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China remaining under authoritarian rule may be great for the environment. Seems odd, right? One of the government’s chief fears is that pollution caused by the nation’s hasty mass urbanization might lead to rebellion, so we’ll likely see large-scale green innovation until the situation is markedly improved. In the case of this one country, the world’s most populous, oppression may have an unintended positive consequence. Strange planet, isn’t it?

It’s still surprising that capitalism’s rise in China hasn’t been attended by a growth of democracy. From John Osburg’s Foreign Affairs review of the new book on the topic by Evan Osnos:

“Meanwhile, although growth has created a middle class of sorts and even an upper crust of very wealthy Chinese, neither group has followed the anticipated script. For the most part, the new middle class seems too preoccupied with the intense pressures of owning a home and raising a child in a hypercompetitive society to get involved in politics. As for the new rich, they have hardly pushed for a fairer and more representative government to protect their new prosperity. Instead, most of them have been co-opted by the Communist Party — or have simply emigrated to countries with more reliable legal systems. 

Perhaps most telling, today young Chinese across the socioeconomic spectrum exhibit almost none of the political fervor that led thousands of students to take to the streets in 1989. China’s educational system has fed the country’s youth a steady diet of patriot-ism to ward off rebellious thoughts. But such measures appear almost redundant, since many young Chinese seem more interested in buying iPhones and Louis Vuitton products than in fighting for democratic change. 

On the surface, then, the prediction that Chinese economic and political reform would go hand in hand seems not to have panned out. In truth, however, the story is more complicated. As Evan Osnos suggests in Age of Ambition, the optimistic view of China’s evolution wasn’t entirely wrong; it merely relied on a conception of politics too narrow to capture a number of subtle but profound shifts that have changed China in ways that are not always immediately visible. In his riveting profiles of entrepreneurs, journalists, artists, dissidents, and strivers, Osnos discovers the emergence in Chinese society of something even more fundamental than a desire for political representation: a search for dignity.”


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Delancey Place has a passage from David Graeber’s great 2011 book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, about knights, who have been gifted with a sense of gallantry by history and literature that they were not due. An excerpt:

“It was … at the height of the fairs of Champagne and the Italian mer­chant empires, between 1160 and 1172, that the term ‘adventure’ be­gan to take on its contemporary meaning. The man most responsible for it was the French poet Chretien de Troyes, author of the famous Arthurian romances — most famous, perhaps, for being the first to tell the story of Sir Percival and the Holy Grail. The romances were a new sort of literature featuring a new sort of hero, the ‘knight-errant,’ a warrior who roamed the world in search of, precisely, ‘adventure’ — in the contemporary sense of the word: perilous challenges, love, trea­sure, and renown. Stories of knightly adventure quickly became enor­mously popular, Chretein was followed by innumerable imitators, and the central characters in the stories — Arthur and Guinevere, Lance­lot, Gawain, Percival, and the rest — became known to everyone, as they are still. This courtly ideal of the gallant knight, the quest, the joust, romance and adventure, remains central to our image of the Middle Ages.

The curious thing is that it bears almost no relation to reality. Nothing remotely like a real ‘knight-errant’ ever existed. ‘Knights’ had originally been a term for freelance warriors, drawn from the younger or, often, bastard sons of the minor nobility. Unable to in­herit, many were forced to band together to seek their fortunes. Many became little more than roving bands of thugs, in an endless pursuit of plunder — precisely the sort of people who made [the newly emerging class of] merchants’ lives so dangerous.”


All my condolences got to the family of photojournalist James Foley, who was executed by ISIS. What a brave and decent person he was, right down to the final harsh seconds of his life. If only all of us possessed such strength.

When you see such utter brutality of ISIS in Iraq, you’re reminded that such a group gained power only because we destabilized that region with a needless war, just one of the bad decisions we made in the wake of 9/11. Another was torture. We lowered ourselves to the level of our inhumane attackers. We never needed to carry out a holocaust to defeat Hitler, and we don’t have to turn ourselves into terrorists to overcome them. Let’s face it: The world has already overcome them, modernity rendering them merely a dangerous anachronism. We don’t need to head back to the 13th century ourselves to win this ever-shifting war.

One of the key figures in allowing waterboarding and renditions was CIA lawyer John Rizzo, who has written a book of his experiences, Company Man: Thirty Years of Controversy and Crisis in the CIA. He just sat for an interview with Spiegel’s Holger Stark. An excerpt:


Just days after 9/11, you also wrote up a list of possible covert actions. What did you suggest?

John Rizzo:

I actually wrote the first list the day of 9/11, literally two hours after the attack. Like everyone else, I was in a state of shock and bewilderment, but I knew that we were going to undertake counteractions that were unprecedented in my career. I scribbled down on my yellow legal pad conceivable options, including lethal operations against al-Qaida — not just the al-Qaida elements who carried out the 9/11 attack, but also those who would be planning future attacks. The list included, for the first time in the history of the CIA, a program to detain and interrogate senior al-Qaida leaders.


Would you describe yourself as the architect of the renditions program through which suspected al-Qaida members were secretly kidnapped and abused?

John Rizzo:

I was certainly an architect of the interrogation program, even if I didn’t originally come up with it. I was the legal architect of the proposed list of techniques and played the lead role in obtaining legal approval for their use.


Who came up with the original idea?

John Rizzo:

Our people from the Counter Terrorism Center. One day they came to my office and listed all the enhanced interrogation techniques for me. I had never heard of waterboarding. Some techniques, such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation …


… which kept those suspected by the CIA of terrorism awake for more than seven days non-stop …

John Rizzo:

… seemed harsh, even brutal to me. On the original list of proposed techniques was one which was even more chilling than waterboarding. It was never used.


What technique was it?

John Rizzo: 

I’m not allowed to specify it; it is still classified. I had no preparation when the counterterrorism people came to me, and so my first reaction was one of being rather stunned by what was being proposed.”

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Father Yod had 14 wives, but it’s not polite to count.

Before he was an oddly named cult leader, Yod was James Edward Baker, a Marine and stuntman who in 1969 opened a Sunset Strip health-food restaurant, the Source, and founded a cult, the Source Family, a group of beautiful young people housed in a Los Angeles mansion. Oh, and he fronted an improvisational psychedelic band called YaHoWa 13. Yod was killed almost immediately after moving his improvised family to Hawaii, believing he could hang glide from a 1,000 foot peak even though he had no experience in the sport. 

I suppose it’s because the commune never blew up into any kind of Manson-ish mayhem that it’s looked back upon (from a distance) almost fondly. But insular societies are always just a couple of steps from madness. Of course, I guess you could say the same of nations, though it’s easier to find refuge in a larger world.

The opening of Steffie Nelson’s 2007 Los Angeles Times article about the guru and his group:

“Earlier this summer, almost 100 psychedelic music fans, subculture aficionados, students of the occult and local literati climbed the flower-petal-strewn steps of publisher couple Jodi Wille and Adam Parfrey’s Silver Lake home for a salon celebrating the upcoming publication of The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, YaHoWa 13 and the Source Family (Process), the definitive history of a mystical cult that thrived in Los Angeles between 1970 and 1974. The book’s author, Isis Aquarian (formerly Charlene Peters), had flown in from Hawaii, and Family members Omne, Magus, Electra and Orbit, all of whom are now in their 50s and 60s, had also come to share stories.

During a Q&A session, they good-naturedly addressed whether they’d been brainwashed (‘Absolutely!’ said Orbit, who now goes by David) and answered questions about Dionysm, the form of tantric sex they’d practiced.

‘I’m ready to join right now!’ announced one attendee, no doubt echoing the sentiments of many who wistfully longed for a time when Utopia was, if not entirely feasible, at least on the agenda.

Imagine your fantasy commune, the one you’d find only in the movies, where everyone is young and beautiful; the clothes are fabulous; the leader benign; and home is a mansion in the Hollywood Hills. Chances are it probably looks a lot like the Source Family, whose 140 members ‘dropped out’ right in the middle of Los Angeles. Led by a bearded, hunky, 6-foot-3 former war hero who called himself Father Yod and, later, YaHoWha, this vibrant group of men and women embarked on a wild social experiment, turning all their material possessions over to the group and supporting themselves serving gourmet vegetarian cuisine at their popular Sunset Strip restaurant, the Source. Living communally in a Los Feliz mansion owned by the Chandler family (former owners of this newspaper) and then in a house built by Catherine Deneuve, many of them formed polyamorous relationships; not surprisingly, the most extreme example was Father Yod, who took 14 ‘spiritual wives.’

Notwithstanding the group’s visible presence in Hollywood (brothers and sisters could often be seen strolling en masse down Sunset, Atlantean robes and hair a-flowing), extensive media coverage, and the catalog of music they recorded as YaHoWa 13 — legendary among connoisseurs of psychedelic rock — the Source story has remained untold for 30 years. This is partly because of a vow of secrecy taken by all members, but more likely it’s a reflection of their confusion and even shame about the communal experience, for which American society gave them only one place to file: in the freaky hippie bin.”


The trailer for the 2013 documentary, The Source Family, available on Netflix:

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On a 1977 Mike Douglas Show episode, comic-book collector Phil Seuling showed off an original Superman, revealing that it was worth $1,500. The audience gasped. But that was before a globalized world needed simple dialogue and action-hero antics to sell blockbusters all over the world. Today an exceptionally clean copy of that inaugural issue, currently at auction on eBay, has seen early bids reach $1.75 million, heading toward the stratosphere faster than a speeding bullet. From Graeme McMillan at the Hollywood Reporter:

 “In a video released to promote the auction, Pristine Comics owner Darren Adams explained how the auction copy remained in such good edition. ‘There was a gentleman in 1938, buys a copy … off the newsstand. And he lived in a fairly high altitude area of West Virginia and kept the book in a cedar chest,’ Adams said. The quality of the issue — the pages of which, thanks to being kept in a dark, dry space for decades, haven’t yellowed with time — makes the copy ‘not just a copy of Action Comics No. 1 [but] the copy of Action Comics No. 1,’ according to the dealer.

Back in 2011, another edition of the issue raised $2.1 million in auction, becoming the most expensive comic ever sold in the process. With nine days remaining on the current Action Comics auction and bidding currently at $1.6 million, it’s very possible that record is about to be broken.”


“The superheroes caught everybody’s fancy”:


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I know people who subscribe to high-fat, paleo diets and, boy, they don’t look healthy to me. It doesn’t mean my eyes are right, but I’m sticking to vegetarianism. There’s little doubt, however, that Americans had misplaced priorities when they largely focused on cutting fat while high-fructose corn syrup was simultaneously becoming a staple of our diets. That crap will kill you. From “The Way We Eat Now,” by Erica Wagner in the Financial Times:

[Nina] Teicholz describes a ‘perfect storm’ of forces in postwar America that altered the nutritional landscape. Charismatic leaders in nutrition science – such as Ancel Benjamin Keys, a biologist and pathologist at the University of Minnesota who began looking at the causes of heart disease in the 1950s – developed a hypothesis that fat was the great evil in the American diet: ‘money poured in to test it, and the nutrition community embraced the idea. Soon there was very little room for debate.’

Again and again, Teicholz points to studies that have served as the basis for the argument in favour of the demonisation of fat – such as the Framingham Heart Study, begun in 1948, or the Ni-Hon-San Study of Japanese men, begun in 1965 – and demonstrates why they don’t necessarily prove what they were stated to prove. As The Lancet put it in 1974: ‘So far, despite all the effort and money that has been spent, the evidence that eliminating risk factors will eliminate heart disease adds up to little more than zero.’ (It’s hard not to feel a little proud of this British scepticism of the low-fat fad: three cheers for the land of double cream.)

These are startling conclusions, though as Teicholz shows, the evidence has really been there all along. We should drink whole milk, she says, eat butter and stock up on cheeses, sausages, offal and even bacon. ‘None of these foods have been demonstrated to cause obesity, diabetes, or heart disease . . . Sugar, white flour, and other refined carbohydrates are almost certainly the main drivers of these diseases.’ But government health advice is still stuck in the low-fat rut: and, however well-meaning, it is there to be exploited by the companies that stand to gain from that advice. Boseley, writing about the diet industry, is unafraid to call a spade a spade: ‘With its gimmicks, motivational books and celebrity endorsements, [it] is one of the biggest frauds of our time.'”

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A writer who doesn’t do research isn’t worth a damn. Harold Robbins, he did research. From a 2007 Daily Mail article about the author working at his craft:

“Under the beady eyes of the host, the party began with a little gentle socialising.

His hand-picked guests – as always, more women than men – then moved on to the next stage: marijuana, inhibition-loosening sedatives and cocaine.

When everyone seemed suitably relaxed, he started stroking a woman’s hair, moving his hands slowly downwards onto her body.

This was Harold Robbins’s less-than-subtle signal for the orgy to begin.

Soon, people were ripping off their clothes, piling into his vast, champagne-coloured bedroom and losing themselves in a pile of writhing bodies.

As they cavorted, heads would occasionally pop up to check out the view in the mirrored ceiling.

As the mastermind of these popular Beverly Hills parties, the best-selling novelist always selected the participants himself – each of whom had to be stunningly good-looking, famous or well-endowed.
His second wife, Grace, used to say that she never knew where he found them.

‘I had never met any of them before, or ever would again,’ she said.”

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The world is ending, eventually. One who sees the curtain coming down sooner than later is the Christian evangelist Hal Lindsey, co-author with Carole C. Carlson of the meshuganah 1970 bestseller, The Late Great Planet Earth, which estimated 1988 as the Judgement Day. Missed by that much. Lindsey, who is still alive as are many of the rest of us, spends his dotage accusing President Obama of being “the Antichrist.” Whatever.

In 1979, when the batshit book had been made into a film–with Orson Welles picking up late-life wine-and-bullfight money for handling the narration–Lindsey was profiled in a People piece by Lucretia Marmon. The opening:

“In 1938 Orson Welles terrified radio listeners with War of the Worlds, an imaginative report of a Martian invasion. Now Welles, as gloomy-voiced narrator of a film, The Late Great Planet Earth, out this fall, tells another frightening tale. This time it is a movie version of the end of the world, based on a scenario by evangelist-author Hal Lindsey. The script, claims Lindsey, really isn’t his. It’s all in the Scriptures.

Lindsey’s book Earth, published in 1970, has been translated into 31 languages and 10 million copies have been sold. The public also snapped up five subsequent Lindsey books on the same subject, running his sales total to over 14 million.

Thus Lindsey, 47, may now be the foremost modern-day Jeremiah. ‘If I had been writing 15 years ago I wouldn’t have had an audience,’ he concedes. ‘But a tremendous number of people are worried about the future. I’m just part of that phenomenon.’

Lindsey splices Bible prophecies of doom with contemporary signs. For instance, he says the Bible pinpoints Israel’s rebirth as a nation as the catalyst to Judgment Day, which will probably occur by 1988. The intervening years will see the emergence of a 10-nation confederacy (prophet Daniel’s dreadful 10-horned beast) or, as Lindsey sees it, the European Common Market. Eventually Russia (biblical Magog) will attack Israel and precipitate a global nuclear war. Only Jesus’ followers will be spared. Hence, Lindsey advises, ‘the only thing you need to understand is that God offers you in Jesus Christ a full pardon.’

Meanwhile, is Lindsey cowering in his fallout shelter? Not at all. Sporting a gold Star of David around his neck and another on his pinky (‘After all, Jesus was a Jew’), Lindsey zips around Southern California in a Mercedes 450 SL. He conducts services on the beach and indulges in his hobbies of photography and surfing.”


“This was a prophet–a false prophet”:

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In 1982, when Bryant Gumbel interviewed John Updike for the Today show, a serious novelist being too popular was considered concerning. No need to worry any longer. Crisis averted.

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From Hugh Schofield of the BBC, more about Planet of the Apes novelist Pierre Boulle, who was always mystified by the success of his story about a simian civilization:

“In Boulle’s original book the story is told by two honeymooners holidaying in space, who find a bottle containing a manuscript. It is by a French journalist who tells of his adventures on a planet run by monkeys, where the humans are the dumb animals.

At the end of the account, the journalist arrives back at Orly airport in Paris where he finds the staff… are apes. And there is a kicker when we discover the two honeymooners are themselves chimpanzees.

The one moment the book does not contain is possibly the most memorable point of the film – the discovery at the end of the half-buried Statue of Liberty.

In the film, this communicates the astounding fact that the travellers have fast-forwarded in time, and that they are back on Earth – an Earth devastated by nuclear war, in which the apes have emerged as the new dominant species.

In Boulle’s book, the events take place not on Earth but on a distant planet. (In fact the 2001 film remake by Tim Burton was closer to the book’s plot.)

‘It is a big difference. In the film there is this sense of human responsibility. It is man that has led to the destruction of the planet,’ says Clement Pieyre, who catalogued Boulle’s manuscripts at the French National Library.

‘But the book is more a reflection on how all civilisations are doomed to die. There has been no human fault. It is just that the return to savagery will come about anyway. Everything perishes,’ he says”

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Commenting on philosopher Nick Bostrom’s new book, Elon Musk compared superintelligence to nuclear weapons in terms of the danger it poses us. From Adario Strange at Mashable:

“Nevertheless, the comparison of A.I. to nuclear weapons, a threat that has cast a worrying shadow over much of the last 30 years in terms of humanity’s longevity possibly being cut short by a nuclear war, immediately raises a couple of questions.

The first, and most likely from many quarters, will be to question Musk’s future-casting. Some may use Musk’s A.I. concerns — which remain fantastical to many — as proof that his predictions regarding electric cars and commercial space travel are the visions of someone who has seen too many science fiction films. ‘If Musk really thinks robots might destroy humanity, maybe we need to dismiss his long view thoughts on other technologies.’ Those essays are likely already being written.

The other, and perhaps more troubling, is to consider that Musk’s comparison of A.I. to nukes is apt. What if Musk, empowered by rare insight from his exclusive perch guiding the very real future of space travel and automobiles, really has an accurate line on the future of A.I.?

Later, doubling down on his initial tweet, Musk wrote, ‘Hope we’re not just the biological boot loader for digital superintelligence. Unfortunately, that is increasingly probable.'”

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Harold Robbins wrote literature most suitable for the beach and for masturbation, though it’s probably best for readers to choose one or the other. In typical bluster from his heyday, the wet-dream merchant used a 1974 People article by Sandra Hochman to dismiss Roth, Bellow, Mailer and Hemingway, though the racy writer did speak fondly of Steinbeck, Dickens and Dumas. The article’s opening:

“Harold Robbins steps off the plane at La Guardia Airport dressed like a California cowboy. Tall and tough-looking, he is wearing a tan cashmere jacket, silk printed shirt open at the chest, tight brown pants, a $3,000 Patek Philippe watch and white-embroidered brown boots, which are on one-inch platforms. He is as subtle and unpretentious as a character from one of his own steamy novels.

His press agent arrives in a blue limousine crammed with shopping bags which contain copies of Robbins’ new book, The Lonely Lady. Robbins and his wife ride out to the Air France terminal at Kennedy Airport. Grace Robbins, who is at least his third wife—he says only that he’s had “many”—is striking. She is all in white. Her shoes are wooden wedgies, even higher than his.

They are both easygoing, smiling. At Air France, their party is hustled to the VIP area of the first-class lounge. It is a circular, red-carpeted nook that has fake flowers on the coffee table, a white leatherette couch and a huge hanging silver lamp that looks like a hair dryer. The best-selling author in the world and his consort settle themselves comfortably for a short wait on their journey to France and home.

Printed on the inside of Harold Robbins’ paperbacks is the claim: ‘Every day, around the world, 25,000 people buy a Robbins novel.’ That’s 9,125,000 books a year, counting Sundays; it may well be true. His dozen previous novels have topped the best-seller list. Lonely Lady, his 13th, will too. All told, Robbins’ books have sold more than 135 million copies. In a world where few writers ever find their way to the top, Robbins lives there.

No credit is due critics and purists, who usually consider Robbins’ lettres to be less than belles and delight in saying so. A 1974 New York Times review of The Pirate said, ‘Robbins is more a product than a writer and is marketed as relentlessly as a vaginal deodorant spray.’ Reviews of The Lonely Lady so far have damned it with the faint praise of ‘good entertainment.’ But who’s to say his work won’t be among the most remembered literature of our time? One person’s laundry list is another person’s poetry.

Robbins politely asks a lounge attendant for Playboy and Hustler to be sent over from a newsstand. He needs them, he explains, because he is researching a new book. The hero will be a skin magazine publisher, perhaps a composite of Hugh Hefner and Bob Guccione and others in that trade.

Robbins courteously orders drinks. There is talk about a big party which will take place in Cannes. Robbins seems indifferent. It is to be a combination birthday-promotion party for the movie version of The Pirate, the first film that Robbins is producing independently. But Robbins hates parties, even his own, which are frequent.

Harold Robbins writes about street people who hurl themselves against a hostile society and either become cosmically rich and powerful—or abjectly fall apart and are corrupted. This contrast between good and evil has led many readers to place Robbins’ work in the category of morality tales. His affinity for explicit and kinky sex scenes has led other readers to dismiss it as pornography.

Now 60, Robbins did not start writing novels until he was in his 30s, but then his formula emerged full-blown: Take a famous person who is or has been in the public subconscious—Howard Hughes (The Carpetbaggers) or auto executive Henry Ford (The Betsy) or, with his current novel, Peyton Place author Grace Metalious. (Robbins says The Lonely Lady is not Jacqueline Susann, as some reviewers have speculated.) Create a persona in fiction that is an exaggeration of the celebrity. Jumble together action, narrative drive, bitter pragmatism, sex, exotic locales, accurate observation of small details and energetic street language.

Robbins certainly knows the hard-times-to-lap-of-luxury tales he deals with; whether writing about the hucksterism of Hollywood, the rackets of the jet set, the con men on the streets and in large corporations or the poverty of a kid on the Lower East Side, Robbins has some life research he can put into his novels.”


“People who have it all and want more,” 1969:

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One of the best things I’ve read this year is an excellent longform conversation at the Baffler between Thomas Piketty and David Graeber, both of whom believe the modern financial system is passé, but only one of whom (Graeber) believes it’s certain to collapse. An exchange:


Is capitalism itself the cause of the problem, or can it be reformed?

Thomas Piketty:

One of the points that I most appreciate in David Graeber’s book is the link he shows between slavery and public debt. The most extreme form of debt, he says, is slavery: slaves belong forever to somebody else, and so, potentially, do their children. In principle, one of the great advances of civilization has been the abolition of slavery.

As Graeber explains, the intergenerational transmission of debt that slavery embodied has found a modern form in the growing public debt, which allows for the transfer of one generation’s indebtedness to the next. It is possible to picture an extreme instance of this, with an infinite quantity of public debt amounting to not just one, but ten or twenty years of GNP, and in effect creating what is, for all intents and purposes, a slave society, in which all production and all wealth creation is dedicated to the repayment of debt. In that way, the great majority would be slaves to a minority, implying a reversion to the beginnings of our history.

In actuality, we are not yet at that point. There is still plenty of capital to counteract debt. But this way of looking at things helps us understand our strange situation, in which debtors are held culpable and we are continually assailed by the claim that each of us “owns” between thirty and forty thousand euros of the nation’s public debt.

This is particularly crazy because, as I say, our resources surpass our debt. A large portion of the population owns very little capital individually, since capital is so highly concentrated. Until the nineteenth century, 90 percent of accumulated capital belonged to 10 percent of the population. Today things are a little different. In the United States, 73 percent of capital belongs to the richest 10 percent. This degree of concentration still means that half the population owns nothing but debt. For this half, the per capita public debt thus exceeds what they possess. But the other half of the population owns more capital than debt, so it is an absurdity to lay the blame on populations in order to justify austerity measures.

But for all that, is the elimination of debt the solution, as Graeber writes? I have nothing against this, but I am more favorable to a progressive tax on inherited wealth along with high tax rates for the upper brackets. Why? The question is: What about the day after? What do we do once debt has been eliminated? What is the plan? Eliminating debt implies treating the last creditor, the ultimate holder of debt, as the responsible party. But the system of financial transactions as it actually operates allows the most important players to dispose of letters of credit well before debt is forgiven. The ultimate creditor, thanks to the system of intermediaries, may not be especially rich. Thus canceling debt does not necessarily mean that the richest will lose money in the process.

David Graeber:

No one is saying that debt abolition is the only solution. In my view, it is simply an essential component in a whole set of solutions. I do not believe that eliminating debt can solve all our problems. I am thinking rather in terms of a conceptual break. To be quite honest, I really think that massive debt abolition is going to occur no matter what. For me the main issue is just how this is going to happen: openly, by virtue of a top-down decision designed to protect the interests of existing institutions, or under pressure from social movements. Most of the political and economic leaders to whom I have spoken acknowledge that some sort of debt abolition is required.”

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Long before we used electricity to create friends (and make monsters) on Facebook, Mary Shelley jolted to life a new pal in Victor Frankenstein’s laboratory. Was her creature inspired by the terror of childbirth, or was he delivered due to a radically odd weather event? Perhaps both. From Hannah Gersen at The Millions:

“In winter of 1814, British sailors recorded seeing ‘clouds of ashes’ at the peak of Mount Tambora, a volcanic mountain in the East Indies. A few months later, in the spring of 1815, Tambora exploded with huge, jet-like flames, a column of fire known as a ‘Plinian’ eruption, after Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. But Tambora burned hotter than Vesuvius, and it was so powerful that it ejected rock, ash, and other materials into the stratosphere, where they remained suspended, wreaking havoc on global weather patterns for the next three years. 1816 was known as ‘The Year Without Summer’—a relatively mild title for a year that brought famine, disease, and poverty. In the United States, there was snow in June, destroying crops and bringing the country’s first economic depression. In Ireland and China, unremitting rains flooded fields; while in India, monsoon season never arrived. Bacteria flourished in these stagnant, impoverished conditions, and outbreaks of typhus and cholera can be traced back to that dreary, volcanic winter.

I learned these and many other historical details from Gillen D’arcy Wood’s Tambora: The Eruption That Changed The World. Tambora is a new book, but one I discovered haphazardly, through that great portal of haphazardness: Wikipedia. I was fact-checking an overwrought simile (re: procrastinating) and landed on the Wikipedia entry for Frankenstein, where I learned that the great fictional monster was the indirect result of “The Year Without Summer.” I’d never heard of “The Year Without Summer” and in its addictive way, Wikipedia provided a link to an article on the subject, which in turn provided a link to the 1815 Eruption of Mount Tambora, which in turn provided a link to the Pacific Ring of Fire, which in turn led to an article about plate tectonics, which in turn led to a page about super-Earths, which in turn led me to wonder about the origin of the universe and what is the meaning of life on Earth, which I believe is that state of existential confusion to which all Wikipedia rabbit holes eventually lead. I am grateful that on this particular foray, it only took six steps—and also, of course, that it led me to read Tambora, which gave me a glimpse into a startlingly dramatic period in history.

To get back to ‘The Year Without Summer’ (which at this point in July sounds like a marvelous situation) and the creation of Frankenstein, you must transport yourself to a storm-lashed villa on Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. There, sitting in front of a roaring fire, is Percy ShelleyMary soon-to-be-Shelley Godwin, Mary’s stepsister, Claire ClairmontLord Byron, and also, Lord Byron’s doctor (whose presence is somewhat irrelevant, but who I will include, anyway, in the spirit of Wikipedia). This privileged, literary bunch has been driven indoors by unseasonably cold weather, driving rain, and spectacular thunderstorms—all due to Mount Tambora, although of course they don’t know it. Bored and perhaps tired of reciting poetry, they decide to have a contest for who can tell the best ghost story. Mary’s late entry is a tale about a student, Victor Frankenstein, who discovers how to bring life to inanimate material. Frankenstein uses this power to create an eight-foot tall “creature” who is never given a name, but who eventually kills Frankenstein’s wife and escapes to the North Pole. It’s not a ghost story but a monster story, one inspired by Shelley’s extensive readings into science and myth.

Wood argues that Frankenstein was also inspired by the stormy, Tambora-induced weather, and that ‘the pyrotechnical lightning displays’ raging outside Shelley’s villa windows were written into the novel.”

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The War of 1812 brought about many things, but a surfeit of soap was not among them. Americans were drunk, and we stunk. Via the excellent Delancey Place, an excerpt about life in the U.S. 200 years ago from Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought:

“‘Life in America in 1815 was dirty, smelly, laborious, and uncomfortable. People spent most of their waking hours working, with scant opportunity for the development of individual talents and interests unrelated to farming. Cobbler-made shoes being expensive and uncomfortable, country people of ordinary means went barefoot much of the time. White people of both sexes wore heavy fabrics covering their bodies, even in the humid heat of summer, for they believed (correctly) sunshine bad for their skin. People usually owned few changes of clothes and stank of sweat.

Only the most fastidious bathed as often as once a week. Since water had to be carried from a spring or well and heated in a kettle, people gave themselves sponge baths, using the washtub. Some bathed once a year, in the spring, but as late as 1832, a New England country doctor complained that four out of five of his patients did not bathe from one year to the next. When washing themselves, people usually only rinsed off, saving their harsh, homemade soap for cleaning clothes. Inns did not provide soap to travelers.

Having an outdoor privy signified a level of decency above those who simply relieved themselves in the woods or fields. Indoor light was scarce and precious; families made their own candles, smelly and smoky, from animal tallow. A single fireplace provided all the cooking and heating for a common household. During winter, everybody slept in the room with the fire, several in each bed. Privacy for married couples was a luxury.”


Long-form 1986 interview with J. G. Ballard. (A little Swedish, mostly English.) 

“The only point of reality we have is inside our own heads,” Ballard said, though that feels like a very different time, our heads no longer really our own, their contents now commodified.

The writer also feared a “boring, event-less future.” No such luck.


One final post referencing Daniel Lieberman’s The Story of the Human Body, this one a brief passage that explains how farming was never truly drudgery until it became hierarchal:

“The very first farmers certainly had to work hard, but we know from archaeological sites that they still hunted animals, did some gathering and initially practiced cultivation on a modest scale. Farming pioneers certainly had challenging lives, but the popular image of the incessant drudgery, filth, and misery of being a farmer probably applies more to later peasants in feudal systems than to early Neolithic farmers. A girl born to a French farmer in 1789 had a life expectancy of just twenty-eight years, she probably suffered from frequent bouts of starvation, and she was more likely than not to die from diseases such as measles, smallpox, typhoid fever, and typhus. No wonder they had a revolution. The very first farmers of the Neolithic had demanding lives, but they were not yet beset by plagues, such as smallpox or the Black Death, and they were not oppressed by a heartless feudal system in which a handful of powerful aristocrats owned their land and appropriated a large percentage of their harvest.” 


The opening of “Beyond the Bones: The Archaeology of Human Networks,” Alun Anderson’s New Scientist review of two books on evolution which suggest that our historical development may have rested more on surviving each other than the elements:

“‘HELL is other people,’ goes Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous line. It is a hell that may have created us and our culture, judging by two new books. They show that the idea that we are defined by our struggles to deal with our fellow humans is shaking up archaeology and how we think about the key force driving human evolution.

The first book is Thinking Big by archaeologists Clive Gamble and John Gowlett and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar. It is the story of a seven-year project – From Lucy to Language – that confronted archaeologists with the social brain hypothesis of human evolution.

The result is a dramatic demolition of the ‘stones and bones’ approach to archaeology, which keeps researchers firmly fixed only on the physical evidence they dig up, and a move towards a grand look at the evolving human mind. There is ‘more to humanity than the bits of chipped bone,’ write the authors as they seek a framework for all human psychological traits, from kinship and laughter to language and ceremony. Old dogma is derided as never moving beyond ‘WYSWTW’ (What You See is What There Was).

The second book is a solo effort by Dunbar, the key thinker behind the social brain hypothesis. In Human Evolution, he lays out the big ideas that the archaeologists later took up. At its heart is the observation that as brains grew bigger, so did the groups we live in: bigger brains were built for and by social life. Modern humans have a cognitive limit of about 150 friends and family (the well-known ‘Dunbar’s number’). Within that circle are an average of five ‘intimates,’ 15 best friends and 50 good friends. Chimps have an average community size of 55.

Studies of living, non-human primates show why you might need bigger brains to live in bigger groups.”

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Through the prism of structural changes at TaskRabbit, Sam Biddle of Valleywag looks at (perhaps) the future of labor, in which the wishes of workers disappear into algorithms, and we’re all lackeys, everyone Walmarted. You know how you love cheap service? That’s your job now. The opening:

“The employment of the future is here, and it’s terrific for everyone except the people doing the work. TaskRabbit, which lets you outsource the things you don’t want to do to people who need money, is at the forefront of this chore revolution, and it’s already making some lives harder.

In 1994, professors Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio published a book titled The Jobless Future, surveying sea changes in the way people work. It didn’t look good: ‘Today, the regime of world economic life consists in scratching every itch of everyday life with sci-tech,’ they wrote. A big heap of trivial problems were being solved by a bigger heap of trivial jobs, marked by a trend ‘toward more low-paid, temporary, benefit-free blue and white collar jobs and fewer decent permanent factory and office jobs.’

Twenty years later, we’ve nearly perfected this ephemeral gig machine with TaskRabbit, a software engine that does for labor what Snapchat’s done for memories.”

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Irving “Swifty” Lazar, whose entire head was made of bifocals, was a lawyer who learned you could make a killing as an agent if you held fast to situational ethics. From Harry Minetree’s 1975 People article about Lazar, as he had just closed a book deal for a disgraced Richard Nixon and had agreed to let the former President sit for an interview with David Frost:

“On a bright morning last August, Irving Paul (Swifty) Lazar, the literary agent, was having breakfast beside the pool at his Beverly Hills home when the telephone interrupted. It was Ron Ziegler, ex-President Nixon’s ex-press secretary, calling from San Clemente. Mr. Nixon, Ziegler said, was eager to see Lazar to discuss ‘some business.’ Lazar, who had a pretty good idea what the business was, crisply replied that he was leaving for Europe shortly, but he would be happy to see Mr. Nixon upon his return.

On August 31 the dapper, billiard-bald Lazar and Nixon met over a three-hour lunch at San Clemente. Afterward, agent Lazar returned home in his black limousine with the exclusive rights to sell the former President’s memoirs in his attaché case. No matter that Swifty, a lifelong Democrat, had been an indefatigable fund-raiser for John F. Kennedy. Or that his Washington representative, Ann Buchwald, the wife of political satirist Art Buchwald, quit as a result of the Nixon deal. There was a buck to be made, in fact millions of bucks and, true to the 10-percenters’ code, Lazar had a flexible philosophy to suit the occasion: ‘In a deal you give and take. You compromise. Then you grab the cash and catch the next train out of town.’

Not many literary agents can afford to be so candid about their modus operandi. But then not many of them can afford a California mansion with genuine Picassos, Roualts, Chagalls and Dalis on the walls, a Rolls-Royce and a Mercedes in the garage, an elegant pied-a-terre in New York, offices in Beverly Hills, New York, London, Paris and Rome, $40,000-a-year phone bills and a custom-made wardrobe. There is only one ‘Swifty’—a soubriquet Humphrey Bogart laid on him after Lazar acquired three hot screen properties for him in the space of 24 hours—and indeed there is hardly room for more than one Swifty in the agents’ trade.

With characteristic speed, Lazar put together a package for Nixon: he sold the paperback rights to the book, which will probably appear in three volumes, to Warner Paperback Library for $2.5 million, the television rights for a Nixon interview to David Frost for another $750,000 and is asking for a hard-cover advance in the neighborhood of $1 million. (Although Lazar says Nixon was persuaded to accept Frost’s proposition because of the ‘interesting approach,’ the word around Hollywood is that the interesting approach was simply the highest bid.) Still to be negotiated are foreign rights, book clubs, a possible movie and other spin-offs that will propel the former President back into millionaire status and guarantee Swifty Lazar fees well in the area of half a million. Even so, Lazar went through considerable soul-searching before he decided to represent Nixon. ‘He asked the advice of everyone he knows,’ says Art Buchwald. ‘But it’s probably for the best. When a politician gets in trouble he deserves the best lawyer and the best literary agent around. You use the agent to pay the lawyer—that’s the way it goes.’

Nixon represents only the latest in Lazar’s ledger of famous, infamous, literary, political and showbiz clients. Over the years, he has represented Hemingway, Ira Gershwin, Truman Capote, Clifford Odets, Vladimir Nabokov, Neil Simon, Herman Wouk, Lerner and Lowe, John Huston, Edna Ferber, Buchwald, Noël Coward and Richard Rodgers, among others.”

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Speaking of the emergence of really smart machines, philosopher Nick Bostrom’s new book, Superintelligence, has just been published in the UK (with the U.S. edition available later this year). Here’s a piece from Clive Cookson’s Financial Times review:

“Since the 1950s proponents of artificial intelligence have maintained that machines thinking like people lie just a couple of decades in the future. In Superintelligence – a thought-provoking look at the past, present and above all the future of AI – Nick Bostrom, founding director of Oxford’s university’s Future of Humanity Institute, starts off by mocking the futurists.

‘We are still far from real AI despite last month’s widely publicised ‘Turing test’ stunt, in which a computer mimicked a 13-year-old boy with some success in a brief text conversation. About half the world’s AI specialists expect human-level machine intelligence to be achieved by 2040, according to recent surveys, and 90 per cent say it will arrive by 2075. Bostrom takes a cautious view of the timing but believes that, once made, human-level AI is likely to lead to a far higher level of ‘superintelligence’ faster than most experts expect – and that its impact is likely either to be very good or very bad for humanity.

The book enters more original territory when discussing the emergence of superintelligence. The sci-fi scenario of intelligent machines taking over the world could become a reality very soon after their powers surpass the human brain, Bostrom argues. Machines could improve their own capabilities far faster than human computer scientists.

‘Machines have a number of fundamental advantages, which will give them overwhelming superiority,’ he writes. ‘Biological humans, even if enhanced, will be outclassed.’ He outlines various ways for AI to escape the physical bonds of the hardware in which it developed. For example, it might use its hacking superpower to take control of robotic manipulators and automated labs; or deploy its powers of social manipulation to persuade human collaborators to work for it. There might be a covert preparation stage in which microscopic entities capable of replicating themselves by nanotechnology or biotechnology are deployed worldwide at an extremely low concentration. Then at a pre-set time nanofactories producing nerve gas or target-seeking mosquito-like robots might spring forth (though, as Bostrom notes, superintelligence could probably devise a more effective takeover plan than him).

What would the world be like after the takeover? It would contain far more intricate and intelligent structures than anything we can imagine today – but would lack any type of being that is conscious or whose welfare has moral significance. ‘A society of economic miracles and technological awesomeness, with nobody there to benefit,’ as Bostrom puts it. ‘A Disneyland without children.'”

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Pierre Boulle wasn’t exactly embarrassed, just perplexed, by the success of The Planet of the Apes, his 1963 French novel which became an unlikely American film franchise in a time before franchises were really a thing. It seemed to him an odd, little fantasy that shouldn’t have approached the popularity of something like the Oscar-winning The Bridge Over the River Kwai, yet it did. A good deal of the big-screen appeal was the remarkable make-up work of John Chambers, who made monkeys out of men (and women), and Boulle was aware of this contribution, but he still couldn’t account for the reception. Here’s a (rough) translation into English of an interview Boulle did about Apes, though I’m not sure of the source:


What inspired you to write Planet of the Apes?

Pierre Boulle:

I do not really remember. I think it was during a visit to the zoo, watching the gorillas. I was impressed by their almost human expressions. This led me to imagine what would a man/monkey relationship. Some believe that I had King Kong in mind when I wrote my book, but this is totally false. Frankly, I have never considered it one of my best novels, but more like a fun fantasy. I’m not very happy with the final result: I think I could have done better with parts of the book.


Do you think the film is faithful to the book?

Pierre Boulle:

You should never ask that of an author whose novel has been made into a film. There have been a lot of changes, and some very disconcerting. My planet had three suns for example. The first part of the film is excellent, and the monkeys’ makeup is particularly successful. I do not like the end with the Statue of Liberty. I prefer mine where finally we were not on Earth but of course on another planet. But critics loved it, so maybe I’m a bad judge. I knew from the outset that the producer Arthur P. Jacobs wanted this. He had it in mind from the first day and told me about it. I replied ‘Why not try it?’ Critics have approved, but I’m a little more rational writer and I prefer everything to be explained from A to Z. I am also completely unable to work in a group, which seems a necessity in the production of a film. When I write, I am alone. I give the book to my editor, and do not want to change anything, to the last comma.


But you have started working on the sequel to Planet of the Apes?

Pierre Boulle:

True. After the success of the first film, Arthur asked me to write more for him. It was called Planet of Women. They initially agreed, but then there were so many changes. I read the script of the Secret of the Planet of the Apes, and it interested me because it had nothing to do with my work. It was completely different. This does not bother me because the film did not ultimately matter to me. I rarely see movies. It is also strange that what I write inspires such visual and adaptable on-screen elements.

What would you attribute the success of the Planet of the Apes?

Pierre Boulle:

Honestly, I have no idea.”

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Hoaxes that work do so because they play upon a deep-seated fear or satisfy a psychological want–a need, even. That’s why we’re able to suspend disbelief about something that seems ridiculous in retrospect. When I published the post about a passage from Daniel Lieberman’s recent book, The Story of the Human Body, it reminded me that he (briefly) touches on the story of the Tasaday people, a “stone-age” tribe discovered in 1971 in Philippine caves, which was untouched by wars hot and cold, threats of nuclear disaster, and trends in which clans–families–were unable to stay together. It was a sensation that National Geographic granted a cover and a 32-page story, and, of course, it was a hoax. But it had a good, long run, with Charles Lindbergh himself spending some of his final moments of life writing the foreword for a popular book about this make-believe people. The opening of a 1986 New York Times article by Seth Mydans, written when the work finally began to stop working:

“MANILA, May 12— After more than a decade, scientists and reporters have returned to visit a remote Stone Age tribe called the Tasaday, and found that its earlier contacts with the outside world have set it on what appears to be an irreversible road to change.

The new visits have also reopened a debate on the authenticity of the Tasaday, who have now been found to possess bits of clothing, knives, bows and arrows, a mirror and domesticated dogs.

In interviews, two anthropologists who recently revisited the tribe said these new possessions, which had aroused the scepticism of Swiss and German reporters who saw them recently, were an expectable product of the tribe’s first contacts with outsiders in the early 1970’s.

Discovered in 1971

The scientists said they now feared that, if new protective measures were not taken, an influx of researchers, journalists and tourists would destroy their fragile way of life, already imperiled by the approach of loggers, slash-and-burn farmers and the armed insurgencies that share the forests of the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

The Tasaday, a group of fewer than 30 people, were discovered in 1971 and drew international attention as a cave-using tribe of hunter-gatherers who dressed in orchid leaves and bark, knew no enemies and had no words for war, for ocean or for other peoples.

When two groups of journalists trekked into the jungle recently, they found the tribe members wearing bits and pieces of clothing and displaying other signs of outside influence, and the visitors raised cries of ‘hoax’ and ‘fairy tale.’

The two anthropologists who visited soon afterward, however, in the company of John Nance, author of a book on the tribe, and a television crew, said the changes were not surprising, and indeed enhanced the scientific interest of the group.

‘Textbook Case of Change’

‘We’re seeing a textbook case of social change, compressed in time,’ said one of the anthropologists, Jesus Peralta, who is curator of anthropology for the National Museum of the Philippines.

The other anthropologist who visited, Carlos Fernandez, said, ‘Before we first met them, they were purely forest gatherers.’

‘Then they learned to use a blade, to set traps and now they are learning to hunt,’ he went on. ‘Before long they will try their hand at planting.

‘This is one of the most exciting subjects for an anthropological investigator.’

Mr. Nance, the author of The Gentle Tasaday, who traveled last month to Mindanao with the two anthropologists, said the Tasaday’s preference for T-shirts and other articles of clothing was only natural. ‘If leaves were better, we’d all be wearing leaves,’ he said. Brides From Another Tribe

The scientists said the question of a hoax had always been present and remained a possibility. But they said such details as the stone tools and the language used by the Tasaday would be extremely difficult to fabricate.

‘Unless another anthropologist produces conflicting data, then the literature stands,’ said Mr. Peralta.

Many of the changes were thought to be the result of two outside influences: a tribal hunter named Dafal, and the marrying of women from a nearby tribe called the Blit.

A small group of primarily male cousins, the Tasaday’s main request of the scientists who discovered them was for brides. Mr. Peralta said that, in the years since then, 15 Blit women and two men had married into the tribe.

Trapping and Weapons

Dafal and the Blit spouses brought with them clothing, beads, knives, rice and cigars, the scientists said.

They also said they taught them to trap and use bows and arrows to supplement their traditional diet of yams, the hearts of palms and rattan, and fish, frogs and tadpoles.

‘They were already in transition when we first met them,’ Mr. Nance said, referring to their earlier contacts with Dafal. ‘Scientists worked to reconstruct what their life had been like before that, and people took the reconstruction as the current reality.’

He said this had led to misconceptions and to the recent accusations of a hoax.”


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The majority of creatures on Earth are hungry most of the time, every single day. That’s true of almost all of them and some of us, too. A change by a degree or two in the temperature could mean a world of difference in how many creatures are able eat, us included. A brief passage from Daniel Lieberman’s excellent book, The Story Of The Human Body:

“Are you worried about rapid global climate change today? If not, you should be, because rising temperatures, altered rainfall pattern, and the ecological shifts they cause imperil our food supply. Yet, as we have already seen, global change has long been a major impetus in human evolution because of its effects on the age-old problem pf ‘what’s for dinner?’ It turns out that getting enough food in the face of global climate change also triggered the age of humans. 

Getting dinner (or, for that matter, breakfast and lunch) probably does not dominate your list of daily concerns, yet most creatures are almost always hungry and preoccupied with the quest for calories and nutrients. To be sure, animals also need to find mates and avoid being eaten, but the struggle for existence is often a struggle for food, and until recently the vast majority of humans were no exception to this rule. Consider also that acquiring food is even more taxing when when your habitat alters dramatically, causing the foods you normally eat to vanish or become less common.”


In a new Afterword (published at the Los Angeles Review of Booksto the updated version of 1998’s Explaining Hitler, Ron Rosenbaum looks at the architect of Nazism in light of 9/11, arguing that Hitler was not a failed dictator but a successful terrorist. An excerpt:

“For Hitler, it was not a matter of making the trains run on time so much as making the trains never stop running to Auschwitz and Treblinka. One relatively new aspect of Holocaust study is a focus on what happened when the trains finally did stop running, because the Russians were about to overrun the mainly Polish-based camps. The full story, much of which was new to me, can be found in Daniel Blatman’s 2011 work, The Death Marches: The Final Phase of Nazi Genocide.

When the camps were disbanded, the large SS and native Polish and Ukrainian guard troops feeding the gas chambers were not redeployed to stave off the Russians. Instead they were ordered to take all the living and half-dead captives on the road in what became the final phase of the Final Solution: the Death Marches. Hundreds of thousands of closely-guarded prisoners were mercilessly beaten or shot when they couldn’t keep up, starved to death while being harried along icy roads to . . . where? There was no sanctuary left safe for killing, but the killing had to continue at all costs, a horror at least as unfathomable as the camps themselves. The Death March commanders didn’t have to ‘follow orders.’ They had incorporated Hitlerism so deeply, they wanted to follow orders. As Evans argues, killing Jews was more important than military objectives. These commanders risked their own lives to continue the murder.

What’s worse, Blatman reports, is that it was not just military men but civilians along the way who gleefully took part in murdering the half-dead Jews. For those, like me, who thought it impossible to be further shocked by Hitler’s willing accomplices, reading about the Death Marches introduced a new level of horror.

It is a testament to how deeply dyed the souls of the killers were. Hitler was possessed, some might say, but he was also the cause of possession in others. …

Hitler didn’t lose the war. Not the war Evans argues was most important to him: the racial war. Hitler won that war. Six million to one. Yes, he committed suicide at the end. (And yes, 50 million others lost their lives so he could win the part of the war he cared about most. Collateral damage.)

Thinking about that suicide now, in the light of 9/11 and the subsequent exaltations of suicide bombing on messianic, theological grounds, does in fact offer a radical new way of characterizing Hitler. In retrospect at least, it’s tempting to argue that Hitler was, if not the first, then by far history’s greatest single suicide bomber. He blew up Europe to kill the Jews in it, even if it meant killing himself and tens of millions of others in the end.”

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