Urban Studies

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The line between news and advertising was never drawn in pen though we might like to believe so in the fuzziness of retrospect, but there’s no doubt in these post-print times that there’s been a major assault on that demarcation. And that’s a heartbreaker, one of the clearest losses in a wave of progress. The opening of Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson’s Financial Times piece, “The Invasion of Corporate News“:

“A population of 100,000 is no longer a guarantee that a city like Richmond, California can sustain a thriving daily paper. Readers have drifted from the tactile pleasures of print to the digital gratification of their smartphone screens, and advertising revenues have drifted with them. Titles that once served up debates from City Hall, news of school teams’ triumphs and classified ads for outgrown bikes have stopped the presses for good.

Last January, however, a site called the Richmond Standard launched, promising ‘a community-driven daily news source dedicated to shining a light on the positive things that are going on in the community,’ and giving everyone from athletes to entrepreneurs the recognition they deserve. Since then, it has recorded the ‘quick-thinking teen’ commended by California’s governor for saving a woman from overdosing; the ‘incredible strength’ of the 5ft 6in high-school freshman who can bench-press ‘a whopping 295lbs’; and councilman Tom Butt’s warning about the costs of vacating a blighted public housing project.

The Richmond Standard is one of the more polished sites to emerge in the age of hyper-local digital news brands such as Patch and DNAinfo.com. That may be because it is run and funded by Chevron, the $240bn oil group which owns the Richmond refinery that in August 2012 caught fire, spewing plumes of black smoke over the city and sending more than 15,000 residents to hospital for medical help.”

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Speaking of machines taking over, here’s one final excerpt from Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence. It comes from one of the best passages, “Of Horses and Men.” The sequence I’m quoting is rather dire, though Bostrom later looks at the more positive side of technology handling labor for us and how extreme wealth disparity could be remedied. The excerpt:

“With cheaply copyable labor, market wages fall. The only place where humans would remain competitive may be where customers have a basic preference for work done by humans. Today, goods that have been handcrafted or produced by indigenous people sometimes command a price premium. Future consumers might similarly prefer human-made goods and human athletes, human artists, human lovers, and human leaders to functionally indistinguishable or superior artificial counterparts. It is unclear, however, just how widespread such preferences would be. If machine-made alternatives were sufficiently superior, perhaps they would be more highly prized.

One parameter that might be relevant to consumer choice is the inner life of the worker providing a service or product. A concert audience, for instance, might like to know that the performer is consciously experiencing the music and the venue. Absent phenomenal experience, the musician could be regarded as merely a high-powered jukebox, albeit one capable of creating the three-dimensional appearance of a performer interacting naturally with the crowd. Machines might then be designed to instantiate the same kinds of mental states that would be present in a human performing the same task. Even with perfect replication of subjective experiences, however, some people might simply prefer organic work. Such preferences could also have ideological or religious roots. Just as many Muslims and Jews shun food prepared in ways they classify as haram or treif, so there might be groups in the future that eschew products whose manufacture involved unsanctioned use of machine intelligence.

What hinges on this? To the extent that cheap machine labor can substitute for human labor, human jobs may disappear. Fears about automation and job loss are of course not new. Concerns about technological unemployment have surfaced periodically, at least since the Industrial Revolution; and quite a few professions have in fact gone the way of the English weavers and textile artisans who in the early nineteenth century united under the banner of the folkloric ‘General Ludd’ to fight against the introduction of mechanized looms. Nevertheless, although machinery and technology have been substitutes for many particular types of human labor, physical technology has on the whole been a complement to labor. Average human wages around the world have been on a long-term upward trend, in large part because of such complementarities. Yet what starts out as a complement to labor can at a later stage become a substitute for labor. Horses were initially complemented by carriages and ploughs, which greatly increased the horse’s productivity. Later, horses were substituted for by automobiles and tractors. These later innovations reduced the demand for equine labor and led to a population collapse. Could a similar fate befall the human species?

The parallel to the story of the horse can be drawn out further if we ask why it is that there are still horses around. One reason is that there are still a few niches in which horses have functional advantages; for example, police work. But the main reason is that humans happen to have peculiar preferences for the services that horses can provide, including recreational horseback riding and racing. These preferences can be compared to the preferences we hypothesized some humans might have in the future, that certain goods and services be made by human hand. Although suggestive, this analogy is, however, inexact, since there is still no complete functional substitute for horses. If there were inexpensive mechanical devices that ran on hay and had exactly the same shape, feel, smell, and behavior as biological horses — perhaps even the same conscious experiences — then demand for biological horses would probably decline further.

With a sufficient reduction in the demand for human labor, wages would fall below the human subsistence level. The potential downside for human workers is therefore extreme: not merely wage cuts, demotions, or the need for retraining, but starvation and death. When horses became obsolete as a source of moveable power, many were sold off to meatpackers to be processed into dog food, bone meal, leather, and glue. These animals had no alternative employment through which to earn their keep. In the United States, there were about 26 million horses in 1915. By the early 1950s, 2 million remained.”

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Rebecca Solnit, a very smart writer I know best for this book, has penned “The Wheel Turns, the Boat Rocks, the Sea Rises,” a TomDispatch piece that calls for the ultimate disruption: a humanity-saving mass movement against the forces enriched by the levers of climate change. Solnit suggests that as the Berlin Wall came down without warning, so too can entrenched interests supporting fossil fuels. The economic ramifications are certainly more complex, but it’s already late and can’t get too much later. The opening:

“There have undoubtedly been stable periods in human history, but you and your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents never lived through one, and neither will any children or grandchildren you may have or come to have. Everything has been changing continuously, profoundly — from the role of women to the nature of agriculture. For the past couple of hundred years, change has been accelerating in both magnificent and nightmarish ways.

Yet when we argue for change, notably changing our ways in response to climate change, we’re arguing against people who claim we’re disrupting a stable system.  They insist that we’re rocking the boat unnecessarily.

I say: rock that boat. It’s a lifeboat; maybe the people in it will wake up and start rowing. Those who think they’re hanging onto a stable order are actually clinging to the wreckage of the old order, a ship already sinking, that we need to leave behind.

 As you probably know, the actual oceans are rising — almost eight inchessince 1880, and that’s only going to accelerate. They’re also acidifying, because they’re absorbing significant amounts of the carbon we continue to pump into the atmosphere at record levels.  The ice that covers the polar seas is shrinking, while the ice shields that cover Antarctica and Greenland are melting. The water locked up in all the polar ice, as it’s unlocked by heat, is going to raise sea levels staggeringly, possibly by as much as 200 feet at some point in the future, how distant we do not know.  In the temperate latitudes, warming seas breed fiercer hurricanes.

The oceans are changing fast, and for the worse. Fish stocks are dying off, as are shellfish. In many acidified oceanic regions, their shells are actually dissolving or failing to form, which is one of the scariest, most nightmarish things I’ve ever heard. So don’t tell me that we’re rocking a stable boat on calm seas. The glorious 10,000-year period of stable climate in which humanity flourished and then exploded to overrun the Earth and all its ecosystems is over.”

 

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Even by the oft-eccentric standards of your garden-variety cyberneticist, Warren Sturgis McCulloch was something of an outlier. Known for his purported diet of cigarettes, whiskey and ice cream, the MIT genius was the proud father of 17 adopted children. More than six decades ago he was extrapolating the power of then-rudimentary machines, concerned that eventually AI might rule humankind, a topic of much concern in these increasingly automated times. The below article from the September 22, 1948 Brooklyn Daily Eagle records his clarion call about the future.

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In 1969, the year before McCulloch died, his opinions on the Singularity had modified.

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From a report by Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times about the recent debate between David Graeber and Peter Thiel, two big-picture thinkers who could not be more disparate politically:

“If he and Mr. Graeber didn’t plan the future on Friday, they did agree that it needed to be radically different from the present. Mr. Graeber kicked things off with an extemporaneous summary of his essay ‘Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,’ which is included in the new Baffler anthology No Future for You. (As of this writing, the book was lagging about 297,000 spots behind Mr. Thiel’s on Amazon.)

Once upon a time, he said, when people imagined the future, they imagined flying cars, teleportation devices and robots who would free them from the need to work. But strangely, none of these things came to pass.

‘What happened to the second half of the 20th century?’ Mr. Graeber asked. His answer is that it was deliberately short-circuited by a ‘ruling-class freak-out,’ as ‘all this space-age stuff was seen as a threat to social control.’

Mr. Thiel took the microphone and made a similar argument, citing the slogan of his venture capital firm, the Founders Fund: ‘We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.’

If he didn’t blame any ruling-class freakout, he did see a loss of nerve and sclerotic bureaucracies. He cited the anarchist slogan ‘Act as if you are already free,’ and praised initiatives like SpaceX, the private space technology company started by his fellow PayPal founder, Elon Musk.

‘We’re not going to get to Mars by having endless debates,’ he said. ‘We’re going to get to Mars by trying to get to Mars.'”

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The robot-aided piloting of airplanes has been around longer than many people may realize. And soon it will be in cars as well. For the most part, that’s a great thing. Plane crashes in U.S. commercial airliners aren’t exactly a thing of the past, but almost, as the autonomous function combined with knowledge of wind shears has reduced dangers markedly. Roboplanes also wrestled the controls from often-autocratic lead pilots, whose refusal to listen to dissent led to many air crashes.

But there’s a new peril attendant to autonomous steering: As Nicholas Carr outlined last year, pilots are no longer as practiced should a technological glitch happen (and they will occur, if rarely).

The question is: Since the big-picture of safety has been greatly improved in aviation, how concerned should we be about technology causing some human pilot skills to atrophy? The same question can be applied to robocars and drivers going forward.

From “The Human Factor,” William Langewiesche’s Vanity Fair article about the safety measures that can occasionally making flying unsafe:

“These are generally known as ‘fourth generation’ airplanes; they now constitute nearly half the global fleet. Since their introduction, the accident rate has plummeted to such a degree that some investigators at the National Transportation Safety Board have recently retired early for lack of activity in the field. There is simply no arguing with the success of the automation. The designers behind it are among the greatest unheralded heroes of our time. Still, accidents continue to happen, and many of them are now caused by confusion in the interface between the pilot and a semi-robotic machine. Specialists have sounded the warnings about this for years: automation complexity comes with side effects that are often unintended. One of the cautionary voices was that of a beloved engineer named Earl Wiener, recently deceased, who taught at the University of Miami. Wiener is known for ‘Wiener’s Laws,’ a short list that he wrote in the 1980s. Among them:

  • Every device creates its own opportunity for human error.
  • Exotic devices create exotic problems.
  • Digital devices tune out small errors while creating opportunities for large errors.
  • Invention is the mother of necessity.
  • Some problems have no solution.
  • It takes an airplane to bring out the worst in a pilot.
  • Whenever you solve a problem, you usually create one. You can only hope that the one you created is less critical than the one you eliminated.
  • You can never be too rich or too thin (Duchess of Windsor) or too careful about what you put into a digital flight-guidance system (Wiener).

Wiener pointed out that the effect of automation is to reduce the cockpit workload when the workload is low and to increase it when the workload is high. Nadine Sarter, an industrial engineer at the University of Michigan, and one of the pre-eminent researchers in the field, made the same point to me in a different way: ‘Look, as automation level goes up, the help provided goes up, workload is lowered, and all the expected benefits are achieved. But then if the automation in some way fails, there is a significant price to pay. We need to think about whether there is a level where you get considerable benefits from the automation but if something goes wrong the pilot can still handle it.’

Sarter has been questioning this for years and recently participated in a major F.A.A. study of automation usage, released in the fall of 2013, that came to similar conclusions. The problem is that beneath the surface simplicity of glass cockpits, and the ease of fly-by-wire control, the designs are in fact bewilderingly baroque—all the more so because most functions lie beyond view. Pilots can get confused to an extent they never would have in more basic airplanes. When I mentioned the inherent complexity to Delmar Fadden, a former chief of cockpit technology at Boeing, he emphatically denied that it posed a problem, as did the engineers I spoke to at Airbus. Airplane manufacturers cannot admit to serious issues with their machines, because of the liability involved, but I did not doubt their sincerity. Fadden did say that once capabilities are added to an aircraft system, particularly to the flight-management computer, because of certification requirements they become impossibly expensive to remove. And yes, if neither removed nor used, they lurk in the depths unseen. But that was as far as he would go.”

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Oy gevalt, one of almost any of us is enough. But there’s a chance we could eventually have a digital doppelganger that guides our behavior the way search engines predict what we seek. The Other could use our previously stated “likes” and information we may not have culled on our own. Seems useful, and, perhaps, made for mayhem. It’s a nudge, it’s a shove. The opening of John Smart’s “The Cybertwin: Your Emerging Digital Self“:

Once we have reasonably good conversational interfaces and semantic maps, circa 2015-2020 in my guesstimation, a major new developments we can expect at the same time are ‘CyberTwins’ (called ‘Twins’ hereafter), intelligent assistants, agents, avatars, butlers, and ‘techretarys’ that will use these interfaces and maps to construct crude models of their user’s preferences and values. Twins will use as input user writings and archived email, realtime wearable smartphones (lifelogs), and verbal feedback, to allow increasingly intelligent and productive guidance of the user’s purchases, learning, communication, feedback, and even voting activities, offloading a lot of the information overload and cognitive overhead of managing modern society from biohumans to their twin. As I see it, the intelligence amplification that results from our having twins will begin a major revolution in protecting and furthering the user’s interests, leading us to a much more democratic society.

Twins will start out primitive, but they will quickly get good at filtering digital information streams for the user, answering simple questions, managing simple productivity tasks, and offering simple advice. Many people, walking in a supermarket or driving on the street, will reach past one brand of product, or drive past one type of store to another, guided there verbally or visually by their twin, who is continually using public data, user history, and algorithms to seek a better statistical match with their expressed values and preferences.•

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On the day after the People’s Climate March, I think it’s clear that though we’ve yet to reach a tipping point in terms of green-energy use, hearts and minds have been won. Wallets and bank balances are soon to follow, as alternative power is going to keep dropping in price the way fossil fuels never could. From Vivek Wadhwa at the Washington Post:

“In the 1980s, leading consultants were skeptical about cellular phones.  McKinsey & Company noted that the handsets were heavy, batteries didn’t last long, coverage was patchy, and the cost per minute was exorbitant.  It predicted that in 20 years the total market size would be about 900,000 units, and advised AT&T to pull out.  McKinsey was wrong, of course.  There were more than 100 million cellular phones in use 2000; there are billions now.  Costs have fallen so far that even the poor — all over world — can afford a cellular phone.

The experts are saying the same about solar energy now.  They note that after decades of development, solar power hardly supplies 1 percent of the world’s energy needs.  They say that solar is inefficient, too expensive to install, and unreliable, and will fail without government subsidies.  They too are wrong.  Solar will be as ubiquitous as cellular phones are.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil notes that solar power has been doubling every two years for the past 30 years — as costs have been dropping. He says solar energy is only six doublings — or less than 14 years — away from meeting 100 percent of today’s energy needs. Energy usage will keep increasing, so this is a moving target.  But, by Kurzweil’s estimates, inexpensive renewable sources will provide more energy than the world needs in less than 20 years.  Even then, we will be using only one part in 10,000 of the sunlight that falls on the Earth.”

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1976: “It may hold the solution to the energy problem.”

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pats hater???

hey, what’s up. i am looking for a pats hater to help a patriots fan make good on a pretty humiliating bet when down in nyc from mass. it’s all in good fun and you get some cash too. hit me up….

"It's all in good fun."

“It’s all in good fun.”

 

Charity Johnson was interested in second chances, and so were her many mothers. A 34-year-old woman recently arrested for impersonating a tenth-grader in Texas, the pretend teen desired only to be a child whose love could not be refused by maternal figures, whose embrace could never be turned away. A daughter of abuse and neglect, she would not be cheated of what she never had and always wanted.

She’s not the first person to crave an infinite loop of adolescence–a period most of us were happy to escape–and she won’t be the last. Adults stuck in a particular time in childhood tend to have suffered a serious, unresolved wound at that age. But why does this extreme and specific type of need exist in some who had awful upbringings but not in others? And why isn’t this yearning fulfilled during the initial masquerade? Why is it serial, the hunger never sated? From Katie J.M. Baker at Buzzfeed:

“Longview, population 81,000, is a charmless city with nothing to do but hang out at churches and chain restaurants. But Charity seemed content. After school, she worked and spent time with her classmates and ‘mom,’ Tamica Lincoln, a 30-year-old McDonald’s breakfast manager whom Charity moved in with in the spring. She posted Instagram photos of friendship bracelets, cookies ‘split with friends,’ and smiling teenage boys on a spring break trip to a nearby Christian university. She loved making her own Instagram ‘art’: selfies juxtaposed with sayings like ‘Baby I’m a star’ and ‘Honeybee, love me.’ Earlier this year, she posted a photo that read ‘My mommy was my best friend…’

‘Love ur mom with your all cuz n a split second u cld lose her..’ she wrote below the picture.

Charity has loved and lost so many ‘moms’ that it’s hard to keep track. Some of them reached out to Tamica when Charity’s mugshot made international headlines in May. That’s when Charity was arrested for intentionally giving false information to a police officer who received a tip that she was much older than her hair bows implied. Soon, outlets from Good Morning America to the Daily Mail were calling Charity’s devastated schoolmates (they still miss her, according to a recent ABC News follow-up) and bewildered 23-year-old boyfriend (he said he thought she was 18).

For years, Charity had targeted devout, maternal types with regrets and a weakness for lost, young souls. Women all over Texas, as well as North Carolina, New Jersey, and Maryland, said they had combed Charity’s hair, helped her with her homework, and given her a bed to sleep in. Up until her arrest, Charity kept in close contact with her collection of online ‘mothers,’ from a housekeeper in Nevada to a pastor in Ohio, whom she found through Facebook searches (‘pastor’ + ‘teen girls’ + ‘hope’).

Most of them cut ties with Charity after she was exposed as a 34-year-old living what Time called ‘Never Been Kissed IRL.’ (Time misreported her as being 31 at the time.) But Charity made an impact in Longview, where many of the friends, mentors, and makeshift family members she met are still mourning her loss. They haven’t seen or talked to Charity since she pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor (for failing to identify herself to a police officer) after 29 days in jail and left town, but they don’t feel betrayed. Instead, they asked me for her phone number in hopes they could convince her to come back. They’re all deeply religious Christians who grew up in broken homes or even spent time on the streets before they were ‘saved.’ They wanted, and still want, to help Charity follow in their footsteps and succeed as an adult.”

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From the March 2, 1949 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Seattle — Will K. Sugden said today his romance with his bride of 14 weeks, an amnesia victim, had progressed beyond the hand-holding stage.

‘She’s coming my way,’ he said. ‘She lets me kiss her now. She’ll love me again.’

Sugden’s bride, Hertis, 26, suffered amnesia two weeks ago. She forgot her husband and his two children by a previous marriage.”

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tokyo22 tokyoolympic1964

The Olympics are never mostly about the sports. They’re an examination of contemporary geopolitics, a survey of the latest media and technology and a narrative about the host nation, which presents not just itself, but its aspirations, to the world. Of course, such an idealization can have short shelf life. After the success of Sochi, Russia seemed pointed toward the future, perhaps becoming another modern Germany with its technological might and post-conflict politics, but the country was quickly yanked back into the 20th century by Putin’s folly.

Even when the aftermath doesn’t undo the good will, the cost of such an event is beyond onerous. From an Economist article about the buyer’s remorse of Tokyo, the “winner” of the 2020 Games:

“Disquiet over construction plans has been heightened by growing concerns about cost. Estimates for the stadium refurbishment have more than doubled as construction and labour costs have soared under Abenomics, Japan’s bid to end years of deflation. City officials revealed recently that this year’s consumption-tax hike of 3% was not even factored into the original budget. Cost concerns may now force some venues out of the expensive city to the far-flung suburbs.

The 1964 event cost many times more than its predecessor in Rome four years earlier, and added to the Olympics’ spendthrift reputation—not a single games since then has met its cost target. The Tokyo Olympics also triggered the start of Japan’s addiction to bond issuance, which continues unabated today. Tokyo’s original estimate of ¥409 billion ($3.7 billion) for the games now looks unrealistic to most critics. If, as some expect, Abenomics runs out of steam, the city faces a painful post-games hangover.”

In a Financial Times essay, economist Tim Harford finds a link no one else was looking for: the scorched-earth strategies which drive both Amazon and contemporary Russia. An excerpt:

“Brad Stone’s excellent book, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, paints Amazon’s founder to be a visionary entrepreneur, dedicated to serving his customers. But it also reports that Bezos was willing to take big losses in the hope of weakening competitors. Zappos, the much-loved online shoe retailer, faced competition from an Amazon subsidiary that first offered free shipping and then started paying customers $5 for every pair of shoes they ordered. Quidsi, which ran Diapers.com, was met with a price war from “Amazon Mom.” Industry insiders told Stone that Amazon was losing $1m a day just selling nappies. Both Zappos and Quidsi ended up being bought out by Amazon.

When the weapons of war are low prices, consumers benefit at first. But the long term looks worrying: a future in which nobody dares to compete with Amazon. Apple is a striking contrast: the company’s refusal to compete aggressively on price makes it hugely profitable but has also attracted a swarm of competitors.

Consider a grimmer parallel. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is the chain store. Georgia, Ukraine and many other former Soviet states or satellites must consider whether to seek ties with the west. In each case Putin must decide whether to accommodate or open costly hostilities. The conflict in Ukraine has been disastrous for Russian interests in the short run but it may have bolstered Putin’s personal position. And if his strategy convinces the world that Putin will never share prosperity, his belligerence may yet pay off.

I feel a little guilty comparing Bezos and Putin. My only regret about Bezos’s Amazon is that there aren’t three other companies just like it. I do not feel the same about Putin’s Russia.”

 

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I previously posted a 1955 New York Times interview which Thomas Mann sat for near the end of his life, and below I’ve put a piece from a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article about him that ran in the April 18, 1937 edition, when he was living in America, an exile from Nazi Germany during the run-up to World War II. He seemed confident about the fall of fascism. I never read before that he’d dined with FDR, though it makes sense given the writer’s Nobel stature and his social nature. The piece was written by Alvah Bessie, who a decade later was to be blacklisted and imprisoned by HUAC as a member of the “Hollywood Ten,” along with Dalton Trumbo.

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Photographs aren’t life or memory, but in a time of cheap, ubiquitous cameras, the image, merely an imitation, is ascendant. Like the tree’s lonely fall in the forest, the event unrecorded has less currency. Without capture, does the moment even exist anymore? On some levels, no. From “We Are a Camera,” Nick Paumgarten’s New Yorker piece about living in the GoPro flow:

“For two days in the Idaho mountains, [mountain biker Aaron] Chase’s cameras had been rolling virtually non-stop. Now, with his companions lagging behind, he started down the trail, which descended steeply into an alpine meadow. As he accelerated, he noticed, to his left, an elk galloping toward him from the ridge. He glanced at the trail, looked again to his left, and saw a herd, maybe thirty elk, running at full tilt alongside his bike, like a pod of dolphins chasing a boat. After a moment, they rumbled past him and crossed the trail, neither he nor the elk slowing, dust kicking up and glowing in the early-evening sun, amid a thundering of hooves. It was a magical sight. The light was perfect. And, as usual, Chase was wearing two GoPros. Here was his money shot—the stuff of TV ads and real bucks.

Trouble was, neither camera was rolling. What with his headache and the ample footage of the past days, he’d thought to hell with it, and had neglected, just this once, to turn his GoPros on. Now there was no point in riding with the elk. He slowed up and let them pass. ‘Idiot,’ he said to himself. ‘There goes my commercial.’

Once the herd was gone, it was as though it’d never been there at all—Sasquatch, E.T., yeti. Pics or it didn’t happen. Still, one doesn’t often find oneself swept up in a stampede of wild animals. Might as well hope to wingsuit through a triple rainbow. So you’d think that, cameras or not, he’d remember the moment with some fondness. But no. ‘It was hell,’ Chase says now.

When the agony of missing the shot trumps the joy of the experience worth shooting, the adventure athlete (climber, surfer, extreme skier) reveals himself to be something else: a filmmaker, a brand, a vessel for the creation of content. He used to just do the thing—plan the killer trip or trick and then complete it, with panache. Maybe a photographer or film crew tagged along, and afterward there’d be a slide show at community centers and high-school gyms, or an article in a magazine. Now the purpose of the trip or trick is the record of it. Life is footage.”

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Yahoo! doesn’t know what it wants to be, while Google wants to be everything. It’s clear Larry Page would like to do radical experiments on the micro scale, but he really dreams of the macro, hoping to establish a next-wave Google to tackle the world’s non-virtual problems. From Vlad Savov at The Verge:

“As if self-driving carsballoon-carried internet, or the eradication of death weren’t ambitious enough projects, Google CEO Larry Page has apparently been working behind the scenes to set up even bolder tasks for his company. The Information reports that Page started up a Google 2.0 project inside the company a year ago to look at the big challenges facing humanity and the ways Google can overcome them. Among the grand-scale plans discussed were Page’s desire to build a more efficient airport as well as a model city. To progress these ideas to fruition, the Google chief has also apparently proposed a second research and development lab, called Google Y, to focus on even longer-term programs that the current Google X, which looks to support future technology and is headed up by his close ally Sergey Brin.”

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E.O. Wilson has a bold plan for staving off a mass extinction of life on Earth: radical biodiversity ensured by demarcation. The evolutionary biologist wants humans to “rope off” half the planet for non-human species. Tony Hiss, the longtime New Yorker writer who did some wonderful work for that publication (like this and this) has an article in Smithsonian about Wilson’s bold proposal. An excerpt:

Throughout the 544 million or so years since hard-shelled animals first appeared, there has been a slow increase in the number of plants and animals on the planet, despite five mass extinction events. The high point of biodiversity likely coincided with the moment modern humans left Africa and spread out across the globe 60,000 years ago. As people arrived, other species faltered and vanished, slowly at first and now with such acceleration that Wilson talks of a coming “biological holocaust,” the sixth mass extinction event, the only one caused not by some cataclysm but by a single species—us.

Wilson recently calculated that the only way humanity could stave off a mass extinction crisis, as devastating as the one that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, would be to set aside half the planet as permanently protected areas for the ten million other species. “Half Earth,” in other words, as I began calling it—half for us, half for them. A version of this idea has been in circulation among conservationists for some time.

“It’s been in my mind for years,” Wilson told me, ‘that people haven’t been thinking big enough—even conservationists. Half Earth is the goal, but it’s how we get there, and whether we can come up with a system of wild landscapes we can hang onto. I see a chain of uninterrupted corridors forming, with twists and turns, some of them opening up to become wide enough to accommodate national biodiversity parks, a new kind of park that won’t let species vanish.”•

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In a Priceonomics post, Zachary Crockett recalls the insidious repurposing of a seemingly innocuous tool, the McDonald’s plastic coffee spoon, which became, in the 1970s, a handheld device for coke dealers and users, as well as a pawn in the early years of the War on Drugs. The opening:

“In the 1970s, every McDonald’s coffee came with a special stirring spoon. It was a glorious, elegant utensil — long, thin handle, tiny scooper on the end, each pridefully topped with the golden arches. It was a spoon specially designed to stir steaming brews, a spoon with no bad intentions.

It was also a spoon that lived in a dangerous era for spoons. Cocaine use was rampant and crafty dealers were constantly on the prowl for inconspicuous tools with which to measure and ingest the white powder. In the thralls of an anti-drug initiative, the innocent spoon soon found itself at the center of controversy, prompting McDonald’s to  redesign it. In the years since, the irreproachable contraption has tirelessly haunted the fast food chain.

This is the story of how the ‘Mcspoon’ became the unlikely scapegoat of the War on Drugs.”

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From the August 5, 1911 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Topeka, Kan. — Shaving of all cats is recommended by the State Board of Health of Kansas as a means of preventing the spread of disease.

The board charges that the cat, with its long hair, carries more germs than any other animal.

‘Shave the cats,’ said Dr. Deacon of the State Board of Health, yesterday. ‘Keep their hair short just like you would a horse’s or a dog’s. If that is too much trouble, kill them.'”

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EVs don’t help the environment much unless the electricity is being produced in green, alternative ways, and solar homes won’t become common until they’re more affordable. Elon Musk of Tesla and his cousin Lyndon Rive of SolarCity are trying to power those potential markets with multiple uses of the planned Nevada Gigafactory. From “The Musk Family Plan for Transforming the World’s Energy,” Christopher Mims’ new WSJ piece:

“Thanks to the economies of scale that will come from Tesla’s gigafactory, within 10 years every solar system that SolarCity sells will come with a battery-storage system, says Mr. Rive, and it will still produce energy cheaper than what is available from the local utility company.

Mr. Musk also noted that in any future in which a country switches fully to electric cars, its electricity consumption will roughly double. That could either mean more utilities, and more transmission lines, or a rollout of solar—exactly the sort that SolarCity hopes for.

America’s solar energy generating capacity has grown at around 40% a year, says Mr. Rive. ‘So if you just do the math, at 40% growth in 10 years time that’s 170 gigawatts a year,’ says Mr. Rive. That’s equivalent to the electricity consumption of about 5 million homes, which is still ‘not that much,’ he says, when compared with overall demand for electricity. ‘It’s almost an infinite market in our lifetimes.’

There are almost innumerable barriers to the realization of Messrs. Musk and Rive’s plan.”

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A gigantic prison population in the U.S. has unsurprisingly begat an intricate illicit social order behind bars. The crime hasn’t truly disappeared–it’s just been disappeared into cells. From Graeme Wood’s new Atlantic article, “How Gangs Took Over Prisons“:

“Understanding how prison gangs work is difficult: they conceal their activities and kill defectors who reveal their practices. This past summer, however, a 32-year-old academic named David Skarbek published The Social Order of the Underworld, his first book, which is the best attempt in a long while to explain the intricate organizational systems that make the gangs so formidable. His focus is the California prison system, which houses the second-largest inmate population in the country—about 135,600 people, slightly more than the population of Bellevue, Washington, split into facilities of a few thousand inmates apiece. With the possible exception of North Korea, the United States has a higher incarceration rate than any other nation, at one in 108 adults. (The national rate rose for 30 years before peaking, in 2008, at one in 99. Less crime and softer punishment for nonviolent crimes have caused the rate to decline since then.)

Skarbek’s primary claim is that the underlying order in California prisons comes from precisely what most of us would assume is the source ofdisorder: the major gangs, which are responsible for the vast majority of the trade in drugs and other contraband, including cellphones, behind bars. ‘Prison gangs end up providing governance in a brutal but effective way,’ he says. ‘They impose responsibility on everyone, and in some ways the prisons run more smoothly because of them.’ The gangs have business out on the streets, too, but their principal activity and authority resides in prisons, where other gangs are the main powers keeping them in check.

Skarbek is a native Californian and a lecturer in political economy at King’s College London. When I met him, on a sunny day on the Strand, in London, he was craving a taste of home. He suggested cheeseburgers and beer, which made our lunch American not only in topic of conversation but also in caloric consumption. Prison gangs do not exist in the United Kingdom, at least not with anything like the sophistication or reach of those in California or Texas, and in that respect Skarbek is like a botanist who studies desert wildflowers at a university in Norway.

Skarbek, whose most serious criminal offense to date is a moving violation, bases his conclusions on data crunches from prison systems (chiefly California’s, which has studied gangs in detail) and the accounts of inmates and corrections officers themselves. He is a treasury of horrifying anecdotes about human depravity—and ingenuity. There are few places other than a prison where men’s desires are more consistently thwarted, and where men whose desires are thwarted have so much time to think up creative ways to circumvent their obstacles.”

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GOT MILK?

i’m looking for a pregnant woman or a mother who has just given birth that is producing a lot of milk.

We know that Colony Collapse Disorder is the result of bees being stressed to death by a number of factors, but contagious illnesses transmitted by insects (and communicable by other means) can likewise be pressured out of existence if enough of the disease’s agents are countered until the system crashes. From “The Calculus of Contagion,” Adam Kucharski’s excellent Aeon essay about a mathematical approach to preventing potential pandemics like Ebola, a passage about Ronald Ross’ plan of attack for outmaneuvering malaria:

“To prove the connection between mosquitoes and malaria, Ross experimented with birds. He allowed mosquitoes to feed on the blood of an infected bird then bite healthy ones. Not long afterwards, the healthy birds came down with the disease, too. To verify his theory, Ross dissected the infected mosquitoes, and found malaria parasites in their saliva glands. Those parasites turned out to be Plasmodium, identified by a French military doctor who had discovered the bug in the blood cells of infected patients just a few years before.

Next, Ross wanted to show how the disease could be stopped, and his experiment with the water tank pointed the way. Get rid of enough insects, he reasoned, and malaria would cease to spread. To prove his theory, Ross, a keen amateur mathematician, constructed a theoretical model – a ‘mosquito theorem’ – outlining how mosquitoes might spread malaria in a human population. He split people into two groups – healthy or infected – and wrote down a set of equations to describe how mosquito numbers would affect the level of infection in each.

The human and mosquito populations formed a cycle of interactions: the rate at which people got infected depended on the number of times they were bitten by infected mosquitos, which depended on how many such mosquitos there were, which depended on how many humans had the parasite to pass back to those mosquitos, and so on. Ross found that for the disease to simmer along steadily in a population, as it did in India, the number of new infections per month would need to be equal to the number of people recovering from the disease.

Using his model, Ross showed that it wasn’t necessary to remove every mosquito to bring the disease under control. Destroy enough mosquitoes, and people infected with the parasite would recover before they were bitten enough times for the infection to continue at the same level. Therefore, over time, the disease would fall into decline. In other words, the infection had a threshold, with outbreaks on one side and elimination on the other.”

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David Pilling of the Financial Times visited North Korea’s showcase city, Pyongyang, and had a “stage-managed” experience that elicited very little about the true nature of Kim Jong-un’s country-wide cult. An excerpt:

“One needs to be wary of impressions gleaned from Pyongyang. This is a showcase city, the home of the connected and presumably loyal elite. You have to remind yourself constantly that you are being shown the ‘good parts.’ The rest of North Korea is, to quote resident diplomats, ‘another country.’

The second thing to note is the pervasive sense of victimhood. Paul French’s book North Korea: State of Paranoia is aptly named. Any conversation on a serious topic starts and ends with Pyongyang’s struggle for survival in the face of unrelenting pressure from ‘the imperialist US’ and its ‘puppet’ South Korean servant. The US wants to control all of northeast Asia. China wants to use North Korea as a buffer. Everyone wants to topple the Kim regime. (Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.) Singled out for opprobrium are the regular US-South Korean military manoeuvres, which are deemed ample justification for Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.

Even economic policy is framed in terms of external threat. That is why North Korea must be self-reliant – something it has patently failed to achieve given its dependence on outside aid. Paranoia assumes an almost surreal quality. Asked about the rate of economic growth, the head of one institute replies: “It is the policy of our party not to reveal statistics about our economy.”

A third observation, hardly surprising, is the sheer intensity of the cult of Kim. The interests of state and dynasty have merged. One senior researcher quoted a poem suggesting the Kims would rule forever. No mention of the nation’s founder is complete without the epithet ‘Great Leader’ and no reference to his 31-year-old grandson and current ruler without a nod to ‘the wise leadership of the Great Marshall Kim Jong Un.’ Kim badges, worn over the heart, are obligatory. So is bowing at the foot of the dynasty’s ubiquitous monuments.

Yet in the end, [Barbara] Demick is right. A visit to North Korea reveals little. Our trip resembled The Truman Show, in which the protagonist is trapped in a televised soap opera.”

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

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

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

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