Urban Studies

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The Browser pointed me to “Saving Horatio Alger,” Richard Reeves’ excellent Brookings essay about American mobility, which is our national religion even though we currently trail Europe in this area by most measures. We boomed in our early days because of Manifest Destiny, busted once there was nowhere left to push our borders and had another rising-tide moment at the end of World War II. Great stuff like a tidy little explanation of how Alger would have made a poor character in his own books, since he was never ragged nor rich. An excerpt about the downward slope that set in starting in the 1970s:

“America’s decisive role in World War II and its subsequent emergence as a superpower gave rise to the Great Prosperity: a new surge of economic energy alongside sizeable government investments in infrastructure, the military, science, and Social Security, and a recommitment to education, not least through the G.I. Bill. Between 1950 and the mid-1970s, as the U.S. economy grew by an average of 4 percent a year, the economic expansion drove wages and employment up, and income and wealth gaps narrowed. High taxes—high by historical standards, anyway—were levied on those with the biggest incomes and greatest wealth, and the government provided more services and cash assistance to the poor as part of Lyndon Johnson’s vision for the ‘Great Society.’ Upward mobility may not have improved; but since standards of living were rising at about the same rate across the income distribution, most people were much better off than their parents had been, even if they remained on the same rung of the income ladder.

From the mid-1970s on, however, the mass prosperity machine began to grind to a halt; productivity stagnated and growth slowed as global competition intensified. Inequality trends returned to their pre-war trajectory, with those on the top rungs climbing ever further upward, helped along by Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts, while those at the bottom and in the middle lagged behind. George H.W. Bush broke his ‘no new taxes’ pledge, but did nothing to alter the growing fissure between the rich and the rest.

Bill Clinton’s electoral success presaged a period of strong economic growth and some restoration of the fortunes of the middle class. But U.S. politics soon veered to the right. With the election of George W. Bush as president and the emergence of a new strand of populism culminating in the muscular Tea Party movement, the rightward drift continued, and the carefully tied knots of financial regulation were quietly loosened, one by one. Mobility rates remained flat.

The election of Barack Obama fleetingly signaled a new, more optimistic mood, the promise of a more generous, post-partisan politics, and a renewed commitment to the upward mobility Americans believe in so fervently. Here was a president whose election seemed a testament to America’s progress, and whose personal story proved, so it seemed, that the Horatio Alger story could be rewritten for a multi-racial nation. The uplift was short-lived. Today, the nation is limping away from the economic car-crash of 2008. Politics remains deeply partisan. And yes, mobility rates are still flat.”

 

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From “2050 and the Future of Infrastructure,” Thomas Frey’s ImpactLab piece, the section on tube-transportation networks, something that’s been dreamed of since the Victorian Age:

“When Tesla Motors CEO, Elon Musk, mysteriously leaked that he was working on his Hyperloop Project, the combination of secrecy, cryptic details, and his own flair for the dramatic all contributed to the media frenzy that followed.

Leading up to this announcement was his growing anxiety over California’s effort to build a very expensive high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco with outdated technology.

While the Musk media train was picking up steam, several reporters pointed out a similar effort by Daryl Oster and his Longmont, Colorado-based company, ET3, to build a comparable tube transportation system that was much further along.

Indeed both are working on what will likely be the next generation of transportation where specially designed cars are placed into sealed tubes and shot, much like rockets, to their destination. While high-speed trains are breaking the 300 mph speed barrier, tube transportation has the potential to make speeds of 4,000 mph a common everyday occurrence.

As Daryl Oster likes to call it, ‘space travel on earth.’

Even though tube travel like this will beat every other form of transportation in terms of speed, power consumption, pollution, and safety, the big missing element is its infrastructure, a tube network envisioned to combine well over 100,000 miles of connected links.

While many look at this and see the lack of infrastructure as a huge obstacle, at this point in time it is just the opposite, the biggest opportunity ever.

Constructing the tube network will be the biggest infrastructure project the earth has ever seen, with a projected 50-year build-out employing in excess of 100 million people along the way.”

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From the November 18, 1909 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“Mrs. James Edmonds of Washington County, Pa., deserted her home recently, taking with her the household effects and five head of cattle, but leaving behind an old mule. Edmonds preferred charges of desertion against his wife and larceny against a Pittsburg man. Early yesterday the mule, Edmonds’s only possession, kicked him, causing his death a short time later in a hospital.”

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At Vox, Matthew Yglesias has a post about labor automation, “Robots Won’t Destroy Jobs, But They Will Destroy The Middle Class,” which focuses on a recent paper by economist David Autor that encourages education as a means of combating further income inequality. Yglesias suggests that wage growth for McJobs will likely lead them to be automated, but that’s happening regardless. That’s why the title of the post seems unlikely to turn out to be true. From Yglesias:

“Will automation take your job away? No, argues economist David Autor in a new paper presented at the Federal Reserve conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming on Friday. Instead, it’ll just push you into a menial low-wage job.

That, at least, has been the recent past of technology’s impact on the labor market, Autor suggests. We’ve seen what he calls ‘job polarization’ where automation has increased the demand for highly skilled managers and creative types, plus the demand for low-paid food prep workers and such. …

Autor says this more or less shows the importance of improving education. Someone who might once have been qualified for a pretty good secretarial job is nowadays only going to be qualified for a job at Chipotle, since modern technology reduces the need for secretaries. To save her from the dismal future of a burrito stomping on a human face forever, she needs to be trained up to the level where she can get a job as an app developer or devising burrito marketing campaigns.

The other view, which Autor doesn’t really mention, is that perhaps a strong labor movement could turn burrito-rolling into a highly paid job. The most likely answer, I think, is that to the extent you try to transform low-wage work into middle-wage work you simply encourage those newly middle class jobs to be automated.”

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If you ever wonder what baseball players like Yasiel Puig or Jose Abreu or the just-signed Red Sox outfielder Rusney Castillo go through to slide out of Cuba and into MLB unis, let’s just say that no one is helping them through the goodness of their hearts. It’s nothing personal, strictly business, less a freedom flotilla than a pirate ship. And these athletes, though they’re shaken down for big dough, are the lucky ones. If you can’t stroke a double to deep center, you’re little more than a hostage. From Curt Anderson of the Associated Press:

“MIAMI (AP) – A man accused of masterminding a human trafficking ring pleaded guilty Friday to U.S. extortion charges involving the smuggling of more than 1,000 Cubans, including baseball players such as Texas Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin.

Eliezer Lazo, 41, entered the plea Friday in Miami federal court. Lazo is already serving a five-year prison sentence for money laundering in a Medicare fraud case and now faces up to 20 additional years behind bars. Lazo agreed to cooperate with investigators, which could reduce his prison time when he is sentenced later this year.

Prosecutors say Lazo led an organization that smuggled Cubans by boat into Mexico, where they were held until ransom payments were made. The cost was typically about $10,000 for each person, although it could be much higher in the case of Cuban baseball stars such as Martin.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Davidson said the migrants who were not sports stars were often crowded together in rooms of 20 or more under armed guard, in prison-like conditions. If the smugglers weren’t immediately paid, Davidson said, ‘the Cuban migrants in Mexico were restrained and beaten while relatives could hear the screams on the phone.’

Court documents show that the valuable Cuban baseball stars were treated far better than others involved with the smuggling ring, even though they were watched over by armed guards.”

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"Danielle Smith."

“Danielle Smith.”

Same name?!

This may sound like an odd request, but I’m participating in a scavenger hunt and need to find someone with the same name as me. Sooooooo, if your name is Danielle Smith and you don’t live in Illinois, would you be willing to send me a picture of your ID? You can block out all the personal information, I won’t be creepy or anything.

In “How Plagues Really Work,” Wendy Orent’s new Aeon piece, she argues that the next pandemic won’t likely come from bird flu genes but from the crowded, inhospitable conditions of refugee camps or overwhelmed hospitals, where disease incubates. Considering how many war-torn areas there are in the world right now, that’s cause for concern. An excerpt which looks at an example from Ancient Greece:

“One mysterious ancient outbreak, the Great Plague of Athens, shows how deadly epidemics unroll in time. The Plague – said to have been caused by typhus, measles, small pox or Ebola, depending on whom you ask – exploded in Athens in the summer of 430 BCE, during the early days of the Peloponnesian War, a 27-year struggle between Athens and Sparta over hegemony in the Hellenic world. Pericles, the de facto leader of Athens, who pushed for war, developed a defensive strategy that proved fatal, to him and to as many as a third of Athenian citizens. He insisted on bringing all citizens – people who lived in the towns and rural areas outside the walled city – into Athens, leaving the rest of the city-state to be ravaged by the invading Spartans. The Athenian Long Walls ran down to the separate ports of Piraeus and Phaleron, each of which lay about four miles from the City of Athens proper. Thus sealed off, fronting only on the sea, Athenians could shelter safely, Pericles argued, until the Peloponnesian War was won.

The normal population of the city was around 150,000. Scholars estimate that 200,000 to 250,000 farmers and townsmen and their families came streaming in, bringing everything they could carry with them – down to the woodwork on their farmhouse walls. But Pericles had made no provision for the newcomers, who were used to their country manors, their quiet towns, their open fields. A few had homes or relatives within the walls. But most had nowhere to go, and huddled in stifling huts, or in tents flung up in the narrow spaces between the walls. The crowded encampments were ripe for virulent infection.

Physicians and attendants died quickly, and the only people who could care for the sick were survivors immune to further infection.”

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While Grover Norquist is baking his Libertarian ass at Burning Man, he’s simultaneously planning for Republicans to win back urban American by bogarting the Uber, riding the sharing economy to voting-booth victory. Of course, as Emily Badger pointed out last month in the Washington Post and Andrew Leonard expands on today in Salon, this economic disruption isn’t really staying within traditional Right and Left lanes. From Leonard’s piece:

“The semiotics of the announcement of David Plouffe’s hiring by Uber are fascinating. For example, consider how Plouffe used the word ‘inexorable’ in an interview with the New York Times.

‘We’re on an inexorable path of progress here,’ said Plouffe. Which translates as: Uber and the rest of Silicon Valley’s innovative disrupters are going to conquer us all in the long run, so we might as well just get used to it and stop throwing roadblocks in their way.

Beware! When a company with a name like ‘Uber’ is associated with ‘inexorable,’ resistance is obviously futile. And it’s worth recalling, this isn’t just about crushing existing taxi ‘cartels.’ Uber has made no secret of its ambitions to become a logistical hub that will compete with the likes of UPS and FedEx and Hertz, that will deliver groceries, as well as human beings, more efficiently than any other company. Uber’s algorithm is what’s inexorable. And an algorithm doesn’t boast any particular party identification: It’s just there to make consumers happy.

But fast on inexorability’s heels comes the issue of what the word ‘progressive’ really means. As Emily Badger reported, John Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor of Colorado, supported Uber’s hire by saying that Plouffe will bring the same ‘progressive approach’ to campaigning for Uber as has been demonstrated by Colorado’s ’embrace of innovation and disruptive technology.’

When you pull your phone out of your pocket, click a couple of buttons, send a signal that bounces off a satellite, and a car-for-hire magically appears in front of you in a few minutes, it certainly feels like we are living in an age of technological progress. But the jury is still out on whether this kind of innovation is truly socially progressive. A society that puts consumers first has obvious disadvantages for workers.”

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Because of philosopher Nick Bostrom’s new book, Superintelligence, the specter of AI enslaving or eliminating humans has been getting a lot of play lately. In a Guardian piece, UWE Bristol Professor Alan Winfield argues that we should be concerned but not that concerned. He doesn’t think we’re close to capable of building a Frankenstein monster that could write Frankenstein. Of course, machines might not need think like us to surpass us. The opening:

“The singularity – or, to give it its proper title, the technological singularity. It’s an idea that has taken on a life of its own; more of a life, I suspect, than what it predicts ever will. It’s a Thing for techno-utopians: wealthy middle-aged men who regard the singularity as their best chance of immortality. They are Singularitarians, some seemingly prepared to go to extremes to stay alive for long enough to benefit from a benevolent super-artificial intelligence – a man-made god that grants transcendence.

And it’s a thing for the doomsayers, the techno-dystopians. Apocalypsarians who are equally convinced that a super-intelligent AI will have no interest in curing cancer or old age, or ending poverty, but will – malevolently or maybe just accidentally – bring about the end of human civilisation as we know it. History and Hollywood are on their side. From the Golem to Frankenstein’s monster, Skynet and the Matrix, we are fascinated by the old story: man plays god and then things go horribly wrong.

The singularity is basically the idea that as soon as AI exceeds human intelligence, everything changes. There are two central planks to the hypothesis: one is that as soon as we succeed in building AI as smart as humans it rapidly reinvents itself to be even smarter, starting a chain reaction of smarter-AI inventing even-smarter-AI until even the smartest humans cannot possibly comprehend how it works. The other is that the future of humanity becomes in some sense out of control, from the moment of the singularity onwards.

So should we be worried or optimistic about the technological singularity? I think we should be a little worried – cautious and prepared may be a better way of putting it – and at the same time a little optimistic (that’s the part of me that would like to live in Iain M Banks’ The Culture. But I don’t believe we need to be obsessively worried by a hypothesised existential risk to humanity.”

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A small plane powered for a matter of feet by a person on a bicycle is utterly useless in a practical sense, yet achingly beautiful to admire. From a July 10, 1921 New York Times article about French wheelman Gabriel Poulain, who was a pioneer in this odd endeavor:

Paris–Gabriel Poulain, the French champion cyclist, succeeded this morning in the Bois de Boulogne in winning the Peugot prize of 10,000 francs for the flight of more than ten meters distance and one meter high in a man-driven airplane. In an ‘aviette,’ which is a bicycle with two wing planes, he four times flew the prescribed distance, his longest flight being more than twelve meters, or about the same number of yards.

Poulain for several years has been devoting himself to the solution of the problem of flight by the power of his own muscles and several times has come near winning a prize. This morning’s exhibition, however, was by far the most successful, a cyclist never before having been able to rise from the ground a sufficient height to enable him to cover more than six or seven meters.

For today’s attempt Poulain altered the angle of the small rear plane of his machine and it was this alteration, it seems, that solved the problem. 

Poulain made his attempt just after dawn on the smooth road at the entrance to the Longchamps race course. Several members of the Aero Club, donors of the prize and a large company of journalists and photographers were present. A square twenty meters each away was carefully measured off and chalked so as to mark the points at which the ‘aviette’ must rise one meter from the ground and that two flights must be made in opposite directions.

Rides Smoothly in Air

Poulain, who was confident that this time he was going to succeed, rode his machine at top speed toward the chalked square. As he entered it he released the clutch which throws the wing into proper position and at once the miniature biplane rose from the ground gracefully and steadily to a height of more than a meter. 

The flight was as steady as that of a motor-driven airplane and Poulain declared afterward that the motion was smoother than when traveling along the ground. When the judges measured the distance between the wheel marks on the chalk they found it lacked only two centimeters of being twelve meters.

Poulain’s flight in the opposite direction was not quite so successful, though he succeeded in covering eleven and a half meters. In landing he broke two spokes of the rear wheel.

M. Robert Peugeot declared the prize won, but Poulain wished to make further proof of the powers of his machine. After changing the wheel he started from positions chosen by the judges, and in each case he succeeded in covering the prize-winning distance. His longest flight was the last, of twelve meters thirty-two centimeters.

In order to cover so great a distance Poulain worked up to a speed of forty-five kilometers an hour on the ground. According to his own estimate, the muscular force required for flight is equal to three horse power. The total weight of the machine, with the wings, is seventeen kilogrammes, or about thirty-seven pounds, and the cyclist himself weighs seventy-four kilograms, or about 165  pounds.

After the flight Poulain declared that he intended to set at work at once on another plane, which, he believes, will enable him to fly 200 to 300 meters. On this machine he will make use of a propeller instead of depending, as he did today, simply on impetus.

Once in the air, Poulain says that not so much power is needed as for the take-off. He says the pedal-worked propeller will be strong enough to continue flight for a considerable distance without fatigue.”

Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese and employer of Jobs and the Woz during their formative years, just did an Ask Me Anything at Reddit. A few exchanges follow, with a couple at the beginning regarding the future intersection of business and technology. 

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Question:

With the Atari you were at the cutting edge of technology back in the day. If you were starting today, as a technology entrepreneur, what technologies would you focus on?

Nolan Bushnell:

I think that robots and entertainment will be very important in the future. I’m also very interested in businesses that will be enabled by autonomous or auto-drive cars. There will also be an interesting intersection between computers and biology. Harder tech, but important, is nanotech i.e. micromachines.

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Question:

What did you learn from trying the robot cafe concept — anything you’d like to bring back from it?

Nolan Bushnell:

I found that two-thirds of the population loved it and the last third hated it. Kids universally loved it, particularly ages 10-20. I think that adding games as well as automatic ordering will clearly be the fast food and the quick-casual structure of the future.

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Question:

What’s the biggest lesson you learned at Atari or Chuck E. Cheese that you wish you had known before you started?

Nolan Bushnell:

Don’t sell to big Hollywood studios. Atari had an extraordinary corporate culture that was destroyed within 2 years of the sale. I think that Atari would still be important today if that sale hadn’t occurred.

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Question:

Did Steve Jobs really stink that bad that he had to be relegated to work the night shift??

Nolan Bushnell:

Yeah. I knew that Jobs and Woz were fast friends and Woz worked days at HP. If I put Jobs on the night shift, I’d get two Steves for the price of one. A very good business proposition.

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Question:

How do you think new tech like the Oculus Rift and Google Glass can improve, dare I say evolve how people are educated today?

Nolan Bushnell:

I think that any time you can make life and tech seamless, you have the opportunity to affect the brain. The immersion of the Oculus Rift can give you a real sense of the Battle of Hastings or life in Dickinsonian England. Seeing the circulatory system from the inside has to be a learning experience. Google glass giving you data inputs for later analysis from your lab results clearly is a step in the right direction. If telephone or television (or any examples) early on get it exactly wrong, so will some of these technologies. But then we’ll figure it out.•

 

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You would think Google would want its autonomous cars to drive every loop–jump through every hoop–to prove that its software is safe and shut up naysayers. But the search giant instead hopes to speed up the process, lobbying California to certify the robocars based on test drives that are computer simulations which don’t involve real roads. From Mark Harris at the Guardian:

“Google has built a ‘Matrix-style’ digital simulation of the entire Californian road system in which it is testing its self-driving cars – and is lobbying the state’s regulators to certify them based on virtual rather than real driving.

The extensive simulation – reminiscent of the virtual cities created for human captives in sci-fi blockbuster The Matrix – exists entirely inside computers at the company’s Mountain View location, and the cars have so far virtually ‘driven’ more than 4 million miles inside it, facing challenges just like those in the real world, such as lane-weaving motorists, wobbly cyclists and unpredictable pedestrians.

The ambition of the simulation illustrates how serious the tech company is at developing self-driving cars, an innovation that has been independently estimated as worth billions of pounds if widely implemented.

California’s regulations stipulate autonomous vehicles must be tested under ‘controlled conditions’ that mimic real-world driving as closely as possible. Usually, that has meant a private test track or temporarily closed public road.

But Ron Medford, Google’s safety director for the self-driving car programme, has been arguing that the computer simulation should be accepted instead. In a letter in early 2014 to California state officials, which the Guardian has obtained under freedom of information legislation, Medford wrote: ‘Computer simulations are actually more valuable, as they allow manufacturers to test their software under far more conditions and stresses than could possibly be achieved on a test track.’

He added: ‘Google wants to ensure that [the regulation] is interpreted to allow manufacturers to satisfy this requirement through computer-generated simulations.'”

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China remaining under authoritarian rule may be great for the environment. Seems odd, right? One of the government’s chief fears is that pollution caused by the nation’s hasty mass urbanization might lead to rebellion, so we’ll likely see large-scale green innovation until the situation is markedly improved. In the case of this one country, the world’s most populous, oppression may have an unintended positive consequence. Strange planet, isn’t it?

It’s still surprising that capitalism’s rise in China hasn’t been attended by a growth of democracy. From John Osburg’s Foreign Affairs review of the new book on the topic by Evan Osnos:

“Meanwhile, although growth has created a middle class of sorts and even an upper crust of very wealthy Chinese, neither group has followed the anticipated script. For the most part, the new middle class seems too preoccupied with the intense pressures of owning a home and raising a child in a hypercompetitive society to get involved in politics. As for the new rich, they have hardly pushed for a fairer and more representative government to protect their new prosperity. Instead, most of them have been co-opted by the Communist Party — or have simply emigrated to countries with more reliable legal systems. 

Perhaps most telling, today young Chinese across the socioeconomic spectrum exhibit almost none of the political fervor that led thousands of students to take to the streets in 1989. China’s educational system has fed the country’s youth a steady diet of patriot-ism to ward off rebellious thoughts. But such measures appear almost redundant, since many young Chinese seem more interested in buying iPhones and Louis Vuitton products than in fighting for democratic change. 

On the surface, then, the prediction that Chinese economic and political reform would go hand in hand seems not to have panned out. In truth, however, the story is more complicated. As Evan Osnos suggests in Age of Ambition, the optimistic view of China’s evolution wasn’t entirely wrong; it merely relied on a conception of politics too narrow to capture a number of subtle but profound shifts that have changed China in ways that are not always immediately visible. In his riveting profiles of entrepreneurs, journalists, artists, dissidents, and strivers, Osnos discovers the emergence in Chinese society of something even more fundamental than a desire for political representation: a search for dignity.”

 

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Delancey Place has a passage from David Graeber’s great 2011 book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, about knights, who have been gifted with a sense of gallantry by history and literature that they were not due. An excerpt:

“It was … at the height of the fairs of Champagne and the Italian mer­chant empires, between 1160 and 1172, that the term ‘adventure’ be­gan to take on its contemporary meaning. The man most responsible for it was the French poet Chretien de Troyes, author of the famous Arthurian romances — most famous, perhaps, for being the first to tell the story of Sir Percival and the Holy Grail. The romances were a new sort of literature featuring a new sort of hero, the ‘knight-errant,’ a warrior who roamed the world in search of, precisely, ‘adventure’ — in the contemporary sense of the word: perilous challenges, love, trea­sure, and renown. Stories of knightly adventure quickly became enor­mously popular, Chretein was followed by innumerable imitators, and the central characters in the stories — Arthur and Guinevere, Lance­lot, Gawain, Percival, and the rest — became known to everyone, as they are still. This courtly ideal of the gallant knight, the quest, the joust, romance and adventure, remains central to our image of the Middle Ages.

The curious thing is that it bears almost no relation to reality. Nothing remotely like a real ‘knight-errant’ ever existed. ‘Knights’ had originally been a term for freelance warriors, drawn from the younger or, often, bastard sons of the minor nobility. Unable to in­herit, many were forced to band together to seek their fortunes. Many became little more than roving bands of thugs, in an endless pursuit of plunder — precisely the sort of people who made [the newly emerging class of] merchants’ lives so dangerous.”

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From the December 12, 1885 New York Times:

Bellaire, Ohio–Frederick Glatzer and Frederick Summers are coal diggers and reside with their families up Indian Run, a few miles from this city. What has made them notorious is the fact that they are fond of dog meat, and on occasions when the average mortal buys a turkey to celebrate with, these people kill a dog and roast it. Glatzer’s wife has not been in the country very long, but during the time she has lived here the family has had several dog roasts, and have made them very enjoyable occasions, and on Christmas expect to have another, at which a number of relatives will be present.”

Another reaction to the Pew Research Center report about labor and technology in the near-term, this one by Eric Reid at MSN Money, who focuses on one of the most essential questions: Will the Digital Age trump the patterns of the Industrial Age, whereby the rise of the machines lifted everyone, increasing production, creating new jobs and industries to replace the ones it disrupted? An excerpt:

“The traditional relationship between labor and technology has been a positive, if contentious, one. When new devices improve productivity, companies can maintain the same output with fewer people, so they lay some off. Although this leads to temporary unemployment, it also improves incomes for the remaining workers and management, who go out and spend their extra money. This creates jobs elsewhere, and the combined productivity of these new jobs along with the new technology means that the economy as a whole ends up both producing and consuming more overall.

In other words, the pie gets bigger and increases everyone’s slice with it. As Professor Donald Grimes, an economist with the University of Michigan, wrote:

‘Think of tractors and all of the other agricultural productivity gains. We are now producing far more output with a small fraction of the number of farmers that we used to have. Or of the productivity effect of the assembly line. And in terms of IT, think about how spreadsheet programs reduced the number of ‘book keepers.’ Or how the internet allowed people to buy their own airline tickets, thus eliminating lots of travel agency jobs.

‘In terms of the big picture these productivity gains raised the incomes of the people who continued to work in these professions, and/or made the owners of the machinery richer, or helped to make airline tickets cheaper. When people spent their extra money they created jobs in other industries and the people who lost their jobs were re-employed in new jobs. Over time these productivity gains raised our wages and our standard of living.’

This model makes two assumptions, however: First, that we all share in the profits of increasing productivity, and second, that laid-off workers will have other industries to move into. Both of these assumptions may be falling apart.”

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Douglas Coupland starts off his latest Financial Times column with a stunning fact about Icelandic novels and then addresses how individuality has been swallowed by the shiny, disquieting machine we’ve built for ourselves, which is capable of quantifying and measuring everyone, constantly reminding us that we don’t measure up. The opening:

“Last summer in Reykjavik I learnt that one in 10 Icelanders will write a novel in their lifetime. This is impressive but I suppose the downside is that each novel only gets nine readers. In a weird way, our world is turning into a world of Icelandic novelists, except substitute ‘blog,’ ‘vlog’ or ‘website’ for ‘novel’ – and … there we are. A defining sentiment of our new era is that never before has being an individual been so easily broadcast, yet never before has individuality felt so ever-increasingly far away. Before the 21st century, we lived with the notion of one’s self as a noble citizen of the world, a lone soul whose life was a story written across a span of seven decades. Instead, we now live with the ever-gnawing sensation that one’s self is really just one more meat unit among seven billion other meat units.

This 21st-century crisis of individuality expresses itself in many ways. In Japan there is the phenomenon of the hikikomori. Your child grows up, leaves home and then, after a few years, returns home and never leaves his or her bedroom ever again. Ever. The rare hikikomori will venture out in the middle of the night to visit a local minimart but that’s it. In 2010, the Japanese government estimated there were 700,000 hikikomori in Japan. Yes, you read that correctly: almost three-quarters-of-a-million modern-day elective hermits back with mom and dad, and they are psychologically incapable of ever leaving. Ever.

I suspect what these young people are experiencing is what I term ‘atomophobia’ – the fear of feeling like an individual.”

 

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“I’ve been ripping shit up lately.”

“I’ve been ripping shit up lately.”

Changing my evil ways

I’ve been ripping shit up lately. Four or five hookers a week, $700 – $1200 per week on party favors, at least one swinger party a week, not taking my work seriously and now I’m left feeling spent. I’m about to do a complete turnaround. No one event made me sit down and say, “That’s enough! Time to act like an adult, find a girlfriend and follow the well traveled path,” but that’s kinda where I’m heading.

I’d like to hear from people who have made the transition. Was it tough? How did you deal with the routine of a less exciting existence? How did you deal with the actual intimacy? I’ve been functioning at a pretty high level (no pun intended) for a while. Maybe it’s tolerance or maybe somewhere deep inside, I knew that I was going to end this behavior. Being single with no children and making six figures is a trap sometimes.

The first two excellent paragraphs of “Welcome to the Integratron,” Jody Rosen’s new T Magazine article about a large-scale “time-travel” contraption in the California desert that was purported to be ordered built in 1957 by Venusians:

“In the wee hours of Aug. 24, 1953, George Van Tassel, a 43-year-old former aviation engineer, was awakened by a man from outer space. Six years earlier, Van Tassel had moved with his family to Landers, Calif., a place of stark beauty and rainbow sunsets in the southeastern corner of the Mojave Desert, 40 desolate miles due north of Palm Springs. Van Tassel had the clean-cut look of a midcentury company man, and a résumé to match: He had worked for Lockheed and Douglas Aircraft, and for Howard Hughes’s aviation concern. But his spiritual leanings were esoteric. He settled in Landers because of its proximity to Giant Rock, an enormous seven-story-high desert boulder in whose shadow he would sit silently for hours at a stretch. He told friends that he went to Giant Rock to commune with the spirits of American Indians, who had regarded the boulder as sacred.

But on that night in 1953, Van Tassel’s visitor was not a Native American. He was, Van Tassel claimed, a Venusian: the captain of a ‘scout ship’ from Venus that had landed on the airstrip abutting Van Tassel’s property. The spaceman looked like a human, wore a gray one-piece bodysuit and spoke, Van Tassel told a television interviewer, ‘in the best English, equivalent to Ronald Colman’s.’ He informed Van Tassel that his name was Solganda and that he was 700 years old. (He looked no older than 28, Van Tassel said.) Van Tassel was ushered onto the spacecraft where he was told that Earthlings’ reliance on metal building materials was interfering with radio frequencies and disrupting interplanetary ‘thought transfers.’ Solganda also divulged a secret: a formula that Van Tassel could use to build a remarkable machine, a device that would generate electrostatic energy to suspend the laws of gravity, extend human life and facilitate high-speed time travel.”

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“There is no such place anywhere.”

The infamous Wild West town of Deadwood was profiled in all its raffish, criminal, merciless glory in the the August 13, 1877 New York Times. An excerpt:

Deadwood is as lively as ever. It is a queer place. The man who ventured the remark that a fool and his money are soon parted must have had in his mind’s eye some such place as this. It is the sharpers’ paradise. The “tenderfoot” is here brought face to face with the ingenious bummer, the slick confidence man, the claim jumper, the land shark and the desperado, and he is a man of more than usual alertness who does not get ‘taken in’ somehow or other before he has been 24 hours in this sinful city. There is no such place anywhere. It shows up in its worst forms the ‘fast and flash’ American trait. A little over a year ago the site of this swarming camp was a part of the howling wilderness. To-day there are along the streets and up and down in the gulches, within a mile, over 10,000 people. Here is a city of 4,000 inhabitants, with a floating population of 2,000 more. About 1,500 houses and huts, and hundreds of tents up the hill-sides, an academy, church, two daily newspapers, four banks; 20 lawyers, physicians, dentists, artists; club-houses, theatres in full blast every night, the streets thronged with speculators, tramps, and bummers: gambling-hells open all day long, and ‘cappers’ on every corner watching for the next ‘victim’–such is a hasty glance at Deadwood. It is a place in which the few prey upon the many. You cannot buy anything for less than a quarter; your living costs you double what it would at Denver or Salt Lake City. You can’t step in any direction without facing some device for getting rid of your money. They have even got a “corner” on postage stamps and you must pay from a dime to a quarter for a three-cent stamp. It is no wonder that the thousands who come here with a few dollars in their pockets soon find themselves ‘dead broke’ and dependent upon the charity of the better class of people. It cannot be urged too strongly that poor men or men of small competence should stay away from Black Hills. It may not be out of the way for capitalists to come and look around; but let the poor man stay away. One of the business men here, seeing the condition of the hundreds who lay idle and penniless about the street, has the honesty to write to the Deadwood Times, for the benefit of ‘pilgrims,’ in which he says that the truth ought to be told. and the “tenderfeet” be advised to stay at home. I quote from his communication:

deadwodd890“There are thousands of men in the Hills who would be glad to work for their bread, or enough money to pay their way back home; but there is no employment for them. The placer claims are all taken up by the first comers, and the quartz leads are not yet sufficiently developed to require many laborers. I never saw so many sick-looking men in my life as I have seen in Deadwood. They come here without a cent in their pockets, expecting to gobble up gold by the bucketful, and they soon go away without a ‘flea in the ear.’ Now these pilgrims are not only fools in this ‘vain delusive world.’ They come here full of greedy expectation, but in 24 hours their gorgeous air castles have blown away into bubbles.”•

Whether it’s kidneys or kidney beans, 3D printers have as much potential as anything to transform our world. But how close is the reality? From Lisa Fleisher at the Wall Street Journal:

“A 3-D printed pizza isn’t coming to a home kitchen near you anytime soon. But a personalized wedding cake topper? That could be commercially viable a lot quicker, says Gartner analyst Pete Basiliere.

The vision of printing your own food, gifts or shoes at home is at least five to 10 years away, analyst firm Gartner said in a report on 3-D printing released Tuesday, part of its annual tradition of trying to gauge how much of the talk around various technologies is real vs. hype. 3-D printing refers to a way of manufacturing things on the spot, commonly by spurting out layer upon layer of material such as plastic to forge something based on a digital design.

The most common and easiest use for 3-D printing is to create product models, which is about two years away from its peak usage, the report said. Mainstream adoption of 3-D printing in medicine — a rapidly advancing area that includes everything from actual organs to prosthetic limbs — is about two to five years away. But the technology just isn’t practical enough for everyday use at home, at least not yet, Basiliere said.”

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Reddit pointed me to a post at economist Robin Hansen’s blog, in which he engages in some extreme speculation. Hansen looks at how the trends of longer lifespans and accelerated social change may lead to a multi-generational disconnect, which has encouraged some futurists to suggest governance by totalitarian computer, or Fascism by algorithm. They think it inevitable anyway, so they want to try to commandeer this brave new world to some extent. I don’t think we get that option should the computer apocalypse occur. An excerpt:

“In history we have seen change not only in technology and environments, but also in habits, cultures, attitudes, and preferences. New generations often act not just like the same people thrust into new situations, but like new kinds of people with new attitudes and preferences. This has often intensified intergenerational conflicts; generations have argued not only about who should consume and control what, but also about which generational values should dominate.

So far, this sort of intergenerational value conflict has been limited due to the relatively mild value changes that have so far appeared within individual lifetimes. But at least two robust trends suggest the future will have more value change, and thus more conflict:

  1. Longer lifespans – Holding other things constant, the longer people live the more generations will overlap at any one time, and the more different will be their values.
  2. Faster change – Holding other things constant, a faster rate of economic and social change will likely induce values to change faster as people adapt to these social changes.
  3. Value plasticity – It may become easier for our descendants to change their values, all else equal. This might be via stronger ads and schools, or direct brain rewiring. (This trend seems less robust.)

These trends robustly suggest that toward the end of their lives future folk will more often look with disapproval at the attitudes and behaviors of younger generations, even as these older generations have a smaller proportional influence on the world. There will be more ‘Get off my lawn! Damn kids got no respect.’

The futurists who most worry about this problem tend to assume a worst possible case. (Supporting quotes below.) That is, without a regulatory solution we face the prospect of quickly sharing the world with daemon spawn of titanic power who share almost none of our values. Not only might they not like our kind of music, they might not like music. They might not even be conscious. One standard example is that they might want only to fill the universe with paperclips, and rip us apart to make more paperclip materials. Futurists’ key argument: the space of possible values is vast, with most points far from us.

This increased intergenerational conflict is the new problem that tempts some futurists today to consider a new regulatory solution. And their preferred solution: a complete totalitarian takeover of the world, and maybe the universe, by a new super-intelligent computer.

You heard that right.”

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Father Yod had 14 wives, but it’s not polite to count.

Before he was an oddly named cult leader, Yod was James Edward Baker, a Marine and stuntman who in 1969 opened a Sunset Strip health-food restaurant, the Source, and founded a cult, the Source Family, a group of beautiful young people housed in a Los Angeles mansion. Oh, and he fronted an improvisational psychedelic band called YaHoWa 13. Yod was killed almost immediately after moving his improvised family to Hawaii, believing he could hang glide from a 1,000 foot peak even though he had no experience in the sport. 

I suppose it’s because the commune never blew up into any kind of Manson-ish mayhem that it’s looked back upon (from a distance) almost fondly. But insular societies are always just a couple of steps from madness. Of course, I guess you could say the same of nations, though it’s easier to find refuge in a larger world.

The opening of Steffie Nelson’s 2007 Los Angeles Times article about the guru and his group:

Earlier this summer, almost 100 psychedelic music fans, subculture aficionados, students of the occult and local literati climbed the flower-petal-strewn steps of publisher couple Jodi Wille and Adam Parfrey’s Silver Lake home for a salon celebrating the upcoming publication of The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, YaHoWa 13 and the Source Family (Process), the definitive history of a mystical cult that thrived in Los Angeles between 1970 and 1974. The book’s author, Isis Aquarian (formerly Charlene Peters), had flown in from Hawaii, and Family members Omne, Magus, Electra and Orbit, all of whom are now in their 50s and 60s, had also come to share stories.

During a Q&A session, they good-naturedly addressed whether they’d been brainwashed (‘Absolutely!’ said Orbit, who now goes by David) and answered questions about Dionysm, the form of tantric sex they’d practiced.

‘I’m ready to join right now!’ announced one attendee, no doubt echoing the sentiments of many who wistfully longed for a time when Utopia was, if not entirely feasible, at least on the agenda.

Imagine your fantasy commune, the one you’d find only in the movies, where everyone is young and beautiful; the clothes are fabulous; the leader benign; and home is a mansion in the Hollywood Hills. Chances are it probably looks a lot like the Source Family, whose 140 members “dropped out” right in the middle of Los Angeles. Led by a bearded, hunky, 6-foot-3 former war hero who called himself Father Yod and, later, YaHoWha, this vibrant group of men and women embarked on a wild social experiment, turning all their material possessions over to the group and supporting themselves serving gourmet vegetarian cuisine at their popular Sunset Strip restaurant, the Source. Living communally in a Los Feliz mansion owned by the Chandler family (former owners of this newspaper) and then in a house built by Catherine Deneuve, many of them formed polyamorous relationships; not surprisingly, the most extreme example was Father Yod, who took 14 “spiritual wives.”

Notwithstanding the group’s visible presence in Hollywood (brothers and sisters could often be seen strolling en masse down Sunset, Atlantean robes and hair a-flowing), extensive media coverage, and the catalog of music they recorded as YaHoWa 13 — legendary among connoisseurs of psychedelic rock — the Source story has remained untold for 30 years. This is partly because of a vow of secrecy taken by all members, but more likely it’s a reflection of their confusion and even shame about the communal experience, for which American society gave them only one place to file: in the freaky hippie bin.•

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The trailer for the 2013 documentary, The Source Family, available on Netflix:

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From the February 28, 1867 New York Times:

Buffalo–Five dead bodies, two males, two females, and one newborn infant, were found by the Detective Police at the Grand Trunk Railroad depot this afternoon. They were shipped through the American Express Company for Ann Arbor, Mich. The bodies were packed  in flour barrels in a nude state, and had not been dead over a week. The bodies are now being cleansed of flour, and will be exposed for identification to-morrow morning. This city is wild with excitement to know whose relations have been thus desecrated by body snatchers.”

You can have a very low crime rate in a police state, provided you don’t count the crimes committed by the police.

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I still remember when Rudolph Giuliani was mayor of New York, and he sent helicopters to break up a gathering of African-American youth in Harlem at the precise second the city said it had to end, because one of the adult speakers was a well-known bigot. What if one of the copters had malfunctioned and crashed into the children? Imagine that horror.

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War is big business in America, and we seem to use every reason–War on Drugs, War on Terror, etc.–to arm ourselves to the teeth, often getting bitten ourselves in the end. Those drones and weapons developed during the travesty of the Iraq War have begun making their way to your local police departments. But the problem stretches back further than that. From the Economist:

“ON AUGUST 9th Darren Wilson, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed black man. Two days after the shooting, tactical officers—paramilitary police generally referred to as SWAT (for Special Weapons and Tactics)—were called in to help clear protestors from in front of Ferguson’s police department. They arrived dressed for war, in riot gear and gas masks, bearing long truncheons and automatic weapons—despite the fact that aside from some ugly looting incidents the day after the shooting, Ferguson’s protests have largely been peaceful. In the days that followed, tactical officers have tear-gassed a news crew, aimed automatic weapons and sniper rifles at unarmed protestors and patrolled the streets of a small town in Missouri in vehicles that would not look out of place in Baghdad or Aleppo. The days of the beat cop walking the street with nothing more than a trusty old revolver seem distant indeed. How did America’s police forces get so well-armed?

In this as with so much else in American governance, it starts with federal cash. Every year Congress passes the National Defence Authorisation Act, which sets out the Defence Department’s budget and expenditures. The version passed in 1990, in the wake of a sharp rise in drug-related violence, allowed the Defence Department to transfer military gear and weapons to local police departments if they were deemed ‘suitable for use in counter-drug activities.’ Between 2002 and 2011 the Department of Homeland Security, established after the attacks of September 11th 2001, disbursed more than $35 billion in grants to state and local police forces. In addition the ‘1033 programme’ allows the Defence Department to distribute surplus equipment to local police departments for use in counter-terrorism and counter-drug activities. The American Civil Liberties Union found that the value of military equipment used by American police departments has risen from $1m in 1990 to nearly $450m in 2013.”

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