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We tell ourselves stories in order to live, sure, but what if we tell the wrong ones?

Yes, there’s always been a strain of madness in American society—in pretty much every society—but the sideshow was moved from the margins to the center ring in recent decades. The zealots, cranks and crooks have become the norm, or at least enough of the norm to tip the balance. Not that our country wasn’t sick before the Internet decentralized media. Donald Trump’s rise, which began before Reality TV and Russian bots, perfectly traces our descent into system-crushing corruption. Now numerous erstwhile pillars of our nation topple and probably will fall. That will be messy, but it’s actually the best-case scenario: It’s still possible the fraudulent may consume whatever justice remains.

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In a Times Literary Supplement Q&A, fiction writer M. John Harrison argues that narratives, which are fast gaining a horrible reputation, will be extinct in a quarter of a century:

Question:

What will your field look like twenty-five years from now?

M. John Harrison:

Smaller. A generation will have grown up repelled by the urge to fantasy that lies behind fake news, corporate branding, political misdirection, sports reporting before the event, the constant fictionalization of everything. “Story” will be a dirty word, even at the BBC and in science journalism. Realism will have set in a long way upstream of the idea of fiction itself and people will be consuming their own lives, as lived, rather than images of life designed to persuade them of something. As part of the arms race between consumer and producer, they’ll have grown out of the idea that one kind of make-believe can be an antidote to another, and be trying to reduce their vulnerability to all of this stuff. A utopian picture, certainly: but utopianism and its ironical sister are traditional features of my field.

I’m sure that’s not so, nor do I think it should be. Democracy was a pretty good narrative and so was the Civil Rights Movement. Stories will always be with us, from the cave drawings of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc until the end of our species, but we better choose them more carefully or that endgame will arrive sooner than we’d like. 

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Pat Graham’s AP piece provides a portrait of a self-taught U.S. rocket scientist who believes the Earth is flat, which is a perfect metaphor for American exceptionalism run amok. The opening:

The countdown to launch creeps closer and there’s still plenty for self-taught rocket scientist “Mad” Mike Hughes to do: Last-second modifications to his vessel. Pick up his flight suit. Leave enough food for his four cats — just in case anything happens.

Hughes is a 61-year-old limo driver who’s spent the last few years building a steam-powered rocket out of salvage parts in his garage. His project has cost him $20,000, which includes Rust-Oleum paint to fancy it up and a motor home he bought on Craigslist that he converted into a ramp.

His first test of the rocket will also be the launch date — Saturday , when he straps into his homemade contraption and attempts to hurtle over the ghost town of Amboy, California. He will travel about a mile at a speed of roughly 500 mph.

“If you’re not scared to death, you’re an idiot,” Hughes said . “It’s scary as hell, but none of us are getting out of this world alive. I like to do extraordinary things that no one else can do, and no one in the history of mankind has designed, built and launched himself in his own rocket.

“I’m a walking reality show.”

The daredevil/limo driver has been called a little bit of everything over his career — eccentric, quirky, foolhardy. Doesn’t bother him. He believes what he believes, including that the Earth is flat. He knows this thought is a conundrum, given that he’s about to launch himself into the atmosphere.

Down the road, he’s intending to build a rocket that takes him to space, so he can snap a picture and see with his own eyes.

“I don’t believe in science,” said Hughes, whose main sponsor for the rocket is Research Flat Earth. “I know about aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and how things move through the air, about the certain size of rocket nozzles, and thrust. But that’s not science, that’s just a formula. There’s no difference between science and science fiction.”•

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I wondered yesterday how many members of Edge.org know about Jeffrey Epstein’s apparent continued participation in the ideas think tank, assuming many of them would be uncomfortable about keeping such company. Lawrence Krauss and Steven Pinker would seemingly not be among the troubled.

The photo above of the two scientists with Epstein was posted in 2014 and appears to be of that vintage. In a 2015 Guardian article, Krauss refused to distance himself from the registered sex offender, feigning ignorance about his patron’s criminal behavior with children:

Well before Epstein went to jail, he saw philanthropy as a way to bring together people from different walks of life in settings ranging from his own mansions to academic conferences, friends said.

“His interest is in interesting people and interesting ideas,” said Arizona State University physicist Lawrence Krauss, who directs a program on the origins of life that Epstein has supported. He said he would feel cowardly if he turned away from Epstein because of accusations Krauss knew nothing about.•

For more than a decade, Donald Trump appeared on NBC playing a master builder of New York City, a family man and exacting authority figure who nonetheless had empathy for the workers he fired. It was utter bullshit, of course, but in that odd alternative universe of Realty TV, it was presented as real.

By the time Mark Burnett figured out he could make some cash on Trump’s elephantine ego, the blowhard’s career was in disrepair, his garbage reputation and business practices making it all but impossible for him to open any structure in Manhattan bigger than a tent in Central Park. No respectable person with funds wanted to float Bull Connor as a condo salesman, but fortunately for him money often finds its way into disreputable hands.

Despite his idiot-box persona, Trump was, more accurately, the capo of a crime family, one who’d been fined $10 million dollars for money laundering, stiffed contractors, bilked classes full of desperate people who’d attended his ludicrous Trump University, regularly conducted business with the shadiest types, and whose children had been spared arrest for fraud for strange and mysterious reasons.

You could say that anyone with half a brain would have known Trump was merely playing a role on television, but that’s not how things currently work in America. Trump in the White House never could have happened with the rot of our system in many areas—law, politics, media, education, etc.—but there’s no doubt he would not currently be appearing on Fox, CNN, and every other channel as a Simon Cowell-ish strongman without our damaging real-unreal television culture.

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Kris Jenner is is very good at a certain type of business, despite being a hideous person. (Or, more accurately, because she is a hideous person.) Truth be told, she’s not as awful as Joe Jackson whose main saving grace is the accident of genetics that allowed him to have children with traditional entertainment talent, but she is still awful. She will never be President, but she is like a terrible congressperson who serves endless terms, never going away. She is ours, for good, and that’s not a mistake. That’s the system we’ve built—that’s who we are.

· · ·

The opening of James Walcott’s New York Times review of books about the Trump and Kardashian clans:

There are those who have fame thrust upon them, and those who thrust themselves upon fame like an invasion force. It is the latter troupe of shameless, relentless thrusters that occupies us here, the Trump and Kardashian clanships. Until fairly recently, family dynasties — whatever skeletons they may have had in their closets — thrived on a mantle of achievement handed down from generation to generation, whether we’re talking about the Adamses, Roosevelts, Rockefellers, Kennedys, Bushes or Flying Wallendas. Such a quaint ideal and needless effort this service obligation seems now, when exhibitionism in the pseudoraw is what gets rewarded, thanks in large measure to the phony theatrics of reality TV, which turned the social theorist Daniel Boorstin’s notion of a celebrity — someone famous for being famous — into a terrarium thronged with dance moms, mob wives and Honey Boo Boos. It has elevated into omnipresence those who would have otherwise played out a normal cycle in public awareness and then disappeared to pester us no more. Without “The Apprentice” and its successor, “The Celebrity Apprentice,” Donald Trump would have remained an egregious real estate self-promoter and gossip-column fixture, and his children minor adjuncts and boardroom props; without “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” the brood bearing that name would have been living footnotes to the O. J. Simpson murder trial. Instead, one family wields incalculable political power, the other pervades pop culture and fashion like an incurable virus. The two books under review offer peep-show views of preening lives and impostures before they went panoramic.

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Don’t pay as much attention to the bells and whistles as the engines that barely make a hum.

The algorithms and sensors that work quietly and efficiently without pause are a different sort of threat than drones and bombs and humanoid robots that can stick a landing, but give them time and they can do a far more pervasive job. 

Similarly, it’s a good idea to dismiss the public posturing of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as he treks around the country for his American “listening tour,” milking cows and drinking coffee in truck-stop diners the way an actual human might, and focus instead on the company’s attempts to distance itself from the disaster of the 2016 election. Sheryl Sandberg promises Facebook will take responsibility for its failings in the same breath that she asserts that “at our heart we’re a tech company—we don’t hire journalists.” 

Talk of a Zuckerberg run for the White House in 2020 has been all but silenced since it’s clear he’s not even fully capable of running his virtual kingdom. What seemed like an impenetrable fortress a year ago may now be stormed by regulators eager to do a job that Facebook (and Google and Twitter) either can’t or won’t do.

The opening of Edward Luce’s FT column “The Zuckerberg Delusion“:

Here is what Mark Zuckerberg learned from his 30-state tour of the US: polarisation is rife and the country is suffering from an opioid crisis. Forgive me if I have to lie down for a moment. Yet it would be facile to tease Mr Zuckerberg for his self-evident observations. Some people are geniuses at one thing and bad at others. Mr Zuckerberg is a digital superstar with poor human skills. 

Facebook’s co-founder is not the first Silicon Valley figure to show signs of political inadequacy — nor will he be the last. But he may be the most influential. He personifies the myopia of America’s coastal elites: they wish to do well by doing good. 

When it comes to a choice, the “doing good” bit tends to be forgotten. 

There is nothing wrong with doing well, especially if you are changing the world. Innovators are rightly celebrated. But there is a problem with presenting your prime motive as philanthropic when it is not. Mr Zuckerberg is one of the most successful monetisers of our age. Yet he talks as though he were an Episcopalian pastor. 

“Protecting our community is more important than maximising our profits,” Mr Zuckerberg said this month after Facebook posted its first ever $10bn quarterly earnings result — an almost 50 per cent year-on-year jump. When a leader goes on a “listening tour” it means they are marketing something. In the case of Hillary Clinton, it was herself. In the case of Mr Zuckerberg, it is also himself. Making a surprise announcement that Mr Zuckerberg would be having dinner with an ordinary family is the kind of thing a Soviet dictator would do — down to the phalanx of personal aides he brought with him. 

This is not how scholars find out what ordinary families are thinking. Nor is it a good way to launch a political campaign. 

Ten months after Mr Zuckerberg began his tour, speculation of a presidential bid has been shelved. Say what you like about Donald Trump but he knows how to give the appearance of understanding ordinary people. More to the point, Facebook has turned into a toxic commodity since Mr Trump was elected. Big Tech is the new big tobacco in Washington. It is not a question of whether the regulatory backlash will come, but when and how.•

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Came across “3 Days in the Future,” a 2002 New York Times article about the then-12-year-old TED Conference, and it led me down a very disquieting Google black hole. Jeffrey Epstein, friend of Donald Trump, Bill Clinton and Woody Allen, was mentioned in the piece, which isn’t surprising since at that point he was mostly recognized as a billionaire supporter of cutting-edge science. A few years later, the public knew him better than that and much of what was revealed was terrible.

Epstein’s public generosity was at least partially a cover for his evil deeds, as he was investigated beginning in 2005 for sex crimes involving children. He ultimately plead guilty to soliciting underage girls for prostitution and spent 13 months in prison, which seemed like an incredibly fortunate outcome for him and one that didn’t come close to justice. It’s been further reported that he reached settlements with some of his accusers for an amount over $5 million, and in one of these cases he was accused of operating an underage sex-abuse ring. Another of his alleged victims is currently suing in regards to the sex-trafficking.

What I discovered when I did some simple search-engine work is that the Edge Foundation, according to its own site, continues to this day to maintain the registered sex offender as a full member. His Edge bio declares that Epstein enjoys conducting “philanthropy in the U.S. Virgin Islands,” without mentioning what else he’s been accused of conducting there.

Certainly, Edge.org does lots of interesting work in regards to science and technology under founder John Brockman’s editorial guidance, but I wonder how many members of the think tank, lots of them truly good and brilliant people, know about Epstein’s continued participation.

It’s possible that this is an old page that’s simply never been removed from the Internet—and one would hope so—though Epstein’s personal site also lists him as an active member.•

The Austrian physiologist Eugen Steinbach began researching “reactivation,” his term for the process of making the aged young all over again, in the 1890s. He promoted the use of “brain extracts” for all and developed for men a type of vasectomy that would allegedly repurpose semen into an internal youth serum. It was bullocks, but the procedure still helped the doctor gain fame—if not the approval of his medical peers—because people rightfully fear death, a hideous and permanent condition. A 1941 report in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle marveled at how the 81-year-old, yet seemingly ageless, Steinbach was to go horseback riding on his birthday. What a remarkable specimen he’d turned himself into! He croaked three years later, however, like a mere commoner who’d been unenlightened about the bold ideas of educated men.

Today Alphabet aims to “cure death,” Libertarian putz Peter Thiel has vowed that HGH injections and other high-priced treatments will allow him to live to 140 (god help us all if so) and Singulatarian Ray Kurzweil pursues immortality by downing handfuls of supplements daily and working on a system to upload his brain into computers. Let’s hope for his sake it doesn’t wind up housed in Google Docs

Don DeLillo’s 2016 novel, Zero K, takes on this fervor among the super-rich for an endless tomorrow: “We are born without choosing to be,” a character says. “Should we have to die in the same manner?” Well, we should search for better cures and longer lives, but there’s something creepy about the over-promising and narcissism of contemporary Silicon Valley immortalists who hope to escape societal collapse by fleeing to New Zealand and to outrun the Reaper through a combination of chemistry and computers. They talk about wanting to rescue the world, but they mostly want to save their own asses and stock options. 

In “The History of the Future,” John Gray’s mixed New Statesman review of Peter J. Bowler’s forthcoming book about the hopes and fears provoked by what passes for progress, the critic examines the longstanding anti-death movement through Steinbach, Serge Voronoff and other historical crackpots, and interprets more technological utopias and dystopias that have sprung from laboratories and the humanities to fill our dreams and haunt our nightmares.

An excerpt about “enlightened” thought:

Many who have been optimistic about the possibilities opened up by technology have wanted to use it for purposes that would now be recognised as highly regressive; some of the most widely influential among these people have been renowned progressive thinkers. When a cult of technology is joined with fashionable ideas of human improvement, the upshot is very often gruesome inhumanity.

Consider eugenics. Writing of the interwar enthusiasm for policies that would “improve the human stock”, Bowler reminds us that exhibitions promoting Nazi eugenics and “racial hygiene” toured the US freely in the Thirties, while many American states enacted legislation for the compulsory sterilisation of people judged to be feeble-minded. For many progressives, eugenics was as quintessentially modern as town planning. Eugenic policies attracted the support of William Beveridge, John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell and progressive luminaries throughout the world. In Sweden, the architect of the Scandinavian welfare state, Gunnar Myrdal, argued that a programme of mandatory sterilisation was necessary for social progress, with tens of thousands being subjected to the procedure up to the mid-Seventies.

Some in interwar Europe went so far as proposing the compulsory euthanasia of people classified as socially obstructive or useless. Bowler cites the French surgeon Alexis Carrell (1873-1944) as recommending that habitual criminals “should be humanely and economically disposed of in some euthanasia institutions supplied with proper gases”. Carrel was attacked for links with the Nazis, but policies of this kind were not confined to Nazis and their sympathisers. Carrell’s views were anticipated by George Bernard Shaw, whose long-time enthusiasm for involuntary euthanasia Bowler does not discuss.

In a speech to the Eugenics Education Society in 1910, Shaw declared: “A part of eugenic politics would finally land us in an extensive use of the lethal chamber. A great many people would have to be put out of existence simply because it wastes other people’s time looking after them.” Here Shaw was not speculating about a hypothetical future society. In his introduction to Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s English Prisons Under Local Government (1921), he explicitly advocated large-scale use of the lethal chamber as an alternative to imprisonment. In The Crime of Imprisonment(1946), he reiterated his view of how anti-social elements should be treated: “If they are not fit to live, kill them in a decent human way.”

Shaw’s belief that many human beings were “not fit to live” was a recurring theme among early-20th-century progressive thinkers. As Bowler notes, Wells looked forward to a future in which “The unfit would be painlessly eliminated, the mentally ill encouraged to suicide out of a sense of duty and the inferior races of the world would face extinction.” When in his non-fiction study Anticipations, first published in 1901, he considered the future of the “swarms of black and yellow and brown people who do not come into the needs of efficiency” in a scientifically ordered World State, Wells concluded that these and other “inefficient” human groups would have to disappear: “The world is not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go”. Here Wells was expressing a view of human progress that he never renounced.•

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A hammer is a tool or a weapon depending on how you swing it, and the more powerful the tool, the more powerful the weapon.

Technology that excels at data-collection and surveillance will be used to those ends in the best of times and will be employed in a harsh, even tyrannical, manner in the worst of times. The competing agendas among individuals, corporations and states almost demand it. I’m not suggesting Digital Leninism is the only possible future in our increasingly algorithmic world, but I do think determinism is embedded to some degree in technology, which can lead as well as follow. And there will be no plugs to pull if things to don’t go as planned, and even if there were, yanking them from the wall would be the end of us as surely as it would our machines. 

Yuval Noah Harari dissents from that view in a recent Guardian review of Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0, asserting that technology is what we make it. Even if that is true, take one good look at us and worry. The opening:

Artificial intelligence will probably be the most important agent of change in the 21st century. It will transform our economy, our culture, our politics and even our own bodies and minds in ways most people can hardly imagine. If you hear a scenario about the world in 2050 and it sounds like science fiction, it is probably wrong; but if you hear a scenario about the world in 2050 and it does not sound like science fiction, it is certainly wrong.

Technology is never deterministic: it can be used to create very different kinds of society. In the 20th century, trains, electricity and radio were used to fashion Nazi and communist dictatorships, but also to foster liberal democracies and free markets. In the 21st century, AI will open up an even wider spectrum of possibilities. Deciding which of these to realise may well be the most important choice humankind will have to make in the coming decades.

This choice is not a matter of engineering or science. It is a matter of politics. Hence it is not something we can leave to Silicon Valley – it should be among the most important items on our political agenda. Unfortunately, AI has so far hardly registered on our political radar. It has not been a major subject in any election campaign, and most parties, politicians and voters seem to have no opinion about it. This is largely because most people have only a very dim and limited understanding of machine learning, neural networks and artificial intelligence. (Most generally held ideas about AI come from SF movies such as The Terminator and The Matrix.) Without a better understanding of the field, we cannot comprehend the dilemmas we are facing: when science becomes politics, scientific ignorance becomes a recipe for political disaster.

Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0 tries to rectify the situation. Written in an accessible and engaging style, and aimed at the general public, the book offers a political and philosophical map of the promises and perils of the AI revolution. Instead of pushing any one agenda or prediction, Tegmark seeks to cover as much ground as possible, reviewing a wide variety of scenarios concerning the impact of AI on the job market, warfare and political  systems.

Life 3.0 does a good job of clarifying basic terms and key debates, and in dispelling common myths. While science fiction has caused many people to worry about evil robots, for instance, Tegmark rightly emphasises that the real problem is with the unforeseen consequences of developing highly competent AI. Artificial intelligence need not be evil and need not be encased in a robotic frame in order to wreak havoc. In Tegmark’s words, “the real risk with artificial general intelligence isn’t malice but competence. A superintelligent AI will be extremely good at accomplishing its goals, and if those goals aren’t aligned with ours, we’re in trouble.”•

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The implied religiosity which often attends Artificial Intelligence, a dynamic identified by Jaron Lanier among other technological critics, becomes explicit in the Way of the Future, roboticist Anthony Levandowski’s new Silicon Valley spiritual-belief system in which the Four Horsemen, should they arrive, will do so in driverless cars.

To be perfectly accurate, Levandowski, the pivotal figure in the current legal scrum between Google and Uber over autonomous-vehicle intellectual property, isn’t prophesying End of Days scenarios but is rather preaching that we are in the process of transitioning from a planet ruled by humans (not great guardians, admittedly) to one governed by what he thinks will be superior machines. If we get on our knees and pray at his church today, he believes, we’ll be more likely to be accepted tomorrow as pets who sit at the feet of our masters.

His techno-theocracy sounds even less inviting than the religion promoted by the computer-savvy, self-described messiah Maharaj Ji, a teenage guru from India who briefly came to prominence in America during the disco-addled decade of the 1970s. From a 1974 profile of him by Marjoe Gortner:

The guru is much more technologically oriented, though. He spreads a lot of word and keeps tabs on who needs what through a very sophisticated Telex system that reaches out to all the communes or ashrams around the country. He can keep count of who needs how many T-shirts, pairs of socks–stuff like that. And his own people run this system; it’s free labor for the corporation.

The morning of the third day I was feeling blessed and refreshed, and I was looking forward to the guru’s plans for the Divine City, which was soon going to be built somewhere in the U. S. I wanted to hear what that was all about.

It was unbelievable. The city was to consist of “modular units adaptable to any desired shape.” The structures would have waste-recycling devices so that water could be drunk over and over. They even planned to have toothbrushes with handles you could squeeze to have the proper amount of paste pop up (the crowd was agog at this). There would be a computer in each communal house so that with just a touch of the hand you could check to see if a book you wanted was available, and if it was, it would be hand-messengered to you. A complete modern city of robots. I was thinking: whatever happened to mountains and waterfalls and streams and fresh air? This was going to be a technological, computerized nightmare! It repulsed me. Computer cards to buy essentials at a central storeroom! And no cheating, of course. If you flashed your card for an item you already had, the computer would reject it. The perfect turn-off. The spokesman for this city announced that the blueprints had already been drawn up and actual construction would be the next step. Controlled rain, light, and space. Bubble power! It was all beginning to be very frightening.•

Following up on his recent WTF Wired feature about Levandowski, Mark Harris offers a further interview with the Silicon Valley spiritualist, who, like many in the Singularity industry, worships at the altar of “intelligence,” a term that’s far more slippery to define than many in the sector are willing to admit. The algorithmic abbot believes unimaginable machine intelligence must equate to God. “If there is something a billion times smarter than the smartest human, what else are you going to call it?” Well, perhaps the devil?

An excerpt:

Levandowski has been working with computers, robots, and AI for decades. He started with robotic Lego kits at the University of California at Berkeley, went on to build a self-driving motorbike for a DARPA competition, and then worked on autonomous cars, trucks, and taxis for Google, Otto, and Uber. As time went on, he saw software tools built with machine learning techniques surpassing less sophisticated systems—and sometimes even humans.

“Seeing tools that performed better than experts in a variety of fields was a trigger [for me],” he says. “That progress is happening because there’s an economic advantage to having machines work for you and solve problems for you. If you could make something one percent smarter than a human, your artificial attorney or accountant would be better than all the attorneys or accountants out there. You would be the richest person in the world. People are chasing that.”

Not only is there a financial incentive to develop increasingly powerful AIs, he believes, but science is also on their side. Though human brains have biological limitations to their size and the amount of energy they can devote to thinking, AI systems can scale arbitrarily, housed in massive data centers and powered by solar and wind farms. Eventually, some people think that computers could become better and faster at planning and solving problems than the humans who built them, with implications we can’t even imagine today—a scenario that is usually called the Singularity.

Levandowski prefers a softer word: the Transition. “Humans are in charge of the planet because we are smarter than other animals and are able to build tools and apply rules,” he tells me. “In the future, if something is much, much smarter, there’s going to be a transition as to who is actually in charge. What we want is the peaceful, serene transition of control of the planet from humans to whatever. And to ensure that the ‘whatever’ knows who helped it get along.”

With the internet as its nervous system, the world’s connected cell phones and sensors as its sense organs, and data centers as its brain, the ‘whatever’ will hear everything, see everything, and be everywhere at all times. The only rational word to describe that ‘whatever’, thinks Levandowski, is ‘god’—and the only way to influence a deity is through prayer and worship.

“Part of it being smarter than us means it will decide how it evolves, but at least we can decide how we act around it,” he says. “I would love for the machine to see us as its beloved elders that it respects and takes care of. We would want this intelligence to say, ‘Humans should still have rights, even though I’m in charge.’”

Levandowski expects that a super-intelligence would do a better job of looking after the planet than humans are doing, and that it would favor individuals who had facilitated its path to power. Although he cautions against taking the analogy too far, Levandowski sees a hint of how a superhuman intelligence might treat humanity in our current relationships with animals. “Do you want to be a pet or livestock?” he asks. “We give pets medical attention, food, grooming, and entertainment. But an animal that’s biting you, attacking you, barking and being annoying? I don’t want to go there.” 

Enter Way of the Future. The church’s role is to smooth the inevitable ascension of our machine deity, both technologically and culturally. In its bylaws, WOTF states that it will undertake programs of research, including the study of how machines perceive their environment and exhibit cognitive functions such as learning and problem solving.

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Considering the best-case scenario of how many days I might possibly have left in my life and how many books I want to read—not even counting the ones yet to be published that will lengthen that list—there’s no doubt I’ll fall well short of crossing off every title. That could be viewed as a blessing: At least I’ll never run out of reading material. It’s also a curse. What if there was another way?

In Cathy O’Neil’s concerned Bloomberg View opinion piece “What If We Could Upload Books to Our Brains?” the editorialist pivots off of a podcast discussion between Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ray Kurzweil, two guys who just won’t give it a rest. The excerpt:

‎Ray Kurzweil:

Computers are getting smaller and smaller. We’ll have nano-robots the size of blood cells that have computers in them. They’ll go into the brain through the capillaries and communicate with our neurons. We already know how to do that. People with Parkinson’s disease already have computer connections into their brain. My view is that we’re going to become a hybrid, partly biological, partly non-biological. However, the non-biological part is subject to what I call the Law of Accelerating Returns. It’s going to expand exponentially. The cloud is expanding exponentially. It’s getting about twice as powerful every year. Our biological thinking is relatively fixed. I mean, there’ve been a few genetic changes in the last few thousand years, but for the most part it hasn’t changed much, and it’s not going to expand because we have this fixed skull that constrains it and it actually runs on a very slow substrate that’s a million times slower than electronic circuits.

Neil deGrasse Tyson:

Then why invoke the brain-machine connection at that point? You’ve got the machine.

Ray Kurzweil:

Because it’s a much faster interface. Our fingers are very slow.

‎Neil deGrasse Tyson:

The world is going too slow for you. You want to speed it up.

Ray Kurzweil:

I mean, it is. How long does it take you to read The Brothers Karamozov? It takes months.

Neil deGrasse Tyson:

So you’re suggesting that you can get these nanobots the size of your neurosynapses and one that will be pre-loaded with War and Peace and will somehow inject it into your neurosynaptic memory banks and then you’re done, you’ve got it. Just like in the Matrix, they would load memory programs into you.

Ray Kurzweil:

We will connect into neocortical hierarchies in the cloud. Some of that could have preloaded knowledge.•

A couple things: 1) Even if your lips move, it should not take months to read the Brothers Karamozov. 2) Feel free to toss Kurzweil’s “Law of Accelerating Returns” onto a pile of e-waste, as he’s often wildly optimistic in these matters.

That means we likely won’t be the ones making decisions about this brave new world, if humans get to make them at all. I assume Kurzweil means the result of volumes being uploaded into our descendants’ wetware would be different than if they were fed into a computer, that these future people wouldn’t just absorb this information as data but would be capable of analysis and criticism as if they’d actually sat and read them.

It would be akin to swallowing a pill dinner instead of eating food. Of course, that way of taking nourishment would cause jaws, mouths, teeth, throats and stomachs to change, likely for the worst. You’d have to think parts of our brains might go slack if we were plugging them into a library, painlessly absorbing shelves at a time. 

When futurists talk about carbon-silicon hybrids as necessary to evolve and save the species, they’re actually talking about perpetuating some form of life, more than specifically “human life.”

From O’Neil:

What if humans could upload all the great classics of literature to their brains, without having to go through the arduous process of reading? Wonderful and leveling as that may seem, it’s a prospect that I’m not sure we should readily embrace.

A while ago, I listened to an interview with futurist Ray Kurzweil on astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s radio show StarTalk. Kurzweil described (starting at 10:30) how our brains might someday interface directly with non-biological forms of intelligence, possibly with the help of nano-bots that travel through our capillaries.
 
Given how much faster this interface would be than regular reading, he went on, we’d be able to consume novels like “The Brothers Karamazov” in moments, rather than the current rather clumsy form of ingestion known as reading, which, he said, “could take months.”
 
At this point Tyson interjected: Are you saying we could just upload War and Peace? Yes, Kurzweil answered: “We will connect to neocortical hierarchies in cloud with pre-loaded knowledge.”

This snippet of conversation has baffled and fascinated me ever since.•

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Gilbert Rogin, the gifted fiction writer and legendary Time Inc. magazine reporter and editor, just died. What didn’t make it into Neil Genzlinger’s well-written New York Times obituary: the scribe’s often, um, colorful personal life, nor his true feelings about Vibe, the successful periodical he helped midwife (he was not a fan). 

In 1968, Rogin turned out a sharp Sports Illustrated profile of motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel, a Houdini whose trick was getting hurt, when he was dreaming of blowing up his career by flying a rocket over the Grand Canyon. Never allowed to make the leap at that locale, the Norman Vincent Peale devotee instead staged the pseudo-event six years later at Snake River Canyon, a feat shown live in movie theaters that was unsurprisingly marketed by wrestling promoter Vince McMahon Jr. Everyone heard about it, but few actually paid to see it, and all involved lost a mint. It succeeded, however, in making Knievel an even bigger household name. In his line of work—selling titillating trash to bored Americans—that was all that mattered. 

Among other tales, Rogin matter-of-factly relates the quasi-athlete’s horrifying story of his violent kidnapping of a 17-year-old girl who would later become his wife. An excerpt:

Evel Knievel, who says he is going to jump the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle next Labor Day, is having a glass of orange juice with John Herring, a songwriter, in the coffee shop of the Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills at 3 a.m. Herring, who has composed such hits as “What Have I Got of My Own?” and “What Do You Do with an Old, Old Song?” has agreed to write a song about Evel Knievel—a name, by the way, that rhymes, being pronounced Evil Kahneevil. Herring tells Knievel he shouldn’t publicize their relationship. “It’s more admirable that someone was inspired by your jump and went and wrote the song,” he says.

In fact, someone was inspired—another songwriter named Arlin Harmon. Herring has already heard Harmon’s lyrics a couple of times, but Knievel, who is deeply affected by them, insists on reciting them once more:

“I want to tell you a story about a fella I know
That can make your hands sweat, your blood run cold….
He stands tall and straight, looks like a man you’d want to kiss.
To see him flirt with death is something you can’t afford to miss.
Because he’s evil. Because he’s Evel Knievel.
He’s going to jump the Grand Canyon in ’68.
Thousands of people will be there for that long-awaited date.
When he sits on that ramp and his engines start to roar,
He’s going to know how a hawk feels before he starts to soar.
It’s 3,000 feet to the bottom of that gorge.
His life will be hanging from a small ripcord.
And whether or not he heeds the devil’s longing call,
Everyone will know that Evel Knievel’s the greatest of them all.”

“Y’don’t want to put him in a “Big Bad John” bag,” Herring says. “Y’got to bring it up to a higher plane of thought where everybody can feel it, y’dig? He could be in business. He’s legitimate. What’s he want to jump that thing for? Some say he wants to make a lot of money. The more sensitive say he’s looking for something. He says, ‘Shove that noise. I’m going to jump this scooter.’ Y’got to get closer to an elevated message, like:

“When the roar of thunder fills the air,
And your heart begins to pound,
When 10,000 people rise to their feet [y’ understand?],
Then you’ll know he’s leaving the ground [or Evel Knievel’s in town].
“You give the effects. What you taste, hear, feel—dig?
“No use to worry about your tomato.
He didn’t come to town for tomatoes.

“He’s seeking something else. You got to give it a broad philosophical base. I never wrote a song that didn’t make money. I never will.”

Why is Knievel jumping the Canyon?

“To get to the other side,” he says.

If it can be said that anyone has the background to jump the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle, it is Evel Knievel. For the past two years he has earned his living jumping a motorcycle from one ramp to another, and he claims to have made $100,000 in 1967. “You might say I have a pretty comfortable living,” he says, “but it’s pretty uncomfortable.”

Among other things, he has cleared 16 cars parked side by side, and a crate containing 50 live rattlesnakes, with two mountain lions staked at the near end. Originally the lions were to be situated at both ends, but their owner was afraid Knievel would fall short and kill one of them. As it happened, he did not jump far enough. “I took the end right out of the box,” he says. “A couple of snakes wiggled free. I hit the dirt and sprained my ankle. I don’t jump rattlesnakes no more.” …

At various times in his life Knievel has been a motorcycle racer but he gave it up because there is no money in it. “I can’t eat handlebars, tires and batteries,” is one of his favorite sayings. Knievel also built a motorcycle racetrack and promoted races in Moses Lake, Wash., where he was a Honda dealer for two years. In that capacity, he offered $100 off the price of a motorcycle to anyone who could beat him at arm wrestling. When nobody was able to, he offered a free motorcycle to anyone who could bend his arm, with the provision that if the customer lost he would buy a motorcycle. “This farmer tied me,” Knievel recalls. “I beat him right-handed and he beat me left-handed, but I talked him into buying a 150 cc anyway. I’ve only been beat twice in my life—a little pig rancher from Idaho and a big guy from Spokane.”

In 1961 Knievel was a private policeman in Butte. This is somewhat ironic in view of the fact that, according to his own account, he had been for some years a card thief, safecracker and swindler. “I don’t like to play cards unless I can cheat,” says Knievel. “And if I had a $20 bill for every safe I peeled, I’d have a new Cadillac—and some of them didn’t have any money in them. I can blow them, peel them, beat them. Floor safe, round door, square door, vault. I can crack a safe with one hand tied behind my back. I always got a hell of a feeling out of drilling a hole in a roof. There’s no thrill like drilling a hole in the roof of some institution and dropping down a rope and looking around.” 

Knievel says he was perhaps even more accomplished at swindling. “I traveled with a man who was known as the greatest swindler of all time,” he says. “A judge in one of the biggest cities in the world made the statement and was quoted in the newspapers, ‘This man is one of the most brilliant criminals ever brought before me.’ I always thought there was one more brilliant. That was me sitting in the courtroom who was never caught. We swindled institutions out of $25,000 or $30,000 within a 30-day period. I brought forth some schemes that were really brilliant, that no one in this world will ever be able to solve. I can show you a scheme that can beat any bank in this country out of any amount of money.”

Knievel says he took part in an armed robbery only once. “It bothered me so much,” he says. “The guy wanted to be brave. Consequently he got the hell beat out of him by me. I felt bad to have to hurt an individual to take money, even though I was doing it for a living. His blood was all over me. I did it and I got away with it, but it’s not the right way of life. Why do it? Why beat someone out of money that they worked hard for, and not contribute anything to this country and what it stands for?

“There was only one time in my life I lost my sense of being able to cope with any situation. I was crossroading at the time. I was in Sacramento with a fella who had been on the 10 Most Wanted list and another safecracker who was on the verge of getting on the list. I thought of shooting myself. The pressure broke me. That was really the turning point. Either live the rest of my life with these people or…. A kid will never become a man until he looks in a mirror and tells himself he wants to become a man. I want kids and teachers to look up to me and the things I stand for. I got a letter the other day from a teacher in the John F. Kennedy Junior High School in Redwood City, California. She said the children took an interest in me and followed my jumps, that it made them more intent on learning to read. I love people. I want to be good to people. That’s why I changed my whole way of life. I felt if I really loved my wife and children, I’d try to make a contribution to mankind and society as they should be contributed to.”

Evel and Linda Knievel have three children—two boys, Kelly, 7, and Robbie, 5, and a girl, Tracy, 4. (Recently, the three of them were jumping off a bed. “I’m Batman,” said Kelly. “I’m Superman,” said Robbie. “I’m Evel Knievel,” said Tracy.) When Knievel was 20 and Linda 17 he convinced her of his love by Kidnaping her. Along with a friend named Marco, Knievel went to an ice-skating rink in Butte where he knew Linda was skating. “I hid behind a garage, put on my skates and went out on the rink,” he recalls. “She couldn’t get away from me. I drug her by the hair and threw her in the back of the truck. ‘Go, Marco, go,’ I shouted. Then we got her into my car and I took off. I was driving with my ice skates on. Try it some time. We went and hid in a church. I knew they’d never look for me there. The cops and sheriffs were after me. My dad’s friends took the cars off his lot and were looking for me. The Triple A basketball tournament was being played in Butte, and Linda was the head cheerleader, and she wasn’t there. We started driving. It started snowing. It snowed two or three feet. We got stuck in the snow and stayed there all night. As soon as it got daylight I called a wrecker from a farmhouse. When the wrecker came, I had Linda lay down and hide in the back. There was a warrant out for my arrest. The guy in the wrecker heard the all-points bulletin. When he got us out, he radioed to the police, I just pulled that kid out of the snow, but that girl wasn’t with him.’ Her mother was saying, ‘Oh, my God, he killed her and stuck her in a snowbank.’ The cops were out probing in the snow. I tried to get to Coeur d’Alene, but I didn’t have any snow tires and couldn’t get over the hills. I figured I better go home and face the music. I was stopped at a roadblock. They threw me in jail for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. My dad put up the $500 to get me out.”•

Sad to hear the news that onetime gossip powerhouse Liz Smith passed away. Can’t say that her focus on celebrity made our society better, and in some ways she helped enable a corrupt system that needed to be torn down rather than propped up, but the water she swam in was always more shallow than dirty. The following is a repost of an entry about her from last summer.

Liz Smith was at the center of the culture, when the culture still had a center. Then the long tail of the Internet snapped her from the spotlight, as almost everyone became a celebrity and countless outlets allowed gossip to achieve ubiquity. The louche location of a newspaper no longer needed a name reporter anymore than most blockbusters required a particular star. The pictures didn’t get smaller, but the people in them did. Like Walter Winchell, she outlived her fame.

No one deserved a steep decline more than Winchell, who Smith grew up listening to on radio when she was a girl in Texas in the Thirties. A figure of immense power in his heyday, Winchell was vicious and vindictive, often feared and seldom loved, the inspiration for the seedy and cynical J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success. 

By the time journalism matured in the 1960s and college-educated industry professionals began saying “ellipsis” rather than “dot dot dot,” Winchell had no power left, and people were finally able to turn away from him–and turn they did. The former media massacrist was almost literally kicked to the curb, as Larry King recalled seeing the aged reporter standing on Los Angeles street corners handing out mimeographed copies of his no-longer-syndicated column. By the time he died in 1972, he was all but already buried, and his daughter was the lone mourner in attendance.

Smith was of a later generation, and unlike Winchell or Hedda Hopper, she usually served her information with a spoon rather than a knife—the scribe loved celebrity and access and privilege so much—though she occasionally eviscerated someone who behaved badly. Frank Sinatra was her most famous foe, and you had to respect her for not pulling punches based on the size of her opponent. In the 1980s, she was a major player. A decade later, as we entered the Internet Age and Reality TV era, her empire began to crumble. Now, at 94, she wonders where it all went.

In one sense, Smith is like a lot of retirees pushed from a powerful perch. In another, because she worked in the media in a disruptive age, she has embedded in her the slings and arrows of a technological revolution that turned the page with no regard for the boldness of the bylines.

· · · 

From John Leland’s excellent NYT feature “The Rise and Fall of Liz Smith, Celebrity Accomplice“:

So when J-Lo sneezes, it is now up to someone else to make sure the public gets sick.

Facebook, maybe?

“I don’t think my name could sell anything now,” Ms. Smith said in the apartment where she moved after her stroke in January, from her longtime digs above a Tex-Mex restaurant in Murray Hill. She wore a white cable-knit sweater and bright orange lipstick.

“It used to mean — bylines used to mean something in journalism,” she said, her Texas accent still unbowed. But with the internet and social media, she said, “most people have forgotten about so-called powerful people like me; we served our time.”

Which put Ms. Smith at an existential crossroads: If a gossip columnist dishes in the forest and no one repeats it, does it make a sound? In a celebrity landscape that considers contestants on “The Bachelorette” to be celebrities, how does a star-chaser regain her star?

“I am in search of Liz Smith,” she said softly, musing at the thought. “After a lifetime of fun and excitement and money and feeling important and being in the thick of it, I am just shocked every day that I’m not the same person. I think that happens to all old people. They’re searching for a glimmer of what they call their real self. They’re boring, mostly.

“I’m always thinking falsely, expending what little energy I have, believing every day I may just rediscover that person. I try to be all of the things I was, but it inevitably fails. I don’t feel like myself at all.”•

Citizens with their suspect UFO “sightings” have given the search for extraterrestrial intelligence a bad name in America as assuredly as Timothy Leary made the potential medical benefits of LSD long unspeakable. But considering how much is out there—including stars like our sun and planets like our own—the odds are that we’re not alone.

· · ·

China is set up to hear first if extraterrestrials make contact with humans any time in the foreseeable future, since that nation has invested most heavily in the technology necessary to enable such a meeting of the minds. Does it matter if a totalitarian regime is at the head of the line to greet the otherworldly? (That’s supposing, of course, that China remains autocratic.) Probably not, considering the Earth-shaking enormity of the event, one that would likely render any political designations meaningless. Of course, some probably felt the same about the original Space Race, and that didn’t turn out to be true, with numerous practical advantages subsequently enjoyed by America. But the realization of a close encounter with alien life would dwarf even boots on the moon.

· · ·

Its realization of a village-clearing SETI telescope makes clear, however, that China is committed to science as America has taken a sharp turn from it, at least at our highest levels of government. If the autocratic state surpasses the U.S. and the rest of the planet in not only alien detection but also in solar panels, supercomputers, physics, etc., China would possess a soft power to go along with superior hardware, which would have a profound effect on world order. China’s dominance isn’t fait accompli, of course, as its poisonous dictatorial politics is a serious impediment to scientific growth. The valuable messiness of democracy may ultimately be a natural outgrowth of its continued development.

· · ·

In Ross Andersen’s wonderfully written Atlantic account of his trek to China’s premier SETI setup, which looks like a caved-in Apple campus dotted with oil rigs and is the “the world’s most sensitive telescope,” the author visits with novelist Liu Cixin and revisits the populous state’s scientific history. An excerpt:

week later, I rode a bullet train out of Shanghai, leaving behind its purple Blade Runner glow, its hip cafés and craft-beer bars. Rocketing along an elevated track, I watched high-rises blur by, each a tiny honeycomb piece of the rail-linked urban megastructure that has recently erupted out of China’s landscape. China poured more concrete from 2011 to 2013 than America did during the entire 20th century. The country has already built rail lines in Africa, and it hopes to fire bullet trains into Europe and North America, the latter by way of a tunnel under the Bering Sea.

The skyscrapers and cranes dwindled as the train moved farther inland. Out in the emerald rice fields, among the low-hanging mists, it was easy to imagine ancient China—the China whose written language was adopted across much of Asia; the China that introduced metal coins, paper money, and gunpowder into human life; the China that built the river-taming system that still irrigates the country’s terraced hills. Those hills grew steeper as we went west, stair-stepping higher and higher, until I had to lean up against the window to see their peaks. Every so often, a Hans Zimmer bass note would sound, and the glass pane would fill up with the smooth, spaceship-white side of another train, whooshing by in the opposite direction at almost 200 miles an hour.

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is often derided as a kind of religious mysticism, even within the scientific community. Nearly a quarter century ago, the United States Congress defunded America’s seti program with a budget amendment proposed by Senator Richard Bryan of Nevada, who said he hoped it would “be the end of Martian-hunting season at the taxpayer’s expense.” That’s one reason it is China, and not the United States, that has built the first world-class radio observatory with SETI as a core scientific goal.

It was mid-afternoon when we glided into a sparkling, cavernous terminal in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou, one of China’s poorest, most remote provinces. A government-imposed social transformation appeared to be under way. Signs implored people not to spit indoors. Loudspeakers nagged passengers to “keep an atmosphere of good manners.” When an older man cut in the cab line, a security guard dressed him down in front of a crowd of hundreds.The next morning, I went down to my hotel lobby to meet the driver I’d hired to take me to the observatory. Two hours into what was supposed to be a four-hour drive, he pulled over in the rain and waded 30 yards into a field where an older woman was harvesting rice, to ask for directions to a radio observatory more than 100 miles away. After much frustrated gesturing by both parties, she pointed the way with her scythe.

We set off again, making our way through a string of small villages, beep-beeping motorbike riders and pedestrians out of our way. Some of the buildings along the road were centuries old, with upturned eaves; others were freshly built, their residents having been relocated by the state to clear ground for the new observatory. A group of the displaced villagers had complained about their new housing, attracting bad press—a rarity for a government project in China. Western reporters took notice. “China Telescope to Displace 9,000 Villagers in Hunt for Extraterrestrials,” read a headline in The New York Times.

SETI does share some traits with religion.•

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Timothy Leary had numerous odd experiences behind prison walls. There was the time he dropped acid with Massachusetts inmates, the one in which he shared a Folsom cell block with Charles Manson and let us never forget that he was lectured in the pen by friend Marshall McLuhan. Such was the life of an LSD salesman.

One of the few trips Leary never got to take, except posthumously, was a trek to outer space. In 1976, during his “comeback tour” after stays in 29 jails and a retirement of sorts, Leary dreamed of leaving it all behind—way behind. The opening of John Riley’s People article “Timothy Leary Is Free, Demonstrably in Love and Making Extraterrestrial Plans“:

High in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, in a wood-heated A-frame beside a rushing stream, the retired guru speaks:

“After six years of silence, we have three new ideas which we think are fairly good. One is space migration. Another is intelligence increase. The third is life extension. We use the acronym SMI2LE to bring them together.”

The sage is Timothy Leary, high priest of the 1960s LSD movement, who is just four weeks out of the 29th jail he has inhabited since his first arrest in Laredo, Texas, 11 years ago. That charge was possession of less than half an ounce of marijuana that his then-wife, Rosemarie, had handed to his daughter. In recent months, when Leary was appearing before federal grand juries investigating the Weather Underground, he was moved from prison to prison for his own safety. Now paroled at age 56, he will soon start a term of probation whose length will be set by a federal judge.

Leary fled a federal work camp in California in 1970, an escape planned by Rosemarie and the Weather Underground. The Learys went first to Africa, then to Switzerland, where their marriage collapsed. Leary met and was captivated by a then 26-year-old jet-setter, Joanna Harcourt-Smith, whom he married in 1972. Three weeks later they traveled to Afghanistan, where U.S. authorities captured them both and flew them back to Los Angeles.

“Joanna visited me regularly,” Leary says. “She published several of my books and lobbied and schemed to get me free.” He looks at her adoringly, and she turns from the breakfast dishes in the sink to kiss him. Joanna tells how she collared Betty Ford on a street in San Diego and pleaded with her for Tim’s freedom. “I’m doing for my husband what you’re doing for yours. You’re helping yours get elected President, and I’m helping mine get out of prison.”

“One of the plans that she was continually hatching to break me out,” says Leary, “was for her to descend onto the Vacaville prison grounds in a silver helicopter blaring Pink Floyd music, wearing nothing but a machine gun. We called it Plan No. 346.”

“You know,” he continues, after Joanna has left to drive to a village 10 miles away for groceries and cigarettes, “in 1970 the U.S. government directly and bluntly shut me up. It was the greatest thing that could have happened, because I had run out of ideas.” His face, its prison pallor turned to brown by the mountain sun, breaks into a grin. A woodpecker hammers at the chimney of their Franklin stove. “Does that every morning,” says Leary. “We’ve named him the tinpecker.

“Well, SMI2LE, as I said, is a good idea. The acronym is woven into Joanna’s belts and purses. The space migration part is what I’m working on right now. Los Alamos [the atomic laboratory] is not far away and I have lots of questions about laser fusion. And this valley is an ideal temporary planetary base of operations for getting away from earth.”

Leary not only wants to live on a space station between the earth and the moon, he wants to take some of the planet with him. “How far can we see from here?” he asks. “Half a mile? According to a professor at Princeton, such an area could be compressed to a degree that I figure could be fit within a NASA spacecraft.”•

It’s certainly possible with current technology to automate many McJobs, including ones at McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants, but robotization is slowed when cheap human labor makes the price point for transition too dear. That’s the argument used by those trying to suppress worker wages, keeping them so low that FT employees often need to be subsidized by federal-assistance programs. There has to be a better way than a choice between sub-subsistence wages and technological unemployment, and it’s likely a political solution.

People who serve up sentences are becoming as prone to this phenomenon as those who sling hash, with prose on paper and screen alike unsupported by the new advertising reality. The print ad was always an inexact science, but it was a bubble that took a century to burst. We’ve yet to find a formula that will support 21st-century written media for even a day.

Complicating matters even further is the sleepless army of amateur scribes churning out endless copy for Facebook and other social-media giants. I’ve said it before, but Mark Zuckerberg’s media-swallowing behemoth would be by far the biggest sweatshop in the history of the world, except that even those grimy outfits pay at least a pittance. Perhaps much of newswriting could theoretically soon be automated, but who needs the machines when we have the “wisdom” of the crowds? The fans have rushed the stage and taken over the show.

Eventually, I assume we’ll have largely a hybrid of human drones sending out paragraphs of varying length and quality, with computers supplementing the output. Some privileged people will remain tapping on keyboards to do high-level work for a salary, but their numbers will be puny. Let’s face it: The privileged have always been few, but their ranks will be significantly thinned.

From Zam EIC Laura Michet’s Twitter feed:

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It’s not nearly the most enormous or important outrage, but the way these Pepe the Frog pigs and Russian trolls have used nihilism to advance their racist and autocratic agenda is maddening. Nihilism isn’t good as an operating system, but it can be a bug that disrupts the machine, making us realize that we’re actually not entirely inside of it, that other options are possible. It’s a philosophical doctrine that’s very effective in combating a society that’s become as numb and monotonous as the face of a clock, especially one that’s been given over almost entirely to consumerism. From Jules Feiffer’s 1967 play, Little Murders:

ALFRED
(photographer):

So I began to do a lot of catalogue work. Pictures of medical instruments, things like that. There was—well, the best way to describe it—a seductiveness I was able to draw out of inanimate things that other photographers didn’t seem to be able to get. I suppose the real break came with the I.B.M. show. They had me shoot thirty of their new models. They hired a gallery and had a computer show. One hundred and twenty color pictures of computers. It got some very strange notices, the upshot of which was that the advertising business went “thing” crazy, and I became commercial again.

MARJORIE
(prospective mother-in-law):

You must be extremely talented.

ALFRED:

I got sick of it! Where the hell are the standards? That’s what I kept asking myself. Those people will take anything! Hell, if I gave them a picture of shit they’d give me an award for it!

MARJORIE:

Language, young man!

ALFRED:

Mm? So that’s what I do now.

CAROL
(prospective father-in-law):

What?

ALFRED:

Take pictures of shit.

MARJORIE:

Language! Language! This is my table!

ALFRED:

I don’t mean to offend you, Mrs. Newquist. I’ve been shooting shit for a year now, and I’ve already won a half-dozen awards.

MARJORIE:

Awards?

ALFRED:

And Harper’s Bazaar wants me to do its spring issue.

MARJORIE:

That’s a very respectable publication. It all sounds very impressive.•

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Hopefully Stephen Galloway of the Hollywood Reporter will now be able to sleep easily knowing Harvey Weinstein and his ilk are able to afford David Boies, former Mossad officers and numerous international security agencies when trying to undermine, cajole and intimidate victims and journalists determined to go public about sexual harassment and abuse. Ronan Farrow’s latest New Yorker bombshell, “Harvey Weinstein’s Army of Spies,” investigates the stealthy and labyrinthine operation Weinstein bankrolled while trying to keep his house of cards from toppling off the table. It’s as mind-blowing as the actual accusations, this story of a cabal of spies and A-list legal minds retained to do the dirty work. An excerpt:

In the fall of 2016, Harvey Weinstein set out to suppress allegations that he had sexually harassed or assaulted numerous women. He began to hire private security agencies to collect information on the women and the journalists trying to expose the allegations. According to dozens of pages of documents, and seven people directly involved in the effort, the firms that Weinstein hired included Kroll, one of the world’s largest corporate intelligence companies, and Black Cube, an enterprise run largely by former officers of Mossad and other Israeli intelligence agencies. Black Cube, which has branches in Tel Aviv, London, and Paris, offers its clients the skills of operatives “highly experienced and trained in Israel’s elite military and governmental intelligence units,” according to its literature.

Two private investigators from Black Cube, using false identities, met with the actress Rose McGowan, who eventually publicly accused Weinstein of rape, to extract information from her. One of the investigators pretended to be a women’s-rights advocate and secretly recorded at least four meetings with McGowan. The same operative, using a different false identity and implying that she had an allegation against Weinstein, met twice with a journalist to find out which women were talking to the press. In other cases, journalists directed by Weinstein or the private investigators interviewed women and reported back the details.

The explicit goal of the investigations, laid out in one contract with Black Cube, signed in July, was to stop the publication of the abuse allegations against Weinstein that eventually emerged in the New York Times and The New Yorker. Over the course of a year, Weinstein had the agencies “target,” or collect information on, dozens of individuals, and compile psychological profiles that sometimes focussed on their personal or sexual histories. Weinstein monitored the progress of the investigations personally. He also enlisted former employees from his film enterprises to join in the effort, collecting names and placing calls that, according to some sources who received them, felt intimidating.

In some cases, the investigative effort was run through Weinstein’s lawyers, including David Boies, a celebrated attorney who represented Al Gore in the 2000 Presidential-election dispute and argued for marriage equality before the U.S. Supreme Court. Boies personally signed the contract directing Black Cube to attempt to uncover information that would stop the publication of a Times story about Weinstein’s abuses, while his firm was also representing the Times, including in a libel case.

Boies confirmed that his firm contracted with and paid two of the agencies and that investigators from one of them sent him reports, which were then passed on to Weinstein. He said that he did not select the firms or direct the investigators’ work. He also denied that the work regarding the Times story represented a conflict of interest. Boies said that his firm’s involvement with the investigators was a mistake. “We should not have been contracting with and paying investigators that we did not select and direct,” he told me. “At the time, it seemed a reasonable accommodation for a client, but it was not thought through, and that was my mistake. It was a mistake at the time.”•

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Ten years ago, in the speculative New York Review of Books essay “Our Biotech Future,” Freeman Dyson imagined a time when lifeforms, not just startups, might be hatched in garages, when reptile breeders could fashion designer lizards and children could create their own playthings. He believed the genetic future was fast, cheap and perhaps out of control. “These games will be messy and possibly dangerous,” he acknowledged. An excerpt:

I see a bright future for the biotechnology industry when it follows the path of the computer industry, the path that von Neumann failed to foresee, becoming small and domesticated rather than big and centralized. The first step in this direction was already taken recently, when genetically modified tropical fish with new and brilliant colors appeared in pet stores. For biotechnology to become domesticated, the next step is to become user-friendly. I recently spent a happy day at the Philadelphia Flower Show, the biggest indoor flower show in the world, where flower breeders from all over the world show off the results of their efforts. I have also visited the Reptile Show in San Diego, an equally impressive show displaying the work of another set of breeders. Philadelphia excels in orchids and roses, San Diego excels in lizards and snakes. The main problem for a grandparent visiting the reptile show with a grandchild is to get the grandchild out of the building without actually buying a snake.

Every orchid or rose or lizard or snake is the work of a dedicated and skilled breeder. There are thousands of people, amateurs and professionals, who devote their lives to this business. Now imagine what will happen when the tools of genetic engineering become accessible to these people. There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes to breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits too.

Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer. New lineages will proliferate to replace those that monoculture farming and deforestation have destroyed. Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture.

Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but a great many will bring joy to their creators and variety to our fauna and flora. The final step in the domestication of biotechnology will be biotech games, designed like computer games for children down to kindergarten age but played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Playing such games, kids will acquire an intimate feeling for the organisms that they are growing. The winner could be the kid whose seed grows the prickliest cactus, or the kid whose egg hatches the cutest dinosaur. These games will be messy and possibly dangerous. Rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others. The dangers of biotechnology are real and serious.

If domestication of biotechnology is the wave of the future, five important questions need to be answered. First, can it be stopped? Second, ought it to be stopped? Third, if stopping it is either impossible or undesirable, what are the appropriate limits that our society must impose on it? Fourth, how should the limits be decided? Fifth, how should the limits be enforced, nationally and internationally? I do not attempt to answer these questions here. I leave it to our children and grandchildren to supply the answers.•

That biotech future is arriving in a hurry now, even if it’s only in the larval stage, not yet thoroughly decentralized, a development, should it be realized, that will present tremendous promise and peril, perhaps saving the species or assailing it with existential threats. Most likely is both those outcomes materialize in simultaneity. These first baby steps unsurprisingly involve CRISPR. In Annie Sneed’s Scientific American piece “Mail-Order CRISPR Kits Allow Absolutely Anyone to Hack DNA,” the author finds that the risks and rewards of DIY biology are currently small—but we’re only at the beginning.

The opening:

“We aren’t going to get sick, are we?” my roommate Brett asked me. He cringed as I knelt down and stuffed a plate of E. coli bacteria—which came as part of the DIY CRISPR–Cas9 kit I bought online—into our fridge next to cartons of eggs, strawberry jam, bottles of beer and a block of cheese.

“No, we won’t. The label says ‘non-pathogenic,’” I replied, trying to sound assuring. But honestly, I had no clue what I was doing. I nudged all the food up against the fridge wall, and left a two-inch border around the plate of living cells—a no man’s land between the microbes and our dinner. A couple inches probably would not stop the bugs, but I figured it couldn’t hurt.

CRISPR–Cas9 (or CRISPR, for short) has given scientists a powerful way to make precise changes to DNA—in microbes, plants, mice, dogs and even in human cells. The technique may help researchers engineer drought-resistance crops, develop better drugs, cure genetic disorders, eradicate infectious diseases and much more. Ask any biologist, and they’ll likely tell you that CRISPR is revolutionary. It’s cheap and effective, and in many cases, it works much better than older methods for making genetic modifications. Biologists will also tell you that CRISPR is very easy to use. But what does “easy to use” mean?

I am not a DIY scientist, much less a professional scientist. You won’t find me swabbing my cheek cells for DNA or tinkering with yeast in a lab on the weekend. But I wondered: Is CRISPR so easy that even amateurs like me can make meaningful contributions to science? And also, does this new technique make gene editing so accessible that we need to worry about DIY scientists cooking up pandemic viruses in their basements? If you Google ‘DIY CRISPR,’ stories such as “What Happens If Someone Uses this DIY Gene Hacking Kit to Make Mutant Bacteria?” pop up.

I attempted to find answers to all these questions myself, starting with the plate of bacteria in the kitchen of my San Francisco apartment.•

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In 2016, Stephen Galloway of the Hollywood Reporter wrote the most shockingly amoral take of the Nate Parker rape controversy. It’s understood that an industry trade journal addresses above all else the business of movies, but Galloway’s article on the Parker ugliness from the aspect of how the director and Fox Searchlight could best do damage control and own the narrative was bizarre and offensive. For a journalist to write from inside an imaginary public relations war room about the optimum tactics that could be employed to ensure a movie “can survive a rape-trial scandal” is just jaw-dropping, especially since the woman who charged Parker and his Birth of a Nation co-writer Jean Celestin didn’t survive, having committed suicide in 2012. It was the strangest set of priorities.

The title of Galloway’s latest article, about the Harvey Effect, “Harassment, Scandal and the Media: Is a Hollywood Witch Hunt Brewing?” is not promising, and the piece largely lives down to it, using the child-abuse hysteria of the bizarre McMartin Preschool Case of the 1980s to worry about the accusations currently directed at show business and media figures. 

I’d love to know how many pieces Galloway has written over the years about his fears that women and children and men were being sexually exploited in Hollywood. My bold guess is the number zero. So far, not one figure accused of misconduct or more—Weinstein, Toback, Spacey, etc.—has been wrongfully blamed. In fact, such behavior is highly recidivist, making it fairly easy to confirm now that the floodgates have opened. And it’s the tip of the tip of the iceberg when it comes to entertainment world abuses.

If Galloway had spent a little more time in his career addressing the very real wrongs he’d heard about—and he certainly did hear of them—instead of turning a deaf ear, perhaps we wouldn’t have reached this desperate moment.

The opening:

In the early 1980s, Los Angeles was engulfed in scandal. After the mother of a young child claimed her son had been sodomized by a staff member at his school, other parents came forward with increasingly lurid allegations. Not only had one kid been violated, it was said, but so had dozens of others. And it wasn’t just an isolated staffer who was responsible; rather, half a dozen teachers and administrators had perpetrated the most heinous sex acts, some involving small animals, others satanic rituals. There were tales of secret underground tunnels and witches on broomsticks. The revelations seemed endless and apocalyptic. And they were repeated ad nauseam by a too-willing press.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of reporters were assigned to cover the story, one tumbling over the other in the race to break news. Here in Southern California, in suburban Manhattan Beach — in the very place where children should have felt safest — they were in grave danger, we were told. And if these kids were in danger, how many others must be, too? We started looking around with a newfound fear. Friends became strangers, strangers became enemies, enemies became potential perverts lurking in our midst, ready to do inconceivable harm. Terror swept through middle-class families just as ferociously and devastatingly as the fires that have recently decimated Santa Rosa.

And yet none of it was true.

After years of investigations and multiple trials, not a single person connected to the McMartin preschool scandal (as the case was known) was ever found guilty, though many of the accused had their lives left in ruins. One alleged culprit, Ray Buckey, endured two separate trials, and both ended in hung juries, after he’d spent five years waiting in jail. David Shaw won a Pulitzer Prize writing about how rumor turned to revulsion for The Los Angeles Times; but even today, many of us question whether “not guilty” was the same as “innocent.”

The media didn’t cover itself in glory back then. Where were the reporters who stuck to that tried-and-true principle, that one is innocent until proven guilty? Where were the voices crying out that these fables of witches and warlocks, dungeons and devilish rites, didn’t pass the sniff test? They remained silent, almost without exception. In my three decades as a journalist, I’ve never experienced anything like it.

Until now.

Since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke three weeks ago, thanks to some stellar reporting by The New York Times and The New Yorker — bolstered by a cascade of reports from other publications, including this one — not a day has gone by without another mind-boggling story. From James Toback to Kevin Spacey, from Brett Ratner to Dustin Hoffman, from political commentator Mark Halperin to NPR news chief Michael Oreskes — there have been countless tales of horrendous behavior, the sort one had hoped to see vanish decades ago. In their zeal to ferret out the guilty, journalists are reacting to past errors, and to a time when our unwillingness to investigate allegations gave rise to the culture of secrecy in which Weinstein’s band of brothers could thrive.

And these stories are just the tip of the iceberg. Even now, my colleagues here and elsewhere are on the hunt, chasing hundreds of tips about harassment in many and varied forms — male upon male, male upon female, verbal, sexual, you name it. And I’m delighted. It’s wonderful to see reporters tackling a subject of real significance and society-changing potential. They’re doing what journalists are meant to do: comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

That said, may I confess that I’m scared?

I’m terrified that, in our righteous quest to do good, we’re sweeping up the innocent as well as the guilty. We’re accepting allegations in the place of solid proof. We’re conflating those guilty of more minor crimes with perpetrators of egregious and even criminal behavior. •

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Several of America’s most prominent institutions are simultaneously collapsing before our eyes. That’s likely mostly for the good, ultimately.

The gravest danger is in Washington, of course, where a Manchurian Russian candidate made his way to the White House with a Putin push and is sick enough to be willing to destroy democracy to save himself. A complicit, corrupt Republican Congress seems intent on allowing the Simon Cowell-ish strongman to do just that. Only Robert Mueller’s team and tens of millions of citizens can prevent such an outcome. One way or another, the whole thing is coming down and Trump will be covered in disgrace. The shape the rest of us will be in is TBD.

After Weinstein, Hollywood is also on the chopping block, with a century-old studio like Warner Brothers potentially facing an ignominious death thanks to the perpetually predatory behavior of Brett Ratner. Weinstein, Ratner, Toback and Spacey are almost definitely only the first names on the list, with the film and music business scandals just beginning. There are numerous movie and record company execs and stars on Ratner’s professional level (or higher) who’ve long been rumored to have behaved as badly or far worse. As it concerns the children in show biz, all it would take is one former tween performer to name A-list names to cause an earthquake. And these outrages have a chance to reverberate far beyond entertainment circles, ensnaring any number of politicians and financiers who move in these moneyed circles.

Silicon Valley isn’t vanishing anytime soon, but it’s clear now the industry is either too inept or too unwilling to enact a course correction in the wake of Kremlin interference in our election. Furthermore, the community is betting a big part of its future on a surveillance capitalism that has already become part of the firmament but is only in the foundational stage. Oversight is desperately needed, and for the first time it seems like it may come to fruition.

The media is also faltering, but some of the reasons are troubling. It’s great to see Ailes, O’Reilly, Halperin, Wieseltier and other shitty media men get their comeuppance, but the seismic shift from print to the Internet is still an existential threat. Let’s remember that it wasn’t tweets or likes that began the cascading Harvey Effect but rather two pieces of exorbitantly expensive journalism produced by the New York Times and the New Yorker, a pair of the country’s legacy reporting companies. There is no cheap substitute in a healthy democracy for this kind of work, though that’s what we’re being offered more and more.

Wall Street so far has remained unscathed by the tottering of these other sectors, which I guess is fitting, seeing how uncoupled it’s become from Main Street. There’s no guarantee, however, that this raft of scandals won’t also cause it to crater.

Janice Min is correct, I think, when she says Weinstein finally being defenestrated from the penthouse is the result of a serial sexual predator like Donald Trump and his anti-woman agenda landing in the Oval Office. While that may have been the original impetus, the landslide has now taken on a life of its own. Much of this was long overdue, but there will be collateral damage. Let’s hope liberal governance is not among the casualties.

From Stella Bugbee’s latest Editor’s Letter at “The Cut“:

I want to feel less furious. Less unsettled. I want to write a novel about an ordinary man in a mid-level position of power who knew he had abused women and was waiting to be outed. I want to capture the twilight of uncertain fear, the swirling cesspool of anger and panic he must be swimming in for the first time and the denial necessary for him to have carried on with his life all along.

I want to understand what men know about WANTING. Because men know about wanting. Men have been told for their whole lives that to be a man means to take and do what they want. I retain so few specifics from what I read in high school, but for some reason I have never forgotten this bit from Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King:

“Now I have already mentioned that there was a disturbance in my heart, a voice that spoke there and said, I want, I want, I want! It happened every afternoon, and when I tried to suppress it got even stronger. It said only one thing, I want, I want! And I would ask, ‘What do you want?’ But this is all it would ever tell me.”

That voice told Mark Halperin to rub his boner on unsuspecting female assistants. It told Harvey Weinstein to jerk off into a potted plant, among other things. And Bellow told me what I was already beginning to understand: Men want what they want, and that wanting is more powerful than what I want. And the crazy thing is how much I liked that book, even identified with Henderson — bored in my high-school classroom, sitting with all my unexpressed wants.

I want. I want. I want. All I want right now is to be around other women that make me laugh, like Aidy Bryant, the Cut’s November cover woman. I want to root out more stories and listen intently. I want to talk ad nauseum with Rebecca Traister about shitty men and how we deal with them.

The other day Traister told me, “This is some renegade ’70s-era feminist shit going on — I’ve never lived through anything like it.” I want to revel in this moment, even as I am scared and uncertain where it will lead us.•

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If your reflexive response to the Grenfell Tower Fire tragedy, expressed even before all the charred bodies have all been recovered and identified, is to pen an essay-form cost-benefit analysis of the sprinkler system that the British government didn’t force the public-housing builder to install, you probably will be inundated with criticism online. You should be. 

Megan McCardle did just that in Bloomberg View earlier this year in a column that ran with the subheading: “Perhaps safety rules could have saved some residents. But at what cost to others’ lives?” It’s unlikely the essayist herself came up with that line, but the editor who did perfectly captured the gist of the piece. It’s one of the more stunning examples of McCardle’s Libertarian delusions, in which the invisible hand of the free market will magically guide us to the correct decisions, something proven to be utter bullshit from the Shirtwaist Triangle Fire to Grenfell and many terrible moments in between.

An excerpt:

A few days ago fire swept through Grenfell Tower, a large apartment building in London. It’s not yet known what caused the fire, and we aren’t conclusively sure how it spread so quickly, consuming the entire 24-story building. Nor is it known how many died in the fire; as of Friday, the count is at least 30.

What we do know is that there are ways to help control the spread of fire in apartment buildings, such as sprinkler systems. This has the makings of a scandal for Prime Minister Theresa May’s beleaguered government. Her immigration minister, Brandon Lewis, was formerly the housing minister. He declined to require developers to install sprinklers. The Independent quotes him as telling Parliament in 2014: “We believe that it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation. … The cost of fitting a fire sprinkler system may affect house building — something we want to encourage — so we must wait to see what impact that regulation has.” 

People who died in the Grenfell fire might be alive today if regulators had required sprinkler systems. This does not play well for the Tories. 

But before we start hanging them in effigy, there are a couple of things we should consider. The first is that, even if the regulation had passed, and required existing developers to retrofit sprinklers into older buildings, Grenfell Tower might not have gotten a sprinkler system before the fire occurred. Regulations are not implemented like instant coffee; they take time to formulate, and further time for businesses to comply. All the political will in the world cannot conjure up enough sprinkler systems, and sprinkler-system installers, to instantly transform a nation’s housing stock. 

This, however, is only a quibble; even if Grenfell Tower could not have been saved, there are surely other buildings where fires will soon occur that would benefit from sprinklers. Must we wait for those deaths before we can say that his was a bad calculation?

Well, no. But we should wait until we can establish that it was actually a bad calculation.

It may sound heartless to discuss life-saving measures as a calculation. But the fact is that we all make these sorts of calculations every day, about ourselves and others. We just don’t like to admit that we’re doing it. …

Back to the case at hand: Maybe sprinkler systems should be required in multifamily dwellings. It’s completely possible that the former housing minister made the wrong call. But his comment indicates he was thinking about the question in the right way — taking seriously the fact that safety regulations come at a cost, which may exceed their benefit. Such calculations have to be made, no matter how horrified the tut-tutting after the fact.

And he is certainly right about one thing: When it comes to many regulations, it is best to leave such calculations of benefit and cost to the market, rather than the government. People can make their own assessments of the risks, and the price they’re willing to pay to allay them, rather than substituting the judgment of some politician or bureaucrat who will not receive the benefit or pay the cost.

Grenfell Tower, of course, was public housing, which changes the calculation somewhat. And yet, even there, trade-offs have to be made.•

In a recent EconTalk podcast, Russ Roberts, a scholar at the Mercatus Center, a think tank funded by the regulation-loathing Koch brothers, discussed “Internet shaming and online mobs” with McCardle, who still doesn’t seem to get the effect her polite essays in legitimate publications can have on the lives of others. She’s certainly correct that nobody should be harassing others online or off with death threats over ideas, even ugly ones, but she comes across far more concerned about the standing of those who try to oppress others than the oppressed ones fighting back. Case in point: She’s worried about the earning power of amateur biologist and former Googler James Damore more than the women he dismissively and falsely depicted. Perhaps the free hand of the market gave him just the slap he needed?

An excerpt:

Russ Roberts: 

Before we go on, I want to challenge one thing at the root of your concerns; and then I want to talk about some of what I think we can do about it. And then you can suggest whether you agree or what your own ideas are. But, the thing I want to raise is: Some would argue, perhaps legitimately–I don’t agree, but I’m not sure how I feel about this, actually–that shaming is good. That, all of this stuff that you are worried about–yes, people are scared about what they say: Well, they should be scared, goes this argument. Because, words can hurt people. Words are important. And, it’s a glorious thing that we have made people sensitized about the harmful effects of their words. And, the things that you are decrying, Megan, are actually good. One extreme version of this would be–and this drives me crazy, but I’ll put it forward anyway: ‘Well, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing–if you don’t say anything bad–there’s nothing–you are not going to get hurt.’ All this shaming is to punish people who tell disgusting jokes, write grotesque memos that say things at the water cooler that intimidate and harm people. And those people should be shamed.

Megan McArdle: 

So, I think that that is actually true up to a point. I’ve made this point before. In fact, the first column I ever wrote on online shaming, which was based on Jon Ronson’s excellent book on the topic, in which I coined the term “shame-storming,” which sadly failed to catch on, denying—

Russ Roberts: 

I’m surprised. It’s a great name—

Megan McArdle: 

Yeah. Somehow, I try to coin these things periodically, as all writers do. And mine never catch on. Julian Sanchez, on the other hand, like, just tosses them offhand and they are always amazing, you know, apt and meaty. But, yeah. Look. When people tell racist jokes, and their friends turn around and say, “That’s not funny and you shouldn’t say that,” right? That’s useful. Completely useful.

Russ Roberts: 

It’s how society evolves. Those are the norms–

Megan McArdle: 

How society has to happen. There is no society–

Russ Roberts: 

Those are the Smithian norms of judgment. And people’s desire to be lovely, and to be respected by their friends. And it constrains behavior. It is great.

Megan McArdle: 

There is no society that gets along without that. That’s not what we’re doing at this point, though. Right? We’re not just–look, I have been on the Internet 15 years. I have said some things I should not have said, and gotten people screeching at me. Justifiably. And then sometimes not justifiably. I have had pictures of my house even mailed to me with a gun-sight over the house. I have had death threats. I have had all this stuff. You shouldn’t send death threats to people; you should not make even photographic even kind of pseudo-death threats. But I get—”I hope you and your family die”; “I hope etc., etc.” I get that all the time. And, some of it is productive. Some of it is not. But, that’s all, to me, kind of all in the game. And it’s terrible—I feel terrible for this, that girl at Yale who got filmed saying some really intemperate and unwise things to her professor–screaming profanity at her professor–

Russ Roberts: 

In a moment of emotion—

Megan McArdle: 

In a moment when–she should not have screamed profanity at her professor; I will say that. But I will also say that the Internet definitely should not have deluged her with horrible, ugly messages. Right? And I’ve been through it; and I know, like, the first 10 or 20 times it happens to you it’s really terrible. Now, it just rolls off my back. I can’t even—

Russ Roberts: 

That’s because that comes with the territory. And it shouldn’t come with being an 18-year-old in college as a freshman, or a junior, or a senior and having to deal with it out of the blue, unexpectedly. It’s not right.

Megan McArdle: 

But, it’s also a different thing. However terrible it is, you move on. You kind of huddle for a few days. You feel bad; you tell all your friends how bad you feel. And then, a year later–yeah, it was bad, but you’ve gotten over it. Right? The difference now is–there’s a couple of things. One of them has to go to that tweet that you talked about–the global warming tweet. It’s like a year old. And periodically it just comes back to life. And how it comes back to life? Someone finds it; someone retweets it; there’s a whole new level of people screaming at you. And again, for me, this is my job. It’s all in the game. You want to scream at me, go right ahead. But, that happens to these people who get Internet shamed. But, more than that, there’s a lot of economic consequences here. You look at someone like Memories Pizza, the pizza place in Indiana that told people they wouldn’t do, cater gay weddings. Like, what are the odds that a pizza place in a small town in Indiana was actually ever going to be asked to cater gay weddings? But, the Internet went crazy. And these people were just deluged with horrible messages. The ultimately had to close down. Then they got a lot of donations. So, there’s two camps; and there can be counter-benefits as well. But, when you are talking about depriving someone of their livelihood–and this goes back to Brezhnev, right? If someone told the Brezhnev joke and all of your friends said, “That’s not funny, and you should not question our fearless leader,” you know, that would be creepy. Maybe you would want to get new friends. But, it would be within the kind of bounds of normal, human, social reaction. The problem is when you are actually afraid they are going to take away the means by which I make my living. That is an enormous amount of power. And that is ultimately what I ended up talking about in this article–is that, classical liberals, and libertarians, of which I think you and I are both one–we normally have two categories: Private power, which is fine, because it’s bounded; because there’s exit. And then there’s Public power, which has guns behind it, and it’s not bounded; and is a different animal; and that’s the animal that we focus on. Right? And there can be some cases of companies that kind of get so much monopoly power that they start acting like governments. But it’s actually pretty rare. This is a third creature, that seems to be in between those two things. Right? Because it’s not one company. Someone Google–this guy just got fired from Google. Well, you go work for another company that’s–maybe doesn’t care so much. Where you haven’t made your co-workers angry, or whatever. All companies are probably going to be afraid to hire this guy.

Russ Roberts: 

I think small companies might take a chance on it, if his skills are such.

Megan McArdle: 

Sure, but he’s never going to get a–

Russ Roberts: 

He’s damaged—

Megan McArdle: 

He’s damaged. In a way that was not true 10 years ago when it was just, you said something bad on the Internet and then people screamed at you and felt bad. And sometimes you said, “Yes, I shouldn’t have said that.” And sometimes you earned it back. But either way, it was bounded. When you threaten someone’s economic livelihood, you are threatening pretty close to killing them. Right? If you can’t make money to survive, then–it’s not the same as threatening to kill them, but it’s probably the next worst thing a government can do, is after bodily harm and threat or death, what can the state threaten you with? They can take away all of your money. They can take, freeze your bank accounts. They can make it impossible for you to live in society. And that is a thing that this power is starting to approach. And when we talking about freezing accounts, a Southern Poverty Law Center designated a small, kind of religious values institute–they are quite conservative; the head of the institute seems to be Catholic and quite traditional Catholic. They were rated a hate group and their payment provider cut them off. So, they couldn’t take donations. Those kinds of powers, when they are ubiquitous–when it isn’t just, this happens and then like it was just, you know, “My bank didn’t want to deal with me because of my views, so I went and got another bank.” Right? That is a fundamentally different thing from ‘Now, all the banks don’t want to touch me.”•

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Currently, Artificial Intelligence is either depressingly limited or on the cusp of taking all our jobs and becoming superintelligent. It depends on who you ask. 

No one really knows the answers to these questions, not completely. Garry Kasparov doesn’t fret much about AI because he believes that outside of “closed systems,” like chess, humans are far better at navigating the world. Perhaps. But what of another board game like Go, which is technically a closed system but far more complex, almost infinitely so? Humans have been crushed far ahead of schedule in this pastime, so much so that its strategies are incomprehensible to even the world’s best carbon-based players. Is society, ultimately, more like chess or Go? I would say the latter.

The truth about AI lies somewhere in between—or at one of the poles. Time will tell.

Two excerpts follow.

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In “The AI That Has Nothing To Learn From Humans,” Dawn Chen’s excellent Atlantic piece, the author examines the almost otherwordly performance of Alpha Go Zero, which plays the game with an inscrutability so pronounced that trying to divine its motivations is akin to attempting to understanding the thinking of an octopus. An excerpt:

Since May, experts have been painstakingly analyzing the 55 machine-versus-machine games. And their descriptions of AlphaGo’s moves often seem to keep circling back to the same several words: Amazing. Strange. Alien.

“They’re how I imagine games from far in the future,” Shi Yue, a top Go player from China, has told the press. A Go enthusiast named Jonathan Hop who’s been reviewing the games on YouTube calls the AlphaGo-versus-AlphaGo face-offs “Go from an alternate dimension.” From all accounts, one gets the sense that an alien civilization has dropped a cryptic guidebook in our midst: a manual that’s brilliant—or at least, the parts of it we can understand.

Will Lockhart, a physics grad student and avid Go player who codirected The Surrounding Game (a documentary about the pastime’s history and devotees) tried to describe the difference between watching AlphaGo’s games against top human players, on the one hand, and its self-paired games, on the other. (I interviewed Will’s Go-playing brother Ben about Asia’s intensive Go schools in 2016.) According to Will, AlphaGo’s moves against Ke Jie made it seem to be “inevitably marching toward victory,” while Ke seemed to be “punching a brick wall.” Any time the Chinese player had perhaps found a way forward, said Lockhart, “10 moves later AlphaGo had resolved it in such a simple way, and it was like, ‘Poof, well that didn’t lead anywhere!’”

By contrast, AlphaGo’s self-paired games might have seemed more frenetic. More complex. Lockhart compares them to “people sword-fighting on a tightrope.”

Expert players are also noticing AlphaGo’s idiosyncrasies. Lockhart and others mention that it almost fights various battles simultaneously, adopting an approach that might seem a bit madcap to human players, who’d probably spend more energy focusing on smaller areas of the board at a time. According to Michael Redmond, the highest-ranked Go player from the Western world (he relocated to Japan at the age of 14 to study Go), humans have accumulated knowledge that might tend to be more useful on the sides and corners of the board. AlphaGo “has less of that bias,” he noted, “so it can make impressive moves in the center that are harder for us to grasp.”

Also, it’s been making unorthodox opening moves. Some of those gambits, just two years ago, might have seemed ill-conceived to experts. But now pro players are copying certain of these unfamiliar tactics in tournaments, even if no one fully understands how certain of these tactics lead to victory. For example, people have noticed that some versions of AlphaGo seem to like playing what’s called a three-three invasion on a star point, and they’re experimenting with that move in tournaments now too. No one’s seeing these experiments lead to clearly consistent victories yet, maybe because human players don’t understand how best to follow through.

Some moves AlphaGo likes to make against its clone are downright incomprehensible, even to the world’s best players.•

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In “The Human Strategy,” Sandy Pentland’s piece at Edge, the Artificial Intelligence pioneer writes that “current AI machine-learning things are just dead simple stupid.” Perhaps, but that will change, and as a means of creating a less dystopic path forward, Pentland believes humans can be informed about our own systems by studying our silicon counterparts. He also thinks we can tame AI to a good degree by keeping a “human in the loop,” which is either hopeful about the future of our species or ignorant about our past. Even if we can chasten machines, society will only be as good as the humans who inhabit it. That’s as much a risk as a guarantee, especially since the tools at our disposal will be far more powerful.

An excerpt:

On Polarization and Inequality

Today, we have incredible polarization and segregation by income almost everywhere in the world, and that threatens to tear governments and civil society apart. We have increasing population, which is part of the root of all those things. Increasingly, the media are failing us, and the downfall of media is causing people to lose their bearings. They don’t know what to believe. It makes it easy for people to be manipulated. There is a real need to put a grounding under all of our cultures of things that we all agree on, and to be able to know which things are working and which things aren’t.

We’ve now converted to a digital society, and have lost touch with the notions of truth and justice. Justice used to be mostly informal and normative. We’ve now made it very formal. At the same time, we’ve put it out of the reach of most people. Our legal systems are failing us in a way that they didn’t before precisely because they’re now more formal, more digital, less embedded in society.

Ideas about justice are very different around the world. People have very different values. One of the core differentiators is, do you remember when the bad guys came with guns and killed everybody? If you do, your attitude about justice is different than the average Edge reader. Were you born into the upper classes? Or were you somebody who saw the sewers from the inside?

A common test I have for people that I run into is this: Do you know anybody who owns a pickup truck? It’s the number-one selling vehicle in America, and if you don’t know people like that, that tells me you are out of touch with more than fifty percent of America. Segregation is what we’re talking about here, physical segregation that drives conceptual segregation. Most of America thinks of justice, and access, and fairness as being very different than the typical, say, Manhattanite.

If you look at patterns of mobility—where people go—in a typical city, you find that the people in the top quintile—white-collar working families—and the bottom quintile—people who are sometimes on unemployment or welfare—never see each other. They don’t go to the same places; they don’t talk about the same things; they see the world very differently. It’s amazing. They all live in the same city, nominally, but it’s as if it were two completely different worlds. That really bothers me.

On Extreme Wealth

Today’s ultra-wealthy, at this point, fifty percent of them have promised to give away more than fifty percent of their wealth, creating a plurality of different voices in the foundation space. Gates is probably the most familiar example. He’s decided that if the government won’t do it, he’ll do it. You want mosquito nets? He’ll do it. You want antivirals? He’ll do it. We’re getting different stakeholders taking action, in the form of foundations that are dedicated to public good. But they have different versions of public good, which is good. A lot of the things that are wonderful about the world today come from actors outside government like the Ford Foundation or the Sloan Foundation, where the things they bet on are things that nobody else would bet on, and they happened to pan out.

Sure, these billionaire are human and they have the human foibles. And yes, it’s not necessarily the way it should be. On the other hand, the same thing happened when we had railways. People made incredible fortunes. A lot of people went bust. We, the average people, got railways out of it. Pretty good. Same thing with electric power. Same thing with many of these things. There’s a churning process that throws somebody up and later casts them or their heirs down.

Bubbles of extreme wealth happened in the 1890s, too, when people invented steam, and railways, and electricity. These new industries created incredible fortunes, which were all gone within two or three generations.

If we were like Europe, I would worry. What you find in Europe is that the same family has wealth for hundreds of years, so they’re entrenched not just in terms of wealth, but in terms of the political system and other ways. But so far, the U.S. has avoided this: extreme wealth hasn’t stuck, which is good. It shouldn’t stick. If you win the lottery, you make your billion dollars, but your grandkids have to work for a living.

On AI and Society

People are scared about AI. Perhaps they should be. But you need to realize that AI feeds on data. Without data, AI is nothing. You don’t actually have to watch the AI; you have to watch what it eats and what it does. The framework that we’ve set up, with the help of the EU and other people, is one where you can have your algorithms, you can have your AI, but I get to see what went in and what went out so that I can ask, is this a discriminatory decision? Is this the sort of thing that we want as humans? Or is this something that’s a little weird?

The most revealing analogy is that regulators, bureaucracies, parts of the government, are very much like AIs: They take in these rules that we call law, and they elaborate them, and they make decisions that affect our lives. The part that’s really bad about the current system is that we have very little oversight of these departments, regulators, and bureaucracies. The only control we have is the ability to elect somebody different. Let’s make that control over bureaucracies a lot more fine-grained. Let’s be able to look at every single decision, analyze them, and have all the different stakeholders come together, not just the big guys. Rather like legislatures were supposed to be at the beginning of the U.S.

In that case, we can ask fairly easily, is this a fair algorithm? Is this AI doing things that we as humans believe is ethical? It’s called human in the loop.•

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You could argue that Facebook and other social media and search-engine companies allowed Russia to corrupt our Presidential election because of a lack of concern or a lack of competency, much the same way you can wonder whether Trump voters chose their candidate because of foolishness or malice, but it’s inarguable that these systems were utilized by an adversarial country to harm our own.

Just as bad has been the response by these businesses in the aftermath of their utter failure. Google is still, to some extent, accepting money to disseminate Fake News. Twitter has seriously under-reported how many Russian bots swarmed their service during the election (and afterwards). Facebook has employed deflection, dismissiveness and disavowal in answering charges.

In “This Could Be the End of Facebook” at Vanity Fair “Hive,” Nick Bilton responds to the stunning Zuckerberg-Sandberg failure in context of Johnson & Johnson’s sweeping and successful antidote to the 1982 Tylenol cyanide poisonings, which could have tanked the entire brand but ended up instead elevating the company’s standing. In rapidly removing every last bottle from store shelves throughout the country and creating a tamper-proof bottle, the powers that be were as concerned about the bottom line as public safety, but in the process of securing their reputations they protected the public. Facebook, conversely, has tried to cover ass and shift blame in regards to the poison it distributed, exacerbating what had already seemed a worse-case scenario.

It’s clear now that these Silicon Valley companies either can’t or won’t police themselves and need to regulated by Washington.

From Bilton:

This sort of upfront, responsible, adult form of crisis management offers a useful foil to the manner in which Facebook has explained how Russian operatives used its platform to meddle in the 2016 election. In a recent interview with Axios’s Mike Allen, Facebook C.O.O. Sheryl Sandberg acknowledged that she wished the meddling “hadn’t happened” on the company’s platform, but she stopped short of owning up to the mess. Instead, she rehashed bizarre arguments about how Facebook is not a media company. “At our heart we’re a tech company—we don’t hire journalists,” she told Allen.

It’s worth recalling, of course, that it wasn’t the makers of Tylenol who put cyanide in the pills that killed seven innocent people; nevertheless, the company felt a responsibility to come up with a solution to the problem. While Facebook’s engineers may not be posting fake news, the dirt is still on their hands. “The damage done to organizations in crises isn’t the crisis itself— it’s how you handle the crisis,” Scott Galloway, author of the new book The Four: The Hidden D.N.A. of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, told me this week on the latest episode of the Inside the Hive podcast. “There’s only one thing you have to remember: you have to overcorrect. You have to clear every shelf of all Tylenol nationwide. You can’t say this is an isolated incident and it won’t happen again.”

Galloway specifically pointed to Sandberg’s comments in Washington, both to Allen and on Capitol Hill the day before, as examples of insincerity. “It’s not only bullshit, but from a pure shareholder standpoint at Facebook, it’s stupid,” Galloway said. “Martha Stewart didn’t go to jail for insider trading; she went to jail for denying she had traded on insider information; she went to jail for obstruction of justice.” He went on to point out that in his mind, Sandberg was intentionally blurring lines around what happened, and that she may not actually believe what she is saying publicly. “I feel that Sheryl Sandberg was eerily reminiscent of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was forced to go out and say something that I believe she knows is not true. I believe that anyone who is as intelligent as Sheryl Sandberg is—I think she is a remarkable woman—I think she knows they are a media company, and for her, I think she’s towing the party line on behalf of her boss, and eroding her own credibility. I think she had her Sarah Huckabee Sanders moment, and it’s really a shame.”•

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Senator McCain is right, but let’s recall that he and other so-called moderate Republicans helped pave the way for Trump by willingly embracing xenophobia, if in less overt and profane terms, and by not allowing Merrick Garland a fair hearing. McCain also vowed that no Supreme Court nominee would get one should Hillary Clinton win the Presidency. It’s great if he wants to be party now to the raising of American political discourse, but he also played a role in its descent. “Complete the Danged Fence” was the gateway to “Build the Wall.”

From NPR in October 2016:

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) said Monday that if Hillary Clinton is elected, Republicans will unite to block anyone she nominates to the Supreme Court.

Speaking on WPHT-AM radio’s “Dom Giordano Program” in Philadelphia, McCain pledged to obstruct any Clinton Supreme Court nomination for the current or any future vacancy.

“I promise you that we will be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton, if she were president, would put up,” he declared.•

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From McCain’s 2008 Presidential campaign:

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Trump hit the iceberg today and Sarah Huckabee Sanders is the band that played on.

Whether American democracy itself winds up collateral damage to the hulking political scandal that’s just begun taking on water—the biggest breach of ethics in the history of American governance—is still TBD. A constitutional crisis is as likely than anything else. But it’s important to remember that while Trump was the absolute worse roll of the dice (and loaded dice, at that), it was the house that was crooked. Nearly 63 million citizens cast a ballot for a bigoted, incompetent, money-laundering game-show host, and that’s a deep indictment on many of our systems—political, educational, media, etc. Even if we remain standing during Trump’s ignominious fall, we’ll continue wobbling on the precipice unless some deep fixes are enacted.

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It’s an American tradition to rehabilitate crooks and liars of years gone by who are no longer in possession of power to do grave damage, making them seem harmless in their dotage: Nixon, Kissinger, Goldwater, etc. The latter politico, the architect of society-busting Reagonomics, was sometimes seated next to Jay Leno in the 1990s, apparently humbled as he shared anecdotes. It’s not likely he’d changed; we’d just forgotten. 

The same tendency is at play with more recent goats, including George W. Bush, an interesting outsider artist who broke the world through incompetence and dishonesty, and John Boehner, the former teary-eyed and often destructive Speaker, who is his retirement is willing to say shitty things about shitty Republicans in between Marlboro drags and coughing fits. Some in the media and populace applaud because he was never as bad as Trump, but let’s recall that he was one of the agents who led to our current calamity.

From Tim Alberta’s fascinating Politico profile about Boehner at rest (or as close to it as he can manage): 

A bipartisan group of eight senators had crafted a comprehensive immigration bill that appeared to have support in the House GOP. But in June, when the Senate passed it—68 to 32, with 14 Republicans voting yes—House members found themselves under siege from constituents and conservative groups. The fatal flaw: It provided a path to citizenship, albeit a winding one, for people in the country illegally. Many conservatives could support a path to legal status but not citizenship; Democrats, on the other hand, essentially took a citizenship-or-nothing approach. Boehner was boxed in: He wanted immigration reform, and personally didn’t mind citizenship—especially for minors brought to the U.S. unwittingly. But putting the bill on the floor meant it might pass into law with perhaps as few as 40 or 50 of his members voting yes. Conservatives would never forgive him for overruling the vast majority of his membership. Looking back, Boehner says not solving immigration is his second-biggest regret, and he blames Obama for “setting the field on fire.” But the former speaker doesn’t mention the nativist voices in his own party that came to dominate the debate, foreshadowing the presidential campaign three years later. Ultimately, the speaker’s immigration quandary boiled down to a choice between protecting his right flank and doing what he thought was right for the country—and Boehner chose the former.

It wasn’t the only time. That summer, conservatives were also getting an earful about the Obamacare exchanges opening on October 1. House Republicans had voted repeatedly to repeal the law but the Senate refused to act, and their constituents, justifiably, wanted to know why Obamacare still existed when they had been promised otherwise. “Somehow, out on the campaign trail, the representation was made that you could beat President Obama into submission to sign a repeal of the law with his name on it,” Cantor says. “And that’s where things got, I think, disconnected from reality.” (In Ohio, listening to his pals groan about Obamacare, Boehner explains why his former colleagues haven’t repealed it: “Their gonads shriveled up when they learned this vote was for real.”)

Republicans’ penchant for overpromising and underdelivering would ultimately enable the ascent of Donald Trump, who positioned himself as a results-oriented outsider who would deliver where politicians had failed. In the shorter term, it invited something less dramatic: a government shutdown. Eager to demonstrate that all options were being exhausted to defeat Obamacare, Ted Cruz in the Senate and conservatives in the House concocted a plan: Because the government needed new funding on October 1, the same day the exchanges would open, they would propose funding the rest of the federal government—while defunding Obamacare.

Boehner objected. Not only would Democrats never go for it; Republicans would be blamed for the resulting government shutdown. “I told them, ‘Don’t do this. It’s crazy. The president, the vice president, Reid, Pelosi, they’re all sitting there with the biggest shit-eating grins on their faces that you’ve ever seen, because they can’t believe we’re this fucking stupid.’” (Boehner, at one point, surprises me by saying he’s proud of Cruz—whom he once called “Lucifer in the flesh”—for acting responsibly in 2017. Do you feel badly about calling him Lucifer, I ask? “No!” Boehner snorts. “He’s the most miserable son of a bitch I’ve ever had to work with.”) 

After railing against the defund strategy, however, Boehner surveyed his conference and realized it was a fight many members wanted—and some needed. Yielding, he joined them in the trenches, abandoning his obligations of governance in hopes of strengthening his standing in the party. But the 17-day shutdown proved costly. Watching as Republicans got butchered in nationwide polling, the speaker finally called a meeting to inform members that they would vote to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling. “I get a standing ovation,” Boehner says. “I’m thinking, ‘This place is irrational.’”•

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When Tina Brown was the Editor-in-Chief of the New Yorker, she would comment that “cuteness” was a factor in hiring writers. It seemed like more than a flippant remark. That was the world she wanted to inhabit, one in which appearance, in a number of ways, was preeminent. It’s a mindset that’s added little to the culture.

There were many changes the New Yorker needed to be make in 1992 when Brown was brought in to perform as a wrecking ball for the then-staid institution. Many of her reinventions weren’t the right ones, however. David Remnick often gives his predecessor credit for doing the heavy lifting in recreating the title, but female writers and editors (besides herself) were often pushed from the foreground on her watch. It’s only deep into Remnick’s reign that this egregious shift has been largely remedied. Hollywood and celebrity became central to the publication under Brown, and I will never forgive her for allowing Roseanne to guest edit an edition, the cheapest ploy in magazine’s history. (That’s no offense to Roseanne, who’s an excellent comic, but to the Editor-in-Chief who put her in that ridiculous position.) In addition to paring down the staff of scribes who’d ceased being useful, Brown also drove out many great and productive writers. The use of language in the New Yorker suffered under her tenure, though, to be fair, that was as much a problem of a troubled wider culture. It’s no shock Brown ended up in business with Harvey Weinstein—they were always on the same team.

Funny that Brown’s first cover featured a punk. Her punk phase was as genuine as Ivanka Trump’s.

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In “A Likely Story,” Mimi Kramer’s Medium essay, the former New Yorker theater critic has crafted one of the most intelligent pieces on shitty men in media and elsewhere. In one section, she excoriates Brown, her former boss, with surgical precision. An excerpt:

There are — if I may be permitted to oversimplify wildly for a moment — two kinds of women in the working world who achieve great power. Those who are good at what they do and enjoy working with other smart or talented or thoughtful women. And there’s another kind that isn’t really good at much of anything at all but self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, and manipulating other people. That kind of woman will always enable and protect the Weinsteins of the world and encourage men in the demeaning of other women. There may be an element of self-loathing there, like the self-loathing Smith attributes to Weinstein himself; the women enablers may have some unconscious need to diminish and devalue something they lack.

There can be something almost sexy about working with gifted, brilliant people of either gender, whether you’re gay or straight. I remember once being stopped in the hallway by a veteran editor (she wasn’t even my editor) who had seen Bill Irwin’s The Regard of Flight, which I was writing about, and told me — with great tact and even more passion — that I’d left out the most important point about the show, how it was really all about race in America; and she was right. That was probably the most exciting moment in all my time at The New Yorker.

And I remember a story told me by Veronica, who was in on a few of Brown’s early editorial meetings. The question of how certain managerial roles would be meted out came up and someone brought up the name of the editor who had stopped me in the hall that time. Veronica told me that Brown quipped, “Oh, you mean the fat, homely girl with glasses,” and the men all laughed. Yes, they agreed, that was who was meant. Veronica pointed out that the woman under discussion was an accomplished poet and translator, and the men, chastened, all quickly agreed, “Yes, yes, very accomplished.

Tina Brown was the enabler-in-chief. It’s absurd for her to carry on as though she didn’t know of Weinstein’s depredations and wasn’t complicit. She’s the woman who put a young actress who wouldn’t sleep with Weinstein on the cover of the premiere issue of Talk dressed in S&M garb, crawling painfully toward the camera on her stomach like a submissive, and so generically made up as to render her unrecognizable as an individual. What the hell did she think that was saying?

It’s equally hard to stomach Brown on the subject of Weinstein’s grossness and unloveliness. Brown did more to vulgarize and uglify American letters than any other single person in America. She was the queen of the nothing-is-sacred mentality, establishing a redefinition of writing and journalism whereby nothing had any value at all but sex, shock, money, power, or celebrity.

She came to this country and, having failed to revive Vanity Fair, leaving it to a better editor and journalist to shape it into the very thing she’d hoped to achieve, went on to take a great literary institution — historic because it had introduced the vernacular into the American literary landscape, establishing that good writing could sound more like speech than like some gouty old Brit in a smoking jacket — and transformed it into something so crass you scarcely wanted to touch it, let alone look at or read it. (Actually, that last bit’s not me; it’s something I remember Louis Menand saying to me once.) This is a woman who thought declaring that The New Yorker would remain “text-driven” would reassure writers and journalists, who thought that putting topic-sentences at the top of every page of the magazine to make it easier to read was a good idea.

Brown’s performances on Charlie Rose and on BBC Newsnight offer up a demonstration of what she is very good at. She’s good at cant, and she’s good at a certain kind of corporate-political self-protection. It’s cunning, if mistaken, to try to get herself off the hook by blasting Donald Trump in the same breath as Harvey Weinstein. It’s enemy-of-my-enemy logic; she’s banking on the idea that Americans are too stupid to hold more than one idea in their heads at a time, hoping if she goes on record as a non-endorser of Trump, no one but Republicans will call her out on her hypocrisy. For her to get away with that would be more than a farce; it would be an obscenity. Not endorse Trump? She helped create the cesspool that made it possible for someone like Donald Trump to become the President of the United States. She’s part of the reason we’re in the mess we’re in now.•

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