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It was nearly three years ago that then-Barnes & Noble CEO Mitchell Klipper (now retired) announced the chain would only have 450-500 stores in a decade, and coffee come flying out of my mouth and nose. Now there was an optimistic fellow. 

B&N’s current meshuganeh idea for survival in the face of megapower Amazon is to deemphasize books as its main mission and become a “lifestyle brand,” focusing on personal growth or something. Unfortunately, I believe Bezos’ operation also stocks some of those games, toys and electronics new CEO Ron Boire is banking on, except Amazon has cheaper prices and far greater stock.

From Alexandra Alter at the New York Times:

Mr. Boire, 54, the former chief executive of Sears Canada and a retail veteran who has worked at Brookstone, Best Buy and Toys “R” Us, is under pressure to reverse the fortunes of the beleaguered bookstore chain, which has been stung in recent years by the rise of Amazon, steep losses from its Nook e-reader division and a string of store closings.

To that end, Mr. Boire is leading a push to rebrand Barnes & Noble as more than just a bookstore by expanding its offerings of toys, games, gadgets and other gifts and reshaping the nation’s largest bookstore chain into a “lifestyle brand.”

“Everything we do around learning, personal growth and development fits our brand,” Mr. Boire said. “There’s a lot of opportunity.”

Facing spiraling losses from store closings, Barnes & Noble is searching for ways to increase foot traffic and drive sales. Last month, the chain held a coloring event at stores around the country, where it doled out sample sheets from coloring books and art supplies. It also recently held a national Mini Maker Faire promoting technology literacy at its stores, with coding and 3-D printing workshops.•

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Transhumanist Party Presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan’s embrace of techno-fascism might be jarring in another election season, one without talk of Muslim databases and refugees being compared to “rabid dogs,” but it’s almost the least of many evils in 2015.

Well, I certainly don’t want to totalitarianism of any type, carbon or silicon, but Istvan hopes for a day when (kindly) machine overlords are an option. He discusses that possibility, increasing robotization, universal basic income and more in a smart article by Tim Maughan of BBC Future. An excerpt that begins with reference to alt-politician’s sci-fi novel:

The Transhumanist Wager tells the story of Jethro Knights, a philosopher who rails against democratic politics and becomes a revolutionary that seizes control of the world in order to enforce a global authoritarian transhuman regime. It sounds a little like the neoreactionary movement, I suggest, the far-right philosophical movement that believes democracy has failed, and that nations should once again be run by hereditary monarchies. Isn’t that perhaps a worrying storyline from someone running as president?

“I’m distancing myself, I have been, from the book now for a whole year,” he says. “I know the neoreactionary movement really well. I really dislike some of their policies, especially on women… But that said, I do subscribe to some of their strong monarchy ideas where if you actually have a benevolent dictator that could be great for the country.”

I’m a little surprised to hear a presidential candidate openly suggesting this. But that, as it turns out, is very typical for Istvan; he’s not finished. There’s always another angle, some other philosophical surprise up his sleeve.

“In fact it’s one of the reasons why I’ve advocated for an artificial intelligence to become president one day. If we had a truly altruistic entity that was after the best interests of society maybe giving up at least some freedoms would be beneficial if that was truly in our best interests. What’s happened in the past is we’ve had dictators who are selfish, and they’ve done an absolutely terrible job of running countries. But what if you actually had somebody who really was after your best interests, wouldn’t you want him on your team?”•

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I recently quoted Henry Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch, which reminded of that 1957 book’s beauty of a passage about the future of America, and the future of the world, which were one and the same to the writer’s mind. He saw the end of scarcity and hunger, though he thought we’d crave all the same, perhaps even in a more profound way. The excerpt:

“If you do not know where you are going, any road will take you there.”
(Out of Confusion, by M.N. Chatterjee (Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch Press, 1954).

There are days when it all seems as simple and clear as that to me. What do I mean? I mean with regard to the problem of living on this earth without becoming a slave, a drudge, a hack, a misfit, an alcoholic, a drug addict, a neurotic, a schizophrenic, a glutton for punishment or an artist manqué.

Supposedly we have the highest standard of living of any country in the world. Do we, though? It depends on what one means by high standards. Certainly nowhere does it cost more to live than here in America. The cost is not only in dollars and cents but in sweat and blood, in frustration, ennui, broken homes, smashed ideals, illness and insanity. We have the most wonderful hospitals, the most gorgeous insane asylums, the most fabulous prisons, the best equipped and the highest paid army and navy, the speediest bombers, the largest stockpile of atom bombs, yet never enough of any of these items to satisfy the demand. Our manual workers are the highest paid in the world; our poets the worst. There are more automobiles than one can count. And as for drugstores, where in the world will you find the like?

We have only one enemy we really fear: the microbe. But we are licking him on every front. True, millions still suffer from cancer, heart disease, schizophrenia, multiple-sclerosis, tuberculosis, epilepsy, colitis, cirrhosis of the liver, dermatitis, gall stones, neuritis, Bright’s disease, bursitis, Parkinson’s-disease, diabetes, floating kidneys, cerebral palsy, pernicious anaemia, encephalitis, locomotor ataxia, falling of the womb, muscular distrophy, jaundice, rheumatic fever, polio, sinus and antrum troubles, halitosis, St. Vitus’s Dance, narcolepsy, coryza, leucorrhea, nymphomania, phthisis, carcinoma, migraine, dipsomania, malignant tumors, high blood pressure, duodenal ulcers, prostate troubles, sciatica, goiter, catarrh, asthma, rickets, hepatitis, nephritis, melancholia, amoebic dysentery, bleeding piles, quinsy, hiccoughs, shingles, frigidity and impotency, even dandruff, and of course all the insanities, now legion, but–our of men of science will rectify all this within the next hundred years or so. How? Why, by destroying all the nasty germs which provoke this havoc and disruption! By waging a great preventive warnot a cold war!wherein our poor, frail bodies will become a battleground for all the antibiotics yet to come. A game of hide and seek, so to speak, in which one germ pursues another, tracks it down and slays it, all without the least disturbance to our usual functioning. Until this victory is achieved, however, we may be obliged to continue swallowing twenty or thirty vitamins, all of different strengths and colors, before breakfast, down our tiger’s milk and brewer’s yeast, drink our orange and grapefruit juices, use blackstrap molasses on our oatmeal, smear our bread (made of stone-ground flour) with peanut butter, use raw honey or raw sugar with our coffee, poach our eggs rather than fry them, follow this with an extra glass of superfortified milk, belch and burp a little, give ourselves an injection, weigh ourselves to see if we are under or over, stand on our heads, do our setting-up exercisesif we haven’t done them alreadyyawn, stretch, empty the bowels, brush our teeth (if we have any left), say a prayer or two, then run like hell to catch the bus or the subway which will carry us to work, and think no more about the state of our health until we feel a cold coming on: the incurable coryza. But we are not to despair. Never despair! Just take more vitamins, add an extra dose of calcium and phosphorus pills, drink a hot toddy or two, take a high enema before retiring for the night, say another prayer, if we can remember one, and call it a day.

If the foregoing seems too complicated, here is a simple regimen to follow: Don’t overeat, don’t drink too much, don’t smoke too much, don’t work too much, don’t think too much, don’t fret, don’t worry, don’t complain, above all, don’t get irritable. Don’t use a car if you can walk to your destination; don’t walk if you can run; don’t listen to the radio or watch television; don’t read newspapers, magazines, digests, stock market reports, comics, mysteries or detective stories; don’t take sleeping pills or wakeup pills; don’t vote, don’t buy on the installment plan, don’t play cards either for recreation or to make a haul, don’t invest your money, don’t mortgage your home, don’t get vaccinated or inoculated, don’t violate the fish and game laws, don’t irritate your boss, don’t say yes when you mean no, don’t use bad language, don’t be brutal to your wife or children, don’t get frightened if you are over or under weight, don’t sleep more than ten hours at a stretch, don’t eat store bread if you can bake your own, don’t work at a job you loathe, don’t think the world is coming to an end because the wrong man got elected, don’t believe you are insane because you find yourself in a nut house, don’t do anything more than you’re asked to do but do that well, don’t try to help your neighbor until you’ve learned how to help yourself, and so on…

Simple, what?

In short, don’t create aerial dinosaurs with which to frighten field mice!”

America has only one enemy, as I said before. The microbe. The trouble is, he goes under a million different names. Just when you think you’ve got him licked he pops up again in a new guise. He’s the pest personified.

When we were a young nation life was crude and simple. Our great enemy then was the redskin. (He became our enemy when we took his land away from him.) In those early days there were no chain stores, no delivery lines, no hired purchase plan, no vitamins, no supersonic flying fortresses, no electronic computers; one could identify thugs and bandits easily because they looked different from other citizens. All one needed for protection was a musket in one hand and a Bible in the other. A dollar was a dollar, no more, no less. And a gold dollar, a silver dollar, was just as good as a paper dollar. Better than a check, in fact. Men like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett were genuine figures, maybe not so romantic as we imagine them today, but they were not screen heroes. The nation was expanding in all directions because there was a genuine need for it–we already had two or three million people and they needed elbow room. The Indians and bison were soon crowded out of the picture, along with a lot of other useless paraphernalia. Factories and mills were being built, and colleges and insane asylums. Things were humming. And then we freed the slaves. That made everybody happy, except the Southerners. It also made us realize that freedom is a precious thing. When we recovered from the loss of blood we began to think about freeing the rest of the world. To do it, we engaged in two world wars, not to mention a little war like the one with Spain, and now we’ve entered upon a cold war which our leaders warn us may last another forty or fifty years. We are almost at the point now where we may be able to exterminate every man, woman and child throughout the globe who is unwilling to accept the kind of freedom we advocate. It should be said, in extenuation, that when we have accomplished our purpose everybody will have enough to eat and drink, properly clothed, housed and entertained. An all-American program and no two ways about it! Our men of science will then be able to give their undivided attention to other problems, such as disease, insanity, excessive longevity, interplanetary voyages and the like. Everyone will be inoculated, not only against real ailments but against imaginary ones too. War will have been eliminated forever, thus making it unnecessary “in times of peace to prepare for war.” America will go on expanding, progressing, providing. We will plant the stars and stripes on the moon, and subsequently on all the planets within our comfy little universe. One world it will be, and American through and through. Strike up the band!

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In her really good Vice interview with Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, authors of the new manifesto, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, Arielle Pardes perfectly sums up a particular strain of potential techno-utopianism: “It’s basically Marxism dressed up with robotics.”

It’s probably not going to be so neat, the future resistant to being any one thing, but it seems likely the foundations of education and Labor will be radically remade. How do we reimagine economies that have been largely free-market ones if a full-employment society is no longer a reality?

Important to Srnicek and Williams isn’t just basic income but also the end of the fetishization of the work ethic. The opening:

Vice:

Can you explain what you mean by a “high-tech future free from work”?’

Alex Williams:

The idea of the book is to argue for a different kind of left-wing politics to the kind we may be used to in America and in the UK, where traditionally, the role of the Democratic Party or, in the UK, the Labour Party, is one where we’re going to help poorer people by giving them jobs. For a variety of reasons, which we go into in the book, we view that as no longer possible, and possibly no longer desirable in the same way. This is all related, in part, to the increasing role of automation—this new wave of automation that a quiet wide variety of economists, technologists, and sociologists have begun thinking about.

Vice:

Right—the idea that “robots are stealing our jobs.”

Alex Williams:

Right. Our kind of perspective on this is, well, is it possible that robots stealing jobs might be a good thing? What would it require to make it a good thing?

Nick Srnicek:

We have all this amazing technology around us. It seems like we’re in a rapidly changing world and we’ve got new potential sprouting out everywhere. But at the same time, our everyday lives are crushed by debt and work and all of these obsolete social relations. It seems that we could be doing much better with the technologies that we have. Our argument has to do with capitalism. This isn’t fundamentally different from what Marx was saying 150 years ago, but it is a matter of capitalism constraining the potentials available within technology and within humanity.•

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A couple months before its historic eruption on May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens began to slowly awaken. Tourists toting binoculars went to the mountain to get a better look, but some experts warned them to not expect too much, predicting it very unlikely to be a major geological event. The experts were wrong. From the April 21, 1980 People magazine:

It was hardly Vesuvius or Krakatoa, but when Mount St. Helens—near Washington’s border with Oregon—began to gurgle seriously last month, geologists and thrill-seekers gathered from all over the world. They hoped to see one of the rarest and most spectacular of nature’s performances: a volcanic eruption. Not since Mount Lassen in California began seven years of activity in 1914 has a volcano in the lower 48 states put on such a show. Still, some watchers may be disappointed by Mount St. Helens. “People have this idea about lava from old South Sea movies,” says Donal Mullineaux, a volcanologist in the U.S. Geological Survey, “with everybody in sarongs hotfooting it away from this smoky, glowing stuff that comes oozing out of the crater and down the mountain like cake batter. Lava can be dangerous, sure, but that’s only a part of it.”

The rest of it—clouds of poisonous gas, searing hot winds and cascades of mud and rock—now seems unlikely at Mount St. Helens. Mullineaux, who had predicted an eruption in a scholarly 1975 article, is maintaining a vigilant calm. “The probability of a big, big eruption is very low,” he says. Asked if the gases already escaped pose a pollution threat, he smiles and says, “Any comment I could make would be facetious. I grew up in a paper-mill town.”•

The CBS News report three days after the volcano blew, with Dan Rather and his folksy whatthefuck subbing for Walter Cronkite.

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Most men (and women) lead lives of quite desperation, but from Brooklyn to Big Sur Henry Miller hollered. That resulted in some genius writing and some considerably lesser material. In 1961, the author explained in a Paris Review interview how he believed his tools shaped his writing:

Paris Review:

Do you edit or change much?

Henry Miller:

That too varies a great deal. I never do any correcting or revising while in the process of writing. Let’s say I write a thing out any old way, and then, after it’s cooled off—I let it rest for a while, a month or two maybe—I see it with a fresh eye. Then I have a wonderful time of it. I just go to work on it with the ax. But not always. Sometimes it comes out almost like I wanted it.

Paris Review:

How do you go about revising?

Henry Miller:

When I’m revising, I use a pen and ink to make changes, cross out, insert. The manuscript looks wonderful afterwards, like a Balzac. Then I retype, and in the process of retyping I make more changes. I prefer to retype everything myself, because even when I think I’ve made all the changes I want, the mere mechanical business of touching the keys sharpens my thoughts, and I find myself revising while doing the finished thing. 

Paris Review:

You mean there is something going on between you and the machine?

Henry Miller:

Yes, in a way the machine acts as a stimulus; it’s a cooperative thing.•

Robert Snyder’s deeply enjoyable 1969 documentary of Miller in his middle years, when he had befriended, among many others, astrologer Sydney Omarr, a relationship which helped the author indulge his curiosity in the occult.

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Wilt Chamberlain was a hybrid of topdog and underdog, fully aware that all his greatness could never make the public quite love a Goliath. To merely be himself was to be unfair. In Allen Barra’s 2012 Atlantic appreciation of the late NBA, volleyball and track & field star, the writer compares the legendary basketball player favorably with Babe Ruth, and recalls the humble environs in which he recorded the NBA’s only triple-digit scoring performance. An excerpt:

The celebration of Wilt Chamberlain’s career that accompanied the 50th anniversary of his 100-point game last weekend was too short and passed too quickly.

Wilt Chamberlain was the Babe Ruth of pro basketball. Like Ruth, he was by far the most dominant force in his time, and quite possibly of all time. Like the Babe, Wilt was the lightning rod for interest in the sport in a time when it was badly needed. In Chamberlain’s case, he was more important to basketball than Ruth was to baseball.

Contrary to popular opinion, baseball was doing quite well at the turnstiles when Ruth came along and would have survived the stink of the Black Sox gambling scandal with or without him (though the recovery certainly would have taken longer). But without Wilt, who knows if the NBA would have made it from the 1960s—when it was scarcely one of the big three pro sports behind baseball and football—to the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird boom of the late 1970s and the Michael Jordan tidal wave a few years later?

If you doubt this, consider one extraordinary fact: Wilt played his 100-point game not in New York or even in the Warriors’ home city of Philadelphia but in an odd-looking, plain concrete barn-like structure with an arched roof in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where the Warriors played several games a year in order to increase a fan base that wasn’t showing them overwhelming support in Philly.

Try and imagine the equivalent in baseball: Babe Ruth hitting his 60th home run in, say, Newark, New Jersey, at a Yankees “secondary” park in front of a handful of fans. If not for an unknown student listening to a late night rebroadcast of the game who thought to tape the fourth quarter on a reel-to-reel, we’d have no live coverage of the game at all.

Chamberlain’s triumph came at the Hershey Sports Arena. Today the HersheyPark Arena looks virtually the same, a practice facility for the AHL’s Hershey Bears and home ice for a local college that is also open for public skating. It’s easy to miss the notices that here Chamberlain played his landmark game: a small sign on a pole outside the main gates and a copy of the photo of Wilt holding up the handmade “100” in the back side of the lobby.

There is one primary difference between the careers of Babe Ruth and Wilt Chamberlain: Ruth was—and is—regarded by most baseball analysts as the greatest player in his game. But basketball people have never quite been able to make up their minds about Wilt.•

Ed Sullivan interviews Chamberlain soon after his heroics in Hershey.

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Even at his most outlandish, George Saunders never seems to me to be writing about the future but about life right now. What is a quiet nightmare The Semplica Girls Diaries about if not growing divide between the haves and have-nots as we shift from the Industrial Revolution to the Digital one, the way technocracy removes the friction from our lives and disappears the “downsized” from our minds?

In a New York Times Magazine conversation, Saunders and Jennifer Egan discuss the futuristic in fiction. An excerpt:

George Saunders:

One topic I’d like to someday take on in a work of “futuristic” fiction is our increasing materialism — we are coming to believe that our minds are entirely sufficient to understand the universe in its entirety. This means a shrinking respect for mystery — religion vanishing as a meaningful part of our lives (or being used, in its fundamentalist forms, to beat back mystery, rather than engage it); an increasing acceptance that if something is “effective” (profitable, stockholder-enhancing), then that answers all questions of its morality. This insistence on the literal and provable and data-based and pragmatic leaves us, I think, only partly human. What will the future look like, given that premise? Bleak, I’d say. But interesting.

I’m actually working on a novel based in the past now, and to me, there are some parallels between writing about the future and writing about the past. Neither interests me at all, if the intention is just to “get it right.” It’s nearly impossible to recreate a past mind-set, and also, why bother? That mind-set already existed, if you see what I mean. The goal of a work of fiction is, in my view, to say something, about how life is for us, not at any particular historical moment (past or present or future) but at every single moment. By necessity, we have to choose some precise time to depict, but we wouldn’t want to confuse ourselves by thinking that the “correct depiction” of that time was the goal.

Jennifer Egan:

I’m curious what period are you writing about, and what led you to do that?

George Saunders:

Yeah, I’m going to be a little secretive about it, as sort of a mojo-protection move. … but it’s the 19th century. And the motivation for doing it was just this really cool, sad story I heard around 1998. For years, I was playing with that idea in different modes and screwing it up, and then one day I had a little insight into how I might do it. It’s also got a supernatural element. So, weirdly, although it’s ostensibly “historical,” it actually feels more like a sci-fi story than anything I’ve ever done before. There’s a heavy element of world-building — figuring out the internal rules of the place and so on.•

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In a 1968 Playboy Interview, Eric Nordern tried to extract a definitive statement about the meaning of 2001: A Space Odyssey directly from the mouth of the horse, but Stanley Kubrick wasn’t having it. The director was happy, however, to expound on the potential existence of extraterrestrials of advanced intelligence and what it would mean for us relatively lowly earthlings. An excerpt:

Playboy:

Speaking of what it’s all about—if you’ll allow us to return to the philosophical interpretation of 2001—would you agree with those critics who call it a profoundly religious film?

Stanley Kubrick:

I will say that the God concept is at the heart of 2001—but not any traditional, anthropomorphic image of God. I don’t believe in any of Earth’s monotheistic religions, but I do believe that one can construct an intriguingscientific definition of God, once you accept the fact that there are approximately 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, that its star is a life-giving sun and that there are approximately 100 billion galaxies in just the visibleuniverse. Given a planet in stable orbit, not too hot and not too cold, and given a few billion years of chance chemical reactions created by the interaction of sun’s energy on the planet’s chemicals, it’s fairly certain that life in one form or another will eventually emerge. It’s reasonable to assume that there must be, in fact, countless billions of such planets where biological life has arisen, and the odds of some proportion of such life developing intelligence are high. Now, the sun is by no means an old star, and its planets are mere children in cosmic age, so it seems likely that there are billions of planets in the universe not only where intelligent life is on a lower scale than man but other billions where it is approximately equal and others still where it is hundreds of thousands of years in advance of us. When you think of the giant technological strides that man has made in a few millennia—less than a microsecond in the cosmology of the universe—can you imagine the evolutionary development that much older life forms have taken? They may have progressed from biological species, which are fragile shells for the mind at best, into immortal machine entities—and then, over innumerable eons, they could emerge from the chrysalis of matter transformed into beings of pure energy and spirit. Their potentialities would be limitless and their intelligence ungraspable by humans.

Playboy:

Even assuming the cosmic evolutionary path you suggest, what has this to do with the nature of God?

Stanley Kubrick:

Everything—because these beings would be gods to the billions of less advanced races in the universe, just as man would appear a god to an ant that somehow comprehended man’s existence. They would possess the twin attributes of all deities—omniscience and omnipotence. These entities might be in telepathic communication throughout the cosmos and thus be aware of everything that occurs, tapping every intelligent mind as effortlessly as we switch on the radio; they might not be limited by the speed of light and their presence could penetrate to the farthest corners of the universe; they might possess complete mastery over matter and energy; and in their final evolutionary stage, they might develop into an integrated collective immortal consciousness. They would be incomprehensible to us except as gods; and if the tendrils of their consciousness ever brushed men’s minds, it is only the hand of God we could grasp as an explanation.

Playboy:

If such creatures do exist, why should they be interested in man?

Stanley Kubrick:

They may not be. But why should man be interested in microbes? The motives of such beings would be as alien to us as their intelligence.

Playboy:

In 2001, such incorporeal creatures seem to manipulate our destinies and control our evolution, though whether for good or evil—or both, or neither—remains unclear. Do you really believe it’s possible that man is a cosmic plaything of such entities?

Stanley Kubrick:

I don’t really believe anything about them; how can I? Mere speculation on the possibility of their existence is sufficiently overwhelming, without attempting to decipher the motives. The important point is that all the standard attributes assigned to God in our history could equally well be the characteristics of biological entities who billions of years ago were at a stage of development similar to man’s own and evolved into something as remote from man as man is remote from the primordial ooze from which he first emerged.

Playboy:

In this cosmic phylogeny you’ve described, isn’t it possible that there might be forms of intelligent life on an even higher scale than these entities of pure energy—perhaps as far removed from them as they are from us?

Stanley Kubrick:

Of course there could be; in an infinite, eternal universe, the point is that anything is possible, and it’s unlikely that we can even begin to scratch the surface of the full range of possibilities. But at a time when man is preparing to set foot on the Moon, I think it’s necessary to open up our Earth bound minds to such speculation. No one knows what’s waiting for us in our universe. I think it was a prominent astronomer who wrote recently, “Sometimes I think we are alone, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the idea is quite staggering.”

Playboy:

You said that there must be billions of planets sustaining life that is considerably more advanced than man but has not yet evolved into non- or suprabiological forms. What do you believe would be the effect on humanity if the Earth were contacted by a race of such ungodlike but technologically superior beings?

Stanley Kubrick:

There’s a considerable difference of opinion on this subject among scientists and philosophers. Some contend that encountering a highly advanced civilization—even one whose technology is essentially comprehensible to us—would produce a traumatic cultural shock effect on man by divesting him of his smug ethnocentrism and shattering the delusion that he is the center of the universe. Carl Jung summed up this position when he wrote of contact with advanced extraterrestrial life that “reins would be torn from our hands and we would, as a tearful old medicine man once said to me, find ourselves ‘without dreams’ … we would find our intellectual and spiritual aspirations so outmoded as to leave us completely paralyzed.” I personally don’t accept this position, but it’s one that’s widely held and can’t be summarily dismissed.

In 1960, for example, the Committee for Long Range Studies of the Brookings Institution prepared a report for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration warning that even indirect contact—i.e., alien artifacts that might possibly be discovered through our space activities on the Moon, Mars, or Venus or via radio contact with an interstellar civilization—could cause severe psychological dislocations. The study cautioned that “Anthropological files contain many examples of societies, sure of their place in the universe, which have disintegrated when they have had to associate with previously unfamiliar societies espousing different ideas and different life ways; others that survived such an experience usually did so by paying the price of changes in values and attitudes and behaviour.” It concluded that since the consequences of any such discovery are “presently unpredictable,” it was advisable that the government initiate continuing studies on the psychological and intellectual impact of confrontation with extra-terrestrial life. What action was taken on this report I don’t know, but I assume that such studies are now under way. However, while not discounting the possible adverse emotional impact on some people, I would personally tend to view such contact with a tremendous amount of excitement and enthusiasm. Rather than shattering our society, I think it could immeasurably enrich it.

Another positive point is that it’s a virtual certainty that all intelligent life at one stage in its technological development must have discovered nuclear energy. This is obviously the watershed of any civilization; does it find a way to use nuclear power without destruction and harness it for peaceful purposes, or does it annihilate itself? I would guess that any civilization that has existed for a few thousand years after its discovery of atomic energy has devised a means of accommodating itself to the bomb, and this could prove tremendously reassuring to us—as well as give us specific guidelines for our own survival. In any case, as far as cultural shock is concerned, my impression is that the attention span of most people is quite brief; after a week or two of great excitement and over-saturation in the newspapers and on television, the public’s interest would drop off and the United Nations, or whatever world body we had then, would settle down to discussions with the aliens.

Playboy:

You’re assuming that extraterrestrials would be benevolent. Why?

Stanley Kubrick:

Why should a vastly superior race bother to harm or destroy us? If an intelligent ant suddenly traced a message in the sand at my feet reading, “I am sentient; let’s talk things over,” I doubt very much that I would rush to grind him under my heel. Even if they weren’t superintelligent, though, but merely more advanced than mankind, I would tend to lean more toward the benevolence, or at least indifference, theory. Since it’s most unlikely that we would be visited from within our own solar system, any society capable of traversing light-years of space would have to have an extremely high degree of control over matter and energy. Therefore, what possible motivation for hostility would they have? To steal our gold or oil or coal? It’s hard to think of any nasty intention that would justify the long and arduous journey from another star.•

Introduced by Vernon Myers, the publisher of Look, the 1966 short film, “A Look Behind the Future,” focuses on the magazine’s former photographer Kubrick, who was then in the process of making 2001: A Space Odyssey at London’s MGM studios. It’s a nice companion piece to Jeremy Bernstein’s two great New Yorker articles about the movie during its long gestation (here and here).

Mentioned or seen in this video: Mobile phones, laptop computers, Wernher Von Braun, memory helmets, a 38-ton centrifuge, Arthur C. Clarke at the Long Island warehouse where the NASA L.E.M. (Lunar Excursion Module) was being constructed, Keir Dullea meeting the press, etc. 

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I would think I’m in the small minority of Don DeLillo readers who feel that his best novel is White Noise, a book about an airborne toxic event and other looming threats. From Nathaniel Rich’s just-published Daily Beast piece:

How did the novel that Don DeLillo originally titled Panasonic become the phenomenon that was, and still is, White Noise? Canonized at birth by rhapsodic critics and instantly ubiquitous on college syllabi, the novel won the National Book Award and journalists hailed its publicity-shy author as a prophet.

But White Noise was not different in kind from Don DeLillo’s previous seven novels. He had been writing about the same paranoiac themes for 15 years: nuclear age anomie, the tyranny and mind control of American commercial excess, the dread of mass terror and the perverse longing for it, the aphasic cacophony of mass information, and even Hitler obsession. In those earlier novels DeLillo had written in the same clipped, oracular prose, borrowing sardonically from bureaucratic officialese, scientific jargon, and tabloid headlines. Some of White Noise’s main insights—“All plots tend to move deathward,” declares the narrator, Jack Gladney—were recycled from the earlier novels, too. White Noise was more conventionally plotted than End Zone, Great Jones Street, or Players, and the characters more conflicted, more human. But something else had changed.

“The greater the scientific advance,” says Jack Gladney, “the more primitive the fear.” White Noise is bathed in the glare and hum of personal computers and refrigerators and color televisions. Like bulletins from the subconscious, the text is intermittently interrupted by litanies of brand names designed to be pronounceable in a hundred languages: Tegrin, Denorex, Selsun Blue. At one point Jack observes his daughter talking in her sleep, uttering the words Toyota Celica. “It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet-carved in cuneiform. It made me feel that something hovered.”

Something is hovering all right.•

The 1991 BBC program, Don DeLillo: The Word, The Image, and The Gun, was originally aired the same year the author published that strange thing Mao II, a novel with wooden characters and plotting, but one so eerily correct about the coming escalation of terrorism, how guns would become bombs and airplanes would not just be redirected but repurposed. It’s like DeLillo tried to alert us to targets drawn in chalk on all sides of the Twin Towers, but we never really fully noticed. This program is a great portrait of DeLillo and his “dangerous secrets” about technology, surveillance, film, news, the novel, art and the apocalypse.

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The 1980 killing of Scarsdale Diet creator, Dr. Henry Tarnower, by his longtime companion, Jean Harris, was a slaying that awakened all sorts of emotions about the dynamics between men and women. FromMurder with Intent to Love,” a 1981 Time article by Walter Isaacson and James Wilde about the sensational trial:

Prosecutor George Bolen, 34, was cold and indignant in his summation, insisting that jealousy over Tarnower‘s affair with his lab assistant, Lynne Tryforos, 38, was the motivating factor for murder. Argued Bolen: ‘There was dual intent, to take her own life, but also an intent to do something else . . . to punish Herman Tarnower . . . to kill him and keep him from Lynne Tryforos.’ Bolen ridiculed the notion that Harris fired her .32-cal. revolver by accident. He urged the jury to examine the gun while deliberating. Said he: ‘Try pulling the trigger. It has 14 pounds of pull. Just see how difficult it would be to pull, double action, four times by accident.’ Bolen, who was thought by his superiors to be too gentle when he cross-examined Harris earlier in the trial, showed little mercy as he painted a vivid picture of what he claims happened that night. He dramatically raised his hand in the defensive stance he says Tarnower used when Harris pointed the gun at him. When the judge sustained an objection by Aurnou that Bolen‘s version went beyond the evidence presented, the taut Harris applauded until her body shook.•

In 1991, the year before her sentence was commuted, Harris sat for a jailhouse interview with Jane Pauley, who has somehow managed to not murder Garry Trudeau.

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In an excellent Five Books interview, writer Calum Chace suggests a quintet of titles on the topic of Artificial Intelligence, four of which I’ve read. In recommending The Singularity Is Near, he defends the author Ray Kurzweil against charges of techno-quackery, though the futurist’s predictions have grown more desperate and fantastic as he’s aged. It’s not that what he predicts can’t ever be be done, but his timelines seem to me way too aggressive.

Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, another choice, is a very academic work, though an important one. Interesting that Bostrom thinks advanced AI is a greater existential threat to humans than even climate change. (I hope I’ve understood the philosopher correctly in that interpretation.) The next book is Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots, which I enjoyed, but I prefer Chace’s fourth choice, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson’s The Second Machine Age, which covers the same terrain of technological unemployment with, I think, greater rigor and insight. The final suggestion is one I haven’t read, Greg Egan’s sci-fi novel Permutation City, which concerns intelligence uploading and wealth inequality.

An excerpt about Kurzweil:

Question:

Let’s talk more about some of these themes as we go through the books you’ve chosen. The first one on your list is The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil. He thinks things are moving along pretty quickly, and that a superintelligence might be here soon. 

Calum Chace:

He does. He’s fantastically optimistic. He thinks that in 2029 we will have AGI. And he’s thought that for a long time, he’s been saying it for years. He then thinks we’ll have an intelligence explosion and achieve uploading by 2045. I’ve never been entirely clear what he thinks will happen in the 16 years in between. He probably does have quite detailed ideas, but I don’t think he’s put them to paper. Kurzweil is important because he, more than anybody else, has made people think about these things. He has amazing ideas in his books—like many of the ideas in everybody’s books they’re not completely original to him—but he has been clearly and loudly propounding the idea that we will have AGI soon and that it will create something like utopia. I came across him in 1999 when I read his book, Are We Spiritual Machines? The book I’m suggesting here is The Singularity is Near, published in 2005. The reason why I point people to it is that it’s very rigorous. A lot of people think Kurzweil is a snake-oil salesman or somebody selling a religious dream. I don’t agree. I don’t agree with everything he says and he is very controversial. But his book is very rigorous in setting out a lot of the objections to his ideas and then tackling them. He’s brave, in a way, in tackling everything head-on, he has answers for everything. 

Question:

Can you tell me a bit more about what ‘the singularity’ is and why it’s near?

Calum Chace:

The singularity is borrowed from the world of physics and math where it means an event at which the normal rules break down. The classic example is a black hole. There’s a bit of radiation leakage but basically, if you cross it, you can’t get back out and the laws of physics break down. Applied to human affairs, the singularity is the idea that we will achieve some technological breakthrough. The usual one is AGI. The machine becomes as smart as humans and continues to improve and quickly becomes hundreds, thousands, millions of times smarter than the smartest human. That’s the intelligence explosion. When you have an entity of that level of genius around, things that were previously impossible become possible. We get to an event horizon beyond which the normal rules no longer apply.

I’ve also started using it to refer to a prior event, which is the ‘economic singularity.’ There’s been a lot of talk, in the last few months, about the possibility of technological unemployment. Again, it’s something we don’t know for sure will happen, and we certainly don’t know when. But it may be that AIs—and to some extent their peripherals, robots—will become better at doing any job than a human. Better, and cheaper. When that happens, many or perhaps most of us can no longer work, through no fault of our own. We will need a new type of economy.  It’s really very early days in terms of working out what that means and how to get there. That’s another event that’s like a singularity — in that it’s really hard to see how things will operate at the other side.•

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Long before everyone was a brand, James Michener was one. His name connected to a huge pile of words on pretty much any topic guaranteed a large advance and sales. He was far from a graceful writer, though that never impeded his success, which was propelled by an indefatigable zest for research. With his production methods and prolificity, he was almost a one-man corporation.

In 1983, as he did fieldwork for his proposed novel about Texas (which ended up, in Michener-esque fashion, being titled Texas), Andrea Chambers of People penned a profile of the septuagenarian scribe. The opening:

A sultry heat shrouded the groves of live oaks and the goat pastures on the edge of the Texas hill country as a state trooper drove down Interstate 35 from Austin to San Antonio. “This is the most dangerous highway in America,” he told his passenger, James Michener. “Going south is dangerous because there are stolen cars on the road to Mexico; heading north is even more dangerous because of the cocaine and marijuana smugglers coming up from Mexico.” Michener made a mental note of this statement, just as he had carefully considered the story, told him by a Texas banker, about a man who had deposited $1.25 million in his checking account. It seems that the man’s wife was going to New York City to shop, and he wanted her to be able to write all the checks she wanted. “This state has possibilities,” concluded the author. “How can I lose?”

How indeed. The 31 books of James Albert Michener have been translated into more than 50 languages, nine movies, four television shows and one musical, South Pacific. His novels, such as Chesapeake, Centennial and The Covenant, generally hit the top of best-seller lists within a week or so of their official publication date. Michener’s latest, Space, has held the No. 1 spot for six months and is tentatively scheduled to appear as a 10-part CBS miniseries next year. By that time Michener fans will have been presented with his opus on Poland, a multi-generational historical novel he finished researching and writing nearly a year ago.

And then there is Texas, where the Wild West still lives and money spills off in rolls, like paper towels. Michener is now one and a half years deep into researching his saga of the state, beginning in 1527, when the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca set off to explore the New World, and ending in 1984. “Have you ever met anyone who was inordinately, spiritually proud of being from New Hampshire?” he asks. “Here people love this state. They have a passion for Texas.” So has the Pennsylvania-raised Michener. Sporting a string tie and Stetson, he crisscrosses Texas, using as a base a rented Austin ranch house he shares with his wife, Mari. “I went to a dance hall outside Kerrville where there were 2,000 cowboys and their ladies,” the author recalls. “I saw fellas dancing with their hats on and gals in gingham. There it was, a little world nobody in Pittsburgh would ever have imagined. I was there very happily. I fit in rather easily.”

He felt right at home, too, spending four days on duty with a Texas Ranger in Big Bend country and following every foot of the Natchez Trace to trek the course of the early emigrants toward Texas. Quail hunting on the 823,000-acre King Ranch was especially appealing. “Seeing the shooting skill of those society women—boom, boom—was very sobering,” he says. “There is an illusion of a man’s world here. It may be a myth.” Another dubious myth is the shallow kingdom of lust and lucre displayed on the evening TV soaps. “I have to be very careful not to write a Yale University version of Dallas. I have to avoid the stereotypes.” He is also largely avoiding some of Texas’ great families—the Kings, the Hunts and, especially, the Johnsons. “I am not capable of dealing with Lyndon,” he says. “You would have to give him a disproportionate amount of space to do him even unequal justice. Besides, I am not obligated to cover everything.” What he will cover is the story of ranchers, cotton planters, oilmen and land developers, as well as the fate of the English, Spanish, Mexican, Scotch-Irish, German and other groups who settled in the state. Great historical figures, such as the Mexican general Santa Anna, Sam Houston and Cabeza de Vaca, will weave in and out of the plot.

To research the scene, Michener spends long hours reading at home or at his office at the Barker Texas History Center at the University of Texas in Austin, where he is a visiting scholar (he has devoured 400 books so far). “You can’t go out and just whomp it up. You have to be prepared,” he says. On his field trips, Michener may fill his senses with the smell of Texas winter wheat or the sight of grazing long-horns. He also seeks out local folk who can tell him what their jobs are like. “You don’t choose a dodo,” he explains. “If you’re going to pick a Mexican sheepherder, pick a good one.”

At 7:30 one morning just before his 76th birthday, Michener is off on yet another trip through the state. At the wheel of the car is his trusted “project editor,” John Kings, 59, a former editor of Reader’s Digest. An Englishman, Kings served as Michener’s field adviser and all-around organizer on Centennial and is doing the same for the Texas book. Mari Michener, 62, and Lisa Kaufman, 26, the novelist’s administrative assistant, are also along for the journey from Austin to San Antonio and exotic points west.

First stop is Fredericksburg (pop. 6,412) for coffee at a small café decorated with red-checkered tablecloths and a giant painted Comanche. Michener, a foundling whose early childhood was impoverished, relishes simple eateries as much as he likes a good cheap hotel and down-to-earth, salty conversation. “Aren’t you James Michener? I enjoyed your deal on Spain,” says a husky man in a hunter’s hat, referring to Michener’s 1968 non-fiction work Iberia. Jim, as his friends call him, quickly pulls up a chair and joins the man and his pals for coffee and doughnuts. Within a few minutes he has learned all about their jobs as well as a few tidbits about business practices in the area. There is something about Michener’s avuncular style that encourages people to tell him everything about themselves. The novelist absorbs it all, occasionally jotting down a number or date. For the most part, he relies on his memory to store the facts and feelings he will later pour into the novel.

His impressions of the café crowd duly recorded, Michener moves on to Comfort (pop. 1,460), home of the state’s only armadillo farm. “It’s bloody amazing,” he says. “It’s as if you had a skunk farm.” These slow-witted, shell-encased “Hoover hogs” (they were eaten like pork during the Depression) are run over on the roads by Texans, but are valuable for medical research. But to Michener, “The fact that they are so visibly ancient and that they have migrated north from Mexico becomes related to everything I’m writing about.” Promising that an armadillo will figure prominently in his novel, he strides forth to the wire coop where 26 of them are burrowing under hay. “Hello, little fella,” he clucks delightedly and swoops one up. His wife lets out a squeal of protest. “Oh, Cookie,” he says (the Micheners call each other “Cookie”), “they don’t scratch badly. I have handled wild hyenas, so I can handle this.”

Unscathed and overeducated with facts about the armadillo’s eating, reproductive and sleeping habits (they devour June bugs and dog food, breed four identical offspring from one egg, and emerge primarily at night), Michener is off again. After a stop at a restaurant for liver and onions (“I keep hoping I’ll find an edible chicken-fried steak,” he says of one prized Texas delicacy) and a visit to a Union war memorial in Comfort, he arrives at the ranch of Bob Ramsey and his wife, Willie. Michener, who likes to visit places two and three times, has already gone deer hunting near the Ramsey spread. Family and friends have gathered to welcome him back and proffer books to be signed. Michener inscribes them all. (“I only put my initials in paperbacks,” he jokes.) He is given a jar of venison jerky, a piece of hill country flint, Mrs. Ramsey’s etching, on a limestone slab, of a turkey, quail and armadillo, and a leather hatband adorned with arrowheads for his Stetson.

Visibly pleased, Michener pushes on to the nearby Frio River, a shallow waterway with such a smooth riverbed that a car can be driven down its center. Jim, naturally, tries it out, riding in the back of Bob Ramsey’s pickup. He then resumes his trip, gazing out at the cattle pastures and the windmills turning lazily against the darkening sky. “I love the expansiveness of this world,” he says. “I can hardly wait to get up in the morning and see it all. I’ve never been bored.”

In the course of his two-day trip, Michener will pace the boundaries of the Alamo so that he can better understand the battle, visit the Spanish Governor’s Palace and stroll the grounds of San Antonio’s San Juan Capistrano mission, which dates from 1731. He will also knock off some spicy Mexican meals, over which he discourses eloquently—for example, on the country with the most beautiful women (Burma) and on his literary influences (Milton, Dickens, Keats, the Bible, Wordsworth). He can describe in detail the floor plan of the Louvre or the Prado and can sing many of the world’s great operatic arias. Proud of his erudition, the Swarthmore-educated Michener quips that his epitaph will read: “Here lies James A. Michener, a man who never showed home movies or drank vin rosé.”

Back in his Austin study, he entertains himself with tapes of Bach or his new discovery, Willie Nelson, and sips pineapple juice. Then he diligently resumes work on his book, typing with two fingers. “I have never been big on the agony of writing,” he says. “I see no evidence that Tolstoy suffered from writer’s block.” Still, he frets that this novel will be his last. “I often think: ‘How will I hold all this together?’ ”

Most likely he will, and then go on to another epic.•

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We’re clever enough to kill ourselves en masse, that much we know, but are we adequately creative to save our species from a human-made disaster that seems more and more likely to visit devastation upon us? Can the collateral damage caused by our intelligence be undone with more intelligence?

In an Atlantic post, Ross Andersen interviews Oliver Morton, author of The Planet Remade, and wonders if we need to be more aggressively redesigning our environment. As he writes, “the geoengineers offer us a third way,” one beyond status quo as we attempt to worm our way through the Anthropocene, and immediately abandoning the fossil fuels we heavily rely upon.

Even the seemingly outré proposals bandied about by scientists and technologists don’t seem theoretically impossible, but most aren’t feasible in the near future, and they certainly will have their own unintended consequences. I would think geoengineering is certainly a piece of the answer as we move forward, but a dedicated effort to change the way we go about business better accompany it.

An excerpt:

Ross Andersen:

In your book, you argue that it would be impossible to transition away from fossil fuels quickly, because our current global-energy infrastructure simply can’t be replaced within a single generation. Can you give me a sense of the scale of that infrastructure? What would need replacing?

Oliver Morton:

Well, you have to remember that over 80 percent of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels—and the world uses a lot of energy, and will be using even more energy soon. There are, after all, a large number of people who still don’t have access to modern energy services. In the beginning of the 20th century, no one lived the sort of life that well-off people in developing countries live or aspire to. Now about 1.6 to 2 billion people live that kind of life. And that’s great, but there are 5 billion people who aren’t leading that kind of life. They are going to use a lot of energy.

At the end of this century there will be 9 or 10 billion people on the face of the planet. You would kind of hope that in a century’s time, they would all have the access to energy that you and I enjoy. That would mean going from 2 billion people with access to 10 billion, a much larger increase than we saw during the 20th century.

Of course, there’s a huge amount that we can do with better energy technology over the course of the 21st century. But as the world develops, I think there’s still going to be an awful lot of fossil fuels burned. I think it’s a fundamental mistake to think that with just a bit more political will, you can suddenly go to a zero-carbon world.•

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An Englishman in New York who decamps to the rural South and writes reports of lurid local love for things bestial and martial can easily come across as the worst type of tourist. Except, that is, if he really, really is in love with the place and its people, which thankfully seems an apt description of Richard Grant, who was lured to the Mississippi Delta by a cheap house and found a rich home, if a perplexing one. He recently wrote an article of his experiences for the New York Times, one tied to the release of his new book, Dispatches From Pluto

An excerpt from the NYT piece:

Opening the local newspaper in hunting season, we stared at photographs of women who were killing deer with pink arrows for breast cancer awareness. Bizarre crimes came in a steady stream. An unlicensed mortuary was busted on a residential street. Motorists were warned not to stop for police officers because someone posing as a cop had killed two people.

In the dilapidated old cotton town of Greenwood, an oncologist was arrested for hiring two men to murder the lawyer who lived across the street. He was found unfit to stand trial and remanded to the state mental hospital. His devoted patients are still clamoring for his release.

In the same town, a man was caught in a police sting operation while having carnal relations with show hogs. We had never even heard of show hogs, so our friend Martha Foose, a Delta-born cookbook writer, had to explain. “We have beauty pageants for our swine,” she said. “And they get those hogs dolled up. They shave their underparts, curl their eyelashes, buff their little trotters, and I guess it’s more than some guys can stand. I call it ‘dating down the food chain.’”

After nearly three years here, it still feels like we’re scratching the surface. Even for a native like our friend Martha, it’s hard to say what accounts for the Delta’s eccentricities. Maybe it’s the strain of living in a dysfunctional third world society in the heart of America. A white pseudo-aristocracy maintains genteel airs and graces amid crumbling towns and black rural poverty reminiscent of Haiti. It’s all stirred up with whiskey, denial and fire-breathing religion.•

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Donald Trump is really busy right now trying to sell bibles to Iowans he clearly sees as rubes, so he paid a ghostwriter to knock out a quickie volume for him so he could make a few dollars. By all accounts, it’s thin gruel, more cheap, mediocre product from America’s leading vulgarian, which wouldn’t be such a damning descriptor if he wasn’t also racist, xenophobic, sexist, etc. 

In a Financial Times column, Edward Luce analyzes not just the Reality TV realtor’s book but also Michael D’Antonio’s title about him, Never Enough, a work he praises. An excerpt:

Donald first came to public attention in 1973, when the civil rights division of the US Justice Department launched a case against the Trumps for allegedly discriminating between black and white tenants in the public housing that he ran. Donald hired Roy Cohn, a notorious lawyer who had once worked for Joe McCarthy, the senator who spearheaded the “Red Scare” of the 1950s. It was a classic Trump response. If someone attacks you, hit back 10 times harder. If you are accused of something, label your accuser with something far worse. (It is a tactic he is putting to good use on the 2016 campaign trail.) Cohn hit the government with a $100m damages lawsuit claiming that federal officials were like “storm troopers” who had used “Gestapo-like tactics” to defame their client. The case was settled. Trump went on to win far bigger contracts. In Trump’s world, money is the measure of success. According to his own book, he has made “more than $10 billion”. According to Bloomberg, his net wealth is around $2.9bn.

D’Antonio aims to do more than explain the life of America’s best known property developer. He also links it to the unfolding story of Trump’s times. Trump was reared on the kind of self-help and get-rich-quick books that he now so frequently churns out himself (starting with The Art of the Deal, which came out in 1987, Trump has written more than a dozen). Raised on Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), the young Trump was taught that life was all about winning. His biggest influence was Norman Vincent Peale, a Presbyterian pastor whose book The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) sold 2m copies in its first two years. Trump and his father regularly attended Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan. Peale’s theology was devoid of sin or guilt. The only belief it commanded was in oneself. Confidence was the key. Prosperity would follow. “Learn to pray big prayers,” advised Peale. “God will rate you according to the size of your prayers.”•

 

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Time Inc.’s fabled cocktail carts, charter planes and lavish expense accounts existed less than three decades ago, but it might as well have been the Paleozoic Era, as the violent winds of the Digital Age have spilled the drinks and caused the cash cow to run dry.

A posthumous collection by Robert Hughes, longstanding art critic for Time, is to be published this month, and Vanity Fair has run a piece about the writer enjoying a particularly expensive meal in Paris in the early ’70s. It’s an ode to the editorial independence and eye-popping perks of the Magazine Age. An excerpt:

A moment’s arithmetical reflection will show that there wasn’t the least chance of “covering” the sprawling “New York art scene.” At the very theoretical most, I had 52 articles a year. But in practice, I had nothing of the kind, because not every issue of Time had an art section. Sometimes it would be killed to make way for front-of-the-book pieces, sometimes for back-of-the-book covers; generally my allotment of stories came down to about 25, and at the very most 30, a year.

This was both a curse and a blessing. It was a curse because a lot of interesting stuff was bound to go unreported and un-noted. It was a blessing because in a week that carried no art story, I was free to work on a book, or goof off, or go fishing, or take a (liberally interpreted) “research trip.” Clearly, since I got paid every week, the blessings outweighed the curses. Being the art critic of Time in the 70s was like enjoying a perpetual research grant from the most benign of foundations. I could go more or less anywhere I wanted, look at anything I wished to, and be paid generously for doing it.

It was a very different life to that lived by critics in the “Arts & Leisure” section of The New York Times, which, compared to my own relative indolence, was all arts and practically no leisure at all. For every word I published in Time, the chief art critics of The New York Times—John Canaday, who was succeeded by Hilton Kramer and John Russell—must have pumped out three or five.

Since Time had a reputation to maintain as “the international newsmagazine,” I was not going to confine myself to New York, either. Nor would my editors have expected me to. My brief, liberally interpreted, was to cover the world. The magazine even sent me to Moscow (once) to cover an enormous retrospective of Kasimir Malevich. If there was a show in Rome or Florence, Paris or Brussels, Berlin or London, or indeed practically anywhere in Europe, a show that could be argued to hold some interest for an intelligent reader and from which two, four, or six pages of splashy color could be extracted, off I would go. I would stay in the kind of hotels I had never been able to afford—the Gritti in Venice at Biennale time, Claridge’s when in London, the Ritz in Madrid, and in Paris the Meurice—and live, without qualification or the smallest twinge of shame, the life of Riley. I knew perfectly well that this period of luxury was not going to last forever—as indeed it did not, for me or anyone else on the staff of Time—and I felt no hesitation about enjoying it while it was available; at least, in later years, when I heard some power hog from the movie industry bombing on about the truffes sous la cendre he had recently demolished at Le Park 45 during the Cannes Film Festival, I would not need to wonder what they tasted like. I, too, would have eaten them—just once. And as a matter of record, they were indeed worth eating—just that once. It is years since a Time staffer got to eat such comestibles at the company’s expense, but I did, quite often, and I cannot find an iota of shame in myself for having done so, especially since nobody on the 34th floor seemed to mind these gastronomic extravagances in the least.•

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Ten years after Rev. Sun Myung Moon presided over a 1982 mass wedding in Madison Square Garden, New York Times reporter Melinda Henneberger caught up with some of the 4,000 strangers who were consciously coupled. The article’s opening:

When Jonathan and Debby Gullery were married 10 years ago, in a mass wedding of 2,075 couples at Madison Square Garden, they were widely viewed as bit players in a bizarre show produced by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Strangers screamed at them as they sold flowers on the street, and Mrs. Gullery’s father said he thought seriously about having her kidnapped and brought home.

But over the last decade, the Gullerys say, both they and their church have grown up and settled down. On a recent evening, amid the chaos of bedtime for their three young children, they took turns coaxing the 4-year-old back to her room while Mrs. Gullery’s father, who was visiting from Vermont, took refuge in the novel he was reading in the living room of their suburban home.

Mr. Gullery now owns his own graphic arts business, and the couple’s oldest child, who is 7, attends the local public school. Their youngest is 2. To celebrate their 10th anniversary, they took the children to Burger King.

“Things change in 10 years,” Mrs. Gullery said. “Our church has changed, we’ve changed, our family has changed. With our neighbors, we didn’t put a sign out and say, ‘Here we are, we’re the neighborhood Moonies,’ but they all have kids and after they got to know us, it was O.K. The last couple of years have been fairly low key.”

Their lives are nonetheless quite different from their neighbors’. They remain completely dedicated to the Unification Church, rising early each morning for family prayer, and offering up all their daily tasks to the service of God and Mr. Moon, who is for them the second Messiah.•

Footage of the blessed event.

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From a 1979 People article about the late-life John Cheever, who was every bit as good at the short-story form as F. Scott Fitzgerald or Flannery O’Connor or Paul Bowles or any American writer:

Instead of whiskey, the traditional tonic of his profession, the tumbler in Cheever’s hand contains dark tea nowadays, and he distastefully yet methodically counts leftover cigarette butts in his ashtray, a requirement of Smokenders. Cheever joined because “there is something humiliating about getting off the plane in a place like Sofia and thinking, ‘Oh, my God, are they going to have my brand?’” Once tormented by phobias, Cheever required a slug of Scotch from the bottle in the glove compartment before he dared drive across a bridge. He was the despair of his publishers’ PR men, an author who disappeared for six weeks after the publication of a book and refused interviews upon returning. When his first novel was finished, he fled to Rome for a full year. Today such quirks have vanished. At 66, John Cheever is a resurrected man.

“Five years ago I was washing down Thorazine with Scotch,” he says candidly. “I felt suicidal; my life and my career were over. I wanted to end it.” Always a hard drinker, Cheever sank into alcoholism after a near-fatal heart attack in 1972. He swore off temporarily but relapsed while teaching at Boston University. Novelist John Updike, an old friend, saw him at his alcoholic nadir and sadly remarked, ‘I keep thinking the John Cheever I know is in there someplace.’ Finally, with the support of his family, Cheever faced the facts of his behavior (“such a loss of dignity”) and agreed to enter Smithers, an exclusive Manhattan clinic for alcoholism. “If you can have it cured,” he says, five years later, “I am cured.” When released after 32 days, he promptly sat down and, in less than a year, wrote his much-acclaimed fourth novel, Falconer, a gothic tale of life in a prison very much like Sing Sing. Cheever knew his subject well: He once taught a writing course to the convicts.

“I don’t know where the blackness in my life comes from,” Cheever says. “There is a great deal of sadness, of melancholy. I have no idea where it originates.” Part of it may stem from Cheever’s seafaring Yankee ancestry, and his grandfather, who, Cheever was told, committed suicide. John was born in Quincy, Mass., the son of a businessman bankrupted by the crash of ’29. His father was often away, and he and his older brother, Fred (also an alcoholic, who died in 1976), were raised by their English mother. She supported the family with a small gift shop, a source of embarrassment to Cheever. He was close to his maternal grandmother “partly because she called my mother a cretin, which is an easy way to endear yourself to a child” and remembers that she insisted French be spoken at meals. “I don’t recall her French was all that good.”

Dick Cavett interviews Cheever and fellow literary light John Updike in 1981. Expect no Mailer-Vidal fireworks.

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Wernher von Braun, Nazi scientist, warranted a hanging for his crimes against humanity, but he had a talent considered crucial during the early stages of the Cold War, so his past was whitewashed, and he was installed as the leader of NASA’s space program, ultimately becoming something of an American hero. So very, very unfair.

But his horrific past in Germany bled over into his new one in the U.S. in his early ’50s plan to send a “baby satellite” into space for two months with a crew of three rhesus monkeys. The mission completed, the rocket would burn up as it reentered the atmosphere. To save the primates from the pain of an inferno, Braun wanted to create an automatic switch which would gas the monkeys to death–yes, a gas chamber in space! “The monkeys will die instantly and painlessly,” he wrote in a 1952 Collier’s article he co-authored with Cornelius Ryan. It staggers the mind.

The article:

WE ARE at the threshold today of our first bold venture into space. Scientists and engineers working toward man’s exploration of the great new frontier know now that they are going to send aloft a robot laboratory as the first step—a baby space station which for 60 days will circle the earth at an altitude of 200 miles and a speed of 17,200 miles an hour, serving as scout for the human pioneers to follow.

We rocket engineers have learned a lot about space by shooting off the high-flying rockets now in existence—so much that right now we know how to build the rocket ships and the big space station we need to put man into space and keep him there comfortably. We know how to train space crews and how to protect them from the hazards which exist above our atmosphere. All that has been reported in previous issues ofCollier’s.

But the rockets which have gathered our data have stayed in space for only a few minutes at a time. The baby satellite will give us 60 days; we’ll learn more in those two months than in 10 years of firing the present instrument rockets.

We can begin work on the new space vehicle immediately. The baby satellite will look like a 30-foot ice-cream cone, topped by a cross of curved mirrors which draw power from the sun. Its tapered casing will contain a complicated maze of measuring instruments, pressure gauges, thermometers, microphones and Geiger counters, all hooked up to a network of radio, radar and television transmitters which will keep watchers on earth informed about what’s going on inside it.

Speeding 30 times faster than today’s best jets, the little satellite will make one circuit around the earth every 91 minutes—nearly 16 round trips a day. At dawn and dusk it will be visible to the naked eye as a bright, unwinking star, reflecting the sun’s rays and traveling from horizon to horizon in about seven minutes. Ninety-one minutes later, it completes the circuit—but if you look for it in the same place, it won’t be there: it travels in a fixed orbit, while the earth, rotating on its own axis, moves under it. An hour and a half from the time you first sighted the speeding robot, it will pass over the earth hundreds of miles to the west. The cone will never be visible in the dark of night, because it will be in the shadow of the earth.

If you live in Philadelphia, one morning you may see the satellite overhead just before sunup, moving on a southeasterly course. Ninety-one minutes later, as dawn breaks over Wichita, Kansas, people there will see it, and after another hour and a half it will be visible over Los Angeles—again, just before the break of dawn.

That evening, Philadelphians—and the people of Wichita and Los Angeles—will see the speeding satellite again, this time traveling in a northeasterly direction. The following morning, it will be in sight again over the same cities, at about the same time, a little farther to the west.

After about ten days, it will no longer appear over those three cities, but will be visible over other areas. Thus, from any one site, it will be seen on successive occasions for about 20 days before disappearing below the western horizon. In another month or so, it will show up again in the east. And while you’re gazing at the little satellite, it will be peering steadily back, through a television camera in its pointed nose. The camera will give official viewers in stations scattered around the globe the first real panoramic picture of our world—a breath-taking view of the land masses, oceans and cities as seen from 200 miles up. More than likely, commercial TV stations will pick up the broadcasts and relay them to your home.

Three more cameras, located inside the cone, will transmit equally exciting pictures: the first sustained view of life in space.

Three rhesus monkeys—rhesus, because that species is small and highly intelligent—will live aboard the satellite in air-conditioned comfort, feeding from automatic food dispensers. Every move they make will be watched, through television, by the observers on earth.

As fast as the robot’s recording instruments gather information, it will be flashed to the ground by the same method used now in rocket-flight experiments. The method is called telemetering, and it works this way: as many as 50 reporting devices are hooked to a single transmitter which sends out a jumble of tonal waves. A receiver on earth picks up the tangled signals, and a decoding machine unscrambles the tones and prints the information automatically on long strips of paper, as a series of spidery wavelike lines. Each line represents the findings of a particular instrument—cabin temperature, air pressure and so on. Together, they’ll provide a complete story of the happenings inside and outside the baby space station.

What kind of scientific data do we hope to get? Confirmation of all space research to date and, most important, new information on weightlessness, cosmic radiation and meteoric dust.

At a high enough speed and a certain altitude, an object will travel in an orbit around the earth. It— and everything in it—will be weightless. Space scientists and engineers know that man can adjust to weightlessness, because pilots have simulated the condition briefly by flying a jet plane in a rollercoaster arc. But will sustained weightlessness raise problems we haven’t foreseen? We must find out—and the monkeys on the satellite will tell us.

The monkeys will live in two chambers of the animal compartment. In the smaller section, one of the creatures will lie strapped to a seat throughout the two-month test. His hands and head will be free, so he can feed himself, but his body will be bound and covered with a jacket to keep him from freeing himself or from tampering with the measuring instruments taped painlessly to his body. The delicate recording devices will provide vital information—body temperature, breathing cycle, pulse rate, heartbeat, blood pressure and so forth.

The other two monkeys, separated from their pinioned companion so they won’t turn him loose, will move about freely in the larger section. During the flight from earth, these two monkeys will be strapped to shock-absorbing rubber couches, under a mild anesthetic to spare them the discomfort of the acceleration pressure. By the time the anesthetic wears off, the robot will have settled in its circular path about the earth, and a simple timing device will release the two monkeys. Suddenly they’ll float weightless, inside the cabin.

What will they do? Succumb to fright? Perhaps cower in a corner for two months and slowly starve to death? I don’t think so. Chances are they’ll adjust quickly to their new condition. We’ll make it easier for them to get around by providing leather handholds along the walls, like subway straps, and by stringing a rope across the chamber.

There’s another problem for the three animals: to survive the 60 days they must eat and drink.

They’ll prepare to cope with that problem on the ground. For months before they take off, the two unbound monkeys will live in a replica of the compartment they’ll occupy in space, learning to operate food and liquid dispensers. In space, each of the two free animals will have his own feeding station. At specific intervals a klaxon horn will sound; the monkeys will respond by rushing to the feeding stations as they’ve been trained to do. Their movement will break an electric-eye beam, and clear plastic doors will snap shut behind them, sealing them off from their living quarters. Then, while they’re eating, an air blower will flush out the living compartment—both for sanitary reasons and to keep weightless refuse from blocking the television lenses. The plastic doors will spring open again when the housecleaning is finished.

The monkeys will drink by sucking plastic bottles. Liquid left free, without gravity to keep it in place, would hang in globules. To get solid food, each of the monkeys—again responding to their training—will press a lever on a dispenser much like a candy or cigarette machine. The lever will open a door, enabling the animals to reach in for their food. They’ll get about half a pound of food a day—a biscuit made of wheat, soybean meal and bone meal, enriched with vitamins. The immobilized monkey will have the same food; his dispensers will be within easy reach.

For the two free monkeys, it will be a somewhat complicated life. The way they react to their ground training under the new conditions posed by lack of gravity will provide invaluable information on how weightlessness will affect them.

While the monkeys are providing physiologists with information on weightlessness, physicists will be learning more about cosmic rays, invisible high-speed atomic particles which act like deep penetrating X rays and were once feared as the major hazard of space flight. Theoretically, in large enough doses cosmic rays could conceivably cause deep burns, damage the eyes, produce malignant growths and even upset the normal hereditary processes. They don’t do much damage to us on earth because the atmosphere dissipates their full strength, but before much was known about the rays people worried about the dangers they might pose to man in space. From recent experiments scientists now know that the risk was mostly exaggerated—that even beyond the atmosphere a human can tolerate the rays for long periods without ill effects. Still, the best figures available have been obtained by high-altitude instrument rocket flights which were too brief to be conclusive. These spot checks must be augmented by a prolonged study, and the baby space station will make that possible.

The concentration of cosmic rays over the earth varies, being greatest over the north and south magnetic poles. The baby space station will follow a circular path that will carry it close to both poles within every hour and a half, so it can determine if cosmic-ray concentration varies that high up.

Geiger counters inside and outside the robot will measure the number of cosmic particle hits. The telemetering apparatus will signal the information to the ground—and for the first time physicists will have an accurate indication of the cosmic-ray concentration in space, above all parts of the globe.

Besides cosmic rays, the baby satellite will be hit by high-speed space bullets—tiny meteors, most of them smaller than a grain of sand, whizzing through space faster than 1,000 miles a minute.

When men enter space, they’ll be protected against these pellets. Their rockets, the big space station, even their space suits, will have an outer skin called a meteor bumper, which will shatter the lightning-fast missiles on impact. But how many grainiike meteors must the bumpers absorb every 24 hours? That’s what we space researchers want to know. So dime-sized microphones will be scattered over the robot’s outer skin to record the number and location of the impacts as they occur.

In the process of unmasking the secrets of space, the baby satellite also will unravel a few riddles of our own earth.

For example, there are numerous islands whose precise position in the oceans has never been accurately established because there is no nearby land to use as a reference point. Some of them—one is Bouvet Island, lying south of the Cape of Good Hope—have been the subject of international disputes which could be quickly settled by fixing the islands’ positions. By tracking the baby space station as it passes over these islands, we’ll accurately pinpoint their locations for the first time.

The satellite will be even more important to meteorologists. The men who study the weather would like to know how much of the earth is covered with cloud in any given period. The robot’s television camera will give them a clue—a start toward sketching in a comprehensive picture of the world’s weather. Moreover, by studying the pattern of cloud movement, particularly over oceans, they may learn how to predict weather fronts with precision months in advance. Most of the weather research must await construction of a man-carrying space station, but the baby satellite will show what’s needed.

To collect this information, of course, we must first establish the little robot in its 200-mile orbit. All the knowledge needed for its construction and operation is already available to experts in the fields of rocketry, television and telemetering.

Before take-off, the satellite vehicle will resemble one of today’s high-altitude rockets, except that it will be about three times as big—150 feet tall, and 30 feet wide at the base. After take-off it will become progressively smaller, because it actually will consist of three rockets—or stages—one atop another, two of which will be cast away after delivering their full thrust. The vehicle will take off vertically and then tilt into a shallow path nearly parallel to the earth. Its course will be over water at first, so the first two stages won’t fall on anyone after they’re dropped, a few minutes after take-off.

When the third stage of the vehicle reaches an altitude of 60 miles and a speed of 17,700 miles an hour, the final bank of motors will shut off automatically. The conical nose section will coast unpowered to the 200-mile orbit, which it will reach at a speed of 17,100 miles an hour, 44 minutes later. The entire flight will take 48 1/2 minutes.

After the satellite reaches its orbit, the automatic pilot will switch on the motors once again to boost the velocity to 17,200 miles an hour—the speed required to balance the earth’s gravity at that altitude. Now the rocket becomes a satellite; it needs no more power but will travel steadily around the earth like a small moon for 60 days, until the slight air drag present at the 200-mile altitude slows it enough to drop.

Once the satellite enters its orbit, gyroscopically controlled flywheels cartwheel the nose until it points toward the earth. At the same time, five little antennas spring out from the cone’s sides and a small explosive charge blasts off the nose cap which has guarded the TV lens during the ascent.

Finally, the satellite’s power plant—a system of mirrors which catch the sun’s rays and turn solar heat into electrical energy—rises into place at the broad end of the cone. A battery-operated electric timer starts a hydraulic pump, which pushes out a telescopic rod. At the end of the rod are the three curved mirrors. When the rod is fully extended, the mirrors unfold, side by side, and from the ends of the central mirror two extensions slip out. Mercury-filled pipes run along the five polished plates; the heated mercury will operate generators providing 12 kilowatts of power. Batteries will take over the power functions while the satellite is passing through the shadow of the earth.

With the power plant in operation, the baby space station buckles down to its 60-day assignment as man’s first listening post in space.

At strategic points over the earth’s surface, 20 or more receiving stations, most of them set up in big trailers, will track the robot by radar as it passes overhead, and record the television and telemetering broadcasts on tape and film. Because the satellite’s radio waves travel in a straight line, the trailers can pick up broadcasts for just a few minutes at a time—only while the robot remains in sight as it zooms from horizon to horizon.

As the satellite passes out of range, the recorded data will be sent to a central station in the United States—some of it transmitted by radio, the rest shipped by plane. There, the information will be evaluated and integrated from day to day.

The monitoring posts will be set up inside the Arctic and Antarctic Circles and at points near the equator. In the polar areas, stations could be at Alaska, southern Greenland and Iceland; and in the south, Shetland Islands, Campbell Island and South Georgia Island. In the Pacific, possible sites are Baker Island, Christmas Island, Hawaii and the Galapagos Islands.

The remaining monitors may be located in Puerto Rico, Bermuda, St. Helena, Liberia, South-West Africa, Ethiopia, Maldive Islands, the Malay Peninsula, the Philippines, northern Australia and New Zealand. These points, all in friendly territory, would form a chain around the earth, catching the satellite’s broadcasts at least once a day.

The monitor stations will be fairly costly, but they’ll come in handy again later, when man is ready to launch the first crew-operated rocket ships for development of a big-manned space station, 1,075 miles from the earth.

The cost of the baby satellite project will be absorbed into the four-billion-dollar 10-year program to establish the bigger satellite. We scientists can have the baby rocket within five to seven years if we begin work now. Five years later, we could have the manned space station.

One of the monitoring posts will view the last moments of the baby space station. As the weeks pass, the satellite, dragging against the thin air, will drop lower and lower in its orbit. When it descends into fairly dense air, its skin will be heated by friction, causing the temperature to rise within the animal compartments. At last, a thermostat will set off an electric relay which triggers a capsule containing a quick-acting lethal gas. The monkeys will die instantly and painlessly. Soon afterward, the telemetering equipment will go silent, as the rush of air rips away the solar mirrors which provide power, and the baby space station will begin to glow cherry red. Then suddenly the satellite will disappear in a long white streak of brilliant light—marking the spectacular finish of man’s first step in the conquest of space.•

Months before America sent its first astronaut into space in 1961 and kicked the race to the moon into another gear, a chimpanzee named Ham departed Earth on a Mercury mission. Thankfully, he wasn’t gassed. Trained beginning in 1959 with behaviorist methods, Ham was not only a passenger but also performed small tasks during his suborbital flight. In the NASA photo above, Ham shakes hands with his rescuer aboard the U.S.S. Donner, after his 16-minute mission was successfully completed and he plunged back to his home. The famous chimp lived until 1983 and is buried at the International Space Hall of Fame in New Mexico. The following video tells his saga.

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It’s no secret that avuncular cryptkeeper Stephen King is on the left politically, feeling the greatest horror of all is opportunists cloaked in faux religion and patriotism. As you might imagine, the current Halloween parade of GOP candidates has left him dismayed. From Angela S. Allan’s Los Angeles Review of Books Q&A with the author:

Question:

You’ve also been very outspoken in your nonfiction on issues like gun control and taxation. Do you think of your novels as making political statements?

Stephen King:

I always get some letters from some people who are disgruntled because they feel like the right wing has been dissed and that’s probably true. I’ve been left of center my entire life. Well, not entirely. My wife will tell you that I voted for Richard Nixon in 1968 in the first election I could vote in, because Richard Nixon said he planned to get us out of Vietnam. Tabby will say, “And Steve believed him!” Well, I did! Nixon would say, “Yes, I have this plan, but it wouldn’t be proper to say anything before the election.” So, I voted for him and his plan was to escalate things further.

I got more and more radicalized. My politics have described a course of being somewhere on the right. Because I grew up in Maine, all my folks were Republicans. They swore by the Republican Party and they swore at the Democrats. Vietnam radicalized me. It radicalized a lot of kids. Never to the point where I joined SDS or burned buildings or anything like that, but I understood the people who did. And I’m still left of center. There are still things on the right-wing side that make me crazy. You know, especially the people who profess to be Christians. I just can’t understand the double standard.

What makes me particularly crazy is that you’ll see these Republican candidates, and Ben Carson is the worst. He talks about the national debt and he talks about how our grandchildren are going to inherit this debt. All of these guys talk about their grandchildren when it’s about money. None of them talk about them when it comes to the environment and how their grandchildren are all going to be wearing fucking gas masks. That makes me crazy.•

 

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In his NYRB piece “What Libraries Can (Still) Do” James Gleick takes a hopeful view of a foundering institution, seeing a 2.0 life for those formerly vaunted knowledge centers, once-liberating forces now chiefly a collection of dusty rooms offering short blocks of free computer-terminal time to those lacking a wi-fi connection. I wish I could share his cautious optimism, but the inefficiency inherent in a library search seems a deal breaker in this age.

Gleick references John Palfrey’s manifesto BiblioTech (which he probably didn’t borrow from a library) in urging these erstwhile knowledge storehouses to become stewards and curators rather than trying to be exhaustive collections. That sounds right, but Palfrey’s assertion that “our attention cannot be bought and sold in a library” is a truth that ignores a bigger truth: That’s the very thing our transactional souls seem to want. We’ll sell our attention–our privacy, even–if the return is something that flatters or conveniences us.

From Gleick:

Is the library, storehouse and lender of books, as anachronistic as the record store, the telephone booth, and the Playboy centerfold? Perversely, the most popular service at some libraries has become free Internet access. People wait in line for terminals that will let them play solitaire and Minecraft, and librarians provide coffee. Other patrons stay in their cars outside just to use the Wi-Fi. No one can be happy with a situation that reduces the library to a Starbucks wannabe.

Perhaps worst of all: the “bookless library” is now a thing. You can look it up in Wikipedia.

I’m an optimist. I think the pessimists and the worriers—and this includes some librarians—are taking their eyes off the ball. The library has no future as yet another Internet node, but neither will it relax into retirement as an antiquarian warehouse. Until our digital souls depart our bodies for good and float away into the cloud, we retain part citizenship in the physical world, where we still need books, microfilm, diaries and letters, maps and manuscripts, and the experts who know how to find, organize, and share them.

In the midst of an information explosion, librarians are still the most versatile information specialists we have. And the purest. In his new book, BiblioTech, a wise and passionate manifesto, John Palfrey reminds us that the library is the last free space for the gathering and sharing of knowledge: “Our attention cannot be bought and sold in a library.” As a tradition barely a century and a half old in the United States, it gives physical form to the principle that public access to knowledge is the foundation of democracy.•

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When a small child, I thought Peter Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove character was based on Henry Kissinger, not yet understanding of the chronology involved. He certainly seemed a fictional character, and one who could not have existed in the same way at any other time but during the Cold War, when information-gathering was far less than ideal and bold strokes based on half-knowledge seemed (to some) necessary.

Tom Carson has written an excellent Barnes & Noble review of Niall Ferguson’s 1000-page biography (part one!) of Nixon’s urbane henchman, a book that is frankly not yet on my must-read list and may never make it there, given the brevity of life. Carson judges the title absorbing if not unbiased (Kissinger sought out Ferguson to write his story), reminding that while the erstwhile Secretary of State was despised by the Left, he also wasn’t liked or trusted by the Right, and his often grandiose attempts at diplomacy have had ramifications for better and worse ever since. The opening:

Still craggily with us at age ninety-two, which certainly puts him one-up on countless Vietnamese, Cambodians, Chileans, and Bangladeshis in no position to volunteer their opinions of his foreign policy skills, Henry Kissinger isn’t someone too many people have ever been able to view with equanimity. Between early 1969 and early 1977, first as Richard Nixon’s uncommonly prominent NSC adviser and then as secretary of state under both Nixon and Gerald Ford, he was a figure unique in our history: a self-styled geopolitical maestro whose cachet exceeded that of the presidents he nominally worked for. If that often left Nixon seething — something he had a lot of practice at, of course — poor Ford, a newbie at international affairs when Nixon’s Watergate-driven resignation parked him in the Oval Office, didn’t have much choice except to keep Henry plummily running the show.

It’s a backhanded tribute to Kissinger’s mystique that even his enemies end up aggrandizing “the American Metternich” — his standard appellation back then, though maybe not in the Appalachians — as the ultimate wicked mastermind. If you ask almost any leftist of a certain vintage, he’s plainly destined to end up sharing a lake of fire with Darth Vader and Lord Voldemort. Nixon is despised, occasionally pitied, and sometimes cautiously respected, Ford is a historical nullity — but Kissinger? Kissinger is clammily loathed, as Hillary Clinton was reminded by the liberal old guard’s “Say it ain’t so” groans when Obama’s new secretary of state publicly embraced her most notorious predecessor.

Nobody ever calls him a mediocrity, although perhaps they should.•

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Far fewer American children are playing tackle football in recent years, which might seem a very sane reaction to knowledge about brain injuries caused by the sport, but, in fact, participation in all youth athletics around the country is off by surprising numbers. Where have all the children gone?

Most of them have their heads inside a different type of cloud, the information kind. It’s certainly a life lived more virtually by everyone, but children today are on the front lines of an indoors revolution, Huck Finn now a hologram, and it’s almost strange when you encounter them playing in the streets. In this new arrangement, something’s gained and something’s lost.

In Andrew Holter’s Paris Review Q&A with Luc Sante, the great writer speaks to this point while discussing his latest book about low life, The Other Paris. The opening:

Question:

Flaneurie is a huge part of The Other Paris—you call the flaneur the “exemplar of this book.” Since flaneurs have been the truest historians of Paris, did you find the act of walking at all important to your research? For as much consideration as you give to the social consequences of the built environment, it seems like a dérive or two might go a long way toward finding the essence of Paris from “the accumulated mulch of the city itself,” to borrow a phrase from Low Life.

Luc Sante:

When I wasn’t at the movies, I was walking. I walked all over the city, repeatedly—I kept journals of my walks, which are actually just lists of the sequences of streets. Even though the city isn’t as interesting as it once was—modern construction and commercial real-estate practices have wiped out so much of the old eccentricity—there are still hidden corners and ornery survivals, and of course the topography is such a determinant. New York City is more or less flat and what isn’t was mostly leveled long ago, so it’s missing that aspect of accommodation to hills and valleys and plateaux, not to mention the laying out of streets on a human scale long before urban planning scaled things to the demands of machines.

Question:

You describe the “intimacy” of cities up until a century ago, even cities the size of Paris, when by default a person’s neighborhood was fundamental to every part of her life, before the phenomenon of commuting and, most crucial of all, “where the absence of voice- and image-bearing devices in the home caused people to spend much more of their time on the street.” Does it distress you that cities have lost that intimacy? You don’t have much patience for nostalgia.

Luc Sante:

I do regret the passing of that intimacy. It was chipped away in increments, by cars, television, chain stores, fear—parental fears of children’s autonomy, “fear of crime,” et cetera—commercial and residential zoning, highway construction, urban renewal, escalating rents, the takeover by corporations of almost all the formerly owner-operated small businesses—groceries, drugstores, coffee shops, stationers, haberdashers, even bodegas. The last bastions of strictly neighborhood commerce are being rapidly decimated by chains these days. And then personal computers, which definitively drove people indoors. The single most jarring of all these changes for me, because so sudden and so absolute after millennia, is the disappearance of children playing in the streets—but then again that’s not confined to cities. I can’t imagine childhood without having the freedom to roam whatever town you’re in.•

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I don’t think there’s ever been a richer time for books of all kinds than right now. Perhaps that’s just the loudest crack of thunder before the skies dry up, but I would bet not. The traditional publishing business being disturbed has welcomed in many more voices, and while it’s difficult for a single title to fully permeate the culture, there so much more variety whether we’re talking fiction or nonfiction.

In Part II of their conversation published in the New York Review of Books, President Obama and Marilynne Robinson speak to the fears that the novel’s place in the culture is diminishing. The author believes fiction is bursting with variety now, while the President worries about narrowcasting. One thing I’ll say about Obama linking great fiction to great empathy is that there are some very well-read people who have little of the latter. An excerpt:

President Obama:

Are you somebody who worries about people not reading novels anymore? And do you think that has an impact on the culture? When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.

And so I wonder when you’re sitting there writing longhand in some—your messy longhand somewhere—so I wonder whether you feel as if that same shared culture is as prevalent and as important in the lives of people as it was, say, when you were that little girl in Idaho, coming up, or whether you feel as if those voices have been overwhelmed by flashier ways to pass the time.

Marilynne Robinson:

I’m not really the person—because I’m almost always talking with people who love books.

President Obama:

Right. You sort of have a self-selecting crew.

Marilynne Robinson:

And also teaching writers—I’m quite aware of the publication of new writers. I think—I mean, the literature at present is full to bursting. No book can sell in that way that Gone with the Wind sold, or something like that. But the thing that’s wonderful about it is that there’s an incredible variety of voices in contemporary writing. You know people say, is there an American tradition surviving in literature, and yes, our tradition is the incredible variety of voices….

And [now] you don’t get the conversation that would support the literary life. I think that’s one of the things that has made book clubs so popular.•

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The Dallas Cowboys under GM Tex Schramm and control-freak coach Tom Landry favored bleeding-edge technological, computer and neuropsychological systems, but according to psychiatrist Dr. Arnold Mandell’s The Nightmare Season, the San Diego Chargers of 1973 were hopped up on drugs intended to produce “rageful football syndrome.” Whenever anybody talks about the good old days when sports were “clean,” realize they’re being nostalgic for a yesterday that never actually existed.

From Barbara Wilkins’ 1976 People profile of the shrink and his controversial book:

I’ve tried every drug except cocaine,” says Dr. Arnold Mandell. “LSD? An incredibly beautiful, insightful experience. Lithium? It takes my bright edge off. Heroin? Just like morphine, a cosmically sensual experience. Marijuana? Not that interesting.”

Because Mandell, a psychiatrist, is a prominent researcher into brain chemistry and psychopharmacology, his experiments with dangerous drugs are understandable. But it is not so easy to comprehend why Dr. Mandell ever got involved professionally with the San Diego Chargers.

Actually, Mandell first became interested in football because of his son, Ross, now 13, and he was also a social friend of Chargers owner Gene Klein. And in 1972 San Diego was having such a miserable season that coach Harland Svare was willing to try anything. He asked Mandell to become resident shrink for a team which then included Duane Thomas, the All-Pro recluse, and Tim Rossovich, the linebacker notorious for eating glass. Observing the players close up, Mandell (who insisted that he not be paid) says he discovered that they were typecast: those who played on offense were conservative and more disciplined; most defensive players were free spirits.

Mandell also learned how much some team members depended on amphetamines. “Doc,” one player told him, “I’m not about to go out there against a guy who’s grunting and drooling and comin’ at me with big dilated pupils unless I’m in the same condition.”

Mandell says that 50 to 60 percent of the Chargers used drugs to produce “the rageful football syndrome.” But he argues, “This was not drug abuse. There was great self-discipline. They hated it, but it was drug use for function. Nobody used it off season.”

If Mandell had kept his ruminations to himself, he might still have friends on the team. Instead he wrote a book, The Nightmare Season, out this month, portions of which were published in a San Diego newspaper. His erstwhile friend Gene Klein says, “The book is totally inaccurate. It’s full of lies and innuendos.” And when Harland Svare was fired as general manager, he blamed Mandell’s book for “destroying my credibility” and vowed to “pursue all remedies available.”

“I love Gene,” psychiatrist Mandell says, “I love Harland. If they can’t see the love in the book, it makes me crazy.” The National Football League did not see it either, apparently, and banned Mandell unofficially from NFL locker rooms for life, as well as fining Klein, Svare and eight San Diego players.•

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Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s dad, was the cool, cosmopolitan Prime Minister of Canada for all but ten months from 1968 to 1984, a relatively hip media sensation, one who would receive visits from John & Yoko as well as heads of state. Part of the fun of his second administration was watching him try to contain his frustration when in close proximity to American President Ronald Reagan. It wasn’t easy. From a 1982 UPI report about an interview David Frost conducted with Trudeau, who spoke of his children:

Trudeau said his political legacy to Canada would be patriation of the constitution, the National Energy Progam and his stand on the relation of rich to poor nations.

He said his greatest professional achievement was political longevity.

“It is an achievement, I think, in this turbulent society and changing world … to have managed to keep our party, with its values hopefully corresponding to the Canadian general will, a long time in office,” he said.

In the interview, Trudeau also spoke reservedly about his own talents.

“I realized that I wasn’t among the geniuses and I’d have to work harder if I wanted to perform with some degree of excellence,” Trudeau said. “I certainly realized I wasn’t very handsome nor very strong physically or strong in a health sense.”

The prime minister, 62, spoke of his ‘joy’ at becoming a father. “I want to see these young boys grow up into pre-teenagers, and then teenagers, and hopefully beyond, and give them the time they deserve,” he said.

“I realize that the longer I wait, the less they will need me, and less I will be able to give them.”•

Trudeau on responding to personal attacks in a 1972 interview.

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In 1969, computer-processing magnate Ross Perot had a McLuhan-ish dream: an electronic town hall in which interactive television and computer punch cards would allow the masses, rather than elected officials, to decide key American policies. In 1992, he held fast to this goal–one that was perhaps more democratic than any society could survive–when he bankrolled his own populist third-party Presidential campaign. The opening ofPerot’s Vision: Consensus By Computer,” a New York Times article from that year by the late Michael Kelly:

WASHINGTON, June 5— Twenty-three years ago, Ross Perot had a simple idea.

The nation was splintered by the great and painful issues of the day. There had been years of disorder and disunity, and lately, terrible riots in Los Angeles and other cities. People talked of an America in crisis. The Government seemed to many to be ineffectual and out of touch.

What this country needed, Mr. Perot thought, was a good, long talk with itself.

The information age was dawning, and Mr. Perot, then building what would become one of the world’s largest computer-processing companies, saw in its glow the answer to everything. One Hour, One Issue

Every week, Mr. Perot proposed, the television networks would broadcast an hourlong program in which one issue would be discussed. Viewers would record their opinions by marking computer cards, which they would mail to regional tabulating centers. Consensus would be reached, and the leaders would know what the people wanted.

Mr. Perot gave his idea a name that draped the old dream of pure democracy with the glossy promise of technology: “the electronic town hall.”

Today, Mr. Perot’s idea, essentially unchanged from 1969, is at the core of his ‘We the People’ drive for the Presidency, and of his theory for governing.

It forms the basis of Mr. Perot’s pitch, in which he presents himself, not as a politician running for President, but as a patriot willing to be drafted ‘as a servant of the people’ to take on the ‘dirty, thankless’ job of rescuing America from “the Establishment,” and running it.

In set speeches and interviews, the Texas billionaire describes the electronic town hall as the principal tool of governance in a Perot Presidency, and he makes grand claims: “If we ever put the people back in charge of this country and make sure they understand the issues, you’ll see the White House and Congress, like a ballet, pirouetting around the stage getting it done in unison.”

Although Mr. Perot has repeatedly said he would not try to use the electronic town hall as a direct decision-making body, he has on other occasions suggested placing a startling degree of power in the hands of the television audience.

He has proposed at least twice — in an interview with David Frost broadcast on April 24 and in a March 18 speech at the National Press Club — passing a constitutional amendment that would strip Congress of its authority to levy taxes, and place that power directly in the hands of the people, in a debate and referendum orchestrated through an electronic town hall.•

A 1992 NBC News report on the unlikely popularity of Perot’s third-party candidacy for the White House.

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In Lauren Weiner’s 2012 New Atlantis article about Ray Bradbury, she provided a tidy description of the Space Age sage’s youthful education:

Bradbury spent his childhood goosing his imagination with the outlandish. Whenever mundane Waukegan was visited by the strange or the offbeat, young Ray was on hand. The vaudevillian magician Harry Blackstone came through the industrial port on Lake Michigan’s shore in the late 1920s. Seeing Blackstone’s show over and over again marked Bradbury deeply, as did going to carnivals and circuses, and watching Hollywood’s earliest horror offerings like Dracula and The Phantom of the Opera. He read heavily in Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Edgar Allan Poe, H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, L. Frank Baum, and Edgar Rice Burroughs; the latter’s inspirational and romantic children’s adventure tales earned him Bradbury’s hyperbolic designation as “probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world.”

Then there was the contagious enthusiasm of Bradbury’s bohemian, artistic aunt and his grandfather, Samuel, who ran a boardinghouse in Waukegan and instilled in Bradbury a kind of wonder at modern life. He recounted: “When I was two years old I sat on his knee and he had me tickle a crystal with a feathery needle and I heard music from thousands of miles away. I was right then and there introduced to the birth of radio.”

His family’s temporary stay in Arizona in the mid-1920s and permanent relocation to Los Angeles in the 1930s brought Bradbury to the desert places that he would later reimagine as Mars. As a high-schooler he buzzed around movie and radio stars asking for autographs, briefly considered becoming an actor, and wrote and edited science fiction “fanzines” just as tales of robots and rocket ships were gaining in popularity in wartime America. He befriended the staffs of bicoastal pulp magazines like Weird Tales,Thrilling Wonder StoriesDime Mystery, and Captain Future by bombarding them with submissions, and, when those were rejected, with letters to the editor. This precocity was typical. Science fiction and “fantasy” — a catchall term for tales of the supernatural that have few or no fancy machines in them — drew adolescent talent like no other sector of American publishing. Isaac Asimov was in his late teens when he began writing for genre publications; Ursula K. Le Guin claimed to have sent in stories from the age of eleven.•

Groucho Marx sasses Bradbury on You Bet Your Life in 1955.

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Despite being witness to the murderous Orwellian circus that is contemporary North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee, who escaped that insane state as a teenager and has authored the book The Girl With Seven Names, believes the two Koreas will eventually reunite, free of tyranny. She told Michael Rundle of Wired UK of her experiences. An excerpt:

“North Koreans are tragically oppressed,” she said. “Despite the risks to my personal safety I feel a strong obligation to tell the world about the Orwellian nightmare that North Koreans face.”

That nightmare leaves North Koreans unable to rely on anyone, she said — including each other. “We have to learn that we can’t trust anyone […] classmates are forced to report on each other and spy on each other […] Someone will hear you. The walls have ears and the fields have eyes [my mother] said,” Lee told WIRED 2015.

“We are forced to watch public executions. I watched my first one at the age of seven as I watched a man hanging by his neck from a bridge […] Due to hate, fear and oppression the North Koreans cannot help themselves.”

In a harrowing description of her former home, Lee described a process by which young girls were routinely forced to perform and be judged by the state, to compile a “pleasure group” for the leader and regime — effectively to serve as sexual slaves.•

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Overpromising is cruel.

In technology and science, you see it especially in the area of life extension. The fountain of youth has been with us ever since people had time to stop and ponder, but the irrational rhetoric has grown louder since gerontologist Aubrey de Grey said in 2004 that “the first person to live to 1,000 might be 60 already.” What nonsense. I’m all in favor of working toward longer and healthier lives, but there’s no need to overheat the subject.

When it comes to a Singularitarian paradise of conscious machines, Ray Kurzweil’s pronouncements have ranged further and further into science fiction, promising superintelligence in a couple of decades. That’s not happening. Again, working toward such goals is worthwhile, but thinking that tomorrow is today is a sure way to disappoint.

Weak AI (non-conscious machines capable of programmed tasks) is the immediate challenge, with robots primed to devour jobs long handled by humans. That doesn’t mean we endure mass technological unemployment, but it could mean that. In a Nature review of three recent books on the topic (titles by John Markoff + Martin FordDavid A. Mindell), Ken Goldberg takes a skeptical look at our machine overlords. An excerpt:

Rise of the Robots by software entrepreneur Martin Ford proclaims that AI and robots are about to eliminate most jobs, blue- and white-collar. A close reading reveals the evidence as extremely sketchy. Ford has swallowed the rhetoric of futurist Ray Kurzweil, and repeatedly asserts that we are on the brink of vastly accelerating advances based on Moore’s law, which posits that computing power increases exponentially with time. Yet some computer scientists rue this exponential fallacy, arguing that the success of integrated circuits has raised expectations of progress far beyond what historians of technology recognize as an inevitable flattening of the growth curve.

Nor do historical trends support the Luddite fallacy, which assumes that there is a fixed lump of work and that technology inexorably creates unemployment. Such reasoning fails to consider compensation effects that create new jobs, or myriad relevant factors such as globalization and the democratization of the workforce. Ford describes software systems that attempt to do the work of attorneys, project managers, journalists, computer programmers, inventors and musicians. But his evidence that these will soon be perfected and force massive lay-offs consists mostly of popular magazine articles and, in one case, a conversation with the marketing director of a start-up.•

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Donald Trump, a nest of rats wearing a power tie, is a self-made man, if you don’t count a huge inheritance, massive bank bailouts and government-sponsored land grabs. From Deborah Friedell’s London Review of Books piece about Michael D’Antonio’s Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success:

“I have made myself very rich,” Trump says (over and over again). “I would make this country very rich.” That’s why he should be president. He insists that he’s the ‘most successful man ever to run’, never mind the drafters of the constitution or the supreme commander of the allied forces. Bloomberg puts Trump’s current net worth at $2.9 billion, Forbes at $4.1 billion. The National Journal has worked out that if Trump had just put his father’s money in a mutual fund that tracked the S&P 500 and spent his career finger-painting, he’d have $8 billion. Wisely, D’Antonio refrains from offering an estimate of Trump’s net worth. When Timothy O’Brien, a New York Times journalist, suggested in Trump Nation (2005) that Trump probably wasn’t a billionaire at all, he was sued for libel. The case was eventually thrown out, as Trump must have known it would be, but O’Brien’s publisher is thought to have spent much more money defending the book than it could have made.

It’s not just vanity that requires Trump to claim that all his deals make gazillions: his current business requires it. Even when his projects fail – his golf course in Aberdeenshire, to take one example, has lost £3.5 million over the last two years – he makes money through letting other people put his name on their projects: no risk, little work, just a licensing fee upfront or a share of the profits. He doesn’t actually own the Trump Taj Mahal or Trump Palace or Trump Place or Trump Plaza or Trump Park Avenue or Trump Soho, or the many Trump buildings throughout South America, Turkey, South Korea and the Caucasus. Developers buy the use of his name because enough customers believe in it: “It’s not even a question of ego. It’s just that my name makes everything more successful,” he says. And so there have been Trump board games and phone contracts, credit cards, mattresses, deodorants, chocolate bars that look like gold bars, cologne sold only by Macy’s (“Success by Trump“). He made $200 million over 14 seasons by being the star of The Apprentice, playing “Donald Trump.” the richest, tycooniest man in the world. Between 2005 and 2010, Trump made more than $40 million from thousands of students who enrolled in entrepreneurship classes at “Trump University.” Some say it was a scam, and many of them have joined class action lawsuits to get their money back (one says that “for my $35,000+ all I got was books that I could have gotten from the library”). The attorney general of New York has filed a lawsuit against Trump for fraud.•

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Marilynne Robinson (the writer) and Barack Obama (the President) are the type of people I’m happy if surprised America still turns out. They seem of this time but of another as well, with a sense of history that feels as if it’s being rapidly churned out of the collective memory. 

In a conversation that took place recently in Iowa, and is now being published in two parts in the New York Review of Books (read part one), the pair have a wide-ranging talk, touching on many topics, including how fear–and the exploitation of it–is a large part of the contemporary political discourse. Obama, despite having his Administration and supporters mentioned in the same breath as slavery and Nazism by Ben Carson alone, is confident the madness will pass. An excerpt:

President Obama:

Why did you decide to write this book of essays? And why was fear an important topic, and how does it connect to some of the other work that you’ve been doing?

Marilynne Robinson:

Well, the essays are actually lectures. I give lectures at a fair rate, and then when I’ve given enough of them to make a book, I make a book.

President Obama:

So you just kind of mash them all together?

Marilynne Robinson:

I do. That’s what I do. But it rationalizes my lecturing, too. But fear was very much—is on my mind, because I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people.

You have to assume that basically people want to do the right thing. I think that you can look around society and see that basically people do the right thing. But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don’t agree with—you know?

President Obama:

Yes.

Marilynne Robinson:

Because [of] the idea of the “sinister other.” And I mean, that’s bad under all circumstances. But when it’s brought home, when it becomes part of our own political conversation about ourselves, I think that that really is about as dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy.

President Obama:

Well, now there’s been that strain in our democracy and in American politics for a long time. And it pops up every so often. I think the argument right now would be that because people are feeling the stresses of globalization and rapid change, and we went through one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression, and the political system seems gridlocked, that people may be particularly receptive to that brand of politics.•

 

 

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