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HLG Notebook | July 2014

1. Singularity as a Religious Cult

It is impossible to spend time in Silicon Valley without running into someone who sings the praises of Singularity University, the tech-focused, virtual institute led by futurist Ray Kurzweil. Now, a British reporter comes to town and discovers that its adherents, with their focus on “machine intelligence,” are essentially a modernist cult. Biting throughout:

The reality is that the inhabitants of the Valley are in the grip of a religious mania so bizarre, so exotic, that it makes the Prince Philip-worshipping inhabitants of the island of Pacific Tanna look positively mainstream.

2. Ace Greenberg: When Wall Street Knew How to Write

 

Ace Greenberg, who died earlier this week at age 86, ran Bear Stearns in the days when Wall Street titans still had outsized personalities. In addition to his love of magic tricks, his prowess at Bridge, and his insistence that traders answer their own phones, Greenberg was a concise and witty business writer. In a 1996 book, Greenberg reprinted some of his classic memos that reprimanded colleagues about expenses, phone etiquette, and arrogance in the face of success. International Business Times has published some samples, such as this:

The current BusinessWeek dated January 30th has an article about a book published two years ago that has sold two million copies in 14 languages. The title isReengineering the Corporation. If you followed my advice, you did not read the book and you saved yourself time and money because the author is now putting out a book stating that reengineering is in trouble.

 

With The New Yorker’s paywall down for the summer, be sure to check out this fantastic 1999 profile of Greenberg.

 3. Britain’s Baby Boom

The Financial Times offers a fascinating, in-depth look at the shifting demographics and the “baby boom” in the UK. Yes, immigrant families are having more children. But, as the article points out, British-born mothers are, too, at the highest rate in four decades. Most interesting: the boom invalidates all predictions to the contrary:

In 2001, the number of births in England and Wales hit a 25-year low of 595,000. In 2012, there were 730,000, a 22 per cent increase. The data defy predictions made by economists that the financial crisis would cause the number of births and total fertility rates to fall, as has indeed been the case in other parts of the European Union.

 

It is worth noting that, given current longevity trends, these new baby Brits might live for 90 or 100 years. What impact will they have on the country’s already bursting social programs?

4. More Interesting Than You’d Think: High Speed Rail in California

 

A (surprisingly!) interesting debate about whether light rail in California is smart planning or an inevitable boondoggle. In The Atlantic, James Fallows has published both the critiques and the responses. And, in a lengthy follow up post, he adds what might be the most persuasive argument:

Three hours door-to-door for a plane flight, versus three hours on a train, sounds like the same time-cost for getting where you’re going. But in reality they’re entirely different experiences. Much of your time for air travel is “bad” time. You’re in a cab on either end, you’re waiting in an infinity of lines in between, you have all the other charm-free elements of today’s airline experience. If you’re driving, it can be more enjoyable, but you’re not supposed to be reading, typing, etc. By contrast, nearly all of your time on a train trip is “good” time.

5. Is Everyone Sick of Silicon Valley?

 

Robert Pogue Harrison’s lament about the culture of the tech world isn’t all that new. But what distinguishes his essay is his savvy observation that techies, allegedly obsessed with change, have embraced some of the most shop-worn clichés:

The day I sat down to write this article, a full-page ad for Blackberry in The New York Times featured a smiling Arianna Huffington with an oversize caption in quotes: “Don’t just take your place at the top of the world. Change the world.” A day earlier, I heard Bill Gates urge the Stanford graduating class to “change the world” through optimism and empathy. The mantra is so hackneyed by now that it’s hard to believe it still gets chanted regularly.

6. Happy Birthday! Love, Your Toaster

 

The Internet of Things is often celebrated as a welcome, inevitable dawning. Joanne McNeil finds a drawback: birthday harassment. Her dystopic vision:

You wake up to a jazzy MIDI version of the “Happy Birthday” song. Your smart thermostat and smoke detector are singing in harmony because today is your day…Your bathroom scale, toilet, and garage door also welcome you with birthday wishes. Open up the refrigerator to another friendly jingle. Tropicana, Fage, and Sabra Hummus all wish you happy birthday. Now there’s an incoming message. It is the “birthday selfie” it snapped when you reached for the orange juice.

 

The post July 2014 appeared first on High Lantern Group.