Thinking West: Oregon Founded as Racist Utopia (Gizmodo)

Gizmodo recently featured an interesting article concerning Oregon’s racist past. According to Matt Novak (and historical fact), Oregon was founded as a whites only, racist utopia. Check out the excerpt below:

When Oregon was granted statehood in 1859, it was the only state in the Union admitted with a constitution that forbade black people from living, working, or owning property there. It was illegal for black people even to move to the state until 1926. Oregon’s founding is part of the forgotten history of racism in the American west.

Waddles Coffee Shop in Portland, Oregon was a popular restaurant in the 1950s for both locals and travelers alike. The drive-in catered to America’s postwar obsession with car culture, allowing people to get coffee and a slice of pie without even leaving their vehicle. But if you happened to be black, the owners of Waddles implored you to keep on driving. The restaurant had a sign outside with a very clear message: “White Trade Only — Please.”

It’s the kind of scene from the 1950s that’s so hard for many Americans to imagine happening outside of the Jim Crow South. How could a progressive, northern city like Portland have allowed a restaurant to exclude non-white patrons? This had to be an anomaly, right? In reality it was far too common in Oregon, a state that was explicitly founded as a kind of white utopia.

America’s history of racial discrimination is most commonly taught as a southern issue. That’s certainly how I learned about it while going to Minnesota public schools in the 1980s and 90s. White people outside of the South seem to learn about the Civil War and civil rights movements from an incredibly safe (and often judgmental) distance.

Racism was generally framed as something that happened in the past and almost always “down there.” We learned about the struggles for racial equality in cities like Birmingham and Selma and Montgomery. But what about the racism of Portland, Oregon, a city that is still overwhelmingly white? The struggles there were just as intense — though they are rarely identified in the history books.

According to Oregon’s founding constitution, black people were not permitted to live in the state. And that held true until 1926. The small number of black people already living in the state in 1859, when it was admitted to the Union, were sometimes allowed to stay, but the next century of segregation and terrorism at the hands of angry racists made it clear that they were not welcome.

Like the article? Check out the full article over at Gizmodo.

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When Superintelligent AI Arrives, Will Religions Try to Convert It? (Gizmodo)

Zoltan Istvan (Gizmodo) examines how the world’s religions might handle the creation of superintelligent artificial intelligences. It appears that, much like American corporations in a recent Supreme Court case, superintelligent AIs may find God, too, with a little help, of course….

Like it or not, we are nearing the age of humans creating autonomous, self-aware super intelligences. Those intelligences will be part of our culture, and we will inevitably try to control AI and teach it our ways, for better or worse.

AI with intelligence equal to or beyond human beings is often referred to as “strong AI” or Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). Experts disagree as to when such an intelligence will arrive into the world, but many are betting it will happen sometime in the next two decades. The idea of a thinking machine being able to rival our own intellect—in fact, one that could quickly become far smarter than us—is both a reason for serious concern and a reason to cheer about what scientific advances it might teach us. Those worries and benefits have not escaped religious.

Some faith-bound Americans want to make sure any superintelligence we create knows about God. And if you think the idea of preaching God to autonomous machines sounds crazy, you may be overlooking key statistics of U.S. demographics: roughly 75 percent of adult Americans identify themselves as some denomination of Christianity. In the U.S. Congress, 92 percent of our highest politicians belong to a Christian faith.

As artificial intelligence advances, religious questions and concerns globally are bound to come up, and they’re starting too: Some theologians and futurists are already considering whether AI can also know God.

“I don’t see Christ’s redemption limited to human beings,” Reverend Dr. Christopher J. Benek told me in a recent interview. Benek is an Associate Pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church in Florida and holds masters degrees in divinity and theology from Princeton University.

“It’s redemption to all of creation, even AI,” he said. “If AI is autonomous, then we have should encourage it to participate in Christ’s redemptive purposes in the world.”

Read the remainder of this article over at Gizmodo.

Never Mind E-Books: Why Print Books Are Here to Stay (WSJ)

Print books are here to stay. E-books haven’t surpassed print book sales. Instead, it seems that E-books are fading fast as print book sales see increased demand….

Ever since Amazon introduced its popular Kindle e-reader five years ago, pundits have assumed that the future of book publishing is digital. Opinions about the speed of the shift from page to screen have varied. But the consensus has been that digitization, having had its way with music and photographs and maps, would in due course have its way with books as well. By 2015, one media maven predicted a few years back, traditional books would be gone.

Half a decade into the e-book revolution, though, the prognosis for traditional books is suddenly looking brighter. Hardcover books are displaying surprising resiliency. The growth in e-book sales is slowing markedly. And purchases of e-readers are actually shrinking, as consumers opt instead for multipurpose tablets. It may be that e-books, rather than replacing printed books, will ultimately serve a role more like that of audio books—a complement to traditional reading, not a substitute.

How attached are Americans to old-fashioned books? Just look at the results of a Pew Research Center survey released last month. The report showed that the percentage of adults who have read an e-book rose modestly over the past year, from 16% to 23%. But it also revealed that fully 89% of regular book readers said that they had read at least one printed book during the preceding 12 months. Only 30% reported reading even a single e-book in the past year.

Read the remainder of the article at the Wall Street Journal‘s website.

What’s Wrong with Only Reading Half a Book? (Electric Literature)

Last month, the e-reading company Kobo revealed which books its users read to completion. Much was made of the fact that Donna Tartt’s prize-winning bestseller The Goldfinch was only finished by 44% of Kobo readers, and that, in general, the bestseller list didn’t match up at all with the most completed list. It also spurned a flurry of essays on what this data mining could mean for writers, readers, and publishers. Will, as Francine Prose wonders in the NYRB, marketing departments dictate authors rewrite plots and characters based on user data? Or does this, as Joseph Bernstein suggests at Buzzfeed, mean little to the writing process while having the potential to better connect readers with books they like?

These are interesting questions, but almost all the articles I’ve read have had an underlying unchallenged assumption that I’d like to challenge: that a half-read book is a failure either on the part of the writer or the reader.

Certainly there are books that could be better written and there are readers that could be more patient and willing to challenge themselves. Analytics might help weak writers figure out what they are doing wrong, and plenty of readers would benefit from pushing through to the end of good books. Still, it isn’t the case that book that a half-finished book means the book is flawed or that the reader has sinned against literature. This should be obvious for much non-fiction, or poetry and story collections. One can learn volumes from a history or biography without finishing it, and poems and stories are complete units that do not have to be read together to be appreciated. But even a half-finished novel can provide plenty to a reader.

Read the remainder of this article over at Electric Literature.

Thinking West: Robo Novels

JohnnyRobotTechnology and science now act as the modern world’s newest frontier. It is a frontier full of excitement, questions, and its share of dangers. The questions brought forth from this nebulous frontier could shape our world and how technological and scientific progress become part and parcel of our daily lives. As we approach the singularity of technological-scientific development, debates have arisen over the role computers, robots, and artificial intelligences will play in human society. One such debate centers over the production of cultural artifacts by robots or computers. More specifically, academics and futurists have discussed the role robots and computers will play in our literary future. A recent article by the BBC focuses on this debate and how far we are from this reality. It appears that despite considerable technological-scientific progress in the realm of computers and robots, we won’t be seeing novels that are entirely generated by self-aware machines just yet. Furthermore, it is hard to say when robots or computers will generate novels or stories on their own, severing the link between computer and programmer. Such a prospect is both exciting and frightening. Will robots or computers write the next great American novel? Will the next Haruki Murakami or Fitzgerald be a robot or a computer? If so, how will this affect culture and writing in general?  Will human readers even care if a novel or story is generated by a thinking machine rather than a human being?

Check out the Verge‘s article on NaNoGenMo and the world of computer generated novels.

These days, writing isn’t a career. It’s a rich man’s hobby (Telegraph)

Can writers still make a career out of writing? Does writing exclude working or middle class writers from its ranks? Is writing a rich man’s sport? Toby Young believes writing has become the hobby of the wealthy or those with comfortable retirement pensions (see excerpt below).

These days, you need a substantial private income – or a public sector pension – to be a full-time writer. Last year, a survey of 2,500 professional authors found that their median income in 2013 was £11,000. That’s a drop of 29 per cent since 2005 and significantly below the minimum salary required to achieve a decent standard of living.

The writing game is notoriously lopsided, in which a small handful of bestselling authors earn a fortune and the vast majority live on scraps, but it’s got worse in the past decade. “You’ve always been able to comfortably house the British literary writers who can earn all their living from books in a single room,” says the author Will Self, whose own royalties have tailed off in recent years. “That room used to be a reception one, now it’s a back bedroom.”

Read the rest of Young’s article over at the Telegraph.

Influence and Homage: When Walt Whitman Met Oscar Wilde

It’s hard to imagine a meeting between two celebrities like Whitman and Wilde. However, history is full of surprises. During his stay in America, the youthful Wilde met with the aging poet Whitman. This meeting between Whitman and Wilde made a lasting impression on Wilde and how he handled his celebrity status. David M. Friedman’s New Republic article “When Walt Whitman Met Oscar Wilde” examines the Whitman-Wilde meeting in 1882 and Wilde’s status before and after his time in America.