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Before it became apparent that Geraldo Rivera really just wanted to give the whole world a free mustache ride, he was a respected, muckraking journalist who filmed a sensational and righteous report about abuses at Willowbrook. He instantly became a national name and soon had other opportunities, including a really good if sporadic 1973-75 late-night talk show, Good Night America.

In a summer 1974 episode, he spoke to someone I’m fascinated with in Clifford Irving, who’d written a 1969 book about art forger Elmyr De Hory before bringing out another volume in 1972, one in which he pretended that the reclusive Howard Hughes had collaborated with him on an autobiography. McGraw-Hill took the bait and gave him a boatload of cash for the “exclusive,” but the Hughes ruse was soon exposed. Irving was operating in an era when people still distinguished between fact and fiction, so his career went into a Dumpster for awhile.

Orson Welles, an infamous hoaxer himself, made a brilliant, serendipitous cine-essay, F Is for Fake, about the scandal as it unfolded, and Irving was grilled at the time by everyone from Mike Wallace to Abbie Hoffman. In a marriage-themed show, Geraldo speaks to Irving and his wife Edith about the toll on their relationship caused by the fraud’s fallout, which included prison sentences for them both. (They had just been released on parole when this program was filmed.)

The host also speaks to Sly and Kathy Stone about their wedding ceremony in front of more than 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden and shows footage of the event. The final segment is with comedian Robert Klein and his then-spouse, the opera singer Brenda Boozer. Loathsome Henny Youngman is the guest announcer, serving up Zsa Zsa Gabor jokes. Holy Mother of God! Watch it here.•

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ISIS is Hollywood, but it’s also Silicon Valley, a digital caliphate marrying Middle Ages barbarism to social media, Medieval yet mobile. The next-level Al-Qaeda has upped the ante on terror despite the absence thus far of a 9/11 on American soil. It’s thrived on small acts of well-publicized brutality and by doing something that Osama bin-Laden never come close to accomplishing: establishing a nation of sorts, if a tentative one of shifting borders.

While my default assumption is that things are constantly collapsing within any terrorist organization, Malise Ruthven’s NYRB piece about Abdel Bari Atwan’s new book depicts the Islamic State as a disciplined machine. An excerpt:

Bin Laden is dead, thanks to the action of US Navy SEALs in May 2011, but as Abdel Bari Atwan explains in Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s official successor as leader of “al-Qa‘ida central,” looks increasingly irrelevant. Bin Laden’s true successor is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the shadowy caliph of ISIS, the so-called Islamic State. As “Commander of the Faithful” in that nascent state he poses a far more formidable threat to the West and to Middle Eastern regimes—including the Saudi kingdom—that are sustained by Western arms than bin Laden did from his Afghan cave or hideout in Pakistan.

One of the primary forces driving this transformation, according to Atwan, is the digital expertise demonstrated by the ISIS operatives, who have a commanding presence in social media. A second is that ISIS controls a swath of territory almost as large as Britain, lying between eastern Syria and western Iraq. As Jürgen Todenhöfer, who spent ten days in ISIS-controlled areas in both Iraq and Syria, stated categorically in January: “We have to understand that ISIS is a country now.” …

The jihadists of ISIS may be terrorists—to use an imprecise, catch-all term—but as Atwan explains, they are both well paid and disciplined, and the atrocities they commit and upload on the Internet are part of a coherent strategy:

Crucifixions, beheadings, the hearts of rape victims cut out and placed upon their chests, mass executions, homosexuals being pushed from high buildings, severed heads impaled on railings or brandished by grinning “jihadist” children—who have latterly taken to shooting prisoners in the head themselves—these gruesome images of brutal violence are carefully packaged and distributed via Islamic State’s media department. As each new atrocity outdoes the last, front-page headlines across the world’s media are guaranteed.•

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Well, I hit the mother lode when I stumbled across 32 episodes of Good Night America, the 1973-75 ABC evening talk show (or “second-generation TV news magazine”) hosted by none other than Geraldo Rivera before the whole world knew he was yikes! It’s amazing in that it’s booked similarly to the classic Dick Cavett chat show with eclectic and often button-pushing guests. 

In this 1974 episode I’m linking to (can’t embed), Rivera’s then–father-in-law Kurt Vonnegut acts as the guest announcer at the show’s open and is interviewed at the 56-minute mark. He also reads from a work-in-progress called “Relatives,” which eventually became the god-awful Slapstick (the author’s least favorite of his novels). Additionally, Rivera visits Evel Knievel at Snake River Canyon prior to the daredevil’s ridonkulous stunt there, Bill Withers performs and Seals & Crofts sing their controversial anti-abortion song, “Unborn Child,” and discuss their belief in the Bahá’í Faith. Sweet Baby Jesus! Watch here.

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If the heart is a lonely hunter, then the brain is a game of William Tell. It’s tough to hit the target, and sometimes missing can lead to horrible consequences.

From Tim Adams’ Guardian piece about neuroscientist Dr. Suzanne O’Sullivan’s new book concerning imaginary illnesses, It’s All in Your Head:

Some of its more avant-garde subjects have faced O’Sullivan in her treatment room. Her experience of this type of patient began when she was just qualified as a junior doctor, watching a woman she calls Yvonne being questioned by her consultant. Yvonne, after an accident in which she had been sprayed in the face with window-cleaning fluid, had convinced herself and her family that she was blind. After six months of tests doctors had found nothing wrong with her eyes. She was by this time on disability benefits with a full-time carer, unable to get around her house. O’Sullivan and her fellow junior doctors, certain she could see, found it hard not to suppress giggles as Yvonne described her condition. They were reprimanded by the consultant. The cause of Yvonne’s blindness was psychological rather than physical – a response, it later seemed, to unbearable tensions in her marriage. It was to her no less real, however: she had subconsciously persuaded herself that she had lost her sight. After six months of psychiatric help and family counselling, O’Sullivan reports, Yvonne’s vision was restored.

It is O’Sullivan’s contention that “psychosomatic disorders are physical symptoms that mask emotional distress”. In the 19th century sufferers of such conditions were paraded by the celebrated neurologist Jean-Marie Charcot, who revealed to sold-out audiences how such states could be induced by suggestion and hypnosis. Even with fMRI scans and advances in neural imaging, the means by which thought alone can conjure physical pain is an unfathomable mystery. “One day a woman loses the power of speech entirely and the next she speaks in the voice of a child. A girl has a lump in her throat and becomes convinced she cannot swallow. Eyes close involuntarily and no amount of coaxing will open them.” Each of O’Sullivan’s patients is different; however, buried trauma or stress (itself an undefined cause and effect) seems often to be a trigger.

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Michael Crichton was a major part of the first wave of very educated Americans weaned on genre entertainments who moved B movies to the A-List and put pulp novels atop the New York Times Bestsellers. All the while, he drew the ire of the science community by putting a spotlight on the Victor Frankenstein side of the laboratory, worrying about the Singularity long before the phrase came into vogue (Westworld), thinking about the value corporations might put on the things inside of us prior to Larry Page’s brain-implant dreams (Coma), and considering the perils of de-extinction (Jurassic Park).

The opening of Michael Weinreb’s terrific Grantland consideration of a bad writer who was also a great writer:

At the heart of nearly every Michael Crichton novel is the simplest of premises: a protagonist in trouble, losing control of his world, facing forces he can no longer contain. It’s not exactly a sophisticated plot device, but while Crichton could be a complex thinker in terms of subject matter and scientific inquiry, especially later in his career, he was also an utterly facile writer as far as sentence structure and characterization go. He wrote page-turners that aspired for dystopic realism, and because of this, he is still a polarizing figure whose literary legacy remains unsettled. He once said that scientists criticized him for co-opting their theories into fiction, and that book critics ripped him for writing bad prose.

But one might also argue that few writers in modern history have married high-concept ideas and base-level entertainment as well as Crichton did. His books are the ultimate union of the geeky and the pulpy. Which is why one of this summer’s surefire blockbusters, Jurassic World, and one of this fall’s signature HBO series, Westworld, are both based on ideas that originated in the mind of a man who died almost seven years ago.

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Start with, say, a handsome doctor lured by a beautiful woman to an island that is actually an experiment in the parameters of human need, run by a shadowy corporation that feeds people a drug that (for reasons unknown) turns their urine a bright and shiny blue. Or start with a vacationing playboy who finds himself trapped at a French villa by a surgeon who wields a scalpel as a weapon, like a James Bond villain. Or start with a heist gone wrong, or a madman wielding nerve gas and threatening to attack the Republican National Convention, or a doctor arrested and thrown in jail on charges of performing an illegal abortion.

Those are a few of the premises of the nine books Crichton wrote in the late 1960s and early 1970s under varied pseudonyms, when he wasn’t yet a full-time writer and was still playing around with what kind he’d want to be if and/or when he became one. In a way, these novels are the most fascinating experiments of his career, because they’re windows into his thought process, into his own angst about technology and humanity. They’re the demos and B-sides that eventually led to his first best-selling book, 1969’s The Andromeda Strain, about a microorganism run amok. And The Andromeda Strain eventually led to 1990’sJurassic Park, the story of the dinosaurs run amok, the story that turned Crichton into one of the most famous writers on the planet.•

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Martin Ford has written a New York Times op-ed explaining why “China could well turn out to be ground zero for the economic and social disruption brought on by the rise of the robots.” Outsourcing used to mean moving jobs out of country, but more and more it will mean shifting them out of species. And no matter what the official line is, better jobs don’t necessarily await the displaced. The opening:

OVER the last decade, China has become, in the eyes of much of the world, a job-eating monster, consuming entire industries with its seemingly limitless supply of low-wage workers. But the reality is that China is now shifting its appetite to robots, a transition that will have significant consequences for China’s economy — and the world’s.

In 2014, Chinese factories accounted for about a quarter of the global ranks of industrial robots — a 54 percent increase over 2013. According to the International Federation of Robotics, it will have more installed manufacturing robots than any other country by 2017. 

Midea, a leading manufacturer of home appliances in the heavily industrialized province of Guangdong, plans to replace 6,000 workers in its residential air-conditioning division, about a fifth of the work force, with automation by the end of the year. Foxconn, which makes consumer electronics for Apple and other companies, plans to automate about 70 percent of factory work within three years, and already has a fully robotic factory in Chengdu.

Chinese factory jobs may thus be poised to evaporate at an even faster pace than has been the case in the United States and other developed countries. That may make it significantly more difficult for China to address one of its paramount economic challenges: the need to rebalance its economy so that domestic consumption plays a far more significant role than is currently the case.•

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As someone consumed by robotics, automation, the potential for technological unemployment and its societal and political implications, I read as many books as possible on the topic, and I feel certain that The Second Machine Age, the 2014 title coauthored by Andrew McAfee and Eric Brynjolfsson, is the best of the lot. If you’re just beginning to think about these issues, start right there.

In his Financial Times blog, McAfee, who believes this time is different and that the Second Machine Age won’t resemble the Industrial Age, has published a post about an NPR debate on the subject with MIT economist David Autor, who disagrees. An excerpt: 

Over the next 20-40 years, which was the timeframe I was looking at, I predicted that vehicles would be driving themselves; mines, factories, and farms would be largely automated; and that we’d have an extraordinarily abundance economy that didn’t have anything like the same bottomless thirst for labour that the Industrial Era did.

As expected, I found David’s comments in response to this line of argument illuminating. He said: “If we’d had this conversation 100 years ago I would not have predicted the software industry, the internet, or all the travel or all the experience goods … so I feel it would be rather arrogant of me to say I’ve looked at the future and people won’t come up with stuff … that the ideas are all used up.”

This is exactly right. We are going to see innovation, entrepreneurship, and creativity that I can’t even begin to imagine (if I could, I’d be an entrepreneur or venture capitalist myself). But all the new industries and companies that spring up in the coming years will only use people to do the work if they’re better at it than machines are. And the number of areas where that is the case is shrinking — I believe rapidly.•

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Elon Musk and other billionaire tinkerers want to go to Mars to save our species from extinction, but, of course, what we rescue won’t be us but a variant of us. And perhaps not one that seems so familiar.

Colonies on other planets will force evolution, perhaps not on the scale of gene editing, but pretty markedly. Or perhaps in addition to terraforming Mars, we might use genetic engineering to abet Homo sapiens’ survival on our neighboring planet. Of course, if that option becomes available, it won’t likely be soon. We’ll have to remake ourselves in a blunter way in space for the foreseeable future.

From Michael Tennesen’s fascinating The Next Species:

Biosphere 2 is an example of how long-term occupancy of a space station on a planet that is millions of miles from Earth could be extremely dangerous and fraught with perils that science may not yet know enough about. 

On the positive side, if we can overcome these hazards, then a Mars space station might offer a place where Homo sapiens can truly differentiate–becoming a new species. Carol Stoker, a planetary scientist at Ames Research Center, envisions a permanent research base of closed environments on Mars as the next most logical place to live outside of Earth. Still, she claims a child who grew up on the Red Planet, with one-third of the gravity of Earth, would never have the physical of skeletal structure to survive on our Blue Planet.

“It is likely that a second-generation Martian would be physically unfit to walk unaided on Earth, at least without intense weight and strength training,” says Stoker. “Just imagine if you suddenly weighed three times what you weigh now. Could you walk? Would your deconditioned heart be able to pump the blood volume needed? Whether we know it or not, we are constantly doing a lot of work against gravity.”

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Interplanetary travel would be a major evolutionary force for Earth-born settlers on Mars, and frequent travel between Earth and Mars would be unlikely because of the expense. Living on Mars could produce long-term biological changes that would make a return to Earth ultimately impossible. With isolation a natural part of the job, the gradual push of evolution toward becoming another species could happen in outer space just as well as here on Earth.•

 

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I put up a post of Thomas Piketty’s NYRB take on Sir Tony Atkinson’s Inequality: What Can Be Done? Here’s a passage from an Economist piece about the same book, which compares Atkinson’s work to Piketty’s conversation-turning Capital in the Twenty-First Century:

In the event, Sir Anthony is more radical than Mr Piketty; he calls for robust taxation of the rich whom he reckons have got off easily over the last generation (see chart). But that’s not all. He believes government should meddle in markets in all sorts of ways to influence the distribution of economic rewards. Sir Anthony’s recommendations are a throwback to the 1960s and 1970s, when trade unions were a dominant force in politics and the state was seen as a much-needed check on markets. Even the most egalitarian economists, such as Mr Piketty, are reluctant to recommend employment guarantees and wage controls. Sir Anthony is not. And if his arguments are not always wholly convincing, he may nonetheless succeed in shifting the debate.

Inequality begins with a clear statement of the harm done by rising income gaps: they unfairly punish those who suffer bad luck. They undermine economic growth and social cohesion. Perhaps most importantly, inequality in economic resources translates directly into inequality in personal opportunity. Wealth generates comfort even when it isn’t being spent; the rich enjoy the fact that they are insured against future hardship or could use their wealth in future to satisfy personal or professional goals.•

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Extremely cheap meat isn’t appetizing on its own, even if you smother its rankness in as many equally low-end toppings as possible. That’s where the Flavor Industry enters, using chemical enhancers to appeal to taste buds and pleasure centers of the brain, something chicken-ish pink goo and indestructible dessert cakes can’t manage on their own.

From Scott Porch’s Salon interview with The Dorito Effect author Mark Schatzker:

Question:

Did you go to some of the tasting panels that come up with these flavors?

Mark Schatzker:

Absolutely. I went to a flavor company and spoke to many of those people. They’re very talented at putting together thrilling combinations of flavors.

Question:

Do they defend this largely as giving consumers what they want?

Mark Schatzker:

Yes. It’s what consumers want, and they say over and over that overeating is a matter of personal responsibility. What they don’t think about and what no one has thought about is: Why does food have flavor in the first place? It’s a crucial question. If you start putting chemicals in junk food and fast food and soft drinks, you create the illusion of nutrition. You’re making things more delicious than they ordinarily would be. Without that synthetic flavoring, I don’t think people would eat much junk food at all.

Question:

We talked before the interview that it’s not just food. There’s artificial flavoring in cigarettes too.

Mark Schatzker:

One of the most striking and alarming things about flavoring is that it’s used in tobacco and has been for decades. I dug up a document from the tobacco industry from the early ’70s saying that young people are more inclined to smoke flavored cigarettes. They’re the same flavoring that you see [in foods] and for the same reason — it makes it taste better.•

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In a New York Review of Books pieceThomas Piketty, who has suggested his own remedies for wealth disparity (including aggressive investment in education), reviews British economist Anthony B. Atkinson’s progressive treatment of the problem in the UK, Inequality: What Can Be Done? which suggests, among other things, an endowment be paid to all citizens at the time of their eighteenth birthdays. An excerpt:

The idea of going back to a more progressive tax structure clearly has a major part in the plan of action that Atkinson sets forth. The British economist leaves no doubt about it: the spectacular lowering of top income tax rates has sharply contributed to the rise of inequality since the 1980s, without bringing adequate corresponding benefits to society at large. We must therefore waste no time discarding the taboo that says marginal tax rates must never rise above 50 percent. Atkinson proposes a far-reaching reformation of the British income tax, with top tax rates raised to 55 percent for annual income above £100,000 and 65 percent for annual income above £200,000, as well as a hike in the cap on contributions to national insurance.

All of which would make it possible to finance a significant expansion of the British social security and income redistribution system, notably with a sharp increase in family benefits (doubling and even quadrupling them in one of the variants proposed), as well as a rise in retirement and unemployment benefits for people with lower resources.* Atkinson presents a series of variants of these measures and scenarios for reform, while advocating those measures that make it possible to return to a policy of universal social safety nets (i.e., that would be open to everyone), as opposed to conditional transfers of resources.

If these proposals, statistically accounted for and fully financed from taxes, were to be adopted, there would be a significant drop in British levels of inequality and poverty. According to the simulations done by Atkinson and Sutherland, those levels would fall from their current quasi-American levels to the point where they would come close to European and OECDaverages. This is the central goal of Atkinson’s first set of proposals: you can’t expect everything from fiscal redistribution, but that nonetheless is where you have to begin.

Radical Reformism: A New Philosophy of Rights

But Atkinson’s plan of action hardly stops there. At the core of his program is a series of proposals that aim to transform the very operation of the markets for labor and capital, introducing new rights for those who now have the fewest rights. His proposals include guaranteed minimum-wage public jobs for the unemployed, new rights for organized labor, public regulation of technological change, and democratization of access to capital. This is only a sampling of the many reforms he recommends.•

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Predicting things will fall apart is easy, but predicting when is hard. Chris Hedges, author of Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt, thinks we’ve already entered the collapse phase.

In the U.S., we have myriad problems that increasingly seem unfixable from the inside: gerrymandering, Citizens United, corporatocracy, institutionalized racism, income inequality. You know, gerrymandering might be the most frustrating of them all, since you can’t remedy the rest with entrenched leadership.

Elias Isquith of Salon just interviewed Hedges, who asserts that a revolutionary movement in America would have global stakes. “When we go down, the whole planet is going to go with us,” the author says, making clear what he believes would happen if our society runs aground.

The Q&A’s opening exchange:

Question:

Do you think we are in a revolutionary era now? Or is it more something on the horizon?

Chris Hedges:

It’s with us already, but with this caveat: it is what Gramsci calls interregnum, this period where the ideas that buttress the old ruling elite no longer hold sway, but we haven’t articulated something to take its place.

That’s what that essay I quote by Alexander Berkman, “The Invisible Revolution,” talks about. He likens it to a pot that’s beginning to boil. So it’s already taking place, although it’s subterranean. And the facade of power — both the physical facade of power and the ideological facade of power — appears to remain intact. But it has less and less credibility.

There are all sorts of neutral indicators that show that. Low voter turnout, the fact that Congress has an approval rating of 7 percent, that polls continually reflect a kind of pessimism about where we are going, that many of the major systems that have been set in place — especially in terms of internal security — have no popularity at all.

All of these are indicators that something is seriously wrong, that the government is no longer responding to the most basic concerns, needs, and rights of the citizenry. That is [true for the] left and right. But what’s going to take it’s place, that has not been articulated. Yes, we are in a revolutionary moment; but maybe it’s a better way to describe it as a revolutionary process.•

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I’ve mentioned this story before, but when I was a small child, I was taking a bus trip with my parents from the Port Authority early one morning, and we saw Truman Capote seated on the benches, wearing a big straw hat, wasted out of his mind. He was trying to get a homeless woman to talk to him. “Come over here, dear,” he kept urging her. She had no interest.

Here’s a half-hour portrait of Capote at the height of his career, as In Cold Blood was published.

Paul Ehrlich was not subtle, as people seldom are when throwing around the word “bomb.”

The Stanford insect biologist spent the ’60s and ’70s scaring the bejeezus out of people, predicting imminent societal collapse due to overpopulation, with hundreds of millions starving to death. In the big picture, he was right that environmental damage would prove challenging to the survival of the human species, but the devil was in the details, and his presumptions about the short-term ramifications of overpopulation were way off the mark.

Justin Fox of Bloomberg Review reflects on Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb, a Malthusian message so chillingly effective that he did a solid hour one evening on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. The opinion writer finds the philippic a mixed blessing. He points out the scientist’s wrong-mindedness about overcrowding while acknowledging that today’s widely held anti-Ehrlich belief that population will level off naturally could also be incorrect.

One note: Embedded below the Bloomberg excerpt is a new NYT documentary about the ominous prognostication that never came to pass. In it, a comment Ehrlich makes reveals the misanthropy that has always seemed to be lurking behind his views. It’s this: “The idea that every woman should have as many babies as she wants is, to me, exactly the same kind of idea as everybody ought to be permitted to throw as much of their garbage into their neighbor’s backyard as they want.” Wow.

From Fox:

In a just-released New York Times mini-documentary on the book and its aftermath, the now-83-year-old Stanford biologist says insufferable things like, “One of the things that people don’t understand is that timing to an ecologist is very, very different from timing to an average person.” Uh, then why did you write a book clearly aimed at average people that confidently predicted that in the 1970s hundreds of millions would die of famine? “I expressed more certainty because I was trying to bring people to get something done.” (In that vein he also co-founded the activist group Zero Population Growth, rechristened in 2002 as Population Connection.)

Still, I figured I’d give the book itself a chance. I’ve had a copy for years, and thanks to a recentbook-sorting projectI was able to find it in a matter of seconds this morning. Because it’s not very long, I was able to read it in an hour or two. And I have to say it surprised me.

First of all, half of Ehrlich’s prediction came true. He forecast in the book that global population, about 3.5 billion at the time, would double by 2005. He was only six years off on that — world population hit 7 billion in 2011 — which I figure counts as getting it right.

What Ehrlich famously got wrong was the planet’s carrying capacity. Sure, global population doubled. But thanks to theGreen Revolution, per-acre grain yields went up much faster than that. The inflection point in global agricultural productivity, in fact, came just as Ehrlich was finishing his book.

Here’s the interesting thing, though — Ehrlich was well aware that this was a possibility.•

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“Sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come.”

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The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was situated in the American prairies, but the ramifications of the poor farming methods were wide, and the storms soon swept east and obscured the sun over the entire Atlantic seaboard. I thought of what was known as the “Black Blizzards” because I just read Michael Tennesen’s The Next Species, a very interesting book about the potential end of us. The author draws an analogy between the Depression Era dust storms and what may occur in Las Vegas if the crust of the nearby desert floor dissipates, something that’s possible because of the havoc we’re playing with the environment. The difference between boom town and ghost town can be decided by the tiniest particles. A year after the first wave of the storms in 1934, mayhem was still the order of the day, as this article from the April 15, 1935 Brooklyn Daily Eagle can attest.

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When making an accounting of all the great American short-story writers, is Grace Paley the most neglected? Despite just three major collections, she was one of our best–funny, outraged, noble and strange. The author’s time was split among fictional narratives, motherhood and human-rights protesting. In a 1979 People article, Kristin McCurran suggested that perhaps Paley’s literary output had been compromised by time spent on political causes, a trade-off the writer never seemed to regret. An excerpt:

She is an American writer few people have read, but those who have, including her most distinguished peers, think the world of Grace Paley. To Susan Sontag “she is a wonderful writer and a noble citizen.” To Donald Barthelme “Grace Paley is a very good writer and troublemaker.”

Both were by way of explaining why the Sarah Lawrence teacher and short-story writer was in a Washington, D.C. courtroom last week. Her troublemaking had consisted of stepping onto the White House lawn last Labor Day with 10 other members of the War Resisters League and unfurling a banner which read NO NUCLEAR WEAPONS, NO NUCLEAR POWER—U.S. OR USSR. As Grace told superior court Judge Donald S. Smith at her sentencing, “We tried to go about the demonstration in a quiet, gentle way.” The judge’s response: a suspended 180-day sentence, $100 fine and three years’ probation.

At the time of the White House protest, seven fellow War Resisters, on U.S. tourist visas in Moscow, had staged a similar demonstration outside the Kremlin. But while the Washington 11 were being jailed for 30 hours and tried by jury last December, their compatriots in Moscow were released without arrest. Paley’s group did not hesitate to publicize the irony.

Of course her activism has slowed her already painstaking creation. Grace, at 56, has published only two major collections of stories and none since Enormous Changes at the Last Minute in 1974. Indeed, she has been busily seeking confrontations with authorities since the ’60s, when Vietnam war protests took her to Hanoi, Stockholm and Paris. “I think I could have done more for peace,” she admits, “if I’d written about the war, but I happen to love being in the streets.”

Even literary admirers who share her politics probably half wish Paley would chain herself to the typewriter instead. Her characters, as one fond critic described them, are “lonely people, junkies, unwed mothers, losers of all sorts, and the lady downstairs, who is often drunk.” Philip Roth calls her work “splendidly comic and unladylike.” But Paley intends to go on being unladylike, as it were. “I believe that people have to act,” she says. “Billions of dollars are put into what’s called defense, while the needs of the people are neglected.”•

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Harvey Pekar was considered a kook because he didn’t see himself as David Letterman’s punchline, but he was right in believing he deserved respect. Not because he was a fascinating writer and thinker, though he was, but just because he was a human being. That was enough.

In 1997, Pekar was asked by the Northern California publication Metroactive to review a posthumous collection by Herbert Huncke, the original Beat, who was even more of an outcast than the American Splendor writer. It was a great pairing since, paraphrasing Nick Tosches, they both realized you could be a loser with a capital “L.” An excerpt:

Though he went on the road at the age of 12, Huncke was a competent technician and lyrical, evocative writer. He was given to making wry observations and registering complaints about his mistreatment by others, but he also took advantage of, and even stole from, his friends.

Often, however, Huncke was quite helpful and sympathetic to others. Benjamin Schafer, the book’s editor, includes in his afterword a touching account of how Huncke aided him during a bleak period in his life. Huncke hated 9-to-5 restraints and sacrificed much to escape them, including, ironically, his freedom, spending a great deal of time in one of the most restricted environments of all: prison.

Few men who engaged in hustling and criminal behavior had his vivid powers of description. Huncke provides colorful, if grim, accounts of Bohemians living on the edge, of the difficulties they face and of their attempts to cope with them.

At times, the grimness turned to genuine despair. Busted just after getting out of jail, Huncke contemplated suicide:

I wanted to kill myself. Thoughts of disgust, anger, frustration, confusion, and a complete physical let-down had me exhausted. At one point, I promised myself I’d do this bit and when I’d get out, I’d disappear down at the Bowery–anywhere–never show my face to my friends again, sort of fade into nothingness.

But Huncke did not give in; maybe the writing kept him from fading away. He even managed to stay more or less within the law in the 1960s and, partly due to his charm as a storyteller, cultivated a following as a writer and “character.” At the end of his life, the Grateful Dead paid his rent at the Chelsea Hotel, and he lectured at colleges. Huncke, one of the fathers of the Beat movement, survived almost all his literary compatriots, living to a ripe old age in the process.•

 

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When Thomas Friedman devised his Golden Arches Theory of war, he somehow forgot that humans aren’t rational creatures. Our decisions are often perplexing, and the few among us who make sober, clear-headed calculations are frequently viewed as something other than human. What’s wrong with them?

In a Bloomberg View piece about Richard Thaler’s professional memoir, Misbehaving, Michael Lewis writes of an economist who had a simple-yet-significant epiphany: We make screwy choices, often to our own detriment.

An excerpt:

At any rate, in addition to calculating the market’s price for a human life, Thaler got distracted by how much fun he might have if he asked actual human beings how much they needed to be paid to run the risk of dying. He began with his own students, telling them to imagine that by attending his lecture, they had exposed themselves to a rare fatal disease. There was a 1 in 1,000 chance they had caught it. There was a single dose of the antidote: How much would they be willing to pay for it?

Then he asked them the same question, in a different way: How much would they demand to be paid to attend a lecture in which there is a 1 in 1,000 chance of contracting a rare fatal disease, for which there was no antidote?

The questions were practically identical, but the answers people gave to them were — and are — wildly different. People would say they would pay two grand for the antidote, for instance, but would need to be paid half a million dollars to expose themselves to the virus. “Economic theory is not alone in saying that the answers should be identical,” writes Thaler. “Logical consistency demands it. … To an economist, these findings are somewhere between puzzling and preposterous. I showed them to (his thesis adviser) and he told me to stop wasting my time and get back to work on my thesis.”

Instead, Thaler began to keep a list of things that people did that made a mockery of economic models of rational choice. There was the guy who planned to go to the football game, changed his mind when he saw it was snowing, and then, when he realized he had already bought the ticket, changed his mind again. There was the other guy who refused to pay $10 to have someone mow his lawn but wouldn’t accept $20 to mow his neighbor’s. There was the woman who drove 10 minutes to a store in order to save $10 on a $45 clock radio but wouldn’t drive the same amount of time to save $10 on a $495 television. There were the people Thaler invited over to dinner, to whom he offered, before dinner, a giant bowl of nuts. They ate so many nuts they had no appetite for the far more appealing meal. The next time they came to dinner Thaler didn’t offer nuts — and his guests were happier.

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It’s a shame Freeman Dyson has gotten into a spitting match with people perplexed with his views on climate change (I’ve sometimes been one of them), and made intemperate comments on the topic, because having read his work extensively, it certainly seems he cares deeply about conservation and biodiversity. It’s just one of the stranger aspects of a distinguished scientific and writing career.

On another topic: Here’s the opening of Dyson’s latest NYRB piece, a brief essay about the new Taschen book, Expanding Universe, a spectacular collection of photography enabled by the Hubble Telescope, in which the writer marvels over how tiny particles can be more overwhelming than fully-formed bodies:

When we see things for the first time, the pictures are always a surprise. Nature’s imagination is richer than ours. We imagine things to be simple and Nature makes them complicated. In Expanding Universe, a magnificent selection of pictures taken by cameras on the Hubble Space Telescope, the big surprise is dust. We imagined a universe of stars and galaxies gleaming brightly against a black sky. What we see is multicolored patterns of fluid motion, looking like eddies in a river or clouds in a sunset. The patterns are made of dust. Dust is made of tiny solid grains of carbon and rock and metals. The grains condense out of cooling interstellar gas, just as grains of smoke condense out of cooling flames over a forest fire. Most of what we see in the universe is dust. The reason is simple. We see only the surfaces of things, so that things appear big in our pictures when they have a big surface area. Dust has far more surface area than stars or planets. That is why the most striking pictures in this book are pictures of dust. It is not accidental that the editors chose to print on the jacket a spectacular picture of a huge dustcloud giving birth to newborn stars in the constellation Carina.•

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I think the best postscript I’ve read to the unfortunate auto crash that just claimed the lives of John and Alicia Nash is the Q&A Zachary A. Goldfarb of the Washington Post conducted with Sylvia Nasar, author of the wonderful book about the mathematician, A Beautiful Mind, which was masterfully adapted for the screen by Akiva Goldsman. In one exchange, Nasar reminds that even the relatively happy third act of Nash’s life was complicated. An excerpt:

Zachary A. Goldfarb:

How did he spend the last 21 years, since he won the Nobel?

Sylvia Nash:

The first time I saw him was a few months after he won the Nobel, and he was going to a game theory conference in Israel. He was surrounded by other mathematicians, and he looked like someone who had been mentally ill. His clothes were mismatched. His front teeth were rotted down to the gums. He didn’t make eye contact. But, over time, he got his teeth fixed. He started wearing nice clothes that Alicia could afford to buy him. He got used to being around people.

He and Alicia spent a lot of their time taking care of their son, Johnny, and doing the things that are so ordinary that the rest of us don’t think about them. Once I asked him what difference the Nobel Prize money made, and he literally said, “Well, now I can go into Starbucks and buy a $2 cup of coffee. I couldn’t do that when I was poor.” He got a driver’s license. He had lunch most days with other mathematicians, reintegrating into the one community that mattered to him most.

The last time I was with him was about a year ago when Alicia organized a really lovely dinner with us and two other couples. John was talking about all the invitations they’ve gotten and all the places they’ve planned to travel. Johnny was there. He was still very sick. They took him to a lot of the places they went and always tried to include him. Their life was a mix of glamour and celebrity – and the day-to-day which revolved around Johnny, who by then was in his 50s and was as sick as his father ever was and entirely dependent on them.•

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I’ve barely read any science fiction in my life even though I read constantly. That’s a bad thing to admit, right?

In Ed Finn’s Slate interview with Neal Stephenson, tied to the publication of his latest novel, Seveneves, the author briefly comments on the existential threats we face. The exchange:

Question:

The story is a meditation on existential threats to the species. Having not so long ago founded Hieroglyph, a project dedicated to optimism, what do you think we should be most worried about and how do you see our chances?

Neal Stephenson:

Well, aside from the threat of a big asteroid impact, the thing that we should be worried about is climate change, which is going to happen. There’s no way to make it not happen now. I think that dwarfs everything else. 

Question:

Do you see yourself as essentially an optimist in the long-range survival of the species?

Neal Stephenson:

Yes, I think that we’ve got the prerequisites that we need in the way of technical know-how and resources. There’s a lot of energy. There’s a lot of stuff for us to work with. Solving problems has become a kind of routine operation, and so now it’s really a matter of organizing people in some way that doesn’t have terrible side effects.•

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This has already been a remarkably rich year for new books, but the best one I’ve read so far is Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Dense with ideas and beautifully written, it’s a dazzling, wide-ranging look at how we came to be the only human species on Earth, and how that may very well change in the future. The Guardian has a cheeky piece succinctly explaining Harari’s feelings regarding cyborgism. An excerpt:

What did he say? “I think it is likely in the next 200 years or so homo sapiens will upgrade themselves into some idea of a divine being, either through biological manipulation or genetic engineering or by the creation of cyborgs, part-organic part non-organic.”

Aren’t historians supposed to talk about the past, mainly? Yes, and Harari does also do that. He reckons that great fictions such as religion and money have been the key to humanity’s success because they made people function in large, flexible communities.

I see. Can I have his royalty cheques, then? I suggest you ask him about that. He also thinks these fictions are now reaching their limits because technology will make rich people amortal and virtually all-powerful, meaning that they won’t need God any more.

What’s amortal? It means, theoretically, you could live for ever, as long as someone doesn’t get annoyed and smash you up.

Far from guaranteed, I should think. And how will technology accomplish this? Well, you could have intelligent nanobots injected into your blood to rejuvenate your cells and repair any damage. You could implant a computer and various utensils into your body, giving you superhuman powers. Or you could just simply upload your mind into a computer so you could exist anywhere and experience anything.•

 

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A couple years before Michael Herr began writing his amazing Vietnam reportage for Esquire–an experience which later served as the basis for his great book Dispatchesthe journalist penned “Bleecker Street: Bohemia’s Barometer,” a 1965 piece for Holiday magazine about his New York City neighborhood of Greenwich Village. He knew the community of that era as a tale of two cities, a divide among bewildered locals and invading “barbarians.” Herr, who turned 75 last month, also famously co-wrote the screenplay for Full Metal Jacket with his longtime friend Stanley Kubrick. Two excerpts from Holiday follow.

_______________________________

Between this corner and the Bowery, Bleecker Street is like a river running into swamp, block after block with no definable character. It is neither market nor tenement nor warehouse district, but a nondescript mixture of these, with a few grimy luncheonettes and some slum lofts thrown in: a vacuum. A walk down this end of Bleecker is an exercise in induced despair, emotional slumming. The cityscape here is so desolate that it becomes surreal. You feel that behind the brick building fronts there is nothing but emptiness, fixtures connecting nothing to nothing, stairs leading up to doors that open onto a void. At Crosby you come to the Bayard Building, the only work of Louis Sullivan that is left in New York. The façade, particularly in this setting, is magnificent. Beyond it, a two-minute walk will put you on the Bowery, where nothing ever changes.

By the press, the politicians, the police and the populace, Bleecker Street has been called practically everything: a “hotbed of incipient violence,” a slum, a honkytonk, a refuge for homosexuals and/or miscegenists, a hangout for beatniks and commies and dope fiends, a shameless tourist trap. But whatever it may or may not be, whatever strange flavors outsiders bring to it, Bleecker is primarily, prevailingly Italian.

There is an old blind man who sits in the afternoons near the corner at Sixth Avenue. He told me once that he has never left Naples. He sits close enough to the Hudson to smell the harbor, and all around him are the aromas of new produce, olive oil, fennel, roasting coffee and freshly killed meat. At least as much Italian is being spoken as English.

Bleecker Street days are not much like Bleecker Street nights. Afternoons are taken up by the business of the neighborhood: the schooling and recreation of children, the purchase of groceries, the delivery of commodities to fifty shops and stalls up and down the street. Whatever social life the older residents have is conducted on these sidewalks during daylight hours, when the sidewalks are still theirs.

On these afternoons there is a moon-faced woman in black polka-dotted housedress who leans on a crate of fresh plums, gesturing to customers over baskets of grapes. Her prices are marked, but she will tolerate a limited amount of bargaining. Some of this bargaining has gone on between her and the same customers for over twenty years. Up the street some old men in shirtsleeves stand in front of Ruggiero’s Fish Market, lunching on oysters from a card table set up on the sidewalk. They prepare each one separately, adding hot sauce and lemon. A Negro workman comes up to the table, and the old men throw down some coins and leave. At the corner, one of them mutters, Mulignam!” a dialect expression for eggplant, which is also their pejorative for Negroes. Then they cross the street to Father Demo Square. Of course the Negro knows what has happened.

This parade route for visiting liberals. anarchists, socialists, apolitical grousers, peace marchers and civil-rights workers is also a neighborhood of Ghibelline rigidity, prejudice, reaction. Not long ago the Carmine DeSapio sound trucks cruised along here begging votes in blaring Calabrese dialect. Now you can see the remains of a Goldwater poster peeling to reveal the spattered likeness of De Sapio oil brick walls at street corners, and the traditional Democratic block is finished. The mounting tourist traffic is an outrage to the residents, particularly among first-generation immigrants. For them, the thought of miscegenation is unbearable, and you can feel the hatred this generates up and down the length of the street. Some of the locals have turned this influx to their advantage, opening bars, restaurants and galleries, but most sit locked in severe parochial resentment. If the Evil Eye really worked, the sidewalks would be strewn with paralytics, heaped with the blind and the dead.

_______________________________

They call MacDougal “the Mess,” and not without reason. In summer, at the corner where it crosses Bleecker, the sidewalks are clogged every night of the week. During the rest of the year the crowds come only on weekends, but they come in such numbers that they make up for the Monday-through-Thursday calm. No one knows exactly what brings them or who they are or even who they think they are, but there are a lot of them. The word is out that this is Where It’s At. As usual, the word lies, but none of the thousands, the tens of thousands, who come here night after night will ever admit it.

Most of them are young, under twenty, of a type that used to be written of as “beatnik.” But that word hasn’t meant anything for years, and it certainly doesn’t apply to this crowd. These are cultists whose beliefs are murky, a whole generation sprung half-baked from a badly digested notion of Bohemia, malnurtured on mass-media accounts of groovy goings-on from Liverpool to Berkeley. What they appear to want, more than anything else, is to enchant, but there never seem to be any takers. They are the sons and daughters of Tarrytown orthodontists, Rochester retailers, Long Island manufacturers, Jersey City construction workers, all come to conduct one of the most elaborate flirtations in history. And they are not the only ones; their parents come, too, impeccably polished. expensively dressed, and they come for almost the same reason. Everyone wants his slice of hip cake.

Once, it was the bourgeoisie’s had joke to say they couldn’t tell the boys from the girls. but this is no longer a joke. Young men, apparently not homosexual, wear their hair shoulder-length: if it were cleaner you might say it flowed. It is a part of the fashion, and the MacDougal-Bleecker crowd pays careful attention to fashion. The real hippies have been forced into coats and ties, now that their old turf has been overrun by creeps.

It was the fashion, for several weeks last spring, for girls to walk along Bleecker carrying a single flower. If they could get nothing better, they would carry a plastic flower, but there were dozens of these girls with their flowers. That ended. They turned up wearing those Liverpool sailors’ hats. And little white ankle boots. Then bellbottomed denim slacks with broad-striped jerseys worn loose around the waist. On dress occasions they wore discotheque dresses and patterned stockings that made the skin on their legs look diseased. Then the boys began wearing watch caps—hadn’t the Beatles introduced them?—and a few even started wearing the slacks. The esoterics, gurus and prep-school liberals took to wearing rimless glasses, often with hexagonal lenses, and with the glasses came effete Danish pipes, and floppy felt hats like the ones W. B. Yeats used to wear—all kinds of Yellow Bookish paraphernalia. Fashion. And they come down here to parade all this, each one sure that the Village has never seen anything like it.

After dark the sidewalks become so crowded that you have to take odd little two-inch steps or else walk around the cars, police and motorcycles in the street. If you have had the practice you can discern the slightest trace of marijuana in the air, although they say that it is only Sano cigarette smoke. There is usually music, either from a passing folkie or from a transistor radio.

There is a folksong that goes:

When I die please bury me deep,

Down at the end of Bleecker Street,

So I can hear old Number Nine,

As she goes rolling by.

I can’t find out what this really means.•

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It’s not that I’ve learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, but I’m not nearly as concerned about the future of books as I was only a couple of years ago. 

I certainly don’t think Amazon should be setting online book prices, and if it reaches monopoly level (and it may have already), that should be addressed on a federal level. I say that as someone who isn’t an Amazon hater. No company has made reading such a full and diverse experience.

There are so many great books being published now that I can’t even begin to keep up with them. That wasn’t supposed to happen as screens shrunk, publishers were pummeled, bricks and mortars were dismantled and libraries cut hours. 

I grew up in a neighborhood without a bookstore, and if I had then had a Kindle and an Amazon Prime membership, I would have had access to the most amazing collection of volumes in the history of the world. That was never possible before the Internet.

While books are more widely available than ever before, they’re certainly less visible offline. That could be remedied on a local level if small shops were incentivized with government funds, the way NYC does with supermarkets that sell sections of healthy food in poorer neighborhoods which don’t already have easy access to fresh produce. (Of course, these markets haven’t changed eating habits.)

So, I suppose I’m much more sanguine about the present and future of reading in the U.S. (or at least the opportunity to read) than Scott Timberg of Salon, who feels there must be serious intervention to save our literary culture. From Timberg:

It’s always good news when a bookstore opens, and when it’s an indie backed with significant amounts of cash, and run by someone who really cares, it’s even better. So like everyone else, we smiled when we saw the New York Times story about Diary of a Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney — whose series “has spawned three feature films that have earned more than $225 million worldwide” — opening a bookstore in Plainville, Mass. Like Parnassus, the shop novelist Ann Patchett co-owns in Nashville, this will allow people to stumble upon books they’d never thought of looking at, it will employ booklovers behind the counter, and will hold events that allow authors to reach readers. All good things.

But it also makes us wonder: In the Age of Amazon, are the only people who can open bookstores celebrity authors? And aren’t these cheery stories about these mostly anomalous events kind of distracting us from the big picture? …

But isn’t this a bit like the benefit concerts that we threw for ailing and dying musicians back in the days before national medical insurance? The fact that Victoria Williams, Vic Chetnutt and Alejandro Escovedo came close to dying because they lived in a country that denied people basic health coverage was the original sin – and larger context — there. Musicians and fans worked hard to apply a (much needed) band-aid with Sweet Relief concerts and the like. But in the long run we needed a broader safety net, not more passing of the hat.

So what’s the larger context here? Well, if you follow the conversation as it’s expressed by bookstore organizations and the Times story, everything is fine: Indies are bouncing back, and some really cool authors are opening new stores! But somehow the Times piece neglects to use the term “online bookselling” or name Amazon even once, or to mention that there are approximately half the number of indies now than there were in the ‘90s, even as we’ve added more than 60 million people to U.S. population since then.•

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The Strand in NYC, the only brick-and-mortar bookstore I still go to regularly, asked Oliver Sacks to create a shelf of his favorite titles. Below are the first ten. (The Weisman book is a particular favorite of mine.) See the whole list here.

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