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If you read this blog regularly, you know I adored David Carr, someone I never met except through his writing. His success was improbable, having previously survived a pitiless drug addiction–a surrender and an onslaught. Almost as unlikely was that he maintained his soulfulness inside a corporate behemoth like the New York Times, appearing unchanged, unreconstructed, unvanquished, perhaps inoculated from the plague of phoniness by the earlier taste of poison. It doesn’t surprise me that in his final column he hoped for a second chance for Brian Williams. Carr himself was one of the best second chances ever. He will be missed. From his book The Night of the Gun, in which he searched for a face that was strange yet his own:

Am I a lunatic? Yes. When am I going to cut this stuff out? Apparently never. Does God see me right now? Yes. God sees everything, including the blind.

Trapped in drug-induced paranoia, I began to think of the police as God’s emissaries, arriving not to seek vengeance but a cease-fire, a truce that would put me up against a wall of well-deserved consequences, and the noncombatants, the children, out of harm’s way.

On this night — it was near the end — every hit sent out an alarm along my vibrating synapses. If the cops were coming — Any. Minute. Now. — I should be sitting out in front of the house. That way I could tell them that yes, there were drugs and paraphernalia in the house, but no guns. And there were four blameless children. They could put the bracelets on me, and, head bowed, I would solemnly lead them to the drugs, to the needles, to the pipes, to what was left of the money. And then some sweet-faced matrons would magically appear and scoop up those babies and take them to that safe, happy place. I had it all planned out.

I took another hit, and Barley and I walked out and sat on the steps. My eyes, my heart, the veins in my forehead, pulsed against the stillness of the night. And then they came. Six unmarked cars riding in formation with lights off, no cherries, just like I pictured. It’s on.

A mix of uniforms and plainclothes got out, and in the weak light of the street, I could see long guns held at 45-degree angles. I was oddly proud that I was on the steps, that I now stood between my children and the dark fruits of the life I had chosen. I had made the right move after endless wrong ones. And then they turned and went to the house across the street.

Much yelling. “Facedown! Hug the carpet! No sudden movements!” A guy dropped out of the second-floor window in just gym shorts, but they were waiting. More yelling and then quiet. I went back inside the house and watched the rest of it play out through the corner of the blind. Their work done, the cops loaded several cuffed people into a van. I let go of the blind and got back down to business. It wasn’t my turn.

Twenty years later, now sober and back for a look at my past, I sat outside that house on Oliver Avenue on a hot summer day in a rental car, staring long and hard to make sense of what had and had not happened there. The neighborhood had turned over from white to black, but it was pretty much the same. Nice lawns, lots of kids, no evidence of the mayhem that had gone on inside. Sitting there in a suit with a nice job in a city far away and those twins on their way to college, I almost would have thought I’d made it up. But I don’t think I did. While I sat there giving my past the once over, someone lifted up the corner of the blind in the living-room window. It was time to go.•

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Donald Trump, a human oil spill, apparently requested that the Obama Administration make him czar of the BP cleanup effort, according to David Axelrod’s new book. From Amy Chozick in the New York Times:

Question:

Some anecdotes in the book make clear that, as a senior adviser to the president, you dealt with some odd requests. Donald Trump asked you to put him in charge of cleaning up the BP oil spill.

David Axelrod:

You owe it to the president to be polite and to give folks a hearing. But even as I was going through these conversations, I had this sense of surreality. I was watching the scene and thinking, Man, this is really bizarre. I gotta write about this someday. Nobody will believe this.•

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I think the most defining negative quality of bureaucracy is simply incompetence. Look at the example of relief efforts in New York City in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. When the federal government was in charge, FEMA did quite well. But when $100 million was shifted to the city, the efforts were a fiasco. A program called Build It Back was established by Mayor Bloomberg, and in his final 14 months in office not a single destroyed home was built back. Not one. Local homeowners living in ruins or in shelters were summoned to government offices numerous times to provide information, but while paperwork piled high, no one was helped. (So far during the de Blasio Administration, a little more than 300 homes have been completely repaired out of more than one thousand where work has begun.)

When David Graeber looks at bureaucracy, he senses something more sinister than ineptitude. He sees the potential for routine violence. In an interview about his forthcoming book, The Utopia of Rules, with David Whelan of Vice, the anthropologist looks into our future and believes an Orwellian nightmare may be headed our way. I don’t agree with Graeber’s vision of technological dreams vanishing or of library fines being commonly treated as felonies, but we’re already living in a society where “quality-of-life” policing is often used as racial punishment and certainly we’re being more tracked and quantified each day. An excerpt: 

Vice:

OK, say we’re 50 years from now, this moment. What’s happening?

David Graeber:

Research investment has changed. Flying cars are scrapped. They say to hell with going to Mars. All this space age stuff is done. Money moves elsewhere, such as information technology. And now every intimate aspect of your life is under potential bureaucratic scrutiny, which means fines and violence.

Vice:

What happens if you step out of line?

David Graeber:

Bureaucratic societies rely on the threat of violence. We follow their rules because if we don’t there’s a chance we’ll get killed. A good way to think of this is through libraries.

Vice:

Libraries?

David Graeber:

Say you want to go get a book by Foucault from the library describing why life is all a matter of physical coercion, but you haven’t paid an overdue fine and therefore you don’t have a currently valid personal ID. You walk through the gate illegally. What’s going to happen?

Vice:

A smacked bottom?

David Graeber:

Men with sticks will eventually show up and threaten to hit you.

Vice:

Wait. This actually happens?

David Graeber:

Yeah. Check out the UCLA Taser incident in 2006. They Tasered him, told him to get up, then Tasered him again.

Vice:

What’s the point in that?

David Graeber:

The point is bureaucracy. They don’t care who he is or why he’s there. It doesn’t matter who you are. You just apply the same rules to everybody, because that’s “fair.”

Vice:

But if you’re at the top of the bureaucratic tree, those rules don’t apply.

David Graeber:

Bureaucracy provides an illusion of fairness. Everyone is equal before the law, but the problem is it never works like that. But to advance in a bureaucratic system the one thing you CANNOT do is point out all the ways the system doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. You have to pretend it’s a meritocracy.•

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Working off futurist Martin Ford’s forthcoming book Rise of the Robots, Zoë Corbyn of the Guardian analyzes the next phase of labor, in which many of the human laborers will be phased out. The opening:

It could be said that the job of bridge toll collector was invented in San Francisco. In 1968, the Golden Gate Bridge became the world’s first major bridge to start employing people to take tolls.

But in 2013 the bridge where it all began went electronic. Of its small band of collectors, 17 people were redeployed or retired and nine found themselves out of work. It was the software that did it – a clear-cut case of what economists call technological unemployment. Licence-plate recognition technology took over. Automating jobs like that might not seem like a big deal. It is easy to see how it might happen, just as how we buy train tickets at machines or book movie tickets online reduces the need for people.

But technology can now do many more things that used to be unique to people. Rethink Robotics’ Baxter, a dexterous factory robot that can be programmed by grabbing its arms and guiding it through the motions, sells for a mere $25,000 (equivalent to about $4 an hour over a lifetime of work, according to a Stanford University study). IPsoft’s Amelia, a virtual service desk employee, is being trialled by oil industry companies, such as Shell and Baker Hughes, to help with employee training and inquiries. Meanwhile, doctors are piloting the use of Watson, IBM’s supercomputer, to assist in diagnosing patients and suggesting treatments. Law firms are using software such as that developed by Blackstone Discovery to automate legal discovery, the process of gathering evidence for a lawsuit, previously an important task of paralegals. Rio Tinto’smine of the futurein Western Australia has 53 autonomous trucks moving ore and big visions for expansion. Even the taxi-sharing company Uber is in on the act – it has just announced it will open a robotics research facility to work on building self-driving cars.

The upshot will be many people losing jobs to software and machines, says Silicon Valley-based futurist Martin Ford, whose book The Rise of the Robots comes out this year. He forecasts significant unemployment and rising inequality unless radical changes are made.•

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James Salter’s sad 1967 novel, A Sport and a Pastime, has only grown in stature since its publication, but the book apparently didn’t make the author financially independent. Salter, who will turn 90 in June, picked up some paychecks writing articles for People in the 1970s, including a profile of a septuagenarian Graham Greene, who was then living a rather anonymous life in Paris. Judging from this piece, Philip Roth and China were among Greene’s dislikes. An excerpt:

Among the Americans, he likes Kurt Vonnegut. Gore Vidal: “I like his essays.” Alison Lurie. Philip Roth, not much. Bellow, he finds rather difficult. As for his own work, even coming from a long-lived family it is not easy, he admits, to think of starting on a book these days. “The fears,” he says simply, “not knowing whether one will live to see the end of it.”

He has been a published writer since 1929 with his first novel, The Man Within. There have been novels, travel books, thrillers, films, plays, short stories and autobiography as well as essays and reviews. His output has been protean and the breadth of his travel and experience, vast. Many of his settings are foreign. The Honorary Consul, for instance, resulted from a three months’ trip to South America. Though his command of Spanish covers only the present tense, he was visiting in Argentina and saw the town of Corrientes one day while going up the river to Asunción. Corrientes became the scene of the book. He has been in Africa, Mexico, Russia and China (“I found it depressing”), served as an intelligence officer in Sierra Leone during the war, smoked opium in Indochina where he went as a correspondent regularly beginning in 1951 and flew in French bombers between Saigon and Hanoi. He has been an editor in a publishing house, a film reviewer, a critic, a life as varied and glamorous as that of André Malraux, another great literary and political figure. Like Malraux, he asks to be read as a political writer and has set his fiction firmly in that world. The lesson in the books of Graham Greene is the great lesson of the times: one must take sides.•

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Ed Finn of Slate has a new interview with Margaret Atwood, and in one give-and-take she explains her philosophy on writing about the future. An excerpt:

Question:

Whether you call it science fiction or speculative fiction, much of your work imagines a future that many of us wouldn’t want. Do you see stories as a way to effect change in the world, especially about climate change?

Margaret Atwood:

I think calling it climate change is rather limiting. I would rather call it the everything change because when people think climate change, they think maybe it’s going to rain more or something like that. It’s much more extensive a change than that because when you change patterns of where it rains and how much and where it doesn’t rain, you’re also affecting just about everything. You’re affecting what you can grow in those places. You’re affecting whether you can live there. You’re affecting all of the species that are currently there because we are very water dependent. We’re water dependent and oxygen dependent.

The other thing that we really have to be worried about is killing the oceans, because should we do that there goes our major oxygen supply, and we will wheeze to death.

It’s rather useless to write a gripping narrative with nothing in it but climate change because novels are always about people even if they purport to be about rabbits or robots. They’re still really about people because that’s who we are and that’s what we write stories about.

You have to show people in the midst of change and people coping with change, or else it’s the background. In the MaddAddam books, people hardly mentioned “climate change,” but things have already changed. For instance, in the world of Jimmy who we follow in Oryx and Crake, the first book, as he’s growing up as an adolescent, they’re already getting tornadoes on the East Coast of the United States, the upper East Coast, because I like setting things in and around Boston. It’s nice and flat, and when the sea rises a bunch of it will flood. It’s the background, but it’s not in-your-face a sermon.

When you set things in the future, you’re thinking about all of the same things as the things that you’re thinking about when you’re writing historical fiction. But with the historical fiction, you’ve got more to go on, and you also know that people are going to be checking up on your details. If you put the wrong underpants on Henry VIII, you’re in trouble.•

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The thing about pornographers, those horrible people, is that they were right, their suspicions about us proved true. No matter the moral posture, we did want their wares, and we wanted them to be portable. Before smartphones offering every category you could imagine and some you couldn’t, pulpy paperbacks did the trick. The 1970s were the golden age for such prurient printed matter, until that moment was disrupted by technology, first the VCR and then the Internet. Andrew Offutt (who wrote most often as “John Cleve”) was the lonely and tortured king of the Selectric-produced sex book, making it possible for gentlemen to jerk it to genre art, sordid space odysseys and wankable Westerns. His son Chris, who was deputized with the responsibility of sorting through his late father’s sizable and seemly estate, recalls dad’s uneasy reign in the New York Times Magazine. An excerpt:

The commercial popularity of American erotic novels peaked during the 1970s, coinciding with my father’s most prolific and energetic period. Dad combined porn with all manner of genre fiction. He wrote pirate porn, ghost porn, science-fiction porn, vampire porn, historical porn, time-travel porn, secret-agent porn, thriller porn, zombie porn and Atlantis porn. An unpublished Old West novel opens with sex in a barn, featuring a gunslinger called Quiet Smith, without doubt Dad’s greatest character name. By the end of the decade, Dad claimed to have single-handedly raised the quality of American pornography. He believed future scholars would refer to him as the “king of 20th-century written pornography.” He considered himself the “class operator in the field.”

In the 1980s, John Cleve’s career culminated with a 19-book series for Playboy Press, the magazine’s foray into book publishing. The “Spaceways” series allowed him to blend porn with old-time “space opera,” reminiscent of the 1930s pulps, his favorite kind of science fiction. Dad’s modern twist included aliens who possessed the genitalia of both genders. Galactic crafts welcomed the species as part of their crews, because they were unencumbered with the sexual repression of humans and could service men and women alike. The books were popular, in part, because of their campiness, repeating characters and entwined stories — narrative tropes that later became standard on television. The “Spaceways” series ended in 1985, coinciding with the widespread ownership of VCRs. Men no longer needed “left-handed books” for stimulation when they could watch videotapes in their own homes. The era of written pornography was over.

John Cleve retired. Dad insisted that he himself hadn’t quit, but that John Cleve had. It was more retreat than retirement, a slipping back into the shadows, fading away like an old soldier. Cleve had done his duty — the house was paid off, the kids were grown and the bank held a little savings.

Dad was 52. As Cleve, he published more than 130 books in 18 years. He turned to self-publishing and, using an early pseudonym, Turk Winter, published 260 more titles over the next 25 years.•

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Literature will be around as long as people are, but the particular literary world which George Plimpton and John Gregory Dunne inhabited has been disrupted, permanently. It wasn’t necessarily greater, but it was great. In a 1996 Paris Review interview, the former queried the latter about writing. The opening:

George Plimpton:

Your work is populated with the most extraordinary grotesqueries—nutty nuns, midgets, whores of the most breathtaking abilities and appetites. Do you know all these characters?

John Gregory Dunne:

Certainly I knew the nuns. You couldn’t go to a parochial school in the 1940s and not know them. They were like concentration-camp guards. They all seemed to have rulers and they hit you across the knuckles with them. The joke at St. Joseph’s Cathedral School in Hartford, Connecticut, where I grew up, was that the nuns would hit you until you bled and then hit you for bleeding. Having said that, I should also say they were great teachers. As a matter of fact, the best of my formal education came from the nuns at St. Joseph’s and from the monks at Portsmouth Priory, a Benedictine boarding school in Rhode Island where I spent my junior and senior years of high school. The nuns taught me basic reading, writing, and arithmetic; the monks taught me how to think, how to question, even to question Catholicism in order to better understand it. The nuns and the monks were far more valuable to me than my four years at Princeton. I’m not a practicing Catholic, but one thing you never lose from a Catholic education is a sense of sin and the conviction that the taint on the human condition is the natural order.

George Plimpton:

What about the whores and midgets?

John Gregory Dunne:

I suppose for that I would have to go to my informal education. I spent two years as an enlisted man in the army in Germany after the Korean War, and those two years were the most important learning experience I really ever had. I was just a tight-assed upper-middle-class kid, the son of a surgeon, and I had this sense of Ivy League entitlement, and all that was knocked out of me in the army. Princeton boys didn’t meet the white and black underclass that you meet as an enlisted draftee. It was a constituency of the dispossessed—high-school dropouts, petty criminals, rednecks, racists, gamblers, you name it—and I fit right in. I grew to hate the officer class that was my natural constituency. A Princeton classmate was an officer on my post and he told me I was to salute him and call him sir, as if I had to be reminded, and also that he would discourage any outward signs that we knew each other. I hate that son of a bitch to this day. I took care of him in Harp. Those two years in Germany gave me a subject I suppose I’ve been mining for the past God-knows-how-many years. It fit nicely with that Catholic sense of sin, the taint on the human condition. And it was in the army that I learned to appreciate whores. You didn’t meet many Vassar girls when you were serving in a gun battery on the Czech border and were in a constant state of alert in case the Red Army came rolling across the frontier. As for midgets, they’re part of that constituency of the dispossessed.

George Plimpton:

You once said you only had one character. Is that true?

John Gregory Dunne:

I’ve always thought a novelist only has one character and that is himself or herself. In my case, me.•

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Speaking of psychedelics enthusiasts, Aldous Huxley, who thought deeply about globalism, consumerism, virtual reality and technocracy before most others did, had a little book of his called A Brave New World reviewed in the February 7, 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle. It was apparently a ripping good yarn.

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In the U.S., the Right pretends it’s attacking bureaucracy while really angling to subjugate unions and workers; the aim is dismantling safety nets, not improving the situation. But that doesn’t mean mountains of paperwork shouldn’t be a bipartisan scourge. It’s often a maze with no exit. David Graeber’s forthcoming book, The Utopia of Rules, sees something even more sinister than incompetence buried in the files and folders. From Cory Doctorow’s review at Boing Boing:

Bureaucracy is pervasive and metastatic. To watch cop-dramas, you’d think that most of the job of policing was crime-fighting. But it’s not. The police are just “armed bureaucrats.” Most of what police do is administrative enforcement — making sure you follow the rules (threatening to gas you or hit you with a stick if you don’t). Get mugged and chances are, the police will take the report over the phone. Drive down the street without license plates and you’ll be surrounded by armed officers of the law who are prepared to deal you potentially lethal violence to ensure that you’re not diverging from the rules.

This just-below-the-surface violence is the crux of Graeber’s argument. He mocks the academic left who insist that violence is symbolic these days, suggesting that any grad student sitting in a university library reading Foucault and thinking about the symbolic nature of violence should consider the fact that if he’d attempted to enter that same library without a student ID, he’d have been swarmed by armed cops.

Bureaucracy is a utopian project: like all utopians, capitalist bureaucrats (whether in private- or public-sector) believe that humans can be perfected by modifying their behavior according to some ideal, and blame anyone who can’t live up to that ideal for failing to do so. If you can’t hack the paperwork to file your taxes, complete your welfare rules, figure out your 401(k) or register to vote, you’re obviously some kind of fuckup.

Bureaucracy begets bureaucracy. Every effort to do away with bureaucracy ends up with more bureaucracy.•

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William S. Burroughs reading in 1981 from Naked Lunch on Saturday Night Live, the rare pleasing moment during the the show’s most arid patch, those years when Tony Rosato could be a cast member and Robert Urich a host. Lauren Hutton intros him.

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William Butler Yeats famously pined for his muse, Maud Gonne, who rejected him. When her daughter, Iseult, turned 22, the now-midlife poet tried for her hand and was likewise turned away. While apparently no one in the family would fuck Yeats, Maud did apparently have sex in the grave of her infant son who had died at two, believing some mystical hooey which said the soul of the deceased boy would transmigrate into the new baby if she conceived next to his coffin. Well, okay. From Hugh Schofield at the BBC:

Actress, activist, feminist, mystic, Maud Gonne was also the muse and inspiration for the poet W B Yeats, who immortalised her in some of his most famous verses.

After the Free State was established in 1922, Maud Gonne remained a vocal figure in Irish politics and civil rights. Born in 1866, she died in Dublin in 1953.

But for many years in her youth and early adulthood, Maud Gonne lived in France.

Of this part of her life, much less is known. There is one long-secret and bizarre episode, however, that has now been established as almost certainly true.

This was the attempt in late 1893 to reincarnate her two-year-old son, through an act of sexual intercourse next to the dead infant’s coffin. …

Having inherited a large sum of money on the death of her father, she paid for a memorial chapel – the biggest in the cemetery. In a crypt beneath, the child’s coffin was laid.

In late 1893 Gonne re-contacted Lucien Millevoye, from whom she had separated after Georges’ death.

She asked him to meet her in Samois-sur-Seine. First the couple entered the small chapel, then opened the metal doors leading down to the crypt.

They descended the small metal ladder – just five or six steps. And then – next to the dead baby’s coffin – they had sexual intercourse.•

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Got my hands on an early copy of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind yesterday, and I haven’t been able to put it down. The ideas are many, rich and often contrarian. You might not anticipate a book with that title being a page-turner, but it definitely is. Its drop date in the U.S. is February 10, and I highly recommend it. One brief passage from the opening section:

One of the most common uses of early stone tools was to crack open bones in order to get to the marrow. Some researchers believe this was our original niche. Just as woodpeckers specialise in extracting insects from the trunks of trees, the first humans specialised in extracting marrow from bones. Why marrow? Well, suppose you observe a pride of lions take down and devour a giraffe. You wait patiently until they’re done. But it’s still not your turn because first the hyenas and jackals – and you don’t dare interfere with them – scavenge the leftovers. Only then would you and your band dare approach the carcass, look cautiously left and right – and dig into the only edible tissue that remained.

This is a key to understanding our history and psychology. The position of humans in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. It was only in the last 100,000 years – with the rise of Homo sapiens – that man jumped to the top of the food chain.

That spectacular leap had enormous consequences. Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc. As lions became deadlier, so gazelles evolved to run faster. In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.•

 

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A neurophysiological researcher at Yale, Colleen McCullough turned to writing at 37 as a second career and made it her first, producing with The Thorn Birds, a book about illicit love between a married woman and a priest, a career-defining success. Where did a story of such forbidden passion come from? Well, she was the daughter of a bigamist who had at least three wives at the same time. Listen, as an author she wasn’t Carson McCullers, but she didn’t need to be: Her heart was its own kind of lonely hunter. From her New York Times obituary, penned by the excellent Margalit Fox:

On a typical day, Ms. McCullough said, she might produce 15,000 words; on a very good day, 30,000. Her facility was all the more noteworthy in that she continued to use an electric typewriter well into the computer age.

“I spell perfectly,” she told The Inquirer in the 1996 article. “My grammar’s very good. My sentence construction is excellent. So I don’t have a lot of mistakes.” …

As a girl, Ms. McCullough dreamed of becoming a doctor. She entered medical school at the University of Sydney but was forced to abandon her studies after she developed a severe allergy to the soap widely used in Australian hospitals. She trained instead in neurophysiology, which is concerned with testing for and diagnosing neuromuscular diseases.

In the late 1960s, after working at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, Ms. McCullough accepted a position as a neurophysiological research assistant at the Yale School of Medicine. Discovering that she was being paid less than her male colleagues there, she cast about for another source of income.

“I loved being a neurophysiologist, but I didn’t want to be a 70-year old spinster in a cold-water walk-up flat with one 60-watt light bulb, which is what I could see as my future,” she told The California Literary Review in 2007.

Interested in writing since girlhood, she took to her typewriter.•

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Lee Billings, author of the wonderful and touching 2014 book, Five Billion Years of Solitude, is interviewed on various aspects of exoplanetary exploration by Steve Silberman of h+ Magazine. An exchange about what contact might be like were it to occur:

Steve Silberman:

If we ever make contact with life on other planets, they will be the type of creatures that we could sit down and have a Mos Eisley IPA or Alderaan ale with — even if, by then, we’ve worked out the massive processing and corpus dataset problems inherent in building a Universal Translator that works much better than Google? And if we ever did make contact, what social problems would that meeting force us to face as a species?

Lee Billings:

Outside of the simple notion that complex intelligent life may be so rare as to never allow us a good chance of finding another example of it beyond our own planet, there are three major pessimistic contact scenarios that come to mind, though there are undoubtedly many more that could be postulated and explored. The first pessimistic take is that the differences between independently emerging and evolving biospheres would be so great as to prevent much meaningful communication occurring between them if any intelligent beings they generated somehow came into contact. Indeed, the differences could be so great that neither side would recognize or distinguish the other as being intelligent at all, or even alive in the first place. An optimist might posit that even in situations of extreme cognitive divergence, communication could take place through the universal language of mathematics.

The second pessimistic take is that intelligent aliens, far from being incomprehensible and ineffable, would be in fact very much like us, due to trends of convergent evolution, the tendency of biology to shape species to fit into established environmental niches. Think of the similar streamlined shapes of tuna, sharks, and dolphins, despite their different evolutionary histories. Now consider that in terms of biology and ecology humans are apex predators, red in tooth and claw. We have become very good at exploiting those parts of Earth’s biosphere that can be bent to serve our needs, and equally adept at utterly annihilating those parts that, for whatever reason, we believe run counter to our interests. It stands to reason that any alien species that managed to embark on interstellar voyages to explore and colonize other planetary systems could, like us, be a product of competitive evolution that had effectively conquered its native biosphere. Their intentions would not necessarily be benevolent if they ever chose to visit our solar system.

The third pessimistic scenario is an extension of the second, and postulates that if we did encounter a vastly superior alien civilization, even if they were benevolent they could still do us harm through the simple stifling of human tendencies toward curiosity, ingenuity, and exploration. If suddenly an Encyclopedia Galactica was beamed down from the heavens, containing the accumulated knowledge and history of one or more billion-year-old cosmic civilizations, would people still strive to make new scientific discoveries and develop new technologies? Imagine if solutions were suddenly presented to us for all the greatest problems of philosophy, mathematics, physics, astronomy, chemistry, and biology. Imagine if ready-made technologies were suddenly made available that could cure most illnesses, provide practically limitless clean energy, manufacture nearly any consumer good at the press of a button, or rapidly, precisely alter the human body and mind in any way the user saw fit. Imagine not only our world or our solar system but our entire galaxy made suddenly devoid of unknown frontiers. Whatever would become of us in that strange new existence is something I cannot fathom.

The late Czech astronomer Zdeněk Kopal summarized the pessimist outlook succinctly decades ago, in conversation with his British colleague David Whitehouse. As they were talking about contact with alien civilizations, Kopal grabbed Whitehouse by the arm and coldly said, “Should we ever hear the space-phone ringing, for God’s sake let us not answer. We must avoid attracting attention to ourselves.”•

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For those who read Lolita after the Sexual Revolution of ’60s and ’70s had ended, how can the book appear like anything but an amazing piece of writing about a horrifying “romance”? But I suppose for some of the young who came of age during the carnal tumult of that earlier time, the novel seemed like a different thing–or at least the culture told them it was. In the opening question of an interview conducted by Erik Morse of the Los Angeles Review of Books, Emily Prager, the novelist and journalist who briefly appeared on the original iteration of Saturday Night Live, astutely explains the generational differences in interpretations of the controversial work:

Erik Morse:

Do you remember when you first read Lolita? What were your initial impressions, both of Nabokov’s story and the character of Lo?

Emily Praeger:

I don’t remember when I read Lolita but the idea of Lolita was a large part of the ’60s when I matured. Recently I saw the now 50ish-year-old woman whom Roman Polanski allegedly raped. She kept stammering that it was a different time, that you can’t judge Polanski by today’s standards. That’s because the Lolita idea was everywhere — there was a book with almost softcore photos of baby ballerinas that was on every coffee table, tons of very young women with much older men and it was okay. Men ruled after all. Many took Humbert Humbert as their role model. They liked him best of all. A few years ago, I went to dinner with some women who had grown up in the ’60s. It was when the new attitude toward sexual harassment in the workplace was surfacing. We had a great laugh because every single one of us had been importuned in the workplace constantly. When I was 17 and a prop girl off-Broadway, we had to kiss the house manager when we arrived at work. We rolled our eyes and did it. We thought it was ridiculous and those who asked it of us ludicrous. Lolita, the movie, came out in 1962, and it was with Peter Sellers and Stanley Kubrick directing and it was cool. We all wanted the heart-shaped sunglasses. You know, the myth of the ’60s is that it was all about sex. The truth is we knew nothing about sex except what society told us, which was it was bad. We just didn’t want anyone anymore saying anything to us about how to think about sex. So sexual liberation had to include Lolita. It was every girl for herself. You can’t believe how innocent we were. I doubt most of us registered that she might be being taken advantage of. The other thing was that very young boys were going to fight and die in Vietnam, not 12 but 18, which then was about 13. Young girls having sex didn’t seem that wrong. Of course you read Lolita now — I teach it in my fiction-writing course and modern girls are disgusted by it, horrified.•

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In a Potemkin Review interview conducted by Antoine Dolcerocca and Gokhan Terzioglu, Thomas Piketty discusses what he believes is the source of long-term, even permanent, productivity, which, of course, can occur without reasonably equitable distribution, the main focus of his book Capital in the 21st Century. An excerpt:

Question:

What do you see as a source of perpetual productivity growth?

Thomas Piketty:

Simply accumulation of new knowledge. People go to school more, knowledge in science increases and that is the primary reason for productivity growth. We know more right now in semiconductors and biology than we did twenty years ago, and that will continue.

Question:

You argue in the book that while Marx made his predictions in the 19th century, we now know that sustained productivity growth is possible with knowledge (Solow residual, etc.). But do you think this can be a sustained process in the long run?

Thomas Piketty:

Yes, I do think that we can make inventions forever. The only thing that can make it non-sustainable is if we destroy the planet in the meantime, but I do not think that is what Marx had in mind. It can be a serious issue because we need to find new ways of producing energy in order to make it sustainable, or else this will come to a halt. However if we are able to use all forms of renewable energy, immaterial growth of knowledge can continue forever, or at least for a couple of centuries. There is no reason why technological progress should stop and population growth could also continue for a little more.•

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There’s never been any material evidence linking Mohamedou Ould Slahi to the 9/11 terrorists, but he’s spent the past dozen years a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay. Slahi’s just-published diary makes claims of sexual abuse, among other forms of torture, punishment which he says forced him to lie and implicate others he did not know for crimes he knew nothing about. An excerpt via Britta Sandberg at Spiegel:

As soon as I stood up, the two _______ took off their blouses, and started to talk all kind of dirty stuff you can imagine, which I minded less. What hurt me most was them forcing me to take part in a sexual threesome in the most degrading manner. What many _______ don’t realize is that men get hurt the same as women if they’re forced to have sex, maybe more due to the traditional position of the man. Both _______ stuck on me, literally one on the front and the other older _______ stuck on my back rubbing ____ whole body on mine.

At the same time they were talking dirty to me, and playing with my sexual parts. I am saving you here from quoting the disgusting and degrading talk I had to listen to from noon or before until 10 p.m. when they turned me over to _______, the new character you’ll soon meet.

To be fair and honest, the _______ didn’t deprive me from my clothes at any time; everything happened with my uniform on. The senior _______________ was watching everything _____________________________________________________. I kept praying all the time.

“Stop the fuck praying! You’re having sex with American _______ and you’re praying? What a hypocrite you are!” said ______________ angrily, entering the room.

I refused to stop speaking my prayers, and after that, I was forbidden to perform my ritual prayers for about one year to come. I also was forbidden to fast during the sacred month of Ramadan October 2003, and fed by force. During this session I also refused to eat or to drink, although they offered me water every once in a while. “We must give you food and water; if you don’t eat it’s fine.”

I was just wishing to pass out so I didn’t have to suffer, and that was really the main reason for my hunger strike; I knew people like these don’t get impressed by hunger strikes. Of course they didn’t want me to die, but they understand there are many steps before one dies. “You’re not gonna die, we’re gonna feed you up your ass,” said ____________.

I have never felt as violated in myself as I had since the DoD team started to torture me to get me admit to things I haven’t done. (…)•

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Andrew McAfee and Eric Brynjolfsson’s The Second Machine Age, a deep analysis of the economic and political ramifications of Weak AI in the 21st century, was one of the five best books I read in 2014, a really rich year for titles of all kinds. I pretty much agree with the authors’ summation that there’s a plentitude waiting at the other end of the proliferation of automation fast approaching, though the intervening decades will be a serious societal challenge. In a post at his Financial Times blog, McAfee reconsiders, if somewhat, his reluctance to join in with the Hawking-Bostrom-Musk AI anxiety. An excerpt:

The group came together largely to discuss AI safety — the challenges and problems that might arise if digital systems ever become superintelligent. I wasn’t that concerned about AI safety coming into the conference, for reasons that I have written about previously. So did I change my mind?

Maybe a little bit. The argument that we should be concerned about any potentially existential risks to humanity, even if they’re pretty far in the future and we don’t know exactly how they’ll manifest themselves, is a fairly persuasive one. However, I still feel that we’re multiple “Watson and Crick moments” away from anything we need to worry about, so I haven’t signed the open letter on research priorities that came out in the wake of the conference — at least not yet. But who knows how quickly things might change?

At the gathering, in answer to this question I kept hearing variations of “quicker than we thought.” In robotic endeavours as diverse as playing classic Atari video games,competing against the top human players in the Asian board game Go, creating self-driving cars, parsing and understanding human speech, folding towels and matching socks, the people building AI to do these things said that they were surprised at the pace of their own progress. Their achievements outstripped not only their initial timelines, they said, but also their revised ones.

Why is this? My short answer is that computers keep getting more powerful, the available data keeps getting broader (and data is the lifeblood of science), and the geeks keep getting smarter about how to do their work. This is one of those times when a field of human inquiry finds itself in a virtuous cycle and takes off.•

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In the New York Review of Books, a contemporary American literary giant, Marilynne Robinson, takes on one of our greatest ever, Edgar Allan Poe, focusing mostly on his sole novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.

Poe died mysteriously and horribly, a sad and appropriate end, as if a premature burial had always awaited him. That he was able to squeeze so much genius into such a short life and so narrow an aesthetic is miraculous. An excerpt:

The word that recurs most crucially in Poe’s fictions is horror. His stories are often shaped to bring the narrator and the reader to a place where the use of the word is justified, where the word and the experience it evokes are explored or by implication defined. So crypts and entombments and physical morbidity figure in Poe’s writing with a prominence that is not characteristic of major literature in general. Clearly Poe was fascinated by popular obsessions, with crime, with premature burial. Popular obsessions are interesting and important, of course. Collectively we remember our nightmares, though sanity and good manners encourage us as individuals to forget them. Perhaps it is because Poe’s tales test the limits of sanity and good manners that he is both popular and stigmatized. His influence and his imitators have eclipsed his originality and distracted many readers from attending to his work beyond the more obvious of its effects.

Poe’s mind was by no means commonplace. In the last year of his life he wrote a prose poem, Eureka, which would have established this fact beyond doubt—if it had not been so full of intuitive insight that neither his contemporaries nor subsequent generations, at least until the late twentieth century, could make any sense of it. Its very brilliance made it an object of ridicule, an instance of affectation and delusion, and so it is regarded to this day among readers and critics who are not at all abreast of contemporary physics. Eureka describes the origins of the universe in a single particle, from which “radiated” the atoms of which all matter is made. Minute dissimilarities of size and distribution among these atoms meant that the effects of gravity caused them to accumulate as matter, forming the physical universe.

This by itself would be a startling anticipation of modern cosmology, if Poe had not also drawn striking conclusions from it, for example that space and “duration” are one thing, that there might be stars that emit no light, that there is a repulsive force that in some degree counteracts the force of gravity, that there could be any number of universes with different laws simultaneous with ours, that our universe might collapse to its original state and another universe erupt from the particle it would have become, that our present universe may be one in a series.

All this is perfectly sound as observation, hypothesis, or speculation by the lights of science in the twenty-first century. And of course Poe had neither evidence nor authority for any of it. It was the product, he said, of a kind of aesthetic reasoning—therefore, he insisted, a poem. He was absolutely sincere about the truth of the account he had made of cosmic origins, and he was ridiculed for his sincerity. Eureka is important because it indicates the scale and the seriousness of Poe’s thinking, and its remarkable integrity. It demonstrates his use of his aesthetic sense as a particularly rigorous method of inquiry.•

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Kim Fowley is dead, and now they’re coming to take him away, ha-haaa! Such a bag of sleaze that he could make even record-industry professionals blanch, Fowley most famously formed and managed the teenage girl group the Runaways, and the nicest way to put it is that he certainly had an eye for young talent. The opening of David L. Ulin’s knowing 2013 Los Angeles Times review of Lord of Garbage, Fowley’s mental memoir:

Kim Fowley came out of a Hollywood that doesn’t exist anymore, the Hollywood of Kenneth Anger and Ed Wood. Best known for cooking up the Runaways, he began to work in the music business in the late 1950s and since then has turned up in more places than Woody Allen’s Zelig, producing for Gene Vincent, writing with Warren Zevon and introducing John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band when they performed in Toronto in 1969.

Fowley turned 73 in 2012, and by his own admission has been suffering from bladder cancer, so it’s no surprise that he might choose this moment to look back. But his memoir, Lord of Garbage (Kicks Books: 150 pp., $13.95 paper) may be the weirdest rock ’n’ roll autobiography since … well, I can’t think of what.

The first of a projected three-volume set (Fowley claims the follow-ups have already been delivered), “Lord of Garbage” covers the first 30 years of its author’s life, from his early years bouncing between a model mother and a B-movie actor father, through a high school membership in the 1950s gang the Pagans and on to his involvement as a songwriter and producer in 1960s L.A.

How much of it is true is hard to say, exactly: Written in  bombastic prose, it follows the broad parameters of Fowley’s biography while also insisting that, at the age of 1, his first words were: “I have a question. Why are you bigger than me?”

“Kim Fowley could talk at ten months,” he tells us, “could read and write by one and a half.” It’s no coincidence that he refers to himself in the third person, since Lord of Garbage is clearly the work of someone who considers himself larger than life. “You already know the genius music,” Fowley declares in a brief head note. “Now, know the genius man of letters.”

And yet, as self-congratulatory as that is, as sadly confrontational, it’s also, in its own weird way, slightly thrilling — not unlike Fowley himself.•

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Reading a new Phys.org article about Google moving more quickly than anticipated with its driverless dreams reminded me of a passage from a Five Books interview with Robopocalypse author Daniel H. Wilson. An excerpt from each piece follows.

__________________________

From Five Books:

Question:

Isn’t machine learning still at a relatively early stage? 

Daniel H. Wilson:

I disagree. I think machine learning has actually pretty much ripened and matured. Machine learning arguably started in the 1950s, and the term artificial intelligence was coined by John McCarthy in 1956. Back then we didn’t know anything – but scientists were really convinced that they had this thing nipped in the bud, that pretty soon they were going to replace all humans. This was because whenever you are teaching machines to think, the lowest hanging fruit is to give them problems that are very constrained. For example, the rules of a board game. So if you have a certain number of rules and you can have a perfect model of your whole world and you know how everything works within this game, well, yes, a machine is going to kick the crap out of people at chess. 

What those scientists didn’t realise is how complicated and unpredictable and full of noise the real world is. That’s what mathematicians and artificial intelligence researchers have been working on since then. And we’re getting really good at it. In terms of applications, they’re solving things like speech recognition, face recognition, motion recognition, gesture recognition, all of this kind of stuff. So we’re getting there, the field is maturing.

“What those scientists didn’t realise is how complicated and unpredictable and full of noise the real world is. That’s what mathematicians and artificial intelligence researchers have been working on since then. And we’re getting really good at it. In terms of applications, they’re solving things like speech recognition, face recognition, motion recognition, gesture recognition, all of this kind of stuff. So we’re getting there, the field is maturing.•

__________________________

From Phys. org:

The head of self-driving cars for Google expects real people to be using them on public roads in two to five years.

Chris Urmson says the cars would still be test vehicles, and Google would collect data on how they interact with other vehicles and pedestrians.

Google is working on sensors to detect road signs and other vehicles, and software that analyzes all the data. The small, bulbous cars without steering wheels or pedals are being tested at a Google facility in California.

Urmson wouldn’t give a date for putting driverless cars on roads en masse, saying that the system has to be safe enough to work properly.

He told reporters Wednesday at the Automotive News World Congress in Detroit that Google doesn’t know yet how it will make money on the cars.

Urmson wants to reach the point where his test team no longer has to pilot the cars. “What we really need is to get to the point where we’re learning about how people interact with it, how they are using it, and how can we best bring that to market as a product that people care for,” he said.•

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Well, you can’t get a much more top-shelf Oscars moment than this passage from the 1977 ceremony, as Jane Fonda introduces Norman Mailer who in turn presents the Best Original Screenplay award to Paddy Chayefsky for Network. Mailer sets up the announcing of the nominees with the famous anecdote about Voltaire visiting a gay bordello. Despite what Aquarius says, it was more way more difficult for Chayefsky to write a great novel than a great screenplay.

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Granta has an excerpt called “Drone” from a forthcoming Hari Kunzru novel, a dystopian nightmare about an India in which income inequality and runaway technology are extrapolated to extremes, those of enormous wealth living in stupendous towers above the ruined earth. In this passage, a poor miner named Jai opts for human augmentation to enable survival:

One evening, he goes to buy himself an arm. It’s a common enough transaction. Most people on earth are augmented. You can increase your strength, overclock your reaction time or your lung capacity, multiply your attention span. You can cosmetically alter your face, reskin your body in the latest colours. You can augment your perception, overlaying the hideous environment of your mining camp with a pristine rainforest or an educational maze or a hypersexual forest of organs and limbs. Elsewhere in the world, people have changed themselves in ways these miners can only dream about. The rich are fantastical creatures, young gods living in a customized world, generating themselves and their environment out of the stuff of their desires. Not this, that. Not that, this. For the less fortunate there are wealth-sims and optical overlays that make cramped living spaces feel spacious, cosmetically luxurious. You may be exhausted and feeding yourself textured algae, but you’re doing it in a marble throne room.

Jai, like everyone, worries that he’s falling behind. Other miners stimulate their muscle growth, or use cheap mechanical prosthetics with docks for attaching tools. One or two have elaborate biomechanical grafts, though these many-armed, monstrously sized men are usually enslaved by the militias and are so psychologically alienated that they can’t properly be called human any more. Jai is young and strong. He has the body he was born with, a body which has been constructed entirely by chance, without selection or surgery or fetal therapies, with a variable food supply, patchy shelter and unrestricted exposure to diseases and swarms of all kinds. He is miraculously healthy, but can’t seem to make enough money to survive. Sometimes he goes hungry. He struggles to pay the water boys.

The prosthetician is based in a highly entropic zone of the camp, the informal red-light district known as the Cages. It’s a quarter that has spawned a hundred slang terms for process, words for every type and quality of peak, dip, spread and intensification. As Jai squeezes through a decaying alley, a flock of what look like geese with glandes instead of heads skitter past him. Who knows where they came from, but they’re ubiquitous in the Cages. The miners call them ‘dickchickens’. Whores grafted into the walls display available orifices or scroll out stims that grab the crotch or flicker and bounce off the eye like thrown business cards. Even the architecture is pink, moist to the touch; when it comes to overlays, miners tend to want the hard stuff. Cheap and heavy. Margaritaville. Pussytown. Jai is assaulted by a confusion of tacky skins and feelies, which override his permissions, come congaing through his field of vision, trying to trick him into giving out his credit strings. Phantom pudenda flourish and bloom. Semen spatters the optics of his sensorium. He is brushed by nipples, hair, lubricated hands.

He squeezes himself through a rectal crack into the limbmongers’ colony, the swarm of drones battering round him, thick and black. It fills the narrow alley. Machines get stuck underfoot or mashed into the deliquescent walls. The largest are the size of small birds, the tiniest mere hoverflies, with little iridescent solar sails for wings. As he is finally enclosed by the prosthetician’s stall, sheltered behind his firewall, the swarm forms a clicking, skittering crust on the transparent shell, jostling for a sight line.

The limbmonger is a sallow man with a double ridge of bone on his forehead and a cage of carbon fibre around his jaw, the platform for some kind of sensorium. As he shows Jai his wares he’s probably multitasking, climbing pre-thaw Everest or swapping feelies of cats. He has a telltale absence to his manner, a blankness. Of the various devices on offer, there’s only one Jai can afford, a contraption with a battered shovel, a claw, and some kind of twitch control that the man swears works perfectly, but which only seems to react intermittently to Jai’s instructing left shoulder.•

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A debate (by proxy) between Nicholas Carr and Andrew McAfee, two leading thinkers about the spreed of automation, takes place in Zoë Corbyn’s Guardian article about Carr’s most-recent book, The Glass Cage. I doubt the proliferation of Weak AI will ultimately be contained much beyond niches despite any good dissenting arguments. An excerpt:

As doctors increasingly follow automated diagnostic templates and architects use computer programs to generate their building plans, their jobs become duller. “At some point you turn people into computer operators – and that’s not a very interesting job,” Carr says. We now cede even moral choices to our technology, he says. The Roomba vacuum cleaning robot, for example, will unthinkingly hoover up a spider that we may have saved.

Not everyone buys Carr’s gloomy argument. People have always lamented the loss of skills due to technology: think about the calculator displacing the slide rule, says Andrew McAfee, a researcher at the MIT Sloan School of Management. But on balance, he says, the world is better off because of automation. There is the occasional high-profile crash – but greater automation, not less, is the answer to avoiding that.

Carr counters that we must start resisting the urge to increase automation unquestioningly. Reserving some tasks for humans will mean less efficiency, he acknowledges, but it will be worth it in the long run.•

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