Urban Studies

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Take Control of Your Home – 47 year-old man for hire

My specialty is reigning in unruly roommates and adult children who refuse to obey the rules or grow up. Effective, discreet. Initial consultation free.

You know that famous 1967 clip of a woman shopping online? Here’s a 21-minute segment of the film it’s from, “Year: 1999 A.D.” The Philco-Ford featurette follows the fictional Shaw family, led by the astrophysicist/botanist dad (played by game-show host Wink Martindale), who is employed on a Mars colonization project. Life tomorrow was to be computerized, monitored, networked, automated, centralized and quantified. It was supposed to be a bountiful technotopia “full of leisure.” If the Internet isn’t lying to me, McCabe & Mrs. Miller cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond shot it.

Wink recalls the film:

I just want an apology from the geniuses who mocked me for predicting at the start of the aughts (in a published article that’s no longer online) that films would eventually be released on all screens simultaneously, large theater ones as well as on TVs and computers. It hasn’t happened yet, but it may. Actually, it will, almost definitely. The opening of “Is Netflix Trying to Kill the Theater For Once and All?” by Grantland’s John Lopez:

“Next time you’re in Los Angeles, check out the historicBroadway theater district downtown: At the turn of the century, before the studios and theater chains were split apart, the stretch of Broadway between Third and Olympic boasted the highest concentration of cinemas in the word, the jeweled crown of L.A.’s burgeoning film industry. On any given night, studios premiered their latest films at sumptuous movie palaces like the Orpheum and the Million Dollar Theater. More recently, these temples of cinema, which wouldn’t look out of place at Versailles, have hosted Sunday revival churches and Spanish-language swap meets. Now they’re mostly ghosts of a bygone era when the theatrical experience was the undisputed king of American mass culture. It’s that ghost that streaked through modern-day multiplex owners’ nightmares Monday when Netflix (aided by the prince of darkness himself, Harvey Weinstein) announced that for the first time it would stream a major feature film,Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend, simultaneous to its IMAX theater release next summer.

Predictably, by Tuesday morning a film business already battered by the worst box office summer since 1997 went apeshit. In fact, that nightmare freaked out theater owners so bad that Regal, Cinemark, and AMC — the nation’s three biggest theater chains — dropped the popcorn gauntlet Tuesday and announced they would refuse to carry the Crouching Tiger sequel at their theaters.1 In other words, as Netflix was announcing a historic new era when on-demand truly means on-demand, the nation’s theaters collectively said, “Over our swap-meet-hosting dead bodies.” Obviously, your local cineplex isn’t going to shut down after next summer, but let’s answer some questions about what’s going on here before the revolution arrives.

Could this truly be the beginning of the much-foretold end of the moviegoing experience? And should you even care?

Yes. And yes.”


An excerpt from “Future of Rail 2050,” an ARUP study which predicts the demands of sprawling megacities will completely overhaul the nature of railway stations and that the typical person will be named “Nuno”:

“Hugo Dupont, 31 • Smart City Engineer

Hugo is rushing to catch the Metro train to work. Earlier, as he reached Rue Daval, he remembered that he had left a parcel on his kitchen counter and had to turn back to get it. Now, running a little late but parcel in hand, he pauses as a fleet of driverless pods pass by and then crosses the road at the signal, disappearing into the Metro station. 

He needs the package to be delivered that evening, as today is his friend Nuno’s birthday. At the entrance to the Metro, he drops the parcel into the International Express box next to the interactive tourist information wall. As he selects to receive freight alerts to track the progress of his  package and pays for the shipping with a tap of a button, a message notifies him that his meeting with colleagues in Hong Kong via holographic software will start in 15 minutes. He hurries to the platform to catch his train.

The platform screen doors slide shut just before Hugo can board the Metro. However, he isn’t too worried as he knows the next train will arrive in under a minute. The driverless metro trains can travel in close succession as they constantly communicate with each other and with rail infrastructure and automatically respond to the movements of the other trains on the track, making the metro extremely safe and efficient. 

As he waits, Hugo notices other commuters buying groceries from the virtual shopping wall. As his fridge hasn’t sent him any alerts, he thinks he is stocked up well enough at home for the time being. He also glances at some of the artwork on platform screen doors — he enjoys seeing the changing digital exhibitions every day.

Meanwhile, at 08:46, Hugo’s parcel drops onto a conveyor belt and is transported to a pod on the underground freight pipeline. The routing code is scanned as it is loaded onto the pod, and the package is whisked away to Gare Centrale. The electric pod travels uninhibited at a steady pace, independent of traffic and weather conditions, and at 09:16 the package is loaded onto the mail carriage at the back of the waiting high-speed EuroTrain that carries both passengers and small express freight. At 10:35, the train leaves the station and runs directly to Berlin.

In his office, Hugo is testing a new  system for analysing how much electricity from braking trains is fed back into the grid, when he receives a notification informing him that his package is on the train and is running on schedule. Hugo lives alone in an apartment in a large European megacity. Having studied abroad, he has returned to his home city and works as a Smart City Engineer for the City Authority, maintaining a network of sensors tracking electricity, traffic and people flows to create efficiencies across city systems. He likes gadgets and his wearable computers perform a variety of functions from wayfinding, to holographic communication, to the real-time monitoring of his health.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, good novelist and great short-story writer, thought that women were beautiful when young and damned thereafter. The Jazz Age sexist aired his mind-numbingly stupid views in an article in the March 9, 1924 Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Even if he was just being glib, some flapper should have punched him in the nuts. An excerpt follows.


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Transforming Downtown Las Vegas into a technotopia always seemed a quixotic quest at best, but that was Zappos founder Tony Hsieh’s top-down attempt, a huge wager in the American capital of gambling. Unsurprisingly, the “house” has been unsparing. From Nellie Bowles at Recode:

“In a surprise all-hands meeting at the Inspire Theater a few weeks ago, Hsieh, whose $350 million in funding and vision turned 60 acres of Downtown Las Vegas into an growing tech city, told his staff he was stepping down and handing the reins over to his lawyer, Millie Chou. On Tuesday, the project laid off 30 percent of the staff.

News of the layoffs was first reported by KNPR News.

‘(Hsieh) said I see myself as advisor and investor, but I’m going to appoint someone as our strategy implementation lead,’ one source who attended the meeting said.

Another person close to Downtown Project said the new businesses — like an artisanal doughnut shop and a high-end flower vendor — were ‘bleeding money.’

‘It seems like it’s being run by kids, that’s because it’s being run by kids,’ one source said about the Downtown Project.

This person cited Hsieh’s hiring decisions, which included several family members, as a problem.

‘There are a lot of people in leadership at Downtown Project who have absolutely no business being there,’ the source said. ‘Tony is not always altogether the most wise judge of character. There’s a lot of family. There’s a lot of drinking buddies. And some poor choices were made.'”

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That excellent Ross Andersen is back with a new Aeon essay, this one a look at the grand hedge being made by Elon Musk who seeks to populate Mars in case of human extinction on Earth. The technologist estimates it will take a million “Martians” to ensure the species’ survival in event of famine or plague or technological apocalypse on our home planet. But should we be rushing into the unknown while we’re still in our technological infancy, driven to haste by irritation over NASA’s perplexing dormancy? Or is it already very late? As is usual in Andersen’s explorations, the subject heads off in deep and mysterious directions. An excerpt:

“Musk told me he often thinks about the mysterious absence of intelligent life in the observable Universe. Humans have yet to undertake an exhaustive, or even vigorous, search for extraterrestrial intelligence, of course. But we have gone a great deal further than a casual glance skyward. For more than 50 years, we have trained radio telescopes on nearby stars, hoping to detect an electromagnetic signal, a beacon beamed across the abyss. We have searched for sentry probes in our solar system, and we have examined local stars for evidence of alien engineering. Soon, we will begin looking for synthetic pollutants in the atmospheres of distant planets, and asteroid belts with missing metals, which might suggest mining activity.

The failure of these searches is mysterious, because human intelligence should not be special. Ever since the age of Copernicus, we have been told that we occupy a uniform Universe, a weblike structure stretching for tens of billions of light years, its every strand studded with starry discs, rich with planets and moons made from the same material as us. If nature obeys identical laws everywhere, then surely these vast reaches contain many cauldrons where energy is stirred into water and rock, until the three mix magically into life. And surely some of these places nurture those first fragile cells, until they evolve into intelligent creatures that band together to form civilisations, with the foresight and staying power to build starships.

‘At our current rate of technological growth, humanity is on a path to be godlike in its capabilities,’ Musk told me. ‘You could bicycle to Alpha Centauri in a few hundred thousand years, and that’s nothing on an evolutionary scale. If an advanced civilisation existed at any place in this galaxy, at any point in the past 13.8 billion years, why isn’t it everywhere? Even if it moved slowly, it would only need something like .01 per cent of the Universe’s lifespan to be everywhere. So why isn’t it?’

Life’s early emergence on Earth, only half a billion years after the planet coalesced and cooled, suggests that microbes will arise wherever Earthlike conditions obtain. But even if every rocky planet were slick with unicellular slime, it wouldn’t follow that intelligent life is ubiquitous. Evolution is endlessly inventive, but it seems to feel its way toward certain features, like wings and eyes, which evolved independently on several branches of life’s tree. So far, technological intelligence has sprouted only from one twig. It’s possible that we are merely the first in a great wave of species that will take up tool-making and language. But it’s also possible that intelligence just isn’t one of natural selection’s preferred modules. We might think of ourselves as nature’s pinnacle, the inevitable endpoint of evolution, but beings like us could be too rare to ever encounter one another. Or we could be the ultimate cosmic outliers, lone minds in a Universe that stretches to infinity.

Musk has a more sinister theory. ‘The absence of any noticeable life may be an argument in favour of us being in a simulation,’ he told me. ‘Like when you’re playing an adventure game, and you can see the stars in the background, but you can’t ever get there. If it’s not a simulation, then maybe we’re in a lab and there’s some advanced alien civilisation that’s just watching how we develop, out of curiosity, like mould in a petri dish.’ Musk flipped through a few more possibilities, each packing a deeper existential chill than the last, until finally he came around to the import of it all. ‘If you look at our current technology level, something strange has to happen to civilisations, and I mean strange in a bad way,’ he said. ‘And it could be that there are a whole lot of dead, one-planet civilisations.’”

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Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles looks at his city and dreams of even more cars, though the driverless variety that can be used as taxis, that can be shared. He wants an L.A. in which commuters can buy a unit of transportation and apply it in myriad ways with their smartphones. From John Metcalfe at Citylab:

“Garcetti says the city is working with UCLA to develop a neighborhood for driverless vehicles, perhaps around the university in Westwood. He’s also working on something secretive-sounding with the brains at Xerox—’kind of like the Skunk Works guys who brought us the mouse and everything else’—to manage such a driverless network, as well as more traditional manned vehicles from bus down to bicycle.

The basic idea is that commuters would be allowed to purchase a dollar amount of transit (say, $500 a month) and then use their phones or computers to order transit in the way they might a pizza. Here’s Garcetti’s explanation of what this platform might involve:

‘Now through a single app, I could order a taxi, an Uber, a Lyft, a Sidecar; I could get on the bus, I could get on the rail, I could take out a shared bike, I could get a shared car like a Zipcar or something like that. And you never have to stress out anymore about how you’re going to get some place. You know you have the options…. And maybe the city makes a small transaction fee off of that, or MTA, so it’s actually in our interest to build that and then share that open-source again with the rest of the world.'”

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From the August 8, 1911 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

St. Louis — Philip H. Nickerson, a salesman, cut his arteries in an attempt to end his life, yesterday, because, he said, his wife was too affectionate. He was married three months ago.

‘I am fond of my wife,’ Nickerson added, ‘and I want her to be fond of me. But there is a limit to all things. She wants to sit continuously on my lap and hug and kiss me. If I stand up she stands up, too, and puts her arms about me, and when I am away she writes three letters to me daily.'”


I previously posted the audio of the “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out” speech Timothy Leary delivered at UCLA in 1967, and here’s the video of the spirited LSD debate he participated in with Dr. Jerry Lettvin at MIT a few months later. In his remarks, Leary lambastes scientists and technologists devoted to manufacturing entertaining diversions.

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Robotics will increase productivity, no doubt, but that doesn’t mean wages will likewise rise. Automation to the extent that will soon exist is uncharted territory and no one can predict the exact fallout. From Brad DeLong at Project Syndicate:

“The wages and salaries of low- and high-skill workers in the robot-computer economy of the future will not be determined by the (very high) productivity of the one lower-skill worker ensuring that all of the robots are in their places or the one high-skill worker reprogramming the software. Instead, compensation will reflect what workers outside the highly productive computer-robot economy are creating and earning.

The newly industrialized city of Manchester, which horrified Friedrich Engels when he worked there in the 1840s, had the highest level of labor productivity the world had ever seen. But the factory workers’ wages were set not by their extraordinary productivity, but by what they would earn if they returned to the potato fields of pre-famine Ireland.

So the question is not whether robots and computers will make human labor in the goods, high-tech services, and information-producing sectors infinitely more productive. They will. What really matters is whether the jobs outside of the robot-computer economy – jobs involving people’s mouths, smiles, and minds – remain valuable and in high demand.”


Having edited many, many people over the years, I feel confident in saying that writing is a natural gift that must be developed incrementally. If you don’t have that innate flair, you’ll just be hitting your head against a wall over and over (as will your editor). It’s really no different than music or athletics: Without the inborn goods, effort can go just so far. And if you don’t work very strenuously to develop the gift should you possess it, you’ll be left with a writer’s ego minus the ability. God help you.

Steven Pinker thinks the preponderance of lousy writing stems from something else: the Curse of Knowledge, which causes people who are experts at something to fail to communicate properly with those outside their expertise. (Think of an IT person sending you inexplicable instructions.) Sure, that’s true, but I don’t think it’s the main problem. Plenty of experts can write very well. From a Pinker piece in the Wall Street Journal:

The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows—that they haven’t mastered the argot of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.

Anyone who wants to lift the curse of knowledge must first appreciate what a devilish curse it is. Like a drunk who is too impaired to realize that he is too impaired to drive, we do not notice the curse because the curse prevents us from noticing it. Thirty students send me attachments named ‘psych assignment.doc.’ I go to a website for a trusted-traveler program and have to decide whether to click on GOES, Nexus, GlobalEntry, Sentri, Flux or FAST—bureaucratic terms that mean nothing to me. My apartment is cluttered with gadgets that I can never remember how to use because of inscrutable buttons which may have to be held down for one, two or four seconds, sometimes two at a time, and which often do different things depending on invisible “modes” toggled by still other buttons. I’m sure it was perfectly clear to the engineers who designed it.

Multiply these daily frustrations by a few billion, and you begin to see that the curse of knowledge is a pervasive drag on the strivings of humanity, on par with corruption, disease and entropy. Cadres of expensive professionals—lawyers, accountants, computer gurus, help-line responders—drain vast sums of money from the economy to clarify poorly drafted text.•


Libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel, who refuses to do interviews unless someone asks, just sounded off to the Wall Street Journal about the technophobia he feels is pervasive in America and Europe. More likely, people enjoy technology’s benefits but have concerns about the downsides (privacy issues, environmental concerns, unemployment, etc.), although there certainly is tension between the old Dream Factory (Hollywood) and the new one (Silicon Valley). An excerpt:

“Forget all the buzz over driverless cars; the days spent waiting in line for the latest iPhone; the drones delivering medicine. Tech investor Peter Thiel says that, fundamentally, our society hates tech.

‘We live in a financial and capitalistic age,’ he said. ‘We do not live in a scientific or technological age. We live in an age that’s dominated by hostility and unfriendliness towards all things technological.” …

Silicon Valley, he said, has people who believe in technology and scientific innovation, while much of the rest of the U.S. doesn’t.

‘The easiest way to see this is you just look at all the movies Hollywood makes,’ he said. ‘They all show technology that doesn’t work; that kills people; that’s destroying the world, and you can choose between Avatar, or The Matrix, or Terminator films.’ (Mr. Thiel has previously lashed out at Hollywood, including criticizing how Silicon Valley was portrayed in the movie, The Social Network–which documents Facebook’s creation and Mr. Thiel’s part in it.) “


One question from Jeffrey Rosen’s New Republic interview with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has quietly and gradually become a towering figure in American life:


What’s the worst ruling the current Court has produced?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

If there was one decision I would overrule, it would be Citizens United. I think the notion that we have all the democracy that money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be. So that’s number one on my list. Number two would be the part of the health care decision that concerns the commerce clause. Since 1937, the Court has allowed Congress a very free hand in enacting social and economic legislation. I thought that the attempt of the Court to intrude on Congress’s domain in that area had stopped by the end of the 1930s. Of course health care involves commerce. Perhaps number three would be Shelby County, involving essentially the destruction of the Voting Rights Act. That act had a voluminous legislative history. The bill extending the Voting Rights Act was passed overwhelmingly by both houses, Republicans and Democrats, everyone was on board. The Court’s interference with that decision of the political branches seemed to me out of order. The Court should have respected the legislative judgment. Legislators know much more about elections than the Court does. And the same was true of Citizens United. I think members of the legislature, people who have to run for office, know the connection between money and influence on what laws get passed.”•

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You could make money in the fin de siècle Kansas City bone market, though you weren’t at that point in any condition to enjoy the spoils. An article from the September 28, 1902 Brooklyn Daily Eagle about the free-market cost of skulls and such.




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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