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White supremacists aren’t the most self-observant bunch.

Without exception, they’re not nearly supreme in the world or even among that subset of people we describe as “Caucasian,” which is probably why they desperately claim some sort of vaunted status. There’s something wrong with them, and to put it mildly, they like to project. As an example, look at the following tweets.

Who could be uglier, weaker or more deformed than Spencer, in the most important ways? That he and his ilk have a direct link to the White House in baleful Chief Strategist Steve Bannon–not to mention a receptive President–is one of the more stomach-turning realities of our new abnormal.

In a burst of 467 perfect words at Medium, Willie Fitzgerald describes the most famous photo of the poison in the Cabinet, while a Spiegel piece worries about the warrior fantasies of the ethnocentric couch potato. Two excerpts follow.


From Fitzgerald:

Whenever I think about Steve Bannon, I see the above photo. Taken by Jeremy Liebman, it accompanies a Bloomberg article describing Bannon as “the most dangerous political operative in America.” It was written in 2015, but made the rounds again before the election. Back then, I saw it and thought, “This guy’s going to vault the ramparts?” Now I look at it and think, “We lost to a Ralph Steadman drawing.”

There’s something about this photo in particular that reminds me, against my will, of Terry Richardson. Maybe it’s Bannon’s blank, vacuous stare, as if the photographer had caught him mid-(probably very racist) thought. Maybe it’s the washed-out color palette, or maybe it’s that penumbral effect around his head and shoulder. This picture is like an inverse of Richardson’s American Apparel ads; it shows the objectifier, not the objectified. Instead of a billboard showing a wan young woman in a leotard, we get the man who listlessly ogles her on a billboard while his car is stopped in traffic.•


From Spiegel:

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We tend to choose the devil we know.

In this election, Americans opted for the past, something that never quite reappears, voting for a nostalgic vision of postwar labor, when manufacturing provided steady, secure middle-class livings. The problem is, factory jobs aren’t really returning regardless of who’s President since these positions are being rapidly thinned by automation, even when companies reshore their plants, and those positions yet to be assumed by machines aren’t what they used to be, as former unionized slots are now often contracted, temporary, poorly paid and dangerous.

Needless to say, manufacturing is not the future anymore than coal is, and while we dream on these remnants of the Industrialized Age, we fall behind China and others in areas that could provide a decent tomorrow, alternative energies among them. It’s an unforced error by the U.S. that we’ll have to endure.

Excerpts follow from: 1) Gary Silverman’s excellent Financial Times article on the perils of manufacturing work no longer guided by “industrial paternalism,” and 2) Lauren Weber’s eye-opening WSJ report on the disquieting shift to contracted labor.


From Silverman:

Regina Elsea of Chambers County, Alabama, had her work cut out for her. At the age of 20, she was engaged to be married and had bills to pay — for her new car, the home she rented with her fiancé, the toys she liked to buy for her dog Cow and, if all went according to plan, the wedding of her dreams, complete with a $4,000 white dress that fitted just right. So, she took a job in a factory last year.

Elsea had the option because Chambers County has been enjoying a manufacturing revival. A hardscrabble corner of the southern US with 34,000 residents, its economy was hurt badly by the decline of its textile industry early this century. However, local officials offering tax breaks and other aid remade the county into a supply-chain link for South Korean carmakers. New factories arose to provide just-in-time parts for two nearby assembly plants Hyundai in Montgomery, Alabama, and Kia in West Point, Georgia.

As a result, unemployment in Chambers County fell from 19.4 per cent in February 2009 to 5.5 per cent last year. But the conditions Elsea encountered on her highly automated production line were a far cry from the ones that people were dreaming about at the Donald Trump campaign rallies. Elsea found work as a temporary employee — she was paid $8.50 an hour, according to her family — and the work killed her.

On June 18 2016 — a Saturday — a robot that Elsea was overseeing at the Ajin USA auto parts plant in Cusseta, Alabama, stopped moving. She and three colleagues tried to get it going, stepping inside the cage designed to protect workers from the machine, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. When the robot restarted abruptly, Elsea was crushed. She died the next day when she was taken off a life-support machine, with her mother, Angel Ogle, at her side. After an investigation, Osha concluded that the accident that killed Elsea was preventable.

“Everybody needs to know what’s going on in those plants,” says Ms Ogle, 43, a housecleaner who once worked for a Korean auto parts maker in Alabama herself. “I have seen too many people get hurt.”

The life and death of Regina Elsea points to a national predicament as President Trump seeks to “make America great again” by increasing industrial employment. With automation on the rise and unionisation on the decline, manufacturing jobs no longer guarantee a secure middle-class life as they often did in the past. Much of the new work is low paid and temporary. Staffing agencies sometimes supply factories with workers who have little training or experience — and who can quickly find themselves in harm’s way.•


From Weber:

No one in the airline industry comes close to Virgin America Inc. on a measurement of efficiency called revenue per employee. That’s because baggage delivery, heavy maintenance, reservations, catering and many other jobs aren’t done by employees. Virgin America uses contractors.

“We will outsource every job that we can that is not customer-facing,” David Cush, the airline’s chief executive, told investors last March. In April, he helped sell Virgin America to Alaska Air Group Inc. for $2.6 billion, more than double its value in late 2014. He left when the takeover was completed in December.

Never before have American companies tried so hard to employ so few people. The outsourcing wave that moved apparel-making jobs to China and call-center operations to India is now just as likely to happen inside companies across the U.S. and in almost every industry. …

The shift is radically altering what it means to be a company and a worker. More flexibility for companies to shrink the size of their employee base, pay and benefits means less job security for workers. Rising from the mailroom to a corner office is harder now that outsourced jobs are no longer part of the workforce from which star performers are promoted.

For companies, the biggest allure of replacing employees with contract workers is more control over costs. Contractors help businesses keep their full-time, in-house staffing lean and flexible enough to adapt to new ideas or changes in demand.

For workers, the changes often lead to lower pay and make it surprisingly hard to answer the simple question “Where do you work?” Some economists say the parallel workforce created by the rise of contracting is helping to fuel income inequality between people who do the same jobs.•

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Maybe it’s time for James Baker to get his “panties in a wedge.”

It takes a village to build a tyrant, and the veteran Bushie was one of the educated fools who thought Trump’s demagoguery wouldn’t be a problem once he was ensconced in the Oval Office. A painfully naive exchange from a June 2016 interview in the Financial Times:

Are America and its institutions strong enough to survive any shock, even one as seismic as Donald Trump in the White House?

“Yes,” declares Baker, emphatically.

“I won’t get my panties in a wedge because of what I am hearing from the political candidates. What they say in the campaign and what they do once they are in the White House are not the same thing.”•

The former Chief of Staff, who voted for Trump, is concerned by what he’s seen so far of the new Administration, but he still believes the sociopath he supported is “pragmatic” and the early machinations of the Simon Cowell-ish strongman are merely “kinks,” a sentiment that would make more sense if he was referring to the President’s alleged Russian pee video. 

From Susan B. Glasser in Politico:

When he reigned in the Washington of the 1980s as its premier backstage power broker, Baker took as his personal motto the saying, “prior preparation prevents poor performance.” Clearly, the Trump White House is not yet delivering on the prior preparation part, a problem that Baker says may well be because Trump comes from decades of running his own company exactly as he wished. “Running a business and running the government are two entirely different functions, quite frankly, and process matters,” says Baker, who tells me he has also given his advice directly to Trump, Tillerson and Trump’s new chief of staff, Reince Priebus. And presumably also Vice President Mike Pence, who was seated next to Baker at last night’s Super Bowl in Houston. “Process matters a lot in order to avoid mistakes, controversy.”

Already, he is struck by a White House that he worries is set up for internal conflict, division and miscommunication. “The White House that they have constructed has a lot of chiefs,” he says. “In this White House, it seems to me, you’ve got at least four, maybe five, different power centers, so we are just going to have to wait and see how it works in practice.”

But it would be a mistake to say Baker sees Trump as doomed to fail. As befits a congenital dealmaker, he’s an optimist at heart, one who can often discern an opening where others see a closed door. And so Baker is careful to say he believes—well, maybe hopes is a better word—that Trump will turn out to be a pragmatic president who cares enough about succeeding in the job to change course after screwing up. “Pragmatic” is a great compliment when wielded by Baker, and he is not one to choose the public bullhorn of opposition to a president of his own party. “It’s not unexpected you have these kind of kinks. The important thing is you learn from ’em,” he says.•

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Like Erick Erickson, Hugh Hewitt and other right-wing media figures, just-retired radio host Charlie Sykes says he’s aghast at the monster he helped piece together from abnormal parts.

These veteran political talkers heard the troubling sounds of Tea Party Birthers and racists and nihilists and closed their ears, believing the movement would retain its potency and eventually cast off the madness. So, they used their wattage-powered pulpits to destabilize traditional news media, to convince party faithful that no one with opinions other than their own was to be trusted. It worked, but the lunacy became ascendant and the GOP fell into Alex Jones conspiracy craziness and Breitbart bigotry, dragging all of America down into the gutter. 

Even one of the Tea Party leaders Glenn Beck is now apologetic for his role, saying he’s had an epiphany. I wonder, though, if this nightmare passes with American democracy still intact, if post-truth won’t remain the default mode. If enough people desire to see the reality demolished, lies will find their voice. For some reason, the U.S. and other quarters of the long-stable West have turned against critical thinking.

That market will be served. Especially since Trump and tomorrow’s demagogues can undermine veracity in a direct and unfiltered way that even 1930s Fascists couldn’t envision. To peddle his propaganda, Mussolini grabbed control of the newspapers and built a sprawling film studio; all Trump needs to do is tweet 140 characters.

The new President’s latest bald-faced outrage–claiming the mainstream media doesn’t report on terrorist attacks–needn’t be even remotely true to be accepted by his supporters, some of whom will be convinced and others who’ll know he’s lying but won’t care. That’s the new normal.

Two excerpts follow from: 1) Sykes’ recent op-ed in the New York Times, which is now called a “fake-news” outlet by the President of the United States, and 2) Nick Cohen’s Guardian essay, which blames the masses more than the messengers.


From Sykes:

Mr. Kasparov grasps that the real threat is not merely that a large number of Americans have become accustomed to rejecting factual information, or even that they have become habituated to believing hoaxes. The real danger is that, inundated with “alternative facts,” many voters will simply shrug, asking, “What is truth?” — and not wait for an answer.

In that world, the leader becomes the only reliable source of truth; a familiar phenomenon in an authoritarian state, but a radical departure from the norms of a democratic society. The battle over truth is now central to our politics.

This may explain one of the more revealing moments from after the election, when one of Mr. Trump’s campaign surrogates, Scottie Nell Hughes, was asked to defend the clearly false statement by Mr. Trump that millions of votes had been cast illegally. She answered by explaining that everybody now had their own way of interpreting whether a fact was true or not.

There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts,” she declared. Among “a large part of the population” what Mr. Trump said was the truth.

“When he says that millions of people illegally voted,” she said, his supporters believe him — and “people believe they have facts to back that up.”•


From Cohen:

Compulsive liars shouldn’t frighten you. They can harm no one, if no one listens to them. Compulsive believers, on the other hand: they should terrify you. Believers are the liars’ enablers. Their votes give the demagogue his power. Their trust turns the charlatan into the president. Their credulity ensures that the propaganda of half-calculating and half-mad fanatics has the power to change the world.

How you see the believers determines how you fight them and seek to protect liberal society from its enemies. And I don’t just mean how you fight that object of liberal despair and conservative fantasies, the alternately despised and patronised white working class. Compulsive believers are not just rednecks. They include figures as elevated as the British prime minister and her cabinet. Before the EU referendum, a May administration would have responded to the hitherto unthinkable arrival of a US president who threatened Nato and indulged Putin by hugging Britain’s European allies close. But Brexit has thrown Britain’s European alliance into crisis. So English Conservative politicians must crush their doubts and believe with a desperate compulsion that the alleged “pragmatism” of Donald Trump will triumph over his undoubted extremism, a belief that to date has as much basis in fact as creationism.

Mainstream journalists are almost as credulous. After decades of imitating Jeremy Paxman and seizing on the trivial gaffes and small lies of largely harmless politicians, they are unable to cope with the fantastic lies of the new authoritarian movements. When confronted with men who lie so instinctively they believe their lies as they tell them, they can only insist on a fair hearing for the sake of “balance”. Their acceptance signals to the audience the unbelievable is worthy of belief.•

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John Cassidy of the New Yorker, who’s been stellar during this dark period in America, just conducted an Ask Me Anything at Reddit. In one exchange, he asserts that “some of the Trump voters have legitimate grievances,” which is certainly true, though it doesn’t nearly add up to 63 million voters. Early in 2016, the Economist debunked the received wisdom of the Trump supporter as the struggling worker ignored by the “elites.” His voters, in the aggregate, had a higher household income than average. Those disrupted by manufacturing’s decline, positioned just so, may have put the GOP candidate over the top, but it was other factors that carried him to the tipping point. 

Cassidy also looks at the tinderbox that is U.S.-China relations, which could be the most dangerous international development since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Chinese people are far more nationalistic than most Americans probably realize, and the White House Chief Strategist guaranteeing war in the near future in the South China Sea couldn’t have gone down smoothly. Both sides have a tremendous amount to lose, but that doesn’t ensure restraint. Wars aren’t always rational decisions about money.

A few excerpts follow.


Question:

The obvious ludicrousness aside, just how different is this administration from earlier administrations? In what way has the paradigm for administration and governance truly changed?

John Cassidy:

That’s an excellent question, which I haven’t thought about the way you formulated it. I’ve thought quite a bit about how different Trump is from previous presidents, and I don’t there is any doubt that he represents something new. In terms of experience, outlook, and temperament, there has never been a president like him before. In terms of the administration as a whole, it’s a bit different. If you take away Trump and some of the people immediately surrounding him, such as Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, this administration could pass for a normal Republican administration. A very conservative one, certainly–Pence, Price, Pruitt, and DeVos are all right wing even by the standards of today’s GOP. But you also have generals and business leaders playing a big role, which we’ve seen in the past. The question is how the two parallel administrations gets along–or, equivalently, how Trump deals with his cabinet. I don’t think we know the answer to that yet.


Question:

Does the threat of being called “fake news” ever run through your head while writing an article, or affect the style of writing? And in your opinion, how should the media be handling the President’s war on these, so-called, fake news organizations (like CNN)?

John Cassidy:

Being a columnist, I don’t worry much about fake news. I just write what I think, read it through, and put it out there. If there is a fact I am not sure of, I do try to check it, or, at least, point out its source. Obviously, news organizations have to take the whole fake news thing more seriously, but the main thing is not to let Trump intimidate them. So far, I don’t think they have. To the contrary, probably. Which explains why he seems to be getting more and more irate.


Question:

What is the biggest short term risk to global stability? What holds the best chance to improve people’s lives in the short term?

John Cassidy:

I think the two biggest short term risks are China and Trump–or, make that three risks: China, Trump, and China and Trump. The China risk is the same one that has been out there for years: a debt-driven financial blow-up that spills over into other markets. The Trump risk is that he does something that really spooks people and investors. So far, the markets have reacted favorably to his election, because they like tax cuts and deregulation. But I think there’s quite a bit of political risk that isn’t priced in, especially when it comes to the survival of an open trading system. And of course, there’s a danger he could do something nutty, such as spark a military confrontation in the South China Sea. In the interests of maintaining global stability and getting past Trump to another president, the Chinese government might be willing to give a bit of ground. But if Trump backs them into a corner, and brings Chinese nationalism into play, there could be a disaster.


Question:

Do you have any thoughts on how to explain to certain groups of voters that Trump, his administration, his policies and executive orders, etc. are opposite of their interests? How do you reach people who have their fingers in their ears?

John Cassidy:

I’m not sure there are many Trump voters reading the New Yorker, but your question is a serious one, especially for the Democratic Party. I think the first thing to do is to acknowledge that although many of Trump’s policies–tax cuts for the rich, rollback of financial regulations etc–will hurt working class and middle class people, he did, during the campaign, tap into some legitimate concerns about globalization and trade. I keep going back to the fact that the average hourly wage of non-supervisory workers is lower today, in real terms, than it was in 1973. On top of that, there is now a good deal of empirical evidence that trade with China has taken a pretty heavy toll on manufacturing jobs. So, Trump knew what he was doing when he played the nationalist/protectionist card. The problem, of course, is explaining why his cures won’t work, and may well end up harming the victims. If I could do that, I’d give up journalism and run for office! Just joking. But I think the first step is acknowledging that some of the Trump voters have legitimate grievances and trying to speak to them in their language: they aren’t all just racist deplorables.


Question:

What would you recommend for individuals to do to improve their knowledge of economics – even for people with degrees in economics? Any advice for people wanting to make a living studying economics/policy?

John Cassidy:

Ah, a bit of respite from Trump and politics! Thanks. When I was a student, I studied history and economics, and as a graduate I specialized in economics, so I read a lot of pretty technical stuff. I do have some interest in economic theory, but the books and articles that really stayed with me were the ones that went beyond individual theories and looked at the big picture. An obvious one is Keynes’s General Theory. On the left, Paul Sweezey’s Theory of Capitalist Development, which was an effort to combine Keynesian short run theory with Marx’s long run analysis, is a tour de force that I still go back to. On the right, Milton’s Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, is seminal and still central. All of these books are pretty old. If you want something newer and more up to date, the best textbook I’ve seen is by my old tutor, David Soskice and his longtime collaborator Wendy Carlin. It’s called Macroeconomics, I think. And if you want a history that covers a lot of ground and also includes the financial crisis and its aftermath, I would immodestly recommend my own book, How Markets Fail. Hope that’s helpful. As for advice, I would just plunge in and take some courses. There are some good online ones now, which are a good way of testing whether you really have a taste for a subject.•

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Funny to see an old McCarthy apologist like Pat Buchannan or recent Putin-puncher like Newt Gingrich embrace the tool of the Kremlin that now occupies the Oval Office. Political expediency can reveal who actually has a moral center and who’s always been playing games.

From early in the campaign, when Trump mocked our POWs and praised Russia’s autocrat, it was clear where he stood. The question is why this behavior wasn’t disqualifying to the nearly 63 million citizens who voted for him. Certainly the pockets of the country still hurting from the financial collapse had an effect as did the machinations of Julian Assange and James Comey, but it seems fairly clear that the barely veiled promise of making America white again activated a lot of racist feelings that had always been there. People are clearly willing to sacrifice an awful lot for a feeling of superiority. 

Over the weekend, when Trump defended Putin by pointing out that the U.S also has a lot of murderers–even saying “You think our country’s so innocent?”–he elided the fact that unlike Putin, American Presidents never kill political adversaries or journalists, let alone do so routinely. If the orange supremacist lasts four years, though, we may become much more like the Russia thugocracy than even the most mouth-foaming McCarthy-ite could have ever imagined.

The opening of “A Poisoning in Moscow” in the Wall Street Journal:

In 2015 a prominent Russian opposition activist named Vladimir Kara-Murza inexplicably suffered multiple organ failure and barely survived after falling into a coma for nearly a week. On Thursday it happened to him again, in much the same way. Since this happened in Moscow, we assume the explanation isn’t innocent.

Mr. Kara-Murza, 35, is a former journalist who worked for a Russian TV station in Washington until he was fired from his job in 2012. That year he testified before the U.S. Congress in favor of the Magnitsky Act, which places financial sanctions and travel bans on corrupt Russian officials. Mr. Kara-Murza described the law as a “pro-Russian bill which provides a much-needed measure of accountability for those who continue to violate the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens.”

That could not have endeared him to the Kremlin. Nor could his close association with Boris Nemtsov, the Russian opposition politician who was assassinated near the Kremlin in February 2015. Three months later Mr. Kara-Murza became ill after eating lunch at a restaurant. He told CNN that “there is no other possible reason” than politics for his poisoning.•

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It seems people without material needs who shoplift are oftentimes doing so in the unwitting desire to be caught. Perhaps something happened earlier in life that’s buried so thoroughly that they can’t get at it–or they’re too frightened to go there–so they subconsciously want everything to stop, more or less, until this pain can be addressed. If they’re spotted, apprehended, taken into custody, they’ve been pulled off the path they were on and have no choice but to tend to the wound. Some people probably just want to steal for thrills, sure, but humans are such a strange mix of resilience and fragility and so much goes on beneath the surface, it’s usually a lot more complicated than that. Our stories run deep.

In Jerome Groopman’s New York Review of Books piece about Suzanne O’Sullivan’s Is It All in Your Head? True Stories of Imaginary Illness, the writer raises a really interesting point about modern medicine: In our algorithmic age, a patient’s history is no longer a narrative but instead a bunch of keywords. An excerpt:

Suzanne O’Sullivan is a neurologist specializing in epilepsy who practices in London. Many of her patients suffer from so-called conversion disorders: somatic symptoms caused by psychological distress that defy ready diagnosis by medical tests or physical examination. “They are medical disorders like no others,” O’Sullivan writes. “They obey no rules. They can affect any part of the body…. Almost any symptom we can imagine can become real when we are in distress.”

Physicians who practice family medicine, pediatrics, or internal medicine learn that a substantial proportion of people seeking care have inexplicable complaints. Some surveys indicate that at least a quarter of such patients report symptoms that appear to have no physical basis, and that one in ten continues to believe that he has a terminal disease even after the doctor has found him to be healthy.

Understandably, because the symptoms obscure the psychological genesis, patients seek a physical disorder to explain their condition, and turn to doctors like O’Sullivan to provide a diagnosis. Her findings are striking:

My first consultant post…saw me running a service whose main purpose was to investigate people with epilepsy who were not getting better with standard treatment. It transpired that approximately 70 percent of the people referred to me with poorly controlled seizures were not responding to epilepsy treatment because they did not have epilepsy. Their seizures were occurring for purely psychological reasons.

While not a psychiatrist, O’Sullivan proposes that their collapse and convulsions “happen for a reason. When words are not available our bodies sometimes speak for us—and we have to listen.”

That listening is no longer valued in today’s medicine. The patient’s “history” was once the centerpiece of his medical record, his story written in narrative form. With current electronic templates, information is fragmented into chunks designed to meet so-called quality metrics and maximize revenue from insurers. The patient’s story has been reduced to telegraphed key words that trigger prefigured algorithms, which generate pop-ups on the computer screen for further testing or generic therapies.•

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Speaking of Rasputin, contemporary Russia has its own mysterious figure who wields political influence despite holding no official title. His name is Alexander Dugin, a bearded philosopher and Izborsky Club ideologue who’s made the grade in Kremlin inner circles after being expelled from his Moscow University department chair position for accusations of “encouraging genocide.” 

An ardent enemy of liberal government, Dugin has long dreamed of an axis of Russia, Turkey and Iran wresting world leadership away from the U.S.–“American liberalism must be destroyed,” he’s said–though the outspoken fascist is hopeful of a closer relationship with our country since the ascendancy of Trump and Bannon, also enemies of democracy. Heaven help us. We’re retroactively losing the Cold War.

Henry Meyer and Onur Ant have penned a smart profile of Putin’s fixer for Bloomberg. An excerpt:

Dugin, the son of a Soviet military-intelligence official, said being independent makes him an effective go-between in matters of state. The 55-year-old rabble-rouser, blacklisted by the U.S. for aiding the insurgency in Ukraine, has no official post. But he has advised a member of Putin’s inner circle and written a textbook on geopolitics that’s been used by the military.

“I can talk to people like an official can’t,” Dugin said in his Moscow office at Tsargrad TV, where he’s a commentator and chief editor. “A diplomat says what he’s told. What does a military man say? Even less. And an intelligence officer? Nothing at all. You don’t understand where the truth lies. I speak from the perspective of geopolitics. That’s why the Turks started to trust me.”

Dugin, who’s been described as everything from an occult fascist to a mystical imperialist, lost his prestigious job running the sociology department at Moscow State University in 2014 after activists accused him of encouraging genocide. Thousands of people signed a petition calling for his removal after a rant in support of separatists in Ukraine in which he said, “kill, kill, kill.”

The Kremlin, which gave the prolific polemicist prominent airtime on the biggest networks to cheerlead during the annexation of Crimea in 2014, has kept him at arm’s length since he criticized Putin for not taking more of Ukraine. When asked if Dugin played a role in the detente with Turkey, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said, “No.”

“He’s seen as a brilliant philosopher, but brilliance and madness are very close to each other,” said Sergei Markov, a political consultant to Putin’s staff. Even though Dugin’s not an official envoy, Markov said, “he appears to have given the Turks some very good advice.”•

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That handsome and agreeable robot Charlie Rose recently interviewed Warren Buffet and Bill Gates at Columbia University, and the billionaires made a point that is true in the long run, which is that technology replacing human toil and increasing productivity makes us richer. 

That’s correct, at least in the aggregate, though the distribution is tricky.

In the short- and medium-term, that can make for a bumpy ride, especially since the pace of the transitions are much faster now than in the time of steam-powered looms, a situation that’s only likely to accelerate as time passes. Smart policy is needed to fill the breach to help those left behind as Buffet and Gates state, but that’s not looking good presently, especially in America, with President Crazypants running the show.

The comments on automation:

Warren Buffett:

If we were here in 1800 and conducting this, somebody would point out that eventually tractors would come along and better fertilizer and that 80 percent of the people are now employed on the farm and in couple hundred years it is going to be 2 or 3 percent, and what are we going to do with all these people? Well, the answer is we release them. Keynes wrote something about in something called Essays in Persuasion, which he wrote in 1930 about what a more prosperous society would become like, and he actually postulated that in 100 years and we’re now 87 years along, there would be four to eight times as much output per capita—remarkable—but he didn’t quite get at how it would get distributed. But the idea of more output per capita—which is what the progress is made on productivity—that that should be harmful to society is crazy. Now the distribution may be a problem, but if one person could push a button and turn out everything we turn out now, is that good for the world or bad for the world? You’d have to figure out how to distribute it, but you’d free up all kinds of possibilities for everything else. Everything should be devoted initially to getting greater productivity, but people who fall through the wayside through no fault of their own, as the goose lays more golden eggs, should still get a chance to participate in that prosperity, and that’s where government comes in.

Charlie Rose (to Gates):

Do you have anything to add to that?

Bill Gates:

A problem of excess is a different problem than a problem of shortage. If all the tractor and computers stopped working, then we would have problems of shortage there, and we just wouldn’t have enough people to make the output. A problem of excess really forces us took at individuals effected and take those individual resources and make sure they’re directed to them in terms of reeducation and income policies. And the smaller class size in helping handicapped kids reaching out to the elderly…the demand for labor is not at zero. If you ever get to that point, sure, you can shorten the work week, you’ll be just fine with that. This idea of taking an individual during a generation who is effected by that, I think there’s a lot to be learned about that, a lot of thinking we have to do, but the macro picture that it enables is an opportunity.

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In 1960, Edward O. Thorp, mathematics professor with a wandering intellect, co-created with Claude Shannon what’s accepted as the first wearable computer, a stealth gambling aid that helped him level the odds at casinos. After cashing in his chips, he tried his hand at the financial industry to spectacular results. But Thorp, now 84, isn’t sanguine about Wall Street, which he believes is rigged for the already wealthy, and he’s apoplectic about our new President, a feeling which will only be exacerbated by today’s news that the Administration wants to undo the Dodd-Frank Act.

John Authors of the Financial Times interviewed Thorp, who just published his autobiography, A Man for All Markets.

An excerpt from FT:

So, why is he so negative about Wall Street? Without raising his voice, he launches an indictment. “Adam Smith’s market is a whole lot different from our markets. He imagined a market with lots of buyers and sellers of things, nobody had market dominance or could impose things on the market, and there was a lot of competition. The market we have now is nothing like that. The players are so big that they control the levers of financial policy.”

…I ask what he suggests we do about it? “The banks who are too big to fail should have been allowed to fail. Their shareholders should have had to pay the price. Big companies go through organised bankruptcies. Why is it that we couldn’t afford for the banks to go bankrupt? It’s that they are so influential. They can persuade the government not to let them go bankrupt.”

He also holds that banks’ speculative arms should be broken off — essentially a return to the Depression-era Glass-Steagall law that was controversially repealed by President Clinton in 1999. The newly elected President Trump — we are lunching on the first Monday of his presidency — was elected on a platform of bringing back Glass-Steagall, but now appears intent on deregulation. Thorp winces at the mention of Trump’s name, saying he is as negative about him as it is possible to be.•


Life magazine profiled the academic-gambler in 1964. The story’s hook was undeniable: a brilliant mathematician who utilized his beautiful mind at gaming tables to bring pit bosses to heel. He didn’t rely on the fictional “hot hand” but instead on cool computer calculations. What wasn’t known at the time–and what Thorp didn’t offer to reporter Paul O’Neil–is that the Ph.D. had a stealthy sidekick in the aforementioned wearable. 


The wearable device, which was contained in a shoe or a cigarette pack, could markedly improve a gambler’s chance at the roulette wheel, though the bugs were never completely worked out. From a 1998 conference:

The first wearable computer was conceived in 1955 by the author to predict roulette, culminating in a joint effort at M.I.T. with Claude Shannon in 1960-61. The final operating version was rested in Shannon’s basement home lab in June of 1961. The cigarette pack sized analog device yielded an expected gain of +44% when betting on the most favored “octant.” The Shannons and Thorps tested the computer in Las Vegas in the summer of 1961. The predictions there were consistent with the laboratory expected gain of 44% but a minor hardware problem deferred sustained serious betting. They kept the method and the existence of the computer secret until 1966.•


Thorp appeared on To Tell the Truth in 1964. He didn’t discuss wearables but his book about other methods to break the bank. Amusing that NYC radio host John Gambling played one of the impostors.

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Fake news is a term that only recently entered the vernacular with the 2016 Presidential election, but Fox News has been selling just that for more than 20 years, overtly trying to imprison the truth inside a fog.

The GOP has headed further down this rabbit hole over time, but it buried itself–and the country, perhaps–with the rise of Trump, a candidate who ran a fact-free campaign. Traditional Republicans initially tried to distance themselves from the demagogue, fearing he would do long-term damage to their cause, but they had for decades prepped the party faithful for his arrival, peddling coded prejudice and bitter partisanship, even opportunistically embracing Tea Party nihilism.

After Trump’s unlikely Electoral College victory, his sociopathy and Steve Bannon’s Breitbart bigotry are looked at by some conservatives as less important than tax cuts for the highest earners and the slicing of social safety nets. Meanwhile, democracy itself hangs in the balance, as the White House attempts to destabilize truth and facts, things we must pursue earnestly and nobly if we’re to have a decent society.

Writer Ursula K. Le Guin weighed in on “alternative facts” in a letter to The Oregonian:

A recent letter in The Oregonian compares a politician’s claim to tell “alternative facts” to the inventions of science fiction. The comparison won’t work. We fiction writers make up stuff. Some of it clearly impossible, some of it realistic, but none of it real – all invented, imagined —  and we call it fiction because it isn’t fact. We may call some of it “alternative history” or “an alternate universe,” but make absolutely no pretense that our fictions are “alternative facts.”

Facts aren’t all that easy to come by. Honest scientists and journalists, among others, spend a lot of time trying to make sure of them. The test of a fact is that it simply is so – it has no “alternative.”  The sun rises in the east. To pretend the sun can rise in the west is a fiction, to claim that it does so as fact (or “alternative fact”) is a lie.

A lie is a non-fact deliberately told as fact. Lies are told in order to reassure oneself, or to fool, or scare, or manipulate others. Santa Claus is a fiction. He’s harmless. Lies are seldom completely harmless, and often very dangerous. In most times, most places, by most people, liars are considered contemptible.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Northwest Portland•

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The relatively recent development of nation-states has become so entrenched in the human way of operating that it’s difficult to imagine life organized any other fashion. Would we be better off without them? Are they mostly war machines in waiting? Not easy to say. The human capacity to find create strife rivals our ability to for noble inventions, regardless of how we’re organized.

In the outstanding New Scientist piece “End of Nations: Is There an Alternative to Countries?” Debora MacKenzie traces the development of national identity, which was necessitated by the arrival of the Industrial Age, wondering if mass violence and ethnic divisions within states would be far tougher to provoke if borders were fuzzier and there were no nationalistic “imagined communities.”

It’s a debatable point since, as the writer reminds, human violence has declined to all-time lows under the nation-state arrangement, with large-scale warfare absent from the global stage for seven decades. Then again, I write this with the U.S. nuclear codes and massive non-nuke arsenal in the possession of a President who appears to be a sociopath with a hair-trigger temper and his white nationalist Chief Strategist. Their goal is to turn Americans on one another and against the world.

The problem is, without centrally controlled and competing collectives it would probably be awfully difficult to quickly scale up really useful things (e.g., disease control and eradication) or provide security. MacKenzie acknowledges this point, but she also warns that such arrangements may be untenable as we progress, unable to deal with certain vital issues like climate change, and collapse of these systems may be inevitable.

The opening:

Try, for a moment, to envisage a world without countries. Imagine a map not divided into neat, coloured patches, each with clear borders, governments, laws. Try to describe anything our society does – trade, travel, science, sport, maintaining peace and security – without mentioning countries. Try to describe yourself: you have a right to at least one nationality, and the right to change it, but not the right to have none.

Those coloured patches on the map may be democracies, dictatorships or too chaotic to be either, but virtually all claim to be one thing: a nation state, the sovereign territory of a “people” or nation who are entitled to self-determination within a self-governing state. So says the United Nations, which now numbers 193 of them.

And more and more peoples want their own state, from Scots voting for independence to jihadis declaring a new state in the Middle East. Many of the big news stories of the day, from conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine to rows over immigration and membership of the European Union, are linked to nation states in some way.

Even as our economies globalise, nation states remain the planet’s premier political institution. Large votes for nationalist parties in this year’s EU elections prove nationalism remains alive – even as the EU tries to transcend it.

Yet there is a growing feeling among economists, political scientists and even national governments that the nation state is not necessarily the best scale on which to run our affairs. We must manage vital matters like food supply and climate on a global scale, yet national agendas repeatedly trump the global good. At a smaller scale, city and regional administrations often seem to serve people better than national governments.

How, then, should we organise ourselves? Is the nation state a natural, inevitable institution? Or is it a dangerous anachronism in a globalised world?•

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“The next four years are the critical inflection point,” writes Robert Kagan in largely dire Brookings report, “The Twilight of the Liberal Order,” offering a contention that should scare the hell out of Americans and allies who depend on us, while cheering the Chinese and Russians. 

Since the piece was published just about a week ago, the new President, an unhinged person whose policy seems mostly the handiwork of his white-supremacist sidekick, issued a hastily written, racist ban on certain immigrants and has made it even more clear he doesn’t care about the plight of any country beyond our borders. (That his governance will also likely have devastating consequences domestically is a parallel concern.)

America’s raison d’être as a shelter for refugees, beacon for the world and defender of liberal democracy, has no place in nationalistic Trumplandia, which will lead to other countries filling the power gap. But you can’t build a wall to keep out the future, and Kagan believes that absent America’s guiding hand, a large-scale war becomes much more likely, something Steve Bannon wouldn’t mind, given his stated desire to take military action against China. The Chief Strategist’s bloody dreams combine the worst of the United States’ inclination for adventuring with a newly narrowed self-interest.

It seems as if the Administration believes it can run the world stage the way Gotti ran Queens, with endless bluster and shakedowns. Whether or not it ends in world war, it will not end well. 

An excerpt:

In recent years, however, the liberal order has begun to weaken and fracture at the core. As a result of many related factors—difficult economic conditions, the recrudescence of nationalism and tribalism, weak and uncertain political leadership and unresponsive mainstream political parties, a new era of communications that seems to strengthen rather than weaken tribalism—there has emerged a crisis of confidence in what might be called the liberal enlightenment project. That project tended to elevate universal principles of individual rights and common humanity over ethnic, racial, religious, national, or tribal differences. It looked to a growing economic interdependence to create common interests across boundaries and the establishment of international institutions to smooth differences and facilitate cooperation among nations. Instead, the past decade has seen the rise of tribalism and nationalism; an increasing focus on the “other” in all societies; and a loss of confidence in government, in the capitalist system, and in democracy. We have been witnessing something like the opposite of the “end of history” but have returned to history with a vengeance, rediscovering all the darker aspects of the human soul. That includes, for many, the perennial human yearning for a strong leader to provide firm guidance in a time of seeming breakdown and incoherence.

This crisis of the enlightenment project may have been inevitable. It may indeed have been cyclical, due to inherent flaws in both capitalism and democracy, which periodically have been exposed and have raised doubts about both—as happened, for instance, throughout the West in the 1930s. Now, as then, moreover, this crisis of confidence in liberalism coincides with a breakdown of the strategic order. In this case, however, the key variable has not been the United States as the outside power and its willingness, or not, to step in and save or remake an order lost by other powers. Rather it is the United States’ own willingness to continue upholding the order that it created and which depends entirely on American power.

That willingness has been in doubt for some time. Increasingly in the quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, Americans have been wondering why they bear such an unusual and outsized responsibility for preserving global order when their own interests are not always apparently served and when, indeed, the United States seems to be making sacrifices while others benefit. The reasons why the United States took on this abnormal role after the calamitous two world wars of the 20th century have been largely forgotten. As a consequence, the American public’s patience with the difficulties and costs inherent in playing such a role has worn thin. Thus, whereas previous unsuccessful wars, in Korea in 1950 and Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, and previous economic downturns, such as in the mid- to late 1970s, did not have the effect of turning Americans against global involvement, the unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the financial crisis of 2007–09 have had that effect. President Obama pursued an ambivalent approach to global involvement, but the main thrust of his approach was retrenchment. His actions and statements were a critique of previous American strategy and reinforced a national mood favoring a much less active role in the world and much narrower definition of American interests.

With the election of Donald Trump, a majority of Americans have signaled their unwillingness to continue upholding the world order. Trump was not the only candidate in 2016 to run on a platform suggesting a much narrower definition of American interests and a lessening of the burdens of American global leadership. “America First” is not just an empty phrase but a fairly coherent philosophy with a long lineage and many adherents in the American academy. It calls for viewing American interests through a narrow lens. It suggests no longer supporting an international alliance structure, no longer seeking to deny great powers their spheres of influence and regional hegemony, no longer attempting to uphold liberal norms in the international system, and no longer sacrificing short-term interests—in trade for instance—in the longer-term interest of preserving an open economic order.

Coming as it does at a time of growing great power competition, this new approach in American foreign policy is likely to hasten a return to the instability and clashes of previous eras.•

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Smartphone-enabled rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft are disruptors that provide greater convenience and information but also kill steady, secure jobs and place people deeper inside a surveillance machine. The thing is, nothing seems more prone to disruption than these businesses themselves. I’ve already mentioned how the emergence of driverless cars could make possible an ownerless and growing fleet of taxis. But why wait for autonomous, with its imprecise start date?

LibreTaxi is an app that removes the middleman, letting the fare and driver do cash (and, soon, Bitcoin) business directly. Roman Pushkin’s brainchild actually wasn’t designed to compete with the Kalanicks, instead aiming at rural and out-of-the-way locales that Uber and others do not service and likely never will. But it has begun creeping into urban areas, and some other similar apps to come will be aimed directly at the behemoths. 

Below is the opening of Pushkin’s recent Medium essay and a few exchanges from a Q&A he did with Bitcoinist.


From Medium:

Uber, a company evaluated at $60B, will unlikely go to remote Siberian region where I was born. About 1000 people still live there. It’s not far from Russian Silicon Valley — Academgorodok in Novosibirsk, only 80 miles. But there is no road to such villages: deepest forest, Taiga, and the river. It takes about 2 days to get there by boat.

Sometimes I think that nobody understands remote regions better than me. And I don’t mean Russia only. I lived in 10 countries before I settled down in San Francisco Bay Area. I found that problems in Russian remote regions are very similar to problems Indian/Nepali remote regions have. And I expect they are the same somewhere outside of big cities in South Africa, China, Latin America and Middle East.

I remember when I visited my relatives in Siberia ~10 years ago, and explained them how cellphone works. They never heard about that and now they are lucky to have their own cell tower. Now they have few computers, mobile phones, internet connection. They use motorbikes to get to the same villages around in summer, and use special light vehicles to do the same in winter time. But with all of the technology available they’re still struggling with problems western civilization solved already.

To my surprise, when I visited my native village 2 years ago, nobody knew what Uber is.•


From Bitcoinist:

Question:

What is LibreTaxi?

Roman Pushkin:

It’s free alternative for Uber, Lyft, etc. It doesn’t compete with these companies directly. I made it for a remote area where I was born and found that people around the world like it. Uber probably won’t go to remote and rural areas, so LibreTaxi is perfect for that.

Question:

What problem does LibreTaxi solve?

Roman Pushkin:

People need a ridesharing service in remote and rural areas where big companies will never go. At least I started with this idea in mind. Now I see how people are starting to use it in some cities as an Uber replacement. Also, you can never predict what type of taxi you want – boat, helicopter, rickshaw etc. LibreTaxi is open-sourced under MIT license. People can update it relatively easy or add vehicle types and run Uber-like services for their areas independently.

Question:

Are you targeting any specific markets, cities or demographics?

Roman Pushkin:

Our main market is rural areas, but it seems like it’s expanding into cities now. I have to think about improving and polishing functionality to make it even more easier to use.•

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Elon Musk has unilaterally decided that direct democracy will be the likely government on Mars once he creates a colony on our neighboring planet, but if a fledgling fascist takes over, he’ll probably still be open for business.

We’ve witnessed with his embrace of the Trump Administration that the Space X founder isn’t grounded enough to truly comprehend an epochal political moment, believing he can somehow manage a sociopathic President and his white nationalist Chief Strategist the way he does less-combustible things–like rockets, for instance. 

Some of Musk’s announcements about space settlements and other schemes have seemed increasingly kooky over the last few years, but you could cut him some slack. After all, Thomas Edison truly believed he could use early 1900s technology to create a “spirit phone” to speak to the dead. Visionaries sometimes head down a blind alley so distracted they are by the world they hold in their hands. But Musk’s reaction to this singular challenge to American democracy has revealed a deep moral blind spot within him. 

Prior to the ugly election cycle, Walter Isaacson said the “Benjamin Franklin of today is Musk,” but our kite-flying forefather understood one thing about tyranny that escapes his technological descendant: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

• • •

In “Whitey on Mars,” Andrew Russell’s excellent Aeon essay, the writer argues that “white men in expensive, gleaming white spaceships” take priority over more earthly concerns when wealth is deeply unequal, especially in this era when such costly exploration has become significantly privatized. I’m sure Musk would counter that he is trying to address climate change by spearheading a transition to electric and solar (a point Russell also addresses), but there’s definitely much truth in the argument.

The opening:

There are good reasons to worry about the future of humanity. Do we have a future, and if so, how much and what kind? For most people, it’s easier to feel these existential concerns for our species than it is to do something about them. But some are taking action. On 27 September 2016, the SpaceX founder Elon Musk made a bold, direct claim: that, in order to survive an inevitable extinction event, humans would need to ‘become a space-faring civilisation and a multi-planetary species’. Pulses raced and the media swooned. Headlines appeared in the business and technology press about Musk’s plan to save humanity. Experts and laypeople alike debated details of the rockets, spacecraft and fuel needed for Musk’s journey to Mars. The excitement was palpable, and it was evident at the press conference. During the Q&A that followed the announcement, Musk said that his goal was to inspire humanity. One audience member yelled: ‘[Musk] inspires the shit out of us!’ Another offered him a kiss.

Musk’s plan to colonise Mars is a sign of an older and recurring social problem. What happens when the rich and powerful isolate themselves from everyday concerns? Musk wants to innovate and leave Earth, rather than to take care of it, or fix it, and stay. Like so many of his peers in the innovating and disrupting classes, Musk prefers to dwell in fantasy and science fiction, safely removed from the world of here and now. Musk is a utopian, in the original Greek meaning: ‘no place’. Repulsed by the world we all share, he dreams of a place that does not exist.•

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In this time of potential totalitarianism, two very different journalists, former Dubya speechwriter David Frum and veteran Putin chronicler Masha Gessen, have done the most outstanding work, warning of the gathering threat to American liberal democracy. Each has a new piece on the topic. 

In “How to Build an Autocracy,” an Atlantic cover story, Frum writes speculatively about how the U.S., over the next four years, could be pulled from its foundations, despite a system that supposedly safeguards us from such affronts.

“Checks and balances is a metaphor, not a mechanism,” offers Frum, asserting that our system is only as good as those who serve it at any given moment. We depend on Americans of good faith to combat a Berlusconi angling to become a Mussolini, and while many such citizens exist in the country, they will be far from levers of power. The Administration will only appoint and tolerate conspirators. Anyone who defies will be dismissed.

The Senate and the Congress could prevent our fall from decency, but if Mitch McConnell was guided by the Constitution, Merrick Garland would have received a fair chance, and if Paul Ryan was committed to democracy, hearings about James Comey’s outrageous pre-election actions would be foremost on his mind. They will not save us. Only we can. That’s complicated, since millions of Americans seem to not notice the danger, maybe even wouldn’t mind a dictatorship if it supported their politics or proved financially profitable. 

Former Nixon lawyer John Dean says the Trump Presidency “will end in calamity.” I think, horribly enough, that’s true whether liberty wins or not.

In “The Styrofoam Presidency,” Gessen’s New York Review of Books essay, the writer explains how kakistocracy (government by the least qualified or most unprincipled) has taken hold in America. I’ve written previously that this election seemed to me propelled by, among other factors, a “large-scale revenge of mediocrity, of people wanting to establish an order where might, not merit, will rule.”

It’s hard to argue that is not what now will oversee us on a day when Jerry Falwell Jr. revealed he’s to lead a Federal Task Force on Higher Education policy. If Liberty University is to be the template for the American college, the “genius” Peter Thiel may have to wait quite awhile longer for his flying cars.


From Frum:

Trump-critical media do continue to find elite audiences. Their investigations still win Pulitzer Prizes; their reporters accept invitations to anxious conferences about corruption, digital-journalism standards, the end of Nato, and the rise of populist authoritarianism. Yet somehow all of this earnest effort feels less and less relevant to American politics. President Trump communicates with the people directly via his Twitter account, ushering his supporters toward favorable information at Fox News or Breitbart.

Despite the hand-wringing, the country has in many ways changed much less than some feared or hoped four years ago. Ambitious Republican plans notwithstanding, the American social-welfare system, as most people encounter it, has remained largely intact during Trump’s first term. The predicted wave of mass deportations of illegal immigrants never materialized. A large illegal workforce remains in the country, with the tacit understanding that so long as these immigrants avoid politics, keeping their heads down and their mouths shut, nobody will look very hard for them.

African Americans, young people, and the recently naturalized encounter increasing difficulties casting a vote in most states. But for all the talk of the rollback of rights, corporate America still seeks diversity in employment. Same-sex marriage remains the law of the land. Americans are no more and no less likely to say “Merry Christmas” than they were before Trump took office.

People crack jokes about Trump’s National Security Agency listening in on them. They cannot deeply mean it; after all, there’s no less sexting in America today than four years ago. Still, with all the hacks and leaks happening these days—particularly to the politically outspoken—it’s just common sense to be careful what you say in an email or on the phone. When has politics not been a dirty business? When have the rich and powerful not mostly gotten their way? The smart thing to do is tune out the political yammer, mind your own business, enjoy a relatively prosperous time, and leave the questions to the troublemakers.•


From Gessen:

The rule of the worst seemed to become a thing of the past in the 1990s, but under Putin mediocrity returned with a vengeance. Not only did the media come under the control of the Kremlin but it acquired an amateurish quality. Not only did the government start lying, but did so in dull, simple, and unimaginative language. Putin’s government is filled with people who plagiarized their dissertations—as did Putin himself. The ministers are subliterate. The minister of culture, who has a doctorate in history, regularly exposes his ignorance of history; indeed, Trump might be tempted to plagiarize the minister’s dissertation, which begins with the assertion that the criterion of truth in history is determined solely by the national interests of Russia—if it’s good for the country, it must be true (much of the rest of the dissertation is itself plagiarized). Other ministers provide the differently minded Russian blogosphere with endless hours of fun because they use words the meaning of which they clearly don’t know, or ones that don’t exist—as when a newly chosen education minister invented a word that seemed to mean that she had been appointed to the cabinet by God. They also make ignorant, repressive, inhumane policy. But their daily subversion of integrity and principle is indeed aesthetic in nature. And it serves a purpose: by degrading language and discrediting the spectacle of politics the Russian government is destroying the public sphere.

Sometimes vastly different processes yield surprisingly similar results. Trump is staging an assault on America’s senses that feels familiar to me—not because he admires Putin (though he does) or because he is Putin’s puppet, but because they seem to be genuinely kindred spirits. It might take a long time to understand why we have come to enter the age of a kakistocracy, but evidently we have.•

 

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What we dream we become” wrote Henry Miller, offering a curse as much as a promise, wary as he always was of science and technology and America.

Nobody in the U.S. has ever dreamed more than Hugo Gernsback, immigrant technological tinkerer and peddler of science fiction, and he was sure the most outré visions would come to pass: instant newspapers printed in the home, TV eyeglasses, teleportation, etc. Some of these amazing stories proved to be true and others…perhaps someday? In Gernsback’s view what separated fiction and fact was merely time.

From James Gleick’s wonderful New York Review of Books piece about The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction:

Born Hugo Gernsbacher, the son of a wine merchant in a Luxembourg suburb before electrification, he started tinkering as a child with electric bell-ringers. When he emigrated to New York City at the age of nineteen, in 1904, he carried in his baggage a design for a new kind of electrolytic battery. A year later, styling himself in Yankee fashion “Huck Gernsback,” he published his first article in Scientific American, a design for a new kind of electric interrupter. That same year he started his first business venture, the Electro Importing Company, selling parts and gadgets and a “Telimco” radio set by mail order to a nascent market of hobbyists and soon claiming to be “the largest makers of experimental Wireless material in the world.”

His mail-order catalogue of novelties and vacuum tubes soon morphed into a magazine, printed on the same cheap paper but now titled Modern Electrics. It included articles and editorials, like “The Wireless Joker” (it seems pranksters had fun with the new communications channel) and “Signaling to Mars.” It was hugely successful, and Gernsback was soon a man about town, wearing a silk hat, dining at Delmonico’s and perusing its wine list with a monocle.

Public awareness of science and technology was new and in flux. “Technology” was barely a word and still not far removed from magic. “But wireless was magical to Gernsback’s readers,” writes Wythoff, “not because they didn’t understand how the trick worked but because they did.” Gernsback asked his readers to cast their minds back “but 100 years” to the time of Napoleon and consider how far the world has “progressed” in that mere century. “Our entire mode of living has changed with the present progress,” he wrote in the first issue of Amazing Stories “and it is little wonder, therefore, that many fantastic situations—impossible 100 years ago—are brought about today.”

So for Gernsback it was completely natural to publish Science Wonder Stories alongside Electrical Experimenter. He returned again and again to the theme of fact versus fiction—a false dichotomy, as far as he was concerned. Leonardo da Vinci, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells were inventors and prophets, their fantastic visions giving us our parachutes and submarines and spaceships.•

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As I’ve posted before, China stands poised to gain the most from America’s sharp turn toward anti-science and isolationism. Winning the race in renewables, supercomputers and robotics would make our strongest competitor preeminent financially. Furthermore, soft power follows cold, hard cash, so our withdrawal from globalism will oddly allow China, an autocratic state, to step into the breach and gain influence as the “civilized” leader of the free world. 

Along with reconfiguring the U.S. to teach civics and the Constitution, we should probably also stress basic economics.

From “Trump’s Trade War May Have Already Begun,” by Peter S. Goodman of the New York Times:

LONDON — America’s traditional allies are on the lookout for new friends.

They have heard the mantra “America First” from the new president, divining a Trump doctrine: global cooperation last. Europeans have taken note of Mr. Trump’s denigration of the European Union and his apparent esteem for the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin. In Asia and Latin America, leaders have absorbed the deepening possibility that Mr. Trump will deliver on threats to impose punitive tariffs on Mexican and Chinese imports, provoking a trade war that will damage economic growth and eliminate jobs around the world.

Some allies are shifting focus to other potential partners for new sources of trade and investment, relationships that could influence political, diplomatic and military ties. Many are looking to China, which has adroitly capitalized on a leadership vacuum in world affairs by offering itself — ironies notwithstanding — as a champion for global engagement.

“We’ve always said that America is our best friend,” Jeroen Dijsselbloem, president of the Eurogroup — comprising finance ministers from countries sharing the euro currency — said in an interview with The New York Times on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this month. “If that’s no longer the case, if that’s what we need to understand from Donald Trump, then of course Europe will look for new friends.”

“China is a very strong candidate for that,” he added.•

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Here’s a question: If the election was held again today, would Donald Trump still win the Electoral College?

Despite the hypothetical nature of the query, it’s actually an all-important one. While a huge number of Americans, likely the majority, refuse the un-American Executive Orders of the new Administration as well as his appointment of a white nationalist as White House Chief Strategist, a large minority approved of promises of such on Election Day? Do they still? 

In Pennsylvania–as well as Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin–harsh Rust Belt economics played a role in swinging just enough votes a clearly unqualified, unwell candidate, but it wasn’t just about the money, stupid. There as well as in more affluent parts of the country, Trump’s racism and xenophobia resonated. If these voters get the whiter America they hoped for, would they be okay with a dictator as President?

From Josh Paul’s Newsweek piece about approval for the immigrant ban among citizens in Northeastern PA:

“Our first priority should be the safety of Americans,” says Tino Altavilla, a freshman at King’s College in northeast Pennsylvania. Asked his opinion of the executive order Trump signed Friday afternoon, the physics major said he doesn’t believe every Muslim is a terrorist but that the vetting system needs to be improved before any more people from Middle Eastern countries are allowed into the U.S. “Imagine Syria. There are very few records on some of the people because it’s a war zone.”

Altavilla voted for Trump in November, just like almost 60 percent of voters in Luzerne County, which flipped from supporting Obama by 5 points in 2012 to a 20-point victory for Trump. A third-generation Italian-American, Altavilla tells Newsweek that he thinks Trump should have presented the executive order as a “hold” instead of a “ban,” but that he agrees with Trump’s order. “I’m not sure if his handling was correct, but what he did was correct.”

Most Trump voters from this mountainous county, a two-hour drive west of New York City, were quick to voice their support for the executive order that blocks citizens of seven mostly-Muslim countries from coming to the U.S. for at least three months, bans all refugees for four months and bars Syrian refugees indefinitely. They saw the ban as a smart way to protect the country from terrorist attacks, and they dismissed arguments that the order amounted to a religious ban or comparisons between the order and America’s rejection of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.•

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Overwhelming the populous with provocations and crises is something that comes naturally to a committed controversialist like Donald Trump, who seems powered by emotional damage and, likely, mental illness, the way some are by caffeine, but it also is clearly a part of a plan of Steve Bannon and the other destroyers in the Oval Office mix.

Issue a bigoted and badly drawn ban on Muslim immigrants just as the white nationalist Chief Strategist is named to replace the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at National Security Council meetings. Divert attention from any one fire by starting many.

And if everything is an outrage, no individual offense seems so irregular. 

In addition to the many worrying, fascistic signs of the first week-plus of the new Administration, it’s gone almost unnoticed that the candidate who railed against Hillary Clinton using a private server as Secretary of State is now a President with an insecure Android phone. Sadly, this Congress is far too feckless and opportunistic to call him out on his behavior.

From “President Trump’s Insecure Android,” by Nicholas Weaver at Lawfare:

Lost amid the swirling insanity of the Trump administration’s first week, are the reports of the President’s continued insistence on using his Android phone (a Galaxy S3 or perhaps S4). This is, to put it bluntly, asking for a disaster. President Trump’s continued use of a dangerously insecure, out-of-date Android device should cause real panic. And in a normal White House, it would.

A Galaxy S3 does not meet the security requirements of the average teenager, let alone the purported leader of the free world. The best available Android OS on this phone (4.4) is a woefully out-of-date and unsupported. The S4, running 5.0.1, is only marginally better. Without exaggerating, hacking a Galaxy S3 or S4 is the type of project I would assign as homework for my advanced undergraduate classes. It’d be as simple as downloading a suitable exploit—depending on the version, Stagefright will do—and then entice Trump to clicking on a link. Alternatively, one could advertise malware on Breitbart and just wait for Trump to visit.
 
Once compromised, the phone becomes a bug—even more catastrophic than Great Seal—able to record everything around it and transmit the information once it reattaches to the network. And to be clear even a brand new, fully updated Android or iPhone is insufficient: The President of the United States is worth a great many multiples of expensive zero-day exploits.•

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It seldom ends well for a tyrant, but how about the people?

Rare are there moments of such extreme clarity as the one we’re now experiencing in America. Either you stand against the bigoted madness of a bullying sociopath, or you push the nation into the abyss with it. Millions of citizens are fighting back, trying in their own way to keep us from descending into fascism, from becoming a racist state. Unfortunately–and perhaps unsurprisingly–many elected officials and business leaders have proven feckless and opportunistic. We know where they stand.

In Eliot A. Cohen’s scorching Atlantic essay about new Administration in the wake of a disastrous first week, he writes, “the biggest split will be between those who draw a line and the power-sick.” We’ve already witnessed both sides of the divide, with Washington lifers bolting the State Department en masse to loudly register protest, and with Sean Spicer willing to speak outrageous lies as ordered and Paul Ryan and Mike Pence now supporting a Muslim ban they previously deemed un-American.

Cohen’s certain those who stand by this unscrupulous monster will be forever tarnished by the association, and while I wish I could agree, even a genuine German Nazi like Wernher von Braun was able to reinvent himself as an American hero. Historical moments can present a clear line, but the long arc of history is a fuzzier thing.

An excerpt:

Precisely because the problem is one of temperament and character, it will not get better. It will get worse, as power intoxicates Trump and those around him. It will probably end in calamity—substantial domestic protest and violence, a breakdown of international economic relationships, the collapse of major alliances, or perhaps one or more new wars (even with China) on top of the ones we already have. It will not be surprising in the slightest if his term ends not in four or in eight years, but sooner, with impeachment or removal under the 25th Amendment. The sooner Americans get used to these likelihoods, the better.

The question is, what should Americans do about it? To friends still thinking of serving as political appointees in this administration, beware: When you sell your soul to the Devil, he prefers to collect his purchase on the installment plan. Trump’s disregard for either Secretary of Defense Mattis or Secretary-designate Tillerson in his disastrous policy salvos this week, in favor of his White House advisers, tells you all you need to know about who is really in charge. To be associated with these people is going to be, for all but the strongest characters, an exercise in moral self-destruction.

For the community of conservative thinkers and experts, and more importantly, conservative politicians, this is a testing time. Either you stand up for your principles and for what you know is decent behavior, or you go down, if not now, then years from now, as a coward or opportunist. Your reputation will never recover, nor should it.•

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#deleteuber exploded across Twitter last night when the ride-share company tried to exploit the flash taxi drivers’ strike at JFK against Trump’s anti-immigrant ban. It was alarming the company treated a Constitutional crisis as if it were business-as-usual but unsurprising considering Uber’s past dubious ethical behavior and Travis Kalanick’s recent defense of his relationship with the Administration: “We’ll partner with anyone in the world.” Really? Trips to internment camps, even?

There are other reasons to be wary of piecemeal employment, that Libertarian wet dream, and the main one is that it often undermines solid middle-class jobs and replaces them with uncertainty. And, no, despite what some might say, most Uber employees aren’t entrepreneurs just driving until venture-capital seed money comes in for their start-up; they’re actually trying to somehow subsist in this new normal. It isn’t easy.

The opening of Eric Newcomer and Olivia Zaleski Bloomberg piece:

In the 1970s, the Safeway grocery store in San Francisco’s gleaming Marina neighborhood, known as the Social Safeway, was a cornerstone of the pre-Tinder dating scene. Armistead Maupin made it famous in his 1978 book, Tales of the City, calling it “the hottest spot in town” to meet people. For years afterward, locals called it the “Singles Safeway” or the “Dateway.”

Forty years later, German Tugas, a 42-year-old Uber driver, got to know it for another reason: Its parking lot was a safe spot to sleep in his car. Tugas drives over 70 hours a week in San Francisco, where the work is steadier and fares are higher than in his hometown, Sacramento. So every Monday morning, Tugas leaves at 4 a.m., says goodbye to his wife and four daughters, drives 90 miles to the city, and lugs around passengers until he earns $300 or gets too tired to keep going. (Most days he nets $230 after expenses like gas.) Then, he and at least a half dozen other Uber drivers gathered in the Social Safeway parking lot to sleep in their cars before another long day of driving.  

“That’s the sacrifice,” he said in May, smoking a cigarette beside his Toyota Prius parked at the Safeway at 1 a.m., the boats in the bay bobbing gently in the background. “My goal is to get a house somewhere closer, so that I don’t have to do this every day.”

The vast majority of Uber’s full-time drivers return home to their beds at the end of a day’s work. But all over the country, there are many who don’t.•

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It would be funny watching Theresa May and and the brokers of Brexit bowing before a U.S. President they clearly disdain, except that as an American I can hardly afford to laugh, not with the Constitution and nuclear codes in the breast pocket of a bigoted, unbalanced ignoramus.

The urge on both sides of the Atlantic to retreat to an earlier age, one before globalization, may be understandable but it’s also self-defeating. There’s no returning. The world is overrun with symbiotic relationships and to deny the Other is to starve yourself. The UK and U.S. will now both learn the hard way that in this age isolation is impossible and closed doors costly.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal brokered by President Obama was an imperfect one, as any pact among numerous nations would be, but it allowed the U.S. an abiding and significant soft power in the region of our fiercest competitor, China, which will now likely benefit from our withdrawal. The ban on refugees and immigrants from Muslim nations, probably illegal, is similarly shortsighted, sacrificing our greatest historical resource–diverse human capital–in a misguided attempt to prevent terrorism, a much smaller threat to Americans than guns or even cars.

Going forward, the United States and United Kingdom won’t be most challenged by connections to other countries but competition from them. Walls and exits will not preserve us.

From a smart Economist analysis written just prior to May’s D.C. visit:

So why is Mrs May hurrying to Washington? Because Brexit compels Britain’s leaders to show that the country has powerful allies. And “my Maggie” (as the president calls Mrs May) is desperate to line up a Britain-America trade deal that can be closed as soon as Brexit takes place, probably in 2019.

Whether this will end happily is uncertain. In trade negotiations, size matters. Larger economies can stipulate terms that suit them. Britain, an economy of 60m people, has much less leverage in trade talks than the EU, a market of 500m, or the United States, one of 300m. Mr Trump may promise an agreement “very quickly” and to show other countries that it is safe to leave the EU by giving Britain generous treatment. But more than anything else he is an America First deal-wrangler who knows he has the upper hand. A rushed agreement could see the National Health Service opened up to American firms and environmental and food standards diluted (think hormone-treated beef). Such concessions could upset British voters, who backed Brexit partly because Leavers said it would help the country’s health-care system. They would also frustrate a trade deal with the EU, a much more important export destination.

The curious thing is that Brexit was supposed to be about “taking back control”: immunising the country from foreign whim and interest, while asserting national dignity and independence. Increasingly that looks like a bad joke. The British elite feels it has no choice but to prostrate itself before an American president it clearly finds odious. To keep businesses from moving elsewhere, Britain may have to shadow EU regulations and pay into EU programmes without the chance to shape either. Its trade deals will be forged with a fraction of the negotiating force that has long promoted its interests. That means more concessions to the tariff and regulatory preferences of foreigners. Its application to become a full member of the World Trade Organisation is yet another opportunity for others to impose conditions and costs.•

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Already posted items about the potential wave of automated food shopping demonstrated by Amazon Go (1 + 2), a Swedish General Store 2.0 and a French market that uses Li-Fi to spy on the buying patterns of customers, which could give the store’s computers the ability to dynamically adjust prices.

Cashier, stock and cleaning jobs, among others, would be eliminated if these visions were widely realized. Have to assume the transition would mean the creation of some good positions to develop smart machines (even if their actual manufacturing is mostly automated), though this scenario still feels like it will wind up being the same tale of haves and have-nots.

From Omil Xia at Yahoo! Finance:

Here’s how the grocery store of the near-future would work: An automatic facial recognition system greets customers by name at the entrance, and virtual assistants can direct customers to different aisles. Artificial-intelligence sensors will also assist grocery store customers, continuously updating the prices and items in the customer’s shopping cart.

Customers can then finalize purchases through a cellphone order that gives them customized coupons. This process could, in theory, take a lot less time than checkout lines.

Behind the scenes, the automatic stock room will manage the store’s inventory and send signals for robots to restock vacant shelves. Similar to today’s online grocery shopping experience, advanced technology can also prepare custom orders and deliver the items via drones.

While this elaborate scenario is not yet available, automated grocery stores are not anything surprising. Self-checkout kiosks, robot cleaners, and automated storerooms already exist.•

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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