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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.•

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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:

Question:

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?•

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“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.•

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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 Technology.org:

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.•

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“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:

Question:

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.•

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“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.•

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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.

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Question:

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.

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Question:

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.

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Question:

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.•

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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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A couple of weeks before Alex Gibney’s documentary adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear debuts on HBO, here’s a repost of five earlier entries about the religion pulp-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard wrought.

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“A Year Ago, L. Ron Hubbard Was An Obscure Writer Of Pseudoscientific Pulp Fiction”

The opening of Albert Q. Maisel’s highly skeptical 1950 Look magazine article about a new pseudoscience, something called “Dianetics,” conceived by pulp writer L. Ron Hubbard:

A year ago, L. Ron Hubbard was an obscure writer of pseudoscientific pulp fiction. Today he has:

.. Half a million devout followers.

.. A foundation with a chain of bustling branches stretching from Elizabeth, N.J. to far-off Honolulu.

.. The best-selling nonfiction book since Dale Carnegie discovered the secret of success.

.. A swarm of pop-eyed students, who stand in line for the privilege of plunking down 500 bucks for a one-month course which converts them into “professional auditors,” complete with a couch and capable of outpsyching any ordinary psychiatrist.

.. Even larger and faster-growing tribes who pay $200 each for the 15-lecture short course – or $25 an hour to have their ‘cases opened’ by $500 professional auditors.

.. And a small army of associate members, at a mere 15 smackers each, who gratefully keep up with the whirlwind developments of Hubbard’s new ‘science’ of dianetics through the Dianetics Auditors Bulletin.

Dianetics and the Discovery of Fire

Hubbard, you may gather from the foregoing, has discovered the key to success and demonstrated once again that Barnum underestimated the sucker birth rate.

But that, by Hubbard’s own admission, is probably the least of his discoveries.

Unencumbered by the modesty that hog-ties ordinary mortals, Hubbard starts his book – THE BOOK, his followers call it – with the calm assertion that ‘the creation of dianetics is a milestone for Man comparable to his discovery of fire and superior to his invention of the wheel and the arch.’

A few lines beyond, one learns that, with dianetics, ‘the intelligent layman can successfully and invariably treat all psychosomatic ills and inorganic aberrations.’

Farther on, one discovers that these psychosomatic ills, ‘uniformly cured by dianetic therapy.’ include such varied maladies as eye trouble, bursitis, ulcers, some heart difficulties, migraine headaches and the common cold.

But you ain’t heard nothing yet.•

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“They Become Fanatics On The Subject, Impervious To Argument, Quick To Cut Themselves Off From Doubters”

rh4

The opening ofA Growing Cult Reaches Dangerously Into The Mind,” Alan Levy’s November 15. 1968 Life investigation into Scientology:

The lights in the hall go dim, leaving the bronzed bust of the Founder spotlighted at center stage. From the loudspeakers comes L Ron Hubbard’s voice, deep and professional. It is a tape called ‘Some Aspects of Help, Part 1,’ a basic lecture’ in Scientology that Hubbard recorded nearly 10 years ago.

No one in the intensely respectable Los Angeles audience of 500 — some of whom paid as much as $16 to get in — thought it odd to be sitting there listening to a disembodied voice. Among believers, Scientology and its founder are beyond frivolous question. Scientology is the Truth, it is the path to ‘a civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war . . .’ and ‘for the first time in all ages there is something that ….delivers the answers to the eternal questions and delivers immortality as well.’

So much of a credo might be regarded as harmless — practically indistinguishable from any number of minor schemes for the improvement of Man. But Scientology is scary — because of its size and growth, and because of the potentially disastrous techniques it so casually makes use of. To attain the Truth, a Scientologist surrenders himself to “auditing,” a crude form of psychoanalysis. In the best medical circumstances this is a delicate procedure, but in Scientology it is undertaken by an ‘auditor’ who is simply another Scientologist in training, who uses an ‘E-meter,’ which resembles a lie detector. A government report, made to the parliament of the State of Victoria in Australia three years ago, called Scientology ‘the worlds largest organization of unqualified persons engaged in the practice of dangerous techniques which masquerade as mental therapy.’ As author Alan Levy found out by personal experience ‘pages 100B – 114′, the auditing experience can be shattering.

How many souls have become hooked on Scientology is impossible to say precisely. Worldwide membership — England, South Africa, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the U.S. — is probably between two and three million. In the U.S. offices in Washington, New York, Los Angeles and seven other cities, the figure may now be more than several hundred thousand. What is astonishing — and frightening — is the rate of growth in the U.S.: membership has probably tripled or quadrupled in the past three years.

Recruits to Scientology are most often young, intelligent and idealistic. They become fanatics on the subject, impervious to argument, quick to cut themselves off from doubters. Many young people have been instructed by their Scientology organizations ‘orgs,’ they are called to ‘disconnect’ from their families. ‘Disconnect’ means exactly that: sever all relations. Such estrangements can be deep and lasting, leaving heartsick parents no longer able to speak rationally with their children.

Scientology is expensive.”•

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“They Take The Best And Brightest People And Destroy Them”

With the 1991 Time article,The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power,” investigative reporter Richard Behar brought concerns about Scientology to the mainstream. The hard-hitting article’s opening:

“By all appearances, Noah Lottick of Kingston, Pa., had been a normal, happy 24-year-old who was looking for his place in the world. On the day last June when his parents drove to New York City to claim his body, they were nearly catatonic with grief. The young Russian-studies scholar had jumped from a 10th-floor window of the Milford Plaza Hotel and bounced off the hood of a stretch limousine. When the police arrived, his fingers were still clutching $171 in cash, virtually the only money he hadn’t yet turned over to the Church of Scientology, the self-help ‘philosophy’ group he had discovered just seven months earlier.

His death inspired his father Edward, a physician, to start his own investigation of the church. ‘We thought Scientology was something like Dale Carnegie,’ Lottick says. ‘I now believe it’s a school for psychopaths. Their so-called therapies are manipulations. They take the best and brightest people and destroy them.’ The Lotticks want to sue the church for contributing to their son’s death, but the prospect has them frightened. For nearly 40 years, the big business of Scientology has shielded itself exquisitely behind the First Amendment as well as a battery of high-priced criminal lawyers and shady private detectives.

The Church of Scientology, started by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard to ‘clear’ people of unhappiness, portrays itself as a religion. In reality the church is a hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner.”•

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“He Sought Out Many ‘Cures’ For His Problems”

William S. Burroughs was more deeply involved in Scientology than we know according to a new book by David S. Wills. The writer just did an Ask Me Anything at Reddit on the topic. A few exchanges follow.

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Question:

What initially brought Burroughs to the Scientologists?

David S. Wills:

Well that’s the first half of the book right there… In a nutshell, he was a deeply disturbed man. He was abused as a child, troubled by his homosexuality, accidentally killed his wife, and was hooked on drugs for decades. He sought out many “cures” for his problems and despite being obviously intelligent in many ways, was incredibly gullible. Ultimately, he came to Scientology for a magic fix, and for a while, he actually believed he was getting it. In fact, as late as 1994 (3 yrs prior to his death) he was convinced of some of its merits.

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Question:

I heard many rumors that scientology cures you of being gay that many high profile celebrities join to get cured of gay. Any truth to that?

David S. Wills:

Long ago, L. Ron Hubbard listed homosexuals as among the lowest forms of human beings (this has subsequently been changed in his books). I have no idea about the rumors of other celebrities… but it is highly likely that Burroughs sought a “cure” for his homosexuality in Scientology. He went through periods of feeling it was a handicap and remarked on a number of occasions that Scientology (temporarily) cured him of various “handicaps.”

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Question:

What is a misconceptions that you had about Scientology that later changed?

David S. Wills:

I thought that the whole Xenu/space opera thing was of more importance. The tabloids and South Park really play it up, but it didn’t get incorporated until later, and even then it was for the high-level members. Really, for the average Scientologist, that wasn’t even a part of it.

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Question:

Did they try to convert you?

David S. Wills:

No. Most Scientologists and ex-Scientologists I talked to were pretty open but not pushy. They were willing to explain concepts but not force them upon me. Interestingly, I did speak to someone who had letters from a Scientologist who’d used Burroughs to convert young people in the 60s.•

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“Their Allegiance And Devotion To The Mysterious Man Is Total”

L. Ron Hubbard interviewed in 1968 about his embattled tax shelter, during the period when he spent much of his time at sea.

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Jacque Fresco, one of those fascinating people who walks through life building a world inside his head, hoping it eventually influences the wider one, turns 99 today. A futurist and designer who’s focused much of his work on sustainable living, technology and automation, Fresco is the brains behind the Venus Project, which encourages a post-money, resource-based economy. An excerpt from a 1985 Sun Sentinel profile by Scott Eyman followed by two videos, the first about Venus and the second a 1974 interview with Fresco conducted by a pre-suspenders Larry King.

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You can hear the glorious, smoothly humming hydraulic future in Jacque Fresco`s eager voice, see it in the eye in your mind. Cities and their inhabitants thrive under the sea. Houses are heated by pipes laid beneath highways that conduit the gathered asphalt heat into private residences. Grain is stored in the natural refrigerator of the polar regions.

Fossil fuels have been abandoned, as solar power runs everything from your air-conditioning — if you need it in houses that are properly built and insulated, which you probably won`t — to your backyard barbecue, where a mirror and two pyrex reflectors cook both sides of the meat at the same time. And when something goes wrong with your car, two handles are turned, the entire engine unit pulls out, a courtesy engine is plugged in and you`re back on the road while the garage works to find the problem.

Welcome to the future, or at least Jacque Fresco`s vision of it. It all seems eminently attainable . . . until you open your eyes and look around. What you see are 22 acres with four organically flowing domed structures — two of which are finished, one of which is furnished — a little lake with a baby alligator sunning himself by the water`s edge, and a landscaped path leading back among 400-year-old cypress trees. It is here, on this quiet patch of land in Venus, Fla., that Jacque Fresco and his companion, Roxanne Meadows, are constructing a prototype of the possible.

“I tried walking around with a briefcase, and selling myself,” says the peppery Fresco, a vigorous and muscular 69. “And I found that people think you`re an idiot if you don`t have anything to show them, if all you have are ideas and a vision. All right. I`ll show them something.”

Welcome to the world of Jacque Fresco, social conceptualist and inventor, one of those people who create something tangible where before there existed only that most intangible of intangibles: an idea.•

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In 1954, a year after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first to scale Mt. Everest, the former appeared on an episode of Omnibus, telling the story of the historic climb. The duo spent just 15 minutes at the peak, being low on oxygen supply.

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It’s pretty clear privacy is all but over, even inside the home. The Internet of Things will likely be the thing pretty soon, and once every last appliance is connected, the quantifying and monitoring will begin in earnest. Many positive advances will be made because of this new counting machine–yes, we will all count!–but the catch, of course, is that there’ll be no way to opt out, no choice. You too will be judged. From Sarah Butler at the Guardian:

“We are coming to the era of the connected customer, the latest in a series of shifts created by technology,” [Dixons Carphone CEO Seb James] told the Retail Week Live conference in London. “This shift is going to bump off as many retailers as the last. It will be a total asteroid strike at the heart of retail.”

The new technology, from health monitoring smartwatches to washing machines that can tell engineers when they need repairing – will mean retailers need to offer services to help consumers with the new products and keep them operating correctly. …

“Your connected home will know when you’re in, what mood you’re in, your temperature preferences and family members. They’ll know the state of health of your dog, how far you jogged this morning and what brand of toothpaste you like and how much you have left.

“It’s a little bit creepy but we’re all going to have to get used to it as information which used to be so hard to get is now going to be so easy to find new skills and tools [to deal with it].”•

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“What will it be like? How will we choose to live?”

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When Timex introduced cheap, seemingly unbreakable watches in the 1950s, the product was given short shrift by both media and jewelers, but they soon were category leaders. The Timex Data Link of the 1990s, however, made in conjunction with Microsoft, was probably lavished with too much praise. Before computers were tiny and powerful, the Data Link was the first watch that could receive downloaded information. It wasn’t good enough, but it was (sort of) the future. As Apple releases more information today about the iWatch that no one seems to be clamoring for, here’s an excerpt from a 1994 New York Times article about the Data Link followed by a commercial for it.

“Talk about information at your fingertips. The Timex Corporation and the Microsoft Corporation said today that they had teamed up to develop a wristwatch that can store information received directly from a personal computer screen.

The Timex Data Link watch, which will cost about $130 when it goes on sale in September, uses a wireless optical scanning system to receive data from Microsoft software.

The Data Link watch was demonstrated today at a presentation by Microsoft’s chairman, Bill Gates, who held it up to a computer as a series of bar-code lines flashed on the screen. After several seconds, Mr. Gates was able to scroll through personal information like appointment locations and telephone numbers at the touch of a button on the watch.

Fast Sales Predicted

C. Michael Jacobi, the president of Timex, predicted that the company would sell 200,000 of the watches in the final three months of this year, making it the fastest-selling watch ever in its price category.

The new watch looks like a regular round sports watch and includes such standard digital watch functions as a calendar, light, dual time-zone settings and alarms.

Using a microchip developed by Timex with Motorola Inc., the watch can store about 70 messages in its memory, downloading them in about 20 seconds, officials said.

Each watch will include software compatible with Microsoft Windows 3.1 and the company’s scheduling applications, such as Schedule Plus. The software also will be compatible with future versions of Windows, including a ‘Chicago’ upgrade expected out by the end of the year.

Users simply need to hold the watch about a foot away from their computer screens to download data, which can be done as often as needed.

Laptops Won’t Work

However, road warriors will be disappointed to learn that the watch will not work with laptop computers, which do not have a strong enough lighting source in their screens, Timex officials said.”•

Ross Andersen, Deputy Editor of Aeon, appearing on Tony Dokoupil’s MSNBC show, Greenhouse, to discuss existential risks to humanity and a potential colony being established on Mars by Elon Musk and SpaceX, a topic he covered at length in an excellent 2014 article.

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A house that’s impervious to storm and earthquake sounds pretty good right about now, and that was what Buckminster Fuller promised in 1929 when he introduced the Dymaxion House, an architectural dream never realized beyond a few prototypes. In a 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article from a series on the future of the home, Fuller’s automated abode was given a public hearing. The opening of the piece below.

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“We are living in a spheroidal universe”:

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Google has withdrawn one of its recently purchased companies from the upcoming DARPA Robotics Challenge in Pomona, but the competition will continue apace, albeit with some accelerated marching orders (i.e., the cables have been cut). From Erico Guizzo at IEEE Spectrum:

In a call with reporters this afternoon, Gill Pratt, program manager for the DRC, said the tasks for the final challenge will be similar to the ones we saw at the trials. But this time the tasks will be “put together in a single mission” that teams have one hour to complete.

The robots will start in a vehicle, drive to a simulated disaster building, and then they’ll have to open doors, walk on rubble, and use tools. Finally they’ll have to climb a flight of stairs. But one more thing, Pratt said: there will be a surprise task waiting for the robots at the end.

Just when we thought the DRC couldn’t get any cooler—it just did. Naturally, Pratt declined to elaborate on what this mystery task might entail.

He also emphasized that now the robots will operate completely untethered. There won’t be cables to provide power and data—and to keep them from falling down. “They’ll have to get up on their own,” he said. “That’s raising the bar on how good the robots have to be.”•

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“Basically we have to cut the cord”:

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I posted last fall about Aloft Hotels introducing robotic butlers, machines that will likely be roaming the halls of every hotel chain in the near future. Here’s video footage of one such “worker” providing room service.

Allen Ginsberg was a great poet and performer, if a dubious person in other ways. Here he is in 1965 giving one of his rapturous readings at the Royal Albert Hall. 

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Dr. Eugenie Clark, an ichthyologist who specialized in sharks–even sleeping ones–just passed away at 92. She was not a fan of Jaws, the Spielberg blockbuster adapted from Peter Benchley’s novel. From her New York Times obituary by Robert D. McFadden:

For all her scientific achievements, Dr. Clark was also a figure of popular culture who used her books, lectures and expertise to promote the preservation of ecologically fragile shorelines, to oppose commercial exploitation of endangered species and to counteract misconceptions, especially about sharks.

She insisted that Jaws, the 1975 Steven Spielberg film based on a Peter Benchley novel, and its sequels inspired unreasonable fears of sharks as ferocious killers. Car accidents are far more numerous and terrible than shark attacks, she said in a 1982 PBS documentary, The Sharks.

She said at the time that only about 50 shark attacks on humans were reported annually and that only 10 were fatal, and that the great white shark portrayed in Jaws would attack only if provoked, while most of the world’s 350 shark species were not dangerous to people at all.

“When you see a shark underwater,” she said, “you should say, ‘How lucky I am to see this beautiful animal in his environment.’ ”•

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“The big ones are the females.”

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Harpo Marx kept his mouth shut even when answering questions on TV (here and here), but Marcel Marceau, mimetic Everyman and French Resistance hero, used his voice quite well when interviewed by James Day in San Francisco in 1974.

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There’s a lot more juice in that melon on our shoulders, but how to squeeze it out? Savants, whether congenital or by the consequence of head injury, have a portion of their brains that are super-developed to compensate for a part that’s underwhelming. How can we all unlock these gifts without a “lucky” concussion? From Allie Conti’s Vice interview with psychiatrist Darold Treffert, who specializes in savants:

Question:

How far are scientists from making all of us geniuses?

Darold Treffert:

I don’t know if you’re familiar with Allan Snyder’s work in Australia, but he uses what’s called RTMS, which is a rapid pulsation that you can apply to the scalp and actually immobilize an area of the brain with electrical currents. It’s used in neurology to discover the source of epilepsy, so it’s an accepted procedure. What he said was based largely on the work of Dr. [Bruce] Miller, who who studied 12 patients with dementia and discovered some of them developed some astounding abilities as their dementia proceeded. They tended to have lesions in the left temporal area. So Dr. Snyder said, “What if we took a group of volunteers and we immobilized parts of the left hemisphere temporarily? Would we see any special skills emerge?” He found subjects actually increased their abilities. So he’s developed something he calls the Thinking Cap, which you can put on and use. So there may be some technological approaches to enhancement.

Question:

What other ways can we bring out our inner geniuses, besides newfangled contraptions?

Darold Treffert:

In the long run, I don’t think we’re gonna have some striking technological solutions, although others disagree and feel there will be a capacity to turn on and turn off some of our abilities by using technology. Meditation is another method to access different circuity in the brain. And somebody wrote to me recently indicating that his idea was that the reason that a lot of [retirees] pick up new skills is not just because they have the time, but the aging process itself is producing “brain damage” which is leading them into new areas of ability. And I think that’s probably true.

Question:

If everyone became a genius through a medically induced process, would the world descend into chaos?

Darold Treffert:

I think the more that we access our hidden potential the better. We’re not gonna all be Picassos or Mozarts or Einsteins. So I don’t think that it would be a huge avalanche of new abilities in everyone. To the extent to which we are able to mobilize that would be very manageable and a good thing. I think we would still be a balanced society.•

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Morley Safer’s classic 1983 60 Minutes profile of “Rain Man” George Finn.

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My favorite passage of this long-form conversation between Brian Eno and David Graeber is the three-minute stretch just after the 39-minute mark in which the discussion turns to the human proclivity for virtualizing experiences that initially have an evolutionary impulse at their core. (Like eating, for instance.) Perhaps space travel has been reduced to a shadow on a wall for 50 years because of the monetary expense or maybe it’s wired into us to turn from reality and make the play the thing.

From Graeber: “I was watching one of those new Star Wars movies, the really bad ones, and I was thinking, Well, this is a bad movie but the special effects are amazing. I was thinking, Remember those clumsy science-fiction special effects from the ’50s? If people from back then could watch this movie, I’d bet they’d be really impressed. Then I realized, no they wouldn’t, because they thought we’d actually be doing this stuff by now instead of coming up with amazing ways to simulate it. They’d be really bitter and angry. You’re not on the moon? You just come up with better movies to make believe you’re on the moon? Then I realized, simulation, end of history, nothing new. Now I get it. The reason why we have these ideologies that history is coming to an end…we wouldn’t be saying this if we were actually on Mars. It’s just sort of a way of coming to terms with the fact that we can’t acknowledge that we actually thought we’d be doing all this stuff that now we’re just doing virtually.”

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At the beginning of 1970, directly following the Apollo 11 moon landing, Life published Rudi Gernreich’s predictions about the future of fashion. He foresaw a harsh landscape of environmental damage, overpopulation and traffic-clogged highways, all of which would inform designers who would create unisex protective garb made of alternative fabrics. While his fashion prognostications weren’t accurate, embedded in Gernreich’s ideas are some prescient remarks about technological innovations. An excerpt:

In cold, wintry weather, predicts Gernreich, “both men and women will wear heavy-ribbed leotards and waterproof boots. It will be impossible to drive to stores because of traffic, so all clothes will be ordered from a catalogue or TV set. And since animals which now supply wool, fur and leather will be so rare that they must be protected, and weaving fabric such as cotton will be too much trouble, most clothes will be made entirely of cheap and disposable synthetic knits.”

Clothing will not be identified as either male or female, says Gernreich. “So women will wear pants and men will wear skirts interchangeably. And since there won’t be any squeamishness about nudity, see-through clothes will only be see-through for reasons of comfort. Weather permitting, both sexes will go about bare-chested, though women will wear simple protective pasties. Jewelry will exist only as a utility–that is, to hold something up or together, like a belt or for information, like a combination wristwatch, weather indicator, compass and radio. The esthetics are going to involve the body itself. We will train the body to grow beautifully rather than cover it to produce beauty.

The present cult of eternal youth is not honest nor attractive, says Gernreich. “In an era when the body will become the convention of fashion, the old will adopt a uniform of their own. If a body can longer be accentuated, it should be abstracted. The young won’t wear prints but the elderly will because bold prints detract. The elderly will have a cult of their own and the embarrassment of old age will fade away.”•

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Trippy 1973 video showing a soft metallic armor Gernreich dreamed up to promote Max Factor cosmetics. He thought that designs in the future would need to be anonymous because the world was to become harsh and invasive. “Public Privacy” is what he called the look.

In the 1960s, Gernreich predicted a computerized future for attire. He believed that “clothes of the future will involve unisex. They will be interchangeable. Men are going to wear skirts and woman are gonna wear pants.” Not quite right in every detail but correct in a broader sense. 

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