From the July 23, 1901 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
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The best follow-up reporting I’ve read about the eye-popping Anne Case-Angus Deaton study on the shocking spike in mortality among white American adults (which I blogged about here) is Julia Belluz’s Vox piece. It’s clear that oxycodone and the like are contributing furiously to the early deaths, but the question is why the usage has become so widespread. What is the void this group of people is trying to fill? Deaton discusses his theory with Belluz, though such overarching narratives are always somewhat slippery. An excerpt:
2) Deaton thinks middle-aged white Americans have “lost the narrative of their lives”
But what’s behind the substance abuse? One possible factor here: This demographic group has faced a rise in economic insecurity over the past decade, driven by things like the financial crisis and the collapse of manufacturing.
Still, it’s difficult to put together a full story of what’s going on. After all, if the recession or decline of manufacturing was the only factor, we might expect to see a similar uptick in mortality rates among middle-aged people in places such as Europe. But America seems to be unique in this regard.
“An anthropologist friend here says that [white, middle-age Americans] have lost the narrative of their lives — meaning something like a loss of hope, a loss of expectations of progress,” he explained.
Though African Americans as a group are still worse off overall, Deaton added, their quality of life has improved over the past several decades. “And when Hispanics look back, they may look back to where they came from, or what their parents or grandparents had,” he continued.•
In a dark, mostly serious 2010 Globe and Mail piece, Douglas Coupland wrote: “The middle class is over. It’s not coming back.” It seemed at the time the author may have been leaning too heavily on his sci-fi instincts the way he did in thinking the Segway the best thing since the invention of the wheel, but time seems to have been his friend.
In a Guardian essay, Charles Arthur has a go at the 2013 Frey-Osborne paper about automation that alarmed so many, arguing that while scarcity won’t likely be a problem of tomorrow, distribution may be in a big way. An excerpt:
So how much impact will robotics and AI have on jobs, and on society? Carl Benedikt Frey, who with Michael Osborne in 2013 published the seminal paper The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation? – on which the BoA report draws heavily – says that he doesn’t like to be labelled a “doomsday predictor.”
He points out that even while some jobs are replaced, new ones spring up that focus more on services and interaction with and between people. “The fastest-growing occupations in the past five years are all related to services,” he tells the Observer. “The two biggest are Zumba instructor and personal trainer.”
Frey observes that technology is leading to a rarification of leading-edge employment, where fewer and fewer people have the necessary skills to work in the frontline of its advances. “In the 1980s, 8.2% of the US workforce were employed in new technologies introduced in that decade,” he notes. “By the 1990s, it was 4.2%. For the 2000s, our estimate is that it’s just 0.5%. That tells me that, on the one hand, the potential for automation is expanding – but also that technology doesn’t create that many new jobs now compared to the past.”
This worries Chace. “There will be people who own the AI, and therefore own everything else,” he says. “Which means homo sapiens will be split into a handful of ‘gods,’ and then the rest of us.
“I think our best hope going forward is figuring out how to live in an economy of radical abundance, where machines do all the work, and we basically play.”
Arguably, we might be part of the way there already; is a dance fitness programme like Zumba anything more than adult play? But, as Chace says, a workless lifestyle also means “you have to think about a universal income” – a basic, unconditional level of state support.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that there has been so little examination of the social effects of AI.•
Certainly loan officers at traditional banks are on the chopping block, but are the banks themselves? A confluence of changes in technology and legislation is set to remake lending and borrowing in America, and there are costs and risks embedded in the convenience and opportunity. Maybe the early startups go bust, but the territory is likely to be “settled” sooner or later, much the same way that ridesharing is here to stay regardless of Uber’s fate.
From Zachary Karabell’s lucid WSJ essay:
The most immediate change will be an explosion in peer-to-peer lending. Just as Uber returns us to a world where anyone with a car could offer a ride to anyone with a thumb, peer-to-peer lending is both new and old. Before there was a robust retail and commercial banking system, there were people with money to lend and people who wanted to borrow it. But the current wave of peer-to-peer services takes this much further, into a hypercharged virtual realm where pools of small lenders can combine online to disperse pools of small loans. And they can do it without the friction, cost or heavy regulatory hurdles of traditional banking.
There are already many players in this field, such as Lending Club and Prosper, but most are already a decade old—ancient by tech standards. With less than $7 billion in loans in 2014, they are tiny in the multi-trillion-dollar lending world. Now the sector is showing explosive growth. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that it could be a $150 billion business by 2025.
The downside is that peer-to-peer interest rates are higher than at mainstream banks, sometimes well into the teens. The upside is that people who need modest sums (one site caps them at $35,000) can easily obtain funds from small individual lenders looking for a high return. What makes it attractive for lenders is that they can spread their capital over far more loans than any one peer could make to another peer, which reduces their risk.
And the options are proliferating.•
Tags: Zachary Karabell
Historically, the best answer to high unemployment has been to create more jobs. It’s a wonder if that’s still true, including in America, which has seen diminished and less-secure positions created in this very uneven economic recovery.
Utrecht is to experiment with Universal Basic Income on the city level, and now Finland may give it a go nationally. Can this social safety net work in some countries and not others? In all? In none?
Over the past decade, unemployment has risen drastically in the small Nordic country, home to just 5.4 million people.
In response, the Finnish Social Insurance Institution, known as KELA, has proposed an experiment to allot a monthly income of 800 euros (or roughly $881) tax-free. The cash will act as a replacement for other social benefits like housing and income support, but people will get it whether they work or not.
In other words, free money for all.
If approved in 2016, the project would begin with a pilot program in which people receive 550 euros per month and retain their benefits, before the model moves on to the real thing.
In purely democratic countries, like the US, basic income has remained on the fringes for decades. The Nixon administration tested out a form of the basic income model in the 1960s, but was met with little success.
“The biggest challenge for the basic income movement is convincing the larger public that it makes sense to redistribute economic resources to provide a basic income to all,” Almaz Zelleke, a basic income expert and associate professor at NYU Shanghai, tells Tech Insider. It involves “persuading the public that a basic income should be viewed as a basic democratic right, like the vote.”
In socially democratic countries, like the Netherlands and Finland, that idea has more legs.•
It certainly says something about a country’s leadership when it decides to build the new capital city in the middle of the desert, a suburb of sand. That’s what the Egyptian government has announced its doing, and it says that they aren’t exactly enamored with the nation as it is; they look at chaotic Cairo and dream of dashing Dubai. The utopian quest seems a heated response to the booming population and unpredictable nature of the current capital, though it remains to be seen if a technocratic development in the dunes will be able to effect a cure for what elites believe ails the surrounding areas.
The Egyptian government has decided to build a new capital city east of Cairo, smack in the middle of the desert. “A global capital,” the building minister announced at a conference on the Red Sea in March. At the event, investors from the Gulf states, China and Saudi Arabia gathered around a model of the new metropolis, admiring the business quarter, with its Dubai-style skyscrapers, the small residential homes in greenbelts and the football stadium. The city is to be situated on 700 square kilometers of land, with an airport larger than London’s Heathrow. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi even wooed investors himself. He recently announced that construction would begin in January.
It is to be a capital created in accordance with the wishes of the country’s leadership elite. It may not fit well with the country as it currently exists, but it will conform to their visions of Egypt’s future — a planned, manageable city conceived from the top down in the same way the pharaohs once created the pyramids. The new Cairo will be a beautiful place, an “innovation center,” environmentally sustainable, with a high quality of life, city planners are pledging. They want it to be a city where people can breathe without having to cough.
The old Cairo is an ugly city, an affront to the senses. Even as you begin heading into the city from the airport, the buildings are already blackened from pollution. The cacophony of car horns is painful to the ears and during winter months, the smog hangs like thick fog over the Nile. The city suffers from thrombosis, with streets so crammed with cars they’re like clogged arteries. Yet women in high-heel shoes saunter along the banks of the Nile smiling. Even though the place seems unbearable, Cairo is loved.•
Time Inc.’s fabled cocktail carts, charter planes and lavish expense accounts existed less than three decades ago, but it might as well have been the Paleozoic Era, as the violent winds of the Digital Age have spilled the drinks and caused the cash cow to run dry.
A posthumous collection by Robert Hughes, longstanding art critic for Time, is to be published this month, and Vanity Fair has run a piece about the writer enjoying a particularly expensive meal in Paris in the early ’70s. It’s an ode to the editorial independence and eye-popping perks of the Magazine Age. An excerpt:
A moment’s arithmetical reflection will show that there wasn’t the least chance of “covering” the sprawling “New York art scene.” At the very theoretical most, I had 52 articles a year. But in practice, I had nothing of the kind, because not every issue of Time had an art section. Sometimes it would be killed to make way for front-of-the-book pieces, sometimes for back-of-the-book covers; generally my allotment of stories came down to about 25, and at the very most 30, a year.
This was both a curse and a blessing. It was a curse because a lot of interesting stuff was bound to go unreported and un-noted. It was a blessing because in a week that carried no art story, I was free to work on a book, or goof off, or go fishing, or take a (liberally interpreted) “research trip.” Clearly, since I got paid every week, the blessings outweighed the curses. Being the art critic of Time in the 70s was like enjoying a perpetual research grant from the most benign of foundations. I could go more or less anywhere I wanted, look at anything I wished to, and be paid generously for doing it.
It was a very different life to that lived by critics in the “Arts & Leisure” section of The New York Times, which, compared to my own relative indolence, was all arts and practically no leisure at all. For every word I published in Time, the chief art critics of The New York Times—John Canaday, who was succeeded by Hilton Kramer and John Russell—must have pumped out three or five.
Since Time had a reputation to maintain as “the international newsmagazine,” I was not going to confine myself to New York, either. Nor would my editors have expected me to. My brief, liberally interpreted, was to cover the world. The magazine even sent me to Moscow (once) to cover an enormous retrospective of Kasimir Malevich. If there was a show in Rome or Florence, Paris or Brussels, Berlin or London, or indeed practically anywhere in Europe, a show that could be argued to hold some interest for an intelligent reader and from which two, four, or six pages of splashy color could be extracted, off I would go. I would stay in the kind of hotels I had never been able to afford—the Gritti in Venice at Biennale time, Claridge’s when in London, the Ritz in Madrid, and in Paris the Meurice—and live, without qualification or the smallest twinge of shame, the life of Riley. I knew perfectly well that this period of luxury was not going to last forever—as indeed it did not, for me or anyone else on the staff of Time—and I felt no hesitation about enjoying it while it was available; at least, in later years, when I heard some power hog from the movie industry bombing on about the truffes sous la cendre he had recently demolished at Le Park 45 during the Cannes Film Festival, I would not need to wonder what they tasted like. I, too, would have eaten them—just once. And as a matter of record, they were indeed worth eating—just that once. It is years since a Time staffer got to eat such comestibles at the company’s expense, but I did, quite often, and I cannot find an iota of shame in myself for having done so, especially since nobody on the 34th floor seemed to mind these gastronomic extravagances in the least.•
Tags: Robert Hughes
Fast-casual dining will be automated, in small towns as well as tech hubs. From touchpad ordering to robotic food prep to drone table bussing, it’s all becoming possible now and will be increasingly cost-efficient. Sure, some establishments will retain human workers for a while and used it as a selling point–dine the way your tubercular great-grandfather did!–but this aspect of affordable dining will be going and then gone. It’s good for the bottom line and horrible for Labor.
Panera’s CEO Ron Shaich recently frankly expressed doom for the sector’s workers, announcing tech initiatives aimed at supplanting them. Hopefully the chain will employ a robot capable of making coffee drinks that don’t taste like watery graves. From Bob Bryan at Business Insider:
According to Ron Shaich, founder and CEO of Panera Bread, a tech revolution is coming, and it will be bad news for many workers.
“Labor is going to go down,” Shaich said Wednesday in a quarterly earnings call. “And as digital utilization goes up — like the sun comes up in the morning — it is going to continue to go up. Digital utilization. You are seeing it happen in Panera today.
“As it happens, it’s going to benefit larger organizations like Panera, who already have the technology in place.”
Shaich’s company, Panera Bread, is in the middle of the rollout for Panera 2.0, which includes installing touch-screen ordering stations for customers at tables and the to-go line.
While rising labor costs were not the explicit impetus for the change, Shaich recognizes it is a side benefit and “one of the reasons” for the rollout.
“When we think about 2.0 — we think about digital utilization,” Shaich said according to a transcript of the call.•
Why Facebook’s $2 Billion Bet on Oculus Rift Might One Day Connect Everyone On Earth, threatened a recent Vanity Fair headline, and it’s not that I don’t like you people, but I need my space. Maybe it’s time we took a break?
Seriously, I suppose humans circumventing the physical world will be both boon (educationally, for sure) and bane (aren’t we already removed enough from reality?), but most of what happens in this new realm will probably involve people masturbating with ghosts. You want Eleanor Roosevelt to give it to you rough, history majors? Yes, we have the technology to do that.
VR from Facebook probably won’t do much for me personally since my ideal virtual world would be one in which Facebook didn’t exist. Oh, well.
By 2025, Facebook believes it will have built a teleporter. But not as we know it; instead of using the website to whisk you off on holiday at a moment’s notice, users will use virtual reality to be taken into a different, but believable, virtual reality world.
This is the ambitious vision of chief technical officer Mike Schroepfer, who says Facebook “wants to build a device that allows you to be anywhere you want, with anyone, regardless of geographic boundaries”. This future will make use of Oculus, the virtual reality company bought by Facebook for $2bn (£1.3bn), which is busy preparing a consumer version of the Rift VR headset.
While VR headsets present fairly believable visuals that trick your mind into believing your are somewhere else, the challenge for Facebook over the coming decade will be to make VR feel real as well as look real. Oculus’ touch controller is already in development to bring a tacticity to VR.•
Nikola Tesla, an electrician, made remarkably prescient predictions about mobile and drones, even if he didn’t always fully appreciate the implications of such inventions. By the end of his career, Tesla was dreaming up wacky flying machines for apartment dwellers that couldn’t possibly take flight, but he was more correct in his era about the big picture coming into view than pretty much anyone.
Another of the inventor’s boldest visions–transmitting power wirelessly through the air–seems about to be realized. You will never be without cat memes and pornography again. The opening of Christopher Mims latest immaculately written WSJ column:
In 1902 workers completed a mysterious tower, 187 feet high and shaped like a giant mushroom, on which rested the hopes of one of the 20th century’s most prolific geniuses.
Facing the beach in the hamlet of Shoreham, N.Y., on Long Island, the Wardenclyffe Tower was, according to its inventor, Nikola Tesla, the key that could unlock an age of wonders.
As Mr. Tesla later wrote, the tower’s ability to transmit information to the far side of the Earth would someday allow the creation of “an inexpensive instrument, not bigger than a watch, [which] will enable its bearer to hear anywhere, on sea or land, music or song however distant.”
Sometime in 2016, Tesla’s other prediction—that it isn’t only possible, but commercially viable, to transmit power as well as information through the air, without wires—is expected to come true.
What is coming are hermetically sealed smartphones and other gadgets that charge without ever plugging into a wall. And soon after there will be sensors, cameras and controllers that can be stuck to any surface, indoors or out, without the need to consider how to connect them to power.•
America has a sadly long record of sending people off to die, often for poor and misguided reasons. Dispatching space pioneers to breathe their last on Mars would not be among those wrong-minded decisions, according to the dancingest and most-complex Apollo astronaut, Buzz Aldrin. The United States was conquered (well, stolen) by settlers who never went home, and Manifest Destiny migrants usually had no return ticket as they marched off into parts unknown.
“We will colonize Mars,” Aldrin told IFLScience, confidently. “I wrote this book, Welcome to Mars, to inspire the young people, because they will be the ones who will carry out these missions to Mars, perhaps participating in them. Maybe they’ll become a violinist, a lawyer, an engineer, or a fighter pilot if they’re lucky. Or maybe they’ll become a crew member trained by world resources, billions and billions of dollars, to go into the preparation of human beings to be selected and trained, hopefully willing to commit themselves to be pioneers, to be settlers [on Mars].”
Aldrin sees Mars as the logical next step to advancing America’s influence in space. “We have to rethink the requirements for being great in space, as a nation,” he said, “that will give America a further lasting heritage legacy in history books. And I want to be part of the planning for it.” He noted, though, that he hopes it is an international endeavor that includes nations such as China. …
He admits, though, that the idea of sending people to live out the rest of their lives on Mars might not sit well with some members of the public. “That’s not what a lot of people think the future ought to be, that the U.S. government should not commit to one-way trips,” he said.
“‘The U.S. government will never agree to send people to die on Mars,’ they say. “Well, come on. Think of history. Think of the opportunities that exist for young people in the future to become historic pioneers. Pilgrims on the Mayflower didn’t make it around Plymouth Rock for the return trip, they came here to settle America. And a lot of them lost their lives, but they pioneered what we have today. And as a military man among many, I pioneered the things that have kept our nation vibrant and alive, and optimistic. We need to instill optimism and excitement, for our children.”•
Some people aren’t polite about their drug addictions, and some of us are rude in return. They’re called names, like “crackheads.” How messy that such substances are purchased on streets. When these folks are minorities, the meanest among us assign blame to them based on race. It’s appalling and counterproductive.
I’ve thought for the past decade that white Americans of what used to be called the middle class have a very polite and well-mannered drug epidemic in oxycodone and the like. The whole undertaking is as neat and clean as a prescription pad. Reports of a spiked usage would regularly be published, but I worried that maybe I suffered from confirmation bias because I’ve spent so much time visiting relatives in hospitals the last few years. In these facilities, it’s easy to assume an oxy epidemic. The same goes for other self-destructive behaviors (obesity, alcoholism, etc.) appearing to be rampant.
It’s worth wondering how much opioid use is causing the alarming trend in the U.S. of the increasing deaths in white, middle-aged citizens, which has just been reported in a stunning paper by Anne Case and Angus Deaton. Why are people in this group drugging, eating and drinking themselves to death? Why have they become the walking dead? Some of it is overt suicide, some buried in risky behaviors.
The mortality rate for whites 45 to 54 years old with no more than a high school education increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014.
“It is difficult to find modern settings with survival losses of this magnitude,” wrote two Dartmouth economists, Ellen Meara and Jonathan S. Skinner, in a commentary to the Deaton-Case analysis to be published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Wow,” said Samuel Preston, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on mortality trends and the health of populations, who was not involved in the research. “This is a vivid indication that something is awry in these American households.”
David M. Cutler, a Harvard health care economist, said that although it was known that people were dying from causes like opioid addiction, the thought was that those deaths were just blips in the health care statistics and that over all everyone’s health was improving. The new paper, he said, “shows those blips are more like incoming missiles.”•
Hell is other people–and robots.
The problem with making machines resemble us is that we’re the worst, and then they’ll be likewise. Hit the mute button instead. Some Silicon Valley stalwarts think eliding what may be deemed unnecessary social interaction from our lives is a growth market. Make machines unobtrusively do things that pesky people now handle. The jobs will be lost (in hotels, restaurants, etc.) but so will the unwanted communication.
In all seriousness, I do think disappearing human (and human-ish) nuisance will probably just make us worse to one another. What we want isn’t necessarily what we need. From Stuart Dredge in the Guardian:
Why does humanity need robots? Sometimes, to spare us the need to talk to other humans, according to Andra Keay, managing director of Silicon Valley Robotics.
Speaking at the Web Summit conference in Dublin, she cited the example of Relay, a robot designed to work in hotels, taking items from staff to guests.
“People do enjoy the social interaction with the robot, but it turns out what they enjoy most is not having to have a social interaction with another person at a time when they’re not feeling sociable,” said Keay. …
“We don’t always recognise the future when we see it. How do we recognise robots? We usually look for humanoids: something with a head, arms, legs. Optional glowing red eyes, super-weapons and evil intent to destroy humanity,” she said.
Keay preferred a more basic description of a robot – “Just a machine that senses things and acts” – suggesting that items from cars to washing machines fall under the category.•
Lieutenant General James G. Harbord retired from the U.S. military not long after the conclusion of WWI and in 1922 assumed the leadership of a company, RCA, that was trying to win hearts and minds through technology. Harbord had a central role in setting up the company’s long-term success as he steered RCA for nearly a decade before giving away to business legend David Sarnoff. While serving as chairman, Harbord’s vision of the technological future was recorded in an April 17, 1931 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article. He could see the massive impact media was about to have and pretty much nailed portable, telecommuting, MOOCs, etc.
Tags: James G. Harbord
Unless it stops being such a homogenous culture, Japan, with its graying population, will need someone–or something–to do the work, including ferrying older folks to the grocery store. One benefit among the many downsides to hosting the Olympics is the development of infrastructure, and in the case of Tokyo 2020, the nation is aiming to retrofit a fleet of thousands of taxis with driverless capacity to handle the overflow of visitors. It would be quite a scene, and the nation sees it as a chance to announce a renewed technological prowess on a world stage.
I’ve blogged before about Robot Taxi conducting a very small-scale experiment with autonomous cabs in 2016, and the development will have to be accelerated greatly after that if the unmovable deadline is to be met. From Dan Frommer at Quartz:
Japan is planning to use the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as an opportunity to show the world it’s still a tech leader. One of those efforts—if the technology and regulatory clearances shape out—could be an autonomous, self-driving taxi service, currently in development.
Tokyo-based Robot Taxi (link in Japanese) is still on track to start field tests of its driverless taxi service in one region of Japan by the end of next March, its chief executive Hiroshi Nakajima told Quartz today (Nov. 2). The company, a joint venture between DeNA (one of Japan’s mobile internet pioneers) and ZMP (a robotics firm; tagline “Robot of Everything”) is not building its own cars from scratch. Instead, it’s focusing on adding driverless capabilities to existing cars and designing, creating, and marketing the taxi service.
One key market for the service, Nakajima says, is Japan’s increasingly elderly population, especially in rural areas where there may be driver shortages.•
Tags: Dan Frommer
Ten years after Rev. Sun Myung Moon presided over a 1982 mass wedding in Madison Square Garden, New York Times reporter Melinda Henneberger caught up with some of the 4,000 strangers who were consciously coupled. The article’s opening:
When Jonathan and Debby Gullery were married 10 years ago, in a mass wedding of 2,075 couples at Madison Square Garden, they were widely viewed as bit players in a bizarre show produced by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Strangers screamed at them as they sold flowers on the street, and Mrs. Gullery’s father said he thought seriously about having her kidnapped and brought home.
But over the last decade, the Gullerys say, both they and their church have grown up and settled down. On a recent evening, amid the chaos of bedtime for their three young children, they took turns coaxing the 4-year-old back to her room while Mrs. Gullery’s father, who was visiting from Vermont, took refuge in the novel he was reading in the living room of their suburban home.
Mr. Gullery now owns his own graphic arts business, and the couple’s oldest child, who is 7, attends the local public school. Their youngest is 2. To celebrate their 10th anniversary, they took the children to Burger King.
“Things change in 10 years,” Mrs. Gullery said. “Our church has changed, we’ve changed, our family has changed. With our neighbors, we didn’t put a sign out and say, ‘Here we are, we’re the neighborhood Moonies,’ but they all have kids and after they got to know us, it was O.K. The last couple of years have been fairly low key.”
Their lives are nonetheless quite different from their neighbors’. They remain completely dedicated to the Unification Church, rising early each morning for family prayer, and offering up all their daily tasks to the service of God and Mr. Moon, who is for them the second Messiah.•
Footage of the blessed event.
From a 1979 People article about the late-life John Cheever, who was every bit as good at the short-story form as F. Scott Fitzgerald or Flannery O’Connor or Paul Bowles or any American writer:
Instead of whiskey, the traditional tonic of his profession, the tumbler in Cheever’s hand contains dark tea nowadays, and he distastefully yet methodically counts leftover cigarette butts in his ashtray, a requirement of Smokenders. Cheever joined because “there is something humiliating about getting off the plane in a place like Sofia and thinking, ‘Oh, my God, are they going to have my brand?’” Once tormented by phobias, Cheever required a slug of Scotch from the bottle in the glove compartment before he dared drive across a bridge. He was the despair of his publishers’ PR men, an author who disappeared for six weeks after the publication of a book and refused interviews upon returning. When his first novel was finished, he fled to Rome for a full year. Today such quirks have vanished. At 66, John Cheever is a resurrected man.
“Five years ago I was washing down Thorazine with Scotch,” he says candidly. “I felt suicidal; my life and my career were over. I wanted to end it.” Always a hard drinker, Cheever sank into alcoholism after a near-fatal heart attack in 1972. He swore off temporarily but relapsed while teaching at Boston University. Novelist John Updike, an old friend, saw him at his alcoholic nadir and sadly remarked, ‘I keep thinking the John Cheever I know is in there someplace.’ Finally, with the support of his family, Cheever faced the facts of his behavior (“such a loss of dignity”) and agreed to enter Smithers, an exclusive Manhattan clinic for alcoholism. “If you can have it cured,” he says, five years later, “I am cured.” When released after 32 days, he promptly sat down and, in less than a year, wrote his much-acclaimed fourth novel, Falconer, a gothic tale of life in a prison very much like Sing Sing. Cheever knew his subject well: He once taught a writing course to the convicts.
“I don’t know where the blackness in my life comes from,” Cheever says. “There is a great deal of sadness, of melancholy. I have no idea where it originates.” Part of it may stem from Cheever’s seafaring Yankee ancestry, and his grandfather, who, Cheever was told, committed suicide. John was born in Quincy, Mass., the son of a businessman bankrupted by the crash of ’29. His father was often away, and he and his older brother, Fred (also an alcoholic, who died in 1976), were raised by their English mother. She supported the family with a small gift shop, a source of embarrassment to Cheever. He was close to his maternal grandmother “partly because she called my mother a cretin, which is an easy way to endear yourself to a child” and remembers that she insisted French be spoken at meals. “I don’t recall her French was all that good.”•
Dick Cavett interviews Cheever and fellow literary light John Updike in 1981. Expect no Mailer-Vidal fireworks.
Wernher von Braun, Nazi scientist, warranted a hanging for his crimes against humanity, but he had a talent considered crucial during the early stages of the Cold War, so his past was whitewashed, and he was installed as the leader of NASA’s space program, ultimately becoming something of an American hero. So very, very unfair.
But his horrific past in Germany bled over into his new one in the U.S. in his early ’50s plan to send a “baby satellite” into space for two months with a crew of three rhesus monkeys. The mission completed, the rocket would burn up as it reentered the atmosphere. To save the primates from the pain of an inferno, Braun wanted to create an automatic switch which would gas the monkeys to death–yes, a gas chamber in space! “The monkeys will die instantly and painlessly,” he wrote in a 1952 Collier’s article he co-authored with Cornelius Ryan. It staggers the mind.
WE ARE at the threshold today of our first bold venture into space. Scientists and engineers working toward man’s exploration of the great new frontier know now that they are going to send aloft a robot laboratory as the first step—a baby space station which for 60 days will circle the earth at an altitude of 200 miles and a speed of 17,200 miles an hour, serving as scout for the human pioneers to follow.
We rocket engineers have learned a lot about space by shooting off the high-flying rockets now in existence—so much that right now we know how to build the rocket ships and the big space station we need to put man into space and keep him there comfortably. We know how to train space crews and how to protect them from the hazards which exist above our atmosphere. All that has been reported in previous issues ofCollier’s.
But the rockets which have gathered our data have stayed in space for only a few minutes at a time. The baby satellite will give us 60 days; we’ll learn more in those two months than in 10 years of firing the present instrument rockets.
We can begin work on the new space vehicle immediately. The baby satellite will look like a 30-foot ice-cream cone, topped by a cross of curved mirrors which draw power from the sun. Its tapered casing will contain a complicated maze of measuring instruments, pressure gauges, thermometers, microphones and Geiger counters, all hooked up to a network of radio, radar and television transmitters which will keep watchers on earth informed about what’s going on inside it.
Speeding 30 times faster than today’s best jets, the little satellite will make one circuit around the earth every 91 minutes—nearly 16 round trips a day. At dawn and dusk it will be visible to the naked eye as a bright, unwinking star, reflecting the sun’s rays and traveling from horizon to horizon in about seven minutes. Ninety-one minutes later, it completes the circuit—but if you look for it in the same place, it won’t be there: it travels in a fixed orbit, while the earth, rotating on its own axis, moves under it. An hour and a half from the time you first sighted the speeding robot, it will pass over the earth hundreds of miles to the west. The cone will never be visible in the dark of night, because it will be in the shadow of the earth.
If you live in Philadelphia, one morning you may see the satellite overhead just before sunup, moving on a southeasterly course. Ninety-one minutes later, as dawn breaks over Wichita, Kansas, people there will see it, and after another hour and a half it will be visible over Los Angeles—again, just before the break of dawn.
That evening, Philadelphians—and the people of Wichita and Los Angeles—will see the speeding satellite again, this time traveling in a northeasterly direction. The following morning, it will be in sight again over the same cities, at about the same time, a little farther to the west.
After about ten days, it will no longer appear over those three cities, but will be visible over other areas. Thus, from any one site, it will be seen on successive occasions for about 20 days before disappearing below the western horizon. In another month or so, it will show up again in the east. And while you’re gazing at the little satellite, it will be peering steadily back, through a television camera in its pointed nose. The camera will give official viewers in stations scattered around the globe the first real panoramic picture of our world—a breath-taking view of the land masses, oceans and cities as seen from 200 miles up. More than likely, commercial TV stations will pick up the broadcasts and relay them to your home.
Three more cameras, located inside the cone, will transmit equally exciting pictures: the first sustained view of life in space.
Three rhesus monkeys—rhesus, because that species is small and highly intelligent—will live aboard the satellite in air-conditioned comfort, feeding from automatic food dispensers. Every move they make will be watched, through television, by the observers on earth.
As fast as the robot’s recording instruments gather information, it will be flashed to the ground by the same method used now in rocket-flight experiments. The method is called telemetering, and it works this way: as many as 50 reporting devices are hooked to a single transmitter which sends out a jumble of tonal waves. A receiver on earth picks up the tangled signals, and a decoding machine unscrambles the tones and prints the information automatically on long strips of paper, as a series of spidery wavelike lines. Each line represents the findings of a particular instrument—cabin temperature, air pressure and so on. Together, they’ll provide a complete story of the happenings inside and outside the baby space station.
What kind of scientific data do we hope to get? Confirmation of all space research to date and, most important, new information on weightlessness, cosmic radiation and meteoric dust.
At a high enough speed and a certain altitude, an object will travel in an orbit around the earth. It— and everything in it—will be weightless. Space scientists and engineers know that man can adjust to weightlessness, because pilots have simulated the condition briefly by flying a jet plane in a rollercoaster arc. But will sustained weightlessness raise problems we haven’t foreseen? We must find out—and the monkeys on the satellite will tell us.
The monkeys will live in two chambers of the animal compartment. In the smaller section, one of the creatures will lie strapped to a seat throughout the two-month test. His hands and head will be free, so he can feed himself, but his body will be bound and covered with a jacket to keep him from freeing himself or from tampering with the measuring instruments taped painlessly to his body. The delicate recording devices will provide vital information—body temperature, breathing cycle, pulse rate, heartbeat, blood pressure and so forth.
The other two monkeys, separated from their pinioned companion so they won’t turn him loose, will move about freely in the larger section. During the flight from earth, these two monkeys will be strapped to shock-absorbing rubber couches, under a mild anesthetic to spare them the discomfort of the acceleration pressure. By the time the anesthetic wears off, the robot will have settled in its circular path about the earth, and a simple timing device will release the two monkeys. Suddenly they’ll float weightless, inside the cabin.
What will they do? Succumb to fright? Perhaps cower in a corner for two months and slowly starve to death? I don’t think so. Chances are they’ll adjust quickly to their new condition. We’ll make it easier for them to get around by providing leather handholds along the walls, like subway straps, and by stringing a rope across the chamber.
There’s another problem for the three animals: to survive the 60 days they must eat and drink.
They’ll prepare to cope with that problem on the ground. For months before they take off, the two unbound monkeys will live in a replica of the compartment they’ll occupy in space, learning to operate food and liquid dispensers. In space, each of the two free animals will have his own feeding station. At specific intervals a klaxon horn will sound; the monkeys will respond by rushing to the feeding stations as they’ve been trained to do. Their movement will break an electric-eye beam, and clear plastic doors will snap shut behind them, sealing them off from their living quarters. Then, while they’re eating, an air blower will flush out the living compartment—both for sanitary reasons and to keep weightless refuse from blocking the television lenses. The plastic doors will spring open again when the housecleaning is finished.
The monkeys will drink by sucking plastic bottles. Liquid left free, without gravity to keep it in place, would hang in globules. To get solid food, each of the monkeys—again responding to their training—will press a lever on a dispenser much like a candy or cigarette machine. The lever will open a door, enabling the animals to reach in for their food. They’ll get about half a pound of food a day—a biscuit made of wheat, soybean meal and bone meal, enriched with vitamins. The immobilized monkey will have the same food; his dispensers will be within easy reach.
For the two free monkeys, it will be a somewhat complicated life. The way they react to their ground training under the new conditions posed by lack of gravity will provide invaluable information on how weightlessness will affect them.
While the monkeys are providing physiologists with information on weightlessness, physicists will be learning more about cosmic rays, invisible high-speed atomic particles which act like deep penetrating X rays and were once feared as the major hazard of space flight. Theoretically, in large enough doses cosmic rays could conceivably cause deep burns, damage the eyes, produce malignant growths and even upset the normal hereditary processes. They don’t do much damage to us on earth because the atmosphere dissipates their full strength, but before much was known about the rays people worried about the dangers they might pose to man in space. From recent experiments scientists now know that the risk was mostly exaggerated—that even beyond the atmosphere a human can tolerate the rays for long periods without ill effects. Still, the best figures available have been obtained by high-altitude instrument rocket flights which were too brief to be conclusive. These spot checks must be augmented by a prolonged study, and the baby space station will make that possible.
The concentration of cosmic rays over the earth varies, being greatest over the north and south magnetic poles. The baby space station will follow a circular path that will carry it close to both poles within every hour and a half, so it can determine if cosmic-ray concentration varies that high up.
Geiger counters inside and outside the robot will measure the number of cosmic particle hits. The telemetering apparatus will signal the information to the ground—and for the first time physicists will have an accurate indication of the cosmic-ray concentration in space, above all parts of the globe.
Besides cosmic rays, the baby satellite will be hit by high-speed space bullets—tiny meteors, most of them smaller than a grain of sand, whizzing through space faster than 1,000 miles a minute.
When men enter space, they’ll be protected against these pellets. Their rockets, the big space station, even their space suits, will have an outer skin called a meteor bumper, which will shatter the lightning-fast missiles on impact. But how many grainiike meteors must the bumpers absorb every 24 hours? That’s what we space researchers want to know. So dime-sized microphones will be scattered over the robot’s outer skin to record the number and location of the impacts as they occur.
In the process of unmasking the secrets of space, the baby satellite also will unravel a few riddles of our own earth.
For example, there are numerous islands whose precise position in the oceans has never been accurately established because there is no nearby land to use as a reference point. Some of them—one is Bouvet Island, lying south of the Cape of Good Hope—have been the subject of international disputes which could be quickly settled by fixing the islands’ positions. By tracking the baby space station as it passes over these islands, we’ll accurately pinpoint their locations for the first time.
The satellite will be even more important to meteorologists. The men who study the weather would like to know how much of the earth is covered with cloud in any given period. The robot’s television camera will give them a clue—a start toward sketching in a comprehensive picture of the world’s weather. Moreover, by studying the pattern of cloud movement, particularly over oceans, they may learn how to predict weather fronts with precision months in advance. Most of the weather research must await construction of a man-carrying space station, but the baby satellite will show what’s needed.
To collect this information, of course, we must first establish the little robot in its 200-mile orbit. All the knowledge needed for its construction and operation is already available to experts in the fields of rocketry, television and telemetering.
Before take-off, the satellite vehicle will resemble one of today’s high-altitude rockets, except that it will be about three times as big—150 feet tall, and 30 feet wide at the base. After take-off it will become progressively smaller, because it actually will consist of three rockets—or stages—one atop another, two of which will be cast away after delivering their full thrust. The vehicle will take off vertically and then tilt into a shallow path nearly parallel to the earth. Its course will be over water at first, so the first two stages won’t fall on anyone after they’re dropped, a few minutes after take-off.
When the third stage of the vehicle reaches an altitude of 60 miles and a speed of 17,700 miles an hour, the final bank of motors will shut off automatically. The conical nose section will coast unpowered to the 200-mile orbit, which it will reach at a speed of 17,100 miles an hour, 44 minutes later. The entire flight will take 48 1/2 minutes.
After the satellite reaches its orbit, the automatic pilot will switch on the motors once again to boost the velocity to 17,200 miles an hour—the speed required to balance the earth’s gravity at that altitude. Now the rocket becomes a satellite; it needs no more power but will travel steadily around the earth like a small moon for 60 days, until the slight air drag present at the 200-mile altitude slows it enough to drop.
Once the satellite enters its orbit, gyroscopically controlled flywheels cartwheel the nose until it points toward the earth. At the same time, five little antennas spring out from the cone’s sides and a small explosive charge blasts off the nose cap which has guarded the TV lens during the ascent.
Finally, the satellite’s power plant—a system of mirrors which catch the sun’s rays and turn solar heat into electrical energy—rises into place at the broad end of the cone. A battery-operated electric timer starts a hydraulic pump, which pushes out a telescopic rod. At the end of the rod are the three curved mirrors. When the rod is fully extended, the mirrors unfold, side by side, and from the ends of the central mirror two extensions slip out. Mercury-filled pipes run along the five polished plates; the heated mercury will operate generators providing 12 kilowatts of power. Batteries will take over the power functions while the satellite is passing through the shadow of the earth.
With the power plant in operation, the baby space station buckles down to its 60-day assignment as man’s first listening post in space.
At strategic points over the earth’s surface, 20 or more receiving stations, most of them set up in big trailers, will track the robot by radar as it passes overhead, and record the television and telemetering broadcasts on tape and film. Because the satellite’s radio waves travel in a straight line, the trailers can pick up broadcasts for just a few minutes at a time—only while the robot remains in sight as it zooms from horizon to horizon.
As the satellite passes out of range, the recorded data will be sent to a central station in the United States—some of it transmitted by radio, the rest shipped by plane. There, the information will be evaluated and integrated from day to day.
The monitoring posts will be set up inside the Arctic and Antarctic Circles and at points near the equator. In the polar areas, stations could be at Alaska, southern Greenland and Iceland; and in the south, Shetland Islands, Campbell Island and South Georgia Island. In the Pacific, possible sites are Baker Island, Christmas Island, Hawaii and the Galapagos Islands.
The remaining monitors may be located in Puerto Rico, Bermuda, St. Helena, Liberia, South-West Africa, Ethiopia, Maldive Islands, the Malay Peninsula, the Philippines, northern Australia and New Zealand. These points, all in friendly territory, would form a chain around the earth, catching the satellite’s broadcasts at least once a day.
The monitor stations will be fairly costly, but they’ll come in handy again later, when man is ready to launch the first crew-operated rocket ships for development of a big-manned space station, 1,075 miles from the earth.
The cost of the baby satellite project will be absorbed into the four-billion-dollar 10-year program to establish the bigger satellite. We scientists can have the baby rocket within five to seven years if we begin work now. Five years later, we could have the manned space station.
One of the monitoring posts will view the last moments of the baby space station. As the weeks pass, the satellite, dragging against the thin air, will drop lower and lower in its orbit. When it descends into fairly dense air, its skin will be heated by friction, causing the temperature to rise within the animal compartments. At last, a thermostat will set off an electric relay which triggers a capsule containing a quick-acting lethal gas. The monkeys will die instantly and painlessly. Soon afterward, the telemetering equipment will go silent, as the rush of air rips away the solar mirrors which provide power, and the baby space station will begin to glow cherry red. Then suddenly the satellite will disappear in a long white streak of brilliant light—marking the spectacular finish of man’s first step in the conquest of space.•
Months before America sent its first astronaut into space in 1961 and kicked the race to the moon into another gear, a chimpanzee named Ham departed Earth on a Mercury mission. Thankfully, he wasn’t gassed. Trained beginning in 1959 with behaviorist methods, Ham was not only a passenger but also performed small tasks during his suborbital flight. In the NASA photo above, Ham shakes hands with his rescuer aboard the U.S.S. Donner, after his 16-minute mission was successfully completed and he plunged back to his home. The famous chimp lived until 1983 and is buried at the International Space Hall of Fame in New Mexico. The following video tells his saga.
It’s no secret that avuncular cryptkeeper Stephen King is on the left politically, feeling the greatest horror of all is opportunists cloaked in faux religion and patriotism. As you might imagine, the current Halloween parade of GOP candidates has left him dismayed. From Angela S. Allan’s Los Angeles Review of Books Q&A with the author:
You’ve also been very outspoken in your nonfiction on issues like gun control and taxation. Do you think of your novels as making political statements?
I always get some letters from some people who are disgruntled because they feel like the right wing has been dissed and that’s probably true. I’ve been left of center my entire life. Well, not entirely. My wife will tell you that I voted for Richard Nixon in 1968 in the first election I could vote in, because Richard Nixon said he planned to get us out of Vietnam. Tabby will say, “And Steve believed him!” Well, I did! Nixon would say, “Yes, I have this plan, but it wouldn’t be proper to say anything before the election.” So, I voted for him and his plan was to escalate things further.
I got more and more radicalized. My politics have described a course of being somewhere on the right. Because I grew up in Maine, all my folks were Republicans. They swore by the Republican Party and they swore at the Democrats. Vietnam radicalized me. It radicalized a lot of kids. Never to the point where I joined SDS or burned buildings or anything like that, but I understood the people who did. And I’m still left of center. There are still things on the right-wing side that make me crazy. You know, especially the people who profess to be Christians. I just can’t understand the double standard.
What makes me particularly crazy is that you’ll see these Republican candidates, and Ben Carson is the worst. He talks about the national debt and he talks about how our grandchildren are going to inherit this debt. All of these guys talk about their grandchildren when it’s about money. None of them talk about them when it comes to the environment and how their grandchildren are all going to be wearing fucking gas masks. That makes me crazy.•
In the big picture, I’m with the FT‘s Tim Harford on the issue of “economic singularity,” meaning that while I believe things may change more quickly going forward, I don’t believe scarcity will be solved immediately or soon thereafter. Not today and not tomorrow, unless we’re defining that latter term very broadly. 3D printers will be a tremendous boon in terms of material goods (though they will also bring new dangers), but the world isn’t on the verge of unbridled material wealth. That just doesn’t happen overnight.
In his latest column, Harford is skeptical that the moment of unthinkably great production has (almost) arrived, as prophesied by the messiahs of machine utopia: Robin Hanson, whom I mostly know from a rather kooky, sci-fi Ted Talk; and Ray Kurzweil, a brilliant inventor who has reinvented himself as a sage of increasingly outré near-term predictions.
Are we nearing a dramatic moment in economic history? Before humans developed agriculture, the world population — and thus the world economy — doubled in size roughly every 250,000 years. After acquiring the power of agriculture, the world economy doubled in size roughly every 900 years. After the industrial revolution, growth accelerated again, and since the second world war the world economy has been doubling in size roughly every 15 years. These numbers have been collated by Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University in Virginia; they are based on educated guesses by various economic historians.
If another step change of a similar scale were to happen, the world economy would double in size between now and Christmas. That is hard to imagine but, before the industrial revolution happened, it too would have been hard to imagine. And a small band of believers, not short on imagination, look forward to an economic “singularity”. Hanson is one of them, and the computer scientist Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near, is perhaps the most famous.
The singularity would be a point at which, rather than humans developing new technologies, the new technologies developed themselves. They would do so at a rate far beyond our comprehension. After the singularity, our civilisation would be in the hands of cyborgs, or brains uploaded into the cloud, or genetically enhanced superbeings, or something else able to make itself smarter at a tremendous rate. The future economy might consist of rapid interactions between artificial intelligences. The idea that it might double in size every few weeks no longer seems quite so unimaginable.
But it is one thing to imagine such a future. It is another thing to have confidence that it is approaching.•
I think Steve Wozniak is great because how can you not, but I am willing to wager there will still be some humans driving cars in 20 years, though the Woz predicted there won’t be in his keynote speech at the Gartner Symposium. Hyperbole aside, he is right that driverless is gaining speed, even if the ETA is MIA. The Apple co-founder also gave voice to his concerns about surveillance enabled by technologies, though he acknowledges that war has likely been lost. Two excerpts about the address from Divina Paredes at Computerworld.
“It was a magical experience… like Disneyland all the time.”
This is how Steve Wozniak described his experience driving his Tesla car on autopilot for two nights in a row.
The co-founder of Apple and chief scientist at Fusion-IO, said the car was making decisions on on the road, and his hands need not be on the wheel. “It was just a wonderful feeling.”
“Self driving cars is the biggest technology for the future,” said Wozniak during his keynote at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo at the Gold Coast.
“In the future, self driving cars will avoid problems humans make,” he said. They will have artificial intelligence. They will see speed limits, red lights and people walking across their path and even any kind of obstacles.
“In 20 years, no human drivers will be allowed except for the young kids at Disneyland.”
“Every purchase you make, every place you go, your face is being recognised, every keystroke you type on your computer, somebody could be looking at your computer at what you are doing.”
“It bothers me…I am very much on the side of civil liberties and protecting privacy,” he said, adding that he is one of the founders of the US Electronic Frontier Foundation that advocates for these rights.
“Humans should be much more important than technology,” he said. “But we lost the battle to machines 200 years ago. We will always fire a human but not fire a machine that makes our cheap clothing.”•
When it comes to the implementation of driverless, theme parks and office parks seem like Ground Zero. Private acreage with prescribed routes make all the sense in the world as a “gateway drug.” Then maybe airport shuttles to city centers. Then truck convoys with (temporarily) a lead human driver. Then everything. From Charlie Sorrel at Fast Company:
Self-driving buses are coming to America. The Bishop Ranch business park in San Ramon, California will be the first place in the U.S. to use French robo-buses to ferry passengers around.
Perhaps the best place for autonomous vehicles to start out is in this kind of training ground, although given the safety record of Google’s self-driving cars, the training might be for us humans in getting used to them. It’s hard to argue that preset routes and low speeds aren’t ideal for an introduction to driverless vehicles, and that’s just what the Easymile company specializes in.
The EZ10 is a driverless bus designed for short hops. It has been deployed in Europe—in Finland, France, and is just about to launch in Spain. The electric vehicles carry up to ten passengers, and have ramps for wheelchairs and strollers. The idea is that they carry you the “last mile” of your journey, and one of their main uses is in theme parks.•
Tags: Charlie Sorrel
If you hear a politician or community organizer tout the employment opportunities provided by Uber, realize that person is either misinformed or likely on the payroll in one form or another. The rideshare service may be temporarily using the posture of “job creator” for publicity purposes and to dodge regulation, but it has no interest in employing drivers. In fact, it’s business model pretty much demands it remove human hands from the wheel.
Whether Uber is Napster or not (and increasingly it seems to not be), this new app-enabled arrangement is here to stay, and it’s a major reckoning for the taxi industry in particular and, more broadly, Labor.
“The natural end point has to rely on autonomous driving technology”—not humans, says Emilio Frazzoli, director of the Transportation@MIT Initiative. He thinks robots could be taking the wheel in the next 15 years, certainly within the next 30. The reasons, he says, are economical and cultural.
First, as much as 50 percent of an Uber ride’s cost goes toward paying the human behind the wheel, Frazzoli says, and that’s money that could be going into Uber’s pocket. Replacing human operators has already begun in Singapore, a city that relies heavily on public transit. It’s not widely advertised, Frazzoli says, but the subway trains there “are completely automated. They are just horizontal elevators.”
Felix Oberholzer-Gee, a professor at Harvard Business School, agrees. Uber, he says, is a perfect example of a business that benefits from network effects, where the value of its service increases with more use. But, unlike other companies that benefit from strong network effects, such as Facebook, Uber has to deal with bringing two different types of users—and networks—together: drivers and riders. The network effects of getting rid of human drivers, he says, “will make the platform even stronger.”
Plus, for reasons from supply to quality control, Oberholzer-Gee says getting drivers will likely always be more of a headache than finding more riders. With autonomous vehicles, he says, “You could have a guaranteed supply of one of the sides, and particularly of the side that is harder to manage.”•