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Yawning wealth inequality seems to be contributing to contemporary political and cultural chaos, so the 1% in the U.S. and Europe has been subject to intense scrutiny over the past few years, even if the result has been more analysis than policy action. In the case of Brazil, the beleaguered host of the soon-to-be Summer Games, distribution is so out of wack you need look no further than the excesses of the .0001% to understand how stacked a deck can be.

Proof comes in the pages of Alex Cuadros’ Brazillionaires, which examines the nation’s super-rich and how they got be that way. The short answer is that oligarchs were deemed useful by economic reformers who saw a quick way to lift millions from poverty, though the long-term effects of the deal with the devil are far more complicated.

In “Brazil’s Billionaire Problem,” Patrick Iber’s smart New Republic review of the book, the critic looks at South America’s largest state and sees a microcosm. An excerpt:

The most important billionaire to the book is unquestionably Eike Batista. Eike, as he is known, rose as high as the global number 8 on the Bloomberg list of billionaires, valued at over $30 billion dollars. He was open about his ambitions to become the world’s richest man. Eike is a champion speedboat racer, has state-of-the-art hair implants, and was once married to Luma de Oliveira, a Playboy model and carnaval queen. One of their sons, Thor Batista, documents his enormous muscular torso on Instagram and, until not long ago, drove a Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren valued at more than a million US dollars. Eike and his family could hardly be more representative of the billionaire playboy lifestyle of the global ultra-wealthy.

Eike also serves as a symbol of the problems of today’s Brazil, and about half of the chapters in Brazillionaires are devoted to him. In spite of what would seem to be fundamental differences in outlook and ideology, Eike forged a pragmatic working relationship with the governments of the center-left Workers’ Party. Until President Dilma Roussef was suspended from office by hostile legislators this May, the country had been governed by the center-left Workers’ Party since 2003, first under the metalworker and union organizer Luís Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011) and then under Dilma (2011-2016). Before Lula took office, Brazil’s wealthy worried about what would happen when a Lula, a former socialist, assumed power. Eike himself described it as a regression. But Lula was determined to break the association of left-wing rule with economic chaos, and built alliances with Brazilian oligarchs.

Lula embraced a developmentalist program that Cuadros describes as “wanting to bring the nation not so much into the twenty-first century, with tech and high finance, but into the twentieth, with ports, dams, and big, basic Brazilian companies.” Because Eike controlled a suite of interrelated companies, mostly in the mining and gas sectors, and had made big bets on offshore drilling, he received major loans from Brazil’s state-controlled development bank. He grew close to Lula.

Corruption is almost an expected part of business and political deals in Brazil, and Eike, though often portrayed as an “American-style”, “self-made” entrepreneur, was in no way exceptional. He helped finance a flattering biopic about Lula and spent quarter of a million dollars at an auction to purchase a suit Lula had worn to his inauguration. But in spite of evidence of corruption and conflicts of interest through the political system, for a time everyone seemed to be benefitting. Brazil’s economy made enormous strides. The middle class grew and quality of life standards among the poor improved dramatically. Malnutrition was cut in half. One of Lula signature programs, Bolsa Família, provides direct cash transfers to the poor, partially in exchange for children’s school attendance. Many of the billionaires Cuadros interviewed justified their wealth with some version of the “what’s good for GM is good for the country” argument. Most Brazilians found the approach acceptable: Lula left office with an approval rating over eighty percent.

But problems emerged by 2013.•

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The writer Calum Chace, an all-around interesting thinker, is conducting a Reddit AMA based on his new book, The Economic Singularity, which sees a future–and not such a far-flung one–when human labor is a thing of the past. It’s certainly possible since constantly improving technology could make fleets of cars driverless and factories workerless. In fact, there’s no reason why they can’t also be ownerless. 

What happens then? How do we reconcile a free-market society with an automated one? In the long run, it could be a great victory for humanity, but getting from here to there will be bumpy. A few exchanges follow.


So it seems to me that most of the benefit of capitalism for working-class people come from jobs. Companies need a workforce, and are willing to pay for it. So a lot of the profit gets spread around to a lot of people.

If a few companies could break this model on a large scale, by leveraging automation to allow a relatively small core group of employees to operate a national or international corporation, then that would force everyone to do it in order to stay competitive.

I’m assuming that this is some of what you’re talking about in the book (just guessing from the title and an amazon summary).

I could see the first fully (>98%) automated company making waves in a decade or two. People on /r/futorology like to wax utopian, but a company with <100 employees and billions in automated infrastructure isn’t going to allow themselves to be operated for the public good. The product might be cheap, but it’s not free, and that company is no longer employing enough people to matter.

They’ll have a global reach (through subcontracted shipping companies) coupled with automated vehicles that don’t need to sleep or visit family. They can legally exist in whichever country is cheapest tax-wise, and still destroy the competition on the other side of the globe.

So, lots of rambling. But that’s my question, basically.In your opinion, what might the replacement for capitalism look like?

Calum Chace:

Yes, I think you’ve identified exactly the first stage of the argument. Intelligent machines are probably going to render most of us unemployable.

So how shall we all live? The answer, initially at least, will be some form of Universal Basic Income (UBI) which is often discussed here and at a sister Reddit page specifically on the subject. UBI will have to be paid for by taxes, and that raises some tricky questions about how the rich people who pay the taxes are going to respond.

I am fundamentally optimistic. The people who are going to be richest are those who own the AI, since that will generate much of the value throughout the economy. The likes of Larry Page, Sergei Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates etc etc don’t seem to me to be primarily motivated by money, but by an excitement about the future and a desire to see it arrive sooner.

So I don’t think they will want the rest of us to starve. The mechanism by which UBI is phased in, and how it pans out across international boundaries are going to take a lot of detailed planning. Which we haven’t started yet.


I also think people are underestimating VR & crowdsourcing’s role.

If VR makes things like microtasking more attractive to do and enables the microtaskers (crowd-workers) to do more, then flexwork/ gig-work might become even more popular. I have an ebook that I’m finishing up now that explores this a little bit (& even ties it to robotics).

Do you have any guesses for VR and the future of work?

Calum Chace:

Yes, I talk about the gig economy (microtasking) in my book. A report by PwC says that 7% of US adults are already engaged in it. I’m not sure whether the experience is so great for most of them at the moment, though. Are they “micro-entrepreneurs” or “instaserfs” – members of a new “precariat”? Either way, it will probably get bigger.

It’s hard to avoid waxing lyrical about the potential impact of VR. Oculus Rift has made nothing like the splash since its launch this year a lot of people (including me) expected it to, but it’s probably just obeying Amara’s Law, that we tend to over-estimate the effect of a technology in the short run and under-estimate the effect in the long run.

In that long run I can well imagine VR bringing about the long-awaited death of geography, but it’s probably going to take a while yet. Meanwhile, I’m not sure it will have that much impact on overall levels of employment, other than adding some because of all the virtual experiences that need to be created.


I think the outcome can be wonderful: a world of radical abundance.

Calum Chace:

I very much agree with you there, I think that all (7 billion + of us globally) are going to be vastly richer from all of this.

For example, when AI can administer the expertise of top doctors & consultants to everyone on the planet for pennies, this is wealth unlike humanity has ever known before.

I wonder though, on the road to this future, are we in for some quite chaotic breaks from the past.

Exactly, and the sooner we start thinking seriously about where we want to get to and how best to get there, the more likely we are to make the journey successfully.

I think the more people who are aware of what is coming, the better. I’m encouraged by the remarkable sea-change in awareness of AI progress that has already occurred. The publication of Bostrom’s Superintelligence led to high-profile comments by the three wise men (Hawking, Musk and Gates) and the publication of Ford’s Rise of the Robots was another seminal moment.

Like a lot of people here, I’ve been talking about the huge importance of AI to anyone who would listen for years and years. I got a lot of benign virtual pats on the head. Now people are listening.

Self-driving cars will probably be the canary in the coal mine. Once they are common sights, people won’t be able to avoid thinking seriously about what is coming.

But we need a positive narrative about the good things that can happen so that the response isn’t panic, or a rush into the embrace of the next populist demagogue who happens along.•


The excerpt from Gay Talese’s The Voyeur’s Motel that unfortunately ran recently in the New Yorker was more than enough for me–way more than enough–and I won’t be investing the time to read the dodgy book. Absent journalistic and personal ethics, the story has been further muddied by revelations of fabrications that basic reportage would have uncovered. Excuses have been made, but the work is stained by the worst excesses of New Journalism, which opened the craft to a wider style, sure, but also made reporting prone to dubious veracity and methods. It’s odd the piece ended up in the New Yorker, which under David Remnick has largely been an impenetrable fortress against such slipshod narratives.

Jack Shafer has read the book so we don’t have to, reviewing it for the New York Times. His opening:

The average reader will greet more with anger than sadness Gay Talese’s disclosure — almost halfway through his book The Voyeur’s Motel — that the detailed sex journal underpinning this zany work of nonfiction can’t be trusted. 

Talese — whose use of the tools of fiction to propel factual accounts helped found New Journalism in the 1960s — drops the self-impeaching evidence casually. Calling into doubt the veracity of his book, Talese writes that the suburban Denver motel owner Gerald Foos claims to have started observing and transcribing the private business of his guests in 1966, peering down at them through 6-by-14-inch surveillance grates he installed in the ceilings of a dozen rooms of his 21-unit motel. The problem with the Foos account, Talese adds, is that he didn’t buy Manor House Motel until 1969, meaning that he must have imagined several years of the wild motel bed-sports described in his journal. 

Further evidence that the Foos story is cooked: “And there are other dates in his notes and journals that don’t quite scan,” Talese writes, stating that Foos “could sometimes be an inaccurate and unreliable narrator.” 

Ordinarily when a journalist discovers profoundly discrediting testimony like this, he utters “Whoa,” itemizes the discrepancies and digs deeper. But not so Talese, who only shrugs at the revelation that his main source has lied to him without detailing the fibs. “I cannot vouch for every detail that he recounts in his manuscript,” he writes.

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In an Esquire interview conducted by Luke O’Neil, Jesse Ventura claims to be weary of stupid Americans, but who else buys the idiotic conspiracy theories he peddles to gain attention and money? Only Alex Jones has profited more from the gullibility of the masses. It’s not exactly a harmless vocation, either, since his 9/11 Truther nonsense encourages citizens with a loose grasp on reality to be further governed by such garbage. It’s not that Ventura doesn’t ever address any genuine coverups or such, but that actually makes it worse, intermingling horseshit with honesty, as if there really were no difference between the two.

An excerpt from the Q&A’s introduction:

John Kerry once said, “In America, you have a right to be stupid.” Nowhere is that more true than in the world of politics. That quote leads off Sh*t Politicians Say, the latest book from Jesse Ventura, a man who knows of what he speaks.

In the book, the onetime governor of Minnesota, Vietnam veteran, actor, professional wrestler, media personality, and current icon of libertarian-hued, conspiracy-minded wokeness, walks us through a collection of some of the dumbest things U.S. politicians have said throughout history. And things have only gotten stupider over time. 

“Stupid seems to be everywhere these days,” Ventura writes. “Some believe it’s because the human race is getting stupider and stupider with every passing year. Me? …I’d like to thank television, the internet, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle for bringing more stupid to the public consciousness more efficiently than ever before.”•

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There are tons of futurists now, even if they identify by other names (economists, political scientists, etc.) You could easily make an argument that today is the golden age of tomorrow.

An aversion to myopia is great, though thinking solely about the future also has its costs. In a Fast Company article about the current fixation on futurism, D.J. Pangburn focuses on Hal Niedzviecki’s Trees on Mars, a book that questions our constant obsession with the next big thing and distrust of those who don’t buy into such sci-fi scenarios.

When wealthy technologists talk excitedly about space-mining minting the first trillionaires while offering those left behind the promise of some basic income, it becomes clear they don’t realize they’re encouraging bloody revolution. But a scan of books published in the last few years reveals numerous titles by technologists and futurists wary of where we’re headed, believing investments must be made in the present as well.

An excerpt:

Another recurring theme in Trees on Mars is Niedzviecki skeptic’s view of the futurist. He sees the ascension of the futurist to a preeminent place in society—and the idea that all should become futurists for individual and collective progress—as deeply problematic.

Should everyone be a futurist? Niedzviecki doesn’t think so, but he is seeing a massive revolution in how societies are positioning themselves around technological success, a repositioning of education around technology; a reorganization of societal goals around the “latest chimeras of success”—the best futurists who knew what was going to happen before it happened, like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. In doing this, Niedzviecki believes we run the risk of condemning those people who really don’t feel it’s necessary or interesting to think as futurists.

“It’s self-satisfying bullshit from a small set of people who were able to take advantage of this and sell this,” Niedzviecki says. “And my line of frustration runs through the whole book and perhaps culminates when I go to SXSW Interactive.”

There Niedzviecki sat in on a panel dealing with disruption, where he listened to “high-priced, famous gurus” tell attendees that if they can’t keep up with the pace of disruption then they are failures that will be left behind. Niedzviecki recalls sitting there thinking: “That’s not the way it is—that’s the way you have made it.”

“I think the vast majority of people who preach disruption do not understand the ramifications of what they’re saying,” Niedzviecki said.•

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Encouraging Jonah Lehrer to return to publishing is not much different than ushering a gambling addict back to a craps table and telling him to have better luck this time. The game will not likely end well.

Something in his makeup triggers in the disgraced neuroscientist unacceptable, compulsive behavior when he’s at a keyboard (and maybe elsewhere?), and it would seem he’d be best served by laboring in a different vocation while dedicating the many years it will take to figuring out the source of his waywardness. The plagiarist and fabulist doesn’t need to disappear from the face of the earth or anything, but it’s probably good to keep him a safe distance from the dice. 

Lehrer has just written A Book About Love, which, Simon & Schuster would like you to know, is a book about love. Jennifer Senior of the New York Times reviews the title in her usual sharp, lucid manner, finding an author who hasn’t truly reversed course but merely shifted. An excerpt:

In retrospect — and I am hardly the first person to point this out — the vote to excommunicate Mr. Lehrer was as much about the product he was peddling as the professional transgressions he was committing. It was a referendum on a certain genre of canned, cocktail-party social science, one that traffics in bespoke platitudes for the middlebrow and rehearses the same studies without saying something new.

Apparently, he’s learned nothing. This book is a series of duckpin arguments, just waiting to be knocked down. …

As for the question that’s on everyone’s mind — did Mr. Lehrer play by the rules in this book? — I think the answer is complicated, but unpromising.

In an author’s note, Mr. Lehrer says that he se”nt his quotes to everyone he interviewed and that his book was independently fact-checked. And it’s true that this book contains far more citations than his previous work.

But I fear Mr. Lehrer has simply become more artful about his appropriations.•



Gay Talese’s recent New Yorker story about voyeuristic Colorado motel owner Gerald Foos was disquieting for many reasons, not only because of the peeping Tom’s perverted behavior, which began in the 1960s. In the piece, the author writes that he learned the innkeeper witnessed–perhaps even unintentionally incited–a murder. For some reason, Talese didn’t immediately phone the police, just as he had failed to do repeatedly for many years while knowing of Foos’ repeated invasions of privacy. Maybe the killing was a lie that oozed from a deeply troubled brain–one can only hope–but the persistent sexual surveillance was clearly real.

It turns out Talese wasn’t nearly as circumspect about his creepy subject as he needed to be. Since the article’s publication, it’s come to light that Foos wasn’t the owner of the motel from 1980 to 1988, a fact he kept from the journalist. The events described during that period seem to have been fabricated, with Talese now forced to disavow his soon-to-be published book on the topic.

From Paul Farhi at the Washington Post:

In his forthcoming book, The Voyeur’s Motel, acclaimed journalist and nonfiction author Gay Talese chronicles the bizarre story of Gerald Foos, who allegedly spied on guests at his Colorado motel from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s.

But Talese overlooked a key fact in his book: Foos sold the motel, located in Aurora, Colo., in 1980 and didn’t reacquire it until eight years later, according to local property records. His absence from the motel raises doubt about some of the things Foos told Talese he saw — enough that the author himself now has deep reservations about the truth of some material he presents.

“I should not have believed a word he said,” the 84-year-old author said after The Washington Post informed him of property records that showed Foos did not own the motel from 1980 to 1988.

“I’m not going to promote this book,” the writer said. “How dare I promote it when its credibility is down the toilet?”•

Update: Talese is now disavowing his disavowal of the book.

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Alvin Toffler, the sociological salesman who anticipated and feared tomorrow, just died at 87.

Has there ever been a biography written about the man whose pants were forever being scared off? I’d love to know what it was about his life that positioned him, beginning in the 1960s, to look ahead at our future and be shocked. There was always a strong sci-fi strain to his work, though it’s undeniably important to think about how science and technology could go horribly wrong. By imagining the worst, perhaps we can avoid it. Like anyone else who toiled in speculative markets, Toffler was sometimes way off the mark, though he was also incredibly prescient on other occasions.

Below is an excerpt from his BBC obituary and a few Afflictor posts about Toffler from over the years.

From the BBC:

Online chat rooms

Although many writers in the 1960s focused on social upheavals related to technological advancement, Toffler wrote in a page-turning style that made difficult concepts easy to understand.

Future Shock (1970) argued that economists who believed the rise in prosperity of the 1960s was just a trend were wrong – and that it would continue indefinitely.

The Third Wave, in 1980, was a hugely influential work that forecast the spread of emails, interactive media, online chat rooms and other digital advancements.

But among the pluses, he also foresaw increased social alienation, rising drug use and the decline of the nuclear family.

Space colonies

Not all of his futurist predictions have come to pass. He thought humanity’s frontier spirit would lead to the creation of “artificial cities beneath the waves” as well as colonies in space.

One of his most famous assertions was: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”•

“Who Is To Write The Evolutionary Code Of Tomorrow?”


A passage about genetic engineering, a fraught field but one with tremendous promise, from a 1978 Omni interview with Toffler conducted by leathery beaver merchant Bob Guccione:


What’s good about genetic engineering?

Alvin Toffler:

Genetic manipulation can yield cheap insulin. It can probably help us solve the cancer riddle. But, more important, over the very long run it could help us crack the world food problem.

You could radically reduce reliance on artificial fertilizers–which means saving energy and helping the poor nations substantially. You could produce new, fast-growing species. You could create species adapted to lands that are now marginal, infertile, arid, or saline. And if you really let your long-range imagination roam, you can foresee a possible convergence of genetic manipulation, weather modification, and computerized agriculture–all coming together with a wholly new energy system. Such developments would simply remake agriculture as we’ve known it for 10,000 years.


What is the downside?

Alvin Toffler:

Horrendous. Almost beyond our imagination, When you cut up genes and splice them together in new ways, you risk the accidental escape from the laboratory of new life forms and the swift spread of new diseases for which the human race no defenses.

As is the case with nuclear energy we have safety guidelines. But no system, in my view, can ever be totally fail-safe. All our safety calculations are based on certain assumptions. The assumptions are reasonable, even conservative. But none of the calculations tell what happens if one of the assumptions turns out to be wrong. Or what to do if a terrorist manages to get a hold of the crucial test tube.

A lot of good people are working to tighten controls in this field. NATO recently issued a report summarizing the steps taken by dozens of countries from the U.S.S.R. to Britain and the U.S. But what do we do about irresponsible corporations or nations who just want to crash ahead? And completely honest, socially responsible geneticists are found on both sides of an emotional debate as to how–or even whether–to proceed.

Farther down the road, you also get into very deep political, philosophical, and ecological issues. Who is to write the evolutionary code of tomorrow? Which species shall live and which shall die out? Environmentalists today worry about vanishing species and the effect of eliminating the leopard or the snail darter from the planet. These are real worries, because every species has a role to play in the overall ecology. But we have not yet begun to think about the possible emergence of new, predesigned species to take their place.•

“Shut Down The Public Education System”

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Toffler called for the dismantling of the U.S. public-education system in a 2007 interview at Edutopia. An excerpt:


You’ve been writing about our educational system for decades. What’s the most pressing need in public education right now?

Alvin Toffler:

Shut down the public education system.


That’s pretty radical.

Alvin Toffler:

I’m roughly quoting Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, who said, “We don’t need to reform the system; we need to replace the system.”


Why not just readjust what we have in place now? Do we really need to start from the ground up?

Alvin Toffler:

We should be thinking from the ground up. That’s different from changing everything. However, we first have to understand how we got the education system that we now have. Teachers are wonderful, and there are hundreds of thousands of them who are creative and terrific, but they are operating in a system that is completely out of time. It is a system designed to produce industrial workers….

The public school system is designed to produce a workforce for an economy that will not be there. And therefore, with all the best intentions in the world, we’re stealing the kids’ future.

Do I have all the answers for how to replace it? No. But it seems to me that before we can get serious about creating an appropriate education system for the world that’s coming and that these kids will have to operate within, we have to ask some really fundamental questions.

And some of these questions are scary. For example: Should education be compulsory? And, if so, for who? Why does everybody have to start at age five? Maybe some kids should start at age eight and work fast. Or vice versa. Why is everything massified in the system, rather than individualized in the system? New technologies make possible customization in a way that the old system — everybody reading the same textbook at the same time — did not offer.•

“This Technology Is Exacting A Heavy Price”


Orson Welles narrates this 1972 documentary that McGraw-Hill produced about sociologist Toffler‘s gargantuan 1970 bestseller, Future Shock. Toffler caused a sensation with his views about the human incapacity to adapt in the short term to remarkable change, in this case of the technological variety. The movie is odd and paranoid and overheated and fun.



Apart from the Strand, I don’t go to brick and mortar bookstores in NYC anymore. There are far fewer in general and far fewer good ones. Sometimes I stop at the bookseller tables occasionally set up outside NYU and pick up a title. That’s pretty much it now for my non-Internet book buying, a surprising turnabout for someone raised on printed matter purchased all over Manhattan, from St. Mark’s to Colosseum to the A&S used magazine shop. Times change.

Paris bookstores have been clobbered by online shopping and rising rents the same way as New York’s, with one classic spot reimagining itself as a volume-less space that allows customers to choose titles from tablets and have them printed instantly on demand. Something is certainly lost without a stock to browse, but it’s better than shuttering for good. I do suppose, however, that when same-day delivery becomes de rigueur, the margins for such a business model will shrink even more.

From Ciara Nugent at the New York Times:

The pronounced stock shortage inside the Librairie des Puf, run by the publisher University Press of France, or Les Puf for short, is not the result of an ordering mistake, but the heart of the shop’s business model.

There are books, but they are not delivered in advance from wholesalers. They are printed on request, before the customer’s very eyes, on an Espresso Book Machine. On Demand Books, the American company that manufactures the machine, chose the name as a nod to an activity you can complete in the five minutes it takes to print a book: Have a quick coffee. …

It is a radical reinvention of a store that first opened its doors in 1921. The original Librairie des Puf occupied a far larger, multilevel space in the corner of Place de la Sorbonne, and had packed window displays and a bustling intellectual crowd from nearby universities. It was long a cultural and academic symbol, until it was forced to close because of falling profits and soaring rents. Then, about 10 years ago, the site was sold to a men’s-clothing chain, much to the chagrin of locals.

But its closing was no exception. From 2000 to 2014, 28 percent of Paris bookstores closed, according to a 2015 report from the Paris Urban Planning Agency, a body assembled by the City Council in 1967 to chart social and economic evolution in the French capital. Crippling rent increases in Paris’s densely populated center were mostly to blame, as well as growing competition from e-commerce sites that are able to offer far more titles than a cramped city bookstore. The decline in sales of newspapers and magazines also contributed, since these are often sold alongside books in French bookstores.•


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Currently marching to the end of everything else I’m reading so I can start Robin Hanson’s The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth, which sounds like remarkable science fiction, though the author insists it’s science–or will be soon enough. 

“Em” refers to brain emulations, computer reproductions of top-notch human brains which will provide gray matter for robots. These ems will then grow that intelligence far beyond our abilities. It’s will be something like Moore’s Law for intellect. We can use this method to produce inexpensive armies of ems to handle all the work, with Hanson predicting the world economy could continually increase at a heretofore impossible pace. Or maybe the ems will grow resentful and harm us. Perhaps a little of both.

Here’s a fuller description from the book’s website:

Many think the first truly smart robots will be brain emulations or ems. Scan a human brain, then run a model with the same connections on a fast computer, and you have a robot brain, but recognizably human.

Train an em to do some job and copy it a million times: an army of workers is at your disposal. When they can be made cheaply, within perhaps a century, ems will displace humans in most jobs. In this new economic era, the world economy may double in size every few weeks.•

The writer has a timeframe of roughly a century for when his outré vision can be realized. You know me: I always bet the way, way over when it comes to such dizzying visions. 

Hanson just conducted an AMA at Reddit on this topic and others. A few exchanges follow.


I understand how brain emulations could make things cheaper by flooding labour markets, but they will still only be as smart as the brains they were emulated from. Won’t scientific progress still be constrained by the upper limits of human intellect? Is there any way for brain emulations to get smarter than humans? I am aware that they could think faster than humans because they run on computers.

In your talks about brain emulations, you say that biological humans will have to buy assets to make money. Since the economy will grow very quickly with lots of emulated workers, it won’t take very many assets to generate a decent income. You also say that brain emulations will not earn very much money because there will be so many of them that wages will fall to the cost of utilities. Why don’t brain emulations buy assets like humans are supposed to in this future economy, and where are humans supposed to get the wealth to buy assets from since they won’t be able to work?

Robin Hanson:

Eventually, ems will find ways to make their brains smarter. But I’m not sure that will make much difference.

Humans need to buy assets before they lose their ability to earn wages. After is too late.


If and when Em like entities come into existence do you think society will embrace them be against them and actively try to stop them or will it be a case of “ready or not here I come” and they will force themselves upon us as their emergence will be like evolution?

Robin Hanson:

Most places will probably try to go slow, with commissions, reports, small trials, etc. A few places will let ems go wild, perhaps just due to neglect. Those few places can quickly grow to dominate the world economy. This may induce conflict, but eventually places allowing ems will win. Ems may resent and even retaliate against the places that tried to prevent them or hold them back.


So in this new economy humans wont actually be getting anymore “stuff” as all the growth will come from demand created by these Em?

Robin Hanson:

Humans will own a big % of the em economy, and use it to buy lots of “stuff” from ems.


Will we live in a utopia in 100 years?

Robin Hanson:

I don’t think humans are capable of seeing any world, no matter how nice, as “utopia”. We raise our standards and compete for relative status.•



How exactly did Vladimir Nabokov do it, writing the Great American novel, though he wasn’t American? I’ve argued in the past that Lolita, his story of monstrous obsession, was probably aided by an immigrant’s eye, his observations about his adopted country not dulled by total absorption in its culture. However, Nabokov did have to be somewhat familiar with the nation in order to so brilliantly dissect it. He had to take it in before he could size it up. The author collected his reconnaissance in a typically U.S. way: the road trip. 

The opening of “On the Trail of Nabokov in the American West,” Landon Y. Jones’ New York Times article:

For the last 15 years my wife, Sarah, and I have driven every summer with our golden retriever from New Jersey to the Northern Rockies. I used to say that I felt like Humbert Humbert, the notoriously unreliable narrator of Lolita, who made a similar trip, but instead of traveling with a precocious preteen girl, I was traveling with a wife and a dewy-eyed dog.

But then I learned that Vladimir Nabokov himself had done the same thing. Nabokov wrote his disturbingly compelling classic, Lolita, over the course of five breathless years, from 1948 to 1953, filling 5-by-7 cards with notes he took riding shotgun while his designated driver, his wife, Véra, drove their black Oldsmobile from Ithaca, N.Y., to Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.

In other words, at the height of the Cold War, an expatriate Russian novelist with the resonant name of Vladimir was roaming through the reddest of red states, researching a book about a jaded aristocrat’s sexual obsession with “nymphets” (a coinage the book put in the Oxford English Dictionary). The wonder is that Nabokov survived at all.

Today we revere Lolita for Nabokov’s bold, multilayered subject matter and his dazzling and allusive prose. But Nabokov’s most enduring contribution may be his portrait of the brash, kitschy, postwar America he observed on his cross-country journeys. Nabokov never learned to drive, and so he estimated that between 1949 and 1959 Véra drove him 150,000 miles — almost all of them on the two-lane blue highways that preceded the interstates.

Measured by the sheer number of miles covered, Nabokov is the most American of authors. He saw more of the United States than did Fitzgerald, Kerouac or Steinbeck, and what he saw was back-roads America: personal, intimate, ticky-tack and yet undeniably authentic. It took a Russian-born writer to awaken us to what Mark Twain knew: America is not a place; it is a road.•

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In our time, the wrong-minded and dangerous anti-vaccination movement has frustrated efforts to control and eradicate a variety of devastating diseases. Historically there have been numerous flies in the ointment that have similarly inhibited efforts to control contagions, from the rise and fall of religions to global exploration to government malfeasance to economic shifts. An interesting passage on the topic from Annie Sparrow’s New York Review of Book‘s piece on Sonia Shah’s Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond:

Shah describes those conditions in “Filth,” a chapter devoted to human excrement. She attributes the decline in sanitation in the Middle Ages to the rise of Christianity. Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews all have built hygiene into their daily rituals, but Christianity is remarkable for its lack of prescribed sanitary practices. Jesus didn’t wash his hands before sitting down to the Last Supper, setting a bad example for centuries of followers. Christians wrongly blamed plague on water, leading to bans on bathhouses and steam-rooms. Sharing homes with livestock was normal and dung disposal a low priority. Toilets took the form of buckets or open defecation. The perfume industry, covering the stink, thrived.

During the seventeenth century, these medieval practices were exported to Manhattan, where wells for drinking water were only thirty feet deep, easily contaminated by the nightly dump of human waste. Nineteenth-century New Yorkers tried to make their water palatable by boiling it into tea and coffee, which killed cholera. But the arrival of tens of thousands of immigrants overwhelmed these weak defenses, and the city succumbed to two devastating cholera epidemics.

Corrupt economic gain, a recurrent theme in the history of cholera, is illustrated by the story of how a powerful Manhattan company—the future JPMorgan again—was established by diverting money from public waterworks to 40 Wall Street. This resulted in half a century of unsafe drinking water as the city abandoned plans to pump clean water from the Bronx and substituted well water from lower Manhattan slums. In a more recent case, the 2008 subprime mortgage collapse fostered by JPMorgan Chase and others in the banking industry left thousands of homes abandoned in South Florida. Their swimming pools of stagnant water provided ideal breeding grounds when Aedes mosquitoes arrived in 2009 carrying dengue fever. In part as a result, this tropical disease is now reestablished in Florida and Texas, transmitted by the same mosquito that carries yellow fever, West Nile, and Zika virus.•

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YIWU, CHINA - MAY 18: (CHINA OUT) A "female" robot waiter delivers meals for customers at robot-themed restaurant on May 18, 2015 in Yiwu, Zhejiang province of China. Sophomore Xu Jinjin in 22 years old from Hospitality Management of Yiwu Industrial and Commercial College managed a restaurant where a pair of robot acted as waiters. The "male" one was named "Little Blue" (for in blue color) and the "female" one was "Little Peach" (for in pink) and they could help order meals and then delivered them to customers along the magnetic track and said: "Here're your meals, please enjoy". According to Xu Jinjin, They had contacted with the designer to present more robot waiters to make the restaurant a real one that depends completely on robots. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

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If, like myself, you gained great insight from The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, a book that predicted technology was poised to reinvent our economy specifically and society more broadly, you might be wondering if the authors have changed their minds in any essential way since it was published in 2014. That would have once been a ridiculously short time to reconsider such paradigm-shifting prognostications, but no more. In that span, AlphaGo enjoyed a convincing victory, Tesla owners traveled 100 million miles on Autopilot and SpaceX safely landed a reusable booster rocket on a drone ship. 

McAfee just (remotely) delivered a keynote address, “The Future of Jobs,” for Agoria in Belgium, and the short answer is he believes what he did before but only more so now. The MIT professor has grown even more assured due to technological progress in three keys areas: 1) speech comprehension, 2) pattern recognition and matching and 3) non-repetitive tasks. These advances he’s witnessed in his research have convinced him that “if the world’s best medical diagnostician today is not a piece of technology, it will be fairly soon.”

On AlphaGo’s triumph and Deep Learning, McAfee says, “If you give these machines enough examples, they don’t need to be taught by a human being anymore. This is a big difference…we don’t know exactly what the implications are going to be.” Even the inventors of AI Go champion were shocked by its play, which might be a wonderful development but is also definitely a little concerning. 

“When I look into the future,” he says, “i see technology acquiring human level or, in many cases, even superhuman level abilities in jobs that use to belong to human beings alone. These technologies are coming more quickly than what we thought ten years ago or even five years ago….We’re going to see a lot of technologies coming into the economy taking over tasks and jobs.”

Although McAfee is largely optimistic about tomorrow, he acknowledges there are no easy answers for job and wage problems. The prescriptions he offers are similar to the ones he and Brynjolfsson suggested in Second Machine Age: Don’t embrace Ludditism or try to protect the past, remove barriers to entrepreneurship and, if necessary, utilize the earned income tax credit and other social safety nets to bring everyone up to a decent standard of living.

McAfee is a staunch believer that work is an agent for good in society in myriad ways and must be preserved, but I’m not sure if that will be possible if the technological onslaught he foresees arrives over the next several decades.•



My near-term concerns about Labor have nothing to do with jobs being handed over to robots powered by brain scans of the greatest geniuses among our species. It may seem thin gruel by comparison, but Weak AI (driverless cars, delivery drones, robot bellhops, etc.) can do plenty to destabilize society. Not only are jobs traditionally filled by humans to disappear but entire industries will rise and fall with dizzying speed. In the aggregate, this transition could be a good thing, with the resulting challenge being we need to find an answer not for scarcity but distribution. 

The futuristic scenario I presented at the opening comes from the pages of The Age of Ems: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth, a speculative book by Robin Hanson, who often seems to be mid-chug on a sci-fi bender at Chalmun’s Cantina. The author feels AI is evolving too slowly in its march toward intelligent machines but his scanning scheme is close to reality. Whatever scenario is realized to bring about superintelligence, however, Hanson believes the sea change is coming very soon and everyone will be caught in its waves. In the very long run, anything is possible, but I’m not too anxious over his theory, though I plan on reading the title.

Pivoting off Hanson’s new volume, Zoe Williams has written a thoughtful Guardian piece about fashioning a stable and fair society if work is offloaded to Ems, AIs or WTFs. An excerpt:

Robin Hanson thinks the robot takeover, when it comes, will be in the form of emulations. In his new book, The Age of Em, the economist explains: you take the best and brightest 200 human beings on the planet, you scan their brains and you get robots that to all intents and purposes are indivisible from the humans on which they are based, except a thousand times faster and better.

For some reason, conversationally, Hanson repeatedly calls these 200 human prototypes “the billionaires”, even though having a billion in any currency would be strong evidence against your being the brightest, since you have no sense of how much is enough. But that’s just a natural difference of opinion between an economist and a mediocre person who is now afraid of the future.

These Ems, being superior at everything and having no material needs that couldn’t be satisfied virtually, will undercut humans in the labour market, and render us totally unnecessary. We will all effectively be retired. Whether or not we are put out to a pleasant pasture or brutally exterminated will depend upon how we behave towards the Ems at their incipience.

When Hanson presents his forecast in public, one question always comes up: what’s to stop the Ems killing us off? “Well, why don’t we exterminate retirees at the moment?” he asks, rhetorically, before answering: some combination of gratitude, empathy and affection between individuals, which the Ems, being modelled on us precisely, will share (unless we use real billionaires for the model).•

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Came across a Vanity Fair article yesterday about Olivia de Havilland, who is still alive at 99 and living in Paris, where she’s resided for the past 61 years. Funny that, according to the piece, she grew disenchanted with Hollywood in particular and America in general in the 1950s because television’s emergence was making people stay home and ruining social life. The explosion of TV (and near-TV) content today and the many ways to watch it seems to me to have done even worse damage to NYC. People binge-watch programs here the same way as everywhere else and the landscape seems flatter. It’s like Disneyland for tourists, but many of the best characters stay inside their homes.

In a slightly related vein: While I was shocked to read that the Gone with the Wind actress is still alive, to become a centenarian if she makes it just another six weeks, Simon Kuper of the Financial Times writes that some researchers believe 105 is a conservative estimate for the average lifespan for those born in the West today. A lot can happen between now and then–pandemic, asteroid, climate disaster–but it’s worth considering, if conditions hold relatively steady, how life will change when ten decades becomes routine. Certainly career and education will be altered dramatically, even more so since technology is currently destabilizing both sectors.

Kuper’s opening:

baby born in the west today will more likely than not live to be 105, write Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott of London Business School in their crucial new book, The 100-Year Life. That may sound like science fiction. In fact, it’s only cautiously optimistic. It’s what will happen if life expectancy continues to rise by two to three years a decade, its rate of the past two centuries. Some scientific optimists project steeper rises to come.

If turning 100 becomes normal, then the authors predict “a fundamental redesign of life.” This book shows what that might look like.

We currently live what Gratton and Scott call “the three-stage life”: education, career, then retirement. That will change. The book calculates that if today’s children want to retire on liveable pensions, they will need to work until about age 80. That would be a return to the past: in 1880, nearly half of 80-year-old Americans did some kind of work.

But few people will be able to bear the exhaustion and tedium of a 55-year career in a single sector. Anyway, technological changes would make their education obsolete long before they reached 80. The new life-path will therefore have more than three stages. Many people today are already shuffling in that direction.•


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On what would have been Andre the Giant’s 70th birthday, a reminder, via a 2014 Open Culture post, that playwright Samuel Beckett, a neighbor, sometimes drove the future wrestler-actor to school. The passage:

In 1958, when 12-year-old Andre’s acromegaly prevented him from taking the school bus, the author of Waiting for Godot, whom he knew as his dad’s card buddy and neighbor in rural Molien, France, volunteered for transport duty. It was a standing gig, with no other passengers. Andre recalled that they mostly talked about cricket, but surely they discussed other topics, too, right? Right!?•

1964, New York, New York, USA --- Samuel Beckett on the set of his movie, , looking at a fish through a magnifying glass. --- Image by © Steve Schapiro/Corbis


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

The opening:

The Fortresses of Solitude

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

From a review by Jason Cowley in the Financial Times:

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

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

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

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

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

An excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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


Author Richard Brautigan 1968

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

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

From Wright:

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

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

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

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

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

The German TV interview.

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Barney was bewildered.

Her explanation? “You need to read Atlas Shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Certainty of what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


George-Lawnmower-1950-1 (3)

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

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

From Truthout:


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

Robert W. McChesney:

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

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

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

From Tech Insider:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—March 23, 2016•

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

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

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


Were you surprised by how successful the series has been?

Edwin Frank:

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


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