Amazon’s antitrust antagonist has a breakthrough idea

David Streitfeld reports:

The dead books are on the top floor of Southern Methodist University’s law library.

“Antitrust Dilemma.” “The Antitrust Impulse.” “Antitrust in an Expanding Economy.” Shelf after shelf of volumes ignored for decades. There are a dozen fat tomes with transcripts of the congressional hearings on monopoly power in 1949, when the world was in ruins and the Soviets on the march. Lawmakers believed economic concentration would make America more vulnerable.

At the end of the antitrust stacks is a table near the window. “This is my command post,” said Lina Khan.

It’s nothing, really. A few books are piled up haphazardly next to a bottle with water and another with tea. Ms. Khan was in Dallas quite a bit over the last year, refining an argument about monopoly power that takes aim at one of the most admired, secretive and feared companies of our era: Amazon.

The retailer overwhelmingly dominates online commerce, employs more than half a million people and powers much of the internet itself through its cloud computing division. On Tuesday, it briefly became the second company to be worth a trillion dollars.

If competitors tremble at Amazon’s ambitions, consumers are mostly delighted by its speedy delivery and low prices. They stream its Oscar-winning movies and clamor for the company to build a second headquarters in their hometowns. Few of Amazon’s customers, it is safe to say, spend much time thinking they need to be protected from it.

But then, until recently, no one worried about Facebook, Google or Twitter either. Now politicians, the media, academics and regulators are kicking around ideas that would, metaphorically or literally, cut them down to size. [Continue reading…]

Microwave weapons are prime suspect in attacks on U.S. embassy staff in Cuba

The New York Times reports:

During the Cold War, Washington feared that Moscow was seeking to turn microwave radiation into covert weapons of mind control.

More recently, the American military itself sought to develop microwave arms that could invisibly beam painfully loud booms and even spoken words into people’s heads. The aims were to disable attackers and wage psychological warfare.

Now, doctors and scientists say such unconventional weapons may have caused the baffling symptoms and ailments that, starting in late 2016, hit more than three dozen American diplomats and family members in Cuba and China. The Cuban incidents resulted in a diplomatic rupture between Havana and Washington.

In 2016, diplomats at the United States Embassy in Havana were mysteriously stricken. Was it an attack? There is no official explanation, but the episode has played a big role in America’s current political disengagement with Cuba.Published OnApril 18, 2018
The medical team that examined 21 affected diplomats from Cuba made no mention of microwaves in its detailed report published in JAMA in March. But Douglas H. Smith, the study’s lead author and director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a recent interview that microwaves were now considered a main suspect and that the team was increasingly sure the diplomats had suffered brain injury. [Continue reading…]

As technology makes billions of people economically irrelevant, their political power is likely to shrink

Yuval Noah Harari writes:

There is nothing inevitable about democracy. For all the success that democracies have had over the past century or more, they are blips in history. Monarchies, oligarchies, and other forms of authoritarian rule have been far more common modes of human governance.

The emergence of liberal democracies is associated with ideals of liberty and equality that may seem self-evident and irreversible. But these ideals are far more fragile than we believe. Their success in the 20th century depended on unique technological conditions that may prove ephemeral.

In the second decade of the 21st century, liberalism has begun to lose credibility. Questions about the ability of liberal democracy to provide for the middle class have grown louder; politics have grown more tribal; and in more and more countries, leaders are showing a penchant for demagoguery and autocracy. The causes of this political shift are complex, but they appear to be intertwined with current technological developments. The technology that favored democracy is changing, and as artificial intelligence develops, it might change further.

Information technology is continuing to leap forward; biotechnology is beginning to provide a window into our inner lives—our emotions, thoughts, and choices. Together, infotech and biotech will create unprecedented upheavals in human society, eroding human agency and, possibly, subverting human desires. Under such conditions, liberal democracy and free-market economics might become obsolete.

Ordinary people may not understand artificial intelligence and biotechnology in any detail, but they can sense that the future is passing them by. In 1938 the common man’s condition in the Soviet Union, Germany, or the United States may have been grim, but he was constantly told that he was the most important thing in the world, and that he was the future (provided, of course, that he was an “ordinary man,” rather than, say, a Jew or a woman). He looked at the propaganda posters—which typically depicted coal miners and steelworkers in heroic poses—and saw himself there: “I am in that poster! I am the hero of the future!”

In 2018 the common person feels increasingly irrelevant. Lots of mysterious terms are bandied about excitedly in ted Talks, at government think tanks, and at high-tech conferences—globalization, blockchain, genetic engineering, AI, machine learning—and common people, both men and women, may well suspect that none of these terms is about them.

In the 20th century, the masses revolted against exploitation and sought to translate their vital role in the economy into political power. Now the masses fear irrelevance, and they are frantic to use their remaining political power before it is too late. Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump may therefore demonstrate a trajectory opposite to that of traditional socialist revolutions. The Russian, Chinese, and Cuban revolutions were made by people who were vital to the economy but lacked political power; in 2016, Trump and Brexit were supported by many people who still enjoyed political power but feared they were losing their economic worth. Perhaps in the 21st century, populist revolts will be staged not against an economic elite that exploits people but against an economic elite that does not need them anymore. This may well be a losing battle. It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation. [Continue reading…]

The digital corruption of the human brain

Maryanne Wolf writes:

Look around on your next plane trip. The iPad is the new pacifier for babies and toddlers. Younger school-aged children read stories on smartphones; older boys don’t read at all, but hunch over video games. Parents and other passengers read on Kindles or skim a flotilla of email and news feeds. Unbeknownst to most of us, an invisible, game-changing transformation links everyone in this picture: the neuronal circuit that underlies the brain’s ability to read is subtly, rapidly changing – a change with implications for everyone from the pre-reading toddler to the expert adult.

As work in neurosciences indicates, the acquisition of literacy necessitated a new circuit in our species’ brain more than 6,000 years ago. That circuit evolved from a very simple mechanism for decoding basic information, like the number of goats in one’s herd, to the present, highly elaborated reading brain. My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight. Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential “deep reading” processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading.

This is not a simple, binary issue of print vs digital reading and technological innovation. As MIT scholar Sherry Turkle has written, we do not err as a society when we innovate, but when we ignore what we disrupt or diminish while innovating. In this hinge moment between print and digital cultures, society needs to confront what is diminishing in the expert reading circuit, what our children and older students are not developing, and what we can do about it. [Continue reading…]

California advances an ambitious climate policy that should be a model for the world

MIT Technology Review reports:

California is accelerating its rollout of clean energy, even as the White House is racing to unravel climate regulations.

On Tuesday evening, the California Assembly passed a bill requiring 100 percent of the state’s electricity to come from carbon-free sources by the end of 2045, putting one of the world’s most aggressive clean-energy policies on track for the governor’s desk.

Given the size of California’s economy and the bill’s ambitions, it “would be the most important climate law in US history,” says Danny Cullenward, an energy economist and lawyer at the Carnegie Institution for Science.

The actual impact of the measure on global emissions and climate risks will be negligible, unless the rest of the world responds in similar ways. But California is effectively acting as a test bed for what’s technically achievable, providing a massive market for the rollout of clean-energy technologies and building a body of knowledge that other states and nations can leverage, says Severin Borenstein, an energy economist at the University of California, Berkeley.

“We are showing that you can operate a grid with high levels of intermittent renewables,” he says. “That’s something that can be exported to the rest of the world.” [Continue reading…]

The hidden injuries of the age of exposure

Rochelle Gurstein writes:

What do we lose when we lose our privacy? This question has become increasingly difficult to answer, living as we do in a society that offers boundless opportunities for men and women to expose themselves (in all dimensions of that word) as never before, to commit what are essentially self-invasions of privacy. Although this is a new phenomenon, it has become as ubiquitous as it is quotidian, and for that reason, it is perhaps one of the most telling signs of our time. To get a sense of the sheer range of unconscious exhibitionism, we need only think of the popularity of reality TV shows, addiction-recovery memoirs, and cancer diaries. Then there are the banal but even more conspicuous varieties, like soaring, all-glass luxury apartment buildings and hotels in which inhabitants display themselves in all phases of their private lives to the casual glance of thousands of city walkers below. Or the incessant sound of people talking loudly—sometimes gossiping, sometimes crying—on their cell phones, broadcasting to total strangers the intimate details of their lives.

And, of course, there are now unprecedented opportunities for violating one’s own privacy, furnished by the technology of the internet. The results are everywhere, from selfies and Instagrammed trivia to the almost automatic, everyday activity of Facebook users registering their personal “likes” and preferences. (As we recently learned, this online pastime is nowhere near as private as we had been led to believe; more than fifty million users’ idly generated “data” was “harvested” by Cambridge Analytica to make “personality profiles” that were then used to target voters with advertisements from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.)

Beyond these branded and aggressively marketed forums for self-invasions of privacy there are all the giddy, salacious forms that circulate in graphic images and words online—the sort that led not so long ago to the downfall of Anthony Weiner. The mania for attention of any kind is so pervasive—and the invasion of privacy so nonchalant—that many of us no longer notice, let alone mind, what in the past would have been experienced as insolent violations of privacy.

Given our widespread obliviousness to the current situation, we might be better served by asking: What did people used to believe they lost when they lost their privacy? Surprisingly, it turns out that a large number of people began to speak of privacy in a self-conscious way only toward the end of the nineteenth century. As is often the case, the first defenders of privacy became aware of its value at the moment they were on the verge of losing it. [Continue reading…]

How Russia, China or America could accidentally start a nuclear war

BBC News reports:

A mysterious Russian satellite displaying “very abnormal behaviour” has raised alarm in the US, according to a State Department official.

“We don’t know for certain what it is and there is no way to verify it,” said assistant secretary Yleem Poblete at a conference in Switzerland on 14 August.

She voiced fears that it was impossible to say if the object may be a weapon.

Russia has dismissed the comments as “unfounded, slanderous accusations based on suspicions”.

The satellite in question was launched in October last year.

“[The satellite’s] behaviour on-orbit was inconsistent with anything seen before from on-orbit inspection or space situational awareness capabilities, including other Russian inspection satellite activities,” Ms Poblete told the conference on disarmament in Switzerland.

“Russian intentions with respect to this satellite are unclear and are obviously a very troubling development,” she added, citing recent comments made by the commander of Russia’s Space Forces, who said adopting “new prototypes of weapons” was a key objective for the force.

Ms Poblete said that the US had “serious concerns” that Russia was developing anti-satellite weapons. [Continue reading…]

Michael Peck writes:

What happens when you use the same satellites to control nuclear forces as well as conventional troops?

Accidental nuclear war, that’s what could happen.

That’s the warning by a Washington think tank, which argues that the U.S. is inviting nuclear war by using the same command and communications systems to oversee both nuclear and conventional forces. But such “dual use” systems risk an inadvertent nuclear war, because an attack on non-nuclear assets, such as satellites or radars, could be perceived as an attempt to cripple America’s nuclear deterrent.

The Trump administration’s draft nuclear policy already states that cyberattacks against America, or attacks on U.S. satellites, could constitute a strategic threat that merits a nuclear response. But this raises a problem called “nuclear entanglement,” where the traditionally bright lines between nuclear and non-nuclear systems become blurred. [Continue reading…]

Google tracks your movements, like it or not

The Associated Press reports:

Google wants to know where you go so badly that it records your movements even when you explicitly tell it not to.

An Associated Press investigation found that many Google services on Android devices and iPhones store your location data even if you’ve used a privacy setting that says it will prevent Google from doing so.

Computer-science researchers at Princeton confirmed these findings at the AP’s request.

For the most part, Google is upfront about asking permission to use your location information. An app like Google Maps will remind you to allow access to location if you use it for navigating. If you agree to let it record your location over time, Google Maps will display that history for you in a “timeline” that maps out your daily movements. [Continue reading…]

Carmakers speed toward electric future despite Trump rollback

Bloomberg reports:

The Trump administration wants to try to limit California’s special ability to require increasing purchase of electric vehicles in the state—but major automakers say they have no intention of reversing course on their electric vehicle plans.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Transportation Department are targeting California’s authority under the Clean Air Act to set stricter tailpipe emissions limits and zero emission vehicle requirements than the federal government.

The agencies, as part of a larger Aug. 2 proposal to relax Obama-era fuel economy standards for passenger cars, argued federal regulators’ authority preempts the Golden State’s ability to go beyond federal requirements.

“By 2020, more than 15 percent of our U.S. lineup will consist of hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and fuel cell electric vehicles. And that’s regardless of what regulation does,” Fred Turatti, general manager of environmental regulation for Toyota, told a July 23 event hosted by the Energy Consumer Market Alignment Project, a recently launched energy policy nonprofit group.

Toyota isn’t an outlier. Other major automakers told Bloomberg Environment, or have said publicly, they will stay on track toward their electric vehicle plans.

And analysts say that is because China—and the rapid growth in the country’s electric vehicle market—is a larger and more long-term driver for U.S. and foreign automakers’ focus on electric vehicles, more so than stringent federal fuel economy regulations or state zero emission vehicle mandates. [Continue reading…]

The marvel of LED lighting is now a global blight to health

By Richard G ‘Bugs’ Stevens, Aeon

Light pollution is often characterised as a soft issue in environmentalism. This perception needs to change. Light at night constitutes a massive assault on the ecology of the planet, including us. It also has indirect impacts because, while 20 per cent of electricity is used for lighting worldwide, at least 30 per cent of that light is wasted. Wasted light serves no purpose at all, and excessive lighting is too often used beyond what is needed for driving, or shopping, or Friday-night football. 

The electric light bulb is touted as one of the most significant technological advancements of human beings. It ranks right up there with the wheel, control of fire, antibiotics and dynamite. But as with any new and spectacular technology, there are invariably unintended consequences. With electric light has come an obliteration of night in much of the modern world; both outside in the city, and indoors during what was once ‘night’ according to the natural position of the Sun.

Life has evolved for several billion years with a reliable cycle of bright light from the Sun during the day, and darkness at night. This has led to the development of an innate circadian rhythm in our physiology; that circadian rhythm depends on the solar cycle of night and day to maintain its precision. During the night, beginning at about sunset, body temperature drops, metabolism slows, hunger abates, sleepiness increases, and the hormone melatonin rises dramatically in the blood. This natural physiological transition to night is of ancient origin, and melatonin is crucial for the transition to proceed as it should.

We now know that bright, short-wavelength light – blue light – is the most efficient for suppressing melatonin and delaying transition to night-time physiology; meanwhile, dimmer, longer-wavelength light – yellow, orange, and red, from a campfire or a candle, for example – has very little effect. Bright light from the Sun contains blue light, which is a benefit in the morning when we need to be alert and awake; but whether we are outdoors or indoors, when bright, blue light comes after sunset, it fools the body into thinking it’s daytime.

[Read more…]