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Steve Wozniak, who recently damned Tesla cars with faint praise, selling the Datsun 280-ZX in 1979.

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Saturday Night Live alumnus Tom Schiller, who specialized in short films during his two stints on the venerable show, is an odd and fascinating guy. He made one of my favorite movies ever, the 35-minute “Henry Miller Asleep & Awake,” which may be the best profile of a writer in any format ever. I also had the odd joy of waiting on him two or three times when I was younger and working in service jobs. During each encounter, Schiller affected an extremely phony Russian accent, acting the part of a caricature of a recent immigrant. It was like he wanted me to know how fake the situation was because I was in a position where I had to be polite and play along. And so I did.

As part of Grantland’s coverage of SNL’s 40th anniversary, Alex Pappademas has an excellent interview with Schiller, in which he sifts through his own late-night career and weighs in on Lonely Island. The opening:

Question:

How did you first meet Lorne Michaels?

Tom Schiller”

When I was about 17, I was already working for a documentary filmmaker in the Pacific Palisades and working on documentary films. I made my own film on Henry Miller. My father was a writer on I Love Lucy. I grew up on the set of I Love Lucy. I was actually there for the grape-stomping sequence when I was 6. And one day my father said, ‘You’ve got to meet this guy — he’s this Canadian writer, but he knows all the great restaurants in L.A.’ I thought, I don’t really care about the great restaurants in L.A., but OK. So Lorne came over to the house, and he seemed like a nice enough guy. The surprising thing was, he lit a joint in my room, which I would never do in my father’s house. I thought, Hmm — interesting, and I started hanging out with him at the Chateau Marmont, which had a lot of colorful regulars, some of whom would become the nucleus of Saturday Night Live.

Lorne kept talking about this late-night show, this comedy show he wanted to do. Like 24/7 he would talk about it, to the point of boredom. He kept asking me if I’d like to come work on it, and I was conflicted, because my then-pal Henry Miller said, ‘Don’t go work on TV, it’ll kill your soul.’ But Lorne kept painting this picture of New York, and being a writer, and working on a late-night show, and it sounded kind of interesting. Since I wanted to be a foreign-film director, L.A. didn’t seem like the place to be, and I finally succumbed and took his invitation. In the summer of 1975, I was in a little office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza with Lorne. I was sitting there with him as he started hiring all the writers and cast.

Question:

You were there for the big bang!

Tom Schiller:

Yeah. We used to go to Catch a Rising Star and the Improv to watch performers. I remember seeing Chevy Chase and Richard Belzer. There were auditions, and John Belushi came and auditioned as the Samurai, which led me later to write ‘Samurai Hotel’ for him.”

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“A place where I knew only starvation, humiliation, despair, frustration”:

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Muhammad Ali in 1972, after losing the “Fight of the Century” to Joe Frazier, on an Irish chat show hosted by Cathal O’Shannon. In Dublin to fight Alvin “Blue” Lewis, Ali was his usual mix of joking braggadocio and serious politics.

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Before the robot birds carry away you and your children, they will first be used to scare actual birds from airports and landfills. From Kyle Vanhemert at Wired UK:

“Birds are nice enough, unless you work at places like airports, farms, and landfills, in which case they’re the sworn enemy. Today, there are a variety of tools and technologies for spooking unwanted birds — we’ve graduated from scarecrows to flash-bang grenades and other sophisticated armaments — but Nico Nijenhuis is undoubtedly working on the coolest. He’s building robot hawks that trick lingering critters into thinking they’re about to get snacked on.

Nijenhuis, a 27-year-old based in the Netherlands, is the mind behind Robirds, a line of robotic birds of prey. He’s hoping to sell them to the aviation and waste management industries under the name Clear Flight Solutions. (Company tagline: ‘We create birds.’ Fair enough!) Nijenhuis is currently testing remote controlled Peregrine Falcons and eagles with promising results. By the end of the year, he’s hoping to have fully autonomous robot birds on offer.”

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Two more Robin Williams interviews, the first one with Dick Cavett in 1979, the second with David Frost in 1991. At the beginning of the Frost piece, the comic flawlessly recreates an early Shakespeare stand-up bit, “Two Dudes From Santa Monica.”

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In 1984, a youngish Oprah Winfrey talks to an oldish Norman Mailer about love. She tiptoes nicely around the knifing.

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Father Yod had 14 wives, but it’s not polite to count.

Before he was an oddly named cult leader, Yod was James Edward Baker, a Marine and stuntman who in 1969 opened a Sunset Strip health-food restaurant, the Source, and founded a cult, the Source Family, a group of beautiful young people housed in a Los Angeles mansion. Oh, and he fronted an improvisational psychedelic band called YaHoWa 13. Yod was killed almost immediately after moving his improvised family to Hawaii, believing he could hang glide from a 1,000 foot peak even though he had no experience in the sport. 

I suppose it’s because the commune never blew up into any kind of Manson-ish mayhem that it’s looked back upon (from a distance) almost fondly. But insular societies are always just a couple of steps from madness. Of course, I guess you could say the same of nations, though it’s easier to find refuge in a larger world.

The opening of Steffie Nelson’s 2007 Los Angeles Times article about the guru and his group:

“Earlier this summer, almost 100 psychedelic music fans, subculture aficionados, students of the occult and local literati climbed the flower-petal-strewn steps of publisher couple Jodi Wille and Adam Parfrey’s Silver Lake home for a salon celebrating the upcoming publication of The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, YaHoWa 13 and the Source Family (Process), the definitive history of a mystical cult that thrived in Los Angeles between 1970 and 1974. The book’s author, Isis Aquarian (formerly Charlene Peters), had flown in from Hawaii, and Family members Omne, Magus, Electra and Orbit, all of whom are now in their 50s and 60s, had also come to share stories.

During a Q&A session, they good-naturedly addressed whether they’d been brainwashed (‘Absolutely!’ said Orbit, who now goes by David) and answered questions about Dionysm, the form of tantric sex they’d practiced.

‘I’m ready to join right now!’ announced one attendee, no doubt echoing the sentiments of many who wistfully longed for a time when Utopia was, if not entirely feasible, at least on the agenda.

Imagine your fantasy commune, the one you’d find only in the movies, where everyone is young and beautiful; the clothes are fabulous; the leader benign; and home is a mansion in the Hollywood Hills. Chances are it probably looks a lot like the Source Family, whose 140 members ‘dropped out’ right in the middle of Los Angeles. Led by a bearded, hunky, 6-foot-3 former war hero who called himself Father Yod and, later, YaHoWha, this vibrant group of men and women embarked on a wild social experiment, turning all their material possessions over to the group and supporting themselves serving gourmet vegetarian cuisine at their popular Sunset Strip restaurant, the Source. Living communally in a Los Feliz mansion owned by the Chandler family (former owners of this newspaper) and then in a house built by Catherine Deneuve, many of them formed polyamorous relationships; not surprisingly, the most extreme example was Father Yod, who took 14 ‘spiritual wives.’

Notwithstanding the group’s visible presence in Hollywood (brothers and sisters could often be seen strolling en masse down Sunset, Atlantean robes and hair a-flowing), extensive media coverage, and the catalog of music they recorded as YaHoWa 13 — legendary among connoisseurs of psychedelic rock — the Source story has remained untold for 30 years. This is partly because of a vow of secrecy taken by all members, but more likely it’s a reflection of their confusion and even shame about the communal experience, for which American society gave them only one place to file: in the freaky hippie bin.”

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The trailer for the 2013 documentary, The Source Family, available on Netflix:

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Marvin Minsky, visionary of robotic arms, thinking computers and major motion pictures, is interviewed by Ray Kurzweil. The topic, unsurprisingly: “Is the Singularity Near?”

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On a 1977 Mike Douglas Show episode, comic-book collector Phil Seuling showed off an original Superman, revealing that it was worth $1,500. The audience gasped. But that was before a globalized world needed simple dialogue and action-hero antics to sell blockbusters all over the world. Today an exceptionally clean copy of that inaugural issue, currently at auction on eBay, has seen early bids reach $1.75 million, heading toward the stratosphere faster than a speeding bullet. From Graeme McMillan at the Hollywood Reporter:

 “In a video released to promote the auction, Pristine Comics owner Darren Adams explained how the auction copy remained in such good edition. ‘There was a gentleman in 1938, buys a copy … off the newsstand. And he lived in a fairly high altitude area of West Virginia and kept the book in a cedar chest,’ Adams said. The quality of the issue — the pages of which, thanks to being kept in a dark, dry space for decades, haven’t yellowed with time — makes the copy ‘not just a copy of Action Comics No. 1 [but] the copy of Action Comics No. 1,’ according to the dealer.

Back in 2011, another edition of the issue raised $2.1 million in auction, becoming the most expensive comic ever sold in the process. With nine days remaining on the current Action Comics auction and bidding currently at $1.6 million, it’s very possible that record is about to be broken.”

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“The superheroes caught everybody’s fancy”:

 

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Knowing the present isn’t knowing the future. At best, we make educated guesses uncolored by personal beliefs or wants. Even then, we’re often wrong, unprepared for the black swans and their lovely necks. When William Masters and Virginia Johnson sat down for this Good Morning America interview, with the AIDS crisis at its height, it seemed monogamy, not Tinder, would be the future. How quickly things change.

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The image of the robot I used in this post and the one in the news articles above are of a 1949 machine named “George,” a creation of then-20-year-old British military pilot Tony Sale, who was a crack codebreaker. Here’s some footage of George in action from British Pathé.

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Jorge Luis Borges penned a perplexing review of Citizen Kane in 1941, and Orson Welles had a perfect riposte for it: “Borges is half-blind,” the director pointed out. “Never forget that.” Here’s the ending of the critique, which can be read in full at the Interrelevant:

“I venture to guess, nonetheless, that Citizen Kane will endure as a certain Griffith or Pudovkin films have ‘endured’—films whose historical value is undeniable but which no one cares to see again. It is too gigantic, pedantic, tedious. It is not intelligent, though it is the work of genius—in the most nocturnal and Germanic sense of that bad word.”

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“Now he can live his dreams with less distraction”:

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It’s odd that Dick Tracy, a strip loaded with forensics and retrofuturism, hasn’t translated into our gadget-happy world which loves crime-scene entertainments and cartoon-driven blockbusters. Here’s the strip’s creator, Chester Gould, who penned its panels from 1931 to 1977, on To Tell the Truth in 1965.

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I’m never surprised when somebody dies except when it’s by their own hand. Why not stay a little longer? Come here. Stay with us.

Terrible news about Robin Williams passing away. Here he is on a Canadian chat show in 1978, in the first blush of his fame, brilliantly disarming an awkward line of questioning about the stereotypical characters he would often use in his stream-of-conscious stand-up act, which for him were like the members of a company of stock characters in his head.

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In 1986, David Brenner interviewed 20-year-old Mike Tyson, just before he won the heavyweight title, along with Jake “The Raging Bull” LaMotta. It would be easy to say that young Tyson had yet to fall from grace, but he was falling from the start, desperately trying to return all of life’s blows, a flurry that did little good, especially since his retaliation was scattershot. He didn’t truly know who had wronged him. It all seemed wrong.

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The world is ending, eventually. One who sees the curtain coming down sooner than later is the Christian evangelist Hal Lindsey, co-author with Carole C. Carlson of the meshuganah 1970 bestseller, The Late Great Planet Earth, which estimated 1988 as the Judgement Day. Missed by that much. Lindsey, who is still alive as are many of the rest of us, spends his dotage accusing President Obama of being “the Antichrist.” Whatever.

In 1979, when the batshit book had been made into a film–with Orson Welles picking up late-life wine-and-bullfight money for handling the narration–Lindsey was profiled in a People piece by Lucretia Marmon. The opening:

“In 1938 Orson Welles terrified radio listeners with War of the Worlds, an imaginative report of a Martian invasion. Now Welles, as gloomy-voiced narrator of a film, The Late Great Planet Earth, out this fall, tells another frightening tale. This time it is a movie version of the end of the world, based on a scenario by evangelist-author Hal Lindsey. The script, claims Lindsey, really isn’t his. It’s all in the Scriptures.

Lindsey’s book Earth, published in 1970, has been translated into 31 languages and 10 million copies have been sold. The public also snapped up five subsequent Lindsey books on the same subject, running his sales total to over 14 million.

Thus Lindsey, 47, may now be the foremost modern-day Jeremiah. ‘If I had been writing 15 years ago I wouldn’t have had an audience,’ he concedes. ‘But a tremendous number of people are worried about the future. I’m just part of that phenomenon.’

Lindsey splices Bible prophecies of doom with contemporary signs. For instance, he says the Bible pinpoints Israel’s rebirth as a nation as the catalyst to Judgment Day, which will probably occur by 1988. The intervening years will see the emergence of a 10-nation confederacy (prophet Daniel’s dreadful 10-horned beast) or, as Lindsey sees it, the European Common Market. Eventually Russia (biblical Magog) will attack Israel and precipitate a global nuclear war. Only Jesus’ followers will be spared. Hence, Lindsey advises, ‘the only thing you need to understand is that God offers you in Jesus Christ a full pardon.’

Meanwhile, is Lindsey cowering in his fallout shelter? Not at all. Sporting a gold Star of David around his neck and another on his pinky (‘After all, Jesus was a Jew’), Lindsey zips around Southern California in a Mercedes 450 SL. He conducts services on the beach and indulges in his hobbies of photography and surfing.”

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“This was a prophet–a false prophet”:

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In 1982, when Bryant Gumbel interviewed John Updike for the Today show, a serious novelist being too popular was considered concerning. No need to worry any longer. Crisis averted.

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Wearable computing, as predicted by an IBM spot 17 years ago. From the commercial’s director, John Allen: “We did this piece for IBM in 1997 or so. It was the first time anyone had seen a computer like this, wearable, almost invisible, elegant and futuristic. In fact, we still haven’t seen anything like this. It was a prototype that had to be signed in and out every time it was transported.”

Earlier this year, Jonathan Moore of Speedhunters did an excellent interview with artist and visual futurist Syd Mead, whose outré automobile designs which have enriched film (Blade Runner, most famously), print publications and imaginations for decades. An excerpt about the role of cars in a time when we’ve passed peak-auto:

Jonathan Moore:

With a declining interest in the car nowadays, the car as personal transport appears an ever more precarious economic prospect. Do you think that the car as a private but communal mode of transport is living on borrowed time? What’s coming next and how quickly will it arrive? Is it the ’sentient, super-evolved version of the horse’? And did you already sketch it in the ’60s?!’

Syd Mead:

The future of the car as personal transport will morph into time/use formats probably owned either by municipal agencies, a variation of corporate rental schemes and rotating mileage based lease by single lessees. With 50 percent of the world’s population living in cities, I predict that a lot of high-density core urban mobility will be by moving platforms, sidewalks, escalators and lift platforms as architectural enclosures become larger and more interconnected. The autonomous car is almost here already, making ‘call, ride and forget’ a real personal transport factor.

‘So-called mass transit is the automobile. Bus systems, light rail and combinations thereof are subject to unionized strikes, expensive staffing costs and maintenance of route fixtures and machinery. Dial in aggressive riders who ignore rules of civility and you have a worrisome vector in public transportation. I sketched and rendered the ‘electronic herd’ concept years ago, depicting MTU’s (Mobile Transit Units) traveling in a bunch, thus creating a high-density use of existing thoroughfare routing.

The private automobile as a personal possession will certainly survive, but as an increasingly expensive proposition for those who choose, like now, to own a vehicle that sits unused for various periods of time. We have four vehicles in our ‘stable’: an ’03 Sebring convertible, an ’09 Cadillac DTS and two collector cars, a 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser two-door with electric windows and the 1972 Imperial LeBaron four-door hardtop. Working at home, the two collector cars are operated maybe once every two weeks, the Sebring maybe once a month. The Cadillac is the most used daily driver and it has only 16,000 miles after almost five years of use.”

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“In effect, I was creating my own world”:

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Harold Robbins wrote literature most suitable for the beach and for masturbation, though it’s probably best for readers to choose one or the other. In typical bluster from his heyday, the wet-dream merchant used a 1974 People article by Sandra Hochman to dismiss Roth, Bellow, Mailer and Hemingway, though the racy writer did speak fondly of Steinbeck, Dickens and Dumas. The article’s opening:

“Harold Robbins steps off the plane at La Guardia Airport dressed like a California cowboy. Tall and tough-looking, he is wearing a tan cashmere jacket, silk printed shirt open at the chest, tight brown pants, a $3,000 Patek Philippe watch and white-embroidered brown boots, which are on one-inch platforms. He is as subtle and unpretentious as a character from one of his own steamy novels.

His press agent arrives in a blue limousine crammed with shopping bags which contain copies of Robbins’ new book, The Lonely Lady. Robbins and his wife ride out to the Air France terminal at Kennedy Airport. Grace Robbins, who is at least his third wife—he says only that he’s had “many”—is striking. She is all in white. Her shoes are wooden wedgies, even higher than his.

They are both easygoing, smiling. At Air France, their party is hustled to the VIP area of the first-class lounge. It is a circular, red-carpeted nook that has fake flowers on the coffee table, a white leatherette couch and a huge hanging silver lamp that looks like a hair dryer. The best-selling author in the world and his consort settle themselves comfortably for a short wait on their journey to France and home.

Printed on the inside of Harold Robbins’ paperbacks is the claim: ‘Every day, around the world, 25,000 people buy a Robbins novel.’ That’s 9,125,000 books a year, counting Sundays; it may well be true. His dozen previous novels have topped the best-seller list. Lonely Lady, his 13th, will too. All told, Robbins’ books have sold more than 135 million copies. In a world where few writers ever find their way to the top, Robbins lives there.

No credit is due critics and purists, who usually consider Robbins’ lettres to be less than belles and delight in saying so. A 1974 New York Times review of The Pirate said, ‘Robbins is more a product than a writer and is marketed as relentlessly as a vaginal deodorant spray.’ Reviews of The Lonely Lady so far have damned it with the faint praise of ‘good entertainment.’ But who’s to say his work won’t be among the most remembered literature of our time? One person’s laundry list is another person’s poetry.

Robbins politely asks a lounge attendant for Playboy and Hustler to be sent over from a newsstand. He needs them, he explains, because he is researching a new book. The hero will be a skin magazine publisher, perhaps a composite of Hugh Hefner and Bob Guccione and others in that trade.

Robbins courteously orders drinks. There is talk about a big party which will take place in Cannes. Robbins seems indifferent. It is to be a combination birthday-promotion party for the movie version of The Pirate, the first film that Robbins is producing independently. But Robbins hates parties, even his own, which are frequent.

Harold Robbins writes about street people who hurl themselves against a hostile society and either become cosmically rich and powerful—or abjectly fall apart and are corrupted. This contrast between good and evil has led many readers to place Robbins’ work in the category of morality tales. His affinity for explicit and kinky sex scenes has led other readers to dismiss it as pornography.

Now 60, Robbins did not start writing novels until he was in his 30s, but then his formula emerged full-blown: Take a famous person who is or has been in the public subconscious—Howard Hughes (The Carpetbaggers) or auto executive Henry Ford (The Betsy) or, with his current novel, Peyton Place author Grace Metalious. (Robbins says The Lonely Lady is not Jacqueline Susann, as some reviewers have speculated.) Create a persona in fiction that is an exaggeration of the celebrity. Jumble together action, narrative drive, bitter pragmatism, sex, exotic locales, accurate observation of small details and energetic street language.

Robbins certainly knows the hard-times-to-lap-of-luxury tales he deals with; whether writing about the hucksterism of Hollywood, the rackets of the jet set, the con men on the streets and in large corporations or the poverty of a kid on the Lower East Side, Robbins has some life research he can put into his novels.”

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“People who have it all and want more,” 1969:

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Here’s the 1962 film of Stanley Milgram’s “Obedience to Authority” experiments at Yale, which were shocking in more than one sense, a supposed study of memory which was really just a measurement of complicitous savagery. A companion (if in spirit) to Philip Zimbardo’s “Stanford Prison Experiment,” conducted a decade later, which was also ethically dubious and yielded surprisingly sad results.

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Apart from money, J. Paul Getty wasn’t a very rich man. A billionaire in a time when such things were unheard of, Getty was a strange and miserly sort with five marriages and a procession of troubled heirs. His thriftiness, if you would call it that, seemed to come not from wisdom but from a dark place. The opening of a People article from 40 years ago about the man who, by some measures, had it all:

In deepening solitude, like some melancholy Dickensian recluse, Jean Paul Getty offers the frailest of shoulders on which to rest the title of World’s Richest Man. At 81, he speaks in a low, croaking monotone, his face a sunken mask of old age. When his left hand trembles violently from Parkinson’s disease, his right must come quivering to restrain it. And his conversation, fitful and laborious, trails off into lingering silences. 

But the fertile brain that assembled one of the oil world’s great empires has lost neither its cunning nor its grasp. During the current energy crisis—in which the value of Getty’s oil leases spirals astronomically as great ships laden with his liquid treasure bear it to the oil-parched industrial nations—the gnome of Surrey paces his Tudor palace, monitoring the nerve centers of the financial world. 

The son of a prosperous Minneapolis lawyer who moved to Oklahoma and promptly struck oil, Getty was only 21 when he began buying and selling oil leases himself. He made $40,000 his first year, and his first million a few months after that. When the Depression hit he had enough to buy millions of shares of collapsed oil stocks, acquiring fortunes in oil reserves and fresh cash. In 1949, just before seizing control of the giant Tidewater Oil Co., he arranged a deal with Saudi Arabia’s King Saud, predecessor of the present King Faisal, obtaining half-interest for the next 60 years in a raw swath of land called the Neutral Zone. The area was considered bleakly unpromising, but, typically, Getty brought in the gushers. Moving to London to be nearer his Middle East operations, he has never returned to America. 

Today, with enormous personal holdings in stock in the parent Getty Oil Co. and a controlling interest in nearly 200 other concerns, the octogenarian billionaire has accumulated wealth beyond precise calculation. Yet until 1957, when Fortune named him the richest living American, he was virtually unknown to the public. 

One reason, perhaps, is that he has never been inclined to philanthropy. No foundation bears his name, and he has indicated that when he dies his fortune will be plowed back into his businesses. 

‘Money is like manure,’ Getty once said. ‘You have to spread it around or it smells.’ Often, in his case, this has been a dictum observed in the breach. Though he paid a modest fortune for Sutton Place, his 72-room mansion outside London, he prudently outfitted it with a pay telephone. ‘The guests won’t mind paying for their calls,’ he said, ‘and as for the deadbeats, I couldn’t care less.’ He never accepts mail with postage due and rarely carries more than $25 in pocket money. He has been known to wait five minutes in order to get into a dog show at half price, and to avoid a restaurant rather than pay a cover charge. ‘I pay the going rate,’ he explained, ‘but I don’t see any reason for paying more than you have to.’

Getty’s legendary parsimony extends even to eminent friends of long standing. He and the Earl of Warwick have lunched together regularly for 35 years. Lest either pay a bill out of turn, the two share a little black book in which they keep track of all their meetings, the cost of each lunch and whose turn it is to pick up the check.”

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In ths 1970s, the industrialist spoke on behalf of E.F. Hutton:

Long-form 1986 interview with J. G. Ballard. (A little Swedish, mostly English.) 

“The only point of reality we have is inside our own heads,” Ballard said, though that feels like a very different time, our heads no longer really our own, their contents now commodified.

The writer also feared a “boring, event-less future.” No such luck.

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Now you can put the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the head of a pin, and you can slide a war in your pocket. Or at least a drone. That’s what American soldiers may soon have to conduct remote reconnaissance. Of course, it’s just a matter of time–and not much time–until the “nano air vehicles” will be in your neighborhood. Just try to legislate that, attempt to manage that cheapness and smallness. From Douglas Ernst at the Washington Times:

“Future U.S. Army soldiers sent into combat may have a brand new tool at their disposal: the pocket drone.

The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Massachusetts is developing a “pocket-sized aerial surveillance device” for soldiers assigned to small units in dangerous environments.

When the Army’s efforts come to fruition, the Cargo Pocket Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance program will provide dismounted troops with real-time surveillance of threats in their environment.

‘The Cargo Pocket ISR is a true example of an applied systems approach for developing new Soldier capabilities,’ said Dr. Laurel Allender, acting NSRDEC technical director, Army.mil reported July 21.”

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“Just about 10 cm x 2.5 cm”:

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Dick Cavett has the distinction of being the only talk-show host to land on Richard Nixon’s “Enemies List.” His “crime”? He focused segments of his great ABC program on the President’s crimes (no quotation marks required). Here’s the trailer for Dick Cavett’s Watergate, which runs next month on PBS.

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