Friday, October 24, 2014

[tt] (OT) "When parallel worlds collide, quantum mechanics is born"

----- Forwarded message from Birger Johansson <> -----

Date: Fri, 24 Oct 2014 11:56:36 +0000
From: Birger Johansson <>
To: S-Lem listan <>, "" <>
Subject: (OT) "When parallel worlds collide, quantum mechanics is born"
Message-ID: <DUB131-W272E836A70AA0424AF5C0DC930@phx.gbl>

FYI: "When
parallel worlds collide, quantum mechanics is born"
Below are a few other links that may be of interest to Lem fans. Yours Birger Johansson

IAS, Princeton; "What does the next generation telescope
need to detect life?"

families of comets found around nearby star Beta Pictoris

The search
for habitable worlds, from sub-Neptunes to super-Earths

----- End forwarded message -----
tt mailing list

Thursday, October 23, 2014

[tt] What Role Does Technology Play in Record Levels of Income Inequality?

Rather than making my own comments about what turns out to be a discussion
of other economists, I invite you to read or re-read my essay, How to
Think about Rising Inequality,"

in particular about what Walter Kiechel calls the "fiercening of
capitalism," and imagine what I might say, or you might say if you THINK
ABOUT the matter like I suggested. I am pleased that the author, and
several others he quotes, recognize that there are two distinct processes
that help explain the rising inequality: one for the rich (what I call the
"Pareto people) and one for everyone else (the "lognormal people.")

I do not see salvation coming from more schooling. I do see changes in our
moral systems, something I might have speculated on in my essay. This will
be for later.

What Role Does Technology Play in Record Levels of Income Inequality?

The disparity between the rich and everyone else is larger than ever
in the United States and increasing in much of Europe. Why?
* By David Rotman on October 21, 2014
MIT Technology Review magazine
November/December 2014

Why It Matters

Income inequality hinders economic opportunity and innovation.

The signs of the gap--really, a chasm--between the poor and the
super-rich are hard to miss in Silicon Valley. On a bustling morning
in downtown Palo Alto, the center of today's technology boom,
apparently homeless people and their meager belongings occupy almost
every available public bench. Twenty minutes away in San Jose, the
largest city in the Valley, a camp of homeless people known as the
Jungle--reputed to be the largest in the country--has taken root
along a creek within walking distance of Adobe's headquarters and
the gleaming, ultramodern city hall.

The homeless are the most visible signs of poverty in the region.
But the numbers back up first impressions. Median income in Silicon
Valley reached $94,000 in 2013, far above the national median of
around $53,000. Yet an estimated 31 percent of jobs pay $16 per hour
or less, below what is needed to support a family in an area with
notoriously expensive housing. The poverty rate in Santa Clara
County, the heart of Silicon Valley, is around 19 percent, according
to calculations that factor in the high cost of living.

Even some of the area's biggest technology boosters are appalled.
"You have people begging in the street on University Avenue [Palo
Alto's main street]," says Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford
University's Rock Center for Corporate Governance and at Singularity
University, an education corporation in Moffett Field with ties to
the elites in Silicon Valley. "It's like what you see in India,"
adds Wadhwa, who was born in Delhi. "Silicon Valley is a look at the
future we're creating, and it's really disturbing." Many of those
made rich by the recent technology boom, he adds, don't seem to care
about "the mess they're creating."

The wealth generated in Silicon Valley is "as prodigious as it has
ever been," says Russell Hancock, president of Joint Venture Silicon
Valley, a nonprofit group that promotes regional development. "But
when we used to have booms in the tech sector, it would lift all
boats. That's not how it works anymore. And suddenly you're seeing a
backlash and people are upset." Indeed, people are stoning buses
transporting Google employees to work from their homes in San

The anger in Northern California and elsewhere in the United States
springs from an increasingly obvious reality: the rich are getting
richer while many other people are struggling. It's hard not to
wonder whether Silicon Valley, rather than just exemplifying this
growing inequality, is actually contributing to it, by producing
digital technologies that eliminate the need for many middle-class
jobs. Here, technology is arguably evolving faster than anywhere
else in the world. Does the region really portend a future, as
Wadhwa would have it, in which a few very rich people leave the rest
of us hopelessly behind?

The desire to understand why inequality seems to be reaching such
troubling levels no doubt accounts for the remarkable success this
year of the French academic economist Thomas Piketty's Capital in
the Twenty-First Century, which its publisher sold out soon after
its initial publication. With its multitude of equations, its
references to the Belle Époque and Ancien Régime, and a title that
harks back to Karl Marx and the politics of the late 19th and early
20th centuries, the 700-page tome seemed an unlikely candidate for
popular reading. Yet it quickly rose to the top of best-seller lists
this spring and remained on them for months.

Economists have long warned that inflation-adjusted wages for low-
and middle-income workers have been flat or declining since the late
1970s in the United States, even as its economy has grown. Piketty,
a professor at the Paris School of Economics, greatly expands on
this idea, documenting the exploding wealth of the very rich in the
United States and Europe and comparing the trend with developments
over the last few centuries. Building on research conducted with his
colleagues Emmanuel Saez, a professor at the University of
California, Berkeley, and Anthony Atkinson, an economist at the
University of Oxford, Piketty collected and analyzed data, including
tax records, to show just how extreme the disparity in wealth
between the rich and the rest of the population has grown. (The
story necessarily revolves around the United States, France, and
several other European countries in which such historical data are

The gap between the wealthy and everyone else is largest in the
United States. The richest 1 percent of the population has 34
percent of the accumulated wealth; the top 0.1 percent has some
15 percent.

The gap between the wealthy and everyone else is largest in the
United States. In 2010, the richest 1 percent of the population had
34 percent of the accumulated wealth; the top 0.1 percent had some
15 percent. And the inequality has only gotten worse since the last
recession ended: the top 1 percent captured 95 percent of income
growth from 2009 to 2012, if capital gains are included.

The top 10 percent now accounts for 48 percent of national income;
the top 1 percent makes almost 20 percent and the top 0.1 makes
nearly 9 percent. The disparity in the portion of income earned from
work--what economists call labor income--is particularly striking.
Wage inequality in the United States is "probably higher than in any
other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world,"
writes Piketty.

Why is this going on? Piketty attributes it in part to unjustifiably
large salaries for people he calls "supermanagers." About 70 percent
of the top 0.1 percent of earners are corporate executives, by his
calculations. "The standard explanation for rising inequality is the
race between the demand and the supply for high skills," he told me.
"I think that this is an important part of the overall explanation.
But this is not all. In order to explain why rising inequality has
been so strong at the very top in the U.S., one needs more than a
skill-based explanation." Piketty points to "pay-setting
institutions and corporate governance" as factors. He adds, "Above a
certain level, it is very hard to find in the data any link between
pay and performance."

In Britain and France the overall rise of inequality is less
dramatic, but in those countries something else is happening that
could be even more worrisome: accumulated wealth, much of it
inherited, is returning to relative levels not seen since before the
First World War. Privately held wealth in some European countries is
now about 500 to 600 percent of annual national income, a level
approaching that of the early 1900s.

What particularly worries Piketty is the long-term effect of this
concentration of wealth. A central point of his book is the simple
statement r > g, where r is the average return on capital and g is
the economic growth rate. When the rate of return on capital exceeds
the growth rate (which he says is what happened until the beginning
of the 20th century and is likely to happen again as growth slows),
then the money that rich people make from their wealth piles up
while wages rise more slowly if at all.

The implications of this should be frightening for anyone who
believes in a merit-based system. It means we are in danger of
entering into an era that, like the 19th century in France and
England, is socially and politically dominated by those with vast
amounts of inherited wealth. Piketty describes it as the world of
Jane Austen, in which people's lives and fates are determined by
their inheritance and not their talents or professional

As Piketty points out, it is a radical departure from how we have
thought about progress. Since the 1950s, economics has been
dominated by the idea--notably formulated by Simon Kuznets, a
Harvard economist and Nobel laureate--that inequality diminishes as
countries become more technologically developed and more people are
able to take advantage of the resulting opportunities. Many of us
suppose that our talents, skills, training, and acumen will allow us
to prosper; it is what economists like to call "human capital." But
the belief that technological progress will lead to "the triumph of
human capital over financial capital and real estate, capable
managers over fat cat stockholders, and skill over nepotism" is,
writes Piketty, "largely illusory."

Not all economists are so pessimistic; in fact, g has been higher
than r for most of the 20th century and continues to be so.
Nonetheless, Piketty's book is important because of the way he has
clarified the magnitude of the problem and its dangers. And he has
done so at a time of increasing soul-searching about the role
technology plays in exacerbating inequality. "It just seems so
obvious to me [that] technology is accelerating the rich-poor gap,"
says Steve Jurvetson, a venture capitalist at DFJ Venture in Menlo
Park, California. In many discussions with his peers in the
high-tech community, he says, it has been "the elephant in the room,
stomping around, banging off the walls."

Still, as Piketty's lengthy analysis suggests, the explanation for
the rise in inequality is not a simple one. Specifically, the role
technology is playing is complex--and contested.

Racing Ahead

"My reading of the data is that technology is the main driver of the
recent increases in inequality. It's the biggest factor," says Erik
Brynjolfsson, a professor of management at MIT's Sloan School. The
coauthor, with fellow MIT academic Andrew McAfee, of The Second
Machine Age, Brynjolfsson, like Piketty, has recently gained
unlikely prominence for an academic economist.

Piketty and Brynjolfsson both earned their degrees in the early
1990s, and both were professors at MIT during the following years.
But beyond an agreement that growing inequality is a problem, their
thinking could hardly be more different. While Piketty's writing is
sprinkled with references to Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac,
Brynjolfsson talks of advanced robots and the vast potential of
artificial intelligence. While Piketty warns against a return to a
world where inherited wealth determines social and political fates,
Brynjolfsson worries that a growing share of the workforce could be
left behind even as digital technologies increase overall income.

Central to Brynjolfsson's argument is the idea that innovation is
rapidly accelerating as trends in computing and networking advance
at an exponential rate. Largely as a result of these advances,
productivity and GDP continue to increase. But while "the pie is
increasing," he says, not everyone is benefiting. (Brynjolfsson
notes that productivity has, according to conventional measurements,
grown slowly since around 2005. But he attributes that
"disappointing" slowdown to the recession and its aftermath--and,
perhaps most important, to the fact that organizations have yet to
fully capture the benefits expected to come from digital

The biggest factor is that the technology-driven economy greatly
favors a small group of successful individuals by amplifying
their talent and luck.

Brynjolfsson lists several ways that technological changes can
contribute to inequality: robots and automation, for example, are
eliminating some routine jobs while requiring new skills in others
(see "How Technology is Destroying Jobs"). But the biggest factor,
he says, is that the technology-driven economy greatly favors a
small group of successful individuals by amplifying their talent and
luck, and dramatically increasing their rewards.

Brynjolfsson argues that these people are benefiting from a
winner-take-all effect originally described by Sherwin Rosen in a
1981 paper called "The Economics of Superstars." Rosen said that
such breakthroughs as motion pictures, radio, and TV had greatly
broadened the audiences--and hence the rewards--for those in show
business and sports. Thirty years later, Brynjolfsson sees a similar
effect for high-tech entrepreneurs, whose ideas and products can be
widely distributed and produced thanks to software and other digital
technologies. Why hire a local tax consultant when you can use a
cheap, state-of-the-art program that is constantly being updated and
refined? Likewise, why buy a second-best program or app? The ability
to copy software and distribute digital products anywhere means
customers will buy the top one. Why use a search engine that is
almost as good as Google? Such economic logic now rules a growing
share of the marketplace; it is, according to Brynjolfsson, an
increasingly important reason why a few entrepreneurs, including the
founders of such startups as Instagram, are growing rich at a
staggering rate.

The distinction between Piketty's supermanagers and Brynjolfsson's
superstars is critical: the latter derive their high incomes
directly from the effects of technology. As machines increasingly
substitute for labor and building a business becomes less
capital-intensive--you don't need a printing plant to produce an
online news site, or large investments to create an app--the biggest
economic winners will not be those owning conventional capital but,
instead, those with the ideas behind innovative new products and
successful business models.

In an article called "New World Order," published this summer in
Foreign Affairs, Brynjolfsson, McAfee, and Michael Spence, a Nobel
laureate and professor at New York University, argued that
"superstar-based technical change ... is upending the global
economy." That economy, they conclude, will increasingly be
dominated by members of the small elite that "innovate and create."

Stay in School

The exploding wealth of the very rich is only one part of the story
of inequality. For much of the population, incomes have stagnated or
even shrunk, and technology is one of the leading culprits. Simply
put, as we getter better at automating routine tasks, the people who
benefit most are those with the expertise and creativity to use
these advances. And that drives income inequality: demand for highly
skilled workers rises, while workers with less education and
expertise fall behind.

Though income growth among the top 1 percent is an important
phenomenon, says David Autor, an MIT economist, the disparity in
skills and education among the other 99 percent is "a big deal, a
much bigger deal." The gap between median earnings for people with a
high school diploma and those with a college degree was $17,411 for
men and $12,887 for women in 1979; by 2012 it had risen to $34,969
and $23,280. Education, Autor says, "is the most powerful thing you
can do to affect lifetime earnings."

In the United States, this education premium began rising steeply in
the late 1970s, when the surge of college entrants dramatically
slowed and the availability of high-skill workers consequently
dwindled. More recent decades have seen an additional twist.
Automation and digital technologies have reduced the need for many
production, sales, administrative, and clerical jobs, while demand
has increased for low-pay jobs that can't be automated, such as
those in cleaning services and restaurants. The result has been what
Autor describes as a "barbell-shaped" job market, with strong demand
at the high and low ends and a "hollowing out" of the middle. And
despite the increase in demand for workers in service jobs, there is
an ample supply of people who need the work and can do these tasks.
Hence wages for these jobs dropped throughout much of the 2000s,
further worsening income inequality.

Autor, for one, is skeptical of Brynjolfsson and McAfee's argument
that the transformation of work is speeding up as technological
change accelerates. Research he conducted with a fellow MIT
economist, Daron Acemoglu, suggests that productivity growth is not
in fact accelerating, nor is such growth concentrated in
computer-intensive sectors. According to Autor, the changes wrought
by digital technologies are transforming the economy, but the pace
of that change is not necessarily increasing. He says that's because
progress in robotics, artificial intelligence, and such high-profile
technologies as Google's driverless car are happening more slowly
than some people may think. Despite impressive anecdotal accounts,
these technologies are not ready for widespread use. "You would be
actually pretty hard pressed to find a robot in your day-to-day
life," he observes.

Indeed, Autor believes many tasks that people are particularly good
at, such as recognizing objects and dealing with suddenly changing
environments, will remain difficult or expensive to automate for
decades to come. The implications for inequality are significant: it
could mean that the market for middle-skill jobs may be stabilizing
and the earning disparity between low- and high-skill jobs leveling
off, albeit "at a very high level." What's more, many middle-skill
workers could flourish as they increasingly learn to use digital
technologies in their jobs.

It's an unusual spot of optimism in the inequality discussion. But
the underlying problem for much of the population remains. "We have
a very skill-driven economy without a very skilled workforce," Autor
says. "If you have the high skills--and that's a big if--you can
make a fortune."

Silicon Valley

In his quiet suite in a large office building in downtown San Jose,
Joint Venture president Russell Hancock seems impatient when asked
about inequality in the region. "I have more questions than answers.
I can't explain it. I can't tell you how to fix it," he begins
abruptly. "We used to be a classic middle-class economy. But that's
all gone. There's no longer a middle class. The economy is
bifurcated and there's nothing in the middle."

He blames globalization for wiping out the semiconductor industry
and other high-tech manufacturing that once prospered in the region,
as well as changes in technology that have eliminated well-paid jobs
in administration and other support services. "There used to be a
ladder to get into the middle class, and some sense of mobility,"
Hancock says. But that ladder, he says, is gone: "It didn't happen
suddenly, but in 2014 everyone has woken up to it."

Though California's economy--the world's eighth-largest--is strong
in many sectors, the state has the highest poverty rate in the
country, if cost of living is factored in. The situation in Silicon
Valley helps explain why. About 20 to 25 percent of the population
works in the high-tech sector, and the wealth is concentrated among
them. This relatively small but prosperous group is driving up the
cost of housing, transportation, and other living expenses. At the
same time, much of the employment growth in the area is happening in
retail, restaurant, and manual jobs, where wages are stagnant or
even declining. It's a simple formula for income inequality and
poverty. But the nature of technology itself seems to have made it
worse. According to Chris Benner, a regional economist at the
University of California, Davis, there has been no net increase in
jobs in Silicon Valley since 1998; digital technologies inevitably
mean you can generate billions of dollars from a low employment

"There used to be a ladder to get into the middle class, and some
sense of mobility," Hancock says. But that ladder, he says, is
gone: "It didn't happen suddenly, but in 2014 everyone has woken
up to it."

If economists are right that income inequality is fueled by
disparities in skills and education, then the last chance for many
people to find a route into the middle class may be in places like
Foothill College. Sprawling across some of Silicon Valley's most
prized real estate in Los Altos Hills, the community college draws
students from all over the region. Many come from its poorest areas,
such as East Palo Alto and East San Jose. Ladder or no ladder, the
college provides a fleeting opportunity for those students to at
least get within striking distance of the elusive jobs in the
"knowledge economy" that dominates the area.

Judy Miner, president of Foothill, is justifiably proud of its
accomplishments. Students routinely transfer to prestigious
four-year colleges, including the University of California's
Berkeley and Santa Cruz campuses; as of a few years ago, 17 had gone
on to MIT. But talented though some students are, Miner is also
blunt about the challenges facing a school that proudly accepts "the
top 100 percent of all applicants." Foothill, like other community
colleges, is playing catch-up with many students who aren't
academically prepared for universities. And, she says, one goal is
to change their "worldview of where they fit in."

When she was growing up in San Francisco, Miner says, her
achievements and aptitude opened the possibility of Harvard or Yale,
but no one else in her family had gone to college, and she couldn't
imagine leaving home to do so. So she commuted on the bus to Lone
Mountain College, a small Catholic school that has since closed.
Now, at Foothill, she works with families and local communities to
expand the ambitions of students from backgrounds like hers.
"Piketty says the best predictor of access to universities is
parents' income," says Miner. "In California, it's the zip code."

A ribbon-cutting ceremony at East Palo Alto Academy is a poignant
indication of how much needs to be done to close the zip-code
divide. It's a cloudless, hot day in late August, a reminder that
the region was once prized land for orchards. A handful of new
two-story concrete buildings surround a courtyard holding a
smattering of enthusiastic administrators and a few teachers. It's a
relatively modest facility but, by all descriptions, a huge
improvement over the cramped building the 13-year-old charter school
occupied before.

In a city whose only public high school was shut down in the 1970s
(students were bused to neighboring district schools), East Palo
Alto Academy represents a noteworthy attempt to address the
educational needs of the local community. The school seems to be
turning around the lives of many of its 300 students. But no one
needs to be reminded that less than three miles down University
Avenue is the campus of Palo Alto High, a public school with
multiple tennis courts, a synthetic running track, and a
multimillion-dollar media center complete with rows of new iMacs and
state-of-the-art video equipment. Meanwhile, East Palo Alto Academy
has only just gotten a properly equipped chemistry lab, with a fume
hood and storage facilities for the chemicals. The athletic
facilities are a newly paved outdoor basketball court whose rims, as
one student excitedly points out, actually have nets.

"One of the largest and most prominent debates in social sciences is
the role of technology in inequality," says David Grusky, director
of Stanford's Center on Poverty and Inequality. But "one fact that
everyone agrees on," he says, is that the income gaps between those
with different levels of education "account for a good share of the
inequality." And, he says, "we know what the solution is. It's
equalizing access to high-quality education. The problem is that we
just pay lip service to it." The issue is not, as many suggest, the
overall quality of education, he argues: "We have fine schools. For
example, Palo Alto High School is a fine school. But everyone needs
access to these types of schools. Everyone should have access to the
kind of schools we routinely provide middle-class kids." (Local
governments, using property taxes, supply an average of 44 percent
of the funding for elementary and secondary schools in the United
States, helping to fuel the disparity in educational investments
between poor and rich communities.)

Perhaps technology is changing so quickly that people are slow to
grasp which skills they might need, or don't understand that the
demand for skilled labor will only grow. "But I don't think labor is
that stupid," says Grusky. "If you're born into a poor neighborhood,
you don't have access to a high-quality preschool, a high-quality
primary school, and a high-quality secondary school. And then you're
simply not in position to go to college." If workers aren't equipped
to do the jobs that technology is creating, he says, "it's because
our institutions are failing us."

Dirty Words

Understanding what causes income inequality is important because
different answers suggest very different policy solutions. If, as
Piketty fears, the gap between the very rich and everyone else is
partly due to unjustifiably high compensation for top executives and
will only worsen with the seemingly inexorable shift of wealth to
the already wealthy, then it makes sense to find ways to
redistribute those gains through progressive tax policies. Piketty
and his colleague Emmanuel Saez believe that the tax cuts made by
Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the late 1970s and early
1980s jump-started the growth of income inequality seen today in
Britain and the United States. Indeed, Piketty spends much of the
last quarter of Capital outlining how increasingly progressive
taxes, including a global wealth tax, could begin to close the
economic gap.

But at least in the United States, "redistribution" is a dirty word
in almost any political setting. "If we know one thing," says Robert
Solow, a professor emeritus of economics at MIT, "it's that
redistributing income is not something we're very good at." And, he
adds, "it's not about to happen."

"Any decent person should find ... extreme poverty coexisting in
the same society with extreme wealth immoral."

Solow, a Nobel laureate who is one of the most influential
economists of the last half-century, published a landmark paper in
1956 that transformed the way the profession views the critical role
of technological progress in productivity and the growth of national
wealth. Now 90, Solow published a lengthy and largely admiring
review of Capital in The New Republic titled "Thomas Piketty Is
Right," acclaiming his "new and powerful" insight that if r > g
holds, "the income and wealth of the rich will grow faster than the
typical income from work." However, Solow told me that the struggles
of Americans with middle and lower incomes represent a very
different phenomenon from the growth of the super-rich--and a far
more worrisome one. "Any decent person should find having extreme
poverty coexisting in the same society with extreme wealth immoral,"
he says.

The most obvious policy recommendations point to education,
including, as social scientists are increasingly learning,
pre-kindergarten and other early education programs. As Sean
Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford, points out, differences in
educational achievement are now associated more closely with family
income than they are with factors that have been more important in
the past, including race and ethnic background. And researchers have
shown that those differences in achievement levels are already set
by the time children enter kindergarten.

Inequality in education is not only hurting the chances of poor
children to get ahead, says David Grusky. It is also affecting the
supply of high-skill labor. By stifling opportunities for countless
talented individuals, it artificially restricts the potential pool
of those with technological expertise. As a result, Grusky says, "we
overpay for high-skill workers," which is damaging to the economy.
In other words, the lack of access to high-quality education is not
just bad for the students in East Palo Alto; it is bad for the
companies a few miles away in the world's most concentrated center
of technology innovation.

Of course, a diagnosis is far from a cure, and a call to improve
educational opportunities is far too facile--who could argue with
that? The challenges inherent in this kind of change must be
acknowledged, and previous efforts to accomplish it have failed.
Providing everyone with access to quality education would require us
to transform our schooling system and the way we pay for it. But if
differences in educational achievement based on family incomes are
really what's driving inequality, Grusky worries, we can't solve the
problem by letting people who have privileged access to a good
education reap the advantages and then taxing their resulting higher
earnings. That, he says, is "an after-the-fact Band-Aid that doesn't
address the source of the problem." It will also strike many as
unfairly taking money from those who have earned it. If the goal is
the "merit-based inequality" that results when everyone has a fair
chance to compete, Grusky argues, then we must attempt to reform
educational institutions.

That's why asking whether technology causes inequality is the wrong
question. Instead, we should be asking how advancing technologies
have changed the relative demand for high-skill and low-skill
workers, and how well we are adapting to such changes. Surely, rapid
advances in technology have exacerbated discrepancies in education
and skills, and the rise of digital technologies could possibly be
playing a part in creating an extreme elite of the very rich. But it
makes no sense to blame technology, just as it makes no sense to
blame the rich. It is our institutions, including but not only our
schools, that need to change. The reforms that experts recommend are
numerous and varied, ranging from a higher minimum wage to stronger
job protections to modifications of our tax policy. And if Piketty
is right about the supermanagers, we need improved corporate
governance and oversight to more closely tie compensation to
executive productivity.

But a good place to start is by asking what the problem is and why
we care. It is here that Piketty's book is so valuable. In
particular, it reminds us how an elite class of the super-rich can
both warp our political process and erode our sense of fairness.

In the technology industry where some of those elites are created,
many will surely be left wondering whether the future looks more
like Silicon Valley--a high-tech dynamo driving economic prosperity
and wealth inequality at once--or, as Piketty would have it, more
like France, increasingly dominated by inherited wealth. Is the
creativity and productivity of places like Silicon Valley threatened
by a future that favors the fortunes of the very rich over the
ambitions of the many?

[tt] NS 2991: Atul Gawande: Aim for a good life, not a good death

NS 2991: Atul Gawande: Aim for a good life, not a good death
* 13 October 2014 by Linda Geddes

We tend to view the end of life as a medical problem, but too often
neglect the life we have left, says the surgeon and New Yorker

Atul Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston
and a professor of surgery and public health at Harvard University.
He is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His latest book, Being
Mortal: Illness, medicine and what matters in the end (Profile
Books), is out this month

Why are you interested in mortality?

Medicine is grappling with what is ultimately an unsolvable problem.
I never felt I had good answers for people who were facing death;
when do we push ahead with treatments and when do we not? It wasn't
until I connected with experts working in palliative care that I
began to gain a sense of how you can unravel these problems. At the
centre of the issue is the difference between the medical priorities
of health, safety and survival, and an individual's priorities for

Has medicine got its priorities wrong?

We make trade-offs every single day. For my patients in nursing
homes, often their biggest struggle is with things being taken away
from them, in the name of health, that they care deeply about.
You'll see people with Alzheimer's who want nothing more than a
cookie, but are given only pureed food because they might choke. We
do these things in the name of health, but there's a larger idea
about what makes life worth living that we're not serving. That
comes to bear most obviously at the end of life.

Why have we come to see the end of life as primarily a medical

I think the big change has been the family. My grandfather lived in
a village in India and died at the age of 108. He spent the last
decade of his life needing substantial help to live, but it didn't
require him to be in an old age home. It worked because he was
surrounded by family who would take care of him - but that only
worked because young women were more or less enslaved to the task.

The success and growth of our economies have come from giving young
people the freedom to choose the work they want and where they want
to live. Pensions have been important in giving older people the
financial independence to live without family; the problem comes
when you can no longer take care of yourself. We've decided that
this is a medical problem, but the medical focus is on health and
safety - not on what people might see as their most important

You have written that the medicalisation of death is "an experiment
that is failing". Why?

We see failure on multiple levels. One is the sheer amount of
suffering endured by people in institutions such as old age homes or
intensive care units. On another level, you are admitted into these
institutions and no one knows who you are; no one recognises the arc
of your life and the things that have been important along the way.
The most important thing about you is that you are diabetic, and you
have some problems walking and swallowing - that's who you are.

But there are other approaches. For instance, one major study in
cancer patients found that people who receive early palliative care
choose less chemotherapy, spend less time in hospital, and start
hospice care earlier. And the result? They have less suffering,
lower cost, and they live 25 per cent longer on average. This
suggests we've just been making bad decisions.

Is death a subject that doctors feel comfortable discussing with

Generally, we're very confident about our ability to manage these
situations. I'm very good at telling people: "You've got a bad
situation. We could do an operation and there's a 50 per cent chance
that you won't make it through, but if you don't have the operation
there's a 100 per cent chance that you won't make it through."

But we're not good at helping people tell us what trade-offs they
are and aren't willing to make. Choosing that 50 per cent chance is
absolutely the right thing to do if you are pursuing goals that are
in line with a person's priorities. But if survival means she'll be
cognitively impaired, never return to her house, have to be fed
through a feeding tube and endure pain and suffering - when the most
important thing to her is being with her family, being mentally
aware, or completing some work she's focused on - suddenly a
different choice might be better.

Have you ever offered treatment you knew probably wouldn't work and
could make someone's life worse?

Absolutely. In my new book, Being Mortal, I describe a 34-year-old
woman who was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer during her first
pregnancy, and then turned out to have thyroid cancer too. I found
myself offering surgery for her thyroid cancer, when the reality was
the lung cancer would kill her long before the thyroid cancer caused
problems. The difficulty and anxiety of trying to come to sensible
decisions and acknowledge what's in the room - that here's a problem
we aren't going to be able to control, just manage - can leave you
offering fantasies of the future.

Has researching the book changed the way you interact with dying

The core change has been to shift from saying: "Here are the pros
and cons, what do you want to do", to asking: "What is your
understanding of your condition; what are your goals and fears; what
trade-offs are you willing to make?"

Recently a friend came to me whose best friend has been diagnosed
with advanced brain cancer and needs increasing amounts of help with
each passing week. His doctors aren't acknowledging this person
crumbling in front of them. They're rightly trying the first rounds
of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but in the meantime nobody knows
what could happen next, and no one is asking: "How shall we help him
cope, and what would he actually want if time becomes short?"

So what advice did you offer your friend?

That there's a powerful conversation to be had around what
well-being means to that person. Ask those questions, hear his
answers, use them to make plans, and then understand that they will
change and you will have to ask the questions again in a few weeks.
His friend may not yet be at a point where he can discuss any more
than one of those questions, but it would be a lot more than they've
got to go on now.

Do you support the idea of assisted dying?

I think there's often a misplaced goal. The goal shouldn't be to
have a good death, but to have as good a life as possible, all the
way to the end. I support having the capacity to do something for
people with unbearable suffering, but it troubles me that we have
focused on assisted dying without having figured out assisted living
very well.

Have you thought much about how you'd like to spend your own
twilight years?

Right now, I'd say that if my body went I would still want to be
alive, but if my brain went, let me go. But I know that what I think
is likely to change, and I want to be in circumstances where I can
re-evaluate and have that conversation about my priorities.

We all live for something larger than ourselves - it might be family
and community connections, or making our own contribution to the
world. Those are the things I want to hang on to. I also want to be
in a place where I have some freedom to choose how I cope with my
limitations; where I can have a cookie, even if it isn't the
healthiest thing to do.

This article appeared in print under the headline "We're looking at
death the wrong way"
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[tt] NS 2991: Wearable tech lets boss track your work, rest and play

NS 2991: Wearable tech lets boss track your work, rest and play
* 20 October 2014 by Aviva Rutkin

[Leader: "Be wary of evidence saying tracked employees are best" added.]

How will our lives change as more and more firms digitally monitor
their employees' movements and health, at work and beyond. We're
about to find out

SOME jobs come with a uniform. For an increasing number of
employees, that uniform will soon include a badge that tracks
everything they do.

Many companies - including BP, eBay and Buffer - already encourage
employees to wear activity trackers like the Fitbit, often in
exchange for discounts on health insurance. Last month,
California-based Misfit, which makes a sleep and fitness monitor
called Shine, announced that it is teaming up with Coca-Cola as part
of the drink-maker's employee well-being programme. Several
professional sports teams even monitor their athletes' sleep habits
(see "Sleep hard, play hard").

In cases like these, wearables are designed to boost the health and
general productivity of the employees, sometimes encouraging them to
compete against one another online. That makes sense: a healthier
workforce saves a company money in the long run. But elsewhere, such
wearables are being used to monitor exactly how employees work.

At the warehouses of UK-based supermarket chain Tesco, for example,
workers wear armbands that track where they go, ostensibly so they
can be sent location-specific tasks. At Capriotti's Sandwich Shop in
Las Vegas, new recruits record their work with Google Glass for
managers to assess later. Virgin Atlantic has plans to do the same.

"It is amplified intelligence," says Bill Briggs, chief technology
officer at Deloitte consultants in Kansas City, Missouri. "Sooner or
later, the 'digital exhaust' of everything is going to be available.
It's just a matter of who can take advantage of it within the right
ethical bounds," he says.

But does monitoring your employees with wearable tech actually boost
their productivity? There's little research to show that it does,
although Autodesk, a software firm in California, says it saw a
"distinct change" in employees' behaviour after more than 1000
signed up to receive Fitbits. The firm found that more people walked
to work or held meetings while walking.

At a Bank of America call centre in Rhode Island in 2009, employees
wore sensors made by Sociometric Solutions - a spin-off company of
the MIT Media Lab - to figure out how co-workers interact. Over six
weeks, sensors in the badges recorded where employees went and who
they talked to, how the tone of their voice and the movements of
their body changed throughout the day. Drawn together, the data
provided a unique insight into how the call centre worked. It turned
out that workers who were more social were also more productive. In
response, Bank of America changed the office structure to encourage
employees to chat more with one another. Several European banks now
track their employees with the badges.

This year Chris Brauer of Goldsmiths, University of London, asked
employees at London media agency Mindshare to wear one of three
different activity trackers as they worked: an accelerometer
wristband, a portable brainwave monitor or a posture coach. After a
month, productivity had risen by 8.5 per cent and job satisfaction
by 3.5 per cent overall. Most improvement was seen in employees who
wore passive devices that collected data quietly rather than
interrupting with ongoing feedback. "People recognise that
effectively they're on the clock, that they're being tracked, and as
a result they raise their game," says Brauer.

However, Ethan Bernstein at Harvard Business School cautions that
such devices could also have the opposite impact, due to what he
calls the "transparency paradox". Instead of trying to do the best
job, some workers might obsess over hitting their sensor-related
targets, making them more likely to cheat and less likely to take
potentially useful risks.

Wearables also open up new privacy dilemmas for companies -
particularly if they remain on employees after they leave the
workplace. US courts have grappled a little with these questions, at
least when it comes to more common tracking tools like computer
spyware and GPS trackers on company equipment. Several states,
including California and Texas, have laws preventing equipment
tracking without express consent. But in most places, it's legal for
firms to outfit their employees with wearables, as long as they are
clear about what is being tracked and why.

"While the monitoring itself may be permissible, the information
that you gather could create unforeseen, unintended consequences,"
warns Joseph Lazzarotti, a lawyer at the firm Jackson Lewis in New

No escape

For example, a GPS tracker or wearable that travels with an employee
outside of work could help paint a detailed picture of that person's
private life, such as whether they spend lots of time in bars. This
was also shown in Brauer's study, which found that the devices
recorded enough data to make detailed profiles of individual
employees: their lifestyle, exercise and sleep habits.

In the future, bosses could rely on such profiles of their employees
to make daily decisions depending on who's had a good night's sleep
or a sudden burst of productivity, says Brauer. Conversely, people
could use their tracker data to put together "biometric CVs" that
prove they're particularly well suited to jobs that take place at
odd hours or under stressful conditions.

"People are going to have to decide how much of their lives are
accessible and available to their work," says Brauer. "What we
always thought of as a dichotomy between work and 'life' instead
becomes something like a lifestyle."

There need to be rules in place to prevent employers from using this
technology to the detriment of employees, says bioethicist Arthur
Caplan at New York University. One could imagine a future in which
bosses choose who to promote and who to fire based on tracking data,
or encourage employees to take mild drugs like melatonin or caffeine
to boost their workplace performance.

"I think when you have monitoring capability, the obvious question
is: where does your job end and your home life begin?" Caplan says.

This article appeared in print under the headline "Off the clock, on
the record"

Sleep hard, play hard

If you sleep better, you play better. That's why some pro basketball
teams in the US are now monitoring their players in bed.

The first team to implement sleep-tracking was the Dallas Mavericks,
who last year made their players wear a wristband-like smart patch
called Readiband that monitors body temperature, movement and heart
rate. It also gives players a sleep score at the push of a button.

The idea is that the data lets team coaches see how sleep affects
performance. They can then adjust training regimes or travel
arrangements to maximise their players' sleep quality. Some American
football, soccer and ice hockey teams in the US are also using the
Leader" Be wary of evidence saying tracked employees are best
* 15 October 2014

BOSSES have always wanted to know how to get the most out of their
workers. Back in 1924, the big cheeses at the Western Electric
Company wanted to find out how the level of lighting, among other
things, affected productivity at their Hawthorne Works factory near

So they gradually reduced the illumination in one part of the
factory. Rather to their surprise, productivity rose as lighting
levels fell, even when the workers could hardly see. But even more
unexpectedly, it also rose where the lighting was unchanged.

The company's analyst eventually concluded that the gains were
actually caused by the added attention the workers had received from
bosses. This "Hawthorne effect" is often invoked when a workplace
intervention appears to achieve its goals: was it the action or the
scrutiny that made the difference?

That question is taking on a whole new dimension with the advent of
wearable technology designed to monitor and motivate workers -
combining both action and scrutiny (see "Wearable tech lets boss
track your work, rest and play").

The ethics of this are complex; so are the practicalities. Firms
will have to be very careful about how they use it. Otherwise, they
may end up doing little more than turning the lights up and down.

This article appeared in print under the headline "Look, it's
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[tt] NS 2991: E-citizens unite: Estonia opens its digital borders

NS 2991: E-citizens unite: Estonia opens its digital borders
* 17 October 2014 by Hal Hodson

[Leader: "Estonia's e-citizen test is a test for us all"]

Estonia has invited people to register as e-residents - a step
towards a world where a person's identity online matters just as
much as their identity offline

ESTONIA flung open its digital borders last week. The eastern
European country invited anyone, anywhere, to open a bank account or
start a business. By the end of the year, anyone with an internet
connection will be able to live their financial life in Estonia, all
without being physically present.

Such e-residency, as it is known, is a step towards a world where a
person's online identity matters just as much as their offline
identity; where the location of data, rather than documents, is more

"This is the beginning of the erosion of the classic nation state
hegemony, " says John Clippinger, a digital identity
researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It's going
to get whittled away from the margins."

Max Ischenko - a Ukrainian entrepreneur who runs a job site called
Djinni - is signing up. "It's very complicated to do business from
Ukraine," he says. "For instance, I can't sign up for Paypal
Business payments, because it's not available."

Crucially, Estonia offers firms a foothold in the European Union
single market. Taavi Kotka, the Estonian government's chief
information officer, says they are aiming to have 10 million
non-Estonian e-residents signed up by 2025. More than 4000 are
already lining up.

Getting e-residency in Estonia will require going there to have your
identity verified - and fingerprints and face biometrics taken by
border police. But Kotka says they are working on letting people
sign up at Estonian embassies. For Estonia, embassies will no longer
just be about extending the country's physical presence into other
countries - but about extending their digital reach too.

E-residents don't get citizenship in the traditional sense - they
can't apply for passports and visas, or vote in elections. But Kotka
acknowledges that if all goes as planned, the new cohort of
e-Estonians will have to have a say in any future changes to the
country's corporate tax structures, for instance, and perhaps more.

"Imagine that thanks to e-residency we have 100,000 new companies.
That means we have more companies run by e-residents than by people
physically in Estonia," says Kotka. It makes sense that e-citizens
should have a say if the government wants to change tax laws, for

Estonia already has the world's most advanced internet voting system
- votes were cast online by Estonians living in 98 different
countries in elections earlier this spring. Kotka says they could
easily extend the system to let e-residents vote from anywhere in
the world.

Clippinger thinks Estonia's move will create a market in which
countries compete for digital citizenry. More flexible rules on
starting businesses around the world may open the door to more fluid
livelihoods - our homes may be in one country while our job and bank
accounts are in another. This is already happening to an extent, but
programmes like Estonia's promise to accelerate the trend.

Nor is it all business. "Given where things are going with the US
National Security Agency, backdoors and control over personal data,
I think this could be a starting point for people who don't trust
their own governments," Clippinger says.

This article appeared in print under the headline "E-citizens unite"
Leader: Estonia's e-citizen test is a test for us all
* 15 October 2014

The Baltic minnow's bold experiment with digital residency could
help us understand what comes after the nation state

FANCY becoming an Estonian? There are plenty of reasons why you
would. The tiny Baltic country is a technology powerhouse, with
digital infrastructure as good as anywhere, online elections and
compulsory coding classes. Now some of the benefits its 1.3 million
citizens enjoy are open to all: Estonia will let anyone become an
e-resident (see "E-citizens unite: Estonia opens its digital

E-residency isn't citizenship - you won't be able to vote, or move
there unless you are already entitled to. But it will allow you to
access Estonia's excellent online services, such as banking and the
incorporation of companies. These currently require a physical
address, but will soon be as easy as opening an email account.

Estonia's move offers a tantalising hint of a new world order that
transcends the nation state. At present many of the services we are
entitled to are an accident of where we were born. But when the
functions of the state shift online, there's no longer a reason to
restrict them to physical residents. Soon, digital residency could
become as important, if not more so.

And digital residency can be a matter of choice. In the market that
will emerge, even cities will compete. Paris has already shown an
interest in allowing outsiders to become e-Parisians.

How this will all play out is unclear. Once more people are
e-residents than actually live within a country's borders, who gets
to vote? Who pays taxes? Does a country even need a physical
location any more?

It is hard to come up with answers to these questions, in part
because concepts of nationality and nationhood are so deeply
ingrained in how we see ourselves and the world. But these concepts
are a relatively recent invention in response to the upheavals of
the industrial revolution (New Scientist, 6 September, p 30).

Though it is widely agreed that the nation state model has begun to
outlive its usefulness, what will follow is not at all obvious. The
experiments in Estonia and Paris may point the way.

This article appeared in print under the headline "The e-citizen
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[tt] NS 2991: First Mars settlers may last only 68 days

NS 2991: First Mars settlers may last only 68 days
* 22 October 2014 by Paul Marks

THE first human colonists of Mars may be poisoned by their own

The Mars One project plans to send volunteers on one-way trips to
live out the rest of their lives on the Red Planet. But a new
analysis suggests the would-be Martians may begin dying after just
68 days.

If Mars One can raise enough funds through selling reality TV
rights, the first four colonists are scheduled to arrive at a
pre-assembled Martian base in 2024. Four more colonists will follow
every two years after that.

But a team led by Sydney Do at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology told the International Astronautical Congress in Toronto,
Canada, last week that Mars One is making assumptions about
life-support and habitat technology that don't stand up to scrutiny.

The MIT team ran computer simulations that suggest Mars One's
proposed crop growth system will produce too much oxygen - poisoning
colonists after 68 days as levels build up inexorably. "If crop
growth provides 100 per cent of the settlement's food, the system
will produce unsafe oxygen levels in the habitat," says Do.

The team also criticises Mars One's assumption that mission support
technologies that work on Earth will operate reliably on Mars. There
is no oxygen removal technique that has been shown to work in space,
Do says. The same is true of water scavenging: a method invented to
take water from urine on the International Space Station worked on
Earth, Do says, but bone density loss in microgravity increased the
amount of calcium in urine, causing precipitation that stopped the
machine working.

But Bas Lansdorp, founder of Mars One, believes there is more than
enough time to fix these issues before 2024. "There are many
problems between today and landing humans on Mars, but oxygen
removal is certainly not one of them," he says.

This article appeared in print under the headline "First Mars
settlers may be doomed"
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Re: [tt] H.L. Mencken: The Forward-Looker

This is correct. It was a careless typographical error, as opposed to a
careless spelling error. The word comes from the Latin simplex (simple)
and means "in and of itself."

On 2014-10-22, Damien Broderick opined [message unchanged below]:

> Date: Wed, 22 Oct 2014 21:01:17 -0500
> From: Damien Broderick <>
> To: Transhuman Tech <>
> Subject: Re: [tt] H.L. Mencken: The Forward-Looker
> On 10/22/2014 3:30 AM, Frank Forman wrote:
>> This is my own favorite essay of Mr. Mencken, wherein he famously says
>> that he never met a socialist simliciter.
> I expect what he actually never met was a socialist simpliciter.
> Damien Broderick
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