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There are three reasons, I think, why our culture is so often fixated on apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios:

1) These nightmares are a warning shot, a clarion call, maybe Cassandra’s cautions, about a calamity of our making. Climate change, for instance, or perhaps some other end of our own design. It could be that a highly technological society has embedded within in it an endgame that is inexorable. 

2) We have an innate fear of the finish line because whether we doom ourselves or not, ruin awaits us all, as individuals and as a species. Even our planet won’t ultimately escape the dying of the sun.

3) Or maybe these are sort of a comforting fantasy in a strange way. Perhaps some part of us wishes it would all go away: the discomfiting whirring, surveilling buzz of postmodern life. It could be that down deep quiet seems preferable, the ON switches out of reach. Of course, the cruel joke is that our technological tomorrow will be quiet and ambient, and there will be no switches.

In “William Gibson Has a Theory About Our Cultural Obsession With Dystopias,” a smart New York Q&A conducted by Abraham Riesman, one of the great seers of our time discusses the meaning of our dead-end inventions. In an echo of his famous line about the future, the author says dystopia is already here, though it’s “not very evenly distributed.” The opening:


How do you account for the recent surge in popular fiction about the collapse of civilization into dystopia or Armageddon?

William Gibson:

This could be a case of consumers of a particular kind of pop culture trying to tell us something, alas. Seriously, what I find far more ominous is how seldom, today, we see the phrase “the 22nd century.” Almost never. Compare this with the frequency with which the 21st century was evoked in popular culture during, say, the 1920s.


Do you mean it’s ominous because people are so pessimistic that they can’t even imagine a future?

William Gibson:

Well, that’s the question — why don’t we? I don’t know.


Why do you think we, as a culture, are so endlessly obsessed with stories about last-ditch attempts to stave off the end of the world?

William Gibson:

The end of the world is universal shorthand for whatever we don’t want to happen. We have very little control over anything much at all, individually, so fantasies of staving off the end of the world are fairly benign fantasies of increased agency.


What grim future do you fear most? A brutal dystopia? A nuked-out wasteland? A chaotic world war?

William Gibson:

I don’t think of those as very distinct states. It’s certainly possible to have all three at once.•


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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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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.”•

From the December 11, 1946 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:


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?•

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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Oriana Fallaci and Norman Mailer, the Electra and Oedipus of the Apollo space program, were two writers with egos massive enough to observe humankind’s mission to the Moon as not only material for New Journalism reportage of an historical quest but also as backdrop to investigations of their own psyches. In 1967, the year after Fallaci published If the Sun Dies… and two years before Mailer stormed through a series of long-form articles for Life magazine that became Of a Fire on the Moonthe pair sat down for an interview with Fallaci serving as the inquisitor. In Mailer’s face–“noble and vulgar,” she called it–Fallaci claimed to be searching for America. It actually wasn’t a bad place to look: Like his country, Mailer could be at turns soaringly brilliant and shockingly brutal–and completely delusional about his behavior in regards to the latter. His remarks about domestic violence, for instance, were beyond horrifying, and they unfortunately weren’t merely macho showboating. The discussion opened Fallaci’s collection of (mostly) non-political interrogations, The Egotists. Three excerpts follow.

Oriana Fallaci:

The problem I want to talk about is a difficult one, but we have to deal with it. The fact is we Europeans used to love you Americans. When you came to liberate us twenty years ago, we used to look up to you as if you were angels. And now many of us don’t love you anymore; indeed some hate you. Today the United States might be the most hated country in the world.

Norman Mailer:

You used to love us because love is hope, and we Americans were your hope. And also, perhaps, because twenty years ago we were a better people, although not as good as you believed then–the seeds of the present ugliness were already there. The soldiers with whom I fought in the Pacific, for example, were a little better than the ones who are fighting now in Vietnam, but not by much. We were quite brutal even then. One could write a novel about Vietnam along the lines of The Naked and the Dead, and the characters would not need to be worse than they are in the book.The fact is that you have lost the hope you have vested in us, and so you have lost your love; therefore you see us in a much worse light than you did before, and you don’t understand that the roots of our ugliness are the old ones. It is true that the evil forces in America have triumphed only after the war–with the enormous growth of corporations and the transformation of man into mass-man, the alienation of men from their own existence–but these forces were already there in Roosevelt’s time. Roosevelt, you see, was a great President, but he wasn’t a great thinker. Indeed, he was a very superficial one. When he took power, America stood at a crossroad; either a proletarian revolution would take place or capitalism would enter a new phase. What happened was that capitalism took a new turn, transforming itself into a subtle elaboration of state capitalism–it is not by chance that the large corporations in effect belong to the government. They belong to the right. And just as the Stalinists have murdered Marxism, so these bastards of the right are now destroying what is good in American life. They are the same people who build the expressways, who cut the trees, who pollute the air and the water, who transform life into a huge commodity.

Oriana Fallaci:

We Europeans are also very good at this. I mean this is not done by only right-wing Americans.

Norman Mailer:

Of course. It is a worldwide process. But its leader is America, and this is why we are hated. We are the leaders of the technological revolution that is taking over the twentieth century, the electronic revolution that is dehumanizing mankind.•

Norman Mailer:

I still have hope you seem to have lost. Because of the youth. Some of them are subhuman, but most of them are intelligent.

Oriana Fallaci:

That is true. But they are also stuffed with drugs, violence, LSD. Does that help your hoping?

Norman Mailer:

Theirs is an extraordinary complex generation to live in. The best thing I can say about them is that I can’t understand them. The previous generation, the one fifteen years ago, was so predictable, without surprises. This one is a continuing surprise. I watch the young people of today, I listen to them, and l realize that I’m not twenty years older than they are but a hundred. Perhaps because in five years they went through changes that usually take half a century to complete, their intelligence has been speeded up so incredibly that there is no contact between them and the generation around thirty. Not to speak of those around forty or fifty. Yes, I know that this does not happen only in America; this too is a global process. But the psychology of American youth is more modern than that of any other group in the world; it belongs not to 1967 but to 2027. If God could see what would happen in the future–as he perhaps does–he would see people everywhere acting and thinking in 2027 as American youth do now. It’s true they take drugs. But they don’t take the old drugs such as heroin and cocaine that produce only physical reactions and sensations and dull you at the same time. They take LSD, a drug that can help you explore your mind. Now let’s get this straight: I can’t justify the use of LSD. I know too well that you don’t get something for nothing, and it may well be that we’ll pay a tragic price for LSD: it seems that it can break the membrane of the chromosomes in the cells and produce who knows what damage in future children. But LSD is part of a search, a desperate search, as if all these young people felt at the same time the need to explore as soon as possible their minds so as to avoid a catastrophe. Technology has stripped our minds until we have become like pygmies driving chariots drawn by dinosaurs. Now, if we want to keep the dinosaurs in harness, our minds will have to develop at a forced pace, which will require a frightening effort. The young have felt the need to harness the dinosaurs, and if they have found the wrong means, it’s still better than nothing. My fear had been that America was slowly freezing and hardening herself in a pygmy’s sleep. But no, she’s awake.•

Norman Mailer:

Damn it, I don’t like violence. But there’s something I like even less, and that’s a need for security. It smells of the grave and forces you to react with blood. 

Oriana Fallaci:

You dislike violence? You who knifed a wife and can’t miss a boxing match?

Norman Mailer:

The knife in my wife’s belly was a crime. It was a grave crime, but it had nothing to do with violence. And as for the fights, well, boxing is not violence. It’s a conversation, an exchange between two men who talk to each other with their hands instead of their voices: hitting at the ear, the nose, the mouth, the belly, instead of hitting at each other’s minds. Boxing is a noble art. When a man fights in a ring, he is not expressing brutality. He expresses a complex, subtle nature like that of a true intellectual, a real aristocrat. A pugilist is less brutal, or not at all brutal after a fight, because with his fists he transforms violence into something beautiful, noble and disciplined. It’s a real triumph of the spirit. No, I’m not violent. To be violent means to pick fights, and I can’t remember ever having started a fight. Nor can I remember ever having hit a woman–a strange woman, I mean. I may have hit a wife, but that’s different. If you are married you have two choices: either you beat your wife, or you don’t. Some people live their whole life without ever beating her, others maybe beat her once and thereon are labeled “violent.” I like to marry women whom I can beat once in a while, and who fight back. All my wives have been very good fighters. Perhaps I need women who are capable of violence, to offset my own. Am I not American, after all? But the act of hitting is hateful because it implies a judgement, and judgement itself is hateful. Not that I think of myself as being a good man in the Christian sense. But at certain times I have a clear consciousness of what is good and what is evil, and then my concept of the good resembles that of the Christian.•

Can’t name a thinker from the second half of the 20th century who was more right about the seismic changes that were to come than Marshall McLuhan. Not Andy Warhol or Jane Jacobs or George Carlin or Malcolm X or anyone. I wonder if he doubted all he’d said when he was cast from the zeitgeist and accused of being a mountebank as his celebrity faded. Likely he still knew he was largely correct.

A McLuhan quote rebounding around Twitter today: “World War III [will be] a guerrilla information war with no division between military & civilian participation.” That line, from 1970’s Culture Is Our Business, sums up the destabilized, decentralized state of life in 2017 in the wake of a Presidential election fought by bot armies. There was a time not too long ago, during the Arab Spring, when social media was greeted as a liberator, but now we have direct evidence all that connectedness has delivered a permanent state of anarchy. The term chaos agent, long used to describe individuals, is today an apt descriptor for the most popular medium. 

What the theorist feared most of all was the Global Village, the reality that we were all becoming one tribe because of satellites and other communication enablers. It may have seemed especially misanthropic during the decade that gave us the Summer of Love, but it was really just a practical concern. And now that we’re a computerized society, all living in the same room, the technologies will endeavor to bring us even closer–inside of each other’s heads in unprecedented ways.

In “DARPA’s Ex-Leader’s Speculative Dream of Mind-Melding Empathy,” Alexis Madrigal of the Atlantic writes of Arati Prabhakar’s Aspen Ideas Festival speech about a radical vision of increasing connectedness. The journalist, very appropriately, believes it may create a nightmare. An excerpt:

Then she delivered the true Utopian dream:

“Imagine if we could connect among ourselves in new and deeper ways and imagine if those connections happened in a way that gave us so much empathy and understanding of each other that we could put our minds together, literally, to take on some of the world’s hardest problems.”

She did not expound on the image, but one imagines she’s thinking about a kind of direct brain-to-brain interface.

DARPA has, after all, invested a lot in direct electronic brain interfaces. In one research program, they’re working on “intuitive” neural interfaces for controlling prosthetic limbs. In another, they’re creating “an implantable neural interface able to provide advanced signal resolution and data-transfer bandwidth between the brain and electronics.” The goal there is to create a translator between “the electrochemical language used by neurons in the brain and the ones and zeroes that constitute the language of information technology.”

And once you’ve got intuitive neural controls and a translator that lets you send brain signals into computers and back again, it does not seem an incredible leap to hook two (or … a million?) humans up together.

“If we could get to that future, we would look back at today’s reality and it would look like black-and-white,” Prabhakar said. “It would look like flatland.”•


Loved the long centerpiece of Garry Kasparov’s Deep Thinking, in which perhaps the greatest chess champion of all recreates his epic 1996 and 1997 matches with Deep Blue, the IBM program that ultimately toppled him–and by extension, us. The barrage of machinations employed by the computer company are fascinating and worthy of Cold War spooks, which makes this section read like an espionage thriller married to insightful sportswriting.

The rest of the book is an interesting meditation on the intelligent machines that increasingly surround us, consume us, though Kasparov’s argument that we should stop worrying and learn to love the “bomb” doesn’t completely convince because he gives short shrift to the many potential pitfalls.

A few random thoughts.

· · ·

While Steven Levy’s cover line, “The Brain’s Last Stand,” was a great way to sell his Newsweek article that previewed the second match, it also was a simplification of a complex point. There’s no one instant when intelligent machines absolutely surpass us, no Turing Test or ego-deflating checkmate, Watson win or Singularity moment can do the trick. It’s a gradual process. Apollo 11’s success, IBM’s victory and Deep Learning’s mysterious prowess are all part of an eerie landscape in which there is no Main Street. The landmarks are scattered and continually being built.

Kasparov makes this point himself in depicting the titanic contests as great theater and personally taxing but almost completely beside the point. He knew that even if he triumphed in ’97, the machines would soon far surpass their carbon-based competitors. Kasparov might have staved off IBM long enough to avoid being the one to “earn” the John Henry tag, but soon enough the number one player in the world, whoever that may have been, was going down.

· · ·

Early in the volume, on page 47, Kasparov tries to relate to people whose livelihoods, and sometimes communities, have been devastated by technological innovation (in tandem with globalization), arguing that “few people in the world know better than I do what it’s like to have your life’s work threatened by a machine.” Hmm, it would seem that a brilliant, world-famous, fairly well-off guy in his thirties would be fine even if he was shoved aside by AI, but maybe he was truly terrified like those who hope the plant in Ohio doesn’t kick them to the curb.

Later that very same page, however, Kasparov writes: “Nor did I believe the apocalyptic predictions about what might happen if I lost a match to a machine. I was always optimistic about the future of chess in a digital age.” Whew, crisis averted! 

The author sees a progression in which for a period of indeterminate length humans and machines collaborate on many forms of work until our silicon sisters take full control of these processes and we move on to other more important matters. That’s probably correct, but it’s not so likely to unfold as neatly off the page, especially since industries can rise and fall far more quickly during a technological boom.

Think how rapidly CDs went from the most successful format in music-business history to being almost worthless when the sounds disappeared into the 0s and 1s. Consider that Blockbuster and Polaroid and Fotomat went under during just the first wave of the Internet. Even if the aggregate job numbers don’t end up diminished, discomfiting displacement may become a permanent feature of life, as we’re all engaged in a never-ending game of musical chairs. That can’t be healthy for a society. From an economic standpoint, you wouldn’t want to be a nation that misses out on the Digital Age, but things could, and probably will, get messy. Some will be seated comfortably and many will fall to the floor.

· · ·

I’m working from memory, but I think Kasparov dedicates about three pages to the thorny problems of surveillance, privacy, hacking, etc. That’s not nearly adequate. As physical objects from cars to refrigerators to personal assistants are computerized and seamlessly integrated into our lives, these issues will become enormous. Actually, they already are. The author believes these complications to be fixable bugs.

The main problem with his reasoning is it assumes there must be reasonable answers to vexing Digital Era questions. That’s not necessarily so. Perhaps there’s no taming the anarchy of a “smart” world that’s super-connected. Certainly Kasparov’s arch-nemesis Vladimir Putin wouldn’t have been able to influence the Brexit and U.S. Presidential votes without linked computers, those chaos agents. Mayhem may be baked so deeply into the new tools that the havoc is inseparable–and insuperable. It could even be that a highly technological society, a deeply connected and heavily sensored one, ultimately destroys itself. I don’t believe that scenario plausible, but it’s irresponsible to not consider it possible.

Those challenges are just the ones we’re aware of. Nobody knew a century ago that the internal combustion engine would soon create an existential threat. Tomorrow’s tools will be far more powerful and so probably will be their unintended consequences.

· · ·

In one passage, Kasparov asserts that his quote from 1989 in which he predicted AI would become world champion before a woman did wasn’t sexist. Well, perhaps that’s so, but the suspicion seems more understandable if you know the context the author has omitted. If anyone in 1989 suspected Kasparov was deeply sexist that’s because in 1989 Kasparov was deeply sexist.

From a Playboy Interview that year:


How about women chess players?

Garry Kasparov:

Well, in the past, I have said that there is real chess and women’s chess. Some people don’t like to hear this, but chess does not fit women properly. It’s a fight, you know? A big fight. It’s not for women. Sorry. She’s helpless if she has men’s opposition. I think this is very simple logic. It’s the logic of a fighter, a professional fighter. Women are weaker fighters.

There is also the aspect of creativity in chess. You have to create new ideas. That’s quite difficult, too. Chess is the combination of sport, art and science. In all these fields, you can see men’s superiority. Just compare the sexes in literature, in music or in art. The result is, you know, obvious. Probably the answer is in the genes.


Do you realize that you’re expressing a sexist point of view, and that Western women will be enraged by it?

Garry Kasparov:

Yes, but I’m not concerned. I’m sure that women can do many things better than men in many fields. I think it’s wrong to want to be compared all the time, to want to be equal in everything. Men and women are different.•

Two daughters and two decades later, Kasparov was far more enlightened when questioned by the same magazine:


Why are there relatively few women chess players?

Garry Kasparov:

Tradition. How many women composers are there? Architects? Things are changing in this. We have Judit Polgar, who proved a woman can make the top 10, though she didn’t come even close to number one.•

Okay, sexism would have been a more apt word choice than tradition, but I don’t blame Kasparov from wanting to recoil from his earlier misogyny, seeing how he’s apparently grown past it. But disappearing this failing removes an important lesson: Humans, like intelligent machines, can learn and grow in surprising ways.

· · ·

In “A Brutal Intelligence: AI, Chess, and the Human Mind,” Nicholas Carr reviews Kasparov’s title for the Los Angeles Review of Books, making interesting observations about the limits of blunt-force computing and the very nature of chess. Carr notes that our type of thinking will likely be beyond the reach of computers into the long-term future but worries that “brutally efficient calculations” will become more valued than the inexpressible nuances of human thought. An excerpt:

The history of computer chess is the history of artificial intelligence. After their disappointments in trying to reverse-engineer the brain, computer scientists narrowed their sights. Abandoning their pursuit of human-like intelligence, they began to concentrate on accomplishing sophisticated, but limited, analytical tasks by capitalizing on the inhuman speed of the modern computer’s calculations. This less ambitious but more pragmatic approach has paid off in areas ranging from medical diagnosis to self-driving cars. Computers are replicating the results of human thought without replicating thought itself. If in the 1950s and 1960s the emphasis in the phrase “artificial intelligence” fell heavily on the word “intelligence,” today it falls with even greater weight on the word “artificial.”

Particularly fruitful has been the deployment of search algorithms similar to those that powered Deep Blue. If a machine can search billions of options in a matter of milliseconds, ranking each according to how well it fulfills some specified goal, then it can outperform experts in a lot of problem-solving tasks without having to match their experience or insight. More recently, AI programmers have added another brute-force technique to their repertoire: machine learning. In simple terms, machine learning is a statistical method for discovering correlations in past events that can then be used to make predictions about future events. Rather than giving a computer a set of instructions to follow, a programmer feeds the computer many examples of a phenomenon and from those examples the machine deciphers relationships among variables. Whereas most software programs apply rules to data, machine-learning algorithms do the reverse: they distill rules from data, and then apply those rules to make judgments about new situations.

In modern translation software, for example, a computer scans many millions of translated texts to learn associations between phrases in different languages. Using these correspondences, it can then piece together translations of new strings of text. The computer doesn’t require any understanding of grammar or meaning; it just regurgitates words in whatever combination it calculates has the highest odds of being accurate. The result lacks the style and nuance of a skilled translator’s work but has considerable utility nonetheless. Although machine-learning algorithms have been around a long time, they require a vast number of examples to work reliably, which only became possible with the explosion of online data. Kasparov quotes an engineer from Google’s popular translation program: “When you go from 10,000 training examples to 10 billion training examples, it all starts to work. Data trumps everything.”

The pragmatic turn in AI research is producing many such breakthroughs, but this shift also highlights the limitations of artificial intelligence. Through brute-force data processing, computers can churn out answers to well-defined questions and forecast how complex events may play out, but they lack the understanding, imagination, and common sense to do what human minds do naturally: turn information into knowledge, think conceptually and metaphorically, and negotiate the world’s flux and uncertainty without a script. Machines remain machines.

That fact hasn’t blunted the public’s enthusiasm for AI fantasies.•

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Trump will eventually be flushed down the vortex along with other waste products swirling around him, I’m fairly certain at this point, but as an amateur student of human psychology I’d be fascinated to know if he’s fully wrapped his declining brain around this scenario. Is it within his mental powers to grasp that some combination of potential financial crimes, traitorous activity and obstruction of justice could end up with him laundering prison clothes rather than moneyAs I’ve mentioned, I don’t think America is saved when Trump is toppled, but his ouster is necessary if we’re to have a chance to rescue our Republic and reform our government. Or maybe we’ll end up in another Civil War. Either or.

Elizabeth Drew, the great correspondent of the Watergate Era, cautions that any Trump impeachment process must be a gradual and bilateral one. Of course, we live in a faster age and a far more divided one, so I don’t know if that’s possible. It’s not that I don’t think McConnell and Ryan and the rest wouldn’t kick a sad old goat from a cliff to save their own hides, but I’m not sure that if Russian collusion is proved that it doesn’t pull way more Republicans over the precipice than we can currently guess. The GOP will fight such an outcome with all it has.

In a New York column about Trump’s possible ouster, Frank Rich cites Drew’s work and compares the slow-forming Watergate inferno to the fire next time. An excerpt:

Here’s Drew describing a typical Watergate day: “The news is coming too fast. Faster and harder than anyone expected. It is almost impossible to absorb.” And here she is a week after Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, resigned upon pleading no contest to charges of bribery and tax fraud: “The city seems to be reeling around amidst the events and the breaking stories. In the restaurants, the noise level is higher. At the end of the day, someone says, ‘It’s like being drunk.’ ” It already feels like that right now.

One could argue that the context is different today — that the America of 2017 is not the America of the early 1970s. We think of our current culture as being harder to shock, easier to distract, and more inured to crude public figures who violate traditional societal norms as unabashedly as Trump. This, in theory, would make him harder to dislodge than Nixon, whose sins would more easily scandalize a relatively innocent 20th-century citizenry. But even without the internet’s cacophony, Nixon faced a post-1960s America as factionalized, jaded, and accustomed to shock as our own: It had witnessed the assassination of two Kennedys and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a complete overhaul of its mores as a consequence of a rising counterculture and women’s movement, and a domestic civil war precipitated by the catastrophe of Vietnam. The alarming toxicity of Trump has burst through the noise of our America much as Nixon’s did through his. And while the technology for delivering news makes it come faster and harder in 2017 than Drew or any of us could have anticipated in that day of daily newspapers and nightly news broadcasts, the onslaught of shocking developments felt no less overwhelming then than now.

Human nature hasn’t changed — not for those of us standing outside a teetering White House or for the cast of characters within. Much as Trump risked his presidency by empowering hotheaded ideologues like Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon, so Nixon’s White House had recruited the similarly reckless G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt to wage war on the president’s perceived enemies. As John A. Farrell writes in his new, state-of-the-art Richard Nixon: The Lifeboth of them were “wannabe James Bonds.” Hunt, an alumnus of the CIA’s Bay of Pigs fiasco, was the prolific author of often pseudonymous spy novels, while Liddy was alt-right before it was cool: “a right-wing zealot, with a fixation for Nazi regalia and a kinky kind of Nietzschean philosophy,” who “organized a White House screening of the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will.”

Though there are a number of areas where the Nixon and Trump narratives diverge, in nearly every case Trump’s deviations from the Watergate model make it even less likely that he will survive his presidency.•

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There was something rotten inside Robert Louis Stevenson, as there is in all of us to varying degrees, but he had a name for it: Mr. Hyde. Not to suggest the author’s voluminous and varied output can be reduced to one novella–I’m talking about the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, of course–but it’s rare that something can written about the human mind, in this case the subconscious, that will be true as long there are people.

An article in the December 17, 1894 Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced the death of the sickly author, who’d once described himself as “a mere complication of cough and bones.” He’d actually perished two weeks earlier from a cerebral hemorrhage he experienced while living on the Samoan Islands. His last words were a question posed to his wife: “Does my face look strange?”

“It started off as a kind of utopian promise,” Andrew O’Hagan writes of the Internet in a new Guardian essay that meditates on the death of privacy and, perhaps, the novel. During Web 1.0, some worried that this new-to-the-masses technology would be co-opted, watered down and lose it’s anarchic spirit, becoming a tool of corporations and governments. Never let it be tamed, they exhorted. Well, it never has been tamed and still has become a tool of corporations and governments. The anarchy is actually useful to them (see U.S. Presidential election, 2016).

The thing is, we’re still in the prelude of what the Internet will become and of what being connected will mean. Marshall McLuhan feared the Global Village, and we’re going to experience a version of it beyond what the visionary contemplated. That’s what the Internet of Things will effect, with every last object becoming a computer. It will bring great benefits while also being a machine with no OFF switch. We’ll all permanently be inside a contraption that may be antithetical to human nature. It will contain sensors but perhaps not sense.

As far as O’Hagan’s fears about the effect of social media on fiction, I addressed a similar subject in a 2015 essay about Charlie Brooker’s outstanding television program Black Mirror:

It’s tough being Paddy Chayefsky these days. Charlie Brooker, the brilliant satirist behind Black Mirror, comes closest. If he doesn’t make it all the way there, it’s not because he’s less talented than the Network visionary; it’s just that the era he’s working in is so different. I’ve read many articles about Brooker’s impressive program and pretty much all of them miss the point I believe he’s making about our brave new world of technology. That includes Jenna Wortham’s New York Times Magazine essay, which referred to Mirror as “functioning as a twisted View-Master of many different future universes where things have strayed horribly off-course.” The Channel 4 show is barely about the future. It’s mostly about the present. And it isn’t about the present in the manner of many sci-fi works, which create outlandish scenarios which can never really be in the service of telling us about what currently is. Brooker’s scenarios aren’t the exaggerations they might seem at first blush. In almost no time, our hyperconnected world delivers something far more disturbing than his narratives.

Chayefsky and Andy Warhol and Marshall McLuhan could name the future and we’d wait 25 or 50 years as their predictions slowly gestated, only becoming fully manifest at long last. None of that trio of seers even lived long enough to experience the full expression of Mad As Hell of 15 Minutes of Fame or the Global Village. Brooker will survive to see all his predictions come to pass, and it won’t require an impressive lifespan.•

O’Hagan, author of The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age, believes that since we’ve surrendered an interior life (“everything became fake”), there really isn’t even a way to observe the present let alone predict the future, and that writers and readers alike are being wrecked by living in public. The novel is a dogged form and may find a way to persist regardless of each of us living in our own Reality TV show while being flattered by or fired upon by armies of bots. Perhaps it can serve as an antidote to such an existence? The writer himself believes that could be the ultimate outcome. Regardless, his excellent essay is one that can be meditated on in myriad ways.

An excerpt:

The other day I taped over the camera on my computer. Then I went upstairs and disabled the data collection capability on the TV. Because of several stories of mine, I’d suffered a few cyber-attacks recently, and, though a paragon of dullness, I decided to greet the future by making it harder to find me. One of the great fights of the 21st century will be the fight for privacy and self-ownership, which is also, to my mind, the struggle for literature as distinct from the dark babble of social media. Writers thrive on privacy, not on Twitter, and so do readers when the lights are low. Giving your sentences thoughtlessly away, and for nothing, seems a small death to contemplation, and does harm to the profession of writing, where you’re paid because you’re good at it. We are all entertainers now, politicians are theatrical in their every move, but even merely passable writers have something large at stake when it comes to opposing the global stupidity contest. Literature, which includes great journalism, might enhance the public sphere but it more precisely enriches the private one, and we are now at the point where privacy, the whole secret history of a people, might be the only corrective we have to the political forces embezzling our times.

In the interests of “national security”, in the service of “global harmony”, you are now obliged to become your own Winston Smith, both watched and self-watching. The TV downstairs may not be “off” at all – it may be “fake-off”, a condition defined in a joint programme of June 2014 between the CIA and MI5 called “Weeping Angel”. (Certain models of televisions are programmed to stay on, with their cameras operative, and the “data” they collect can be harvested by agencies.) The principle, as with Britain’s Prevent campaign, is to assume that everyone with a private life might have something to hide, which means that nobody, in the future, unless they have sinister motives, should expect the luxury of privacy. Some TVs and all phones operate “as a bug, recording conversations in the room and sending them over the internet to a covert CIA server”, reported WikiLeaks as it released the “Weeping Angel” documents. Being bugged at home or stopped and searched in the street and having your “information” handed to security agencies are now understood to be security measures, and questioning it will make you an enemy of the Daily Mail’s “common sense”. One doesn’t have to be much of a freedom fighter nowadays to be branded a member of the “liberalocracy”: all you have to do is believe in free speech and freedom of movement, and stand up for basic rights of sovereignty over your own thinking. Only recently have these sanctities been taken for the demands of a potential terrorist.•


Here in America–as in many other places in the world–we live in desperate times, barely capable of running our country despite great wealth, so the idea of us engineering new forms of life or even an entire universe seems beyond reason. Have we earned the right to play creator?

Freeman Dyson has written of a revolutionary vision for next-level space colonization, suggesting we design a baseball-sized, biotech Noah’s Ark that can “seed” the Milky Way with millions of species of life. “Sometime in the next few hundred years,” he’s theorized, “biotechnology will have advanced to the point where we can design and breed entire ecologies of living creatures adapted to survive in remote places away from Earth.” Dyson believes this scenario favorable to launching humans (as we know them) into radically unforgiving environments.

That’s mind-blowing enough, but some theoretical physicists takes matters a giant leap further, wondering if we can actually create new baby universes in vitro. Zeeya Merali, author of A Big Bang in a Little Room, has a smart Aeon article on the moral implications of “cosmogenesis.” She interviews Anders Sandberg, among others, on the thorny topic. The opening:

Physicists aren’t often reprimanded for using risqué humour in their academic writings, but in 1991 that is exactly what happened to the cosmologist Andrei Linde at Stanford University. He had submitted a draft article entitled ‘Hard Art of the Universe Creation’ to the journal Nuclear Physics B. In it, he outlined the possibility of creating a universe in a laboratory: a whole new cosmos that might one day evolve its own stars, planets and intelligent life. Near the end, Linde made a seemingly flippant suggestion that our Universe itself might have been knocked together by an alien ‘physicist hacker’. The paper’s referees objected to this ‘dirty joke’; religious people might be offended that scientists were aiming to steal the feat of universe-making out of the hands of God, they worried. Linde changed the paper’s title and abstract but held firm over the line that our Universe could have been made by an alien scientist. ‘I am not so sure that this is just a joke,’ he told me. 

Fast-forward a quarter of a century, and the notion of universe-making – or ‘cosmogenesis’ as I dub it – seems less comical than ever. I’ve travelled the world talking to physicists who take the concept seriously, and who have even sketched out rough blueprints for how humanity might one day achieve it. Linde’s referees might have been right to be concerned, but they were asking the wrong questions. The issue is not who might be offended by cosmogenesis, but what would happen if it were truly possible. How would we handle the theological implications? What moral responsibilities would come with fallible humans taking on the role of cosmic creators?•


Facts today come into flavors: original and alternative. 

Fox kicked off the Fake News Age in earnest just over two decades ago. The unspoken reason for selling lies and conspiracies and wedge issues rather than reality is that Republican policy had become twisted into something almost unrecognizable and truly deleterious to any non-rich citizen. It’s worked quite well as a strategy, even if it’s often made the popular vote at the national level unattainable.

The most recent Presidential election, with its armies of bots, alt-right trolls and Russian interference used Big Data to deliver lies at the granular level. It seemed shocking, although our society and technology has been heading in this direction for a long time. It was almost inevitable.

Of course, factual distortions are nothing new nor are they limited to current events. History can also be a funny thing, as the dangerous absurdity of modern North Korea reminds us every day. Suki Kim, author of Without You, There Is No Us, just conducted a Reddit AMA about her experience going undercover as a schoolteacher in the deeply troubled, delusional state to learn more about the culture. In two exchanges, she addresses historical distortions about the country that exist on the inside and also the outside.


What wildly held belief among your students surprised you the most?

Suki Kim:

There were so many things. They just learn totally upside down information about most things. But one thing I think most people do not realize is that they learn that South Korea & US attacked North Korea in 1950, and that North Korea won the war due to the bravery of their Great Leader Kim Il Sung. So they celebrate Victory Day, which is a huge holiday there. So this complete lie about the past then makes everything quite illogical. Because how do you then explain the fact that Korea is divided still, if actually North Korea “won” the war? One would have to question that strange logic, which they do not. So it’s not so much that they get taught lies as education, but that that second step of questioning what does not make sense, in general, does not happen, not because they are stupid but because they are forbidden and also their intelligence is destroyed at young age. There were many many examples of such.


In your experience, what are the biggest misconceptions Americans have about either North or South Korea?

Suki Kim:

I think the biggest misconception goes back to the basic premise. Most Americans have no idea why there are two Koreas, or why there are 30,000 US soldiers in South Korea and why North Korea hates America so much. That very basic fact has been sort of written out of the American consciousness. By repackaging the Korean War as a civil war, it has now created decades of a total misconception. The fact that the US had actually drawn the 38th Parallel that cut up the Korean peninsula, not in 1950 (the start of the war) but in 1945 at the liberation of Korea from Japan is something that no Korean has forgotten — that was the beginning of the modern Korean tragedy. That the first Great Leader (the grandfather of the current Great Leader) was the creation of the Soviet Union (along with the US participation) is another horrible puzzle piece that Americans have conveniently forgotten.


Anyone know where can I find information regarding how the first Great Leader was a creation of the U.S.A. & Soviets? I’d love to read about it

Suki Kim:

That would be taking it out of the context to claim that first Great Leader was “created” by US. He was a soldier (protege of the Soviet), while US participated in that set up handpicking the US educated South Korean first president. US had drawn the 38th Parallel, and that division was trumpeted by the Cold War, two separate govts formed by 1948 & war broke out in 1950. That is a very simplified version of the history of the two Koreas which most Americans don’t remember and now wonder why they are in South Korea today and why is North Korea mad at them. If you are genuinely curious, there are many many books on this topic by serious historians.•


Still haven’t written my thoughts on Garry Kasparov’s Deep Thinking. Will do so soon, I promise. For whatever philosophical differences I have with the author on technology, the long centerpiece about his pair of matches with Deep Blue in ’96 and ’97 is riveting. It’s also revealing in surprising ways, about both humans and machines.

In a New Scientist Q&A conducted by Sean O’Neill, the chessman is asked about surveillance, a topic which receives a scant few pages in his book, but I believe the question posed is the wrong one. The reporter wonders about new technologies being hoarded by the “ruling class,” which is silly, because these tools, ever cheaper and more powerful, will snake their way through every inch of society. Artificial Intelligence will be useful in countless ways, but it will just as surely enable the anarchy of the Internet to be visited upon the physical world. The problem we face isn’t that it may be controlled but that it absolutely cannot be. There’s no going back (nor should there be), but this progress will be attended by regress. Constantly trying to separate those realities will be our task–our burden.

An excerpt:


What happens if AI, high-tech surveillance, military tech, and communications are sewn up by the ruling class?

Garry Kasparov:

Ruling class? Sounds like Soviet propaganda! New tech is always expensive and employed by the wealthy and powerful even as it provides benefits and trickles down into every part of society. But it seems fanciful – or dystopian – to think there will be a harmful monopoly. AI isn’t a nuclear weapon that can or should be under lock and key; it’s a million different things that will be an important part of both new and existing technology. Like the internet, created by the US military, AI won’t be kept in a box. It’s already out.


Will handing off ever more decisions to AI result in intellectual stagnation?

Garry Kasparov:

Technology doesn’t cause intellectual stagnation, but it enables new forms of it if we are complacent. Technology empowers intellectual enrichment and our ability to indulge and act on our curiosity. With a smartphone, for example, you have the sum total of human knowledge in your pocket and can reach practically any person on the planet. What will you do with that incredible power? Entertain yourself or change the world?•

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I’m given pause when someone compares the Internet to the printing press because the difference of degree between the inventions is astounding. For all the liberty Gutenberg’s contraption brought to the printed word, it was a process that overwhelmingly put power into the hand of disparate professionals. Sure, eventually with Xeroxes, anyone could print anything, but the vast majority of reading material produced was still overseen by professional gatekeepers (publishers, editors, etc.) who, on average, did the bidding of enlightenment.

By 1969, Glenn Gould believed the new technologies would allow for the sampling, remixing and democratization of creativity, that erstwhile members of the audience would ultimately ascend and become creators themselves. He hated the hierarchy of live performance and was sure its dominance would end. “The audiences [will] become the performer to a large extent,” he predicted. He couldn’t have known how right he was.

The Web has indeed brought us a greater degree of egalitarianism than we’ve ever possessed, as the centralization of media dissipated and the “fans” rushed the stage to put on a show of their own. Now here we all are crowded into the spotlight, a turn of events that’s been both blessing and curse. The utter democratization and the filter bubbles that have attended this phenomenon of endless channels have proven paradoxically (thus far) a threat to democracy. It’s acknowledged even those who’ve been made billionaires by these new tools that “the Internet is the largest experiment involving anarchy in history,” though they never mention when some semblance of order might return.

In Stephen Fry’s excellent recent Hay Festival lecture “The Way Ahead” (h/t The Browser), the writer and actor spoke on these same topics and other aspects of the Digital Age that are approaching with scary velocity. Like a lot of us, he was an instant convert to Web 1.0, charmed by what it delivered and awed by its its staggering potential. Older, wiser and sadder for his knowledge of what’s come to pass, Fry tries to foresee what is next in a world in which 140 characters cannot only help topple tyrants but can create them as well, knowing that the Internet of Things will only further complicate matters. Odds are life may be greater and graver. He offers one word of advice: Prepare.

An excerpt: 

Gutenberg’s printing revolution, by way of Das Kapital and Mein Kampf, by way of smashed samizdat presses in pre-Revolutionary Russia, by way of The Origin of Species and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, by way of the rolling offset lithos of Fleet Street, Dickens, Joyce, J. K. Rowling, Mao’s Little Red Book and Hallmark greetings cards brought us to the world into which all of us were born, it brought us, amongst other things – quite literally – here to Hay-on-Wye. I started coming to this great festival before the word Kindle had a technological meaning, when an “e-book” might be a survey of 90s Rave drug Culture, or possibly an Ian McMillan glossary of Yorkshire Dialect.

Printed books haven’t gone away, indeed, we are most of us I suspect, pleased to learn how much they have come roaring back, in parallel with vinyl records and other instances of analogue refusal to die. But the difference between an ebook and a printed book is as nothing when set beside the influence of digital technology as a whole on the public weal, international polity and the destiny of our species. It has embedded itself in our lives with enormous speed. If you are not at the very least anxious about that, then perhaps you have not quite understood how dependent we are in every aspect of our lives – personal, professional, health, wealth, transport, nutrition, prosperity, mind, body and spirit.

The great Canadian Marshall McLuhan –– philosopher should one call him? – whose prophetic soul seems more and more amazing with each passing year, gave us the phrase the ‘Global Village’ to describe the post-printing age that he already saw coming back in the 1950s. Where the Printing Age had ‘fragmented the psyche’ as he put it, the Global Village – whose internal tensions exist in the paradoxical nature of the phrase itself: both Global and a village – this would tribalise us, he thought and actually regress us to a second oral age. Writing in 1962, before even ARPANET, the ancestor of the internet existed, this is how he forecasts the electronic age which he thinks will change human cognition and behaviour:

“Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world will become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as in an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses go outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. […] Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time. […] In our long striving to recover for the Western world a unity of sensibility and of thought and feeling we have no more been prepared to accept the tribal consequences of such unity than we were ready for the fragmentation of the human psyche by print culture.”

Like much of McLuhan’s writing, densely packed with complex ideas as they are, this repays far more study and unpicking than would be appropriate here, but I think we might all agree that we have arrived at that “phase of panic terrors” he foresaw.•


Social mobility as it relates to geography, gender, integration, education and other factors is at the heart of much of the research conducted by Stanford economist Raj Chetty. An erstwhile wunderkind who’s still very young at 37, the academic, an immigrant from New Dehli whose family relocated to Milwaukee when he was a child, has often wondered what allowed his success. Certainly native genius was a key component and having a father who was an economist and mother a pulmonologist didn’t hurt, but how much did physical location and primary and secondary schools matter?  

It’s a topic I consider often not only because the American Dream has been dragging for many for decades, but because I grew up in a lower-income, blue-collar neighborhood that didn’t have a bookstore. It was hard to get from here to there, and part of the problem went beyond money, location and access, though those factors undoubtedly loomed large. The problem was also cultural, as scholarly achievements–even a mere love of reading–was viewed as a “sellout” or sorts. Don’t know if that’s still the situation where I’m from, but I bet it stubbornly persists in other quarters of the country. 

Certainly the nativism and scapegoating of the most recent Presidential election was so shockingly acceptable to so many citizens in part because of our ever-widening economic segregation. The terrible outcome of that race will likely only exacerbate the issue.

Tyler Cowen just interviewed Chetty. Three excerpts follow.

Tyler Cowen:

It’s a common view, derived from William Baumol and Bowen, that education is subject to a kind of cost disease, that it’s harder and harder to augment productivity, wages rise in other sectors of the economy, education takes a rising share of GDP but doesn’t really get much better. Do you accept that story, or, if not, how would you modify it? Are we doomed to low productivity growth in K–12 education?

Raj Chetty:

I don’t think so because, while in some limited case that might end up being true, at the moment I see so many opportunities within the US K–12 education system to potentially have significantly higher productivity without dramatically higher cost. Let me give you an example. Coming back to the case of teachers, my sense is, if we were to try to keep the most effective teachers in the classroom and either retrain or dismiss the teachers who are less effective, we could substantially increase productivity without significantly increasing cost.

Tyler Cowen:

But say we do that. What do we do next?

Raj Chetty:

I think eventually it’s conceivable that you move up the quality ladder, and you’ve got everybody getting a very good primary school education. Then you need to work on secondary education and so forth. But there again, I would say there are lots of bargains to be found.

In our most recent work looking at colleges and upward mobility, we see that there are a number of colleges where kids seem to be doing extremely well that are not all that expensive. Also, I think, here a macroeconomic perspective is useful. If you look at countries that have some of the best educational outcomes, like Scandinavian countries, they’re not actually spending dramatically more than the United States.

At some abstract level, I think that logic has to be right, that eventually, in order to raise the level of education beyond some point, we’re going to have to spend more and more on that, but I don’t think we’re close enough empirically to such a point that that is really a critical consideration at the moment.

Tyler Cowen:

If you told the story about molecules impinging on your body and impelling you to action, what’s the best story you can come up with for Iowa, say, or Utah?

Raj Chetty:

Yeah, a few different things. Iowa is known for having very good public schools for a long time.

Tyler Cowen:

But that too is arguably just part of the package.

Raj Chetty:

Yes. Where did that come from? Why does Iowa have good public schools?

Tyler Cowen:


Raj Chetty:

One of the strong correlates we find is that places that are more integrated across socioeconomic groups, that have lower segregation, tend to have better outcomes for kids. And that kind of thing in a rural area — you can see why that occurs and why it might lead to better outcomes.

If you live in a big city, it’s very easy to self-segregate in various ways. You live in a gated community, you send your kids to a private school. You essentially don’t interact with people from different socioeconomic classes. If you live in a small town in Iowa, pretty much there’s one place your kids are going to go to school. There’s one set of activities that you can all participate in. And that is likely to lead to more integration.

Tyler Cowen:

As I’m sure you know, since the 1990s, segregation by income has been rising in this country. And here, Silicon Valley is one of the most extreme cases of that. So seeing that, are you on net a segregation optimist or pessimist? If I may ask.

Raj Chetty:

I think current trends suggests that segregation will continue to grow in the US. Take the case of driverless cars, for example. One way that could go is, if you have access to driverless cars, it makes it all the more easy to go live further away in a secluded place, further reduce interaction, right?

So I think it’s very important to think about social policy in the context of that type of technology. How do you set cities up? How do you do urban planning and architecture in a way such that you don’t actually just facilitate more segregation? Such that you make it attractive to live in a more mixed-income community? That’s a key challenge, I think.•

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Overall I enjoyed Garry Kasaprov’s Deep Thinking. Have philosophical disagreements with it, for sure, and there is some revisionism in regards to his personal history, but the author’s take on his career developing parallel to the rise of the machines and his waterloo versus IBM is fascinating. It’s clear that if there had been a different World Chess Champion during Kasparov’s reign, one who lacked his significant understanding of the meaning of computers and maverick mindset, the game would have been impoverished for it. I’ll try to make time this weekend to write a long review.

The 20-year retrospective on Deep Blue’s 1997 victory would be incomplete without reflection by Steven Levy, who penned the famous Newsweek cover story “The Brain’s Last Stand” as a preface to the titanic match in which humanity sunk. (It turns out Levy himself composed that perfectly provocative cover line that no EIC could refuse.)

The writer focuses in part on the psychological games that Deep Blue was programmed to play, an essential point to remember as computers are integrated into every aspect of life–when nearly every object becomes “smart.” Levy points out that no such manipulations were required for DeepMind to conquer Go, but those machinations might be revisited when states and corporations desire to nudge our behaviors.

An excerpt:

The turning point of the match came in Game Two. Kasparov had won the first game and was feeling pretty good. In the second, the match was close and hard fought. But on the 36th move, the computer did something that shook Kasparov to his bones. In a situation where virtually every top-level chess program would have attacked Kasparov’s exposed queen, Deep Blue made a much subtler and ultimately more effective move that shattered Kasparov’s image of what a computer was capable of doing. It seemed to Kasparov — and frankly, to a lot of observers as well — that Deep Blue had suddenly stopped playing like a computer (by resisting the catnip of the queen attack) and instead adopted a strategy that only the wisest human master might attempt. By underplaying Deep Blue’s capabilities to Kasparov, IBM had tricked the human into underestimating it. A few days later, he described it this way: “Suddenly [Deep Blue] played like a god for one moment.” From that moment Kasparov had no idea what — or who — he was playing against. In what he described as “a fatalistic depression,” he played on, and wound up resigning the game.

After Game Two, Kasparov was not only agitated by his loss but also suspicious at how the computer had made a move that was so…un-computer like. “It made me question everything,” he now writes. Getting the printouts that explained what the computer did — and proving that there was no human intervention — became an obsession for him. Before Game Five, in fact, he implied that he would not show up to play unless IBM submitted printouts, at least to a neutral party who could check that everything was kosher. IBM gave a small piece to a third party, but never shared the complete file.

Kasparov was not the same player after Game Two.•

“It was very easy, all the machines are only cables and bulbs.”

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Inconvenient it is for any state when an erstwhile national hero turns into an embarrassment. In America, for instance, we have Bobby Fischer, whose mind proved a buggy machine, and earlier, Charles Lindbergh, who crashed and burned after soaring to unprecedented heights.

Norway knew its own shocking albatross in 1940 when Knut Hamsun, the Nobel Prize-winning author, embraced Adolf Hitler as a liberator, even arranging a meeting with the German madman. It’s been some years since I read Hunger, with its nameless Raskolnikovian protagonist, a down-and-out intellectual, though I feel pretty confident saying that it was better than a Canetti but not as good as a Dostoyevsky.

From the May 5, 1940 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:


Trump is certainly not Nixonian in intellect or policy, but he shares with his predecessor an utter disregard for truth, a deep paranoia that mints enemies like pennies and a nefariousness that will probably lead to disgrace if not tragedy. His sense of being cheated, a rich man who feels deeply impoverished, has its origins in a Rosebud-ian psychological wound and perhaps some mental illness, has rendered him extremely immoral and deeply disturbed. In the country’s future–should there be one–it will be possible to have a worse President if that person retains all his terrible qualities but is basically competent. We should be glad of his ineptitude, provided it doesn’t get us all killed.

On the day when the Washington Post delivered what appears to be a bombshell about a terrible breach by Trump in the company of his Russian comrades, a misstep to be added to his litany of lies, acts of kleptocracy and attacks on American democracy, here’s a piece from Garry Willis’ 1974 New York Review of Books piece about Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men:

Nixon was always Wronged; so, since the score could never be settled entirely, he felt no qualms about getting back what slight advantage he could when no one was looking. Even at the height of his power, he feels he must steal one extra vote, tell the marginal little lie. He is like a man who had to steal as a child, in order to eat, and acquired a sacred license—even a duty—to steal thenceforth; it would punish the evil that had first deprived him. Thus he took as his intimate into the Oval Office the very man who helped him try to cheat his way into the office of governor of California. Those who say Nixon did not know what kind of thing his lieutenants were up to forget that the judge who decreed in favor of plaintiffs in the fake postcard-poll case of 1962 did so on the grounds that both Haldeman and Nixon knew about the illegal tactic. Watergate is the story of a man who has just pulled off a million-dollar heist and gets caught when he hesitates to steal an apple off a passing vendor’s cart.

Nixon engages in a kind of antipolitics; a punishment of politics for what it has done to him. That is why he could never understand “the other side” in the Washington Post’s coverage of the Watergate investigation. Jeb Magruder has written that his staff was pleased when two unknown local reporters, Bernstein and Woodward, were given the break-in as their assignment. When the story did not lapse after a decent interval, Nixon conceived it as an ideological vendetta directed by Katharine Graham for the benefit of George McGovern—something to be countered by high-level threats, intimidation, and “stonewalling.” Even Henry Kissinger tried to intervene with Mrs. Graham.

Actually, if the coverage had been political, it might have failed. Very few columns or editorials played up Watergate in the election period, even at the Post. Those wanting high political sources and theoretical patterns would not have found the sneaky little paths under out-of-the-way bushes, as Woodward and Bernstein did. They thought, from the outset, they were dealing with robbers, not politicians. When their tips kept leading them toward the White House; they balked repeatedly, out of awe and fear and common sense; but the evidence kept tugging them against the pull of expectation. The editors kept them at it, but gave them little help. They must pursue their modest leads even after they wanted to be switched to “the big story” at the Ervin hearings. Others would theorize, editorialize, do the White House circuit. Theirs was the leg work, the endless doors knocked on, wrong numbers called, the days of thirty leads checked out and nothing to show for it. A leitmotiv of the book is “back to square one.”

They advanced, as it were, backward—always back to the same sources; would they talk this time? No. Then put them on the list of people to go back to. Back and back. Which became up and up. Up, scarily at the last, “to the very top” (as the Justice Department man had put it). Their sources—originally secretaries and minor functionaries—were added to when parts of the gang like Dean started dealing to get out; but there had always been people who talked because they were sincerely shaken by what was going on—not only Hugh Sloan at the outset, but the mysterious White House cooperator called “Deep Throat.” It is good to know the gang could not entirely succeed in imposing its code of omertà.•

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Intelligent doesn’t necessarily mean good, in humans or machines.

I doubt I’ve come across any public figure who’s read more books than Tyler Cowen, yet in the country’s darkest hour, he’s pulled his punches with his fellow Libertarian Peter Thiel, who’s behaved abysmally, dangerously, in his ardent Trump support. The Administration, a gutter-level racist group, has apparently allowed Russian espionage to snake its way into the U.S. and is working in earnest to undo American democracy, to put itself beyond the reach of the law. Those who’ve gone easy on its enablers are complicit.

Maybe the machines will behave more morally than us when they’ve turned away from our lessons to teach themselves? Maybe less so?

· · · 

The pro-seasteading economist just interviewed Garry Kasparov, whose new book, Deep Thinking, I’m currently reading. Likely history’s greatest chess player, the Russian was turned deep blue by IBM during the interval between Cold Wars, when he could conjure no defense for the brute force of his algorithmically advantaged opponent.

Initially, Kasparov was too skeptical, too weighed down by human ego, to fully appreciate the powers of computers, but sometimes those who’ve most fiercely resisted religion become the most ardent believers, redirecting their fervent denial into a passionate embrace. That’s where Kasparov seems to be now in his unbridled appreciation for what machines will soon do for us, though I can comment more once I’ve completed his book.

He’s certainly right that much of what will happen with AI over the course of this century is inevitable given the way technologies evolve and the nature of human psychology. With those developments, we’ll enjoy many benefits, but with all progress comes regress, a situation heightened as the tools become more powerful. It’s clear to me that we’re not merely building machines to aid us but permanently placing ourselves inside of one with no OFF switch.

An excerpt:

Tyler Cowen:

A lot of humans don’t play chess, but we’re looking at a future where AI will make decisions about who gets a monetary loan, who is diagnosed as being schizophrenic or bipolar. How cars drive on the road increasingly is controlled by software.

The fact that the decisions of the software are not so transparent — and you see this also in computer chess — how will ordinary human beings respond to the fact that more and more of their lives will be “controlled” by these nontransparent processes that are too smart for them to understand? Because in your book, you have emotional conflict with Deep Blue, right?

Garry Kasparov:

Exactly. I’m telling you that it’s inevitable. There are certain things that are happening, and it’s called progress. This is the history of human civilization. The whole history is a steady process of replacing all forms of labor by machines. It started with machines replacing farm animals and then manual laborers, and it kept growing and growing and growing.

There was a time I mentioned in the book, people didn’t trust elevators without operators. They thought it would be too dangerous. It took a major strike in the city of New York that was equal a major disaster. You had to climb the Empire State Building with paralyzed elevators.

I understand that today, people are concerned about self-driving cars, absolutely. But now let us imagine that there was a time, I’m sure, people were really concerned, they were scared stiff of autopilots. Now, I think if you tell them that autopilot’s not working in the plane, they will not fly because they understand that, in the big numbers, these decisions are still more qualitative.

While I understand also the fear of people who might be losing jobs, and they could see that machines are threatening their traditional livelihood, but at the same time, even these people whose jobs are on chopping block of automation, they also depend on the new wave of technology to generate economic growth and to create sustainable new jobs.

This is a cycle. The only difference with what we have been seeing throughout human history is that now, machines are coming after people with college degrees, political influence, and Twitter accounts.•

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Andy Warhol was shot, somehow, only once.

He was, no doubt, a brilliant visionary who knew decades early the Reality Age was approaching, even if he calibrated the time span we’d all be famous far too cautiously. The Pop Artist and keen media philosopher, however, was careless about those troubled souls he assembled in his Factory, his role that of the foreman unconcerned about the safety of the ones working on the floor. It was somehow glamorized, though it had all the charm of a heroin souk on Halloween. The scene in Midnight Cowboy when Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo wander, shocked, through a decadent party inside a Warholian vomitorium seems apt.

Warhol wasn’t responsible for those in his constellation, but he didn’t need to be so irresponsible. He didn’t have to be a father, but he should have been a better friend.

In Gatsby terms, he curated a “rotten crowd” in the Sixties, and into their spin waltzed New England patrician purity in the slight form of Edie Sedgwick, who was destined to be a star of the shooting variety. An aristocrat descending into hades, how amazing! Except that it wasn’t. Within a few years she was worn out, used up and dead of a drug overdose. Like Zelda Fitzgerald, she’d been burned alive.

A decade after her death, Jean Stein, a restless type of Hollywood royalty, created a great oral history of Sedgwick that also spoke to the era. Not that Stein’s book fully captured the 1960s anymore than did Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, both volumes laser focused on the dark side of the decade. But you also couldn’t tell nearly as well the story of that tumultuous time without their reporting.

Stein just died in a fall from her 15th-floor Manhattan apartment, likely a suicide, after sliding into a depression. Lee Smith of the Weekly Standard, a former employee and confidante of the author and editor, wrote the best obituary about her, an uncommonly deep dive into her psyche and milieu. An excerpt from the obit is followed by one from Michiko Kakutani’s 1982 review of Stein’s Sedgwick book and a 1965 video of Andy and Edie in an appropriately odd appearance on Merv Griffin’s talk show.

From Smith:

Most people speak because they like to hear themselves speak, and the trick for a journalist is to respect, and then profit from, human frailty long enough to keep your own mouth shut. But other people, usually more interesting people, don’t want to speak. Jean’s genius was in getting those people to talk by speaking herself. She understood that social space wants to be filled. Everyone fears certain types of silence, so they fill it with talk, the question then is about the quality of the talk. By exposing parts of her own pain, Jean made her subjects not only willing to reveal some of their own, but also, and more importantly, keen to protect her and join her at the place of her pain so she wouldn’t be left alone.

Here’s a practical example: Next time you attend a party and are called on to introduce two people but have forgotten the name of one or both, stutter. At least one, most likely both, will quickly volunteer their names in order to rescue you from your awkwardness. Why? Arguably, it’s because people are good. In any case, Jean’s aesthetic was premised on the idea that people are basically good and don’t want others to hurt, especially not in public. And that was perhaps Jean’s great theme—public hurt, American pain.

Her first book, also edited by Plimpton, was American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy, an oral biography centered around the funeral train that took Kennedy’s body from New York City to Washington, D.C. But Edie was Jean’s masterpiece, also an oral biography, a book that I think is generally misunderstood as a love song to the Warhol gang and the groovy 1960s underground.

Generations of young women, up to the present, have gone to New York with the legend of young Edie Sedgwick, the beautiful and doomed socialite celebrity, on their minds, steered by half-formed dreams of becoming the next “It” girl. One of those young women, a friend of mine, visited the Grand Street office when Jean was there and gushed to her about how much she loved the book, the scene it portrayed, the ethos of the moment. Jean’s face became very serious. She shook her head emphatically. “It was not glamorous,” she told my friend. And then I started to imagine how Jean must have seen it—like a vision of the underworld with generations of beautiful and naïve young women on the arm of some painter, or writer, or actor, eventually to be discarded and left alone in hell. That’s who Edie was, a kid who didn’t learn quickly enough the cost of not leaving a parade of death.

The space Jean Stein occupied was unique, moral, ambiguously optimistic in the American style, and is filled now by her books, a central part of the historiography of 20th-century America.•

From Kakutani:

Beautiful and charming, she had an ability to conjure up a magical world of grace and fun, and when she came to New York in 1964, she almost immediately became the leading lady of the fashionable demimonde. Her arrival happened to coincide with that period when all the old rules were suddenly breaking down – her gift for the outrageous seemed, to many, to personify the times – and she quickly replaced Baby Jane Holzer as Andy Warhol’s newest star. Mr. Warhol, with his gift for exploiting image and personality, escorted her to parties and featured her in his films, and Vogue magazine was soon dubbing her a ”Youthquaker,” ”22, going whither, God knows, but at a great rate!”

A friend who knew Edie as a teen-ager recalls in the book that she always ”liked walking very close to extinction,” and the world of Warhol’s Factory – with its drugs and sexual experimentation – fueled her fatal predilections. There were shoplifting sprees at department stores, injections of LSD and speed, and increasingly frequent stays at hospitals and clinics. Although Edie finally left New York, returning to California, where she got married, she never seemed to get the hang of ordinary life. Happiness and the order that her grandparents had once predicated their lives on remained elusive, and on Nov. 16, 1971, she died from ”acute barbiturate intoxication.” She was 28 years old.•

Warhol refuses to speak during a 1965 appearance on Merv Griffin’s talk show, allowing a still-healthy-looking Sedgwick to handle the conversation. Not even the Pop Artist himself could have realized how correct he was in believing that soon just being would be enough to warrant stardom, that it wouldn’t matter what you said or if you said a thing, that traditional content would lose much of its value.

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Laurie Penny, who a couple months ago published the excellent Pacific-Standard piece “On the Milo Bus With the Lost Boys of America’s New Right,” has just penned “Life-Hacks of the Poor and Aimless,” a great Baffler article about “well-being ideology” or the selling of self-improvement systems in an era of pending climate collapse and capitalism run amok.

In this odd moment of food fetishization and FitBit (at least in the West), we’re gorging and gauging as Rome burns and seas rise. We’re urged to live healthier and happier lives by corporations and governments, not an unreasonable request, but it’s an impossible mission sans social safety nets and a habitable plant. Ballooning wealth inequality is detrimental to democracies and their citizenry alike, and there’s just so much individuals can do to steel themselves from the chaos it brings.

It makes sense that in America the culmination of this medicine show is a President whose family literally worshiped, when he was a child, at the church of Norman Vincent Peale. The power of positive thinking, however, won’t remove lead from the Flint water supply, cancel climate change or prevent factories from falling into the grip of robot hands and low-paid contractors. It’s really a false doctrine, a Depression Era dance marathon reimagined for the Digital Age. The last one to hit the floor wins.

Still, Penny manages to find some value in yoga and self-care despite the gathering storm.

The opening:

Late capitalism is like your love life: it looks a lot less bleak through an Instagram filter. The slow collapse of the social contract is the backdrop for a modern mania for clean eating, healthy living, personal productivity, and “radical self-love”—the insistence that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we can achieve a meaningful existence by maintaining a positive outlook, following our bliss, and doing a few hamstring stretches as the planet burns. The more frightening the economic outlook and the more floodwaters rise, the more the public conversation is turning toward individual fulfillment as if in a desperate attempt to make us feel like we still have some control over our lives.

Coca-Cola encourages us to “choose happiness.” Politicians take time out from building careers in the debris of democracy to remind us of the importance of regular exercise. Lifestyle bloggers insist to hundreds of thousands of followers that freedom looks like a white woman practicing yoga alone on a beach. One such image (on the @selflovemantras Instagram) informs us that “the deeper the self love, the richer you are.” That’s a charming sentiment, but landlords are not currently collecting rent in self-love.

Can all this positive thinking be actively harmful? Carl Cederström and André Spicer, authors of The Wellness Syndrome, certainly think so, arguing that obsessive ritualization of self-care comes at the expense of collective engagement, collapsing every social problem into a personal quest for the good life. “Wellness,” they declare, “has become an ideology.”•


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

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

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

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

I wonder if Grann considered Hiroshima by John Hersey.

An excerpt:


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

David Grann:

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


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

David Grann:

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

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


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

David Grann:

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


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

David Grann:

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

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