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As the Google Doodle attests, Claude Shannon, the Bell Labs mastermind who did his best to invent the Information Age, would have turned 100 today. Shannon’s co-workers were often years ahead of the curve, but he was working decades in the future. In addition to knowing what the world would look like generations in advance, Shannon, a wisp of a man, was deeply eccentric and fond of games and parlor tricks. He designed the first computer chess program and the initial computerized mouse that “learned” more every time it went through a maze. (Like this, but 60 years ago.)

Two excerpts about him are embedded below. The first is a passage from Joel Gertner’s The Idea Factory in which recalls how the scientist’s wife, Betty, would struggle to come up with ideas for presents for her spouse, because what do you get for the man who has everything–in his head? The second is the abstract from a paper by Edward O. Thorp, a mathematics professor who lives to bring down the house–the house being a casino. He’s focused a sizable portion of his career on probability in betting games, and in 1955 he created, in tandem with Shannon, what is considered the first wearable computer. The device, which was contained in a shoe or a cigarette pack, could markedly improve a gambler’s chance at the roulette wheel, though the bugs were never completely worked out.


From Gertner:

One year, Betty gave him a unicycle as a gift. Shannon quickly began riding; then he began building his own unicycles, challenging himself to see how small he could make one that could still be ridden. One evening after dinner at home in Morristown, Claude began to spontaneously juggle three balls, and his efforts soon won him some encouragement from the kids in the apartment complex. There was no reason, as far as Shannon could see, why he shouldn’t pursue his two new interests, unicycling and juggling, at Bell Labs, too. Nor was there any reason not to pursue them simultaneously. When he was in the office, Shannon would take a break from work to ride his unicycle up and down the long hallways, usually at night when the building wasn’t so busy. He would nod to passerby, unless he was juggling as he rode. Then he would be lost in concentration. When he got a pogo stick, he would go up and down the hall on that, too.

Here, then, was a picture of Claude Shannon, circa 1955, a man–slender, agile, handsome, abstracted–who rarely showed up on time for work, who often played chess or fiddled with amusing machines all day; who frequently went down the halls juggling or pogoing, and who didn’t seem to care, really, what anyone thought of him or his pursuits. He did what was interesting. He was categorized, still, as a scientist. But it seemed obvious that he had the temperament and sensibility of an artist.•


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From Thorp:

The first wearable computer was conceived in 1955 by [Thorp] to predict roulette, culminating in a joint effort at M.I.T. with Claude Shannon in 1960-61. The final operating version was rested in Shannon’s basement home lab in June of 1961. The cigarette pack sized analog device yielded an expected gain of +44% when betting on the most favored “octant.” The Shannons and Thorps tested the computer in Las Vegas in the summer of 1961. The predictions there were consistent with the laboratory expected gain of 44% but a minor hardware problem deferred sustained serious betting. They kept the method and the existence of the computer secret until 1966.•

Thorp appeared on To Tell the Truth in 1964. He didn’t discuss wearables but his book about other methods to break the bank. Amusing that longtime NYC radio host John Gambling played one of the impostors.

I’m more deterministic about technology than John Markoff, but I really enjoyed his latest book, Machines of Loving Grace. One tidbit from that title: “At Stanford Research Institute, Douglas Engelbart sent the entire staff of his lab through EST training and joined the board of the organization.” Engelbart is the Augmented Intelligence pioneer most known today for 1968’s “Mother of All Demos.” 

EST, the so-called self-improvement system that features copious mental abuse, is the brainchild of Werner Erhard, who was born John Rosenberg and rechristened himself after a Nazi rocketeer (misspelling it!). The profane self-help peddler came to wide prominence in the 1970s, with the aid of apostles in entertainment and intellectual circles, from John Denver to Buckminster Fuller to Silicon Valley technologists. Now an octogenarian, Erhard still unabashedly calls himself a “hero.” Excerpts follow from two articles written during the EST salesman’s headiest decade.


From the 1975 People article “Werner Erhard“:

I wanted to get as far away from Jack Rosenberg as I could get,” explains Werner Erhard. His reason is clear: Jack Rosenberg was a loser. Born in Lower Merion, Pa., Rosenberg married at 18, fathered four children and worked as a construction company supervisor—until he dropped out in 1960. Leaving his family, he took off for St. Louis with a girlfriend (now his second wife and mother of three). To start fresh, Rosenberg adopted space scientist Wernher von Braun‘s first name (misspelling it) and former West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard’s last name. “Freudians,” Werner Erhard concedes, “would say this was a rejection of Jewishness and a seizure of strength.”

The rest of Erhard’s spiritual hegira has become legend among his cult. For eight years he worked as a crackerjack instructor of encyclopedia salesmen. Then one morning while driving down the freeway south of San Francisco, to which he moved in 1964, he was suddenly struck by the realization that “I was never going to make it. No matter how much money or recognition I achieved, it would never be enough.”

To overcome this hopelessness, Erhard experimented with just about every method guaranteed to bring peace of mind. “I tried yoga, Dale Carnegie, Zen, Scientology, encounter groups, t-groups, psychoanalysis, reality therapy, Gestalt, love, nudity, you name it,” he recalls. “But when it was over, that was not it.”

Once again, Erhard was behind the wheel when he finally “got it”—a religious happening that the faithful call “The Experience.” And what is ‘it’? Replies the Master: “What is it, is it. When you drop the effort to make your life work, you begin to discover that it’s perfect the way it is. You can relax. It’s all going to unfold.”

Not much of a message, perhaps, but as packaged, promoted and proselytized by Erhard in a two-weekend, 60-hour course (price $250), his movement, known as est (Latin for ‘it is,’ as well as Erhard Seminars Training), has turned out more than 63,000 converts in 12 U.S. cities. Another 12,000 hopefuls are on the waiting list. Among the alumni of est’s psychic boot camps are Emmy winner Valerie Harper (who thanked Erhard on TV for changing her life), Cloris Leachman, John Denver, astronaut Buzz Aldrin and activist Jerry Rubin.•


From a 1979 People article about the auto-racing exploits of EST scream machine:

For hours mechanics have been fine-tuning the squat red-and-silver race car, while assistants check their clipboards and keep the Watkins Glen (N.Y.) bivouac free of litter and strangers. One fan wanders through in a T-shirt with the baffling slogan: ‘Before I was different, now I’m the same.’ Presently the driver emerges from an enormous van, astronaut-like in his creamy flame-proof suit, and heads for the Formula Super Vee racer (named for its Volkswagen engine). At the wave of a flag he will roar around a 3.3-mile Grand Prix course at speeds up to 130 mph.

There are 29 other qualifiers in this Gold Cup event, but only driver Werner Erhard claims he is here for the sake of mankind. Erhard, the founder of est (Erhard seminars training), says that when he slides into his 164-horsepower Argo JM4, he is raising consciousness, not merely dust.

‘Real people—you and me—feel like they don’t make any difference in this lousy world,’ says the 43-year-old Erhard. He is tall and loose-limbed with icy blue eyes; he insists on eye contact during a conversation. If his listener looks away, even momentarily, Erhard stops talking. He wants everyone to understand why he is driving fast cars these days in addition to heading the $20 million business that est has become, plus a 1977 spin-off, his program ‘to end world hunger by 1997.’ ‘I wanted to organize a high-performance team,’ Erhard continues, ‘that could master a complex skill in a very short time with winning results and show that everyone involved makes a big difference, from grease monkeys to spectators.’ In order to prove this estian point, Erhard says he considered such adventures as skydiving and karate, but rejected them as not collective enough. ‘Auto racing was perfect!’ he exclaims. ‘I hadn’t driven a car in six years and didn’t know the first thing about racing. Whatever we’d achieve, we’d achieve together.’”


“I found it a remarkable technology”:

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When Jonathan Franzen, who’s not going to stop, met President Obama, he informed our Commander in Chief that Richard Nixon was the “last Liberal President.” Obama responded, “Yeah, the only problem was he was crazy.” Largely true on both counts.

I’ve mentioned before that Nixon, who succeeded LBJ and his “War on Poverty,” attempted to establish Guaranteed Basic Income in the U.S., which came awfully close to happening. For a number of reasons, technological and political among them, the idea probably has more currency among Liberal, Conservative and Libertarian think tanks than anytime since, though those vying for higher office, Bernie Sanders included, dare not speak its name. If GBI resulted in a total dismantling of all other social safety nets, it could do more harm than good. If done correctly, however, it could help working-class people survive the hollowing out of the middle.

At Alternet, Rutger Bregman recalls Nixon’s effort. An excerpt:

Few people today are aware that the United States was just a hair’s breadth from realizing a social safety net at least as extensive as those in most western European countries. When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his “War on Poverty” in 1964, Democrats and Republicans alike rallied behind fundamental welfare reforms.

First, however, some trial runs were needed. Tens of millions of dollars were budgeted to provide a basic income for more than 8,500 Americans in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Iowa, North Carolina, Indiana, Seattle and Denver in what were also the first-ever large-scale social experiments to distinguish experimental and control groups. The researchers wanted answers to three questions: (1) Would people work significantly less if they receive a guaranteed income? (2) Would the program be too expensive? (3) Would it prove politically unfeasible?

The answers were no, no and yes.

Declines in working hours were limited across the board. “[The] declines in hours of paid work were undoubtedly compensated in part by other useful activities, such as search for better jobs or work in the home,” noted the Seattle experiment’s concluding report. For example, one mother who had dropped out of high school worked less in order to earn a degree in psychology and get a job as a researcher. Another woman took acting classes; her husband began composing music. “We’re now self-sufficient, income-earning artists,” she told the researchers. Among youth included in the experiment, almost all the hours not spent on paid work went into more education. Among the New Jersey subjects, the rate of high school graduations rose 30 percent.

And thus, in August 1968, President Nixon presented a bill providing for a modest basic income, calling it “the most significant piece of social legislation in our nation’s history.” A White House poll found 90 percent of all newspapers enthusiastically receptive to the plan. The National Council of Churches was in favor, and so were the labor unions and even the corporate sector (see Brian Steensland’s book The Failed Welfare Resolution, page 69). At the White House, a telegram arrived declaring, “Two upper middle class Republicans who will pay for the program say bravo.” Pundits were even going around quoting Victor Hugo—“Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come.”

It seemed that the time for a basic income had well and truly arrived.•

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John Grisham once dreamed of being a literary novelist, but realizing he would only be so-so, he turned his pen instead to legal thrillers, made a mint and entertained the masses. He succeeded brilliantly because he was self-aware enough to know what he lacked just as acutely as what he had.

Donald Trump, Bull Connor as a condo salesman, long ago sealed himself within a bubble of ego and possesses almost know self-knowledge. He’s as clueless about his many serious flaws as he is of the GOP delegate process. The hideous hotelier won’t be able to “Make America White Again,” but he has aggravated racist wounds during his odious campaign. 

In a smart Spiegel Online Q&A Marc Pitzke conducted with Grisham, the novelist argues the repercussions of Trump’s hateful pandering will be short-lived. Perhaps. Turning his attention to the other side of the aisle, the writer opines that “Bernie is a fluke.” The opening:

Question: 

Mr. Grisham, you’ve always been politically outspoken, in your books and in the world. Please explain Donald Trump to us. 

John Grisham:

Donald Trump appeals to the angry white people. Angry, mostly uneducated white people who feel left out. Who could have seen it coming? He’s been a buffoon for 30 years, nothing new. And he’s the most unqualified person to run for office in the history of this country.

Question: 

Are you worried he could win?

John Grisham:

I’m not worried about Trump. As a Democrat, I hope he gets the nomination. Because if he gets it, I don’t think there’s any way he can win. To win as a Republican, you have to win all the Republican core, you have to win a fair number of the Hispanic vote, and you have to win a fair number of the undecideds. There’s no way he can do that. I grew up in the world of fundamental Southern Baptist conservative Christians, and I know some people there who are simply not going to vote for Trump. Period. They despise him, third wife and all. And they would never vote for Hillary.

Question:

So they’d rather stay home?

John Grisham:

They would stay home. Trump is not going to get all his Republicans out, and he’s going to scare off a lot of the female voters, and he’s going to scare off every single Hispanic voter because of his outrageous statements about immigration.

Question:

But these angry white folks, they may be here to stay even if Trump goes away.

John Grisham:

Some will go away. They won’t be happy, but there’s no other place for them to go. Trump is appealing to a lot of voters who haven’t voted in a long time, they gave up on the system. He’s attracting a lot of people who’ve been out of the system for a long time. When he goes away, they will disappear again, too. If they don’t get a chance to vote for him in November, they’re probably not going to vote at all.•

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Alec Ross, author of The Industries of the Future, was asked in a Knowledge@Wharton interview about the next wave of work and wealth, and he echoed the sentiment in Tyler Cowen’s Average Is Over, noting that only those committed to continued education and possessing a flexible spirit will get ahead. Well, that’s good to know, but one obvious thing that often goes unmentioned in these discussions is what happens to the very large number of people who won’t be able to adapt to rapid change and do get left behind. That’s likely and must somehow be addressed. 

An excerpt:

Question:

As robots and codification and all of these other industries that you identify in the book become more prominent, how do you feel that’s going to change the world balance of power? How does that change the global economy and who has power and who doesn’t?

Alec Ross:

That’s a tremendous question. First of all, I’d put it into a certain kind of binary. The first is within the architecture of the 196 sovereign nation states, and the second is within those nation states, what kinds of individuals do well and what kinds of individuals do poorly.

You can live in a country that is prospering, but you can be doing very well or you could be doing very poorly. Or you could be living in a country that’s floundering, and you might be able to be doing pretty well. The principle political and economic binary of the 20th century was right versus left. In the 21st century, I think it’s open versus closed, defining open as upward economic mobility not confined to elites; social and cultural and religious norms not set from a central authority and broadly rights respecting for women, minorities of all type and what have you.

I believe that the centers of innovation and the wealth creation and job creation that come from that will be in the more open societies for the industries of the future. People conglomerating around what will probably be ten to 15 major centers over the next fifteen years. We already see this in development now. The more open societies will be those that compete and succeed most effectively.

Looking at this on an individual level, it’s going to be a terrible time to be mediocre at your job if you’re in a high-cost labor market. It’s an absolutely brutal truth. When people in Baltimore are competing against people in Bangalore, not just based on cost of labor but also quality of labor, which is now increasingly going to be the case, being more middle class or working class in the United States or Western Europe isn’t going to mean you’re starting life on second base to the degree that it did in the past.

You’ve got to be a committed lifelong learner. You’ve got to be adaptable. Otherwise you’re going to be left behind even if your country is producing substantial growth.•

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Steve Case won’t be around to read his obituary, which is probably a good thing.

It would no doubt pain him that the lead will be the disastrous America Online-Time Warner merger, an attempt at synergy that wound up a lose-lose of historic proportions. Case, then the AOL CEO, bet on old media at a time when he needed to walk even more boldly into the future with the Internet. It was one step backwards, and he lost his leg.

AOL has long been done as a major player in any sector, but Case continues apace, with entrepreneurial endeavors and charitable work. Steven Levy just interviewed him about his book, The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future, an attempt to predict what comes after Web 1.0 and 2.0. The journalist ventures into an apt topic in this insane political season: If technology has gifted us with more information than ever, why does the public seem less informed?

An excerpt:

Steven Levy:

In the book you include a very prescient statement you made after graduating college in the early 1980s about how technology would affect our lives. We have been transformed by all sorts of gadgets and networks that augment our powers. But judging from the current election process, it doesn’t seem to have made people smarter. You could even make a case for the opposite, saying people are dumber — anti-science, and more susceptible to mob thinking than they used to be.

Steve Case:

That’s fair. One of the things we felt passionate about 30 years ago was leveling the playing field so that everybody can have a voice. Back then when there were three television networks, unless you were rich and owned a printing press, you didn’t really have the opportunity to have your voice heard. Having millions of voices heard is awesome, but it gets noisy and some people are saying things that are inaccurate and not constructive and worse. There is absolutely this dynamic, of people living in a filtered bubble, hearing voices that reinforce their views and not really being exposed to the views of other people. That drives this hyper partisanship. I’m very concerned about it. We need to figure how to rebuild a center. Compromise should become a good word, not a bad word.

Steven Levy:

Has technology made it harder to find compromise?

Steve Case:

It has. In high school I wouldn’t have said this, but also sometimes to reach compromise you have to have a quiet discussion and cut a deal. When you have to have those negotiations, essentially in public, and talking points and sound bites on two-minute cable TV, things get noisier and it gets less constructive. With the current election, it is noisy and a little uncomfortable. The political process is getting disrupted.•

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Marshall McLuhan is dead, of course, and so is Jerome Agel, the “producer” of the oracle’s most famous book, 1967’s The Medium Is The Massage: An Inventory of Effects. The only principal from the project still with us is its revolutionary graphic designer, Quentin Fiore, who turned 96 in February. The artist subsequently worked on books by or about Buckminster Fuller, Stanley Kubrick and Jerry Rubin. How are you these days, Quentin Fiore?

McLuhan not only named the Global Village but also feared it. And there’ll be no retreat. Facebook, for one, may fall into steep decline, become a virtual ghost town, but it won’t matter one bit. The new arrangement is only going to grow deeper. An ominous passage from early in the book which proved awesomely prophetic:

How much do you make? Have you ever contemplated suicide? Are you now or have you ever been…? I have here before me…Electrical information devices for universal, tyrannical womb-to-tomb surveillance are causing a very serious dilemma between our claim to privacy and the community’s need to know. The older, traditional ideas of private, isolated thoughts and actions–the patterns of mechanistic technologies–are very seriously threatened by new methods of instantaneous electric information retrieval by the electrically computerized dossier bank–that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early ‘mistakes.’ We have already reached a point where remedial control, born out of knowledge of media and their total effects on all of us, must be exerted. How shall the new environment be programmed now that we have become so involved with each other, now that all of us have become the unwitting work force for social change? What’s that buzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzing?•

With his dog Rollo, 1885.

London at 21 in the Klondike in 1897.

In the Klondike, 1897.

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At Beauty Ranch in California, 1916.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The perils of corporate capitalism ‘running on digital steroids’

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

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Alexander Litvinenko's grave in Highgate cemetery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question:

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

Daniel Clowes:

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

Question:

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

Daniel Clowes:

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

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

Question:

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

Daniel Clowes:

That’s long gone.

Question:

How much does that shift have to do with technology?

Daniel Clowes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An excerpt about CRISPR:

Question:

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

Ashley Dawson:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question:

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

Beth Shapiro:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question:

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

Franco Moretti:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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During the heyday of the Magazine Age, when Playboy was still based in Chicago, Hugh Hefner thought most people would soon be enjoying his lifestyle. Well, not exactly his lifestyle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oriana Fallaci:

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

Hugh Hefner:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oriana Fallaci:

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

Norman Mailer:

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

Oriana Fallaci:

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

Norman Mailer:

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

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Norman Mailer:

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

Oriana Fallaci:

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

Norman Mailer:

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

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Norman Mailer:

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

Oriana Fallaci:

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

Norman Mailer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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