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Irving “Swifty” Lazar, whose entire head was made of bifocals, was a lawyer who learned you could make a killing as an agent if you held fast to situational ethics. From Harry Minetree’s 1975 People article about Lazar, as he had just closed a book deal for a disgraced Richard Nixon and had agreed to let the former President sit for an interview with David Frost:

“On a bright morning last August, Irving Paul (Swifty) Lazar, the literary agent, was having breakfast beside the pool at his Beverly Hills home when the telephone interrupted. It was Ron Ziegler, ex-President Nixon’s ex-press secretary, calling from San Clemente. Mr. Nixon, Ziegler said, was eager to see Lazar to discuss ‘some business.’ Lazar, who had a pretty good idea what the business was, crisply replied that he was leaving for Europe shortly, but he would be happy to see Mr. Nixon upon his return.

On August 31 the dapper, billiard-bald Lazar and Nixon met over a three-hour lunch at San Clemente. Afterward, agent Lazar returned home in his black limousine with the exclusive rights to sell the former President’s memoirs in his attaché case. No matter that Swifty, a lifelong Democrat, had been an indefatigable fund-raiser for John F. Kennedy. Or that his Washington representative, Ann Buchwald, the wife of political satirist Art Buchwald, quit as a result of the Nixon deal. There was a buck to be made, in fact millions of bucks and, true to the 10-percenters’ code, Lazar had a flexible philosophy to suit the occasion: ‘In a deal you give and take. You compromise. Then you grab the cash and catch the next train out of town.’

Not many literary agents can afford to be so candid about their modus operandi. But then not many of them can afford a California mansion with genuine Picassos, Roualts, Chagalls and Dalis on the walls, a Rolls-Royce and a Mercedes in the garage, an elegant pied-a-terre in New York, offices in Beverly Hills, New York, London, Paris and Rome, $40,000-a-year phone bills and a custom-made wardrobe. There is only one ‘Swifty’—a soubriquet Humphrey Bogart laid on him after Lazar acquired three hot screen properties for him in the space of 24 hours—and indeed there is hardly room for more than one Swifty in the agents’ trade.

With characteristic speed, Lazar put together a package for Nixon: he sold the paperback rights to the book, which will probably appear in three volumes, to Warner Paperback Library for $2.5 million, the television rights for a Nixon interview to David Frost for another $750,000 and is asking for a hard-cover advance in the neighborhood of $1 million. (Although Lazar says Nixon was persuaded to accept Frost’s proposition because of the ‘interesting approach,’ the word around Hollywood is that the interesting approach was simply the highest bid.) Still to be negotiated are foreign rights, book clubs, a possible movie and other spin-offs that will propel the former President back into millionaire status and guarantee Swifty Lazar fees well in the area of half a million. Even so, Lazar went through considerable soul-searching before he decided to represent Nixon. ‘He asked the advice of everyone he knows,’ says Art Buchwald. ‘But it’s probably for the best. When a politician gets in trouble he deserves the best lawyer and the best literary agent around. You use the agent to pay the lawyer—that’s the way it goes.’

Nixon represents only the latest in Lazar’s ledger of famous, infamous, literary, political and showbiz clients. Over the years, he has represented Hemingway, Ira Gershwin, Truman Capote, Clifford Odets, Vladimir Nabokov, Neil Simon, Herman Wouk, Lerner and Lowe, John Huston, Edna Ferber, Buchwald, Noël Coward and Richard Rodgers, among others.”

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Speaking of the emergence of really smart machines, philosopher Nick Bostrom’s new book, Superintelligence, has just been published in the UK (with the U.S. edition available later this year). Here’s a piece from Clive Cookson’s Financial Times review:

“Since the 1950s proponents of artificial intelligence have maintained that machines thinking like people lie just a couple of decades in the future. In Superintelligence – a thought-provoking look at the past, present and above all the future of AI – Nick Bostrom, founding director of Oxford’s university’s Future of Humanity Institute, starts off by mocking the futurists.

‘We are still far from real AI despite last month’s widely publicised ‘Turing test’ stunt, in which a computer mimicked a 13-year-old boy with some success in a brief text conversation. About half the world’s AI specialists expect human-level machine intelligence to be achieved by 2040, according to recent surveys, and 90 per cent say it will arrive by 2075. Bostrom takes a cautious view of the timing but believes that, once made, human-level AI is likely to lead to a far higher level of ‘superintelligence’ faster than most experts expect – and that its impact is likely either to be very good or very bad for humanity.

The book enters more original territory when discussing the emergence of superintelligence. The sci-fi scenario of intelligent machines taking over the world could become a reality very soon after their powers surpass the human brain, Bostrom argues. Machines could improve their own capabilities far faster than human computer scientists.

‘Machines have a number of fundamental advantages, which will give them overwhelming superiority,’ he writes. ‘Biological humans, even if enhanced, will be outclassed.’ He outlines various ways for AI to escape the physical bonds of the hardware in which it developed. For example, it might use its hacking superpower to take control of robotic manipulators and automated labs; or deploy its powers of social manipulation to persuade human collaborators to work for it. There might be a covert preparation stage in which microscopic entities capable of replicating themselves by nanotechnology or biotechnology are deployed worldwide at an extremely low concentration. Then at a pre-set time nanofactories producing nerve gas or target-seeking mosquito-like robots might spring forth (though, as Bostrom notes, superintelligence could probably devise a more effective takeover plan than him).

What would the world be like after the takeover? It would contain far more intricate and intelligent structures than anything we can imagine today – but would lack any type of being that is conscious or whose welfare has moral significance. ‘A society of economic miracles and technological awesomeness, with nobody there to benefit,’ as Bostrom puts it. ‘A Disneyland without children.’”

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Pierre Boulle wasn’t exactly embarrassed, just perplexed, by the success of The Planet of the Apes, his 1963 French novel which became an unlikely American film franchise in a time before franchises were really a thing. It seemed to him an odd, little fantasy that shouldn’t have approached the popularity of something like the Oscar-winning The Bridge Over the River Kwai, yet it did. A good deal of the big-screen appeal was the remarkable make-up work of John Chambers, who made monkeys out of men (and women), and Boulle was aware of this contribution, but he still couldn’t account for the reception. Here’s a (rough) translation into English of an interview Boulle did about Apes, though I’m not sure of the source:


What inspired you to write Planet of the Apes?

Pierre Boulle:

I do not really remember. I think it was during a visit to the zoo, watching the gorillas. I was impressed by their almost human expressions. This led me to imagine what would a man/monkey relationship. Some believe that I had King Kong in mind when I wrote my book, but this is totally false. Frankly, I have never considered it one of my best novels, but more like a fun fantasy. I’m not very happy with the final result: I think I could have done better with parts of the book.


Do you think the film is faithful to the book?

Pierre Boulle:

You should never ask that of an author whose novel has been made into a film. There have been a lot of changes, and some very disconcerting. My planet had three suns for example. The first part of the film is excellent, and the monkeys’ makeup is particularly successful. I do not like the end with the Statue of Liberty. I prefer mine where finally we were not on Earth but of course on another planet. But critics loved it, so maybe I’m a bad judge. I knew from the outset that the producer Arthur P. Jacobs wanted this. He had it in mind from the first day and told me about it. I replied ‘Why not try it?’ Critics have approved, but I’m a little more rational writer and I prefer everything to be explained from A to Z. I am also completely unable to work in a group, which seems a necessity in the production of a film. When I write, I am alone. I give the book to my editor, and do not want to change anything, to the last comma.


But you have started working on the sequel to Planet of the Apes?

Pierre Boulle:

True. After the success of the first film, Arthur asked me to write more for him. It was called Planet of Women. They initially agreed, but then there were so many changes. I read the script of the Secret of the Planet of the Apes, and it interested me because it had nothing to do with my work. It was completely different. This does not bother me because the film did not ultimately matter to me. I rarely see movies. It is also strange that what I write inspires such visual and adaptable on-screen elements.

What would you attribute the success of the Planet of the Apes?

Pierre Boulle:

Honestly, I have no idea.”

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Hoaxes that work do so because they play upon a deep-seated fear or satisfy a psychological want–a need, even. That’s why we’re able to suspend disbelief about something that seems ridiculous in retrospect. When I published the post about a passage from Daniel Lieberman’s recent book, The Story of the Human Body, it reminded me that he (briefly) touches on the story of the Tasaday people, a “stone-age” tribe discovered in 1971 in Philippine caves, which was untouched by wars hot and cold, threats of nuclear disaster, and trends in which clans–families–were unable to stay together. It was a sensation that National Geographic granted a cover and a 32-page story, and, of course, it was a hoax. But it had a good, long run, with Charles Lindbergh himself spending some of his final moments of life writing the foreword for a popular book about this make-believe people. The opening of a 1986 New York Times article by Seth Mydans, written when the work finally began to stop working:

“MANILA, May 12— After more than a decade, scientists and reporters have returned to visit a remote Stone Age tribe called the Tasaday, and found that its earlier contacts with the outside world have set it on what appears to be an irreversible road to change.

The new visits have also reopened a debate on the authenticity of the Tasaday, who have now been found to possess bits of clothing, knives, bows and arrows, a mirror and domesticated dogs.

In interviews, two anthropologists who recently revisited the tribe said these new possessions, which had aroused the scepticism of Swiss and German reporters who saw them recently, were an expectable product of the tribe’s first contacts with outsiders in the early 1970′s.

Discovered in 1971

The scientists said they now feared that, if new protective measures were not taken, an influx of researchers, journalists and tourists would destroy their fragile way of life, already imperiled by the approach of loggers, slash-and-burn farmers and the armed insurgencies that share the forests of the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.

The Tasaday, a group of fewer than 30 people, were discovered in 1971 and drew international attention as a cave-using tribe of hunter-gatherers who dressed in orchid leaves and bark, knew no enemies and had no words for war, for ocean or for other peoples.

When two groups of journalists trekked into the jungle recently, they found the tribe members wearing bits and pieces of clothing and displaying other signs of outside influence, and the visitors raised cries of ‘hoax’ and ‘fairy tale.’

The two anthropologists who visited soon afterward, however, in the company of John Nance, author of a book on the tribe, and a television crew, said the changes were not surprising, and indeed enhanced the scientific interest of the group.

‘Textbook Case of Change’

‘We’re seeing a textbook case of social change, compressed in time,’ said one of the anthropologists, Jesus Peralta, who is curator of anthropology for the National Museum of the Philippines.

The other anthropologist who visited, Carlos Fernandez, said, ‘Before we first met them, they were purely forest gatherers.’

‘Then they learned to use a blade, to set traps and now they are learning to hunt,’ he went on. ‘Before long they will try their hand at planting.

‘This is one of the most exciting subjects for an anthropological investigator.’

Mr. Nance, the author of The Gentle Tasaday, who traveled last month to Mindanao with the two anthropologists, said the Tasaday’s preference for T-shirts and other articles of clothing was only natural. ‘If leaves were better, we’d all be wearing leaves,’ he said. Brides From Another Tribe

The scientists said the question of a hoax had always been present and remained a possibility. But they said such details as the stone tools and the language used by the Tasaday would be extremely difficult to fabricate.

‘Unless another anthropologist produces conflicting data, then the literature stands,’ said Mr. Peralta.

Many of the changes were thought to be the result of two outside influences: a tribal hunter named Dafal, and the marrying of women from a nearby tribe called the Blit.

A small group of primarily male cousins, the Tasaday’s main request of the scientists who discovered them was for brides. Mr. Peralta said that, in the years since then, 15 Blit women and two men had married into the tribe.

Trapping and Weapons

Dafal and the Blit spouses brought with them clothing, beads, knives, rice and cigars, the scientists said.

They also said they taught them to trap and use bows and arrows to supplement their traditional diet of yams, the hearts of palms and rattan, and fish, frogs and tadpoles.

‘They were already in transition when we first met them,’ Mr. Nance said, referring to their earlier contacts with Dafal. ‘Scientists worked to reconstruct what their life had been like before that, and people took the reconstruction as the current reality.’

He said this had led to misconceptions and to the recent accusations of a hoax.”


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The majority of creatures on Earth are hungry most of the time, every single day. That’s true of almost all of them and some of us, too. A change by a degree or two in the temperature could mean a world of difference in how many creatures are able eat, us included. A brief passage from Daniel Lieberman’s excellent book, The Story Of The Human Body:

“Are you worried about rapid global climate change today? If not, you should be, because rising temperatures, altered rainfall pattern, and the ecological shifts they cause imperil our food supply. Yet, as we have already seen, global change has long been a major impetus in human evolution because of its effects on the age-old problem pf ‘what’s for dinner?’ It turns out that getting enough food in the face of global climate change also triggered the age of humans. 

Getting dinner (or, for that matter, breakfast and lunch) probably does not dominate your list of daily concerns, yet most creatures are almost always hungry and preoccupied with the quest for calories and nutrients. To be sure, animals also need to find mates and avoid being eaten, but the struggle for existence is often a struggle for food, and until recently the vast majority of humans were no exception to this rule. Consider also that acquiring food is even more taxing when when your habitat alters dramatically, causing the foods you normally eat to vanish or become less common.”


In a new Afterword (published at the Los Angeles Review of Booksto the updated version of 1998′s Explaining Hitler, Ron Rosenbaum looks at the architect of Nazism in light of 9/11, arguing that Hitler was not a failed dictator but a successful terrorist. An excerpt:

“For Hitler, it was not a matter of making the trains run on time so much as making the trains never stop running to Auschwitz and Treblinka. One relatively new aspect of Holocaust study is a focus on what happened when the trains finally did stop running, because the Russians were about to overrun the mainly Polish-based camps. The full story, much of which was new to me, can be found in Daniel Blatman’s 2011 work, The Death Marches: The Final Phase of Nazi Genocide.

When the camps were disbanded, the large SS and native Polish and Ukrainian guard troops feeding the gas chambers were not redeployed to stave off the Russians. Instead they were ordered to take all the living and half-dead captives on the road in what became the final phase of the Final Solution: the Death Marches. Hundreds of thousands of closely-guarded prisoners were mercilessly beaten or shot when they couldn’t keep up, starved to death while being harried along icy roads to . . . where? There was no sanctuary left safe for killing, but the killing had to continue at all costs, a horror at least as unfathomable as the camps themselves. The Death March commanders didn’t have to ‘follow orders.’ They had incorporated Hitlerism so deeply, they wanted to follow orders. As Evans argues, killing Jews was more important than military objectives. These commanders risked their own lives to continue the murder.

What’s worse, Blatman reports, is that it was not just military men but civilians along the way who gleefully took part in murdering the half-dead Jews. For those, like me, who thought it impossible to be further shocked by Hitler’s willing accomplices, reading about the Death Marches introduced a new level of horror.

It is a testament to how deeply dyed the souls of the killers were. Hitler was possessed, some might say, but he was also the cause of possession in others. …

Hitler didn’t lose the war. Not the war Evans argues was most important to him: the racial war. Hitler won that war. Six million to one. Yes, he committed suicide at the end. (And yes, 50 million others lost their lives so he could win the part of the war he cared about most. Collateral damage.)

Thinking about that suicide now, in the light of 9/11 and the subsequent exaltations of suicide bombing on messianic, theological grounds, does in fact offer a radical new way of characterizing Hitler. In retrospect at least, it’s tempting to argue that Hitler was, if not the first, then by far history’s greatest single suicide bomber. He blew up Europe to kill the Jews in it, even if it meant killing himself and tens of millions of others in the end.”

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In the decade that the term “hooters” was coined, the 1970s, the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders plunged into the modern breast era, donning outfits with necklines that just a few years earlier might have gotten a go-go club shuttered. GM Tex Schramm had been gradually trimming the former “Cowbelles” cheer-squad suits, but in 1972 the women really busted out. Coach Tom Landry, a computer geek and Jesus freak, was not pleased. From The Last Cowboy by Mark Ribowsky, via the excellent Delancey Place:

“The vibe in Thousand Oaks at summer camp in 1967 contained a strange brew of old and new currents. The Cowboys’ first winning season had taken the team so far that it accumulated almost mythical properties in Dallas and the exigency for a grander scope. Clint Murchison Jr. relocated the Cowboys’ offices again, now to the Expressway Tower, an opulent fifteen-story glass structure at 6116 North Central Expressway that Murchison built on property he had bought expressly for the purpose. He put the organization on the eleventh floor, its picture windows offering sweeping vistas of the city. He also rented out a ground-floor space to the Playboy Club, which catered to the same upscale, male-dominated crowd that Murchison hosted in the Cowboy Club at the Cotton Bowl during home games. Not for a minute did Murchison consider that his coach might be embarrassed to have as neighbors cleavage-displaying young women wearing bunny ears and cottontails. The Cowboys were the hippest party in town, and the juxtaposition fit. Neither did he mind if players repaired to the Playboy Club after a hard few hours at the practice facility, which was under a big bubble behind the building. Landry already had the squares’ allegiance; could it hurt if they were balanced by Hugh Hefner’s ideal of 1960s American manhood?

Tex Schramm, for one, saw no downside to that equation. Working from the same idea, he junked the Cowbelles that off-season and created a new cheerleading squad, one that would remind no one of high school girls in hoop skirts and sweaters. Instead, the Cowgirls were professional go-go dancers hired to shake their pompoms while wearing hot pants and tight vests, showing off ample racks and bare midriffs. When Landry learned of it, he nearly had cardiac arrest. Years later in his memoirs, he was still exercised, saying that while the Cowgirls ‘transformed sideline entertainment,’ and that it was an example of Schramm’s lust to foster ‘a high profile image of style, flair, and maximum visibility,’ it also ‘sexually exploited the young women by pandering to the baser instincts of men.”

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," left.

“Tatunca Nara,” left.

Hans Guenther Hauck, aka Tatunca Nara, isn’t the first seemingly unhinged visionary who vanished into a tropical climate and wound upon creating not a Utopia but a body count. (August Engelhardt, for one, did likewise more than a century ago.) The opening ofEl Dorado in the Amazon,” Alexander Smoltczyk’s Spiegel account of the man who came to the attention of Jacques Cousteau and Steven Spielberg and the German police:

“In the late 1960s, a man turned up in the Brazilian state of Acre, deep in the Amazon region. He was wearing a loincloth and a feather, carried a bow and claimed he was Tatunca Nara, chief of the Ugha Mongulala. No one had ever heard of an Indian tribe with that name. In addition, the man bore no resemblance whatsoever to an Indian. He was white and spoke with a strong French accent.

He said he had inherited the accent from his mother, explaining that she was a German nun who had been taken by the Indians. His people, he said, lived in an underground city called Akakor, and that German was one of the languages spoken there — a byproduct of the offspring of 2,000 Nazi soldiers who had once traveled up the Amazon in U-boats.

His story would have raised eyebrows anywhere else. But outlandish stories are not uncommon in the Amazon region, so no one paid much attention to Tatunca Nara. Otherwise, he made a friendly impression, and nothing much would have come of his appearance if it hadn’t come to the attention of Karl Brugger, a correspondent with Germany’s ARD television network at the time. He visited Tatunca Nara in Manaus and recorded his story on 12 audiotapes. Brugger called it: ‘The most unusual story I have ever heard.’ It was a tale of extraterrestrial visitors, secret rites of the ‘ancient fathers’ and incursions of the ‘white barbarians,’ all described copiously and in great detail, and without interruption ‘from the year zero to the present.’

Even more surprising was the fact that Brugger’s book, The Chronicle of Akakor, enjoyed a certain level of success. In New Age circles, Tatunca’s stories were studied as if they were the Dead Sea Scrolls. They included lines like, ‘Five empty days at the end of the year are dedicated to worshipping our gods.’

Oceanographer Jacques Cousteau hired Tatunca as a guide when he explored the region with his boat, the Calypso, in 1983. The 2008 adventure film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is about a sunken city in the Amazon called Akator, and an Indian tribe called the Ugha Mogulala. The action figure for the film is dressed in a loincloth and a feather.

Does the original exist? Is Tatunca alive? This reporter recently traveled to Brazil in an effort to find the legendary man.”

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The opening of Bill Gates’ WSJ piece revealing his favorite business book, which was penned decades ago by a New Yorker writer whose name probably doesn’t resonate so much today:

“Not long after I first met Warren Buffett back in 1991, I asked him to recommend his favorite book about business. He didn’t miss a beat: It’s Business Adventures, by John Brooks,’ he said. ‘I’ll send you my copy.’ I was intrigued: I had never heard of Business Adventures or John Brooks.

Today, more than two decades after Warren lent it to me—and more than four decades after it was first published—Business Adventures remains the best business book I’ve ever read. John Brooks is still my favorite business writer. (And Warren, if you’re reading this, I still have your copy.)

A skeptic might wonder how this out-of-print collection of New Yorker articles from the 1960s could have anything to say about business today. After all, in 1966, when Brooks profiled Xerox, the company’s top-of-the-line copier weighed 650 pounds, cost $27,500, required a full-time operator and came with a fire extinguisher because of its tendency to overheat. A lot has changed since then.”

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The Economist has a review of The Improbable Primate: How Water Shaped Human Evolution, Clive Finlayson’s new book which argues that H2O was what made us modern, though I’ve always thought it likely that it was a confluence of numerous factors. The opening:

“ACCORDING to the standard treatment in evolutionary biology, about 1.8m years ago man’s brain became larger, his gut became smaller and he started walking upright. No ape had done that before. It was an important milestone in the story of human evolution.

The ancestor in question, Homo erectus, could use simple tools and hunt. His diet was more meat-based than plant-based. Meat has more calories than food derived from plants. Humans had transformed themselves from tree-climbing apes that needed to spend a lot of time searching for food to upright, meat-consuming hunters that could roam large distances. So successful was this transformation, evolutionarily speaking, that in due course the descendants of Homo erectus, modern-day Homo sapiens, had no problems colonising the far reaches of the globe.

A few years ago Richard Wrangham, a British primatologist at Harvard University, challenged this accepted wisdom by arguing that learning to cook had made apes human. People cannot easily digest raw meat, he said. Cooking food increases its nutritional value. Mr Wrangham showed that Homo erectus learned to cook with fire about 1.8m years ago. This development conferred evolutionary benefits that ultimately led to the dominance of Homo sapiens today.

In a new book, Clive Finlayson, a zoologist and palaeontologist, who is the director of the Gibraltar Museum, offers another view of 7m years of human evolution. Instead of food, he focuses on water, advancing the theory that the spread of Homo sapiens across the globe was driven largely by changes in climate and access to fresh water.”

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Before we realized that the machines were our common enemy, we fought amongst ourselves. Deep Blue would eventually make us all pale in comparison, but in 1972, it was Red vs. Red, White and Blue, in one of the most thrilling contests ever witnessed. In dethroning Russian chess champion Boris Spassky, Bobby Fischer was his unorthodox self, playing like a supercomputer with its wires crossed. An excerpt from Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power, via Delancey Place:

“The first game of a chess tournament is critical, since it sets the tone for the months to come. It is often a slow and quiet struggle, with the two play­ers preparing themselves for the war and trying to read each other’s strate­gies. This game was different. Fischer made a terrible move early on, perhaps the worst of his career, and when Spassky had him on the ropes, he seemed to give up. Yet Spassky knew that Fischer never gave up. Even when facing checkmate, he fought to the bitter end, wearing the opponent down. This time, though, he seemed resigned. Then suddenly he broke out a bold move that put the room in a buzz. The move shocked Spassky, but he recovered and managed to win the game. But no one could figure out what Fischer was up to. Had he lost deliberately? Or was he rattled? Unset­tled? Even, as some thought, insane?

After his defeat in the first game, Fischer complained all the more loudly about the room, the cameras, and everything else. He also failed to show up on time for the second game. This time the organizers had had enough: He was given a forfeit. Now he was down two games to none, a position from which no one had ever come back to win a chess champi­onship. Fischer was clearly unhinged. Yet in the third game, as all those who witnessed it remember, he had a ferocious look in his eye, a look that clearly bothered Spassky. And despite the hole he had dug for himself, he seemed supremely confident. He did make what appeared to be another blunder, as he had in the first game — but his cocky air made Spassky smell a trap. Yet despite the Russian’s suspicions, he could not figure out the trap, and before he knew it Fischer had checkmated him. In fact Fischer’s un­orthodox tactics had completely unnerved his opponent. At the end of the game, Fischer leaped up and rushed out, yelling to his confederates as he smashed a fist into his palm, ‘I’m crushing him with brute force!’

In the next games Fischer pulled moves that no one had seen from him before, moves that were not his style.”

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Ken Silverstein, a Big Oil reporter who’s written a book about the industry’s shadowy middlemen and facilitators, recently sat for an Ask Me Anything at Gawker. Michael Busch of the Los Angeles Review of Books also just interviewed the journalist, and here’s the opening:


Unlike most books dealing with the oil industry, yours examines the internal machinery of the business, and the players who grease its wheels. Can you start by outlining the scope of your investigation into the world of oil, and the various actors it involves?

Ken Silverstein:

I’ve been writing about the oil industry for more than 15 years, and during that time, I’ve traveled multiple times to Africa and Central Asia, mostly, and Houston, of course. It’s hard to think of any commodity or good that is more important to international commerce than oil. Or more sensitive, for that matter. In this sense, it’s comparable to the global arms trade in its different hidden worlds, which is always interesting. For this project I was funded by Open Society to specifically look at middlemen and oil trading firms that have an enormous role in this trade, but whom are almost never written about. There’s all sorts of great reporting and writing about the oil industry, but rarely do we get a look at these players who are hugely significant but almost entirely hidden.


Fixers, for example.

Ken Silverstein:

There are fixers, who act as middlemen between the oil industry and those governments from whom oil companies wish to obtain concessions. For a very long time now, oil was mostly pumped in the Third World and generally shipped to the First World, and it was First World companies who controlled the trade. As our illustrious former Vice President, Dick Cheney, put it, ‘The good Lord didn’t see fit to put oil and gas only where there are democratically elected regimes.’ He was saying this at a time when he was still with Halliburton, and using it as a justification for the fact that his company was doing business with some pretty shady regimes.

It’s a good point. Because so much of the oil we rely on is located in the Third World, getting access to it has frequently involved bribing governments. Sometimes those bribes have been legal, and sometimes they haven’t been legal, but payoffs to corrupt government officials have always been involved. In the old days, there were a lot of direct bribes made until the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act was passed in 1974. In Europe, bribes were legal until much more recently — you could deduct them in your taxes. But if you are a company executive, you would rather have other people dealing with these governments than having to do it yourself. It’s a very dicey area, and that’s what makes fixers useful. Companies like to have intermediaries who know a country well, or several countries. Of course, I don’t want to blame all of the corruption only on Third World governments. The companies obviously don’t like making payoffs, but they do it because they benefit; they want to win influence and government friends in the corrupt, undemocratic countries that control oil.

In Equatorial Guinea, for example — a country rich in oil but suffering under a terrible dictatorship — Exxon wanted access to the country’s deposits. The President, Teodoro Obiang [Ngeuma Mbasogo], had land, and the company bought it directly from him. President Obiang has been in power since 1979, so ‘president’ is a generous title. ‘Ruler’ is more accurate. In any event, Obiang sold Exxon some land, where they could build their own compound and develop the land for exploitation. It is safe to say they overpaid enormously for that land. It would be difficult to prove that this constitutes a ‘bribe,’ but these are the sorts of tradeoffs that are made in the name of access.

Ed Chow, a longtime Chevron executive, put it most succinctly. In places like Nigeria or Kazakhstan, he said, ‘You get the land, but you don’t provide a lot of jobs, you may be destroying the environment, and most of the profit goes to international capital. The companies don’t have a strong case to sell to local communities, so they come to not only accept highly centralized governments but to crave it. It’s a lot easier to win support from the top than to build it from the bottom. As long as we want cheap gas, democracy can’t exist.’”

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Henry Miller, pardon his French, interviewed on Parisian television later in his life–though not the latest.


Vladimir Nabokov, a lepidopterist but not a pervert, chasing butterflies and discussing Lolita.


While Cliodynamics uses quantified information of the past to chart the future, most alternative histories seem to be based on supposition rather than statistics. In a Financial Times piece highlighting the best books of the summer, conservative British politician Kwasi Kwarteng suggests what sounds like a very good volume which focuses on counterfactuals:

“I have enjoyed many books this year but one that stood out, partly because of its unusual nature, was Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History (Little, Brown) by Richard J Evans. Counterfactuals are the kind of guessing game we play when we wonder what would have happened if, say, Napoleon had won the battle of Waterloo. Evans’s book reveals how much of our modern thinking about history is dominated by counterfactuals. For example, in the last 20 years, many novels have featured lurid depictions of a Britain conquered by the Nazis. Altered Pasts is a good read, which stimulates further reflection about the nature of history.”


Neuroscientist Carl Hart shares contrarian views about drugs in his new book, High Price. In addition to refusing the idea that methamphetamines destroy a person’s looks–that widely held belief is just the result of a very successful anti-drug propaganda campaign, he argues–Hart doesn’t think crack is nearly as addictive as it’s made out to be. From an interview by Amy Chozick in the New York Times Magazine:


You begin your book High Price with a story about an experiment you did. You offered a crack addict a hit or $5.

Carl Hart:

He chose the cash. Why did you lead with this? We have rigorous science to support that crack cocaine is not as addictive as people think and that they have been hoodwinked. I was hoping people would want to read further if they had a myth busted right up front.


How do you think Hollywood plays into our perceptions about drugs and addiction? It’s not only Hollywood.

Carl Hart:

One of Public Enemy’s bigger songs, ‘Night of the Living Baseheads,’ is all about this crack addict who’s just fiending. Public Enemy did so many good things, but on that song, they were wrong. And New Jack City is on TV, like, every week. Remember New Jack City?


Yes, the movie about a drug kingpin who turns an apartment complex into a crack factory.

Carl Hart:

Again, the filmmakers were trying to help their community, but the problem was that crack wasn’t the real problem. The real problem was unemployment, lack of education, lack of skills. Politicians are happy not to have to focus on those larger issues. You can just focus on crack cocaine, put more cops on the street and make tougher laws.”

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In a New York Review Books piece, Bill McKibben lays out the sobering ramifications of the Great Melt, which can be slowed down and perhaps managed to some extent with technological innovation and political will, but which cannot be stopped. An excerpt:

“In mid-May of this year, a pair of papers were published in Science and Geophysical Research Letters that made clear that the great glaciers facing the Amundsen Sea were no longer effectively ‘buttressed.’ It turns out that the geology of the region is bowl-shaped: beneath the glaciers the ground slopes downward, meaning that water can and is flooding underneath them. It is eating away at them from below and freeing them from the points where they were pinned to the ground. This water is warmer, because our oceans are steadily warming. This slow-motion collapse, which will occur over many decades, is ‘unstoppable’ at this point, scientists say; it has ‘passed the point of no return.’

This means that as much as ten feet of sea-level rise is being added to previous predictions. We don’t know how quickly it will come, just that it will. And that won’t be all. A few days after the Antarctic announcement, other scientists found that much of Greenland’s ice sheet shows a similar underlying geology, with warm water able to melt it from underneath. Another study that week showed that soot from huge forest fires, which are more frequent as a result of global warming, is helping to melt the Greenland ice sheet, a remarkably vicious cycle.

In certain ways none of this really comes as news. A leading glaciologist, Jason Box of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS), has calculated that given the paleoclimatic record, our current atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases are probably enough to produce an eventual sixty-nine feet of sea-level rise.2 But it’s one thing to know that the gun is cocked, and another to see the bullet actually traveling; the news from the Antarctic is a turning point. It doesn’t mean we should give up efforts to slow climate change: if anything, as scientists immediately pointed out, it means we should ramp them up enormously, because we can still affect the rate at which this change happens, and hence the level of chaos it produces. Coping over centuries will be easier than coping over decades.”


Great interview by Tyler Cowen at American Interest with Ralph Nader, the consumer watchdog and politician who’s mostly been right and occasionally colossally wrong, tied to the latter’s publication of Unstoppable, a book about finding political common ground in a divisive age. In one exchange, Nader decries the corporatization of sports, which he believes has made us passive spectators. I suppose this might be true of athletics, but I don’t think in a broader sense that the average person has ever participated more in society than right now. Of course, a participatory culture is only as good as its participants. An excerpt:

Tyler Cowen:

Do you think we need a more communitarian culture to push back against the corporate state and its abuses? I’m very struck by something in your book The Seventeen Solutions, for instance, where you talk about how America needs a new tradition of sports. Sports, you say, shouldn’t be something corporate-run that people watch on television, but something they do themselves, something that creates community, something that brings people together. Is that kind of social cohesion a necessary first step?

Ralph Nader:

Yes. We’ve become too much of a spectator culture, spending the better part of each day in front of screens. One of the consequences is that the few more athletic kids play while the rest watch, and the lack of physical activity leads to obesity. It’s not just youngsters; adults conform with the purposes of corporate advertising. The processed food producers and some other corporations, like pharmaceuticals, get rich when Americans get fat.

Corporations are also extremely adept at commercializing childhood and maneuvering around or undermining parental authority. They urge children to nag their parents at a young age to buy junk food, soft drinks, and violent video games. You see fewer kids out in the street now, just playing. These old games we used to play, like hopscotch—kids today wouldn’t even know what you’re talking about. But they do know a lot about video game violence and the heroes and villains involved.

So I think we do need a broad recognition of the need to bring the neighborhoods and communities into more participatory sports. Just a hoop, and throwing the ball into a hoop—anything to connect human to human rather than let kids wallow more and more in virtual reality. The whole electronic world is affecting us in ways we have yet to discover. That amount of time spent day after day in front of these screens can’t not have an effect on the human mind, and probably not a healthy one.”

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The opening of “New World Order,” a Foreign Affairs essay by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of The Second Machine Age, and Michael Spence, which astutely examines the new normal and what it will likely bring:

“Recent advances in technology have created an increasingly unified global marketplace for labor and capital. The ability of both to flow to their highest-value uses, regardless of their location, is equalizing their prices across the globe. In recent years, this broad factor-price equalization has benefited nations with abundant low-cost labor and those with access to cheap capital. Some have argued that the current era of rapid technological progress serves labor, and some have argued that it serves capital. What both camps have slighted is the fact that technology is not only integrating existing sources of labor and capital but also creating new ones.

Machines are substituting for more types of human labor than ever before. As they replicate themselves, they are also creating more capital. This means that the real winners of the future will not be the providers of cheap labor or the owners of ordinary capital, both of whom will be increasingly squeezed by automation. Fortune will instead favor a third group: those who can innovate and create new products, services, and business models.

The distribution of income for this creative class typically takes the form of a power law, with a small number of winners capturing most of the rewards and a long tail consisting of the rest of the participants. So in the future, ideas will be the real scarce inputs in the world — scarcer than both labor and capital — and the few who provide good ideas will reap huge rewards. Assuring an acceptable standard of living for the rest and building inclusive economies and societies will become increasingly important challenges in the years to come.”

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Scott Carney is an investigative journalist whose 2011 book, The Red Market, looks at the world’s very unsettling illicit trade in human flesh, including an Indian “blood farm,” in which a former dairy farmer kidnapped people, drained their blood and sold it. Carney just finished writing his next book, which focuses on the grisly and confusing death of a man at an Arizona Tibetan retreat, but his new Ask Me Anything at Reddit still mostly centers on underground human-organ trafficking, which is usually less about a shanghaied victim than pure economic predation. A few exchanges follow.



How much of the illegal trade is actually non-consensual though? Do a lot of people sell their organs on the black market out of economic necessity or are they mostly forced into it by gangsters?

Scott Carney:

It’s impossible to get accurate statistics of anything having to do with the illegal organ trade–but from what I witnessed it seems to me that the majority of the trafficking occurs because very rich companies and hospitals take advantage of desperately poor individuals. So, technically, most of it is consensual, it’s also incredibly coercive. There’s a reason that after every major tsunami and earthquake that the organ brokers come in right after the relief agencies.



So it’s less kidnapping people and leaving them in bathtubs full of ice and more pressuring incredibly poor people into selling their organs or face starving to death?

In a way that’s much worse, rather than individual acts of violence it’s an entrenched economic problem that is a lot harder to fix than simply arresting a few kidnapping gangs.

Scott Carney:

Yes. It’s really rare to kidnap people–especially tourists. However, it DOES happen. In this article in Foreign Policy I wrote about several cases where people are simply picked up off the streets and robbed of their organs. That said, it is generally a lot less risky for the brokers to simply convince people they’ve entered into a fair trade, rather than raise suspicion amongst law enforcement.



How valuable are each of the harvested body parts approximately? Does it vary widely around the world or are different organs more valuable in different countries?

Scott Carney:

This is a tough question because body parts don’t have a fixed value. Their price fluctuates like a used car. However, I did write a piece for Wired a few years ago where I tried to come up with general prices. Check it out here.



How big is this industry estimated to be? How many organ trades a year are we talking worldwide? Obviously with all things criminal we don’t have exact stats but are we talking tens of thousands or millions or what?

Scott Carney:

It is easily worth billions of dollars, but there is no solid statistic that I can point to. It turns out that the criminals are terrible at filing quarterly reports. The best I can point to is a WHO report that says that 10% of organ transplants happen on the black market.



Are there any other known places in the world where black market organ trading occurs? And how do they transport the organs?

Scott Carney:

It’s a global problem. I think just about every country has some relation to it. Live organs aren’t usually transported across international lines. In those cases the patients fly abroad for surgery.



Do you think an increase in voluntary organ donation would help reduce this market?

Scott Carney:

This is a fascinating question that has more than one answer. I tackle it in the last chapter of my book a little bit. In short, I have to say no. While voluntary donation will increase the overall supply of organs, it does nothing to stem the overall demand. Since 1984 when the National Organ Transplant Association started up the waiting list for a kidney was almost seven years long. Today, with vastly expanded voluntary supply (I think it is something like 50,000 transplants a year now), the list is still just as long. What is happening is that as the supply grows, doctors find more eligible recipients for organs. It’s perverse, but the demand for organs is actually a reflection of the supply. Not the other way around.•


In a 1988 New York Times book review of a biography about writer Jean Stafford, Joyce Carol Oates diagnosed, fairly early, the mainstreaming of pathology as entertainment in America, before real addictions and faux marriages became a selling point–something to behold. An excerpt:

“Instead of granting Stafford the singularity of her achievement – the highly regarded novels Boston Adventure, The Mountain Lion and The Catherine Wheel and some two dozen superbly crafted short stories – the biographer chooses to sound, from virtually his first page, the clarion call of failed promise; his claim is that ‘the causes of Stafford’s decline are several and elusive’ and that ‘for all the excuses she loved to make, at the deepest level she knew that she had no one to blame but herself.’ Thus pathography’s unmistakable slant, emphasis, tone.

Never considering that early praise lavished upon Jean Stafford on the occasion of her first novel, Boston Adventure, in 1944, might have been journalistic hyperbole – Life magazine excitedly heralded the 28-year-old author as the ‘most brilliant of the new fiction writers’ – Mr. Roberts judges most of Stafford’s adult life in terms of its ‘decline’ and grants to her 20-odd years of alcoholic crises as much weight as the earlier, productive years. Surely this is unfair? And surely wrong-headed? Where a judicious biography might diplomatically round off a consideration of its subject’s career when the career is more or less over, summarizing years of fitful dissolution in a brief space, the pathography shifts into high gear, becoming a repository of illnesses and disasters and disappointments, primarily because evidence – letters, documents, witnesses’ testimonies – is abundantly available.

Admirers of Jean Stafford’s writing will be dismayed at the demeaning images this biography yields: Stafford in various stages of public and private drunkenness; Stafford in Payne Whitney Clinic and other parts of New York Hospital 34 times; Stafford tripping over her cat and falling downstairs drunk; or vomiting into her purse; or glimpsed through a window by a friend, passed out cold; Stafford hallucinating in Grand Central Station; Stafford as a ‘fag hag’ in East Hampton; Stafford as a ‘battered, bruised, drunken old woman’ of whom, in the mid-1970′s, one of her oldest friends declares: ‘I was very happy to turn my back on her.’ Yet more offensively, the biographer claims to detect a thread of syphilitic infection through most of Stafford’s life, speculating upon circumstantial evidence that she contracted the disease in 1936, while studying in Heidelberg, and that the disease radically affected her entire life. Suicidal moments are duly noted; cruel, unsparing testimony by numerous witnesses is provided. The menu of ailments and paranoid fantasies escalates, ending finally, mercifully, in death by cardiac arrest at the age of 63, after a severe stroke had left Stafford aphasic. Is there no defense, no way of eluding such protracted exposure? As Oscar Wilde once observed, the prospect of biography ‘adds to death a new terror.’”

A passage from Steve Coll’s New York Review of Books piece about Brad Stone’s The Everything Store, a title bout Amazon strongarming publishers, which was recently caught in the crossfire of Jeff Bezos’ battle with Hachette:

“Jeff Bezos’s conceit is that Amazon is merely an instrument of an inevitable digital disruption in the book industry, that the company is clearing away the rust and cobwebs created by inefficient analog-era ‘gatekeepers’—i.e., editors, diverse small publishers, independent bookstores, and the writers this system has long supported. In Bezos’s implied argument, Amazon’s catalytic ‘creative destruction,’ in the economist Joseph Schumpeter’s phrase, will clarify who will prosper in an unstoppably faster, more interconnected economy.

‘Amazon is not happening to book selling,’ Bezos once told Charlie Rose. ‘The future is happening to book selling.’ Yet the more Amazon uses its vertically integrated corporate power to squeeze publishers who are also competitors, the more Bezos’s claim looks like a smokescreen. And the more Amazon uses coercion and retaliation as means of negotiation, the more it looks to be restraining competition.

Toward the end of his account, Stone asks the essential question: ‘Will antitrust authorities eventually come to scrutinize Amazon and its market power?’ His answer: ‘Yes, I believe that is likely.’ It is ‘clear that Amazon has helped damage or destroy competitors small and large,’ in Stone’s judgment.”

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Carson McCullers being interviewed (pretty poorly) on a ship in 1956. Mostly discusses the stage version of A Member of the Wedding.


This Open Culture post about Samuel Beckett driving a young Andre the Giant to school nearly made my brain may explode. An excerpt:

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

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Erich Segal was smart and successful, but he didn’t always mix the two. A Yale classics professor with a taste for Hollywood, he wrote Love Story, the novel and screenplay, and was met with runaway success in both mediums for his tale of young love doomed by cruel biology, despite the coffee-mug-ready writing and Boomer narcissism. (Or perhaps because of those blights.) While I don’t think it says anything good about us that every American generation seems to need its story of a pristine girl claimed by cancer–The Fault in Our Stars being the current one–the trope is amazingly resilient.

The opening of a 1970 Life article about Segal as he was nearing apotheosis in the popular culture:

“He looks almost too wispy to walk the 26 miles of the annual Boston Marathon, much less run all that way, even with a six-time Playboy fold-out waiting to greet him at the finish line. But Erich Segal doesn’t fool around. When he runs, he runs 26 miles (once a year, anyway–10 miles a day, other days), when he teaches classics he teaches at Yale (and gets top ratings from both colleagues and students), when he writes a novel he writes a best-seller. Love Story was published by Harper & Row in February and quickly hit the list. With his customary thoroughness Segal was ready: he had simultaneously written a screenplay of the story, and promptly sold it for $100,000. A bachelor (‘with intermittent qualms’), Segal has spent his 32 years juggling so many careers that it worries his friends. Even before Love Story he numbered among his accomplishments a scholarly translation of Plautus and part credit for the script of Yellow Submarine. At this rate, if his wind holds out, he may even win the Boston Marathon.

Love Story is Professor Segal’s first try at fiction, and when on publication day two months ago his editor at Harper & Row called up and said simply, ‘It broke,’ Segal remembers wondering whether he was talking about his neck or his sanity.”


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