Urban Studies

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The end is near, roughly speaking. A number of scientists and philosophers, most notably Martin Rees and Nick Bostrom, agonize over the existential risks to humanity that might obliterate us long before the sun dies. A school of thought has arisen over the End of Days. From Sophie McBain in the New Statesman (via 3 Quarks Daily):

“Predictions of the end of history are as old as history itself, but the 21st century poses new threats. The development of nuclear weapons marked the first time that we had the technology to end all human life. Since then, advances in synthetic biology and nanotechnology have increased the potential for human beings to do catastrophic harm by accident or through deliberate, criminal intent.

In July this year, long-forgotten vials of smallpox – a virus believed to be ‘dead’ – were discovered at a research centre near Washington, DC. Now imagine some similar incident in the future, but involving an artificially generated killer virus or nanoweapons. Some of these dangers are closer than we might care to imagine. When Syrian hackers sent a message from the Associated Press Twitter account that there had been an attack on the White House, the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock market briefly fell by $136bn. What unthinkable chaos would be unleashed if someone found a way to empty people’s bank accounts?

While previous doomsayers have relied on religion or superstition, the researchers at the Future of Humanity Institute want to apply scientific rigour to understanding apocalyptic outcomes. How likely are they? Can the risks be mitigated? And how should we weigh up the needs of future generations against our own?

The FHI was founded nine years ago by Nick Bostrom, a Swedish philosopher, when he was 32. Bostrom is one of the leading figures in this small but expanding field of study.”

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Speaking of human laborers being squeezed: Open Source with Christopher Lydon has an episode called “The End of Work,” with two guests, futurist Ray Kurzweil and MIT economist Andrew McAfee. A few notes.

  • McAfee sees the Technological Revolution as doing for gray matter what the Industrial Revolution did for muscle fiber, but on the way to a world of wealth without toil–a Digital Athens–the bad news is the strong chance of greater income inequality and decreased opportunities for many. Kodak employed 150,000; Instagram a small fraction of that. With the new technologies, destruction (of jobs) outpaces creation. Consumers win, but Labor loses.
  • Kurzweil is more hopeful in the shorter term than McAfee. He says we have more jobs and more gratifying ones today than 100 years ago and they pay better. We accomplish more. Technology will improve us, make us smarter, to meet the demands of a world without drudgery. It won’t be us versus the machines, but the two working together. The majority of jobs always go away, most of the jobs today didn’t exist so long ago. New industries will be invented to provide work. He doesn’t acknowledge a painful period of adjustment in distribution before abundance can reach all.

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Sure, we have phones that are way nicer now, but the Technological Revolution has largely been injurious to anyone in the Labor market, and things are going to get worse, at least in the near and mid term. A free-market society that is highly automated isn’t really very free. Drive for Uber until autonomous cars can take over the wheel, you’re told, or rent a spare room on Airbnb–make space for yourself on the margins through the Sharing Economy. But there’s less to share for most people. From an Economist report:

“Before the horseless carriage, drivers presided over horse-drawn vehicles. When cars became cheap enough, the horses and carriages had to go, which eliminated jobs such as breeding and tending horses and making carriages. But cars raised the productivity of the drivers, for whom the shift in technology was what economists call ‘labour-augmenting.’ They were able to serve more customers, faster and over greater distances. The economic gains from the car were broadly shared by workers, consumers and owners of capital. Yet the economy no longer seems to work that way. The big losers have been workers without highly specialised skills.

The squeeze on workers has come from several directions, as the car industry clearly shows. Its territory is increasingly encroached upon by machines, including computers, which are getting cheaper and more versatile all the time. If cars and lorries do not need drivers, then both personal transport and shipping are likely to become more efficient. Motor vehicles can spend more time in use, with less human error, but there will be no human operator to share in the gains.

At the same time labour markets are hollowing out, polarising into high- and low-skill occupations, with very little employment in the middle. The engineers who design and test new vehicles are benefiting from technological change, but they are highly skilled and it takes remarkably few of them to do the job. At Volvo much of the development work is done virtually, from the design of the cars to the layout of the production line. Other workers, like the large numbers of modestly skilled labourers that might once have worked on the factory floor, are being squeezed out of such work and are now having to compete for low-skill and low-wage jobs.

Labour has been on the losing end of technological change for several decades.”

"My cat urinated on it."

“My cat urinated on it.”

Free couch (Linden)

I have a full size couch I’m giving away because my cat urinated on it. I know there are cleaning solutions available to eliminate the odor at the pet stores but I’m moving and don’t want to take it. Free if interested. A truck will be needed to take it out. It’s solid and comfortable.

"My cat urinated on it."

Space-travel enthusiast and labor organizer David Lasser was one of the first Americans to champion a mission to the moon, and one of the most influential. His 1931 book, The Conquest of Space, suggested such a rocket voyage was possible, not fanciful. In Lasser’s 1996 New York Times obituary, Arthur C. Clarke said of the then-65-year-old volume: “[It was] the first book in the English language to explain that space travel wasn’t just fiction…[it was] one of the turning points in my life — and I suspect not only of mine.”

While an article about the book’s publication in the October 6, 1931 Brooklyn Daily Eagle took seriously Lasser’s vision of rocket-powered airline travel–from New York to Paris in one hour!–it gave less credence to his moonshot scenario.


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From the Overcoming Bias post in which economist Robin Hansen comments on Debora MacKenzie’s New Scientist article “The End of Nations,” a piece which wonders about, among other things, whether states in the modern sense predated the Industrial Revolution:

“An interesting claim: the nation-state didn’t exist before, and was caused by, the industrial revolution. Oh there were empires before, but most people didn’t identify much with empires, or see empires as much influencing their lives. In contrast people identify with nation-states, which they see as greatly influencing their lives. More:

Before the late 18th century there were no real nation states. … If you travelled across Europe, no one asked for your passport at borders; neither passports nor borders as we know them existed. People had ethnic and cultural identities, but these didn’t really define the political entity they lived in. …

Agrarian societies required little actual governing. Nine people in 10 were peasants who had to farm or starve, so were largely self-organising. Government intervened to take its cut, enforce basic criminal law and keep the peace within its undisputed territories. Otherwise its main role was to fight to keep those territories, or acquire more. … Many eastern European immigrants arriving in the US in the 19th century could say what village they came from, but not what country: it didn’t matter to them. … Ancient empires are coloured on modern maps as if they had firm borders, but they didn’t. Moreover, people and territories often came under different jurisdictions for different purposes.

Such loose control, says Bar-Yam, meant pre-modern political units were only capable of scaling up a few simple actions such as growing food, fighting battles, collecting tribute and keeping order. …

The industrial revolution … demanded a different kind of government. … ‘In 1800 almost nobody in France thought of themselves as French. By 1900 they all did.’ … Unlike farming, industry needs steel, coal and other resources which are not uniformly distributed, so many micro-states were no longer viable. Meanwhile, empires became unwieldy as they industrialised and needed more actual governing. So in 19th-century Europe, micro-states fused and empires split.

These new nation states were justified not merely as economically efficient, but as the fulfilment of their inhabitants’ national destiny. A succession of historians has nonetheless concluded that it was the states that defined their respective nations, and not the other way around.”


It’s a heartbreaker watching what’s happening to the New York Times these days, and the latest layoffs are just the most recent horrible headline. The Magazine is currently a green shoot, with its bright new editor, Jake Silverstein, and a boost to staffing, but that section is the outlier. The business can’t continue to suffer without being joined by the journalism. You just hope the company is ultimately sold to someone great.

At the Washington Post, not much has changed dramatically since Jeff Bezos bought the Graham family jewel, despite some executive shuffles and new hires. Does Bezos have a long-term plan? Does he have any plan? Does it really matter in the intervening period, since he can afford to wait for everyone else to fall and position his publication as the inheritor? From Dylan Byers at Politico:

“Despite expectations, Bezos himself had never promised a reinvention. ‘There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy,’ he wrote in his first memo to Post staff in August of last year. Still, his reputation preceded him: With Amazon, he had revolutionized not just the book-selling business but the very means and standards of online shopping. He was planning ambitious new initiatives like drone delivery. Surely, this man had the silver bullet to save the Washington Post, and perhaps the newspaper industry.

Bezos, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is holding his cards close to his chest. He has no influence on the editorial side, according to [Exceutive Editorm Martin] Baron, but is focused on ‘broader strategic efforts.’

If Bezos has any innovative digital initiatives in the works, they’re being formed not in Washington but in New York. In March, the Post launched a Manhattan-based design and development office called WPNYC, which is focused on improving the digital experience and developing new advertising products.

‘Jeff’s preoccupation isn’t editorial, it’s delivery,’ one Post staffer said of WPNYC. ‘He wants to change the way people receive, read and experience the news. The only problem is we still don’t know what that looks like.'”

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Aiming to make surgical invasion even more minimal, robots are being devised that can slide into small openings and perform currently messy operations. From Sarah Laskow at the Atlantic:

“In the past few years, surgeons have been pushing to make these less invasive surgeries almost entirely invisible. Instead of cutting a tiny window in the outside of the body, they thought, why not cut one inside? Surgeons would first enter a person’s body through a ‘natural orifice’ and make one small incision, through which to access internal organs. The end result of this idea was that, in 2009, a surgeon removed a woman’s kidney through her vagina.

Few surgeons were convinced this was actually an improvement though. Instead, they have focused on minimizing the number of tiny incisions needed to perform surgery. Single-site surgery requires just one ‘port’ into a body.

A team of surgeons at Columbia, for instance, is working on a small robotic arm—minuscule, when compared to the da Vinci system—that can sneak into one 15 millimeter incision. And NASA is working on a robot that can enter the abdominal cavity through a person’s belly button, Matrix-like, to perform simple surgeries. It’s meant to be used in emergencies, but we know how this story goes: Soon enough, it’ll be routine for a robot to slide into a person’s body and pull her appendix back out.”


Elon Musk has said that Tesla will produce fully autonomous vehicles within six years, which doesn’t make complete sense to me because I think infrastructure would have to be modified before that’s possible, but he is now promising that 2015 models will reach the 90% autopilot threshold. From Chris Ziegler at The Verge:

In an excerpt from a CNNMoney interview, Tesla boss Elon Musk says that the self-driving car — or “autopilot,” the term he prefers — is basically just months away from retail. Here’s the language:

‘Autonomous cars will definitely be a reality. A Tesla car next year will probably be 90 percent capable of autopilot. Like, so 90 percent of your miles can be on auto. For sure highway travel.

How’s that going to happen?

With a combination of various sensors. You combine cameras with image recognition with radar and long-range ultrasonics, that’ll do it. Other car companies will follow.

But you guys are going to be the leader?

Of course. I mean, Tesla’s a Silicon Valley company. If we’re not the leader, shame on us.'”

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Sand seems limitless, something we can almost disregard. But like water, its supply is currently under stress, owing in part to a growing world population requiring basic resources. A global building boom is stripping beaches bare, the sand used to make cement, disappearing them. From Laura Höflinger at Spiegel:

“The phenomenon of disappearing beaches is not unique to Cape Verde. With demand for sand greater than ever, it can be seen in most parts of the world, including Kenya, New Zealand, Jamaica and Morocco. In short, our beaches are disappearing. ‘It’s the craziest thing I’ve seen in the past 25 years,’ says Robert Young, a coastal researcher at Western Carolina University. ‘We’re talking about ugly, miles-long moonscapes where nothing can live anymore.’

The sand on our ocean shores, once a symbol of inexhaustibility, has suddenly become scarce. So scarce that stealing it has become attractive.

Never before has Earth been graced with the prosperity we are seeing today, with countries like China, India and Brazil booming. But that also means that demand for sand has never been so great. It is used in the production of computer chips, plates and mobile phones. More than anything, though, it is used to make cement. You can find it in the skyscrapers in Shanghai, the artificial islands of Dubai and in Germany’s autobahns.”

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From the October 29, 1910 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Kewanee, Ill. — Believing she would die unless snakes were in her home, Mrs. Ada Packard has received from New York a boa constrictor eleven feet long to be used as a pet.

Mrs. Packard, who claims to have a gift over reptiles, always has had a fondness for serpents, and when she failed to rally from a recent surgical operation satisfactorily she became convinced she would improve if she could get a snake to fondle. A poisonous copperhead was obtained three weeks ago, and it was believed her health immediately was benefited. The snake became chilled, however, and died, after which Mrs. Packard became ill again.

Her husband objected to the coming of the serpent, but believing it was a case of life or death with his wife, he consented to the order for another. Mrs. Packard declares she noticed great improvement in her health already. She had the snake placed in a tub of warm water, as the cold weather was feared.

She says her gift has been noticeable since she was a child, when snakes crawled to her from all directions whenever she was in their vicinity at picnics in the woods.”


Thanks to the excellent 3 Quarks Daily for pointing me to Mala Szalavitz’s Substance.com essay, “Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out Of It.” Hopelessly addicted is a phrase we’re all familiar with, but it’s an extreme outlier, not the rule, as most people kick after a few years. We likely believe addiction is terminal because we conjure the most extreme and dramatic examples to represent it; call it the Availability Heuristic of heroin and the like. Unfortunately, that misunderstanding influences laws and treatment. An excerpt:

“Why do so many people still see addiction as hopeless? One reason is a phenomenon known as ‘the clinician’s error,’ which could also be known as the ‘journalist’s error’ because it is so frequently replicated in reporting on drugs. That is, journalists and rehabs tend to see the extremes: Given the expensive and often harsh nature of treatment, if you can quit on your own you probably will. And it will be hard for journalists or treatment providers to find you.

Similarly, if your only knowledge of alcohol came from working in an ER on Saturday nights, you might start thinking that prohibition is a good idea. All you would see are overdoses, DTs, or car crash, rape or assault victims. You wouldn’t be aware of the patients whose alcohol use wasn’t causing problems. And so, although the overwhelming majority of alcohol users drink responsibly, your ‘clinical’ picture of what the drug does would be distorted by the source of your sample of drinkers.

Treatment providers get a similarly skewed view of addicts: The people who keep coming back aren’t typical—they’re simply the ones who need the most help. Basing your concept of addiction only on people who chronically relapse creates an overly pessimistic picture.

This is one of many reasons why I prefer to see addiction as a learning or developmental disorder, rather than taking the classical disease view.”


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.) “


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