Urban Studies

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In a Guardian “Science Weekly” podcast, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, author Sapiens, tells host Ian Sample how homo sapiens was just one type of human prior to 12,000 years ago, only a mid-range member of the food chain, which used a collaborative spirit and abstract reasoning to conquer other humans and animals. He also explains why he thinks we’ll again in the future have many different types of humans. Two excerpts from the conversation follow.


How did we make that leap [to the top of the food chain] and what were the problems it caused?

Yuval Noah Harari:

Well, we made that leap thanks above all to large-scale cooperation. We often look for the advantage of Homo sapiens on the individual level because I want to think that personally I’m special, I’m so much superior to chimpanzees or baboons or elephants or whatever. But the fact is that on the individual level, we are not very remarkable animals. If you put me and a chimpanzee alone on an island, and we had to struggle for survival, I would definitely place my bets on the chimpanzee, not on myself. We are powerful only when we cooperate in large groups, and this is our big advantage. If you put a thousand chimpanzees and a thousand sapiens on an island, the sapiens will easily win, for the simple reason that a thousand chimpanzees can’t cooperate. Large-scale cooperation is the secret of Homo sapiens’ success, and this has made it not only the top dog in the food chain but also an ecological serial killer. We have been changing the ecology of the planet and causing the extinction of many, many species of other animals and plants long before the Industrial Revolution. The first time it happened was 45,000 years ago when the first sapiens reached Australia and colonized Australia, and within a few thousand years, 95% of all the big animals in Australia became extinct. And the same thing happened again and again in America and Madagascar and many other places.


I was keen to hear how you think the Scientific Revolution has influenced our path.

Yuval Noah Harari:

The Scientific Revolution is one of the three big revolutions of history, and it might turn out in the end to be the biggest revolution of all–not only of history but also of biology. Because at present in the early twenty-first century, science is starting to give people amazing abilities to reshape life itself and to move from the old principle of life, which was natural selection, to the new principle of intelligent design. After four billion years in which life on Earth evolved according to natural selection, we might just now be starting a new phase, which will be based on intelligent design, with the help of technologies like genetic engineering, like nanotechnology, like direct computer-brain interfaces, that can be used for the production or engineering of cyborgs. …

Just as 70,000 years ago, when we had something like six biologically different species on the planet, in the 21st or 22nd century, we might again have biologically different humans, each with very different capabilities and qualities, and maybe even desires.•

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Nobody calls anymore: It’s all texts, tweets and emojis. Phones are ever-more sophisticated, but most functions are silent. There are attempts, however, to remake the 135-year-old tool to fit the more fluid demands of what is becoming a post-voice world, though privacy may again suffer collateral damage. The opening of “Brave New Phone Call,” a just-published Medium piece by Steven Levy, the leading tech journalist of the personal-computing era:

“It is a gorgeous late summer afternoon, and I am sitting with Ray Ozzie in his spacious home office in Manchester-by-the-Sea, 30 miles up the coast from Boston. The software visionary who created Lotus Notes and who later succeeded Bill Gates as Microsoft’s chief software architect, is explaining to me how the humble phone call is not dying, as many might believe, but is busy being reborn.

It’s not an abstract subject for the 58-year entrepreneur. For the past few weeks I have been using the app his company is announcing today, called Talko. It’s a weird, almost magical, combination of phone calling, text messaging, virtual conferencing and Instagram-ish photo sharing. Depending on how you view it, Talko is three or 39 years in the making.

At one point, Ozzie wants to show me something on the app. We both pull out our iPhones and connect with each other; actually, in that moment, we reconnect to a conversation we’ve been having all month that’s been recorded and archived in the app. I think my editor might be interested in the discussion, so we expand the conversation to include him. He’s unable to join us at the moment—I should have known, because the app lets me see that he’s walking around somewhere on the West Coast—but I shoot a photo for him to look at anyway, and Ozzie and I continue talking. Later, my editor will listen to that part of conversation and see the picture at the moment we shot it. And he’ll have the option to comment, perhaps kicking off a longer discussion down the road, either by convening us together in real time or continuing in the same piecemeal fashion as today.

That’s a typical Talko phone call—mixing presence and playback for a totally new experience. God knows that the old experience of a phone call is getting tired.

A few days later, to note the irony of it all, Ozzie sends me a photo in the same ongoing conversation. It’s a plaque in downtown Boston, a block from a Talko engineering office there:

Here on June 2, 1875, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Watson first transmitted sound over wires.

That phone call represented an amazing advance in communications. But Ozzie considers it equally amazing that in the 139 years since ‘Mr. Watson, come here,’ phone calls haven’t changed much.”


Debut of the Picturephone, 1970:

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From the December 10, 1910 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Los AngelesLatham and Mars, the aviators, are noted hunters and keen rivals. While in California they will shoot ducks from their aeroplanes.”

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I’ve previously posted about Songdo, the high-tech insta-city being raised in South Korea, a top-down attempt to bring about tomorrow today. As the aerotropolis reaches the halfway point of its build, Ross Arbes and Charles Bethea of the Atlantic surveyed what might, perhaps, be the future, imperfections and all. An excerpt:

“Like most travelers, we spent our first night there in a hotel. Viewed from the 12th floor of the brand new, environmentally conscious Sheraton Incheon Hotel (the first LEED-certified hotel in South Korea), Songdo resembled an architect’s model. Unlike the crowded and colorful streets of Seoul, the scene below was polished, spacious, sparse—not quite artificial, but not quite broken in yet either. It was more like the manifestation of a designer’s master plan than an evolved metropolis, with layers of lived-in depth. In the middle of the city—which, at 13,195 acres, is almost half the size of Boston proper—sat the 101-acre Central Park, where a few joggers enjoyed the morning sun. North of the park, a number of undulating, blue-glass skyscrapers towered over us. Beyond stood rows of plain concrete buildings and, farther still, large plots of dirt. Construction cranes swung in all directions.

Venturing into the busiest section of town for dinner, we struck up a conversation with an Australian pilot-trainer who spends two weeks a month in Songdo. ‘Is this the city of the future?’ we asked. ‘I wouldn’t quite call it that,’ he said. ‘Of course, this is a great place to be. And it’s unbelievable that it was all just a pile of sand 10 years ago.’

The city was built for a future that hasn’t yet arrived. Songdo’s wide sidewalks and roads—evoking a movie set—are still waiting for pedestrians and cars to fill them. (A number of music videos and television shows, most notably Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style,’ have indeed been filmed in Songdo, taking advantage of its relative vacancy.) The quiet was almost eerie.

But this quiet lends itself to some nice surprises: You can hear birds, for instance. (Try that in Seoul.) An impressive 40 percent of the city will be park space—one of the highest percentages in the world, in keeping with Songdo’s design as a green city. (New York City, by comparison, leads the United States with almost 20 percent green space.) There are bicycles everywhere: A significant portion of the residents are bike commuters, and they park their rides in long neat rows in front of their apartment buildings at night. There are lovely pedestrian thoroughfares flanking clothing boutiques and restaurants with outdoor seating. There are even small plots of land for urban farming, many of which were given to Songdo’s former fishermen as reparation for the destruction of their fisheries. (Some now subsist as farmers.) Squinting at the green space, you could almost mistake the city for Portland, Oregon. Almost.

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Weak AI is going to continue to proliferate throughout the world, its laser focus on narrow tasks improving production and having major economic ramifications good and bad. But what of Strong AI? When will these rough beasts be “born,” their hour come round at last? From Diane Ackerman’s Salon profile of Cornell University roboticist Hod Lipson:

“What’s the next hack for a rambunctious species full of whiz kids with digital dreams? Lipson is fascinated by a different branch of the robotic evolutionary tree than the tireless servant, army of skilled hands, or savant of finicky incisions with which we have become familiar. Over ten million Roomba vacuum cleaners have already sold to homeowners (who sometimes find them being ridden as child or cat chariots). We watch with fascination as robotic sea scouts explore the deep abysses (or sunken ships), and NOAA’s robots glide underwater to monitor the strength of hurricanes. Google’s robotics division owns a medley of firms, including some minting life-size humanoids—because, in public spaces, we’re more likely to ask a cherub-faced robot for info than a touchscreen. Both Apple and Amazon are diving into advanced robotics as well. The military has invested heavily in robots as spies, bionic gear, drones, pack animals, and bomb disposers. Robots already work for us with dedicated precision in factory assembly lines and operating rooms. In cross-cultural studies, the elderly will happily adopt robotic pets and even babies, though they aren’t keen on robot caregivers at the moment.

All of that, to Lipson, is child’s play. His focus is on a self-aware species, Robot sapiens. Our own lineage branched off many times from our apelike ancestors, and so will the flowering, subdividing lineage of robots, which perhaps needs its own Linnaean classification system. The first branch in robot evolution could split between AI and AL—artificial intelligence and artificial life. Lipson stands right at that fork in that road, whose path he’s famous for helping to divine and explore in one of the great digital adventures of our age. It’s the ultimate challenge, in terms of engineering, in terms of creation.

‘At the end of the day,’ he says with a nearly illegible smile, ‘I’m trying to recreate life in a synthetic environment—not necessarily something that will look human. I’m not trying to create a person who will walk out the door and say ‘Hello!’ with all sorts of anthropomorphic features, but rather features that are truly alive given the principles of life—traits and behaviors they have evolved on their own. I don’t want to build something, turn it on, and suddenly it will be alive. I don’t want to program it.'”

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If any of the current big tech companies (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple) exists 50 years from now, would we even recognize it? Google seems especially anxious to remake itself in grand ways, knowing that answering queries might not always pay the bills. With focus on driverless-car software and other moonshots, it has a chance to be that very successful company that used to be a search giant. Remember when? No?!?

Facebook is a dicier proposition. In a category infamous for faddishness, it snaked its way into the American conversation, before constricting into a choke hold. It’s not foundational, though it often feels as if it is. Ello, the social-network phenomenon of the last five minutes, isn’t likely to reach Facebook status because nothing is likely to. But it’s all the rage right now due to the distrust users have for Zuckenberg as a social director. The wariness is warranted. From Ruby J. Murray at the Guardian:

“This year marks a decade since Mark Zuckerberg and his motley crew of 20 year old programmers moved to Palo Alto, California, and defined a new phase in the internet’s infant history with their soothing blue sans-serif. Facebook has succeeded by providing us with a mirror during our early development. It’s inevitable demise will stem from a problem that only starts to hit you as you grow up: the complicated nature of time.

Facebook’s core identity management strategy is its photo albums. They’re the only part of ourselves that it lets us store, search and catalogue in any meaningful way. Narcissus-like, we can organise thousands upon thousands of images of our selves down through the years. There is no similar organizing function for the identities we create as we change: our thoughts, books, links, articles and music.

Considering that Facebook claims American users spend 40 minutes a day on the site – a whopping 243 hours a year – it’s no surprise that our past selves are starting to seem oppressive and unwieldy in their muumuus.

Facebook’s most important social function, the flipside to the photograph, used to be that it truly did give you a place to connect. A shared hive mind with people you would otherwise drift away from. Then Facebook began using a News Feed algorithms and default filters to choose whose posts you saw, they were trying to slow down the wall – and boost the likelihood you’d see Britney Spears’ updates over your friends. Its overall effect was infantalising. When Facebook acts like an overbearing parent, it’s only natural that the adults will want to move out.

The constant data-collection and streams of personalized advertising added injury to the insult of what was already feeling like a tight, airless social space. The internet can seem like so much light and pulses, but its effects are real. Visually and emotionally, the self you inhabit on Facebook is still a child.”

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Same guy?

There was an obnoxious guy named Schein a year ahead of me in school who everyone beat up. This was back around 1980. The douche had a big mouth and would never admit that he was wrong about anything. Anyone else from Lawrence HS remember him?

I don’t think there’s any question that Uber is good for consumers and bad for workers, but even if America’s newest set of wheels goes bust like Napster, the bigger picture is that the war has been quietly lost regardless of what happens in that one loud battle. The music industry wasn’t brought down just by Sean Parker, but by the wave he represented. From Avi-Asher Schapiro’s Jacobin article about labor’s share getting smaller:

“Uber claims there’s no need for a union; it instead asks drivers to trust that the company acts in their best interest. Uber refused to show me complete data detailing average hourly compensation for drivers. It does claim, however, that UberX drivers are making more money now than before this summer’s price cuts.

‘The average fares per hour for a Los Angeles UberX driver-partner in the last four weeks were 21.4% higher than the December 2013 weekly average,’ Uber spokesperson Eva Behrend told me. ‘And drivers on average have seen fares per hour increase 28% from where they were in May of this year.’

I couldn’t find a single driver who is making more money with the lower rates.

What’s clear is that for Uber drivers to get by, they’re going to have to take on more rides per shift. Uber implicitly concedes as much: ‘With price cuts, trips per hour for partner-drivers have increased with higher demand,’ Behrend said.

So while drivers make less per fare, Uber suggests they recoup losses by just driving more miles. That may make sense for an Uber analyst crunching the numbers in Silicon Valley, but for drivers, more miles means hustling to cram as many runs into a shift as possible to make the small margins worthwhile.”

Ebola isn’t threatening to be a pandemic yet and probably won’t, but the rampant regional spread of its terror and death has reached a scale that never had to be. Mobilizing against a known disease should be relatively easy, but politics seldom is. From a Spiegel interview by Rafaela von Bredow and Veronika Hackenbroch with Peter Piot, one of the scientists who first discovered the virus in 1976:


There is actually a well-established procedure for curtailing Ebola outbreaks: isolating those infected and closely monitoring those who had contact with them. How could a catastrophe such as the one we are now seeing even happen? 

Peter Piot:

I think it is what people call a perfect storm: when every individual circumstance is a bit worse than normal and they then combine to create a disaster. And with this epidemic, there were many factors that were disadvantageous from the very beginning. Some of the countries involved were just emerging from terrible civil wars, many of their doctors had fled and their healthcare systems had collapsed. In all of Liberia, for example, there were only 51 doctors in 2010, and many of them have since died of Ebola.


The fact that the outbreak began in the densely populated border region between Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia …

Peter Piot:

… also contributed to the catastrophe. Because the people there are extremely mobile, it was much more difficult than usual to track down those who had had contact with the infected people. Because the dead in this region are traditionally buried in the towns and villages they were born in, there were highly contagious Ebola corpses traveling back and forth across the borders in pick-ups and taxis. The result was that the epidemic kept flaring up in different places.


For the first time in its history, the virus also reached metropolises like Monrovia and Freetown. Is that the worst thing that can happen?

Peter Piot:

In large cities — particularly in chaotic slums — it is virtually impossible to find those who had contact with patients, no matter how great the effort. That is why I am so worried about Nigeria as well. The country is home to mega-cities like Lagos and Port Harcourt and if the Ebola virus lodges there and begins to spread, it would be an unimaginable catastrophe.


Have we completely lost control of the epidemic?

Peter Piot:

I have always been an optimist and I think that we now have no other choice than to try everything, really everything. It’s good that the United States and some other countries are finally beginning to help. But Germany or even Belgium, for example, must do a lot more. And it should be clear to all of us: This isn’t just an epidemic anymore. This is a humanitarian catastrophe. We don’t just need care personnel, but also logistics experts, trucks, jeeps and foodstuffs. Such an epidemic can destabilize entire regions. I can only hope that we will be able to get it under control. I really never thought that it could get this bad.”

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As robots proliferate, we’re going require far more than three laws to govern their actions. The questions are seemingly endless, and the answers will likely have to be very elastic. The opening of an Economist report about the RoboLaw group’s recently released findings:

“WHEN the autonomous cars in Isaac Asimov’s 1953 short story ‘Sally’ encourage a robotic bus to dole out some rough justice to an unscrupulous businessman, the reader is to believe that the bus has contravened Asimov’s first law of robotics, which states that ‘a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.’

Asimov’s ‘three laws’ are a bit of science-fiction firmament that have escaped into the wider consciousness, often taken to be a serious basis for robot governance. But robots of the classic sort, and bionic technologies that enhance or become part of humans, raise many thorny legal, ethical and regulatory questions. If an assistive exoskeleton is implicated in a death, who is at fault? If a brain-computer interface is used to communicate with someone in a vegetative state, are those messages legally binding? Can someone opt to replace their healthy limbs with robotic prostheses?

Questions such as these are difficult to anticipate. The concern for policymakers is creating a regulatory and legal environment that is broad enough to maintain legal and ethical norms but is not so proscriptive as to hamper innovation.”

Jeremy Waldron of the New York Review of Books has an article about legal scholar Cass Sunstein, who believes a nudge is often better than a “no,” though it’s not always easy to define the distinction.

Of the examples of nudge-ish paternalism provided in the below excerpt, the one that most bothers me is the TV that’s programmed to always turn on first to PBS. It feels like a violation of personal space and an oppression of cultural tastes. Plenty of gatekeepers have been wrong over the years, while the masses have been right. Cheap comics weren’t a plague and rock music wasn’t just a bunch of noise.

It’s true, though, that the absence of paternalism doesn’t mean we have unobstructed free will. Corporations don’t just nudge but shove us toward their products (here and here), often unhealthy ones, and some pushback is warranted. An excerpt:

“Cass Sunstein is a Harvard law professor and the author of dozens of books on the principles of public policy. He knew Barack Obama from Harvard Law School and in 2009, he was appointed administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Sunstein’s thought about nudging is evidently the fruit of his determination to consider alternatives to the old command-and-control models of regulation. Now, with his government service behind him (for the time being), he has given us another book, called Why Nudge?, in which he provides an accessible defense of what he calls ‘libertarian paternalism’—a good-natured paternalism that is supposed to leave individual choosing intact.

‘Paternalism’ is usually a dirty word in political philosophy: the nanny state passing regulations that restrict us for our own good, banning smoking and skateboarding because they’re unsafe, or former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg trying to limit the size of sugary sodas sold in New York City—’the Big Gulp Ban.’ Now, a nudger wouldn’t try anything so crass. If you ordered a soda in nudge-world, you would get a medium cup, no questions asked; you’d have to go out of your way to insist on a large one. Not only that, but diet beverages would probably be the ones displayed most prominently in nudge-world and served without question unless the customer insisted on getting the classic version from under the counter.

You could order a supersized sugary beverage if you wanted it badly enough, but it wouldn’t be so convenient to carry it to your table because Thaler and Sunstein are in favor of abolishing trays. It is all too easy to load up a tray with food that will never be eaten and napkins that go unused. You could insist on a tray if you wanted to hold up the line, but a tray-free policy has been proved to lower food and beverage waste by up to 50 percent in certain environments. Nudge and Why Nudge? are replete with examples like this.

Nudging is paternalistic, but it is surely a very mild version of paternalism. It’s about means, not ends: we don’t try to nudge people toward a better view of the good life, with compulsory library cards, for example, or PBS always coming up when you turn on your TV. And it is mild too because you can always opt out of a nudge. Not that Sunstein is opposed to more stringent regulations. Sometimes a straightforward requirement—like the rule about seat belts—might be a better form of paternalism. These options are left open for the regulator.”

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From the September 29, 1860 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“A man named George Huff was arrested by Constable Hanibel on Wednesday afternoon in Flushing on the charge of being intoxicated. He was put into a cell, and on Thursday morning his dead body was found eaten by rats, a portion of the forehead and one hand being gone. A post mortem examination was held and a verdict rendered that he came to his death by disease brought on by intoxication. The occurrence will lead to the erection of better accommodations for prisoners.”

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Speaking of unemployed drivers, the sharing of autonomous vehicles isn’t happening today or tomorrow, but there’s no reason why it can’t be a reality in the not-too distant future. From Jack Smith IV at Betabeat:

“The world is covered in unused cars — absolutely blanketed with them. All day, our cars sit useless in driveways and parking garages, sitting idle for far longer than we’re actually driving them. But what if when we got out of our car, it automatically drove off to give someone else a lift, and then kept doing so, day in, day out?

A pair of researchers from the University of Texas have published a report outlining the possible impacts of Shared Automated Vehicles (SAVs). For the study, the team simulated a hypothetical cab service of self-driven cars like the kind Google has already developed. They found that in a dense enough urban area — this example used Austin, Texas — the system would replace about nine out of ten vehicles while ‘maintaining a reasonable level of service,’ as measured by the time people spent waiting for a ride. The test was run entirely on paper, modeled mathematically using Austin’s existing daily traffic data.

The hypothetical service would function like Uber, only without drivers who need to sleep, take breaks, be paid, and other feeble human shortcomings. The city-wide program would know enough to know who could carpooling with who, and estimate departure and arrival times, so the cars would minimize the amount of time spent uselessly idling. Ideally, this kind of service would supplant the need for many people to actually own a car.”

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There are many areas where billionaire investor Peter Thiel and I disagree–he seems unconcerned about that–but we do concur that AI is more the solution than the problem. While I accept that smart machines could possibly be the ruination of humans, it seems very likely to me that we’ll become extinct without their continued development. (There are some other low-tech, out-of-the-box measures which might be useful in staving off our species’ collapse, but it’s highly improbable they’ll be implemented.) 

In his new Financial Times piece, “Robots Are Our Saviors, Not the Enemy,” Thiel examines the more mundane economic costs of silicon brain drain. He extols the value of a man-machine hybrid, saying that robots will complement rather than replace human labor in many instances, though former employees of Blockbuster, Borders and Fotomat might disagree. And if driverless cars arrive anywhere near on schedule, there will be a whole new class of unemployed that wasn’t a useful complement. An excerpt:

“Unlike fellow humans of different nationalities, computers are not substitutes for American labour. Men and machines are good at different things. People form plans and make decisions in complicated situations. We are less good at making sense of enormous amounts of data. Computers are exactly the opposite: they excel at efficient data processing but struggle to make basic judgments that would be simple for any human.

I came to understand this from my experience as chief executive of PayPal. In mid-2000 we had survived the dotcom crash and we were growing fast but we faced one huge problem: we were losing upwards of $10m a month to credit card fraud. Since we were processing hundreds or even thousands of trans­actions each minute, we could not possibly review each one. No human quality control team could work that fast.

We tried to solve the problem by writing software that would automatically identify bogus transactions and cancel them in real time. But it quickly became clear that this approach would not work: after an hour or two, the thieves would catch on and change their tactics to fool our algorithms.

Human analysts, however, were not easily fooled by criminals’ adaptive strategies. So we rewrote the software to take a hybrid approach: the computer would flag the most suspicious trans­actions, and human operators would make the final judgment.

This kind of man-machine symbiosis enabled PayPal to stay in business, which in turn enabled hundreds of thousands of small businesses to accept the payments they needed to thrive on the internet.”

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A couple of things I learned from “How to Tell When a Robot Has Written You a Letter,” a Medium piece by the reliably excellent Clive Thompson: 1) Companies remain which employ people to handwrite letters for you, and 2) Subtle differences make it possible to detect if a machine has written a missive rather than a human (though I must admit I would still be fooled even after reading Thompson’s post). An excerpt:

“So now robots are trying to write like us. But they’re not perfect yet! It turns out there are some intriguing quirks of human psychology and letter-formation that the machines can’t yet mimic. Learn those tricks, and you can spot the robots.

I first heard of these human-machine handwriting differences in a conversation last week with Brian Curliss and Daniel Jurek, the cofounders of the startup Maillift. If you need to send out 200 personalized letters to sales leads but haven’t got the time to handwrite them yourself — or if your handwriting is, like mine, grotesque — then Maillift will generate them for you, using teams of genuinely carbon-based people. (What sort of person enjoys handwriting letters for others? ‘Teachers,’ Curliss replies. Apparently teachers have spectacular handwriting, take enormous pride in the craft, and want to make some extra coin in their evenings and weekends.)

Curliss and Jurek also own a handwriting robot, so they’ve studied thousands of human-written letters and compared them to ones produced by machines. They’ve identified three crucial distinctions.”

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Is there too much venture capital? Yes, there is. Whether it’s traditional firms, angels or crowdsourcing, investors seem to be out there for dreamers of all sized dreams, even during these difficult times. Case in point: Waypoint 2 Space, a start-up which aims to acclimate Earthlings to the final frontier, preparing tourists and long-term tenants physically and psychologically for a mission to Mars or wherever. It took its small steps with Kickstarter and is working on making a giant leap with the help of deeper pockets. It actually will be necessary at some point, but now may or may not be that moment. From Issie Lapowsky at Wired UK:

“The age of commercial spaceflight is finally here. From Richard Branson to Elon Musk, some of the world’s greatest innovators have spent years developing a new kind of space shuttle, with the promise that one day, in the not too distant future, all of us will have a chance to hop on a flight to space.

And Kevin Heath wants to make sure we don’t puke on the way.

Heath is the founder and CEO of Waypoint 2 Space, a space-training startup based at the Houston Technology Center incubator at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Its goal is to prepare potential space tourists for the trip, using similar training methodology and technology that NASA astronauts receive. Waypoint’s staff-many of whom are former NASA trainers-will prepare students not only for maneuvering their bodies in a weightless environment and completing a lunar walk, but for the psychological toll that even a short trip to space can take. ‘We’re not a Disneyland experience. This is not space camp,’ Heath says. ‘We’re literally training people to go to space.’

Heath’s timing is right. Just last week, NASA awarded two contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to develop and deploy their own space shuttles, sending a $6.8 (£4.2) billion cash infusion straight into the heart of the commercial space flight industry. Though the shuttles will only be used to ferry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station for now, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said that the partnership ‘promises to give more people in America and around the world the wonder and exhilaration of space flight.’

But space tourism is only a fraction of the potential market. A constellation of industries is now popping up around the development of commercial shuttles, from companies like Planetary Resources that want to mine the moon for natural resources, to companies like Virgin Galactic and Bigelow Aerospace, which have plans to open so-called space hotels for wealthy space travellers in the near future.

‘If we’re to see the logical extension of the technological gains of the last 30 years, we need people in space, ways to get them there and training for the trip,’ says Mike Lousteau, a partner at I2BF Global Ventures, which has invested in several space-related startups (though not Waypoint). ‘Whether we’re talking about advanced telecommunications, resource exploration or imaging and Earth observation, a trained human element can provide operation, maintenance and innovation. As these industries and others draw more people to go to and stay in space, the need to train more people will only increase.'”

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Ray Harroun won the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911, but he wasn’t alone. The automobilist will forever be crowned the inaugural winner, but fellow driver Cyrus Patschke also handled the wheel of his car, the Marmon Wasp, for a spell, a maneuver common to drivers in early auto races who wanted to take a breather. Ralph Mulford, another entrant who drove his vehicle all by himself for the race’s duration, was actually considered the more impressive driver, and protested Harroun being named winner. The complaint, though, wasn’t directed at Harroun employing a “relief driver,” but rather the fact that Mulford received the checkered flag first, and while he was running several extra laps just to be sure that he’d completed enough tours of the track, Harroun made his way to the winner’s circle. The historic moment had left Mulford in the dust.

An article about the soon-to-be-run race in the May 28, 1911 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which featured the comments of driver Ralph DePalma:


In 1961, Harroun appeared on What’s My Line? fifty years year after his most famous moment:

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Philosopher Nick Bostrom, who has AI on the brain these days, just did an Ask Me Anything at Reddit. One exchange about the future of labor:


Good evening from Australia Professor! I would really like to know what your opinion is on technological unemployment. There is a bit of a shift in public thought and awareness at the moment about the rapid advances in both software and hardware displacing human workers in numerous fields.

Do you believe this time is actually different compared to the past and we do have to worry about the economic effects of technology, and more specifically AI, in permanently displacing humans?

Nick Bostrom:

It’s striking that so far we’re mainly used our higher productivity to consume more stuff rather than to enjoy more leisure. Unemployment is partly about lack of income (fundamentally a distributional problem) but it is also about a lack of self-respect and social status.

I think eventually we will have technological unemployment, when it becomes cheaper to do most everything humans do with machines instead. Then we can’t make a living out of wage income and would have to rely on capital income and transfers instead. But we would also have to develop a culture that does not stigmatize idleness and that helps us cultivate interest in activities that are not done to earn money.”


Via the wonderful Delancey Place, a prescient excerpt from E.B. White’s 1949 book, Here Is New York, about towers that resembled targets, which predates Don DeLillo’s similar fever dreams about falling skyscrapers by more than four decades:

“To a New Yorker the city is both changeless and changing. In many respects it neither looks nor feels the way it did twenty-five years ago. … New York has changed in tempo and in temper during the years I have known it. There is greater tension, increased irritability. You encounter it in many places, in many faces. The normal frustrations of modern life are here multiplied and amplified — a single run of a cross-town bus contains, for the driver, enough frustration and annoyance to carry him over the edge of sanity: the light that changes always an instant too soon, the passenger that bangs on the shut door, the truck that blocks the only opening, the coin that slips to the floor, the question asked at the wrong moment. There is greater tension and there is greater speed. …

The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.”


Automats were once wildly popular coin-operated restaurants in NYC during that earlier age when it seemed retail and dining might be consumed by machines, but Weak AI wasn’t yet ready to deliver. Its time has arrived now, and as fast-food workers fight for living wages, machines that barely register in our consciousness prepare to operate with quiet efficiency. The opening of Aaron Gilbreath’s Harper’s blog post “Lunch at the Robot Grill“:

“This spring, at a time when American fast-food workers were marching to demand pay increases, and local governments were voting to raise the minimum wage, the Chili’s restaurant chain installed more than 45,000 tabletop touchscreen devices at 823 of its franchises nationwide. Customers at these locations can now order drinks and dessert directly through monitors, pay without the assistance of a server, play games, and read the digital edition of USA Today. The company has also installed computerized ovens at 1,200 locations. Applebee’s, meanwhile, has announced plans to follow suit with approximately 100,000 tabletop tablets by the end of 2014, while Panera Bread is replacing many registers with self-serve kiosks and adding technology that will allow customers to sit down, enter their orders and table numbers on a smartphone, and have their food delivered to them.

For consumers, such automation is convenient. For restaurant workers, it raises fears of displacement. Some analysts believe fast-food chains will respond to the push for higher wages by simply replacing servers and cooks with robots — some of which are already arriving: MIT’s Makr Shakr is capable of mixing cocktails ordered through mobile devices, while the Chinese-made NoodleBot cuts fresh noodles at a fraction of the usual cost. And a hamburger maker marketed by Momentum Machines can grind meat, cook patties, slice tomatoes, and assemble and bag approximately 360 burgers per hour. Restaurants around the world are exploring new ways to implement these new technologies. Since 2008, customers at Bagger’s, in Nuremberg, Germany, for example, have been ordering from touch screens, then waiting for the cook to deliver their food by sliding a container down a set of winding metal tracks, in a theatrical touch.

Japanese restaurants embrace a more pragmatic form of mechanization. At the thriving donburi chain Matsuya, customers order and pay for meals at self-serve machines known alternately as shokkenki or kenbaiki (both of which translate to ‘ticket machine’). So too at the home-style restaurant chain Yayoiken and at the countless independent curry, ramen, takoyaki, and udon restaurants that fill Japan’s bustling train stations and side streets. For these businesses and their customers, shokkenki are a benign convenience, so integrated into daily life that locals barely notice them.”


I was disappointed when I first played the new EconTalk podcast, which featured host Russ Roberts interviewing Capital in the Twenty-First Century author Thomas Piketty; I simply couldn’t understand the guest due to his French accent (or my American ears). Thankfully, the program is transcripted, and it makes for a fascinating read. The Libertarian host and his politically opposed guest go at it in an intelligent way on all matters of wealth creation and distribution.

One argument that Roberts makes always galls me because I think it’s intellectually dishonest: He says that really innovative people (e.g., Steve Jobs and Bill Gates) deserve the huge money they make, implying that most of the wealth in the country is concentrated with such people. That’s not so. They’re outliers, extreme exceptions being raised to argue a rule.

There are also the Carly Fiorinas of the world, who run formerly great companies like Hewlett-Packard into the ground and make a soft landing with a ginormous golden parachute just before thousands of workers are laid off. If you want to say she’s equally an outlier, feel free, but the majority of CEOs in the U.S. aren’t great innovators. They’re stewards being compensated like innovators, collecting generous “royalties” on someone else’s ideas.

One excerpt from the show on this topic:

“Russ Roberts:

I’m just trying to get at the mechanics, because I think it matters a lot for why inequality has risen. So, for example, if somebody has gotten wealthy because they’ve been able to be bailed out using my tax dollars, then I would resent that. But if somebody is wealthy because they’ve created something marvelous, then Idon’t resent it. And my argument is that when we look at the Forbes 400, or the top 1%, many of the people in their, their incomes, their wealth has risen at a greater rate than the economy as a whole not because they are exploiting people, not because of corporate governance, but because of an increase in globalization that allows people to capture–make more people happy. Make more people–provide more value. My favorite example is sports. Lionel Messi makes about 3 times–the great soccer player, the great footballer, makes about 3 times what Pele made in his best earning years, 40 years ago. That’s not because Messi is a better soccer player. He’s not. Pele, I think, is probably a better soccer player. But Messi reaches more people, because of the Internet, because of technology and globalization. You can still argue that he doesn’t need $65 million a year and you should tax him at high tax rates. But I think as economists we should be careful about what the causal mechanism is. It matters a lot.

Thomas Piketty:

Oh, yes, yes, yes. But this is why my book is long, because I talk a lot about this mechanism. And I talk a lot about the entrepreneur, and the reason there is a lot of entrepreneurial wealth around, but my point is certainly not to deny this. My point is twofold. First, even if it was 100% entrepreneurial wealth, you don’t want to have the top growing 4 times faster than the average, even if it was complete mobility from one year to the other, you know, it cannot continue forever, otherwise the share of middle class in national wealth goes to 0% and you know, 0% is really very small. So that would be too much. And point number 2, is that when you actually look at the dynamics of top wealth holders, you know it’s really a mixture of, you know, you have entrepreneurs but you also have sons of entrepreneurs; you also have ex-entrepreneurs who don’t work any more but their wealth is rising as fast and sometimes faster than when they were actually working. You have–it’s a very complicated dynamics. And also be careful actually with Forbes’s ranking, which probably are even underestimating the rise of top wealth holders and you know, there are a lot of problems counting for inherited diversified portfolios. It’s a lot easier to spot people who have created their own company and who actually want to be in the ranking because usually they are quite proud of it, and maybe rightly so, than to spot the people, you know, who just inherited from the wealth. And so I think this data source is very biased in the direction of entrepreneurial wealth. But even if you take it as perfect data you will see that you have a lot of inherited wealth. You know, look: I give this example in the book, which is quite striking. The richest person in France and actually one of the richest in Europe, is Liliane Bettencourt. Actually, her father was a great entrepreneur. Eugene Schueller founded L’Oreal, number 1 cosmetics in the world, with lots of fancy products to have nice hair; this is very useful, this has improved the world welfare by a lot.

Russ Roberts: 

Pleasant. It’s nice.

Thomas Piketty:

The only problem is that Eugene Schueller created L’Oreal in 1909. And he died in the 1950s, and you know, she has never worked. What’s interesting is that her fortune, between the [?], between 1990 and 2010, has increased exactly as much as the one of Bill Gates. She has gone from $5 to $30 billion, when Bill Gates has gone from like $10 to $60. It’sexactly in the same proportion. And you know, in a way, this is sad. Because of course we would all love Bill Gates’ wealth to increase faster than that of Liliane. Look, why would I–I’m not trying to–I’m just trying to look at the data. And when you look at the data, you would see that the dynamics of wealth that you mention are not only about entrepreneurs and merit, and it’s always a complicated mixture. You have oligarchs who are seated on a big pile of oil, which you know, I don’t know how much of it is their labor and talent but some of it is certainly direct appropriation. And once they are seated on this pile of wealth, the rate of return that they are getting by paying tons of people to make the right investment with their portfolio can be quite impressive. So I think we need to look at these dynamics in an open manner. And when Warren Buffet says, I should not be paying less tax than my secretary, I think he has a valid point. And I think the issue, the idea that we are going to solve this problem only by letting these people decide how much they want to give individually is a bit naive. I believe a lot in charitable giving, but I think we also need collective rules and laws in order to determine how each one of us is contributing to tax revenue and the common good.

Russ Roberts:

Well, the share contributed by the wealthy in the United States is relatively high. You could argue it should be higher. As you would point out, I don’t really have a model to know what that would be. But real question for me is the size of government. If there’s a reason for it to be larger, if money can be spent better by the government, that would be one thing. And again, the other question is what should be the ideal distribution of the tax burden.”

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Is it terrible if humans become extinct provided another species replaces us, whether it’s a carbon- or silicon-based life-form? Well, sucks for me and for you magpies as well, but it’s not nearly as bad as nothingness if we’re ranking such things. From Neil Levy at Practical Ethics:

“I think that reflecting on the end of humanity gives some support to views according to which it is not death itself that matters; rather it is the cessation of some kind of ongoing project. Compare two different scenarios in which humanity comes to an end. In scenario 1, humanity comes to an end in 300 years time when a large asteroid collides with the Earth, causing immediate devastation and a long winter in which the remnants of humanity die off. In scenario 2, humanity comes to an end because we encounter and interbreed with space-faring aliens. I think it is clear that scenario 2 is far preferable to scenario 1, and not just because scenario 1 involves suffering (indeed, if we remove the suffering from scenario 1 – the asteroid somehow triggers instant and painless death – 2 remains far preferable to 1). That suggests that what matters for us is not whether humanity comes to an end, but whether our current projects are in vain. If everything we strive for makes no difference, some kind of meaninglessness seems to threaten, but if our projects continue then they might matter beyond their more immediate effects.”


Jeter fans, own a piece of history

I’m a locker room attendant at Camden Yards. When the Yankees were here last week, in the fifth inning of the final game Derek Jeter ran down to the locker room to use the restroom. He forgot to flush. He left a decent sized turd in the bowl, which I have retrieved, preserved, and lovingly encased in a glass case. I’ve had it tested and have a certificate of authenticity from a major sports auction house. Derek Jeter will never again drop a deuce in Baltimore as an active player. You can own the last number two left by number two ever at Camden Yards. Best offer over $5000.

From the November 7, 1886 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Winnipeg, Man. — A plasterer named Shules, who contemplated leaving this city for the old country, recently sold his wife and five children to a man named Williams for $70. A regular legal agreement was drawn up between the two men and the property was formally transferred. The police are investigating the matter.”

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