Books

You are currently browsing the archive for the Books category.

David Brooks’ recent op-ed about Ta-Nehisi Coates, the one in which he approached the critic and his skin color cautiously and with some surprise, as if he’d happened upon a strange creature in a forest, was most troubling to me for two reasons, both of which were demonstrated in the same passage.

This one:

You are illustrating the perspective born of the rage “that burned in me then, animates me now, and will likely leave me on fire for the rest of my days.”

I read this all like a slap and a revelation. I suppose the first obligation is to sit with it, to make sure the testimony is respected and sinks in. But I have to ask, Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?

If I do have standing, I find the causation between the legacy of lynching and some guy’s decision to commit a crime inadequate to the complexity of most individual choices.

I think you distort American history.•

  • The line “Does a white person have standing to respond?” is a galling transference of burden from people of actual oppression to people who’ve experienced none, a time-tested trick in the country, and one used repeatedly in discussions about Affirmative Action and other issues. The faux victimhood is appalling.
  • Even worse is this doozy: “I find the causation between the legacy of lynching and some guy’s decision to commit a crime inadequate to the complexity of most individual choices.” Here’s a negation of history and culpability that’s jaw-dropping. Does Brooks believe the inordinate poverty, imprisonment and shorter lifespans of African-Americans stem solely from their decisions? Does he believe Native Americans, the targets of another American holocaust, have such pronounced social problems because of poor choices they made? From Jim Crow to George Zimmerman, American law and justice has often been designed to reduce former slaves and their descendants, not to keep the peace but to maintain the power. If Brooks wants to point out the Civil Rights Act as a remedy to Jim Crow, that’s fine, but you don’t get to do a victory lap for offering basic decency, and a sensible person doesn’t believe that improvement in our country, often a slow and grueling and bloody thing, doesn’t leave deep scars.•

Tags: ,

E.L. Doctorow, who wrote several great novels and one perfect one (Ragtime), sadly just died. Historical fiction can be a really tiresome thing in most hands, especially when the subjects are recent ones, but Doctorow was as good as anyone at the truth-fiction mélange. I’ve never read his early sci-fi book, Big As Life, and would like to.

A brief 1975 People magazine article cataloged that rare moment when literary success dovetailed with the commercial kind, Apparently, Robert Altman was first set to direct the big-screen adaptation of Ragtime, those honors eventually falling to Milos Forman. The opening:

The offers went up like the temperature in steamy Manhattan—$1 million, $1.5 million. And when the final bid of $1.85 million came in, an ambitious 270-page novel called Ragtime had made literary history. It was the highest price ever paid for paperback rights to a book—edging out the Joy of Cooking by $350,000. Nine publishing houses spent more than 12 hours politely jockeying before Bantam Books made the deal.

Ragtime‘s genteel, 44-year-old author E.L. Doctorow did not, of course, attend the vulgar merchandising rites. That’s what agents are for. Doctorow was in fact 45 minutes from Broadway, browsing in a New Rochelle bookstore with his 13-year-old son, Sam, at the historic moment of sale. Finally reached by phone by his hardback publisher at Random House, Doctorow was pleased but not overwhelmed at the news that he was an instant millionaire (he will receive half the $1.8 million plus royalties on the best-selling hard cover). His three previous novels—critical but not financial triumphs—had given him a Garboesque perspective on wealth. “I really feel,” Doctorow says, “that money is like sex—it’s a private matter.”

For Bantam, the transaction will turn financially sour unless it can peddle Ragtime, to be published next summer at over $2 a copy, to 4 or 5 million customers. A big box-office movie usually helps push paperback sales, and film rights for Ragtime have been sold to this year’s top director, Robert (Nashville) Altman. Doctorow has already heard from a fellow alumnus of Kenyon College in Ohio who wants to be one of the leads. “Remember me?” asked Paul Newman. “We went to college together, and I’d love to play in the movie.” “Terrific,” said a flattered Doctorow—who graduated in 1952, three years after the 50-year-old Newman, and never met the actor—”you’d be great for the part of the father.” But, protested Newman, “I want to play the younger brother.”•

Tags:

Harper’s has published an excerpt from John Markoff’s forthcoming book, Machines of Loving Grace, one that concerns the parallel efforts of technologists who wish to utilize computing power to augment human intelligence and those who hope to create actual intelligent machines that have no particular stake in the condition of carbon-based life. 

A passage:

Speculation about whether Google is on the trail of a genuine artificial brain has become increasingly rampant. There is certainly no question that a growing group of Silicon Valley engineers and scientists believe themselves to be closing in on “strong” AI — the creation of a self-aware machine with human or greater intelligence.

Whether or not this goal is ever achieved, it is becoming increasingly possible — and “rational” — to design humans out of systems for both performance and cost reasons. In manufacturing, where robots can directly replace human labor, the impact of artificial intelligence will be easily visible. In other cases the direct effects will be more difficult to discern. Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Today our computational systems have become immense edifices that define the way we interact with our society.

In Silicon Valley it is fashionable to celebrate this development, a trend that is most clearly visible in organizations like the Singularity Institute and in books like Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants (2010). In an earlier book, Out of Control (1994), Kelly came down firmly on the side of the machines:

The problem with our robots today is that we don’t respect them. They are stuck in factories without windows, doing jobs that humans don’t want to do. We take machines as slaves, but they are not that. That’s what Marvin Minsky, the mathematician who pioneered artificial intelligence, tells anyone who will listen. Minsky goes all the way as an advocate for downloading human intelligence into a computer. Doug Engelbart, on the other hand, is the legendary guy who invented word processing, the mouse, and hypermedia, and who is an advocate for computers-for-the-people. When the two gurus met at MIT in the 1950s, they are reputed to have had the following conversation:

minsky: We’re going to make machines intelligent. We are going to make them conscious!

engelbart: You’re going to do all that for the machines? What are you going to do for the people?

This story is usually told by engineers working to make computers more friendly, more humane, more people centered. But I’m squarely on Minsky’s side — on the side of the made. People will survive. We’ll train our machines to serve us. But what are we going to do for the machines?

But to say that people will “survive” understates the possible consequences: Minsky is said to have responded to a question about the significance of the arrival of artificial intelligence by saying, “If we’re lucky, they’ll keep us as pets.”•

Tags: ,

Did you ever notice that futuristic metallic clothes don’t really ever arrive in stores near you? That’s because while they’re possible, perhaps even useful in some cases, they aren’t truly necessary.

In Kevin Kelly’s 2010 book, What Technology Wants, he wrote of the paths forward for the complexity of technology. Kelly believed the physical world around us will not change drastically in most ways, but some technologies that grow amazingly complex will be retrofitted onto our more “primitive” world. I mostly agree, though I don’t think Kelly was correct to include automobiles in that category. They’ve since speeded in the other direction.

The excerpt:

There are several different ways technology’s complexity can go:

Scenario #1. As in nature, the bulk of technology remains simple, basic, and primeval because it works. And the primitive works well as a foundation for the thin layer of complex technology built upon it. Because the technium is an ecosystem of technologies, most of it will remain in its equivalent microbial stage: brick, wood, hammers, copper wires, electric motors and so on. We could develop nanoscale computers that reproduced themselves, but they wouldn’t fit our fingers. For the most part, humans will deal with simple things (as we do now) and only interact with the dizzily more complex occasionally, just as we now do. (For most of our day our hands touch relatively coarse artifacts.) Cities and houses remain similar, populated with a veneer of fast-evolving gadgets and screens on every surface.

Scenario #2. Complexity, like all other factors in growing systems, plateaus at some point, and some other quality we had not noticed earlier (perhaps quantum entanglement) takes its place as the prime observable trend. In other words, complexity may simply be the lens we see the world through at this moment, the metaphor of the era, when in reality it is a reflection of us rather than property of evolution.

Scenario #3. There is no limit to how complex things can get. Everything is complexifying over time, headed toward that omega point of ultimate complexity. The bricks in our building will become smart, the spoon in our hand will adapt to our grip; cars will be as complicated as jets are today. The most complex things we use in a day will be beyond any single person’s comprehension.

If I had to, I would bet, perhaps surprisingly, on scenario #1. The bulk of technology will remain simple or semi-simple, while a smaller portion will continue to complexify greatly. I expect our cities and homes a thousand years hence to be recognizable, rather than unrecognizable.•

Tags:

Very much looking forward to the forthcoming book Machines of Loving Grace, an attempt by the New York Times journalist John Markoff to make sense of our automated future. 

In an Edge.org interview, Markoff argues that Moore’s Law has flattened out, perhaps for now or maybe for the long run, a slowdown that isn’t being acknowledged by technologists. Markoff still believes we’re headed for a highly automated future, one he senses will be slower to develop than expected. Those greatly worried about technological unemployment, the writer argues, are alarmists, since he thinks technology taking jobs is a necessity, the human population likely being unable in the future to keep pace with required production. Of course, he doesn’t have to be wrong by very much for great societal upheaval to occur and political solutions to be required.

From Markoff:

We’re at that stage, where our expectations have outrun the reality of the technology.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the current physical location of Silicon Valley. The Valley has moved. About a year ago, Richard Florida did a fascinating piece of analysis where he geo-located all the current venture capital investments. Once upon a time, the center of Silicon Valley was in Santa Clara. Now it’s moved fifty miles north, and the current center of Silicon Valley by current investment is at the foot of Potrero Hill in San Francisco. Living in San Francisco, you see that. Manufacturing, which is what Silicon Valley once was, has largely moved to Asia. Now it’s this marketing and design center. It’s a very different beast than it was.                                 

I’ve been thinking about Silicon Valley at a plateau, and maybe the end of the line. I just spent about three or four years reporting about robotics. I’ve been writing about it since 2004, even longer, when the first autonomous vehicle grand challenge happened. I watched the rapid acceleration in robotics. We’re at this point where over the last three or four years there’s been a growing debate in our society about the role of automation, largely forced by the falling cost of computing and sensors and the fact that there’s a new round of automation in society, particularly in American society. We’re now not only displacing blue-collar tasks, which has happened forever, but we’re replacing lawyers and doctors. We’re starting to nibble at the top of the pyramid.

I played a role in creating this new debate. The automation debate comes around in America at regular intervals. The last time it happened in America was during the 1960s and it ended prematurely because of the Vietnam War. There was this discussion and then the war swept away any discussion. Now it’s come back with a vengeance. I began writing articles about white-collar automation in 2010, 2011. 

There’s been a deluge of books such as The Rise of the Robots, The Second Machine Age, The Lights in the Tunnel, all saying that there will be no more jobs, that the automation is going to accelerate and by 2045 machines will be able to do everything that humans can do. I was at dinner with you a couple years ago and I was ranting about this to Danny Kahneman, the psychologist, particularly with respect to China, and making the argument that this new wave of manufacturing automation is coming to China. Kahneman said to me, “You just don’t get it.” And I said, “What?” And he said, “In China, the robots are going to come just in time.”

_____________________________

 

“All Watched Over
by Machines of Loving Grace”

I’d like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

Tags:

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 had 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.

From John Colapinto in the New Yorker:

Lolita was not, however, Nabokov’s first attempt to write a story about a pedophile who, enamored of a particular twelve-year-old girl, marries her mother to be closer to his love object—and who finds the girl in his clutches after the mother’s untimely death. His first attempt, a short novella called The Enchanter was written in Russian shortly before his move to America. That novella, published posthumously, in 1986, by Vera and Dmitri Nabokov, shows just how important the atmosphere of America was to making Lolita the great work it is. Where The Enchanter is curiously dour, featureless, and vague, Lolita is a great, rollicking encyclopedia teeming with specific details of Nabokov’s adoptive country, sweeping into its embrace the entire American geography, from East to West, North to South, in Humbert’s zig-zagging car journeys with his under-aged sex slave (journeys that follow the same route as the decidedly more sedate butterfly-hunting trips that Nabokov made each summer with his wife).

Much of the novel’s energy derives from the love-hate relationship Nabokov had with America’s postwar culture of crap TV shows, bad westerns, squawking jukeboxes—the invigorating trash that informs the story of a cultured European’s sexual obsession with an American bobby-soxer who is, as Humbert calls her, the “ideal consumer, the subject and object of every foul poster.” Nabokov always refused the label of satirist, and it would be an oversimplification to say that Lolita merely skewers the materialism of fifties America; throughout the book, there is a sense of hypnotized wonder and delight at the happy consumerism of the country and its inhabitants, and Nabokov took overt joy at clipping and cataloguing examples of that consumerism, which he carefully worked into the very texture of Lolita.

See also:

Tags: ,

Noam Scheiber, who emerged from the TNR apocalypse to work the Labor beat for the New York Times, has published a piece that argues the Uberization of the economy occurred decades before Uber and ridesharing and smartphones and the whole thing. We were on a piece-work trajectory for decades, with efficiency experts and management gurus urging leaner missions for corporations. Makes sense since the middle class began its faceplant in the 1970s, a dive which may only get worse. An excerpt:

David Weil, who runs the Wage and Hour Division of the United States Labor Department, describes in his recent book, The Fissured Workplace, how investors and management gurus began insisting that companies pare down and focus on what came to be known as their “core competencies,” like developing new goods and services and marketing them.

Far-flung business units were sold off. Many other activities — beginning with human resources and then spreading to customer service and information technology — could be outsourced. The corporate headquarters would coordinate among the outsourced workers and monitor their performance.

Cost was unquestionably an advantage of the new approach: Workers were typically cheaper when off the corporate payroll than on it, and the arrangement allowed a company to staff up as needed rather than employ a full complement of workers at all times.

But simply cutting costs wasn’t the primary motivation. The real advantage was to enable the organization to focus on what it did best rather than distract itself with tasks for which it had little expertise and which were not especially profitable.

Since the early 1990s, as technology has made it far easier for companies to outsource work, that trend has evolved beyond what anyone imagined: Companies began to see themselves as thin, Uber-like slivers standing between customers on one side and their work forces on the other.•

Tags: ,

Like hookworm and rubella, the surreal, sophomoric comedy of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim can’t be completely understood until it has infected you, though by then you’ll be very distracted by how much you’re vomiting. So much vomit.

Two doughy dipshits from Pennsylvania who’ve slurped up every last bit of crap offered to Americans in lieu of something good, Tim & Eric wait for just the right moment and then regurgitate the nonsense, revealing the sordidness of the whole enterprise. And then they do it again and again and again and again and again. Because for the Adult Swim duo, the joke almost isn’t the point–the persistence of the joke is what matters. It’s like a contest among children to see which doofus can maintain a stupid expression the longest. In today’s comedy world, Tim & Eric consistently make the dumbest faces. God bless them.

Hookworm.

Hookworm.

Rubella.

In their own little cloistered TV world, this mindset allows them to wring endless material from antic scenes of shirtless guys with stunned expressions who may or may not be about to have heart attacks. Probably even better, though, are those occasions when their funhouse mirror of American idiocy comes up against the real thing, as when they answer questions from clueless TV interviewers with non sequiturs from the Howard Stern Show or express their enthusiasm for racist Birther buffoon Donald Trump while on a promotional tour. They don’t modify their act for the benefit of their hosts, making for some wonderfully disquieting scenes.

Their latest broadside is a book called Tim & Eric’s Zone Theory: 7 Easy Steps to Achieve a Perfect Life, a hardcover mockery of the entire grab bag of the modern American medicine show: quasi-religions, life coaches, self-help programs, diet tips, exercise shortcuts, relationship advice, etc. All the things we choose because we’re too dumb or too lazy to do the right thing, which would require an effort. In the pages of their handsome volume, they lay out a cult-like wellness regimen that will cause you multiple-organ failure if you adhere to its demands.

My favorite passage is the one that encourages readers to pull the many yards of “unnecessary tubes” out of their bodies to lose weight and gain quickness.

But perhaps you’ll be more interested in the “Diarrhea Dipstick.” Your soupy bowel movements are in for a good auditing!

I’m not receiving a dime if you buy this book. All proceeds will be used to help the boys purchase fake blood or doo-doo or something to smear on their faces. What a couple of dickbags.•

____________________________

“I was instantly able to access my enthusiasm for nude horseplay.”

Tags: ,

It may have looked suspiciously like an open casket, but Alfred Hitchcock certainly had a casting couch. He wasn’t the chaste monk of the macabre he made himself out to be. It was just three years ago that Tippi Hedren described how her career was held hostage post-Birds by Hitchcock, all because she wouldn’t give in to his sexual blackmail

Oriana Fallaci interviewed the British suspense master in 1963 when his crowpocalypse screened in Cannes, but while she had a good understanding of the cruelty beneath the surface of the filmmaker she so admired, she clearly was hoodwinked by his narrative of being a devoted, even sexless, husband, entitling the piece, “Mr. Chastity.” What follows is most of her introduction, which paints the director as tiresome and homophobic, and the Q&A’s first few exchanges.

____________________________

For years I had been wanting to meet Hitchcock. For years I had been to every Hitchcock film, read every article about Hitchcock, basked in contemplation of every photograph of Hitchcock: the one of him hanging by his own tie, the one of him reflected in a pool of blood, the one of him playing with a skull immersed in a bathtub. I liked everything about him: his big, Father Christmas paunch, his twinkling little pig eyes, his blotchy, alcoholic complexion, his mummified corpses, his corpses shut inside wardrobes, his corpses chopped into pieces and shut inside suitcases, his corpses temporarily buried beneath beds of roses, his anguished flights, his crimes, his suspense, those typically English jokes that make even death ridiculous and even vulgarity elegant. I might be wrong, but I cannot help laughing at the story about the two actors in the cemetery watching their friend being lowered into his grave. The first one says to the other, “How old are you, Charlie?” And Charlie answers, “Eighty-nine.” The first one then observes, “Then there’s no point in your going home, Charlie.” …

My opportunity to meet him and really kiss his hand came at the Cannes Festival, where Hitchcock was showing The Birds, a sinister film about birds that revolt against men and exterminate them by pecking them to death. Hitchcock was coming from Hollywood, and I rushed to Nice airport to greet him. Three hours later I was in his room on the fourth floor of the Carlton Hotel, gazing at him just as my journalist colleague, Veronique Passani, had gazed at Gregory Peck the first time she met him–and she had subsequently managed to marry him. Not that Hitchcock was handsome like Gregory Peck. To be objective, he was decidedly ugly: bloated, purple, a walrus dressed like a man–all that was missing was a mustache. The sweat, copious and oily, was pouring out of all that walrus fat, and he was smoking a dreadfully smelly cigar, which was pleasant only insofar as it obscured him for long moments behind a dense, bluish cloud. But he was Hitchcock, my dearest Hitchcock, my incomparable Hitchcock, and every sentence he spoke would be a pearl of originality and wit. In the same way that we assume that intellectuals are necessarily intelligent, and movie stars necessarily beautiful, and priests necessarily saintly, so I had assumed that Hitchcock was the wittiest man in the world.

He’s isn’t. The full extent of his humor is covered by five or six jokes, two or three macabre tricks, seven or eight lines that he has been repeating for years with the monotony of a phonograph record that’s stuck. Every time he opened a subject, in the sonorous voice of his, I foresaw how he would conclude; I already read it. Moreover, he would make his pronouncements as if he knew it himself: hands folded on his breast, eyes cast up toward the ceiling, like a child reciting a lesson learned by heart. Nor was there anything new about his admission of chastity, of complete lack of interest in sex. Everyone knows that Hitchcock has never known any woman other than his wife, has never desired any woman other than his wife; because he’s not interested in women. This doesn’t mean that he likes men, for heaven’s sake; such deviations are regarded by him with pained and righteous disgust. It only means for him sex does not exist; it would suit him fine if humanity were born in bottles. Nor, for him, does love exist, that mysterious impulse from which beings and things are born; the only thing that interests him in all creation is the opposite of whatever is born: whatever dies. If he sees a budding rose, his impulse, I am afraid, is to eat it.

With the blindness of all disciples or faithful admirers, I took some time to realize his failings. In fact our interview began with bursts of laughter for a good half-hour. But then the bursts of laughter became short little laughs, the short little laughs became smiles, the smile grew cold, and at a certain point I discovered that I could no longer raise a laugh, nor could I have done so even if he had tickled the soles of my feet. That was when I realized the most spine-chilling thing about him: his great wickedness. A person who invents horrors for fun, who makes a living frightening people, who only talks about crimes and anguish, can’t really be evil, so I thought. He is, though. He really enjoys frightening people, knowing that every now and then somebody dies of a heart attack watching his movies, reading that from time to time a man kills his wife the way a wife is killed in one of his movies. Not knowing all the criminals whose master he has been is sheer torture to him. He would like to know about all such authors, to compliment each one and offer him a cigar. Because he can laugh about death with the wisdom of the sages? No, no. Because he likes death. He likes it the way a gravedigger likes it.•

Tags: , , , , ,

A reductive view of those of us worried about the transition into a much more automated society is that we think progress is bad, something to be halted. Not true. Better tools will make us richer and relieve us of a great deal of drudgery. But we should be concerned that the wealth might be in the aggregate, not well-distributed, with widespread technological unemployment possible.

From an Economist piece about America’s Moment: Creating Opportunity in the Connected Agea book that tries to make sense of the new normal:

SOMETHING about the new economy drives prognosticators to extremes. Optimists argue that the world is entering an age of abundance, with productivity surging, diseases like polio being wiped out, and tourists flying to Mars. Pessimists retort that abundance for the few will mean impoverishment for the many. Smart machines will destroy jobs and depress wages. Knowledge workers will be proletarianised. And rising insecurity will promote tribalism and protectionism.

One of the many virtues of America’s Moment: Creating Opportunity in the Connected Age is that it avoids such extremes. The authors part with the cyber-utopians in acknowledging that disruption has a dark side. But at the same time they part with the cyber-pessimists in embracing radical change. The new economy is not only generating new opportunities. It is providing people with the tools that they need to cope with disruption. …

A century ago Walter Lippmann, a journalist who was then just 24 years old, wrote a surprise best-seller called Drift and Mastery. He noted that “our schools, churches, courts, governments were not built for the kind of civilisation they are expected to serve”. Americans needed to “adjust their thinking to a new world situation”, otherwise they would be condemned to “drift along at the mercy of economic forces that we are unable to master”. These words ring just as true today as they did then. “America’s Moment” provides as useful a guide as any available to turning drift into mastery once again.•

It might be unfair to label the late Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk as having sociopathic tendencies, but it’s pretty clear they’ve recused themselves from basic empathy, feeling liberated from politesse by their self-appointed mission of “transforming the world.”

I have a few books to finish before reading Ashlee Vance’s Musk bio, and I’m really looking forward to it. An Economist piece about the title takes Vance to task somewhat for what it feels is an effort to elide Elon’s elephantine ego, though it points to this dynamic as a sign of the times. An excerpt:

Another, more controversial quality that has helped Mr Musk and some of his peers to succeed is a certain lack of empathy. Mr Vance tries to play down Mr Musk’s brittleness, but it is hard to obscure. While dancing with his first wife on their wedding day, he told her, “I am the alpha in this relationship.” When Mary Beth Brown, his longtime assistant, asked for a pay rise, he said he wanted to see if he could do her job, and then fired her instead. Mr Vance concludes that Mr Musk is not on the Asperger’s spectrum, as some have suggested, but is “profoundly gifted”. Bent on saving humanity, he sometimes lacks the patience to deal with individual humans.

The most fascinating and at times frustrating relationship revealed by the book is in fact the one between biographer and subject. Several times Mr Vance compares Mr Musk to Tony Stark, the businessman who becomes “Iron Man” (of Marvel Comics fame). Mr Vance comes across as a “Musketeer”, someone who believes in Mr Musk’s power to reshape the world. Having waited 18 months for an interview he may have felt indebted for the access that was eventually granted. The reverential tone grates, but it also reflects this moment in the technology business, when celebrity entrepreneurs are riding high, and their big personalities and ambitions are seen as virtues. They will inevitably stumble, and some of their companies will suffer declines, but many will make a comeback, as heroes often do.•

Tags: ,

It’s the fifth anniversary of Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, and it’s clearly a classic. The author probably would have gotten less grief over the book if he had titled it What Technology Can Do For Us Humans, but that would not have only been unwieldy, it would have been untrue.

In the passage below, Kelly compares the growth of a city–a technology in and of itself–with the development of other technologies, how they start in germinal form, becoming denser and richer as more brains join them. It’s the same for Manhattan and the microchip.

Of course, insta-cities in China and elsewhere are trying to flout this rule. Will any of them become great metropolises? Are they examples of a new technology or just mistakes doomed to failure?

The excerpt:

Every beautiful city begins as a slum. First it’s a seasonal camp, with all the freewheeling makeshift expediency. Creature comforts are scarce, squalor the norm. Hunters, scouts, traders, pioneers find a good place to stay for the night or two, and if their camp is deemed a desirable spot, it grows into an untidy village or uncomfortable fort or dismal official outpost with permanent buildings surrounded by temporary huts. If the location of the village favors growth, concentric rings of squatters aggregate until the village chaotically swells to a town. When a town prospers it acquires a center – civic or religious – and the edges of the city continue to expand in unplanned, ungovernable messiness. It doesn’t in what century or in which country; the teeming fringes of a city will shock and disturb the established residents. The eternal disdain for newcomers is as old as the first city. Romans complained of the tenements, shacks and huts at the edges of their town, which “were putrid, sodden and sagging.” Every so often Roman soldiers would raze a settlement of squatters, only to find it rebuilt or moved within weeks.

Babylon, London, and New York all had seamy ghettos of unwanted settlers erecting shoddy shelters with inadequate hygiene and engaging in dodgy dealings. Historian Bronislaw Geremek states that “slums constituted a large part of the urban landscape” of Paris in the Middle Ages. Even by the 1780s, when Paris was at is peak, nearly 20% of its residents did not have a “fixed abode” — that is they lived in shacks. In a familiar complaint about medieval French cities, a gentleman from that time noted: “Several families inhabit one house. A weaver’s family may be crowded into a single room, where they huddle around a fireplace.” That refrain is repeated throughout history. Manhattan was home to 20,000 squatters in self-made housing. Slab City alone, in Brooklyn (named after the use of planks stolen from lumber mills), contained 10,000 residents in its slum at its peak. In the New York slums “nine out of ten of the shanties have only one room, which does not average over twelve feet square, and this serves all the purposes of the family.”

San Francisco was built by squatters. As Rob Neuwirth recounts in his wonderful book Shadow Cities,  one survey in 1855 estimated that “95 percent of the property holders in [San Francisco] city would not be able to produce a bona fide legal title to their land.” Squatters were everywhere, in the marshes, sand dunes, military bases. One eyewitness said, “Where there was a vacant piece of ground one day, the next saw it covered with half a dozen tents or shanties.” Philadelphia was largely settled by what local papers called “squatlers.”  As late as 1940, one in five citizens in Shanghai was a squatter. Those one million squatters stayed and kept upgrading their slum so that within one generation their shantytown became one of the first twenty-first-century cities.

That’s how it works. This is how all technology works. A gadget begins as a junky prototype and then progresses to something that barely works. The ad hoc shelters in slums are upgraded over time, infrastructure is extended, and eventually makeshift services become official. What was once the home of poor hustlers becomes, over the span of generations, the home of rich hustlers. Propagating slums is what cities do, and living in slums is how cities grow. The majority of neighborhoods in almost every modern city are merely successful former slums. The squatter cities of today will become the blue-blood neighborhoods of tomorrow. This is already happening in Rio and Mumbai today.•

Tags:

In a strong New York Times Book Review piece, George Packer surveys the common ground shared by disparate pundits Chris Hedges, a revolutionary on the Left, and the Libertarian-ish Charles Murray, who claims to love both meritocracy and Sarah Palin, go figure. In new titles by each author (here and here), Packer reads the dissatisfaction in America that wasn’t quelled by the evanescence of Occupy, the white-hot anger of the Tea Party or the Presidency of Barack Obama. At the root of this multi-ideological discontent is a stinging anti-government strain, powered by the belief that the system is rigged, if for different reasons. Packer, however, is left wanting by both books.

His opening:

A few years ago, it wasn’t hard to find Americans who thought a revolution was coming. At the depths of the recession, in hard-hit places like the North Carolina tobacco country or the exurbs of Tampa Bay, I met plenty of people who believed we were one power blackout or gas shortage away from civil unrest, political violence, even martial law. The feeling didn’t conform to strictly partisan lines, and the objects of wrath included bêtes noires of both the left and the right: banks, oil companies, federal and state governments, news media. At Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, a Tea Party couple visiting from rural Virginia was surprised to find a patch of common ground with Occupiers — at least until the discussion turned to actual policies. The anger was populist, which is ideologically capacious. The enemy was bigness, feathering its own nest and conspiring against the little guy.

The revolution didn’t come — it never does in America, not since the first one, no matter how bad things get. The Tea Party reared up, only to be appropriated by billionaires and partly dissolved into the Republican Congress. Occupy Wall Street flashed across the sky and flared out, more a meme than a movement. I once asked a man in Tampa Bay — formerly middle class and owner of his own small business, he was without work, facing foreclosure and dying of cancer — why there was no mass movement of Americans in his situation. “Imagine getting up every day and not having a purpose,” he said. “You’re not working, your self-worth goes down the toilet. You don’t interact with people. You stay in your house. You don’t want to answer the phone. It isolates you.” He seemed to be saying that in America failure, like success, feels ­personal.

But the collective discontent hasn’t gone away — far from it.•

Tags: , ,

From the December 30, 1953 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Tags:

In 1966, when Playboy was still based in Chicago, Hugh Hefner thought most people would soon be enjoying his lifestyle. Well, not exactly his lifestyle.

The mansion, the grotto and the Bunnies were not likely for most, but he believed technology would help us remove ourselves from the larger world so that we could create our own “little planet.” The gadgets he used to extend his adolescence and recuse himself five decades ago are now much more powerful and affordable to almost everyone. Hefner believed our new, personalized islands would be our homes, not our phones, but he was right in thinking that tools would make life more remote in some fundamental way.

In 1966, Oriana Fallaci interviewed Hefner for her book, The Egotists. Her sharp introduction and the first exchange follow.

_________________________

First of all, the House. He stays in it as a Pharaoh in a grave, and so he doesn’t notice that the night has ended, the day has begun, a winter passed, and a spring, and a summer–it’s autumn now. Last time he emerged from the grave was last winter, they say, but he did not like what he saw and returned with great relief three days later. The sky was then extinguished behind the electronic gate, and he sat down again in his grave: 1349 North State Parkway, Chicago. But what a grave, boys! Ask those who live in the building next to it, with their windows opening onto the terrace on which the bunnies sunbathe, in monokinis or notkinis. (The monokini exists of panties only, the notkini consists of nothing.) Tom Wolfe has called the house the final rebellion against old Europe and its custom of wearing shoes and hats, its need of going to restaurants or swimming pools. Others have called it Disneyland for adults. Forty-eight rooms, thirty-six servants always at your call. Are you hungry? The kitchen offers any exotic food at any hour. Do you want to rest? Try the Gold Room, with a secret door you open by touching the petal of a flower, in which the naked girls are being photographed. Do you want to swim? The heated swimming pool is downstairs. Bathing suits of any size or color are here, but you can swim without, if you prefer. And if you go into the Underwater Bar, you will see the Bunnies swim as naked as little fishes. The House hosts thirty Bunnies, who may go everywhere, like members of the family. The pool also has a cascade. Going under the cascade, you arrive at the grotto, rather comfortable if you like to flirt; tropical plants, stereophonic music, drinks, erotic opportunities, and discreet people. Recently, a guest was imprisoned in the steam room. He screamed, but nobody came to help him. Finally, he was able to free himself by breaking down the door, and when he asked in anger, why nobody came to his help–hadn’t they heard his screams?–they answered, “Obviously. But we thought you were not alone.”

At the center of the grave, as at the center of a pyramid, is the monarch’s sarcophagus: his bed. It’s a large, round and here he sleeps, he thinks, he makes love, he controls the little cosmos that he has created, using all the wonders that are controlled by electronic technology. You press a button and the bed turns through half a circle, the room becomes many rooms, the statue near the fireplace becomes many statues. The statue portrays a woman, obviously. Naked, obviously. And on the wall there TV sets on which he can see the programs he missed while he slept or thought or made love. In the room next to the bedroom there is a laboratory with the Ampex video-tape machine that catches the sounds and images of all the channels; the technician who takes care of it was sent to the Ampex center in San Francisco. And then? Then there is another bedroom that is his office, because he does not feel at ease far from a bed. Here the bed is rectangular and covered with papers and photos and documentation on Prostitution, Heterosexuality, Sodomy. Other papers are on the floor, the chairs, the tables, along with tape recorders, typewriters, dictaphones. When he works, he always uses the electric light, never opening a window, never noticing the night has ended, the day begun. He wears pajamas only. In his pajamas, he works thirty-six hours, forty-eight hours nonstop, until he falls exhausted on the round bed, and the House whispers the news: He sleeps. Keep silent in the kitchen, in the swimming pool, in the lounge, everywhere: He sleeps.

He is Hugh Hefner, emperor of an empire of sex, absolute king of seven hundred Bunnies, founder and editor of Playboy: forty million dollars in 1966, bosoms, navels, behinds as mammy made them, seen from afar, close up, white, suntanned, large, small, mixed with exquisite cartoons, excellent articles, much humor, some culture, and, finally, his philosophy. This philosophy’s name is “Playboyism,” and, synthesized, it says that “we must not be afraid or ashamed of sex, sex is not necessarily limited to marriage, sex is oxygen, mental health. Enough of virginity, hypocrisy, censorship, restrictions. Pleasure is to be preferred to sorrow.” It is now discussed even by theologians. Without being ironic, a magazine published a story entitled “…The Gospel According to Hugh Hefner.” Without causing a scandal, a teacher at the School of Theology at Claremont, California, writes that Playboyism is, in some ways, a religious movement: “That which the church has been too timid to try, Hugh Hefner…is attempting.”

We Europeans laugh. We learned to discuss sex some thousands of years ago, before even the Indians landed in America. The mammoths and the dinosaurs still pastured around New York, San Francisco, Chicago, when we built on sex the idea of beauty, the understanding of tragedy, that is our culture. We were born among the naked statues. And we never covered the source of life with panties. At the most, we put on it a few mischievous fig leaves. We learned in high school about a certain Epicurus, a certain Petronius, a certain Ovid. We studied at the university about a certain Aretino. What Hugh Hefner says does not make us hot or cold. And now we have Sweden. We are all going to become Swedish, and we do not understand these Americans, who, like adolescents, all of a sudden, have discovered that sex is good not only for procreating. But then why are half a million of the four million copies of the monthly Playboy sold in Europe? In Italy, Playboy can be received through the mail if the mail is not censored. And we must also consider all the good Italian husbands who drive to the Swiss border just to buy Playboy. And why are the Playboy Clubs so famous in Europe, why are the Bunnies so internationally desired? The first question you hear when you get back is: “Tell me, did you see the Bunnies? How are they? Do they…I mean…do they?!?” And the most severe satirical magazine in the U.S.S.R., Krokodil, shows much indulgence toward Hugh Hefner: “[His] imagination in indeed inexhaustible…The old problem of sex is treated freshly and originally…”

Then let us listen with amusement to this sex lawmaker of the Space Age. He’s now in his early forties. Just short of six feet, he weighs one hundred and fifty pounds. He eats once a day. He gets his nourishment essentially from soft drinks. He does not drink coffee. He is not married. He was briefly, and he has a daughter and a son, both teen-agers. He also has a father, a mother, a brother. He is a tender relative, a nepotist: his father works for him, his brother, too. Both are serious people, I am informed.

And then I am informed that the Pharaoh has awakened, the Pharaoh is getting dressed, is going to arrive, has arrived: Hallelujah! Where is he? He is there: that young man, so slim, so pale, so consumed by the lack of light and the excess of love, with eyes so bright, so smart, so vaguely demoniac. In his right hand he holds a pipe: in his left hand he holds a girl, Mary, the special one. After him comes his brother, who resembles Hefner. He also holds a girl, who resembles Mary. I do not know if the pipe he owns resembles Hugh’s pipe because he is not holding one right now. It’s a Sunday afternoon, and, as on every Sunday afternoon, there is a movie in the grave. The Pharaoh lies down on the sofa with Mary, the light goes down, the movie starts. The Bunnies go to sleep and the four lovers kiss absentminded kisses. God knows what Hugh Hefner thinks about men, women, love, morals–will he be sincere in his nonconformity? What fun, boys, if I discover that he is a good, proper moral father of Family whose destiny is paradise. Keep silent, Bunnies. He speaks. The movie is over, and he speaks, with a soft voice that breaks. And, I am sure, without lying.

Oriana Fallaci:

A year without leaving the House, without seeing the sun, the snow, the rain, the trees, the sea, without breathing the air, do you not go crazy? Don’t you die with unhappiness?

Hugh Hefner:

Here I have all the air I need. I never liked to travel: the landscape never stimulated me. I am more interested in people and ideas. I find more ideas here than outside. I’m happy, totally happy. I go to bed when I like. I get up when I like: in the afternoon, at dawn, in the middle of the night. I am in the center of the world, and I don’t need to go out looking for the world. The rational use that I make of progress and technology brings me the world at home. What distinguishes men from other animals? Is it not perhaps their capacity to control the environment and to change it according to their necessities and tastes? Many people will soon live as I do. Soon, the house will be a little planet that does not prohibit but helps our relationships with the others. Is it not more logical to live as I do instead of going out of a little house to enter another little house, the car, then into another little house, the office, then another little house, the restaurant or the theater? Living as I do, I enjoy at the same time company and solitude, isolation from society and immediate access to society. Naturally, in order to afford such luxury, one must have money. But I have it. And it’s delightful.•

 

Tags: ,

Some tell the truth–or their version of it–through exaggeration, assigning perceived offenses Brobdingnagian proportions. Dale Peck, erstwhile enfant terrible, has a permanent place in that canon. In Christopher Frizzelle’s well-written Stranger piece, “Literature’s Biggest Asshole Shows His Soft Side,” the literary terror’s new memoir about living through the age of AIDS is compared pretty much favorably to Didion. The opening:

Dale Peck is one of those writers who’s infamous among literary types and unheard of among normal people. His book reviews 10 years ago were all anyone could talk about. They were mean and unpredictable. He called Rick Moody “the worst writer of his generation” in the New Republic, the same magazine in which he compared Ulysses to diarrhea. He was a grandstander and a flamethrower, which made him fun to read, but it was fun in the sense that a demolition derby is “fun.” You experienced the fun while distrusting anyone who would go to such lengths to make it fun. The suspense in Hatchet Jobs, Peck’s book of collected takedowns, was in watching him bring every weapon he’s ever owned to the task of “proving” good writers were bad writers. He seemed to have endless energy for that project. 

Those essays bothered people, but they didn’t bother me. (Especially because the very last essay in the book does nothing but praise Rebecca Brown.) Anyone who’s read vicious reviews by Dorothy Parker, Virginia Woolf, Mary McCarthy, Pauline Kael, or Joan Didion would be able to see that Peck’s pieces are part of a long tradition: non-hetero-white-men ripping apart hetero-white-male work. Peck’s essays were more reckless and shameless than, say, McCarthy’s piece on J.D. Salinger, but just as elegant. Literary folks were scandalized and aghast, but literary folks love to be scandalized and aghast. (Can you believe someone wouldexaggerate in print? My word.)

In April, Dale Peck published a book that doesn’t consist of Dale Peck going around telling everyone what their problem is. Visions and Revisions is about being gay and living through the “hothouse” period of AIDS, from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. It’s full of previously published chunks of journalism and memoir that have been submerged in molten time, and then hardened and cooled into Literature. It’s funny and full of sex, in addition to being sad and full of ghosts.

AIDS is the perfect subject for a born exaggerator like Peck.•

Tags: ,

I’ve read some titles from the Financial Times “Summer Books 2015” list, including Yuval Noah Harari’s SapiensEvan Osnos’ Age of Ambition and Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots, all of which are wonderful–in fact, Harari’s title is the best book I’ve read this year, period. Here are several more suggestions from FT which sound great:

Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel) is an apocalyptic novel about a world in which almost everyone has died in a flu pandemic, and clans roam the earth killing at random. It could hardly sound less promising. And yet Emily St John Mandel’s fourth novel is different partly because she skips over the apocalypse itself — all the action takes place just before or 20 years afterwards — and because it is less about the survival of the human race than the survival of Shakespeare. The book has been on literary shortlists and won prizes and been much praised for its big themes: culture, memory, loss. Yet it works just as well at a less lofty level, as a beautifully written, compulsive read.

A Kim Jong-Il Production (Paul Fischer) The story of how the late North Korean dictator kidnapped South Korean cinema’s golden couple, the director Shin Sang-ok and his actress wife Choi Eun-hee, and put them to work building a film industry in the North. At once a gripping personal narrative and an insight into the cruelty and madness of North Korea.

The Vital Question: Why is Life the Way It Is? (Nick Lane) Biochemist Lane offers a scintillating synthesis of a new theory of life, emphasising the interplay between energy and evolution. He shows how simple microbes, which monopolised Earth for the first 2bn years, took the momentous step towards becoming the “eukaryotic” cells that then evolved into animals, plants, fungi and protozoa.•

Tags: , , , , , ,

There was something rotten inside Robert Louis Stevenson, as there is in all of us, 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.

The following article from the December 17, 1894 Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced the sickly author’s death, which occurred two weeks earlier from a cerebral hemorrhage he experienced while living on the Samoan Islands.

Tags:

In a really fun, well-written 1987 New York Times Magazine article, Caryn James took the pulse of that decade’s New York literary life, a patient with an irregular heartbeat. In retrospect, most of the best writing of that era was done by others elsewhere.

There are just as many literary people in NYC (and everywhere else) now as during the time of the so-called “Brat Pack,” probably a lot more, but no one worries too much now about naming or glamorizing them. That’s probably for the best. The opening:

A writer’s life may be one of dreary solitude, but the Literary Life – ah, the Literary Life promises glamour, fame, a seat next to Hemingway as he scribbles immortal prose in a Paris cafe. The myth is so alluring it can survive even the most scaled-down atmosphere. On a typical New York night, for instance, David Leavitt, Meg Wolitzer and Gary Glickman – all novelists in their 20’s and the best of friends – are likely to be having dinner at their favorite restaurant, a dingy, hole in the wall in the West Village. ”Even as we sit there,” Glickman says, ”I sometimes wonder, ‘Is this it? Is it the Cafe de Flore?’ ” As Hemingway might have said, isn’t it pretty to think so?

A different twist on the literary life in 1980’s New York clubs replacing cafes, and roaming bands of authors stalking the night streets from Area to Palladium to Nell’s. Jay McInerney’s best-selling 1984 novel, Bright Lights, Big City, with its aspiring-writer hero, created a hip New York where late-night clubs and cocaine blurs collide with literary ambition. Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York, published last year, carries on the image, in stories full of struggling artists, devious gallery owners, desperate hangers-on, all willfully imprisoned by their need to be trendy in the city. But these muddled, hard-partying characters – when would they ever find the time, or the clearheadedness, to write? – are fictional exaggerations.

In reality, for many young writers today, New York is a base where they can strive and grow until they become successful enough, or frustrated enough, to leave for a while – to spend the summer at a tranquil writers’ colony or to make money teaching for a year – always returning to replenish themselves in the literary waters, and hit some gossip-filled book parties to make contacts with editors, agents and publishers.

Just glance at the itineraries of some of New York’s hottest young writers. Jay McInerney, who is 33, spent half of last year in Ann Arbor, where his then-wife was finishing her Ph.D. Tama Janowitz, 30, has a fellowship at Princeton University this year. David Leavitt, the short-story writer whose first novel is The Lost Language of Cranes, lives on Long Island. Meg Wolitzer, author of Hidden Pictures, has been teaching upstate. Kathy Acker (whose latest novel is called Don Quixote) the determinedly punkish 38-year-old author identified with downtown Manhattan has lived in London for the last two years. But New York has lost none of its cachet or importance for these writers; no matter where their legal residence, they seem to spend as much time in the city as out of it. They represent the city’s new literary life.

This is no longer the place where, as in years gone by, literary circles had real coherence, where the mention of the journal Partisan Review conjured up an image of like-minded intellectuals. In New York today young authors live in a swifter-than-sound atmosphere, full of energy, hype and distractions. The change reflects new realities in the city and in the publishing industry: higher rents and tougher urban living combined with pressure to bring out a book of fiction before the first blush of youth has passed. So aspiring authors find themselves on a harshly competitive fast track as soon as they are out of college or graduate writing programs – if not before. No wonder they have little time or taste for Bloomsbury-cozy salons or Hemingway-macho feuds.•

Tags:

In a New York Times review, A.O. Scott, who is quietly one of the funniest writers working anywhere, offers a largely positive review of philosopher Susan Neiman’s new book about perpetual adolescence, something that’s become the norm in this era of fanboy (and -girl) ascendancy, its commodification seemingly having reached a saturation point until, yes, the next comic-book or YA franchise. The opening:

A great deal of modern popular culture — including just about everything pertaining to what French savants like to call le nouvel âge d’or de la comédie américaine — runs on the disavowal of maturity. The ideal consumer is a mirror image of a familiar comic archetype: a man-child sitting in his parents’ basement with his video games and his Star Wars figurines; a postgraduate girl and her pals treating the world as their playground. Baby boomers pursue perpetual youth into retirement. Gen-Xers hold fast to their skateboards, their Pixies T-shirts and their Beastie Boys CDs. Nobody wants to be an adult anymore, and every so often someone writes an article blaming Hollywood, attachment parenting, global capitalism or the welfare state for this catastrophe. I’ve written one or two of those myself. It’s not a bad racket, and since I’m intimately acquainted, on a professional basis, with the cinematic oeuvre of Adam Sandler, I qualify as something of an expert. 

In the annals of anti-infantile cultural complaint, Susan Neiman’s new book, Why Grow Up?, is both exemplary and unusual. An American-born philosopher who lives in Berlin, Neiman has a pundit’s fondness for the sweeping generalization and the carefully hedged argumentative claim. “I’m not suggesting that we do without the web entirely,” she writes in one of her periodic reflections on life in the digital age, “just that we refuse to let it rule.” Elsewhere she observes that “if you spend your time in cyberspace watching something besides porn and Korean rap videos, you can gain a great deal,” a ­hypothesis I for one am eager to test.•

Tags: ,

If Marshall McLuhan and Jerome Angel were still alive, they would likely not collaborate with Quentin Fiore (95 this year) on a physical book, not even on one as great as The Medium Is the Massage, a paperback that fit bewtween its covers something akin to the breakneck genius of Godard’s early-’60s explosion. Would they create a Facebook page that comments on Facebook or a Twitter account of aphorisms or maybe an app? I don’t know, but it likely wouldn’t be a leafy thing you could put on a wooden shelf. 

About 10 days ago, I bought a copy of The Age of Earthquakes, a book created by Douglas Coupland, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Shumon Basar, which seems a sort of updating of McLuhan’s most-famous work, a Massage for the modern head and neck. It looks at our present and future but also, by the virtue of being a tree-made thing, the past. As soon as I’m done with the title I’m reading now, I’ll spend a day with Earthquakes and post something about it. 

In his latest Financial Times column, Coupland writes about the twin refiners of the modern mood: pharmacology and the Internet, the former which I think has made us somewhat happier and the latter of which we’ve used, I think, to largely to self-medicate, stretching egos to cover unhappiness rather than dealing with it, and as the misery, untreated, expands, so does its cover. We’re smarter because of the connectivity, but I don’t know that it’s put us in a better mood. 

Coupland is much more sanguine than I am about it all. He’s in a better mood. An excerpt:

If someone time travelled from 1990 (let alone from 1900) to 2015 and was asked to describe the difference between then and now, they might report back: “Well, people don’t use light bulbs any more; they use these things called LED lights, which I guess save energy, but the light they cast is cold. What else? Teenagers seem to no longer have acne or cavities, cars are much quieter, but the weirdest thing is that everyone everywhere is looking at little pieces of glass they’re holding in their hands, and people everywhere have tiny earphones in their ears. And if you do find someone without a piece of glass or earphones, their faces have this pained expression as if to say, “Where is my little piece of glass? What could possibly be in or on that little piece of glass that could so completely dominate a species in one generation?”

 . . . 

To pull back a step or two; as a species we ought to congratulate ourselves. In just a quarter of a century we have completely rewritten the menu of possible human moods, and quite possibly for the better. Psychopharmacology, combined with the neural reconfiguration generated by extended internet usage, has turned human behaviour into something inexplicable to someone from the not too distant past. We forget this so easily. Until Prozac came out in 1987, the only mood-altering options were mid-century: booze, pot and whatever MGM fed Judy Garland to keep her vibrating for three decades. The Prozac ripple was enormous . . .•

Tags: , , , ,

Grantland has many fine writers and reporters, but the twin revelations for me have been Molly Lambert and Alex Pappademas, whom I enjoy reading as much as anyone working at any American publication. The funny thing is, I’m not much into pop culture, which is ostensibly their beat. But as with the best of journalists, the subject they cover most directly is merely an entry into many other ones, long walks that end up in big worlds. 

Excerpts follow from a recent piece by each. In “Start-up Costs,” a look at Silicon Valley and Halt and Catch Fire, Pappademas circles back to Douglas Coupland’s 1995 novel, Microserfs, a meditation on the reimagined office space written just before Silicon Valley became fully a brand as well as a land. In Lambert’s “Life Finds a Way,” the release of Jurassic World occasions an exploration of the enduring beauty of decommissioned theme parks–dinosaurs in and of themselves, at the tail end of an entropic state. Both pieces are concerned with an imposition on the natural order of things by capitalism.

_______________________________

From Pappademas:

Microserfs hit stores in 1995, which turned out to be a pretty big year for Net-this and Net-that. Yahoo, Amazon, and Craigslist were founded; Javascript, the MP3 compression standard, cost-per-click and cost-per-impression advertising, the first “wiki” site, and the Internet Explorer browser were introduced. Netscape went public; Bill Gates wrote the infamous Internet Tidal Wave” memo to Microsoft executives, proclaiming in the course of 5,000-plus words that the Internet was “the most important single development to come along since the IBM PC was introduced in 1981.” Meanwhile, at any time between May and September, you could walk into a multiplex not yet driven out of business by Netflix and watch a futuristic thriller like Hackers or Johnny Mnemonic or Virtuosity or The Net, movies that capitalized on the culture’s tech obsession as if it were a dance craze, spinning (mostly absurd) visions of the (invariably sinister) ways technology would soon pervade our lives. Microserfs isn’t as hysterical as those movies, and its vision of the coming world is much brighter, but in its own way it’s just as wrongheaded and nailed-to-its-context.

“What is the search for the next great compelling application,” Daniel asks at one point, “but a search for the human identity?” Microserfs argues that the entrepreneurial fantasy of ditching a big corporation to work at a cool start-up with your friends can actually be part of that search — that there’s a way to reinvent work in your own image and according to your own values, that you can find the same transcendence within the sphere of commerce that the slackers in Coupland’s own Generation X4 eschewed McJobs in order to chase. The notion that cutting the corporate cord to work for a start-up often just means busting out of a cubicle in order to shackle oneself to a laptop in a slightly funkier room goes unexamined; the possibility that work within a capitalist system, no matter how creative and freeform and unlike what your parents did, might be fundamentally incompatible with self-actualization and spiritual fulfillment is not on the table.•

_______________________________

Lambert’s opening:

I drove out to the abandoned amusement park originally called Jazzland during a trip to New Orleans earlier this year. Jazzland opened in 2000, was rebranded as Six Flags New Orleans in 2003, and was damaged beyond repair a decade ago by the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina. But in the years since it’s been closed, it has undergone a rebirth as a filming location. It serves as the setting for the new Jurassic World. As I approached the former Jazzland by car, a large roller coaster arced into view. The park, just off Interstate 10, was built on muddy swampland. I have read accounts on urban exploring websites by people who’ve sneaked into the park that say it’s overrun with alligators and snakes.

After the natural disaster the area wasted no time in returning to its primeval state: a genuine Jurassic World. It was in the Jurassic era when crocodylia became aquatic animals, beginning to resemble the alligators currently populating Jazzland. I saw birds of prey circling over the theme park as I reached the front gates, only to be told in no uncertain terms that the site is closed to outsiders. I pleaded with the security guard that I am a journalist just looking for a location manager to talk to, but was forbidden from driving past the very first entrance into the parking lot. I could see the ticket stands and Ferris wheel, but accepted my fate and drove away, knowing I’d have to wait for Jurassic World to see Jazzland. As I drove off the premises, I could still glimpse the tops of the coasters and Ferris wheel, obscured by trees.

I am fascinated by theme parks that return to nature, since the idea of a theme park is such an imposition on nature to begin with — an obsessively ordered attempt to overrule reality by providing an alternate, superior dimension.•

 

Tags: ,

Before it became apparent that Geraldo Rivera really just wanted to give the whole world a free mustache ride, he was a respected, muckraking journalist who filmed a sensational and righteous report about abuses at Willowbrook. He instantly became a national name and soon had other opportunities, including a really good if sporadic 1973-75 late-night talk show, Good Night America.

In a summer 1974 episode, he spoke to someone I’m fascinated with in Clifford Irving, who’d written a 1969 book about art forger Elmyr De Hory before bringing out another volume in 1972, one in which he pretended that the reclusive Howard Hughes had collaborated with him on an autobiography. McGraw-Hill took the bait and gave him a boatload of cash for the “exclusive,” but the Hughes ruse was soon exposed. Irving was operating in an era when people still distinguished between fact and fiction, so his career went into a Dumpster for awhile.

Orson Welles, an infamous hoaxer himself, made a brilliant, serendipitous cine-essay, F Is for Fake, about the scandal as it unfolded, and Irving was grilled at the time by everyone from Mike Wallace to Abbie Hoffman. In a marriage-themed show, Geraldo speaks to Irving and his wife Edith about the toll on their relationship caused by the fraud’s fallout, which included prison sentences for them both. (They had just been released on parole when this program was filmed.)

The host also speaks to Sly and Kathy Stone about their wedding ceremony in front of more than 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden and shows footage of the event. The final segment is with comedian Robert Klein and his then-spouse, the opera singer Brenda Boozer. Loathsome Henny Youngman is the guest announcer, serving up Zsa Zsa Gabor jokes. Holy Mother of God! Watch it here.•

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

ISIS is Hollywood, but it’s also Silicon Valley, a digital caliphate marrying Middle Ages barbarism to social media, Medieval yet mobile. The next-level Al-Qaeda has upped the ante on terror despite the absence thus far of a 9/11 on American soil. It’s thrived on small acts of well-publicized brutality and by doing something that Osama bin-Laden never come close to accomplishing: establishing a nation of sorts, if a tentative one of shifting borders.

While my default assumption is that things are constantly collapsing within any terrorist organization, Malise Ruthven’s NYRB piece about Abdel Bari Atwan’s new book depicts the Islamic State as a disciplined machine. An excerpt:

Bin Laden is dead, thanks to the action of US Navy SEALs in May 2011, but as Abdel Bari Atwan explains in Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s official successor as leader of “al-Qa‘ida central,” looks increasingly irrelevant. Bin Laden’s true successor is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the shadowy caliph of ISIS, the so-called Islamic State. As “Commander of the Faithful” in that nascent state he poses a far more formidable threat to the West and to Middle Eastern regimes—including the Saudi kingdom—that are sustained by Western arms than bin Laden did from his Afghan cave or hideout in Pakistan.

One of the primary forces driving this transformation, according to Atwan, is the digital expertise demonstrated by the ISIS operatives, who have a commanding presence in social media. A second is that ISIS controls a swath of territory almost as large as Britain, lying between eastern Syria and western Iraq. As Jürgen Todenhöfer, who spent ten days in ISIS-controlled areas in both Iraq and Syria, stated categorically in January: “We have to understand that ISIS is a country now.” …

The jihadists of ISIS may be terrorists—to use an imprecise, catch-all term—but as Atwan explains, they are both well paid and disciplined, and the atrocities they commit and upload on the Internet are part of a coherent strategy:

Crucifixions, beheadings, the hearts of rape victims cut out and placed upon their chests, mass executions, homosexuals being pushed from high buildings, severed heads impaled on railings or brandished by grinning “jihadist” children—who have latterly taken to shooting prisoners in the head themselves—these gruesome images of brutal violence are carefully packaged and distributed via Islamic State’s media department. As each new atrocity outdoes the last, front-page headlines across the world’s media are guaranteed.•

Tags: , , ,

Well, I hit the mother lode when I stumbled across 32 episodes of Good Night America, the 1973-75 ABC evening talk show (or “second-generation TV news magazine”) hosted by none other than Geraldo Rivera before the whole world knew he was yikes! It’s amazing in that it’s booked similarly to the classic Dick Cavett chat show with eclectic and often button-pushing guests. 

In this 1974 episode I’m linking to (can’t embed), Rivera’s then–father-in-law Kurt Vonnegut acts as the guest announcer at the show’s open and is interviewed at the 56-minute mark. He also reads from a work-in-progress called “Relatives,” which eventually became the god-awful Slapstick (the author’s least favorite of his novels). Additionally, Rivera visits Evel Knievel at Snake River Canyon prior to the daredevil’s ridonkulous stunt there, Bill Withers performs and Seals & Crofts sing their controversial anti-abortion song, “Unborn Child,” and discuss their belief in the Bahá’í Faith. Sweet Baby Jesus! Watch here.

Tags: , , , ,

« Older entries § Newer entries »