Note From The Editor

I’m going to take a week or two away from posting on this blog to put together Afflictor’s “Best Articles of the Year” list for 2017, which will be bigger and not better than ever before. See you then.∼Darren

Meghan McCain, the dimwitted daughter of American plutocracy, is outraged by a mean tweet from Ashley Feinberg, which will not shorten her father’s life by one second. Meanwhile, the unspeakably cruel tax bill the Senator just supported will literally abbreviate the lives of many citizens. The Republican National Committee is pressuring the Huffington Post to fire the journalist, even though the large majority of its members voted for Donald Trump even though he mocked McCain for being a POW and subsequently refused to apologize. A sign of a civilization suffering from moral rot is when actual marauders feel emboldened to scold critics for their manners.

· · ·

Of course, Trump and the band of robber barons that comprise today’s GOP didn’t get here alone. There’s been no more pernicious influence in modern America than the Murdoch family, which has poisoned the well with Fake News long before such a term even existed.

“There is a special place in hell for Roger Ailes and Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly,” Thomas E. Ricks recently said, “I think they introduced a feeling of thuggishness into American discourse. And ultimately, I blame that on Rupert Murdoch, who I think has done more to poison American political life than any single person since Jefferson Davis.” In the United States, that probably means we’ll soon erect statues to honor Rupert, James and Lachlan.

· · ·

There are likely only two paths forward, a cleansing or a collapse. Perhaps Robert Mueller and a woke #Resist movement will be able to dismantle the evil system built by traitors, grifters, bigots and crackpots, or maybe we’re ineluctably headed for decline, dotage and death. Those who attempt the former will be attacked vociferously by those leading us toward the latter.

· · ·

In a New Yorker piece about new developments in Swedish politics, Masha Gessen takes time to meditate on a more hopeful future for us all. Let’s hope. The opening:

Michael Wernstedt lives in the future, in the center of Stockholm. It is a “co-living space,” a former hotel now inhabited by fifty people who share five kitchens and a variety of common spaces on four floors; each tenant also has a bedroom with a private bathroom. All of it is breathtakingly well-designed and meticulously clean. While Wernstedt and I talked, sitting on one of several giant gray couches in one of the common spaces, about a dozen people of different genders and skin colors (though all roughly in their mid-thirties) shared a casual meal in another. During a recent house meeting, Wernstedt told me, someone asked those present to recall the happiest time of their lives—and they all said that they were happiest right now. Wernstedt’s vision for the future of Sweden, and democratic politics in general, resembles this house: it is happy, healthy, sustainable, and co-created.

Last week, the co-living space hosted a press conference, during which Wernstedt and two co-organizers announced the formation of a new political party, the Initiative. Few people in Sweden have heard of the new party yet, though its older sister, Denmark’s the Alternative, has assembled an impressive constituency in just four years. To register as a party in Stockholm, the Initiative had to collect fifty physical, pen-and-ink signatures; it will take another fifteen hundred to get on the national ballot. The Initiative plans to meet the national threshold by August, the deadline for next September’s parliamentary election. Getting into parliament would require winning at least four per cent of the vote. There are about three dozen nationwide political parties in Sweden, but only eight are represented in parliament. The youngest party to break the four-per-cent barrier is the Sweden Democrats, an ultranationalist, anti-immigrant party that was founded in 1988 and has been seated in parliament since 2010.

Wernstedt interprets the rise of the Sweden Democrats, like the election of Donald Trump in the United States, as an opportunity of sorts: “This is scary, but it shows that people want something new. And we have to take responsibility for democracy.” Better yet, Wernstedt wants to reinvent politics. The Initiative’s most important innovation is launching a party without a program but with two lists. One is a list of six values that the Party espouses: courage, openness, compassion, optimism, co-creation, and actionability. The other is a list of three crises that the Party must address: the crisis of faith in democracy, the environmental crisis, and the crisis of mental health. Last year, according to Wernstedt, Swedes missed more workdays for being mentally unwell than they did for being physically unwell; the leading cause of death among people under thirty-five is suicide. Starting next week, the Initiative plans to begin holding workshops around Sweden to develop a political program to address the three crises in ways consistent with the six values.•

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Mass media was supposed to use facts to shine a cleansing light, but that supposes a uniform noble impulse on the part of those sending out the signals. In this way, humans and communications technology are a mismatch.

· · ·

In 1923, “Professor” Joseph Dunninger, the mesmerist, demonstrated the art of “radio hypnotism,” boasting that his disembodied voice could influence the behavior of those remote to him.

It was soon hailed that hypnotists would be able to simultaneously cure chronic alcoholics and other troubled citizens by the thousands thanks to the growing popularity of the medium.

It was ridiculous, of course, if you considered the scenario literally.

· · ·

D.W. Griffith, another sort of mesmerist, had Dunninger beaten by eight years. His deeply racist 1915 epic, Birth of a Nation, was a staple of American theaters for a decade and spent the pre-Talkie period as the standard by which all other films were measured, while also igniting a vast revival of the Ku Klux Klan. From Adam Hochschild in the New York Review of Books:

The KKK’s rebirth was spurred by D.W. Griffith’s landmark 1915 film, Birth of a Nation. The most expensive and widely seen motion picture that had yet been made, it featured rampaging mobs of newly freed slaves in the post–Civil War South colluding with rapacious northern carpetbaggers. To the rescue comes the Ku Klux Klan, whose armed and mounted heroes lynch a black villain, save the honor of southern womanhood, and prevent the ominous prospect of blacks at the ballot box. “It is like teaching history with lightning,” said an admiring President Woodrow Wilson, an ardent segregationist, who saw the film in the White House.•

Make no mistake: As surely as the Lost Cause, this movie meant to inculcate. As one newspaper wrote in the year of the moving picture’s release: “That parents regard the picture as educating and one their children see is evidenced by hundreds of parents who go with their young people to performances, especially in the afternoon.” That would ultimately prove an underestimation by millions, as no movie in the early part of the 20th century would be attended so rabidly and “educate” so many Americans.

· · ·

Social networks today use their lightning to not only teach history but also current events, a topic that’s become riddled with “alternate facts,” a process pushed on purpose by Trump and his minions and buttressed by online Russian interlopers, actual and virtual. It’s a distortion machine on a massive scale and thus far it’s worked well enough to tip the balance. This new connectedness that midwifed the Arab Spring has also given birth to a Russian winter, and the chill is being felt all over the world.

· · ·

Facebook has made a few public-relation concessions and a few hires in the aftermath of the angry blowback for its big role in allowing our Presidential election to be stolen by the Kemlin, but the company clearly lacks the will if not the ability to stem the bleeding. There’s a financial reason for its failing to reject Fake News: According to Sam Levin’s Guardian piece, “a Facebook spokesperson said that once an article had been labeled as false, its future ‘impressions’ dropped by 80%.”

The opening:

Journalists working for Facebook say the social media site’s fact-checking tools have largely failed and that the company has exploited their labor for a PR campaign.

Several fact checkers who work for independent news organizations and partner with Facebook told the Guardian that they feared their relationships with the technology corporation, some of which are paid, have created a conflict of interest, making it harder for the news outlets to scrutinize and criticize Facebook’s role in spreading misinformation.

The reporters also lamented that Facebook had refused to disclose data on its efforts to stop the dissemination of fake news. The journalists are speaking out one year after the company launched the collaboration in response to outrage over revelations that social media platforms had widely promoted fake news and propaganda during the US presidential election.

Facebook has since revealed that it facilitated Russia’s efforts to interfere with US politics, allowing divisive political ads and propaganda that reached 126 million Americans.

“I don’t feel like it’s working at all. The fake information is still going viral and spreading rapidly,” said one journalist who does fact-checks for Facebook and, like others interviewed for this piece, was not authorized to speak publicly due to the continuing partnership with the company. “It’s really difficult to hold [Facebook] accountable. They think of us as doing their work for them. They have a big problem, and they are leaning on other organizations to clean up after them.”

Facebook announced to much hype last December that it was partnering with third-party factcheckers – including the Associated Press, Snopes, ABC News, PolitiFact and FactCheck.org – to publicly flag fake news so that a “disputed” tag would warn users about sharing debunked content. A Guardian review this year found that the fact-checks seemed to be mostly ineffective and that “disputed” tags weren’t working as intended.

Now, some of the factcheckers are raising concerns, saying the lack of internal statistics on their work has hindered the project and that it is unclear if the corporation is taking the spread of propaganda seriously.

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Not even counting Matt Lauer’s ween, there’s so much institutional rot in America and abroad, as stark wealth inequality has created a tax-dodging, power-abusing class that’s out of control and beyond the law. I suppose you could argue that it’s always existed and our moment is an enlightened one that has risen to name this evil, but that seems a particularly rosy interpretation.

You could blame the system, but the people deserve a fair share of the criticism. The numbers are in on the Obama years, and for the first time in decades poverty decreased, health-care access was vastly expanded and wealth inequality began to shrink. It appears those gains and far more are going to be handed back to the 1% since nearly 63 million among us decided to vote for a deeply dishonest, deeply disturbed conman. A passage of anything close to the currently proposed tax bill will see to that in the aggregate even if some states and cities continue to adopt more progressive policies (e.g., $15 minimum wage). As Karl Rove warned: Elections have consequences.

There are no national boundaries or state allegiances among the current cabal of bilkers and billionaires, as is demonstrated by Murad Ahmed’s Financial Times profile of octogenarian jagoff Bernie Eccelstone, the former Formula One chief executive who’s thrown decency under the bus by supporting Russia’s evil dictator Vladimir Putin as well as Trump’s hateful campaign. That’s no surprise since he’s a longtime nativist misogynist who dislikes democracy and has “Hitler controversy,” “Bribery accusation” and “Tax avoidance” categories in his Wikipedia listing. 

An excerpt:

In the 1990s, Ecclestone was nominated for a knighthood, with character references from Nelson Mandela and Silvio Berlusconi. His stewardship of F1 has helped to create “motorsport valley” in the south of England where many F1 teams are based, employing thousands. Other British business­people have been recognised for less, but civil servants balked at ennobling him. A man who still shocks his country’s political establishment — he voted Leave in last year’s Brexit referendum and believes that US president Donald Trump has “done a lot of good things for the world” — has been rejected by it.

“Honestly, I think the guy who should be running Europe, impressed me more than anything, is Mr Putin because he’s a guy that says he’s going to do something and does it . . . [He’s] a first-class person.”

Does Ecclestone approve of Putin’s autocratic tendencies, his lack of tolerance for political dissent, his government’s homophobic policies? “When I was at school, if you did something wrong, the teacher used to say, go and get the punishment book and the cane,” he explains. “Go to your headmistress and get a few whacks or something. That’s what he does.”

Ecclestone has got into trouble for views like this before. He once expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler as a man who “was able to get things done,” a remark for which he later apologised.

I suggest that Ecclestone is condoning repression. What if the Russians on the receiving end of “a few whacks” have done nothing wrong and just want the right to freely criticise their leader? “I was with [Putin] after the [2014 Sochi Winter] Olympics on top of the bloody mountain . . . we had a meeting, just the two of us, and we came out and we were walking along and people were coming up to him asking for an autograph . . . that’s what people think of him.”

This is Ecclestone’s experience of the world, atop a secluded mountain with other men of unquestioned power, bound by their ability to “get things done.”•

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Far worse than Pee Tapes are coming, I would wager.

Many who were friends with Jeffrey Epstein, as our sitting President and a past one were, likely engaged in a relationship with him to share in his depraved acts. The convicted child predator/science patron was known to hide cameras and microphones in all corners of his dens of inequity, just in case he should ever need a Get Out Of Jail Free card. That’s not Trump’s only problem. His Russian comrades may have also been shining a light on his private behaviors, which, if the stories of his 16 alleged victims and his first wife’s court testimony are any indication, may have been incredibly far beyond the pale.

In advance of what may soon be coming to a screen near you, the orange supremacist has begun amping up his nihilistic obliteration of objective truth, casually mentioning that the Access Hollywood tape, which would have been the coup de grâce for his disgraceful campaign in any decent country, is somehow fake news. It’s the assertion of an evil dictator or a mentally ill madman or a jacked-up drug addict or all three, but that isn’t the chief problem. The main heartbreak is that we’re now a country in which tens of millions will believe his obvious bullshit, as surely as many in Alabama believe Roy Moore’s. We’ve become estranged from reality on a mass scale.

The novelist and scientist’s daughter Ursula K. Le Guin has become worried over the increasingly blurred lines between fiction and nonfiction. “You’re encouraged to follow the ‘truth’ instead of the facts,” she’s said, but I think it’s worse than that: You’re encouraged to believe the lies that suit you, regardless of the consequences.

From David A. Graham’s Atlantic article “Trump’s Rejection of Observable Reality“:

The White House’s stance is that all 16 women who have accused Trump of sexual improprieties, harassment, or assault are lying. Trump’s old position on the Access Hollywood tape was that he was lying. The view he now apparently holds privately is that the tape itself is lying.

But the tape is authentic. Trump acknowledged as much when it was revealed, and apologized for his words (though not to the women upon whom he boasted about preying) while claiming that he had not actually done the things he bragged about having done. Billy Bush, the television host with whom he was speaking on the tape (and who, unlike Trump, lost his job simply for not reacting with disgust to the comments) also acknowledged it was real.

In short, the suggestion that it was not Trump on the tape is either deeply dishonest or unhinged from reality, or both. While Trump lies with abandon, and has done so throughout his career, this is a particularly curious case, one where not only is there no real dispute about reality, but in fact documentary evidence in the form of a recording of Trump discussing the acts himself.•

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Is the human species more or less likely to become extinct since the development of civilization? 

Not easy to answer. We didn’t have nukes to blow ourselves to bits when foragers, nor were there illnesses like smallpox pre-livestock. A disconnected slew of tribes also meant that disease was less likely to spread on a mass level. There are, of course, advantages to modern society beyond creature comforts and the ability to easily disseminate photographs of our genitals. Response to large-scale calamities are far better today, except in cases of willful neglect as with the performance of the racist game-show host in the White House in regards to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Information-sharing on a global scale has proved to have its negatives, but it’s also made tracking disease and sharing genuine progress more possible. And the scientific tilt that made those nukes that can kill millions will also likely be able in time to safeguard us from natural “bombs” like meteorites and manipulate genes to eliminate illnesses. Of course, bioengineering will also be a bane. You get the point—things are better but they have the potential to be worse.

Of course, there are numerous considerations beyond existential threats. In Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, Yale anthropologist James Scott takes a revisionist look at why humans transitioned from foragers to farmers. He believes modern civilization did not have to be, life among the foragers was not as benighted as its made out to be, and that early farming life was terrible for humans. In a smart Vox Q&A conducted by Sean Illing, Scott also acknowledges that (most) people are better off now then they were then but only after a long, painful gestation period.

An excerpt about what may be humanity’s great inflection point:

Sean Illing:

You’re not arguing — and I’m certainly not arguing — that we would be better off if we all returned to this pre-modern world. No one wants to swap lives with someone from 10,000 years ago.

James Scott:

Of course. From our perspective today, it’s inconceivable that we would want to go back like that. But I think it’s still important to understand that this was not a choice between hunting and gathering and foraging on the one hand and the Danish welfare state on the other.

At this point in history, this was a choice between hunting and gathering and foraging on the one hand and an agrarian state in which all of the first epidemic diseases developed due to the concentration of animals and human beings in a concentrated space. This was not as clear-cut a choice as a lot of people suppose.

Yes, things are better now, but it’s really only in the last 200 years or so that we’ve enjoyed the health and longevity that we do today. But this initial period when we think civilization was created was, in fact, a really dark period for humanity.

Sean Illing:

What have the demands of modern civilization done to the individual? We enjoy more abundance and greater comfort, but at the same time many of us are less happy, less free, and more cut off from our natural environment. Isn’t this the real price of civilization?

James Scott:

It’s an important question. Modern industrial life has forced almost all of us to specialize in something, often in mundane, repetitive tasks. This is good for economic productivity but not so good for individual self-fulfillment. I think this has created a narrowing of attention to the larger world. Moving from hunting and gathering to working on an assembly line has made us more machine-like and less attuned to the world around us because we only have to be skilled at one thing.

Sean Illing:

I want to press you a bit on this question of whether we’re any happier now. We live mostly isolated lives in a culture that prizes growth over sustainability. We’re encouraged to own more things, to buy more things, to define and measure ourselves against others on the basis of status and wealth. I think this has made us less happy and more self-conscious. How do you see it?

James Scott:

I’d say two things. The first is that once we had sedentary agriculture, we then had investment in land and therefore property that could be taxed. We then had the basis for inherited property and thus the basis for passing wealth from one generation to another.

Now, all that matters because it led to these embedded inequalities that were enforced by the state protection of property. This wasn’t true for hunter and gatherer societies, which regarded all property as common property to which everyone in the tribe had equal access. So the early agricultural societies created the basis for systematic class distinctions that could be perpetuated between generations, and that’s how you get the kinds of massive hierarchies and inequalities we see today.•

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Fuck Ken Bone and the culture he rode in on. 

Shame on the Undecided doofus of the 2016 Presidential debates himself for failing to take advantage of the endless educational opportunities in the country, remaining a barely formed adult fetus with the brain power of a bottle cap. Even more shame on those among us who felt it necessary to turn the red-sweatered sluggard into a meme, because Americans need to make every last goddamn thing into entertainment, to manufacture moments to fill the desperately dreary lives we’ve fashioned for ourselves, even if this stupidity can get us all killed.

Fuck the media for its role in the same, not only for making Bone a supporting actor in a national tragedy but for featuring as its star a racist, ignorant game-show host, helping to legitimize someone who should have been too low and louche to cut the ribbon at the opening of a brand-spanking new adult bookstore, let alone be allowed to stain the sheets in the Lincoln Bedroom. And fuck the media again for continuing this dangerous bullshit. Should Mark Cuban run for President? How about Alec Baldwin? Will the Rock enter the race? Why aim so high? This comment is made with all earnestness: Our leadership is presently so dumb and dishonest that even Kim Kardashian would do a better job than our sitting President. Kim Fucking Kardashian.

The Illinois insta-celeb has apparently taken his eyes off of hacked Fappening photos of Jennifer Lawrence long enough to realize that Donald Trump isn’t doing a stellar job as President. Perhaps the unnecessary suffering of Puerto Ricans and U.S. Virgin Islanders and refugees and immigrants and poor people and non-white folks and even the white dummies who voted for a Simon Cowell-ish strongman has finally reached the slow-on-the-uptake Bone? Who knows and who cares. More likely, he’s just moving his mouth-hole again, making ignorant noises at random, because noise, not news, is what rules in this immature, ill-informed nation.

From Luke Mullins’ CNN article about the man who knew too little:

No one is more perplexed by his fame than Bone himself. “It’s almost over,” he says, “and I still don’t get it.”

Bone has experienced the rush and perils of instant celebrity over the past year. He served as a special correspondent for ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live and walked the red carpet at a Hollywood movie premier. But he’s also witnessed police in bulletproof vests sweep his house for explosives and endured withering criticism for comments he made prior to his time in the spotlight.

“Parts of it were a real bummer,” Bone told me. “Parts of it were the most fun I ever had.”

It all started last fall, when Bone, a married father of one living in the St. Louis suburb of Belleville, Illinois, received a call from a Gallup poll researcher asking if he was committed to voting for either Clinton or Trump. He said he wasn’t and agreed to have his name added to the pool of undecided voters under consideration to appear on stage during the upcoming town hall-style debate at nearby Washington University in St. Louis.

Bone, who works at a coal fired power plant, was eventually selected to participate. After CNN’s Anderson Cooper, one of the debate moderators, gave him the floor, nearly 67 million television viewers watched an ordinary 34-year-old man ask a thoughtful question of two deeply-flawed candidates: “What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?”

Right away, Bone’s red sweater lit up social media, with memes including one with a photograph of his chubby, mustached face above the question: “How will you protect my job as a card on Guess Who?” receiving tens of thousands of retweets. His name soon began trending online, and popularity increased further when video footage circulated of Bone taking photographs of the stage with a disposable camera. Less than an hour after the debate, New York Magazine declared that Bone’s “vibrant red sweater, pure and earnest face, and enthusiastically delivered question about energy sources have boosted him to internet-celebrity status.”•

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Are friends electric?” inquired Gary Numan in 1981, but it was roughly seven decades earlier that Dr. Albert Abrams began trying to convince the world that electricity was indeed its friend. His credentials were in doubt, however, and his methods were surely batshit.

Abrams’ treatments were based on a fuzzy principle he dubbed “Electronic Reactions of Abrams,” which he claimed to embed in numerous expensive medical devices he rented and sold. Now rightly recognized as one of the foremost medical mountebanks of the 20th century, the quack knowingly fooled enough of the pubic and his colleagues, newly enamored as they were with radio and other electronic devices proliferating throughout the country, to be taken seriously in some quarters, even “playing” Carnegie Hall in 1922.

A March 31, 1923 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article heralded a supposedly superior new blood test developed by Abrams, in which the pseudo-pill bag used his “Dynomizer” to diagnose and treat by sending out “electronic vibrations” from blood droplets to patients thousands of miles away wearing electrodes on their foreheads. It was every bit as lunatic as it sounds.

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One final post about the strange behavior in regards to convicted child predator Jeffrey Epstein by the Edge Foundation and some of the scientists who are members of the organization. Why did Steven Pinker, in 2015, tweet Alan Dershowitz’s affidavit denying guilt of alleged sex crimes against children that were linked to his friendship and business relationship with Epstein? You could surmise that perhaps Pinker and the lawyer were friends from Harvard and the former wanted to help the latter distance himself from the his client’s criminal activity. Except that Pinker has apparently continued to socialize with Epstein, helping to legitimize someone who is most definitely not innocent of such illegal behavior. Very bizarre.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, sure, but what if we tell the wrong ones?

Yes, there’s always been a strain of madness in American society—in pretty much every society—but the sideshow was moved from the margins to the center ring in recent decades. The zealots, cranks and crooks have become the norm, or at least enough of the norm to tip the balance. Not that our country wasn’t sick before the Internet decentralized media. Donald Trump’s rise, which began before Reality TV and Russian bots, perfectly traces our descent into system-crushing corruption. Now numerous erstwhile pillars of our nation shudder and probably will fall. That will be messy, but it’s actually the best-case scenario: It’s still possible the fraudulent may consume whatever justice remains.

· · ·

In a Times Literary Supplement Q&A, fiction writer M. John Harrison argues that narratives, which are fast gaining a horrible reputation, will be extinct in a quarter of a century:

Question:

What will your field look like twenty-five years from now?

M. John Harrison:

Smaller. A generation will have grown up repelled by the urge to fantasy that lies behind fake news, corporate branding, political misdirection, sports reporting before the event, the constant fictionalization of everything. “Story” will be a dirty word, even at the BBC and in science journalism. Realism will have set in a long way upstream of the idea of fiction itself and people will be consuming their own lives, as lived, rather than images of life designed to persuade them of something. As part of the arms race between consumer and producer, they’ll have grown out of the idea that one kind of make-believe can be an antidote to another, and be trying to reduce their vulnerability to all of this stuff. A utopian picture, certainly: but utopianism and its ironical sister are traditional features of my field.

I’m sure that’s not so, nor do I think it should be. Democracy was a pretty good narrative and so was the Civil Rights Movement. Stories will always be with us, from the cave drawings of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc until the extinction of our species, but we better choose them more carefully or that endgame will arrive sooner than we’d like. 

· · ·

Pat Graham’s AP piece provides a portrait of a self-taught U.S. rocket scientist who believes the Earth is flat, which is a perfect metaphor for American exceptionalism run amok. The opening:

The countdown to launch creeps closer and there’s still plenty for self-taught rocket scientist “Mad” Mike Hughes to do: Last-second modifications to his vessel. Pick up his flight suit. Leave enough food for his four cats — just in case anything happens.

Hughes is a 61-year-old limo driver who’s spent the last few years building a steam-powered rocket out of salvage parts in his garage. His project has cost him $20,000, which includes Rust-Oleum paint to fancy it up and a motor home he bought on Craigslist that he converted into a ramp.

His first test of the rocket will also be the launch date — Saturday , when he straps into his homemade contraption and attempts to hurtle over the ghost town of Amboy, California. He will travel about a mile at a speed of roughly 500 mph.

“If you’re not scared to death, you’re an idiot,” Hughes said . “It’s scary as hell, but none of us are getting out of this world alive. I like to do extraordinary things that no one else can do, and no one in the history of mankind has designed, built and launched himself in his own rocket.

“I’m a walking reality show.”

The daredevil/limo driver has been called a little bit of everything over his career — eccentric, quirky, foolhardy. Doesn’t bother him. He believes what he believes, including that the Earth is flat. He knows this thought is a conundrum, given that he’s about to launch himself into the atmosphere.

Down the road, he’s intending to build a rocket that takes him to space, so he can snap a picture and see with his own eyes.

“I don’t believe in science,” said Hughes, whose main sponsor for the rocket is Research Flat Earth. “I know about aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and how things move through the air, about the certain size of rocket nozzles, and thrust. But that’s not science, that’s just a formula. There’s no difference between science and science fiction.”•

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“We’ll be living in machines next!” exclaimed the headline in a 1935 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which ended up being more correct than the editor who composed it could have known. 

Society in 2017 is well on its way to becoming a quantified surveillance machine, our brains glued to our phones and consciousnesses stored in the cloud, but eight decades ago, the newspaper used the line to tout the pre-fab, fully furnished wonder known as the American Motohome, a modernist abode that could be built in six days. It was all very high-tech at the time, aimed at providing comfort and diminishing toil, delivered replete with built-in air “refrigeration,” heating, electric refrigerator, and a radio, with rooms that were “buttoned” together and could be rearranged as the owners desired. The kitchen was even stocked with food prior to move-in date. The Motohome didn’t, however, have wheels since it wasn’t actually a motor home.

The model’s christening was such a big deal that the Wanamaker department store in Manhattan invited President Roosevelt’s mother to tear the cellophane from the showroom example it constructed inside its auditorium. “I dedicate this home to the women of America,” she said. 

Despite the hoopla, the house was a flop, the Edsel of edifices, as cookie-cutter homes didn’t appeal to American tastes, especially since the future was not cheap with a $5,500 price tag for the larger version, not exactly affordable for most Depression Era families. Even after World War II, when the country’s economy was humming again, pre-fab only found pockets of success in the U.S., while the vanquished in Japan embraced the idea, needing to quickly shelter the survivors of a devastating defeat.•

I wondered yesterday how many members of Edge.org know about Jeffrey Epstein’s apparent continued participation in the ideas think tank, assuming many of them would be uncomfortable about keeping such company. Lawrence Krauss and Steven Pinker would seemingly not be among the troubled.

The photo above of the two scientists with Epstein was posted in 2014 and appears to be of that vintage. In a 2015 Guardian article, Krauss refused to distance himself from the registered sex offender, feigning ignorance about his patron’s criminal behavior with children:

Well before Epstein went to jail, he saw philanthropy as a way to bring together people from different walks of life in settings ranging from his own mansions to academic conferences, friends said.

“His interest is in interesting people and interesting ideas,” said Arizona State University physicist Lawrence Krauss, who directs a program on the origins of life that Epstein has supported. He said he would feel cowardly if he turned away from Epstein because of accusations Krauss knew nothing about.•

For more than a decade, Donald Trump appeared on NBC playing a master builder of New York City, a family man and exacting authority figure who nonetheless had empathy for the workers he fired. It was utter bullshit, of course, but in that odd alternative universe of Reality TV, it was presented as real.

By the time Mark Burnett figured out he could make some cash on Trump’s elephantine ego, the blowhard’s career was in disrepair, his garbage reputation and business practices making it all but impossible for him to open any structure in Manhattan bigger than a tent in Central Park. No respectable person with funds wanted to float Bull Connor as a condo salesman, but fortunately for him money often finds its way into disreputable hands.

Despite his idiot-box persona, Trump was, more accurately, the capo of a crime family, one who’d been fined $10 million dollars for money laundering, stiffed contractors, bilked classes full of desperate people who’d attended his ludicrous Trump University, regularly conducted business with the shadiest types, and whose children had been spared arrest for fraud for strange and mysterious reasons.

You could say that anyone with half a brain would have known Trump was merely playing a role on television, but that’s not how things currently work in America. Trump in the White House never could have happened with the rot of our system in many areas—law, politics, media, education, etc.—but there’s no doubt he would not currently be appearing on Fox, CNN, and every other channel as a Simon Cowell-ish strongman without our damaging real-unreal television culture.

· · ·

Kris Jenner is is very good at a certain type of business, despite being a hideous person. (Or, more accurately, because she is a hideous person.) Truth be told, she’s not as awful as Joe Jackson whose main saving grace is the accident of genetics that allowed him to have children with traditional entertainment talent, but she is still awful. She will never be President, but she is like a terrible congressperson who serves endless terms, never going away. She is ours, for good, and that’s not a mistake. That’s the system we’ve built—that’s who we are.

· · ·

The opening of James Walcott’s New York Times review of books about the Trump and Kardashian clans:

There are those who have fame thrust upon them, and those who thrust themselves upon fame like an invasion force. It is the latter troupe of shameless, relentless thrusters that occupies us here, the Trump and Kardashian clanships. Until fairly recently, family dynasties — whatever skeletons they may have had in their closets — thrived on a mantle of achievement handed down from generation to generation, whether we’re talking about the Adamses, Roosevelts, Rockefellers, Kennedys, Bushes or Flying Wallendas. Such a quaint ideal and needless effort this service obligation seems now, when exhibitionism in the pseudoraw is what gets rewarded, thanks in large measure to the phony theatrics of reality TV, which turned the social theorist Daniel Boorstin’s notion of a celebrity — someone famous for being famous — into a terrarium thronged with dance moms, mob wives and Honey Boo Boos. It has elevated into omnipresence those who would have otherwise played out a normal cycle in public awareness and then disappeared to pester us no more. Without “The Apprentice” and its successor, “The Celebrity Apprentice,” Donald Trump would have remained an egregious real estate self-promoter and gossip-column fixture, and his children minor adjuncts and boardroom props; without “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” the brood bearing that name would have been living footnotes to the O. J. Simpson murder trial. Instead, one family wields incalculable political power, the other pervades pop culture and fashion like an incurable virus. The two books under review offer peep-show views of preening lives and impostures before they went panoramic.

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Don’t pay as much attention to the bells and whistles as the engines that barely make a hum.

The algorithms and sensors that work quietly and efficiently without pause are a different sort of threat than drones and bombs and humanoid robots that can stick a landing, but give them time and they can do a far more pervasive job. 

Similarly, it’s a good idea to dismiss the public posturing of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as he treks around the country for his American “listening tour,” milking cows and drinking coffee in truck-stop diners the way an actual human might, and focus instead on the company’s attempts to distance itself from the disaster of the 2016 election. Sheryl Sandberg promises Facebook will take responsibility for its failings in the same breath that she asserts that “at our heart we’re a tech company—we don’t hire journalists.” 

Talk of a Zuckerberg run for the White House in 2020 has been all but silenced since it’s clear he’s not even fully capable of running his virtual kingdom. What seemed like an impenetrable fortress a year ago may now be stormed by regulators eager to do a job that Facebook (and Google and Twitter) either can’t or won’t do.

The opening of Edward Luce’s FT column “The Zuckerberg Delusion“:

Here is what Mark Zuckerberg learned from his 30-state tour of the US: polarisation is rife and the country is suffering from an opioid crisis. Forgive me if I have to lie down for a moment. Yet it would be facile to tease Mr Zuckerberg for his self-evident observations. Some people are geniuses at one thing and bad at others. Mr Zuckerberg is a digital superstar with poor human skills. 

Facebook’s co-founder is not the first Silicon Valley figure to show signs of political inadequacy — nor will he be the last. But he may be the most influential. He personifies the myopia of America’s coastal elites: they wish to do well by doing good. 

When it comes to a choice, the “doing good” bit tends to be forgotten. 

There is nothing wrong with doing well, especially if you are changing the world. Innovators are rightly celebrated. But there is a problem with presenting your prime motive as philanthropic when it is not. Mr Zuckerberg is one of the most successful monetisers of our age. Yet he talks as though he were an Episcopalian pastor. 

“Protecting our community is more important than maximising our profits,” Mr Zuckerberg said this month after Facebook posted its first ever $10bn quarterly earnings result — an almost 50 per cent year-on-year jump. When a leader goes on a “listening tour” it means they are marketing something. In the case of Hillary Clinton, it was herself. In the case of Mr Zuckerberg, it is also himself. Making a surprise announcement that Mr Zuckerberg would be having dinner with an ordinary family is the kind of thing a Soviet dictator would do — down to the phalanx of personal aides he brought with him. 

This is not how scholars find out what ordinary families are thinking. Nor is it a good way to launch a political campaign. 

Ten months after Mr Zuckerberg began his tour, speculation of a presidential bid has been shelved. Say what you like about Donald Trump but he knows how to give the appearance of understanding ordinary people. More to the point, Facebook has turned into a toxic commodity since Mr Trump was elected. Big Tech is the new big tobacco in Washington. It is not a question of whether the regulatory backlash will come, but when and how.•

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Came across “3 Days in the Future,” a 2002 New York Times article about the then-12-year-old TED Conference, and it led me down a very disquieting Google black hole. Jeffrey Epstein, friend of Donald Trump, Bill Clinton and Woody Allen, was mentioned in the piece, which isn’t surprising since at that point he was mostly recognized as a billionaire supporter of cutting-edge science. A few years later, the public knew him better than that and much of what was revealed was terrible.

Epstein’s public generosity was at least partially a cover for his evil deeds, as he was investigated beginning in 2005 for sex crimes involving children. He ultimately plead guilty to soliciting underage girls for prostitution and spent 13 months in prison, which seemed like an incredibly fortunate outcome for him and one that didn’t come close to justice. It’s been further reported that he reached settlements with some of his accusers for an amount over $5 million, and in one of these cases he was accused of operating an underage sex-abuse ring. Another of his alleged victims is currently suing in regards to sex-trafficking.

What I discovered when I did some simple search-engine work is that the Edge Foundation, according to its own site, continues to this day to maintain the registered sex offender as a full member. His Edge bio declares that Epstein enjoys conducting “philanthropy in the U.S. Virgin Islands,” without mentioning what else he’s been accused of conducting there.

Certainly, Edge.org does lots of interesting work in science and technology under founder John Brockman’s editorial guidance, but I wonder how many members of the think tank, lots of them truly good and brilliant people, know about Epstein’s continued participation.

It’s possible that this is an old page that’s simply never been removed from the Internet—one would hope so—though Epstein’s personal site also lists him as an active member.•

 

10 search-engine keyphrases bringing traffic to Afflictor this week:

  1. harvey weinstein’s brother bob
  2. jim rutenberg russia information war
  3. is adolf hitler still alive?
  4. article about modern city-states
  5. garry kasparov deep thinking book
  6. victims of grenfell tower
  7. henry miller’s take on technology
  8. facebook anti-semitic advertising
  9. snowden putin assange
  10. robert redford comments on trump

This week, with Robert Mugabe deposed and Vladimir Putin reportedly eyeing retirement, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un were left to have a pissing match for the title of world’s worst leader.

A pissing match, huh? I better load up on fluids.

My bladder’s ready to burst. Bring it on, Little Rocket Man.

I don’t have time to explain, guys, but I need you to use North Korea’s finest technology to fill these two bottles with water ASAP.

 

• The implied religiosity which often attends Artificial Intelligence, a dynamic identified by Jaron Lanier among other technological critics, is made explicit in the Way of the Future, roboticist Anthony Levandowski’s new Silicon Valley spiritual-belief system in which the Four Horsemen, should they arrive, will do so in driverless cars.

•  Digital Leninism is not the only possible future in our increasingly algorithmic world, but determinism is probably embedded to some degree in technology. Yuval Noah Harari dissents from that view in a recent Guardian review of Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0, asserting that technology is what we make it. Even if that is true, take one good look at us and worry.

• In John Gray’s mixed New Statesman review of Peter J. Bowler’s forthcoming book about the hopes and fears provoked by what passes for progress, the critic examines the technological utopias and dystopias that have sprung from laboratories and the humanities to fill our dreams and haunt our nightmares.

Pre-Internet gossip powerhouse Liz Smith passed away. Can’t say that her focus on celebrity made our society better, and in some ways she helped enable a corrupt system that needed to be torn down rather than propped up, but the water she swam in was always more shallow than dirty.

• Gilbert Rogin, the gifted fiction writer and legendary Time Inc. magazine reporter and editor, just died. In 1968, Rogin turned out a sharp Sports Illustrated profile of motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel, a Houdini whose trick was getting hurt, when he was dreaming of blowing up his career by flying a rocket over the Grand Canyon.

• In Cathy O’Neil’s concerned Bloomberg View opinion piece, the editorialist worries about the wisdom of uploading book contents directly to our brains, should that technology become possible.

• A note from 1938 about U.S. Nazi youth camps, an export of European fascism which began to dot the American landscape in the run-up to World War II.

The Austrian physiologist Eugen Steinbach began researching “reactivation,” his term for the process of making the aged young all over again, in the 1890s. He promoted the use of “brain extracts” for all and developed for men a type of vasectomy that would allegedly repurpose semen into an internal youth serum. It was bullocks, but the procedure still helped the doctor gain fame—if not the approval of his medical peers—because people rightfully fear death, a hideous and permanent condition. A 1941 report in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle marveled at how the 81-year-old, yet seemingly ageless, Steinbach was to go horseback riding on his birthday. What a remarkable specimen he’d turned himself into! He croaked three years later, however, like a mere commoner who’d been unenlightened about the bold ideas of educated men.

Today Alphabet aims to “cure death,” Libertarian putz Peter Thiel has vowed that HGH injections and other high-priced treatments will allow him to live to 140 (god help us all if so) and Singulatarian Ray Kurzweil pursues immortality by downing handfuls of supplements daily and working on a system to upload his brain into computers. Let’s hope for his sake it doesn’t wind up housed in Google Docs

Don DeLillo’s 2016 novel, Zero K, takes on this fervor among the super-rich for an endless tomorrow: “We are born without choosing to be,” a character says. “Should we have to die in the same manner?” Well, we should search for better cures and longer lives, but there’s something creepy about the over-promising and narcissism of contemporary Silicon Valley immortalists who hope to escape societal collapse by fleeing to New Zealand and to outrun the Reaper through a combination of chemistry and computers. They talk about wanting to rescue the world, but they mostly want to save their own asses and stock options. 

In “The History of the Future,” John Gray’s mixed New Statesman review of Peter J. Bowler’s forthcoming book about the hopes and fears provoked by what passes for progress, the critic examines the longstanding anti-death movement through Steinbach, Serge Voronoff and other historical crackpots, and interprets more technological utopias and dystopias that have sprung from laboratories and the humanities to fill our dreams and haunt our nightmares.

An excerpt about “enlightened” thought:

Many who have been optimistic about the possibilities opened up by technology have wanted to use it for purposes that would now be recognised as highly regressive; some of the most widely influential among these people have been renowned progressive thinkers. When a cult of technology is joined with fashionable ideas of human improvement, the upshot is very often gruesome inhumanity.

Consider eugenics. Writing of the interwar enthusiasm for policies that would “improve the human stock”, Bowler reminds us that exhibitions promoting Nazi eugenics and “racial hygiene” toured the US freely in the Thirties, while many American states enacted legislation for the compulsory sterilisation of people judged to be feeble-minded. For many progressives, eugenics was as quintessentially modern as town planning. Eugenic policies attracted the support of William Beveridge, John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell and progressive luminaries throughout the world. In Sweden, the architect of the Scandinavian welfare state, Gunnar Myrdal, argued that a programme of mandatory sterilisation was necessary for social progress, with tens of thousands being subjected to the procedure up to the mid-Seventies.

Some in interwar Europe went so far as proposing the compulsory euthanasia of people classified as socially obstructive or useless. Bowler cites the French surgeon Alexis Carrell (1873-1944) as recommending that habitual criminals “should be humanely and economically disposed of in some euthanasia institutions supplied with proper gases”. Carrel was attacked for links with the Nazis, but policies of this kind were not confined to Nazis and their sympathisers. Carrell’s views were anticipated by George Bernard Shaw, whose long-time enthusiasm for involuntary euthanasia Bowler does not discuss.

In a speech to the Eugenics Education Society in 1910, Shaw declared: “A part of eugenic politics would finally land us in an extensive use of the lethal chamber. A great many people would have to be put out of existence simply because it wastes other people’s time looking after them.” Here Shaw was not speculating about a hypothetical future society. In his introduction to Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s English Prisons Under Local Government (1921), he explicitly advocated large-scale use of the lethal chamber as an alternative to imprisonment. In The Crime of Imprisonment(1946), he reiterated his view of how anti-social elements should be treated: “If they are not fit to live, kill them in a decent human way.”

Shaw’s belief that many human beings were “not fit to live” was a recurring theme among early-20th-century progressive thinkers. As Bowler notes, Wells looked forward to a future in which “The unfit would be painlessly eliminated, the mentally ill encouraged to suicide out of a sense of duty and the inferior races of the world would face extinction.” When in his non-fiction study Anticipations, first published in 1901, he considered the future of the “swarms of black and yellow and brown people who do not come into the needs of efficiency” in a scientifically ordered World State, Wells concluded that these and other “inefficient” human groups would have to disappear: “The world is not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go”. Here Wells was expressing a view of human progress that he never renounced.•

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A hammer is a tool or a weapon depending on how you swing it, and the more powerful the tool, the more powerful the weapon.

Technology that excels at data-collection and surveillance will be used to those ends in the best of times and will be employed in a harsh, even tyrannical, manner in the worst of times. The competing agendas among individuals, corporations and states almost demand it. I’m not suggesting Digital Leninism is the only possible future in our increasingly algorithmic world, but I do think determinism is embedded to some degree in technology, which can lead as well as follow. And there will be no plugs to pull if things to don’t go as planned, and even if there were, yanking them from the wall would be the end of us as surely as it would our machines. 

Yuval Noah Harari dissents from that view in a recent Guardian review of Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0, asserting that technology is what we make it. Even if that is true, take one good look at us and worry. The opening:

Artificial intelligence will probably be the most important agent of change in the 21st century. It will transform our economy, our culture, our politics and even our own bodies and minds in ways most people can hardly imagine. If you hear a scenario about the world in 2050 and it sounds like science fiction, it is probably wrong; but if you hear a scenario about the world in 2050 and it does not sound like science fiction, it is certainly wrong.

Technology is never deterministic: it can be used to create very different kinds of society. In the 20th century, trains, electricity and radio were used to fashion Nazi and communist dictatorships, but also to foster liberal democracies and free markets. In the 21st century, AI will open up an even wider spectrum of possibilities. Deciding which of these to realise may well be the most important choice humankind will have to make in the coming decades.

This choice is not a matter of engineering or science. It is a matter of politics. Hence it is not something we can leave to Silicon Valley – it should be among the most important items on our political agenda. Unfortunately, AI has so far hardly registered on our political radar. It has not been a major subject in any election campaign, and most parties, politicians and voters seem to have no opinion about it. This is largely because most people have only a very dim and limited understanding of machine learning, neural networks and artificial intelligence. (Most generally held ideas about AI come from SF movies such as The Terminator and The Matrix.) Without a better understanding of the field, we cannot comprehend the dilemmas we are facing: when science becomes politics, scientific ignorance becomes a recipe for political disaster.

Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0 tries to rectify the situation. Written in an accessible and engaging style, and aimed at the general public, the book offers a political and philosophical map of the promises and perils of the AI revolution. Instead of pushing any one agenda or prediction, Tegmark seeks to cover as much ground as possible, reviewing a wide variety of scenarios concerning the impact of AI on the job market, warfare and political  systems.

Life 3.0 does a good job of clarifying basic terms and key debates, and in dispelling common myths. While science fiction has caused many people to worry about evil robots, for instance, Tegmark rightly emphasises that the real problem is with the unforeseen consequences of developing highly competent AI. Artificial intelligence need not be evil and need not be encased in a robotic frame in order to wreak havoc. In Tegmark’s words, “the real risk with artificial general intelligence isn’t malice but competence. A superintelligent AI will be extremely good at accomplishing its goals, and if those goals aren’t aligned with ours, we’re in trouble.”•

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The implied religiosity which often attends Artificial Intelligence, a dynamic identified by Jaron Lanier among other technological critics, becomes explicit in the Way of the Future, roboticist Anthony Levandowski’s new Silicon Valley spiritual-belief system in which the Four Horsemen, should they arrive, will do so in driverless cars.

To be perfectly accurate, Levandowski, the pivotal figure in the current legal scrum between Google and Uber over autonomous-vehicle intellectual property, isn’t prophesying End of Days scenarios but is rather preaching that we are in the process of transitioning from a planet ruled by humans (not great guardians, admittedly) to one governed by what he thinks will be superior machines. If we get on our knees and pray at his church today, he believes, we’ll be more likely to be accepted tomorrow as pets who sit at the feet of our masters.

His techno-theocracy sounds even less inviting than the religion promoted by the computer-savvy, self-described messiah Maharaj Ji, a teenage guru from India who briefly came to prominence in America during the disco-addled decade of the 1970s. From a 1974 profile of him by Marjoe Gortner:

The guru is much more technologically oriented, though. He spreads a lot of word and keeps tabs on who needs what through a very sophisticated Telex system that reaches out to all the communes or ashrams around the country. He can keep count of who needs how many T-shirts, pairs of socks–stuff like that. And his own people run this system; it’s free labor for the corporation.

The morning of the third day I was feeling blessed and refreshed, and I was looking forward to the guru’s plans for the Divine City, which was soon going to be built somewhere in the U. S. I wanted to hear what that was all about.

It was unbelievable. The city was to consist of “modular units adaptable to any desired shape.” The structures would have waste-recycling devices so that water could be drunk over and over. They even planned to have toothbrushes with handles you could squeeze to have the proper amount of paste pop up (the crowd was agog at this). There would be a computer in each communal house so that with just a touch of the hand you could check to see if a book you wanted was available, and if it was, it would be hand-messengered to you. A complete modern city of robots. I was thinking: whatever happened to mountains and waterfalls and streams and fresh air? This was going to be a technological, computerized nightmare! It repulsed me. Computer cards to buy essentials at a central storeroom! And no cheating, of course. If you flashed your card for an item you already had, the computer would reject it. The perfect turn-off. The spokesman for this city announced that the blueprints had already been drawn up and actual construction would be the next step. Controlled rain, light, and space. Bubble power! It was all beginning to be very frightening.•

Following up on his recent WTF Wired feature about Levandowski, Mark Harris offers a further interview with the Silicon Valley spiritualist, who, like many in the Singularity industry, worships at the altar of “intelligence,” a term that’s far more slippery to define than many in the sector are willing to admit. The algorithmic abbot believes unimaginable machine intelligence must equate to God. “If there is something a billion times smarter than the smartest human, what else are you going to call it?” Well, perhaps the devil?

An excerpt:

Levandowski has been working with computers, robots, and AI for decades. He started with robotic Lego kits at the University of California at Berkeley, went on to build a self-driving motorbike for a DARPA competition, and then worked on autonomous cars, trucks, and taxis for Google, Otto, and Uber. As time went on, he saw software tools built with machine learning techniques surpassing less sophisticated systems—and sometimes even humans.

“Seeing tools that performed better than experts in a variety of fields was a trigger [for me],” he says. “That progress is happening because there’s an economic advantage to having machines work for you and solve problems for you. If you could make something one percent smarter than a human, your artificial attorney or accountant would be better than all the attorneys or accountants out there. You would be the richest person in the world. People are chasing that.”

Not only is there a financial incentive to develop increasingly powerful AIs, he believes, but science is also on their side. Though human brains have biological limitations to their size and the amount of energy they can devote to thinking, AI systems can scale arbitrarily, housed in massive data centers and powered by solar and wind farms. Eventually, some people think that computers could become better and faster at planning and solving problems than the humans who built them, with implications we can’t even imagine today—a scenario that is usually called the Singularity.

Levandowski prefers a softer word: the Transition. “Humans are in charge of the planet because we are smarter than other animals and are able to build tools and apply rules,” he tells me. “In the future, if something is much, much smarter, there’s going to be a transition as to who is actually in charge. What we want is the peaceful, serene transition of control of the planet from humans to whatever. And to ensure that the ‘whatever’ knows who helped it get along.”

With the internet as its nervous system, the world’s connected cell phones and sensors as its sense organs, and data centers as its brain, the ‘whatever’ will hear everything, see everything, and be everywhere at all times. The only rational word to describe that ‘whatever’, thinks Levandowski, is ‘god’—and the only way to influence a deity is through prayer and worship.

“Part of it being smarter than us means it will decide how it evolves, but at least we can decide how we act around it,” he says. “I would love for the machine to see us as its beloved elders that it respects and takes care of. We would want this intelligence to say, ‘Humans should still have rights, even though I’m in charge.’”

Levandowski expects that a super-intelligence would do a better job of looking after the planet than humans are doing, and that it would favor individuals who had facilitated its path to power. Although he cautions against taking the analogy too far, Levandowski sees a hint of how a superhuman intelligence might treat humanity in our current relationships with animals. “Do you want to be a pet or livestock?” he asks. “We give pets medical attention, food, grooming, and entertainment. But an animal that’s biting you, attacking you, barking and being annoying? I don’t want to go there.” 

Enter Way of the Future. The church’s role is to smooth the inevitable ascension of our machine deity, both technologically and culturally. In its bylaws, WOTF states that it will undertake programs of research, including the study of how machines perceive their environment and exhibit cognitive functions such as learning and problem solving.

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Slavery was the ultimate expression of fascism in America, but the nation has flirted with totalitarian political and racial oppression numerous times since, with U.S. businessmen of the 1930s wistfully admiring the “discipline” of the workforces in German and Italy and heated Hitler-friendly rallies being conducted at Madison Square Garden before and even after World War II.

The Long Island hamlet of Yaphank became a hotbed of the German-American Bund in the pre-war period, with a “Siegfried Special” railroad train regularly delivering New Yorkers with Nazi sympathies to the town’s “Camp Siegfried.” It was allegedly a pilgrimage of ethnic pride, but the truth was far darker. Even worse than the sight of Nazi salutes and streets named for Hitler and Goebbels was the summer youth camp that existed to indoctrinate German-American children into anti-Semitism. Unsurprisingly, since evil begets only more of the same, it was later learned that the camp was rife with sexual abuse, with children being routinely raped by counselors, who hoped to “breed more Aryans.”

It was, however, far from a unique phenomenon in America of that time. From the March 27, 1938 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Considering the best-case scenario of how many days I might possibly have left in my life and how many books I want to read—not even counting the ones yet to be published that will lengthen that list—there’s no doubt I’ll fall well short of crossing off every title. That could be viewed as a blessing: At least I’ll never run out of reading material. It’s also a curse. What if there was another way?

In Cathy O’Neil’s concerned Bloomberg View opinion piece “What If We Could Upload Books to Our Brains?” the editorialist pivots off of a podcast discussion between Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ray Kurzweil, two guys who just won’t give it a rest. The excerpt:

‎Ray Kurzweil:

Computers are getting smaller and smaller. We’ll have nano-robots the size of blood cells that have computers in them. They’ll go into the brain through the capillaries and communicate with our neurons. We already know how to do that. People with Parkinson’s disease already have computer connections into their brain. My view is that we’re going to become a hybrid, partly biological, partly non-biological. However, the non-biological part is subject to what I call the Law of Accelerating Returns. It’s going to expand exponentially. The cloud is expanding exponentially. It’s getting about twice as powerful every year. Our biological thinking is relatively fixed. I mean, there’ve been a few genetic changes in the last few thousand years, but for the most part it hasn’t changed much, and it’s not going to expand because we have this fixed skull that constrains it and it actually runs on a very slow substrate that’s a million times slower than electronic circuits.

Neil deGrasse Tyson:

Then why invoke the brain-machine connection at that point? You’ve got the machine.

Ray Kurzweil:

Because it’s a much faster interface. Our fingers are very slow.

‎Neil deGrasse Tyson:

The world is going too slow for you. You want to speed it up.

Ray Kurzweil:

I mean, it is. How long does it take you to read The Brothers Karamozov? It takes months.

Neil deGrasse Tyson:

So you’re suggesting that you can get these nanobots the size of your neurosynapses and one that will be pre-loaded with War and Peace and will somehow inject it into your neurosynaptic memory banks and then you’re done, you’ve got it. Just like in the Matrix, they would load memory programs into you.

Ray Kurzweil:

We will connect into neocortical hierarchies in the cloud. Some of that could have preloaded knowledge.•

A couple things: 1) Even if your lips move, it should not take months to read the Brothers Karamozov. 2) Feel free to toss Kurzweil’s “Law of Accelerating Returns” onto a pile of e-waste, as he’s often wildly optimistic in these matters.

That means we likely won’t be the ones making decisions about this brave new world, if humans get to make them at all. I assume Kurzweil means the result of volumes being uploaded into our descendants’ wetware would be different than if they were fed into a computer, that these future people wouldn’t just absorb this information as data but would be capable of analysis and criticism as if they’d actually sat and read them.

It would be akin to swallowing a pill dinner instead of eating food. Of course, that way of taking nourishment would cause jaws, mouths, teeth, throats and stomachs to change, likely for the worst. You’d have to think parts of our brains might go slack if we were plugging them into a library, painlessly absorbing shelves at a time. 

When futurists talk about carbon-silicon hybrids as necessary to evolve and save the species, they’re actually talking about perpetuating some form of life, more than specifically “human life.”

From O’Neil:

What if humans could upload all the great classics of literature to their brains, without having to go through the arduous process of reading? Wonderful and leveling as that may seem, it’s a prospect that I’m not sure we should readily embrace.

A while ago, I listened to an interview with futurist Ray Kurzweil on astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s radio show StarTalk. Kurzweil described (starting at 10:30) how our brains might someday interface directly with non-biological forms of intelligence, possibly with the help of nano-bots that travel through our capillaries.
 
Given how much faster this interface would be than regular reading, he went on, we’d be able to consume novels like “The Brothers Karamazov” in moments, rather than the current rather clumsy form of ingestion known as reading, which, he said, “could take months.”
 
At this point Tyson interjected: Are you saying we could just upload War and Peace? Yes, Kurzweil answered: “We will connect to neocortical hierarchies in cloud with pre-loaded knowledge.”

This snippet of conversation has baffled and fascinated me ever since.•

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Gilbert Rogin, the gifted fiction writer and legendary Time Inc. magazine reporter and editor, just died. What didn’t make it into Neil Genzlinger’s well-written New York Times obituary: the scribe’s often, um, colorful personal life, nor his true feelings about Vibe, the successful periodical he helped midwife (he was not a fan). 

In 1968, Rogin turned out a sharp Sports Illustrated profile of motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel, a Houdini whose trick was getting hurt, when he was dreaming of blowing up his career by flying a rocket over the Grand Canyon. Never allowed to make the leap at that locale, the Norman Vincent Peale devotee instead staged the pseudo-event six years later at Snake River Canyon, a feat shown live in movie theaters that was unsurprisingly marketed by wrestling promoter Vince McMahon Jr. Everyone heard about it, but few actually paid to see it, and all involved lost a mint. It succeeded, however, in making Knievel an even bigger household name. In his line of work—selling titillating trash to bored Americans—that was all that mattered. 

Among other tales, Rogin matter-of-factly relates the quasi-athlete’s horrifying story of his violent kidnapping of a 17-year-old girl who would later become his wife. An excerpt:

Evel Knievel, who says he is going to jump the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle next Labor Day, is having a glass of orange juice with John Herring, a songwriter, in the coffee shop of the Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills at 3 a.m. Herring, who has composed such hits as “What Have I Got of My Own?” and “What Do You Do with an Old, Old Song?” has agreed to write a song about Evel Knievel—a name, by the way, that rhymes, being pronounced Evil Kahneevil. Herring tells Knievel he shouldn’t publicize their relationship. “It’s more admirable that someone was inspired by your jump and went and wrote the song,” he says.

In fact, someone was inspired—another songwriter named Arlin Harmon. Herring has already heard Harmon’s lyrics a couple of times, but Knievel, who is deeply affected by them, insists on reciting them once more:

“I want to tell you a story about a fella I know
That can make your hands sweat, your blood run cold….
He stands tall and straight, looks like a man you’d want to kiss.
To see him flirt with death is something you can’t afford to miss.
Because he’s evil. Because he’s Evel Knievel.
He’s going to jump the Grand Canyon in ’68.
Thousands of people will be there for that long-awaited date.
When he sits on that ramp and his engines start to roar,
He’s going to know how a hawk feels before he starts to soar.
It’s 3,000 feet to the bottom of that gorge.
His life will be hanging from a small ripcord.
And whether or not he heeds the devil’s longing call,
Everyone will know that Evel Knievel’s the greatest of them all.”

“Y’don’t want to put him in a ‘Big Bad John’ bag,” Herring says. “Y’got to bring it up to a higher plane of thought where everybody can feel it, y’dig? He could be in business. He’s legitimate. What’s he want to jump that thing for? Some say he wants to make a lot of money. The more sensitive say he’s looking for something. He says, ‘Shove that noise. I’m going to jump this scooter.’ Y’got to get closer to an elevated message, like:

“When the roar of thunder fills the air,
And your heart begins to pound,
When 10,000 people rise to their feet [y’ understand?],
Then you’ll know he’s leaving the ground [or Evel Knievel’s in town].
“You give the effects. What you taste, hear, feel—dig?
“No use to worry about your tomato.
He didn’t come to town for tomatoes.

“He’s seeking something else. You got to give it a broad philosophical base. I never wrote a song that didn’t make money. I never will.”

Why is Knievel jumping the Canyon?

“To get to the other side,” he says.

If it can be said that anyone has the background to jump the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle, it is Evel Knievel. For the past two years he has earned his living jumping a motorcycle from one ramp to another, and he claims to have made $100,000 in 1967. “You might say I have a pretty comfortable living,” he says, “but it’s pretty uncomfortable.”

Among other things, he has cleared 16 cars parked side by side, and a crate containing 50 live rattlesnakes, with two mountain lions staked at the near end. Originally the lions were to be situated at both ends, but their owner was afraid Knievel would fall short and kill one of them. As it happened, he did not jump far enough. “I took the end right out of the box,” he says. “A couple of snakes wiggled free. I hit the dirt and sprained my ankle. I don’t jump rattlesnakes no more.” …

At various times in his life Knievel has been a motorcycle racer but he gave it up because there is no money in it. “I can’t eat handlebars, tires and batteries,” is one of his favorite sayings. Knievel also built a motorcycle racetrack and promoted races in Moses Lake, Wash., where he was a Honda dealer for two years. In that capacity, he offered $100 off the price of a motorcycle to anyone who could beat him at arm wrestling. When nobody was able to, he offered a free motorcycle to anyone who could bend his arm, with the provision that if the customer lost he would buy a motorcycle. “This farmer tied me,” Knievel recalls. “I beat him right-handed and he beat me left-handed, but I talked him into buying a 150 cc anyway. I’ve only been beat twice in my life—a little pig rancher from Idaho and a big guy from Spokane.”

In 1961 Knievel was a private policeman in Butte. This is somewhat ironic in view of the fact that, according to his own account, he had been for some years a card thief, safecracker and swindler. “I don’t like to play cards unless I can cheat,” says Knievel. “And if I had a $20 bill for every safe I peeled, I’d have a new Cadillac—and some of them didn’t have any money in them. I can blow them, peel them, beat them. Floor safe, round door, square door, vault. I can crack a safe with one hand tied behind my back. I always got a hell of a feeling out of drilling a hole in a roof. There’s no thrill like drilling a hole in the roof of some institution and dropping down a rope and looking around.” 

Knievel says he was perhaps even more accomplished at swindling. “I traveled with a man who was known as the greatest swindler of all time,” he says. “A judge in one of the biggest cities in the world made the statement and was quoted in the newspapers, ‘This man is one of the most brilliant criminals ever brought before me.’ I always thought there was one more brilliant. That was me sitting in the courtroom who was never caught. We swindled institutions out of $25,000 or $30,000 within a 30-day period. I brought forth some schemes that were really brilliant, that no one in this world will ever be able to solve. I can show you a scheme that can beat any bank in this country out of any amount of money.”

Knievel says he took part in an armed robbery only once. “It bothered me so much,” he says. “The guy wanted to be brave. Consequently he got the hell beat out of him by me. I felt bad to have to hurt an individual to take money, even though I was doing it for a living. His blood was all over me. I did it and I got away with it, but it’s not the right way of life. Why do it? Why beat someone out of money that they worked hard for, and not contribute anything to this country and what it stands for?

“There was only one time in my life I lost my sense of being able to cope with any situation. I was crossroading at the time. I was in Sacramento with a fella who had been on the 10 Most Wanted list and another safecracker who was on the verge of getting on the list. I thought of shooting myself. The pressure broke me. That was really the turning point. Either live the rest of my life with these people or…. A kid will never become a man until he looks in a mirror and tells himself he wants to become a man. I want kids and teachers to look up to me and the things I stand for. I got a letter the other day from a teacher in the John F. Kennedy Junior High School in Redwood City, California. She said the children took an interest in me and followed my jumps, that it made them more intent on learning to read. I love people. I want to be good to people. That’s why I changed my whole way of life. I felt if I really loved my wife and children, I’d try to make a contribution to mankind and society as they should be contributed to.”

Evel and Linda Knievel have three children—two boys, Kelly, 7, and Robbie, 5, and a girl, Tracy, 4. (Recently, the three of them were jumping off a bed. “I’m Batman,” said Kelly. “I’m Superman,” said Robbie. “I’m Evel Knievel,” said Tracy.) When Knievel was 20 and Linda 17 he convinced her of his love by Kidnaping her. Along with a friend named Marco, Knievel went to an ice-skating rink in Butte where he knew Linda was skating. “I hid behind a garage, put on my skates and went out on the rink,” he recalls. “She couldn’t get away from me. I drug her by the hair and threw her in the back of the truck. ‘Go, Marco, go,’ I shouted. Then we got her into my car and I took off. I was driving with my ice skates on. Try it some time. We went and hid in a church. I knew they’d never look for me there. The cops and sheriffs were after me. My dad’s friends took the cars off his lot and were looking for me. The Triple A basketball tournament was being played in Butte, and Linda was the head cheerleader, and she wasn’t there. We started driving. It started snowing. It snowed two or three feet. We got stuck in the snow and stayed there all night. As soon as it got daylight I called a wrecker from a farmhouse. When the wrecker came, I had Linda lay down and hide in the back. There was a warrant out for my arrest. The guy in the wrecker heard the all-points bulletin. When he got us out, he radioed to the police, I just pulled that kid out of the snow, but that girl wasn’t with him.’ Her mother was saying, ‘Oh, my God, he killed her and stuck her in a snowbank.’ The cops were out probing in the snow. I tried to get to Coeur d’Alene, but I didn’t have any snow tires and couldn’t get over the hills. I figured I better go home and face the music. I was stopped at a roadblock. They threw me in jail for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. My dad put up the $500 to get me out.”•

Sad to hear the news that onetime gossip powerhouse Liz Smith passed away. Can’t say that her focus on celebrity made our society better, and in some ways she helped enable a corrupt system that needed to be torn down rather than propped up, but the water she swam in was always more shallow than dirty. The following is a repost of an entry about her from last summer.

Liz Smith was at the center of the culture, when the culture still had a center. Then the long tail of the Internet snapped her from the spotlight, as almost everyone became a celebrity and countless outlets allowed gossip to achieve ubiquity. The louche location of a newspaper no longer needed a name reporter any more than most blockbusters required a particular star. The pictures didn’t get smaller, but the people in them did. Like Walter Winchell, she outlived her fame.

No one deserved a steep decline more than Winchell, who Smith grew up listening to on radio when she was a girl in Texas in the Thirties. A figure of immense power in his heyday, Winchell was vicious and vindictive, often feared and seldom loved, the inspiration for the seedy and cynical J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success. 

By the time journalism matured in the 1960s and college-educated industry professionals began saying “ellipsis” rather than “dot dot dot,” Winchell had no power left, and people were finally able to turn away from him–and turn they did. The former media massacrist was almost literally kicked to the curb, as Larry King recalled seeing the aged reporter standing on Los Angeles street corners handing out mimeographed copies of his no-longer-syndicated column. By the time he died in 1972, he was all but already buried, and his daughter was the lone mourner in attendance.

Smith was of a later generation, and unlike Winchell or Hedda Hopper, she usually served her information with a spoon rather than a knife—the scribe loved celebrity and access and privilege so much—though she occasionally eviscerated someone who behaved badly. Frank Sinatra was her most famous foe, and you had to respect her for not pulling punches based on the size of her opponent. In the 1980s, she was a major player. A decade later, as we entered the Internet Age and Reality TV era, her empire began to crumble. Now, at 94, she wonders where it all went.

In one sense, Smith is like a lot of retirees pushed from a powerful perch. In another, because she worked in the media in a disruptive age, she has embedded in her the slings and arrows of a technological revolution that turned the page with no regard for the boldness of the bylines.

· · · 

From John Leland’s excellent NYT feature “The Rise and Fall of Liz Smith, Celebrity Accomplice“:

So when J-Lo sneezes, it is now up to someone else to make sure the public gets sick.

Facebook, maybe?

“I don’t think my name could sell anything now,” Ms. Smith said in the apartment where she moved after her stroke in January, from her longtime digs above a Tex-Mex restaurant in Murray Hill. She wore a white cable-knit sweater and bright orange lipstick.

“It used to mean — bylines used to mean something in journalism,” she said, her Texas accent still unbowed. But with the internet and social media, she said, “most people have forgotten about so-called powerful people like me; we served our time.”

Which put Ms. Smith at an existential crossroads: If a gossip columnist dishes in the forest and no one repeats it, does it make a sound? In a celebrity landscape that considers contestants on “The Bachelorette” to be celebrities, how does a star-chaser regain her star?

“I am in search of Liz Smith,” she said softly, musing at the thought. “After a lifetime of fun and excitement and money and feeling important and being in the thick of it, I am just shocked every day that I’m not the same person. I think that happens to all old people. They’re searching for a glimmer of what they call their real self. They’re boring, mostly.

“I’m always thinking falsely, expending what little energy I have, believing every day I may just rediscover that person. I try to be all of the things I was, but it inevitably fails. I don’t feel like myself at all.”•

This week, as the Russiagate noose tightened around Donald Trump’s neck, he met with Vladimir Putin in Vietnam.

Kim Jong-un said I’m an “old lunatic,” Vlad. You don’t think I’m old, do you?

With that blouse on, Don, you look as young as a schoolgirl.

Somebody call my name?

 

• CRISPR mail-order kits are the beginning of our decentralized biotech future. It’s worth remembering Freeman Dyson warned a decade ago that the games could be “messy and potentially dangerous.”

• It’s not nearly their worst outrage, but the way these Pepe pigs and Russian trolls have used nihilism to advance their racist, autocratic agenda is maddening. Nihilism isn’t good as an operating system, but it can be a useful bug to disrupt the machine.

• Stephen Galloway of the Hollywood Reporter, who wrote the most shockingly amoral take of the Nate Parker rape controversy last year, is now very worried about the Weinstein Effect. Strange priorities.

• Harvey Weinstein was able to afford David Boies, former Mossad officers and numerous international security agencies when trying to undermine, cajole and intimidate victims and journalists determined to go public about his sexual harassment and abuse, as Ronan Farrow reports.

• In Ross Andersen’s wonderfully written Atlantic account of his trek to China’s premier SETI setup, which looks like a caved-in Apple campus dotted with oil rigs and is the “the world’s most sensitive telescope,” the author visits with novelist Liu Cixin and revisits the populous state’s scientific history. 

• One of the few trips Timothy Leary never got to take, except posthumously, was a trek to outer space. In 1976, during his “comeback tour” after stays in 29 jails and a retirement of sorts, Leary dreamed of leaving it all behind—way behind.

Zam EIC Laura Michet thinks the robotization of writing may be slowed because, as armies of Facebook friends and tweeters have proven, “people find writing pleasant and will do it for free.”

• Old Print Article: The Lost Cause was a systematic plan by the vanquished of the Civil War to win the postbellum information war via revisionist media—statuary, textbooks, etc. In 1915, sculptor Gutzon Borglum was asked to create a KKK-friendly Stone Mountain monument.

• This week’s Afflictor keyphrase searches: Jennifer Doudna, Otto and George, etc.

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