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

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

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

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

An excerpt:

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

This has enormous implications for the future of work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An excerpt: 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Instead, he went to China.

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

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

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

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

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The Intelligence Community, the judiciary and (largely) the press have been fortresses against the dissolution of American democracy in this terrible time of Trump, even if the Republican legislature has rolled over for the Simon Cowell-ish strongman, a move which makes me wonder whether its obeisance stems merely from partisanship. How far do the Kremlin’s tentacles extend?

This attack on everything decent and enlightened, from the First Amendment to women’s health to Meal on Wheels, may very well end with numerous members of the President’s inner circle (including him) deposed, perhaps imprisoned, but that won’t mean our worries will be over over.

Nearly 63 million citizens voted for the most obvious conman, one who degraded our ideals at every turn. This awful and dangerous moment is merely the crescendo of decades of dumbing down, conspiracy theories supplanting civics and big money pouring into politics. There’s no guarantee that a post-Trump landscape will look anything like a desirable country. We’d be better for his removal, but we still won’t be anything near well.

Two excerpts follow.

In pretty much any other moment in our history, Brett Arends’ MarketWatch article, which encourages readers to move some of their investments outside of an increasingly lawless United States, would read as exceedingly hyperbolic. Not now. An excerpt:

It is no longer a certainty that America will remain a stable country governed by an impartial rule of law. You could argue it no longer is.

I am not saying that a further breakdown is guaranteed or even likely, but I am saying it is possible. Maybe things will end happily, but maybe not. What we are witnessing today is exactly how it has happened historically. It goes in steps. Countries do not leap from civilization to barbarism in a single bound. You do not wake up one morning to discover mobs burning books in the streets. The decline happens by degrees. Each step enables the next. 

And what is being normalized here now is not normal.

The voters of Montana have just rewarded Greg Gianforte for beating up a reporter by electing him to Congress as their representative. Many on the right are crowing. Gianforte was reportedly swamped with extra donations following the attack. Republican congressman Duncan Hunter of California said the attack was merely “inappropriate” — unless, he added, the reporter “deserved it.” The president has celebrated the result. Popular right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham actually mocked the reporter and suggested he should have fought back against Gianforte and his aides. (One can only imagine what she would have said if he actually had done so.) She was not alone.

None of these people are being subject to moral sanction by the market or their supporters so far as anyone can tell. Gianforte has only been cited legally for a misdemeanor by the local sheriff, who was a campaign contributor. The smart money says he will get away with it, and take up his lucrative sinecure in Washington.

And as every conservative knows, human beings respond to incentives. If this sort of action is rewarded and not punished, it will happen more often.•

In the New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Drew, veteran Watergate reporter, believes the head-spinning events of the latter half of May could be the tipping point for Trump’s Presidency. The thing is, truly terrible things could happen between now and any eventual terminus. An excerpt:

Politicians are pragmatists. Republican leaders urged Nixon to leave office rather than have to vote on his impeachment. Similarly, it’s possible that when Trump becomes too politically expensive for them, the current Republicans might be ready to dump him by one means or another. But the Republicans of today are quite different from those in the early 1970s: there are few moderates now and the party is the prisoner of conservative forces that didn’t exist in Nixon’s day.

Trump, like Nixon, depends on the strength of his core supporters, but unlike Nixon, he can also make use of social media, Fox News, and friendly talk shows to keep them loyal. Cracking Trump’s base could be a lot harder than watching Nixon’s diminish as he appeared increasingly like a cornered rat, perspiring as he tried to talk his way out of trouble (“I am not a crook”) or firing his most loyal aides as if that would fix the situation. Moreover, Trump is, for all his deep flaws, in some ways a cannier politician than Nixon; he knows how to lie to his people to keep them behind him.

The critical question is: When, or will, Trump’s voters realize that he isn’t delivering on his promises, that his health care and tax proposals will help the wealthy at their expense, that he isn’t producing the jobs he claims? His proposed budget would slash numerous domestic programs, such as food stamps, that his supporters have relied on heavily. (One wonders if he’s aware of this part of his constituency.)

People can have a hard time recognizing that they’ve been conned. And Trump is skilled at flimflam, creating illusions. But how long can he keep blaming his failures to deliver on others—Democrats, the “dishonest media,” the Washington “swamp”? None of this is knowable yet. What is knowable is that an increasingly agitated Donald Trump’s hold on the presidency is beginning to slip.•

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That Mark Zuckerberg’s self-described religious conversion and his 50-states “listening tour” have been carefully managed, documented and publicized for public consumption is undeniable, but let’s not suppose that something so staged will be unsuccessful. After all, there’s never been a more obvious con man than Donald Trump, so let us never, ever again underestimate the propensity of Americans to be impressed by fabulously wealthy celebrities going through the motions. Enough of us assume they have to be brilliant and special. 

Maybe the founder of Facebook, the platform of choice for Alt-Reich enthusiasts, is really prepping for a 2020 Presidential run that will be aided by his media holdings–like Berlusconi minus all the fascinating bunga bunga?–or perhaps he’s just trying on a new style like when he was killing the animals he ate or being a proud Atheist or saying idiotic pseudo-philosophical about dying Africans. Sure, it’s possible he’s truly changed and grown, but real personal development is not usually connected to the end of a selfie stick.

Regardless, there are many Americans who’d be far better in the Oval Office and at least one who’s way worse.

From Mike Isaac of the New York Times:

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In March, Mark Zuckerberg visited the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., the site of a mass murder by a white supremacist.

Last month, he went to Dayton, Ohio, to sit down with recovering opioid addicts at a rehabilitation center.

And he spent an afternoon in Blanchardville, Wis., with Jed Gant, whose family has owned a dairy and beef cattle farm for six generations.

These were all stops along a road trip by Mr. Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, across the United States this year. His goal: to visit every state in the union and learn more about a sliver of the nearly two billion people who regularly use the social network.

On Thursday, in a commencement speech at Harvard, from which he dropped out in 2005, Mr. Zuckerberg discussed how his views on how people live and work with one another had broadened, partly as a result of what he has seen on the tour. He said he had come to realize that churches, civic centers and other organized meeting places are integral to building and maintaining a strong sense of community.

“As I’ve traveled around, I’ve sat with children in juvenile detention and opioid addicts, who told me their lives could have turned out differently if they just had something to do, an after-school program or somewhere to go,” said Mr. Zuckerberg, who also received an honorary doctoral degree at the ceremony. “I’ve met factory workers who know their old jobs aren’t coming back and are trying to find their place.”

To his critics, Mr. Zuckerberg’s road trip is a stunt and has taken on the trappings of a political campaign. His every pit stop — eating with a farming family in Ohio; feeding a baby calf at a farm in Wisconsin — has been artfully photographed and managed, and then posted to Mr. Zuckerberg’s Facebook page.

“He has all of the mechanics needed for a massive, well-staged media operation,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, a nonprofit media watchdog group. “Photographers, handlers, its size, scope and scale — all the ingredients are there. And he’s appearing in an environment where there’s no sole Democratic leader or counterbalance to Trump, who’s consuming all the oxygen in media.”

Mr. Zuckerberg has publicly denied that he is using the visits as a platform to run for public office.•

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Writer Denis Johnson has died

He was forever annoyed that reporters overwhelmingly wanted to ask him about Jesus’ Son, his brief, perfect 1992 volume of connected stories. It was a strange thing to be bothered by. Who wouldn’t want to repeatedly lay claim to such greatness?

Additionally, Johnson authored Angels, a bruising, heartbreaking 1983 novel about a single mom toting her at-risk family through the underbelly of America. It does not have the lightness of tone that JS has. Not at all. It leaves a bruise. The writer also turned out some fine journalism. The following re-post is about one such offering.

· · ·

There will always be some who retreat from the culture, go off by themselves or in pairs or groups. They’ll disappear into their own heads, create their own reality. For most it’s benign, but not for all. The deeper they retreat, the harder it will be to reemerge. There are those who don’t even want to live parallel to the larger society and come to believe they can end it. They sometimes explode back into their former world, committing acts of domestic terrorism.

Such groups were addressed by Johnson in the chilling reportage “The Militia in Me,” which appears in his 2001 non-fiction collection, SeekThe violence of Ruby Ridge and Waco and the horrific Oklahoma City bombing had shocked the nation into realizing the terror within, so Johnson traveled the U.S. and Canada to find out how and why militias had come to be. The writer, paranoid about both the government and the anti-government movement in 1990s America, couldn’t have predicted at the time the mainstreaming of conspiracists like Alex Jones and his ilk. He was fearful of attacks from the margins, unaware that the sideshow would soon take its place in the center ring.

Three brief excerpts from the article.


The people I talked with seemed to imply that the greatest threat to liberty came from a conspiracy, or several overlapping conspiracies, well known to everybody but me. As a framework for thought, this has its advantages. It’s quicker to call a thing a crime and ask Who did it? than to call it a failure and set about answering the question What happened?


I’m one among many, part of a disparate–sometimes better spelled “desperate”–people, self-centered, shortsighted, stubborn, sentimental, richer than anybody’s ever been, trying to get along in the most cataclysmic century in human history. Many of us are troubled that somewhere, somehow, the system meant to keep us free has experienced a failure. A few believe that someone has committed the crime of sabotaging everything.

Failures need correction. Crimes cry out for punishment. Some ask: How do we fix it? Others: Who do we kill?


They told me they made furniture out of antlers and drove around anywhere and everywhere, selling it. For the past month I’d been reading about the old days, missing them as if I had lived in them, and I said, “You sound like free Americans.”

“No,” the smaller man said and thereafter did all the talking, while the other, the blond driver changed my tire. “No American is free today.”

“Okay, I guess you’re right, but what do we do about that?”

“We fight till we are,” he said. “Till we’re free or we’re dead, one or the other.”

“Who’s going to do the fighting?”

“A whole lot of men. More than you’d imagine. We’ll fight till we’re dead or we’re free.”•

Social mobility as it relates to geography, gender, integration, education and other factors is at the heart of much of the research conducted by Stanford economist Raj Chetty. An erstwhile wunderkind who’s still very young at 37, the academic, an immigrant from New Dehli whose family relocated to Milwaukee when he was a child, has often wondered what allowed his success. Certainly native genius was a key component and having a father who was an economist and mother a pulmonologist didn’t hurt, but how much did physical location and primary and secondary schools matter?  

It’s a topic I consider often not only because the American Dream has been dragging for many for decades, but because I grew up in a lower-income, blue-collar neighborhood that didn’t have a bookstore. It was hard to get from here to there, and part of the problem went beyond money, location and access, though those factors undoubtedly loomed large. The problem was also cultural, as scholarly achievements–even a mere love of reading–was viewed as a “sellout” or sorts. Don’t know if that’s still the situation where I’m from, but I bet it stubbornly persists in other quarters of the country. 

Certainly the nativism and scapegoating of the most recent Presidential election was so shockingly acceptable to so many citizens in part because of our ever-widening economic segregation. The terrible outcome of that race will likely only exacerbate the issue.

Tyler Cowen just interviewed Chetty. Three excerpts follow.

Tyler Cowen:

It’s a common view, derived from William Baumol and Bowen, that education is subject to a kind of cost disease, that it’s harder and harder to augment productivity, wages rise in other sectors of the economy, education takes a rising share of GDP but doesn’t really get much better. Do you accept that story, or, if not, how would you modify it? Are we doomed to low productivity growth in K–12 education?

Raj Chetty:

I don’t think so because, while in some limited case that might end up being true, at the moment I see so many opportunities within the US K–12 education system to potentially have significantly higher productivity without dramatically higher cost. Let me give you an example. Coming back to the case of teachers, my sense is, if we were to try to keep the most effective teachers in the classroom and either retrain or dismiss the teachers who are less effective, we could substantially increase productivity without significantly increasing cost.

Tyler Cowen:

But say we do that. What do we do next?

Raj Chetty:

I think eventually it’s conceivable that you move up the quality ladder, and you’ve got everybody getting a very good primary school education. Then you need to work on secondary education and so forth. But there again, I would say there are lots of bargains to be found.

In our most recent work looking at colleges and upward mobility, we see that there are a number of colleges where kids seem to be doing extremely well that are not all that expensive. Also, I think, here a macroeconomic perspective is useful. If you look at countries that have some of the best educational outcomes, like Scandinavian countries, they’re not actually spending dramatically more than the United States.

At some abstract level, I think that logic has to be right, that eventually, in order to raise the level of education beyond some point, we’re going to have to spend more and more on that, but I don’t think we’re close enough empirically to such a point that that is really a critical consideration at the moment.

Tyler Cowen:

If you told the story about molecules impinging on your body and impelling you to action, what’s the best story you can come up with for Iowa, say, or Utah?

Raj Chetty:

Yeah, a few different things. Iowa is known for having very good public schools for a long time.

Tyler Cowen:

But that too is arguably just part of the package.

Raj Chetty:

Yes. Where did that come from? Why does Iowa have good public schools?

Tyler Cowen:


Raj Chetty:

One of the strong correlates we find is that places that are more integrated across socioeconomic groups, that have lower segregation, tend to have better outcomes for kids. And that kind of thing in a rural area — you can see why that occurs and why it might lead to better outcomes.

If you live in a big city, it’s very easy to self-segregate in various ways. You live in a gated community, you send your kids to a private school. You essentially don’t interact with people from different socioeconomic classes. If you live in a small town in Iowa, pretty much there’s one place your kids are going to go to school. There’s one set of activities that you can all participate in. And that is likely to lead to more integration.

Tyler Cowen:

As I’m sure you know, since the 1990s, segregation by income has been rising in this country. And here, Silicon Valley is one of the most extreme cases of that. So seeing that, are you on net a segregation optimist or pessimist? If I may ask.

Raj Chetty:

I think current trends suggests that segregation will continue to grow in the US. Take the case of driverless cars, for example. One way that could go is, if you have access to driverless cars, it makes it all the more easy to go live further away in a secluded place, further reduce interaction, right?

So I think it’s very important to think about social policy in the context of that type of technology. How do you set cities up? How do you do urban planning and architecture in a way such that you don’t actually just facilitate more segregation? Such that you make it attractive to live in a more mixed-income community? That’s a key challenge, I think.•

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Authoritarianism is, among other things, a revenge of mediocrity.

The bully with the biggest ego and largest pulpit appeals to a nation’s mean streak, seeking out those who’d rather cow than compete. Together they swing a hammer like a weapon rather than a tool, looking for a target to blame. Russia hacked the election (likely with some degree of collusion from the GOP) and the FBI acted foolishly on bad intel to disrupt Hillary Clinton’s campaign, but there’s no avoiding the reality that nearly 63 million Americans found a tyrant enticing, many of them drawn in by his absolute worse qualities.

From Business Insider essay by Josh Barro, who recently recused himself from the Republican Party:

Yet here we are, with a Republican president who calls himself “the most militaristic person” despite avoiding the Vietnam War on account of bone spurs. A Republican president who takes credit for others’ successes and no blame for his failures. A Republican president who fires the FBI director because of an investigation into any wrongdoing of his associates and then blames his press secretary for people getting mad about it.

A Republican president who is twice divorced and gleefully recounted his philandering to the press, posing as his own spokesman. A Republican president who boasted to a casual acquaintance about his history of sexual assault — “when you’re a star, they let you do it” — and then excused those comments as “locker-room talk,” as though it were normal for a grown man who wished to be president to display the maturity and respect for women you’d expect from a caricature of a junior-varsity high-school football player.

This is not the behavior of a man. It is the behavior of a man-child. Donald Trump surrounds himself with fellow man-children who behave in a similar manner. And a great many American voters eat it up.

Why? Well, one reason is that many men in America right now have little to offer women. They do not live up to either to the old, chauvinistic standards for adult men or the new, egalitarian ones. They want what Trump has — the women, the money, the brass-plated apartment — without having to do better or be better to get it.

They think they’d be better off under a return to high-school norms, where men could “be men” but really be boys, and gain status through cruel dominance plays without bearing any real-life responsibilities.

This approach to life worked for Trump because he inherited hundreds of millions of dollars. But it is no way to run a country or a society — or a political party.•

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Excellent profile in Elle by Rachael Combe of the New York Times’ seemingly superhuman White House correspondent Maggie Haberman, who probably didn’t expect to be courted like Adele and Angelina by glossies prior to this Baba Booey of an election season not being canceled as expected on November 8. Glenn Thrush has become a “star” on SNL and Haberman in Elle. I’d wager they’d both trade their newfound lower-case pop-culture status for some semblance of normalcy.

As I’ve mentioned before no U.S. news organization (at least thus far) has proven to possess great sources in regards to Russiagate, which is what we desperately require now. That’s a fault of the press but also a reality of the shocking media shift we’ve experienced over the last 20 years, as we’ve moved into the Digital Age, which has caused enough belt tightening at what we formerly called newspapers to crack a hip.

Well-staffed overseas bureaus with connections to European Intelligence are not cheap, but they might have come in handy right about now. In fact, they likely would have been more useful during the election before the voting booths opened. Numerous failings and circumstances put Donald Trump in the Oval Office, and while the destabilization of legacy news organizations isn’t the number one reason, it’s on the list.

Still, there are many talented reporters at the Times and Washington Post and elsewhere working tirelessly to uncover important truths. Haberman is among them, and even when I disagree with her, I’m never less than amazed by her efforts. She may have been “outed” by WikiLeaks as being a favorite of John Podesta and Team Hillary, but she’s also lauded as an “honest journalist who happens to be a very good person” and with other kind terms by key figures of the Trump campaign and White House. That (and her work) tells me she’s very polite while being “wickedly competitive.” Whatever the dynamic, Trump has found it impossible to quit her.

An excerpt:

Journalists have become part of the story in the Trump administration, enablers and heroes of a nonstop political and constitutional soap opera, and last year Haberman was the most widely read journalist at the Times, according to its analytics. Many of the juiciest Trump pieces have been broken by her: That story about him spending his evenings alone in a bathrobe, watching cable news? Haberman reported and wrote it with her frequent collaborator, Glenn Thrush. The time Trump called the Times to blame the collapse of the Obamacare repeal on the Democrats? It was Haberman he dialed. When he accused former national security adviser Susan Rice of committing crimes, and defended Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly against the sexual harassment claims that would soon end his career at the network? Haberman and Thrush again, with their colleague Matthew Rosenberg. And since President Trump fired FBI director James Comey, Haberman has been on the frontlines of the nonstop news bombshells that have been lobbed, bylining or credited with a reporting assist on around two dozen stories in two weeks. They range from an extraordinarily intimate account of a “sour and dark” Trump berating his staff as “incompetent” to the revelation that Trump called Comey a “nutjob” in an Oval Office meeting with the Russians the day after his dismissal, telling them that Comey’s ouster had relieved the pressure of the investigation into possible collusion between Russia and his campaign.

Trump frequently complains about Haberman’s coverage. He’s tweeted, at various points, that she’s “third-rate,” “sad,” and “totally in the Hillary circle of bias,” and he almost exclusively refers to the Times as “failing” and “fake news.” But no matter what Haberman writes about Trump, he has never frozen her out. Slate called her Trump’s “snake charmer”; New Yorker editor in chief David Remnick recently likened Trump to her “ardent, twisted suitor.” “I didn’t care for that metaphor,” Haberman says. She finds the framing of her relationship with the president in romantic terms “facile.” No one suggests her male colleagues are “wooing” Trump.

While the president and the reporter couldn’t seem more different—Trump, the flamboyant tycoon and Manhattan establishment aspirant known for his devil- may-care mendacity; and Haberman, a political insider known for her straight-shooting truth telling—the points at which their histories and personalities converge are revealing about both the media and the president himself. Trump wants what she can give him access to—a kind of status he’s always craved in a newspaper that, she says, “holds an enormously large place in his imagination.” Haberman, for her part, has become a front-page fixture and a Fourth Estate folk hero. “This is a symbiotic relationship,” says an administration official. “Part of the reason” Haberman is so read in the Times “is because she is writing about Donald Trump.”•

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The day of the ransomware WannaCry attack, I wrote that a “world in which everything is a computer–even our brains–is a fraught one.” We live in a time when we hold what are essentially supercomputers in our hands, but more and more we’re in their grip. When the Internet of Things becomes the thing, linking all items and enabling them to incessantly collect information, pretty much everything from refrigerators to roads will be hackable. A permanent cat and (computer) mouse game will begin in earnest, and this time we’ll be inside the machine.

As Bruce Schneier writes in his wise and wary Washington Post essay on the subject: “Solutions aren’t easy and they’re not pretty.” An excerpt:

Everything is becoming a computer. Your microwave is a computer that makes things hot. Your refrigerator is a computer that keeps things cold. Your car and television, the traffic lights and signals in your city and our national power grid are all computers. This is the much-hyped Internet of Things (IoT). It’s coming, and it’s coming faster than you might think. And as these devices connect to the Internet, they become vulnerable to ransomware and other computer threats.

It’s only a matter of time before people get messages on their car screens saying that the engine has been disabled and it will cost $200 in bitcoin to turn it back on. Or a similar message on their phones about their Internet-enabled door lock: Pay $100 if you want to get into your house tonight. Or pay far more if they want their embedded heart defibrillator to keep working.

This isn’t just theoretical. Researchers have already demonstrated a ransomware attack against smart thermostats, which may sound like a nuisance at first but can cause serious property damage if it’s cold enough outside. If the device under attack has no screen, you’ll get the message on the smartphone app you control it from.•


It’s been roughly two weeks since stunning news broke that Trump had fired James Comey. It may as well have been a decade.

Since then, Trump admitted in an TV interview that he canned Comey to end the Russian investigation, the FBI director produced a memo of a conversation in which the President asked him to let Mike Flynn off the hook and it’s been reported that the Administration prevailed upon the DNI and NSI directors to intervene on his behalf to end the inquiry. Complicating matters further, the Putin praiser shared secret intelligence with Russian representatives in the White House. 

If this nonstop turmoil seems like Watergate played out at warp speed, Elizabeth Drew, the political journalist who chronicled Richard Nixon’s disgrace, doesn’t believe potential collusion with a foreign adversary nor obstruction of justice will result in a speedy ending for our Kremlin-loving kakistocracy, even if that’s what the country dearly needs. She warns that progress to endgame may be grindingly slow and must be bipartisan, a trickier feat to achieve today than in the 1970s.

Three excerpts follow from Matthias Kolb’s long-form Süddeutsche Zeitung Q&A with Drew, conducted soon after Comey’s ouster.



You know so many people on the Hill, in Washington Journal you describe how the different senators and congressmen talked to you about their thought process about how and when to criticize Nixon. Is this a similar situation?

Elizabeth Drew:

Not quite yet. If you took a secret ballot, Trump would be out. But it doesn’t work that way. I do know from various sources, most Republicans in the Senate want him out; they joke about it. I wrote that in a recent article.  The senators see each other in the gym or in the hallways and some weeks ago some Republicans  on the Senate floor were taking bets with each other over how Trump is going to be forced to leave office, not whether. Several sources told me about this. But they are not anywhere near… they are not ready for this.



You have covered American politics and presidents for more than five decades. Has there been anything similar to that?  

Elizabeth Drew:

No, Ronald Reagan maybe. He was an actor who was not very verbal. Reagan spoke well and could read aloud smoothly what was written down for him. But he was not a thinker. Barack Obama was our most contemplative president, a real intellectual. Reagan was not and Trump is definitely not. Trump doesn’t like to read. He gets intelligence briefings which he doesn’t like. His staff asks people to present things to him in pictures, that is similar with Reagan. I remember an aide telling me that he tried to explain something to Reagan about the war on drugs, and he made it like a movie plot to get Reagan’s attention. Trump likes pictures, aides have to draw things. It is alarming. Trump has no attention span, he is very impatient.



Will Trump stay in office for four years?

Elizabeth Drew:

From the beginning, I’ve thought that he wouldn’t last. He looks frustrated so much of the time. In his business, no one was in a position to block him.  He’s been going through a frustrating time. He’s lonely;  Mrs. Trump is apparently moving down here in the summer, but he’s not a quitter. And he likes being president; He said that the other day at this victory party at the Rose Garden after the House passed  the health care bill. You all saw the pictures, I’m sure. He said: “How’m I doing? I am president, can’t you see?” He will not give it up, I think. Things would have to become really bad. But I wouldn’t put any money on anything.       


If some younger reporters ask you for advice how to cover the Trump administration, what do you tell them? I took away from reading “Washington Journal”  that you should be skeptical about simple narratives and that historic events like Watergate could have gone a different way. 

Elizabeth Drew:

Watergate was not the simple narrative that many take it to be, nor will this be – however it turns out. and will never be. I tell those reporters: “Let it play out, don’t try to game it. Follow what is happening and watch for certain things.” I also tell my friends: Watch for certain things and be patient. Trump will be in trouble for firing Comey,  and it likely will build. Be careful and you have to be responsible with what you are writing. Watch the Republicans: He cannot be driven from office just by Democrats. Watch for key Republicans to say certain things that might signal that he is in serious trouble. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority leader, is important. I’m sure that he has in his head how he wants to handle this, but he won’t say much. He’s a careful and smart man who has been around for decades. If you hear criticism of the president by Mitch McConnell, he’s in big trouble. You can’t just rush a president out of office because you don’t like him. It doesn’t work that way and should not work that way. It must not be partisan because it otherwise will not be successful. It would tear the country apart.•

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Inconvenient it is for any state when an erstwhile national hero turns into an embarrassment. In America, for instance, we have Bobby Fischer, whose mind proved a buggy machine, and earlier, Charles Lindbergh, who crashed and burned after soaring to unprecedented heights.

Norway knew its own shocking albatross in 1940 when Knut Hamsun, the Nobel Prize-winning author, embraced Adolf Hitler as a liberator, even arranging a meeting with the German madman. It’s been some years since I read Hunger, with its nameless Raskolnikovian protagonist, a down-and-out intellectual, though I feel pretty confident saying that it was better than a Canetti but not as good as a Dostoyevsky.

From the May 5, 1940 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:


In his annual letter to shareholders, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, whose former reputation as one of banking’s “good guys” was more a referendum on his sordid peers than a compliment to himself, defended the Trump Administration’s ardor for deregulation with the following dubious claim: “Essentially, too big to fail has been solved — taxpayers will not pay if a bank fails.”

His underlying assumption is that bankers will behave rationally because there will (potentially) be serious penalties should they grab for short-term sacks of cash in a manner that may eventually imperil their firms. This is a failure to understand psychology as well as economics.

Most of the poor behavior on Wall Street that led to the collapse of 2008 was done with very little thought for the future, that nebulous thing. Now mattered far more than then. Humans will always be, to some degree, irrational and exuberant, especially when money is involved. Smart regulations are drawn and enforced to save us from ourselves.

· · ·

Speaking of regulation: In his latest Financial Times column, Tim Harford writes of an oft-overlooked aspect of the challenges facing contemporary workers. Outsourcing, robotics and contracting aren’t the only threats to our positions. The uber-consolidation within American business sectors has made for “superstar firms,” behemoths that can operate with brute efficiency, a development that can be devastating for employees. It’s a problem that won’t likely solve itself.

An excerpt:

Superstar firms, instead, seem to be the cause. The story is simple. These businesses are highly productive and achieve more with less. Because of this profitability, more of the value added by the company flows to shareholders and less to workers. And what happens in these groups will tend to be reflected in the economy as a whole, because superstar firms have an increasingly important role.

All this poses a headache for policymakers — assuming policymakers can pay attention to the issue for long enough. The policy response required is subtle: after all, the growth of innovative, productive companies is welcome. It’s the unintended consequences of that growth that pose problems.

Those consequences are not easy to predict, but here are two possibilities. Either the US economy ends up like Amazon, or it ends up like Microsoft. The Amazon future is one of relentless competition, a paradise for consumers but a nightmare for workers, and with the ever-present risk that dominant businesses will snuff out competition as the mood takes them.

The Microsoft future epitomises the economist John Hicks’s quip: “the best of all monopoly profits is a quiet life”. Microsoft in the 1990s became famous as a once-brilliant company that decided to pull up the drawbridge, locking in consumers and locking out competitors.

In either scenario ordinary people lose out, unless they can enjoy returns from capital as well as returns from working.•

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Amazing that with all the contact between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin during the election, Wikileaks gathered no information on the subject. Not one iota. Nor was there anything about Mike Flynn’s untoward overseas ties. Perhaps its relying too much on Russian hackers for its information?

WikiLeaks’ modus operandi over the last couple of years probably wouldn’t have been markedly different if it were in the hands of Paul Manfort rather than Julian Assange, so it’s not surprising the organization recently leaked a trove of (apparently overhyped) documents about CIA surveillance just as Trump was being lambasted from both sides of the aisle for baselessly accusing his predecessor for “wiretapping.”

The timing is familiar if you recall that WikiLeaks began releasing Clinton campaign emails directly after the surfacing of a video that recorded Trump’s boasts of sexual assault. With all this recent history, is it any surprise Assange mockingly described himself as a “deplorable when chiding Twitter for refusing verify his account?

Whistleblowers are often a godsend to a society, but not all leakers are born equal.

On the day it was revealed that Sweden has dropped its sexual-assault investigation of Assange (which doesn’t mean he’s innocent), Michael Sontheimer and Jörg Schindler of Spiegel published a Q&A with a man who’s bothersome–or far worse. An excerpt:


You don’t care if WikiLeaks influences the outcome of elections?

Julian Assange:

WikiLeaks is made up of human beings who have different political views. But we cannot undermine our publicly given commitments, our publicly stated principles.


And these principles require that you publish authentic documents as quickly as possible, regardless of who benefits or is damaged?

Julian Assange:

That’s our current policy, which might be changed under extreme circumstances.


What sort of circumstances?

Julian Assange:

If we were on the brink of a nuclear war and a WikiLeaks publication could be misinterpreted, then it would make sense to delay the publication.


You didn’t delay the publication of the material which harmed Clinton.

Julian Assange:

We are not in this business for likes. WikiLeaks publishes documents about powerful organizations. WikiLeaks always will always be the bad boy.


What do you have to say to people who accuse WikiLeaks, among others, of being responsible for Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president?

Julian Assange:

WikiLeaks revealed the dirty tactics of the Clinton campaign. Some voters took it in. It was their free choice to do so. That’s their right. That’s democracy.


As secretary of state, Clinton sought to take action against WikiLeaks. Was the publication of Democratic Party documents a kind of vendetta?

Julian Assange:

That is U.S. East Coast psychobabble. The reason that WikiLeaks follows its principles is because one man has a problem? No! But here is some historic irony behind it. Clinton was involved in putting our alleged source Chelsea Manning in prison. There seems to be some natural justice.


You derived satisfaction from her loss?

Julian Assange:

. . .


You are smiling.•

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“He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote in 1994 in an appropriately punishing postmortem of our disgraced 37th President. “Nixon was so crooked,” he continued, “that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.”

That we’ve found someone who’s far more devious, dishonest and disloyal to occupy the Oval Office is the shame of our time, even if that chastening emotion is in short supply these days. How did we get here?

The reasons are many, but a key architect of this craven and cancerous age was Roger Ailes, a former Nixon media adviser who became Fox News capo, employing unbridled cynicism and vindictiveness to breed a virus that infected the nation, mainstreaming conspiracy theories, alternative facts and bigotry. Was Ailes truly a prejudiced gutter dweller who aimed to divide and destroy our country? Who cares. We are what we pretend to be.

Like Trump, the Worst American™, who’d have been behind bars decades ago in any just society, Ailes would have been swiftly kicked from the corporate suite were it not for the privilege of males with white skin and collars who possess big egos and few morals. That advantage, the decentralization of media and the Reagan Era demolition of the Fairness Doctrine made possible his corrosive career.

Another reason he was tolerated is that success is usually celebrated in America regardless of the means used to attain it.

A fall and a blood clot ended Ailes’ life just months after his Fox reign of terror concluded when a torrent of sexual harassment allegations finally proved too much even for the Murdochs, a ghastly family who enjoy well-appointed lives in penthouses many floors above the despair they create. In a Rolling Stone postmortem, Matt Taibbi chucks Ailes’ remains into a burning Dumpster. His opening:

On the Internet today you will find thousands, perhaps even millions, of people gloating about the death of elephantine Fox News founder Roger Ailes. The happy face emojis are getting a workout on Twitter, which is also bursting with biting one-liners.When I mentioned to one of my relatives that I was writing about the death of Ailes, the response was, “Say that you hope he’s reborn as a woman in Saudi Arabia.”

Ailes has no one but his fast-stiffening self to blame for this treatment. He is on the short list of people most responsible for modern America’s vicious and bloodthirsty character.

We are a hate-filled, paranoid, untrusting, book-dumb and bilious people whose chief source of recreation is slinging insults and threats at each other online, and we’re that way in large part because of the hyper-divisive media environment he discovered.

Ailes was the Christopher Columbus of hate. When the former daytime TV executive and political strategist looked across the American continent, he saw money laying around in giant piles. He knew all that was needed to pick it up was a) the total abandonment of any sense of decency or civic duty in the news business, and b) the factory-like production of news stories that spoke to Americans’ worst fantasies about each other.

Like many con artists, he reflexively targeted the elderly – “I created a TV network for people from 55 to dead,” he told Joan Walsh – where he saw billions could be made mining terrifying storylines about the collapse of the simpler America such viewers remembered, correctly or (more often) incorrectly, from their childhoods.

In this sense, his Fox News broadcasts were just extended versions of the old “ring around the collar” ad – scare stories about contagion. Wisk was pitched as the cure for sweat stains creeping onto your crisp white collar; Fox was sold as the cure for atheists, feminists, terrorists and minorities crawling over your white picket fence.•


A really intelligent, though perhaps not tech-sector savvy, friend recently insisted that Google is just a company that sells ads. People who work there, I was told, shouldn’t think they’re doing anything important.

Well, no.

The Larry Page-Sergey Brin Silicon Valley megapower was born as an Artificial Intelligence company, one that just so happens to collect information online that helps it with dual goals of, yes, making money from ads today, but also in building the smart tools of tomorrow that can make an impact exponentially beyond savvy search results. To that end, the X division is an attempt at a latter-day Bell Labs, a highly ambitious division dedicated to moonshots, though one that isn’t working in concert with Washington D.C. as its predecessor did.

As I’ve said in the past, if Google is mainly a search engine in the future, the company has failed and will decline into its dotage, if, likely, a still highly profitable one. It’s also fair to say that if the company succeeds, it will probably be a mixed blessing for society, yielding improvements that come at a cost that may be dear. That’s because Google’s far-flung ambitions are similar to its more-mundane ones in that they rely on surveilling us and pulling information from our brains. Eventually, you’ll have the implant.

Next-level research is also being earnestly conducted by Musk, Bezos, Zuckerberg and other titans of the Information Age. Absent from that list is the U.S. federal government, that lumbering giant which now during the Trump Administration is more inept and dysfunctional than at any point in modern history–maybe in our entire history. That failing of the public sphere, which isn’t adequately investing in AI research, leaves us in a prone position before tech behemoths that will have to increase their profits while building our future.

The opening of Farhad Manjoo’s perceptive New York Times column on the government ceding AI to Silicon Valley:

One persistent criticism of Silicon Valley is that it no longer works on big, world-changing ideas. Every few months, a dumb start-up will make the news — most recently the one selling a $700 juicer — and folks outside the tech industry will begin singing I-told-you-sos.

But don’t be fooled by expensive juice. The idea that Silicon Valley no longer funds big things isn’t just wrong, but also obtuse and fairly dangerous. Look at the cars, the rockets, the internet-beaming balloons and gliders, the voice assistants, drones, augmented and virtual reality devices, and every permutation of artificial intelligence you’ve ever encountered in sci-fi. Technology companies aren’t just funding big things — they are funding the biggest, most world-changing things. They are spending on ideas that, years from now, we may come to see as having altered life for much of the planet.

At the same time, the American government’s appetite for funding big things — for scientific research and out-of-this-world technology and infrastructure programs — keeps falling, and it may decline further under President Trump.

This sets up a looming complication: Technology giants, not the government, are building the artificially intelligent future. And unless the government vastly increases how much it spends on research into such technologies, it is the corporations that will decide how to deploy them.•


Republicans are still mostly resisting a real investigation of possible Trump collusion with Russia and his obstruction of justice in regards to the Comey firing. Some lip service, some mild gestures, that’s all thus far. 

Chief among these defiant defenders is Paul Ryan, who’s quoted today in Politico as saying “some people want to harm the President.” His odd stance could stem from reflexive partisanship and the Speaker’s long-held desire to pass at any cost his punitive tax and social welfare cuts. Perhaps he believes a Trump resignation or impeachment would put those plans in peril.

We have to at least consider that it could be something even darker. Ryan may believe Mike Pence is likely to be swept away in this same scenario, leaving him, third in line, as the new President. He might not want any part of what would be an office made untenable by such a large-scale scandal. Even worse, it’s possible the Russian connection runs deeper than we know and may pull under a large number of GOP elected officials. 

Regardless of the cause, the party appears to be in a death spiral and is threatening to feed the entire nation a poison pill. What may save us is that despite any desperate machinations from the White House or Hill, the truth is likely to ultimately be exposed.

From Edward Luce’s latest Financial Times column, which asserts that tax cuts is a ridiculous reason for Republican self-immolation:

Whenever the elites express outrage at his actions, his supporters take pleasure in their anguish. Mr Trump knows how to cater to his base. If that means passing secrets to the Russians the day after firing the man investigating his campaign’s alleged Russia collusion, all the better. Scholars call this “negative partisanship”. People no longer join a party because they believe in its agenda but because they despise the other one. By mocking his opponents, Mr Trump is literally delivering on what he promised. It is a mandate for nihilism.

This poses a terrible dilemma for Republicans. Some are hoping to bide their time until midterm elections. Mr Trump’s approval ratings are so low that if the polls were held today Republicans would lose control of the House of Representatives, and possibly the Senate. At that point, Republicans would start to abandon Mr Trump’s ship. Democrats may well campaign on a promise to impeach Mr Trump. But that is almost 18 months away. Other Republicans are hoping to extract what they can before the Titanic starts to sink.

Most, such as Paul Ryan, the House Speaker, are prepared to suffer the indignity of working with Mr Trump if it gives them the chance to pass a big tax cut. In Mr Ryan’s view, such a cut would unleash America’s animal spirits and restore freedom to individuals.

It is a coherent position. But Mr Trump keeps making it harder for Mr Ryan to build the case for it. The chances are now at least as good that the firestorm around Mr Trump will engulf his economic agenda. Even if Mr Ryan can pull off tax reform, would the bargain have been worth it? The answer is no. Taxes rise and fall. But a great party cannot erase how it acted at a critical moment in the history of the republic.•

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In his latest Medium piece, Matt Chessen writes about a near-term scenario in which machine-driven communications (MADCOMS), essentially indistinguishable from human communications, will dominate social media with the aid of AI, influencing the thoughts of all those carbon beings who come into contact with it. Extrapolating this brave new world a little further, he envisions different political and cultural factions waging wars for hearts and minds via an onslaught of machine-based messaging. It will be, perhaps, like the elections of 2016 to the nth degree.

God help us all. 

Unlike other technological innovations, which usually are a mix of boon and bane, it’s hard to see much good being delivered by such a framework. The downside, of course, is enormous.

Chessen knows his vision of tomorrow is incredibly fraught, asking: “Will this be the new Renaissance, or the next Inquisition?” Almost definitely, a realization of his prediction will provoke the latter.

The opening:

We’re on the verge of a revolution — very soon, computers are going to start programming us, through ideas, culture, and eventually, our DNA.

We may have no idea this is happening to us.

To understand this, you really should start with the article “Artificial intelligence chatbots will overwhelm human speech online; the rise of MADCOMs.” There, I explain how emerging AI technologies will enable machine-driven communication tools (MADCOMs) that dynamically generate content for marketing, influence, politics, and manipulation. These MADCOMs will be running influence campaigns 24/7/365 all across the social web. But since the MADCOMs won’t be able to differentiate the human accounts from the machine-driven accounts, MADCOMs will run information ops on machines and people. The machines will talk back and run their own influence campaigns. The end result is the Internet being swamped by machines talking to other machines.

Much of this content will be dynamically generated. Sure, humans will configure the AI tools and give them objectives, but their content will evolve based on machine learning. And as they communicate and influence other machine-driven accounts, the MADCOMs behind them will evolve their content as well.

The end result could be machines becoming the driving force in our culture.

AIs are already creating news articles, novels, music and screenplays. Soon they will create memes, write jokes, drive political conversations, and promote celebrities. They will probably be jabbering away on Reddit and 4Chan, trying to convince humans that Coke is the real thing or that 9/11 was a coverup. They will be spinning all sorts of wild tales.

And in doing so, our creations will be programming us, through culture.•


Despite the robot apocalypse we’ve been promised, statistics don’t show an increase in productivity or decrease in employment. Many of the jobs recently created have been lesser ones, but even wages have shown some rise at times over the last year. Perhaps the decline of the American middle class over the last 50 years has been largely a political result rather than a technological one? It would be tough to convince people living in former manufacturing strongholds, but it may be so.

Three possible reasons the numbers don’t reveal a coming widespread technological unemployment:

  1. The numbers aren’t able to accurately capture the new automated economy. Doubtful.
  2. Automation may be overhyped for the moment the way computers or the Internet or smartphones originally were, but soon enough it will make a dent on society that will be felt deeply. Possible.
  3. The impact of automation will be gradual and manageable, improving society while not creating what Yuval Harari indelicately describes as a “useless class.” Possible.

In a Rough Type post, Nicholas Carr thinks machines may be depressing wages but have otherwise been overstated. An excerpt:

I’m convinced that computer automation is changing the way people work, often in profound ways, and I think it’s likely that automation is playing an important role in restraining wage growth by, among other things, deskilling certain occupations and reducing the bargaining power of workers. But the argument that computers are going to bring extreme unemployment in coming decades — an argument that was also popular in both the 1950s and the 1990s, it’s worth remembering — sounds increasingly dubious. It runs counter to the facts. Anyone making the argument today needs to provide a lucid and rational explanation of why, despite years of rapid advances in robotics, computer power, network connectivity, and artificial intelligence techniques, we have yet to see any sign of a broad loss of jobs in the economy.•


Trump is certainly not Nixonian in intellect or policy, but he shares with his predecessor an utter disregard for truth, a deep paranoia that mints enemies like pennies and a nefariousness that will probably lead to disgrace if not tragedy. His sense of being cheated, a rich man who feels deeply impoverished, has its origins in a Rosebud-ian psychological wound and perhaps some mental illness, has rendered him extremely immoral and deeply disturbed. In the country’s future–should there be one–it will be possible to have a worse President if that person retains all his terrible qualities but is basically competent. We should be glad of his ineptitude, provided it doesn’t get us all killed.

On the day when the Washington Post delivered what appears to be a bombshell about a terrible breach by Trump in the company of his Russian comrades, a misstep to be added to his litany of lies, acts of kleptocracy and attacks on American democracy, here’s a piece from Garry Willis’ 1974 New York Review of Books piece about Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men:

Nixon was always Wronged; so, since the score could never be settled entirely, he felt no qualms about getting back what slight advantage he could when no one was looking. Even at the height of his power, he feels he must steal one extra vote, tell the marginal little lie. He is like a man who had to steal as a child, in order to eat, and acquired a sacred license—even a duty—to steal thenceforth; it would punish the evil that had first deprived him. Thus he took as his intimate into the Oval Office the very man who helped him try to cheat his way into the office of governor of California. Those who say Nixon did not know what kind of thing his lieutenants were up to forget that the judge who decreed in favor of plaintiffs in the fake postcard-poll case of 1962 did so on the grounds that both Haldeman and Nixon knew about the illegal tactic. Watergate is the story of a man who has just pulled off a million-dollar heist and gets caught when he hesitates to steal an apple off a passing vendor’s cart.

Nixon engages in a kind of antipolitics; a punishment of politics for what it has done to him. That is why he could never understand “the other side” in the Washington Post’s coverage of the Watergate investigation. Jeb Magruder has written that his staff was pleased when two unknown local reporters, Bernstein and Woodward, were given the break-in as their assignment. When the story did not lapse after a decent interval, Nixon conceived it as an ideological vendetta directed by Katharine Graham for the benefit of George McGovern—something to be countered by high-level threats, intimidation, and “stonewalling.” Even Henry Kissinger tried to intervene with Mrs. Graham.

Actually, if the coverage had been political, it might have failed. Very few columns or editorials played up Watergate in the election period, even at the Post. Those wanting high political sources and theoretical patterns would not have found the sneaky little paths under out-of-the-way bushes, as Woodward and Bernstein did. They thought, from the outset, they were dealing with robbers, not politicians. When their tips kept leading them toward the White House; they balked repeatedly, out of awe and fear and common sense; but the evidence kept tugging them against the pull of expectation. The editors kept them at it, but gave them little help. They must pursue their modest leads even after they wanted to be switched to “the big story” at the Ervin hearings. Others would theorize, editorialize, do the White House circuit. Theirs was the leg work, the endless doors knocked on, wrong numbers called, the days of thirty leads checked out and nothing to show for it. A leitmotiv of the book is “back to square one.”

They advanced, as it were, backward—always back to the same sources; would they talk this time? No. Then put them on the list of people to go back to. Back and back. Which became up and up. Up, scarily at the last, “to the very top” (as the Justice Department man had put it). Their sources—originally secretaries and minor functionaries—were added to when parts of the gang like Dean started dealing to get out; but there had always been people who talked because they were sincerely shaken by what was going on—not only Hugh Sloan at the outset, but the mysterious White House cooperator called “Deep Throat.” It is good to know the gang could not entirely succeed in imposing its code of omertà.•

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Parallel to the Trump crisis is the only slightly quieter one currently playing out. With the GOP controlling all three branches of the government, the fraying social safety barely keeping struggling Americans from dropping dead may be sliced to bits.

While the House and Senate Republicans are either too craven, complicit or worse to neutralize Trump’s threat to democracy, the GOP is willfully attempting to exacerbate wealth inequality. Even in a deeply dysfunctional party, Paul Ryan’s monstrous Ayn Rand fantasy of cruelly punishing the poor may come to fruition. This could be the moment when the gloves come off, the shit hits the fan, the games begin. 

How do we peacefully extricate ourselves from this disaster that’s been decades in the making? It won’t be easy. A raft of indictments bringing the moneyed interests of D.C. to its knees is possible but maybe just a liberal fantasy. Perhaps protests and marches can save the day, though not if they’re ignored. 

At some point the people will tire of bread and Kardashians and decide to cancel the show. 

The thing is, such a lashing out would likely be factional and confused, an awful tragedy. As Keith Mines recently wrote: “It is like 1859, everyone is mad about something and everyone has a gun.”

Two excerpts follow.

From Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan’s excellent Washington Post piece about Americans unable to afford basic dentistry:

Millions of others rely on charity clinics and hospital emergency rooms to treat painful and neglected teeth. Unable to afford expensive root canals and crowns, many simply have them pulled. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans older than 65 do not have a single real tooth left.

Over two days at the civic center, volunteer dentists would pull 795 teeth. A remarkable number of patients held steady jobs — a forklift operator, a librarian, a postal worker — but said they had no dental insurance and not enough cash to pay for a dentist.

[Dee] Matello had both problems, adding to her frustration about being cut off from a world that many wealthier Americans take for granted.

“The country is way too divided between well-off people and people struggling for everything — even to see the dentist,” she said. “And the worst part is, I don’t see a bridge to cross over to be one of those rich people.”

Matello voted for Barack Obama in 2008, thinking he offered the best option for working people, but she sat out the 2012 election. Last year, she rallied behind Trump after listening to him talk about “the forgotten men and women of our country, people who work hard but don’t have a voice.”

“I’m running to be their voice,” Trump said repeatedly.

What Matello heard was a promise “to restore pride to the working poor.”

A big part of that promise was Trump’s assurance that he would build a “beautiful” health-care system to serve every American, a system that would cost less and do more. But nearly four months into Trump’s presidency, Matello sees Trump backing a Republican health care plan that appears to leave low-income people and the elderly worse off.

“I am hearing about a number of people who will lose their coverage under the new plan,” Matello said. “Is Trump the wolf in grandma’s clothes? My husband and I are are now saying to each other: ‘Did we really vote for him?’ ”

From a Politico article by Rachel Bade and Sarah Ferris about the GOP’s draconian dreams:

House Republicans just voted to slash hundreds of billions of dollars in health care for the poor as part of their Obamacare replacement. Now, they’re weighing a plan to take the scalpel to programs that provide meals to needy kids and housing and education assistance for low-income families.

President Donald Trump’s refusal to overhaul Social Security and Medicare — and his pricey wish-list for infrastructure, a border wall and tax cuts — is sending House budget writers scouring for pennies in politically sensitive places: safety-net programs for the most vulnerable. 

Under enormous internal pressure to quickly balance the budget, Republicans are considering slashing more than $400 billion in spending through a process to evade Democratic filibusters in the Senate, multiple sources told POLITICO.

The proposal, which would be part of the House Budget Committee’s fiscal 2018 budget, won’t specify which programs would get the ax; instead it will instruct committees to figure out what to cut to reach the savings. But among the programs most likely on the chopping block, the sources say, are food stamps, welfare, income assistance for the disabled and perhaps even veterans benefits.

If enacted, such a plan to curb safety-net programs — all while juicing the Pentagon’s budget and slicing corporate tax rates — would amount to the biggest shift in federal spending priorities in decades.

Atop that, GOP budget writers will also likely include Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) proposal to essentially privatize Medicare in their fiscal 2018 budget, despite Trump’s unwavering rejection of the idea. While that proposal is more symbolic and won’t become law under this budget, it’s just another thorny issue that will have Democrats again accusing Republicans of “pushing Granny off the cliff.”•

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As we build a society that resembles a machine, we can’t assume it will be one of loving grace.

I don’t subscribe to John Markoff’s idea that we can coolly decide the path forward. These decisions will be made in the heat of battle–state versus state, corporation versus corporation. Nor am I completely deterministic about the outcome. Miracles will intermingle with malice, and constant attention and intervention will be required to mitigate the latter. 

As today’s widespread, pernicious ransomware attack of European and Asian countries the globe reminds, a world in which everything is a computer–even our brains–is a fraught one.

The opening of a New York Times article by Dan Bilefsky and Nicole Perlroth:

LONDON — An extensive cyberattack struck computers across a wide swath of Europe and Asia on Friday, and strained the public health system in Britain, where doctors were blocked from patient files and emergency rooms were forced to divert patients.

The attack involved ransomware, a kind of malware that encrypts data and locks out the user. According to security experts, it exploited a vulnerability that was discovered and developed by the National Security Agency.

The hacking tool was leaked by a group calling itself the Shadow Brokers, which has been dumping stolen N.S.A. hacking tools online beginning last year. Microsoft rolled out a patch for the vulnerability last March, but hackers took advantage of the fact that vulnerable targets — particularly hospitals — had yet to update their systems.

The malware was circulated by email; targets were sent an encrypted, compressed file that, once loaded, allowed the ransomware to infiltrate its targets.

By then, it was already too late. As the disruptions rippled through hospitals, doctors’ offices and ambulance companies across Britain on Friday, the health service declared the attack as a “major incident,” a warning that local health services could be overwhelmed by patients.•

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The New York Times, the Washington Post and the rest of what remains of the high-wattage mainstream news organizations have done a fairly good job during these dark hours of untangling White House drama in its aftermath (with some glaring exceptions, of course), but they’ve thus far failed in the most fundamental way.

None of these outlets to this point have proven to possess good sources in regards to Russiagate, which is what we desperately require now. “Credible media” is too focused on parsing “official statements,” reacting to surface outrages and ladling out punditry, the latter of which is far cheaper content to produce than painstakingly crafted reportage. That’s a fault of the press but also the reality of the shocking media shift we’ve experienced over the last 20 years, as we’ve moved into the Digital Age, which has caused enough belt tightening to crack a hip. Well-staffed overseas bureaus with connections to European Intelligence might have come in handy right about now.

Without the ability to dig beneath the surface, and those muscles seem to have atrophied across the board, a news org. can be useful and instructive and entertaining, but it can’t be essential. An individual with some deep sources and a Twitter account is just as likely to deliver what’s most needed.

A really smart entry from the Politico piece “What the Press Still Doesn’t Get About Trump“:

9. The media’s priorities are all wrong.

Zeynep Tufekci, associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science and author of the forthcoming Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest.

The press faced a range of structural weaknesses that led to its failures before the 2016 election. These weaknesses are persisting—albeit with slightly better optics because journalists face a more adversarial administration, which creates a misleading illusion of improvement.

The problem is both structural and ethical. For starters, media are clustered, and prone to herding. Not only did this cause them to underestimate Trump’s election chances, but they continue to miss the dynamics of polarization in this country, and what that means for politics. Pundits and many journalists also remain attracted to horse-race stories that resemble fiction (stumble in the second act! comeback in the third act!), which causes them to miss real dynamics because they are too busy fitting their reporting into interesting narrative structures. This also does a disservice to journalists’ remaining essential role: telling the rest of us about important questions of policy and substance that we cannot easily access, investigate or absorb on our own.

What’s more, many journalists still practice “access journalism”—which is futile. Thanks to social media and partisan cable channels, politicians now easily have their own access to audiences. The old style of access journalism often amounts to little more than reporters being subjected to spin by the insiders. But even after the election, process and inside-the-White House stories continue to interest journalists (and a large section of the so-called chattering classes) disproportionate to those stories’ political or policy importance.

Structurally, the digitally led decoupling of individual stories from newspapers has meant that solid investigative work is no longer financed by ads and gossipy punditry. But gossipy punditry and contrarianism can still bring clicks—the way sugary soda sells. So they persist, and the whole news ecology is further degraded, despite the fact that there are many really good investigative journalists out there. Finally, media are still getting played by outlets like WikiLeaks that simply prey on journalists’ weaknesses—being prone to gossip; not understanding technical stuff; prizing “copy” at regular intervals so they can’t take their eyes off drip-drip-drip leaks to figure out what’s going on.

One bright spot in all this is that subscriptions are rising: That may allow media outlets some independence, but improvements will likely come only if subscribers match their money with a demand that the media reckon with their profound and historic failure in 2016.


Since Trump is a strange, Twitter-enabled Nixon, might today’s Woodwards and Bernsteins will be equally strange and Twitter-enabled?

I ask because the MSM has done an uneven job in dealing with what’s gone on in the open with the Trump Administration, while failing to make any headway in regards to its possible treasonous acts. Sure, there’s a chance there’s nothing to be seen there, but that possibility grows slimmer seemingly daily. Judy Woodruff telling her PBS NewsHour staff that “they would cover this President just as they would any other” does not reassure, because this is not the same old. This is an emergency.

The dismissal of FBI Director James Comey, deep into an investigation of Russian collusion and requesting more money to further the probe, is particularly stunning. Despite what’s gone over the last year, Comey was likely our best hope for finding out what lies beneath.

The firing has led Matt Yglesias to suggest that Trump may have committed an impeachable offense in th form of obstruction of justice. The Vox writer is as smart as can be, but he maintains that if the GOP Congress doesn’t allow an independent investigation, it’s because of partisanship or dysfunction. I think it’s fair at this point to consider that it may be something far more sinister. 

In the piece, Yglesias references evidence published by “credible journalists in credible publications,” but these are incredible times. The answers may be in the margins.

An excerpt:


The key leaders of the Republican Party are, once again, protecting and defending Donald Trump. And once again, there is a small thread of dissent, with various more vulnerable members of Congress suggesting that they find the timing suspicious or otherwise troubling. John McCain is even back to making trouble about the need for a more serious independent inquiry into Russia matters.

But while the Russia matter is, of course, important, at this point, to simply focus on Russia is to miss the elephant in the room: Trump and obstruction of justice.

Congress ought to investigate what really happened here. Did Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein really write a memo about Comey’s handling of the emails that was so persuasive it convinced Sessions and Trump to both change their minds and fire Comey? Or, as seems much more plausible, was he tasked with writing up a memo that would validate an already-made decision on the theory that if the Trump administration aligned themselves with earlier Democratic criticism of Comey, they would be unable to knock him for the firing?

And if so, what was the real reason Comey was fired — and how did it relate to the president’s anger over the Russia investigation and its forward progress?

The odds that a Congress under continued GOP control will pursue such questions seem slim. During the 2016 presidential campaign, few Republicans in Congress were under the delusion that Trump’s rise to prominence was a good thing for the conservative movement. They worried, overwhelmingly, that his erratic ways were going to drag them down with him.

Ever since Election Day, they have operated in a strange moral and intellectual miasma that’s led them to forget all that and invest their energy in defending him, believing that to be the best path forward for American conservatism. One can only hope at this point that they’ll reconsider before it’s too late. If not, America is going to need a different group of Congress members.•

From the September 7, 1949 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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