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You don’t need conscious machines to wreak havoc upon the world; Weak AI can cause serious disruptions in employment and autonomous machines can be tasked with lethal work. Nikola Tesla dreamed of military drones bringing peace to the world, but that hasn’t been the reality. If some government (or rogue state) allows pilotless planes to operate automatically, the weapons systems might be even deadlier. Of course, with the human track record for mass violence, that might not be so. From Robert McMillan at Wired:

Military drones like the Predator currently are controlled by humans, but [Clearpath CTO Ryan] Gariepy says it wouldn’t take much to make them fully automatic and autonomous. That worries him. A lot. “The potential for lethal autonomous weapons systems to be rolled off the assembly line is here right now,” he says, “but the potential for lethal autonomous weapons systems to be deployed in an ethical way or to be designed in an ethical way is not, and is nowhere near ready.”

For Gariepy, the problem is one of international law, as well as programming. In war, there are situations in which the use of force might seem necessary, but might also put innocent bystanders at risk. How do we build killer robots that will make the correct decision in every situation? How do we even know what the correct decision would be?

We’re starting to see similar problems with autonomous vehicles. Say a dog darts across a highway. Does the robo-car swerve to avoid the dog but possibly risk the safety of its passengers? What if it isn’t a dog, but a child? Or a school bus? Now imagine a battle zone. “We can’t agree on how to implement those bits of guidance on the car,” Gariepy says. “And now what we’re actually talking about is taking that leap forward to building a system which has to decide on its own and when it’s going to preserve life and when it’s going to take lethal force.”•

 

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Speaking of psychedelics enthusiasts, Aldous Huxley, who thought deeply about globalism, consumerism, virtual reality and technocracy before most others did, had a little book of his called A Brave New World reviewed in the February 7, 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle. It was apparently a ripping good yarn.

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I think it’s worth looking past the antiquated, racist language and attitudes to read this article originally published in November 21, 1915 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which profiles a physically disabled African-American man who built his own wireless plant in the Long Island woods and was suspected of communicating secrets to the Germans during WWI (though the political espionage aspect isn’t very likely). The young guy’s name was Robert J. Freeman, and imagine how different his opportunities would have been if his skin color was different. When you think of the talent lost to prejudice, it’s just a heartbreaker.

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The Dustbowl was central to his life and work, but Woody Guthrie had some dalliances with the un-Oklahoma of New York City beginning in 1940, which resulted in the two articles below published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The first looks at Guthrie’s involvement in It’s All Yours, an anti-Fascist, anti-Hitler musical drama performed in 1942 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was co-directed by singer-songwriter Earl Robinson as the piece says, but what goes unmentioned is that the other director was Nicholas Ray, who would begin his big-time Hollywood career a half-dozen years later. In the second article, Guthrie brings his dirty boots to the home of etiquette expert (and erstwhile Staten Island Advance reporter) Amy Vanderbilt.

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From October 5, 1942:

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From April 5, 1943:

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I was reading the “Hey Bill” Q&A section of Bill James’ site, and this question was posed:

Hey Bill, I thought it was interesting in 1939 the National Professional Indoor Baseball League was launched with Tris Speaker and franchises managed by guys like Bill Wambsganss, Moose McCormick, and Harry Davis. It went one and done though, disbanded after that season. Do you know how the actual play was set up?

Answered: 1/21/2015

Don’t know that I’ve ever heard of it.•

Indoor baseball, while clearly nowhere near as popular as its outdoor counterpart, was a dogged part of the American sporting scene from the 1890s till the late ’30s. Before the game essentially became softball, it was played on a pro level during the winter months at armories in front of crowds of up to 1,500 fans. Decidedly different than the summer game were the rules (e.g., 35-foot basepaths) and equipment (ball was larger and softer). The most famous iteration of the game was the short-lived 1939 National Professional Indoor Baseball League, which was presided over by the former MLB great Tris Speaker. Below are several pieces from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle about various versions of the game.

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From May 5, 1912:

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From November 20, 1939:

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I’m sure the advent of commercial aviation was met with prejudices about the new-fangled machines, but it took quite a while to perfect automated co-pilots and the navigation of wind shears, so horrifying death was probably also a deterrent. In the article below from the September 22, 1929 Brooklyn Daily Eagle (which is sadly chopped off a bit in the beginning), the unnamed author looks at a selected history of technophobia. 

 

Ruth Snyder was a persistent if imprecise killer.

A Queens housewife who fell hard for married corset salesman Henry Judd Gray, Snyder failed the first seven times she attempted to murder her husband, Albert, finally garrotting her betrothed in 1927 with the aid of her lover, who, of course, had experience tightening fabric around flesh. The slaying was messy and the story she concocted for police about a home invasion even more so, so instead of collecting insurance money, Snyder was soon collecting dust in a prison cell. But not for long: A year later, she and her paramour were no more, silenced at Sing Sing by the hum of an electric chair.

Snyder was the first woman to die in the chair, and despite her vicious crime, her gender made her punishment shocking to many, even the executioner, and the picture of her being put to death, taken stealthily with a hidden ankle camera by New York Daily News photographer Tom Howard, is one of the most famous images in the history of journalism.

A postscript: Even after her death, Snyder had no luck with heat.

The following is the March 22, 1927 Brooklyn Daily Eagle account of her recanting her confession and entering a not-guilty plea.

 

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From the September 23, 1936 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

ViennaDr. Serge Voronoff of monkey gland and rejuvenation fame, announced today he was confident he could create a superman if he were permitted to transplant chimpanzee glands to a 10-year-old boy.

‘If any mother would entrust her child to me, she might be the means of establishing a new type of human far superior to the normal man.'”

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There had been other robots before the late 1930s, tin men who’d greeted conventioners and accomplished all manner of parlor trick, but Westinghouse’s Elektro took the mild amusements of early robotics national at the 1939 World’s Fair in NYC and in subsequent tours of the country. In addition to “playing” musical instruments and blowing up balloons, Elektro could smoke cigarettes, which the kids loved, because emphysema. Never reduced to the recycling bin, Elektro continues his travels to this day. The hacking, teeth-stained machine is one of the several displays of nascent artificial humans mentioned in a World’s Fair preview in the April 9, 1939 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Charles “Chuck” Connors was full of life, and other stuff.

The so-called “Mayor of Chinatown” was an Irishman called “Insect” by his neighbors until his penchant for cooking chuck steaks over open fires in the streets earned him a new nickname. An inveterate self-promoter, he was a tour guide, vaudevillian, boxer, bouncer and raconteur. Some of his stories were even true.

One that wasn’t: For a fee, he showed tourists “authentic” Chinatown opium dens, which were often merely apartments he rented and filled with “extras” paid to pretend to be dragon chasers. The crafty man realized that urban narratives, told just so, could be commodified.

Although he initially wasn’t so appreciated by his Chinese neighbors, Connors eventually earned their esteem and his blarney was sadly missed when it was permanently silenced. An article in the May 10, 1913 Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced his death.

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Mark Twain, America’s second greatest comic ever in my estimation (after George Carlin), died of a heart attack 104 years ago. He lived a life writ large, won fame and lost fortunes, and, most importantly, reminded us what we could be if we chose to live as one, traveling as he did from Confederate sympathizer to a place of enlightenment. I think of Twain what I thought of Pete Seeger and Odetta when they died: You can’t really replace such people because they have the history and promise of the nation coursing through their veins. He was eulogized in the April 22. 1910 Brooklyn Daily Eagle; the opening sections excerpted below follow him from birth to his emergence as a “stand-up” and his shift to author of books.

Two years before piloting the flight that killed himself and the great comic Will Rogers, aviator Wiley Post completed a ’round-the-world trip that was solo save for a helpful robot, an autopilot device fashioned by Sperry. It wasn’t like he could sleep comfortably while his “co-pilot” took over the controls, but it did allow Post to journey the long distance navigator-less. An article from the July 15, 1933 Brooklyn Daily Eagle published just prior to the mission.

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While I’m sure Adolf Hitler’s personal yacht, the Aviso Grille, had some historical value, it probably shouldn’t have been employed as a floating tourist trap, even if the proceeds went to charity. But that’s what happened during the end of the 1940s, soon before the craft was smashed up and sold for scrap. Judging by an article from the June 16, 1949 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which uses some strangely admiring adjectives to describe one of history’s very worst villains, the Führer was unsurprisingly not a fun cruise director, at least according to his former staff, some of whom sailed with the vessel when it made its voyage to New York. Postscript: When the boat was sold in pieces, Hitler’s shitter wound up in a New Jersey gas-station bathroom.

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Before method acting, Lon Chaney had his own method.

A master of makeup and body contortion, Chaney would go to any end to transform himself for each role, a character actor who became a star, eventually earning the sobriquet, “The Man of a Thousand Faces.” Like most people born in 1883, he had no reason to expect a long life and seemed in a rush, becoming a Pike’s Peak tour guide when he was only 12. The son of parents who could not hear or speak, he learned to be an expert mime at home, bringing this talent to the stage at 17, and, soon enough, the screen. A talented comic and singer, Chaney became best known for macabre roles in Hollywood, always disappearing into the performance. He was just as inscrutable off-screen, living quietly, even reclusively, refusing interviews, feeling he owed the public no twists beyond the turn. His grave was unmarked and remains so. The following is the report of his death from the August 26, 1930 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

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For John Wanamaker, being America’s first great merchant wasn’t merely about ringing cash registers. It was also about innovation in a number of ways, many of which weren’t directly reflected in the bottom line.

The owner and operator of a pair of humongous department stores, one opened in 1876 in Philadelphia and the other 20 years later in Manhattan, Wanamaker believed that rather than than looking at your customer as a short-term mark, you should cultivate a long-standing relationship based on trust and satisfaction–not the conventional wisdom at the time–and introduced the price tag and allowed money-back guarantees. He was the first to wisely exploit the power of print advertising, but he sold you what he’d promised.

He also turned his emporiums into experiments in communications and technology, having telephones in his stores as early as 1879, allowing his roofs to be used as launching pads for balloonists in aviation’s pioneering days and installing into his sprawling shops wireless radio stations (customers listened to live reports of the sinking of the Titanic). Having the world’s largest playable pipe organ in his on-site theater and a working train car suspended from the ceiling to carry children around the toy department were nice flourishes as well. Wanamaker didn’t spoil his customers by starving his employees: He paid them holiday bonuses and gave them medical care and athletic facilities and other benefits. His passing was reported in an article in the December 12, 1922 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, an excerpt from which follows.

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Harold Robbins would have bragged if nine female typists had quit in shock while working on one of his novels, but it was different story in a different era for James Joyce. Getting Ulysses past censors was an arduous task, and he might have tossed the pages aside for good if it wasn’t for the intervention of Shakespeare & Co. owner Sylvia Beach. She gambled her own money and prodded Joyce through many iterations of his work on the way to the printing press, bringing the novel to Parisians in 1922. The volume was a smash hit in France and was soon reselling for $700 a copy. An article about Beach follows from the December 24, 1933 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, timed to the belated un-banning of the book in America.

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An article in the November 22, 1939 Brooklyn Daily Eagle tells of technological unemployment coming to the kissing sector in the late 1930s, when Max Factor Jr., scion of the family cosmetics fortune and creator of Pan-Cake make-up which was favored by early film stars, created robots which would peck to perfection all day, allowing him test out new lipsticks to his heart’s content. Bad news for professional puckerers Joseph Roberts and Miss June Baker, of course, but such is the nature of progress. The brand-new robots were capable of kissing 1,200 times an hour. Ah, young love!

The top two photos show the senior Max Factor demonstrating his Beauty Micrometer device and touching up French silent-film star Renée Adorée. The last one captures two actresses wearing the make-up Junior created especially for black-and-white TV. 

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First William James Sidis amazed the world, then he disappointed it.

A Harvard student in 1910 at just 11 years old, he was considered the most astounding prodigy of early 20th-century America, a genius of mathematics and much more, reading at two and typing at three, who had been trained methodically from birth by his father, a psychiatrist and professor. It was a lot to live up to. There was a dalliance with radical politics at the end of his teens that threw him off the path to greatness, resulting in a sedition trial. In the aftermath, he quietly disappeared into an undistinguished life.

When it was learned in 1937 that Sidis was living a threadbare existence of no great import, merely a clerk, he was treated to a public accounting which was laced with no small amount of schadenfreude. He sued the New Yorker over an article by Gerald L. Manley and James Thurber (gated) which detailed his failed promise. He was paid $3,000 to settle the case by the magazine’s publishers just prior to his death in 1944.

Two articles follow from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle about Sidis’ uncommon life.

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From the March 20, 1910 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

 

From the July 18, 1944 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

 

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From the February 12, 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“After the death of the President, his body was carted about the nation in the world’s largest funeral march. A man was detailed daily to brush the dust from his face after he had lain in state in various cities.

His body was moved 19 times between the time of his burial and 1900.”

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The Wright Brothers seemingly cease to exist the moment after the Flyer lifted off in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903, frozen forever in the moment of their greatest accomplishment, the height of their careers. Wilbur, the elder, died of typhoid inside of a decade. Orville, who manned the landmark flights, never handled the controls again after 1918. (Howard Hughes was the pilot for his last air trip as a passenger in 1944.) Perhaps because of competing claims to the title of “first flight” or maybe because the supersonic age had passed him by, Orville’s obituary in the January 31, 1948 Brooklyn Daily Eagle didn’t have the fanfare one might expect. 

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Just as talkies were announcing themselves across America, genius Russian silent film director Sergei Eisenstein was dejectedly departing Hollywood, no richer financially or creatively for his failed attempts at pleasing U.S. movie producers. An article in the May 1, 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle made clear his disenchantment with the business end of show business and the automaton nature of the burgeoning studio system.

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While the early twentieth-century mobster Arnold Rothstein has entered into American culture in everything from The Great Gatsby to Boardwalk Empire, he most infamously left his mark on major-league baseball. The “Brain,” as he was often called, transformed the often chaotic world of crime into a corporate-type affair, becoming the first “legitimate businessman.” One Rothstein deal saw him and other gamblers entice members of the 1919 White Sox to throw the World Series, a scandal which nearly killed the sport. And then there was the unintended consequence of the fix which occurred when Kenesaw “Mountain” Landis, a federal judge, was subsequently named baseball’s first commissioner with the imperative to clean up the game. In addition to other policies, Landis was steadfast in not allowing players of color to participate in the league, keeping the sport segregated. It’s no sure bet the game would have been integrated without Landis, but there was no way it was happening with him. The following article from the November 5, 1928 Brooklyn Daily Eagle reports on the murder of Rothstein, not shockingly a gambling-related crime.

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Famed attorney Clarence Darrow was an extremist when it came to criminality, believing in circumstance but not culpability. He saw criminals the way the writer of a naturalist novel views characters, as prisoners of nature and nurture, incapable of circumventing either. Based on the remarks he made as reported in an article in the April 4, 1931 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Darrow would have treated all misdeeds as maladies, the perpetrators receiving treatment in hospitals rather than stretches in prison.

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A century ago, Gobi Desert dwellers didn’t desire dinosaur eggs for their historical value but for their utility, often fashioning from them jewelry or other trinkets to wear or trade. In 1923, a motorcar-powered expedition, which numbered naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews as one of its leaders, was the first to ever secure the prehistoric eggs and bring them back to America. It was a sensation, of course. Chapman, a showman at heart who was not immune to utility himself, parlayed the jaw-dropping find into international celebrity, the directorship of the American Museum of Natural History and a young trophy wife. It’s conjectured by some that he was the model for Indiana Jones, but most likely that character is a composite of numerous explorers. A couple years after his dino-egg windfall, the scientist returned to the Gobi and purchased an armful of shells from a Mongolian villager for a bar of soap (see caption of fourth photo from top). One odd thing about the October 29, 1923 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article below, which heralded Chapman’s discovery, is its surprise that dinosaurs laid eggs. It doesn’t mention what the prevailing theory had been.

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Vladimir Lenin’s corpse has had a perplexing postscript, but one particular body part, his brain, may have had the most fascinating “afterlife” of all, as the Soviet leader’s adoring people sliced it and diced it, hoping to find the source of genius that propelled the Bolshevik Revolution. In an article in the February 24, 1929 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the paper underestimated the pieces the organ had been pulverized into, numbering it at 15,000 when it was actually more than twice that many.

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