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

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

· · ·

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

Question:

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

M. John Harrison:

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

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

· · ·

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m a walking reality show.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

· · ·

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

· · ·

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An excerpt about “enlightened” thought:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‎Ray Kurzweil:

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

Neil deGrasse Tyson:

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

Ray Kurzweil:

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

‎Neil deGrasse Tyson:

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

Ray Kurzweil:

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

Neil deGrasse Tyson:

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

Ray Kurzweil:

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

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

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

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

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

From O’Neil:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is Knievel jumping the Canyon?

“To get to the other side,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

· · · 

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

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

Facebook, maybe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somebody call my name?

 

• In his wonderfully Hitchensesque hit job on black-market kidney dealer Carter Page, Rick Wilson also tees off on dissolute Hitlerite Steve Bannon: “A man better suited to promoting bumfights than grand strategy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Citizens with their suspect UFO “sightings” have given the search for extraterrestrial intelligence a bad name in America as assuredly as Timothy Leary made the potential medical benefits of LSD long unspeakable. But considering how much is out there—including stars like our sun and planets like our own—the odds are that we’re not alone.

· · ·

China is set up to hear first if extraterrestrials make contact with humans any time in the foreseeable future, since that nation has invested most heavily in the technology necessary to enable such a meeting of the minds. Does it matter if a totalitarian regime is at the head of the line to greet the otherworldly? (That’s supposing, of course, that China remains autocratic.) Probably not, considering the Earth-shaking enormity of the event, one that would likely render any political designations meaningless. Of course, some probably felt the same about the original Space Race, and that didn’t turn out to be true, with numerous practical advantages subsequently enjoyed by America. But the realization of a close encounter with alien life would dwarf even boots on the moon.

· · ·

Its realization of a village-clearing SETI telescope makes clear, however, that China is committed to science as America has taken a sharp turn from it, at least at our highest levels of government. If the autocratic state surpasses the U.S. and the rest of the planet in not only alien detection but also in solar panels, supercomputers, physics, etc., China would possess a soft power to go along with superior hardware, which would have a profound effect on world order. China’s dominance isn’t fait accompli, of course, as its poisonous dictatorial politics is a serious impediment to scientific growth. The valuable messiness of democracy may ultimately be a natural outgrowth of its continued development.

· · ·

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

week later, I rode a bullet train out of Shanghai, leaving behind its purple Blade Runner glow, its hip cafés and craft-beer bars. Rocketing along an elevated track, I watched high-rises blur by, each a tiny honeycomb piece of the rail-linked urban megastructure that has recently erupted out of China’s landscape. China poured more concrete from 2011 to 2013 than America did during the entire 20th century. The country has already built rail lines in Africa, and it hopes to fire bullet trains into Europe and North America, the latter by way of a tunnel under the Bering Sea.

The skyscrapers and cranes dwindled as the train moved farther inland. Out in the emerald rice fields, among the low-hanging mists, it was easy to imagine ancient China—the China whose written language was adopted across much of Asia; the China that introduced metal coins, paper money, and gunpowder into human life; the China that built the river-taming system that still irrigates the country’s terraced hills. Those hills grew steeper as we went west, stair-stepping higher and higher, until I had to lean up against the window to see their peaks. Every so often, a Hans Zimmer bass note would sound, and the glass pane would fill up with the smooth, spaceship-white side of another train, whooshing by in the opposite direction at almost 200 miles an hour.

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is often derided as a kind of religious mysticism, even within the scientific community. Nearly a quarter century ago, the United States Congress defunded America’s seti program with a budget amendment proposed by Senator Richard Bryan of Nevada, who said he hoped it would “be the end of Martian-hunting season at the taxpayer’s expense.” That’s one reason it is China, and not the United States, that has built the first world-class radio observatory with SETI as a core scientific goal.

It was mid-afternoon when we glided into a sparkling, cavernous terminal in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou, one of China’s poorest, most remote provinces. A government-imposed social transformation appeared to be under way. Signs implored people not to spit indoors. Loudspeakers nagged passengers to “keep an atmosphere of good manners.” When an older man cut in the cab line, a security guard dressed him down in front of a crowd of hundreds.The next morning, I went down to my hotel lobby to meet the driver I’d hired to take me to the observatory. Two hours into what was supposed to be a four-hour drive, he pulled over in the rain and waded 30 yards into a field where an older woman was harvesting rice, to ask for directions to a radio observatory more than 100 miles away. After much frustrated gesturing by both parties, she pointed the way with her scythe.

We set off again, making our way through a string of small villages, beep-beeping motorbike riders and pedestrians out of our way. Some of the buildings along the road were centuries old, with upturned eaves; others were freshly built, their residents having been relocated by the state to clear ground for the new observatory. A group of the displaced villagers had complained about their new housing, attracting bad press—a rarity for a government project in China. Western reporters took notice. “China Telescope to Displace 9,000 Villagers in Hunt for Extraterrestrials,” read a headline in The New York Times.

SETI does share some traits with religion.•

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Timothy Leary had numerous odd experiences behind prison walls. There was the time he dropped acid with Massachusetts inmates, the one in which he shared a Folsom cell block with Charles Manson and let us never forget that he was lectured in the pen by friend Marshall McLuhan. Such was the life of an LSD salesman.

One of the few trips Leary never got to take, except posthumously, was a trek to outer space. In 1976, during his “comeback tour” after stays in 29 jails and a retirement of sorts, Leary dreamed of leaving it all behind—way behind. The opening of John Riley’s People article “Timothy Leary Is Free, Demonstrably in Love and Making Extraterrestrial Plans“:

High in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, in a wood-heated A-frame beside a rushing stream, the retired guru speaks:

“After six years of silence, we have three new ideas which we think are fairly good. One is space migration. Another is intelligence increase. The third is life extension. We use the acronym SMI2LE to bring them together.”

The sage is Timothy Leary, high priest of the 1960s LSD movement, who is just four weeks out of the 29th jail he has inhabited since his first arrest in Laredo, Texas, 11 years ago. That charge was possession of less than half an ounce of marijuana that his then-wife, Rosemarie, had handed to his daughter. In recent months, when Leary was appearing before federal grand juries investigating the Weather Underground, he was moved from prison to prison for his own safety. Now paroled at age 56, he will soon start a term of probation whose length will be set by a federal judge.

Leary fled a federal work camp in California in 1970, an escape planned by Rosemarie and the Weather Underground. The Learys went first to Africa, then to Switzerland, where their marriage collapsed. Leary met and was captivated by a then 26-year-old jet-setter, Joanna Harcourt-Smith, whom he married in 1972. Three weeks later they traveled to Afghanistan, where U.S. authorities captured them both and flew them back to Los Angeles.

“Joanna visited me regularly,” Leary says. “She published several of my books and lobbied and schemed to get me free.” He looks at her adoringly, and she turns from the breakfast dishes in the sink to kiss him. Joanna tells how she collared Betty Ford on a street in San Diego and pleaded with her for Tim’s freedom. “I’m doing for my husband what you’re doing for yours. You’re helping yours get elected President, and I’m helping mine get out of prison.”

“One of the plans that she was continually hatching to break me out,” says Leary, “was for her to descend onto the Vacaville prison grounds in a silver helicopter blaring Pink Floyd music, wearing nothing but a machine gun. We called it Plan No. 346.”

“You know,” he continues, after Joanna has left to drive to a village 10 miles away for groceries and cigarettes, “in 1970 the U.S. government directly and bluntly shut me up. It was the greatest thing that could have happened, because I had run out of ideas.” His face, its prison pallor turned to brown by the mountain sun, breaks into a grin. A woodpecker hammers at the chimney of their Franklin stove. “Does that every morning,” says Leary. “We’ve named him the tinpecker.

“Well, SMI2LE, as I said, is a good idea. The acronym is woven into Joanna’s belts and purses. The space migration part is what I’m working on right now. Los Alamos [the atomic laboratory] is not far away and I have lots of questions about laser fusion. And this valley is an ideal temporary planetary base of operations for getting away from earth.”

Leary not only wants to live on a space station between the earth and the moon, he wants to take some of the planet with him. “How far can we see from here?” he asks. “Half a mile? According to a professor at Princeton, such an area could be compressed to a degree that I figure could be fit within a NASA spacecraft.”•

“A pictorial comparison of the sculpted horsemen on Stone Mountain and the Flatiron Building.”

 

Stone Mountain may as well have been Ground Zero for the Lost Cause, the systematic plan of the vanquished of the Civil War, led by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, to win the postbellum information war via a variety of revisionist media—statuary, textbooks, etc. In a break from the universal truism, the losers were allowed to write history, which is how Robert E. Lee was reinvented as an “honorable man” and violent treason perplexingly came to be known as a “noble effort.” This propaganda’s reverberations continue to this day, with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly recently giving voice to this dangerous distortion. 

The mammoth Confederate monument carved into Georgia rock was originally begun by sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who was approached in 1915 by the OD of the C to fashion an unprecedented, larger-than-life tribute to the half-slave side of the American heritage. Make no mistake about what drove the endeavor: The initial model included a Ku Klux Klan altar, no surprise since the terrorist group was among the main financial backers of the vast artwork. Borglum was no doubt hired in part because of his great skill, but his deep nativist streak and KKK sympathies were also likely another reason for the offer and his acceptance of it. 

World War One delayed the project and it wasn’t until 1923 that Borglum broke stone. The notoriously difficult artist did not have a good relationship with his bosses, however, and eventually left the project, with his early carvings (Lee’s head, mostly) removed from the mountain. The process was subsequently begun anew by Henry Augustus Lukeman. All was not lost, however: The sculptor had learned much from the aborted Stone Mountain assignment and utilized these new methods and tools in his most famous work, Mount Rushmore, which he carved from 1927 until his death in 1941.

A story on the monument in the February 3, 1924 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which is shockingly generous to the traitorous South:

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It’s certainly possible with current technology to automate many McJobs, including ones at McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants, but robotization is slowed when cheap human labor makes the price point for transition too dear. That’s the argument used by those trying to suppress worker wages, keeping them so low that FT employees often need to be subsidized by federal-assistance programs. There has to be a better way than a choice between sub-subsistence wages and technological unemployment, and it’s likely a political solution.

People who serve up sentences are becoming as prone to this phenomenon as those who sling hash, with prose on paper and screen alike unsupported by the new advertising reality. The print ad was always an inexact science, but it was a bubble that took a century to burst. We’ve yet to find a formula that will support 21st-century written media for even a day.

Complicating matters even further is the sleepless army of amateur scribes churning out endless copy for Facebook and other social-media giants. I’ve said it before, but Mark Zuckerberg’s media-swallowing behemoth would be by far the biggest sweatshop in the history of the world, except that even those grimy outfits pay at least a pittance. Perhaps much of newswriting could theoretically soon be automated, but who needs the machines when we have the “wisdom” of the crowds? The fans have rushed the stage and taken over the show.

Eventually, I assume we’ll have largely a hybrid of human drones sending out paragraphs of varying length and quality, with computers supplementing the output. Some privileged people will remain tapping on keyboards to do high-level work for a salary, but their numbers will be puny. Let’s face it: The privileged have always been few, but their ranks will be significantly thinned.

From Zam EIC Laura Michet’s Twitter feed:

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It’s not nearly the most enormous or important outrage, but the way these Pepe the Frog pigs and Russian trolls have used nihilism to advance their racist and autocratic agenda is maddening. Nihilism isn’t good as an operating system, but it can be a bug that disrupts the machine, making us realize that we’re actually not entirely inside of it, that other options are possible. It’s a philosophical doctrine that’s very effective in combating a society that’s become as numb and monotonous as the face of a clock, especially one that’s been given over almost entirely to consumerism. From Jules Feiffer’s 1967 play, Little Murders:

ALFRED
(photographer):

So I began to do a lot of catalogue work. Pictures of medical instruments, things like that. There was—well, the best way to describe it—a seductiveness I was able to draw out of inanimate things that other photographers didn’t seem to be able to get. I suppose the real break came with the I.B.M. show. They had me shoot thirty of their new models. They hired a gallery and had a computer show. One hundred and twenty color pictures of computers. It got some very strange notices, the upshot of which was that the advertising business went “thing” crazy, and I became commercial again.

MARJORIE
(prospective mother-in-law):

You must be extremely talented.

ALFRED:

I got sick of it! Where the hell are the standards? That’s what I kept asking myself. Those people will take anything! Hell, if I gave them a picture of shit they’d give me an award for it!

MARJORIE:

Language, young man!

ALFRED:

Mm? So that’s what I do now.

CAROL
(prospective father-in-law):

What?

ALFRED:

Take pictures of shit.

MARJORIE:

Language! Language! This is my table!

ALFRED:

I don’t mean to offend you, Mrs. Newquist. I’ve been shooting shit for a year now, and I’ve already won a half-dozen awards.

MARJORIE:

Awards?

ALFRED:

And Harper’s Bazaar wants me to do its spring issue.

MARJORIE:

That’s a very respectable publication. It all sounds very impressive.•

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Hopefully Stephen Galloway of the Hollywood Reporter will now be able to sleep easily knowing Harvey Weinstein and his ilk are able to afford David Boies, former Mossad officers and numerous international security agencies when trying to undermine, cajole and intimidate victims and journalists determined to go public about sexual harassment and abuse. Ronan Farrow’s latest New Yorker bombshell, “Harvey Weinstein’s Army of Spies,” investigates the stealthy and labyrinthine operation Weinstein bankrolled while trying to keep his house of cards from toppling off the table. It’s as mind-blowing as the actual accusations, this story of a cabal of spies and A-list legal minds retained to do the dirty work. An excerpt:

In the fall of 2016, Harvey Weinstein set out to suppress allegations that he had sexually harassed or assaulted numerous women. He began to hire private security agencies to collect information on the women and the journalists trying to expose the allegations. According to dozens of pages of documents, and seven people directly involved in the effort, the firms that Weinstein hired included Kroll, one of the world’s largest corporate intelligence companies, and Black Cube, an enterprise run largely by former officers of Mossad and other Israeli intelligence agencies. Black Cube, which has branches in Tel Aviv, London, and Paris, offers its clients the skills of operatives “highly experienced and trained in Israel’s elite military and governmental intelligence units,” according to its literature.

Two private investigators from Black Cube, using false identities, met with the actress Rose McGowan, who eventually publicly accused Weinstein of rape, to extract information from her. One of the investigators pretended to be a women’s-rights advocate and secretly recorded at least four meetings with McGowan. The same operative, using a different false identity and implying that she had an allegation against Weinstein, met twice with a journalist to find out which women were talking to the press. In other cases, journalists directed by Weinstein or the private investigators interviewed women and reported back the details.

The explicit goal of the investigations, laid out in one contract with Black Cube, signed in July, was to stop the publication of the abuse allegations against Weinstein that eventually emerged in the New York Times and The New Yorker. Over the course of a year, Weinstein had the agencies “target,” or collect information on, dozens of individuals, and compile psychological profiles that sometimes focussed on their personal or sexual histories. Weinstein monitored the progress of the investigations personally. He also enlisted former employees from his film enterprises to join in the effort, collecting names and placing calls that, according to some sources who received them, felt intimidating.

In some cases, the investigative effort was run through Weinstein’s lawyers, including David Boies, a celebrated attorney who represented Al Gore in the 2000 Presidential-election dispute and argued for marriage equality before the U.S. Supreme Court. Boies personally signed the contract directing Black Cube to attempt to uncover information that would stop the publication of a Times story about Weinstein’s abuses, while his firm was also representing the Times, including in a libel case.

Boies confirmed that his firm contracted with and paid two of the agencies and that investigators from one of them sent him reports, which were then passed on to Weinstein. He said that he did not select the firms or direct the investigators’ work. He also denied that the work regarding the Times story represented a conflict of interest. Boies said that his firm’s involvement with the investigators was a mistake. “We should not have been contracting with and paying investigators that we did not select and direct,” he told me. “At the time, it seemed a reasonable accommodation for a client, but it was not thought through, and that was my mistake. It was a mistake at the time.”•

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Ten years ago, in the speculative New York Review of Books essay “Our Biotech Future,” Freeman Dyson imagined a time when lifeforms, not just startups, might be hatched in garages, when reptile breeders could fashion designer lizards and children could create their own playthings. He believed the genetic future was fast, cheap and perhaps out of control. “These games will be messy and possibly dangerous,” he acknowledged. An excerpt:

I see a bright future for the biotechnology industry when it follows the path of the computer industry, the path that von Neumann failed to foresee, becoming small and domesticated rather than big and centralized. The first step in this direction was already taken recently, when genetically modified tropical fish with new and brilliant colors appeared in pet stores. For biotechnology to become domesticated, the next step is to become user-friendly. I recently spent a happy day at the Philadelphia Flower Show, the biggest indoor flower show in the world, where flower breeders from all over the world show off the results of their efforts. I have also visited the Reptile Show in San Diego, an equally impressive show displaying the work of another set of breeders. Philadelphia excels in orchids and roses, San Diego excels in lizards and snakes. The main problem for a grandparent visiting the reptile show with a grandchild is to get the grandchild out of the building without actually buying a snake.

Every orchid or rose or lizard or snake is the work of a dedicated and skilled breeder. There are thousands of people, amateurs and professionals, who devote their lives to this business. Now imagine what will happen when the tools of genetic engineering become accessible to these people. There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes to breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits too.

Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer. New lineages will proliferate to replace those that monoculture farming and deforestation have destroyed. Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture.

Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but a great many will bring joy to their creators and variety to our fauna and flora. The final step in the domestication of biotechnology will be biotech games, designed like computer games for children down to kindergarten age but played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Playing such games, kids will acquire an intimate feeling for the organisms that they are growing. The winner could be the kid whose seed grows the prickliest cactus, or the kid whose egg hatches the cutest dinosaur. These games will be messy and possibly dangerous. Rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others. The dangers of biotechnology are real and serious.

If domestication of biotechnology is the wave of the future, five important questions need to be answered. First, can it be stopped? Second, ought it to be stopped? Third, if stopping it is either impossible or undesirable, what are the appropriate limits that our society must impose on it? Fourth, how should the limits be decided? Fifth, how should the limits be enforced, nationally and internationally? I do not attempt to answer these questions here. I leave it to our children and grandchildren to supply the answers.•

That biotech future is arriving in a hurry now, even if it’s only in the larval stage, not yet thoroughly decentralized, a development, should it be realized, that will present tremendous promise and peril, perhaps saving the species or assailing it with existential threats. Most likely is both those outcomes materialize in simultaneity. These first baby steps unsurprisingly involve CRISPR. In Annie Sneed’s Scientific American piece “Mail-Order CRISPR Kits Allow Absolutely Anyone to Hack DNA,” the author finds that the risks and rewards of DIY biology are currently small—but we’re only at the beginning.

The opening:

“We aren’t going to get sick, are we?” my roommate Brett asked me. He cringed as I knelt down and stuffed a plate of E. coli bacteria—which came as part of the DIY CRISPR–Cas9 kit I bought online—into our fridge next to cartons of eggs, strawberry jam, bottles of beer and a block of cheese.

“No, we won’t. The label says ‘non-pathogenic,’” I replied, trying to sound assuring. But honestly, I had no clue what I was doing. I nudged all the food up against the fridge wall, and left a two-inch border around the plate of living cells—a no man’s land between the microbes and our dinner. A couple inches probably would not stop the bugs, but I figured it couldn’t hurt.

CRISPR–Cas9 (or CRISPR, for short) has given scientists a powerful way to make precise changes to DNA—in microbes, plants, mice, dogs and even in human cells. The technique may help researchers engineer drought-resistance crops, develop better drugs, cure genetic disorders, eradicate infectious diseases and much more. Ask any biologist, and they’ll likely tell you that CRISPR is revolutionary. It’s cheap and effective, and in many cases, it works much better than older methods for making genetic modifications. Biologists will also tell you that CRISPR is very easy to use. But what does “easy to use” mean?

I am not a DIY scientist, much less a professional scientist. You won’t find me swabbing my cheek cells for DNA or tinkering with yeast in a lab on the weekend. But I wondered: Is CRISPR so easy that even amateurs like me can make meaningful contributions to science? And also, does this new technique make gene editing so accessible that we need to worry about DIY scientists cooking up pandemic viruses in their basements? If you Google ‘DIY CRISPR,’ stories such as “What Happens If Someone Uses this DIY Gene Hacking Kit to Make Mutant Bacteria?” pop up.

I attempted to find answers to all these questions myself, starting with the plate of bacteria in the kitchen of my San Francisco apartment.•

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In 2016, Stephen Galloway of the Hollywood Reporter wrote the most shockingly amoral take of the Nate Parker rape controversy. It’s understood that an industry trade journal addresses above all else the business of movies, but Galloway’s article on the Parker ugliness from the aspect of how the director and Fox Searchlight could best do damage control and own the narrative was bizarre and offensive. For a journalist to write from inside an imaginary public relations war room about the optimum tactics that could be employed to ensure a movie “can survive a rape-trial scandal” is just jaw-dropping, especially since the woman who charged Parker and his Birth of a Nation co-writer Jean Celestin didn’t survive, having committed suicide in 2012. It was the strangest set of priorities.

The title of Galloway’s latest article, about the Harvey Effect, “Harassment, Scandal and the Media: Is a Hollywood Witch Hunt Brewing?” is not promising, and the piece largely lives down to it, using the child-abuse hysteria of the bizarre McMartin Preschool Case of the 1980s to worry about the accusations currently directed at show business and media figures. 

I’d love to know how many pieces Galloway has written over the years about his fears that women and children and men were being sexually exploited in Hollywood. My bold guess is the number zero. So far, not one figure accused of misconduct or more—Weinstein, Toback, Spacey, etc.—has been wrongfully blamed. In fact, such behavior is highly recidivist, making it fairly easy to confirm now that the floodgates have opened. And it’s the tip of the tip of the iceberg when it comes to entertainment world abuses.

If Galloway had spent a little more time in his career addressing the very real wrongs he’d heard about—and he certainly did hear of them—instead of turning a deaf ear, perhaps we wouldn’t have reached this desperate moment.

The opening:

In the early 1980s, Los Angeles was engulfed in scandal. After the mother of a young child claimed her son had been sodomized by a staff member at his school, other parents came forward with increasingly lurid allegations. Not only had one kid been violated, it was said, but so had dozens of others. And it wasn’t just an isolated staffer who was responsible; rather, half a dozen teachers and administrators had perpetrated the most heinous sex acts, some involving small animals, others satanic rituals. There were tales of secret underground tunnels and witches on broomsticks. The revelations seemed endless and apocalyptic. And they were repeated ad nauseam by a too-willing press.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of reporters were assigned to cover the story, one tumbling over the other in the race to break news. Here in Southern California, in suburban Manhattan Beach — in the very place where children should have felt safest — they were in grave danger, we were told. And if these kids were in danger, how many others must be, too? We started looking around with a newfound fear. Friends became strangers, strangers became enemies, enemies became potential perverts lurking in our midst, ready to do inconceivable harm. Terror swept through middle-class families just as ferociously and devastatingly as the fires that have recently decimated Santa Rosa.

And yet none of it was true.

After years of investigations and multiple trials, not a single person connected to the McMartin preschool scandal (as the case was known) was ever found guilty, though many of the accused had their lives left in ruins. One alleged culprit, Ray Buckey, endured two separate trials, and both ended in hung juries, after he’d spent five years waiting in jail. David Shaw won a Pulitzer Prize writing about how rumor turned to revulsion for The Los Angeles Times; but even today, many of us question whether “not guilty” was the same as “innocent.”

The media didn’t cover itself in glory back then. Where were the reporters who stuck to that tried-and-true principle, that one is innocent until proven guilty? Where were the voices crying out that these fables of witches and warlocks, dungeons and devilish rites, didn’t pass the sniff test? They remained silent, almost without exception. In my three decades as a journalist, I’ve never experienced anything like it.

Until now.

Since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke three weeks ago, thanks to some stellar reporting by The New York Times and The New Yorker — bolstered by a cascade of reports from other publications, including this one — not a day has gone by without another mind-boggling story. From James Toback to Kevin Spacey, from Brett Ratner to Dustin Hoffman, from political commentator Mark Halperin to NPR news chief Michael Oreskes — there have been countless tales of horrendous behavior, the sort one had hoped to see vanish decades ago. In their zeal to ferret out the guilty, journalists are reacting to past errors, and to a time when our unwillingness to investigate allegations gave rise to the culture of secrecy in which Weinstein’s band of brothers could thrive.

And these stories are just the tip of the iceberg. Even now, my colleagues here and elsewhere are on the hunt, chasing hundreds of tips about harassment in many and varied forms — male upon male, male upon female, verbal, sexual, you name it. And I’m delighted. It’s wonderful to see reporters tackling a subject of real significance and society-changing potential. They’re doing what journalists are meant to do: comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

That said, may I confess that I’m scared?

I’m terrified that, in our righteous quest to do good, we’re sweeping up the innocent as well as the guilty. We’re accepting allegations in the place of solid proof. We’re conflating those guilty of more minor crimes with perpetrators of egregious and even criminal behavior. •

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

  1. what facebook did to american democracy
  2. donald trump and norman vincent peale
  3. ronald reagan is not the president—he’s the host of the country
  4. the world is having a nervous breakdown
  5. jennifer doudna and evolution
  6. mimi kramer essay
  7. questions thomas edison asked job applicants
  8. 2001 a space odyssey featurette
  9. frank melbourne old time rainmaker
  10. margalit fox obituary of otto and george

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