Free money

Man is given $1.3 million in free money, and it ends badly:

A debt-ridden student blew $1.3 million on sports cars, speedboats, strippers and cocaine after a bank error gave him an unlimited overdraft.

Wannabe playboy Luke Moore lived the high life for two years before he was caught by cops and jailed on fraud charges.

The Australian treated himself to luxury holidays, an Aston Martin, a Maserati and a boat while living the ultimate bachelor lifestyle.

But he was slapped with a four-year jail term last year after the banking glitch came to light.

Moore, 29, went free last week after winning an appeal of his conviction on the grounds that his actions were not deceptive.

I’ll say. What could be the basis for charging him with fraud? He took what was given to him.

Interesting that this went undetected for two years. That’s what happens when everything is automated and the element of human judgement is removed. Would your local banker allow you to withdraw a million bucks over two years because of a “glitch”?

He is now broke and living with his mother in Goulburn, New South Wales, ironically while studying to become a criminal lawyer.

But he told the Daily Telegraph he did not miss his multimillionaire lifestyle “besides the cocaine, the strippers and fast cars.”

This is the type of thing that makes me think that a universal basic income (UBI), instead of bringing about a great flourishing of the human spirit, would actually lead to the swift collapse of society.

Peak smart

Does this count as a “mega-trend”?

Technology may be getting smarter, but humans are getting dumber, scientists have warned.

Evidence suggests that the IQs of people in the UK, Denmark and Australia have declined in the last decade.

Opinion is divided as to whether the trend is long-term, but some researchers believe that humans have already reached intellectual peak.

An IQ test used to determine whether Danish men are fit to serve in the military has revealed scores have fallen by 1.5 points since 1998.

And standard tests issued in the UK and Australia echo the results, according to journalist Bob Holmes, writing in New Scientist. […]

Michael Woodley, of the Free University of Brussels, Belgium, claims people’s reactions are slower than in Victorian times, and has linked it to a decline in our genetic potential.

It has previously been claimed that quick-witted people have fast reactions and Dr Woodley’s study showed people’s reaction times have slowed over the century – the equivalent to one IQ point per decade.

Jan te Nijenhuis, a psychology professor at the University of Amsterdam, says Westerners have lost an average of 14 IQ points since the Victoria Era.

When you consider the large-scale achievements of Western societies in times past, such as for example the building of the cathedrals, the construction of the Empire State Building in less than 13 months during the Great Depression, and the moon landing (which was watched, live, by 600 million people around the world in 1969), it’s almost laughable to imagine the US even attempting, let alone successfully pulling off an effort of comparable difficulty in 2017, when adjusting for today’s far superior level of technology.

Or maybe even not adjusting for today’s far superior level of technology. After all, to take one absolute measure of achievement, no human has left low Earth orbit since 1972.

  • “That’s because it’s too costly / too dangerous / pointless / no political will” etc.

Regardless of the reasons, the fact is that we have not done so in almost half a century. That is functionally the same as saying that we can’t. And 45 years is a long enough time that, based on our previously demonstrated levels of competence, we should already have people strutting around on Mars by now. If we were capable of doing this, we would have done it, because it is simply too awesome not to. And we (the US, at least) haven’t had the excuse of a huge war, economic depression or other national cataclysm that would have made such a project impossible or even impractical.

Somewhere along the way, we lost the drive to explore new frontiers and push the boundaries of human achievement. Either that, or the drive is still there but we’ve simply become too dumb to organize collectively for hard projects like space exploration.

Either possibility suggests that our civilizational competence has declined (by a lot) over the past five decades. If so, that could be a function of the decline in average intelligence that some researchers are seeing.

This is encouraging

Networked totalitarianism

Comment by author and strategist John Robb:

Facebook just declared war against “disruptive” information. In addition to hundreds of new human censors, they are training AI censors capable of identifying and deleting ‘unacceptable’ information found in the discussions of all two billion members in real time. This development highlights what the real danger posed by a socially networked world actually is.

The REAL danger facing a world interconnected by social networking isn’t disruption. As we have seen on numerous occasions, the danger posed by disruptive information and events is fleeting. Disruption, although potentially painful in the short term, doesn’t last, nor is it truly damaging over the long term. In fact, the true danger posed by an internetworked world is just the opposite of disruption.

This danger is an all encompassing online orthodoxy. A sameness of thought and approach enforced by hundreds of millions of socially internetworked adherents. A global orthodoxy that ruthless narrows public thought down to a single, barren, ideological framework. A ruling network that prevents dissent and locks us into stagnation and inevitable failure as it runs afoul of reality and human nature.

It will be fun to see whether the hive mind created by social networking proves to be a greater threat to human liberty than a king on a throne, or a dictator with a secret police force. It clearly has the potential to be.

If so, there is one simple and obvious way to defeat the system that was not available to the rebels and dissidents of the past, and that is to unplug. Say no. Refuse to engage with the system. That is easier said than done, though, as most people are increasingly addicted to their gadgets and increasingly comfortable offloading their mental activity to the network. And even if you disconnect from the network, most others will not.

Hypothetically, a resistance movement could arise that would seek to overthrow the network by dissuading or physically preventing people from plugging into it. We would expect this battle to manifest in the real world, with tangible efforts to destroy the machinery of the network and desecrate its symbols. iPhones dumped into Boston Harbor by the truckload. Internet servers smashed with sledgehammers. Data centers firebombed.

More likely, though, any type of resistance to the hive mind would be swallowed up by the network itself, taking the form of a pitched battle between different networked tribes. Hive mind vs. hive mind, super-augmented by swarms of bots. Participants would fight for mind share, and only indirectly for territory or physical assets. Weaponized memes, hacking attacks, and information-warfare concepts like reflexive control would take the place of bombs and bullets. A future conflict may be fought entirely online. Of course, it could also spill over into the real world, using drones and robots, which… let’s just say it wouldn’t be great.

Totalitarianism: What you thought you were getting vs. what you’re actually getting

Another rock-climbing milestone (heh)

Another crazy and impossible victory in the eternal battle of man vs. rock has been achieved:

Now, after over 40 days of efforts spread across two years and seven visits to Norway, Ondra has completed what is being claimed as the world’s hardest single rope-length climb, both in terms of physical effort and technical difficulty.

The climb – 45 metres long and forging its improbable way through the cave’s huge grey overlapping roofs – marks the latest achievement by Ondra, who has dominated rock climbing in recent years in the same way Usain Bolt dominated sprinting, consistently setting new levels of difficulty that others have struggled to follow.

I have to admit, I didn’t realize that elite rock climbing involved so much hanging upside down from near-horizontal surfaces.

Not really my thing, but I can admire the purity and determination of people who devote their lives to pushing the limits of human ability.

On that topic, do skyscrapers have their own climbing difficulty scale?

February 17, 2009, 1:10 p.m. As the thousands of bankers, consultants, and accountants who work in the Cheung Kong Center, a sixty-two-story office tower in Hong Kong’s central business district, returned from their lunch breaks, a slight Frenchman named Alain Robert was being questioned in a windowless room on the tower’s first floor. […]

Robert, who is forty-six, had just ascended the eastern face of the Cheung Kong, which is nine hundred and twenty-eight feet high, using nothing but his feet and his hands.

Just don’t ask why he does it, because you won’t get a real answer:

At the press conference, a reporter for the Hong Kong Standard asked why he was making the climb. Robert spoke at length about climate change, and then said, “It shows that I am willing to give a big part of myself for something that I have a strong belief.” (If Robert is retailing environmental responsibility, he’s something of a loss leader, flying all over the world to encourage other people not to.) When I asked Julie Cohen about his motivations, she laughed and said, “He always gives really corny answers: ‘I climb ze mountain because it is zere.’ . . . But it’s actually that. He can’t not.” The necessity of the ordeal, for Robert, is self-evident.

One of the themes of the essay is how society chooses to deal with a mild lawbreaker and entertaining nuisance like Robert. I liked this anecdote about the famous Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing, who owns Cheung Kong Center:

At Cheung Kong, Li Ka-shing, the billionaire landlord, had happened to be on the premises during Robert’s climb. From his private apartment on a low floor, he had called the head guard. Robert was absolutely dying for an audience with the tycoon.

“Please, it would be a privilege,” he said.

The guard announced that Mr. Li had agreed to release Robert, but that he would not be able to see him. Despite having clambered from sea level past the treetops half an hour earlier, and got away with it, Robert seemed crestfallen.

“The final word in bad-assery”

It’s pretty hard to top this as an athletic, physical or psychological achievement:

Alex Honnold woke up in his Dodge van last Saturday morning, drove into Yosemite Valley ahead of the soul-destroying traffic and walked up to the sheer, smooth and stupendously massive 3,000-foot golden escarpment known as El Capitan, the most important cliff on earth for rock climbers. Honnold then laced up his climbing shoes, dusted his meaty fingers with chalk and, over the next four hours, did something nobody had ever done. He climbed El Capitan without ropes, alone.

The world’s finest climbers have long mused about the possibility of a ropeless “free solo” ascent of El Capitan in much the same spirit that science fiction buffs muse about faster-than-light-speed travel — as a daydream safely beyond human possibility. Tommy Caldwell, arguably the greatest all-around rock climber alive, told me that the conversation only drifted into half-seriousness once Honnold came along, and that Honnold’s successful climb was easily the most significant event in the sport in all of Caldwell’s 38 years. I believe that it should also be celebrated as one of the great athletic feats of any kind, ever.

It’s barely conceivable that a human being can pull off this feat of strength, endurance and dexterity. What’s even more amazing, as this guy points out, is the fact that Honnold has to be in the zone, 100% focused yet also relaxed, during the entire four-hour climb because the slightest error in his elaborately choreographed dance on the rock means certain death.

Honnold has an underactive amygdala, which would explain how he is able to suppress his body’s fear response with seeming ease. There’s a moment in this video (10:45) where you can see him smiling happily and even whistling as he spiders up the 2,000-foot Half Dome in 2011:

This mellow, zen-like state is only attainable by someone who is a serious genetic outlier, who has also put in countless hours of obsessive training and rehearsal to perfect his routine. Honnald prepared for the El Capitan climb for months, mastering every nuance of the route and the intricate sequence of moves involved so he could do it largely on autopilot.

Here is a video of another master climber, Tommy Caldwell, on a particularly tough stretch of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall:

Saturday links

Murderous Manila: On the Night Shift (part one of a series on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte):

If, in what I had come across going out on the night shift, there was anything that had probably met the aspirations of those who had voted for Duterte as president in May, it was these two scenes. For Duterte was and is very popular, and his drug war is popular too, for the moment. People like the drug war, but they are not entirely at ease with it. They do not think that the victims of that war should die (although that is a defining characteristic of the war so far). On the other hand, when there is somebody particularly antisocial, as in the two cases above, they are prepared to say: “He deserved it.”

In a survey by Social Weather Stations, 69 percent of those polled thought the incidence of EJKs was either very or somewhat serious. Only 3 percent thought it not serious at all. As to whether they believed that police were telling the truth that the suspects they killed in buy-bust operations had really resisted arrest, doubters and believers were evenly split, with 28 percent saying the police were definitely or probably telling the truth, and 29 percent saying they were definitely or probably not doing so. Overwhelmingly, however, 88 percent agreed, strongly or somewhat, that since Duterte became president, there has been a decrease in drug problems in their area. And that is the perception that appears to have trumped all others.

Part two of the series:

Looked at now, however, in the era of a thousand killings a month, the murder of [opposition leader Ninoy Aquino] seems to belong to a society in some respects more refined than that ushered in by the election of Rodrigo Duterte as president in 2016. Martial law under Marcos lasted from 1972 to 1981. Over three thousand people were killed, many of them cases of “salvagings”—bodies found tortured and mutilated, dumped at the roadside, much like the victims of today’s EJKs—extrajudicial killings—only far fewer of them, of course. Indeed, twice as many have been killed during Duterte’s first six months, starting last June, as in the decade of martial law.

Still, in the case of Ninoy, a certain lip service was paid to due process. An alibi was carefully prepared. Ninoy was warned against returning to the Philippines—warned by one of Marcos’s top men that he faced the risk of assassination. And an assassin was found and sacrificed, as it were, at the scene of the crime. When the postmortem contradicted the official story, an alternative postmortem was sought and found. There was some sense lingering in Marcos’s circle of what a respectable outcome would look like, even if respectability was not achieved.

China fact of the day:

Mortality rates among Chinese men aged 41 to 60, who account for nearly three-quarters of the working-age population, increased by 12% over the decade through 2013, the most recent data available. This was even as mortality rates generally improved across other age groups and genders.

You’re a Completely Different Person at 14 and 77 Years Old, Personality Study Suggests:

As a result of this gradual change, personality can appear relatively stable over short intervals – increasingly so throughout adulthood. However, the longer the interval between two assessments of personality, the weaker the relationship between the two tends to be.

Our results suggest that, when the interval is increased to as much as 63 years, there is hardly any relationship at all.

Reddit is Being Manipulated By Big Financial Services Companies:

In December last year, I managed to place two entirely fake news stories onto influential subreddits – with millions of subscribers – and vote them to the top with fake accounts and fake upvotes for less than $200. It was simple, cheap and effective.

What I hadn’t realised at the time was how widespread this shilling issue was. Professional marketing agencies, with offices in several different countries, offer these services often under the guise of “reputation management.” They don’t specifically talk about manipulating conversations online, instead using coded, dog whistle language like “targeted techniques” and “competitor slander.”

I Ignored Trump News for a Week. Here’s What I Learned:

But as the week wore on, I discovered several truths about our digital media ecosystem. Coverage of Mr. Trump may eclipse that of any single human being ever. The reasons have as much to do with him as the way social media amplifies every big story until it swallows the world. And as important as covering the president may be, I began to wonder if we were overdosing on Trump news, to the exclusion of everything else.

The new president doesn’t simply dominate national and political news. During my week of attempted Trump abstinence, I noticed something deeper: He has taken up semipermanent residence on every outlet of any kind, political or not. He is no longer just the message. In many cases, he has become the medium, the ether through which all other stories flow.