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Bell Labs was more or less a government-approved monopoly, but the positive end of that arrangement was that the work being done was aimed at serving the long-term interests of America, and eventually, the world. For decades, there’s been a shift from federal investment in R&D to private enterprise footing the bill. That can promote myopia, as corporations have to focus on the next quarter rather than the next big thing.

To their credit, Alphabet and other ambitious U.S. companies aren’t just pocketing huge profits but investing heavily in the future as a hedge against entropy. If Google, for instance, is still just a search giant and fails to hit on any of its moonshots over the next decade, it’ll likely be headed for a well-appointed dotage, which isn’t what Larry Page wants. Such unicorns, however, can dream the way more mundane creatures cannot, with most modest outfits trying to survive the future rather than create it.

In a smart Wall Street Journal column, Christopher Mims wonders if shortsightedness is inevitable when the public sector recuses itself from the business of the future, no longer willing to subsidize the risk that can produce reward. The opening:

This is a special time for technology. Five of the world’s seven most valuable companies are U.S. tech firms. But the core innovations underlying Apple Inc., Alphabet Inc., Microsoft Corp., Amazon.com Inc. and Facebook Inc. are decades old.

The transistor was born in the 1940s at AT&T’s Bell Labs. The internet was nurtured by the U.S. Defense Department in the 1960s. Many important, but less foundational inventions, such as GPS, were products of the Cold War.

Since then, the funding of research and development has shifted dramatically. Support from the federal government has waned, from nearly 2% of gross domestic product during the 1960s to about 0.6% today. Over the same time, corporate R&D has grown to nearly 2% of GDP, from less than 0.6% of GDP in the age of the Apollo program.

For U.S. taxpayers, that carries a benefit; the costs of innovation are being borne by the shareholders who will reap the benefits. But such broad statistics mask a more-complicated reality: Not all R&D is created equal.•

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Dr. Phil, who is not a doctor but is in fact a Phil, would make a wonderful Surgeon General in the Trump Administration, though Dr. Drew is also a strong candidate. Either choice would be no sillier than having a Reality TV personality with no qualifications and a sociopathic bent assuming the role of President.

Phil McGraw, the shameless exploiter, is only part of the madness currently engulfing poor Shelley Duvall, a wonderfully idiosyncratic actor deeply troubled by mental illness. Also involved is Vivian Kubrick, filmmaker, composer and daughter of Stanley Kubrick, who abused and tormented Duvall while making The Shining.

Vivian initially seemed to be acting with great kindness in establishing a GoFundMe drive in Duvall’s name. However, it’s now known she’s a Scientologist who apparently doesn’t believe in psychiatric treatment, making the whole undertaking a puzzlement. That the fundraiser was being hosted from Clearwater, Florida, home of Scientology headquarters, only raises more concerns.

In Seth Abramovitch’s Hollywood Reporter piece, the journalist reveals Duvall isn’t the only one who’s undergone a shocking transformation. An excerpt:

Vivian Kubrick, 56, is one of two children born to the directing genius and Christiane Harlan, a young German actress he met on the set of 1957’s Paths of Glory. While Kubrick had been married twice before, he and Harlan never tied the knot — though they stayed together 40 years until his death in 1999. The couple’s first child together, Anya, was one year older than Vivian. When Anya died in 2009 of cancer, Vivian did not attend the funeral — this despite the fact that the pair were all but inseparable growing up. 

By then, however, Vivian had been deeply enmeshed in Scientology for well over a decade, according to family members who have spoken with the media. A talented musician and orchestrator, Vivian had composed the music to her father’s Full Metal Jacket in 1987. Kubrick, who was grooming her to follow in his filmmaking footsteps, had wanted his daughter to compose the score to 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut, too — but by then Vivian had begun the process of disconnection on from her family.

“At the last moment she said she wouldn’t,” Kubrick’s widow Christiane told The Guardian in 2009, as noted by Scientology watchdog site The Underground Bunker. “They had a huge fight. He was very unhappy. He wrote her a 40-page letter trying to win her back. He begged her endlessly to come home from California. I’m glad he didn’t live to see what happened.” Kubrick died in March 1999, just months before the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman film opened. 

In 2010, Vivian’s half-sister Katharina Kubrick told the Daily Beast that Vivian had cut off all communication to the family. Katharina went on to recount the time Vivian showed up to her father’s 1999 funeral accompanied by a Scientology handler. “The person sat on a bed, saying nothing, while Vivian complained of back pain that she said had been caused 10,000 years ago,” according to the report. 

When she failed to show up in 2009 to Anya’s funeral, the family had all but lost hope. “She has completely changed as a person,” Katharina said. “And it’s just very sad. We’re not allowed to contact her. Something happened to her. She has been changed forever.”

To the family’s shock, after years of no contact with Vivian, someone spotted her in a video of a 2013 anti-government rally held in Dallas, her hometown, led by the conspiracy-obsessed conservative radio host Alex Jones.

According to Hollywood Interrupted‘s Mark Ebner, Vivian was policing the GoFundMe page vigilantly since its Friday launch, “blocking anyone who simply asks if the money could possibly go to legitimate [psychiatric] health care” — practices which the organization has openly and aggressively derided as barbaric and corrupt since its founding in 1954.

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It’s been argued by some seemingly sober-minded economists that wealth inequality isn’t a serious problem so long as those on the bottom rung economically are making gains, even if they’re far smaller than the ones enjoyed by their richer counterparts. This has seemed ridiculous to me from the start of the discussion about the 1%. My argument is that having a small class of incredibly super-rich citizens will allow the worst of them to try to erode liberties and seize different sorts of power, making a corrupt system even more so. 

One chilling way this can play out is for the deep-pocketed to sue an attenuated press that’s already been buckled by the seismic shift of the Internet and the deep disapproval of the public. A tiny earthquake occurred this year when it was revealed that Peter Thiel, a billionaire and a poor man, had bankrolled the demise of Gawker, a site he’s called a “singularly sociopathic bully.” It didn’t occur to him as odd that he then spent large amounts of time and money helping Donald Trump, someone who fits that very description, into the White House. The President-Elect, who has a long history of using the courts to financially injure and intimidate his critics, vowed during the campaign to reign in the press. His unhinged attacks on the media since November 8 have done nothing to settle nerves.

At this bizarre moment in history, there may be a few hands on enough money to foreclose on the Fourth Estate. As Emily Bazelon writes in her New York Times article “Billionaires vs. the Press in the Era of Trump,” “superrich plaintiffs aren’t subject to the same market forces” as the rest of us. The opening:

In 2005, Tim O’Brien, then a financial reporter at The New York Times, published the book TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald. O’Brien talked to sources with an up-close view of Donald J. Trump’s finances, who concluded that the real-estate developer’s net worth was $150 million to $250 million, rather than the $2 billion to $5 billion Trump had variously claimed. Trump, who had courted O’Brien by taking him for rides in his Ferrari and private jet, sued O’Brien for libel in New Jersey in 2006. Trump called O’Brien a “wack job” on the “Today” show — while, O’Brien says, continuing to curry favor with him privately. O’Brien’s publisher, Warner Books, was also named in the suit and hired top lawyers who put Trump through an unsparing two-day deposition. Asked about his finances, Trump was caught lying or exaggerating 30 times. “He thought he’d get a friendly judge, and we would roll over,” says O’Brien, who is now the executive editor of Bloomberg View. “We didn’t.” The case went through four judges and was dismissed in 2009.

Trump’s suit against O’Brien is one of seven forays President-elect Trump and his companies have made as libel plaintiffs. He won only once, when a defendant failed to appear. But the standard measure — defending his reputation and achieving victory in court — isn’t how Trump says he thinks about his investment. “I spent a couple of bucks on legal fees, and they spent a whole lot more,” he told The Washington Post in March about the hefty sum he spent on the case against O’Brien. “I did it to make his life miserable, which I’m happy about.”

Trump was wrong: Warner Books spent less than he did, and O’Brien paid nothing. But that doesn’t make Trump’s central idea any less jarring: that libel law can be a tool of revenge. It’s disconcerting for a superrich (if maybe not as rich as he says) plaintiff to treat the legal system as a weapon to be deployed against critics. Once installed in the White House, Trump will have a wider array of tools at his disposal, and his record suggests that, more than his predecessors, he will try to use the press — and also control and subdue it.

As a candidate, Trump blustered vaguely that he wanted to “open up our libel laws.” I asked his spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, by email what he meant by that, but she didn’t answer the question (or others I posed). It’s not within the president’s direct powers to change the rules for libel suits. But our legal safeguards for writers and publishers aren’t foolproof. In the last few years, Trump has been joined by at least two billionaires who are determined to exploit cracks in the wall of defense around the press. The members of this club are innovators. They have sued or funded suits to defend reputations or protect privacy. But an underlying aim appears to be to punish critics like O’Brien or even destroy entire media outlets.•

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Will the machines someday rise up and kill us? One can only hope. Soon, please.

Robots needn’t become conscious to murder the lot of us Trump-electing imbeciles, but, wow, it would be so much cooler. I believe, as many do, that human consciousness is understandable (in theory), though we’re likely nowhere near the cusp of cracking the code. Further, consciousness is also probably transferable into non-carbon matter, “containers” of all sorts, though that seems eons away. Long before then, even if we get lucky with asteroids and such, we’ll manage to do ourselves in with our utter stupidity. May the machines fare better.

In the opening part of a smart New York Review of Books dialogue, novelist Tim Parks and philosopher, psychologist, and robotics engineer Riccardo Manzotti, exchange ideas about consciousness. An excerpt:

Tim Parks:

You seem now to be defining consciousness by what it is not, or at least as an area of incomprehension. But can I push you toward a more positive definition? I mean, are we talking about a thing—a physical object or a process? I presume we rule out spirits and souls.

Riccardo Manzotti:

To speak of spirits and souls would amount to an admission of defeat, at least for a scientist or philosopher. The truth is that we just don’t know a priori the nature of physical reality. This is a point Bertrand Russell made very strongly back in the 1920s. The more we investigate the physical, the more varied and complex it appears. Imagine a huge puzzle in which everything must fit together with everything else. When there’s something that doesn’t seem to match up, we turn it this way and that to see if we can make it fit somehow, but if it won’t, we have to assume that we’ve put the other pieces together wrongly, we’ve got a false picture.

That’s how science proceeds. So we have moments of revolution—Copernicus, Galileo, Newton—when all the pieces have to be rearranged, what Thomas Kuhn famously described as paradigm shifts.

There’s no reason why we should approach the problem of consciousness any differently. We have to find how to fit it into our existing understanding of reality, or change our version of reality to have it fit in with consciousness. Until we do that, we risk having a dualistic vision of the world, like the one suggested by Descartes, on the one side the physical, on the other something rather mysterious, call it the spiritual.

Tim Parks:

But again, should we be thinking of consciousness as a thing, or a process?

Riccardo Manzotti:

Well, if the world that surrounds us is made of things, objects, and physical processes, consciousness is likely to be one of them. People tend to be extremely hesitant when approaching consciousness and to treat it as a special case. But I’m not sure that’s helpful. If it is a real phenomenon, and most people agree that it is, why shouldn’t it be like all other physical phenomena, something made of matter and energy whose activity is explicable by its physical properties?•

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James Fallows wrote these words for the Atlantic just prior to the American election: “What if China is going bad?” Now that we know the U.S. has headed boldly in that direction, the question becomes more pressing.

The journalist is moving forward the “Thucydides Trap” argument made by Harvard political scientist Graham Allison, who believes insurgent powers and entrenched ones are apt to engage in war despite how little sense such clashes make. Now that the world’s greatest superpower has installed a sociopath in the Oval Office and China’s Xi Jinping works through his own “small hands” complex by ratcheting up authoritarianism, who knows where the tensions will lead?

An excerpt:

The paradoxical combination of insecurity and aggressiveness is hardly confined to China. The United States has all too many examples in its own politics. But this paradox on a national-strategic scale for China matched what many people told me about Xi himself as a leader: The more uncertain he feels about China’s diplomatic and economic position in the world, and the more grumbling he hears about his ongoing crackdown, the more “decisively” he is likely to act. “Xi is a weak man who wants to look strong,” a foreign businessman who has worked in China for many years told me. “He is the son of a famous father [Xi Zhongxun, who fought alongside Mao as a guerrilla and became an important Communist leader] and wants to prove he is worthy of the name. As we’ve seen in other cultures, this can be a dangerous mix.” Ten years ago, when I visited a defense-oriented think tank in Beijing, I was startled to see a gigantic wall map showing U.S.-affiliated encampments and weapons on every Chinese frontier except the one bordering Russia. I came to understand that the graphic prominence of the U.S. military reflected a fairly widespread suspicion that the United States wishes China ill, is threatened by its rise, and does not want to see China succeed. Almost no one I spoke with recently, however, foresaw a realistic danger of a shooting war between China and the United States or any of its allies—including the frequently discussed scenario of an unintentional naval or aerial encounter in the South China Sea. Through the past few years, in fact, U.S. military officials, led by the Navy, have engaged their People’s Liberation Army counterparts in meetings, conferences, and exercises, precisely to lessen the risk of war by miscalculation. “Naval forces are actually pretty good at de-escalating and steering out of one another’s way,” a senior U.S. Navy officer told me.

The concern about a more internationally aggressive China involves not a reprise of the Soviet Union during the tensest Cold War years but rather a much bigger version of today’s Russia. That is: an impediment rather than an asset in many of the economic and strategic projects the United States would like to advance. An example of kleptocracy and personalized rule. A power that sometimes seems to define its interests by leaning toward whatever will be troublesome for the United States. An actual adversary, not just a difficult partner. China is challenging in many ways now, and increasingly repressive, but things could get worse. And all of this is separate from the effect on China’s own people, and on the limits it is placing on its academic, scientific, commercial, and cultural achievements by cutting itself off from the world.

What is to be done? The next president will face a quandary often called the “Thucydides Trap.” This concept was popularized by the Harvard political scientist Graham Allison. Its premise is that through the 2,500 years since the Peloponnesian warfare that Thucydides chronicled, rising powers (like Athens then, or China now) and incumbent powers (like Sparta, or the United States) have usually ended up in a fight to the death, mainly because each cannot help playing on the worst fears of the other. “When a rising power is threatening to displace a ruling power, standard crises that would otherwise be contained, like the assassination of an archduke in 1914, can initiate a cascade of reactions that, in turn, produce outcomes none of the parties would otherwise have chosen,” Allison wrote in an essay for TheAtlantic.com last year.

No sane American leader would choose confrontation with China.•

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David Remnick has as ably as any journalist met the considerable challenge of analyzing the stunning election to our highest office of a cartoonish Reality TV star who is clearly unprepared for the position, and one who throughout the campaign acted as a Berlusconi aiming to be a Mussolini. Before most of us had closed our laptops on Election Night, the New Yorker EIC had already penned a piece warning that the press would soon normalize this Bull Connor as a condo salesman, who had alternated dog whistles and dog bites to activate our absolute worst nationalistic impulses. The commentary hit the mark as “normalization” has become a recurring phrase of the post-election scrum, and that can’t hurt, though 61.2 million votes and counting says a significant part of the electorate has already deemed acceptable Trump’s vulgar, fascistic stylings. Remnick also penned a heartbreaking piece about the improbable end to the Administration of President Obama, perhaps, at least until now, the truest believer of us all. 

The editor just conducted a Reddit Ask Me Anything. A few exchanges follow.


Question:

Your article the day after the election scared the hell out of me (it was great, but depressing). Has Trump’s somewhat milder behavior in the ensuing weeks changed your mind any or are we doomed? Also, some people are saying Trump is using Twitter in a genius fashion to direct people away from his real scandals? could he really be that smartly manipulative?

David Remnick:

Milder? Hmmm. The appointments of Mr. Bannon, Senator Sessions, and Gen. Flynn hardly seem “mild” to me. As for his use of Twitter, it doesn’t evoke confidence in me. I’m not really sure the best use of a President-elect’s time at 2 AM is to rant about SNL or a polite dissent on the stage of Hamilton. But I admit it sure was an effective tool during the campaign. Effective and deeply worrying…


Question:

Why do you think Hillary lost?

David Remnick:

I think I get the impulse behind the question. No, she did not lose the popular vote. But we live in the system we live in—and the Electoral College persists. Alas. But it persists. And were there, to put it politely, “irregularities”? Well, starting with the DNC hack courtesy of Russian hackers and WikiLeaks…..that seems pretty damn irregular to me.


Question:

Do you think that Trump will repeal Obamacare? Would that be a good or a bad thing?

David Remnick:

I don’t think he will—or not completely. Once people have a benefit, a boon to their lives, that they did not have before, they are loath to give it up. Twenty million people have health care who didn’t have it before. So, start with that….Does Trump want to take that away? I bet not, and he has already said as much.


Question:

As a keen historian of the Soviet Union and Russia, do you find the coming Trump administration problematic in regards to handling Putin?

David Remnick:

jWell, yes. It seems pretty clear that Vladimir Putin wanted Trump over Clinton; we also hear that American intelligence is convinced that Russian hackers worked in that quest, beginning with the hack of the DNC. Putin clearly wants a weaker, more chaotic, more pliable figure at the top. And he appears to have gotten his wish.


Question:

What are the most important steps that the press can take to help safeguard American civil rights in the new political climate?

David Remnick:

We should do our jobs—write and broadcast fairly, rigorously, and fearlessly. That is a good start. And we can get out into the country more deeply, and into the world more widely. And that is, I know, a hard thing in an era of cost-cutting. But it is absolutely necessary.


Question:

How do you think history will remember Obama?

David Remnick:

Kindly. His Administration made the hard decisions to rescue a failing economy; got as close to universal health care as it is politically possible to get; embodied a level of tolerance never seen before in the White House; went eight years without scandal; etc etc


Question:

Were you personally reassured by President Obama’s answers and demeanor in the conversations you had with him after election day?

David Remnick:

Not entirely, no. And I don’t think Obama is convinced of his own language of hope. He is, after all, playing a role: the assuring still-in-office President, who is hoping against hope that Trump will be less bad than feared. We shall see.•

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Grandiosity is the word I used yesterday when describing the mental state of Steve Bannon, a buffoonish, bigoted media thug who’s now probably as powerful as anyone in the country. Feel free to shudder. Of course, in this way he resembles his boss, a seeming sociopath who will sacrifice anything, even American democracy itself, for victories to fill the emptiness inside. That tens of millions of Americans elected these fiends and their band of white nationalists, Islamophobes and anti-Semites, all because they wanted to “shake things up” or some other bullshit, may be the surest sign of twilight in the U.S.A. The evil they’ve collectively awakened won’t easily go away. 

Two excerpts follow.


From Joseph Goldstein’s New York Times piece “Alt-Right Exults in Donald Trump’s Election With a Salute: ‘Heil Victory’”:

WASHINGTON — By the time Richard B. Spencer, the leading ideologue of the alt-right movement and the final speaker of the night, rose to address a gathering of his followers on Saturday, the crowd was restless.

In 11 hours of speeches and panel discussions in a federal building named after Ronald Reagan a few blocks from the White House, a succession of speakers had laid out a harsh vision for the future, but had denounced violence and said that Hispanic citizens and black Americans had nothing to fear. Earlier in the day, Mr. Spencer himself had urged the group to start acting less like an underground organization and more like the establishment.

But now his tone changed as he began to tell the audience of more than 200 people, mostly young men, what they had been waiting to hear. He railed against Jews and, with a smile, quoted Nazi propaganda in the original German. America, he said, belonged to white people, whom he called the “children of the sun,” a race of conquerors and creators who had been marginalized but now, in the era of President-elect Donald J. Trump, were “awakening to their own identity.”

As he finished, several audience members had their arms outstretched in a Nazi salute. When Mr. Spencer, or perhaps another person standing near him at the front of the room — it was not clear who — shouted, “Heil the people! Heil victory,” the room shouted it back.•


From David Gambacorta’s Philadelphia Magazine article “This All Seems Very Familiar, Say Philly Holocaust Survivors“:

I wondered what some of the survivors thought of the divisive rhetoric that fueled the rise of president-elect Donald Trump, the spate of hate crimes that has dominated the news in the week since he won the 2016 presidential election, and Trump’s decision to name Steve Bannon — the former chairman of Breitbart News, a platform for the alt-right movement that conservative radio host Glenn Beck described as “terrifying” for its white nationalist, antisemitic ethos — his chief strategist.

[George ] Sakheim immigrated to the U.S. in 1938, served in the 104th Infantry Division during World War II, and later worked as a translator at the Nuremberg trials. He didn’t hesitate to offer his opinion. “People aren’t going to want to hear it, but as [Trump] talked more and more, he sounded more and more like Hitler,” he said. “There’s that grandiosity, that self-importance, that feeling that he knows everything, that he knows more than the generals.”

Some will howl at such a comment and say it’s unfair to make that comparison, that this is all just sour grapes because Hillary Clinton didn’t win the damned election. Sakheim cautions that it’s too early to know what kind of shape Trump’s administration will take, what kinds of policies it will truly enact. He was encouraged by Trump’s more demure tone during an interview on 60 Minutes.  But Sakheim and the ever-dwindling number of Holocaust survivors also lived through the history that you only vaguely paid attention to in school. They know what can happen when hate is allowed to thrive.•

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Media reporter Michael Wolff, the living embodiment of that creaking sound the boat makes just before it capsizes and everyone aboard descends into a watery grave glub glub glub, repaired to Trump Tower to interview Steve Bannon for the Hollywood Reporter. The incoming White House Chief Strategist believes there are too many Asian CEOs in Silicon Valley (which displays a poor grasp of math as well as morality) and, according to charges his ex-wife made during divorce proceedings, did not want his children attending school with Jewish kids. It’s possible her words were misinterpreted because it’s further alleged that he choked her, which is totally bad for elocution.

It’s not exactly Wolff’s most graceful writing, but perhaps the editors all took cyanide tablets when they realized the publication was going to run a piece in which the Breitbart bullshit artist would be able to claim he was an “economic nationalist” rather than a “white nationalist” with no real pushback from Wolff. That’s led to the journalist being heavily criticized for perhaps going easy on Bannon to enable future access. You can understand people being sensitive on the subject since the fake-news impresario has helped select a cabinet racist enough to make Bull Connor blush. 

I wonder if THR actually fact-checked some of Bannon’s more dubious comments, including this one: “[Trump] shows up 3.5 hours late in Michigan at 1 in the morning and has 35,000 people waiting in the cold.” It’s also worth questioning the sanity of someone who’s suffused enough in grandiosity to believe that if his plan works “we’ll govern for 50 years,” as if any one group will. Of course, you might not have your skullcap properly tightened if you’re wishing Andrew Jackson’s legacy on your own boss.

In one exchange, Bannon promises that the Administration will make our era “as exciting as the 1930s,” which sums up my fears exactly.

An excerpt:

Bannon, arguably, is one of the people most at the battle line of the great American divide — and one of the people to have most clearly seen it.

He absolutely — mockingly — rejects the idea that this is a racial line. “I’m not a white nationalist, I’m a nationalist. I’m an economic nationalist,” he tells me. “The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia. The issue now is about Americans looking to not get f—ed over. If we deliver” — by “we” he means the Trump White House — “we’ll get 60 percent of the white vote, and 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote and we’ll govern for 50 years. That’s what the Democrats missed. They were talking to these people with companies with a $9 billion market cap employing nine people. It’s not reality. They lost sight of what the world is about.”

In a nascent administration that seems, at best, random in its beliefs, Bannon can seem to be not just a focused voice, but almost a messianic one:

“Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement,” he says. “It’s everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Ship yards, iron works, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”•

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A few decades ago, J.G. Ballard believed we were headed for a future in which fiction and reality would become reversed, people would disappear into their homes (and devices and selves) and that we’d experience an age of shocks and sensations. Sounds familiar.

In a smart new Guardian essay about her father’s prescience, his daughter Bea writes that “when reality television became a massive new trend, my father was unsurprised.” Below is an excerpt from that piece followed by a few clips from Dr. Christopher Evans’ 1979 interview with the writer that was published in the UK version of Penthouse.


From Bea Ballard:

Where the developments in media technology have had the most profound impact is on the world of politics. I would love to know what my father would have to say about Donald Trump’s rapid political rise and his race for the White House. He would have found it fascinating. Given that he predicted a B-movie actor (Ronald Reagan) becoming president, I doubt he would have been surprised that a TV reality star ended up doing the same.

But it’s hard to imagine it happening in a world before television and social media. TV loves Trump’s soundbite style – his brashness and machismo. In the American Apprentice series, Trump sat in a boardroom similar to the Oval Office. It was a dramatic setting clearly designed to accentuate his power: the mahogany oak table, the lighting, the American flag in the background and the informed advisers conjure an image of Trump as pseudo-president.

Perhaps he was plausible as a leader to the American public because he had appeared in their living rooms for so long, playing a fictional commander. The idea of a powerful and decisive leader who dismisses people with a fierce “You’re fired!” can become a reality. In Britain, the recent European Union referendum was also played out like a TV show. The television debates were staged like a talent show, with the politicians on stage debating in short, soundbite style. One of the debates was held at Wembley Arena – in front of a vast crowd who either hollered approval or jeered, in the style of the Hunger Games films.•


From Evans:

On the transition from the Space Age to the Personal Computer Age:

J.G. Ballard:

In the summer of ’74 I remember standing out in my garden on a bright, clear night and watching a moving dot of light in the sky which I realised was Skylab. I remember thinking how fantastic it was that there were men up there, and I felt really quite moved as I watched it. Through my mind there even flashed a line from every Hollywood aviation movie of the 40s, ‘it takes guts to fly those machines.’ But I meant it. Then my neighbour came out into his garden to get something and I said, ‘Look, there’s Skylab,’ and he looked up and said, ‘Sky-what?’ And I realised that he didn’t know about it, and he wasn’t interested. No, from that moment there was no doubt in my mind that the space age was over.

Dr. Christopher Evans:

What is the explanation for this. Why are people so indifferent?

J.G. Ballard:

I think it’s because we’re at the climactic end of one huge age of technology which began with the Industrial Revolution and which lasted for about 200 years. We’re also at the beginning of a second, possibly even greater revolution, brought about by advances in computers and by the development of information-processing devices of incredible sophistication. It will be the era of artificial brains as opposed to artificial muscles, and right now we stand at the midpoint between these two huge epochs. Now it’s my belief that people, unconsciously perhaps, recognise this and also recognise that the space programme and the conflict between NASA and the Soviet space effort belonged to the first of these systems of technological exploration, and was therefore tied to the past instead of the future. Don’t misunderstand me – it was a magnificent achievement to put a man on the moon, but it was essentially nuts and bolts technology and therefore not qualitatively different from the kind of engineering that built the Queen Mary or wrapped railroads round the world in the 19th century. It was a technology that changed peoples lives in all kinds of ways, and to a most dramatic extent, but the space programme represented its fast guttering flicker.

__________________________

On the PC bringing the world into the home, from social to pornography:

Dr. Christopher Evans:

How do you see the future developing?

J.G. Ballard:

I see the future developing in just one way – towards the home. In fact I would say that if one had to categorise the future in one word, it would be that word ‘home.’ Just as the 20th century has been the age of mobility, largely through the motor car, so the next era will be one in which instead of having to seek out one’s adventures through travel, one creates them, in whatever form one chooses, in one’s home. The average individual won’t just have a tape recorder, a stereo HiFi, or a TV set. He’ll have all the resources of a modern TV studio at his fingertips, coupled with data processing devices of incredible sophistication and power. No longer will he have to accept the relatively small number of permutations of fantasy that the movie and TV companies serve up to him, but he will be able to generate whatever he pleases to suit his whim. In this way people will soon realise that they can maximise the future of their lives with new realms of social, sexual and personal relationships, all waiting to be experienced in terms of these electronic systems, and all this exploration will take place in their living rooms.

But there’s more to it than that. For the first time it will become truly possible to explore extensively and in depth the psychopathology of one’s own life without any fear of moral condemnation. Although we’ve seen a collapse of many taboos within the last decade or so, there are still aspects of existence which are not counted as being legitimate to explore or experience mainly because of their deleterious or irritating effects on other people. Now I’m not talking about criminally psychopathic acts, but what I would consider as the more traditional psychopathic deviancies. Many, perhaps most of these, need to be expressed in concrete forms, and their expression at present gets people into trouble. One can think of a million examples, but if your deviant impulses push you in the direction of molesting old ladies, or cutting girl’s pig tails off in bus queues, then, quite rightly, you find yourself in the local magistrates court if you succumb to them. And the reason for this is that you’re intruding on other people’s life space. But with the new multi-media potential of your own computerised TV studio, where limitless simulations can be played out in totally convincing style, one will be able to explore, in a wholly benign and harmless way, every type of impulse – impulses so deviant that they might have seemed, say to our parents, to be completely corrupt and degenerate.

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On media decentralization, the camera-saturated society, Reality TV, Slow TV:

Dr. Christopher Evans:

Will people really respond to these creative possibilities themselves? Won’t the creation of these scenarios always be handed over to the expert or professional?

J.G. Ballard:

I doubt it. The experts or professionals only handle these tools when they are too expensive or too complex for the average person to manage them. As soon as the technology becomes cheap and simple, ordinary people get to work with it. One’s only got to think of people’s human responses to a new device like the camera. If you go back 30 or 40 years the Baby Brownie gave our parents a completely new window on the world. They could actually go into the garden and take a photograph of you tottering around on the lawn, take it down to the chemists, and then actually see their small child falling into the garden pool whenever and as often as they wanted to. I well remember my own parents’ excitement and satisfaction when looking at these blurry pictures, which represented only the simplest replay of the most totally commonplace. And indeed there’s an interesting point here. Far from being applied to mammoth productions in the form of personal space adventures, or one’s own participation in a death-defying race at Brands Hatch it’s my view that the incredibly sophisticated hook-ups of TV cameras and computers which we will all have at our fingertips tomorrow will most frequently be applied to the supremely ordinary, the absolutely commonplace. I can visualise for example a world ten years from now where every activity of one’s life will be constantly recorded by multiple computer-controlled TV cameras throughout the day so that when the evening comes instead of having to watch the news as transmitted by BBC or ITV – that irrelevant mixture of information about a largely fictional external world – one will be able to sit down, relax and watch the real news. And the real news of course will be a computer-selected and computer-edited version of the days rushes. ‘My God, there’s Jenny having her first ice cream!’or ‘There’s Candy coming home from school with her new friend.’ Now all that may seem madly mundane, but, as I said, it will be the real news of the day, as and how it affects every individual. Anyone in doubt about the compulsion of this kind of thing just has to think for a moment of how much is conveyed in a simple family snapshot, and of how rivetingly interesting – to oneself and family only of course – are even the simplest of holiday home movies today. Now extend your mind to the fantastic visual experience which tomorrow’s camera and editing facilities will allow. And I am not just thinking about sex, although once the colour 3-D cameras move into the bedroom the possibilities are limitless and open to anyone’s imagination. But let’s take another level, as yet more or less totally unexplored by cameras, still or movie, such as a parent’s love for one’s very young children. That wonderful intimacy that comes on every conceivable level – the warmth and rapport you have with a two-year-old infant, the close physical contact, his pleasure in fiddling with your tie, your curious satisfaction when he dribbles all over you, all these things which make up the indefinable joys of parenthood. Now imagine these being viewed and recorded by a very discriminating TV camera, programmed at the end of the day, or at the end of the year, or at the end of the decade, to make the optimum selection of images designed to give you a sense of the absolute and enduring reality of your own experience. With such technology interfaced with immensely intelligent computers I think we may genuinely be able to transcend time. One will be able to indulge oneself in a kind of continuing imagery which, for the first time will allow us to dominate the awful finiteness of life. Great portions of our waking state will be spent in a constant mood of self-awareness and excitement, endlessly replaying the simplest basic life experiences.•

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This election revealed an evil that existed deep in the hearts of enough people, ill feelings previously stilled by expectations of civility. It was unloosed by the most disgraceful political campaign in modern times, one steeped in bigotry, hatred and disrespect. It’s like a good deal of white people, especially older ones, realized they could no longer control the world around them and decided freedom wasn’t for them–or at least for others–as if our constitution were a toy to be taken from disobedient children.

President Obama, a master of understatement, explains in a Q&A with Spiegel/ARD, that he feels the changes to our country revealed by this close election may be overstated. Except, wow, not. There’s no modern parallel to what just happened, when a candidate openly espousing white nationalistic memes and dancing like a vulgar, fascistic clown, was able to not only come close but win. Maybe the the citizenry wakes up in due time and we become America again, but it’s hard to take the long view on this one.

The opening of the interview conducted by Klaus Brinkbäumer and Sonia Seymour Mikich:

Question:

Mr. President, Donald Trump won the election, revealing massive discontent and rifts within American society. Did the amount of anger actually surprise you?

President Obama:

I think it’s important not to overstate what happened. The truth is that America has been closely divided politically for quite some time. That was reflected in some of the challenges I had with the Republican Congress. What was unusual in this election is that my approval in the United States is as high as it has been since I was elected. And the economy is going relatively well. I think what is true is that there’s been an underlying division in the United States. Some of it has to do with the fact that economic growth and recovery tends to be stronger in the cities and in urban areas. In some rural areas, particularly those that were reliant on manufacturing, there has been weaker growth, stagnation, people feeling as if their children won’t do as well as they will.

There are cultural, social and demographic issues that came into play. They’re not that different from some of the issues that Europe faces with immigration, the changing face of the American population. I think some reacted there, and Trump was able to tap into some of those anxieties. 

American politics is always somewhat fluid. In this age of social media, it means that voters can swing back and forth. I mean, there were probably millions of voters who voted for me and supported me and this time also voted for Donald Trump, and it just indicates that some of this is less ideological and more just an impulse towards some sort of change.•

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Sounding like Alphabet’s very own Rumsfeld, Eric Schmidt asserted to Foreign Policy that additional information, even if its fake or false, is a plus. I suppose if you tunnel down a philosophical rabbit hole far enough you can make an argument that faulty info can teach us something about its origin, but that’s clearly missing the point in this case. Smart people can say the dumbest things.

From Robbie Gramer at FP:

Information overload is a real problem these days. Internet trolling, fake news stories, information “echo chambers,” and the dark side of social media have headlined discussions on the future of politics and culture, particularly after the U.S. presidential elections. Perhaps no one is better suited to address this challenge than the man behind Google.

“We, and I personally, believe very strongly that more information is better, even if it’s wrong,” said Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, Inc.

“Let’s start from the premise that more information, more empowerment, is fundamentally the correct answer” to the world’s most pressing challenges, Schmidt said Thursday after accepting Foreign Policy’s Diplomat of the Year award. …

In a discussion Thursday night with FP CEO and Editor David Rothkopf, Schmidt touted Google’s recent tests to combat trolling. “I’m absolutely convinced that these questions about validity, good information, bad information, will be sorted out,” he said. On trolling, Schmidt said “there’s a straightforward technological solution to an evil behavior. It’s easy to do, we did it, it can be replicated. And there’ll be more such solutions.” Google announced a new project to automatically fact-check news in ‘real time’ earlier Thursday.

Schmidt also stressed the positive impact of information on the world. “It’s amazing how powerful the need for information is and how information-starved everyone is. So let’s start by celebrating…that we are busy empowering people in a way that is fundamentally different,” he said, citing the economic, educational, and security benefits a person in the developing world gains from just a cell phone.•

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Fascism is, as much as anything else, about the urge to attack, control or kill something on the outside because something sick on the inside has gone untreated. Tyrants themselves often possess this horrible flaw, or driven by opportunism, they seize on just such a disquiet in a people and exploit it for power and personal gain.

Brexit and, even more so, the political rise of the Lampanelli-Mussolini mashup Donald Trump, are not occurring under exactly the same backdrop that accompanied the rise of fascism in the 1930s, but that doesn’t mean key elements aren’t repeating themselves and won’t provoke a limit on liberties and undue suffering.

As Oxford historian James McDougall writes in a smart ssay at The Conversation, “this is a new fascism, or at least near-fascism,” warning that even if the contemporary brand of nationalism in the West doesn’t bring about World War III, it could very well make life a constant battle.

An excerpt:

Historical circumstances, like individuals, are always unique and unrepeatable. The point of comparison is not to suggest that we are living though the 1930s redux. It is to recognise the very strong family resemblance in ideas shared by the early 20th century far right and its mimics today.

Discussion of fascism suffers from an excess of definition. That often, ironically, allows far-right groups and their apologists to disavow the label because of some tick-box characteristic which they can be said to lack. But just as we can usefully talk about socialism as a recognisable political tradition without assuming that all socialisms since the 1840s have been cut from one mould, so we can speak of a recognisably fascist style of politics in Europe, the US, Russia and elsewhere. It is united by its espousal of a set of core ideas.

The theatrical machismo, the man or woman “of the people” image, and the deliberately provocative, demagogic sloganeering that impatiently sweeps aside rational, evidence-based argument and the rule-bound negotiation of different perspectives – the substance of democracy, in other words – is only the outward form that this style of politics takes.

More important are its characteristic memes. Fascism brings a masculinist, xenophobic nationalism that claims to “put the people first” while turning them against one another. That is complemented by anti-cosmopolitanism and anti-intellectualism. It denounces global capitalism, blaming ordinary people’s woes on an alien “plutocracy” in a language that is both implicitly anti-Semitic and explicitly anti-immigrant, while offering no real alternative economics.•

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Wrote several times before the election that a landslide Trump loss at the polls on Election Day would be a death in the gutter for the contemporary GOP, but that America itself would slip from the curb if it somehow chose a bigoted, fascistic clown. Sadly, the latter that occurred.

It’s not that the country hasn’t flirted with such things in the last century. The 1930s were a time when some U.S. titans of industry spoke openly and admiringly of Mussolini, even Hitler, for being autocrats who could reign in their citizens and produce a pliant workforce. Not even World War II completely quelled that madness. In 1946, just a year after the Allies defeated the Axis, thousands of citizens attended a Madison Square Garden rally that urged the revival of Nazism. There have until now always been enough good, informed, sane people to pull us from the precipice.

Not that we were ever saints free of large-scale atrocities or institutional prejudice, but there was a belief among many of us that “a more perfect union” was what we were genuinely moving toward. Even those who didn’t feel we were living in a “post-racial society” after President Obama’s election may be shocked to learn that there was this degree of hatred right below the surface just waiting to be activated. Trump gave it license, speaking and acting disgracefully as he did, awakening a monster. This election may have also been about economics and other matters, but it mostly about an amoral opportunist activating the worst in us. 

That’s not to say the new Administration will convert America into a Putin-level autocracy, but a cadre of mediocre, sociopathic, bigoted wingnuts can lawfully cause no small manner of mayhem. And that’s really the best-case scenario. Many people could end up dying long before they should because of our political descent. Things can get ugly, the gloves coming off. You might still think that good will prevail and our liberties preserved, but does anybody really know that or anything else anymore? No matter how events unfold, we can never rest again believing that the worst can’t be realized. That dream is over.

It can happen here. It did. 

From Matthew Yglesias at Vox:

Many American administrations have featured acts of venal corruption, and Trump’s will likely feature more than most. The larger risk, however, is that Trump’s lack of grounding in ideological principles or party networks will create a systemically corrupt government. Such governments, Wallis writes, “are rent creating, not rent seeking, governments” that operate by “limiting access to markets and resources in order to create rents that bind the interests of the ruling coalition together.”

This is how Vladimir Putin governs Russia, and how the Mubarak/Sisi regime rules Egypt. To be a successful businessman in a systemically corrupt regime and to be a close supporter of the regime are one and the same thing.

Those who support the regime will receive favorable treatment from regulators, and those who oppose it will not. Because businesses do business with each other, the network becomes self-reinforcing. Regime-friendly banks receive a light regulatory touch while their rivals are crushed. In exchange, they offer friendly lending terms to regime-friendly businesses while choking capital to rivals. Such a system, once in place, is extremely difficult to dislodge precisely because, unlike a fascist or communist regime, it is glued together by no ideology beyond basic human greed, insecurity, and love of family.

All is not lost, but the situation is genuinely quite grave. As attention focuses on transition gossip and congressional machinations, it’s important not to let our eyes off the ball. It is entirely possible that eight years from now we’ll be looking at an entrenched kleptocracy preparing to install a chosen successor whose only real mission is to preserve the web of parasitical oligarchy that has replaced the federal government as we know it. One can, of course, always hope that the worst does not come to pass. But hope is not a plan. And while the impulse to “wait and see” what really happens is understandable, the cold, hard reality is that the most crucial decisions will be the early ones.

Trump’s first 100 days could also be the last 100 days in which America’s system of republican government can be saved.

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Nobody shops in brick-and-mortar stores anymore, if you don’t count about 90% of purchases.

Because so many of the physical businesses we connected to on an emotional level were killed by the Internet (book and video stores, record shops, newsstands, etc.), it seems online is predominant in retail. But that’s not nearly true, at least not yet. In order to keep expanding market share, Silicon Valley powers like Amazon are venturing off into the real world, a phenomenon that may increase exponentially. I doubt it will work very well with Amazon Books stores and their shallow selections, but perhaps the planned convenience store chain will make a go of it? Tough to say: Corporations great at one type of platform often flounder in others.

In a Technology Review piece, Nicholas Carr visits a new Amazon Books and explains the key role of the smartphone in this surprising turn of events. An excerpt:

Amazon Books may be just the vanguard of a much broader push into brick-and-mortar retailing by the company. In October, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Amazon is planning to open a chain of convenience stores, mainly for groceries, along with drive-in depots where consumers will be able to pick up merchandise ordered online. It has also begun rolling out small “pop-up” stores to hawk its electronic devices. It already has more than two dozen such kiosks in malls around the country, and dozens more are said to be in the works.

Even after 20 years of rapid growth, e-commerce still accounts for less than 10 percent of total retail sales. And now the rise of mobile computing places new constraints on Web stores. They can’t display or promote as many products as they could when their wares were spread across desktop or laptop monitors. That limits the stores’ cross-selling and upselling opportunities and blunts other merchandising tactics.

At the same time, the smartphone, with its apps, its messaging platforms, and its constant connectivity, gives retailers more ways to communicate with and influence customers, even when they’re shopping in stores. This is why the big trend in retailing today is toward “omnichannel” strategies, which blend physical stores, Web stores, and mobile apps in a way that makes the most of the convenience of smartphones and overcomes their limitations. Some omnichannel pioneers, like Sephora and Nordstrom, come from the brick-and-mortar world. But others, like Warby Parker and Bonobos, come from the Web world. Now, with its physical stores, Amazon is following in their tracks. “Pure-play Web retailing is not sustainable,” New York University marketing professor Scott Galloway told me. He points out that the deep discounting and high delivery costs that characterize Web sales have made it hard for Amazon to turn a profit. If Amazon were to remain an online-only merchant, he says, its future success would be in jeopardy. He believes the company will end up opening “hundreds and then thousands of stores.”•

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Humans unfold in mysterious ways, as what we have inside of us meets the tools that are available to us. Even we’re surprised, at least initially. And it’s heartbreaking to think of the genius that lies dormant because of circumstance.

No one born of a Midwestern farm in 1918 could have known they’d someday use computers to try to map large-scale, dynamic systems, but that’s the thumbnail narrative of Jay Forrester, MIT computer engineer and a pioneer in global modeling, who just died. What follows is a piece of his New York Time obituary written by Katie Hafner and a video from 1951 of the systems scientist and his Whirlwind Computer.


From the NYT:

Professor Forrester, who grew up on a Nebraska cattle ranch, was working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s when he developed the field of system dynamics modeling to help corporations understand the long-term impact of management policies.

System dynamics, he once wrote, “uses computer simulation to take the knowledge we already have about details in the world around us and to show why our social and physical systems behave the way they do.”

It is now included in many business school curriculums, and simulation modeling has been adopted by other disciplines.

“Simulations of dynamic systems are now indispensable throughout the physical and social sciences,” said John Sterman, the Jay W. Forrester professor of management at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management. “Not just in management, but also, for example, in astrophysics, biology, chemistry and climate change.”

Professor Forrester expanded his approach in the late 1960s to consider social problems, including urban decay. In his 1971 book World Dynamics, he developed global modeling, which examines population growth and industrialization in a world with finite resources.

“Jay developed the first model that treated interactions of population, the economy, natural resources, food and pollution in the context of the world as a whole,” Professor Sterman said in an interview. “The work was counterintuitive and controversial, and it launched the field of global modeling.”•


“With considerable trepidation, we undertake to interview this machine.”

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Amid all the righteous rage over the avalanche of fake-news misinformation spread by Facebook, Twitter and Google in the run-up to Election Day, an idea by Larry Page from a 2013 conversation kept returning to me. It was reported by Nathan Ingraham of Verge:

Specifically, [Page] said that “not all change is good” and said that we need to build “mechanisms to allow experimentation.”

That’s when his response got really interesting. “There are many exciting things you could do that are illegal or not allowed by regulation,” Page said. “And that’s good, we don’t want to change the world. But maybe we can set aside a part of the world.” He likened this potential free-experimentation zone to Burning Man and said that we need “some safe places where we can try things and not have to deploy to the entire world.”•

The discrete part of the world the technologist is describing, an area which permits experiments with unpredictable and imprecise effects, already exists, and it’s called Silicon Valley. These ramifications do career around the world, and the consequences can be felt before they’re understood. As Page said, “not all change is good.”

A brilliant analysis of the “wait, what?” vertigo of this Baba Booey of a campaign season can be found inShirtless Trump Saves Drowning Kitten,” an MTV News article by Brian Phillips, an erstwhile scribe at the late, lamented Grantland. “There has always been a heavy dose of unreality mixed into American reality,” the writer acknowledges, though the alt-right’s grim fairy tales being taken seriously and going viral is a new abnormal. Great communicators can no longer compete with those gifted at jamming the system. The opening:

Is anyone surprised that Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t feel responsible? One of the luxuries of power in Silicon Valley is the luxury to deny that your power exists. It wasn’t you, it was the algorithm. Facebook may have swallowed traditional media (on purpose), massively destabilized journalism (by accident), and facilitated the spread of misinformation on a colossal scale in the run-up to an election that was won by Donald Trump (ha! whoops). But that wasn’t Facebook’s fault! It was the user base, or else it was the platform, or else it was the nature of sharing in our increasingly connected world. It was whatever impersonal phrase will absolve Zuckerberg’s bland, drowsy appetite from blame for unsettling the things it consumes. In this way, the god-emperors of our smartphones form an instructive contrast with our president-elect: They are anti-charismatic. Unlike Trump, the agents of disruption would rather not be seen as disruptors. In the sharing economy, nothing gets distributed like guilt.

The argument that Facebook has no editorial responsibility for the content it shows its users is fatuous, because it rests on a definition of “editorial” that confuses an intention with a behavior. Editing isn’t a motive. It is something you do, not something you mean. If I publish a list of five articles, the order in which I arrange them is an editorial choice, whether I think of it that way or not. Facebook’s algorithm, which promotes some links over others and controls which links appear to which users, likewise reflects a series of editorial choices, and it is itself a bad choice, because it turns over the architecture of American information to a system that is infinitely scammable. I have my own issues with the New York Times, but when your all-powerful social network accidentally replaces newspapers with a cartel of Macedonian teens generating fake pro-Trump stories for money, then friend, you have made a mistake. It is time to consider pivoting toward a new vertical in the contrition space.•

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For all its ethical quandaries, the race to biotechnological supremacy is one America can ill-afford to lose to China, especially as CRISPR and other tools that emerge will likely make possible incredible medical cures and and agricultural and environmental advances. It’s a new kind of Space Race, though one contested in inner space rather than outer space. 

Good thing the U.S. will have a steady stream of brilliant scientists and researchers immigrating here because will need all the help we can get. Oh wait, I forgot, the old lady sent the email and the unqualified orange supremacist got elected, so now we’re fucked. 

Well, Russia led early in the race to the moon, so it doesn’t mean we’re doomed because China has gotten the jump on us, but, wow, smart immigrants.

From David Cyranoski in Nature:

A Chinese group has become the first to inject a person with cells that contain genes edited using the revolutionary CRISPR–Cas9 technique.

On 28 October, a team led by oncologist Lu You at Sichuan University in Chengdu delivered the modified cells into a patient with aggressive lung cancer as part of a clinical trial at the West China Hospital, also in Chengdu.

Earlier clinical trials using cells edited with a different technique have excited clinicians. The introduction of CRISPR, which is simpler and more efficient than other techniques, will probably accelerate the race to get gene-edited cells into the clinic across the world, says Carl June, who specializes in immunotherapy at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and led one of the earlier studies.

“I think this is going to trigger ‘Sputnik 2.0’, a biomedical duel on progress between China and the United States, which is important since competition usually improves the end product,” he says.•

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The only thing worse than having a white supremacist who’s Chief Strategist is having one who’s President-Elect. It’s no mistake Donald Trump hooked up with Steve Bannon because they’re both bigots, cowards and damaged man-children, the exact type of personalities that can do the most damage when foolishly given authority. There are still some smart people who don’t seem to get they’re kindred spirits, but it’s true. The damage Trump’s cabal of kleptocrats, conspiracists, racists, misogynists and warmongers will be able to now carry out is heartbreaking.

Let’s hope our beautiful country, long a bastion of relative sanity in discombobulated world, doesn’t wind up in the same condition as Biosphere 2, the environmental experiment in self-contained ecology in 1990s Arizona that became a ruins covered in crazy ants. I mention this because Bannon was hired first to make the besieged biodome great again, eventually serving as CEO. His results were not pretty. It was supposed to be a new kind of paradise but ended up a hell on Earth, with Bannon even finding time to be accused of sexually harassing women involved in the enterprise.

Two excerpts follow.


From a 1996 New York Times article by William J. Broad about Columbia University taking over Biosphere 2 for a spell, at a time when it lay dormant, a domicile only to exotic ants:

The exotic species of ant known as Paratrechina longicornus, or the crazy ant, named for its speedy and erratic behavior when excited, somehow managed to kill off all the other ants over the years, as well as the crickets and grasshoppers.

Swarms of them crawled over everything in sight: thick foliage, damp pathways littered with dead leaves and even a bearded ecologist in the humid rain forest of Biosphere 2, an eight-story, glass-and-steel world in the wilds of the Sonora Desert that cost $200 million to build.

“These little guys pretty much run the food web,” Dr. Tony Burgess, the ecologist, said as he tapped a dark frond, sending dozens of the ants into a frenzy. ”Until we understand the ecology, we’re reluctant to eliminate them.”

Columbia University, an icon of the Ivy League, is struggling to turn a utopian failure into a scientific triumph.

The university took over management of Biosphere 2 in January and is starting to reveal just how badly things went awry when four men, four women and 4,000 species of plants and animals were sealed inside this giant terrarium for a two-year experiment that ended in 1993.

The would-be Eden became a nightmare, its atmosphere gone sour, its sea acidic, its crops failing, and many of its species dying off. Among the survivors are crazy ants, millions of them.•


Samantha Cole of Vice “Motherboard” explains how things went crazy years before the crazy ants:

Scientists broke into the dome to sound the alarm about Bannon’s involvement

This one’s a huge “OH SHIT” for scientists: Tampering with an in-progress experiment and contaminating the entire dome.

In late 1993, Space Biosphere Ventures refused to accept Bannon’s proposal to remove top Biosphere 2 management. Bannon quit over this, but returned as CEO the following year when Bass gave in to his requests.

Two of the original eight researchers staged a mutiny from outside when they heard Bannon was back. “They opened doors and broke glass seals, letting outside air into the dome,” the Chicago Tribune reported in 1994. “In no way was it sabotage,” said Abigail Alling, one of the researchers. “It was my responsibility.”

He was accused of harassing employees

After this takeover, project director Augustine accused Bass of having used his agents to dissociate her from the Biosphere project in breach of an earlier agreement, Buzzfeed reported again in August. In a counter-suit, Space Biosphere Ventures accused her of self-dealing and funneling $800,000 of project money.

She claimed this was an effort to slander her out of the position, and accused Bannon, Bass and another banker of a long list of harassment in her complaint: “Both Bowen and Bannon were insulting to the plaintiff and other females employees of Biosphere 2, and in their presence, and against their will, made lewd remarks, told offensive off-color stories, made disparaging remarks about females, made sexually suggestive remarks, discussed females they had known in a lewd and derogatory fashion and in general acted with total indifference to the feelings of the plaintiff and other female employees of Biosphere 2.” She also claimed that Bannon once made comments about her being “a woman in a man’s job.”•

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I worked for a Bill Gross company years ago, though I never had any contact with him. In the mode of the disappointed father, Gross revealed in his latest investment letter outrage over America’s ridiculous choice of Donald Trump for President, not so much because Bull Connor as a condo salesman is a hideous person, but because of the damage he’ll do to the very working-class folks who elected him. Gross is right, of course, and it’s commendable that such a rich person is so concerned about wealth inequality, though maybe he shouldn’t complain too loudly since he’s one of those geniuses who knew better but didn’t vote for either of the two major-party candidates in what was clearly a stop-the-maniac-election. 

From the Financial Times:

Donald’s Trump’s arrival in the White House will hit the low-earning and jobless Americans who voted the Republican into office, Janus Capital’s Bill Gross has said, revealing that he did not vote for either Republican or Democratic nominee in the US presidential election.

In his latest investment outlook, Mr Gross poured cold water on the notion that Mr Trump’s economic policies would revive growth and jobs for the poorest Americans, arguing his pledges to cut taxes and increase defence spending were an extension of “Wall Street versus Main Street” economic policies.

“I write in amazed, almost amused bewilderment at what American voters have done to themselves” said Mr Gross.

“[Trump’s] policies of greater defense and infrastructure spending combined with lower corporate taxes to invigorate the private sector continue to favor capital versus labor, markets versus wages, and is a continuation of the status quo”, he added.•

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For many of us the idea of a tyrant in the White House is unthinkable, but for some that’s all they can think about. These aren’t genuinely struggling folks in the Rust Belt whose dreams have been foreclosed on by the death rattle of the Industrial Age and made a terrible decision that will only deepen their wounds, but a large number of citizens with fairly secure lifestyles who want to unleash their fury on a world not entirely their own anymore.

I was in a coffee shop in New Jersey yesterday (not in a downtrodden area) and listened to a casually dressed man in his sixties have a loud phone conversation about the incoming Trump Administration. He laughed gleefully as he talked about how the new President would crush the protesters, jail journalists and chase Mexicans and Muslims from the nation at gunpoint. There were sexist obscenities hurled at Hillary and Chelsea Clinton and also Katy Perry, who supported the Democratic nominee. He didn’t seem to be a computer-friendly Facebook user but a likely Limbaugh listener who wanted to Make America White Again. You could say this was an isolated incident, but I had conversations with hundreds of Trump supporters over the last year from the Tri-State area and Florida, people with decent jobs or good pensions, who expressed the same. They wanted to roll back the advances of women and people of color and “stand up for white people,” hoping to somehow silence or imprison a reality that now seems foreign to them. That doesn’t take a village but an autocrat.

In “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” an excellent New York Review of Books essay by Masha Gessen, the writer addresses the spooky parallels between Russia and this new U.S., as we begin what looks to be a Trump-Putin bromance. An excerpt:

I have lived in autocracies most of my life, and have spent much of my career writing about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. I have learned a few rules for surviving in an autocracy and salvaging your sanity and self-respect. It might be worth considering them now:

Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization. This will happen often: humans seem to have evolved to practice denial when confronted publicly with the unacceptable. Back in the 1930s, The New York Times assured its readers that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was all posture. More recently, the same newspaper made a telling choice between two statements made by Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov following a police crackdown on protesters in Moscow: “The police acted mildly—I would have liked them to act more harshly” rather than those protesters’ “liver should have been spread all over the pavement.” Perhaps the journalists could not believe their ears. But they should—both in the Russian case, and in the American one. For all the admiration Trump has expressed for Putin, the two men are very different; if anything, there is even more reason to listen to everything Trump has said. He has no political establishment into which to fold himself following the campaign, and therefore no reason to shed his campaign rhetoric. On the contrary: it is now the establishment that is rushing to accommodate him—from the president, who met with him at the White House on Thursday, to the leaders of the Republican Party, who are discarding their long-held scruples to embrace his radical positions.

He has received the support he needed to win, and the adulation he craves, precisely because of his outrageous threats. Trump rally crowds have chanted “Lock her up!” They, and he, meant every word. If Trump does not go after Hillary Clinton on his first day in office, if he instead focuses, as his acceptance speech indicated he might, on the unifying project of investing in infrastructure (which, not coincidentally, would provide an instant opportunity to reward his cronies and himself), it will be foolish to breathe a sigh of relief. Trump has made his plans clear, and he has made a compact with his voters to carry them out. These plans include not only dismantling legislation such as Obamacare but also doing away with judicial restraint—and, yes, punishing opponents.

To begin jailing his political opponents, or just one opponent, Trump will begin by trying to capture of the judicial system. Observers and even activists functioning in the normal-election mode are fixated on the Supreme Court as the site of the highest-risk impending Trump appointment. There is little doubt that Trump will appoint someone who will cause the Court to veer to the right; there is also the risk that it might be someone who will wreak havoc with the very culture of the high court. And since Trump plans to use the judicial system to carry out his political vendettas, his pick for attorney general will be no less important. Imagine former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani or New Jersey Governor Chris Christie going after Hillary Clinton on orders from President Trump; quite aside from their approach to issues such as the Geneva Conventions, the use of police powers, criminal justice reforms, and other urgent concerns.•

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If Hillary Clinton had won a small amount of votes in a few key states, everything would be different, at least outwardly.

The country certainly would have been a million times better off in her hands than in the clutches of an ego-drunk buffoon and his cadre of anti-Semites, sexists and xenophobes. But the distance between a superpower and an also-ran can be razor-thin, and the final tally showed that a frightened populace reached inside for their better angels and came up empty-handed, installing one of the worst among us in the Oval Office. If Clinton had been victorious, she would have been a capable steward who would have offered protections for workers’ rights, but it’s not easy to see what she would have done about manufacturing jobs that aren’t returning even as the factories are re-shored. Machines can handle most of that work now, and not everyone will be able to transition into being a driverless-car engineer. There are no simple answers.

George Packer of the New Yorker has done some great reporting in the pages of that magazine and in The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America on the seismic changes U.S. citizens have experienced (and endured) during this millennium, as the Industrial Age ran out of steam. Two Packer pieces follow about the vanishing of our critical institutions, the second one from his entry in this week’s “Sixteen Writers” feature in the New Yorker.


From 2014:

I began to wonder what a company worker looked like. I found it hard to come up with an image. Amazon’s workforce is made up mainly of computer engineers and warehouse workers, but when you think of Amazon you don’t picture either one (and there aren’t many photographs to help your imagination). What you see, instead, is a Web site with a button that says “add to cart” and a cardboard box with a smile printed on the side. Between clicking “buy” and answering the door when U.P.S. arrives lies a mystery—a chain of events that only comes to mind if you make a conscious effort. The work is done by people you don’t see and don’t have to think about, which is partly what makes Amazon’s unmatched efficiency seem nearly miraculous.

The invisibility of work and workers in the digital age is as consequential as the rise of the assembly line and, later, the service economy. Whether as victim, demon, or hero, the industrial worker of the past century filled the public imagination in books, movies, news stories, and even popular songs, putting a grimy human face on capitalism while dramatizing the social changes and conflicts it brought. The guy stocking shelves and the girl scanning purchases at Target never occupied much of a place in the public mind, and certainly never a romantic one (no one composed a “Ballad of the Floor Associate”), but at least you had to look at them whenever you ventured out to stimulate the economy. They reminded you that low-priced Chinese-made goods were a mixed blessing—that many of the jobs being created in post-industrial America were crappy ones.

With work increasingly invisible, it’s much harder to grasp the human effects, the social contours, of the Internet economy.•


From this week:

All the pieces are in place for the abuse of power, and it could happen quickly. There will be precious few checks on President Trump. His party, unlike Nixon’s, will control the legislative as well as the executive branch, along with two-thirds of governorships and statehouses. Trump’s advisers, such as Newt Gingrich, are already vowing to go after the federal employees’ union, and breaking it would give the President sweeping power to bend the bureaucracy to his will and whim. The Supreme Court will soon have a conservative majority. Although some federal courts will block flagrant violations of constitutional rights, Congress could try to impeach the most independent-minded judges, and Trump could replace them with loyalists.

But, beyond these partisan advantages, something deeper is working in Trump’s favor, something that he shrewdly read and exploited during the campaign. The democratic institutions that held Nixon to account have lost their strength since the nineteen-seventies—eroded from within by poor leaders and loss of nerve, undermined from without by popular distrust. Bipartisan congressional action on behalf of the public good sounds as quaint as antenna TV. The press is reviled, financially desperate, and undergoing a crisis of faith about the very efficacy of gathering facts. And public opinion? Strictly speaking, it no longer exists. “All right we are two nations,” John Dos Passos wrote, in his “U.S.A.” trilogy.

Among the institutions in decline are the political parties. This, too, was both intuited and accelerated by Trump. In succession, he crushed two party establishments and ended two dynasties. The Democratic Party claims half the country, but it’s hollowed out at the core. Hillary Clinton became the sixth Democratic Presidential candidate in the past seven elections to win the popular vote; yet during Barack Obama’s Presidency the Party lost both houses of Congress, fourteen governorships, and thirty state legislatures, comprising more than nine hundred seats. The Party’s leaders are all past the official retirement age, other than Obama, who has governed as the charismatic and enlightened head of an atrophying body. Did Democrats even notice?•

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In the hours after Donald Trump’s heartbreaking victory, many liberal talking heads and talk-show hosts urged all Americans to “work with” a President-Elect who degraded Muslims, Mexicans, African-Americans, women, disabled people, POWs and threatened mass deportation and the building of a wall. That advice was stupid. 

They somehow thought he was only bullshitting long enough to get into the White House and then would moderate, but as 2016 wore on, you had to be a fool to think so. Now that the Breitbart anti-Semite and white supremacist Steve Bannon has been named Chief Strategist, let’s hope there’ll be an abrupt end to all this ridiculous conciliatory nonsense from liberals who seem to not get that this isn’t business as usual. Opposition is the only option if you believe in America as a beacon of the world and one that ensures justice for all.

Trump actually is going to break some of his promises, the ones regarding ending crony capitalism. Every venal right-winger is going to have his or her (but mostly his) hand in the till. You can’t “drain the swamp” when you’re campaign has been aided and abetted by all manner of sea monsters.

But he is going to keep most of his other promises: altering tax codes to benefit the already wealthy, harassing and hampering women and immigrants and all shades of non-white people and besieging basic freedoms of speech, assembly and the press. U.S. citizens have been bamboozled before, but this may be the big con to beat all. Nothing in my lifetime has brought us closer to large-scale failure.

Paul Sullivan’s New York Times article examines the new Administration’s aim to enrich those who least need it and further exacerbate wealth inequality, writing that “Mr. Trump’s estate tax plan seems tailored for someone like himself.” Anyone impressed by the President-Elect’s vow to not accept a salary should think about that. The opening:

If Donald J. Trump follows through on his campaign promises, a host of taxes that affect only the very richest Americans may be eliminated, along with almost all tax incentives to be philanthropic. As a result, wealthy families may find it much easier to amass dynastic levels of wealth.

At the top of the list is the estate tax. Currently, the rules are straightforward: A married couple is exempt for the first $10.9 million in their estate, and they pay a 40 percent tax on the amount above that.

Mr. Trump’s campaign proposal seems straightforward: Repeal the estate tax — the death tax, in his words. …

The Trump plan, as some attorneys and accountants have read it, would allow the wealthiest heirs to never pay capital gains taxes if they did not sell what they inherited. This would be difficult for those with a modest inheritance because they generally sell and spend what they get. But it might not be for people with a large inheritance, like Mr. Trump’s children, who would receive a portfolio of income-producing real estate and golf courses, which they could borrow against and never sell.•

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Shaping a turd into a circle and poking a hole in the center does not make a donut. Some who otherwise abhor Donald Trump are still enamored with his pledge to rebuild infrastructure, a very necessary priority, but they’re neglecting to notice the details of his plan reveal a cruller made of crap.

President Obama noted recently in a Carnegie Mellon address that the government is here to do the hard, unglamorous, unprofitable work that private enterprise wants no part of, “dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.” The Trump plan, however, will neglect the tough jobs that could pay off long-term dividends (e.g., repairing highways, modernizing schools, etc.), instead being a windfall for a few without a return for the many.

From Lawrence Summers at the Financial Times:

I have long been a strong advocate of debt-financed public investment in the context of low interest rates and a decaying US infrastructure, so I was glad to see Mr Trump emphasise it. Unfortunately, the plan presented by his advisers, Peter Navarro and Wilbur Ross, suggests an approach based on tax credits for equity investment and total private sector participation that will not cover the most important projects, not reach many of the most important investors, and involve substantial mis-targeting of public resources.

Many of the highest return infrastructure investments — such as improving roads, repairing 60,000 structurally deficient bridges, upgrading schools or modernising the air traffic control system — do not generate a commercial return and so are excluded from his plan. Nor can the non-taxable pension funds, endowments and sovereign wealth funds that are the most promising sources of capital for infrastructure take advantage of the program.

I am optimistic regarding the efficacy of fiscal expansion. But any responsible economist has to recognise that, past a point, it can lead to some combination of excessive foreign borrowing, inflation and even financial crisis. As Dornbusch showed, in emerging markets this can happen quite quickly. In the US the process would take longer.

Even without taking account of the likely costs of the infrastructure plan (which the Trump team badly underestimates) or the proposed defence build-up, the Trump tax reform proposals are too expensive. Many, like the proposed abolition of the estate tax, will only benefit the high-saving wealthy.•

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