Internet Histories | 21 April
This week on the internet:
Inside Google X | The quiet devastation of 'living apart'
America's food problem
It's Willy Wonka for the digital age: Google X, Google's secretive research lab (best known for their inventions of Google Glass and self-driving cars), opened their doors recently to a reporter from Fast Company. He sat in on their meetings, trialled their new hoverboard, and confirmed once and for all those rumours about their space elevator:
"You know what a space elevator is, right?" DeVaul asks. He ticks off the essential facts--a cable attached to a satellite fixed in space, tens of thousands of miles above Earth. To DeVaul, it would no doubt satisfy the X criteria of something straight out of sci-fi. And it would presumably be transformative by reducing space travel to a fraction of its present cost: Transport ships would clip on to the cable and cruise up to a space station. One could go up while another was heading down. "It would be a massive capital investment," DeVaul says, but after that "it could take you from ground to orbit with a net of basically zero energy. It drives down the space-access costs, operationally, to being incredibly low."
Not surprisingly, the team encountered a stumbling block. If scaling problems are what brought hoverboards down to earth, material-science issues crashed the space elevator. The team knew the cable would have to be exceptionally strong-- "at least a hundred times stronger than the strongest steel that we have," by Piponi's calculations. He found one material that could do this: carbon nanotubes. But no one has manufactured a perfectly formed carbon nanotube strand longer than a meter. And so elevators "were put in a deep freeze," as Heinrich says, and the team decided to keep tabs on any advances in the carbon nanotube field.
The strength and magic of Jon Gertner's writing is in the systematic uncovering of the built-in decision making processes that happen at every Google X meeting. It's wild idealism underscored by both wealth and pragmatism. It's an environment of necessary failure and otherworldly success.
Generally speaking, there are three criteria that X projects share. All must address a problem that affects millions--or better yet, billions--of people. All must utilize a radical solution that has at least a component that resembles science fiction. And all must tap technologies that are now (or very nearly) obtainable. But to DeVaul, the head of Rapid Eval, there's another, more unifying principle that connects the three criteria: No idea should be incremental. This sounds terribly clichéd, DeVaul admits; the Silicon Valley refrain of "taking huge risks" is getting hackneyed and hollow. But the rejection of incrementalism, he says, is not because he and his colleagues believe it's pointless for ideological reasons. They believe it for practical reasons. "It's so hard to do almost anything in this world," he says. "Getting out of bed in the morning can be hard for me. But attacking a problem that is twice as big or 10 times as big is not twice or 10 times as hard."
DeVaul insists that it's often just as easy, or easier, to make inroads on the biggest problems "than to try to optimize the next 5% or 2% out of some process." Think about cars, he tells me. If you want to design a car that gets 80 mpg, it requires a lot of work, yet it really doesn't address the fundamental problem of global fuel resources and emissions. But if you want to design a car that gets 500 mpg, which actually does attack the problem, you are by necessity freed from convention, since you can't possibly improve an existing automotive design by such a degree. Instead you start over, reexamining what a car really is. You think of different kinds of motors and fuels, or of space-age materials of such gossamer weight and iron durability that they alter the physics of transportation. Or you dump the idea of cars altogether in favor of a substitute. And then maybe, just maybe, you come up with something worthy of X.
I've written about this elsewhere, but there's also comfort to be found in this stab at transparency, even if some of it feels like spin (e.g. staged tightrope displays as a convenient analogy for their ethos). When science moves from the public sector, you lose a degree of accountability. That's not to say Google aren't socially responsible, but ultimately they're a business, and the needs they're meeting - sometimes by creating them first - are equally driven by altruism and profit. The two aren't mutually exclusive, of course, and it's nice to see them acknowledge this.
[caption id="attachment_9074" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Er Wang Dong | Photo: Robbie Shone[/caption]
For your Easter Monday: Two Geoffs, two wonderfully different meditations on life and Los Angeles. Geoff Dyer on having a stroke -
I’m constantly out on my bike, in the amazing light and weather. How long would you need to live here to start taking that for granted? Longer, if you’re from England, than one lifetime, even one as lengthy as my dad’s. There’s a line in Tarkovsky’s Solaris: we never know when we’re going to die and because of that we are, at any given moment, immortal. So at this moment it feels pretty good, being where I’ve always longed to be, perched on the farthest edge of the western world.
and Geoff Manaugh on the incomparable and crucial truths found in this city:
The whole thing is ridiculous. It's the most ridiculous city in the world – but everyone who livesthere knows that. No one thinks that L.A. "works," or that it's well-designed, or that it's perfectly functional, or even that it makes sense to have put it there in the first place; they just think it's interesting. And they have fun there.
In Los Angeles you can be standing next to another human being but you may as well be standing next to a geological formation. Whatever that thing is, it doesn't care about you. And you don't care about it. Get over it. You're alone in the world. Do something interesting.
This was on the Internet insofar as it’s available in a paywalled database, but I’ve kept reeling from it all week. From the Family Law Service (NZ), some illustrative guidance of situations in which couples can be seen to have separated, despite well and truly dwelling under the same roof:
Situations where the facts amount to “living apart”:
1. Where a husband has been a patient in a mental institution for some years, and his wife has had a child by another man. The spouses are living apart even though there is nothing to show that the husband knows, or could ever become conscious, of her desertion.
2. Where a wife leaves her husband to live with another man, the husband becomes ill, and it is decided that he should enter the home of the wife and the other man as a paying guest. There is no reconciliation.
3. Where, after a long period of service overseas, a husband returns and asks his wife to leave the family home to live in another town where he had been stationed. The wife is deaf and finds it difficult to make herself understood. The eldest son had obtained a job in the home area. The wife will not move from the family home and the husband refuses to see her point of view.
4. Where a quarrel which culminates in the wife’s saying she has no further intention of being a wife to the husband and removes her wedding ring. From then on each occupies separate bedrooms in their jointly owned home and the husband shares his bedroom with a lodger. They share one kitchen but each cooks separately. The husband pays the wife no allowance, and the wife performs no wifely service. There is no communal or family life whatever.
5. Where the husband and wife are very badly off financially and their small ill-equipped flat does not permit them to live as two households. The wife regards the marriage as over and would leave but feels forced to stay with her husband, who suffers from ill-health. The husband does all he can to look after himself, because he also finds the situation very irksome.
6. Where the wife goes on a visit to relatives in the United Kingdom with her husband’s concurrence and subsequently declines, without any good reason, to return to her husband.
Every last one is kind of like another little stake in the heart of marriage, happiness, and everything you were raised to grow up believing.
I circulated the list above to a general consensus that it felt just a little bit too real. But when I went back to go finding what I actually needed, I came across this one:
9. Where the parties had decided to separate in April 1997 but had stayed in their home — primarily because of their teenage children, two of whom were about to take important school examinations. They had told their children, families and close friends of the decision. The wife had removed herself to a separate room, which was situated at the rear of the house. She had a separate key to the room. Save for her own separate telephone, which she had had put into this room, the wife shared the facilities with the rest of the household. She had prepared the meals for the children and had done other housekeeping jobs. The family did not eat together, though the wife would sometimes leave some prepared food for the husband, who paid for the groceries. Separate bank accounts were maintained. There was no sexual intercourse after 1 April 1997. The wife had felt able to begin friendships with other men and the husband had made no real objection. The parties had consciously sat down and talked over the situation insofar as the children were concerned and had made their decision. Household chores and responsibilities had been divided. There was no longer any common purpose in the parties’ relationship aside from their roles as the children’s guardians. No birthday or Christmas presents were exchanged between the parties and there were no joint social outings or joint holidays. No discussion about reconciliation ever took place. “[As] at 1 April there was a conscious decision to change the basis of the parties’ relationship. The mutuality and reciprocal/physical components were set aside for a more businesslike and matter-of-fact approach aimed at the continued education and upbringing of their children largely because of impending examinations.
This is poignancy on a level that only Blink-182’s “Stay Together For The Kids” or The Suitcase Kid to me. The platonic ideal of love: to fall out of it and gamely soldier on with as little damage as possible to everyone else who matters.
The first table had only hot-dog buns. "Don't pout," Raphael told her children. "Be grateful for what God gives you."
The second was covered with onions. "Some countries got nothing," Raphael said. "They drink dirty water."
The third table was covered with a mound of sweet potatoes, and Raphael filled a 20-pound bag with the biggest ones she could find. A volunteer recognized her and brought out six pastries, frosted bear claws from a secret stash inside the church. "Sorry we don't have more," the volunteer said.
"That's okay," Raphael said. "This is more than we had before."
The myth of American exceptionalism was profoundly quashed when the Pulitzer committee decided to award Eli Saslow’s six-feature investigation of the ongoing food stamp debacle the prize for Best Explanatory Reporting. Saslow’s articles dissect the food stamp phenomenon with the keenness of an entomologist pinning bugs to a cork board, and there’s the same implied brutality. One article focusses on a food stamp ‘recruiter’ in Florida, who travels between retirement villages-cum-caravan parks to sign up elderly Americans who feel like they’re betraying themselves by ‘freeloading’; one on kids who stop receiving free meals at school while they’re on summer break, so mostly go hungry; one on a politician desperately trying to curtail the food stamp system entirely, who insists individual hard work is the antidote to hunger, never mind the lack of jobs (that Saslow manages to make him as human and relatable as his other subjects is a triumph of investigative reporting).
I spent a day going through all of them and emerged dazed and sort of nauseated. Far from being clearer on what causes the grinding poverty described in the articles, it seems as if Saslow points to a raft of factors: unemployment, bad luck, shitty social welfare policy, lack of education, the ignorance of the people who are in a position to change things, institutional resistance to reform. Food, hunger, having enough – how could such simple issues stymie the world’s richest country? It strikes me that Saslow’s ‘Best Explanatory Reporting’ award doesn’t do much to explain this question, and it’s not the basis for the award; instead, in a meaningful, affecting, and very depressing way, he’s simply explaining what the problem is in the first place.
As her health worsened, she had started shopping mostly for foods she knew they would eat and prepare themselves. She was a single mother with little money and less energy, she reasoned; it was more important to provide enough than it was to worry about what, exactly, she was providing.
Now Antonio came into the kitchen looking for something to eat. “Make a smart choice,” she told him. She watched him grab a bag of Super Mario Brothers Fruit Flavored Snacks and a Coke Zero.
“Fruit and diet,” he said.
“Good,” she said.
[caption id="attachment_9073" align="aligncenter" width="500"] El Tatio | Photo: Owen Perry[/caption]
The life cycle of a volcanic island
Why New Zealand's economic bubble will end in disaster
Teju Cole and Aleksandar Hemon in conversation
'Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain', the final chapter from Leslie Jamison's book, The Empathy Exams
Poetry Night NZ (Easter Sunday edition)