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We mostly eat horribly, so if it made us healthier to quantify our calories burned with a smartphone fitness app and use a nutrition app to plan our dinner, that would be good, wouldn’t? I mean, even if we weren’t the ones exactly making the correct decision. In a Nautilus video, systems theorist David Krakauer speaks to the dark side of being governed by algorithms.


An excellent New York Times short-form video report “Cheaper Robots, Fewer Workers” by Jonah M. Kessel and Taige Jensen delves into the automation of labor in China, which claims it suffers a shortage of workers in some provinces and districts despite its immense population in the aggregate. Chinese firms say employees displaced by faster, cheaper machines are offered better positions, but that appears, unsurprisingly, to not be the case.

You probably wouldn’t want to live in a country left behind by robotics, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t great societal challenges for those nations that thrive in this new age.


Apart from a few exceptions, any job that can be automated will be automated. Weak AI may seem dull, but it’s capable and relentless. Hanson Robotics is trying with “Han” and “Eva” to make things more interesting while rolling the future forward, developing machines that look like us and can react to voices and recognize faces. Perfect for customer service and myriad other services.

It’s fun staying at hotels but not at hospitals. Both, however, are starting the process of automating delivery services. Aloft Hotels began experimenting with robot butlers last year and the new Henn na Hotel in Nagasaki hopes to employ enough AI to halve its service force. People making these machines (while they’re still made by people) will have good jobs, but other fields will be wiped away almost entirely, disappeared along with travel agencies and video stores.

A Scottish university hospital has just invested a couple of million dollars in delivery drones. It will probably be a good thing for the facility and its patients, but we’ll likely have to eventually reckon with Labor destabilized by automation.

From Margi Murphy at Techworld:

South Glasgow University will task a fleet of 22robotswith trolleying medical equipment, food and linen around the hospital form next week.

The brand new hospital, which cost £842 million, spent £1.3 million on the drones – which have a lift to shuttle up and down the 14 storeys.

In a post on the hospital’s website, facilities manager Jim Magee said the robots would help boost patient services.

“The technology is brilliant. For example, the Swisslog Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) will return themselves to a charging station if their power is running low.

The robots sit together at pick-up points waiting until they are needed, replacing each other when necessary.•


“Safe and accurate navigation”:

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Francisco Cândido Xavier was a prolific writer, though he had help.

At least, that’s what the Brazilian man affectionately known as Chico Xavier claimed. He fancied himself as a ghostwriter for ghosts, a medium who would “receive” the books from the deceased and transcribe them. Psicografía, it is called. The opening ofDead Man Talking,” Laura Premack’s Boston Review article:

In Brazil, dead people write books. Not only do they write books, they sell them. Many fly off the shelves.

The process is called psicografía or psychography, also known in English as automatic writing: mediums go into trance, channel the spirits of the deceased, and record their words. Sometimes mediums channel the spirits of famous writers and poets such as Victor Hugo and Humberto de Campos, the renowned Brazilian poet and journalist whose family sued the medium-author of several collections of his supposedly posthumous poems and essays—not because they objected on principle but because they wanted a share of the profits. Sometimes mediums channel historical figures, such as nineteenth-century politician Bezerra de Menezes, and sometimes they channel unknowns.

Brazil’s most prolific and beloved medium was Francisco Cândido Xavier. Known fondly as Chico Xavier, he published more than 400 books from 1932 until his death at age ninety-two in 2002. At least 25 million copies of his books have been sold, likely more. They have been translated into many languages, including Greek, Japanese, and Braille. His Nosso Lar, a sort of spiritual memoir first published in 1944, is probably the biggest psychographic hit ever. More than sixty Brazilian editions have been printed and nearly 2 million copies sold.

In addition to publishing books, Xavier used his psychographic ability to record more than ten thousand letters from dead people to their families.•


Beginning in 1970, Chico Xavier began appearing on the TV show Pingo Fogo.

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The kitchen of 1985, as predicted in 1964: fast-growing indoor gardens, self-sufficient power supply, closed-circuit televisions, automated cleaning, etc. The above photo is an Avedon from Harper’s Bazaar of the ’60s.


On a panel shared by Elon Musk, Bill Gates briefly discusses superintelligence and its threat to humans, recommending Nick Bostrom’s book on the topic. Gates thinks our brains make for substandard hardware, and he argues that if machines can be made to be intelligent, they will almost immediately run in a direction far beyond us, with no intermediate stage needed for crawling or toddling. For a couple of minutes beginning at the 19:30 mark.

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Iron chefs may truly be made from metal if Moley Robotics brings its AI cook to the market in 2017 as planned. The idea is that you call in your order on a smartphone and the machine at home can make any of 2,000 recipes (though so far it’s only perfected one: crab bisque). Who knows if the company’s robot will be ready for the kitchen in two years and if the price can really initially be kept to a not-so-modest $15,000, but this is the general direction many restaurants (and perhaps homes) are headed. From Megan Gibson at Time:

Moley, which was founded by computer scientist Mark Oleynik, has partnered with the London-based Shadow Robot Company, which developed the kitchen’s hands. Twenty motors, two dozen joints and 129 sensors are used in order to mimic the movements of human hands. The robotic arms and hands are capable of grasping utensils, pots, dishes and various bottles of ingredients. Olyenik says that the robot hands are also capable of powering through cooking tasks quickly, though they’ve been designed to move quite slowly, so as not to alarm anyone watching it work.

Sadly for vegetarians, like Shadow Robot’s managing director Rich Walker, crab bisque is the only dish the robot is currently able to make. However, the company plans to build a digital library of 2,000 recipes before the kitchen is available to the wider public. Moley ambitiously aims to scale the robot chef for mass production and begin selling them as early as 2017. The robotic chef, complete with a purpose-built kitchen, including an oven, hob, dishwasher and sink, will cost £10,000 (around $15,000). Yet that price point will depend on a relatively high demand for the kitchen and it’s still unclear how large the market is for such a product at the moment.•


“It has created what it claims is the first robot chef.”

The kitchen of the future as presented by Walter Cronkite in 1967.

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The sun is dying, and I’m not feeling so great myself.

Unless we figure out a clever way to “fix” our star, we’re going to have to get off spaceship Earth at some point, moving to Mars or Titan or elsewhere. That’s the only way our species can survive (though our species will be completely different by then).

In a Salon piece, astronomer Chris Impey presents a passage from his latest book, Beyond: Our Future In Space, which looks at many facets of space colonization, from law to sex to evolution to transhumanism. An excerpt:

A mass exodus from Earth is implausible. After all, it costs $50 billion just to send a dozen people to the Moon for a few days. Elon Musk may claim he’ll reduce the price of a trip to Mars to $500,000, which is a hundred thousand times less, but that seems unlikely at the moment. If the Earth becomes contaminated or inhospitable, we’ll have to live in bubble domes, fix it, or suffer through it. Nonetheless, in this century a first cohort of adventurous humans will probably cut the umbilical and live off-Earth. What issues will they face?

Beyond survival, their first issue is their legal status. As we’ve seen, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty addresses ownership. According to Article II, “Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” That seems transparent, but it doesn’t mention the rights of individuals. Bas Lansdorp, the CEO of Mars One, said his legal experts looked into the treaty. He thinks that “what goes for governments also goes for individuals in those governments.” If Mars One achieves its goal, thirty people will settle the red planet by 2023; the gradually expanding settlement will use more and more Martian land. Lansdorp insists that their goal isn’t ownership. “It is allowed to use land, just not to say that you own it,” he says. “It is also allowed to use resources that you need for your mission. Don’t forget that a lot of these rules were made long ago, when a human mission to Mars was not within reach.”

Some space players claim altruistic motives, but none of them can succeed without revenue to fuel their dreams. What happens when profit is the only goal?

Large multinational corporations are bound by international trade law, but they could plausibly argue that they have the right to use, even to exhaust, the resources of an extraterrestrial body. A government that wanted to appropriate land on the Moon or Mars might withdraw from the Outer Space Treaty, and it’s unlikely it would suffer any serious -consequences. Even Mars One exists in a legal limbo. Bas Lansdorp needs to fund his $6 billion mission: “Imagine how many people would be interested in a grain of sand from the New World!”

At some point, the debate will stop being hypothetical.•


Carl Sagan waxing philosophically about the need for humans to eventually colonize space, to curl up like newborns on comets and fly like birds on Titan, going on after the sun dies but before the universe does.


Wearables will soon be small enough that you’ll forget you’re wearing them, and you’ll have no idea who else is. They’ll have many great applications and will improve life, but I bet there’ll be times when we long for the dorky obviousness of Google Glass. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich shows off the button-sized Curie Module, available in the second half of 2015, by “conducting” a group of robot spiders.


A 1975 NASA video touting the design for the Stanford torus, the university’s proposal for a ring-shaped space colony. The agricultural model that was to provide sustenance was particularly interesting.

Festo’s eMotionButterflies, bionic and autonomous, participate in collective behavior and can likely be used for, among other things, the prettiest surveillance ever. From the company website: 

Ten cameras installed in the room record the butterflies using their infrared markers. The cameras transmit the position data to a central master computer, which coordinates the butterflies from outside. The intelligent networking system creates a guidance and monitoring system, which could be used in the networked factory of the future.•

Stan Freberg, a household name for several decades in America, just passed away. He defied easy categorization, doing many things–satire, records, voice acting, radio, etc.–but was probably best at being an adman, lending the form a wryness and angst it hadn’t previously enjoyed. He was sort of the Philip Roth of the 30-second spot. Or maybe Joseph Heller? From his NYT obituary by Douglas Martin:

Mr. Freberg was a hard man to pin down. He made hit comedy records, voiced hundreds of cartoon characters and succeeded Jack Benny in one of radio’s most prestigious time slots. He called himself a “guerrilla satirist,” using humor as a barbed weapon to take on issues ranging from the commercialization of Christmas to the hypocrisy of liberals.

“Let’s give in and do the brotherhood bit,/Just make sure we don’t make a habit of it,” he sang in “Take an Indian to Lunch,” a song on the 1961 album “Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America,” a history lesson in songs and sketches. Time magazine said it may have been the “finest comedy album ever recorded.”

His radio sketches for CBS in 1957 included some of the earliest put-downs of political correctness (before that idea had a name). One sketch entailed a confrontation with a fictional network censor, Mr. Tweedlie, who insisted that Mr. Freberg change the lyrics of “Ol’ Man River,” starting with the title. He wanted it renamed “Elderly Man River.”

Mr. Freberg made his most lasting impact in advertising, a field he entered because he considered most commercials moronic. Usually working as a creative consultant to large agencies, he shattered Madison Avenue conventions. He once produced a musical commercial nearly six minutes long to explain why his client, Butternut Coffee, lagged behind its competitors by five years in developing instant brew.

His subversive but oddly effective approach caused Advertising Age to call him the father of the funny commercial and one of the 20th century’s most influential admen.•


With Dick Cavett, giving the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi a deserved roasting.

A vintage Freberg Cheerios commercial, which was very offbeat for the time.

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I feel like I’ve been living inside the second album from Public Service Broadcasting, The Race for Space, for years, so I’m glad the band finally recorded it.

Instrumental music applied to archival radio news reports from the era make for something glorious and epic (despite a relatively brief 48-minute running time). It’s the age of Sputnik and Apollo convincingly and beautifully re-awakened by two musicians who weren’t even alive at the time of the moon landing. An oddity, perhaps, but one with a wide embrace. From Richard Hollingham at the BBC:

We are all familiar with the visual icons of the space race – such as Gagarin being lauded in Red Square the Earthrise picture from Apollo 8 or the American flag on the lunar surface – but, for Willgoose, audio has proved just as emotive.

“Radio has the best pictures, there’s a certain amount of imagination that this music calls upon,” he says. “Our live shows are so video-heavy and we get a lot of presumptions that the music is totally reliant on the images but I think it’s the other way round.”•

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There’s another passage from Andrew O’Hehir’s recent Salon interview with Alex Gibney I wanted to put up when I published the Going Clear one, a section about his forthcoming Steve Jobs documentary, but it seemed odd to combine them. Although, you know, cults!

An excerpt in which the director tries to explain why he believes there was a deluge of grief over the passing of Jobs, a businessman:


How does your approach to Jobs differ from the conventional wisdom?

Alex Gibney:

It’s an impressionistic rumination on his life and what it means to us. I didn’t want to do a dutiful, stone-skipping, “Here are all the events in Steve Jobs’ life” movie. But I was interested in the idea that, when he died, people all over the world who didn’t know him from Adam were weeping. I mean, this guy was not like Martin Luther King Jr. or John Lennon. He was a businessman. But nobody is going to weep for Lloyd Blankfein when he goes. [Laughter.]


No. Or Bill Gates either, I think.

Alex Gibney:

Or Bill Gates, despite the fact that Bill Gates has contributed more to make the world a better place than Steve Jobs ever did. That’s one of the things we get at, because what I got interested in was values. Not just the story of technology, but the story of values. Why do we care so much about him? And I think the answer — I hate to say “the answer,” because then why bother making the movie — but one of the answers is that he was our guide through this world of the computer. He introduced us to it. He made the computer warm and fuzzy. He made us feel like we were one with the computer. He came very much out of counterculture. He took acid, he went to Reed College and dropped out, he traveled around the world. It was all about “Think Different,” and putting up billboards with Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez and Rosa Parks.

Where did those values take us? By the end, they didn’t take us to such a nice place, although there are aspects of his life that I find very important and moving. For those who see the film as a slam, they’re looking at the wrong end of the telescope. Because a lot of the film is about us, it’s about how we deal with our machines. There’s a small group of people in the film, and they’re not always the ones you would think of. So I hope it ends up being an interesting and in some ways unexpected portrait. We spent a lot of time on his affection for Zen, for instance. We found some great footage of his spiritual adviser, Kobun Chino, talking about his first exchanges with Jobs. So it’s a meditation on many aspects of this person’s life.


Well, there’s such a contrast with Jobs. We have this person who was really a revolutionary and a visionary when it came to understanding the way people use technology, and then we have the effect he had on the culture of the American workplace.

Alex Gibney:

We definitely talk about that. And as I say, there’s the question of values, expressed in terms of how Apple used and uses its corporate power. It’s one thing for Jobs to give the finger to IBM as a young man. But when you’re atop the most valuable corporation in history and you’re still giving the finger, to whom are you giving the finger?


Yet Apple still somehow has this cultural cachet of being an underdog company who we’re all supposed to root for.

Alex Gibney:

Yes! And how that happens, I just don’t get. Last year I did a film about James Brown, and there’s a lot that’s similar about James Brown and Steve Jobs. He’s an awesome performer, on stage at those Apple events and presentations. Most people think of him as Edison. Steve Jobs was not Edison — he was a lot closer to P.T. Barnum.•


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In a few months, Mattel is releasing an interactive, Wi-Fi-enabled version of its most iconic doll, and it’s only surprising that Siri and Barbie haven’t met sooner. It could be a great moment for teaching–or marketing and surveillance. From Natasha Singer at the New York Times:

This fall, Mattel plans to introduce Hello Barbie, a Wi-Fi enabled version of the iconic doll, which uses ToyTalk’s system to analyze a child’s speech and produce relevant responses.

“She’s a huge character with an enormous back story,” Mr. Jacob says of Barbie. “We hope that when she’s ready, she will have thousands and thousands of things to say and you can speak to her for hours and hours.”

It was probably inevitable that the so-called Internet of Things — those Web-connected thermostats and bathroom scales and coffee makers and whatnot — would beget the Internet of Toys. And just like Web-connected consumer gizmos that can amass details about their owners and transmit that data for remote analysis, Internet-connected toys hold out the tantalizing promise of personalized services and the risk of privacy perils.

“Is this going to be some creepy doll that records what is going on in your home without you knowing it?” asks Nicole A. Ozer, the director of technology and civil liberties at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. “What is being recorded? How long is it being stored? Who is it being shared with?”

The advent of connected toys that can record and talk back to children is likely to deepen this debate over the Internet of Things because of the potential for these intelligent toys to powerfully affect children’s imagination, learning and social development.•


Sally Ride became the first American female to travel into space in 1983, and those enlightened designers at Mattel’s Barbie division were ready to pay tribute to the progress of women–well, to a point. Astronaut Barbie was a trailblazer in outer space, but she also enjoyed dancing in high heels under a disco ball. Seemingly intended for young girls with serious cocaine problems.

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Lawrence Wright, Going Clear writer, holds out hope that Scientology can reform itself, normalize, transition from cult to religion, but filmmaker Alex Gibney, who adapted the book into an HBO sensation, harbors no such faith. An exchange from one of Andrew O’Hehir’s customarily smart Salon interviews:


Larry speculates that it might be possible for the church to reform itself by doing what they did before on the issue of homophobia, and pretending that Hubbard’s bigoted and hateful remarks basically never existed. I think he’s being overly generous. I can’t imagine an organization that is this paranoid and this hateful finding a way to reinvent itself. Can you?

Alex Gibney:

No. Look at what’s happening now with Pope Francis and the Catholic Church. The weight of history is so strong, much stronger for the Catholic Church of course. But in the case of the Church of Scientology they would have to fundamentally uproot their belief system. Whether he was a bigot or just a creature of his age, Hubbard was virulently anti-gay and thought it was a disease that could be cured. How do you fix that unless you come out and say, “You know what? Hubbard was wrong about a lot of things.” And that’s hard to do. That’s what was so interesting about these individuals in our film: It was hard for them to wake up one day and say they had been wrong for 30 years.

I don’t know if you read this piece in the New Yorker recently, about the Jean McConville murder in Northern Ireland? It was a fascinating piece and one of the aspects that caught my eye was this one woman [Dolours Price] who was basically a hit woman for the IRA. She was very attractive, ended up marrying Stephen Rea. But when the Good Friday Accords happened, suddenly all the certainty she’d had that allowed her to believe that the end justified the means had been removed. And it sent her into a tailspin. Once that certainty is gone – I mean, it’s a wonderful kind of narcotic. I think that for Danny Masterson and Bodhi Elfman, it probably feels good to say, “Those are hateful bastards saying this stuff.” Because it’s pure; it may be hate but it’s pure hate, and it feels good because you’re certain. But when your certainty is removed, what’s left?•


“Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair
She said that you gave it to her
That night that you planned to go clear
Did you ever go clear?”

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B.F. Skinner, who felt we could use some training, created a Teaching Machine in the 1950s to help improve our behavior. Thanks to the wonderful 3 Quarks Daily, I read Sophia Nguyen’s Harvard Magazine article about the reconsideration of Skinner’s contraption in the computer age, as classrooms become increasingly plugged in. The goal for such machines should, of course, be something other than teaching us chickens how to play tic-tac-toe. In investigating gaming as learning, Nguyen writes of the vision of designer Eric Zimmerman:

Future generations will understand their world in terms of games and systems, and will respond to it as players and designers—navigating, manipulating, and improving upon them.

The opening:

ON NOVEMBER 11, 1953, psychology professor B.F. Skinner sat in a fourth-grade math class, perturbed. It was Parents Day at his daughter Deborah’s school. The lesson seemed grossly inefficient: students proceeded through the material in lock-step, at the same pace; their graded assignments were returned to them sluggishly.

A leading proponent of what he called “radical behaviorism,” Skinner had devoted his career to studying feedback. He denied the existence of free will and dismissed inner mental states as explanations for outward action. Instead, he focused on the environment and the organism’s response. He had trained rats to push levers and pigeons to play Ping-Pong. A signed photo of Ivan Pavlov presided over his study in Cambridge. Turning his attention to a particular subset of the human animal—the schoolchild—Skinner invented his Teaching Machine.

Roughly the size and shape of a typewriter, the machine allowed a student to progress independently through a curriculum, answering test items and getting instant feedback with a few pulls of a lever. “The student quickly learns to be right. His work is pleasurable. He does not have to force himself to study,” Skinner claimed. “A classroom in which machines are being used is usually the scene of intense concentration.” With hardly any hindrance from peers or teachers, thousands of students could receive knowledge directly from a single textbook writer. He told The Harvard Crimson, “There is no reason why the school room should be any less mechanized than the kitchen.”

Sixty years later, Skinner’s reductionist ideas about teaching and learning continue to haunt public education—especially as it’s once again being called upon to embrace technology.•


Teaching machine and programmed learning, from 1954:

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Robots that deliver coffee to your suite of rooms are swell, but robotics enters another phase when machines can use Deep Learning to grow and adapt. Of course, we might not always like what they do with their newfound knowledge. From

In the near future we may have household robots to handle cooking, cleaning and other menial tasks. They will be teachable: Show the robot how to operate your coffee machine, and it will take over from there.

But suppose you buy a new, different coffee maker. Will you have to start over?

“The robot already has seen two or three coffee machines; it should be able to figure out how to use this one,” said Ashutosh Saxena, assistant professor of computer science. In robotics work up to now, he noted, a robot must be trained for each task and always positioned in the same relationship to the machine and its controls.

In his Robot Learning Lab, Saxena is making robots more adaptable. A new deep-learning algorithm developed by Saxena and graduate student Jaeyong Sung enables a robot to operate a machine it has never seen before, by consulting the instruction manual – probably available online – and drawing on its experience with other machines that have similar controls.

One thing that makes this hard is the “noise” in natural language instructions. Do you turn on the machine with a “knob” or a “switch?” Do you dispense coffee by pulling a “handle” or a “lever?” And then, where is that control on the machine, and what’s the proper way to manipulate it? For this, the robot draws on a database of recorded actions.

“We use a deep learning neural network that can tell the robot which action in a database is the closest to the one it has to perform,” Sung explained.•


“Press the button to start grinding”:

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The graphic designer Massimo Vignelli, who passed away nearly a year ago, left a mark on New York City that’s dwarfed only by those on the level of Robert Moses and Frederick Law Olmsted. Here’s an excerpt from a 2006 Gary Hustwit interview with Vignelli (republished by Fast Company) in which the man who somehow made sense of our serpentine subway comments on the impact of modern machines on signage:


What’s your opinion of the impact of the computer on typography?

Massimo Vignelli:

In the ’60s, we were taking Standard and cutting the sides of the letters in order to get the type tighter. A good typographer always has sensitivity about the distance between letters. It makes a tremendous amount of difference. We think typography is black and white. Typography is really white, you know. It’s not even black, in a sense. It is the space between the blacks that really makes it. In a sense, it’s like music—it’s not the notes; it’s the space you put between the notes that makes the music. It’s very much the same situation.

The spacing between letters is important, and the spacing between the lines is important, too. And what typographers do, what we do all the time, is continuously work with those two elements, kerning and leading. Now, in the old times we were all doing this with a blade and cutting type and cutting our fingers all the time. But eventually, thank God, the Apple computer came about. Apple made the right kind of computer for the communication field. IBM made the PC, and the PC was no good for communication. The PC was great for numbers, and they probably made studies that there were more people involved with numbers—banks, insurance companies, businesses of all kinds. But they made a tremendous mistake at the same time by not considering the size of the communications world. That community is enormous, you know—newspapers, television, anything that is printed. It’s enormous. Advertising, design, you name it. 

Anyhow, Apple, thank God, got the intuition of going after that market, and so in 1990 they came out with a computer that we designers could use. Now, let’s face it: the computer is a great thing, but it’s just a tool, just like a pencil is a tool. The computer has much more memory, the pencil has no memory whatsoever, and I have even less. But it is a fantastic tool which allowed the best typography ever done in the history of typography, because you can do the kerning perfectly for the situation. You can do the leading perfectly for whatever you’re encountering. Not only that, but you see it right away; you can print it right away. It brings immediacy to your thoughts, and that is something that never happened before in the history of mankind.

It allows you to do the best typography ever, but it also allows you to do the worst ever.•


“It’s the space between the notes”:

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Speaking of Norman Mailer, here’s a clip from a 1979 Firing Line in which William F. Buckley sits down with the pugilistic prose writer at the time of The Executioner’s Song. Twenty-five years after using his “nonfiction novel” to profile the life and firing-squad death of murderer Gary Gilmore, Mailer guested on the Gilmore Girls. Strange life.

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My blood boils at even the thought of Grey Gardens, that exercise in gawking and cruelty, but in the wider picture, Albert and David Maysles did amazing work. Gimme Shelter is one of the most perfect films I’ve ever watched, from its structure to its content, and Salesman, which just floors me, has never been timelier, with its depiction of the pawns left in the wake of the Disruption Machine. Albert, the remaining brother, passed away a couple weeks ago. Here’s a clip from the brothers’ 1963 film Orson Welles in Spain, in which the great and star-crossed director presages the fraying of the traditional studio picture, with its formality. The work he’s discussing turned out to be his uncompleted 1970s movie The Other Side of the Wind.

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Robots needn’t be conscious to help or hurt us, to serve or displace us. One possible remedy to the fears about an automation proliferation is human-machine collaboration. For example: In freestyle chess, teams comprised of one human and one computer regularly obliterate a lone person or computer. Will human employees be paired with robots in the same way?

Two things: 1) Such tandems will still checkmate a lot of workers, and 2) It may be the “detente” is only temporary, the human half of the equation gradually phased out. From a report about you newest coworker–a cobot–from Tanya Powley at the Financial Times:

Meet Sawyer. It is the newest robot on the block designed to speed up automation in factories by taking on tasks that once relied on humans’ manual dexterity and good eyesight.

The machine is one of two new “collaborative” robots, or co-bots, launched this week that are part of a new generation of affordable lightweight robots that are unlocking new markets and applications beyond automotive and semiconductor manufacturing, where robots have been a mainstay for decades.

Robot companies have been rushing to develop co-bots, which can work side-by-side with employees rather than behind a safety cage, as they look to capitalise on a growing trend by manufacturers to turn to technology to compete amid rising wage costs and labour shortages.

Unveiled on Thursday, Sawyer is made by US-based Rethink Robotics, which already builds a dual-arm humanoid robot known as Baxter. The single-armed Sawyer is more accurate, faster and smaller than Baxter, enabling it to automate a wider range of tasks such as machine tending and circuit board testing in the electronics industry. It can also carry a larger weight. Baxter has largely been used for packing purposes in factories and for academic research. …

Lightweight collaborative robots are cheaper, more dexterous, easier to move between tasks and do not require specialist programming skills. Many of them can be taught new moves by simply taking the robot arm and moving it to show it what to do. …

Sawyer will be marketed for $29,000, compared with a six figure sum for an industrial robot. Universal Robots sells its flexible, lightweight robot arms for between €20,000 to €30,000.

This has helped make automation more accessible for small and medium-sized businesses that previously could not afford the expensive heavyweight traditional industrial robots or did not consider them economical for smaller production volumes or contract manufacturing.•


You don’t have to read too much between the lines to understand that Braun design legend Dieter Rams, in his dotage, maybe regrets devoting his life to the field despite being so brilliant at it. I don’t think that’s such an unusual reaction to being on the wrong side of aging, no matter the accomplishments. Three excerpts follow from Gary Hustwit’s Fast Company Q&A with Rams.



How has design changed in the last 50 years?

Dieter Rams:

What I am especially bothered by today is that, particularly in the media, design is being used as a ‘lifestyle asset.’ I’m bothered by the arbitrariness and the thoughtlessness with which many things are produced and brought to the market. There are so many unnecessary things we produce, not only in the sector of consumer goods, but also in architecture, in advertising. We have too many unnecessary things everywhere. And I would even go as far as to describe this as inhumane. That is the situation today. But actually, it has always been a problem.

We need to deal with our resources differently, in terms of how we waste things. We have to move away from the throwaway habit. Things can, and must, last longer. They must be designed so that they can be reused. We need to take more care of our environment. That means not only our personal environment but also our cities and our resources. That is the future of design, to take more care of these basic elements. Otherwise I’m not sure what the future of our planet will be. So designers have to take on that responsibility, and to do so we need more support from government. We need political support to solve the problems with our environment and how we should shape our cities. As designers, we shouldn’t be doing this for ourselves, but for our community. And the community needs support, not only to interact with each other democratically, but it also needs support to live democratically.



If you were to design a computer now, what would it look like?

Dieter Rams:

It would look like one of Apple’s products. In many magazines, or on the Internet, people compare Apple products to things which I designed, with this or that transistor radio from 1965 or 1955. In terms of aesthetics, I think their designs are brilliant. I don’t consider it an imitation. I take it as a compliment.



Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t covered so far?

Dieter Rams:

Well, I’m not very active in the design field anymore. I have only a few things to do, mainly in the furniture sector, because I have certain commitments. But I am still very interested in what’s happening, and it is my wish that we really do deal with our surroundings more consciously in the future. That is really my wish, because I believe it contributes to living with one another more peacefully. That’s why, if I had something to do in this world again, I would not want to be a designer. Because I believe, in the future, it will be less important to have many things and more important to exercise care about where and how we live.•


A scene from Objectified, 2009.

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While his 1974 adaptation of Libertarian tract, The Incredible Bread Machine, drops my jaw with its intense anti-government paranoia, filmmaker and sculptor Theo Kamecke’s 1970 documentary, Moonwalk One, is a poetic, moody and beautiful work. Funny that it was lost for decades since it was built for the ages.


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