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At the Financial Times, David Runciman has an article about Political Order and Political Decay, Francis Fukuyama’s follow-up to 2012’s The Origins of Political Order. The political scientist thinks America made sequential mistakes, establishing democracy ahead of a strong central government, and is paying for these and other sins. Few would argue the country isn’t currently in a political quagmire, but I think historical sequence may not be the most important factor. America by design is a disparate nation, an experiment in multitudes, and there will always by divisions. We ebb and flow, but the flows are pretty spectacular. And while the writer is correct to assert that too much of America’s power has fallen under the control of too few, you could say the same of the late 19th century, and that was remedied for a long spell. A passage about Fukuyama’s prescription for proper political order:

“Fukuyama’s analysis provides a neat checklist for assessing the political health of the world’s rising powers. India, for instance, thanks to its colonial history, has the rule of law (albeit bureaucratic and inefficient) and democratic accountability (albeit chaotic and cumbersome) but the authority of its central state is relatively weak (something Narendra Modi is trying to change). Two out of three isn’t bad, but it’s far from being a done deal. China, by contrast, thanks to its own history as an imperial power, has a strong central state (dating back thousands of years) but relatively weak legal and democratic accountability. Its score is more like one and a half out of three, though it has the advantage that the sequence is the right way round were it to choose to democratise. Fukuyama doesn’t say if it will or it won’t – the present signs are not encouraging – but the possibility remains open.

The really interesting case study, however, is the US. America’s success over the past 200 years bucks the trend of Fukuyama’s story because the sequence was wrong: the country was a democracy long before it had a central state with any real authority. It took a civil war to change that, plus decades of hard-fought reform. Among the heroes of Fukuyama’s book are the late-19th and early-20th-century American progressives who dragged the US into the modern age by giving it a workable bureaucracy, tax system and federal infrastructure. On this account, Teddy Roosevelt is as much the father of his nation as Washington or Lincoln.

But even this story doesn’t have a happy ending. Just as it can take a major shock to achieve political order, so in the absence of shocks a well-ordered political society can get stuck. That is what has happened to the US. In the long peace since the end of the second world war (and the shorter but deeper peace since the end of the cold war), American society has drifted back towards a condition of relative ungovernability. Its historic faults have come back to haunt it. American politics is what Fukuyama calls a system of ‘courts and parties': legal and democratic redress are valued more than administrative competence. Without some external trigger to reinvigorate state power (war with China?), partisanship and legalistic wrangling will continue to corrode it. Meanwhile, the US is also suffering the curse of all stable societies: capture by elites. Fukuyama’s ugly word for this is ‘repatrimonialisation.’ It means that small groups and networks – families, corporations, select universities – use their inside knowledge of how power works to work it to their own advantage. It might sound like social science jargon, but it’s all too real: if the next presidential election is Clinton v Bush again we’ll see it happening right before our eyes.”


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Via the wonderful Delancey Place, a prescient excerpt from E.B. White’s 1949 book, Here Is New York, about towers that resembled targets, which predates Don DeLillo’s similar fever dreams about falling skyscrapers by more than four decades:

“To a New Yorker the city is both changeless and changing. In many respects it neither looks nor feels the way it did twenty-five years ago. … New York has changed in tempo and in temper during the years I have known it. There is greater tension, increased irritability. You encounter it in many places, in many faces. The normal frustrations of modern life are here multiplied and amplified — a single run of a cross-town bus contains, for the driver, enough frustration and annoyance to carry him over the edge of sanity: the light that changes always an instant too soon, the passenger that bangs on the shut door, the truck that blocks the only opening, the coin that slips to the floor, the question asked at the wrong moment. There is greater tension and there is greater speed. …

The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.”


I was disappointed when I first played the new EconTalk podcast, which featured host Russ Roberts interviewing Capital in the Twenty-First Century author Thomas Piketty; I simply couldn’t understand the guest due to his French accent (or my American ears). Thankfully, the program is transcripted, and it makes for a fascinating read. The Libertarian host and his politically opposed guest go at it in an intelligent way on all matters of wealth creation and distribution.

One argument that Roberts makes always galls me because I think it’s intellectually dishonest: He says that really innovative people (e.g., Steve Jobs and Bill Gates) deserve the huge money they make, implying that most of the wealth in the country is concentrated with such people. That’s not so. They’re outliers, extreme exceptions being raised to argue a rule.

There are also the Carly Fiorinas of the world, who run formerly great companies like Hewlett-Packard into the ground and make a soft landing with a ginormous golden parachute just before thousands of workers are laid off. If you want to say she’s equally an outlier, feel free, but the majority of CEOs in the U.S. aren’t great innovators. They’re stewards being compensated like innovators, collecting generous “royalties” on someone else’s ideas.

One excerpt from the show on this topic:

“Russ Roberts:

I’m just trying to get at the mechanics, because I think it matters a lot for why inequality has risen. So, for example, if somebody has gotten wealthy because they’ve been able to be bailed out using my tax dollars, then I would resent that. But if somebody is wealthy because they’ve created something marvelous, then Idon’t resent it. And my argument is that when we look at the Forbes 400, or the top 1%, many of the people in their, their incomes, their wealth has risen at a greater rate than the economy as a whole not because they are exploiting people, not because of corporate governance, but because of an increase in globalization that allows people to capture–make more people happy. Make more people–provide more value. My favorite example is sports. Lionel Messi makes about 3 times–the great soccer player, the great footballer, makes about 3 times what Pele made in his best earning years, 40 years ago. That’s not because Messi is a better soccer player. He’s not. Pele, I think, is probably a better soccer player. But Messi reaches more people, because of the Internet, because of technology and globalization. You can still argue that he doesn’t need $65 million a year and you should tax him at high tax rates. But I think as economists we should be careful about what the causal mechanism is. It matters a lot.

Thomas Piketty:

Oh, yes, yes, yes. But this is why my book is long, because I talk a lot about this mechanism. And I talk a lot about the entrepreneur, and the reason there is a lot of entrepreneurial wealth around, but my point is certainly not to deny this. My point is twofold. First, even if it was 100% entrepreneurial wealth, you don’t want to have the top growing 4 times faster than the average, even if it was complete mobility from one year to the other, you know, it cannot continue forever, otherwise the share of middle class in national wealth goes to 0% and you know, 0% is really very small. So that would be too much. And point number 2, is that when you actually look at the dynamics of top wealth holders, you know it’s really a mixture of, you know, you have entrepreneurs but you also have sons of entrepreneurs; you also have ex-entrepreneurs who don’t work any more but their wealth is rising as fast and sometimes faster than when they were actually working. You have–it’s a very complicated dynamics. And also be careful actually with Forbes’s ranking, which probably are even underestimating the rise of top wealth holders and you know, there are a lot of problems counting for inherited diversified portfolios. It’s a lot easier to spot people who have created their own company and who actually want to be in the ranking because usually they are quite proud of it, and maybe rightly so, than to spot the people, you know, who just inherited from the wealth. And so I think this data source is very biased in the direction of entrepreneurial wealth. But even if you take it as perfect data you will see that you have a lot of inherited wealth. You know, look: I give this example in the book, which is quite striking. The richest person in France and actually one of the richest in Europe, is Liliane Bettencourt. Actually, her father was a great entrepreneur. Eugene Schueller founded L’Oreal, number 1 cosmetics in the world, with lots of fancy products to have nice hair; this is very useful, this has improved the world welfare by a lot.

Russ Roberts: 

Pleasant. It’s nice.

Thomas Piketty:

The only problem is that Eugene Schueller created L’Oreal in 1909. And he died in the 1950s, and you know, she has never worked. What’s interesting is that her fortune, between the [?], between 1990 and 2010, has increased exactly as much as the one of Bill Gates. She has gone from $5 to $30 billion, when Bill Gates has gone from like $10 to $60. It’sexactly in the same proportion. And you know, in a way, this is sad. Because of course we would all love Bill Gates’ wealth to increase faster than that of Liliane. Look, why would I–I’m not trying to–I’m just trying to look at the data. And when you look at the data, you would see that the dynamics of wealth that you mention are not only about entrepreneurs and merit, and it’s always a complicated mixture. You have oligarchs who are seated on a big pile of oil, which you know, I don’t know how much of it is their labor and talent but some of it is certainly direct appropriation. And once they are seated on this pile of wealth, the rate of return that they are getting by paying tons of people to make the right investment with their portfolio can be quite impressive. So I think we need to look at these dynamics in an open manner. And when Warren Buffet says, I should not be paying less tax than my secretary, I think he has a valid point. And I think the issue, the idea that we are going to solve this problem only by letting these people decide how much they want to give individually is a bit naive. I believe a lot in charitable giving, but I think we also need collective rules and laws in order to determine how each one of us is contributing to tax revenue and the common good.

Russ Roberts:

Well, the share contributed by the wealthy in the United States is relatively high. You could argue it should be higher. As you would point out, I don’t really have a model to know what that would be. But real question for me is the size of government. If there’s a reason for it to be larger, if money can be spent better by the government, that would be one thing. And again, the other question is what should be the ideal distribution of the tax burden.”

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Speaking of machines taking over, here’s one final excerpt from Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence. It comes from one of the best passages, “Of Horses and Men.” The sequence I’m quoting is rather dire, though Bostrom later looks at the more positive side of technology handling labor for us and how extreme wealth disparity could be remedied. The excerpt:

“With cheaply copyable labor, market wages fall. The only place where humans would remain competitive may be where customers have a basic preference for work done by humans. Today, goods that have been handcrafted or produced by indigenous people sometimes command a price premium. Future consumers might similarly prefer human-made goods and human athletes, human artists, human lovers, and human leaders to functionally indistinguishable or superior artificial counterparts. It is unclear, however, just how widespread such preferences would be. If machine-made alternatives were sufficiently superior, perhaps they would be more highly prized.

One parameter that might be relevant to consumer choice is the inner life of the worker providing a service or product. A concert audience, for instance, might like to know that the performer is consciously experiencing the music and the venue. Absent phenomenal experience, the musician could be regarded as merely a high-powered jukebox, albeit one capable of creating the three-dimensional appearance of a performer interacting naturally with the crowd. Machines might then be designed to instantiate the same kinds of mental states that would be present in a human performing the same task. Even with perfect replication of subjective experiences, however, some people might simply prefer organic work. Such preferences could also have ideological or religious roots. Just as many Muslims and Jews shun food prepared in ways they classify as haram or treif, so there might be groups in the future that eschew products whose manufacture involved unsanctioned use of machine intelligence.

What hinges on this? To the extent that cheap machine labor can substitute for human labor, human jobs may disappear. Fears about automation and job loss are of course not new. Concerns about technological unemployment have surfaced periodically, at least since the Industrial Revolution; and quite a few professions have in fact gone the way of the English weavers and textile artisans who in the early nineteenth century united under the banner of the folkloric ‘General Ludd’ to fight against the introduction of mechanized looms. Nevertheless, although machinery and technology have been substitutes for many particular types of human labor, physical technology has on the whole been a complement to labor. Average human wages around the world have been on a long-term upward trend, in large part because of such complementarities. Yet what starts out as a complement to labor can at a later stage become a substitute for labor. Horses were initially complemented by carriages and ploughs, which greatly increased the horse’s productivity. Later, horses were substituted for by automobiles and tractors. These later innovations reduced the demand for equine labor and led to a population collapse. Could a similar fate befall the human species?

The parallel to the story of the horse can be drawn out further if we ask why it is that there are still horses around. One reason is that there are still a few niches in which horses have functional advantages; for example, police work. But the main reason is that humans happen to have peculiar preferences for the services that horses can provide, including recreational horseback riding and racing. These preferences can be compared to the preferences we hypothesized some humans might have in the future, that certain goods and services be made by human hand. Although suggestive, this analogy is, however, inexact, since there is still no complete functional substitute for horses. If there were inexpensive mechanical devices that ran on hay and had exactly the same shape, feel, smell, and behavior as biological horses — perhaps even the same conscious experiences — then demand for biological horses would probably decline further.

With a sufficient reduction in the demand for human labor, wages would fall below the human subsistence level. The potential downside for human workers is therefore extreme: not merely wage cuts, demotions, or the need for retraining, but starvation and death. When horses became obsolete as a source of moveable power, many were sold off to meatpackers to be processed into dog food, bone meal, leather, and glue. These animals had no alternative employment through which to earn their keep. In the United States, there were about 26 million horses in 1915. By the early 1950s, 2 million remained.”


A little more (see here) about Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, this time from Ben Shephard of the Guardian:

“The philosophy that emerges, however, is not what you’d necessarily expect from an Israeli with a background in medieval military history. History, for Harari, is largely made up of accidents; and his real theme is the price that the planet and its other inhabitants have paid for humankind’s triumphant progress. There are indicators of this in an elegiac passage on the destruction of the megafauna of Australasia and South America and a rapturous account of the life of Buddha, but it is only when he reaches the modern era that Harari brings his own views to the fore. He sees modern agriculture’s treatment of animals as one of the worst crimes in history, doubts whether our extraordinary material advances have made us any happier than we were in the past, and regards modern capitalism as an ugly prison. What is more, current developments in biology may soon lead to the replacement of H sapiens by completely different beings, enjoying godlike qualities and abilities.

It takes broad brushstrokes to cover a vast canvas and, inevitably, some of the paintwork is a little rough. Occasionally Harari makes it all too simple and sounds like a primary school teacher being cute. He defers too much to current orthodoxies – the discussion of patriarchy resists the logic of its own arguments for fear of affronting feminists – and reflects current academic fashion by, for example, hugely overstating the role of science in European colonialism. Napoleon may have taken 165 scholars with him when he invaded Egypt but the scramble for Africa later in the century was more about machine guns, searchlights and metallurgy.

That said, Sapiens is one of those rare books that lives up to the publisher’s blurb. It really is thrilling and breath-taking; it actually does question our basic narrative of the world.”

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In a Financial Times essay, economist Tim Harford finds a link no one else was looking for: the scorched-earth strategies which drive both Amazon and contemporary Russia. An excerpt:

“Brad Stone’s excellent book, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, paints Amazon’s founder to be a visionary entrepreneur, dedicated to serving his customers. But it also reports that Bezos was willing to take big losses in the hope of weakening competitors. Zappos, the much-loved online shoe retailer, faced competition from an Amazon subsidiary that first offered free shipping and then started paying customers $5 for every pair of shoes they ordered. Quidsi, which ran, was met with a price war from “Amazon Mom.” Industry insiders told Stone that Amazon was losing $1m a day just selling nappies. Both Zappos and Quidsi ended up being bought out by Amazon.

When the weapons of war are low prices, consumers benefit at first. But the long term looks worrying: a future in which nobody dares to compete with Amazon. Apple is a striking contrast: the company’s refusal to compete aggressively on price makes it hugely profitable but has also attracted a swarm of competitors.

Consider a grimmer parallel. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is the chain store. Georgia, Ukraine and many other former Soviet states or satellites must consider whether to seek ties with the west. In each case Putin must decide whether to accommodate or open costly hostilities. The conflict in Ukraine has been disastrous for Russian interests in the short run but it may have bolstered Putin’s personal position. And if his strategy convinces the world that Putin will never share prosperity, his belligerence may yet pay off.

I feel a little guilty comparing Bezos and Putin. My only regret about Bezos’s Amazon is that there aren’t three other companies just like it. I do not feel the same about Putin’s Russia.”


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I previously posted a 1955 New York Times interview which Thomas Mann sat for near the end of his life, and below I’ve put a piece from a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article about him that ran in the April 18, 1937 edition, when he was living in America, an exile from Nazi Germany during the early days of World War II. He seemed confident about the fall of fascism. I never read before that he’d dined with FDR, though it makes sense given the writer’s Nobel stature and his social nature. The piece was written by Alvah Bessie, who a decade later was to be blacklisted and imprisoned by HUAC as a member of the “Hollywood Ten,” along with Dalton Trumbo.



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A gigantic prison population in the U.S. has unsurprisingly begat an intricate illicit social order behind bars. The crime hasn’t truly disappeared–it’s just been disappeared into cells. From Graeme Wood’s new Atlantic article, “How Gangs Took Over Prisons“:

“Understanding how prison gangs work is difficult: they conceal their activities and kill defectors who reveal their practices. This past summer, however, a 32-year-old academic named David Skarbek published The Social Order of the Underworld, his first book, which is the best attempt in a long while to explain the intricate organizational systems that make the gangs so formidable. His focus is the California prison system, which houses the second-largest inmate population in the country—about 135,600 people, slightly more than the population of Bellevue, Washington, split into facilities of a few thousand inmates apiece. With the possible exception of North Korea, the United States has a higher incarceration rate than any other nation, at one in 108 adults. (The national rate rose for 30 years before peaking, in 2008, at one in 99. Less crime and softer punishment for nonviolent crimes have caused the rate to decline since then.)

Skarbek’s primary claim is that the underlying order in California prisons comes from precisely what most of us would assume is the source ofdisorder: the major gangs, which are responsible for the vast majority of the trade in drugs and other contraband, including cellphones, behind bars. ‘Prison gangs end up providing governance in a brutal but effective way,’ he says. ‘They impose responsibility on everyone, and in some ways the prisons run more smoothly because of them.’ The gangs have business out on the streets, too, but their principal activity and authority resides in prisons, where other gangs are the main powers keeping them in check.

Skarbek is a native Californian and a lecturer in political economy at King’s College London. When I met him, on a sunny day on the Strand, in London, he was craving a taste of home. He suggested cheeseburgers and beer, which made our lunch American not only in topic of conversation but also in caloric consumption. Prison gangs do not exist in the United Kingdom, at least not with anything like the sophistication or reach of those in California or Texas, and in that respect Skarbek is like a botanist who studies desert wildflowers at a university in Norway.

Skarbek, whose most serious criminal offense to date is a moving violation, bases his conclusions on data crunches from prison systems (chiefly California’s, which has studied gangs in detail) and the accounts of inmates and corrections officers themselves. He is a treasury of horrifying anecdotes about human depravity—and ingenuity. There are few places other than a prison where men’s desires are more consistently thwarted, and where men whose desires are thwarted have so much time to think up creative ways to circumvent their obstacles.”

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Steve Martin and Richard Feynman had a similar idea: Let’s get small. As we can now put the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin, we’ll eventually place nanobots inside of people to regulate health and cure illnesses, though I will guess it’ll take substantially longer than the boldest projections. From Diane Ackerman’s new book The Human Age, via Delancey Place:

“The nanotechnology world is a wonderland of surfaces unimaginably small, full of weird properties, and invisible to the naked eye, where we’re nonetheless reinventing industry and manufacturing in giddy new ways. Nano can be simply, affordably lifesaving during natural disasters. The 2012 spate of floods in Thailand inspired scientists to whisk silver nanoparticles into a solar-powered water filtration system that can be mounted on a small boat to purify water for drinking from the turbid river it floats on.

In the Namibian desert, inspired by water-condensing bumps on the backs of local beetles, a new breed of water bottle harvests water from the air and refills itself. The bottles will hit the market in 2014, for use by both marathon runners and people in third-world countries where fresh water may be scarce. South African scientists have created water-purifying tea bags. Nano can be as humdrum as the titanium dioxide particles that thicken and whiten Betty Crocker frosting and Jell-O pudding. It can be creepy: pets genetically engineered with firefly or jellyfish protein so that they glow in the dark (fluorescent green cats, mice, fish, monkeys, and dogs have already been created). It can be omnipresent and practical: the army’s newly invented self-cleaning clothes. It can be unexpected, as microchips embedded in Indian snake charmers’ cobras so that they can be identified if they stray into the New Delhi crowds. Or it can dazzle and fill us with hope, as in medicine, where it promises nano-windfalls. …

The futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that ‘by the 2030s we’ll be putting millions of nanobots inside our bodies to augment our immune system, to basically wipe out disease. One scientist cured Type I diabetes in rats with a blood-cell-size device already.”

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Julian Assange is an asshole, but so are a lot of useful people. Whistleblowers are vital in a free society, and I certainly don’t expect them to be perfect, but Assange is a messenger of such dubious character that it pollutes his message.

In today’s Gawker chat, Assange chose to not answer one of the best questions–“Given the collapse of your support since avoiding rape charges for several years, don’t you think that Wikileaks, as an organisation, would have been better served if you resigned?”–but he did respond to some others. A few exchanges follow.



Dear Mr. Assange, through your efforts and that of Wikileaks as a whole, you have led to a new era of whistleblowing that has revealed the extent of America’s malfeasance across the globe. We have also seen the United States (and others) attempt to break down the safeguards that enabled individuals to leak information to you and others. Do you think after Manning and Snowden that leaks of such magnitude are still possible?

Julian Assange:

Not only are leaks of this magnitude still possible, they are an inevitability. And there’s more coming, not less. While Washington DC has tried to set general deterants, we’ve set general incentives. That’s why we beat them at their own game and got Snowden to safety. So he could keep his voice and through his example of relative freedom act as general incentive.



Julian, do you think you have anything—anything at all—in common with Eric Schmidt?

Julian Assange:

Plenty – I discuss it a lot in the book, e.g.: “Schmidt’s dour appearance concealed a machinelike analyticity. His questions often skipped to the heart of the matter, betraying a powerful nonverbal structural intelligence. It was the same intellect that had abstracted software-engineering principles to scale Google into a megacorp, ensuring that the corporate infrastructure always met the rate of growth. This was a person who understood how to build and maintain systems: systems of information and systems of people. My world was new to him, but it was also a world of unfolding human processes, scale, and information flows.”



I feel you’ve done a great service to humanity for pulling the curtains back on corruption and lies. Do you have any ideas, or see any ways that the human race can change our ways to create a path towards more transparency, truthfulness, and doing what’s right?

Julian Assange:

One thing you can do, which is quite simple, is treat companies like Google and Facebook as the corporations they are. Lots of people – especially on the left – are aware of the ways in which corporations are exploitative and harmful. But there is a disconnect when it comes to Silicon Valley. Lots of people refuse to buy Coca Cola, but they don’t see any problem with having a Gmail account. I think that is changing lately, but we need a movement to divest from these corporations – which destroy privacy – and to build an alternative internet that isn’t as actively harmful to human interests.



There was a piece in Slate last year about Google, that I kept thinking about with respect to this book, about how Google’s internal culture and goals are bound up in Star Trek. For example: Amit Singhal, the head of Google’s search rankings team, told the South by Southwest Interactive Festival that “The destiny of [Google's search engine] is to become that Star Trek computer, and that’s what we are building.”

It makes sense to me in that there’s a real Camelot-era liberal pro-statist ideal underlying Star Trek’s vision of the future, and I’m curious what your sense was as to whether or not Eric Schmidt really buys into that. AND/OR I am curious to know how your idealized vision of the future differs from that Google Star Trek model.

Julian Assange:

I hadn’t seen that piece. At a glance, it reminds me of the discovery that the NSA had had the bridge of the Enterprise recreated. In my experience it is more reliable and fairer to look at peoples interests and expenditure rather than try to diagnose their inner mental state, as the latter often lets people project their own biases. As I say in the book, I found Eric Schmidt to be, as you would expect, a very sharp operator. If you read The New Digital Age, the apolitical futurism of Star Trek seems to fit what Schmidt writes quite well. I also quite liked this summary of Google’s vision for the future: “Google’s vision of the future is pure atom-age 1960s Jetsons fantasy, bubble-dwelling spiritless sexists above a ruined earth.”



Russian FSB. You didn’t release that information, and today, you and the Russians are downright chummy, with you reportedly assisting Edward Snowden in his “travels” there, in spite of Russia’s considerable human rights and surveillance abuses. How do you square your relationship with Russia and your government transparency/anti-authoritarian goals?

Julian Assange:

This is the usual attempt to attack the messager because the message is indisputable. The approach would already be invalid at that level, but it is also strictly false. Many things you may perceive to be true about an individual or a nation are helpful rhetorical positions that spread around through one group or another like a virus. In the end the collection of these thought-viruses, or memes, reflects the psychological and political contours of the group in which it inhabits. We have published more than 600,000 documents relating to Russia. The US stranded him in Russia by cancelling his passport. The US State Department just keeps kicking own goals. It is not my fault, or Edward Snowden’s fault that they’re so incompetent.•


What I love most about Gilbert Gottfried is that the persona he created is timeless and would seem appropriate in a Marx Brothers movie in the 1930s, animated into a Heckle and Jeckle cartoon in the 1940s, as a next-door neighbor on the Abbott & Costello TV show in the 1950s or on any comedy stage anywhere in America in 2014. Yet he really belongs to none of those things–or anything else. He immediately processes the context he’s in and gleefully deviates from everything, alienating everyone. He’s forever in search of the next punch bowl to piss in.

In the latest Lowbrow Reader comedy zine, Jay Ruttenberg has a tremendous essay about Gottfried. (The same edition also features two pages of the stand-up comic’s unusual drawings, which are reminiscent of the Early Serial Murderer school, and an excellent account of life somewhere alphabetically east of the D-List by the very funny Taylor Negron.) From the Gottfried piece:

“Gottfried is a club comic in an old-fashioned mold. He avoids the trendy comedy spots of downtown and Brooklyn, in all likelihood because they tend not to pay their performers. To see him in New York, one must brave Carolines on Broadway, a Times Square club that somehow even smells like 1992. Onstage, Gottfried stands at a hunch, nerdily engulfed in a size-too-large shirt. He squints his eyes as if to ward off a fart, a visual trademark as recognizable as Pryor’s gait or Rodney’s tie fidgets, and speaks in a matchless holler that could unnerve the dead. He devotes a surprising amount of his stage time to disparaging midgets. Blacks and Asians he can almost accept as human beings, the comedian reasons, but he must draw a line at midgets. He says that he would like nothing more than to approach a midget and punch him in his midget face. At this, Gottfried draws back his arm and punches the air in a manner suggesting that he has neither punched somebody himself nor witnessed a person getting punched, even in a movie or on television. With a grace reflecting his decades onstage, the comic makes a strangely endearing child molestation joke: He envies those fathers who manage to lure their wards into incestuous relations, as he cannot even convince his daughter to hold his hand while crossing the street. Gottfried concludes his set with material from his Dirty Jokes DVD and wraps up the evening by repeatedly yelling, ‘a little boy with cum in his mouth!’ The bulk of his set, however, is hardly blue. The comedian is a skilled impressionist, albeit mostly of long-deceased celebrities. Though not a prop comic, he ingeniously aids his impressions by placing strips of masking tape on his face—an elementary school cut-up gone pro. He does an extended bit about the sun and the moon that could kill in a third-grade classroom, as it did at Carolines.

Today’s younger comics, much like their indie-rock brethren, are mirrors of their audience: relatable figures in everyday clothes. They are slightly tweaked and often funny, but rarely dangerous. In contrast, nobody leaves a Gilbert Gottfried performance pleased that the comic thinks as they do. They leave believing that he is a deviant. He draws upon earlier eras of entertainment. He points to the ’80s, when he arose amidst walking cartoons like Pee-wee Herman and Andrew Dice Clay—both ultimately swallowed by their own creations—and loudmouths in colored leather. He is informed by the late ’70s, when he came of age surrounded by East Village punks—fellow Jewish geeks traumatized at home by Costanza parents and in the streets by a crumbling and forbidding city. Most of all, he evokes the fallen luminaries who ruled the Borscht Belt long before his time. It is their anarchic sensibility that Gottfried covets, reveres, and upholds. Of the fabled funny old men, he is the youngest.”

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Stephen Cave, who tackles big subjects, has written a Financial Times piece about that elusive thing called happiness, which we’re supposed to pursue, though it wasn’t always so. An excerpt:

“For most of the past 2,000 years of western culture, happiness on earth was considered neither achievable nor desirable. ‘Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life,’ said God to Adam, in an early example of expectations management. But Christians also saw this misery as the key to the life-to-come: ‘Whosoever doth not bear his cross,’ said Jesus, ‘cannot be my disciple.’ And if the days before painkillers weren’t sorrowful enough already, the faithful would flail their backs to hasten their way to beatitude.

So how did happiness change from being a sin to our foremost earthly goal? The answer in short is that western culture retained the promise of paradise but brought it forward from the next world into this one. The process took a few hundred years, beginning with the Renaissance and the Reformation. But it owes most to the thinkers of the Enlightenment, who combined the Christian belief in progress towards a happier state with a new faith in science and reason. In doing so, they wrote the script to which we still speak: a doctrine that says we can have heaven here and now if only we try hard enough.

Today this message is reinforced by an advertising industry that surrounds us with images of people made gloriously happy by a new car or soft drink; images that are simultaneously a promise and a rebuke to those of us who are feeling only fair-to-middling. Our belief that we can – indeed, should – be much happier is not based on evidence that such a state is possible but, instead, on a narrative of progress, entitlement and consumerism.”



Genetic enhancement in humans isn’t likely around the corner, but it will be pretty impossible to avoid its path at some point in the future even if you disagree with it, the way the online world is currently almost unavoidable. A brief passage from Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence about how designer babies may sway people, even countries, to fall in line:

“Once the example has been set, and the results start to show, holdouts will have strong incentives to follow suit. Nations would face the prospect of becoming cognitive backwaters and losing out in economic, scientific, military, and prestige contests with competitors that embrace the new human enhancement technologies. Individuals within a society would see places at elite schools being filled with genetically selected children (who may also on average be prettier, healthier, and more conscientious), and will want their own offspring to have the same advantages. There is some chance that a large attitudinal shift could take place over a relatively short time, perhaps in as little as a decade, once the technology is proven to work and to provide a substantial benefit.”


I’m not surprised we’re anonymously assholes online, but I am a little stunned by how much of this virtual ill behavior has ricocheted back into the offline world. The line is blurring. The opening of Andrew Leonard’s Salon interview with OkCupid founder Christian Rudder, whose new book, Dataclysm, paints a grim picture of how his customers behave in regards to race, sex and other matters, when searching for a mate online:


So men are sexists, and we’re all racist?

Christian Rudder:

The more you look at the data, the more it does confirm the cynics’ intuition about humanity. People online are free to act out their worst impulses with very little incentive to act out their best. I guess it just goes to show how politeness or propriety keeps us decent human beings. Offline, society actually has a very good effect on behavior in a very large sense.


That raises an uncomfortable question: Does our wholesale move online undermine how society traditionally keeps us in line?

Christian Rudder:

I’m not qualified to give a real opinion on where society as a whole is headed, but I think when you look at stuff like rage storms on Twitter, or even the thing that happened yesterday — the celebrity nude photos being leaked — you see that there are definitely some disgusting impulses that the Internet can gratify instantaneously. In the same way Cool Ranch Doritos gratify certain taste receptors that are probably not very good for my digestive tract, things like Twitter or Reddit or even OkCupid gratify our tastes in ways that should probably best be left unsated.


How does that make you feel as a researcher? Have you become more cynical as a result of what you’ve learned by watching how people behave on OkCupid?

Christian Rudder:

I definitely have a certain amount of ambivalence about the Internet generally and what we do at OkCupid. OkCupid does a lot of great things. We do find people love, we do create marriage and children and happiness in a pure sense, in a way that, say, Amazon does not. But there is a downside: In the process of finding that love or sex or whatever they’re looking for, people are able to be more judgmental. It’s a fraught thing. I can see the good and the bad in all this, but where it all comes out in the end, I’m not sure. I think the existence of the Internet is a good thing, but I do wish people exercised more humanity in using these tools.”

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I have no interest in comic-book blockbusters or most of the contemporary culture aimed at aging fanboys (and girls) longing for YA comfort, but in his long-form New York Times Magazine essay, “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” A.O. Scott finds solace in this regression. An excerpt:

“It is now possible to conceive of adulthood as the state of being forever young. Childhood, once a condition of limited autonomy and deferred pleasure (‘wait until you’re older’), is now a zone of perpetual freedom and delight. Grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things: We can live with our parents, go to summer camp, play dodge ball, collect dolls and action figures and watch cartoons to our hearts’ content. These symptoms of arrested development will also be signs that we are freer, more honest and happier than the uptight fools who let go of such pastimes.

I do feel the loss of something here, but bemoaning the general immaturity of contemporary culture would be as obtuse as declaring it the coolest thing ever. A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too. The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what’s going on, where identities are in perpetual flux. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens. We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with, and each one of them presses on our attention with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight.”


From Mattathias Schwartz’s largely negative Technology Review critique of Nicholas Car’s latest book, The Glass Cage, which focuses on the dark side of automation, some smart commentary about the real nature of Facebook:

“Carr spends most of The Glass Cage treating automation as though it were a problem of unenlightened personal choices—suggesting that we should often opt out of technologies like GPS in favor of manual alternatives. Yet the decision to adopt many other innovations is not always so voluntary. There is often something seductive and even coercive about them. Consider a technology that Carr himself discusses: Facebook, which seeks to automate the management of human relationships. Once the majority has accepted the site’s addictive design and slight utility, it gets harder for any one individual to opt out. (Though Facebook may not look like an example of automation, it is indeed work in disguise. The workers—or ‘users’—are not paid a wage and the product, personal data, is not sold in a visible or public market, but it does have a residual echo of the machine room. Personal expression and relationships constitute the raw material; the continuously updated feed is the production line.)

Carr flirts with real anger in The Glass Cage, but he doesn’t go far enough in exploring more constructive pushback to automation. The resistance he endorses is the docile, individualized resistance of the consumer—a photographer who shoots on film, an architect who brainstorms on paper. These are small, personal choices with few broader consequences. The frustrations that Carr diagnoses—the longing for an older world, or a different world, or technologies that embody more humanistic and less exploitative intentions—are widespread. For these alternatives to appear feasible, someone must do the hard work of imagining what they would look like.”

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Via Delancey Place, an excerpt from Michael Capuzzo’s Close to Shore about the moral battleground that was summer of 1916 on American beaches–the Summer of the Thigh:

“The most shocking development was in the water, where the rising hems of swimming costumes became a battle line drawn by the Victorian establishment. In that summer of 1916, there was a cultural revolution over the ideal female form — the cover-all Victorian skirt-and-trouser bathing costumes gave way to lithe, form-fitting swimsuits, and the modern American image, practical and sensual, was born. The appearance of languorous female arms, legs, and calves as public erotic zones roused a national scandal. On Coney Island, police matrons wrestled women in the new clinging wool ‘tube’ suits out of the surf. In Chicago, police escorted young women from the Lake Michigan beach because they had bared their arms and legs. In Atlantic City, a woman was attacked by a mob for revealing a short span of thigh. The American Association of Park Superintendents stepped into the fray with official Bathing Suit Regulations, requiring trunks ‘not shorter than four inches above the knee’ and skirts no higher than ‘two inches above the bottom of the trunks.’ Police took to the beaches with tape measures and made mass arrests.”


A follow-up post to the recent one about the history of air conditioning in the U.S., here’s an exchange about initial resistance to the machines from an interview with Salvatore Basile, author of Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed America, by Susannah Locke of Vox:


There seemed to be a ton of resistance to the idea of air conditioning. People weren’t even interested in the idea of getting cooler air. Why was that?

Salvatore Basile: 

The US is a puritan country. And because we’re a puritan country, I found that there were people who would quote the book of Amos from the Bible as the reason — that the Lord was the being who created the wind. In other words, man was not to do this. So fans were inherently sinful. This, I think, carried on to the idea of any machine that would change the weather, even though heat was something that we’d been doing for millennia.

The idea of cooling your own air, I have a feeling, to many people that felt very self-indulgent at the time. I think they objected to that from a moral standpoint. So the idea that human comfort would be mixed up with morals, well that’s sort of a bad place for the PR of air conditioning to exist. And when we got into the idea of having a machine that could actually cool the air (and the first examples of that were in the 19th century), there was one man who was ousted from his church because he had seen such a machine. And it was powered by a steam engine, and his church committee had accused him of lying because such a thing could not exist. It was against nature.

So transferring that into the modern time, I think there were many people who thought

God made bad weather so you should just put up with it.’ And I think the idea of dealing with heat was to ignore it. Indeed, in Victorian society, one must ignore hot weather because it did not exist. That was simply the given standard of behavior for the time. And so many people would ignore it and then keel over from heat stroke.

With that kind of mindset in the population, to offer them the chance to be cool did create a lot of opposition at first.”

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The Economist recently ran a gormless (and now withdrawn) review of Edward E. Baptist’s new book about American slavery. The crux of the worst of it was that the author was somehow being unfair to the “good” slave owners. The opening of Baptist’s riposte in the Guardian:

“In 1845, Frederick Douglass, a fugitive from slavery, joined dozens of white passengers on the British ship Cambria in New York harbor. Somewhere out on the Atlantic, the other passengers discovered that the African American activist in their midst had just published a sensational autobiography. They convinced the captain to host a sort of salon, wherein Douglass would tell them his life story. But when the young black man stood up to talk, a group of Southern slaveholders, on their way to Britain for vacation or business or both, confronted him. Every time Douglass said something about what it was like to be enslaved, they shouted him down: Lies! Lies! Slaves were treated well, insisted the slaveholders; after all, they said, the masters remained financially interested in the health of their human ‘property.’

In a review of my book about slavery and capitalism published the other day, the Economist treated it the same way that the tourist enslavers treated the testimony of Frederick Douglass on that slave-era ship long ago. In doing so, the Economist revealed just how many white people remain reluctant to believe black people about the experience of being black.

Apparently, I shouldn’t have focused my historical research on how some people lived off the uncompensated sweat of their ‘valuable property,’ the magazine’s anonymous reviewer wrote: ‘Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.’ Worst of all, this book reviewer went on, I had, by putting the testimony of ‘a few slaves’ at the heart of book about slavery, somehow abandoned ‘objectivity’ for ‘advocacy.'”


No matter how many more stories Margaret Atwood writes in her life, the one she is currently working on will be her last, in a sense. The last one read for the first time, anyhow. The author’s current work will be buried in a time capsule for 100 years as part of a deep-future project which runs counter to our insta-culture. From Alison Flood at the Guardian:

“Depending on perspective, it is an author’s dream – or nightmare:Margaret Atwood will never know what readers think of the piece of fictions he is currently working on, because the unpublished, unread manuscript from the Man Booker prize-winning novelist will be locked away for the next 100 years.

Atwood has just been named as the first contributor to an astonishing new public artwork. The Future Library project, conceived by the award-winning young Scottish artist Katie Paterson, began, quietly, this summer, with the planting of a forest of 1,000 trees in Nordmarka, just outside Oslo. It will slowly unfold over the next century. Every year until 2114, one writer will be invited to contribute a new text to the collection, and in 2114, the trees will be cut down to provide the paper for the texts to be printed – and, finally, read.

‘It is the kind of thing you either immediately say yes or no to. You don’t think about it for very long,’ said Atwood, speaking from Copenhagen. ‘I think it goes right back to that phase of our childhood when we used to bury little things in the backyard, hoping that someone would dig them up, long in the future, and say, ‘How interesting, this rusty old piece of tin, this little sack of marbles is. I wonder who put it there?'”

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In John Reed’s Financial Times piece about the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, who’s written Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, the scholar essentially argues that our species won out over Neanderthals because we were better at narrative, that double-edged sword. An excerpt:

“The book is, at its heart, an extended thesis about what has made humans such a successful species. In Harari’s view, at the dawn of history homo sapiens shared, along with Neanderthals and other early humans, some winning attributes – a big brain, the ability to walk upright – but they sat somewhere in the middle of the food chain, and were no shoo-in to become masters of the world.

What allowed humans to become history’s most successful species, he argues, was our ability to construct and unify small groups behind certain ‘fictions’ – everything from national legends and organised religion to modern value systems like human rights, and the modern limited liability company with thousands of employees and vast credit lines at its command.

Any band of Neanderthals, Harari suggests, can raise a few dozen people for a hunt but humans can tell the stories needed to ensure co-operation in groups of 150 or more – numbers large enough to organise mass hunting using prepared traps, raise modern armies, or subdue the natural world.

Also woven into this theory of humankind are his own convictions about eating meat. Sapiens devotes large sections to unsparing accounts of the domestication and factory farming of cows, pigs and chickens. This, he contends, has made them some of the most genetically ‘successful’ creatures in history but the most miserable too.”


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Photographs help us retain memories and hang on to life in a sense, but they’re neither memories nor life. They’re only small pieces of the bigger puzzle–just shards, not fractals. From them we piece together a menagerie. The animals are crude, but they’re better than nothing, though not by nearly as much as we often believe. From Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Book Three:

“It is the era we take photos of, not the people in it, they can’t be captured. Not even the people in my immediate circle can. Who was the woman posing in front of the stove in the flat in Thereses gate, wearing a light-blue dress, one knee resting against the other, calves apart, in this typical 1960s posture? The one with the bob? The blue eyes and the gentle smile that was so gentle that it barely even registered as a smile? The one holding the handle of the shiny coffee pot with the red lid? Yes, that was my mother, my very own mom, but who was she? What was she thinking? How did she see her life, the one she had lived so far and the one awaiting her? Only she knows, and the photo tells you nothing. An unknown woman in an unknown room, that is all. And the man who, ten years later, is sitting on a mountainside drinking coffee from the same red thermos top, as he forgot to pack any cups before leaving, who was he? The one with the well-groomed black beard and the thick black hair? The one with the sensitive lips and amused eyes? Yes, of course, that was my father, my very own dad. But who he was to himself at this moment, or at any other, nobody knows. And so it is with all these photos, even the ones of me. They are voids, the only meaning that can be derived from them is that which time has added.”


3 Quarks Daily pointed me to Geoff Dyer’s Threepenny piece of the reissue of Norman Mailer’s A Fire on the Moon, a 1970 book I’m fairly obsessed with. Only Mailer could dare enter his own midlife crisis into the Space Race and pull it off. He understood the moment in time better than most: The 1969 Apollo 11 liftoff marked the beginning of the end of human supremacy on Earth. The first two paragraphs:

“Mailer starts with the news of Hemingway’s death; we’ll start with Ezra Pound’s claim, in ABC of Reading, that literature ‘is news that STAYS news.’ The appeal of having one of America’s best-known writers cover the biggest news story of the decade—probably of the century, conceivably of all time—was obvious, and Mailer was a natural fit. Back then a lot of people were quoting the opinion that he was the best journalist in America. One of those people was Mailer himself, who took umbrage at praise that tacitly downgraded his achievements as anovelist. This gets aired very early on in a book in which, sooner or later, most things get aired. The irony is that Mailer ‘knew he was not even a good journalist.’ Unless, that is, he could succeed in redefining and enlarging journalism to cover pretty much everything, including the writing of the book in which the attempt would be made. Imagine Laurence Sterne with a huge subject, a big advance, and a looming deadline and you have some sense of the conflicting pressures at work on Of A Fire on the Moon (the original American title).

The deadline needs emphasizing. Other writers had plenty to say about the moon landing—everyone had something to say about it—but few would have had the chops to bang out 115,000 words for publication in three issues of Life magazine, the first tranche of which, Mailer groans, was due less than three weeks after the astronauts splashed down in the Pacific. That, to put it mildly, is a lot of words in a very short time: not quite as challenging a task as the one set out by John F. Kennedy in 1961—to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of the decade—but a serious job of work all the same. So the question today, when no one under the age of forty-five was alive and able to experience the event, let alone read about it as news, is the extent to which the result is compromised or enhanced by the circumstances of its occasion and composition. Now that the subject matter is the stuff of history—when the word astronaut might be used in the context of historical fiction as opposed to science fiction—does Mailer’s book pass Pound’s testing definition? And where does it stand within two quite different contexts, that of other books about the moon landings and within the large scope and wildly mixed quality of Mailer’s work as a whole?”

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From dime museums to reality TV, freak shows have always been a part of American life, our eyes fixed on something we think is worse than we could ever be, yet we keep watching because perhaps we notice a resemblance? The practice began long before Barnum, though he was the one who eventually ushered the sideshow into the main tent. Via Delancey Place, a passage about the origins of this sideshow from Duncan Hall’s The Ordinary Acrobat:

“The first ‘freak’ display in the United States occurred in 1771, when Emma Leach, a dwarf, was shown in Boston. Around 1840, full ‘freak shows’ began to emerge, traveling with menageries or in the company of ‘handlers’ who managed the promotion and exhibition of the stars, enhancing their natural deformities with a story or an exotic medical explanation. (As Tom Norman, Barnum’s English equivalent and the handler of the Elephant Man, wrote in his autobiography, ‘It was not the show, it was the tale that you told.’)

Barnum was in this tradition, and he excelled at it. According to his biographer, A. H. Saxon, nearly every famous freak of the period spent a few weeks in the showman’s employ: R. O. Wickward, the skeleton man; Jane Campbell, ‘the largest Mountain of Human Flesh ever seen in the form of a woman'; S. K. G. Nellis, the armless wonder, who could shoot a bow and arrow with his toes. Many of the freaks appeared as stars in his museum, either as roving attractions, as part of special exhibitions, or as spectacles in the theater in back. Sometimes Barnum toured with them as well. General Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton) was a twenty-five inch-tall four-year-old midget, who Barnum claimed was eleven. Barnum coached the boy to perform impersonations of various heads of state, including Queen Victoria, whom he visited on three separate occasions. In Paris, the duo played to Napoleon III and in a series of shows at the Salle Musard that sold out months in advance. ‘The French are exceedingly impressible,’ Barnum wrote of the visit in his 1896 autobiography Struggles and Triumphs, ‘and what in London is only excitement in Paris becomes furor.'”

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Speaking of Disneyland, it is kind of perfect that Philip K. Dick spent the last leg of his life in Orange County in close proximity to the surreal theme park. From Scott Timberg’s 2010 Los Angeles Times article about the scanner in suburbia:

“While in Orange County, Dick often fell back on the reflexes of Bay Area types who move to Southern California. He joked often about the artificiality of it all, the local slang. ‘He kept comparing Southern California to Disneyland,’ remembered wife Tessa Dick, ‘and said it was plastic, wasn’t real. He was used to real cities like Berkeley and San Francisco and Vancouver.’

To a writer whose primary subject was the slippage between the real and constructed, the place surely also fascinated him as well. ‘He loves fakes and simulacra as much as he fears them,’ novelist Jonathan Lethem wrote in the introduction to Dick’s selected stories. He calls Dick very much a man of the 1950s, holding ‘a perfectly typical 1950s obsession with the images, the consumer, the bureaucrat, and with the plight of small men struggling under the imperatives of capitalism.’ …

Of course, being far from any urban center or major attraction suited Dick just fine during this last decade. ‘He was home 24/7,’ Tessa said. ‘He didn’t go out very much.’ Besides Big John’s, his favorite pizza place, the nearest spot of interest was the Cal State Fullerton campus, where the author’s papers were held. (Some of them have recently been relocated, perhaps temporarily, to San Francisco.) Today the area is dominated by low-slung, pale stucco buildings and fast food chains, and back then it wasn’t much different.

The couple wasn’t lonely, though. ‘People came to us,’ Tessa recalled. ‘Nearly every day we had visitors. One night for dinner we had two men from France, one from Germany, and one woman from Sweden. One of them was writing a PhD thesis on Phil.’ Dick flirted with the Swede, saying, ‘You are a pretty lady’ in rough German.

During his last few years, when he became financially stable for one of the rare times in his life, his daughters visited him at the Santa Ana apartment he moved to after the implosion of his marriage. Dick’s oldest child, daughter Laura, born in 1960, recalls his place full of Bibles, encyclopedias – Dick was a ferocious autodidact – and recordings of Wagner operas.

Phil’s second daughter Isolde, now 42, visited enough during this period to get to know her father for the first time. She recalls him as working hard to be a good father and struggling to overcome his limitations, both with and without success.

During one visit, he got Isa excited about a trip to Disneyland, then open past midnight. ‘He said, ‘We’re gonna go and stay ‘til it closes!’ But in my mind we were there for only 20 or 30 minutes before he said, ‘Honey, my back’s really hurting.’ I think he was just overwhelmed by all the crowds. I knew him, and knew he was uncomfortable moving outside his comfort zone.’

He spent more of his time walking from the apartment to a nearby Trader Joe’s to get sandwiches, a park where he and Isa tried awkwardly to play kickball, and an Episcopalian church where he had running theological discussions with the clergy.”

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