Idyllic Golden-Age Hunter-Gatherers

(p. A8) Before he was killed by an isolated tribe on a remote Indian Ocean island, John Allen Chau, a young American on a self-propelled mission to spread Christianity, revealed two things: that he was willing to die, and that he was scared.
. . .
He tried to give gifts. A boy shot an arrow at him. He expressed fear, fatalism, frustration and some humor.
The people Mr. Chau chose for his mission are among the most impenetrable communities in the world, known for their intense hostility to outsiders. They have killed or tried to kill many outsiders who attempted to step on their rugged island 700 miles off India’s mainland, where they are one of the last undiluted hunter and gatherer societies.
. . .
Mr. Chau was trying to accomplish the impossible. The people on North Sentinel have not accepted anyone outside their society. Anthropologists, filmmakers and government officials have tried to approach them. Just about all have been driven back by bows and arrows.
. . .
The fishermen said he had told them to give the letter to a friend, in case he did not come back.
In one passage, he asked God if North Sentinel was “Satan’s last stronghold.” In another: “What makes them become this defensive and hostile?”
“It’s weird — actually no, it’s natural: I’m scared,” Mr. Chau wrote. “There, I said it. Also frustrated and uncertain — is it worth me going a foot to meet them?”
He added, “I don’t want to die!”
Still, he went back.
On the afternoon of Nov. 16, the fishermen told police officers, Mr. Chau reassured them that he would be fine staying on the island overnight and that the fishermen could go. They motored out, leaving Mr. Chau alone for the first time.
When they passed by the island the next morning, they saw the islanders dragging his body on the beach with a rope.
No one knows what exactly happened. Police officials said the islanders most likely killed him with bows and arrows.
Mr. Chau’s body is still on the island, but several police officers said they were worried about retrieving it, lest the same thing happen to them.

For the full story, see:
Jeffrey Gettleman, Hari Kumar and Kai Schultz. “American’s Last Letter Before Being Killed by Tribe on a Remote Indian Island.” The New York Times (Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018): A8.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 23, 2018, and has the title “A Man’s Last Letter Before Being Killed on a Forbidden Island.”)

Humans Turn Raw Data into Fuel for A.I.

(p. B1) Some of the most critical work in advancing China’s technology goals takes place in a former cement factory in the middle of the country’s heartland, far from the aspiring Silicon Valleys of Beijing and Shenzhen. An idled concrete mixer still stands in the middle of the courtyard. Boxes of melamine dinnerware are stacked in a warehouse next door.
Inside, Hou Xiameng runs a company that helps artificial intelligence make sense of the world. Two dozen young people go through photos and videos, labeling just about everything they see. That’s a car. That’s a traffic light. That’s bread, that’s milk, that’s chocolate. That’s what it looks like when a person walks.
“I used to think the machines are geniuses,” Ms. Hou, 24, said. “Now I know we’re the reason for their genius.”
In China, long the world’s factory floor, a new generation of low-wage workers is assembling the foundations of the future. Start-ups in smaller, cheaper cities have sprung up to apply labels to China’s huge trove of images and surveillance footage. If China is the Saudi Arabia of data, as one expert says, these businesses are the refineries, turning raw data into the fuel that can power China’s A.I. ambitions.

For the full story, see:
Li Yuan. “THE NEW NEW WORLD; Doing Time on the A.I. Assembly Line.”) The New York Times (Monday, Nov. 26 2018): B1 & B3.
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 25, 2018, and has the title “THE NEW NEW WORLD; How Cheap Labor Drives China’s A.I. Ambitions.”)

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Can Enhance Memory

(p. C1) Sharon remembers the first day it happened, in 1952. She was 5 years old and blindfolded while her friends ran around her, laughing, trying not to be caught in a game of blindman’s bluff. But when she whipped off the scarf, panic set in. The house, the street, even the mountains were in the wrong place. She was totally disoriented.
. . .
She eventually learned she had an unusual condition called developmental topographical disorientation disorder, or DTD.
. . .
(p. C2) Not all brain disorders are as detrimental as DTD. Bob, a TV producer from Los Angeles, remembers every day of his life as if it happened yesterday. His perfect memory is a gift, he says: “I don’t have to mourn people after they’ve passed away because my memory of them is so clear.”
The condition was discovered by James McGaugh at the University of California, Irvine, in 2001, after he received a peculiar email from a woman named Jill. “Since I was 11 I have had this unbelievable ability to recall my past,” she said. “When I see a date…I go back to that day and remember where I was, what I was doing, what day it fell on and on and on.”
. . .
A decade later, Dr. McGaugh had a group of around 50 people with HSAM. By scanning their brains while they carried out memory tasks, he discovered that they had an enlarged caudate nucleus and putamen–two areas implicated in obsessive compulsive disorder. Dr. McGaugh concluded that their extraordinary powers of memory are rooted not in their ability to form memories, but in an unconscious rehearsal of their past. They accidentally strengthen their memories by habitually recalling and reflecting upon them–“a unique form of OCD,” he says.

For the full essay, see:
Helen Thomson. “‘Lessons From STRANGE BRAINS.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, June 30, 2018): C1-C2.
(Note: ellipses between quoted passages, added; ellipsis internal to a paragraph, in original.)
(Note: the online version of the essay has the date June 29, 2018, and has the title “Strange Stories of Extraordinary Brains–and What We Can Learn From Them.”)

Thomson’s essay is closely related to her book:
Thomson, Helen. Unthinkable: An Extraordinary Journey through the World’s Strangest Brains. New York: Ecco, 2018.

Chinese Entrepreneurs Anxious Over Growing Government Control of Private Enterprise

(p. A15) HONG KONG — The comments were couched in careful language, but the warning about China’s direction was clear.
China grew to prosperity in part by embracing market forces, said Wu Jinglian, the 88-year-old dean of pro-market Chinese economists, at a forum last month. Then he turned to the top politician in the room, Liu He, China’s economic czar, and said “unharmonious voices” were now condemning private enterprise.
“The phenomenon,” Mr. Wu said, “is worth noting.”
Mr. Wu gave rare official voice to a growing worry among Chinese entrepreneurs, economists and even some government officials: China may be stepping back from the free-market, pro-business policies that transformed it into the world’s No. 2 economy. For 40 years, China has swung between authoritarian Communist control and a freewheeling capitalism where almost anything could happen — and some see the pendulum swinging back toward the government.
. . .
China’s leadership turned to entrepreneurs in the late 1970s, after the government had led the economy to the brink of collapse. Officials gave them special economic zones where they could open factories with fewer government rules and attract foreign investors. The experiment was an unparalleled success. When extended to the rest of the country, it created a growth machine that helped make China second only to the United States in terms of economic heft.
Today, the private sector contributes nearly two-thirds of the country’s growth and nine-tenths of new jobs, according to the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, an official business group. So pressures on private businesses could create serious ripples.
“The private sector is experiencing great difficulties right now,” wrote Mr. Hu, the retired minister, who as the son of a former top Communist Party leader is often a voice for reform in China, in an essay posted online last Thursday. “We should try our best not to replicate the nationalization of private enterprise in the 1950s and the state capitalism.”
. . .
Private entrepreneurs are loath to speak out for fear of attracting official condemnation. But signs of distress aren’t hard to find.
Last month, Chen Shouhong, the founder of an investment research firm, asked a group of executive M.B.A. students — many of whom already owned publicly listed companies — to choose between panic and anxiety to describe how they feel about the economy. An overwhelming majority chose panic, according to a transcript. Mr. Chen declined to be interviewed.
. . .
Xiao Han, an associate law professor in Beijing, cited one of Aesop’s fables, of a man trying and failing to stop a donkey from going over a cliff.
“Before long,” Mr. Xiao said, “we’ll probably find a body of a China donkey under the cliff.”

For the full story, see:
Li Yuan. “China Muscles In on Its Free-Market Prosperity.”The New York Times (Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018): A1 & A12.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Oct. 3, 2018, and has the title “Private Businesses Built Modern China. Now the Government Is Pushing Back.”)

Homo Sapiens Drew Figurative Art for at Least 40,000 of Their 300,000 Years

(p. A10) On the wall of a cave deep in the jungles of Borneo, there is an image of a thick-bodied, spindly-legged animal, drawn in reddish ocher.
It may be a crude image. But it also is more than 40,000 years old, scientists reported on Wednesday, making this the oldest figurative art in the world.
Until now, the oldest known human-made figures were ivory sculptures found in Germany. Scientists have estimated that those figurines — of horses, birds and people — were at most 40,000 years old.
. . .
The finding . . . demonstrates that ancient humans somehow made the creative transition at roughly the same time, in places thousands of miles apart.
“It’s essentially happening at the same time at the opposite ends of the world,” said Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Australia and a co-author of the report, published in the journal Nature.
. . .
One thing is clear: Figurative art came late in the history of our species.
The oldest fossils of Homo sapiens, found in Morocco, are 300,000 years old. A study last year of genetic diversity among people today indicates that populations began diverging from one another in Africa between 260,000 and 350,000 years ago.
Today, every culture makes art of some sort, and it is likely that humans in Africa over 200,000 years ago had the capacity to create it.
But for thousands of generations, there’s no evidence that people actually made figurative art. The closest thing to it are abstract engravings etched on shells or pieces of ocher.

For the full story, see:

Carl Zimmer. “Cave Contains World’s Oldest Figurative Art, Dating Back Over 40,000 Years.”The New York Times (Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018): A10.

(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 7, 2018, and has the title “In Cave in Borneo Jungle, Scientists Find Oldest Figurative Painting in the World.”)

The Nature article, mentioned above, has been published online in advance of the print version:
Aubert, M., P. Setiawan, A. A. Oktaviana, A. Brumm, P. H. Sulistyarto, E. W. Saptomo, B. Istiawan, T. A. Ma’rifat, V. N. Wahyuono, F. T. Atmoko, J. X. Zhao, J. Huntley, P. S. C. Ta├žon, D. L. Howard, and H. E. A. Brand. “Palaeolithic Cave Art in Borneo.” Nature (Nov. 7, 2018) DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0679-9.

Robots Help Montoya Fulfill His Father’s Wish for Him to Avoid Manual Labor

(p. A15) SALINAS, Calif. — As a boy, Abel Montoya remembers his father arriving home from the lettuce fields each evening, the picture of exhaustion, mud caked knee-high on his trousers. “Dad wanted me to stay away from manual labor. He was keen for me to stick to the books,” Mr. Montoya said. So he did, and went to college.
Yet Mr. Montoya, a 28-year-old immigrant’s son, recently took a job at a lettuce-packing facility, where it is wet, loud, freezing — and much of the work is physically taxing, even mind-numbing.
Now, though, he can delegate some of the worst work to robots.
Mr. Montoya is among a new generation of farmworkers here at Taylor Farms, one of the world’s largest producers and sellers of fresh-cut vegetables, which recently unveiled a fleet of robots designed to replace humans — one of the agriculture industry’s latest answers to a diminishing supply of immigrant labor.
The smart machines can assemble 60 to 80 salad bags a minute, double the output of a worker.
Enlisting robots made sound economic sense, Taylor Farms officials said, for a company seeking to capitalize on Americans’ insatiable appetite for healthy fare at a time when it cannot recruit enough people to work in the fields or the factory.

For the full story, see:
Miriam Jordan. “Farms Turn to Robots as Labor Pool Shrinks.”The New York Times (Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018): A15.
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 20, 2018, and has the title “As Immigrant Farmworkers Become More Scarce, Robots Replace Humans.”)

Sam Peltzman Offers Advance Praise for Openness to Creative Destruction

We are told that robots are about to make us superfluous and that the giants of Silicon Valley will swallow the economy. Art Diamond’s “openness to creative destruction” provides a healthy antidote to all this gloom and doom. He gives us the necessary historical perspective: we owe our comfort and even our lives to generations of disruptive innovation. Yet each disruption bred apocalyptic portents like those we hear today. These did not come to pass because of new disruptions down the road. Diamond ably documents this process of “creative destruction” and its enormous historical benefit. He also provides a timely warning against heeding the pessimists of the moment by imposing legal and regulatory shackles on the innovators. “Openness to Creative Destruction” is a most valuable addition to the public discussion of innovation.

Sam Peltzman, Professor Emeritus of Economics, University of Chicago; Director Emeritus of the George J. Stigler Center for the Study of the Economy and the State. Author of Political Participation and Government Regulation, and other works.

Peltzman’s advance praise is for:
Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming June 2019.

As Chinese Government Control of Economy Grows, Entrepreneur Jack Ma Joins Communist Party

(p. B3) HONG KONG — Jack Ma, China’s richest man and the guiding force behind its biggest e-commerce company, belongs to an elite club of power brokers, 89 million strong: the Chinese Communist Party.
. . .
The disclosure of Mr. Ma’s membership reflects the thinking that the party controls the economy and society, said Guo Yuhua, a sociology professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing and a critic of the party.
“It’s going backward from the Deng Xiaoping era, when the party advocated the separation of the party and the government,” she said, referring to the party leader who ultimately governed China during its early years of reform in the 1970s and ’80s.
The disclosure also drew attention because Mr. Ma had in the past tried to keep his distance from the government. When asked at public appearances how he managed government relations, he often said, “Fall in love with the government, but don’t get married.”
But as Mr. Xi tightens ideological controls and the power of the state grows, many successful entrepreneurs have made a point of showing their party loyalty.

For the full story, see:
Li Yuan. “In China, Billionaires Sidle Up to the Party.”The New York Times (Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018): B3.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 27, 2018, and has the title “Jack Ma, China’s Richest Man, Belongs to the Communist Party. Of Course.”)

With High Minimum Wages and Living Costs, S.F. Restaurants Cannot Afford, or Even Find, Servers

(p. D1) SAN FRANCISCO — Souvla, a Greek restaurant with a devoted following, serves spit-fired meat two ways: in a photogenic sandwich, or on a photogenic salad, either available with a glass of Greek wine. The garnishes are thoughtful: pea shoots, harissa-spiked yogurt, mizithra cheese.
The small menu is so appealing and the place itself so charming that you almost forget, as a diner, that you have to do much of the work of dining out yourself. You scout your own table. You fetch and fill your own water glass. And if you’d like another glass of wine, you go back to the counter.
Runners will bring your order to the table, but there are no servers to wait on you here, or at the two other San Francisco locations that Souvla has added — or, increasingly, at other popular restaurants that have opened in the last two years: RT Rotisserie, which is roasting cauliflower a few blocks away; Barzotto, a bistro serving hand-rolled pasta in the Mission district; and Media Noche, a Cuban sandwich spot with eye-catching custom tilework.
Inside these restaurants, it’s evident that the forces making this one of the most expensive cities in America are subtly altering the economics of everything. Commer-(p. D6)cial rents have gone up. Labor costs have soared. And restaurant workers, many of them priced out by the expense of housing, have been moving away.
Restaurateurs who say they can no longer find or afford servers are figuring out how to do without them. And so in this city of staggering wealth, you can eat like a gourmand, with real stemware and ceramic plates. But first you’ll have to go get your own silverware.
. . .
On July 1 [2018], the minimum wage in San Francisco will hit $15 an hour, following incremental raises from $10.74 in 2014. The city also requires employers with at least 20 workers to pay health care costs beyond the mandates of the Affordable Care Act, in addition to paid sick leave and parental leave.
Despite those benefits, many workers say they can’t afford to live here, or to stay in the industry. And partly as a result of those benefits, restaurateurs say they can’t afford the workers who remain. A dishwasher can now make $18 or $19 an hour. And because of California labor laws, even tipped workers like servers earn at least the full minimum wage, unlike their peers in most other states.
Enrico Moretti, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, estimates that when housing prices rise by 10 percent, the price of local services, including restaurants, rises by about 6 percent. (The median home price in San Francisco has doubled since 2012.)

For the full commentary, see:
Emily Badger. “Hi! You’ll Be Your Server Tonight.” The New York Times (Wednesday, June 27, 2018): D1 & D6.
(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date June 25, 2018, and has the title “THE UPSHOT; San Francisco Restaurants Can’t Afford Waiters. So They’re Putting Diners to Work.”)

The published version of the Moretti paper, mentioned above, is:
Moretti, Enrico. “Real Wage Inequality.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 5, no. 1 (Jan. 2013): 65-103.

Tech Entrepreneurs Know Innovation Thrives in Flexible Labor Markets

(p. B1) A politically awakened Silicon Valley, buttressed by the tech industry’s growing economic power, could potentially alter politics long after President Trump has left the scene. But if the tech industry becomes a political force, what sort of policies will it push?
(p. B6) A new survey by political scientists at Stanford University suggests a mostly straightforward answer — with one glaring twist. The study is the first comprehensive look at the political attitudes of wealthy technologists, whose views have long been misunderstood to the point of caricature by many outside the industry.
. . .
Over all, the study showed that tech entrepreneurs are very liberal — among some of the most left-leaning Democrats you can find. They are overwhelmingly in favor of economic policies that redistribute wealth, including higher taxes on rich people and lots of social services for the poor, including universal health care.
. . .
Now for the twist. The study found one area where tech entrepreneurs strongly deviate from Democratic orthodoxy and are closer to most Republicans: They are deeply suspicious of the government’s efforts to regulate business, especially when it comes to labor. They said that it was too difficult for companies to fire people, and that the government should make it easier to do so. They also hope to see the influence of both private and public-sector unions decline.
. . .
. . . if they’re not libertarians, what accounts for techies’ opposition to regulation? One idea might be that it’s driven by self-interest. A large fraction said they opposed regulating car-sharing services as if they were taxis, for instance; to the extent that the tech elite have a lot of money riding on the sharing economy, they may worry that regulation of such companies could hurt their wallets.
. . .
To tease out whether self-interest was at play in their views on regulation, surveyors asked a question about Uber’s surge-pricing policy, which increases prices during periods of peak demand. But the researchers disguised it with a business unrelated to tech: “On a holiday, when there is a great demand for flowers, sellers usually increase their prices. Do you think it is fair for them to raise their prices like this?”
A majority of Democrats and Republicans said it would be unfair for a florist to do that. But 96 percent of the tech elite thought it would be fair.
“My guess is there’s an underlying principle to their views,” Dr. Broockman said. “They see an entrepreneur trying to do what they want in the marketplace, and they see nothing unfair about that.”

For the full commentary, see:
Farhad Manjoo. “Tech’s Giants Skew Liberal.” The New York Times (Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017): B1 & B6.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Sept. 6, 2017, and has the title “STATE OF THE ART; Silicon Valley’s Politics: Liberal, With One Big Exception.”)

The Stanford study, discussed above, has been published online in advance of print publication:
Broockman, David E., Gregory Ferenstein, and Neil Malhotra. “Predispositions and the Political Behavior of American Economic Elites: Evidence from Technology Entrepreneurs.” American Journal of Political Science published online on Nov. 19, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12408.

Star Wars Details Allow “a Fully Believable, Escapist Experience”

(p. A15) Mr. Jameson clearly lays out the qualities that geeks appreciate in their art: realism bolstered by a deep internal history and the sort of “world-building” exemplified by Tolkien. But in Hollywood “Star Wars” changed the game thanks to its verisimilitude, “which immediately and thoroughly convinces viewers that they are watching humans and aliens skip from planet to planet in a vast, crowded other galaxy with its own detailed history.” Similarly, the biological background of the “Alien” series includes Xenomorphs “whose intricate life cycle can be described from beginning to end in grisly detail.” Books like “The Star Trek Encyclopedia,” in which the show’s designers document “all the alien planets and species that they’d invented” and present starship engineering schematics, are quintessential works of geek culture.
Detail is important to geeks, the author suggests, because they want without “any boundaries, any limits. . . . They don’t want the artwork to ever end.” Whether it’s playing a tabletop game filled with lore about previously unknown characters from the “Star Wars” galaxy or reading a “textbook” to study the fantastic beasts of the “Harry Potter” world, geeks want to believe–at least for a bit. As Mr. Jameson says, “geeks have long thought of artworks as places where one can hang out.” That’s one reason why single films have given way to trilogies and why characters have cross-populated to create Marvel’s seemingly endless “cinematic universe.”

For the full review, see:
Brian P. Kelly. “BOOKSHELF; The Geeks Strike Back.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, June 8, 2018): A15.
(Note: ellipsis in original.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 7, 2018, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing’ Review: The Geeks Strike Back; The “Star Wars” franchise and Marvel’s superhero films reign supreme in today’s Hollywood. How did that happen?”)

The book under review, is:
Jameson, A. D. I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing: Star Wars and the Triumph of Geek Culture. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.