Excerpts

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It takes a village to create tyranny. It takes all kinds. 

One type is Thomas Williams, a former Catholic priest defrocked after fathering a child, who proselytizes for Breitbart in Europe despite having major reservations about Steve Bannon, a gutter-level bigot who’s soon to be White House Chief Strategist. Somehow the former holy man talked himself into accepting and keeping the job despite disagreeing with border walls and Brexit. The story is a little Thorn Birds with a generous helping of The Turner Diaries.

What allowed Williams such latitude in his moral judgement that he could aid Bannon and his disgraceful worldview? Well, he doesn’t appear to be a financial opportunist nor a hatemonger (despite some unfortunate opinions about Muslims). Perhaps his brain is just programmed to accept missions? Or maybe he fell prey to the same blind spot that allowed him in his earlier incarnation to steadfastly defend the innocence of a Catholic leader ultimately proven to have sexually abused children. 

Either way or some other way, Williams is on board and in Rome, using his skills to promote a platform that spreads the word of white nationalists and anti-Semites, while fully understanding the destructive nature of Bannon. As he says of his boss in Jason Horowitz’s excellent New York Times profile: “I think he prefers tearing down to building up, honestly.”

An excerpt:

Mr. Williams, amiable and soft-spoken, seems a discordantly gentle voice in the strident Breitbart chorus.

He said his time in the public eye had made him extra sensitive to inflicting harm and he lamented the “horrible” Breitbart commenters. Referring to the laptop computer on his dining room table, he noted, with a hint of sarcasm, that his home office — where he keeps a reliquary of bone chips of Dominican saints and framed photographs of Pope Benedict XVI smiling with his mother-in-law, a former United States ambassador to the Holy See — was “pretty nondescript for a subversive, alt-right, world-changing organization.”

From the beginning of his talks with Mr. Bannon, he said, Mr. Williams had expressed wariness about the website’s tone.

“Breitbart seemed like the exact opposite of everything I had been trained for and naturally tended towards,” the former priest said. “Which was help people understand each other, smooth over differences, show maybe you are not as far apart as you think.”

Mr. Williams had first met Mr. Bannon in 2003 through a mutual friend who was producing Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” on which Mr. Williams worked as the theological consultant. (“Mostly just to say things like, ‘You can’t do that,’” Mr. Williams said.)

“I thought he was a little crazy,” Mr. Williams said of Mr. Bannon. “I knew he was in this media stuff and he had all these theories about everything.”•

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Enjoyed reading Brian Lee Crowley’s recent Globe & Mail editorial, “There Will Always Be Work — It’s Part of the Human Condition,” which may ultimately prove correct, but some of his reasoning seems unduly optimistic to me.

One example: The writer argues work will persist because we need it to from a psychological standpoint. While we can will some things we desire into being, we shouldn’t accept we absolutely can. Down deep, I always feel toil will somehow find us, but jobs need not only exist but also must pay a living wage. In the case that enough good-paying employment doesn’t materialize, we better have a solid backup plan or we risk societal collapse.

Crowley also is of the opinion that Universal Basic Income is a bad idea because work provides a societal good beyond just the product or service it creates. It certainly does, though we should probably experiment with at least negative income tax since industries are bound to increasingly rise and fall rather quickly, leaving many rough patches in their wake. Not every former cab driver will be able to be upskilled into a self-driving car engineer. Some will be left, whether temporarily or permanently, on the side of the road.

An excerpt:

This nightmare scenario of vast armies of purposeless human wraiths wandering the earth, despite its emotional resonance, however, is not borne out in the real world.

First, the idea that there is a fixed amount of work is quite wrong, making the fact machines do a growing amount of work irrelevant. Work is necessary to satisfy human wants and needs, and these are infinite.

Think about how much of the average person’s time is spent pondering what they would do if only they had the resources. Every time you picture the addition you want to put on the house, the pleasure you could get from the latest computer gadget, or how to find the money to keep your ageing mother in safe and humane care, you are thinking about work that you want to have done that isn’t being done now. Want to learn a language, travel abroad or get off the bus and into a car? These are all unfulfilled human desires and therefore sources of demand for work not now being performed.

Second, the obstacle to having this work performed is that we are not rich enough. The available resources are already occupied just producing what we currently consume. But mechanisation allows us to produce more with less and therefore to satisfy more human desires. As the Adam Smith Institute’s Tim Worstall points out, when 95 percent of all people had to work the land so that everyone could eat, hardly any labour was available for other purposes. Mechanisation of agriculture in the UK helped to create a society in which ten percent of the population can work for the National Health Service. In the US, technologically-unjustified employment fell in old industries like rail, steel and autos so that hundreds of thousands of people could be employed at Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Wal-Mart, not to mention the million start-ups from which these giants grew.

Third, understanding that all work is created by human need and desire means that the distinction between goods and services is meaningless. The idea that “great” societies make “things” (cars, air conditioners, steel) and services are somehow an inferior second cousin done by people who can’t get a real job is nonsensical. The need for intangibles like mental stimulation or culture or art or entertainment or accountancy is no different in principle than the need for tangible things. But because we must satisfy our physical needs first, only wealthy societies with high degrees of labour-freeing mechanisation can afford a vast creative class of chefs, musicians, painters, gamers, videographers, graphic designers, hackers, bloggers, yoga teachers and service entrepreneurs of every description. That’s why open societies that welcome dynamic creative change are better for people, especially if the growth change generates is used in part to help everyone make the transition from the old to the new. Here is where we are not yet getting it right.

The final reason work will not disappear is one of the most basic cravings of people: to relate to one another. Outside family, love and friendship work is probably the most important way we do this. We see the value in what we do reflected back at us by the value other people attach to it. That is why being unemployed is so soul-destroying, whereas when we work we feel valued. And no amount of social welfare can hide that fact, however justified and invaluable it may be in helping us get training or tiding us over temporary bouts of unemployment.

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Nobody knows exactly what’s going on,” Donald Trump declared in late December, speaking specifically about Russian hacking but also unintentionally describing his modus operandi. A lack of clarity certainly favors the demagogue, as jamming the system with fake news, shocking insults and nebulous policy positions was key to Trump’s political rise and is necessary to maintain his popularity. Nihilism and obfuscation are the tools and autocracy perhaps the goal, with all the double-talk sending dog whistles to those enamored with the Third Reich. At the very least, we’re staring at a kleptocracy that will enrich itself while causing the needless early deaths of countless Americans.

A blueprint for another means of undermining truth was established last year by Peter Thiel, a bloodthirsty technologist chock full of stupid ideas, who financed lawsuits by Hulk Hogan and others in order to bankrupt Gawker. The Paypal co-founder was so outraged by the indie media group, which he labeled a “singularly sociopathic bully,” that he immediately followed up his legal triumph by supporting for the highest office in the land a singularly sociopathic bully (no quotes necessary).  

Thiel claimed he would never utilize the method to attack any other news organization, but, of course, helping to create the machinery for a quick strike ensures others will employ similar tactics. Charles Harder, the lawyer who represented Hogan, is now handling a libel suit against Techdirt, another independent media property which can be driven out of business even if the company prevails.

In Jason Zengerle’s recent GQ profile of the lawyer, the display copy read: “Harder wants us to know he doesn’t hate journalists—he just wants to teach them some manners.” The lawyer acknowledged in the piece that he’s intrigued about possibly representing the President-Elect, who has absolutely no manners, in a potential libel suit against the New York Times, which, for all its storied history, is independently held. 

The opening of “Techdirt’s First Amendment Fight For Its Life,” the company’s open letter about its legal predicament:

As you may have heard, last week we were sued for $15 million by Shiva Ayyadurai, who claims to have invented email. We have written, at great length, about his claims and our opinion — backed up by detailed and thorough evidence — that email existed long before Ayyadurai created any software. We believe the legal claims in the lawsuit are meritless, and we intend to fight them and to win.

There is a larger point here. Defamation claims like this can force independent media companies to capitulate and shut down due to mounting legal costs. Ayyadurai’s attorney, Charles Harder, has already shown that this model can lead to exactly that result. His efforts helped put a much larger and much more well-resourced company than Techdirt completely out of business.

So, in our view, this is not a fight about who invented email. This is a fight about whether or not our legal system will silence independent publications for publishing opinions that public figures do not like.

And here’s the thing: this fight could very well be the end of Techdirt, even if we are completely on the right side of the law.

Whether or not you agree with us on our opinions about various things, I hope that you can recognize the importance of what’s at stake here. Our First Amendment is designed to enable a free and open press — a press that can investigate and dig, a press that can challenge and expose. And if prominent individuals can make use of a crippling legal process to silence that effort, or even to create chilling effects among others, we become a weaker nation and a weaker people because of it.•

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Read Trip Gabriel’s interesting New York Times article about rural Iowans’s blasé response to Trump’s holy-fuck transition wishing the journalist would have discussed one issue with those in the piece concerned about socialism, welfare and “Chicago people” (um, yes) taking their hard-earned money. Would have been great to ask them how they feel about the nation’s cities often subsidizing smaller communities like the ones they call home. There is all sorts of income redistribution in this country, and people have a tendency to avoid the “welfare” label when they’re on the receiving end.

Three brief excerpts from the piece follow.


Many were hazy on specific policy details about how, say, House Republicans were seeking to replace Medicare with a voucher system. These voters feared an outbreak of European-style terrorist attacks by Muslims in the United States, maybe in their own communities. And overwhelmingly, Trump supporters did not want their hard-earned money redistributed to people they regarded as undeserving.


Ms. Ell, 46, earns a base wage of $6.50 an hour at Jerry’s Main Lunch, a 14-seat restaurant across from the Burlington Northern Railroad tracks. As she bussed a table, Ms. Ell commiserated with Jackie Furman about those who take advantage of government aid.

“I think they should be drug-testing if they’re on welfare,” Ms. Ell said.

“The welfare system needs to be reorganized,” agreed Ms. Furman, a retired commercial bakery manager, complaining that “Chicago people” were moving to Burlington to receive higher benefits and bringing crime.


Mike Staudt, a retired farmer from Marble Rock, voted for Mr. Obama in 2012, but called the Affordable Care Act a form of socialism. He said he had no problem with a candidate who had run as the voice of the working people but was stocking his cabinet with the ultrawealthy.

“I know these guys are really rich,” he said. “They may have pulled off a few plays that weren’t exactly on the up-and-up, but they all had to be pretty smart to be billionaires. If they replace their own concerns with the concerns of the country, they can make things really move forward. That’s what I’m excited about.”•

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Read Peter Frase’s book Four Futures recently, and the author didn’t predict exactly what would happen tomorrow but provided a tour of what was possible. That’s wise.

In 2014, two young Princeton academics applied epidemiology to social networks to make a prognostication I’m sure they’d like wiped from the Internet: By 2017, Facebook would lose 80% of its users.

Missed by that much.

This Singularitarian moment is particularly given to all sorts of bold prophecies of technotopia by this year and machine superintelligence by that one. But isn’t there a way to look ahead without looking foolish?

In his most recent smart Wall Street Journal column, Christopher Mims explores how the methods of futurology can be employed by us all without giving rise to grandiose forecasts. He was surprised to learn that futurists seldom focus chiefly on technology when trying to divine what will be our path forward. The opening:

In 2004, Ford Motor Co.’s resident futurist, Sheryl Connelly, led a team that imagined what would happen if an economic shock and a rapid increase in the price of gasoline led to a crash in automotive sales. With the 2008 economic crash and subsequent bailout of the U.S. auto industry, it seemed as if their scenario had come true.

But did Ms. Connelly and her team really predict the future?

“I always feel compelled to tell people that the same group also spent time, albeit a short one, talking about what would happen if aliens were to land and religions reacted in a way that led societies to crumble because they have no more moral infrastructure,” says Ms. Connelly. 

Predicting the future, it turns out, isn’t what futurists do And in a funny way, that’s what makes their work so vital. Many futurists are convinced that, now more than ever, everyone needs to start thinking the way they do.

What futurists actually do is facilitate as groups of people work through a highly structured, sometimes months-long process of coming up with as many hypothetical futures as they can, in order to prepare for more or less anything.•

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It’s an amazement that in this new millennium people stopped talking on the phone, that we turned away from conversation that travels through the fucking air. That it happened exactly when phones got really good and really portable makes it even more striking. 

I always hated talking on the phone on account of my desire to shut the fuck up as much as possible, but I don’t even set up the voicemail on my personal line. I dream of ridding myself of email and Twitter, but I’ve already taken a stand on talking on the phone. I said “goodbye” and returned the receiver to its cradle. That baby will have to raise itself.

A text is inferior to a talk in almost every way. It’s far less human and less intimate (which is exactly why it’s preferred). I imagine Kazuo Ishiguro is capable of intimate tweets, but he may be the only one. 

Some clips from a recent Douglas Coupland Financial Times column about this modern disconnect:

My mother is convinced I have a secret phone with a secret phone number. I try to tell her that nobody speaks on phones these days, but she won’t believe it. My outgoing message on my cell is that I don’t check messages. I don’t. I haven’t checked voicemail in more than two years. People still sometimes leave messages. It’s their choice. Gosh! I wonder if I have any voicemail! Not.

• • •

I remember rotary dial phones. They were produced after the second world war in New Jersey by a US government-sanctioned monopoly called Bell Labs. The government thought communications were far too important to be left in the hands of raw capitalism and, to their credit, Bell Labs designed phones of stunning durability — just ask anyone from a household full of children back then. BTW, I’ve also noticed that nobody forgets their first phone number and everyone remembers the phone number of their friend early on in life. Perhaps no longer. Current phone numbers often resemble gene sequences in their length and complexity. Who’d want to remember one? Remember something that might come in useful instead, like pi.

• • •

The central idea of this essay is that nobody speaks on the phone any more. A corollary of this is that people once did. While I have fond memories of phoning people (phone call + cigarette = heaven), I’d never want to go back to it. Why dawdle or waste time when a quick text or two can do the trick? This is a trick question because you have to ask yourself, what are you going to do with all the time you saved by texting and not phoning? The answer: send more texts.

• • •

I remember having fun on the phone. Phones were once the only game in town. The experience of using one was far more charged than might now be imagined. But then, sometimes, only the phone will do. It was around midnight Pacific time when I found out David Bowie died; I spent the next three hours calling friends around the planet. Email didn’t cut it, so there you go.•

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Mentioned yesterday there were four questions submitted to Julian Assange’s Reddit Ask Me Anything that I hoped the Wikileaks EIC would address. The layout for the AMAs is sort of a mess, but from what I can quickly ascertain, it seems he responded to just one of them, though a good one. Assange skirts much of the inquiry’s substance, most likely because it speaks uncomfortable truths to his own stated philosophies about privacy, but it’s still worth reading.

The exchange:

Question:

People frequently group you together with Edward Snowden because you’ve both released classified American documents. But your motivations and philospophies couldn’t be more different.

Snowden claims to fight for privacy. He’s called privacy the bedrock of freedom, that one cannot be free without privacy.

You have called privacy obsolete and unsustainable. You’ve said that privacy has no inherent value. You appear to believe privacy and freedom are incompatible, that you cannot be free if others can keep secrets from you. You’ve published the credit card numbers, social security numbers, medical information, and sexual preferences of individuals of zero public interest. Two of your most recent publications are the personal Gmail inboxes of civilians, exactly the sort of thing Snowden has tried to protect.

Can you convince me that you’re right and Snowden’s wrong?

Julian Assange:

Edward Snowden is a whistleblower. He committed an important and brave act, which we supported. I worked with our legal team to get him out of Hong Kong and to a place of asylum. No other media organization did that. Not the Guardian, which had been publishing his material. Nor did Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, not even any institution from a government. It was WikiLeaks that acted. A small, investigative publisher, which understands computer security, cryptography, the National Security Agency, which I have been publishing about for more than ten years, and asylum law, because of my situation.

We couldn’t have a situation where Edward Snowden ends up in a position like Chelsea Manning and is used as a general deterrent to other whistleblowers stepping forward. Edward would have been imprisoned at any moment in Hong Kong and would have then been turned into the propaganda that if you’re trying to do something important as a whistleblower, your voice will stopped and you’ll be placed in prison in very adverse conditions.

We wanted the opposite. We wanted a general incentive for others to step forward. That’s for philosophical reasons, because we understand the threat of mass surveillance, but it’s also understandable for institutional reasons. WikiLeaks specializes in publishing what whistleblowers reveal and if there’s a chill on sources stepping forward, that’s not good for us as an institution. On the other hand, if people see yes, it’s good for sources to step forward, then there will be more of them.

On full publication versus the sadly limited publication of Snowden files–Edward Snowden hasn’t really had a choice. He has had various views that have shifted over time, but he is in a position where we made sure he had given the documents on him to journalists before he left Hong Kong. Both Edward Snowden and I assessed that it would be a dangerous bait for him to be carrying laptops with NSA material on it, as he transited through Russia to Latin America. That might be something that would cause the Russians to hold him. So he and we made sure he had nothing. Since the point of those initial disclosures, Edward Snowden hasn’t been able to control how his publications have been used.

Edward has been a very important voice in talking about the importance of different aspects of them, but he has had no control. The result is that more than 97% of the Snowden documents have been censored. Enormously important material censored and while there have been some good journalists working on them, and I think Glenn Greenwald is one of the best journalists publishing in the United States, you have to have hundreds of people and engineers working on material like this to understand what is going on.

We have a different position to those media organizations that have effectively privatized and limited that material. You can’t say that the initial publications had all the important docs. There have been more publications slowly as time goes by. Even some within the past two months. Those publications, for example, include ways to find interception sites in the United States used by the NSA. There are covert procedures to visiting those sites. Now, if those had been released in 2013, investigative journalists and individuals could have gone to those sites before there was a physical cover-up. That’s true in the United States and it’s true in Europe and elsewhere. I am sad about how the impact of the Snowden archive has been minimized, as a result of privatizing and censoring nearly all of it.•

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  • For his racist trolling of the first African-American President over his birth certificate, which was based on an “extremely credible source,” Donald Trump deserves every Twitter urine joke splashed his way, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t bizarre for BuzzFeed to release unverified, unsubstantiated documents (though WikiLeaks should really leave the criticism to others). The site certainly was right to have reported on the intel briefings Trump and President Obama received on the matter, but things should have been left there until the rest of the information was corroborated. It’s no surprise that didn’t happen since BuzzFeed isn’t a pillar of journalism but what was offered as a cheap substitute once the towers began foundering. That’s where we are now, and BuzzFeed is hardly the worst of what we’ve got. It’s still nowhere near as egregious as Breitbart, Fox, the National Enquirer, etc.
  • Wouldn’t be surprised if the peeing-on-the-Obama-bed detail originated from the same type of mentality that turned out the Rolling Stone faux UVA rape article, a piece seemingly engineered for maximum outrage. Anything is possible–I mean Trump is sick–but if Russia has recordings of deviant behavior by the President-Elect, I would guess the details are different. How much worse can it be, though, than the sexually predatory abuses we already know about?
  • The potential conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, however, is a huge deal. From the GOP candidate publicly encouraging the Kremlin to hack the election to the close ties he and and his inner circle have to Putin to the Fisa warrant request to Rudy Giuliani’s cryptic comments about a “pretty big surprise” days before James Comey’s shocking (and baseless) reopening of the FBI investigation into HRC emails, there likely were plenty of machinations to subvert a free election. There always are some degree of shenanigans, but this election was extraordinary by normal standards. It wasn’t business as usual. 

In addition to upsetting journalistic traditions by changing the economy of news, the Internet has proven to abet political tribalism, allowing for narrowcasting and encouraging groups to circle wagons. Amanda Taub’s New York Times piece “The Real Story About Fake News Is Partisanship” looks at these phenomena, though I’ll risk being labeled a partisan by saying that I don’t think there’s exact equivalence on the left and right in this matter. The heartbreaking demagogic appeal to racism and anti-Semitism during this cycle has been almost solely the product of a perversion of the modern GOP. An excerpt:

Partisan tribalism makes people more inclined to seek out and believe stories that justify their pre-existing partisan biases, whether or not they are true.

“If I’m a rabid Trump voter and I don’t know much about public affairs, and I see something about some scandal about Hillary Clinton’s aides being involved in an assassination attempt, or that story about the pope endorsing Trump, then I’d be inclined to believe it,” Mr. Iyengar said. “This is reinforcing my beliefs about the value of a Trump candidacy.”

And Clinton voters, he said, would be similarly drawn to stories that deride Mr. Trump as a demagogue or a sexual predator.

Sharing those stories on social media is a way to show public support for one’s partisan team — roughly the equivalent of painting your face with team colors on game day.

“You want to show that you’re a good member of your tribe,” Mr. Westwood said. “You want to show others that Republicans are bad or Democrats are bad, and your tribe is good. Social media provides a unique opportunity to publicly declare to the world what your beliefs are and how willing you are to denigrate the opposition and reinforce your own political candidates.”

Partisan bias fuels fake news because people of all partisan stripes are generally quite bad at figuring out what news stories to believe. Instead, they use trust as a shortcut. Rather than evaluate a story directly, people look to see if someone credible believes it, and rely on that person’s judgment to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.•

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Walter Winchell died twice, and there was plenty of room at the second funeral.

The first demise was the radio and newspaper gossip’s public persona, which all but vanished in his later years, when he remarkably outlived what had been an outsize fame, unrivaled in thirties and forties American media. A figure of immense power in his heyday, Winchell was vicious and vindictive, often feared and seldom loved, the inspiration for the seedy and cynical J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success. 

When journalism matured in the 1960s, when college-educated industry professionals began saying “ellipsis” rather than “dot dot dot,” and Winchell had no power left, people were finally able to turn away from him, and turn they did. He was almost literally kicked to the curb, as Larry King recalled seeing the aged reporter standing on Los Angeles street corners handing out mimeographed copies of his no-longer-syndicated column. By the time he passed away in the corporeal sense in 1972, he was but already buried, and his daughter was the lone mourner in attendance.

Prior to writing about Frank SerpicoJoseph Valachi and Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, journalist Peter Maas profiled the gossip in the early stages of his decline phase for Collier’s with the 1956 article “Prowling the Night Beat with Walter Winchell.” The opening:

In all the kaleidoscopic years from bootleg liquor to the hydrogen bomb, few figures have been more consistently or controversially both creator and chronicler of news than a fifty-nine-year-old former song-and-dance man named Walter Winchell. Winchell, whose schooling terminated in the sixth grade, has seen his contributions to the language (infanticipating, Chicagorilla) duly noted by H. L. Mencken and included in freshman English textbooks. As the originator of the modem gossip column, he upended journalistic technique. His syndicated commentaries built him a huge national audience, later multiplied by his staccato Sunday-night (215 words a minute) newscasts. This fall he has added another dimension to a phenomenal career as the star of his own TV variety show over NBC.

Winchell’s waking hours, once merely frantic, now approach final chaos. His nightly prowlings about Manhattan are punctuated by the conversational delivery of an animated typewriter. Shortly after seven one recent evening, he strode briskly up Broadway (“the Sappian Way”) to Lindy’s Restaurant, fortified himself against the hours ahead with a chocolate soda, poetically signed a little girl’s menu (“Bread is food / Water is drink / An autograph is just some ink”), described to early dinner arrivals a five-alarm fire (“Oh, did you miss the action!”), acknowledged (“Hello”) the greeting of a former member of Murder, Inc., and an hour later abruptly left with a dozen people yet vying for his ear.

Backstage at a nearby theater, he asked Sammy Davis, Jr., to appear on his TV show, commented on his recent split with Stork Club owner Sherman Billingsley (“I think I’ll open Winchell’s Bar and Grill across the street”), dropped into a Broadway music shop as he regularly does to listen to both sides of a Roberta Sherwood record (“She doesn’t want to open an engagement without me”), paused outside to talk to an elderly lady (“1 know you, you’re Mrs. America!”) and then said, as he invariably does at some point in the night, “Let’s go chase the burglars.”

Thus, at ten o’clock, he rolled forth in his car (complete with short-wave receiver) to answer all police and fire calls within striking distance. Along with the mambo, this is his principal mode of relaxation. Most police officers know him by sight now and, if not, his standard introduction, “My name’s Winchell; I’m a reporter,” usually suffices.

At a Signal 30 (crime of violence) this night he arrived simultaneously with the police and pistol in hand (“What am I doing this for? I’m fiftynine years old”) gave chase to a hoodlum—who eventually escaped. Soon thereafter, he attended a political reception where he lectured Tammany bigwig Carmine De Sapio on the shortcomings of the Truman administration. He then left to go to a night club, El Morocco, hastily munched a steak sandwich, whirled through several mambos with Elizabeth Taylor (when she said it was her first dance in five years, he told her, “That’s why marriages break up” ) and invited Deborah Kerr and a 20th Century-Fox executive to ride in the car. Upon depositing Miss Kerr at her hotel at 4:00 A.M., he invited her to appear on his TV show. When 20th Century demurred on the grounds of conflicting films, he later noted, “Now I’ll have to give raves to her next three pictures, good or bad. Because they’ll be saying, watch him pan us.”

Winchell resumed the chase of further police calls until, at dawn, he found himself present at an emergency birth in a tenement house. It was the first he had ever seen and he was moved to report it as a society item: “A bundle of Boy (her 2d) for Mrs. Arcario Otero of W. 22d St. Happy Baby!”

Afterward, he stopped for a cup of cafeteria hot chocolate (“It gives me energy”) and returned to his St. Morilz Hotel duplex apartment. He went directly to his offlce on the second floor, equipped with a bed, an ancient table-model typewriter and heavy beige curtains, ever drawn against the sun. There, he began his next day’s column. He finished the column at 9:0 0 A.M. Then he fell asleep.

WINCHELL APPLIES HIMSELF with equal vehemence to the fate of a Broadway play or the state of the nation. Following a recent newscast, he pointed to a soapbox orator on the street and cracked, “I’m just like him. I’m a rabble rouser too. But I’ve got syndication and a mike.” 

He sees himself first as a reporter. His critics insist that he is irresponsible, and refer to him as “Little Boy Peep.” When he hears such charges. he usually reacts with the disdain of a man who has just heard the cry, “Break up the Yankees!” Although Winchell’s temper flares easily and he is continually on edge, rival columnists, except Ed Sullivan, leave him relatively unruffled and he says of them, “They print it; / make it public.”

He has no leg men as such but a number of contacts supply material they know is of specific interest to him. Otherwise, he collects his items in person or culls them from his immense daily mail. His column is currently carried by 165 papers with an audience estimated at 25,000,000. When the editors of a news weekly asked Winchell how he arrived at this figure, he told them, “I read it in your magazine.” 

Winchell first got the idea for his column when, still a vaudevillian. he produced a gossipy mimeographed sheet about backstage goings on and pinned it to bulletin boards under the heading, “Daily Newsense.” Several years later on the New York Evening Graphic (a tabloid which on a dull day would have a reporter shoot up the editor’s office, call the cops and headline: “Gangland Tries to Intimidate Graphic”), he included a series of his tips, turned down by the city desk, in his regular drama column. By morning, he was the talk of the town. In 1929, Winchell was hired by Hearst’s New York Daily Mirror and immediately syndicated. The first of his regular Sunday-night newscasts began in 1932. They continue today over Mutual and are still preceded by tremendous personal tension. Winchell constantly, although futilely, admonishes himself: “Calm down!”

He is acutely conscious of his power. He is also privy to the enormous draw of gossip and often uses it as a lure to advance his own highly opinionated views on affairs of state and the world. In the 19.30s he shelved his previous disinterest in politics to, as he says, “help a man named F.D.R. win.” Soon after, he plunged with equal force into the international arena “because of two guys named Hitler and Mussolini.” Winchell currently regards himself in the forefront of the fight against Communism and, after a break in diplomatic relations with President Truman, is again a favored White House visitor. Politically, he regards himself as an Independent. “There aren’t any liberals left,” he says. “If there are, I’m one.” Scoffers deny this and charge Winchell is in over his head. They single out his violent defense of Senator Joseph McCarthy as a case in point. He angrily answers, “Who else was fighting the Commies? Name me one!”

Winchell’s volatile nature demands outlets. His cops-and-robbers exploits serve this end as well as giving him some notable scoops. His first such coup took place in 1932 when nightclub hostess Texas Guinan tipped him off that Vincent Coll, the then infamous Mad Dog Killer, was about to get his from rival mobsters. Winchell printed the item forthwith. Per prediction, Coll was mowed down some five hours later.

His most sensational exploit unfolded in 1939 after he had become a friend of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. Louis (Lepke) Buchalter, gangland’s high executioner, had been hunted for two years. He was America’s most wanted criminal and carried a $50,000 tag dead or alive. After a decision to surrender to the FBI, Buchalter’s problem was to get to Hoover alive. Winchell was chosen as go-between. For 20 frustrating days during August, he carried on blind negotiations that apparently led nowhere. Finally, Hoover taunted Winchell to his face (“Here he is, the biggest hotair artist in town”). But the next Sunday night on a deserted Fifth Avenue, Winchell was able to make a memorable introduction: “Mr. Hoover, Mr. Buchalter; Mr. Buchalter, Mr. Hoover.” As it turned out, Winchell lost his scoop; when he breathlessly telephoned his city desk he was brushed off with, “So what, Hitler’s just invaded Danzig.”

Winchell is a man of intense personal loyalties. His association with police and firemen during his nocturnal prowling led him to discover the inadequate death benefits provided their dependents. He promptly crusaded for the Bravest and Finest Fund to provide financial assistance (“The check gets there before the undertaker”). His closest friend was the late Damon Runyon, who rode with him nightly. Just before Runyon died from cancer of the throat, he told Winchell he hoped that one friend would remember him “once a year.” Four nights later, on Winchell’s newscast, he announced the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund. “I didn’t know what we’d get,” Winchell recalls. “Maybe fifty thousand, seventy-five tops.” To date, largely through his efforts, $11,500,000 has been raised, with no deducted expenses.

His feuds are equally violent. Although he once championed the Stork Club, he has soured on owner Sherman Billingsley (“I built the place up and III tear it down”). Winchell and Ed Sullivan are long-time foes. The bitterness was renewed when Sullivan publicly announced that Winchell was a “dead duck” after he lost his TV and radio newscasts with the American Broadcasting Company. One of Winchell’s prize possessions is an early letter from Sullivan expressing the hope he could return a Winchell favor with “something equally nice.” “I put it with all my other thank-you notes,” Winchell snaps, “in the ingrate file.”

Of show business, Winchell says, “I never left it.” He is almost universally regarded in the trade as a man whose nod of approbation will lift a hitherto obscure entertainer to stardom. Winchell’s willingness to do battle for a favored cause has produced some spectacular results. Several years ago, he took a unanimous critical flop, Hellzapoppin, under his wing and it wound up one of the eight musicals in Broadway history to run more than 1,000 performances. More recently, he has been plugging forty-three-year-old singer Roberta Sherwood, lifting her from $50 to $5,000 a week in six months.•


Winchell in 1953, mocking that Hollywood elite Dorothy Parker, among others.

In his post “Apple Doesn’t Hear The Echo,” media analyst Bob Lefsetz is right to say voice is set to become a huge industry and that Apple, despite its head start with Siri, has been shouted down (at least for now) by Amazon’s Alexa personal-assistant technology.

But that’s all business as usual: A new tool emerges, one company outdoes another. Same old.

What’s more interesting is that Lefsetz writes adoringly about voice allowing for a seamlessness that will require almost no effort on our part. Something–some thing--will always be listening to us, prepared to satisfy our every need. It will unobtrusively reward a laziness of mind as well as body. That’s vital, because as voice and the Internet of Things become ambient accessories to our lives, surveillance capitalism will have fully triumphed. And, no, we won’t ultimately always be able to control the “listeners.”

It will be the final shift from a world in which we were primarily citizens to one where we’re chiefly consumers. We’ll have fully been eased inside the machine.

An excerpt:

Echo is the dream we’ve been waiting for. The one we’ve given up hope on arriving. One wherein you talk to your computer, as opposed to typing in entries.

We’ve lived through the video revolution. All that news about Facebook focusing on the moving image?

This voice activation revolution is even bigger.

It’s not just a reduction of steps, it’s a change in conception.

Oftentimes I think of a song but don’t play it. Because to get to the computer and find my music program and type it in…

Takes too much time.

But to just think of a track and blurt out its name and hear it right away?

It’s utterly fascinating.•

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Complete assholes can sometimes be useful to society, but Julian Assange is the kind who isn’t.

If the Wikileaks EIC had stated he was openly in favor of a Trump Presidency, his involvement in disseminating stolen emails and apparent Russian ties would still be problems, but at least he would have been coming from an honest place. As someone who’s lectured ad nauseam about transparency and fairness, however, it’s particularly gross to see him do his damndest to tilt a democratic election while claiming impartiality. Bullshit.

Still for some reason being harbored from multiple rape accusations by the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Assange has just conducted a Reddit AMA. The four submitted questions below are ones I would like to see him address, though, in an larger sense, we already have all the answers we need.


Question:

In 2010, you tweeted about a massive Russian Cache. Within a year, you never mentioned it again, got a Russian Visa and were hired by the Russian Government for their “RT” State Media. What happened to the Russian Cache? Where’s the Russia Leaks?•


Question:

People frequently group you together with Edward Snowden because you’ve both released classified American documents. But your motivations and philospophies couldn’t be more different.

Snowden claims to fight for privacy. He’s called privacy the bedrock of freedom, that one cannot be free without privacy.

You have called privacy obsolete and unsustainable. You’ve said that privacy has noinherent value. You appear to believe privacy and freedom are incompatible, that you cannot be free if others can keep secrets from you. You’ve published the credit card numbers, social security numbers, medical information, and sexual preferences of individuals of zero public interest. Two of your most recent publications are the personal Gmail inboxes of civilians, exactly the sort of thing Snowden has tried to protect.

Can you convince me that you’re right and Snowden’s wrong?•


Question:

I find it hard to believe that you and your organization have no ties to the Russian government and that you were not part of a disinformation campaign to attempt to get Donald Trump elected.

During your staff’s AMA two months ago, one of your staff members stated the following:

We were not publishing with a goal to get any specific candidate elected. We were publishing with the one goal of making the elections as transparent as possible. We published what we received. I know that many media, including the New York Times, did editorially back one candidate over another. We didnt and havent. We would have published on any candidate. We still will if we get the submissions.

If you truly weren’t being objective or had no horse in the race, then why would the Wikileaks Twitter account have a “poll” about Hillary’s health? Or why would your site be selling T-shirts about Bill Clinton “dicking bimbos”. Or maybe you’d like to comment on the Pizza Gate fiasco and the “Spirit Cooking” garbage? This sort of stuff is hardly objective and it’s journalistic hackery at its finest.•


Question:

Your organization has said in their mission statement that “publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people.”

Your organization published personal email exchanges between democratic operatives. Why doesn’t you organization, in the interest of creating a better society for all people, publish all of the personal emails of people who work for your organization?•

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More than two centuries before Deep Blue deep-sixed humanity by administering both a whooping and the willies to Garry Kasparov, that Russian John Henry, the Mechanical Turk purported to be a chess-playing automaton nonpareil. It was, of course, a fake, a contraption that hid within its case a genius-level human champion that controlled its every move. Such chicanery isn’t unusual for technologies nowhere near fruition, but the truth is even ones oh-so-close to the finish line often need the aid of a hidden hand.

In “The Humans Working Behind The Curtain,” a smart Harvard Business Review piece by Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri, the authors explain how the “paradox of automation’s last mile” manifests itself even in today’s highly algorithmic world, an arrangement by which people are hired to quietly complete a task AI can’t, and one which is unlikely to be undone by further progress. Unfortunately, most of the stealth work for humans created in this way is piecemeal, lower-paid and prone to the rapid churn of disruption.

An excerpt:

Cut to Bangalore, India, and meet Kala, a middle-aged mother of two sitting in front of her computer in the makeshift home office that she shares with her husband. Our team at Microsoft Research met Kala three months into studying the lives of people picking up temporary “on-demand” contract jobs via the web, the equivalent of piecework online. Her teenage sons do their homework in the adjoining room. She describes calling them into the room, pointing at her screen and asking: “Is this a bad word in English?” This is what the back end of AI looks like in 2016. Kala spends hours every week reviewing and labeling examples of questionable content. Sometimes she’s helping tech companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft train the algorithms that will curate online content. Other times, she makes tough, quick decisions about what user-generated materials to take down or leave in place when companies receive customer complaints and flags about something they read or see online.

Whether it is Facebook’s trending topics; Amazon’s delivery of Prime orders via Alexa; or the many instant responses of bots we now receive in response to consumer activity or complaint, tasks advertised as AI-driven involve humans, working at computer screens, paid to respond to queries and requests sent to them through application programming interfaces (APIs) of crowdwork systems. The truth is, AI is as “fully-automated” as the Great and Powerful Oz was in that famous scene from the classic film, where Dorothy and friends realize that the great wizard is simply a man manically pulling levers from behind a curtain. This blend of AI and humans, who follow through when the AI falls short, isn’t going away anytime soon. Indeed, the creation of human tasks in the wake of technological advancement has been a part of automation’s history since the invention of the machine lathe.

We call this ever-moving frontier of AI’s development, the paradox of automation’s last mile: as AI makes progress, it also results in the rapid creation and destruction of temporary labor markets for new types of humans-in-the-loop tasks.•

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Don’t know if Forbes is correct in reporting that loathsome pisshole Chuck Johnson is consulting with the Trump transition team, but it’s a sign of have far we’ve fallen from grace that such a thing even seems plausible. Any other President-Elect would want to immediately deny it’s so, but the next Administration is every bit the fringe element that Johnson is. The sideshow has been relocated to the center ring.

An excerpt from the late David Carr’s final New York Times column from 2014, a nuanced excoriation–and appreciation, for lack of a better term–of a venomous, irresponsible troll who fancies himself a “citizen journalist” and is, sort of, in our age of destabilized media:

The Internet has given us many glorious things: streaming movies, multiplayer games, real-time information and videos of cats playing the piano. It has also offered up some less edifying creations: web-borne viruses, cybercrime and Charles C. Johnson.

His name came out of nowhere and now seems to be everywhere. When the consumer Internet first unfolded, there was much talk about millions of new voices blooming. Mr. Johnson is one of those flowers. His tactics may have as much in common with ultimate fighting as journalism, but that doesn’t mean he is not part of the conversation.

Mr. Johnson, a 26-year-old blogger based in California, has worked his way to the white-hot center of the controversy over a Rolling Stone article about rape accusations made by a student at the University of Virginia. His instinct that the report was deeply flawed was correct, but he proceeded to threaten on Twitter to expose the student and then later named her. And he serially printed her photo while going after her in personal and public ways.

In the frenzy to discredit her, he published a Facebook photo of someone he said was the same woman at a rally protesting an earlier rape. Oops. Different person. He did correct himself, but the damage, now to two different women, was done. …

After watching him set off a series of small mushroom clouds, it struck me that he might be the ultimate expression of a certain kind of citizen journalism — one far more toxic than we’re accustomed to seeing. Once a promising young conservative voice who wrote for The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Daily Caller and The Blaze, Mr. Johnson has a loose-cannon approach that alienated many of his editors. There was a time when that would have been the end of it, but with Twitter as a promotional platform, he has been able to build his own site called GotNews.•

American schoolchildren are taught that Dutch settlers purchased Manhattan island for roughly $24 in costume jewelry. That isn’t exactly so, but even if it were, the Native people would have struck a better bargain than Internet Age denizens have, as we’ve traded content and privacy for a piffling amount of flattery, convenience and connectivity.

Data Capitalism has commodified us in myriad ways, and soon with the Internet of Things, with Alexa listening and toothbrushes and refrigerators “smartened up,” the process will be ambient, almost undetectable. “We are already becoming tiny chips inside a giant system that nobody really understands,” Yuval Noah Harari wrote last year, and we’ve only just begun the process. This is prelude.

It’s possible as we grow more aware of what’s happening we could turn away from this Faustian bargain, as John Thornhill suggests in a Financial Times column, but that would take wisdom and collective will, and it’s not clear we’re in possession of those things.

An excerpt about the underlying importance of “smart” products:

The primary effect of these consumer tech products seems limited — but we will need to pay increasing attention to the secondary consequences of these connected devices. They are just the most visible manifestation of a fundamental transformation that is likely to shape our societies far more than Brexit, Donald Trump or squabbles over the South China Sea. It concerns who collects, owns and uses data.

The subject of data is so antiseptic that it seldom generates excitement. To make it sound sexy, some have described data as the “new oil,” fuelling our digital economies. In reality, it is likely to prove far more significant than that. Data are increasingly determining economic value, reshaping the practice of power and intruding into the innermost areas of our lives.

Some commentators have suggested that this transformation is so profound that we are moving from an era of financial capitalism into one of data capitalism. The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari even argues that Dataism, as he calls it, can be compared with the birth of a religion, given the claims of its most fervent disciples to provide universal solutions. 

The speed and scale at which this data revolution is unfolding is certainly striking.•

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America is a plane crash now, with the most demagogic President-Elect in modern history–and an unqualified, unconscionable, indecent one–chosen by a minority of the voters. Will this disaster bring us closer together? Probably not. 

On a similar topic: Tyler J. Kelley of the New York Times has a really interesting article about Survival Systems, a Connecticut outfit that simulates plane crashes for airline employees and police officers, which is now repurposing this experience as a “bonding exercise” to foster leadership, cooperation or something among coworkers in all manner of business. Together groups attempt to escape simulated burning and drowning with the goal of becoming superior colleagues. One professional in the team-building industry offers particularly annoying analysis: “I would think this is a very millennial experience.” Let’s hope not. The kids seem so smart otherwise.

As we stand on the cusp of a Virtual Reality world, what Survival Systems offers is an actual physical exercise in a plastic and metal “craft” with real water and machine-generated winds, but it’s perhaps more interesting as a template for VR-enabled smokeless simulations. Will we have more empathy or less when we can slot virtual atrocities like slavery or the Holocaust or Hurricane Katrina right before spinning class? 

An excerpt:

The instructor talked to the class about teamwork, leadership goals and safety procedures for the activities ahead. After a lunch of pizza, the students walked eagerly to the pool deck. Everyone wore flight suits, water shoes and helmets. It was dark and foggy. AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” blared and a disco ball lit the room. “All we need is a roller rink,” one of the personal trainers joked.

Now, the classmates jumped without hesitation from a 14-foot platform into the pool. Life vests inflated, they were given the duration of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” to find a way to stay warm while floating. It turned out to be: Assume a carpet formation, arms linked, legs under the arms of the two people across from you.

Taylor Cintron, 19, an economics major at UConn, was put in charge of the next task, boarding an inflated life raft. Before the last person was on, “Singin’ in the Rain” started playing. Wind and water blasted the raft. Ms. Cintron yelled orders over the squall. Everyone got aboard and, after some scrambling, the life raft’s tent-like roof was closed against the rain.

The pop music was supposed to ease anxiety. It appeared to be working. “I’m less scared than I thought I was,” Ms. Cintron said during a break. “I hate touching people,” she said, but “this is O.K., I trust everyone that I’m with. It’s not touching for no reason.”

Finally, each person was strapped into the simulator, submerged and flipped.•

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I quipped during the early part of the U.S. Presidential campaign that Donald Trump was “John Gotti with a Southern strategy.” Now, sadly, he’s a capo with nuclear capabilities. 

The real question is whether Trump is a vainglorious, horny kleptocrat like Berlusconi or a democracy-killing fascist like Mussolini. I’ll answer “definitely” on the former and “definitely if we let him” on the latter, though it’s possible even our best efforts won’t be able to still the degradation of liberal governance.

The Breitbart-ian nihilism of the orange supremacist’s campaign was no mistake, his Outstanding Leader rally not a misdirection, his bromance with despotic leaders a clear sign and his “I alone can fix it” dictum a bold pronouncement. He was letting us know that he’s Simon Cowell as a strongman, and it was initially so preposterous that few could believe what they were seeing. Now there’s no option to look away.

We can blame the economy, globalization, fake news (including Fox News) and many other culprits for America’s embrace of a demagogue, but a large minority of citizens just really seemed to like the idea of a bigoted, xenophobic tyrant in the Oval Office. The Make America White Again message really resonated.

From Fernanda Eberstadt’s Salon article with a troika of experts of autocracy, including Masha Gessen:

“I thought Trump was going to win because I’ve seen it happen before,” Gessen told me. “There are certain points in history when people lose a sense of their place in the world, and then they’ll go with the first person who offers them a return to an imaginary past. Americans’ basic understanding of who they are as a society has been destroyed over time, but it finished with the 2008 housing collapse, when people were kicked out of their own homes: That destruction was not acknowledged by the larger culture.

“What we’ve learned in the last few weeks is the kind of government Donald Trump is building: it’s a Mafia state,” Gessen continued. “In a Mafia state, the patriarch rules as in a family. He doesn’t need to spell things out — he expects intuitive obedience, and there are penalties for not intuiting his wishes. He’s going to choose people based solely on loyalty and family membership. If they get their positions through merit, they wouldn’t owe everything to him. It’s not his ultimate goal to destroy freedom and democracy, but you have to, if you want to steal as much as possible, especially if you have such a thin skin.” …

“I’m utterly pessimistic,” Gessen concluded. “I’m not aware of any aborted autocracies in modern history. Democracy is an aspiration, and it is defenseless against people who use it in bad faith. America’s advantage is that it has an incredibly rich cultural environment, a vibrant public spirit. Can we learn from other countries’ mistakes? The only thing to do is the exact opposite of what Germans, Poles and Hungarians did, which is to wait and see. We must panic and protest, presumptively assume the worst.”•

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The supreme jazz critic and contrarian political commentator Nat Hentoff died on Saturday.

Many aspiring journalists who grew up reading Hentoff wanted to be like him, but the problem was he came of age at a rare time when the stars aligned just so, and the culture and economy supported a smart-as-hell writer who aimed to make a living doing cerebral work that often pissed off fans and detractors alike. It was about pursuing truth, containing multitudes, not playing a role in a noisy, narrowcasted play.

The era of crowded newsrooms and political nuance met its end before Hentoff did, as his longtime venue, The Village Voice, an erstwhile colossus ground down to size by the zeros and ones, laid him off in 2008. The paper birthed by Mailer et al. will never again be what it once was because, let’s face it, the weekly was born of a literary culture now much diminished. There’s great utility in our more democratic media, but it’s okay to mourn what’s been lost. 

Two excerpts follow, a piece from Hentoff’s Associated Press obituary by Hillel Italie and the opening of his great 1980 Voice profile of Merle Haggard.


From the Associated Press:

As a columnist, Hentoff focused tirelessly on the Constitution and what he saw as a bipartisan mission to undermine it. He tallied the crimes of Richard Nixon and labeled President Clinton’s anti-terrorism legislation “an all-out assault on the Bill of Rights.” He even parted from other First Amendment advocates, quitting the American Civil Liberties Union because of the ACLU’s support for speech codes in schools and workplaces.

Left-wing enough to merit an FBI file, an activist from age 15 when he organized a union at a Boston candy chain, Hentoff was deeply opposed to abortion, angering many of his colleagues at the Village Voice and elsewhere. In 2008, he turned against the campaign of Barack Obama over what he regarded as the candidate’s extreme views, including rejection of legislation that would have banned partial birth abortions.

Hentoff was born in 1925, the son of a Russian-Jewish haberdasher. Thrown out of Hebrew school, he flaunted his unbelief, even eating a salami sandwich in front of his house on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of fasting and atonement. In 1982, his opposition to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon led to a trio of rabbis declaring he had been excommunicated.

“I only wished the three rabbis really had the authority to hold that court,” Hentoff later wrote. “I would have told them about my life as a heretic, a tradition I keep precisely because I am a Jew.”•


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Merle Haggard had a rebellious streak.

The deceased musician’s son-of-an-Okie orneriness drove him to shuck off respectability piece by piece: family, school, law and even the Lord Himself. Those outlaw impulses also helped him birth the mutinous Bakersfield sound, which gave a lift to country’s dog-beat blues and later made him breathe fire when slick production forced too much sunlight into the genre. 

From Hentoff’s portrait:

The story is that he has a spider web tattooed on his back. “He did it when he was young and felt trapped,” Bonnie Owens once told the Southern writer and good listener, Paul Hemphill.

Merle Haggard was the child of Okies who had been farmers near Checotah, Oklahoma, not far from the Muskogee. After a disastrous fire, there came a drought, and so Merle’s folks (he hadn’t come on the scene yet) went off to California where, as Jimmie Rodgers sang, “they sleep out every night.”

James Haggard had been a pretty fair fiddler and picker back in Oklahoma; but his wife, Flossie, once her soul took fire in the Church of Christ, banned him from playing the devil’s music. All the more so since another child, Merle, had been born to be reared in a straight line to the Saviour. The Haggards were living in a converted refrigerator car near Bakersfield, California, by then; and James, now a carpenter with the railroad, taught the boy fishing and hunting. But when Merle was nine, his father, as Merle later put it, abandoned him. The interviewer asked if he’d be a little more specific.

“He died,” said Merle.

“Mama Tried,” as Haggard later titled a song, but she failed. She could not control the boy. He ran away a lot; cut school (finally dropping out in the eighth grade); and became quite familiar to the Bakersfield police. When Merle was 14, Flossie put him in a juvenile home, and he escaped the next day. Merle’s police record grew like Pinocchio’s nose–bum checks, petty thievery, a stolen car, armed robbery. Reform schools couldn’t hold him. Seven times he slid out of them. But when he and some of the boys messed up the burglary of a Bakersfield bar (they got drunk waiting for the bar to close), he got sent to a place that could hold him. San Quentin.•

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The policies favored by the President-Elect and the GOP-controlled Congress will likely cause many Americans to needlessly face harassment, discrimination, financial distress, health problems and, potentially, early death.

That, I fear, is the glass-half-full option.

My darker concern is that we’re headed for some 1930s-style “excitement,” an undermining of liberal governance, a rise of fascism and the simultaneous destabilization of numerous militarized, nativistic countries. That’s when the gloves come off. 

Hopefully we won’t see the realization of such mass chaos, but Peter Turchin, the father of cliodynamics who’s been warning for awhile about the dangers of wealth inequality and other contemporary ills, isn’t sanguine about the immediate future, though he believes with great effort we can keep our “roller coaster” from a steep fall. The opening of his recent Phys.org article:

Cliodynamics is a new “transdisciplinary discipline” that treats history as just another science. Ten years ago I started applying its tools to the society I live in: the United States. What I discovered alarmed me. 

My research showed that about 40 seemingly disparate (but, according to cliodynamics, related) social indicators experienced turning points during the 1970s. Historically, such developments have served as leading indicators of political turmoil. My model indicated that social instability and political violence would peak in the 2020s (see Political Instability May be a Contributor in the Coming Decade).

The presidential election which we have experienced, unfortunately, confirms this forecast. We seem to be well on track for the 2020s instability peak. And although the election is over, the deep structural forces that brought us the current political crisis have not gone away. If anything, the negative trends seem to be accelerating.

My model tracks a number of factors. Some reflect the developments that have been noticed and extensively discussed: growing income and wealth inequality, stagnating and even declining well-being of most Americans, growing political fragmentation and governmental dysfunction.•

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Questioning expertise is important, but denying its existence suicidal.

The backlash against intellectualism in America began in earnest in the 1980s, and the rise of the Internet provided it with a remarkably powerful engine. Trained sitcom stars being supplanted by talent-free Youtube personalities is one type of a shock to the culture but that same rise-of-the-fan mentality moving into the Oval Office is an existential threat. Like the assault on facts and truth, it undercuts a civilization’s foundation. It’s a revenge of the mediocre, a self-loathing directed outward and one that harms us all.

From “The Death of Expertise,” Tom Nichols’ smart and spirited essay at the Federalist:

I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. By this, I do not mean the death of actual expertise, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialists in various fields. Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live.

This is a very bad thing. Yes, it’s true that experts can make mistakes, as disasters from thalidomide to the Challenger explosion tragically remind us. But mostly, experts have a pretty good batting average compared to laymen: doctors, whatever their errors, seem to do better with most illnesses than faith healers or your Aunt Ginny and her special chicken gut poultice. To reject the notion of expertise, and to replace it with a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion, is silly.

Worse, it’s dangerous. The death of expertise is a rejection not only of knowledge, but of the ways in which we gain knowledge and learn about things. Fundamentally, it’s a rejection of science and rationality, which are the foundations of Western civilization itself. Yes, I said “Western civilization”: that paternalistic, racist, ethnocentric approach to knowledge that created the nuclear bomb, the Edsel, and New Coke, but which also keeps diabetics alive, lands mammoth airliners in the dark, and writes documents like the Charter of the United Nations.

This isn’t just about politics, which would be bad enough. No, it’s worse than that: the perverse effect of the death of expertise is that without real experts, everyone is an expert on everything. To take but one horrifying example, we live today in an advanced post-industrial country that is now fighting a resurgence of whooping cough — a scourge nearly eliminated a century ago — merely because otherwise intelligent people have been second-guessing their doctors and refusing to vaccinate their kids after reading stuff written by people who know exactly zip about medicine. (Yes, I mean people like Jenny McCarthy..)

In politics, too, the problem has reached ridiculous proportions.•

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Truth can be elusive and facts imprecise, but an earnest pursuit of both is fundamental for the establishment and maintenance of civil society. The assault on enlightenment during the election cycle and since has been a wanton act of nihilism by the latest wave of neo-Nazis and the President-Elect himself.

Just one tool in their kit is to preemptively accuse others of things they are guilty of–an especially easy task for damaged souls given to repressing and projecting–which allows for a wall of confusion to be erected. Once nothing seems sure, anything becomes possible.

One example would be a hatemonger pointing out a mistake in the New York Times, in an attempt to create a false equivalency with Breitbart or some of other white-nationalist propaganda. Except, of course, while the Times or any reasonable publication can be mistaken, the act of being wrong isn’t their mission. It’s an exception, not the rule.

Beyond voting and calling and emailing and marching, something American citizens can do if they fear liberal democracy is now in jeopardy would be to hold every political and public figure accountable if they fail to support noble attempts at truth, if they feed the fog, whether it’s Wall Street Journal editor Gerard Baker refusing to call out Trump on his plethora of lies or the POETUS trying to obfuscate in regards to Russia’s interference in our free elections.

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An excerpt of Wallace Shawn’s centerpiece speech from 1981’s My Dinner With Andre that presently seems particularly pertinent:

WALLY:

Even if I were to accept the idea that there’s just no way for anybody to have personal happiness now, well, you know, I still couldn’t accept the idea that the way to make life wonderful would be to just totally, you know, reject western civilization and fall back into some kind of belief in some kind of weird something. I mean…I mean, I don’t even know how to begin talking about this, but, do you know…? In the Middle Ages, before the arrival of scientific thinking as we know it today, well, people could believe anything. Anything could be true: the statue of the Virgin Mary could speak, or bleed, or whatever it was. But the wonderful thing that happened was that then in the development of science in the western world, well, certain things did come slowly to be known, and understood. I mean, you know, obviously all ideas in science are constantly being revised; I mean, that’s the whole point. But we do at least know that the universe has some shape, and order, and that, you know, trees do not turn into people, or goddesses. And they’re very good reasons why they don’t, and you can’t just believe absolutely anything!•

Often overlooked in the outrage over the scourge of fake news that proliferated online during the Presidential election is that Fox News has been in basically the same business for 20 years, normalizing bigoted, dangerous, faux reporting long before neo-Nazi trolls took to Twitter and Facebook. Rupert Murdoch’s perversion of journalism is far better positioned than any other American outlet to lend a corporate respectability to such irresponsibility. When you examine the voting numbers, there was a significant bloc of older Caucasians positioned to have a real impact. Do you think they were more influenced by a toad like Bill O’Reilly or by Pepe the Frog?

From “How to Counter Fake News,” Martin J. O’Malley and Peter L. Levin’s Foreign Affairs article:

The scourge of misinformation is as old as language itself, but Internet-fast global manipulation is relatively new. The good news is that there are methods and systems that can help ordinary users discern what’s reliable from what’s invented. Major distribution platforms—from network and cable news to web-based platforms that service billions of users—should move quickly toward sensible solutions that do not censor, but that do provide citizen consumers with a qualitative indication of reliability. Software applications will learn how to do this, much like they already, if imperfectly, catch spam in email.

“Trust but verify” is a serviceable policy framework when there’s plausible reason to trust, and ready means to verify. The erosion of these traditional norms on the Internet scuttles authentic debate on the rocks of superstition, impulse, emotion, and bias. With new public-sector investment and private-sector innovation, we are optimistic that the United States can fight back against fake news and foreign influence in U.S. elections.•

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Politics is a fluid business but never have more Americans learned to swim in unfamiliar waters than over the last year when, for instance, evangelicals accommodated their faith to the white-supremacist stylings of a debauched casino dealer and serial groom.

Sean Hannity likewise had an opportunistic apostasy. Judging by his past remarks about Bill Clinton, the Fox opinion-giver hated accused sexual predators until, that is, he met Donald Trump and Julian Assange, and now it is love sweet love.

Hannity, who previously called for Assange’s arrest, just interviewed the leaker, who’s become a darling of the far-right wing of the GOP, currently the overwhelmingly dominant faction. That he conducted the conversation in support of a President-Elect who trashed our POWs and encouraged Russia to hack our campaign is the U.S.A. reaching a degree of next-level nuttiness. 

Trump has only doubled down on his Putin-pumping comments since the election, trashing the D.C. intelligence community and discouraging hearings on the Kremlin’s machinations in regard to our democracy. Someone with a degree of sense must have cornered him, as the soon-to-be Commander-in-Chief has backed off his troubling statements for the moment, but his stance is established, the damage done and the future clear: The President-Elect will continue to attack truth and facts of all kind because nihilism, not clarity, favors him.

The opening of a well-written Politico piece by former CIA analyst Aki Peritz:

We are through the looking glass now.

The next president of the United States is siding with Julian Assange, a man who wears his anti-Americanism proudly and acts like the textbook definition of a Russian asset, over the U.S. intelligence community – thousands of smart, patriotic people who work long hours for middling pay, some risking their lives to keep the rest of us safe.

I was once one of them, and I can only imagine how my former colleagues are feeling now. Never in our history has a U.S. president openly chosen to trust the word of a foreign adversary ahead of his own analysts.

Never, that is, until Donald Trump—who last night began a series of astonishing tweets expressing skepticism about U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia had hacked into Democratic Party institutions.

“The ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday,” Trump began, “perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!” He followed up this morning with some positive vibes about Fox News’ Sean Hannity puff interview with Assange, including this gem: “Julian Assange said ‘a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta’ – why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info!”

And he’s gotten support or silence from far too many Republican members of Congress, including New York Rep. Peter King, who suggested last month that “some rogue person behind a desk somewhere” had leaked the CIA’s conclusions to influence the Electoral College.

As Trump himself might say, something’s going on here.•

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“Humans are destructive in proportion to their supposition of abundance; if they are faced with an infinite abundance, they will become infinitely destructive,” wrote the poet Wendell Berry. It’s worth wondering if the radical abundance our new tools may permit will be so unevenly distributed that it could be our undoing.

Any jobs that can be handled by humans and machines will be taken over by the latter as soon as they can do the work almost as well and a little more cheaply. Some people will still be required (at least in the short- and medium-term), but anyone who can be replaced will be. That’s how corporations, which are not people, increase production and profits. So, when Amazon quickly grows its force of cutting-edge Kiva robots to 45,000 (only a beginning) and opens cashier-less supermarkets, that’s just progress, in a sense.

You can make an argument that new jobs will be created and we’ll all be upskilled to meet the requirements–no sure thing–but promising there’s a future in, say, manufacturing, which was the case in the U.S. Presidential election, is hugely dishonest. Bigly, even.

In a companion post to the earlier one about San Diego aiming to become “Robot Alley,” I offer an excerpt from Natalie Kitroeff’s smart Los Angeles Times article about Skechers utilizing robotics in California to greatly reduce its reliance on sweat equity. Just one passage: “This entire process used to take 10 workers and several hours to complete. Now, it requires three people and takes less than an hour.” For those toiling in warehouses, that sounds like the other shoe dropping.

The opening:

When Skechers started building a colossal distribution center in Moreno Valley six years ago, backers promised a wave of new jobs.

Instead, by the time the company moved to the Moreno Valley, it had closed five facilities in Ontario that employed 1,200 people and cut its workforce by more than half. Today, spotting a human on the premises can feel like an accomplishment.

There are now only about 550 people working at one cavernous warehouse, which is about as big as two Staples Centers combined. Many of them sit behind computer screens, monitoring the activities of the facility’s true workhorses: robotic machines.

It’s a sign of things to come.

In the last five years, online shopping has produced tens of thousands of new warehouse jobs in California, many of them in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The bulk of them paid blue collar people decent wages to do menial tasks – putting things in boxes and sending them out to the world.

But automated machines and software have been taking up more and more space in the region’s warehouses, and taking over jobs that were once done by humans. Today, fewer jobs are being added, though some of them pay more.•

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San Diego wants to be “Robot Alley,” or at least that’s the ambitious goal of Henrik Christensen, leader of UCSD’s Contextual Robotics Institute. In an excellent San Diego Union-Tribune Q&A conducted by Gary Robbins, the engineer comments on the impact of autonomous vehicles (which he believes are “10, 15 years out”), technological unemployment (“we’ll see significant displacement of taxi drivers, truck drivers”), Universal Basic Income (“in the U.S., that would be a really hard thing”) and robots that learn (“they’re going to use potentially all of the data that’s available about you.”)

On the last topic, Christensen believes machines that know every last detail about us will be especially useful in the care of our graying population, though he realizes this elaborate stream of info can be abused–and it certainly will be, especially in societies that value markets above all else, where people are often thought of as consumers rather than citizens. Are such invasions of privacy more driven by political and economic systems than the technology itself? Will robots be kinder in Sweden?

The opening:

Question:

Automation and robotics are advancing quickly. What impact will this have on employment in the United States?

Henrik Christensen:

We see two trends. We will use robots and automation to bring manufacturing jobs back from overseas, primarily from Southeast Asia. At the same time, we will see some jobs get displaced by automation. There will be fully automated, driverless transportation in this country by 2020, and that will eliminate some jobs now held by workers like truck drivers and taxi drivers. 

Question:

Will there be a net increase or decrease in jobs?

Henrik Christensen:

To be honest with you, we don’t know. There was a recent study on this by the National Academies, but there wasn’t enough good data to make it clear what the outcome will be. We do see a lot of change occurring. Amazon is printing books at its local distribution centers, then sending them on to customers. They print the book, put a cover on it, and off it goes. That cuts down on transportation jobs and costs. 

Question:

Are you saying that Amazon is just beginning to do this?

Henrik Christensen:

It’s happening today. This program has been in existence for more than a year. The last estimate I heard was that 65 percent of the books Amazon delivers are printed in its local distribution centers. Amazon wants to do (widespread) deliveries of groceries, too.

Question:

But doesn’t this assume that the technology of driverless vehicles is much further along than it actually is?

Henrik Christensen:

My own prediction is that kids born today will never get to drive a car. Autonomous, driverless cars are 10, 15 years out. All the automotive companies — Daimler, GM, Ford — are saying that within five years they will have autonomous, driverless cars on the road.•

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Jared Kushner’s role in the political rise of his Ku Klux Kardashian father-in-law is as puzzling as it is frightening.

Can he truly be oblivious of the neo-Nazi demons he’s helped unloose? THEY do not really like him and his family. Is he cognizant but believes these hatemongers can be used and controlled the way “family values” folks were by Newt and Rove during the nineties and aughts? What’s been activated, mainstreamed and normalized during this disgraceful campaign season won’t be easily managed.  

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The impending Presidency of a tweeting, vainglorious incompetent is so unsettling that many Americans are now wistful for the good old days of a gentlemanly war criminal like George W. Bush and the relatively liberal Richard Nixon (though we were just reminded of the blood he had on his hands). The next Administration won’t be pretty, there will be no moderating and the most hopeful outcome is that a kleptocrat bleeds dry citizens who were already running a quart low. The more upsetting possibilities include 240 years of U.S. liberal governance being flushed down the vortex or this latter-day Bishop Coughlin deciding to nuke a nation he sees as a pawn. “Unspeakable things,” will happen, he promised. Believe him.

From John Cassidy at the New Yorker

To be sure, other men who were ill-qualified, ethically challenged, or potentially unhinged have occupied the Oval Office during the Republic’s long history. John Tyler and Millard Fillmore, two mid-nineteenth-century Whigs, are often cited in the first category. During the nineteen-twenties, Warren G. Harding brought the stench of corruption right into the West Wing, where he played poker with his cronies from Ohio, some of whom were busy enriching themselves at federal expense. And, when it comes to addled Presidents, we have the accounts that have been handed down of Richard Nixon as the Watergate scandal reached its climax—brooding, cursing, drinking heavily, driven to the edge of madness.

But historical comparisons to Trump only go so far. Tyler and Fillmore, the tenth and thirteenth Presidents, were both experienced politicians who were serving as Vice-Presidents when their bosses died. (Tyler had been the governor of Virginia and also represented the state in the U.S. Senate. Fillmore was a former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.) Although Harding’s name will forever be associated with the Teapot Dome scandal, which involved the secret leasing out of federal oil reserves, he wasn’t accused of lining his own pockets. Nixon, a Shakespearian figure racked by personal insecurities, was also an intelligent man blessed with great powers of concentration. According to Arthur Burns, the economist he appointed to head the Federal Reserve, Nixon could have “held down a chair in political science or law in any of our major universities.”

Trump, then, is sui generisHe has no experience in elected office—in these demented times, that was part of his popular appeal. His reputation as a hugely successful businessman has little basis in fact, as does his claim of being worth ten billion dollars. Until he launched his Presidential campaign, in which he showed some genuine skill as a rabble-rouser, his talents had lain in attracting other people’s money, promoting himself in the media, and playing a role on reality television—the role of Donald Trump, the great dealmaker.•

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