October 27, 2016
It’s the year 2120. You feel no hunger, no cold, no heat, no pain. There’s no need to eat or to take medicine, though you can if you like. You are beautiful, intelligent, and charismatic, as are your friends, co-workers, lovers. Though the economy is fiercely competitive, retirement is not far off. You do not fear death. Look out your office window and you see sunlit spires towering over tree-lined boulevards. ... At least this is what you think you see. In fact, you live and work in virtual reality. Your city amounts to racks of computer hardware and the pipes that cool them. And you are not "you" in the traditional sense: You are an "em," a robotic brain emulation created by scanning a particular human brain and uploading it to a computer. On the upside, you process information 1,000 times faster than a human. On the downside, you inhabit a robotic body, and you stand roughly two millimeters tall. ... This is the world Robin Hanson is sketching out to a room of baffled undergraduates at George Mason University on a bright April morning. To illustrate his point, he projects an image of an enormous futuristic city alongside clip art of a human castaway cowering on a tiny desert island. His message is clear: The future belongs to "ems." ... This may sound more like science fiction than scholarship, but that’s part of the point. Hanson is an economist with a background in physics and engineering; a Silicon Valley veteran determined to promote his theories in an academy he finds deeply flawed; a doggedly rational thinker prone to intentionally provocative ideas that test the limits of what typically passes as scholarship. Those ideas have been mocked, memed, and marveled at — often all at once. ... Hanson, deeply skeptical of conventional intellectual discourse, argues that academics have abdicated their societal responsibilities by ignoring more speculative work.
For eight days each year, Basel becomes the centre of the watch universe. The fair’s organisers claimed 150,000 paying visitors and 1,800 brands spread over 141,000 square metres of exhibition space. Admission cost 60 Swiss francs a day (almost £50) ... The show was a celebration of our mastery of timekeeping, and of the refinement and years of training that go into making objects of beauty and accuracy. But it was also a celebration of excess and superfluousness, of watches that exist merely because they can, like animal acts at a circus. ... These days, no one requires a Swiss watch to tell the time – or a watch from any country. The time displayed on our mobile phones and other digital devices will always be more accurate than the time displayed on even the most skilfully engineered mechanical watch, yet the industry has a visual presence in our lives like few others. The storefronts of the world’s big-money boulevards glow with the lustre of Rolex and Omega; newspapers and magazines appear to be kept in business largely by watch adverts; airports would be empty shells without them. The export value of the Swiss watch trade fell by 3.3% last year, due primarily to a downfall in demand from the east Asia. But it is up 62.9% compared with six years ago. In 2015 the world bought 28.1m Swiss watches valued at 21.5 billion Swiss francs. ... the most complicated limited-edition watches sell for £1m or more. These watches have a waiting list, as the world only contains so many squinting master craftsmen who can make them, and even they haven’t found a way to extend the day beyond 24 hours. ... Exclusivity is a key to desirability. ... In 2014, the Swiss exported 29m watches. This was only 1.7% of all watches bought globally, but 58% of their value. ... To classify as Swiss Made, a watch must a) have a Swiss movement (that is, the basic mechanism consisting of cogs and springs that make the watch tick) b) have this movement incorporated in a case that is made within Switzerland and c) be checked and certified in Switzerland.
The Office of Personnel Management repels 10 million attempted digital intrusions per month—mostly the kinds of port scans and phishing attacks that plague every large-scale Internet presence—so it wasn’t too abnormal to discover that something had gotten lucky and slipped through the agency’s defenses. In March 2014, for example, OPM had detected a breach in which blueprints for its network’s architecture were siphoned away. But in this case, the engineers noticed two unusually frightening details. First, opmsecurity.org had been registered on April 25, 2014, which meant the malware had probably been on OPM’s network for almost a year. Even worse, the domain’s owner was listed as “Steve Rogers”—the scrawny patriot who, according to Marvel Comics lore, used a vial of Super-Soldier Serum to transform himself into Captain America, a member of the Avengers. ... Registering sites in Avengers-themed names is a trademark of a shadowy hacker group believed to have orchestrated some of the most devastating attacks in recent memory. Among them was the infiltration of health insurer Anthem, which resulted in the theft of personal data belonging to nearly 80 million Americans. And though diplomatic sensitivities make US officials reluctant to point fingers, a wealth of evidence ranging from IP addresses to telltale email accounts indicates that these hackers are tied to China, whose military allegedly has a 100,000-strong cyberespionage division. ... To figure out why the hackers had trained their sights on OPM, investigators would have to determine what, if anything, had been stolen from the agency’s network over the preceding year. But first they had to hunt down and eliminate the malware on its network, an archaic monstrosity that consisted of as many as 15,000 individual machines.
Since 2014, the PGA, the world’s most prominent golf association, has run PGA Tour China Series, a professional league that gives promising young players a shot at graduating to higher competition in the U.S. It’s analogous to Double A minor league baseball in America: Players can put in a couple of years in China and—if they perform well enough—earn an automatic berth into another league that’s one rung below the PGA Tour. The China Tour, in turn, offers golf something it desperately needs: better access to the enormous and growing middle class that makes the country a huge growth opportunity for the sport. ... In a country of 1.4 billion, the potential for the sport is certainly as vast as anyone’s imagination. Estimates of the number of Chinese golfers fall around 1 million, a small fraction of the 24 million who play in the U.S. If just 2% of China’s population played, up from less than 0.1% today, China could become a $2-billion-a-year market for golf products. That would be a godsend for an industry whose growth has sputtered in the U.S. and Europe, where manufacturers like Nike and Adidas are getting out of the golf-equipment business, and courses are closing. ... the country has only about 600 courses (the U.S. has 15,000). Virtually none are the type of cheap, municipal links that cater to beginners. Almost every course is a private club located far outside the city center, behind closed gates manned by security guards. A round during the weekend pushes $200 or more, four or five times the norm in the U.S.—in a country where the typical urbanite has only about $5,000 a year in disposable income.