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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may or may not be compromised by the deep bond he formed with Vladimir Putin while Exxon CEO, but at the very least, he seems to be challenged by basic common sense. When he spoke on the White House sending several thousand more troops to wage a war with the Taliban in Afghanistan, he offered this perplexing quote about future battles between the U.S. and our nemesis: “We may not win one, but neither will you.”

Promising a stalemate with the Taliban essentially guarantees them a win since they live there and we don’t. Eventually, you would think, we’ll leave. That’s not exactly thinking 20 moves ahead. The economist Tyler Cowen, a brilliant person who’s read as many books as anyone, sized up the Secretary of State this way in April: “I think there’s a good chance Rex Tillerson turns out to be quite good.” Missed by that much.

The Secretary of State has weakened America’s position on the world stage at every turn, even allowing his concern about “angering Moscow” to guide our policy. Max Boot put it as bluntly as possible in his new Foreign Policy piece, writing that Tillerson “should do the country a favor and resign.”

How can someone so smart not only misjudge a sleepy CEO who seems poorly equipped for the job, but also pull his punches when discussing the repeatedly gormless and hypocritical politics of Libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel? In the latter case, there may be something of a friendship the economist wants to protect (another dubious decision), but it also has to do with the nature of intelligence. IQ isn’t everything, may be no more than half the thing. Plenty of people not nearly as well-read as Cowen have long had Thiel and Tillerson pegged for what they are. They possess something lacked by him, James BakerNassim Nicholas TalebDavid Gelernter and other highly educated people, all of whom have come up small during this gigantic moment.

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In a smart Bloomberg View column, Cowen addresses his misgivings about genetic engineering being used to create “designer babies,” something that may not happen in our lifetimes in any profound way but will probably progress significantly this century. CRISPR has remarkable promise to eradicate diseases in the womb, but it also may ultimately permit parents to choose eye color, height, gender, sexual orientation and IQ. This opens a Pandora’s box of problems.

One would be the possibility that a country could try to speed ahead of the rest of the world by radically boosting intelligence in its population. That would result in a dangerous new “arms race.” It may seem we’re rushing toward a brighter future, but as I said in the opening, intelligence isn’t the only thing that matters when developing a great society.

Cowen’s opening:

There’s a lot of innovation going on in China these days, but perhaps not all of it is good. Chinese fertility centers are going well beyond American practices, using genetic diagnosis to influence how children conceived through in vitro fertilization will turn out. On one hand, the potential for improving human health is enormous. On the other hand, I am uneasy at the prospect of the power this gives parents. I don’t trust people to take so much control over the future of human nature.

Sometimes you hear it argued that the complex nature of genes will prevent major feats of genetic engineering. That may be selling short future advances in Big Data and biomedicine, but even minor changes in genetic diagnosis and selection could have significant effects. Maybe you can’t choose to have a child who will be happy, but you might be able to lower the chance of your kid having depression or social anxiety by some small amount. Over the course of generations, that will exert great influence over the nature of the human experience.

One risk, of course, is that parents will opt for some apparently desirable qualities in their children, and then the experiment will backfire, due to unforeseen genetic connections. Maybe we’ll get happier kids, but they will be less creative, or less driven, or they might care less about others. Those are valid concerns, especially in these early days of genetic engineering. But I have a deeper worry, namely that things can go badly even when parents get exactly what they want.

If you could directly alter your kids’ genetic profile, what would you want? It’s hard to know how the social debate would turn out after years of back and forth, but I was dismayed to read one recent research paper by psychologists Rachel M. Latham and Sophie von Stumm. The descriptive title of that work, based on survey evidence, is “Mothers want extraversion over conscientiousness or intelligence for their children.” Upon reflection, maybe that isn’t so surprising, because parents presumably want children who are fun to spend time with.

Would a more extroverted human race be desirable, all things considered? I genuinely don’t know, but at the very least I am concerned.•


“We need to put everything online,” Bill Joy tells Steven Levy in an excellent Backchannel interview, and I’m afraid that’s what we’re going to do. It’s an ominous statement in a mostly optimistic piece about the inventor’s advances in batteries, which could be a boon in creating clean energy.

Of course, Joy doesn’t mean his sentiment to be unnerving. He looks at sensors, cameras and computers achieving ubiquity as a means to help with logistics of urban life. But they’re also fascistic in the wrong hands–and eventually that’s where they’ll land. These tools can help the trains run on time, and they can also enable a Mussolini.

Progress and regress have always existed in the same moment, but these movements have become amplified as cheap, widely available tools have become far more powerful in our time. So we have widespread governmental and corporate surveillance of citizens, while individuals and militias are armed with weapons more powerful than anything the local police possesses. This seems to be where we’re headed in America: Everyone is armed in one way or another in a very dangerous game. 

When Joy is questioned about the downsides of AI, he acknowledges “I don’t know how to slow the thing down.” No one really seems to.

An excerpt:

Steven Levy:

In the 1990s you were promoting a technology called Jini that anticipated mobile tech and the Internet of Things. Does the current progress reflect what you were thinking all those years ago?

Bill Joy:

Exactly. I have some slides from 25 years ago where I said, “Everyone’s going to be carrying around mobile devices.” I said, “They’re all going to be interconnected. And there are 50 million cars and trucks a year, and those are going to be computerized.” Those are the big things on the internet, right?

Steven Levy:

What’s next?

Bill Joy:

We’re heading toward the kind of environment that David Gelernter talked about in his book, Mirror Worlds, when he said, “The city becomes a simulation of itself.” It’s not so interesting just to identify what’s out there statically. What you want to do is have some notion of how that affects things in the time domain. We need to put everything online, with all the sensors and other things providing information, so we can move from static granular models to real simulations. It’s one thing to look at a traffic map that shows where the traffic is green and red. But that’s actually backward-looking. A simulation would tell me where it’s going to be green and where it’s going to be red.

This is where AI fits in. If I’m looking at the world I have to have a model of what’s out there, whether it’s trained in a neural net or something else. Sure, I can image-recognize a child and a ball on this sidewalk. The important thing is to recognize that, in a given time domain, they may run into the street, right? We’re starting to get the computing power to do a great demo of this. Whether it all hangs together is a whole other thing.

Steven Levy:

Which one of the big companies will tie it together?

Bill Joy:

Google seems to be in the lead, because they’ve been hiring these kind of people for so long. And if there’s a difficult problem, Larry [Page, Google’s CEO] wants to solve it. Microsoft has also hired a lot of people, as well as Facebook and even Amazon. In these early days, this requires an enormous amount of computing power. Having a really, really big computer is kind of like a time warp, in that you can do things that aren’t economical now but will be economically [feasible] maybe a decade from now. Those large companies have the resources to give someone like Demis [Hassabis, head of Google’s DeepMind AI division] $100 million, or even $500 million a year, for computer time, to allow him to do things that maybe will be done by your cell phone 10 years later.

Steven Levy:

Where do you weigh in on the controversy about whether AI is a threat to humanity?

Bill Joy:

Funny, I wrote about that a long time ago.

Steven Levy:

Yes, in your essay The Future Doesn’t Need Us.” But where are you now on that?

Bill Joy:

I think at this point the really dangerous nanotech is genetic, because it’s compatible with our biology and therefore it can be contagious. With CRISPR-Cas9 and variants thereof, we have a tool that’s almost shockingly powerful. But there are clearly ethical risks and danger in AI. I’m at a distance from this, working on the clean-tech stuff. I don’t know how to slow the thing down, so I decided to spend my time trying to create the things we need as opposed to preventing [what threatens us]. I’m not fundamentally a politician. I’m better at inventing stuff than lobbying.•

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In the 1990 wake of Donald Trump’s scandalous divorce and financial cratering, Liz Smith, who used the hideous hotelier for cheap, titillating content long before cable news did, wrote off his lifelong dream of acquiring the White House: “It appears Donald Trump will never be President. He can be a lot of other important things, but not the chief executive of the U.S., unless, of course, the next few generations of Americans produced are mutants with very brief memories.”

Judge for yourself if nearly 63 million of your fellow citizens fall into that unfortunate category, but Trump achieved his goal, even if it was a hostile takeover, with not only Russian interference and FBI incompetence aiding our fall from grace and into the gutter, but seismic changes in technology, media, politics and entertainment enabling the whole sordid mess.

Before a Trump presidency could became a reality, the scenario of a deeply bigoted, braggadocious, misogynistic, ignorant, money-laundering sociopath and low-brow entertainer ascending to the highest office in the land had to seem possible. That it did to so many speaks to the crumbling of our norms. 

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In “Why There Won’t Be a German Trump,” a Spiegel essay by Dirk Kurbjuweit, the writer argues that his country’s different mindset and its rigid party control over candidates negates the political “freak factor,” making it almost impossible for a lone wolf who’s crazy as a loon to succeed at the highest level. That’s likely true for now, though given enough time, anything is possible. An excerpt:

Politics emerges in the “realm of possiblity” that societies construct for themselves. What do people imagine? What kinds of leaders do they think are possible? The realm of possibility is a product of real experiences as well as that of visions, fantasies, stories and dreams. What’s crucial is the height of the wall separating reality and dreams. If it is high, the potential space is small — and vice versa.

An American film called Miss Sloane, a portrait of an ice-cold lobbyist in Washington, is currently showing in German theaters. It’s a powerful movie that will leave viewers with the impression that its depiction is, in principle, an accurate one. That the fight for majorities is carried out ruthlessly, often with lies used as weapons. The reality under Trump is being compared to “House of Cards,” a series about a brutal politician who manipulates his way into the White House.

Ronald Reagan was an actor before he became a politician. Jesse Ventura was a professional wrestler, which is to say a showbiz star, before he became the governor of Minnesota. Arnold Schwarzenegger was an actor before he became the governor of California and now he is once again an actor. Donald Trump was the lead character in a reality show before he became president. These men moved from a pseudo reality into a political reality. The American wall is low, if it exists at all — the worlds of reality and dreams flow into one another. The Hollywood dream factory is part of the truth, but it is an invented one. President Trump is the product of an enormous realm of possibility.•

There are also political lies in Germany, but not such an intense interdependence between fictional narratives and reality. Here, realism is a long-scorned and underdeveloped art form. Politics is considered too boring to produce grand narratives, a fact that keeps Germany’s realm of possibility relatively small. Someone like Trump isn’t imaginable because we haven’t seen anything like him in a movie or on a TV screen. And then there’s the fact that grand narratives, whether real or not, arise out of megalomania — something that has been viewed with intense skepticism in Germany since 1945, with good reason.

Germany has a different concept of reality than the U.S., a clear separation between the spheres of dreams and politics, a high wall that makes political reality a bit more reliable and more serious.•

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I miss Gawker, for the most part.

The evil billionaire Peter Thiel, a “genius” who was absolutely certain there were WMDS in Iraq and that Trump would be a great President, took the site away from us. Of course, he had help. When you spend your last year or so of existence as Gawker did by (allegedly) outing a magazine executive who isn’t harming anyone, risking your very existence to show a few seconds from a Hulk Hogan sex tape (I’d rather stare wide-eyed at an eclipse) and willfully making disturbing comments before a courtroom that will decide your future, you likely have entered into a fatal state of institutional delusion. This isn’t a defense of Thiel — you know how I feel about him — but to say that as much as I enjoyed Gawker sticking small pins into bloated bags of gas over the years, it often seemed as concerned with its survival as Rob Ford in a crack house.

The company’s main contribution to the culture was providing a platform for talented young writers who could go on and do better work at better publications. In that way, it will keep enriching us for a long time to come. In his Washington Post editorial “Gawker Has Been Gone For A Year. We’ve Never Needed It More Than Now,” Michael J. Socolow argues the snarky site would be a precious commodity during our Trumpocalypse. Eh. That seems more than a little grandiose.

I wish Gawker still existed, but righteous snark pours nonstop from truly brilliant and witty minds on Twitter, and the “critical autonomy” the WaPo writer lauds the outlet for was often misspent. I doubt the site would have delivered anything near as important as Elle Reeve’s brilliant Vice coverage of the Charlottesvile white supremacist rallies. What effect would Nick Denton’s pirate ship have had on improving our politics during this desperate time? A negligible one, most likely.

From Socolow:

Now that Gawker’s buried, we might consider what we lost when that mischievous and irresponsible purveyor of gossip was shuttered. Gawker was not simply an influential Web outlet; its proudly independent sensibility and critical autonomy remain rare in today’s corporate media sphere. But to consider Gawker simply a minnow in a sea of whales is to miss its true value. Gawker might have been foolhardy, reckless and ultimately self-destructive, but it was also, above all, courageous. With the hindsight of Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency, we should all recognize that courage in the media is needed now more than ever.

Gawker is mostly defined as a guilty pleasure, an exercise in prurience by bored Web surfers and their millennial progeny. Yet its impact on American media remains undeniable. It launched the careers of an excellent set of young journalists, and it demonstrated a rare independence from corporate pressure, celebrity handlers and political operatives. Its stylistic form — directly addressing its readers like friends engaged in conversation — offers an instructive lesson for all media outlets seeking loyalty from readers. Gawker didn’t disdain its commenters: It teased them, argued with them, and kept them interested and coming back. Denton and his cadre of young, underpaid editors understood effective Web journalism.

But to place Gawker only in the context of the Web era is to miss its historical significance. Like PM (New York’s experimental newspaper in the 1940s), or the Berkeley Barb and other alternative press outlets in the 1960s, Gawker began as a crusade to save journalism. Like its alternative predecessors, Gawker challenged the processed wire copy and objective norms of standardized news content with pieces that could be opinionated, sensationalistic, and occasionally bizarre. Readers would be lured in with narcissistic displays, participatory journalism, and styles of address that could range from the nihilistic to the euphoric. There’s a reason it was named “Gawker.”•


Was looking at the wonderful The Browser earlier today, and the quote of the day was from William Carlos Williams: “That which is possible is inevitable.” So true, especially when that sentiment is applied to technology. That doesn’t mean all hope is lost and we should just idly allow the creeping — and sometimes leaping — advances of tech to roll over us, but it does speak to the competition among corporations and states that often moves forward agendas for reasons that have nothing to do with common sense or public good. 

It’s dubious we’ll come to some global consensus on inviolate rules governing genetic modifications of life forms or autonomous weapons systems. Of the two, there’s more hope for the latter than the former, considering the costs involved, though neither seems particularly promising. It won’t take a great deal of resources soon enough to rework the genome, with terrorist organizations as well as educational institutions in the game. Eventually, even startups in garages and “lone gunmen” will be able to create and destroy in this manner. This field will be, in time, decentralized.

Killer robots, conversely, aren’t going to be fast, cheap and out of control for the foreseeable future, though that doesn’t mean they won’t be developed. In fact, it’s plausible they will, even if the barrier of entry is much higher. There are currently reasons for America, China, Russia and other players to shy away from these weapons that guide themselves, but all it will take is for one major competitor to blink for everyone to rush into the future. And all sides have to keep gradually moving toward such capacity in the meantime in order to respond rapidly should a competing nation jump across the divide. Ultimately, everyone will probably blink.

“Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close,” advised an open letter from leading AI and robotics experts to the UN, encouraging the intergovernmental body to urgently address the matter of autonomous weapons. That’s certainly accurate, though the box opening seems more likely than a total ban succeeding.

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From “Sorry, Banning ‘Killer Robots’ Just Isn’t Practical,” a smart Wired piece by Tom Simonite, which speaks to how the nebulous definition of “autonomous weapons” will aid in their development:

LATE SUNDAY, 116 entrepreneurs, including Elon Musk, released a letter to the United Nations warning of the dangerous “Pandora’s Box” presented by weapons that make their own decisions about when to kill. Publications including The Guardian and The Washington Post ran headlines saying Musk and his cosigners had called for a “ban” on “killer robots.”

Those headlines were misleading. The letter doesn’t explicitly call for a ban, although one of the organizers has suggested it does. Rather, it offers technical advice to a UN committee on autonomous weapons formed in December. The group’s warning that autonomous machines “can be weapons of terror” makes sense. But trying to ban them outright is probably a waste of time.

That’s not because it’s impossible to ban weapons technologies. Some 192 nations have signed the Chemical Weapons Convention that bans chemical weapons, for example. An international agreement blocking use of laser weapons intended to cause permanent blindness is holding up nicely.

Weapons systems that make their own decisions are a very different, and much broader, category. The line between weapons controlled by humans and those that fire autonomously is blurry, and many nations—including the US—have begun the process of crossing it. Moreover, technologies such as robotic aircraft and ground vehicles have proved so useful that armed forces may find giving them more independence—including to kill—irresistible.•


Always loved the Wallace Shawn plays Aunt Dan and Lemon and Marie and Bruce, but I wasn’t a huge fan of The Designated Mourner when it was first performed in 1998. I must say, it’s aged rather well, what with a fascist game-show host in the White House and every form of dysfunction passing for entertainment on television. What’s not often said about this supposedly golden age of TV is that it has no shortage of doltish, cruel content, people acting out the damage deep inside them for the amusement of others. Isn’t it odd that a seemingly inordinate amount of these “performers” die at a young age and nobody seems surprised? The parade of dysfunction and viciousness that Howard Stern rode to wealth and fame was co-opted by mainstream outlets just as the shock jock was largely shedding his worst impulses thanks to years of intensive therapy. 

Donald Trump, a veteran of Stern and Reality TV, didn’t invent anything new–he just took the sadistic show on the road, on the trail. What was stated repeatedly during the election season was that Trump was so much more entertaining than his competitors. He filled a void within the nation, though he did it with hate and trash.

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In a New York Review of Books piece published at the time of Mourner, Fintan O’Toole best described Shawn’s odd dual existence as mainstream comic curmudgeon and apocalyptic playwright: “The other Wallace Shawn, the playwright, is a dark figure glowering on the margins of American consumer culture, muttering about blood and sex and torture. The two aspects of his public persona seem absurdly incompatible, almost as if Samuel Beckett had made regular guest appearances on The Brady Bunch or The Lone Ranger.”

That essay came up during Adam Shatz’s London Review of Books podcast interview with Shawn. An excerpt:


Fintan O’Toole, in an essay that I thought was very perceptive about your work in the New York Review, wrote that in your plays darkness is inextricable from the popular entertainment – that wrapped up in the smooth consolations of prime time is a core of utter cruelty. I’m wondering, what do you think explains this relationship between entertainment and cruelty?

Wallace Shawn:

Well, cruelty is often expressed in entertainment …



Wallace Shawn:

… obviously, the most famous being the Romans, who openly had people being killed in front of an audience.


Or lynching in the States, as well.

Wallace Shawn:

Yes. And, of course, public executions, which are still common in many countries. I mean, human beings have, one might say, in infinite well of sadism somewhere inside them, and our, you know, challenge is to try to prevent that from having everyone annihilate everyone else. But obviously there’s a tremendous amount of vicarious killing, beating and insulting that forms a large part of film and television entertainment. I mean, you know, you have to … you have to work hard to find popular pieces of entertainment – I mean, of television or films – that don’t contain those elements. But it’s … you know, when I was, I suppose … maybe nine or so, and my brother was five, we had a little Super 8 movie camera, and we made little films – and we were not very rough boys, to put it mildly, but we had guns and fist-fights, and our father tried to encourage us to make up a story that had no violence in it, and I think he gave us a head-start, you know, some suggestions on how to go about it.


This isn’t a violent story, but you do talk, in one of your essays, in a very affecting scene where you’re riding in a cab with your dad – I think you’re about ten years old – and you see some awkward, miserable-looking kid, and you start laughing at him, and your father breaks down in tears.

Wallace Shawn:

Well, he was a sensitive guy. And I don’t know if there’s any ten-year-old who is very sensitive – maybe there are. He was … yeah, it was a funny-looking, overweight kid who would have been, you know, bullied in school, and I didn’t know him, but I was indirectly bullying him just by laughing at his appearance. And, you know, that was a powerful lesson from my father, which, you know, one has to … I have to re-learn it all the time – certainly, as a short actor, I’m offered … well, I’m no longer offered many parts, because I’m declining in my popularity, but I … I have been, over the years, offered an enormous number of parts where my character, the short guy, is being bullied, and it’s supposed to be funny – and then, at a certain point, I sort of realised that was what it was, and started turning those down – along with the parts with the bullied short guy realises that he, too, can be a bully.


And turns his aggression against the other?

Wallace Shawn:

Exactly – maybe with a gun, or maybe through some clever tactic such as kicking him in the testicles, whatever.


One of the things that makes your work striking and disturbing, your plays, is that you often describe the dark allure and the pleasure that people take in cruelty, and I think, for that reason, the plays are not accusatory or pious, because you’re writing about the seductions of amorality – and the seduction of amorality is a big theme, certainly, in The Designated Mourner. Do you think that this pleasure in cruelty and aggression is a big part of Trump’s appeal? You spoke about him earlier as ‘the boot’.

Wallace Shawn:

Well, I think he certainly has concluded that that is the side of him that has made him president. I personally found his speech the other day to the policemen at the Police Academy, where he said, Don’t be too nice, one of the more horrifying moments in his presidency. I think that the pleasure that people take in cruelty, or what you would call sadism, is a very under-discussed motive for a tremendous amount of what goes on in the world – not just in our country. I mean, people take at face value the verbal explanation for why someone is being beaten up or shot, or hundreds of people being beaten up or shot, or people are being are being tortured. There are a million explanations, as there have been for every war that’s ever been fought, going back to the beginning of humanity. These … you know, there are different explanations – the explanation that is ignored is the one that isn’t put into words: the human love of cruelty, the desire to kill, the desire to torment other humans – that’s not included. I mean, the Americans say, We are fighting for freedom and democracy, and the Isis people say, We’re fighting for God, and … I mean, there have been a million explanations. But there is … an irrational desire to hurt or kill other people that is, for reasons we don’t fully understand, sometimes quiet inside humans and sometimes comes to the fore.•

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Donald Trump finally divined a means of removing media focus from the Russia espionage scandal that threatens to push him from power and perhaps into a waiting cell. The catch: Changing the subject was enabled by the orange supremacist acknowledging in his most frank manner yet that he’s a white-nationalist sympathizer, one who believes there were “very fine people” among the Nazis who descended on Charlottesville and that the sculpted symbols of slavery are “beautiful.” It was shocking enough to even back-burner a potential nuclear war with North Korea, which was all the rage before the latest rage.

The Simon Cowell-ish strongman’s reprieve from media scrutiny in regards to Putin, financial crime and other illicit matters will only last for so long. A stunning proclamation of support for the “good ones” lined up with a mob chanting “Jews will not replace us!” may mean pundits redirected their attention in the short term, but the same can’t be said for Robert Mueller or the Attorneys General combing through documents and records. The investigation may prove a disappointment–or it might be a waterloo.

· · ·

Trump ending in disgrace—residing in an even deeper gutter than the one he now calls home—would be good for the country, but it won’t cure what ails us. Our President is the most odious symptom of our malady but not the malady itself. Our ills are born of decades of anti-government propaganda, the fostering of white resentment by media outlets, wealth inequality, money consuming our political institutions, gerrymandering, the NRA, the pernicious aspects of social media, a steady diet of pseudo-events delivered by Reality TV, etc.

There’s something else that’s a deal-breaker: ideology. While the majority of the country isn’t enamored with a Make America White Again philosophy, a large minority is, and they’re not likely to abandon their reawakening should Trump fall. The dividing line seems to be those who wish to recreate the past and those who want to head into the future.

· · ·

The reason Thomas Friedman’s “Golden Arches Effect” was doomed from the moment it was written was because potentially warring states aren’t always driven by rational forces like money. Sometimes it’s personal. That same dynamic is what allows for conflicts within a state. That doesn’t mean America is headed for Civil War 2.0, but it is at the very least possible that Charlottesville may be prelude to an extended period of violent acts committed by domestic terrorists. There’s no easy way to repair what has rent us apart, something that’s valued differently than cash. We just disagree.

· · ·

In “It’s Time to Found a New Republic,” a Foreign Policy essay by Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson, the authors remind that America remade itself politically during the Gilded Age, when a technological boom last created yawning wealth inequality, and argue that we should once again take bold measures to reinvent our governance. They make some good suggestions as to what we can do to counteract negligible corporate income taxes in a globalized age, lagging productivity and other matters that prevent shared prosperity, but there’s no mention that many among us simply don’t want to share. An excerpt:

Today, faced with serious economic and political dysfunction, we are in need of another round of deep institutional renewal: a Third Republic.

The conditions that brought about the first transformation of American society are strikingly similar to those we see today. At the root of the problems confronting the United States by 1900 was a wave of innovation that sped up growth. The direct benefits of these new technologies accrued to a few, while many others became more uncertain about their economic future.

Early in the 21st century, we have reached a similar phase; the latest technology enables the offshoring of many of the manufacturing jobs that had previously been the mainstay of the middle class, or automates them out of existence. And we witness newly extreme concentrations of economic power, which are again making our politics less genuinely democratic.

There are differences too, of course. The modification of the American republic early in the 20th century would not have been feasible, for instance, without the Civil War, which tore down slavery. Still, there are lessons to be learned.

The prime driver of reform at the end of the 19th century was the progressive movement, itself a reaction to the accelerating technological change and the rise of oligarchs. If America as we know it — or, even better, a renewed, reinvigorated version of it — is to survive for yet another century, it will have to replicate the progressives’ achievements. The first task will be to understand the degree of improvisation which accounted for those successes.•

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Jerry Lewis was a spectacularly gifted physical comedian, a Fred Astaire of the pratfall, and an early adopter of technological innovation on and off the film set. The Nutty Professor, The Bellboy and The Errand Boy contain brilliant sequences. Even far lesser work, like Sailor Beware (the gif above is from that 1952 film) have their moments.

He didn’t age well as an actor or person because once his body was no longer as limber and he couldn’t portray put-upon klutzes, his personality, which was not exactly consistently charming, was most prominent. His deeply reductive view of female comics was particularly regrettable. The one great creative achievement of his later years was his King of Comedy performance, a masterclass in controlled rage.

One of my favorite oddity Lewis video clips of all time: In 1976, Stanley Siegel interviews the comedian and labia salesman Al Goldstein. When not busy composing the world’s finest beaver shots, Goldstein apparently published a newsletter about tech gadgets. He shows off a $3900 calculator watch and a $2200 portable phone. Lewis flaunts his wealth the way only a truly insecure man can.

Gene-editing technologies have some short-term concerning applications and other truly chilling long-term ones, but the creation of “designer babies” or any other human enhancement on that level isn’t part of our immediate future. That isn’t because of a paucity of will to use these miraculous new tools in this direction, but as David Epstein pointed out when he published The Sports Gene is 2013 and Pam Belluck of the New York Times reminded earlier this month, we know far too little about how genes control traits to alter humans in such a profound way. Some believe we’ll never quite understand the process and interactions, though I’m sure we eventually will.

In the meanwhile, we need to discuss CRISPR and its vast implications, especially since such powerful tools will likely find their way into many hands outside traditional laboratories. From Megan Molteni’s smart Wired report about the refreshing diversity found at CRISPRcon:

On Wednesday and Thursday, the University of California, Berkeley welcomed about 300 people—scientists, CEOs, farmers, regulators, conservationists, and interested citizens—to its campus to take a hard look at the wünderenzyme known as Cas9. They discussed their greatest hopes and fears for the technology. There were no posters, no p-values; just a lot of real talk. You can bet it was the first Crispr conference to sandwich a Cargill executive between a septagenarian organic farmer and an environmental justice warrior. But the clashing views were a feature, not a bug. “When you feel yourself tightening up, that’s when you’re about to learn something,” said moderator and Grist reporter, Nathanael Johnson.

Which, to be honest, was totally refreshing. Serious conversations about who should get to do what with Crispr have been largely confined to ivory towers and federal agencies. In February the National Academy of Sciences released a report with its first real guidelines for Crispr, and while it suggested limitations on certain applications—like germline modifications—it was largely silent on questions outside of scientific research. What sorts of economies will Crispr create; which ones will it destroy? What are the risks of using Crispr to save species that will otherwise go extinct? Who gets to decide if it’s worth it? And how important is it ensure everyone has equal access to the technology? Getting a diverse set of viewpoints on these questions was the explicit goal of CrisprCon.

Why was that important? Greg Simon, director of the Biden Cancer Initiative and the conference’s keynote speaker, perhaps said it best: “Crispr is not a light on the nation, it’s a mirror.” In other words, it’s just another technology that’s only as good as the people using it.

Panel after panel took the stage (each one, notably, populated with women and people of color) and discussed how other then-cutting-edge technologies had failed in the past, and what history lessons Crispr users should not forget. In the field of conservation, one panel discussed, ecologists failed to see the ecosystem-wide effects of introduced species. As a result, cane toads, red foxes, and Asian carp created chaos in Australia and New Zealand. How do you prevent gene drives—a technique to spread a gene quickly through a wild population—from running similarly amok?•


Had the misfortune recently of being inside a Kmart, which reminded me of the last, sad days of the defunct Nobody Beats the Wiz consumer-electronics franchise, when it was very clear that Somebody Had Most Definitely Beaten the Wiz–and beyond recognition. Just a handful of kids worked the sprawling, three-level store, with several customers leaving in frustration because no one was around to unlock merchandise they wanted to purchase or help them find products. It was largely a dust-covered ghost town filled with cheap plastic goods, an Adam Levine collection of clothes Adam Levine would not wish on his worst enemy and some dubious looking flat-screen TVs emitting a sickly blue glow. 

The Wiz died because of an overly aggressive expansion in the mid- to late-’90s, a time when big-box stores, Kmart included, became impossible to compete with. Now Amazon and other online retailers are the disrupters, with big-boxers and malls fighting for their lives. From the consumer point of view, these transitions are mostly a win, because online shopping is better than Kmart which was better than the Wiz, in terms of selection (always) and cost (usually). For workers, it seems at best a lateral move.

If enough brick-and-mortar outlets disappear, the overall number of jobs decline. Amazon needs fewer to do the same tasks and even the new positions it creates aren’t better compensated than the ones supplanted. The company announced in April that it was hiring 2,500 workers at its New Jersey fulfillment centers. Management positions, which require a Bachelor’s degree, pay $31,000. Not exactly a living wage for a family of four. 

You could say the flow from small chain to big box to web shopping happened without any profound advances in robotics driving the evolution, though that depends of how you define the term. Algorithms made it all possible. They will also over time make possible the replacement of a lot of those fulfillment-center workers, as Amazon and the other Silicon Valley megapowers like Apple, are investing heavily in automation systems. That doesn’t necessarily ensure crisis, since new work can be created. But if enough jobs disappear too quickly or some whole sectors get decimated by, say, driverless cars, the shift could get messy.

The future remains unsettled: Are we in the nascent stage of a new era of automation which is slow starting like PCs were but will eventually boom, or is this scare as toothless as others in history? If it’s the former, wealth will grow but distribution may get trickier.

· · ·

James Surowiecki, a skeptic of a Second Machine Age, recently wondered which jobs have been completely disappeared by technology, which is an amusing exercise but a fairly insignificant question. In a Wired article, however, he makes a potent argument that all trusted indicators (productivity, job churn, etc.) say decisively that the machines have not yet come for our jobs. An excerpt:

Over the past few years, it has become conventional wisdom that dramatic advances in robotics and artificial intelligence have put us on the path to a jobless future. We are living in the midst of a “second machine age,” to quote the title of the influential book by MIT researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, in which routine work of all kinds—in manufacturing, sales, bookkeeping, food prep—is being automated at a steady clip, and even complex analytical jobs will be superseded before long. A widely cited 2013 study by researchers at the University of Oxford, for instance, found that nearly half of all jobs in the US were at risk of being fully automated over the next 20 years. The endgame, we’re told, is inevitable: The robots are on the march, and human labor is in retreat.

This anxiety about automation is understandable in light of the hair-raising progress that tech companies have made lately in robotics and artificial intelligence, which is now capable of, among other things, defeating Go masters, outbluffing champs in Texas Hold’em, and safely driving a car. And the notion that we’re on the verge of a radical leap forward in the scale and scope of automation certainly jibes with the pervasive feeling in Silicon Valley that we’re living in a time of unprecedented, accelerating innovation. Some tech leaders, including Y Combinator’s Sam Altman and Tesla’s Elon Musk, are so sure this jobless future is imminent—and, perhaps, so wary of torches and pitchforks—that they’re busy contemplating how to build a social safety net for a world with less work. Hence the sudden enthusiasm in Silicon Valley for a so-called universal basic income, a stipend that would be paid automatically to every citizen, so that people can have something to live on after their jobs are gone.

It’s a dramatic story, this epoch-defining tale about automation and permanent unemployment. But it has one major catch: There isn’t actually much evidence that it’s happening.•


Yesterday’s insane, impromptu press conference by Donald Trump in the lobby of a gold, gaudy building he named for himself, was in TV trope terms “the reveal,” that moment when the Ku Klux Kardashian openly admitted his allegiance to hate groups. He’s never been shy about his bigotry, but this time he fully pulled the death from inside his belly and laid it in an open casket for the whole world to view. That is was all done within earshot of a crumpling John Kelly, a square-jawed man of Apollonian abilities who was somehow supposed to steady the chaos, makes clear that the new Chief of Staff is engaged in an unwinnable war, an Afghanistan of the mind. 

The bizarre scene reminded of the many failings of American society that brought us to this point, in which Trump is merely the ugliest imaginable result of our decay but not its cause. It also brings to mind a passage from Daniel Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America:

Our age has produced a new kind of eminence. This is as characteristic of our culture and our century as was the divinity of Greek gods in the sixth century B.C. or the chivalry of knights and courtly lovers in the middle ages. It has not yet driven heroism, sainthood, or martyrdom completely out of our consciousness. But with every decade it overshadows them more. All older forms of greatness now survive only in the shadow of this new form. This new kind of eminence is “celebrity.”

The word “celebrity” (from the Latin cekbritas for “multitude” or “fame” and “celeber” meaning “frequented,” “populous,” or “famous”) originally meant not a person but a condition — as the Oxford English Dictionary says, “the condition of being much talked about; famousness, notoriety.” In this sense its use dates from at least the early seventeenth century. Even then it had a weaker meaning than “fame” or “renown.” Matthew Arnold, for example, remarked in the nineteenth century that while the philosopher Spinoza’s followers had “celebrity,” Spinoza himself had “fame.” …

His qualities — or rather his lack of qualities — illustrate our peculiar problems. He is neither good nor bad, great nor petty. He is the human pseudo-event.•

Trump certainly runs afoul of the “neither good or bad” rule, neutral he is not, but Boorstin wrote his book in 1961, long before the Murdoch family spent two decades screaming “fire!” in a crowded theater, not in any way representing a conservative political viewpoint but instead packaging and selling white resentment and fake news. James and Lachlan are supposedly different from their dad, but they’ve shown the willingness to peddle Seth Rich conspiracies and describe Joe Arpaio as “colorful” rather than criminal. There are many other causes of our cultural rot–ceaseless deification of celebrity, Reality TV, the decentralization of media–but without the Murdochs, there would be no Trumps–at least not in the White House.

· · ·

In the Financial Times, Edward Luce asserts that America isn’t likely done administering self-inflicted wounds. The columnist explains why he believes the GOP family has been slow to act on its Nazi-friendly father, and I will offer one more possibility: Trump’s inner circle may not be peculiar in the upper reaches of the party for being dirty with Kremlin money. His ouster may accelerate a broader fall.

From Luce:

With some honourable exceptions, such as John McCain, the Arizona senator, Republicans are not ready to stand up to the president. Even Mr Ryan, whose condemnation of white supremacism was unequivocal, refrained from criticising Mr Trump directly. Others rushed to his defence. “President Trump once again denounced hate today,” tweeted Kayleigh McEnany, spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “The GOP stands behind his message of love and inclusiveness!” By even-handedly condemning the “alt-right” and the “alt-left”, Mr Trump was upholding American values, you see. In addition to bad apples, the far right included some “very fine people”, said the president.

Republicans are paralysed on two counts. First, the party cannot disown what Mr Trump is doing without repudiating themselves. His victory was the logical outcome of the party’s “southern strategy”, which dates from the late 1960s. The goal has been to siphon off southern whites from the Democratic party. Most Republicans have preferred to keep their tactics genteel. The signal of choice has been the dog whistle rather than the megaphone. Thus, in one form or another, most Republican states are reforming their voter registration systems. The fact that such laws disproportionately shrink the non-white electorate is an accidental byproduct of a colour-blind crackdown. Even without proof of widespread fraud, voter suppression has plausible deniability. Over the years, the same has applied to various wars on crime, drugs and welfare fraud, which were never discriminatory by design. Mr Trump has simply taken that approach into the open. He is the Republican party’s Frankenstein. The age of plausible deniability is over.

The second Republican problem is fear. Because of gerrymandering, most Republicans — and Democrats — are more vulnerable to a challenge from within their ranks than to defeat by the other party. As the saying goes, American politicians choose their voters, rather than the other way round. Unfortunately that gives the swing vote to the most committed elements of each party’s base. Though Mr Trump’s approval ratings are lower than for any president in history, he still has the backing of most Republican voters. Any elected Republican who opposes Mr Trump can be sure of merciless reprisal. It is a rare politician who would invite vilification from their own side.

Where will this end? The realistic answer is that Republicans will hide under a rock until they suffer a stinging defeat in next year’s midterm elections. But a defeat in 2018 is far from assured. Even then, it would have to be on a grand scale to reverse America’s deep forces of polarisation. Mr Trump will probably serve out his term.

The more worrying answer is that US democracy is heading towards a form of civil breakdown.•

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The reason Confederate statues stand in America are twofold.

Those erected in the aftermath of the Civil War were permitted, even endorsed, by Union politicians and periodicals as a means of appeasing the vanquished in a conflict that killed more Americans than any war before or since. It was, of course, bizarre reasoning, as the statuary became more than just participation trophies for traitors but also served as vestiges of slavery, states’ rights and supremacy for the conquered to cling to.

The more recent Confederate monuments in the U.S. are clearly meant to communicate white dominance. It’s questionable at best that they would have been allowed to exist at all were it not for the many similar tributes already dotting the nation. The original sin made possible the many even darker ones to follow.

Two excerpts follow.

· · ·

From “Some Thoughts on Public Memory” by Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo:

What is little discussed today is that the North and the South made a tacit bargain in the years after the Civil War to valorize Southern generals as a way to salve the sting of Southern defeat and provide a cultural and political basis for uniting the country with more than military force. That meant the abandonment of free blacks in the South after the mid-1870s. It is important to see this not only as the abandonment of the ex-slaves of the South. It is difficult, but necessary, to pull away the subsequent history to realize that it was entirely possible in the aftermath of the Civil War that the US would be condemned to perpetual warfare, insurrection and foreign intervention. But if the opposite, the United States that went on to become a global superpower, is what was gained it was gained at a terrible price and a price paid more or less solely by black citizens.

However one judges that past, knowing its full history leaves no reason or rationale for continue the valorization of Lee. He was a traitor and a traitor in a terrible cause. That is his only mark on American history. Whether he was a personally gentle man, nice to his pets or a good field general hardly matters.

Even this though leaves the full squalidness of Lee’s legacy not quite told. There is the Lee of the Civil War and then the mythic Lee of later decades. Today the battle over Lee’s legacy is mainly played out over the various statues depicting Lee which still stand across the South. The notional focus of this weekend’s tragic events in Charlottesville was a protest over plans to remove a Lee statue. But those statues don’t date to the Civil War or the years just after the Civil War. In most cases, they date to decades later.•

· · ·

A 1909 Brooklyn Daily Eagle letter to the editor from a Union veteran:

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Rupert Murdoch is receiving plaudits for reportedly urging Donald Trump to dismiss Steve Bannon from his Senior Adviser role. That speaks to how despised the depraved white nationalist is because the Fox News founder deserves no congratulations, not after he and his family have for more than two decades paved the way for Trump, Bannon, Miller and Gorka, continually stoking the fears and resentment of many Caucasians in the country, selling a race war with the same alacrity they use to hawk gold coins. Cliven Bundy and Birthers have been the heroes of this 24/7 cable drama and black Presidents and Santa Clauses the villains.

The Murdochs could successfully trade in hate for the same reason Trump was able to peddle his ugly Make America White Again campaign: Throughout our history, there have always been many receptive ears in the U.S. just waiting to be told that what ails them is a black or brown person. From George Washington to George Wallace to George Zimmerman, we’ve never had a single true system of justice in the nation because most haven’t wanted one.

While the worst among us have always existed and, to some extent, always will, it was Trump’s words that unloosed such demons. While institutional racism was clearly in effect, the militia-level hatemongers usually had to watch their step, cowed somewhat by social shaming that attended such crude and open bigotry. But While President Obama appealed to the best in Americans (even on those occasions when it didn’t seem to be present), Trump encouraged the worst impulses, not only for his own political gain, as is often pointed out, but because he truly shares the views of white nationalists. 

As Edward Luce of the Financial Times began warning in the summer of 2015, even if Trump should fall — and he will, if far too late — the hatred he’s rallied will not so easily recede. Saturday’s violence in Virginia by a rabid welter of hoods, swastikas and torches received a response from the highest office in the land with dog whistles, not a commanding rebuke, which will only further abet their mindset. Charlottesville, I’m afraid, is likely prelude.

Two excerpts follow.

· · ·

From Audie Cornish’s NPR interview with New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb:


You’ve said that what happened in Virginia was not the culminating battle of this conflict between racial supremacists and civic society, but you call it a tragic preface to more of the same. What do you mean by that?

Jelani Cobb:

I think that these forces feel victorious. When we saw them marching in large numbers, and then the following day, in a kind of regimented form, in the city of Charlottesville. What comes out of that is a feeling of invulnerability, and having come out of the woodwork and having seen others of like minds, would they then be content to going back to making racial humor on the Internet? I don’t think that will happen. We are likely to see them want to do bigger things, more spectacular things, things to inject themselves even further into American consciousness, and they now likely feel like they’re in a position to do that.•

· · ·

From Brennan Gilmore’s essay at Politico:

What we witnessed Saturday was the terrifying but logical outcome of our escalating, toxic politics of hate. I’ve seen it happen before. Serving in the Central African Republic in 2012, I saw political leaders use hatred and “othering” as instruments to gain political power. As a result, within months, Christians and Muslims, peaceful neighbors for decades, turned against each other. I saw the same thing happen when I served in Burundi, where Hutus and Tutsis made giant strides toward reconciliation after a horrifying history of mass atrocities, only to be manipulated, divided and turned against one another yet again.

America is not Africa. But watching this past election cycle in the U.S., my stomach churned as I saw some of these themes repeating themselves. Looking back now, I can see it was leading toward a cycle of conflict that, once started, is hard to break.

Many Americans like to think that this kind of thing can’t happen here—that American exceptionalism immunizes us from the virulent racism and tribalism that tear apart other countries far, far away. But we’re more susceptible than we’d like to think. …

Some may say that what happened in Charlottesville was not a big deal because it was a relatively small-scale event. And that’s true: Of all the race-based terrorist attacks in recent history, it was neither the largest nor did it produce the highest casualty count. After witnessing Nazis, self-declared militias and “private security forces” carrying assault rifles alongside state and local police (thanks to Virginia’s permissive gun laws), I can honestly say it could have been tragically worse.

But just because the white supremacists numbered in the hundreds, not the thousands, doesn’t mean the movement can’t quickly spiral out of control.•

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“Elon Musk is a 21st-century genius — you have to listen to what he says,” asserted Richard Dawkins in a recent Scientific American interview, as one brilliant person with often baffling stances paid homage to another. The “21st-century” part is particularly interesting, as it seems to confer upon Musk a new type of knowledge beyond questioning. Musk, however, needs very much to be questioned.

Someone who teach himself rocketry as the SpaceX founder did is certainly very smart in a many ways, but it might really be better for America if we stopped looking to billionaires for the answers to our problems. Perhaps the very existence of billionaires is the problem? 

Musk has many perplexing opinions that run the gamut from politics to existential risks to space travel. Walter Isaacson has lauded him as a new Benjamin Franklin, but there’s no way the Founding Father would have cozied up to a fledgling fascist like Trump, believing he could somehow control a person more combustible than a rocket. Franklin knew that we all have to hang together against tyranny or we would all hang separately.

The plans Musk has for his rockets also are increasingly erratic and questionable. As he jumps his timeline for launches from this year to that one, there’s some question of whether humans should be traveling to Mars at all, especially in the near future. Why not use relatively cheap robotics to massively explore and develop the universe over the next several decades rather than rushing humans into an incredibly inhospitable environment?

Musk’s answer is that we are sitting ducks for an existential threat, either of our own making or a natural one. That’s true and always will be. Since going on a Bostrom bender a few years back, the entrepreneur’s main fear seems to be that Artificial Intelligence will be the doom of human beings. This dark future is possible in the longer term but no sure thing, and as I sit here typing this today climate change is a far greater threat. There’s no doubt Musk’s work with the Powerwall and EVs may help us avoid some of this human-made scourge — that is his greatest contribution to society, for sure — but his outsize concern about AI is distracting. Threats from machine intelligence should be a priority but not nearly the top priority.

Something very sinister is quietly baked into the Nick Bostrom view of Homo sapiens becoming extinct which Musk adheres to, which is the idea that climate change and nuclear holocaust, say, would still leave some humans to soldier on, even if hundreds of millions or billions are killed off. That’s why something that could theoretically end the entire species–like AI–is given precedence over more pressing matters. That’s insane and immoral.

The opening of a Samuel Gibbs Guardian article:

Elon Musk has warned again about the dangers of artificial intelligence, saying that it poses “vastly more risk” than the apparent nuclear capabilities of North Korea does.

The Tesla and SpaceX chief executive took to Twitter to once again reiterate the need for concern around the development of AI, following the victory of Musk-led AI development over professional players of the Dota 2 online multiplayer battle game.

This is not the first time Musk has stated that AI could potentially be one of the most dangerous international developments. He said in October 2014 that he considered it humanity’s “biggest existential threat”, a view he has repeated several times while making investments in AI startups and organisations, including OpenAI, to “keep an eye on what’s going on”.

Musk again called for regulation, previously doing so directly to US governors at their annual national meeting in Providence, Rhode Island.

Musk’s tweets coincide with the testing of an AI designed by OpenAI to play the multiplayer online battle arena (Moba) game Dota 2, which successfully managed to win all its 1-v-1 games at the International Dota 2 championships against many of the world’s best players competing for a $24.8m (£19m) prize fund.

The AI displayed the ability to predict where human players would deploy forces and improvise on the spot, in a game where sheer speed of operation does not correlate with victory, meaning the AI was simply better, not just faster than the best human players.•

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Harry S. Conman spent part of his day dangerously baiting Kim Jong-un, a guy who murdered his own half-brother with a nerve agent, saying of his North Korean counterpart that “if he utters one threat, in the form of an overt threat…he will truly regret it and he will regret it fast.” Either Trump’s bluffing and will be in a weakened position when his bluff is called, or he means it and lots of people will die horrible deaths and not just in North Korea.

Three notes of hope that we may avoid Armageddon: 1) Trump is a cowardly bullshit artist, 2) The coterie of generals in his midst may overrule him even if that’s not Constitutional, and 3) Kim Jong-un, despite the fratricide, may not be nearly as crazy as he’s made out to be. Evil beyond belief, for sure, but perhaps very calculated and focused on his personal survival. Let’s hope.

In a Reddit Ask Me Anything now underway, Washington Post North Korea reporter Anna Fifield is answering questions about the fraught situation. A few early exchanges follow.



How much NK talk is normal saber-rattling? 

Anna Fifield:

A lot of this is normal April/August saber-rattling.

The wild card this time is not North Korea, but Donald Trump. Trump is acting in ways that are different from his predecessors — look at the repeated threats on twitter in the last few days — and the North Koreans are not quite sure what to make of it.

The chances of misinterpretation/accidental conflict are significant — and much more likely than a deliberate start to a war from either side.

One important thing to note: North Korea has said it will retaliate IF the United States strikes it. It’s not threatening to go first. And the U.S. would probably only strike (a pre-emptive strike) if it saw an imminent threat to the nation or its allies.

So deterrence remains the best option for everyone.



If North Korea collapses what would happen to there current nuclear arsenal?

Anna Fifield:

That’s a great question and we simply do not know the answer. A lot would depend on how it collapsed. An outside invasion would be very different from, say, a military coup. If there was a coup from within, we could expect the generals to retain control of the nuclear weapons. But imagine if there was a sudden collapse and we saw nuclear scientists taking off over the Chinese border with suitcases full of fissile material. Scary stuff.



How likely is Kim Jong Un to accept a deal where he hands over power in North Korea in exchange for exile, a guarantee of no harm or prosecution, and a life of luxury for himself and his generals in China?

Anna Fifield:

Well, no one is offering him that kind of deal — that we know of. I think Kim knows that his life would be much worse if he were not the leader of his own totalitarian state, regardless of whether he’s living in a gated compound in Beijing or if he’s in a worse situation.

Kim’s number one priority — the whole reason for the nuclear weapons, the personality cult, the brutal system — is staying in power. And he’ll do anything to hold onto it, as we saw with the way he got rid of his uncle and half brother.



If KJU goes what will replace the regime?

Anna Fifield:

We have no idea. A military junta like in Myanmar? Gradual economic reform without political change like in China? An American administrator like in Iraq? Re-unification with South Korea? We have no idea how this regime would come to and end and what would come next.

What I would note though is that we are in a historically abnormal situation. Korea was one for thousands of years, so the division of the last seven decades is a blip in history and almost all Koreans, North or South, pine for the day when they’re one again. It constantly amazes me how similar North Koreans and South Koreans remain today, despite more than 70 years of enforced separation.

This is a tragedy. One people divided by an arbitrary line.



Why hasn’t North Korea suffered from the same internal strife that usually plagues regimes like this? Coups, ambitious generals — the Kim dynasty seems to be effectively immune to it. Is the dynasty’s hold over its population so absolute that even during times of mass starvation the military or other political factions will be unable to even attempt to seize power from Kim?

Anna Fifield:

The North Korean regime keeps such a tight grip on the population that people are afraid to question or criticize the regime to anyone except their closest family members — and sometimes not even to them.

If you criticize Kim Jong Un or suggest that he’s unfit for the job in any way, you could be banished to the countryside if you’re an elite in Pyongyang; you could be executed by anti-aircraft gunfire, as Kim had done to several top officials, including his own uncle; or you could be sent to a re-education or labor camp, forced to dig holes or break rocks for hours and hours a day, with nothing more than a bowl of thin soup made from salt and corn for your meals. Sometimes whole families are punished for one person’s actions.

All this has served as a good incentive for people to keep their mouths shut and their heads down. Plus, outside Pyongyang, most people are too busy trying to feed their families to think about political activity.

People who become disillusioned enough with the regime to act usually defect rather than rebel.•

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Increasingly autonomous automobiles are bound to cause skill fade in drivers, so it’s baffling the car industry believes this loss an “unintended consequence” of our transition from human drivers to vehicles that operate themselves. What else would be the result of technology that keeps us in our lane while we do nothing? Google should be credited for arguing from early on that half measures would prove too dangerous—that driverless was an all-or-nothing proposition.

Traffic accidents have spiked sharply in the past couple of years, probably in part because of these tools that are supposed to make us safer. I would guess the bigger part of the issue is distracted driving, with smartphones being the overwhelmingly popular draw. Either way, microchips are fueling the problem.

Even if we make it to the other side of the driverless dream in a few years and accidents are greatly diminished as autonomous vehicles fill the highways and every last person can text at will from the backseat, the bigger question as we move forward is whether traveling through life inside of a computer—in more ways than one—will cause us to surrender fundamental aspects of humanness.

From Keith Naughton’s Bloomberg piece “Robots Are Ruining Your Driving Skills“:

If your car can hit the brakes in an emergency and check your blind spots, will that make you a worse driver? Increasingly, automakers are worrying it may.

Driver-assist technology that keeps cars in their lanes, maintains a safe distance from other vehicles, warns of unseen traffic and slams the brakes to avoid rear-end crashes are rapidly spreading from luxury cars to everyday Hondas, Nissans and Chevys. But these automated aids aimed at improving safety are having an unintended consequence: They’re degrading driving skills.

“There are lots of concerns about people checking out and we are trying to monitor that now,” said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “Everything we do that makes the driving task a little easier means that people are going to pay a little bit less attention when they’re driving.”

For carmakers trying to address deteriorating driver skills, the stakes are immense. U.S. roadway deaths jumped 14 percent over the last two years, with more than 40,000 people dying in crashes in 2016. While speeding and more congested roadways bear some of the blame, distraction is another key culprit. Data released by the federal government show manipulation of handheld devices while driving, including texting or surfing the web, has been on the rise.

The semi-autonomous features that are the building blocks of tomorrow’s driverless cars were designed to compensate for inattentiveness behind the wheel. Instead, they may be enabling drivers to place too much faith in the new technology.•


During the solar eclipse of 1925, most inhabitants of Earth were relatively relaxed during the brief extinguishing, even if there were a number of laborers who refused to report for work until the sun had reintroduced itself and some domesticated animals were said to be disturbed. It was so unthreatening that President Coolidge, accompanied by the First Lady and their dog, observed the opening minutes of the spectacle from the South Lawn through a piece of smoked glass, then hastily returned to the Oval Office to continue working before the natural wonder had “reached its maximum.” It was appointment viewing but not the end of the world.

That wasn’t always the case, however. For much of human existence, an eclipse was viewed as a sign, an omen, a curse. In anticipation of the August 21 darkening, Ross Andersen has written an excellent Atlantic article about the history of humans watching the ultimate blackouts and how that relates to our deeply unsettling political moment, which is lorded over by a President nowhere near as coolheaded as Coolidge. An excerpt:

What could be more traumatic than the abandonment of the sun? This is the energy source that powers Earth’s photosynthetic food chains, the ball of fire that anchors and warms us as we twirl around in the cold cosmic void. The sun is the giver of life. It is also the giver of light, the ethereal stuff that illuminates the world, making it manifest to the mind. Philosophers have often likened sunlight to consciousness itself. In Plato’s cave, it is sunlight that awaits those who throw off their chains. And in Descartes’ dark forest of metaphysical confusion, enlightenment comes only when sunbeams break through the canopy.

You can imagine what it would suggest about your own fate, were you to see the white-hot center of your sensory world vanish, with no promise that it would return. The sun is the most robust of all physical phenomena. Even today, our scientific end-times tales involve its death. In deep antiquity, a few minutes without the sun would have felt like an eternity, or like a stepping out of time altogether. It would have felt as though some dark new chaos had dawned. The ancient Ojibwe peoples of the American Midwest felt this distress acutely: They tried to reignite the blacked-out sun by firing flaming arrows into it.

The sun is not the kind of thing you expect to need rekindling. The sun is fearsome. It can burn you, blind you, drive you to thirst or even madness. It can kill you and bleach your bones where they lie. The ancients warned against even approaching the sun, as Phaethon and Icarus did to their peril. Their sun gods weren’t cuddly. They were disapproving fathers, or birds of prey. They wielded symbols of strength and domination, like the beams of light hurled to Earth’s surface by the sun god Ra, which Egypt’s sculptors reconceived as obelisks, monuments to power that have lost little of their potency across 4,000 years. One still towers over the capital of the world’s most powerful country. It looks a lot like those that were hauled out of Ancient Egypt to stand in the piazzas of Imperial Rome. And then there is that other symbol of power, the crown, a golden ring made to look like a sunburst adorning the sovereign’s head.

This close identification with the sun might explain why kings have long feared eclipses. A surprising number of popes and monarchs have died in their wake. Louis XIV, the “sun king” who so loved decadent gold decor that he chose the solar sphere as his emblem, died just after an eclipse hung in the skies above Paris. Some ancient rulers, including Alexander the Great, executed a substitute king after an eclipse, as a kind of sacrificial hedge.

Of all the stories about earthly kings being laid low after an eclipse, my favorite comes from the psychedelic end-times text of Christianity, the Book of Revelation. In a dream, John of Patmos watches as the seals on the book of judgment rip open, each triggering a fresh calamity. After the sixth seal is torn, the sun darkens, as though in eclipse, and nature begins shedding its fundamental features. Stars drop to the Earth like fruit falling from the boughs of a tree. The planet’s crust shakes with unprecedented violence, displacing whole mountain ranges and islands. And all the world’s kings, princes, generals, and the rich slink away to hide among the rocks thrown off by the geological mayhem, or in caves, like Peter Thiel in his New Zealand bunker.•


Not familiar enough with the proprietors of Radio Poland to accept at face value its story promising that a government commission is soon to report that “traces of an explosion” were found on the left wing of the country’s presidential plane that crashed and killed all 96 people on board, including Lech Kaczynski, in Russia seven years ago, but it wouldn’t shock me if it were true.

The inference to be taken is that Putin’s Kremlin murdered President Kaczynski as a means of destabilizing Poland, which, belatedly, has occurred, with Andrzej Duda trying to curb democracy as protesters attempt to do the same to him. When the scope of Putin’s crimes are eventually known, the body count won’t, of course, rival Stalin’s, but the depth of his evil will likely stun casual observers.

When working to upend America, the democracy that has done most to thwart him, Putin used vast sums of money stolen through kleptocracy, U.S. social media platforms and a chaos agent named Donald Trump to enact a relatively bloodless coup. 

· · ·

From “Businessman Paints Terrifying And Complex Picture Of Putin’s Russia,” Miles Parks’ NPR story about William Browder, who lobbied for the Magnitsky Act after witnessing Putin’s terror at an unsafe distance:

Browder’s story — how he ended up living in London, after almost a decade of vast success as a businessman in Moscow, is arguably a case study in how Putin’s government works: a system of intermediary influential businessmen who aren’t directly employed by the Russian government, but who benefit financially from Putin’s regime.
Browder founded and ran one of the largest investment firms in Russia, Hermitage Capital Management, from 1996-2005. When he and his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky discovered a massive corruption scheme, they went to the authorities.

“And we waited for the good guys to get the bad guys,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It turned out that in Putin’s Russia, there are no good guys.”

After making their complaint, Browder was accused of tax evasion; he alleges the $230 million he thought his business was paying in taxes to the Russian Treasury was misappropriated and funneled to those in power, at once making him a criminal and making Putin’s circle richer.

He was denied access back into the country after an international trip, but Magnitsky wasn’t so lucky. Browder told the senators the Russian lawyer was detained by the authorities, denied medical treatment for pancreatitis while he was jailed, and then allegedly beaten to death in 2009 while chained to a prison cell bed.

Putin has continuously denied the allegations regarding Magnitsky.

“Investigators concluded that there was no malicious intent, or criminal negligence in Magnitsky’s death. It was just a tragedy,” Putin said in 2013, in an interview with a Russian television station. “One might think no deaths occur in U.S. prisons.”

Human rights groups, however, have agreed with Browder’s telling of events.

After advocacy by Browder, in 2012, Congress passed the Magnitsky Act. The law targets Russian human rights abusers by freezing their American assets and banning them from entering the U.S. The bill was named after the deceased Russian lawyer who had fought corruption in the country alongside Browder.•

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Donald Trump will end in disgrace, not primarily because he’s an ignorant con artist wholly unfit to be President, but because he has stashed in his closet a mausoleum full of skeletons pertaining to his personal life, business career and Russia. His family’s laundry is dirty despite all the laundering he’s done. Trump ultimately falls, as do his cohort of disgraceful henchmen, half-wits and horseshitters. This sordid episode doesn’t conclude in book deals all around but in most of the players being booked.

That won’t, however, save America. Our problems run deeper and wider than Trump, who’s the culmination of our social collapse, not the source. Russia’s machinations and James Comey’s boneheaded move may have put the QVC quisling over the top, but there’s really no rationalizing nearly 63 million citizens pulling the lever for a completely unqualified and indecent anti-politician. We’ve been heading for this disaster for generations, our break from reality a long time coming.

In an excellent Atlantic essay, Kurt Andersen, who has a history with Trump, writes that he began to notice our ugly divorce from reality during the Dubya Era “truthiness,” precisely in 2004. It’s interesting the writer chose the year he did, because that was when The Apprentice debuted, and a deeply immoral and largely failed businessman was awarded the role of Manhattan’s greatest builder despite not being able to get a loan of clean money to open a tent in Central Park.

But our fall from grace has more distant origins. Our drift started with Reagan unwinding the Fairness Doctrine, the rise of cable news, the emergence of Reality TV and the decentralization of the media, when the gatekeepers of legacy journalism were obliterated, when anyone could suddenly pose as an expert on vaccinations or trade pacts. The Internet made it possible to legitimize our most dubious fears and worst impulses.

We have more information than ever before, and it’s been put to worrisome use, as “lone gunmen” and multi-billion dollar corporations alike began to commodify conspiracy theories, from Ancient Aliens to Pizzagate to Seth Rich. The sideshow that has always existed in the U.S. was relocated to the center ring, as Chuck Barris’ suspicion about America’s dark side proved truer than even he could have predicted. 

As much as anything, performance became essential to success, convincingly playing a Doctor, Survivor or a populist Presidential candidate was more important than truth. Life became neither quite real nor fake, just a sort of purgatory. It’s a variation of who we actually are–a vulgarization.

· · ·

It’s a new abnormal that’s been creeping over this relatively wealthy though often dissatisfied nation for decades. Here’s the transcript of a scene from 1981’s My Dinner with Andre, in which Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory discuss how performance had become introduced in a significant way into quotidian life, and that was way before Facebook gave the word “friends” scare quotes and prior to Kardashians, online identities and selfies:

Andre Gregory:

That was one of the reasons why Grotowski gave up the theater. He just felt that people in their lives now were performing so well, that performing in the theater was sort of superfluous, and in a way, obscene. Isn’t it amazing how often a doctor will live up to our expectation of how a doctor should look? You see a terrorist on television and he looks just like a terrorist. I mean, we live in a world in which fathers, single people or artists kind of live up to someone’s fantasy of how a father or single person or an artist should look and behave. They all act like that know exactly how they ought to conduct themselves at every single moment, and they all seem totally self-confident. But privately people are very mixed up about themselves. They don’t know what they should be doing with their lives. They’re reading all these self-help books.

Wallace Shawn:

God, I mean those books are so touching because they show how desperately curious we all are to know how all the others of us are really getting on in life, even though by performing all these roles in life we’re just hiding the reality of ourselves from everybody else. I mean, we live in such ludicrous ignorance of each other. I mean, we usually don’t know the things we’d like to know even about our supposedly closest friends. I mean, I mean, suppose you’re going through some kind of hell in your own life, well, you would love to know if your friends have experienced similar things, but we just don’t dare to ask each other. 

Andre Gregory:

No, it would be like asking your friend to drop his role.

Wallace Shawn:

I mean, we just put no value at all on perceiving reality. On the contrary, this incredible emphasis we now put on our careers automatically makes perceiving reality a very low priority, because if your life is organized around trying to be successful in a career, well, it just doesn’t matter what you perceive or what you experience. You can really sort of shut your mind off for years ahead in a way. You can turn on the automatic pilot.•

· · ·

The opening of Andersen’s article, in which he argues that Sixties individualism and Digital Age fantasy conspired to lay us low:

When did America become untethered from reality?

I first noticed our national lurch toward fantasy in 2004, after President George W. Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove, came up with the remarkable phrase reality-based community. People in “the reality-based community,” he told a reporter, “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality … That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” A year later, The Colbert Report went on the air. In the first few minutes of the first episode, Stephen Colbert, playing his right-wing-populist commentator character, performed a feature called “The Word.” His first selection: truthiness. “Now, I’m sure some of the ‘word police,’ the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s, are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word!’ Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true. Or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. I don’t trust books—they’re all fact, no heart … Face it, folks, we are a divided nation … divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart … Because that’s where the truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen—the gut.”

Whoa, yes, I thought: exactly. America had changed since I was young, when truthiness and reality-based community wouldn’t have made any sense as jokes. For all the fun, and all the many salutary effects of the 1960s—the main decade of my childhood—I saw that those years had also been the big-bang moment for truthiness. And if the ’60s amounted to a national nervous breakdown, we are probably mistaken to consider ourselves over it.

Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational. We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense. Some of my best friends are very religious, and others believe in dubious conspiracy theories. What’s problematic is going overboard—letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts. The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, all of us free to reinvent ourselves by imagination and will. In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts. Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.•


There’s no doubt Mark Zuckerberg is a top-shelf CEO, even if the product he’s selling is dubious, an advertising scheme that connects hatemongers as surely as old lovers, can aid in toppling democracies as well as autocracies and is willing to quietly conduct “social experiments” on its customers, who are used as an endless source of free content to publish and private information to repurpose. No matter how much the Facebook founder claims to be repairing the ill effects of his company, he’s really just doubling down on its core tenets, which seem as likely as not to be antithetical to healthy societies.

In a Nick Bilton Vanity Fair “Hive” piece, the writer analyzes Zuckerberg’s many recent moves which make it seem like he’s readying himself for a White House run. (My own thoughts on the same can be read here.) As with all Bilton pieces, there’s interesting insight, though I do think one line in his conclusion borders on ludicrous.

Bilton writes that Zuckerberg’s “skills and experience have put him in a rare position to remedy so much of what ails us.” That would be a fairly ridiculous statement regardless of who we were talking about. Bill Gates is legitimately eradicating diseases and no one believes he can counteract “so much of what ails us.” No one would believe that about a President of the United States, even on those happy occasions when we have a sane and intelligent one who doesn’t believe he can run the world stage the way Gotti ran Queens.

It can’t be that Bilton believes Zuckerberg is capable of healing the country’s major problems just because he’s a bright and wealthy person because there are many far smarter and some modestly richer. It has to be the CEO’s management abilities and Facebook itself which elicited this judgement, but the former has been used to mixed results at best as far as civic life is concerned and the latter may permanently be more a negative than a positive. 

Considering Bilton acknowledges elsewhere in the article that Zuckerberg is clueless about his fellow citizens, his “remedy” line just sounds like more Silicon Valley idol worship, something best approached lightly in this moment of Theranos, Juicero, Kalanick, Damore and Thiel.

From Bilton:

I have my own theory as to what’s going on here. Over the years, I’ve spent some time with Zuckerberg, and I always got the feeling that he truly believed there wasn’t a problem that technology couldn’t solve. He felt deeply, and likely still does, that he was using Facebook to connect people, and that those connections were making the world a better place.

Lately, however, it appears that he has realized that there is another darker side to all of this technology. That the opioid epidemic has grown because of the Internet, that sites like Twitter enable people to spew hatred and lie without repercussions, and—most importantly—that his very own Web site was used by Russian hackers and idiot bros in the Midwest to share fake news stories that helped give us President Trump.

Zuckerberg may have ascended to prominence as a brilliant technologist, but he has turned Facebook into a behemoth because he is also a generationally gifted chief executive, someone who tends to think 20 steps ahead. In fact, I’ve never met a C.E.O. who can do this with such adroitness. I’m sure that the possibility of public office has crossed Zuckerberg’s mind, but probably for a reason that none of us have thought of, and it may also be 19 steps down the line. I don’t think he’s going to be on the ballot for 2020, but I do think he has left the option open to run for office one day. Maybe it won’t be the highest office in the land, too, but rather mayor of Palo Alto, or governor of California. Or maybe Zuckerberg just wants to join the local community board near his house. But, nevertheless, I think he’s got a larger plan in mind that we mere mortals just don’t understand: there isn’t a world in which Zuckerberg would amend the S-1 with that update, fully aware that his every move is scrutinized by investors, with zero intention of ever using an ounce of latitude afforded by the amendment.

But there’s something else I’ve come to believe about Zuckerberg over the past several months. As his surrogates have said to me, he partially wants to do this tour of America to show he’s just like us, and in touch with how Facebook (and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative) can affect people. Unfortunately, though, I think his expedition has had the opposite effect, and highlighted just how out of touch Zuckerberg really is with the rest of the country. While he can plan 20 moves ahead, he can’t seem to understand that cavorting around the country with a professional photographer, snapping disingenuous images of him milking cows, touring shrimp boats in the Bayou, and having dinner with a lovely family in Ohio, seems aloof or, worse, patronizing. I have some advice for Zuckerberg: fire your photographer. If you want to post a picture of yourself at dinner in Ohio, take a selfie like everyone else on the planet.•

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Julian Assange was always a dubious character, but he probably didn’t begin his Wikileaks career as a Putin puppet. That’s what he’s become during this decade, however, helping the Kremlin tilt the 2016 U.S. Presidential election with coordinated leaks and serving in the post-election period as a defender of Donald Trump, as the Commander-in-Chief attempts to gradually degrade liberty and instill authoritarianism in America. 

Assange’s most recent gambit was to warn of mass violence in the U.S.–encourage it, actually–by promising that the disaster unfolding in Venezuela would be replicated here should Trump be ousted from office for any number of nefarious acts that may be uncovered by Robert Mueller or other investigative officials. The analogy is dishonest since Venezuela’s decline is the result of gross mismanagement, not any political conflict. But large-scale civil unrest in America would be an ideal outcome for the Kremlin, which longs to destabilize the most powerful democracies.

Venezuela is going through a crazy-dangerous moment, for sure, and while the U.S. has a markedly different history and traditions, we could certainly will slide further toward such a nightmare if Trump and Assange get their way.

· · ·

The opening of Hannah Dreier’s harrowing AP report of her last days covering Venezuela’s fresh hell:

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The first thing the muscled-up men did was take my cellphone. They had stopped me on the street as I left an interview in the hometown of the late President Hugo Chavez and wrangled me into a black SUV.

Heart pounding in the back seat with the men and two women, I watched the low cinderblock homes zoom by and tried to remember the anti-kidnapping class I’d taken in preparation for moving to Venezuela. The advice had been to try to humanize yourself.

“What should we do with her?” the driver asked. The man next to me pulled his own head up by the hair and made a slitting gesture across his throat.

What might a humanizing reaction to that be?

I had thought that being a foreign reporter protected me from the growing chaos in Venezuela. But with the country unraveling so fast, I was about to learn there was no way to remain insulated.

I came to Caracas as a correspondent for The Associated Press in 2014, just in time to witness the country’s accelerating descent into a humanitarian catastrophe.

Venezuela had been a rising nation, buoyed by the world’s largest oil reserves, but by the time I arrived, even high global oil prices couldn’t keep shortages and rapid inflation at bay.

Life in Caracas was still often marked by optimism and ambition. My friends were buying apartments and cars and making lofty plans for their careers. On weekends, we’d go to pristine Caribbean beaches and drink imported whiskey at nightclubs that stayed open until dawn. There was still so much affordable food that one of my first stories was about a growing obesity epidemic.

Over the course of three years, I said good-bye to most of those friends, as well as regular long-distance phone service and six international airline carriers. I got used to carrying bricks of rapidly devaluing cash in tote bags to pay for meals. We still drove to the beach, but began hurrying back early to get off the highway before bandits came out. Stoplights became purely ornamental because of the risk of carjackings.

There was no war or natural disaster. Just ruinous mismanagement that turned the collapse of prices for the country’s oil in 2015 into a national catastrophe.

As things got worse, the socialist administration leaned on anti-imperialist rhetoric. The day I was put into the black SUV in Chavez’s hometown of Barinas coincided with a government-stoked wave of anti-American sentiment. The Drug Enforcement Administration had just jailed the first lady’s nephews in New York on drug trafficking charges, and graffiti saying “Gringo, go home” went up around the country overnight. An image of then-President Barack Obama with Mickey Mouse ears appeared on the AP office building.

I was trying to make small talk with the men who had grabbed me when we pulled past a high, barbed wire-topped wall, and I glimpsed the logo of the secret police. Flooded with relief, I realized I hadn’t been kidnapped, just detained.

Inside, the men trained a camera on me for an interrogation. One said that I would end up like the American journalist who had recently been beheaded in Syria. Another said if I gave him a kiss I could go free.

The man who had been driving said they would be keeping me until the DEA agreed on a swap for the first lady’s nephews. He accused me of helping sabotage the economy. “How much does the U.S. pay you to be their spy?” he asked.

The government of President Nicolas Maduro blames the U.S. and right-wing business interests for the economic collapse, but most economists say it actually stems from government-imposed price and currency distortions. There often seemed to be a direct line between economic policy and daily hardship. One week, the administration declared that eggs would now be sold for no more than 30 cents a carton. The next week, eggs had disappeared from supermarkets, and still have not come back.•

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Just read “Far-Distant Days,” Ben Thomas’ very good Aeon essay about the often-vertiginous reality of the deep past, which may be discomfiting to face but must be confronted should we hope to manage today and tomorrow’s challenges. In the opening, Thomas draws on Ray Bradbury’s 1965 essay “The Machine-Tooled Happyland,” which was inspired by his long-simmering anger over Julian Halevy’s decidedly negative 1955 Nation review of Disneyland’s opening.

Halevy identified Walt’s new theme park and its far more raffish cousin Las Vegas as twin examples of vulgar American escapism that was being driven by mounting conformity. This road to nowhere–or at least to un-realism–became eminently more crowded in the decades that followed with the emergence of Graceland, Comic-Con, Dungeons & Dragons, the Internet, Netflix, Facebook, Reality TV, cosplay, Virtual Reality, Pokémon Go and, finally, a garbage-mouthed game show host for a President. Halevy’s concluding sentences:

I’m writing about Disneyland and Las Vegas to make another point: that both these institutions exist for the relief of tension and boredom, as tranquilizers for social anxiety, and that they both provide fantasy experiences in which not-so-secret longings are pseudo-satisfied. Their huge profits and mushrooming growth suggest that as conformity and adjustment become more rigidly imposed on the American scene, the drift to fantasy relief will become a flight. So make your reservations early.•

“The drift to fantasy relief will become a flight,” may be the most ominous and truest prediction made in mid-century America.

One decade later, Bradbury, whose devotion to Disney was rivaled only by Charles Laughton, struck back at Halevy in his response in Holiday. More puzzling than the writer’s unbridled appreciation for Disney’s still-crude animatronics in a time when real rockets were traveling through space, were his views on the future of history. Bradbury believed machines in “audio-animatronic museums” could make the inscrutable past uniform, could bring it to life. He wrote: “One problem of man is believing in his past.”

When he asserts that in 2065 “Caesar, computerized, [will] speak in the Forum,” he was unwittingly describing Virtual Reality far more than robotics. He believed new tools would finally get humanity on the same page, that history would be taught by robotics that were controlled by a seer like Disney, not fully comprehending a decentralized age would allow for the remixing and distorting of history on an epic scale, and that all of it, even slavery and the Holocaust, could be reduced to entertainment or worse. 

Bradbury did, however, have some inkling of the potential pitfalls, writing: “Am I frightened by any of this? Yes, certainly. For these audio-animatronic museums must be placed in hands that will build the truths as well as possible, and lie only through occasional error.”

The full essay:


The wondrous devices of Disneyland take on startling importance in the mind of a science fiction seer

Two thousand years back, people entering Grecian temples dropped coins into machinery that then clanked forth holy water.

It is a long way from that first slot machine to the “miracles of rare device” created by Walt Disney for his kingdom, Disneyland. When Walt Whitman wrote, “I sing the Body Electric,” he little knew he was guessing the motto of our robot-dominated society. I believe Disney’s influence will be felt centuries from today. I say that Disney and Disneyland can be prime movers of our age.

But before I offer proof, let me sketch my background. At twelve, I owned one of the first Mickey Mouse buttons in Tucson, Arizona. At nineteen, sell­ing newspapers on a street corner, I lived in terror I might be struck by a car and killed before the premiere of Disney’s film extravaganza, Fantasia. In the last thirty years I have seen Fantasia fifteen times, Snow White twelve times, Pinocchio eight times. In sum, I was, and still am, a Disney nut.

You can imagine, then, how I regarded an article in the Nation some years ago that equated Disneyland with Las Vegas. Both communities, claimed the article, were vulgar, both represented American culture at its most corrupt, vile and terrible.

I rumbled for half an hour, then exploded. I sent a letter winging to the prim Nationeditors.

“Sirs,” it said, “like many intellectuals before me I delayed going to Disneyland, having heard it was just too dreadfully middle-class. One wouldn’t dream of being caught dead there.

“But finally a good friend jollied me into my first grand tour of the Magic Kingdom. I went…with one of the great children of our time: Charles Laughton.”

It is a good memory, the memory of the day Captain Bligh dragged me writhing through the gates of Disney­land. He plowed a furrow in the mobs; he surged ahead, one great all-envelop­ing presence from whom all fell aside. I followed in the wake of Moses as he bade the waters part, and part they did. The crowds dropped their jaws and, buffeted by the passage of his immense body through the shocked air, spun about and stared after us.

We made straight for the nearest boat—wouldn’t Captain Bligh?—the Jungle Ride.

Charlie sat near the prow, pointing here to crocodiles, there to bull elephants, farther on to feasting lions. He laughed at the wild palaver of our river­boat steersman’s jokes, ducked when pistols were fired dead-on at charging hippopotamuses, and basked face up in the rain, eyes shut, as we sailed under the Schweitzer Falls.

We blasted off in another boat, this one of the future, the Rocket to the Moon. Lord, how Bligh loved that.

And at dusk we circuited the Missis­sippi in the Mark Twain, with the jazz band thumping like a great dark heart, and the steamboat blowing its forlorn dragon-voice whistle, and the slow banks passing, and all of us topside, hands sticky with spun candy, coats snowed with popcorn salt, smiles hammer-tacked to our faces by one explosionof delight and surprise after another.

Then, weary children, Charlie the greatest child and most weary of all, we drove home on the freeway.

That night I could not help but remember a trip East when I got of a Greyhound in Las Vegas at three in the morning. I wandered through the mechanical din, through clusters of feverish women clenching robot devices, Indian-wrestling them two falls out of three. I heard the dry chuckle of coins falling out of chutes, only to be reinserted, redigested and lost forever in the machinery guts.

And under the shaded lights, the green-visored men and women dealing cards, dealing cards, noiselessly, ex­pressionlessly, numbly, with viper motions, flicking chips, rolling dice, taking money, stacking chips—showing no joy, no fun, no love, no care, unhearing, silent and blind. Yet on and on their hands moved. The hands belonged only to themselves. While across from these ice-cold Erector-set people, I saw the angered lust of the grapplers, the snatchers, the forever losing and the always lost.

I stayed in Dante’s Las Vegas Inferno for one hour, then climbed back on my bus, taking my soul locked between my ribs, careful not to breathe it out where someone might snatch it, press it, fold it and sell it for a two-buck chip.

In sum, if you lifted the tops of the Las Vegas gamblers’ craniums you would find  watch cogs, black hair­springs, levers, wheels in wheels all apurr and agrind. Tap them, they’d leak lubricant. Bang them, they’d bell like aluminum tambourines. Slap their cheeks and a procession of dizzy lemons and cherries would fly by under their cocked eyelids. Shoot them and they’d spurt nuts and bolts.

Vegas’s real people are brute robots, machine-tooled bums.

Disneyland’s robots are, on the other hand, people, loving, caring and eter­nally good.

Essence is everything.

What final point do I choose to make in the comparison? It is this: we live in an age of one billion robot devices that surround, bully, change and sometimes destroy us. The metal-and-plastic machines are all amoral. But by their design and function they lure us to be better or worse than we might otherwise be.

In such an age it would be foolhardy to ignore the one man who is building human qualities into robots—robots whose influence will be ricocheting off social and political institutions ten thousand afternoons from today.

Snobbery now could cripple our intellectual development. After I had heard too many people sneer at Disney and his audio-animatronic Abraham Lincoln in the Illinois exhibit at the New York World’s Fair, I went to the Disney robot factory in Glendale. I watched the finishing touches being put on a second computerized, electric- and air-pressure-driven humanoid that will “live” at Disneyland from this summer on. I saw this new effigy of Mr. Lincoln sit, stand, shift his arms, turn his wrists, twitch his fingers, put his hands behind his back, turn his head, look at me, blink and prepare to speak. In those few moments I was filled with an awe I have rarely felt in my life.

Only a few hundred years ago all this would have been considered blasphemous, I thought. To create man is not man’s business, but God’s, it would have been said. Disney and every technician with him would have been bundled and burned at the stake in 1600.

And again, I thought, all of this was dreamed before. From the fantastic geometric robot drawings of Bracelli in 1624 to the mechanical people in Capek’s R.U.R. in 1925, others have conceived and drawn metallic extensions of man and his senses, or played at it in theater.

But the fact remains that Disney is the first to make a robot that is convincingly real, that looks, speaks and acts like a man. Disney has set the history of humanized robots on its way toward wider, more fantastic excur­sions into the needs of civilization.

Send your mind on to the year 2065. A mere century from now set yourself down with a group of children enter­ing an audio-animatronic museum. In­side, you find the primal sea from which we swam and crawled up on the land. In that sea, the lizard beasts that tore the air with strange cries for a million on a million years. Robot animals feasting and being feasted upon as robot apeman waits in the wings for the nightmare blood to cease flowing.

Farther on you see robot cavemen frictioning fire into existence, bringing a mammoth down in a hairy avalanche, curing pelts, drawing quicksilver horse flights like flashes of motion pictures on cavern walls.

Robot Vikings treading the Vinland coastal sands.

Caesar, computerized, speaks in the Forum. falls in the Senate, lies dead and perfect as Antony declaims over his body for the ten-thousandth time.

Napoleon, ticking as quietly as a clockshop, at Waterloo.

Generals Grant and Lee alive again at Appomattox.

King John, all hums and oiled whirs at Runnymede, signing Magna Charta.

Fantastic? Perhaps. Ridiculous? Somewhat. Nonsensical? Vulgar? A touch. Not worth the doing? Worth doing a thousand times over.

For one problem of man is believing in his past.

We have had to take on faith the unproven events of unproven years. For all the reality of ruins and scrolls and tablets, we fear that much of what we read has been made up. Artifacts may be no more than created symbols, artificial skeletons thrown together to fit imaginary closets. The reality, even of the immediate past, is irretrievable.

Thus, through half belief, we are often doomed to repeat that very past we should have learned from.

But now through audio-animatronics, robot mechanics, or if you prefer, the science of machines leaning their warm shadows toward humanity, we can grasp and fuse the best of two art forms.

Motion pictures suffer from not be­ing “real” or three-dimensionally pres­ent. Their great asset is that they can be perfect. That is, a director of genius can shoot, cut, reshoot, edit and re-edit his dream until it is just the way he wants it. His film, locked in a time cap­sule and opened five centuries later, would still contain his ideal in exactly the form he set for it.

The theater suffers from a reverse problem. Live drama is indeed more real, it is “there” before you in the flesh. But it is not perfect. Out of thirty-odd performances a month, only once, perhaps, will all the actors to­gether hit the emotional peak they are searching for.

Audio-animatronics borrows the per­fection of the cinema and marries it to the “presence” of stage drama.

To what purpose?

So that at long last we may begin to believe in every one of man’s many million days upon this Earth.

Emerging from the robot museums of tomorrow, your future student will say: I know, I believe in the history of the Egyptians, for this day I helped lay the cornerstone of the Great Pyramid.

Or, I believe Plato actually existed, for this afternoon under a laurel tree in a lovely country place I heard him discourse with friends, argue by the quiet hour; the building stones of a great Republic fell from his mouth.

Now at last see how Hitler derived his power. I stood in the stadium at Nuremberg, I saw his fists beat on the air, I heard his shout and the echoing shout of the mob and the ranked armies. For some while I touched the living fabric of evil. I knew the terrible and tempting beauty of such stuffs. I smelled the torches that burned the books. I turned away and came out for air…. Beyond, in that museum, lies Belsen, and beyond that, Hiroshima…. Tomorrow I will go there.

For these students it will not be his­tory was but history is.

Not Aristotle lived and died, but Aristotle is in residence this very hour, just down the way.

Not Lincoln’s funeral train forever lost in the crepe of time, but Lincoln eternally journeying from Springfield to Washington to save a nation.

Not Columbus sailed but Columbus sails tomorrow morning; sign up, take ship, go along.

Not Cortez sighted Mexico, but Cortez makes landfall at 3 P.M. by the robot museum clock. This instant, Montezuma waits to be wound-up and sent on his way.

Perhaps out of all this fresh seeing and knowing will come such under­standing as will stop our cycling round to repeat our past.

Do I make too much of this? Perhaps. Nothing is guaranteed. We are wandering in the childhood of machines. When we and the machines ma­ture, who can say what we might ac­complish together?

Am I frightened by any of this? Yes, certainly. For these audio-animatronic museums must be placed in hands that will build the truths as well as possible, and lie only through occasional error. Otherwise we shall end in the company of Baron Frankenstein and some AC-DC Genghis Khan.

The new appreciation of history begins with the responsibility in the hands of a man I trust, Walt Disney. In Disneyland he has proven again that the first function of architecture is to make men over make them wish to go on living, feed them fresh oxygen, grow them tall, delight their eyes, make them kind.

Disneyland liberates men to their better selves. Here the wild brute is gently corralled, not wised and squashed, not put upon and harassed, not tromped on by real-estate operators, nor exhausted by smog and traffic.

What works at Disneyland should work in the robots that Disney, and others long after him, invent and send forth upon the land.

I rest my case by sending you at your next free hour to Disneyland itself. There you will collect your own evidence. There you will see the happy faces of people.

I don’t mean dumb-cluck happy, I don’t mean men’s-club happy or sewing-circle happy. I mean truly happy.

No beatniks here. No Cool people with Cool faces pretending not to care, thus swindling themselves out of life or any chance for life.

Disneyland causes you to care all over again. You feel it is that first day in the spring of that special year when you discovered you were really alive. You return to those morns in childhood when you woke and lay in bed and thought, eyes shut, “Yes, sir, the guys will be here any sec. A pebble will tap the window, a dirt clod will horse-thump the roof, a yell will shake the treehouse slats.”

And then you woke fully and the rock did bang the roof and the yell shook the sky and your tennis shoes picked you up and ran you out of the house into living.

Disneyland is all that. I’m heading there now. Race you?•

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According to a new BuzzFeed News article by Ryan Mac, Peter Thiel is now privately concerned that the Trump Administration is inept and may end in disaster. What was your first hint, Dr. IQ?

What’s most worrisome about the Silicon Valley “genius” who staunchly supported both Iraq invasion and the Trump campaign, isn’t that he didn’t notice how incompetent his candidate was, but that he truly believed this President and Bannon and Miller would successfully carry out a deeply bigoted, sociopathic agenda. That says as much about Thiel as it does about Trump.

When, oh when, will Americans stop equating those with wealth with those with wisdom?

Mac’s opening:

Donald Trump’s most prominent Silicon Valley supporter has distanced himself from the president in multiple private conversations, describing at different points this year an “incompetent” administration, and one that may well end in “disaster.”

Peter Thiel’s unguarded remarks have surprised associates, some of whom are still reeling from his full-throated endorsement of Trump at the Republican National Convention. And while the investor stands by the president in public — “I support President Trump in his ongoing fight,” he said in a statement to BuzzFeed News — his private doubts underscore the fragility of the president’s backing from even his most public allies. Thiel’s comments may sting in particular in the White House as they come amid a series of hasty and embarrassed departures from the Trump train, as conservative voices from the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page to the floor of the US Senate have begun to distance themselves from the administration.

Thiel’s views remain private — but various disparaging comments were recounted to BuzzFeed News by three separate sources, and others who subsequently confirmed those accounts. These people requested anonymity for fear of damaging personal relationships and possible retribution.

While Thiel told Trump that he is off to a “terrific start” at a White House event in June, his previous statements to friends and associates did not reflect that sentiment. In half a dozen private conversations with friends that were described to BuzzFeed News dating from spring 2016 to as recently as May, Thiel, who served on the Presidential Transition Team Executive Committee, has criticized Trump and his administration and developed increasingly pessimistic feelings about the president.

The sources who talked with BuzzFeed News spent time with Thiel in private group settings before and after the election at his homes in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Hawaii, engaging in candid discussions on the PayPal cofounder’s politics and his backing of Trump. At one event with friends in January 2017, Thiel said of Trump’s presidency that “there is a 50% chance this whole thing ends in disaster,” according to two people who were in attendance. In other conversations, he questioned the president’s ability to be reelected.

Thiel, through a spokesperson, did not deny any of the quotes attributed to him by his friends and associates when approached by BuzzFeed News.

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I wrote the following in November 2015 as an introduction to a report about Donald Trump’s bizarre attacks on Ben Carson, who was then his closest competitor and now is his HUD Secretary:

Considering the poll numbers of Donald Trump and Ben Carson, we all owe Sarah Palin an apology, don’t you think? 

You remember Sarah Palin, right? She was a bear-meat peddler who briefly governed the petro-socialist state of Alaska. I think she once hired a hit man to kill a rival cheerleader. Okay, I’m not sure about that part. That might have been the plot of a Lifetime movie I watched once in an airport lounge. But it still brings her to mind, doesn’t it?

I can still recall those halcyon days of 2008 when a Sarah Palin took the stage at the Republican National Convention and won the hearts and minds of those Caucasian Americans who were waiting for a spiteful poseur to express their grievances in a pre-Duck Dynasty version of a Maoist “Speak Bitterness” meeting. Scrutiny did not become her, however, and Palin was eventually voted off the island due to her sheer idiocy and meanness, exiled to Elba or Arizona or somewhere. Now she’s merely a hologram of hate, activated occasionally in her camera-filled basement.

Those incredibly unfair standards of basic competency, decency and honesty are no longer with us less than a decade later, so on behalf of everyone, I’ll offer a mea culpa: Sorry, you horrible person, that you aren’t the dangerously unprepared nutbag to capture the imagination of white nationalist half-wits this time around. Take solace in knowing that this year’s models and their overt bigotry have served to redeem you from the absolute worst to almost the absolute worst, the way you once managed to make Dan Quayle seem interchangeable with Thomas Jefferson. You wore your simple mind on your sleeve but at least not on your hat.•

More on the Palin-Trump continuum from Ana Marie Cox’s smart NYT Magazine Q&A with Nicole Wallace:


What do you think it’s like working at the White House right now? 

Nicole Wallace:

There’s a pretty high level of alarm based on how easy it is to get people to talk about what’s actually happening inside the White House, and you never know the whole story. As chaotic and dysfunctional as it looks from the outside, from my experience with Sarah Palin, I know what’s known and discussed publicly is usually just the tip of the iceberg.


Do you think we still know only the tip of the iceberg with Palin? 

Nicole Wallace:

Well, what I think was unknown was the degree of her rejection of us asking her to do anything that wasn’t her own idea. We were dealing with someone who was maybe ahead of her time. Her irreverence and disdain for the establishment of her own party and her embrace of the ‘‘isms’’ — nativism, isolationism, you know — she blew the walls out on the political norms before Donald Trump did. She was obviously onto something. She had crowds five times the size of McCain’s. We think it was all about her political skills, but it was also about her message. She railed against the mainstream media, she attacked all of us, her own advisers. That her audiences were so enthusiastic about that was the early signal that the party had changed.•

Trump should fear cases being built against him by Robert Mueller and state Attorney Generals, but perhaps what should horrify him most is a case of buyer’s remorse on the part of the Kremlin.

The Putin-Trump bromance was never about any personal respect–at least not on the part of the Russian dictator. Sanctions by America and European nations stemming from the aggression against Ukraine have done serious damage to the country’s banking sector. Strong, often-illicit support for Trump by the Kremlin was supposed to harm the U.S. at the minimum and potentially elect a friendly and compromised figure–which, amazingly, is what happened. The more successful outcome was supposed to result in the removal of all sanctions.

As has happened so often with Trump in his business career, his payments have thus far not yet materialized. Even worse for his budding relationship with the murderous dictator, the President was cowed into signing a fresh sanctions bill that had overwhelming bilateral support. In addition to Dmitry Medvedev lashing out at the Trump’s “total impotence,” Putin’s propaganda outlet RT also struck back.

Here’s RT strongly supporting Trump’s Youngstown yuckfest on July 26, prior to his reluctantly signing a bill enacting new sanctions against Russia.

Today, just after the bill signing, RT published a strikingly critical opinion piece by John Lee that would have been right at home in Mother Jones. 

Whether this essay is a stern warning to Trump or a “Dear John” letter, time will tell, but any revenge on Trump by the Kremlin will be executed in such a way as to most injure America, not just its President.

Two excerpts from Lee’s op-ed:

When Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States we clung to fragile hope. We hoped he could morph from the wild, aggressive and boorish candidate into a moderately good president.

After he vanquished Hillary Clinton, I was one of those who hoped that he might bring a fresh approach to politics in a stagnant, divided and risk-averse Washington. He couldn’t really be that bad, could he?

Millions of American voters and I were wrong. He really is that bad.

It seems an eon ago if we cast our thoughts back to the turn of the year, but there was actually some optimism about the Trump presidency.

When Bill Clinton’s Democratic presidency was engulfed in controversy almost 20 years ago, the Republicans unsuccessfully tried to have him impeached. The savage battles that raged over Clinton – a president who embarrassed the nation – poisoned Washington. DC became rabidly bipartisan and never recovered its moderation. Democrats opposed Republicans and vice versa for the sake of it. And nothing could be done, business ground to a halt. President Barack Obama, though in comparison to Trump a credit to his country, never fulfilled his promise. The Republicans blocked his projects. He failed in his promise to fix broken politics.

Trump capitalized on this paralysis. In the post-crash recovery, the forgotten white working man turned to Trump and voted for him, to expel the establishment candidate Hillary Clinton and her like from Washington. Many minority groups backed Trump too.

Last year Republicans secured majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Trump had everything going for him.

Perhaps he could drain the Washington swamp.

Perhaps he could bring a businessman’s efficiency to getting Washington working again. Most of all he promised to drain the swamp. Perhaps Trump, outsider with no political experience, could finally fix American politics in a way that Obama couldn’t.

This week, barely eight months after Trump’s inauguration, the poll ratings of the reality TV star turned president hit rock bottom. Trump isn’t great on detail, but the former TV personality will understand ratings.

Now 61 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Donald Trump is doing. The national poll was conducted by the highly regarded Quinnipiac University Polling Institute and is fascinating when you drill down into the numbers. It is an appalling indictment of the US Commander in Chief that 62 percent believe Trump is not honest.

And, most damagingly, 50 percent of white voters with no college degree disapprove of the president. Since seven percent didn’t express an opinion in this section just 43 percent approve of him.

Not only is America as a whole resoundingly turning on Trump, his key support base the blue collar worker of the Rust Belt is turning on him too.

America, that brash nation, is embarrassed. A majority of respondents said they were embarrassed by their president.

Now in the latest round of leaks, it appears he can’t even observe decorum in what are supposed to be routine phone calls with world leaders.

The broken politics of Washington’s near past is now being shattered under Trump.

· · ·

One is tempted to call Sean Spicer Trump’s “long serving” Communications Director such is the impact he has made. Spicer only lasted 183 days. I met him at the White House during the St Patrick’s Day Irish American event, and even then he looked haunted. He got off to a rocky start when he tried to defend Trump’s strange claims about the crowd at his inauguration and didn’t recover. He had become a feature of the Saturday Night Live comedy TV program in that short time. Quite something for a press officer.

Spicer opposed the appointment of Anthony ‘the Mooch’ Scaramucci as another Communications Director.

Scaracmucci, a New York financier who is friends with Trump, opposed Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.

Priebus was fired. Former Homeland Security chief John Kelly was brought in to replace Preibus. He demanded Scaramucci be got rid of so the Mooch was fired after ten days.

In those ten days, Scaramucci had brought further shame and dishonor to the White House with an expletive filled interview with a journalist.

As I watch this ludicrous, juvenile farce play out it occurred to me that all these people have become household names.

I asked myself a question. Had any of Barack Obama’s communications directors made any impact on US national consciousness or the global media landscape? Do you recall Obama’s communications directors Ellen Moran, Anita Dunn, Dan Pfeiffer, Jennifer Palmieri or Jen Psaki with any great alacrity? But the world knows Spicer and the Mooch.

Similarly Preibus and John Kelly are now well known. Obama’s three chiefs of staff – Bill Daley, Jack Lew and Denis McDonough were, well, hardly known outside political circles.

It is because the White House has become a grotesque, excruciating freak show that these people and their infighting and tit for tat leaking are receiving any notice. The circus and its clowns are important for two reasons. Firstly, because they represent the president, leak on his behalf and defend his behavior and twitter rants. And secondly, they represent the type of management style he favors.•

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