At this point, I think Seymour Hersh might just be trolling us, doing a performance-art piece called “Seymour Hersh.” I wouldn’t be surprised if there were government and military officials in Pakastan who aided us in the bin Laden mission, but there’s still no real proof of that and many of the journalist’s other assertions about the killing are difficult to accept with the information he’s provided.

It’ll be interesting to see if Leon Panetta and John Brennan file suit against Hersh and the London Review of Books for writing that the former CIA Director and Senior Adviser for Counterterrorism, respectively, wanted to lie to make it seem like “enhanced interrogation” (i.e., torture) was instrumental in identifying bin Laden’s whereabouts.

In his spellbinding Slate piece, Isaac Chotiner conducted a stormy phone interview with the cantankerous reporter, who had apparently dropped a cactus in his trousers just before picking up the receiver.

Three brief excerpts follow.

__________________________

Isaac Chotiner:

If the plan until the night of the raid was to use the cover story that he had not been killed in a raid but in a drone strike, then why have the raid at all?  Why not just have the Pakistanis kill him? Why risk Obama’s presidency?

Seymour Hersh:

Of course there is no answer there because I haven’t talked to any of the principals. But I can just give you what the people who were in the process believed to be so, which is that for [Gens.] Pasha and Kayani, the chance of something like that getting leaked out would be devastating. America was then running at about 8 percent popularity in Pakistan, and Bin Laden was running at 60, 70 percent. He was very popular. [Editor’s note: This 2010 opinion poll says that Bin Laden’s popularity was at 18 percent in Pakistan.] You couldn’t just take a chance, because if someone ratted you out—I can only give you a basic theory.

__________________________

Seymour Hersh:

You probably don’t know that NBC reported, and now they have reported it on one of these dopey afternoon shows with that woman, what’s her name, the NBC woman who claims to have some knowledge of foreign policy, married to Alan Greenspan.

Chotiner:

Andrea Mitchell.

Seymour Hersh:

She’s comical. On her show the administration is acknowledging walk-ins but saying the walk-ins aren’t necessarily linked to Bin Laden.

__________________________

Isaac Chotiner:

I just want to talk to you about your piece and journalism.

Seymour Hersh:

What difference does it make what the fuck I think about journalism? I don’t think much of the journalism that I see. If you think I write stories where it is all right to just be good enough, are you kidding? You think I have a cavalier attitude on throwing stuff out? Are you kidding? I am not cavalier about what I do for a living.

Isaac Chotiner:

I don’t think you are cavalier. That was not my question.

Seymour Hersh:

Whatever it is, it’s an impossible question. It’s almost like you are asking me to say that there are flaws in everybody. Yes. Do I acknowledge that not everybody can be perfect? But I am not backing off anything I said.•

 

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mmm

“Rats to cows to cats.”

Bones, Skulls, Antlers, Unwanted Carcasses (Leonardsville)

I’m looking for parts! Specifically:

  • Antlers (moose, deer, elk, etc. attached to skull or not!)
  • Horns (goats, sheep, ibex, antelope)
  • Skulls (any! big or small, rats to cows to cats to raccoons to birds and everything in between)

They can be cleaned, or not. I don’t mind picking up items with flesh still on them.

Fresh roadkill is okay too, as long as the parts I’m looking for aren’t damaged.

I can pay you what the item is worth to me, or you can make an offer and the worst I can do is say no thanks.

I’m just a collector looking to add some items without buying them online.

Thanks,

Kris

The occasion of French astronomer and author Camille Flammarion’s second marriage in 1920 gave opportunity to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to publish his thoughts on a machine Thomas Edison announced he was working on, which would purportedly allow the living to communicate with the dead. Talk about a long-distance call.

Flammarion, who believed a personality of sorts survived after life had ended, was understandably excited about the deceased being conjured via allegedly scientific means in Menlo Park. In addition to the serious astronomical work he published, Flammarion wrote sci-fi and speculative narratives and is credited with birthing the idea of an alien race superior to Earthlings, which he believed in actuality and utilized as a plot device in his fiction. 

 

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An Economist article about Richard Thaler’s new book, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, looks at how this sub-field of the dismal science still receives resistance when applied beyond the granular level, when looking at the illogic of the broader economy as opposed to the folly of the individual. The opening:

CAB drivers have good days and bad days, depending on the weather or special events such as a convention. If they were rational, they would work hardest on the good days (to maximise their take) but give up early when fares are few and far between. In fact, they do the opposite. It seems they have a mental target for their desired daily income and they work long enough to reach it, even though that means working longer on slow days and going home early when fares are plentiful.

Human beings are not always logical. We treat windfall gains differently from our monthly salary. We value things that we already own more highly than equivalent things we could easily buy. Our responses to questions depends very much on how the issue is framed: we think surcharges on credit-card payments are unfair, but believe a discount for paying with cash is reasonable.

None of these foibles will be a surprise to, well, humans. But they are not allowed for in many macroeconomic models, which tend to assume people actually come from the planet Vulcan, all coolly maximising their utility at every stage. Over the past 30-40 years, in contrast, behavioural economists have explored the way that individuals actually make decisions, and have concluded that we are more Kirk than Spock.•

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I still recall the frustration when I first entered the workplace and tried explaining to someone significantly older than myself that soon people wouldn’t care about working at a particular desk every day, that a place of business would not be a second home and that it was all headed in a much looser and more mobile direction. That conversation did not go far.

So, I certainly won’t discount Christopher Mims of the WSJ when he argues that most work in the future will be remote and aided by tools like Virtual Reality teleconferencing. I really only question the “most” part of his assertion, as these tools, once improved to satisfactory levels, will certainly be employed in business in the same manner as tablets and smartphones.

Of course, if automation takes all our jobs, we’ll be able to use our VR helmets to imagine the poorhouse is a five-star hotel. How sublime the new poverty!

From Mims:

I am convinced that the future of remote work—that is, the future of most work—is devices few people have been privileged to try, but won’t want to abandon once they do.

Let’s take this in order of when these technologies will be available. Oblong Industries was started by John Underkoffler, who designed the futuristic computer interfaces in the film Minority Report. Since 2013, Oblong has sold to deep-pocketed clients systems for fully outfitting conference rooms with banks of large monitors, cameras for videoconferencing, software that allows anyone present to wirelessly display the contents of his or her laptop or tablet on these screens, and Nintendo Wii-style wands that allow them to point at and manipulate this content.

Sitting in one of these rooms not long ago, I got the feeling that the Oblong staffers I was remotely collaborating with weren’t somewhere else so much as in a room right next door, and that I was looking through a glass window at them.

This year, Intel Corp. is rolling out its RealSense technology, which gives the cameras in laptops the ability to see and understand depth, just like Microsoft’s Kinect. Sanjay Patel, CEO of Personify, says he thinks RealSense will show up in tens of millions of notebooks this year, as every major PC manufacturer has revealed models that incorporate it. By the end of the year, it may also show up in tablets and phones.•

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Like myself, Elon Musk rents sumo wrestlers for his parties. I, however, also employ former astronauts to serve drinks. You can put your cigarette out on Buzz Aldrin’s forehead, and he will accept it with quiet resignation. 

Seriously, Elon Musk is a super-wealthy, highly driven and somewhat odd guy, which we already know, but in Dwight Garner’s NYT review of Ashlee Vance’s new Musk bio, his features are given some definition. An excerpt:

Other eye-popping details, not all of them previously reported, are flecked atop this book like sea salt. His five children don’t merely have nannies but have had a nanny manager. He worries that Google is building a fleet of robots that may accidentally destroy mankind. He rents castles and sumo wrestlers for his parties. At one of them, a knife thrower aimed at a balloon between the blindfolded Mr. Musk’s legs.

The best thing Mr. Vance does in this book, though, is tell Mr. Musk’s story simply and well. It’s the story of an intelligent man, for sure. But more so it is the story of a determined one. Mr. Musk’s work ethic has always been intense. One observer says about him early on, “We all worked 20 hour days, and he worked 23 hours.”

Mr. Musk was born in 1971 and grew up in Pretoria. His father was an engineer; his mother, whose family had roots in the United States and Canada, was a model and dietitian. There are indications his father was brutal, and that Mr. Musk is a tortured soul trying to make up for a wrecked childhood. But no one will speak specifically about any such events.•

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In a Quartz post predicting autonomous cars will disappear human-driver vehicles by 2030–who knows?–Zack Kanter speaks intelligently to the wastefulness of most of us owning cars in this time of smartphones and ridesharing. Giving up not only the wheel but the whole vehicle will increasingly be the rational decision for most urban dwellers. Kanter further argues that the devastation done to existing industries and jobs will be neutralized by the creation of new fields. Well, that better happen or we’ll have to quickly devise political solutions. An excerpt:

Morgan Stanley’s research shows that cars are driven just 4% of the year, which is an astonishing waste considering that the average cost of car ownership is nearly $9,000 per year. Next to a house, an automobile is the second-most expensive asset that most people will ever buy—it is no surprise that ride sharing services like Uber and car sharing services like Zipcar are quickly gaining popularity as an alternative to car ownership. 

It is now more economical to use a ride-sharing service if you live in a city and drive less than 10,000 miles per year. And current research confirms that we would be eager to use autonomous cars if they were available. A full 60% of US adults surveyed stated that they would ride in an autonomous car, and nearly 32% said they would not continue to drive once an autonomous car was available instead. But no one is more excited than Uber—CEO Travis Kalanick recently stated that Uber will eventually replace all of its drivers with self-driving cars.

A January 2013 Columbia University study once suggested that with a fleet of just 9,000 autonomous cars, Uber could replace every taxi cab in New York City, and that passengers would wait an average of 36 seconds for a ride that costs about $0.50 per mile. Such convenience and low cost would make car ownership inconceivable, and autonomous, on-demand taxis—the “transportation cloud”—will quickly become the dominant form of transportation.•

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Almost a decade before the 1976 Olympics put Montreal in long-term debt, the city offered another large-scale gift: Expo 67, a world’s fair held just as such gatherings were beginning to become passé in a more-connected globe. One lasting monument to urban utopianism bequeathed by that event is Habitat 67, a controversial experiment in future-forward, communal-ish apartment living which sprang from the imagination of young Canadian-Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, like a kibbutz from the future being teleported to the present. Of course, it’s a future that’s never arrived. From Genevieve Paiement at the Guardian:

Habitat 67 echoes a little known post-war Japanese architectural movement called Metabolism, whose proponents believed buildings should be designed as living, organic, interconnected webs of prefabricated cells. Perhaps the most famous Metabolist incarnation is Tokyo’s Nakagin Capsule Tower, another pile of concrete cubes dotted with porthole-like windows, erected in 1972. The influence of Le Corbusier, especially the French master’s love affair with concrete, on Habitat 67 is also clear. But Safdie set his own course, attempting to balance cold geometry against living, breathing nature.

It was while travelling across North America as a student that Safdie surveyed grim apartment high-rises and unsustainable suburban sprawl. He returned home to Montreal with a mission: to “reinvent the apartment building”. He longed to create, as he put it in a 2014 Ted Talk, “a building which gives the qualities of a house to each unit – Habitat would be all about gardens, contact with nature, streets instead of corridors” (each cube has access to a roof garden built atop an adjacent cube).

Habitat 67 was a pilot project, intended as just the first application of a salve for urban ills that would spread across the world. Only it didn’t quite work out that way. The Walrus, Canada’s answer to the Atlantic magazine, called Habitat 67 a “failed dream.” …

The concrete needed frequent repair. One former resident, who lived there more than a decade ago for three years (and stilll prefers to remain anonymous, lest he offend the building’s diehard cheerleaders), says he fled after developing asthma and finding his cat dead. “From an architectural point of view, it’s spectacular, but water got into that concrete, and mould seeped into the ventilation system. It blew the spores around.” By the mid-1980s, the building was in private hands.•

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If it proved true, Seymour Hersh’s revisionist report on the bin Laden killing might be the most significant work of his career, perhaps even more than My Lai or Abu Ghraib, since it would not just reveal a failure of fealty in government but also an almost-universal breakdown of U.S. journalism. It would signal an utter capitulation of the Fourth Estate. But I don’t think Hersh’s initial 10,000-word story comes close to doing the job, with its few and (seemingly) middling sources. If the contrarian version is to gain traction, either Hersh or someone else follows up with much more significant sources or a smoking gun emerges. And some of the piece’s more outrageous claims (e.g., SEALS throwing pieces of bin Laden’s corpse from a helicopter) shouldn’t have been published unsupported by better evidence.

One aspect of the Hersh account, that the terrorist mastermind was a prisoner of the Pakistani government for years and was sold out by a mercenary former intelligence official, has been seconded by Carlotta Gall in the New York Times. An excerpt:

From the moment it was announced to the public, the tale of how Osama bin Laden met his death in a Pakistani hill town in May 2011 has been a changeable feast. In the immediate aftermath of the Navy SEAL team’s assault on his Abbottabad compound, American and Pakistani government accounts contradicted themselves and each other. In his speech announcing the operation’s success, President Obama said that “our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to Bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.” 

But others, including top Pakistani generals, insisted that this was not the case. American officials at first said Bin Laden resisted the SEALs; the Pakistanis promptly leaked that he wasn’t armed. Then came differing stories from the SEALs who carried out the raid, followed by a widening stream of new details from government reports — including the 336-page Abbottabad Commission report requested by the Pakistani Parliament — and from books and interviews. All of the accounts were incomplete in some way.

The latest contribution is the journalist Seymour Hersh’s 10,000-word article in The London Review of Books, which attempts to punch yet more holes — very big ones — in both the Obama administration’s narrative and the Pakistani government’s narrative. Among other things, Hersh contends that the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, Pakistan’s military-intelligence agency, held Bin Laden prisoner in the Abbottabad compound since 2006, and that “the C.I.A. did not learn of Bin Laden’s whereabouts by tracking his couriers, as the White House has claimed since May 2011, but from a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer who betrayed the secret in return for much of the $25 million reward offered by the U.S.”

On this count, my own reporting tracks with Hersh’s.•

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From the December 30, 1946 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Following up on the recent Ask Me Anything conducted by Philip Zimbardo, an alumnus of the Stanford Prison Experiment, the psychologist is interviewed by Stuart Jeffries of the Guardian about the new book he’s coauthored, Man (Dis)connected: How Technology Has Sabotaged What It Means To Be Male, a treatment of the boys-in-peril thesis he’s been pushing in recent years.

I’m really circumspect of Zimbardo’s generalizations, his idea that a scary amount of guys are essentially receptacles for “porn, video games and Ritalin.” In the article, he proffers the dubious idea that mothers love unconditionally and fathers provisionally, a stereotype that runs afoul of reality. Zimbardo also believes young men are retreating from work and responsibilities for reasons which have nothing to do with the paucity of jobs, which seems dubious. I really don’t recognize any male people I know in his stereotypes.

There are certain aspects of American unhappiness that can be analyzed along gender or race or class lines, but I think our biggest collective psychological problem is that we’re sold on consumer-culture idealizations that are bound to leave us disappointed. That, too, is a generalization, though I think a far more believable one than Zimbardo’s.

From Jeffries:

The book, by Zimbardo and his co-author Nikita D Coulombe, is about why boys don’t man up as previous generations of males ostensibly did.

They argue that, while girls are increasingly succeeding in the real world, boys are retreating into cyberspace, seeking online the security and validation they can’t get anywhere else. They are bored at school, increasingly have no father figures to motivate them, don’t have the skills to form real romantic relationships, feel entitled to have things done for them (usually by their parents) and seek to avoid a looming adulthood of debt, unfulfilling work and other irksome responsibilities. As a result, they disappear into their bedrooms where, he argues, they risk becoming addicted to porn, video games and Ritalin.

No wonder, Zimbardo argues, popular culture teems with moodles (“man poodles”) or infantilised jerks (think: Jackass, Failure to Launch, Step Brothers, Hall Pass and The Hangover series), devoid of economic purpose, emotional intelligence, temperamentally unable to commit or take responsibility.

Zimbardo claims that a majority of African-American boys have been brought up in female-dominated households for generations. “Sixty, 70% grow up in a female world. I would trace a lot of that poor performance of black kids to not having a father present to make demands and not setting limits. This is now spilling out of the black community to the white community.”•

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At Aeon, the site’s Deputy Editor Ross Andersen has published “In the Beginning,” one of his bold and epic essays about the staggering mysteries of existence, this piece about the elusive search for origins of the universe, a quest that is science’s 1 or 1a depending on your view of the hard problem of consciousness. It’s questionable whether we’ll ever be able to peer the past prior to the Big Bang, however, as the field seems stymied by the gargantuan task. Andersen moves nimbly from cutting-edge (and highly disputed) cosmological investigations to considerations of ancient readings of the cosmos, from science to philosophy, from modest telescopes to computer simulations, from Palo Alto to Antarctica.

An excerpt about a Harvard astrophysicist at far-flung locale, seeking answers flung exponentially further:

Last October, John Kovac boarded an 18-hour flight from the United States to New Zealand, as he has every year since 1990. After touching down in Christchurch, he drove to a large warehouse, to be fitted with a fluffy red parka, military-grade snow boots, mittens, goggles and other extreme-cold weather gear. The next morning, he crossed the Southern Ocean in a military transport plane, before landing at McMurdo research station on the coast of Antarctica. The Southern Ocean is the violent, iceberg-strewn moat that encircles Antarctica. It is the only latitudinal band on Earth where there is no land to stop ocean winds from whipping furiously around the planet, stirring up storms as they go. These storms had waylaid Kovac at McMurdo before, but this year the weather was mild. He was cleared to leave the next morning, to complete the last leg of his trip. …

One Friday last November, Kovac called me from South Pole Station, where it was 3am. I asked him how the night sky looked. I’d heard that the Milky Way was something to behold from Antarctica, especially when the auroras were dancing. Kovac gently reminded me that there is only one ‘night’ at the South Pole, and that it begins in February and ends in September. He stayed over at the Pole for one of these winter stretches, back in the 1990s, before he had kids. Winter temperatures on the plateau are too frigid for planes to fly, meaning there is no traffic in or out during the dark months. ‘It was like being on a submarine,’ Kovac told me. ‘Once was enough for me.’

Kovac did his winter stint back when he was a graduate student, when he was beginning to distinguish himself as a skilled designer of observatories. Instrument design is in Kovac’s blood. His late father Michael was dean of the engineering school at the University of Southern Florida. When John was 12, a teacher at his school gave him his first telescope. He set it up in his backyard, but quickly grew tired of using it. Gazing at celestial objects that others had already seen bored him, especially when he could see spectacular photos of those same objects in books. ‘But I was fascinated by the technology,’ he said. ‘I wanted to know everything about the construction of the telescope itself, and how it focused light.’

Kovac called me from a conference room that overlooks the main runway at South Pole Station. There wasn’t much action outside at that hour. He could see clear across the landing strip to the Dark Sector, a special zone where electromagnetic radiation is forbidden. Some of the world’s most sophisticated telescopes have been hauled down to the Dark Sector at great expense, because it’s one of the best places on this planet to do astronomy. If you’re at the bottom of the Earth, the view into the Universe doesn’t change much as the planet moves around in its orbit. You can train your telescope on the same celestial objects for months at a time, and you have a clear view, because Antarctica is a desert. Any mist that manages to levitate from its surface quickly freezes into ice crystals that free-fall back to Earth. If you think of our planet as an eyeball, the Antarctic plateau is its iris, and the Dark Sector its pupil. At its centre, Kovac had installed an exquisite telescope, and with it, he hoped to peer deeper into time than any human being in history.

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One of the really wonderful online publications to pop up recently is Steven Levy’s Backchannel, which is full of interesting ideas about our technological world, how we got here and where we’re headed.

Case in point: After 1.7 million miles of road tests, Chris Urmson, director of Google’s self-driving program, has written a piece about the search giant’s foray into completely remaking transportation and reorganizing cities, reducing traffic and pollution. 

Of course, it’s not Urmson’s job to worry about the societal upheaval that will arise should autonomous vehicles be perfected. That will be up to you and I. While robocars will likely save lives, they will kill so many jobs. If new industries don’t emerge to replace these disappeared positions, how do we proceed? It’s not about holding back progress but dealing with disruption in an intelligent and equitable manner. 

Anyhow, Urmson reports fewer than a dozen fender benders thus far for Google’s driverless cars, with all being caused by human drivers. His analysis unsurprisingly favors a driverless future, but it would be pretty widely reported if he was characterizing the safety record inaccurately. An excerpt:

If you spend enough time on the road, accidents will happen whether you’re in a car or a self-driving car. Over the 6 years since we started the project, we’ve been involved in 11 minor accidents (light damage, no injuries) during those 1.7 million miles of autonomous and manual driving with our safety drivers behind the wheel, and not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident.

Rear-end crashes are the most frequent accidents in America, and often there’s little the driver in front can do to avoid getting hit; we’ve been hit from behind seven times, mainly at traffic lights but also on the freeway. We’ve also been side-swiped a couple of times and hit by a car rolling through a stop sign. And as you might expect, we see more accidents per mile driven on city streets than on freeways; we were hit 8 times in many fewer miles of city driving. All the crazy experiences we’ve had on the road have been really valuable for our project. We have a detailed review process and try to learn something from each incident, even if it hasn’t been our fault.

Not only are we developing a good understanding of minor accident rates on suburban streets, we’ve also identified patterns of driver behavior (lane-drifting, red-light running) that are leading indicators of significant collisions. Those behaviors don’t ever show up in official statistics, but they create dangerous situations for everyone around them.

Lots of people aren’t paying attention to the road.

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The Singularity isn’t near, not really. It isn’t theoretically impossible if humans continue to exist for eons more, but it’s not rapidly approaching. Immortality isn’t around the corner, either, nor a-mortality. Almost everyone reading this–and writing this, gulp–will die at some point in the 21st century.

Weak AI is causing disruption right now and that will probably increase to uncomfortable levels in the coming decades, which may create a huge societal challenge, a shock to our economic system, but these won’t be thinking machines capable of posing an existential risk. We should be considering the ramifications of conscious AI but not living in fear of it.

From an Economist article about Deep Learning and neural networks:

Better smartphones, fancier robots and bringing the internet to the illiterate would all be good things. But do they justify the existential worries of Mr Musk and others? Might pattern-recognising, self-programming computers be an early, but crucial, step on the road to machines that are more intelligent than their creators?

The doom-mongers have one important fact on their side. There is no result from decades of neuroscientific research to suggest that the brain is anything other than a machine, made of ordinary atoms, employing ordinary forces and obeying the ordinary laws of nature. There is no mysterious “vital spark,” in other words, that is necessary to make it go. This suggests that building an artificial brain—or even a machine that looks different from a brain but does the same sort of thing—is possible in principle.

But doing something in principle and doing it in fact are not remotely the same thing. Part of the problem, says Rodney Brooks, who was one of AI’s pioneers and who now works at Rethink Robotics, a firm in Boston, is a confusion around the word “intelligence.” Computers can now do some narrowly defined tasks which only human brains could manage in the past (the original “computers,” after all, were humans, usually women, employed to do the sort of tricky arithmetic that the digital sort find trivially easy). An image classifier may be spookily accurate, but it has no goals, no motivations, and is no more conscious of its own existence than is a spreadsheet or a climate model. Nor, if you were trying to recreate a brain’s workings, would you necessarily start by doing the things AI does at the moment in the way that it now does them. AI uses a lot of brute force to get intelligent-seeming responses from systems that, though bigger and more powerful now than before, are no more like minds than they ever were. It does not seek to build systems that resemble biological minds. As Edsger Dijkstra, another pioneer of AI, once remarked, asking whether a computer can think is a bit like asking “whether submarines can swim.”•

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As I suspected, New Yorker editors seemed to have simply not believed Seymour Hersh’s contrarian reportage about the killing of Osama bin Laden which wound up published in the London Review of Books. So much is at stake here, journalistically as well as politically, as Hersh being correct would mean that essentially every American news organization was guilty of a dereliction of duty on par with the one many committed in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. But Hersh’s sources, few and murky, aren’t proof on their own of any such grand failing.

Max Fisher of Vox lays into Hersh’s revisionist narrative but good, speaking along the way to the passage that struck me as the most fabulistic: the terrorist’s corpse being flung piece by piece from a helicopter. I guess anything’s possible in this crazy world, but asserting behavior that insane requires some sort of clear confirmation. An excerpt:

As for Hersh’s story of what really happened to bin Laden’s body — “torn to pieces with rifle fire” and thrown bit by bit out the door of the escaping helicopter, until there was not enough left to bury — it is difficult to know where to begin. It is outlandish to imagine small arms fire reducing a 6-foot-4 man “to pieces,” not to mention the sheer quantity of time and bullets this would take. Are we really to believe that special forces would spend who knows how long gleefully carving up bin Laden like horror movie villains, and then later reaching into the body bag to chuck pieces of him out of a helicopter, for no reason at all? On the most sensitive and important operation of their careers?•

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This very melodramatic postmortem of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in the March 9, 1917 Brooklyn Daily Eagle asserts that the dirigible builder passed away a broken man because his airships were deemed no longer worthy of bombing missions meant to reduce humans to piles of limbs. Interesting to note Zeppelin was a young German military officer when he encountered his first transport balloons while traveling in America during the Civil War, meeting aeronauts Thaddeus Lowe and John Steiner. (In the top photo, taken in 1863, the German visitor is the second from the right, an embed with a Union unit.) It wasn’t until he was past 50 that Zeppelin was able to completely devote himself to his long-deferred dream of popularizing dirigibles, and his successes with the ships, among many failures, helped make mass air travel seem like destiny.

_______________________________

1912: “Zeppelin’s first cruise over Germany.”

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Really fascinating article on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in Vanity Fair by Sebastian Junger, which questions much of the generally accepted wisdom about this mysterious, inconsistent war wound.

Just a few of Junger’s ideas: For the most part, military members, even those who’ve seen combat, don’t seem to experience higher suicide rates than the general public. Soldiers who kill remotely via drone are just as likely to suffer trauma as their counterparts who kill at close range. Those who experience no combat often have higher levels of PTSD than those who see heavy combat. Just puzzling. Elite soldiers rarely experience such troubles, perhaps because they’ve reached that status thanks in part to possessing high levels of a particular amino acid which acts as a natural buffer against stress. And the questions are obviously thorny regarding soldiers receiving permanent disability for what often doesn’t need be permanently disabling.

An excerpt:

Suicide by combat veterans is often seen as an extreme expression of PTSD, but currently there is no statistical relationship between suicide and combat, according to a study published in April in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry. Combat veterans are no more likely to kill themselves than veterans who were never under fire. The much-discussed estimated figure of 22 vets a day committing suicide is deceptive: it was only in 2008, for the first time in decades, that the U.S. Army veteran suicide rate, though enormously tragic, surpassed the civilian rate in America. And even so, the majority of veterans who kill themselves are over the age of 50. Generally speaking, the more time that passes after a trauma, the less likely a suicide is to have anything to do with it, according to many studies. Among younger vets, deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan lowers the incidence of suicide because soldiers with obvious mental-health issues are less likely to be deployed with their units, according to an analysis published in Annals of Epidemiology in 2015. The most accurate predictor of post-deployment suicide, as it turns out, isn’t combat or repeated deployments or losing a buddy but suicide attempts before deployment. The single most effective action the U.S. military could take to reduce veteran suicide would be to screen for pre-existing mental disorders.

It seems intuitively obvious that combat is connected to psychological trauma, but the relationship is a complicated one. Many soldiers go through horrific experiences but fare better than others who experienced danger only briefly, or not at all. Unmanned-drone pilots, for instance—who watch their missiles kill human beings by remote camera—have been calculated as having the same PTSD rates as pilots who fly actual combat missions in war zones, according to a 2013 analysis published in the Medical Surveillance Monthly Report. And even among regular infantry, danger and psychological breakdown during combat are not necessarily connected. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel was invaded simultaneously by Egypt and Syria, rear-base troops in the Israeli military had psychological breakdowns at three times the rate of elite frontline troops, relative to their casualties. And during the air campaign of the first Gulf War, more than 80 percent of psychiatric casualties in the U.S. Army’s VII Corps came from support units that took almost no incoming fire, according to a 1992 study on Army stress casualties.•

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“We live in the most exciting time ever,” writes Peter Diamandis, and I don’t disagree. But we probably should recall the sly, old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Great opportunities and upheaval and ethical challenges are within reach, so extend your arms, embrace fully, and hold on for dear life.

Here are two items from Diamandis’ list of eight areas of near-term transformation included in his post “The World in 2025“:

3. Perfect Knowledge: We’re heading towards a world of perfect knowledge. With a trillion sensors gathering data everywhere (autonomous cars, satellite systems, drones, wearables, cameras), you’ll be able to know anything you want, anytime, anywhere, and query that data for answers and insights.

7. Early Days of JARVIS: Artificial intelligence research will make strides in the next decade. If you think Siri is useful now, the next decade’s generation of Siri will be much more like JARVIS from Iron Man, with expanded capabilities to understand and answer. Companies like IBM Watson, DeepMind and Vicarious continue to hunker down and develop next-generation AI systems. In a decade, it will be normal for you to give your AI access to listen to all of your conversations, read your emails and scan your biometric data because the upside and convenience will be so immense.•

 

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At the same time that the Mayweather-Pacquiao was becoming by far the biggest pay-per-view event ever, the New York Times published a beautifully written piece by Dan Barry about Magomed Abdusalamov, a heavyweight fighter formerly overhyped as the “Russian Tyson,” who was damaged horribly during a boxing match, which left him a bedridden 34-year-old man in need constant assistance just to barely survive. It should be required reading for anyone enamored with combat sports, which includes American football.

The European style quietly has its own concussion problem, but the NFL is a league apart, and just playing in a Pop Warner league that emulates it can set children up for a world of pain. Patrick Venzke, a German national who emigrated to America and played the sport as an amateur and professional gave a worrisome interview to Maik Großekathöfer and Sara Peschke of Spiegel. An excerpt:

Spiegel:

How often did you play with a concussion?

Patrick Venzke:

About 15 times, since I was 16. I’m not sure exactly. I was the offensive tackle, so it was my job to get the opponent out of the way for the offense, or to protect my quarterback from attack to give him a couple of seconds to pitch. I was a battering ram, a kind of bodyguard. There’d be hundreds of collisions during training every day. Collisions similar to mini accidents — the equivalent of hitting a wall at 15 miles an hour. Looking back I can see that it wasn’t always the healthiest.

Spiegel:

How is your health now?

Patrick Venzke:

I’m okay. Today. I’m okay about 350 days of the year. But it’s the other 15 that I worry about. Then I’m grateful I don’t keep a gun in the house. Because I don’t know what I might do with it.

Spiegel:

Roughly one in three NFL players suffers cognitive impairment, such as memory loss, depression, speech disorders, paranoia and apathy. What happens to you on the days you don’t feel well?

Patrick Venzke:

I get aggressive, the way I was on the field. I could hurt someone very easily.

Spiegel: 

Just like that?

Patrick Venzke:

Anything might trigger it. A barking dog can make me explode. The sound of kids screaming. When my two daughters start arguing then I go and take refuge in my man cave. But even happy shouting when they’re playing can do it. Kids yelling in restaurants — it can be very bad.

Spiegel:

But you have it under control?

Patrick Venzke:

Let’s put it this way — I have to be very disciplined in order to prevent things from getting out of control. So far the situation has never escalated, fortunately, but I tend to drink a lot to cope with the stress. I can put away 20 beers in no time at all. But it doesn’t help, it makes it worse. Sometimes I tell myself that I have life insurance worth over $3 million, enough to provide for my family for the rest of their lives. But I don’t think like that every day. Not even every week and not even every month.•

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I don’t know that Edward Luce of the Financial Times says anything new in slapping down Thomas Friedman’s 1990s “Golden Arches Doctrine,” which declared that nations on the same supply chain of Happy Meals wouldn’t engage in war, a theory clearly debunked by now, but he says it exceedingly well. The world may be flat as a patty, but it still can burn. An excerpt:

Even when societies turn middle class, conflict is endemic to our species. The return of great power rivalry in the 21st century reminds us that we are not purely economic animals. Were that the case, we would long ago have lowered transaction costs by abolishing nation states and currencies.

The fact that diverse cultures share bad habits and use the same technology should not be over-interpreted. China’s politburo has been dressing in business suits for years. Jihadi fighters wear jeans and surf on their iPhones (doubtless some have a weakness for chicken McNuggets). They still revile the global hegemon. The presence of hundreds of McDonald’s outlets in Russia did not stop Vladimir Putin last year from annexing Crimea, which also had McDonald’s outlets. The chain has since withdrawn from the peninsula but not from the rest of Ukraine. Nor is McDonald’s presence likely to prevent a fifth war between India and Pakistan. Meanwhile China’s global integration does not seem to have checked its sense of nationalism.

Geopolitics is clearly back.•

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Ted Greenwald of the Wall Street Journal presents a sober, clear-headed assessment of the threats posed to us by both Weak AI and Strong AI, with the help of Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, IBM cognitive-computing expert Guruduth S. Banavar and computer science professor Francesca Rossi. One exchange:

WSJ:

Some experts believe that AI is already taking jobs away from people. Do you agree?

Jaan Tallinn:

Technology has always had the tendency to make jobs obsolete. I’m reminded of an Uber driver whose services I used a while ago. His seat was surrounded by numerous gadgets, and he demonstrated enthusiastically how he could dictate my destination address to a tablet and receive driving instructions. I pointed out to him that, in a few years, maybe the gadgets themselves would do the driving. To which he gleefully replied that then he could sit back and relax—leaving me to quietly shake my head in the back seat. I do believe the main effect of self-driving cars will come not from their convenience but from the massive impact they will have on the job market.

In the long run, we should think about how to organize society around something other than near-universal employment.•

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Almost as fascinating as Seymour Hersh’s revisionist account of the killing of Osama bin Laden, which asserts that much of what the Administration said about the mission (from planning to burial at sea) is a lie, is that it’s published in the London Review of Books rather than the New Yorker. The latter, Hersh’s longtime main outlet, had two possible reasons to pass on the article. One is that his piece disagrees strongly with the New Yorker account of the mission in 2011 on everything from bin Laden’s courier being tracked to a SEAL lying down next to the terrorist mastermind’s corpse so that his height could be measured. But I don’t think the editors would behave that way if they felt Hersh had gotten a story they missed on. They must have simply not trusted Hersh’s version based on their own reporting on the subject (which doesn’t mean they’re right, of course). I also doubt the New Yorker rejecting the journalist’s 2013 Syria report would have made a collaboration untenable if the magazine wanted this article, nor do I think his reportage endangers anyone involved in the mission.

An excerpt:

At the Abbottabad compound ISI guards were posted around the clock to keep watch over bin Laden and his wives and children. They were under orders to leave as soon as they heard the rotors of the US helicopters. The town was dark: the electricity supply had been cut off on the orders of the ISI hours before the raid began. One of the Black Hawks crashed inside the walls of the compound, injuring many on board. ‘The guys knew the TOT [time on target] had to be tight because they would wake up the whole town going in,’ the retired official said. The cockpit of the crashed Black Hawk, with its communication and navigational gear, had to be destroyed by concussion grenades, and this would create a series of explosions and a fire visible for miles. Two Chinook helicopters had flown from Afghanistan to a nearby Pakistani intelligence base to provide logistical support, and one of them was immediately dispatched to Abbottabad. But because the helicopter had been equipped with a bladder loaded with extra fuel for the two Black Hawks, it first had to be reconfigured as a troop carrier. The crash of the Black Hawk and the need to fly in a replacement were nerve-wracking and time-consuming setbacks, but the Seals continued with their mission. There was no firefight as they moved into the compound; the ISI guards had gone. ‘Everyone in Pakistan has a gun and high-profile, wealthy folks like those who live in Abbottabad have armed bodyguards, and yet there were no weapons in the compound,’ the retired official pointed out. Had there been any opposition, the team would have been highly vulnerable. Instead, the retired official said, an ISI liaison officer flying with the Seals guided them into the darkened house and up a staircase to bin Laden’s quarters. The Seals had been warned by the Pakistanis that heavy steel doors blocked the stairwell on the first and second-floor landings; bin Laden’s rooms were on the third floor. The Seal squad used explosives to blow the doors open, without injuring anyone. One of bin Laden’s wives was screaming hysterically and a bullet – perhaps a stray round – struck her knee. Aside from those that hit bin Laden, no other shots were fired. (The Obama administration’s account would hold otherwise.)

‘They knew where the target was – third floor, second door on the right,’ the retired official said. ‘Go straight there. Osama was cowering and retreated into the bedroom. Two shooters followed him and opened up. Very simple, very straightforward, very professional hit.’ Some of the Seals were appalled later at the White House’s initial insistence that they had shot bin Laden in self-defence, the retired official said. ‘Six of the Seals’ finest, most experienced NCOs, faced with an unarmed elderly civilian, had to kill him in self-defence? The house was shabby and bin Laden was living in a cell with bars on the window and barbed wire on the roof. The rules of engagement were that if bin Laden put up any opposition they were authorised to take lethal action. But if they suspected he might have some means of opposition, like an explosive vest under his robe, they could also kill him. So here’s this guy in a mystery robe and they shot him. It’s not because he was reaching for a weapon. The rules gave them absolute authority to kill the guy.’ The later White House claim that only one or two bullets were fired into his head was ‘bullshit’, the retired official said. ‘The squad came through the door and obliterated him. As the Seals say, “We kicked his ass and took his gas.”’

After they killed bin Laden, ‘the Seals were just there, some with physical injuries from the crash, waiting for the relief chopper,’ the retired official said. ‘Twenty tense minutes. The Black Hawk is still burning. There are no city lights. No electricity. No police. No fire trucks. They have no prisoners.’ Bin Laden’s wives and children were left for the ISI to interrogate and relocate. ‘Despite all the talk,’ the retired official continued, there were ‘no garbage bags full of computers and storage devices. The guys just stuffed some books and papers they found in his room in their backpacks. The Seals weren’t there because they thought bin Laden was running a command centre for al-Qaida operations, as the White House would later tell the media. And they were not intelligence experts gathering information inside that house.’

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Charles Murray, “thought leader,” claims to be truly and deeply in love with both meritocracy and Sarah Palin, which seems an impossible balancing act, but consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, I suppose.

The political scientist is particularly fond of making arguments that support his ideological beliefs, while conveniently forgetting to mention inconvenient truths. Case in point: His new “Saturday Essay” in the WSJ which decries regulation in America, without once mentioning that watered-down and nonexistent regulations led to the 2008 economic collapse. Oh well, spilt milk. He also neither raises the rules of policing that have long been aimed at African-Americans, nor the so-called quality-of-life offenses which hector the poorest among us. There’s bureaucracy worth fighting against.

Some regulations are excessive, but often they’re there to begin with to protect us, because before they existed corporations and other institutions were rapacious. Seat belts and airbags don’t wind up in cars without government. These rules are sometimes clumsy and should be improved when they are, but a barber being forced by the state to be licensed doesn’t drown us in a sea of debt and destroy lives. A free market without regulations does that. Somehow Murray forget to address this point.

An excerpt:

Whether we are trying to raise our children, be good stewards of our property, cooperate with our neighbors to solve local problems or practice our religious faith, the bureaucrats think they know better. And when the targets of the regulatory state say they’ve had enough, that they will fight it in court, the bureaucrats can—and do—say to them, “Try that, and we’ll ruin you.”

That’s the regulatory state as seen from ground level by the individual citizens who run afoul of it. It looks completely different when we back off and look at it from a distance. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has authority over more than eight million workplaces. But it can call upon only one inspector for about every 3,700 of those workplaces. The Environmental Protection Agency has authority not just over workplaces but over every piece of property in the nation. It conducted about 18,000 inspections in 2013—a tiny number in proportion to its mandate.

Seen in this perspective, the regulatory state is the Wizard of Oz: fearsome when its booming voice is directed against any single target but, when the curtain is pulled aside, revealed as impotent to enforce its thousands of rules against widespread refusal to comply.

And so my modest proposal: Let’s withhold that compliance through systematic civil disobedience. Not for all regulations, but for the pointless, stupid and tyrannical ones.•

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Narconcierge (Brooklyn)

I offer a service whereby I can take you to some of the best plugs in the city, whether for salad greens, high-quality organic pain relief, or soft white, none of this new-fangled ‘designer’ nonsense, nor any kind of crystalline Chinese substances pretending to be ‘mol’. All I fuck with is the old school trinity. In exchange all I ask for is a finders’ fee.

I’m a normal non-shady white kid with my own automobile. I only offer this service to non-shady legitimate people who can prove they’re not affiliated with some basic information (ie social networking, a name I can cross-reference and see that you are in fact employed with a non-government private entity etc). I can pick you up somewhere that is convenient for you, and take you to see one of my people depending on what you need and what you want to spend. Frankly quite a few are in areas that are hard to access by public transportation, all are in residential working & middle class mixed areas that tourists would never see in a million years. I refuse to go to projects for any reason, for my safety and yours. Options vary depending on the good in demand, but generally there will be several in Brooklyn at any given time, running the gamut of price points and quality from good and cheap to the best in the city at points that are still far less than what a ‘service’ will charge you to see you in Manhattan. In addition there are further options above 125th and in the Bronx, however for safety convenience and quality oftentimes Brooklyn wins.

From the April 13, 1894 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

 

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