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You could argue that Facebook and other social media and search-engine companies allowed Russia to corrupt our Presidential election because of a lack of concern or a lack of competency, much the same way you can wonder whether Trump voters chose their candidate because of foolishness or malice, but it’s inarguable that these systems were utilized by an adversarial country to harm our own.

Just as bad has been the response by these businesses in the aftermath of their utter failure. Google is still, to some extent, accepting money to disseminate Fake News. Twitter has seriously under-reported how many Russian bots swarmed their service during the election (and afterwards). Facebook has employed deflection, dismissiveness and disavowal in answering charges.

In “This Could Be the End of Facebook” at Vanity Fair “Hive,” Nick Bilton responds to the stunning Zuckerberg-Sandberg failure in context of Johnson & Johnson’s sweeping and successful antidote to the 1982 Tylenol cyanide poisonings, which could have tanked the entire brand but ended up instead elevating the company’s standing. In rapidly removing every last bottle from store shelves throughout the country and creating a tamper-proof bottle, the powers that be were as concerned about the bottom line as public safety, but in the process of securing their reputations they protected the public. Facebook, conversely, has tried to cover ass and shift blame in regards to the poison it distributed, exacerbating what had already seemed a worse-case scenario.

It’s clear now that these Silicon Valley companies either can’t or won’t police themselves and need to regulated by Washington.

From Bilton:

This sort of upfront, responsible, adult form of crisis management offers a useful foil to the manner in which Facebook has explained how Russian operatives used its platform to meddle in the 2016 election. In a recent interview with Axios’s Mike Allen, Facebook C.O.O. Sheryl Sandberg acknowledged that she wished the meddling “hadn’t happened” on the company’s platform, but she stopped short of owning up to the mess. Instead, she rehashed bizarre arguments about how Facebook is not a media company. “At our heart we’re a tech company—we don’t hire journalists,” she told Allen.

It’s worth recalling, of course, that it wasn’t the makers of Tylenol who put cyanide in the pills that killed seven innocent people; nevertheless, the company felt a responsibility to come up with a solution to the problem. While Facebook’s engineers may not be posting fake news, the dirt is still on their hands. “The damage done to organizations in crises isn’t the crisis itself— it’s how you handle the crisis,” Scott Galloway, author of the new book The Four: The Hidden D.N.A. of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, told me this week on the latest episode of the Inside the Hive podcast. “There’s only one thing you have to remember: you have to overcorrect. You have to clear every shelf of all Tylenol nationwide. You can’t say this is an isolated incident and it won’t happen again.”

Galloway specifically pointed to Sandberg’s comments in Washington, both to Allen and on Capitol Hill the day before, as examples of insincerity. “It’s not only bullshit, but from a pure shareholder standpoint at Facebook, it’s stupid,” Galloway said. “Martha Stewart didn’t go to jail for insider trading; she went to jail for denying she had traded on insider information; she went to jail for obstruction of justice.” He went on to point out that in his mind, Sandberg was intentionally blurring lines around what happened, and that she may not actually believe what she is saying publicly. “I feel that Sheryl Sandberg was eerily reminiscent of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was forced to go out and say something that I believe she knows is not true. I believe that anyone who is as intelligent as Sheryl Sandberg is—I think she is a remarkable woman—I think she knows they are a media company, and for her, I think she’s towing the party line on behalf of her boss, and eroding her own credibility. I think she had her Sarah Huckabee Sanders moment, and it’s really a shame.”•

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Senator McCain is right, but let’s recall that he and other so-called moderate Republicans helped pave the way for Trump by willingly embracing xenophobia, if in less overt and profane terms, and by not allowing Merrick Garland a fair hearing. McCain also vowed that no Supreme Court nominee would get one should Hillary Clinton win the Presidency. It’s great if he wants to be party now to the raising of American political discourse, but he also played a role in its descent. “Complete the Danged Fence” was the gateway to “Build the Wall.”

From NPR in October 2016:

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) said Monday that if Hillary Clinton is elected, Republicans will unite to block anyone she nominates to the Supreme Court.

Speaking on WPHT-AM radio’s “Dom Giordano Program” in Philadelphia, McCain pledged to obstruct any Clinton Supreme Court nomination for the current or any future vacancy.

“I promise you that we will be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton, if she were president, would put up,” he declared.•

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From McCain’s 2008 Presidential campaign:

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The last picture of Hitler alive.

U.S. Intelligence renderings from 1944 of how Hitler may have looked in disguise.

Adolf Hitler committed suicide by gun 72 years ago, but evil never really dies. In fact, it often returns in a variation on an old theme, with new villains picking up the torch—even if it’s made from tiki the next time around.

I quipped in the aftermath of last November’s Presidential election that America was trying to retroactively lose World War II and the Cold War, so taken was Trump and much of the right with neo-Nazis and Putin’s poisoners. The winner of those revived battles still remains in doubt a year later.

Hitler left such a jagged wound on the globe by the end of WWII that some among the Allies couldn’t wrap their heads around the demise of such an outsize heinous figure. Did he escape to Japan on a submarine? Was he spirited away to Sweden? Could some other machinations have helped him avoid ignominious death in the Führerbunke?

From the September 9, 1945 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Trump hit the iceberg today and Sarah Huckabee Sanders is the band that played on.

Whether American democracy itself winds up collateral damage to the hulking political scandal that’s just begun taking on water—the biggest breach of ethics in the history of American governance—is still TBD. A constitutional crisis is as likely than anything else. But it’s important to remember that while Trump was the absolute worse roll of the dice (and loaded dice, at that), it was the house that was crooked. Nearly 63 million citizens cast a ballot for a bigoted, incompetent, money-laundering game-show host, and that’s a deep indictment on many of our systems—political, educational, media, etc. Even if we remain standing during Trump’s ignominious fall, we’ll continue wobbling on the precipice unless some deep fixes are enacted.

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It’s an American tradition to rehabilitate crooks and liars of years gone by who are no longer in possession of power to do grave damage, making them seem harmless in their dotage: Nixon, Kissinger, Goldwater, etc. The latter politico, the architect of society-busting Reagonomics, was sometimes seated next to Jay Leno in the 1990s, apparently humbled as he shared anecdotes. It’s not likely he’d changed; we’d just forgotten. 

The same tendency is at play with more recent goats, including George W. Bush, an interesting outsider artist who broke the world through incompetence and dishonesty, and John Boehner, the former teary-eyed and often destructive Speaker, who is his retirement is willing to say shitty things about shitty Republicans in between Marlboro drags and coughing fits. Some in the media and populace applaud because he was never as bad as Trump, but let’s recall that he was one of the agents who led to our current calamity.

From Tim Alberta’s fascinating Politico profile about Boehner at rest (or as close to it as he can manage): 

A bipartisan group of eight senators had crafted a comprehensive immigration bill that appeared to have support in the House GOP. But in June, when the Senate passed it—68 to 32, with 14 Republicans voting yes—House members found themselves under siege from constituents and conservative groups. The fatal flaw: It provided a path to citizenship, albeit a winding one, for people in the country illegally. Many conservatives could support a path to legal status but not citizenship; Democrats, on the other hand, essentially took a citizenship-or-nothing approach. Boehner was boxed in: He wanted immigration reform, and personally didn’t mind citizenship—especially for minors brought to the U.S. unwittingly. But putting the bill on the floor meant it might pass into law with perhaps as few as 40 or 50 of his members voting yes. Conservatives would never forgive him for overruling the vast majority of his membership. Looking back, Boehner says not solving immigration is his second-biggest regret, and he blames Obama for “setting the field on fire.” But the former speaker doesn’t mention the nativist voices in his own party that came to dominate the debate, foreshadowing the presidential campaign three years later. Ultimately, the speaker’s immigration quandary boiled down to a choice between protecting his right flank and doing what he thought was right for the country—and Boehner chose the former.

It wasn’t the only time. That summer, conservatives were also getting an earful about the Obamacare exchanges opening on October 1. House Republicans had voted repeatedly to repeal the law but the Senate refused to act, and their constituents, justifiably, wanted to know why Obamacare still existed when they had been promised otherwise. “Somehow, out on the campaign trail, the representation was made that you could beat President Obama into submission to sign a repeal of the law with his name on it,” Cantor says. “And that’s where things got, I think, disconnected from reality.” (In Ohio, listening to his pals groan about Obamacare, Boehner explains why his former colleagues haven’t repealed it: “Their gonads shriveled up when they learned this vote was for real.”)

Republicans’ penchant for overpromising and underdelivering would ultimately enable the ascent of Donald Trump, who positioned himself as a results-oriented outsider who would deliver where politicians had failed. In the shorter term, it invited something less dramatic: a government shutdown. Eager to demonstrate that all options were being exhausted to defeat Obamacare, Ted Cruz in the Senate and conservatives in the House concocted a plan: Because the government needed new funding on October 1, the same day the exchanges would open, they would propose funding the rest of the federal government—while defunding Obamacare.

Boehner objected. Not only would Democrats never go for it; Republicans would be blamed for the resulting government shutdown. “I told them, ‘Don’t do this. It’s crazy. The president, the vice president, Reid, Pelosi, they’re all sitting there with the biggest shit-eating grins on their faces that you’ve ever seen, because they can’t believe we’re this fucking stupid.’” (Boehner, at one point, surprises me by saying he’s proud of Cruz—whom he once called “Lucifer in the flesh”—for acting responsibly in 2017. Do you feel badly about calling him Lucifer, I ask? “No!” Boehner snorts. “He’s the most miserable son of a bitch I’ve ever had to work with.”) 

After railing against the defund strategy, however, Boehner surveyed his conference and realized it was a fight many members wanted—and some needed. Yielding, he joined them in the trenches, abandoning his obligations of governance in hopes of strengthening his standing in the party. But the 17-day shutdown proved costly. Watching as Republicans got butchered in nationwide polling, the speaker finally called a meeting to inform members that they would vote to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling. “I get a standing ovation,” Boehner says. “I’m thinking, ‘This place is irrational.’”•

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When Tina Brown was the Editor-in-Chief of the New Yorker, she would comment that “cuteness” was a factor in hiring writers. It seemed like more than a flippant remark. That was the world she wanted to inhabit, one in which appearance, in a number of ways, was preeminent. It’s a mindset that’s added little to the culture.

There were many changes the New Yorker needed to be make in 1992 when Brown was brought in to perform as a wrecking ball for the then-staid institution. Many of her reinventions weren’t the right ones, however. David Remnick often gives his predecessor credit for doing the heavy lifting in recreating the title, but female writers and editors (besides herself) were often pushed from the foreground on her watch. It’s only deep into Remnick’s reign that this egregious shift has been largely remedied. Hollywood and celebrity became central to the publication under Brown, and I will never forgive her for allowing Roseanne to guest edit an edition, the cheapest ploy in magazine’s history. (That’s no offense to Roseanne, who’s an excellent comic, but to the Editor-in-Chief who put her in that ridiculous position.) In addition to paring down the staff of scribes who’d ceased being useful, Brown also drove out many great and productive writers. The use of language in the New Yorker suffered under her tenure, though, to be fair, that was as much a problem of a troubled wider culture. It’s no shock Brown ended up in business with Harvey Weinstein—they were always on the same team.

Funny that Brown’s first cover featured a punk. Her punk phase was as genuine as Ivanka Trump’s.

· · ·

In “A Likely Story,” Mimi Kramer’s Medium essay, the former New Yorker theater critic has crafted one of the most intelligent pieces on shitty men in media and elsewhere. In one section, she excoriates Brown, her former boss, with surgical precision. An excerpt:

There are — if I may be permitted to oversimplify wildly for a moment — two kinds of women in the working world who achieve great power. Those who are good at what they do and enjoy working with other smart or talented or thoughtful women. And there’s another kind that isn’t really good at much of anything at all but self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, and manipulating other people. That kind of woman will always enable and protect the Weinsteins of the world and encourage men in the demeaning of other women. There may be an element of self-loathing there, like the self-loathing Smith attributes to Weinstein himself; the women enablers may have some unconscious need to diminish and devalue something they lack.

There can be something almost sexy about working with gifted, brilliant people of either gender, whether you’re gay or straight. I remember once being stopped in the hallway by a veteran editor (she wasn’t even my editor) who had seen Bill Irwin’s The Regard of Flight, which I was writing about, and told me — with great tact and even more passion — that I’d left out the most important point about the show, how it was really all about race in America; and she was right. That was probably the most exciting moment in all my time at The New Yorker.

And I remember a story told me by Veronica, who was in on a few of Brown’s early editorial meetings. The question of how certain managerial roles would be meted out came up and someone brought up the name of the editor who had stopped me in the hall that time. Veronica told me that Brown quipped, “Oh, you mean the fat, homely girl with glasses,” and the men all laughed. Yes, they agreed, that was who was meant. Veronica pointed out that the woman under discussion was an accomplished poet and translator, and the men, chastened, all quickly agreed, “Yes, yes, very accomplished.

Tina Brown was the enabler-in-chief. It’s absurd for her to carry on as though she didn’t know of Weinstein’s depredations and wasn’t complicit. She’s the woman who put a young actress who wouldn’t sleep with Weinstein on the cover of the premiere issue of Talk dressed in S&M garb, crawling painfully toward the camera on her stomach like a submissive, and so generically made up as to render her unrecognizable as an individual. What the hell did she think that was saying?

It’s equally hard to stomach Brown on the subject of Weinstein’s grossness and unloveliness. Brown did more to vulgarize and uglify American letters than any other single person in America. She was the queen of the nothing-is-sacred mentality, establishing a redefinition of writing and journalism whereby nothing had any value at all but sex, shock, money, power, or celebrity.

She came to this country and, having failed to revive Vanity Fair, leaving it to a better editor and journalist to shape it into the very thing she’d hoped to achieve, went on to take a great literary institution — historic because it had introduced the vernacular into the American literary landscape, establishing that good writing could sound more like speech than like some gouty old Brit in a smoking jacket — and transformed it into something so crass you scarcely wanted to touch it, let alone look at or read it. (Actually, that last bit’s not me; it’s something I remember Louis Menand saying to me once.) This is a woman who thought declaring that The New Yorker would remain “text-driven” would reassure writers and journalists, who thought that putting topic-sentences at the top of every page of the magazine to make it easier to read was a good idea.

Brown’s performances on Charlie Rose and on BBC Newsnight offer up a demonstration of what she is very good at. She’s good at cant, and she’s good at a certain kind of corporate-political self-protection. It’s cunning, if mistaken, to try to get herself off the hook by blasting Donald Trump in the same breath as Harvey Weinstein. It’s enemy-of-my-enemy logic; she’s banking on the idea that Americans are too stupid to hold more than one idea in their heads at a time, hoping if she goes on record as a non-endorser of Trump, no one but Republicans will call her out on her hypocrisy. For her to get away with that would be more than a farce; it would be an obscenity. Not endorse Trump? She helped create the cesspool that made it possible for someone like Donald Trump to become the President of the United States. She’s part of the reason we’re in the mess we’re in now.•

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Since I was never a chess player, one of the things that surprised me when reading the long centerpiece of Garry Kasparov’s Deep Thinking, in which he recounted at length for the first time his two titanic battles in the 1990s with IBM’s Big Blue, was just how many seemingly obvious mistakes great human players make. I always assumed the best of the best went long flawless stretches before finally tripping up, but that’s not so. A game in which the two best players square off can see countless mistaken maneuvers—and that’s the case even if one of the competitors is a supercomputer. 

In a smart New Standard interview conducted by Will Dunn, Kasparov compares his own humblings at the feet of technology to the lot of us potentially encountering an AI enhanced enough to remake society over the next several decades. He’s more sanguine than most when confronted by the specter of machine dominance, believing as industries fall before computers, others will rise to provide new employment, and that humans will succeed in what he terms “open systems.” 

I think he’s making assumptions that may not prove true. Well-trained human telephone operators are to this point far better at handling caller queries than automated systems are, but that hasn’t stopped corporations from opting for the cheaper alternative. That doesn’t mean all jobs will disappear—though I bet lots of them in the medical field, including doctor, will be diminished—but it does mean that machines don’t necessarily have to be better to win, even outside of a closed system. Facebook and Google have all but proven that with their lackluster response to cyber espionage. And the more AI that slides into our lives, the more surveillance capitalism will become ubiquitous. 

An excerpt:

By the mid-90s, Moore’s Law had held true for three decades. As in so many areas, the machines appeared to be little more than a novelty until, following the curve of exponential growth, their power became suddenly apparent. “The whole idea that if we had enough time, we would avoid making mistakes,” says Kasparov, “was ignorant. Humans are poised to make mistakes, even the best humans. And the whole story of human-machine competition is that the machines – first it’s impossible [that they could play], then the machines are laughably weak, then they are competing, for a brief time, and then, forever after, they are superior.”

But the inevitability of the machines’ success, says Kasparov, is not a matter of brute force, but of reliability. “Machines have a steady hand. It’s not that machines can solve the game” – the number of possible moves is so high that, even calculating at 200 million moves per second, it would have taken Deep Blue longer than the life of its opponent, or the solar system or quite possibly the universe itself, to calculate them all – “it’s about making moves that are of a higher average quality than humans.” The machine, says Kasparov, need never fear losing its concentration because it can never feel fear and it has no concentration to lose. “It doesn’t bother about making a mistake in the previous move. Humans are by definition emotional. Even the top experts, whether it be in chess, or video games, or science – we are prisoners of our emotions. That makes us easy prey for machines, in a closed system.”   

In 1997, Kasparov played his second match (he had won the first) against the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue and lost in the deciding game. He had been the World Champion since 1985, and would remain the world’s highest-rated human player until his retirement in 2005. He found losing to a machine to be “a shocking experience,” although this was partly, of course, because “I haven’t lost many games… Now, two decades later, I realise it was a natural process.”

But Kasparov does not think humans are about to be replaced entirely by machines. Even in cyber security, where automation and machine learning are necessary, “It’s not a closed system, because there are no written rules. Actually, it’s one of the areas where human-machine collaboration will have a decisive effect. I think it’s naïve to assume that machines could be totally dominant, because the angle of attack can change. There are so many things that can change. It’s an unlimited combination of patterns that can be manipulated.”•

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“It was very easy, all the machines are only cables and bulbs.”

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There are structural reasons why Germany couldn’t elevate a Donald Trump in its recent election, but that doesn’t mean the nation isn’t swaying rightward below the top. The populist, anti-immigrant AfD did stunningly well, which may be a harbinger or perhaps an aberration. No matter the political architecture in place, eventually a country’s momentum can upset its delicate balance, for better or worse. Ultimately, the Overton window can be shattered.

What seems explicit at this point is that a dangerous xenophobia and nationalism has gone viral globally. It’s not that this element didn’t always exist, but it took many decades after World War II before shameless provocateurs dared exploit for idiotic ideology and personal gain these dark currents. The lessons of history had to first be forgotten. 

From Ann-Katrin Müller and Ralf Neukirch’s Spiegel interview with former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer:

Spiegel:

You view the AfD as a party in the same tradition as the Nazi party?

Joschka Fischer:

Absolutely! I grew up in the 1950s. Everyone from my generation can still recall these German family gatherings. There was the Nazi grandfather and the uncle who was a member of the SS, and they would let fly with their maxims – and those maxims are suddenly making a comeback. Is Mr. (Björn) Höcke a right-wing populist or a Nazi? I’m tired of the waffling.

Spiegel:

You are referring to Björn Höcke, who has demanded that Germany emancipate itself from its World War II guilt. But he is also on the far-right wing of the AfD.

Joschka Fischer:

There are a lot of active AfD members and people in party leadership positions who speak like Nazis and think like Nazis. Gauland (Eds. Note: AfD parliamentary floor leader Alexander Gauland) wants to “take back our country and our people.” Umm, hello? Haven’t we heard that before? I had hoped and thought that our society had advanced beyond that. But we have to realize: They’re back.

Spiegel:

Are the 12.6 percent of the electorate who voted for the AfD also Nazis?

Joschka Fischer:

You have to make a distinction. But we shouldn’t forget that after 1945, we were told: We were hijacked, the Nazi bigwigs were guilty of everything Germany did to others and to itself. When I listen to Mr. Gauland or Mr. Höcke today, I always think of the image of the devastation in Cologne after the war, with the cathedral jutting out of the rubble. Today, you just cannot say anymore: I didn’t know, I was frustrated. We know how this movie ends.

Spiegel:

Going back to those maxims that you know from your family gatherings: Are they suddenly back again or were they always there and we just didn’t want to hear them?

Joschka Fischer:

I can’t answer that question. It’s impossible to explain some people’s convictions. The things that are said, like that Germany is an occupied country: That’s preposterous. It took me aback. I had honestly thought that we had come further.

Spiegel:

Why do you think it is that we haven’t come as far as we thought we had?

Joschka Fischer:

You can search far and wide for explanations. I haven’t yet heard or read one that I found convincing. Now, it is what it is. And we have to react to it.

Spiegel:

How?

Joschka Fischer:

We must be uncompromising and unrelenting on each individual issue in this confrontation and not sacrifice Germany to these people – and we certainly shouldn’t be led around by them. On the other hand, we can’t let ourselves get riled up by each and every one of their provocations. They are often intentional. From my own experience in dealing with the Nazi-grandpas, who have now clearly made a return, I would recommend a bit of fundamental imperturbability.•

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It would be great if human beings agreed to take a break from referring to each other as heroes and building statues of one another—apart from Harriet Tubman—since we’re all deeply flawed and in need of improvement. Even Elie Wiesel, for all his good work, was kind of a creep. Just four days ago, President Obama lauded President George H.W. Bush at a fundraiser for hurricane survivors:

The elder Bush and the volunteer programs he started came in for special praise before the crowd of Texans.

“He sets an example for all of us, as does first lady Barbara Bush,” Obama said.

In light of the confirmed allegations of sexual misconduct by Bush, which occurred with his wife’s knowledge, here are two passages from a 1991 People article.

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A lack of information can get you killed but so can the wrong information. Consider North Korea and Myanmar.

The former is infamously unplugged from all worldviews but the delusional one of Great Leader. It’s unclear how benighted the totality of the North Korean population has been made to be, but Suki Kim’s 2014 book, Without You, There Is No Us, reveals “educated” elites to be all but automatons in the service of the fratricidal provocateur Kim Jong-un. It’s all a dream and very much a nightmare. The only hope is that those who are less privileged and not so directly indoctrinated aren’t as enamored with the state-wide cult, though that’s probably wishful thinking.

Like most of the world, the latter nation is connected to the Internet, which has become an airstrip for weaponized information drones. Facebook seems to be the particular social-media vehicle that’s helped foment the current ethnic-cleansing furor which has exploded the relatively tiny and diverse Asian nation onto the world-news page and the obituaries. Anyone who doubted social media aided the Arab Spring was incorrect. Those who now believe its effect in regards to Brexit, Trump and Myanmar has been overstated, are similarly naive. 

Two excerpts follow.

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From Hannah Beech’s NYT article “Across Myanmar, Denial of Ethnic Cleansing and Loathing of Rohingya“:

Mr. Aye Swe admitted he had never met a Muslim before, adding, “I have to thank Facebook because it is giving me the true information in Myanmar.”

Social media messaging has driven much of the rage in Myanmar. Though widespread access to cellphones only started a few years ago, mobile penetration is now about 90 percent. For many people, Facebook is their only source of news, and they have little experience in sifting fake news from credible reporting.

One widely shared message on Facebook, from a spokesman for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s office, emphasized that biscuits from the World Food Program, a United Nations agency, had been found at a Rohingya militant training camp. The United Nations called the post “irresponsible.”

The Myanmar government, however, insists the public needs to be guided.

“We do something that we call educating the people,” said U Pe Myint, the nation’s information minister. He acknowledged, “It looks rather like indoctrination, like in an authoritarian or totalitarian state.”•

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From Jon Schwarz’s Intercept Q&A with Kim:

Question:

I’ve always believed that North Korea would never engage in a nuclear first strike just out of self-preservation. But your description of your students did honestly give me pause. It made me think the risk of miscalculation on their part is higher than I realized.

Suki Kim: 

It was paradoxical. They could be very smart, yet could be completely deluded about everything. I don’t see why that would be different in the people who run the country. The ones that foreigners get to meet, like diplomats, are sophisticated and can talk to you on your level. But at the same time they also have this other side where they have really been raised to think differently, their reality is skewed. North Korea is the center of the universe, the rest of the world kind of doesn’t exist. They’ve been living this way for 70 years, in a complete cult.

My students did not know what the internet was, in 2011. Computer majors, from the best schools in Pyongyang. The system really is that brutal, for everyone.

Question:

I was also struck by your description of the degeneration of language in North Korea. [Kim writes that “Each time I visited the DPRK, I was shocked anew by their bastardization of the Korean language. Curses had taken root not only in their conversation and speeches but in their written language. They were everywhere – in poems, newspapers, in official Workers’ Party speeches, even in the lyrics of songs. … It was like finding the words fuck and shit in a presidential speech or on the front page of the New York Times.”]

Suki Kim: 

Yes, I think the language does reflect the society. Of course, the whole system is built around the risk of an impending war. So that violence has changed the Korean language. Plus these guys are thugs, Kim Jong-un and all the rest of them, that’s their taste and it’s become the taste of the country.

Question: 

Authoritarians universally seem to have terrible taste.

Suki Kim: 

It’s interesting to be analyzing North Korea in this period of time in America because there are a lot of similarities. Look at Trump’s nonstop tweeting about “fake news” and how great he is. That’s very familiar, that’s what North Korea does. It’s just endless propaganda. All these buildings with all these slogans shouting at you all the time, constantly talking about how the enemies are lying all the time.

Those catchy one-liners, how many words are there in a tweet? It’s very similar to those [North Korean] slogans.

This country right now, where you’re no longer able to tell what’s true or what’s a lie, starting from the top, that’s North Korea’s biggest problem. America should really look at that, there’s a lesson.•

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Tyler Cowen has made it difficult to take him seriously with his tepid performance during this great threat to America’s decency and democracy. He’s gone out of his way to make it seem his fellow Libertarian Peter Thiel is an innocent bystander who just hopes to do good work inside a somewhat dysfunctional Administration. What bullshit. Thiel was one of the driving forces of a deeply bigoted white nationalist campaign that used any and all means—including espionage, perhaps—to push an ignorant, mentally unfit incompetent and a raft of tiki-torchers into the White House. Pretending otherwise is intellectually dishonest. Thiel doesn’t move in the political circles he does by accident. That’s who he is.

It’s at least dawned on Cowen that bigotry, not economics, was the driving force in the U.S. election, a phenomena that has been witnessed in recent elections around the world. That’s not to say legitimate concerns about wealth inequality are absent from this new abnormal, but that the bigger issue is a sad tribal meme that’s gone viral all over the globe.

The opening of the Bloomberg View column “The New Populism Isn’t About Economics“:

Economic theories of populism are dead, we Americans just don’t know it yet. Over the past week, two countries have brought populists to power, but in both cases those places have been enjoying decent economic growth.

Andrej Babis’s party dominated the Czech national election Saturday, and he is almost certain to become the next prime minister. Babis has been described as “the anti-establishment businessman pledging to fight political corruption while facing fraud charges himself” — sound familiar? Yet in 2015, the Czech Republic had the European Union’s fastest growth rate at more than 4 percent; earlier this year, it was growing at 2.9 percent, with potential seen on the upside.

Last week’s negotiations in New Zealand brought Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern to power, with populist firebrand Winston Peters in the coalition government. Ardern wants to cut immigration, possibly in half, and place much tighter restrictions on foreign investment. Although New Zealand’s economic growth has been slowing, it’s mostly been above 2 percent since the end of the financial crisis.

Among emerging economies, the Philippines moved from being an Asian growth laggard into some years of 8 percent growth. Voters responded by electing as president Rodrigo Duterte, one of the most aggressive and authoritarian populists around. In eastern Europe, Poland has been seeing average 4 percent growth for more than 25 years, yet the country has moved in a strongly nationalist direction, flirting with sanctions from the EU for limiting judicial independence. Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia and now the Czech Republic all are much wealthier than 20 years ago and mostly have been booming as of late. Yet to varying degrees they too have moved in nationalist, populist and possibly even anti-democratic directions.

Although these countries have rising inequality, their growth rates have elevated a wide swath of the citizenry, not just a few extremely wealthy people.

Even the U.S. fits this mold of prosperity and populism more than many people realize. For all the talk of stagnant wages, poll data indicated that Donald Trump’s supporters in the Republican primaries had a median income of about $72,000, which is hardly poverty. Wages and household median income have started to rise once again.

The trend continues outside the world’s democracies. …

It’s time to admit that the nationalist turn in global politics isn’t mainly about economics or economic failures.•

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The first live media coverage of an American Presidential inauguration occurred in 1845 when James Polk’s swearing-in process was reported on in real-time by Samuel Morse, who brought his telegraphic equipment to Washington D.C. From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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It’s one thing to respect those in the military and quite another to be required to pretend generals are sacred. There’s no way around stating the obvious that yesterday Gen. John Kelly behaved like an arrogant, rude, dishonest bully. Funny that when he’s overtly disdainful of the country, which he was, it’s considered patriotic, but when black NFL players politely dissent, it’s treason.

Masha Gessen has an essay in the New Yorker which refers to Kelly’s undemocratic press briefing as one that “could serve as a preview of what a military coup in this country would look like.” The writer employs ominous terminology, deeming such a turn of events as a “nightmare scenario.” You’d think she’d be pleased, since as recently as April she thought a military coup likely preferable to four years of our Simon Cowell-ish strongman. It was then she had the following exchange with Yana Kuchinoff of In These Times:

Question:

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

Masha Gessen:

If suddenly, tomorrow, there’s a military coup, that may not be a horrible thing. I sort of agree with some people who say, “Anything is better than him.” In a static imagination, where we go directly from here to there, anything is better.•

Maybe there’s no better-or-worse scenario? There’s a good chance we’ve already experienced a non-military, enemy-enabled coup and changing it into a uniform might produce less damage in some ways and more in others. In fact, it’s possible we could get the worst of both worlds, with some grotesque hybrid of Trump and generals trying to clamp down on our freedoms. It’s the least likely scenario, but it can’t be dismissed.

Gessen’s opening:

Consider this nightmare scenario: a military coup. You don’t have to strain your imagination—all you have to do is watch Thursday’s White House press briefing, in which the chief of staff, John Kelly, defended President Trump’s phone call to a military widow, Myeshia Johnson. The press briefing could serve as a preview of what a military coup in this country would look like, for it was in the logic of such a coup that Kelly advanced his four arguments.

Argument 1. Those who criticize the President don’t know what they’re talking about because they haven’t served in the military. To demonstrate how little lay people know, Kelly provided a long, detailed explanation of what happens when a soldier is killed in battle: the body is wrapped in whatever is handy, flown by helicopter, then packed in ice, then flown again, then repacked, then flown, then embalmed and dressed in uniform with medals, and then flown home. Kelly provided a similar amount of detail about how family members are notified of the death, when, and by whom. He even recommended a film that dramatized the process of transporting the body of a real-life marine, Private First Class Chance Phelps. This was a Trumpian moment, from the phrasing—“a very, very good movie”—to the message. Kelly stressed that Phelps “was killed under my command, right next to me”; in other words, Kelly’s real-life experience was recreated for television, and that, he seemed to think, bolstered his authority.

Fallen soldiers, Kelly said, join “the best one per cent this country produces.” Here, the chief of staff again reminded his audience of its ignorance: “Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any of them. But they are the very best this country produces.”

The one-per-cent figure is puzzling. The number of people currently serving in the military, both on active duty and in the reserves, is not even one per cent of all Americans. The number of veterans in the population is far higher: more than seven per cent. But, later in the speech, when Kelly described his own distress after hearing the criticism of Trump’s phone call, the general said that he had gone to “walk among the finest men and women on this earth. And you can always find them because they’re in Arlington National Cemetery.” So, by “the best” Americans, Kelly had meant dead Americans—specifically, fallen soldiers.

The number of Americans killed in all the wars this nation has ever fought is indeed equal to roughly one per cent of all Americans alive today. This makes for questionable math and disturbing logic. It is in totalitarian societies, which demand complete mobilization, that dying for one’s country becomes the ultimate badge of honor. Growing up in the Soviet Union, I learned the names of ordinary soldiers who threw their bodies onto enemy tanks, becoming literal cannon fodder. All of us children had to aspire to the feat of martyrdom. No Soviet general would have dared utter the kind of statement that’s attributed to General George S. Patton: “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.”•

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Larry Page long promised to keep the more anarchic elements of Google discrete from mainstream society. In 2013, he openly pined for a patch of America which his company could employ as a lawless laboratory—a Burning Man of sorts in which the fire could really run wild. From a Verge article of that year:

“There are many exciting things you could do that are illegal or not allowed by regulation,” Page said. “And that’s good, we don’t want to change the world. But maybe we can set aside a part of the world.” He likened this potential free-experimentation zone to Burning Man and said that we need “some safe places where we can try things and not have to deploy to the entire world.” Google is already well-known for coming up with some pretty interesting ideas — the idea of seeing what Page could come up with in this lawless beta-test country is simultaneously exciting and a bit terrifying.•

Of course, Page’s promise was always an empty one. Eric Schimdt was more forthcoming three years earlier when he wrote that the Internet was the “largest experiment in anarchy we’ve ever had.” Since Google was the biggest search engine by far, it’s place in this brave new world was central. Our gamble on an interconnected, unregulated global village played out astoundingly badly over the last calendar year as weaponized Russian bots were deployed on the lane-less highways of Google, Facebook and Twitter to disrupt important elections in the UK and USA. The interference led to Brexit and President Trump, so the Kremlin was elated, but it wasn’t without a backup plan should it fall short of those gargantuan goals: Simply fomenting a race war would have also been acceptable. That Google nearly a year after America’s Election Day is still publishing obvious misinformation for profit suggests the perilous experiments which have played out on Main Street in broad daylight will continue to do so as long as there’s money to be made.

· · ·

As for Google getting a barren stretch of remote land to use as its physical testing grounds, the dream has been changed and upgraded. Why settle for the sticks when you can get a place downtown? Once of Ray Bradbury’s worst ideas, which he discussed in 1996, was that “enlightened corporations” could take over cities. Along those lines, Google aims to have its Sidewalk Labs build a futuristic neighborhood in Toronto. Not to say that Page, Brin, Schmidt et al., want to detonate explosives on Spadina or bring flying cars to Yonge, but that a scenario in which billionaire technologists are allowed control over a city or even a few city blocks is in and of itself a dangerous experiment.

The opening of Emily Badger’s New York Times piece “Google’s Founders Wanted to Shape a City. Toronto Is Their Chance.“:

Google’s founders have long fantasized about what would happen if the company could shape the real world as much as it has life on the internet.

“Years ago, we were sitting there thinking, Wouldn’t it be nice if you could take technical things that we know and apply them to cities?” Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Alphabet (now Google’s parent company), said Tuesday. “And our founders got really excited about this. We started talking about all of these things that we could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge.”

That is, of course, an outlandish idea. “For all sorts of good reasons, by the way, it doesn’t work that way,” Mr. Schmidt acknowledged. But there he was standing Tuesday before an array of Canadian flags, in front of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario officials, to announce the closest thing anyone has seen to a tech company that takes the reins in a major city.

Toronto has about 800 acres of waterfront property awaiting redevelopment, a huge and prime stretch of land that amounts to one of the best opportunities in North America to rethink at scale how housing, streets and infrastructure are built. On Tuesday the government and the group overseeing the land announced that they were partnering with an Alphabet subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs, to develop the site.

They want it to embody the city of the future, a technological test bed for other communities around the world, “the world’s first neighborhood built from the internet up.”•

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Politely dissented yesterday when a consistently smart commentator on Twitter suggested social media led to the downfall of Harvey Weinstein. It was actually two incredibly expensive, old-school journalism pieces from legacy news organizations (the New York Times and the New Yorker) that deservedly laid him low. The latter of those two outlets is owned by Condé Nast, which is reportedly set to rack up $100 million less in revenues this year than last. We always hear about how much traffic such erstwhile print powerhouses are gaining, but it simply doesn’t translate into a suitable replacement for funds formerly brought in by display ads and classifieds. It’s not clear that video (a bubble, really) or micropayments or some other means will rescue costly, vital journalism, but it won’t be easy sustaining a healthy democracy without it.

Two excerpts follow about liberty in peril.

_______________________

In Douglas Busvine’s Reuters report on Margaret Atwood, the novelist asserts the world is closer than any time since World War II to falling under the sick spell of totalitarianism. That’s true since it hasn’t been a very realistic scenario for the past 70 years, but perhaps the statement lacks necessary proportion. We’re living in a threatening time but not one fated to devolve into dictatorship. 

An excerpt:

Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president has, for some critics, brought that vision closer to reality as he uses social media to browbeat opponents, and lawmakers in a number of states seek to restrict women’s reproductive rights. 

“It feels the closest to the 1930s of anything that we have had since that time,” the 77-year-old Atwood told a news conference, drawing parallels with the fascist and communist regimes which then ruled parts of Europe. …

Atwood, author of more than 40 books of fiction, poetry and critical essays, said it was surprising to many that signs of totalitarianism were manifesting themselves in the United States of today.

It’s a far cry from the Berlin of the Cold War, still surrounded by the wall that divided Germany, where she started writing The Handmaid’s Tale, she recalled.

“People in Europe saw the United States as a beacon of democracy, freedom, openness, and they did not want to believe that anything like that could ever happen there,” she said.

“But now, times have changed, and, unfortunately it becomes more possible to think in those terms.”•

· · ·

In the New York Review of Books, Sasha Polakow-Suransky asks “Is Democracy in Europe Doomed?” The writer uses polling stats to argue that U.S. senior citizens appreciate democracy but millennials do not. That’s odd since it was older Americans, not our youngest voters, who supported Trump into the White House. An excerpt:

On the morning of April 23, 2017, as the polls opened in the ninth arrondissement of Paris, an old man with a cane positioned himself in front of a bright yellow mailbox and began to scrape. After a few minutes, he sauntered away toward the markets of the rue des Martyrs, leaving a torn and scratched relic of the modified hammer-and-sickle logo of the hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s party, La France Insoumise (“Rebellious” or, literally, “Unsubmissive France”).

The old man, evidently no fan of Mélenchon’s anticapitalist, anti-NATO, pro-Russian rhetoric, had reason to worry. In neighborhoods like this, the epicenter of Paris hipsterdom, Mélenchon polled well. Everyone from student protesters to academics and the well-to-do scions of one of the city’s wealthiest families told me they were voting for the ex-communist firebrand. His soaring oratory and rage at the system captivated the left and almost propelled him into the second round; he finished with almost 20 percent of the vote, just 2 percent less than the leader of the National Front (FN), Marine Le Pen.

After the results came in, Mélenchon was the only defeated candidate who did not call upon his followers to back the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron against Le Pen in the second round. He instead consulted 250,000 of them online and found that two-thirds refused to support Macron. In the days leading up to round two, there was panic on the left. Even the former Communist Party organ L’Humanité printed op-eds calling on readers who had voted for Mélenchon to grudgingly back Macron. According to postelection polls, only half of Mélenchon’s voters did so; many simply stayed home, contributing to the highest abstention rate in decades (25 percent) and the largest number of blank or spoiled ballots (over four million, or 12 percent of all votes) ever recorded.

Le Pen and Mélenchon together drew nearly 50 percent of the youth vote in the first round, splitting the 18-34 age bracket evenly. Unlike in Britain’s Brexit referendum, the young did not support the status quo; they voted for extremists who want to leave the EU.

Those who believe millennials are immune to authoritarian ideas are mistaken. Using data from the World Values Survey, the political scientists Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk have painted a worrying picture. As the French election demonstrated, belief in core tenets of liberal democracy is in decline, especially among those born after 1980. Their findings challenge the idea that after achieving a certain level of prosperity and political liberty, countries that have become democratic do not turn back.

In America, 72 percent of respondents born before World War II deemed it absolutely essential to live in a democracy; only 30 percent of millennials agreed. The figures were similar in Holland. The number of Americans favoring a strong leader unrestrained by elections or parliaments has increased from 24 to 32 percent since 1995. More alarmingly, the number of Americans who believe that military rule would be good or very good has risen from 6 to 17 percent over the same period. The young and wealthy were most hostile to democratic norms, with fully 35 percent of young people with a high income regarding army rule as a good thing. Mainstream political science, confident in decades of received wisdom about democratic “consolidation” and stability, seemed to be ignoring a disturbing shift in public opinion.

There could come a day when, even in wealthy Western nations, liberal democracy ceases to be the only game in town. And when that day comes, those who once embraced democracy could begin to entertain other options.•

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Came across the above online ad quite by accident when searching yesterday on Google, nearly a year after our Presidential Election was bombarded by weaponized disinformation via the search giant as well as Facebook and Twitter, exploding our democracy. It’s difficult to believe that the Page-Brin company, valued at $498 billion, couldn’t have invested in emergency measures to make sure the flow of sludge stopped until the algorithms could be improved. If they couldn’t be adequately upgraded to curb the problem, then a relatively small amount of money could be directed to hire sentient beings to curtail much of the Kremlin-coded mayhem. Social media, a tool America created, has been turned on us, and it’s clear by now that Silicon Valley giants have neither the way nor the will to arrest the trouble without oversight.

From Alexis Madrigal’s Atlantic article “What Facebook Did to American Democracy,” a passage about how Fake News became Big Business, with Silicon Valley profiting from it handsomely:

In a December 2015 article for BuzzFeed, Joseph Bernstein argued that the dark forces of the internet became a counterculture.” He called it “Chanterculture” after the trolls who gathered at the meme-creating, often-racist 4chan message board. Others ended up calling it the “alt-right.” This culture combined a bunch of people who loved to perpetuate hoaxes with angry Gamergaters with “free-speech” advocates like Milo Yiannopoulos with honest-to-God neo-Nazis and white supremacists. And these people loved Donald Trump.

“This year Chanterculture found its true hero, who makes it plain that what we’re seeing is a genuine movement: the current master of American resentment, Donald Trump,” Bernstein wrote. “Everywhere you look on ‘politically incorrect’ subforums and random chans, he looms.”

When you combine hyper-partisan media with a group of people who love to clown “normies,” you end up with things like Pizzagate, a patently ridiculous and widely debunked conspiracy theory that held there was a child-pedophilia ring linked to Hillary Clinton somehow. It was just the most bizarre thing in the entire world. And many of the figures in Bernstein’s story were all over it, including several who the current president has consorted with on social media.

But Pizzagate was but the most Pynchonian of all the crazy misinformation and hoaxes that spread in the run-up to the election.

BuzzFeed, deeply attuned to the flows of the social web, was all over the story through reporter Craig Silverman. His best-known analysis happened after the election, when he showed that “in the final three months of the U.S. presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election-news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Huffington Post, NBC News, and others.”

But he also tracked fake news before the election, as did other outlets such as The Washington Post, including showing that Facebook’s “Trending” algorithm regularly promoted fake news. By September of 2016, even the Pope himself was talking about fake news, by which we mean actual hoaxes or lies perpetuated by a variety of actors.

The longevity of Snopes shows that hoaxes are nothing new to the internet. Already in January 2015, Robinson Meyer reported about how Facebook was “cracking down on the fake news stories that plague News Feeds everywhere.”

What made the election cycle different was that all of these changes to the information ecosystem had made it possible to develop weird businesses around fake news.•

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From to Rev. Ike to Dr. Phil to President Trump, America has embraced mountebanks of many types, from religion to medicine to politics, asking only that they be skilled at satisfying our hunger to turn every last thing in the country into entertainment.

Norman Vincent Peale, a pastor and peddler of positivity, fit somewhere into that paradigm, offering a malleable feel-good philosophy that encouraged personal fulfillment rather than self-sacrifice, a faith that was a forerunner of the type of prosperity gospel favored by mansionaires like the Osteens. It’s no wonder Donald Trump worshiped so devoutly at his altar. In fact, Peale presided over the serial groom’s first nuptials.

Oddly, the pastor spent the pre-WWII era worried that a demagogic faux populist would be elevated to the Oval Office, not realizing, of course, that one of his future parishioners would come closest to filling the bill. Despite his fear of American Fascism, it’s no sure thing that Peale would have been aghast at Trump’s ascent. The religious leader himself was known for some bigoted views and was deeply offended by the New Deal and any social programs aimed at mitigating the suffering of desperate Depression-ites. Was he so pliant that he could have twisted himself into a Trump supporter? No way of knowing, but he certainly played an important role, willingly or not, in the development of the Worst American™.

A concise rendering of the Trump-Peale connection by Michael Kruse of Poitico:

He was born into a house that Norman Vincent Peale helped build.

Peale’s cheery, simple tips allowed Trump’s father to alleviate his anxieties and mitigate the effects of his innately awkward, dour disposition. Emboldened, Fred Trump banked hundreds of millions of dollars building single-family houses and then immense apartment buildings in New York’s outer boroughs. Peale appealed to the elder Trump, too, because both men embraced conservative, right-wing, us-versus-them politics—an important but often forgotten portion of Peale’s M.O.

A generation down, Peale appealed to Donald Trump because Trump idolized his father, and because what Fred Trump drilled into his most eager, most ambitious, most like-minded son—be a killer; be a king; be a winner, not a loser—is what made that son so receptive to the teachings of Peale. Born in 1946, Donald Trump’s childhood was spent in a house with white columns and nine bathrooms and a live-in maid and chauffeur in Jamaica Estates, Queens. Sometimes, when it rained or snowed, he did his paper route from the back of his father’s limousine.

Peale, known as “God’s salesman,” reached the peak of his influence in the heart of Trump’s childhood, preaching in the 1950s to millions of people on Sundays at Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan as well as through a syndicated newspaper column, radio and television shows, his Guidepostsmagazine and a spate of books that were self-help trailblazers—first and foremost, of course, The Power of Positive Thinking, his defining work and wild bestseller that came out in 1952. It offered chapters such as “Believe in Yourself,” “Expect the Best and Get It” and “I Don’t Believe in Defeat.” “Whenever a negative thought concerning your personal powers comes to mind, deliberately voice a positive thought,” he wrote. “Actually,” Peale once said, “it is an affront to God when you have a low opinion of yourself.”

Peale was far from universally popular. One psychiatrist dubbed The Power of Positive Thinking “saccharine terrorism.” And during the 1952 presidential campaign, the Democratic nominee made his feelings plain. “Speaking as a Christian,” the brainy Adlai Stevenson said at a Baptist convention in Texas, “I would like to say that I find the Apostle Paul appealing and the Apostle Peale appalling.” But Peale permanently altered the way many Americans worship. His was a precursor to the prosperity gospel espoused today by, say, the toothy Joel Osteen. “By repeatedly equating business acumen with piety, uncertainty with religious doubt, and personal and cultural failure with godlessness, Peale and his admirers helped to redefine religious Americans as socially superior winners,” Northwestern University English professor Christopher Lane wrote in his 2016 book, Surge of Piety: Norman Vincent Peale and the Remaking of American Religious Life.

What Peale peddled was “a certain positive, feel-good religiosity that demands nothing of you and rewards you with worldly riches and success,” said Princeton University historian Kevin Kruse, the author of One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. “It’s a self-help gospel … the name-it-and-claim-it gospel.”

A pair of articles follow from 1935 editions of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in which Peale warned of the rise of an American Mussolini.

From May 27, 1935:

From March 11, 1935:

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Emmanuel Macron is neither a gorilla-brained dotard like Donald Trump nor is he the intellectual heavyweight he seems to think. He was the best alternative to the nativism of Marine Le Pen in a moment when liberal governance was under heavy assault, and hopefully, despite early mixed-at-best reviews, he’ll prove capable.

Macron would do himself and the whole world a favor if he curtailed his penchant for showboating enough to not appear alongside Vladimir Putin in any arena. At the end of May, the French President summoned the Kremlin monster to Versailles to upbraid him for his attacks on democracy. The thuggish Russian kleptocrat will make that trade every time since all his people will ever see are photos and videos of the leader of their country with the leader of another, sans all the context and criticism. Putin’s stranglehold on the state media demands that outcome which is why no NATO head-of-state should be sharing a stage with him.

In a Spiegel interview conducted by Klaus Brinkbäumer, Julia Amalia Heyer and Britta Sandberg, Macron is probably correct when he stresses a central narrative as being necessary for uniting huge masses of humans who may be more inclined psychologically to live in tribes of dozens rather than nation-states of millions. Certainly Trump was able to successfully peddle a bogus story about America in absence of a reasonable narrative from his fellow Republican challengers or Hillary Clinton. 

An excerpt:

Emmanuel Macron:

For me, my office isn’t first and foremost a political or technical one. Rather, it is symbolic. I am a strong believer that modern political life must rediscover a sense for symbolism. We need to develop a kind of political heroism. I don’t mean that I want to play the hero. But we need to be amenable once again to creating grand narratives. If you like, post-modernism was the worst thing that could have happened to our democracy. The idea that you have to deconstruct and destroy all grand narratives is not a good one. Since then, trust has evaporated in everything and everyone. I am sometimes surprised that it is the media that are the first ones to exhibit a lack of trust in grand narratives. They believe that destroying something is part of their journalistic purpose because something grand must inevitably contain an element of evil. Critique is necessary, but where does this hate for the so-called grand narrative come from?

Spiegel: 

Why is this narrative so important?

Emmanuel Macron: 

I think we need it badly! Why is a portion of our youth so fascinated by extremes, jihadism for example? Why do modern democracies refuse to allow their citizens to dream? Why can’t there be such a thing as democratic heroism? Perhaps exactly that is our task: rediscovering something like that together for the 21st century.•

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”Ronald Reagan is not the President—he’s the host of the country,” Richard Belzer quipped in 1982, years before he would begin an endless portrayal of a homicide detective of vaguely Norwegian ancestry. Yes, he was correct to a good extent, but at least the Hollywood-failure-cum-successful-politician was right about some things some of the time. At the very least, he understood that Nazis and Kremlinites needed to be defeated, not defended.

Of course, there’s only been a further devolution since our 40th Commander-in-Chief, as Donald Trump is also not the President and not even the host despite playing one on TV—he’s the ignorant, fascist pornographer of the country. The good news is that he will soon likely be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen, courtesy of Robert Mueller. The downside is that until that time more people in Puerto Rico will needlessly die and perhaps the nuclear football will be fumbled.

· · ·

Despite Trump’s utterly awful performance as President—something that anyone with a thumbnail of brain matter could have predicted—I’m still surprised that even the most hardcore of his erstwhile supporters that I encounter during my daily routine have turned away from him inside of ten months, now deriding him with the Trumpish imprecation “loser.” It’s only a dozen or so people, a small sample size to be sure, but the broader numbers say a softening of the base is indeed occurring.

· · ·

If it dawns on the dimmest and most damnable among us that we won’t actually find the future in a dark corner of a coal mine, what will be our path forward, after we’re done squandering precious time as China rushes ahead on EVs, solar and supercomputers? Climate change and a growing non-white population make it unlikely the Texas model will rule America tomorrow, but perhaps clues can be gleaned further West.

The opening of “California Is the Future,” a Medium essay by Peter Leyden and Ruy Teixeira about the terrain they believe is ground zero for a new and necessary Enlightenment:

America is stuck between two historical eras. That’s the best way to understand the strange, unprecedented politics of Trump, the political polarization and paralysis of government, the deep dissatisfaction of public opinion, the lack of trust in all institutions — all of it.

The post-Industrial era that blossomed in the second half of the 20th century is over. That world of secure manufacturing jobs, generally homogenous societies and respected traditional institutions is done. And while it’s over from a dispassionate historical perspective, it’s markedly not done in the minds of many. This is half the problem: Too many people are hanging onto a worldview and way of life that is fast slipping away. The other half of the problem is that almost no one knows what will replace it.

To that we say:

California is the future. That’s the best way to understand the way forward for America, and ultimately the world. California is roughly 15 years ahead of the rest of America in confronting the very different realities of the 21st century.A world of transformative new technologies with capabilities that we are only just beginning to fully comprehend and harness. A polyglot world of diverse mixes of races and ethnicities that are both super-creative and periodically combustible. A world that increasingly is shaped by climate change and the immense challenges it poses for all of us.

California not only has faced up to the 21st-century challenges, but it’s begun to seriously adapt to them. Californians saw waves of new technologies early, then got a jump on leveraging and accommodating them, and occasionally constraining them. They began integrating a massive influx of Latino and Asian immigrants, coping with diversity in schools and work, and coming to terms with whites being the minority. Californians took a beating in climate-related catastrophes like the recent drought, and have aggressively moved forward with some of the most ambitious clean energy and sustainability measures in the world.

California is the future of American politics as well. The once Red and now deep Blue state has largely figured out a new political way forward for itself and by extension for America — as well as for other democracies — that’s up to the new realities and immense challenges of the 21st century. This is the most important insight for this historical juncture, this time of despair. It’s also the most difficult point for Americans on the east coast and the heartland to accept. But there is a compelling case to be made, based on data and an understanding of history, that what’s happening right now in California is going to come to the rest of America much sooner than almost anyone thinks.•

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Vision and speech recognition are cornerstones of Artificial Intelligence, but they’ll also be utilized in a further assault on reality should they fall into the wrong hands, which they will, of course, as they’ll be in all hands soon enough. A race for AI dominance among nations and corporations almost demands a boom in this sector. Soon enough, the veracity of everything from ancient history to the most recent trending topic will become even more muddled.

Even Disney devotee Ray Bradbury, who more than 50 years ago anxiously anticipated one fine day in the twenty-first century when a computerized Caesar would again address the masses, was leery about what might come to pass. “Am I frightened by any of this?” he asked. “Yes, certainly. For these audio-animatronic museums must be placed in hands that will build the truths as well as possible, and lie only through occasional error.”

In an excellent Conversation essay about the meaning of the original Blade Runner prompted by the release of its sequel, Marsha Gordon wonders about the withering of memory in the presence of profound AI, as reality receives an “upgrade.” An excerpt:

Today, the relationship between corporations, machines and humans defines modern life in ways that Ridley Scott – even in his wildest and most dystopic imagination – couldn’t have forecast in 1982.

In Blade Runner, implanted memories are propped up by coveted (but fake) family photos. Yet a world in which memory is fragile and malleable seems all too possible and familiar. Recent studies have shown that people’s memories are increasingly susceptible to being warped by social media misinformation, whether it’s stories of fake terrorist attacks or Muslims celebrating after 9/11. When this misinformation spreads on social media networks, it can create and reinforce false collective memories, fomenting a crisis of reality that can skew election results or whip up small town hysteria.

Meanwhile, Facebook has studied how it can manipulate the way its users feel – and yet over a billion people a day log on to willingly participate in its massive data collection efforts.

Our entrancement with technology might seem less dramatic than the full-blown love affair that Scott imagined, but it’s no less all-consuming. We often prioritize our smartphones over human social interactions, with millennials checking their phones over 150 times a day. In fact, even as people increasingly feel that they cannot live without their smartphones, many say that the devices are ruining their relationships.

And at a time when we’re faced with the likelihood of being unable to differentiate between what’s real and what’s fake – a world of Twitter bots and doctored photographs, trolling and faux-outrage, mechanical pets and plastic surgery – we might be well served by recalling Deckard’s first conversation upon arriving at Tyrell Corp. Spotting an owl, Deckard asks, “It’s artificial?” Rachael replies, not skipping a beat, “Of course it is.”

In Blade Runner, reality no longer really matters.

How much longer will it matter to us?•

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The truth was supposed to set us free.

There are more facts readily available to people in our age than ever before. It’s not even close. But the powerful tools that disseminate these bits of knowledge can also be repurposed to obliterate truth, to make all things seem equal, to even make the worse seem the better.

Prior to social media going viral, America already had built an infrastructure amenable to disinformation and conspiracy theories, with Fox News and right-wing radio not selling conservative policy but offering distortions and racial dissension. The Internet immensely broadened the stage for such ill-intended players, making room for Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos to deliver a meteoric impact on the center from the deepest and darkest corners of the fringe. Donald Trump was even able to exploit this new abnormal to activate a racist base all the way to the White House, with, of course, copious aid from Russia.

In regards to those Russians: We pale in comparison to them in weaponizing the new Information Age, as Putin’s Kremlin, a regime leading its country into many other kinds of disaster, has been able to successfully use our inventions to organize the new rules of engagement, utilizing social media not only to spread messages helpful to its cause but also in mobilizing the complicit and unwitting in other nations to do its bidding. It’s a virtual-and-actual hybrid aimed at disturbing the world, and even the Kremlin has to be shocked by how wonderfully well it’s worked thus far. It couldn’t have occurred without numerous Americans in high positions being duplicitous, but it also wouldn’t have been possible without our new tools.

The opening of Jim Rutenberg’s New York Times Magazine piece “RT, Sputnik and Russia’s New Theory of War“:

One morning in January 2016, Martin Steltner showed up at his office in the state courthouse building in western Berlin. Steltner, who has served for more than a dozen years as the spokesman for the Berlin state prosecutor, resembles a detective out of classic crime fiction: crisp suit, wavy gray hair and a gallows humor that comes with having seen it all. There was the 2009 case of the therapist who mistakenly killed two patients in an Ecstasy-infused session gone wrong. The Great Poker Heist of 2010, in which masked men stormed a celebrity-studded poker tournament with machetes and made off with a quarter-million dollars. The 2012 episode involving the Canadian porn star who killed and ate his boyfriend and then sent the leftovers home in the mail. Steltner embraced the oddball aspect of his job; he kept a picture of Elvis Presley on the wall of his office.

But even Steltner found the phone calls he received that morning confounding. They came from police officers from towns far outside Berlin, who reported that protests were erupting, seemingly out of nowhere, on their streets. “They are demonstrating — ‘Save our children,’ ‘No attacks from immigrants on our children’ and some things like that,” Steltner told me when I met him in Berlin recently.

The police were calling Steltner because this was ostensibly his office’s fault. The protesters were angry over the Berlin prosecutor’s supposed refusal to indict three Arab migrants who, they said, raped a 13-year-old girl from Berlin’s tight-knit Russian-German community.

Steltner, who would certainly have been informed if such a case had come up for prosecution, had heard nothing of it. He called the Berlin Police Department, which informed him that a 13-year-old Russian-German girl had indeed gone missing a week before. When she resurfaced a day later, she told her parents that three “Southern-looking men” — by which she meant Arab migrants — had yanked her off the street and taken her to a rundown apartment, where they beat and raped her.

But when the police interviewed the girl, whose name was Lisa, she changed her story. She had left home, it turned out, because she had gotten in trouble at school. Afraid of how her parents would react, she went to stay with a 19-year-old male friend. The kidnapping and gang rape, she admitted, never happened.
 
By then, however, the girl’s initial story was taking on a life of its own within the Russian-German community through word of mouth and Facebook — enough so that the police felt compelled to put out a statement debunking it. Then, over the weekend, Channel One, a Russian state-controlled news station with a large following among Russian-Germans, who watch it on YouTube and its website, ran a report presenting Lisa’s story as an example of the unchecked dangers Middle Eastern refugees posed to German citizens. Angela Merkel, it strongly implied, was refusing to address these threats, even as she opened German borders to hundreds of thousands of migrants. “According to Lisa’s parents,” the Channel One reporter said, “the police simply refuse to look for criminals.”

The following day in Berlin, Germany’s far-right National Democratic Party held a protest at a plaza in Marzahn, a heavily Russian neighborhood. The featured speaker was an adult cousin of Lisa’s, who repeated the original allegations while standing in front of signs reading “Stop Foreign Infiltration!” and “Secure Borders!” The crowd was tiny, not much more than a dozen people. But it was big enough to attract the attention of RT, Russia’s state-financed international cable network, which presents local-language newscasts in numerous countries, including Germany and the United States. A crew from the network’s video service, Ruptly, arrived with a camera. The footage was on YouTube that afternoon.

That same day, Sputnik, a brash Russian-government-run news and commentary site that models itself on BuzzFeed, ran a story raising allegations of a police cover-up. Lisa’s case was not isolated, Sputnik argued; other refugee rapists, it warned, might be running free. By the start of the following week, protests were breaking out in neighborhoods with large Russian-German populations, which is why the local police were calling Steltner. In multiple interviews, including with RT and Sputnik, Steltner reiterated that the girl had recanted the original story about the kidnapping and the gang rape. In one interview with the German media, he said that in the course of the investigation, authorities had found evidence that the girl had sex with a 23-year-old man months earlier, which would later lead to a sexual-abuse conviction for the man, whose sentence was suspended. But the original, unrelated and debunked story continued circulating, drawing the interest of the German mainstream media, which pointed out inconsistencies in the Russian reports. None of that stopped the protests, which culminated in a demonstration the following Saturday, Jan. 23, by 700 people outside the Chancellery, Merkel’s office. Ruptly covered that, too.

An official in the Merkel government told me that the administration was completely perplexed, at first. Then, a few days later, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, held a news conference in Moscow. Bringing up Lisa’s story, he cast doubt on the official version of events. There was no way, he argued, that Lisa left home voluntarily. Germany, he suggested, was “covering up reality in a politically correct manner for the sake of domestic politics.” Two days later, RT ran a segment reporting that despite all the official denials, the case was “not so simple.” The Russian Embassy called Steltner and asked to meet, he told me. The German foreign ministry informed him that this was now a diplomatic issue.

The whole affair suddenly appeared a lot less mystifying. A realization took hold in the foreign ministry, the intelligence services and the Chancellery: Germany had been hit.

Officials in Germany and at NATO headquarters in Brussels view the Lisa case, as it is now known, as an early strike in a new information war Russia is waging against the West.•

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Some perfectly bright people, like Matthew Yglesias, cling to the notion that Donald Trump must be very intelligent despite all evidence to the contrary, because he and his have avoided prison despite the dubiousness of their “business deals,” and Trump was even able to weasel his way into the White House. I, however, instead see a remarkably dumb and damaged person who wasn’t long ago checked into the Graybar Hotel along with some of his nearest and dearest because of an American failure to curb criminal activity of the white-collar variety. That’s due to how riddled by money our political system has become.

Just this week, a joint report by the New Yorker, ProPublica and NPR revealed how the two elder Trump offspring were on the verge of being indicted for fraud in regards to Trump SoHo when family lawyer Marc Kasowitz visited DA Cyrus Vance Jr., a politician the attorney has supported financially. That the case almost immediately went away is less a sign of innocence than a sign of the times. The putrid paterfamilias himself never being placed in a pen for his exorbitant money laundering and numerous other offenses isn’t a display of his effectiveness but of our societal failure. 

As far as Trump landing in the Oval Office by hook or especially by crook, it probably wasn’t any native genius that enabled him to run a Bull Connor-as-a-condo-salesman campaign aimed at the worst of us and, quite possibly, to conspire with the Kremlin in upsetting our democracy. Let’s not confuse pathological shamelessness with intelligence. There will always be terrible people who disgracefully attempt to bilk a system. A culture that allows them to thrive is corrupt and…moronic.

Two excerpts follow.

__________________________

From “Is Trump a Moron? Duh.” by Max Boot in USA Today:

Trump journeyed to Puerto Rico on Tuesday to try to dispel that image. Again, it was a comedy of errors. The most widely seen picture from the trip showed Trump throwing paper towels at hurricane survivors as if they were seals receiving fish from a trainer. Trump refused to meet with Cruz, leading to more quotes from her lambasting him. “This terrible and abominable view of him throwing paper towels and throwing provisions at people, it does not embody the spirit of the American nation,” she said.

Wait. Trump wasn’t done.

At a news conference at an Air National Guard base in Puerto Rico, the president lauded the Coast Guard as “special, special, very brave people.” Then he turned to a man in uniform and asked, “Would you like to say something on behalf of your men and women?” His response: “Sir, I’m representing the Air Force.”

Mixing up Coast Guard and Air Force uniforms is understandable for a newly elected president with no military experience; it’s less excusable after more than eight months in office.

At this same briefing, Trump also said, in that tone-deaf way of his, “You can be very proud. Everybody around this table, and everybody watching, can really be very proud of what’s taken place in Puerto Rico,” because fewer people died than during Hurricane Katrina. So Puerto Ricans should be proud of the catastrophe engulfing them because other disasters were even worse? It’s like telling New Yorkers that they can be proud that 9/11 didn’t kill as many people as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Little wonder that only 32% of respondents in a recent poll approved of Trump’s handling disaster relief in the U.S. territory. His overall approval ratings aren’t much higher.

The real scandal isn’t that Trump’s secretary of State called him a moron. It’s that his job performance lends so much credence to that description.•

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While Tillerson is right in his gauging of Trump’s idiocy, he probably should look in the mirror when tossing around the m-word given how abysmally he’s performed as Secretary of State. From 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s job is at imminent risk.

In the wake of Wednesday’s NBC News report that Tillerson had called President Trump a “moron” in July, the Secretary of State was forced to give an unusual and bizarre press conference in which he denied any intent to leave. But when the Washington Post spoke to 19 current and former White House officials about the controversy, the clear consensus was that TIllerson is not likely to survive such public reports of insubordination.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. The consensus among foreign policy observers is that Tillerson’s tenure as secretary of state as been an unmitigated disaster.

“Tillerson would be at or near the bottom of the list of secretaries of state, not just in the post-Second World War world but in the record of US secretaries of state,” says Paul Musgrave, a scholar of US foreign policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The former Exxon Mobil CEO — whose nomination was initially greeted warmly by prominent foreign policy hands — has failed to wield any significant influence in internal administration debates over issues like Syria, North Korea, or Russia.

His push to slash “inefficiencies” in the State Department and seeming disinterest in working closely with longtime staff were even more damaging. By failing to get people into vital high-level posts and actively pushing out talented personnel, he ended up making America’s response to major crises incoherent and weakening the State Department for a “generation,” according to George Washington University’s Elizabeth Saunders.

This can’t all be blamed on Tillerson: Even a skilled and experienced diplomat would have had trouble maintaining influence in the chaotic Trump White House, where people like UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Jared Kushner wield major influence and foreign policy is often made by tweet.

Yet both nonpartisan experts and high-ranking State Department appointees in the past two administrations believe he personally deserves much of the blame.

“I think he really will go down as one of the worst secretaries of State we’ve had,” Eliot Cohen, counselor to the State Department under President George W. Bush, told Axios’s Jonathan Swan. “He will go down as the worst secretary of state in history,” tweeted Ilan Goldenberg, an Obama-era official who worked on Israel-Palestine issues.•

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There’s no more towering figure in American annals than Harriet Tubman, who was so bravely and rigorously stationed on the right side of history that she became history, and it’s an outrage that those far her inferior—and that includes pretty much all of us—are open to reneging on plans to place her likeness on U.S. currency. To be fine with slave owners being on dollars and coins but not a former slave who became a liberator is the very definition of white supremacy.

In the last years before her death in 1913, when Tubman had given absolutely everything for the cause, she was left financially destitute and was rescued from poverty by funds raised through women’s clubs and charities she herself began. An article from the June 1, 1911 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

If we avoid the most pernicious effects of all the paper-towel-tossing, son-of-a-bitch-calling, refugee-bashing, pussy-grabbing, private-plane-riding, self-dealing, race-baiting, Constitution-shredding behavior of this Presidential Administration, the worst we’ve ever known, it will be because of how mired it is in ineptitude.  

Of course, there’s always the chance that this won’t be the worst government America ever has, that perhaps there will be another just as evil but far more competent, and that the ubiquitous surveillance apparatus we’re constructing for ourselves in our streets and homes will fall into the worst possible hands. Even if we don’t wind up in that place there’ll always be plenty of nations that do. Soon, a technologically enabled police state will be affordable to even the most modestly funded authoritarian regime.

Two excerpts follow.

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From “Privacy Is Under Threat From the Facial Recognition Revolution” in the Financial Times:

Unlike fingerprints, retinal scans or blood samples, it is easily performed without the subject’s knowledge. It will affect how we travel, live, shop, and much else. It will force changes in the way privacy is defined and protected. If those who care about individual rights do not start thinking about the implications now, those changes will be forced upon us rather than chosen.

Facial recognition is already in use around the world. The Chinese equivalent of Amazon, Alibaba, allows people to “pay with a smile” using facial recognition in stores, for example. The potential for good is obvious. Think of the hours that could be saved if facial recognition were to become the default identification tool at airports.

These benefits will have to balanced against the loss of anonymity. In Russia, an app called FindFace identifies individuals in photos, linking them to profiles on a social network called VKontakte. A similar service, if linked to Facebook and other networks, could put names to billions of faces. In the city of Shenzhen jaywalkers are identified using CCTV, and their faces and addresses posted on a large screen to shame them into better behaviour.

The technology will not be limited to connecting a face with information already present on the internet. A facial recognition model developed at Stanford, when presented with paired photos of individuals who self-identify as gay or straight, could tell which was which with 81 per cent accuracy in men and 74 per cent in women. Humans given the same task were much less accurate. Yes, the sample was limited and the study needs to be replicated with a more refined methodology. The results cannot be dismissed, though. Nor can the frightening implications. Consider an algorithm identifying sexual minorities deployed in an intolerant, authoritarian state. The technology may misclassify many, but tyrants lose little sleep over false positives.•

· · ·

From “Amazon’s Latest Alexa Devices Ready To Extend Company’s Reach Into Your Home,” Mark Harris’ Guardian article:

Amazon, hoping to replicate the success of its Echo device, is poised to extend its eyes and ears into every part of your life with the launch of new voice-controlled and camera-equipped Alexa devices designed for bedrooms, living rooms and even your car.
 
“Voice control in the home will be ubiquitous,” predicted David Limp, an Amazon senior vice-president who is in charge of the Echo devices, at an event in Seattle on Wednesday. “Kids today will grow up never knowing a day they couldn’t talk to their houses.”

The Echo has been Amazon’s surprise hit in the three years since it launched, finding its way into tens of millions of kitchens around the world, offering internet radio, timers, weather and news reports and voice calls. Now Amazon will start selling a smaller, cheaper version of the original Echo, with fabric and wood veneers, as well a new flagship device called the Echo Plus that promises to work instantly with dozens of smart home devices, such as locks, lights and electric sockets.

“Setting up your smart home is still just too hard,” Limp said. “It can take up to 15 steps to do something as simple as set up a lightbulb.”

Amazon’s vision is of homes with Echo devices in every room, listening to every word you say.•

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I wonder if it dawned on Soviet refugee and Google guy Sergey Brin when he joined the January pro-immigration protests at San Francisco International Airport that his company, founded not even 20 years ago with the “Don’t Be Evil” tagline, played a large role in enabling a xenophobic, anti-refugee Administration into the White House, and it was more than just an egregious oversight. It wasn’t a bug but a feature. Something tells me that Brin avoided too much reflection on this point, that the primary thought among the major communications players in Silicon Valley has been how to do damage control without doing any damage to the bottom line.

· · ·

In the Web 1.0 days, editors who argued against selling prime real estate in search results to the highest bidder within an automated system were told that they not only didn’t understand business but that they didn’t understand the future. Both sides were right, in a sense. Tomorrow was indeed up for sale, and sites and groups, many of them under the auspices of the Kremlin and some run by neo-Nazis, paid for placement and gamed the system, meaning that everything those editors feared—and far worse—came to fruition. 

· · ·

Google, with its outsize control over Internet communications, is one of the major culprits in the new abnormal, but it isn’t alone, as Facebook and Twitter have also done harm, and it wasn’t an accident. From a Bloomberg report published a few hours ago: 

Facebook Inc. is pledging greater transparency about who’s behind election-related ads online. For years, the company fought to avoid it. Since 2011, Facebook has asked the Federal Election Commission for blanket exemptions from political advertising disclosure rules — transparency that could have helped it avoid the current crisis over Russian ad spending ahead of the 2016 U.S. election. Communications law requires traditional media like TV and radio to track and disclose political ad buyers. The rule doesn’t apply online, an exemption that’s helped Facebook’s self-serve advertising business generate hundreds of millions of dollars in political campaign spots. When the company was smaller, the issue was debated in some policy corners of Washington. Now that the social network is such a powerful political tool, with more than 2 billion users, the topic is at the center of a debate about the future of American democracy.

· · ·

Carole Cadwalladr, who’s done excellent work in the Guardian this year in trying to untangle the impact the Mercers and Cambridge Analytica had on Brexit and the U.S. Presidential election, also published a piece on the army of trolls that pollutes the Internet with hatemongering and misinformation, a regiment that is continuing to grow in size and impact. One expert on the topic tells her about these nefarious agents: “It’s an information war…it’s a network…it’s far more powerful than any one actor…and it’s learning…every day, it’s getting stronger.”

An excerpt:

Stories about fake news on Facebook have dominated certain sections of the press for weeks following the American presidential election, but arguably this is even more powerful, more insidious. Frank Pasquale, professor of law at the University of Maryland, and one of the leading academic figures calling for tech companies to be more open and transparent, calls the results “very profound, very troubling”.

He came across a similar instance in 2006 when, “If you typed ‘Jew’ in Google, the first result was jewwatch.org. It was ‘look out for these awful Jews who are ruining your life’. And the Anti-Defamation League went after them and so they put an asterisk next to it which said: ‘These search results may be disturbing but this is an automated process.’ But what you’re showing – and I’m very glad you are documenting it and screenshotting it – is that despite the fact they have vastly researched this problem, it has gotten vastly worse.”

And ordering of search results does influence people, says Martin Moore, director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power at King’s College, London, who has written at length on the impact of the big tech companies on our civic and political spheres. “There’s large-scale, statistically significant research into the impact of search results on political views. And the way in which you see the results and the types of results you see on the page necessarily has an impact on your perspective.” Fake news, he says, has simply “revealed a much bigger problem. These companies are so powerful and so committed to disruption. They thought they were disrupting politics but in a positive way. They hadn’t thought about the downsides. These tools offer remarkable empowerment, but there’s a dark side to it. It enables people to do very cynical, damaging things.”

Google is knowledge. It’s where you go to find things out. And evil Jews are just the start of it. There are also evil women. I didn’t go looking for them either. This is what I type: “a-r-e w-o-m-e-n”. And Google offers me just two choices, the first of which is: “Are women evil?” I press return. Yes, they are. Every one of the 10 results “confirms” that they are, including the top one, from a site called sheddingoftheego.com, which is boxed out and highlighted: “Every woman has some degree of prostitute in her. Every woman has a little evil in her… Women don’t love men, they love what they can do for them. It is within reason to say women feel attraction but they cannot love men.”

Next I type: “a-r-e m-u-s-l-i-m-s”. And Google suggests I should ask: “Are Muslims bad?” And here’s what I find out: yes, they are. That’s what the top result says and six of the others. Without typing anything else, simply putting the cursor in the search box, Google offers me two new searches and I go for the first, “Islam is bad for society”. In the next list of suggestions, I’m offered: “Islam must be destroyed.”

Jews are evil. Muslims need to be eradicated. And Hitler? Do you want to know about Hitler? Let’s Google it. “Was Hitler bad?” I type. And here’s Google’s top result: “10 Reasons Why Hitler Was One Of The Good Guys” I click on the link: “He never wanted to kill any Jews”; “he cared about conditions for Jews in the work camps”; “he implemented social and cultural reform.” Eight out of the other 10 search results agree: Hitler really wasn’t that bad.

A few days later, I talk to Danny Sullivan, the founding editor of SearchEngineLand.com. He’s been recommended to me by several academics as one of the most knowledgeable experts on search. Am I just being naive, I ask him? Should I have known this was out there? “No, you’re not being naive,” he says. “This is awful. It’s horrible. It’s the equivalent of going into a library and asking a librarian about Judaism and being handed 10 books of hate. Google is doing a horrible, horrible job of delivering answers here. It can and should do better.”•

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Some people search and find the wrong thing.

Such was the case with the followers of the technologically friendly cult Heaven’s Gate, which stunned the world when 38 members committed a mass suicide in 1997 at the behest of the group’s leader Marshall Applewhite, a bisexual man deeply troubled by his orientation, who founded the pseudo-religion 22 years earlier in Los Angeles. The guru believed the Hale-Bopp Comet would be tailed by a UFO which would take them to heaven if they killed themselves at just the right moment, and somehow a diverse group of basically intelligent people heeded his call. 

I thought of this sad and strange chapter from America’s recent past (on another sad and strange day) when I came across Fiona Sturges’ Financial Times report on the new podcast series Cults, which covers Heaven’s Gate and other dangerous group dynamics. It reminds that the stories we tell ourselves as small clans or large nations can sustain life or get plenty of us killed. That’s why we need to be sane and rational about the narratives we choose.

Just after the mass death 20 years ago, People magazine profiled Applewhite and some of his acolytes. An excerpt:

Marshall Herff Applewhite 65, music teacher turned cult leader

Missouri prosecutor Tim Braun never forgot the car-theft case that came his way in 1974, when he was a novice St. Louis County public defender. “Very seldom do we see a statement that ‘a force from beyond the earth has made me keep this car,’ ” he says. The defendant: Marshall Herff Applewhite. The sentence: four months in jail.

His early life offers few hints of what led Applewhite—son of a Presbyterian preacher and his wife—to abandon his career as a music professor for a life chasing alien spacecraft. Married with two children, he seemed the devoted family man. But his marriage broke up in the mid-’60s, and he moved to Houston, where he ran a small Catholic college’s music department and often sang with the Houston Grand Opera.

A sharp dresser whose taste in cars ran to convertibles, and in liquor to vodka gimlets, he became a fixture of Houston’s arts scene—and, less overtly, its gay community. “Everybody knew Herff,” says Houston gay activist and radio host Ray Hill. But in 1970, Applewhite left the college, apparently after allegations of an affair with a male student.

Soon afterward, Houston artist Hayes Parker recalls, Applewhite claimed to have had a vision during a walk on the beach in Galveston, Texas. “He said he suddenly had knowledge about the world,” recalls Parker. Around that time he met nurse Bonnie Nettles, with whom he formed an instant bond that became the basis of a 25-year cult odyssey. They wandered the country, gathering followers and attracting so much curiosity that by the mid-’70s he had been interviewed by The New York Times. “Some people are like lemmings who rush in a pack into the sea,” Applewhite said of other alternative lifestyles. “Some people will try anything.”

· · ·

Cheryl Butcher 42, computer trainer

Butcher was a shy, bright, self-taught computer expert who spent half her life in Applewhite’s orbit. Growing up in Springfield, Mo., she was “the perfect daughter,” says her father, Jasper, a retired federal corrections officer. “She was a good student. She did charity work, candy striper stuff.” But according to Virginia Norton, her mother, she was also “a loner. She watched a lot of TV and read. Making friends was hard for her.” That is, until she joined the cult in 1976. “She wrote me a letter once,” says Norton, “that said, ‘Mother, be happy that I’m happy.’ Another time she ended a letter with ‘Look higher.’ “

· · ·

David Van Sinderen 48, environmentalist

“When I was 4, he saved me from drowning,” says publicist Sylvia Abbate of her big brother David. The son of a former telephone company CEO, David became an environmentalist. ” ‘Don’t be hurt, I’m not doing this to you,’ ” Abbate says he told his family after he joined the cult in 1976. ” ‘It’s something I have to do for me.’ ” Visiting his sister in ’87, he puzzled her with his backseat driving, then apologized, explaining that cult members drove with a partner so they would have an extra set of eyes. Says Abbate: “That’s the kind of care they had for one another.”

· · ·

Alan Bowers 45, oysterman

Bowers had spent eight years with the cult in the ’70s before returning to Fairfield, Conn., in the early ’80s to work as a commercial oysterman. In 1988 his life derailed when his wife divorced him and his brother Barry drowned in a boating accident. Bowers, who had three children, moved to Jupiter, Fla., near his stepsisters Susan and Joy Ventulett. “He came down here to make a new start,” says Susan, but he could never quite get it together. Then in 1994, Bowers, while working for a moving company, ran into someone he knew from Applewhite’s legions at a McDonald’s in New Mexico. “He felt it might have been destiny,” says Joy. “He was a little vulnerable. He was searching for peace.”

· · ·

Margaret Bull 54, farm girl

Peggy Bull, among the cult’s first adherents in the mid-’70s, grew up on a farm outside little Ellensburg, Wash. Though shy, she was in the high school pep club and a member of the Wranglerettes, a riding drill team. Later “she belonged to all the intellectual-type groups,” says Brenda McIntosh, a roommate at the University of Washington, where Bull earned her B.A. in 1966. “It was sometimes hard to talk to her because she was so smart.” Recalls English professor Roger Sale: “She was a open and ready intellectually.” Her father, Jack, died less than three weeks before Bull’s suicide, says Margaret’s childhood friend Iris Rominger, who assumed that Bull had left the cult. “I guess it’s kind of a blessing.”•

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