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With his dog Rollo, 1885.

London at 21 in the Klondike in 1897.

In the Klondike, 1897.


At Beauty Ranch in California, 1916.

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The perils of corporate capitalism ‘running on digital steroids’

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

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Alexander Litvinenko's grave in Highgate cemetery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Daniel Clowes:

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


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

Daniel Clowes:

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

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


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

Daniel Clowes:

That’s long gone.


How much does that shift have to do with technology?

Daniel Clowes:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


No one likes bees stings, but everyone likes bees. We all want to save the bees.

New technologies may ultimately give us the option to rescue, revive, reconfigure or eradicate species, which sounds like a great power to have–and a chilling one. It may not bring back mammoths anytime soon or maybe ever, but it likely will have significant impact on life on Earth as we learn to take the reigns of evolution for ourselves and other species.

Yohann Koshy of Vice interviewed Ashley Dawson, author of Extinction: A Radical History, which argues, among other things, that the development of such new tools may imbue us with the belief that we can elide any capitalism-created crisis. 

An excerpt about CRISPR:


Are there any examples of this technology being put to good ends?

Ashley Dawson:

Last week, I was at Princeton, and I spoke to a scientist from MIT. He’s one of a few people who is trying to use CRISPR technology to genetically engineer the extinction of the Anopheles mosquito, which is responsible for carrying malaria, Dengue fever, Zika, and lot of horrible viruses and diseases.

I’m still trying to figure out where I stand on that. More than 700,000 people die every year of malaria, mostly in poor and vulnerable populations. So if you can do something to eradicate the disease, perhaps it’s OK. But then what about the ecological niche the mosquito fills? What about how the use of these technologies could be proliferated?

Some people think this technology, CRISPR, is so dangerous it should be treated like nuclear technology—that it shouldn’t be widely available. The problem with scientists is they often don’t look at the broader political-economic questions. The reason Zika has gotten so much traction in a place like Brazil is because as deforestation happens, you get human populations in closer proximity to wild species of various different kinds, some of which function as disease vectors. So the prevalence of the disease in certain areas is connected to resource extraction, which is, in turn, coming from corporations that the governments like the United States are supporting.•

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Deutsch: Flusspferd, Nilpferd, Großflusspferd · English: Hippopotamus · Español: Hipopótamo común · Français : Hippopotame · Italiano: Ippopotamo · ?????: ???????? · Lietuviu: Didysis hipopotamas · Nederlands: Nijlpaard · Polski: Hipopotam nilowy · Português: Hipopótamo-comum

There exists a band of far-flung thinkers who dream of humans repopulating and restoring the natural world via de-extinction (read here and here). It would be a regenesis, though it’s easier said than done. Even though such things aren’t currently doable, I wouldn’t say that they’re permanently impossible, not if we’re talking about the very long run. But we’re not likely digging ourselves out of our Anthropocene hole with such things.

In an excellent Five Books Interview on the topic of de-extinction, evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro pours cold water on the reawakening of the woolly mammoth and other animals and birds that have bid the Earth adieu, pointing out not just the practical difficulties but also the ethical concerns. I’ve read two of the titles she chose, E.O. Wilson’s The Diversity of Life and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, both of which are certainly worth the time. 

Before getting to her selections, the author of How to Clone a Mammoth explains exactly why we can’t do just that and why we shouldn’t even if we could. An excerpt:


If we were able to bring a mammoth back, what would the purpose of that be?

Beth Shapiro:

If we pretend, for a moment, that it’s technically possible – which it isn’t – and that it’s ethically ok – which it isn’t – why might we want to bring a mammoth back to life? Well, for me there are two reasons. The first is ecological. Elephants play a very important role in their ecosystem, they’re the biggest herbivore that exists. They wander around knocking down the big things and allow the habitat – the grasslands – to regenerate themselves. There’s no reason to suspect a mammoth wouldn’t have done the same thing.

There’s a Russian scientist called Sergey Zimov who has a park in North-Eastern Siberia called ‘Pleistocene Park‘. The Pleistocene was the geological interval that existed before the current one, which is the Holocene, sometimes the Anthropocene. It was the age of Ice Age Giants and he is preparing this park for the return of Ice Age Giants and so far he has bison and horses and five different species of deer. He doesn’t have mammoths yet, but he is making up for that using large road-rolling machinery. What he’s found in this Pleistocene Park of his is that where he has these grazing herbivores – bison, horses, deer – just by virtue of wandering around on the permafrost, digging up the soil, recycling nutrients, spreading the seeds around they have actually changed that habitat. They have reestablished the rich grasslands that used to be there during the time of these Ice Age Giants, creating the habitat that they themselves need to survive. Not only are these animals there and quite happy, but he’s also noted that things like saiga antelope have come to visit the park because there’s loads of stuff for them to eat there. He argues that giant herbivores are still a missing component that would really help to push this environment over the edge. There’s a potentially compelling ecological reason to bring mammoths back to life.

The next reason is more sentimental. Few of us are willing to imagine a world without elephants, but Asian elephants are endangered. Every year there are fewer of them. Their habitat is continuing to disappear as human populations grow. We’re having trouble stopping poachers taking them for their ivory. What if we could use this technology, this same swapping out of genes technology, not to bring a mammoth back to life, but to change an elephant a little bit so that it has some of the evolutionary adaptations that a mammoth had? Say, adaptations that allow it to survive somewhere cold. Elephants are a tropically adapted species, mammoths lived in the Arctic. If we could swap out some of the elephant gene and allow elephants to live in Europe, or Siberia, then we could create new habitat for elephants where they could survive while we tried to fix whatever mess is going on in their natural habitats. What if we could use this technology not to bring extinct species back to life but to save species that are alive today and yet in danger of becoming extinct because of changes to their habitat that are often caused by us?•

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Faulting literature for not being astrophysics is like disparaging Louis Armstrong for not being a great hockey player. It’s really missing the point.

The humanities do what they do, and science does what it does. They’re both valid and useful. It’s not that the Digital Humanities has nothing to teach, but trying to understand the novel mainly through quantification will yield minimal returns. Literature isn’t a science and the academics who’ve tried to turn it into one have birthed a Frankenstein, but not an interesting one like Frankenstein.

The Stanford scholar Franco Moretti may not care for the DH term (“digital humanities means nothing”) but as much as anyone he’s the face of it. An exchange from Melissa Dinsman’s LARB interview with him:


People often speak of digital work (and more frequently the digital humanities) as a means of making the humanities relevant for the 21st-century university. Do you think this statement is a fair assessment of digital work and its purpose? Do you think it is fair to the humanities to say that DH will come in on a white horse and save the humanities from itself?

Franco Moretti:

Neither one. The humanities will need to save themselves, and not only for the crass reason that going to university can cost an insane amount of money, so students choose to go into business, medicine, economics, etc., to remake the money as soon as possible. It’s not just that, although that cannot be simply dismissed. In the 20th century the natural sciences have produced some amazingly stunning and beautiful theories in physics, and genetics, and in biology. The humanities have produced nothing of this sort. Literature, art, in a sense even political history (mostly in a horrendous way), have produced enormously interesting objects, but the study of these objects, that is to say the disciplines of the humanities — the study of literature, the study of history — have lagged behind. The humanities have lagged behind in conceptual imagination and in boldness. I totally understand why a 20-year old would choose to do astrophysics rather than literature. It’s so much more interesting in many ways, just for the pleasure of the intelligence. That is what the humanities have to work on.•

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The names Benjamin Franklin and Jenny McCarthy don’t usually squeeze into the same sentence, but they did both make a similar stand 290 years apart: They were anti-Vaxxers.

We know well of the blonde celebrity’s inane crusade linking vaccinations and autism, but America’s key-and-kite man similarly stood strong against smallpox inoculations in the early 1700s. Just as confounding was that the witch-burning enabler Cotton Mather was on the right side, spearheading the successful experiment which provoked violent dissent. The caveat is that Franklin was a mere 16 at the time, though it does remind that we all need to constantly question our beliefs despite our intellects or qualifications or allegiances.

Mike Jay, a wonderful thinker (see here and here and here) has written about this strange moment in history in a WSJ book review of Stephen Coss’ The Fever of 1721, which looks at how this roiling controversy anticipated aspects of the American Revolution. An excerpt:

Inoculation was commonplace across swaths of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, Mr. Coss explains, but this inclined the doctors of Enlightenment-era Europe to regard it as a primitive superstition. Such was the view of William Douglass, the only man in Boston with the letters “M.D.” after his name, who was convinced that “infusing such malignant filth” in a healthy subject was lethal folly. The only person Mather could persuade to perform the operation was a surgeon, Zabdiel Boylston, whose frontier upbringing made him sympathetic to native medicine and who was already pockmarked from a near-fatal case of the disease.

“Given that attempting inoculation constituted an almost complete leap of faith for Boylston,” Mr. Coss writes, “he spent surprisingly little time agonizing over it.” He knew personally just how savage the toll could be. On June 26, 1721, just as the epidemic began to rage in earnest, Boyston filled a quill with the fluid from an infected blister and scratched it into the skin of two family slaves and his own young son.

News of the experiment was greeted with public fury and terror that it would spread the contagion. A town-hall meeting was convened, at Dr. Douglass’s instigation, at which inoculation was condemned and banned. Mather’s house was firebombed with an incendiary device to which a note was attached: “I will inoculate you with this.”

The crisis was the making of James and Benjamin Franklin’s New-England Courant, which stoked the controversy with denunciations of Mather that drew parallels between his “infatuation” with inoculation and his onetime obsession with witchcraft. But as the death toll mounted, the ban on inoculation collapsed under the weight of public demand.

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It may have looked suspiciously like an open casket, but Alfred Hitchcock had a casting couch. He wasn’t the chaste monk of the macabre he made himself out to be. It was just a few 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.•


During the heyday of the Magazine Age, 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, grotto and Bunnies were to remain largely unattainable, but he believed technology would help us remove ourselves from the larger world so that we each could create our own “little planet.” The gadgets he used five decades ago to extend his adolescence and recuse himself are now much more powerful and affordable. 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.•


Comedy, like pornography, should be left to illiterates willing to do anything. In both, you have to be able to take a pie–or something else–to the face without flinching. And you have to make it look like you’re enjoying it. Being spectacularly dumb helps in that process.

The only exceptions to this rule of smart people not being funny are: Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Moms Mabley, James Thurber, S.J. Perelman, the Marx Brothers, Lenny Bruce, everyone at MAD, everyone in Beyond the Fringe, Joan Rivers, Buddy Hackett, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, everyone at National Lampoon, Michael O’Donoghue, everyone at SNL, everyone at SCTV, everyone at Spy, everyone at The Simpsons, Larry David, Chris Rock, Conan O’Brien, Tina Fey, Maria Bamford, etc., etc., etc.

Okay, my theory was wrong. Smart people can be funny, though they still should never have sex on camera (or off). I mean, yuck. 

One such group of very smart and funny people are the writers and artists behind the new publication The American Bystander. Created by Michael Gerber and edited by Brian McConnachie and Alan Goldberg, this magazine-ish book is a throwback to print material comedy nerds loved as kids, though it’s not musty in any way. It brings together all sorts of contemporary comic voices (George Meyer, Jack Handey, Simon Rich, Roz Chast, etc.) and is full of funny gags, articles and interviews.

But The American Bystander is not only funny–it also ranges beyond just jokes. The smart Q&A with musician/writer Josh Alan Friedman, former Screw scribe and son of Stern novelist Bruce Jay Friedman, is a particular favorite of mine. I mean, he worked for the portly beaver merchant Al Goldstein!

The first issue, Kickstarted into existence, has already been a big success. It costs $25 (Cheap!) at Amazon and stores near you and $20.00 (Cheaper!) if you PayPal Check out the website for more information. Issue #2 will be Kickstarted in March, and I’ll remind you about it then.•


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


Oriana Fallaci:

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

Norman Mailer:

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

Oriana Fallaci:

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

Norman Mailer:

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


Norman Mailer:

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

Oriana Fallaci:

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

Norman Mailer:

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


Norman Mailer:

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

Oriana Fallaci:

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

Norman Mailer:

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

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If we’re lucky, Homo sapiens are not the living end.

If we snake through the Anthropocene, our species will accomplish some great things, perhaps even creating newer and more exciting species. They may be like us, but they won’t be us, not in some essential ways. That could happen through bioengineering or space colonization. One way or another, machine superintelligence will likely be involved toward those ends, unless, of course, it pulls the plug on the process and starts one of its own. I believe it will be more merger than hostile takeover, but everything remains possible.

From a piece by Sidney Perkowitz in the Los Angeles Review of Books about Murray Shanahan’s The Technological Singularity: 

Shanahan argues that the obstacles to building such a brain are technological, not conceptual. A whole human brain is more than we can yet copy, but we can copy one a thousand times smaller. That is, we are on our way, because existing digital technology could simulate the 70 million neurons in a mouse brain. If we can also map these neurons, then, according to Shanahan, it is only a matter of time before we can obtain a complete blueprint for an artificial mouse brain. Once that brain is built, Shanahan believes it would “kick-start progress toward human-level AI.” We’d need to simulate billions of neurons of course, and then qualitatively “improve” the mouse brain with refinements like modules for language, but Shanahan thinks we can do both through better technology that deals with billions of digital elements and our rapidly advancing understanding of the workings of human cognition. To be sure, he recognizes that this argument relies on unspecified future breakthroughs.

But if we do manage to construct human-level AIs, Shanahan believes they would “almost inevitably” produce a next stage — namely, superintelligence — in part because an AI has big advantages over its biological counterpart. With no need to eat and sleep, it can operate nonstop; and, with its impulses transmitted electronically in nanoseconds rather than electrochemically in milliseconds, it can operate ultra-rapidly. Add the ability to expand and reproduce itself in silicon, and you have the seed of a scarily potent superintelligence.

Naturally, this raises fears of artificial masterminds generating a disruptive singularity. According to Shanahan, such fears are valid because we do not know how superintelligences would behave: “whether they will be friendly or hostile […] predictable or inscrutable […] whether conscious, capable of empathy or suffering.” This will depend on how they are constructed and the “reward function” that motivates them. Shanahan concedes that the chances of AIs turning monstrous are slim, but, because the stakes are so high, he believes we must consider the possibility.•

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Some years ago, I began reading Martin Scorsese’s 1983 King of Comedy in a very different way. I stopped seeing it as merely a fantasy about one man living out America’s dark obsession with fame. It was (almost definitely by accident) a prophetic film about the rise of the fan, the storming of the gates, the decentralization of the media. It unwittingly told us that democracy was about to get much more democratic, which would be both boon and bane. The world was to be a more open and less-stable place, and the ramifications would impact politics just as readily as it would pop culture. As Rupert Pupkin stood nervously on the stage at film’s end, a recognition comes over his nervous face, the realization that it might be hard to maintain his footing on the earth he helped shift.

The Internet has aggressively trolled professionalism of all kinds. The faceless, unpaid crowd is now sufficient. We’ll do. I mean, if the Encyclopædia Britannica and its grand tradition could be swept from the shelf by a band of Wikipedians, what was safe? For all the early flak absorbed by Jimmy Wales’ site, it became undeniably a wonderful thing, but it proved to not be complementary.

An astute critic like A.O. Scott knew what was happening as the pieces were just beginning to move. He seems to have learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. (Of course, you might ask, what choice does he have?) Scott’s career may be regarded as redundant in a society that loves Likes, but he has enough generosity to appreciate the good aspects of such a new normal, even if something has been lost in translation. Populism has its price.

The excellent Daniel Mendelsohn evaluates Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism for the NYT “Sunday Book Review.” He feels that on some level Scott’s egalitarian impulses are forced. An excerpt:

The problem here isn’t just one of tone or style — although a writer of Scott’s standing should know that both are crucial tools in the critic’s belt. Rather, you sense that the faux-populist diction doesn’t reflect this author’s real allegiances, which are evident in the works he selects for his loving and expert analyses: Rilke and Philip Larkin, Picasso and Henry James. (James’s 1877 novel The American, which begins with a scene in which a successful American businessman is overcome by tiredness in the Louvre, provides an amusing early example of “museum fatigue,” a phenomenon that the author investigates during a stimulating and subtle discussion about the difficulty of achieving “innocent” responses to art.) The admiring references you get here to hip-hop feel dutiful rather than deeply felt — attempts to demonstrate his pop bona fides.

So too with the halfhearted assertion — the focus of an entire chapter — that “it is . . . the job of the critic to be wrong.” To be sure, critics often turn out to be wrong, as Scott wittily reminds you during a recitation of some notorious critical gaffes: early and wince-inducing takedowns of John Keats’s poetry, of Moby-Dick, of Bringing Up Baby. But those errors of individual taste — the most crucial, if ­indefinable, qualification for serious criticism, along with expertise, both of which Scott (who has both) avoids talking about at length, as if to do so would offend the ­Amazon-rankers and cyber-tomato-throwers in his audience — are hardly proof that the critic’s duty is to be “wrong.” The critic’s job is to be more educated, articulate, stylish and tasteful — in a word, more worthy of “trust” — than her readers have the time or inclination to be; qualities eminently suited to a practice that (as Scott rightly if too glancingly points out) has validity and value only if it is conducted in public.

Whatever its occasional pandering, Better Living Through Criticism mostly exemplifies the rhetorical virtues it so enthusiastically celebrates as being peculiar to the critic: attentiveness to detail, alertness to context, a hunger for larger meanings. The critic, Scott declares in the book’s final dialogue, is “a person whose interest can help activate the interest of others.” In an era of reflexive contempt for erudition, taste and authority, qualities that Scott is perhaps too hesitant to name as the sine qua non of great critics, it is no mean feat to help activate, as this book will surely do, an interest in the genre of which he and others of his generation may be the last professional practitioners.•

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Following up on yesterday’s post about America’s foundering infrastructure, here’s a section from a New Republic piece by Tom Vanderbilt, who, in this segment, directs his ire at NYC’s woeful highways and information superhighway, overwhelmed by population density, poor planning and lack of resources. I could say that the city’s success has come with a heavy price, drawing more transplants and tourists than it could handle, except that I’ve live here my whole life and the infrastructure has always been an ordeal, in good times as well as bad.

Vanderbilt riffs off of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ harsh grades for our bridges and tunnels and Henry Petroski’s new book, The Road Taken. The excerpt:

As an interest group, we might expect a certain amount of grade inflation—or, in this case, deflation—from the ASCE; proclaiming the country’s infrastructure to be in decent working order is not likely, after all, to generate much work for engineers. But it does not take a vested interest to sense that America, whose roads and rails were once the envy of the developed world, has somehow gone astray.

To take New York City—where I live and where Petroski grew up—as an example, despite being constantly told I live in the center of the world, when it comes to infrastructure, I am constantly wishing I were elsewhere. When the subway comes screeching along, tinnitus on braking metal, I long for the silent rubber tires used by trains in Mexico City or Montreal. When I salmon against the crushing stream of pedestrian and bicycle traffic on the stingy walkway of the Brooklyn Bridge, I long for Brisbane’s capacious, car-free Kurilpa Bridge. Flying into any Gotham airport, the convenient, legible urban transport links one finds in Amsterdam or Geneva are absent. There are cities in Kansas, thanks to Google Fiber, that currently have better bandwidth than the nation’s media capital. Growing up in Brooklyn, many decades ago, Petroski notes that he and his childhood friends would occasionally go down the hill, from Park Slope, until they ran into the Gowanus Canal, “stagnant and odorous.” In 2016, the canal is still stagnant and odorous, an EPA Superfund site, even as glassy luxury condos rise on its fetid banks.

“America,” argues Petroski, gleaning a hoary image from Robert Frost, “is now at a fork in the road representing choices that must be made regarding the nation’s infrastructure.”•

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The new Space Race is upon us, this one as much a contest between private and public as among nations. Norman Mailer was the one, above all others, who correctly read the subtext of the 1960s iteration, realizing the Apollo mission a permanent subjugation of humanity–“space travel proposed a future world of brains attached to wires.” Hemingway’s bullfights and other macho challenges were hopelessly diminished in a time of space odyssey. Now we’ll return to space with greater desperation, hoping to safeguard the species from existential risks. Of course, we will simultaneously mutate and end the species as we know it when we stretch across the sky. We’ll become them.

In a Vantage essay, Doug Bierend writes of Abandoned in Place, Roland Miller’s glorious collection of photos which captures the gentle decline of decommissioned launch sites and NASA structures of yore. An excerpt:

Shot with a reverent eye, NASA’s sprawling launch sites and structures, gleaming test facilities, and rusting machinery come together as visual a document and testament to 21st century humanity’s ever-extending reach into the cosmos. Mute monuments to what were once our most lofty ideals.

“I’m a child of the ‘60s, and for anybody that was growing up during that time it was so exciting, it was like science fiction come to life — they were going to try to land on the moon, and they did,” says Miller. “And here we are almost 50 years later and we couldn’t land it on the moon — I doubt we could make the same nine-year window if we started now.”

With the scrapping of the Space Shuttle, public excitement over space exploration seemed to reach an all time low, along with NASA’s budget. But whether due to a combination of private innovation by the likes of SpaceX, the effective popularizing of science by figures like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, or a renewed schedule of NASA programs (including missions to Mars), a second golden age of space exploration may be dawning.

Some of Miller’s photos come across as essentially documentary, showing the current state of a once gleaming endeavor. Others are more abstract, revealing textures and colors and forms that allude to something ineffable. An aesthetic that’s as much part of science fiction as science fact, conjuring notions of space and worlds beyond our own, and how we might get there.•

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Some of the things contemporary consumers most desire to possess are tangible (smartphones) and others not at all (Facebook, Instagram, etc.). In fact, many want the former mainly to get the latter. A social media “purchase” requires no money but is a trade of information for attention, a dynamic that’s been widely acknowledged, but one that still stuns me. Our need to share ourselves–to write our names Kilroy-like on a wall, as Hunter S. Thompson once said–is etched so deeply in our brains. Manufacturers have used psychology to sell for at least a century, but the transaction has never been purer, never required us to not only act on impulse but to publish that instinct as well. Judging by the mood of America, this new thing, while it may provide some satisfaction, also promotes an increased hunger in the way sugar does. And while the Internet seems to encourage individuality, its mass use and many memes suggests something else.

On a somewhat related topic: Rebecca Spang’s Financial Times article analyzes a new book which argues that a consumerist shift is more a political movement than we’d like to believe, often a culmination of large-scale state decisions rather than of personal choice. The passage below is referring to material goods, but I think the implications for the immaterial are the same. The excerpt:

In Empire of Things, Frank Trentmann brings history to bear on all these questions. His is not a new subject, per se, but his thick volume is both an impressive work of synthesis and, in its emphasis on politics and the state, a timely corrective to much existing scholarship on consumption. Based on specialist studies that range across five centuries, six continents and at least as many languages, the book is encyclopedic in the best sense. In his final pages, Trentmann intentionally or otherwise echoes Diderot’s statement (in his own famous Encyclopédie) that the purpose of an encyclopedia is to collect and transmit knowledge “so that the work of preceding centuries will not become useless to the centuries to come”. Empire of Things uses the evidence of the past to show that “the rise of consumption entailed greater choice but it also involved new habits and conventions . . . these were social and political outcomes, not the result of individual preferences”. The implications for our current moment are significant: sustainable consumption habits are as likely to result from social movements and political action as they are from self-imposed shopping fasts and wardrobe purges.

When historians in the 1980s-1990s first shifted from studying production to consumption, our picture of the past became decidedly more individualist. In their letters and diaries, Georgian and Victorian consumers revealed passionate attachments to things — those they had and those they craved. Personal tastes and preferences hence came to rival, then to outweigh, abstract processes (industrialisation, commodification, etc) as explanations for historical change. The world looked so different! Studied from the vantage point of production, the late 18th and 19th centuries had appeared uniformly dark and dusty with soot; imagined from the consumer’s perspective, those same years glowed bright with an entire spectrum of strange, distinct colours (pigeon’s breast, carmelite, eminence, trocadero, isabella, Metternich green, Niagra [sic] blue, heliotrope). At the exact moment when Soviet power seemed to have collapsed chiefly from the weight of repressed consumer desire, consumption emerged as a largely positive, almost liberating, historical force. “Material culture” became a common buzzword; “thing theory” — yes, it really is a thing — was born.•

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Asking if innovation is over is no less narcissistic than suggesting that evolution is done. It flatters us to think that we’ve already had all the good ideas, that we’re the living end. More likely, we’re always closer to the beginning.

Of course, when looking at relatively short periods of time, there are ebbs and flows in invention that have serious ramifications for the standard of living. In Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth, the economist argues that the 1870-1970 period was a golden age of productivity and development unknown previously and unmatched since.

In an excellent Foreign Affairs review, Tyler Cowen, who himself has worried that we’ve already picked all the low-hanging fruit, lavishly praises the volume–“likely to be the most interesting and important economics book of the year.” But in addition to acknowledging a technological slowdown in the last few decades, Cowen also wisely counters the book’s downbeat tone while recognizing the obstacles to forecasting, writing that “predicting future productivity rates is always difficult; at any moment, new technologies could transform the U.S. economy, upending old forecasts. Even scholars as accomplished as Gordon have limited foresight.” In fact, he points out that the author, before his current pessimism, predicted earlier this century very healthy growth rates.

My best guess is that there will always be transformational opportunities, ripe and within arm’s length, waiting for us to pluck them.

An excerpt:

In the first part of his new book, Gordon argues that the period from 1870 to 1970 was a “special century,” when the foundations of the modern world were laid. Electricity, flush toilets, central heating, cars, planes, radio, vaccines, clean water, antibiotics, and much, much more transformed living and working conditions in the United States and much of the West. No other 100-year period in world history has brought comparable progress. A person’s chance of finishing high school soared from six percent in 1900 to almost 70 percent, and many Americans left their farms and moved to increasingly comfortable cities and suburbs. Electric light illuminated dark homes. Running water eliminated water-borne diseases. Modern conveniences allowed most people in the United States to abandon hard physical labor for good.

In highlighting the specialness of these years, Gordon challenges the standard view, held by many economists, that the U.S. economy should grow by around 2.2 percent every year, at least once the ups and downs of the business cycle are taken into account. And Gordon’s history also shows that not all GDP gains are created equal. Some sources of growth, such as antibiotics, vaccines, and clean water, transform society beyond the size of their share of GDP. But others do not, such as many of the luxury goods developed since the 1980s. GDP calculations do not always reflect such differences. Gordon’s analysis here is mostly correct, extremely important, and at times brilliant—the book is worth buying and reading for this part alone.

Gordon goes on to argue that today’s technological advances, impressive as they may be, don’t really compare to the ones that transformed the U.S. economy in his “special century.” Although computers and the Internet have led to some significant breakthroughs, such as allowing almost instantaneous communication over great distances, most new technologies today generate only marginal improvements in well-being. The car, for instance, represented a big advance over the horse, but recent automotive improvements have provided diminishing returns. Today’s cars are safer, suffer fewer flat tires, and have better sound systems, but those are marginal, rather than fundamental, changes. That shift—from significant transformations to minor advances—is reflected in today’s lower rates of productivity.•

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There’s never been greater access to books than there is right now, but all progress comes with a price. If print fiction and histories and such should disappear or become merely a luxury item, digital media would change the act of reading in unexpected ways over time.

Some see screen reading promoting a decline in analytical skills, but the human brain sure seems able to adapt to new forms once it becomes acclimated. Even as someone raised on paper books, I’m not worried that what’s lost in translation will be greater than what’s gained. Of course, I say that while still primarily using dead-tree volumes.

In a smart BBC Future article, Rachel Nuwer traces the fuzzy history of e-books and considers the future of reading. Some experts she interviews hope for a “bi-literate” society that values both the paperback and the Kindle. That would be a great outcome, but I don’t know how realistic a scenario it is. The opening:

When Peter James published his novel Host on two floppy disks in 1993, he was ill-prepared for the “venomous backlash” that would follow. Journalists and fellow writers berated and condemned him; one reporter even dragged a PC and a generator out to the beach to demonstrate the ridiculousness of this new form of reading. “I was front-page news of many newspapers around the world, accused of killing the novel,”James told pop.edit.lit. “[But] I pointed out that the novel was already dying at an alarming rate without my assistance.”

Shortly after Host’s debut, James also issued a prediction: that e-books would spike in popularity once they became as easy and enjoyable to read as printed books. What was a novelty in the 90s, in other words, would eventually mature to the point that it threatened traditional books with extinction. Two decades later, James’ vision is well on its way to being realised.

That e-books have surged in popularity in recent years is not news, but where they are headed – and what effect this will ultimately have on the printed word – is unknown. Are printed books destined to eventually join the ranks of clay tablets, scrolls and typewritten pages, to be displayed in collectors’ glass cases with other curious items of the distant past?

And if all of this is so, should we be concerned?•

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In a series of articles in the New York Review of Books over the last couple of years, Sue Halpern has taken a thought-provoking look at the dubious side of the Digital Era, considering the impact of tech billionaires, technological unemployment and the Internet of Things.

Her latest salvo tries to locate the real legacy of Steve Jobs, who was mourned equally in office parks and Zuccotti Park. In doing so she calls on the two recent films on the Apple architect, Alex Gibney’s and Danny Boyle’s, and the new volume about him by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. Ultimately, the key truth may be that Jobs used a Barnum-esque “magic” and marketing myths to not only sell his new machines but to plug them into consumers’ souls.

An excerpt:

So why, Gibney wonders as his film opens—with thousands of people all over the world leaving flowers and notes “to Steve” outside Apple Stores the day he died, and fans recording weepy, impassioned webcam eulogies, and mourners holding up images of flickering candles on their iPads as they congregate around makeshift shrines—did Jobs’s death engender such planetary regret?

The simple answer is voiced by one of the bereaved, a young boy who looks to be nine or ten, swiveling back and forth in a desk chair in front of his computer: “The thing I’m using now, an iMac, he made,” the boy says. “He made the iMac. He made the Macbook. He made the Macbook Pro. He made the Macbook Air. He made the iPhone. He made the iPod. He’s made the iPod Touch. He’s made everything.”

Yet if the making of popular consumer goods was driving this outpouring of grief, then why hadn’t it happened before? Why didn’t people sob in the streets when George Eastman or Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell died—especially since these men, unlike Steve Jobs, actually invented the cameras, electric lights, and telephones that became the ubiquitous and essential artifacts of modern life?* The difference, suggests the MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle, is that people’s feelings about Steve Jobs had less to do with the man, and less to do with the products themselves, and everything to do with the relationship between those products and their owners, a relationship so immediate and elemental that it elided the boundaries between them. “Jobs was making the computer an extension of yourself,” Turkle tells Gibney. “It wasn’t just for you, it was you.”•

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New York City has earthquakes, but they’re so minor we never feel them. In most instances, the earth prefers to swallow us up one by one. But it’s different in Los Angeles.

L.A.’s temperamental turf is the subject of The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith, a fine 2005 volume on the topic of secular shaking by David L. Ulin. Among other topics, Ulin’s volume looks at the thorny issue of earthquake prediction, by scientists and psychics, the concerned and the kooky. An excerpt about Linda Curtis, who works for the Southern California field office of the United States Geological Survey in Pasadena:

Curtis is, in many ways, the USGS gatekeeper, the public affairs officer who serves as a frontline liaison with the community and the press. Her office sits directly across the hall from the conference room, and if you call the Survey, chances are it will be her low-key drawl you’ll hear on the line. In her late forties, dark-haired and good-humored, Curtis has been at the USGS since 1979, and in that time, she’s staked out her own odd territory as a collector of earthquake predictions, which come across the transom at sporadic but steady intervals, like small seismic jolts themselves.

“I’ve been collecting almost since day one,’ she tells me on a warm July afternoon in her office, adding that it’s useful for USGS to keep records, if only to mollify the predictors, many of whom view the scientific establishment with frustration, paranoia even, at least as far as their theories are concerned.

“Basically,” she says, ‘we are just trying  to protect our reputation. We don’t want to throw these predictions in the wastebasket, and then a week later…” She chuckles softly, a rolling R sound as thick and throaty as a purr. “Say somebody predicted a seven in downtown L.A., and we ignored it. Can you imagine the reaction if it actually happened? So this is sort of a little bit of insurance. If you send us a prediction, we put it in the file.”•


Marjoe Gortner–in Sensurround!

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