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A rose is a rose is a rose, but if you purchase an e-book written by Gertrude Stein, it isn’t what it seems.

When we bought literature in paper form, the “hardware” and “software” were ours for as long as we held onto the physical item, but virtual books (and articles, films, etc.) are leasing agreements that depend on all sorts of infrastructure remaining intact. And to quote the title of the most famous book by another author, Chinua Achebe, things fall apart. When the next companies destabilize today’s tech giants, Amazon and Google and Facebook and Apple, will there be a hole in the culture that’s difficult to recover?

From “When Amazon Dies,” an excellent piece on the topic by Adrienne LaFrance at the Atlantic:

Increasingly, the purchase of digital works is treated like the purchase of software, which has gone from something you buy on a disc to something downloadable with an Internet connection. “You might think you’re buying Microsoft Office, but according to your user agreement you’re merely leasing it,” [media studies professor Siva] Vaidhyanathan said. “You can think of music and video as just another form of software. There is a convergence happening.”

That convergence is built for a streaming world, one that’s driven by an expectation of instant gratification. “One of the things we’re doing increasingly is opting for convenience over dependability. And we’re doing it somewhat thoughtlessly,” Vaidhyanathan told me. “We have to recognize that it is temporary. Anything that is centrally collected in a server somewhere on Earth is ephemeral. Even if Amazon doesn’t go out of business in 20 years, Amazon will not exist as we know it in 100 years.”•

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The Economist has a good if brief review of three recent titles about Artificial Intelligence and what it means for humans, John Markoff’s Machines of Loving GracePedro Domingos’ The Master Algorithm and Jerry Kaplan’s Humans Need Not Apply.

I quote the opening of the piece below because I think it gets at an error in judgement some people make about technological progress, in regards to both Weak AI and Strong AI. There’s the idea that humans are in charge and can regulate machine progress, igniting and controlling it as we do fire. I don’t believe that’s ultimately so even if it’s our goal.

Such decisions aren’t made in cool, sober ways inside a vacuum but in a messy world full of competition and differing priorities. If the United States decided to ban robots or gene editing but China used them and prospered from the use, we would have to also enter the race. It’s similar to how America was largely a non-militaristic country before WWII but since then has been armed to the teeth.

The only thing that halts technological progress is a lack of knowledge. Once attained, it will be used because that makes us feel clever and proud. And it gives us a sense of safety, even when it makes things more dangerous. That’s human nature as applied to Artificial Intelligence.

An excerpt:

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI) is quietly everywhere, powering Google’s search engine, Amazon’s recommendations and Facebook’s facial recognition. It is how post offices decipher handwriting and banks read cheques. But several books in recent years have spewed fire and brimstone, claiming that algorithms are poised to obliterate white-collar knowledge-work in the 21st century, just as automation displaced blue-collar manufacturing work in the 20th. Some people go further, arguing that artificial intelligence threatens the human race. Elon Musk, an American entrepreneur, says that developing the technology is “summoning the demon.”

Now several new books serve as replies. In Machines of Loving Grace, John Markoff of the New York Times focuses on whether researchers should build true artificial intelligence that replaces people, or aim for “intelligence augmentation” (IA), in which the computers make people more effective. This tension has been there from the start. In the 1960s, at one bit of Stanford University John McCarthy, a pioneer of the field, was gunning for AI (which he had named in 1955), while across campus Douglas Engelbart, the inventor of the computer mouse, aimed at IA. Today, some Google engineers try to improve search engines so that people can find information better, while others develop self-driving cars to eliminate drivers altogether.•

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Why hasn’t someone like myself who loves books–reading them, not collecting them–yet switched to a Kindle? I don’t quite know because despite having issues with Amazon’s impact on the pricing of digital books and what that means for the future of publishing, I’m awed the company has made it possible to easily carry a universal library anywhere in the world. That’s amazing, though it would seem, no sufficiently so for me to “go electric.”

While Bezos’ e-reader can hold everything from Henry James to the King James Bible, Craig Mod is losing his religion in the tool. In an Aeon essay, the writer explains he grew disenchanted (unconsciously, at first) with the Kindle’s lack of development, how the device which seemed poised to surpass the experience of paper reading, has instead become complacent the way monopolies often do. Virtual books were going to have a tough time competing with the physical kind in terms of sheer beauty, but so far they trail in key ways even in functionality. As Mod writes, Amazon’s dominance has made for an isolated infrastructure and the “closed nature of digital book ecosystems hurts designers and reader.”

An excerpt:

In the past two years, something unexpected happened: I lost the faith. Gradually at first and then undeniably, I stopped buying digital books. I realised this only a few months ago, when taking stock of my library, both digital and physical. Physical books – most of all, works of literary fiction – I continue to acquire voraciously. I split my time between New York and Tokyo, and know that with each New York trip I’ll pick up a dozen or more volumes from bookstores or friends. My favourite gifts, to give and to receive, are still physical books. The allure of the curated front tables at McNally Jackson or Three Lives and Company is too much to resist.

The great irony, of course, is that I’ve never read more digitally in my life. Each day, I spend hours reading on my iPhone – news articles, blog posts and essays. Short to mid-length content feels indigenous to the size, resolution and use cases of smartphones, and many online publications (such as this very site) display their content with beautiful typography and layouts that render consistently on any computer, tablet or smartphone. Phones also allow us to share articles with minimal effort. The easy romance between our smartphones and short-to-mid-length articles and video is part of the reason why venture capitalists have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into New York publishing upstarts such as Vox, Vice and Buzzfeed. The smartphone coupled with the open web creates a near-perfect container for distributing journalism at a grand scale.

But what of digital books? What accounts for my unconscious migration back to print?•

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In this 1960 clip, Arthur C. Clarke acknowledges the “only thing that is sure about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic,” before promising by the year 2000 we would genetically engineer servant monkeys, abolish cities and utilize instant-communication devices.

He was right, of course, in believing the transistor would allow us to immediately reach one another at all times as well as telecommute, though he felt these changes might mean the end of city living, which, of course, was far off the mark. He was too bold in his predictions about bioengineering, though he’ll likely be right should Homo sapiens survive potential climate-change disaster. (I don’t, however, think that “servant monkeys” will be the direction we go.) Clarke further thought we would tinker with the human brain so that we could learn Chinese overnight and erase bad memories. Unsurprisingly, the co-creator of HAL-9000 envisioned conscious machines zooming past our intelligence, biological evolution reaching its endgame and organic life having served its purpose as a stepping stone to greater knowledge. 


In this clip, philosopher, LSD guru and countercultural icon Dr. Timothy Leary and his wife Rosemary deplane in Algeria and, after a few words with reporters, walk into the waiting of arms of fugitive Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver.

The backstory: During his 1970 gubernatorial race against Ronald Reagan in California, Leary was railroaded into a 20-year prison sentence for the dubious charge of possession of two joints. He escaped from the penitentiary, spent time in Algeria with Cleaver before the two had a falling out and was finally recaptured at an airport in Afghanistan. Leary was returned to the states to continue his sentence at Folsom Prison.

California Governor Jerry Brown released Leary in 1976 and the controversial figure spent the last two decades of his life encouraging the construction of space colonies and being an early Internet enthusiast.


Below is a trailer for Lord of the Universe, a 1974 documentary about adolescent guru Maharaj Ji, who came to some fame in those days for promising to levitate the Houston Astrodome, a plot that never got off the ground. More than any other holy-ish person of the time, the Indian tennager would have fit in quite nicely in Silicon Valley of 2015. He was a technocrat who believed he could disrupt and improve the world. Sound familiar?

The former child preacher Marjoe Gortner was hired by OUI, a middling vagina periodical of the Magazine Age, to write a deservedly mocking article about the American visit of the self-appointed messiah. Two excerpts from the resulting report.

The guru’s people do the same thing the Pentecostal Church does. They say you can believe in guru Maharaj Ji and that’s fantastic and good, but if you receive light and get it all within, if you become a real devotee-that is the ultimate. In the Pentecostal Church you can be saved from your sins and have Jesus Christ as your Saviour, but the ultimate is the baptism of the Holy Ghost. This is where you get four or five people around and they begin to talk and more or less chant in tongues until sooner or later the person wanting the baptismal experience so much-well, it’s like joining a country club: once you’re in, you’ll be like everyone – else in the club.

The people who’ve been chanting say, “Speak it out, speak it out,” and everything becomes so frenzied that the baptismalee will finally speak a few words in tongues himself, and the people around him say, “Oh, you’ve got it.” And the joy that comes over everybody’s faces! It’s incredible. It’s beautiful. They feel they have got the Holy Spirit like all their friends, and once they’ve got it, it’s forever. It’s quite an experience.

So essentially they’re the same thing pressing on your eyes while your ears are corked, and standing around the altar speaking in tongues. They’re both illuminating experiences. The guru’s path is interesting, though. Once you’ve seen the light and decided you want to join his movement, you give over everything you have–all material possessions. Sometimes you even give your job. Now, depending on what your job is, you may be told to leave it or to stay. If you stay, generally you turn your pay checks over to the Divine Light Mission, and they see that you are housed and clothed and fed. They have their U. S. headquarters in Denver. You don’t have to worry about anything. That’s their hook. They take care of it all. They have houses all over the country for which they supposedly paid cash on the line. First class. Some of them are quite plush. At least Maharaj Ji’s quarters are. Some of the followers live in those houses, too, but in the dormitory-type atmosphere with straw mats for beds. It’s a large operation. It seems to be a lot like the organization Father Divine had back in the Thirties. He did it with the black people at the Peace Mission in Philadelphia. He took care of his people-mostly domestics and other low-wage earners–and put them up in his own hotel with three meals a day.

The guru is much more technologically oriented, though. He spreads a lot of word and keeps tabs on who needs what through a very sophisticated Telex system that reaches out to all the communes or ashrams around the country. He can keep count of who needs how many T-shirts, pairs of socks–stuff like that. And his own people run this system; it’s free labor for the corporation.

· · · · · · · · · ·

The morning of the third day I was feeling blessed and refreshed, and I was looking forward to the guru’s plans for the Divine City, which was soon going to be built somewhere in the U. S. I wanted to hear what that was all about.

It was unbelievable. The city was to consist of ‘modular units adaptable to any desired shape.’ The structures would have waste-recycling devices so that water could be drunk over and over. They even planned to have toothbrushes with handles you could squeeze to have the proper amount of paste pop up (the crowd was agog at this). There would be a computer in each communal house so that with just a touch of the hand you could check to see if a book you wanted was available, and if it was, it would be hand-messengered to you. A complete modern city of robots. I was thinking: whatever happened to mountains and waterfalls and streams and fresh air? This was going to be a technological, computerized nightmare! It repulsed me. Computer cards to buy essentials at a central storeroom! And no cheating, of course. If you flashed your card for an item you already had, the computer would reject it. The perfect turn-off. The spokesman for this city announced that the blueprints had already been drawn up and actual construction would be the next step. Controlled rain, light, and space. Bubble power! It was all beginning to be very frightening.•


I admire Jack Kerouac for not accepting the pretty version of things but could have withstood his self-seriousness, smoking and drinking for about five minutes without screaming. That being said, the embedded 1959 clip of him on Steve Allen’s show is fun. Before reading from On the Road, he defines the word “Beat” as meaning “sympathetic.” 

In a 1952 New York Times Magazine piece, “This Is the Beat Generation,” which explained the movement to the masses, John Clellon Holmes also attempted to demystify the term:

Any attempt to label an entire generation is unrewarding, and yet the generation which went through the last war, or at least could get a drink easily once it was over, seems to possess a uniform, general quality which demands an adjective … The origins of the word “beat” are obscure, but the meaning is only too clear to most Americans. More than mere weariness, it implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw. It involves a sort of nakedness of mind, and, ultimately, of soul; a feeling of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness. In short, it means being undramatically pushed up against the wall of oneself. A man is beat whenever he goes for broke and wagers the sum of his resources on a single number; and the young generation has done that continually from early youth.•


The Olivier of oral, Harry Reems saw his work on the landmark 1972 skin-flick Deep Throat lead to years of prosecution on obscenity charges. Reems ultimately was victorious, and converted to Christianity in later life. An excerpt from Margalit Fox’s 2013 obituary of him in the New York Times:

Mr. Reems, who began his career in the 1960s as a struggling stage actor, had already made dozens of pornographic films when he starred opposite Ms. Lovelace in Deep Throat.

But where his previous movies were mostly the obscure, short, grainy, plotless stag films known as loops, Deep Throat, which had set design, occasional costumes, dialogue punctuated by borscht-belt humor and an actual plot of sorts, was Cinema.

Mr. Reems played Dr. Young, a physician whose diagnostic brilliance — he locates the rare anatomical quirk that makes Ms. Lovelace’s character vastly prefer oral sex to intercourse — is matched by his capacity for tireless ministration.

“I was always the doctor,” he told New York magazine in 2005, “because I was the one that had an acting background. I would say: ‘You’re having trouble with oral sex? Well, here’s how to do it.’ Cut to a 20-minute oral-sex scene.”•

In 1976, William F. Buckley “welcomes” Reems and his attorney, a wild-haired Alan Dershowitz.


Barbra Streisand chats up Golda Meir in 1978 as part of The Stars Salute Israel at 30, which is amusing, despite the atrocious canned laughter. Probably the best Meir inquisition was conducted by Oriana Fallaci, who had an affinity for the Israeli leader, who reminded her of her mother, despite not agreeing with all of the Prime Minister’s politics. An excerpt:

Oriana Fallaci:

Shall we talk about the woman Ben-Gurion called ‘the ablest man in my cabinet?’

Golda Meir:

That’s one of the legends that have grown up around me. It’s also a legend I’ve always found irritating, though men use it as a great compliment. Is it? I wouldn’t say so. Because what does it really mean? That it’s better to be a man than a woman, a principle on which I don’t agree at all. So here’s what I’d like to say to those who make me such a compliment. And what if Ben-Gurion had said, ‘The men in my cabinet are as able as a woman’? Men always feel so superior. I’ll never forget what happened at a congress of my party in New York in the 1930s. I made a speech and in the audience there was a writer friend of mine. An honest person, a man of great culture and refinement. When it was over he came up to me and exclaimed, ‘Congratulations! You’ve made a wonderful speech! And to think you’re only a woman!’ That’s just what he said in such a spontaneous, instinctive way. It’s a good thing I have a sense of humor….

Oriana Fallaci:

The Women’s Liberation Movement will like that, Mrs. Meir.

Golda Meir:

Do you mean those crazy women who burn their bras and go around all disheveled and hate men? They’re crazy. Crazy. But how can one accept such crazy women who think that it’s a misfortune to get pregnant and a disaster to bring children into the world? And when it’s the greatest privilege we women have over men.•

Effective Altruism is certainly better than doing no good at all, and belittling its true believers while doing less than them doesn’t make anyone morally superior, but there’s something of Pangloss’ misplaced confidence in believing back-of-the-napkin “moral calculations” and “philanthropic formulas” can cure the ills of a spinning, jagged world resistant to such neat solutions. While EA adherents clearly don’t think the rising tide of consumerism will, on its own, lift all boats, they do feel enough people using rigorous logic to co-opt capitalism to benefit those less fortunate is the most effective life preserver.

In “Stop the Robot Apocalypse,” her excellent if misleadingly titled London Review of Books piece about William MacAskill’s Doing Good Better, Amia Srinivasan wonders about this system of charity that’s certainly more nebulous than Utilitarianism. She asks, among other things, if the participation of Effective Altruists in capitalism actually perpetuates and exacerbates the wrongs they purport to heal. She also questions if it’s wise to icily wring all emotion from decisions about the “worthiness” or “arbitrariness” of a cause. 

An excerpt:

Doing Good Better is a feel-good guide to getting good done. It doesn’t dwell much on the horrors of global inequality, and sidesteps any diagnosis of its causes. The word ‘oppression’ appears just once. This is surely by design, at least in part. According to MacAskill’s moral worldview, it is the consequences of one’s actions that really matter, and that’s as true of writing a book as it is of donating to charity. His patter is calculated for maximal effect: if the book weren’t so cheery, MacAskill couldn’t expect to inspire as much do-gooding, and by his own lights that would be a moral failure. (I’m not saying it doesn’t work. Halfway through reading the book I set up a regular donation to GiveDirectly, one of the charities MacAskill endorses for its proven efficacy. It gives unconditional direct cash transfers to poor households in Uganda and Kenya.)

But the book’s snappy style isn’t just a strategic choice. MacAskill is evidently comfortable with ways of talking that are familiar from the exponents of global capitalism: the will to quantify, the essential comparability of all goods and all evils, the obsession with productivity and efficiency, the conviction that there is a happy convergence between self-interest and morality, the seeming confidence that there is no crisis whose solution is beyond the ingenuity of man. He repeatedly talks about philanthropy as a deal too good to pass up: ‘It’s like a 99 per cent off sale, or buy one, get 99 free. It might be the most amazing deal you’ll see in your life.’ There is a seemingly unanswerable logic, at once natural and magical, simple and totalising, to both global capitalism and effective altruism. That he speaks in the proprietary language of the illness – global inequality – whose symptoms he proposes to mop up is an irony on which he doesn’t comment. Perhaps he senses that his potential followers – privileged, ambitious millennials – don’t want to hear about the iniquities of the system that has shaped their worldview. Or perhaps he thinks there’s no irony here at all: capitalism, as always, produces the means of its own correction, and effective altruism is just the latest instance.

Yet there is no principled reason why effective altruists should endorse the worldview of the benevolent capitalist. Since effective altruism is committed to whatever would maximise the social good, it might for example turn out to support anti-capitalist revolution. And although MacAskill focuses on health as a proxy for goodness, there is no principled reason, as he points out, why effective altruism couldn’t also plug values like justice, dignity or self-determination into its algorithms. (There’s also no reason why one couldn’t ‘earn to give’ to help radical causes; Engels worked at a mill in Manchester to support Marx’s writing of Capital.) Effective altruism has so far been a rather homogeneous movement of middle-class white men fighting poverty through largely conventional means, but it is at least in theory a broad church.•


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Douglas Coupland, when working as a member of Steven Spielberg’s think tank on Minority Report, advised the director that the future would be much quieter. Well, certain parts of it will be, and some of them are pieces that rumbled with human activity for as long as they existed. Actually, in many cases, Coupland’s tomorrow has already arrived. 

Photographer Edgar Martins’ new series, 00:00.00, captures eerie moments when cutting-edge Munich BMW factories are slowed to a stop, their almost-humanless hum silenced, reminding us that they exist and operate while we busy ourselves elsewhere. Soon, these operations won’t need even a few of us, and we’ll have to find other things to do with our time. We’ll have to redefine what humans are here for, a process that will continue as long as we do, and we’ll require fresh political solutions to navigate this new normal.

From Adele Peters at Fast Company:

“Factories and data processing centers are, perhaps, the most relevant production centers of our times,” Martins says. “I’m interested in how technology is shaping our lives and how we have become increasingly dependent on it, for better or worse. I’m also interested in the notion of technological utopias and the dreams and aspirations we attach to technological advancements and progress.”

Car factories have helped shape the world we live in and will reshape it again as companies react to climate change, he says. “The automotive industry faces some major challenges over the next decades, as it aims to deal with the inherent shortcomings and pitfalls of the internal combustion engine and its environmental repercussions.”•

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Jackie Collins was the ultimate Hollywood insider, yet she was, British-born, also a stranger, possessing a distance that served her well when writing of the morals (or lack thereof) of the glittering stars in that particularly bawdy time when the Sexual Revolution made Los Angeles even more louche. She wasn’t writing Nathanael West but instead focused south of the belt, and it served her well. From an appropriately very lively (and sadly unbylined) postmortem in the Economist:

There was probably no one in the room who knew Hollywood better. She was its resident anthropologist, anatomiser and guide. The Grill for lunch. Mr Chow’s or Cecconi’s for dinner. Soho House for the best view of the whole staggeringly beautiful city of Los Angeles. Neiman-Marcus in Beverly Hills for shoes and jewels.

But this was only the start. Jackie C. also knew the places of furtive whispers and hot sheets. All of them. She had experienced 90210’s wicked side ever since the age of 15, when she made Errol Flynn chase her round a table in the louche Chateau Marmont Hotel and fought off Sammy Davis Jr. Ever since she’d two-timed a couple of car mechanics on Sunset Boulevard. And ever since Marlon Brando, at a party, had admired her magnificent 39-inch breasts at the start of their brief but fabulous affair. Now for trysts she recommended the Bel-Air (“very discreet”) and Geoffrey’s at the Beach for waves, lights and general sexiness.

Yet this was still not why she was the most potent and dangerous person in the room. She was a writer. Over the years, quietly and intently, she had watched what the denizens of Hollywood were doing, and listened to what they were saying. Who had ditched whom. Who was eyeing up whom. Who had slept with whom, and full details. From her corner table at Spago’s, or half-hidden by a drape in a night-club, or under the dryer at Riley’s hair and nail salon, she would gather every last crumb of gossip and rush to the powder room to write it down. She turned it into sizzling novels in which, every six pages or so, enormous erections burst out of jeans, French lace panties were torn off and groans of delight rang through the palm-fringed Hollywood air. There were 32 books in all, with titles like The Stud, The Bitch, Lethal Seduction and Hollywood Divorces. She had sold half a billion of them worldwide. Anyone she met might turn up there. Stars would beg her not to put them in her stories, and she would tell them they were there, toned down, already. Hard luck.•


I admire the London Review of Books, but I was a little surprised when its longtime editor Mary-Kay Wilmers recently told the Financial Times that the periodical has had to lean more heavily on political content because they’re aren’t enough worthy books to fill its pages with critiques.

That isn’t true, I don’t think, even if it’s a frequent refrain: Our digital culture has developed in such a way as to diminish literature, people now won’t read more than 140 characters, the quality of the written word is in steep decline.

Except I truly believe we’re living in a golden age for books, with so many great titles that it’s impossible to keep up with them. Certain corners of the publishing world have been destabilized, particularly by Amazon’s business practices, but in the big picture it seems we have rich and varied contributions from a much wider array of writers. 

Maybe future generations raised on smartphones won’t be as accepting of literature (though I don’t think so), and perhaps books will become so cheap that writing won’t attract great talent (not likely), but for now at least, it’s a wonderful time to be a reader.

Another thing that’s often said is that in the near future, all books will be read on screens and not at all on dead trees. This transition wouldn’t mean the death of books, of course, as just the medium would change, and whatever influence this new instrument has on books in the long run, it would be far from lethal and perhaps even more likely prove beneficial. The changeover certainly would, however, sink bookstores. This passage may still materialize, but for now, the tide has receded.

From Alexandra Alter of the New York Times:

“E-books were this rocket ship going straight up,” said Len Vlahos, a former executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, a nonprofit research group that tracks the publishing industry. “Just about everybody you talked to thought we were going the way of digital music.”

But the digital apocalypse never arrived, or at least not on schedule. While analysts once predicted that e-books would overtake print by 2015, digital sales have instead slowed sharply.

Now, there are signs that some e-book adopters are returning to print, or becoming hybrid readers, who juggle devices and paper. E-book sales fell by 10 percent in the first five months of this year, according to the Association of American Publishers, which collects data from nearly 1,200 publishers. Digital books accounted last year for around 20 percent of the market, roughly the same as they did a few years ago.

E-books’ declining popularity may signal that publishing, while not immune to technological upheaval, will weather the tidal wave of digital technology better than other forms of media, like music and television.•


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I was reading a 1908 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article about Red Cloud, and it reminded me of a passage from the opening chapter of Ian Frazier’s excellent 2000 book, On the Rez. In telling about the Oglala Lakota chief’s visit to the White House in 1870, Frazier examined our age and came to some troubling conclusions, all of which seem even truer 15 years on. Real freedom in our corporatocracy is more expensive than ever, but it’s cheap and easy to be discarded. The excerpt:

    In 1608, the newly arrived Englishmen at Jamestown colony in Virginia proposed to give the most powerful Indian in the vicinity, Chief Powhatan, a crown. Their idea was to coronate him a sub-emperor of Indians, and vassal to the English King. Powhatan found the offer insulting. “I also am a King,” he said, “and this is my land.” Joseph Brant, a Mohawk of the Iroquois Confederacy between eastern New York and the Great Lakes, was received as a celebrity when he went to England with a delegation from his tribe in 1785. Taken to St. James’s Palace for a royal audience, he refused to kneel and kiss the hand of George III; he told the King that he would, however, gladly kiss the hand of the Queen. Almost a century later, the U.S. government gave Red Cloud, victorious war leader of the Oglala, the fanciest reception it knew how, with a dinner party at the White House featuring lighted chandeliers and wine and a dessert of strawberries and ice cream. The next day Red Cloud parleyed with the government officials just as he was accustomed to on the prairie—sitting on the floor. To a member of a Senate select committee who had delivered a tirade against Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Sioux leader carelessly replied, “I have grown to be a very independent man, and consider myself a very great man.”

     That self-possessed sense of freedom is closer to what I want; I want to be an uncaught Indian like them.

Another remark which non-Indians often make on the subject of Indians is “Why can’t they get with the program?” Anyone who talks about Indians in public will be asked that question, or variations on it; over and over: Why don’t Indians forget all this tribal nonsense and become ordinary Americans like the rest of us? Why do they insist on living in the past? Why don’t they accept the fact that we won and they lost? Why won’t they stop, finally, being Indians and join the modern world? I have a variety of answers handy. Sometimes I say that in former days “the program” called for the eradication of Indian languages, and children in Indian boarding schools were beaten for speaking them and forced to speak English, so they would fit in; time passed, cultural fashions changed, and Hollywood made a feature film about Indians in which for the sake of authenticity the Sioux characters spoke Sioux (with English subtitles), and the movie became a hit, and lots of people decided they wanted to learn Sioux, and those who still knew the language, those who had somehow managed to avoid “the program” in the first place, were suddenly the ones in demand. Now, I think it’s better not to answer the question but to ask a question in return: What program, exactly, do you have in mind?

    We live in a craven time. I am not the first to point out that capitalism, having defeated Communism, now seems to be about to do the same to democracy. The market is doing splendidly, yet we are not, somehow. Americans today no longer work mostly in manufacturing or agriculture but in the newly risen service economy. That means that most of us make our living by being nice. And if we can’t be nice, we’d better at least be neutral. In the service economy, anyone who sat where he pleased in the presence of power or who expatiated on his own greatness would soon be out the door. “Who does he think he is?” is how the dismissal is usually framed. The dream of many of us is that someday we might miraculously have enough money that we could quit being nice, and everybody would then have to be nice to us, and niceness would surround us like a warm dome. Certain speeches we would love to make accompany this dream, glorious, blistering tellings-off of those to whom we usually hold our tongue. The eleven people who actually have enough money to do that are icons to us. What we read in newsprint and see on television always reminds us how great they are, and we can’t disagree. Unlike the rest of us, they can deliver those speeches with no fear. The freedom that inhered in Powhatan, that Red Cloud carried with him from the plains to Washington as easily as air—freedom to be and to say, whenever, regardless of disapproval—has become a luxury most of us can’t afford.•


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Ken Kesey knew the truth could kill you just as easily as it could set you free, but he saw no other way. In 1966, the novelist and fellow Merry Prankster Mountain Girl met with the press after an arrest. In defending misfits hectored by police and government for refusing to try to fit in, he paraphrases a line from his novel of two years earlier, Sometimes A Great Notion: “A person should have the right to try to be as big as he believes it is in him to be.”


In 2010, the last year of Benoit Mandelbrot’s life, Errol Morris pointed his Interrotron at the mathematician who recognized patterns in nature that nobody else did and gave us fractals. Morris himself often deals in fractals, chipping away pieces of his subject’s minds that perfectly represent the greater self.


If someone was going to make a feature film about the lurid 2009 true-life story about two mini-luchadore brothers being accidentally drugged to death in Mexico City by female thieves posing as prostitutes, it’s probably good that it’s Arturo Ripstein, who has sociological and psychological curiosity and whose Deep Crimson covered similar terrain. The movie, titled (in English) Bleak Street, screened at Toronto and Venice, and has thus far received mixed reviews.

One would certainly think that Dr. Ben Carson knows a great deal about neurosurgery, but he understands precious little about American history and our Constitution, and it’s made him espouse a deeply bigoted view of who we are. From a Yahoo! News report about his just-aired Meet the Press appearance: 

Carson, a devout Christian, says a president’s faith should matter to voters if it runs counter to the values and principles of America.

Responding to a question during an interview broadcast Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press, he described the Islamic faith as inconsistent with the Constitution.

“I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation,” Carson said. “I absolutely would not agree with that.”•

Despite what Carson thinks, our forefathers did not base America on Christianity. From The Stammering Century, Gilbert Seldes’ book about our nation during an earlier extreme age:

When the time came to frame a constitution, God was considered an alien influence and, in the deliberation of the Assembly, his name was not invoked. “Inexorably,” says Charles and Mary Beard in their story of The Rise of American Civilization, “the national government was secular from top to bottom. Religious qualifications …found no place whatever in the Federal Constitution. Its preamble did not invoke the blessings of Almighty God…and the First Amendment…declared that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” In dealing with Tripoli, President Washington allowed it to be squarely stated that “the government of the United States is not in any sense founded upon the Christian religion.”•


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Alan Whicker’s great 1971 profile of the wet-dream merchant Harold Robbins opens with the trashy author making his way through his childhood neighborhood, Hell’s Kitchen, during New York City’s bad old days. Robbins, who was the best-selling novelist in the world at the time as well as a dedicated orgiast, specialized in literature that was most suitable for the beach or masturbation, though preferably not both at the same time.


Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller and writer William Peter Blatty, collaborators on the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist, reconvened in 1984 for Good Morning America. According to legend, Blatty pretended to be an Arabian prince in the 1950s to get booked on the game show You Bet Your Life. He didn’t fool Groucho but did win $10,000, which helped him jump-start his writing career.


Just amazing footage of the late inventor David H. Shepard demonstrating his Optical Character Reader on a 1959 episode of I’ve Got a Secret. From his 2007 New York Times obituary:

David H. Shepard, who in his attic invented one of the first machines that could read, and then, to facilitate its interpreting of credit-card receipts, came up with the near-rectilinear font still used for the cards’ numbers, died on Nov. 24 in San Diego. He was 84. …

Mr. Shepard followed his reading machine, more formally known as an optical-character-recognition device, with one that could listen and talk. It could answer only “yes” or “no,” but each answer led to a deeper level of complexity. A later version could simultaneously handle multiple telephone inquiries. …

In 1964, his “conversation machine” became the first commercial device to give telephone callers access to computer data by means of their own voices.  …

Mr. Shepard apologized many times for his major role in forcing people to converse with a machine instead of with a human being.•

The spirit of any age must be addressed, even when inconvenient. I doubt Bill Clinton entered politics to be the tough-on-crime President whose policies helped turn the nation into a penal colony within a colony, but there he was in the 1990s, not realizing that crime was about to mysteriously and precipitously decline, waving a badge and a billy club. Clinton likely never dreamed of a scenario in which he would be chastening “welfare queens,” yet there he was doing a better job of it than Ronald Reagan, who coined that odious term. It was no different than when Richard Nixon, having at long last having won the White House, argued in favor of universal healthcare and a basic-guaranteed-income tax plan, something he certainly wasn’t considering before the Sixties happened.

Chief among the prevailing winds of our time is wealth inequality, the enduring gift of an Occupy movement that framed a single election and otherwise sputtered out, at least for now. So GOP candidates must, at minimum, pay lip service to the concern. Donald Trump is suddenly a reformer taking aim at hedge-fund managers. Jeb Bush has spoken about how income disparity has threatened the American Dream (without mentioning, of course, that his proposed tax cuts would only exacerbate the situation). Rick Santorum and the sweater-vest wing of the party want to raise the minimum wage. 

What’s true of politicians is also so of economists, and academics have descended on the problem, which makes this moment ideal for Joseph Stiglitz, who’s spent much of his career, from thesis forward, on the topic. In a NYRB piece, James Surowiecki analyzes the economist’s most recent slate of books, finding fault with Stiglitz’s identification of the twin devils of the contemporary financial arrangement: rent-seeking and a lack of corporate oversight. Surowiecki doesn’t believe these issues explain our 99-and-1 predicament. He doesn’t dismiss Stiglitz’s suggestions and likewise sees no reason why CEOs should be earning so much, but he believes a remedy is more complicated.

An excerpt: 

It’s possible, of course, that further reform of corporate governance (like giving shareholders the ability to cast a binding vote on CEO pay packages) will change this dynamic, but it seems unlikely. After all, companies with private owners—who have total control over how much to pay their executives—pay their CEOs absurd salaries, too. And CEOs who come into a company from outside—meaning that they have no sway at all over the board—actually get paid more than inside candidates, not less. Since 2010, shareholders have been able to show their approval or disapproval of CEO pay packages by casting nonbinding “say on pay” votes. Almost all of those packages have been approved by large margins. (This year, for instance, these packages were supported, on average, by 95 percent of the votes cast.)

Similarly, while money managers do reap the benefits of opaque and overpriced fees for their advice and management of portfolios, particularly when dealing with ordinary investors (who sometimes don’t understand what they’re paying for), it’s hard to make the case that this is why they’re so much richer than they used to be. In the first place, opaque as they are, fees are actually easier to understand than they once were, and money managers face considerably more competition than before, particularly from low-cost index funds. And when it comes to hedge fund managers, their fee structure hasn’t changed much over the years, and their clients are typically reasonably sophisticated investors. It seems improbable that hedge fund managers have somehow gotten better at fooling their clients with “uncompetitive and often undisclosed fees.”

So what’s really going on? Something much simpler: asset managers are just managing much more money than they used to, because there’s much more capital in the markets than there once was.•


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Peter W. Singer, who wrote Wired for War and coauthored (with August Cole) Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, just did a really interesting Ask Me Anything at Reddit about the fire next time. In addition to the exchanges below, Singer’s long answer to a question about the U.S. response to Chinese cyberattacks is definitely worth reading.



Do you think that having high-tech weapons and capabilities lowers the threshold for taking military actions? Thinking of drones as an immediate example and cyberwarfare as a coming one.

Peter W. Singer:

Yes, I think that is a risk. The new generation of tech lowers the bar to entry in 2 ways: 1) Unlike Atomic bombs or aircraft carriers, they are much easier for nations and even non state actors to individuals to gain and use. Indeed, over 100 nations already have cyber military units and 80 have drones, while less than 10 have nukes and only one has supercarriers, but 2) The new generation of technology also moves the human role sometimes geographically off the battlefield and sometimes chronologically from the point in time of its use. So it creates distance and among many a percerption of less risk. Leaders and their public don’t look at the decision to use force in the same way. So that also lowers the barrier of entry to conflict. Think how we’ve carried out more than 400 drone strikes into Pakistan, but no one thinks of it as a “war.” To be clear, this perception of less risk doesn’t mean the actual costs are removed. The costs hit in everything from casualties in that target area to blowback over the longterm. I did a piece a few years back on this.



As I understand it, a large part of U.S. defense and security policy has been built around having a technological superiority over any potential adversary and so I would like to ask you if you believe that this strategy will continue to be viable in the foreseeable future and what potential trends or developments are/might impact it?

Peter W. Singer:

That is exactly one of the key questions the book plays with.

In every fight since 1945 (when Germany had jets and we had prop planes), US forces have been a generation-ahead in technology. It has not always translated to decisive victories, but it has been an edge every other nation wants and its baked into our assumptions. Yet US forces can’t count on that “overmatch” in the future. Some of our trusted major platforms are now vulnerable to new classes of weapons, but also we face a new tech race. China, for example, just overtook the EU in R& D spending and is on pace to match the US in five years, with new projects ranging from the world’s fastest supercomputers to three different long range drone strike programs. And now off-the-shelf technologies can be bought to rival even the most advanced tools in the US arsenal. The winner of a recent robotics test, for instance, was not a US defense contractor but a group of South Korea student engineers.

There is another interesting aspect of this that comes from cyber attacks. We’re planning to spend over a Trillion (no typo, a T) dollars on a new stealth fighter jet, the F35, that was planned to be a generation ahead of any potential foe. And yet that program has been hacked on at least 3 occasions. The result is that F35 has a near twin, the J31, before its even operational for us. It is hard to win an arms race, when you are paying the R&D for the other side.



I’m not sure if this is outside your field, but a few weeks ago I asked Defense Secretary Carter what technological developments interested him the most, and although he didn’t say that it directly interested him the most, he indicated that biotechnology has the potential to be very transformative for modern warfare. Do you have any thoughts about this? Any important systems, companies, personalities etc to keep an eye out in regards to this?


Peter W. Singer:

Yes, the pace of breakthrough in that field is actually moving much faster than even Moore’s Law for IT. Some amazing things happening in genomics etc. We played a bit with human performance modification tech in Ghost Fleet and another scene on Brain-Machine interface, but genomics is one we didn’t tap, which could be transformative. And to be clear, “transformative” means you get amazing new capabilities, but also amazing new questions and dilemmas and problems.



Do you think U.S. political leaders have a good handle on emerging high technology (and the benefits/risks thereof) or should the general population be concerned?

For example: drones, cybersecurity/cyber warfare, internet policy in general, etc.

Peter Singer:

No, sadly not. Just way behind in their understanding of not merely where we are headed, but where we already are. The result is that they often make simple errors with major consequences and are taken advantage of by “hucksters” who are invested in some particular tech or role, and spin a little amount of knowledge to their own advantage. We see it in everything from defense issues to the “cyber walls” discussion in presidential debates, where all the candidates nodded in seeming agreement, as someone used a term that is literally made up and makes no sense.•



I thought recently of this 2014 Gary Indiana quote about contemporary NYC and the U.S.: “This city, America, loves the successful sociopath and thinks it’s normal to dream of becoming like him.”

In the London Review of Books, Indiana writes of Masha Gessen’s The Brothers, her examination of the motivations of the Tsarnaev siblings, who perpetrated the horrific Boston Marathon bombing. The title was largely taken to task in the New York Times by former DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, not a disinterested party. Indiana, conversely, lavishes praise upon it. In doing so, he argues that destabilized economies, America’s included, are helping to breed violent radicals. Perhaps, though even in times of relative financial stability, such acts of political terrorism occur. The extremist child can be born of many different types of parents, not just poor ones.

An excerpt that quotes another treatment of terrorist tragedy, Yasmina Khadra’s novel The Attack:

What passed between the brothers in the ten months after Zubeidat’s departure to Dagestan is terra incognita. The chances are no specific event or Svengali-like radicalisation inspired the Tsarnaev brothers to blow up the Boston Marathon. As a policeman in Yasmina Khadra’s 2006 novel The Attack puts it: ‘I think even the most seasoned terrorists really have no idea what has happened to them. And it can happen to anyone. Something clicks somewhere in their subconscious, and they’re off … Either it falls on your head like a roof tile or it attaches itself to your insides like a tapeworm. Afterwards, you no longer see the world in the same way.’ The media fantasy that Tamerlan was schizophrenic and ‘heard voices’ is highly improbable. The consensus among terrorism experts is that terrorists are normal people. ‘He was a perfectly nice guy.’ ‘The last person I’d imagine doing something like this.’ After the fact, neighbours, friends and co-workers invariably say the same things about terrorists as they say about serial killers. It’s worth noting that there isn’t a single provable instance of the legendary FBI profiling unit in Quantico, Virginia actually instigating the capture of a serial killer: it tends to be when someone is stopped for driving with a broken tail light that the dead body in the trunk is discovered. It’s only afterwards that we’re told they ‘fit the FBI profile’.


Why did they do it? How could they? In the world we live in now, the better questions are: why not? Why wouldn’t they? To quote Khadra’s novel again, on suicide bombers: ‘The only way to get back what you’ve lost or to fix what you’ve screwed up – in other words, the only way to make something of your life – is to end it with a flourish: turn yourself into a giant firecracker in the middle of a school bus or launch yourself like a torpedo against an enemy tank.’ Everything the US has done to prevent terrorism has been the best advertising terrorism could possibly have. The ‘war on terror’ has degenerated since its ugly inception in Afghanistan and Iraq into a two-pronged war against the US domestic population’s civil rights and the infrastructures of Muslim nations; every cynical episode of this endless war has inched America closer to a police state, and turned people minding their own business in other countries into jihadists and suicide bombers. If the United States were at all interested in preventing terrorism, it would first have to acknowledge that the country belongs to the citizens its economic policies have impoverished, and get rid of emergency laws that violate their rights on the pretext of ensuring their safety. This would involve dismantling the surveillance state apparatus that inflates its criminally gigantic budgets with phony terrorism warnings and a veritable industry of theatrical FBI sting operations. And then the country would have to address the systemic social problems that have been allowed to metastasise ever since the presidency of Ronald Reagan. As everyday existence becomes more punitive for all but the monied few, more and more frustrated, volatile individuals will seek each other out online, aggravate whatever lethal fairy tale suits their pathology, and, ultimately, transfer their rage from the screen world to the real one.•

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Ilya Somin of the Volokh Conspiracy blog at the Washington Post has capsules of two new books with a Libertarian bent, one of which is Markets Without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests by Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski. The main premise seems to be that activities deemed legal if done for no financial gain should also be permitted if there is a charge. Selling kidneys and sex are two chief examples. On the face of it, that makes a lot of sense, except…

What if placing a financial value on a kidney reduces the number of organs donated for free, making them unaffordable except to people who could bid the highest? Would we want the market regulating such a thing?

Prostitution would seem like an easier problem: It’s always existed, so let’s stop being silly and just legalize it. One argument against: If it was okay to have group-sex clubs (like the infamous Plato’s Retreat), wouldn’t that create a ground zero for STDs that could go beyond the participants? Couldn’t it be a public-health threat? Sure, people can arrange for such risky group behaviors for free now, but legalization would commodify and encourage them.

It always seems exciting to strip away regulations, but there are hardly ever simple solutions. At any rate, I look forward to reading the book. 

From Somin:

In Markets Without Limits, [Jason] Brennan and [Peter] Jaworski argue that anything you should be allowed to do for free, you should also be allowed to do for money. They do not claim that markets should be completely unconstrained, merely that we should not ban any otherwise permissible transaction solely because money has been exchanged. Thus, for example, they agree that murder for hire should be illegal. But only because it should also be illegal to commit murder for free. Their thesis is also potentially compatible with a wide range of regulations of various markets to prevent fraud, deception, and the like. Nonetheless, their thesis is both radical and important. The world is filled with policies that ban selling of goods and services that can nonetheless be given away for free. Consider such cases as bans on organ markets, prostitution, and ticket-scalping.•

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In 1979, John Z. DeLorean was poised for greatness or disaster, having left behind the big automakers to create his own car from scratch, a gigantic gambit in the Industrial Age that required huge talent and hubris. Esquire writer William Flanagan profiled DeLorean that year, capturing the gambler in mid-deal, still bluffing, soon to be folding. The opening:

For a man who looks like Tyrone Power, is married to the stunning young model in the Virginia Slims and Clairol ads, and earns six figures a year, John Zachary DeLorean certainly doesn’t smile much. He can’t. Not just yet, anyway. The reason is simple: The most important project in his life has yet to be accomplished. DeLorean wants to make a monkey out of General Motors. He is on the verge of doing it, but he has a way to go.

There will be no rest for DeLorean until he finishes doing what no one else in the history of modern business has dared attempt–to design, build, and sell his very own automobile from scratch, an automobile the world’s largest car company wouldn’t, couldn’t, and probably shouldn’t build.•

In 1988, his dreams dashed and reputation destroyed, DeLorean was living in Manhattan, now a born-again Christian, still believing he would get another chance. He granted a rare interview to a local TV station from his old stomping grounds in Detroit. Funny to see him strolling through Central Park.


Ayn Rand, author of Objectivist claptrap, had very specific taste in fellow writers, which she revealed to interlocutor Alvin Toffler in a 1964 Playboy interview:

Playboy: Are there any novelists whom you admire?

Ayn Rand: Yes. Victor Hugo.

Playboy: What about modern novelists?

Ayn Rand: No, there is no one that I could say I admire among the so-called serious writers. I prefer the popular literature of today, which is today’s remnant of Romanticism. My favorite is Mickey Spillane.

Playboy: Why do you like him?

Ayn Rand: Because he is primarily a moralist. In a primitive form, the form of a detective novel, he presents the conflict of good and evil, in terms of black and white. He does not present a nasty gray mixture of indistinguishable scoundrels on both sides. He presents an uncompromising conflict. As a writer, he is brilliantly expert at the aspect of literature which I consider most important: plot structure.

Playboy: What do you think of Faulkner?

Ayn Rand: Not very much. He is a good stylist, but practically unreadable in content–so I’ve read very little of him.

Playboy: What about Nabokov?

Ayn Rand: I have read only one book of his and a half–the half was Lolita, which I couldn’t finish. He is a brilliant stylist, he writes beautifully, but his subjects, his sense of life, his view of man, are so evil that no amount of artistic skill can justify them.•

Here she is at Madison Square Garden with Phil Donahue in 1979, explaining why she wouldn’t vote for any woman to be President of the United States.


The Bobby Fischer of the recording studio, Phil Spector, ultimately more unhinged than unorthodox, couldn’t permanently muffle the dark voices within a Wall of Sound. Mad even back in 1965, he “amused” Merv Griffin, Richard Pryor, et al.

My problem with the late Polish author Stanislaw Lem stems from his disdain for Franz Kafka, an early influence whom he ultimately deemed “repugnant“–and he meant it in a negative way! 

Lem, of course, was brilliant, a Hoover of knowledge with a jet pack inside his head, his attentions rapidly moving far and wide. His 1964 nonfiction work, Summa Technologiae, which wasn’t wholly translated into English until 2013, serves as the foundation for Lee Billings’ latest wonderful essay, the Nautilus piece “The Book No One Read.” (I’ll acknowledge I’m one of those impoverished souls.) Billings argues that Lem is something of a Digital Age Cassandra, warning us that past a point we’ll no longer be able to manage our technological progress if we don’t engineer what might be termed a posthuman superintelligence. In a sense, we will be the end of us, and that’s the most hopeful outcome. As Billings states, Lem was asking a very fundamental question: “Does technology control humanity, or does humanity control technology?”

An excerpt:

In its early stages, Lem writes, the development of technology is a self-reinforcing process that promotes homeostasis, the ability to maintain stability in the face of continual change and increasing disorder. That is, incremental advances in technology tend to progressively increase a society’s resilience against disruptive environmental forces such as pandemics, famines, earthquakes, and asteroid strikes. More advances lead to more protection, which promotes more advances still.

And yet, Lem argues, that same technology-driven positive feedback loop is also an Achilles heel for planetary civilizations, at least for ours here on Earth. As advances in science and technology accrue and the pace of discovery continues its acceleration, our society will approach an “information barrier” beyond which our brains—organs blindly, stochastically shaped by evolution for vastly different purposes—can no longer efficiently interpret and act on the deluge of information.

Past this point, our civilization should reach the end of what has been a period of exponential growth in science and technology. Homeostasis will break down, and without some major intervention, we will collapse into a “developmental crisis” from which we may never fully recover. Attempts to simply muddle through, Lem writes, would only lead to a vicious circle of boom-and-bust economic bubbles as society meanders blindly down a random, path-dependent route of scientific discovery and technological development. “Victories, that is, suddenly appearing domains of some new wonderful activity,” he writes, “will engulf us in their sheer size, thus preventing us from noticing some other opportunities—which may turn out to be even more valuable in the long run.”•

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Karl May, left, in 1904.

Karl May, left, in 1904.

Making complete sense of the perfect storm of hatred and insanity that enabled Nazi Germany is impossible, but still we try. Are there any clues in the elaborate personal library that madman Adolf Hitler assembled? Probably not, but for curiosity’s sake, he was particularly enamored with the work of Karl May, a writer of Westerns who never visited America. (In all fairness to May, Albert Einstein was also a fan.) During the heat of WWII, an article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle looked at the titles on Hitler’s shelves, trying to make some sense of it all.

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Reassessment–a chastening, even–often attends the publication of a biography, especially in the cases of writers or politicians. Joan Didion’s received a surprising number of calls for impeachment with the publication of Tracy Daugherty’s book about her.

I’ve never been a fan of Play It As It Lays (leave the smut to the professionals, please), but Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album are sensational (in the best sense of the word). Yes, Didion was a fashion-magazine veteran savvy enough to wear cool sunglasses and pose at the wheel of her Stingray, but her efforts at auto-iconography don’t even rate when compared to, say, Hunter S. Thompson’s. Since they both had the chops, who even cares?

A lot of the backlash stems from the then-aphasiac author’s depiction of California as haywire during the ’60s and ’70s. Her home state, that traitor! Sure, a big-picture take of the fantasia that is California can’t completely satisfy, and perhaps her portrait flattered East Coasters, but maybe most disturbing is that she did land on numerous and troubling truths of that place in that time. Although some will argue that these were mere distortions.

From a very well-written Barnes & Noble review of Daugherty’s bio by Tom Carson, a self-described Didion skeptic:

In her prime, she didn’t have casual readers; her gift for imposing her sensibility on events didn’t permit it. The paradox of The Year of Magical Thinking‘s success was that it introduced her to a nonliterary audience largely unaware that she’d been generating intimations of morbidity, desolation, and the existential jitters out of pretty much any topic put in front of her, from 1968’s career-defining essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem on. When “California” still blended the worst of heaven and the best of hell in Noo Yawk intellectuals’ minds, no other writer matched native daughter Didion at being the anti−Beach Boys.

In her home state’s very entertaining transformation from freakish American exotica to the place lit by rockets’ pink glare that the other forty-nine all try to be, she’s a pivotal figure: the last West Coast chronicler to make a career of insisting that where she came from was special, strange, and always latently monstrous. That happened to be precisely the view her culturally unnerved audience wanted endorsed at the time, but Didion also invited derision by treating her perpetually threatened morale as the ultimate gauge of how badly the twentieth century was botching its job. In a memorable hit piece, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison called her “a neurasthenic Cher.” Pauline Kael read Didion’s “ridiculously swank” 1970 novel Play It as It Lays “between bouts of disbelieving giggles.” Maybe not insignificantly, she tends to drive other woman writers up the wall — especially if, like Kael, they’re California gals themselves — more than men, who usually flip for her solemn tension.•


In the 1970s, Tom Brokaw profiled Didion, when she still called California home.

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Can Homo sapiens survive climate change, the long recovery process that will follow it and become a thriving multi-planet species? Not without huge changes.

In an excellent Nautilus interview astrobiologist David Grinspoon conducted with writer Kim Stanley Robinson, the sci-fi author discusses how humans can endure the Anthropocene. Robinson believes it will require a global economic system with ecology at its heart. Hard to imagine that shift, even with a planetary Easter Island in our eyes. Perhaps when it’s even clearer that there’s no other choice we’ll make the right one?

One exchange:

David Grinspoon

So, are we talking evolution or revolution? Do we need to escape from path dependence and start anew?

Kim Stanley Robinson: 

No, we have to alter the system we already have, because like an animal with evolutionary constraints, we can’t change everything and start from scratch. But what we could do is reconstruct regulations on the existing global economic system. For this, we would need to wrench capitalism so that the global rules of the World Bank, etc., required ecological sustainability as their main criterion. That way, prices would shift to match their true costs. Burning carbon would cost more than it does now, and clean energy would become cheaper than burning carbon. This would address the most pressing part of our crisis, but finding a replacement for the market to allocate goods and price them is not easy.

As we enter this new mass extinction event, at some point there is going to be a global civilization response that will try to deal with it: try to cope, survive, and repair landscapes and ecosystems. The scientific method and democratic politics are going to be the crucial tools, I’d say. For them to work, we need universal justice and education because we need active and well-educated citizens who are empowered and live at adequacy.

From where we are now, this looks pretty hard, but I think that’s because capitalism as we know it is represented as natural, entrenched, and immutable. None of that is true. It’s a political order and political orders change. What we want is to remember that our system is constructed for a purpose, and so in need of constant fixing and new tries.•

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Perhaps it was his background in biology that made H.G. Wells believe that the differences among us were smaller than politics made them out to be.

The author, who in the 1890s wrote a series of classic novels of science fiction decades before that genre was named, believed schools were using the teaching of history to instill a dangerous strain of nationalism. He called for a shift to a less ideological view of the past. A brief article in the September 5, 1937 Brooklyn Daily Eagle recalls the marks that caused something of a sensation.


There is a fascinating premise underpinning Steven Levy’s Backchannel interview with Jerry Kaplan, the provocatively titled, “Can You Rape a Robot?”: AI won’t need become conscious for us to treat it as such, for the new machines to require a very evolved sense of morality. Kaplan, the author of Humans Need Not Apply, believes that autonomous machines will be granted agency if they can only mirror our behaviors. Simulacrum on an advanced level will be enough. The author thinks AI can vastly improve the world, but only if we’re careful to make morality part of the programming.

An exchange:

Steven Levy:

Well by the end of your book, you’re pretty much saying we will have robot overlords — call them “mechanical minders.”

Jerry Kaplan:

It is plausible that certain things can [happen]… the consequences are very real. Allowing robots to own assets has severe consequences and I stand by that and I will back it up. Do I have the thing about your daughter marrying a robot in there?

Steven Levy:


Jerry Kaplan:

That’s a different book. [Kaplan has a sequel ready.] I’m out in the far future here, but it’s plausible that people will have a different attitude about these things because it’s very difficult to not have an emotional reaction to these things. As they become more a part of our lives people may very well start to inappropriately imbue them with certain points of view.•

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In a newly revised edition of Federico Fellini’s 1980 book, Making a Film, there’s a fresh translation of “A Spectator’s Autobiography,” the wonderful essay by Italo Calvino that begins the volume. It’s been adapted for publication by the NYRB.

In the piece, Calvino notes that the unpunctual habits of Italian moviegoers in the 1930s portended the ultimate widespread fracturing of the traditional narrative structure, an artifice intended to satisfy, if fleetingly, our deep craving for order, to deliver us a simple solution to the complex puzzle of life and its jagged pieces. 

An excerpt:

Italian spectators barbarously made entering after the film already started a widespread habit, and it still applies today. We can say that back then we already anticipated the most sophisticated of modern narrative techniques, interrupting the temporal thread of the story and transforming it into a puzzle to put back together piece by piece or to accept in the form of a fragmentary body. To console us further, I’ll say that attending the beginning of the film after knowing the ending provided additional satisfaction: discovering not the unraveling of mysteries and dramas, but their genesis; and a vague sense of foresight with respect to the characters. Vague: just like soothsayers’ visions must be, because the reconstruction of the broken plot wasn’t always easy, especially if it was a detective movie, where identifying the murderer first and the crime afterward left an even darker area of mystery in between. What’s more, sometimes a part was still missing between the beginning and the end, because suddenly while checking my watch I’d realize I was running late; if I wanted to avoid my family’s wrath I had to leave before the scene that was playing when I entered came back on. Therefore lots of films ended up with holes in the middle, and still today, more than thirty years later—what am I saying?—almost forty, when I happen to see one of those films from back then—on television, for example—I recognize the moment in which I entered the theater, the scenes that I’d watched without understanding them, and I recover the lost pieces, I put the puzzle back together as if I’d left it incomplete the day before.•

  • See also:

Fellini feuds with Oriana Fallaci. (1963)

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