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I’m not on Facebook and once I stop doing this blog, I’ll quit the Twitter account associated with it. My last message will be: “I’d rather be reading than tweeting.”

Social media seems to me an unhappiness machine, mostly keeping us in touch with what we sort of know or what we used to know, distracting us from what we could actually intimately know. It’s a way of connecting people, sure, but not the best or truest way. And that downside that doesn’t even consider trolls, neo-Nazis and fake news.

We can’t go back nor should we, really, though there must be some respite. I don’t see any way we avoid being lowered gradually into the Internet of Things, a Platonovian pit, which will take the machines out of our pockets and put us in theirs, but there can be islands of retreat if we continue to utilize more tactile, lo-fi tools.

In Bill McKibben’s New York Review of Books piece on David Sax’s The Revenge of Analog, the critic writes that “the virtues of digital turn out to be the vices as well,” and who could argue? McKibben focuses mostly on the renewed interest in vinyl and paper and Polaroids, which may prove a passing interest or something more lasting, but in one passage he thinks about education, which may be the most important consideration of all when it comes to digitalization. An excerpt:

Nothing has appealed to digital zealots as much as the idea of “transforming” our education systems with all manner of gadgetry. The “ed tech” market swells constantly, as more school systems hand out iPads or virtual-reality goggles; one of the earliest noble causes of the digerati was the One Laptop Per Child global initiative, led by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte, a Garibaldi of the Internet age. The OLPC crew raised stupendous amounts of money and created machines that could run on solar power or could be cranked by hand, and they distributed them to poor children around the developing world, but alas, according to Sax, “academic studies demonstrated no gain in academic achievement.” Last year, in fact, the OECD reported that “students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes.”

At the other end of the educational spectrum from African villages, the most prestigious universities on earth have been busy putting courses on the Web and building MOOCs, “massive open online courses.” Sax misses the scattered successes of these ventures, often courses in computer programming or other technical subjects that aren’t otherwise available in much of the developing world. But he’s right that many of these classes have failed to engage the students who sign up, most of whom drop out.

Even those who stay the course “perform worse, and learn less, than [their] peers who are sitting in a school listening to a teacher talking in front of a blackboard.” Why this is so is relatively easy to figure out: technologists think of teaching as a delivery system for information, one that can and should be profitably streamlined. But actual teaching isn’t about information delivery—it’s a relationship. As one Stanford professor who watched the MOOCs expensively tank puts it, “A teacher has a relationship with a group of students. It is those independent relationships that is the basis of learning. Period.”•

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As the Obama Presidency comes to a close, let’s remember for a moment one example of the ridiculous double standard he often faced, a criticism lodged in 2014 by Bill O’Reilly, who recently had sexual harassment allegations against him settled by Fox.

When the President went on Zach Galifianakis’ faux talk show “Between Two Ferns” to promote enrollment in Obamacare, legislation that has improved the lives of millions of Americans and created many well-paying jobs, O’Reilly accused Obama of besmirching the honor of the White House, declaring that “Abe Lincoln would not have done it.” 

But the fake-news host was happy during this election to throw his support behind a Reality TV buffoon and sexual predator who made fun of disabled people and our POWs. Imagine what he would have said about Obama if he’d fit any of those descriptions.

Additionally, O’Reilly’s claim about Lincoln couldn’t have been more inaccurate based on history. Honest Abe was a wonderful Commander-in-Chief who happened to have some deeply gross habits.

Excerpts about some of those peculiar behaviors from Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years:

Judged cockfights:

The Clary’s Grove boys called on [Lincoln] sometimes to judge their horse races and cockfights, umpire their matches and settle disputes. One story ran that Lincoln was on hand one day when an old man had agreed, for a gallon jug of whisky, to be rolled down a hill in a barrel. And Lincoln talked and laughed them out of doing it. He wasn’t there on the day, as D.W Burner told it, when the gang took an old man with a wooden leg, built a fire around the wooden leg, and held the man down until the wooden leg was burned off.

Wrestled for the entertainment of knife-wielding gamblers:

Offut talked big about Lincoln as a wrestler, and Bill Clary, who ran a saloon thirty steps north of the Offut store, bet Offut that Lincoln couldn’t throw Jack Armstrong, the Clary’s Grove champion. Sports from miles around came to a level square next to Offut’s store to see the match; bets of money, knives, trinkets, tobacco, drinks were put up, Armstrong, short and powerful, aimed from the first to get in close to his man and use his thick muscular strength. Lincoln held him off with long arms, wore down his strength, got him out of breath, surprised and “rattled.” They pawed and clutched in many holds and twists till Lincoln threw Armstrong and had both shoulders to the grass.

Drank whiskey from bungholes:

When a small gambler tricked Bill Greene, Lincoln’s helper at the store, Lincoln told Bill to bet him the best fur hat in the store that he [Lincoln] could lift a barrel of whisky from the floor and hold it while he took a drink from the bunghole. Bill hunted up the gambler and made the bet. Lincoln sat squatting on the floor, lifted the barrel, rolled it on his knees till the bunghole reached his mouth, took a mouthful, let the barrel down–and stood up and spat out the whisky.

Pressed barefoot boys’ muddy soles to the ceiling:

He put barefoot boys to wading in a mud puddle near the home trough, pulled them up one by one, carried them to the house upside down, and walked their muddy feet across the ceiling. The stepmother came in, laughed at their foot tracks, told Abe he ought to be spanked–and he cleaned the ceiling so that it looked new.•

Barack Obama is a poet, but Marilynne Robinson is a better one.

No offense to 44–I don’t think the Housekeeping author would be nearly as good a President. It’s just that sometimes a poet can see what a politico might overlook, especially one like Obama who rose on positivity even if he governed mostly as a pragmatist. Before winter had arrived in 2015–before it had arrived in America–Obama and Robinson talked literature and faith and nation for the New York Review of Books, and the novelist knew something ugly was taking hold in a very serious way, that a wall was being built. Like most of us, the President still resisted such a notion. He held on to hope.

I was reminded of this discussion by Michiko Kakutani’s smart New York Times conversation with the outgoing President about the significant role reading has played in his life.

An excerpt from the 2015 NYRB dialogue:

Marilynne Robinson:

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.

Marilynne Robinson:

But having looked at one another with optimism and tried to facilitate education and all these other things—which we’ve done more than most countries have done, given all our faults—that’s what made it a viable democracy. And I think that we have created this incredibly inappropriate sort of in-group mentality when we really are from every end of the earth, just dealing with each other in good faith. And that’s just a terrible darkening of the national outlook, I think.

President Obama:

We’ve talked about this, though. I’m always trying to push a little more optimism. Sometimes you get—I think you get discouraged by it, and I tell you, well, we go through these moments.

Marilynne Robinson:

But when you say that to me, I say to you, you’re a better person than I am.•

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According to legend, writer William Peter Blatty pretended to be a Saudi prince in the 1950s to get booked on the game show You Bet Your Life. He didn’t fool Groucho but did win $10,000, which helped him jump-start his career.

Blatty, who just died, enjoyed a long, successful run, but during the 1970 to 1973 period, when The Exorcist was a hugely controversial blockbuster as both novel and film, he was on the receiving end of a torrent of congratulations and curses seldom experienced by an American writer. If it wasn’t clear in those times that Blatty was correct and his critics (a mix of Catholic Church leaders and high-toned film critics) were not, it seems fairly obvious now.

In the inaugural 1974 edition of People, Blatty responded to the firestorm over the screen adaptation of The Exorcist. An excerpt in which he hit back at the critical elite, that quaint thing that used to exist before the fans fans stormed the gates. An excerpt:

Question:

How do you feel about some of the most negative reviewers of your film?

William Peter Blatty:

I would like to introduce Pauline Kael of The New Yorker to Father Woods and Father Cortes. They hate the movie because they say it is doing the church no good. Pauline Kael hates the movie because she says it is “the biggest recruiting poster the Catholic Church has had since the sunnier days of Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s.” I would like to put these people in a room together.

Vincent Canby of the New York Times said the film was not made without intelligence or talent. He said this only further infuriated him—that we should have wasted the intelligence, talent, money and budget of a lavish production on what he called elegant claptrap.

Question:

Why are they so negative?

William Peter Blatty:

They belong to a very small, elitist set of reviewers who have been trapped so long in the squirrel cage of their egos that the world of reality outside their cage is a blur. They neither reap nor sow nor perform any useful social function. They are malignant Miles of the field.•


Blatty and Exorcist collaborators Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow and Jason Miller, reconvened in 1984 for Good Morning America.

The French doctor-cum-novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline was always among the most troubling of artists, a brilliant writer and ardent anti-Semite. During the second half of the twentieth century, after the Nazis had been ground into dust, it was less a problem to embrace his brilliance. “Celine was my Proust!” exclaimed Philip Roth. William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Kurt Vonnegut and Henry Miller agreed.

The author’s thorns have sadly again grown as pointy as daggers in this neo-Nazi 2.0 moment, with his old interviews being re-run on viciously bigoted websites with Hitler-appropriate names. His greatness shouldn’t be denied, but his awfulness shouldn’t be forgotten.

In the 1934 Brooklyn Daily Eagle review of Journey to the End of the Night, his bruising, misanthropic war novel, George Currie writes of the rare level of fascination and controversy the book provoked in France.


A spectral, dissipated Céline cries during a 1957 TV interview. The following year, desperate for money as he always seemed to be, the author reluctantly allowed a re-issue of Journey, penning a preface in which he suggested the book’s graphic nature was the sole reason for the enmity he encountered, not at all acknowledging the role his numerous anti-Semitic tracts played.

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Had time during the New Year’s break to read eight books. That always makes me feel happy. Included among the titles were Annie Baker’s 2013 play, The Flick, which is about the million tiny muggings that occur among otherwise decent people when technology shifts, money grows scarce and lines are drawn; Zero K, an interesting if not top-shelf DeLillo, though it’s awfully difficult for a prophet in these breakneck days; and Henry Miller’s 1940s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, in which the expat author returns to his native land to occasionally admire the beauty but to mostly spit on the dirt. 

I really enjoyed the latter title, except for the author’s boneheaded appreciation for great things that a slave culture can produce. Nightmare, a bookend to his later nonfiction tour de force Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, is perhaps best known for its piece about Weeks Hall’s New Iberia mansion, Shadows-on-the-Teche, but I’m partial to “A Desert Rat,” “With Edgard Varèse in the Gobi Desert” and “Hiler and His Murals.” 

Here are three passages of Miller’s darkest, most apocalyptic thoughts about humanity as it moved into a modern, technological age, the first two from the books’ preface and the third from the Varèse chapter:

As to whether I have been deceived, disillusioned…The answer is yes, I suppose. I had the misfortune to be nourished by the dreams and visions of great Americans–the poets and seers. Some other breed of man has won out. This world which is in the making fills me with dread. I have seen it germinate; I can read it like a blue-print. It is not a world I want to live in. It is a world suited for monomaniacs obsessed with the idea of progress–but a false progress, a progress which stinks. It is a world cluttered with useless objects which men and women, in order to be exploited and degraded, are taught to regard as useful. The dreamer whose dreams are non-utilitarian has no place in this world. Whatever does not lend itself to being bought and sold, whether in the realm of things, ideas, principles, dreams or hopes, is debarred. In this world the poet is anathema, the thinker a fool, the artist as escapist, the man of vision a criminal. …

Disney works fast–like greased lightning. That’s how we’ll all operate soon. What we dream we become. We’ll get the knack of it soon. We’ll learn how to annihilate the whole planet in the wink of an eye–just wait and see. ..

To-morrow all that we take for granted may wear a new face. New York may come to resemble Petra, the cursed city of Arabia. The corn fields may look like a desert. The inhabitants of our cities may be obliged to take to the woods and grub for food on all fours, like animals. It is not impossible. It is even quite probable. No part of this planet is immune once the spirit of self-destruction takes hold. The great organism called Society may break down into molecules and atoms; there may not be a vestige of any social form which could be called a body. What we call “society” may become one interrupted dissonance for which no resolving chord will ever be found. That too is possible.

We know only a small fraction of the history of man on this earth. It is a long, tedious painful record of catastrophic changes involving the disappearance of whole continents sometimes. We tell the story as though man were an innocent victim, a helpless participant in the erratic and unpredictable revolutions of Nature. Perhaps in the past he was. But not any longer. Whatever happens to this earth to-day is of man’s doing. Man has demonstrated that he is master of everything–except of his own nature. If yesterday he was a child of nature, to-day he is a responsible creature. He has reached a point of consciousness which permits him to lie to himself no longer. Destruction is now deliberate, voluntary, self-induced. We are at the node: we can go forward or relapse. We still have the power of choice. To-morrow we may not. It is because we refuse to make the choice that we are ridden with guilt, all of us, those who are making war and those who are not. We are all filled with murder. We loathe one another. We hate what we look like when we look into one another’s eyes. 

What is the magic word for this moment?•

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Mentioned Freeman Dyson’s “Astrochicken” idea in the “Afflictor’s 50 Great 2016 Nonfiction Pieces” post and just realized last year was the one the physicist targeted for the realization this tiny spacecraft that would be not built but grown. Well, most futurists are too aggressive with their time frames. Still nothing theoretically impossible about it.

First encountered the thought experiment in Infinite in All Directions, a template of sorts for all Dyson’s great science-fiction-ish essays and lectures that were to follow (though he first proposed this noveau spacecraft in 1979’s Disturbing the Universe). In reviewing Infinite in the New York Times, Roger Penrose wrote: “His centerpiece is a one-kilogram spacecraft ‘astrochicken,’ which will be ready to launch in 2016. It will not be built but grown by the use of genetic engineering, and it will depend on artificial intelligence and solar-electric propulsion for its operation. Accompanying it will be a ‘Martian potato,’ a ‘comet creeper’ and a ‘space butterfly.'”

An excerpt:

The basic idea of Astrochicken is that the spacecraft will be small and quick. I do not believe that a fruitful future for space science lies along the path we are now following, with space missions growing larger and larger and fewer and fewer and slower and slower as the decades go by. I propose a radical step in the direction of smallness and quickness. Astrochicken will weigh a kilogram instead of Voyager’s ton, and it will travel from Earth into orbit around Uranus in two years instead {197} of Voyager’s nine. The spacecraft must be far more versatile than Voyager. It must land on each of Uranus’ moons, roam around on their surfaces, see where it is going, taste the stuff it is walking on, take off into space again, and navigate around Uranus until it decides to make a landing somewhere else. To do all this with a 1-kilogram spacecraft sounds crazy to people who have to work and plan within the constraints of today’s technology. Perhaps it will still be crazy in 2016. Perhaps not. I am dreaming of the new technologies which might make such a crazy mission possible.

Three kinds of new technology are needed. All three are likely to become available for use by the year 2016. All three are already here in embryonic form and are advanced far enough to have names. Their names are genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and solar-electric propulsion. Genetic engineering is fundamental. It is the essential tool required in order to design a 1-kilogram spacecraft with the capabilities of Voyager. Astrochicken will not be built, it will be grown. It will be organized biologically and its blueprints will be written in the convenient digital language of DNA. It will be a symbiosis of plant and animal and electronic components. The plant component has to provide a basic life-support system using closed-cycle biochemistry with sunlight as the energy source. The animal component has to provide sensors and nerves and muscles with which it can observe and orient itself and navigate to its destination. The electronic component has to receive instructions from Earth and transmit back the results of its observations. During the next thirty years we will be gaining experience in the art of designing biological systems of this sort. We will be learning how to coordinate the three components so that they work smoothly together.

Artificial intelligence is the tool required to integrate the animal and electronic components into a working symbiosis. If the integration is successful, Astrochicken could be as agile as a hummingbird with a brain weighing no more than a gram. The information-handling apparatus is partly neural and partly electronic. An artificial intelligence machine is a computer {198} designed to function like a brain. A computer of this sort will be made compatible with a living nervous system, so that information will flow freely in both directions across the interface between neural and electronic circuits.

The third new technology required for Uranus 2 is solar-electric propulsion. To get from Earth to Uranus in two years requires a speed of 50 kilometers per second, too fast for any reasonable multistage chemical rocket. It is also too fast for solar sails. Nuclear propulsion of any kind is impossible in a 1-kilogram spacecraft. Solar-electric propulsion is the unique system which can economically give a high velocity to a small pay load. In this system, solar energy is collected by a large, thin antenna and converted with modest efficiency into thrust. The spacecraft carries a small ion-jet motor which uses propel-lant sparingly and gives an acceleration of the order of a milligee.

Nobody has yet done the careful engineering development to demonstrate that the energy of sunlight can be converted into thrust with a power-to-weight ratio of 1 kilowatt per kilogram. That is what Uranus 2 needs. But solar-electric propulsion is probably an easier technology to develop than genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. Since I am talking science fiction, I shall assume that all three technologies will be available for our use in 2016. I can then give a rough sketch of the Uranus 2 mission.

The mission begins with a conventional launch taking the spacecraft from Earth into orbit. Since the spacecraft weighs only 1 kilogram, it can easily ride on any convenient launcher. During the launch, the spacecraft is packaged into a compact shape, and the biological components are busy reorganizing themselves for life in space. During this phase the spacecraft is a fertilized egg, externally inert but internally alive, waiting for the right moment to emerge in the shape of an Astro-chicken. After it is in a low Earth orbit, it will emerge from its package and deploy the life-support apparatus needed for survival in space. It will deploy, or grow, a thin-film solar collector. The collector weighs 100 grams and collects {199} sunlight from an area of 100 square meters. It feeds a kilowatt of power into the little ion-drive engine which sends the spacecraft on its way with a milligee acceleration sustained for several months. This is enough to escape from Earth’s gravity and arrive at Uranus within two years. The same 100-square-meter collector serves as a radio antenna for two-way communication with Earth. This is ten times the area of the Voyager high-gain antenna. For the same rate of information transmitted, the transmitter power of Astrochicken can be ten times smaller than Voyager, 2 watts instead of 20 watts.

The spacecraft arrives at Uranus at 50 kilometers per second and grazes the outer fringe of the Uranus atmosphere. The 100-square-meter solar collector now acts as an efficient atmospheric brake. Because the collector is so light, it is not heated to extreme temperatures as it decelerates. The peak temperature turns out to be about 800 Celsius or 1500 Fahrenheit. The atmospheric braking lasts for about half a minute and produces a peak deceleration of 100 gees. The spacecraft leaves Uranus with speed reduced to 20 kilometers per second and passes near enough to one of the moons to avoid hitting Uranus again. It is then free to navigate around at leisure among the moons and rings. The solar-electric propulsion system, using the feeble sunlight at Uranus, is still able to give the spacecraft an acceleration of a tenth of a milligee, enough to explore the whole Uranus system over a period of a few years.

The spacecraft must now make use of its biological functions to refuel itself. First it navigates to one of the rings and browses there, eating ice and hydrocarbons and replenishing its supply of propellant. If one ring tastes bad it can try another, moving around until it finds a supply of nutrients with the right chemistry for its needs. After eating its fill, it will use its internal metabolic processes with the input of energy from sunlight to convert the food into chemical fuels. Chemical fuels are needed for jumping onto moons and off again. Solar-electric propulsion gives too small a thrust for jumping. The spacecraft carries a small auxiliary chemical rocket system for {200} this purpose. We know that a chemical rocket system is biologically possible, because there exists on the Earth a creature called the Bombardier beetle which uses a chemical rocket to bombard its enemies with a scalding jet of hot liquid. It manufactures chemical fuels within its body and combines them in its rocket chamber to produce the scalding jet. Astrochicken will borrow its chemical rocket system from the Bombardier beetle. The Bombardier beetle system will give it the ability to accelerate with short bursts of high thrust to escape from the feeble gravity of the Uranus moons. The spacecraft may also prefer to use the Bombardier beetle system for jumping quickly from one place to another on a moon rather than walking laboriously over the surface. While living on the surface of a moon, the Astrochicken will continue to eat and to keep the Bombardier beetle fuel tanks filled. From time to time it will transmit messages to Earth informing us about its adventures and discoveries.

That is not the end of my dream, but it is the end of my chapter. I have told enough about the Uranus 2 mission to give the flavor of it. The underlying idea of Uranus 2 is that we should apply to the development of technology the lessons which nature teaches us in the history of the evolution of life. Birds and dinosaurs were cousins, but birds were small and agile while dinosaurs were big and clumsy. Big main-frame computers, nuclear power stations and Space Shuttle are dinosaurs. Microcomputers, STIG gas turbines, Voyager and Astrochicken are birds. The future belongs to the birds. The JPL engineers now have their dreams on board the Voyager speeding on its way to Neptune. I hope the next generation of engineers will have their dreams riding on Uranus 2 in 2016.•

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“Progress isn’t always a straight line,” exclaimed President Obama in the wake of our stunning election, clinging as best he could to the audacious hope that’s always floated him in the past. 

True enough, but two things: 1) Progress isn’t at all guaranteed, not in a jagged course or in any other manner, and 2) During periods of regress, awful things can occur. We seem to be in one of those backwards times now.

From the conclusion of World War II to the day of the 9/11 attacks, Americans had the luxury of exporting violence abroad and controlling and commodifying it at home, with video games and big-screen blockbusters providing blood-soaked entertainment to go with the overpriced popcorn. With the nuclear codes and the Constitution now in the pocket of a man who’s promised to do “unspeakable things,” the gloves might come off and the “games” may begin.

Following up on the Guardian essay Ece Temelkuran penned about the post-truth threat to Europe and America, here’s a piece from a recent Culture Trip Q&A that Simon Leser conducted with the Turkish author:

Question:

Years of repression, an attempted coup, and now an unprecedented crackdown… and all this time the main opposition party (the social-democratic CHP) seems very silent. Two of its most prominent members, Gürsel Tekin and Sezgin Tanrıkulu, came to London last January, and they seemed particularly defeated… to say the least.

Ece Temelkuran:

Yes, this is what they do. I mean, they politely ask the Turkish government to release all those detainees (laughs)… Erdoğan is a brilliant politician, and I mean it, he paralyzed every section of the opposition in just a few years, so I wouldn’t blame the CHP really for not doing enough. The CHP have their own difficult experiences.

For the past 10 years the same thing has been happening to the Turkish intelligentsia and the opposition: They go on TV, say, talking about something, criticizing something — doesn’t matter what — and all of a sudden this AKP guy brings up a completely different subject. For instance: ‘so what are you going to say about your support for the previous coup?’ The answer, of course, is that the conversation isn’t about that. But then the AKP guy goes again: ‘because you don’t want to’. And at some point the presenters turn around, and you have to ask: so are we going to talk about that, change the whole conversation for it? This is extremely ruffling. The opposition has to be on the defensive. This is how they manipulate, and all you’re left with is to ask yourself… what’s happening?

Question:

This sounds similar to the political rhetoric many Western countries have started to see — ’post-truth politics’, as it’s called here. In your book you talk a lot about history being forgotten, is that how you think it got started?

Ece Temelkuran:

I should say that I really think neo-liberalism, at the end of the day, stupefied the whole planet — and this is what you get if you worry about free-market democracy, and only free-market democracy. If the Turkish story goes back to the 1970s, the whole mess for the world started in the 1950s, I think, when they thought it was a brilliant idea to kill all the progressives in the Middle East and Africa. We ended up with all these conservative, right-wing, ignorant masses… You see, progressives weren’t only there to promote socialism, as everybody feared, but they were also the seculars and, as it turns out, the pro-reason faction! Now we’re left with post-truth and post-reason.

Progressives are on the retreat everywhere; intellect is pretty much a failing narrative, and has itself been disappointing. I read this article in the New Yorker a few weeks ago about Voltaire and Rousseau, and it was saying that Voltaire has been defeated by history, whereas Rousseau, who was in a way against elites, is now on the rise. The world is going to be witnessing this anti-elite political discourse much more. And we are seeing the consequences: a gigantic sweeping motion going from south to north, and the European Union countries — Britain as well — experiencing the consequences of the Syrian and refugee crisis; the idea of a uniform world, unipolar world, is not working. But I think it’s kind of too late — I am famous for my pessimism, by the way. I do think that we’re going to be living in a Mad Max kind of world with less, you know, style (laughs).•

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War may seem to favor those with a clear head and steady hand, but strategy is only half the battle. A sense of invincibility must be achieved in the combatants, at least until technology allows all the killing machines to be actual machines.

Human beings are no angels, but genocide and beheading, for instance, are not, thankfully, our default mode. Such heinous courses can be decided on by sober if sinister minds but their commission sometimes requires moods altered either by hysteria and brainwashing or, more simply, pharmaceuticals. The Nazis favored crystal meth and ISIS Captagon, these forms of amphetamine not only helpful with focus and energy but also able to disappear inhibitions.

Crimes against humanity can certainly occur without speed, but oftentimes you’ll find a pervasive drug culture in close proximity to such atrocities. It’s not the source of evil but a way to lubricate the war machine.

An excerpt from “Don’t Fight Sober,” Mike Jay’s London Review of Books piece on new volumes on the topic by Łukasz Kamieński and Norman Ohler:

The unreliable narratives that always build up around illicit drugs are compounded by the fog of war. Exaggeration, doubletalk and disinformation bend reality into mythic shapes. The image of the Captagon-crazed jihadi is reminiscent of the Assassins, whose story was imported to Europe by Marco Polo: they were said to have been brainwashed with a dose of hashish and persuaded by their fanatical leader that suicide missions would be rewarded with an eternity in paradise. Recent scholarship has established that ‘assassins’ (or ‘hashishin’) was a pejorative term applied to them by their enemies: in fact they were a strictly ascetic order whose adherents abstained from all drugs including alcohol. The appeal of the myth is obvious: if the drugs made them do it, their motives require no further investigation. Asked after the Bataclan attacks whether the killers had been on drugs, Montasser Alde’emeh, a Belgian-Palestinian expert on radicalisation, turned the question succinctly on its head: ‘Unfortunately, they don’t need it. Their ideology is their Captagon!’

In Shooting Up, a historical survey of drugs in warfare that grew out of his research into future military applications of biotechnology, Łukasz Kamieński lists some of the obstacles to getting the facts straight. State authorities tend to cloak drug use in secrecy, for tactical advantage and because it frequently conflicts with civilian norms and laws. Conversely it can be exaggerated to strike fear into the enemy, or the enemy’s success and morale can be imputed to it. When drugs are illegal, as they often are in modern irregular warfare, trafficking or consumption is routinely denied. The negative consequences of drug use are covered up or explained away as the result of injury or trauma, and longer-term sequels are buried within the complex of post-traumatic disorders. Soldiers aren’t fully informed of the properties and potency of the drugs they’re consuming. Different perceptions of their role circulate even among participants fighting side by side.

Kamieński confines the use of alcohol in war to his prologue and wisely so, or the rest of the book would risk becoming a footnote to it. A historical sweep from the Battle of Hastings to Waterloo or ancient Greece to Vietnam suggests that war has rarely been fought sober. This is unsurprising in view of the many different functions alcohol performs. It has always been an indispensable battlefield medicine and is still pressed into service today as antiseptic, analgesic, anaesthetic and post-trauma stimulant. It has a central role in boosting morale and small-group bonding; it can facilitate the private management of stress and injury; and it makes sleep possible where noise, discomfort or stress would otherwise prevent it. After the fighting is done, it becomes an aid to relaxation and recovery.

All these functions are subsidiary to its combat role and Kamieński’s particular interest, the extent to which drugs can transform soldiers into superhuman fighting machines.•

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Henry Miller was oft thought of in his time as a smutty writer, and not without reason, though his best work centered on the psychology of individuals, cities and nations.

Case in point: A bravura passage from 1957’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch 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 emergence of a tyranny–or something like it–of technology, which might bring about the end of scarcity and hunger, though he believed we’d crave all the same, perhaps even in a more profound way. Maybe Peter Thiel’s disgraceful political pivot will enable a marriage between the despotism of tech and a government even more autocratic. 

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!•

In 2011, I quoted something from Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels:

The Angels don’t like to be called losers, but they have learned to live with it. “Yeah, I guess I am,” said one. “But you’re looking at one loser who’s going to make a hell of a scene on the way out.”

It’s an odd outcome because the Angels emerged from America’s great triumph in World War II, as it and other motorcycle gangs were formed from the wanderlust of our war vets. But the love of the road turned into hatred for the self, and then, the other.

Five years ago when I published that excerpt, I was more concerned about militias and a scary strain of right-wing backlash that seemed awakened by the election of our first African-American President and gains made by women and other minorities. I never expected those on the fringes to make such gains on the center–to win it. And I’m not exactly someone who spends my idle time at Berkeley cocktail parties.

The ones who wanted to make America white again formed a faction with those who felt adrift in the modern economy, with its wealth inequality and bruising technological shift. The latter group had always looked on others as the “losers” and didn’t want to join them, even if the scoreboard said they already had. Together the haters and the backsliders made a hell of a scene in 2016.

From Susan McWilliams’ Nation piece about Thompson forecasting the rise of Trumpism:

It has been 50 years since Hunter S. Thompson published the definitive book on motorcycle guys: Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. It grew out of a piece first published in The Nation one year earlier. My grandfather, Carey McWilliams, editor of the magazine from 1955 to 1975, commissioned the piece from Thompson—it was the gonzo journalist’s first big break, and the beginning of a friendship between the two men that would last until my grandfather died in 1980. Because of that family connection, I had long known that Hell’s Angels was a political book. Even so, I was surprised, when I finally picked it up a few years ago, by how prophetic Thompson is and how eerily he anticipates 21st-century American politics. This year, when people asked me what I thought of the election, I kept telling them to read Hell’s Angels.

Most people read Hell’s Angels for the lurid stories of sex and drugs. But that misses the point entirely. What’s truly shocking about reading the book today is how well Thompson foresaw the retaliatory, right-wing politics that now goes by the name of Trumpism. After following the motorcycle guys around for months, Thompson concluded that the most striking thing about them was not their hedonism but their “ethic of total retaliation” against a technologically advanced and economically changing America in which they felt they’d been counted out and left behind. Thompson saw the appeal of that retaliatory ethic. He claimed that a small part of every human being longs to burn it all down, especially when faced with great and impersonal powers that seem hostile to your very existence. In the United States, a place of ever greater and more impersonal powers, the ethic of total retaliation was likely to catch on.

What made that outcome almost certain, Thompson thought, was the obliviousness of Berkeley, California, types who, from the safety of their cocktail parties, imagined that they understood and represented the downtrodden. The Berkeley types, Thompson thought, were not going to realize how presumptuous they had been until the downtrodden broke into one of those cocktail parties and embarked on a campaign of rape, pillage, and slaughter.•


Sonny Barger terrorizes Thompson in 1967 on Canadian TV.

Ad for Hunter S. Thompson’s campaign for Sheriff of Aspen in 1970.

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In 1969, the year of the Apollo moon landing, Oriana Fallaci said this about John Glenn: “The second time I saw him, after his fall, he was a better man, I thought, not playing the Boy Scout so much.” 

The fall she spoke of was literal, mostly.

That was five years after the astronaut’s forced retirement by NASA, the government fearing a Gagarin-ish demise in space for the Viking hero would be too severe a stress test for the program and the country itself. Glenn, a civilian again, decided to reinvent himself through politics, vying for a Senate seat in Ohio. Early in the campaign, he tumbled in his bathroom at home, sustaining a serious head injury, one that wrecked his equilibrium. Glenn, who was confined for two months in the aerospace medical clinic in San Antonio, said, “I only ask this: that I may walk a little in a room that isn’t a merry-go-round.” He knew he would never step on the moon and it seemed dubious whether he’s be able to pace a rug.

Glenn eventually healed, returned to politics, failed at first, then eventually achieved success in that realm and in business. But in the latter ’60s, as Fallaci described him, he was a “used astronaut, an unsuccessful politician, a tired, sick disappointed man.”

The first time the two met, Glenn was still an astronaut and he sat for an interview with Fallaci for what would become her excellent book on the U.S. Space Program, If the Sun Dies. At one point the discussion turned to religion and the alien life forms that astronauts, perhaps even the devoutly Christian Glenn himself, might encounter. The passage:

“Science in general has never proved that there is life on other planets. But space flights can–and how. And the day you meet unimaginable creatures on another planet–let’s call them ‘beings-of-unknown-appearance’–how will you explain the Genesis story, Colonel, sir?”

“The Bible doesn’t deny life on other worlds. Indeed, I’ll tell you I’d be very much surprised to not find what you call ‘beings-of-unknown-appearance’ on other planets. We’ll find them–perhaps in the form of beings or worms, although you can be certain that one day, among the millions and millions of celestial bodies, we’ll find man too. But I can imagine creatures that don’t develop with our cycle of water and carbon, creatures that feed on rocks, for example, and have no blood or tissues or organs: and the Bible says nothing to deny this. It doesn’t deny that God might have created them too in His own image and after His likeness. It doesn’t deny the possibility of loving them as true Christians.”

“And what if it were necessary to kill them, to exterminate them, these worms or rock brothers who have no blood or tissues or organs…would you find that painful, Colonel?”

Again he leaned his elbow on the arm of the chair. Again he raised his hand to his forehead. Bradbury was so far away, Father.

“No, I don’t think so. It would be sad; it grieves me even to think about it. But I could do it. I’m a man who doesn’t want to see anybody die, not even in war. But some expeditions will be like going to war, and the essence of war is death. And then, excuse me, but what makes you think we might have to exterminate the ‘beings-of-unknown-appearance’ on other planets?”

“Because they might be hostile to us. They might be far from happy to see us come, Colonel.”

“I’m optimistic: they might be completely friendly. They might also be good, pleased to see us, and we might not have to exterminate them at all. Of course…of course I would be suspicious when I saw them, ready to defend myself…I don’t know…Certainly, if some exist in our own solar system…My God…they surely exist in other solar systems, but we won’t be going to other solar systems in your lifetime or in mine. At best this will be a hundred, two hundred years from now, and a hundred or two hundred years are not many, I know, but enough to leave me with painful questions.”•

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In a smart Guardian piece by Hannah Devlin, novelist Kazuo Ishiguro wonders if liberal democracy will be doomed by a new type of wealth inequality, the biological kind, in which gene editing and other tools make enhancement and improved health available only to the haves. It’s likewise a major theme in Yuval Noah Harari’s second book, Homo Deus, which wonders where we’ll take biotech, or perhaps more likely, where it will take us. Ishiguro isn’t a fatalist on the topic, encouraging more public engagement.

Some believe exorbitantly priced technologies created for the moneyed few will rapidly decrease in price and make their way inside everyone’s pockets (and bodies and brains), the same distribution path blazed by consumer electronics. That’s possible but certainly not definite. Of course, as the chilling political winds of 2016 have demonstrated, liberal democracy may be too fragile to even survive to that point.

The opening:

Imagine a two-tiered society with elite citizens, genetically engineered to be smarter, healthier and to live longer, and an underclass of biologically run-of-the-mill humans. It sounds like the plot of a dystopian novel, but the world could be sleepwalking towards this scenario, according to one of Britain’s most celebrated writers.

Kazuo Ishiguro argues that the social changes unleashed by gene editing technologies, such as Crispr, could undermine core human values.

“We’re going into a territory where a lot of the ways in which we have organised our societies will suddenly look a bit redundant,” he said. “In liberal democracies, we have this idea that human beings are basically equal in some very fundamental way. We’re coming close to the point where we can, objectively in some sense, create people who are superior to others.”•

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While lessons can be learned from utilitarian philosophy, taken as a whole it seems to run counter to human nature, holding that we can constantly view the world with clinical, calculated precision. That’s just not so.

Moral philosopher Peter Singer believes utilitarianism should be applied by those considering working in the Trump Administration. He suggests that if you feel you can mitigate the considerable pain about to be administered to our most vulnerable, take the job, but also be prepared to resign if you’re forced to contribute to evil.

That might work on paper but not so much in real life, and not just for pragmatic concerns like someone being unable to quit a position because they need to care for their family. If you’re on the inside of Team Trump, you will in some way casue harm. Even if you believe another would be doing more damage, there’s no way to know how your small efforts to protect will be used to do a much greater bad a few steps down the line.

In her New York Review of Books essay “Trump: The Choice We Face,” Masha Gessen reflects on the thorny compromise of Jewish Councils during the age of Nazism, concluding that “we need to shift from realist to moral reasoning.” That seems a more apt and human response to our moment.

In a wonderful Five Books interview, Nigel Warburton discusses his favorite philosophy titles from 2016, including Singer’s Ethics in the Real World. An excerpt:

Question:

Does [Singer’s] controversiality stem from his utilitarianism? Say in the article in this book, about Thabo Mbeki refusing to admit that HIV causes AIDS. He is saying, ‘OK Mbeki killed more people because of this view on HIV/AIDS than the entire apartheid regime did, so how do we compare these two?’ That’s what he is measuring up. Is that the kind of thing a utilitarian does, count up numbers of people killed?

Nigel Warburton:

There are lots of different forms of utilitarianism. The basic principle is that it focuses on the consequences of actions and not the intentions (though the intentions might have consequences as well — in terms of how other people perceive what you do if you express them, for instance).

This is a case of somebody who, without an explicit intention to bring about people’s deaths, through their actions has done so. Utilitarianism, traditionally, looks for a currency that can measure different actions through the probable consequences and plays off those different consequences. Weighing the consequences against each other is the basic benefit of utilitarianism.

You can work out the best course of action because it is the one with the best consequences, or most likely to have the best consequences. So, if you take that really seriously, if you had to choose a world without apartheid, or a world without this statement from Mbeki, the world without Mbeki would be better (in terms of lives lost), even if it had apartheid. There might be other negative consequences of apartheid, there certainly were, but just on that factor, a consequentialist approach would lead to that conclusion.

Obviously in some situations, the consequences are incredibly important. But the obsession with consequences can seem inhumane in many situations. It’s a kind of straightforward cost-benefit analysis, and when applied to people close to you, it seems incredibly cruel and lacking in compassion.

Question:

Is compassion not important then?

Nigel Warburton:

Utilitarians find a value in compassion, but they celebrate a clinical assessment of outcomes above all. I think, in a sense, that is both the strength and weakness of the approach.•

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Despite the god-awful results of the recent American Presidential election, nightmares rarely play out, thankfully, but conjuring worst-case scenarios can speak truth to very justifiable fears.

Those who bought into the Trumpian nostalgia for a more alabaster America delivered the country to a cohort of profiteers, polluters and plutocrats that will leave the nation bleeding from the wherever. The Simon Cowell-ish strongman’s biggest supporters, older and whiter and working-class, will be hurt as badly as anyone with the Affordable Care Act, Medicare and Social Security resting in the hands of the merciless. Labor unions will also be attacked relentlessly and climate change ignored, further endangering this demographic, which already has little shelter from the storm.

With the selection of Tom Price as Health and Human Services Secretary, a war will also be waged on the poor. As Politico states: “Price wants to limit federal Medicaid spending to give states a lump sum, or block grant, and more control over how they could use it — a dream of conservative Republicans for years and a nightmare for advocates for the poor who fear many would lose coverage.” There is basis for grave concern.

Peter Frase’s newly published book, Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, looks at the potential paths ahead should automation obviate too many jobs. Such a revolution in production could be boon or bane and probably will ultimately reside somewhere in between, but in the author’s most dire prediction, a post-apocalyptic explosion of wealth inequality emerges, with some obscenely rich and the rest meat for crows. Tomorrow probably won’t work out that horribly, but the hard-right shift we’re likely to now endure makes it frighteningly easy to visualize.

From Ben Tarnoff at the Guardian:

There are far worse things than boredom, however. Frase’s fourth and final future, “exterminism,” is truly terrifying. Exterminism has the robots and scarcity of socialism, minus the egalitarianism. The result is a neo-feudal nightmare: the rich retreat to heavily fortified enclaves where the robots do all the work, and everyone else is trapped outside in the hot, soggy hell of a rapidly warming planet. “The great danger posed by the automation of production, in the context of a world of hierarchy and scarce resources,” Frase says, “is that it makes the great mass of people superfluous from the standpoint of the ruling elite.” The elite can always warehouse this surplus humanity in prisons and refugee camps. But at a certain point, the rich might find it more convenient to simply exterminate the poor altogether, now that they’re no longer needed as workers.

It is a testament both to Frase’s ability as a writer and the barbarism of our present moment that exterminism feels like the most realistic of his futures. I lost sleep over it. Yet he is careful to counsel his readers against despair.•

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“No one wants to admit that our half-measures aren’t working and won’t work” is something that needed to be said by the Presidential candidates this election season in regards to the dying of the Industrial Age, the irreversible decline of manufacturing jobs and the potential attenuation of many other types of employment. No such discussion was had, however, as a vulgar Mussolini-Lampanelli clown shouted and taunted and danced. The future will likely arrive most ferociously for those very working-class people most drawn to his spectacle.

Those quote was actually delivered to Sean Illing of Vox, in an interview with Andy Stern, former union president and current Universal Basic Income advocate who fears a Hunger Games future for most of America if policy doesn’t address the challenges that will attend widespread automation. The Raising the Floor author also addresses another perplexing topic: What if we get UBI and most people aren’t working? What would we do with all that free time? I almost shudder. Lots of people who have a life-or-death need for Medicare, Social Security and the Affordable Care Act just voted for a party desperate to be rid of those things. Imagine the trouble we could get into if food and shelter were assured.

An excerpt:

Question:

Let’s pivot from unions to universal basic income, which is a cardinal issue for you these days. In your book, Raising the Floor, you conclude that a UBI will eventually be necessary. Can you say, first, what UBI means and, second, why you think we need it?

Andy Stern:

A universal basic income is essentially giving every single working-age American a check every month, much like we do with social security for elderly people. It’s an unconditional stipend, as it were.

The reason it’s necessary is we’re now learning through lots of reputable research that technological change is accelerating, and that this process will continue to displace workers and terminate careers. A significant number of tasks now performed by humans will be performed by machines and artificial intelligence. We could very well see 5 million jobs eliminated by the end of the decade because of technology.

We’ve already seen Uber-deployed driverless cars in Pittsburgh, and driverless trucks will be deployed in the next five to six years — we’ve already seen them across Europe. The largest job in 29 states is driving a truck. There are 3 and a half million people who operate trucks and 5 million more who support them in various ways.

So there’s a tsunami of change on its way, and the question is twofold. One is how does America go through a transition to what will be I think an economy with far fewer jobs — particularly middle-class jobs? What policies will guide us through this transition? And second, what do we want this to look like on the other end?

I believe a UBI is a way to ease the transition, and it’s also a way to provide a floor for people — not necessarily a substitute for work, but a supplement to work that allows them to have a sense of economic security, have consumer buying power. We want to allow people to be entrepreneurs, to take risks and raise kids and do other things without turning the world into the Hunger Games.

Question:

Obviously you’re an advocate for a UBI, but I’d like to hear what you think is the most compelling counterargument against UBI.

Andy Stern:

Certainly our concept of work is problematic. This is a country in which people have not figured out what to do if they don’t work for money. I think there are many other ways that people potentially can work but, psychologically, the Protestant work ethic is embedded in the psyche of our country. The idea that someone would get something for nothing is anathema here. People that work feel like those who don’t shouldn’t be rewarded. It’s just an alien concept.•

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A few decades ago, J.G. Ballard believed we were headed for a future in which fiction and reality would become reversed, people would disappear into their homes (and devices and selves) and that we’d experience an age of shocks and sensations. Sounds familiar.

In a smart new Guardian essay about her father’s prescience, his daughter Bea writes that “when reality television became a massive new trend, my father was unsurprised.” Below is an excerpt from that piece followed by a few clips from Dr. Christopher Evans’ 1979 interview with the writer that was published in the UK version of Penthouse.


From Bea Ballard:

Where the developments in media technology have had the most profound impact is on the world of politics. I would love to know what my father would have to say about Donald Trump’s rapid political rise and his race for the White House. He would have found it fascinating. Given that he predicted a B-movie actor (Ronald Reagan) becoming president, I doubt he would have been surprised that a TV reality star ended up doing the same.

But it’s hard to imagine it happening in a world before television and social media. TV loves Trump’s soundbite style – his brashness and machismo. In the American Apprentice series, Trump sat in a boardroom similar to the Oval Office. It was a dramatic setting clearly designed to accentuate his power: the mahogany oak table, the lighting, the American flag in the background and the informed advisers conjure an image of Trump as pseudo-president.

Perhaps he was plausible as a leader to the American public because he had appeared in their living rooms for so long, playing a fictional commander. The idea of a powerful and decisive leader who dismisses people with a fierce “You’re fired!” can become a reality. In Britain, the recent European Union referendum was also played out like a TV show. The television debates were staged like a talent show, with the politicians on stage debating in short, soundbite style. One of the debates was held at Wembley Arena – in front of a vast crowd who either hollered approval or jeered, in the style of the Hunger Games films.•


From Evans:

On the transition from the Space Age to the Personal Computer Age:

J.G. Ballard:

In the summer of ’74 I remember standing out in my garden on a bright, clear night and watching a moving dot of light in the sky which I realised was Skylab. I remember thinking how fantastic it was that there were men up there, and I felt really quite moved as I watched it. Through my mind there even flashed a line from every Hollywood aviation movie of the 40s, ‘it takes guts to fly those machines.’ But I meant it. Then my neighbour came out into his garden to get something and I said, ‘Look, there’s Skylab,’ and he looked up and said, ‘Sky-what?’ And I realised that he didn’t know about it, and he wasn’t interested. No, from that moment there was no doubt in my mind that the space age was over.

Dr. Christopher Evans:

What is the explanation for this. Why are people so indifferent?

J.G. Ballard:

I think it’s because we’re at the climactic end of one huge age of technology which began with the Industrial Revolution and which lasted for about 200 years. We’re also at the beginning of a second, possibly even greater revolution, brought about by advances in computers and by the development of information-processing devices of incredible sophistication. It will be the era of artificial brains as opposed to artificial muscles, and right now we stand at the midpoint between these two huge epochs. Now it’s my belief that people, unconsciously perhaps, recognise this and also recognise that the space programme and the conflict between NASA and the Soviet space effort belonged to the first of these systems of technological exploration, and was therefore tied to the past instead of the future. Don’t misunderstand me – it was a magnificent achievement to put a man on the moon, but it was essentially nuts and bolts technology and therefore not qualitatively different from the kind of engineering that built the Queen Mary or wrapped railroads round the world in the 19th century. It was a technology that changed peoples lives in all kinds of ways, and to a most dramatic extent, but the space programme represented its fast guttering flicker.

__________________________

On the PC bringing the world into the home, from social to pornography:

Dr. Christopher Evans:

How do you see the future developing?

J.G. Ballard:

I see the future developing in just one way – towards the home. In fact I would say that if one had to categorise the future in one word, it would be that word ‘home.’ Just as the 20th century has been the age of mobility, largely through the motor car, so the next era will be one in which instead of having to seek out one’s adventures through travel, one creates them, in whatever form one chooses, in one’s home. The average individual won’t just have a tape recorder, a stereo HiFi, or a TV set. He’ll have all the resources of a modern TV studio at his fingertips, coupled with data processing devices of incredible sophistication and power. No longer will he have to accept the relatively small number of permutations of fantasy that the movie and TV companies serve up to him, but he will be able to generate whatever he pleases to suit his whim. In this way people will soon realise that they can maximise the future of their lives with new realms of social, sexual and personal relationships, all waiting to be experienced in terms of these electronic systems, and all this exploration will take place in their living rooms.

But there’s more to it than that. For the first time it will become truly possible to explore extensively and in depth the psychopathology of one’s own life without any fear of moral condemnation. Although we’ve seen a collapse of many taboos within the last decade or so, there are still aspects of existence which are not counted as being legitimate to explore or experience mainly because of their deleterious or irritating effects on other people. Now I’m not talking about criminally psychopathic acts, but what I would consider as the more traditional psychopathic deviancies. Many, perhaps most of these, need to be expressed in concrete forms, and their expression at present gets people into trouble. One can think of a million examples, but if your deviant impulses push you in the direction of molesting old ladies, or cutting girl’s pig tails off in bus queues, then, quite rightly, you find yourself in the local magistrates court if you succumb to them. And the reason for this is that you’re intruding on other people’s life space. But with the new multi-media potential of your own computerised TV studio, where limitless simulations can be played out in totally convincing style, one will be able to explore, in a wholly benign and harmless way, every type of impulse – impulses so deviant that they might have seemed, say to our parents, to be completely corrupt and degenerate.

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On media decentralization, the camera-saturated society, Reality TV, Slow TV:

Dr. Christopher Evans:

Will people really respond to these creative possibilities themselves? Won’t the creation of these scenarios always be handed over to the expert or professional?

J.G. Ballard:

I doubt it. The experts or professionals only handle these tools when they are too expensive or too complex for the average person to manage them. As soon as the technology becomes cheap and simple, ordinary people get to work with it. One’s only got to think of people’s human responses to a new device like the camera. If you go back 30 or 40 years the Baby Brownie gave our parents a completely new window on the world. They could actually go into the garden and take a photograph of you tottering around on the lawn, take it down to the chemists, and then actually see their small child falling into the garden pool whenever and as often as they wanted to. I well remember my own parents’ excitement and satisfaction when looking at these blurry pictures, which represented only the simplest replay of the most totally commonplace. And indeed there’s an interesting point here. Far from being applied to mammoth productions in the form of personal space adventures, or one’s own participation in a death-defying race at Brands Hatch it’s my view that the incredibly sophisticated hook-ups of TV cameras and computers which we will all have at our fingertips tomorrow will most frequently be applied to the supremely ordinary, the absolutely commonplace. I can visualise for example a world ten years from now where every activity of one’s life will be constantly recorded by multiple computer-controlled TV cameras throughout the day so that when the evening comes instead of having to watch the news as transmitted by BBC or ITV – that irrelevant mixture of information about a largely fictional external world – one will be able to sit down, relax and watch the real news. And the real news of course will be a computer-selected and computer-edited version of the days rushes. ‘My God, there’s Jenny having her first ice cream!’or ‘There’s Candy coming home from school with her new friend.’ Now all that may seem madly mundane, but, as I said, it will be the real news of the day, as and how it affects every individual. Anyone in doubt about the compulsion of this kind of thing just has to think for a moment of how much is conveyed in a simple family snapshot, and of how rivetingly interesting – to oneself and family only of course – are even the simplest of holiday home movies today. Now extend your mind to the fantastic visual experience which tomorrow’s camera and editing facilities will allow. And I am not just thinking about sex, although once the colour 3-D cameras move into the bedroom the possibilities are limitless and open to anyone’s imagination. But let’s take another level, as yet more or less totally unexplored by cameras, still or movie, such as a parent’s love for one’s very young children. That wonderful intimacy that comes on every conceivable level – the warmth and rapport you have with a two-year-old infant, the close physical contact, his pleasure in fiddling with your tie, your curious satisfaction when he dribbles all over you, all these things which make up the indefinable joys of parenthood. Now imagine these being viewed and recorded by a very discriminating TV camera, programmed at the end of the day, or at the end of the year, or at the end of the decade, to make the optimum selection of images designed to give you a sense of the absolute and enduring reality of your own experience. With such technology interfaced with immensely intelligent computers I think we may genuinely be able to transcend time. One will be able to indulge oneself in a kind of continuing imagery which, for the first time will allow us to dominate the awful finiteness of life. Great portions of our waking state will be spent in a constant mood of self-awareness and excitement, endlessly replaying the simplest basic life experiences.•

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Nobody shops in brick-and-mortar stores anymore, if you don’t count about 90% of purchases.

Because so many of the physical businesses we connected to on an emotional level were killed by the Internet (book and video stores, record shops, newsstands, etc.), it seems online is predominant in retail. But that’s not nearly true, at least not yet. In order to keep expanding market share, Silicon Valley powers like Amazon are venturing off into the real world, a phenomenon that may increase exponentially. I doubt it will work very well with Amazon Books stores and their shallow selections, but perhaps the planned convenience store chain will make a go of it? Tough to say: Corporations great at one type of platform often flounder in others.

In a Technology Review piece, Nicholas Carr visits a new Amazon Books and explains the key role of the smartphone in this surprising turn of events. An excerpt:

Amazon Books may be just the vanguard of a much broader push into brick-and-mortar retailing by the company. In October, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Amazon is planning to open a chain of convenience stores, mainly for groceries, along with drive-in depots where consumers will be able to pick up merchandise ordered online. It has also begun rolling out small “pop-up” stores to hawk its electronic devices. It already has more than two dozen such kiosks in malls around the country, and dozens more are said to be in the works.

Even after 20 years of rapid growth, e-commerce still accounts for less than 10 percent of total retail sales. And now the rise of mobile computing places new constraints on Web stores. They can’t display or promote as many products as they could when their wares were spread across desktop or laptop monitors. That limits the stores’ cross-selling and upselling opportunities and blunts other merchandising tactics.

At the same time, the smartphone, with its apps, its messaging platforms, and its constant connectivity, gives retailers more ways to communicate with and influence customers, even when they’re shopping in stores. This is why the big trend in retailing today is toward “omnichannel” strategies, which blend physical stores, Web stores, and mobile apps in a way that makes the most of the convenience of smartphones and overcomes their limitations. Some omnichannel pioneers, like Sephora and Nordstrom, come from the brick-and-mortar world. But others, like Warby Parker and Bonobos, come from the Web world. Now, with its physical stores, Amazon is following in their tracks. “Pure-play Web retailing is not sustainable,” New York University marketing professor Scott Galloway told me. He points out that the deep discounting and high delivery costs that characterize Web sales have made it hard for Amazon to turn a profit. If Amazon were to remain an online-only merchant, he says, its future success would be in jeopardy. He believes the company will end up opening “hundreds and then thousands of stores.”•

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Discussion of the ideas in David Gelernter’s new book, The Tides of Mind: Uncovering the Spectrum of Consciousness, which just landed in my mailbox, forms the crux of the latest episode of EconTalk with Russ Roberts. The computer scientist talks about the variety of cognizance that forms our days, an idea he believes lost in the unstudied acceptance of binary labels “conscious” or “unconscious.” He thinks, for instance, that we operate at various levels of up- or down-spectrum consciousness, which permits us to function in different ways. 

Clearly the hard problem is still just that, and the creativity that emerges from consciousness, often the development of new symbols or the successful comparison and combination of seemingly disparate thoughts, isn’t yet understood. Someday we’ll comprehend the chemical reactions that enable these mysterious and magnificent syntheses, but for now we can enjoy though not understand them. In one passage, the author wonderfully articulates the creative process, the parts that are knowable and those that remain inscrutable. The excerpt:

David Gelernter:

You also mention, which is important, the fact that you have a focused sense when you are working on lyrics or writing poetry, let’s say. And I’ve argued, on the other hand, that you need to be well down-spectrum in order to get creativity started. That is, you can’t be at your creative peak when you’ve just got up in the morning: your attention is focused and you are tapping your pencil; you want to get to work and start, you know, getting through the day’s business at a good clip. It’s not the mood in which one can make a lot of progress writing poetry. But that’s exactly why–that’s one of the important reasons why creativity is no picnic. It’s not easily achieved. I think it’s fair to say that everybody is creative in a certain way. In the sort of daily round of things we come up with new solutions to old problems routinely. But the kind of creativity that yields poetry that other people value, that yields original work in any area, is highly valued, is more highly valued than any other human project, because it’s rare. And it’s rare not because it requires a gigantic IQ (Intelligence Quotient), but because it requires a certain kind of balance, which is not something everybody can achieve. On the one hand–it’s not my observation; it’s a general observation–that creativity often hinges on inventing new analogies. When I think of a new resemblance and an analogy between a tree and a tent pole, which is a new analogy let’s say that nobody else has ever thought of before, I take the new analogy and can perhaps use it in a creative way. One of a million other, a billion, a trillion other possible analogies. Now, what makes me come up with a new analogy? What allows me to do that? Generally, it’s a lower-spectrum kind of thinking, a down-spectrum kind of thinking, in which I’m allowing my emotions to emerge. And, I’m allowing emotional similarity between two memories that are in other respects completely different. I’m maybe thinking as a graduate student in computing about an abstract problem involving communication in a network like the ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) or the Internet, in which bits get stuck. And I may suddenly find myself thinking about traffic on a late Friday afternoon in Grand Central Station in Manhattan. And the question is–and that leads to a new approach. And I write it up; and I prove a theorem, and I publish a paper. And there’s like a million other things in the sciences and in engineering technology. But the question is: Where does the analogy come from? And it turns out in many cases–not in every case–that there are emotional similarities. Emotion is a tremendously powerful summarizer, abstractor. We can look at a complex scene involving loads of people rushing back and forth because it’s Grand Central Station, and noisy announcements on [?] to understand, loudspeakers, and you’re being hot and tired, and lots of advertisements, and colorful clothing, and a million other things; and smells, and sounds, and–we can take all that or any kind of complex scene or situation, the scene out your window, the scene on the TV (television) when you turn on the news, or a million other things. And take all those complexities and boil them down to a single emotion: it makes me feel some way. Maybe it makes me happy. Maybe it makes me happy. It’s not very usual to have an emotion as simple as that. But it might be. I see my kids romping in the backyard, and I just feel happy. Usually the emotion to which a complex scene has boiled down is more complex than that–is more nuanced. Doesn’t have a name. It’s not just that I’m happy or sad or excited. It’s a more nuanced; it’s a more–it’s a subtler emotion which is cooked up out of many bits and pieces of various emotions. But the distinctive emotion, the distinctive feeling that makes me feel a certain way, the feeling that I get when I look at some scene can be used as a memory cue when I am in the right frame of mind. And that particular feeling–let’s say, Happiness 147–a particular subtle kind of happiness which is faintly shaded by doubts about the coming week and by serious questions I have about what I’m supposed to do tomorrow morning but which is encouraged by the fact that my son is coming home tonight and I’m looking forward to seeing him–so that’s Happiness 147. And it may be that when I look out at some scene and feel Happiness 147, that some other radically different scene that also made me feel that way comes to mind–looking out at that complex thing and I think of some abstract problem in network communications, or I think of a mathematics problem, or I think of what color chair we should get for the living room, or one of a million other things. Any number of things can be boiled down in principle, can be reduced, can be summarized or abstracted by this same emotion. My emotions are so powerful because the phrase, ‘That makes me feel like x,’ can apply to so many situations. So many different things give us a particular feeling. And that feeling can drive in a new analogy. And a new analogy can drive creativity. But the question is: Where does the new analogy come from? And it seems to come often from these emotional overlaps, from a special kind of remembering. And I can only do that kind of remembering when I am paying attention to my emotions. We tend to do our best to suppress emotions when we’re up-spectrum. We’re up-spectrum: We have jobs to do, we have work to do, we have tasks to complete; our minds are moving briskly along; we’re energetic. We generally don’t like indulging in emotions when we are energetic and perky and happy and we want to get stuff done. Emotions tend to bring thought to a halt, or at any rate to slow us down. It tends to be the case as we move lower on the spectrum, we pay more attention to emotions. Emotions get a firmer grip on us. And when we are all the way at the bottom of the spectrum–when we are asleep and dreaming–it’s interesting that although we–often we think of dreaming as emotionally neutral except in the rare case of a nightmare or a euphoria dream, and neither of those happen very often–we think of dreams as being sort of gray and neutral. But if you read the biological[?] literature and the sleep-lab literature, you’ll find that most dreams are strongly colored emotionally. And that’s what we would expect. They occur at the bottom of the spectrum. Life becomes more emotional, just as when you are tired you are more likely to lose your temper; you are more likely to lose your self-control–to be cranky, to yell at your kids, or something like that. We are less self-controlled, we are less self-disciplined; we give freer rein to our emotions as we move down spectrum. And that has a good side. It’s not good to yell at your kids. But as you allow your emotions to emerge, you are more likely to remember things that yield new analogies. You are more likely to be reminded in a fresh way of things that you hadn’t thought of together before.•

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The amazing, Zeitgeist-capturing photograph above, taken by Brett Gundlock of Bloomberg, shows drivers in Mexico City gridlock being peppered with advertisements floated by Uber drones. While you might think it dangerous that even slow-moving vehicles are besieged by hovering appeals sent from the heavens or thereabouts, Travis Kalanick, the leading ridesharer’s CEO, wants to remove that worry, eliminating the burden of drivers so they can instead plug their ears and eyes into other machines. Why stop and smell the roses when you can count the drones?

Autonomous vehicles are likely upon us, whether that means they arrive at high speed or merge more gradually with the Digital Age. While making the roads and highways safer was the early selling point for these cars, their establishment will have a profound effect on surveillance, employment, urban design, ethics, capitalism and even human nature itself. Of course, there will be unintended consequences we can’t yet even appreciate.

It’s also worthwhile to mention that the intervening period between fully human driving and fully automated control will not be without incidence, in much the way that horse-drawn carts and internal combustion engines made for uneasy partners on the road during that earlier transition. One thing I’m sure of is driverless cars will not create a “utopian society,” a promise often assigned to new technological tools at their outset before we remember that the function they provide was never the main problem with us to start with.

In a New York Review of Books piece on Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman’s Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road AheadSue Halpern looks at the industry’s dream scenario of fleets of autonomous taxis and the significant roadblocks to its realization. Even if the challenges are met, cheaper rides might not reduce wealth inequality but exacerbate the problem.

An excerpt:

The major car makers, rushing to make alliances with tech companies, understand their days of dominance are numbered. “We are rapidly becoming both an auto company and a mobility company,” Bill Ford, the chairman of Ford Motor Company, told an audience in Kansas City in February. He knows that if the fleet model prevails, Ford and other car manufacturers will be selling many fewer cars. More crucially, the winners in this new system will be the ones with the best software, and the best software will come from the most robust data, and the companies with the most robust data are the tech companies that have been hoovering it up for years: Google most of all.

“The mobility revolution is going to affect all of us personally and many of us professionally,” Ford said that day in Kansas City. He might have been thinking about car salespeople, whose jobs are likely to become obsolete, but before that it will be the taxi drivers and truckers who will be displaced by vehicles that drive themselves. Historically these have been the jobs that have provided incomes to recently arrived immigrants and to people without college degrees. Without them yet another trajectory into the middle class will be eliminated.

What of Uber drivers themselves? These are the poster people for the gig-economy, “entrepreneurs”—which is to say freelancers—who use their own cars to ferry people around. “Obviously the self-driving car thing is freaking people out a little bit,” an Uber driver in Pittsburgh named Ryan told a website called TechRepublic. And, he went on, he learned about Uber’s plans from the media, not from the company. “If it’s a negative thing, they let you find out for yourself.” As media critic Douglas Rushkoff has written, “Uber’s drivers are the R&D for Uber’s driverless future. They are spending their labor and capital investments (cars) on their own future unemployment.”

All economies have winners and losers. It does not take a sophisticated algorithm to figure out that the winners in the decades ahead are going to be those who own the robots, for they will have vanquished labor with their capital. In the case of autonomous vehicles, a few companies are now poised to control a necessary public good, the transportation of people to and from work, school, shopping, recreation, and other vital activities. This salient fact is often lost in the almost unanimously positive reception of the coming “mobility revolution,” as Bill Ford calls it.

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It didn’t begin auspiciously for George and Willie Muse, born black, poor and albino to a sharecropper family in the Jim Crow South. It seemed to get even less promising when they were kidnapped in 1899 from their doting mother in Virginia and forced to appear in itinerant freak shows as “Eko and Iko, sheep-headed, cannibalistic Ambassadors from Mars.”

The siblings were given room, board and mandolin lessons by a parade of handlers but were otherwise kept a safe distance from their earnings. Ultimately, their mother reclaimed them 28 years later through the legal system, liberating her boys who then signed a deal with Ringling Brothers that allowed them to retain complete rights to their merchandising. The two grew quite well-off, selling out Madison Square Garden numerous times and performing for the Queen of England. They were international superstars in an era before mass media. One brother, Willie, lived to 108, dying in 2001, having left a footprint in three centuries.

It’s likely a wilder tale than that of any sideshow act from the twentieth century, more than Chang & Eng or the “Two-Headed Nightingale” or anyone. In Truevine, a book by Beth Macy published last month, the author ponders the troubling question of whether the kidnapping and sideshow existence were ultimately better for the Muses than the privations and prejudices of the South would have been. Perhaps, though clearly neither was ideal. Reports are Paramount is angling to acquire big-screen rights to the book.

Two Brooklyn Daily Eagle articles are embedded below, the first documenting their mother first finding her sons after a nearly three-decade search, and the second revealing the men’s intelligence, which belied how the circus presented them to the public.


From October 20, 1927:

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From May 14. 1928:

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In a smart Five Books interviewEllen Wayland-Smith, author of Oneida, discusses a group of titles on the topic of Utopia. She surmises that attempts at such communities aren’t prevalent like they were in the 1840s or even the 1960s because most of us realize they don’t normally end well, whether we’re talking about the bitter financial and organizational failures of Fruitlands and Brook Farm or the utter madness of Jonestown. That’s true on a micro-community level, though I would argue that there have never been more people dreaming of large-scale Utopias–and corresponding dystopias–then there are right now. The visions have just grown significantly in scope.

In macro visions, Silicon Valley technologists speak today of an approaching post-scarcity society, an automated, quantified, work-free world in which all basic needs are met and drudgery has disappeared into a string of zeros and ones. These thoughts were once the talking points of those on the fringe, say, a teenage guru who believed he could levitate the Houston Astrodome, but now they (and Mars settlements, a-mortality and the computerization of every object) are on the tongues of the most important business people of our day, billionaires who hope to shape the Earth and beyond into a Shangri-La. 

Perhaps much good will come from these goals, and maybe a few disasters will be enabled as well. 

One exchange from the Five Books Q&A:

Question:

Speaking of the Second Coming, the last book on your list is Paradise Now, by Chris Jennings.

Ellen Wayland-Smith:

It’s called Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism. He goes through five utopian experiments in nineteenth century America. It’s a beautifully written book and interesting as well because he takes the odd era of 1840s America and shows how it gave rise to five very different experiments in alternative living. He does a sensitive job of exploring their differences and similarities but he also examines how crazy they seem today. Some of the ideas seem mystical and fabulous; certainly Noyes had some spectacularly strange ideas about gaining immortality through sexual intercourse. The fact that so many of these strange communities sprung up seems unbelievable to the twenty-first century reader. Chris Jennings points out that we seem to have lost something, there seems to be a diminishment of expectations, a loss of energy.

Question:

In the wake of the American Revolution over a hundred experimental communities were formed in the United States. Do societies become less experimental as they age into their institutions? Is the West losing the audacity necessary for experimentation?

Ellen Wayland-Smith:

That is an interesting question. The 1840s were an incredibly weird time. It was a crossroads. It was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Class identification and geographical identification suddenly became uncertain, that was upsetting. There were also an explosion of religious sects at this time, with the disestablishment of state and church. I think it was a time when people felt very vulnerable. All these changes and uncertainties crystallized attempts to live otherwise.

Question:

Jennings writes that a present day “deficit of imagination” accounts for the fact that there are no utopias at present. Do you see a strong foundation for that analysis?

Ellen Wayland-Smith:

There does seem to be a lack of interest in what is transcendent, which keeps people from finding more meaningful ways of constructing their lives. But what accounts for the absence of utopian schemes at present is probably less a ‘deficit of imagination’ than a cynicism about whether these things can work. As I began by saying, utopian projects usually end disastrously.•

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Since Bob Dylan was the surprise winner of this year’s Nobel Prize, those aghast at the announcement (mostly writers without Nobel Prizes) have taken comfort in Kevin P. Simonson’s 1991 Hustler interview with Kurt Vonnegut, in which the author labeled the songwriter the “worst poet alive.” This insult from the guy who turned out Slapstick!

In addition to being wrong about Dylan, Vonnegut’s hatred for the magazine’s infamous owner, Larry Flynt, also seems off-base. It’s not that the publisher was or is a charmer (he’s not), but his “literary output” proved much more influential than Vonnegut’s, with pornography today available on every phone in every pocket. He was right about human nature, whether we like it or not.

If you think that’s good or not depends on what you prefer: a repressed though less outwardly ugly society where things are hidden, or one in which there’s way too much information and everything may be revealed. The latter can be discombobulating, but I think the former is more dangerous.

Click on the exchange below to read a bigger version.

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The great Margaret Atwood has dystopic vision, an eerie end to us all: We build an ever-growing, plugged-in societal machine reliant on cheap energy that eventually runs out. Collapse comes, and we’re swept away with it. It’s a chilling, if unlikely, scenario.

More realistic: We keep shoveling fossil fuels into the system until it’s the death of us, or we wisely adapt ASAP and develop solar energy and such to the point were we can sustain life for eons. 

In a Guardian piece that surveys science and sci-fi writers, Atwood, Richard Dawkins and others ponder the future of humanity, if we have one. The opening:

Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion
There’s a serious risk of climate catastrophe and it could be soon. Another alarmingly plausible possibility during the present century is that weapons of mass destruction, which are designed to deter, will be acquired by deluded people for whom deterrence has no meaning. Assuming we survive such manmade disasters, external peril may be averted by technology growing out of the brilliant feat of landing on a comet. The dinosaurs’ world ended when a comet or large meteorite unleashed titanic destructive forces. That will eventually happen again, and smaller but still dangerous strikes are a perennial danger in every century. Telescopes of the future will improve the range of detection, increase the warning time, and give engineers the notice they will need to intercept the bolide and nudge it into a harmless orbit.

In the world of science, DNA sequencing will become ever faster and cheaper and this will revolutionise medicine, taxonomy and my own field of evolution, not to mention forensic evidence in courts of law. Embryology and cell biology will advance mightily. Novel imaging techniques may enable palaeontologists and archeologists to see down into the ground without digging it up. The rendering of virtual reality will improve to the point where the distinction from external reality may become blurred. I expect unmanned space exploration to continue, albeit with economically imposed hiatuses. Out beyond 50 years, self-sustaining colonies may be established on Mars. Human travel to other star systems lies way beyond 50 years, but radio communication from extraterrestrial scientists is an ever-present possibility. However, the intervening light centuries will rule out conversation.

Margaret Atwood, author of Hag-Seed
Will we still have a liveable planet 50 years from now? Kill the oceans and it’s game over for oxygen-breathing mid-range mammals – the oceans make 60 to 80% of our oxygen. Superheating them and dumping them full of plastic may spell our doom. I hope that we’ll be smart enough to avoid this fate. From ideas proposed in my fiction, many are equally horrible, but it seems as if the use of the blood of young people to rejuvenate rich older people – as posited in The Heart Goes Last – is already in process. I do try to avoid predicting “the future” because there are so many variables; thus, so many possible futures. But here’s a safe bet: in 25 years I won’t be on the planet, unless of course I get my tentacles on some of that rejuvenating blood.•

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Author George Plimpton, front left, and J.W. Gallivan, Jr., a Rober

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  • George Plimpton seemed to have lost the will to live soon after I interviewed him in 2003. Two weeks later he was dead. It was unintentional, I swear.
  • The best part of Plimpton’s journalism, from being an embed Bedouin on the set of Lawrence of Arabia to playing quarterback in a preseason game for the Detroit Lions, was that he realized the business sometimes served an important purpose, but the vast majority of it was a lark to have fun in between visits from the Time Inc. drink cart. I cant say I approve of his mixing fiction into his fact, but the lust for life was admirable. Perhaps being in close proximity to Robert F. Kennedy as he was assassinated–he helped wrest the gun from Sirhan Sirhan’s hand–gave him perspective that life and death is life and death, and everything else is not.
  • Plimpton began writing for Sports Illustrated in the 1950s, one of the young literary lights recruited by editor Sid James to write for his publication in that era. Plimpton thrived, with the magazine nurturing his flair for participatory journalism. One who did less well was Kurt Vonnegut, whose first assignment was to write a full-length article about a spooked racehorse that jumped over a fence. Before grabbing his coat and exiting the offices to never return, he typed these words: “The horse jumped over the fucking fence.”
  • I’m sure there was some great national prank after Plimpton’s Sidd Finch story on April Fools Day in 1985, but that was one of the last hurrahs of the pre-Information Age, a story that would unravel now on Twitter in minutes. We still get fooled a lot, but by nothing nearly so wonderful. 

In a New York Review of Books piece about Plimpton’s sports journalism, Nathaniel Rich acknowledges that sometimes the writer dropped the ball, as he did in underplaying that racial hatred directed at Henry Aaron as the Atlanta slugger closed in on Babe Ruth’s home-run record, but his close proximity to the game often allowed him to digest small details about the games, including points about class, something not every patrician would appreciate. An excerpt:

Sports memoirs, like humor collections, rarely outlive their authors, but Plimpton’s books have aged gracefully and even matured. Today they have the additional (and unintended) appeal of vivid history, bearing witness to a mythical era that, as Rick Reilly writes in his foreword to The Bogey Man, “historians classify as ‘Before Insurance Lawyers Ruined Everything.’” (Journalists might classify it as Before Fact-Checkers Ruined Everything.) Plimpton writes about baseball locker rooms “heavy with cigarette and cigar smoke,” star players humbled by their off-season jobs (Pro-Bowler Alex Karras fills jelly doughnuts), and teams that cheat by positioning a spy with binoculars on a roof near the opponent’s practice field. He is able to convince major league All-Stars to take part in his scheme by offering, to the players on the team that gets the most hits off him, a reward of $125, the equivalent today of about $1,000. (By comparison, the Detroit Tigers’ slugger Miguel Cabrera earned $19,000 per inning this season.) It was also an age in which the press was powerful enough to convince professional teams to grant full, unfettered access to a journalist. Today a writer for a major national magazine is lucky to be allowed more than one hour with the subject of a cover article. Plimpton spent a full month living in a dormitory with the Lions.

As enjoyable as it is to read about Plimpton being treated roughly by professional gladiators in front of large crowds, the participatory approach also has its journalistic benefits. He understood that within every professional athlete is an amateur who, through some combination of born talent and luck, is surprised to find himself elevated to divine status. As a writer who, after the success of Paper Lion, was a bigger celebrity than most of his subjects, Plimpton had a special sensitivity to the hidden vulnerabilities of giants.

The weigh-in ceremony before Cassius Clay’s first championship fight against Sonny Liston is best remembered for Clay’s rumbling taunts, but Plimpton notes that Clay’s pulse was taken at 180; the doctor concluded that he was “scared to death.” We learn that Roger Maris, after the stress of breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, changed his batting style the following year to avoid reliving the experience. Plimpton devotes a chapter in One for the Record to the pitchers who allowed the most famous home runs in baseball history. Ralph Branca tells him that, after yielding “The Shot Heard Round the World,” he left the Polo Grounds to find his sobbing fiancée waiting for him in the parking lot with a priest. Branca’s second career, Plimpton notes, was in life insurance.•

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