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In the immediate aftermath of the GA-06 defeat of Jon Osoff, who has charisma on loan from Martin O’Malley, Liberal Twitter exhorted Democrats to develop a clearer policy message. When trying to win votes, it’s better to be lucid (except when it’s not), but policy isn’t what elevated Trump to the Oval Office–he had none–or Karen Handel to Congress. In addition to Kremlin machinations and FBI blunders, what enabled the Klu Klux Kardashian to be elected was his peddling of a deeply racist, xenophobic message that found the ready ears of nearly 63 million citizens. If lots of people are voting to Make America White Again, sound fiscal policy won’t make a dent.

It’s not that Dems can’t defeat such ugliness at the voting both–they’ve done it before and even won the popular tally in 2016–but they need the right candidate more than anything else. Someone bold and broadly appealing whose authenticity is unquestioned. Easier said than done, I suppose. 

In the Slate piece “A GOP Without Fear,” Jamelle Bouie, who consistently rises above the clatter, argues that Republicans don’t fear the horrendous effects of the AHCA, the first attempt by either party to literally murder its base, since identity politics rule the day. In other words, you can’t fall from grace when grace itself isn’t valued.

An excerpt:

It’s likely that Republicans know the bill is unpopular and are doing everything they can to keep the public from seeing its contents before passing it. As we saw with the Affordable Care Act, the longer the process, the greater the odds for a major backlash. But this presupposes a pressing need to pass the American Health Care Act, which isn’t the case, outside of a “need” to slash Medicaid, thus paving the way for large-scale, permanent tax cuts. The Republican health care bill doesn’t solve any urgent problem in the health care market, nor does it represent any coherent vision for the health care system; it is a hodgepodge of cuts and compromises, designed to pass a GOP Congress more than anything. It is policy without any actual policy. At most, it exists to fulfill a promise to “repeal Obamacare” and cut taxes.

Perhaps that’s enough to explain the zeal to pass the bill. Republicans made a promise, and there are forces within the party—from hyperideological lawmakers and conservative activists to right-wing media and Republican base voters—pushing them toward this conclusion. When coupled with the broad Republican hostility to downward redistribution and the similarly broad commitment to tax cuts, it makes sense that the GOP would continue to pursue this bill despite the likely consequences.

But ultimately it’s not clear the party believes it would face those consequences. The 2018 House map still favors Republicans, and the party is defending far fewer Senate seats than Democrats. Aggressively gerrymandered districts provide another layer of defense, as does voter suppression, and the avalanche of spending from outside groups. Americans might be hurt and outraged by the effects of the AHCA, but those barriers blunt the electoral impact.

The grounds for political combat seem to have changed as well. If recent special elections are any indication—where GOP candidates refused to comment on signature GOP policies—extreme polarization means Republicans can mobilize supporters without being forced to talk about or account for their actual actions. Identity, for many voters, matters more than their pocketbooks. Republicans simply need to signal their disdain—even hatred—for their opponents, political or otherwise. Why worry about the consequences of your policies when you can preclude defeat by changing the ground rules of elections, spending vast sums, and stoking cultural resentment?•

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“Spying among friends, that isn’t done,” Angela Merkel has said, but the absolutely least surprising thing in this period of constant shocks is that Germany was apparently spying on America as America was spying on Germany. Of course.

Nearly three years ago, I assumed that at the very least “Germany didn’t want to delve too deeply into NSA spying because Germany has been complicit in it.” It isn’t surprising the surveillance was bilateral at least during the first decade of this century because one truism about the technological tools we’ve created is they will be used. The argument that we’ve managed to (mostly) not employ nuclear weapons so we can control privacy-obliterating devices is silly because these instruments and methods are decentralized and available to all, and governments and corporations and individuals will give in to the temptation to use them regardless of the law.

Also: Spying isn’t one big boom but instead death by a thousand cuts. Each individual act won’t feel calamitous. In Errol Morris parlance, these surveillance tools are fast, cheap and will continually be out of control.

From “German Intelligence Also Snooped on White House,” a Spiegel piece by Maik Baumgärtner, Martin Knobbe and Jörg Schindler:

Documents that Spiegel has been able to review show that the BND, until a few years ago, actually had considerable interest in the United States as a target of espionage. The document states that just under 4,000 search terms, or selectors, were directed against American targets between 1998 and 2006. It is unknown whether they continued to be used after those dates.

The German intelligence agency used the selectors to surveil telephone and fax numbers as well as email accounts belonging to American companies like Lockheed Martin, the space agency NASA, the organization Human Rights Watch, universities in several U.S. states and military facilities like the U.S. Air Force, the Marine Corps and the Defense Intelligence Agency, the secret service agency belonging to the American armed forces. Connection data from far over 100 foreign embassies in Washington, from institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Washington office of the Arab League were also accessed by the BND’s spies.

The entries also prove the existence of a top-secret anti-terror alliance between Western intelligence services, including those of Germany, the United States and France. Spiegel already reported back in 2005 on the elite unit, which is named Camolin. The papers now show several BND selectors were “Camolin-related.”

It’s Unlikely Spying Was Unintentional
Also on the selector list were lines at the U.S. Treasury Department, the State Department and the White House. Were they really all just “coincidental capture” as the former BND head claimed? Was it just an oversight?

That’s unlikely.•

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The text below I wrote just prior to the Trump Inauguration to preface an article about the GOP trying to gut the House’ outside ethics watchdog. It came to mind today again when thinking about Republican efforts to pass a draconian healthcare bill, with the “softer” Senate version being even worse in some ways.

At some point, things fall apart. It’s terrifying to even think about.

From January 2:

No one won the 2016 American Presidential election. Not really.

I don’t mean in a figurative sense that we all lose because a fascist kleptocrat will soon be in the Oval Office, though, yes, of course, there’s that. I’m saying that not only did most of the people vote for the losing candidate, but even those who chose Trump aren’t in favor of GOP policies.

Apart from his most blindly enthusiastic supporters, few Americans are deluded about Trump, even those who pulled the pin with his name. They do not like him. He was used as a blunt instrument, a brick to toss through the window, a way to send a message that a corrupt and broken system must immediately be repaired. The Republicans now seem to have forgotten that they’re inside that building and that the approval ratings of this congress are at historic lows. Because they are avaricious opportunists, they likely will not notice that the whole thing is apt to be burned down if the cries are ignored. Trump, as miscast as may have been as a messenger for the disgruntled, working-class masses, was the final warning.

It’s a message that will almost definitely go unheeded. Republicans believe Americans want Obamacare repealed (they don’t), Medicare gutted (no, again), Social Security privatized (nope), unions demolished (wait a minute) and tax cuts for the highest earners (um, what?). Mitch McConnell, a creature from the black lagoon, is convinced citizens don’t really want the swamp drained, blithely unaware there may be a meat hook with his name on it.

Those who most feel like they’re bleeding are about to be bled dry. I’m not suggesting supporters of the orange supremacist deserve a whole lot of pity. I mean, I would play the world’s smallest violin for them, but the GOP just cut the school music program.

I’m really not joking, though. The GOP’s complete misunderstanding of the moment may provoke very bad things, “unspeakable things” in the President-Elect’s reckless lingo. People have tired of bread and Kardashians, and some sort of breaking point feels near. Even a good agnostic like myself can say “God help us all.”•

Gained much insight early in the year from reading Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, which analyzes how wealth inequality can be interrupted and reversed, his analysis stretching back far earlier than the Gini coefficient to the time of the development of rudimentary tools like spears.

How do we make the world more equal? To put it simply, through great pain, unless you’re into mass mobilization warfare, plague, bloody revolution or societal collapse. (I think Steve Bannon is deeply in love with at least two or three of these options, though not to make the economy more equal.) Of course, leveling doesn’t necessarily mean the raising of all boats but sometimes the sinking of every last ship. Scheidel asserts that wealth inequality has been the logical outcome of stable societies, with leveling occurring for relatively brief spells by virtue of the sweep of history or the spread of Influenza. 

The book isn’t entirely resigned, believing that perhaps past won’t be prologue, holding out hope that human progress can find new means of mitigation. Of course, sitting here at this moment in time, that doesn’t look like the plausible near-term scenario.

Scheidel has just published a smart essay for Aeon wondering anew if we can arrive at a more-equal playing field with trampling all the players. He isn’t sanguine about our chances, thinking genetic engineering may further complicate matters. An excerpt:

History offers very little comfort to those in search of peaceful levelling. To be sure, it is perfectly possible to reduce inequality at the margins: if Latin American countries have done it, the US, UK or Australia certainly ought to be able to accomplish the same, using an array of policy measures, from fiscal interventions, basic incomes and the targeting of concealed offshore wealth, to carefully focused investment in education and campaign finance reform. However, policymaking does not take place in a vacuum, and not everything that worked well for the postwar generation, say, could be easily implemented in today’s more globally integrated, competitive and deregulated environment. Throughout history, truly substantial compressions of inequality invariably had much darker origins, and no similarly powerful alternative mechanisms have since emerged.

It is always tempting to assume that the lessons of history are no longer relevant because the world has changed so much – as indeed it has. But we must bear in mind that the exact same claim could have been made back in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, when inequality declined even as economies boomed and the middle classes thrived. There was no obvious reason why this should ever change: and yet change it did. It is just as likely as not that we are currently riding another upward wave in the concentration of income and wealth, continuing a pattern that stretches back thousands of years. In the not-too-distant future, robotics, genetic engineering and biomechatronic enhancements of the human body could well create inequalities we can barely even imagine. And if they do, will it all end in yet another unforeseen, sudden and dramatic violent turn?


Not all whistleblowers are created equal. Julian Assange is, after all, no Daniel Ellsberg, even if the latter leaker supports him.

The WikiLeaks founder is nothing if not a Trump-ish world figure, having climbed onto that stage while our current President was still more Kim Kardashian than Kim Jong-un, busy weighing the relative merits of Arsenio Hall and Gary Busey in a make-believe boardroom.

Assange has repeatedly proven himself over the past seven years to have been deeply irresponsible with both the lives of innocent people–even at-risk ones–and the truth. Slavishly devoted to his own privacy despite having no regard for anyone else’s, he’s a vainglorious, egotistical asshole with a deep misogynistic streak and multiple sexual assault allegations on his public record. (If you want to hear more, someone locate Billy Bush and get the bus running.) That doesn’t even take into account Assange apparently working as a Putin stooge over the last several years, with his organization becoming a Kremlin house organ far more effective than Pravda ever was during the Soviet days.

A question remains despite his odious behavior: Even if what Assange practices is some sort of voodoo journalism, will it endanger genuine practitioners if he’s arrested and tried for espionage? That inquiry was a lot more germane before Trump and hopefully will be again after him, since any U.S. reporter or news organization are targets of the White House’s wrath during this terrible time, no questionable practices required.

In writing about Risk, the Laura Poitras documentary about the world’s second-most-infamous Kremlin crony, Sue Halpern of the New York Review of Books wonders over this very issue. An excerpt:

Despite Assange’s vocal disdain for his former collaborators at The New York Times and The Guardian, his association with those journalists and their newspapers is probably what so far has kept him from being indicted and prosecuted in the United States. As Glenn Greenwald told the journalist Amy Goodman recently, Eric Holder’s Justice Department could not come up with a rationale to prosecute WikiLeaks that would not also implicate the news organizations with which it had worked; to do so, Greenwald said, would have been “too much of a threat to press freedom, even for the Obama administration.” The same cannot be said with confidence about the Trump White House, which perceives the Times, and national news organizations more generally, as adversaries. Yet if the Sessions Justice Department goes after Assange, it likely will be on the grounds that WikiLeaks is not “real” journalism.

This charge has dogged WikiLeaks from the start. For one thing, it doesn’t employ reporters or have subscribers. For another, it publishes irregularly and, because it does not actively chase secrets but aggregates those that others supply, often has long gaps when it publishes nothing at all. Perhaps most confusing to some observers, WikiLeaks’s rudimentary website doesn’t look anything like a New York Times or a Washington Post, even in those papers’ more recent digital incarnations.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that WikiLeaks publishes the information it receives much like those traditional news outlets. When it burst on the scene in 2010, it was embraced as a new kind of journalism, one capable not only of speaking truth to power, but of outsmarting power and its institutional gatekeepers. And the fact is, there is no consensus on what constitutes “real” journalism. As Adam Penenberg points out, “The best we have comes from laws and proposed legislation which protect reporters from being forced to divulge confidential sources in court. In crafting those shield laws, legislators have had to grapple with the nebulousness of the profession.”

The danger of carving off WikiLeaks from the rest of journalism, as the attorney general may attempt to do, is that ultimately it leaves all publications vulnerable to prosecution. Once an exception is made, a rule will be too, and the rule in this case will be that the government can determine what constitutes real journalism and what does not, and which publications, films, writers, editors, and filmmakers are protected under the First Amendment, and which are not.

This is where censorship begins. No matter what one thinks of Julian Assange personally, or of WikiLeaks’s reckless publication practices, like it or not, they have become the litmus test of our commitment to free speech. If the government successfully prosecutes WikiLeaks for publishing classified information, why not, then, “the failed New York Times,” as the president likes to call it, or any news organization or journalist? It’s a slippery slope leading to a sheer cliff. That is the real risk being presented here, though Poitras doesn’t directly address it.•

“This is not the film I thought I was making”:

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The very idea of a World’s Fair seems antiquated. No one really has to travel anywhere to see the future when we hold supercomputers in our palms. And the idea of roping off tomorrow for us too gaze at from a safe distance is an anachronism. What’s next happens all around us all the time, and when every object becomes a computer, we’ll be deeply and permanently within the experiment, resting, if uneasily, inside the machine.

Somehow Kazakhstan didn’t get the memo. The former Soviet nation is currently hosting EXPO 2017, which cost billions to create, in what’s a bewilderingly remote location. Almost nobody has shown up to look at the “City of the Future,” for instance, because they already live there. While that’s truer in the West than in the developing world, such events are headed for obsolescence everywhere in an increasingly wired, connected world.

Beyond modern technological and cultural dynamics, blame has to fall on autocratic President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who foolishly hoped the huge outlay would burnish Kazakhstan’s world image. It’s an ill-considered vanity project hatched by a repressive regime. While China has been able to successfully stage similar events in the recent past, large-scale authoritarian dreams can fail spectacularly even if the people are essentially forced to purchase tickets.

James Palmer penned a smart article on the perplexing project for Foreign Policy, reporting that one resident told him the “government is running tramps through the turnstiles to keep the numbers up.” The opening:

ASTANA, Kazakhstan    I was the only visitor in Greece. As I walked through the tunnel of philosophers, eager young Kazakhs accosted me. “This is the Greek alphabet! It has 24 characters, and it was the original language of science. Here, please, come and take a photo by the sea.” They hustled me over to a Mediterranean backdrop. They outnumbered me five to one, I succumbed to relentless explanation.

It was a sunny afternoon on the second day of EXPO 2017, held on the outskirts of Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. The Expo boasts of being “the Olympics of economy, business, and culture,” a global event where each participating country showcases its national achievements in its own “pavilion” and crowds come to see pieces of the wider world. But today — at the first Expo ever held in a post-Soviet state — there weren’t any crowds.

The Expo was being held on the outskirts of Astana, near one of the city’s many construction sites, in a purpose-built park. Dubbed a “future city” but looking more like a vast conference center, the organizers claimed the site was self-powered, fueled by a mix of wind and water. Each pavilion takes up anywhere from one room to several floors in a giant ring of new buildings built to encircle a great sphere of black glass at the center, the Kazakhstan pavilion. Viewed from the west, the dome loomed over neighboring apartment buildings. “There’s two big ways to piss off the Kazakhs,” a delegate commented, “Mention Borat, or call the dome the Death Star.”

The obvious lack of attendees, by contrast, didn’t require mentioning. Greece wasn’t the only deserted pavilion. Many were barren of anyone except staff. A few of the big names — China, Germany, the United States — had clusters of a couple of dozen visitors at a time, but outside most nations I snaked my way through empty rail guards. On the avenues outside, two out of every three people were wearing lanyards. I eavesdropped on a conversation between two European delegates: “We have to plan for the worst-case scenario — if there are no visitors to our event.”•


Those who are no position to talk are often the loudest of all. Those most in need of improvement are frequently the least likely to seek it. Projection of inner turmoil is a key component in the creation of a sick society, a hellscape for destroyers and their dictator.

Regardless of what anyone thinks of his system and methods, it’s no small irony that Sigmund Freud died against the backdrop of one of the worst explosions of repressed rage the world has ever known. The Jewish “Father of Psychoanalysis” was hectored and hounded in his dying years by Nazis, who desperately needed the very inspection of self he encouraged. Freud ultimately fled Austria in a weakened state and died in London. All four of his elderly sisters would were unable to escape Vienna ultimately be killed in concentration camps.

Three Brooklyn Daily Eagle articles below tell part of the story.


From March 22, 1938:


From June 4, 1938:


From September 24, 1939.

I know, roughly, how it ends for Trump, but how does it turn out for America and the world? I often feel about humanity the way Lee Child does in a New Statesman interview:


Are we all doomed?

Lee Child:

Of course we are. Evolutionary history shows we’re a vicious bunch, clever but not clever enough. We’ll be done soon, and the planet will recover. Call it fifty thousand years, from the invention of language to extinction. A tiny blip.•

I’ll confine myself for now to the immediate disaster, even if it’s connected to the longer-term, climate-related one. We know five things:

  1. Russia aggressively hacked our election.
  2. The Kremlin wanted Trump to win.
  3. Team Trump had an extraordinary number of meetings during the campaign with dicey Russian figures and have repeatedly lied about the contact.
  4. Trump was eager to remove Russian sanctions.
  5. Trump desperately wants to preempt any investigation into the preceding factors.

If these were merely unusually suspicious but unrelated occurrences, Robert Mueller would be the person I’d want investigating me. He’ll get to the bottom of it and has the credibility to be believed despite the awful appearance if all involved are innocent. If I were guilty, wow, he’s the last person I’d want un-digging the grave.

No matter how things develop, the one thing we can be certain of is that Trump, a human being devoid of shame or decency, will make everything far worse than it need be. He’ll make sure that there’s copious collateral damage and it will be you and me.

Two excerpts follow.

The opening of Richard Evans’ first Foreign Policy piece, “The Madness of King Donald,” which provides historical context for moments when a leader has lost it:

Donald J. Trump, the 45th president of the United States, has not been in office for very long, but already the contours and characteristics of his rule have become clear. Rather than govern conventionally, through officers of state appointed for their competence and experience and with the agreement, however reluctant, of Congress, he has chosen to gather round him an informal coterie of friends, advisors, and relatives — many of them, like himself, without any experience of government at all — while railing against the restrictions imposed on him by constitutional arrangements such as the independence of the press and the judiciary.

Trump’s entourage resembles nothing more closely than the court of a hereditary monarch, with informal structures of rule elbowing aside more formal ones. Trump did, after all, win widespread support in the electorate by promising precisely this: shaking up, bypassing or overthrowing the Washington establishment and trying something new.

The result, however, has been chaos and confusion, contradiction and paralysis. It has become clear that the president of the United States is someone who does not read his briefs; who does not take the advice of experts in the intelligence field or indeed in any other; who fires off brief statements without thinking whether they are consistent with his administration’s declared policies; who is seemingly incapable of putting together a coherent sentence with a subject, a verb, and an object; who is apt to give away state secrets to a foreign power; and who seems to have no respect either for the truth or for the Constitution (not least in respect of freedom of religion and freedom of speech). He may not be mad, but a growing number of commentators allege that Trump is suffering from dementia, or is mentally subnormal, or is suffering from a personality disorder of some kind.

In a situation where a head of state is incapable of carrying out his duties properly, what guidance can history offer us?•

In a smart blog post, Michael Dorf riffs on Thomas Nagel’s essay about consciousness “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?” in arguing that normal people lack the tool set to comprehend Trump. An excerpt:

Here’s my hypothesis: Normal humans are similarly unable to understand or explain what it feels like to be Donald Trump, because in some respects Donald Trump is different from normal humans, just as bats–in virtue of their ability to echolocate–are also different from normal humans.

I can illustrate the hypothesis with a recent example of Trump’s behavior. In the aftermath of the London Bridge and Borough Market attack, Trump tweeted “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!'” The tweet was indecent for two reasons: First, any reasonable human being would have expressed solidarity and sympathy; and second, the premise of the tweet–that Mayor Sadiq Khan said that Londoners need not be alarmed about terrorism–was false.

Khan had said that Londoners ought not be alarmed by the increased police presence they would see in the wake of the attack. When this was patiently explained, Trump did not apologize. Instead, he vented again, calling the clearly correct response a “pathetic excuse.”

If we were dealing with a normal human being–even a normal but evil, stupid, or ignorant human being–we might ask whether Trump deliberately misconstrued the original statement by Khan for some nefarious purpose, whether he somehow misunderstood the original statement by accident, or whether there is some other explanation for this bizarre and despicable behavior. But Trump is not a normal human being. He is not even a normal but evil, stupid, or ignorant human being. Trump is Trump. Asking what Trump was thinking or feeling when he decided to launch a patently unfair and grotesque attack on the Mayor of London while the latter was working to soothe and protect the people of London is like asking what echolocation feels like to a bat. The same appears to be true of much of Trump’s inexplicable behavior.•

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Almost developing a driverless car isn’t nearly the same thing as perfecting a fully driverless one, that last two or three percent to be worked out making all the difference. Getting most of the way there is useful but not transformational. When autonomous has truly arrived it will impact environment, safety, economics, law and urban, suburban and rural life in myriad ways. 

Mary Barra just announced GM is deploying a new fleet of (almost) driverless vehicles for testing. Despite the bold headlines, that’s no so different than what other traditional automakers and Silicon Valley startups are doing, though the company is stressing that it’s uniquely positioned to mass-produce the cars once autonomous is a going concern–whenever that is. If money and talent are mainly what’s required, the industry has those factors covered. GM alone is spending $600 million annually on their division and is in the process of recruiting nearly 1,200 additional engineers.

While those are solid, well-paying positions, the lucky new hires endeavoring to remove human hands from the wheel will also, if successful, be disappearing millions of blue-collar jobs. That will make us richer in the aggregate but put undue pressure on segments of society, though as Nicholas Carr recently wrote, the promised AI-induced jobspocalypse has yet to materialize despite all the bold predictions. Has our “death” been greatly exaggerated or just deferred?

My best guess is that new tools, once envisioned, often take longer to perfect than we hope (or fear)–remember that Lillian Ross reported on VCRs and a Netflix-like service in 1970! The process, however, may speed ahead faster now than in the past because tools today are cheaper and more powerful. It’s probably more a question of whether we’ll produce an adequate array of new positions to replace the old ones and enable workers to educate and re-educate themselves to continually cope with shifting landscapes.

Two excerpts follow, the first about GM’s announcement, and the second concerning AI’s possible impact on the middle class.•

From Brent Snavely in USA Today:

LAKE ORION, Mich. — General Motors said Tuesday it has finished making 130 self-driving Chevrolet Bolt test vehicles, an achievement that the automaker says will help put it at the forefront of the race to develop and deploy autonomous cars.

CEO and Chairman Mary Barra said GM is the only automaker currently capable of mass-producing self-driving vehicles.

“The autonomous vehicles you see here today are purpose-built, self-driving test vehicles,” Barra said before several hundred employees gathered at the plant in Lake Orion, Mich., Tuesday. “The level of integration in these vehicles is on par with any of our production vehicles, and that is a great advantage. In fact, no other company today has the unique and necessary combination of technology, engineering and manufacturing ability to build autonomous vehicles at scale.”

The self-driving version of the Chevrolet Bolt is the second generation of vehicles capable of handling nearly all road situations on their own without driver intervention. They are equipped with the latest array of equipment, including cameras, radar, sensors and other hardware designed and built by GM and its suppliers.

The new version of the self-driving Bolts must still be driven with a person behind the wheel who is alert and ready to take control if necessary.•

From Cade Metz at Wired:

IN FEBRUARY 1975, a group of geneticists gathered in a tiny town on the central coast of California to decide if their work would bring about the end of the world. These researchers were just beginning to explore the science of genetic engineering, manipulating DNA to create organisms that didn’t exist in nature, and they were unsure how these techniques would affect the health of the planet and its people. So, they descended on a coastal retreat called Asilomar, a name that became synonymous with the guidelines they laid down at this meeting—a strict ethical framework meant to ensure that biotechnology didn’t unleash the apocalypse.

Forty-two years on, another group of scientists gathered at Asilomar to consider a similar problem. But this time, the threat wasn’t biological. It was digital. In January, the world’s top artificial intelligence researchers walked down the same beachside paths as they discussed their rapidly accelerating field and the role it will play in the fate of humanity. It was a private conference—the enormity of the subject deserves some privacy—but in recent days, organizers released several videos from the conference talks, and some participants have been willing to discuss their experience, shedding some light on the way AI researchers view the threat of their own field.

Yes, they discussed the possibility of a superintelligence that could somehow escape human control, and at the end of the month, the conference organizers unveiled a set of guidelines, signed by attendees and other AI luminaries, that aim to prevent this possible dystopia. But the researchers at Asilomar were also concerned with more immediate matters: the effect of AI on the economy.

“One of the reasons I don’t like the discussions about superintelligence is that they’re a distraction from what’s real,” says Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, who attended the conference. “As the poet said, have fewer imaginary problems and more real ones.”

At a time when the Trump administration is promising to make America great again by restoring old-school manufacturing jobs, AI researchers aren’t taking him too seriously. They know that these jobs are never coming back, thanks in no small part to their own research, which will eliminate so many other kinds of jobs in the years to come, as well. At Asilomar, they looked at the real US economy, the real reasons for the “hollowing out” of the middle class. The problem isn’t immigration—far from it. The problem isn’t offshoring or taxes or regulation. It’s technology.•

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• For the most part, poor people in America (and most other places) are rich people without money. Many try to pin moral failings on those who are struggling, but plenty of folks who’ve inherited wealth have drug and drinking problems, mental-health issues, divorces and other challenges. They just have a cushion to (usually) prevent them from falling painfully and finally to the ground.

• David Brooks has a tendency to get practically orgasmic about American meritocracy, about how our best and brightest walk in the halls of power educationally and beyond. It seems a cruel myth. Many of the students in these institutions are very intelligent (though not Jared Kushner, whose felon father purchased him a seat at Harvard), but the attendees have often been bolstered by a specific type of background that allows them to fully develop their skills and match them to expectations. Money is often part of the equation. Luck matters.

• Standardized tests were established in the U.S. on the strength of meritocratic impulses, the hope of finding diamonds in the rough, but they’ve long since been stripped of their egalitarian origins. Expensive tutors, test-prep courses and other means of tipping the balance have un-leveled the playing field. And there are perfectly intelligent young people who culturally aren’t prepared for these exams but could flourish in the right environment.

• The lack of equality ventures beyond school and work, existing, very dangerously, in courts and prisons. In addition to the two sets of justice that exist based on black and white in America, another one is divided by the colors of collars. Donald Trump can launder money and commit all manner of ethically dubious behavior and never spend a day behind bars, while Jeff Sessions envisions even more private prisons full of those without money for good lawyers who’ve committed low-level crimes. The Attorney General is now in position to see these dark dreams come to fruition.

From “Stop Pretending You’re Not Rich,” Richard Reeves’ NYT op-ed which argues the problem goes beyond the 1%:

I always found the class consciousness of Britain depressing. It is one of the reasons we brought our British-born sons to America. Here, class is quaint, something to observe in wonder through imported TV shows like Downton Abbey or The Crown.

So imagine my horror at discovering that the United States is more calcified by class than Britain, especially toward the top. The big difference is that most of the people on the highest rung in America are in denial about their privilege. The American myth of meritocracy allows them to attribute their position to their brilliance and diligence, rather than to luck or a rigged system. At least posh people in England have the decency to feel guilty.

In Britain, it is politically impossible to be prime minister and send your children to the equivalent of a private high school. Even Old Etonian David Cameron couldn’t do it. In the United States, the most liberal politician can pay for a lavish education in the private sector. Some of my most progressive friends send their children to $30,000-a-year high schools. The surprise is not that they do it. It is that they do it without so much as a murmur of moral disquiet.

Beneath a veneer of classlessness, the American class reproduction machine operates with ruthless efficiency.•


One of the problems with the type of political tumult we’re now experiencing in the U.S. is that a stable government is required for people to let their minds explore culture freely and to focus outwardly on world situations that need attention. Right now, almost all our attention is directed at preventing Trumpers from dismantling democracy, leaving little bandwidth for anything else. Of course, even during the best of times, America has mostly ignored the deepening humanitarian crisis of the Gaza Strip.

According to a new London Review of Books article by Sara Roy, the troubles have gone much further than just electricity cuts (a move President Mahmoud Abbas requested of Israel to pressure Hamas) and other quotidian inconveniences. Economic hardship born of blockades has led to societal breakdown, with begging and prostitution the new normal, as nearly 70 percent of the population relies on international humanitarian assistance for basic survival. Drug abuse has increased, and suicide and divorce rates have skyrocketed. Bad has become worse.

Being a political football kicked from many sides has made inhabitants of the area increasingly open to extremist sects that can at least offer them some money. They’re not necessarily militants, just pragmatists. One Gaza businessperson tells Roy that Israeli-owned factories opened in the squeezed section would provide employment to young, jobless men and shut down the extremists. We’re not likely to learn anytime soon if he’s right, and if this generation of Palestinians may be more open to peace than the preceding one was or the succeeding one might be.

One bright spot in the article: “Gaza has a talented, tech-savvy population; if ever there were peace, an American investor said, ‘Gaza’s internet sector would become another India.’ The number of internet users in Gaza is reportedly equal to that of Tel Aviv.” Still, not much will come of it within the current reality.

From Roy:

Need is everywhere. But what is new is the sense of desperation, which can be felt in the boundaries people are now willing to cross, boundaries that were once inviolate. One day a well-appointed woman, her face fully covered by a niqab, arrived at the hotel where I was staying to beg. When asked politely to leave by the hotel staff, she aggressively refused and insisted on staying, obliging the hotel staff to escort her off the property with force. She wasn’t asking to beg but demanding to. I had never seen this before in Gaza. Another day a teenage boy came to our table quietly pleading for money for his family. By the time I got out my wallet, the staff had approached and gently ushered him out. He didn’t resist. He was educated and well-dressed and I kept thinking he should have been at home studying for an exam or out with his friends by the sea. Instead he was asked to leave the hotel and never return.

Perhaps the most alarming indicator of people’s desperation is the growth of prostitution – this in a traditional and conservative society. Although prostitution has always been present to a small degree in Gaza, it was always considered immoral and shameful, bringing serious social consequences for the woman and her family. As family resources disappear, this appears to be changing. A well-known and highly respected professional told me that women, many of them well-dressed, have come to his office soliciting him and ‘not for a lot of money’. (He also told me that because of the rise of prostitution, it has become harder for girls to get married – ‘no one knows who is pure.’ Families plead with him to provide a ‘safe and decent space’ for their daughters by employing them in his office.) Another friend told me that he had seen a young woman in a restaurant trying to solicit a man while her parents were sitting at a nearby table. When I asked him how he explained such incomprehensible behaviour he said: ‘People living in a normal environment behave in normal ways; people living in an abnormal environment do not.’

And Gaza’s environment is by most measures abnormal.•


J. Edgar Hoover, flanked in the middle photo by Walter Winchell and Joe DiMaggio, was seriously considered for the post of Major League Baseball Commissioner twice, in 1945 and 1951, a career change that would have probably been better for American governance if not for the sport.

From the February 7, 1945 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:


We’re doomed, Bill Kristol writes on Twitter, if Trump and Pence are all we have to offer. He was talking about the GOP, but the same might be said of the whole of America. This Administration has done permanent damage to the office of the Presidency, moving it into aberrant territory no matter how much we try to not allow its kleptocratic, sociopathic and autocratic nature be normalized. The power of the position allows it to define an awful lot. 

It has taken the Republican’s Constitution-defying rejection of Merrick Garland (orchestrated by McConnell but also supported by that great patriot McCain) to the nth degree. And it may only get worse. Newt Gingrich is now questioning whether Robert Mueller can really be true and impartial, a hilarious statement from that famously immoral, profiteering gasbag. It seems a trial balloon aimed at the eventual firing of the Special Prosecutor (and one that was echoed by Trump’s spelling-challenged lawyer). If that occurs, there should be no faith that Congress will act to protect us. The party is a now a safe distance beyond complicit.

Taking things a few paces deeper into Twilight Zone territory was today’s bizarre meeting in which Trump assembled cabinet members to rain down praise upon him, like Billy Mumy’s evil child demanding people think only “good thoughts” or they’ll wind up jack-in-the-boxes in the cornfield. Reince Priebus, an ambitious man with no shame, said “we thank you for the opportunity and blessing to serve your agenda.” Somebody better get a saddle ready because a horse may soon be joining the Senate.

It wasn’t too long ago–four years to be precise–when perfectly bright and well–intentioned person like Bill Gates was decrying that the American President didn’t have more sway over the country. “Some days I wish we had a system like the U.K.,” he said, “where the party in power could do a lot and you know, you’d see how it went and then fine you could un-elect them.” He was speaking of President Obama, of course, and the problem with having such a deeply decent person like 44 in the Oval Office is it can make it difficult to envision about worst-case scenarios.

Two excerpts follow: One from Kristol in the Weekly Standard about the tidal wave of youth that may wipe out the GOP in coming elections, which is hopeful in believing we’ll continue to be free and democratic and not a dictatorship or interrupted by Civil War 2.0. The other by Jeet Heer of the New Republic looks at Trump as a capo with nuclear capabilities trying to run Washington the way Gotti ran Queens.

From Kristol:

Lost in the back and forth—and especially in the efforts to be somewhat reassuring—was the most notable finding in the poll. It had to do with age. Donald Trump’s job approval/disapproval was 40 percent, 54 percent among Americans 65 and over; it was an almost identical 39 percent, 55 percent among 50-64 year olds; it was slightly worse at 35 percent, 55 percent among those 35 to 49 years old; and among Americans 18 to 34, Donald Trump’s job approval was 19 percent approve, 67 percent disapprove, an amazing -48 percent.

Now we are not knee-jerk respecters of youth. We give no greater weight to the opinions of the young than to those of the old. In fact, we’re inclined to give them less, as the young lack experience, and experience is a great teacher. We would even go so far as to say that the overvaluation of the sentiments of the young may be one of the curses of our age.

On the other hand, one would have to be blind not to see the political risk for Republicans and conservatives in these numbers. First impressions matter. Most people don’t change their political views radically from the ones they first hold. For young Americans today, Donald Trump is the face of Republicanism and conservatism.

They don’t like that face. And the danger, of course, is that they’ll decide their judgment of Trump should carry over to the Republican party that nominated him and the conservative movement that mostly supports him. If he is indeed permitted to embody the party and the movement without challenge, the fortunes of both will be at the mercy of President Trump’s own fortunes.•

From Heer:

The mafia analogies aren’t just casual gibes, but speak to something fundamental in Trump’s background and character. In his younger days, Trump was mentored by Roy Cohn, a mob lawyer, and he consorted with criminals, notably convicted felon Felix Sater. Trump’s record shows “repeated social and business dealings with mobsters, swindlers, and other crooks,” David Cay Johnston, who has extensively investigated Trump’s mafia tieswrote in Politico last year, and “Trump’s career has benefited from a decades-long and largely successful effort to limit and deflect law enforcement investigations into his dealings with top mobsters, organized crime associates, labor fixers, corrupt union leaders, con artists and even a one-time drug trafficker whom Trump retained as the head of his personal helicopter service.”

It was perhaps inevitable that Trump would run into conflict with the likes of Comey, Bharara, and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates (whom Trump also fired, after she refused to defend his executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries). Trump supporters might dismiss these figures as Washington insiders—inhabitants of “the swamp”—but they are more accurately seen as representatives of the legal and administrative state. They are all experts in the law and bureaucracy; they know the rules, understand why the rules exist, and enforce them. In other words, they are the polar opposite of Trump, an anti-professional to whom laws were meant to be broken.

But the mafia shouldn’t be seen as the antithesis of government, and rather as an alternative apparatus. The mafia tends to thrive when the administrative state is weak or corrupt, and thus unable to protect and provide for its citizens. Trump’s message as an outsider candidate was that normal politicians were unable to protect ordinary Americans, in part because they were too hamstrung by laws and regulations. Like a mafia don, Trump promised he’d deliver for the people, even if it meant breaking the rules (as when he boasted he’d break the Geneva convention to fight terrorism).•

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The narrative says the DNC robbed Bernie Sanders of the nomination, intervening on behalf of its favored candidate, Hillary Clinton, and that’s why the party dropped the election to the unthinkable Trump.

No email hacks were required to realize the Democrats favored Clinton, a Democrat, over Sanders, who conveniently switched to the party merely for the Presidential race. (He reverted back to Socialist as soon as the race was over.) But that’s not what cost the Vermont senator the nod.

He simply was too unknown at the outset of the campaign. By the time voters began to know who he was and what he stood for, Sanders did resoundingly well. It was just a bit too late, though, because the Democratic state contests, in contrast to many of the Republican ones, are proportional. There was just no making up the necessary ground once Sanders’ roll began.

The shocking rebound of Britain’s Labour Party this week has led Twitter queues to be filled with confident pronouncements that Sanders, the most-left of all the candidates, would have topped Trump. Maybe. Will he, a cranky man in cranky age, run for the office again in 2020 when he’ll be 79? He’s not saying and there’s really no way for any of us to say what will remain of the country at that point.

He certainly is right in stating that our politics have become contests of personality to such a degree that policy is clearly a secondary concern. Voting for the person you most want to have a beer with is a far less sane way to decide on a candidate than by looking soberly at where they stand on healthcare, education, etc.

From a new Simon Kuper profile of Sanders, whom he spoke to during the politician’s recent Dublin trek:

When I mention that many Europeans see Trump’s US as a rogue state, Sanders gets so excited that he spills his tea. Mopping distractedly, he cautions: “What I would say to our European friends is not to confuse Donald Trump with the people of the United States.” And here Sanders gets to the essence of his self-understanding: that he himself, far from being a radical leftist, speaks for the American silent majority. He believes his socialism is mainstream.

“Here’s what I think is going on. If you were to tell Americans that if you are 70 and the doctor diagnoses you with cancer, that there should not be a healthcare programme to protect you, 90 per cent of people say, ‘You’re out of your mind, you want to get rid of Medicare? What are you talking about? You want to get rid of federal aid to education? That’s nonsense.’ ” He thinks Republicans can win elections only through massive spending on campaigns that highlight personality rather than issues.

His own campaign was different: “We started off with no political organisation. None. I don’t believe I knew one person in the state of Iowa.” When I remark that the notion of a self-described socialist winning the White House initially seemed insane, he cuts me off: “It was not insane.”

Was there a moment when he thought he might actually win? “Well, you go and you speak to 25,000, 30,000 people and you think it’s real. One of the beautiful things is we would literally read in the newspapers about rallies and events and activities taking place in the state that we had zero to do with. I wish I could tell you it was a brilliant campaign organising all this. It wasn’t. It was a lot of spontaneous activities, which was, in retrospect, quite extraordinary. …

“Many Americans simply do not know that the social welfare system in America is so much weaker than in Europe. It has to do a lot with corporate media, has a lot to do with a two-party system which doesn’t really ask hard questions. Do you know how much it costs to go to university here, where we sit right now? It’s free. Do you think people in the US know that? People will be going, ‘Oh, Bernie, you’re radical.’ No. Much of what I propose is already in existence in many countries.”

So Europe helped shape his beliefs? “Yes. Europe and my belief that every person is entitled to basic human rights.”•

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As I stated earlier, the Comey testimony didn’t lead me to believe the GOP is serious about holding Donald Trump accountable for his actions–past, present or future ones. If anything, leading members of the GOP spoke publicly about the fired FBI director post-hearings like a spurned lover, bitter because he was dumped, not the target of obstruction of justice.

Lindsey Graham made him sound like Jean Harris: “Comey should be upset by the way he was fired. It was pretty tacky. Take this for what it’s all worth: A good man, Comey, who’s upset and in many ways, got a reason to be upset. But I don’t believe the president committed a crime.”

Maybe as Bill Kristol suggested in the top tweet, the hearings postmortem by Republicans was all a poker-faced show of solidarity performed on a stage that’s been set on fire, but Rick Wilson’s caustic take seems more likely.

Excerpts follow from two articles, one which believes impeachment became more likely today and the second which relates the GOP desire to turn the page on the whole sordid mess.

From Richard Wolffe’s reaction in the Guardian:

The Republican reaction was as great a curiosity to behold as Trump’s infatuation with Putin’s Russia. As James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, told the Australian press this week: “I have had a very hard time reconciling the threat the Russians pose to the United States with the inexplicably solicitous stance President Trump has taken with respect to Russia.”

We all have had a really hard time with this one. No wonder Clapper also said that Watergate pales in comparison to Trump’s collusion with Russia and the firing of Comey.

And that’s where Trump made his biggest mistake. Because James Comey is an elite athlete of Washington and Donald Trump, well, isn’t.

Comey paces himself, warming up a day early with the release of his written testimony. Then he opens the proceedings with an off-the-cuff slam dunk on Donald Trump’s head.

He uses his team to leak his landmark memos about all those freakish meetings with Trump, knowing they will lead to a special counsel. He can play offense by assassinating Trump’s character. He can play defense by staying safely behind classified information and the integrity of FBI investigations.

And he can fake his opponents far better than they can. “Look, I’ve seen the tweet about tapes,” he told the good senators in his best boy scout voice. “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”

Lordy, we all hope there are tapes and memos between now and the end of the Trump era. In the meantime, there are dozens of lines of inquiry to keep Comey’s former FBI employees busy forevermore.

What, for instance, is the point of a back channel using Russian communications, like the one Jared Kushner apparently wanted to set up?

“I’m not going to comment on whether that happened in an open setting,” Comey began rather coyly. “But the primary risk is obvious. You spare the Russians the cost and effort to break into our communications channels by using theirs. You make it a whole lot easier for them to capture all of your conversations. Then to use those to the benefit of Russia against the United States.”

And now, with the firing of Comey, Trump has made it a whole lot easier to get himself impeached.•

From a Politico piece by Burgess Everett and Seung Min Kim:

James Comey brought the biggest circus Washington has seen in years to the Capitol Thursday, confirming word-for-word the reports that President Donald Trump urged him to drop an investigation into Michael Flynn and swear loyalty to the president. Comey even said he kept memos because he feared the president would lie about their conversations.

Republicans’ reaction? Essentially, a collective yawn.

“It’s sort of like the build-up to a big Super Bowl game and everybody gets disappointed. You saw the countdown on all the TVs,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who sat through most of the hearing in person even though he does not sit on the Intelligence Committee. “They were expecting a bombshell, what they got was a confirmation of what we knew already. There was very little new information.”

But do revelations from the former FBI director himself that Trump gave him “direction” to shut down an investigation into the former national security adviser or that Comey believes he was fired to derail the broader probe into Trump’s associates’ ties with Russia offer new reason for alarm?

“No,” Tillis said. “It’s like I keep on saying. Y’all think I’m a broken record. Let’s solve health care, let’s solve taxes, let’s move on.”•

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Facts today come into flavors: original and alternative. 

Fox kicked off the Fake News Age in earnest just over two decades ago. The unspoken reason for selling lies and conspiracies and wedge issues rather than reality is that Republican policy had become twisted into something almost unrecognizable and truly deleterious to any non-rich citizen. It’s worked quite well as a strategy, even if it’s often made the popular vote at the national level unattainable.

The most recent Presidential election, with its armies of bots, alt-right trolls and Russian interference used Big Data to deliver lies at the granular level. It seemed shocking, although our society and technology has been heading in this direction for a long time. It was almost inevitable.

Of course, factual distortions are nothing new nor are they limited to current events. History can also be a funny thing, as the dangerous absurdity of modern North Korea reminds us every day. Suki Kim, author of Without You, There Is No Us, just conducted a Reddit AMA about her experience going undercover as a schoolteacher in the deeply troubled, delusional state to learn more about the culture. In two exchanges, she addresses historical distortions about the country that exist on the inside and also the outside.


What wildly held belief among your students surprised you the most?

Suki Kim:

There were so many things. They just learn totally upside down information about most things. But one thing I think most people do not realize is that they learn that South Korea & US attacked North Korea in 1950, and that North Korea won the war due to the bravery of their Great Leader Kim Il Sung. So they celebrate Victory Day, which is a huge holiday there. So this complete lie about the past then makes everything quite illogical. Because how do you then explain the fact that Korea is divided still, if actually North Korea “won” the war? One would have to question that strange logic, which they do not. So it’s not so much that they get taught lies as education, but that that second step of questioning what does not make sense, in general, does not happen, not because they are stupid but because they are forbidden and also their intelligence is destroyed at young age. There were many many examples of such.


In your experience, what are the biggest misconceptions Americans have about either North or South Korea?

Suki Kim:

I think the biggest misconception goes back to the basic premise. Most Americans have no idea why there are two Koreas, or why there are 30,000 US soldiers in South Korea and why North Korea hates America so much. That very basic fact has been sort of written out of the American consciousness. By repackaging the Korean War as a civil war, it has now created decades of a total misconception. The fact that the US had actually drawn the 38th Parallel that cut up the Korean peninsula, not in 1950 (the start of the war) but in 1945 at the liberation of Korea from Japan is something that no Korean has forgotten — that was the beginning of the modern Korean tragedy. That the first Great Leader (the grandfather of the current Great Leader) was the creation of the Soviet Union (along with the US participation) is another horrible puzzle piece that Americans have conveniently forgotten.


Anyone know where can I find information regarding how the first Great Leader was a creation of the U.S.A. & Soviets? I’d love to read about it

Suki Kim:

That would be taking it out of the context to claim that first Great Leader was “created” by US. He was a soldier (protege of the Soviet), while US participated in that set up handpicking the US educated South Korean first president. US had drawn the 38th Parallel, and that division was trumpeted by the Cold War, two separate govts formed by 1948 & war broke out in 1950. That is a very simplified version of the history of the two Koreas which most Americans don’t remember and now wonder why they are in South Korea today and why is North Korea mad at them. If you are genuinely curious, there are many many books on this topic by serious historians.•


Today’s Comey testimony changes very little, as it’s still difficult to envision any scenario in which a GOP Congress would impeach Trump, no matter what he’s done or does. In fact, it seems even clearer now Republicans will double down on this illicit, incompetent White House.

Either they’re afraid that mercifully pushing Trump from the Oval Office, which he’s given them ample opportunity to do, would be too damaging to the party as a whole, or there were more contacts and money flowing between the Kremlin and members of the GOP than we know and they plan to keep it shrouded with a united front.

Would incriminating phone calls leaked by the IC community (domestic or foreign) that demonstrated collusion between Russia and members of Trump’s team make a difference? I doubt it. The President would then be given distance from his minions. Even if there was tape of Trump himself doing just that, I think it would be rationalized. “He’s new at this,” Paul Ryan said, when addressing the President’s unbecoming conduct in trying to obstruct justice.

The same rationale could be applied to essentially any misdeed, though Trump is in no way new at the mob strong-arming tactics he tried with the FBI director he ultimately fired. They’ve long been part of his modus operandi as a “legitimate businessman.” The careful language (“I hope you can let this go”) reveals he was very aware of what he was asking in that meeting, even if he’s been erratic in it’s aftermath (e.g., unhinged Lester Holt interview).

Would proof of laundered money push the GOP to act? Unlikely. Long before politics, Trump engaged in this illegal behavior and there would be a justification that he still won the electoral college despite the citizenry knowing all about it. “People got what they voted for,” as Marco Rubio has said.

Beyond any crimes committed by Trump and company, the extraordinary powers of the Presidency make it possible for the person holding the position to destroy our democracy even without traversing the law. Either the Democrats retake the House in 2018 or we’re likely stuck for four years with Trump and his cabal attempting to remake America into an authoritarian state. By then, it could be too late.

From Matthew Yglesias at Vox:

Forget Russia. Trump, like any president, has a wide range of contacts with friends, political supporters, donors, and the broader social and professional networks of his subordinates. He also oversees a vast executive branch that is responsible for supervising a huge range of law enforcement officials and regulatory agencies.

He could, if he were so inclined, sit in the Oval Office and spend his time making various phone calls to various law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and regulators and suggest to them that they should drop various investigations and enforcement activities into his various friends and donors. That would, of course, end up transforming the United States into the kind of authoritarian kleptocracy that the founders feared.

The safeguard would be Congress. Congress is supposed to stiffen the spine of executive branch officials by reminding them that their oath is to the Constitution and not to the president. Congress is supposed to oversee the executive branch and police not only legal misconduct but political misconduct, like perverting the legal process to benefit his friends and allies.

Instead, congressional Republicans have chosen to stand on the ground that it’s okay to order an investigation quashed as long as you do it with a wink-wink and a nudge-nudge — even if you follow up by firing the guy you winked at.•


Still haven’t written my thoughts on Garry Kasparov’s Deep Thinking. Will do so soon, I promise. For whatever philosophical differences I have with the author on technology, the long centerpiece about his pair of matches with Deep Blue in ’96 and ’97 is riveting. It’s also revealing in surprising ways, about both humans and machines.

In a New Scientist Q&A conducted by Sean O’Neill, the chessman is asked about surveillance, a topic which receives a scant few pages in his book, but I believe the question posed is the wrong one. The reporter wonders about new technologies being hoarded by the “ruling class,” which is silly, because these tools, ever cheaper and more powerful, will snake their way through every inch of society. Artificial Intelligence will be useful in countless ways, but it will just as surely enable the anarchy of the Internet to be visited upon the physical world. The problem we face isn’t that it may be controlled but that it absolutely cannot be. There’s no going back (nor should there be), but this progress will be attended by regress. Constantly trying to separate those realities will be our task–our burden.

An excerpt:


What happens if AI, high-tech surveillance, military tech, and communications are sewn up by the ruling class?

Garry Kasparov:

Ruling class? Sounds like Soviet propaganda! New tech is always expensive and employed by the wealthy and powerful even as it provides benefits and trickles down into every part of society. But it seems fanciful – or dystopian – to think there will be a harmful monopoly. AI isn’t a nuclear weapon that can or should be under lock and key; it’s a million different things that will be an important part of both new and existing technology. Like the internet, created by the US military, AI won’t be kept in a box. It’s already out.


Will handing off ever more decisions to AI result in intellectual stagnation?

Garry Kasparov:

Technology doesn’t cause intellectual stagnation, but it enables new forms of it if we are complacent. Technology empowers intellectual enrichment and our ability to indulge and act on our curiosity. With a smartphone, for example, you have the sum total of human knowledge in your pocket and can reach practically any person on the planet. What will you do with that incredible power? Entertain yourself or change the world?•

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The problem with protracted prosperity is that it can make it difficult to understand poverty. That myopia can lead to rash decisions that fritter away wealth and provide a stark reminder of want.

We see it today with the perplexing rejection by some of vaccinations, a miracle of medicine so overwhelmingly successful that many horrible maladies were wiped from our consciousness. I’m just old enough to recall from childhood elderly neighbors whose limbs were twisted and frozen by polio, permanently crippling them. They were the absolutely luckiest ones to have contracted the contagious disease, having survived a painful, early death.

A similar scenario now appears to be playing out on the geopolitical stage. Seventy-plus years on from the scourge of World War II, America, under the batshit anti-leadership of Donald Trump, is attempting to withdraw from alliances and agreements that have long prevented the kind of large-scale conflicts that cause tens of millions of deaths. Are we to be reminded the hard way of such calamities?

In Yuval Harari’s Homo Deus, the historian argues that physical wars are on the wane because information, not loot or land, is now most valuable. That may be so, but that theory hinges on states being governed by rational minds, which, as we have seen, is not necessarily a given.

In “The End of History Is the Birth of Tragedy,” a Foreign Policy piece by Hal Brands and Charles Edel, the essayists wonder if our prolonged period of relative global peace may be interrupted in the most horrible manner. “This amnesia is afflicting us precisely as the international environment is once again becoming more threatening,” they write. The opening:

The ancient Greeks took tragedy seriously. At the very height of Athenian power in the 5th century B.C., in fact, citizens of the world’s first democracy gathered annually to experience tragedy. Great theatrical productions were staged, presented to the entire community, and financed by the public treasury. While the dialogue and plot lines varied, the form, and the lesson, remained consistent. Prominent individuals fell from great heights due to their own errors, ignorance, and hubris. The injunction was clear: The destiny of society was in the hands of fallible men, and even in its hour of triumph that society was always perched on the abyss of catastrophic failure.

This tragic sensibility was purposefully hard-wired into Athenian culture. Aristotle wrote that tragedies produce feelings of pity and horror and foster a cathartic effect. The catharsis was key, intended to spur the audience into recognition that the horrifying outcomes they witnessed were eminently avoidable. By looking disaster squarely in the face, by understanding just how badly things could spiral out of control, the Athenians sought to create a communal sense of responsibility and courage and to encourage both citizens and their leaders to take the difficult actions necessary to avert such a fate.

Americans, too, once had an appreciation of tragedy. After World War II, Americans intuitively understood — because they could remember — how catastrophic a breakdown of world order could be, and they were constantly reminded by the looming Soviet threat that international stability and peace could not be taken for granted. And so, over a period of decades, the United States undertook the unprecedented geopolitical efforts necessary to ensure that world order did not collapse once again. The result was something like a flawed masterpiece — a postwar international system that was never perfect, but one in which aggressors were contained and ultimately defeated, democracy spread more widely than ever before, and both global and American prosperity reached dizzying heights. A tragic sensibility propelled Americans to do great things.

But as has been said before, Americans are serial amnesiacs. And today, after more than 70 years of great-power peace and a quarter-century of unrivaled global supremacy, Americans have lost their sense of tragedy. The U.S.-led international order has been so successful, for so long, that Americans have come to take it for granted. They have forgotten what that order is meant to prevent in the first place: the sort of utter breakdown of the international system, the descent into violence and great-power war, that has been all too common throughout human history. And this amnesia has become most pronounced, ironically, as American power and the international order are coming under graver threat than at any time in recent memory. Today, the United States and the world it did so much to create are once again courting tragedy — precisely because Americans have lost their ability to imagine what tragedy really is.•

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Terrorists act as they do, irrationally and violently, because they’re weak, and under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia has become something of a de facto terrorist state (in addition to an autocratic one), even if many of its “imported” attacks are virtual. The Kremlin capo is a dumb thug leading his country into disaster, economic and otherwise, and only an utter buffoon could be impressed by his macho, swaggering incompetence.

Enter Donald Trump. The current American President has long been entranced by Putin’s “strength,” in part because he wanted to get his tiny fingers on lots of rubles and also because he’s a simpleton who can only comprehend blunt, overt behavior absent any subtlety. Only when compared to someone as gormless as Trump can Putin seem the mastermind. They are both worst-case scenarios for their countries.

“We imagine the villains of history as cunning strategists,” Masha Gessen writes in her New York Times op-ed, asserting that yesterday’s Fascist “geniuses” were actually figures who used enormous personalities, media savvy and fortunate timing to compensate for their many flaws. A close study of Trump’s most obvious twentieth-century predecessor, Benito Mussolini, reveals that Il Duce was a vulgar, murderous clown who couldn’t even make the trains run on time, despite the popular historical narrative. Gessen believes Trump’s ineptitude won’t ultimately be what prevents U.S. autocracy, should such an outcome be thwarted. It may even aid his attempt at authoritarianism, she writes.

As Jesse Ventura, another unlikely politician who ascended on persona and media know-how, used to say: “The scum always rises to the top of the water.” Well, maybe not always, but it’s often not the best and brightest who find themselves in possession of tremendous power. 

An excerpt:

A careful reading of contemporary accounts will show that both Hitler and Stalin struck many of their countrymen as men of limited ability, education and imagination — and, indeed, as being incompetent in government and military leadership. Contrary to popular wisdom, they are not political savants, possessed of one extraordinary talent that brings them to power. It is the blunt instrument of reassuring ignorance that propels their rise in a frighteningly complex world.

Modern strongmen are more obviously human. We have witnessed the greed and vanity of Silvio Berlusconi, who ran Italy’s economy into the ground. We recognize the desperate desire of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to be admired or at least feared — usually literally at his country’s expense. Still, physical distance makes villains seem bigger than they are in real life. Many Americans imagine that Mr. Putin is a brilliant strategist, a skilled secret agent turned popular leader. 

As someone who has spent years studying Mr. Putin — and as one of a handful of journalists who have had an unscripted conversation with him — I can vouch for the fact that he is a poorly educated, under-informed, incurious man whose ambition is vastly out of proportion to his understanding of the world. To the extent that he has any interest in the business of governing, it is his role — on the world stage or on Russian television — that concerns him. Whether he is attending a summit, piloting a plane or hang-gliding with Siberian cranes, it is the spectacle of power that interests him.

In the past few months, Americans too have grown familiar with the sight of a president who seems to think that politics consists of demonstrating that he is in charge. This similarity is not an accident (nor is it a result of Russian influence). The rejection of the complexity of modern politics — as well as modern business and modern life in general — lies at the core of populism’s appeal. The first American president with no record of political or military service, Donald Trump ran on a platform of denigrating expertise. His message was that anyone with experience in politics was a corrupt insider and, indeed, that a lack of experience was the best qualification.•

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I’d have readily voted for Bernie Sanders, noted Caucasian whisperer, had he been Donald Trump’s chief competitor in the 2016 General Election, though I could say the same of a bag of rats or a fistful of polio germs. Three main problems with Bernie:

  1. His numbers (economic, inmate reduction, etc.) were bullshit.
  2. His TV ads were whiter than Trump’s.
  3. Populism is stupid regardless of who’s selling it.

Not that he wouldn’t have accomplished some good things, but I think the Vermonter would have disappointed in many ways.

In a Spiegel interview conducted by Mathieu von Rohr, Bernie speaks about the madness of King Trump, asserting that impeachment, should it come, needs to be brought about slowly and bilaterally. An excerpt:

Is Trump in his eyes an autocrat, or does he simply fail to understand the constitutional limits of the presidency? “The answer is both,” Sanders replies. “I think he has authoritarian tendencies. The fact that he feels comfortable with authoritarians like Russian President Vladimir Putin, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and others around the world, suggests to me that he is an authoritarian-type personality.” Trump, says Sanders, is also working “hand in glove” with the “billionaire class to move this country in a very oligarchic direction.”

Instead of looking at his interlocutor when answering questions, Sanders gazes at the wall with an expression of deep concentration. When he gets worked up, he waves both arms in the air. This man, who inspired so many people last year, isn’t exactly a cheerful person. He seems like a maverick who, despite his age, has a youthful smile. He speaks clearly and directly, and while he may come across as a little bit stiff in the process, it is what makes him authentic to his fans.

Impeachment is Premature

Are America’s institutions strong enough to resist Donald Trump? “Good question!” Sanders snarls, looking pleased. “We certainly hope so, but he is trying to attack those institutions.” When Trump attacks the press and tries to intimidate it, he wonders, “will the media remain strong and be willing to take him on? I think at this point, they have. Will the judiciary remain independent? I certainly hope that they will.”

He says he is now working to drive “right-wing Republicans” out of Congress in next year’s midterm elections and Trump’s unpopularity is already putting pressure on Republican candidates throughout the country. By-elections are scheduled in some traditionally Republican districts in the coming weeks, and suddenly the Democrats have a higher chance of winning some of them.

Many Trump opponents, however, don’t want to wait until 2018. They want the president removed from office because of his attempt to stop the FBI’s investigation into his campaign team. But Sanders is reserved when it comes to impeachment. “You have to allow the facts to go where they go,” he says. “If we are premature on that, if we are so-called ‘jumping the gun,’ making conclusions that are not yet based enough on facts, I think that could be counterproductive. The goal is to bring the American people as a whole along in a bipartisan way.”

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Walt Mossberg, who’s been covering technologies for assorted periodicals since the advent of the dandy horsejust retired from his brilliant career, filing one last column for the Verge about what will come next in the Digital Age.

He foresees “ambient computing” becoming prevalent and that’s a safe bet. The problem is, such seamlessness almost invites abuse. Mossberg advises there’ll have to be an intensive tandem effort by private industry and the federal government to ensure safety and privacy, but as we are currently witnessing with the Trump Administration, the public sector can also introduce surprising disruptions, and such unfortunate twists may be even more punitive when the tools that quietly surround us, barely making a hum, become infinitely more powerful and intrusive.

An excerpt:

I expect that one end result of all this work will be that the technology, the computer inside all these things, will fade into the background. In some cases, it may entirely disappear, waiting to be activated by a voice command, a person entering the room, a change in blood chemistry, a shift in temperature, a motion. Maybe even just a thought.

Your whole home, office and car will be packed with these waiting computers and sensors. But they won’t be in your way, or perhaps even distinguishable as tech devices.

This is ambient computing, the transformation of the environment all around us with intelligence and capabilities that don’t seem to be there at all. …

Some of you who’ve gotten this far are already recoiling at the idea of ambient computing. You’re focused on the prospects for invasion of privacy, for monetizing even more of your life, for government snooping and for even worse hacking than exists today. If the FBI can threaten a huge company like Apple over an iPhone passcode, what are your odds of protecting your future tech-dependent environment from government intrusion? If British hospitals have to shut down due to a ransomware attack, can online crooks lock you out of your house, office, or car?

Good questions.

My best answer is that, if we are really going to turn over our homes, our cars, our health, and more to private tech companies, on a scale never imagined, we need much, much stronger standards for security and privacy than now exist. Especially in the US, it’s time to stop dancing around the privacy and security issues and pass real, binding laws.•


The funny thing about the titanic 1997 battle between Garry Kasparov and Deep Blue was that the outcome, so highly anticipated, was a moot point. Within a few years, Moore’s Law was going to make smart machines king regardless of what happened during those tense days in New York City. The match was important to Kasparov’s ego and IBM’s stock price, but the result in a bigger sense was fait accompli.

The fundamental difference between IBM’s two-decade-ago triumph and AlphaGo’s recent stunners is that the latter employed Deep Learning (to an extent) to teach itself. That was necessary since the ancient Chinese game is magnitudes more complex. One important similarity, however, is that world Go champion Ke Jie echoed Kasparov in his comments about the frailty of a human in a contest with a machine, acknowledging that his emotions were not an ally. “Maybe because I was too excited,” he said “I made some stupid moves. Maybe that’s the weakest part of human beings.”

“The future belongs to AI,” the human player concluded, broadly extrapolating his trouncing. 

In a Guardian article, Tim Dunlop agrees that the Go victory does in fact have wide-ranging implications, especially for the future of work. He suggests we should consider consciously uncoupling work from salaries, something that’s already getting a dress rehearsal if you consider the hundreds of millions among us already creating free content for Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. The writer offers an extremely hopeful take about the potential nature of this new normal should we be able to abandon our traditional work ethic.

An excerpt:

In Go, there are more possible moves than there are atoms in the universe, so number-crunching is not enough: a computer simply cannot memorise every possible Go move, or even a significant fraction of them. The program therefore needs to be able to “think”, to understand the state of play and develop a strategy in order to win. Until recently we could kid ourselves that there was something uniquely human about this type of intelligence, but no more.

This has enormous implications for the future of work.

Work, broadly defined, is likely to always be at the centre of human self-worth. We are embodied creatures and we understand ourselves by interacting with our environment physically and mentally. It’s this embodiment that makes us different from machines and why machines will never actually think like us, no matter how smart they get. For humans, it is meaningful to do work of many different kinds and we will always find work to do that we find satisfying and fulfilling.

The problem is that work has come to mean “a paid job” and, for most us, that means working for someone else. Under these circumstances, we value “work” less for the improvement to our self-worth it brings us as embodied human beings than for the fact that we have to sell our labour to earn a wage in order to survive.

So when economists tell us that we don’t need to worry about robots taking our jobs because technology will create new jobs, they are basically arguing for perpetuation of this status quo, where the few employ the many and where “work” is a paid job. In fact, more than that, they are defining us as mere units of production, inputs into the economy, rather than as embodied beings seeking meaning by interacting with the world around us.

But in a world of incredibly smart machines, is this really the best future we can imagine for ourselves? After all, there is nothing intrinsic to human self-worth about selling your labour to the owners of capital. In fact, in many ways it represents the worst of us, an exercise in exploitation, where the few wield power and control over the many.

Is it possible that the rise of ever-smarter machines, those exemplified by AlphaGo, may offer us a way out?•

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I’m given pause when someone compares the Internet to the printing press because the difference of degree between the inventions is astounding. For all the liberty Gutenberg’s contraption brought to the printed word, it was a process that overwhelmingly put power into the hand of disparate professionals. Sure, eventually with Xeroxes, anyone could print anything, but the vast majority of reading material produced was still overseen by professional gatekeepers (publishers, editors, etc.) who, on average, did the bidding of enlightenment.

By 1969, Glenn Gould believed the new technologies would allow for the sampling, remixing and democratization of creativity, that erstwhile members of the audience would ultimately ascend and become creators themselves. He hated the hierarchy of live performance and was sure its dominance would end. “The audiences [will] become the performer to a large extent,” he predicted. He couldn’t have known how right he was.

The Web has indeed brought us a greater degree of egalitarianism than we’ve ever possessed, as the centralization of media dissipated and the “fans” rushed the stage to put on a show of their own. Now here we all are crowded into the spotlight, a turn of events that’s been both blessing and curse. The utter democratization and the filter bubbles that have attended this phenomenon of endless channels have proven paradoxically (thus far) a threat to democracy. It’s acknowledged even those who’ve been made billionaires by these new tools that “the Internet is the largest experiment involving anarchy in history,” though they never mention when some semblance of order might return.

In Stephen Fry’s excellent recent Hay Festival lecture “The Way Ahead” (h/t The Browser), the writer and actor spoke on these same topics and other aspects of the Digital Age that are approaching with scary velocity. Like a lot of us, he was an instant convert to Web 1.0, charmed by what it delivered and awed by its its staggering potential. Older, wiser and sadder for his knowledge of what’s come to pass, Fry tries to foresee what is next in a world in which 140 characters cannot only help topple tyrants but can create them as well, knowing that the Internet of Things will only further complicate matters. Odds are life may be greater and graver. He offers one word of advice: Prepare.

An excerpt: 

Gutenberg’s printing revolution, by way of Das Kapital and Mein Kampf, by way of smashed samizdat presses in pre-Revolutionary Russia, by way of The Origin of Species and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, by way of the rolling offset lithos of Fleet Street, Dickens, Joyce, J. K. Rowling, Mao’s Little Red Book and Hallmark greetings cards brought us to the world into which all of us were born, it brought us, amongst other things – quite literally – here to Hay-on-Wye. I started coming to this great festival before the word Kindle had a technological meaning, when an “e-book” might be a survey of 90s Rave drug Culture, or possibly an Ian McMillan glossary of Yorkshire Dialect.

Printed books haven’t gone away, indeed, we are most of us I suspect, pleased to learn how much they have come roaring back, in parallel with vinyl records and other instances of analogue refusal to die. But the difference between an ebook and a printed book is as nothing when set beside the influence of digital technology as a whole on the public weal, international polity and the destiny of our species. It has embedded itself in our lives with enormous speed. If you are not at the very least anxious about that, then perhaps you have not quite understood how dependent we are in every aspect of our lives – personal, professional, health, wealth, transport, nutrition, prosperity, mind, body and spirit.

The great Canadian Marshall McLuhan –– philosopher should one call him? – whose prophetic soul seems more and more amazing with each passing year, gave us the phrase the ‘Global Village’ to describe the post-printing age that he already saw coming back in the 1950s. Where the Printing Age had ‘fragmented the psyche’ as he put it, the Global Village – whose internal tensions exist in the paradoxical nature of the phrase itself: both Global and a village – this would tribalise us, he thought and actually regress us to a second oral age. Writing in 1962, before even ARPANET, the ancestor of the internet existed, this is how he forecasts the electronic age which he thinks will change human cognition and behaviour:

“Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world will become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as in an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses go outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. […] Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time. […] In our long striving to recover for the Western world a unity of sensibility and of thought and feeling we have no more been prepared to accept the tribal consequences of such unity than we were ready for the fragmentation of the human psyche by print culture.”

Like much of McLuhan’s writing, densely packed with complex ideas as they are, this repays far more study and unpicking than would be appropriate here, but I think we might all agree that we have arrived at that “phase of panic terrors” he foresaw.•


America desperately needs to win the race in AI, robotics, driverless, supercomputers, solar and other next-level sectors if the nation is to maintain its place in the world. If a powerful and wealthy democracy were to invest wisely and boldly, it would have a great advantage in such competitions with an autocracy like China. Unfortunately, we’ve never had a government less-equipped or less willing to pull off this feat. Trump wants to make coal great again, and Mnuchin can’t see AI on his radar.

If the U.S. and the European states are lose in these areas to China, infamous only a decade ago for its knockoff Apple Stores, the latter nation’s technological might and soft power will increase, further imperiling liberty.

The opening of a New York Times piece by Paul Mozur and John Markoff:

HONG KONG — Soren Schwertfeger finished his postdoctorate research on autonomous robots in Germany , and seemed set to go to Europe or the US, where artificial intelligence was pioneered and established.

Instead, he went to China.

“You couldn’t have started a lab like mine elsewhere,” Schwertfeger said.

The balance of power in technology is shifting. China, which for years watched enviously as the west invented the software and the chips powering today’s digital age, has become a major player in artificial intelligence, what some think may be the most important technology of the future. Experts widely believe China is only a step behind the US.

China’s ambitions mingle the most far-out sci-fi ideas with the needs of an authoritarian state: Philip K Dick meets George Orwell. There are plans to use it to predict crimes, lend money, track people on the country’s ubiquitous closed-circuit cameras, alleviate traffic jams, create self-guided missiles and censor the internet.

Beijing is backing its artificial intelligence push with vast sums of money. Having already spent billions on research programs, China is readying a new multibillion-dollar initiative to fund moonshot projects, start-ups and academic research, all with the aim of growing China’s A.I. capabilities, according to two professors who consulted with the government on the plan.•

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