Urban Studies

You are currently browsing the archive for the Urban Studies category.


barnum-brown-excavating-18029_AMNH (1)


Paleontologist Barnum Brown was born in 1873 in a small Kansas town on a day the circus was passing through town, so he was named for the famed huckstering impresario. It proved fitting, as the colorful explorer presented humankind time and again with the greatest show on Earth.

It was Brown who first discovered the remains of a Tyrannosaurus Rex while fossil hunting in Montana in 1902. That may have been his biggest find, literally and figuratively, but he filled train cars with bones that allowed us to reconstruct deep history, to paint a picture of the past. Along with a few others, Brown is thought to be the model for Indiana Jones, which isn’t surprising. Following the completion of a 1930 expedition in which he believed he had unearthed a pre-dinosaur reptilian creature, Brown was profiled in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.






maxresdefault (8)

In 2016, GM promises to begin selling the first affordable EV possessing a 200-mile range. That might merely be a short-term victory for Big Auto, though history seems to suggest otherwise. 3D Printers may ultimately disrupt the business of car manufacture, seriously lower the barrier to entry and allow for the extreme customization of cars, but that may very likely not be the case. If I had been around in the early days of Homebrew, I probably would have felt the same of personal computers or at the very least, software, but I would have been wrong. The same may hold true for the auto sector.

In a Wired cover story about GM seemingly outfoxing Tesla thus far in the EV market, an unlikely twist to be sure, Alex Davies writes about the urgency of the Chevy Bolt’s creation. An excerpt:

These days it’s a refrain among GM executives that in the next five to 10 years, the auto industry will change as much as it has in the past 50. As batteries get better and cheaper, the propagation of electric cars will reinforce the need to build out charging infra­structure and develop clean ways to generate electricity. Cars will start speaking to each other and to our infrastructure. They will drive themselves, smudging the line between driver and passenger. Google, Apple, Uber, and other tech companies are invading the transportation marketplace with fresh technology and no ingrained attitudes about how things are done.

The Bolt is the most concrete evidence yet that the largest car companies in the world are contemplating a very different kind of future too. GM knows the move from gasoline to electricity will be a minor one compared to where customers are headed next: away from driving and away from owning cars. In 2017, GM will give Cadillac sedans the ability to control themselves on the highway. Instead of dismissing Google as a smart-aleck kid grabbing a seat at the adults’ table, GM is talking about partnering with the tech firm on a variety of efforts. Last year GM launched car-sharing programs in Manhattan and Germany and has promised more to come. In January the company announced that it’s investing $500 million in Lyft, and that it plans to work with the ride-sharing company to develop a national network of self-driving cars. GM is thinking about how to use those new business models as it enters emerging markets like India, where lower incomes and already packed metro areas make its standard move—put two cars in every garage—unworkable.

This all feels strange coming from GM because, for all the changes of the past decade and despite the use of words like disruption and mobility, it’s no Silicon Valley outfit.

Tags: ,


New York City has earthquakes, but they’re so minor we never feel them. In most instances, the earth prefers to swallow us up one by one. But it’s different in Los Angeles.

L.A.’s temperamental turf is the subject of The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith, a fine 2005 volume on the topic of secular shaking by David L. Ulin. Among other topics, Ulin’s volume looks at the thorny issue of earthquake prediction, by scientists and psychics, the concerned and the kooky. An excerpt about Linda Curtis, who works for the Southern California field office of the United States Geological Survey in Pasadena:

Curtis is, in many ways, the USGS gatekeeper, the public affairs officer who serves as a frontline liaison with the community and the press. Her office sits directly across the hall from the conference room, and if you call the Survey, chances are it will be her low-key drawl you’ll hear on the line. In her late forties, dark-haired and good-humored, Curtis has been at the USGS since 1979, and in that time, she’s staked out her own odd territory as a collector of earthquake predictions, which come across the transom at sporadic but steady intervals, like small seismic jolts themselves.

“I’ve been collecting almost since day one,’ she tells me on a warm July afternoon in her office, adding that it’s useful for USGS to keep records, if only to mollify the predictors, many of whom view the scientific establishment with frustration, paranoia even, at least as far as their theories are concerned.

“Basically,” she says, ‘we are just trying  to protect our reputation. We don’t want to throw these predictions in the wastebasket, and then a week later…” She chuckles softly, a rolling R sound as thick and throaty as a purr. “Say somebody predicted a seven in downtown L.A., and we ignored it. Can you imagine the reaction if it actually happened? So this is sort of a little bit of insurance. If you send us a prediction, we put it in the file.”•


Marjoe Gortner–in Sensurround!


Five years ago when I looked back at the 1978 Michael Crichton film, Coma, through the lens of the new millennium, I wrote this: 

The nouveau tech corporations are aimed at locating and marking our personal preferences, tracking our interests and even our footsteps, knowing enough about what’s going on inside our heads to predict our next move. In a time of want and desperation and disparity of wealth, how much information will we surrender?•

It seems truer now than in 2011, as wearables multiply and the Internet of Things comes closer to fruition. Whenever data is collected, it will be sold, whether that was the original intent or not. And the collection process will grow so seamless and unobtrusive we’ll hardly notice it.

From “What Happens to the Data Collected On Us While We Sleep,” by Meghan Neal at Wired Motherboard:

We already know that the major data brokers like Acxiom and Experian collect thousands of pieces of information on nearly every US consumer to paint a detailed personality picture, by tracking the websites we visit and the things we search for and buy. These companies often know sensitive things like our sexual preference or what illnesses we have.

Now with wearables proliferating (it’s estimated there will be 240 million devices sold by 2019) that profile’s just going to get more detailed: Get ready to add how much body fat you have, when you have sex, how much sleep you get, and all sorts of physiological data into the mix.

“Whenever there’s information that you’re collecting about yourself and you’re quantifying, there’s a very good chance that it will end up in a profile of you,” Michelle De Mooy, a health privacy expert at the Center for Democracy & Technology, told me.

This has many privacy and security experts, politicians, and the government wringing their hands, worried that if and when all that granular personal information gathered gets in the hands of advertisers and data brokers, it could be used in ways we never intended or even suspected.

“Biometric data is perhaps the last ‘missing link’ of personal information collected today,” said Jeffrey Chester, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

“The next great financial windfall for the digital data industry will be our health information, gathered thru wearables, swallowable pills and an ever-present Internet of Things,” Chester told me. “Pharma companies, hospitals and advertisers see huge profits in our health information.”•

Tags: , ,

From the September 26, 1909 New York Times:

Paris–Jules Bois believes that motor cars will in a hundred years be things of the past, and that a kind of flying bicycle will have been invented which will enable everybody to traverse the air at will, far above the earth. Hardly any one will remain in the cities at night. They will be places of business only. People of every class will reside in the country or in garden towns at considerable distances from the populous centres. Pneumatic railways and flying cars and many other means of quick transit will be so developed that the question of time will enter but little into one’s choice of a home. Transportation will be immensely cheaper than it is at present. As there will be less crowding, realty values and rentals will less exorbitant.•

images (16)

In a Backchannel piece, Steven Levy shares everything most things he learned during an inside look at Google’s autonomous-car mission command at the decommissioned Castle Air Force Base in Atwater, California. Most of the (non-)drivers hired to put miles on the vehicles are recent Liberal Arts grads who test the prototypes on streets in Mountain View and Austin. Some are even employed as human props, known as “professional pedestrians.” “We just have to learn to trust,” one tells Levy. It seems the tight-lipped company’s testing of the cars may have gone beyond what people realize.

An excerpt:

Google’s ultimate goal, of course, is to make a transition from testing to systems where no safety drivers are needed — just passengers. For some time, Google has been convinced that the semiautonomous systems that others champion (which include various features like collision prevention, self-parking, and lane control on highways) are actually more dangerous than to the so-called Level Four degree of control, where the car needs no human intervention. (Each of the other levels reflects a degree of driver involvement.) The company is convinced that with cars that almost but don’t drive themselves, humans will be lulled into devoting attention elsewhere and unable to take quick control in an emergency. (Google came to that conclusion when it allowed some employees to commute with the cars, using autodrive only on premapped freeways. One Googler, perhaps forgetting that the company was capturing the whole ride on video, pretty much crawled into the backseat for a phone charger while the car sped along at 65 miles per hour.)

Google also believes that cars should be able to move around even with no humans in them, and it has been hoping for an official go-ahead to begin a shuttle service between the dozens of buildings it occupies in Mountain View, where slow-moving, no-steering-wheel prototypes would putter along by themselves to pick up Googlers. It was bitterly disappointed when the California DMV ruled it was not yet time for driverless cars to travel the streets, even in those limited conditions. The DMV didn’t even propose a set of requirements that Google could satisfy to make this happen. Meanwhile, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, is barreling ahead, introducing a driverless feature in his Tesla cars called Summon. He predicts that by 2018, Tesla owners will be able to summon their cars from the opposite coast, though it’s a mystery how the cars would recharge themselves every 200 or so miles.

But maybe Musk is not the first. When I discussed this with [program director Chris] Urmson, he postulated that in most states — California not among them — it was not illegal to operate driverless cars on public streets. I asked him whether Google had sent out cars with no one in them to pick up people in Austin. He would not answer.•

Tags: ,




LFM 2013 Mabel funeral 01

Mabel Normand was a Silent Era triple threat (writer-director-actor) who collaborated with Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett, Laurel & Hardy, Boris Karloff and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, so it would have taken a lot for personal life to overwhelm her career. Somehow, she managed.

Despite starring across Chaplin the first time he performed as the Little Tramp and becoming a big box-office draw, Normand’s star was dimmed by a cocaine addiction and scandal, most notably by being named the other woman in a divorce trial and by her close proximity to two mysterious shootings, one of which resulted in the death of Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor. Her career had slowed considerably before tuberculosis killed her at age 37 in 1930. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced the end of her tumultuous life in the February 24, 1930 edition.




From 1914’s “Mabel’s Strange Predicament,” which introduced the Little Tramp.



From the September 1, 1929 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.




Confirmation bias is a dangerous thing, so the Harvard economist Roland Fryer likes to stick to data, which can, of course, lead to some inconvenient truths. How about being an African-American scholar in the time of Ferguson who’s convinced that police in the U.S. are no more likely to shoot a black person than a white one?

Fryer’s argument, which he relates to John McDermott of the Financial Times, is that the numbers say officers harass and manhandle African-Americans in a disproportionate way, but actual lethal violence is proportionate among different race groups. The more minor and incessant acts of persecution persuade black folks that they are being shot far more often. 

Well, I haven’t studied the numbers, but if this is true it should make us incredibly vigilant of the type racial profiling and serial intimidation that divides us. The so-called quality-of-life approach to policing has provided too much wiggle room for some to be targeted. Even Fryer himself acknowledges that he had guns pulled on him by police six or seven times during his youth.

An excerpt:

At a quiet table in the cavernous Hawksmoor Seven Dials, a branch of the high-end restaurant chain in central London, where the decor is brown and the meat is red, Fryer tells me how he spent two days last year on the beat shadowing cops in Camden, New Jersey. (On his first day on patrol a woman overdosed in front of him and died.) What Fryer wanted to figure out was whether the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner — two African-Americans whose deaths led to widespread protests — were part of an observable pattern of discrimination, as activist groups such as Black Lives Matter have suggested. After his week on patrol, he collected more than 6m pieces of data from forces such as New York City’s on cases of blacks, whites and Latinos being victims of police violence.

The graph he passes between the salt and pepper displays his provisional findings. The horizontal axis is a scale of the severity of the violence, from shoving on the left all the way to shootings on the right. The curve starts high, suggesting strong differences in minor incidents, but descends to zero as the cases become more violent. In other words, once contextual factors were taken into account, blacks were no more likely to be shot by police. All of which raises the question: why the outcry in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, where Brown was shot?

“That’s the data,” Fryer says. “Now one hypothesis for why Ferguson happened — not the shooting but the outcry — was not because people were making statistical inference, not from whether Michael Brown was guilty or innocent but because they fucking hate the police.” He continues: “The reason they hate the police is because if you spent years having hands put on you and [being] pushed to the ground and handcuffed without proper cause, and then you hear about a [police] shooting in your town, how could you believe it was anything but discrimination?”•

Tags: ,


Almost all the entries in my Gmail spam folder are boner-juice ads written by bots in barely comprehensible English. They suck. But according to Nellie Bowles’ new Guardian piece, the performance of high-end virtual email assistants has recently risen to an impressive, and perhaps unsettling, level. These tools can show empathy just as surely as they arrange business meetings, and the humans who interact with them often treat them like people even when they know they’re not. The opening:

It started as a normal email exchange with a tech CEO. He was up for a coffee, and passed me to his assistant to find a date. But then it turned a bit strange.

Her emails were too good: all written in the same carefully casual, slightly humourless style. All formatted the same. All sent at socially convincing times. And all at believable intervals from my own messages. But they were off just a little.

Hi Nellie,

No worries! Unfortunately, Swift is unavailable tomorrow morning. Can you talk at one of the following times?

Tuesday (Nov 10) at 3pm EST

Tuesday (Nov 10) at 4:30pm EST

Let me know!



I stared at her notes for a few minutes before it hit me: she was a bot.

Leaving aside the issues around giving the admin bot a female name, as all these services seem to do, this feels like one of those moments the future promised us. So now it’s here, I thought to myself, staring at her emails. It has arrived. She is among us. And she’s excellent.

“You asked me how I conceived of ‘her,’ not ‘it’. When you talk about ‘her,’ we’re 90% there already,” said Dennis Mortensen, whose company, X.ai, has pioneered email bot personal assistants. “You already conceive of her as a human being even though you know she’s a machine. Now we have something to work with.”•


wsm (2)Even by the oft-eccentric standards of mid-century cyberneticists, Warren Sturgis McCulloch was something of an outlier. Known for his diet of cigarettes, whiskey and ice cream, the MIT genius was the proud father of 17 adopted children. More than six decades ago he was extrapolating the power of then-rudimentary machines, concerned that eventually AI might rule humankind, a topic of much concern in these increasingly automated times. The below article from the September 22, 1948 Brooklyn Daily Eagle records his clarion call about the future.



In 1969, the year before McCulloch died, his opinions on the Singularity had modified.

123allenkeaton (2)

In a Techcrunch piece, Vivek Wadhwa identifies 2016 as a technological inflection point, naming six fields which he believes will see significant progress, promising the next 12 months “will be the beginning of an even bigger revolution, one that will change the way we live, let us visit new worlds, and lead us into a jobless future.”

I don’t know for most of the areas he mentions that this year will be any more important than 2015 or 2017. Consider the example of space exploration. Perhaps in 2016 private companies or government will accomplish something more impressive than the Falcon 9 landing or maybe not. Even if they do, it will be part of an incremental process rather than a radical breakthrough. Life on Mars will get nearer every year.

Wadhwa’s best bet, I think, is in the area of driverless cars, which will likely move much closer to fruition based on tests done this year. The writer is more measured with robotics, believing the industrial kind is on the cusp of major advances, but personal assistants still have a ways to go. An excerpt:

The 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge required robots to navigate over an eight-task course simulating a disaster zone. It was almost comical to see them moving at the speed of molasses, freezing up, and falling over. Forget folding laundry and serving humans; these robots could hardly walk. As well, although we heard some three years ago that Foxconn would replace a million workers with robots in its Chinese factories, it never did so.

The breakthroughs may, however, be at hand. To begin with, a new generation of robots is being introduced by companies such as Switzerland’s ABB, Denmark’s Universal Robots, and Boston’s Rethink Robotics—robots dextrous enough to thread a needle and sensitive enough to work alongside humans. They can assemble circuits and pack boxes. We are at the cusp of the industrial-robot revolution.

Household robots are another matter. Household tasks may seem mundane, but they are incredibly difficult for machines to perform. Cleaning a room and folding laundry necessitate software algorithms that are more complex than those to land a man on the moon. But there have been many breakthroughs of late, largely driven by A.I., enabling robots to learn certain tasks by themselves and teach each other what they have learnt. And with the open source robotic operating system, ROS, thousands of developers worldwide are getting close to perfecting the algorithms.

Don’t be surprised when robots start showing up in supermarkets and malls—and in our homes.  Remember Rosie, the robotic housekeeper from the TV series The Jetsons?  I am expecting version 1 to begin shipping in the early 2020s.•



Nothing’s so useful in politics as boogeymen. Fixing an actual large-scale problem is hard, sometimes impossible, so attention is often diverted to a relatively miniscule one. There’s an added bonus: Frightened people are paralyzed, easy to manipulate. 

During the second half of the 1960s, when the American social fabric began to fray in a cultural revolution that no one could contain, motorcycle gangs became useful stooges as symbols of barbarians at the gates. In 1966, when a shocking report of a California crime made the Hell’s Angels Public Enemy No. 1, Hunter S. Thompson elucidated the disproportionate attention the unholy rollers were receiving in an article in the Nation. Of course, the following year he fed the myth himself with a book about his travels–and travails–with the club. An excerpt:

The California climate is perfect for motorcycles, as well as surfboards, swimming pools and convertibles. Most of the cyclists are harmless weekend types, members of the American Motorcycle Association, and no more dangerous than skiers or skin divers. But a few belong to what the others call “outlaw clubs,” and these are the ones who–especially on weekends and holidays–are likely to turn up almost anywhere in the state, looking for action. Despite everything the psychiatrists and Freudian casuists have to say about them, they are tough, mean and potentially as dangerous as a pack of wild boar. When push comes to shove, any leather fetishes or inadequacy feelings that may be involved are entirely beside the point, as anyone who has ever tangled with these boys will sadly testify. When you get in an argument with a group of outlaw motorcyclists, you can generally count your chances of emerging unmaimed by the number of heavy-handed allies you can muster in the time it takes to smash a beer bottle. In this league, sportsmanship is for old liberals and young fools. “I smashed his face,” one of them said to me of a man he’d never seen until the swinging started. “He got wise. He called me a punk. He must have been stupid.”

The most notorious of these outlaw groups is the Hell’s Angels, supposedly headquartered in San Bernardino, just east of Los Angeles, and with branches all over the state. As a result of the infamous “Labor Day gang rape,” the Attorney General of California has recently issued an official report on the Hell’s Angels. According to the report, they are easily identified:

The emblem of the Hell’s Angels, termed “colors,” consists of an embroidered patch of a winged skull wearing a motorcycle helmet. Just below the wing of the emblem are the letters “MC.” Over this is a band bearing the words “Hell’s Angels.” Below the emblem is another patch bearing the local chapter name, which is usually an abbreviation for the city or locality. These patches are sewn on the back of a usually sleeveless denim jacket. In addition, members have been observed wearing various types of Luftwaffe insignia and reproductions of German iron crosses.* (*Purely for decorative and shock effect. The Hell’s Angels are apolitical and no more racist than other ignorant young thugs.) Many affect beards and their hair is usually long and unkempt. Some wear a single earring in a pierced ear lobe. Frequently they have been observed to wear metal belts made of a length of polished motorcycle drive chain which can be unhooked and used as a flexible bludgeon… Probably the most universal common denominator in identification of Hell’s Angels is generally their filthy condition. Investigating officers consistently report these people, both club members and their female associates, seem badly in need of a bath. Fingerprints are a very effective means of identification because a high percentage of Hell’s Angels have criminal records.

In addition to the patches on the back of Hell’s Angel’s jackets, the “One Percenters” wear a patch reading “1%-er.” Another badge worn by some members bears the number “13.” It is reported to represent the 13th letter of the alphabet, “M,” which in turn stands for marijuana and indicates the wearer thereof is a user of the drug.

The Attorney General’s report was colorful, interesting, heavily biased and consistently alarming–just the sort of thing, in fact, to make a clanging good article for a national news magazine. Which it did; in both barrels. Newsweek led with a left hook titled “The Wild Ones,” Time crossed right, inevitably titled “The Wilder Ones.” The Hell’s Angels, cursing the implications of this new attack, retreated to the bar of the DePau Hotel near the San Francisco waterfront and planned a weekend beach party. I showed them the articles. Hell’s Angels do not normally read the news magazines. “I’d go nuts if I read that stuff all the time,” said one. “It’s all bullshit.”

Newsweek was relatively circumspect. It offered local color, flashy quotes and “evidence” carefully attributed to the official report but unaccountably said the report accused the Hell’s Angels of homosexuality, whereas the report said just the opposite. Time leaped into the fray with a flurry of blood, booze and semen-flecked wordage that amounted, in the end, to a classic of supercharged hokum: “Drug-induced stupors… no act is too degrading… swap girls, drugs and motorcycles with equal abandon… stealing forays… then ride off again to seek some new nadir in sordid behavior…”

Where does all this leave the Hell’s Angels and the thousands of shuddering Californians (according to Time) who are worried sick about them? Are these outlaws really going to be busted, routed and cooled, as the news magazines implied? Are California highways any safer as a result of this published uproar? Can honest merchants once again walk the streets in peace? The answer is that nothing has changed except that a few people calling themselves the Hell’s Angels have a new sense of identity and importance.

After two weeks of intensive dealings with the Hell’s Angels phenomenon, both in print and in person, I’m convinced the net result of the general howl and publicity has been to obscure and avoid the real issues by invoking a savage conspiracy of bogeymen and conning the public into thinking all will be “business as usual” once this fearsome snake is scotched, as it surely will be by hard and ready minions of the Establishment.•



It’s not a done deal that technological employment will be widespread, that the “lights-out” factory will become the norm, but it’s possible to the extent that we should worry about such a scary situation now.

I doubt the answers will lie in somehow reigning in technology. Not to overly anthropomorphize robots, but they have a “life” of their own. If humans and machines can both do the same job, the work will ultimately become the domain of AI. The solutions, if needed, will have to emerge from policy. Not the kind that artificially limits machines, but the type that provides security derived from social safety nets. 

In an In These Times article, David Moberg writes that “much will depend on whether we humans leave robotization to the free market or whether we take deliberate steps to shape our future relationships with robots.” I disagree with his suggestion that perhaps we can design robots to merely augment human production. That’s implausible and at best an intermediary step, but the author writes intelligently on the topic.

An excerpt:

If we’re on the brink of a period of robotic upheaval, labor organizing will be more crucial than ever. Workers will need unions with the power to negotiate the needs of the displaced.

Another aspect of the disruption could be an exacerbation of economic inequality. MIT economist David Autor argues that the advent of computing in the late 1970s helped drive our current stratification. As demand increased for abstract labor (college-educated workers using computers) and decreased for manual, routine labor (service workers with few skilled tasks), he says, the pay for different occupations consequently became more polarized, fueling the rise of inequality.

But Lawrence Mishel and his Economic Policy Institute colleagues, along with Dean Baker, argue that this model of polarization misses important nuances of contemporary labor markets and ignores the primary driver of inequality: public policy, not robots. They point to a range of U.S. policies, including encouragement of financial sector growth and suppression of the minimum wage, as contributing to burgeoning inequality. 

No matter who is right, it’s indisputable that public policy, in addition to unions, can play a powerful role in curbing the ill effects of technological disruption.

Luckily, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel.•



For every action, a reaction: Small drones, in addition to all the good they can do, can be used for illicit surveillance and delivering explosives and smuggling, among other nefarious deeds, so Michigan researchers created a concept prototype of an anti-drone tool called “robotic falconry,” which nets the interloping technology and commandeers it to a safe place. What will the countermeasure be when spy drones can fit on the head of a pin? There’ll be a market, so something will emerge.

From Marcia Goodrich at Michigan Tech News:

In January 2015, a Washington, DC, hobbyist accidentally flew his DJI Phantom quadcopter drone over the White House fence and crashed it on the lawn.

Two years earlier, a prankster sent his drone toward German prime minister Angela Merkel during a campaign rally.

Small drones have also proven to be effective tools of mischief that doesn’t make the national news, from spying to smuggling to hacking. So when Mo Rastgaar was watching World Cup soccer and heard about snipers protecting the crowd, he doubted that they’d fully understood a drone’s potential.

“I thought, ‘If the threat is a drone, you really don’t want to shoot it down—it might contain explosives and blow up. What you want to do is catch it and get it out of there.’”

Safe Drone Catcher

So Rastgaar, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Michigan Technological University, began work on a drone catcher, which could pursue and capture rogue drones that might threaten military installations, air traffic, sporting events—even the White House.•

Tags: ,


Some people actually believe that those participating in the Gig Economy, that Libertarian wet dream, are mostly entrepreneurial souls gladly Ubering others just until they secure seed money for their startup. That’s preposterous.

Piecework employment isn’t good at all for Labor unless basic income in uncoupled from work, which isn’t the arrangement most citizens find themselves in. And if wages remain flat and too many people are reduced to rabbits with tasks but no benefits, we’re in a collective quandary.

Andrew Callaway has penned a Policy Alternatives article about his perplexing experiences in the so-called Sharing Economy. The writer ultimately doesn’t feel that such an arrangement is bad for everyone, but that most will not prosper within its new rules. The opening:

If you spend enough time in San Francisco, you’ll notice sharing economy workers everywhere. While you’re waiting to get some food, look for the most frantic person in the lineup and you can bet they’re working with an app. Some of them are colour-coded: workers in orange T-shirts are with Caviar, a food delivery app; those in green represent Instacart, an app for delivering groceries. The blue jackets riding Razor scooters are with Luxe—if you’re still driving yourself around this city, these app workers will park your car. 

In the Bay Area, there are thousands of such people running through the aisles, fidgeting in line and racing against the clock. They spend most of their time in cars, where it can be harder to spot them. Oftentimes they’re double-parked in the bike lane, picking up a burrito from inside an adjacent restaurant or waiting for a passenger to come down from the apartment on top. If you look closely, you’ll see a placard in the window that says Uber or a glowing pink moustache indicating they drive around Lyft’s passengers. Last summer, I was one of them.

Oh, Canada! I’m writing you from Berkeley, California to warn you about this thing called “the sharing economy.” Since no one is really sharing anything, many of us prefer the term “the exploitation economy,” but due to its prevalence many in the Bay Area simply think of it as “the economy.”•



The novelist Jennifer Egan began penning occasional features for the New York Times Magazine in the 1990s. Her 1997 piece, “The Thin Red Line,” looked at the self-harming habit of cutting, in which (mostly) adolescent girls slice their skin to relieve pressure. Like drugs or alcohol, it’s a self-destructive coping mechanism, and similar to anorexia or anxiety, it’s a disorder that seems a consequence of us being mismatched to the modern world we’ve created. The article may have been the first time a lot of Americans understood the behavior. The opening:

One Saturday night in January, Jill McArdle went to a party some distance from her home in West Beverly, a fiercely Irish enclave on Chicago’s South Side. She was anxious before setting out; she’d been having a hard time in social situations — parties, especially. At 5 feet 10 inches with long blond hair, green eyes and an underbite that often makes her look as if she’s half-smiling, Jill cuts an imposing figure for 16; she is the sort of girl boys notice instantly and are sometimes afraid of. And the fear is mutual, despite her air of confidence.

Jill’s troubles begin with her own desire to make everyone happy, a guiding principle that yields mixed results in the flirtatious, beer-swilling atmosphere of teen-age parties. ”I feel I have to be all cute and sexy for these boys,” she says. ”And the next morning when I realize what a fool I looked like, it’s the worst feeling ever….’Oh God, what did I do? Was I flirting with that boy? Is his girlfriend in school tomorrow going to give me a hard time? Are they all going to hate me?’ ”

Watching Jill in action, you would never guess she was prone to this sort of self-scrutiny. Winner of her cheerleading squad’s coveted Spirit Award last year, she is part of a Catholic-school crowd consisting mostly of fellow cheerleaders and the male athletes they cheer for, clean-cut kids who congregate in basement rec rooms of spare, working-class houses where hockey sticks hang on the walls and a fish tank sometimes bubbles in one corner. Jill is a popular, even dominating presence at these parties; once she introduced a series of guys to me with the phrase, ”This is my boy,” her arm slung across the shoulders of some shy youth in a baseball cap, usually shorter than she, whose name invariably seemed to be Kevin or Patrick.

But in truth, the pressures of adolescence have wreaked extraordinary havoc in Jill’s life. ”Around my house there’s this park, and there used to be like a hundred kids hanging out up there,” she says, recalling her first year in high school, two years ago. ”And the boys would say stuff to me that was so disgusting … perverted stuff, and I’d just be so embarrassed. But the older girls assumed that I was a slut…. They’d give me dirty looks in school.” Blaming herself for having somehow provoked these reactions, Jill began to feel ashamed and isolated. Her unease spiraled into panic in the spring of that year, when a boy she’d trusted began spreading lies about her. ”He goes and tells all of his friends that I did all this sexual stuff with him, and I was just blown away. It made me feel dirty, like I was absolutely nothing.”

Jill, then 14, found herself moved to do something she had never done before. ”I was in the bathroom going completely crazy, just bawling my eyes out, and I think my mom was wallpapering — there was a wallpaper cutter there. I had so much anxiety, I couldn’t concentrate on anything until I somehow let that out, and not being able to let it out in words, I took the razor and started cutting my leg and I got excited about seeing my blood. It felt good to see the blood coming out, like that was my other pain leaving, too. It felt right and it felt good for me to let it out that way.”

Jill had made a galvanizing discovery: cutting herself could temporarily ease her emotional distress. It became a habit.•



From the August 7, 1852 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.



Life has always been, in some sense, a tale of two cities, those who have and those who have not–or at least much less. Even granting that, however, we’re living in a wildly unequal world. In a Factor-Tech piece, Lucy Ingham analyzes the conditions that have made it possible for the 1% to own most of the assets. She traces concentrated wealth in the U.S. back to the Ronald Reagan economic policies (tax cuts for the rich, deregulation, etc.) and a less sexy salvo, a change in law allowing companies to buy back large amounts of their own stock. The writer thinks financialization, more than automation, is the problem, and the result of a growing underclass has been a rising police state. An excerpt:

Inequality has always existed, and there is an argument to say it’s an inherent part of human society. However, the level of inequality is now far beyond what we perceive it to be, and that’s a big problem.

“The American consciousness about inequality is frozen in a previous era,” says [Les] Leopold, citing the US results of an international poll about the perceived gap between entry level workers’ and CEOs’ pay as an example.

In the poll, people from all walks of life and political affiliation were asked to state what they thought the average gap was between the lowest and highest earners at a typical company.

“By and large, no matter what their age or background or political affiliation was, it sort of came out to about 40:1 – for every one dollar to the entry-level worker, 40 to the CEO,” says Leopold. “That’s kind of what it was in 1970.”

The reality, according to The Labor Institute’s data about the top 100 CEOs, is 829:1, making the inequality gap around 20 times larger that people perceived it to be. In 2016 the Institute believes it will be worse still, projecting 859:1.

Yet when asked in the poll what the ratio should be, participants consistently said it should be even lower that the imagined rate of 40:1.

“Strong Republicans in this survey think it ought to be 12:1, strong Democrats say 5:1, the average is about 8:1,” adds Leopold.

So how have we not noticed that the reality is so very far from our perceptions?•

Tags: ,




I don’t know if the 1904 “automaton” known as Enigmarelle qualifies, in retrospect, for the Uncanny Valley Effect, but one look at this creepbot will make you want to hide under a porch. Jesus H. Christ!

Frederick J. Ireland’s supposedly motorized brainchild didn’t talk, but it could simulate the way a human writes, dances, rides a bicycle, etc. The catch? It apparently wasn’t a robot at all but a fauxbot, a convincing hoax in which a human was made to look like an intelligent machine. Nonetheless, it was a longtime hit at the Hippodrome in London and at vaudeville halls in the U.S. The writer of an article in the August 28, 1904 Brooklyn Daily Eagle was taken in by the ruse.


Tags: ,


Sean Penn screen performances often depend on quantity as much as quality–not the best acting, but the most acting–so it’s no surprise his attempt at gonzo journalism, a Rolling Stone feature he wrote about his facacta jungle interview of Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera (or “El Chapo” as he’s known to his business associates) is logorrheic. The short Q&A embedded within the long article is deeply unsatisfying and the piece as a whole is a mess, though not one without interest. It’s more fascinating, though, for allowing a close-up of the actor-director’s staccato brain droppings and the technological logistics of securing a clandestine meeting with Mexico’s most-wanted man than for any insight into the cartel kingpin. It only takes two paragraphs for Penn to describe his very own Oscar Zeta Acosta in this way: “Espinoza is the owl who flies among falcons.” Bless his editor.

Penn, unsurprisingly, has deep sympathy for El Chapo despite his beheadings of those he wanted to eliminate and murders of priests who refused extortion demands, arguing that American drug users are complicit in these crimes. In that case, Penn’s nose should be arrested for multiple homicide. Galling that the lightweight inquisition allows the subject to downplay his horrific violence and an odd way to protest the U.S. War on Drugs, which is an undoubtedly stupid thing. An excerpt:

It’s been about two hours of flight, when we descend from above the lush peaks to ward a sea-level field. The pilot, using his encrypted cellphone, talks to the ground. I sense that the military is beefing up operations in its search area. Our original landing zone has suddenly been deemed insecure. After quite a bit of chatter from ground to air, and some unnervingly low altitude circling, we find an alternate dirt patch where two SUVs wait in the shade of an adjacent tree line, and land. The flight had been just bumpy enough that each of us had taken a few swigs off a bottle of Honor tequila, a new brand that Kate is marketing. I step from plane to earth, ever so slightly sobering my bearings, and move toward the beckoning waves of waiting drivers. I throw my satchel into the open back of one of the SUVs, and lumber over to the tree line to take a piss. Dick in hand, I do consider it among my body parts vulnerable to the knives of irrational narco types, and take a fond last look, before tucking it back into my pants.

Espinoza had recently undergone back surgery. He stretched, readjusted his surgical corset, exposing it. It dawns on me that one of our greeters might mistake the corset for a device that contains a wire, a chip, a tracker. With all their eyes on him, Espinoza methodically adjusts the Velcro toward his belly, slowly looks up, sharing his trademark smile with the suspicious eyes around him. Then, “Cirugia de espalda [back surgery],” he says. Situation defused.

We embark into the dense, mountainous jungle in a two-truck convoy, crossing through river after river for seven long hours. Espinoza and El Alto, with a driver in the front vehicle, myself and Kate with Alonzo and Alfredo in the rear. At times the jungle opens up to farmland, then closes again into forest. As the elevation begins to climb, road signage announces approaching townships. And then, as it seems we are at the entrance of Oz, the highest peak visibly within reach, we arrive at a military checkpoint. Two uniformed government soldiers, weapons at the ready, approach our vehicle. Alfredo lowers his passenger window; the soldiers back away, looking embarrassed, and wave us through. Wow. So it is, the power of a Guzman face. And the corruption of an institution. Did this mean we were nearing the man?

It was still several hours into the jungle before any sign we were getting closer. Then, strangers appear as if from nowhere, onto the dirt track, checking in with our drivers and exchanging hand radios. We move on. Small villages materialize from the jungle; protective peasant eyes relax at the wave of a familiar driver. Cellphones are of no use here, so I imagine there are radio repeaters on topographical high points facilitating their internal communications.

We’d left Los Angeles at 7 a.m. By 9 p.m. on the dash clock we arrive at a clearing where several SUVs are parked. A small crew of men hover. On a knoll above, I see a few weathered bungalows. I get out of the truck, search the faces of the crew for approval that I may walk to the trunk to secure my bag. Nods follow. I move. And, when I do…there he is. Right beside the truck. The world’s most famous fugitive: El Chapo.•

Tags: , ,


Tom Chatfield, an uncommonly thoughtful commenter on the technological world we’ve built for ourselves, is interviewed by Nigel Warburton of Aeon about staying human in a machine age. In the seven-minute piece, Chatfield notes that games in the Digital Age have become more meaningful than work in many instances because the former builds skills in players while the latter looks to replace the messy human component. 

A much more exiting model of human-machine interaction, Chatfield offers, is one where we maximize what people and AI are each good at. That would be great and is doable in the short run if we choose to approach the situation that way, but I do believe that ultimately, whatever tasks that both humans and machines can do will be ceded almost entirely to silicon. A freestyle-chess system to production will have a short shelf life in most applications. We may be left to figure out brand new areas in which we can thrive and define why we exist.

At any rate, smart stuff about automated systems. Watch here.

Tags: ,


From the October 30, 1893 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.



kv (1)



Sister-Audrey-1958.Francis Herman Pencovic had a Christ complex.

In Cold War America, the inveterate jailbird reinvented himself as the messiah Krishna Venta, founder and leader of the postwar Los Angeles cult known as the WKFL (Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith, Love) Fountain of the World. The Simi Valley group had an apocalyptic edge and seemed to be an antecedent to the Manson Family, from the gaggle of young, female followers with scarily intense eyes to the belief that a violent race war would ultimately explode and engulf the country. Pencovic was murdered in 1958 in a suicide bombing perpetrated by former members of the sect. From the International Cultic Studies Association:

His name was Krishna Venta, and Monday, December 10, 2008, marked the 50th anniversary of his violent assassination, which all told ended ten lives.

Born Francis Pencovic in the San Francisco of 1911, Venta was an interesting candidate for messiah, having previously lived as burglar, thief, con artist, and shipyard timekeeper. This changed in 1946 when, following a stretch on a chain gang and a stint in the Army, Pencovic’s body (or so he claimed) became the host vessel for the ‘Christ Everlasting,’ an eternal spirit being who had not only died on the cross at Calvary 2,000 years earlier, but had commandeered to Earth from the planet Neophrates a convoy of rocket ships whose passengers included Adam and Eve.

But in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, insisted Venta, such ancient history was irrelevant. This time around, his Earthly mission was to gather the 144,000 Elect foretold in Revelation and deliver them from an apocalypse heretofore unseen by mankind.

To draw attention to this cause, Venta donned a monk’s robe, permanently discarded footwear, and thereafter forewent cutting both hair and beard.  In the Truman and Eisenhower eras, Venta, who frequently made headlines for both his luck at the dog track and his repeated arrests for failure to pay child support, cut a unique figure.  His message, however, could not have been more tailor-made for Cold War America.

Armageddon, prophesied Venta, would begin as an armed race war in the streets of America.•



Every political season has its boogeymen, those frightening figures raised to scare up votes, and this particularly vitriolic period in the U.S. has Muslims, Mexicans and Chinese manufacturers. The latter pair are supposedly responsible for the decline of American manufacturing, and by extension, the middle class.

Outsourcing the making of American products to other countries may have been somewhat of a problem over the last three decades, but it’s a different kind of challenge workers are facing today: Potentially widespread automation that goes far beyond the factory floor. It’s nothing new, but the current pace of robotics progress is unprecedented.

Technological unemployment has been paid scant attention by 2016 hopefuls, most of whom are promising a return to postwar American manufacturing, which is most definitely not going to happen. In a New York Times editorial, Emma Roller argues that trying to turn back the digital clock is “not an attainable, or even a desirable, goal.” An excerpt:

Republicans aren’t the only ones obsessing over reclaiming these factory jobs. Last month, Hillary Clinton mentioned factory closings when she released her own plan to restore manufacturing jobs through a network of tax credits and federal funding for research. Senator Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, in criticizing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, has argued that such international trade deals are to blame for the loss of manufacturing jobs in this country.

The problem with this sort of rhetoric is that a lot of the manufacturing jobs the United States lost over the past 50 years didn’t go overseas; they simply disappeared with the advent of new technology.

James Sherk, a research fellow in labor economics at the Heritage Foundation, said the trend in machines taking over factory work that was previously done by humans has been going on since the 1950s. But for presidential candidates, it’s a lot easier to blame other countries rather than robots.

“It’s those basically rote, repetitive tasks where you’re fixing the same thing,” he said. “It’s very hard to imagine any of those positions coming back. Basically, a robot is a lot more affordable than a human employee.”

The skills needed to work on a factory floor today are quite different than they were 20, 10 or even five years ago. Don’t blame stingy companies or over-regulation by the government; blame the rapid progress of technology.•

Tags: ,

« Older entries § Newer entries »