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In 1960, Edward O. Thorp, mathematics professor with a wandering intellect, co-created with Claude Shannon what’s accepted as the first wearable computer, a stealth gambling aid that helped him level the odds at casinos. After cashing in his chips, he tried his hand at the financial industry to spectacular results. But Thorp, now 84, isn’t sanguine about Wall Street, which he believes is rigged for the already wealthy, and he’s apoplectic about our new President, a feeling which will only be exacerbated by today’s news that the Administration wants to undo the Dodd-Frank Act.

John Authors of the Financial Times interviewed Thorp, who just published his autobiography, A Man for All Markets.

An excerpt from FT:

So, why is he so negative about Wall Street? Without raising his voice, he launches an indictment. “Adam Smith’s market is a whole lot different from our markets. He imagined a market with lots of buyers and sellers of things, nobody had market dominance or could impose things on the market, and there was a lot of competition. The market we have now is nothing like that. The players are so big that they control the levers of financial policy.”

…I ask what he suggests we do about it? “The banks who are too big to fail should have been allowed to fail. Their shareholders should have had to pay the price. Big companies go through organised bankruptcies. Why is it that we couldn’t afford for the banks to go bankrupt? It’s that they are so influential. They can persuade the government not to let them go bankrupt.”

He also holds that banks’ speculative arms should be broken off — essentially a return to the Depression-era Glass-Steagall law that was controversially repealed by President Clinton in 1999. The newly elected President Trump — we are lunching on the first Monday of his presidency — was elected on a platform of bringing back Glass-Steagall, but now appears intent on deregulation. Thorp winces at the mention of Trump’s name, saying he is as negative about him as it is possible to be.•

Life magazine profiled the academic-gambler in 1964. The story’s hook was undeniable: a brilliant mathematician who utilized his beautiful mind at gaming tables to bring pit bosses to heel. He didn’t rely on the fictional “hot hand” but instead on cool computer calculations. What wasn’t known at the time–and what Thorp didn’t offer to reporter Paul O’Neil–is that the Ph.D. had a stealthy sidekick in the aforementioned wearable. 

The wearable device, which was contained in a shoe or a cigarette pack, could markedly improve a gambler’s chance at the roulette wheel, though the bugs were never completely worked out. From a 1998 conference:

The first wearable computer was conceived in 1955 by the author to predict roulette, culminating in a joint effort at M.I.T. with Claude Shannon in 1960-61. The final operating version was rested in Shannon’s basement home lab in June of 1961. The cigarette pack sized analog device yielded an expected gain of +44% when betting on the most favored “octant.” The Shannons and Thorps tested the computer in Las Vegas in the summer of 1961. The predictions there were consistent with the laboratory expected gain of 44% but a minor hardware problem deferred sustained serious betting. They kept the method and the existence of the computer secret until 1966.•

Thorp appeared on To Tell the Truth in 1964. He didn’t discuss wearables but his book about other methods to break the bank. Amusing that NYC radio host John Gambling played one of the impostors.

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From the July 11, 1933 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

The relatively recent development of nation-states has become so entrenched in the human way of operating that it’s difficult to imagine life organized any other fashion. Would we be better off without them? Are they mostly war machines in waiting? Not easy to say. The human capacity to find create strife rivals our ability to for noble inventions, regardless of how we’re organized.

In the outstanding New Scientist piece “End of Nations: Is There an Alternative to Countries?” Debora MacKenzie traces the development of national identity, which was necessitated by the arrival of the Industrial Age, wondering if mass violence and ethnic divisions within states would be far tougher to provoke if borders were fuzzier and there were no nationalistic “imagined communities.”

It’s a debatable point since, as the writer reminds, human violence has declined to all-time lows under the nation-state arrangement, with large-scale warfare absent from the global stage for seven decades. Then again, I write this with the U.S. nuclear codes and massive non-nuke arsenal in the possession of a President who appears to be a sociopath with a hair-trigger temper and his white nationalist Chief Strategist. Their goal is to turn Americans on one another and against the world.

The problem is, without centrally controlled and competing collectives it would probably be awfully difficult to quickly scale up really useful things (e.g., disease control and eradication) or provide security. MacKenzie acknowledges this point, but she also warns that such arrangements may be untenable as we progress, unable to deal with certain vital issues like climate change, and collapse of these systems may be inevitable.

The opening:

Try, for a moment, to envisage a world without countries. Imagine a map not divided into neat, coloured patches, each with clear borders, governments, laws. Try to describe anything our society does – trade, travel, science, sport, maintaining peace and security – without mentioning countries. Try to describe yourself: you have a right to at least one nationality, and the right to change it, but not the right to have none.

Those coloured patches on the map may be democracies, dictatorships or too chaotic to be either, but virtually all claim to be one thing: a nation state, the sovereign territory of a “people” or nation who are entitled to self-determination within a self-governing state. So says the United Nations, which now numbers 193 of them.

And more and more peoples want their own state, from Scots voting for independence to jihadis declaring a new state in the Middle East. Many of the big news stories of the day, from conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine to rows over immigration and membership of the European Union, are linked to nation states in some way.

Even as our economies globalise, nation states remain the planet’s premier political institution. Large votes for nationalist parties in this year’s EU elections prove nationalism remains alive – even as the EU tries to transcend it.

Yet there is a growing feeling among economists, political scientists and even national governments that the nation state is not necessarily the best scale on which to run our affairs. We must manage vital matters like food supply and climate on a global scale, yet national agendas repeatedly trump the global good. At a smaller scale, city and regional administrations often seem to serve people better than national governments.

How, then, should we organise ourselves? Is the nation state a natural, inevitable institution? Or is it a dangerous anachronism in a globalised world?•


Smartphone-enabled rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft are disruptors that provide greater convenience and information but also kill steady, secure jobs and place people deeper inside a surveillance machine. The thing is, nothing seems more prone to disruption than these businesses themselves. I’ve already mentioned how the emergence of driverless cars could make possible an ownerless and growing fleet of taxis. But why wait for autonomous, with its imprecise start date?

LibreTaxi is an app that removes the middleman, letting the fare and driver do cash (and, soon, Bitcoin) business directly. Roman Pushkin’s brainchild actually wasn’t designed to compete with the Kalanicks, instead aiming at rural and out-of-the-way locales that Uber and others do not service and likely never will. But it has begun creeping into urban areas, and some other similar apps to come will be aimed directly at the behemoths. 

Below is the opening of Pushkin’s recent Medium essay and a few exchanges from a Q&A he did with Bitcoinist.

From Medium:

Uber, a company evaluated at $60B, will unlikely go to remote Siberian region where I was born. About 1000 people still live there. It’s not far from Russian Silicon Valley — Academgorodok in Novosibirsk, only 80 miles. But there is no road to such villages: deepest forest, Taiga, and the river. It takes about 2 days to get there by boat.

Sometimes I think that nobody understands remote regions better than me. And I don’t mean Russia only. I lived in 10 countries before I settled down in San Francisco Bay Area. I found that problems in Russian remote regions are very similar to problems Indian/Nepali remote regions have. And I expect they are the same somewhere outside of big cities in South Africa, China, Latin America and Middle East.

I remember when I visited my relatives in Siberia ~10 years ago, and explained them how cellphone works. They never heard about that and now they are lucky to have their own cell tower. Now they have few computers, mobile phones, internet connection. They use motorbikes to get to the same villages around in summer, and use special light vehicles to do the same in winter time. But with all of the technology available they’re still struggling with problems western civilization solved already.

To my surprise, when I visited my native village 2 years ago, nobody knew what Uber is.•

From Bitcoinist:


What is LibreTaxi?

Roman Pushkin:

It’s free alternative for Uber, Lyft, etc. It doesn’t compete with these companies directly. I made it for a remote area where I was born and found that people around the world like it. Uber probably won’t go to remote and rural areas, so LibreTaxi is perfect for that.


What problem does LibreTaxi solve?

Roman Pushkin:

People need a ridesharing service in remote and rural areas where big companies will never go. At least I started with this idea in mind. Now I see how people are starting to use it in some cities as an Uber replacement. Also, you can never predict what type of taxi you want – boat, helicopter, rickshaw etc. LibreTaxi is open-sourced under MIT license. People can update it relatively easy or add vehicle types and run Uber-like services for their areas independently.


Are you targeting any specific markets, cities or demographics?

Roman Pushkin:

Our main market is rural areas, but it seems like it’s expanding into cities now. I have to think about improving and polishing functionality to make it even more easier to use.•


Elon Musk has unilaterally decided that direct democracy will be the likely government on Mars once he creates a colony on our neighboring planet, but if a fledgling fascist takes over, he’ll probably still be open for business.

We’ve witnessed with his embrace of the Trump Administration that the Space X founder isn’t grounded enough to truly comprehend an epochal political moment, believing he can somehow manage a sociopathic President and his white nationalist Chief Strategist the way he does less-combustible things–like rockets, for instance. 

Some of Musk’s announcements about space settlements and other schemes have seemed increasingly kooky over the last few years, but you could cut him some slack. After all, Thomas Edison truly believed he could use early 1900s technology to create a “spirit phone” to speak to the dead. Visionaries sometimes head down a blind alley so distracted they are by the world they hold in their hands. But Musk’s reaction to this singular challenge to American democracy has revealed a deep moral blind spot within him. 

Prior to the ugly election cycle, Walter Isaacson said the “Benjamin Franklin of today is Musk,” but our kite-flying forefather understood one thing about tyranny that escapes his technological descendant: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

• • •

In “Whitey on Mars,” Andrew Russell’s excellent Aeon essay, the writer argues that “white men in expensive, gleaming white spaceships” take priority over more earthly concerns when wealth is deeply unequal, especially in this era when such costly exploration has become significantly privatized. I’m sure Musk would counter that he is trying to address climate change by spearheading a transition to electric and solar (a point Russell also addresses), but there’s definitely much truth in the argument.

The opening:

There are good reasons to worry about the future of humanity. Do we have a future, and if so, how much and what kind? For most people, it’s easier to feel these existential concerns for our species than it is to do something about them. But some are taking action. On 27 September 2016, the SpaceX founder Elon Musk made a bold, direct claim: that, in order to survive an inevitable extinction event, humans would need to ‘become a space-faring civilisation and a multi-planetary species’. Pulses raced and the media swooned. Headlines appeared in the business and technology press about Musk’s plan to save humanity. Experts and laypeople alike debated details of the rockets, spacecraft and fuel needed for Musk’s journey to Mars. The excitement was palpable, and it was evident at the press conference. During the Q&A that followed the announcement, Musk said that his goal was to inspire humanity. One audience member yelled: ‘[Musk] inspires the shit out of us!’ Another offered him a kiss.

Musk’s plan to colonise Mars is a sign of an older and recurring social problem. What happens when the rich and powerful isolate themselves from everyday concerns? Musk wants to innovate and leave Earth, rather than to take care of it, or fix it, and stay. Like so many of his peers in the innovating and disrupting classes, Musk prefers to dwell in fantasy and science fiction, safely removed from the world of here and now. Musk is a utopian, in the original Greek meaning: ‘no place’. Repulsed by the world we all share, he dreams of a place that does not exist.•

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What we dream we become” wrote Henry Miller, offering a curse as much as a promise, wary as he always was of science and technology and America.

Nobody in the U.S. has ever dreamed more than Hugo Gernsback, immigrant technological tinkerer and peddler of science fiction, and he was sure the most outré visions would come to pass: instant newspapers printed in the home, TV eyeglasses, teleportation, etc. Some of these amazing stories proved to be true and others…perhaps someday? In Gernsback’s view what separated fiction and fact was merely time.

From James Gleick’s wonderful New York Review of Books piece about The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction:

Born Hugo Gernsbacher, the son of a wine merchant in a Luxembourg suburb before electrification, he started tinkering as a child with electric bell-ringers. When he emigrated to New York City at the age of nineteen, in 1904, he carried in his baggage a design for a new kind of electrolytic battery. A year later, styling himself in Yankee fashion “Huck Gernsback,” he published his first article in Scientific American, a design for a new kind of electric interrupter. That same year he started his first business venture, the Electro Importing Company, selling parts and gadgets and a “Telimco” radio set by mail order to a nascent market of hobbyists and soon claiming to be “the largest makers of experimental Wireless material in the world.”

His mail-order catalogue of novelties and vacuum tubes soon morphed into a magazine, printed on the same cheap paper but now titled Modern Electrics. It included articles and editorials, like “The Wireless Joker” (it seems pranksters had fun with the new communications channel) and “Signaling to Mars.” It was hugely successful, and Gernsback was soon a man about town, wearing a silk hat, dining at Delmonico’s and perusing its wine list with a monocle.

Public awareness of science and technology was new and in flux. “Technology” was barely a word and still not far removed from magic. “But wireless was magical to Gernsback’s readers,” writes Wythoff, “not because they didn’t understand how the trick worked but because they did.” Gernsback asked his readers to cast their minds back “but 100 years” to the time of Napoleon and consider how far the world has “progressed” in that mere century. “Our entire mode of living has changed with the present progress,” he wrote in the first issue of Amazing Stories “and it is little wonder, therefore, that many fantastic situations—impossible 100 years ago—are brought about today.”

So for Gernsback it was completely natural to publish Science Wonder Stories alongside Electrical Experimenter. He returned again and again to the theme of fact versus fiction—a false dichotomy, as far as he was concerned. Leonardo da Vinci, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells were inventors and prophets, their fantastic visions giving us our parachutes and submarines and spaceships.•

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Overwhelming the populous with provocations and crises is something that comes naturally to a committed controversialist like Donald Trump, who seems powered by emotional damage and, likely, mental illness, the way some are by caffeine, but it also is clearly a part of a plan of Steve Bannon and the other destroyers in the Oval Office mix.

Issue a bigoted and badly drawn ban on Muslim immigrants just as the white nationalist Chief Strategist is named to replace the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at National Security Council meetings. Divert attention from any one fire by starting many.

And if everything is an outrage, no individual offense seems so irregular. 

In addition to the many worrying, fascistic signs of the first week-plus of the new Administration, it’s gone almost unnoticed that the candidate who railed against Hillary Clinton using a private server as Secretary of State is now a President with an insecure Android phone. Sadly, this Congress is far too feckless and opportunistic to call him out on his behavior.

From “President Trump’s Insecure Android,” by Nicholas Weaver at Lawfare:

Lost amid the swirling insanity of the Trump administration’s first week, are the reports of the President’s continued insistence on using his Android phone (a Galaxy S3 or perhaps S4). This is, to put it bluntly, asking for a disaster. President Trump’s continued use of a dangerously insecure, out-of-date Android device should cause real panic. And in a normal White House, it would.

A Galaxy S3 does not meet the security requirements of the average teenager, let alone the purported leader of the free world. The best available Android OS on this phone (4.4) is a woefully out-of-date and unsupported. The S4, running 5.0.1, is only marginally better. Without exaggerating, hacking a Galaxy S3 or S4 is the type of project I would assign as homework for my advanced undergraduate classes. It’d be as simple as downloading a suitable exploit—depending on the version, Stagefright will do—and then entice Trump to clicking on a link. Alternatively, one could advertise malware on Breitbart and just wait for Trump to visit.
Once compromised, the phone becomes a bug—even more catastrophic than Great Seal—able to record everything around it and transmit the information once it reattaches to the network. And to be clear even a brand new, fully updated Android or iPhone is insufficient: The President of the United States is worth a great many multiples of expensive zero-day exploits.•


#deleteuber exploded across Twitter last night when the ride-share company tried to exploit the flash taxi drivers’ strike at JFK against Trump’s anti-immigrant ban. It was alarming the company treated a Constitutional crisis as if it were business-as-usual but unsurprising considering Uber’s past dubious ethical behavior and Travis Kalanick’s recent defense of his relationship with the Administration: “We’ll partner with anyone in the world.” Really? Trips to internment camps, even?

There are other reasons to be wary of piecemeal employment, that Libertarian wet dream, and the main one is that it often undermines solid middle-class jobs and replaces them with uncertainty. And, no, despite what some might say, most Uber employees aren’t entrepreneurs just driving until venture-capital seed money comes in for their start-up; they’re actually trying to somehow subsist in this new normal. It isn’t easy.

The opening of Eric Newcomer and Olivia Zaleski Bloomberg piece:

In the 1970s, the Safeway grocery store in San Francisco’s gleaming Marina neighborhood, known as the Social Safeway, was a cornerstone of the pre-Tinder dating scene. Armistead Maupin made it famous in his 1978 book, Tales of the City, calling it “the hottest spot in town” to meet people. For years afterward, locals called it the “Singles Safeway” or the “Dateway.”

Forty years later, German Tugas, a 42-year-old Uber driver, got to know it for another reason: Its parking lot was a safe spot to sleep in his car. Tugas drives over 70 hours a week in San Francisco, where the work is steadier and fares are higher than in his hometown, Sacramento. So every Monday morning, Tugas leaves at 4 a.m., says goodbye to his wife and four daughters, drives 90 miles to the city, and lugs around passengers until he earns $300 or gets too tired to keep going. (Most days he nets $230 after expenses like gas.) Then, he and at least a half dozen other Uber drivers gathered in the Social Safeway parking lot to sleep in their cars before another long day of driving.  

“That’s the sacrifice,” he said in May, smoking a cigarette beside his Toyota Prius parked at the Safeway at 1 a.m., the boats in the bay bobbing gently in the background. “My goal is to get a house somewhere closer, so that I don’t have to do this every day.”

The vast majority of Uber’s full-time drivers return home to their beds at the end of a day’s work. But all over the country, there are many who don’t.•

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Already posted items about the potential wave of automated food shopping demonstrated by Amazon Go (1 + 2), a Swedish General Store 2.0 and a French market that uses Li-Fi to spy on the buying patterns of customers, which could give the store’s computers the ability to dynamically adjust prices.

Cashier, stock and cleaning jobs, among others, would be eliminated if these visions were widely realized. Have to assume the transition would mean the creation of some good positions to develop smart machines (even if their actual manufacturing is mostly automated), though this scenario still feels like it will wind up being the same tale of haves and have-nots.

From Omil Xia at Yahoo! Finance:

Here’s how the grocery store of the near-future would work: An automatic facial recognition system greets customers by name at the entrance, and virtual assistants can direct customers to different aisles. Artificial-intelligence sensors will also assist grocery store customers, continuously updating the prices and items in the customer’s shopping cart.

Customers can then finalize purchases through a cellphone order that gives them customized coupons. This process could, in theory, take a lot less time than checkout lines.

Behind the scenes, the automatic stock room will manage the store’s inventory and send signals for robots to restock vacant shelves. Similar to today’s online grocery shopping experience, advanced technology can also prepare custom orders and deliver the items via drones.

While this elaborate scenario is not yet available, automated grocery stores are not anything surprising. Self-checkout kiosks, robot cleaners, and automated storerooms already exist.•


I’m not on Facebook and once I stop doing this blog, I’ll quit the Twitter account associated with it. My last message will be: “I’d rather be reading than tweeting.”

Social media seems to me an unhappiness machine, mostly keeping us in touch with what we sort of know or what we used to know, distracting us from what we could actually intimately know. It’s a way of connecting people, sure, but not the best or truest way. And that downside that doesn’t even consider trolls, neo-Nazis and fake news.

We can’t go back nor should we, really, though there must be some respite. I don’t see any way we avoid being lowered gradually into the Internet of Things, a Platonovian pit, which will take the machines out of our pockets and put us in theirs, but there can be islands of retreat if we continue to utilize more tactile, lo-fi tools.

In Bill McKibben’s New York Review of Books piece on David Sax’s The Revenge of Analog, the critic writes that “the virtues of digital turn out to be the vices as well,” and who could argue? McKibben focuses mostly on the renewed interest in vinyl and paper and Polaroids, which may prove a passing interest or something more lasting, but in one passage he thinks about education, which may be the most important consideration of all when it comes to digitalization. An excerpt:

Nothing has appealed to digital zealots as much as the idea of “transforming” our education systems with all manner of gadgetry. The “ed tech” market swells constantly, as more school systems hand out iPads or virtual-reality goggles; one of the earliest noble causes of the digerati was the One Laptop Per Child global initiative, led by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte, a Garibaldi of the Internet age. The OLPC crew raised stupendous amounts of money and created machines that could run on solar power or could be cranked by hand, and they distributed them to poor children around the developing world, but alas, according to Sax, “academic studies demonstrated no gain in academic achievement.” Last year, in fact, the OECD reported that “students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes.”

At the other end of the educational spectrum from African villages, the most prestigious universities on earth have been busy putting courses on the Web and building MOOCs, “massive open online courses.” Sax misses the scattered successes of these ventures, often courses in computer programming or other technical subjects that aren’t otherwise available in much of the developing world. But he’s right that many of these classes have failed to engage the students who sign up, most of whom drop out.

Even those who stay the course “perform worse, and learn less, than [their] peers who are sitting in a school listening to a teacher talking in front of a blackboard.” Why this is so is relatively easy to figure out: technologists think of teaching as a delivery system for information, one that can and should be profitably streamlined. But actual teaching isn’t about information delivery—it’s a relationship. As one Stanford professor who watched the MOOCs expensively tank puts it, “A teacher has a relationship with a group of students. It is those independent relationships that is the basis of learning. Period.”•

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Along with biotechnology, alternative energy and supercomputers, robotics is another sector America needs to win in a race with our fellow global power China.

Just wrote about the new Administration’s apparent obliviousness to the role robots currently play in manufacturing, a capacity which will only grow exponentially in the near future. While an obtuse policy of punitive tariffs might unintentionally jump-start domestic investment in robots, such a large-scale shift might work better if it was done via cohesive plan.

If U.S. investment in industrial robotics ends up producing more new jobs than expected, that’s great. If it leaves us without enough work for citizens, we really need to initiate a National Service program that would offer Americans living, stable wages in exchange for restoring and revitalizing our infrastructure and environment. As Holger Stark writes in Spiegel: “Today’s America is simultaneously the country of the iPhone and the country of potholes.” Fixing the latter would mean more could afford to enjoy the former.

In an excellent New York Times column, Farhad Manjoo advocates for the U.S. government to marshal a move toward developing automated machines, warning of the repercussions if we don’t. “Today, we buy a lot of stuff made in China by Chinese people,” he writes. “Tomorrow, we’ll buy stuff made in America — by Chinese robots.” The opening:

Factories play a central role in President Trump’s parade of American horrors. In his telling, globalization has left our factories “shuttered,” “rusted-out” and “scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.”

Here’s what you might call an alternative fact: American factories still make a lot of stuff. In 2016, the United States hit a manufacturing record, producing more goods than ever. But you don’t hear much gloating about this because manufacturers made all this stuff without a lot of people. Thanks to automation, we now make 85 percent more goods than we did in 1987, but with only two-thirds the number of workers.

This suggests that while Mr. Trump can browbeat manufacturers into staying in America, he can’t force them to hire many people. Instead, companies will most likely invest in lots and lots of robots.

And there’s another wrinkle to this story: The robots won’t be made in America. They might be made in China. 

Industrial robots — which come in many shapes and perform a range of factory jobs, from huge, precisely controlled arms used to build cars to graceful machines that package delicate pastrieswere invented in the United States. But in the last few years the Chinese government has spent billions to turn China into the world’s robotic wonderland.

In 2013, China became the world’s largest market for industrial robots, according to the International Federation of Robotics, an industry trade group. Now China is working on another big goal: to become the largest producer of robots used for factories, agriculture and a range of other applications.

Robotics industry experts said that goal could be a decade away, but they see few impediments to China’s eventual dominance.

“If you look at the comparisons in investment between China and the U.S., we’re going to lose,” said Henrik Christensen, director of the Contextual Robotics Institute at the University of California, San Diego. “The investments in China are billions and billions. I’m not seeing that investment in the U.S. And without that investment, we are going to lose. No doubt.”•

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Someone as smart as Elon Musk has to realize he’s being used as a public-relations prize by the Trump Administration, that band of wall-builders, xenophobes and climate-change deniers. It would have been far more meaningful for an immigrant like himself to stand loudly in opposition to a campaign that was proudly demagogic and a forming Administration that’s as bonkers as it is bigoted.

Musk has said that “attacking Trump will achieve nothing,” but it actually might prevent some really bad things. Even if the President if close-minded, there are folks far more concerned about self-preservation in the Senate and Congress. Protest and rebuke can preclude the worst from happening. Lending his renown to Trump has helped normalize him and some terrible things he will do that may not hurt Musk or other Silicon Valley billionaires but will have a real effect on the lives of more vulnerable Americans.

The Tesla founder can have only two reasons for allowing himself to be used as he has, and they both probably played into his decision. One is that he’s taking a utilitarian approach to try to neutralize the worst impulses of a President who could absolutely wreck us in a short period of time. Musk would do better trying to manage far less combustible things–like rockets, for instance–than a sociopath. The other, and likely more pressing concern, is that his businesses, especially the burgeoning electric-car one, require at this delicate moment a non-adversarial relationship with the federal government.

Musk can promise to never build internment camps on Mars, but he’s already made odious, un-American things like Muslim registries and immigration bans more credible. That’s part of who he is now, even if he thinks he can compartmentalize such things.

A question about Musk’s support of Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State from a Q&A by Bryan Menegus at Gizmodo:


Many see the appointment of a tycoon as emblematic of crony capitalism. What makes you feel he’s competent? Tillerson also told Bloomberg last year that he’s not exactly sold on electric cars, which of course is the whole point of Tesla. Have you reached an accord on that matter? Are your opinions on Tillerson influenced at all by your position on Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum?

Elon Musk:

My tweets speak for themselves. Please read them exactly as they are written. Tillerson obviously did a competent job running Exxon, one of the largest companies in the world. In that role, he was obligated to advance the cause of Exxon and did. In the Sec of State role, he is obligated to advance the cause of the US and I suspect he probably will. Also, he has publicly acknowledged for years that a carbon tax could make sense. There is no better person to push for that to become a reality than Tillerson. This is what matters far more than pipelines or opening oil reserves. The unpriced externality must be priced.

Tillerson does indeed have a history of supporting a carbon tax as far back as 2007, signaling his preference for such a regulation over “cap-and-trade” initiatives that became popular among environmentalists and free market conservatives alike in the 1980s, but whose real-world efficacy has long been subject to debate. Many expertsagree that a national carbon tax is needed, but take it coming from Tillerson with a grain of salt.

Rather than pushing for policies to reduce carbon emissions, ExxonMobil, under the tutelage of Tillerson and his predecessors, gave over $3.6 million to the American Enterprise Institute from 1998 to 2012, an organization that has helped distort facts about climate change and undermine public confidence in the impact of carbon pollution. This is despite the fact that Exxon’s own scientists have known since 1977 that fossil fuels were leading to climate change.•

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When President Trump occasionally fields follow-up questions, it might be good if someone queries him about automation. It’s possible he’s familiar with the term.

The White House’s capo with nuclear capabilities has skated through the campaign and post-election periods being allowed to pretend we’re living in the 1950s. Presently and going forward, outsourcing will not largely mean jobs moving out of country but out of species. From what I know about the Carrier deal, there’s nothing impeding the company from automating the positions saved and still pocketing the tax incentives. The new Administration’s plans for tax breaks and tariffs, admittedly still vaguely drawn, would go large with that same gaping loophole. 

One unintended consequence, then, of the new abnormal may be large-scale investment in robotics, with a rapid installation of such machinery at every plant and factory possible. That could actually prompt jobs for Americans to disappear faster. If Trump somehow tries to artificially limit positions that can be automated, that will prevent companies in America from competing with their counterparts in China and other nations aiming to win the Digital Age. These are discussions that should have been had on the trail.

President Trump summoned the titans of American business to the White House on Monday for what was billed as a “listening session,” but it was the new president who delivered the loudest message: Bring back domestic manufacturing jobs, or face punishing tariffs and other penalties.

The contrast between Mr. Trump’s talk and the actual behavior of corporate America, however, underscored the tectonic forces he was fighting in trying to put his blue-collar base back to work in a sector that has been shedding jobs for decades.

Many of the chief executives Mr. Trump met with have slashed domestic employment in recent years. What is more, their companies have frequently shut factories in the United States even as they have opened new ones overseas.

Mr. Trump said he would use tax policy, among other means, to deter companies from shifting work abroad. “A company that wants to fire all of its people in the United States and build some factory someplace else, then thinks that product is going to just flow across the border into the United States,” he said, “that’s just not going to happen.” …

During the meeting on Monday, Mr. Trump also made the case that building in the United States would soon become a more cost-effective proposition because of his plans to cut the corporate tax rate to 15 or 20 percent and to reduce regulations.

He pointed to onerous environmental regulations as one area where changes could be on the way, and he insisted that, despite the more lax regulatory environment, protections would improve under his administration.

“There will be advantages to companies that do indeed make their products here,” Mr. Trump said.

Of course, financial considerations like taxes and regulations alone do not guide corporate decision making.•

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Are we hypochondriacs or are we really very sick?

Many among the Silicon Valley super-rich and deep-pocketed folks are increasingly convinced U.S. society may collapse and are working accordingly on plans to allow them to ride out the storm. Escaping an American nightmare isn’t just for Peter Thiel anymore, as some of his peers are purchasing wooded acreage, stocking up on gold coins and learning survival skills. Prepping 2.0 is for the money makers more than the Jim Bakkers.

What could be spooking them so? We now have more guns than people, traditional institutions are under siege, wealth inequality is spiraling out of control, political polarization has reached its zenith, climate change is worsening, a seeming sociopath is in the White House and tens of millions of citizens are looking for someone, anyone, to blame. Doesn’t sound like a menu for a Sunday picnic.

In an excellent New Yorker piece, Evan Osnos reports on the financial elite readying themselves for the big withdrawal. One retired financial-industry lobbyist tells him: “Anyone who’s in this community knows people who are worried that America is heading toward something like the Russian Revolution.”

An excerpt:

Last spring, as the Presidential campaign exposed increasingly toxic divisions in America, Antonio García Martínez, a forty-year-old former Facebook product manager living in San Francisco, bought five wooded acres on an island in the Pacific Northwest and brought in generators, solar panels, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. “When society loses a healthy founding myth, it descends into chaos,” he told me. The author of Chaos Monkeys, an acerbic Silicon Valley memoir, García Martínez wanted a refuge that would be far from cities but not entirely isolated. “All these dudes think that one guy alone could somehow withstand the roving mob,” he said. “No, you’re going to need to form a local militia. You just need so many things to actually ride out the apocalypse.” Once he started telling peers in the Bay Area about his “little island project,” they came “out of the woodwork” to describe their own preparations, he said. “I think people who are particularly attuned to the levers by which society actually works understand that we are skating on really thin cultural ice right now.”

In private Facebook groups, wealthy survivalists swap tips on gas masks, bunkers, and locations safe from the effects of climate change. One member, the head of an investment firm, told me, “I keep a helicopter gassed up all the time, and I have an underground bunker with an air-filtration system.” He said that his preparations probably put him at the “extreme” end among his peers. But he added, “A lot of my friends do the guns and the motorcycles and the gold coins. That’s not too rare anymore.”•


Russia may benefit territorially in the short term from America’s ass-backwards embrace of authoritarianism, protectionism, nativism and superstition, but China stands to make real gains, and not only because of its likely place as the leader of globalization. The most anti-science Administration in memory, maybe ever, will not only prevent foreign students from entering the country but will also redirect dollars from smart technologies to dumb walls, which will give our chief competitor a huge edge in developing renewables and supercomputers. If China wins those wars, traditional military battles may be a moot point.

From Patrick Thibodeau at Computerworld:

China intends to develop a prototype of an exascale supercomputer by the end of 2017, tweaking an exascale delivery date that’s already well ahead of the U.S. The timing of the announcement, reported by an official government news service, raised the possibility it was a message to President-elect Donald Trump.

China’s announcement comes the same week Trump takes office. The Trump administration is bringing a lot of uncertainty to supercomputing research, which is heavily dependent on government funding.

“The exascale race is also a publicity and mindshare race,” said Steve Conway, a high-performance computing analyst at IDC. “The Chinese are putting a stake in the ground and saying we’re going to have a prototype computer soon, maybe a year or so sooner than people expected,” he said.

The Hill reported Thursday that the Trump administration is planning deep cuts at the U.S. Department of Energy, which funds the development of the America’s largest supercomputers.

This report, which didn’t name sources, said the Trump administration was considering cutting advanced scientific computing research to 2008 levels, a position advocated by conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation.•


Peter Thiel can move to New Zealand if Donald Trump really trashes America, but you’ll have to stay here and die. 

The Silicon Valley billionaire, a poor man as well as a rich one, isn’t only insulated by his money if the sociopathic bully he enabled into the White House wrecks the place, he’s also secured citizenship in the island nation. Tad Friend’s excellent 2016 New Yorker portrait of Y Combinator’s Sam Altman reported on the subject’s desire to ditch civilization and flee to the land of Mount Victoria with his pal Thiel in case of natural disaster or societal collapse. Death sounds preferable.

Some natives are restless over the entrepreneur’s acceptance, noting he hasn’t satisfied requirements for officially becoming a Kiwi–you know, like actually living in the country for the required five years–but they also may be wary of welcoming a “genius” who was sure there were WMDS and Iraq and is certain that an unhinged ignoramus is the best choice to lead America.

From David Streitfeld and Jacqueline Williams of the New York Times:

SAN FRANCISCO — Peter Thiel is a billionaire, the biggest Donald J. Trump supporter in Trump-hating Silicon Valley and, above all, someone who prides himself on doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing.

So it makes perfect sense that right after President Trump proclaimed that “the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America,” Mr. Thiel was revealed to have become in 2011 a citizen of a small country on the other side of the world: New Zealand.

In these uncertain times, it may be smart to have a backup country. But the news that one of the richest citizens of New Zealand is a naturalized American who was born in Germany set off an immediate furor in the island nation, with questions being raised about whether being a billionaire gets you special treatment.

If you like New Zealand enough to want to become a citizen, the country’s Department of Internal Affairs noted on Wednesday, you are usually supposed to actually live there. Mr. Thiel does not appear to have done this.
The investor, who retains his American citizenship, was one of the biggest backers of Mr. Trump during the presidential campaign. Mr. Thiel reveled in his unusual position, giving a speech shortly before Election Day outlining the reasons for his support. He was vilified for it in tech circles.•

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Exit for a moment the alternative world of Trumperica, a place in which Mexican border walls and manufacturing jobs can make our country great again, and join us in considering remedies for the potential of widespread automation to further impact the working class and to move its disruption from those with blue collars to others with white ones. 

Even if new fields are created to replace both the factory jobs and knowledge work that disappear, we still need to upskill the displaced and divine which of the freshly created industries have staying power. That’s not an easy task, but increased aggregate wealth should make it very doable. As cognitive psychologist and neural networks pioneer Geoff Hinton said recently“In a fair political system, technological advances that increase productivity would be welcomed by everyone because they would allow everyone to be better off. The technology is not the problem. The problem is a political system that doesn’t ensure the benefits accrue to everyone.” 

That difficulty won’t likely go away, however, especially with President Crazypants in the White House. 

In a smart Wall Street Journal column, Christopher Mims explores the daunting task ahead of mitigating the ravages of technological unemployment and wealth inequality, and offers some solutions should we ever get our act together politically.

An excerpt:

Polarization has hit the middle class hard, but the devaluation of human labor will continue up the income ladder, says Branko Milanovic, an economist who specializes in income inequality.

That’s partly because, more than ever, we have the ability to eliminate higher-paying knowledge work. Ian Barkin, co-founder of Symphony Ventures, which helps some of the world’s largest companies automate everything from call centers to human-resource departments, says this phenomenon is known as “no-shoring.” The idea is that digitizing back-office tasks brings them back to the country in which a company operates, but without bringing back any jobs.

“One of our retail utility customers in the U.K. has about 300 robots doing 600 people’s worth of work,” said Alastair Bathgate, CEO of Blue Prism, another company that helps multinationals automate critical business functions.

“You can imagine that’s quite a big impact,” he said. “Before, you needed a building to house 600 people, but all that gets crushed down to one cabinet in the corner of a data center.”•

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A storm of ignorance has been gathering across America for much of the Digital Age, virally spreading “alternate facts” from anti-vaxxers, Birthers, Truthers and climate change deniers, among others. Even the mass murder of schoolchildren in broad daylight is considered dubious to some. The threatening skies have now unloosed a torrent that’s torn the roof from the White House, with the installation of the most anti-science Administration in modern U.S. history, maybe ever.

How could a wealthy nation with so much information wind up like this? On Twitter, NPR’s Science Friday host Charles Bergquist reached back to Carl Sagan’s 1995 Demon-Haunted World for an explanation. The late astronomer believed America might return to superstitions once manufacturing went missing and technological wealth and power was collected in few hands. He felt radically uneven distribution might give rise to prejudice.

A longer excerpt:

Popularizing science – trying to make its methods and findings accessible to non-scientists – then follows naturally and immediately. Not explaining science seems to me perverse. When you’re in love, you want to tell the world. This book is a personal statement, reflecting my lifelong love affair with science.

But there’s another reason: science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and
superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance. As I write, the number one video cassette rental in America is the movie Dumb and Dumber. Beavis and Butt-Head remains popular (and influential) with young TV viewers. The plain lesson is that study and learning – not just of science, but of anything – are avoidable, even undesirable.

We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements – transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting – profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.

A Candle in the Dark is the title of a courageous, largely Biblically based, book by Thomas Ady, published in London in 1656, attacking the witch-hunts then in progress as a scam “to delude the people.” Any illness or storm, anything out of the ordinary, was popularly attributed to witchcraft. Witches must exist, Ady quoted the “witchmongers” as arguing, ‘else how should these things be, or come to pass?’ For much of our history, we were so fearful of the outside world, with its unpredictable dangers, that we gladly embraced anything that promised to soften or explain away the terror. Science is an attempt, largely successful, to understand the world, to get a grip on things, to get hold of ourselves, to steer a safe course. Microbiology and meteorology now explain what only a few centuries ago was considered sufficient cause to burn women to death.

Ady also warned of the danger that “the Nations [will] perish for lack of knowledge.” Avoidable human misery is more often caused not so much by stupidity as by ignorance, particularly our ignorance about ourselves. I worry that, especially as the millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.

The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.•

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Even if he hadn’t had a brain the size of a medicine ball, Edward H. Rulloff’s death by execution would have been notable. A brilliant philologist and author who committed a slew of violent crimes during his life, Rulloff was the last prisoner to die by public hanging in New York State.

For a long while, he managed to stay a step ahead of the law, even when he was suspected for the beating deaths of his wife and daughter and lethally poisoning a couple of other relatives. But when the vicious linguist was finally convicted to die for the murder of an Upstate New York shop clerk, some voiced support for sparing his life, in order to allow him to keep sharing his genius about language. Mark Twain coolly mocked them, suggested, in Swiftian fashion, that someone else be hanged in Rulloff’s place. The doomed man just wanted the show to get on the road. “Hurry it up!’ he hollered on the day he was to wear a noose, “I want to be in hell in time for dinner.”

When his severed head was examined after the death sentence was carried out, Rulloff proved to have one of the largest brains ever recorded. From the May 24, 1871 New York Times article about the measure of a wonderful, terrible man:

The work of dissecting Rulloff’s head was so far completed this morning as to enable those having it in charge to ascertain the weight of his brain. The brain weighed fifty-nine ounces, being nine and a half or ten ounces heavier than the average weight. The heaviest brain ever weighed was that of Cuvier, the French naturalist, which is given by some authorities at sixty-five ounces. The brain of Daniel Webster (partly estimated on account of a portion being destroyed by disease) weighed sixty-four ounces. The brain of Dr. Abercrombie, of Scotland, weighed sixty-three ounces.

The average weight of men’s brain is about 50 ounces; the maximum weight 65 ounces (Cuvier’s), and the minimum weight (idiots) 20 ounces. As an average, the lower portion of the brain (cerebellum) is to the upper portion (cerebrum) as 1 is to 8 8-10. The lower, brute portion, of Rulloff’s brain and the mechanical powers were unusually large. The upper portion of the brain, which directs the higher moral and religious sentiments, was very deficient in Rulloff. In the formation of his brain, Rulloff was a ferocious animal, and so far as disposition could relieve him from responsibility, he was not strictly responsible for his acts. There is no doubt he thought himself not a very bad man, on the morning he was lead out of prison, cursing from the cell to the gallows.

With the protection of a skull half an inch thick, and a scalp of the thickness and toughness of a rhinoceros rind, the man of seven murders was provided with a natural helmet that would have defied the force of any pistol bullet. If he had been in Mirick’s place the bullet would have made only a slight wound; and had he been provided with a cutis vera equal to his scalp, his defensive armor against bullets would have been as complete as a coat of mail.

The cords in Rulloff’s neck were as heavy and strong as those of an ox, and from his formation, one would almost suppose that he was protected against death from the gallows as well as by injury to his head.

Rulloff’s body was [said to be] larger than it was supposed to be by casual observers. The Sheriff ascertained when he took measure of the prisoner for a coffin to bury him in, that he was five feet and ten inches in height, and measured nineteen inches across the shoulders. When in good condition his weight was about 175 pounds.

It is very well-known that Rulloff’s grave was opened three times last Friday night by different parties who wanted to obtain his head. One of those parties was from Albany, and twice the body was disinterred by persons living in Binghamton. One company would no sooner cover up the body, which all found headless, and leave it, then another company would come and go through with the same operations. It is now known that the head was never buried with the body, but was legally obtained before the burial by the surgeons who have possession of it.

The hair and beard were shaved off close, and an excellent impression in plaster was taken of the whole head. The brain is now undergoing a hardening process, and when that is completed an impression will be taken of it entire, and then it will be parted, the different parts weighed, and impressions made of the several sections.•

Really interesting China File piece by Robert Daly about America’s dilemma in dealing with the world’s most populous country, whose breakneck modernization is now showing its first signs of true maturation. There are only twisty paths ahead. “The U.S. and China are now so interdependent that Washington cannot impose economic costs on China that don’t ricochet onto U.S. allies and the United States itself,” the author wisely writes.

Money talks and bullshit walks, as our free-market saying goes, and China’s new wealth has been brought to bear on Hollywood, Silicon Valley and other Western dream factories, despite its ghastly record on human rights. Will growing purchasing power allow it to buy the place at the head of the table, normalizing autocracy in a way the contemporary world has never before seen?

Daly asks a fascinating question: “Does China’s inability to foster innovation still matter now that it can purchase it overseas?” He seems to think not, but I believe it does. An economic collapse, should it occur, would probably be only a temporary drag, but a society that steadfastly refuses its people free expression is a denatured state that precludes real innovation, which at some point should be an organically grown product.

One thing Daly assumes is that America will continue to stand for liberal democracy under Donald Trump, who seems determined to force his autocratic impulses into the Oval Office. The U.S. people and traditions may neutralize him, but a President even attempting to undermine liberty will diminish our moral authority.

An excerpt:

By 2016, a broad swathe of Americans had begun to feel the effects of China’s development in their everyday lives—in shopping malls, at the multiplex, in paychecks—and to sense that the center of global power might be shifting from the United States toward China. Since the two countries established relations in 1979, U.S. institutional and ideational impact on China has far outstripped China’s minuscule influence on U.S. tastes and values. In 2016, China’s big plans may have begun to tilt the balance. Consider the summer of 2016: In June, China built the world’s fastest supercomputer (unlike the previous fastest machine, also made in China, the new one used only Chinese chips—and no U.S. hardware); in July, China completed the world’s biggest radio telescope; and in August, it sent the world’s first quantum-communications satellite into orbit.

China’s 2016 successes followed its construction of the world’s longest high-speed rail network; its creation, over the last few decades, of cities, like Pudong and Shenzhen, out of rice paddies; and its development of the world’s largest telecom system. It is now China, not the United States, that uses industrial policy to master emerging technologies, makes massive capital investments, appropriates land, and quickly brings new ideas to market on a continental scale. China increasingly drives global supply and demand, while the West settles for Nobel prizes.

China’s ability to plan big depends in part on foreign innovation, some of it stolen, and on an authoritarian government that botches many of its grand projects. But that will be scant consolation for Americans if the next wave of discovery, not to mention both the hard and soft power accrued by it, is spurred by Chinese telescopes and satellites. China, furthermore, is aware of its creativity deficit. In 2016, Beijing accelerated its Silicon Valley shopping spree, buying tech and talent it couldn’t produce at home. Americans often observe that China is imitative, not innovative, and that its politicized universities and denial of personal freedom make it dependent on others for new ideas. That may have been important before China got rich, but does China’s inability to foster innovation still matter now that it can purchase it overseas?•


Creating free-range, dexterous robots that can master simple chores–making a bed, hanging a picture–is in a different league of difficulty than turning out stationary machines that work an assembly line. It will happen someday, but the hotel maid and the handyman may persevere a while longer.

That leads Guardian Economics Editor Larry Elliott to argue the next wave of automation will largely leave alone low-paid workers in the service sector but will instead do damage to the professional class of middle managers and bosses.

Maybe, but both could be hurt simultaneously. There are plenty of service positions likely to soon fall into robot hands: front-desk clerks, bellhops, security guards, etc. Not every blue- or white-collar job needs to vanish for society to teeter and, perhaps, collapse. Just enough foundational pieces have to be removed.

From Elliott:

Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) mean a second wave of change is approaching – and this time the jobs at risk from the machines are going to be jobs in the service sector.

As Dhaval Joshi, economist at BCA Research, has noted, it is not going to be the low-paid jobs in the service sector such as cleaning, gardening, carers, bar staff or cooks, whose jobs are most at risk. That’s because machines find it hard to replicate the movements of humans in everyday tasks.

“The hard problems that are easy for AI are those that require the application of complex algorithms and pattern recognition to large quantities of data – such as beating a grandmaster at chess”, says Joshi. “Or a job such as calculating a credit score or insurance premium, translating a report from English to Mandarin Chinese, or managing a stock portfolio.”

Seen in this light, the looming threat is obvious. The first army of machines wiped out well-paid jobs in manufacturing; the second army is about to wipe out well-paid jobs in the service sector. In many cases, the people who will be surplus to requirements will have spent many years in school and university building up their skills.•

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From the November 20, 1910 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

For J. Robert Oppenheimer, science was a series of trials.

The father of the atomic bomb, the theoretical physicist was never to be sainted like Albert Einstein. It’s possible (likely, even) the weapon actually saved lives during World War II, abbreviating the fighting by forcing Japan to surrender, but the unholy power released brought to mind the content of the first piece of Morse code ever sent: “What hath God wrought.”

Publishing a post about Richard Feynman the other day reminded me about his mentor’s literal trial during the McCarthy era, when Oppenheimer was accused of being a Communist sympathizer willing to secret nuclear knowledge to the Soviets. The scientist had been under surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI since the 1940s, with his phones tapped and office bugged, and in the following decade his security clearance was surprisingly revoked.

Oppenheimer certainly worked with and knew members of the Communist Party (his wife was one), but that wasn’t unusual in those days. The governmental action seems to have had less to do with fears of espionage than with witch-hunt hysteria and a power struggle among politicians and competing scientists, particularly his erstwhile friend Edward Teller. Oppenheimer fought his loss of credentials to no avail in a four-week trial, emerging with a reputation permanently reduced.

Two articles about the matter from the April 13, 1954 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the first about the suspension of clearance and the second a piece in which Einstein voiced support for Oppenheimer.

Edward R. Murrow interviews an understandably shaky Oppenheimer in the year after his trial. Under his direction, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton wasn’t only home to some of the finest young physicists in the world but also served as a salon of sorts to broaden the students’ thinking. T.S. Eliot, George Kennan and Jean Piaget were among the visitors who stayed for a spell. The university considered removing Oppenheimer from his post after the Communist controversy, but he ultimately retained his position until his death by cancer in 1967.


Utopias don’t often end well. Usually they just fall flat, but sometimes they fall spectacularly apart. Shangri-las, you could say, have a nasty habit of becoming shambolic. 

It’s not just madmen like Jim Jones and August Engelhardt who fail to realize Edens. Perfectly reasonable souls like George Ripley and Bronson Alcott saw their farms turn fallow, their dreams go awry. Creating a better way is complicated business.

The common denominator of these failures: human beings. Wonderful though we are, we tend to make a mess.

Recently read Jordan Harrison’s 2011 play Maple and Vine, a drama about a couple bedeviled by the technological world who quit society and join a gated community that’s “set” in the 1950s, a place that has gone an awful long way to “make America great again.” It becomes apparent over time that it isn’t so much the modern world as the human condition that the “escapees” are primarily fleeing. 

Self-sustaining cultures are difficult to manage for a variety of financial and logistical reasons, but a considerable obstacle is that we bring our humanness, that blessed and cursed thing, with us as we sail into the “new world.” To quote the Professor Irwin Corey: “Wherever you go, there you are.”

In Emma Green’s excellent Atlantic piece, the reporter looks at Americans who want out of the new abnormal, a place that seems to them tricked out, dumbed down and Trumped up. The connective tissue of the many “intentional communities” she visited is environmentalism, but they’re also trying to evade politics, which, I’m afraid, is unavoidable. The opening:

For the last eight years, Nicolas and Rachel Sarah have been slowly weaning themselves off fossil fuels. They don’t own a refrigerator or a car; their year-old baby and four-year-old toddler play by candlelight rather than electricity at night. They identify as Christian anarchists, and have given an official name to their search for an alternative to consumption-heavy American life: the Downstream Project, with the motto to “do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”

As it turns out, exiting the system is a challenging, time-consuming, and surprisingly technical process. Here in the Shenandoahs and central Virginia, a handful of tiny communities are experimenting with what it means to reject the norms of contemporary life and exist in a radically different way. They seem to share Americans’ pervasive sense of political alienation, which arguably reached an apotheosis with the election of Donald Trump: a sense of division from their peers, a distrust of government. The challenges of modern politics—dealing with issues like climate change, poverty, mass migration, and war on a global scale—are so vast and abstract that it’s difficult not to find them overwhelming. But instead of continuing in passive despair, as many Americans seem to do, the people in these communities decided to overhaul their lives.

These communities show just how hard it is to live without fossil fuels, a government safety net, or a system of capitalist exchange. They struggle with many of the same issues that plague the rest of America, including health problems, financial worries, and racism. At the center of their political lives is a question that every American faces, but for them, it’s amplified: whether to save the world or let it burn.

Their answers are different, but they share one thing. They’ve seen what modern American life looks like. And they want out.•


Noted yesterday the passing of Hans Berliner, the chess and computer genius who combined his passions to great effect. Before reducing kings and pawns to zeros and ones, he led the way in creating the first game-champion computer, a backgammon behemoth which beat the best carbon competitors 38 years ago, though it did receive some lucky rolls in the process. The opening of “Gammonoid the Conqueror,” Henry Allen’s Washington Post 1979 report about the rise of the machine at the site of a Monte Carlo tournament:

Programming a computer to beat the world back-gammon champion was mere science. It was the Italians who were the miracle. Luigi Villa, nearly unheard of in big-time back-gammon (which gets bigger all the time) won the world professional championship last weekend in Monte Carlo, fighting off a field which included the cream of the world-class players — Paul Magriel, Barclay Cooke, Joe Dwek, Jim Pasko and so on. The match with the computer was just an after-thought, a publicity stunt. Villa agreed to sit at a board at the Winter Sporting Club. Before a crowd of 200 people basking in the upholstered chairs, the champagne, the wonderful silliness of it all, he would play a single seven-point match for $5,000.

But of course. Backgammon has never had anything mechanical about it, none of chess’ terrible cerebral ether surrounding it. It’s been a drinker’s game, the thinking man’s darts, a game which is almost unplayable unless there’s a bet riding on it big enough to hurt if it’s lost. It’s a game of brass and intuition, the poker of board games.

He lost.

As a wire service report put it, in syntax nearly as elegant as the casino: “Villa’s disappointment was shared by several fellow Italians, who surrounded him in an indignant and gesticulating mass immediately afterwards and hurled insults at the machine.”

The computer, known as a “gammonoid” and semi-anthropomorphized as a 3 1/2-foot robot bearing TV screen and keyboard, won seven to one – roaring to a particularly nice finish when, behind, it rolled two double-sixes to clear its board before Villa could clear his.

“The machine was lucky,” he said. “The dice were not rolling for me tonight.” He was reported to have stamped his foot.

“We’d figured we had a 20 percent chance of winning,” said Carnegie-Mellon University computer science student Charles Leiserson yesterday. “I’d rate the program at advanced intermediate. I can beat it more than half the time but by Christmas it may be improved enough that I can’t.”

Leiserson is an associate of Dr. Hans Berliner, a research scientist at Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh. Berliner, who was in Monte Carlo for the bout, has been working on his back-gammon machine for years, “writing programs, then tearing them up,” Leiserson recalled.

The program is made of about a million “bits” or basic pieces of computerized information. The problem in writing it has been that backgammon, unlike chess, another computer favorite, relies on the rolls of dice to determine the play.

Backgammon has a lot of luck in it, in other words. Also, Villa, from Milan, Itlay, was no doubt facing a computer for the first time.

Villa’s opponent wasn’t even in the room, or in Europe, for that matter. Rolls of the dice were flashed by satellite to a PDP 10 computer in Pittsburgh, which then sent back the move it had chosen according to its scanning of about a dozen “parameters” that Berliner has established through the years. Some of them are familiar to conventional backgammon players, such as pip count, or the number of men on the bar.

A run of seven points is not uncommon, either.

“Four years ago, when I won the world championship, I was behind 9 to zero before I won 25 to 24,” said Les Boyd, president of the International Backgammon Association.

Then again, Boyd said: “Seven to one? The machine beat him. Maybe 7 points isn’t a lot, but in the World Series, one pitch can win it or lose it, right?”

In Monte Carlo, former world champion Paul Magriel did the play-by-play commentary, effervescing: “Look at this play. I didn’t even consider this play . . . This is certainly not a human play. This machine is relentless. Oh, it’s aggressive. It’s a really courageous machine.”•

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