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In January, I wrote this:

More than two centuries before Deep Blue deep-sixed humanity by administering a whooping to Garry Kasparov, that Baku-born John Henry, the Mechanical Turk purported to be a chess-playing automaton nonpareil. It was, of course, a fake, a contraption that hid within its case a genius-level human champion that controlled its every move. Such chicanery isn’t unusual for technologies nowhere near fruition, but the truth is even ones oh-so-close to the finish line often need the aid of a hidden hand.

In “The Humans Working Behind The Curtain,” a smart Harvard Business Review piece by Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri, the authors explain how the “paradox of automation’s last mile” manifests itself even in today’s highly algorithmic world, an arrangement by which people are hired to quietly complete a task AI can’t, and one which is unlikely to be undone by further progress. Unfortunately, most of the stealth work for humans created in this way is piecemeal, lower-paid and prone to the rapid churn of disruption.

An excerpt:

Cut to Bangalore, India, and meet Kala, a middle-aged mother of two sitting in front of her computer in the makeshift home office that she shares with her husband. Our team at Microsoft Research met Kala three months into studying the lives of people picking up temporary “on-demand” contract jobs via the web, the equivalent of piecework online. Her teenage sons do their homework in the adjoining room. She describes calling them into the room, pointing at her screen and asking: “Is this a bad word in English?” This is what the back end of AI looks like in 2016. Kala spends hours every week reviewing and labeling examples of questionable content. Sometimes she’s helping tech companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft train the algorithms that will curate online content. Other times, she makes tough, quick decisions about what user-generated materials to take down or leave in place when companies receive customer complaints and flags about something they read or see online.

Whether it is Facebook’s trending topics; Amazon’s delivery of Prime orders via Alexa; or the many instant responses of bots we now receive in response to consumer activity or complaint, tasks advertised as AI-driven involve humans, working at computer screens, paid to respond to queries and requests sent to them through application programming interfaces (APIs) of crowdwork systems. The truth is, AI is as “fully-automated” as the Great and Powerful Oz was in that famous scene from the classic film, where Dorothy and friends realize that the great wizard is simply a man manically pulling levers from behind a curtain. This blend of AI and humans, who follow through when the AI falls short, isn’t going away anytime soon. Indeed, the creation of human tasks in the wake of technological advancement has been a part of automation’s history since the invention of the machine lathe.

We call this ever-moving frontier of AI’s development, the paradox of automation’s last mile: as AI makes progress, it also results in the rapid creation and destruction of temporary labor markets for new types of humans-in-the-loop tasks.•

The Harvard Business Review report was terrain previously covered from a different angle by Adrian Chen in Wired in 2014 with “The Laborers Who Keep Dick Pics and Beheadings Out of Your Facebook Feed.” The journalist studied those stealthily doing the psychologically dangerous business of keeping the Internet “safe.” The opening:

THE CAMPUSES OF the tech industry are famous for their lavish cafeterias, cushy shuttles, and on-site laundry services. But on a muggy February afternoon, some of these companies’ most important work is being done 7,000 miles away, on the second floor of a former elementary school at the end of a row of auto mechanics’ stalls in Bacoor, a gritty Filipino town 13 miles southwest of Manila. When I climb the building’s narrow stairwell, I need to press against the wall to slide by workers heading down for a smoke break. Up one flight, a drowsy security guard staffs what passes for a front desk: a wooden table in a dark hallway overflowing with file folders.

Past the guard, in a large room packed with workers manning PCs on long tables, I meet Michael Baybayan, an enthusiastic 21-year-old with a jaunty pouf of reddish-brown hair. If the space does not resemble a typical startup’s office, the image on Baybayan’s screen does not resemble typical startup work: It appears to show a super-close-up photo of a two-pronged dildo wedged in a vagina. I say appears because I can barely begin to make sense of the image, a baseball-card-sized abstraction of flesh and translucent pink plastic, before he disappears it with a casual flick of his mouse.

Baybayan is part of a massive labor force that handles “content moderation”—the removal of offensive material—for US social-networking sites. As social media connects more people more intimately than ever before, companies have been confronted with the Grandma Problem: Now that grandparents routinely use services like Facebook to connect with their kids and grandkids, they are potentially exposed to the Internet’s panoply of jerks, racists, creeps, criminals, and bullies. They won’t continue to log on if they find their family photos sandwiched between a gruesome Russian highway accident and a hardcore porn video. Social media’s growth into a multibillion-dollar industry, and its lasting mainstream appeal, has depended in large part on companies’ ability to police the borders of their user-generated content—to ensure that Grandma never has to see images like the one Baybayan just nuked.

So companies like Facebook and Twitter rely on an army of workers employed to soak up the worst of humanity in order to protect the rest of us. And there are legions of them—a vast, invisible pool of human labor.•

Chen has now teamed with Ciarán Cassidy to revisit the harrowing topic for a 20-minute documentary called “The Moderators.” It’s a fascinating peek into a hidden corner of our increasingly computerized world–one that’s even more relevant in the wake of the Kremlin-bot Presidential election–as well as very good filmmaking. 

We watch as trainees at an Indian company that quietly “cleans” unacceptable content from social-media sites are introduced to sickening images they must scrub. That tired phrase “you can’t unsee this” gains new currency as the neophytes are bombarded by shock and gore. The movie numbers at 150,000 the workers in this sector trying to mitigate the chaos in the “largest experiment in anarchy we’ve ever had.” For these kids it’s a first job, a foot in the door even if they’re stepping inside a haunted house. You have to wonder, though, if they will ultimately be impacted in a Milgramesque sense, desensitized and disheartened, whether they initially realize it or not.

We are all like the moderators to a certain degree, despite their best efforts. Pretty much everyone who’s gone online during these early decades of the Digital Age has witnessed an endless parade of upsetting images and footage that was never available during a more centralized era. Are we also children who don’t realize what we’re becoming?

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Not all whistleblowers are created equal. Julian Assange is, after all, no Daniel Ellsberg, even if the latter leaker supports him.

The WikiLeaks founder is nothing if not a Trump-ish world figure, having climbed onto that stage while our current President was still more Kim Kardashian than Kim Jong-un, busy weighing the relative merits of Arsenio Hall and Gary Busey in a make-believe boardroom.

Assange has repeatedly proven himself over the past seven years to have been deeply irresponsible with both the lives of innocent people–even at-risk ones–and the truth. Slavishly devoted to his own privacy despite having no regard for anyone else’s, he’s a vainglorious, egotistical asshole with a deep misogynistic streak and multiple sexual assault allegations on his public record. (If you want to hear more, someone locate Billy Bush and get the bus running.) That doesn’t even take into account Assange apparently working as a Putin stooge over the last several years, with his organization becoming a Kremlin house organ far more effective than Pravda ever was during the Soviet days.

A question remains despite his odious behavior: Even if what Assange practices is some sort of voodoo journalism, will it endanger genuine practitioners if he’s arrested and tried for espionage? That inquiry was a lot more germane before Trump and hopefully will be again after him, since any U.S. reporter or news organization are targets of the White House’s wrath during this terrible time, no questionable practices required.

In writing about Risk, the Laura Poitras documentary about the world’s second-most-infamous Kremlin crony, Sue Halpern of the New York Review of Books wonders over this very issue. An excerpt:

Despite Assange’s vocal disdain for his former collaborators at The New York Times and The Guardian, his association with those journalists and their newspapers is probably what so far has kept him from being indicted and prosecuted in the United States. As Glenn Greenwald told the journalist Amy Goodman recently, Eric Holder’s Justice Department could not come up with a rationale to prosecute WikiLeaks that would not also implicate the news organizations with which it had worked; to do so, Greenwald said, would have been “too much of a threat to press freedom, even for the Obama administration.” The same cannot be said with confidence about the Trump White House, which perceives the Times, and national news organizations more generally, as adversaries. Yet if the Sessions Justice Department goes after Assange, it likely will be on the grounds that WikiLeaks is not “real” journalism.

This charge has dogged WikiLeaks from the start. For one thing, it doesn’t employ reporters or have subscribers. For another, it publishes irregularly and, because it does not actively chase secrets but aggregates those that others supply, often has long gaps when it publishes nothing at all. Perhaps most confusing to some observers, WikiLeaks’s rudimentary website doesn’t look anything like a New York Times or a Washington Post, even in those papers’ more recent digital incarnations.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that WikiLeaks publishes the information it receives much like those traditional news outlets. When it burst on the scene in 2010, it was embraced as a new kind of journalism, one capable not only of speaking truth to power, but of outsmarting power and its institutional gatekeepers. And the fact is, there is no consensus on what constitutes “real” journalism. As Adam Penenberg points out, “The best we have comes from laws and proposed legislation which protect reporters from being forced to divulge confidential sources in court. In crafting those shield laws, legislators have had to grapple with the nebulousness of the profession.”

The danger of carving off WikiLeaks from the rest of journalism, as the attorney general may attempt to do, is that ultimately it leaves all publications vulnerable to prosecution. Once an exception is made, a rule will be too, and the rule in this case will be that the government can determine what constitutes real journalism and what does not, and which publications, films, writers, editors, and filmmakers are protected under the First Amendment, and which are not.

This is where censorship begins. No matter what one thinks of Julian Assange personally, or of WikiLeaks’s reckless publication practices, like it or not, they have become the litmus test of our commitment to free speech. If the government successfully prosecutes WikiLeaks for publishing classified information, why not, then, “the failed New York Times,” as the president likes to call it, or any news organization or journalist? It’s a slippery slope leading to a sheer cliff. That is the real risk being presented here, though Poitras doesn’t directly address it.•


“This is not the film I thought I was making”:

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Ducklings, like the babies of pretty much any species, are adorable. Full-grown ducks seem to me to be kind of assholes. Not killing machines like owls or heartless predators like vultures, but irritating. Always quacking. Fuck off. I don’t care for the attitude.

· · ·

Louis CK, also sort of an asshole, has spoken of duck genitalia: “I’ve heard that ducks have one hole, and they pee out of it, and they shit out of it, they get fucked in it, and they lay eggs out of it. That has got to be one dirty, smelly hole.” That being said, Louis still seems far pervier.

· · ·

In a fascinating Spiegel Q&A, Johann Grolle questions ornithologist Richard Prum about duck copulation, a process that sounds like a nightmare. The opening (so to speak):

Spiegel:

Professor Prum, among all the wonders of nature you were most inspired by the sex of ducks. Why?

Richard Prum:

For a long time, I have been fascinated by the sex life of birds. But there is probably no other species where the deep sexual conflict between male and female sex is as blatant as in ducks.

Spiegel:

And so you started studying their genitalia?

Richard Prum:

No, it was actually even more simple than that. I had a prospective post-doctoral student who was looking for something to do, and she was interested in studying genitalia. I said to myself: Well, I have never worked on that end of the bird before. As a result, we studied duck sex intensively for six, seven years.

Spiegel:

What surprised you most?

Richard Prum:

Oh, there were many surprises. Not the least that we had all these descriptions of duck genitalia, and when we looked ourselves, we said: There is almost nothing to see. How could this be? That is how we discovered that the genitalia of ducks regress and regrow each year, so that a 10- or 15-centimeter penis in the summer will reduce to less than 1 centimeter in the winter and then grow back the next year.

Spiegel:

This is part of the sexual conflict you mentioned before? 

Richard Prum:

Yes, indeed. Mate choice occurs first. In winter the males do these elaborate displays, and the females choose the one they like most. Because, parallel to the evolution of the males’ display behavior, the females have evolved preferences for these displays. We call this “coevolution.”

Spiegel:

So far, this sounds quite harmonious.

Richard Prum:

Yes, it is. The pairs stay together until the clutch is laid and the females incubate. The conflict part comes next. Because now some of the males pursue an alternative mating strategy, which is to violently enforce copulation. For this they make use of their penis, which is regrown by now. This penis is a very bizarre structure. It is counterclockwise coiled, and erection takes place in less than half a second. Erection, penetration and ejaculation in ducks is one and the same event, and it happens very, very rapidly.

Spiegel:

How do the females react?

Richard Prum:

It’s very interesting.•


“A huge barrel of fucking duck vaginas.”

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Overall I enjoyed Garry Kasaprov’s Deep Thinking. Have philosophical disagreements with it, for sure, and there is some revisionism in regards to his personal history, but the author’s take on his career developing parallel to the rise of the machines and his waterloo versus IBM is fascinating. It’s clear that if there had been a different World Chess Champion during Kasparov’s reign, one who lacked his significant understanding of the meaning of computers and maverick mindset, the game would have been impoverished for it. I’ll try to make time this weekend to write a long review.

The 20-year retrospective on Deep Blue’s 1997 victory would be incomplete without reflection by Steven Levy, who penned the famous Newsweek cover story “The Brain’s Last Stand” as a preface to the titanic match in which humanity sunk. (It turns out Levy himself composed that perfectly provocative cover line that no EIC could refuse.)

The writer focuses in part on the psychological games that Deep Blue was programmed to play, an essential point to remember as computers are integrated into every aspect of life–when nearly every object becomes “smart.” Levy points out that no such manipulations were required for DeepMind to conquer Go, but those machinations might be revisited when states and corporations desire to nudge our behaviors.

An excerpt:

The turning point of the match came in Game Two. Kasparov had won the first game and was feeling pretty good. In the second, the match was close and hard fought. But on the 36th move, the computer did something that shook Kasparov to his bones. In a situation where virtually every top-level chess program would have attacked Kasparov’s exposed queen, Deep Blue made a much subtler and ultimately more effective move that shattered Kasparov’s image of what a computer was capable of doing. It seemed to Kasparov — and frankly, to a lot of observers as well — that Deep Blue had suddenly stopped playing like a computer (by resisting the catnip of the queen attack) and instead adopted a strategy that only the wisest human master might attempt. By underplaying Deep Blue’s capabilities to Kasparov, IBM had tricked the human into underestimating it. A few days later, he described it this way: “Suddenly [Deep Blue] played like a god for one moment.” From that moment Kasparov had no idea what — or who — he was playing against. In what he described as “a fatalistic depression,” he played on, and wound up resigning the game.

After Game Two, Kasparov was not only agitated by his loss but also suspicious at how the computer had made a move that was so…un-computer like. “It made me question everything,” he now writes. Getting the printouts that explained what the computer did — and proving that there was no human intervention — became an obsession for him. Before Game Five, in fact, he implied that he would not show up to play unless IBM submitted printouts, at least to a neutral party who could check that everything was kosher. IBM gave a small piece to a third party, but never shared the complete file.

Kasparov was not the same player after Game Two.•


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

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From the December 13, 1936 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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Andy Warhol was shot, somehow, only once.

He was, no doubt, a brilliant visionary who knew decades early the Reality Age was approaching, even if he calibrated the time span we’d all be famous far too cautiously. The Pop Artist and keen media philosopher, however, was careless about those troubled souls he assembled in his Factory, his role that of the foreman unconcerned about the safety of the ones working on the floor. It was somehow glamorized, though it had all the charm of a heroin souk on Halloween. The scene in Midnight Cowboy when Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo wander, shocked, through a decadent party inside a Warholian vomitorium seems apt.

Warhol wasn’t responsible for those in his constellation, but he didn’t need to be so irresponsible. He didn’t have to be a father, but he should have been a better friend.

In Gatsby terms, he curated a “rotten crowd” in the Sixties, and into their spin waltzed New England patrician purity in the slight form of Edie Sedgwick, who was destined to be a star of the shooting variety. An aristocrat descending into hades, how amazing! Except that it wasn’t. Within a few years she was worn out, used up and dead of a drug overdose. Like Zelda Fitzgerald, she’d been burned alive.

A decade after her death, Jean Stein, a restless type of Hollywood royalty, created a great oral history of Sedgwick that also spoke to the era. Not that Stein’s book fully captured the 1960s anymore than did Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, both volumes laser focused on the dark side of the decade. But you also couldn’t tell nearly as well the story of that tumultuous time without their reporting.

Stein just died in a fall from her 15th-floor Manhattan apartment, likely a suicide, after sliding into a depression. Lee Smith of the Weekly Standard, a former employee and confidante of the author and editor, wrote the best obituary about her, an uncommonly deep dive into her psyche and milieu. An excerpt from the obit is followed by one from Michiko Kakutani’s 1982 review of Stein’s Sedgwick book and a 1965 video of Andy and Edie in an appropriately odd appearance on Merv Griffin’s talk show.


From Smith:

Most people speak because they like to hear themselves speak, and the trick for a journalist is to respect, and then profit from, human frailty long enough to keep your own mouth shut. But other people, usually more interesting people, don’t want to speak. Jean’s genius was in getting those people to talk by speaking herself. She understood that social space wants to be filled. Everyone fears certain types of silence, so they fill it with talk, the question then is about the quality of the talk. By exposing parts of her own pain, Jean made her subjects not only willing to reveal some of their own, but also, and more importantly, keen to protect her and join her at the place of her pain so she wouldn’t be left alone.

Here’s a practical example: Next time you attend a party and are called on to introduce two people but have forgotten the name of one or both, stutter. At least one, most likely both, will quickly volunteer their names in order to rescue you from your awkwardness. Why? Arguably, it’s because people are good. In any case, Jean’s aesthetic was premised on the idea that people are basically good and don’t want others to hurt, especially not in public. And that was perhaps Jean’s great theme—public hurt, American pain.

Her first book, also edited by Plimpton, was American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy, an oral biography centered around the funeral train that took Kennedy’s body from New York City to Washington, D.C. But Edie was Jean’s masterpiece, also an oral biography, a book that I think is generally misunderstood as a love song to the Warhol gang and the groovy 1960s underground.

Generations of young women, up to the present, have gone to New York with the legend of young Edie Sedgwick, the beautiful and doomed socialite celebrity, on their minds, steered by half-formed dreams of becoming the next “It” girl. One of those young women, a friend of mine, visited the Grand Street office when Jean was there and gushed to her about how much she loved the book, the scene it portrayed, the ethos of the moment. Jean’s face became very serious. She shook her head emphatically. “It was not glamorous,” she told my friend. And then I started to imagine how Jean must have seen it—like a vision of the underworld with generations of beautiful and naïve young women on the arm of some painter, or writer, or actor, eventually to be discarded and left alone in hell. That’s who Edie was, a kid who didn’t learn quickly enough the cost of not leaving a parade of death.

The space Jean Stein occupied was unique, moral, ambiguously optimistic in the American style, and is filled now by her books, a central part of the historiography of 20th-century America.•


From Kakutani:

Beautiful and charming, she had an ability to conjure up a magical world of grace and fun, and when she came to New York in 1964, she almost immediately became the leading lady of the fashionable demimonde. Her arrival happened to coincide with that period when all the old rules were suddenly breaking down – her gift for the outrageous seemed, to many, to personify the times – and she quickly replaced Baby Jane Holzer as Andy Warhol’s newest star. Mr. Warhol, with his gift for exploiting image and personality, escorted her to parties and featured her in his films, and Vogue magazine was soon dubbing her a ”Youthquaker,” ”22, going whither, God knows, but at a great rate!”

A friend who knew Edie as a teen-ager recalls in the book that she always ”liked walking very close to extinction,” and the world of Warhol’s Factory – with its drugs and sexual experimentation – fueled her fatal predilections. There were shoplifting sprees at department stores, injections of LSD and speed, and increasingly frequent stays at hospitals and clinics. Although Edie finally left New York, returning to California, where she got married, she never seemed to get the hang of ordinary life. Happiness and the order that her grandparents had once predicated their lives on remained elusive, and on Nov. 16, 1971, she died from ”acute barbiturate intoxication.” She was 28 years old.•


Warhol refuses to speak during a 1965 appearance on Merv Griffin’s talk show, allowing a still-healthy-looking Sedgwick to handle the conversation. Not even the Pop Artist himself could have realized how correct he was in believing that soon just being would be enough to warrant stardom, that it wouldn’t matter what you said or if you said a thing, that traditional content would lose much of its value.

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In 1989, six years before her murder, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the Carrie Nation of holy water, was profiled by Lawrence Wright, then of Texas Monthly. The outrageously quotable, oft-jailed atheist activist was no doubt a welcome assignment for a budding journalistic talent like Wright, who visited her Austin offices a quarter century after her strident efforts had removed compulsory prayer from American public schools.

In the twilight of the Reagan years, O’Hair thought the country was headed toward a Neo-fascism enabled by a confluence of plutocracy, technology and religion. In retrospect, not a bad prediction.

An excerpt from the Texas Monthly piece is followed by some other articles and videos about her.


From Wright:

As with most Americans my age, my life already had been given a good shaking by Madalyn Murray O’Hair. For the first ten years of my schooling, I listened to prayers and Scripture every morning following the announcements on the P.A. system. I don’t recall ever questioning the propriety of such action or wondering what my Jewish classmates, for instance, might think about hearing Christian prayers in public school. But in the fateful fall of 1963 we began classes amid the enormous hubbub that followed the Supreme Court decision. The absence of morning prayers was widely seen as a prelude to the fall of the West. And the woman who had toppled civilization as we knew it was some loudmouthed Baltimore housewife—that was my impression—who then proceeded to wage another legal campaign to tax church property. She was the first person I had ever heard called a heretic. She jumped out of the front pages with one outrageous statement after another; indeed, the era of dissent in the sixties really began with Madalyn Murray, who styled herself as the “most hated woman in America.”

Certainly she was the most provocative. Soon after the school-prayer decision, Mrs. Murray, as she called herself then, was charged with assaulting 10 Baltimore policemen (she has inflated the number of policemen to 14, then 22, and then 26). She fled first to Hawaii, where she took refuge in a Unitarian church. Then she went to Mexico, which summarily deported her to Texas in 1965. Her odyssey ended in Austin, where she successfully fought extradition to Maryland, married an ex-FBI informer named Richard O’Hair, and remained long after the Maryland charges were dropped.

Over the years I followed Madalyn O’Hair in the way one keeps tabs on celebrities, as she bantered with Johnny Carson, sued the pope, or burst into a church and turned over bingo tables. When I was in college, she came to speak. By then she had achieved a kind of sainthood status with the undergraduate intelligentsia. True to her billing, she raked over capitalism and Christianity and especially Catholicism, unsettling if not actually insulting every person in the auditorium. Afterward she repaired to the student center and held forth in the lobby, giving an explicit and highly titillating seminar on the variations of sexual intercourse. I had never seen anyone with such a breathtaking willingness to endure public hatred. “I love a good fight,” she boasted to the press. “I guess fighting God and God’s spokesmen is sort of the ultimate, isn’t it?”

Neutrality is never present around Madalyn O’Hair; she polarizes everyone. …

“I do think we’re in a steady retreat. There’s an absolute steady retreat into what I call a neofascism—but it’s really old-time fascism—into a robber-baron society and a religiously dominated society, and that’s not cyclical, because they have new weapons at hand now, mainly communications technology with which they can rapidly disperse ideas…”•


The atheist crusader was right that children should not be forced to pray in public school, but that doesn’t mean she was an ideal parent. O’Hair had dissent in her family that she would not brook: Her eldest son, William, became a religious and social conservative in 1980. His mother, showing characteristic outrage, labeled him a “postnatal abortion” and cut off all communication. From a 1980 People article about the familial rift:

He traces her atheism to that self-absorption and hubris and to an aggressive antiestablishment streak that led her (with her two sons) into a variety of left-wing causes—even, he claims, to the Soviet embassy in Paris in search of exile. Rejected by Moscow, she retreated angrily back home to Baltimore where, as he puts it, “The rebel found a cause in prayer at school.”

As the pawn of her crusade, Bill was excoriated by fellow students, given extra homework by his teachers and baited into schoolyard fights; once, he remembers, some classmates tried to push him in front of a bus. “While Madalyn was busy with her rhetoric, newsletters, fund raising and publicity,” he says, “I was fighting for my life.” At 17, Murray ran afoul of the law. He eloped with a girl despite an injunction won by her parents that prohibited him from seeing her. Police intervened, and both Bill and his mother were charged with assaulting them. (The young woman left Bill and their infant daughter two years later.) 

Throughout Bill’s life his mother’s reputation has been a millstone. Drafted a year after his marriage broke up, he was subjected to grueling Army interrogation about Madalyn’s activist causes—and asked to sign a statement repudiating her left-wing politics (he did). After discharge he took a series of jobs in airline management and remembers living in fear that his employers would find out who his mother was and fire him. He complains she even threatened to expose him herself when he balked at giving her discounted airplane tickets that were due him as an employee. 

In 1969 he asked Madalyn for his daughter, whom she had kept while he was in the Army. She refused, they fought a custody suit and Madalyn won. Still, in 1974, when her second husband was ailing and the AAC foundering, Bill agreed to come to Austin and help out. He did so with great success—and increasing doubts. He multiplied the AAC’s annual income, which underwrote a flurry of new lawsuits—over church tax exemptions, the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and ‘In God We Trust’ on coins. But Bill says he began to wonder: “Why couldn’t we buy a new X-ray machine for a hospital? Why did we have to buy a new Cadillac and mobile home for Madalyn, or sue somebody to prevent prayer in outer space? I started to think it was because my mother was basically negative and destructive.’ He began to drink too much—”diving into the bottle to forget,” as he describes it. Six months after he came to Austin, Madalyn turned her animus on him once too often. “I told her to get f——-,” he recalls, ‘and got the hell out.”

By that time Bill was an alcoholic. He had a new marriage and a new job as an airline management consultant, but felt his life was falling apart.”•


From the 1965 Playboy interview with the “most hated woman in America”:

Playboy:

What led you to become an atheist?

Madalyn Murray O’Hair:

Well, it started when I was very young. People attain the age of intellectual discretion at different times in their lives — sometimes a little early and sometimes a little late. I was about 12 or 13 years old when I reached this period. It was then that I was introduced to the Bible. We were living in Akron and I wasn’t able to get to the library, so I had two things to read at home: a dictionary and a Bible. Well, I picked up the Bible and read it from cover to cover one weekend — just as if it were a novel — very rapidly, and I’ve never gotten over the shock of it. The miracles, the inconsistencies, the improbabilities, the impossibilities, the wretched history, the sordid sex, the sadism in it — the whole thing shocked me profoundly. I remember l looked in the kitchen at my mother and father and I thought: Can they really believe in all that? Of course, this was a superficial survey by a very young girl, but it left a traumatic impression. Later, when I started going to church, my first memories are of the minister getting up and accusing us of being full of sin, though he didn’t say why; then they would pass the collection plate, and I got it in my mind that this had to do with purification of the soul, that we were being invited to buy expiation from our sins. So I gave it all up. It was too nonsensical.•


A 30-minute documentary about O’Hair, and a 1970 Donahue episode in which she debated Rev. Bob Harrington (voice and picture not properly synced.)

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From the August 11, 1932 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:


Dunninger exposing “spirit swindlers”:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Two quainter examples of technology crossing wires with chess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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It’s hard to know what to make of Bob Woodward, the less talented half of the twentieth-century’s most famous American reporting duo, in the new millennium. 

Like a lot of educated boneheads, he’s been an apologist for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, trusting the deeply dishonest Bush Administrations’ claim of Weapons of Mass Destruction, despite a real paucity of evidence. In 2013, he claimed the Obama Adminsitration had “threatened” him, though this seemed to be more fanciful than fact.

In addition to these two ass-backwards moments, during his 2008 appearance on 60 Minutes to promote his book The War Within, the journalist hinted at knowing about a mysterious new weapon developed by the U.S. military, one that was able to melt buses filled with terrorists from great distances. An excerpt:

“This is very sensitive and very top secret, but there are secret operational capabilities that have been developed by the military to locate, target and kill leaders of al-Qaida in Iraq, insurgent leaders, renegade militia leaders. That is one of the true breakthroughs,” Woodward told Pelley.

“But what are we talking about here? It’s some kind of surveillance? Some kind of targeted way of taking out just the people that you’re looking for?” Pelley asked.

“I’d love to go through the details, but I’m not going to,” Woodward replied…. “If you were an al-Qaida leader … and you knew about what they were able to do, you’d get your ass outta town.”

It sounded to viewers like America had developed some sort of death ray, though it was probably something less dramatic. Who’s to say at this point with Woodward?

· · ·

In the early 1920s, an erstwhile serious British inventor named Harry Grindell-Matthews made a Tesla-ish claim, saying he’d created a death ray that had been perfected at the expense of rats. He was squirrely about demos, however, traveling to France and then America to keep one step ahead of the skeptics. For some reason, journalists of the era decided to support him against military and scientific establishments that were unconvinced by his assertions–and rightly so. 

An article in the July 20, 1924 Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on the sensational claims.


From 1924: “The Grindell-Matthews Death Ray, in the future, may control the destiny of the world.”

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It wasn’t the Jazz Singer, but Benito Mussolini agreed to star in a talkie when asked by Fox Movietone News to stand before the company’s motion-picture cameras and address the citizens of the United States. In the 80-second running time, Il Duce used the phrase “make America great.” 

This type of content helped the then-struggling Fox establish, in 1929, a newsreel theater in Times Square, which served as a forerunner to today’s cable outlets.

The Fascist leader, who understood the power of communications like few in his era, would endeavor within a decade of making this short to build his very own Hollywood. Today he would merely need to open his own Twitter account. Progress.

An article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on the first foreign leader to have a speaking role on film.

Chuck Barris, game-show producer and occasional murdererrealized like P.T. Barnum before him–and Howard Stern and reality TV producers after–that there was money to be made off the marginal, the quasi-talented, the damaged and the freakish. I doubt, however, even Barris could have predicted that during his lifetime the sideshow tent would be relocated to the center ring, the audience would commandeer the spotlight and a fellow TV clown and salesman of schlock would become king. The defeat of professionalism, the experts getting gonged, being told “You’re fired,” is the cost of new technologies decentralizing the media. Such unfettered democracy comes with a high pricebut is it one that will prove too dear?

Barris just (most likely) died. From his New York Times obituary by Neil Genzlinger:

Mr. Barris’s next game shows were less successful, but just as it seemed he was losing his touch, he came up with the concept that would catapult him to a new level of fame: The Gong Show, which had its premiere on NBC in June 1976. The show featured a series of performers, most of them amateurs, and a panel of three celebrity judges. Mr. Barris himself was the brash, irritating host.

The performers, who were often terrible, would be allowed to go on until one of the judges couldn’t stand it anymore and sounded a gong, putting an end to the spectacle. Those who weren’t gonged were rated by the judges on a 1-to-10 scale. In keeping with the ridiculousness of the proceedings, the prize amount they vied for was ridiculous: $516.32 on the daytime version of the show, $712.05 on the prime-time edition.

The show, which ran on NBC until 1978 and then in syndication (with revivals in later years), became a cultural sensation. Critics complained about its crassness and cruelty, but Mr. Barris, like purveyors of burlesque and circus sideshows in earlier generations, knew there was a large audience for lowbrow. At one point the daytime version was attracting 78 percent of viewers 18 to 49.

“In my opinion, a good game show review is the kiss of death,” Mr. Barris said in a Salon interview in 2001. “If for some strange reason the critic liked it, the public won’t. A really bad review means the show will be on for years.”

The ghost of The Gong Show is evident in numerous reality-television shows of more recent vintage — the early rounds of any given season of American Idol, for instance.

Mr. Barris always bristled at the “King of Schlock” label that was hung on him as far back as “The Dating Game.” In a 2003 interview with Newsweek, he noted that shows much like the ones he created were by the 21st century being received differently.

“Today these shows are accepted,” he said. “These shows aren’t seen as lowering any bars.”•


“I don’t know why they did that”:

“Step right up, folks”:

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Jimmy Breslin was far from perfect, but he was awfully close to great.

The longtime NYC tabloid writer kept an unforgiving pace back in the age of multiple daily print editions, a hard drinker whose columns always made a soft landing, a working-class hero who fought the power, offering up a consistently poetic proletarian prose.

He was a tabloid titan, loud and a braggart, but he could back it up. A larger-than-life character with a big body and a giant ego, his abilities as a tireless journalist provided him with other opportunities that he was almost always ill-suited for: politician, Saturday Night Live host, talk-show host, etc. Well, in addition to his excellent reporting, he was also awfully good as a beer-commercial pitchman. 

Along with Hunter S. Thompson, Breslin was perhaps the most widely imitated journalist in America in the latter half of the twentieth century, often to horrendous results, though he can’t be blamed for that. You could fault him for sometimes talking himself into trouble, making racist remarks to an editor who questioned his work, the David becoming a Goliath when he believed it suited him. In the big picture, he was right most of the time, and he would never let you hear the end of it.

An excerpt from the wonderful New York Times writer Dan Barry’s Breslin obituary is followed by a few related clips.


From Barry:

Poetic and profane, softhearted and unforgiving, Mr. Breslin inspired every emotion but indifference; letters from outraged readers gladdened his heart. He often went after his own, from Irish-Americans with “shopping-center faces” who had forgotten their hardscrabble roots to the Roman Catholic Church, whose sex scandals prompted him to write an angry book called “The Church That Forgot Christ,” published in 2004. It ends with a cheeky vow to start a new church that would demand more low-income housing and better posture.

Love or loathe him, none could deny Mr. Breslin’s enduring impact on the craft of narrative nonfiction. He often explained that he merely applied a sportswriter’s visual sensibility to the news columns. Avoid the scrum of journalists gathered around the winner, he would advise, and go directly to the loser’s locker. This is how you find your gravedigger.

“So you go to a big thing like this presidential assassination,” he said in an extended interview with The New York Times in 2006. “Well, you’re looking for the dressing room, that’s all. And I did. I went there automatic.”

Early on, Mr. Breslin developed the persona of the hard-drinking, dark-humored Everyman from Queens, so consumed by life’s injustices and his six children that he barely had time to comb his wild black mane. While this persona shared a beer with the truth, Mr. Breslin also admired Dostoyevsky; swam every day; hadn’t had a drink in more than 30 years; wrote a shelf-full of books; and adhered to a demanding work ethic that required his presence in the moment, from a civil rights march in Alabama to a “perp walk” in Brooklyn — no matter that he never learned to drive.

The real Jimmy Breslin was so elusive that even Mr. Breslin could not find him. “There have been many Jimmy Breslins because of all the people I identified with so much, turning me into them, or them into me, that I can’t explain one Jimmy Breslin,” he once wrote.

Sometimes he presented himself as a regular guy who churned out words for pay; other times he became the megalomaniacal stylist — “J. B. Number One,” he called himself — who was dogged by pale imitators with Irish surnames. On occasion he would wake up other reporters with telephone calls to say, simply, “I’m big.”•


In 1969, Breslin ran for City Council in NYC on a ticket that aimed to deliver Norman Mailer to Gracie Mansion. It was a secessionist platform that sought to make New York City the nation’s 51st state; only 5% approved in the Democratic Primary. Here’s an excerpt from “I Run to Win,” Breslin’s May 5, 1969 cover article for New York magazine, written the month before the people voted nay:

The first phone call on Monday morning was at seven o’clock.

“He’s asleep,” I heard my wife mumble.

“Wake him up?” she mumbled.

She kicked me and I reached over for the phone.

“Somebody named Joe Ferris,” she said. “He needs your correct voting registration for the petitions., What petitions?”

I sat up in bed, with the phone in one hand and my head against the wall and my eyes closed.

“What petitions?” my wife said again.

I knew what petitions Joe Ferris was talking about. I knew about them, but I never thought it would come to the point of an early morning phone call about them. You see, when it started, I was only in this thing for pleasant conversation with nice people. “Hello,” I said to Joe Ferris. I was afraid he would send cold waves through the phone.

“I’ve got to be at the printer with the petitions this morning,” Joe Ferris said. “So what I need is the exact way your name and address appears on the voting rolls. We don’t want to have any petitions thrown out on a technicality. Because they’re going to be looking for mistakes. Particularly when they see how much support you and Norman are going to get. That’s all I’ve been hearing around town. You and Norman. I think you’ve got a tremendous chance.”

“I’ll get the information and call you back,” I said to Joe Ferris. He gave me his phone number and I told him I was writing it down, but I wasn’t. Maybe if I forgot his number and never called him back, he wouldn’t bother to call me anymore.

“What petitions?” my wife said when I hung up.•


The opening of what’s arguably Jimmy Breslin’s most famous column, his 1963 profile of the quiet, sober work of the gravedigger at Arlington National Cemetery who attended to President Kennedy’s burial plot:

Washington — Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m., in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast. His wife, Hettie, made bacon and eggs for him. Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting. It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living. “Polly, could you please be here by eleven o’clock this morning?” Kawalchik asked. “I guess you know what it’s for.” Pollard did. He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

When Pollard got to the row of yellow wooden garages where the cemetery equipment is stored, Kawalchik and John Metzler, the cemetery superintendent, were waiting for him. “Sorry to pull you out like this on a Sunday,” Metzler said. “Oh, don’t say that,” Pollard said. “Why, it’s an honor for me to be here.” Pollard got behind the wheel of a machine called a reverse hoe. Gravedigging is not done with men and shovels at Arlington. The reverse hoe is a green machine with a yellow bucket that scoops the earth toward the operator, not away from it as a crane does. At the bottom of the hill in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Pollard started the digging (Editor Note: At the bottom of the hill in front of the Custis-Lee Mansion).

Leaves covered the grass. When the yellow teeth of the reverse hoe first bit into the ground, the leaves made a threshing sound which could be heard above the motor of the machine. When the bucket came up with its first scoop of dirt, Metzler, the cemetery superintendent, walked over and looked at it. “That’s nice soil,” Metzler said. “I’d like to save a little of it,” Pollard said. “The machine made some tracks in the grass over here and I’d like to sort of fill them in and get some good grass growing there, I’d like to have everything, you know, nice.”•


“It’s a good drinkin’ beer.”

“It’s the solid cereal.”

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Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation is the “little” 1974 psychological thriller he squeezed in between the first two Godfather films, which fast-forwarded the disquiet of Antonioni’s Blow-Up into the Watergate Era, even if the director has always considered it more a personal than political film. The movie, which hangs on San Francisco surveillance expert Harry Caul’s descent into madness, remains a classic and has actually grown in stature as the Digital Age replaced the analog one. When I wrote briefly about the cerebral movie six years ago, I concluded with this:

In the era that saw the downfall of an American President who listened to the tapes of others and erased his own, The Conversation was amazingly relevant, but in some ways it may be even more meaningful in this exhibitionist age, in which we gleefully hand over our privacy to satisfy our egos. As Caul and Nixon learned, and as we may yet, those who press PLAY don’t always get to choose when to press STOP.•

This weekend, we had a sitting American President (baselessly) accuse his predecessor of tapping his phone lines, all the while the Intelligence Community searches for real tapes of this Administration’s officials conspiring with the Kremlin during the campaign. Such evidence would be treasonous.

It’s not shocking that Trump’s viciously ugly brand of nostalgia has forced us backwards into a Cold Way type of paranoia, in which 20th-century espionage is predominant. The greater insight to take from The Conversation may be more about the near future, however, when nobody has to hit PLAY because there’s no longer a STOP.

In an amazing find, the good people at Cinephilia & Beyond published a 1974 Filmmakers Newsletter interview in which Brian De Palma quizzed Coppola about this masterwork. It’s more a discussion of cinema than of Watergate, and there’s a very interesting exchange in which the subject reveals why he doesn’t regard Hitchcock with awe.

Here’s the opening:


Here’s a wonderful making-of featurette about The Conversation, which asked questions about a world where everyone is a spy and spied upon. The surprise more than 40 years later: Few seemed upset as we crept into the new order of the techno-society. We haven’t been trapped after all; we’ve logged on and signed up for it.

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That handsome and agreeable robot Charlie Rose recently interviewed Warren Buffet and Bill Gates at Columbia University, and the billionaires made a point that is true in the long run, which is that technology replacing human toil and increasing productivity makes us richer. 

That’s correct, at least in the aggregate, though the distribution is tricky.

In the short- and medium-term, that can make for a bumpy ride, especially since the pace of the transitions are much faster now than in the time of steam-powered looms, a situation that’s only likely to accelerate as time passes. Smart policy is needed to fill the breach to help those left behind as Buffet and Gates state, but that’s not looking good presently, especially in America, with President Crazypants running the show.

The comments on automation:

Warren Buffett:

If we were here in 1800 and conducting this, somebody would point out that eventually tractors would come along and better fertilizer and that 80 percent of the people are now employed on the farm and in couple hundred years it is going to be 2 or 3 percent, and what are we going to do with all these people? Well, the answer is we release them. Keynes wrote something about in something called Essays in Persuasion, which he wrote in 1930 about what a more prosperous society would become like, and he actually postulated that in 100 years and we’re now 87 years along, there would be four to eight times as much output per capita—remarkable—but he didn’t quite get at how it would get distributed. But the idea of more output per capita—which is what the progress is made on productivity—that that should be harmful to society is crazy. Now the distribution may be a problem, but if one person could push a button and turn out everything we turn out now, is that good for the world or bad for the world? You’d have to figure out how to distribute it, but you’d free up all kinds of possibilities for everything else. Everything should be devoted initially to getting greater productivity, but people who fall through the wayside through no fault of their own, as the goose lays more golden eggs, should still get a chance to participate in that prosperity, and that’s where government comes in.

Charlie Rose (to Gates):

Do you have anything to add to that?

Bill Gates:

A problem of excess is a different problem than a problem of shortage. If all the tractor and computers stopped working, then we would have problems of shortage there, and we just wouldn’t have enough people to make the output. A problem of excess really forces us took at individuals effected and take those individual resources and make sure they’re directed to them in terms of reeducation and income policies. And the smaller class size in helping handicapped kids reaching out to the elderly…the demand for labor is not at zero. If you ever get to that point, sure, you can shorten the work week, you’ll be just fine with that. This idea of taking an individual during a generation who is effected by that, I think there’s a lot to be learned about that, a lot of thinking we have to do, but the macro picture that it enables is an opportunity.

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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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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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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.

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According to legend, writer William Peter Blatty pretended to be a Saudi prince in the 1950s to get booked on the game show You Bet Your Life. He didn’t fool Groucho but did win $10,000, which helped him jump-start his career.

Blatty, who just died, enjoyed a long, successful run, but during the 1970 to 1973 period, when The Exorcist was a hugely controversial blockbuster as both novel and film, he was on the receiving end of a torrent of congratulations and curses seldom experienced by an American writer. If it wasn’t clear in those times that Blatty was correct and his critics (a mix of Catholic Church leaders and high-toned film critics) were not, it seems fairly obvious now.

In the inaugural 1974 edition of People, Blatty responded to the firestorm over the screen adaptation of The Exorcist. An excerpt in which he hit back at the critical elite, that quaint thing that used to exist before the fans fans stormed the gates. An excerpt:

Question:

How do you feel about some of the most negative reviewers of your film?

William Peter Blatty:

I would like to introduce Pauline Kael of The New Yorker to Father Woods and Father Cortes. They hate the movie because they say it is doing the church no good. Pauline Kael hates the movie because she says it is “the biggest recruiting poster the Catholic Church has had since the sunnier days of Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s.” I would like to put these people in a room together.

Vincent Canby of the New York Times said the film was not made without intelligence or talent. He said this only further infuriated him—that we should have wasted the intelligence, talent, money and budget of a lavish production on what he called elegant claptrap.

Question:

Why are they so negative?

William Peter Blatty:

They belong to a very small, elitist set of reviewers who have been trapped so long in the squirrel cage of their egos that the world of reality outside their cage is a blur. They neither reap nor sow nor perform any useful social function. They are malignant Miles of the field.•


Blatty and Exorcist collaborators Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow and Jason Miller, reconvened in 1984 for Good Morning America.

The French doctor-cum-novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline was always among the most troubling of artists, a brilliant writer and ardent anti-Semite. During the second half of the twentieth century, after the Nazis had been ground into dust, it was less a problem to embrace his brilliance. “Celine was my Proust!” exclaimed Philip Roth. William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Kurt Vonnegut and Henry Miller agreed.

The author’s thorns have sadly again grown as pointy as daggers in this neo-Nazi 2.0 moment, with his old interviews being re-run on viciously bigoted websites with Hitler-appropriate names. His greatness shouldn’t be denied, but his awfulness shouldn’t be forgotten.

In the 1934 Brooklyn Daily Eagle review of Journey to the End of the Night, his bruising, misanthropic war novel, George Currie writes of the rare level of fascination and controversy the book provoked in France.


A spectral, dissipated Céline cries during a 1957 TV interview. The following year, desperate for money as he always seemed to be, the author reluctantly allowed a re-issue of Journey, penning a preface in which he suggested the book’s graphic nature was the sole reason for the enmity he encountered, not at all acknowledging the role his numerous anti-Semitic tracts played.

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“Anything felt possible,” writes Garry Kasparov in the WSJ of the ebullient time a quarter century ago when it became apparent Soviet autocracy had failed and democracy seemed, at long last, to have triumphed. The walls came down, history supposedly ended, and it was only a matter of time until all nations succumbed to the new reality.

In 2016, with liberal governance in retreat, anything again feels possible, but in a different and chilling way.  

In a reversal of fortunes, in an unforced error, America would appear to have retroactively lost the Cold War, perhaps even World War II. The blissfully unaware, the political opportunists and the truly evil have conspired to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Hope has never needed to be more audacious because this is no joke, it is not a test, we’re really on fire. 

From Kasparov on how the failure to address history left the demons breathing, if barely, waiting to revitalize and pounce once more:

It is difficult to describe what life in the U.S.S.R. was like to people in the free world today. This is not because repressive dictatorships are an anachronism people can’t imagine, like trying to tell your incredulous children that there was once a world without cellphones and the internet. The U.S.S.R. ceased to exist in 1991, but there are plenty of repressive, authoritarian regimes thriving in 2016. The difference, and I am sad to say it, is that the citizens of the free world don’t much care about dictatorships anymore, or about the 2.7 billion people who still live in them.

The words of John F. Kennedy in 1963 Berlin sound naive to most Americans today: “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free,” he said. That for decades the U.S. government based effective foreign policy on such lofty ideals seems as distant as a world without iPhones.

Ronald Reagan’s warning that “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction” was never meant to be put to the test, but it is being tested now. If anything, Reagan’s time frame of a generation was far too generous. The dramatic expansion of freedom that occurred 25 years ago may be coming undone in 25 months.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the U.S.S.R. was the end of watch for the anti-Communist coalition formed by Harry Truman after World War II. A year later, baby boomer Bill Clinton was making jokes with Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin and it was time to party, not press the advantage. The U.S. had unrivaled global power and influence, more than at any other time in history. Yet instead of using it to shape a new global framework to protect and project the values of democracy and human rights—as Truman had done immediately to put Stalin in check—the free world acted as though the fight had been won once and for all.

Even worse, we made the same mistake in Russia and in many other newly independent states. We were so eager to embrace the bright future that we failed to address our dark past.•


A remote match via telephone versus David Letterman in 1989.

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In 2011, I quoted something from Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels:

The Angels don’t like to be called losers, but they have learned to live with it. “Yeah, I guess I am,” said one. “But you’re looking at one loser who’s going to make a hell of a scene on the way out.”

It’s an odd outcome because the Angels emerged from America’s great triumph in World War II, as it and other motorcycle gangs were formed from the wanderlust of our war vets. But the love of the road turned into hatred for the self, and then, the other.

Five years ago when I published that excerpt, I was more concerned about militias and a scary strain of right-wing backlash that seemed awakened by the election of our first African-American President and gains made by women and other minorities. I never expected those on the fringes to make such gains on the center–to win it. And I’m not exactly someone who spends my idle time at Berkeley cocktail parties.

The ones who wanted to make America white again formed a faction with those who felt adrift in the modern economy, with its wealth inequality and bruising technological shift. The latter group had always looked on others as the “losers” and didn’t want to join them, even if the scoreboard said they already had. Together the haters and the backsliders made a hell of a scene in 2016.

From Susan McWilliams’ Nation piece about Thompson forecasting the rise of Trumpism:

It has been 50 years since Hunter S. Thompson published the definitive book on motorcycle guys: Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. It grew out of a piece first published in The Nation one year earlier. My grandfather, Carey McWilliams, editor of the magazine from 1955 to 1975, commissioned the piece from Thompson—it was the gonzo journalist’s first big break, and the beginning of a friendship between the two men that would last until my grandfather died in 1980. Because of that family connection, I had long known that Hell’s Angels was a political book. Even so, I was surprised, when I finally picked it up a few years ago, by how prophetic Thompson is and how eerily he anticipates 21st-century American politics. This year, when people asked me what I thought of the election, I kept telling them to read Hell’s Angels.

Most people read Hell’s Angels for the lurid stories of sex and drugs. But that misses the point entirely. What’s truly shocking about reading the book today is how well Thompson foresaw the retaliatory, right-wing politics that now goes by the name of Trumpism. After following the motorcycle guys around for months, Thompson concluded that the most striking thing about them was not their hedonism but their “ethic of total retaliation” against a technologically advanced and economically changing America in which they felt they’d been counted out and left behind. Thompson saw the appeal of that retaliatory ethic. He claimed that a small part of every human being longs to burn it all down, especially when faced with great and impersonal powers that seem hostile to your very existence. In the United States, a place of ever greater and more impersonal powers, the ethic of total retaliation was likely to catch on.

What made that outcome almost certain, Thompson thought, was the obliviousness of Berkeley, California, types who, from the safety of their cocktail parties, imagined that they understood and represented the downtrodden. The Berkeley types, Thompson thought, were not going to realize how presumptuous they had been until the downtrodden broke into one of those cocktail parties and embarked on a campaign of rape, pillage, and slaughter.•


Sonny Barger terrorizes Thompson in 1967 on Canadian TV.

Ad for Hunter S. Thompson’s campaign for Sheriff of Aspen in 1970.

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vrhelmet7

Everyone knows Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are the next big things, but the when, what, where and how remain undefined. You can even fairly ask “why?” VR certainly appeals to those in all corners of the entertainment industry, promising to embellish everything from family blockbusters to hard-core pornography.

More sober applications also abound. Imagine people being able to step into a sort of time machine and experience what the Holocaust or slavery was truly like. Or perhaps a modern catastrophe, like the aching wound that is Aleppo, could be simulated. It would be akin to “walking through the news,” and it might sensitize the masses–or, perhaps, have the opposite effect. Maybe it will diminish the immensity of the moral horror to a fleeting experience that can be entered and exited, just another thing to do before binge-watching a sitcom. 

Deceased loved ones could be “kept alive” with the tool, allowing the living to continue a relationship of sorts with them (which chills me). Soldiers could “return” to the battlefield to work past PTSD. Older folks would have the option of visiting with their younger selves. None of these scenarios is beyond belief.

In an excellent Wall Street Journal article, Elizabeth Dwoskin, Michael Alison Chandler and Brian Fung explore VR’s possibilities as well as its potential ethical and emotional pitfalls. An excerpt:

Over the past two years, technology giants and Hollywood have poured millions of dollars into virtual reality in the hope that the medium will transform gaming and entertainment. But a growing crop of filmmakers, policymakers, researchers, human rights workers and even some law enforcement officials see a broader societal purpose in the emerging medium’s stunning ability to make people feel as if they have experienced an event firsthand.

These advocates cite research that shows virtual reality can push the boundaries of empathy and influence decision-making about issues ranging from policing to the environment. But they’re also facing new questions about the unintended consequences of an early-stage technology that may doing harm to users by putting them in situations that seem all too real.

This summer, a 15-person film crew flew to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek to record the horrors of the Holocaust in virtual reality as part of an effort to preserve the memory of the atrocity for future generations. They filmed a scene in which viewers who don a VR headset can enter a gas chamber, escorted by a three-dimensional hologram of a living survivor.

“We don’t actually know whether it’s this empathy machine or whether, if you have an immersive experience, you traumatize your users,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California, which is creating the Holocaust simulations in partnership with virtual reality start-ups. “There’s also a danger that when you have so many extreme experiences, that you become desensitized.”•


Whenever I read something about VR, I immediately wonder what Jacob L. Moreno, the student of Freud who invented the psychodrama (and hypnodrama) would have done with the tool. It’s definitely necessary to be wary of how living in the virtual could impact our behavior in the actual, because no matter how much we’ve gotten into traditional films, TV shows and paintings, VR is a further immersion and will affect our brains differently. But I assume some patients (e.g., soldiers with PTSD) could be aided by such technology. 

Below are two videos of Moreno in action at psychodrama theaters (the first in 1964, the second in 1948), places where individuals could act out scenarios from their lives within a group dynamic, hopefully gaining insight into their behavior, especially the self-destructive kind.

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henrykissinger123

In any fair world, Henry Kissinger would have spent the greater part of his adult life in leg irons or perhaps met with the business end of a meat hook, his thoughts and actions responsible for the needless death of so many. Alas, the universe does not dispense justice in a suitable manner. 

It’s a big complicated world,” Hillary Clinton said when attacked during the primary for her regard for the former Nixon and Ford Secretary of State, and that’s certainly true. The problems of three little people–or three million–don’t amount to a hill of beans when the wrong people are in power, and a wronger group than the incoming cabal of monsters could not be birthed in Victor Frankenstein’s laboratory.

Just prior to the election, Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic published excerpts from interviews with Kissinger about what might result from a Clinton or Trump triumph. It surprises me that at that late stage, the publication’s new Editor-in-Chief still believed Trump might govern as a “pragmatic liberal democrat.” By then, that hope had long vanished from my mind. Neither suggests what’s long seemed obvious about the President-Elect: He may be a dangerously mentally ill person whose words and actions defy rational analysis. The two men spoke again right after Trump’s alarming Electoral College victory.

An excerpt from the pre-election conversations:

Jeffrey Goldberg:

Since we last spoke, he’s said various things that must have made you go pale.

Henry Kissinger:

I disagree with several of Trump’s statements, but I do not historically participate in presidential campaigns. My view of my role is that together with like-minded men and women, I could help contribute to a bipartisan view of American engagement in the world for another period; I could do my part to overcome this really, in a way, awful period in which we are turning history into personal recriminations, depriving our political system of a serious debate. That’s what I think my best role is.

Jeffrey Goldberg:

Donald Trump does not rise in your mind to the level of a person who is so clearly unqualified for the presidency that you should preemptively say, “this person cannot function in this job?” More and more Republicans are saying that, especially national security professionals.

Henry Kissinger:

I’ve decided I’m not going into the name-calling aspect of the campaign. I’m approaching 94; I will not play a role in the execution of day-to-day policy, but I can still aid our thinking about purposeful strategy compatible with our role in shaping the postwar world. Before the campaign, I said over the years friendly things about Hillary. They are on the record. I stand by them. In fact, my views have been on the record for decades, including a friendly attitude towards Hillary as a person.

Jeffrey Goldberg:

Let me ask again: Is Donald Trump teachable?

Henry Kissinger:

Every first-term president has to learn something after he comes into office. Nobody can be completely ready for the inevitable crises. If Trump is elected, it is in the national interest to hope that he is teachable.

Jeffrey Goldberg:

You know, there’s a chance he would govern as a pragmatic liberal Democrat.

Henry Kissinger:

He has said things that sound like it. He has also said many much more contrary things. I simply do not want to get into this sort of speculation. I don’t know Trump well. I intend to make my contribution to the national debate on substance. There is no point in trying to get me into the personal aspects of the campaign.•


Like the first President he served, Kissinger became quite a baseball junkie, especially in his post-Washington career. At the 15:40 mark of this episode of The Baseball of World of Joe Garagiola, we see Kissinger, who could only seem competent when standing alongside that block of wood Bowie Kuhn, being honored at Fenway Park before the second game of the sensational 1975 World Series. During the raucous run by the raffish New York Mets in the second half of 1980s, both Nixon and Kissinger became fixtures at Shea Stadium. Nixon was known to send congratulatory personal notes to the players, including Darryl Strawberry. It was criminals rooting for criminals.

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