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The instability of the Argentine banking system (and the expense of dealing with it) has led a growing number of citizens to embark on a bold experiment using Bitcoin to sidestep institutions, a gambit which would probably not be attempted with the same zest in countries with relative financial stability. But if the service proves to be a large-scale success in Argentina, will it influence practices in nations heretofore resistant to cryptocurrency? And will a massive failure doom the decentralized system?

In a New York Times Magazine article adapted from Nathaniel Popper’s forthcoming Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money, the author writes of this new dynamic in the South American republic, which is enabled by itinerant digital money-changers like Dante Castiglione. An excerpt:

That afternoon, a plump 48-year-old musician was one of several customers to drop by the rented room. A German customer had paid the musician in Bitcoin for some freelance compositions, and the musician needed to turn them into dollars. Castiglione joked about the corruption of Argentine politics as he peeled off five $100 bills, which he was trading for a little more than 1.5 Bitcoins, and gave them to his client. The musician did not hand over anything in return; before showing up, he had transferred the Bitcoins — in essence, digital tokens that exist only as entries in a digital ledger — from his Bitcoin address to Castiglione’s. Had the German client instead sent euros to a bank in Argentina, the musician would have been required to fill out a form to receive payment and, as a result of the country’s currency controls, sacrificed roughly 30 percent of his earnings to change his euros into pesos. Bitcoin makes it easier to move money the other way too. The day before, the owner of a small manufacturing company bought $20,000 worth of Bitcoin from Castiglione in order to get his money to the United States, where he needed to pay a vendor, a transaction far easier and less expensive than moving funds through Argentine banks.

The last client to visit the office that Friday was Alberto Vega, a stout 37-year-old in a neatly cut suit who heads the Argentine offices of the American Bitcoin company BitPay, whose technology enables merchants to accept Bitcoin payments. Like other BitPay employees — there is a staff of six in Buenos Aires — Vega receives his entire salary in Bitcoin and lives outside the traditional financial system. He orders what he can from websites that accept Bitcoin and goes to Castiglione when he needs cash. On this occasion, he needed 10,000 pesos to pay a roofer who was working on his house.

Commerce of this sort has proved useful enough to Argentines that Castiglione has made a living buying and selling Bitcoin for the last year and a half. “We are trying to give a service,” he said.

That mundane service — harnessing Bitcoin’s workaday utility — is what so excites some investors and entrepreneurs about Argentina. Banks everywhere hold money and move it around; they help make it possible for money to function as both a store of value and a medium of exchange. But thanks in large part to their country’s history of financial instability, a small yet growing number of Argentines are now using Bitcoin instead to fill those roles. They keep the currency in their Bitcoin “wallets,” digital accounts they access with a password, and use its network when they need to send or spend money, because even with Castiglione or one of his competitors serving as middlemen between the traditional economy and the Bitcoin marketplace, Bitcoin can be cheaper and more convenient than Argentina’s financial establishment. In effect, Argentines are conducting an ambitious experiment, one that threatens ultimately to spread to the United States and disrupt some of the most basic services its banks have to offer.

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If you want to stop bubonic plague, killing as many cats and dogs as possible is probably not the most effective gambit. But that’s what the Mayor of London opted to do in 1665, putting down nearly a quarter-million predators of rats, which carried the lethal fleas. 

While we have a far greater understanding of epidemiology than our counterparts in the 17th century, we still probably accept some asinine ideas as gospel. In a Medium essay, Weldon Kennedy questions our faith in ourselves, naming three contemporary beliefs he feels are incorrect.

I’ll propose one: It’s wrong that children, who are wisely banned from frequenting bars and purchasing cigarettes, are allowed to eat at fast-food restaurants, which set them up for a lifetime of unhealthiness. Ronald McDonald and Joe Camel aren’t so different.

Kennedy’s opening:

In 19th century London, everyone was certain that bad air caused disease. From cholera to the plague: if you were sick, everyone thought it was because of bad air. It was called the Miasma Theory.

As chronicled in The Ghost Map, it took the physician John Snow years, and cost thousands of lives, to finally disprove the Miasma Theory. He mapped every cholera death in London and linked it back to the deceased’s source of water, and still it took years for people to believe him. Now miasma stands as a by-word for widely held pseudo-scientific beliefs widely held throughout society.

The problem for Snow was that no one could see cholera germs. As a result, he, and everyone else of the time, was forced to measure other observable phenomenon. Poor air quality was aggressively apparent, so it’s easy to see how it might take the blame.

Thankfully, our means of scientific measurement have improved vastly since then. We should hope that any such scientific theory lacking a grounding in observable data would now be quickly discarded.

Where our ability to measure still lags, however, it seems probable that we might still have miasmatic theories.•

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Some of Ian Frazier’s customary whip-smart, wondrous prose is on display in his NYRB piece about a raft of volumes by and about Daniil Kharms, a writer from that self-inflicted wound called Russia, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic, incarcerated for being an “anti-Soviet children’s writer” and ultimately starved to death at 36. He matured as an artist under Stalin, an era bathed needlessly in blood, his dark, absurd sensibilities perfect for the time and place or perhaps warped into midnight by them. Though Frazier wisely warns against accepting this narrative as a comprehensive explication of Kharms’ work. The opening:

Russia is the funniest country in the world. Some countries, like America and England, are funny mostly on purpose, while others, like Germany and France, can be funny only unintentionally. (But that counts! Being funny is tricky, so any way you do it counts.) Russia, however, is funny both intentionally (Gogol, Zoshchenko, Bulgakov) and unintentionally (Vladimir Putin singing, as he did at a televised event a few years ago, “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill”). Given the disaster Russian history has been more or less continuously for the last five centuries, its humor is of the darkest, most extreme kind. Russian humor is to ordinary humor what backwoods fundamentalist poisonous snake handling is to a petting zoo. Russian humor is slapstick, only you actually die.

Surveys that measure such distinctions often rate Russians among the world’s least happy people. To judge from the Russians I know, this information would hold little interest one way or the other. To Russians, happiness is not the big deal it is to us; the Declaration of Independence they don’t have makes no statement about it. On the street or otherwise encountering strangers Russians don’t paste big grins on their faces, the way we tend to do. They look sternly upon reflex smilers. Their humor is powerful without a lot of jollity, and it’s hard to imagine Bulgakov, say, convulsed and weeping with laughter, as I have been when reading certain scenes in his novel Heart of a Dog.

Daniil Kharms, a Russian writer who came of age in the worst of Soviet times, is categorized as an absurdist, partly (I think) because it’s hard to know what else to call him. To me he makes more sense as a religious writer.

He is really funny and completely not ingratiating, simultaneously.•

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The upside to the financial crisis of a medium, say like magazines with their economic model tossed into the crapper by technological progress, is that publications are forced to reinvent themselves, get innovative and try offbeat things. In that spirit, the resuscitated Newsweek assigned Wikileaks editor (not “self-styled editor”) Julian Assange to review Luke Harding’s The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man.

And what a gleefully obnoxious pan he delivers, making some salient points along the way, even if it’s not exactly unexpected that he would be bilious toward traditional media in favor of alterna-journalists like himself. Additionally: Assange proves he is a very funny writer. You know, just like Bill Cosby.

An excerpt:

In recent years, we have seen The Guardian consult itself into cinematic history—in the Jason Bourne films and others—as a hip, ultra-modern, intensely British newspaper with a progressive edge, a charmingly befuddled giant of investigative journalism with a cast-iron spine.

The Snowden Files positions The Guardian as central to the Edward Snowden affair, elbowing out more significant players like Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras for Guardian stablemates, often with remarkably bad grace.

“Disputatious gay” Glenn Greenwald’s distress at the U.K.’s detention of his husband, David Miranda, is described as “emotional” and “over-the-top.” My WikiLeaks colleague Sarah Harrison—who helped rescue Snowden from Hong Kongis dismissed as a “would-be journalist.”

I am referred to as the “self-styled editor of WikiLeaks.” In other words, the editor of WikiLeaks. This is about as subtle as Harding’s withering asides get. You could use this kind of thing on anyone.

Flatulent Tributes

The book is full of flatulent tributes to The Guardian and its would-be journalists. “[Guardian journalist Ewen] MacAskill had climbed the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc and the Jungfrau. His calmness now stood him in good stead.” Self-styled Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger is introduced and reintroduced in nearly every chapter, each time quoting the same hagiographic New Yorker profile as testimony to his “steely” composure and “radiant calm.”

That this is Hollywood bait could not be more blatant.•

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I mentioned this before when writing of Al Michaels’ obliviousness about the dark side of the NFL, but when you haven’t had to worry about food or shelter in a long time, you have to be on constant guard against the development of moral blind spots. Michaels likely thinks of himself as a solid citizen, but your assessment may vary considering his opinions about the racist Washington franchise name and the preponderance of serious health issues suffered by the league’s players.

At the recent Festival of Books at USC, Malcolm Gladwell (who is not incognizant of the NFL’s concussion issue) spoke to this same point. From Taylor Goldstein at the Los Angeles Times:

“I think it becomes very hard to be a good person after a certain point. Or at least it’s not impossible, it’s just harder to work. Just as, in David and Goliath, I talk about what it means to be, how hard it is, weirdly, to be a wealthy parent, how much more difficult it is to raise a child if you are very wealthy as opposed to middle class.

“It’s not impossible, but it requires more of you. There’s that whole thing I have about the difference between “can’t” and “won’t.” That saying no to a child of the middle class is very easy because you just say, “We can’t.” “You want a pony? Look around you! Where would the pony go? Look in the bedroom; is there room for a stable?”

“Of course, if you’re a billionaire, you can’t use ‘can’t,’ you have to use ‘won’t,’ and ‘won’t’ is really hard. ‘Won’t’ requires you to give an explanation, right? And in the same way, when you get, when you’re living a kind of normal life, being empathetic comes naturally. When you’re successful, you have to work at it.”•

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Francisco Cândido Xavier was a prolific writer, though he had help.

At least, that’s what the Brazilian man affectionately known as Chico Xavier claimed. He fancied himself as a ghostwriter for ghosts, a medium who would “receive” the books from the deceased and transcribe them. Psicografía, it is called. The opening ofDead Man Talking,” Laura Premack’s Boston Review article:

In Brazil, dead people write books. Not only do they write books, they sell them. Many fly off the shelves.

The process is called psicografía or psychography, also known in English as automatic writing: mediums go into trance, channel the spirits of the deceased, and record their words. Sometimes mediums channel the spirits of famous writers and poets such as Victor Hugo and Humberto de Campos, the renowned Brazilian poet and journalist whose family sued the medium-author of several collections of his supposedly posthumous poems and essays—not because they objected on principle but because they wanted a share of the profits. Sometimes mediums channel historical figures, such as nineteenth-century politician Bezerra de Menezes, and sometimes they channel unknowns.

Brazil’s most prolific and beloved medium was Francisco Cândido Xavier. Known fondly as Chico Xavier, he published more than 400 books from 1932 until his death at age ninety-two in 2002. At least 25 million copies of his books have been sold, likely more. They have been translated into many languages, including Greek, Japanese, and Braille. His Nosso Lar, a sort of spiritual memoir first published in 1944, is probably the biggest psychographic hit ever. More than sixty Brazilian editions have been printed and nearly 2 million copies sold.

In addition to publishing books, Xavier used his psychographic ability to record more than ten thousand letters from dead people to their families.•

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Beginning in 1970, Chico Xavier began appearing on the TV show Pingo Fogo.

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I haven’t yet read Oakley Hall’s McCarthy Era Western, Warlock, but now I must. That’s the book Thomas Pynchon named in 1965 when Holiday magazine asked him to suggest an underappreciated title to its readers. It’s set in 1880s Tombstone, Arizona, which Pynchon believed to be Arthurian in stature. Here’s what he wrote about it:

Tombstone, Arizona, during the 1880’s is, in ways, our national Camelot; a never-never land where American virtues are embodied in the Earps, and the opposite evils in the Clanton gang; where the confrontation at the OK Corral takes on some of the dry purity of the Arthurian joust. Oakley Hall, in his very fine novel Warlock(Viking) has restored to the myth of Tombstone its full, mortal, blooded humanity.  Earp is transmogrified into a gunfighter named Blaisdell who, partly because of his blown-up image in the Wild West magazines of the day, believes he is a hero. He is summoned to the embattled town of Warlock by a committee of nervous citizens expressly to be a hero, but finds that he cannot, at last, live up to his image; that there is a flaw not only in him but also, we feel, in the entire set of assumptions that have allowed the ­image to exist. It is Blaisdell’s private abyss, and not too different from the ­town’s public one. Before the agonized epic of Warlock is over with—the rebellion of the proto-Wobblies working in ­the mines, the struggling for political control of the area, the gunfighting, mob violence, the personal crises of those in power—the collective awareness that is Warlock must face its own inescapable Horror: that what is called society, with ­its law and order, is as frail, as precari­ous, as flesh and can be snuffed out and assimilated back into the desert a easily as a corpse can. It is the deep sensitivity to abysses that makes Warlock, I think, one of our best American novels. For we are a nation that can, many of us, toss with all aplomb our candy wrapper into the Grand Canyon itself, snap a color shot and drive away; and we need voices like Oakley Hall’s to remind us how far that piece of paper, still fluttering brightly behind us, has to fall.

—Thomas Pynchon•

 

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Last week, I read Freeman Dyson’s 1997 book, Imagined Worlds, and I wanted to present one excerpt which seems more salient now than when it was written (although that pertains to a lot of the volume). The scientist assailed the way technology was destabilizing society and creating income inequality. That process has only accelerated since.

Two things about the excerpt below:

  1. Dyson did not realize how quickly computing power would become relatively affordable.
  2. That affordability hasn’t mitigated homelessness or income gaps in America.

The passage:

Today science has once again turned good into evil. This time the evil is not a war, but a civilian technology that systematically widens the gulf between rich and poor, deprives uneducated young people of jobs, and leaves large numbers of young mothers and children hopeless and homeless. The evil is to be seen in many places around the world, especially in the great cities of North and South America. When one walks through the streets of New York after dark during the Christmas season, one sees the widening gulf at its starkest. The brightly lit shop windows are filled with high-tech electronic toys for the children of the rich, and a few yards away, the dark corners of subway entrances are filled with the dim outlines of derelict human beings that the new technology has left behind. In every large American city such contrasts have become a part of everyday life.

When I arrived in America fifty years ago, rich and poor people were less estranged and less afraid of one another, the feeling of belonging to a community was stronger, the rich had fewer locks on their doors, and the poor had roofs over their heads. Since those days, wealth has accumulated and society has decayed. It is as Haldane said, “The tendency of applied science is to magnify injustices until they become too intolerable to be borne, and the average man, whom all the prophets and poets could not move, turns at last and extinguishes evil at its source.”

My scientist friends may justly protest that the calamities of American society are caused by drugs, or by guns, or by racial intolerance, or by illiteracy, or by bad schools, or by broken families, rather than by science. It is true that the immediate causes of social disintegration are moral and economic rather than technical. But science must bear a larger share of responsibility for these evils than the majority of scientists are willing to admit.•

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In an interview with Seung-yoon Lee of Byline, Noam Chomsky expresses his belief that the foundering of the traditional news and the democratization of the media hasn’t really changed for the better the public dialogue. Perhaps. Income inequality, for instance, has only gotten worse since the media came into the hands of the masses, though that also has to do with myriad other issues. But we won’t be leading the conversation as long as people are satisfied with bread and Kardashians.

As for Chomsky saying he learns about what’s happening in Ukraine or Syria by reading the New York Times, Associated Press and British press rather than by looking at social media and search engines, I would only suggest his news-reading habits are vastly different than the majority. It doesn’t mean he’s wrong, but he’s likely an outlier. 

Two exchanges follow, one about the state of modern media and the other about Charlie Hebdo.

____________________________

Seung-yoon Lee:

Twenty-seven years ago, you wrote in Manufacturing Consent that the primary role of the mass media in Western democratic societies is to mobilise public support for the elite interests that lead the government and the private sector. However, a lot has happened since then. Most notably, one could argue that the Internet has radically decentralised power and eroded the power of traditional media, and has also given rise to citizen journalism. News from Ferguson, for instance, emerged on Twitter before it was picked up by media organisations. Has the internet made your ‘Propaganda Model’ irrelevant? 

Noam Chomsky:

Actually, we have an updated version of the book which appeared about 10 years ago with a preface in which we discuss this question. And I think I can speak for my co-author, you can read the introduction, but we felt that if there have been changes, then this is one of them. There are other [changes], such as the decline in the number of independent print media, which is quite striking.

As far as we can see, the basic analysis is essentially unchanged. It’s true that the internet does provide opportunities that were not easily available before, so instead of having to go to the library to do research, you can just open up your computer. You can certainly release information more easily and also distribute different information from many sources, and that offers opportunities and deficiencies. But fundamentally, the system hasn’t changed very much. 

Seuny-yoon Lee:

Emily Bell, Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, said the following in her recent speech at Oxford: “News spaces are no longer owned by newsmakers. The press is no longer in charge of the free press and has lost control of the main conduits through which stories reach audiences. The public sphere is now operated by a small number of private companies, based in Silicon Valley.” Nearly all content now is published on social platforms, and it’s not Rupert Murdoch but Google’s Larry Page and Sergei Brin and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg who have much more say in how news is created and disseminated. Are they “manufacturing consent” like their counterparts in so-called ‘legacy’ media?

Noam Chomsky:

Well, first of all, I don’t agree with the general statement. Say, right now, if I want to find out what’s going on in Ukraine or Syria or Washington, I read the New York Times, other national newspapers, I look at the Associated Press wires, I read the British press, and so on. I don’t look at Twitter because it doesn’t tell me anything. It tells me people’s opinions about lots of things, but very briefly and necessarily superficially, and it doesn’t have the core news. And I think it’s the opposite of what you quoted – the sources of news have become narrower.•

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Seung-yoon Lee:

Also, regarding the specific incident of Charlie Hebdo, do you think the cartoonists lacked responsibility?

Noam Chomsky:

Yes, I think they were kind of acting in this case like spoiled adolescents, but that doesn’t justify killing them. I mean, I could say the same about a great deal that appears in the press. I think it’s quite irresponsible often. For example, when the press in the United States and England supported the worst crime of this century, the invasion of Iraq, that was way more irresponsible than what Charlie Hebdo did. It led to the destruction of Iraq and the spread of the sectarian conflict that’s tearing the region to shreds. It was a really major crime. Aggression is the supreme international crime under international law. Insofar as the press supported that, that was deeply irresponsible, but I don’t think the press should be shut down.•

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On a panel shared by Elon Musk, Bill Gates briefly discusses superintelligence and its threat to humans, recommending Nick Bostrom’s book on the topic. Gates thinks our brains make for substandard hardware, and he argues that if machines can be made to be intelligent, they will almost immediately run in a direction far beyond us, with no intermediate stage needed for crawling or toddling. For a couple of minutes beginning at the 19:30 mark.

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I’m sure reading moral philosopher Peter Singer’s classic book Practical Ethics played some role in my giving up eating and wearing animals. In a new Reddit AMA, which is tied to the publication of his latest title, The Most Good You Can Do, Singer assesses the correct responses to various ethical challenges. A few exchanges below.

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Question:

What are your thoughts on a universal basic income?

Peter Singer:

Nice idea, but it would need to be truly universal, i.e. I’d like to see everyone in the world have a guaranteed minimum that would mean that no one was unable to buy enough food to live. Unfortunately, I can’t see this being implemented in the near future, so in The Most Good You Can Do I focus on action that is cost-effective and practical right now.

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Question:

Do you think that it’s wrong to buy lamb and beef that has come from sheep and cattle that have lived non-factory farmed lives outdoors in fields? It’s seems to me that the lives of such animals are worth living, i.e. that the world is better off for containing such animals than not, and therefore (from an animal welfare perspective at least) it is good and right to buy lamb and beef from these sources; this would not preclude simultaneously compaigning for improved treatment of these animals. Do you agree?

Peter Singer:

The lives of sheep and cows kept on grass rather than in feedlots may be worth living, but unfortunately these ruminants produce a lot of methane (essentially, belching and farting) and so make a big contribution to climate change. Despite the myth of this being “natural” grass-fed beef and lamb, on the scale on which we are producing it, is simply not sustainable.

_________________________

Question:

In an interview you did with Tyler Cowen back when you wrote The Life You Can Save, you were asked what you think about immigration as an anti-poverty tool. At the time you said you need to think about it more. It seems to me that allowing more immigration may be the most effective political change we can make toward reducing poverty, so I’m curious if you’ve spent more time on that question since then and have an opinion on it?

Peter Singer:

Yes, I’ve thought about it some more, and looked at some of the arguments in favor of Open Borders. To me, though, the problem is that any political party that advocated this would lose the next election, and that election contest would probably bring out all the racist elements in society in a very nasty way. So until people in affluent nations are much more accepting of large-scale immigration than they are now, in any country that I am familiar with, I don’t think a large increase in immigrants from developing nations is feasible.

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Question:

I recently completed my PhD in philosophy, but throughout grad school, I have become completely disillusioned with academic philosophy (no jobs, prestige-obsessed, intimidating/arrogant people, etc.). But I love philosophy very dearly, and I’ve been told I stand a decent chance at getting a postdoc. If you weren’t doing what you do now, what do you think you’d be doing? And do you think you’d have any regrets?

Peter Singer:

I suppose I might be a political activist of some kind. Back in Australia in the ’90s, I was a political candidate for the Greens. I didn’t get elected, but support for the Greens has grown since then, and Green candidates have won the Senate seat for which I stood. I’m not sorry that I lost, because it was after that that I was offered the position at Princeton that has enabled me to have a lot more influence in discussions of the issues raised both in Animal Liberation and in The Most Good You Can Do but I often wonder what my life would have been like if I’d won. (Incidentally, Australia has proportional voting for the Senate, so it’s not the case that I could have helped the worse candidate get elected, as Ralph Nader’s candidacy did in the 2000 presidential election between Bush and Gore. I would not stand as a minor party candidate under those circumstances.)

_________________________

Question:

What would you consider to be the greatest danger to a more ethical future?

Peter Singer:

We tend to be ethical only when our survival, and that of those we care about, is not at stake. One of the big present dangers to our present level of security is climate change, which could create a chaotic world with hundreds of millions of people who are unable to feed themselves, and become climate refugees, causing a chaotic world.

_________________________

Question:

Would you rather save the life of 1 horse-size duck or 100 duck-size horses?

Peter Singer: 

An effective altruist would always prefer to save 100 lives rather than just one.•

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No offense to Freeman Dyson, but the book of his I just read was purchased used for a penny on Amazon (plus $3.99 for shipping and handling). I’ve always wondered why anyone would bother selling a penny title online. What volume of sales could possibly make it worth it? In a Guardian piece, Calum Marsh tries to make sense of one-cent-book sales. The opening:

Sometime in early 2013, in Dallas, Texas, a generous reader donated his impeccable first-edition copy of Philip Roth’s Our Gang to the local Goodwill store, its royal blue dust jacket gleaming as brilliantly as it did in 1971.

There it sat on a shelf, priced at $1, until a semi-trailer from Books Squared whisked it away among 3,000 other leftovers. At the Books Squared warehouse in south-west Dallas, Our Gang was checked and processed by receivers and a scrupulous quality-control team, who deemed the book “like new” before scanning it into their computer system to be sold online.

Dynamic pricing software cross-referenced every active listing of a used, like-new, hardcover copy of Our Gang across online marketplaces like Amazon and Abebooks, then matched the lowest price. Last March, four months after it was listed, I bought the book for a penny, and Books Squared shipped it to my apartment in Toronto. This handsome volume is sitting proudly on my desk right now.

Over the last year, to give you an idea of the riches for the taking, I’ve spent a penny each on Roth’s The Anatomy Lesson and Deception, Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark in hardcover, a first-edition copy of Room Temperature by Nicholson Baker, and one of Henry Petroski’s The Evolution of Useful Things – among others.

Online, such literary treasures are in ample supply. But deals this good raise an obvious question. It clearly took a lot of time to usher Our Gang from the backrooms of Goodwill to Canada, where I live. So how does anyone make money selling a book for a cent?•

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I stumbled onto Franz Kafka’s short story “A Hunger Artist” at a young age and thought it the greatest thing ever and still sort of do.

What I didn’t realize at the time, however, was that there actually were professional fasters. These were entertainers, not political protesters, who went on long hunger strikes to amaze ticket buyers at dime museums with the art of self-abnegation. The popularity of the “sport” pretty much ended in the early twentieth century, though today’s online “performance eating” is a variation of the old theme.

Giovanni Succi, who was often referred to as “the little Italian” in newsprint, was one of the most celebrated practitioners. InSucci’s Long Fast,” a New York Times article dated November 6, 1890, the 38-year-old entertainer announced his intention to starve himself for a personal record of 45 days at Koster & Bial’s music hall/beer garden in Manhattan. Succi would be on display 24 hours a day as his body wasted; student volunteers from Bellevue Medical College would minister to his needs. Below is a piece from the December 21, 1890 Brooklyn Daily Eagle about the end of the act, when Succi stopped skipping meals.•

I’ve just started reading Imagined Worlds, the 1997 Freeman Dyson entry in the Jerusalem-Harvard Lecture series. It’s something of a summation speech of Dyson’s remarkable–and sometimes perplexing–career, even though he is thankfully still with us and still thinking. If you’re vaguely familiar, it’s the book with the tag line “Imagine a world where whole epochs will pass, cultures rise and fall, between a telephone call and a reply.” Telephone calls, remember those?

I mention it because Imagined Worlds is one of the 76 choices Stewart Brand included on his 2014 Brainpickings reading list of books to “sustain and rebuild humanity.” The first 20 choices:

  1. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David R. Montgomery
  2. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  3. The Odyssey by Homer translated by Robert Fagles
  4. The Iliad by Homer translated by Robert Fagles
  5. The Memory of the World: The Treasures That Record Our History from 1700 BC to the Present Day by UNESCO
  6. The History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor
  7. The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories edited by Robert B. Strassler
  8. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War edited by Robert B. Strassler
  9. The Complete Greek Tragedies, Volumes 1-4 edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore
  10. The Prince by Machiavelli, translated by George Bull, published by Folio Society
  11. The Nature of Things by Lucretius
  12. The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World by Peter Schwartz
  13. The Way Life Works: The Science Lover’s Illustrated Guide to How Life Grows, Develops, Reproduces, and Gets Along by Mahlon Hoagland and Bert Dodson
  14. Venice, A Maritime Republic by Frederic Chapin Lane
  15. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom
  16. The Map Book by Peter Barber
  17. Conceptual Physics by Paul G. Hewitt
  18. The Encyclopedia of Earth: A Complete Visual Guide by Michael Allaby and Dr. Robert Coenraads
  19. The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov
  20. Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon

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You don’t read anything like Joseph Mitchell’s articles in the New Yorker anymore because that New York City no longer exists. Of course, even back during the ’30, ’40s and ’50s, it didn’t completely exist.

In the early and middle parts of last century, there was a lot more lassitude in regards to what was printed as fact, and Mitchell certainly wasn’t above employing poetic license when weaving one of his unforgettable narratives. Janet Malcolm, a fellow New Yorker scribe, though one of a different and more veracious era, writes in the NYRB about Thomas Kunkel’s new Mitchell bio, Man in Profile. An excerpt:

Mitchell studied at the University of North Carolina without graduating and came to New York in 1929, at the age of twenty-one. Kunkel traces the young exile’s rapid rise from copy boy on the New York World to reporter on the Herald Tribune and feature writer on The World Telegram. In 1933 St. Clair McKelway, the managing editor of the eight-year-old New Yorker, noticed Mitchell’s newspaper work and invited him to write for the magazine; in 1938 the editor, Harold Ross, hired him. In 1931 Mitchell married a lovely woman of Scandinavian background named Therese Jacobson, a fellow reporter, who left journalism to become a fine though largely unknown portrait and street photographer. She and Mitchell lived in a small apartment in Greenwich Village and raised two daughters, Nora and Elizabeth. Kunkel’s biography is sympathetic and admiring and discreet. If any of the erotic secrets that frequently turn up in the nets of biographers turned up in Kunkel’s, he does not reveal them. He has other fish to gut.

From reporting notes, journals, and correspondence, and from three interviews Mitchell gave late in life to a professor of journalism named Norman Sims, Kunkel extracts a picture of Mitchell’s journalistic practice that he doesn’t know quite what to do with. On the one hand, he doesn’t regard it as a pretty picture; he uses terms like “license,” “latitude,” “dubious technique,” “tactics,” and “bent journalistic rules” to describe it. On the other, he reveres Mitchell’s writing, and doesn’t want to say anything critical of it even while he is saying it. So a kind of weird embarrassed atmosphere hangs over the passages in which Kunkel reveals Mitchell’s radical departures from factuality.

It is already known that the central character of the book Old Mr. Flood, a ninety-three-year-old man named Hugh G. Flood, who intended to live to the age of 115 by eating only fish and shellfish, did not exist, but was a “composite,” i.e., an invention. Mitchell was forced to characterize him as such after readers of theNew Yorker pieces from which the book was derived tried to find the man. “Mr. Flood is not one man,” Mitchell wrote in an author’s note to the book, and went on, “Combined in him are aspects of several old men who work or hang out in Fulton Fish Market, or who did in the past.” In the Up in the Old Hotelcollection he simply reclassified the work as fiction.

Now Kunkel reveals that another Mitchell character—a gypsy king named Cockeye Johnny Nikanov, the subject of a New Yorker profile published in 1942—was also an invention. How Kunkel found this out is rather funny. He came upon a letter that Mitchell wrote in 1961 to The New Yorker’s lawyer, Milton Greenstein, asking Greenstein for legal advice on how to stop a writer named Sidney Sheldon from producing a musical about gypsy life based on Mitchell’s profile of Nikanov and a subsequent piece about the scams of gypsy women. Mitchell was himself working on a musical adaptation of his gypsy pieces—it eventually became the show Bajour, named after one of the gypsy women’s cruelest scams, that came to Broadway in 1964 and ran for around six months—and was worried about Sheldon’s competing script.

“Cockeye Johnny Nikanov does not exist in real life, and never did,” Mitchell told Greenstein. Therefore “no matter how true to life Cockeye Johnny happens to be, he is a fictional character, and I invented him, and he is not in ‘the public domain,’ he is mine.” Mitchell’s Gilbertian logic evidently prevailed—Sheldon gave up his musical. But the secret of Johnny Nikanov’s wobbly ontological status—though Greenstein kept quiet about it—had passed out of Mitchell’s possession. It now belonged to tattling posterity, the biographer’s best friend.•

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A volcano the intensity of the one in 1815 that disrupted the world will occur again at some point, but even though there is more to destroy now, the impact by some measures–on agriculture, say–will probably not be as great today. From the Economist (by way of the Browser):

IF ALIENS had been watching the Earth during 1815 the chances are they would not have noticed the cannon fire of Waterloo, let alone the final decisions of the Congress of Vienna or the birth of Otto von Bismark. Such things loom larger in history books than they do in astronomical observations. What they might have noticed instead was that, as the year went on, the planet in their telescopes began to reflect a little more sunlight. And if their eyes or instruments had been sensitive to the infrared, as well as to visible light, the curious aliens would have noticed that as the planet brightened, its surface cooled. …

In his book Eruptions that Shook the World, Clive Oppenheimer, a volcanologist at Cambridge University, puts the number killed by the ash flows, the tsunamis and the starvation that followed them in Indonesia at 60,000-120,000. That alone would make Tambora’s eruption the deadliest on record. But the eruption did not restrict its impact to the areas pummelled by waves and smothered by ash.

When the sulphur hits the stratosphere

The year after the eruption clothes froze to washing lines in the New England summer and glaciers surged down Alpine valleys at an alarming rate. Countless thousands starved in China’s Yunnan province and typhus spread across Europe. Grain was in such short supply in Britain that the Corn Laws were suspended and a poetic coterie succumbing to cabin fever on the shores of Lake Geneva dreamed up nightmares that would haunt the imagination for centuries to come. And no one knew that the common cause of all these things was a ruined mountain in a far-off sea.

While lesser eruptions since then have had measurable effects on the climate across the planet, none has been large enough to disrupt lives to anything like the same worldwide extent. It may be that no eruption ever does so again. But if that turns out to be the case, it will be because the human world has changed, not because volcanoes have. The future will undoubtedly see eruptions as large as Tambora, and a good bit larger still.•

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Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots, is interviewed by Marguerite McNeal at Wired about the specter of technological unemployment. The story is labeled as “Sponsored Content” and seems to have been paid for by Nokia. Advertorial, I suppose. The ugh side of the media landscape. 

At any rate, Ford answers a question about the role social safety nets will play if we’re all out of work and out of luck. What will the highly ambitious do in such a new world order? It’s similar to the McAfee solution. The exchange:

Question:

So in the all-automated economy, what will ambitious 20-somethings choose to do with their lives and careers?

Martin Ford:

My proposed solution is to have some kind of a guaranteed income that incentivizes education. We don’t want people to get halfway through high school and say, ‘Well if I drop out I’m still going to get the same income as everyone else.’

Then I believe that a guaranteed income would actually result in more entrepreneurship. A lot of people would start businesses just as they do today. The problem with these types of businesses you can start online today is it’s hard to put enough together to generate a middle-class income.

If people had an income floor, and if the incentives were such that on top of that they could do other things and still keep that extra money, without having it all taxed away, then I think a lot of people would pursue those opportunities.

There’s a phenomenon called the Peltzman Effect, based on research from an economist at the University of Chicago who studied auto accidents. He found that when you introduce more safety features like seat belts into cars, the number of fatalities and injuries doesn’t drop. The reason is that people compensate for it. When you have a safety net in place, people will take more risks. That probably is true of the economic arena as well.

People say that having a guaranteed income will turn everyone into a slacker and destroy the economy. I think the opposite might be true, that it might push us toward more entrepreneurship and more risk-taking.•

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Lawrence Wright, Going Clear writer, holds out hope that Scientology can reform itself, normalize, transition from cult to religion, but filmmaker Alex Gibney, who adapted the book into an HBO sensation, harbors no such faith. An exchange from one of Andrew O’Hehir’s customarily smart Salon interviews:

Question:

Larry speculates that it might be possible for the church to reform itself by doing what they did before on the issue of homophobia, and pretending that Hubbard’s bigoted and hateful remarks basically never existed. I think he’s being overly generous. I can’t imagine an organization that is this paranoid and this hateful finding a way to reinvent itself. Can you?

Alex Gibney:

No. Look at what’s happening now with Pope Francis and the Catholic Church. The weight of history is so strong, much stronger for the Catholic Church of course. But in the case of the Church of Scientology they would have to fundamentally uproot their belief system. Whether he was a bigot or just a creature of his age, Hubbard was virulently anti-gay and thought it was a disease that could be cured. How do you fix that unless you come out and say, “You know what? Hubbard was wrong about a lot of things.” And that’s hard to do. That’s what was so interesting about these individuals in our film: It was hard for them to wake up one day and say they had been wrong for 30 years.

I don’t know if you read this piece in the New Yorker recently, about the Jean McConville murder in Northern Ireland? It was a fascinating piece and one of the aspects that caught my eye was this one woman [Dolours Price] who was basically a hit woman for the IRA. She was very attractive, ended up marrying Stephen Rea. But when the Good Friday Accords happened, suddenly all the certainty she’d had that allowed her to believe that the end justified the means had been removed. And it sent her into a tailspin. Once that certainty is gone – I mean, it’s a wonderful kind of narcotic. I think that for Danny Masterson and Bodhi Elfman, it probably feels good to say, “Those are hateful bastards saying this stuff.” Because it’s pure; it may be hate but it’s pure hate, and it feels good because you’re certain. But when your certainty is removed, what’s left?•

_____________________________

“Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair
She said that you gave it to her
That night that you planned to go clear
Did you ever go clear?”

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Speaking of Norman Mailer, here’s a clip from a 1979 Firing Line in which William F. Buckley sits down with the pugilistic prose writer at the time of The Executioner’s Song. Twenty-five years after using his “nonfiction novel” to profile the life and firing-squad death of murderer Gary Gilmore, Mailer guested on the Gilmore Girls. Strange life.

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We tell stories in order to live, but sometimes they’re the wrong ones.

People want to believe in something, but that impulse can sometimes run amok, and we convince ourselves we’re seeing something we aren’t, as we project our anxieties against the sky. At those moments, we believe our own lies. From a recent Five Books interview with Stephen Law about pseudoscience, a passage about Philip J. Klass’ book about the mistakes we can make when trying to name our fears:

Question:

The second book you’ve chosen is about UFOs. Now, in one sense, UFOs are literally Unidentified Flying Objects, so this description is almost neutral as to what they are. That doesn’t seem to be bad science or false science: it seems to be a description of something which is yet to be explained?

Stephen Law:

Yes, there are, of course, many UFOs and that’s uncontroversial. What is controversial is the claim that what we are looking at, in some cases, are visitors from other worlds. Many people believe that. Some even believe they’ve been abducted by alien visitors. My second book choice, a favourite of mine, is UFOs: The Public Deceived by Philip J. Klass. It was published back in the mid-1980s, and it’s a trawl through some of the great claims of ufology such as the Delphos case, the Travis Walton case, and cases involving airline pilots who have reported seeing quite extraordinary things in the skies. Klass looks very carefully at the evidence, and, in many cases, successfully debunks the suggestion that what was observed was in fact some sort of flying saucer or piloted vehicle from another world. I particularly like a story involving a nuclear power plant. Back in 1967, a power station was being built. The security guards reported seeing an extraordinary light hanging over the plant on several nights. The police were called, and they confirmed the presence of the light. The County Deputy Sheriff described ‘a large lighted object’. An auxiliary police officer stated that he saw ‘five objects, they appeared to be burning, an aircraft passed by while I was watching, they seemed to be 20 times the size of the plane’. The Wake County Magistrate saw ‘a rectangular object that looked like it was on fire’. They figured that it was about the size of a football field, and very bright. Newspaper reporters showed up to investigate the object. They then attempted to get closer to it in their car, but they found that as they drove towards it, it receded. No matter how fast and far they drove, they never got any closer. Eventually they stopped the car, got out, and the photographer looked at the object through a long lens on his camera. He said, ‘Yep, that’s the planet Venus alright’. It really was the planet Venus. Everyone had just seen the planet Venus. It seems extraordinary that these things happen. Here we have a case in which you have police officers, a magistrate, trained eye-witnesses. And there was even hard evidence in the form of an unidentified blip on the local air traffic control radar screen. All of this evidence together, you might think, confirms beyond any doubt that there really was some mysterious object hanging over that nuclear power plant. But the fact is, there wasn’t, despite these numerous eye-witnesses, this multiple attestation. The observers stuck their necks out. They were brave enough to make bold claims, so they clearly thought they were observing something extraordinary, and there was even some hard evidence (the radar blip) to back up the claims. Nevertheless, that turned out to be a coincidence. This case illustrates that you should expect, every now and then, some remarkable claim like this to be made, despite the fact that there’s no truth to it whatsoever. People are duped, they are deceived, they are subject to hallucinations in quite surprising ways. The mere fact that claims like this are made every now and then is not good evidence.•

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Yuval Noah Harari writes this in his great book Sapiens:

Were, say, Spanish peasant to have fallen asleep in A.D. 1000 and woken up 500 years later, to the din of Columbus’ sailors boarding the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, the world would have seemed to him quite familiar. Despite many changes in technology, manners and political boundaries, this medieval Rip Van Winkle would have felt at home. But had one of Columbus’ sailors fallen into a similar slumber and woken up to the ringtone of a twenty-first century iPhone, he would have found himself in a world strange beyond comprehension. ‘Is this heaven?’ he might well have asked himself. ‘Or perhaps — hell?’

What kind of peasants will we be? Is the road forward a high-speed one that will render tomorrow unrecognizable? It would seem so, except if calamity were to sideswipe us and delay (or permanently make impossible) the next phase. But if we are fortunate enough to have a safe travel, will a ruin of our own making await us in the form of Strong AI? I doubt it’s right around the bend as some feel, but it can’t hurt to consider such a scenario. From philosopher Stephen Cave’s Financial Times review of a slate of recent books about the perils of superintelligence:

It is tempting to suppose that AI would be a tool like any other; like the wheel or the laptop, an invention that we could use to further our interests. But the brilliant British mathematician IJ Good, who worked with Alan Turing both on breaking the Nazis’ secret codes and subsequently in developing the first computers, realised 50 years ago why this would not be so. Once we had a machine that was even slightly more intelligent than us, he pointed out, it would naturally take over the intellectual task of designing further intelligent machines. Because it was cleverer than us, it would be able to design even cleverer machines, which could in turn design even cleverer machines, and so on. In Good’s words: “There would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.”

Good’s prophecy is at the heart of the book Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, in which writer and film-maker James Barrat interviews leading figures in the development of super-clever machines and makes a clear case for why we should be worried. It is true that progress towards human-level AI has been slower than many predicted — pundits joke that it has been 20 years away for the past half-century. But it has, nonetheless, achieved some impressive milestones, such as the IBM computers that beat grandmaster Garry Kasparov at chess in 1997 and won the US quiz show Jeopardy! in 2011. In response to Barrat’s survey, more than 40 per cent of experts in the field expected the invention of intelligent machines within 15 years from now and the great majority expected it by mid-century at the latest.

Following Good, Barrat then shows how artificial intelligence could become super-intelligence within a matter of days, as it starts fixing its own bugs, rewriting its own software and drawing on the wealth of knowledge now available online. Once this “intelligence explosion” happens, we will no longer be able to understand or predict the machine, any more than a mouse can understand or predict the actions of a human.Good’s prophecy is at the heart of the book Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, in which writer and film-maker James Barrat interviews leading figures in the development of super-clever machines and makes a clear case for why we should be worried. It is true that progress towards human-level AI has been slower than many predicted — pundits joke that it has been 20 years away for the past half-century. But it has, nonetheless, achieved some impressive milestones, such as the IBM computers that beat grandmaster Garry Kasparov at chess in 1997 and won the US quiz show Jeopardy! in 2011. In response to Barrat’s survey, more than 40 per cent of experts in the field expected the invention of intelligent machines within 15 years from now and the great majority expected it by mid-century at the latest.•

 

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It’s just perfect that Monopoly, which brought cutthroat capitalism to the living room, allowing you to bankrupt grandma, was birthed through dubious business deals. In Mary Pilon’s new book, The Monopolists, the author traces the key role in the game’s invention of Elizabeth ­Magie, whose Landlord’s Game, which preceded Charles Darrow’s blockbuster, has largely been lost to history. From James McManus in the New York Times

Our favorite board game, of course, is Monopoly, which has also gone global, and for similar reasons. Played by everyone from Jerry Hall and Mick ­Jagger to Carmela and Tony Soprano, it apparently scratches an itch to wheel and deal few of us can reach in real life. The game is sufficiently redolent of capitalism that in 1959 Fidel Castro ordered the ­destruction of every Monopoly set in Cuba, while these days Vladimir Putin seems to be its ultimate aficionado.

What dyed-in-the-wool free marketeer invented this cardboard facsimile of real estate markets, and who owns it now? From whose ideas did it evolve? These are the questions Mary Pilon, formerly a reporter at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, proposes to answer in her briskly enlightening first book, The Monopolists. For decades the ­official story, slipped into every Monopoly box, was that Charles Darrow, an unemployed salesman, had a sudden light-bulb moment about a game to amuse his poor family during the Depression. After selling it to Parker Brothers in 1935, he lived lavishly ever after on the proceeds.

To trace how far removed this was from the truth, Pilon introduces Elizabeth ­Magie. Born in 1866, she was an ­unmarried stenographer whose passions included politics and — even more rare among women of that era — inventing. In 1904 she received a patent for the Landlord’s Game, a board contest she designed to cultivate her progressive, proto-feminist values, and as a rebuke to the slumlords and other monopolists of the Gilded Age.

Her game featured spaces for railroads and rental properties on each side of a square board, with water and electricity companies and a corner labeled “Go to Jail.” Players earned wages, paid taxes; the winner was the one who best foiled landlords’ attempts to send her to the poorhouse. Magie helped form a company to market it, but it never really took off. The game appealed mostly to socialists and Quakers, many of whom made their own sets; other players renamed properties and added things like Chance and Community Chest cards. Even less auspiciously for Magie, many people began referring to it as “monopoly” and giving it as gifts. Then in 1932, Charles Darrow received one with spaces named for streets in Atlantic City.

No light bulb necessary.•

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In her NYRB piece on Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage, Sue Halpern runs through periods of the twentieth century when fears of technological unemployment were raised before receding, mentioning a 1980 Time cover story about the Labor-destabilizing force of machines. These projections seemed proved false as job creation increased considerably during the Reagan Administration, but as Halpern goes on to note, that feature article may have been prescient in ways we didn’t then understand. Income inequality began to boom during the last two decades of the previous century, a worrying trajectory that’s only been exacerbated as we’ve moved deeper into the Digital Revolution. Certainly there are other causes but automation is likely among them, with the new wealth in the hands of fewer, algorithms and robots managing a good portion of the windfall-creating toil. And if you happen to be working in many of the fields likely to soon be automated (hotels, restaurants, warehouses, etc.), you might want to ask some former travel agents and record-store owners for resume tips. 

Halpern zeroes in on a Carr topic often elided by economists debating whether the next few decades will be boon or bane for the non-wealthy: the hole left in our hearts when we’re “freed” of work. Is that something common to us because we were born on the other side of the transformation, or are humans marked indelibly with the need to produce beyond tweets and likes? Maybe it’s the work, not the play, that’s the thing. From Halpern:

Here is what that future—which is to say now—looks like: banking, logistics, surgery, and medical recordkeeping are just a few of the occupations that have already been given over to machines. Manufacturing, which has long been hospitable to mechanization and automation, is becoming more so as the cost of industrial robots drops, especially in relation to the cost of human labor. According to a new study by the Boston Consulting Group, currently the expectation is that machines, which now account for 10 percent of all manufacturing tasks, are likely to perform about 25 percent of them by 2025. (To understand the economics of this transition, one need only consider the American automotive industry, where a human spot welder costs about $25 an hour and a robotic one costs $8. The robot is faster and more accurate, too.) The Boston group expects most of the growth in automation to be concentrated in transportation equipment, computer and electronic products, electrical equipment, and machinery.

Meanwhile, algorithms are writing most corporate reports, analyzing intelligence data for the NSA andCIA, reading mammograms, grading tests, and sniffing out plagiarism. Computers fly planes—Nicholas Carr points out that the average airline pilot is now at the helm of an airplane for about three minutes per flight—and they compose music and pick which pop songs should be recorded based on which chord progressions and riffs were hits in the past. Computers pursue drug development—a robot in the UK named Eve may have just found a new compound to treat malaria—and fill pharmacy vials.

Xerox uses computers—not people—to select which applicants to hire for its call centers. The retail giant Amazon “employs” 15,000 warehouse robots to pull items off the shelf and pack boxes. The self-driving car is being road-tested. A number of hotels are staffed by robotic desk clerks and cleaned by robotic chambermaids. Airports are instituting robotic valet parking. Cynthia Breazeal, the director of MIT’s personal robots group, raised $1 million in six days on the crowd-funding site Indiegogo, and then $25 million in venture capital funding, to bring Jibo, “the world’s first social robot,” to market. …

There is a certain school of thought, championed primarily by those such as Google’s Larry Page, who stand to make a lot of money from the ongoing digitization and automation of just about everything, that the elimination of jobs concurrent with a rise in productivity will lead to a leisure class freed from work. Leaving aside questions about how these lucky folks will house and feed themselves, the belief that most people would like nothing more than to be able to spend all day in their pajamas watching TV—which turns out to be what many “nonemployed” men do—sorely misconstrues the value of work, even work that might appear to an outsider to be less than fulfilling. Stated simply: work confers identity. When Dublin City University professor Michael Doherty surveyed Irish workers, including those who stocked grocery shelves and drove city buses, to find out if work continues to be “a significant locus of personal identity,” even at a time when employment itself is less secure, he concluded that “the findings of this research can be summed up in the succinct phrase: ‘work matters.’”

How much it matters may not be quantifiable, but in an essay in The New York Times, Dean Baker, the codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, noted that there was

a 50 to 100 percent increase in death rates for older male workers in the years immediately following a job loss, if they previously had been consistently employed.

One reason was suggested in a study by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990), who found, Carr reports, that “people were happier, felt more fulfilled by what they were doing, while they were at work than during their leisure hours.”

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The Electra and Oedipus of the Apollo space program, Oriana Fallaci and Norman Mailer were two writers with egos massive enough to observe humankind’s mission to the Moon as not only material for New Journalism reportage of an historical quest but also as backdrop to investigations of their own psyches. In 1968, two years after Fallaci published If the Sun Dies… and the year before Mailer stormed through a series of long-form articles for Life magazine that became Of a Fire on the Moon, the pair sat down for an interview with Fallaci serving as the inquisitor. In Mailer’s face–“noble and vulgar,” she called it–Fallaci claimed to be searching for America. It actually wasn’t a bad place to look: Like his country, Mailer could be at turns soaringly brilliant and shockingly brutal–and completely delusional about his behavior in regards to the latter. His remarks about domestic violence, for instance, were beyond horrifying, and they unfortunately weren’t merely macho showboating. The discussion opened Fallaci’s collection of (mostly) non-political interrogations, The Egotists. Three excerpts follow.

_____________________________

 

Oriana Fallaci:

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

Norman Mailer:

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

Oriana Fallaci:

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

Norman Mailer:

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

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Norman Mailer:

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

Oriana Fallaci:

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

Norman Mailer:

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

_____________________________

 
 

Norman Mailer:

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

Oriana Fallaci:

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

Norman Mailer:

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

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Pushing back at Bill Gates’ favorite book of the last decade, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, philosopher John Gray argues in the Guardian that those who believe global violence to be on the wane are using accounting that’s too messy and theories too neat. We assign violence to backwardness when the cutting edge has the potential to be the sharpest of all. The essay comes from Gray’s new book, The Soul of the Marionette. An excerpt:

There is something repellently absurd in the notion that war is a vice of “backward” peoples. Destroying some of the most refined civilisations that have ever existed, the wars that ravaged south-east Asia in the second world war and the decades that followed were the work of colonial powers. One of the causes of the genocide in Rwanda was the segregation of the population by German and Belgian imperialism. Unending war in the Congo has been fuelled by western demand for the country’s natural resources. If violence has dwindled in advanced societies, one reason may be that they have exported it.

Then again, the idea that violence is declining in the most highly developed countries is questionable. Judged by accepted standards, the United States is the most advanced society in the world. According to many estimates the US also has the highest rate of incarceration, some way ahead of China and Russia, for example. Around a quarter of all the world’s prisoners are held in American jails, many for exceptionally long periods. Black people are disproportionately represented, many prisoners are mentally ill and growing numbers are aged and infirm. Imprisonment in America involves continuous risk of assault by other prisoners. There is the threat of long periods spent in solitary confinement, sometimes (as in “supermax” facilities, where something like Bentham’s Panopticon has been constructed) for indefinite periods – a type of treatment that has been reasonably classified as torture. Cruel and unusual punishments involving flogging and mutilation may have been abolished in many countries, but, along with unprecedented levels of mass incarceration, the practice of torture seems to be integral to the functioning of the world’s most advanced state.

It may not be an accident that torture is often deployed in the special operations that have replaced more traditional types of warfare. The extension of counter-terrorism to include assassination by unaccountable mercenaries and remote-controlled killing by drones is part of this shift. A metamorphosis in the nature is war is under way, which is global in reach. With the state of Iraq in ruins as a result of US-led regime change, a third of the country is controlled by Isis, which is able to inflict genocidal attacks on Yazidis and wage a campaign of terror on Christians with near-impunity. In Nigeria, the Islamist militias of Boko Haram practise a type of warfare featuring mass killing of civilians, razing of towns and villages and sexual enslavement of women and children. In Europe, targeted killing of journalists, artists and Jews in Paris and Copenhagen embodies a type of warfare that refuses to recognise any distinction between combatants and civilians. Whether they accept the fact or not, advanced societies have become terrains of violent conflict. Rather than war declining, the difference between peace and war has been fatally blurred.

Deaths on the battlefield have fallen and may continue to fall. From one angle this can be seen as an advancing condition of peace. From another point of view that looks at the variety and intensity with which violence is being employed, the Long Peace can be described as a condition of perpetual conflict.

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Certainly the figures used by Pinker and others are murky, leaving a vast range of casualties of violence unaccounted for.•

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