I don’t imagine Claude Shannon was ever bored, not with the intellect of Einstein and the playful personality of a circus clown. He was the unicycling, juggling Bell Labs genius who co-created the first wearable and has rightly earned the title of the “Father of the Information Age.” (So, yes, we have some specific to blame.) The unicycle was a birthday gift from the scientist’s wife, Betty, who would struggle to come up with ideas for presents for her spouse, because what do you get for the man who has everything-–in his head?

Was mostly joking above about Shannon being to blame for modern problems related to information, but you have to wonder what he would have made of our ubiquitous surveillance, Russian bots, Fake News and some of the other ghosts he helped unloose.

Shannon was a notable figure in The Idea Factory but now Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman have dedicated an entire volume to him, publishing A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age. The authors just conducted a Reddit AMA. One exchange:

Question:

What can I take away from how Shannon thinks, works, and lives and apply today to think, work, or live better?

Jimmy Soni: 

That’s actually one of the most interesting things about his life and work: There’s a lot for us to take away from it. Sometimes when you’re think of figures like Einstein or Turing, they seem like they’re on Mount Olympus–and that all of us mere mortals can study them from afar but not embrace the way they did their wok because it was so unique.

Shannon’s work had similar scientific force and impact, but he was also down-to-earth. A few of the lessons that stood out to us:

1) Learn to be by yourself and in quiet places — Shannon was an introvert, but we think contributed to his scientific imagination. He was comfortable being alone and thinking hard for long stretches of time. He also did this in places that lent themselves to that kind of thought: spartan bachelor apartments, an office whose door was usually closed. We can’t imagine him trying to bang out information theory at Starbucks.

2) Study many disciplines — Yes, Shannon was a train mathematician and engineer. But he was an equally skilled machinist and gadgeteer, one of the early pioneers of artificial intelligence, a unicyclist, a juggler, and a lot of other things. He had an omnivorous curiosity and it served him well. He was able to use all these disparate things to create the work that he did.

3) Don’t worry about external recognition so much — Shannon could barely be bothered about awards and honors. He found them amusing diversions from the work. Sometimes his wife or a mentor had to force him to actually go to the trouble of accepting awards. And even when he did, he did it with levity. (For instance, he hung all the honorary degrees he won from a rotating tie rack!). Why does this matter? Because he was running his own race. He wasn’t trying to go after a specific award or honor, so he was free to do what he did his entire life: let his curiosity wander to the places it wanted to go.

That’s just some of the lessons. We wrote more of them up here, and happy to go into any of these in further depth.

Let me add one more that I think about a lot: work with your hands. This was something Shannon did for basically his entire life. He would take things apart, put them back together, and see if he could improve on how they worked. Even at the very end stages of his life, when he was in a nursing home battling Alzheimer’s, he would take apart his walker and try to imagine a better design for it.

Why does that matter? Because I think it gave him a quality that one engineer described as “not only the ability to think about things but through things.” It was a powerful part of his work–and I think it’s something we might take for granted in our own.

My guess is that the problem-solving and tactile pieces of working with your hands offer some brain-enhancing effects. But I also think there’s a broader point about appreciation and craftsmanship. There’s a great book on the topic called Shopclass as Soulcraft that’s worth checking out.

I think Shannon could anticipate future robotics because he didn’t just write papers, he built robots. He could imagine an artificially intelligent world because he built an artificially intelligent mouse. I don’t know how to reclaim that sort of thing exactly, but I know it’s a powerful part of what made him who he was.•

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The heart is a lonely hunter. Also it’s the organ in your chest that pumps blood through your veins and arteries.

An old metaphor ran up against new medicine in 1982 when Dr. William DeVries performed the first artificial-heart transplant on patient Barney Clark, who lived 112 days with the battery-powered pumper. A stunning media circus ensued, with the Frankenstein factor riling many Americans, as cutting-edge technology was introduced before old dreams and superstitions had been put to rest. “I was surprised that people think it’s as big a deal as they think it is,” DeVries said later in the year.

Far thornier questions about reimagining nature are close at hand as our greater understanding of genetics promises to allow us to drive evolution. Let’s hope this time the debate is more rational, since the application of such information will have profound implications–for good and ill.

There’ll be the opportunity to “delete” sicknesses preemptively and the temptation to improve upon what’s already basically fine. If Homo sapiens isn’t done in first by a cold war or a heat wave, then we’ll almost definitely explore “human enhancement,” and these experiments will likely be decentralized, with not only states and corporations competing but also startups in garages.

In a conversation with David Remnick on the New Yorker Radio Hour, Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, a great science writer as well as a cancer specialist, talks about the gene, which he calls, in his most recent book, “one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas in the history of all of science.” The host offers that new genetic knowledge has greater game-changing potential than the splitting of the atom–and the games will likely be messy and possibly dangerous. In fact, they’ve already begun.

An excerpt:

Siddhartha Mukherjee:

I draw a formal analogy between those two moments. The splitting of the atom really opened up the possibility of controlling energy and matter, so that opened up an immense technological possibility full of promise and peril. The promise being nuclear technology, the peril being Fukushima. 

The genome also opens up that idea of promise and peril. The promise being the curing of deadly diseases, the early diagnosis of breast cancer, the capacity of being able to predict, in our children, those that will carry devastating mutations that will make them, potentially, have lives of extraordinary suffering. 

But the peril is also questions of identity. What if we learn, and we are going to learn, not about one gene but multiple genes that govern sexual identity? What if we learn about genes that predispose to illness but don’t cause extraordinary suffering?

David Remnick:

And the decisions to abort or not abort that would come along with it.

Siddhartha Mukherjee:

That’s right. And just to give you one example, this is not fantasy: In India and China, based on very crude genetic diagnosis, whether you’re a boy or girl, that phenomenon is already in action and has skewed the selective abortion of those diagnosed genetically as female…has skewed the gender ratio in Indian and China to something absurd, 700 women to 1,000 men, in some parts of India and similarly in some parts of China. 

David Remnick:

So the tragic mistakes are already being made at an early stage.

Siddhartha Mukherjee:

That’s right. The tragedy is not tomorrow’s tragedy. It is today’s tragedy. In fact, it’s yesterday’s tragedy. Those societies have already been destabilized by genetics.•

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

  1. clifford and edith irving
  2. abbie hoffman interviewing clifford irving
  3. f is for fake
  4. tasaday people
  5. is elvis really still alive?
  6. evel knievel death defying
  7. claus von bulow interview
  8. jeet heer and jean baudrillard
  9. bruno hauptmann electric chair
  10. donald trump could kill and eat a small child on the white house lawn

This week, neckless Skybridge slug Anthony Scaramucci was appointed White House Communications Director, leading to the resignation of Sean Spicer, who immediately secured a job as spokesperson for Hitler’s disembodied head.

We simply don’t know who built those Holocaust centers.

Herr Spicer is right. It could have been anyvone!

 

• Susan Glasser and Elizabeth Drew talk Watergate & our current political crisis.

• Brian Beutler and Timothy D. Snyder analyze Trump’s authoritarian dreams.

Gormless pundit Chris Cillizza was asked suitably brutal questions in an AMA.

• The question James Surowiecki asked about automation isn’t the best one.

Noah Smith addresses the costs of drugs, lead and poverty in America.

• Tom Simonite analyzes Elon Musk’s disproportionate fear of Intelligent AI.

• A look back at Norman Mailer’s dark interpretation of the moon landing.

• Old Print Article: The Icarians settle in America. (1853)

• A brief note from 1946 about Damon Runyon’s death.

• This week’s Afflictor keyphrase searches: left-wing militias, Einstein’s genome.

The 1970s: Watergate, malaise, gas lines, etc. 

Ah, the good old days.

Elizabeth Drew, the great Nixon Era reporter has written also of this moment’s bookend scandal–likely the biggest political misconduct in our nation’s history–arguing that a consensus must slowly be built among both parties before an impeachment possible–or even desirable. 

In a vacuum, that’s right. Except we live in far more fractious times, with the country riven pretty strictly among party lines, apart from some resolute Never Trumpers on the right. The Mueller firing will likely come and so may pardons, with Republicans still unmoved to act, the retention of power more important than even nation. Just consider Newt Gingrich, who once compared Ronald Reagan to Neville Chamberlain for merely meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev but now serves as an enthusiastic apologist for an actual Kremlin stooge. 

That’s why authoritarianism is a real threat. Not due to soft spots in the Constitution or the great power of the office of the President, but because normal governance has already ceased. In one fashion or another, Trump will go down. Will America as well? That depends. This era isn’t the 1970s nor the 1930s despite resembling at moments an unholy amalgam of the two. An X factor is present that represents the response of the populace to a White House run amok.

Two excerpts follow.


From Timothy Snyder’s Guardian piece “Trump Is Ushering In a Dark New Conservatism“:

Thus the nostalgic moment for this White House is not the 1950s, usually recalled warmly by American conservatives, but the dreadful 1930s, when fascists of the new right defeated conservatives of the old right in Europe. Whatever one might think of conservative nostalgia for the 1950s, it is notable for what it includes: American participation in the second world war and the beginnings of the American welfare state. For conservatives, it all went wrong in the 1960s. 

For the Trump administration, it all went wrong rather earlier: in the 1940s, with the fight against fascism and the New Deal. Stephen Bannon, who promises us new policies “as exciting as the 1930s”, seems to want to return to that decade in order to undo those legacies.

He seems to have in mind a kleptocratic authoritarianism (hastened by deregulation and the dismantlement of the welfare state) that generates inequality, which can be channeled into a culture war (prepared for by Muslim bans and immigrant denunciation hotlines). Like fascists, Bannon imagines that history is a cycle in which national virtue must be defended from permanent enemies. He refers to fascist authors in defense of this understanding of the past.•


From “We’re On the Brink Of an Authoritarian Crisis by Brian Beutler of the New Republic:

Should Trump fire Mueller, with the tacit assent of Republicans in Congress and the DOJ leadership, there will be little recourse. It is feasible (though difficult) to imagine a GOP House and Senate passing an independent counsel statute to restore Mueller to his job; it is nearly impossible to imagine them doing so by veto-proof margins. And should Trump pardon himself and his inner circle, it is dispiritingly easy to imagine Republicans reprising their familiar refrain: The president’s power to pardon is beyond question.

If this crisis unfolds as depicted here, the country’s final hope for avoiding a terminal slide into authoritarianism would be the midterm election, contesting control of a historically gerrymandered House of Representatives. That election is 16 months away. Between now and then, Trump’s DOJ and his sham election-integrity commission will seek to disenfranchise as many Democratic voters as possible, while the president himself beseeches further foreign interference aimed at Democratic candidates. Absent the necessary sweep, everything Trump will have done to degrade our system for his own enrichment and protection will have been ratified, and a point of no return will have been crossed.•

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Was recently reading something about the Icarians, the French Utopian socialist sect based on the teachings of Étienne Cabet, which left small footprints on U.S. soil during the “stammering century.” The members first immigrated to America in 1848, purchasing small parcels in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, California and, very disastrously, in Texas, on which to build their communities based on “technological innovation.”

In a 2016 New Republic article by Chris Jennings about the Lone Star State debacle, he describes the tenets of the group put forth in the Cabet novel Voyage en Icarie:

In Icaria, there is no private property or money. Food, shelter, clothing, and all of life’s comforts are produced and distributed by the state. Men and women are considered equal and receive the same comprehensive public education, although women do not vote. When an Icarian family runs low on food, they place a specially designed container into a specially designed niche outside of their specially designed apartment. When they return home after a day working in collective workshops, they find their bin topped off with healthful victuals. The sources of Icarian abundance are technological innovation and the fact that everyone works for the wealth of the republic. There are no idle rich or landed aristocracy to draw off the wealth of the nation. As a result of these reforms, many old occupations have been rendered obsolete. In Icaria there are no domestic servants, cops, informants, middlemen, soldiers, gunsmiths, or bankers.

Even if the Icarians had be experienced homesteaders rather than urban ideologues, it wasn’t perhaps the most propitious moment to establish an alternative colony in America, with Mormons, for instance, on numerous occasions having their towns razed to the ground. In fact, the first permanent Icarian settlement was founded in Nauvoo, Illinois, on the literal ruins of a Mormon community.

Despite sometimes unwittingly purchasing unfortunate tracts and meeting with withering stares, the Icarians were particularly persistent, with the group often splintering, but surviving in some form, until nearly the fin de siècle era. 

From the July 30, 1853 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

On the 48th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the moon, here’s a repost of some writing on the topic by Norman Mailer, who viewed the mind-blowing mission in terms of Icarus, believing it doomed, in an elemental way, our species. That belief seems less paranoid in retrospect.

Norman Mailer pursued immortality through subjects as grand as his ego, and it was the Apollo 11 mission that was Moby Dick to his Ahab. He knew the beginning of space voyage was the end, in a sense, of humans, or, at least, of humans believing they were in the driver’s seat. In If The Sun Dies, he addresses the disorienting moment when technology, that barbarian, truly stormed the gates.

_________________________

“It Was Not A Despair He Felt, Or Fear–It Was Anesthesia”

When he wrote about the coming computer revolution of the 1970s at the outset of the decade in Of a Fire on the Moon, Norman Mailer couldn’t have known that the dropouts and the rebels would be leading the charge. An excerpt of his somewhat nightmarish view of our technological future, some parts of which came true and some still in the offing:

Now they asked him what he thought of the Seventies. He did not know. He thought of the Seventies and a blank like the windowless walls of the computer city came over his vision. When he conducted interviews with himself on the subject it was not a despair he felt, or fear–it was anesthesia. He had no intimations of what was to come, and that was conceivably worse than any sentiment of dread, for a sense of the future, no matter how melancholy, was preferable to none–it spoke of some sense of the continuation in the projects of one’s life. He was adrift. If he tried to conceive of a likely perspective in the decade before him, he saw not one structure to society but two: if the social world did not break down into revolutions and counterrevolutions, into police and military rules of order with sabotage, guerrilla war and enclaves of resistance, if none of this occurred, then there certainly would be a society of reason, but its reason would be the logic of the computer. In that society, legally accepted drugs would become necessary for accelerated cerebration, there would be inchings toward nuclear installation, a monotony of architectures, a pollution of nature which would arouse technologies of decontamination odious as deodorants, and transplanted hearts monitored like spaceships–the patients might be obliged to live in a compound reminiscent of a Mission Control Center where technicians could monitor on consoles the beatings of a thousand transplanted hearts. But in the society of computer-logic, the atmosphere would obviously be plastic, air-conditioned, sealed in bubble-domes below the smog, a prelude to living on space stations. People would die in such societies like fish expiring on a vinyl floor. So of course there would be another society, an irrational society of dropouts, the saintly, the mad, the militant and the young. There the art of the absurd would reign in defiance against the computer.

_________________________

“Doubtless, Everybody Would Be Easier To Monitor”

Some more predictions from Norman Mailer’s 1970 Space Age reportage, Of a Fire on the Moon, which have come to fruition even without the aid of moon crystals:

Thus the perspective of space factories returning the new imperialists of space a profit was now near to the reach of technology. Forget about diamonds! The value of crystals grown in space was incalculable: gravity would not be pulling on the crystal structure as it grew, so the molecule would line up in lattices free of  shift or sheer. Such a perfect latticework would serve to carry messages for a perfect computer. Computers the size of a package of cigarettes would then be able to do the work of present computers the size of a trunk. So the mind could race ahead to see computers programming go-to-school routes in the nose of every kiddie car–the paranoid mind could see crystal transmitters sewn into the rump of ever juvenile delinquent–doubtless, everybody would be easier to monitor. Big Brother could get superseded by Moon Brother–the major monitor of them all might yet be sunk in a shaft on the back face of the lunar sphere.

_________________________

“A Robot That Is Designed To Play Chess Might Also Want To Build A Spaceship”

In his 1970 Apollo 11 account, Of a Fire on the Moon, Norman Mailer realized that his rocket wasn’t the biggest after all, that the mission was a passing of the torch, that technology, an expression of the human mind, had diminished its creators. “Space travel proposed a future world of brains attached to wires,” Mailer wrote, his ego having suffered a TKO. And just as the Space Race ended the greater race began, the one between carbon and silicon, and it’s really just a matter of time before the pace grows too brisk for humans.

Supercomputers will ultimately be a threat to us, but we’re certainly doomed without them, so we have to navigate the future the best we can, even if it’s one not of our control. Gary Marcus addresses this and other issues in his latest New Yorker blog piece, “Why We Should Think About the Threat of Artificial Intelligence.” An excerpt:

It’s likely that machines will be smarter than us before the end of the century—not just at chess or trivia questions but at just about everything, from mathematics and engineering to science and medicine. There might be a few jobs left for entertainers, writers, and other creative types, but computers will eventually be able to program themselves, absorb vast quantities of new information, and reason in ways that we carbon-based units can only dimly imagine. And they will be able to do it every second of every day, without sleep or coffee breaks.

For some people, that future is a wonderful thing. [Ray] Kurzweil has written about a rapturous singularity in which we merge with machines and upload our souls for immortality; Peter Diamandis has argued that advances in A.I. will be one key to ushering in a new era of “abundance,” with enough food, water, and consumer gadgets for all. Skeptics like Eric Brynjolfsson and I have worried about the consequences of A.I. and robotics for employment. But even if you put aside the sort of worries about what super-advanced A.I. might do to the labor market, there’s another concern, too: that powerful A.I. might threaten us more directly, by battling us for resources.

Most people see that sort of fear as silly science-fiction drivel—the stuff of The Terminator and The Matrix. To the extent that we plan for our medium-term future, we worry about asteroids, the decline of fossil fuels, and global warming, not robots. But a dark new book by James Barrat, Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, lays out a strong case for why we should be at least a little worried.

Barrat’s core argument, which he borrows from the A.I. researcher Steve Omohundro, is that the drive for self-preservation and resource acquisition may be inherent in all goal-driven systems of a certain degree of intelligence. In Omohundro’s words, “if it is smart enough, a robot that is designed to play chess might also want to build a spaceship,” in order to obtain more resources for whatever goals it might have.

_________________________

“Hippies Will Be Refused Tourist Cards To Enter Mexico Unless They Take A Bath And Get Haircuts”

While Apollo 11 traveled to the moon and back in 1969, the astronauts were treated each day to a six-minute newscast from Mission Control about the happenings on Earth. Here’s one that was transcribed in Norman Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon, which made space travel seem quaint by comparison:

Washington UPI: Vice President Spiro T. Agnew has called for putting a man on Mars by the year 2000, but Democratic leaders replied that priority must go to needs on earth…Immigration officials in Nuevo Laredo announced Wednesday that hippies will be refused tourist cards to enter Mexico unless they take a bath and get haircuts…”The greatest adventure in the history of humanity has started,” declared the French newspaper Le Figaro, which devoted four pages to reports from Cape Kennedy and diagrams of the mission…Hempstead, New York: Joe Namath officially reported to the New York Jets training camp at Hofstra University Wednesday following a closed-door meeting with his teammates over his differences with Pro Football Commissioner Pete Rozelle…London UPI: The House of Lords was assured Wednesday that a major American submarine would not “damage or assault” the Loch Ness monster.

_________________________

“There Was An Uneasy Silence, An Embarrassed Pall At The Unmentioned Word Of Nazi”

Norman Mailer’s book Of a Fire on the Moon, about American space exploration during the 1960s, was originally published as three long and personal articles for Life magazine in 1969: “A Fire on the Moon,” “The Psychology of Astronauts,” and A Dream of the Future’s Face.” Mailer used space travel to examine America’s conflicted and tattered existence–and his own as well. In one segment, he reports on a banquet in which Wernher von Braun, the former Nazi rocket engineer who became a guiding light at NASA, meets with American businessmen on the eve of the Apollo 11 launch. An excerpt:

Therefore, the audience was not to be at ease during his introduction, for the new speaker, who described himself as a “backup publisher,” went into a little too much historical detail. “During the Thirties he was employed by the Ordinance Department of the German government developing liquid fuel rockets. During World War II he made very significant developments in rocketry for his government.”

A tension spread in this audience of corporation presidents and high executives, of astronauts, a few at any rate, and their families. There was an uneasy silence, an embarrassed pall at the unmentioned word of Nazi–it was the shoe which did not drop to the floor. So no more than a pitter-patter of clapping was aroused when the speaker went quickly on to say: “In 1955 he became an American citizen himself.” It was only when Von Braun stood up at the end that the mood felt secure enough to shift. A particularly hearty and enthusiastic hand of applause swelled into a standing ovation. Nearly everybody stood up. Aquarius, who finally cast his vote by remaining seated, felt pressure not unrelated to refusing to stand up for The Star-Spangled Banner. It was as if the crowd with true American enthusiasm had finally declared, “Ah don’ care if he is some kind of ex-Nazi, he’s a good loyal patriotic American.”

Von Braun was. If patriotism is the ability to improve a nation’s morale, then Von Braun was a patriot. It was plain that some of these corporate executives loved him. In fact, they revered him. He was the high priest of their precise art–manufacture. If many too many an American product was accelerating into shoddy these years since the war, if planned obsolescence had all too often become a euphemism for sloppy workmanship, cynical cost-cutting, swollen advertising budgets, inefficiency and general indifference, then in one place at least, and for certain, America could be proud of a product. It was high as a castle and tooled more finely than the most exquisite watch.

Now the real and true tasty beef of capitalism got up to speak, the grease and guts of it, the veritable brawn, and spoke with fulsome language in his small and well-considered voice. He was with friends on this occasion, and so a savory and gravy of redolence came into his tone, his voice was not unmusical, it had overtones which hinted of angelic super-possibilities one could not otherwise lay on the line. He was when all was said like the head waiter of the largest hofbrau in heaven. “Honored guests, ladies and gentlemen,” Von Braun began, “it is with a great deal of respect tonight that I meet you, the leaders, and the captains in the mainstream of American industry and life. Without your success in building and maintaining the economic foundations of this nation, the resources for mounting tomorrow’s expedition to the moon would never have been committed…. Tomorrow’s historic launch belongs to you and to the men and women who sit behind the desks and administer your companies’ activities, to the men who sweep the floor in your office buildings and to every American who walks the street of this productive land. It is an American triumph. Many times I have thanked God for allowing me to be a part of the history that will be made here today and tomorrow and in the next few days. Tonight I want to offer my gratitude to you and all Americans who have created the most fantastically progressive nation yet conceived and developed,” He went on to talk of space as ‘the key to our future on earth,’ and echoes of his vision drifted through the stale tropical air of a banquet room after coffee–perhaps he was hinting at the discords and nihilism traveling in bands and brigands across the earth. “The key to our future on earth. I think we should see clearly from this statement that the Apollo 11 moon trip even from its inception was not intended as a one-time trip that would rest alone on the merits of a single journey. If our intention had been merely to bring back a handful of soil and rocks from the lunar gravel pit and then forget the whole thing”–he spoke almost with contempt of the meager resources of the moon–“we would certainly be history’s biggest fools. But that is not our intention now–it never will be. What we are seeking in tomorrow’s trip is indeed that key to our future on earth. We are expanding the mind of man. We are extending this God-given brain and these God-given hands to their outermost limits and in so doing all mankind will benefit. All mankind will reap the harvest…. What we will have attained when Neil Armstrong steps down upon the moon is a completely new step in the evolution of man.”•

I’m not entirely convinced Elon Musk doesn’t have more in common with Donald Trump in regard to politics than we know. Not saying that he is a raging Libertarian monster like his pal Peter Thiel, but it’s not likely he’s the lovable billionaire that Iron Man cameos would have us believe.

Now that his harebrained attempt to “stage manage” the orange supremacist is happily over, the entrepreneur has fully returned to his normal chores, which are, of course, abnormal. There are two different Musks at work.

Good Elon creates gigafactories and gives people the opportunity to power their homes with solar. As these tools spread, through his efforts and those of his competitors, the Silicon Valley magnate will have made a major contribution to potentially saving our species from the existential threat of climate change. 

Bad Elon is a sort of lower-case Nikola Tesla, whose name he borrowed, of course, for his EV company. And it’s the worst of the Serbian-American inventor that he emulates: grandiose, egotistical, desperate to awe with brilliance even when the logic doesn’t quite cohere. Like Tesla’s final patented invention, the Flivver Plane, which would never have been able to fly even if it was built, Musk often concentrates his attention where it’s not most needed on things that won’t happen.

Much of this baffling overconfidence can be seen in his near-term plan to become a Martian. Some of it is also on view in his deathly fear of killer robots, a stance he developed after going on a Bostrom bender. Intelligent machines are a very-long-term risk for our species (if we’re not first done in by our own dimness or perhaps a solar flare), but they shouldn’t be a primary concern to anyone presently. Not when children even in a wealthy country like America still drink lead-contaminated water, relatively dumb AI can cause employment within industries to collapse and new technological tools are exacerbating wealth inequality.

In a Wired piece, Tom Simonite contextualizes Musk’s foolhardy sci-fi AI fears as well as anyone has. The opening:

IMAGINE YOU HAD a chance to tell 50 of the most powerful politicians in America what urgent problem you think needs prompt government action. Elon Musk had that chance this past weekend at the National Governors Association Summer Meeting in Rhode Island. He chose to recommend the gubernatorial assembly get serious about preventing artificial intelligence from wiping out humanity.

“AI is a fundamental existential risk for human civilization and I don’t think people fully appreciate that,” Musk said. He asked the governors to consider a hypothetical scenario in which a stock-trading program orchestrated the 2014 missile strike that downed a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine—just to boost its portfolio. And he called for the establishment of a new government regulator that would force companies building artificial intelligence technology to slow down. “When the regulator’s convinced it’s safe to proceed then you can go, but otherwise slow down,” he said.

Musk’s remarks made for an enlivening few minutes on a day otherwise concerned with more quotidian matters such as healthcare and education. But Musk’s call to action was something of a missed opportunity. People who spend more time working on artificial intelligence than the car, space, and solar entrepreneur say his eschatological scenarios risk distracting from more pressing concerns as artificial intelligence technology percolates into every industry.

Pedro Domingos, a professor who works on machine learning at the University of Washington, summed up his response to Musk’s talk on Twitter with a single word: Sigh. “Many of us have tried to educate him and others like him about real vs. imaginary dangers of AI, but apparently none of it has made a dent,” Domingos says. America’s governmental chief executives would be better advised to consider the negative effects of today’s limited AI, such as how it is giving disproportionate market power to a few large tech companies, he says. Iyad Rahwan, who works on matters of AI and society at MIT, agrees. Rather than worrying about trading bots eventually becoming smart enough to start wars as an investment strategy, we should consider how humans might today use dumb bots to spread misinformation online, he says.

Rahwan doesn’t deny that Musk’s nightmare scenarios could eventually happen, but says attending to today’s AI challenges is the most pragmatic way to prepare. “By focusing on the short-term questions, we can scaffold a regulatory architecture that might help with the more unpredictable, super-intelligent AI scenarios.”•

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I’ve never felt nostalgic about “Mean Streets” New York, even if I don’t particularly like what’s replaced it, with runaway gentrification and a tourist-trap Times Square. When I was a child growing up in Queens during a rougher time in NYC history, incinerators spewed “black snow” over us when we played outside. The grade school I went to and apartment building we lived in were coated in asbestos until it was removed at some point. Usually really nice neighbors would stagger down the street completely drunk a couple times of week or get into fights when they were high, when they weren’t busy working or trying to care for their families.

These things come back to me sometimes. Like when I learned that fellow Queens native Stephen Jay Gould suffered from mesothelioma or when the news first broke that Flint children were essentially being raised on lead water or when the opioid crisis took hold. 

In “Too Many Americans Live in a Mental Fog,” a wise Bloomberg View column, Noah Smith wonders about the silent costs of environmental problems, drug use and poverty. It’s a topic that’s discussed infrequently in the public realm since it’s easier (though costlier) to react to effects than causes. Occasionally someone will write an article about the far higher percentage of past traumatic brain injuries among convicts and wonder about causality, but that’s the exception. I’d love to read a study that traces the outcomes of those who play several years of tackle football in childhood and those who don’t. 

Smith looks at the situation mostly from the economic costs of a brain-addled populace in the time when America has become chiefly an information culture, but successfully treating the foundational issues would relieve personal pain as well as better us broadly in a globally competitive business world.

An excerpt:

In the 21st century, rich countries’ economies depend more and more on knowledge industries like technology, finance and business services. Even outside of those industries, almost every worker now has to know how to use office-productivity software, interact with websites or perform other complex tasks. In this new world, humans are being asked to think all the time.

That means U.S. policy makers need to be looking at better ways to upgrade the mental capabilities of the labor force. Unfortunately, a number of things interfere with Americans’ ability to think clearly.

The biggest threat to clear-headedness comes from drugs. The twin epidemics of opioid-painkiller dependence and heroin abuse destroy people’s lives and harm productivity. There is a strong correlation between opioid use and unemployment, and it’s no great stretch to assume that the former helps cause the latter. A recent Goldman Sachs report concluded that drug abuse resulted in large productivity losses throughout the economy. Even when opioid and opiate users stay at their jobs, they probably become less productive.

A second, much-discussed problem is lead pollution. A flood of research is finding that even small amounts of lead exposure in childhood can lead both to worse academic performance later in life, and to more criminal behavior. Furthermore, recent evidence suggests that American children are far more exposed to lead than most people realize. Lead paint contaminates soil, lead pipes contaminate drinking water, and a variety of commercial products from cosmetics to electronics contain bits of lead. The U.S. is allowing its people to be poisoned with heavy metals, and both their intelligence and their self-control is being degraded as a result.

But drugs and lead aren’t the only forces preventing Americans from being able to think clearly. Poverty is another.•

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If you ever find yourself in a wistful, David Brooks kind of mood, believing America a meritocracy in which the best and brightest strive and thrive just remember that Lou Dobbs attended Harvard, Chris Cillizza is a millionaire and Donald Trump is the President of the United Fucking States.

Perhaps Jesse Ventura put it more aptly when he said, “The scum always rises to the top of the water.” And he should know since he became governor of a fairly significant state despite his busy career of pretending to wrestle, peddling idiotic conspiracy theories and hosting a show for RT, Vladimir Putin’s TV propaganda channel.

On Cillizza: This brainiac was employed by the Washington Post initially during its winter of discontent and somehow survived during a sunny revival fostered by Marty Baron’s editorial chops and Jezz Bezos’ considerable couch-cushion change. The quasi-journalist treats politics as if it were all just a game, which might be useful if he were an astute critic of the rules of engagement. He is not. An upchucker of hot takes and clickbait who seems to not care at all that lives are saved or lost depending on policies chosen, Cillizza is in the media merely to give opinions, regardless of their rightness or wrongness, slobber over Ivanka Trump, and get paid. 

In December 2016, he wrote in the Post that he was puzzled that Trump received so much flak for his cabinet picks since, as he stated, all Presidents appoint a few loyalists. Cillizza conveniently overlooked that Bannon, Flynn and Sessions were extraordinarily atypical when compared to appointees of previous Presidents. It’s not the quantity of the loyalists that was disturbing but their qualities.

It’s amazing it took so long for Jeff Zucker to pluck Cillizza from the stupid tree, but he ultimately made sure the commentator was a jewel in CNN’s jester cap. It’s the finest marriage since the von Bulows, except this time both parties are holding a bulging syringe of insulin and America is Sunny. Even though the network is now considered an EoT (Enemy of Trump), it did as much as any entity to normalize the bigot, ignoramus and traitor during the campaign, all for some free content and a ratings boost; and Cillizza’s type of vapid punditry and dumbing down of the news qualifies him as complicit in the odious rise of Trump.

Cillizza, being three times as dense as the planet Neptune, thought it a good idea to conduct a Reddit AMA, in which he was gleefully excoriated by questioners. Below are a dozen inquiries he didn’t answer.

____________________________________

Question:

Hi, I’m Libby Watson, I’m a staff writer at Fusion. Why do you think so many other journalists think you suck?

____________________________________

Question:

You, Wolf Blitzer and S. E. Cupp play Jeopardy. Do any of you end with a positive amount of money?

____________________________________

Question:

You did an emoji analysis of the Republican health care bill. How can you even justify that?

____________________________________

Question:

Chris, have you considered the fact that your reporting style of repeated and absurd focus on completely inane subjects, like “an analysis of the Trump-Macron handshake” not only makes us all collectively stupider, but fundamentally devalues the role politics has in shaping our lives in favor of absurd horse race coverage that focuses on inside baseball to the exclusion of real working families?

____________________________________

Question:

I’d like to present to you some of your headlines from last year during the election.

I’m wondering if you think that your relentless hammering of Hillary Clinton over a bunch of supposed “scandals” that went nowhere (along with your obvious Bernie-bias) helped turn people against Clinton, and put Trump in the White House?

Some of your articles:

  • Hillary Clinton’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad answer on whether she’s ever lied
  • Hillary Clinton can’t make you love her if you don’t
  • Hillary Clinton’s week just went from bad to worse Drip, Drip, Drip.
  • Hillary Clinton’s campaign needs a slogan. Here’s your chance to help. It’s time to think up a message for Hillary!
  • Hillary Clinton’s biggest campaign problem may be, well, Hillary Clinton Sometimes the problem is you.
  • Why ignoring Hillary Clinton’s emails might cost Bernie Sanders Iowa An opportunity, missed.
  • Why we shouldn’t give Hillary Clinton a pass for losing New Hampshire
  • Why Hillary Clinton should be worried about Nevada
  • Why Hillary Clinton won’t release transcripts of her paid Goldman Sachs speeches She has her reasons.
  • Hillary Clinton’s email defense just hit a major bump in the road Cue Democratic worry.
  • Note to Bernie Sanders: Negative ads are good. Negative ads work.
  • Hillary Clinton STILL doesn’t have a good answer for questions about her emails
  • Why Bernie Sanders should talk A LOT more about Hillary Clinton and Goldman Sachs
  • What a tuxedo tells you about the race between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton Authenticity.
  • Hillary Clinton says she’s ‘not nervous at all’ about Bernie Sanders. She should be. Danger, Hillary Clinton. Danger!
  • Here’s exactly how Bernie Sanders can beat Hillary Clinton
  • Why aren’t Hillary Clinton’s exaggerations of her life story bigger news?
  • Bill de Blasio’s ‘Okay fine, I will endorse her’ endorsement of Hillary Clinton
  • Why Joe Biden must destroy Hillary Clinton
  • Just when you thought the e-mail story couldn’t get worse for Hillary Clinton … Drip. Drip. Drip.
  • Hillary Clinton’s e-mail issues have become a massive political problem It’s not getting better.
  • It might be time for Hillary Clinton to start panicking
  • Hillary Clinton finally apologizes for her private e-mail server. What took so long?
  • The reinvention of Hillary Clinton almost certainly won’t work
  • Hillary Clinton’s new approach to her e-mail controversy? It’s complicated.
  • Hillary Clinton’s e-mail problem isn’t going away FBI!
  • Hillary Clinton’s Worst Week in Washington
  • Hillary Clinton’s honesty problem just keeps getting worse
  • Maybe Hillary Clinton just isn’t a very good candidate
  • Hillary Clinton is trying to make the e-mail controversy political. But, really, it isn’t.
  • This isn’t a good trend line for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 prospects The more people see, the less they like.
  • These 9 words prove that Bill Clinton still doesn’t get it on the Clinton Foundation

____________________________________

Question:

Why does CNN insist on bringing on some partisan stooge who would defend Trump for killing and eating said stooge’s own child? What good does having such a person do, especially when you treat their ludicrous opinion as a valid counterpoint to the truth? I would say, “You wouldn’t run a story about Flat Earthers and treat their opinion as the equal and opposite counterpoint to every available piece of scientific evidence for the past 1000 years,” but you probably would and that’s a real problem.

Is it all about the ratings? Is that why, in 2016, you became the Trump News Network and aired almost every single one of his rallies? Are you afraid of being called biased? Are CNN anchors just incapable of spotting bullshit in real time? I don’t get it.

____________________________________

Question:

You said “My job is to assess not the rightness of each argument but to deal in the real world of campaign politics in which perception often (if not always) trumps reality. I deal in the world as voters believe it is, not as I (or anyone else) thinks it should be.”

Do you seriously believe that neither you nor any other media figure have any impact on the perceptions of voters? Does the observer effect not exist in political media?

____________________________________

Question:

Are you aware that real, actual horse races exist? I ask this because you seem desperate to cover a horse race, to the point that you take life-and-death political struggles that affect a nation of 300 million people and a planet of billions and treat them like they’re a horse race.

Why not just “cut out the middle man”, so to speak, and cover an actual horse race?

____________________________________

Question:

Do you regret your monomaniacal focus on the emails story in 2015-16, a focus with a clickbait orientation that both leaned heavily on emerging stories with insufficient information at hand and arguably gave other stories (ones equally or more important) short shrift?

____________________________________

Question:

Why is it that journalists and pundits who habitually get things wrong are rewarded with higher paying, more prestigious jobs rather than being forced out of the national conversation?

____________________________________

Question:

What is your obsession with Ivanka Trump and do you think it affects your reporting?

____________________________________

Question:

Hi Chris, it’s Ashley Feinberg. My question is how could you have possibly thought that this would be a good idea?•

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James Surowiecki, a very bright guy, asked on Twitter which jobs have been completely automated out of existence in the last 50 years. I think the final tally included just elevator and telephone operators, though you could probably add anyone who worked a dictaphone or in a typing pool. The bowling-alley pin boy just exceeds the time frame he uses. 

The thing is, if we’re talking about automation as a threat to human employment, this question is the wrong one, even if it’s an amusing intellectual exercise. Factories that have been reshored to America in the past decade still employ workers in many of the same positions as when they left, but the numbers needed are far fewer thanks to improved machinery and systems. It’s a thinning of the herd, not it’s utter elimination, that’s most troubling. The argument that a lack of productivity increase proves that automation isn’t killing jobs doesn’t really make sense because manufacturing positions in America certainly have seriously diminished and that’s not all due to globalization.

The right question to ask is this: Will AI and automation cause enough jobs to disappear and rapidly shift to the point that trying to get by becomes too chaotic for most? That’s really all that’s required for things to go haywire. It’s not a an all-or-nothing type of situation. Not every position has to go the way of the pin boy for all of us to wind up toppled.

Two excerpts follow from new Guardian pieces, one about the impact on small American towns of Walmart’s decline in the face of Amazon’s algorithmic might and the second a Paul Mason essay about robots and Brexit that’s interesting if probably too dire.


From “What Happened When Walmart Left,” an Ed Pilkington article:

Much has been written about what happens when the corporate giant opens up in an area, with numerous studies recording how it sucks the energy out of a locality, overpowering the competition through sheer scale and forcing the closure of mom-and-pop stores for up to 20 miles around. A more pressing, and much less-well-understood, question is what are the consequences when Walmart screeches into reverse: when it ups and quits, leaving behind a trail of lost jobs and broken promises.

The subject is gathering increasing urgency as the megacorporation rethinks its business strategy. Rural areas like McDowell County, where Walmart focused its expansion plans in the 1990s, are experiencing accelerating depopulation that is putting a strain on the firm’s boundless ambitions.

Hit hard by the longterm decline in coal mining that is the mainstay of the area, McDowell County has seen a devastating and sustained erosion of its people, from almost 100,000 in 1950 when coal was king, to about 18,000 today. That depleted population is today scattered widely across small towns and in mountain hollows (pronounced “hollers”), accentuating the sense of sparseness and emptiness.

The Walmart supercenter is located about five miles from the county seat, Welch, which still boasts imposing brick buildings as a memory of better times. But the glow of coal’s legacy has cooled, as the boarding up of many of the town’s shops and restaurants attests.

When you combine the county’s economic malaise with Walmart’s increasingly ferocious battle against Amazon for dominance over online retailing, you can see why outsized physical presences could seem surplus to requirements. “There has been a wave of closings across the US, most acutely in small towns and rural communities that have had heavy population loss,” said Michael Hicks, an economics professor at Ball State University who is an authority on Walmart’s local impact.

On 15 January 2016, those winds of change swept across the country with a fury.•


The opening of Mason’s “Brexit Won’t Help Britain Survive the Rise Of the Robots“:

What do a Japanese robot and the world’s first tidal turbine have in common? They are not in Britain. While the British government destroys itself over Brexit, the parts for a third industrial revolution are being assembled elsewhere. This is an industrial revolution where you don’t “catch up” – you catch the economic backwash. This is what would keep ministers awake at night – if they were serious.

In the past 12 months, Japan has started to produce a lot of robots. Its production index for industrial robots stood at 25 in 2009, achieved 175 last year and rocketed to 225 in June this year. Three-quarters of the units made were exported, helping Japan boost its total exports by 11% in the past year. In turn, the industrial surge of robots has stimulated a surge in semiconductor production in Japan and South Korea. This is big and real.

Japan is ahead in robotics not only because it has a decades-old semiconductor industry and an ageing population, but because it has an industrial strategy. Its government demanded a new industrial revolution in 2014. In 2015, its Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry issued aNew Robot Strategy,” stipulating sales targets for robotics in various sectors and urgent measures to train and retain technologists.

In robots for nursing care, for example, the strategy spells out a detailed five-year plan – from supporting manufacturers and changing International Organization for Standardization regulations to new health regulations and the creation of a marketplace between healthcare providers and robotics firms. The policy was not made in a vacuum. Japan’s industrial strategists were worried about big US spending commitments on robot research and development and a €2.8bn (£2.5bn) robotics project, funded by the European commission, called Sparc.

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From the December 11, 1946 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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As I’ve stated before, it seems clear how it ends for Trump, his family and his minions–in utter disgrace–but I don’t know how it turns out for America. There are just too many variables at play to prognosticate.

It may depend on how far and wide the sweep of justice extends. I have the same dream scenario that many do: The cynical players in government and outside will be washed away in a wave of justice, returning some semblance of sanity to our society. That’s not likely to be the result, however.

You can’t impeach, indict or arrest away what ails us, even if it’s a necessary start. Nearly 63 million citizens went into a voting booth and chose a bigoted, ignorant, kleptocratic sociopath. We’re deeply divided, armed to the teeth and living in a time where profiteers and ideologues alike are using our new media tools to obliterate truth. We’d better divine some solutions for our moral and political rot because eventually the crooks, trying to steal democracy as well as currency, aren’t going to be so stunningly incompetent.

In an excellent interview Susan B. Glasser of Politico Magazine conducted with Elizabeth Drew, the Watergate chronicler still doing excellent work in this time of Trump, speaks of her prescience when Nixon’s ouster still seemed unthinkable: “I may be a witch. I just had this instinct. I said, ‘I think that we might change vice presidents and presidents within a year.’ Now, this was a wild thought in the fall of 1973. I just smelled it.”

In one exchange, Drew, who asserts that the Nixon and Trump scandals are different despite their similarities, speaks to a common point they share: The lawlessness and abuses of both Administrations go far beyond one break-in or a single meeting with Russians connected to the Kremlin. It was and is a pervasive evil. An excerpt:

I want to explain something. There is one very strong similarity between the two periods. Because this gets down to, “Well, what was Watergate?” And I felt throughout it was a very unfashionable thought. A lot of people just treat it as a detective story and a lot of people still think it was a detective story that these odd people broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. They got caught because of a night watchman, caught the tape on the door. They were indicted. The cover up began. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, they did incredible reporting.

They were just dogged and they kept at it and they broke the case of the cover up, but Watergate was much bigger than just that invasion of the DNC headquarters. To me, the worst thing that the so-called burglars—plumbers, rather. They were called plumbers because they were plumbing leaks. [LAUGHS] But they have the name “Plumbers” on their door in the Executive Office Building. They had an office there. They broke into the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers. In some ways, Watergate was as much about the Pentagon Papers as anything else. Now, just think about it: these bums breaking into somebody’s psychiatrist’s office to try to get his files, fortunately, were so incompetent. They messed up everything they did. They were real stumblebums. There were no files in that office although they supposedly cased it.

But that was really more troubling than the break-in to the Watergate, and it was a whole array of abuse of power, where they used the instruments of government against Nixon’s perceived enemies — and he was very good at perceiving enemies. We don’t have that now but Watergate was not a simple detective story. I always thought it was a constitutional crisis. And we still have that element of it. It’s: Can you hold a president accountable for the acts of his subordinates? We’re going to get to that question at some point in this. I don’t know when. I’m getting ahead of the story but the most important article of impeachment against Nixon was Article II, which held that a president could be held accountable for the acts of his subordinates, even if he really didn’t know anything about it.

That they created an atmosphere where these things can happen and if it ever got to impeachment and I don’t know if it will or won’t. People insist it won’t. I don’t know. It could under certain circumstances. This is a very important question. We were scared then in a way that we aren’t now. So it was quite different.•

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

  1. left-wing militia story
  2. richard feynman nuclear weapons in the future
  3. einstein’s genome
  4. freeman dyson’s green universe: a vision
  5. becoming a computer to defeat computers
  6. personal memory enhancement
  7. neuroscientist christof koch technological species
  8. trump and bannon could automate populism
  9. steve schwarzman’s 70th birthday party
  10. madalyn murray o’hair fascism

Not much of a horror fan but sad to hear of the passing of George A. Romero. A re-post of a short piece I wrote in 2011 about Night of the Living Dead which reads the film as a commentary on the tumultuous era in which it was made.

Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

Released the year after the Summer of Love, when the counterculture lost its warmth, George A. Romero’s low-budget landmark, a genre-definer about the undead feasting on the living, can be read as a parable of a culture run amok, feared by those with no desire to join it.

Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) are young adult siblings headed to a desolate Pennsylvania graveyard to place flowers on their father’s resting place, the way good middle-class children do. Conservative Barbra has no problem with the pilgrimage, but Johnny grumbles about such customs not being his scene. Suddenly he has an out, but not one he’d hoped for: A boneyard zombie seizes and murders him. Barbra escapes to a nearby house, empty except for a bloody corpse, but how long will she be able to stay in one piece since more and more of the undead surround the home? Misery loves company and the terrified woman gets some when a few other members of the living, including resourceful Ben (Duane Jones), also take shelter from the marauders in the humble abode.

Trying to find out what’s turned the formerly sensible world upside down, Ben gets a radio working and listens for information. Did a recent space probe emit radiation that is making the dead rise? Is it something else? The answer isn’t clear, but one thing is certain: A meat-loving legion is cannibalizing the uninitiated and is still plenty hungry. The radio announcer reports that “frightened people are seeking refuge in churches, schools and government buildings.” But none of these traditional bastions of respectability can provide much comfort in a society gone insane.

In one chilling scene, a small child, possessed by the zombie madness, approaches her cowering, pleading mother with a sharp object in hand and demonstrates precocious butchering skills. The following year this scene would be repeated with scary precision for real by sons and daughters of the middle class answering to a zombie named Manson. The dead would rise and the culture would change forever, and no one could ever truly feel safe again.•

This week, Donald Trump Jr. was caught repeatedly lying about a meeting with Russians. The President quickly pivoted.

I never even met this guy.

But he’s your son.

No, he isn’t. He was conceived when Ivana had sex with a trout.

Papa!

 

• In 2017 America, some citizens believe the Earth is flat while others dream of an AI President.

• David Frum and Edward Luce seek solutions to our “modern-day Versailles.”

America’s gun obsession informs a left-wing militia and a right-wing town.

• Masha Gessen analyzes the Donald Trump Jr.–Russia revelations.

• Jeet Heer writes of a time of simulacra and our “first postmodern President.”

• In 1945, Henry Miller predicted humans would create a nuclear Disneyland.

• Naomi Klein discusses the “billionaire savior complex.”

Bob Stein offers sketches from 1982 of an “Intelligent Encyclopedia.”

• Old Print Article: Cherry Kearton photographs Penguin Island. (1931)

• A brief note from 1948 about Canadian space exploration.

• This week’s Afflictor keyphrase searches: Hunter S. Thompson, Gary Indiana.

In Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, first published in America in 1945, the expat author returns to his native land to occasionally admire the beauty but to mostly spit on the dirt. You could say that the writer was great at finding ugliness anywhere he roamed in the U.S., much the same way that Joan Didion always recognized looming collapse no matter where she landed–both were good at projecting the disquiet within onto any landscape–except that Miller took deep appreciation in many things, often hidden pieces of culture and art and history that delighted him. The book is largely a success, apart for the author’s boneheaded appreciation for the great things that a slave culture can produce.

Here are three passages of Miller’s darkest, most apocalyptic thoughts about humanity as it moved into a modern, technological age, the first two from the books’ preface and the third from the chapter “With Edgard Varèse in the Gobi Desert”:

As to whether I have been deceived, disillusioned…The answer is yes, I suppose. I had the misfortune to be nourished by the dreams and visions of great Americans–the poets and seers. Some other breed of man has won out. This world which is in the making fills me with dread. I have seen it germinate; I can read it like a blue-print. It is not a world I want to live in. It is a world suited for monomaniacs obsessed with the idea of progress–but a false progress, a progress which stinks. It is a world cluttered with useless objects which men and women, in order to be exploited and degraded, are taught to regard as useful. The dreamer whose dreams are non-utilitarian has no place in this world. Whatever does not lend itself to being bought and sold, whether in the realm of things, ideas, principles, dreams or hopes, is debarred. In this world the poet is anathema, the thinker a fool, the artist as escapist, the man of vision a criminal. …

Disney works fast–like greased lightning. That’s how we’ll all operate soon. What we dream we become. We’ll get the knack of it soon. We’ll learn how to annihilate the whole planet in the wink of an eye–just wait and see. ..

To-morrow all that we take for granted may wear a new face. New York may come to resemble Petra, the cursed city of Arabia. The corn fields may look like a desert. The inhabitants of our cities may be obliged to take to the woods and grub for food on all fours, like animals. It is not impossible. It is even quite probable. No part of this planet is immune once the spirit of self-destruction takes hold. The great organism called Society may break down into molecules and atoms; there may not be a vestige of any social form which could be called a body. What we call “society” may become one interrupted dissonance for which no resolving chord will ever be found. That too is possible.

We know only a small fraction of the history of man on this earth. It is a long, tedious painful record of catastrophic changes involving the disappearance of whole continents sometimes. We tell the story as though man were an innocent victim, a helpless participant in the erratic and unpredictable revolutions of Nature. Perhaps in the past he was. But not any longer. Whatever happens to this earth to-day is of man’s doing. Man has demonstrated that he is master of everything–except of his own nature. If yesterday he was a child of nature, to-day he is a responsible creature. He has reached a point of consciousness which permits him to lie to himself no longer. Destruction is now deliberate, voluntary, self-induced. We are at the node: we can go forward or relapse. We still have the power of choice. To-morrow we may not. It is because we refuse to make the choice that we are ridden with guilt, all of us, those who are making war and those who are not. We are all filled with murder. We loathe one another. We hate what we look like when we look into one another’s eyes. 

What is the magic word for this moment?•

It’s crazy out there in America right now. I mean, it’s always been crazy out there in America, but there’s never been a time, not even during the Civil War, when we’ve had so many ways to blow the whole thing up, the virtual means now joining the physical ones. It’s a mad mix of traitors, colluders, enablers, conspiracists, cranks, bots, anti-government zealots and guns, guns, guns. For a few in possession of weapons, even Timothy McVeigh has reached hero status.

Trump’s ultimate tumble into utter disgrace may rip the seams off the whole ball, or the unpleasantness may proceed in that direction regardless. Perhaps there’s no Civil War 2.0, but there will be repercussions, large-scale shocks, especially since the Trump Administration has turned Homeland Security away from domestic threats posed by militias. That storm will only gather more easily.

Two excerpts follow, the first about a left-wing, gun-loving militia and the second about the Nevada town where it’s illegal to not own a firearm.


From Cecilia Saixue Watt’s Guardian article “Redneck Revolt“:

A 31-year-old activist with long hair and a full bushy beard, [Max] Neely had a full day of political activism ahead of him: Donald Trump was in Harrisburg to mark his 100th day in office with a speech at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex. In other parts of the city, the liberal opposition were also readying themselves: organizations such as Keystone Progress, Dauphin County Democrats and the local Indivisible group planned to march in protest.

Neely’s group were not among them. Instead, they had set up a picnic site in a small park, offering a barbecue and leftist pamphlets. Someone had planted a bright red hammer-and-sickle flag in the grass. On a nearby table hung a black banner that bore the words “Redneck Revolt: anti-racist, pro-gun, pro-labor”.

“If you haven’t noticed, we aren’t liberals,” said Jeremy Beck, one of Neely’s cookout friends. “You know, if you keep going further left, eventually, you go left enough to get your guns back.”

Wooly liberals, they’re not. Redneck Revolt is a nationwide organization of armed political activists from rural, working-class backgrounds who strive to reclaim the term “redneck” and promote active anti-racism. It is not an exclusively white group, though it does take a special interest in the particular travails of the white poor. The organization’s principles are distinctly left-wing: against white supremacy, against capitalism and the nation-state, in support of the marginalized.

Pennsylvania is an open-carry state, where gun owners can legally carry firearms in public without concealment. Redneck Revolt members often see the practice of openly carrying a gun as a political statement: the presence of a visible weapon serves to intimidate opponents and affirm gun rights. Many of the cookout attendees owned guns, and had considered bringing them today – but ultimately they had decided to come unarmed, in the interest of keeping the event family-friendly.•


From “Under Siege by Liberals,” Lois Beckett’s Guardian reportage about a Nevada town with a name that sounds post-apocalyptic:

Nucla became nationally famous when it passed an ordinance requiring every household to own a gun five years ago – a move that is still wildly popular among residents. But past Nucla’s one minute of fame, locals worry about their beloved home becoming a ghost town.

In September, in the wake of a lawsuit from an environmental group, Nucla’s major employer, the local coal-fired power plant, announced that it would be shutting down in 2022. The coal mine that supplied the plant would be shutting down as well. In total, about 80 jobs were at risk – a huge number in a town whose population boasted, according to the 2010 census, only 711 people.

For locals, this decision was a death knell brought on by liberals who live in big cities. Nucla residents bristle at the warnings about the risk of exposure to radiation, and roll their eyes at A-listers like Darryl Hannah, the Hollywood actress known for Splash and Kill Bill, who joined the activism against the local uranium industry.

Liberals fighting against the mining industry are good at telling them no, residents say, but don’t present them with any alternatives – not ones that come with real salaries. Richard Craig, a former Nucla town board member, recalled a comment by a member of an environmental group saying during one of the contentious hearings: “Well, I don’t see why they don’t want to go live in the city.”

“It’s almost like – I hate using this word, it’s being used so often – it’s almost like a conspiracy: ‘We need to move everybody out of rural areas and go live in the cities and suburbs,’” Craig said.•

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Was looking at Public Domain Review and came across the famous photo above of early nature photographer Richard Kearton carrying a taxidermy ox which had been hollowed out to allow him or his brother, Cherry, to hide inside with a camera to achieve just the right image of one bird or another. (The lens protruded through a hole in the ox’s head.)

The proto-Attenborough siblings, whose brilliant careers began in the late 19th century, were the first, in 1892, to secure a shot of a bird’s nest with eggs. Their cumbersome, inconvenient tools necessitated that they be athletes, daredevils and magicians, Houdinis not interested in breaking free but in a kind of capture.

In 1931, George Currie of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reviewed a just-published book by Cherry, The Island of Penguins, about the months he and his second wife, opera soprano Ada Forrest, spent among the strange and beautiful black-footed birds.

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Pundits on Twitter and in the opinion pages are of two vastly different minds about the future of the Democrats: After Trump’s election–no matter how crooked it may have been–the party either needs to become far more centrist or must move way to the left. Either it focuses on the white working class and rurals or goes all in on minorities and urbans. Both stances would have a large impact on the type of policy we have, but when it comes to winning, the two camps may be overthinking things.

Identity politics are so important in our media-saturated society that having a candidate who speaks to key issues with authenticity (or at least projects that quality) is probably the most vital ingredient. I’m not saying it should be that way but just that it is.

The most successful Democratic Party is likely one that makes an effort to appeal to working-class people across the borders of race and religion, not an impossible feat. Focus on healthcare and the issues that face us all, and follow up in those areas if elected.

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Naomi Klein has her positives and negatives, but I think she makes a salient point in a Spiegel interview conducted by Christoph Scheuermann which coincided with the just-completed G-20 summit. In an America which has spent decades assailing regulations (Jimmy Carter was just as enthusiastic in this area as Ronald Reagan), has had candidates from both sides of the aisle attacking government (though Republicans with a religious zeal) and has failed to deliver on big promises thanks to fractiousness and dysfunction, billionaires are often viewed as private-sector saviors to make up for all that we lack. That goes for the sweater-clad, avuncular 2.0 version of Bill Gates, who was a raging asshole during his Microsoft reign, or Donald Trump, a make-believe businessman who screams like Gordon Ramsey and wants to bake the world.

An excerpt:

Spiegel:

Twenty years ago, you helped launch anti-globalization with your book, No Logo. Today it has become almost fashionable to campaign against the consequences of unrestrained capital flows. Has your criticism become part of the mainstream?

Naomi Klein:

I’ve never liked the term “globalization,” it sounds like you’re against the world. What we’re really talking about is the globalization of a specific economic model. The political right is hijacking legitimate frustration about people’s jobs, living standards, the ability to change the direction of the country you’re living in. This is the feeling that Trump, the Brexiters and Marine Le Pen are all tapping into, and they’re mixing it with xenophobic hatred of anything international, with hypernationalism and a toxic anti-immigrant, anti-United Nations, anti-everything global sentiment. The right has been able to do this because centrist political parties abandoned their traditional opposition to these types of policies. They ended up pushing the agenda even further, creating a vacuum for the right to go in. It’s very dangerous. …

Spiegel: 

You describe Trump’s rise as an almost inevitable consequence of the neoliberal project. Aren’t you fighting the same old enemy again?

Naomi Klein: 

Many liberals treat Trump like a martian who fell from the sky, who has nothing to do with the rest of us. I don’t think that’s true. The mainstream American culture was creating a context that Trump was uniquely qualified to exploit. The coverage of elections has come to resemble a reality show. It’s all about ratings, less about policy and content. That had started long before Trump ran for president. But if elections are nothing more than infotainment, then a reality TV show star is going to be much better at it than a traditional politician because they have those skills. There’s also this billionaire savior complex that has been building up around figures like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Michael Bloomberg, all liberal heroes. We’ve increasingly been outsourcing our big problems to foundations run by billionaires — pandemics, a failing education system — rather than treating these as collective problems for democracies to solve. …

Spiegel: 

What must happen for Americans to not vote for Trump again?

Naomi Klein: 

It has to be a two-fold argument. First, he lied to you when he said he’d protect your Social Security and your health care. Secondly, we have to have candidates who are going to bring universal public health care, make sure that your kids can afford to go to university and are going to create huge numbers of jobs by investing in public infrastructure.

Spiegel:

Many Trump voters lost their jobs because of globalization. Is that a cynical consequence of your own criticism?

Naomi Klein: 

The only person talking about working-class voters was Donald Trump. That is the tragedy, not that they voted for him. It’s an absurdity that Trump could pose as a savior of the working class, from his golden tower and his golden throne, but it shows how people have been abandoned by the Democrats. A lot of people just wanted to raise the middle finger to Washington. I do believe that there’s a portion of Trump’s working class base that is reachable. The terrain is fertile.•

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Just after Y2K fears subsided, America was struck by another disaster that shook the nation to its core, the Fox TV show Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? The program was a gross two-hour spectacle in which a woman was chosen by a supposedly rich man to become his insta-wife even though they barely knew one another. The broadcast provoked outrage for making a mockery of marriage, a traditional value (and financial arrangement) that had long been credited for holding together the fabric of our society. Despite a gigantic audience, the rerun was cancelled, apologies offered and an annulment hastily arranged.

In 2016, U.S. television is littered with thirsty aspiring brides and bachelors with no body hair nor brain cells. Nobody worries about such things anymore, the flood of programs washing away any resistance to a sideshow of emotionally destroyed civilians and celebrities providing cheap content for endless channels, a perhaps inevitable shift after a decentralized media had devastated legacy broadcasters. The platforms without any gatekeepers went even further, with flesh-and-blood chaos agents and Nazi bots roaming the landscape like so many Joy Divisions. 

In some ways, the loosening of traditional mores is good. Back in 2000, when the Fox pseudo-nuptials took place, no state in the country was close to allowing gay people to marry, and now those unions are legal across the land. How amazing. The flip side is that the constant shocks of our culture have numbed us to any sense of civility, even in a Presidential race. It was acceptable to a surprising number of citizens that the country be in the hands of a Reality TV star who’s a vicious racist and xenophobe and likely a traitor, an insomniac tweeter who knows nothing more than simple catchphrases and how to reflexively point fingers. 

That’s our strange, new abnormal. It’s unreal.

In “America’s First Postmodern President,” a New Republic piece by Jeet Heer, the journalist writes of society in a time of simulacra, citing the work of philosopher Jean Baudrillard. An excerpt:

For Baudrillard, “the perfect crime” was the murder of reality, which has been covered up with decoys (“virtual reality” and “reality shows”) that are mistaken for what has been destroyed. “Our culture of meaning is collapsing beneath our excess of meaning, the culture of reality collapsing beneath the excess of reality, the information culture collapsing beneath the excess of information—the sign and reality sharing a single shroud,” Baudrillard wrote in The Perfect Crime (1995). The Trump era is rich in such unreality. The president is not only a former reality-show star, but one whose fame is based more on performance than reality—on the idea that he’s a successful businessman. Although his real estate and gambling empire suffered massive losses in the early 1990s, and Trump’s “finances went into a tailspin,” he survived thanks to the superficial value of his brand, which he propped up though media manipulation.

In Baudrillard’s terms, Trump is a simulacra businessman, a copy of a reality that has no real existence. All sorts of simulacrum and decoy realities now flourish. Consider the popularity of conspiracy theories, evidence of a culture where it’s easy for fictional and semi-fictional narratives to spread like wildfire through social media. Trump loves spreading conspiracy theories about his enemies, and his enemies love spreading conspiracy theories about him. This propagation of fictions makes it difficult to build a convincing case against him.•

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Masha Gessen’s veteran Putin-watcher status and fierce intelligence have made her invaluable in this time of the Kremlin annexation of the White House, though I disagreed with her in March when she argued that Russiagate should be back-burnered in favor of the more mundane outrages emanating from the Oval Office on an almost daily basis:

Gessen has made it clear she doesn’t believe Russia is responsible for America electing an autocratic sociopath, and in the big picture she’s right.

I don’t doubt Kremlin interference one bit, nor that it was likely committed in concert with high-ranking members of the Trump campaign if not the President himself, but there’s no real excuse for nearly 63 million citizens voting for a candidate who was clearly a habitual liar, vicious demagogue and utter incompetent. That’s on us.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t aggressively strive for the truth in this gravely serious matter, and that arrests shouldn’t be made and impeachment be pursued if illegal activities can be proven. Certainly Congress would be investigating the matter at full throttle if a Democratic President had behaved in a similar manner, but partisan hackery has become a hallmark of the legislative branch.

In a Gessen piece published at the New York Review of Books, the reporter wonders why lies about Russian espionage are a more important to many in the media and the Intelligence Community than the avalanche of dishonesty Trump and his cabinet regularly send down the mountain. On this point, I’ll disagree with her.

She’s right that it would be foolish to focus on the Putin connection to the exclusion of the many other assaults on liberal governance we’re enduring nearly daily, but an American President conspiring with an adversarial foreign power to gain office–whether the machinations actually helped him win votes or not–would be a singular shock to the system. Destroying health care and lowering taxes on the highest earners would be awful policy, but it wouldn’t be treason. The suspicious activity proceeding the election may very well be.•

Mountains of information have been moved in the four months since, with Gessen altering her thinking somewhat after this week’s revelation that Trump Jr., Manafort and Kushner met with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya to potentially collect dirt on Hillary Clinton, which was, as the Gladstone “invite” stated, part of the Russian effort to install the senior Trump into the White House. I’m not sure if we’ve passed the preface of this scandal, perhaps the biggest political transgression in American history, but we’re still at least in the early chapters with far bigger shocks yet to arrive.

The opening of Gessen’s latest piece for the NYRB:

Some revelations aren’t very revealing. Following the release of Donald Trump Jr.’s email correspondence with publicist Rob Goldstone, we have learned that the Trump campaign would have been happy to receive from the Russian government damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Indeed they loved the idea. But we already knew that. In July 2016—six weeks after the Goldstone exchange—Donald Trump Sr. addressed the Putin government directly, in a news conference: “I tell you this, Russia: If you’re listening, I hope you can find the thirty thousand emails that are missing.” In effect, he openly invited the Russian government to hack Hillary Clinton’s email—which is far more than Donald Jr. welcomed in secret.

And still, the revelation is shocking. Indeed, it feels like it changes everything. After months of talk about what it would take to get Trump impeached, analysts are calling this the “smoking gun” that could actually bring his downfall. Why does the occasion feel so momentous (other than because we want it to be)? After all, we learned only that Don Jr. said in confidence roughly the same thing that his father said for all the world to hear. But the news has been as shocking as it has because, after all this time, we still have not learned to take Trump’s public utterances seriously.

Trump’s public statements and tweets pose an obvious challenge to conventional interpretation because he lies so often and so blatantly. (A recent New York Times analysis found that he had said “something untrue” on at least 75 percent of his days in office. “On days without an untrue statement, he is often absent from Twitter…”) But that is not all. His speech exposes us to a view of the world that is so strange, so antithetical to the norms of American political culture, that many Americans find it basically unbelievable. Through Trump’s statements, especially when they concern Russia—whether Trump is calling on Putin to hack Hillary or expressing his admiration for Putin’s gift for power, or promising to cooperate with Russia on securing America against cyber attacks—we get a glimpse of a world run by a fellowship of rich powerful men bound by no principles, beliefs, or understanding of history. This is indeed the world in which both Trump and Putin live.

There is, in other words, an underlying truth to all of Trump’s lies (and occasional non-lies). His statements reveal his understanding of the world.•

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I’m trying to remember the first time I heard about a startup hoping to sell “electronic newspapers,” a tabloid-sized device birthed by numerous sci-fi fantasies that would dynamically update as fresh reports were filed. Web 1.0? 2.0? I don’t know, but I recall these devices weren’t necessarily to be owned but were to be available on mass transit. I’m pretty sure the initial company I heard of endeavoring in this area was Japanese.

It’s all a retrofuture dream now, a fog of the recent past, as reality rushed by this alternate scenario, with tablets and, soon thereafter, smartphones, consigning it to the dustbin. Two years before the introduction of the iPad, an electronic newspaper plus, the vision still lived, its proponents unable to anticipate what was arriving. The opening of Eric A. Taub’s 2008 NYT report:

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — The electronic newspaper, a large portable screen that is constantly updated with the latest news, has been a prop in science fiction for ages. It also figures in the dreams of newspaper publishers struggling with rising production and delivery costs, lower circulation and decreased ad revenue from their printed product.

While the dream device remains on the drawing board, Plastic Logic now has a version of an electronic newspaper reader: a lightweight plastic screen that mimics the look – but not the feel – of a printed newspaper.

The device uses the same technology as the Sony Reader and Amazon.com’s Kindle, a highly legible black-and-white display developed by E Ink. While both of those devices are intended primarily as book readers, Plastic Logic’s device, still unnamed in advance of its formal unveiling Monday at an emerging-technology trade show in San Diego, has a screen more than twice as large. The size of a piece of copier paper, it can be continually updated via a wireless link, and it can store and display hundreds of pages of newspapers, books and documents.

Richard Archuleta, chief executive of Plastic Logic, said the display was big enough to provide a layout like a newspaper’s. “Even though we have positioned this for business documents, newspapers is what everyone asks for,” Archuleta said. 

The reader is to go on sale in the first half of next year.•

Long before Apple placed innovations cribbed from the Xerox Alto inside attractive, portable hardware, Alan Kay worked on the Dynabook, an “Intelligent Encyclopedia” tablet that had drawing and musical capacity. It wasn’t to be a newspaper really but more of a tool and a portable library. Stewart Brand wrote of the proposed invention in his seminal 1972 Rolling Stone article, “Space Wars: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums”:

Alan is designing a hand-held stand-alone interactive-graphic computer (about the size, shape and diversity of a Whole Earth Catalog, electric) called “Dynabook.” It’s mostly high-resolution display screen, with a keyboard on the lower third and various cassette-loading slots, optional hook-up plugs, etc. His colleague Bill English describes the fantasy. thus:

It stores a couple of million characters of text and does all the text handling for you – editing, viewing, scanning, things of that nature. It’ll have a graphics capability which’ll let you make sketches, make drawings. Alan wants to incorporate music in it so you can use it for composing. It has the Smalltalk language capability which lets people program their own things very easily. We want to interface them with a tinker-toy kind of thing. And of course it plays Spacewar.”

The drawing capability is a program that Kay designed called “Paintbrush.” Working with a stylus on the display screen, you reach up and select a shape of brush, then move the brush over and pick up a shade of half-tone-screen you like, then paint with it. If you make a mistake, paint it out with “white.” The screen simultaneously displays the image you’re working on and a one-third reduction of it, where the dot pattern becomes a shaded half-tone.

A Dynabook could link up with other Dynabooks, with library facilities, with the telephone, and it could go and hide where a child hides. Alan is determined to keep the cost below $500 so that school systems could provide Dynabooks free out of their textbook budgets. If Xerox Corporation decides to go with the concept, the Dynabooks could be available in two or three years, but that’s up to Product Development, not Alan or the Research Center. Peter Deutsch comments: ‘Processors and memories are getting smaller and cheaper. Five years ago the idea of the Dynabook would have been a absolutely ridiculous. Now it merely seems difficult….”

And eventually the Dynabook was to break free of its casing and become ambient. From a Time piece in 2013:

Ninety-five percent of the Dynabook idea was a “service conception,” and five percent had to do with physical forms, of which only one — the slim notebook — is generally in the public view. (The other two were an extrapolated version of Ivan Sutherland’s head mounted display, and an extrapolated version of Nicholas Negroponte’s ideas about ubiquitous computers embedded and networked everywhere.)

Kay never managed to get the proper funding to realize his ambition, and he was sorely disappointed by Jobs’ version. I bring this up because his machine is the subject of “The Atari Drawings: 1982,” a cool Medium article by computer pioneer Bob Stein, who sketched their shared futuristic vision when they worked together at the post-Bushnell version of the computer-game company. The author chides himself for not recognizing the importance of connectivity, although the “Space Wars” article makes it clear this aspect was always a potential use of the Dynabook. The brief opening (and one illustration):

In 1981 Alan Kay asked me to join him at Atari to continue my work on the idea of an Intelligent Encyclopedia. In order to explain what we were doing to the executives at Warner which owned Atari, I developed these scenarios of how the (future) encyclopedia might be used and commissioned Glenn Keane, a well-known Disney animator to render them. The most interesting thing for me today about these images is that although we foresaw that people would access information wirelessly (notice the little antenna on the device in the “tide pool” image, we completely missed the most important aspect of the network — that it was going to connect people to each other.

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A phrase I began using (overusing) in 2015 is “the American people won’t forever settle for bread and Kardashians.” That played out in a shockingly horrible fashion when Donald Trump, a Simon Cowell-ish strongman, was elected to the highest office of the land (with, it would appear very likely, the cooperation of the Kremlin).

The non-treasonous means he employed to win were to move the GOP far to the right on some issues and to the left on others. In the latter category, his promises were more than just the usual election-year exaggerations–they were the cruelest lies. Trump has no interest in extending and improving healthcare or preserving Medicare or Social Security. He’s the iceman cometh, intent on policies that would literally kill off swaths of his base.

In a Vox Q&A, David Frum questions Edward Luce about his new book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism. The interviewer wonders if the economic problems in the U.S. and UK can be cured in the short run by three measures: thicker social insurance, less dynamic labor markets and less immigration. The first would be helpful, the second unrealistic and the third a very bad idea. Unskilled immigrants do the jobs Americans will not do. Entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists from abroad create jobs and propel progress. International students welcomed into our universities often pay full tuition so that less-privileged U.S. students don’t have to. Refusing this bounty from beyond our borders would be a self-inflicted wound, a brain-drain that would make us poorer and less secure.

One exchange:

David Frum:

We talked earlier about the role of elite demophobia as you called it, oikophobia as you called it. The book bears on its cover an endorsement from Larry Summers, and on its back are others of the great and good. This is not written for the talk radio audience. It is written for the Davos inhabitants whom you scorn on the inside of the book.

What is the summons to the people who are doing well in the present dispensation here? What do you think are their responsibilities? How do you persuade them to think in a larger, longer-term way than they seem to be doing right now?

Edward Luce:

I totally agree with the supposition of your question, and I’ve thought about this. I’ve thought about the fact, well who’s my book going to be read by? Who’s the Financial Times read by? It’s not typically read by the left-behinds. The same goes for Vox and the Atlantic.

But actually, this is the relevant market, and my book is written for what I think are still — in spite of everything that has happened — the complacent elites in our society. One of the pieces of evidence of their complacency is this tendency to talk about the other half as deplorable, and to mark them off. This is not a sign of thinking. It is not a sign of addressing what I think are addressable problems.

So what would I recommend for converting elites to the point of view I’m trying to argue?

To recognize that if you live, as we increasingly do, in a sort of modern-day Versailles, eventually that palace gets burnt down. You cannot wall yourself off from the people in society. There’s no Hunger Games that ends well.

And to recognize that your wealth comes from society. It has a social basis, however individually talented you are. You would not be wealthy if it weren’t for society. You can fantasize about living in gated communities that have robots as security guards, and drones delivering your goods, and, you know, no humans actually employed. But they’re still there, and they’re going to make life difficult for you. You’re not going to be sleeping well at night.

That’s the scare-the-kids version. The better way of putting that is to appeal to people’s enlightened self-interest. I continue to believe America is a country that can lead the world in enlightened self-interest. Take the Marshall Plan: America is the country that coined the term pragmatism. That’s an American philosophy. I don’t think it’s dead, but I think it’s not something the elites are as familiar with as they should be, and must be.•

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“Progress isn’t always a straight line,” exclaimed President Obama in the wake of our stunning 2016 Presidential election, clinging as best he could to the audacious hope that always floated him in the past. He probably could have safely gone a step further and said that it never moves in a straight line, progress and regress always coexisting, even in the brightest and darkest moments.

· · ·

Giant leaps in technology provoke some to the extremes, with one group embracing the future too tightly and another balling up into a fetal position.

Case in point: In the same decade humans set foot on the moon, the most soaring technological achievement of our species, Sir Edmund Hillary went on an expedition to the Himalayas to search for the Abominable Snowman. There are still some among us all these years later who believe Yeti roams the Earth and the moonwalk was faked.

· · ·

As long as the Earth is around, they’ll be those who wrongly argue that it’s flat.

Few did so more vehemently than evangelist Wilbur Glenn Voliva, one of the most famous advocates of Flat Earth theories in America during the first half of the 20th century. In 1906, the preacher gained power over the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion, Illinois. He turned the community of 6,000 into a multi-pronged industrial concern, taking advantage of the very low wages he paid members of his flock. By the 1920s, Voliva owned one of the most powerful radio stations in the nation from which to preach his anti-science views, a forerunner of the many dicey religious figures to come who would mix mass and media.

While Voliva despised globes, it was the advent of aerial photography that dimmed but did not end his career. After all, despite any proof, some still see what they want to see.

· · · 

Many government jobs will likely be automated out of existence in the coming decades, but President?!

During the last American Presidential election, Transhumanist candidate Zoltan Istvan enthusiastically anticipated an age of techno-fascism, the complete removal of humans from politics in favor of an Artificial Intelligence dictator. He said this to BBC Future

“I’ve advocated for an artificial intelligence to become president one day. If we had a truly altruistic entity that was after the best interests of society maybe giving up at least some freedoms would be beneficial if that was truly in our best interests. What’s happened in the past is we’ve had dictators who are selfish, and they’ve done an absolutely terrible job of running countries. But what if you actually had somebody who really was after your best interests, wouldn’t you want him on your team?”

Istvan envisions regular elections, in which “voters would decide on the robot’s priorities,” which isn’t very comforting in a country that saw nearly 63 million turn the lever for Donald Trump.

· · ·

Two excerpts follow about this Digital Age divide, one about some recoiling from even common sense and a second piece about those rushing headlong into an algorithmic embrace.


The opening of Graham Ambrose’s Denver Post article “These Coloradans say Earth is flat. And gravity’s a hoax. Now, they’re being persecuted“:

Every Tuesday at 6 p.m., three dozen Coloradans from every corner of the state assemble in the windowless back room of a small Fort Collins coffee shop. They have met 16 times since March, most nights talking through the ins and outs of their shared faith until the owners kick them out at closing.

They have no leaders, no formal hierarchy and no enforced ideology, save a common quest for answers to questions about the stars. Their membership has slowly swelled in the past three years, though persecution and widespread public derision keep them mostly underground. Many use pseudonyms, or only give first names.

“They just do not want to talk about it for fear of reprisals or ridicule from co-workers,” says John Vnuk, the group’s founder who lives in Fort Collins.

He is at the epicenter of a budding movement, one that’s coming for your books, movies, God and mind. They’re thousands strong — perhaps one in every 500 — and have proponents at the highest levels of science, sports, journalism and arts.

They call themselves Flat Earthers. Because they believe Earth — the blue, majestic, spinning orb of life — is as flat as a table.

And they want you to know. Because it’s 2017.

“This is a new awakening,” Vnuk says with a spark in his earth-blue eyes. “Some will accept it, some won’t. But love it or hate it, you can’t ignore Flat Earth.”•


From Michael Linhorst’s Politico Magazine piece “Could a Robot Be President?“:

A small group of scientists and thinkers believes there could be an alternative, a way to save the president—and the rest of us—from him- or herself. As soon as technology advances far enough, they think we should put a computer in charge of the country. Yes, it sounds nuts. But the idea is that artificial intelligence could make America’s big, complicated decisions better than any person could, without the drama or shortsightedness that we grudgingly accept from our human presidents.

If you’re imagining a Terminator-style machine sitting behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office, think again. The president would more likely be a computer in a closet somewhere, chugging away at solving our country’s toughest problems. Unlike a human, a robot could take into account vast amounts of data about the possible outcomes of a particular policy. It could foresee pitfalls that would escape a human mind and weigh the options more reliably than any person could—without individual impulses or biases coming into play. We could wind up with an executive branch that works harder, is more efficient and responds better to our needs than any we’ve ever seen.

There’s not yet a well-defined or cohesive group pushing for a robot in the Oval Office—just a ragtag bunch of experts and theorists who think that futuristic technology will make for better leadership, and ultimately a better country. Mark Waser, for instance, a longtime artificial intelligence researcher who works for a think tank called the Digital Wisdom Institute, says that once we fix some key kinks in artificial intelligence, robots will make much better decisions than humans can. Natasha Vita-More, chairwoman of Humanity+, a nonprofit that “advocates the ethical use of technology to expand human capacities,” expects we’ll have a “posthuman” president someday—a leader who does not have a human body but exists in some other way, such as a human mind uploaded to a computer. Zoltan Istvan, who made a quixotic bid for the presidency last year as a “transhumanist,” with a platform based on a quest for human immortality, is another proponent of the robot presidency—and he really thinks it will happen.

“An A.I. president cannot be bought off by lobbyists,” he says. “It won’t be influenced by money or personal incentives or family incentives. It won’t be able to have the nepotism that we have right now in the White House. These are things that a machine wouldn’t do.”

The idea of a robot ruler has been floating around in science fiction for decades. In 1950, Isaac Asimov’s short story collection I, Robot envisioned a world in which machines appeared to have consciousness and human-level intelligence. They were controlled by the “Three Laws of Robotics.” (First: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”) Super-advanced A.I. machines in Iain Banks’ Culture series act as the government, figuring out how best to organize society and distribute resources. Pop culture—like, more recently, the movie Her—has been hoping for human-like machines for a long time.

But so far, anything close to a robot president was limited to those kinds of stories. Maybe not for much longer. In fact, true believers like Istvan say our computer leader could be here in less than 30 years.•

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