Urban Studies

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“The romantic ideas of ‘home’ are collapsing all around us,” writes Ben Valentine in an h+ essay which meditates on the new book SQM: The Quantified Home. Well, most of us still live in homes similar to the previous generation, but the eyes of the Internet have begun to peep inside, and once every object is, in fact, a computer, it will be impossible to stop the prying. Valentine suggests that “free” products will be a trade-off in which we surrender privacy, the way Facebook costs nothing monetarily but is expensive in other ways. As Airbnb has shown, economic pressures have left doors ajar for strangers. More and more, the unfamiliar faces will be virtual. An excerpt:

In his essay, Bruce Sterling asks us how the architecture and architects of the home will be disrupted – like the music and publishing industries were disrupted – for data optimization? As we’ve done for social media, we’re opening up our homes to private companies for the sake of security and ease. We’re putting security cameras in our children’s bedrooms and connecting our home to the cloud with devices such as Amazon Echo. How will the home as networked site look when created to produce as much advertising data as possible? How can a home look more like an Amazon warehouse?

In the networked home of the future, will we enter a Facebook-like power relationship, willingly rendering all our most private moments visible to marketers for a tax break or a free networked fridge? It sadly doesn’t sound too unlikely to me. SQM: The Quantified Home sets up a history and context to considering the realities of this kind of future home, making the clear complex data and politics already intersecting within our home.

Much of this opening up of the home is economically focused. Given the financial collapse of 2008 and subsequent austerity measures around the world, of which all but the mega-wealthy are still reeling from, we’ve been forced to use our homes as economic tools of investment as much as private spaces for family and loved ones. An investment which fewer and fewer people can afford to make. If architecture, homes, and even cities follow the trend of social media’s economic disparity – exchanging some free services for huge swaths of powerful and valuable data – it’s only going to get worse.•

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From the March 25, 1934 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:


Logic and logistics suggest autonomy will be introduced gradually into cars as it has been thus far, allowing for regulatory bodies and human ones to gradually release the wheel over the next two or three decades. But Google isn’t interested in much of an intermediate stage, hoping to make driverless the way to ease on down the road in just five years. From Alex Davies at Wired:

What’s important here is Google’s commitment to its all-or-nothing approach, which contrasts with the steady-as-she-goes approach favored by automakers like Mercedes, Audi and Nissan.

Autonomous vehicles are coming. Make no mistake. But conventional automakers are rolling out features piecemeal, over the course of many years. Cars already have active safety features like automatic braking and lane departure warnings. In the next few years, expect cars to handle themselves on the highway, with more complicated urban driving to follow.

“We call it a revolution by evolution. We will take it step by step, and add more functionality, add more usefulness to the system,” says Thomas Ruchatz, Audi’s head of driver assistance systems and integrated safety. Full autonomy is “not going to happen just like that,” where from one day to the next “we can travel from our doorstep to our work and we don’t have a steering wheel in the car.”

Google thinks that’s exactly what’s going to happen.•

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Of the two things that could transform the world, Tesla and SpaceX, the former is far more plausible to succeed in its goal, which would be to environmentally remake the home and roads, but Elon Musk sees each as equally necessary for the human race to survive. Bloomberg has published an excellent segment from Ashlee Vance’s new book about Musk in which the writer makes clear how close the industrialist/technologist came to losing both the electric-and-solar empire and a shot at colonizing Mars.

SpaceX began with a dream of sending mice to our neighboring planet in a rocket purchased from the Russians, but consumer frustration forced Musk to build his own mini-NASA start-up, and for his ambitions to grow exponentially. 

An excerpt:

Elon and Justine decided to move south to begin their family and the next chapter of their lives in Los Angeles. Unlike many Southern California transplants, they were drawn by the technology. The mild, consistent weather made it ideal for the aeronautics industry, which had been there since the 1920s, when Lockheed Aircraft set up shop in Hollywood. Howard Hughes, the U.S. Air Force, NASA, Boeing, and a mosaic of support industries followed suit. While Musk’s space plans were vague at the time, he felt confident that he could recruit some of the world’s top aeronautics thinkers and get them to join his next venture.

Musk started by crashing the Mars Society, an eclectic collection of space enthusiasts dedicated to exploring and settling the Red Planet. They were holding a fund-raiser in mid-2001, a $500-per-plate event at the house of one of the well-off Mars Society members. What stunned Robert Zubrin, the head of the group, was the reply from someone named Elon Musk, whom no one could remember inviting. “He gave us a check for $5,000,” Zubrin said. “That made everyone take notice.” Zubrin invited Musk for coffee ahead of the dinner and told him about the research center the society had built in the Arctic to mimic the tough conditions of Mars and the experiments they had been running for something called the Translife Mission, in which there would be a capsule orbiting earth carrying a crew of mice. It would spin to give them one-third gravity—the same as Mars—and they would live there and make babies.

When it was time for dinner, Zubrin placed Musk at the VIP table next to himself, the director and space buff James Cameron, and Carol Stoker, a planetary scientist for NASA. Musk loved it. “He was much more intense than some of the other millionaires,” Zubrin said. “He didn’t know a lot about space, but he had a scientific mind. He wanted to know exactly what was being planned in regards to Mars and what the significance would be.” Musk took to the Mars Society right away and joined its board of directors. He donated an additional $100,000 to fund a research station in the desert.

Musk’s friends were not entirely sure what to make of his mental state at that time. He’d caught malaria while on vacation in Africa and lost a tremendous amount of weight fighting it off. Musk stands 6-foot-1 but usually seems much bigger than that. He’s broad-shouldered, sturdy, and thick. This version of Musk, though, looked emaciated and with little prompting would start expounding on his desire to do something meaningful with his life. “He said, ‘The logical thing to happen next is solar, but I can’t figure out how to make any money out of it,’ ” said George Zachary, an investor and close friend of Musk’s, recalling a lunch date at the time. “He started talking about space, and I thought he meant office space like a real estate play.” Musk had already started thinking beyond the Mars Society’s goals. Rather than send a few mice into earth’s orbit, Musk wanted to send them to Mars.

“He asked if I thought that was crazy,” Zachary said. “I asked, ‘Do the mice come back? Because, if they don’t, yeah, most people will think that’s crazy.’ ” Musk said that the mice were not only meant to go to Mars and come back but they also would come home with the baby mice, too.•

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Sir Hubert Wilkins, polar explorer, was familiar with investigating uncharted swatches of the globe by air, but in 1931 his aim was lower, as he commanded the Nautilus expedition whose goal was be the first to explore the North Pole by submarine. The voyage, which began in New York Harbor, was a grueling, troubled one, and after casualty and numerous engine failures, his benefactor, William Randolph Hearst, begged the adventurer, via wireless, to end the mission. Eventually Wilkins acquiesced, but not before proving a submarine could operate underneath the polar ice cap. Prior to the journey, Wilkins was thought to be batty for even trying, being seriously doubted in an article in the May 2, 1929 Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Below the piece is Wilkins’ 1958 What’s My Line? appearance.


“It was thought to be fantasy”:


Here’s an example of what Andrew McAfee wrote about tech toys of the rich becoming tools of the masses: An article from Peter H. Lewis in the July 19, 1992 New York Times, which was prescient about the emergence of smartphones (if a decade too early), without realizing they’d be for everyone. Andy Grove, quoted in the piece, thought it all fantasy. An excerpt:

Sometime around the middle of this decade no one is sure exactly when — executives on the go will begin carrying pocket-sized digital communicating devices. And although nobody is exactly sure what features these personal information gizmos will have, what they will cost, what they will look like or what they will be called, hundreds of computer industry officials and investors at the Mobile ’92 conference here last week agreed that the devices could become the foundation of the next great fortunes to be made in the personal computer business.

“We are writing Chapter 2 of the history of personal computers,” said Nobuo Mii, vice president and general manager of the International Business Machines Corporation’s entry systems division.

How rich is this lode? At one end of the spectrum is John Sculley, the chief executive of Apple Computer Inc., who says these personal communicators could be ‘the mother of all markets.’

At the other end is Andrew Grove, the chairman of the Intel Corporation, the huge chip maker based in Santa Clara, Calif. He says the idea of a wireless personal communicator in every pocket is “a pipe dream driven by greed.”

These devices are expected to combine the best features of personal computers, facsimile machines, computer networks, pagers, personal secretaries, appointment books, address books and even paperback books and pocket CD players — all in a hand-held box operated by pen, or even voice commands.

Stuck in traffic on a business trip, an executive carrying a personal communicator could send and receive electronic mail and facsimile messages from anywhere in the country. She could also call up a local map on a 3-inch by 5-inch screen, draw a line between her current position (confirmed by satellite positioning signals) and her intended destination, and the device would give her specific driving instructions (as well as real-time warnings about traffic jams or accidents). Certainly, these are just predictions for now, but they sure are fun to think about.•

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From the early attempt to quantify community in the The Woodlands to the sensor-centric, next-level Songdo, smart cities are an accepted (if vaguely defined) aspect of urban experimentation. But only one state, Singapore, is attempting to be a “smart nation.” It never truly was Disneyland with a death penalty, as William Gibson dubbed it in 1993, but it is a city-state saturated with smartphones, seemingly comfortable with surveillance. This ease with connectivity and quantification is one reason why the island nation feels it can transform itself into a techno-topia free of traffic jams and other such urban annoyances. From Anthony Cuthbertson at International Business Times:

The idea of everyone being connected to everything all the time might sound like a dystopian nightmare for some, but {Infocomm Development Authority head Steve] Leonard and [Prime Minister Lee] Hsien Loong believe it is key to creating a healthy and happy society.

Whether or not the citizens of Singapore have much of a say in the matter is another question. The country’s autocratic style of government has faced criticism in the past for stifling freedom, however it has also been recognised for overseeing Singapore’s remarkable economic growth over the last 50 years. If the ambitious smart nation vision is ever to be realised, it will play a key role. 

“Our advantage is that we are compact, we have a single level of government, we can decide efficiently, we can scale up successful experiments and pilots without any delay,” Lee said in a speech in April.

“Also we are able to take a long term view and see through big transformations to the end until they bear fruit for our citizens.”

There are legitimate issues that Singaporeans might have when faced with the prospect of living in Lee’s new nation, most notably those of privacy and security. For Leonard, this is the biggest challenge currently faced. 

When asked what the biggest hurdle is in implementing new technologies, it isn’t laws or regulation, it’s mindset.•

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I loved video games as a child and have no interest in them as an adult, and I wonder sometimes if that’s because it seems like we live inside one 24/7 now. Our heads are in the cloud, our lives held in devices, and that experiment in anarchy we encounter on the Internet is going to increasingly career back into the physical world, as real and virtual forge a new partnership. What a game it will be.

Even to a non-gamer like myself, No Man’s Sky, a video game universe being built by a small team of designers and coders and artists outside London, sounds amazing. The interplanetary game has an essentially infinite playing field and a butterfly effect of interdependence so profound that even the creators are surprised by the causes and effects. Raffi Khatchadourian of the New Yorker visited the Hello Games offices and brings a remarkable clarity to a runaway ambition that’s not yet fully realized. One example: He lucidly explains how “procedural generation”–producing content algorithmically rather than manually–allows a small independent company to turn out a blockbuster-sized vision. 

As for what I said above about feeling like we’re becoming players inside of a game, Khatchadourian said this in a Reddit AMA tied to his piece: “Your character won’t be defined as it is in many other games. In other words, you won’t have an avatar that you can build. You will be you.” And at the same time, you will not be you, not exactly. In that sense, the game seems appropriate to the moment.

An excerpt from “World Without End“:

We were in a lounge on the second floor of the renovated studio; concept art hung beside a whiteboard covered with Post-its. The furniture was bright, simple, IKEA. Sitting in front of a flat-screen TV the size of a Hummer windshield, [Sean] Murray loaded up a demo of the game that he had created for E3: a solar system of six planets. Hoping to preserve a sense of discovery in the game, he has been elusive about how it will play, but he has shared some details. Every player will begin on a randomly chosen planet at the outer perimeter of a galaxy. The goal is to head toward the center, to uncover a fundamental mystery, but how players do that, or even whether they choose to do so, is open to them. People can mine, trade, fight, or merely explore. As planets are discovered, information about them (including the names of their discoverers) is loaded onto a galactic map that is updated through the Internet. But, because of the game’s near-limitless proportions, players will rarely encounter one another by chance. As they move toward the center, the game will get harder, and the worlds—the terrain, the fauna and flora—will become more alien, more surreal.

Sitting in the lounge, we began on a Pez-colored planet called Oria V. Murray is known for nervously hovering during demos. “I’ll walk around a little, then I’ll let you have the controller for a bit,” he said. I watched as he traversed a field of orange grass, passing cyan ferns and indigo shrubs, down to a lagoon inhabited by dinosaurs and antelope. After three planets and five minutes, he handed me the controller, leaving me in a brilliantly colored dreamscape, with crystal formations, viridescent and sapphire, scattered in clusters on arid earth. Single-leaf flora the height of redwoods swayed like seaweed. I wandered over hills and came to a sea the color of lava and waded in. The sea was devoid of life. With the press of a button, I activated a jet pack and popped into the air. Fog hung across the sea, and Murray pointed to the hazy outline of distant cliffs. “There are some sort of caves over there,” he said, and I headed for them. The No Man’s Sky cosmos was shaped by an ideal form of wildness—mathematical noise—and the caves were as uncharted as any material caves. I climbed into one of them. “Let’s see how big it is,” Murray said.•

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From the April 11, 1928 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

In Ashley Halsey III’s Washington Post piece about the future of driverless, he focuses on two important aspects: 1) The U.S. government seems at this point to be an ally of the technological shift, and 2) Vehicle-to-Vehicle communication is an important part of next-level car safety, a fact often lost in the awe factor of witnessing cars driving themselves. 

I’ve yet to read many thoughtful comments from anyone in American government in regards to the profound economic destabilization this changeover may provoke. This new industry will likely kill far more jobs than it creates, which doesn’t mean we should be Luddites about it, but we should be thinking of solutions should this situation arise. 

An excerpt:

The administration push is recognition of a fact that is largely lost on many Americans: though it will dawn gradually, the era of the autonomous car is upon them. …

Like any innovation in the automotive marketplace, the advent of cars that talk to each other (known as vehicle-to-vehicle or V2V) and fully autonomous cars will take years to unfold.

Foxx anticipated that the technology would be fully rolled out within 10 years and that it might be three decades before fully autonomous vehicles rule the roads.

The secretary and officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also showed a firm commitment to cementing the marriage of two closely related technologies: driverless vehicles and direct computer communication between cars on the road.

“V2V offers things that you just can’t get through on-vehicle sensors, through cameras and radar and lasers and so forth,” said a NHTSA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly on the subject. “V2V sees around corners, it sees 15 cars ahead in traffic and across three or four lanes of traffic. It sees not only the car that is about to speed into the intersection, but whether the driver has applied the brake or not.”


I don’t eat animals yet am still fairly obsessed with fast-food restaurants. Not with the horrible, terrible meals that no one should devour, especially children, but the history of the restaurants, the design, the branding and the architecture of the experience–the way the assembly line was introduced into the food-preparation process.

In San Bernardino, the site of the world’s first McDonald’s, Albert Okura, who claims to have eaten 10,000 of the chain’s burgers and has somehow made it to 63 years old, has built a shrine to his beloved patty pusher. From Gareth Platt of the International Business Times:

At the front of the complex Okura has erected a sign from the 1960s, advertising those 15 cent hamburgers. Inside visitors can find everything from an old merry-go-round to toys from the original Happy Meals.

McDonald’s anoraks will doubtless rejoice in the novelty gimmicks the corporation rolled out over the years in response to various fads and fashions; there’s even a Michael Jordan flying disc, a relic of McDonald’s attempt to ride the b-ball wave back in the early 1990s.

And then there are the mascots. Dear God, the mascots. The old Ronald McDonald figures are so creepy they probably inspired Stephen King. The old Hamburgler design is pretty dark as well; one can only surmise that kids of the mid-twentieth century were less susceptible to nightmares than their modern counterparts.

Most of the items have come from fans and collectors. Okura explains: “We have lots of things people have donated. The original Ronald McDonald character, and the hamburgler, they date from the late 1960s when [McDonald’s supremo] Ray Kroc started getting to the character.

“Customers have donated hats from the 1960s, one lady brought the original McDonald’s straw wrapper, they are probably 70 years old, and we also have old potato slicers. I’ve also got pictures of people who worked there, and their stories, which are on the wall.”•

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“Rats to cows to cats.”

Bones, Skulls, Antlers, Unwanted Carcasses (Leonardsville)

I’m looking for parts! Specifically:

  • Antlers (moose, deer, elk, etc. attached to skull or not!)
  • Horns (goats, sheep, ibex, antelope)
  • Skulls (any! big or small, rats to cows to cats to raccoons to birds and everything in between)

They can be cleaned, or not. I don’t mind picking up items with flesh still on them.

Fresh roadkill is okay too, as long as the parts I’m looking for aren’t damaged.

I can pay you what the item is worth to me, or you can make an offer and the worst I can do is say no thanks.

I’m just a collector looking to add some items without buying them online.



The occasion of French astronomer and author Camille Flammarion’s second marriage in 1920 gave opportunity to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to publish his thoughts on a machine Thomas Edison announced he was working on, which would purportedly allow the living to communicate with the dead. Talk about a long-distance call.

Flammarion, who believed a personality of sorts survived after life had ended, was understandably excited about the deceased being conjured via allegedly scientific means in Menlo Park. In addition to the serious astronomical work he published, Flammarion wrote sci-fi and speculative narratives and is credited with birthing the idea of an alien race superior to Earthlings, which he believed in actuality and utilized as a plot device in his fiction. 


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I still recall the frustration when I first entered the workplace and tried explaining to someone significantly older than myself that soon people wouldn’t care about working at a particular desk every day, that a place of business would not be a second home and that it was all headed in a much looser and more mobile direction. That conversation did not go far.

So, I certainly won’t discount Christopher Mims of the WSJ when he argues that most work in the future will be remote and aided by tools like Virtual Reality teleconferencing. I really only question the “most” part of his assertion, as these tools, once improved to satisfactory levels, will certainly be employed in business in the same manner as tablets and smartphones.

Of course, if automation takes all our jobs, we’ll be able to use our VR helmets to imagine the poorhouse is a five-star hotel. How sublime the new poverty!

From Mims:

I am convinced that the future of remote work—that is, the future of most work—is devices few people have been privileged to try, but won’t want to abandon once they do.

Let’s take this in order of when these technologies will be available. Oblong Industries was started by John Underkoffler, who designed the futuristic computer interfaces in the film Minority Report. Since 2013, Oblong has sold to deep-pocketed clients systems for fully outfitting conference rooms with banks of large monitors, cameras for videoconferencing, software that allows anyone present to wirelessly display the contents of his or her laptop or tablet on these screens, and Nintendo Wii-style wands that allow them to point at and manipulate this content.

Sitting in one of these rooms not long ago, I got the feeling that the Oblong staffers I was remotely collaborating with weren’t somewhere else so much as in a room right next door, and that I was looking through a glass window at them.

This year, Intel Corp. is rolling out its RealSense technology, which gives the cameras in laptops the ability to see and understand depth, just like Microsoft’s Kinect. Sanjay Patel, CEO of Personify, says he thinks RealSense will show up in tens of millions of notebooks this year, as every major PC manufacturer has revealed models that incorporate it. By the end of the year, it may also show up in tablets and phones.•

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In a Quartz post predicting autonomous cars will disappear human-driver vehicles by 2030–who knows?–Zack Kanter speaks intelligently to the wastefulness of most of us owning cars in this time of smartphones and ridesharing. Giving up not only the wheel but the whole vehicle will increasingly be the rational decision for most urban dwellers. Kanter further argues that the devastation done to existing industries and jobs will be neutralized by the creation of new fields. Well, that better happen or we’ll have to quickly devise political solutions. An excerpt:

Morgan Stanley’s research shows that cars are driven just 4% of the year, which is an astonishing waste considering that the average cost of car ownership is nearly $9,000 per year. Next to a house, an automobile is the second-most expensive asset that most people will ever buy—it is no surprise that ride sharing services like Uber and car sharing services like Zipcar are quickly gaining popularity as an alternative to car ownership. 

It is now more economical to use a ride-sharing service if you live in a city and drive less than 10,000 miles per year. And current research confirms that we would be eager to use autonomous cars if they were available. A full 60% of US adults surveyed stated that they would ride in an autonomous car, and nearly 32% said they would not continue to drive once an autonomous car was available instead. But no one is more excited than Uber—CEO Travis Kalanick recently stated that Uber will eventually replace all of its drivers with self-driving cars.

A January 2013 Columbia University study once suggested that with a fleet of just 9,000 autonomous cars, Uber could replace every taxi cab in New York City, and that passengers would wait an average of 36 seconds for a ride that costs about $0.50 per mile. Such convenience and low cost would make car ownership inconceivable, and autonomous, on-demand taxis—the “transportation cloud”—will quickly become the dominant form of transportation.•


Almost a decade before the 1976 Olympics put Montreal in long-term debt, the city offered another large-scale gift: Expo 67, a world’s fair held just as such gatherings were beginning to become passé in a more-connected globe. One lasting monument to urban utopianism bequeathed by that event is Habitat 67, a controversial experiment in future-forward, communal-ish apartment living which sprang from the imagination of young Canadian-Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, like a kibbutz from the future being teleported to the present. Of course, it’s a future that’s never arrived. From Genevieve Paiement at the Guardian:

Habitat 67 echoes a little known post-war Japanese architectural movement called Metabolism, whose proponents believed buildings should be designed as living, organic, interconnected webs of prefabricated cells. Perhaps the most famous Metabolist incarnation is Tokyo’s Nakagin Capsule Tower, another pile of concrete cubes dotted with porthole-like windows, erected in 1972. The influence of Le Corbusier, especially the French master’s love affair with concrete, on Habitat 67 is also clear. But Safdie set his own course, attempting to balance cold geometry against living, breathing nature.

It was while travelling across North America as a student that Safdie surveyed grim apartment high-rises and unsustainable suburban sprawl. He returned home to Montreal with a mission: to “reinvent the apartment building”. He longed to create, as he put it in a 2014 Ted Talk, “a building which gives the qualities of a house to each unit – Habitat would be all about gardens, contact with nature, streets instead of corridors” (each cube has access to a roof garden built atop an adjacent cube).

Habitat 67 was a pilot project, intended as just the first application of a salve for urban ills that would spread across the world. Only it didn’t quite work out that way. The Walrus, Canada’s answer to the Atlantic magazine, called Habitat 67 a “failed dream.” …

The concrete needed frequent repair. One former resident, who lived there more than a decade ago for three years (and stilll prefers to remain anonymous, lest he offend the building’s diehard cheerleaders), says he fled after developing asthma and finding his cat dead. “From an architectural point of view, it’s spectacular, but water got into that concrete, and mould seeped into the ventilation system. It blew the spores around.” By the mid-1980s, the building was in private hands.•

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From the December 30, 1946 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Following up on the recent Ask Me Anything conducted by Philip Zimbardo, an alumnus of the Stanford Prison Experiment, the psychologist is interviewed by Stuart Jeffries of the Guardian about the new book he’s coauthored, Man (Dis)connected: How Technology Has Sabotaged What It Means To Be Male, a treatment of the boys-in-peril thesis he’s been pushing in recent years.

I’m really circumspect of Zimbardo’s generalizations, his idea that a scary amount of guys are essentially receptacles for “porn, video games and Ritalin.” In the article, he proffers the dubious idea that mothers love unconditionally and fathers provisionally, a stereotype that runs afoul of reality. Zimbardo also believes young men are retreating from work and responsibilities for reasons which have nothing to do with the paucity of jobs, which seems dubious. I really don’t recognize any male people I know in his stereotypes.

There are certain aspects of American unhappiness that can be analyzed along gender or race or class lines, but I think our biggest collective psychological problem is that we’re sold on consumer-culture idealizations that are bound to leave us disappointed. That, too, is a generalization, though I think a far more believable one than Zimbardo’s.

From Jeffries:

The book, by Zimbardo and his co-author Nikita D Coulombe, is about why boys don’t man up as previous generations of males ostensibly did.

They argue that, while girls are increasingly succeeding in the real world, boys are retreating into cyberspace, seeking online the security and validation they can’t get anywhere else. They are bored at school, increasingly have no father figures to motivate them, don’t have the skills to form real romantic relationships, feel entitled to have things done for them (usually by their parents) and seek to avoid a looming adulthood of debt, unfulfilling work and other irksome responsibilities. As a result, they disappear into their bedrooms where, he argues, they risk becoming addicted to porn, video games and Ritalin.

No wonder, Zimbardo argues, popular culture teems with moodles (“man poodles”) or infantilised jerks (think: Jackass, Failure to Launch, Step Brothers, Hall Pass and The Hangover series), devoid of economic purpose, emotional intelligence, temperamentally unable to commit or take responsibility.

Zimbardo claims that a majority of African-American boys have been brought up in female-dominated households for generations. “Sixty, 70% grow up in a female world. I would trace a lot of that poor performance of black kids to not having a father present to make demands and not setting limits. This is now spilling out of the black community to the white community.”•

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One of the really wonderful online publications to pop up recently is Steven Levy’s Backchannel, which is full of interesting ideas about our technological world, how we got here and where we’re headed.

Case in point: After 1.7 million miles of road tests, Chris Urmson, director of Google’s self-driving program, has written a piece about the search giant’s foray into completely remaking transportation and reorganizing cities, reducing traffic and pollution. 

Of course, it’s not Urmson’s job to worry about the societal upheaval that will arise should autonomous vehicles be perfected. That will be up to you and I. While robocars will likely save lives, they will kill so many jobs. If new industries don’t emerge to replace these disappeared positions, how do we proceed? It’s not about holding back progress but dealing with disruption in an intelligent and equitable manner. 

Anyhow, Urmson reports fewer than a dozen fender benders thus far for Google’s driverless cars, with all being caused by human drivers. His analysis unsurprisingly favors a driverless future, but it would be pretty widely reported if he was characterizing the safety record inaccurately. An excerpt:

If you spend enough time on the road, accidents will happen whether you’re in a car or a self-driving car. Over the 6 years since we started the project, we’ve been involved in 11 minor accidents (light damage, no injuries) during those 1.7 million miles of autonomous and manual driving with our safety drivers behind the wheel, and not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident.

Rear-end crashes are the most frequent accidents in America, and often there’s little the driver in front can do to avoid getting hit; we’ve been hit from behind seven times, mainly at traffic lights but also on the freeway. We’ve also been side-swiped a couple of times and hit by a car rolling through a stop sign. And as you might expect, we see more accidents per mile driven on city streets than on freeways; we were hit 8 times in many fewer miles of city driving. All the crazy experiences we’ve had on the road have been really valuable for our project. We have a detailed review process and try to learn something from each incident, even if it hasn’t been our fault.

Not only are we developing a good understanding of minor accident rates on suburban streets, we’ve also identified patterns of driver behavior (lane-drifting, red-light running) that are leading indicators of significant collisions. Those behaviors don’t ever show up in official statistics, but they create dangerous situations for everyone around them.

Lots of people aren’t paying attention to the road.

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This very melodramatic postmortem of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in the March 9, 1917 Brooklyn Daily Eagle asserts that the dirigible builder passed away a broken man because his airships were deemed no longer worthy of bombing missions meant to reduce humans to piles of limbs. Interesting to note Zeppelin was a young German military officer when he encountered his first transport balloons while traveling in America during the Civil War, meeting aeronauts Thaddeus Lowe and John Steiner. (In the top photo, taken in 1863, the German visitor is the second from the right, an embed with a Union unit.) It wasn’t until he was past 50 that Zeppelin was able to completely devote himself to his long-deferred dream of popularizing dirigibles, and his successes with the ships, among many failures, helped make mass air travel seem like destiny.


1912: “Zeppelin’s first cruise over Germany.”


Really fascinating article on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Vanity Fair by Sebastian Junger, which questions much of the generally accepted wisdom about this mysterious, inconsistent war wound.

Just a few of Junger’s ideas: For the most part, military members, even those who’ve seen combat, don’t seem to experience higher suicide rates than the general public. Soldiers who kill remotely via drone are just as likely to suffer trauma as their counterparts who kill at close range. Those who experience no combat often have higher levels of PTSD than those who see heavy combat. Just puzzling. Elite soldiers rarely experience such troubles, perhaps because they’ve reached that status thanks in part to possessing high levels of a particular amino acid which acts as a natural buffer against stress. And the questions are obviously thorny regarding soldiers receiving permanent disability for what often doesn’t need be permanently disabling.

An excerpt:

Suicide by combat veterans is often seen as an extreme expression of PTSD, but currently there is no statistical relationship between suicide and combat, according to a study published in April in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry. Combat veterans are no more likely to kill themselves than veterans who were never under fire. The much-discussed estimated figure of 22 vets a day committing suicide is deceptive: it was only in 2008, for the first time in decades, that the U.S. Army veteran suicide rate, though enormously tragic, surpassed the civilian rate in America. And even so, the majority of veterans who kill themselves are over the age of 50. Generally speaking, the more time that passes after a trauma, the less likely a suicide is to have anything to do with it, according to many studies. Among younger vets, deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan lowers the incidence of suicide because soldiers with obvious mental-health issues are less likely to be deployed with their units, according to an analysis published in Annals of Epidemiology in 2015. The most accurate predictor of post-deployment suicide, as it turns out, isn’t combat or repeated deployments or losing a buddy but suicide attempts before deployment. The single most effective action the U.S. military could take to reduce veteran suicide would be to screen for pre-existing mental disorders.

It seems intuitively obvious that combat is connected to psychological trauma, but the relationship is a complicated one. Many soldiers go through horrific experiences but fare better than others who experienced danger only briefly, or not at all. Unmanned-drone pilots, for instance—who watch their missiles kill human beings by remote camera—have been calculated as having the same PTSD rates as pilots who fly actual combat missions in war zones, according to a 2013 analysis published in the Medical Surveillance Monthly Report. And even among regular infantry, danger and psychological breakdown during combat are not necessarily connected. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel was invaded simultaneously by Egypt and Syria, rear-base troops in the Israeli military had psychological breakdowns at three times the rate of elite frontline troops, relative to their casualties. And during the air campaign of the first Gulf War, more than 80 percent of psychiatric casualties in the U.S. Army’s VII Corps came from support units that took almost no incoming fire, according to a 1992 study on Army stress casualties.•


“We live in the most exciting time ever,” writes Peter Diamandis, and I don’t disagree. But we probably should recall the sly, old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Great opportunities and upheaval and ethical challenges are within reach, so extend your arms, embrace fully, and hold on for dear life.

Here are two items from Diamandis’ list of eight areas of near-term transformation included in his post “The World in 2025“:

3. Perfect Knowledge: We’re heading towards a world of perfect knowledge. With a trillion sensors gathering data everywhere (autonomous cars, satellite systems, drones, wearables, cameras), you’ll be able to know anything you want, anytime, anywhere, and query that data for answers and insights.

7. Early Days of JARVIS: Artificial intelligence research will make strides in the next decade. If you think Siri is useful now, the next decade’s generation of Siri will be much more like JARVIS from Iron Man, with expanded capabilities to understand and answer. Companies like IBM Watson, DeepMind and Vicarious continue to hunker down and develop next-generation AI systems. In a decade, it will be normal for you to give your AI access to listen to all of your conversations, read your emails and scan your biometric data because the upside and convenience will be so immense.•



I don’t know that Edward Luce of the Financial Times says anything new in slapping down Thomas Friedman’s 1990s “Golden Arches Doctrine,” which declared that nations on the same supply chain of Happy Meals wouldn’t engage in war, a theory clearly debunked by now, but he says it exceedingly well. The world may be flat as a patty, but it still can burn. An excerpt:

Even when societies turn middle class, conflict is endemic to our species. The return of great power rivalry in the 21st century reminds us that we are not purely economic animals. Were that the case, we would long ago have lowered transaction costs by abolishing nation states and currencies.

The fact that diverse cultures share bad habits and use the same technology should not be over-interpreted. China’s politburo has been dressing in business suits for years. Jihadi fighters wear jeans and surf on their iPhones (doubtless some have a weakness for chicken McNuggets). They still revile the global hegemon. The presence of hundreds of McDonald’s outlets in Russia did not stop Vladimir Putin last year from annexing Crimea, which also had McDonald’s outlets. The chain has since withdrawn from the peninsula but not from the rest of Ukraine. Nor is McDonald’s presence likely to prevent a fifth war between India and Pakistan. Meanwhile China’s global integration does not seem to have checked its sense of nationalism.

Geopolitics is clearly back.•

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Ted Greenwald of the Wall Street Journal presents a sober, clear-headed assessment of the threats posed to us by both Weak AI and Strong AI, with the help of Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, IBM cognitive-computing expert Guruduth S. Banavar and computer science professor Francesca Rossi. One exchange:


Some experts believe that AI is already taking jobs away from people. Do you agree?

Jaan Tallinn:

Technology has always had the tendency to make jobs obsolete. I’m reminded of an Uber driver whose services I used a while ago. His seat was surrounded by numerous gadgets, and he demonstrated enthusiastically how he could dictate my destination address to a tablet and receive driving instructions. I pointed out to him that, in a few years, maybe the gadgets themselves would do the driving. To which he gleefully replied that then he could sit back and relax—leaving me to quietly shake my head in the back seat. I do believe the main effect of self-driving cars will come not from their convenience but from the massive impact they will have on the job market.

In the long run, we should think about how to organize society around something other than near-universal employment.•

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Charles Murray, “thought leader,” claims to be truly and deeply in love with both meritocracy and Sarah Palin, which seems an impossible balancing act, but consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, I suppose.

The political scientist is particularly fond of making arguments that support his ideological beliefs, while conveniently forgetting to mention inconvenient truths. Case in point: His new “Saturday Essay” in the WSJ which decries regulation in America, without once mentioning that watered-down and nonexistent regulations led to the 2008 economic collapse. Oh well, spilt milk. He also neither raises the rules of policing that have long been aimed at African-Americans, nor the so-called quality-of-life offenses which hector the poorest among us. There’s bureaucracy worth fighting against.

Some regulations are excessive, but often they’re there to begin with to protect us, because before they existed corporations and other institutions were rapacious. Seat belts and airbags don’t wind up in cars without government. These rules are sometimes clumsy and should be improved when they are, but a barber being forced by the state to be licensed doesn’t drown us in a sea of debt and destroy lives. A free market without regulations does that. Somehow Murray forget to address this point.

An excerpt:

Whether we are trying to raise our children, be good stewards of our property, cooperate with our neighbors to solve local problems or practice our religious faith, the bureaucrats think they know better. And when the targets of the regulatory state say they’ve had enough, that they will fight it in court, the bureaucrats can—and do—say to them, “Try that, and we’ll ruin you.”

That’s the regulatory state as seen from ground level by the individual citizens who run afoul of it. It looks completely different when we back off and look at it from a distance. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has authority over more than eight million workplaces. But it can call upon only one inspector for about every 3,700 of those workplaces. The Environmental Protection Agency has authority not just over workplaces but over every piece of property in the nation. It conducted about 18,000 inspections in 2013—a tiny number in proportion to its mandate.

Seen in this perspective, the regulatory state is the Wizard of Oz: fearsome when its booming voice is directed against any single target but, when the curtain is pulled aside, revealed as impotent to enforce its thousands of rules against widespread refusal to comply.

And so my modest proposal: Let’s withhold that compliance through systematic civil disobedience. Not for all regulations, but for the pointless, stupid and tyrannical ones.•


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