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Preview: Katherine Mangu-Ward: Reason Magazine articles.

Katherine Mangu-Ward: articles.

Updated: 2018-01-17T00:00:00-05:00


Why It's So Hard to Get Pervs Out of Politics


Politics is a high-stakes, winner-takes-all game with irresistible appeal to a certain kind of low-quality human being. There are typically only two viable candidates in any national race, and voters have a lot invested in the idea that bad things will happen if their guy loses. That means that if their guy turns out to be, say, an unrepentant pedophile, there will be plenty of voters who pause for a minute and wonder whether having an unrepentant pedophile in office who will consistently vote the way they want is worse or better than having a non-pedophile who will consistently vote in a way that they believe will undermine the American experiment. Partisan duopoly creates powerful incentives to wear blinders about the flaws of your preferred candidate, and to make excuses for failings too glaring to deny. In more concrete terms, voters feel compelled to calculate whether a dubious non-consensual boob grab caught on camera is worth accepting in order to get a decade of votes against Republican Supreme Court nominees, in the case of Sen. Al Franken (D–Minn.). Or whether a few sexual harassment settlements paid by taxpayers are a price they're willing to bear in exchange for a vote against Obamacare repeal, as in the case of Rep. John Conyers (D–Mich.). This non-Euclidean electoral geometry was most famously employed on behalf of Bill Clinton decades ago by his feminist supporters, who were willing to dismiss behavior ranging from a voluntary affair with an intern to much more serious allegations of rape and assault, because they believed he would defend women's rights more effectively than his would-be replacements. South Park famously depicted formal political debates as moronic shoutfests between a giant douche and a turd sandwich. That's a bit of an overstatement: Not all politicians are disgusting. But when a candidate does turn out to be awful, voters often discover too late that—like visitors to Matt Lauer's office or Harvey Weinstein's hotel room—their escape routes have been blocked off. And simply refusing to participate doesn't help with this particular problem; a write-in vote for "neither" won't prevent one of the major party hopefuls from winning in the end. Sure, politicians are ultimately answerable to the electorate. They're scared we might not vote for them next time around, and that guides their behavior. But they also know that they've made themselves extremely hard to remove by building all kinds of institutional safeguards for their jobs. Add in decades of gerrymandering that have rendered many districts a sure thing for one team or the other, plus a national party apparatus that controls access to televised debates, and even the scariest charges can be weathered with the right combination of money, partisan panic, and news cycle distractibility. At press time, it looks like Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican accused of inappropriate behavior toward several teenagers, has narrowly missed being elected to the U.S. Senate. His campaign coincided with a major shift in how Americans process allegations of sexual misconduct. That shift is metabolizing quickly in the private sector, where producer Harvey Weinstein, actor Kevin Spacey, comedian Louis C.K., journalists Matt Lauer and Leon Wieseltier, and many more were fired (or faced similar sanctions in the marketplace) before they could issue their non-apologies. One reason for the swift response is that consumer-facing industries—the people who make the stuff we buy, watch, and wear—are highly susceptible to boycotts and other forms of reputational damage. Media companies in particular are subject to the decisions of advertisers, who can easily transfer their marketing budgets to another show, another movie, another product, another publication. An allegation of misconduct that takes off on Twitter or Snapchat can do incalculable damage to a brand's bottom line. The real difference between public and private sector responsiveness to discovering predators in their midst, though, is the dynamic labor market for talent in the for-profit [...]

Rat Film


(image) Actual rats helped compose the soundtrack of Rat Film, a meditation on urban planning and pest control in Baltimore. Musician Dan Deacon ended up giving a pack of rodents free run of a theremin—a rare electronic instrument typically controlled by a musician's hand gestures—to generate the basis for a piece called "Redlining."

Theo Anthony's film is impressionistic rather than argumentative, and it would have benefited from a slightly more conventional human being somewhere—anywhere!—in the production process to check its excesses. But give Anthony credit: He has combined raw and compelling human stories about poverty with floods of data about the ways governments and other entangled institutions reinforce segregation, even in an era that theoretically frowns on the practice of sorting white from black and rich from poor.

Plus, there's a lot of weird stuff about rats.

The End of Free Speech


Ah, fall. Students heading off to campus protests, football players kneeling as the national anthem plays, the smell of burning flags. It's the season of free speech madness. Republicans, as is their habit of late, have positioned themselves as the defenders of First Amendment freedoms in a time of runaway political correctness. This plays well on television: Footage of college students shouting down speakers they don't like, staging sit-ins, and brandishing protest placards runs on an endless loop at Fox News while chyrons blare, "Free Speech Under Fire on Campus." And when a demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, spiraled out of control, it was primarily right-leaning lawmakers and pundits who stood up for the right of white supremacists and Nazis to express their vile opinions about race and Confederate statuary. Meanwhile, signs demanding "No Free Speech for Fascists" cropped up in the hands of lefties at post-Charlottesville rallies around the country. But as the weather cooled, the GOP revealed its true colors. Led by an increasingly vehement and erratic President Donald Trump, the same party that was poised to die on the hill of free speech when it was being threatened by angry progressives was suddenly ready to eliminate First Amendment rights on the football field, revoke citizenship for flag burning, pull broadcast licenses over bad comedy sketches, and expand libel laws to take down annoying members of the media. There are greater threats to speech, it turns out, than a bunch of angry co-eds. In the face of calls for censorship from the left and the right, meanwhile, one of the most important traditional defenders of speech has begun a slow but undeniable retreat. Dealing with internal dissension in the wake of Charlottesville, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) tiptoed away from its proud legacy of free speech absolutism. And poll after poll revealed that Americans of both parties are ready and willing to see speech rights abridged in the service of partisan goals. Nothing that has happened so far in 2017 is yet irreversible. But as the ACLU is undermined from within and the right once again sheds the mantle of free speech in favor of a cape made of the American flag, the sharp edges of our First Amendment rights are eroding. In an era of bipartisan agreement that speech should be limited (paired, of course, with violent disagreement about what speech should be limited), it will be all too easy to forget where the outer boundaries of our freedom of expression once were. And once lost, they won't be easy to reconstruct. Back to School As the fall semester began, campus activists were primed for action. The previous academic year had begun with Yale students surrounding residential college master Nicholas Christakis and shouting about how his wife's opinions on Halloween costumery made them feel unsafe; it ended with Evergreen State College students surrounding professor Bret Weinstein and shouting about how his opinions on student activism made them feel unsafe. Berkeley's campus had been engulfed in angry protests, which culminated in the cancellation of speeches by right-wing provocateurs Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos. Many students came back to campus looking to fight. They were not disappointed. Before classes even began, Fordham's dean of students and deputy Title IX coordinator Christopher Rodgers was already under investigation for showing a video questioning popular statistics on campus rape in a resident adviser training session. Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, a book that makes controversial claims about the relationship between race and IQ, faced protests at the University of Michigan. (Unlike at Middlebury College the year before, where his attempt to speak ended in physical assault, Murray managed to finish his talk after the hecklers moved on. "We feel it is important to make an unequivocal statement that we believe universities should remain bastions of civil debate and tolerance," the students who invi[...]

Tequila Ocho


Tequila is bad for bats, it turns out. Our nocturnal echolocationary pals love the blossoms of the blue agave plant, but liquor makers prefer to harvest agave before it bloomsand booming demand for high-end tequila and mezcal have turned every plant into a prize.

But thanks to the efforts of biologist Rodrigo Medellí­nwho says bat pollination increases biodiversity and helps strengthen local ecosystemssome agave farms are experimenting with letting 5 percent of their plants flower in an effort to lure back the bats. In exchange, they get a holographic seal of approval and a new marketing strategy.

So how does it taste? Tequila Tapatío's new bat-friendly Tequila Ocho is priceyI found a bottle for $70 at one of D.C.'s more eclectic liquor storesbut light and grassy, with a mild flavor. The limpid quality of the spirit matches the ostentatious clarity of the conscience of its drinkers. There's a faint aftertaste of smugness, no doubt due to the corporate social responsibility in the manufacturing process, but that doesn't overwhelm the delicious luxury of drinking bat-friendly margaritas in a world rich enough to care about such things.

How to Talk to Your Kids About Guns


Here are two true statements: 1. The number of privately held firearms in America has nearly doubled in the last two decades while the number of gun murders per capita was cut in half. 2. The number of kids abducted by strangers in 2011 was 105, out of approximately 73 million children in the United States. That's down slightly from 115 two decades ago. After Stephen Paddock killed 58 people and injured hundreds more by firing into a crowd from the 32nd floor of his Las Vegas hotel in October, America dove headfirst into our now-traditional national shoutfest about gun laws. One side sees its argument as self-evident: The moment when dozens of people lie dying in the street of gunshot wounds is the right time to pass laws restricting private gun ownership. The other side, by and large, frames its argument in the language of rights and freedoms: You may not like what some people do with some guns, but the Second Amendment exists for a reason. Too often absent from both sides of the debate are well-parsed statistics. Restrictionists will cite the approximately 33,000 annual gun deaths in America, but that number reveals almost nothing about the question the public really wants answered after Vegas or the Orlando nightclub shooting before it: How likely am I to die in an incident of random violence? Two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides, as statistician Leah Libresco explained in The Washington Post shortly after the Vegas shooting, and "almost no proposed restriction would make it meaningfully harder for people with guns on hand to use them." Next are "young men aged 15 to 34, killed in homicides" that are often gang-related, and after that "the 1,700 women murdered per year, usually as the result of domestic violence." The number of people killed in mass shootings is far smaller—there were fewer than 90 incidents that fit the FBI's formal definition of "mass killing" with a gun in the last three decades, most of them with just four victims—yet the center of gravity in the gun control debate isn't suicide hotlines, drug legalization, or domestic violence shelters. Instead, politicians and pundits perseverate on reducing firing speeds, excluding mentally ill people from the right to buy a gun, and building lists of people with ties to terrorist groups: interventions aimed at minimizing the odds of already-rare deaths from mass shootings. A frenzy of attempts at preventive policy making follows each high-profile incident but actually creates the conditions for future failure. Gun prohibition produces the same problems as drug or alcohol prohibition; attempts to restrict harmless sale and possession in order to catch a minority of misusers yield all kinds of unintended consequences. Black markets make the purchase of prohibited items riskier and more expensive, and make the transactions untraceable. Bans are likely to be disproportionately enforced among black and Muslim gun owners, increasing racial disparities. Narrowly tailored restrictions will push product development teams at big firearms manufacturers and garage tinkerers alike to find workarounds that circumvent the letter of the law. And any mass confiscation of illegal weapons or accessories will lead to more violence, as die-hard gun rights believers inevitably fight back against law enforcement. Take a misunderstanding of the scope and nature of a problem, combine it with a desire to "do something" in the face of national anguish, and you get a recipe for both bad law and cultural conflict. A nearly identical problem plagues another heated national conversation: Are our children in danger? How likely is my kid to be grabbed by a kidnapper? Underlying much of the invective about helicopter parents, millennial snowflakes, and trophies for everyone is the question of what risks American kids realistically face. In a country where violent crime has been largely declining for decades, and where crimes against children have declined even faster, [...]



(image) You might have heard that no bank faced criminal charges after the financial crisis of 2008. But that's not quite true. Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a New York Chinatown–based institution founded in 1984 by Thomas Sung, was charged in 2012 with fraud and accused of falsifying mortgage applications by the Manhattan District Attorney's office. The bank and the family that runs it are the focus of a new documentary from Hoop Dreams director Steve James, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.

The Sung family bankers fit classic archetypes—the steely immigrant patriarch, the small, fierce matriarch, the loyal Americanized daughters who nag their father to eat. In 2009, when one daughter discovered during a closing that an Abacus loan officer had been skimming money from clients, they halted the closing, fired the officer, and reported the issue to their regulator. They initially cooperated with federal inquiries, but slowly realized that at some point their family and the bank itself had become the focus of the investigation—and was potentially being cast as a scapegoat for the whole American banking system.

It's Time to Privatize the V.A.


There's a building in Washington, D.C., that's mostly empty space. The Pension Building, as it was known when it was commissioned by Congress in 1881, fills an entire city block. Like an M.C. Escher fever dream, columns of every size rise in stacked colonnades around a stupendously massive atrium. By the time the last of the 15 million red bricks had been stacked six years later, there were enough offices ringing the edges of the building to house 1,500 clerks serving 324,968 pensioners, mostly Civil War veterans. The building was grand by design, a memorial to the fallen as well as a place of honor for surviving Union soldiers, their widows, and their orphans. Service pensions were a big deal in Washington in the 1880s; they made up almost one-third of the federal budget. Forty percent of the legislation introduced in the House in the 49th Congress and 55 percent in the Senate consisted of special pension acts. These days, meeting obligations to veterans is less of a priority. Sure, there's still grandstanding about how "only the best is good enough for our troops." But in 2014, news leaked out that the Veterans Health Administration (VHA)—which currently consumes 38 percent of the Department of Veterans Affairs' $182 billion budget, and which was previously celebrated by Democrats as an exemplary experiment in single-payer health care—was falsifying patient records in an effort to cover up long and occasionally fatal wait times for appointments. President Barack Obama's administration responded to the crisis quickly—and ineffectively. In October of last year, then–Veterans Affairs (V.A.) Secretary Bob McDonald could be found bragging that two-thirds of the system's medical centers had new directors. But in fact, those fixes were little more than an enormous game of musical chairs. Only two of the new directors came from outside the system; the rest were promotions from inside the dysfunctional health centers and a reshuffling of center heads around the country. In Ohio, USA Today reported at the time, directors in Chillicothe and Columbus simply switched places. Mid-panic, Congress did take a baby step—more of a scootch, really—toward offering some veterans the option of obtaining care in the private sector. The Veterans Choice Act allows vets who have to wait more than 30 days for care or live more than 40 miles from a traditional V.A. hospital to use V.A. funds to access other providers. The whole program was a $10 billion experiment over three years, a relatively small part of the agency's overall budget. There's another route to choice, of course. As with all publicly provided goods, many people who can afford to opt out of the system already do—bottom-up privatization. Of the approximately 22 million veterans in the United States, only 9 million are enrolled in the Veterans Health Administration to begin with. While the best way reduce the burden of veterans' care is not to send Americans to war in the first place, privatizing the system—allowing returning soldiers, sailors, and Marines to seek the care they prefer in the private market rather than shoehorning them into another government bureaucracy—would be a good place to start. When Donald Trump was elected, this looked like an area where he might do some real good. At Mar-a-Lago in December, he called together members of the press and then, through a spokesman, suggested he might consider major changes at the V.A.: "We think we have to have kind of a public-private option, because some vets love the V.A.…Definitely an option on the table to have a system where potentially vets can choose either/or or all private." During the campaign, Bernie Sanders repeatedly accused Republicans of wanting to privatize the system. But even the proposal from Concerned Veterans for America, which probably comes closest, only went so far as to suggest that health facilities could be sp[...]

The Taste of Empire


For the last decade or two, books claiming that a certain improbable foodstuff, idea, or country "made the modern world" have been much in vogue. I'm a sucker for the genre, and judging by the steady drip of such books from both mainstream and academic publishing houses, I must not be alone.

Lizzie Collingham's The Taste of Empire: How Britain's Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World (Basic Books) is an above-average entrant in this crowded field. The book leans into its own whimsy, with such chapter titles as "In which diamond miners cook up an iguana curry at a rum shop in Guyana during the rainy season."

The book begins with salt cod on a doomed ship in 1545 and ends with the awkward turkey curry buffet from Bridget Jones's Diary. Nearly all the historical vignettes and recipes in between are equal parts fascinating and horrifying, in the way only pre-germ theory food handling can be.

Trump Wants to Win at Trade. He's Missing the Point.


Donald Trump is screwing up the ultimatum game. The classic psychology experiment works like this: One player is given some amount of money, say $20, and told to divide it between herself and another player however she pleases. The second player can accept or reject the offer. If he agrees, both players keep the money. If he declines, both players walk away empty-handed. In theory, the second player should accept any offer. After all, something is better than nothing. But that's not what people do. When offered less than 30 percent of the total, peeved second players consistently turn it down. Tweaking the terms can change the outcome on the margins, but not the underlying fact that even when people are getting something for nothing, they're willing to sabotage their own material gain to make sure the person who offered them a bad deal loses too. This is, alas, the secret to understanding international trade policy. In July, President Trump laid out his plan to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a set of rules governing commerce between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico that he has called "the worst trade deal maybe ever." The tariff- and bureaucracy-reducing arrangement, which was negotiated by President George H.W. Bush and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, has been a political ping pong ball ever since. White House hopefuls like to talk smack about it during their now-mandatory factory-floor campaign speeches, which generally demean the quality of goods manufactured abroad, lament the loss of certain blue-collar jobs, and bemoan the existence of trade deficits—where imports outweigh exports—as the root of these evils. More than 20 years after its implementation, NAFTA has tripled the United States' cross-border trade with Canada and Mexico, an increase that significantly outpaces the growth in U.S. trade with the rest of the world. But the U.S. did have a $63 billion trade deficit with Mexico last year, compared with a $1.7 billion surplus in 1993. Is that a sign that America got a bad deal? Donald Trump thinks so. The same sentiment was on display in his recent partial reversal of President Barack Obama's opening up of relations with Cuba. "Effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration's completely one-sided deal with Cuba," the president said in June. (For more on that, flip to "Whiplash and Backlash in the Republic of Cuba" on page 28.) Donald Trump isn't anti-trade, unlike some of his unlikely lefty bedfellows. He's pumped, for instance, about the prospect of helping Make Britain Great Again with a "big and exciting" trade deal. But for Trump, the presence of trade deficits—especially with China, but with Japan and Germany as well—are a dead giveaway that something is rotten. As a side note, the president seems a little unclear on the distinction between trade deficits and budget deficits: In a June meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, he said: "The United States has trade deficits…with South Korea right now, but we cannot allow that to continue. This is really a statement that I make about all trade: For many, many years the United States has suffered through massive trade deficits; that's why we have $20 trillion in debt." In an August interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump justified his plans to further limit imports from Europe by describing the E.U. as "very, very protectionist" and "very unfair." His way of talking about trade, as a series of good deals or bad deals, misses the genius of the idea of swapping stuff in a market. The other guy being happy—smug, even—after a commercial transaction is not a sign that something went wrong for you. When I sold my 8-year-old television on Craigslist after it started spontaneously turning itself off, the guy who bought it definitely thought I was an idiot for not[...]

Interview: Kennedy


When Kurt Loder and Penn Jillette tell you you're a libertarian, you might be a libertarian. Once upon a time, Kennedy was one of America's most famous Republicans. At the tender age of 20, Lisa Kennedy Montgomery became a breakout personality at MTV, combining coverage of alternative music with political news starting in 1992. Frizzy-haired, bespectacled, and Doc Martens–clad, Kennedy quickly came out as a Republican, bringing ideological diversity to cable long before Fox News was a twinkle in founder Roger Ailes' eye. She rubbed shoulders with plenty of musicians and politicians at MTV, as well as in her later gigs as a radio personality and a game show host. She also picked up a degree in philosophy from the University of California, Los Angeles, in those years, along with professional snowboarding husband Dave Lee and a couple of kids. These days, Kennedy calls herself a libertarian, thanks in part to prompting from some famous friends, and she's still an odd duck. At a network famous for smiling glossy blondes, Kennedy brings a sharp brunette sensibility to Fox's talent pool. She first appeared on The Independents, the show she co-hosted with FreeThink's Kmele Foster and Reason's Matt Welch. It was cancelled in 2015, but quickly replaced with Kennedy, an eponymous solo show that hearkens more explicitly back to her V.J. days. It airs at 8 p.m. most weeknights on Fox Business, and approaches the news of the day with a wink and nudge, smuggling serious monologues about government spending, regulatory overreach, and political malfeasance in between segments driven by cat videos and memes. After a taping of the show in June, Reason's Katherine Mangu-Ward chatted with Kennedy in her office, a small space crammed with serious books, absurd shoes, and brightly colored dresses high in the towers of 21st Century Fox* headquarters in Manhattan. Reason: How did you become a libertarian? Kennedy: I think I was born that way. Or at least born into a set of circumstances and family members that naturally steered me toward a path of individualism and limited government. The news was always on very loud in my house and you could only get news a couple hours of the day. Because of that, when we ate dinner, my dad would insist that the evening news be turned up at full volume and then he would shush us if we started talking during something very important. So I tried to listen to the terms which he found most interesting. They didn't make sense to me for a long, long time. What were your parents' political leanings? Both my parents were Democrats. My dad was definitely more of a fiscally conservative traditional Democrat. My mom was more of a feminist Camelot Democrat. They definitely had an idealistic view of life as it should be in the United States. And they had a sense that government had to have some hand in making people's lives better. So for me libertarianism was the ultimate form of rebellion. "I think being deeply suspicious of government and communists is implicit in a lot of first-generation immigrants, particularly from Eastern Europe. My mom came over from Romania when she was a kid and they fled the commies who took their family hemp farm." We both come from good Democratic families with Romanian roots. Do you think the Romanian experience of being dominated by assorted autocratic regimes over its entire history has something to do with your parents' politics or yours? I definitely think my ancestry has something to do with my politics. And I think being deeply suspicious of government and communists is implicit in a lot of first-generation immigrants, particularly from Eastern Europe. My mom came over from Romania when she was a kid and they fled the commies who took their family hemp farm. I'm sorry—a hemp farm?! Yeah, and my grandmother always hated the fem[...]

Cory Doctorow's 'Fully Automated Luxury Communist Civilization'


Cory Doctorow, of BoingBoing and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) fame, has returned to adult fiction after a long stint in the young adult hinterlands (Little Brother, Homeland). His new novel, Walkaway (Tor), circles back to the theme of his first novel, 2003's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom: the question of what a post-scarcity world might look like. A fascinating cadre of John Galt–style opters-out form the core of the new novel, but the story is concept-driven, not character-driven. As usual, Doctorow's politics permeate his writing. And, as usual, they're just heterodox enough to provide moments of delightful confirmation bias and squirm-inducing challenge for readers of nearly every ideological stripe. Doctorow, a civil libertarian who identifies with the political left, has staked out a broad and eccentric territory for his fiction and nonfiction beats, covering topics from privacy to drones to Digital Rights Management (DRM) to open-source software creation. The Walkaway audiobook is a particular delight, featuring guest appearances from a ramshackle celebrity cast, including Amber Benson, Justine Eyre, Amanda Palmer, and Wil Wheaton. All versions of the novel are free from distribution-restricting DRM protections. The downside is that standard providers like Audible won't carry it. When Doctorow stopped by Reason's D.C. office in April, he handed out credit card–shaped USB drives loaded with the audiobook on his way out the door. Hardcover review copies also shipped with a similarly sized multitool. These little flourishes bring readers a few inches closer to Doctorow's subversive worldview, where it's always possible, even admirable, to thumb your nose at the rules imposed by governments, tech companies, and just about everyone else. Reason: Let's talk about the word dystopia. It's a word no one knew 10 years ago and now everyone says all the time about pretty much every novel ever. Is this a dystopia in Walkaway, or a utopia? Doctorow: I think that we mistake the furniture for the theme. We tend to think of books in which things are in crisis as being dystopian novels. But really it's a very hard job to write a dramatic novel—especially in the kind of pulpy science fiction tradition—in which things aren't going wrong. So for me, the thing that cleaves a utopia from a dystopia is what [essayist and critic] Rebecca Solnit says cleaves a disaster from a catastrophe: It's what we do when things go wrong. Do people pitch in and rise to the occasion? Or do they turn on their neighbors and eat them? That's the dystopian vision. The most dystopian thing you can imagine is that, but for the thin veneer of civilization, it would be a bloodbath. Is Walkaway a prequel to Down And Out in the Magic Kingdom? It seems like a similar universe. Has the political take-away that you would want people to get out of those two books shifted, either because your views have changed or because facts on the ground have changed? I think science fiction is not predictive in any meaningful way. It's certainly not great at it. We're Texas marksmen: We fire the shotgun into the side of the barn and draw the target around the place where the pellets hit. We just ignore all those stories that never came true. But I also think that prediction is way overrated. I like what Dante did to the fortune tellers. He put them in a pit of molten shit up to their nipples with their heads twisted around backwards, weeping into their own ass cracks for having pretended that the future was knowable. If the future is knowable then it's inevitable. And if it's inevitable, why are we even bothering? Why get out of bed if the future is going to happen no matter what we do? Except I guess you're foreordained to. I'm not a fatalist. The reason I'm an activist is beca[...]

Giant Ziplock Baggies Full of Lambs Are Going to Change Everything


In April, researchers announced they had managed to keep several extremely premature lambs alive and growing in artificial wombs. After spending up to four weeks in a clear plastic "extra-uterine device" at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, each sheep transformed from a decidedly undercooked fetal specimen to a much more robust critter with long limbs and a fluffy wool coat, the sort of animal you wouldn't be terribly alarmed to see plop to the ground in a field on a spring afternoon. The setup strongly resembles a sous vide cooking apparatus: a tiny, tender lamb floats in a large plastic ziplock, hooked up to tubes and monitors. But a video clip posted by the researchers has the emotional heft of feeling a fetus kick when you put a hand on a pregnant woman's belly. Visible through the clear plastic, the lamb's hooves twitch gently as it snuffles its nose and wiggles its ears. The lambs in the experiment were selected for their developmental similarity to human babies born right on the edge of viability, or about four months premature. Babies born that early are equal parts horrifying and marvelous. Tiny creatures with organs visible through their translucent skin, they're often called "miracle babies." But there's nothing particularly mysterious about those little beings curled up in nests of tubes and wires; they live because of the inspiration and hard work and risk-taking and study and pain of hundreds of people. There are actually more of these struggling newborns now than there were a decade ago, simply because we've gotten so much better at keeping extremely premature babies—born before 24 gestational weeks—alive. Yet in the U.S., one-third of all infant deaths and one-half of all cases of cerebral palsy are still attributed to prematurity. Of the babies born that early who survive, more than 90 percent have severe and lasting health consequences, especially with their lungs, eyes, and intestines. Previous efforts to improve those numbers have been stymied by difficulties duplicating the functions of the placenta, but the device attached to the "Biobag" looks deceptively simple: a pumpless blue plastic box hooked up to the umbilical cord that oxygenates the blood, removes carbon dioxide, and adds nutrients. In their paper, published in Nature Communications, the Philadelphia researchers are careful to say that human applications of their work are at least a decade away. Yet these little pink lambs are already taking sledgehammers to some of the most precarious coalitions in American politics. Because as petty as our politics can seem, many of our fiercest debates rest on questions of birth, death, and our obligations to the not-quite and just-barely born. The implications for the abortion debate are obvious. (I've probably already annoyed you with my use of baby or fetus in the passages above, no matter which side you're on.) Pro-life and pro-choice forces have reached tense legal stasis around the threshold of viability, but a true artificial womb tech could render the term meaningless. Gestation in a plastic bag makes the reality of prenatal humanity more immediate, but also removes the remaining aura of naturalness and inevitability from the process. There exists an uneasy coalition between certain feminists and certain conservatives who oppose gestational surrogacy—the closest current analogue to an artificial womb, in which a woman carries a fertilized egg to term. (The embryo is typically created through in vitro fertilization and is often not genetically related to the surrogate.) But when the borrowed womb is a baggie—not a poor woman at risk for exploitation—the moral and political calculus changes. Perhaps this innovation will bring some wandering feminists back over to the side of [...]

Empire Games


(image) In a genre consumed by propulsion explainers and grandiose quests, Charlie Stross has a talent for creating loopily appealing science fiction plots out of corporate and market interactions. His Merchant Princes series takes a highfalutin' genre conceit—a genetically blessed subset of the population that can skip between alternate timelines—and plays it out in a pleasingly mundane way.

Gangs of rivalrous universe-hopping cousins become smugglers, as well as serving as a kind of inter-dimensional FedEx, over the course of the original six-book sequence. The protagonist, Miriam Beckstein, vanishes enticingly at the end of the series, as does most of the cast in what Stross describes on his blog as a "brisk thermonuclear holocaust."

In Empire Games (Tor), the first of a new trilogy based on the same idea, Stross takes the concept in a more political direction. Now Beckstein's daughter, Rita Douglas, is entangled in the kind of Homeland Security apparatus that might spring up in the face of nuclear conflict in proximate timelines. In 2020, as a variety of clashes threaten to spill into the almost-but-not-quite-our-own-world home timeline of the story, Douglas, an out-of-work actress, struggles to figure out how to play her role as a double agent.

As always, Stross writes characters in authority who are overbearing, frequently misinformed, and largely well-intentioned. They would be more at home in The Office than the Death Star. Empire Games, as its title suggests, leaves commerce mostly behind in favor of a more standard government-conspiracy-within-conspiracy structure, but it remains readable and human.

Armless Droid Calls Cops After Being Assaulted by Drunken Man


It was 8:15 p.m. and Jason Sylvain was drunk. When the 41-year-old man encountered Knightscope's 300-pound K5 security droid doing laps in the company's Mountain View parking lot, things didn't go well—for either of them. The large, pyramidal robot can't have been easy to overturn. But Sylvain, whom a police spokesperson later described as "confused, [with] red, glassy eyes and a strong odor of alcohol emit[ting] from him," persevered. Upon finding itself topsy-turvy, the unarmed bot did what anyone would do: It called the cops and hollered for help. In response to the K5's siren, Knightscope's vice president of marketing, Stacy Stevens, rushed out of the company's HQ and nabbed the assailant. Stevens later told CNET that the sloshed Sylvain "claimed to be an engineer that wanted to 'test' the security robots." He added, "I guess he now has his answer." Knightscope rather insistently compares its weaponless 5-foot-tall robots to the loveable and heroic R2D2. But they really look more like Daleks, the heavily armored aliens best known by their Doctor Who catchphrase "Exterminate!" And there has been one reported incident in which a K5 arguably violated Isaac Asimov's First Law of Robotics by "injuring a human being or, through inaction, allowing a human being to come to harm." Last year in a Silicon Valley shopping center, a toddler had a run-in with a "K5 Autonomous Data Machine (Machine Identification Number 13)." The 18-month-old boy sustained a boo-boo after an encounter with Paul Bleep, mall cop. Details are unclear, but in hilariously dry technical language, Knightscope's official statement gently suggests that the victim, young Harwin Cheng, may have tripped over his own feet: "The machine's sensors registered no vibration alert and the machine motors did not fault as they would when encountering an obstacle." Is "the machine's sensors registered no vibration alert" the robot equivalent of "the suspect was resisting arrest"? Maybe. But while body cams on human security agents are not yet universal, the whole point of the K5 droids is that they record and broadcast everything they do, generating meticulous records. Regardless, the company pulled the bots to work on an update, which was undergoing testing when Sylvain stumbled onto the scene. Knightscope rents its robots for between $6.25 and $7 per hour—less than minimum wage, a price point that's not coincidental. The K5 is ready and willing to take a job that Americans just won't do, or at least a job that Americans won't do at the wages that the law mandates companies must pay them. In the headquarters of Microsoft, Uber, and other corporate clients, K5s do pretty much what a civilian security guard would: mosey around looking moderately menacing while listening and watching for anything out of the ordinary. The droid uses lasers, GPS, thermal imaging, and a super-fast license plate scanner where a human being would use his ears and eyes. Also similar to the human guard, the bot's primary weapon is its phone. But the K5 never loses its temper or calls in sick. And it's much, much cheaper. There's no doubt that higher minimum wages are encouraging automation. Just ask the members of the joke Facebook group "Robots for a $15 Minimum Wage." In February, the burger chain Wendy's announced plans to outfit 1,000 locations with automated ordering kiosks. "Last year was tough; 5 percent wage inflation," CEO Bob Wright told investors and analysts earlier this year. Then he noted that demand for kiosks was very high among the company's franchisees—small businesspeople who are struggling with increased labor costs. But daily stories chronicling the rise of automation in response to wage increases typically t[...]



(image) A Ukrainian company has unveiled a cheap autonomous mobile house with a 3D-printed frame. The PassivDom modul-One includes solar panels, batteries for power storage, and an inverter, as well as water storage, purification, and independent sewage. The frame is made of carbon fiber, fiberglass, and polyurethane. It claims to be the "warmest house in the world" thanks to new thermal tech, and the entire structure is recyclable.

The whole shebang sells for $65,000. So far, only one model seems to exist, but the company claims potential buyers will be able to test drive the unit soon.

If you're shopping for new digs with disaster in mind, the firm offers a "Zombie apocalypse" package, which includes armored glazing on the structure's extensive transparent walls, a perimeter alarm, extra storage for toilet paper, and a "gift-edition" Bible.

Another set of upgrades, the "not in my backyard" package, includes extensive insurance coverage, an alarm system, and the rather whimsical addition of "a replica of a Kalashnikov."