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There are numerous financial and practical reasons for turning society into a giant, tentacled computer that connect us all, but even if mass surveillance and other elements of governmental and corporate fascism aren’t the chief driving forces of the transition, their danger is no less real. My main issue with the febrile fear of Strong AI—computers surpassing our brains and turning us into zoo animals or some such thing—is that this outcome is likely not happening today or tomorrow or perhaps ever, even if it isn’t theoretically impossible.

The bigger issue is that no such superintelligence need develop for humans to be diminished or doomed. Weak AI can do us in with a thousand cuts. The process of computerizing absolutely everything has already begun in earnest, and it hasn’t thus far made us better or wiser or happier. That may be because our best intentions have failed, but more likely is that this new system of digital capitalism has its own agenda and human well-being isn’t job one.

From Ian Bogost’s Atlantic article “You Are Already Living Inside a Computer“:

Newer dreams of what’s to come predict that humans and machines might meld, either through biohacking or simulated consciousness. That future also feels very far away—and perhaps impossible. Its remoteness might lessen the fear of an AI apocalypse, but it also obscures a certain truth about machines’ role in humankind’s destiny: Computers already are predominant, human life already plays out mostly within them, and people are satisfied with the results. …

Think about the computing systems you use every day. All of them represent attempts to simulate something else. Like how Turing’s original thinking machine strived to pass as a man or woman, a computer tries to pass, in a way, as another thing. As a calculator, for example, or a ledger, or a typewriter, or a telephone, or a camera, or a storefront, or a café.

After a while, successful simulated machines displace and overtake the machines they originally imitated. The word processor is no longer just a simulated typewriter or secretary, but a first-order tool for producing written materials of all kinds. Eventually, if they thrive, simulated machines become just machines.

Today, computation overall is doing this. There’s not much work and play left that computers don’t handle. And so, the computer is splitting from its origins as a means of symbol manipulation for productive and creative ends, and becoming an activity in its own right. Today, people don’t seek out computers in order to get things done; they do the things that let them use computers.

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When the use of computers decouples from its ends and becomes a way of life, goals and problems only seem valid when they can be addressed and solved by computational systems. Internet-of-things gadgets offer one example of that new ideal. Another can be found in how Silicon Valley technology companies conceive of their products and services in the first place.•

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I was critical last month of a line in a Nick Bilton article I otherwise liked. The Vanity Fair “Hive” writer offered this assessment of Mark Zuckerberg: “His skills and experience have put him in a rare position to remedy so much of what ails us.” I don’t think that’s so, and even if it were, the Facebook co-founder, multi-billionaire and perhaps Presidential aspirant wouldn’t likely be suited for the role. Despite his stated goal to divest himself of nearly his entire fortune to causes bettering humanity, Zuck has been from the start a morally dubious person who knowingly rose to prominence on the back of a company dedicated to mass surveillance, surreptitious “social experiments” and profiting from neo-Nazi social networking. The dishonest narrative about Facebook being a means of improving the world makes the reality worse. The company has always been about the accumulation of money and power.

It’s not that there’s no hope for Zuckerberg. There have been few bigger assholes than Bill Gates during his Microsoft heyday, and now the sweater-clad 2.0 version is actually eradicating diseases. (Truth be told, however, several people I’ve met who work for the Gates Foundation still don’t have great things to say about him as a boss.) But the social network CEO’s nation-wide “listening tour” and photo-ops in cow pastures and on shrimp boats aren’t convincing evidence he’s learned from mistakes, nor was his recent “Building Global Community” manifesto, which essentially just promised more of the same. Like many Facebook users, Zuckerberg seems to be presenting an image of what he’d like people to see rather than what’s really there. 

In the two excerpts below, Bilton takes a more skeptical look at Facebook in wake of this week’s anti-Semitic advertising scandal, and Matt Haig of the Guardian argues that social media is an unhappiness-making machine.

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From Bilton:

Since the election (and even leading up to it), it’s become abundantly clear that social media presented itself as a profoundly useful tool for the Russians, extremists, and possiblyeven people within the Trump campaign, to potentially disfigure our electoral process. Before Trump co-opted the term “fake news” to describe entirely accurate, if unfavorable, stories about him, real fake news was being created and proliferated at scale. Algorithms on Facebook didn’t work to try to stop this from happening, but rather to ensure that these fake stories landed right on the digital doorsteps of the people who might find them most interesting, and who might change their votes as a result of that content. Twitter’s problem with political bots has existed for as long as I can remember. Earlier this year,a data researcher noticedthat there were hundreds of Twitter accounts ending with a string of eight numbers (like @DavidJo52951945) that only tweeted about hot-button political topics, all of which followed each other. This might seem harmless on some level, but these accounts had been disseminating incredibly divisive (and oftentimes fake) stories about Brexit, Ukraine, and Syria, plus anti-immigration articles from outlets like Breitbart and excessively schismatic articles from the Daily Mail. The researcher also found that these accounts only tweetedbetween 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Moscow time, and only during the week—almost as if it were someone’s job in Russia to do so. The accounts have tens of thousands of followers, and the suspected propagandists behind themstoked the flames of dissentby creating far-left bots which would go after Trump and his supporters.

I don’t actually see these issues as massive problems within themselves. Of course people are going to try to manipulate these technologies. The larger issue, however, is that these enormous, profoundly wealthy companies aren’t doing enough to stop them, and are not being held accountable. (Twitter andFacebookhave attempted to crackdown on trolls in some ways since the election.) Curiously, Wall Street, which still remains oddly buoyant in the Trump era (it’s amazing what the rich will sacrifice for tax reform) is not chastising Silicon Valley for the extensive role it played in the mess we find ourselves in today. Facebook is worth $491 billion, despite months’ worth of news stories indicating it allowed Russian accounts to buy and target pages and adson its network during the election, which estimates say could have reached 70 million Americans. Twitter’s stock, while bumpy, has barely moved since news definitively broke about all of the“fake Americans”that Russia created and operated on the social network during the election. (Here’s a fun game: go look at Donald Trump’s latest followers on Twitter and see how long it takes you to find a real human being who has recently joined and followed him. Most accounts have names like @N4wapWLVHmeYKAq and @Aiana37481266.)

Earlier this week, Sam Biddle argued on The Intercept that Mark Zuckerberg should be forced to go before Congress about the role Facebook played in Russia’s propaganda efforts. “Zuckerberg should publicly testify under oath before Congress on his company’s capabilities to influence the political process, be it Russian meddling or anything else,” Biddle wrote. “If the company is as powerful as it promises advertisers, it should be held accountable.” There are also reports that there is now a “red-hot” focus on social media by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 election. But in both of these instances, there needs to be real consequences. It doesn’t take 20,000 employees to see the apathy and neglect these platforms have played, and continue to play, in the attacks against democracy by the people who want to see it fall.•

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From Haig:

Even the internet activist and former Google employee Wael Ghonim – one of the initiators of the Arab spring and one-time poster boy for internet-inspired revolution – who once saw social media as a social cure – now saw it as a negative force. In his eyes it went from being a place for crowdsourcing and sharing, during the initial wave of demonstrations against the Egyptian regime, to a fractious battleground full of “echo chambers” and “hate speech”: “The same tool that united us to topple dictators eventually tore us apart.” Ghonim saw social media polarising people into angry opposing camps – army supporters and Islamists – leaving centrists such as himself stuck in the middle, powerless.

And this isn’t just politics. It’s health too. A survey conducted by the Royal Society of Public Health asked 1,500 young people to keep track of their moods while on the five most popular social media sites. Instagram and Snapchat came out worst, often inspiring feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and self-loathing. And according to another survey carried out by the youth charity Plan International UK, half of girls and two-fifths of boys have been the victims of online bullying.

The evidence is growing that social media can be a health risk, particularly for young people who now have all the normal pressures of youth (fitting in, looking good, being popular) being exploited by the multibillion-dollar companies that own the platforms they spend much of their lives on.

Kurt Vonnegut said: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful who we pretend to be.” This seems especially true now we have reached a new stage of marketing where we are not just consumers, but also the thing consumed.•

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Benito Mussolini originally appeared to be a vulgar cartoon too outlandish to be feared, until it was too late, his entire country perverted into something awful before his murderous gaze. 

I thought particularly of his assault on the press when Sarah Huckabee Sanders spoke on behalf of the White House in urging ESPN to fire broadcaster Jemele Hill, for calling Trump, a white supremacist, a white supremacist. It’s clear by now that while Trump can degrade the office of the President, distort ideals and do serious harm to our democracy, he has zero chance of squashing the free press. That’s true for several reasons: his gross incompetence, the traditions and independence of our media (for all its many failings) and the decentralization of news, which, oddly, also abetted his rise.

Italy of the Thirties was a different place and time, however. In 1933, Mussolini ordered all Italian newspapers to push aside current events and dedicate their front pages to articles about Julius Caesar. The message was clear, that Mussolini was a latter-day Caesar and would rule with absolute authority. The odd decree was covered in an article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in September of that year. Another piece from the same publication, this one from 1937, spoke to the moribund state of the press 15 years after the Fascist’s rise. Tragically, that’s how things went, until the madman found himself, in 1945, hanging upside down from the business end of a meat hook attached to the roof of an Esso gas station.

From 1933:

From 1937:

“Perhaps it’s the case that in order to live, we must process our experience first rationally and then irrationally,” Wallace Shawn has written. We still have a long way to go in 2017 with the Step One of that process in regard to our priorities and politics, but the playwright has, in his last two works, tried to “irrationally” address the rise of technology and authoritarianism. Despite promising premises, however, neither Grasses of a Thousand Colors nor Evening at the Talk House develop in profound ways.

Another dramatist, Jordan Harrison, has come much closer to processing these issues potently in a couple of his plays: Marjorie Prime, which thinks about the enhanced near-future of Virtual Reality, and Maple & Vine, which imagines a retreat from our connected technological society to a village that recreates the 1950s, a quaint place marked by repression and racism. Taken together, these works remind that we must go forward into a fraught tomorrow, can’t go back to a yesterday not nearly as bright as it might seem from a distance, but our tools will be powerful and we need to try our best to limit the damage they can do. One challenge will be that while the future arrives more quickly now than it once did, the process of getting there has fewer bumps and seams. It looks benign.

As Chelsea Manning writes in a New York Times op-ed: “The world has become like an eerily banal dystopian novel. Things look the same on the surface, but they are not.” Every now and then, with the Russian invasion during the election and today’s news that Facebook has been selling ads to people interested in the phrases “Jew hater” and “How to Burn Jews,” it becomes obvious that things have gone seriously awry, but we hardly noticed as we were building this Trojan horse inside our own gates. What to do now?

From Manning:

The real power of mass data collection lies in the hand-tailored algorithms capable of sifting, sorting and identifying patterns within the data itself. When enough information is collected over time, governments and corporations can use or abuse those patterns to predict future human behavior. Our data establishes a “pattern of life” from seemingly harmless digital residue like cellphone tower pings, credit card transactions and web browsing histories.

The consequences of our being subjected to constant algorithmic scrutiny are often unclear. For instance, artificial intelligence — Silicon Valley’s catchall term for deepthinking and deep-learning algorithms — is touted by tech companies as a path to the high-tech conveniences of the so-called internet of things. This includes digital home assistants, connected appliances and self-driving cars.

Simultaneously, algorithms are already analyzing social media habits, determining creditworthiness, deciding which job candidates get called in for an interview and judging whether criminal defendants should be released on bail. Other machine-learning systems use automated facial analysis to detect and track emotions, or claim the ability to predict whether someone will become a criminal based only on their facial features.

These systems leave no room for humanity, yet they define our daily lives. When I began rebuilding my life this summer, I painfully discovered that they have no time for people who have fallen off the grid — such nuance eludes them. I came out publicly as transgender and began hormone replacement therapy while in prison. When I was released, however, there was no quantifiable history of me existing as a transwoman. Credit and background checks automatically assumed I was committing fraud. My bank accounts were still under my old name, which legally no longer existed. For months I had to carry around a large folder containing my old ID and a copy of the court order declaring my name change. Even then, human clerks and bank tellers would sometimes see the discrepancy, shrug and say “the computer says no” while denying me access to my accounts.

Such programmatic, machine-driven thinking has become especially dangerous in the hands of governments and the police.

In recent years our military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have merged in unexpected ways. They harvest more data than they can possibly manage, and wade through the quantifiable world side by side in vast, usually windowless buildings called fusion centers.

Such powerful new relationships have created a foundation for, and have breathed life into, a vast police and surveillance state. Advanced algorithms have made this possible on an unprecedented level. Relatively minor infractions, or “microcrimes,” can now be policed aggressively. And with national databases shared among governments and corporations, these minor incidents can follow you forever, even if the information is incorrect or lacking context.•

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The alleged QVC quisling Donald Trump didn’t single-handedly make himself into the American nightmare nor is he haunting our sleep primarily because of the Kremlin, though both parties must be held accountable for any lawless acts committed. The larger and more confounding problem is the many failings that allowed the country to slide down a mud-covered slope decades in the making. 

Robert Redford speaks to this point in a new Esquire Q&A with Michael Hainey:

Esquire:

Trump is a businessman, but he is such a creature of the entertainment world. It feels that the entertainment industry is more entwined with politics than ever before.

Robert Redford:

I just think he is who he is. You can’t blame him for being who he is. He’s always been like that. He’s our fault—that’s how I see it. We let him come to where he is. I’m not so interested in blaming him; that’s being done enough by others. I’m more interested in: How did this happen? We’ve lost our moral foundation, which allows us to go this far over. So I don’t blame him. I just think he is what he is. We’re the ones who let that happen. We should be looking at ourselves.•

Three tests face us now in preserving democracy and repairing the country, and each task is more difficult than the last. First, the potential crimes (domestic and foreign) that helped enable our fall from basic decency must be sorted and analyzed. Thanks to a series of accidents and incidents, we have Robert Mueller and his Murderers’ Row managing that job, which is a best-case scenario. The extreme dysfunction and ineptitude of the Administration made Mueller possible. When I’m asked how things could be worse in the U.S. than they are currently, I say that next time the Mussolini won’t be so mediocre.

Secondly, as Edward Luce warned in the Financial Times in 2015 and Jeet Heer reminds us now in the New Republic post-Charlottesville, Trump may be caged or slither away, but the white nationalism he was uniquely positioned to activate isn’t following him out the door. We must restore the DHS focus on domestic terrorism and white supremacist organizations, which has been severely weakened by Katherine Gorka, and there needs to be a strengthening of norms that inhibit those who carry inside them burning crosses and swastikas. Societal pressure can limit the reach of the hatemongers, even if it can’t make them disappear.

Finally, the welter of media and religion and politics and money and bigotry and entertainment and technology and education that brought us to the brink must be untangled and addressed. A country subsisting on bread and Kardashians was headed for a crash, and it’s not clear that one so deeply partisan and besotted with billionaires, gadgets and celebrity is prepared to do the hard work before us.

Two excerpts follow, one from Heer’s piece and another from Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic.

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From Heer’s “#AlwaysTrump“:

It’s understandable, and perhaps even necessary, that we have devoted ourselves so thoroughly to the question of how to remove Trump from office as quickly as possible. He poses, after all, an existential threat to—well, existence itself. But the dream of bringing about an end to Trump’s era in Washington is tinged with something darker and more worrisome. If we’re honest with ourselves, we must admit that we don’t just want Trump gone from the White House—we want to return to a time when Trump did not dominate our every waking moment. We want it all to go away: the endless Twitter rants; the bellicose threats against perceived enemies, foreign and domestic; the toxic brew of narcissism and incompetence and greed that has come to permeate the national discourse. The desire to oust Trump, at a deeper level, represents a liberal fantasy in which we can somehow magically, instantly turn back the clock and live once more in the comforting world of our pre-Trump assumptions. In this fetching version of harmony restored, not only will Trump no longer be president, he’ll no longer have been president. He will vanish from public life, and the hobgoblins he has unleashed in our national psyche will disappear along with him.
 
Yet even as the prospect of his removal becomes ever more palpable, we must awaken from this blue-state reverie we have constructed for ourselves. The truth is, no matter how he winds up leaving office, Donald Trump will always be with us. We may, unless there is nuclear Armageddon, outlast his presidency. Robert Mueller’s investigation may even shorten it. But we can’t repeal or replace it. Long after his presidency ends—indeed, long after he has departed this vale of tweets for that gloriously appointed Mar-a-Lago in the sky—Trump will continue to dominate and disrupt our lives at every turn. Because he’s Trump, being a former president will do nothing to diminish his desperate need for attention or his willingness to hurt whomever it takes to get it. He’ll still have his gifts as a showman, his wealth, his mastery of social media, and the unshakable devotion of his followers. And the media will remain just as eager to report and dissect and amplify his every untruth and slander. Indeed, freed from the shackles of the Constitution, Trump could end up provoking even more havoc out of office than he has as president.

There will never be, in short, a world without Trump. As we work to remove him from office, we must also grapple with a harsh truth: that his influence, and the broader forces he represents, will not end with his presidency. When Trump leaves the Oval Office, our long national nightmare will not be over. It will have just begun.•

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From Jeffrey Goldberg’s “The Autocratic Element“:

On matters concerning the possible disintegration of democratic norms, I turn to the most urgent and acute text on the subject, “How to Build an Autocracy,” an Atlantic cover story by David Frum published earlier this year. Frum, a senior writer for the magazine (and a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush), made the argument in this groundbreaking article that if autocracy came to America, it would be not in the form of a coup but in the steady, gradual erosion of democratic norms. Frum’s eloquent writing and ruthlessly sharp analysis for The Atlantic has made him an indispensably important—perhaps even the leading—conservative critic of President Trump.

I recently asked Frum about the attempt by many Republicans to pursue criminal charges against the losing candidate in last year’s presidential contest. He called this pursuit “sinister,” but then pointed me to something he considered even more pernicious: the quest to punish former National-Security Adviser Susan Rice for “unmasking” people associated with Trump’s campaign whose communications with foreign officials were captured during U.S. intelligence collection.

“Rice was protecting the country from possible subversion, and they’re pursuing her for this,” Frum said. “It is not merely that they are trying to use the mechanisms of the law to attack political opponents; it is that they are trying to use the power of the state to conceal through diversion an attempt by an autocratic government to steal an American election.

“The autocratic element here is the abuse of power, but not only the abuse of power. This represents the reversal of truth.”

I asked Frum to analyze his March cover story. Did he overplay or understate any of the threats? “The thing I got most wrong is that I did not anticipate the sheer chaos and dysfunction and slovenliness of the Trump operation,” he said. “I didn’t sufficiently anticipate how distracted Trump could be by things that are not essential. My model was that he was greedy first and authoritarian second. What I did not see is that he is needy first, greedy second, and authoritarian third. We’d be in a lot worse shape if he were a more meticulous, serious-minded person.”•

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It’s been clear for some time that Julian Assange is in Vladimir Putin’s pocket, gleefully enabling a nation that murders the political opponents and journalistic critics of the sitting dictator and hacks foreign elections in numerous ways. The Wikileaks founder is an evil man working in the service of an autocracy, not a champion of rights.

But what of Edward Snowden, whom Assange helped shepherd to Russia after his NSA theft? Is he a righteous whistleblower, as Daniel Ellsberg and Freeman Dyson, among other big thinkers, believe he is? Is he a foolish pawn playing in a game far beyond his capabilities? Is he actually deep into Kremlin espionage? Considering his support for Assange and his equivocations regarding Russia’s nefarious role in the U.S. Presidential election, the latter possibility must at least be pondered.

My initial impression four years ago when Snowden first came to global prominence was that his efforts toward safeguarding privacy, whatever his motivations, were going to meet with failure. These technologies were far beyond taming, were becoming permanent parts of society. Retreat from them was unlikely even if the will was there–and I don’t think it was then or is now. 

In 2013, I wrote:

I haven’t really looked at Edward Snowden as hero or villain from the beginning of the NSA leak controversy. Just a cog in a new machine that American media and citizenry can’t seem to fully comprehend–the machine we’re all living in now. Privacy as we knew it–for individuals, corporations and government–has been permanently left in the past. Everybody’s watching everybody, and it will only get easier to spy. And to use one of President Obama’s favorite phrases, this would be a really good time for a teachable moment, for a frank discussion about the way our society is now, how some things have disappeared into the cloud.

But when you take temporary refuge in Russia, as Snowden has, with that country’s brutal and murderous recent history of oppression of journalists and surveillance of its own citizens, you’ve pretty much permanently ceded the moral high ground.•

Snowden still stews in exile in Moscow as Putin’s murderous reign continues, even accelerates, and as our world becomes ever more connected and intrusive. The opening of a Spiegel interview with him conducted by Martin Knobbe and Jörg Schindler:

Spiegel: 

Mr. Snowden, four years ago, you appeared in a video from a hotel room in Hong Kong. It was the beginning of the biggest leak of intelligence data in history. Today, we are sitting in a hotel room in Moscow. You are not able to leave Russia because the United States government has issued a warrant for your arrest. Meanwhile, the intelligence services’ global surveillance machine is still running, probably faster than ever. Was it all really worth it?

Edward Snowden: 

The answer is yes. Look at what my goals were. I wasn’t trying to change the laws or slow down the machine. Maybe I should have. My critics say that I was not revolutionary enough. But they forget that I am a product of the system. I worked those desks, I know those people and I still have some faith in them, that the services can be reformed

Spiegel: 

But those people see you as their biggest enemy today.

Edward Snowden: 

My personal battle was not to burn down the NSA or the CIA. I even think they actually do have a useful role in society when they limit themselves to the truly important threats that we face and when they use their least intrusive means. We don’t drop atomic bombs on flies that land on the dinner table. Everybody gets this except intelligence agencies.

Spiegel: 

What did you achieve?

 

Edward Snowden: 

Since summer 2013, the public has known what was until then forbidden knowledge. That the U.S. government can get everything out of your Gmail account and they don’t even need a warrant to do it if you are not an American but, say, a German. You are not allowed to discriminate between your citizens and other peoples’ citizens when we are talking about the balance of basic rights. But increasingly more countries, not only the U.S., are doing this. I wanted to give the public a chance to decide where the line should be.•

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The tick-tick-ticking at the beginning of 60 Minutes is the sound of a stopwatch, but it may as well be a time bomb. It’s not that television news in America wouldn’t have become entertainment without Don Hewitt’s brainchild, this season marking its fiftieth year on the air, but the show played an outsize role in that transformation, proving that the news division could be a prime-time ratings winner and a money maker, even if it needed to create pseudo-events on a regular basis to do so. You could say it was one of the three factors that most enabled where we are now, along with the Reagan Administration dismantling of the Fairness Doctrine and the Murdoch-Ailes establishment of Fox, the proto-Fake News. 

That Hewitt dreamed of a career in show biz and Mike Wallace essentially had his start in that world doesn’t seem incidental to what they created on Sunday nights, with the journalist often battering a patsy opponent and villain in a way that was reminiscent of professional wrestling, while his boss edited the piece for maximum impact. It was so much fun, but should it have been? Fred Friendly, Hewitt’s original boss at CBS, didn’t think so, and he was probably right. The program has turned out plenty of good content and isn’t directly responsible for the Glenn Becks, Ann Coulters and Alex Joneses, but the slope it was built upon was surely a slippery one.

The opening of a piece from the show’s current Executive Producer Jeff Fager’s book, Fifty Years of 60 Minutes, which was adapted for Vanity Fair:

Fifty years is an eternity in the television world. The average show lasts about two and a half. But this fall 60 Minutes kicks off a half-century on-air. Many factors have helped sustain the broadcast over five decades, but a lot of them can be traced all the way back to the program’s conception. It’s an unlikely story because there never would have been a 60 Minutes if its creator, Don Hewitt, hadn’t been fired back in 1965.

In 1948 when Hewitt joined CBS, then largely a radio network, he was in awe of the people around him, particularly “the Murrow Boys”—the gentlemen correspondents who filed World War II dispatches under the watchful eye of Edward R. Murrow, the man who would become the dean of broadcast news and the paragon of journalistic integrity. The Murrow Boys were elegant and battle-tested and knew how to write a story and deliver it on the radio.

Don wasn’t one of them, and he knew it. He was a feisty kid from New Rochelle, New York, who never got a college degree. Growing up, he had always wanted to be in show business. His two childhood heroes were fictional characters from Broadway: Julian Marsh, the theater director in the musical 42nd Street,and Hildy Johnson, the star police-beat reporter in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s classic newspaper comedy, The Front Page.

Even so, Don joined CBS with some journalistic cred. During the war, he’d written for Stars and Stripes, the daily paper of the U.S. military. But it wasn’t reporting that got him most excited; it was lights and action.•

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Most men (and women) lead lives of quite desperation, but from Brooklyn to Big Sur Henry Miller hollered. That resulted in some genius writing and some considerably lesser material. Yes, he was often thought of in his time as a smutty writer, and not without reason, though his best work centered on the psychology of individuals, cities and nations.

Case in point: A bravura passage from 1957’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch about the future of America, and the future of the world, which were one and the same to the writer’s mind. He saw the emergence of a tyranny–or something like it–of technology, which might bring about the end of scarcity and hunger, though he believed we’d crave all the same, perhaps even in a more profound way.

The excerpt:

“If you do not know where you are going, any road will take you there.”
(Out of Confusion, by M.N. Chatterjee (Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch Press, 1954).

There are days when it all seems as simple and clear as that to me. What do I mean? I mean with regard to the problem of living on this earth without becoming a slave, a drudge, a hack, a misfit, an alcoholic, a drug addict, a neurotic, a schizophrenic, a glutton for punishment or an artist manqué.

Supposedly we have the highest standard of living of any country in the world. Do we, though? It depends on what one means by high standards. Certainly nowhere does it cost more to live than here in America. The cost is not only in dollars and cents but in sweat and blood, in frustration, ennui, broken homes, smashed ideals, illness and insanity. We have the most wonderful hospitals, the most gorgeous insane asylums, the most fabulous prisons, the best equipped and the highest paid army and navy, the speediest bombers, the largest stockpile of atom bombs, yet never enough of any of these items to satisfy the demand. Our manual workers are the highest paid in the world; our poets the worst. There are more automobiles than one can count. And as for drugstores, where in the world will you find the like?

We have only one enemy we really fear: the microbe. But we are licking him on every front. True, millions still suffer from cancer, heart disease, schizophrenia, multiple-sclerosis, tuberculosis, epilepsy, colitis, cirrhosis of the liver, dermatitis, gall stones, neuritis, Bright’s disease, bursitis, Parkinson’s-disease, diabetes, floating kidneys, cerebral palsy, pernicious anaemia, encephalitis, locomotor ataxia, falling of the womb, muscular distrophy, jaundice, rheumatic fever, polio, sinus and antrum troubles, halitosis, St. Vitus’s Dance, narcolepsy, coryza, leucorrhea, nymphomania, phthisis, carcinoma, migraine, dipsomania, malignant tumors, high blood pressure, duodenal ulcers, prostate troubles, sciatica, goiter, catarrh, asthma, rickets, hepatitis, nephritis, melancholia, amoebic dysentery, bleeding piles, quinsy, hiccoughs, shingles, frigidity and impotency, even dandruff, and of course all the insanities, now legion, but–our of men of science will rectify all this within the next hundred years or so. How? Why, by destroying all the nasty germs which provoke this havoc and disruption! By waging a great preventive warnot a cold war!wherein our poor, frail bodies will become a battleground for all the antibiotics yet to come. A game of hide and seek, so to speak, in which one germ pursues another, tracks it down and slays it, all without the least disturbance to our usual functioning. Until this victory is achieved, however, we may be obliged to continue swallowing twenty or thirty vitamins, all of different strengths and colors, before breakfast, down our tiger’s milk and brewer’s yeast, drink our orange and grapefruit juices, use blackstrap molasses on our oatmeal, smear our bread (made of stone-ground flour) with peanut butter, use raw honey or raw sugar with our coffee, poach our eggs rather than fry them, follow this with an extra glass of superfortified milk, belch and burp a little, give ourselves an injection, weigh ourselves to see if we are under or over, stand on our heads, do our setting-up exercisesif we haven’t done them alreadyyawn, stretch, empty the bowels, brush our teeth (if we have any left), say a prayer or two, then run like hell to catch the bus or the subway which will carry us to work, and think no more about the state of our health until we feel a cold coming on: the incurable coryza. But we are not to despair. Never despair! Just take more vitamins, add an extra dose of calcium and phosphorus pills, drink a hot toddy or two, take a high enema before retiring for the night, say another prayer, if we can remember one, and call it a day.

If the foregoing seems too complicated, here is a simple regimen to follow: Don’t overeat, don’t drink too much, don’t smoke too much, don’t work too much, don’t think too much, don’t fret, don’t worry, don’t complain, above all, don’t get irritable. Don’t use a car if you can walk to your destination; don’t walk if you can run; don’t listen to the radio or watch television; don’t read newspapers, magazines, digests, stock market reports, comics, mysteries or detective stories; don’t take sleeping pills or wakeup pills; don’t vote, don’t buy on the installment plan, don’t play cards either for recreation or to make a haul, don’t invest your money, don’t mortgage your home, don’t get vaccinated or inoculated, don’t violate the fish and game laws, don’t irritate your boss, don’t say yes when you mean no, don’t use bad language, don’t be brutal to your wife or children, don’t get frightened if you are over or under weight, don’t sleep more than ten hours at a stretch, don’t eat store bread if you can bake your own, don’t work at a job you loathe, don’t think the world is coming to an end because the wrong man got elected, don’t believe you are insane because you find yourself in a nut house, don’t do anything more than you’re asked to do but do that well, don’t try to help your neighbor until you’ve learned how to help yourself, and so on…

Simple, what?

In short, don’t create aerial dinosaurs with which to frighten field mice!”

America has only one enemy, as I said before. The microbe. The trouble is, he goes under a million different names. Just when you think you’ve got him licked he pops up again in a new guise. He’s the pest personified.

When we were a young nation life was crude and simple. Our great enemy then was the redskin. (He became our enemy when we took his land away from him.) In those early days there were no chain stores, no delivery lines, no hired purchase plan, no vitamins, no supersonic flying fortresses, no electronic computers; one could identify thugs and bandits easily because they looked different from other citizens. All one needed for protection was a musket in one hand and a Bible in the other. A dollar was a dollar, no more, no less. And a gold dollar, a silver dollar, was just as good as a paper dollar. Better than a check, in fact. Men like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett were genuine figures, maybe not so romantic as we imagine them today, but they were not screen heroes. The nation was expanding in all directions because there was a genuine need for it–we already had two or three million people and they needed elbow room. The Indians and bison were soon crowded out of the picture, along with a lot of other useless paraphernalia. Factories and mills were being built, and colleges and insane asylums. Things were humming. And then we freed the slaves. That made everybody happy, except the Southerners. It also made us realize that freedom is a precious thing. When we recovered from the loss of blood we began to think about freeing the rest of the world. To do it, we engaged in two world wars, not to mention a little war like the one with Spain, and now we’ve entered upon a cold war which our leaders warn us may last another forty or fifty years. We are almost at the point now where we may be able to exterminate every man, woman and child throughout the globe who is unwilling to accept the kind of freedom we advocate. It should be said, in extenuation, that when we have accomplished our purpose everybody will have enough to eat and drink, properly clothed, housed and entertained. An all-American program and no two ways about it! Our men of science will then be able to give their undivided attention to other problems, such as disease, insanity, excessive longevity, interplanetary voyages and the like. Everyone will be inoculated, not only against real ailments but against imaginary ones too. War will have been eliminated forever, thus making it unnecessary “in times of peace to prepare for war.” America will go on expanding, progressing, providing. We will plant the stars and stripes on the moon, and subsequently on all the planets within our comfy little universe. One world it will be, and American through and through. Strike up the band!

The problem with America worrying about the existential risks of AI is that losing the race to AI is also an existential risk. If we invest correctly in the future (not just Artificial Intelligence but also solar and supercomputers) while providing enough infrastructure projects and social safety nets to keep afloat those displaced (hopefully temporarily) by our transition into the Digital Age, the country shouldn’t fall behind China or any other state. Of course, we’re so politically confused and toxic right now that such a scenario seems possible though not plausible. If China should win this arms race and Space Race rolled into one, the authoritarian nation will have the military heft and soft power to shape the world.

Daniel Kliman and Harry Krejsa worry about this dark potential in “Is China Leaping Past Us?” a Politico piece about this Sputnik Moment 2.0:

Its companies are attempting to acquire U.S. firms in key advanced technology sectors like semiconductor development and manufacturing. Chinese corporations have also opened research centers in the United States to tap American talent, and made early-stage investments in American startups focused on cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics. A small Silicon Valley venture might find access to their intellectual property a minor price to pay for a game-changing capital infusion.

Failing to address China’s efforts to acquire U.S. technology will have far-reaching consequences. The Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property estimates that piracy, theft, and counterfeiting by China costs the U.S. economy between $225 billion and $600 billion a year, or up to 3 percent of the entire U.S. GDP. In the long term, the costs only grow more daunting. If scientific advances in quantum communications, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, energy, and battery technology increasingly move to China, so will the future industries – and jobs – that will accompany them. Moreover, future U.S. military advantage depends on America’s continued technological leadership. If China outpaces the United States in innovation, loss of America’s military edge in the Asia-Pacific, if not globally, could follow.•

No matter who is the victor, or if several nations are, the future we’re creating is a machine that will swallow up our privacy and attempt to quantify, surveil and commodify us ceaselessly. And no one will be able to hop over the sensors or hit an OFF switch. In a smart New York Times op-ed “These Are Not the Robots We Were Promised,” Nicholas Carr believes our warm welcome of these nascent ambient technologies, as the robots become shapeless and ubiquitous, speaks to our narcissism, which is certainly so. But I think it may be more than that. Religion may have declined, but our fear of being alone on a spinning, jagged rock remains as strong as ever.

An excerpt:

Although they may not look like the robots we envisioned, smart speakers do have antecedents in our cultural fantasy life. The robot they most recall at the moment is HAL, the chattering eyeball in Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. But their current form — that of a stand-alone gadget — is not likely to be their ultimate form. They seem fated to shed their physical housing and turn into a sort of ambient digital companion. Alexa will come to resemble Samantha, the “artificially intelligent operating system” that beguiles the Joaquin Phoenix character in the movie “Her.” Through a network of speakers, microphones and sensors scattered around our homes, we’ll be able to converse with our solicitous A.I. assistants wherever and whenever we like.

Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook C.E.O., spent much of last year programming a prototype of such a virtual agent. In a video released in December, he gave a demo of the system. Walking around his Silicon Valley home, he conducted a running dialogue with his omnipresent chatbot, calling on it to supply him with a clean T-shirt and toast bread for his breakfast, play movies and music, and entertain his infant daughter. Hooked up to cameras with facial-recognition software, the digitized Jeeves also acted as a sentry for the Zuckerberg compound, screening visitors and unlocking the gate.

Whether real or fictional, robots hold a mirror up to society. If Rosie and her kin embodied a 20th-century yearning for domestic order and familial bliss, smart speakers symbolize our own, more self-absorbed time.

It seems apt that as we come to live more of our lives virtually, through social networks and other simulations, our robots should take the form of disembodied avatars dedicated to keeping us comfortable in our media cocoons. Even as they spy on us, the devices offer sanctuary from the unruliness of reality, with all its frictions and strains.•

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Silicon Valley powerhouses would like to have it both ways: More surveillance of you and less transparency for them. You will be tagged, monitored and commodified, and they will be free from regulations. That’s what technology wants—or at least what technologists want.

Whether it’s Larry Page dreaming of a partitioned parcel where he can conduct dangerous experiments or Peter Thiel actually bankrolling unauthorized herpes vaccine tests on humans in St. Kitts, these billionaires believe laws created to protect us from people just like them are a hindrance.

Because Americans so reflexively worship success and money, such people have already had an outsize impact on how we live. Time will tell how much further their sway is amplified, as our biggest tech corporations try to blur lines and bend wills. Mark Zuckerberg even appears to have his eyes on the leadership of America, a country with a much smaller population than Facebook. How kind that he would accept such a demotion.

· · ·

Libertarians, a political class that has wet dreams about seasteading and abhors zoning regulations, also would like to see government (mostly) disappear. As the sinking of Houston’s runaway sprawl just reminded us, rules and regulations are needed. They can always be done better, but they need to be done.

Libertarian overlord Grover Norquist, whose policies, if ever enacted fully, would lead to worse lifestyles and shorter lifespans for the majority of Americans, made his maiden voyage in 2014 to the purported government-less wonderland known as Burning Man. Norquist’s belief that the short-term settlement in the Nevada desert is representative of what the world could be every day is no less silly than considering Spring Break a template for successful marriage. The Beltway “Burner” wrote of his experiences for the Guardian. Maileresque, it was not. An excerpt:

You hear that Burning Man is full of less-than-fully-clad folks and off-label pharmaceuticals. But that’s like saying Bohemian Grove is about peeing on trees or that Chicago is Al Capone territory. Burning Man is cleaner and greener than a rally for solar power. It has more camaraderie and sense of community than a church social. And for a week in the desert, I witnessed more individual expression, alternative lifestyles and imaginative fashion than …. anywhere.

The demand for self-reliance at Burning Man toughens everyone up. There are few fools, and no malingerers. People give of themselves – small gifts like lip balm or tiny flashlights. I brought Cuban cigars. Edgy, but not as exciting as some “gifts” that would have interested the federal authorities.

I’m hoping to bring the kids next year.

On my last day of my first Burning Man, at the Reno airport, a shoeless man (he had lost his shoes in the desert) was accosted by another dust-covered Burner carrying sneakers: “Take these,” he said. “They are my Burning Man shoes.” The shoeless man accepted the gift with dignity.•

What a putz, on many levels. Perhaps silliest of all is Norquist’s idea that Burning Man is a far freer society, which is dubious at best. It’s highly regulated and for good reason. Go and create some art in the desert if you like, peep at the nudity on display at this self-aware pseudo-Woodstock, but you’ll need to deal with a bureaucracy. That’s largely a positive development, since rules and sound infrastructure are often what protects us from disaster.

· · ·

From “The Endless Rules of Burning Man,” a CityLab piece by Christine Grillo:

The festival has been held on the shadeless alkali flats of Black Rock Desert, a national conservation area, since 1990. To call the environment inhospitable is an understatement. Every year, the temporary Black Rock City—home to 70,000 souls last year—is built with almost a conquistadorial glee by men and women hell-bent on imposing a form of civilization upon the lifeless playa, hauling in generators and propane and water and lumber and porta-potties. (And art, of course.)

As with permanent cities, the construction and maintenance of this municipal infrastructure requires an elaborate regulatory apparatus—and for the greater good, the regs must be enforced. When you imagine Burning Man, you might picture naked people riding bikes and making out and setting things on fire—and, indeed, that’s exactly what you’ll see if you attend. But, for a psychedelic, safety-third debauch, Burning Man has an awful lot of rules. …

As the event has grown, Black Rock City has become more like a real-world municipality, albeit one that’s whiter, wealthier, and more circular than most American cities of its size. Its lawmaking body is the Burning Man Organization—often referred to as the Org, or more jokingly as the Borg. Like many municipal entities or large corporations, the Org has a fondness for bloodless bureaucratese. Witness sentences like this, one of many similar ones to be found on the official Burning Man website: “As part of the organization restructuring efforts, several subcommittees were formed to decentralize management and to include more key stakeholders in decision-making.”•

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When Mark Lilla, Bernie Sanders and others on the Left decry identity politics, they’re not really being honest (or at least not very observant). If they were to say that the Democrats can’t win right now by stressing how our history of racism continues to play out in heartbreaking ways today because it will turn off too many white voters, that’s an argument to make. (It’s obviously a lot easier for Lilla to make because he isn’t running for office.) But to say that identity politics are, in general, doomed is to ignore that Donald Trump just won the Presidency with a shockingly overt white nationalist campaign. Since the end of Woodrow Wilson’s second term, no one has put the white in White House more than Trump. Somehow when struggling Caucasians are appealed to, that’s fine, but if the same is done with African-Americans who have been left behind, there’s something sinister about it.

That has more to do with than just winning and losing, and it’s embedded deeply in the very nature of America.

· · ·

On Twitter, Reagan whisperer Peggy Noonan derided people in favor social justice who peacefully tap out 140 characters and lauded those who died fighting to defend a system of legal enslavement, rape, torture, maiming and murder. Nothing says white privilege more than Noonan possessing a Pulitzer.

· · ·

In “The First White President,” a great Atlantic essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author speaks to these points and others in explaining how Trump’s ascendance was an attempt at Obama erasure, and how those who supported him if not all white supremacists were at least racist-friendly. To deny so is to perpetuate a society in which we are separate and unequal. Two short excerpts below, but the whole piece should be read from start to finish.

_____________________________

The focus on one subsector of Trump voters—the white working class—is puzzling, given the breadth of his white coalition. Indeed, there is a kind of theater at work in which Trump’s presidency is pawned off as a product of the white working class as opposed to a product of an entire whiteness that includes the very authors doing the pawning. The motive is clear: escapism. To accept that the bloody heirloom remains potent even now, some five decades after Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on a Memphis balcony—even after a black president; indeed, strengthened by the fact of that black president—is to accept that racism remains, as it has since 1776, at the heart of this country’s political life. The idea of acceptance frustrates the left. The left would much rather have a discussion about class struggles, which might entice the white working masses, instead of about the racist struggles that those same masses have historically been the agents and beneficiaries of. Moreover, to accept that whiteness brought us Donald Trump is to accept whiteness as an existential danger to the country and the world. But if the broad and remarkable white support for Donald Trump can be reduced to the righteous anger of a noble class of smallville firefighters and evangelicals, mocked by Brooklyn hipsters and womanist professors into voting against their interests, then the threat of racism and whiteness, the threat of the heirloom, can be dismissed. Consciences can be eased; no deeper existential reckoning is required.

_____________________________

When David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, shocked the country in 1990 by almost winning one of Louisiana’s seats in the U.S. Senate, the apologists came out once again. They elided the obvious—that Duke had appealed to the racist instincts of a state whose schools are, at this very moment, still desegregating—and instead decided that something else was afoot. “There is a tremendous amount of anger and frustration among working-class whites, particularly where there is an economic downturn,” a researcher told the Los Angeles Times. “These people feel left out; they feel government is not responsive to them.” By this logic, postwar America—with its booming economy and low unemployment—should have been an egalitarian utopia and not the violently segregated country it actually was.

But this was the past made present. It was not important to the apologists that a large swath of Louisiana’s white population thought it was a good idea to send a white supremacist who once fronted a terrorist organization to the nation’s capital. Nor was it important that blacks in Louisiana had long felt left out. What was important was the fraying of an ancient bargain, and the potential degradation of white workers to the level of “negers.” “A viable left must find a way to differentiate itself strongly from such analysis,” David Roediger, the University of Kansas professor, has written.•

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A recent Spiegel essay argued that the contemporary dynamics of Germany’s political-party machinery makes it impossible for that country to elect a Trump-ish figure. That’s likely true, but what if a significant segment of the citizenry would like to elect someone with his nativist mindset (though not his benighted mind)? Could the gaskets eventually blow in a different and more dangerous way? Not that Germany has a history of horrible political outcomes. Oh, wait!

In “I’ve Never Seen So Much Hate,” a new piece in the same publication, Nils Minkmar interviews psychologist Stephan Grünewald, who’s conducted studies on a cross-section of the electorate. An excerpt:

Spiegel: 

What did you discover?

Stephan Grünewald: 

In the in-depth interviews, all people wanted to talk about was the refugee crisis, refugee crisis, refugee crisis. Despite being so elegantly left out of the campaign, it is still a sore spot that hasn’t been treated by politicians.

Spiegel:

What exactly is the problem?

Stephan Grünewald: 

The crisis two years ago plunged voters into a dilemma for which they still haven’t found a clear response. Do I open the door, or do I close it? On one hand, they want to be part of the welcoming culture, but they are also afraid of being overwhelmed by foreigners and of no longer being able to recognize their own country. As a result, they want policymakers to develop a plan, to establish a compromise position. But they haven’t, and now voters feel abandoned.

Spiegel:

What is the consequence of this?

Stephan Grünewald: 

Voters are disoriented, full of uncertainties. They describe Germany either as an ailing, run-down country or as a secure island of affluence in a sea of risk. It’s all very fragile and leads to emotional outbursts. I have never before seen so much anger and hatred among test subjects.•

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From the November 29, 1910 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Vladimir Putin is good at being a troll, a spoiler and a poisoner, but he’s piss-poor at running a country. The future does not belong to him. Even in the present, as he basks in the disruption of democratic elections and toys with Donald Trump like the cornered rat he is, Russia is falling behind the world by many vital measures. His aggressions, actual and virtual, have provoked numerous nations to enforce sanctions on his state, which ensures the backpedaling will only increase. There’s just so long you can live on aging oil wells and kleptocracy, and in trying to Make Russia Great Again, Putin has made it into a low, lawless joke. 

Like a Silicon Valley startup guru or an Oxford intellectual, Putin has decided that Artificial Intelligence is a grave threat to the world and the country that emerges as world leader will rule the globe. In his bottomless beneficence, the capo with nuclear capabilities promises Russia will selflessly share AI with the world the way it does bots should his nation emergence victorious in this new arms race. He’s full of shit, and, oh, Russia isn’t winning that contest.

Most likely no one single nation will outpace all others, as it’s not a zero-sum game. There will likely be a few “winners” and they will have burdens and responsibilities that go far beyond nuclear power. 

The opening of James Vincent’s Verge piece:

Russian president Vladimir Putin has joined the war of words concerning the international race to develop artificial intelligence. Speaking to students last Friday, Putin predicted that whichever country leads the way in AI research will come to dominate global affairs.

“Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind,” said Putin, reports RT. “It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”

The development of artificial intelligence has increasingly become a national security concern in recent years. It is China and the US (not Russia) which are seen as the two frontrunners, with China recently announcing its ambition to become the global leader in AI research by 2030. Many analysts warn that America is in danger of falling behind, especially as the Trump administration prepares to cut funding for basic science and technology research.

Although it’s thought that artificial intelligence will help boost countries’ economies in a number of areas, from heavy industry to medical research, AI technology will also be useful in warfare. Artificial intelligence can be used to develop cyber weapons, and control autonomous tools like drone swarms — fleets of low-cost quadcopters with a shared ‘brain’ that can be used for surveillance as well as attacking opponents.

Both China and the US are currently researching this technology, and in his speech on Friday, Putin predicted that future wars would be fought by countries using drones. “When one party’s drones are destroyed by drones of another, it will have no other choice but to surrender,” said the Russian president, according to the Associated Press.

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I’ve criticized Malcolm Gladwell for his oft-repeated claim that satire can’t be very valuable in the face of emergent tyranny because it didn’t prevent the rise of Nazism. Yes, that’s so, but you could say the same of diplomacy, protest, government, media and other forces that also couldn’t stem its rise. All those entities and actions retain potency despite their inability to curb the horrors of ’30s and ’40s Europe and so does satire. 

Sometimes a series of accidents and incidents defy the odds, and history finds itself adrift on a disastrous course. Given enough time and chances, that will eventually occur, and our ever-more-powerful tools and technologies will wind up in the wrong hands. From a 1996 Psychology Today interview of Carl Sagan:

Psychology Today:

You point to the statistical likelihood of people in power periodically showing up in the guise of a Stalin or a Hitler. Given this probability, and given nuclear proliferation, what are your feelings about the future?

Carl Sagan:

Well, it’s a very serious issue. We are, fortunately, in a time when the United States and the former Soviet Union are divesting their nuclear arsenals. According to the present treaties, agreed to if not ratified, each side will go down to something like 3,000 strategic weapons and delivery systems by the first decade of the 21st century, from 10 times that number. So that’s very good news. On the other hand, there are only about 2,300 cities on the planet, so if each side gets 3,000 weapons, that means that each side retains the ability to annihilate every city on earth. That is certainly not comfortable news, because if you wait long enough you are bound to have a madman at the helm in one of these countries.

Psychology Today:

Are you saying it’s inevitable?

Carl Sagan:

If you look at the history of the world, such people regularly come to power. We may comfort ourselves in the United States that it hasn’t happened to us, but even here I would say that a number of times in our recent history we’ve come close to having somebody dangerously incompetent or drunk or crazy in power in a time of crisis. Hitler and Stalin are reminders that the most advanced countries on earth can have such leaders.•

In order to reach that tipping point, however, it takes a village of citizens pulling in the wrong direction, and MAGA caps were the symbols of those dark energies at work in America in 2016. Donald Trump wasn’t the cause of our fall from grace but merely the perfect messenger to activate and embolden the ugliness that had been building for decades. It’s now overwhelmingly clear that what the Republican Party has become since Goldwater is a dirty pool.

Ronald Brownstein’s Atlantic article about young GOP pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson looks at how some people who should know better still cling to the party even after decades of welfare queens, Willie Hortons, racist push polling, Fox News, Cliven Bundy, Trump’s white-nationalist campaign and Charlottesville, not believing what’s been in their eyes and ears forever. Anderson’s looked at the depressing numbers but still hasn’t completely gotten the memo, though she’s now considering leaving the roost for more moderate third-party options. An excerpt:

Anderson’s fear is that in a rapidly diversifying America, Trump is stamping the GOP as a party of white racial backlash—and that too much of the party’s base is comfortable with that. Trump’s morally stunted response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, this month unsettled her. But she was even more unnerved by polls showing that most Republican voters defended his remarks.

“What has really shaken me in recent weeks is the consistency in polling where I see Republican voters excusing really bad things because their leader has excused them,” she told me. “[Massachusetts Governor] Charlie Baker, [UN Ambassador] Nikki Haley, [Illinois Representative] Adam Kinzinger—I want to be in the party with them. But in the last few weeks it has become increasingly clear to me that most Republican voters are not in that camp. They are in the Trump camp.”

The portion of the party coalition willing to tolerate, if not actively embrace, white nationalism “is larger than most mainstream Republicans have ever been willing to grapple with,” she added.

Anderson’s gloom is understandable. Even before Trump’s emergence, the GOP relied mostly on the elements of American society most uneasy with cultural and demographic change—the primarily older, blue-collar, rural, and evangelical whites who make up what I’ve called the “coalition of restoration.” As a candidate and as president, Trump has yoked the party even more tightly to those voters’ priorities—a tilt evident in everything from his “very fine people” remarks about the white-supremacist protesters in Charlottesville to his recent pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio.•

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“The future is speeding at us, and it’s almost abusive how deeply cynical both sides are,” the Republican political consultant Rick Wilson recently said, speaking of the response from his party and the Democrats to manufacturing and automation. Specifically, he was referring to how the Trump Administration has promised a return to glory for plants and mines and the Democrats belief that every worker formerly on the assembly line can be upskilled into a software engineer. I doubt most conservatives beyond Trump believe the former and it’s dubious the majority of Democrats believe the latter. Those ideas, however, have been prominent in the last year.

· · ·

The idea that robotics will displace many American workers is true now as it has been for at least a century. As long as there have been machines, really, they’ve always gradually taken over some work as new opportunities were created. The question is whether we’re on the verge of an AI boom that will speed this transition beyond management. Such rapid progress would mean we’re becoming wealthy in the aggregate, but distribution would likely be a huge problem. That’s why so many in the tech field have suggested a Universal Basic Income, something for everyone, not just a reverse tax credit to boost the less fortunate from poverty. But while this work-less future is possible, it seems far from plausible. 

· · ·

Currently there’s wide agreement on all sides that production numbers don’t show a radical expansion of technology displacing workers and boosting output. The only caution is that advances are sometimes overpromised, then ridiculed and then they deliver in a massive way. Not so with cold fusion, but that certainly was the case with computers and the Internet.

In 1985, the lively New York Times reporter Erik Sandberg-Diment sarcastically eulogized the laptop, laughing at what Silicon Valley had believed could be the future. The opening:

“WHATEVER happened to the laptop computer? Two years ago, on my flight to Las Vegas for Comdex, the annual microcomputer trade show, every second or third passenger pulled out a portable, ostensibly to work, but more likely to demonstrate an ability to keep up with the latest fad. Last year, only a couple of these computers could be seen on the fold-down trays. This year, every one of them had been replaced by the more traditional mixed drink or beer.

Was the laptop dream an illusion, then?

Imagine his humbling just two decades later when the Feynman’s “Plenty of Room at the Bottom” theory was proven correct and the iPhone was introduced.

· · ·

Robots will show up in China just in time,” Daniel Kahneman has said. In order to sustain its giant population, China will need robotics on a mass scale. It’s neighbor Japan will probably require automation on a much grander scale despite a much smaller population. An ardently anti-immigrant country with a graying citizenry, Japan is among the states that could be asking an inverse question: What will happen if robots don’t take all the jobs?

· · ·

My best guess is that there will always be work to do in the future, but sometimes not enough. Not every job needs to disappear to destabilize society in a serious way, just enough. If entire industries vanish into the zeros and ones in too fast a fashion the way video stores across America were decimated by Netflix’s 3,500 employees and endless algorithms (and, yes, I define algorithms as robots), that can leave sectors in the dust. Many of those positions at first will be lousy jobs (e.g., truck driver), but that doesn’t mean those already settled into such careers will have an easy time of it. AI may not be an avalanche that crushes us all, but it could be a continuous series of small earthquakes.

Two excerpts on opposite sides of the argument follow.

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An exchange about a potential AI revolution from a Reddit AMA by Life 3.0 author Max Tegmark:

Question:

Do you believe AI will take over the majority of “menial” jobs within the working world, and if so how will we as people adjust to support those who would have been employed within those positions?

Max Tegmark:

Not only menial jobs, but also many jobs that require lots of training for us humans, such as analyzing radiology images to determine whether patients have cancer. To safeguard your career, go for jobs that machines are bad at – involving people, unpredictability and creativity. Avoid careers about to get automated away, involving repetitive or structured actions in a predictable setting. Telemarketers, warehouse workers, cashiers, train operators, bakers or line cooks. Drivers of trucks, buses, taxis and Uber/Lyft cars are likely to follow soon. There are many more professions (including paralegals, credit analysts, loan officers, bookkeepers and tax accountants) that, although they aren’t on the endangered list for full extinction, are getting most of their tasks automated and therefore demand much fewer humans. I give more detailed job advice in Chapter 3 of my new book. If machines becomes able to do all our jobs in a few decades, that doesn’t have to spell doom and gloom as is commonly assumed. It could give everyone who wanted a life of leisure and play if we as a society share the vast new wealth produced by machines in a way such that nobody gets worse off. The’ll be plenty enough resources to do this, but whether there’s the political will is another matter, and currently I feel that things are moving in the opposite direction in the US and most western countries, with the large groups of people getting steadily poorer in real terms – creating anger which helps explain the victories of Trump & Brexit.•

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From Nicholas Carr’s latest Rough Type rebuttal to the idea that the robots are coming for us:

You can see the robot age everywhere but in the labor statistics, I wrote a few months ago, channeling Robert Solow. The popular and often alarming predictions of a looming unemployment crisis, one that would stem from rapid advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, and other computer automation technologies, have become increasingly hard to square with the economy’s rebound to near full employment. If computers were going to devastate jobs on a broad scale, one would think there’d be signs of it by now. We have, after all, been seeing remarkable gains in computing and software for many decades, while the broadband internet has been working its putative magic for more than twenty years. And it’s not like a shortage of corporate cash is curtailing investment in technology. Profits have been robust and capital cheap.

Still, even as jobs rebounded from the depths of the Great Recession, overall wage growth has appeared sluggish, at times stagnant. It has seemed possible that the weakness in wages might be the canary in the automated coal mine, an early indication of a coming surge in technological unemployment. If humans are increasingly competing for jobs against automatons, of both the hardware and software variety, that might explain workers’ inability to reap wage gains from a tightening labor market — and it might presage a broad shift of work from people to machines. At some point, if automation continued to put downward pressure on pay, workers would simply give up trying to compete with technology. The robots would win.

But even here, there’s growing reason to doubt the conventional wisdom.•

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Donald Trump explicitly deputized his supporters during the campaign to commit violence in his name, promising to pay their legal fees. As many of his past contractors could have warned them, even with a signed contract this vow wasn’t worth much. Nobody got too caught up in the fine print on the march to Election Day, however, as nearly 63 million Americans looked the other way, pretending a vicious, white-nationalist campaign wasn’t what was occurring. Perhaps some were fooled. Most were not.

Seemingly beholden to the Kremlin, Trump recently stumbled upon some perfectly Putin-like thugs when the absolute worst of the Goy Division descended upon Charlottesville to preach hate and commit a murder. He’s since doubled down on his support of these racist miscreants and others who reenacted Kristallnacht, claiming “many sides” deserve blame, further normalizing the aberrant behavior of his goon squad and encouraging them to further brutish intimidation.

Soon thereafter, Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, the country’s most obvious symbol of bigoted lawlessness, and authorized state and local police forces to load up on military-grade weapons, which he may believe will provide him with a second unit to take down resistance by force. Whether these departments actually allow themselves to be used in this fascistic manner is questionable at best, but these are clearly the actions of an aspiring autocrat, one who believes he will soon need to protect his power with force. The orange supremacist hopes to provoke a Constitutional crisis and political unrest, then use these conflicts of his own making to rationalize even greater savagery to quell them.

· · ·

In “Trump’s Hoodlums,” Masha Gessen’s latest New York Review of Books piece about our imperiled democracy, she writes that the President, now surrounded by generals-cum-babysitters who run the Administration like a “large family-owned business after the patriarch has developed dementia,” has begun to place his trust in hooligans, militias and extrajudicial actions. The opening: 

Turn on Russian television any day of the week and you are certain to stumble upon a show in which a group of people who appear to be regular citizens (that is, they have no uniforms or government-issued documents) stage a raid of one sort or another. They barge into a store or a restaurant, for example, and demand to see employees’ identity documents, the storage area, or the cooking facilities. Without fail, they find violations of laws or regulations: the staff, natives of Central Asia, don’t have work permits! The store stocks vodka bottles with no alcohol-tax stamps affixed to them! The cook doesn’t cover her hair! At the end of the show, the raiders often pass their tearful, terrified victims to uniformed law enforcement officers, who sometimes appear less than enthusiastic about the task being handed to them.

These raiders have no official titles or legal powers. What directs their actions are the militant rhetoric and the promise of broad impunity that emanate from the Kremlin—and, of course, the glory and recognition of being on television. YouTube and RuTube contain a trove of other vigilante videos, including of self-appointed vice squads who beat up gay men or suspected drug dealers on camera.

Sometimes these vigilantes get in trouble with the law: occasionally a murderer of gay men is caught and jailed, and once in a while a vigilante-gang leader is reined in, though his partners in crime continue to roam free. But in general, the arrangement is low-risk for the perpetrators and convenient for the Kremlin. Vigilantes work fast. Russian law enforcement is not exactly subject to a lot of institutional constraints, but it can be sluggish, and it carries out violence in a dragged-out, bureaucratic way. The vigilantes, on the other hand, make a spectacle of their work, creating the sort of generalized dread on which autocracies thrive. At the same time, vigilantes, who work in small clumps, do not pose the sort of threat to the autocrat that powerful institutions of state sometimes can.

Putin did not invent vigilantes, of course: autocrats frequently rely on delegating violence to extralegal actors or, as in the case of Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, on the willingness of law enforcement officers to carry out extralegal violence in exchange for the promise of impunity. Duterte has made this promise explicit; more often, incitement to violence contains a tacit guarantee of protection.

Over the last two weeks, we have seen Donald Trump send out both kinds of signals to the vigilantes of his own choosing.•

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Paying taxes is deeply repellent to many Americans who profit daily from what these collected monies make possible. Corporations particularly find this process galling. Paul Ryan visited Boeing in Washington State a week ago to give full-throated disapproval of the 35% corporate tax rate. Of course, the airplane manufacturer pays closer to 5%. Apple’s payout is often essentially negligible. The average effective corporate tax rate in the U.S. is roughly 27% thanks to myriad loopholes.

The House Speaker, the Oval Office and usually warring factions of Republicans all agree the number needs to be lowered to between 15-20%. Experience shows this reduction won’t create new jobs, just enrich the already wealthy. When Americans wonder where all the money went and why we can’t build infrastructure without ballooning the deficit — which exists largely because of Dubya’s tax cuts for the wealthy in 2001 — the answer rests mostly in congressional offices and corporate suites.

· · ·

One of the main bugaboos plaguing Russian businessman and scientist Igor Ashurbeyli’s proposed Asgardia: The Space Nation (as opposed to Asgardia: The Thing That Guards My Ass) is the issue of taxes, though that’s hardly the only obstacle. His vision is one of “Space Arks” orbiting the Earth and being home to a “democratic utopia,” a nation-state beyond the rules of Earth that works to protect the mothership.

Hundreds of thousands folks from a variety of nations have already applied for citizenship (damn foreigners!), though, as you might expect, there are some details to be worked out even beyond preventing everyone from dying in a container in the stratosphere. As Charles Rollet explains in a Wall Street Journal article, the entrepreneur has decided taxes will be voluntary, perhaps not the easiest way to build a new civilization.

The opening:

It’s tough enough to create a nation in space. There’s the Earth-orbiting colony to plan, the provisioning to figure out and the technical challenge of launching thousands of people.

On top of that, you have to make folks get along before they even rocket up there.

The scale of the human task is dawning on Russian businessman and scientist Igor Ashurbeyli, who last year drew headlines with his plan for a peaceful democratic utopia dubbed Asgardia above the stratosphere.

More than 300,000 people from 217 countries and territories signed up online to be Asgardians—among them starry-eyed dreamers, sci-fi fans and political idealists—and 110,000 of them are now officially citizens.

While Dr. Ashurbeyli’s lofty plan involves launching “Space Arks” into lower Earth orbit by 2025, he has found himself caught up in earthly debates among his people about pesky details such as the space nation’s constitution and potential taxes.

Not to mention its prospective shortage of women.

Among problems facing Asgardia, “the biggest is self-organization,” said Dr. Ashurbeyli, 53, “because no one has ever tried organizing…what is today 100,000 citizens from 200 countries who don’t know each other and live in different places on Earth.”

Dr. Ashurbeyli, based in Moscow, has few details about how Asgardia, named after Asgard, the godly realm of Norse mythology, would be built, launched and run. Specifics are to be decided by the nation’s parliament.•

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Louise Mensch would make an amazing fictional character, but she’s unfortunately an actual person.

I’ve believed from the start that some unaffiliated person with Intelligence Community connections and a Twitter account could aid in unraveling the issue of Russian collusion, which the mainstream American media failed to address during the campaign. Perhaps a reporter squeezed from a post covering the FBI or a foreign intelligence agency in this time of media company die-offs and consolidations could provide a loose strand or two? Maybe the Woodwards or Bernsteins of this era could come from outside of institutions like the Washington Post?

Possible, but it certainly wasn’t going to be Mensch, who seems to be just as much a bewildering Philip K. Dick creation as John McAfee, a fugitive from, among other things, common sense. Claude Taylor, Mensch’s sometimes cohort who added a dollop of gravitas to the online operation by virtue of having worked in a low-level job for the Clinton Administration, doesn’t seem nearly as off-kilter, though he too is overmatched in trying to crack the code. 

In a Guardian article published on Monday, Jon Swaine reported that allegations of Trump being involved with an underage sex ring via his defunct modeling agency had been passed to the duo not by a Mark Felt but by a hoaxer who felt they were marks. It was Derp Throat. From Swaine:

The hoaxer, who fed the information to Taylor by email, said she acted out of frustration over the “dissemination of fake news” by Taylor and Mensch. Their false stories about Trump have included a claim that he was already being replaced as president by Senator Orrin Hatch in a process kept secret from the American public.

“Taylor asked no questions to verify my identity, did no vetting whatsoever, sought no confirmation from a second source – but instead asked leading questions to support his various theories, asking me to verify them,” the source said in an email.•

Just because the experts failed us in the run-up to the election doesn’t mean the amateurs are a better bet now.

· · ·

What’s most perplexing about false narratives being sold, whether for personal gain or simply because of good intentions run amok, is that the noose appears to be genuinely tightening around Trump in regards the Kremlin investigation and other legal matters. WaPo and the New York Times have one-upped each other the past few days by publishing damning articles newly linking Trump’s camp to veteran face-stabber Felix Sater, a Brooklyn-born “legitimate businessman” with ties to Russia’s upper class and underworld. Equally important is that Trump’s most recent provocations (the Arpaio pardon, drawing moral equivalence between white supremacists and those who protest them, allowing local police forces to arm themselves with military weaponry) seem aimed at enabling an authoritarian power grab should Mueller produce evidence of collusion, financial crimes or other seriously illegal behaviors. These two factors may meet headlong before long.

Two excerpts follow.

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From Sarah Lyall’s NYT conversation with British spy novelists John le Carré and Ben Macintyre:

Question:

Do you think the Russians really have something on Trump?

Ben Macintyre:

I can tell you what the veterans of the S.I.S. [the British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6] think, which is yes, kompromat was done on him. Of course, kompromat is done on everyone. So they end up, the theory goes, with this compromising bit of material and then they begin to release parts of it. They set up an ex-MI6 guy, Chris Steele, who is a patsy, effectively, and they feed him some stuff that’s true, and some stuff that isn’t true, and some stuff that is demonstrably wrong. Which means that Trump can then stand up and deny it, while knowing that the essence of it is true. And then he has a stone in his shoe for the rest of his administration.

It’s important to remember that Putin is a K.G.B.-trained officer, and he thinks in the traditional K.G.B. way.

John le Carré:

The mentality that is operating in Russia now is absolutely, as far as Putin is concerned, no different to the mentality that drove the most exotic conspiracies during the Cold War. It worked then, it works now. As far as Trump, I would suspect they have it, because they’ve denied it. If they have it and they’ve set Trump up, they’d say, “Oh no, we haven’t got anything.” But to Trump they’re saying, “Aren’t we being kind to you?”

Ben Macintyre:

And today you get this wonderful Russian lawyer woman [Natalia Veselnitskaya, who was in the pre-election meeting at Trump Tower with Donald Trump Jr.] who is straight out of one of our books, a character that is possibly connected to the Russian state. Who knows? They exist somewhere in that foggy, deniable hinterland. It’s called maskirovka — little masquerade — where you create so much confusion and uncertainty and mystery that no one knows what the truth is.

John le Carré:

For Putin, it’s a kind of little piece of background music to keep things going. The smoking gun might or might not be the documents exchanged about the Trump Tower in Moscow [which Trump is said to have been planning to build]. Then there’s the really seedy stuff in the Caucasus. There are bits of scandal which, if added up, might suggest he went to Russia for money. And that would then fit in with the fact that he isn’t half as, a tenth as rich as he pretends to be.•

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The opening question from Chauncey DeVega’s latest Salon Q&A with historian Timothy Snyder:

Question:

We talked several months ago about Trump’s election and the state of American democracy. Much has happened since our first conversation. How is the country doing?

Timothy Snyder:

I think the most predictable thing, because it does not have to do with legislation, was the moral effect that his presence would have.

This works three ways. It works by what Trump does and says. For example, the outrageous things he says about the press and his obsession with violence. It also works by the things he doesn’t say and the things he doesn’t condemn. “On the one hand and on the other hand” is a way to destroy values and virtues, because if the leader of the country does not have a firm opinion about good and evil then it becomes very hard for other people to have firm opinions about good and evil.

People who have opinions which are in fact absolutely evil are supported by this kind of relativism. With the attempted terrorist attacks, defacing the Holocaust Memorials, and defacing the Lincoln Memorial — which just happened, by the way — you are looking at the demoralization of a society.

The second big trend is that we are hanging by our teeth to the rule of law. That was my judgment at the beginning of his presidency and it is still my judgment now. The rule of law is what gives us a chance to rebuild the system after this is  all done.•

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When creating the wax faces that would make her world famous, Marie Tussaud did not work from memory. She reportedly was often aided in her work by decapitated heads.

When the Internet recently blew up over the relative pallor of the Beyoncé figure at Madame Tussauds New York, I reflected on the gruesome origins of the now-placid institution that caters to tourists in many major cities. The artist began her brilliant career in 1877, when she fashioned a likeness of Voltaire, but it was during the French Revolution when she nearly lost her life and created the work that would later allow her to gain great notoriety.

During the Reign of Terror, Tussaud was among the many targeted to literally lose their heads. Having lived in Versailles for many years while in the employ of the king and queen, she was imprisoned for being loyal to the crown and had her skull shaved in preparation for a visit to the guillotine. Freed from this terrible end by powerful friends, she utilized the wax art taught to her by her uncle to make the death mask into a political prop and, ultimately, a pop culture item. Among her grisly, lifelike creations of the executed were the sculpted crowns of her former employers King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (third photo), which she reputedly created from their freshly severed heads which were hurriedly delivered to her studio. So the story goes, anyhow.

In the new century she moved to London with her work and established a museum that became as sensation, aided by a Punch magazine piece that dubbed it a “chamber of horrors” because she had begun creating life-size dioramas of ghastly crime and accident scenes. Her legacy continues nearly 170 years after her death, though now Tussauds artists work from photographs or have celebrities, heads still attached, pose for them.

A Brooklyn Daily Eagle article on June 22, 1912 recalled her strange life and career.

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This spectral photo of residents inside a Galveston assisted-living facility soaking calmly in the deep waters of Harvey is among the more haunting images to come out of Texas during this hellacious weather onslaught, the kind of “once-in-a-century” storm that is now occurring several times a decade in America alone. It looks like a Beckett play being performed on the Titanic, which is also a description that can be applied more broadly to this vertiginous moment in history, a time of woe for both political and climatic reasons.

Certainly global warming has played an outsize role in supersizing natural disasters, but Houston was particularly prone to devastation for a couple of other reasons: 1) It’s home to the greatest concentration of petrochemicals in the country, and 2) The city has been under-regulated and overbuilt, with paved streets now sprawled over prairies that formerly absorbed tons of excess water. 

Despite frequently serving important purposes, zoning and building regulations are oft-cursed bête noires to Libertarians and other laissez faire economists and politicos. From a 2014 Time article that encouraged the rest of America to follow Texas’ lead in instituting more lenient zoning laws:

Among the policies [Tyler] Cowen proposes as we move into this future: cheaper education (to allow workers to upgrade their skills), looser building and zoning regulations (to radically reduce the price of housing across America), and a loosening of occupational licensing at the state and local level (to open up many more low-skill jobs).•

Certainly there are building codes and zoning rules driven by greed rather than merit, but the unintended consequences that follow rampant deregulation can be deadly. Houston now knows this all too well.

· · ·

From “Boomtown, Floodtown,” a December 2016 piece by Neena Satija, Kiah Collier and Al Shaw of ProPublica and the Texas Tribune, which predicted Houston would have a problem:

The area’s history is punctuated by such major back-to-back storms, but many residents say they are becoming morefrequentand severe, and scientists agree.

“More people die here than anywhere else from floods,” said Sam Brody, a Texas A&M University at Galveston researcher who specializes in natural hazards mitigation. “More property per capita is lost here. And the problem’s getting worse.”

Why?

Scientists, other experts and federal officials say Houston’s explosive growth is largely to blame. As millions have flocked to the metropolitan area in recent decades, local officials have largely snubbed stricter building regulations, allowing developers to pave over crucial acres of prairie land that once absorbed huge amounts of rainwater. That has led to an excess of floodwater during storms that chokes the city’s vast bayou network, drainage systems and two huge federally owned reservoirs, endangering many nearby homes — including Virginia Hammond’s.

On top of that, scientists say climate change is causing torrential rainfall to happen more often, meaning storms that used to be considered “once-in-a-lifetime” events are happening with greater frequency. Rare storms that have only a miniscule chance of occurring in any given year have repeatedly battered the city in the past 15 years. And a significant portion of buildings that flooded in the same time frame were not located in the “100-year” floodplain — the area considered to have a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year — catching residents who are not required to carry flood insurance off guard.•

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

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

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

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

· · ·

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

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

Cowen’s opening:

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

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

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

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

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

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Sometime after January 2008, an entertainer became obsessed with the President of the United States, determined to prove him invalid and unworthy, to destroy the legacy of someone far grander than himself. Politics was part of the impetus, but the mania seemed to have a far deeper source. A similar scenario played out more than 140 years earlier with far more lethal results when another entertainer, John Wilkes Booth, was overcome by a determination to kidnap or kill Abraham Lincoln, even directing angry dialogue at the President when he happened to attend a play in which his future assassin performed. “He does look pretty sharp at me, doesn’t he?” the President acknowledged. The thespian was a Confederate sympathizer, but his wild rage for Lincoln was driven by something beyond the question of abolition.

In the aftermath of the 1865 balcony tragedy, Booth fled and was slain by the gun of Union soldier Boston Corbett and interred in D.C. after an autopsy and the removal of several vertebrae and the fatal bullet. The body was subsequently relocated to a warehouse at the Washington Arsenal. Four years after he met with justice, the actor’s corpse was emancipated from government oversight and was allowed to be reburied in Baltimore by his family. A Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter happened to be visiting with President Johnson in the White House when the transfer was made, allowing him to be eyewitness to the grim process and the state of the remains, which he said retained much of the departed’s “manly beauty.” An article in an 1877 edition of the paper recalled the undertaking.

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

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

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

· · ·

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I miss Gawker, for the most part.

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

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

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

From Socolow:

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

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

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

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