You are currently browsing the archive for the Books category.


When reading Kevin Kelly’s effusive Wired article about the Florida-based VR firm Magic Leap, I flashed back to Umberto Eco’s 1986 essay, “Travels I Hyperreality,” which examined how the fake could be made to seem so real–enhance it, even–that actual reality was a disappointment. Holograms, he thought, would come to have real weight. Eco thought this adoration for automata and beyond as distinctly American, a celebration enjoyed at Disneyland and in cartoon panels, though it’s an ancient art and its ultimate realization will be planted everywhere around the world. It will be planted on the moon, too. 

The opening:

The Fortresses of Solitude

Two very beautiful naked girls are crouched facing each other. They touch each other sensually, they kiss each other’s breasts lightly, with the tip of the tongue. They are enclosed in a kind of cylinder of transparent plastic. Even someone who is not a professional voyeur is tempted to circle the cylinder in order to see the girls from behind, in profile, from the other side. The next temptation is to approach the cylinder, which stands on a little column and is only a few inches in diameter, in order to look down from above: But the girls are no longer there. This was one of the many works displayed in New York by the School of Holography.

Holography, the latest technical miracle of laser rays, was invented back in the ’50’s by Dennis Gabor; it achieves a full-color photographic representation that is more than three-dimensional. You look into a magic box and a miniature train or horse appears; as you shift your gaze you can see those parts of the object that you were prevented from glimpsing by the laws of perspective. If the box is circular you can see the object from all sides. If the object was filmed, thanks to various devices, in motion, then it moves before your eyes, or else you move, and as you change position, you can see the girl wink or the fisherman drain the can of beer in his hand. It isn’t cinema, but rather a kind of virtual object in three dimensions that exists even where you don’t see it, and if you move you can see it there, too.

Holography isn’t a toy: NASA has studied it and employed it in space exploration. It is used in medicine to achieve realistic depictions of anatomical changes; it has applications in aerial cartography, and in many industries for the study of physical processes. But it is now being taken up by artists who formerly might have been photorealists, and it satisfies the most ambitious ambitions of photorealism. In San Francisco, at the door of the Museum of Witchcraft, the biggest hologram ever made is on display: of the Devil, with a very beautiful witch. Holography could prosper only in America, a country obsessed with realism, where, if a reconstruction is to be credible, it must be absolutely iconic, a perfect likeness, a “real” copy of the reality being represented.

Cultivated Europeans and Europeanized Americans think of the United States as the home of the glass-and-steel skyscraper and of abstract expressionism. But the United States is also the home of Superman, the superhuman comic-strip hero who has been in existence since 1938. Every now and then Superman feels a need to be alone with his memories, and he flies off to an inaccessible mountain range where, in the heart of the rock, protected by a huge steel door, is the Fortress of Solitude.

Here Superman keeps his robots, completely faithful copies of himself, miracles of electronic technology, which from time to time he sends out into the world to fulfill a pardonable desire for ubiquity. And the robots are incredible, because their resemblance to reality is absolute; they are not mechanical men, all cogs and beeps, but perfect “copies” of human beings, with skin, voice, movements, and the ability to make decisions. For Superman the fortress is a museum of memories: Everything that has happened in his adventurous life is recorded here in perfect copies or preserved in a miniaturized form of the original. Thus he keeps the city of Kandor, a survival from the destruction of the planet Krypton, under a glass bell of the sort familiar from your great-aunt’s Victorian parlor. Here, on a reduced scale, are Kandor’s buildings, highways, men, and women. Superman’s scrupulousness in preserving all the mementoes of his past recalls those private museums, or Wunderkammern, so frequent in German baroque civilization, which originated in the treasure chambers of medieval lords and perhaps, before that, with Roman and Hellenistic collections. In those old collections a unicorn’s horn would be found next to the copy of a Greek statue, and, later, among mechanical cräches and wondrous automata, cocks of precious metal that sang, clocks with a procession of little figures that paraded at noon. But at first Superman’s fussiness seemed incredible because, we thought, in our day a Wunderkammer would no longer fascinate anybody. Postinformal art hadn’t yet adopted practices such as Arman’s crammed assemblage of watchcases arranged in a glass case, or Spoerri’s fragments of everyday life (a dinner table after an untidy meal, an unmade bed), or the postconceptual exercises of an artist like Annette Messanger, who accumulates memories of her childhood in neurotically archivistic notebooks which she exhibits as works of art.

The most incredible thing was that, to record some past events, Superman reproduced them in the form of life-size wax statues, rather macabre, very Musée Grévin. Naturally the statues of the photorealists had not yet come on the scene, but even when they did it was normal to think of their creators as bizarre avant-garde artists, who had developed as a reaction to the civilization of the abstract or to the Pop aberration. To the reader of “Superman” it seemed that his museographical quirks had no real connection with American taste and mentality. And yet in America there are many Fortresses of Solitude, with their wax statues, their automata, their collections of inconsequential wonders. You have only to go beyond the Museum of Modern Art and the art galleries, and you enter another universe, the preserve of the average family, the tourist, the politician.•


jamesbedfrordcryonaut123 (2)

In one way or another, Don DeLillo’s entire writing career has been about Airborne Toxic Events, though most specifically, of course, in White Noise. His oeuvre is one about the dark side of the Industrial and Digital Ages, which have allowed us to live longer and better, at least in the short run.

The novelist often focuses on those times when the machines go haywire and turn on us–when we turn them on each other–disappearing Presidents and Towers, threatening to make life impossible, literally as well as figuratively. He meditates on those who use guns and bombs and planes to wreak havoc on progress and how our simple incompetence sometimes effortlessly does the same.

Haven’t yet picked up DeLillo’s latest, Zero K, published this month, but it likewise has to do with the boon and bane of progress, the way our cleverness can save or kill us. Radical life extension through cryogenics is at its heart in a time when immortality (or a-mortality, at least) is in the minds of many newly minted Silicon Valley billionaires. They don’t ever want to head to the heavens, though with climate change, the sky may fall on us all. 

From a review by Jason Cowley in the Financial Times:

DeLillo is drawn to catastrophe and the spectacular. The themes of his fiction can seem portentous and overwrought — there are always screens in a DeLillo novel carrying news of the latest man-made or natural disaster. “Terror makes the new future possible,” he wrote in Mao II, long before the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11 2001. The major work of terrorists “involves mid-air explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative”.

The first part of Zero K is set in the vast “desert waste” of one of the former Soviet Central Asian republics, in a labyrinthine, windowless compound called the Convergence, where experiments in cryonics are taking place. It has all the clinical efficiency of a well-funded private hospital combined with the corporate luxury of a first-class airport lounge in one of the Gulf states.

The novel’s central subject could not be more contemporary in an era of Silicon Valley utopianism and high-tech adventurism: the attempted preservation of human life through cryonics, a procedure known here as “Zero K”. The cast of characters are the usual mix of paranoiacs, crackpot sages and artists. And while this is an archetypal DeLillo novel, in subject matter and theme, it has obvious influences and antecedents, from Samuel Beckett to JG Ballard and Andrei Tarkovsky to Arthur C Clarke.•

Tags: ,


Even a non-Trekkie, non-TV-watching person like myself has fully absorbed the program’s ideas, so fully have they immersed themselves in the culture. Beyond the sheer entertainment of the Enterprise lies, of course, a colorblind society that during the days of Gene Roddenberry could only seem realistic in space. Imperfect though we still are, we’ve moved closer to realizing this world ever since the original Star Trek iteration debuted in 1966.

Another less talked about aspect of the sci-fi show is that it exists in a post-scarcity world. There are still challenges and obstacles, but basic needs are universally met. Manu Saadia, author of the soon-to-be-published Trekonomics, argues in a Money article that for all the very real concerns about wealth inequality, we may be closer than we think to achieving such a system.

An excerpt:

In Star Trek’s hypothetical society — the Federation — poverty, greed and want no longer exist. Most goods are made for free by robots known as replicators. The obligation to work has been abolished. Work has become an exploration of one’s abilities. The people of Star Trek have solved what British economist John Maynard Keynes pithily called “the economic problem,” that is, the necessity for individuals and societies to allocate scarce goods and resources. They live secure in the knowledge that all needs will be fulfilled and free from the tyranny of base economic pursuits.

The replicator is the keystone of Star Trek’s cornucopia. It’s a Santa Claus machine that can produce anything upon request: foods, beverages, knick-knacks, and tools. Like Captain Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation, you merely have to ask for “tea, Earl Grey, hot,” and the machine will make your beverage appear out of thin air with a satisfying, tingling visual effect.

The replicator is the perfect, and therefore last, machine. You cannot improve upon it. You ask and it makes. This signals that Star Trek speaks to us from the other side of the industrial revolution. The historical process by which machines enhance and replace human labor has reached its conclusion. …

The replicator is a public good, available to all for free. In the show’s universe, the decision was made to distribute the fruits of progress among all members of society. Abundance is a political choice as much as the end result of technological innovation. And to underscore that point, Star Trek goes so far as to feature alien societies where replicators’ services aren’t free.

To a 21st century audience, beset by growing inequality and a sense of dread in the face of coming automation, such a world seems entirely out of reach. We will probably never go where no one has gone before, nor will we ever meet alien Vulcans.

But some of Star Trek’s blissful vision of society has already come to pass.•


Author Richard Brautigan 1968

A miscast spokesperson of drugged-out hippies, the writer Richard Brautigan wasn’t enamored with narcotics nor the wide-eyed, bell-bottomed set. He wrote two things I love: The 1967 novel Trout Fishing in America and the 1968 poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

What follows is an excerpt from Lawrence Wright’s 1985 Rolling Stone article about Brautigan’s death and a German TV interview conducted a year before his passing. In the latter, he says this: “I think perception is one of the incredible qualities of human beings, and anyway that we can expand or define or redefine or adventure into the future of perception, we should use whatever means to do so.”

From Wright:

His passions were basketball, the Civil War, Frank Lloyd Wright, Southern women writers, soap operas, the National Enquirer, chicken-fried steak and talking on the telephone. Wherever he was in the world, he would phone up his friends and talk for hours, sometimes reading them an entire book manuscript on a transpacific call. Time meant nothing to him, for he was a hopeless insomniac. Most of his friends dreaded it when Richard started reading his latest work to them, because he could not abide criticism of any sort. He had a dead ear for music. [His daughter] Ianthe remembered that he used to buy record albums because of the girls on the covers. He loved to take walks, but he loathed exercise in any other form.

The fact that Richard couldn’t drive allowed him to build up an entourage of chauffeurs wherever he went. For many of them, it was an honor, and they didn’t mind that it was calculated dependency on Richard’s part.

Richard had wild notions about money. Although he was absurdly parsimonious, sometimes demanding a receipt for a purchase of bubblegum, he was also a heavy tipper, handing out fifty-dollar tips for five-dollar cab fares. He liked to give the impression that money was meaningless to him. The floor of his apartment was littered with spare change, like the bottom of a wishing well, and he always kept his bills wadded up in his pants pockets, but he knew to the dime how much money he was carrying. He was famously openhanded, but when he had to borrow money from his friends, he was slow paying it back. He often tried to pay them in “trout money,” little scraps of paper on which he had scrawled an image of a fish. He had the idea that they would be wildly valuable, because they had been signed by Richard Brautigan. At least, that’s what he told his creditors.

Christmas was a special problem for him. His friends were horrified that Richard liked to spend his Christmases in porno theaters. They decided it must have something to do with his childhood. Richard was mum on the subject. Ron Loewinsohn remembered when Richard came to read at Harvard. Yes, Richard was famous, a spokesman for his generation, but he was also a kind of bumpkin, half-educated, untraveled, a true provincial. He had never been East. He wanted to be taken seriously, of course, but he was suspicious and a little afraid of academicians — including Ron, who was in graduate school at Harvard when Richard arrived. Life magazine came along, and there was even a parade down Massachusetts Avenue, with a giant papier-mâché trout in the lead. After the reading, Ron and Richard went to Walden Pond, and as they walked along the littered banks of Thoreau’s wilderness, the photographer walked backward in front of them, snapping away. It was strange to be linked in this media ceremony to the two American writers who had most influenced Richard — Thoreau, who was like Richard at least in his solitariness and his love of nature, and Hemingway, who had also received the star treatment from Life.

In 1970, when Richard was still tremendously popular, he confided to Margot Patterson Doss, the San Francisco Chronicle columnist, that he had never had a birthday party. She let him plan one for himself at her house. He decorated the house with fish drawings — “shoals of them,” Margot said — and when she asked whom he wanted to cater the affair, he picked Kentucky Fried Chicken. Everyone came — Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Phil Whalen, many of the finest poets of the era — all honoring Richard. When it came time to blow out the candles on the cake, Richard refused. “This is the Age of Aquarius,” he said. “The candles will blow themselves out.” He was thirty-five.

The German TV interview.

0427_ayn-rand1-500x391 (1)

An extra kick to the ass for struggling Americans is that in the aftermath of the 2008 collapse, a number of the banks that laid the economy low benefited due to the boom in for-profit colleges, which many struggling citizens opted for in desperation, hoping to find a better way, to pay the rent, to save the house. These dreams have often been deferred, at best, with many students now carrying school-related debt among their other burdens.

One entrepreneur who’s grown rich in this higher-education bubble is Carl Barney, an Ayn Rand enthusiast who doesn’t believe, in principle, that the U.S. government should be handing out those student loans, though he somehow manages to cash the checks. In a smart New York Times article, Patricia Cohen profiles the Objectivist tycoon and the industry that made him. An excerpt:

As a teenager, he traveled to Australia, where he sold encyclopedias door to door and picked grapes (“I was good at it”). He toured India, and later ended up in California — dabbling briefly, he admits with some embarrassment, in Scientology — seeking meaning here and there while engaging in the great American tradition of self-improvement.

By the 1970s, he participated in another American tradition: making money in real estate. Then a minor business transaction came along that became a seminal moment. After legally terminating a lease, he offered some extra compensation for the inconvenience.

The leaseholder was offended and said, “I don’t want anything that isn’t earned or deserved,” Mr. Barney recalls. She was describing Rand’s “trader principle,” which holds that two people engaging in a trade shouldn’t take any more, or less, from each other than is deserved.

Mr. Barney was bewildered.

Her explanation? “You need to read Atlas Shrugged.

He began teaching himself about Rand and objectivism. Attending her final public appearance in 1981 in New Orleans, he heard speaker after speaker declare, “She changed my life.”

It was testimony Mr. Barney would ultimately echo. “This is what Rand taught me — identify that values that are important to you and practice the virtues to achieve that,” he said. It infused him with “a central purpose.”

That led him to pursue a business in education. So when a friend told him about the existence of for-profit colleges, he was struck. “Wow,” he said he thought, “you could actually buy a college? That’s what I want to do.”•

Tags: ,


Speaking of mind-altering substances, when a teenager, the French Surrealist writer René Daumal blasted his brain with the carbon tetrachloride he normally used to kill beetles for his insect collection. Not a good idea. By the time he was 36, he’d joined the bugs in the great beyond, no doubt in part because of his amateur chemistry experiments.

Known primarily today for the novel Mount Analogue: A Tale of Non-Euclidean and Symbolically Authentic Mountaineering Adventures, which Alejandro Jodorowsky used as the basis for his crazy-as-fuck 1973 film, Holy Mountain, Daumal’s recollection of his auto-dosing, “A Fundamental Experiment,” was reprinted in a 1965 Psychedelic Review. The opening:

The simple fact of the matter is beyond telling.  In the 18 years since it happened, I have often tried to put it into words.  Now, once and for all, I should like to employ every resource of language I know in giving an account of at least the outward and inward circumstances. This ‘fact’ consists in a certainty I acquired by accident at the age of sixteen or seventeen; ever since then, the memory of it has directed the best part of me toward seeking a means of finding it again, and for good.

My memories of child-hood and adolescence are deeply marked by a series of attempts to experience the beyond, and those random attempts brought me to the ultimate experiment, the fundamental experience of which I speak.

At about the age of six, having been taught no kind of religious belief whatsoever, I struck up against the stark problem of death.

I passed some atrocious nights, feeling my stomach clawed to shreds and my breathing half throttled by the anguish of nothingness, the ‘no more of anything’.

One night when I was about eleven, relaxing my entire body, I calmed the terror and revulsion of my organism before the unknown, and a new feeling came alive in me; hope, and a foretaste of the imperishable. But I wanted more, I wanted a certainty. At fifteen or sixteen I began my experiments, a search without direction or system.

Finding no way to experiment directly on death-on my death-I tried to study my sleep, assuming an analogy between the two.

By various devices I attempted to enter sleep in a waking state. The undertaking is not so utterly absurd as it sounds, but in certain respects it is perilous. I could not go very far with it; my own organism gave me some serious warnings of the risks I was running. One day, however, I decided to tackle the problem of death itself.

I would put my body into a state approaching as close as possible that of physiological death, and still concentrate all my attention on remaining conscious and registering everything that might take place.

I had in my possession some carbon tetrachloride, which I used to kill beetles for my collection. Knowing this substance belongs to the same chemical family as chloroform (it is even more toxic), I thought I could regulate its action very simply and easily: the moment I began to lose consciousness, my hand would fall from my nostrils carrying with it the handkerchief moistened with the volatile fluid. Later on I repeated the experiment –in the presence of friends, who could have given me help had I needed it.

The result was always exactly the same; that is, it exceeded and even overwhelmed my expectations by bursting the limits of the possible and by projecting me brutally into another world.

First came the ordinary phenomena of asphyxiation: arterial palpitation, buzzings, sounds of heavy pumping in the temples, painful repercussions from the tiniest exterior noises, flickering lights. Then, the distinct feeling: ‘This is getting serious. The game is up,’ followed by a swift recapitulation of my life up to that moment. If I felt any slight anxiety, it remained indistinguishable from a bodily discomfort that did not affect my mind.

And my mind kept repeating to itself : ‘Careful, don’t doze off. This is just the time to keep your eyes open.’

The luminous spots that danced in front of my eyes soon filled the whole of space, which echoed with the beat of my blood- sound and light overflowing space and fusing in a single rhythm. By this time I was no longer capable of speech, even of interior speech; my mind travelled too rapidly to carry any words along with it.

I realized, in a sudden illumination, that I still had control of the hand which held the handkerchief, that I still accurately perceived the position of my body, and that I could hear and understand words uttered nearby–but that objects, words, and meanings of words had lost any significance whatsoever. It was a little like having repeated a word over and over until it shrivels and dies in your mouth: you still know what the word ‘table’ means, for instance, you could use it correctly, but it no longer truly evokes its object.

In the same way everything that made up ‘the world’ for me in my ordinary state was still there, but I felt as if it had been drained of its substance. It was nothing more than a phantasmagoria-empty, absurd, clearly outlined, and necessary all at once.

This ‘world’ lost all reality because I had abruptly entered another world, infinitely more real, an instantaneous and intense world of eternity, a concentrated flame of reality and evidence into which I had cast myself like a butterfly drawn to a lighted candle.

Then, at that moment, comes the certainty; speech must now be content to wheel in circles around the bare fact.

Certainty of what?

Words are heavy and slow, words are too shapeless or too rigid. With these wretched words I can put together only approximate statements, whereas my certainty is for me the archetype of precision. In my ordinary state of mind, all that remains thinkable and formulable of this experiment reduces to one affirmation on which I would stake my life: I feel the certainty of the existence of something else, a beyond, another world, or another form of knowledge.

In the moment just described, I knew directly, I experienced that beyond in its very reality.

It is important to repeat that in that new state I perceived and perfectly comprehended the ordinary state of being, the latter being contained within the former, as waking consciousness contains our unconscious dreams, and not the reverse. This last irreversible relation proves the superiority (in the scale of reality or consciousness) of the first state over the second.

I told myself clearly: in a little while I shall return to the so-called ‘normal state’, and perhaps the memory of this fearful revelation will cloud over; but it is in this moment that I see the truth.

All this came to me without words; meanwhile I was pierced by an even more commanding thought. With a swiftness approaching the instantaneous, it thought itself so to speak in my very substance: for all eternity I was trapped, hurled faster and faster toward ever imminent annihilation through the terrible mechanism of the Law that rejected me.

‘That’s what it is. So that’s what it is.’

My mind found no other reaction. Under the threat of something worse, I had to follow the movement.

It took a tremendous effort, which became more and more difficult, but I was obliged to make that effort, until the moment when, letting go, I doubtless fell into a brief spell of unconsciousness. My hand dropped the handkerchief, I breathed air’, and for the rest of the day I remained dazed and stupefied-with a violent headache.•

“Nothing in your education or experience can have prepared you for this film.”


George-Lawnmower-1950-1 (3)

Whether we’re talking about baseball umpires or long-haul truckers, I’m not so concerned about machines ruining the “romance” of traditional human endeavor, but I am very worried about technological unemployment destabilizing Labor. Perhaps history will repeat itself and more and better jobs will replace the ones likely to be disappeared in the coming decades, but even just the perfection of driverless cars will create a huge pothole in society. The Gig Economy is a diminishing of the workforce, and even those positions are vulnerable to automation. Maybe things will work themselves out, but it would be far better if we’re prepared for a worst-case scenario.

Excerpts from two articles follow: 1) Mark Karlin’s Truthout interview with Robert McChesney, co-author of People Get Ready, and 2) a Manu Saadia Tech Insider piece, “Robots Could Be a Big Problem for the Third World.”

From Truthout:


Let me start with the grand question raised by your book written with John Nichols. I think it is safe to say that the conventional thinking of the “wisdom class” for decades has been that the more advanced technology becomes (including robots and automated means of production, service and communication), the more beneficial it will be for humans. What is the basic challenge to that concept at the center of the new book by you and John?

Robert W. McChesney:

The conventional wisdom, embraced and propagated by many economists, has been that while new technologies will disrupt and eliminate many jobs and entire industries, they would also create new industries, which would eventually have as many or more new jobs, and that these jobs would generally be much better than the jobs that had been lost to technology.

And that has been more or less true for much of the history of industrial capitalism. Vastly fewer people were needed to work on farms by the 20th century and many ended up in factories; less are now needed in factories and they end up in offices. The new jobs tended to be better than the old jobs.

But we argue the idea that technology will create a new job to replace the one it has destroyed is no longer operative. Nor is the idea that the new job will be better than the old job, in terms of compensation and benefits. Capitalism is in a period of prolonged and arguably indefinite stagnation.•

From Tech Insider:

The danger lies in the transition to an economy where the cost of making stuff—industry—has become more or less like agriculture today (with very few people employed and a very low share of GDP). With appropriate policies in place, developed countries can probably manage that transition. They have in the past, and therefore it is safe to assume they most likely will in the future. It does not mean that we will not experience dislocations and conflicts, but we do have old and established institutions—government, the press, the public sphere— that allow us to resolve such conflicts over time for the greater benefit of all.

The real challenge will be beyond our comfortable borders, in the developing world. In both nineteenth-century Europe and twentieth-century Asia, national development has followed a similar pattern. People moved from the countryside to urban centers to take advantage of higher-paying jobs in factories and services. Again, South Korea offers a startling, fast-forward example of that: it underwent a complete transformation from a poor, rural country to a postindus trial, hyperurban powerhouse in less than fifty years. It was so rapid that most visible traces of the past have been erased and forgotten. The national museum in Seoul has a life-size reconstruction of a Seoul street in the 1950s, just like we have over here, but for the colonial era. And imagine this, China went down that very same path at an even faster clip. Half a billion impoverished people turned into middle-class consumers in three decades.

However, this may not happen again if manufacturing is reduced to the status of agriculture, a highly rationalized activity (read: employing very few people). The historically proven path to economic growth and prosperity taken by Korea and China might no longer be available to the next countries.•

Tags: , ,


The publication of a recent unauthorized biography of Joan Didion has reopened the conversation on her career, with some turning their guns on her canon, but I still vote “yes,” especially in regards to her writing about her native California. 

One assignment in the Golden State that never panned out as planned was her 1976 reportage of the Patty Hearst trial in San Francisco, which was supposed to run in Rolling Stone. Didion couldn’t find the thread of the court proceedings of the debutante terrorist but used the experience to work over some of her own knots.

A few of her recollections of this period have been published in the New York Review of Books. The essay jumps around, touching on two different coming-of-age stories which occurred, roughly speaking, in the same milieu. Really intended for Didion completists. The introduction:

I had told Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone that I would cover the Patty Hearst trial, and this pushed me into examining my thoughts about California. Some of my notes from the time follow here. I never wrote the piece about the Hearst trial, but I went to San Francisco in 1976 while it was going on and tried to report it. And I got quite involved in uncovering my own mixed emotions. This didn’t lead to my writing the piece, but eventually it led to—years later—Where I Was From (2003).

When I was there for the trial, I stayed at the Mark. And from the Mark, you could look into the Hearst apartment. So I would sit in my room and imagine Patty Hearst listening to Carousel. I had read that she would sit in her room and listen to it. I thought the trial had some meaning for me—because I was from California. This didn’t turn out to be true.

—March 23, 2016•

Tags: ,


If it wasn’t for the miraculous New York Review Books imprint, I may have never read Moravagine or The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, and then where would I be? Those two are giants, and there have been a lot of other pleasures, titles by Freeman Dyson and Dorothy Baker and Robert Sheckley.

I’m not as dour about literary publishing as, say, Philip Roth. It’s been increasingly difficult in the Digital Age to monetize such a field, but I think the demand is there and will always be there, no matter how many among us are binge-watching TV or “liking” our “friends.” I can’t guarantee there will always be a Broadway, but as long as there are humans, there will be theater. Telling stories is ingrained in us. The same is true, I think, of great literature.

At the Paris Review blog, Susannah Hunnewell has a smart interview with NYRB founder, Edwin Frank. An excerpt:


Were you surprised by how successful the series has been?

Edwin Frank:

The point of the series should be to get the books out there, spread the news, and to pay its way. It does pay its way. You could say the series started at a difficult but also opportune moment in a still ongoing crisis in publishing, a difficult business. Because this last decade has been a time when more than ever books are getting pushed aside by other kinds of entertainments and sources of information, and that has been a challenge for publishers and contributed to the decline of the independent bookstore that went on for so long and seemed inevitable. But in fact it’s changed. The decline has not only stopped but been reversed, and I imagine that’s because with books and literature under siege people who really care about books and literature care about them all the more. They want to defend them and seeing them as something you have to defend can put them in new light, makes you think again. What is it I love about these things? What difference do they make? And then again for people growing up with all the gadgets, perhaps the book offers a very specific respite, a place apart, a welcomingly unsocial medium, you could say. That may be going on, too. In any case, this ancient space of books has been changed by the new economy and the new technology. It doesn’t feel the way it used to feel—it feels threatened in some ways—but you can feel it all the more and feel it’s there to explore precisely because it can’t be taken for granted. Old as it is it feels different and in fact new and I think that may help to account for the new independent bookstores opening up, as well as for the success of our series and adventurous publishers like Archipelago.•


Tags: ,

thomasmann11 (1)

When it comes to Thomas Mann, Nick Tosches is right, and Jerry Stahl and Eric Bogosian are mostly wrong. The Devil and Sonny Liston writer, whose poetry leaves a bruise, is an appreciator of the German author, who I think was every bit as dark and visceral as Henry Miller, even if his table manners were far better. Stahl isn’t a fan, and while Bogosian appreciates that Mann’s work was rich with philosophy, he labels his books “not the best examples of the literary form.” Sure, Doctor Faustus is a bit much, but most of the canon isn’t just readable but compulsively so. An exchange from a Stahl-Bogosian discussion at Los Angeles Review of Books is followed by excerpts from two newspaper articles written about Mann during his life.

From LARB:

Jerry Stahl:

You also mentioned Mann. Nick Tosches is a big Mann fan. But I have to be honest here, I think I read half of Magic Mountain on acid, decided I had TB, and had to quit reading in the ER. I’m guessing Mann wasn’t exactly “Father of the Year” either. Seems like one of those writers you imagine with a jacket and tie on, like Nixon. You don’t picture Thomas Mann paddling to his desk in the morning scratching his ass in his pajamas.

Eric Bogosian:

Mann was deeply superstitious. He began writing every morning at 7:00 a.m. and came out of his study at 7:00 p.m. for dinner. He had seven children. He was deeply superstitious. That said, Doctor Faustus was written during World War II and is Mann’s response to Hitler’s reign. Christians begged for philosophy because it makes no sense and people try to live their lives by it …

Anyway, Mann’s books are impossible and like the work of Bernard Shaw, probably not the best examples of the literary form.•


The opening of a 1955 interview Frederic Morton of the New York Times conducted with Mann just two months before the writer died:

Travemuende, Germany — Thomas Mann’s eightieth birthday–June 6–might suggest an aged Olympian gazing distantly upon the world from his Lake Zurich retreat. The picture, however, is not entirely accurate. Before meeting this writer, for example, the Nobel prize winner had just delivered speeches on Schiller in Stuttgart and Weimar, negotiated possible film sales of Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain in Goettingen and spoken on the North German radio. Soon after the interview he was to receive Honorary Citizenship of his native city (Luebeck), be the object of a number of official birthday fêtes in Zurich, launch a lecture tour in Holland and, last not least, complete his Felix Krull, which recently appeared (442 pages strong and briskly subtitled “First Volume of the Memoirs”) to a volley of German critical huzzahs.

Travemuende, the Baltic Sea resort in which this writer cornered the octogenarian, was supposed to provide a brief lull for the Herr Doktor. (In Germany, where every solvent person with spectacles is presumed to possess a Ph.D., Thomas Mann goes by the title of the Herr Doktor.) His hotel suite, though, could have been the opening-night dressing room of Mary Martin. Flowers, telephone calls, telegrams and she whom even Miss Martin could never boast of, namely Katja Mann. For to interview Herr Doktor means invariably also to interview Frau Doktor, his attractive and most vivacious wife, whose conversational impulses have a wonderful way of advancing, instead of interrupting, a causerie. On this visit she wore a smart (one is almost tempted to say snappy) turquoise velvet jacket with embroidered sleeves. During the talk she directed traffic between a messenger boy, a hotel official, the interviewer and a maid pouring tea.

In the midst of it all, the master. Clad in business gray, hands factually folded, he looked about fifteen years younger than his age and much more (there’s no help for the word) bourgeois than even his photographs. In fact, he resembled a Hanseatic grain merchant pondering, in the solitude of his office, wheat futures on the Hamburg bourse. His actual problem, just put to him by the visitor, was a little different.

“I am not sure if I consider any one book my most important,” he said in his precise but measuredly cadenced High German. “The longest and, to my mind, richest work is the Joseph tetralogy, but perhaps–” the Mann smile like the Mann phrase often has a decorous ambiguity, regretful and self-ironical at the same time “–perhaps I like ‘Joseph’ best by way of overcompensation. Because of its size it is the last read of my major works, you know.” He turned to light a cigar. “Then of course there is the Faustus which put the heaviest strain on my resources and in that sense is closest to me. And there is ‘Tonio Kroeger’; it is the most private and emotionally most autobiographical thing that I have ever done.”•

mann00 (1)

In 1937, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle published an article about Mann living in America, an exile from Nazi Germany during the run-up to World War II. He seemed confident about the fall of fascism. I never read before that he dined with FDR, though it makes sense given the writer’s Nobel stature and social nature. The piece was written by Alvah Bessie, who a decade later was to be blacklisted and imprisoned by HUAC as a member of the “Hollywood Ten,” along with Dalton Trumbo.



Tags: ,


As the Google Doodle attests, Claude Shannon, the Bell Labs mastermind who did his best to invent the Information Age, would have turned 100 today. Shannon’s co-workers were often years ahead of the curve, but he was working decades in the future. In addition to knowing what the world would look like generations in advance, Shannon, a wisp of a man, was deeply eccentric and fond of games and parlor tricks. He designed the first computer chess program and the initial computerized mouse that “learned” more every time it went through a maze. (Like this, but 60 years ago.)

Two excerpts about him are embedded below. The first is a passage from Joel Gertner’s The Idea Factory in which recalls how the scientist’s wife, Betty, would struggle to come up with ideas for presents for her spouse, because what do you get for the man who has everything–in his head? The second is the abstract from a paper by Edward O. Thorp, a mathematics professor who lives to bring down the house–the house being a casino. He’s focused a sizable portion of his career on probability in betting games, and in 1955 he created, in tandem with Shannon, what is considered the first wearable computer. The device, which was contained in a shoe or a cigarette pack, could markedly improve a gambler’s chance at the roulette wheel, though the bugs were never completely worked out.

From Gertner:

One year, Betty gave him a unicycle as a gift. Shannon quickly began riding; then he began building his own unicycles, challenging himself to see how small he could make one that could still be ridden. One evening after dinner at home in Morristown, Claude began to spontaneously juggle three balls, and his efforts soon won him some encouragement from the kids in the apartment complex. There was no reason, as far as Shannon could see, why he shouldn’t pursue his two new interests, unicycling and juggling, at Bell Labs, too. Nor was there any reason not to pursue them simultaneously. When he was in the office, Shannon would take a break from work to ride his unicycle up and down the long hallways, usually at night when the building wasn’t so busy. He would nod to passerby, unless he was juggling as he rode. Then he would be lost in concentration. When he got a pogo stick, he would go up and down the hall on that, too.

Here, then, was a picture of Claude Shannon, circa 1955, a man–slender, agile, handsome, abstracted–who rarely showed up on time for work, who often played chess or fiddled with amusing machines all day; who frequently went down the halls juggling or pogoing, and who didn’t seem to care, really, what anyone thought of him or his pursuits. He did what was interesting. He was categorized, still, as a scientist. But it seemed obvious that he had the temperament and sensibility of an artist.•


From Thorp:

The first wearable computer was conceived in 1955 by [Thorp] to predict roulette, culminating in a joint effort at M.I.T. with Claude Shannon in 1960-61. The final operating version was rested in Shannon’s basement home lab in June of 1961. The cigarette pack sized analog device yielded an expected gain of +44% when betting on the most favored “octant.” The Shannons and Thorps tested the computer in Las Vegas in the summer of 1961. The predictions there were consistent with the laboratory expected gain of 44% but a minor hardware problem deferred sustained serious betting. They kept the method and the existence of the computer secret until 1966.•

Thorp appeared on To Tell the Truth in 1964. He didn’t discuss wearables but his book about other methods to break the bank. Amusing that longtime NYC radio host John Gambling played one of the impostors.

I’m more deterministic about technology than John Markoff, but I really enjoyed his latest book, Machines of Loving Grace. One tidbit from that title: “At Stanford Research Institute, Douglas Engelbart sent the entire staff of his lab through EST training and joined the board of the organization.” Engelbart is the Augmented Intelligence pioneer most known today for 1968’s “Mother of All Demos.” 

EST, the so-called self-improvement system that features copious mental abuse, is the brainchild of Werner Erhard, who was born John Rosenberg and rechristened himself after a Nazi rocketeer (misspelling it!). The profane self-help peddler came to wide prominence in the 1970s, with the aid of apostles in entertainment and intellectual circles, from John Denver to Buckminster Fuller to Silicon Valley technologists. Now an octogenarian, Erhard still unabashedly calls himself a “hero.” Excerpts follow from two articles written during the EST salesman’s headiest decade.

From the 1975 People article “Werner Erhard“:

I wanted to get as far away from Jack Rosenberg as I could get,” explains Werner Erhard. His reason is clear: Jack Rosenberg was a loser. Born in Lower Merion, Pa., Rosenberg married at 18, fathered four children and worked as a construction company supervisor—until he dropped out in 1960. Leaving his family, he took off for St. Louis with a girlfriend (now his second wife and mother of three). To start fresh, Rosenberg adopted space scientist Wernher von Braun‘s first name (misspelling it) and former West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard’s last name. “Freudians,” Werner Erhard concedes, “would say this was a rejection of Jewishness and a seizure of strength.”

The rest of Erhard’s spiritual hegira has become legend among his cult. For eight years he worked as a crackerjack instructor of encyclopedia salesmen. Then one morning while driving down the freeway south of San Francisco, to which he moved in 1964, he was suddenly struck by the realization that “I was never going to make it. No matter how much money or recognition I achieved, it would never be enough.”

To overcome this hopelessness, Erhard experimented with just about every method guaranteed to bring peace of mind. “I tried yoga, Dale Carnegie, Zen, Scientology, encounter groups, t-groups, psychoanalysis, reality therapy, Gestalt, love, nudity, you name it,” he recalls. “But when it was over, that was not it.”

Once again, Erhard was behind the wheel when he finally “got it”—a religious happening that the faithful call “The Experience.” And what is ‘it’? Replies the Master: “What is it, is it. When you drop the effort to make your life work, you begin to discover that it’s perfect the way it is. You can relax. It’s all going to unfold.”

Not much of a message, perhaps, but as packaged, promoted and proselytized by Erhard in a two-weekend, 60-hour course (price $250), his movement, known as est (Latin for ‘it is,’ as well as Erhard Seminars Training), has turned out more than 63,000 converts in 12 U.S. cities. Another 12,000 hopefuls are on the waiting list. Among the alumni of est’s psychic boot camps are Emmy winner Valerie Harper (who thanked Erhard on TV for changing her life), Cloris Leachman, John Denver, astronaut Buzz Aldrin and activist Jerry Rubin.•

From a 1979 People article about the auto-racing exploits of EST scream machine:

For hours mechanics have been fine-tuning the squat red-and-silver race car, while assistants check their clipboards and keep the Watkins Glen (N.Y.) bivouac free of litter and strangers. One fan wanders through in a T-shirt with the baffling slogan: ‘Before I was different, now I’m the same.’ Presently the driver emerges from an enormous van, astronaut-like in his creamy flame-proof suit, and heads for the Formula Super Vee racer (named for its Volkswagen engine). At the wave of a flag he will roar around a 3.3-mile Grand Prix course at speeds up to 130 mph.

There are 29 other qualifiers in this Gold Cup event, but only driver Werner Erhard claims he is here for the sake of mankind. Erhard, the founder of est (Erhard seminars training), says that when he slides into his 164-horsepower Argo JM4, he is raising consciousness, not merely dust.

‘Real people—you and me—feel like they don’t make any difference in this lousy world,’ says the 43-year-old Erhard. He is tall and loose-limbed with icy blue eyes; he insists on eye contact during a conversation. If his listener looks away, even momentarily, Erhard stops talking. He wants everyone to understand why he is driving fast cars these days in addition to heading the $20 million business that est has become, plus a 1977 spin-off, his program ‘to end world hunger by 1997.’ ‘I wanted to organize a high-performance team,’ Erhard continues, ‘that could master a complex skill in a very short time with winning results and show that everyone involved makes a big difference, from grease monkeys to spectators.’ In order to prove this estian point, Erhard says he considered such adventures as skydiving and karate, but rejected them as not collective enough. ‘Auto racing was perfect!’ he exclaims. ‘I hadn’t driven a car in six years and didn’t know the first thing about racing. Whatever we’d achieve, we’d achieve together.’”

“I found it a remarkable technology”:


When Jonathan Franzen, who’s not going to stop, met President Obama, he informed our Commander in Chief that Richard Nixon was the “last Liberal President.” Obama responded, “Yeah, the only problem was he was crazy.” Largely true on both counts.

I’ve mentioned before that Nixon, who succeeded LBJ and his “War on Poverty,” attempted to establish Guaranteed Basic Income in the U.S., which came awfully close to happening. For a number of reasons, technological and political among them, the idea probably has more currency among Liberal, Conservative and Libertarian think tanks than anytime since, though those vying for higher office, Bernie Sanders included, dare not speak its name. If GBI resulted in a total dismantling of all other social safety nets, it could do more harm than good. If done correctly, however, it could help working-class people survive the hollowing out of the middle.

At Alternet, Rutger Bregman recalls Nixon’s effort. An excerpt:

Few people today are aware that the United States was just a hair’s breadth from realizing a social safety net at least as extensive as those in most western European countries. When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his “War on Poverty” in 1964, Democrats and Republicans alike rallied behind fundamental welfare reforms.

First, however, some trial runs were needed. Tens of millions of dollars were budgeted to provide a basic income for more than 8,500 Americans in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Iowa, North Carolina, Indiana, Seattle and Denver in what were also the first-ever large-scale social experiments to distinguish experimental and control groups. The researchers wanted answers to three questions: (1) Would people work significantly less if they receive a guaranteed income? (2) Would the program be too expensive? (3) Would it prove politically unfeasible?

The answers were no, no and yes.

Declines in working hours were limited across the board. “[The] declines in hours of paid work were undoubtedly compensated in part by other useful activities, such as search for better jobs or work in the home,” noted the Seattle experiment’s concluding report. For example, one mother who had dropped out of high school worked less in order to earn a degree in psychology and get a job as a researcher. Another woman took acting classes; her husband began composing music. “We’re now self-sufficient, income-earning artists,” she told the researchers. Among youth included in the experiment, almost all the hours not spent on paid work went into more education. Among the New Jersey subjects, the rate of high school graduations rose 30 percent.

And thus, in August 1968, President Nixon presented a bill providing for a modest basic income, calling it “the most significant piece of social legislation in our nation’s history.” A White House poll found 90 percent of all newspapers enthusiastically receptive to the plan. The National Council of Churches was in favor, and so were the labor unions and even the corporate sector (see Brian Steensland’s book The Failed Welfare Resolution, page 69). At the White House, a telegram arrived declaring, “Two upper middle class Republicans who will pay for the program say bravo.” Pundits were even going around quoting Victor Hugo—“Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come.”

It seemed that the time for a basic income had well and truly arrived.•



John Grisham once dreamed of being a literary novelist, but realizing he would only be so-so, he turned his pen instead to legal thrillers, made a mint and entertained the masses. He succeeded brilliantly because he was self-aware enough to know what he lacked just as acutely as what he had.

Donald Trump, Bull Connor as a condo salesman, long ago sealed himself within a bubble of ego and possesses almost know self-knowledge. He’s as clueless about his many serious flaws as he is of the GOP delegate process. The hideous hotelier won’t be able to “Make America White Again,” but he has aggravated racist wounds during his odious campaign. 

In a smart Spiegel Online Q&A Marc Pitzke conducted with Grisham, the novelist argues the repercussions of Trump’s hateful pandering will be short-lived. Perhaps. Turning his attention to the other side of the aisle, the writer opines that “Bernie is a fluke.” The opening:


Mr. Grisham, you’ve always been politically outspoken, in your books and in the world. Please explain Donald Trump to us. 

John Grisham:

Donald Trump appeals to the angry white people. Angry, mostly uneducated white people who feel left out. Who could have seen it coming? He’s been a buffoon for 30 years, nothing new. And he’s the most unqualified person to run for office in the history of this country.


Are you worried he could win?

John Grisham:

I’m not worried about Trump. As a Democrat, I hope he gets the nomination. Because if he gets it, I don’t think there’s any way he can win. To win as a Republican, you have to win all the Republican core, you have to win a fair number of the Hispanic vote, and you have to win a fair number of the undecideds. There’s no way he can do that. I grew up in the world of fundamental Southern Baptist conservative Christians, and I know some people there who are simply not going to vote for Trump. Period. They despise him, third wife and all. And they would never vote for Hillary.


So they’d rather stay home?

John Grisham:

They would stay home. Trump is not going to get all his Republicans out, and he’s going to scare off a lot of the female voters, and he’s going to scare off every single Hispanic voter because of his outrageous statements about immigration.


But these angry white folks, they may be here to stay even if Trump goes away.

John Grisham:

Some will go away. They won’t be happy, but there’s no other place for them to go. Trump is appealing to a lot of voters who haven’t voted in a long time, they gave up on the system. He’s attracting a lot of people who’ve been out of the system for a long time. When he goes away, they will disappear again, too. If they don’t get a chance to vote for him in November, they’re probably not going to vote at all.•

Tags: , ,

why-crash-test-3 (2)

Alec Ross, author of The Industries of the Future, was asked in a Knowledge@Wharton interview about the next wave of work and wealth, and he echoed the sentiment in Tyler Cowen’s Average Is Over, noting that only those committed to continued education and possessing a flexible spirit will get ahead. Well, that’s good to know, but one obvious thing that often goes unmentioned in these discussions is what happens to the very large number of people who won’t be able to adapt to rapid change and do get left behind. That’s likely and must somehow be addressed. 

An excerpt:


As robots and codification and all of these other industries that you identify in the book become more prominent, how do you feel that’s going to change the world balance of power? How does that change the global economy and who has power and who doesn’t?

Alec Ross:

That’s a tremendous question. First of all, I’d put it into a certain kind of binary. The first is within the architecture of the 196 sovereign nation states, and the second is within those nation states, what kinds of individuals do well and what kinds of individuals do poorly.

You can live in a country that is prospering, but you can be doing very well or you could be doing very poorly. Or you could be living in a country that’s floundering, and you might be able to be doing pretty well. The principle political and economic binary of the 20th century was right versus left. In the 21st century, I think it’s open versus closed, defining open as upward economic mobility not confined to elites; social and cultural and religious norms not set from a central authority and broadly rights respecting for women, minorities of all type and what have you.

I believe that the centers of innovation and the wealth creation and job creation that come from that will be in the more open societies for the industries of the future. People conglomerating around what will probably be ten to 15 major centers over the next fifteen years. We already see this in development now. The more open societies will be those that compete and succeed most effectively.

Looking at this on an individual level, it’s going to be a terrible time to be mediocre at your job if you’re in a high-cost labor market. It’s an absolutely brutal truth. When people in Baltimore are competing against people in Bangalore, not just based on cost of labor but also quality of labor, which is now increasingly going to be the case, being more middle class or working class in the United States or Western Europe isn’t going to mean you’re starting life on second base to the degree that it did in the past.

You’ve got to be a committed lifelong learner. You’ve got to be adaptable. Otherwise you’re going to be left behind even if your country is producing substantial growth.•



Steve Case won’t be around to read his obituary, which is probably a good thing.

It would no doubt pain him that the lead will be the disastrous America Online-Time Warner merger, an attempt at synergy that wound up a lose-lose of historic proportions. Case, then the AOL CEO, bet on old media at a time when he needed to walk even more boldly into the future with the Internet. It was one step backwards, and he lost his leg.

AOL has long been done as a major player in any sector, but Case continues apace, with entrepreneurial endeavors and charitable work. Steven Levy just interviewed him about his book, The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future, an attempt to predict what comes after Web 1.0 and 2.0. The journalist ventures into an apt topic in this insane political season: If technology has gifted us with more information than ever, why does the public seem less informed?

An excerpt:

Steven Levy:

In the book you include a very prescient statement you made after graduating college in the early 1980s about how technology would affect our lives. We have been transformed by all sorts of gadgets and networks that augment our powers. But judging from the current election process, it doesn’t seem to have made people smarter. You could even make a case for the opposite, saying people are dumber — anti-science, and more susceptible to mob thinking than they used to be.

Steve Case:

That’s fair. One of the things we felt passionate about 30 years ago was leveling the playing field so that everybody can have a voice. Back then when there were three television networks, unless you were rich and owned a printing press, you didn’t really have the opportunity to have your voice heard. Having millions of voices heard is awesome, but it gets noisy and some people are saying things that are inaccurate and not constructive and worse. There is absolutely this dynamic, of people living in a filtered bubble, hearing voices that reinforce their views and not really being exposed to the views of other people. That drives this hyper partisanship. I’m very concerned about it. We need to figure how to rebuild a center. Compromise should become a good word, not a bad word.

Steven Levy:

Has technology made it harder to find compromise?

Steve Case:

It has. In high school I wouldn’t have said this, but also sometimes to reach compromise you have to have a quiet discussion and cut a deal. When you have to have those negotiations, essentially in public, and talking points and sound bites on two-minute cable TV, things get noisier and it gets less constructive. With the current election, it is noisy and a little uncomfortable. The political process is getting disrupted.•

Tags: ,



Marshall McLuhan is dead, of course, and so is Jerome Agel, the “producer” of the oracle’s most famous book, 1967’s The Medium Is The Massage: An Inventory of Effects. The only principal from the project still with us is its revolutionary graphic designer, Quentin Fiore, who turned 96 in February. The artist subsequently worked on books by or about Buckminster Fuller, Stanley Kubrick and Jerry Rubin. How are you these days, Quentin Fiore?

McLuhan not only named the Global Village but also feared it. And there’ll be no retreat. Facebook, for one, may fall into steep decline, become a virtual ghost town, but it won’t matter one bit. The new arrangement is only going to grow deeper. An ominous passage from early in the book which proved awesomely prophetic:

How much do you make? Have you ever contemplated suicide? Are you now or have you ever been…? I have here before me…Electrical information devices for universal, tyrannical womb-to-tomb surveillance are causing a very serious dilemma between our claim to privacy and the community’s need to know. The older, traditional ideas of private, isolated thoughts and actions–the patterns of mechanistic technologies–are very seriously threatened by new methods of instantaneous electric information retrieval by the electrically computerized dossier bank–that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early ‘mistakes.’ We have already reached a point where remedial control, born out of knowledge of media and their total effects on all of us, must be exerted. How shall the new environment be programmed now that we have become so involved with each other, now that all of us have become the unwitting work force for social change? What’s that buzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzing?•

With his dog Rollo, 1885.

London at 21 in the Klondike in 1897.

In the Klondike, 1897.


At Beauty Ranch in California, 1916.

  • Jack London had a man’s face when a boy and a boy’s spirit as a man, which probably wasn’t so unusual for a son of California born in 1876. The offspring of a spiritualist and an astrologer, he was a hard-drinking, intrepid adventurer who wrote about masculinity in crude prose and was a template of sorts for Ernest Hemingway, and like most progenitors, he was easily the more authentic item.
  • London was not only a writer but also an oyster pirate, salmon fisherman, fish patrolman, seal hunter, sailor, longshoreman, gold miner, explorer, tramp, war correspondent, and, finally, an experimental farmer and rancher
  • I’ve always held a grudge against him for his racism in general, and for the viciousness he particularly aimed at the amazing black heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson.
  • Have meant many times to read Iron Heel, his 1908 dystopian novel about the rise of fascism and class warfare in America, and these days I feel especially remiss in not having done so.
  • The following article from the November 23, 1916 Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced the writer’s death at 40 from renal failure and more maladies, some self-inflicted and others that invited themselves





There’s an obvious question without an easy answer of whether traditional economic systems will be able to service the needs of the 21st century, at least the needs of those people who aren’t, in Romney-speak, corporations. Early in the Industrial Age, capitalism’s brutish excesses were curbed by labor unions and newspaper muckrakers and tax codes. In the Digital Age, many of those safety nets have come undone, and it’s not clear if they would have on their own been adequate to deal with the gathering storm.

The Uber business model produces some good at high costs, destabilizing businesses and replacing solid jobs with piecework. AI’s continued development will likely bring exceptional benefits to us but also further hollow out the middle. Even if some plans for automation fall by the wayside, enough will probably succeed to upset Labor, causing industries to rise and fall with shocking speed.

If, for example, driverless autos can be perfected in the next 20 years and proliferate, tens of millions of jobs will quickly be gone from every developed country in trucking, taxis, delivery, etc. In fact, a driverless taxi fleet needn’t even have an owner. The cars could “own” themselves, using the fares to automatically pay for repairs and purchase new vehicles. The operation could entirely run itself. Prices for trips from such outfits will be cheap, which is a good thing, since you might not have a job. 

From Antony Funnell’s smart Radio National’s Future Tense piece about the question of capitalism in the Digital Age:

University of Maryland legal academic Frank Pasquale, who focuses on the ethical, legal and social implications of information technology, calls them the ‘Silicon Valley oligarchs’.

‘I think the fundamental problem is that people don’t like to face up to the reality of monopolisation,’ says Pasquale, speaking about the global rise of Uber, Airbnb and other so-called sharing economy companies. ‘It’s much more convenient to believe the comforting myth that these markets are always contestable.

‘A firm like Uber is an appeal to venture capitalists—speculative capital—that wants to see massive returns via monopolisation. Let’s not mistake the business model here. The model here is for one of these firms to come in and to take over various aspects of commerce, to take over the rides that are in an area, to take over availability of non-hotel rooms to sleep in, et cetera. I think that this is really a perversion of the original aspirations of the sharing economy.’

The perils of corporate capitalism ‘running on digital steroids’

For Pasquale, the rise of the oligarchs signals lost potential—the opportunity to enhance genuine sharing and competition through the use of new technologies. But leading US media theorist Douglas Rushkoff goes one step further. In his newly released book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, he warns that the promise of the digital age is being hijacked by a rampant form of old-style capitalism, a modus operandi akin to that of the robber-barons of the 19th century.•

Tags: , ,

Alexander Litvinenko's grave in Highgate cemetery

In the 1950 noir D.O.A., hopelessly poisoned California accountant Frank Bigelow races to name his murderer before the end of his life and the end of the credits. In the B-movie’s chilling contrivance, murder is a lesser horror than the death of truth. It was the potential paucity of resolution that unnerved the most.

In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, murdered bodies and truth rest uneasily in adjoining plots. In 2006, former FSB officer and dissident Alexander Litvinenko became a real-life Bigelow after downing a drink dosed with polonium-210 at the Millennium Hotel in London. His investigation of the Kremlin as a kleptocracy would abruptly come to a close. He did manage, more or less, to solve his own killing before the radioactive chemical ended him, but the truth hardly mattered. The mafia state remained in place and has since only grown worse. His widow’s crusade to achieve a measure of justice led this year to the assassination being linked directly to Putin, but at this point, the machinations of his mafia state are met if not with shrugs then with knowing, silent nods.

In Peter Pomerantsev’s LRB review of Luke Harding’s new book, A Very Expensive Poison, British PM David Cameron is charged with obfuscating the case in order to not upset London’s rise to world’s foremost financial capital. The opening:

As he lay dying Alexander Litvinenko solved his own murder and foresaw the future. A professional detective on his last case, with himself as the victim, he worked out that he had been poisoned in the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel in Mayfair, by another former KGB detective, Andrei Lugovoi. He had thought they were partners, investigating the connections between Putin’s Kremlin, organised crime and money laundering in Europe but, he now realised, Lugovoi was still taking orders from the people they were investigating. As Litvinenko’s hair came out in clumps, as he found it increasingly hard to open his mouth to talk, as he became yellow and shrivelled, he cursed himself for letting his guard down: he had assumed he was safe after receiving asylum and citizenship in the UK. But solving the crime, Litvinenko understood, was only the beginning. Would the British government risk undermining its financial interests by investigating his death properly?

‘Of course I understand the West wants to get gas and oil from Russia,’ he told inspectors from Scotland Yard who interviewed him in hospital, ‘but one shouldn’t be involved in political activity if one doesn’t have political beliefs. And beliefs can’t be traded for gas and oil. Because when a businessman is trading he’s trading with his money but when a politician is trading he is trading with the sovereignty of his country and the future of his children.’ The transcripts of Litvinenko’s interviews were released last year; he was clearly trying hard to win the police over to his cause. He was good at speeches. ‘In case there is from the top administrative pressure for political reasons,’ he said, ‘be firm … bring this case to the end.’ The men from Scotland Yard were impressed by his faith in them: ‘Last month I was granted British citizenship and I very much love this country. Possibly I may die, but I will die as a free person, and my son and wife are free people. And Britain is a great country.’

Litvinenko died four days later, on 23 November 2006. Six hours before it happened Scotland Yard got a phone call from the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston. Their tests showed he was ‘terribly contaminated’ with polonium, a metal four hundred times more radioactive than uranium and which can only be manufactured in a nuclear plant. It had very nearly been the perfect assassination: polonium isn’t picked up by Geiger counters and doctors had followed many false leads – ricin? thallium? – in trying to identify the mystery poison. When polonium was first suggested by urine tests it was dismissed as an anomaly caused by the plastic container.

But now that polonium had been confirmed it was a cinch for investigators, dressed in radiation-proof suits, to follow the radioactive trail, with equipment capable of detecting alpha radiation, through Mayfair, Heathrow, and on the plane Lugovoi had flown in on from Moscow.

Tags: , ,


In scary times, superheroes and fascists hold appeal. Both are built on a childish desire for easy answers to thorny problems. Never mind that Batman is a disturbed vigilante and Mussolini was only tolerable when hanging upside down from an Esso gas station. Just give us the appearance of strength.

In a really good Salon interview conducted by Scott Timberg, the great writer and artist Daniel Clowes discusses the current adult fascination with Superman and such. An excerpt:


There’s so much to keep up with. Along with comics, underground and otherwise, there are more superhero movies all the time. You’ve been vocal about your frustration with superheroes.

Daniel Clowes:

I am laughing at the fact that for years, when we were doing “Eightball” and “Hate” and “Love & Rockets” and stuff, we thought, “What we’re doing is really the mainstream stuff. It’s like comics for adults, that a general audience could read… and only the tiniest niche audience of emotional defectives care about superhero comics.”


Superhero comics seemed to you like some old-world ’50s thing that was dying out.

Daniel Clowes:

Right. And yet they’re dominating our industry. I remember an artist, Bob Burden, saying, “It’s so random. It would be like if all comics were about pilgrims and then we did comics about normal people and we were looked at as the weirdoes.”

So that was our thesis, and then to see with the advent of technology where they could actually make these realistic superhero movies, to see that: No, the entire culture is what the comics shop was in 1985. It repudiates our lofty claims. It says more about our culture than anything else. I’m always kind of saddened when 45-year-old parents of my son’s friends can’t wait to go see “The Avengers.” That shouldn’t be for you. [Laughs]


The sense that it’s a guilty pleasure or something for kids seems to have disappeared.

Daniel Clowes:

That’s long gone.


How much does that shift have to do with technology?

Daniel Clowes:

I think there’s a certain chaos in the world and people need something that has very clear moral boundaries, I guess.

Tags: ,

henrymiller000 (2)

In Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch, Henry Miller, that brilliant kitchen-sink philosopher, writes of being down and out in paradise and loveliness. The money owed him from books he’d published in Europe earlier in the century had vanished into the fog of war. He lived with his family a threadbare existence in the Northern California Valhalla, knowing they were as rich as they were poor. His idyll was disturbed regularly by an uninvited cult of expatriates from the air-conditioned nightmare, who wanted to pile onto the orgies and play naked ping pong. They could be charming or maddening. Miller did find the time, however, to pen incredible riffs about the future of American technology and science and politics.

If there were two writers whose hearts beat as one despite a generational divide, it would have been Miller and Hunter S. Thompson. In 1961, the Gonzo journalist penned a Rogue article about Miller in Utopia, or something like it. Despite the novelist’s larger-than-life presence, Thompson focuses mostly on the eccentricities of the singular region. I found the piece at Just click on the pages for a larger, readable version.


It flatters us to believe we’re the end result of an extraordinarily rare evolutionary event, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t so.

Stephen Jay Gould famously asked in 1989 if evolution would play out in the same way if we were able to “rewind the tape of life” to the Cambrian. He was sure it would not, that life was a cascading event that would have headed in a different direction, perhaps a very different one. Others vehemently disagree, thinking that variations would occur, sure, but given enough time, life would have wound up roughly in the same condition. 

In a Nautilus article, Zach Zurich takes up the question, believing the answer may lie in outer space. An excerpt:

Does the rarity of any particular sequence of events imply that major shifts in evolution are unlikely to be repeated? The experiments suggest that’s true, but Conway Morris firmly answers, no. “You’d be daft to say that there aren’t accidents of one sort or another. The question is one of time scales,” he says. Given enough years and enough mutating genomes, he believes that natural selection will drive life toward the inevitable adaptations that best fit the organisms’ ecological niche, no matter the contingencies that occur along the way. He believes that one day, all of the E. coli in Lenski’s experiment would evolve to consume citrate, and that all of Liu’s viruses would eventually scale their adaptive Mount Everests. Further, those experiments were conducted in very simple and controlled environments that don’t come close to matching the complex ecosystems that life must adapt to outside the lab. It’s hard to say how real-world environmental pressures might have altered the results.

So far, the biggest shortcoming in all of the attempts to answer the “tape of life” question is that biologists can only draw conclusions based on just one biosphere—the Earth’s. An encounter with extra-terrestrial life would undoubtedly tell us more. Even though alien organisms may not have DNA, they’d likely show similar patterns of evolution. They would need some material that would be passed down to their descendants, which would guide the development of organisms and change over time. As Lenski says, “What’s true for E. coli is also true for some microbe anywhere in the universe.”

Therefore, the same interactions between convergence and contingency might play out on other planets. And if extraterrestrial life faces similar evolutionary pressures to life on Earth, future humans may discover aliens that have convergently evolved an intelligence like ours.5 On the other hand, if contingent events build on one another, driving the development of life down unique paths as Gould suggested, extra-terrestrial life may be extraordinarily strange.

Tags: , ,

dalton (1)

If the polls are correct, most Americans believe in gun ownership but also desire in sensible laws governing that right, that responsibility. Studies even show the bulk of NRA members in agreement with background checks and not selling arms to those on terrorist watch lists and such. It’s always puzzled me that moderate gun owners don’t splinter off from the NRA, the second-most powerful fringe group in America (congratulations, Republican Party!). 

In a Financial Times essay, the novelist Richard Ford, a longtime gun owner, thinks what I’ve just described is a fairy tale, that the majority of us do favor insane gun laws. Perhaps, though it seems most of us have been removed from a discussion that goes on in Washington between lobbyists (with money) and lawmakers (with pockets). Ford himself looks at our facacta political landscape and believes it’s time to stop being locked into being loaded. An excerpt:

America is getting nuttier and nuttier. Every election cycle I notice how less governable it seems. Now the thuggish Donald Trump or the gargoyle-ish Ted Cruz may be our next president. What’s that about? Congress basically doesn’t work any more. Hundreds of our citizens were killed or wounded in mass shootings last year. Thanks to President Barack Obama and a lot of other right-thinking people, relations between blacks and white Americans (frictive, violent and unjust for centuries) are now prominently and more accurately in our view, and are improving. But white, undereducated men (the core group of handgun owners in our country), are living less long, are suffering increased alcoholism, drug abuse and stress. Black Americans know this experience very well in their own history. These white men don’t feel they’re keeping up with either their parents’ generation or with the people they normally compare themselves to (often African-Americans). Nine per cent of these men are unemployed. They’re cynical — with some reason — about their government. They feel too many things in the country aren’t going their way, and that they can’t control their lives. They fear change. Yet they sense the change they fear may have already occurred. Crime and gun violence are actually down in the US. But gun ownership is up. The NRA would say the latter statistic occasions the former. Me . . . I just say it feels dangerous over here.

I don’t cite these facts to engender undue sympathy for any particular American demographic slice. I personally do have some empathy for these white men, as well as for black teenagers mercilessly murdered by white police officers. And for lots of other people, too. I’m a novelist. Empathy is kinda my job. My version of liberty in the American republic is consonant with the view held by the cunningly named US appellate judge Learned Hand; which is, that the spirit of liberty is that spirit which is not too sure it’s right. What I feel, though, is what many Americans feel now — people I agree with and people I decidedly don’t — namely, we sense we’re approaching a tipping point in our liberties, a point at which good is being intolerably held hostage by not good, a point we need to back away from while we still can.•


Nabokov (2)

In addition to being among the best novels ever written in English, Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s story of monstrous love, is, shockingly, the Great American Novel, which at first blush seems absurd. How did a newcomer who’d just begun experiencing the country process so much so soon, so that he could write a work that was of us yet was also able to brutally satirize us? Perhaps it took an immigrant with wide eyes to truly see our immigrant nation.

James Salter turned out some beautiful pieces for People magazine during that publication’s infancy, usually profiling other great writers of earlier generations who’d recused themselves to some state of exile. In 1975, he persuaded a reluctant Nabokov, living in Switzerland two years before his death, to sit for an interview. Salter recorded the writer’s dislike for many things: fame, hippies, Dostoevsky, etc. It’s not a portrait of only one novelist but also of a different time for writers in general, when they could still find a home among the remnants of a less-disposable age. An excerpt:

Novelists, like dictators, have long reigns. It is remarkable to think of Nabokov’s first book, a collection of love poems, appearing in his native Russia in 1914. Soon after, he and his family were forced to flee as a result of the Bolshevik uprising and the civil war. He took a degree at Cambridge and then settled in the émigré colony in Berlin. He wrote nine novels in Russian, beginning with Mary, in 1926, and includingGlory, The Defense, and Laughter in the Dark. He had a certain reputation and a fully developed gift when he left for America in 1940 to lecture at Stanford. The war burst behind him.

Though his first novel written in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, in 1941, went almost unnoticed, and his next, Bend Sinister,made minor ripples, the stunning Speak, Memory, an autobiography of his lost youth, attracted respectful attention. It was during the last part of 10 years at Cornell that he cruised the American West during the summers in a 1952 Buick, looking for butterflies, his wife driving and Nabokov beside her making notes as they journeyed through Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, the motels, the drugstores, the small towns. The result was Lolita, which at first was rejected everywhere, like many classics, and had to be published by the Olympia Press in Paris (Nabokov later quarreled with and abandoned his publisher, Maurice Girodias). A tremendous success and later a film directed by Stanley Kubrick, the book made the writer famous. Nabokov coquettishly demurs. “I am not a famous writer,” he says, “Lolita was a famous little girl. You know what it is to be a famous writer in Montreux? An American woman comes up on the street and cries out, ‘Mr. Malamud! I’d know you anywhere.’ ”

He is a man of celebrated prejudices. He abhors student activists, hippies, confessions, heart-to-heart talks. He never gives autographs. On his list of detested writers are some of the most brilliant who have ever lived: Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Faulkner and Henry James. His opinions are probably the most conservative, among important writers, of any since Evelyn Waugh’s. “You will die in dreadful pain and complete isolation,” his fellow exile, the Nobel Prize winner Ivan Bunin, told him. Far from pain these days and beyond isolation, Nabokov is frequently mentioned for that same award. “After all, you’re the secret pride of Russia,” he has written of someone unmistakably like himself. He is far from being cold or uncaring. Outraged at the arrest last year of the writer Maramzin, he sent this as yet unpublished cable to the Soviet writers’ union: “Am appalled to learn that yet another writer martyred just for being a writer. Maramzin’s immediate release indispensable to prevent an atrocious new crime.” The answer was silence.

Last year Nabokov published Look at the Harlequins!, his 37th book. It is the chronicle of a Russian émigré writer named Vadim Vadimych whose life, though he had four devastating wives, has many aspects that fascinate by their clear similarity to the life of Vladimir Vladimirovich. The typical Nabokovian fare is here in abundance, clever games of words, sly jokes, lofty knowledge, all as written by a “scornful and austere author, whose homework in Paris had never received its due.” It is probably one of the final steps toward a goal that so many lesser writers have striven to achieve: Nabokov has joined the current of history not by rushing to take part in political actions or appearing in the news but by quietly working for decades, a lifetime, until his voice seems as loud as the detested Stalin’s, almost as loud as the lies. Deprived of his own land, of his language, he has conquered something greater. As his aunt in Harlequins! told young Vadim, “Play! Invent the world! Invent reality!” Nabokov has done that. He has won.

“I get up at 6 o’clock,” he says. He dabs at his eyes. “I work until 9. Then we have breakfast together. Then I take a bath. Perhaps an hour’s work afterward. A walk, and then a delicious siesta for about two-and-a-half hours. And then three hours of work in the afternoon. In the summer we hunt butterflies.” They have a cook who comes to their apartment, or Véra does the cooking. “We do not attach too much importance to food or wine.” His favorite dish is bacon and eggs. They see no movies. They own no TV.

They have very few friends in Montreux, he admits. They prefer it that way. They never entertain. He doesn’t need friends who read books; rather, he likes bright people, “people who understand jokes.” Véra doesn’t laugh, he says resignedly. “She is married to one of the great clowns of all time, but she never laughs.”

The light is fading, there is no one else in the room or the room beyond. The hotel has many mirrors, some of them on doors, so it is like a house of illusion, part vision, part reflection, and rich with dreams.•

« Older entries § Newer entries »