From the November 6, 1950 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

 

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

  1. michael tolkin discussing dystopia
  2. christof koch technological species
  3. joan didion newt gingrich moon
  4. cave of forgotten dreams
  5. robbing lincoln’s grave
  6. lawrence summers on artificial intelligence
  7. social welfare programs 1930s fascist europe
  8. are we living in a computer simulation?
  9. the ecological crisis in the 21st century
  10. p.t. barnum congressman

This week, Bill O’Reilly was finally fired after years of allegations and settlements regarding sexual harassment, which left him time for shoe shopping.

I want to loofah your vaginas.

We don’t have vaginas.

Okay, just give me some shoes then.

 

• Michael Wolff, a dreadful man, writes about Bill O’Reilly, a dreadful man. It’s what you’d expect.

• Response to Andrew Sullivan’s appallingly stupid take on race in America.

• Masha Gessen considers the ramifications of a U.S. military coup.

• Thoughts on Russiagate from Watergate accomplice John Dean.

• In purple Pennsylvania, Trump support has weakened but not collapsed.

David Grann includes All the President’s Men among his top True Crime titles.

• Life is cheap today in America, and cheap is often expensive.

Rachel Nuwer wonders if Western society is headed for collapse.

Alexei Navalny explains why Putin terrorizes the elites of his inner circle.

Steve Wozniak believes Apple and Facebook will be bigger in 2075.

• Online stars in China are investing heavily in surgical “perfection.”

• It’s best to never waste precious moments reading celebrity profiles.

Old Print Article: Maxwell Bodenheim murdered in Bowery flophouse. (1954)

• A brief note from 1934 about gangster John Dillinger’s remains.

• This week’s Afflictor keyphrase searches: Jose Canseco on killer robots, etc.

In an excellent BBC Future piece, Rachel Nuwer attempts to weigh how close the West is to societal collapse, an implosion that would occur, if it does, not because of scarcity but due to our system, plagued by wealth inequality, failing at distribution.

Climate change may also play an important role, with a potential refugee crisis that will dwarf Syria’s tragedy, the relatively “dry” states overwhelmed by the inundation. Or perhaps the luckier lands will meet with disaster by trying to build a wall to keep the future out. Either reality is fraught.

The writer relies in part on the computer models of systems scientists to gauge if ecological strain and economic stratification will topple us, some of which suggest the latter factor could do us in entirely on its own, though the more likely scenario would be a confluence of unfortunate circumstances.

Of course, models have long predicted that great societies, actual or virtual, would soon be ghost towns. In 2014, two young Princeton academics applied epidemiology to social networks to make a prognostication I’m sure they’d like wiped from the Internet: By 2017, Facebook would lose 80% of its users. Missed by that much.

Still, sooner or later, entropy will leave a bruise.

The opening:

The political economist Benjamin Friedman once compared modern Western society to a stable bicycle whose wheels are kept spinning by economic growth. Should that forward-propelling motion slow or cease, the pillars that define our society – democracy, individual liberties, social tolerance and more – would begin to teeter. Our world would become an increasingly ugly place, one defined by a scramble over limited resources and a rejection of anyone outside of our immediate group. Should we find no way to get the wheels back in motion, we’d eventually face total societal collapse.

Such collapses have occurred many times in human history, and no civilisation, no matter how seemingly great, is immune to the vulnerabilities that may lead a society to its end. Regardless of how well things are going in the present moment, the situation can always change. Putting aside species-ending events like an asteroid strike, nuclear winter or deadly pandemic, history tells us that it’s usually a plethora of factors that contribute to collapse. What are they, and which, if any, have already begun to surface? It should come as no surprise that humanity is currently on an unsustainable and uncertain path – but just how close are we to reaching the point of no return?•

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Imagine if the Kremlin, instead of murdering its critics and interfering in foreign elections and adventuring abroad in complicity with the worst of autocrats, actually devoted its resources to developing a modern and economically diverse nation. That’s what the backwards-looking state desperately needs to do in order to avoid collapse, but evil does what it does. Rampant kleptocracy at the highest levels and deteriorating living standards have started to show some cracks in the supposed rock-solid popularity of Vladimir Putin, a capo with nuclear capabilities.

At the behest of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, protesters recently took Russia’s power elite by surprise. The activist, released after 15 days of detention, sat for a Spiegel Q&A with Christian Esch and Christian Neef. He argues that while citizens in the streets are starting to make noise, it’s those in Putin’s inner circle whom he fears most. An excerpt:

Question:

Why did these young people take to the streets?

Alexei Navalny:

Poverty! That, at least, is an important factor. The living standard here has been deteriorating for the past five years.

Question:

You don’t notice that in Moscow so much.

Alexei Navalny:

In Tomsk, I asked young people how many of them earn less than 20,000 rubles a month, that’s 330 euros. All of us, they answered. And that is in a university city that used to live from oil! People often say that I represent people who earn a lot of money. Of course, a person who is well-educated and affluent is more likely to support me than Vladimir Putin. But that doesn’t automatically mean that the others are against me.

Question:

What distinguishes the current protesters from those who demonstrated against the fraudulent 2011 parliamentary election?

Alexei Navalny:

The main difference is geographical: Now demonstrations are taking place in locations where they never did before, in Dagestan, in Tatarstan and in Bashkiria. Otherwise, there aren’t many differences. Social media, which has become our last remaining way of communicating with one another and of articulating our criticism, have a younger audience, that is all. …

Question:

Officially, the Kremlin acts as though it is fighting corruption, with five governors having been arrested — the fifth one just recently.

Alexei Navalny:

The governors are being arrested in order to steal some of my thunder. Besides , Putin needs to terrorize his own elite. He is more afraid of those in his own surroundings than any protests; there are people there who are at least as critical as I am because they see up close that the system doesn’t work. He wants to silence them.

Question:

Will President Putin run again in the 2018 election?

Alexei Navalny:

Of course! Putin wants to be the czar of this new Russian empire that he is rebuilding. I think he is really obsessed with the idea.•

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David Grann was asked to name a quintet of great “True Crime” titles for a Five Books interview, and among the volumes about brutal and strange murders, he made a non-obvious and timely choice with All the President’s Men. 

Woodward’s been a perplexing figure for decades and Bernstein has since the 1970s had to wrestle personal demons that sometimes sidetracked his brilliant career, but there’s no denying their book’s greatness or their impact on American liberty.

Of course, dogged journalism alone can’t protect democracy. If enough citizens and congresspeople don’t care that the President is a crook–a traitor, even–any ink spilled will merely document a society in steep decline.

Grann also explained why he didn’t include on his list Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which is written as immaculately as any work can be. He’s most troubled by the issue of veracity, which is certainly valid, though I’m also bothered by how the author suspensefully builds to the Clutter family murders, as if he were penning a thriller about fictional characters.

I wonder if Grann considered Hiroshima by John Hersey.

An excerpt:

Question:

Your fourth book—All The President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward—comes as something of a relief after all maniacal murdering. But it’s still a pretty frightening tale, and no less so for being so well-known. Talk us through it.

David Grann:

It’s probably the most iconic book of reporting in the United States to this day. It’s written by Woodward and Bernstein, and about their investigation, when they were young reporters at the Washington Post, into the shocking crimes committed by President Richard Nixon. When I first read that book, it gave me a sense that reporting could have a nobility and a moral purpose behind it. Of course, much reporting is not quite like that but…

Question:

And, to be clear, the crimes here are moral and political ones. It was articles of the US Constitution that were being butchered, rather than individuals.

David Grann:

Yes. The crimes include everything from breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s offices to bugging political opponents to covering up evidence. I think the book is particularly relevant today which is partly why I picked it. In a day and age when public officials are trying to subvert and muddy the truth, the need for deep reporting to hold these people accountable is as important as ever. This book is a seminal case of that—a case where investigative reporting was essential to revealing the corruption at the highest levels of the United States and to preserving our democracy.

Too often when we think of crime stories, we think of them in one dimensional ways—we think of a bank robbery, or a holdup, or someone breaking into a house—but some of the crimes that are just as important, in some ways maybe even more important, are those that are political in nature. They don’t need to involve murders. This one almost provoked a constitutional crisis.

Question:

And the victim count is much higher. It’s a whole nation.

David Grann:

Precisely, and this was a case where the system was driven to the brink but ultimately functioned: Nixon eventually stepped down. Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting played an essential role in protecting the country. This book, and all the books on this list, have left a mark on me, often in different ways, and what I remember most about this one is the doggedness of the reporting. All the President’s Men is a book where there is no fanciful writing—Bernstein and Woodward are not Mailer or Capote. They are journalists writing perfectly clean, decent prose and they have a story to tell, and they tell it in such a way that it has enormous power.

Question:

It’s certainly a case in which the symbiosis of the writer and the detective is as clear as can be. The writer in this sense is like a vigilante—he has charged himself with finding the truth that no one else, through lack of will or ability, has.

David Grann:

Yes. I think what makes important true crimes books is not simply the stories they relate but the authors that investigate them. You can have investigative historians like Larson. Or you can have investigative reporters like Woodward and Bernstein. In both cases they are trying to unearth some deeper truth. In many true crime books, the author-investigator is not unlike the detectives he or she is writing about. The skills are very similar, I think, in terms of unearthing evidence and trying to create some kind of structure, plot, or narrative that helps to make sense of the chaos, and piece things back together.•

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In writing for the Hollywood Reporter about falafel fetishist Bill O’Reilly just before he was ousted from Fox News, Michael Wolff, a ghastly man, seems to long for a time when mediocre older white guys could be paid gobs of money from media outlets and treat people any which way they wanted to. Wonder why.

Wolff repeatedly refers to the numerous charges against O’Reilly with wariness (“no trial has occurred, no evidence has been released, no investigators’ conclusions shared”), seeming to forget that actual tapes of O’Reilly’s boorish behavior have been introduced into court. The transcripts are not family reading.

He writes: “It’s a particular sort of irony that Fox, which, to the delight of its audience, built itself on rejecting liberal assumptions, might now be brought down by such a signature liberal assumption: Where there are charges of sexual harassment, there is sexual harassment.”

The journalist also doesn’t mention that O’Reilly has long been an astoundingly hypocritical moral crusader, encouraging corporations to dump celebrities (always African-American ones) whom he deemed sexist. That was the context of Pepsi severing ties with rapper Ludacris in 2002.

When not questioning the accusers’ motives (“plaintiffs come out of the woodwork”), the writer mainly judges the situation on how the changing of the lard will effect the cable channel’s bottom line. It’s understood that THR is a trade publication about the business of show and that’s part of the story he must analyze, but he didn’t have to do so by divorcing basic morality from the situation and ignoring completely the effects of an abusive workplace on those employed there. He instead goes out of his way to be sympathetic to the figure who wielded the power. That was Wolff’s own awful decision.

An excerpt:

Your narrative is your fate. It doesn’t matter if O’Reilly or Ailes did or didn’t do the things they are accused of — no trial has occurred, no evidence has been released, no investigators’ conclusions shared — their real guilt is that people believe they could have.

Confusing matters, the Murdoch sons also see O’Reilly and Ailes as part of a bygone era — their father’s. Pay no attention that it was precisely this sensibility that has been such a powerful audience draw at Fox. (Of note, to the lasting outrage and confusion of liberals, Trump, despite the bygone era suggested by his Billy Bush “pussygate” tape, was elected anyway.) The Murdoch sons, while in important ways financially supported by the profitable, culturally backward views at Fox, see their job as taking the company into a new era.

The sons’ plan was to make Fox the network of Megyn Kelly rather than of Ailes and O’Reilly. That plan foundered on widespread resentment at the network toward Kelly for her part in Ailes’ ouster and on the election of Trump. Suddenly, Fox’s “when America was great and men were men” appeal was even stronger.

One solution has been Tucker Carlson, a conservative but less of a dour, bygone-era one, who has scored significant ratings at 9 p.m. But an important aspect of those ratings is that he is firmly sandwiched between O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. Both retro men are, even beyond their huge salaries (nearly $20 million a year for O’Reilly; $14 million for Hannity), vastly rich — O’Reilly, 67, from books; Hannity, 55, from radio and real estate — with dedicated audiences who’d likely follow them wherever. The worry at Fox is that they need Fox less than Fox needs them, and they might soon leave too.

The liberal hope is that media pressure will continue to force advertisers to reject O’Reilly (no matter that liberals have frequently been aghast when conservatives have urged advertiser boycotts of liberal media). But, in fact, so far advertisers have merely moved to other Fox shows, which depend on the O’Reilly spillover audience. If O’Reilly, who is on a pre-planned vacation, returns April 24 and the ratings remain strong, those advertisers likely will be back on his show.

Murdoch Senior has remained largely remote from this dispute, but he reportedly has been paying attention again. He is said to be worried that his sons are moving toward a radical break — “re-imagining Fox,” is what James is said to call it — and hastening the end of an era that, in television terms, so far has been more popular and unyielding than any cozier new one.•

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Steve Wozniak’s views have evolved quickly in regards to the existential threat of intelligent machines. In early 2015, he told the Australian Financial Review that “computers are going to take over from humans, no question.” The future is “very bad for people,” he warned. Just a few months later, Homo sapiens received an upgrade from the Apple co-founder, who said AI would keep us around as “family pets,” even if they were making all the crucial decisions.

Two years on, Wozniak has learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. On Monday, he said this on CNBC: “I’ve totally changed my mind — We aren’t talking about artificial intelligence that sits down and says, ‘What is my life in the world? What do I have as obstacles? How do I solve them? What should I solve?’,” Wozniak said. “Only humans do that.”

Well, that’s a relief. In the same week, I successfully filed my taxes and found out my species wasn’t doomed. Nice.

The Woz granted an interview to USA Today in advance of this weekend’s Silicon Valley Comic Con, with it’s forward-thinking theme: “The Future of Humanity: Where Will We Be in 2075?”  In that year, the computer programmer believes Apple, Facebook and Google and will be even bigger and more formidable corporations and cities will sprout up in heretofore uninhabitable deserts. Neither seems plausible.

An excerpt:

Woz shared some other predictions on what type of planet we can expect in 2075:

New cities. Deserts could be ideal locations for cities of the future, designed and built from scratch, according to Wozniak. There, housing problems will not exist and people will shuttle among domed structures. Special wearable suits will allow people to venture outside, he said.

— The influence of artificial intelligence. Within all cities, AI will be ubiquitous, Wozniak says. Like a scene straight from the movie Minority Report, consumers will interact with smart walls and other surfaces to shop, communicate and be entertained. Medical devices will enable self-diagnosis and doctor-free prescriptions, he says. “The question will be ethical, on whether we can eliminate the need for physicians,” he says.

— Mars colony. Woz is convinced a colony will exist on the Red Planet. Echoing the sentiments of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Origin start-up has designs on traveling to Mars, Wozniak envisions Earth zoned for residential use and Mars for heavy industry.

— Extraterrestrials. With apologies to those who believe in aliens, Wozniak says there is a “random chance” that Earthlings will communicate with another race. “It’s worth trying,” he says, “but I don’t have high hopes.”•

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One of the least-true popular sayings ever is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s saw that “there are no second acts in American lives.” Unfortunately for Maxwell Bodenheim, he was the rare case where the line rang true. 

A successful Jazz Age poet and novelist whose erotically charged works positioned him as a scandalous if fashionable figure, Bodenheim became something of a pre-Beat character in later decades, before eventually slipping from Greenwich Village prominence into skid row obscurity, undone by alcoholism, mental illness and other symptoms of the human condition.

The end was even worse than the decline: In 1954, the writer and his third wife, Ruth Fagin, a sometimes prostitute, were murdered by a dishwasher in a Bowery flophouse. It was a scene only Weegee could have truly appreciated, and it’s no shock that the above photograph of Fagin’s body being loaded into an ambulance was taken by the world’s most celebrated tabloid photographer.

Bodenheim was known in his decline phase for trading poems for drinks, getting tossed from saloons where he’d once held court, and panhandling for money on the street while pretending to be blind. It’s understandable if he didn’t want to see what had become of him.

Two articles about the double murder ran in the February 8, 1954 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

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In 1994, an excerpt from Charles Murray’s bigoted Bell Curve bullshit served as a cover story for the New Republic, a call made by then-EIC Andrew Sullivan. It’s no surprise the former published an admiring tweet about the latter’s recent New York column, a lazy and wrong-minded take on race in America.

Sullivan’s detestable opinion piece tried to argue America can’t be a prejudiced place tilted in favor of whites (and, by suggestion, against African-Americans) because look at how well Asian-Americans are doing. It’s the old bigoted hogwash that diminishes our atrocious history of slavery, Jim Crow laws and a separate and unequal justice system–and all the social problems this poisonous past (and present) created. Comparing the travails of any ethnic group in the U.S. to the one brought here on slave ships is appallingly stupid. It’s an argument likely as old as Reconstruction itself.

Another memo for Sullivan: Asian-Americans don’t universally do well in America, with income inequality even more pronounced among the haves and have-nots in this group than in the country as a whole. Perhaps looking beneath statistics in the aggregate would allow for a more nuanced understanding of the citizenry.

From Sullivan:

I mean, how on earth have both ethnic groups done so well in such a profoundly racist society? How have bigoted white people allowed these minorities to do so well — even to the point of earning more, on average, than whites? Asian-Americans, for example, have been subject to some of the most brutal oppression, racial hatred, and open discrimination over the years. In the late 19th century, as most worked in hard labor, they were subject to lynchings and violence across the American West and laws that prohibited their employment. They were banned from immigrating to the U.S. in 1924. Japanese-American citizens were forced into internment camps during the Second World War, and subjected to hideous, racist propaganda after Pearl Harbor. Yet, today, Asian-Americans are among the most prosperous, well-educated, and successful ethnic groups in America. What gives? It couldn’t possibly be that they maintained solid two-parent family structures, had social networks that looked after one another, placed enormous emphasis on education and hard work, and thereby turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones, could it? It couldn’t be that all whites are not racists or that the American dream still lives?•

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Experience has taught me to never waste a precious moment of life reading a celebrity profile. Not having followed pop culture for almost a decade makes it easy to avoid such preposterous pieces, but if there was a famous person I was enthralled with, I wouldn’t bother. Even the best reporters have to play a game in which publicists sell narratives about closeted stars’ arranged relationships or drug-addled performers supposed successful rehab. You can hardly blame the entertainers since their careers even in the best of times hang precariously, but it’s always disheartening to see such a low level of journalism. The practice isn’t anything new, but the artifice has reached ridiculous proportions because of the amount of information available to us requires a complete suspension of disbelief. It’s just another reality show in which nothing is real. 

Just one case in point: Alec Baldwin’s new memoirs bitterly relates how he was pushed out of the prequel to his hit The Hunt for Red October in favor of Harrison Ford, which is very different than the story the New York Times told twenty-five years ago. Two excerpts follow.


The opening of Alex Witchel’s 1992 NYT profile of Baldwin:

From SAY Alec Baldwin in Hollywood, and 10 movie executives will tell you that he blew his last movie deal, that if he’d played his cards right, he could have been Bruce Willis.

This is a goal?

Say Alec Baldwin in New York and first you have to explain what the movie deal was. (He was set to co-star in Patriot Games, the sequel to The Hunt for Red October, for $4 million, and then co-star in the sequel to Patriot Games for $6 million). He also wanted to act on Broadway in A Streetcar Named Desire, but the timing didn’t work and he lost both movies. In Hollywood this is all seven deadly sins rolled into one. Here, the reaction is equally incredulous: He was going to do the sequel to a sequel? Please.

In New York, at least, Mr. Baldwin can do no wrong. His acting, whether on film (Married to the Mob, Working Girl) or on stage (Prelude to a Kiss, Streetcar), is equal parts passion, intelligence and charm. (Read sex.) He was recently nominated for a Tony Award for best actor for his role as Stanley Kowalski, the working-class brute Marlon Brando made famous in Streetcar, co-starring with Jessica Lange as Blanche DuBois, the fallen Southern belle whom Stanley eventually destroys.

Ms. Lange got slammed by the critics. Mr. Baldwin got kissed.

When word got around that the 34-year-old actor would actually grant an interview after a hiatus of almost a year, a campaign began:

Can I come, too?

Can I sit at the table next to you?

Can I sit underneath your table?

The table is at Sarabeth’s Kitchen on the Upper West Side, a place that Mr. Baldwin’s fans go to spot him and his live-in girlfriend, Kim Basinger, eating breakfast at noon, sampling each other’s fingers between courses. The hostess presents a table in the back and identifies the seat he prefers. He arrives a few minutes later, wearing jeans, a white shirt and a navy blazer with ultrablack movie-star shades. Everyone stares with that peculiarly New York mixture of too-cool-to-care and dying-to-see-everything, searching for the tiniest detail to lord over their friends.

Mr. Baldwin produces a package of eye drops, removes his glasses and points to one very blue, very bloodshot eye. “My girlfriend came to my dressing room the other night and gave me two dogs,” he explains. “We have nine in our house in L.A. Anyway, I just need to do this, and then I’ll be back to talk to you like a human being.”

The voice lands like cashmere. Or silk. Or smoke. It could sell you a thousand acres of swampland and leave you begging for more. When he returns, both eyes bluer than heaven, you think about getting up on the table and yelling “Stella!” yourself.

Mr. Baldwin orders a cappuccino and a vegetable sandwich on focaccia, with couscous. He’s trying to be healthy because he’s recovering from the flu and a back injury from the play. He caught cold, he says, because he sprays himself with a water bottle each night before two of his scenes to look sweaty. “In some scenes,” he says, “I sweat naturally from the preparation I do: riding a bike in my dressing room or jumping rope in the basement. I always have to be nice and gooey for Blanche.”

He has to eat on stage, too. “The line in the script is, ‘Your face and fingers are disgustingly greasy,’ so every night they bring me a box from Tony Roma’s with barbecued chicken, corn bread, rice and corn on the cob. I have to make sure that I eat all the rice before the scene ends, since I clear the table by throwing everything on the floor, and the rice can go all over the stage. I had wanted to do it with pasta, but the tomato sauce would splatter the refrigerator.”

He says the show hasn’t left him much of an appetite for dinner: “I won’t touch a piece of chicken outside of work, now. I can’t.”

Mr. Baldwin orders two more cappuccini, then coffee, saying it’s an addiction he won’t surrender. He grinds his own beans from Zabar’s, which his assistant buys for him. You would think if he did it himself there would be a rampage. “People don’t bother me that much,” he says, studiously ignoring the covert investigation still being conducted around him. “But these are problems of abundance, don’t forget.”

As is his Tony nomination for Streetcar, since his is the show’s only nomination. “The Tony is the only award I ever really wanted to win,” he says, though he also expresses regret that the rest of the company was overlooked. His victory is doubly sweet, since he has overcome the inevitable, and by now tiresome, comparisons with Mr. Brando.

“Everybody who’s done the role since 1947 has ripped him off,” Mr. Baldwin says. “But doing that doesn’t interest me. Brando always said he never saw the humor of the character, but I think he’s a real wise guy. I had to make it funny for myself, so I could do it every night of the week for three hours.

“Most people over 45 probably won’t like what I do because they remember him, but people under 45 who won’t have seen him on stage and don’t have much connection to the movie might. I wanted to reintroduce the piece to a generation that doesn’t know the material.”

Aside from fiddling with a packet of Equal, Mr. Baldwin seems relaxed and easy to talk to, somewhat suprising after all the attacks by the press, first for The Marrying Man, the movie that branded him and Ms. Basinger as troublemakers, and then for the Patriot Games deal. He says he thought he could shoot Patriot Games and be finished in time for Streetcar. But he says that Paramount Pictures decided it didn’t want him to do both, and replaced him with Harrison Ford.

“I had spent the better part of a year developing the script for Patriot Games,” he says. “When Hunt for Red October was made it grossed $120 million, so I couldn’t understand why it took so long to develop a sequel.” (One reason was a switch in studio heads last summer).

“The deal dragged on and on,” he continued. “Then all of a sudden, they said, ‘Decide by Thursday at noon, and that’s it,’ pressuring me to choose between the movie and the play.”•


From Esther Zuckerman of the A.V. Club:

It doesn’t take a close read of Alec Baldwin’s new, dishy memoir Nevertheless, to notice the thinly-veiled animosity he holds for for Harrison Ford, who replaced him as Jack Ryan following The Hunt For Red October. As Baldwin tells it, he had no idea that he was being ousted from the Tom Clancy franchise, and Ford was curtly unsympathetic to his situation. Ford had dropped out of a film with Hunt director John McTiernan in order to play the part that Baldwin had once had. “John told me he spoke with Ford and asked if he was aware that Paramount was in active negotiation with me,” Baldwin writes. “Ford’s reply, according to John, was ’Fuck him.’” (For what it’s worth, this is not the first time that Baldwin has shared this story, and studio exec David Kirkpatrick has disputed his account of how things went down.)

It would be one thing if the Ford anecdote ended there, but Baldwin goes on to dwell on the fact that Indiana Jones hasn’t won an Oscar and describe him in distinctly unflattering terms. Baldwin explains that he met Ford ”years later,” and notes: “I realized then that the movies really do enhance certain actors, making them seem like something they really aren’t at all. Ford, in person, is a little man, short, scrawny, and wiry, whose soft voice sounds as if it’s coming from behind a door.” It’s a brutal assessment, that pointedly undercuts the tough image on which Ford has built his career. The message here seems to be: Do not fuck with Alec Baldwin lest you want to be excoriated in print.•

Life is cheap today in America, and cheap is often expensive.

At some point during the last few decades, we ceased being called “citizens” and began to be referred to as “consumers.” The bitterly funny joke is that consumer protections were being stripped away all the while.

Price became everything. The lower the sticker number, the better, we were told. Facebook and Google and Internet giants are “free” to use. Except that the costs are hidden, if barely, as we trade our privacy for some “friends.” Uber and Lyft are usually less expensive because the drivers aren’t given benefits or basic protections. Cheap goods from Walmart of Amazon mean the expenses have been passed on to others. More and more, we’re all others now.

United bloodying a passenger who refused to be removed from a flight resonated with so many because it doesn’t feel like an outrageous outlier but a commentary on where we are now–and where we may be heading. 

· · ·

There’s a scene in Wallace Shawn’s latest play, Evening at the Talk House, about a time much like own in which America has descended into totalitarianism, and intellect and decency have become enemies of the nation. In an early scene, a character has been given a “short battering” by friends, a not uncommon occurrence in the new abnormal, because he was getting close to “crossing a line.”

Robert:

I mean, really, Dick, this is amazing, how are you?

Dick:

I’m absolutely fine. Very very well. (A slight pause) What? Oh–this? (Pointing to his face) Well! No–I– (Somewhat more quietly and confidentially) No, don’t worry about that! I was beaten, rather recently, by some friends, but you see, I actually enjoyed it very much, in the end. Really, it was great. No–I loved it! In fact, you should try it some time, Robert. It’s now what you think. It was quite fun, I’m serious.

Robert:

My God, what happened?

Dick:

Well, it was a short battering. You know. Informal. A small group of my friends–we met, you know, and they just said, Dick, you see, you’re getting a bit close to being “grr– grr— grr–” (He covers his mouth and makes a weird animal sound, miming odd animal-like behavior) so we have to “ergh” (Miming some punches) –and we have to “ergh” (More mimed blows) –and maybe a bit of “ergh” … (Mimed kicks)

Robert:

You mean they–?–

Dick:

They were right, obviously. I was getting to a point where I was about to cross a line, and this was sort of a case of, “Stop! Go back a few steps!” You know, that sort of thing.

Robert:

Crossing a line? But, Dick–my God, you were–you were always such a quiet, well-behaved little bastard when I knew you, Dick.

Dick:

I still am! (He laughs loudly) But that’s what I find myself saying every day. I haven’t changed. Everything else has changed Do you know what I mean?•

· · ·

From Matt Levine at Bloomberg View:

 

Yesterday United Airlines provided a nice demonstration of the proposition that capitalism is built on a foundation of violence, when it summoned agents of the state to beat up a customer who insisted that United provide the service he had paid for. “Come and see the violence inherent in the system,” he might have yelled, had the police not knocked him out. (“He fell,” commented the police.)

United then went on to demonstrate that if you are a major airline in 2017, you don’t have to be very good at public relations, putting out a series of blasé statements whose main message was “whatever, we are an airline, you will come crawling back.” It was interesting to see people on Twitter talk about boycotting United over this incident, as though that was a possible course of action. Consider the revealed preferences: The man at the center of the incident, who was violently attacked for sitting in the seat that he had paid for, tried to run back onto the plane. He’s not boycotting United! He just wanted to get home.

We talk a lot around here about the theory that increasingly concentrated cross-ownership of the airline industry by institutional investors has reduced competition among airlines, and I suppose you could read this incident as proof that United is so insulated from competitive pressures that it can afford to beat up its customers without losing any market share. But really this story seems more like the result of competition — but competition solely on price, not on service. If airlines compete solely on price, some passengers will get beaten up. “Investors seem impressed by the sadistic commitment to cost control,” comments Matt Klein“By auctioning off overbooked seats, economist James Heins estimates that $100 billion has been saved by the airline industry and its customers in the 30-plus years since the practice was introduced.” Ryanair would introduce Beating Class if it could save money.

Anyway blah blah blah United should have run a fair auction and only removed people voluntarily at agreed-on rates of compensation, says the Economist, but of course from United’s perspective that’s not true. Why pay more to rescind a passenger’s ticket, when you could just call in the cops?•

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What does it say about us that nearly 63 million Americans voted for President not just a con man but the most obvious con man of all? There are a couple of options and neither are good.

If that many citizens are truly so gullible, then we’ve failed in a shockingly broad way to develop people with adequate critical-thinking abilities. But if most were responding to the Make America White Again message, we’ve stumbled in a far more serious way. Regardless of which is true–and they both likely are to a good extent–we’re now find ourselves in a grave situation.

In Matt Flegenheimer’s smart New York Times report from a deeply purple Pennsylvania county, some are having second thoughts about handing the keys to the Oval Office to a wildly dishonest Reality TV host with sociopathic tendencies. He still, however, managed to find quite a few souls sticking to their guns.

An excerpt:

BENSALEM, Pa. — One after another, the gamblers totter along the twisting walkway, bathed in artificial purple light — burdened, at least occasionally, by the instinct that they should have known better.

Usually, this pathway outside Parx Casino is reserved for self-flagellation, a private lament at the last hundred lost. But lately, as with most any gathering place around here since late January — the checkout line, the liquor store, the park nearby where losing lottery numbers are pressed into the mulch — patrons have found occasion to project their angst outward, second-guessing a November wager.

“Just like any other damn president,” sighed Theresa Remington, 44, a home-care worker and the mother of two active-duty Marines, scraping at an unlit cigarette. She had voted for Donald J. Trump because she expected him to improve conditions for veterans and overhaul the health care system. Now?

“Political bluster,” Ms. Remington said, before making another run at the quarter slots. She wondered aloud how Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont might have fared in the job.
 
Such is a view from this swing county of a swing region of a swing state that powered Mr. Trump’s improbable victory, an electoral thermometer for a president slogging toward the end of his first 100 days. Across the country, Republican officials have grown anxious at their standing on even ruby-red turf, sweating out a closer-than-expected victory last week in a House race in a Kansas congressional district that Mr. Trump had carried by 27 points. …

“No one wants to be wrong,” said Brian Mock, 33, a tattoo artist in Levittown, Pa., and a Trump skeptic. “It’s seeing a house on fire and saying, ‘That house isn’t on fire.’ It is very clearly on fire.”•

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Democracy is perhaps the greatest idea anyone’s ever had, but it’s only as good as the people participating in it at any moment. Tradition means something, but liberty, which doesn’t end at the ballot box, can be upended by bad impulses and poor judgments. As Dostoyevsky wrote: “Right or wrong, it’s very pleasant to break something from time to time.” Once something’s broken, however, it’s difficult piecing it back together.

· · ·

Comedian Lewis Black quipped during the wetter moments of the waterboarding Bush Administration that he was rooting for a military coup, the generals being far preferable to the politicians. Ah, the good old days, when Dick Cheney was blasting the world in the face with birdshot. Even the Watergate era is preferable to our moment.

In an In These Times Q&A conducted by Yana Kunichoff, Kremlimologist Masha Gessen is of the same mind as Black, though she knows there’s a steep price attached to such extraordinary measures. In Laura M. Holson’s NYT profile of John Dean, the former Nixon White House Counsel is only consoled right now by the ineptitude of the Trump Administration, though he’s fairly certain that plumes will mean flames in regards to Russiagate.

Two excerpts follow.


From In These Times:

Question:

You’ve discussed mass murder and nuclear holocaust as real possibilities in the United States. How does American exceptionalism jibe with this threat?

Masha Gessen:

American exceptionalism suggests that the basic structure of the country—the system of checks and balances and the foundation of American democracy—is solid and safe forever. And that’s a dangerous concept because democracy is not the sort of thing that you build and then live in. Democracy is a work in progress. There’s never been a system of governing that responds to the needs, desires and political aspirations of all people. It needs to be constantly reinvented. If you decide that a country has built democracy once and for all, then chances are it’s becoming less democratic. …

Question:

The presidential election has sparked a conversation about the role of the CIA and FBI, and some liberals in the United States have taken a political position that even a CIA coup against Trump would be welcome. How should the Left approach the interference by organizations like these?

Masha Gessen:

If suddenly, tomorrow, there’s a military coup, that may not be a horrible thing. I sort of agree with some people who say, “Anything is better than him.” In a static imagination, where we go directly from here to there, anything is better. The problem is, how much of American democracy do we actually destroy in the process? If we have destroyed trust in the media, if we have destroyed the understanding of government being separate from the intelligence agencies, of media being separate from the intelligence agencies, if we’ve destroyed all that, then the chances of recovery are that much more difficult.•


From the New York Times:

Mr. Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974; the scope of presidential authority became more limited.

That changed again after Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Dean said, when President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney reclaimed many of those powers in the wake of terrorist attacks. Mr. Dean, who is not registered with any political party, was not a fan of the Bush presidency, as he made clear in a 2006 book, Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush.

Mr. Obama continued the strengthening of the executive branch that occurred under Mr. Bush and took the fight to government leakers more frequently than any previous president during his two terms.

“Presidents don’t give up powers once they get in there,” Mr. Dean said.

That is what troubles him about Mr. Trump and his political advisers, among them his chief political strategist, the media executive Stephen K. Bannon. “I’m not sure Trump, or Bannon, or whoever is guiding that place, has figured out all their powers,” he said. “The incompetence is the only thing giving me comfort at the moment.” …

Of the Trump administration’s alleged ties to Russia, Mr. Dean said: “It is clear that something serious is going on. They are just throwing out every signal. If this was nothing but the witch hunt that Trump claims, you could make it go away in a week.”•

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From the July 26, 1934 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Some questions of the future may be answered already because the difference between now and then is often one of degree, not kind. 

We’re told we’ll have radical abundance tomorrow, but we already pretty much have it and distribute it poorly. Will things really be different when we have even more?

Similarly, some wonder if biotech and genetic modification will be too outré for us to accept beyond mere medical treatment. Will human enhancement be more than we can bear? Not likely. Cosmetic surgery is currently the dress rehearsal. 

The only thing holding back a surge in selective “perfection” procedures isn’t legislation but rather the inscrutable nature of genes. When (and if) we gain enough understanding for the process to be worked out, a gold rush will be on, and complications will ensue.

Two excerpts follow.


From Li Yuan’s sad WSJ article about China’s online stars:

Deng Qian has had more than a dozen cosmetic surgeries, to slim her arms, enlarge her breasts and change almost every part of her face.

“Everything above my belly button is fake,” she says.

Above the neck, Ms. Deng’s aim was an “online-star face”—big eyes, long nose, high forehead and sharp chin, a look pursued by young women seeking online celebrity and the big income that can follow.

“Chinese society values a pretty face above anything else,” says the 24-year-old former business major. “If you’re not pretty, nobody will care about you, and nobody will follow you online.”

On live-streaming sites and on Weibo, China’s Twitter , Ms. Deng sings, discusses her life and gives makeup demos. In the ranks of Chinese online celebrities, she’s lower-tier—her Weibo followers number roughly 23,600—and desperate to climb higher. She went on China’s top dating show and top job-seeking show and starred in a documentary about plastic surgery.

In her world, plastic surgery is a necessity, an online-star face an investment in a better future.•


From Philip Ball’s Guardian piece on “designer babies”: 

[Bioethicist Henry] Greely suspects, even if it is used at first only to avoid serious genetic diseases, we need to start thinking hard about the options we might be faced with. “Choices will be made,” he says, “and if informed people do not participate in making those choices, ignorant people will make them.”

Green thinks that technological advances could make “design” increasingly versatile. In the next 40-50 years, he says, “we’ll start seeing the use of gene editing and reproductive technologies for enhancement: blond hair and blue eyes, improved athletic abilities, enhanced reading skills or numeracy, and so on.”

He’s less optimistic about the consequences, saying that we will then see social tensions “as the well-to-do exploit technologies that make them even better off”, increasing the relatively worsened health status of the world’s poor. As Greely points out, a perfectly feasible 10-20% improvement in health via PGD, added to the comparable advantage that wealth already brings, could lead to a widening of the health gap between rich and poor, both within a society and between nations.

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

  1. stalin wife’s suicide
  2. fordlandia tragedy
  3. walter scheidel the great leveler
  4. jose canseco’s theory of robots
  5. ursula k le guin alternative facts
  6. nikola tesla sleep habits
  7. kazuo ishiguro wealth inequality
  8. ryan avent social disruption
  9. american secularism
  10. is there an alternative to nations?

Vlad, this is Don. What’s the good word?

Pee tape, recorded phone calls, money trail, evidence of treason, noose for hanging, yada yada yada.

Well, at least the Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn went off without a hitch.

Arrest that gardener. He looks like an illegal.

 

  • Noah Smith writes of the plague effect of decades of neoliberalism.
  • Michael Tolkin talks apocalyptic visions from Trumplandia.
  • Garry Kasparov thinks intelligent machines will be a boon, not a threat.

I was critical of Bill Gates’ recent suggestion that America utilize taxation to slow down progress in robotics. First of all, defining “robot” isn’t so simple. Are they only machines that move across warehouse floors? Are they algorithms? Will they be something else entirely tomorrow?  

Also there’s no central switch that can be pointed at OFF until everything makes sense. The race in machine intelligence among states will see the actions of some players influence priorities and ethics across borders. No wall will keep out the future.

In “Learning to Love Intelligent Machines,” a WSJ essay taken from his book Deep Thinking: Where Artificial Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins, Garry Kasparov, the Digital Age John Henry, argues that AI will bring a bounty, not a threat. I agree with the former contention but not the latter.

John Henry’s postscript: He won, but he died. In the aftermath, steam and gas and electricity made us richer as they transformed society, but they also imperiled us with their deleterious impact on the environment. Long after we learned the damage the carbon was doing, it’s proven difficult politically and financially to alter the course and unplug the machine.

Garry Kasparov’s postscript: He lost, but he survived, and perhaps he, and the rest of us, will thrive because of increasingly intelligent machines. Aspects of life will improve, some markedly, as machines progress, but these stronger tools will also make for greater potential dangers: nonstop surveillance, disruption to democracy, complete loss of privacy, cascading disaster, etc. There will be no turning off this machine once we’re fully lowered into it, and that will be soon.

We may not be able to avoid extinction as a species in the long run without super-algorithms, but they will also be their own existential risk.

Kasparov is right, however, in saying: “There is no going back, only forward.” 

The opening:

It was my blessing and my curse to be the world chess champion when computers finally reached a world championship level of play. When I resigned the final match game against the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue on May 11, 1997, I became the first world champion to be defeated in a classical match by a machine.

It is no secret that I hate losing, and I did not take it well. But losing to a computer wasn’t as harsh a blow to me as many at the time thought it was for humanity as a whole. The cover of Newsweek called the match “The Brain’s Last Stand.” Those six games in 1997 gave a dark cast to the narrative of “man versus machine” in the digital age, much as the legend of John Henry did for the era of steam and steel.

But it’s possible to draw a very different lesson from my encounter with Deep Blue. Twenty years later, after learning much more about the subject, I am convinced that we must stop seeing intelligent machines as our rivals. Disruptive as they may be, they are not a threat to humankind but a great boon, providing us with endless opportunities to extend our capabilities and improve our lives.•


In his WSJ article, Kasparov writes that by the 1980s, people knew machines would soon be kings of chess. He was most certainly not among that enlightened set.

He defeated Deep Thought in 1989 and believed a computer could never best him. But by 1997 Deep Blue turned him–and humanity–into an also-ran in some key ways. The chess master couldn’t believe it at first–he assumed his opponent was manipulated by humans behind the scene, like the Mechanical Turk, the faux chess-playing machine from the 18th century. But no sleight of hand was needed.

Below are the openings of three Bruce Weber New York Times articles written during the Kasparov-Deep Blue matchup which chart the rise of the machines.

Responding to defeat with the pride and tenacity of a champion, the I.B.M. computer Deep Blue drew even yesterday in its match against Garry Kasparov, the world’s best human chess player, winning the second of their six games and stunning many chess experts with its strategy.

Joel Benjamin, the grandmaster who works with the Deep Blue team, declared breathlessly: “This was not a computer-style game. This was real chess!”

He was seconded by others.

“Nice style!” said Susan Polgar, the women’s world champion. “Really impressive. The computer played a champion’s style, like Karpov,” she continued, referring to Anatoly Karpov, a former world champion who is widely regarded as second in strength only to Mr. Kasparov. “Deep Blue made many moves that were based on understanding chess, on feeling the position. We all thought computers couldn’t do that.”•

Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion, opened the third game of his six-game match against the I.B.M. computer Deep Blue yesterday in peculiar fashion, by moving his queen’s pawn forward a single square. Huh?

“I think we have a new opening move,” said Yasser Seirawan, a grandmaster providing live commentary on the match. “What should we call it?”

Mike Valvo, an international master who is a commentator, said, “The computer has caused Garry to act in strange ways.”

Indeed it has. Mr. Kasparov, who swiftly became more conventional and subtle in his play, went on to a draw with Deep Blue, leaving the score of Man vs. Machine at 1 1/2 apiece. (A draw is worth half a point to each player.) But it is clear that after his loss in Game 2 on Sunday, in which he resigned after 45 moves, Mr. Kasparov does not yet have a handle on Deep Blue’s predilections, and that he is still struggling to elicit them.•

In brisk and brutal fashion, the I.B.M. computer Deep Blue unseated humanity, at least temporarily, as the finest chess playing entity on the planet yesterday, when Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion, resigned the sixth and final game of the match after just 19 moves, saying, “I lost my fighting spirit.”

The unexpectedly swift denouement to the bitterly fought contest came as a surprise, because until yesterday Mr. Kasparov had been able to summon the wherewithal to match Deep Blue gambit for gambit.

The manner of the conclusion overshadowed the debate over the meaning of the computer’s success. Grandmasters and computer experts alike went from praising the match as a great experiment, invaluable to both science and chess (if a temporary blow to the collective ego of the human race) to smacking their foreheads in amazement at the champion’s abrupt crumpling.

“It had the impact of a Greek tragedy,” said Monty Newborn, chairman of the chess committee for the Association for Computing, which was responsible for officiating the match.

It was the second victory of the match for the computer — there were three draws — making the final score 3 1/2 to 2 1/2, the first time any chess champion has been beaten by a machine in a traditional match. Mr. Kasparov, 34, retains his title, which he has held since 1985, but the loss was nonetheless unprecedented in his career; he has never before lost a multigame match against an individual opponent.

Afterward, he was both bitter at what he perceived to be unfair advantages enjoyed by the computer and, in his word, ashamed of his poor performance yesterday.

“I was not in the mood of playing at all,” he said, adding that after Game 5 on Saturday, he had become so dispirited that he felt the match was already over. Asked why, he said: “I’m a human being. When I see something that is well beyond my understanding, I’m afraid.”•

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Tim Berners-Lee didn’t intend to gift us a Trojan horse with the World Wide Web, if that’s what it’s turned out to be, but the good, old days of people complaining about cat memes are long gone.

Techworld article by Scott Casey highlights two of the British computer scientist’s fears: 1) the global economy may eventually be run by AI sans human input, and 2) the Internet has undermined democracy.

On the first point: I’ve posted before about how future driverless-taxi companies can be self-owned, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that at least large swaths of financial sector businesses can become CEO-less. No reason to feel bad for the Jamie Dimons of the world, who still think banking regulations a bad idea even after the 2008 collapse that hurt so many, but the chaos in such a system would be almost untrackable.

The second point, even more dangerous, seems to have been confirmed over the last year: Those who thought social media was given too much credit for the Arab Spring were sadly wrong. It can be used to tilt the balance in favor of liberty but also against it, the latter result now abundantly clear. These are powerful tools–and powerful weapons.

Berners-Lee’s suggestion that political organizations not be allowed to target ads is a good one, but I’m afraid there’s no way to remove all the ghosts from inside his machine.

An excerpt:

Speaking in London today he built on these concerns, asking if social networks like Twitter are “net good for the planet” and calling for a rethink of how the internet tends to propagate “nasty ideas” over “constructive” ones.

“So the conclusion is a complete change of strategy,” he said. “We need to not leave people to create whatever social networks they like, we have to think about the impact that things have on society and possibly rethink the entire platform.”

Speaking in what appears to be a reaction to Donald Trump’s election, Berners-Lee also reiterated his concerns over political advertising being heavily targeted. He asked: “Should we introduce a rule that if you’re a political organisation, you may not target?” 

“I talk about the horror scenario of going to a candidate’s webpage and depending on who you were you get a different message and that is just marketing 101 for the political websites out there. So we need to rethink the way we have built society on top of the web.”•

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  • Answers we’re given save us precious time, but solutions we find on our own seem to be absorbed more deeply, and the errors we make while searching often yield unintended discoveries. 
  • What if there eventually is an answer machine that’s a quantum leap beyond current search engines and voice-enabled digital assistants? What if the cloud is tapped in such a way so that answers rain down on us? If we don’t destroy ourselves first, it will almost surely emerge. I think accidental discoveries would still be part of the process, but the balance of power will shift.
  • Norman Mailer pursued subjects as grand as his ego, and it was the Apollo 11 mission was sobering for him–the Moby Dick to his Ahab. He knew the beginning of space voyage was the end, in a sense, of humans, or, at least, of humans sitting in the driver’s seat. As we soared higher than ever before, we were lowered.
  • Freestyle chess, in which human and computer teams outperform a single human or a single computer, is currently thought of as a model for future collaboration between people and machines, but it isn’t likely to broadly work that way. In many valued skills, machines will be kings and we’ll be pawns. We won’t be leading the way but instead working from data trail left behind by supercomputers. That will lead to great innovations and also be very dangerous.

Kevin Kelly, who’s asserted that “we’re constantly redefining what humans are here for,” believes the ETA of answer machines is very near, and the best we’ll be able to do once they arrive will be to ask better questions. Until, that is, we’re also relieved of that duty. From a short Kelly essay at GE Reports based on The Inevitable:

Today we have rapidly improving technology to answer our questions. We have Siri on our phones and Alexa in our homes. We have Google, Bing and Baidu getting smarter every day. Very soon we’ll live in a world where we will be able to ask the cloud, in conversational tones, for free, any question at all. And if that question has a known answer, the machine will explain it to us, again and again if need be.

Yet, while the answer machine can expand instant answers infinitely, our time to form the next question is very limited. There is an asymmetry in the work needed to generate a good question versus the work and speed needed to absorb an answer. While answers become cheap, our questions become valuable. This is the inverse of the situation for the past millennia, when it was easier to ask a question than to answer it. Pablo Picasso brilliantly anticipated this inversion in 1964 when he told the writer William Fifield, “Computers are useless. They only give you answers.”

There is great opportunity and a lot of money to be made in developing new technologies to provide instant, cheap, correct answers to the world’s billions of questions every minute. Billions of dollars of VC investment are pouring into startups for machine learning and artificial intelligence. Answers are on their way to becoming a commodity.  It will not be an exaggeration to say that if you want an answer in the future you will ask a machine. It will deliver a great one for free.

The role of humans, at least for a while, will be to ask questions. To ask a great question will be seen as the mark of an educated person. A great question, ironically, produces not only a good answer, but also more good follow-up questions! Great question creators will be seen, properly, as the engines that generate the new industries, new brands and new possibilities that our restless species can explore. A good question is worth a million good answers. Questioning is simply more powerful than answering. If answers indeed become a commodity, questions become the new wealth.•

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A greedy, vainglorious serial groom who’s bragged about sexually assaulting women somehow won the hearts and minds of America’s Bible Belt, that supposed bastion of family values, during the Presidential election. Seems even odder when you consider he’s a pathological liar with no charity for the poor, uses the Bible as product placement, and until a recent, and perhaps, expedient conversion, long supported abortion rights.

What’s going on here? Two possibilities:

  1. White Christians in the U.S. have always quietly been about upholding a power structure of racial superiority that favors the skin they’re in, with Trump’s overt bigotry just bringing the nastiness to the surface. I don’t know what Jesus would do, but I’m pretty sure it’s not what Jeff Sessions does.
  2. We’ve transitioned into a post-Christian reality, in which the so-called holy have shed many of their erstwhile values, with policy positions, not prayer, now the center of their faith.

The truth likely lies somewhere in between.

In his latest insightful Financial Times missive about America’s ominous moment, Gary Silverman visits Alabama to investigate the latter prospect, hoping to understand why the majority seem less moral. An excerpt:

My host was Wayne Flynt, an Alabaman who has made the people of the southern US his life’s work. A 76-year-old emeritus professor of history at Auburn University, he has written empathetically about his region in books such as Poor But Proud. A Baptist minister, he still teaches Sunday school at his church and delivered the eulogy at last year’s funeral of his friend Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird.

I took my place in the book-lined study of Flynt’s redwood house in Auburn, Alabama, to hear his thoughts on the local economy, but the conversation turned to a central mystery of US politics. Trump would not be president without the strong support of the folks Flynt has chronicled — white residents of the Bible Belt, raised in the do-it-yourself religious traditions that distinguish the US from Europe. I wondered how a thrice-married former casino owner — who had been recorded bragging about grabbing women by the genitals — had won over the faithful.

Flynt’s answer is that his people are changing. The words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, are less central to their thinking and behaviour, he says. Church is less compelling. Marriage is less important. Reading from a severely abridged Bible, their political concerns have narrowed down to abortion and issues involving homosexuality. Their faith, he says, has been put in a president who embodies an unholy trinity of materialism, hedonism and narcissism. Trump’s victory, in this sense, is less an expression of the old-time religion than evidence of a move away from it.

“The 2016 election laid out graphically what is in essence the loss of Christian America,” Flynt says, delivering his verdict with a calm assurance that reminded me of Lee’s hero, Atticus Finch, as played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film of her novel.•

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Peter Singer advised utilitarians of good conscience to serve in the Trump Administration if they felt they could mitigate the awfulness of what was to be a deeply dishonest, bigoted, sociopathic White House, the caveat being they need be prepared to resign if asked to participate in unethical behavior.

The jury is still out on that advice. Everyone involved is complicit in the wanton destruction of the environment, an existential threat, and any attempts at neutralization will be rebuffed. Civil rights, voting rights, and women’s rights will be rolled back, no exceptions. Scientific research and culture will be casualties.

Mattis and McMaster are sometimes exhibited as examples of those who can inject some sanity into an unprecedented shitstorm, but they’ve both already had to often act within the constraints of Trump’s alternative universe, a constellation of lies about his predecessor wiretapping him, millions of illegal voters casting ballots, etc. McMaster has been able to eject Bannon and other kooks from the NSA, a real plus, but over time he’ll certainly have to carefully weigh how far he’s willing range from his core values.

A poisonous environment can gradually work on the healthiest bodies.

· · ·

In a Nautilus essay, Singer analyzes a different ethical question: How should we treat non-humans who possess some form of consciousness, whether we’re talking about ETs or animals that help make a BLT? The moral philosopher breaks no new ground in his arguments but states them well. As he writes, “the existence of another mind—another center of consciousness—places moral demands on us.”

The opening:

Last January I was walking with my granddaughter along a beach near Melbourne when we noticed several people gathered around a rock pool, peering into the water. Wondering what had attracted their attention, we went over and saw that it was an octopus. If the spectators were interested in it, it also seemed interested in them. It came to the edge of the pool, one of its eyes directed at the people above, and stretched a tentacle out of the water, as if offering to shake hands. No one took up the offer but at least no one tried to capture the animal or turn it into calamari. That was pleasing because, as Peter Godfrey-Smith says in his recent book Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, an octopus is “probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.”

If we do ever meet an intelligent alien, even a tasty one, I hope we have sufficient ethical awareness to think of more than pleasing our palates or filling our stomachs. My view that this would be the wrong way to respond to such an encounter, however, leads to a deeper question: What moral status would extra-terrestrials have? Would we have obligations to them? Would they have rights? And would our answers depend on their intelligence?•

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Today’s my birthday, a day I celebrate with abject sloth. See you tomorrow.∼Darren

From the January 29, 1851 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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