Urban Studies

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Jeannette Piccard, bold balloonist, is pictured directly above with her husband, Jean, and Henry Ford, the anti-Semitic automaker on hand to wish them–and their pet turtle–well on a daring 1934 trip via gondola into the stratosphere, which turned out to be a bumpy ride. Jeanette is usually credited as the first woman in space; her spouse was the twin brother of Auguste Piccard, the family’s most famous aeronaut. (The siblings would decades later inspire the name of Patrick Stewart’s Star Trek captain.) Jeannette traveled far not only up there, but also in here, following up her aviation exploits and a stint at NASA by being ordained an Episcopalian priest. An article in the October 23 Brooklyn Daily Eagle recorded the fraught moment when she reached the high point of her life, literally at least.

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There’s no denying Kevin Kelly is a techno-optimist, something his new book, The Inevitable, speaks to. The Wired cofounder, who returned to Russ Robert’s podcast, EconTalk, to promote the title, said three years ago when guesting on the program: “We’re constantly redefining what humans are here for.” He’s further developed his thinking on that topic this time around.

I agree with Kelly and Roberts that our new tools and systems (Deep Learning, AI, etc.) will make us better off in the long run (though it will be complicated), but I’m concerned about the near- and medium-term, when industries will likely rise and fall with disquieting regularity and financial headaches may find those who aren’t, say, successful authors or research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Roberts briefly puzzles over people concerning themselves with technological unemployment at a time when the U.S. unemployment rate hovers around 5%. I don’t think it’s Trumpian to say that percentage doesn’t quite speak to the number of citizens struggling nor the long-stagnating wages. Wikipedia and smartphones are wonderful, but they’re not quite a substitute for a degree of economic security. 

Two exchanges are embedded below.


Russ Roberts:

Just to play pessimist for a minute: We think about artificial intelligence, for example, today–and you mention both these kind of things in your book–is it really that exciting that our thermostat gets to know us? Is it really that exciting that my car beeps at me when I’m going out of my lane or can parallel park–which is great for my 16-year old worried about is his driver’s license test? But these are not transformative applications.

Kevin Kelly:

Yeah. This too. It seemed it at first, very invisible. Well, you might not recall, but in the 1920s or something Sears Roebuck, the mail-order catalog company, was selling the Home Motor. And the Home Motor was this immense, 15-pound motor that was going to sit in the center of your home and automate all the appliances and whatnot in your home. That industrial revolution thing worked because it became invisible–we don’t have the big motor turning everything; we have like 50 motors in our homes that became invisible. So, to some extent, this stuff is working because we don’t see it. Because it’s not something that is visible. And it succeeds to the extent that it transforms while we don’t see it. So, that’s one thing. And the second thing I would say about that is that, we’re sitting on this huge wave of the First Industrial Revolution which brought this incredible prosperity to us all, the fact that we see around us that we no longer in the agricultural hunter-gatherer era were–we had to do everything with human muscle or with animal muscle, animal power. We invented something called ‘synthetic artificial power.’ And we harnessed fossil fuels, and carbon fuels, to give additional power that we couldn’t do. And all that we see is basically a result of this artificial power. So when we drive down the road in your car, you have 250 horses working for you at that moment. Just turn a little knob, you’ve got 250 horses powering you down to do whatever you want to do. And then we distributed that power through a grid to every home and farm in the country; and so farmers could employ that artificial power to do all kinds of things; and factories could use that artificial power. And everything that we had built around us was because of the artificial power that we made. Well, now, we’re going to do the same thing with artificial intelligence. So, instead of–in addition to having 250 horses driving you down the road, you are going to have 250 minds–which we are going to get from AI, from artificial intelligence. And that, we’re also going to put that onto a grid and distribute it around the country so that like any farmer could just get and purchase as much artificial power and artificial intelligence as they want, to do things. And just as that artificial power, was this incredibly transformative, incredibly progressive, incredibly powerful platform to give us all that we enjoy now, this artificial minds that we are going to get on top of the artificial power is going to transform us in an equal way: it’s going to touch everything that we do. And I think actually it will transform us more than that first Industrial Revolution did.•


Russ Roberts:

A lot of people worry about the impact of artificial intelligence on employment. We’ve talked about this–it’s now becoming a recurring theme. And of course it’s ironic we’re having this theme when unemployment in the United States is 5%. But, put that to the side. I think people are legitimately worried about what might be replaced by what. And you talk about it at length. I just wondered about two points you make. You talk about the fact that there are jobs that we didn’t know we wanted done. I’m going to read a little excerpt here:

Before we invented automobiles, air-conditioning, flat-screen video displays, and animated cartoons, no one living in ancient Rome wished they could watch cartoons while riding to Athens in climate-controlled comfort. One hundred years ago not a single citizen of China would have told you that they would rather buy a tiny glass slab that allowed them to talk to faraway friends before they would buy indoor plumbing, but every day peasant farmers in China without plumbing purchase smart phones. Crafty AIs embedded in first-person-shooter games have given millions of teenage boys the urge, the need, to become professional game designers–a dream that no boy in Victorian times ever had. In a very real way our inventions assign us our jobs. 

You want to add anything to that?

Kevin Kelly:

I think maybe I kind of maybe say it this way: Our jobs into the future will be to invent jobs that we can automate and give to the robots. So, we’re on a kind of a path, on an escalator–that we’re going to keep inventing new things that that we desire to be wanted to do; we’ll figure out how to do them, and once we figure out how to do them we’ll automate them–basically giving them to the AIs, and a box. So, in a certain sense our job is to invent jobs that we can automate. And I think that part of inventing jobs may be our job–human job–for a while, because we have better access to our latent desires than AIs do. Although eventually even perhaps that job is–at least assisted by AIs.

Russ Roberts:

I’m going to read another quote which says what you just said, but it’s so beautiful. You say,

When robots and automation do our most basic work, making it relatively easy for us to be fed, clothed, and sheltered, then we are free to ask, “What are humans for?” Industrialization did more than just extend the average human lifespan. It led a greater percentage of the population to decide that humans were meant to be ballerinas, full-time musicians, mathematicians, athletes, fashion designers, yoga masters, fan-fiction authors, and folks with one-of-a kind titles on their business cards. With the help of our machines, we could take up these roles; but of course, over time, the machines will do these as well. We’ll then be empowered to dream up yet more answers to the question “What should we do?” It will be many generations before a robot can answer that.•

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A Texas millennial using apps and gadgets to disrupt Big Church doesn’t really seem odder than anything else in this hyperconnected and tech-happy entrepreneurial age, when the way things have been are threatened at every turn. At Experience Life in Lubbock, Soylent has yet to replace wine and there’s no Virtual Reality confessionals, but self-described “computer nerd” Chris Galanos has done his best to take the “Old” out of the Old Testament with his buzzing, whirring House of God 2.0. Is nothing sacred anymore?

From Robyn Ross at Texas Monthly:

The church’s casual, contemporary atmosphere drew a record 8,048 people to its ten services this past Easter. Outside the Southwest Campus, at the edge of town, where new homes rise from the windswept fields, a staffer played techno music at a booth that resembled a radio station remote broadcast. Greeters in shirts reading “Welcome Home” scanned the crowd for newcomers and escorted them to a VIP tent where they could pick up Dunkin’ Donuts and coffee. Inside, a volunteer with a glow stick escorted them from the lobby into the dark auditorium to reserved seats in the front row.

The cavernous space was lit only by the spotlights trained on the worship band and the screen behind it, which displayed the lyrics to the songs. By the time the band stopped playing, the room was packed with more than a thousand people, many of them wearing jeans. After some introductory remarks, the screen darkened, and a video began to play. A robed man portraying the disciple Peter—an eLife staffer, actually—appeared on the screen. “All I ever wanted to do was fish,” he began, explaining how he’d become one of Jesus’ disciples before recounting how Jesus was betrayed, crucified, and resurrected.

Near the end of the hourlong service, Chris Galanos, the church’s 34-year-old founding pastor, took the stage to preach on 1 Peter 1:18–20. Bespectacled, slight, and wearing jeans and an eLife polo shirt, he shifted his weight forward and back as he spoke, like a fencer preparing to lunge. “Peter’s reminding his readers, ‘You guys remember how Jesus ransomed you from your empty life? That ransom was the precious blood of Jesus.’ ” Galanos closed his Bible and looked at the crowd. “Have you ever asked God for ransom? Because people think they can get to heaven by being good, but we need a savior. You can’t pay your own ransom.”

At the end of his message, the band began to play, and row by row people rose to their feet, applauding. As spotlights twirled above the crowd and a fog machine hissed, the amplified bass reverberated through the crowd like a collective heartbeat. A woman held up her smartphone to film the scene as people lifted their hands in praise, a sea of outstretched palms silhouetted against the glowing screen.

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Almost five years ago, I wondered if China, with its present government, could successfully transition from opening fake Apple Stores to creating a company as globally popular as Steve Jobs’ giant. Well, the citizens certainly purchase more authentic iPhones these days, but there’s still no hot product to export, for all of the country’s new wealth. Perhaps it’s just too soon or maybe a society so controlled doesn’t foster entrepreneurship.

In the Evan Osnos AMA I posted some exchanges from earlier this week, one questioner noted that China is expanding its presence on the world stage, while longtime powers like England and the U.S. seem to want to recede from globalization and into the past. But at the same time, the new superpower of Asia is beginning to experience its own growing pains–and not just financially. 

As Disney opens its first Shanghai theme park, it’s become clear to Chinese authorities and the citizenry that multinational entertainment-business deals with the West come with cultural and, perhaps, political concessions, even of it’s “China’s Disneyland” and not merely a “Disneyland in China,” as Bob Iger puts it with maximum politesse. The opening of “When Walt Went to China,” an article by Charles Clover at the Financial Times:

It is hard to think of two organisations that love synchronised dancing more than the Disney corporation and the Communist party of China. So when the two came together for the opening ceremony of Disney’s new $5.5bn theme park in Shanghai, the display was unsurprisingly choreographed to perfection.

Buzz Lightyear, Princess Elsa, Winnie the Pooh, Captain Jack Sparrow, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck: the full weight of Disney’s intellectual property holdings was arrayed in phalanx in front of the world’s largest Disney Palace — and China’s watching politburo — each dancing toy action figure, princess or superhero representing a discounted cash flow in the billions of dollars.

Fireworks, speeches, more fireworks, more speeches: there was not a lot of room for subtlety. This was, after all, the world’s biggest entertainment company celebrating its beachhead into the world’s fastest growing entertainment market. Everything was done to reinforce the impression that we were watching a salient event in the recent history of the world, the formation of a new strategic partnership or new power sharing agreement — that the global entertainment industry was now a US-China duopoly.

Yet Disney’s journey to Shanghai has been long and fraught, underlining Beijing’s schizophrenic relationship with mass American culture. Western brands are a particular neurosis for China — Mark Zuckerberg, for example, is treated as a celebrity whenever he comes to China, but Facebook remains blocked. Luxury brands such as Gucci count China and Chinese tourists as their main market, but also their most prolific copier and counterfeiter. That China has not yet created a globally successful brand is a peculiar source of humiliation in Beijing amid soul searching as to why.•

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One of my favorite journalists at the New Yorker–anywhere, really–is Evan Osnos, who does wonderful work whether reporting on China or politics or whatever. His latest piece, “Making a Killing,” published in the wake of the horrific Orlando massacre, investigates the gun industry in America, now a “concealed-carry” country and home to an unofficial militia of millions with often-minimal firearms training.

He writes of this surprisingly recent phenomenon: “In 2015 fatalities from mass shootings amounted to just two per cent of all gun deaths. Most of the time, when Americans shoot one another, it is impulsive, up close, and apolitical.” Despite a marked decline in crime and hunting in recent decades, manufacturers have for a quarter century sold fear in order to peddle their lethal wares. It’s largely been wildly successful.

Osnos also conducted a companion Ask Me Anything at Reddit (a few exchanges are embedded below) in which he shares his belief that the nature of the debate is in flux, perhaps veering more toward stricter regulations. One aspect of the topic not discussed in either piece is the near-term future of 3D printers, which will probably be able to turn out an endless supply of perfectly workable handguns at some point over the next decade. When you have printers printing out other printers and so on, it’ll be difficult to get a grip on guns regardless of laws.


Question:

More than half of handgun deaths are suicides. A significant percent of the remainder are perpetrated by and against those willfully engaged in illegal gang and drug activity (not your stereotypical NRA member). And nearly all are due to handguns rather than rifles. Why is gun control focused on the low-hanging fruit of NRA and “assault weapons”?

Evan Osnos:

You’re absolutely right about the preponderance of gun deaths coming from handguns, not long guns. Often, this gets lost in the moments after a mass shooting that involves a long gun (usually semiauto, obviously). But I wouldn’t characterize the NRA as “low-hanging fruit.” They have been the most successful advocates for gun rights in the last century. The organization is essential to any discussion of guns, and they would agree with that (though not with criticism of them, of course).


Question:

I listened to a brief portion of your interview on Fresh Air and you said (paraphrasing) that the moment you introduce a gun to your house, you double the chances of a homicide. Is this not the fallacy of correlation and not causation? The moment I introduce a lawnmower to my house, I significantly increase my chances of accidents involving lawnmowers. If I have a swimming pool installed, I significantly increase the chance of drowning. You paint the picture of an uninformed gun owner by and far, responsible gun owners understand and take steps to minimize the risks of gun ownership.

Evan Osnos:

I hope you’ll have a chance to listen to the whole thing. The guns vs. swimming pool analogy has been dealt with pretty well elsewhere, so I won’t rehash other than to say that it’s difficult, but not impossible, to use a swimming pool to kill a spouse in a domestic dispute — or to use a swimming pool to kill your neighbor, or, if you’re unwell, to massacre people in a movie theatre. I’m not trying to be facetious; it’s an important point: Bringing a gun into the house raises your risks of homicide and that’s precisely the point. It’s not just the risk of homicide to a home invader, obviously.


Question:

In your reporting, what was the biggest myth about guns that you discovered?

Evan Osnos:

There are myths on both sides: Many gun-control advocates imagine gun-owners = NRA. They’re not the same. As I write in my piece many gun-owners are turned off by the fear-mongering, the insults to their intelligence. At the same time, I met a lot of gun owners who are convinced that urban elites want to confiscate their guns. The truth is that urban elites, if you want to call them that, could care less what others have stashed in their safes — they just don’t people getting shot all the time. There is so much room for people to meet in the middle on this, but it requires putting aside some myths we are convinced are true.


Question:

I’m in the process of reading your article, so I apologize if you covered this at length already, but in the research you’ve done, what would you say is the most impactful move that could be taken to immediately curb, to any extent, gun violence?

On a non-gun related point, what is your favorite piece that has been published by the New Yorker this year?

Evan Osnos:

Anybody — especially people who favor free markets — should conclude that the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act was a big mistake. Imagine if Exxon was protected from liability after the Valdez? That’s not how markets should work. It will probably be revised or repealed to make sure that companies are doing safe work — as with any industry.

Also, on TNY pieces, Patrick Keefe has been on a tear. Read and diagram and study anything he writes.


Question:

What was the most difficult aspect of investigating the NRA at that depth?

Evan Osnos:

I appreciated the fact that the NRA welcomes journalists to the annual meeting etc. It’s a fair way of ensuring people understand the organization. But the leadership, and the businesses that support the NRA, are oddly secluded. Wayne LaPierre gives very few interviews, and gunmaker CEOs almost never talk. It’s too bad because they could make a case for themselves.


Question:

I’ve read about how, for the NRA, part of selling self-defense is marketing towards women. As you were reporting, did you encounter many “success stories” involving women who used their guns?

Evan Osnos:

The NRA is making a big push on marketing to women — and it’s been doing this consistently for two decades. But it’s been an uphill climb. The General Social Survey shows that gun ownership among women has barely budged. This data drives the industry crazy, because they say they are seeing more women customers. So what gives? Multiple gun dealers told me they think that women are coming in more often as part of a group or a family. But it’s hard to get them to buy in the long term. So the core gun owner remains: white, male, aging.


Question:

I am uneducated in the gun industry and try not follow politics but here’s a question. Do you think that with big Associations like the NRA there is even a chance to get any sort of reform? It seems like we are in a battle that cannot be won, they simply have too much money and too much influence on politics for any real change to happen IMO.

Evan Osnos:

Actually, strangely perhaps, I have a different view: Studying guns reveals just how NON-static American political history is. Nothing stays the same for long. The strength of our system is, in fact, the resilience and flexibility of it. It’s the gay-marriage principle. History happens slowly, then all at once. I’m increasingly convinced we’re on course for a rapid shift of opinion on guns.•

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From the June 20, 1895 New York Times:

Newark, N.J.–There is trouble here between stockholders of the Universal Industrial Power Company, a corporation organized to furnish capital for manufacturing a machine for producing perpetual motion, and Michael Patrona, the inventor.

As a result of the trouble Patrona is now guarding with a shotgun the little shop where he claims to have the invention almost complete. He is afraid, he says, that capitalists who advanced the money will steal the design.

Patrona is an Italian and came to this country less than a year ago. Through Civela & Ceste of New-York he was introduced to capitalists here, among them Newark’s richest Italians. He represented to them that he had discovered the secret of perpetual motion.

The result of these representatives was the organization and incorporation of the Universal Industrial Power Company. Money was advanced from time to time to pay for castings, machinery, and other supplies, and also for $1 a day which Patrona was allowed while working on the machine. Thus far $8,000 has been advanced.

Patrona called a few days ago for more funds to put the machine together, claiming that all the parts were finished. The stockholders objected to putting up any more money until they had evidence of the success of Patrona’s labors. He refused this request on the ground that he might be robbed of his invention, on which he had been laboring for years. He assured the stockholders, however, that this would be the last call for funds.

The stockholders were just as obstinate as Patrona. As a result he has armed himself with a shotgun, and stands guard at the entrance to the building which holds what he calls his great invention.

Counsel for both sides will try to effect a compromise.•

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Uber has gone to great and often-unsavory lengths to try to promote itself as a savior of Labor–that is, when CEO Travis Kalanick isn’t having a wet dream about firing all the drivers.

Some live in a Libertarian fantasy in which the typical rideshare employee is just spinning the wheel until seed money comes in for his or her Silicon Valley startup, but any closer inspection tells you that solid, regulated taxi jobs are being replaced by sketchy, unstable ones. That doesn’t mean that Uber and Lyft haven’t offered improvements over traditional car services or that they should be unduly restrained, but let’s be honest about what’s happening here: The Gig Economy is bad for working-class people, who are already besieged by a variety of woes. 

An excellent BuzzFeed investigation by Caroline O’Donovan and Jeremy Singer-Vine has uncovered leaked documents that lay waste to the longstanding ridiculous contention that Uber drivers can make close to six figures if they keep their feet on the gas. An excerpt:

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“I like the job. But financially, it’s not doing it for me.”

This according to Steve Rogers, a 61-year-old driver who told BuzzFeed News that he’s been on the platform about a year. His experience jibes roughly with the data Uber gathered on Detroit, where the typical full-time driver barely earned more than Michigan’s current minimum wage of $8.50 per hour.

Of course, because Uber drivers are not employees of the company, Uber is not legally obligated to pay them the minimum wage.

Uber’s data represents all trips taken in Detroit between Dec. 7 and Dec. 21, 2015. During that period, Detroit drivers earned approximately $13.70 an hour before expenses and — given the assumptions above — about $8.77 an hour after expenses, according to BuzzFeed News estimates that were supplemented by additional data from Uber. That’s less than the $10 an hour Walmart promised to pay its employees in 2015.

Contract and wage work are not perfectly comparable. Uber argues that retail employees at companies like Walmart don’t enjoy the same independence and flexibility as Uber drivers. But as employees, Walmart workers are often entitled to benefits that contract Uber drivers don’t receive.•

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It’s easier for builders to draw Utopia on a blank slate, what with all the imperfections that developed cities already possess, but urban centers that have grown organically from the bottom up offer lots of hidden stability. Perhaps because of new smart technologies and China’s top-heavy urbanization, some are still trying to create Shangri-La from scratch. Case in point: Songdo and Masdar, smart insta-cities that are supposed to show the rest of us the way it should be done. Things haven’t gone according to plan, however, because cities are at least as much biological as technological.

In a Demos Helsinki post, social psychologist 

2) SMART IS ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE TO PLAN

Unlike it is often made to seem in the hyped-up press, smart cities like Songdo and Masdar are seldom celebrated by the people who live in them – at least not in the way they were expected to. For example Songdo was envisioned as a futuristic international business hub, drawing residents from all over the world. Instead, it is now almost exclusively made up of Koreans:99 percent of homes are sold to locals. Similarly, it cost 22 billion dollars to build Masdar,but it is now barely occupied and more than halfway from reaching its ambitious emission reduction goals.

”When we plan, we tend to think that we understand people and what they want and need. We don’t”, Annala explains. ”Cities are highly complex organisms.” According to Annala, turning cities smart will require systematic engagement of those who are expected to live in these environments. ”Without end-user testing and systematic learning, it is practically impossible to plan a smart city that is loved by its inhabitants.”•


Masdar City abandoned its plan for a fleet of driverless, electric pod cars to replace gas-guzzling taxis.

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If you look through history, great inventors had their breaks from reality–Edison believing he could create a device to communicate with the dead, Marconi thinking he had the ability to exchange Morse Code with Martians. That seems to be part and parcel of large-scale technological dreamers. Elon Musk acknowledges that he’s sometimes given to delusions, but it’s possible that driverless electric cars, the  near-term colonization of Mars and the Hyperloop are not among them. Time will tell.

At Recode’s Code conference, Musk announced the autonomous-car challenge essentially solved and commented on this poisonous U.S. political season. He remarked that the President is the “captain of a large ship with a small rudder.” Musk may be working with a smaller vessel, but he believes its rudder world-changing.

From Brad Stone at Bloomberg Technology:

The South Africa-born entrepreneur is known for his unvarnished views on, say, how malevolent artificial intelligence could doom the human race or space exploration being key to humanity’s evolution. Musk — who said he occasionally succumbs to delusion — debated the best form of government (democracy) for a putative Mars colony, and the need for entrepreneurs to start businesses from iron-ore smelters to pizza delivery that can thrive in that planet’s harsh environment. But he also touched on matters far closer to home, including the divisive U.S. elections. Asked about controversial Republican candidate Donald Trump, Musk said no one person had the clout to affect the entire country, not even the Commander-in-Chief.

“I don’t think this is the finest moment for our democracy,” he said. “Being U.S. president is being the captain of a large ship with a small rudder. There is a limit to how much good or bad a president can do.”

Business-wise, Musk welcomed competition in what he called an increasingly crowded electric and self-driving arena, including from Apple Inc., which he expected to begin producing cars in volume by 2020. The iPhone maker however has never confirmed any plans on that front. Google Inc. on the other hand, which has spent years researching and testing autonomous vehicles, posed no direct threat.

“There’ve been so many announcement s of autonomous EV startups. I’m waiting for my mom to announce one,” he said. “Google’s done a good job of showing the potential of autonomous transport, but they’re not a car company.”•

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Demand invites supply. Case in point: Medical schools need bodies for students to work on, so a trade arose in the nineteenth century that put grave robbers in cahoots with medical colleges. Shovel-ready entrepreneurs scanned local papers for death notices, headed to cemeteries, usually with doctors in tow, and welcomed back the recently departed. Sometimes the bodies of particularly wealthy citizens would be ransomed, but the corpses would usually just be sold for a couple of bucks to universities. An inside look at an Ohio operation in this strange “recycling” business appeared in the November 18, 1878 New York Times. The story:

Cleveland – Joiner, the wretch who has been in all the recent grave robbing jobs in this section, continues to divulge the secrets of the trade. He pretends to be very contrite over what he has done, and ready to make amends by exposing his companions in guilt. His last story related to Mr. J.E. French, a son of the old gentleman who was ruthlessly torn from his grave, in Willoughby, on Sept. 16. The robbers watch the newspapers, and when death notices of persons thought to be available occur, the graves are visited and a resurrection takes place. In August last a young man fell over a ledge in Geauga County and broke his neck. The fact was published, and the night after the funeral Minor and Joiner repaired to Chardon, 30 miles distant, where the burial had taken place, with the intention of obtaining the body. As usual, the doctor was sought, who told them that the grave was watched by two men with shot-guns. This was unpleasant, but the robbers thought the doctor might be deceiving them with the intention of obtaining the body himself. They accordingly sought another doctor, who confirmed the story, and so they abandoned the scheme and returned. At Chester Cross Roads, in the same county, two robbers from this city were assisted by the Doctor and a medical student of that village. They went to get the body of an old lady who was very fleshy, and who had died of apoplexy. The coffin was reached and broken open without accident, and a hook fastened in the neck. Four men tugged and pulled in vain at the prize, but were unable to move it. They were in despair, when a happy thought struck them. Taking the reins from the harness and hitching the horse to the hook, the body was successfully brought to the surface. Another pull and the body was safely sacked and loaded. Another visit was made to Hampden, in this county, and this time the robbers were assisted by two doctors and a medical student. They did what Joiner calls a good night’s work, obtaining three bodies in a short time. One of these was that of a butcher, and as his body was sacked the home doctor remarked: ‘I’ve bought meat of this man many a time, and now I’ll sell him for meat.’ Some time after this the body of a young lady was stolen from the cemetery at Leroy, Lake County. After digging a certain distance they found water. This had to be bailed from the coffin before the body could be taken out. The corpse was found to be somewhat swollen but made a good subject. Mr. French, who is quite wealthy, expressed his determination to follow up this gang and will prosecute in every case. Dr. Carlisle, who is said to have assisted in the Willoughby job, has been indicted in the Lake County Court for disturbing the grave. The best counsel in this part of the State has been engaged on both sides, and important revelations will doubtless come out. The trial is set down for Thursday next.•

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The developed world is having a time of it trying to transition into the Digital Age with its robots and automation and virtual stores. Europe is considering defining robot workers as “electronic persons” who must pay into social security and Paris is threatening tax measures to bring Amazon Prime to heel, hoping to prevent its neighborhood shops going the way of the city’s decimated brick-and-mortar bookstores. In the U.S., workers have gone missing in scary numbers, leading some to suspect the displacement has fueled our Baba Booey of an election cycle. In the long run, this changeover may lead to the end of scarcity, but in the short term it’s an economic, political and cultural problem.

The fallout may prove even more dire for countries in the developing world which relied on Industrialization’s hunger for cheap labor to create a path to relative prosperity. From Sarah O’Connor’s Financial Times article about “radical insourcing”:

Rich countries are beginning to see factories return to their shores — and they have the robots to thank.

Take Adidas. When Herbert Hainer, chief executive, joined the German sportswear company in 1987, factories were beginning to close in Germany and move to China. This month, he announced Adidas would bring some shoe production back to Germany for the first time in three decades thanks to a highly automated factory in Bavaria. “I find it almost uncanny how things have come full circle,” he said.

It is important to keep some perspective. Adidas made 301m shoes last year; the two new factories (the other will be in the US) will produce about 1m. Still, you can see how this trend could take off. …

Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University in the US, believes robots and 3D printers could create a world of “radical insourcing” where developed countries no longer need to outsource production to countries where wages are low.

“Why should a wealthy nation buy from a poorer exporter when it can automate and produce similar goods at home without incurring high labour costs?” he asked in a recent paper.

This would not do much for jobs in developed countries, admittedly. The new Adidas factory will have about 160 staff, a fraction of the number required to make the same number of shoes in Asia. But set aside the rich world for a moment. What would “radical insourcing” mean for all the developing countries that saw manufacturing exports as their path to prosperity?•

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Self-driving cars will be perfected…someday. When he’s not choosing the political system for Mars, Elon Musk predicts they’ll arrive by 2020 or so. Maybe, or perhaps it will take significantly longer, but I think the important point is that it’s pretty sure now that this future will eventually materialize.

My instinct is that having fleets of driverless cars won’t encourage grater sprawl, won’t lead to Suburbs 2.0. Cities are still desired, with working-class folks hanging on for dear life to living in NYC and SF, places which long ago priced out many of them. It’s odd to see this stubborn refusal to be pushed from the crowd in an age in which so many people just sit at home binge-watching near-TV shows regardless of how fancy their address may be.

In fact, autonomous vehicles that you don’t need to own (that no one really needs to own) will likely make urban living less tedious as well as less expensive. There will be no more parking spots to pursue, less rush-hour traffic (supposedly) and a much cleaner environment.

The Internet itself was supposed to empty out cities, allowing people to telecommute and have millions more products than a brick-and-mortar mall could hold delivered quickly to their doorsteps, regardless of where they laid their WELCOME mat. Cities have instead just become more densely populated in the last 20 years.

In his latest Wall Street Journal column, Christopher Mims makes a compelling argument to the contrary, believing driverless cars becoming a going concern would encourage us to fan out and set our self-driving mowers to work on our newly acquired lawns.

His opening:

Imagine a world in which hardly anyone owns a car. Instead, most people subscribe to a service for self-driving cars, probably a mashup of the current players in the space, which include Google, Uber, Lyft, Apple, Chrysler, Volkswagen, Tesla, BMW, Toyota, General MotorsFord and others.

Call this hypothetical service Applewagen, or Tyft or, what the heck, Goober. The service is great. You whip out your circa-2025 smartwatch, which has all but replaced your phone, bark a command and a self-driving car appears, from a fleet circulating nearby. Maybe there are other people in the car, headed in your direction. Don’t worry, they are friendly. They have four-star ratings just as you do, and anyway they are too absorbed in their augmented-reality headsets to talk to you.

Here is the weirdest thing about this hypothetical future: where you live. Nearly everyone who has studied the subject believes these self-driving fleets will be significantly cheaper than owning a car, which sits idle roughly 95% of the time. With the savings, you will be able to escape your cramped apartment in the city for a bigger spread farther away, offering more peace and quiet, and better schools for the children.•

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Quite regularly, articles announce AI and/or the Internet of Things are close to arriving in a writ-large way, and they’re all more or less correct. It’s happening soon, provided you don’t define soon too rigidly. The latter, which will be both boon and bane, seems something we could do right now if we could agree on standards. The former is improving rapidly in so-called Weak AI, which will remove human hands from many of Labor’s wheels. The more complicated Strong AI (the conscious kind) isn’t likely upon us despite the hype. Even before it has the chance to be realized, however, machine intelligence will bring serious peril along with unprecedented promise.

In his latest Washington Post editorial, Vivek Wadhwa sees the Google Glass half full, believing we’re on the brink of major AI advances. He makes a sound if hopeful argument, though he utilizes a quote in his opening from an old Brad Darrach Life article that has had its accuracy questioned. Wadhwa writes “Despite Marvin Minsky’s 1970 prediction that “in from three to eight years we will have a machine with the general intelligence of an average human being,’ we still consider that a feat of science fiction.” Minsky immediately and vehemently denied making this statement to Darrach, and as John Markoff wrote in his recent book, Machines of Loving Grace, other important points of the piece were disputed. Wadhwa’s larger idea that big predictions have been too ambitious in the past is true, though this particular example seems flawed.

An excerpt:

AI has applications in every area in which data are processed and decisions required. Wired founding editor Kevin Kelly likened AI to electricity: a cheap, reliable, industrial-grade digital smartness running behind everything. He said that it “will enliven inert objects, much as electricity did more than a century ago. Everything that we formerly electrified we will now ‘cognitize.’ This new utilitarian AI will also augment us individually as people (deepening our memory, speeding our recognition) and collectively as a species. There is almost nothing we can think of that cannot be made new, different, or interesting by infusing it with some extra IQ. In fact, the business plans of the next 10,000 start-ups are easy to forecast: Take X and add AI This is a big deal, and now it’s here.”

AI will soon be everywhere. Businesses are infusing AI into their products and helping them analyze the vast amounts of data they are gathering. Google, Amazon, and Apple are working on voice assistants for our homes that manage our lights, order our food, and schedule our meetings. Robotic assistants such as Rosie from The Jetsons and R2-D2 of Star Wars are about a decade away.

Do we need to be worried about the runaway “artificial general intelligence” that goes out of control and takes over the world? Yes — but perhaps not for another 15 or 20 years. There are justified fears that rather than being told what to learn and complementing our capabilities, AIs will start learning everything there is to learn and know far more than we do. Though some people, such as futurist Ray Kurzweil, see us using AI to augment our capabilities and evolve together, others, such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, fear that AI will usurp us. We really don’t know where all this will go.

What is certain is that AI is here and making amazing things possible.•

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One of the San Bernardino shooters was a woman and extremism has attracted its brides, sure, but statistics show that violence (mass shootings included) is largely a male problem in the United States–and everywhere else. 

Religion may have informed the self-loathing behind the horrific Orlando massacre, but the downward spiral of too many American men transcends faith. It’s a masculinity issue, a deep insecurity, ignited by mental illness or extremist politics or any other gas can laying around. A scary number of us have brains that just aren’t operating properly.

The actual crime statistics nationally aren’t at all bad, at least not when compared to past eras, but the unstable among us are really unstable, with large-scale violent acts now mind-numbingly common. 

Were men on the fringes of the country always like this, with the easy access to automatic weapons the only difference? Or is there some fundamental shift in the world that some are unable to assimilate or accept, whether it be rooted in economics or patriarchy or otherwise? 

Even before Orlando, economist Tyler Cowen worried about this new abnormal, the aspects expressed in violence and in in myriad other ways, thinking it may be a rebellion by “brutes” against cultures becoming nicer and more feminized. Perhaps that has something to do with it.

The opening of last month’s Marginal Revolution post “What in the Hell Is Going On?“:

Donald Trump may get the nuclear suitcase, a cranky “park bench” socialist took Hillary Clinton to the wire, many countries are becoming less free, and the neo-Nazi party came very close to assuming power in Austria.  I could list more such events.

Haven’t you, like I, wondered what is up?  What the hell is going on?

I don’t know, but let me tell you my (highly uncertain) default hypothesis.  I don’t see decisive evidence for it, but it is a kind of “first blast” attempt to fit the basic facts while remaining within the realm of reason.

The contemporary world is not very well built for a large chunk of males.  The nature of current service jobs, coddled class time and homework-intensive schooling, a feminized culture allergic to most forms of violence, post-feminist gender relations, and egalitarian semi-cosmopolitanism just don’t sit well with many…what shall I call them?  Brutes?

Quite simply, there are many people who don’t like it when the world becomes nicer.  They do less well with nice.  And they respond by in turn behaving less nicely, if only in their voting behavior and perhaps their internet harassment as well.•

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From the March 26, 1899 New York Times:

In New York City about 1832, a period of “great awakening” that begat Mormonism and many other sects, among them one in Kentucky, whose members, in order to win heaven by making themselves as little children, used to crawl on their hands and knees in church, play marbles, trundle hoops, and otherwise manifest their infantile madness.•

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On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be many dumber uses for $100 million than trying to develop flying cars, which, even if doable, would end up being hybrids of bad cars and worse planes. Recent reports saying that Larry Page had spent that sum on realizing somebody else’s 20th-century sic-fi dream seemed odd.

The truth is something substantially different, according to an article by Mike Elgan of Computerworld: The Google cofounder is actually working on affordable, auto-piloting, environmentally friendly consumer aircrafts. That could potentially be far more useful, even if it’s also a vision from a different era, when there were predictions of almost every rooftop being a landing strip and screaming headlines that promised all Americans would own their own airplanes by the 1960s.

From Elgan:

Zee.Aero’s first aircraft is a strange creature. It has wings at the very back of the fuselage that curve way down at the edges, as well as two rear propellers that provide forward thrust. Two additional wings grace the very front of the plane. Here’s the strange part: Between the front and back and on either side of the fuselage are four small propellers on each side. Combined with the two at the back, the Zee.Aero plane has 10 propellers. These propellers aren’t powered from a central engine. Each propeller has its own independent electric motor and controller system.

Page reportedly wants the Zee.Aero’s plane to be “downmarket” — an affordable aircraft for ordinary people. Astonishingly, everything we know about Zee.Aero suggests that it’s making all the right decisions.

The design is brilliant. A consumer airplane for the masses absolutely requires electric power, and for two reasons. The first is safety: If one or two of the propellers fails, for whatever reason, the rest can safely continue to operate. The second reason is that if consumer airplanes are to be flying around in large quantities near or over residential areas, they have to be relatively quiet.

Zee.Aero has a handful of patents for the innovative multiple propeller system, battery technology and for the airplane itself. One patent says that in “an alternative embodiment, aircraft 100 is an unmanned vehicle that is capable of flight without a pilot or passengers” and that “embodiments without passengers have additional control systems that provide directional control inputs in place of a pilot, either through a ground link or through a predetermined flight path trajectory.

Zee.Aero’s prototypes are already flying at a nearby airport.•

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Vladimir Lenin’s corpse has had a perplexing postscript, but one particular body part, his brain, may have had the most fascinating “afterlife” of all, as the leader’s adoring people sliced it and diced it, hoping to find the source of the genius that propelled the Bolshevik Revolution. In an article in the February 24, 1929 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the paper underestimated the pieces the organ had been pulverized into, numbering it at 15,000, when it was actually more than twice that many.

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Ridesharing offers advantages over taxis while destabilizing secure jobs. Like so much of the modern economy, it’s a victory for consumers at the expense of workers. The endgame for cabbies may be Lyft providing reservations in advance, something Uber has now emulated. The funny thing is the two services are locked in a death battle, each hoping to become a monopoly, and if Uber already had the field to itself, it never would have been able to ape its competitor’s innovation. That scenario would be bad for both workers and consumers.

From the Economist:

One of the things that appeals to business travellers about Lyft is the ability to book cars in advance, a service the firm unveiled earlier this year. With Uber, on the other hand, clients can only book a ride as and when they want it, and must hope that there is a driver nearby (although there nearly always is). That explains why Uber announced last week that it will follow Lyft’s example and allow riders to book cars between 30 minutes and 30 days in advance.

All things being equal, that development will sound the death knell for taxis; expect cabs’ share of the business market to diminish to almost nothing in the coming years. That will leave only one battle worth watching: that between Uber and Lyft. In all likelihood, only one will be left standing. As Om Malik, a startup-watcher, pointed out in the New Yorker earlier this year, the importance of network effects means that most competition in Silicon Valley now leads towards one monopolistic winner.•

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In Adrienne LaFrance’s latest smart Atlantic piece on technology, the writer suggest Honolulu as the ideal place for Google to import its driverless technology, since the Oahu city has optimal weather conditions and terrible traffic. Embedded in the latter part of the article is a counterintuitive contention that makes sense: The rise of the autonomous car may lead to a greater, not lesser, demand for public transit, even if the eternal search for parking spots is removed from the equation. The excerpt:

If driverless cars are going to take off anywhere, Oahu seems like a strong candidate for early adoption. That’s still no guarantee.

“I believe that driverless taxis are going to induce a large-scale abandonment of car-ownership in urban areas over the next two to three decades,” said Shem Lawlor, the director of Clean Transportation at the Blue Planet Foundation in Honolulu. “However, since the pricing will still not be as cheap as walking, biking, or transit—and since it’s logistically impossible for driverless taxi services to ever move a sizable percentage of peak-hour traffic volume, I believe we are going to see a tremendous increase in demand for public transit, biking infrastructure and walkable neighborhoods.”•

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liberland1 liberland-1If Silicon Valley Libertarians collectively vomited over a three-square-mile space, the result might resemble the blueprint for Liberland, a planned micronation of 400,000 that aims to be situated on a legally disputed dot of land between Serbia and Croatia. The not-yet-a-nation is the brainchild of right-wing Czech politician Vít Jedlička, who enlisted architects and economists to focus on sustainability and optional tariffs. The experimental mini-country, which will almost definitely never come to fruition, is committed to being a car-less, algae-powered tax haven. If on the off chance it actually was realized to some degree, it would likely be a clusterfuck.

Excerpts from two articles follow, the first from Adele Peters new Fastcoexist piece, the latter from Daniel Nolan’s 2015 Guardian report.


To save space (the whole country is only three square miles) but allow the city to grow, neighborhoods are stacked in layers.

“I envisioned an intimate-scale city,” says Raya Ani, director of RAW-NYC, the architecture firm that created the winning design in response to a competition hosted by Liberland. Rather than build massive skyscrapers to house the 400,000 people who hope to live in the new city, each layer includes smaller, densely arranged buildings that allow sunlight to reach the street.

The underside of each platform is covered with algae—a genetically engineered version that doesn’t require sunlight to grow, and that can be converted into power. “The horizontal surface layer seemed to be the perfect home to grow algae that could power the city,” she says.

The design also includes solar power, and a waste-to-energy system that converts any organic waste to biogas for cooking. Other trash is incinerated to create electricity.

In the design, the neighborhoods are clustered around transit, with libraries, sports arenas, and other public areas no more than a 10-minute walk from public transit. The city is also covered with bike and pedestrian paths—with zero cars.

“It’s a very walkable city where you could reach any point at a reasonable time whether you use the train or you walk,” says Ani.•


From the Guardian:

In the week since Liberland announced its creation and invited prospective residents to join the project, they have received about 200,000 citizenship applications – one every three seconds – from almost every country in the world.

Prospective citizens are also offering Liberland their expertise in areas from solar power and telecoms to town planning and coin minting. “There is a spontaneous ordering taking place,” Jedlicka says. “People have planned the whole city in three days and others really want to move in and invest … what seemed like a dream now really looks possible.”

Liberland’s only stipulations are that applicants respect individual rights, opinions and private property, and have no criminal record or Nazi or Communist party background.

Jedlicka says: “The model citizen of Liberland would be [American founding father] Thomas Jefferson, which is why we established the country on his birthday. Citizens will be able to pursue happiness and this is the place where we can make this happen.”

Crucial to this flourishing, he believes, is fiscal policy. Liberland is the dream of a man whose earlier membership of the Czech Civic Democratic party and current loyalty to the Free Citizens party puts him firmly on the right. Staunchly anti-EU, Jedlicka says he has “pretty close relations” with the Swiss People’s party and “will meet with British politicians to discuss Nigel Farage’s plans to leave the EU”.

“Taxation will be optional and people will only finance specific development projects,” says Jedlicka. “We have to see how the foreign ministries react and we need to explain to them the kind of prosperity we can bring to the region. It will bring in money from all over the world: not only to Liberland, which would be a tax haven, but to the whole area. We could turn this area into a Monaco, Liechtenstein or Hong Kong.•

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Jacque Fresco, one of those fascinating people who walks through life building a world inside his head, hoping it eventually influences the wider one, is now into his second century of life. A futurist and designer who’s focused much of his work on sustainable living, technology and automation, Fresco is the brains behind the Venus Project, which encourages a post-money, post-scarcity, post-politician utopia. He’s clearly a template for many of today’s Silicon Valley aspiring game-changers.

Caroline Winter of Bloomberg Businessweek traveled to Middle-of-Nowhere, Florida (pop: Fresco + girlfriend and collaborator Roxanne Meadows), to write “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Lives in the Future,” a smart portrait of the visionary after ten decades of reimagining the world according to his own specifications. He doesn’t think the road to a computer-governed utopia will be smooth, however. As Winter writes: “Once modern life gets truly hard, Fresco believes there will be a revolution that will clear the way for the Venus Project to be built. ‘There will be a lot of people getting shot, including me,’ he says wryly.”

An excerpt from her story is followed by one from a 1985 Sun Sentinel profile by Scott Eyman, and two videos, the first about Project Venus and the second a 1974 interview conducted by a pre-suspenders Larry King.


From Bloomberg:

To reach the Venus Project Research Center, a utopian compound created by a 100-year-old futurist, drive through vast stretches of fields, orchards, and dirt roads in south-central Florida. There’s little cell phone service and no signs of other humans on the way to a white gate. A sandy path flanked by lush tropical trees leads to a cluster of white dome-like structures. Inside one sits Jacque Fresco, hunched on a couch within his own model of an ideal society.

Fresco, now hard of hearing, gave me a nod when I visited in March. “Thank you for driving all this way,” said Roxanne Meadows, 67, a former portrait artist and Fresco’s longtime girlfriend and collaborator. A dozen people had turned out that day to see the secluded 21-acre property, including Venus Project devotees from as far away as Australia.

Fresco’s 100th birthday bash, held days earlier at a convention center in Fort Myers, drew more than 600 fans. For them, these rounded retro structures in the wilds of Florida are a hint of what could be: a master plan for a City of the Future without money, a place where all needs are met by technology. That city, Fresco says, will be run not by politicians but by a central computer that will distribute resources as needed. It’s a vision he’s been working on for most of his life. “A machine doesn’t have emotions,” Fresco likes to say. “It’s not susceptible to corruption.” Social engineering and favorable living circumstances will ensure that people act responsibly toward one another.•


From the Sun Sentinel:

You can hear the glorious, smoothly humming hydraulic future in Jacque Fresco`s eager voice, see it in the eye in your mind. Cities and their inhabitants thrive under the sea. Houses are heated by pipes laid beneath highways that conduit the gathered asphalt heat into private residences. Grain is stored in the natural refrigerator of the polar regions.

Fossil fuels have been abandoned, as solar power runs everything from your air-conditioning — if you need it in houses that are properly built and insulated, which you probably won`t — to your backyard barbecue, where a mirror and two pyrex reflectors cook both sides of the meat at the same time. And when something goes wrong with your car, two handles are turned, the entire engine unit pulls out, a courtesy engine is plugged in and you`re back on the road while the garage works to find the problem.

Welcome to the future, or at least Jacque Fresco`s vision of it. It all seems eminently attainable . . . until you open your eyes and look around. What you see are 22 acres with four organically flowing domed structures — two of which are finished, one of which is furnished — a little lake with a baby alligator sunning himself by the water`s edge, and a landscaped path leading back among 400-year-old cypress trees. It is here, on this quiet patch of land in Venus, Fla., that Jacque Fresco and his companion, Roxanne Meadows, are constructing a prototype of the possible.

“I tried walking around with a briefcase, and selling myself,” says the peppery Fresco, a vigorous and muscular 69. “And I found that people think you`re an idiot if you don`t have anything to show them, if all you have are ideas and a vision. All right. I`ll show them something.”

Welcome to the world of Jacque Fresco, social conceptualist and inventor, one of those people who create something tangible where before there existed only that most intangible of intangibles: an idea.•


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It almost never ends well for a demagogue nor for the demagogue’s people. Fascists are merely vulgar clowns until they’re in a position to do grave damage.

Was reading a passage from a 1925 article that ran in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle which begins this way: “Benito Mussolini is a fascinating character.” The writer wonders why Il Duce’s insane utterings demand rapt attention when others making similar statements would be jeered from the stage. That thought, of course, brings to mind the odious campaign of Donald Trump, a deeply wounded man who works a room like Torquemada as a Reality TV host.

James Baker has asserted he’s unafraid of a Trump Presidency, our checks and balances there to restrain his worst impulses. But a sick, authoritarian mind even scribbling in the margins of the Constitution could wreak havoc. The scariest part of the report below is that it argued the Italian dictator was already in steep decline, but just think how much suffering he caused before ultimately meeting the business end of a meat hook.

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The swarm intelligence system known as UNU, which recently did a Reddit AMA about politics, returned to conduct one about futurism. Human extinction, Brexit, driverless cars, Mars colonization, technological unemployment and marijuana legalization were among the topics. The question isn’t whether all of the answers are correct–they wont be–but whether such systems can get to the point where they outperform groups of humans educated on a topic. A few exchanges below.


Question:

What are the chances that humanity will go extinct before we become an interplanetary species?

UNU:

UNU SAYS: “1%”

COMMENTARY: UNU expressed a high level of faith in humanity. Or, maybe he expects us to reach Mars pretty soon. Either way, it seems we will reach another planet before we wipe ourselves out.


Question:

What will be the average human life-span in 2050?

UNU:

UNU SAYS: “98 years old”

COMMENTARY: UNU expressed high conviction on this point.

It’s worth pointing out that people who live to 98 years old in 2050 will have lived most of their life under current technology. It would be interesting to ask UNU what the lifespan of people BORN in 2050 would be.


Question:

How long until we can hail autonomous taxis?

UNU:

UNU says: 7 years.

Let’s check back on this one in 2023.


Question:

Will Space X hit their target to put people on Mars in 2025?

UNU:

UNU SAYS: “I’m Torn”

COMMENTARY: UNU was highly conflicted on this question. In fact, it took two tries to reach an answer.


Question:

Will the UK vote to leave the EU in the upcoming referendum

 

UNU:

UNU SAYS: “I DOUBT IT”

COMMENTARY: UNU expressed high certainty around this answer, but did not go for the stronger answers of “I don’t believe”


Question:

Do you think robots will take our jobs?

UNU:

UNU SAYS: “Yes”

COMMENTARY: UNU was surprisingly certain about this fact.


Question:

When will universal basic income be implemented in Europe?

UNU:

UNU says: 5 years

Europe is way ahead of the US on this one, according to UNU.


Question:

The first permanent settlement on Mars will be in __ years?

UNU:

UNU SAYS: “60 YEARS”


Question:

Is the first person to live 200 years already born?

UNU:

UNU says: totally disagree

Note: except for Peter Thiel, of course.


Question:

How many years until cannabis is federally legal in the US?

UNU:

UNU SAYS: Cannabis will be federally legal in the US within 10 years.


Question:

When will artificial/lab grown meat be as common as traditional meat?

UNU:

UNU SAYS: 25 YEARS


Question:

Will artificial intelligence eventually overthrow the human race as the dominant lifeforms on Earth? Yes, no, possibly, or unlikely?

UNU:

UNU says: i doubt it

Let’s call that “unlikely?”•

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Sometimes mental illness wears the trappings of the era in which it’s experienced. Mike Jay has written beautifully in the last couple of years about such occurrences attending the burial of Napoleon Bonaparte and the current rise of surveillance and Reality TV. The latter is something of a Truman Show syndrome, in which sick people believe they’re being observed, that they’re being followed. To a degree, they’re right, we all are under much greater technological scrutiny now, though these folks have a paranoia which can drive such concerns into crippling obsessions.

Because we’re all connected now, the “besieged” have found one another online, banning together as “targeted individuals” who’ve been marked by the government (or some other group entity) for observation, harassment and mind control. In “United States of Paranoia: They See Gangs of Stalkers,” Mike McPhate of the New York Times has written one of the best and most troubling articles of the year. It clearly demonstrates that the dream of endless information offering lucidity has been dashed for a surprising amount of people, that the inundation of data has served to confuse rather than clarify. These shaky citizens resemble those with alien abduction stories, except they seem to have been “shanghaied” by the sweep of history. The opening:

Nobody believed him. His family told him to get help. But Timothy Trespas, an out-of-work recording engineer in his early 40s, was sure he was being stalked, and not by just one person, but dozens of them.

He would see the operatives, he said, disguised as ordinary people, lurking around his Midtown Manhattan neighborhood. Sometimes they bumped into him and whispered nonsense into his ear, he said.

“Now you see how it works,” they would say.

At first, Mr. Trespas wondered if it was all in his head. Then he encountered a large community of like-minded people on the internet who call themselves “targeted individuals,” or T.I.s, who described going through precisely the same thing.

The group was organized around the conviction that its members are victims of a sprawling conspiracy to harass thousands of everyday Americans with mind-control weapons and armies of so-called gang stalkers. The goal, as one gang-stalking website put it, is “to destroy every aspect of a targeted individual’s life.”

A growing tribe of troubled minds

Mental health professionals say the narrative has taken hold among a group of people experiencing psychotic symptoms that have troubled the human mind since time immemorial. Except now victims are connecting on the internet, organizing and defying medical explanations for what’s happening to them.•

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Earlier in the week, I published a post about science writer Fred Hapgood’s 2003 prediction that automated drilling would lead to the rapid development of underground cities and even a global subway system. It proved to be a dream deferred, at the very least.

A few decades earlier, when American cities were marked by blight and in desperate need of renewal, underground real estate was often theorized as an important piece of the puzzle, a haven for pedestrians in climate-controlled environments. Montreal took advantage of this underutilized resource thanks largely to the subterranean visions of urban planner Vincent Ponte, but most cities failed to capitalize.

In “What Happened to the Dream of Underground Cities?” Ernie Smith of Vice “Motherboard” wonders what went wrong. An excerpt:

A funny thing happened since Ponte had his time in the sun. To put it simply, the idea of the underground city has become more controversial. Now, urban leaders see them as an antiseptic way to draw in suburbanites, rather than a way to give people flavor of the actual city. They’re almost seen as a way to get around the city, rather than to dive in. That may have been a good idea when downtowns were seen as scary by tourists, but during an era when high-rise lofts are common and bars are hipper than ever? Not so much.

In fact, one of Ponte’s project cities, Dallas, has spent years pushing back against the urban planning work he put in 45 years ago. Onetime Dallas city mayor Laura Miller, speaking to the New York Times in a 2005 interview, didn’t mince words.

”If I could take a cement mixer and pour cement in and clog up the tunnels, I would do it today,” Miller told the Times, the very newspaper where Ponte made his argument for underground cities 38 years earlier. ”It was the worst urban planning decision that Dallas has ever made. They thought it was hip and groovy to create an underground community, but it was a death knell.”

The city has since de-emphasized the tunnels in its marketing, and in 2011, a report on the city’s future development referred to Ponte’s grand idea as “a sterile, unexciting environment that draws life from streets above.”

Unfortunate for Dallas, but for Montreal, the urban area under the surface remains lively—it has become one of the things Montreal is known for, a tourist must-see with four stars on TripAdvisor. Like most other big Canadian cities, Toronto has one as well, built up around the same time as Montreal’s, but it’s used by a third as many people as Montreal’s is on a daily basis.

Outside of Montreal, at least, urban renewal came not from the massive network of tunnels, but from a massive change in perception. We like our downtowns these days.

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