Excerpts

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If we don’t kill ourselves first and we probably will, the Posthuman Industrial Complex will ultimately become a going concern. I can’t say I’m sorry I’ll miss out on it.

Certainly establishing human colonies in space will change life or perhaps we’ll change life as a precursor to settling the final frontier. From Freeman Dyson:

Sometime in the next few hundred years, biotechnology will have advanced to the point where we can design and breed entire ecologies of living creatures adapted to survive in remote places away from Earth. I give the name Noah’s Ark culture to this style of space operation. A Noah’s Ark spacecraft is an object about the size and weight of an ostrich egg, containing living seeds with the genetic instructions for growing millions of species of microbes and plants and animals, including males and females of sexual species, adapted to live together and support one another in an alien environment.

There are also computational scientists among the techno-progressivists who are endeavoring, with the financial aid of their deep-pocketed Silicon Valley investors, to radically alter life down here, believing biology itself a design flaw. To such people, there are many questions and technology is the default answer.

In an excellent excerpt in the Guardian, To Be a Machine author Mark O’Connell explores the Transhumanisitic trend and its “profound metaphysical weirdness,” profiling the figures forging ahead with reverse brain engineering, neuroprostheses and emulations, who wish to reduce human beings to data. The opening:

Here’s what happens. You are lying on an operating table, fully conscious, but rendered otherwise insensible, otherwise incapable of movement. A humanoid machine appears at your side, bowing to its task with ceremonial formality. With a brisk sequence of motions, the machine removes a large panel of bone from the rear of your cranium, before carefully laying its fingers, fine and delicate as a spider’s legs, on the viscid surface of your brain. You may be experiencing some misgivings about the procedure at this point. Put them aside, if you can.

You’re in pretty deep with this thing; there’s no backing out now. With their high-resolution microscopic receptors, the machine fingers scan the chemical structure of your brain, transferring the data to a powerful computer on the other side of the operating table. They are sinking further into your cerebral matter now, these fingers, scanning deeper and deeper layers of neurons, building a three-dimensional map of their endlessly complex interrelations, all the while creating code to model this activity in the computer’s hardware. As the work proceeds, another mechanical appendage – less delicate, less careful – removes the scanned material to a biological waste container for later disposal. This is material you will no longer be needing.

At some point, you become aware that you are no longer present in your body. You observe – with sadness, or horror, or detached curiosity – the diminishing spasms of that body on the operating table, the last useless convulsions of a discontinued meat.

The animal life is over now. The machine life has begun.•

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There’s so much good stuff in Tim Alberta’s exhaustive Politico Magazine account of the week the GOP met its waterloo on Obamacare that it’ stunning to see the writer fall back on a tired trope that’s long been untrue but was proven conclusively during this debacle: that Paul Ryan is some sort of brilliant policy wonk. It actually includes this line: “If the bill failed because Trump is a great salesman with a poor grasp of policy, it also failed because Ryan is a poor salesman with a great grasp of policy.”

The AHCA wasn’t a resounding failure despite Republicans owning all three branches of the government simply because it suffered from poor marketing but because it was a piece of junk that would have cost tens of millions Americans insurance while doing little to control costs. Ultra-conservatives deemed the bill a “poorly conceived mess” because it wasn’t draconian enough, but that’s also an apropos description of it regardless of your politics. 

From Alberta:

The speaker has spent decades straddling the worlds of politics and policy, and is infinitely more comfortable operating in the latter. He has dozens of friends around town in the constellation of conservative think tanks, lobby shops, activist groups and media outlets. Knowing that health care was batting leadoff for the new, unified Republican government, it would seem a no-brainer for the speaker to spend a few days, if not a few weeks, meeting with leading voices on the right to introduce the American Health Care Act, answer their questions, accept their criticisms and, most important, preempt any attacks on the legislation itself. After all, as Democrats love to point out, Ryan had seven years to plan for this moment—first as Budget chairman, then as Ways and Means chairman, then as speaker—and if anyone on the right was ready, it ought to have been him.

But Ryan didn’t feel such preventative measures were necessary. After days of drafting the bill in secretive locations at the Capitol—and Sen. Rand Paul, a hard-core Obamacare critic, exposing the absurdity by bringing reporters along as he hunted door-to-door for a copy—the text was leaked, and then unceremoniously released, without any clearly coordinated media strategy between the speaker’s office and the White House. Conservatives around Washington, including some of Ryan’s longtime friends, were stunned. “The bill has had the worst rollout of any major piece of legislation in memory,” Rich Lowry, editor of National Review and a longtime Ryan ally, wrote in his Politico Magazine column on March 15.

Back in 2013, when the so-called Gang of Eight had authored its comprehensive immigration reform bill, Sen. Marco Rubio spent weeks making the rounds and meeting with top influencers on the right, taking unlimited time to answer every question and consider every criticism. He talked to journalists, grassroots leaders and academics; he offered himself as a human sacrifice to every prominent voice in conservative talk radio, attempting to neutralize opposition to the bill before it materialized. It never became law, but Rubio did everything he could. It passed the Senate, at least, before dying a quick death in the House—and that was in large measure thanks to having a media-savvy Tea Party darling take the lead and work conservative journalists and opinion leaders.

There was no such effort on Ryan’s part, and it showed. (Several allies argued he had done some outreach, but they failed to provide any specific examples.) After he unveiled the bill, leading health care experts on the right like Yuval Levin and Avik Roy trashed it as a poorly conceived mess.•

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Promises during the campaign season about reshoring manufacturing jobs was perplexing and counterproductive. Most of that work has disappeared not to China and Mexico but into the zeros and ones. Artificial Intelligence is poised to further radically transform the labor landscape in the coming decades, whether or not the Frey-Osborne benchmark predicting 47% of current jobs are at risk turns out to be prophetic.

The honest argument, whether correct or not, against the prevailing idea that AI will disrupt society by replacing us at the office and factory is that these positions will be supplanted by superior ones, as was the case when we transitioned from an agrarian culture to the Industrial Age. Even those who are certain of this outcome often fail to recall what a bumpy progression that was, with legislation, unionization and the establishment of social safety nets required to avoid bloody revolution or collapse. It wasn’t easy, literal blood was spilled, and that’s the glass-half-filled option in the Second Machine Age.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who strapped on beer goggles of a 1930s vintage by declaring today that Donald Trump has “perfect genes,” is either wildly dishonest or completely oblivious when he says AI is not a threat to today’s workers.

From Gillian B. White at the Atlantic:

On Friday, during a conversation with Mike Allen of Axios, the newly minted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that there was no need to worry about artificial intelligence taking over U.S. jobs anytime soon. “It’s not even on our radar screen,” he told Allen. When pressed for when, exactly, he thought concern might be warranted, Mnuchin offered “50 to 100 more years.” Just about anyone who works on, or studies machine learning would beg to differ.

In December of 2016, about one month before President Trump officially took office, the White House released a report on artificial intelligence and its impact on the economy. It found that advances in machine learning already had the potential to disrupt some sectors of the labor market, and that capabilities such as driverless cars and some household maintenance tasks were likely to cause further disruptions in the near future. Experts asked to weigh in on the report estimated that in the next 10 to 20 years, 47 percent of U.S. jobs could in some way be at risk due to advances in automation.

The Obama administration is certainly not the only group of experts to believe that the impact of machine learning on the labor market has already started. In a conversation earlier this month, Melinda Gates cited rapidly advancing machine learning as part of the reason that the tech industry needed to tackle its gender diversity initiatives immediately. In 2016, a report from McKinsey found that existing technologies could automate about 45 percent of the activities that humans are paid to perform. Even Mnuchin’s former employer, Goldman Sachs, believes that a massive leap forward in terms of machine learning will occur within the next decade.•

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It took Republicans seven years to meet their Obamacare waterloo, as David Frum promised they would in 2010 when the party invested heavily in the Tea Party’s incoherent populism, rife with threats about death panels and the mercy killing of capitalism. Today was the finally the day when members of the GOP was forced to face what had been obvious to just about every sane person: They never had a reasonable alternative, their plan was bankrupt, health care is complicated.

Problem is, Republicans have yet to face their comeuppance in a broader sense. Moving forward, they’ll still try to undermine the Affordable Care Act, institute unreasonable tax cuts for the highest earners and work daily on policies antithetical to the health and well-being of the majority Americans. In an angry country overrun by low-information voters, that fever remains unbroken.

Two excerpts follow.


From Ezra Klein at Vox:

President Donald Trump is supposed to be the dealmaker-in-chief. He’s supposed to get the deals his predecessors couldn’t get, the concessions they couldn’t make, the wins they couldn’t find.

Instead, Trump signed onto the first health care bill Paul Ryan came up with only to watch it go down in flames. As I write this, the question has moved from whether the bill will pass to whether Trump can force a House vote to humiliate Ryan. So what the hell happened?

The answer can be found in Trump Steaks. And Trump University. And Trump Vodka. And Trump Suits. And Trump’s fragrance line, his board game, his ghostwritten books, his energy drink, his eyeglasses, and his chocolate bars.

Yes, these are all real Trump products. And they expose the reality of Trump’s dealmaking. Trump is not a guy who makes particularly good deals so much as a guy who makes a lot of deals — many of which lash his name and reputation to garbage products.

Trump, a lifelong teetotaler, didn’t scour the globe to find the very best vodka. No — someone offered him an opportunity to make a quick buck by putting his name on a product he wouldn’t ever touch and he took it. Trump University was a far darker scam. Trump Steaks were, and are, a joke.

This is Trump’s pattern: He licenses his brand and lets others worry about the details of the products. Trump’s partners often end up going out of business and his customers often end up disappointed, but Trump makes some money, and he gets his name out there, and it’s all good.

This was Trump’s approach to the health care bill, too. He let someone else worry about the product and he simply licensed his name, marketing support, and political capital. Trump didn’t know what was in the Affordable Health Care Act, and he didn’t much care. It broke his promises to ensure health care for everyone, to protect Medicaid from cuts, to lower deductibles, and to guarantee choices of doctors and plans — but he didn’t pay attention to any of that. In private, Trump was apparently bored by the subject and eager to move onto tax reform.

But being president of the United States isn’t like being a downmarket consumer brand.•


From Frum in the Atlantic:

So, when the Democrats indeed did pass the law without Republican input, just as I’d warned they would, a fury overcame me. Eighteen months of being called a “sellout” will do that to a man, I suppose. I opened my computer and in less than half an hour pounded out the blogpost that would function, more or less, as my suicide note in the organized conservative world.

The post was called “Waterloo.” (The title played off a promise by then-senator and now Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint that the Affordable Care Act would become Obama’s Waterloo, a career-finishing defeat.)

We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.

There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or—more exactly—with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?

I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters—but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say—but what is equally true—is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed—if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office—Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

So today’s defeat for free-market economics and Republican values is a huge win for the conservative entertainment industry. Their listeners and viewers will now be even more enraged, even more frustrated, even more disappointed in everybody except the responsibility-free talkers on television and radio. For them, it’s mission accomplished. For the cause they purport to represent, it’s Waterloo all right: ours.•

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Chuck Barris, game-show producer and occasional murdererrealized like P.T. Barnum before him–and Howard Stern and reality TV producers after–that there was money to be made off the marginal, the quasi-talented, the damaged and the freakish. I doubt, however, even Barris could have predicted that during his lifetime the sideshow tent would be relocated to the center ring, the audience would commandeer the spotlight and a fellow TV clown and salesman of schlock would become king. The defeat of professionalism, the experts getting gonged, being told “You’re fired,” is the cost of new technologies decentralizing the media. Such unfettered democracy comes with a high pricebut is it one that will prove too dear?

Barris just (most likely) died. From his New York Times obituary by Neil Genzlinger:

Mr. Barris’s next game shows were less successful, but just as it seemed he was losing his touch, he came up with the concept that would catapult him to a new level of fame: The Gong Show, which had its premiere on NBC in June 1976. The show featured a series of performers, most of them amateurs, and a panel of three celebrity judges. Mr. Barris himself was the brash, irritating host.

The performers, who were often terrible, would be allowed to go on until one of the judges couldn’t stand it anymore and sounded a gong, putting an end to the spectacle. Those who weren’t gonged were rated by the judges on a 1-to-10 scale. In keeping with the ridiculousness of the proceedings, the prize amount they vied for was ridiculous: $516.32 on the daytime version of the show, $712.05 on the prime-time edition.

The show, which ran on NBC until 1978 and then in syndication (with revivals in later years), became a cultural sensation. Critics complained about its crassness and cruelty, but Mr. Barris, like purveyors of burlesque and circus sideshows in earlier generations, knew there was a large audience for lowbrow. At one point the daytime version was attracting 78 percent of viewers 18 to 49.

“In my opinion, a good game show review is the kiss of death,” Mr. Barris said in a Salon interview in 2001. “If for some strange reason the critic liked it, the public won’t. A really bad review means the show will be on for years.”

The ghost of The Gong Show is evident in numerous reality-television shows of more recent vintage — the early rounds of any given season of American Idol, for instance.

Mr. Barris always bristled at the “King of Schlock” label that was hung on him as far back as “The Dating Game.” In a 2003 interview with Newsweek, he noted that shows much like the ones he created were by the 21st century being received differently.

“Today these shows are accepted,” he said. “These shows aren’t seen as lowering any bars.”•


“I don’t know why they did that”:

“Step right up, folks”:

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The recent Washington Post editorial which excoriated Bernie Sanders for stating the obvious in calling our new President a “liar” stands as the most thick-headed thing I’ve read this year. 

The pathological liar in the White House assaults truth on a daily basis, threatening our very democracy, but others are supposed to bite their tongues and pretend they hear nothing out of some misplaced nobility, which is tantamount to strictly observing the Marquess of Queensberry Rules while fighting a chainsaw-wielding maniac. To not point out the lies is to essentially be complicit with this full-blown realization of the Dubya Era truthiness.

Despots thrive on the excessive decency of others. Pursuing facts and objective truth are of paramount importance, as is vigorously underlining the lies of a wannabe tyrant.

Two excerpts follow.


From “Donald Trump and the Rise of Tribal Epistemology,” David Roberts’ excellent Vox piece about the “limits of journalistic neutrality”:

Now tribal epistemology has found its way to the White House.

Trump and his team represent an assault on almost every American institution — they make no secret of their desire to “deconstruct the administrative state” — but their hostility toward the media is unique in its intensity.

It is Trump’s obsession and favorite target. He sees himself as waging a “running war” on the mainstream press, which his consigliere Steve Bannon calls “the opposition party.” 

For the media, Trump represents a great challenge but also a great opportunity. He will make the work of journalism more difficult (calling only on sycophantic outlets during press conferences is likely just the beginning). But by putting the integrity of the press in the spotlight, he might just force a long-overdue reckoning with the role of media in democratic politics.

The US political media underestimated Trump’s potential for many reasons. Prominent among them was its longstanding refusal to grapple with the deepening asymmetry in American politics — the rejection, by a large swathe of the right, of the core institutions and norms that shape US public life.

Under Trump, that asymmetry has become glaring and inescapable. And it is bumping up against the foundations upon which all independent journalism stands.

It is time for journalism to take a side — to fight, not for any political party, but for the conditions that make its own existence possible.•


From a deeply disturbing, just-published Time magazine interview:

Question:

So you don’t worry that your credibility, that if you’ve cited things that later turn out to be wrong, based on anonymous sources that that hurts you.

Donald Trump:

Name what’s wrong! I mean, honestly.

Question:

Fox News said… 

Donald Trump:

Brexit. Wait a minute. I predicted Brexit. What I said about NATO was true, people aren’t paying their bills. And everyone said it was a horrible thing to say. And then they found out. And when Germany was over here I said, we are going to have a great relationship with Germany but you have to pay your NATO bills, and they don’t even dispute it, ok. So what have I said that is wrong? Everyone, I got attacked on NATO and now they are all saying I was right. I got attacked on Brexit, when I was saying, I said long before the day before, I said the day before the opening, but I was saying Brexit was going to pass, and everybody was laughing, and I turned out to be right on that. I took a lot of heat when I said Brexit was going to pass. Don’t forget, Obama said that U.K. will go to the back of the line, and I talked about Sweden, and may have been somewhat different, but the following day, two days later, they had a massive riot in Sweden, exactly what I was talking about, I was right about that.

Question:

But even in that Sweden quote, you said look at what happened on Friday in Sweden. But you are now saying you were referring to something that happened the following day.

Donald Trump:

No I am saying I was right. I am talking about Sweden. I’m talking about what Sweden has done to themselves is very sad, that is what I am talking about. That is what I am talking about. You can phrase it any way you want. A day later they had a horrible, horrible riot in Sweden and you saw what happened. I talked about Brussels. I was on the front page of the New York Times for my quote. I said Brussels is not what it used to be, very sad what has happened to Brussels. I was absolutely lambasted. A short time later they had the major attack in Brussels. One year ago today. Exactly one year ago today. And then people said you know Trump was right. What am I going to tell you? I tend to be right. I’m an instinctual person, I happen to be a person that knows how life works. I said I was going to win the election, I won the election, in fact I was number one the entire route, in the primaries, from the day I announced, I was number one. And the New York Times and CNN and all of them, they did these polls, which were extremely bad and they turned out to be totally wrong, and my polls showed I was going to win. We thought we were going to win the night of the election.

Question:

So when you…

Donald Trump:

And then TIME magazine, which treats me horribly, but obviously I sell, I assume this is going to be a cover too, have I set the record? I guess, right? Covers, nobody’s had more covers.

I think Richard Nixon still has you beat. But he was in office for longer, so give yourself time.

Donald Trump:

Ok good. I’m sure I’ll win.•

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Channeling Nicholas Carr’s comments on the recent Mark Zuckerberg “Building Global Community” manifesto, I will say this: The answer to all technologically enabled human problems is not more technology. Sometimes the system itself is the bug, the fatal error.

In a Financial Times piece, Yuval Noah Harari is more hopeful on the Facebook founder’s globalization gambit, not thinking his intentions grandiose but believing them largely praiseworthy if decidedly vague. The historian does caution that social-media companies would need to alter their focus, perhaps sacrifice financially, to actually foster healthy, large-scale societies, a shift that seems fanciful. 

Harari thinks we’d likely be safer and more prosperous as a world community, which isn’t a sure thing, but even if it were, many forces are working against transitioning humans into a “global brand.” If Harari is correct, Facebook’s place in that scheme would likely be minute–or perhaps it would serve as an impediment despite Zuckerberg’s designs.

Regardless of where you stand on these issues, Harari’s writing is, as always, dense with thought-provoking ideas and enlivened by examples plucked from centuries past. One example, about the downside of residing in cyberspace rather than in actual space: “Humans lived for millions of years without religions and without nations — they can probably live happily without them in the 21st century, too. Yet they cannot live happily if they are disconnected from their bodies. If you don’t feel at home in your body, you will never feel at home in the world.”

The opening:

Mark Zuckerberg last month published an audacious manifesto on the need to build a global community, and on Facebook’s role in that project. His 5,700-word letter — on his Facebook page — was intended not just to allay concerns over social media’s role in spreading “fake news”. It also indicated that Facebook is no longer merely a business, or even a platform. It is on its way to becoming a worldwide ideological movement.

Of course words are cheaper than actions. To implement his manifesto, Zuckerberg might have to jump headlong into a political minefield, and even change his company’s entire business model. You can hardly lead a global community when you make your money from capturing people’s attention and selling it to advertisers. Despite this, his willingness to even formulate a political vision deserves praise.

Most corporations are faithful to the neoliberal dogma that says corporations should focus on making money, governments should do as little as possible, and humankind should trust market forces to take the really important decisions on our behalf. Tech giants such as Facebook have extra reason to distance themselves from any paternalistic political agenda and to present themselves as a transparent medium. With their immense power and hoard of personal data, they have been extremely wary of saying anything that might cause them to look even more like Big Brother.

There are certainly good reasons to fear Big Brother. In the 21st century, Big Data algorithms could be used to manipulate people in unprecedented ways. Take future election races, for example: in the 2020 race, Facebook could theoretically determine not only who are the 32,578 swing voters in Pennsylvania, but also what you need to tell each of them in order to swing them in your favour. But there is also much to fear from abdicating all responsibility to market forces. The market has proven itself woefully inadequate in confronting climate change and global inequality, and is even less likely to self-regulate the explosive powers of bioengineering and artificial intelligence. If Facebook intends to make a real ideological commitment, those who fear its power should not push it back into the neoliberal cocoon with cries of “Big Brother!”. Instead, we should urge other corporations, institutions and governments to contest its vision by making their own ideological commitments.•

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During Space Race 1.0., it was the Soviets who first successfully launched a satellite and landed a craft on the moon (the astronaut-less Luna 9). Our communist adversaries seemed destined to be the first to put humans on the moon, but that’s not how it turned out. 

In retrospect, it seems vital that the U.S., (then and perhaps still) a democracy, won the contest to take the first steps on solid ground in a sphere other than our own mothership. It provided a boost to us psychologically and technologically, maintaining the momentum we’d won in World War II, but the following decade was the beginning of a long decline for middle-class Americans, which was of course unrelated to space pioneering but likewise was not be prevented by it.

Did it really matter politically that we got there first? Hard to say.

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The human genome might actually be the final frontier, a voyage not out there but in here. The question is does it matter for humanity if the U.S. or China or some other state arrives, in one way or another, first? The invention of CRISPR-Cas9 makes this point more pressing than ever, as an autocratic nation without concern about public backlash is likely to go boldly into the future. Unlike space exploration, which is still remarkably expensive, genetic modification to not only cure disease but also to enhance healthy embryos and bodies is likely to become markedly more affordable in a relatively short span of time. That will allow for easy access to exploring–and, potentially, exploitating–which might mean the victor in this nouveau race is important. My best guess, however, is that taking the initial giant leap won’t ultimately be as meaningful as walking on the right path thereafter.

From G. Owen Schaefer’s smart Conversation piece “The Future Of Genetic Enhancement Is Not in the West“:

Aside from a preoccupation with being the best in everything, is there reason for Westerners to be concerned by the likelihood that genetic enhancement is apt to emerge out of China?

If the critics are correct that human enhancement is unethical, dangerous or both, then yes, emergence in China would be worrying. From this critical perspective, the Chinese people would be subject to an unethical and dangerous intervention – a cause for international concern. Given China’s human rights record in other areas, it is questionable whether international pressure would have much effect. In turn, enhancement of its population may make China more competitive on the world stage. An unenviable dilemma for opponents of enhancement could emerge – fail to enhance and fall behind, or enhance and suffer the moral and physical consequences.

Conversely, if one believes that human enhancement is actually desirable, this trend should be welcomed. As Western governments hem and haw, delaying development of potentially great advances for humanity, China leads the way forward. Their increased competitiveness, in turn, would pressure Western countries to relax restrictions and thereby allow humanity as a whole to progress – becoming healthier, more productive and generally capable.•

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Better governance was not the goal of the most recent American Presidential election.

Pundits on the Left (and many on the Right) have been excoriated as “out-of-touch” for not believing Trump could win the election, though the candidate himself was said to have thought he had little chance on Election Day. The two main reasons why so many high-information voters and members of the punditry felt he had little chance for victory: 1) Basically sane and decent people didn’t want to believe their fellow citizens would stoop to supporting a bigoted demagogue who was wholly unsuited for the position, and 2) Many traditionally astute observers judged the campaign based on who had better policies when anger was really all that counted this time. It was a populist revolt, which is always based more on emotion than rational thought.

Personally, I believed Clinton would win by five or six points nationally, taking the popular vote and electoral college, until James Comey insinuated himself, at which point it seemed it would be a dead heat. When the FBI concludes investigating Trump and his associates for possible treason, the department itself needs to be examined for its outrageous actions and how outsiders to the organization, like Rudy Giuliani, seemed to know ahead of time about its coming October surprise.

From Simon Kuper’s Financial Times piece on the perils of populism:

All populist movements now offer some version of “Lock her up!”. Pim Siegers, a village councillor for the far-left Dutch Socialist Party, told me that when he tried to convince people that the populist Geert Wilders wouldn’t solve their problems, they often replied: “We know. But ‘they’ — the elite — don’t like him.” Voting populist is often simply a way to punish elites. One campaign poster during last year’s Brexit referendum urged, beneath a picture of the grinning politicians David Cameron and George Osborne: “Wipe the smile off their faces. Vote Leave.” No matter that voting Leave might make you worse off; at least it would hurt the elite too. Similarly, many poor Americans wanted to abolish Obamacare chiefly to punish Barack Obama.

Liberals still often delude themselves that today’s political battle is about which side has better solutions. When Trump proposes killing off the National Endowment for the Arts, liberals counter that the NEA costs taxpayers a pittance (less, for instance, than Trump’s weekend trips to his Mar-a-Lago resort). But smart policymaking isn’t the point. Trashing the NEA punishes liberals.

Populist leaders act out revenge fantasies for people who feel slighted. Hence that quintessential populist persona (which Trump incarnates): the troll. Trump being Trump, he sometimes turns the dial up to 11 and goes from punishment to sadism, as in his odes to waterboarding.

The joy of punishment goes back to the Old Testament, but Randy Newman captured it beautifully in his 1988 satirical song “I Want You To Hurt Like I Do” (“One thing we all have in common/ And it’s something everyone can understand/ All over the world sing along… ”). Newman wrote the song as a counter to “We Are the World”, the liberal-solutions anthem. American conservatives understand the joy of punishment. •

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The Credibility Gap of the Nixon era can’t begin to speak to what America now endures, a post-truth Presidency that lies directly into cameras, not in the hopes of fooling anyone, but in an attempt to fashion it’s own alternative reality. 

There are many problems with that disgraceful approach, chiefly that it precludes an enlightened democracy, but one other small but meaningful danger is that such an Administration would likely be disbelieved should it in fact acquire intelligence of a genuine risk to society. A President who lies pathologically cannot be believed, a White House that enacts Bannon-playbook Muslim travel bans on false pretenses can’t be trusted, an Oval Office which seems to be in the thrall of an adversarial foreign power must be questioned at every turn. You can’t believe such a pack of liars because it’s dangerous to do so, and it might occasionally be perilous to not trust them. But how would we know the difference?

From Thomas Joscelyn’s Politico report about the laptop ban on certain Muslim countries, which may be a response to a legitimate threat or maybe not:

Initial press reports, including by the New York Times, cited anonymous officials as saying that the restrictions were not a response to new intelligence. But the DHS announcement implies otherwise. One question on the DHS web site reads, “Did new intelligence drive a decision to modify security procedures?” The answer: “Yes, intelligence is one aspect of every security-related decision.” The British government’s quick decision to follow suit also suggests that something new is afoot here.

Subsequent reports from CNN and The Daily Beast indicate that intelligence collected during a U.S. Special Forces raid in Yemen in January led to the restrictions. That is possible. The raid was highly controversial, but the Trump administration argues the costs were worth it because the U.S. learned key details about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) plotting. A Navy SEAL perished during the operation, as did a number of women and children. Within hours, jihadists began circulating a photo of an adorable little girl who died in the crossfire. The girl was the daughter of Anwar al Awlaki, a Yemeni-American al Qaeda ideologue killed in a September 2011 drone strike. Al Qaeda immediately called for revenge in her name.

Whether new intelligence led to the decision or not, we already know for certain that al Qaeda has continued to think up ways to terrorize the skies. For years, Al Qaeda operatives in Somalia, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere have been experimenting with sophisticated explosives that can be smuggled onto planes.

DHS points to the “attempted airliner downing in Somalia” in February 2016 as one reason for ongoing concerns. That bombing was carried out by al Shabaab, al Qaeda’s official branch in Somalia. Al Shabaab attempted to justify the failed attack by claiming “Western intelligence officials” were on board the flight, but that excuse may be a cover for something more sinister.

Some U.S. officials suspect that al Qaeda’s elite bomb makers wanted to test one of their newest inventions, a lightweight explosive disguised as a laptop that is difficult to detect with normal security procedures. At the very least, Shabaab’s attack demonstrated that al Qaeda has gotten closer to deploying a laptop-sized explosive that can blow a hole in jetliners. While no one other than the terrorist who detonated the bomb was killed, the plane was left with a gaping hole in its side.•

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Some prominent American captains of industry of the 1930s openly admired Italy’s Fascism, even Hitler’s Nazism, sure the crushing grip on workers those authoritarian regimes maintained would defeat American liberalism. This popular idea was useful to Charles Lindbergh and others in selling the original “America First” mentality. Of course, those same totalitarian impulses helped push both nations to disaster unparalleled in modern times.

In a Cato Institute essay that wonders whether free societies will be ascendant in the coming decades, Tyler Cowen argues China’s ballooning share of the GDP has served as significant soft power, encouraging other players on the world stage that their system is superior. I’m not convinced. While it stands to reason that any supersized idea in the market will hold some sway, it doesn’t seem like insurgent forces in the U.S. and the U.K.–and certainly not their rank-and-file supporters–aspire to the Chinese model. The factors provoking the political tumult seem to be economic concerns, underlying bigotries exploited by opportunists and the aftereffects of 9/11, the Iraq War, the 2008 financial collapse and the very uneven outcomes of the Arab Spring. 

Of course, there’s no exact science to decide where the blame lies.

An excerpt:

The percentage of global GDP which is held in relatively non-free countries, such as China, has been rising relative to the share of global GDP held in the freer countries. I suspect we are underrating the noxious effects of that development.

Just think back to the 1930s, and some other decades, and consider how many Westerners and Western intellectuals were infatuated with communism and also Stalinism, even at times with fascism, at least before WWII. I would say that if a big idea is around, and supported by some major governments, some number of people will be attracted to that idea, even if we don’t understand the mechanisms here very well. Nonetheless that seems to be an unfortunate sociological truth. Today that big idea isn’t so much communism as it is various forms of authoritarianism. Authoritarians have more presence on the global stage today than has been the case for a while. Furthermore, a lot of the authoritarian states are still in their “rising” forms, rather than their decadent forms, as was the case for Soviet communism in say the 1980s. For instance, while predictions about the future of China are difficult to make, the Chinese Communist Party hardly seems to be on the verge of collapse, and thus its authoritarianism may not be discredited by current events anytime soon. On the global stage, Putin’s Russia has won some recent successes as of late, including in Crimea and also by interfering with democratic elections in the West, apparently with impunity.

To put it simply, global authoritarianism is probably poisoning our political climate more than many people realize.•

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Prone as we are to expecting what has happened before to come around again, the shock of the new often causes us to frame outliers with narratives, to assign order to what disturbs us. 

While Brexit and Trump’s election would make for great fictional plot twists in novels sold at airports, they’re so deeply upsetting to many among us and such a threat to global order that these events have been suggested by some as evidence that we exist inside a computer simulation written by future humans testing our mettle, a theory spread widely by Elon Musk in recent years, fueled by his Bostrom bender. Even the recent Oscar snafu was peddled as proof of the same.

None of these occurrences proves anything, of course. Statistically, the unusual and unpleasant is bound to happen sometimes. A “cancer cluster” is occasionally just a natural and random spike, not the result of locals tasting tainted drinking water. A sad-sack sports team on a winning streak can likewise be arbitrary noise. Not everything is a conspiracy, not everything evidence.

Political Theory professor Michael Frazer’s Conversation article “Do Brexit and Trump Show That We’re Living in a Computer Simulation? neatly outlines philosopher Nick Bostrom’s reasons for believing we exist inside a sort of video game controlled by others:

“Either humanity goes extinct before developing the technology to make universe simulations possible. Or advanced civilisations freely choose not to run such simulations. Or we are probably living in a simulation.”

Of course, all of those options rely on us having incredibly distant “descendants,” something those in the simulated-universe camp seem to blithely accept without any proof. Today’s academics may create counterfactuals on historical epochs, but they possess good evidence we have ancestors. Descendants living in a far-flung future building a narrative from us seems more like our own narrative.

Some have argued that superior humans of tomorrow wouldn’t be so unethical as to create a universe of pain and calamity, as if intelligence and morality are always linked. (Just consider a “genius” of today like Peter Thiel as a reference point on that one.) Frazer makes a compelling case, however, that if a future world exists, it’s probably not populated by code-friendly tormentors. As he asserts, great immorality mixing with unimaginable technology would likely be too toxic a combination for these people of tomorrow to have survived.

The opening:

Recent political events have turned the world upside down. The UK voting for Brexit and the US electing Donald Trump as president were unthinkable 18 months ago. In fact, they’re so extraordinary that some have questioned whether they might not be an indication that we’re actually living in some kind of computer simulation or alien experiment.

These unexpected events could be experiments to see how our political systems cope under stress. Or they could be cruel jokes made at our expense by our alien zookeepers. Or maybe they’re just glitches in the system that were never meant to happen. Perhaps the recent mix-up at the Oscars or the unlikely victories of Leicester City in the English Premier League or the New England Patriots in the Superbowl are similar glitches.

The problem with using these difficult political events as evidence that our world is a simulation is how unethical such a scenario would be. If there really were a robot or alien power that was intelligent enough to control all our lives in this way, there’s a good chance they’d have developed the moral sense not to do so.•

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In a Guardian article, Andrew Anthony writes that Yuval Noah Harari is a “historian of the distant past and the near future,” an apt description. The Israeli may be the least likely public figure to come to prominence this decade, a deeply cerebral academic in an age when intellectualism and higher education are often perplexingly scorned.

Of course, in their own moments Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould were also unlikely celebrities. The common bond they all shared: an ability to relate vivid narratives, which is an especially appropriate skill as it refers to Harari, who believes a penchant for storytelling and processing abstract thoughts is what made our species predominant among humans and all other creatures.

Anthony collected questions from notable public figures and readers to pose to Harari. A few of the exchanges follow.


Helen Czerski, physicist

We are living through a fantastically rapid globalisation. Will there be one global culture in the future or will we maintain some sort of deliberate artificial tribal groupings?

Yuval Noah Harari:

I’m not sure if it will be deliberate but I do think we’ll probably have just one system, and in this sense we’ll have just one civilisation. In a way this is already the case. All over the world the political system of the state is roughly identical. All over the world capitalism is the dominant economic system, and all over the world the scientific method or worldview is the basic worldview through which people understand nature, disease, biology, physics and so forth. There are no longer any fundamental civilisational differences.

· · ·

Lucy Prebble, playwright

What is the biggest misconception humanity has about itself?

Yuval Noah Harari:

Maybe it is that by gaining more power over the world, over the environment, we will be able to make ourselves happier and more satisfied with life. Looking again from a perspective of thousands of years, we have gained enormous power over the world and it doesn’t seem to make people significantly more satisfied than in the stone age.

· · ·

TheWatchingPlace, posted online:

Is there a real possibility that environmental degradation will halt technological progress?

Yuval Noah Harari:

I think it will be just the opposite – that, as the ecological crisis intensifies, the pressure for technological development will increase, not decrease. I think that the ecological crisis in the 21st century will be analogous to the two world wars in the 20th century in serving to accelerate technological progress.

As long as things are OK, people would be very careful in developing or experimenting in genetic engineering on humans or giving artificial intelligence control of weapon systems. But if you have a serious crisis, caused for example by ecological degradation, then people will be tempted to try all kinds of high-risk, high-gain technologies in the hope of solving the problem, and you’ll have something like the Manhattan Project in the second world war.

· · ·

Andrew Anthony:

You live in a part of the world that has been shaped by religious fictions. Which do you think will happen first – that Homo sapiens leave behind religious fiction or the Israel-Palestine conflict will be resolved?

Yuvan Noah Harari:

As things look at present, it seems that Homo sapiens will disappear before the Israeli political conflict will be resolved. I think that Homo sapiens as we know them will probably disappear within a century or so, not destroyed by killer robots or things like that, but changed and upgraded with biotechnology and artificial intelligence into something else, into something different. The timescale for that kind of change is maybe a century. And it’s quite likely that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will not be resolved by that time. But it will definitely be influenced by it.•

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There is no honor among thieves, especially kleptocrats.

If memory serves, Ian Frazier in Travels in Siberia shared a theory that the brutality inflicted by the Mongols on the inhabitants of the Kievan Rus’ in the thirteenth century turned Russians into abused children whose deep wounds have caused them to act out in a serial destructive fashion as adults, continually relapsing into aberrant behavior. 

That’s probably not so, neat theory though it is. One way or another, however, Russia is ruled by swaggering, infantile Kremlin machismo, which is now mirrored by the White House, home (at least most weekdays) to America’s own problem child, Donald Trump. Russia may have initially thought it had an ace in the hole aboard Air Force One, especially when Mike Flynn was drinking a cup of кофе as National Security Adviser, but the media, much of it under Vladimir Putin’s thumb, has since turned on Trump. If these two volatile crackpots and their minions end up forming a circular firing squad, we may all be caught in the crossfire.

From Susan B. Glasser’s Politico Magazine interview with veteran Putin reporter Masha Gessen:

Susan B. Glasser:

What should we expect next? What are the scenarios that keep you up at night with your imagination?

Masha Gessen:

Oh, the nuclear holocaust is my primary worry. But—

Susan B. Glasser:

You know, why—cut straight to the big stuff. You know, never mind the littler crises. Any particular nuclear scenario?

Masha Gessen:

I’m worried about Russia. I’m—this is—I mean, we’re already out of the honeymoon phase, and it’s been less than two months. And I think it’s—I mean, the danger of having these two unhinged power-hungry men at their—respective nuclear buttons cannot be overestimated. But—

Susan B. Glasser:

So you would see them as potential enemies as much as potential friends? That this scenario—

Masha Gessen:

Oh, absolutely.

Susan B. Glasser:

—we should worry about is Trump versus Putin, not just Trump and Putin uniting?

Masha Gessen:

Right. I’m actually worried about a collision with them.

Susan B. Glasser:

Yes.

Masha Gessen:

The Trump/Putin collision. But, you know, as useful as I think it has been for me to think back to the early Putin days, and the middle Putin days, [LAUGHS] to understand what’s happening here, there are some huge differences, right? And one difference, weirdly, is just how fast Trump is moving, right?•

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Nature is a necessary evil, and humans are a mixed blessing. That’s my credo. Hopeful, huh?

Five years ago, when this blog was something other than what it is today (though I don’t really know what it is now, either), I use to run an occasional post called “5 Things About Us Future People Won’t Believe.” In these short pieces, carnivorism, internal gestation, factory work, invasive surgery and prisons were my suggestions for elements of today’s society that would brand us as “backwards” by tomorrow’s standards. I didn’t mention anything obvious like warfare because the “enlightened” of the future will still participate in such tribalism, even if the nature of the battle changes markedly. 

In a similar vein, Matt Chessen has published “The Future Called: We’re Disgusting And Barbaric,” a Backchannel piece that hits on some of same predictions I made but also has some very interesting topics I didn’t touch at all. One item:

Tolerating homes and bodies infested with critters

Right now, there are hundreds of millions of insects living on your body and in your home. Tiny dust mites inhabit your mattress, your pillow, your carpeting, and your body, regardless of how clean everything is. Microscopic demodex mites live in the follicles of your eyelashes and prowl your face at night. And this doesn’t even consider the trillions of bacteria and parasites that live inside us. Our bodies are like planets, full of life that is not us.

Future folk will be thoroughly disgusted. They will have nanotechnology antibodies — tiny machines that patrol our homes and skin, hoovering up dust mite food (our skin flakes) and exterminating the little suckers. They can’t completely eliminate all the insects and bacteria — human beings have developed a symbiosis with them; we need bacteria to do things like digest food—but the nanobots will police this flora, keeping it within healthy bounds and eliminating any micro-infestations or infections that grow out of control.

And forget about infestations by critters like cockroaches. Nanobots will exterminate larger household pests en masse. The real terminators of the future wont wreck havoc on humanity: They’ll massacre our unwanted insect houseguests.•

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Elon Musk has made the unilateral decision that Mars will be ruled by direct democracy, and considering how dismal his political record is over the last five months with his bewildering bromance with the orange supremacist, it might be great if he blasted from Earth sooner than later.

Another billionaire of dubious governmental wisdom also believed in direct democracy. That was computer-processing magnate Ross Perot who, in 1969, had a McLuhan-ish dream: an electronic town hall in which interactive television and computer punch cards would allow the masses, rather than elected officials, to decide key American policies. In 1992, he held fast to this goal–one that was perhaps more democratic than any society could survive–when he bankrolled his own populist third-party Presidential campaign. 

The opening of “Perot’s Vision: Consensus By Computer,” a New York Times article from that year by the late Michael Kelly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In addition to the rampant myopia that would likely blight such a system, most Americans, with jobs and families and TV shows to binge watch, don’t take the time to fully appreciate the nuances of complex policy. The stunning truth is that even in a representative democracy in this information-rich age, we have enough uninformed voters minus critical-thinking abilities to install an obvious con artist into the Oval Office to pick their pockets. 

In a Financial Times column, Tim Harford argues in favor of the professional if imperfect class of technocrats, who get the job done, more or less. An excerpt:

For all its merits, democracy has always had a weakness: on any detailed piece of policy, the typical voter — I include myself here — does not understand what is really at stake and does not care to find out. This is not a slight on voters. It is a recognition of our common sense. Why should we devote hours to studying every policy question that arises? We know the vote of any particular citizen is never decisive. It would be a deluded voter indeed who stayed up all night revising for an election, believing that her vote would be the one to make all the difference.

So voters are not paying close attention to the details. That might seem a fatal flaw in democracy but democracy has coped. The workaround for voter ignorance is to delegate the details to expert technocrats. Technocracy is unfashionable these days; that is a shame.

One advantage of a technocracy is that it constrains politicians who are tempted by narrow or fleeting advantages. Multilateral bodies such as the World Trade Organization and the European Commission have been able to head off popular yet self-harming behaviour, such as handing state protection to which ever business has the best lobbyists.

Meanwhile independent central banks have been the grown-ups of economic policymaking. Once the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis had passed, elected politicians sat on their hands. Technocratic central bankers were — to borrow a phrase from Mohamed El-Erian, economic adviser — “the only game in town” in sustaining a recovery.

A second advantage is that technocrats can offer informed, impartial analysis. Consider the Congressional Budget Office in the US, the Office for Budget Responsibility in the UK, and Nice, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.

Technocrats make mistakes, it’s true — many mistakes. Brain surgeons also make mistakes. That does not mean I’d be better off handing the scalpel to Boris Johnson.•

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Jimmy Breslin was far from perfect, but he was awfully close to great.

The longtime NYC tabloid writer kept an unforgiving pace back in the age of multiple daily print editions, a hard drinker whose columns always made a soft landing, a working-class hero who fought the power, offering up a consistently poetic proletarian prose.

He was a tabloid titan, loud and a braggart, but he could back it up. A larger-than-life character with a big body and a giant ego, his abilities as a tireless journalist provided him with other opportunities that he was almost always ill-suited for: politician, Saturday Night Live host, talk-show host, etc. Well, in addition to his excellent reporting, he was also awfully good as a beer-commercial pitchman. 

Along with Hunter S. Thompson, Breslin was perhaps the most widely imitated journalist in America in the latter half of the twentieth century, often to horrendous results, though he can’t be blamed for that. You could fault him for sometimes talking himself into trouble, making racist remarks to an editor who questioned his work, the David becoming a Goliath when he believed it suited him. In the big picture, he was right most of the time, and he would never let you hear the end of it.

An excerpt from the wonderful New York Times writer Dan Barry’s Breslin obituary is followed by a few related clips.


From Barry:

Poetic and profane, softhearted and unforgiving, Mr. Breslin inspired every emotion but indifference; letters from outraged readers gladdened his heart. He often went after his own, from Irish-Americans with “shopping-center faces” who had forgotten their hardscrabble roots to the Roman Catholic Church, whose sex scandals prompted him to write an angry book called “The Church That Forgot Christ,” published in 2004. It ends with a cheeky vow to start a new church that would demand more low-income housing and better posture.

Love or loathe him, none could deny Mr. Breslin’s enduring impact on the craft of narrative nonfiction. He often explained that he merely applied a sportswriter’s visual sensibility to the news columns. Avoid the scrum of journalists gathered around the winner, he would advise, and go directly to the loser’s locker. This is how you find your gravedigger.

“So you go to a big thing like this presidential assassination,” he said in an extended interview with The New York Times in 2006. “Well, you’re looking for the dressing room, that’s all. And I did. I went there automatic.”

Early on, Mr. Breslin developed the persona of the hard-drinking, dark-humored Everyman from Queens, so consumed by life’s injustices and his six children that he barely had time to comb his wild black mane. While this persona shared a beer with the truth, Mr. Breslin also admired Dostoyevsky; swam every day; hadn’t had a drink in more than 30 years; wrote a shelf-full of books; and adhered to a demanding work ethic that required his presence in the moment, from a civil rights march in Alabama to a “perp walk” in Brooklyn — no matter that he never learned to drive.

The real Jimmy Breslin was so elusive that even Mr. Breslin could not find him. “There have been many Jimmy Breslins because of all the people I identified with so much, turning me into them, or them into me, that I can’t explain one Jimmy Breslin,” he once wrote.

Sometimes he presented himself as a regular guy who churned out words for pay; other times he became the megalomaniacal stylist — “J. B. Number One,” he called himself — who was dogged by pale imitators with Irish surnames. On occasion he would wake up other reporters with telephone calls to say, simply, “I’m big.”•


In 1969, Breslin ran for City Council in NYC on a ticket that aimed to deliver Norman Mailer to Gracie Mansion. It was a secessionist platform that sought to make New York City the nation’s 51st state; only 5% approved in the Democratic Primary. Here’s an excerpt from “I Run to Win,” Breslin’s May 5, 1969 cover article for New York magazine, written the month before the people voted nay:

The first phone call on Monday morning was at seven o’clock.

“He’s asleep,” I heard my wife mumble.

“Wake him up?” she mumbled.

She kicked me and I reached over for the phone.

“Somebody named Joe Ferris,” she said. “He needs your correct voting registration for the petitions., What petitions?”

I sat up in bed, with the phone in one hand and my head against the wall and my eyes closed.

“What petitions?” my wife said again.

I knew what petitions Joe Ferris was talking about. I knew about them, but I never thought it would come to the point of an early morning phone call about them. You see, when it started, I was only in this thing for pleasant conversation with nice people. “Hello,” I said to Joe Ferris. I was afraid he would send cold waves through the phone.

“I’ve got to be at the printer with the petitions this morning,” Joe Ferris said. “So what I need is the exact way your name and address appears on the voting rolls. We don’t want to have any petitions thrown out on a technicality. Because they’re going to be looking for mistakes. Particularly when they see how much support you and Norman are going to get. That’s all I’ve been hearing around town. You and Norman. I think you’ve got a tremendous chance.”

“I’ll get the information and call you back,” I said to Joe Ferris. He gave me his phone number and I told him I was writing it down, but I wasn’t. Maybe if I forgot his number and never called him back, he wouldn’t bother to call me anymore.

“What petitions?” my wife said when I hung up.•


The opening of what’s arguably Jimmy Breslin’s most famous column, his 1963 profile of the quiet, sober work of the gravedigger at Arlington National Cemetery who attended to President Kennedy’s burial plot:

Washington — Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m., in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast. His wife, Hettie, made bacon and eggs for him. Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting. It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living. “Polly, could you please be here by eleven o’clock this morning?” Kawalchik asked. “I guess you know what it’s for.” Pollard did. He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

When Pollard got to the row of yellow wooden garages where the cemetery equipment is stored, Kawalchik and John Metzler, the cemetery superintendent, were waiting for him. “Sorry to pull you out like this on a Sunday,” Metzler said. “Oh, don’t say that,” Pollard said. “Why, it’s an honor for me to be here.” Pollard got behind the wheel of a machine called a reverse hoe. Gravedigging is not done with men and shovels at Arlington. The reverse hoe is a green machine with a yellow bucket that scoops the earth toward the operator, not away from it as a crane does. At the bottom of the hill in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Pollard started the digging (Editor Note: At the bottom of the hill in front of the Custis-Lee Mansion).

Leaves covered the grass. When the yellow teeth of the reverse hoe first bit into the ground, the leaves made a threshing sound which could be heard above the motor of the machine. When the bucket came up with its first scoop of dirt, Metzler, the cemetery superintendent, walked over and looked at it. “That’s nice soil,” Metzler said. “I’d like to save a little of it,” Pollard said. “The machine made some tracks in the grass over here and I’d like to sort of fill them in and get some good grass growing there, I’d like to have everything, you know, nice.”•


“It’s a good drinkin’ beer.”

“It’s the solid cereal.”

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The echoes of Mussolini in Trump and the Nazis in the alt-right are blaring sirens to anyone familiar with European history in the two decades leading up to World War II. The differences between yesterday’s madness and today’s, however, are probably just as important to consider, from the tools used to forward a hateful agenda to the shifts in the targets of the animus to the new unholy alliances being forged.

In a Verso interview conducted by Grégory Marin, historian Enzo Traverso examines the appallingly racist, illiberal political movements that have emerged in the U.S. and Europe from what he terms the “fascist matrix.” The principal point he makes is that the new authoritarianism isn’t yet fully defined and where it leads may be the biggest of all threats.

The opening two exchanges:

Question:

Are Europe’s far-Right movements (the AfD in Germany, the Front National in France, Jobbik in Hungary…) adopting the same codes as fascism or Nazism?

Enzo Traverso:

First of all, these movements do share common traits, including their rejection of the European Union, their xenophobia and their racism, in particular in its Islamophobic dimension. Beyond these markers, we can see notable differences. There are clearly neo-fascist or neo-Nazi movements, like Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary, etc., whose radicalism is often linked to the extent of the crisis, even if in Greece the rise of Syriza did put a lid on this dynamic. As for France, the Front National does have a fascist matrix, and there are certainly neo-fascists in the party, but its discourse is no longer fascist. After all, it has made a considerable effort at ideological mutation, and that is one of the keys to its success. If it still advanced neo-fascist arguments it would not get a hearing, and could certainly not hope to reach the second round of the presidential election.

Question:

Why call these parties “from the fascist matrix” post-fascists and not-neo-fascists? How do you characterise this post-fascism?

Enzo Traverso:

It is a transitional category. Post-fascism is a concept that attempts to grasp a mutation process that is still underway; the FN is no longer a fascist movement, but it is still far-Right and xenophobic, and it has still not broken the umbilical cord that links it to its fascist matrix. We do not know what that will produce. This could end up — if the European Union were to break apart and the economic crisis were to deepen — transforming into a clearly fascist alternative. That has happened in the past. Or it could take on new characteristics and integrate into the system, like the Movimento Sociale Italiano did in the 1990s, becoming a component of the traditional Right. This is an open process, for within the tendency I call “post-fascist” there are also political movements born in recent years that are not fascist in origin, for instance UKIP in England or the Lega Nord in Italy, which are converging together with this current; indeed, Matteo Salvini and Nigel Farage have good relations with the Front National. This notion does not seek either to play down the danger or to make it more acceptable, but to understand it, the better to combat it more effectively.•

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An unqualified sociopath was elected President of the United States with the aid of the FBI, fake news, Russian spies, white supremacists and an accused rapist who’s holed up inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid arrest. Writing that sentence a million times can’t make it any less chilling.

WikiLeaks’ modus operandi over the last couple of years probably wouldn’t be markedly different if it were in the hands of Steve Bannon rather than Julian Assange, so it’s not surprising the organization leaked a trove of (apparently overhyped) documents about CIA surveillance just as Trump was being lambasted from both sides of the aisle for baselessly accusing his predecessor for “wiretapping.” The timing is familiar if you recall that WikiLeaks began releasing Clinton campaign emails directly after the surfacing of a video that recorded Trump’s boasts of sexual assault. With all this recent history, is it any surprise Assange mockingly described himself as a “deplorable” when chiding Twitter for refusing verify his account?

The decentralization of media, with powerful tools in potentially every hand, has changed the game, no doubt. We’re now in a permanent Spy vs. Spy cartoon, though one that isn’t funny, with feds and hackers permanently at loggerheads. Which side can do the most damage? Voters have some recourse in regards to government snooping but not so with private-sector enterprises. In the rush to privatize and outsource long-established areas of critical services, from prisons to the military to intelligence work, we’ve also dispersed dangers.

From Sue Halpern’s New York Review of Books pieceThe Assange Distraction“:

In his press conference, Assange observed that no cyber weapons are safe from hacking because they live on the Internet, and once deployed are themselves at risk of being stolen. When that happens, he said, “there’s a very easy cover for any gray market operator, contractor, rogue intelligence agent to take that material and start a company with it. Start a consulting company, a hacker for hire company.” Indeed, the conversation we almost never have when we’re talking about cyber-security and hacking is the one where we acknowledge just how privatized intelligence gathering has become, and what the consequences of this have been. According to the reporters Dana Priest, Marjorie Censer and Robert O’Harrow, Jr., at least 70 percent of the intelligence community’s “secret” budget now goes to private contractors. And, they write, “Never before have so many US intelligence workers been hired so quickly, or been given access to secret government information through networked computers. …But in the rush to fill jobs, the government has relied on faulty procedures to vet intelligence workers, documents and interviews show.” Much of this expansion occurred in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, when the American government sought to dramatically expand its intelligence-gathering apparatus.

Edward Snowden was a government contractor; he had a high security clearance while working for both Dell and for Booz, Allen, Hamilton. Vault 7’s source, from what one can discern from Assange’s remarks, was most likely a contractor, too. The real connection between Snowden’s NSA revelations and an anonymous leaker handing off CIA malware to WikiLeaks, however, is this: both remind us, in different ways, that the expansion of the surveillance state has made us fundamentally less secure, not more.

Julian Assange, if he is to be believed, now possesses the entire cyber-weaponry of the CIA. He claims that they are safe with him while explaining that nothing is safe on the Internet. He says that the malware he’s published so far is only part of the CIA arsenal, and that he’ll reveal more at a later date. If that is not a veiled threat, then this is: Assange has not destroyed the source codes that came to him with Vault 7, the algorithms that run these programs, and he hasn’t categorically ruled out releasing them into the wild, where they would be available to any cyber-criminal, state actor, or random hacker. This means that Julian Assange is not just a fugitive, he is a fugitive who is armed and dangerous.•

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Malcolm Gladwell has a great many talents, but analyzing comedy and satire is apparently not among them. Unfortunately, he held forth on these topics in a recent conversation with economist Tyler Cowen.

The writer once derided satire for not being significant enough to prevent the rise of Nazism, failing to acknowledge that diplomacy, protest, church and media also failed to thwart this mass tragedy. All those institutions and activities have great value, even if they were depressingly unable to avert this particular horror.

Speaking to Cowen, Gladwell forwards the bizarre theory that Tine Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin was great for the comedian’s career but made the politician “more acceptable and likable.” This is an absurd contention. If Katie Couric’s interview with Palin was a mortal wound, Fey’s imitation was the coup de grâce.

Gladwell’s judgment that the impersonation stemmed from Fey’s self-interest is peculiar. Certainly he writes his articles and books to improve his career, and he also does corporate speaking engagements, a very dicey move for a journalist, which I don’t believe Fey does. (Perhaps Gladwell donates all this money to charity, but it remains a potential conflict of interest.)

In the direct aftermath of the Presidential election, when New Yorker EIC David Remnick appeared on TV to warn against the normalization of Trump, he commented that although he believed Hillary Clinton would have been a great President, he thought it was wrong that she accepted huge fees for speaking engagements from investment banks. He probably should hold his staff to the same standard.

Gladwell’s criticism of Alec Baldwin is almost is as wrong-minded. SNL certainly deserves brickbats for allowing the Simon Cowell-ish strongman to host the show during his disgracefully racist campaign, but Baldwin’s characterization isn’t a superficial performance Gladwell describes. Well, at least it’s clear to him that Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer impersonation is greatness.

As for Cowen’s question to Gladwell about Baldwin’s Trump–Is it not sufficiently negative?–he should be asking himself that same query in response to his tepid comments about Peter Thiel, a former interview subject who aggressively enabled a sociopath into the White House. This Administration isn’t merely “flawed” as the economist labeled it in a recent Ask Me Anything. It’s utterly shameful and highly dangerous.

An excerpt:

On Tina Fey, Melisa McCarthy, and good satire

COWEN: It’s been said that satire sometimes reaffirms power, while poetry affirms only its own power. You have a podcast where you express a worry that Tina Fey, by mimicking and satirizing Sarah Palin, actually made her more acceptable and more likeable in doing so. So fast-forward to the current moment: we have Saturday Night Live.

[laughter]

COWEN: Alec Baldwin and Donald Trump. Is that useful satire? Is it not sufficiently negative? Should we be deploying poetry or is that the effective medium for social commentary?

GLADWELL: Well, I don’t like the Alec Baldwin Donald Trump, I don’t think, actually, if you compare it to the Sean Spicer . . .

[laughter]

GLADWELL: It’s not as good, and it’s not as good because the truly effective satirical impersonation is one that finds something essential about the character and magnifies it, something buried that you wouldn’t ordinarily have seen or have glimpsed in that person.

With the Spicer impersonation, why that’s so brilliant is, it draws out his anger. He’s angry at being put in this impossible position. That is the essence of that character. So how does a person respond to this, it’s almost an absurd position he’s in. And he has this kind of — it’s not sublimated — it’s there, this rage. In every one of his utterances is, “I can’t fucking believe that I am in this . . .”

[laughter] 

GLADWELL: And so that Saturday Night Live impersonation gets beautifully at that thing, it satirizes that. I’ve forgotten the name of the woman who does it.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Melissa McCarthy.

GLADWELL: Yes, when Melissa McCarthy, when she picks up the podium . . .

[laughter]

GLADWELL: That’s an absurd illustration of that fundamental point. But the Alec Baldwin Trump doesn’t get at something essential about Trump. It simply takes his mannerisms and exaggerates them slightly. But he hasn’t mined Trump. There are many directions you can go with Trump, the extraordinary insecurity of the man. Like I said, there are many things you could pluck out, but that for one, the idea of doing an impersonation where you really thought deeply about what it would mean in a comic way to represent this man’s almost tragic level of insecurity. Alec Baldwin is not . . . he’s a little too glib . . .

That’s the problem with Saturday Night Live, the larger problem — I was trying to get at it in that podcast episode on satire — the problem with doing satire through the vehicle of a show like Saturday Night Live is, they’re not incentivized to do that kind of deep thinking. The Melissa McCarthy thing is an exception; it’s not the rule.

Really what they’re incentivized to do is, for the actor — who is in many cases as famous or more famous than the person they are impersonating — the actor is using the character to further their own ends. Tina Fey is infinitely more popular, more accomplished, more whatever than Sarah Palin will ever be. And so she’s using Sarah Palin to further her own ends. That’s backwards. She’s not inhabiting the character of Sarah Palin in order to make a point about Sarah Palin, she is inhabiting Sarah Palin in order to make a point about Tina Fey.

I feel, so long as satire is done by a television show which has such a lofty position in the cultural hierarchy, it’s always going to be the case that that’s what’s going to drive their impersonations. They’re always going to be sitting on their hands. Remember they’re making fun of Trump six months after they had him on the show, right? After they were complicit in his rise, and after Jimmy Fallon ruffled his hair on camera. Maybe that’s fine. My point is you can’t be an effective satirist if you are so deeply complicit in the object of your satire.•

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As I write this post, smart money would be on the American Health Care Act failing to win the necessary votes, oddly because it’s too draconian for some Republican lawmakers and not enough for others, with Trump and Congress then settling for doing all in their power to undermine Obamacare into collapse.

The latter has already begun in earnest with tweaks made to weaken the ACA and the pulling of advertising campaigns aimed at increasing enrollment. The GOP’s gambit is that citizens will blame the previous Administration as the healthcare law implodes, but it could ultimately be pinned on the actual culprits, costing them control of one or more branches of the government. The only sure thing is that citizens will be hurt.

In a Reddit Ask Me Anything, John McDonough, professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, answered questions about the AHCA, which even Trump doesn’t want to attach his for-sale surname to. A few exchanges follow.


Question:

If you had carte blanche to write health care policy for the US, what would be the key points?

John McDonough:

Honestly, even though I think it won’t happen anytime soon, a single payer type system with protections and guarantees makes the most sense. Shorter term — it’s nuts that we have 3 gigantic federal health programs: Medicare, Medicaid, and ACA. Makes sense to me to move toward a consolidated federal health system/approach.


Question:

If you were a benevolent dictator, what would you do to control health care costs?

John McDonough:

Here are some options: 1. A single payer is an effective way to control costs because the government sets a strict limit. It can also lead to significant limitations in funding the system adequately. EG: Canada has a great system, but it has been suffering considerably over recent years because of strict funding limits put in place back in the 1970s, and it is falling behind. 2. Government price regulation is another approach that is less strict than single payer, and also marginally less effective — though it provides space for more give and take between the system providers and the payers. 3. Leave it to the market — that’s been the main approach since the Reagan era in the 1980s (interrupted by Obama in the past 8 years) and it has led to the largest explosion of costs ever.

So I pick #2, though not bursting with enthusiasm.


Question:

Why is the U.S. so against a single payer system when it works in so many other developed nations?

John McDonough:

Lots of reasons. A few: 1. so much of what we pay for healthcare right now is hidden — in employer contributions, in tax deductions, in government payments, so very few see the real cost. When people see the real cost in a single payer plan, many get scared and freak out. 2. Conservatives really fear giving that much power to the federal government — it runs heavily against the deep seeded grain of libertarianism in our culture. 3. Path dependence — if we were starting from scratch (say when Harry Truman tried it in 1948), it was easier. Now there is so much that gets replaced and it gets so — as DT says — “complicated.” 4. Large wealthy interests will spend lots of $ to confuse people.


Question:

Do you think that Obamacare and the ACA were a good or bad foot forward to having more affordable Healthcare, and if so, why?

John McDonough:

I believe that the ACA, overall, was a strong net positive for the US, recognizing that many elements could be improved/strengthened.

  • More than 20 million formerly uninsured got coverage

  • Medicaid got improved enormously in helping people get on and stay on

  • Medicare costs, on a per enrollee basis, since the ACA and because of it, have risen since 2009 as the lowest rate of increase since the program was created in 1965

  • The US medical system, significantly because of the ACA, is embracing a new improvement agenda to fix costs, quality, and efficiency — and the health system is embracing that changeLots more — those are the biggies.


Question:

It appears right now that the AHCA is “DOA” in the Senate, in Ted Cruz’s words. What are the GOP’s next steps? A new, different, more conservative bill? One that uproots the structures created by the ACA? Accept the ACA and just fix some of the deficiencies? Throw in the towel?

John McDonough:

Here is my fear, not hypothetical, and repeatedly mentioned by Trump.

ACA needs work and repair — totally doable and 100% necessary. Can be done, but Rs don’t want it fixed, they want it dead.

So Rs refuse to do any repairs, and let it devolve into chaos and just say the law is fatally flawed and it’s the D’s fault.

Could happen, and hard to game out the result. That seems to me to be the most likely piece.

Remember, this is about tax policy as much as about health policy. The key reason Rs are so fixed on getting this done is the tax cuts/repeals which play a big part in the tax reform agenda they want to do right after this.•

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Most who identify as religious in America voted for Donald Trump in the last election, with only Hispanic Catholics, Jewish people and the vaguely categorized “Other Faiths” favoring Hillary Clinton. But not all among the devout behave similarly: Some keep the Sabbath and others don’t.

In an Atlantic article, Peter Beinart theorizes that falling church attendance in America, a trend of the last several decades (even among believers), has helped reconfigure the culture war, which used to be mainly about so-called values issues and now is drawn along racial and ethnic lines. There are many other factors involved, so it’s not easy to establish causality, but there seems to be some validity to the argument, especially if considering the primary season, when Trump’s most reliable voters where evangelicals who skip Sundays.

This shift has probably been both boon and bane. Support has softened for some prejudiced church beliefs that run afoul of civil rights (as with gay marriage), but those advances have coincided with a surprising number of citizens choosing to ignore the communal good with respect to non-white Americans and immigrants. It does seem like an awful lot of self-described Christians have ceased asking themselves “What would Jesus do?” on a regular basis. 

Perhaps Beinart’s thesis might partly explain why so many among us were willing to make a deal with the devil?

The opening:

Over the past decade, pollsters charted something remarkable: Americans—long known for their piety—were fleeing organized religion in increasing numbers. The vast majority still believed in God. But the share that rejected any religious affiliation was growing fast, rising from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014. Among Millennials, the figure was 35 percent.

Some observers predicted that this new secularism would ease cultural conflict, as the country settled into a near-consensus on issues such as gay marriage. After Barack Obama took office, a Center for American Progress report declared that “demographic change,” led by secular, tolerant young people, was “undermining the culture wars.” In 2015, the conservative writer David Brooks, noting Americans’ growing detachment from religious institutions, urged social conservatives to “put aside a culture war that has alienated large parts of three generations.”

That was naive. Secularism is indeed correlated with greater tolerance of gay marriage and pot legalization. But it’s also making America’s partisan clashes more brutal. And it has contributed to the rise of both Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right movement, whose members see themselves as proponents of white nationalism. As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.•

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Trump poses many existential threats but let’s focus on two in particular that are linked: His autocratic impulses are a threat to liberal governance and America’s ethos of an immigrant nation, and his cultivation of a culture of complaint is a bankrupt brand of populism, a nauseating nostalgia for yesterday which places us in risk today and tomorrow.

The upshot is a federal government contemptible of the Constitution, one that’s willfully trying to block the steady flow of genius into the country and one that’s more enthusiastic for steel and coal than semiconductors. The Trump promise to America is that we can live like the 1950s and win the 21st century, that we don’t have to compete with the whole world because we can build a wall to keep out the future. He’s a new manner of aspiring autocrat concerned not with ideology by with its destruction. In Holly Case’s Aeon essay about contemporary strongmen who are divorced from governing principles beyond promising to make difficult challenges vanish, she concluded this way:

The new authoritarian does not pretend to make you better, only to make you feel better about not wanting to change. In this respect, he has tapped a gusher in the Zeitgeist that reaches well beyond the domain of state socialism, an attitude that the writer Marilynne Robinson disparages as ‘nonfailure’, and that the writer Walter Mosley elevates to a virtue: ‘We need to raise our imperfections to a political platform that says: “My flaws need attention too.” This is what I call the “untopia”.’ Welcome to the not-so-brave new world.

In 2017, China is a notable exception to this definition, an autocracy aiming to win the race in supercomputers, semiconductors and solar, which is particularly perilous when paired with America’s retreat. We picked an awful time to stop looking forward, and the ramifications will be felt long after Trump is gone.

From Michael Schuman in Bloomberg View:

China is marshaling massive resources to march into high-tech industries, from robotics to medical devices. In the case of semiconductors alone, the state has amassed $150 billion to build a homegrown industry. In a report in March, the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China pressed the point that the Chinese government is employing a wide range of tools to pursue these ambitions, from lavishing subsidies on favored sectors to squeezing technology out of foreign firms.

The only way for the U.S. to compete with those efforts is to “run faster.” Yet Trump’s ideas to boost competitiveness mainly amount to cutting taxes and regulation. Although reduced taxes might leave companies with more money to spend on research and development, that’s not enough. The U.S. needs to do much more to help businesses achieve bigger and better breakthroughs.

Trump is doing the opposite. One reason U.S. companies are so innovative is that they attract talented workers from everywhere else. But Trump’s recent suspension of fast-track H-1B visas could curtail this infusion of scientists and researchers. If his intention is to ensure jobs go to Americans first, he need not bother. The unemployment rate for Americans with a bachelor’s degree or higher — the skilled workers that H-1B holders would compete with — is a mere 2.5 percent. 

This policy isn’t just a threat to Silicon Valley, but across industries. Michael McGarry, the chief executive officer of PPG Industries Inc., worries about the effect visa restrictions would have on his paint-making business. “We create a lot of innovation because of the diversity that we have,” he recently told CNBC. “We think people with PhDs that are educated here should stay here and work for us and not work for the competition.”

China will likely try to capitalize on this mistake. Robin Li, CEO of the internet giant Baidu Inc., recently advocated that China ease its visa requirements to attract talented workers to help develop new technologies for Chinese industry, just the opposite of Trump’s approach.

Trump’s budget proposals are similarly a setback. He wants to boost defense spending by slashing funding for just about everything else, notably education. By one estimate, some $20 billion would have to get cut from the departments of education, labor, and health and human services to accommodate his plan. If Trump wants to contend with Chinese power, he’d be better off reversing those priorities — to create more graduates and fewer guns. He could offer proposals to make higher education more affordable for the poor, for instance, or to bolster vocational training. So far, there’s little evidence he’s making such spending a priority.

China, by contrast, is expanding access to education on a huge scale.

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Fidel Castro attempted to hide his extravagances, but he was an outlier among recent dictators, most of whom have taken pains to cultivate conspicuous displays of wealth, which they believe projects unassailable power. It’s a sort of autocratic architecture, a weaponized interior design. Big, shiny hotel-esque hideousness was the preference of Nicolae Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi, all of whom seemed to have uniformly possessed a child’s comprehension of what affluence should look like: a Vegas casino in which the house always wins.

The new millennia has continued with much of the same, though more zeros have been added at the end of the number with the rampant kleptocracies in Russia and Dubai, among other tyrannical regions of the globe. With the election of Trump, a tin-pot dictator painted gold, the White House now has a figure given to ridiculous gaudiness, and his use of the Oval Office as a cash register for himself and his family is an unsurprising extension of this greed motif. It’s the prosperity gospel of a President who doesn’t like to read.

From “Trump’s Dictator Chic,” Peter York’s excellent Politico article:

Then, in late 2015, I came across a set of pictures with no identifying text. They appeared to show a gigantic apartment in what looked, from the windows, very much like New York. But I know Manhattan and its sophisticated style pretty well, and at first glance, you would think the place didn’t belong to an American but to a Russian oligarch, or possibly a Saudi prince with a second home in the United States. There were overscaled rooms, and obviously incorrect-looking historical detailing and proportions. The home had lots of gilded French furniture and the strange impersonal look of a hotel lobby, with chairs and sofas placed uncomfortably far from one another. There were masses of gold; there were the usual huge chandeliers, branded relics of famous sportsmen like Muhammad Ali, and mushroom-colored marble floors. There was relatively little in the way of paintings, but otherwise, the place reeked of dictator chic.

As it turned out, this familiar yet unfamiliar apartment—a familiar style to me by then, but in an unlikely location—belonged to Donald Trump, who by then was running for president. This was the penthouse of the potential leader of the free world. The design work, I have since learned, was started by the late Angelo Donghia, a decorator better known for a chic Manhattan look. But the substantive current design had been done by one Henry Conversano, who designed extensively—and perhaps unsurprisingly—for casinos. No matter how you looked at it, the main thing this apartment said was, “I am tremendously rich and unthinkably powerful.” This was the visual language of public, not private, space. It was the language of the Eastern European and Middle Eastern nouveau riche.

Why does all of this matter? Domestic interiors reveal how people want to be seen. But they also reveal something about the owners’ inner lives, their cultural reference points and how they relate to other people. With its marble-inlaid dining table, painted ceilings and gold flourishes quite literally everywhere, Trump’s aesthetic puts him more in the visual tradition of Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov, who erected a massive rotating golden statue of himself in Ashgabat, than the self-effacing gray-suited conventions of Western democratic leaders. Atop Trump Tower, Trump’s apartment projects a kind of power that bypasses all the boring checks and balances of collaboration and mutual responsibility and first-among-equals. It is about a single dominant personality.

This, of course, is a startlingly un-American idea.

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It would be great if all of us could grow smarter, but smart isn’t everything. Being wise and ethical are important, too.

PayPal co-founders Peter Thiel and Elon Musk have had access to elite educations, started successful businesses and amassed vast fortunes, but in this time of Trump they don’t seem particularly enlightened. Thiel ardently supported the bigoted, unqualified sociopath to the White House, while Musk’s situational ethics in dealing with the new abnormal are particularly amoral.

At SXSW, Ray Kurzweil said he believes technology has already made us much smarter and will improve us exponentially in that manner by 2029 when the Singularity arrives. While his views of the future are too aggressive, Kurzweil’s view of today seems oddly rose-colored. Why if we’re so much brighter do we have unintelligent reality TV host in the White House? Why is there ever-deepening wealth inequality? Why are we ravaged by an opioid epidemic? 

If we’re smarter now–a big if–and it’s divorced from basic morality and decency, are we any better off?

From Dyani Sabin’s Inverse piece about Kurzweil’s appearance in Austin:

The future isn’t going to look like a science fiction story with a few super intelligent A.I.s that attack us.

“That’s not realistic. We don’t have one or two A.I.s in the world. Today we have billions,” he says. And unlike Musk who imagines the rise of the A.I. as something that threatens human existence, Kurzweil says that doesn’t hold with how we interact with A.I.s today.

“What’s actually happening is they are powering all of us. They’re making us smarter. They may not yet be inside our bodies but by the 2030s we will connect our neocortex, the part of our brain where we do our thinking, to the cloud.”

This isn’t just a pipe dream to Kurzweil, who’s had reasonable luck predicting where the future is going to go. “There are people with computers in their brains today — Parkinson’s patients,” he points out. “That’s how these things start.” Following the path of steps from the technology we have now, to what will happen twenty years from now, Kurzweil says, “in the 2030’s there will be something you can take that will go inside your brain and help your memory.” And that’s just the beginning.

Uploading our brains into the cloud will allow humanity to waste less time on lower-level types of mental tasks, Kurzweil says. He’s very interested in the idea of uploading the neocortex because it’s responsible for things like art, music, and humor. By allowing our brains to connect more on that level, by melding with artificial intelligence, we will expand our ability to do these things and be better people. “Ultimately it will affect everything,” he says. “We’re going to be able to meet the physical needs of all humans. We’re going to expand our minds and exemplify these artistic qualities that we value.”•

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