nephritis, melancholia, amoebic dysentery, bleeding piles, quinsy, hiccoughs, shingles, frigidity and impotency, even dandruff, and of course all the insanities, now legion, but–our of men of science will rectify all this within the next hundred years or so. How? Why, by destroying all the nasty germs which provoke this havoc and disruption! By waging a great preventive warnot a cold war!wherein our poor, frail bodies will become a battleground for all the antibiotics yet to come. A game of hide and seek, so to speak, in which one germ pursues another, tracks it down and slays it, all without the least disturbance to our usual functioning. Until this victory is achieved, however, we may be obliged to continue swallowing twenty or thirty vitamins, all of different strengths and colors, before breakfast, down our tiger’s milk and brewer’s yeast, drink our orange and grapefruit juices, use blackstrap molasses on our oatmeal, smear our bread (made of stone-ground flour) with peanut butter, use raw honey or raw sugar with our coffee, poach our eggs rather than fry them, follow this with an extra glass of superfortified milk, belch and burp a little, give ourselves an injection, weigh ourselves to see if we are under or over, stand on our heads, do our setting-up exercisesif we haven’t done them alreadyyawn, stretch, empty the bowels, brush our teeth (if we have any left), say a prayer or two, then run like hell to catch the bus or the subway which will carry us to work, and think no more about the state of our health until we feel a cold coming on: the incurable coryza. But we are not to despair. Never despair! Just take more vitamins, add an extra dose of calcium and phosphorus pills, drink a hot toddy or two, take a high enema before retiring for the night, say another prayer, if we can remember one, and call it a day.

If the foregoing seems too complicated, here is a simple regimen to follow: Don’t overeat, don’t drink too much, don’t smoke too much, don’t work too much, don’t think too much, don’t fret, don’t worry, don’t complain, above all, don’t get irritable. Don’t use a car if you can walk to your destination; don’t walk if you can run; don’t listen to the radio or watch television; don’t read newspapers, magazines, digests, stock market reports, comics, mysteries or detective stories; don’t take sleeping pills or wakeup pills; don’t vote, don’t buy on the installment plan, don’t play cards either for recreation or to make a haul, don’t invest your money, don’t mortgage your home, don’t get vaccinated or inoculated, don’t violate the fish and game laws, don’t irritate your boss, don’t say yes when you mean no, don’t use bad language, don’t be brutal to your wife or children, don’t get frightened if you are over or under weight, don’t sleep more than ten hours at a stretch, don’t eat store bread if you can bake your own, don’t work at a job you loathe, don’t think the world is coming to an end because the wrong man got elected, don’t believe you are insane because you find yourself in a nut house, don’t do anything more than you’re asked to do but do that well, don’t try to help your neighbor until you’ve learned how to help yourself, and so on…

Simple, what?

In short, don’t create aerial dinosaurs with which to frighten field mice!”

America has only one enemy, as I said before. The microbe. The trouble is, he goes under a million different names. Just when you think you’ve got him licked he pops up again in a new guise. He’s the pest personified.

When we were a young nation life was crude and simple. Our great enemy then was the redskin. (He became our enemy when we took his land away from him.) In those early days there were no chain stores, no delivery lines, no hired purchase plan, no vitamins, no supersonic flying fortresses, no electronic computers; one could identify thugs and bandits easily because they looked different from other citizens. All one needed for protection was a musket in one hand and a Bible in the other. A dollar was a dollar, no more, no less. And a gold dollar, a silver dollar, was just as good as a paper dollar. Better than a check, in fact. Men like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett were genuine figures, maybe not so romantic as we imagine them today, but they were not screen heroes. The nation was expanding in all directions because there was a genuine need for it–we already had two or three million people and they needed elbow room. The Indians and bison were soon crowded out of the picture, along with a lot of other useless paraphernalia. Factories and mills were being built, and colleges and insane asylums. Things were humming. And then we freed the slaves. That made everybody happy, except the Southerners. It also made us realize that freedom is a precious thing. When we recovered from the loss of blood we began to think about freeing the rest of the world. To do it, we engaged in two world wars, not to mention a little war like the one with Spain, and now we’ve entered upon a cold war which our leaders warn us may last another forty or fifty years. We are almost at the point now where we may be able to exterminate every man, woman and child throughout the globe who is unwilling to accept the kind of freedom we advocate. It should be said, in extenuation, that when we have accomplished our purpose everybody will have enough to eat and drink, properly clothed, housed and entertained. An all-American program and no two ways about it! Our men of science will then be able to give their undivided attention to other problems, such as disease, insanity, excessive longevity, interplanetary voyages and the like. Everyone will be inoculated, not only against real ailments but against imaginary ones too. War will have been eliminated forever, thus making it unnecessary “in times of peace to prepare for war.” America will go on expanding, progressing, providing. We will plant the stars and stripes on the moon, and subsequently on all the planets within our comfy little universe. One world it will be, and American through and through. Strike up the band!•

Some of the resistance by white working-class citizens to Obamacare, even by those who most in need of it, like Kentuckians, was directed at the Medicaid portion of the law. The reasoning: We deserve healthcare, but they don’t. 

That rejection, if you looked not far below the surface, was sometimes steeped in racist stereotyping. If you exist within seeing people of color as living in “ghettos” as our President-Elect does, it would be easy to make such a mistake, even if the Affordable Care Act enrollment numbers scream otherwise. Post-election, many of these same Trump supporters who worried about “freeloaders” are realizing they may lose not only the ACA but perhaps also the safety net of Medicare. The fingers they pointed at others now point back at them.

Part of the problem is that no one really deserves much of anything. I mean, we all do in a bigger sense, of course, but not so much as individuals living in a capitalistic society in the Digital Age. How do we reconcile our economic system with one that may become highly automated? In such a new normal, workers would be less necessary than ever.

Technology has amped up the culture in myriad ways and entire industries can now rise and fall within a stingy time frame. There was never a more profitable period in the history of recorded music than during the brief, wonderful life of Compact Discs, but the whole format was essentially worthless after just two decades. Twenty years may seem a long shelf life for industries (and the communities and regions built on them) in the near future. All that coming and going will likely leave many of us neither here nor there. It’s not an attractive scenario unless you fancy a future as an Okie with an smartphone. 

recent post by economist Brad DeLong drops truth bombs about our economic system and suggests non-UBI prescriptions for devastated Rust Belt areas. An excerpt:

In a world–like the one we live in–of mammoth increasing returns to unowned knowledge and to networks, no individual and no community is especially valuable. Those who receive good livings are those who are lucky–as Carrier’s workers in Indiana have been lucky in living near Carrier’s initial location. It’s not that their contribution to society is large or that their luck is replicable: if it were, they would not care (much) about the departure of Carrier because there would be another productive network that they could fit into a slot in.

All of this “what you deserve” language is tied up with some vague idea that you deserve what you contribute–that what your work adds to the pool of society’s resources is what you deserve.

This illusion is punctured by any recognition that there is a large societal dividend to be distributed, and that the government can distribute it by supplementing (inadequate) market wages determined by your (low) societal marginal product, or by explicitly providing income support or services unconnected with work via social insurance. Instead, the government is supposed to, somehow, via clever redistribution, rearrange the pattern of market power in the economy so that the increasing-returns knowledge- and network-based societal dividend is predistributed in a relatively egalitarian way so that everybody can pretend that their income is just “to each according to his work,” and that they are not heirs and heiresses coupon clipping off of the societal capital of our predecessors’ accumulated knowledge and networks.

On top of this we add: Polanyian disruption of patterns of life–local communities, income levels, industrial specialization–that you believed you had a right to obtain or maintain, and a right to believe that you deserve. But in a market capitalist society, nobody has a right to the preservation of their local communities, to their income levels, or to an occupation in their industrial specialization. In a market capitalist society, those survive only if they pass a market profitability test. And so the only rights that matter are those property rights that at the moment carry with them market power–the combination of the (almost inevitably low) marginal societal products of your skills and the resources you own, plus the (sometimes high) market power that those resources grant to you.

This wish to believe that you are not a moocher is what keeps people from seeing issues of distribution and allocation clearly–and generates hostility to social insurance and to wage supplement policies, for they rip the veil off of the idea that you deserve to be highly paid because you are worth it. You aren’t.•


Famed attorney Clarence Darrow was an extremist when it came to criminality, believing in circumstance but not culpability. He saw law breakers the way the writer of a naturalist novel views characters, as prisoners of nature and nurture, incapable of circumventing either. Based on the remarks he made as reported in an article in the April 4, 1931 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Darrow would have treated all misdeeds as maladies, the perpetrators receiving treatment in hospitals rather than stretches in prison.

In a way, his contention has returned to vogue today thanks mainly not to philosophy but to science, with some neuroresearchers believing our brains, a conductor of algorithms of sorts, governing us rather than the other way around. From Yuval Noah Harari’s Home Deus:

Yet humanism is now facing an existential challenge and the idea of “free will” is under threat. Scientific insights into the way our brains and bodies work suggest that our feelings are not some uniquely human spiritual quality. Rather, they are biochemical mechanisms that all mammals and birds use in order to make decisions by quickly calculating probabilities of survival and reproduction.

Like most people I think the hardware that enables my consciousness allows me a range within which I can make decisions, but maybe my brain is just telling me that?

The problem with anarchy is that it has a tendency to get out of control.

In 2013, Eric Schmidt, the most perplexing of Googlers, wrote (along with Jared Cohen) the truest thing about our newly connected age: “The Internet is the largest experiment involving anarchy in history.”

Yes, indeed.

California was once a wild, untamed plot of land, and when people initially flooded the zone, it was exciting if harsh. But then, soon enough: the crowds, the pollution, the Adam Sandler films. The Golden State became civilized with laws and regulations and taxes, which was a trade-off but one that established order and security. The Web has been commodified but never been truly domesticated, so while the rules don’t apply it still contains all the smog and noise of the developed world. Like Los Angeles without the traffic lights.

Our new abnormal has played out for both better and worse. The fan triumphed over the professional, a mixed development that, yes, spread greater democracy on a surface level, but also left truth attenuated. Into this unfiltered, post-fact, indecent swamp slithered the troll, that witless, cowardly insult comic.

The biggest troll of them all, Donald Trump, the racist opportunist who stalked our first African-American President demanding his birth certificate, is succeeding Obama in the Oval Office, which is terrible for the country if perfectly logical for the age. His Lampanelli-Mussolini campaign also emboldened all manner of KKK 2.0, manosphere and alt-right detritus in their own trolling, as they used social media to spread a discombobulating disinformation meant to confuse and distract so hate could take root and grow. No water needed; bile would do.

In the wonderfully written essay “Schadenfreude with Bite,” Richard Seymour analyzes the discomfiting age of the troll. An excerpt:

The controlled cruelty of the wind-up didn’t need trolls to invent it. In the pre-internet era, it perhaps seemed more innocent: Candid Camera; Jeremy Beadle duping a hapless member of the public. The ungovernable rage of the unwitting victim is always funny to someone, and invariably there is sadistic detachment in the amusement. The trolls’ innovation has been to add a delight in nonsense and detritus: calculated illogicality, deliberate misspellings, an ironic recycling of cultural nostalgia, sedimented layers of opaque references and in-jokes. Trolling, as Phillips puts it, is the ‘latrinalia’ of popular culture: the writing on the toilet wall.

Trolls are also distinguished from their predecessors by seeming not to recognise any limits. Ridicule is an anti-social force: it tends to make people clam up and stop talking. So there is a point at which, if conversation and community are to continue, the joke has to stop, and the victim be let in on the laughter. Trolls, though, form a community precisely around the extension of their transgressive sadism beyond the limits of their offline personas. That the community consists almost entirely of people with no identifying characteristics – ‘anons’ – is part of the point. It is as if the laughter of the individual troll were secondary; the primary goal is to sustain the pleasure of the anonymous collective.


For most organised trolls, having an explicit political affiliation or moral cause goes against the basic principle that commitment to anything other than the lulz is suspect. However, for ‘gendertrolls’, a term coined by Karla Mantilla, the objective is clamorously counter-feminist. It is to silence publicly vocal women by swarm-like harassment, misogynistic insults (such epithets as ‘cunt’ and ‘whore’), ‘doxxing’ (exposing the details of someone’s offline life), and threats of rape and murder. As Mantilla sees it, there is nothing unique about this behaviour: it isn’t ‘about the internet’, but a continuation of the ‘long history of men harassing and denigrating women as a means of trying to drive out potential competitors’. It is a ‘mass cultural response to women asserting themselves [in] previously male-dominated areas’.

The new inflection that the internet appears to make possible is the trolls’ disavowal of moral commitment, which depends on a strict demarcation between the ‘real’ offline self, and online anonymity. I am not what I do, as long as I do it online.•


Less than 10% of U.S. jobs now reside in manufacturing, but the continued erosion of that sector has sent a shock to our system. No amount of Carrier deals, both economically and politically dubious, will make America manufacture again, and things could get far more shocking if other areas of employment quickly disappear into the zeros and ones.

For instance: What if the more plentiful positions in service, which seem particularly prone to automation, should begin to quickly vanish? In a smart Quartz Q&A conducted by Eshe Nelson, economist Richard Baldwin, author of The Great Convergence, warns that globalization’s most profound disruption is imminent and no legislation will likely be able to prevent its arrival (and we’d be injured in other ways even if it could).

To mitigate the downside, Baldwin suggests “we have to look for inspiration from northern European countries who have comprehensive retraining, help with housing, help with relocation.” It’s a tall order, but shortcuts likely won’t do.

An excerpt:


What about Donald Trump’s promise to bring back US manufacturing jobs? He made a deal to keep nearly 1,000 jobs at the Carrier gas-furnace factory by offering a big tax break.

Richard Baldwin: 

We shouldn’t try and protect jobs; we should protect workers. It’s really a fool’s errand to struggle with because after a year or two those jobs will still go. Either they will be replaced by robots or they’ll move to Mexico or China. If Carrier becomes inefficient from being forced to stay in the US, its business will go to competitors in Japan or Germany.


So even if we put up trade barriers, the jobs we protect will be for robots, not people? 

Richard Baldwin:

Absolutely. There are jobs for people, even in manufacturing these days, but not for the low-skilled people who have been dispossessed by this. Their jobs were routine and the easiest to replace with automation. The first thing to do is accept the 21st–century reality that no matter what you do, these jobs aren’t coming back.


An important aspect of your book is that we still have the so-called third phase of globalization to come, which will drive down the cost of moving people.

Richard Baldwin: 

There are two technologies that are key: telepresence and telerobotics. They exist but are expensive and clunky. Telepresence is half of a table with life-size screens, good light, lots of cameras, and microphones. Then the other half of the table is somewhere else. When people sit at the table you have a very strong impression that they are in the same room.


So the “movement” of people is not physical?

Richard Baldwin:

It’s a substitute for being there. It’s Skype that’s really, really good.

The second is telerobotics. There are a couple of well-known ones. One is the surgeon operating at a 100-kilometer distance from the patient. But you can imagine that hotel rooms in London could be cleaned by people driving robots sitting in Kenya or Buenos Aires or wherever, for a tenth of the cost here. That’s coming, and it will be very disruptive.


What happens to the chart on global income distribution during this phase of globalization?

Richard Baldwin:

It keeps going down.•

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In “Why Most Planets Will Either Be Lush or Dead,” David Grinspoon’s wonderfully lucid Nautilus piece about the Gaia hypothesis which was excerpted from his book Earth in Human Hands, the writer suggests that “once life has taken hold of a planet, once it has become a planetary‐scale entity (a global organism, if you will), it may be very hard to kill.”

We’re sure trying our damndest to off ourselves, what with a climate-change denier heading into the White House and China choking on its insta-modernity. It’s possible that even if “life as a whole persists” and our worst impulses don’t bring us to full species collapse, a global Easter Island, that scenarios could play out in which millions or hundreds of millions perish and quotidian existence is transformed into something harsh and traumatic. The survivors would be a scarred people on scarred earth. Just because humans have spent a couple million years or so as part of a feedback system that has seen life on the planet persevere doesn’t mean we can’t also turn out the lights.

From Grinspoon:

As far as we can tell, around the time when life was starting on Earth, both Venus and Mars shared the same characteristics that enabled life to get going here: They were wet, they were rocky, they had thick atmospheres and vigorous geologic activity. Comparative planetology seems to be telling us that the conditions needed for the origin of life might be the norm for rocky worlds. One real possibility is that Mars or Venus also had an origin of life, but that life did not stick, couldn’t persist, on either of these worlds. It was not able to take root and become embedded as a permanent planetary feature, as it did on Earth. This may be a common outcome: planets that have an origin of life, perhaps even several, but that never develop a robust and self‐sustaining global biosphere. What is really rare and unusual about Earth is that beneficial conditions for life have persisted over billions of years. This may have been more than luck.

When we stop thinking of planets as merely objects or places where living beings may or may not be present, but rather as themselves living or nonliving entities, it can color the way we think about the origin of life. Perhaps life is something that happens not on a planet but to a planet: It is something that a planet becomes.

Think of life as analogous to a fire.  If you’ve ever tried to start a campfire, you know it’s easy to ignite some sparks and a little flicker of flame, but then it’s hard to keep these initial flames going. At first you have to tend to the fire, blowing until you’re faint, to supply more oxygen, or it will just die out. That’s always the tricky part: keeping it burning before it has really caught on. Then it reaches a critical point, where the fire is really roaring. It’s got a bed of hot coals and its heat is generating its own circulation pattern, sucking in oxygen, fanning its own flames. At that point it becomes self-sustaining, and you can go grab a beer and watch for shooting stars.

I wonder if the first life on a planet isn’t like those first sparks and those unsteady little flames. The earliest stages of life may be extremely vulnerable, and there may be a point where, once life becomes a planetary phenomenon, enmeshed in the global flows that support and fuel it, it feeds back on itself and becomes more like a self‐sustaining fire, one that not only draws in its own air supply, but turns itself over and replenishes its own fuel. A mature biosphere seems to create the conditions for life to continue and flourish.•


Surveillance Capitalism is the wave of the future, we’re told, but it could more accurately be called Ambient Capitalism.

To me, surveillance suggests pursuit, a sort of cat-and-mouse game. But more and more we won’t make a squeak as we rest snugly in the pocket of new technologies trying to divine our preferences. As these algorithms quietly do their calculating in living rooms and supermarkets, we’ll hardly know they’re there, anticipating the needs we never knew we had, erasing the lines between private and public. It will be the final shift from a world in which we were primarily citizens to one where we’re chiefly consumers. We’ll have fully been eased inside the machine.

From  Sarah Buhr at TechCrunch:

The Wynn Las Vegas hotel is adding an Amazon Echo to every one of its 4,748 rooms. A first for a hotel to do and a great way to market both the hotel and the Echo device.

However, it also means, should you stay there, you’ll have a built-in surveillance device potentially listening in on all your conversations whenever you are in the room. Call me crazy but there might be a few guests who don’t want Amazon listening in on their wild Vegas weekend.

The irony is sweet, given Wynn Resorts Steve Wynn’s press statement on why he chose to add an Echo to every room:

“If I have ever seen anything in my 49 years of developing resorts that has made our job of delivering a perfect experience to our guests easier and help us get to another level, it is Alexa. The ability to talk to your room is effortlessly convenient,” Wynn stated.

But with all that chatter comes Alexa’s ability to upload what you are saying to the cloud. Echo has a listening component that is activated simply by speaking out loud, making it the perfect spy device — not only for Amazon marketing purposes but also for hackers and the government to get information about you without your permission.•


Ever since Apple’s “Think Different” ad in 1997, the one in which Steve jobs used Gandhi’s image to sell marked-up consumer electronics made by sweatshop labor, Silicon Valley business titans have been celebrated the way astronauts used to be. Jobs, who took credit for that advertising campaign which someone else created, specifically wondered why we put on a pedestal those who voyage into space when he and his clever friends were changing the world–or something–with their gadgets. He believed technologists were the best and brightest Americans. He was wrong.

Some of the Valley’s biggest names filed dourly into Trump Tower yesterday in a sort of reverse perp walk. It was the same, sad spectacle of Al Gore’s pilgrimage, which was answered with Scott Pruitt, climate-change denier, being chosen EPA Chief. Perhaps they made the trek on some sort of utilitarian impulse, but I would guess there was also some element of self-preservation, not an unheard of sense of compromise for those who see their corporations as if they were countries, not only because of their elephantine “GDPs,” but also because of how they view themselves. I don’t think they’re all Peter Thiel, an emotional leper and intellectual fraud who now gets to play out his remarkably stupid theories in a large-scale manner. I’ve joked that Thiel has a moral blind spot reminiscent of Hitler’s secretary, but the truth is probably far darker. 

What would have been far more impressive would have been if Musk, Cook, Page, Sandberg, Bezos and the rest stopped downstairs in front of the building and read a statement saying that while they would love to aid any U.S. President, they could not in this case because the President-Elect has displayed vicious xenophobia, misogyny and callous disregard for non-white people throughout the campaign and in the election’s aftermath. He’s shown totalitarian impulses and has disdain for the checks and balances that make the U.S. a free country. In fact, with his bullying nastiness he continues to double down on his prejudices, which has been made very clear by not only his words but through his cabinet appointments. They could have stated their dream for the future doesn’t involve using Big Data to spy on Muslims and Mexicans or programming 3D printers to build internment camps on Mars. They might have noted that Steve Bannon, whom Trump chose as his Chef Strategist, just recently said that there were too many Asian CEOs in Silicon alley, revealing his white-nationalistic ugliness yet again. They could have refused to normalize Trump’s odious vision. They could have taken a stand.

They didn’t because they’re not our absolute finest citizens. Khizr and Ghazala Khan, who understand the essence of the nation in a way the tech billionaires do not, more truly represent us at our most excellent. They possess a wisdom and moral courage that’s as necessary to us as the Constitution itself. The Silicon Valley folks lack these essential qualities, and without them, you can’t be called our best and brightest.•

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