Urban Studies

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Much of Sven Hedin’s life was lived in public, but the truth about him is somewhat buried nonetheless, strange for a Swedish explorer who spent his life unearthing the hidden. His expeditions to Central Asia just before and after beginning of the twentieth century introduced the world to invaluable art and artifacts and folkways and cities that had been lost to time.

Hedin was admired for these efforts in all corners of the world, including the one occupied by Adolf Hitler. The geographer perplexingly returned the Führer’s admiration, believing in the Nazi’s nationalistic and traditionalist tendencies, which was obviously a catastrophic misjudgement. He was highly critical, however, of the Party’s anti-Semitism. These protests brought trouble. Hitler seems to have blackmailed the famed explorer into publishing pro-Nazi tracts by imperiling some of Hedin’s Jewish friends still inside Germany. But it’s difficult to believe Hedin encouraged Sweden to ally with Germany during WWII to save a few friends. He just apparently didn’t want to recognize the evil. A disease of the eye caused Hedin to become partially blind in 1940, an apt metaphor for this period of his life.

Long before his dubious politics, Hedin penned an article for Harper’s about an unusual subterranean Tibetan custom, a piece reprinted in the September 17, 1908 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

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For all the other depressing lessons it taught Americans, the Tea Party hysteria made on thing especially clear: There are large segments of America that believe the government is gaining too much control. The opposite is true, of course. Technological innovation has given us a decentralized media, which can be a good thing and sometimes bad. The power has shifted, and it’s not going back. From John Kerry’s comments reported by CSNews’ Terence P. Jeffrey:

“‘Ever since the end of the Cold War, forces have been unleashed that were tamped down for centuries by dictators, and that was complicated further by this little thing called the internet and the ability of people everywhere to communicate instantaneously and to have more information coming at them in one day than most people can process in months or a year.

‘It makes it much harder to govern, makes it much harder to organize people, much harder to find the common interest,’ said [John] Kerry, ‘and that is complicated by a rise of sectarianism and religious extremism that is prepared to employ violent means to impose on other people a way of thinking and a way of living that is completely contrary to everything the United States of America has ever stood for. So we need to keep in mind what our goals are and how complicated this world is that we’re operating in.'”

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For Mark Landis, one of the world’s most prolific art forgers, it wasn’t business, just personal. He would duplicate and then donate, posing as a philanthropist or some such thing. Museums ate it up, and Landis received the love he was looking for, the thrill not coming from deception but affection. But he was spit back out after being exposed in 2008 as a fake. He did an AMA at Reddit as a new film about him, Art and Craft, is being released. A few exchanges follow.

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Question:

What made you become a forger and how did you realize forgery was a skill you had ?

Mark Landis:

Oh, okay! Way back, I had an impulse, I guess, it was around 1985, I had an impulse to – I guess I was watching things on TV, and you know, I was always seeing things on TV or in movies or about philanthropists giving things, and of course when you’re in a museum you see “Donated by” next to pictures – it was an impulse to give away a picture in Oakland while I was there on another business. And everybody was so nice to me, they treated me with so much deference and respect and friendship-they treated me like royalty. When I first found out I was in trouble, I was led to a Guardian article, and that’s a UK paper, and it said I had been treated like royalty – I had never been treated like royalty before. I liked it so much, I got addicted, and that’s how it all happened.

And what did royalty ever do to deserve to be treated like royalty, anyway?

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Question:

Do you believe that forgery is the true art? Could you transfer your skills to copying from real-life images or photos?

Mark Landis:

As far as the other things, it’s something I Never really thought of. Actually, I still don’t really think of myself as much of an artist, you know? I’m not much of an artist, and I haven’t got any great talent or anything, I do have a facility for arts & crafts, and the rest of it, I kind of lost track of it. I never thought of myself as really a “forger” either. As I said, it was an impulse and I got addicted to it. Everybody likes being treated like royalty, or having people treat them with deference and respect, that sort of thing. VIP treatment, that’s it. Everybody wants to get treated like a VIP, don’t they?

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Question:

What is your opinion on the monetary value of art & the massive prices paid for some artworks?

Mark Landis:

What’s my opinion? Gee… I hadn’t really thought about it… I guess it’s like any kind of commodity, or it’s more like fashion or something, you know, it’s very speculative… because pictures don’t have an intrinsic value, really, so you know, it’s determined by all kinds of things. I guess the best analogy would be the fashion world, you know, if somebody takes something up and then prices will rise and that sort of thing. That’s the best I can do. I’ve never answered that one before! No one ever valued my opinion or asked me that. So that’s the best I can do.•

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I posted this remarkable 1978 footage on the site a couple of years ago when it was briefly available. It shows the mysterious new world that was booting up inside the Palo Alto Byte Shop, one of the outlets in Paul Terrell’s early personal computer retail chain.

It makes me a little sad, though, that just for a brief, shining moment, the machinery and not merely the content, was in the hands of the users. Now it’s a top-down affair again, with consumers eagerly awaiting the next product announcement from Apple.

I don’t mean to disparage the amazing tools we’ve been handed, but I think that’s part of the problem: They’ve been handed to us. Perhaps our use of these tools would be more productive and less narcissistic if more of it had been the product of our own hands. Maybe the Maker culture will proliferate and change all of that.

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In a new Brookings paper, law professor Ryan Calo proposes that a federal robotics commission be formed to oversee the likely rapid expansion of automation and AI in America. It certainly sounds more useful than the FCC. An excerpt:

“Robotics stands poised to transform our society. This set of technologies has seen massive investment by the military and industry, as well as sustained attention by the media and other social, cultural, and economic institutions. Law is already responding: several states have laws governing driverless cars. Other states have laws concerning the use of drones. In Virginia, there is a law that requires insurance to cover the costs of telerobotic care.

The federal government is also dealing with robotics. There have been repeated hearings on drones and, recently, on high speed trading algorithms (market robots) and other topics on the Hill. Congress charged the Federal Aviation Administration with creating a plan to integrate drones into the national airspace by 2015. The Food and Drug Administration approved, and is actively monitoring, robotic surgery. And the NHTSA, in addition to dealing with software glitches in manned vehicles, has looked extensively at the issue of driverless cars and even promulgated guidance.

This activity is interesting and important, but hopelessly piecemeal: agencies, states, courts, and others are not in conversation with one another. Even the same government entities fail to draw links across similar technologies; drones come up little in discussions of driverless cars despite presenting similar issues of safety, privacy, and psychological unease.

Much is lost in this patchwork approach. Robotics and artificial intelligence produce a distinct set of challenges with considerable overlap—an insight that gets lost when you treat each robot separately. Specifically, robotics combines, for the first time, the promiscuity of data with physical embodiment—robots are software that can touch you. For better or for worse, we have been very tolerant of the harms that come from interconnectivity and disruptive innovation—including privacy, security, and hate speech. We will have to strike a new balance when bones are on the line in addition to bits.

Robotics increasingly display emergent behavior, meaning behavior that is useful but cannot be anticipated in advance by operators. The value of these systems is that they accomplish a task that we did not realize was important, or they accomplish a known goal in a way that we did not realize was possible. Kiva Systems does not organize Amazon’s warehouses the way a human would, which is precisely why Amazon engaged and later purchased the company. Yet criminal, tort, and other types of law rely on human intent and foreseeability to apportion blame when things go wrong.”

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From the July 19, 1942 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

London — Fresh cat meat and dog meat is now sold for human consumption in the meat shops of Holland, but it first must be inspected for disease, the Dutch News Agency Aneta said today.”

Some are worried about alien encounters, while others long for them. From Kiveli Nikolaou’s Vice interview with political scientist Guillermo Almeyra about Posadaism, the belief among some Argentine socialists that UFOs will bring about Utopia: 

Question:

Do Posadists really believe in aliens?

Guillermo Almeyra:

The logic goes as follows: Since there are billions of galaxies with billions of planets in them, there is bound to be [intelligent life] elsewhere. These alien people are communists and want to communicate with more advanced communists—the Posadists.

Question:

And how will they bring about socialism?

Guillermo Almeyra:

According to this theory, it is only under socialist conditions that the technology for interplanetary travel can be developed. So the emergence of signs of alien life is connected to the existence of socialism on a different planet. The aliens will plan the revolution on Earth based on their experiences of communism in their planet. This is the absurdity that some of us resisted—some less educated individuals accepted it.

Question:

What is the new society that Posadists are fighting for going to look like?

Guillermo Almeyra:

Their vision is actually orthodox: The revolution will destroy the bourgeois state and replace it with a state that will be founded according to the decisions of its workers. The media will be rehabilitated, the economy will be well organized, and exports or trade between countries will be monopolized by the state, as was done in the Soviet Union.”

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When a piece of the Underground Economy is exposed to the light of day, what happens to those peddlers who were most adept when skirting the law was a part of the bargain? From Paul Hiebert’s Pacific-Standard profile of a pot dealer whose business model has been disrupted:

“RIGHT NOW, IT’S HARD to tell what the end of marijuana prohibition would mean for Raymond. The experiments in Colorado and Washington are still young. The Washington Post reports that Colorado’s black market is nowhere near dead because the illegal stuff remains cheaper since it isn’t taxed or subject to other regulatory costs. The New York Times reports similar price issues in Washington caused by a small amount of regulated supply in the face of huge demand.

Some, however, think that once more growers and dispensaries enter the legal market, prices will adjust accordingly. It also may simply take a while for loyal customers to sever relationships with their established dealers. In the long run, Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the University of California-Los Angeles and renowned expert on the topic of drug legality, believes street-level dealers will disappear almost completely. ‘I think illegally growing marijuana in those states will become as common as illegally brewing whiskey,’ he told a reporter last July.

‘If this was happening and I was 23 with no college degree or work experience, I’d be losing my mind,’ Raymond says. ‘I’d be like, ‘What the fuck am I going to do?”

But Raymond has investments and well over a year’s worth of salary saved up. He knows a lawyer who wants to transform his operation into a legitimate business when the time is right, but he also seems like he’d be fine with just walking away.”

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3 webisodes from Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair’s High Maintenance, currently one of the most miraculously written and acted shows in any format.

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It’s cartography at the granular level, but every twist and turn, detour and closure, highway and byway, will have to be constantly updated in real time if autonomous driving is to be made safe. Not only will the vehicles move but so will the road maps. From Vince Bond Jr. at Automotive News:

“DETROIT — History’s most intrepid explorers were often at the mercy of their maps. The self-driving cars of the future won’t be any different.

Autonomous vehicles will sport sophisticated sensors and radar systems to read and react to their surroundings, but their robotic drivers still will require vivid and current roadmaps to put the various inputs into context. And creating those maps will require intense collaboration among auto industry players, map makers, technology companies and government, along with a heavy dose of crowdsourcing, industry experts say.

Jim Keller, chief engineer for Honda R&D Americas Inc., sees a future in which cars and their various sensors will collect and share roadway data, updating maps with real-time information that would be used by all automakers ‘as a community’– akin to the Waze mobile navigation app, through which drivers alert one another to upcoming road closures, speed traps and traffic.

‘Mapping is going to be critical in the future,’ Keller said during an interview at the Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress here. ‘It’s almost a symbiotic relationship between the auto companies and what we need and what we’re asking from the maps.

‘Symbiotic means that we’re also going to be feeding the map makers with updated data and then using that same information to help us,’ Keller added. ‘It’s really a paradigm shift happening as we move forward related to mapping.'”

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Even in the wake of the twin horrors of World War I and a global flu pandemic, the crimes of Nathan E. Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb couldn’t be easily comprehended. In 1924, the gifted, wealthy sons of the best of everything Chicago society had to offer, kidnapped and murdered 14-year-old Robert Franks for the “thrill” of it all. It was nothing personal–they knew and liked the lad–they just desired to commit the “perfect crime.” Once arrested, the pair confessed to the premeditated brutality and were defended by Clarence Darrow, who kept them from the death house. Loeb was killed by a fellow prisoner, while Leopold was paroled in 1958 and subsequently moved to Puerto Rico, where he worked in medicine and education. Theories abounded at the time as to what drove their heinous act: poor parenting, improper moral education, overindulgence, an infatuation with science, manic depression, paranoia, sexual perversion, even too much Nietzsche. But it was likely a confluence of factors forever bound in a knot. The below article is from the June 1, 1924 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

 

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Julian Assange is an asshole, but so are a lot of useful people. Whistleblowers are vital in a free society, and I certainly don’t expect them to be perfect, but Assange is a messenger of such dubious character that it pollutes his message.

In today’s Gawker chat, Assange chose to not answer one of the best questions–“Given the collapse of your support since avoiding rape charges for several years, don’t you think that Wikileaks, as an organisation, would have been better served if you resigned?”–but he did respond to some others. A few exchanges follow.

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Question:

Dear Mr. Assange, through your efforts and that of Wikileaks as a whole, you have led to a new era of whistleblowing that has revealed the extent of America’s malfeasance across the globe. We have also seen the United States (and others) attempt to break down the safeguards that enabled individuals to leak information to you and others. Do you think after Manning and Snowden that leaks of such magnitude are still possible?

Julian Assange:

Not only are leaks of this magnitude still possible, they are an inevitability. And there’s more coming, not less. While Washington DC has tried to set general deterants, we’ve set general incentives. That’s why we beat them at their own game and got Snowden to safety. So he could keep his voice and through his example of relative freedom act as general incentive.

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Question:

Julian, do you think you have anything—anything at all—in common with Eric Schmidt?

Julian Assange:

Plenty – I discuss it a lot in the book, e.g.: “Schmidt’s dour appearance concealed a machinelike analyticity. His questions often skipped to the heart of the matter, betraying a powerful nonverbal structural intelligence. It was the same intellect that had abstracted software-engineering principles to scale Google into a megacorp, ensuring that the corporate infrastructure always met the rate of growth. This was a person who understood how to build and maintain systems: systems of information and systems of people. My world was new to him, but it was also a world of unfolding human processes, scale, and information flows.”

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Question:

I feel you’ve done a great service to humanity for pulling the curtains back on corruption and lies. Do you have any ideas, or see any ways that the human race can change our ways to create a path towards more transparency, truthfulness, and doing what’s right?

Julian Assange:

One thing you can do, which is quite simple, is treat companies like Google and Facebook as the corporations they are. Lots of people – especially on the left – are aware of the ways in which corporations are exploitative and harmful. But there is a disconnect when it comes to Silicon Valley. Lots of people refuse to buy Coca Cola, but they don’t see any problem with having a Gmail account. I think that is changing lately, but we need a movement to divest from these corporations – which destroy privacy – and to build an alternative internet that isn’t as actively harmful to human interests.

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Question:

There was a piece in Slate last year about Google, that I kept thinking about with respect to this book, about how Google’s internal culture and goals are bound up in Star Trek. For example: Amit Singhal, the head of Google’s search rankings team, told the South by Southwest Interactive Festival that “The destiny of [Google’s search engine] is to become that Star Trek computer, and that’s what we are building.”

It makes sense to me in that there’s a real Camelot-era liberal pro-statist ideal underlying Star Trek’s vision of the future, and I’m curious what your sense was as to whether or not Eric Schmidt really buys into that. AND/OR I am curious to know how your idealized vision of the future differs from that Google Star Trek model.

Julian Assange:

I hadn’t seen that piece. At a glance, it reminds me of the discovery that the NSA had had the bridge of the Enterprise recreated. In my experience it is more reliable and fairer to look at peoples interests and expenditure rather than try to diagnose their inner mental state, as the latter often lets people project their own biases. As I say in the book, I found Eric Schmidt to be, as you would expect, a very sharp operator. If you read The New Digital Age, the apolitical futurism of Star Trek seems to fit what Schmidt writes quite well. I also quite liked this summary of Google’s vision for the future: “Google’s vision of the future is pure atom-age 1960s Jetsons fantasy, bubble-dwelling spiritless sexists above a ruined earth.”

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Question:

Russian FSB. You didn’t release that information, and today, you and the Russians are downright chummy, with you reportedly assisting Edward Snowden in his “travels” there, in spite of Russia’s considerable human rights and surveillance abuses. How do you square your relationship with Russia and your government transparency/anti-authoritarian goals?

Julian Assange:

This is the usual attempt to attack the messager because the message is indisputable. The approach would already be invalid at that level, but it is also strictly false. Many things you may perceive to be true about an individual or a nation are helpful rhetorical positions that spread around through one group or another like a virus. In the end the collection of these thought-viruses, or memes, reflects the psychological and political contours of the group in which it inhabits. We have published more than 600,000 documents relating to Russia. The US stranded him in Russia by cancelling his passport. The US State Department just keeps kicking own goals. It is not my fault, or Edward Snowden’s fault that they’re so incompetent.•

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The Industrial and Technological Revolutions have, in many ways, been great. We’re not only richer (most of us) materially, but information is so much richer as well. It’s been a mixed victory, however, a Pyrrhic one even, when you factor in environmental damage. From Jeremy Caradonna in the Atlantic:

“But what if we rethink the narrative of progress? What if we believe that the inventions in and after the Industrial Revolution have made some things better and some things worse? What if we adopt a more critical and skeptical attitude toward the values we’ve inherited from the past? Moreover, what if we write environmental factors back in to the story of progress? Suddenly, things begin to seem less rosy. Indeed, in many ways, the ecological crisis of the present day has roots in the Industrial Revolution. 

For instance, consider the growth of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere since 1750. Every respectable body that studies climate science, including NASA, the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has been able to correlate GHG concentrations with the pollutants that machines have been spewing into the atmosphere since the late-18th century. These scientific bodies also correlate GHGs with other human activities, such as the clearing of forests (which releases a lot of carbon dioxide and removes a crucial carbon sink from the planet), and the breeding of methane-farting cows. But fossil fuels are the main culprit (coal, gas, and oil) and account for much of the increase in the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The main GHGs, to be sure, are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and a few others, many of which can be charted over time by analyzing the chemistry of long-frozen ice cores. More recent GHG levels are identified from direct atmospheric measurements.

What we learn from these scientific analyses is that the Industrial Revolution ushered in a veritable Age of Pollution, which has resulted in filthy cities, toxic industrial sites (and human bodies), contaminated soils, polluted and acidified oceans, and a ‘blanket’ of air pollution that traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, which then destabilizes climate systems and ultimately heats the overall surface temperature of the planet.”

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Good history from the New York Times about the convergence of cars and computers, initially the unintended consequence of the battle over airbags.

From Douglas Coupland’s latest Financial Times column, a bit about the way we live now, with brains not yet literally plugged into hardware though they might as well be:

“It is incontestable that we are collectively rebuilding our neural structures. For example, notice how, when telling people about an idea to be researched later, the goal is to rattle off search words as a means of establishing future locatability. ‘When you get home just google MOTHER TERESA, TOPLESS and LAWSUIT. You’ll find what I’m talking about right away.’

The way we’re collectively redefining searchability is a reflection of the way we now collectively file away information in our brains – or the way we don’t. One of the great joys of life in 2014 is that we’re all getting much better at knowing what it is we no longer need to know. Freedom from memorisation! Having said this, there’s a part of me that misses being able to bullshit people at dinner parties without having an iPad coming out before dessert to sink an urban legend or debunk a stretched truth.

I wonder if nostalgia for the 20th-century brain is a waste of time. WhiIe I may sometimes miss my pre-internet brain, I certainly don’t want it back.

Everyone’s quick to dump on new technologies but how quickly we forget a two-hour trek in the 1990s to the local library to find something as mundane as a pet supply store phone number in the Yellow Pages in a city 20 miles away.”

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Tums tablets – $10 (Lower East Side)

This is a weird ad. But I bought some TUMS not too long ago because I was having upset stomach problems, hoping this would help. It didn’t really work for me, no idea why. So I have no need for this. Got it for $17, it’s yours for $10. I probably took maybe 4 at most out of the bottle. I’ll be more than happy to let you sample before you buy so you know it’s the real deal.

I know I mock the Huffington Post gleefully and regularly for its insipid attempts to titillate, but it’s not so much the semi-profane fluff that bothers me. What the featherweight news organization did that truly angered me was to publish the anti-vaccination bullshit of that dangerous dimwit Jenny McCarthy. To compound the mistake, once her theories were even more thoroughly debunked, the site distanced itself from the poor judgement without acknowledging any wrongdoing. Not good. While I’m glad that the Huffington Post no longer traffics in this harmful stupidity, it still doesn’t seem to have learned its lesson. Two recent hires: medical blogger Dr. Phil, who is not a doctor, and national security writer Donte Stallworth, who is a 9/11 Truther. Perhaps the site will soon be pretending it never abetted these two geniuses. 

Gary Baum of the Hollywood Reporter just did an AMA at Reddit in regards to his reporting about the anti-inoculation issue. A few exchanges follow.

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Question:

Why is the anti-vaccine movement so strong and how can we educate them? 

Gary Baum:

Parents are naturally concerned about their children. They are looking for answers about whatever ails them, and vaccinations — based in a science that is not easy to understand, and backed by corporations which make a profit from their sale — are a ripe target for suspicion.

The anti-vaccine movement has thrived in an environment where respect for science has ebbed. The best way to educate those who are vaccine-skeptical is to remind them of their shared obligation to protect public health. Too often they say it’s simply their personal decision. In the case of immunization, no decision is strictly a personal one. It’s always part of a collective social contract.

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Question:

Why have we allowed celebrities to poison the minds of so many dim witted parents?

Gary Baum: 

In every community, there are those who speak louder than others, without any greater purchase on the truth. Mommy-and-me groups, online discussion boards and other intimate social spaces are where the larger vaccine battle is waged on a day-to-day basis.

As for celebrities, whether well or ill-informed, it’s true that due to their fame, they possess a particularly loud voice. Which is why Jenny McCarthy has had a tremendous and undeniable influence on public health, people on both sides of this issue agree. (In fact, it’s one of the few things that they do agree on.)

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Question:

At what point does a government decide that vaccinations as a public health matter trump the rights of the parents who refuse to vaccinate their children?

Gary Baum:

If children are actively infected and at risk of infecting others — and it’s a life-threatening and easily communicable disease, as with tuberculosis or ebola — governments such as the United States can take action. But more often, here in America, individuals’ personal right to do what they wish with their own body, and particularly their kids’ bodies, is held sacrosanct. It’s a complex, thorny issue.•

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Unless the numbers are being completely misread or fudged, there’s been a quiet and growing suicide crisis in the U.S. over the last 15 years, afflicting middle-aged people, especially men. More Americans now die by their own hand than in traffic accidents. Getting to the root of that problem is a massive undertaking, but what if there were a simple salve? It’s thought that upping the amount of lithium present in drinking water might significantly decrease the suicide level. But if wing-nuts like the John Birch Society fought mass fluoridation–a campaign spoofed perfectly as a subplot by Stanley Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove–you can imagine the political barriers to such a program. From Anna Fels at the New York Times:

“THE idea of putting a mind-altering drug in the drinking water is the stuff of sci-fi, terrorist plots and totalitarian governments. Considering the outcry that occurred when putting fluoride in the water was first proposed, one can only imagine the furor that would ensue if such a thing were ever suggested.

The debate, however, is moot. It’s a done deal. Mother Nature has already put a psychotropic drug in the drinking water, and that drug is lithium. Although this fact has been largely ignored for over half a century, it appears to have important medical implications.

Lithium is a naturally occurring element, not a molecule like most medications, and it is present in the United States, depending on the geographic area, at concentrations that can range widely, from undetectable to around .170 milligrams per liter. This amount is less than a thousandth of the minimum daily dose given for bipolar disorders and for depression that doesn’t respond to antidepressants. Although it seems strange that the microscopic amounts of lithium found in groundwater could have any substantial medical impact, the more scientists look for such effects, the more they seem to discover. Evidence is slowly accumulating that relatively tiny doses of lithium can have beneficial effects. They appear to decrease suicide rates significantly and may even promote brain health and improve mood.

Yet despite the studies demonstrating the benefits of relatively high natural lithium levels present in the drinking water of certain communities, few seem to be aware of its potential.”

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If you have a treadmill desk, you should not have a treadmill desk. It is ridiculous. But there’s no doubt that the traditional office space as a personalized bunker has changed, whether you’re working on an unfinished door propped up by two filing cabinets, something resembling a spaceship or no desk at all. From Shane Hickey at the Guardian:

“This move away from the office desk as the main place of productivity is one of the developments in workplace design which has seen the real estate departments of large corporations realise that packing employees tightly into spaces will not necessarily result in greater productivity, according to Philip Tidd from the design and architecture firm Gensler.

‘The idea that the desk is a unit of productivity is changing very, very rapidly. Your productivity is not measured by the amount of time you sit behind a thing called a desk. It is what you do. It is about your output,’ he said. ‘It is about getting the balance of specs right so it is not just get everybody in the open, have open plan but have the right balance of spaces where you can get in a zone of concentration.’

This requirement for varied features in office buildings is cemented by the longer hours of many workers, notably in the technology sector, and as a result new offices are now seen to need different areas for working and letting off steam, a tactic most notably championed by Google.

The new White Collar Factory, which is to open beside east London’s ‘Silicon Roundabout’ and designed by AHMM, will have a running track for the companies that take up space there.”

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From the March 21, 1866 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“An auction sale of hair of young girls who have taken the veil since 1810, was recently held at a convent near Paris, when 800 pounds of hair were sold for $6,000.”

Stephen Cave, who tackles big subjects, has written a Financial Times piece about that elusive thing called happiness, which we’re supposed to pursue, though it wasn’t always so. An excerpt:

“For most of the past 2,000 years of western culture, happiness on earth was considered neither achievable nor desirable. ‘Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life,’ said God to Adam, in an early example of expectations management. But Christians also saw this misery as the key to the life-to-come: ‘Whosoever doth not bear his cross,’ said Jesus, ‘cannot be my disciple.’ And if the days before painkillers weren’t sorrowful enough already, the faithful would flail their backs to hasten their way to beatitude.

So how did happiness change from being a sin to our foremost earthly goal? The answer in short is that western culture retained the promise of paradise but brought it forward from the next world into this one. The process took a few hundred years, beginning with the Renaissance and the Reformation. But it owes most to the thinkers of the Enlightenment, who combined the Christian belief in progress towards a happier state with a new faith in science and reason. In doing so, they wrote the script to which we still speak: a doctrine that says we can have heaven here and now if only we try hard enough.

Today this message is reinforced by an advertising industry that surrounds us with images of people made gloriously happy by a new car or soft drink; images that are simultaneously a promise and a rebuke to those of us who are feeling only fair-to-middling. Our belief that we can – indeed, should – be much happier is not based on evidence that such a state is possible but, instead, on a narrative of progress, entitlement and consumerism.”

 

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Genetic enhancement in humans isn’t likely around the corner, but it will be pretty impossible to avoid its path at some point in the future even if you disagree with it, the way the online world is currently almost unavoidable. A brief passage from Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence about how designer babies may sway people, even countries, to fall in line:

“Once the example has been set, and the results start to show, holdouts will have strong incentives to follow suit. Nations would face the prospect of becoming cognitive backwaters and losing out in economic, scientific, military, and prestige contests with competitors that embrace the new human enhancement technologies. Individuals within a society would see places at elite schools being filled with genetically selected children (who may also on average be prettier, healthier, and more conscientious), and will want their own offspring to have the same advantages. There is some chance that a large attitudinal shift could take place over a relatively short time, perhaps in as little as a decade, once the technology is proven to work and to provide a substantial benefit.”

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I’m not surprised we’re anonymously assholes online, but I am a little stunned by how much of this virtual ill behavior has ricocheted back into the offline world. The line is blurring. The opening of Andrew Leonard’s Salon interview with OkCupid founder Christian Rudder, whose new book, Dataclysm, paints a grim picture of how his customers behave in regards to race, sex and other matters, when searching for a mate online:

Question:

So men are sexists, and we’re all racist?

Christian Rudder:

The more you look at the data, the more it does confirm the cynics’ intuition about humanity. People online are free to act out their worst impulses with very little incentive to act out their best. I guess it just goes to show how politeness or propriety keeps us decent human beings. Offline, society actually has a very good effect on behavior in a very large sense.

Question:

That raises an uncomfortable question: Does our wholesale move online undermine how society traditionally keeps us in line?

Christian Rudder:

I’m not qualified to give a real opinion on where society as a whole is headed, but I think when you look at stuff like rage storms on Twitter, or even the thing that happened yesterday — the celebrity nude photos being leaked — you see that there are definitely some disgusting impulses that the Internet can gratify instantaneously. In the same way Cool Ranch Doritos gratify certain taste receptors that are probably not very good for my digestive tract, things like Twitter or Reddit or even OkCupid gratify our tastes in ways that should probably best be left unsated.

Question:

How does that make you feel as a researcher? Have you become more cynical as a result of what you’ve learned by watching how people behave on OkCupid?

Christian Rudder:

I definitely have a certain amount of ambivalence about the Internet generally and what we do at OkCupid. OkCupid does a lot of great things. We do find people love, we do create marriage and children and happiness in a pure sense, in a way that, say, Amazon does not. But there is a downside: In the process of finding that love or sex or whatever they’re looking for, people are able to be more judgmental. It’s a fraught thing. I can see the good and the bad in all this, but where it all comes out in the end, I’m not sure. I think the existence of the Internet is a good thing, but I do wish people exercised more humanity in using these tools.”

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In a WSJ essay, Peter Thiel expands on what he said in his recent AMA, that “capitalism and competition are opposites.” Thiel, who approves of monopolies, doesn’t believe they only benefit individual businesses but broader society as well, as they have the capital to care about workers and ethics and the environment. I disagree, but I’ll acknowledge that we’ve all certainly benefited from Bell Labs, the moonshot division of a government-backed monopoly. An excerpt:

“To an economist, every monopoly looks the same, whether it deviously eliminates rivals, secures a license from the state or innovates its way to the top. I’m not interested in illegal bullies or government favorites: By ‘monopoly,’ I mean the kind of company that is so good at what it does that no other firm can offer a close substitute. Google is a good example of a company that went from 0 to 1: It hasn’t competed in search since the early 2000s, when it definitively distanced itself from Microsoft and Yahoo!

Americans mythologize competition and credit it with saving us from socialist bread lines. Actually, capitalism and competition are opposites. Capitalism is premised on the accumulation of capital, but under perfect competition, all profits get competed away. The lesson for entrepreneurs is clear: If you want to create and capture lasting value, don’t build an undifferentiated commodity business.

How much of the world is actually monopolistic? How much is truly competitive? It is hard to say because our common conversation about these matters is so confused. To the outside observer, all businesses can seem reasonably alike, so it is easy to perceive only small differences between them. But the reality is much more binary than that. There is an enormous difference between perfect competition and monopoly, and most businesses are much closer to one extreme than we commonly realize.

The confusion comes from a universal bias for describing market conditions in self-serving ways: Both monopolists and competitors are incentivized to bend the truth.”

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Predictive traffic patterns is one of the logical extensions of our relentless data collection, as are highway lanes that can redraw themselves as need dictates. The former can be done now, while the latter will have to wait for an infrastructure overhaul. From Kristine Lofgren at Inhabitat:

“In most parts of the country, traffic planners review data every few years to adjust traffic signals and improve traffic movement. But thanks to several advanced signal system across the US, that’s all changing. For instance, in Utah, traffic planners can actually adjust a signal in almost real-time because of a system made up of a network of closed-circuit cameras connected to a fiberoptic network. The system allows traffic planners to adjust signals in as few as 30 seconds to react to changing traffic needs.

By some estimates, investing in signaling pays back at a ratio of 40 to 1. That’s something you don’t see with other traffic management strategies like building new roads. Even better, efficient traffic flow means fewer emissions. But Utah’s system can be expensive to install and run. To make the system feasible and affordable for any city, Stephen Smith at Carnegie Mellon University in New Jersey is working on an automated system (Utah’s is monitored by live people) that uses radar censors and cameras so that it can adjust real-time.”

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