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Book News | Economics | Ethics | Health | Politics | Religion | April 7, 2015

A War Well Lost

Sam Harris and Johann Hari discuss the “war on drugs”

drugs

(Photo via Pete Zarria)

Johann Hari is a British journalist who has written for many of the world’s leading newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, Le Monde, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, The Nation, Slate, El Mundo, and The Sydney Morning Herald. He was an op-ed columnist for The Independent for nine years. He graduated from King’s College, Cambridge with a double first in social and political sciences in 2001.

Hari was twice named “National Newspaper Journalist of the Year” by Amnesty International. He was named “Environmental Commentator of the Year” at the Editorial Intelligence Awards, and “Gay Journalist of the Year” at the Stonewall Awards. He has also won the Martha Gellhorn Prize for political writing.

Hari’s latest book is the New York Times best seller Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. You can follow him on Twitter @johannhari101.

Economics | News | Politics | War | March 17, 2015

Crowdsourcing Freedom

An Interview with David Keyes

russia protest

David Keyes is the executive director of Advancing Human Rights and has been called a “pioneer in online activism” by The New York Times.  He is working to find new ways to spread political freedom globally, and he recently launched Movements.org as a crowdsourcing human rights platform. Movements gives people the ability to connect directly with activists on the front lines.

David and I spoke about tyranny, radicalism, and how we all can help defend the rights of vulnerable people elsewhere in the world.

Announcements | Book News | Economics | Ethics | Publishing | February 27, 2015

The Art and Science of the Possible

An Interview with Mick Ebeling

Mick Ebeling is a film/television/commercial producer, philanthropist, technology trailblazer, author, entrepreneur, and public speaker. He was one of Advertising Age’s “Top 50 Most Creative People of 2014” and winner of the 2014 Muhammad Ali Humanitarian of the Year Award. Ebeling is CEO of Not Impossible Labs, an organization that develops creative solutions to real-world problems.

Ebeling’s first book is Not Impossible: The Art and Joy of Doing What Couldn’t Be Done.

Consciousness | Economics | Ethics | Neuroscience | Philosophy | January 16, 2015

Can We Avoid a Digital Apocalypse?

A Response to the 2015 Edge Question

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(Photo via Armand Turpel)

It seems increasingly likely that we will one day build machines that possess superhuman intelligence. We need only continue to produce better computers—which we will, unless we destroy ourselves or meet our end some other way. We already know that it is possible for mere matter to acquire “general intelligence”—the ability to learn new concepts and employ them in unfamiliar contexts—because the 1,200 cc of salty porridge inside our heads has managed it. There is no reason to believe that a suitably advanced digital computer couldn’t do the same.

It is often said that the near-term goal is to build a machine that possesses “human level” intelligence. But unless we specifically emulate a human brain—with all its limitations—this is a false goal. The computer on which I am writing these words already possesses superhuman powers of memory and calculation. It also has potential access to most of the world’s information. Unless we take extraordinary steps to hobble it, any future artificial general intelligence (AGI) will exceed human performance on every task for which it is considered a source of “intelligence” in the first place. Whether such a machine would necessarily be conscious is an open question. But conscious or not, an AGI might very well develop goals incompatible with our own. Just how sudden and lethal this parting of the ways might be is now the subject of much colorful speculation.

mecca

(Photo by Camera Eye)

I have long struggled to understand how smart, well-educated liberals can fail to perceive the unique dangers of Islam. In The End of Faith, I argued that such people don’t know what it’s like to really believe in God or Paradise—and hence imagine that no one else actually does. The symptoms of this blindness can be quite shocking. For instance, I once ran into the anthropologist Scott Atran after he had delivered one of his preening and delusional lectures on the origins of jihadist terrorism. According to Atran, people who decapitate journalists, filmmakers, and aid workers to cries of “Alahu akbar!” or blow themselves up in crowds of innocents are led to misbehave this way not because of their deeply held beliefs about jihad and martyrdom but because of their experience of male bonding in soccer clubs and barbershops. (Really.) So I asked Atran directly:

Book News | Economics | Publishing | February 20, 2012

Better and Better

An Interview with Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler

abundance diamandis


Peter H. Diamandis is the founder and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation and Co-founder and Chairman of Singularity University.  He is a serial entrepreneur turned philanthropist who has started more than a dozen high-tech companies. He has degrees in molecular biology and aerospace engineering from MIT, and an M.D. from Harvard Medical School. He has written a new book, Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, along with author and journalist Steven Kotler, whose articles have appeared in over 60 publications: including the New York Times Magazine, Wired, Discover, Popular Science, Outside, GQ, and National Geographic.

The book has received much advanced praise. Ray Kurzweil, inventor, futurist and author of The Singularity is Near, had this to say:  “This brilliant must-read book provides the key to the coming era of abundance replacing eons of scarcity. Abundance is a powerful antidote to today’s malaise and pessimism.”

Peter and Steven were kind enough to answer my questions by email:

Book News | Economics | Neuroscience | Publishing | November 29, 2011

Thinking about Thinking

An Interview with Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman is an extraordinarily interesting thinker. As a psychologist, he received the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work with Amos Tversky on decision-making. Here is what Steven Pinker, my previous interview subject, recently wrote about him:

Daniel Kahneman is among the most influential psychologists in history and certainly the most important psychologist alive today. He has a gift for uncovering remarkable features of the human mind, many of which have become textbook classics and part of the conventional wisdom. His work has reshaped social psychology, cognitive science, the study of reason and of happiness, and behavioral economics, a field that he and his collaborator Amos Tversky helped to launch. The appearance of Thinking, Fast and Slow is a major event.

Kahneman was kind enough to take time out of a very busy book tour to answer a few of my questions.

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(Photo by Francisco Diez)

Do you have too many readers of your books and articles? Want to reduce traffic on your blog? It turns out, there is a foolproof way to alienate many of your fans, quickly and at almost no cost.

It took me years to discover this publishing secret, but I’ll pass it along to you for free:

Simply write an article suggesting that taxes should be raised on billionaires.

Really, it’s that simple!

You can declare the world’s religions to be cesspools of confusion and bigotry, you can argue that all drugs should be made legal and that free will is an illusion. You can even write in defense of torture. But I assure you that nothing will rile and winnow your audience like the suggestion that billionaires should contribute more of their wealth to the good of society.

This is not to say that everyone hated my last article (“How Rich is Too Rich?”), but the backlash has been ferocious. For candor and concision this was hard to beat:

You are scum sam. unsubscribed.

Unlike many of the emails I received, this one made me laugh out loud—for rarely does one see the pendulum of human affection swing so freely. Note that this response came, not from a mere visitor to my blog, but from someone who had once admired me enough to subscribe to my email newsletter. All it took was a single article about the problem of wealth inequality to provoke, not just criticism, but loathing.

Economics | Ethics | Politics | August 17, 2011

How Rich is Too Rich?

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(Photo by Stuck in Customs)


I’ve written before about the crisis of inequality in the United States and about the quasi-religious abhorrence of “wealth redistribution” that causes many Americans to oppose tax increases, even on the ultra rich. The conviction that taxation is intrinsically evil has achieved a sadomasochistic fervor in conservative circles—producing the Tea Party, their Republican zombies, and increasingly terrifying failures of governance.

Happily, not all billionaires are content to hoard their money in silence. Earlier this week, Warren Buffett published an op-ed in the New York Times in which he criticized our current approach to raising revenue. As he has lamented many times before, he is taxed at a lower rate than his secretary is. Many conservatives pretend not to find this embarrassing.

Conservatives view taxation as a species of theft—and to raise taxes, on anyone for any reason, is simply to steal more. Conservatives also believe that people become rich by creating value for others. Once rich, they cannot help but create more value by investing their wealth and spawning new jobs in the process. We should not punish our best and brightest for their success, and stealing their money is a form of punishment.

While the United States has suffered the worst recession in living memory, I find that I have very few financial concerns. Many of my friends are in the same position: Most of us attended private schools and good universities, and we will be able to provide these same opportunities to our own children. No one in my immediate circle has a family member serving in Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact, in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, the only sacrifice we were asked to make for our beloved country was to go shopping. Nearly a decade has passed, with our nation’s influence and infrastructure crumbling by the hour, and yet those of us who have been so fortunate as to actually live the American dream—rather than merely dream it—have been spared every inconvenience. Now we are told that we will soon receive a large tax cut for all our troubles. What is the word for the feeling this provokes in me? Imagine being safely seated in lifeboat, while countless others drown, only to learn that another lifeboat has been secured to take your luggage to shore…

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