Excerpts

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Andy Warhol was shot, somehow, only once.

He was, no doubt, a brilliant visionary who knew decades early the Reality Age was approaching, even if he calibrated the time span we’d all be famous far too cautiously. The Pop Artist and keen media philosopher, however, was careless about those troubled souls he assembled in his Factory, his role that of the foreman unconcerned about the safety of the ones working on the floor. It was somehow glamorized, though it had all the charm of a heroin souk on Halloween. The scene in Midnight Cowboy when Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo wander, shocked, through a decadent party inside a Warholian vomitorium seems apt.

Warhol wasn’t responsible for those in his constellation, but he didn’t need to be so irresponsible. He didn’t have to be a father, but he should have been a better friend.

In Gatsby terms, he curated a “rotten crowd” in the Sixties, and into their spin waltzed New England patrician purity in the slight form of Edie Sedgwick, who was destined to be a star of the shooting variety. An aristocrat descending into hades, how amazing! Except that it wasn’t. Within a few years she was worn out, used up and dead of a drug overdose. Like Zelda Fitzgerald, she’d been burned alive.

A decade after her death, Jean Stein, a restless type of Hollywood royalty, created a great oral history of Sedgwick that also spoke to the era. Not that Stein’s book fully captured the 1960s anymore than did Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, both volumes laser focused on the dark side of the decade. But you also couldn’t tell nearly as well the story of that tumultuous time without their reporting.

Stein just died in a fall from her 15th-floor Manhattan apartment, likely a suicide, after sliding into a depression. Lee Smith of the Weekly Standard, a former employee and confidante of the author and editor, wrote the best obituary about her, an uncommonly deep dive into her psyche and milieu. An excerpt from the obit is followed by one from Michiko Kakutani’s 1982 review of Stein’s Sedgwick book and a 1965 video of Andy and Edie in an appropriately odd appearance on Merv Griffin’s talk show.


From Smith:

Most people speak because they like to hear themselves speak, and the trick for a journalist is to respect, and then profit from, human frailty long enough to keep your own mouth shut. But other people, usually more interesting people, don’t want to speak. Jean’s genius was in getting those people to talk by speaking herself. She understood that social space wants to be filled. Everyone fears certain types of silence, so they fill it with talk, the question then is about the quality of the talk. By exposing parts of her own pain, Jean made her subjects not only willing to reveal some of their own, but also, and more importantly, keen to protect her and join her at the place of her pain so she wouldn’t be left alone.

Here’s a practical example: Next time you attend a party and are called on to introduce two people but have forgotten the name of one or both, stutter. At least one, most likely both, will quickly volunteer their names in order to rescue you from your awkwardness. Why? Arguably, it’s because people are good. In any case, Jean’s aesthetic was premised on the idea that people are basically good and don’t want others to hurt, especially not in public. And that was perhaps Jean’s great theme—public hurt, American pain.

Her first book, also edited by Plimpton, was American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy, an oral biography centered around the funeral train that took Kennedy’s body from New York City to Washington, D.C. But Edie was Jean’s masterpiece, also an oral biography, a book that I think is generally misunderstood as a love song to the Warhol gang and the groovy 1960s underground.

Generations of young women, up to the present, have gone to New York with the legend of young Edie Sedgwick, the beautiful and doomed socialite celebrity, on their minds, steered by half-formed dreams of becoming the next “It” girl. One of those young women, a friend of mine, visited the Grand Street office when Jean was there and gushed to her about how much she loved the book, the scene it portrayed, the ethos of the moment. Jean’s face became very serious. She shook her head emphatically. “It was not glamorous,” she told my friend. And then I started to imagine how Jean must have seen it—like a vision of the underworld with generations of beautiful and naïve young women on the arm of some painter, or writer, or actor, eventually to be discarded and left alone in hell. That’s who Edie was, a kid who didn’t learn quickly enough the cost of not leaving a parade of death.

The space Jean Stein occupied was unique, moral, ambiguously optimistic in the American style, and is filled now by her books, a central part of the historiography of 20th-century America.•


From Kakutani:

Beautiful and charming, she had an ability to conjure up a magical world of grace and fun, and when she came to New York in 1964, she almost immediately became the leading lady of the fashionable demimonde. Her arrival happened to coincide with that period when all the old rules were suddenly breaking down – her gift for the outrageous seemed, to many, to personify the times – and she quickly replaced Baby Jane Holzer as Andy Warhol’s newest star. Mr. Warhol, with his gift for exploiting image and personality, escorted her to parties and featured her in his films, and Vogue magazine was soon dubbing her a ”Youthquaker,” ”22, going whither, God knows, but at a great rate!”

A friend who knew Edie as a teen-ager recalls in the book that she always ”liked walking very close to extinction,” and the world of Warhol’s Factory – with its drugs and sexual experimentation – fueled her fatal predilections. There were shoplifting sprees at department stores, injections of LSD and speed, and increasingly frequent stays at hospitals and clinics. Although Edie finally left New York, returning to California, where she got married, she never seemed to get the hang of ordinary life. Happiness and the order that her grandparents had once predicated their lives on remained elusive, and on Nov. 16, 1971, she died from ”acute barbiturate intoxication.” She was 28 years old.•


Warhol refuses to speak during a 1965 appearance on Merv Griffin’s talk show, allowing a still-healthy-looking Sedgwick to handle the conversation. Not even the Pop Artist himself could have realized how correct he was in believing that soon just being would be enough to warrant stardom, that it wouldn’t matter what you said or if you said a thing, that traditional content would lose much of its value.

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Exactly a century ago, people were treated to an early glimpse of what would eventually become the changeover from the Industrial Era to the Information Age when Marcel Duchamp took a crude if useful manufactured fixture of the age (the urinal) and reinvented its meaning simply by presentation. All he added was an idea, pure information. Nothing had changed but perspective, which, of course, can be everything. It was artful, and it was art.

Now that we exist in a data-rich world and are constantly lowering ourselves deeper and deeper into the machine, our emotions, a key component of the artistic experience, are increasingly being played by social networks and search engines. In a Bloomberg View essay, historian Yuval Noah Harari considers a time when data, rather than human inspiration, will inform art. He believes biometrics and algorithms will combine to read our moods and feed us music, which will eventually be composed by computers.

An excerpt:

If art defined by human emotions,  what might happen once external algorithms are able to understand and manipulate human emotions better than Shakespeare, Picasso or Lennon? After all, emotions are not some mystical phenomenon — they are a biochemical process. Hence, given enough biometric data and enough computing power, it might be possible to hack love, hate, boredom and joy.

In the not-too-distant future, a machine-learning algorithm could analyze the biometric data streaming from sensors on and inside your body, determine your personality type and your changing moods, and calculate the emotional impact that a particular song — or even a particular musical key — is likely to have on you.

Of all forms of art, music is probably the most susceptible to Big Data analysis, because both inputs and outputs lend themselves to mathematical depiction. The inputs are the mathematical patterns of soundwaves, and the outputs are the electrochemical patterns of neural storms. Allow a learning machine to go over millions of musical experiences, and it will learn how particular inputs result in particular outputs.  

Supposed you just had a nasty fight with your boyfriend. The algorithm in charge of your sound system will immediately discern your inner emotional turmoil, and based on what it knows about you personally and about human psychology in general, it will play songs tailored to resonate with your gloom and echo your distress. These particular songs might not work well with other people, but are just perfect for your personality type. After helping you get in touch with the depths of your sadness, the algorithm would then play the one song in the world that is likely to cheer you up — perhaps because your subconscious connects it with a happy childhood memory that even you are not aware of. No human DJ could ever hope to match the skills of such an AI.•

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Like Steve Jobs during his walkabout between stints as Apple’s visionary, Google’s Larry Page grew as a businessperson in the years he spent in the shadow of Eric Schmidt, the CEO whom investors forced him to hire as “adult supervision.” Although Page still has none of the late Apple co-founder’s charisma and communication skills, that social shortcoming might be a blessing some ways, since his vision of a future automated enough to satisfy Italo Balbo might give many pause, despite Page’s seemingly good intentions.

In 2013, he expressed his desire to partition some land to be used for potentially dangerous experiments that would otherwise be illegal. Like Burning Man with robots or flying cars or something. The Verge reported the technologist as saying:

There are many exciting things you could do that are illegal or not allowed by regulation. And that’s good, we don’t want to change the world. But maybe we can set aside a part of the world…some safe places where we can try things and not have to deploy to the entire world.•

His vision falls in line with H.G. Wells’ definition of Utopia as a place that would separate pristine living spaces from the despoiled, industrialized areas that would be exploited to support them. 

It’s not a particularly honest or self-aware argument, however, because Google and other Silicon Valley superpowers are conducting experiments every day on the general public in regards to widespread surveillance, psychological manipulation and communications, all of which may be antithetical to stable democracies, the Internet being, what Schmidt himself termed that same year, the “largest experiment involving anarchy in history.” Indeed.

According a Statescoop article by Jake Williams, Google is moving forward with its plans to build Experiment City. Whatever explosions may occur in Page’s testropolis, they will likely be less dangerous than the eruptions the company is enabling every day in our “pristine” world.

An excerpt:

Sidewalk Labs, which Google kickstarted almost two years ago, may soon develop a “large-scale district” to serve as a living laboratory for urban innovation technologies, Dan Doctoroff, founder and CEO of the company, said at the Smart Cities NYC conference Thursday.

The company is having conversations now with city leaders across the country, Doctoroff said. While nothing is final, Sidewalk Labs could hold a competition — similar to the one held by the U.S. Department of Transportation last year — to spur excitement from leaders who want to make their cities smarter, while also providing a national model for what the cities of tomorrow look like.

“The future of cities lies in the way these urban experiences fit together and improve quality of life for everyone living, working and growing up in cities across the world,” Doctoroff said. “Yet there is not a single city today that can stand as a model — or even close — for our urban future.”

This city would be “built from the internet up,” Doctoroff said, and would test the theories and models that the company has asserted since its creation. …

While all these ideas include technology, the concept is about more than just connecting the physical space with sensors, internet and data, he said — it’s about making an impact on society.

“I’m sure many of you are thinking this is a crazy idea: building a city new — the most innovative, urban district in the world, something at scale that can actually have the catalytic impact among cities around the world,” Doctoroff said. “We don’t think it’s crazy at all. People thought it was crazy when Google decided to connect all the world’s information, people thought it was crazy to think about the concept of a self-driving car.”•

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In 1989, six years before her murder, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the Carrie Nation of holy water, was profiled by Lawrence Wright, then of Texas Monthly. The outrageously quotable, oft-jailed atheist activist was no doubt a welcome assignment for a budding journalistic talent like Wright, who visited her Austin offices a quarter century after her strident efforts had removed compulsory prayer from American public schools.

In the twilight of the Reagan years, O’Hair thought the country was headed toward a Neo-fascism enabled by a confluence of plutocracy, technology and religion. In retrospect, not a bad prediction.

An excerpt from the Texas Monthly piece is followed by some other articles and videos about her.


From Wright:

As with most Americans my age, my life already had been given a good shaking by Madalyn Murray O’Hair. For the first ten years of my schooling, I listened to prayers and Scripture every morning following the announcements on the P.A. system. I don’t recall ever questioning the propriety of such action or wondering what my Jewish classmates, for instance, might think about hearing Christian prayers in public school. But in the fateful fall of 1963 we began classes amid the enormous hubbub that followed the Supreme Court decision. The absence of morning prayers was widely seen as a prelude to the fall of the West. And the woman who had toppled civilization as we knew it was some loudmouthed Baltimore housewife—that was my impression—who then proceeded to wage another legal campaign to tax church property. She was the first person I had ever heard called a heretic. She jumped out of the front pages with one outrageous statement after another; indeed, the era of dissent in the sixties really began with Madalyn Murray, who styled herself as the “most hated woman in America.”

Certainly she was the most provocative. Soon after the school-prayer decision, Mrs. Murray, as she called herself then, was charged with assaulting 10 Baltimore policemen (she has inflated the number of policemen to 14, then 22, and then 26). She fled first to Hawaii, where she took refuge in a Unitarian church. Then she went to Mexico, which summarily deported her to Texas in 1965. Her odyssey ended in Austin, where she successfully fought extradition to Maryland, married an ex-FBI informer named Richard O’Hair, and remained long after the Maryland charges were dropped.

Over the years I followed Madalyn O’Hair in the way one keeps tabs on celebrities, as she bantered with Johnny Carson, sued the pope, or burst into a church and turned over bingo tables. When I was in college, she came to speak. By then she had achieved a kind of sainthood status with the undergraduate intelligentsia. True to her billing, she raked over capitalism and Christianity and especially Catholicism, unsettling if not actually insulting every person in the auditorium. Afterward she repaired to the student center and held forth in the lobby, giving an explicit and highly titillating seminar on the variations of sexual intercourse. I had never seen anyone with such a breathtaking willingness to endure public hatred. “I love a good fight,” she boasted to the press. “I guess fighting God and God’s spokesmen is sort of the ultimate, isn’t it?”

Neutrality is never present around Madalyn O’Hair; she polarizes everyone. …

“I do think we’re in a steady retreat. There’s an absolute steady retreat into what I call a neofascism—but it’s really old-time fascism—into a robber-baron society and a religiously dominated society, and that’s not cyclical, because they have new weapons at hand now, mainly communications technology with which they can rapidly disperse ideas…”•


The atheist crusader was right that children should not be forced to pray in public school, but that doesn’t mean she was an ideal parent. O’Hair had dissent in her family that she would not brook: Her eldest son, William, became a religious and social conservative in 1980. His mother, showing characteristic outrage, labeled him a “postnatal abortion” and cut off all communication. From a 1980 People article about the familial rift:

He traces her atheism to that self-absorption and hubris and to an aggressive antiestablishment streak that led her (with her two sons) into a variety of left-wing causes—even, he claims, to the Soviet embassy in Paris in search of exile. Rejected by Moscow, she retreated angrily back home to Baltimore where, as he puts it, “The rebel found a cause in prayer at school.”

As the pawn of her crusade, Bill was excoriated by fellow students, given extra homework by his teachers and baited into schoolyard fights; once, he remembers, some classmates tried to push him in front of a bus. “While Madalyn was busy with her rhetoric, newsletters, fund raising and publicity,” he says, “I was fighting for my life.” At 17, Murray ran afoul of the law. He eloped with a girl despite an injunction won by her parents that prohibited him from seeing her. Police intervened, and both Bill and his mother were charged with assaulting them. (The young woman left Bill and their infant daughter two years later.) 

Throughout Bill’s life his mother’s reputation has been a millstone. Drafted a year after his marriage broke up, he was subjected to grueling Army interrogation about Madalyn’s activist causes—and asked to sign a statement repudiating her left-wing politics (he did). After discharge he took a series of jobs in airline management and remembers living in fear that his employers would find out who his mother was and fire him. He complains she even threatened to expose him herself when he balked at giving her discounted airplane tickets that were due him as an employee. 

In 1969 he asked Madalyn for his daughter, whom she had kept while he was in the Army. She refused, they fought a custody suit and Madalyn won. Still, in 1974, when her second husband was ailing and the AAC foundering, Bill agreed to come to Austin and help out. He did so with great success—and increasing doubts. He multiplied the AAC’s annual income, which underwrote a flurry of new lawsuits—over church tax exemptions, the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and ‘In God We Trust’ on coins. But Bill says he began to wonder: “Why couldn’t we buy a new X-ray machine for a hospital? Why did we have to buy a new Cadillac and mobile home for Madalyn, or sue somebody to prevent prayer in outer space? I started to think it was because my mother was basically negative and destructive.’ He began to drink too much—”diving into the bottle to forget,” as he describes it. Six months after he came to Austin, Madalyn turned her animus on him once too often. “I told her to get f——-,” he recalls, ‘and got the hell out.”

By that time Bill was an alcoholic. He had a new marriage and a new job as an airline management consultant, but felt his life was falling apart.”•


From the 1965 Playboy interview with the “most hated woman in America”:

Playboy:

What led you to become an atheist?

Madalyn Murray O’Hair:

Well, it started when I was very young. People attain the age of intellectual discretion at different times in their lives — sometimes a little early and sometimes a little late. I was about 12 or 13 years old when I reached this period. It was then that I was introduced to the Bible. We were living in Akron and I wasn’t able to get to the library, so I had two things to read at home: a dictionary and a Bible. Well, I picked up the Bible and read it from cover to cover one weekend — just as if it were a novel — very rapidly, and I’ve never gotten over the shock of it. The miracles, the inconsistencies, the improbabilities, the impossibilities, the wretched history, the sordid sex, the sadism in it — the whole thing shocked me profoundly. I remember l looked in the kitchen at my mother and father and I thought: Can they really believe in all that? Of course, this was a superficial survey by a very young girl, but it left a traumatic impression. Later, when I started going to church, my first memories are of the minister getting up and accusing us of being full of sin, though he didn’t say why; then they would pass the collection plate, and I got it in my mind that this had to do with purification of the soul, that we were being invited to buy expiation from our sins. So I gave it all up. It was too nonsensical.•


A 30-minute documentary about O’Hair, and a 1970 Donahue episode in which she debated Rev. Bob Harrington (voice and picture not properly synced.)

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The moon landing was supposed to be our greatest triumph, Homo sapiens having made the giant leap from living in cave systems to conquering the solar system, but as Norman Mailer wrote presciently at the time: “Space travel proposed a future world of brains attached to wires.” The macho author knew machine intelligence had won, and boxing matches, bullfights and other human struggles were crude pantomimes compared to a space odyssey. Even Mailer’s ample intelligence and elephantine ego, however, couldn’t have known how right he was.

He further wrote:

He had no intimations of what was to come, and that was conceivably worse than any sentiment of dread, for a sense of the future, no matter how melancholy, was preferable to none–it spoke of some sense of the continuation in the projects of one’s life. He was adrift. If he tried to conceive of a likely perspective in the decade before him, he saw not one structure to society but two: if the social world did not break down into revolutions and counterrevolutions, into police and military rules of order with sabotage, guerrilla war and enclaves of resistance, if none of this occurred, then there certainly would be a society of reason, but its reason would be the logic of the computer. In that society, legally accepted drugs would become necessary for accelerated cerebration, there would be inchings toward nuclear installation, a monotony of architectures, a pollution of nature which would arouse technologies of decontamination odious as deodorants, and transplanted hearts monitored like spaceships–the patients might be obliged to live in a compound reminiscent of a Mission Control Center where technicians could monitor on consoles the beatings of a thousand transplanted hearts. But in the society of computer-logic, the atmosphere would obviously be plastic, air-conditioned, sealed in bubble-domes below the smog, a prelude to living on space stations. People would die in such societies like fish expiring on a vinyl floor.•

Okay, fish on a vinyl floor may be melodramatic, but Elon Musk and others wants to go much further than accelerating cerebration via pills, aiming, with Neuralink, to implant electrodes in our brains in order to link us directly to the cloud. Musk thinks “we need brain-computers to avoid becoming ‘house cats’ to artificial intelligence.”

Hmm, that’s an odd way to add it all up. Becoming a computer (to a good degree) in order to avert the dominance of computers is sort of like killing yourself to prevent death.

It’s very possible that tomorrow’s challenges may require such drastic measures for our species, but let’s not pretend we’re maintaining humanity when we’re drastically altering it.

From Christopher Markou at The Conversation:

Depending on who you ask, the human story generally goes like this. First, we discovered fire and developed oral language. We turned oral language into writing, and eventually we found a way to turn it into mechanised printing. After a few centuries, we happened upon this thing called electricity, which gave rise to telephones, radios, TVs and eventually personal computers, smart phones – and ultimately the Juicero.

Over time, phones lost their cords, computers shrunk in size and we figured out ways to make them exponentially more powerful and portable enough to fit in pockets. Eventually, we created virtual realities, and melded our sensate reality with an augmented one.

But if Neuralink were to achieve its goal, it’s hard to predict how this story plays out. The result would be a “whole-brain interface” so complete, frictionless, bio-compatible and powerful that it would feel to users like just another part of their cerebral cortex, limbic and central nervous systems.

A whole-brain interface would give your brain the ability to communicate wirelessly with the cloud, with computers, and with the brains of anyone who has a similar interface in their head. This flow of information between your brain and the outside world would be so easy it would feel the same as your thoughts do right now.

But if that sounds extraordinary, so are the potential problems.•

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Nations that embraced the Industrial Age became far wealthier, but there were considerable hidden costs. The environmental damage has been profound, and we’ve been unable thus far to wean ourselves from the substances that could mark our doom. It may be what we’re experiencing is a slowly unfolding Pyrrhic victory.

The Digital Age is even more challenging since the tools are more powerful. Robots will make us richer financially, but distribution won’t be easy since industries will rise and fall rapidly. For instance, compact discs were the most profitable medium in music history until, suddenly, they were valueless. It may not quite be Freeman Dyson’s more long-term outlook that “whole epochs will pass, cultures rise and fall, between a telephone call and the reply,” but it will be increasingly jarring nonetheless. And that’s not even considering the other thorny aspects of a more algorithmic age, including endless surveillance with no opt-out button.

In a really insightful NYT piece by Daisukaisuke Wakabayashi, a quintet of American workers who are training AI to complement them–replace them?–discuss the process. They seem mostly in denial, as Garry Kasparov was in 1989 when he said that he couldn’t conceive of a time when a “computer is stronger than the human mind.” Of course, AI doesn’t have to play by the rules of our gray matter to win, and in many non-dangerous fields, it doesn’t even have to be as good as humans to consume jobs. If it’s almost there and far cheaper, the transition will happen. 

Embrace of intelligent machines will, as the Industrial revolution did, make us wealthier in the aggregate, but the path to a just society in a time of this new normal will be daunting.

An excerpt:

‘It made me feel competitive’

Rachel Neasham, travel agent

Ms. Neasham, one of 20 (human) agents at the Boston-based travel booking app Lola, knew that the company’s artificial intelligence computer system — its name is Harrison — would eventually take over parts of her job. Still, there was soul-searching when it was decided that Harrison would actually start recommending and booking hotels.
 
At an employee meeting late last year, the agents debated what it meant to be human, and what a human travel agent could do that a machine couldn’t. While Harrison could comb through dozens of hotel options in a blink, it couldn’t match the expertise of, for example, a human agent with years of experience booking family vacations to Disney World. The human can be more nimble — knowing, for instance, to advise a family that hopes to score an unobstructed photo with the children in front of the Cinderella Castle that they should book a breakfast reservation inside the park, before the gates open.

Ms. Neasham, 30, saw it as a race: Can human agents find new ways to be valuable as quickly as the A.I. improves at handling parts of their job? “It made me feel competitive, that I need to keep up and stay ahead of the A.I.,” Ms. Neasham said. On the other hand, she said, using Harrison to do some things “frees me up to do something creative.” …

Lola was set up so that agents like Ms. Neasham didn’t interact with the A.I. much, but it was watching and learning from every customer interaction. Over time, Lola discovered that Harrison wasn’t quite ready to take over communication with customers, but it had a knack for making lightning-fast hotel recommendations.

At first, Harrison would recommend hotels based on obvious customer preferences, like brands associated with loyalty programs. But then it started to find preferences that even the customers didn’t realize they had. Some people, for example, preferred a hotel on the corner of a street versus midblock.

And in a coming software change, Lola will ask lifestyle questions like “Do you use Snapchat?” to glean clues about hotel preferences. Snapchat users tend to be younger and may prefer modern but inexpensive hotels over more established brands like the Ritz-Carlton.

While Harrison may make the reservations, the human agents support customers during the trip. Once the room is booked, the humans, for example, can call the hotel to try to get room upgrades or recommend how to get the most out of a vacation.

“That’s something A.I. can’t do,” Ms. Neasham said.•

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If Twitter pulled the plug on Trump for his repeated slanders, how would he go about presenting his alternative reality? He could rely on traditional-media blitzes as he did yesterday when he flubbed both history (Andrew Jackson) and current events (Kim Jong-un), but he would receive pushback from most non-Fox interlocutors and accommodating an endless parade of talking-heads wouldn’t leave him much time for running the country and golfing.

In the direct aftermath of the recent Tax Day protest, Trump took to his favorite online platform and repeated the claim he and other Republicans offer whenever #Resist assembles in large numbers: The protesters were few and paid. It’s obviously an effort to undercut the legitimacy of those marching for essential American ideals.

When interviewed in the middle of February in Süddeutsche Zeitung,Yale historian Timothy Snyder explained the tactic this way:

The idea is to marginalize the people who actually represent the core values of the Republic. The point is to bring down the Republic. You can disagree with them. but once you say they have no right to protest or start lying about them, you are in effect saying: “We want a regime where this is not possible anymore.“  When the president says that it means that the executive branch is engaged in regime change towards an authoritarian regime without the rule of law. You are getting people used to this transition, you are inviting them into the process by asking them to have contempt for their fellow citizens who are defending the Republic.•

At that moment, Snyder believed we had a year to save liberal democracy in the U.S. In an excellent new Q&A with Chauncey DeVega of Salon, the academic says he believes the Administration’s heretofore failed efforts at legislation make a unconstitutional, near-term power grab even likelier. I will say that the sycophantic media reaction to the Syria bombings probably made might seem more right than ever to a jittery, unhinged Oval Office.

Gun to his head (figuratively, I mean), Snyder guesses the attempt at authoritarianism will fail. He also provides a smart analysis of why a cartoonish TV personality like Trump is judged by a very different standard by a wide swath of the public.

An excerpt:

Question:

In your book [On Tyranny] you discuss the idea that Donald Trump will have his own version of Hitler’s Reichstag fire to expand his power and take full control of the government by declaring a state of emergency. How do you think that would play out?

Timothy Snyder:

Let me make just two points. The first is that I think it’s pretty much inevitable that they will try. The reason I think that is that the conventional ways of being popular are not working out for them. The conventional way to be popular or to be legitimate in this country is to have some policies, to grow your popularity ratings and to win some elections. I don’t think 2018 is looking very good for the Republicans along those conventional lines — not just because the president is historically unpopular. It’s also because neither the White House nor Congress have any policies which the majority of the public like.

This means they could be seduced by the notion of getting into a new rhythm of politics, one that does not depend upon popular policies and electoral cycles.

Whether it works or not depends upon whether when something terrible happens to this country, we are aware that the main significance of it is whether or not we are going to be more or less free citizens in the future.

My gut feeling is that Trump and his administration will try and that it won’t work. Not so much because we are so great but because we have a little bit of time to prepare. I also think that there are enough people and enough agencies of the government who have also thought about this and would not necessarily go along.•

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Facebook has been shown in repeated studies over numerous years to make its users unhappy, but there’s a bright side. For Facebook, that is.

Knowing when someone is sad is useful when trying to manipulate them to buy stuff or stay on the social network longer. It’s good for the bottom line, and it happens so quietly you don’t even notice it. That’s true about so much of our tacit agreement with Digital Age technology. The “free” things we receive have very large hidden costs.

Mark Zuckerberg can go on all the listening tours he likes and bottle-feed cattle in photo ops, but the communications monster he’s raised feels like it was stuffed with an abnormal brain.

Two pieces follow about algorithms snaking through our society in dubious ways, one about Zuckerberg’s unhappiness machine acting unethically and another about stealth algorithms being utilized to sentence criminals.


From Jessica Guynn of USA Today:

SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook admits it didn’t follow its own policies when it showed at least one advertiser how to reach emotionally insecure and vulnerable teens.

But, it says, Facebook does not offer tools to target advertising to users based on their emotional state.

According to a report by The Australian, the social network shared a 23-page presentation with a bank that showed Facebook’s ability to detect when users as young as 14 are feeling emotions such as defeat, stress, anxiety or simply being overwhelmed.

“Anticipatory emotions are more likely to be expressed early in the week, while reflective emotions increase on the weekend,” according to the leaked Facebook presentation. “Monday-Thursday is about building confidence; the weekend is for broadcasting achievements.”

Facebook said sharing the research was an “oversight.” It also said the data was collected anonymously and was not used to target ads.•


From Adam Liptak of the New York Times:

When Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. visited Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute last month, he was asked a startling question, one with overtones of science fiction.

“Can you foresee a day,” asked Shirley Ann Jackson, president of the college in upstate New York, “when smart machines, driven with artificial intelligences, will assist with courtroom fact-finding or, more controversially even, judicial decision-making?”

The chief justice’s answer was more surprising than the question. “It’s a day that’s here,” he said, “and it’s putting a significant strain on how the judiciary goes about doing things.”

He may have been thinking about the case of a Wisconsin man, Eric L. Loomis, who was sentenced to six years in prison based in part on a private company’s proprietary software. Mr. Loomis says his right to due process was violated by a judge’s consideration of a report generated by the software’s secret algorithm, one Mr. Loomis was unable to inspect or challenge.
 
In March, in a signal that the justices were intrigued by Mr. Loomis’s case, they asked the federal government to file a friend-of-the-court brief offering its views on whether the court should hear his appeal.

The report in Mr. Loomis’s case was produced by a product called Compas, sold by Northpointe Inc. It included a series of bar charts that assessed the risk that Mr. Loomis would commit more crimes.

The Compas report, a prosecutor told the trial judge, showed “a high risk of violence, high risk of recidivism, high pretrial risk.” The judge agreed, telling Mr. Loomis that “you’re identified, through the Compas assessment, as an individual who is a high risk to the community.”•

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Over the weekend, the President of the United States held a Pennsylvania rally that played out like a Maoist “Speak Bitterness” meeting, threatened First Amendment rights and invited murderous Filipino strongman Rodrigo Duterte to the White House. All of that was appalling, though it can’t be considered shocking at this point.

This morning, I read Peter Baker’s NYT take on Trump’s first 100 days, which was way too hopeful based on anything remotely connected to reality, and then, this afternoon, I came across this tweet:

Has everyone lost their damn mind?

Trump is incompetent, a sociopath and a kleptocrat, that’s clear, but what’s still TBD is the extent of Russian interference in our election and who was complicit. The lack of Congressional interest in this potential scandal could be partisanship or it may be something more sinister. Not to go all Louise Mensch, but there seems to be an endless stream of smoke. Let’s hope James Comey and the IC community are true or we may never know the answers. 

Despite all those questions, one thing, however, is certain: We have a dreadful, deeply un-American person in the highest office in the land, and nearly 63 million citizens approve.

· · ·

Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger’s WaPo piece about the hard right going soft on the Kremlin wonders about the reasons for Putin and his cohort’s return of admiration, which likely stems from something other than mere camaraderie. As retired CIA Russian expert Steven L. Hall tells them, “My assessment is that it’s definitely part of something bigger.”

An excerpt:

On issues including gun rights, terrorism and same-sex marriage, many leading advocates on the right who grew frustrated with their country’s leftward tilt under President Barack Obama have forged ties with well-connected Russians and come to see that country’s authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin, as a potential ally.

The attitude adjustment among many conservative activists helps explain one of most curious aspects of the 2016 presidential race: a softening among many conservatives of their historically hard-line views of Russia. To the alarm of some in the GOP’s national security establishment, support in the party base for then-candidate Donald Trump did not wane even after he rejected the tough tone of 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, who called Russia America’s No. 1 foe, and repeatedly praised Putin.

The burgeoning alliance between Russians and U.S. conservatives was apparent in several events in late 2015, as the Republican nomination battle intensified.

Top officials from the National Rifle Association, whose annual meeting Friday featured an address by Trump for the third time in three years, traveled to Moscow to visit a Russian gun manufacturer and meet government officials.

About the same time in December 2015, evangelist Franklin Graham met privately with Putin for 45 minutes, securing from the Russian president an offer to help with an upcoming conference on the persecution of Christians. Graham was impressed, telling The Washington Post that Putin “answers questions very directly and doesn’t dodge them like a lot of our politicians do.”•

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Forgetting is, to some extent, necessary. Letting go and moving on makes life manageable. In a 2012 Five Books interview, Joshua Foer described Solomon Shereshevsky (or “S”), the subject of neuropsychologist Aleksandr Luria’s The Mind of Mnemonist, this way:

S seemed to remember too well. He was ineffectual as a journalist and ultimately couldn’t make a living as anything other than a stage performer — a memory freak. I think that points to something profound. Forgetting is an important part of learning, it teaches us to abstract. Because S remembered too much, he couldn’t process what he witnessed, and as a result he couldn’t make his way in the world.•

Many new technologies, however, want us to remember. 

It can be small things like Facebook enabling us to attend a high-school reunion (if a virtual one) every day, or those writ large like “telepathy startups” that aim to use implants to make thoughts uploadable and downloadable, so that everything can be recorded and recalled. Everything.

There will be a time (probably this century) when “visiting the cemetery” will come to mean conversing with a VR version of late loved ones. Maybe some will be repelled by this development and employ companies that routinely “wash” memories, as in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Perhaps these are some of the exciting new fields that will emerge to provide jobs for those squeezed from manufacturing.

In a Maya Kosoff Vanity Fair piece, Siri cofounder Tom Gruber believes “personal memory enhancement” inevitable. He acknowledges there will be danger. “It’s absolutely essential that this be kept very secure,” he says, which almost certainly won’t happen. We will be hacked.

An excerpt:

Speaking onstage at the TED 2017 conference in Vancouver, Canada, Gruber illustrated his vision for a world in which technology records and remembers every event in our lives—the names of every person we meet, all the places we have been, and all of our life events. “I believe A.I. will make personal memory enhancement a reality. I think it’s inevitable,” he said onstage this week, arguing that smart computers could be used to reinforce existing human capacity for memory.

Gruber’s not the first tech entrepreneur to suggest that some kind of brain-computer interface is the next frontier for Silicon Valley: Elon Musk’s new “telepathy” start-up, Neuralink, is developing a “neural lace” technology that would involve “implanting tiny brain electrodes that may one day upload and download thoughts.” Facebook has also hinted that it is working on similar sorts of technology that could help people with disabilities. (“What if you could type directly from your brain?” Regina Dugan, who leads Facebook’s secretive hardware development initiative, mused at the company’s developers conference last week.)

Still, there’s a long way to go when it comes to such technologies: the surgical procedures involved are dangerous, and the privacy implications are incredibly serious. “We get to choose what is and is not recalled and retained,” Gruber said onstage. “It’s absolutely essential that this be kept very secure.”•

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During his years in politics, John Dean has seen some questionable characters–he’s been a questionable character. But he’s never seen anything like Donald Trump, a Ku Klux Kardashian who wants to run the world the way Gotti ran Queens, minus, of course, the late capo’s admittedly expert management skills.

Many decent Americans didn’t want to believe that such a vulgar clown could be elected to the highest office in the land, but as Wolfgang Streeck notes, “strange personalities arise in the cracks of disintegrating institutions.” That’s what makes Trump so especially dangerous despite his profound ineptitude and paucity of political ideology. 

During Watergate, Republicans in Congress were prepared to jettison Nixon, as country came before party. In our decaying state, that’s no longer true. The cracks in contemporary American democracy may be big enough for the worst possible outcome to snake through, especially since, as Dean argues, Trump’s base seems to want authoritarianism.

From Marc Pitzke’s Spiegel Q&A with Dean:

Spiegel:

Nixon stretched his presidential powers until they snapped. Do you see this with Trump, too?

John Dean:

Trump hasn’t really done anything yet to abuse his powers. I don’t even know if he knows what all his powers are as president. And that worries me. He will learn. After he learns how the presidency works, he could become much more dangerous, because his personality doesn’t change. Once presidents find their powers, they don’t give them up. They use them.

Spiegel:

Or abuse them.

John Dean:

After Watergate, Congress flexed its muscles and became the constitutional co-equal of the president, to balance out his powers. That deeply troubled Dick Cheney, then chief of staff to Nixon’s successor Ford. And after Cheney became vice president for George W. Bush, they snatched that power back.

Spiegel:

After September 11, 2001.

John Dean:

9/11 changed everything. We lose more Americans every year drowning in the bathtub than through terrorism. But terrorism has been used as a lever to frighten people, pass legislation, sound tough and coerce us into giving away our rights in pursuit of phantom problems. Granted, terrorism is a real problem everywhere. But you can’t prevent it. Terrorists are nutcases who are hellbent on killing people for ideology. That’s pretty hard to stop.

Spiegel:

Trump, too, is making the “war on terror” a main theme of his presidency again.

John Dean:

The difference this time is the authoritarianism. That’s the hidden explanation of the 2016 elections. Who voted for Trump? Who are these people who, as he famously said, would let him shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still support him? It’s people who want too strong a leader, who would do what that leader tells them. Similar to the Europeans following Mussolini and Hitler. There’s a streak in humanity that likes that kind of leader. That’s Trump’s core. Authoritarianism.

Spiegel:

You think he’s actually trying to create an authoritarian state?

John Dean:

I don’t think Trump is a deeply self-aware person. But he’s absolutely off the charts as a narcissist. He is the consummate narcissistic salesman. He is in fact a sick man. And that’s potentially very dangerous.•

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Throughout the election and even after, there were a steady stream of perplexing stories suggesting Donald Trump would “become Presidential” once he won the primary, at the convention, during the debates, after he took the oath, etc. 

It was ridiculous.

In the last week or so, Trump, a sociopath and demagogue, endorsed Marine Le Pen, announced we could soon have a “major, major conflict” with North Korea, threatened to “break up” the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, refused to provide key documents about Michael Flynn and gave a rambling, delusional interview to the Associated Press. Meanwhile, he continues to employ white nationalists Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Jeff Sessions and Sebastian Gorka, uses the office as a cash register for himself and his family and pushes health-care and tax “plans” that are cocktail-napkin policy, as ridiculous as they are draconian.

He is not normal. He is not going to become normal. Stop trying to normalize him.

Matt Bai, a very gifted journalist for Yahoo! News, is the latest to offer a take about a potentially moderating Trump, with a new twist: Perhaps the orange supremacist, who is resolutely uninformed, incurious and lacking in common decency, wants to change for the better but the media is holding him back.

Oy gevalt!

Bai thinks he’s being a realist, not a normalizer, but Le Pen’s hand-picked replacement to be acting leader of the National Front in her stead was a Holocaust denier. She’s Trump’s preference. That’s abnormal.

Prediction: If Trump should survive his first four years, no matter how disgraceful they may be, there will be “think pieces” penned about how he’ll change were he to get a second term.

An excerpt:

Here’s where I come down. I don’t think the chances are high that Trump can somehow evolve into a wise president who unifies the country and understands the world. I’ve been trying to play baseball a lot of my life, and I’ll never hit a 90-mile-per-hour fastball. We are who we are.

But I also don’t think we can preclude the possibility. And if, in the 100 days to come and the 100 after that, Trump’s inclined to reinvent himself as a more thoughtful statesman, we shouldn’t jump up and down screaming “flip-flopper” like a bunch of fools with severely limited vocabularies. We have to give him room to grow.

Because if we don’t, we’re only proving his point about the media — that we report only what we can stand to report, rather than the truth, and that we’re never going to give him credit for anything. And Trump will get some things right. The law of averages compels it.

Critics on the left will call this “normalizing” Trump. I call it acknowledging reality, which is that he is the president, and we don’t get to decide for people what’s normal and what isn’t.

Trump could yet find a way to be bigger than he seems. We shouldn’t ask any less of ourselves.•

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Can’t say I’m unduly focused on superintelligence posing an existential threat to our species in the immediate future, especially since so-called Weak AI is already here and enabling its own alarming possibilities: ubiquitous surveillance, attenuated democracy and a social fabric strained by disappearing jobs. We may very well require these remarkably powerful tools to survive tomorrow’s challenges, but we’d be walking blind to not accept that they’re attended by serious downsides.

Deep Learning will be particularly tricky, expressly because it’s a mysterious method that doesn’t allow us to know how it makes its leaps and gains. Demis Hassabis, the brilliant DeepMind founder and the field’s most famous practitioner, has acknowledged being “pretty shocked,” for instance, by AlphaGo’s unpredictable gambits during last year’s demolition of Lee Sedol. Hassibis, who has sometimes compared his company to the Manhattan Project (in scope and ambition if not in impact), has touted AI’s potentially ginormous near-term benefits, but tomorrow isn’t all that’s in play. The day after also matters.

The neuroscientist is fairly certain we’ll have Artificial General Intelligence inside a century and is resolutely optimistic about carbon and silicon achieving harmonic convergence. Similarly sanguine on the topic these days is Garry Kasparov, the Digital Age John Henry who was too dour about computer intelligence at first and now might be too hopeful. The human-machine tandem he foresees may just be a passing fancy before a conscious uncoupling. By then, we’ll have probably built a reality we won’t be able to survive without the constant support of our smart machines.

Hassibis, once a child prodigy in chess, wrote a Nature review of Kasparov’s new book, Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins. (I’m picking up the title tomorrow, so I’ll write more on it later.) An excerpt:

Chess engines have also given rise to exciting variants of play. In 1998, Kasparov introduced ‘Advanced Chess’, in which human–computer teams merge the calculation abilities of machines with a person’s pattern-matching insights. Kasparov’s embrace of the technology that defeated him shows how computers can inspire, rather than obviate, human creativity.

In Deep Thinking, Kasparov also delves into the renaissance of machine learning, an AI subdomain focusing on general-purpose algorithms that learn from data. He highlights the radical differences between Deep Blue and AlphaGo, a learning algorithm created by my company DeepMind to play the massively complex game of Go. Last year, AlphaGo defeated Lee Sedol, widely hailed as the greatest player of the past decade. Whereas Deep Blue followed instructions carefully honed by a crack team of engineers and chess professionals, AlphaGo played against itself repeatedly, learning from its mistakes and developing novel strategies. Several of its moves against Lee had never been seen in human games — most notably move 37 in game 2, which upended centuries of traditional Go wisdom by playing on the fifth line early in the game.

Most excitingly, because its learning algorithms can be generalized, AlphaGo holds promise far beyond the game for which it was created. Kasparov relishes this potential, discussing applications from machine translation to automated medical diagnoses. AI will not replace humans, he argues, but will enlighten and enrich us, much as chess engines did 20 years ago. His position is especially notable coming from someone who would have every reason to be bitter about AI’s advances.•


Two quainter examples of technology crossing wires with chess.

In 1989, Kasparov, in London, played a remote match via telephone with David Letterman.

In 1965, Bobby Fischer, in NYC, played via Teletype in a chess tournament in Havana.

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It’s only possible to guess from afar, but I’d wager that the diminution of neo-Nazi trolls and bots on Twitter in the post-election period isn’t largely due to tweaks made by Jack Dorsey & co., but has rather come about because those deployed to disrupt the election are no longer receiving checks from the Kremlin and god knows where else.

While the tweetstorm shitstorm has abated to a degree, we won’t know until the next election season if that rough beast is just waiting to be reborn. And things must be different next time because the tool was used like a weapon in 2016, bludgeoning democracy and decency.

The company isn’t in an easy position when it comes to the Tweeter-in-Chief, who uses the platform to slander, something that might not be as tolerated from those with lesser titles. 

When Dorsey asserts in a smart Backchannel Q&A conducted by Steven Levy that Trump’s current tweets are “consistent with his tweets back in 2011-2012,” I have to assume he’s referring to form and not content, since the pathological liar now regularly contradicts his earlier criticisms of President Obama. People have fun retweeting his old comments to point out the hypocrisy, which I suppose is useful, or at least entertaining, but we may be entertaining ourselves to death.

One thing that’s not consistent with 2011-2012 is that Trump is now President and his 140-character discharges can lead to international incidents, even wars. 

An excerpt in which Dorsey has clearly bought into the “forgotten Americans” narrative, which isn’t exactly Silicon Valley’s biggest problem:

Question:

Lately, a lot of people have been alleging that social media, including Twitter, has degraded the quality of public discourse. What do you think?

Jack Dorsey:

You can have conversation that’s distracting and you can have conversation that is focusing. I don’t think it’s a matter of the tool — it’s how people use the tool. Could we encourage better usage of Twitter through changing the product? Absolutely. We are always going to be looking for opportunities to make it easier, but also to show what matters faster. We moved from a completely time-ordered, reverse-chronological timeline to actually bubbling up what you should be seeing and what matters according to our understanding of what you’re interested in—and potentially showing the other side of what you’re interested in, as well. One of the values Twitter espouses is that it can show every side of a debate. I get the New York Times and I follow Fox, too, because I just want to challenge what I’m seeing. And that’s awesome. Whether you choose to dive into it or not is really up to you. We’re not going to force that on people.

Question:

But do you think Silicon Valley has worsened the divide?

Jack Dorsey:

It’s not just technology companies that are out of touch with a big part of the country and the world. I think it’s all of us. I think this city is out of touch with Missouri, where I’m from, and other people in areas like that. It is our responsibility to help bridge some of those gaps, because we’re building tools that people are using on a daily basis to connect with each other and to see the world. If we’re only fulfilling their bias, then we’re doing the wrong thing. We feel that burden and we want to help fix it. And the only way we can do that is by talking with people. So we go out of our way to listen and to have real conversations, not just seeing what people are saying on Twitter but actually bringing people in and interviewing them and talking about what they like and what they don’t like and what they are experiencing. The question I ask of anyone I meet who uses Twitter is: How do you use it, and why?•

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Are the people finally tired of bread and Kardashians?

The radical American political movements of this millennia–Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, #MAGA and #Resist–have many parents, but each extreme reaction seems rooted in a widespread and often inexpressible dissatisfaction with what’s become of U.S. democracy. That angst has the potential to lead to good or bad.

It allowed for the election of a faux populist like Trump, a Berlusconi who dreams of being a Mussolini, and maybe according to the puzzling Sarandon playbook, it will end with a flood of indictments that will bring down what seems more and more to be a compromised White House, with a money-soaked capital coming tumbling after.

Or, more darkly, we might ultimately experience an age as exciting as the 1930s. Considering how splintered we are, we could be ripe for such a despoliation.

In a really smart Playboy Interview, David Hochman asks Ezra Klein, who explains things, to make sense of our new abnormal. The catch is, there’s no clear path forward, just many roads riddled with pointy forks. An excerpt:

Question:

Since the election, conspiracy theories have shifted from conservatives digging up things on Hillary Clinton’s e-mails to progressives obsessing over Donald Trump’s scandals and corruption. What’s your political paranoia level these days?

Ezra Klein:

I must admit, I am in general not a conspiracy theorist, but I feel Trump is doing his damnedest to turn me into one. This administration sure seems to be covering a lot up and willing to take a lot of damage to not reveal what it is they’re covering up. When you watch that happen over and over again on the tax returns or on the Russia stuff, at some point you’re not a conspiracy theorist to think there’s something concerning in there. They could easily say, “This is clearly all bullshit. Let’s just appoint a prosecutor and get it out there. Let’s move on.” But that’s not the case. Even on the tax returns, how hard would it be to say, “Okay, we gave the returns to an independent group. They looked at them. Everything’s fine.” It makes you suspicious. 

Question:

And why don’t people care?

Ezra Klein:

I think people do care. 

Question:

Not enough to be storming the gates at the White House. I walked by this morning, and there was one homeless vet in a wheelchair with a sign that said need weed money. That was it.

Ezra Klein: 

I think about this in two ways. First, don’t underestimate how unprecedented the political mobilization has been so far in the Trump era. There have been a ton of protests—in some cases the biggest single-day coordinated protests ever. Compared with a typical honeymoon run for a first-term president, people absolutely care. They’re showing up at Republican town halls, they’re organizing, they’re flooding congressional phone banks, they’re out there with pink pussy hats. 

Question:

David Brooks calls it a lot of liberal feel-goodism.

Ezra Klein: 

That’s just not the case. Being politically active is not feel-goodism. If nothing else, it’s a powerful message that dissent will be a constant part of this era in American politics, as it should be of every era in American politics, as the Tea Party was to Obama—though I don’t think Obama had quite the same tendencies to delegitimize as Trump does. Organizing is powerful, and a lot of that organizing is now turning its attention to members of the House and the Senate. They listen, they’re accountable, and they come up for reelection. Every voting member of the House is up for reelection in 2018, and the groundswell against Trump is already influencing the choices those legislators are making. 

At the same time, caring can be binary. Either you’re uninterested or you need to literally be dodging snipers on the White House lawn. People care, but they have lives. When you leave this interview you’ll probably go home, not throw rocks over the White House gate. People cared enough to vote against this guy—not enough people in the places where it counted but enough to have him lose the popular vote pretty decisively. We haven’t yet seen what protests can do. 

Question:

Do you ever worry about being a journalist in these polarized times?

Ezra Klein:

I do. All the time. I think things could go in very dark directions.•

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Philip Roth refuses any similarity between his great 2005 novel The Plot Against America and the rise of the totalitarian Reality TV host Donald Trump, asserting that he never would have written a fiction about such a preposterous character coming to such political prominence.

If I’m recalling correctly 12 years on, the autocratic madness at the heart of that book just sort of abated, normalcy returning in the nick of time. The Simon Cowell-ish strongman has made it further than the “Charles Lindbergh” of Roth’s title, and his reign of terror won’t likely soon end–if it should soon end–with such a placid reversion to decency. It will be messy.

Who knows what morsels of Mensch-mania is true, but it does seem plausible at this point that the Kremlin and the Trump cohort exchanged far more than just pleasantries. A way to gauge the concern level of the Oval Office is to read the main narrative being pushed by the National Enquirer, published by Trump pal David Pecker. First the tabloid attacked Hillary, then it flipped on Flynn and now it’s making it seem as if the 45th President is the last honest man swimming in a sea of inner-circle inequity. Sounds like an attempt to preempt blame and redirect guilt.

It’s an echo of Mark Cuban’s recent commentary, well-meaning but asinine, which painted Trump as some sort innocent dupe unwittingly used by a cadre of cutthroat figures. The hideous hotelier has been doing business for decades with all manner of such reprobates. He’s no put-upon patsy.

Regardless of how it all plays out, the election of such a creep is an indictment of our politics, discourse, media, ethics, economics, education system and celebrity worship. No one is so innocent, not even the “forgotten Americans.” And that indictment is far more depressing than any that could be handed down to the Administration’s principals.

· · ·

In Salon, Chauncey DeVega interviews cultural critic Henry Giroux about Trump’s actions and the reaction against him. “There are going to be moments here that even you and I will be shocked by,” the subject darkly warns. The opening:

Question:

What does it feel like from your point of view, having written so much about the culture of cruelty and authoritarianism, to watch it unfold in the United States in real time? 

Henry Giroux:

I’ve been writing about the potential for authoritarianism in the United States for 20 years. This is not a new discourse for me. What has often surprised me is not that it unfolded or the neo-liberal orthodoxy that increasingly made it appear more and more possible. What shocked me was the way the left has refused to really engage this discourse in ways that embrace a comprehensive politics, one that go beyond the fracturing single-issue movements and begins to understand what the underlying causes of these authoritarian movements have been and what it might mean to address them.

You have to ask yourself, what are the forces at work in the United States around civic culture, around celebrity culture, around the culture of fear, around the stoking of extremism and anger that give rise to a right-wing populism and neo-fascist politics? About a media that creates a culture of illusion, about the longstanding legacy of racism and terror in the United States. I mean, how did that all come together to produce a kind of authoritarian pedagogy that basically isolated people, and made them feel lonely? All of a sudden they find themselves in a community of believers, in which the flight from reality offers them a public sphere in which they can affirm themselves and no longer feel that they’re isolated.

Question:

Are Donald Trump’s voters victims?

I think the notion of victim is really a bad term because it takes away any pretense for agency and social responsibility.

Question:

I try to crystallize it down to, “They voted to hurt people.”

That’s right. Exactly.•

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Facebook has been trying to deny its outsize role in creating a filter bubble for several election seasons, though that balloon burst for good after the fake-news onslaught on 2016. Those who stubbornly denied that the Arab Spring was enabled to a good degree by our powerful new tools were crushed beneath the other shoe dropping last November. In the right moment, social media can have a deep impact on governments, for better or worse.

· · ·

In all fairness, Mark Zuckerberg’s empire isn’t alone in the fake-news business. The 21 years of Fox News have overlapped almost exactly with a steep decline in trust in mass media among Republicans and Independents. Many of the senior citizens who voted for Trump have never looked at News Feed, instead absorbing misinformation from Sean Hannity and similar talkers. For all the influence of those outlets, however, their reach is dwarfed by Facebook, which doesn’t count its users in millions but billions. And social media would appear to be a better way to reach undecideds, a surer approach when trying to tip an election.

· · ·

In an excellent New York Times Magazine feature, Farhad Manjoo investigates News Feed, a “global news distributor that is run by machines, rather than by humans,” as Zuckerberg newly tries to control the chaos of his invention, a ginormous piece of the largest experiment involving anarchy in history. He seems to have good intentions, but it may not be possible to maximize both profits and ethics, and his invention might just be irrevocably bad for individuals and worse for democracy. The system itself may be a fatal error.

As Manjoo notes, “The people who work on News Feed aren’t making decisions that turn on fuzzy human ideas like ethics, judgment, intuition or seniority.” Zuckerberg has likely grown from the person who said seven or so years ago that “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa,” but he’s still deeply dedicated to personalization and selectively oblivious about the monster he’s created.

The writer stresses that Facebook is trying to fix its fake-news problem via engineering rather than editing. The latter is sometimes far from perfect–the New York Times itself wasn’t without culpability in the recent election–but the answer to all technological problems isn’t necessarily more technology.

An excerpt:

After studying how people shared 1.25 million stories during the campaign, a team of researchers at M.I.T. and Harvard implicated Facebook and Twitter in the larger failure of media in 2016. The researchers found that social media created a right-wing echo chamber: a “media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyperpartisan perspective to the world.” The findings partially echoed a long-held worry about social news: that people would use sites like Facebook to cocoon themselves into self-reinforcing bubbles of confirmatory ideas, to the detriment of civility and a shared factual basis from which to make collective, democratic decisions. A week and a half after the election, President Obama bemoaned “an age where there’s so much active misinformation and it’s packaged very well and it looks the same when you see it on a Facebook page or you turn on your television.”

After the election, Zuckerberg offered a few pat defenses of Facebook’s role. “I’m actually quite proud of the impact that we were able to have on civic discourse over all,” he said when we spoke in January. Misinformation on Facebook was not as big a problem as some believed it was, but Facebook nevertheless would do more to battle it, he pledged. Echo chambers were a concern, but if the source was people’s own confirmation bias, was it really Facebook’s problem to solve?

It was hard to tell how seriously Zuckerberg took the criticisms of his service and its increasingly paradoxical role in the world. He had spent much of his life building a magnificent machine to bring people together. By the most literal measures, he’d succeeded spectacularly, but what had that connection wrought? Across the globe, Facebook now seems to benefit actors who want to undermine the global vision at its foundation. Supporters of Trump and the European right-wing nationalists who aim to turn their nations inward and dissolve alliances, trolls sowing cross-border paranoia, even ISIS with its skillful social-media recruiting and propagandizing — all of them have sought in their own ways to split the Zuckerbergian world apart. And they are using his own machine to do it.

In Silicon Valley, current events tend to fade into the background. The Sept. 11 attacks, the Iraq war, the financial crisis and every recent presidential election occurred, for the tech industry, on some parallel but distant timeline divorced from the everyday business of digitizing the world. Then Donald Trump won. In the 17 years I’ve spent covering Silicon Valley, I’ve never seen anything shake the place like his victory. In the span of a few months, the Valley has been transformed from a politically disengaged company town into a center of anti-Trump resistance and fear. A week after the election, one start-up founder sent me a private message on Twitter: “I think it’s worse than I thought,” he wrote. “Originally I thought 18 months. I’ve cut that in half.” Until what? “Apocalypse. End of the world.”•

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Laurie Penny, who a couple months ago published the excellent Pacific-Standard piece “On the Milo Bus With the Lost Boys of America’s New Right,” has just penned “Life-Hacks of the Poor and Aimless,” a great Baffler article about “well-being ideology” or the selling of self-improvement systems in an era of pending climate collapse and capitalism run amok.

In this odd moment of food fetishization and FitBit (at least in the West), we’re gorging and gauging as Rome burns and seas rise. We’re urged to live healthier and happier lives by corporations and governments, not an unreasonable request, but it’s an impossible mission sans social safety nets and a habitable plant. Ballooning wealth inequality is detrimental to democracies and their citizenry alike, and there’s just so much individuals can do to steel themselves from the chaos it brings.

It makes sense that in America the culmination of this medicine show is a President whose family literally worshiped, when he was a child, at the church of Norman Vincent Peale. The power of positive thinking, however, won’t remove lead from the Flint water supply, cancel climate change or prevent factories from falling into the grip of robot hands and low-paid contractors. It’s really a false doctrine, a Depression Era dance marathon reimagined for the Digital Age. The last one to hit the floor wins.

Still, Penny manages to find some value in yoga and self-care despite the gathering storm.

The opening:

Late capitalism is like your love life: it looks a lot less bleak through an Instagram filter. The slow collapse of the social contract is the backdrop for a modern mania for clean eating, healthy living, personal productivity, and “radical self-love”—the insistence that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we can achieve a meaningful existence by maintaining a positive outlook, following our bliss, and doing a few hamstring stretches as the planet burns. The more frightening the economic outlook and the more floodwaters rise, the more the public conversation is turning toward individual fulfillment as if in a desperate attempt to make us feel like we still have some control over our lives.

Coca-Cola encourages us to “choose happiness.” Politicians take time out from building careers in the debris of democracy to remind us of the importance of regular exercise. Lifestyle bloggers insist to hundreds of thousands of followers that freedom looks like a white woman practicing yoga alone on a beach. One such image (on the @selflovemantras Instagram) informs us that “the deeper the self love, the richer you are.” That’s a charming sentiment, but landlords are not currently collecting rent in self-love.

Can all this positive thinking be actively harmful? Carl Cederström and André Spicer, authors of The Wellness Syndrome, certainly think so, arguing that obsessive ritualization of self-care comes at the expense of collective engagement, collapsing every social problem into a personal quest for the good life. “Wellness,” they declare, “has become an ideology.”•

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Hillary, the media, the Russians and the FBI are all responsible for an unqualified, kleptocratic sociopath–and perhaps a traitor–now residing in the White House, though mostly I blame the people.

There’s no way to look around nearly 63 million citizens voting for the most obvious con man imaginable, a three-card Monte dealer not playing with a full deck, and whether that was done from ignorance or malice (likely both), it’s really difficult to sustain a decent, sane state with those kinds of numbers. 

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That being said, all the above parties and others should gauge what role they played in this shocking lowering of the country.

On Twitter, there’s been a charged back and forth between New York Times reporters, including Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush, and dismayed #Resist-ers over the culpability of HRC and the NYT, which is really kind of silly. Clinton was a candidate wounded by a decades-long campaign of hatred from the right, and she certainly made tactical mistakes. The Times’ above-the-fold story about Comey’s October surprise, not nearly skeptical enough, was also an error, and it wasn’t the only serious one the company made during the election. 

Media critic Jay Rosen, who’s doing outstanding work during this new abnormal, analyzed a new Politico article by Ben Schreckinger and Hadas Gold that largely dismisses White House attacks on the press as mere “ritualized warfare,” a sort of worked pro wrestling match with the punches pulled. Like a lot of pieces by the site, it mixes some great reporting with some rather confounding assertions. As Rosen argues, the Administration isn’t communicating with the media with its condemnations but is rather trying to undermine public faith in the Fourth Estate for future use. 

Beneath a graph showing a precipitous decline of trust in mass media by Republicans and Independents over the past 20 years (essentially the lifespan of Fox News), Rosen writes this:

While you’re enjoying your playground, what are you doing about this chart? This is what Glenn Thrush (“I never bought the shtick in the first place, that he hated the media…”) doesn’t seem to understand. Trump’s hating-on-the-media posture is not supposed to convince Thrush. It’s binge-worthy programming for core supporters of the president, catnip to their confirmation bias, extra insurance that anything damaging uncovered by the Times and its peers will be dismissed out of hand by 25 to 40 percent of the electorate.

That Trump is insincere in his hate speech about journalists is not the most important fact — for journalists — about that way of speaking. But you wouldn’t know this from Politico’s account, which fixates on the irony of a president who says he despises the press when actually he craves its approval. (His narcissism would explain that.) Trump’s hate speech about journalists matters because it is part of a program to substitute his reality for reality itself, word of which doesn’t seem to have reached the playground.•

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In an excellent BBC Future piece, Rachel Nuwer attempts to weigh how close the West is to societal collapse, an implosion that would occur, if it does, not because of scarcity but due to our system, plagued by wealth inequality, failing at distribution.

Climate change may also play an important role, with a potential refugee crisis that will dwarf Syria’s tragedy, the relatively “dry” states overwhelmed by the inundation. Or perhaps the luckier lands will meet with disaster by trying to build a wall to keep the future out. Either reality is fraught.

The writer relies in part on the computer models of systems scientists to gauge if ecological strain and economic stratification will topple us, some of which suggest the latter factor could do us in entirely on its own, though the more likely scenario would be a confluence of unfortunate circumstances.

Of course, models have long predicted that great societies, actual or virtual, would soon be ghost towns. In 2014, two young Princeton academics applied epidemiology to social networks to make a prognostication I’m sure they’d like wiped from the Internet: By 2017, Facebook would lose 80% of its users. Missed by that much.

Still, sooner or later, entropy will leave a bruise.

The opening:

The political economist Benjamin Friedman once compared modern Western society to a stable bicycle whose wheels are kept spinning by economic growth. Should that forward-propelling motion slow or cease, the pillars that define our society – democracy, individual liberties, social tolerance and more – would begin to teeter. Our world would become an increasingly ugly place, one defined by a scramble over limited resources and a rejection of anyone outside of our immediate group. Should we find no way to get the wheels back in motion, we’d eventually face total societal collapse.

Such collapses have occurred many times in human history, and no civilisation, no matter how seemingly great, is immune to the vulnerabilities that may lead a society to its end. Regardless of how well things are going in the present moment, the situation can always change. Putting aside species-ending events like an asteroid strike, nuclear winter or deadly pandemic, history tells us that it’s usually a plethora of factors that contribute to collapse. What are they, and which, if any, have already begun to surface? It should come as no surprise that humanity is currently on an unsustainable and uncertain path – but just how close are we to reaching the point of no return?•

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Imagine if the Kremlin, instead of murdering its critics and interfering in foreign elections and adventuring abroad in complicity with the worst of autocrats, actually devoted its resources to developing a modern and economically diverse nation. That’s what the backwards-looking state desperately needs to do in order to avoid collapse, but evil does what it does. Rampant kleptocracy at the highest levels and deteriorating living standards have started to show some cracks in the supposed rock-solid popularity of Vladimir Putin, a capo with nuclear capabilities.

At the behest of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, protesters recently took Russia’s power elite by surprise. The activist, released after 15 days of detention, sat for a Spiegel Q&A with Christian Esch and Christian Neef. He argues that while citizens in the streets are starting to make noise, it’s those in Putin’s inner circle whom he fears most. An excerpt:

Question:

Why did these young people take to the streets?

Alexei Navalny:

Poverty! That, at least, is an important factor. The living standard here has been deteriorating for the past five years.

Question:

You don’t notice that in Moscow so much.

Alexei Navalny:

In Tomsk, I asked young people how many of them earn less than 20,000 rubles a month, that’s 330 euros. All of us, they answered. And that is in a university city that used to live from oil! People often say that I represent people who earn a lot of money. Of course, a person who is well-educated and affluent is more likely to support me than Vladimir Putin. But that doesn’t automatically mean that the others are against me.

Question:

What distinguishes the current protesters from those who demonstrated against the fraudulent 2011 parliamentary election?

Alexei Navalny:

The main difference is geographical: Now demonstrations are taking place in locations where they never did before, in Dagestan, in Tatarstan and in Bashkiria. Otherwise, there aren’t many differences. Social media, which has become our last remaining way of communicating with one another and of articulating our criticism, have a younger audience, that is all. …

Question:

Officially, the Kremlin acts as though it is fighting corruption, with five governors having been arrested — the fifth one just recently.

Alexei Navalny:

The governors are being arrested in order to steal some of my thunder. Besides , Putin needs to terrorize his own elite. He is more afraid of those in his own surroundings than any protests; there are people there who are at least as critical as I am because they see up close that the system doesn’t work. He wants to silence them.

Question:

Will President Putin run again in the 2018 election?

Alexei Navalny:

Of course! Putin wants to be the czar of this new Russian empire that he is rebuilding. I think he is really obsessed with the idea.•

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David Grann was asked to name a quintet of great “True Crime” titles for a Five Books interview, and among the volumes about brutal and strange murders, he made a non-obvious and timely choice with All the President’s Men. 

Woodward’s been a perplexing figure for decades and Bernstein has since the 1970s had to wrestle personal demons that sometimes sidetracked his brilliant career, but there’s no denying their book’s greatness or their impact on American liberty.

Of course, dogged journalism alone can’t protect democracy. If enough citizens and congresspeople don’t care that the President is a crook–a traitor, even–any ink spilled will merely document a society in steep decline.

Grann also explained why he didn’t include on his list Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which is written as immaculately as any work can be. He’s most troubled by the issue of veracity, which is certainly valid, though I’m also bothered by how the author suspensefully builds to the Clutter family murders, as if he were penning a thriller about fictional characters.

I wonder if Grann considered Hiroshima by John Hersey.

An excerpt:

Question:

Your fourth book—All The President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward—comes as something of a relief after all maniacal murdering. But it’s still a pretty frightening tale, and no less so for being so well-known. Talk us through it.

David Grann:

It’s probably the most iconic book of reporting in the United States to this day. It’s written by Woodward and Bernstein, and about their investigation, when they were young reporters at the Washington Post, into the shocking crimes committed by President Richard Nixon. When I first read that book, it gave me a sense that reporting could have a nobility and a moral purpose behind it. Of course, much reporting is not quite like that but…

Question:

And, to be clear, the crimes here are moral and political ones. It was articles of the US Constitution that were being butchered, rather than individuals.

David Grann:

Yes. The crimes include everything from breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s offices to bugging political opponents to covering up evidence. I think the book is particularly relevant today which is partly why I picked it. In a day and age when public officials are trying to subvert and muddy the truth, the need for deep reporting to hold these people accountable is as important as ever. This book is a seminal case of that—a case where investigative reporting was essential to revealing the corruption at the highest levels of the United States and to preserving our democracy.

Too often when we think of crime stories, we think of them in one dimensional ways—we think of a bank robbery, or a holdup, or someone breaking into a house—but some of the crimes that are just as important, in some ways maybe even more important, are those that are political in nature. They don’t need to involve murders. This one almost provoked a constitutional crisis.

Question:

And the victim count is much higher. It’s a whole nation.

David Grann:

Precisely, and this was a case where the system was driven to the brink but ultimately functioned: Nixon eventually stepped down. Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting played an essential role in protecting the country. This book, and all the books on this list, have left a mark on me, often in different ways, and what I remember most about this one is the doggedness of the reporting. All the President’s Men is a book where there is no fanciful writing—Bernstein and Woodward are not Mailer or Capote. They are journalists writing perfectly clean, decent prose and they have a story to tell, and they tell it in such a way that it has enormous power.

Question:

It’s certainly a case in which the symbiosis of the writer and the detective is as clear as can be. The writer in this sense is like a vigilante—he has charged himself with finding the truth that no one else, through lack of will or ability, has.

David Grann:

Yes. I think what makes important true crimes books is not simply the stories they relate but the authors that investigate them. You can have investigative historians like Larson. Or you can have investigative reporters like Woodward and Bernstein. In both cases they are trying to unearth some deeper truth. In many true crime books, the author-investigator is not unlike the detectives he or she is writing about. The skills are very similar, I think, in terms of unearthing evidence and trying to create some kind of structure, plot, or narrative that helps to make sense of the chaos, and piece things back together.•

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In writing for the Hollywood Reporter about falafel fetishist Bill O’Reilly just before he was ousted from Fox News, Michael Wolff, a ghastly man, seems to long for a time when mediocre older white guys could be paid gobs of money from media outlets and treat people any which way they wanted to. Wonder why.

Wolff repeatedly refers to the numerous charges against O’Reilly with wariness (“no trial has occurred, no evidence has been released, no investigators’ conclusions shared”), seeming to forget that actual tapes of O’Reilly’s boorish behavior have been introduced into court. The transcripts are not family reading.

He writes: “It’s a particular sort of irony that Fox, which, to the delight of its audience, built itself on rejecting liberal assumptions, might now be brought down by such a signature liberal assumption: Where there are charges of sexual harassment, there is sexual harassment.”

The journalist also doesn’t mention that O’Reilly has long been an astoundingly hypocritical moral crusader, encouraging corporations to dump celebrities (always African-American ones) whom he deemed sexist. That was the context of Pepsi severing ties with rapper Ludacris in 2002.

When not questioning the accusers’ motives (“plaintiffs come out of the woodwork”), the writer mainly judges the situation on how the changing of the lard will effect the cable channel’s bottom line. It’s understood that THR is a trade publication about the business of show and that’s part of the story he must analyze, but he didn’t have to do so by divorcing basic morality from the situation and ignoring completely the effects of an abusive workplace on those employed there. He instead goes out of his way to be sympathetic to the figure who wielded the power. That was Wolff’s own awful decision.

An excerpt:

Your narrative is your fate. It doesn’t matter if O’Reilly or Ailes did or didn’t do the things they are accused of — no trial has occurred, no evidence has been released, no investigators’ conclusions shared — their real guilt is that people believe they could have.

Confusing matters, the Murdoch sons also see O’Reilly and Ailes as part of a bygone era — their father’s. Pay no attention that it was precisely this sensibility that has been such a powerful audience draw at Fox. (Of note, to the lasting outrage and confusion of liberals, Trump, despite the bygone era suggested by his Billy Bush “pussygate” tape, was elected anyway.) The Murdoch sons, while in important ways financially supported by the profitable, culturally backward views at Fox, see their job as taking the company into a new era.

The sons’ plan was to make Fox the network of Megyn Kelly rather than of Ailes and O’Reilly. That plan foundered on widespread resentment at the network toward Kelly for her part in Ailes’ ouster and on the election of Trump. Suddenly, Fox’s “when America was great and men were men” appeal was even stronger.

One solution has been Tucker Carlson, a conservative but less of a dour, bygone-era one, who has scored significant ratings at 9 p.m. But an important aspect of those ratings is that he is firmly sandwiched between O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. Both retro men are, even beyond their huge salaries (nearly $20 million a year for O’Reilly; $14 million for Hannity), vastly rich — O’Reilly, 67, from books; Hannity, 55, from radio and real estate — with dedicated audiences who’d likely follow them wherever. The worry at Fox is that they need Fox less than Fox needs them, and they might soon leave too.

The liberal hope is that media pressure will continue to force advertisers to reject O’Reilly (no matter that liberals have frequently been aghast when conservatives have urged advertiser boycotts of liberal media). But, in fact, so far advertisers have merely moved to other Fox shows, which depend on the O’Reilly spillover audience. If O’Reilly, who is on a pre-planned vacation, returns April 24 and the ratings remain strong, those advertisers likely will be back on his show.

Murdoch Senior has remained largely remote from this dispute, but he reportedly has been paying attention again. He is said to be worried that his sons are moving toward a radical break — “re-imagining Fox,” is what James is said to call it — and hastening the end of an era that, in television terms, so far has been more popular and unyielding than any cozier new one.•

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Steve Wozniak’s views have evolved quickly in regards to the existential threat of intelligent machines. In early 2015, he told the Australian Financial Review that “computers are going to take over from humans, no question.” The future is “very bad for people,” he warned. Just a few months later, Homo sapiens received an upgrade from the Apple co-founder, who said AI would keep us around as “family pets,” even if they were making all the crucial decisions.

Two years on, Wozniak has learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. On Monday, he said this on CNBC: “I’ve totally changed my mind — We aren’t talking about artificial intelligence that sits down and says, ‘What is my life in the world? What do I have as obstacles? How do I solve them? What should I solve?’,” Wozniak said. “Only humans do that.”

Well, that’s a relief. In the same week, I successfully filed my taxes and found out my species wasn’t doomed. Nice.

The Woz granted an interview to USA Today in advance of this weekend’s Silicon Valley Comic Con, with it’s forward-thinking theme: “The Future of Humanity: Where Will We Be in 2075?”  In that year, the computer programmer believes Apple, Facebook and Google and will be even bigger and more formidable corporations and cities will sprout up in heretofore uninhabitable deserts. Neither seems plausible.

An excerpt:

Woz shared some other predictions on what type of planet we can expect in 2075:

New cities. Deserts could be ideal locations for cities of the future, designed and built from scratch, according to Wozniak. There, housing problems will not exist and people will shuttle among domed structures. Special wearable suits will allow people to venture outside, he said.

— The influence of artificial intelligence. Within all cities, AI will be ubiquitous, Wozniak says. Like a scene straight from the movie Minority Report, consumers will interact with smart walls and other surfaces to shop, communicate and be entertained. Medical devices will enable self-diagnosis and doctor-free prescriptions, he says. “The question will be ethical, on whether we can eliminate the need for physicians,” he says.

— Mars colony. Woz is convinced a colony will exist on the Red Planet. Echoing the sentiments of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Origin start-up has designs on traveling to Mars, Wozniak envisions Earth zoned for residential use and Mars for heavy industry.

— Extraterrestrials. With apologies to those who believe in aliens, Wozniak says there is a “random chance” that Earthlings will communicate with another race. “It’s worth trying,” he says, “but I don’t have high hopes.”•

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In 1994, an excerpt from Charles Murray’s bigoted Bell Curve bullshit served as a cover story for the New Republic, a call made by then-EIC Andrew Sullivan. It’s no surprise the former published an admiring tweet about the latter’s recent New York column, a lazy and wrong-minded take on race in America.

Sullivan’s detestable opinion piece tried to argue America can’t be a prejudiced place tilted in favor of whites (and, by suggestion, against African-Americans) because look at how well Asian-Americans are doing. It’s the old bigoted hogwash that diminishes our atrocious history of slavery, Jim Crow laws and a separate and unequal justice system–and all the social problems this poisonous past (and present) created. Comparing the travails of any ethnic group in the U.S. to the one brought here on slave ships is appallingly stupid. It’s an argument likely as old as Reconstruction itself.

Another memo for Sullivan: Asian-Americans don’t universally do well in America, with income inequality even more pronounced among the haves and have-nots in this group than in the country as a whole. Perhaps looking beneath statistics in the aggregate would allow for a more nuanced understanding of the citizenry.

From Sullivan:

I mean, how on earth have both ethnic groups done so well in such a profoundly racist society? How have bigoted white people allowed these minorities to do so well — even to the point of earning more, on average, than whites? Asian-Americans, for example, have been subject to some of the most brutal oppression, racial hatred, and open discrimination over the years. In the late 19th century, as most worked in hard labor, they were subject to lynchings and violence across the American West and laws that prohibited their employment. They were banned from immigrating to the U.S. in 1924. Japanese-American citizens were forced into internment camps during the Second World War, and subjected to hideous, racist propaganda after Pearl Harbor. Yet, today, Asian-Americans are among the most prosperous, well-educated, and successful ethnic groups in America. What gives? It couldn’t possibly be that they maintained solid two-parent family structures, had social networks that looked after one another, placed enormous emphasis on education and hard work, and thereby turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones, could it? It couldn’t be that all whites are not racists or that the American dream still lives?•

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