The Weekender: July 31, 2015

1) “A World Without Work” (The Atlantic, 34 minutes, July/August 2015). What happens when the robots take over the jobs? And: maybe it’s a good thing?

In the past few years, even as the United States has pulled itself partway out of the jobs hole created by the Great Recession, some economists and technologists have warned that the economy is near a tipping point. When they peer deeply into labor-market data, they see troubling signs, masked for now by a cyclical recovery. And when they look up from their spreadsheets, they see automation high and low—robots in the operating room and behind the fast-food counter. They imagine self-driving cars snaking through the streets and Amazon drones dotting the sky, replacing millions of drivers, warehouse stockers, and retail workers. They observe that the capabilities of machines—already formidable—continue to expand exponentially, while our own remain the same. And they wonder: Is any job truly safe?

2) Via Patreon: “Why Learning Styles are Not Actually a Thing.” As part of my on-going Patreon campaign, one patron (at the $30 level) has written the linked-to guest post for my archives. This one discusses different “learning styles” and suggests that there’s not much difference between them after all. Enjoy!

3) “Hitchhike or Bust” (Narratively, 12 minutes, June 2015). A man from England travels to the United States on a personal journey — and a personal challenge.

With a heady cocktail of bourbon and first-day jet lag still swilling in my head from the night before, I began the day as the local Asian bakery was just starting to prepare their quotidian selection pork buns and bean-filled pastries. San Francisco seemed to have one every few blocks.

Hurtling across the city, I made my way to a street just beyond Golden Gate Park. Spacious and slow-paced, it was – I’d been told – an ideal spot to join onto the historic Highway 101. My plan, for now: to hitchhike from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon in a single day.

I’d done one similarly epic journey before, thumbing my way from London to Morocco. But this was different: back then, I’d been with a partner. And even so, on that occasion I had still managed to have all of my possessions – other than the clothes on my back – stolen. But that’s another story. This time there would be no counterweight to paranoid thinking. The smallest threads of doubt could go forth and multiply.

4) “Inside the Family Battle for the Newman’s Own Brand Name” (Vanity Fair, 24 minutes, August 2015). From the subhead: “When Paul Newman died, in 2008, he left his Newman’s Own food empire, and the charitable foundation it supports, in the hands of his adviser Robert Forrester. But, his eldest daughter says the family believes their father’s principles are being betrayed.” Newman’s Own is a fascinating company — it’s a for-profit which donates all of its profits to various philanthropic causes. It may be unique in that regard — I don’t know of any other such companies that are organized that way — and its operational issues always make for an interesting read. Add in the politics of estate resolution and family squabbling, and this is a good investment of your 24 minutes.


5) “I Was an Invisible Girlfriend For a Month” (Fusion, 11 minutes, July 2015).

A few months ago, the Internet was obsessed with Invisible Girlfriend/Boyfriend, a new start-up that allows users to “build” a significant other with whom they can exchange text messages. The founders said they created it for people who wanted “social proof” they were in a relationship, i.e., for people who wanted to pretend they were “getting some” when they weren’t. It found takers: People created over 70,000 invisible baes. When people started chatting with their newly acquired invisible lovers, they initially assumed it was a chat bot, but after a few messages, they realized they were talking to a human being, or rather several human beings. The service is powered by thousands of crowd-sourced workers.

Lots of journalists wrote about dating an Invisible. But I wanted to do the opposite and be inside the Invisible machine. What was it like to drop into conversations and virtually seduce strangers? How much would I find out about the people I wooed? So I tried out being an Invisible Girlfriend (and Boyfriend) for a month. It was equal parts fun, disturbing, and distressingly low-paid.

6) “Mortal Kombat’s Johnny Cage, Twenty Years Later” (Polygon, 19 minutes, July 2012). If you’ve played the video game Mortal Kombat, you’ve probably played as (or against) the character named Johnny Cage. Like the other characters, his was based on footage of an actor. This is the story of that actor and his post-Mortal Kombat career — an extensive career, given that he made almost nothing for his work in creating the Johnny Cage.

Have a great weekend!