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Not an original idea: Driverless cars are perfected in the near future and join the traffic, and some disruptive souls, perhaps us, decide to purchase an autonomous taxi and set it to work. We charge less than any competitor, use our slim profits for maintenance and to eventually buy a second taxi. Those two turn into an ever-growing fleet. We subtract our original investment (and ourselves) from the equation, and let this benevolent monster grow, ownerless, allowing it to automatically schedule its own repairs and purchases. Why would anyone need Uber or Lyft in such a scenario? Those outfits would be value-less.

In a very good Vanity Fair “Hive” piece, Nick Bilton doesn’t extrapolate Uber’s existential risk quite this far, but he writes wisely of the technology that may make rideshare companies a shooting star, enjoying only a brief lifespan like Compact Discs, though minus the outrageous profits that format produced. 

The opening:

Seven years ago, just before Uber opened for business, the company was valued at exactly zero dollars. Today, it is worth around $68 billion. But it is not inconceivable that Uber, as mighty as it currently appears, could one day return to its modest origins, worth nothing. Uber, in fact, knows this better than almost anyone. As Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive, candidly articulated in an interview with Business Insider, ride-sharing companies are particularly vulnerable to an impeding technology that is going to change our society in unimaginable ways: the driverless car. “The world is going to go self-driving and autonomous,” he unequivocally told Biz Carson. He continued: “So if that’s happening, what would happen if we weren’t a part of that future? If we weren’t part of the autonomy thing? Then the future passes us by, basically, in a very expeditious and efficient way.”

Kalanick wasn’t just being dramatic. He was being brutally honest. To understand how Uber and its competitors, such as Lyft andJuno, could be rendered useless by automation—leveled in the same way that they themselves leveled the taxi industry—you need to fast-forward a few years to a hypothetical version of the future that might seem surreal at the moment. But, I can assure you, it may well resemble how we will live very, very soon.•

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From the August 11, 1889 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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A CBP Border Patrol Agent investigates a potential landing area for illegal immigrants along the Rio Grande River in Texas

Surveillance is a murky thing almost always attended by a self-censorship, quietly encouraging citizens to abridge their communication because maybe, perhaps someone is watching or listening. It’s a chilling of civil rights that happens in a creeping manner. Nothing can be trusted, not even the mundane, not even your own judgement. That’s the goal, really, of such a system–that everyone should feel endlessly observed.

In a Texas Monthly piece, Sasha Von Oldershausen, a border reporter in West Texas, finds similarities between her stretch of America, which feverishly focuses on security from intruders, and her time spent living under theocracy in Iran. An excerpt:

Surveillance is key to the CBP’s strategy at the border, but you don’t have to look to the skies for constant reminders that they’re there. Internal checkpoints located up to 100 miles from the border give Border Patrol agents the legal authority to search any person’s vehicle without a warrant. It’s enough to instill a feeling of guilt even in the most exemplary of citizens. For those commuting daily on roads fitted with these checkpoints, the search becomes rote: the need to prove one’s right to abide is an implicit part of life.

Despite the visible cues, it’s still hard to figure just how all-seeing the CBP’s eyes are. For one, understanding the “realities” of border security varies based on who you talk to.

Esteban Ornelas—a Mexican citizen who was charged with illegal entry into the United States in 2012 and deported shortly thereafter—swears that he was caught was because a friend he was traveling through the backcountry with sent a text message to his family. “They traced the signal,” he told me in his hometown of Boquillas.

When I consulted CBP spokesperson Brooks and senior Border Patrol agent Stephen Crump about what Ornelas had told me, they looked at each other and laughed. “That’s pretty awesome,” Crump said. “Note to self: develop that technology.”

I immediately felt foolish to have asked. But when I asked Pauling that same question, his reply was much more austere: “I can’t answer that,” he said, and left it at that.•

 

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Some argue, as John Thornhill does in a new Financial Times column, that technology may not be the main impediment to the proliferation of driverless cars. I doubt that’s true. If you could magically make available today relatively safe and highly functioning autonomous vehicles, ones that operated on a level superior to humans, then hearts, minds and legislation would soon favor the transition. I do think driving as recreation and sport would continue, but much of commerce and transport would shift to our robot friends.

Earlier in the development of driverless, I wondered if Americans would hand over the wheel any sooner than they’d turn in their guns, but I’ve since been convinced we (largely) will. We may have a macro fear of robots, but we hand over control to them with shocking alacrity. A shift to driverless wouldn’t be much different.

An excerpt from Thornhill in which he lists the main challenges, technological and otherwise, facing the sector:

First, there is the instinctive human resistance to handing over control to a robot, especially given fears of cyber-hacking. Second, for many drivers cars are an extension of their identity, a mechanical symbol of independence, control and freedom. They will not abandon them lightly.

Third, robots will always be held to far higher safety standards than humans. They will inevitably cause accidents. They will also have to be programmed to make a calculation that could kill their passengers or bystanders to minimise overall loss of life. This will create a fascinating philosophical sub-school of algorithmic morality. “Many of us are afraid that one reckless act will cause an accident that causes a backlash and shuts down the industry for a decade,” says the Silicon Valley engineer. “That would be tragic if you could have saved tens of thousands of lives a year.”

Fourth, the deployment of autonomous vehicles could destroy millions of jobs. Their rapid introduction is certain to provoke resistance. There are 3.5m professional lorry drivers in the US.

Fifth, the insurance industry and legal community have to wrap their heads around some tricky liability issues. In what circumstances is the owner, car manufacturer or software developer responsible for damage?•

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Duck Soup and Young Frankenstein are, in some order, my number 1 and 1A favorite film comedies. That comes to mind, of course, because of the sad passing of Gene Wilder, an essentially perfect comic actor who displayed great range despite not seeming to ever move an inch. He was a central, grounding figure in works that could have–should have–fallen apart: Mel Brooks comedies, Willy Wonka, Richard Pryor buddy pictures and Ionesco plays. (He always refused to acknowledge he’d been in a filmed version of The Rhinoceros because he was scarred by what was reportedly abusive behavior by co-star Zero Mostel.)

Here’s an insane rarity: Wilder and Cloris Leachman on the set of YF in 1974, being interviewed really badly for Spanish TV. Along with Mary Shelley and Brooks, the actor received a writing credit for the movie.

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The introduction to Nicholas Carr’s soon-to-be published essay collection, Utopia Is Creepy, has been excerpted at Aeon, and it’s a beauty. The writer argues (powerfully) that we’ve defined “progress as essentially technological,” even though the Digital Age quickly became corrupted by commercial interests, and the initial thrill of the Internet faded as it became “civilized” in the most derogatory, Twain-ish use of that word. To Carr, the something gained (access to an avalanche of information) is overwhelmed by what’s lost (withdrawal from reality). The critic applies John Kenneth Galbraith’s term “innocent fraud” to the Silicon Valley marketing of techno-utopianism. 

You could extrapolate this thinking to much of our contemporary culture: binge-watching endless content, Pokémon Go, Comic-Con, fake Reality TV shows, reality-altering cable news, etc. Carr suggests we use the tools of Silicon Valley while refusing the ethos. Perhaps that’s possible, but I doubt you can separate such things.

An excerpt:

The greatest of the United States’ homegrown religions – greater than Jehovah’s Witnesses, greater than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, greater even than Scientology – is the religion of technology. John Adolphus Etzler, a Pittsburgher, sounded the trumpet in his testament The Paradise Within the Reach of All Men (1833). By fulfilling its ‘mechanical purposes’, he wrote, the US would turn itself into a new Eden, a ‘state of superabundance’ where ‘there will be a continual feast, parties of pleasures, novelties, delights and instructive occupations’, not to mention ‘vegetables of infinite variety and appearance’.

Similar predictions proliferated throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and in their visions of ‘technological majesty’, as the critic and historian Perry Miller wrote, we find the true American sublime. We might blow kisses to agrarians such as Jefferson and tree-huggers such as Thoreau, but we put our faith in Edison and Ford, Gates and Zuckerberg. It is the technologists who shall lead us.

Cyberspace, with its disembodied voices and ethereal avatars, seemed mystical from the start, its unearthly vastness a receptacle for the spiritual yearnings and tropes of the US. ‘What better way,’ wrote the philosopher Michael Heim inThe Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace’ (1991), ‘to emulate God’s knowledge than to generate a virtual world constituted by bits of information?’ In 1999, the year Google moved from a Menlo Park garage to a Palo Alto office, the Yale computer scientist David Gelernter wrote a manifesto predicting ‘the second coming of the computer’, replete with gauzy images of ‘cyberbodies drift[ing] in the computational cosmos’ and ‘beautifully laid-out collections of information, like immaculate giant gardens’.

The millenarian rhetoric swelled with the arrival of Web 2.0. ‘Behold,’ proclaimed Wired in an August 2005 cover story: we are entering a ‘new world’, powered not by God’s grace but by the web’s ‘electricity of participation’. It would be a paradise of our own making, ‘manufactured by users’. History’s databases would be erased, humankind rebooted. ‘You and I are alive at this moment.’

The revelation continues to this day, the technological paradise forever glittering on the horizon. Even money men have taken sidelines in starry-eyed futurism. In 2014, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen sent out a rhapsodic series of tweets – he called it a ‘tweetstorm’ – announcing that computers and robots were about to liberate us all from ‘physical need constraints’. Echoing Etzler (and Karl Marx), he declared that ‘for the first time in history’ humankind would be able to express its full and true nature: ‘we will be whoever we want to be.’ And: ‘The main fields of human endeavour will be culture, arts, sciences, creativity, philosophy, experimentation, exploration, adventure.’ The only thing he left out was the vegetables.•

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There’s probably no reason to think prognosticating crime via computer will be more biased than traditional racial profiling and other less-algorithmic methods of anticipating lawlessness, but it’s uncertain it will be an improvement. In any system with embedded prejudice–pretty much all of them–won’t those suspicions of some be translated into code? It doesn’t need be that way, but there will have to be an awful lot of skepticism and oversight to keep discrimination from taking a prominent place in the digital realm.

The opening of “The Power of Learning” at the Economist:

In Minority Report, a policeman, played by Tom Cruise, gleans tip-offs from three psychics and nabs future criminals before they break the law. In the real world, prediction is more difficult. But it may no longer be science fiction, thanks to the growing prognosticatory power of computers. That prospect scares some, but it could be a force for good—if it is done right.

Machine learning, a branch of artificial intelligence, can generate remarkably accurate predictions. It works by crunching vast quantities of data in search of patterns. Take, for example, restaurant hygiene. The system learns which combinations of sometimes obscure factors are most suggestive of a problem. Once trained, it can assess the risk that a restaurant is dirty. The Boston mayor’s office is testing just such an approach, using data from Yelp reviews. This has led to a 25% rise in the number of spot inspections that uncover violations.

Governments are taking notice. A London borough is developing an algorithm to predict who might become homeless. In India Microsoft is helping schools predict which students are at risk of dropping out. Machine-learning predictions can mean government services arrive earlier and are better targeted (see article). Researchers behind an algorithm designed to help judges make bail decisions claim it can predict recidivism so effectively that the same number of people could be bailed as are at present by judges, but with 20% less crime. To get a similar reduction in crime across America, they say, would require an extra 20,000 police officers at a cost of $2.6 billion.
 
But computer-generated predictions are sometimes controversial.•
   

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download (1)More than six decades ago, long before Siri got her voice, Georgetown and IBM co-presented the first public demonstration of machine translation. Russian was neatly converted into English by an “electronic brain,” the IBM 701, and one of the principals involved, the university’s Professor Leon Dostert, excitedly reacted to the success, proclaiming the demo a “Kitty Hawk of electronic translation.” Certainly the impact from this experiment was nothing close to the significance of the Wright brothers’ achievement, but it was a harbinger of things to (eventually) come. An article in the January 8, 1954 Brooklyn Daily Eagle covered the landmark event.

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Real estate tycoon Donald Trump participates in the Republican presidential primary debate on August 6, 2015 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

You certainly can trace the GOP’s descent into delusion to before the Bushies, but the Dubya Administration is where it came to maturation. There was a willful rejection in powerful conservative circles of the “reality based community.” As one aide told Ron Suskind in “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” his great 2004 New York Times Magazine article, ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

That disdain for facts on the Right has only hardened in the past decade, with conspiracy theories now treated by the alt-right media as all the news that’s fit to print. It’s become a contest to out-crazy one another, and only those most amenable to madness, kooks like Alex Jones and Stephen Bannon, deemed acceptable. This impulse ran headlong into the decentralization of media, with legacy news organizations beholden by basic journalistic principles suddenly struggling to keep pace. The gatekeepers were going and gone and more information did not lead to better information. Bushes and talk-radio hosts who formerly flourished in these circles became this election season targets of the vitriol themselves for not being “pure” enough, for pushing back against Donald Trump attempting to make the party of Lincoln into the party of George Lincoln Rockwell.

From “Donald Trump Broke the Conservative Media,” Oliver Darcy’s Business Insider piece about an extreme right turn that took the party over the edge:

Some conservatives tried to fight back against Trump, pleading with their audiences to see what they contended to be the rational point of view, but their arguments seemed to go unheard.

One of the chief problems, [talk-radio host Charlie] Sykes said, was that it had become impossible to prove to listeners that Trump was telling falsehoods because over the past several decades, the conservative news media had “basically eliminated any of the referees, the gatekeepers.”

“There’s nobody,” he lamented. “Let’s say that Donald Trump basically makes whatever you want to say, whatever claim he wants to make. And everybody knows it’s a falsehood. The big question of my audience, it is impossible for me to say that, ‘By the way, you know it’s false.’ And they’ll say, ‘Why? I saw it on Allen B. West.’ Or they’ll say, ‘I saw it on a Facebook page.’ And I’ll say, ‘The New York Times did a fact check.’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s The New York Times. That’s bulls—.’ There’s nobody — you can’t go to anybody and say, ‘Look, here are the facts.'”

“And I have to say that’s one of the disorienting realities of this political year. You can be in this alternative media reality and there’s no way to break through it,” Sykes continued. “And I swim upstream because if I don’t say these things from some of these websites, then suddenly I have sold out. Then they’ll ask what’s wrong with me for not repeating these stories that I know not to be true.”

{Talk-radio host John] Ziegler said he faced much of the same problem.

“If you are a conservative talk show host, which I am, if you don’t accept that it’s likely Hillary Clinton has taken part in multiple murders, or that Barack Obama is a Muslim extremist sympathizer who was probably born outside this country — if you don’t accept those two things, it’s almost as if you’re a sellout. You’re a RINO. You’re somehow part of the liberal elite. It’s nuts. It’s making my own show very difficult to do. It’s almost where to the point where we are not able to function.”

He continued: “It’s almost like it’s a disease, and it’s taken over people. I don’t remember this being the case four years ago. But something has happened. Something snapped. But now all of a sudden, if a story comes out, and it’s not on Breitbart or endorsed by Drudge, it can’t be true. Especially if it’s about Donald Trump. Which is flat-out ludicrous.”

Asked why none of his criticism of Trump seemed to put a crack in the real-estate mogul’s armor, Beck paused.

“I think that people are very lost, and they don’t know what to do at this point.”•

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Beginning in the 1960s, freelance speleologist Michel Siffre embedded himself in glaciers and underground caves in an attempt to understand sensory privations astronauts might experience on long missions. It was dangerous and not just psychologically. Today’s “missions to Mars,” test runs in isolation like NASA’s one-year HI-SEAS project which just concluded in Hawaii, aren’t nearly as fraught. Only time will tell, however, if they’re an acceptable spacesuit dress rehearsal. The multinational HI-SEAS crew, having now “returned,” thinks the historic travel to Mars will be manageable, which it probably is, though it’s still a question as to whether humans need to be making such voyages right now.

From an un-bylined AP report:

HILO, Hawaii (AP) — Six scientists have completed a yearlong Mars simulation in Hawaii, where they lived in a dome in near isolation.

For the past year, the group in the dome on a Mauna Loa mountain could go outside only while wearing spacesuits.

On Sunday, the simulation ended, and the scientists emerged. 

Cyprien Verseux, a crew member from France, said the simulation shows a mission to Mars can succeed.

“I can give you my personal impression which is that a mission to Mars in the close future is realistic. I think the technological and psychological obstacles can be overcome,” Verseux said.

Christiane Heinicke, a crew member from Germany, said the scientists were able to find their own water in a dry climate.

“Showing that it works, you can actually get water from the ground that is seemingly dry. It would work on Mars and the implication is that you would be able to get water on Mars from this little greenhouse construct,” she said.•

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

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This week,

This week, Donald Trump’s physician, who said the nominee would be the healthiest individual ever elected because “all the rest of them are either sick or dead,” diagnosed another Republican with just a mild headache.

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  • Americans are longer among the world’s tallest people. Why?
  • Tama Janowitz, 1980s NYC bright young thing, publishes a memoir.

In 1976, Gail Jennes of People magazine conducted a Q&A with Michael L. Dertouzos, who was the Director of the Laboratory for Computer Science at MIT. He pretty much hit the bullseye on everything regarding the next four decades of computing, except for thinking Moore’s Law would reach endgame in the mid-’80s. An excerpt:

Question:

Could a computer ever become as “human” as the one named Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey?

Michael Dertouzos:

A computer has already taken over a “human” mission on the Viking mission to Mars. But control over humans is a different issue. In open-heart surgery where a computer monitors bloodstream and vital functions, are we not under a machine’s control? A human being is often under the control of a machine and, in many situations, wants to be.

Question:

Will machines ever be more intelligent than humans?

Michael Dertouzos:

That is the important question, and the one on which scientists are split. One side says it’s impossible to make machines with the same intelligence, emotions and abilities as humans, and that therefore machines will only be able to do our bidding. The other side believes that it’s possible to make machines learn much more. Both sides argue from faith; neither from fact.

Question:

What do you think?

Michael Dertouzos:

I think progress will be a lot slower than predicted. Computers will get smarter gradually. I don’t know if they will get as smart as we are. If they did, it probably would take a long time. …

Question:

Will computers be widely used by the average person in coming years?

Michael Dertouzos:

We don’t see technical limitations in computer development until the mid-1980s. Until then, decreased cost will make computers smaller, cheaper and more accessible. In 10 or 15 years, one should cost about the same as a big color TV. This machine could become a playmate, testing your wits at chess or checkers. If a computer were hooked up to AP or UPI news-wires, it could be programmed to know that I’m interested in Greece, computers and music. Whenever it caught news items about these subjects, it would print them out on my console—so I would see only the things I wanted to see.

Question:

Will they transmit mail?

Michael Dertouzos:

We are already hooked into a network spanning the U.S. and part of Europe by which we send, collect and route messages easily. Although the transmission process is instant, you can let messages pile up until you turn on your computer and ask for your mail.

Question:

Will the computer eventually be as common as the typewriter?

Michael Dertouzos:

Perhaps even more so. It may be hidden so you won’t even know you’re using it. Don’t be surprised if there is one in every telephone, taking over most of the dialing. If you want to call your friend Joe, you just dial “JOE.” The same machine could take messages, advise if they were of interest and then could ring you. In the future, I would imagine there could be computerized cooking machines. You put in a little card that says Chateaubriand and it cooks the ingredients not only according to the best French recipe, but also to your particular taste.

Question:

Will robots ever be heavily relied upon?

Michael Dertouzos:

Robots are already doing things for us—for example, accounting and assembling cars. Two-legged robotic bipeds are a romantic notion and actually pretty unstable. But computer-directed robot machines with wheels, for example, may eventually do the vacuum cleaning and mow the lawn.

Question:

How might computers aid us in an election year?

Michael Dertouzos:

Voters might quickly find out political candidates’ positions on the issues by consulting computers. Government would then be closer to the pulse of the governed. If we had access to a very intelligent computer, we could probe to find out if the guy is telling the truth by having them check for inconsistency—but that is way in the future.

Question:

Should everyone be required to take a computer course?

Michael Dertouzos:

I’d rather see people choose to do so. Latin, the lute and the piano used to be required as a part of a proper upbringing. Computer science will be thought of in the same way. If we can use the computer early in life, we can understand it so we won’t be hoodwinked into believing it can do the impossible. A big danger is deferring to computers out of ignorance.•

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First we slide machines into our pockets, and then we slide into theirs.

As long as humans have roamed the Earth, we’ve been part of a biological organism larger than ourselves. At first, we were barely connected parts, but gradually we became a Global Village. In order for that connectivity to become possible, the bio-organism gave way to a technological machine. As we stand now, we’re moving ourselves deeper and deeper into a computer, one with no OFF switch. We’ll be counted, whether we like it or not. Some of that will be great, and some not.

In the Financial Times, in one of his regularly heady and dazzling pieces of writing, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari examines this new normal, one that’s occurred without close study of what it will mean for the cogs in the machine–us. As he writes, “humanism is now facing an existential challenge and the idea of ‘free will’ is under threat.” The opening:

For thousands of years humans believed that authority came from the gods. Then, during the modern era, humanism gradually shifted authority from deities to people. Jean-Jacques Rousseau summed up this revolution inEmile, his 1762 treatise on education. When looking for the rules of conduct in life, Rousseau found them “in the depths of my heart, traced by nature in characters which nothing can efface. I need only consult myself with regard to what I wish to do; what I feel to be good is good, what I feel to be bad is bad.” Humanist thinkers such as Rousseau convinced us that our own feelings and desires were the ultimate source of meaning, and that our free will was, therefore, the highest authority of all.

Now, a fresh shift is taking place. Just as divine authority was legitimised by religious mythologies, and human authority was legitimised by humanist ideologies, so high-tech gurus and Silicon Valley prophets are creating a new universal narrative that legitimises the authority of algorithms and Big Data. This novel creed may be called “Dataism”. In its extreme form, proponents of the Dataist worldview perceive the entire universe as a flow of data, see organisms as little more than biochemical algorithms and believe that humanity’s cosmic vocation is to create an all-encompassing data-processing system — and then merge into it.

We are already becoming tiny chips inside a giant system that nobody really understands.•

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If you’re Hillary Clinton, do you want Paul Wolfowitz’s endorsement? If fits the narrative of strange bedfellows joining in an effort to defeat Donald Trump, a modern medicine show selling poisons. But it also reminds that you backed the invasion of Iraq, the calamity the former Bush adviser helped enact. It’s not likely to make much difference in voting booths, but it is another indication we have an establishment versus insurgent election, with the mutineer an Ahab, horribly ill-suited to steer the ship.

Gordon Repinski’s has a smart Spiegel interview with Wolfowitz, who largely blames the failings of the intelligence community for the invasion and President Obama’s non-interventionist policies for the fall of Syria and the rise of ISIS. It is a selective view of history. An excerpt:

Question:

Recently, 50 former senior Republican security officials declared Donald Trump to be a security risk. Is he?

Paul Wolfowitz:

Yes, he is.

Question:

Why?

Paul Wolfowitz:

He says he admires Putin, that Saddam Hussein was killing terrorists, that the Chinese were impressive because they were tough on Tiananmen Square. That is pretty disturbing.

Question:

Do you think it’s time for people like you to speak out against Trump?

Paul Wolfowitz:

It’s complicated. Trump says that it is precisely we and our policies that are responsible for the mess in Iraq. But I certainly think it’s important to speak up and say how unacceptable he is. I’m always more than willing to do that.

Question:

Are you afraid of the possible consequences a Trump presidency would have on foreign and security policy?

Paul Wolfowitz:

The only way you can be comfortable about Trump’s foreign policy, is to think he doesn’t really mean anything he says. That’s a pretty uncomfortable place to be in. Our security depends on having good relationships with our allies. Trump mainly shows contempt for them. And he seems to be unconcerned about the Russian aggression in Ukraine. By doing this he tells them that they can go ahead and do what they are doing. That is dangerous. …

Question:

Why wasn’t the Republican Party able to stop Donald Trump?

Paul Wolfowitz:

Obviously, there’s unhappiness among the population. The Bernie Sanders phenomenon shows that it’s not confined to Republicans. There is a general sentiment that the country is on the wrong track. Against that background of pessimism, someone like Trump can be successful in getting the nomination.

Question:

Who are you going to vote for in November?

Paul Wolfowitz:

I wish there were somebody I could be comfortable voting for. I might have to vote for Hillary Clinton, even though I have big reservations about her.•

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With Barry Goldwater’s words playing in a loop in his head and Richard Nixon (literally) tattooed on his back, Roger Stone, longtime consigliere to Donald Trump, is a true believer in Republicanism. Like many blindly devoted souls, he blissfully avoids facts that might constrain his ardor. Example: Stone refers repeatedly to Hillary Clinton as a “crook,” despite having been an employee and apologist for President Richard Nixon, whose administration literally committed criminal acts that stunned the nation and led to resignation.

Stone initially bonded with Trump over their mutual support for Ronald Reagan’s first successful bid for the White House. In The Art of the Deal, Trump turned on Reagan and he eventually gave the boot to Stone, though he embraced them both once more when it was expedient during his disgraceful run for the Oval Office. (Reagan, who’d been dead for more than a decade, could not be reached for comment on the reunion.)

Trump, who has Nixon imprinted on him figuratively, has not been aided by his paranoia, dishonesty, vindictiveness or capriciousness during the unforgiving light of the general election. Nor has he been helped by his lazy, bigoted depictions of “the blacks” or “the Hispanics.” Like Stone, Trump elides nuances in the name of a blunt-instrument approach to winning power. These are simple men in complicated times.

Edward Luce, who’s had a spectacular season covering America’s Baba Booey of an election, has a lively profile of Stone in the Financial Times. An excerpt:

What about Hillary Clinton, I ask? What happens if she beats Trump? Stone’s words spill out even faster than before. At one point, he sounds so strident that half the restaurant turns to see what the fuss is about. “If she wins, we’re done as a nation,” Stone shoots back. “We’ll be overrun by hordes of young Muslims, like Germany and France, raping, killing, violating, desecrating. You can see that. It’s happening there.” Stone is so enraptured by his dystopian nightmare, he appears not to notice that everyone can hear him. “If Hillary wins, there will be widespread unrest, civil disobedience, badly divided government in which half the country believes she, her daughter, and her husband belong in prison. There’ll be no goodwill. No honeymoon. There will be systematic inspection of all of her actions because someone who has been a crook in the past will be a crook in the future. It will be sad. I’ll probably be forced to move to Costa Rica.”•

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From the February 3, 1945 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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In 2016, the average branch of the New York Public Library operates as a lightly funded community center, with some classes for kids, a climate-controlled place for seniors to knit and Internet time for anyone who can’t afford their own. Books are largely beside the point, donations of gently used volumes not accepted, and quiet is no longer enforced since reading isn’t the primary function of the institution. It’s more about experience now.

In a really thought-provoking Business Insider piece, David Pecovitz of boing boing tells Chris Weller that experience is also the future of libraries, though he believes it will be of a much more technological kind, virtual as well as actual. He predicts we could wind up with a “library of experiences.” Perhaps, though such tools and access may become decentralized.

An excerpt:

The definition of a library is already changing.

Some libraries have 3D printers and other cutting-edge tools that makes them not just places of learning, but creation. “I think the library as a place of access to materials, physical and virtual, becomes increasingly important,” Pescovitz says. People will come to see libraries as places to create the future, not just learn about the present.

Pescovitz offers the example of genetic engineering, carried out through “an open-source library of genetic parts that can be recombined in various way to make new organisms that don’t exist in nature.”

For instance, people could create their own microbes that are engineered to detect toxins in the water, he says, similar to how people are already meeting up in biology-centered hacker spaces.

Several decades from now, libraries will morph even further.

Pescovitz speculates that humans will have collected so much data that society will move into the realm of downloading sensory data. What we experience could be made available for sharing.

“Right now the world is becoming instrumented with sensors everywhere — sensors in our bodies, sensors in our roads, sensors in our mobile phones, sensors in our buildings — all of which all collecting high-resolution data about the physical world,” he says. “Meanwhile, we’re making leaps in understanding how the brain processes experiences and translates that into what we call reality.”

That could lead to a “library of experiences.”

In such a library, Pescovitz imagines that you could “check out” the experience of going to another planet or inhabiting the mind of the family dog.•

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If you want to comprehend the often-disquieting zeitgeist of the Sixties and Seventies, you could do far worse than read back issues of Ramparts magazine, which, under Warren Hinckle’s gonzo editorial guidance, served up the alternative culture without ever watering it down. The journalist just died, and below is his NYT obituary penned by William Grimes, followed by a few of the best articles he wrote and published at Ramparts.


From Grimes:

Warren Hinckle, the flamboyant editor who made Ramparts magazine a powerful national voice for the radical left in the 1960s and later by championing the work of Hunter S. Thompson and helping introduce the no-holds-barred reporting style known as gonzo journalism, died on Thursday. He was 77.

The cause was complications of pneumonia, his daughter Pia Hinckle said.

Ramparts was a small-circulation quarterly for liberal Roman Catholics when Mr. Hinckle began writing for and promoting it in the early 1960s. A born provocateur with a keen sense of public relations, he took over as the executive editor in 1964 and immediately set about transforming Ramparts from a sleepy intellectual journal to a slickly produced, crusading political magazine that galvanized the American left.

With cover art and eye-catching headlines reminiscent of mainstream magazines like Esquire, Ramparts aimed to deliver “a bomb in every issue,” as Time magazine once put it. It looked at Cardinal Francis Spellman’s involvement in promoting American involvement in Vietnam and the Central Intelligence Agency’s financing of a wide variety of cultural organizations.

It published Che Guevara’s diaries, with a long introduction by Fidel Castro; Eldridge Cleaver’s letters from prison; and some of the wilder conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination. The magazine’s photo essay in January 1967 showing the injuries inflicted on Vietnamese children by American bombs helped convince the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to take a public stand against the war.

The covers became countercultural classics: an illustration depicting Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader of North Vietnam, as Washington crossing the Delaware; a photograph of four hands, belonging to the magazine’s top editors, holding up draft cards that had been set on fire.•


“Rather Than Write, I Will Ride Buses, Study The Insides Of Jails, And See What Goes On”

kkFrom “The Social History of the Hippies,” Warren Hinckle’s 1967 Ramparts article about those who tuned in, turned on and dropped out, a segment on writer Ken Kesey after his fall from grace with the younger longhhairs: 

HERE WASN’T MUCH DOING on late afternoon television, and the Merry Pranksters were a little restless. A few were turning on; one Prankster amused himself squirting his friends with a yellow plastic watergun; another staggered into the living room, exhausted from peddling a bicycle in ever-diminishing circles in the middle of the street. They were all waiting, quite patiently, for dinner, which the Chief was whipping up himself. It was a curry, the recipe of no doubt cabalistic origin. Kesey evidently took his cooking seriously, because he stood guard by the pot for an hour and a half, stirring, concentrating on the little clock on the stove that didn’t work.

There you have a slice of domestic life, February 1967, from the swish Marin County home of Attorney Brian Rohan. As might be surmised, Rohan is Kesey’s attorney, and the novelist and his aides de camp had parked their bus outside for the duration. The duration might last a long time, because Kesey has dropped out of the hippie scene. Some might say that he was pushed, because he fell, very hard, from favor among the hippies last year when he announced that he, Kesey, personally, was going to help reform the psychedelic scene. This sudden social conscience may have had something to do with beating a jail sentence on a compounded marijuana charge, but when Kesey obtained his freedom with instructions from the judge ‘to preach an anti-LSD warning to teenagers’ it was a little too much for the Haight-Ashbury set. Kesey, after all, was the man who had turned on the Hell’s Angels.

That was when the novelist was living in La Honda, a small community in the Skyline mountain range overgrown with trees and, after Kesey invited the Hell’s Angels to several house parties, overgrown with sheriff’s deputies. It was in this Sherwood Forest setting, after he had finished his second novel with LSD as his co-pilot, that Kesey inaugurated his band of Merry Pranksters (they have an official seal from the State of California incorporating them as “Intrepid Trips, Inc.”), painted the school bus in glow sock colors, announced he would write no more (“Rather than write, I will ride buses, study the insides of jails, and see what goes on”), and set up funtime housekeeping on a full-time basis with the Pranksters, his wife and their three small children (one confounding thing about Kesey is the amorphous quality of the personal relationships in his entourage—the several attractive women don’t seem, from the outside, to belong to any particular man; children are loved enough, but seem to be held in common).

When the Hell’s Angels rumbled by, Kesey welcomed them with LSD. “We’re in the same business. You break people’s bones, I break people’s heads,” he told them. The Angels seem to like the whole acid thing, because today they are a fairly constant act in the Haight-Ashbury show, while Kesey has abdicated his role as Scoutmaster to fledgling acid heads and exiled himself across the Bay.

This self-imposed Elba came about when Kesey sensed that the hippie community had soured on him. He had committed the one mortal sin in the hippie ethic: telling people what to do. “Get into a responsibility bag,” he urged some 400 friends attending a private Halloween party. Kesey hasn’t been seen much in the Haight-Ashbury since that night, and though the Diggers did succeed in getting him to attend the weekend discussion, it is doubtful they will succeed in getting the novelist involved in any serious effort to shape the Haight-Ashbury future. At 31, Ken Kesey is a hippie has-been.•


“I Found Myself Incarcerated In An Anonymity”

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Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver was many things, and not all of them were good. But no one could deny he was a fascinating fashion designer. After fleeing the United States when charged with the attempted murder of police officers in Oakland in 1968, the revolutionary spent seven years hiding in a variety of foreign countries. A mostly forgotten part of his walkabout was Cleaver surfacing as a fashion designer in Paris at the very end of his exile. As shown in the print advertisement above, his so-called “penis pants” had an external sock attached so that a guy could wear his junk on the outside. I mean, just because your soul was on ice, that didn’t mean your dong had to be. Cucumber sales soared.

Cleaver penned an article about the early part of his life at large for Ramparts in 1969. An excerpt:

SO NOW IT IS OFFICIAL. I was starting to think that perhaps it never would be. For the past eight months, I’ve been scooting around the globe as a non-person, ducking into doorways at the sight of a camera, avoiding  English-speaking people like the plague. I used so many names that my own was out of focus. I trained myself not to react if I heard the name Eldridge Cleaver called, and learned instead to respond naturally, spontaneously, to my cover names. Anyone who thinks this is easy to do should try it. For my part, I’m glad that it is over.

This morning we held a press conference, thus putting an end to all the hocus-pocus. Two days ago, the Algerian government announced that I had arrived here to participate in the historic First Pan-African Cultural Festival. After that, there was no longer any reason not to reach for the telephone and call home, so the first thing I did was to call my mother in Los Angeles. ‘Boy, where are you at?’ she asked. It sounded as though she expected me to answer, ‘Right around the corner, mom,’ or ‘Up here in San Francisco,’ so that when I said I was in Africa, in Algeria, it was clear that her mind was blown, for her response was, “Africa? You can’t make no phone call from Africa!” That’s my mom. She doesn’t relate to all this shit about phone calls across the ocean when there are no phone poles. She has both her feet on the ground, and it is clear that she intends to keep them there.

It is clear to me now that there are forms of imprisonment other than the kind I left Babylon to avoid, for immediately upon splitting that scene I found myself incarcerated in an anonymity, the walls of which were every bit as thick as those of Folsom Prison. I discovered, to my surprise, that it is impossible to hold a decent conversation without making frequent references to one’s past. So I found myself creating personal histories spontaneously, off the top of my head, and I felt bad about that because I know that I left many people standing around scratching their heads. The shit that I had to run down to them just didn’t add up.

Now all that is over. So what? What has really changed? Alioto is still crazy and mayor, Ronald Reagan is still Mickey Mouse, Nixon is in the White House and the McClellan Committee is investigating the Black Panther Party. And Huey P. Newton is still in prison. I cannot make light of this shit because it is getting deeper. And here we are in Algeria. What is a cat from Arkansas, who calls San Francisco home, doing in Algeria? And listen to Kathleen behind me talking over the telephone in French. With a little loosening of the will, I could easily flip out right now!•


“Lenny Was Called A ‘Sick Comic,’ Though He Insisted That It Was Society Which Was Sick And Not Him”

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Lenny Bruce understood there are few things more obscene than a society full of people making believe that obscene things never happened, since pretending and suppressing and hiding and shushing allows true evil to flourish. The opening of Ralph J. Gleason’s emotional 1966 obituary of Bruce in Ramparts

WHEN THE BODY OF LEONARD SCHNEIDER—stage name Lenny Bruce—was found on the floor of his Hollywood hills home on August 3, the Los Angeles police immediately announced that the victim had died of an overdose of a narcotic, probably heroin.

The press and TV and radio of the nation—the mass media—immediately seized upon this statement and headlined it from coast to coast, never questioning the miracle of instant diagnosis by a layman.

The medical report the next day, however, admitted that the cause of death was unknown and the analysis ‘inconclusive.’ But, as is the way with the mass media, news grows old, and the truth never quite catches up. Lenny Bruce didn’t die of an overdose of heroin. God alone knows what he did die of.

It is ritualistically fitting that he should be the victim, in the end, of distorted news, police malignment and the final irony—being buried with an orthodox Hebrew service, after years of satirizing organized religion. But first, in a sinister evocation of Orwell and Kafka and Greek tragedy, he had to be tortured, the record twisted, and the files rewritten until his death became a relief.

Lenny was called a “sick comic,” though he insisted that it was society which was sick and not him. He was called a ‘dirty comic’ though he never used a word you and I have not heard since our childhood. His tangles with the law over the use of these words and his arrests on narcotics charges were the only two things that the public really knew about him. Mass media saw to that.

When he was in Mission General Hospital in San Francisco, the hospital announced he had screamed such obscenities that the nurses refused to work in the room with him, so they taped his mouth shut with adhesive tape. The newspapers revelled in this and he was shown on TV, his mouth taped and his eyes rolling in protest, being wheeled into the examining room. Words that nurses never heard?

What new phrases he must have invented that day, what priceless epiphanies lost to history now forever. Once, in a particularly poignant discussion of obscenity on stage, Bruce said, “If the titty is pretty it’s dirty, but not if it’s bloody and maimed . . . that’s why you never see atrocity photos at obscenity trials.” He used to point out, too, that the people who watched the killing of the Genovese girl in Brooklyn and who didn’t interfere or call a cop would have been quick to do both if it had been a couple making love. “A true definition of obscenity,” he said, “would be to sing about pork outside a synagogue.”

Bruce found infinity in the grain of sand of obscenity. From it he took off on the fabric which keeps all our lives together. “If something about the human body disgusts you,” he said, “complain to the manufacturer.” He was one of those who, in Hebbel’s expression, “have disturbed the world’s sleep.” And he could not be forgiven.•


“The Real And The Unreal In A Sense Became Totally Confused”

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I’m a little obsessed with Clifford Irving, the writer who in 1970 accepted a million-dollar check for his authorized biography of the reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes. One problem: Hughes knew nothing of the book. The author was trying to pass off a fake and pocket a huge payday, and just as fascinating as the ruse was Irving doggedly sticking to his story even after the whole thing fell apart spectacularly. It was a literary scandal of Madoff-ian proportions, and a case study in extreme psychological behavior.

In 1972, as Irving was about to serve a stretch in prison for fraud, Ramparts magazine assigned Abbie Hoffman to do a Q&A with the trickster. An excerpt from “How Clifford Irving Stole That Book“:

Abbie Hoffman:

Did you ever get the idea, once the authenticity was questioned, of publishing it as a work of fiction? Would that have been really possible?

Clifford Irving:

You mean since recent events?

Abbie Hoffman:

Yeah.

Clifford Irving:

Oh, yeah, I still would like to have the book published. I think it’s the best novel I’ve ever written and it could easily be turned into a novel. It could also be published as is, provided libelous passages were taken out of it and provided that it stated very clearly that it’s a bogus autobiography of Howard Hughes. There is a court ruUng on it. As we understand it the court has given us permission to publish part or all of the book, provided that it’s made perfectly clear that it doesn’t purport to be genuine.

Abbie Hoffman:

I thought a funny incident occurred at Germaine Greer’s press party when you were introduced to Chief Red Fox. Could you talk about that a little?

Clifford Irving:

I went to this cocktail party. I was dragged along by Beverly Loo and Robert Stewart. I hate those damn cocktail parties but I had nothing to do and I wanted to meet Germaine Greer ’cause I heard she was six feet tall. But she was far more interested in talking to women’s liberation people and I stood around like a dope for awhile until I saw this beautiful old man in a corner. I asked about him and was told that’s Chief Red Fox, a 101-year-old Sioux Indian chief, and I said, ‘Beautiful, I’ve got to meet him.’ And I sat at his feet for an hour or two, talked to him, and he was a marvelous old man. But the way he came on to me with the broad American accent and told me how he danced at supermarket openings and was on the Johnny Carson Show where he did a war dance to liven things up, also the way he talked about Indian history, made me a little leery and I thought, well, he’s great but he’s not a 101-year-old Sioux Indian chief. Despite the fact that he was decked out like a technicolor western with a war bonnet and greasepaint make-up. And I went up to Beverly Loo and said,’He’s a great man, Beverly, but he’s no more a 101-year-old Sioux Indian than you’re the Empress Loo of the Ming Dynasty. She got very uptight about that and said, ‘What do you mean? How dare you!’ and I decided not to upset her any further so I backed off. Then of course it turned out later that there were great doubts thrown on the veracity of his books and his identity as well. I don’t know if I really smelled it out but something was funny there. I think maybe I was thinking in terms of a hoax since I was involved with one, and Chief Red Fox seemed to fit right into the category.

Abbie Hoffman:

When incidents like that happened did you start to feel you were watching a movie being made about your life or that you were acting out some kind of movie role?

Clifford Irving:

Well, going through that year I often felt that it was a happening because we sometimes had control over events but so many things happened that were absurd. And after awhile—not that I saw myself as a movie star—I saw this whole thing developing as a script, a movie script which no one would ever buy because it was ridiculous, it couldn’t possibly happen. The real and the unreal in a sense became totally confused—not that I really thought I was writing the autobiography of Howard Hughes, although of course in the act of creation you have to believe to a certain extent, but when you stop work you don’t believe any more. I mean you know what you’re doing but all the events had such a quality of ludicrousness and fantasy and coincidence that reality did at times blend with unreality. I think for the publishers as well.•

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“They Do Learn How To Read Too, But It Is A Secondary Discipline”

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In a 1966 issue of Ramparts, writer Howard Gossage tried to explain the teachings of Marshall McLuhan, whose book from two years earlier, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, had announced him as a media star with a message. An excerpt:

McLuhan’s theory is that this is the first generation of the electronic age. He says they are different because the medium that controls their environment is not print — one thing at a time, one thing after another — as it has been for 500 years. It is television, which is everything happening at once, instantaneously, and enveloping.

A child who gets his environmental training on television— and very few nowadays do not — learns the same way any member of a pre-literate society learns: from the direct experience of his eyes and ears, without Gutenberg for a middle man. Of course they do learn how to read too, but it is a secondary discipline, not primary as it is with their elders. When it comes to shaping sensory perceptions, I’m afraid that Master Gutenberg just isn’t in the same class with General Sarnoff or Doctor Stanton.

Despite the uproar over inferior or inept television fare, McLuhan does not think that the program content of television has anything to do with the real changes TV has produced; no more than whether a book is trashy or a classic has anything to do with the process of reading it. The basic message of television is television itself, the process, just as the basic message of a book is print. As McLuhan says, “The medium is the message.”

This new view of our environment is much more realistic in the light of what has happened since the advent of McLuhan’s “Electric Age.” The Gutenberg Age, which preceded it, was one thing after another in orderly sequence from cause to effect. It reached its finest flower with the development of mechanical linkages: A acts on B which acts on C which acts on D on down to the end of the line and the finished product. The whole process was thus fragmented into a series of functions, and for each function there was a specialist. This methodology was not confined to making things; it pervaded our entire economic and social system. It still does, though we are in an age when cause and effect are becoming so nearly simultaneous as to make obsolete all our accustomed notions of chronological sequence and mechanical linkage. With the dawn of the Electric Age, time and speed themselves have become of negligible importance; just flip the switch. Instant speed.

However, our methodology and thought patterns are still, for the most part, based on the old fragmentation and specialism, which may account for some of our society’s confusion, or perhaps a great deal of it.•


“By 1975 Mao Tse-Tung Himself Would Be Bowing In Homage Before The Teenage Theomorphic Guru”

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In 1973, Ken Kelley published a Ramparts profile of teenage guru Maharaji Ji, a.k.a. “The Perfect Master,” who had become popular at the time with Rennie Davis and some other gullible members of the American counterculture. It’s not the absolute best piece about the spiritual leader, but it’s good. The opening:

For an entire week, Berkeley buzzed in anticipation of the return of Rennie Davis. The incredible story of his conversion to the divine prodigy, Satguru Maharaj Ji, had been revealed in a 40-minute interview on the local FM rocker KSAN. Not only was he dedicating his entire life to Maharaj Ji, but by 1975 Mao Tse-tung himself would be bowing in homage before the teenage theomorphic guru. The reaction ranged from sympathy to Paul Krassner’s insistence that the entire enterprise was a CIA plot. In between were those who felt that Davis was bummed out by the abuse heaped on him as an active, white, male Movement heavy, disappointed by the disintegration of the anti-war movement and therefore open to the love-vibes and Telex technology which form the core of the Satguru’s appeal. Whatever the explanation, everyone was curious, and they itched to see the new Rennie Davis and hear him explain it all in the flesh.

He chose Pauley Ballroom on the U.C. campus to make his stand, a site which overlooks the famous Sproul Plaza. There, some eight years earlier, Mario Savio and his fellow students had marched to shut down the university, thereby unloosing a flood of campus protest which did not subside for five years. Rennie Davis had played a crucial role in that Movement. He had raised money, mapped strategy, given speeches, negotiated permits, written pamphlets-in short, he had done everything that the Movement had done and more. When others had grown tired and cynical, he had worked on and on, and it was only in recent months that he had begun to slacken his pace.

People had come to view Rennie Davis as better, more dedicated than the rest of us, and now, suddenly, he was telling us to surrender our hearts and minds to a barely pubescent self-proclaimed Perfect Master from India and waltz into Nirvana. It was as if Che Guevara had returned to recruit for the Campfire Girls: the anomaly was as profound as the amazement.

And so they packed the ballroom to hear Rennie Davis, and one sensed curiosity, a certain amount of hostility, and an undercurrent of fear. As he stood before the assemblage, the vultures descended. “Kiss my lotus ass.” “All power to the Maharajah, huh?” He took it in with smiles and good humor. “I’m really blissed out with a capital B,” he proclaimed in the vernacular of his new calling. “I’m just here to make a report, and if you don’t want to check out what I’m saying, that’s cool. Sooner or later you’ll find out that we are operating under a new leadership, and it is Divine, that it’s literally going to transform the planet into what we’ve always hoped and dreamed for.”•


“Ever Since Telephones Began To Make Money, There Have Been People Willing To Rob And Defraud Phone Companies”

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A year after Ron Rosenbaum’s seminal 1971 Phone Phreak story in Esquire, Ramparts until now. In 1972, that publication ran step-by-step instructions of how someone could receive phone calls for free, sans blue box. In 1973, it published a piece by Bruce Sterling about the history of hacking which explained the pre-Phreak politicized past of phone rip-offs, which was a signature of the Yippie movement. An excerpt:

Abbie Hoffman is said to have caused the Federal Bureau of Investigation to amass the single largest investigation file ever opened on an individual American citizen. (If this is true, it is still questionable whether the FBI regarded Abbie Hoffman a serious public threat -quite possibly, his file was enormous simply because Hoffman left colorful legendry wherever he went). He was a gifted publicist, who regarded electronic media as both playground and weapon. He actively enjoyed manipulating network TV and other gullible, imagehungry media, with various weird lies, mindboggling rumors, impersonation scams, and other sinister distortions, all absolutely guaranteed to upset cops, Presidential candidates, and federal judges. Hoffman’s most famous work was a book self-reflexively known as Steal This Book, which publicized a number of methods by which young, penniless hippie agitators might live off the fat of a system supported by humorless drones. Steal This Book, whose title urged readers to damage the very means of distribution which had put it into their hands, might be described as a spiritual ancestor of a computer virus.

Hoffman, like many a later conspirator, made extensive use of pay- phones for his agitation work — in his case, generally through the use of cheap brass washers as coin-slugs.

During the Vietnam War, there was a federal surtax imposed on telephone service; Hoffman and his cohorts could, and did, argue that in systematically stealing phone service they were engaging in civil disobedience: virtuously denying tax funds to an illegal and immoral war. But this thin veil of decency was soon dropped entirely. Ripping-off the System found its own justification in deep alienation and a basic outlaw contempt for conventional bourgeois values. Ingenious, vaguely politicized varieties of rip-off, which might be described as ‘anarchy by convenience,’ became very popular in Yippie circles, and because rip-off was so useful, it was to survive the Yippie movement itself. In the early 1970s, it required fairly limited expertise and ingenuity to cheat payphones, to divert “free” electricity and gas service, or to rob vending machines and parking meters for handy pocket change. It also required a conspiracy to spread this knowledge, and the gall and nerve actually to commit petty theft, but the Yippies had these qualifications in plenty. In June 1971, Abbie Hoffman and a telephone enthusiast sarcastically known as ‘Al Bell’ began publishing a newsletter called Youth International Party Line. This newsletter was dedicated to collating and spreading Yippie rip-off techniques, especially of phones, to the joy of the freewheeling underground and the insensate rage of all straight people.

As a political tactic, phone-service theft ensured that Yippie advocates would always have ready access to the long-distance telephone as a medium, despite the Yippies’ chronic lack of organization, discipline, money, or even a steady home address.

Party Line was run out of Greenwich Village for a couple of years, then “Al Bell” more or less defected from the faltering ranks of Yippiedom, changing the newsletter’s name to TAP or Technical Assistance Program. After the Vietnam War ended, the steam began leaking rapidly out of American radical dissent. But by this time, ‘Bell’ and his dozen or so core contributors had the bit between their teeth, and had begun to derive tremendous gut-level satisfaction from the sensation of pure technical power.

TAP articles, once highly politicized, became pitilessly jargonized and technical, in homage or parody to the Bell System’s own technical documents, which TAP studied closely, gutted, and reproduced without permission. The TAP elite revelled in gloating possession of the specialized knowledge necessary to beat the system.

“Al Bell” dropped out of the game by the late 70s, and “Tom Edison” took over; TAP readers (some 1400 of them, all told) now began to show more interest in telex switches and the growing phenomenon of computer systems. In 1983, “Tom Edison” had his computer stolen and his house set on fire by an arsonist. This was an eventually mortal blow to TAP (though the legendary name was to be resurrected in 1990 by a young Kentuckian computeroutlaw named “Predat0r.”)

Ever since telephones began to make money, there have been people willing to rob and defraud phone companies. The legions of petty phone thieves vastly outnumber those “phone phreaks” who “explore the system” for the sake of the intellectual challenge. The New York metropolitan area (long in the vanguard of American crime) claims over 150,000 physical attacks on pay telephones every year! Studied carefully, a modern payphone reveals itself as a little fortress, carefully designed and redesigned over generations, to resist coinslugs, zaps of electricity, chunks of coin-shaped ice, prybars, magnets, lockpicks, blasting caps. Public pay- phones must survive in a world of unfriendly, greedy people, and a modern payphone is as exquisitely evolved as a cactus.•

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For the rest of this century (at least), it’s more likely machines will come or our jobs than our lives. The threat of extinction of human beings by superintelligence isn’t in sight, thankfully, but while automation could lead to post-scarcity, if we’re not careful and wise, it might instead stoke societal chaos.

In his London Review of Books essay about machine learning, Paul Taylor writes about the potential of this field, while acknowledging it’s not certain how well it will all work out despite early promise. The short-term issue, he believes, may be between haves and have-nots as it applies to computing power. An excerpt:

The solving of problems that until recently seemed insuperable might give the impression that these machines are acquiring capacities usually thought distinctively human. But although what happens in a large recurrent neural network better resembles what takes place in a brain than conventional software does, the similarity is still limited. There is no close analogy between the way neural networks are trained and what we know about the way human learning takes place. It is too early to say whether scaling up networks like Inception will enable computers to identify not only a cat’s face but also the general concept ‘cat’, or even more abstract ideas such as ‘two’ or ‘authenticity’. And powerful though Google’s networks are, the features they derive from sequences of words are not built from the experience of human interaction in the way our use of language is: we don’t know whether or not they will eventually be able to use language as humans do.

In 2006 Ray Kurzweil wrote a book about what he called the Singularity, the idea that once computers are able to generate improvements to their own intelligence, the rate at which their intelligence improves will accelerate exponentially. Others have aired similar anxieties. The philosopher Nick Bostrom wrote a bestseller, Superintelligence (2014), examining the risks associated with uncontrolled artificial intelligence. Stephen Hawking has suggested that building machines more intelligent than we are could lead to the end of the human race. Elon Musk has said much the same. But such dystopian fantasies aren’t worth worrying about yet. If there is something to be worried about today, it is the social consequences of the economic transformation computers might bring about – that, and the growing dominance of the small number of corporations that have access to the mammoth quantities of computing power and data the technology requires.•

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Much has already been written abut the jaw-dropping discovery of “another Earth” near Proxima Centauri, something that seemed likely to happen sooner or later and has now occurred. My favorite words on the topic were penned by Olaf Stampf of Spiegel. He understands the magnitude of the finding while cautioning that even with the development of fusion propulsion, reaching our sister planet in a reasonable time frame is still a bridge too far. Perhaps it’s a better-than-ever time for the human-less probes to Alpha Centauri suggested by Ken Kalfus and being developed by Yuri Milner, with their destination shortened by just a bit. Presently, pretty much all space exploration should be handled by machines, anyhow.

The opening:

The faraway world exists in constant twilight. Although its nearby blood-red dwarf star only provides one tiny fraction of our sun’s light, its warmth might still be enough to create a life-sustaining climate.

But is there really life on this newly detected planet? Nobody knows — at least not yet. Only one thing is certain: Because of the darkness, animals and plants would look different from the ones we know from Earth. Trees and shrubs would have pitch-black leaves, as if they’d been burned. The alien flora would need to be darkly colored to use the dim starlight for its photosynthesis.

And what about higher forms of life, like animals or intelligent beings? It’s very possible that exotic organisms exist on the planet. Given that it is several million years older than the Earth, it would have had enough time for life to develop.

On the other hand, it would also have to repeatedly withstand hellish conditions. Its sun is a so-called flare star, a cosmic fire-breather that tends to produce apocalyptic eruptions of plasma. All of the planet’s oceans, rivers and lakes may well have long since evaporated.

The newly discovered planet doesn’t yet have a name, but the red dwarf star around which it circles is famous: Proxima Centauri, our nearest fixed star, only 4.24 lightyears away — our sun’s closest neighbor.

That’s what makes this finding so scientifically exciting.•

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Just a whisper bigger in land mass than Pennsylvania, North Korea is a Digital Age Orwellian state that knows only one Big Brother and his name is Kim Jong-un. He does not tolerate sibling rivalry.

In reviewing a raft of titles in the New York Review of Books about the nation ruled by Dear Respected Comrade, political scientist Andrew J. Nathan questions if President Obama’s “strategic patience” will pay off with ungodly wealth inequality and economic sanctions provoking a surrender of nukes or the fall of the tyrannical government. It’s far from assured, with China betting against, not seeing a chance for reforms similar to its own taking root in its neighbor. Nathan agrees with that latter assessment, writing that “North Korea is more like East Germany than it is like China.”

An excerpt:

As the end of his own life approached, Kim Jong-il in turn needed to find a successor among his three male offspring. (He also had four daughters, who today occupy posts of varying responsibility in the regime.) Observers had originally expected the succession to fall upon the eldest, Kim Jong-nam (born in 1971). Jong-nam, however, was the offspring of Jong-il’s first long-term consort (it is not clear whether Jong-il ever formally married any of his companions), whom the patriarch Kim Il-sung disliked. Moreover, in 2001, Jong-nam was caught by Japanese immigration officials entering the country on a forged Dominican passport, accompanied by a wife, child, and nanny. The forged passport was nothing unusual for North Korean elites, but apparently Jong-nam’s reason for using it—to bring his family to visit Tokyo Disneyland—confirmed in his father’s eyes that he lacked the necessary toughness to wield power. Jong-nam was sent into exile, and reportedly spends much of his time in the Chinese gambling city of Macau. He has given several press interviews expressing his disapproval of “hereditary succession.” Chinese guards, I have been told, protect him from potential North Korean assassins. It is not clear who supports him.

Kim Jong-il’s second son, Kim Jong-chul, was also found inadequate, according to a gossipy book by the family’s Japanese former sushi chef, because he was too “effeminate.” That left Jong-un, born in 1984, although his official birthday has been adjusted to 1982 to continue the mystical parallelism with his grandfather’s and father’s birth years. Jong-un was not academically talented, and during his secondary education at a private school in Switzerland he is said to have been obsessed with basketball and other sports. But he was short-tempered and domineering, characteristics suitable for inheriting a dictatorship. In 2009, word appeared that a “new genius of leadership had emerged from within the ancient lands of Korea.” Jong-un’s appearance was groomed to resemble his grandfather’s—including his bouffant haircut. Observers speculate that he was encouraged to gain weight for this purpose; according to intelligence reports he may now be suffering from health problems related to obesity.

The most serious threat to Jong-un’s authority was his uncle. The husband of Kim Jong-il’s only sister, Jang Song-taek had accumulated broad influence, serving among other things as vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission, the controller of Pyongyang’s foreign exchange resources, and the regime’s chief contact with China.5Many viewed him as a regent, and he held a potential threat over Jong-un’s head in the form of a close relationship with the exiled older half-brother Jong-nam, who could potentially have replaced the younger sibling at the head of the party and state.

On December 8, 2013, two years after Jong-un came to power, the young ruler arranged for Jang to be seized by uniformed guards in front of hundreds of high-ranking officials who had been summoned to an enlarged meeting of the ruling party’s Political Bureau. Jang was accused of “anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional acts,” of conducting numerous extramarital affairs, and of other crimes. He was denounced as “an ugly human scum worse than a dog” and executed by firing squad (not, as was rumored at the time, by antiaircraft guns or ravenous dogs). Many of his followers were killed or sent to labor camps, some reports say along with their spouses, children, and grandchildren. Jang’s wife may or may not have approved of her adulterous husband’s execution; she is said to be suffering from dementia and has appeared silently in public a handful of times since the purge.•

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dentondaulerio

I’ve said my piece on more than one occasion on the demise of Gawker (most recently here), but Farhad Manjoo has an interesting take in his latest New York Times “State of the Art” column, arguing that the spirit and style of Nick Denton’s former flagship has so infused the media landscape that Peter Thiel’s petty revenge failed even if it seemed to succeed. In a sense, he won a battle after the war had already been decided.

That’s probably true to a good extent, but I wonder if the most key ingredient, the thing that made Gawker sometimes so good and at other moments so bad, survives the site. That was its very raffishness, the dicey and daring spirit that always made it a place people could go to afflict the comfortable. Admittedly, such important scoops rarely materialized on the site, with reflexive dart throwing more the reality, but the possibility existed. Manjoo lists a raft of legacy publications influenced by Gawker, but none of them have adopted this aspect of the ethos. That will usually be for the best but occasionally not.

From Manjoo:

Even if you avoided Gawker, you can’t escape its influence. Elements of its tone, style, sensibility, essential business model and its work flow have colonized just about every other media company, from upstarts like BuzzFeed and Vox to incumbents such as CNN, The New Yorker and The New York Times.

The most important innovation Gawker brought to news was its sense that the internet allowed it to do anything. It was one of the first web publications to understand that the message was the medium — that the internet wasn’t just a new way to distribute words, but that it also offered the potential for creating a completely new kind of publication, one that had no analogue in the legacy era of print.

This sounds like a basic realization, but it wasn’t obvious to most online publishers. I know this firsthand. In the 2000s, I worked at three different magazines that were based entirely online — Wired News (the online arm of Wired Magazine), Salon and Slate. Looking back now, I can tell that even though we were doing good work, we weren’t doing much that was really different from what came before. A typical Salon or Slate article was 600 to 1,500 words long. Generally, a writer wrote a few times a week. We took the weekends off. Though we wrote online, in most ways we were really putting out a relatively fast paced magazine, just without ink and paper.

Gawker did not invent blogging, but Nick Denton, its founder, was among the first to recognize that blogs were a transformational technical innovation. They offered a template for blowing up everything about how news was created and delivered.•

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lew

The two best-selling works of fiction in 19th-century America (not counting the Bible) were likely Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The latter was written by Lew Wallace, a lawyer, diplomat and Union General who became best known as a man of letters. The current film adaptation, a revenge flick, plotzed something fierce at the box office. Perhaps there’s no place for the religious charioteer in a secular age dreaming of driverless cars.

While Wallace was largely a failure as a battlefield commander, he was forceful leader in the area of race relations, arguing against the color line in college football. There weren’t many Americans like him during his age, and they seem in shorter supply now. Wallace’s obituary from the February 16, 1905 edition of the New York Times asserts that he composed his first drafts on a slate and was good for roughly one line a day, which seems impossible if you total his literary output. The opening:

Crawfordsville, Ind.–Gen. Lew Wallace, author, formerly American Minister to Turkey, and veteran of the Mexican and Civil Wars, died at his home in this city to-night, aged seventy-eight years.

The health of Gen. Wallace has been failing for several years, and for months it has been known that his vigorous constitution could not much longer withstand the ravages of a wasting disease.

For more than a year he has been unable to properly assimilate food, and this, together with his advanced age, made more difficult his fight against death. At no time ever has he confessed his belief that the end was near, and his rugged constitution and remarkable vitality have done much to prolong his life.

Gen. Lew Wallace, who years ago achieved widespread distinction as a lawyer, legislator, soldier, author, and diplomat, was a man of exceptionally refined manner, broad culture, and imposing personal appearance. He was a son of David Wallace, who was elected Governor of Indiana by the Whigs in 1837. His birthplace was Brooksville, Franklin County, Ind., where he was born April 10, 1827. 

Although Gen. Wallace was famous as a soldier long before he entered the field of letters, it was through his authorship of Ben-Hur and several other popular works that he became known to the largest number of people. Ben-Hur was dramatized eighteen years after the publication of the book, the sale of which in Canada, England, and Continental Europe, as well as in the United States, was tremendous.

As a boy Lew Wallace was a keen lover of books, and his father’s possession of a large library afforded him an opportunity to become acquainted with much of the best literature of the time. From his mother he inherited a love of painting and drawing, but these instincts were overpowered by his desire for a more active life. His mother died when he was only ten years old, and from that time on he refused to submit patiently to restraint. An effort was made to send him to the town school. It was only partially successful. Later his father put him in college at Crawfordsville, but his stay there was brief.

At an early age he commenced the study of law, receiving valuable instruction from his father, and at the end of four years was admitted to the bar. He used to say that the law was the most detestable of all human occupations. It was said that he was unable to prepare a case, but when it came to trial he accepted the statements of his partner as to the law and the evidence and then, following his own convictions to the merits of the case, made an appeal which rarely failed to be effective.•

giant8767

To live longer, be tall but not that tall. Giants don’t last too long, their hearts worn out by working to support a great burden, but you wouldn’t want to live in a shrinking state like North Korea–a “nation of racist dwarfs” as the late Christopher Hitchens put it with his trademark indelicacy. A country of reasonably tall people–like Holland, for example–is a sign of good health and long lifespans. 

Americans used to be relative giants in the world, but now we stand diminished, ranking 40th among nations in height. Why? Perhaps because the U.S. lacks the social safety nets and child welfare of the Dutch. From Dan Kopf’s Priceonomics piece “Where Are the Tallest People in the World?“:

The United States was once among the tallest countries in the world. 

According to the data, Americans born in 1896 were the 3rd tallest in the world, and as recently as 1951, Americans were 10th. But the second half of the 20th Century was a period of sharp relative decline for American height. Today, the United States ranks 40th, and the height of the average American (5’ 7”) is no greater today than it was for those born in 1950.

The most likely culprit for this decline is that child health in the United States has worsened compared to other developed countries. One study found that Americans grow less during infancy and late adolescence than their North European counterparts, which points to a comparative weakness in pre- and post-natal care and the diets of American children. The economist and height researcher Richard Steckel suspects that the “crowding out” of fruits and vegetables by American snack foods is an important contributor to this height stagnation.

Immigration is often cited as a reason for the United States fall in the rankings, but empirical research that accounts for the effects of immigration also show Americans’ height stagnating.•

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