Urban Studies

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A strong central government is often made out to be the enemy in America, but I doubt Mexicans would agree. Our neighboring nation isn’t all bad news–there are some positive economic signs–but an illicit and decrepit system of governance, oftentimes merely a marriage of politicians on the make and men with guns, has allowed for horrors. From Marian Blasberg and Jens Glüsing’s Spiegel article about the disappeared 43 student teachers who were likely killed by gangsters on the orders of a local mayor:

“After more than an hour, they reach a remote village where a roadblock brings the convoy to a halt. A dozen armed men approach and indicate that they should get out of their vehicles.

[Civilian militia leader Cristóforo] García turns off the engine and he and his group suddenly find themselves standing at an intersection surrounded by men with a distrustful look in their eyes. And once again, nobody knows who is behind the masks worn by the others.

“What do you want here?” demands an older man in a sombrero who appears to be their leader.

García explains that they are looking for the disappeared students but the man doesn’t believe him. Just a few minutes ago, the man says, a military convoy rolled through the village and points to a helicopter circling overhead. It looks as though they are carrying out an operation nearby. Perhaps they are once again looking for mass graves.

‘What do you have to do with them?’ the leader demands.

‘With this government?’ García asks. ‘Nothing. We don’t have a government. Do you?’ 

The man in the sombrero shakes his head. His village is called Tianquizolco and is home to a couple hundred indigenous farmers. As in other villages in Guerrero, they have founded their own police force. Someone has to protect us, the man in the sombrero says, adding that people disappear from here all too often as well.

Then, suddenly, the situation changes. The distrust between the two groups vanishes at the moment that the military convoy tries to pass through the village a second time. Together, the two groups block the way and stop the vehicles. The entire village is now in an uproar. The man in the sombrero demands that the military present identification, but they don’t have any documents with them.”

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The American overreaction to Ebola, a real epidemic in Liberia but not here, probably has more to do with unstated anxieties than spoken ones. We’re in a globalized world now, on the cusp of a post-white country, in a time of technology and terrorism, invaders everywhere. Close the airports, strengthen the borders, quarantine the threats. 

People have always tried to place a name to their fears, even if it was the wrong one. If you go back 100 to 150 years, life was commonly brutal and brief. Famine and disease and war were seemingly everywhere and knew no solution, treatment or permanent treaty. Anarchy was fashionable, science terrifying (“What hath God wrought!“), fascism about to rise and revolution in the air. The world seemed haunted. Even the “unsinkable” Titanic drank itself to death. Could some of that era’s carnage, even the shocking capsizing of that famous British passenger liner, have occurred because we had the temerity to disrupt nature’s order and aroused a mummy’s curse? Of course not, but sometimes the sick are not very circumspect of the diagnosis. From Rose Eveleth’s Nautilus piece “The Curse of the Unlucky Mummy“:

“Sometime in the 1860s, five recent Oxford graduates took a trip to Egypt. Together they sailed down the Nile, a tourist attraction even then. To remember their trip, they bought a souvenir in the mummy pits of Deir el-Bahri—the coffin lid of a priestess of Amen-Ra. The high priests of Amen-Ra, named after an Egyptian deity, were military rulers who commanded southern Egypt in the 21st Dynasty (1085 to 945 B.C.), a time of turmoil and strife. Powerful and prone to keep secrets, the priesthood worked to appease the gods that Egypt had clearly angered. With her wide, baleful eyes, open palms, and outstretched fingers, the priestess on the coffin lid seemed to cast a malevolent allure.

On their way back from Egypt, two of the men died. A third went to Cairo and accidentally shot himself in the arm while quail hunting and had to have it amputated. Another member of the group, Arthur Wheeler, managed to make it back to England, only to lose his entire fortune gambling. He moved to America and lost his new fortune to both a flood and a fire. The coffin lid was then placed under the care of Wheeler’s sister, who attempted to have it photographed in 1887. The photographer died, as did the porter. The man asked to translate the hieroglyphs on the lid committed suicide. The coffin lid seemed almost certainly cursed. But this was only the beginning.

Today, the 5-foot-tall ‘mummy board’ lives in the British Museum, where it’s officially known as ‘artifact 22542.’ The mummified priestess that may have lain beneath it has been lost to eternity. But it has another, more commonly used name: ‘Unlucky Mummy.’ Since its arrival at the museum in 1889, the Unlucky Mummy has been blamed for everything from the sinking of the Titanic to the escalation of World War I. How this piece of wood become so intimately and persistently connected with death and destruction is a story of the endlessly swirling tales that people tell when they are afraid—of change, of politics, of science. It is the kind of story that never dies, only feeds upon itself, updating and morphing and tightening its grip no matter how much light is thrown on it.

By the time the Unlucky Mummy arrived at the British Museum, its reputation had seeped through British private society. While the museum curators generally scoffed at the alleged curse, men at soirees, dinner parties, and ‘ghost clubs,’ traded stories of its powers. But it wasn’t until 1904 that the broader public got a whiff of the curse. That was the year that a young, dashing, and ambitious journalist named Bertram Fletcher Robinson published a front-page article in the Daily Express, called ‘A Priestess of Death,’ about the allegedly haunted mummy. ‘It is certain that the Egyptians had powers which we in the 20th century may laugh at, yet can never understand,’ he wrote.

Three years later, Robinson died suddenly of a fever, and his friends immediately thought of the mummy’s curse. ‘The very last time I saw him he told me a wonderful tale about a mummy which had caused the death of everybody who had to do with it,’ wrote Archibald Marshall, an English author and journalist.”

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In Jared Lindzon’s Impact Lab piece which predicts that the average travel speed for human transport by 2030 will be at or near 250mph (I’ll take the under), the author looks at “Re-Programming Mobility,” a report by NYU Rudin Center for Transportation Policy research scientist Anthony Townsend, which imagines a quartet of extreme traffic scenarios being realized in the next 15 years. An excerpt:

“In his report Townsend takes an in depth look at four possible outcomes in four specific locations, though he says that they’re meant to serve as a representation of the country as a whole. In his report he outlines concerns over government partnerships with private companies, and considers how those agreements could play out over the long haul.

The first scenario takes place in Atlanta, where a near-bankrupt municipal government of the future is unable to afford repairs to its crumbling infrastructure, so it enters a partnership with Google.

‘The idea there is that Google does get to implement its vision of driverless cars, and does so in part with the state government in Georgia,’ said Townsend. ‘You get a whole lot of land use impacts from them, hyper urban sprawl, neighborhoods that aren’t connected to this network and get left behind, and then you get a lot of difficult questions around the role of a single company having so much control over infrastructure.’

The second scenario considers a dystopian future for Los Angeles, where self-driving cars are forced to share the roads with manually driven vehicles, creating unsafe and unpredictable roadways.

‘It’s not a world where we all have these identical perfect pod cars — you have no idea what to expect from other drivers,’ he said. ‘On top of that you’re basically doubling the number of cars, because all of a sudden kids and senior citizens and visually impaired people are going to be buying cars for the first time, so it’s a world of messy transition, and the L.A. region basically becomes unlivable.’

The third scenario takes place in New Jersey, where global warming has caused a series of brutal winters and severe weather patterns, which in turn put a strain on road maintenance. Once the city exhausts its resources, it calls upon the state to help rebuild the transit system.

‘They build a network of high speed, electronically hailed busses and rapid transit,’ said Townsend. ‘So you’ve basically got busses running at 6-inches of separation through the Lincoln Tunnel to make up for the real capacity they never built.’

The fourth and final scenario imagined by Townsend and his team considers the future of transportation in Boston, where smart transit systems and electric bikes help support a city of students living in high-density single-person apartments, while sharing transit routes with freight vehicles leaving the harbor.

‘Most shipping companies can’t keep up with the volume, but you’ve also seen Amazon and Google and EBay getting into same-day delivery, so you can imagine what might happen in the extreme is that they would start forcing all the freight to be delivered at night,’ he said. ‘So the city would be for people during the daytime and robots at night.’”

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The weather report for NYC on Google one day last week told me the temperature was “79°” when it was actually 59°. I realized the info was mistaken because of common sense, but machines don’t yet have that quality nor will they likely in the near run. While I’m sure driverless cars and crowd robotics will reduce auto accidents, the system will always have ghosts, and it’s reasonable to ask whether they will put ghosts in our “machines.” It seems a pretty safe bet that our cognition will shift when we offload driving and navigation responsibilities to algorithms, that some abilities will atrophy, even if we come out ahead in the aggregate. From Katia Moskvitch at the BBC:

“Technology wasn’t supposed to work that way. Manufacturers have supported drivers with power steering, cruise control, antilock brakes and electronic stability controls. Then they gave us sophisticated on-board computers that power car entertainment systems and fine-tune our cars’ performance on the go. Today we drive sleek, aerodynamic vehicles with more computing power than early Space Shuttles.

And yet, in many ways, it’s now the technology itself that’s getting in our way. Yes, today’s cars can help us not just to stay in line, keep to the speed limit and maintain the correct distance to the car ahead. However, there’s also a huge drawback: the more we rely on technology, the less we pay attention to what’s happening around our cars.

Lack of learning

Who, for instance, can confidently adjust all the systems of a car without getting lost in confusing menu choices? Or take something as basic as the cruise control: with our foot off the accelerator, how often do we have to make a sharp brake because we forget to disengage the cruise control?

The problem, though, runs deeper than that. A survey commissioned by in 2008 by UK newspaper The Mirror found that 1.5 million motorists have veered suddenly in traffic when following their GPS instructions without taking notice of the cars around them. And about 300,000 drivers have crashed after following instructions from their satnav.

Then there’s the problem of what happens when the tech is taken away. Drivers who use their GPS daily on regular routes are more likely to get lost on days when their electronic guide is left at home, or out of battery. That’s true even if they make this trip many times over several days, because it’s much more difficult for the brain to remember a navigation system’s step-by-by instructions; on the contrary, it prevents the brain from learning a city’s geography.”


From the September 16, 1910 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Oklahoma City — George Palmer yesterday reached home after a walk of 8,500 miles. He started from here the first of last December, walked to San Francisco, thence to New York, and thence home.”


I can’t guarantee there will always be Broadway, but I’m sure there will always be theater. I feel the same way about books, even if brick-and-mortar stores are (sadly) in a steep decline. There will permanently be a hunger for written stories. 

Of course, it takes some training to take advantage of the endless supply of volumes now available to us, and James Patterson is concerned that reading is an endangered species. He’s right to question what an Amazon monopoly on book pricing might mean, though I think the money he’s allocating to TV ads encouraging reading might be better spent on simply buying comic books for low-income families with young children. Having grown up in very modest circumstances and having learned to read on Mad magazine, I can vouch for such a plan. Based on his interview with Erin Keane of Salon, Patterson is certainly aware of the power of pleasure reading early in life. An excerpt:


What’s the goal here? More independent bookstores, more book sales?

James Patterson:

I think the goal is just more people reading. And to do that, a lot of things have to happen. Actually, to me, the group that can do the most good here is Amazon. Amazon could actually dedicate itself to saving books and literature in this country. It really could. And that would be the easiest fix, directionally.

I think they probably think they’re doing that, but they’re not, at least not yet. Yes, they want to lower prices, and you know, theoretically that’s fine, but I don’t know how we’d do that on a practical level and keep stores… You know, in terms of evolving the system as opposed to fracturing the system, [Amazon is] in a position to do something. The government is in a position to do something. Ironically, you know, we have a very liberal president, and he doesn’t seem terribly interested in the subject, unfortunately. I know he’s got a lot on his plate already, but you know. I mean, look, all over Europe you have governments who protect the publishers and protect books.


Yeah, there was that New York Times Bookends piece recently about how France treats books as an ‘essential good,’ like food and utilities. They’re taxed at lower rates, price discounts are pretty severely controlled. Is that a model that you think would be useful?

James Patterson:

No, I don’t think it’s a model, but I think it’s something to pay attention to. I think the government could be more involved. I mean, obviously the government has stepped in when banks were in trouble and the automobile business was in trouble. I think it’s something that local, state and federal government could be doing more.

This is once again symbolic, the kind of leadership pledge, you know. We’re gonna ask people to write to the President, write to their Congress and their representatives. And have the President take a pledge that once a month, he’ll appear in public carrying a book, he’ll visit a library store, or you know, the local representative. And then to have some of these [politicans] going on record in government sessions that they’re concerned about the state of reading in our country. And they should be.

Because, look, with our kids, and that’s a big deal with me, kids are not reading as broadly as they should and as they used to. We’re getting more and more of this kind of tunnel-vision, get on your little mission to become a doctor, lawyer, mathematician, engineer, etc., and [kids] really don’t read. My son’s at a very good prep school, and they don’t read as much as I’d like them to do, in terms of breadth of reading. You know, they don’t know who a lot of the famous authors [are]. Not that they should matter who they are, but … my own thing about kids at the top [is] that in the course of high school they’re exposed to a couple hundred really good, interesting authors, you know, ranging from Toni Morison to Cormac McCarthy to Truman Capote to Saul Bellow, etc., etc., and just be familiar with different voices and ways of looking at the world. I think that’s important in terms of really good readers.

More important, maybe, is at-risk kids, because, and this is a big deal with me, I do a lot, as much as any individual can do, but at-risk kids, if they’re not… if they don’t become competent readers—I’m not talking about readers for life, I’m talking about competent readers—how are they going to get through high school? If you’re not a competent reader. And that’s an epidemic around this country, kids who cannot read at a competent level. How you gonna do history, how you gonna do science? You just can’t. I mean, you sit there and you struggle and it takes 15 minutes to read the first page. That doesn’t work. In a lot of cases, it’s correctible.


There’s research that says that kids who grow up in a household where there are books in the house are more likely to become constant readers than those who don’t. 

James Patterson:

That’s a piece of it. That’s a piece of it. What happens in the schools is a piece of it. I just gave a talk, and I was asked to talk on this subject in front of all of the middle school principals in New York City, public schools, and they asked me to talk about the principals encouraging students to read for fun, to read extra stuff, to read outside of the Common Core, to read things, because the more they read the better they get at it. It’s really simple. I’ll go into schools and I’ll go, ‘Who plays soccer?’ ‘Yeah! Yeah, yeah, yeah!’ ‘You better now or three years ago?’ ‘We’re better now! Yeah!’ ‘How come?’ ‘Cause we play a lot! Yeah!’ ‘Okay, same thing, dudes.’ If you read, and you can read fun stuff, you can read comic books, you can read a lot of different… there’s a lot of ways to get that exercise, get that reading muscle worked on. If you do that, you will become good readers, and school will be easier.

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A little more insight into the online recruitment methods of the Islamic State, which employs both medieval barbarism and new-school social networks, from Britta Sandberg’s Spiegel interview with former FBI agent Ali Soufan:


Do you know how many people are working in the IS propaganda department?

Ali Soufan:

We do know that a whole army of bloggers, writers and people who do nothing else other than to watch social media are working for IS. According to our research, most are based in the Gulf region or North Africa. The program was started by Abu Amr Al-Shami, a Syrian born in Saudi Arabia. And we know that at one point more than 12,000 Twitter accounts were connected to IS. This is one of the unique tactics used by this group: the decentralization of its propaganda work. The Islamic State has maximized control of its message by giving up control of its delivery. This is new.


What does that mean in reality?

Ali Soufan:

They use, for example, these so-called ‘Twitter bombs’ by following the most popular hashtags on the social media service, like the one for the 2014 World Cup. They send out messages using those hashtags so that everybody following the hashtag #worldcup will receive messages from IS, even if they aren’t interested in it.


And this method is successful? They are recruiting among World Cup football fans?

Ali Soufan:

There are millions and millions of people around the world who will get the message. They have amazing reach, but only hope to have an impact on 1 or 2 percent of the targeted population. In June 2014 they had only 12,000 foreign fighters, but today there are 16,000 foreign fighters within IS. They include recruits from China, Indonesia and, of course, Europe as well. They send their messages in many different languages, even Dutch.”

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At his Financial Times blog, Andrew McAfee talks about the plunging “red line” of Labor’s portion of earnings, accelerating in the wrong direction as automation permeates the workplace. Robotics, algorithms and AI will make companies more profitable and shareholders richer, but job seekers (and holders) will suffer. And going Luddite will help no one in the long run. An excerpt:

“I expect the red line to continue to fall as robots, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, autonomous vehicles, and the many other technologies that until recently were the stuff of science fiction, permeate industry after industry. Policies intended to keep these advances out of a country might halt the decline of the labour share for a while, but they’d also halt competitiveness pretty quickly, thus leaving both capital and labour worse off.

I think the continued decline of the labour share, brought on by tech progress, will be a central dynamic, if not the central dynamic, of the world’s economies and societies in the 21st century. It’s a story much more about what will happen to the livelihood of the 50th percentile worker than to the wealth of the 1 per cent. And a much more important story.”


Today at work (32/f)

They brought “guests” in. And they wanted Irish Car Bombs, so I did it. I took one, too. Then I needed a cig right away. Here I go…outside and smoked with them.

I’ve come to the realization that I can’t function unless I’m stoned.

And here’s another secret, cock is overrated.

Who needs some horny dickwad trying to fuck you while you’re trying to lure a little kitten into your lair?


E.O.Wilson has suggested we set aside half the Earth for non-human species, to protect against their extinction and our own, but the “land grant” will probably be far less generous, and architecturally progressive zoos that replicate natural habitats may ultimately be a remembrance of things past not just for elephants and otters and their environs but perhaps for us and ours as well. From “The Dark Side of Zootopia,” Charles Siebert’s New York Times essay about a Danish zoo being redesigned to represent a vanishing reality:

“Zootopia, as it will be known, is still some five years from completion. A 300-acre reconfiguration of the Givskud Zoo in southern Denmark, it is among the latest visions of the Danish architectural wunderkind Bjarke Ingels, who is a crafter of low-sweeping, undulant structures that hew so closely to the contours of their natural surroundings that they at times appear subsumed by them. Eschewing the anthropocentric architecture of traditional zoos — the pagodalike pavilions of native Asian animal exhibits or the thatched jungle-lodge verandas of the African — Zootopia will secrete visitors in those airborne pods or in unseen quarters within the habitats: cratered lodges for viewing the savanna; subterranean bunkers and huts for watching the tigers or lions; cabins concealed by bamboo or stacks of lumber, allowing viewers to all but nuzzle up to pandas and grizzlies. The design enfolds the buildings and us humans into the landscape as a means of sparing the animals from our obtrusive gawking, if not fully freeing them. …

Ultimately Zootopia is not a reinvention of the zoo as much as a prefigurement of its inhabitants’ only possible future, at least on our relatively brief watch. That is, a wilderness with us lurking at its very heart, seated at open-air cafe tables, before we venture back out toward a dimly remembered past and steal our glimpses of it from discreet encampments designed to hide us not from the animals but from our own irrepressible need to spy on them. By the time its gates open circa 2020, Zootopia could well be one of the singular achievements of the anthropocene, a time when human representations of the wild threaten to become the wild’s reality.”

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For John Wanamaker, being America’s first great merchant wasn’t merely about ringing cash registers. It was also about innovation in a number of ways, many of which weren’t directly reflected in the bottom line.

The owner and operator of a pair of humongous department stores, one opened in 1876 in Philadelphia and the other 20 years later in Manhattan, Wanamaker believed that rather than than looking at your customer as a short-term mark, you should cultivate a long-standing relationship based on trust and satisfaction–not the conventional wisdom at the time–and introduced the price tag and allowed money-back guarantees. He was the first to wisely exploit the power of print advertising, but he sold you what he’d promised.

He also turned his emporiums into experiments in communications and technology, having telephones in his stores as early as 1879, allowing his roofs to be used as launching pads for balloonists in aviation’s pioneering days and installing into his sprawling shops wireless radio stations (customers listened to live reports of the sinking of the Titanic). Having the world’s largest playable pipe organ in his on-site theater and a working train car suspended from the ceiling to carry children around the toy department were nice flourishes as well. Wanamaker didn’t spoil his customers by starving his employees: He paid them holiday bonuses and gave them medical care and athletic facilities and other benefits. His passing was reported in an article in the December 12, 1922 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, an excerpt from which follows.


The Sharing Economy is still a very small portion of the GDP, but it will likely grow, whether or not Uber, one of its biggest current stars, exists or not. Credit Peter Thiel with saying early and loudly that the dominant rideshare company might Napster itself out of existence, so flagrant it is in flouting laws and even common sense. Travis Kalanick’s outfit might survive these early bumps, but they’re getting to be frequent and embarrassing. None of these dubious methods are new to Silicon Valley, of course, Microsoft itself having been just as aggressive in its heyday. Of course, that company was already a giant when its behavior came to light, and it was ultimately punished by the government for its actions. Uber is in a much more vulnerable position. From Scott Austin and Douglas MacMillan at WSJ:

“In his bid to upend the taxicab industry, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has simultaneously declared war on taxi drivers, governments around the world and smaller rivals like Lyft.

But on its war path to a $30 billion valuation, Uber continues to battle itself with questionable comments and tactics that are in danger of harming the company’s reputation and becoming a liability.

The latest controversy came Monday night when Buzzfeed reported that an Uber executive suggested the company should invest $1 million in an opposition research team to dig up dirt on media critics’ personal lives and families. The comments from Emil Michael, Uber’s senior vice president of business, were made at a dinner in New York that included Kalanick, celebrities and some journalists.

Michael was directing his words in particular at PandoDaily editor Sarah Lacy, who he believes has written harsh words about Uber including accusing the company of ‘sexism and misogyny.’ As Buzzfeed reported:

At the dinner, Michael expressed outrage at Lacy’s column and said that women are far more likely to get assaulted by taxi drivers than Uber drivers. He said that he thought Lacy should be held ‘personally responsible’ for any woman who followed her lead in deleting Uber and was then sexually assaulted.

Then he returned to the opposition research plan. Uber’s dirt-diggers, Michael said, could expose Lacy. They could, in particular, prove a particular and very specific claim about her personal life.”

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Paul Bowles, good novelist and great short-story writer, penned, in 1963, a travel story for Holiday about a place he knew well, Morocco. Here’s a section about mad love in Marrakesh:

“The next day was hotter. We climbed along the slowly rising ramp of the Middle Atlas, the great range that lies between the Rif and the Grand Atlas, a gray, glistening landscape. The shiny leaves of the scrub live-oaks, and even the exposed bedrock beneath, reflected the hot light of the overhead sun. Farther along, on the southern slope of the mountains, we passed the mangled body of a large ape that had not got out of the road fast enough—an unusual sight here, since these animals generally stay far from the highways.

All afternoon we had been speeding down the gradually descending valley between the Middle Atlas and the Grand Atlas. The sun went down ahead of us and the moon rose behind us. We drank coffee from the vacuum bottle and hoped we would get into Marrakech in time to find some food. The new Moroccan regime has brought early closing hours to a land where heretofore night was merely a continuation of day.

After the lunar brightness of the empty wasteland, the oasis was dark. The highway went for miles between high mud walls and canebrakes; the black tracery of date palms rose above them, against the brilliant night sky. Suddenly the walls and the oasis came to an end, and ahead, standing in the rubble of the desert, was a big new cinema trimmed with tubes of colored neon, the tin and straw shacks of a squatters’ colony clustering around it like the cottages of a village around the church. In Morocco the very poor live neither in the country nor in the city; they come as far as the outer walls of the town, build these these desparate-lookingbidonvilles out of whatever materials they can find, and there they stay.

Marrakech is a city of great distances, flat as a table. When the wind blows, the pink dust of the plain sweeps into the sky, obscuring the sun, and the whole city, painted with a wash made of the pink earth on which it rests, glows red in the cataclysmic light. At night, from a car window, it looks not unlike one of our Western cities: long miles of street lights stretching in straight lines across the plain. Only by day you see that most of these lights illumine nothing more than empty reaches of palm garden and desert.

Over the years, the outer fringes of the Medina have been made navigable to automobiles and horse-drawn buggies, of which there are still a great many, but it takes a brave man to drive his car into the maze of serpentine alleys full of porters, bicycles, carts, donkeys and pedestrians. Besides, the only way to see anything in the Medina is to walk. In order to be really present, you must have your feet in the dust, and be aware of the hot dusty smell of the mud walls beside your face.

The night we arrived in Marrakech, we went to a café in the heart of the Medina. On the roof under the stars they spread matting, blankets and cushions for us, and we sat there drinking mint tea, savoring the cool air that begins to stir above the city after midnight when the stored heat of the sun is finally dissipated.

Abruptly out of the silence of the street below, there came a succession of strange, explosive cries. I leaned over the edge and peered into the dim passageway three floors beneath. Among the few late strollers an impossible, phantomlike figure was dancing. It galloped, it stopped, it made great gravitation-defying leaps into the air as if the earth under its feet were helping. At each leap it yelled. No one paid any attention. As the figure came below the café, I was able to identify it as a powerfully built young man; he was almost naked. I watched him disappear into the dark. Almost immediately he returned, doing the same inspired dance, occasionally rushing savagely toward other pedestrians, but always stopping in time to avoid touching them.

He passed back and forth through the alley in this way for a quarter of an hour or so before the qahaouaji, having made the tea, climbed the ladder again to the roof where we sat. When he came I said casually: ‘What’s going on down there?’ Although in most places it would have been clear enough that a madman was loose in the streets, in Morocco there are subtle distinctions to be made. Sometimes the person turns out to be merely holy, or indisposed.

‘Ah, poor man,’ said the gahaouaji. ‘He’s a friend of mine. We were in school together. He got high marks and played good soccer.’

‘What happened?’

‘What do you think? A woman, of course.’

This had not occurred to me. ‘You mean she worked magic on him?’

‘What else? At first he was like this—’ He let his jaw drop and his mouth hang open; his eyes became fixed and vacant. ‘Then after a few weeks he tore off his clothes and began to run. And ever since, he runs like that. The woman was rich. her husband had died and she wanted Allal. But he’s of a good family and they didn’t like her. So she said in her head: No other woman is going to have him either. And she gave him what she gave him.’

‘And his family?’

‘He doesn’t know his family. He lives in the street.’

‘And the woman? What happened to her?’

‘He shrugged. ‘She’s not here any more. She moved somewhere else.’

At that moment the cries came up again.

‘But why do they let him run in the street? Can’t they do anything for him?’

‘Oh, he never hurts anybody. He’s just playful. He likes to scare people, that’s all.’

I decided to put my question. ‘Is he crazy?’

‘No, just playful.’

‘Ah, yes. I see.'”


As beautiful as the plans are, it’s concerning that a billionaire like Barry Diller can decide to build by fiat (and with $40 million in public funds) a lavish park off Manhattan at the pier where Titanic survivors came to shore, and for that reason it’s dubious. Just as interesting: Dial back just a little over two years ago to another waterlogged disaster, when Hurricane Sandy struck the city, and imagine such an island scheme even being suggested then. The wonder at that point was whether Manhattan was long for this world. I guess, in some ways, it’s good we can forget tragedy, but we don’t want to forget entirely. From Oliver Wainwright at the Guardian:

“There’s a combination, it seems, of trees and water and fairytale stories told by a charming inventor, that persuades people to part with many millions – and allows conventional urban planning to be gleefully suspended.

No sooner has the cloud of fairydust surrounding London’s garden bridge proposal begun to settle – after Lambeth council granted half of it planning permission last week (Westminster, across the river, has yet to decide) – than Thomas Heatherwick has sown the seeds for a second magical park to sprout from a river, this time in New York.

It is another vision that could come straight from the set of Avatar – fecund flowerbeds erupting from mushroom-shaped columns, their canopies joining to support parkland above the water. But instead of two toadstools spanning the Thames, there will be a thicket of 300 fungi rising from five to 20 metres above the Hudson River to form an undulating platform of parks and performance spaces.

Replacing the crumbling ruin of Pier 54, where survivors of the Titanic landed, Heatherwick’s Pier 55 park promises to be a ‘place of discovery, where visitors can wander and wonder,’ with ‘places to lounge, eat lunch, or just lie in the grass,’ building on the appetite for al fresco lazing proven by the success of the nearby High Line park.”

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AI has not traditionally excelled at pattern recognition, capable of recognizing only single objects but unable to decipher the meaning of actions or interactions. Such an advance would make driverless cars and other oh-so-close wonders a reality. Stanford and Google have just announced breakthroughs. From John Markoff at the New York Times:

“During the past 15 years, video cameras have been placed in a vast number of public and private spaces. In the future, the software operating the cameras will not only be able to identify particular humans via facial recognition, experts say, but also identify certain types of behavior, perhaps even automatically alerting authorities.

Two years ago Google researchers created image-recognition software and presented it with 10 million images taken from YouTube videos. Without human guidance, the program trained itself to recognize cats — a testament to the number of cat videos on YouTube.

Current artificial intelligence programs in new cars already can identify pedestrians and bicyclists from cameras positioned atop the windshield and can stop the car automatically if the driver does not take action to avoid a collision.

But ‘just single object recognition is not very beneficial,’ said Ali Farhadi, a computer scientist at the University of Washington who has published research on software that generates sentences from digital pictures. ‘We’ve focused on objects, and we’ve ignored verbs,’ he said, adding that these programs do not grasp what is going on in an image.

Both the Google and Stanford groups tackled the problem by refining software programs known as neural networks, inspired by our understanding of how the brain works. Neural networks can ‘train’ themselves to discover similarities and patterns in data, even when their human creators do not know the patterns exist.”


“Why not devote your powers to discerning patterns?”


Michael Lewis has a different kind of take on wealth disparity in the U.S. In a New Republic review of Darrell M. West’s book Billionaires, Lewis remains circumspect that ridiculously prosperous Americans can win elections or influence issues, even in a nation defined by Citizens United and growing income inequality. (I don’t know that we’ve yet arrived at the endgame on that issue.) But he still thinks superwealth may make people assholes, or at the very least, uncaring and unhappy–that apart from money, they aren’t very rich. It’s a generalization, sure, though it’s difficult to imagine that being cosseted by a fortune wouldn’t alter a person’s worldview, wouldn’t allow them to arrange their reality as they wish, minus that helpful friction the rest of us encounter when we want our own way regardless of how it effects others. At any rate, Lewis comes armed with a trove of research by social scientists, psychologists and neuroscientists. An excerpt:

“What is clear about rich people and their moneyand becoming ever cleareris how it changes them. A body of quirky but persuasive research has sought to understand the effects of wealth and privilege on human behaviorand any future book about the nature of billionaires would do well to consult it. One especially fertile source is the University of California, Berkeley, psychology department lab overseen by a professor named Dacher Keltner. In one study, Keltner and his colleague Paul Piff installed note-takers and cameras at city street intersections with four-way stop signs. The people driving expensive cars were four times more likely to cut in front of other drivers than drivers of cheap cars. The researchers then followed the drivers to the city’s cross walks and positioned themselves as pedestrians, waiting to cross the street. The drivers in the cheap cars all respected the pedestrians’ right of way. The drivers in the expensive cars ignored the pedestrians 46.2 percent of the timea finding that was replicated in spirit by another team of researchers in Manhattan, who found drivers of expensive cars were far more likely to double park. In yet another study, the Berkeley researchers invited a cross section of the population into their lab and marched them through a series of tasks. Upon leaving the laboratory testing room the subjects passed a big jar of candy. The richer the person, the more likely he was to reach in and take candy from the jarand ignore the big sign on the jar that said the candy was for the children who passed through the department.

Maybe my favorite study done by the Berkeley team rigged a game with cash prizes in favor of one of the players, and then showed how that person, as he grows richer, becomes more likely to cheat. In his forthcoming book on power, Keltner contemplates his findings: 

If I have $100,000 in my bank account, winning $50 alters my personal wealth in trivial fashion. It just isn’t that big of a deal. If I have $84 in my bank account, winning $50 not only changes my personal wealth significantly, it matters in terms of the quality of my lifethe extra $50 changes what bill I might be able to pay, what I might put in my refrigerator at the end of the month, the kind of date I would go out on, or whether or not I could buy a beer for a friend. The value of winning $50 is greater for the poor, and, by implication, the incentive for lying in our study greater. Yet it was our wealthy participants who were far more likely to lie for the chance of winning fifty bucks.

There is plenty more like this to be found, if you look for it. A team of researchers at the New York State Psychiatric Institute surveyed 43,000 Americans and found that, by some wide margin, the rich were more likely to shoplift than the poor. Another study, by a coalition of nonprofits called the Independent Sector, revealed that people with incomes below twenty-five grand give away, on average, 4.2 percent of their income, while those earning more than 150 grand a year give away only 2.7 percent. A UCLA neuroscientist named Keely Muscatell has published an interesting paper showing that wealth quiets the nerves in the brain associated with empathy: if you show rich people and poor people pictures of kids with cancer, the poor people’s brains exhibit a great deal more activity than the rich people’s.”

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From the March 26, 1910 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Beaver Falls — When the bock beer signs made their appearance here, Joseph Bouva, an Italian fish dealer, made a wager that he could drink 250 glasses of the beer in three days. He won the wager, but is now in the hospital. He is dying.”


Sure, it’s nice that Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg and the like are philanthropic, but you have to pause and wonder why there’s such a desperate demand for CEO largesse. How much do corporate tax loopholes lead to the need? From Suzanne McGee at the Guardian:

“How liberal, really, are these boardroom liberals?

Mind you, these are the same people who squawk, very loudly, at any suggestion that the fees they collect for managing their funds should be taxed as ordinary income, instead of as capital gains.

They’ve been fighting for years any suggestion that their primary source of income should be taxed at the same higher rates as those people whom their philanthropy helps.

If the tax rate changes, those millionaires and billionaires would be paying an effective rate of 39%, rather than 20%. With that kind of tax revenue, perhaps the government wouldn’t be slashing away at social programs that now have to come, cap in hand, to the Robin Hood Foundation to ask for some of those refrigerator-sized checks. Then the philanthropists can make their decisions based on whatever personal criteria they find most compelling.

That’s not to take away from what the Robin Hood Foundation’s do-gooders accomplish. Without them, life would be a lot tougher for New York’s poorest citizens. Being a boardroom liberal may very well be better than being a boardroom tyrant, terrorizing your staff from the chief financial officer down to the guy in the mailroom.

But the reason boardroom liberals need to exist at all is the fact that the social safety net that once existed has collapsed, and while some of that can probably be traced to waste and mismanagement, another giant chunk is simply due to lack of resources.

Consider: US tax revenues are at their lowest rate since 1950, which means less money to fund government programs. At the same time, US income inequality is at its highest point since the Great Depression, meaning the rich are richer than they were even a few years go.”


I get along famously with New York security guards, and at some point pretty much all one of them tell me about the stint they did in prison. They know the industry from inside out, so to speak. Robots, conversely, have a clean record, and while they won’t devastate every industry in the near term, security is a natural fit for their functions. From Rachel Metz at Technology Review:

“As the sun set on a warm November afternoon, a quartet of five-foot-tall, 300-pound shiny white robots patrolled in front of Building 1 on Microsoft’s Silicon Valley campus. Looking like a crew of slick Daleks imbued with the grace of Fred Astaire, they whirred quietly across the concrete in different directions, stopping and turning in place so as to avoid running into trash cans, walls, and other obstacles.

The robots managed to appear both cute and intimidating. This friendly-but-not-too-friendly presence is meant to serve them well in jobs like monitoring corporate and college campuses, shopping malls, and schools.

Knightscope, a startup based in Mountain View, California, has been busy designing, building, and testing the robot, known as the K5, since 2013. Seven have been built so far, and the company plans to deploy four before the end of the year at an as-yet-unnamed technology company in the area. The robots are designed to detect anomalous behavior, such as someone walking through a building at night, and report back to a remote security center.

‘This takes away the monotonous and sometimes dangerous work, and leaves the strategic work to law enforcement or private security, depending on the application,’ Knightscope cofounder and vice president of sales and marketing Stacy Stephens said as a K5 glided nearby.”

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Legendary baseball team owner Bill Veeck was, sure, a carny and a wreck, but he was also an innovator, as you can see in the above photo of him employing a decidedly lo-fi crowdsourcing technique to allow fans to manage a game. One business “innovation” he championed six decades ago, talking the government into giving an unnecessary tax break to owners of sports teams, has become a gigantic piece of corporate welfare in the modern age of multibillion franchises. It will pay huge dividends to new Clippers owner Stave Ballmer. From David Wharton at the Los Angeles Times:

“Baseball fans remember Bill Veeck mostly for his bizarre stunts.

The maverick team owner once signed a player with dwarfism, then sent the 3-foot-7 batter to the plate to draw a walk.

Another time, he let the crowd hold up placards to dictate in-game strategies to the manager.

But there is a legacy for which the late Veeck is less well-known. During the 1950s, the man who bought and sold three major league franchises over his lifetime was credited with persuading Internal Revenue Service officials to give him a hefty tax break on player salaries.

These deductions have survived, with periodic changes, into the present day. And they could greatly benefit Steve Ballmer after his recent $2-billion purchase of the Clippers.

‘It’s a huge part of this business that never gets talked about,’ said Dennis Howard, a professor emeritus at the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. ‘It changes your sense of what he’s really paying.’

Ballmer could seek as much as half of the purchase price of the team in tax benefits over the next 15 years, according to accountants and sports business analysts familiar with the financial aspects of team ownership.”

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This strange 1975 photo captures Ingmar Bergman in Hollywood enjoying a tender moment with the Jaws prop shark nicknamed “Bruce.” Before that film was a big-screen game changer helmed by Steven Spielberg, it was a 1974 bestseller by Peter Benchley, and before that still it was a 1967 Holiday magazine article (“Shark!“) from the same writer. Here’s the opening of the first, journalistic version:

“ONE WARM SUMMER DAY I was standing on a beach near Tom Never’s Head on Nantucket. Children were splashing around in the gentle surf as their mothers lay gabbing by the Styrofoam ice chests and the Scotch Grills. About thirty yards from shore, a man paddled back and forth, swimming in a jerky, tiring, head-out-of-the-water fashion. I had just remarked dully that the water was unusually calm, when I noticed a black speck cruising slowly up the beach some twenty yards beyond the lone swimmer. It seemed to dip in and out of the water, staying on the surface for perhaps five seconds, then disappearing for one or two, then reappearing for five. I ran down to the water and waved my arms at the man. At first he paid no attention, and kept plodding on. Then he noticed me. I pointed out to sea, cupped my hands over my mouth, and bellowed, ‘Shark!’ He turned and saw the short, triangular fin moving al­most parallel with him. Immediately he lunged for the shore in a frantic sprint. The fish, which had taken no notice of the swimmer, became curious at the sudden disturbance in the water, and I saw the fin turn inshore. It moved lazily, but not aimlessly.

By now the man had reached chest-deep water, and while he could probably have made better time by swimming, he elected to run. Running in five feet of water is something like trying to skip rope in a vat of peanut butter, and I could see his eyes bug and his face turn bright cerise as he slogged along. He didn’t look around, which was probably just as well, for the fish was no more than fifty yards behind him. At waist depth, the terrified man assumed Messianic talents. He seemed to lift out of the water, his legs churning wildly, his arms flailing. He hit the beach at a dead run and fled as far as the dunes, where he collapsed. The shark, discovering that whatever had roiled the water had disappeared, turned back and resumed his idle cruise just beyond the small breakers.

During the man’s race for land, the children had miraculously vanished from the surf, and now they were being bundled into towels by frenzied mothers. One child was bawling, ‘But I want to play!’ His mother snapped, ‘No! There’s a shark out there.’ The shark was out of sight down the beach, and for a time the ladies stood around staring at the water, evidently expecting the sea to regurgitate a mass of unspeakable horrors. Then, as if on mute cue, they all at once packed their coolers, grills, rafts, inner tubes and aluminum beach chairs and marched to their cars. The afternoon was still young, and the shark had obviously found this beach unappetizing (dining is poor for sharks closer than a half a mile off the beach at that part of the south shore of Nantucket). But to the mothers, the whole area—sand as well as water—was polluted.

Irrational behavior has always been man’s reaction to the presence of sharks.”

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Harold Robbins would have bragged if nine female typists had quit in shock while working on one of his novels, but it was different story in a different era for James Joyce. Getting Ulysses past censors was an arduous task, and he might have tossed the pages aside for good if it wasn’t for the intervention of Shakespeare & Co. owner Sylvia Beach. She gambled her own money and prodded Joyce through many iterations of his work on the way to the printing press, bringing the novel to Parisians in 1922. The volume was a smash hit in France and was soon reselling for $700 a copy. An article about Beach follows from the December 24, 1933 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, timed to the belated un-banning of the book in America.

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anyone know of a place where i could purchase insects for cooking? pet shops and graveyards are excluded.

PTSD and other disorders that result from historical horrors (wars, slavery, etc.) seem to be intergenerational not just because of nurture but due to nature as well, with the hormone cortisol playing a significant role in perpetuating the pain. So, it’s not just the ghosts making mayhem but also a heritable biological reordering which victims unknowingly pass on to descendants. Can this phenomenon be neutralized? From “The Science of Suffering,” by Judith Shulevitz at The New Republic:

“In the early ’80s, a Lakota professor of social work named Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart coined the phrase ‘historical trauma.’ What she meant was ‘the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations.’ Another phrase she used was ‘soul wound.’ The wounding of the Native American soul, of course, went on for more than 500 years by way of massacres, land theft, displacement, enslavement, thenwell into the twentieth centurythe removal of Native American children from their families to what were known as Indian residential schools. These were grim, Dickensian places where some children died in tuberculosis epidemics and others were shackled to beds, beaten, and raped.

Brave Heart did her most important research near the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the home of Oglala Lakota and the site of some of the most notorious events in Native American martyrology. In 1890, the most famous of the Ghost Dances that swept the Great Plains took place in Pine Ridge. We might call the Ghost Dances a millenarian movement; its prophet claimed that, if the Indians danced, God would sweep away their present woes and unite the living and the dead. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, however, took the dances at Pine Ridge as acts of aggression and brought in troops who killed the chief, Sitting Bull, and chased the fleeing Lakota to the banks of Wounded Knee Creek, where they slaughtered hundreds and threw their bodies in mass graves. (Wounded Knee also gave its name to the protest of 1973 that brought national attention to the American Indian Movement.) Afterward, survivors couldn’t mourn their dead because the federal government had outlawed Indian religious ceremonies. The whites thought they were civilizing the savages.

Today, the Pine Ridge Reservation is one of the poorest spots in the United States. According to census data, annual income per capita in the largest county on the reservation hovers around $9,000. Almost a quarter of all adults there who are classified as being in the labor force are unemployed. (Bureau of Indian Affairs figures are darker; they estimate that only 37 percent of all local Native American adults are employed.) According to a health data research center at the University of Washington, life expectancy for men in the county ranks in the lowest 10 percent of all American counties; for women, it’s in the bottom quartile. In a now classic 1946 study of Lakota children from Pine Ridge, the anthropologist Gordon Macgregor identified some predominant features of their personalities: numbness, sadness, inhibition, anxiety, hypervigilance, a not-unreasonable sense that the outside world was implacably hostile. They ruminated on death and dead relatives. Decades later, Mary Crow Dog, a Lakota woman, wrote a memoir in which she cited nightmares of slaughters past that sound almost like forms of collective memory: ‘In my dream I had been going back into another life,” she wrote. “I saw tipis and Indians camping … and then, suddenly, I saw white soldiers riding into camp, killing women and children, raping, cutting throats. It was so real … sights I did not want to see, but had to see against my will; the screaming of children that I did not want to hear. … And the only thing I could do was cry. … For a long time after that dream, I felt depressed, as if all life had been drained from me.’

Brave Heart’s subjects were mainly Lakota social-service providers and community leaders, all of them high-functioning and employed. The vast majority had lived on the reservation at some point in their lives, and evinced symptoms of what she called unmourned loss. Eighty-one percent had drinking problems. Survivor guilt was widespread. In a study of a similar population, many spoke about early deaths in the family from heart disease and high rates of asthma. Some of her subjects had hypertension. They harbored thoughts of suicide and identified intensely with the dead.”

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GoogleX, the Bell Labs-ish moonshot division of the search giant, may pay off financially in the long run, but it’s likely producing a short-term profit in non-obvious ways. From Ezra Klein’s new Vox interview with Peter Thiel:

Ezra Klein:

I want to try to draw out this idea of a company’s mission a bit more. Imagine two versions of Google. The non-mission oriented Google is, ‘We want to build a search engine that’ll be the best search engine in the world. If we’re dominant in that market, we’re going to be able to extract huge advertising revenues.’ The mission-oriented one is, ‘Our goal as a company is to categorize and make accessible all the world’s information.’

Peter Thiel:


I think the second description is certainly far more inspiring. Maybe it starts by building a much better search engine, but then maybe over time, you have to develop mapping technology, maybe you start building self-driving cars as a way to see how well your mapping technology works. It certainly, I think, feels very different to the people working at the company. I think Google still is a very charismatic company for a company of its size.

Ezra Klein:

That’s an interesting point. Google does all of these things that are not obvious profit drivers. The massive effort to digitize books, the decision to send camels across the Sahara to work on mapping the desert. A lot of that, they’re losing money on. But it’s partially a recruitment tool — it makes them, in your word, more charismatic than their competitors.

Peter Thiel:

One level in which these companies do still compete very much is for talent. Silicon Valley is very competitive with Wall Street banks. And there’s a way in which the day-to-day jobs are similar: people sit in front of computers, the people went to similar colleges and universities, even the office floor-planning is kind of similar. There are more similarities than one might think. But the narrative at Google is much, much better than at Goldman. That’s why they’re beating a place like Goldman incredibly in this talent war.”

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