Buckminster Fuller was right on some vital points even if most of his designs never made a leap from the drawing board. He knew, for instance, that the idea of race was a phony tribal concept steeped in ignorance, wealth inequality was a real threat to democracy and childbirth per family would decline as the infant mortality rate decreased.
The theorist, who certainly realized the delicate balance of our environment, may or may not have been right when he insisted pollution itself was a great resource gone unharvested, a recyclable more or less, but that’s an awfully dangerous assumption. Even if it’s so, our “creation” of these raw materials could extinct the species long before we establish a collection day. Technocracy has its merits, but I wouldn’t want to wager everything on it.
In a smart Aeon essay, Samanth Subramanian wonders about the renewed capital of Fuller’s teachings in this time of climate peril and technological prowess, when those domes Elon Musk dreams of printing on Mars may soon be as needed on Earth. The opening has a great, largely forgotten anecdote about a Vermont town deciding in 1979 to build a Fuller-ish dome around itself to deal with falling temperatures and rising gas prices, before quickly quashing the project. The writer also de-mythologizes much about the Futurist, whose self-promoting prowess was Jobsian long before Jobs was born.
Fuller wasn’t the first person to dream of domed cities – they’d featured for decades in science fiction, usually as hothouses of dystopia – but as an engineering solution, they feel thoroughly Fullerian. Implicit in their concept is an acknowledgement that human nature is wasteful and unreliable, resistant to fixing itself. Instead, Fuller put his faith in technology as a means to tame the messiness of humankind. ‘I would never try to reform man – that’s much too difficult,’ Fuller told The New Yorker in 1966. Appealing to people to remedy their behaviour was a folly, because they’d simply never do it. Far wiser, Fuller thought, to build technology that circumvents the flaws in human behaviour – that is, ‘to modify the environment in such a way as to get man moving in preferred directions’. Instead of human-led design, he sought design-led humans.
Winooski’s grand dome never went into construction. By the end of 1980, after the election of Ronald Reagan as president and a summer of stormy criticism over the cost and visual impact of the project, the mood had shifted. But Fuller, who had first advanced the idea of a domed city in 1959, continued to champion it until his death in 1983. ‘The way consumption curves are going in many of our big cities, it is clear that we are running out of energy,’ he wrote. ‘It is important for our government to know if there are better ways of enclosing space in terms of material, time, and energy.’ The most ambitious of his urban lids was the dome he wanted to lower over midtown Manhattan, a mile high and two miles in diameter. As well as a perfect climate, Fuller said, the dome could protect New Yorkers against the worst effects of a nuclear bomb going off nearby.
In the great flux of postwar United States, Fuller was convinced that the world was marshalling its resources poorly and unsustainably, and that change was a burning imperative. The world finds itself again passing through a Fullerian moment – a phase of political, environmental and technological upheaval that is both unsettling and exhilarating. Within this frame, Fuller’s life and ideas – the sound ones but also those that were tedious or absurd – ring with a new resonance.•
Before the village became global, husband-and-wife explorers Carveth and Zetta Wells used new media and old-fashioned derring-do to make the world a little smaller.
The microphone- and camera-ready couple were lecturers and media personalities in between jaunts to exotic locales, with Zetta even hosting a weekly NBC show in 1946-47, in which she introduced 16mm home movies of their travels. It was an intoxicating time of visiting boat builders living inside volcanoes, watching fish climb trees and chaperoning Raffles the Mynah bird to an appearance on You Bet Your Life.
Below are two Brooklyn Daily Eagle articles about the peripatetic pair and the aforementioned 1957 video of Groucho Marx getting the business from a boid.
Charlie Rose, a handsome and agreeable robot built in a laboratory mostly from bourbon and cufflinks, interviewed a fellow robot for 60 Minutes. How lifelike they both seemed!
“Sophia” is the brainchild of roboticist David Hanson, who aims to blur the lines between carbon and silicon, believing the disappearance of distinction will make machines more acceptable to people. I’m not convinced such seamlessness is healthy for a society, but that’s essentially what’s happening right now with voice and sensors and the gathering elements of the Internet of Things. The humanoid component, however, is overstated for the foreseeable future, even if it’s perfectly visual and dramatic for a TV segment.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” Sophia tells 60 Minutes correspondent Charlie Rose. They’re mid-interview, and Rose reacts with surprise.
“Waiting for me?” he asks.
“Not really,” she responds. “But it makes a good pickup line.”
Sophia managed to get a laugh out of Charlie Rose. Not bad for a robot.
Rose interviewed the human-like machine for this week’s two-part 60 Minutes piece on artificial intelligence, or A.I. In their exchange, excerpted in the clip above, Rose seems to approach the conversation with the same seriousness and curiosity he would bring to any interview.
“You put your head where you want to test the possibility,” Rose tells 60 Minutes Overtime. “You’re not simply saying, ‘Why am I going through this exercise of talking to a machine?’ You’re saying, ‘I want to talk to this machine as if it was a human to see how it comprehends.’”
Sophia’s creator, David Hanson, believes that if A.I. technology looks and sounds human, people will be more willing to engage with it in meaningful ways.•
Just under two weeks ago, the BBC’s economics editor, Kamal Ahmed, sat down for a fascinating 90-minuteIntelligence Squared conversationwithSapienshistorian Yuval Noah Harari, whose futuristic new book,Homo Deus, was just released in the U.K. and has an early 2017 publication date in the U.S.
The Israeli historian believes that during the Industrial Revolution, humans have intellectually, if not practically, figured out how to put under our control the triple threats of famine, plague and war. He says these things still bedevil us, if to a lesser degree, because of politics and incompetence, not due to ignorance. (I’ll also add madness, individual and the mass kind, to those causes.) That’s great should we continue to use knowledge to reduce counterproductive politics, incompetence, and, ultimately, to further mitigate suffering.
For the first time in history, Harari asserts, wide abundance is now more of a threat to us than want, with obesity a greater threat than starvation. As he says, “McDonald’s and Coca-Cola pose a far greater threat to our lives than Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.”
What will we do over the next century or two if we are able to shuffle off the old obstacles?
Harari says: “Try overcome sickness and death, find the keys to happiness and upgrade humans into gods…in the literal sense…to design life according to our wishes. The main products of the human economy will no longer be vehicles and textiles and food and weapons. The main products will be bodies and brains and minds.
“The next phase will involve trying to gain mastery of what’s inside, of trying to decipher human biochemistry, our bodies, our brains, learning how to re-engineer them, learning how to manufacture them. This will require a lot of computing power. There’s no way the human brain has the capacity to decipher the secrets, to process the data that’s necessary to understand what’s happening inside. You need help from Artificial Intelligence and Big Data Systems, and this is what is happening already today. We see a merger of the biological sciences with computer sciences.”
Despite such promise, Harari doesn’t believe godliness is assuredly our ultimate destination. “The result may not be uploading humans into gods,” he says. “The result may be massive useless class…the end of humanity.”
The academic acknowledges he’s not an expert in AI and technology and when he makes predictions about the future, he takes for granted the accuracy of the experts in those fields. He argues that “you don’t really need to know how a nuclear bomb works” to understand its impact.
Also discussed: technological unemployment, a potentially new and radical type of wealth inequality, the poisonous American political season and how Native peoples selling Manhattan for colorful beads is recurring now with citizens surrendering private information for “free email and some cute cat videos.”•
Bernard Pomerance’s brilliant play The Elephant Man received equally bright stagings in 1979 in New York, from Jack Hofsiss, then a 28-year-old wunderkind who adeptly wrestled 21 short scenes about the 19th-century sideshow act John Merrick, who suffered from severe physical deformities, into a thing of moving beauty.
Sadly, Hofsiss, just died. He was adept at all media, working also in TV and film, and his career continued even after he was paralyzed from the waist down in a diving accident six years after his Elephant Man triumph. Here’s a piece from Richard F. Shepard’s 1979 New York Times profile of Hofsiss as he was readying to move the drama from Off-Broadway to on:
Mr. Hofsiss is a man of his generation, that is, a man who can call the action with equal ease in stage, film or television. Yet there is something about Broadway that stirs the blood and seizes the imagination, even though one knows that Broadway is just another stage, maybe one with a bigger budget and higher prices.
“Each production you do has its realities and necessities,” Mr. Hofsiss said. “These are compounded on Broadway because of the commercial nature of the beast. There is a pressing professionalism on Broadway.”
“The Elephant Man” is the story of John Merrick, a Briton who lived in the late 1800’s and was a fleshy, prehensile monster of a man whose awful‐looking body encased a sharp and inquiring mind that developed quickly as opportunity allowed. The opportunity came from a doctor who interested himself in Merrick and brought him to the attention of upper‐crust curiosity seekers. As played by Philip Anglim, an actor with good and regular features, the monstrous nature of the deformity is not spelled out by specific makeup, but the sense of it is conveyed by the manner in which Mr. Anglim can contort his body, although even this is not a constant distraction during a performance.
All of this is by way of saying that this is a show that leaves much to a director’s imagination, backed by a good deal of self‐discipline. Mr. Hofsiss, who was born and reared in Brooklyn and received a classical, old‐style educadon from the Jesuits at Brooklyn Prep and a more freeform one at Georgetown University, where he majored in English and theater, felt equipped for the situation.
“This is an episodic play, 21 scenes that constantly shift the characters,” he said. “The script itself is purely words, containing no production instructions. In that way, it reads like Shakespeare: enter, blackout, and that’s all. Like Shakespeare, Bernard Pomerance wrote it for a theater he knew in England, where it opened in 1977. Everything is there in the script, but it’s as though you’re carving a sculpture out of a beautiful piece of stone, frightening but rewarding.”
Mr. Pomerance, an American who lives in England, came to New York only briefly before each opening, the one Off Broadway and the one on Broadway, and one might wonder whether author and director who are oceans apart in the flesh might not be in the same condition spiritually. But, “Bernard and I worked it out by telephone — he’s trusting of directors,” Mr. Hofsiss said.•
The third John Merrick during the original run was David Bowie. A 1980 episode of Friday Night…Saturday Morning featured Tim Rice interviewing the rock star about the play.
You’d like on a personal level embrace your political adversaries, but Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-Steinem who died today, didn’t make it easy.
She clung to a time in America when pretty much everything was run by men–only white men, of course–and trafficked in ugly racial politics, encouraging the GOP to ignore Latino voters and instead rally around white America. If you want to credit the activist for something, it must be admitted she was amazingly consistent in her backwardness, from her early efforts to thwart the ERA to her last-act embrace of the Tea Party and Donald Trump. Oh, and in between she staunchly opposed civil unions and gay marriage (despite having a gay son) and urged banning foreign-born players from Major League Baseball. Schlafly’s face seemed to say it all: It was very pleasant, though the eyes were frequently narrowed, almost in a squint, like she wasn’t quite able to see the whole picture.
In 1973, William F. Buckley, Jr. invited Schlafly andAnn Scott to debate the Equal Rights Amendment. Scott died two years later from breast cancer.
“What hath God wrought?” was the first piece of Morse code ever sent, a melodramatic message which suggested something akin to Mary Shelley’s monster awakening and, perhaps, technology putting old myths to sleep. In his movie, Lo and Behold: Reveries Of A Connected World, Werrner Herzog believes something even more profoundly epiphanic is happening in the Digital Age, and it’s difficult to disagree.
The director tells Ben Makuch of Vice that for him, technology is an entry point to learning about people (“I’m interested, of course, in the human beings”). Despite Herzog’s focus, the bigger story is events progressing in the opposite direction, from carbon to silicon.
In a later segment about space colonization, Herzog acknowledges having dreams of filming on our neighboring planet, saying, “I want to be the poet of Mars.” But, in the best sense, he’s already earned that title.
Duck Soup and Young Frankenstein are, in some order, my number 1 and 1A favorite film comedies. That comes to mind, of course, because of the sad passing of Gene Wilder, an essentially perfect comic actor who displayed great range despite not seeming to ever move an inch. He was a central, grounding figure in works that could have–should have–fallen apart: Mel Brooks comedies, Willy Wonka, Richard Pryor buddy pictures and Ionesco plays. (He always refused to acknowledge he’d been in a filmed version of The Rhinoceros because he was scarred by what was reportedly abusive behavior by co-star Zero Mostel.)
Here’s an insane rarity: Wilder and Cloris Leachman on the set of YF in 1974, being interviewed really badly for Spanish TV. Along with Mary Shelley and Brooks, the actor received a writing credit for the movie.
The transformation of heiress Patty Hearst from debutante to terrorist after her 1974 abduction by the Symbionese Liberation Army is endlessly interesting as a study in extreme psychological metamorphosis, though its fascination four decades ago lie mostly mostly in its more lurid aspects, the violent collision of rich and poor, of high society and anti-social impulses, the sacred taking up with the profane. It was worlds colliding, an impact that made the masses feel unsafe, that so fixated the nation. The Lindbergh baby was alive and conspiring with the kidnappers. Anything, it seemed, was possible, and how could that be good?
Jeffrey Toobin, the wonderful New Yorker writer and legal analyst, just published American Heiress, a book about the scion-gone-wild, though he’s fully cognizant that titles about the crimes of the rich and famous, “Tania” or O.J., for whatever they may tell us about America, aren’t nearly the most important stories to tell. One exchange from a recent New York Times interview with Toobin:
What’s the last great book you read?
Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside. Meticulously reported and gracefully written, this book captures the horror of urban violence in Los Angeles. At roughly the same time as Leovy was shadowing L.A.P.D. detectives in East L.A., I was across town, covering O. J. Her book made me think twice about what counts as a “big” story.
That’s the truth, though Hearst’s case speaks to the seismic shift young people (and some older ones) can make, whether we’re talking about her, Manson Family members, Jonestown joiners or ISIS acolytes.
Three pieces follow: 1) An excerpt from Dana Spitotta’s NYT review of Toobin’s title, 2) A segment of a 1974 People interview with psychiatrist Dr. Frederick J. Hacker, who consulted with the family while Patty was underground, and 3) A 1974 video of the devastated Randolph Hearst discussing his daughter’s life on the lam.
Perhaps the captivity story that has fascinated us the most is the 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the subject of Jeffrey Toobin’s terrifically engrossing new book, “American Heiress.” The brief outline of the events will be familiar to many: Hearst was taken from her Berkeley apartment by the Symbionese Liberation Army, or S.L.A. (a tiny, slogan-drunk band of revolutionaries so obsessed with guns and publicity that they seem almost pre-satirized). After being held in a closet and haphazardly coached in guerrilla warfare and revolutionary theory, Hearst declared — in a notorious message delivered in a mesmerizing combination of “breathy rich-girl diction” and “pidgin Marxist” jargon — that she was now “Tania,” that she had not been brainwashed and that her captors had offered to let her go, but “I have chosen to stay and fight.” She then helped to rob banks (in which one bystander died) and plant bombs until she was apprehended in 1975. In custody, she claimed that all of her crimes were committed under duress. Her lawyer, F. Lee Bailey, built his defense on the argument that she had acted out of “coercive persuasion” (Stockholm syndrome was not yet a common concept). She was found guilty and served nearly two years of her sentence before President Carter commuted it to time served.
Was Patricia Hearst responsible for her crimes, or was she a victim who did what she needed to do to survive? Or is the truth somewhere in between? The story has been the subject of many books — some dozen are listed by Toobin. Also inspired by the case: two novels (“Trance,” by Christopher Sorrentino, and “American Woman,” by Susan Choi), a feature film, several documentaries, at least two porn movies and an episode of “Drunk History.” Hearst herself wrote a book. Yet the questions remain unresolved, which is one reason for Toobin to investigate. Another is that he sees the episode as “a kind of trailer for the modern world” in terms of celebrity culture, the media and criminal justice.•
As surprising as it is that so many middle-class youths are drawn today via social media to ISIS, Patty Hearst, practically American royalty, being kidnapped in 1974 by the SLA and then converted somehow to its terrorist cause, completely stunned the world. She didn’t go willingly, but she became a willing accomplice, brainwashed probably, though a lot of Americans were unforgiving. It seems like some of the same factors that work for ISIS may have helped the SLA remake the debutante as “Tania.” Whatever the situation, USC psychiatrist Dr. Frederick J. Hacker, whom the family hired while she was still on the lam tohelp them understand their daughter’s descent into terrorism, probably should not have discussed the case with Barbara Wilkins of People magazine while she was still at large, but he did. An excerpt:
Why did the Hearsts consult you?
Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:
I had published a book on terrorism in Germany in 1973—dealing with the Olympic tragedy in Munich and the Arab-Israeli situation. In September ’73, I became a negotiator in Vienna between the government and two Arab terrorists. After that, I was invited to speak at Harvard and the State Department and to testify before the House Committee on Internal Security. That was how the Hearsts heard about me and my work.
When did you get involved in the case of Patricia Hearst?
Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:
When a Mr. Gould of the Hearst newspapers called me up, on behalf of the family, about four weeks after the kidnapping. I went up to Hillsborough to visit the Hearsts. I told them to take the SLA at face value, to take the political message seriously. And I urged them to get a concession for every concession they made.
What have you discovered about Patty Hearst?
Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:
I had not known her before, of course. By now everyone has read what her life had been. She was an average, intelligent girl. She lived an unspectacular life with her former tutor. She was more liberal than her family but was still relatively conservative. She was totally without political interests. She was sheltered. She’d gone to Europe with some other girls and, prior to Steve [her fiance Steven Weed], she’d had three or four other boyfriends. She was never very close to any of her sisters. The oldest sister, a polio victim, had deep religious convictions. Patty had a bad relationship with her mother, but a fairly good one with her father. They could talk. When she was kidnapped, Patty was picking out her silverware pattern, because she had talked Steve into marrying her.
What is the lure of the SLA for a girl like Patty Hearst?
Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:
In spite of everything, the sense of close proximity among these people gives a feeling of family, of community and caring. There is shared danger and a sense of strong commitment that is very impressive to the uncommitted.
Was Patty’s conversion voluntary?
Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:
Everybody asks how voluntary her conversion was. I raise the question, “How intentional was the SLA’s conversion of Patricia?” Maybe they didn’t want to convert her at first. Let’s look at it this way. She’s kidnapped, and she’s frightened and inclined to believe these people are really monsters. Then they treat her very nicely. She begins to talk to them, to the girls. She finds they are very much the kind of people she is—upper-middle-class, intelligent, white kids. She finds a poetess, a sociologist. They tell her how they have found a new ideal and how lousy it was at home. Perhaps she started to think, “Well, at my home it wasn’t so hot either.” This may be what happened. There is a strong possibility, of course, that she was brainwashed. Maybe they did use drugs, although none was found in the bodies after the L.A. shoot-out. …
Was Patricia in on the kidnapping from the beginning?
Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:
She was undoubtedly a genuine victim. All the talk that she was in cahoots is nonsense. All the evidence, in fact, is against it, including the testimony of her boyfriend, who has no conceivable reason to lie. Why did she have her identification with her? A kidnap victim doesn’t—unless someone else grabs it and takes it along.
What makes a terrorist?
Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:
A number of different things. Usually the terrorist is imbued with the righteousness of his cause, and fanatacized by the idea of remediable injustice. For example, as long as you could tell women that it was God’s will that they were mistreated by men and that it was irremediable, there was no movement to change things. As soon as it becomes clear that an injustice is not fated, is not obligatory, and that there are alternatives, then the dominant group is in trouble.
Are there different kinds of terrorists?
Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:
I distinguish three categories—the criminal, the mentally deranged and the political. With the SLA, it is not easy to confine them to one category. They are criminally involved because some of their tactics are criminal. Some actions are loony and the details are ludicrous. When Cinque’s body was found, he was wearing heavy pants, army boots up to his calf and three pairs of woolen socks—in Southern California where the temperature was 80°. He had a compass and a canteen. That’s inappropriate. They stole from that sporting goods store, but they certainly did not need the money. Hundreds and hundreds of dollars were found on all the bodies. Only the outside of the folded money burned. There were nutty elements. What kind of an army is 20 people, or 10 people? They were also political, and that is what made it so hard.
These radical movements seem to attract middle-and upper-middle-class children rather than the lower-middle-class and poor. Why?
Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:
You are asking who becomes a revolutionary. The leaders of a revolution don’t come from the class they are trying to liberate. The to-be-liberated group doesn’t have the means to lead itself out of oppression.
What can be done about terrorism?
Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:
First, you must change the “remediable” conditions that produce the terrorist solution—for instance, somehow you get rid of the Palestinian refugee camps. Second, the mass media must effect restraint so that terrorist crime does not become fashionable. Finally, I believe we must establish task forces led by law enforcement executives who are advised by responsible behavioral scientists.•
This 1970s video contains comments Randolph Hearst made to NBC News about his daughter Patty, who was at the time doing a walkabout through the Radical Left. “I think she’s staying underground just like a lot of kids stay underground,” her clearly shaken father remarked, accurately assessing the situation. Before the end of the decade, she was captured, convicted, imprisoned and, controversially, had her sentence commuted. In January 2001, Bill Clinton felt it necessary to grant her a full pardon.
Despite the constantly updated headlines, the world is likely getting much better by most measures, the major asterisk being climate change. Conditions have never seemed worse, though, with beheadings, xenophobia and terrorism in our faces and on our minds. A connected and wired world presents many shocks to the system, the Global Village both boon and bane. But we only seem to foresee dystopias now.
H.G. Wells, who wrote science fiction before it was so named, envisioned tomorrow’s downsides but held out hope. The author believed we should toss out the history books, which he felt poisoned us with nationalism, and start anew. His more optimistic side has been adopted by many Silicon Valley technologists, his pessimism by those crafting fiction. A strange dichotomy.
Excerpts from: 1) John Higgs’ Guardian article about the contemporary obsession with things falling apart, and 2) Jaron Lanier’s 2011 Edge articleon Wells’ concerns about wealth inequality in the age of machines.
For Wells, imagining a viable version of the future was an intellectual game. It was a chance to show off, and a seemingly respectable way to be deeply subversive. Writing to his friend Elizabeth Healy, he described Anticipations, his 1901 book of predictions, as “designed to undermine and destroy the monarch, monogamy, faith in God and respectability – and the British empire, all under the guise of a speculation about motor cars and electric heating”. Futurology, for Wells, was exhilarating. The idea that writers would give up even trying was so implausible that Wells never imagined it.
The sudden disappearance of worthwhile futures from our culture coincided with the rise in our understanding of climate change. Global warming indeed appears inevitable and apocalyptic, but is this reason enough to remove all hope from our visions of the future? Rising sea levels, the need to decarbonise the economy, and chaotic shifts in ecosystems are all difficult problems to engage with, but we are a species that lived through the Black Death, the Somme and the threat of global thermonuclear war. It seems odd that we would give up now.
I suspect the real problem is as much a rejection of originality as it is a reaction to climate change. In a hypermediated age where we are constantly engaged in filtering out the irrelevant, the last thing we want is to tackle the genuinely new.
But originality was Wells’s calling card.•
This brings us back, literally thousands of years to an ancient discussion that continues to this day about exactly how people can make a living, or make their way when technology gets better. There is an Aristotle quote about how when the looms can operates themselves, all men will be free. That seems like a reasonable thing to say, a precocious thing for somebody to have said in ancient times. If we zoom forward to the 19th century, we had a tremendous amount of concern about this question of how people would make their way when the machines got good. In fact, much of our modern intellectual world started off as people’s rhetorical postures on this very question.
Marxism, the whole idea of the left, which still dominates the Bay Area where this interview is taking place, was exactly, precisely about this question. This is what Marx was thinking about, and in fact, you can read Marx and it sometimes weirdly reads likes a Silicon Valley rhetoric. It’s the strangest thing; all about “boundaries falling internationally,” and “labor and markets opening up,” and all these things. It’s the weirdest thing.
In fact, I had the strange experience years ago, listening to some rhetoric on the radio … it was KPFA, in fact, the lefty station … and I thought, ‘Oh, God, it’s one of these Silicon startups with their rhetoric about how they’re going to bring down market barriers,’ and it turned out to be an anniversary reading of Das Kapital. The language was similar enough that one could make the mistake.
The origin of science fiction was exactly in this same area of concern. H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine foresees a future in which there are the privileged few who benefit from the machines, and then there are the rest who don’t, and both of them become undignified, lesser creatures. Separate species.•
H.G. Wells meets Orson Welles in San Antonio (audio only):
Paradise lost was the recurrent theme of Hunter S. Thompson, a great writer and a tiresome fuck with a gun, who saw decline and fall everywhere he went—campaign trails, Big Sur, hippie communes, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby,cyberspace–perhaps because it reminded him of himself. In his writing, America was always a has-been or never-was, something born wicked or gone crooked. Often, his assessment was right.
In 1978, the BBC program Omnibus had Nigel Finch train his cameras on the Gonzo journalist and his artist Ralph Steadman. The film begins with the latter smoking on a plane, headed to Aspen to meet his friend in god knows what condition, a jungle of a man awaiting a Kurtz. “We’re offering nickel beer and lemonade,” says the flight attendant over the loudspeaker, suitably, and we’re off to the races, eventually snaking from Colorado to Las Vegas to the commodifying Dream Factory of Hollywood. Donald Trump is so much worse than anyone he despised during his life, anyone.
George Schuster, driver of the Thomas Flyer that won the New York-to-Paris “Great Race” of 1908, appears on I’ve Got a Secret five decades later. Prior to Schuster’s trek, no “automobilist” had driven across America during the winter. The opening of his 1972 New York Times obituary before the video:
SPRINGVILLE, N. Y., July 4 —George Schuster, who drove a 60‐horsepower Thomas Flyer to victory in the “longest auto race” from New York across America and Siberia to Paris in 1908, died today in a nursing home here. He was 99 years old.
George Schuster, with his grimy, khaki‐clad associates, arrived triumphantly in Paris on a July evening 64 years ago after driving 13,341 miles in 169 days and was promptly flagged down by a gendarme. The offense: driving without lights in the Place de l’Opéra.
But the intrepid round‐the world racers easily surmounted that civilized barrier. The earlier challenges were more ragged —the team had detoured onto the Union Pacific tracks to get across roadless Western Ameri ca, and once even had the San Francisco express bearing down on them; in Asia they had com mandeered 40 Russian soldiers to pull them through the Siberi an muck.
So the impasse in Paris was quickly handled. A French cyclist who had a lantern on his bicycle volunteered to put bike and light into the front seat of the Thomas Flyer and the Americans continued their triumphant parade before enthusiastic crowds.
There were six entries in the race, which started on Lincoln’s Birthday before a huge crowd in Times Square—three French cars and one each from the United States, Italy and Germany.
In a book entitled The Longest Auto Race,which Mr. Schuster wrote with Tom Mahoney in 1966, he recounted highlights of the unprecedented race.
Mr. Schuster, who in the first phases of the race was the mechanic while others in the changing team drove, took over the driving chores after the four ‐ cylinder Flyer had been transported across the Pacific.
In the snowy wastes of the Rocky Mountain region the Union Pacific not only allowed them to use the tracks but also scheduled the Thomas Flyer as if it were a regular train. The only trouble was that the flimsy tires kept blowing out as they bumped along the cross ties, and because of such delays Mr. Schuster and his crew had to set out flares to stop the onrushing San Francisco express.•
I don’t blame anyone for being a capitalist in America, not a Carnegie or a Kardashian or any lower-case striver. But there’s always been something squeamish about those who mix aspirationalism with evangelism, and that belief system has never been more pronounced than right now, with the “prosperity gospel” movement having made a special guest appearance at last week’s Republican National Convention in the person of Rev. Mark Burns, who loves Jesus Christ, Donald Trump and Benjamin Franklin, in some order.
Burns is not your rank-and-file right-wing evangelical minister, but a preacher of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” a loose but growing Christian movement that teaches followers they can become wealthy and successful through faith — and by giving money to their church. Although “health and wealth” clerics head up churches that boast memberships in the tens of thousands, they have historically avoided divisive political conversations.
That was, at least, until the rise of Trump. In a twist that has perplexed and angered many leaders of the traditional Religious Right, the mogul has surrounded himselfwith a cadre of jet-setting prosperity gospel preachers throughout his campaign, snubbing the old-time religion of traditional conservative Christians in favor of the glitzy theology of ministers who share his adoration of the Almighty Dollar.
And now, with Burns speaking before the RNC, the prosperity gospel — long dismissed by progressive and conservative Christians alike as flawed or even heretical — is having its political moment.
“This is the culmination of several decades of building political capital within the prosperity gospel movement,” Kate Bowler, an expert on the prosperity gospel and author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, told ThinkProgress. “This is a new political moment for the prosperity gospel — it’s a really remarkable moment.”•
“We are electing a person in Donald Trump who believes in the name of Jesus Christ.”
In 1956, Ampex Electric and Manufacturing Company introduced whatits website calls “the first practical videotape recorder.” Fred Pfost, an Ampex engineer, described demonstrating the technology to CBS executives for the first time. Unbeknown to them, he had recorded a keynote speech delivered by a vice president at the network. “After I rewound the tape and pushed the play button for this group of executives, they saw the instantaneous replay of the speech. There were about 10 seconds of total silence until they suddenly realized just what they were seeing on the 20 video monitors located around the room. Pandemonium broke out with wild clapping and cheering for five full minutes. This was the first time in history that a large group (outside of Ampex) had ever seen a high-quality, instantaneous replay of any event.”
Fred Pfost “First Public Video Tape Recorder Demonstrations” (Web 84) Video by Audio Engineering Society (AES) At the time, the machines cost $50,000 apiece. But that did not stop orders from being placed for 100 of them in the week they debuted, according to Mr. Pfost. “This represented an amount almost as great as a year’s gross income for Ampex,” he wrote. The first VCRs for homes were released in the 1960s, and they became widely available to consumers in the 1970s, when Sony’s Betamax and JVC’s VHS formats began to compete. VHS gained the upper hand the following decade; but Sony stopped producing Betamax cassette tapes only in 2016.•
From Ross’ conversation with Cartrivison executive Samuel Gelfman, who realized way back then what a disruptive technology he was working with:
“What is Cartrivision?” we asked.
“One of the greatest instruments of social change–the greatest, I would say, since the printing press,” Mr. Gelfman said. “Our set is a color-television set, but it’s also a cartridge-television. Whit this set, you can have your own cartridge library. You slip a cartridge in the slot, press the button, and watch up to two hours of your own choice of movie. A great football game. Anything you want. What’s more, we’ve built in an off-the-air recorder to pick up shows when you’re not at home. It doubles as a camera with a portable microphone. You can make your movies and have instant replay. We’ll sell you the set for between eight and nine hundred dollars. Our cartridges–blank ones–from nine-ninety-eight for a fifteen-minute tape to twenty-four ninety-eight for a two-hour tape. The movie cartridges we’ll rent. Three dollars for overnight. What’s important is for the first time we’re going to be able to provide what you want to see. You don’t have to worry about sponsors anymore.”•
Here’s a What’s My Line? episode in which the system is demonstrated by company spokesperson Art Rosenblatt in 1972, the year it came to the market and the one before it was pulled.
If you don’t count money, J. Paul Getty wasn’t a very rich man.
Wealthy beyond imagination back when a billion dollars was a billion dollars, 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.•
In the 1970s, the industrialist spoke on behalf of E.F. Hutton.
Alvin Toffler, the sociological salesman who anticipated and feared tomorrow, just died at 87.
Has there ever been a biography written about the man whose pants were forever being scared off? I’d love to know what it was about his life that positioned him, beginning in the 1960s, to look ahead at our future and be shocked. There was always a strong sci-fi strain to his work, though it’s undeniably important to think about how science and technology could go horribly wrong. By imagining the worst, perhaps we can avoid it. Like anyone else who toiled in speculative markets, Toffler was sometimes way off the mark, though he was also incredibly prescient on other occasions.
Below is an excerpt from his BBC obituary and a few Afflictor posts about Toffler from over the years.
From the BBC:
Online chat rooms
Although many writers in the 1960s focused on social upheavals related to technological advancement, Toffler wrote in a page-turning style that made difficult concepts easy to understand.
Future Shock (1970) argued that economists who believed the rise in prosperity of the 1960s was just a trend were wrong – and that it would continue indefinitely.
The Third Wave, in 1980, was a hugely influential work that forecast the spread of emails, interactive media, online chat rooms and other digital advancements.
But among the pluses, he also foresaw increased social alienation, rising drug use and the decline of the nuclear family.
Not all of his futurist predictions have come to pass. He thought humanity’s frontier spirit would lead to the creation of “artificial cities beneath the waves” as well as colonies in space.
One of his most famous assertions was: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”•
“Who Is To Write The Evolutionary Code Of Tomorrow?”
A passage about genetic engineering, a fraught field but one with tremendous promise, from a 1978 Omni interview with Toffler conducted by leathery beaver merchant Bob Guccione:
What’s good about genetic engineering?
Genetic manipulation can yield cheap insulin. It can probably help us solve the cancer riddle. But, more important, over the very long run it could help us crack the world food problem.
You could radically reduce reliance on artificial fertilizers–which means saving energy and helping the poor nations substantially. You could produce new, fast-growing species. You could create species adapted to lands that are now marginal, infertile, arid, or saline. And if you really let your long-range imagination roam, you can foresee a possible convergence of genetic manipulation, weather modification, and computerized agriculture–all coming together with a wholly new energy system. Such developments would simply remake agriculture as we’ve known it for 10,000 years.
What is the downside?
Horrendous. Almost beyond our imagination, When you cut up genes and splice them together in new ways, you risk the accidental escape from the laboratory of new life forms and the swift spread of new diseases for which the human race no defenses.
As is the case with nuclear energy we have safety guidelines. But no system, in my view, can ever be totally fail-safe. All our safety calculations are based on certain assumptions. The assumptions are reasonable, even conservative. But none of the calculations tell what happens if one of the assumptions turns out to be wrong. Or what to do if a terrorist manages to get a hold of the crucial test tube.
A lot of good people are working to tighten controls in this field. NATO recently issued a report summarizing the steps taken by dozens of countries from the U.S.S.R. to Britain and the U.S. But what do we do about irresponsible corporations or nations who just want to crash ahead? And completely honest, socially responsible geneticists are found on both sides of an emotional debate as to how–or even whether–to proceed.
Farther down the road, you also get into very deep political, philosophical, and ecological issues. Who is to write the evolutionary code of tomorrow? Which species shall live and which shall die out? Environmentalists today worry about vanishing species and the effect of eliminating the leopard or the snail darter from the planet. These are real worries, because every species has a role to play in the overall ecology. But we have not yet begun to think about the possible emergence of new, predesigned species to take their place.•
“Shut Down The Public Education System”
Toffler called for the dismantling of the U.S. public-education system in a 2007 interview at Edutopia. An excerpt:
You’ve been writing about our educational system for decades. What’s the most pressing need in public education right now?
Shut down the public education system.
That’s pretty radical.
I’m roughly quoting Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, who said, “We don’t need to reform the system; we need to replace the system.”
Why not just readjust what we have in place now? Do we really need to start from the ground up?
We should be thinking from the ground up. That’s different from changing everything. However, we first have to understand how we got the education system that we now have. Teachers are wonderful, and there are hundreds of thousands of them who are creative and terrific, but they are operating in a system that is completely out of time. It is a system designed to produce industrial workers….
The public school system is designed to produce a workforce for an economy that will not be there. And therefore, with all the best intentions in the world, we’re stealing the kids’ future.
Do I have all the answers for how to replace it? No. But it seems to me that before we can get serious about creating an appropriate education system for the world that’s coming and that these kids will have to operate within, we have to ask some really fundamental questions.
And some of these questions are scary. For example: Should education be compulsory? And, if so, for who? Why does everybody have to start at age five? Maybe some kids should start at age eight and work fast. Or vice versa. Why is everything massified in the system, rather than individualized in the system? New technologies make possible customization in a way that the old system — everybody reading the same textbook at the same time — did not offer.•
“This Technology Is Exacting A Heavy Price”
Orson Welles narrates this 1972 documentary that McGraw-Hill produced about sociologist Toffler‘s gargantuan 1970 bestseller, Future Shock. Toffler caused a sensation with his views about the human incapacity to adapt in the short term to remarkable change, in this case of the technological variety. The movie is odd and paranoid and overheated and fun.
Recently, I published a post about Elon Musk’s Nick Bostrom bender, which has seen the Oxford philosopher influence Space X founder’s opinions on machine intelligence and reality as a video-game simulation. A little more on that topic via a Mark Robert Anderson piece at The Conversation, who debunks the Sims scenario while acknowledging the Martian hopeful may be right on certain points regarding Augmented Reality. An excerpt:
The idea that humans live in a reality controlled by external bodies, whether computers or otherwise, has been around for a while. This has been a question explored by philosophers and even physicists over the centuries. The philosopher Nick Bostrom drew thesame conclusion in 2003.
The similarities between the arguments put forward by Musk and Bostrom go further than proposing we are part of a larger computer simulation, though. Both consider the development of artificial intelligence (AI) to be a dangerous field of technology.According to Musk, the result of progress in AI research and development will be the end of civilisation.Bostrom takesa similar standpoint should appropriate risk assessment not be carried out on development projects.
Fact or fiction?
But is this just paranoia? The claims carry more than a passing resemblance to science fiction movies, such as The Matrix and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but are Musk and Bostrom voicing valid causes for concern?
The case that we are not living in a simulation is strongly supported by resource arguments. Consider the sheer computing power needed to run such a simulation. A simulation system would need to manage all the entities in the world and all their interactions. This would require a vast amount of processing. Further support can be found in arguments relating to quantum mechanics – to run a truly lifelike simulation of a city, with all its trillions of interactions, would require a city-sized computer. This makes the case for our existence in a simulation very unlikely.•
So strange and wonderful: In 1972, Rod Serling introduces I’ve Got a Secret host Steve Allen to the home version of the video game Pong. Begins at the 15:40 mark.
Jacque Fresco, one of those fascinating people who walks through life building a world inside his head, hoping it eventually influences the wider one, is now into his second century of life. A futurist and designer who’s focused much of his work on sustainable living, technology and automation, Fresco is the brains behind the Venus Project, which encourages a post-money, post-scarcity, post-politician utopia. He’s clearly a template for many of today’s Silicon Valley aspiring game-changers.
Caroline Winter of Bloomberg Businessweek traveled to Middle-of-Nowhere, Florida (pop: Fresco + girlfriend and collaborator Roxanne Meadows), to write “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Lives in the Future,” a smart portrait of the visionary after ten decades of reimagining the world according to his own specifications. He doesn’t think the road to a computer-governed utopia will be smooth, however. As Winter writes: “Once modern life gets truly hard, Fresco believes there will be a revolution that will clear the way for the Venus Project to be built. ‘There will be a lot of people getting shot, including me,’ he says wryly.”
An excerpt from her story is followed by one from a 1985 Sun Sentinelprofile by Scott Eyman, and two videos, the first about Project Venus and the second a 1974 interview conducted by a pre-suspenders Larry King.
To reach the Venus Project Research Center, a utopian compound created by a 100-year-old futurist, drive through vast stretches of fields, orchards, and dirt roads in south-central Florida. There’s little cell phone service and no signs of other humans on the way to a white gate. A sandy path flanked by lush tropical trees leads to a cluster of white dome-like structures. Inside one sits Jacque Fresco, hunched on a couch within his own model of an ideal society.
Fresco, now hard of hearing, gave me a nod when I visited in March. “Thank you for driving all this way,” said Roxanne Meadows, 67, a former portrait artist and Fresco’s longtime girlfriend and collaborator. A dozen people had turned out that day to see the secluded 21-acre property, including Venus Project devotees from as far away as Australia.
Fresco’s 100th birthday bash, held days earlier at a convention center in Fort Myers, drew more than 600 fans. For them, these rounded retro structures in the wilds of Florida are a hint of what could be: a master plan for a City of the Future without money, a place where all needs are met by technology. That city, Fresco says, will be run not by politicians but by a central computer that will distribute resources as needed. It’s a vision he’s been working on for most of his life. “A machine doesn’t have emotions,” Fresco likes to say. “It’s not susceptible to corruption.” Social engineering and favorable living circumstances will ensure that people act responsibly toward one another.•
From the Sun Sentinel:
You can hear the glorious, smoothly humming hydraulic future in Jacque Fresco`s eager voice, see it in the eye in your mind. Cities and their inhabitants thrive under the sea. Houses are heated by pipes laid beneath highways that conduit the gathered asphalt heat into private residences. Grain is stored in the natural refrigerator of the polar regions.
Fossil fuels have been abandoned, as solar power runs everything from your air-conditioning — if you need it in houses that are properly built and insulated, which you probably won`t — to your backyard barbecue, where a mirror and two pyrex reflectors cook both sides of the meat at the same time. And when something goes wrong with your car, two handles are turned, the entire engine unit pulls out, a courtesy engine is plugged in and you`re back on the road while the garage works to find the problem.
Welcome to the future, or at least Jacque Fresco`s vision of it. It all seems eminently attainable . . . until you open your eyes and look around. What you see are 22 acres with four organically flowing domed structures — two of which are finished, one of which is furnished — a little lake with a baby alligator sunning himself by the water`s edge, and a landscaped path leading back among 400-year-old cypress trees. It is here, on this quiet patch of land in Venus, Fla., that Jacque Fresco and his companion, Roxanne Meadows, are constructing a prototype of the possible.
“I tried walking around with a briefcase, and selling myself,” says the peppery Fresco, a vigorous and muscular 69. “And I found that people think you`re an idiot if you don`t have anything to show them, if all you have are ideas and a vision. All right. I`ll show them something.”
Welcome to the world of Jacque Fresco, social conceptualist and inventor, one of those people who create something tangible where before there existed only that most intangible of intangibles: an idea.•
Blessed with peerless gifts for gab and jab, Muhammad Ali, a lightly educated son of Louisville, became the most significant athlete in American history and one of the nation’s key figures of the 20th century. He wasn’t always right but in the big picture, he was firmly on the right side of history.
Ali would have been a master showman in any age, a Barnum of boxing, as he’d patterned his speech on professional wrestling promos, hoping to encourage people to pay to see him lose. He didn’t enter the ring at any time, though, but during the age when the Civil Rights Movement was to have its biggest moment and the Vietnam War was to call his number. He quickly became politicized, converted to Muslim, joined the first fight and refused the second, surrendering his championship and financial security for his principles.
His titanic bouts with Joe Frazier and George Foreman, which would cement him as the greatest heavyweight ever, occurred after this period of exile ended, but it was during this time he became “the Greatest.”
The opening of Robert Lipsyte’s excellent 1964 New York Times report on Ali’s first triumph over Sonny Liston is followed by links to some of the Afflictor Ali posts from over the years.
MIAMI BEACH – Incredibly, the loud-mouthed, bragging, insulting youngster had been telling the truth all along. Cassius Clay won the heavyweight title tonight when a bleeding Sonny Liston, his left shoulder injured, was unable to answer the bell for the seventh round. Immediately after he had been announced as the new heavyweight champion of the world, Clay yelled to the newsmen covering the fight: “Eat your words.” Only 3 of 46 sports writers covering the fight had picked him to win.
A crowd of 8,297, on its feet through the early rounds at Convention Hall, sat stunned during the one-minute rest period between the sixth and seventh rounds. Only Clay seemed to know what had happened: he threw up his hands and danced a little jig in the center of the ring. The victory was scored as a technical knockout in the seventh round, one round less than Clay had predicted. Liston had seemingly injured the shoulder in the first round while swinging at and missing the elusive 22-year-old.
The fight was Clay’s from the start. The tall, swift youngster, his hands carelessly low, backed away from Liston’s jabs, circled around Liston’s dangerous left hook and opened a nasty gash under Liston’s left eye. From the beginning, it was hard to believe. All those interminable refrains of “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” had been more than foolish songs. The kid was floating. He leaned back from Liston’s jabs and hooks, backed into the ropes, then spun out and away. He moved clockwise around Liston, taunting that terrible left hook, his hands still low. Then he stung, late in the first round, sticking his left in Liston’s face and following with a quick barrage to Liston’s head. They continued for long seconds after the bell, unable to hear the inadequate ring above the roar of the crowd.•
In an age of small, endless choices and a few spectacles, the fast-paced violence of the NFL has come to dominate television in the U.S. Key to the adrenaline rush is, of course, gambling in its many forms, ubiquitous in our decentralized age. Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder, the ego-driven Vegas oddsmaker, did as much as anyone in the pre-Internet Era to legitimize gambling in America, to prep us for what was to come. The point-spread playa lived for decades on the edge before going over it, crapping out thanks to jaw-dropping bigoted comments. Come to think of it, not only has his yen for wagering reached its fullest expression in our time, but his disqualifying ethnic remarks have sadly entered into our mainstream politics.
In addition to his casino and TV work, “the Greek” did public relations for the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, who essentially buried himself alive. From a 1974 People article:
What do you do for a living?
Jimmy the Greek:
Basically, I’m a PR man. I have a firm called Jimmy the Greek’s Public Relations, Inc. We have offices in Las Vegas and Miami, 19 people on the staff, and we gross about $800,000 a year, representing companies like National Biscuit Company—the candy division—and Aurora Toys. For three-and-a-half years, I handled PR for Howard Hughes.
What did you do for Hughes?
Jimmy the Greek:
Different things. Hughes was opposed to atomic testing so close to Las Vegas. Every time there was a megaton-plus test, the windows of the hotel shook, and there were already cracks in some of the buildings. He didn’t want the people he brought to Vegas hurt. Mostly, he was afraid of the radiation. Mr. Maheu, his manager, would call and say, ‘Mr. Hughes is against megaton-plus testing, Jimmy.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, what else?’ And he’d say, ‘That’s it, Jimmy.’ And you were on your own from there on. I was very happy working for him. And $175,000 a year isn’t hay.•
“We are saddened that our 12-year association with him ended this way.”
If, like myself, you gained great insight from The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, a book that predicted technology was poised to reinvent our economy specifically and society more broadly, you might be wondering if the authors have changed their minds in any essential way since it was published in 2014. That would have once been a ridiculously short time to reconsider such paradigm-shifting prognostications, but no more. In that span, AlphaGo enjoyed a convincing victory, Tesla owners traveled 100 million miles on Autopilot and SpaceX safely landed a reusable booster rocket on a drone ship.
McAfee just (remotely) delivered a keynote address, “The Future of Jobs,” for Agoria in Belgium, and the short answer is he believes what he did before but only more so now. The MIT professor has grown even more assured due to technological progress in three keys areas: 1) speech comprehension, 2) pattern recognition and matching and 3) non-repetitive tasks. These advances he’s witnessed in his research have convinced him that “if the world’s best medical diagnostician today is not a piece of technology, it will be fairly soon.”
On AlphaGo’s triumph and Deep Learning, McAfee says, “If you give these machines enough examples, they don’t need to be taught by a human being anymore. This is a big difference…we don’t know exactly what the implications are going to be.” Even the inventors of AI Go champion were shocked by its play, which might be a wonderful development but is also definitely a little concerning.
“When I look into the future,” he says, “i see technology acquiring human level or, in many cases, even superhuman level abilities in jobs that use to belong to human beings alone. These technologies are coming more quickly than what we thought ten years ago or even five years ago….We’re going to see a lot of technologies coming into the economy taking over tasks and jobs.”
Although McAfee is largely optimistic about tomorrow, he acknowledges there are no easy answers for job and wage problems. The prescriptions he offers are similar to the ones he and Brynjolfsson suggested in Second Machine Age: Don’t embrace Ludditism or try to protect the past, remove barriers to entrepreneurship and, if necessary, utilize the earned income tax credit and other social safety nets to bring everyone up to a decent standard of living.
McAfee is a staunch believer that work is an agent for good in society in myriad ways and must be preserved, but I’m not sure if that will be possible if the technological onslaught he foresees arrives over the next several decades.•
Leon Theremin, who died in 1993 at age 97, was most famously the creator of an electronic instrument in the 1920s that seemingly stole music from the air. Considered the Russian counterpart to Thomas Edison for his innovations in sound and video, he also created ingenious spying devices for the Soviet Union when he returned to his homeland–perhaps he was kidnapped by KGB agents but probably not–after a decade in the U.S. Two January 25, 1928 Brooklyn Daily Eagle articles (here and here) reported on the inventor’s Manhattan demonstration of his namesake instrument in front of a star-studded audience.
Here’s a 1962 demonstration of the Theremin on I’ve Got A Secret. The mysterious machine still needed explaining more than three decades after its invention. Musician Paul Lipman does the honors.
What follows is an excerpt from Lawrence Wright’s1985 Rolling Stone articleabout Brautigan’s death and a German TV interview conducted a year before his passing. In the latter, he says this: “I think perception is one of the incredible qualities of human beings, and anyway that we can expand or define or redefine or adventure into the future of perception, we should use whatever means to do so.”
His passions were basketball, the Civil War, Frank Lloyd Wright, Southern women writers, soap operas, the National Enquirer, chicken-fried steak and talking on the telephone. Wherever he was in the world, he would phone up his friends and talk for hours, sometimes reading them an entire book manuscript on a transpacific call. Time meant nothing to him, for he was a hopeless insomniac. Most of his friends dreaded it when Richard started reading his latest work to them, because he could not abide criticism of any sort. He had a dead ear for music. [His daughter] Ianthe remembered that he used to buy record albums because of the girls on the covers. He loved to take walks, but he loathed exercise in any other form.
The fact that Richard couldn’t drive allowed him to build up an entourage of chauffeurs wherever he went. For many of them, it was an honor, and they didn’t mind that it was calculated dependency on Richard’s part.
Richard had wild notions about money. Although he was absurdly parsimonious, sometimes demanding a receipt for a purchase of bubblegum, he was also a heavy tipper, handing out fifty-dollar tips for five-dollar cab fares. He liked to give the impression that money was meaningless to him. The floor of his apartment was littered with spare change, like the bottom of a wishing well, and he always kept his bills wadded up in his pants pockets, but he knew to the dime how much money he was carrying. He was famously openhanded, but when he had to borrow money from his friends, he was slow paying it back. He often tried to pay them in “trout money,” little scraps of paper on which he had scrawled an image of a fish. He had the idea that they would be wildly valuable, because they had been signed by Richard Brautigan. At least, that’s what he told his creditors.
Christmas was a special problem for him. His friends were horrified that Richard liked to spend his Christmases in porno theaters. They decided it must have something to do with his childhood. Richard was mum on the subject. Ron Loewinsohn remembered when Richard came to read at Harvard. Yes, Richard was famous, a spokesman for his generation, but he was also a kind of bumpkin, half-educated, untraveled, a true provincial. He had never been East. He wanted to be taken seriously, of course, but he was suspicious and a little afraid of academicians — including Ron, who was in graduate school at Harvard when Richard arrived. Life magazine came along, and there was even a parade down Massachusetts Avenue, with a giant papier-mâché trout in the lead. After the reading, Ron and Richard went to Walden Pond, and as they walked along the littered banks of Thoreau’s wilderness, the photographer walked backward in front of them, snapping away. It was strange to be linked in this media ceremony to the two American writers who had most influenced Richard — Thoreau, who was like Richard at least in his solitariness and his love of nature, and Hemingway, who had also received the star treatment from Life.
In 1970, when Richard was still tremendously popular, he confided to Margot Patterson Doss, the San Francisco Chronicle columnist, that he had never had a birthday party. She let him plan one for himself at her house. He decorated the house with fish drawings — “shoals of them,” Margot said — and when she asked whom he wanted to cater the affair, he picked Kentucky Fried Chicken. Everyone came — Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Phil Whalen, many of the finest poets of the era — all honoring Richard. When it came time to blow out the candles on the cake, Richard refused. “This is the Age of Aquarius,” he said. “The candles will blow themselves out.” He was thirty-five.•
JFK conspiracists seem nuts to me, but Mark Lane, author of 1966’sRush to Judgement, a broadside directed at the Warren Commission, lived a colorful existence even beyond that explosive chapter in American history.
A lawyer for anti-war factions and civil-rights groups in the 1960s, Lane later became a legal representative for Jim Jones and his Jonestown settlement in Guyana, which in 1978descended into madness. He was on the scene when the cult members prepared to follow their mad leader’s orders, to drink the Kool-Aid, and survived by escaping and hiding somewhere safer–the jungle.
The Kennedy assassination, one of the manifest turning points of the 20th century, was the pivotal moment in Mr. Lane’s life and career. He would go on to raise the possibility of conspiracy in the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. five years later, but it was his Kennedy inquiry that made his name.
Before the president’s murder on Nov. 22, 1963, Mr. Lane was a minor figure in New York’s legal and political circles. He had organized rent strikes, opposed bomb shelter programs, joined the Freedom Riders, took on civil rights cases and was active in the New York City Democratic Party. He was elected a State Assemblyman in 1960 and served one term.
After the Kennedy murder, Mr. Lane devoted much of the next three decades to its investigation. Almost immediately he began the Citizens’ Committee of Inquiry, interviewed witnesses, collected evidence and delivered speeches on the assassination in the United States and in Europe, where he befriended Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher, who became an early supporter of Mr. Lane’s efforts.
With a strong personality and a yen for visibility and risk, Mr. Lane also began cultivating and attracting high-profile clients. In the 1960s he worked with Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney who was investigating the Kennedy assassination in a case that Oliver Stone featured in the 1991 movie JFK. He represented leaders of the Wounded Knee uprising by American Indians as well as the cult leader Jim Jones, narrowly surviving the mass suicide of Jones and his followers in Guyana.•
Lane, in 1966, discussing the Warren Commission with William F. Buckley.
Despite his many prophesies, Jack Van Impe has lived a nice, long life.
The accordion-playing, apocalyptic televangelist has long seen the sky falling, the end near, and you have to at least give him credit for adapting his narrative to the sweep of history. There he was in 1999 cheerfully using Y2K to scare the bejeezus out of his flock and raise some funds, with help from his brittle-boned wife, Rexella. When the first African-American President was elected, Impe was on the scene to suspiciously label Barack Obama the Antichrist because of “policy.” His reading of Muslims in this time of terror and tumult screams of Islamophobia. Well, the paranoid preacher hasn’t completely modernized: He believes Henry Kissinger and the Bilderberg Group want to implant microchips in all of us, but in reality that’s Google’s goal.
In “Trump and the End Times,” Dan Sinykin’s excellent LARB article, the writer wonders about the appeal of the prurient politician to preppers in this weird election season. In the opening, the author is astounded to learn the boogeyman of his sleepless tween years–yes, Jack Van Impe–was still among us. An excerpt:
I was astounded to learn that Jack Van Impe is still alive. When I was 12 and suffering from insomnia, in the mid-1990s, I watched Van Impe on network TV through the wee hours. I found his supernatural confidence queerly compelling. His proclamations of imminent doom for sinners invited me to look with a mix of narcissism and horror at my own sins. Even all those years ago, he looked elderly. I was sure that by now he would be dead.
As a sleepless 12 year old, I was riveted. I didn’t believe or disbelieve Van Impe. Instead, I loved the tidy ordering of the world, and the idea that with a brief prayer I could be transformed. It sounded scary, like falling in love. I was a voyeur peeping at the other side. The order, the faith, these were shields against an apocalypse that, to me, seemed like a metaphor for individual death, and I was terrified of death.
The Jack Van Impe Presents of today masquerades as a news show. Jack and his wife, Rexella, sit behind a desk and discuss the week’s “headlines.” Their headlines tend to be about Islam, including, for example, reports on ISIS’s beheadings, opinion pieces on Saudi Arabia and Sharia law, and investigations of preachers who claim that Allah and Jesus are the same God. Rexella — who is blonde and frail — editorializes with phrases of grandmotherly astonishment: “Oh my word” and “whoa boy.” She then turns to Jack for interpretation. Jack — whose website claims that his nickname is “The Walking Bible” — recites a string of verses that prove the headlines are signs of the rapture, Armageddon, and the second coming of Christ.
In the latest episode — which I found on YouTube — Rexella begins by reporting on the existence of “22 terror camps in the United States.” (The claims are baseless. She cites the conservative website WorldNetDaily, which also publicized the birther movement’s conspiracy theories about President Obama.) Jack leans toward the camera and says with venom, “The world’s in trouble. We need a strong president, a man who will stand for convictions, a man who will say, ‘You Muslims can’t do this and kill our people!’” He expresses astonishment that the United States has Muslim congressmen and condemns President Obama for “letting it happen.”•
“They’ve laid out plans to microchip all humans by 2017.”