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During his years in politics, John Dean has seen some questionable characters–he’s been a questionable character. But he’s never seen anything like Donald Trump, a Ku Klux Kardashian who wants to run the world the way Gotti ran Queens, minus, of course, the late capo’s admittedly expert management skills.

Many decent Americans didn’t want to believe that such a vulgar clown could be elected to the highest office in the land, but as Wolfgang Streeck notes, “strange personalities arise in the cracks of disintegrating institutions.” That’s what makes Trump so especially dangerous despite his profound ineptitude and paucity of political ideology. 

During Watergate, Republicans in Congress were prepared to jettison Nixon, as country came before party. In our decaying state, that’s no longer true. The cracks in contemporary American democracy may be big enough for the worst possible outcome to snake through, especially since, as Dean argues, Trump’s base seems to want authoritarianism.

From Marc Pitzke’s Spiegel Q&A with Dean:

Spiegel:

Nixon stretched his presidential powers until they snapped. Do you see this with Trump, too?

John Dean:

Trump hasn’t really done anything yet to abuse his powers. I don’t even know if he knows what all his powers are as president. And that worries me. He will learn. After he learns how the presidency works, he could become much more dangerous, because his personality doesn’t change. Once presidents find their powers, they don’t give them up. They use them.

Spiegel:

Or abuse them.

John Dean:

After Watergate, Congress flexed its muscles and became the constitutional co-equal of the president, to balance out his powers. That deeply troubled Dick Cheney, then chief of staff to Nixon’s successor Ford. And after Cheney became vice president for George W. Bush, they snatched that power back.

Spiegel:

After September 11, 2001.

John Dean:

9/11 changed everything. We lose more Americans every year drowning in the bathtub than through terrorism. But terrorism has been used as a lever to frighten people, pass legislation, sound tough and coerce us into giving away our rights in pursuit of phantom problems. Granted, terrorism is a real problem everywhere. But you can’t prevent it. Terrorists are nutcases who are hellbent on killing people for ideology. That’s pretty hard to stop.

Spiegel:

Trump, too, is making the “war on terror” a main theme of his presidency again.

John Dean:

The difference this time is the authoritarianism. That’s the hidden explanation of the 2016 elections. Who voted for Trump? Who are these people who, as he famously said, would let him shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still support him? It’s people who want too strong a leader, who would do what that leader tells them. Similar to the Europeans following Mussolini and Hitler. There’s a streak in humanity that likes that kind of leader. That’s Trump’s core. Authoritarianism.

Spiegel:

You think he’s actually trying to create an authoritarian state?

John Dean:

I don’t think Trump is a deeply self-aware person. But he’s absolutely off the charts as a narcissist. He is the consummate narcissistic salesman. He is in fact a sick man. And that’s potentially very dangerous.•

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Throughout the election and even after, there were a steady stream of perplexing stories suggesting Donald Trump would “become Presidential” once he won the primary, at the convention, during the debates, after he took the oath, etc. 

It was ridiculous.

In the last week or so, Trump, a sociopath and demagogue, endorsed Marine Le Pen, announced we could soon have a “major, major conflict” with North Korea, threatened to “break up” the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, refused to provide key documents about Michael Flynn and gave a rambling, delusional interview to the Associated Press. Meanwhile, he continues to employ white nationalists Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Jeff Sessions and Sebastian Gorka, uses the office as a cash register for himself and his family and pushes health-care and tax “plans” that are cocktail-napkin policy, as ridiculous as they are draconian.

He is not normal. He is not going to become normal. Stop trying to normalize him.

Matt Bai, a very gifted journalist for Yahoo! News, is the latest to offer a take about a potentially moderating Trump, with a new twist: Perhaps the orange supremacist, who is resolutely uninformed, incurious and lacking in common decency, wants to change for the better but the media is holding him back.

Oy gevalt!

Bai thinks he’s being a realist, not a normalizer, but Le Pen’s hand-picked replacement to be acting leader of the National Front in her stead was a Holocaust denier. She’s Trump’s preference. That’s abnormal.

Prediction: If Trump should survive his first four years, no matter how disgraceful they may be, there will be “think pieces” penned about how he’ll change were he to get a second term.

An excerpt:

Here’s where I come down. I don’t think the chances are high that Trump can somehow evolve into a wise president who unifies the country and understands the world. I’ve been trying to play baseball a lot of my life, and I’ll never hit a 90-mile-per-hour fastball. We are who we are.

But I also don’t think we can preclude the possibility. And if, in the 100 days to come and the 100 after that, Trump’s inclined to reinvent himself as a more thoughtful statesman, we shouldn’t jump up and down screaming “flip-flopper” like a bunch of fools with severely limited vocabularies. We have to give him room to grow.

Because if we don’t, we’re only proving his point about the media — that we report only what we can stand to report, rather than the truth, and that we’re never going to give him credit for anything. And Trump will get some things right. The law of averages compels it.

Critics on the left will call this “normalizing” Trump. I call it acknowledging reality, which is that he is the president, and we don’t get to decide for people what’s normal and what isn’t.

Trump could yet find a way to be bigger than he seems. We shouldn’t ask any less of ourselves.•

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Can’t say I’m unduly focused on superintelligence posing an existential threat to our species in the immediate future, especially since so-called Weak AI is already here and enabling its own alarming possibilities: ubiquitous surveillance, attenuated democracy and a social fabric strained by disappearing jobs. We may very well require these remarkably powerful tools to survive tomorrow’s challenges, but we’d be walking blind to not accept that they’re attended by serious downsides.

Deep Learning will be particularly tricky, expressly because it’s a mysterious method that doesn’t allow us to know how it makes its leaps and gains. Demis Hassabis, the brilliant DeepMind founder and the field’s most famous practitioner, has acknowledged being “pretty shocked,” for instance, by AlphaGo’s unpredictable gambits during last year’s demolition of Lee Sedol. Hassibis, who has sometimes compared his company to the Manhattan Project (in scope and ambition if not in impact), has touted AI’s potentially ginormous near-term benefits, but tomorrow isn’t all that’s in play. The day after also matters.

The neuroscientist is fairly certain we’ll have Artificial General Intelligence inside a century and is resolutely optimistic about carbon and silicon achieving harmonic convergence. Similarly sanguine on the topic these days is Garry Kasparov, the Digital Age John Henry who was too dour about computer intelligence at first and now might be too hopeful. The human-machine tandem he foresees may just be a passing fancy before a conscious uncoupling. By then, we’ll have probably built a reality we won’t be able to survive without the constant support of our smart machines.

Hassibis, once a child prodigy in chess, wrote a Nature review of Kasparov’s new book, Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins. (I’m picking up the title tomorrow, so I’ll write more on it later.) An excerpt:

Chess engines have also given rise to exciting variants of play. In 1998, Kasparov introduced ‘Advanced Chess’, in which human–computer teams merge the calculation abilities of machines with a person’s pattern-matching insights. Kasparov’s embrace of the technology that defeated him shows how computers can inspire, rather than obviate, human creativity.

In Deep Thinking, Kasparov also delves into the renaissance of machine learning, an AI subdomain focusing on general-purpose algorithms that learn from data. He highlights the radical differences between Deep Blue and AlphaGo, a learning algorithm created by my company DeepMind to play the massively complex game of Go. Last year, AlphaGo defeated Lee Sedol, widely hailed as the greatest player of the past decade. Whereas Deep Blue followed instructions carefully honed by a crack team of engineers and chess professionals, AlphaGo played against itself repeatedly, learning from its mistakes and developing novel strategies. Several of its moves against Lee had never been seen in human games — most notably move 37 in game 2, which upended centuries of traditional Go wisdom by playing on the fifth line early in the game.

Most excitingly, because its learning algorithms can be generalized, AlphaGo holds promise far beyond the game for which it was created. Kasparov relishes this potential, discussing applications from machine translation to automated medical diagnoses. AI will not replace humans, he argues, but will enlighten and enrich us, much as chess engines did 20 years ago. His position is especially notable coming from someone who would have every reason to be bitter about AI’s advances.•


Two quainter examples of technology crossing wires with chess.

In 1989, Kasparov, in London, played a remote match via telephone with David Letterman.

In 1965, Bobby Fischer, in NYC, played via Teletype in a chess tournament in Havana.

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It’s only possible to guess from afar, but I’d wager that the diminution of neo-Nazi trolls and bots on Twitter in the post-election period isn’t largely due to tweaks made by Jack Dorsey & co., but has rather come about because those deployed to disrupt the election are no longer receiving checks from the Kremlin and god knows where else.

While the tweetstorm shitstorm has abated to a degree, we won’t know until the next election season if that rough beast is just waiting to be reborn. And things must be different next time because the tool was used like a weapon in 2016, bludgeoning democracy and decency.

The company isn’t in an easy position when it comes to the Tweeter-in-Chief, who uses the platform to slander, something that might not be as tolerated from those with lesser titles. 

When Dorsey asserts in a smart Backchannel Q&A conducted by Steven Levy that Trump’s current tweets are “consistent with his tweets back in 2011-2012,” I have to assume he’s referring to form and not content, since the pathological liar now regularly contradicts his earlier criticisms of President Obama. People have fun retweeting his old comments to point out the hypocrisy, which I suppose is useful, or at least entertaining, but we may be entertaining ourselves to death.

One thing that’s not consistent with 2011-2012 is that Trump is now President and his 140-character discharges can lead to international incidents, even wars. 

An excerpt in which Dorsey has clearly bought into the “forgotten Americans” narrative, which isn’t exactly Silicon Valley’s biggest problem:

Question:

Lately, a lot of people have been alleging that social media, including Twitter, has degraded the quality of public discourse. What do you think?

Jack Dorsey:

You can have conversation that’s distracting and you can have conversation that is focusing. I don’t think it’s a matter of the tool — it’s how people use the tool. Could we encourage better usage of Twitter through changing the product? Absolutely. We are always going to be looking for opportunities to make it easier, but also to show what matters faster. We moved from a completely time-ordered, reverse-chronological timeline to actually bubbling up what you should be seeing and what matters according to our understanding of what you’re interested in—and potentially showing the other side of what you’re interested in, as well. One of the values Twitter espouses is that it can show every side of a debate. I get the New York Times and I follow Fox, too, because I just want to challenge what I’m seeing. And that’s awesome. Whether you choose to dive into it or not is really up to you. We’re not going to force that on people.

Question:

But do you think Silicon Valley has worsened the divide?

Jack Dorsey:

It’s not just technology companies that are out of touch with a big part of the country and the world. I think it’s all of us. I think this city is out of touch with Missouri, where I’m from, and other people in areas like that. It is our responsibility to help bridge some of those gaps, because we’re building tools that people are using on a daily basis to connect with each other and to see the world. If we’re only fulfilling their bias, then we’re doing the wrong thing. We feel that burden and we want to help fix it. And the only way we can do that is by talking with people. So we go out of our way to listen and to have real conversations, not just seeing what people are saying on Twitter but actually bringing people in and interviewing them and talking about what they like and what they don’t like and what they are experiencing. The question I ask of anyone I meet who uses Twitter is: How do you use it, and why?•

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Billy Sunday had a name better suited for preacher than a baseball player, and his talents were likewise more useful in the pulpit than on the diamond.

The erstwhile Chicago White Stockings outfielder began barnstorming America as an evangelist in 1891, a time before radio when large-scale revivals (and other sports) were often presented in temporary wooden structures built especially for the event. He was a fire-and-brimstone speaker, theatrical as a vaudevillian, throwing chairs and striking baseball poses to punctuate his points. A nostalgia salesman like many in the industry, he sought to convince each new flock that things used to be better, that we had collectively been expelled from paradise, a concept I believe he stole from a book.

Sunday’s biggest issue was probably temperance, but he held opinions, some noble and others ghastly, on all manner of topics. There didn’t seem to be much consistency to his views except his deep need to express them. He loved his celebrity with a shamelessness that would have played very well in our time.

Tossing furniture and wild gesticulations didn’t translate very well, however, to the radio days, so Sunday’s summit in popularity during the nineteen-tens ended abruptly, and he continued the rest of his mortal life sermonizing to smaller and smaller crowds. He was never completely forgotten, but in an essential way he was gone, disrupted by technology.

Sunday’s death was announced in the November 7, 1935 Brooklyn Daily Eagle.


From 1929: “America needs a tidal wave of the old-time religion.”

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Are the people finally tired of bread and Kardashians?

The radical American political movements of this millennia–Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, #MAGA and #Resist–have many parents, but each extreme reaction seems rooted in a widespread and often inexpressible dissatisfaction with what’s become of U.S. democracy. That angst has the potential to lead to good or bad.

It allowed for the election of a faux populist like Trump, a Berlusconi who dreams of being a Mussolini, and maybe according to the puzzling Sarandon playbook, it will end with a flood of indictments that will bring down what seems more and more to be a compromised White House, with a money-soaked capital coming tumbling after.

Or, more darkly, we might ultimately experience an age as exciting as the 1930s. Considering how splintered we are, we could be ripe for such a despoliation.

In a really smart Playboy Interview, David Hochman asks Ezra Klein, who explains things, to make sense of our new abnormal. The catch is, there’s no clear path forward, just many roads riddled with pointy forks. An excerpt:

Question:

Since the election, conspiracy theories have shifted from conservatives digging up things on Hillary Clinton’s e-mails to progressives obsessing over Donald Trump’s scandals and corruption. What’s your political paranoia level these days?

Ezra Klein:

I must admit, I am in general not a conspiracy theorist, but I feel Trump is doing his damnedest to turn me into one. This administration sure seems to be covering a lot up and willing to take a lot of damage to not reveal what it is they’re covering up. When you watch that happen over and over again on the tax returns or on the Russia stuff, at some point you’re not a conspiracy theorist to think there’s something concerning in there. They could easily say, “This is clearly all bullshit. Let’s just appoint a prosecutor and get it out there. Let’s move on.” But that’s not the case. Even on the tax returns, how hard would it be to say, “Okay, we gave the returns to an independent group. They looked at them. Everything’s fine.” It makes you suspicious. 

Question:

And why don’t people care?

Ezra Klein:

I think people do care. 

Question:

Not enough to be storming the gates at the White House. I walked by this morning, and there was one homeless vet in a wheelchair with a sign that said need weed money. That was it.

Ezra Klein: 

I think about this in two ways. First, don’t underestimate how unprecedented the political mobilization has been so far in the Trump era. There have been a ton of protests—in some cases the biggest single-day coordinated protests ever. Compared with a typical honeymoon run for a first-term president, people absolutely care. They’re showing up at Republican town halls, they’re organizing, they’re flooding congressional phone banks, they’re out there with pink pussy hats. 

Question:

David Brooks calls it a lot of liberal feel-goodism.

Ezra Klein: 

That’s just not the case. Being politically active is not feel-goodism. If nothing else, it’s a powerful message that dissent will be a constant part of this era in American politics, as it should be of every era in American politics, as the Tea Party was to Obama—though I don’t think Obama had quite the same tendencies to delegitimize as Trump does. Organizing is powerful, and a lot of that organizing is now turning its attention to members of the House and the Senate. They listen, they’re accountable, and they come up for reelection. Every voting member of the House is up for reelection in 2018, and the groundswell against Trump is already influencing the choices those legislators are making. 

At the same time, caring can be binary. Either you’re uninterested or you need to literally be dodging snipers on the White House lawn. People care, but they have lives. When you leave this interview you’ll probably go home, not throw rocks over the White House gate. People cared enough to vote against this guy—not enough people in the places where it counted but enough to have him lose the popular vote pretty decisively. We haven’t yet seen what protests can do. 

Question:

Do you ever worry about being a journalist in these polarized times?

Ezra Klein:

I do. All the time. I think things could go in very dark directions.•

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Philip Roth refuses any similarity between his great 2005 novel The Plot Against America and the rise of the totalitarian Reality TV host Donald Trump, asserting that he never would have written a fiction about such a preposterous character coming to such political prominence.

If I’m recalling correctly 12 years on, the autocratic madness at the heart of that book just sort of abated, normalcy returning in the nick of time. The Simon Cowell-ish strongman has made it further than the “Charles Lindbergh” of Roth’s title, and his reign of terror won’t likely soon end–if it should soon end–with such a placid reversion to decency. It will be messy.

Who knows what morsels of Mensch-mania is true, but it does seem plausible at this point that the Kremlin and the Trump cohort exchanged far more than just pleasantries. A way to gauge the concern level of the Oval Office is to read the main narrative being pushed by the National Enquirer, published by Trump pal David Pecker. First the tabloid attacked Hillary, then it flipped on Flynn and now it’s making it seem as if the 45th President is the last honest man swimming in a sea of inner-circle inequity. Sounds like an attempt to preempt blame and redirect guilt.

It’s an echo of Mark Cuban’s recent commentary, well-meaning but asinine, which painted Trump as some sort innocent dupe unwittingly used by a cadre of cutthroat figures. The hideous hotelier has been doing business for decades with all manner of such reprobates. He’s no put-upon patsy.

Regardless of how it all plays out, the election of such a creep is an indictment of our politics, discourse, media, ethics, economics, education system and celebrity worship. No one is so innocent, not even the “forgotten Americans.” And that indictment is far more depressing than any that could be handed down to the Administration’s principals.

· · ·

In Salon, Chauncey DeVega interviews cultural critic Henry Giroux about Trump’s actions and the reaction against him. “There are going to be moments here that even you and I will be shocked by,” the subject darkly warns. The opening:

Question:

What does it feel like from your point of view, having written so much about the culture of cruelty and authoritarianism, to watch it unfold in the United States in real time? 

Henry Giroux:

I’ve been writing about the potential for authoritarianism in the United States for 20 years. This is not a new discourse for me. What has often surprised me is not that it unfolded or the neo-liberal orthodoxy that increasingly made it appear more and more possible. What shocked me was the way the left has refused to really engage this discourse in ways that embrace a comprehensive politics, one that go beyond the fracturing single-issue movements and begins to understand what the underlying causes of these authoritarian movements have been and what it might mean to address them.

You have to ask yourself, what are the forces at work in the United States around civic culture, around celebrity culture, around the culture of fear, around the stoking of extremism and anger that give rise to a right-wing populism and neo-fascist politics? About a media that creates a culture of illusion, about the longstanding legacy of racism and terror in the United States. I mean, how did that all come together to produce a kind of authoritarian pedagogy that basically isolated people, and made them feel lonely? All of a sudden they find themselves in a community of believers, in which the flight from reality offers them a public sphere in which they can affirm themselves and no longer feel that they’re isolated.

Question:

Are Donald Trump’s voters victims?

I think the notion of victim is really a bad term because it takes away any pretense for agency and social responsibility.

Question:

I try to crystallize it down to, “They voted to hurt people.”

That’s right. Exactly.•

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Facebook has been trying to deny its outsize role in creating a filter bubble for several election seasons, though that balloon burst for good after the fake-news onslaught on 2016. Those who stubbornly denied that the Arab Spring was enabled to a good degree by our powerful new tools were crushed beneath the other shoe dropping last November. In the right moment, social media can have a deep impact on governments, for better or worse.

· · ·

In all fairness, Mark Zuckerberg’s empire isn’t alone in the fake-news business. The 21 years of Fox News have overlapped almost exactly with a steep decline in trust in mass media among Republicans and Independents. Many of the senior citizens who voted for Trump have never looked at News Feed, instead absorbing misinformation from Sean Hannity and similar talkers. For all the influence of those outlets, however, their reach is dwarfed by Facebook, which doesn’t count its users in millions but billions. And social media would appear to be a better way to reach undecideds, a surer approach when trying to tip an election.

· · ·

In an excellent New York Times Magazine feature, Farhad Manjoo investigates News Feed, a “global news distributor that is run by machines, rather than by humans,” as Zuckerberg newly tries to control the chaos of his invention, a ginormous piece of the largest experiment involving anarchy in history. He seems to have good intentions, but it may not be possible to maximize both profits and ethics, and his invention might just be irrevocably bad for individuals and worse for democracy. The system itself may be a fatal error.

As Manjoo notes, “The people who work on News Feed aren’t making decisions that turn on fuzzy human ideas like ethics, judgment, intuition or seniority.” Zuckerberg has likely grown from the person who said seven or so years ago that “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa,” but he’s still deeply dedicated to personalization and selectively oblivious about the monster he’s created.

The writer stresses that Facebook is trying to fix its fake-news problem via engineering rather than editing. The latter is sometimes far from perfect–the New York Times itself wasn’t without culpability in the recent election–but the answer to all technological problems isn’t necessarily more technology.

An excerpt:

After studying how people shared 1.25 million stories during the campaign, a team of researchers at M.I.T. and Harvard implicated Facebook and Twitter in the larger failure of media in 2016. The researchers found that social media created a right-wing echo chamber: a “media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyperpartisan perspective to the world.” The findings partially echoed a long-held worry about social news: that people would use sites like Facebook to cocoon themselves into self-reinforcing bubbles of confirmatory ideas, to the detriment of civility and a shared factual basis from which to make collective, democratic decisions. A week and a half after the election, President Obama bemoaned “an age where there’s so much active misinformation and it’s packaged very well and it looks the same when you see it on a Facebook page or you turn on your television.”

After the election, Zuckerberg offered a few pat defenses of Facebook’s role. “I’m actually quite proud of the impact that we were able to have on civic discourse over all,” he said when we spoke in January. Misinformation on Facebook was not as big a problem as some believed it was, but Facebook nevertheless would do more to battle it, he pledged. Echo chambers were a concern, but if the source was people’s own confirmation bias, was it really Facebook’s problem to solve?

It was hard to tell how seriously Zuckerberg took the criticisms of his service and its increasingly paradoxical role in the world. He had spent much of his life building a magnificent machine to bring people together. By the most literal measures, he’d succeeded spectacularly, but what had that connection wrought? Across the globe, Facebook now seems to benefit actors who want to undermine the global vision at its foundation. Supporters of Trump and the European right-wing nationalists who aim to turn their nations inward and dissolve alliances, trolls sowing cross-border paranoia, even ISIS with its skillful social-media recruiting and propagandizing — all of them have sought in their own ways to split the Zuckerbergian world apart. And they are using his own machine to do it.

In Silicon Valley, current events tend to fade into the background. The Sept. 11 attacks, the Iraq war, the financial crisis and every recent presidential election occurred, for the tech industry, on some parallel but distant timeline divorced from the everyday business of digitizing the world. Then Donald Trump won. In the 17 years I’ve spent covering Silicon Valley, I’ve never seen anything shake the place like his victory. In the span of a few months, the Valley has been transformed from a politically disengaged company town into a center of anti-Trump resistance and fear. A week after the election, one start-up founder sent me a private message on Twitter: “I think it’s worse than I thought,” he wrote. “Originally I thought 18 months. I’ve cut that in half.” Until what? “Apocalypse. End of the world.”•

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Laurie Penny, who a couple months ago published the excellent Pacific-Standard piece “On the Milo Bus With the Lost Boys of America’s New Right,” has just penned “Life-Hacks of the Poor and Aimless,” a great Baffler article about “well-being ideology” or the selling of self-improvement systems in an era of pending climate collapse and capitalism run amok.

In this odd moment of food fetishization and FitBit (at least in the West), we’re gorging and gauging as Rome burns and seas rise. We’re urged to live healthier and happier lives by corporations and governments, not an unreasonable request, but it’s an impossible mission sans social safety nets and a habitable plant. Ballooning wealth inequality is detrimental to democracies and their citizenry alike, and there’s just so much individuals can do to steel themselves from the chaos it brings.

It makes sense that in America the culmination of this medicine show is a President whose family literally worshiped, when he was a child, at the church of Norman Vincent Peale. The power of positive thinking, however, won’t remove lead from the Flint water supply, cancel climate change or prevent factories from falling into the grip of robot hands and low-paid contractors. It’s really a false doctrine, a Depression Era dance marathon reimagined for the Digital Age. The last one to hit the floor wins.

Still, Penny manages to find some value in yoga and self-care despite the gathering storm.

The opening:

Late capitalism is like your love life: it looks a lot less bleak through an Instagram filter. The slow collapse of the social contract is the backdrop for a modern mania for clean eating, healthy living, personal productivity, and “radical self-love”—the insistence that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we can achieve a meaningful existence by maintaining a positive outlook, following our bliss, and doing a few hamstring stretches as the planet burns. The more frightening the economic outlook and the more floodwaters rise, the more the public conversation is turning toward individual fulfillment as if in a desperate attempt to make us feel like we still have some control over our lives.

Coca-Cola encourages us to “choose happiness.” Politicians take time out from building careers in the debris of democracy to remind us of the importance of regular exercise. Lifestyle bloggers insist to hundreds of thousands of followers that freedom looks like a white woman practicing yoga alone on a beach. One such image (on the @selflovemantras Instagram) informs us that “the deeper the self love, the richer you are.” That’s a charming sentiment, but landlords are not currently collecting rent in self-love.

Can all this positive thinking be actively harmful? Carl Cederström and André Spicer, authors of The Wellness Syndrome, certainly think so, arguing that obsessive ritualization of self-care comes at the expense of collective engagement, collapsing every social problem into a personal quest for the good life. “Wellness,” they declare, “has become an ideology.”•

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From the November 6, 1950 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

In an excellent BBC Future piece, Rachel Nuwer attempts to weigh how close the West is to societal collapse, an implosion that would occur, if it does, not because of scarcity but due to our system, plagued by wealth inequality, failing at distribution.

Climate change may also play an important role, with a potential refugee crisis that will dwarf Syria’s tragedy, the relatively “dry” states overwhelmed by the inundation. Or perhaps the luckier lands will meet with disaster by trying to build a wall to keep the future out. Either reality is fraught.

The writer relies in part on the computer models of systems scientists to gauge if ecological strain and economic stratification will topple us, some of which suggest the latter factor could do us in entirely on its own, though the more likely scenario would be a confluence of unfortunate circumstances.

Of course, models have long predicted that great societies, actual or virtual, would soon be ghost towns. In 2014, two young Princeton academics applied epidemiology to social networks to make a prognostication I’m sure they’d like wiped from the Internet: By 2017, Facebook would lose 80% of its users. Missed by that much.

Still, sooner or later, entropy will leave a bruise.

The opening:

The political economist Benjamin Friedman once compared modern Western society to a stable bicycle whose wheels are kept spinning by economic growth. Should that forward-propelling motion slow or cease, the pillars that define our society – democracy, individual liberties, social tolerance and more – would begin to teeter. Our world would become an increasingly ugly place, one defined by a scramble over limited resources and a rejection of anyone outside of our immediate group. Should we find no way to get the wheels back in motion, we’d eventually face total societal collapse.

Such collapses have occurred many times in human history, and no civilisation, no matter how seemingly great, is immune to the vulnerabilities that may lead a society to its end. Regardless of how well things are going in the present moment, the situation can always change. Putting aside species-ending events like an asteroid strike, nuclear winter or deadly pandemic, history tells us that it’s usually a plethora of factors that contribute to collapse. What are they, and which, if any, have already begun to surface? It should come as no surprise that humanity is currently on an unsustainable and uncertain path – but just how close are we to reaching the point of no return?•

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Imagine if the Kremlin, instead of murdering its critics and interfering in foreign elections and adventuring abroad in complicity with the worst of autocrats, actually devoted its resources to developing a modern and economically diverse nation. That’s what the backwards-looking state desperately needs to do in order to avoid collapse, but evil does what it does. Rampant kleptocracy at the highest levels and deteriorating living standards have started to show some cracks in the supposed rock-solid popularity of Vladimir Putin, a capo with nuclear capabilities.

At the behest of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, protesters recently took Russia’s power elite by surprise. The activist, released after 15 days of detention, sat for a Spiegel Q&A with Christian Esch and Christian Neef. He argues that while citizens in the streets are starting to make noise, it’s those in Putin’s inner circle whom he fears most. An excerpt:

Question:

Why did these young people take to the streets?

Alexei Navalny:

Poverty! That, at least, is an important factor. The living standard here has been deteriorating for the past five years.

Question:

You don’t notice that in Moscow so much.

Alexei Navalny:

In Tomsk, I asked young people how many of them earn less than 20,000 rubles a month, that’s 330 euros. All of us, they answered. And that is in a university city that used to live from oil! People often say that I represent people who earn a lot of money. Of course, a person who is well-educated and affluent is more likely to support me than Vladimir Putin. But that doesn’t automatically mean that the others are against me.

Question:

What distinguishes the current protesters from those who demonstrated against the fraudulent 2011 parliamentary election?

Alexei Navalny:

The main difference is geographical: Now demonstrations are taking place in locations where they never did before, in Dagestan, in Tatarstan and in Bashkiria. Otherwise, there aren’t many differences. Social media, which has become our last remaining way of communicating with one another and of articulating our criticism, have a younger audience, that is all. …

Question:

Officially, the Kremlin acts as though it is fighting corruption, with five governors having been arrested — the fifth one just recently.

Alexei Navalny:

The governors are being arrested in order to steal some of my thunder. Besides , Putin needs to terrorize his own elite. He is more afraid of those in his own surroundings than any protests; there are people there who are at least as critical as I am because they see up close that the system doesn’t work. He wants to silence them.

Question:

Will President Putin run again in the 2018 election?

Alexei Navalny:

Of course! Putin wants to be the czar of this new Russian empire that he is rebuilding. I think he is really obsessed with the idea.•

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David Grann was asked to name a quintet of great “True Crime” titles for a Five Books interview, and among the volumes about brutal and strange murders, he made a non-obvious and timely choice with All the President’s Men. 

Woodward’s been a perplexing figure for decades and Bernstein has since the 1970s had to wrestle personal demons that sometimes sidetracked his brilliant career, but there’s no denying their book’s greatness or their impact on American liberty.

Of course, dogged journalism alone can’t protect democracy. If enough citizens and congresspeople don’t care that the President is a crook–a traitor, even–any ink spilled will merely document a society in steep decline.

Grann also explained why he didn’t include on his list Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which is written as immaculately as any work can be. He’s most troubled by the issue of veracity, which is certainly valid, though I’m also bothered by how the author suspensefully builds to the Clutter family murders, as if he were penning a thriller about fictional characters.

I wonder if Grann considered Hiroshima by John Hersey.

An excerpt:

Question:

Your fourth book—All The President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward—comes as something of a relief after all maniacal murdering. But it’s still a pretty frightening tale, and no less so for being so well-known. Talk us through it.

David Grann:

It’s probably the most iconic book of reporting in the United States to this day. It’s written by Woodward and Bernstein, and about their investigation, when they were young reporters at the Washington Post, into the shocking crimes committed by President Richard Nixon. When I first read that book, it gave me a sense that reporting could have a nobility and a moral purpose behind it. Of course, much reporting is not quite like that but…

Question:

And, to be clear, the crimes here are moral and political ones. It was articles of the US Constitution that were being butchered, rather than individuals.

David Grann:

Yes. The crimes include everything from breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s offices to bugging political opponents to covering up evidence. I think the book is particularly relevant today which is partly why I picked it. In a day and age when public officials are trying to subvert and muddy the truth, the need for deep reporting to hold these people accountable is as important as ever. This book is a seminal case of that—a case where investigative reporting was essential to revealing the corruption at the highest levels of the United States and to preserving our democracy.

Too often when we think of crime stories, we think of them in one dimensional ways—we think of a bank robbery, or a holdup, or someone breaking into a house—but some of the crimes that are just as important, in some ways maybe even more important, are those that are political in nature. They don’t need to involve murders. This one almost provoked a constitutional crisis.

Question:

And the victim count is much higher. It’s a whole nation.

David Grann:

Precisely, and this was a case where the system was driven to the brink but ultimately functioned: Nixon eventually stepped down. Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting played an essential role in protecting the country. This book, and all the books on this list, have left a mark on me, often in different ways, and what I remember most about this one is the doggedness of the reporting. All the President’s Men is a book where there is no fanciful writing—Bernstein and Woodward are not Mailer or Capote. They are journalists writing perfectly clean, decent prose and they have a story to tell, and they tell it in such a way that it has enormous power.

Question:

It’s certainly a case in which the symbiosis of the writer and the detective is as clear as can be. The writer in this sense is like a vigilante—he has charged himself with finding the truth that no one else, through lack of will or ability, has.

David Grann:

Yes. I think what makes important true crimes books is not simply the stories they relate but the authors that investigate them. You can have investigative historians like Larson. Or you can have investigative reporters like Woodward and Bernstein. In both cases they are trying to unearth some deeper truth. In many true crime books, the author-investigator is not unlike the detectives he or she is writing about. The skills are very similar, I think, in terms of unearthing evidence and trying to create some kind of structure, plot, or narrative that helps to make sense of the chaos, and piece things back together.•

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In writing for the Hollywood Reporter about falafel fetishist Bill O’Reilly just before he was ousted from Fox News, Michael Wolff, a ghastly man, seems to long for a time when mediocre older white guys could be paid gobs of money from media outlets and treat people any which way they wanted to. Wonder why.

Wolff repeatedly refers to the numerous charges against O’Reilly with wariness (“no trial has occurred, no evidence has been released, no investigators’ conclusions shared”), seeming to forget that actual tapes of O’Reilly’s boorish behavior have been introduced into court. The transcripts are not family reading.

He writes: “It’s a particular sort of irony that Fox, which, to the delight of its audience, built itself on rejecting liberal assumptions, might now be brought down by such a signature liberal assumption: Where there are charges of sexual harassment, there is sexual harassment.”

The journalist also doesn’t mention that O’Reilly has long been an astoundingly hypocritical moral crusader, encouraging corporations to dump celebrities (always African-American ones) whom he deemed sexist. That was the context of Pepsi severing ties with rapper Ludacris in 2002.

When not questioning the accusers’ motives (“plaintiffs come out of the woodwork”), the writer mainly judges the situation on how the changing of the lard will effect the cable channel’s bottom line. It’s understood that THR is a trade publication about the business of show and that’s part of the story he must analyze, but he didn’t have to do so by divorcing basic morality from the situation and ignoring completely the effects of an abusive workplace on those employed there. He instead goes out of his way to be sympathetic to the figure who wielded the power. That was Wolff’s own awful decision.

An excerpt:

Your narrative is your fate. It doesn’t matter if O’Reilly or Ailes did or didn’t do the things they are accused of — no trial has occurred, no evidence has been released, no investigators’ conclusions shared — their real guilt is that people believe they could have.

Confusing matters, the Murdoch sons also see O’Reilly and Ailes as part of a bygone era — their father’s. Pay no attention that it was precisely this sensibility that has been such a powerful audience draw at Fox. (Of note, to the lasting outrage and confusion of liberals, Trump, despite the bygone era suggested by his Billy Bush “pussygate” tape, was elected anyway.) The Murdoch sons, while in important ways financially supported by the profitable, culturally backward views at Fox, see their job as taking the company into a new era.

The sons’ plan was to make Fox the network of Megyn Kelly rather than of Ailes and O’Reilly. That plan foundered on widespread resentment at the network toward Kelly for her part in Ailes’ ouster and on the election of Trump. Suddenly, Fox’s “when America was great and men were men” appeal was even stronger.

One solution has been Tucker Carlson, a conservative but less of a dour, bygone-era one, who has scored significant ratings at 9 p.m. But an important aspect of those ratings is that he is firmly sandwiched between O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. Both retro men are, even beyond their huge salaries (nearly $20 million a year for O’Reilly; $14 million for Hannity), vastly rich — O’Reilly, 67, from books; Hannity, 55, from radio and real estate — with dedicated audiences who’d likely follow them wherever. The worry at Fox is that they need Fox less than Fox needs them, and they might soon leave too.

The liberal hope is that media pressure will continue to force advertisers to reject O’Reilly (no matter that liberals have frequently been aghast when conservatives have urged advertiser boycotts of liberal media). But, in fact, so far advertisers have merely moved to other Fox shows, which depend on the O’Reilly spillover audience. If O’Reilly, who is on a pre-planned vacation, returns April 24 and the ratings remain strong, those advertisers likely will be back on his show.

Murdoch Senior has remained largely remote from this dispute, but he reportedly has been paying attention again. He is said to be worried that his sons are moving toward a radical break — “re-imagining Fox,” is what James is said to call it — and hastening the end of an era that, in television terms, so far has been more popular and unyielding than any cozier new one.•

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In 1994, an excerpt from Charles Murray’s bigoted Bell Curve bullshit served as a cover story for the New Republic, a call made by then-EIC Andrew Sullivan. It’s no surprise the former published an admiring tweet about the latter’s recent New York column, a lazy and wrong-minded take on race in America.

Sullivan’s detestable opinion piece tried to argue America can’t be a prejudiced place tilted in favor of whites (and, by suggestion, against African-Americans) because look at how well Asian-Americans are doing. It’s the old bigoted hogwash that diminishes our atrocious history of slavery, Jim Crow laws and a separate and unequal justice system–and all the social problems this poisonous past (and present) created. Comparing the travails of any ethnic group in the U.S. to the one brought here on slave ships is appallingly stupid. It’s an argument likely as old as Reconstruction itself.

Another memo for Sullivan: Asian-Americans don’t universally do well in America, with income inequality even more pronounced among the haves and have-nots in this group than in the country as a whole. Perhaps looking beneath statistics in the aggregate would allow for a more nuanced understanding of the citizenry.

From Sullivan:

I mean, how on earth have both ethnic groups done so well in such a profoundly racist society? How have bigoted white people allowed these minorities to do so well — even to the point of earning more, on average, than whites? Asian-Americans, for example, have been subject to some of the most brutal oppression, racial hatred, and open discrimination over the years. In the late 19th century, as most worked in hard labor, they were subject to lynchings and violence across the American West and laws that prohibited their employment. They were banned from immigrating to the U.S. in 1924. Japanese-American citizens were forced into internment camps during the Second World War, and subjected to hideous, racist propaganda after Pearl Harbor. Yet, today, Asian-Americans are among the most prosperous, well-educated, and successful ethnic groups in America. What gives? It couldn’t possibly be that they maintained solid two-parent family structures, had social networks that looked after one another, placed enormous emphasis on education and hard work, and thereby turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones, could it? It couldn’t be that all whites are not racists or that the American dream still lives?•

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What does it say about us that nearly 63 million Americans voted for President not just a con man but the most obvious con man of all? There are a couple of options and neither are good.

If that many citizens are truly so gullible, then we’ve failed in a shockingly broad way to develop people with adequate critical-thinking abilities. But if most were responding to the Make America White Again message, we’ve stumbled in a far more serious way. Regardless of which is true–and they both likely are to a good extent–we’re now find ourselves in a grave situation.

In Matt Flegenheimer’s smart New York Times report from a deeply purple Pennsylvania county, some are having second thoughts about handing the keys to the Oval Office to a wildly dishonest Reality TV host with sociopathic tendencies. He still, however, managed to find quite a few souls sticking to their guns.

An excerpt:

BENSALEM, Pa. — One after another, the gamblers totter along the twisting walkway, bathed in artificial purple light — burdened, at least occasionally, by the instinct that they should have known better.

Usually, this pathway outside Parx Casino is reserved for self-flagellation, a private lament at the last hundred lost. But lately, as with most any gathering place around here since late January — the checkout line, the liquor store, the park nearby where losing lottery numbers are pressed into the mulch — patrons have found occasion to project their angst outward, second-guessing a November wager.

“Just like any other damn president,” sighed Theresa Remington, 44, a home-care worker and the mother of two active-duty Marines, scraping at an unlit cigarette. She had voted for Donald J. Trump because she expected him to improve conditions for veterans and overhaul the health care system. Now?

“Political bluster,” Ms. Remington said, before making another run at the quarter slots. She wondered aloud how Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont might have fared in the job.
 
Such is a view from this swing county of a swing region of a swing state that powered Mr. Trump’s improbable victory, an electoral thermometer for a president slogging toward the end of his first 100 days. Across the country, Republican officials have grown anxious at their standing on even ruby-red turf, sweating out a closer-than-expected victory last week in a House race in a Kansas congressional district that Mr. Trump had carried by 27 points. …

“No one wants to be wrong,” said Brian Mock, 33, a tattoo artist in Levittown, Pa., and a Trump skeptic. “It’s seeing a house on fire and saying, ‘That house isn’t on fire.’ It is very clearly on fire.”•

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Democracy is perhaps the greatest idea anyone’s ever had, but it’s only as good as the people participating in it at any moment. Tradition means something, but liberty, which doesn’t end at the ballot box, can be upended by bad impulses and poor judgments. As Dostoyevsky wrote: “Right or wrong, it’s very pleasant to break something from time to time.” Once something’s broken, however, it’s difficult piecing it back together.

· · ·

Comedian Lewis Black quipped during the wetter moments of the waterboarding Bush Administration that he was rooting for a military coup, the generals being far preferable to the politicians. Ah, the good old days, when Dick Cheney was blasting the world in the face with birdshot. Even the Watergate era is preferable to our moment.

In an In These Times Q&A conducted by Yana Kunichoff, Kremlimologist Masha Gessen is of the same mind as Black, though she knows there’s a steep price attached to such extraordinary measures. In Laura M. Holson’s NYT profile of John Dean, the former Nixon White House Counsel is only consoled right now by the ineptitude of the Trump Administration, though he’s fairly certain that plumes will mean flames in regards to Russiagate.

Two excerpts follow.


From In These Times:

Question:

You’ve discussed mass murder and nuclear holocaust as real possibilities in the United States. How does American exceptionalism jibe with this threat?

Masha Gessen:

American exceptionalism suggests that the basic structure of the country—the system of checks and balances and the foundation of American democracy—is solid and safe forever. And that’s a dangerous concept because democracy is not the sort of thing that you build and then live in. Democracy is a work in progress. There’s never been a system of governing that responds to the needs, desires and political aspirations of all people. It needs to be constantly reinvented. If you decide that a country has built democracy once and for all, then chances are it’s becoming less democratic. …

Question:

The presidential election has sparked a conversation about the role of the CIA and FBI, and some liberals in the United States have taken a political position that even a CIA coup against Trump would be welcome. How should the Left approach the interference by organizations like these?

Masha Gessen:

If suddenly, tomorrow, there’s a military coup, that may not be a horrible thing. I sort of agree with some people who say, “Anything is better than him.” In a static imagination, where we go directly from here to there, anything is better. The problem is, how much of American democracy do we actually destroy in the process? If we have destroyed trust in the media, if we have destroyed the understanding of government being separate from the intelligence agencies, of media being separate from the intelligence agencies, if we’ve destroyed all that, then the chances of recovery are that much more difficult.•


From the New York Times:

Mr. Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974; the scope of presidential authority became more limited.

That changed again after Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Dean said, when President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney reclaimed many of those powers in the wake of terrorist attacks. Mr. Dean, who is not registered with any political party, was not a fan of the Bush presidency, as he made clear in a 2006 book, Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush.

Mr. Obama continued the strengthening of the executive branch that occurred under Mr. Bush and took the fight to government leakers more frequently than any previous president during his two terms.

“Presidents don’t give up powers once they get in there,” Mr. Dean said.

That is what troubles him about Mr. Trump and his political advisers, among them his chief political strategist, the media executive Stephen K. Bannon. “I’m not sure Trump, or Bannon, or whoever is guiding that place, has figured out all their powers,” he said. “The incompetence is the only thing giving me comfort at the moment.” …

Of the Trump administration’s alleged ties to Russia, Mr. Dean said: “It is clear that something serious is going on. They are just throwing out every signal. If this was nothing but the witch hunt that Trump claims, you could make it go away in a week.”•

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I was critical of Bill Gates’ recent suggestion that America utilize taxation to slow down progress in robotics. First of all, defining “robot” isn’t so simple. Are they only machines that move across warehouse floors? Are they algorithms? Will they be something else entirely tomorrow?  

Also there’s no central switch that can be pointed at OFF until everything makes sense. The race in machine intelligence among states will see the actions of some players influence priorities and ethics across borders. No wall will keep out the future.

In “Learning to Love Intelligent Machines,” a WSJ essay taken from his book Deep Thinking: Where Artificial Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins, Garry Kasparov, the Digital Age John Henry, argues that AI will bring a bounty, not a threat. I agree with the former contention but not the latter.

John Henry’s postscript: He won, but he died. In the aftermath, steam and gas and electricity made us richer as they transformed society, but they also imperiled us with their deleterious impact on the environment. Long after we learned the damage the carbon was doing, it’s proven difficult politically and financially to alter the course and unplug the machine.

Garry Kasparov’s postscript: He lost, but he survived, and perhaps he, and the rest of us, will thrive because of increasingly intelligent machines. Aspects of life will improve, some markedly, as machines progress, but these stronger tools will also make for greater potential dangers: nonstop surveillance, disruption to democracy, complete loss of privacy, cascading disaster, etc. There will be no turning off this machine once we’re fully lowered into it, and that will be soon.

We may not be able to avoid extinction as a species in the long run without super-algorithms, but they will also be their own existential risk.

Kasparov is right, however, in saying: “There is no going back, only forward.” 

The opening:

It was my blessing and my curse to be the world chess champion when computers finally reached a world championship level of play. When I resigned the final match game against the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue on May 11, 1997, I became the first world champion to be defeated in a classical match by a machine.

It is no secret that I hate losing, and I did not take it well. But losing to a computer wasn’t as harsh a blow to me as many at the time thought it was for humanity as a whole. The cover of Newsweek called the match “The Brain’s Last Stand.” Those six games in 1997 gave a dark cast to the narrative of “man versus machine” in the digital age, much as the legend of John Henry did for the era of steam and steel.

But it’s possible to draw a very different lesson from my encounter with Deep Blue. Twenty years later, after learning much more about the subject, I am convinced that we must stop seeing intelligent machines as our rivals. Disruptive as they may be, they are not a threat to humankind but a great boon, providing us with endless opportunities to extend our capabilities and improve our lives.•


In his WSJ article, Kasparov writes that by the 1980s, people knew machines would soon be kings of chess. He was most certainly not among that enlightened set.

He defeated Deep Thought in 1989 and believed a computer could never best him. But by 1997 Deep Blue turned him–and humanity–into an also-ran in some key ways. The chess master couldn’t believe it at first–he assumed his opponent was manipulated by humans behind the scene, like the Mechanical Turk, the faux chess-playing machine from the 18th century. But no sleight of hand was needed.

Below are the openings of three Bruce Weber New York Times articles written during the Kasparov-Deep Blue matchup which chart the rise of the machines.

Responding to defeat with the pride and tenacity of a champion, the I.B.M. computer Deep Blue drew even yesterday in its match against Garry Kasparov, the world’s best human chess player, winning the second of their six games and stunning many chess experts with its strategy.

Joel Benjamin, the grandmaster who works with the Deep Blue team, declared breathlessly: “This was not a computer-style game. This was real chess!”

He was seconded by others.

“Nice style!” said Susan Polgar, the women’s world champion. “Really impressive. The computer played a champion’s style, like Karpov,” she continued, referring to Anatoly Karpov, a former world champion who is widely regarded as second in strength only to Mr. Kasparov. “Deep Blue made many moves that were based on understanding chess, on feeling the position. We all thought computers couldn’t do that.”•

Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion, opened the third game of his six-game match against the I.B.M. computer Deep Blue yesterday in peculiar fashion, by moving his queen’s pawn forward a single square. Huh?

“I think we have a new opening move,” said Yasser Seirawan, a grandmaster providing live commentary on the match. “What should we call it?”

Mike Valvo, an international master who is a commentator, said, “The computer has caused Garry to act in strange ways.”

Indeed it has. Mr. Kasparov, who swiftly became more conventional and subtle in his play, went on to a draw with Deep Blue, leaving the score of Man vs. Machine at 1 1/2 apiece. (A draw is worth half a point to each player.) But it is clear that after his loss in Game 2 on Sunday, in which he resigned after 45 moves, Mr. Kasparov does not yet have a handle on Deep Blue’s predilections, and that he is still struggling to elicit them.•

In brisk and brutal fashion, the I.B.M. computer Deep Blue unseated humanity, at least temporarily, as the finest chess playing entity on the planet yesterday, when Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion, resigned the sixth and final game of the match after just 19 moves, saying, “I lost my fighting spirit.”

The unexpectedly swift denouement to the bitterly fought contest came as a surprise, because until yesterday Mr. Kasparov had been able to summon the wherewithal to match Deep Blue gambit for gambit.

The manner of the conclusion overshadowed the debate over the meaning of the computer’s success. Grandmasters and computer experts alike went from praising the match as a great experiment, invaluable to both science and chess (if a temporary blow to the collective ego of the human race) to smacking their foreheads in amazement at the champion’s abrupt crumpling.

“It had the impact of a Greek tragedy,” said Monty Newborn, chairman of the chess committee for the Association for Computing, which was responsible for officiating the match.

It was the second victory of the match for the computer — there were three draws — making the final score 3 1/2 to 2 1/2, the first time any chess champion has been beaten by a machine in a traditional match. Mr. Kasparov, 34, retains his title, which he has held since 1985, but the loss was nonetheless unprecedented in his career; he has never before lost a multigame match against an individual opponent.

Afterward, he was both bitter at what he perceived to be unfair advantages enjoyed by the computer and, in his word, ashamed of his poor performance yesterday.

“I was not in the mood of playing at all,” he said, adding that after Game 5 on Saturday, he had become so dispirited that he felt the match was already over. Asked why, he said: “I’m a human being. When I see something that is well beyond my understanding, I’m afraid.”•

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Tim Berners-Lee didn’t intend to gift us a Trojan horse with the World Wide Web, if that’s what it’s turned out to be, but the good, old days of people complaining about cat memes are long gone.

Techworld article by Scott Casey highlights two of the British computer scientist’s fears: 1) the global economy may eventually be run by AI sans human input, and 2) the Internet has undermined democracy.

On the first point: I’ve posted before about how future driverless-taxi companies can be self-owned, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that at least large swaths of financial sector businesses can become CEO-less. No reason to feel bad for the Jamie Dimons of the world, who still think banking regulations a bad idea even after the 2008 collapse that hurt so many, but the chaos in such a system would be almost untrackable.

The second point, even more dangerous, seems to have been confirmed over the last year: Those who thought social media was given too much credit for the Arab Spring were sadly wrong. It can be used to tilt the balance in favor of liberty but also against it, the latter result now abundantly clear. These are powerful tools–and powerful weapons.

Berners-Lee’s suggestion that political organizations not be allowed to target ads is a good one, but I’m afraid there’s no way to remove all the ghosts from inside his machine.

An excerpt:

Speaking in London today he built on these concerns, asking if social networks like Twitter are “net good for the planet” and calling for a rethink of how the internet tends to propagate “nasty ideas” over “constructive” ones.

“So the conclusion is a complete change of strategy,” he said. “We need to not leave people to create whatever social networks they like, we have to think about the impact that things have on society and possibly rethink the entire platform.”

Speaking in what appears to be a reaction to Donald Trump’s election, Berners-Lee also reiterated his concerns over political advertising being heavily targeted. He asked: “Should we introduce a rule that if you’re a political organisation, you may not target?” 

“I talk about the horror scenario of going to a candidate’s webpage and depending on who you were you get a different message and that is just marketing 101 for the political websites out there. So we need to rethink the way we have built society on top of the web.”•

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A greedy, vainglorious serial groom who’s bragged about sexually assaulting women somehow won the hearts and minds of America’s Bible Belt, that supposed bastion of family values, during the Presidential election. Seems even odder when you consider he’s a pathological liar with no charity for the poor, uses the Bible as product placement, and until a recent, and perhaps, expedient conversion, long supported abortion rights.

What’s going on here? Two possibilities:

  1. White Christians in the U.S. have always quietly been about upholding a power structure of racial superiority that favors the skin they’re in, with Trump’s overt bigotry just bringing the nastiness to the surface. I don’t know what Jesus would do, but I’m pretty sure it’s not what Jeff Sessions does.
  2. We’ve transitioned into a post-Christian reality, in which the so-called holy have shed many of their erstwhile values, with policy positions, not prayer, now the center of their faith.

The truth likely lies somewhere in between.

In his latest insightful Financial Times missive about America’s ominous moment, Gary Silverman visits Alabama to investigate the latter prospect, hoping to understand why the majority seem less moral. An excerpt:

My host was Wayne Flynt, an Alabaman who has made the people of the southern US his life’s work. A 76-year-old emeritus professor of history at Auburn University, he has written empathetically about his region in books such as Poor But Proud. A Baptist minister, he still teaches Sunday school at his church and delivered the eulogy at last year’s funeral of his friend Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird.

I took my place in the book-lined study of Flynt’s redwood house in Auburn, Alabama, to hear his thoughts on the local economy, but the conversation turned to a central mystery of US politics. Trump would not be president without the strong support of the folks Flynt has chronicled — white residents of the Bible Belt, raised in the do-it-yourself religious traditions that distinguish the US from Europe. I wondered how a thrice-married former casino owner — who had been recorded bragging about grabbing women by the genitals — had won over the faithful.

Flynt’s answer is that his people are changing. The words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, are less central to their thinking and behaviour, he says. Church is less compelling. Marriage is less important. Reading from a severely abridged Bible, their political concerns have narrowed down to abortion and issues involving homosexuality. Their faith, he says, has been put in a president who embodies an unholy trinity of materialism, hedonism and narcissism. Trump’s victory, in this sense, is less an expression of the old-time religion than evidence of a move away from it.

“The 2016 election laid out graphically what is in essence the loss of Christian America,” Flynt says, delivering his verdict with a calm assurance that reminded me of Lee’s hero, Atticus Finch, as played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film of her novel.•

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Peter Singer advised utilitarians of good conscience to serve in the Trump Administration if they felt they could mitigate the awfulness of what was to be a deeply dishonest, bigoted, sociopathic White House, the caveat being they need be prepared to resign if asked to participate in unethical behavior.

The jury is still out on that advice. Everyone involved is complicit in the wanton destruction of the environment, an existential threat, and any attempts at neutralization will be rebuffed. Civil rights, voting rights, and women’s rights will be rolled back, no exceptions. Scientific research and culture will be casualties.

Mattis and McMaster are sometimes exhibited as examples of those who can inject some sanity into an unprecedented shitstorm, but they’ve both already had to often act within the constraints of Trump’s alternative universe, a constellation of lies about his predecessor wiretapping him, millions of illegal voters casting ballots, etc. McMaster has been able to eject Bannon and other kooks from the NSA, a real plus, but over time he’ll certainly have to carefully weigh how far he’s willing range from his core values.

A poisonous environment can gradually work on the healthiest bodies.

· · ·

In a Nautilus essay, Singer analyzes a different ethical question: How should we treat non-humans who possess some form of consciousness, whether we’re talking about ETs or animals that help make a BLT? The moral philosopher breaks no new ground in his arguments but states them well. As he writes, “the existence of another mind—another center of consciousness—places moral demands on us.”

The opening:

Last January I was walking with my granddaughter along a beach near Melbourne when we noticed several people gathered around a rock pool, peering into the water. Wondering what had attracted their attention, we went over and saw that it was an octopus. If the spectators were interested in it, it also seemed interested in them. It came to the edge of the pool, one of its eyes directed at the people above, and stretched a tentacle out of the water, as if offering to shake hands. No one took up the offer but at least no one tried to capture the animal or turn it into calamari. That was pleasing because, as Peter Godfrey-Smith says in his recent book Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, an octopus is “probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.”

If we do ever meet an intelligent alien, even a tasty one, I hope we have sufficient ethical awareness to think of more than pleasing our palates or filling our stomachs. My view that this would be the wrong way to respond to such an encounter, however, leads to a deeper question: What moral status would extra-terrestrials have? Would we have obligations to them? Would they have rights? And would our answers depend on their intelligence?•

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From the January 29, 1851 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has his gifts, but, boy, is he a lot to take. He reminds me of the ego-crazy Uncle Excelsior that F. Murray Abraham played so perfectly on Louie.

In “Real Life Is Risk Taking,” a new Medium essay, the scholar takes his “Skin in the Game” theory to ridiculous lengths, revealing how impressed he was when he witnessed magician David Blaine seemingly stick an actual ice pick through his hand, no illusion, at a dinner party. What a couple of toolboxes.

Taleb is right to call out bankers and politicos who fiddle with the economy with no chance of getting burned, but his loathing for the expert class, the technocrats, is so all-consuming that during the election he exclaimed “absolutely no Hillary,” idiotically taunting the Democratic candidate as “Shillary.” He also seriously underestimated the peril of a Trump White House.

A now-deleted tweet:

Reading Trump all I see is protect your downside (unknown) risks. What’s behind the bluster is Fat Tony compatible.

— NassimNicholasTaleb (@nntaleb) March 26, 2016

From CNBC just prior to the election:

Not only is a Donald Trump presidency very possible, it’s also not all that much to worry about, scholar and author Nassim Taleb told CNBC’s Power Lunch.

Taleb said Trump is not as “scary” as people make him out to be.

“In the end, Trump is a real estate salesman,” Taleb said. “When you elect real estate salespeople to the presidency, they’re going to try deliver something.”

Because of that, Trump probably won’t do anything apocalyptic, Taleb said.•

In the Medium piece, he argues people responded to Trump because he was a “risk taker,” which is much easier to be when you’ve been handed wealth at birth and daddy buys several million dollars worth of chips to save your ass after you crap out as a casino owner. Even Trump’s many failings as a businessperson are spun into gold by Taleb, who seems to approve of macho idiocy–stabbing yourself or ripping off others–rather than more modest gifts like basic competency.

An excerpt:

The Donald

I have a tendency to watch television with the sound off. When I saw Donald Trump in the Republican primary standing next to other candidates, I became certain he was going to win that stage of the process, no matter what he said or did. Actually, it was because he had visible, very visible, deficiencies. Why? Because he was real and the public –composed of people who usually take risks, not the lifeless nonrisktaking analysts we will discuss in the next chapter –would vote anytime for someone who actually bled after putting an icepick in his hand than someone who did not. Or Trump was such a great actor that he should be performing in Greek tragedies. Arguments that Trump was a failed entrepreneur, even if true, actually prop up the argument: you’d even rather have a failed real person than a successful one, as blemishes, scars, and character flaws increase the distance between a human and a ghost.•

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The Player was about the movie business in the same way that The Godfather was about the Mafia: ostensibly. 

Both were actually studying a larger idea, American capitalism itself, and the way that money and power can awaken a ruthlessness in those looking to make the grade. The savagery of Michael Tolkin’s 1988 Hollywood Babylon seems almost quaint in retrospect, a stunning turn of events that shows how far we’ve fallen in the decades since. That’s not an isolated event: Dick Cheney, a war criminal, now seems a cooler head by comparison in 2017, the year that the U.S.A. went full apeshit. In this sickening moment of the White House occupied by a Berlusconi who dreams of being a Mussolini, the dystopia fits into the shrunken screens of our smartphones. The pictures got small, yes, but so have we.

In a smart Los Angeles Review of Books Q&A conducted by David Breithaupt, Tolkin considers culture, government and climate change in the time of Trump, and discusses his futuristic new novel about biological disaster, NK3. An excerpt:

Question:

We have suffered catastrophes throughout history. Do you think our current one can be corrected?

Michael Tolkin:

So the story goes that Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and biographer, asked Kafka, “Franz, is there hope?” And Kafka answered, “Oh yes, Max, there’s plenty of hope, an infinity of hope — but not for us.” We’re an omnivorous, territorial, and essentially lazy ape that gathers in bands to steal from others, or force them to work for us, and then sing about it and sometimes even feel bad about how bad we are, but still, you know, go on more with the bad than the good. We’re wired for apprehension and hoarding, and we follow the leader. We have religion to mitigate and excuse. We have art for who the fuck knows, really? We’re funny, no question about our sense of humor, especially our gallows humor. We leave loopholes in all our contracts. This is the dystopia now and has been for a long time. The essence of climate denial is to make a bet that the scientists are wrong so there’s no necessity for prudence, just in case the scientists are right. To be prudent might cost money, and if the scientists are wrong, then that money would be wasted. The denial argument is an equation: better to risk the life of the planet than lose money. And we go along with this because it’s too hard to fight peacefully over a long period. The arc of history may bend toward justice, but not in our lifetimes. There’s going to be a massive die off, but in the long run … Consider the animal videos on YouTube, all the little movies showing animal intelligence, animal capacity for love, and animal capacity for joy. This is a new thing — they are evolving ahead of us, they are rejoicing. That dog and goose chasing each other around the rock, that Russian crow sledding on a pitched roof, that cat rescuing the puppy from the ditch, that elephant sitting on the car. They know something. They know we’re on the way out, even if a million more species are killed, in the very long run, soulful life will return to dominion, finding niches and making a shared ecology, without us. And that’s just the way it’s going to be. In the short run, the fuckers are going to have their celebration of blood. In the long run, intelligent bacteria will eat their flesh.

Question:

That’s a nice image, wildlife taking over the Earth after we are gone, perhaps the only comforting thought about our dilemma. Spalding Gray said Mother Earth needs a good long break from us. Is it time to pack it in? One of your characters at the end of NK3 says that every civilization is crushed by its own stupidity. Kurt Vonnegut thought we have passed the point of no return. Where do we go from here?

Michael Tolkin:

Get out the vote. That’s where we go. Otherwise, it’s pitchforks and torches, and that’s what we’re being goaded toward.•

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World events conspired to start squeezing middle- and working-class Americans in the 1970s, but it was in the following decade of the Reagan Revolution that the games truly began in earnest. The air-traffic controllers got the boot first, but the point of the toe soon came for the rest of us.

Unions, consumer protections and financial regulation headed in the wrong direction for most, and globalization and automation added more layers of pressure. The markets were celebrated over all else. Corporations became “people.”

The current rise of the Gig Economy, that Libertarian wet dream about “freedom” or some such bullshit, is just the supersized version of what we’ve been experiencing. The elevator only goes down.

Noah Smith rightly calls out the plague effect of neo-liberalism in a Bloomberg View column, detailing how many of those who supported politicians selling a bill of goods ended up getting hurt the worst. The most recent election would appear to be the coup de grâce. Trump isn’t the advent of a new con job but the culmination of the decades-old one.

As Smith writes, “there won’t be a quick fix for middle-class boomers and Gen Xers.”

An excerpt:

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, middle-class Americans looked forward to a future of wealth and leisure. If you were a small business owner, or an engineer, or a lawyer at a small firm, you might not have expected to be rolling in it, but you probably didn’t think things would go so badly awry.

Who’s responsible? Who took your prosperity? Donald Trump’s trade adviser Peter Navarro might tell you it was China, while his political aide Steve Bannon might tell you it was immigrants. Free-market think-tank types might tell you it was government regulation, while conservative lawmakers might tell you it was single moms on welfare or lazy people on food stamps. But these answers are mostly or completely wrong. 

One partially correct answer is that your prosperity was taken by the very people who promised to ensure and enhance it. The decades from 1980 through 2008 were the age of neoliberalism — the ideology of the free market. Financial deregulation, tax cuts and a lax attitude toward consumer protection and antitrust were supposed to free the entrepreneurial potential of the American middle class. And to some degree it did — those decades saw plenty of wealth creation, and the U.S. economy performed a bit better than most rich nations in Europe and East Asia.

But along with real productivity, the neoliberal age saw plenty of grift and middle-class wealth extraction. In the book, Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception, Nobel prize-winning economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller said that all free-market economies are accompanied by some amount of consumer error, simply because sellers are always exploring every possible method of parting people from their money.•

 

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