Cautiously Welcoming Our New Computer Overlords

Report from an MIT seminar led by Erik Brynjolfsson, author of The Second Machine Age, about the rise of intelligent robots. The world of work divides between “power systems” (mostly machines) which move things around, and “control systems” (mostly people) who control the power systems. What’s happening now is that machines are taking over the control systems — leaving the humans nowhere to go (1,116 words)

The Slaughter Bench Of History

War is terrible when it happens, but in the long run it makes humanity safer and richer. How so? Because war spurs peoples to create larger, more organised societies, ruled by stronger governments; stronger societies are better able to maintain peace, and so create the preconditions for prosperity. War may be the worst imaginable catalyst for this process, but “it is pretty much the only way humans have found” (2,680 words)

Four Years Later: Haiti’s Heartbreaking Failure Pick of the day

Notes from Haiti four years after the earthquake that killed 200,000 and left a million homeless. Port-au-Prince was going to be “built back better” by now: That hasn’t happened. “You see the country’s terrible wear and tear, the old buildings in various states of collapse, the mountains turning gray as the topsoil washes away. On bad days, I think Haiti might be a sinking ship, too far gone, too used up to save” (1,725 words)

Why No One Goes To Naples

The Amalfi Coast is “a magnet for wealthy Russians and romantic Americans”, but Naples itself is “a tourist wasteland” and the rest of southern Italy is “largely vacationer-free”. Why? Poor marketing is part of the problem. The Italian Tourist Board spends 98% of its budget on salaries, leaving “basically nothing” for tourism promotion. “Across the country, tourism is going from being a given to being a missed opportunity” (Metered) (880 words)

Shoot The Dogs Early

How to fire people. Advice from real-estate broker who made it a rule to fire 25% of her sales staff each year. Have another manager with you. Call in the victim casually. Skip the small talk. Start by saying: “Do you mind if I’m honest with you?” Then say: “I’m sorry, the job is not working out”. Give a truthful account of the reasons, starting with what the person did right, before telling them why they don’t fit (640 words)

How Many People Does It Take To Colonize Another Star System?

A lot. You’d do well to send out a minimum of 10,000 people; 40,000 would be even better in case most died during during the journey. And send them in separate batches of space ships, as further insurance against any particular disaster. You need numbers that large in order to represent the full range of human genetic diversity, maximising the capacity of the colonists to adapt to new environments (1,050 words)

Everyone Got The Top 1% Wrong

To focus on the 1% at the top of the income scale is to miss a much more dramatic fact about American inequality. Most of the gains have gone to the very richest people within that group — the bankers and CEOs, the top 0.01%. “While nine-tenths of the top percentile hasn’t seen much change at all since 1960, the 0.01 percent has essentially quadrupled its share of the country’s wealth in half a century” (400 words)

Jobs Of The Future And The Gender-Norm Challenge

The labour market is shifting towards female-dominated occupations. Women are taking more traditionally male jobs, and most of the jobs in growing industries. Will men adapt? It’s slow going. Couples where the wife earns more than the husband “find it harder to stay together”. It may take generations before “new, more enlightened scripts for masculinity and femininity” are generally accepted (Free registration required) (1,740 words)

Letter From Yambio, South Sudan

“The market here does not bustle – ambles would be a more accurate descriptor. The banks function, construction continues, the schools are open. People go to work. The post office still sells stamps from Khartoum, denominated in Sudanese pounds, as well as those issued by the postal authorities in Juba. There haven’t been any mail deliveries in 2014, though, so mail workers find other ways of occupying their time” (780 words)

They Come Here, Taking Our Jobs Pick of the day

They work for less money. They drive up the cost of housing. They consume public services and crowd the roads. They have strange habits, intrusive music, odd ways of dressing. They don’t understand what Britain used to be like before they came along. And there are so many of them. Immigrants? Perhaps — but also young people. And everything that we value in young people, we should also value in immigrants (1,330 words)

The Ethics Of Genetically Enhanced Monkey-Slaves

Interview with Julian Savulescu, professor of practical ethics at Oxford University. Interesting throughout; and full marks for the headline. “Say you did create a human-chimp chimera that was like a dog but much smarter. It loved you unconditionally and did what you wanted and was a sort of slave, but it enjoyed it. Does that being have a complaint against you? If it hadn’t been created in that way, it wouldn’t have existed” (3,340 words)

VIDA Count 2013

A campaign that works. The annual score card from Women In Literary Arts measures the ratio of male-to-female reviewers in leading literary journals. Kudos for 2013 to the Paris Review, whose numbers “have metamorphosed from deep, male-dominated lopsidedness into a picture more closely resembling gender parity” — and “we haven’t heard anyone bemoan a drop in quality”. But the New Republic is dragging its knuckles (2,140 words)

The Anthropology Of The 1%

Why do CEOs pay themselves such ridiculous sums, and why does society more or less accept this? Blame, in part, the influence of Schumpeter. “His economic theory rests on the assumption that there are certain individuals who do not or will not operate according to the same rules as everyone else. They are exceptional and amoral, transcending the norms and standards which the rest of us allow to constrain us” (800 words)

Is Tech Money Good For San Francisco’s Middle Class?

On balance, yes, say local economists. “Every tech job creates five in other industries, as compared to just two from a manufacturing job.” The tech sector is responsible for “the vast majority of the economic growth in San Francisco since 2010″. There is a but, of course, “and it’s big enough to need two plane seats”. Rising rents have forced many locals out of the city. “Those who get hit get hit hard” (1,400 words)

Tribal Genetics

Interview with anthropologist Kim Tallbear about Native Americans and tribal membership. Casinos and bingo halls on reservations have made some tribes relatively rich. “Tribal enrolment directors all over the country are bombarded with applications”. Who qualifies? It’s complicated. “People think that there’s a DNA test that can prove if somebody is Native American or not. There isn’t” (1,190 words)

The Writer And The Army Wife

“I am always The Wife. I am always introduced as such, branded as such. I’m tired of being The Wife. I miss being The Editor. The Writer. The anything of my own that came before this life. Wife is worn in this world as a badge of honor, and, for the most part, rightfully so. But it’s still a possessive title, perhaps illustrated most directly in our subtitles: we’re dependents, our presence in this world is sponsored(2,240 words)

What’s The Point If We Can’t Have Fun?

Animals play. Humans play. To explain play in Darwinian or utilitarian terms means arguing that it is something else in disguise. But what if play is the real point of our lives? “Let us imagine a principle. Call it a principle of freedom. Let us imagine it to hold that the free exercise of an entity’s most complex powers or capacities will, under certain circumstances at least, tend to become an end in itself” (4,670 words)

A Conversation With Kevin Kelly

Never a dull moment. On Snowden: “The US used to have a policy of zero tolerance for fire. It suppressed wildfires — and built up this huge bank of flammable material, so when a fire did come, it destroyed everything. That’s what the NSA and other agencies are experiencing. Rather than trying to suppress leaks and then having this once-every-ten-year conflagration, they should manage whistleblowing in controlled burns” (9,000 words)

Inside Billionaires Row: London’s Rotting Mansions

Bishop’s Avenue in Hampstead, London, may be reckoned the “second most expensive street in Britain”, but so many of the houses are owned by overseas tycoons that it feels more like “one of the most expensive wastelands in the world”. A row of ten mansions owned by the Saudi royal family has stood empty and rotting for twenty years. “The water authorities said they had no records of any water being used” (1,150 words)

Yeezy Rising

On the genius of Kanye West. “His reception, as he well knows, is deeply informed by a powerful American history of racialised rhetoric. Since the Jim Crow days of lynching — days that West has explicitly invoked in his art — watching uppity black men suffer and burn has been a central preoccupation of the media-consuming American public. West’s problem, our problem with him, is that, burned again and again, he refuses to stay dead” (4,195 words)

What Jobs Will The Robots Take?

Nearly half of today’s American jobs could be automated “in a decade or two”. Jobs with a “99% likelihood” of being replaced by machines include routine-based jobs such as telemarketing and sewing; and work that can be solved by smart algorithms — tax preparation, data entry keyers, insurance underwriters. Fire fighters seem safe. And recreational therapists. But who knows? (1,140 words)

Two Sides Of Benefits Street

“Brilliant” new British TV series, Benefits Street, about everyday life in a depressed part of Birmingham, raises big questions about poverty and public policy. It shows how welfare payments encourage dependency and degradation; but it also shows that the poor and confused cannot simply be left to themselves. “The challenge for the Right is that independence doesn’t begin automatically when dependence ends” (990 words)

Kayapo Courage

An uplifting visit to the Kayapo, “the most powerful of around 240 indigenous tribes remaining in Brazil”. They have driven invading ranchers and miners off their land. They have learned to lobby effectively for legal protections. “Their ceremonies, their kinship systems, their Gê language, and their knowledge of the forest and conception of the continuum between humans and the natural world are intact” (4,900 words)

The White Ghetto

Vivid reporting from Owsley County, Kentucky, the poorest place in America. “Thinking about the future here and its bleak prospects is not much fun at all, so instead of too much black-minded introspection you have the pills and the dope, the morning beers, the scratch-off lotto cards, healing meetings on the hill, piles of gas-station nachos, the occasional blast of meth, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, petty crime, and death” (4,600 words)

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