Two months down!

1) I hate to keep being so inside-baseball about the media, but this year is seeing some profound changes. More specifically; it's seeing some of the biggest names in the US media leave behind the historic mastheads that propped them up (or they propped up, depending on how you look at it) to launch their own websites. For example, I have long been a fan of Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein, who has gone off to start his own site with Matthew Yglesias (another of my favourites). But Tim Worstall at Pando Daily has a bone to pick with the new venture. And one that I find hard to toss aside: “what I think is going to end up being the problem with Not that things will be badly written, not that the basic subject matter will be uninteresting. But that the “explainers” will be of one particular worldview, will be telling us how the world looks and should be run by those with that innate belief in technocratic wonkery.”

2) Keeping right on with the inside baseball, the furore over “native advertising” appears to be rearing it's head once more. This time it's Talking Points Memo's decision to introduce sponsored content. Here's Andrew Sullivan's take, which pretty closely mirrors my own; “My concern with “sponsored content” in vast swathes of online media – from the New York Times to Time Inc. and Buzzfeed – is simply that, by deliberately blurring the distinction between advertising and editorial, it must necessarily undermine this integrity and cast a doubt over that trust. It violates the core integrity of any journalistic institution to treat the prose of commercial interests as the equivalent of the prose of editors and writers – or to blur the lines between the two, by presenting commercial speech in extremely similar formats to editorial speech.”

3) Some new research by Stanford Phd students Etan Green and David P. Daniels has reaffirmed the idea that humans have a bias against making consequential calls in pivotal situations. The two looked at more than a million decisions made by umpires in Major League Baseball and found that in close and important calls, there were noticeable differences when the stakes were increased; “they show that an umpire’s strike zone shrinks in counts when the batter already has two strikes (and therefore a third strike would result in an out) and expands when the batter has three balls (with a fourth ball then resulting in a walk).” Someone needs to do this for cricket.

4) John O'Reilly, Co-Director at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, says the lack of more minute details of climate change's impact on humans is what's holding back any progress. “Specific risks to natural systems are well documented by the report. It finds, for example, the greatest risks are to those ecosystems, people, and things in low-lying coastal areas, because expected sea-level changes are in only one direction, up. This is also the case in the Arctic, where the temperature rise is expected to be much greater than the global average. There is good science and unanimous agreement among climate models behind these assertions… But a frustrating aspect of the report—and a reflection of the difficulty of working in this line of research—is that very few specific risks to humans are quantified in a meaningful way. For example, one might ask: has my risk of death increased because of more hot days?” Although, considering how much we know about what will happen to the inhabitants of islands like Kiribati, I am not sure this is an entirely convincing argument.

5) It's starting to seem that the next industry to be “disrupted” will be international travel. And not in a fun way like the invention of teleportation. First we have companies digitising the interior of museums so you don't have to visit them in person, now Google has started digitizing the interior of ancient monuments as part of their Street View program. “Users can get an up-close look at the relief carvings that embellish the walls of Angkor Wat, perhaps the most famous temple complex in Angkor. Angkor Wat's famous bas-relief spans over 12,917 square feet of sandstone carvings… Street View's digitization of Angkor isn't just valuable for short-term users looking to explore the ancient grounds—it creates a digital record of a place that can be used for posterity.”

6) Luis Andres at the World Bank has a thought experiment – using demographic data – of two children born on the same day; one in Switzerland and one in India. “The opportunities we get as children throughout life are directly determined by the circumstances related to access to infrastructure services. This means that I am more likely to get more out of my education because I can go to school and have time to study afterwards. It means that I am less likely to be exposed to certain illnesses because I have access to clean water and good sanitation… And despite your lack of formal education, you may learn from your others about proper sanitation and hygiene, the hazards of cooking with firewood, and the need for your siblings in the village to attend school.”

7) The internet refuses to stop giving me ammunition to proclaim that the machines are taking over. This time it's a couple of researchers at the Harvard Business Review who tested whether humans would respond to a robot as an authority figure. “When a person tried to quit our experiment they were faced with a prod to continue. If they insisted on quitting, the prod got increasingly demanding until they passed a threshold, where the experiment was stopped… half of the participants had a human experimenter – a 27-year old male actor in a lab coat – and the other half a robot – an Aldebaran Nao, a 58cm (23”) tall harmless-looking robot with a child-like voice, that we introduced as having advanced artificial intelligence. We expected that people would essentially ignore the robots’ insistences but follow the human; after all, the robot is just a simple computer in a plastic casing.” But the subjects didn't just ignore the robot. In fact, 46% obeyed the robot right until the end. This number was smoked by the 86% who succumbed to the peer pressure the human, but it's still quite scary.

8) Keeping this sunny train of thought going, scientists at Washington State University have been able to make robots that can teach and learn from each other. “Researchers had the agents — as the virtual robots are called — act like true student and teacher pairs: student agents struggled to learn Pac-Man and a version of the StarCraft video game. The researchers were able to show that the student agent learned the games and, in fact, surpassed the teacher.” While the scientists say there is nothing to be feared, that robots are stupid, I'm not sure if I buy it. Isn't this how Skynet got started?

9) Today is Election Day in Afghanistan. An election that will determine international support, among many other things. But as Foreign Policy reports, the future of Afghanistan's mining industry, an industry that could provide thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in revenue per year, is tenuous. “Afghanistan's roughly $1 trillion in mineral deposits was meant to largely replace the international support that has marginalized the Taliban insurgency and kept Karzai in power for more than a decade… extra-legal mining activity has been cited across the country, as strongmen, oligopolies, and monopolies take control of mineral resources. As lines are drawn, some groups are likely to side with the Taliban, which could then provide the enforcing muscle for moving the assets across the country and borders, in much the same way they did for the opium lords of the southern provinces.”

10) Seems like I wasn't the only person to notice the sheer amount of Women heading up far-right parties in Europe. Naomi Wolf examines why Women are leading, and seem to be flocking to, far right parties. “The attraction of right-wing parties to women should be examined, not merely condemned. If a society does not offer individuals a community life that takes them beyond themselves, values only production and the bottom line, and opens itself to immigrants without asserting and cherishing what is special and valuable about Danish, Norwegian, or French culture, it is asking for trouble. For example, upholding the heritage of the Enlightenment and progressive social ideals does not require racism or pejorative treatment of other cultures; but politically correct curricula no longer even make the attempt to do so.”

And that’s all for this week’s exchange. The exchange will hopefully be back again next weekend with more intriguing stories and ideas. Same bat channel.

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