Urban Studies

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From the August 13, 1891 New York Times:

“SAN FRANCISCO–The steamship Oceanic, which arrived last night from Hong-kong and Yokohama, brings copies of a native Japanese paper called the Kokkai, which publishes a remarkable story of a monster serpent.

It says that on the 17th inst. a man called Neemura Tahichi, twenty-five years of age, went out with his wife Otora, who was forty-eight, to pursue his usual avocation of tree cutting in Koshitamura, Province of Lamba. The husband and wife separated at a place called Matsu Yama. Shortly afterward, while engaged felling a tree, Tahichi thought he heard his wife cry out. Running to the place he was horrified to find that a huge snake, described as being three feet in circumference, had Otora’s head in its mouth, and was engaged in swallowing her, despite her struggles. Tahichi ran off to the hamlet and summoned seven or eight of his neighbors, who when they reached the scene of the catastrophe found the snake had swallowed the woman as far as her feet, and was slowly making its way to its home. They were too much terrified to touch it, and it finally effected its escape unmolested.

The Province of Lamba is one of the most desolate in Japan, and monster reptiles and wild animals are frequently killed there.”

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It’s always been a difficult balance for newspapers–and never more than it is now–to give readers what they want and what they seemingly need. From Eugene L. Meyer’s Bethesda Magazine interview with Katherine Weymouth, the Graham family member who has stayed aboard the Washington Post as publisher at the behest of new owner, Jeff Bezos:


What can Jeff Bezos do that the Grahams couldn’t?

Katherine Weymouth:

I personally believe there’s no magic bullet. If there were, someone would’ve found it, how to transform for the digital era. But we are in a great position. We have a credible brand, deeply engaged readers, [and we] cover Washington. And now we are owned by someone with deep pockets who cares what we do and is willing to invest for the long term.


What has changed now that the Post newspaper is owned by Jeff Bezos?

Katherine Weymouth:

People have stopped wearing ties, that’s the biggest change around here. …He hasn’t yet told us what to do, not that he would. He’s buying it for all the right reasons: It’s an important institution. He said, ‘I’m an optimist by nature and, yes, I’m optimistic about the future of the Post. If not, I wouldn’t join you.’ Can he bring something to the table? He clearly does have deep pockets. By itself, that’s not enough. He is obsessively focused on the reader’s experience.


Have you and he discussed changes you might make under his ownership that you were unable to or didn’t make before?

Katherine Weymouth:

I do not anticipate any dramatic changes. He has made it clear that he wants to build on what we do best, with a deep focus on serving our readers…[while] experimenting with new ways of presenting our journalism digitally that will create even more compelling experiences for our readers and users.”

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At Practical Ethics, Joao Fabiano has a smart consideration of some of the perils of neuro-modification of morality, which we will probably delay dealing with for as long as we can. But what if a violent serial criminal could be “adjusted” to no longer behave aberrantly? Sounds great and frightening. The opening:

It is 2025. Society has increasingly realised the importance of breaking evolution’s chains and enhancing the human condition. Large grants are awarded for building sci-fi-like laboratories to search for and create the ultimate moral enhancer. After just a few years, humanity believes it has made one of its most major breakthroughs: a pill which will rid our morality of all its faults. Without any side-effects, it vastly increases our ability to cooperate and to think rationally on moral issues, while also enhancing our empathy and our compassion for the whole of humanity. By shifting individuals’ socio-value orientation towards cooperation, this pill will allow us to build safe, efficient and peaceful societies. It will cast a pro-social paradise on earth, the moral enhancer kingdom come.

I believe we better think twice before endeavouring ourselves into this pro-social paradise on the cheap. Not because we will lose ‘the X factor,’ not because it will violate autonomy, and not because such a drug would cause us to exit our own species. Even if all those objections are refuted, even if the drug has no side-effects, even if each and every human being, by miracle, willingly takes the drug without any coercion whatsoever, even then, I contend we could still have trouble.

Surprisingly, the scenario imagined in the first paragraph is not that far-fetched. The field of cognitive moral neuroscience and the study of moral cognition have been flourishing; we have already found many neurochemical manipulations which seem to alter our social and moral preferences.”


A passage from a new Wired interview by Alex Pasternack with security expert Bruce Schneier about safety vulnerabilities, the physical kinds and virtual ones:


What about attacks that affect infrastructure? Obviously the past few years have shown that industry, cities, utilities, even vehicles are vulnerable to hacking. Are those serious threats?

 Bruce Schneier:

There are threats to all embedded systems. We’ve seen groups mostly at universities hacking into medical devices, hacking into automobiles, into various security cameras, and demonstrating the vulnerabilities. There’s not a lot of fixing at this time. The industries are still largely ignoring the problem, maybe very much like the computer industry did maybe twenty years ago, when they belittled the problem, pretended it wasn’t there. But we’ll get there.

When I look at the bigger embedded systems, the power grids, various infrastructure systems in cities, there are vulnerabilities. I worry about them a little less because they’re so obscure. But I still think we need to start figuring out how to fix them, because I think there are a lot of hidden vulnerabilities in embedded systems.


Are there particular security concerns right now that you think the public, given its misunderstanding about security, doesn’t appreciate enough?

 Bruce Schneier:

I’m most worried about potential security vulnerabilities in the powerful institutions we’re trusting with our data, with our security. I’m worried about companies like Google and Microsoft and Facebook. I’m worried about governments, the US and other governments. I’m worried about how they are using our data, how they’re storing our data, and what happens to it. I’m less worried about the criminals. I think we’ve kinda got cyber-crime under control, it’s not zero but it never will be. I’m much more worried about the powerful abusing us than the un-powerful abusing us.”

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"And before you ask - NO!! - you can't sleep with her."

“And before you ask – NO!! – you can’t sleep with her.”

Need A Room – What Can You Offer? (Nassau County)

Hello, I need a room to use. About once/twice a week max. Weekdays from 9am-2pm. About 2-3 hours each time. My GF doesn’t like motels/hotels and are own places are out of the question. House or apartment is fine. Can you help us out??

And before you ask – NO!! – you can’t sleep with her.

Let me know what you can offer and what you need from us to use it.

The 1970s sensation of the King Tut exhibit obviously had it roots in ancient times, but its modern story began in 1922 when Howard Carter unearthed the unimaginable trove, wonderfully preserved. Soon after the discovery, the New York Times sent a reporter to Egypt to document the find that stunned the world. The article’s opening:

“Through the courtesy of Howard Carter, the American Egyptologist, who, as director of Lord Carnarvon‘s expedition, has, after thirty-three years’ search dug up the tomb of King Tutankhamen of the eighteenth dynasty, the correspondent of The New York Times was allowed today an exclusive view of the interior of the two ante-chambers of the tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Upper Egypt. The rest of the chambers of the tomb are still sealed.

Down a steep incline we entered straight to the first chamber. In the middle of the wall to the right is a doorway evidently leading to the chamber or chambers wherein doubtless are the sarcophagus and mummy of the King, and perhaps other treasures, since the antechambers are merely a hallway with a drawing room concealed behind a tantalizing sealed door, which will not be opened before the return of Lord Carnarvon from London, which will be about the middle of February.

Against this doorway are two life-size statues of the King made of bitumenized wood–not ebony, as at first reported. They are still standing on reed mats, just as they stood in the King’s palace and exactly as laid down on the Pharaonic funerary ritual. This again is evidence that this is the tomb and not the cache of Tutankhamen, as, if it were the cache the statues would be standing anywhere and anyhow, certainly not in exact accordance with the ritual.

The feet of each statue are shod with solid gold sandals of inestimable value. Each statue is crowned with a golden crown, bearing in front the royal serpent, or uraeus. As Thebes was the shrine of the cult of the serpent this is not unusual.

Incidentally, the day the tomb was opened and the party found these golden serpents in the crowns of the two statues there was an interesting incident at Carter’s house. He brought a canary with him this year to relieve his loneliness. When the party was dining, that night there was a commotion outside on the veranda. The party rushed out and found that a serpent of similar type to that in the crowns had grabbed the canary. They killed the serpent, but the canary died, probably from fright.

The incident made an impression on the native staff, who regard it as a warning from the spirit of the departed King against further intrusion on the privacy of his tomb.

But the most notable thing about the statues is the rare beauty of the faces. They have evidently been made from plaster casts such as were made by the ancient Egyptians a thousand years before the Greeks or Romans ever thought of them. They show the King as a man of royal mien. Gazing on the beautiful, calm, kindly and strong countenance on the left-hand statue, which is undamaged, one finds it difficult to realize that such a monarch could have succumbed to the overwhelming influence among the priests as he did, to become again an adherent of the orthodox religion. The explanation is probably that he realized the futility of opposition to pressure so strong that it even forced the Queen to change her name from Ankhosenaten to Ankhosenamen.

It is certain that the King would not have agreed to his humiliation unless there was no alternative. This fact is historically most interesting as indicating that the power of the Hierarchy of Amon in the days of Tutankhamen was greater than that of Pharaoh, though these sacredotal Princes did not seize the throne from the Pharaohs until more than 300 years later.

As works of art those statues reach a plane of excellence probably higher than has been reached in any subsequent period of the world.

On the other side of the chamber is a throne incomparably magnificent and wondrously beautiful. One must note its infallible evidence of the wholly unsuspected height reached by ancient Egyptian art. The innate refinement, pure lofty estheticism and amazing skill of the craftsman constitute a startling revelation. It shows not only the imperial splendor of ancient Egypt was far more delicate and magnificent than was imagined or equaled in the world’s history, but also that the late greatest craftsmen of ancient Greece were mere hacks compared to the master who designed and adorned the throne.”

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You could tell me anything really far-fetched about technology right now, and I couldn’t readily dismiss it, even if I thought you were probably lying. So reports about gigantic vending machines in China dispensing electric cars didn’t really make me blink. Unlike Mark Rogowsky of Forbes, however, I’m not high on the potential of this disruptive business model. The opening of his recent breathless article about Kandi Technologies:

“China is growing so fast it’s sometimes difficult to get different sources to even agree which the biggest cities are and how many people live in them. But that said, among them is a name unfamiliar to most Americans, the city of Hangzhou, located in eastern China, and home to 8.7 million as of 2010. That would make it the biggest city in the U.S. even though it’s barely a third the size of Shanghai, the world’s largest. But Hangzhou isn’t just big, it’s also home to an ambitious experiment that combines electric vehicles, giant vending machines and a Zipcar-like business model. Oh, and if it works, private car ownership as we know it is probably going to disappear in the world’s biggest cities.”

My one Libertarian streak is that I’ve always believed that consenting adults shouldn’t be limited in what they can do with their time and money and bodies. Children should be protected–I don’t see why grade schoolers are even allowed to play tackle football or eat at fast-food restaurants–but grown-ups are grown-ups and should be treated as such.

But it’s tougher for me to maintain this stance over time, simply because some behaviors have costs (financial and social) that can plague us for generations, whether we’re talking about drugs or gambling or other behaviors. The crack epidemic in NYC led to broken homes that sadly reverberate to this day, damaging children who weren’t even alive during the crisis. Of course, the War on Drugs does little to combat these problems and just creates a black market, so I don’t know if there’s any good answer. But whenever there’s a ballot initiative regarding casinos, which are supposedly going to boost the economy, I know it’s fool’s gold. The attendant problems of such establishments take from the economy at least as much as they give back. From Elisabetta Povoledo in the New York Times:

PAVIA, Italy — Renowned for its universities and a celebrated Renaissance monastery, this Lombardy town about 25 miles south of Milan has in recent years earned another, more dubious, distinction: the gambling capital of Italy.

Slot machines and video lottery terminals, known as V.L.T.s, can be found all over in coffee bars and tobacco shops, gas stations, mom-and-pop shops and shopping malls, not to mention 13 dedicated gambling halls. By some counts, there is one slot machine or V.L.T. for every 104 of the city’s 68,300 residents.

Critics blame the concentration of the machines for an increase in chronic gambling — and debt, bankruptcies, depression, domestic violence and broken homes — recorded by social service workers in Pavia.

But in many ways, Pavia is merely the most extreme example of the spread of gambling throughout Italy since lawmakers significantly relaxed regulation of the gambling industry a decade ago.”


I know it’s been bandied about that there’s no low-hanging fruit left for the American economy, but what will the impact be job-wise if we end up having universal health coverage (or near-universal)? Will it create a large amount of employment opportunities and have residual positive effects on the economy? I have to think tens of millions of newly insured people will be a boon not only from a humanistic viewpoint but from a financial one as well. But I’m not an economist, so I can’t answer that. What I can tell you from my own experience of having worked for Internet companies is that it’s ludicrous to think that the rollout was bumpy because it was done by the public sector. The same thing happens regularly in the private sector. There are tons of IT workers in America, and most of them are mediocre at best. At any rate, it seems that many of the bugs in the ACA site have been worked out. From USA Today:

WASHINGTON–The federal health exchange, Healthcare.gov, received 880,000 visitors Dec. 24, the last day people could enroll to receive health coverage on Jan. 1, officials say.

‘We’re going to do everything we can to ensure a smooth transition period for consumers whose coverage begins on January 1,’ Julie Bataille wrote in a blog Friday. Bataille serves as director of the office of communications for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. ‘And we’re going to continue to work to ensure every American who still wants to enroll in Marketplace coverage by the end of the open enrollment period is able to do so.’

Consumers have until March 31 to enroll on the health insurance exchanges to avoid paying a fine with their 2015 taxes for not having health insurance.

More than a million people visited the site over the weekend, and 600,000 had hit the page by mid-day Monday — the original deadline for Jan. 1 coverage.”

From the April 23, 1914 New York Times:

ST. LOUIS–With a stick of dynamite in his hand, to which had been attached a lighted fuse, Stephen Sieben, a farmer, 78 years old, was pursuing his wife, threatening to blow her up. Sieben did not pay close attention to the explosive, and the fuse, burning to the fulminating cap, exploded, blowing his head off. …

Mrs. Sieben told the Coroner’s jury that Sieben had been drinking heavily for several days and had frequently threatened to kill her. She has been an invalid for many years, and it was with difficulty that she could walk. She saw her husband approaching her with the stick of dynamite in his hand, and saw that the fuse was sputtering. For the first time in years, she said, she ran out of the house.”

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Yes, the good stuff you can do with drones is endless, though you could say the same about the bad stuff as well. From a new Economist report on domestic drones, a prognostication on what will be the initial roles of these robots:

“There could be 10,000 drones buzzing around America’s skies by 2017, reckons the FAA. ‘The good stuff you can do is endless,’ says Lucien Miller of Innov8tive Designs, a UAS firm in San Diego county. Estate agents and architects can use them for aerial photography. Energy firms will be able to monitor pieces of vital infrastructure, such as pipelines. Amazon recently caused a stir by saying it was looking into delivery-by-drone, releasing a video of a test run. However, the prospect of automated aircraft being allowed to carry heavy parcels along crowded city streets still seems distant.

At first drones’ main civilian uses, AUVSI predicts, will be in agriculture, followed distantly by public safety. Farmers will be able to monitor their land in detail, pinpointing outbreaks of disease and infestation, for example, or checking soil humidity. They will also be able to apply nutrients and pesticides more precisely. Besides Mr Loh’s drones for fire-and-rescue workers, other potential public-safety uses include police tracking of suspects. Ben Kimbro of Tactical Electronics, a technology firm, says they will find uses in various other ‘dull, dirty and dangerous’ public-service jobs.”

Cash needed to fill a dream – $20

I have a multi-billion dollar idea that will not wait for anybody.

If you want to help with this, it will cost money – preferably $ 5,000.00, but $20,000.00 will be searched for. The idea is to take cars off the roads, and replace them with a flying car, already thought up by me, and will begin construction of them when the money is set.

This idea will not leave me, as long as I have breath in my body.

If interested, please get back to me, and you will get paid back. $20,000 will be paid back $38,000.00.

Posting the Christopher Evans interview with J.G. Ballard earlier reminded me that I watched an excellent 1979 TV show a couple of years ago which was presented by the British computer scientist. A six-part series about how microprocessors were going to change the world, it was based on Evans’ book, The Mighty Micro (retitled The Micro Millennium in the United States). It succinctly journeys from Blaise Pascal to ATMs, aptly calling the coming epoch the “Second Industrial Revolution.” It never explicitly discusses the advent of the Internet but suggests many of its successes and perils. 

There are just two things that the show seemed naive about: 1) That paper money disappearing would lead to the end of theft, and 2) That powerful technology would make war unappealing (which is a mistake that Nikola Tesla began making at the end of the 1800s).

But there’s so much that’s prescient: robots ending drudgery but causing unease about employment, online shopping, telecommuting and potential transformations in education. (It’s odd and unfortunate that this decades-old show reminds that we still haven’t taken advantage of gaming’s capacity for revolutionizing learning.)

It’s a future, the host asserts, that no country can afford to abstain from, even with all its disruption: “Those who lag back will become steadily less competitive, just the way that those countries that missed out on the Industrial Revolution remain locked in medieval standards of living.”

All six are embedded below, but if you only have time for a couple, Parts 4 (“The Introverted Society”) and 6 (“All Our Tomorrows”) are my two favorites. In 4, there’s a stunning prototype of what we recognize today as a Kindle. Part 6 presents four scientists (I.J. Good, James Martin, Barrie Sherman, Tom Stonier) discussing the promise and problems of the future as if they had just read 2013 newspapers (online versions, of course).

Final note: Evans was battling cancer while filming this series and passed away before it was completed, so the producer Lawrence Moore and his guests handle the finale.

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Let’s give monkeys prosthetic noses so that they can talk like humans, thought drunk scientists in 1905. From a story in that year’s New York Times:

“W. Reed Blair, the animal physician at the Bronx Park Zoo, and several other scientists have come to the conclusion that the only reason a monkey cannot talk like a human being is his nose. They have found that a monkey’s vocal chords and the general contour of his head are the same as a man’s, but the nose is different. They say that it is too flat to allow a monkey to articulate like a man. They propose to remedy this by a gutta-percha nose and to experiment with the artificial nose on August, the latest orangutang which has arrived at the Bronx Zoo. Later similar experiments will be tried on Duhong, another orangutang, and Soko and Polly, two chimpanzees.

Keeper Reilly, who says he has taught the monkeys to do everything but talk, has volunteered to be their language teacher. The keeper will begin to teach August his A B C as soon as the new nose arrives. Monkeys are very quick in imitating, and it is believed that with the right kind of nose they will be able to imitate the sound of the human voice. August will be taught to talk just the same as a child in school.

The scientists got the idea of a gutta percha nose from a well-known professor who has studied monkeys and the supposed monkey language for the last fifteen years in the Congo. Some years ago the professor met a man whose nose had been shot off in a battle. The man was able to talk only by forming a cone with his hands over the place where his nose had been. The professor reasoned that a monkey was in about the same condition as a man with his nose shot off, and has been working on the theory of an artificial nose since.”

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A few excerpts from computer scientist and TV presenter Dr. Christopher Evans’ 1979 interview of J.G. Ballard in the UK version of Penthouse, which was much classier than its US counterpart because all the beaver shots wore bowler hats and had adorable accents. 


On the transition from the Space Age to the Personal Computer Age:

J.G. Ballard:

In the summer of ’74 I remember standing out in my garden on a bright, clear night and watching a moving dot of light in the sky which I realised was Skylab. I remember thinking how fantastic it was that there were men up there, and I felt really quite moved as I watched it. Through my mind there even flashed a line from every Hollywood aviation movie of the 40s, ‘it takes guts to fly those machines.’ But I meant it. Then my neighbour came out into his garden to get something and I said, ‘Look, there’s Skylab,’ and he looked up and said, ‘Sky-what?’ And I realised that he didn’t know about it, and he wasn’t interested. No, from that moment there was no doubt in my mind that the space age was over.

Dr. Christopher Evans:

What is the explanation for this. Why are people so indifferent?

J.G. Ballard:

I think it’s because we’re at the climactic end of one huge age of technology which began with the Industrial Revolution and which lasted for about 200 years. We’re also at the beginning of a second, possibly even greater revolution, brought about by advances in computers and by the development of information-processing devices of incredible sophistication. It will be the era of artificial brains as opposed to artificial muscles, and right now we stand at the midpoint between these two huge epochs. Now it’s my belief that people, unconsciously perhaps, recognise this and also recognise that the space programme and the conflict between NASA and the Soviet space effort belonged to the first of these systems of technological exploration, and was therefore tied to the past instead of the future. Don’t misunderstand me – it was a magnificent achievement to put a man on the moon, but it was essentially nuts and bolts technology and therefore not qualitatively different from

the kind of engineering that built the Queen Mary or wrapped railroads round the world in the 19th century. It was a technology that changed peoples lives in all kinds of ways, and to a most dramatic extent, but the space programme represented its fast guttering flicker.


On the PC bringing the world into the home, from social to pornography:

Dr. Christopher Evans:

How do you see the future developing?

J.G. Ballard:

I see the future developing in just one way – towards the home. In fact I would say that if one had to categorise the future in one word, it would be that word ‘home.’ Just as the 20th century has been the age of mobility, largely through the motor car, so the next era will be one in which instead of having to seek out one’s adventures through travel, one creates them, in whatever form one chooses, in one’s home. The average individual won’t just have a tape recorder, a stereo HiFi, or a TV set. He’ll have all the resources of a modern TV studio at his fingertips, coupled with data processing devices of incredible sophistication and power. No longer will he have to accept the relatively small number of permutations of fantasy that the movie and TV companies serve up to him, but he will be able to generate whatever he pleases to suit his whim. In this way people will soon realise that they can maximise the future of their lives with new realms of social, sexual and personal relationships, all waiting to be experienced in terms of these electronic systems, and all this exploration will take place in their living rooms.

But there’s more to it than that. For the first time it will become truly possible to explore extensively and in depth the psychopathology of one’s own life without any fear of moral condemnation. Although we’ve seen a collapse of many taboos within the last decade or so, there are still aspects of existence which are not counted as being legitimate to explore or experience mainly because of their deleterious or irritating effects on other people. Now I’m not talking about criminally psychopathic acts, but what I would consider as the more traditional psychopathic deviancies. Many, perhaps most of these, need to be expressed in concrete forms, and their expression at present gets people into trouble. One can think of a million examples, but if your deviant impulses push you in the direction of molesting old ladies, or cutting girl’s pig tails off in bus queues, then, quite rightly, you find yourself in the local magistrates court if you succumb to them. And the reason for this is that you’re intruding on other people’s life space. But with the new multi-media potential of your own computerised TV studio, where limitless simulations can be played out in totally convincing style, one will be able to explore, in a wholly benign and harmless way, every type of impulse – impulses so deviant that they might have seemed, say to our parents, to be completely corrupt and degenerate.


On media decentralization, the camera-saturated society, Reality TV, Slow TV:

Dr. Christopher Evans:

Will people really respond to these creative possibilities themselves? Won’t the creation of these scenarios always be handed over to the expert or professional?

J.G. Ballard:

I doubt it. The experts or professionals only handle these tools when they are too expensive or too complex for the average person to manage them. As soon as the technology becomes cheap and simple, ordinary people get to work with it. One’s only got to think of people’s human responses to a new device like the camera. If you go back 30 or 40 years the Baby Brownie gave our parents a completely new window on the world. They could actually go into the garden and take a photograph of you tottering around on the lawn, take it down to the chemists, and then actually see their small child falling into the garden pool whenever and as often as they wanted to. I well remember my own parents’ excitement and satisfaction when looking at these blurry pictures, which represented only the simplest replay of the most totally commonplace. And indeed there’s an interesting point here. Far from being applied to mammoth productions in the form of personal space adventures, or one’s own participation in a death-defying race at Brands Hatch it’s my view that the incredibly sophisticated hook-ups of TV cameras and computers which we will all have at our fingertips tomorrow will most frequently be applied to the supremely ordinary, the absolutely commonplace. I can visualise for example a world ten years from now where every activity of one’s life will be constantly recorded by multiple computer-controlled TV cameras throughout the day so that when the evening comes instead of having to watch the news as transmitted by BBC or ITV – that irrelevant mixture of information about a largely fictional external world – one will be able to sit down, relax and watch the real news. And the real news of course will be a computer-selected and computer-edited version of the days rushes. ‘My God, there’s Jenny having her first ice cream!’or ‘There’s Candy coming home from school with her new friend.’ Now all that may seem madly mundane, but, as I said, it will be the real news of the day, as and how it affects every individual. Anyone in doubt about the compulsion of this kind of thing just has to think for a moment of how much is conveyed in a simple family snapshot, and of how rivetingly interesting – to oneself and family only of course – are even the simplest of holiday home movies today. Now extend your mind to the fantastic visual experience which tomorrow’s camera and editing facilities will allow. And I am not just thinking about sex, although once the colour 3-D cameras move into the bedroom the possibilities are limitless and open to anyone’s imagination. But let’s take another level, as yet more or less totally unexplored by cameras, still or movie, such as a parent’s love for one’s very young children. That wonderful intimacy that comes on every conceivable level – the warmth and rapport you have with a two-year-old infant, the close physical contact, his pleasure in fiddling with your tie, your curious satisfaction when he dribbles all over you, all these things which make up the indefinable joys of parenthood. Now imagine these being viewed and recorded by a very discriminating TV camera, programmed at the end of the day, or at the end of the year, or at the end of the decade, to make the optimum selection of images designed to give you a sense of the absolute and enduring reality of your own experience. With such technology interfaced with immensely intelligent computers I think we may genuinely be able to transcend time. One will be able to indulge oneself in a kind of continuing imagery which, for the first time will allow us to dominate the awful finiteness of life. Great portions of our waking state will be spent in a constant mood of self-awareness and excitement, endlessly replaying the simplest basic life experiences.•

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The quote in the headline comes from a 1996 comment made by Colin Wilson, the celebrated and derided British writer who passed away earlier this month. It can’t be true, can it? In the interview, he claims that no crimes of a sexual nature were committed before Jack the Ripper, citing how during the Victorian Era, inexpensive prostitutes made sex crimes “unnecessary.” But I’m sure there was plenty of cheap sex to be had at the time of the Whitechapel slayings, and there certainly was during Ted Bundy’s life, so that couldn’t be the motivation. Wilson further claims that so-called “self-esteem killings” began in the 1960s, but I think you can fit Leopold and Loeb in the category without too much of a stretch. At any rate, Wilson was at the time promoting his book, A Plague of Murder.


From the October 18, 1896 New York Times:

Cincinnati, Ohio–Charles Doran, a business man of Glendale, took a pinch of snuff to-day for a cold. So severe was the sneezing that followed that the inferior oblique muscle of the left eye was ruptured, and as he continued to sneeze the exertion forced the eye out of its socket.

Doran says he felt as if something had broken in his head. With his right eye he saw his left eyeball hanging down his cheek. Dr. Heady replaced the eye and applied a lotion to the muscle. The eye was then bandaged, so it could not fall out again. 

Dr. Heady believes the eye is not destroyed.”

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From “Endless Fun,” neuroscientist Michael Graziano’s excellent Aeon article about the implications, many worrisome, of immortality through computer uploading, which sidesteps cryogenics and its frozen heads and gets to the essence beneath–the brain’s data:

Imagine a future in which your mind never dies. When your body begins to fail, a machine scans your brain in enough detail to capture its unique wiring. A computer system uses that data to simulate your brain. It won’t need to replicate every last detail. Like the phonograph, it will strip away the irrelevant physical structures, leaving only the essence of the patterns. And then there is a second you, with your memories, your emotions, your way of thinking and making decisions, translated onto computer hardware as easily as we copy a text file these days.

That second version of you could live in a simulated world and hardly know the difference. You could walk around a simulated city street, feel a cool breeze, eat at a café, talk to other simulated people, play games, watch movies, enjoy yourself. Pain and disease would be programmed out of existence. If you’re still interested in the world outside your simulated playground, you could Skype yourself into board meetings or family Christmas dinners.

This vision of a virtual-reality afterlife, sometimes called ‘uploading’, entered the popular imagination via the short story ‘The Tunnel Under the World’ (1955) by the American science-fiction writer Frederik Pohl, though it also got a big boost from the movie Tron (1982). Then The Matrix (1999) introduced the mainstream public to the idea of a simulated reality, albeit one into which real brains were jacked. More recently, these ideas have caught on outside fiction. The Russian multimillionaire Dmitry Itskov made the news by proposing to transfer his mind into a robot, thereby achieving immortality. Only a few months ago, the British physicist Stephen Hawking speculated that a computer-simulated afterlife might become technologically feasible.”


In a post at Practical Ethics, Dominic Wilkinson asks a thorny question that seems like a simple one at first blush: Should some people, who are considered exceptional, receive health care that others don’t? Of course not, we all would say. Human lives are equal in importance, and our loved ones are just as valuable as the most famous or successful among us. But Wilkinson quickly points out that Nelson Mandela, probably the most beloved among us during his life, received expensive and specialized care that would have been denied almost anyone else in South Africa. But how could we deny Mandela anything, after he sacrificed everything and ultimately led a nation 180 degrees from a civil war that could have cost countless lives? You can’t, really, though I would wager that Peter Singer disagrees with me. The opening of Wilkinson’s post:

There are approximately 150,000 human deaths each day around the world. Most of those deaths pass without much notice, yet in the last ten days one death has received enormous, perhaps unprecedented, attention. The death and funeral of Nelson Mandela have been accompanied by countless pages of newsprint and hours of radio and television coverage. Much has been made of what was, by any account, an extraordinary life. There has been less attention, though, on Mandela’s last months and days. One uncomfortable question has not been asked. Was it ethical for this exceptional individual to receive treatment that would be denied to almost everyone else?

At the age of almost 95, and physically frail, Mandela was admitted to a South African hospital intensive care unit with pneumonia. He remained there for three months before being transferred for ongoing intensive care in a converted room in his own home. Although there are limited details available from media coverage it appears that Mandela received in his last six months a very large amount of highly expensive and invasive medical treatment. It was reported that he was receiving ventilation (breathing machine support) and renal dialysis (kidney machine). This level of treatment would be unthinkable for the vast majority of South Africans, and, indeed, the overwhelming majority of the people with similar illnesses even in developed countries. Frail elderly patients with pneumonia are not usually admitted to intensive care units. They do not have the option of prolonged support with breathing machines and dialysis at home.”

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Ima Hogg, 1900.

Scientific studies (which I mostly don’t believe) have long shown that those with more common names fare better in life than those with unique ones. Barack Obama is a small sample size, but he’s done fairly well personally and professionally. And then there’s Ima Hogg, who was the celebrated belle of Texas as well as un-porcine. Well, she did have family connections, so I could be talking about another exception. I suppose the one area in which a name can have an impact is when it allows an employer with biased hiring practices to know the race or ethnicity of the applicant. That does have a bearing on happiness.

The opening of an interesting New Yorker blog post on the topic by Maria Konnikova:

“In 1948, two professors at Harvard University published a study of thirty-three hundred men who had recently graduated, looking at whether their names had any bearing on their academic performance. The men with unusual names, the study found, were more likely to have flunked out or to have exhibited symptoms of psychological neurosis than those with more common names. The Mikes were doing just fine, but the Berriens were having trouble. A rare name, the professors surmised, had a negative psychological effect on its bearer.

Since then, researchers have continued to study the effects of names, and, in the decades after the 1948 study, these findings have been widely reproduced. Some recent research suggests that names can influence choice of profession, where we live, whom we marry, the grades we earn, the stocks we invest in, whether we’re accepted to a school or are hired for a particular job, and the quality of our work in a group setting. Our names can even determine whether we give money to disaster victims: if we share an initial with the name of a hurricane, according to one study, we are far more likely to donate to relief funds after it hits.

Much of the apparent influence of names on behavior has been attributed to what’s known as the implicit-egotism effect: we are generally drawn to the things and people that most resemble us. Because we value and identify with our own names, and initials, the logic goes, we prefer things that have something in common with them. For instance, if I’m choosing between two brands of cars, all things being equal, I’d prefer a Mazda or a Kia.

That view, however, may not withstand closer scrutiny.”

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I want to be adopted by a wealthy colombian family (anywhere)

I am a nice guy in my 20s that has fell on some hard times and some criminal problems. i need some help out and i need a new godfamily. please help. i would be a great son or brother or grandson. i love cars, cash and sex.

"BELDING followed her from that room to the front room, in which the murder was committed with a shoemaker's hammer."

“BELDING followed her from that room to the front room, in which the murder was committed with a shoemaker’s hammer.”

Sometimes people can separate from the world and be uninterrupted from delusions. They needn’t even move away–they just disappear inside themselves. That can lead to a dangerous, fever dream of a life, one in which a monster grows undisturbed. Such a departure from reality in 1859 led a father and daughter to enter into a religious mania which caused the elder to brutally slay his child. From an article in that year’s New York Times:

“The quiet Sabbath was broken in upon yesterday by the commission of a horrid murder, in the town of Sandlake, about 11 miles from Troy, of a daughter by her father and only surviving parent, a man of 60 years of age, named JOHN BELDING. The scene of the homicide is about 4 miles east of Sliter’s Tavern, and near the steam saw-mill on the Sandlake road. The parties lived in a little house, in which the father earned a livelihood for himself and daughter by following the trade of a shoemaker. The daughter’s name was CHRISTINA. She is about 19 years of age, and is described by the neighbors as a quiet and well-behaved girl. She had been unwell for some time, and, it is said, had been under the care of a female doctress residing in Berlin, in this county, named WEAVER. Her mind, it appears, was somewhat affected, but whether from religious excitement or from some other cause, we are unable to say. She labored under the impression that the devil had possessed her, and used to pray very frequently for deliverance from his grasp. A day or two before the murder, the old man and daughter went over to the house of DAVID HORTON, who resided opposite the BELDINGS, when CHRISTINA said she had taken medicine of MRS. WEAVER, and it made her feel as if ‘the devil was in her and she would scratch him off; but that she had thrown the medicine away, and drove the devil away, too.’ The old man had not done much work recently, as it affected the girl’s head, and it is supposed that in consequence of his care of her and want of sleep, &c., his own mind had become temporarily affected, and while under the delusion [that] ‘Dena,’ as he called her, was the devil, he killed her.

The account which BELDING gives of the affair is that he saw the devil lying upon the bedroom and he struck it in the face. The girl, it appears, was lying down in the back room. BELDING followed her from that room to the front room, in which the murder was committed with a shoemaker’s hammer. Her skull was completely smashed to pieces. Portions of the hair were scattered around the room, and pieces of the skull were lying over the floor. Her face, too, was considerably bruised and disfigured, but no marks of violence were discovered on the other parts of her body, BELDING says he thought she was the devil–that she appeared to him to be four times as large as ‘Dena’–that her face was too large for ‘Dena’–and that from his previous and subsequent conduct there can scarcely be a doubt that the old man imagines he had a fight with the devil, or, as he expressed it, with ‘three devils, and he had all he could do to kill them.’ They lived alone in the house. It is supposed the murder was committed about 12 1/2 o’clock yesterday afternoon. The first person who discovered the murder was NICOLAS RYBERMILLER, who first saw the old man outside the house. He appeared very much excited, and told RYBERMILLER that he had ‘Killed the devil, and it was lying in there,’ pointing to his house. RYBERMILLER looked in and discovered the dead body of the daughter. He asked the old man if it was not DENA that he had killed? BELDING replied that he did not think it was. BELDING’S hands and shirt-sleeves were covered in blood.  RYBERMILLER testified before the Coroner’s jury that the father and daughter had lived with him about six months, previously to their residing in the house where the murder was committed, and that they always appeared happy together, and, as the witness expressed it, ‘Never had any crazy times.’ CHRISTINA was a quiet, good girl.

BELDING was raving like a maniac when the Coroner arrived. Several witnesses were examined, and the jury rendered a verdict that, ‘in their opinion said CHRISTINA BELDING came to her death on Sunday, May 1, 1859, from fractures of the skull, and said injuries were inflicted with a hammer in the hands of her father, JOHN BELDING–he at the time laboring under temporary aberration of mind.’

The Grand Jury sit to-day. The evidence in this case will be handed over to them for their action at once. They will probably authorize a commission to investigate the sanity of the murderer, and if he is declared insane, will send him to the Lunatic Asylum; or they will indict him for murder, as in their opinion the evidence warrants.”


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From Robert Walker’s well-considered Science 2.0 article explaining why terraforming Mars is a far more fraught operation than merely building working Biospheres, which themselves aren’t easy assignments:

“Our only attempt at making a closed Earth-like ecosystem so far on Earth, in Biosphere 2, failed. There, it was because of an interaction of a chemical reaction with the concrete in the building, which indirectly removed oxygen from the habitat. Nobody predicted this and it was only detected after the experiment was over. The idea itself doesn’t seem to be fundamentally flawed, it was just a mistake of detail.

In the future perhaps we will try a Biosphere 3 or 4, and eventually get it right. When we build self-enclosed settlements in space such as the Stanford Torus, they will surely go wrong too from time to time in the early stages. But again, you can purge poisonous gases from the atmosphere, and replenish its oxygen. In the worst case, you can evacuate the colonists from the space settlement, vent all the atmosphere, sterilize the soil, and start again.

It is a similar situation with Mars, there are many interactions that could go wrong, and we are sure to make a few mistakes to start with. The difference is, if you make a mistake when you terraform a planet, it is likely that you can’t ‘turn back the clock’ and undo your mistakes.

With Mars, we can’t try again with a Mars 2, Mars 3, Mars 4 etc. until we get it right.”


From a Wired piece by Liz Stinson about a printable paper speaker by a French product designer: 

“If you’re the tinkering type, you’ve probably deconstructed a fair number of electronics. It doesn’t take a genius to tear apart a radio, but once you get past the bulk of plastic packaging and down to the guts, you begin to realize that reading the mess of circuits, chips and components is like trying to navigate your way through a foreign country with a map from the 18th century.

But it doesn’t have to be so complicated, says Coralie Gourguechon. ‘Nowadays, we own devices that are too complicated considering the way we really use them,’ she says. Gourguechon, maker of the Craft Camera, believes that in order to understand our electronics, they need to be vastly simpler and more transparent than they currently are.”

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Libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel is an interesting guy, though I don’t agree with most of what he says. I’d love, for instance, to see him apply some of his know-how to coming up with solutions for poverty. Like a lot of people in Silicon Valley, he seems to exist on an island where such messy problems don’t register.

From a new Financial Times profile of Thiel by Richard Waters, in which the subject rails against government regulation, some of which might have come in handy on Wall Street during the aughts:

“He sounds equally uncomfortable discussing himself. The ‘ums’ multiply as he tries to explain why he threw in law and banking and came to Silicon Valley to pursue something far more world-changing. ‘There was this decision to move back to California and try something new and different,’ he says as though it were something that happened to someone else.

He is similarly vague when talking about the origins of his personal philosophy. ‘I’ve always been very interested in ideas and trying to figure things out.’ His undergraduate degree, from Stanford University, was in philosophy but his stance against the dominant political philosophy on many issues seems more visceral than intellectual. ‘I think that one of the most contrarian things one can do in our society is try to think for oneself,’ he says.

He only really regains his stride when talking about how technological ambition has gone from the world, leaving what he calls an ‘age of diminished expectations that has slowly seeped into the culture.’ Predictably, given his libertarian bent, much of this is traced back to regulation.

This is his explanation for why the computer industry (which inhabits ‘the world of bits’) has thrived while so many others (‘the world of atoms’) have not. ‘The world of bits has not been regulated and that’s where we’ve seen a lot of progress in the past 40 years, and the world of atoms has been regulated, and that’s why it’s been hard to get progress in areas like biotechnology and aviation and all sorts of material science areas.'”

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